Friday, July 29, 2005

Haftarat Matot - When I Was a Child, I Spoke as a Child


The Prophet Yirmiahu (Jeremiah) begins his career by downplaying his own prophetic gift. His own first words are (1:6) "Oh! Lord G-d, here am I, not knowing how to speak, for I am a child." Yet, G-d reassures him and coaches him through the initial steps to his career as Prophet of Israel. As shall become clear, a child is exactly what is needed.

Yirmiahu undergoes an initial trial session, and his vision is succinct. When G-d asks, "What do you see?", Yirmiahu answers, "I see an almond [-wood] staff." And G-d commends Yirmiahu: "You have done well in your seeing." Many of us would have answered: "I see a piece of wood"; or "I see a wooden staff." The specificity of Yirmiahu's perception bespeaks his gift.

"A boiling pot" he responds when asked again. "Its spout turned from the north side."

The first chapter of Yirmiahu is read on the first Shabbat after the seventeenth of Tammuz, and introduces the string of Haftarot leading up to Tisha Be'Av. This year, we read the separate Haftara for Parashat Pinhas - the story of Eliahu at Horeb. But this is an unusual year in many respects, as regards the calendar. In most years, Parashat Pinhas is read after 17 Tammuz, and Matot and Mas'ei are read conjoined. In those years, the Eliahu story is omitted, and this Haftara is read for Pinhas, with the Haftara of Mas'ei being read for the double Sedra. Our tradition tells us that the Rabbis established all other Haftarot to correspond to the message of the Parasha - or sometimes to serve as a corrective to a common misinterpretation of the Parasha. The ten Haftarot between 17 Tammuz and Kippur, however, were intended to convey the message of the period in the calendar, and not necessarily to correspond to the Parasha.

Why did Chazal choose this section to introduce the tragic period of the three weeks - and, in larger context, to introduce the period of introspection that leads to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur? Three Haftarot are read between 17 Tammuz and 9 Av, collectively referred to (in Aramaic) as "Tlat de-pur'anuta" - the three of affliction. Seven are read between the Shabbat following 9 Av and Rosh HaShana, collectively referred to as "Sheva' de-nechamata" - the seven of consolation. There is a powerful double meaning in the Hebrew word "Nechama" - "Comfort" or "Consolation" - which is brought out in the Midrash on Tisha Be'Av. Because the root NHM means To Forbear, Withhold, and is first applied to G-d's own self control - to Divine Anger Management. We shall return to this BS"D in our discussion of Shabbat Nachamu.

To return to Yirmiahu: In the period of the Three Weeks, we are on the brink of national tragedy, of a military and societal defeat on a massive scale. It has been estimated that between two and three million Jews died during the Roman wars. These were soldiers slain in combat, civilians put to the sword, the followers of Rabbi Akiva, people who died of starvation, disease, exposure and the other trials of attempting to survive while fleeing or hiding for their lives. The Jewish People very nearly ceased to exist.

Indeed, during the three-week period we are now observing, the Romans massacred some hundred thousand within the walls of Jerusalem alone. The "Three Weeks" was not the amount of time it took them to travel from the breached city walls to the Beit HaMikdash - rather, it was the time it took them to accomplish the true goal of the occupation: to make Yerushalaim Judenrein - to cleanse it of its Jews.

This calls to mind an event from our earliest history in which the main actors, similarly, delayed. When a direct line to their destination would have taken them there so much sooner. Abraham Avinu, commanded to take Yitzhak to the top of Mt. Moriah, takes three days to travel from Hebron to Har HaBayit - the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. To arrive, in fact, not even at the mountain itself, but at a point from which the mountain may be seen. The text tells us explicitly that on the third day, Abraham saw the mountain from far off.

Perhaps Abraham spent three days walking slowly, taking deliberate steps, contemplating at each moment the enormity of the commitment he was about to take on. Perhaps it took him three days of prayer and meditation to internalize and fully comprehend G-d's message. Chazal tell us that Abraham knew all of Torah, even though the actual giving of Torah was hundreds of years in the future. Perhaps it is during these three days of reaching out, reaching and striving to understand G-d's message, that he received Torah, learned it, absorbed it. And at the end of this time, Abraham had fully established his relationship with G-d. So much so that he unhesitatingly carried through the actions commanded to him by G-d. The message is: he acted without hesitation, without doubt. Without thought. In Zen, there is the concept of the moon reflected in the water. The moment the moon rises, the water gives back its reflection. There is no moment during which the water questions what must be done; no moment during which the water hesitates, when it wonders or doubts what course of action to take; no moment during which the water is not conscious of the appearance and presence of the moon.

As Abraham had, so to speak, the Zen of his relationship with G-d - the Zen of Torah - so too, our enemies have the Zen of our destruction. There is no way in which our enemies can ever be brought to reflect on what they are doing. No way in which our enemies will ever be made to pause, to stand still for a moment and ask whether what they are doing makes sense, is right, is G-d's will, is in any way questionable. Today's Haftara suggests that, possibly, it is our own task to reflect on this: to reflect, even on the actions of our enemies. Even as they seek to destroy us.

We will have much occasion to visit the concept of Sinat Chinam - Baseless Hatred - during this period. I lay before you the following question: Is there any other kind?

The Three Days of Abraham - three days during which the relationship between G-d and a single human being was perfected. The Three Weeks from 17 Tammuz to 9 Av. Three weeks during which our enemies very nearly succeeded in destroying us, merely because we are descended from this man and the son he bore with him.

But, like Yitzhak, we did not die. The Midrash says that Yitzhak died, then was brought back to life. And modern rabbis often compare Yitzhak to Holocaust survivors. We, too, are survivors of multiple holocausts, which we here commemorate.

Nehama Leibowitz, in her commentary on today's Haftara, observes that the final Psukim of this Haftara are appended to give hope to Klal Israel - not to end on a negative note. The assignment of this particular Prophet is not a joyful one - there will be few uplifting moments in the book that bears his name. Further, we witness through his eyes, as it were, the destruction of Yerushalaim and the tragedy of Tisha Be'Av.

With so much destruction, such wanton killing, so much hatred spilling forth from every quarter, why did Chazal even bother with the uplift of the final Psukim? Why not, for once, allow us to end on a down note? To strike a mournful chord more appropriate to the season?

We are told that G-d created the world for the sake of Torah. The Zohar says that the world continues to stand each day, only for the sake of the voices of little children as they study and chant Torah aloud each day.

And did G-d, then, create the world for the sake of the Jewish People? Or did G-d create the Jewish People for the sake of Torah? While both of these positions have their adherents and apologists, let me suggest that perhaps the Jewish People emerged when it was our time. That our Chosenness is at once an accident of birth, and the result of our being prepared.

G-d addresses Yirmiahu and says, "Before I formed you in the belly, I knew you. And before you came forth from the womb, I made you holy. I set you as a prophet to the nations." To which Yirmiahu replies, "I do not know how to speak. I am just a boy."

The mystical poem Adon Olam, which we recite each day, addresses the utter and astonishing cosmic aloneness of G-d. And out of this aloneness comes the Creation. And after the Creation has ceased to be, still G-d will remain in G-d's aloneness. The poet calls G-d a King before, during, and after G-d's reign of the world of space, time and motion. If G-d created the world in order to enter into a relationship with that world - if the ultimate goal of human existence is to enter into a relationship with G-d - if 'Am Israel, through adherence to Torah and Mitzvot, has the singular opportunity to perfect the human relationship with G-d - then the three stages of G-d's kingship are different. For the purpose of relationships is to magnify the human experience. In this instance, to magnify the singe most important experience in Creation: the interaction between G-d and G-d's Creation.

As Jews, we have Torah to guide usw. And we agree that the truth of Torah is universal. To those other nations of the world, G-d has commanded us to be a Light Unto The Nations through our very behavior. The mere existence of Klala Israel is supposed to serve as a constant source of blessing for the World. It is as though the Torah is G-d's message to us; and we, in turn, are the Torah to the World.

We have a paradigm for the concept that even G-d's perspective may change through cosmic history.

After King Solomon was deposed, the text says he was King over his stick. Though he was alone, and old, and had been thrust from the throne to wander like a solitary beggar - still, he was Shlomo HaMelech. He was a king. "King over his stick" the text says. This is not a mere joke. Rather, it is the recognition that new relationships leave a permanent mark. That being a king, however briefly, effects a permanent change in a person.

Are we to believe any less of the most important relationship in Creation - the relationship of G-d to that very Creation? The relationship that hangs in the balance between G-d and Humanity, with Torah and the Jewish People as its poles, and with observance of the Halacha and the constant striving to achieve human justice as its moment-to-moment working out?

I had an inkling, G-d seems to be saying to Yirmiahu. It all comes down to the moment when one person is ready to hear My voice. It only takes one person, G-d says. I always knew someone would come along.

The Chassidish Peshat in Parashat Lech-Lecha is, not that G-d was speaking solely to Abram. G-d is always calling to all of us: Lech Lecha! Come to me! But in the world, and in his time and place, and in all of humanity, only Abram heard and acted on what he heard. Others may have heard, but did not realize it was meant for them. Others may have heard, but did not realize it was G-d's voice. Only Abraham, who combines insight with action - who joins recognition to action as seamlessly as the water reflecting the moon - only he took up the call. Which is why the tale begins with him.

Perhaps it is useful to read our history this way: that G-d created the world as a home and a laboratory for Torah. That G-d knew that - like the paradigm of the million monkeys who eventually write Hamlet - someone, somewhere would hear the call.

I can't do what is required, Yirmiahu objects. I am but a child.

A child is what is needed, G-d says. Do not think. Just act. Be the moon reflected in the water. You see what is before you so very clearly, in such detail, Yirmiahu. Yet, you can not figure out what lies beneath? G-d says: Yirmiahu, go forth and announce to all the world the images you see, and I will proclaim the truth which lies beneath. Go, says G-d, for I have made you a Prophet for all Nations.

How significant is this phrase: A Prophet for the Nations? In Sefer Shemot (Exodus), G-d tells Moshe that G-d will do wonders and miracles, "And Mizraim will know that I am G-d." G-d, in fact, never expresses concern that Israel will know. This is the inheritance of Abraham. This is Chosenness. We are stuck with our heritage and our destiny. It is not for us to accept or reject who and what we are. But, if we can see clearly, if we can find within our hearts the full acceptance of Torah - and if we can then, through the sanctity and justice of our own lives, serve as a Torah to the Nations - then we shall be living up to the requirements for which we were Chosen. Until then, G-d seems to be saying, I will have to resort to mere wonders, signs and miracles.

When will the Nations truly know that G-d is truly G-d? When they see 'Am Israel as we truly have the calling and the destiny and the gift and the ability to be: the paragon of justice, the beacon of holiness. It is not enough to Take Care Of One's Own. Charity begins at home, but if it remains at home, it is not Charity, but only self-dealing. The Rabbis of Pirkei Avot exhort us again and again to go out into the world, lest our Torah shrivel, rot and die.

The Haftara ends by affirming that, in the midst of despair and tragedy, G-d shares our suffering. When we invoke Bitachon - Reliance, Faith - we are not saying that we have Faith that G-d will save us, will protect us. The G-d of Judaism is not a G-d that works miracles at our behest. The faith of Abraham is the faith that G-d is with him - no matter what. Even in personal tragedy. The faith of the Jews is that G-d keeps our Destiny in readiness, and our Nation in readiness for that Destiny. When we suffer, G-d suffers, for G-d is Ba'al HaRachamim - the Master of Mercifulness. G-d, who shares our suffering, even as G-d does not intervene to prevent it.

Du sollst nisht meinen, az vos iz shayech zu Klal Yisroel, iz shayech zu Reb Yisroel. - "You should not believe that what is applicable to the Jewish Nation is also applicable to the individual Jew." We are Chosen. G-d's plan takes our people down to the far reaches of time, to the end of human history. It is in aligning ourselves with the Klal that we realize our personal destiny. And it is in striving to bring G-d's Torah into the world that we contribute to G-d's ultimate goal: That all Mizraim will know that G-d is, indeed, G-d.

"A child?" G-d asks Yirmiahu. "But this is just what is called for!" Because a child dwells in certainty. Because a child's world is unambiguous. To a child, whatever is going on appears to be eternal. Mommy and Daddy are here, I am fed, I have a home. The child will not have to think or ponder before reflecting the moon on the surface of the waters.

This child-like quality is the Greatness of Abraham. The unmitigated-ness of childhood. The immediacy.

And, even though the history of our relationship is fraught with tension, even though we complain bitterly throughout the years of our wandering - even though G-d grows angry repeatedly, repeatedly tells Moshe to step aside so that G-d can destroy us, can wipe the slate clean and start over - still, Moshe keeps the relationship together. It is as though G-d falls into the very pitfall that brings down Eliahu in last week's Haftara: Eliahu, who was so perfect that he called for punishment after punishment. So G-d, who is far more perfect than Eliahu, often loses patience with us when we do not live up to G-d's expectations. At these moments, it is Moshe who steps in and reminds G-d that any Relationship has two sides. That it takes both a Captain and a crew to sail the Ship of Relations. And that, ultimately, the relationship of G-d and Klal Israel is based on a natural intimacy that is more powerful even than love. On the natural and urgent yearning of a parent for a child, of a child for a parent.

Now, at the end of the Haftara, G-d reaches out to us through G-d's own sobbing and tears. "I will always remember your child-like love towards me," G-d says, weeping. "How you followed me, trusted me."

When you come home at the end of the day, does your daughter or son run to you with a gleeful shout? Or, perhaps, if they are "too old", you still recall that feeling. Are we to love G-d any less?

Finally, let us once again note that G-d tells Yirmiahu he is a Prophet to the Nations - and not merely to the Jews. G-d's message is one message - for all people and in all times and places.

G-d surely weeps at the destruction of Yerushalaim - surely weeps at the Churban Beit HaMikdash. From time to time, we meet those who say they can not believe in G-d after the Holocaust. For those - Rachmana letzlan - who actually experienced it, I have no words. For who can stand in their place? But for those who "experienced" the modern Churban, the Holocaust, through documentaries, through books and articles and "Schindler's List", and who have now chosen to reject their destiny of Chosenness, I say: you have not read the most basic history books. You can believe in G-d after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, the mass murder of millions - but you can not believe in G-d after the killing of six million in mid-twentieth century? Where have you been?

You can believe in G-d after the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, after the Spanish Inquisition, after the Crusades, after the Pogroms, but not after the Holocaust?

Worse yet, how self-centered is our Humanism! How small-minded must we seem, even in our own eyes. How many times does the Torah exhort us to reach out to others in need - Jew and non-Jew alike - which is the direct legacy of our enslavement in Mizraim? To fail in this, is to fail in carrying out the mandate for which we were chosen: then will the Nations know that I am G-d.

You can believe in G-d after Cambodia? You can believe in G-d after Congo? You can believe in G-d after Armenia? After Algeria? After Guernica? After Dresden? After Afghanistan and Srebrenica and Darfur and Rwanda ?

But not after Auschwitz?

Yours for a better world.


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