Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Parashat Ki Tavo - O Taste and See


This week’s Parasha ends by tying together the major themes of the preceding several Parshiyot. Chapter 29 open with Moshe saying: (freely translating) “… you saw everything that G-d did before your eyes in the Land of Mizraim – to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to his entire land – the great trials that your eyes saw: these great signs and wonders. But G-d did not give you a mind to understand and eyes to see and ears to hear; not until this very day.”

The major theme running through the last several Parshiyot has been the role of the senses. Now Moshe has added the control factor of Mind – expressed in text by the Hebrew word Lev, Heart, which stands for the intellectual faculty, the reflective faculty. To the Buddhist science of Mind, there are six senses: Sight, Hearing, Touch, Taste, Smell, and Mind. It is Mind that gives meaning to all the other senses. A sensory input by itself means nothing. Sensory stimuli that process through the Mind come to mean very much indeed.

For the Buddhist, it is Mind that creates the world. Our world is entirely a product of our Mind – some would say, Of our Ignorance. In observance of the Dalai Lama’s birthday, and corresponding visit to America, let us remind ourselves that he stresses the wisdom of Buddhist science in the abstract: not as a means to draw others into Buddhism, but as a set of tools for enhancing our own way of life. For us Jews, the Buddhist Science of Mind yields fruitful insights. But the cosmos of the Buddhists is uncreated, with neither end nor beginning. For us, the Torah makes it explicit that the world is not merely created one time, but is sustained through G-d’s continuous act of Creation.

Which we ought not to forget.

Indeed, Moshe himself might find the Buddhist approach useful. After all, while we know the Cosmos to be the handiwork of the Creator, it is nonetheless obvious that our own private Worlds are largely the result of Ignorance and Disorganized Thought.

Now that we have been admonished repeatedly to beware relying overly on our own perceptions, what message does this Parasha bring? In what way does Parashat Ki Tavo tie it all together? For this is the last part of Moshe’s narrative. The next Parasha, Nitzavim, takes place on the last day of Moshe’s life. Thus, it is in our Parasha that we must look for a final message. We should, if we have been reading this narrative closely, expect to find some Culminating Message, some Bringing It All Together. Some philosophical synthesis of the notions and images that have carried the text hurtling forward since the beginning of Sefer Devarim.

We shall not be disappointed.

This final book of Chumash continually focuses its attention on our own sensory perceptions, our own thought processes. It is something of a User’s Manual to the rest of Torah. Again: Bereshit masterfully sets the scene, draws us in, makes of this book the family and personal narrative of each of us and thereby prompts us to take up the way of life, the philosophical stances, the moral attitudes promulgated in the central three books. Finally, by presenting itself as Moshe’s own interpretation, Sefer Devarim shows us a hands-on approach to living by Torah.

Last week’s Parasha ended with an admonition to remember, and not to forget. This week’s Parasha opens with a formula and a ritual practice that enforces our national act of remembering. In the retelling of the Exodus from Mizraim, and in the obligation to bring the Bikkurim – the First Fruits – in annual pilgrimage, we are not merely reminded to remember; we are also told explicitly how to perform the act of remembrance. And that the Fact of remembering is not sufficient, without the Act of remembering. We do not rely on Kavannah without Practice.

In fact, this week’s Parasha ends with a powerful poetic image of us returning to Mizraim in despair. At 28:60 we are told that G-d will bring back upon us all the sufferings of Mizraim. Not the sufferings endured by the Egyptians, but our own experience of suffering in Mizraim. Which is the suffering of Forgetting. In Mizraim, we forgot who we were, we forgot our relationship with G-d. Finally, our devastation and forgetting was so complete, it set the stage for G-d to become involved directly. “Paqod yifqod Elokim etchem…” says Yosef to his brothers: “G-d will surely intervene in your affairs.” The Hebrew word PQD is incredibly rich in meanings and has the sense of G-d becoming directly involved in human affairs when no one else will, thereby changing, or creating, the course of history.

We are to Remember. That may be the final and fundamental message that Moshe leaves us with before closing his narrative. Remember. Just this much: Always remember.

You have seen, says Moshe at the end of the Parasha, but you have not understood. And then he makes an odd statement at 29:5: “You did not eat bread, and you did not drink wine nor strong drink…”

To whom is Moshe saying these words? Here, on the eve of our entry into the Land, there are three people who remember Mizraim: Moshe, Yehoshua, and Caleb. The rest were all born in the Midbar. The rest – with the exception of Moshe, Yehoshua and Caleb – were raised on the Manna. In fact, it may be a true statement when in verse 5, Moshe says “You did not eat bread.”

The first taste of milk on the tongue of the newborn creates a lifelong bond. The milk that feeds us in our first days and months also binds us forever to our caregivers – in Moshe’s case, fortunately, it was his own mother. Yet, as time passes, we begin to burn, to urgently yearn for other experiences.

I remember my own infant son, who had his first taste of solid food at age six months. The urgency with which he strained towards the spoon, the trembling expectation as his tongue reached for his first taste of applesauce. The blissful aftermath as he lay back and not merely digested, but meditatively reflected on the experience of devouring a mash made of one-half of a baked apple.

When Moshe commands the People to bring the First Fruits to G-d, he is not only referring to the first of the annual crop. Taking the imagery of the Parasha to its poetic extreme: The fruits we taste in Eretz Israel will be, in fact, the First Fruits we come upon. Having been born in the Midbar, we were raised on Manna – it was mother’s milk to us. Now, like a child about to experience new tastes, new textures – about to experience directly what we have only known as the smells and colors of food – we tremble with excitement. We can not wait to taste these fruits. To make them part of our own experience.

Every wisdom tradition knows the danger of becoming enamored of the spiritual experience. Among all the other messages of this immensely important Parasha, Moshe is telling us something profound, something wise. Something eternal.

Do not take the taste of the fruit, the experience of tasting these foods for the first time, to be the norm. Spiritual experience comes, not in Spiritual Experiences, but in maintaining a sense of complete openness. We experience a set of feelings with the performance of an act. Once, and once only, do we have the flood of uplifting and expanding and mind-altering sensations that comes with a new spiritual experience. Our tendency is to expect that, each time we repeat the actions, we will experience the same set of feelings, sensations. The same elation. The same expansiveness. And when we do not, we believe there is something wrong with us. Or perhaps, that the experience itself is not genuine. Or that there is something flawed in the way the experience is taught to us.

Either we are at fault, or our Practice is at fault, or out Teacher is at fault.

Moshe says: do not think this way. This is the way most people think. The Torah is not an Experience. It is a way of life. The Halacha is not an Experience. It is a way to enter into dialogue with G-d, speaking G-d’s own language. Prayer is not an Experience. It is a way to isolate ourselves with our own selves, to enfold ourselves in G-d as in an embrace. To try to open the channel heart-to-heart, one-to-one. To come as close to G-d as is possible for a human being.

Remember this, Moshe is saying. You have seen, but you have not understood. Now, going forward, you must strive to understand, even if you do not comprehend. And understanding comes from Remembering. From Remembering our place in the Cosmos. From remembering our relationship with G-d. From remembering the primacy of Torah, even – or especially – in the midst of spiritual confusion. When Middot – Good Qualities – fail us, there is always the Halacha.

Give up your Experiences, says Moshe. Make of them, not gifts for yourselves. Make of them rather gifts for G-d. If we take the fruits and eat them ourselves, what will happen when we are disappointed by taste or texture? Is that not when we challenge G-d? Is that not when we say: G-d, you led me to have an expectation, and you are responsible to me for making up my loss.

The expectation of Reward is its own greatest Punishment.

In Pirkei Avot, we are reminded that we were given the greatest gift of all, in being created in the Image of G-d. And that we were then given a greater gift still, in that it was made known to us that we were created in the Image of G-d.

And now, on top of this, we demand that G-d give us a transcendent experience each time we Daven?

It is, literally, the Oldest Story in the Book. Bereshit 4:7: “Is it not so that, if you better yourself, you will be uplifted / accepted?...” The first offering in human history results in a tragedy, because the one bringing the offering does not do it li-shmah – For Its Own Sake – but in hope of acceptance.

It does not matter, says Moshe, whether G-d visibly accepts your offering. This is the offering of Klal Israel, brought in a large mass of people. Brought to the Cohen who happens to be officiating at the time, and not to a particular person with special qualifications of holiness or spiritual excellence.

One of the first years I davened with Shlomo Carlebach on Simhat Torah, he told over the story of Cain and Hevel. He told of the tragedy that arises when people think of their own outcome, and not of the outcome of their own brother. Shlomo said that Cain had the amazing opportunity to bless G-d. The opportunity to express gratitude that he, Cain, was worthy to be born the brother of one whose offering was accepted. Instead, he saw only G-d on the other side of the room enjoying a plate of steaming meat.

Here, finally, Cain and Hevel are reconciled. Here it is that we provide Cain with the redemption G-d promised him. The First Fruits will be brought – the offering of Cain. When we all bring them together, acting as Klal Israel, they are accepted. When we all bring them li-shmah, because it is the action we are set to perform, rather than for the spiritual uplift we expect to experience, they are accepted.

The suffering of Mizraim is Forgetting. When we act as one, making ourselves available for others to rely on, and not expecting or looking for reward – this is when we Remember who and what we are.

Remember, Moshe is saying – and do not Forget. Recite the formulas, perform the Actions. Sometimes you will feel uplifted – ha-lo im teteiv se’et? – sometimes others will feel uplifted. We have lived long enough in Exile. Let us now begin the ages-long process of Remembering, just this, of merely remembering who we are.

Let the Redemption begin.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Parashat Ki Teitze - Remember to Remember

The Ba’al Shem Tov says: Forgetting is the beginning of Exile; Remembering is the beginning of Redemption.

This week’s Parasha ends with two Mitzvot – seemingly unconnected. And one is seemingly “minor”, the other is seen as so important that it is given its own special day in the calendar – Shabbat Zachor.

Prior to the commandment regarding remembering and forgetting Amalek, with which the Parasha closes, there is an admonition to have just weights and measures. There is an obvious social justice aspect to this Mitzvah, as to many of the other Mitzvot that are listed in this Parasha. Within the context of the Parasha, the theme of Weights and Measures appears to link to the overall theme of building a just society. Is there, perhaps, something more going on?

Of all the themes running through the Parasha, perhaps the most striking is that of marriage and divorce. There are five significant fact patterns laid out in the Parasha all having to do with marriage and divorce. Indeed, the Parasha opens with the case of a woman taken captive (21:11). She is described as ‘eshet yifat toar – “A woman beautiful of form.”

Both Sarah and Rivkah are described as yifat mar’eh – “beautiful to look at.” Rachel is described as yifat toar ve-yifat mar’eh. Echoing this language, Yosef rushes headlong to how downfall, at the hands of Potifar’s wife, after being described as yefeh to’ar viyfeh mar’eh – the same terms as are applied to his own mother – herself a manipulator and the child of a manipulator.

The echoes to the Avot and Imahot are not mere accidents of the limitations of the Hebrew vocabulary. The first case in this week’s Parasha is one of appetite, of lust: a man sees an attractive woman, over whom he exercises the power of life and death. Will she marry him? Perhaps most would, rather than risk being executed. Once having enjoyed the fruits of his conquest, though, the man spurns her.

A man has taken a foreign slave to wife. And later he spurns her. Yet, he can not sell her for money. And so he merely sends her on her way. Because, says the Torah, asher ‘initah – “because you raped her,” or, “because you afflicted her.”

The first person described in Torah with the verb signifying rape or affliction is Hagar, of whom the Torah says that Sarah ve-ta’aneha –“and she afflicted her.” Hagar, a foreign slave, is not sold for money, but is sent out into the wilderness. Set free, as it were, even if shetakes nothing of value with her.

The second case, brought immediately on the heels of this, is of a man who has married two wives: one beloved, one hated. This is the image of Yaakov, who loved Rachel and hated Leah. Further, the Halacha brought in this section goes to the rights of the firstborn, which Yaakov famously violated.

Chapter 22, starting at verse 13, discusses the case of motzi shem ra’ – a man who spreads a malicious tale that his wife was not a virgin. The Torah treats of how to handle this matter, both if it is true, and if it is false.

Chapter 24 starts with the example of a man who marries a woman, then divorces her because matza bah ‘ervat davar –“he found in her some immoral matter.” She goes forth and remarries, and her second husband then either divorces her, out of mere personal dislike, or dies. The first husband is not permitted to remarry her.

Finally, there are a series of scenarios dealing with variations on the theme of a man and woman having illicit sex, and the consequences tied to each permutation.

Why does the Torah make a literary reference to the families of Abraham and Sarah, of Yaakov and his wives and children? And how does this tie to Amalek?

The entire Book of Genesis, starting from Lech Lecha, is one long soap opera. The grand and petty passions, attachments, the fury and longing, the sorrow and bitter determination for success – these are all legitimate elements of melodrama. It is the literary genius of the Torah that they are laid on with so deft a hand as to be barely noticeable. Yet, the emotional impact of reading TaNaCh as a novel is very real. Viewed from the perspective of narrative, of character development and conflict, TaNaCh is a real potboiler. The philosophical and moral effect of this is to keep us reminded of Where We Came From, of Who We Are.

And of Who We Are Not.
We are not Mizraim – the people Abraham feared because of Sarah’s beauty. We are not the people who grab what they see, who act purely on appetite.

And yet, when faced with a difficult family situation, Abraham did not stand firm, did not protect his own son, but cast Yishmael out into the wilderness along with his mother, perhaps to die.

At the end of Abraham’s life, he marries a woman named Keturah, about whom nothing is known, save who her descendants are. The Midrash says that Keturah is Hagar, and that Abraham reconciled with her (some say it was Yitzhak who brought about the reconciliation) and remarried her.

And so the themes underlying this week’s Parasha begin to emerge.

There is a discussion in the Gemara about what should consistute grounds for divorce. The winning position is that of Rabbi Akiva, who says that a man may divorce his wife for no reason whatsoever. This is both a clear understanding of human nature – people act out of emotion; the “reasons” are often derived backwards as justifications; how much better to make us face our own acts directly! – as well as an acknowledgement that, if a reason had to be given for a divorce, it would forever serve as a reason for the woman no longer to be marriageable. If “he divorced her because she didn’t do…” or “because she did…” why, no man would want to marry such a woman, no matter what the complaint. But a woman who was once bound in marriage and is now back on the market…? Let’s face reality: the single greatest factor that men find attractive in women is: Availability.

And after she has become available to a man, and after the man has acted out his desire, the allure of distance no longer applies. How common is it to wish to discard something that no longer tempts us?

The Torah recognizes the need to protect women from the vagaries of the male-dominated society. Indeed, it attempts to run a broad gamut of scenarios to cover many contingencies.

The Eternal Torah – G-d’s Torah – contains all. All wisdom, all knowledge. But the Torah – our Torah, a book written in human language for human consumption (or, as some would say: written by humans, for humans) – can not possibly touch on every iteration of human existence. Which is why we have the Halacha, the living aspect of Torah that keeps pace with our lives, that keeps us in communication with G-d.

And what does the Halacha teach us?

Chapter 25, starting at verse 13: “Do not have two stones in your pocket: a large one and a small one. Do not have in your house two measures: a large one and a small one.” ‘even shelemah va-tzedek yehiyeh lach; eifah shelemah va-tzedek yehiyeh lach – “You shall have a full and just weighing-stone; you shall have a full and just measure.” The Torah’s concept of Justice includes the notion of Completeness.

The Torah’s concept of Justice also includes direct acknowledgement that G-d rules the universe: Bereshit 15:6: “And [Abram] trusted in G-d, and G-d counted to him Justice [tzedakah]”

And the Torah’s concept of justice includes a fundamental notion of fairness. Bereshit 18, starting at verse 17, presents an astonishing piece, so easy to overlook because it is so small. Yet, this is the only place in Torah (Chevra, correct me if I’m wrong here, please!) where G-d soliloquizes. It is a Shakespearean internal monologue in miniature, fraught with no less inner conflict than anything that has strutted and fretted it hour upon the stage.

Freely translating: “And G-d said: am I actually going to conceal from Abraham what I am about to do? Since Abraham is certainly going to become a great and mighty nation, and all nations of the world will bless through him? Since I know him so intimately, and that he will command his children and his household after him, and they will keep the way of G-d, to do Justice [tzedakah] and Right Judgment [mishpat], so that I, G-d, may bring upon Abraham that which I told him?”

The word tzedakah, by the way, appears three times in Chumash: these two instances regarding Abraham, and then in our Parasha.

How closely, then, is the Abraham narrative tied to this week’s Parasha! The images and literary references float on the surface, yet also form the undercurrent.

What is a Just Weight, a Just Measure?

The Torah commands us not to carry two different weights in our pocket; not to keep two different measures in our house.

When we are out in the world, we perforce accept the standards of society. When we sit in Shul, we daven with visible Kevanah, we are on best behavior, we are well thought of.

Reb Yonason Eybschutz tells the story of davening in a shul on Kippur. At Kal Nidrei, he was impressed to hear one of the men davening with powerful emotion, smiting his breast and sobbing “Ani ke-efar va-efer…” – “I am like dust and ashes…” (NB: also courtesy of Abraham!) The next day, on Yom Kippur, this same congregant became enraged during an argument over who got an Aliyah. In the middle of the davening, he screamed insults at the Gabbai. Later, Reb Yonason went over to him and said, “Reb Yid, I heard you davening last night Kol Nidrei – you had such Kevana – such hergish – so much feeling, saying how you were dust and ashes. So how come today you become so enraged over an Aliyah?” The man answered, “Compared to Ha-Kadosh Baruch-Hu, I’m afar ve-efer. But compared to this shammas?!”


In our secret times and places – in our pocket, in our house – in our real and private view of the world, we judge the world by our own standards. I see a woman who excites me; I have a certain power over her – good so. I take advantage of that power and act out my desire. I marry a woman who does not live up to my every expectation – shall I compromise? No! Better to dispose of her.

In public, we make our way through the life of our society by acting the role of a Pillar of the Community. And yet, how often, in private, do we disdain the very values and people we so strongly uphold in the eyes of others?

The world is not given to us to take great bites from, then discard like, like a fruit. The world depends so much, so very, very much on each of us accepting responsibility for balance.

Keep one single measure for both your public and private self. Do not appear to live by the world’s standard, all the while despising the world for the very behavior that you put on in order to get by.

The Gemara in Sukkah, and in Shabbat, for example, has extensive sections that discuss measurements. Heights of walls, what constitutes a wall, what a surface that qualifies as a separate domain. The underlying principle of measurements is that they are all Halacha le-Moshe mi-Sinai – they are a part of the Oral Law as expounded by G-d to Moshe. They are not relative, not even to one another.

Moral standards, Halachic standards, religious standards, social values – all of these, too, are not relative. As Abraham accepted the structure of the universe – with G-d at the pinnacle – so should we. The Torah recognizes human nature, and does not chide us for being prone to conflict. It takes us to task, though, when we consistently resolve the conflict in our own favor.

It is our nature to let ourselves slip below our own standards. It is also our nature to be dissatisfied with ourselves because we have slipped below our standards. The Torah is the champion of our Better Nature.

“Remember that which Amalek did to you on the road, when you were leaving Mizraim.” Because, when we are safe, when we are in positions of influence, when we have the illusion of being in control of our lives, we tend to believe that nothing bad can happen to us. “That was the past,” we say. “Things are different now.”

That’s what we say.

We apply our own measure, our own imperfectly-weighted stone to the equation. When the scales do not balance, we adamantly state that there must be something wrong with the scale itself. After all, we know.

The cantillation of the final two words of today’s Parasha leaves open two possible readings. “You shall not forget,” is the traditional understanding of this clause. We are being commanded to scrape off Amalek’s name from the Earth (The Hebrew word timcheh is often translated as “blot”, meaning to cover over or make illegible, but it means “to scrape off”, thus, Amalek is not “covered over and smudged,” but is removed from the page, as though he had never been there at all.) we are commanded to actively forget – to never stop forgetting Amalek. “Do not forget”, says the Torah – “do not forget to forget.”

One may read these last two words differently, however. “No; you shall forget.”

Freely re-translating the last few Psukim (starting at 19): “Do you mean to tell me that, once G-d has made your enemies stop troubling you from all around the Land that G-d is giving to you, for you to take possession of as an inheritance, that you will completely erase the memory of Amalek from under the heavens? No! You will forget!”

Don’t weigh with your own stone. Don’t rely on the illusory present situation. Once you are at safety, and in the Land, don’t think for a moment that you can scrape off Amalek’s name from the page, for in doing so, you will surely forget your history. You will surely forget that enemies surround us, you will surely forget what you had to go through to come to this moment. You will fall victim to the illusion that This Moment is eternal. That nothing can shake or assail us. That our own desires are more important than anyone else’s. That we are masters of our lives, free to take what we want, when we want, from whom we want.

That there are no consequences. Forgetting, says the Ba’al Shem Tov, is the beginning of Exile. Which is why the Torah goes through the tortuous wordplay of the final section: Remember to remember to forget, and do not forget.

Remembering, says the Ba’al Shem Tov, is the beginning of Redemption.

And, if we are willing to alter the Torah by excision of Amalek’s name, what else will we choose to erase?

Yours for a better world.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Parashat Shoftim - Within You and Without You


Moshe Rabbeinu – Moshe Our Teacher.

We remind ourselves that the Torah is a literary work, and that words and phrases accrete patinas of meaning that criss-cross from one end of TaNaCh to the other, spilling over into the rabbinic literature and down to today, making all our literature a palimpsest of itself. Just as, in studying passages of Torah, we seek out words in their first occurrence to determine underlying meanings, so too, we are aware that the Torah is the most self-referential of texts – the most meta-textual – and that when we read TaNaCh, echoes come to us not merely from the past, but from the future as well.

At chapter 1, verse 15, Moshe tells the people: “A prophet from your midst, from your brothers, like me, G-d will raise up for you – to him you shall listen.” At verse 18: “I will set up a Prophet for them from amongst their brothers, like you, and I will place my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I shall command him.”

The key word in these Psukim is “Kamoni” (“like me” – verse 15) and “Kamocha” (“like you” – verse 18).

At the very end of this amazing text that is the written Torah, (Devarim 34:10) we read “And there has not arisen a prophet in Israel again such as Moshe, whom G-d knew face to face.” Almost as if to say: There can be, will be other prophets, but none shall be K’moni, none of the type and level of the relationship that I, Moshe, have with G-d.

Responding to this, Rabbeinu Bachya says that the word K’moni relates to descent: that, like Moshe, the true prophets of the future will be of the lineage of Ya’akov and not Ishmael or Edom, who are also Bnei Abraham.

Viewed another way, the text here comes perhaps as close as it ever does to hinting at an eschatology. The notion of a prophet who is like Moshe implies the return to a time of closeness to G-d, a return to the pristine state of the Midbar. But the particle “ke-“ means “like”. And, as we say, “Ke-‘ilu is only ke-‘ilu” – “’As if’’ is only As If.”

Our text supports this distinction. In verse 18, G-d says “… I will put my words into his mouth and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” This is the paradigm of Bilam, not of Moshe. Rashi, on verse 20, lists three types of prophets whom we are commanded to put to death: A prophet who prophesies what he has not heard (i.e. from G-d); a prophet who prophesies using words told not to him, but to another; and one who prophesies in the name of Avodah zara – idol worship. If you believe this clarifies matters, then you must explain how it can possibly be known to anyone other than the false prophet that he did not, in fact, hear the Word of G-d. The same problem plagues the second type of false prophet, and is compounded. Now we must not merely determine that the prophet stole a prophecy from another person – and even in a court of law our degree of certainty is at best relative – but we must also ascertain that the words spoken were, in fact, the prophetic message delivered to the second person. By contrast, the announcing of prophecy in the names of idols is blatant. It is, in fact, the only of these three that we can practically carry out.

This entire Parasha is shot through with legalistic concepts, all grounded on the concept of Justice. The Chassidic reading of the opening verse – “Judges and policemen you shall set for yourself at all your gates…” is: guard your senses. Significantly, this Parasha, like the one before it, is couched primarily in the second person singular. This is Moshe speaking directly, not to Klal Israel, but to Reb Yid – to each Jew. As G-d learned with Moshe as his Chavrusa, so Moshe is now ours. The admonition to guard, first and foremost, our own senses is an admonition against the natural human tendency to assume that we are in the right. “Do not believe everything you think” is a cute, witty bumper-sticker slogan – but also a vitally important spiritual and social principle.

Put in broader context, we saw that Parashat Eikev addresses the sense of Hearing - not just hearing, but Listening. We saw that Parashat Re'eh addresses the sense of Sight - in the sense of the ability to See clearly what is before us; a gift that Abraham possessed, but that is otherwise exceedingly rare. And now we are told to place Judges and Court Enforcers at the Gates of Perception. Judges: we must correctly analyze the information we receive from the world. Enforcers: however much we are troubled by what we see and hear, however much it conflicts with our own preferred view of the world, we must face reality without the damaged filter of Ego. This, indeed, is the task of the Prophet. A Prophet does not tell what will happen in the distant future, but has the uncanny ability to see clearly what is going on Righ Now, an ability most of us lack. As is said in Tibetan Buddhism: if you wish to see the effect of your past actions, look at your present situation; if you wish to knwo your future situation, look at your present actions. It is amazing how very difficult this is to accomplish.

How do we guard against the natural self-deception that is our human lot? By constant vigilance. Chapter 16, verse 20 tells us famously, “Justice, justice shall you pursue…” In our discussion of Parashat Eikev, we touched on the Midrash that praises Peace as the highest of Mitzvot, because of the text from Tehillim that says “Bakesh shalom ve-rodfehu” – “Ask for Peace and chase after it.” We pointed out that we are commanded, too, to purse Justice. The difference, perhaps, is that we are not commanded to ask for it. The image from the Pasuk in Tehillim is that of the person who goes to ask forgiveness of a friend in the days before Rosh HaShana. The friend – rather, the former friend – rejects the overtures and importunings, and rather justifies his own behavior by saying, “I thought you were my friend, but someone who behaves like that is obviously not my friend.” And so the friend goes the important step further of being Rodef Shalom – of actively chasing after Peace. The Halacha states that if you ask for Mechilah – Forgiveness – three times and the individual still does not respond, you are then required to bring the person before a Beit Din and state the facts of the case, and once again, publicly and before witnesses, beg forgiveness. This, as you may imagine, is rarely done.

And what is Peace when tempered by Justice?

Two people who despise one another agree they will never speak to one another. Is this Peace? Certainly, they will never cause a ruckus in public. They will not disrupt a wedding, a funeral, a cocktail party, or synagogue services with public shouting and name-calling. Yet, within, each one seethes. “I hate you! I forbid you ever to speak to me again!” Is this Peace? Of a sort, and under a strict definition. What is missing?

The Pursuit of Justice commanded in this week’s Parasha is an underlying Torah concept. It is fundamental to the definition of a Jew. For one learns to actively chase after Justice first and only by applying that notion to oneself. It is the self-reflection, the self-honesty, the humility that recognizes that we are not always in the right, this attitude that enables us to create a just society. Without it, society seethes just beneath the surface with generations of stored-up hatreds and resentments, of self-justifications and a sense of angry superiority, of injustice grudgingly borne.

What, then, is the alternative?

How can we identify a False Prophet? How can we keep our society whole and ensure justice for all?

Perhaps what the Torah is pointing to with the words k’moni, kamocha, is the one personal quality that we know Moshe possesses: Humility. Devarim 12:3: “And the man Moshe was very humble, more than all people on the face of the Earth.” A prophet who is humble will not speak words he or she has not heard. A humble messenger will seek to remove his or her own personality from the message – the risk is of saying too little, rather than too much. A humble prophet would not steal another person’s prophesy. First, it is not proper. Second, it might not be true prophecy, then the false prophet would be wrong on two counts: that of theft, and that of leading people astray. If I steal an ox, not knowing it is a Mu’ad –an ox that habitually gores people to death – I become responsible for the damage it inflicts. If I am a rabbi, and I give an incorrect Psak – a Halachic ruling – I am doing damage to Klal Israel.

This occurs in cases seemingly minor, as well as major. If I prohibit a chicken that was actually Kosher, I have cost my congregant money – a form of theft. If I pronounce a Treif chicken Kosher, I may have caused my congregant to violate a Biblical prohibition. If I tell my congregants that no one else practices authentic Judaism, I severely damage Yiddishkeit. But if I place no boundaries at all, I have taught them to become Nothing.

How do we arrive at the level of wisdom where we can create both Peace and Justice?

In this period leading up to Rosh HaShana – starting with the Selichot and the sounding of the Shofar at the beginning of Elul – we are bidden to look within ourselves. It is at these times that perhaps even the False Prophet will Return – will do Teshuva – will acknowledge that, in his zeal for his mission, he permitted himself to say things that maybe he had not heard quite so clearly, or maybe only wished he had heard. It is not a crime to let one’s own fiery imagination spin off into the cosmos. But, as Rebbe Nachman says: interpret as widely and as wildly as you wish – just don’t change the Halacha. The highest level of learning Torah is to create one’s own Torah. That is, to struggle with the teachings that have come down to us and come up with our own insights. But that is not to say that our insights then replace, or even become The Torah.

It is a constant struggle, this life of Torah. And now, during Elul, more than ever, we are bound to struggle with our own learned behaviors, our personalities, our divided nature. We are given three tools to use at this juncture: Tefillah, Teshuvah, and Tzedaka. Prayer, Return, and Charity.

Charity – Tzedaka – we understand as a Putting-Right of society. The opening verses of this week’s Parasha stress that. It is our fundamental attitude.

Return – Teshuva. We may never return to the state we enjoyed in the Midbar, the unmitigatedness of our relationship with G-d, the powerful and comforting presence of Moshe to guide us. And if, today, in 21st-Century America, we long for those times and places, let us remind ourselves that, no sooner had we set foot in the sands of the Midbar, than we longed to return to Mizraim. We can not go back. We can only go forward. What we strive to return to is, rather, an inner pristine-ness, and inner clarity like that of The Time Before. And we believe that our process of Teshuva has the power, not merely to make up for wrongs and mistakes made in our past, but to literally create us anew.

It is a difficult process. How do we approach it?

Through Prayer – Tefilla. The Hebrew word le-hitpallel, is translated “to pray”. But Kabbalists sometimes take hold of words and transmute them into new forms.

In Bereshit 30:8, Rachel, upon the birth of a son to her maidservant Bilha, says, “Naftulei Elohim niftalti.” – “I have undergone tremendous wrestlings.” The two translations brought by Rashi are actually complementary: Ptil, meaning covered over, bound upon (the same word as in the Shema: Ptil tchelet, meaning, as Rashi says there, “bound around”) and Ptil meaning crooked and twisted.

One Kabbalistic reading is that the Ptil of the Tzitzit constantly twists itself - it is as though the word were being read as a verb, rather than a noun. In so doing, it maintains constant communication with G-d: literally keeps us tied to G-d. In its furthest writhing permutation, the very letters of the word Ptil twist themselves from PTL into the configuration TPL [read: TFL] hence, Ptil is transformed into Tefilla.

In wrestling, the combatants twist around one another, bind one another using their own bodies, and in the process become crooked and twisted. Remember, too, that our very name comes from a word meaning To Wrestle: Israel, which is ultimately cognate with Sarah, Struggle.

Now is the time – for, if not now, then when, indeed? – for us to wrestle with ourselves, to strive for our own absolute inner sense of Justice that can lead us to humility before Torah, before one another. This is a Just Society – a society of the humble.

Humble like Moshe.

Yours for a better world.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Parashat Re'eh - The Return


Let us remember that Sefer Devarim opens with a very specific description of place: that Moshe spoke these words “… on the other side of the Jordan, in the Midbar, in Aravah, opposite Suf, between Paran and Tophel and Lavan and Hatzerot and Di-Zahab, eleven days from Chorev, by way of Mt. Seir, to Kadesh Barnea…” The first observation we drew from this was that the entire Torah was written “on the other side of the Jordan”, meaning it was intended for those of us physically residing in the Land of Israel. There continues to be much debate as to whether there is a Mitzvah to live in Israel – or even as to the Torah-based validity of the existence of the State.

Those who argue against the validity of the State of Israel as a political entity quote, for example, the Rambam who does not list Yishuv Eretz Yisrael – Dwelling in the Land of Israel – among his 613 Mitzvot. The counter argument is that, like the commandment to Be Holy, the Rambam does not list as separate Mitzvot actions which are, themselves, preconditions for the Mitzvot.

Those of us who came to Judaism in the renaissance of observance during the last quarter of the twentieth century have been well indoctrinated with A.J. Heschel’s notion that Judaism sanctifies Time, unlike other religions which sanctify space or objects. Let us be careful how we view ourselves: the very first Rashi on the very first Pasuk in Bereshit speaks about our possession of the Land of Israel. The word Makom, meaning Place, appears 90 times in the first four books of the Chumash. In Sefer Devarim it appears 35 times, of which eighteen in this week’s Parasha alone. The tying-together of our spiritual development with the physical world proceeds at a rush, through this Parasha in particular.

As we saw last week, the word Eikev is related to the sense of hearing. It introduces blessings that will come to us because we listen, including the second portion of the Shema. In contrast, this week’s Parasha is called Re’eh – See. As we have learned through the experience in Mizraim, the danger in seeing too much is that we become fixated on what we see – we desire it. We take it. The act of seeing is intrinsically, if not devoid of morality, certainly problematic in its moral implications.

Which is why G-d tells us: “See, today I place before you a Blessing and a Curse.” To continue the Abraham parallel that has been a theme throughout the last several Parshiyot, the text goes on to state where the Blessing and Curse will be found: on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, in the Land of the Canaanite, “… beside Elonei Moreh…” in other words, a return to the Place where Abraham first entered the Land. Bereshit 12:6: “And Abraham crossed into the Land until the place of Shechem, at Elon Moreh…” Once again, the text emphasizes that we are being brought full circle. We are returned physically. We are expected to be prepared spiritually.

What is the meaning of the Blessing and the Curse, and how do they relate to Possession of the Land? The text seems to indicate that the dangers that lie in wait for us, once we have crossed over the Jordan and taken possession of the Land, are dangers associated with the act of Seeing.

The Gemara in Megillah says that, at the Covenant Between the Pieces, Abraham feared that G-d’s promise to him, that the Land would belong to his descendants forever, was conditional on continued righteousness – both his own, and that of his descendants forever. This is the Gemara’s interpretive reading of G-d’s exhortation to Abram at Bereshit 15:1: “… ‘Do not fear, Abram. I am your shield; your reward is very great.’” G-d instructs Abraham to use animals for sacrifices, telling him that, by bringing these offerings, Abraham’s seed will continue to gain merit. Abraham counters: one day the Beit HaMikdash will be destroyed, and then there will be no more sacrifices, no more merit. Then we shall lose the Land? What then, asks Abraham. What then?

G-d assures Abraham that the recitation of the prayers, and the repeated listing of the Sacrifices in our prayers, will be counted as though we had brought the sacrifices themselves, and so we shall retain Merit throughout our generations. Abraham accepts this and carries out the Covenant Between the Pieces, leaving us with an eternal obligation to pray.

While we continue to dwell in our spiritual plane – enthused with A.J. Heschel’s notion of Sanctification of Time – let us recall that the life of a Jew in 21st Century America is fundamentally different from the lives of Jews everywhere else. In the civilized countries of Western Europe, Jews are again being made to feel unwelcome. The memory has not yet faded, the blood not dried on the hands of the murderers, and our sisters and brothers are again being told they are not welcome in countries they have inhabited for a thousand years or more. The fact that Arab populations also have legitimate grievances does not explain the failure of the Powers – the United Nations, the European Union – to force the issue from both sides. The travesty of the litany of blame laid at Israel’s door underscores the fact that so many of the Moral Leaders of this world, from the Pope to Nelson Mandela, have feet of clay. The refusal to support the Jewish People in anything but ambiguous terms – the need to embrace the likes of Yassir Arafat – all this proves that the lessons of history have been well learned: You can not stamp out the Jewish presence, so you have to keep trying. If anything is clear, it is that we continue to live as Jews at our peril. Many of us believe that G-d’s Plan for the world includes a special destiny for ‘Am Israel. That does not preclude us from having a state, a political entity. The notion of Mashiach does not preclude us from standing up for ourselves.

The Torah is in its entirety a book that makes the case that we belong in Eretz Israel, and that the Land of Israel belongs to us. There is no arguing that is what the Book is ultimately about. And the vastness and complexity of Torah is such that it makes the case on a Cosmic plane, on the plane of Divine Justice, on the level of Societal Worthiness, from perspectives of Manifest Destiny, and on multiple levels of family, social, and individual moral preparedness, spiritual imperative and, ultimately, historical inevitability.

Viewed as a work of propaganda, the Torah is masterfully structured. The entire Book of Genesis, as Rashi observes, is extraneous. It does not serve to teach laws. What it does, rather, is paint the deep background picture, the special relationship between G-d and the lineage of Sarah, the descendants of Ya’akov, that give us the spiritual and ultimate moral right to the Land. In short: if you accept the truth of Abrahamic religion, you must accept the notion that G-d gave this Land to us, Abraham’s descendants.

The Book of Deuteronomy is also not clearly part of G-d’s direct message, but comes cloaked as Moshe’s retelling of the three middle books of Chumash. In its character as One Man’s Derash on Torah, it contains plenty of fine polemic, especially as regards our taking possession of the Land. Clearly, Moshe qualifies as the first Religious Zionist.

From a perspective of spiritual development, we might even say that Shabbat and the ritual observances we learn in the Midbar are only geared to ensure that we remain morally suited to acquire the Land. The very notion of Shabbat does not appear until we are out of Mizraim. Abraham, Yitzhak, Ya’akov, Yosef, Moshe… none of these observed Shabbat. There was no additional tribulation added to the sufferings in Mizraim by our being forced to work on Shabbat. Now, in Sefer Devarim, we return to the original read of G-d’s message: the Torah is about Place. About a specific place.

And to those who argue that Living in the Land is a Mitzvah, we can counter: it is G-d’s guarantee, why do we need to make of it a Mitzvah?

Our relationship with G-d has become much more complex than ever it was between G-d and Abraham. The Land is G-d’s Promise to us. In return, the inheritors of Abraham’s Promise have also inherited Abraham’s side of the Covenant, that of maintaining Halacha, as well as moral perfection. This is the equivalent of children bearing the obligation to satisfy their father’s debts after his death, a topic on which the Gemara has much to say, including differentiating between land and moveable property in the obligation to satisfy the debts of an estate. It would seem that our obligations are now threefold: we must live in the Land, but in order to continue to merit living in the Land we must observe Mitzvot, and we must maintain a high moral standing as a people. Alas, killing animals at the altar is so much easier…!

Our Parasha instructs us to destroy and raze the places in which the Canaanites sacrificed to their gods, and to only bring offerings to G-d in specified places. The notion of sanctification of place is turned inside-out: it is not we who sanctify places by bringing offerings there; rather, it is G-d who directs us to a sacred spot, where we then bring our offerings. This, again, corresponds to Abraham who was told, at the Akeidah, to go to the Place which G-d will choose. For us, the map is much less clear. We must be extremely careful.

It may be forcing the interpretation to rely on the use of the word, but in Bereshit 4:3-5, the text states that G-d “turned towards” Hevel and his offering, but “did not turn” towards Cain and his offering. It does not use so many other words that might seem more logical: G-d does not Accept, or Favor, or Reward, or Love Hevel’s offering. Rather, the text paints the physical picture of G-d turning to face in one direction – and away from the other. G-d’s “attitude” towards humans is the physical relationship in which we stand, as much as it is spiritual. The corporealism of the Torah here underscores the moral and ethical relationship between G-d and Israel.

Let us examine one other aspect of this week’s Parasha, to see how it adds to the picture. Starting at 12:20, the Parasha discusses the new permission we are being granted to eat meat according to our appetite. This is analogous to the “permission” granted to Noach. The text in Parashat Noach makes it plain that G-d is not encouraging us to eat meat. Rather, G-d appears to be giving in to the inevitable: humans are evil (G-d’s own words, not mine) so I can’t stop them doing evil things; I might as well let them eat meat. Rather than actively sanctioning the killing of animals, G-d turns away, sadly perhaps, and permits what even G-d can not prevent.

In today’s Parasha, G-d does the same for Klal Israel, giving us blanket permission to slaughter animals for their meat. In the Midbar, animals could only be slaughtered for consecrated purposes, only at the designated spot at the Mizbeach, by the Cohen. Now that we are about to enter the Land, we are given permission to kill and eat animals for non-sacred purposes. As G-d “decriminalized” the eating of animal flesh by Noach and his descendants, now G-d recognizes that we will eat meat after we have spread out throughout the ,Land. The danger is that, in our effort to stick to accustomed practices, we will make ad-hoc altars and slaughter animals as sacrifices every time we want a Big Mac. We have just been commanded to destroy the places of idol worship, and not to choose our own places to sacrifice to G-d, but to bring offerings only where G-d instructs. G-d clearly recognizes that there’s no having it both ways.

So here we are. This is our Place – our Land. In our Land, we must try to be holy. Even outside of the Land, we must practice holiness.

Rashi, quoting the Sifrei on last week’s Parasha, indicates that there is a very real sense in which all Mitzvot we perform outside of the Land are merely practice, preparation for when we are where we are destined to be. Like Aharon, we must live our lives in constant readiness. Like Cain, we should bring offerings out of the desires of our hearts – but we must learn from his experience too; we can only give, we can not require that G-d accept us.

Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach ztz’l, speaking between Hakkafot one Simchat Torah, told the story of Cain and Hevel. He said that most people are like Cain. Cain, whose own merit was so great that he was actually the brother of the man whose offering was accepted by G-d! But Cain’s response, instead of gratitude, was of jealousy and rage. Of Hatred for no reason.

We have just come through Tisha Be’Av, the Beit HaMikdash destroyed through Sinat Hinam – Hatred for no Reason. And we have just seen the stirrings, in the historic events in Eretz Israel, of Ahavat Hinam – Love for no Reason. The message of Cain and Hevel is that we must bring the offerings whenever our hearts move us, and let the blessings fall where they may. The message of this week’s Parasha is that the Land is ours, whether we want it or not.

And we are G-d’s whether we act it or not.

Yours for a better world.