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.


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