Sunday, October 30, 2005

Parashat Bereshit - The Consequences of Creation


Rashi opens his commentary on Torah by quoting Rabbi Yitzhak: The Torah is a book of laws; as such, it should begin from Sefer Shemot 12:2: “This month shall be for you…” which is the first Law given to the Natikon of Israel. Why does it, rather, begin with the story of Creation?

Before addressing Rashi’s question, it is always important to ask ourselves why Rashi is asking a particular question. What is Rashi getting at when he raises this issue? Perhaps it is that the Torah is not a book of laws. Certainly, it is not merely a book of laws, but, as ChaZaL point out, it is a document whose purpose is to demonstrate the greatness, the incomprehensibleness, the vastness of G-d the Creator. This is the message of Torah, insofar as we humans can approach an understanding of G-d.

The very first Midrash opens and says that G-d looked into Torah and created the world. Like a contractor building a house from a blueprint, G-d formed the Cosmos, all the while looking into Torah. The Torah is both by G-d and about G-d. It is about G-d and us, about G-d’s relation to G-d’s Creation – and the converse. It is about us, about Klal Israel, and about all humanity. And it is about itself. As a work of meta-literature, the Torah is the first, the grandest and still the most profound literary work in history. From a perspective of literary structure, meta-literature, self-referential stylistics and internal poetic referential structure, it remains unsurpassed. Add to that the layer upon layer of exegesis: tens of thousands of the most brilliant, most spiritual, most dedicated people in human history have spent the last three thousand-plus years analyzing and examining every nuance and shade of meaning in this text. There is no more fertile ground in all of human endeavor.

We have just come through the holiday period: the period from Tisha Be’Av through to Yom Kippur that replays the history of the giving of Torah; the awesome days of Rosh HaShana, the reconciliation and drawing-close of Kippus, followed by Succot, which commemorates our wanderings in the Midbar; crowned by Simhat Torah, the day on which we finish – and start – reading the Torah. The crown of the Chagim; in many respects, the holiest day of the year.

In the prayer service of Succot and Simhat Torah we say, “… You have exalted us above all languages, and sanctified us with Your Mitzvot…” The relationship of Klal Israel to the Hebrew language, to the very act of speech and to the notion of language, is fundamental to our identity. And it is from our relationship to this text that the Mitzvot and our entire identity and way of life emanate. It is how we relate to the world. Millennia before Wittgenstein, before Austin, before Derrida and the Deconstructionists, the Jewish people were wrestling with the fact that language, our most sophisticated tool for communication, cloaks more than it reveals. And the Torah itself, as emphasized by the Rambam, by Rashi, and by so many of the great Rabbis, is a mass of images and metaphors. Rashi says of the opening verse of Torah, “This passage cries out for interpretation…” The same can be said of every verse in TaNaCh.

Let us examine the Act of Creation. G-d creates the world in a fourfold act, components of which repeat throughout Torah, with resonant effect.

Bereshit barah Elokim… “In the beginning G-d created…” The Ba’al HaTanya says that the verb barah is the moment of creation ex nihilo. What the Rabbis call yesh me-ayin. Something from nothing. It is the moment, he says, when Being separates from Nothingness. Indeed, after that infinitely minute moment, all has changed. For All has come to be. There is the Before – a time in which there is no Time, no before, no thing. And there is After – the moment the world of Space, Time and Motion comes into existence. The rest is development.

The word barah derives from the root R’AH meaning To see. At the Beginning the world was be-r’ah Elokim – “in vision” of G-d. The Cosmos was a vision in G-d’s mind. And then G-d acted to make it real.

As anyone who has ever written a poem can attest – as anyone who has ever composed a song, written a novel, painted a picture, raised a child – can tell you, projects do not always work out as we first envision them, but the realization is always different from the concept. Often so much so as to be unrecognizable. The text we are now embarking on resonates with this tension – sometimes to G-d’s delight; much more frequently to G-d’s disappointment and rage. If you are troubled by the Anthropomorphism of this approach, you need to recognize that, as Harold Bloom has observed, the text before us is, ultimately, the only means we have for relating to G-d. In human terms, the evidence for G-d’s personality, for G-d’s intent – indeed, for G-d’s very existence – is its own self. The Torah stands alone, aloof and lonely in human terms; magnificent and infinite and eternal in Cosmic terms. Chazal say that G-d and G-d’s Torah are one, yet the existence of the Torah is confusing to us humans. For we see the Torah, we can touch and hold and read and debate and interpret it. But G-d…? G-d is the unknowable presence that hovers over Torah. We can wrestle with the meanings of Torah, for they are expressed in language. And through trying to learn that language, we hope to come to communion with G-d.

G-d’s Acts of Creation are Four.

And G-d Said (Vayomer Elokim…) The verb used here, from the root amar, recurs throughout Torah, generally to introduce something new, as in the oft-repeated phrase Vayidebr HaShem el Moshe lemor – This phrase always introduces new commands, new Mitzvot. It is the ultimate sign that something new is about to come into existence.

The second Act of Creation is: And G-d Saw (Vayar Elokim et ha-or…) “And G-d saw the light…) After bringing something into existence, G-d contemplates it, as though studying it to glean its essence. This is not a random image, for the Bible itself tells us that the world was created with the attributes of Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at: Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge – the initials of these words give us the acronym ChaBaD, from which the Ba’al HaTanya derives his approach to Chassidus.

The third Act of Creation is: And G-d Separated (Vayavdel Elokim bein ha-or u-bein ha-choshech…) “And G-d divided between the light and the darkness…” The true wonder and miracle of existence is differentiation. The wonder of human existence: that so many living beings with nearly identical DNA structures are so very different. Neoplatonist thought, that so heavily influences the Kaballah, posits that the universe is perfect because it contains everything; that if it were possible for something to exist, and that thing did not exist, the universe would be less than perfect. The notion of differentiation leaps out at our perception as the most obvious and startling wonder of the world.

The fourth and final Act of Creation: And G-d Called (Vayikra Elokim et ha-or yom…) Or, as Aviva Zornberg points out, the expression can mean, equally, “And G-d read…” The same verb comprises both meanings. Now we are on the Torah’s home ground.

G-d Speaks, then Observes the result of this speech. After study, G-d Divides the results into discreet packages, then Calls them a name, thereby instructing them in how to behave. Or perhaps, then G-d Reads them in the Torah, to make sure the realization matches the concept from the blueprint. Rashi, on the phrase “And G-d called the Light, Day…” says that G-d calls out to the components of Creation, instructing them as to their tasks and responsibilities.

The creation of humans emerges along similar lines. We shall return to the crux of the problems that arise as the consequence of creation in a moment. First, though, let us notice how identity emerges.

G-d fashions the first human from the Earth, and we are told that the first person is called Adam, because G-d fashioned this person from the Earth (Hebrew: Adamah). The Hebrew language uses the final letter Heh to indicate possession or direction – movement towards (Mizraimah – Towards Egypt). Adam derives his identity as a human being from his relationship with the Earth. Adam / Adamah. It is only after the woman is created that his identity as a male is established. The text tells us that the first human was created Male and Female. After Chava is separated from Adam’s body, they then differentiate. She is Woman (Ishah) and he is Man (Ish). The identity of the Male emerges from his reflection in the existence of the Female, and this is explicit in the language. Ish comes from Ishah just as Adam derives from Adamah.

What is the root of the breakdown in the Creation story? Chava gets much bad press, as being the cause of the “Fall of Man.” And while she is not blameless in this matter, it is far more complex than her being the wicked seductress.

At chapter 1, verse 11, G-d instructs the Earth to put forth grass, vegetation, and trees. The trees are to be ‘Etz pri, ‘oseh pri´- “Wood of fruit, making fruit.” Rashi pounces on this expression and when, in the very next verse, the Earth puts forth ’Etz ‘oseh pri - “Trees [wood] making fruit…” Rashi points out that the Earth disobeyed G-d’s command. The trees were to be made of wood that tasted like the fruit they bore. Instead, they merely put forth the fruit, the wood tastes only like… wood. Rashi says that, for this disobedience, the Earth was cursed.

The Consequences of Creation emerge immediately. By the third day, when G-d introduces Life, things begin to get out of hand. Life. Unpredictable, self perpetuating. Life, an urgent, yearning and all-powerful force. Life, that seeks its own continuity in the face of every obstacle – even against the direct command of G-d. And within the first thirteen Psukim of Torah, we have Sin (verse 11) and its establishment in the world; we have, if not Forgiveness, still some measure of acceptance of a flawed world (verse 12: And G-d saw that it was good – G-d seems to accept this error on its own terms); and we have reconciliation. We have Atonement, as G-d puts the incident behind and moves forward: “And it was evening, and it was morning: a third day.” But it does not rest there, for G-d has a tendency to bear a grudge.

When Chava and Adam eat the fruit, they are eating the very instrument of Earth’s disobedience. The poetic justice of this comes full circle when, in punishing Adam, G-d punishes the Earth itself – at 3:17. More: how does G-d expect Adam not to be disobedient, seeing that Adam was created from 'adamah - Earth - the very first element in Creation to disobey the Creator?

What is the nature of this Forbidden Fruit? It has been said that Adam had only one Mitzvah – not to eat the fruit – and even that one he could not keep. This is a simple reading of the narrative. Rabbeinu Bachaye has a more subtle reading, and one which sheds light on the overall narrative. Adam actually had two Mitizvot.

At Bereshit 2:16, we have the first instance of G-d re-using the instrument of Creation to introduce a new concept. Vayitzav HaShem Elokim ‘al ha-adam lemor… “And G-d commanded Adam, saying…” The command is that Adam is to eat from all the trees of the garden. The duplicative verb form – ‘achol tochal – usually translated “You shall surely eat,” here makes its first appearance, and it is an order. In the very next Pasuk, Adam is likewise commanded not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad because, G-d says, on the day you eat from it, mot tamut. This last clause is usually translated “You shall surely die.” But this seems a misleading translation.

Chava gets a bum rap as being responsible for bringing Death into the world. A plain reading of the text indicates otherwise. Indeed, the entire traditional Jewish approach to the position of women emerges, not from the Torah itself, but is bound up with the practices of Islam and other earlier cultures and religions from that part of the world, from practices and cultural strictures that clearly predate the giving of Torah, where women were subjugated, sequestered, and forced into strictly-defined roles in religion, family and the society at large. The paradox of Judaism is that we were among the very first nations to free women from the oppression under which they labored – but that what was radically progressive then is now pathetically retrograde. We changed the world and freed women three thousand years ago – and they have held the same status ever since. Today, Frum young men are warned not to date women who wear seatbelts while riding in a car, because the belts crossing lap and torso emphasize the female form, something a woman of modesty would not allow.

At Bereshit 3:22, after the encounter between G-d and Adam, Chava and the Snake, G-d speaks to the Heavenly Court and says, we must do something, lest the humans now eat from the Tree of Life and live forever. It would seem, then, that immortality was not the original plan.

Perhaps the interpretation lies in the language itself. Indeed, as with all great poetry, if we are confused as to the meaning of a Pasuk, it is generally best to return to the words themselves. Just as G-d commanded Adam ‘achol tochal – You shall eat, so the repetitive form in the following Pasuk may indicate something other than certainty of outcome.

In the day you eat from the forbidden tree, says G-d, mot tamut – I will command you to die. Prior to gaining Knowledge, humans did not view Death with anything more than the passing interest with which a fox might regard a stone, a lion a branch on a tree. After gaining Knowledge of Good and Bad, humans have an existential fear of Death. We now view Death as something G-d has imposed upon us, and no longer as merely another aspect of life. Indeed, G-d has commanded us to die – and at the very end of the Torah, G-d will command Moshe to die. We just read this passage, and it is striking that G-d does not tell Moshe “You shall die there,” but rather, using the imperative, “And die there.” As G-d opens G-d’s relationship with humans, so G-d closes G-d’s relationship with the greatest human of all. Even Moshe is not immune from the Curse of Adam.

G-d has inflicted death upon us. In the aftermath of the Eating of the Fruit, we are commanded to die, no less than we are commanded to give charity, to pray each day, and to keep Shabbat. Death is the final Mitzvah.

Rabbeinu Bachaye says that Adam had two Mitzvot: to eat from the trees of the garden, and not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge. Immediately after giving these two Mitzvot, G-d decides to create Chava. These two Mitzvot, says Bachaye, exemplify all of Torah, which is composed of Mitzvot ‘aseh (positive commandments) and Mitzvot lo ta’aseh (negative commandments). But, he continues, Adam was not capable of carrying out the Mitzvot, for Adam was Reason (Sechel) – the trait that separates humans from the other animals. But Reason without physical being (Guf) is not capable of action. Bachaye points out that the human is a blend of – and a conflict between – Mind and Body. And note that he uses the word Reason (Sechel) and not Wisdom (Hochmah). For Wisdom, as any observer of human history can surely tell us, is a long time coming, if at all.

In the combined and conflicted entity that is the human being, each component has a task. If each component performs according to its task, the Whole functions in harmony and all is well. If not, there is the potential for delay and disaster.

When the Snake approaches Chava, she replies that she is not permitted to eat the fruit, nor even to touch it. It is obvious to all readers that G-d did not prohibit touching the fruit. Why is that phrase in Chava’s mouth? Perhaps it is in order to point out the deeper contradiction: G-d did not prohibit Chava from eating the Fruit, but only Adam. When they are punished, G-d asks Adam, using the singular mode of address, did you eat the fruit? But G-d makes no mention of Chava’s eating. It appears that Adam conveyed the message wrong, and that Chava took it at face value.

Adam made the common human error of assuming that his own condition was universal. And Chava made the typical human error of not probing beyond the surface layer of meaning. How differently might the tale have ended if Adam had thought clearly and if Chava had probed to understand the root meaning of G-d’s command!

And what is the nature of Good and Evil, in the Eden narrative? It is clearly embedded in the notion of nakedness versus modesty. Or perhaps that is the human misinterpretation of what is Good and what is Evil. The Serpent narrative is introduced by the Pasuk (2:25) that they were both naked (‘arumim) and they were not ashamed. At chapter 3, verse 1, we meet the Snake – the Nachash – who is more ‘arum than all the beasts of the field that G-d had made. The word ‘arum in this context is translated as “subtle” or “devious,” but comes from the same root as the word meaning Naked – underlying this root is the meaning of “bright”, “clear”, “shining.” When we are naked, we can either be unencumbered or, if we feel guilt, we can be encumbered. We are either free in our nudity, or we are prisoners of our nakedness. The outcome of eating the fruit is that Adam and Chava become aware of their nakedness and experience Shame.

Now we understand the Mitzvah of Death. We suffer from the knowledge that the world will goon without us. And so we seek immortality or some substitute – usually grounded in bending other people to our will. We are painfully aware of the human condition. We clothe ourselves to protect ourselves, not merely from the elements, but to put barriers between our Self and the opinions of others. To hide from G-d, and from ourselves. As Mark Twain puts it: “Man is the only animal that blushes – or needs to.”

But there is a further, and far greater Evil to be confronted in the next generation. Cain, the firstborn of the World, commits the first murder, performs the first act of contrition, and becomes the first hero in Torah.

Cain is the firstborn of humanity – a status not to be taken lightly, for we are all his nieces and nephews. And Cain, by gratitude, seeks to please G-d with a gift, a Freewill Offering.

At Bereshit 41:9, Parashat Miketz, Pharaoh’s Cupbearer approaches with trepidation to tell Pharaoh about Yosef. “I am reminding you of my sins today,” he says – please, he begs, don’t become angry with me all over again – in order to tell Pharaoh about Yosef, the Saar HaMashkim must remind Pharaoh that Pharaoh threw him into prison.

How was Cain to know that, by bringing G-d a gift of the Fruits of the Earth, he would be reminding G-d of the very first Sin in Creation, of the Earth’s disobedience? And G-d, unlike Pharaoh, does not have a penchant for being forgiving.

Unlike a human Monarch, G-d has no need of confederates, of Palace spies, of secret partisans to uphold his rule. G-d, as we shall see over and over throughout the Torah, becomes impatient very easily and, brushing aside those who don’t Get It right off the bat, is eager to move on to someone more compliant.

“What are you so upset about?” G-d asks Cain dismissively at Bereshit 4:6 and 7. “Isn’t it true that you can improve yourself if you try?” All this while, Cain is watching in dumbfounded anger as G-d slurps up the savory stew prepared by Hevel, the younger brother. Not for the last time, the second-born has usurped the place of the firstborn. Just as Ya’akov will steal the Berachah from his brother by bringing their father a pot of meat stew, Hevel has brushed his own brother aside by bringing G-d an offering from the flocks.

Esav swears to kill Ya’akov, but never carries out his plan. Cain, on the other hand, is quick to act and not fettered by notions of morality. The only thing humans are troubled by at this point in our history is nakedness.

It is only after the fact that both G-d and Cain are struck by the enormity of the deed. At Bereshit 4:9, G-d asks Cain where his brother is. The famous sentence of reply is capable of more than one reading, and I prefer to see it in what makes more sense to the narrative:

“I did not know that I am my brother’s keeper!”

Cain is in agony, because he has discovered, too late, that he was responsible to protect and care for his brother; that killing his own brother comes under the category of Bad. Indeed, G-d, too, is in agony. In G-d’s mind, notions of human Good and Bad come under control of appetites. Don’t eat the fruit. Don’t turn nakedness from the pure natural state into the state of lust and uncontrolled desire. But this? G-d never conceived that people would slay one another. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the earth!” G-d says, and G-d’s anguish and shock are on a par with Cain’s.

And now, for the first time, a human being suffers remorse and openly shrieks his agony before G-d, begging for help that he knows can never come.

When G-d asks Adam whether he ate the fruit, Adam is quick to point, first to G-d, then to Chava. “You gave me the woman, and she gave me the fruit!” Chava, likewise, points to the Snake.

Not so their firstborn. Cain has observed his parents’ naïve duplicity at close quarters, and he knows error in himself when he sees it. Now, immediately after the fact, he is horrified at his own actions – the irretrievability of it, the fact that, after all, just as his Father abandoned his Mother, just as his Mother failed his Father, so too Cain has failed his own closest flesh and blood. Like Yosef, who knows that his brothers will not stand for one another, Cain sees all too clearly the tragic wages of self-seeking pettiness, and his anguish at falling victim to the family Karma is every bit as great as his anguish at the act itself.

But Cain still has one remedy remaining. Unlike his parents, Cain steps up before G-d and wails acknowledgement of his act. He confesses his sin and asks, not for forgiveness – which he seems to recognize is an impossibility – but for some remedy in this, his life on earth. “I will be slain!” he sobs before G-d. Cain is the first human to do Teshuvah. He experiences Remorse, he Confesses his sin before G-d, and he has learned the lesson and Resolved that his future life will be different. At 4:13 he uses the word ‘avon, which translates as Iniquity, and represents sinful acts undertaken with the full knowledge that they are sinful, as opposed to chet, which is inadvertent sin.

G-d – the character in our text – has much to learn about the unpredictable nature of Life, and still more to learn about dealing with human beings. It will not be until G-d meets the ultimate Chavrusa – Moshe Rabbeinu – that the full relationship between G-d and G-d’s Creation will flourish. Still, G-d recognizes that humans need help.

Rashi tells us that G-d created the Torah two thousand years before G-d created the cosmos. And, as we have already seen, it is from the blueprint of Torah that the house of the World was built. G-d recognizes that humans need guidance. That G-d can not plant every possible thought and remedy to every possible contingency in the mind of every human being. That is the nature of Free Choice: that the error and thought and deviousness and self-delusion of the human mind are every bit as infinite as the mind of G-d.

But G-d can impart to us the blueprint of the house in which we dwell. And so, in response to Cain’s genuine remorse and Teshuvah, G-d begins the process of the giving-over of Torah. We are not yet at Sinai, we do not have a Moshe to stand between us and G-d and receive and convey, analyze and interpret and transmit Torah. Indeed, it may be that G-d has not yet decided to put Torah into human language – to give word to G-d’s Word. But clearly something must be done.

At Bereshit 4:15, G-d responds to Cain’s urgent plea. “Thus,” G-d says, “whoever kills Cain, it shall be established sevenfold.” Rashi tells us this means the vengeance of Cain will last seven generations. Or perhaps that it shall delay seven generations, but vengeance will surely come. G-d is making explicit the Torah’s version of the Law of Karma. What Goes Around, Comes Around.

And what does Cain receive from G-d? Va-yasem HaShem le-Cain ‘ot… “And G-d gave [or ‘placed upon’] Cain a sign…” The word ‘ot means “a sign.” And the traditional reading is that G-d placed a sign upon him – the so-called “mark of Cain.”

But this word also has another meaning: a letter.

We shall see next week that G-d goes still further with Noach. And ultimately, G-d fosters the creation of ‘Am Israel and through us gives the entire Torah to humanity. All bound up in language.

When we study Torah, we recognize that, in order to fully understand any one piece of Torah, we end up cycling through all of Torah. Do we have only one Pasuk? We must read all of Torah to fully understand it in context. Do we have only one word? Read it in its Pasuk, the Pasuk in its Parasha, and the Parasha in context of the entire work.

All that Cain receives in recompense for his tragedy, in recognition of his penitence, is a single letter. From it, he will have to derive all of Torah. It seems not much. But it will have to do.

Yours for a better world.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Ve-Zot Ha-Berachah - To Begin Again


Torah tzivah lanu Moshe – morashah kehillat Ya’akov.

“The Torah that Moshe commanded unto us – an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.”

The Torah that Moshe commanded unto us? Is it not G-d who commanded the Torah to us? And does not G-d give the Congregation of Jacob its inheritance? In the ambiguity surrounding the authorship of Sefer Devarim, it is possible that Moshe chose to sing his own praises, to emphasize his own role as a member of the two-partner team that brought Torah to Am Israel. The ambiguity, rather, regarding the method of authorship. There are many shadings of interpretation as to just how Moshe “wrote” Sefer Devarim, but nearly all major Meforshim seem to agree that Moshe had more input into this Book than the other four. But, to magnify the praises heaped on Moshe in this final Parasha, the Midrash removes from Moshe all initiative in setting down these words and puts the action all in G-d’s hands.

We shall return BS”D at the end of this section to the matter of praising Moshe. First, we shall discuss what some Meforshim have focused on as the Missing Berachah.

The Torah always enumerates the sons of Ya’akov as Twelve. IN various configurations, and at various times and for varied purposes, the text chooses among the Tribes to come up with a listing of twelve. Generally, Menashe and Ephraim replace Yosef. In this context, they are referred to as “half-tribes”, so that the listing of thirteen names does not violate the integrity of twelve tribes being listed. In today’s Parasha, however, the list is configured differently. Shimon is missing, completely excluded from mention. Why is this? We shall touch on a few of the traditional explanations, then attempt to delve into this matter ourselves.

As yet another aside, let us also observe a few oddities about this Parasha: It is the only Parasha that does not have a Shabbat named for it, as it is never read on Shabbat. Presaging the Rabbinic holidays – Purim and Tisha Be’Av – it is the only Parasha read at night. True, the text is repeated the following morning, but like Megillat Esther and Eichah, the crux of the reading is the night. Although the holiday is one of rejoicing, the day is introduced with the reading of the death of Moshe. The transfer of authority to Yehoshua is a poor substitute, yet one we must learn to not only live with, but embrace fervently.

Is this, then, what we celebrate? That Moshe dies, punished – and G-d rubs his face in it one last time in the concluding verses – by being prevented from entering the Land? The majestic gift that G-d grants G-d’s great and cherished Servant, the panoramic view of Eretz Israel, is spoiled by G-d then mentioning to Moshe that he is forbidden entry because he sinned.

The Midrash tells us that, in this moment, G-d showed Moshe not only the entire Land of Israel, but also the entire future history of the People. We shall return to this shortly.

The history of Blessings in the lineage of Abraham is instructive, to say the least. Abraham, constrained to keep the son he did not want, and to banish the one he desired, dutifully allocates the blessing of the father to the firstborn. The text tells that he gave Ishmael gifts, which Rashi explains means that Abraham taught Ishmael the secret arts of magic.

Yitzhak, constrained to give the Blessing of the Firstborn, unburdens himself of the full blessing in the Name of G-d. When he realizes that he must give a second blessing, he gives certain of the key elements this second time as well – the dew of the heavens and the fat places of the earth – and this time he blesses in his own name only. Yitzhak, the most loving of the Avot, gives the first blessing as required – for he is also the most accepting – he gives the second out of pure love. Indeed, let us remember that the text, at Bereshit 25:28, explicitly tells us that Rivkah loved Yaakov, while Yitzhak loved Esav.

When Yaakov calls his sons to his bedside to be blessed, he is, for the first time, including all the family in the blessing. Now there will be no more exclusion. Ready or not, everyone in the Family of Jacob inherits the Blessing of Abraham. It is perhaps fitting, because there appears to be an evolving link between Blessing and Exile. And all the sons of Yaakov ultimately go into exile in Mizraim. Thus, perhaps for this reason, if no other, they merit the Berachah.

Yaakov stole the Blessing, then was promptly exiled from his home. Ultimately, he will die in exile, in Mizraim. Yosef and his brothers inherit the Blessing, and all of them die in Mizraim. Now, finally, at the end of the Torah, the Blessings are about to be handed on to the new generation. This time it is Moshe, the giver of the blessing, who will die in exile, while those who receive it shall march on to dwell in the Land.

How does Moshe react to this? One might imagine he would be depressed, perhaps angry that, at the end of his mighty task, G-d could not overlook a minor infraction. But the text does not bear this out. The Parasha begins “Ve-zot ha-berachah…” – “And this is the blessing…” The word Zot – This – is one of the words in Torah that can either separate or connect. Similar to the word Eleh – These. These are words that, when they begin a section, separate that section from what has come before. However, when these words are preceded by the conjunction “And” – Ve – they serve to connect the sections, rather than to differentiate. G-d has just finished telling Moshe that he will not live to enter the Land. That he will die here, in the Midbar, within sight of the Promised Land. And Moshe’s reaction? Ve-zot – unhesitating, with neither anger nor resentment, but with a pure exuberance at the knowledge that ‘Am Israel is about to enter the Land, Moshe launches into his own Blessing on the Tribes. Of all the People of Israel, Moshe is now the only one who shall not cross over. For the dying of the years of wandering is over and done. The punishment of the Spies has been played out, the toll exacted in full measure. And Moshe, knowing all this, accepts his lonesome and lonely fate.

As Yaakov included all his sons in his Blessing, Moshe goes one step further. For he gives one blessing to the nations. Ve-zot ha-berachah – and this is the blessing. Not multiple blessings, as Yaakov apportioned to his sons, but one blessing that changes form to fit the personalities of the tribes on whom it rests.

And so we return to our question: Why is Shimon excluded from the Blessing? The traditional explanation seems to rest on the historical notion that the Tribe of Shimon actually settles in the portion of Yehudah and, as the Torah always wants to list only twelve names, this was the most appropriate one to leave out.

But what else do we know about Shimon?

At Bereshit 42:24, Yosef takes Shimon from his brothers as a guaranty. He sends the other brothers away and locks Shimon in jail. (In the text, he is in the “pit” – “bor”) According to Rashi, it was Shimon who spoke up and suggested to his brothers that they throw Yosef down the pit. On the simplest level, Yosef is giving Shimon tit for tat, added to which is the common Biblical twist that, with Shimon out of the picture, his younger brother Levi supplants him.

But what else do we know about Shimon? What we know about all the brothers – and which Yosef knows only too well – is that they abandon one another. They have yet to learn the lesson that Yehudah will ultimately learn from Tamar, one of the great teachers in Biblical literature. They have yet to learn to stand for one another. The only brothers among the brethren who have shown evidence of sibling love are Shimon and Levi. If there is ever a chance that the brothers will return, Yosef knows only too well, the only brother who might care enough to come back is Levi. And, though ultimately their return to Mizraim is forced by famine, it is Levi who becomes the savior of the nation, through Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.

And, like Shimon, who has no portion in the Blessing, Levi has no portion in the Land. When will they be reunited? This unresolved tension in the apportioning of both physical and spiritual plenty is the underlying metaphor of the Jewish Nation. We are the People of Torah. It is our task and duty and blessing and burden to live by Torah – not behind closed doors, but to bring Torah out into the day-to-day world and transform the world and ourselves. Only when we fully live in and through and for and by Torah can we ultimately re-unite the physical with the spiritual. Only then will the separated halves be rejoined, and the unity restored. Only then can we ever hope to become whole.

And so to the death of Moshe.

And let us not dwell on the great and profound and poetic and moving poetry of the Midrash – the poignancy of death, of loss, of leaving behind this sad and beautiful world. But to give Moshe one final farewell.

G-d tells Moshe that he must die, for that is the fate of all living. Very well, says Moshe, but when I die, let the heavens and the deep open up and proclaim the unity of G-d, saying Ein ‘od – There is no other.

G-d says, I will do you better than that, Moshe. With your own words, I shall bless you. And so it is that we read, at Devarim 34:10, that there never arose again a Navi in Israel such as Moshe – ‘Od – never again.

But no, says Moshe. No, G-d. You’ve got it wrong. Moshe pleads, desperate to make G-d see his urgent meaning. For Moshe desires, not so much the praise of G-d, as to deliver a permanent and resounding message to ‘Am Israel that there is no other besides G-d. For Moshe still fears – nay, he knows – that we will break away from Torah and go lusting after other gods. Very well, Moshe says, if you will not announce Your greatness from the depths of Creation, then please promise me that you will prevent Israel from ever straying from your Torah.

But, G-d gently replies, they have Free Will.

On one level, Moshe is begging for a final affirmation. Will we leave the path he has striven to carve out for us? Now that he is leaving us, will we abandon Torah and follow our own whims? Now, in the final moments of his life, Moshe desperately asks for affirmation that he has not lived and striven in vain. And G-d – all G-d can do is gently and lovingly admonish Moshe that, just as G-d had to learn to accommodate the vagaries of Free Choice, so too, Moshe must have a certain faith in the Nation of Israel. And, beyond that, he must… let go.

Now, at the end of our tale, G-d is the teacher who gently reminds G-d’s finest pupil: These are the Consequences of Creation. These People you have led from slavery to nationhood, from agony to plenty, from deprivation and debasement to spiritual royalty. From blind and desperate obedience to the Rule of Law, from animality to the creation of a just society. These people, G-d reminds Moshe, they are only human. Some will follow, many will strive and struggle, but many will fail. All you can do, Moshe, is place your Torah before them and pray that, in whatever measure they are able, they will embrace it.

And so, as a final farewell to Moshe, and a final and powerful attestation of his greatness, Rashi quotes one last Midrash – that, upon the moment that Moshe dashed the first set of stone tablets to the ground, shattering them, G-d responded Yishar kochacha sheh-shibarta! – Good for you that you broke them!

For surely, if we have learned anything about Truth, about Wisdom, about Justice – indeed, about Torah – it is that we must each struggle with it, that each of us must wrestle with Torah and make it yield its meaning. Only then can we truly be said to possess Torah.

Torah can be won, Chazal say, only if we are willing to kill ourselves in the struggle to attain Torah. Through Chochmah – the flash of insight – and Binah – the rigorous intellectual struggle to understand – through Da’at – the contemplative and active process whereby Torah becomes ingrained in our very being, becomes internalized, becomes inseparable from us, and we from it – through total dedication, we can bring Torah into this world day by day, moment by moment. One life at a time.

It is up to us. For, if we have learned anything at all about Torah, it is this: It is not carved in stone.


Saturday, October 22, 2005

Parashat Ha'azinu - The Song of Creation


And so the Torah has been given. Moshe, having charged us to “Be strong and brave”, prepares to take his leave on this, the last day of his life. Before he departs, he has one final gift for us. Having given us the Torah, Moshe now shows us how to use it. In this brief and intensely powerful poem, Moshe gives us the entire history of the cosmos, as seen from the perspective of ‘Am Israel.

As the Torah itself begins with Ma’aseh Bereshit, the Act of Creation, so Moshe’s song begins with a recap of the first week.

Bereshit 1:1 – G-d creates Heaven and Earth. Day One.
Ha’azinu – Shemot 32:1 – “Give ear, Heavens… and the Earth shall hear…”
Bereshit 1:6 – “And G-d separated between the Waters and the Waters…” Day Two.
Shemot 32:2 – “My doctrine will drop like Rain, my speaking distill like Dew; as light rain on Grass, and as showers on the Herb.” The Waters Above, and the Waters Below.
Bereshit 1:11 – G-d commands the Earth to put forth Grass and Herbs. Day Three.
Shemot 32:2 – “… on Grass… on Herb”
Bereshit 1:14 – “To be Days and Years…” Day Four.
Shemot 32:7 – “Remember the Days of the world; consider the Years generation by generation…”
Bereshit 1:20 – G-d creates birds of flight. Day Five.
Shemot 32:11 – “As an Eagle stirring up the nest…”
Bereshit 1:24 – G-d creates wild beasts and cattle. Day Six.
Shemot 32:14 – “Cattle… sheep… Lambs… Rams… Goats…”
Bereshit 1:26 – “Let us make Humans in our image…” Day Six.
Shemot 32:14, 15 – “… and the blood of the grape – you drank the best wine.”; “And Yeshurun grew fat…”

Note that the association of humans is negative from the beginning. Does G-d not observe, in Parashat Noach, that our inclination is wicked from the outset? The sins of the first humans, and the first leaders of humanity – of Adam and of Noach – were sins of appetite, were a kind of drunkenness. The sin of Noach comes from drunkenness – as does the sin of Lot and his daughters, itself a min-replay of the story of Noach and his sons. The Gemara, arguing on the identity of the fruit eaten by Eve and Adam, puts forth one opinion that it is the grape – wine. Further, the name Yeshurun has in it the particle “Y /SH/ R” meaning upright. Homo erectus.

Upright, in the physical sense. Now the challenge is to become Yashar – morally upright. Nehama Lebowitz quotes the Zohar saying that the opening image, in Pasuk 2, of rain and dew is a metaphor for the Written Torah (Rain) and the Oral Torah (Dew). The one comes down from Heaven, the other manifests on Earth. The Written Torah has been transcribed and handed to us by Moshe. At the same time, he has shown us the way to “do” Oral Torah – all of Sefer Devarim is Oral Torah, in the sense that it is Moshe’s own telling / re-telling of the second, third and fourth books of Torah. It is our task to reunite Heaven and Earth, to fuse them into a whole – to make the Universe whole again.

But we must also recall that Division, Differentiation, Separation (Hevdel) is itself one of the fundamental acts of Creation. How then are we to undo what G-d has put in place? Or is that our assignment?

The task of unification is not of undoing G-d’s own work – as though that were within our power to accomplish. Rather, it is to drill down to the fundamental level where the underlying unity of G-d’s universe emerges. Torah is one. Not Written and Oral. Not Written but not Oral. Not Written versus Oral. Just Torah.

We shall return to this theme in a moment. First, let us dwell for a moment on the message of Moshe’s Song.

For Moshe is telling us of a terrible fate that appears to await us. It is, he says, our ineluctible destiny. This is the destiny which G-d feared to reveal to Abram at the Brit Bein Ha-Betarim – the Covenant Between the Pieces. When G-d told Abram that his descendants would be enslaved, but would ultimately triumph and be led out into freedom and with great wealth. Having said as much, G-d immediately hastens to reassure Abram that he will live a long life, a good life, and will fie a good death. Who could ask for more?

Now, though, Moshe is giving it to us straight from the shoulder. We will suffer, he says. We will suffer great tragedy. We will be scattered and will come near to total extinction. In a brief passage, Moshe gives us our entire future tragic history in a nutshell. Do we still want to be Jews? But unlike G-d, who was lulling Abram with sweet promises, Moshe is rubbing our faces in the reality. It may be a reality we are unprepared for. The Midrash says that Moshe keeps begging G-d to allow him to live forever. Human desires for immortality aside, Moshe recognizes that, without his leadership, we may be doomed. Indeed, without Moshe to intercede, G-d may come to destroy us in a fit of peevishness. And this is the greatest looming tragedy of all.

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” Moshe is telling us. G-d is vengeful, Moshe says. G-d is capricious, he says, and will turn on you in a heartbeat. I had to tell you this story – all of Sefer Devarim – so that you would truly understand how many times you came to the brink of destruction, only to be rescued at the last minute by my intercession. Now, says Moshe, you no longer have me to step between you and the wrath of G-d. Beware, says Moshe. Study this Torah and take it to heart, and watch as the tragedy and suffering foretold in this, my Song, unfold throughout the generations of your future history.

And yet… In Chapter 32, verse 26, the text uses the words “Amarti af’eihem” – translated as “I thought [or Said] I will make an end of them…” Moshe reports G-d saying that G-d intended to make an end of us. But many commentators have picked up on the structure of the word Af’eihem – from the root PEH ALEPH HEH, from which is derived the word meaning Corner. Rashi, for example, says “I will scatter them into corners” as a punishment. The Sforno says “I will leave over of them only a corner.” But, with his breadth and profundity of insight, coupled with his unique historical perspective, the Abarbanel comes with the following interpretation.

The fate of Israel, says G-d, was to be cornered, to be driven into a corner and there to be destroyed. But I, says G-d (says Moshe), I will take mercy upon them at the last moment and instead, I will scatter them across the earth and there, spread throughout the lands and the peoples of the broad, wide world, ‘Am Israel will continue to exist, so that in all lands and in all places, in all times and in all conditions, they will continues to carry Torah among the nations.

For those who see in the cycles of history nothing but the repeated attempts of the Nations to destroy the People of Israel, the cynical response might be to quote Hemingway’s great and grand and bitter line: “Isn’t it pretty to think so.”

And then, of course, there are those who fervently believe that G-d acts at all times and in all ways in our direct best interest.

Which brings us back to the question of: What is the Torah really saying?

The argument over literal versus homiletical interpretation of Torah is a Klutz Kashe – a meaningless distinction, and a misleading one. The argument over Creationism versus Science has been much in the news lately. This is not an argument over whether to accept or reject the Bible. It is, rather, a dispute over whether to encourage people to embark on their own spiritual quest, or to tyrannize them with a form of spiritual fascism, enslaving them in the name of a god that is certainly not Divine.

The Torah speaks in the language of humans. If we did not have Rashi and Rambam to explain this to us, it would nonetheless be obvious by virtue of the mere fact that the Torah is written in Hebrew, in a language. A language spoken by humans. And even if we take the position that G-d created the cosmos by a First Utterance that was, itself, in Hebrew, we still are trapped in the reality of human use of language. In short: we can not claim that Torah only and always means precisely what it says, because the nature of language is such that there can never be universal consensus on the meaning of language.

Do I need Rambam to explain to me that the words “And Elo-k-im said ‘Let there be light!’, and there was light”, are a metaphor? Or am I to envision a large, transparent man with a white beard opening his mouth and uttering the formula? And just how large is this man? And what is he wearing – or is he naked? How do I know it was a man, and not a large, transparent woman? The Hebrew language gives gender not only to things, but to actions. Which drives us philosophically into a corner. There is not neutral gender in the Hebrew language. Every actor must be a male or female – and even each action is either a masculine or feminine action. Talk about a loaded situation!

Call me a heretic, but I am more comfortable setting aside the notion of a large, transparent human being – of either gender – as the Primum Mobile of the cosmos.

The great commentator Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin – the Netziv – writes that the Torah is a poetic text, and even the prose in Torah must be read with a poet’s sensibility. Poetry – allusive and elusive, figurative and vague – must be interpreted, and not merely “read.” Thus, the Netziv seems to be saying that the homiletical meaning of the Torah is the Pshat – the plain meaning.

As has been quoted here before in the name of Rabbi Daniel Shevitz – and as Moshe plainly teaches us by giving us Sefer Devarim – the greatness of Torah is not what it does mean, but all the infinite things it can mean.

Which is why Moshe begins his Song with the recap of Creation. For it is up to each of us to re-Create, to make anew, to participate again and renewingly and constantly and while there is the least breath of life in us – to actively strive to be G-d’s partners in the ongoing Act of Creation whereby the world continues to exist. More – as we have seen – we often must stand in for G-d and keep the spheres turning, even when G-d seems to have left the scene.

And, while we may never be able to say for certainty what the Torah means – nor should we desire so narrow an outcome – we are blessed, as the Abarbanel has it, by being the vessels by which this eternal quest continues to be carried on. Even in the darkest times that have – or shall – come upon us, there is this: the Torah was given for all humankind. Yet it is only Israel that possesses it. This is not merely a gift, but a great responsibility, for we must store it up and care for it and keep it very much alive until the time comes when the rest of the world flocks to its Truth.

Yours for a better world.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Parashat Veyelech - Hazak Ve-'Ematz


Hazak ve-‘ematz, Moshe exhorts us. “Be strong and be brave.”

Last week, at Parashat Nitzavim, we saw that Rashi says the word Ha-Yom, “today,” comes to teach that this is the last day of Moshe’s life. In this week’s Parasha – and the two are commonly read together as a double Sedra – Moshe announces that this is the day of his birth. Chapter 31, verse 2, Moshe says, “I am one hundred an twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come; and G-d has said to me ‘You will not cross this Jordan.’”

Why does Moshe die on his birthday? Why is the date of Moshe’s death important?

In the ‘Arvit service, the evening prayer, we say meshane ‘itim u-mehalif et ha-zemanim – “who changes hours and arranges the seasons”. And it is fundamental to all religious concepts that G-d’s Time is not human time. Indeed, Time itself does not exist until G-d creates it. The famous astronomer Steven Hawkings points out that, before the Big Bang, there was no Before. A thousand years before Steven Hawkings, the Rambam made the same observation. Notably, the Rambam did not claim that it was a Chidush – a startling new concept.

The Created cosmos is the world of Space, Time, and Motion, all of which require each other in order to exist. Planted at a focal point within the Cosmos, Humans are the observers that make all these have meaning. In this way – and with this gift – G-d makes us partners in Creation. And when G-d’s plan for us is fulfilled, we leave this plane of the cosmos and continue our partnership in another plane.

The notion of G-d’s omnipotence does not need to clash with the idea of human freedom of choice. First of all, the concept of Free Will may be slightly misleading. It may be more useful to use the phrase Free Choice, because most of what we face is a simple Either / Or decision. Our lives are bound by Conditions and, while we might prefer to be lying on the beach on the Island of Maui, few of us have that as an option. Rather, our actions are determined by the set of choices each moment, each situation presents us with. We follow the string of choices in our lives, making a sort of decision-tree pattern, for each choice necessarily leads to further sets of options. In some cases our process of choice-making comes to an end result that corresponds to G-d’s plan for us. This must be viewed as a successful life.

Moshe was born to die. He was born at a time when all newborn boys were to be thrown to the river. Originally, he was to have been strangled on the birthing-stool. This was Pharaoh’s instruction to Shifra and Puah, the midwives. When that did not work, the next order was to cast all males into the river. Thus, in a sense, Moshe should have died on the day he was born. Instead, he is cast into the river and rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter.

Then Moshe kills the Mizri. We know that he should have died for this act, because the Torah tells us at Bereshit 2:15 that Pharaoh heard about the incident, and tried to have Moshe put to death. But Moshe flees to Midian. Significantly, when G-d calls to Moshe at the bush, Moshe does not object that he, of all people, can not return to Egypt because there is a price on his head. Indeed, it is not until after he has not only consented to go, but publicly announced his intention to leave Midian and return to Mizraim that, at Bereshit 4:19, G-d tells Moshe that he is no longer in danger.

Moshe is fearless. Perhaps with the fearlessness of one born with the knowledge that all life is over in an instant. That that day of our birth may as well be the day of our death – that so many souls never are brought into the world at all. And that so many perish so quickly.

Moshe also fearlessly defends the Covenant between G-d and Israel. Defends it primarily in the face of G-d’s many outbursts of rage. Stand aside, G-d says over and over, and I will destroy them. Finally, after the sin of the Golden Calf, Moshe appears fed up with G-d’s tantrums and rants. At Shemot 32:32, in the aftermath of the sin of the Calf, Moshe famously says: “Please, erase me from the book you have written!”


What is the name of the leader of Israel? We know him as Moshe, from Bereshit 2:10. “She called his name Moshe and she said, ‘Because I drew him out [meshitihu] of the water.’” The speaker here is Pharaoh’s daughter, who spoke ancient Egyptian, not Hebrew. The name by which our leader is known to us, the political leader who created this nation in earthly terms, as surely as G-d formed us spiritually, is not his actual name. His true name, rather, is hidden from us, lost forever.

Similarly, we shall read at the end of Sefer Devarim, 34:6, that he was buried in a place in the Land of Moab, “… and no one knows his grave to this day.” The request Moshe makes of G-d has been fulfilled: he has been erased from the Torah.

Why does Moshe die on his birthday? It is as though he has vanished, the film has been run backwards. As though he had never been born. It is difficult to imagine that Moshe, of all people, did not lead a life that fulfilled G-d’s destiny for him. And so perhaps it was a blessing, and not a curse. Perhaps G-d was meshaneh ‘itim for Moshe – changed times around for him. Instead of perishing on the very day he was born, Moshe lived for 120 years, saved the Hebrew people from slavery, brought us the Torah and made a pack of miserable slaves into the Nation of Israel. Why does Moshe die on his birthday? Because – with a gap of 120 years – he was one of many thousands of Hebrew newborns slated for extermination.

Now, though, the stakes are different. Moshe has lived a long life and has the feelings and memories and insights that come along with that. Maybe, now that Klal Israel is about to enter the Land, Moshe feels he is entitled to a comfortable retirement. Let Yehoshua lead, I’ll go hang out at Sdeh Boker and drink tea with na’na’. Alas, in G-d’s world, the work is never finished.

The Midrashim on the death of Moshe contains some of the most poignant and poetic images in all world literature.

At 31:9, the text says, “And Moshe wrote this Torah and gave it to the Kohanim…” The Midrash expands this and says that Moshe actually wrote thirteen separate Sifrei Torah, one for each tribe, and one to go into the Aron Ha-‘Edut – the Ark of Testimony. At the heart of Moshe’s action, the Midrash finds a ruse: if he can keep writing these Sifrei Torah, the sun will set, and the ordained day of his death will pass. Once his ordained day passes, he will never die. And so, the Midrash concludes, G-d makes the sun stand still, stretching the day out endlessly until Moshe completes the task of writing the thirteenth Torah scroll. In fact, the Midrash also states that Moshe died on Shabbat. Is it not forbidden to write on Shabbat? But there is also a separate Mitzvah of violating Shabbat in order to save a life. Whose life was Moshe trying to save? Why, his own! Which should not detract from the importance of the Mitzvah.

Underlying all these Midrashim is Moshe’s desperate wish to remain alive. He goes so far as to ask for – or even assume he is entitled to – immortality. Rather than thinking of Moshe as falling prey to cowardice at the last moment – and which of us will face our own hour without a tremor? – let us recall the bravery, the utter disregard of his own life with which Moshe proceeds with his task. Is it too much to ask of our Leader that, in his final moments, he not also reveal himself as merely human?

Hazak ve-‘ematz, Moshe exhorts: “Be strong and courageous.” Underlying Moshe’s desperate wish to remain alive, there is also the very real concern that Bnei Israel will be lost without their leader. “Be strong” he repeats. At 31:6 he says, “Because G-d, your G-d, he is the one who is going with you. G-d will not let go and will not abandon you.” The emphasis is very strong in the original text: the cantillation on the Hebrew pronoun makes it a shout. “He is walking with you.” The verb structure of the verse underscores the meaning as well: “G-d is walking with you” – present continuous tense in the first clause. “G-d will not let you go and will not abandon you” – future tense in the final clause.

Moshe’s meaning is unmistakable: I am dying. Do not be afraid. In reality, it is G-d who is walking with you. Who has been walking with you all along. I am no more than the middleman.

From a literary perspective, the Midrash is touching something very different, but which also bears mention: the desire to keep on reading. The wish that one’s favorite book would never end. With the death of Moshe, the Torah is truly over. The history of ‘Am Israel will continue – or in a sense, it will begin with Sefer Yehoshua – but the story we have been so immersed in is over, and nothing can recreate the exhilaration of discovering a magnificent creation for the first time. As much as Moshe wants to keep on living, we too want him around. We want to follow his next adventure, and his next. Unlike every literary hero, from Tarzan to Harry Potter, the Torah does not have a sequel.

But Moshe will have a final aria in Parashat Ha’azinu.

Before that, let us share some images from the Midrash.

Of Moshe arguing with G-d, telling G-d that his – Moshe’s – merits are greater than any person’s have ever been. G-d replies: Did I tell you to kill the Mizri? And Moshe falls silent.

Of Moshe sitting at the summit of Mt. Sinai taking dictation from G-d. Remember that Moshe carried the first set of Luchot down from the mountain facing away from him, so that Bnei Israel would see them, and that he shattered them before he had a chance to read any of it. Thus, when he ascends and begins to write the second set himself, the words are new to him. As they come to the passage describing his own death, Moshe pauses. “Write!” G-d commands. And Moshe writes, tears streaming from his eyes.

Finally, there is the transfer of authority from Moshe to Yehoshua. Unprepared as he may be, the younger man must take on the leadership of Klal Israel. It is time. And Our Moment is, by definition, a moment for which we are never prepared. Think of all the things that happen in life for which we can not prepare. Think of being born, of falling in love. Think of giving birth, of the death of someone close to us. Think, finally, of your own death. The Zohar says that a person might live a thousand years, yet, on the last day of their life they would say “Oh, just one more day!”

And so Yehoshua stands before Klal Israel and prepares to assume the mantle of leadership. And in order for his leadership to take root, Yehoshua must perform the actions that Moshe performed for the People. Moshe lays his hands upon Yehoshua to begin the transfer of Wisdom, the true foundation of leadership. Then he steps to the side, and Yehoshua turns to the gathered nation and begins to teach. For the Jewish nation requires of its leaders, not that they be strategists or politicians, not fundraisers or inspiring public speakers. Klal Israel requires of our leaders that they be teachers, first and foremost. That they teach us in words, and show us in the actions of their lives, how to strive for perfection, to make this world a better place. To do Tikkun. Teachers in the mold of Moshe Rabbeinu (“Moshe our Teacher”) whose overriding human quality is his humility, and whose devotion to Torah and his caring for the People are total.

And so Yehoshua begins to teach. He is not teaching anything new – after Moshe there is nothing new to teach, but there are infinite ways and approaches to understanding the Torah that Moshe handed over to us. Yehoshua speaks clearly and simply, and all the while the transfer of Wisdom continues from Moshe to his protégé. And Yehoshua’s voice grows stronger, his presence more powerful, until he appears in the eyes of the People as a true leader, and they take from him inspiration and hope and Strength and Courage. And as Yehoshua’s words grow in wisdom, the wisdom drains away from his mentor until Moshe, standing at Yehoshua’s side, can no longer understand a word.

Moshe Rabbeinu, we shall take your words to heart and strive to be strong and courageous. Farewell, beloved Teacher.

Hadran Alach, Moshe Rabbeinu. We shall return to you.

Yours for a better world.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Parashat Nitzavim - All On That Day


Devarim 29:9: “You are standing here today…”

Rashi says that “today” is the last day of Moshe’s life; that, from here to the last words of the written Torah at the end of Parashat Ve-Zot Ha-Beracha constitutes a single uninterrupted narrative. Adding another dimension, the Zohar says that “today” was Rosh HaShana.

It is common, among commentaries on this week’s Parasha, to observe that the word Teshuva appears seven times in this Parasha, in one form or another. Teshuva. “Return.” Generally translated as “Repentance.”

This Parasha is read during the Season of Return – on the Shabbat before Rosh HaShana – and the powerful imagery and uses of the notion of Return are replayed throughout this Parasha in intricate and powerful counterpoint.

How does the Parasha open? With the words Atem Nitzavim – “You are standing.” In discussing Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, the Rabbis of the Talmud transpose the scene of Forgiveness and Cleansing from its original textual location, Parashat Shelach – where Moshe confronts G-d in the aftermath of the Sin o f the Spies – to Parashat Ki Tissa, after the Sin of the Golden Calf. In describing the process and act of Atonement – which we shall define closely in a moment – the Rabbis focus on the expression (Shemot 34:5) Va-yered H’ be-‘anan va-yityatzev ‘imo sham… - “And G-d came down in a cloud and stood with him there…” G-d stood and waited for Moshe. This is the interpretation given to this image by the Rabbis. It is the source of the notion of Atonement as “Seek G-d where G-d is to be found.” The verb va-yityatzev means “He stood,” but is a forceful standing, in the sense of: “And he planted himself.”

G-d is planted firmly, unmoving, waiting for Moshe to arrive. Waiting for the penitential process to take its effect. Then, G-d will dispense Atonement.

We call Kippur “Day of Atonement.” But it is not merely that we Atone. Rather, G-d offers us Atonement – the word can be read in either direction. The Hebrew word Kappara – Atonement – comes from a root meaning “Curved, rounded, cover over.” Indeed, the Covering for the Ark in the Tabernacle is called Kaporet, from the same root. And Atonement is a two-way act. Israel Atones for its sins; G-d grants Israel Atonement for sin. The notion of Relationship is fundamental to the concept of Atonement, (sometimes cleverly written out, in the English, as “At-one-ment”) which is why this week’s Parasha speaks of a Covenant. A renewed Covenant – reaffirming the relationship first established with Abraham.

In his discourses on Teshuva, Rabbi Soloveitchik analyzes Biblical source uses of the word Teshuva. He comes to the demonstrable conclusion that the word means, not merely to Go Back, but to Circle Back. The act of Return, as expressed in this word, means Coming Full Circle, returning to one’s original place. It is the image of the Penitent, we who know we have failed in certain aspects of our lives, and who seek to Return to a state before our failures. We want to Recycle our souls. Teshuva, Repentance, is not a straight line, not a back-and-forth. It is 360-degrees of self-examination, of hard work and self-transformation.

Perhaps the image is this: that we only truly perform the act of Teshuva after we have exhausted every other possibility. This image can only be represented in the form of a circle, literally “all-encompassing.” A straight line leaves too much out.

As G-d was Firmly Planted, standing and waiting for Moshe on that first Yom Kippur, so we are described as Nitzavim – we stand, firmly planted. Waiting for G-d to come to us, just as as G-d waited for Moshe.

The Zohar, again, says that this “Today” is Rosh HaShana. It is the day of G-d’s kingship, the birthday of the cosmos. Lest G-d come upon us unawares, we stand firmly in place, unwavering, prepared to receive the Monarch of Creation. Although we do not know the outcome of this confrontation, we do not shrink from it. It is a marvelous image, indeed, and one that clearly emerges from the text, bringing forward the use of the words va-yityatzev / nitzavim.

Today, we are Nitzavim. The Parasha’s opening phrases describe three types of Israelites. You – the ones Moshe is addressing –are Nitzavim: Planted firmly in place. But also, he says, I establish this Brit with (verse 14)” those of whom there are some here among us, standing (‘omed) today”, as well as (verse 14) “with whoever is not here (einenu) with us today.” In each case – Nitzavin, ‘Omed, Einenu – the word “Ha-yom” repeats. There are three ways in which we can approach G-d, three ways in which we receive G-d on this most awesome of days, Rosh HaShana. We plant ourselves firmly, unshakeably awaiting G-d’s approach, and ready to accept what comes to us. Or, we merely stand – perhaps trembling – stand in a way that, should the brunt of the onslaught strike us, we may fall, or be blown away. Or, we merely absent ourselves. G-d will arrive, and will search for us in vain. Yet, like Adam in the Garden, we will be found.

The commentators on this Parasha have much to say about the notion of individuals losing themselves in the crowd. The verses 29:17-20 describe one who rejects Torah, and the consequences. Examples of traditional commentaries are:

Akeidat Yitzhak, who says: This describes one who says to himself, ‘G-d only punishes those who reject the Covenant. But I have not even accepted it in the first place! I will be safe!’

Ramban, who says: This describes the one who says, ‘I will follow my own heart, and I will be all right.’

Ibn Ezra, who says: This describes the one who says, ‘Even though I personally reject Torah, I will be safe, because I am surrounded by those who accept the Torah.’

In fact, there are two fundamental concepts of Teshuva: there is National Teshuva, and there is Personal Teshuva. And there is the ultimate effect of Teshuva, which is the transformation of the cosmos.

Rabbi Soloveitchik discerningly parses out the distinction between individual and national Teshuva. Taking his lead from the dispute in the Gemara between Rebbi and the Rabbis, he pursues Rebbi’s statement that the Essence of Yom Kippur in and of itself – itzumo shel yom – is sufficient to effect Atonement for all Israel, even if individuals do not atone. To tie this to the commentaries on this week’s Parasha, let us observe that there is a certain validity to those who believe that all will be well with them, as long as they remain among the group of Klal Israel.

The ‘Ishah Shunamit – the Shunamite Woman – responding to the Prophet Elisha’s offer to repay her kindness, speaks the cryptic words, “Among my people I dwell.” This is one of the most commonly-cited texts for Rosh HaShana homilies, and it underscores the group aspect of the process of Teshuva.

While Rabbi Soloveitchik does not quote from this incident, he does lay out the distinction between Individual Repentance and Repentance for Kehilat Israel. The latter, he says, is the form of Atonement effected by Kippur itself, with no requirement for individual atonement.

The goat sent off into the wilderness on Yom Kippur is the agent that bears away our sins. In order for this to be effective, the Kohen must do atonement. But the entire nation is not required to repent. It would appear that at least one person must, but it is not clear how many are required for the group atonement to take effect. It is clear, though, that the notion of losing oneself among the “Multitude of the Just” is a valid one. Halachically, while each of us must repent and perform the specified acts of Teshuva for our individual sins, the itzumo shel yom – the Essence of the Day – performs, in our time, the function previously filled by the Scapegoat: it atones for Knesset Israel, for Kehillat Israel. For Klal Israel.

What is the transformative power of Teshuva?

It has to do with each one of us placing ourselves in a state of preparedness. To Return, one must be ready to return. We do not return to our point of origin by accident, by wandering aimlessly – indeed, if we wander unknowingly across our original place, we will as easily leave it again, never realizing where we have been. This is the case, for example, of Yaakov, who wakes from a dream and says (Bereshit 28:16) “G-d is surely in this place, and I did not know it.” Knowing where we came from, where we are, where we are going – these are all metaphors for our spiritual state. Yaakov did not know where he was going, hence he did not know where he was. Once he discovered where he was, he not only established his forward direction, but set in motion the process that would ultimately lead to his return.

In our Parasha, verse 14 ends, “… ve’et asher einennu po ‘imanu ha-yom…” – “… and with the one who is not here with us today.” In the narrative of Sefer Bereshit, the word “einennu”, meaning “he is not” is the epithet applied repeatedly to Yosef. His brothers are forever saying, We are twelve brothers, sons of one man. Our youngest is with his father, and another one “einenu” – as Dr. Seuss might have said: He just isn’t present. (“But you – you are you. Now isn’t that pleasant?”)

Three type of Jews go out to greet the Creator of the Universe on This Day – the awesome day of Rosh HaShana, which is also the final day of Moshe’s life. There are those who accept that they must take what comes, and steel themselves for it, knowing that one can spend a lifetime preparing, but the moment of readiness is what counts. There are those who, unsure of themselves, know that they are required to be there, but doubt that they will be equal to the task. And there are those who merely do not come, who hide like Adam in the Garden, afraid to show themselves naked before their Creator.

And yet, it is also this final group – the einenu – who have the ability to transform themselves. For they have given up all hope. Unlike the second group, who appear, but stand uncertainly, this last group know for a certainty that they can not face G-d. And it is only out of total destruction that rebirth can arise.

It is only when the Hebrews had been so beaten down that we forgot G-d, only then did G-d intervene and bring us out of Mizraim. Only when Abraham and Sarah had completely given up the notion of Sarah having children that G-d steps in and creates the miracle that bring Yitzhak into the world – which is the Torah reading of Rosh HaShana. And it is Yosef – and not his brothers – who, by planting himself firmly (Nitzavim…) in Mizraim, by giving up on the notion of ever returning to his family, to his home, to his father, then becomes the agent of the salvation of all Israel. And, though he does not return in his lifetime, Moshe has his bones brought up out of Mizraim to their final resting place in the city of Shechem.

Whether we are nitzacim, or ‘omdim, or einenu, we must prepare to greet G-d as G-d arrives on Rosh HaShana. When we receive G-d at the awesome moment of the birth of the cosmos, G-d will then receive us when we come searching, begging to be taken back into the close relationship we all yearn for. There are not coincidences in Torah, and grammar can sometimes be enlightening. Today, we are nitzavim – present tense. On Kippur, G-d will be yityatzev – future tense. As though to say that G-d’s unconditional acceptance of us is dependent, not on our perfected actions, not on our unflagging adherence to every Aleph of Halachah, but on our unconditional acceptance of G-d.

May all our prayers be accepted for the good. May the blessings of peace, of peacefulness, of peace of mind dwell among us and among all people. May this year be a year of health and prosperity, of laughter and rejoicing, of love and compassion, and may all blessings come to all Israel – and, as G-d promised us through Abraham: may all nations of the world bless themselves through us. May the Redemption come speedily and in our days, and if we can not hasten the Redemption, let us still never cease trying, not even for a moment, but always be in a state of Readiness. Readiness to reach out to hold one another up. Readiness to greet G-d. Readiness to Return.

Shana tova.

Yours for a better world.