Friday, November 03, 2006

Parashta Lech Lecha - The Land That I Will Show You


Bereshit 12:3 “… and all families of the Earth shall be blessed in you.”
Rashi: “A man says to his son: ‘Be like Abraham.’”

In many ways, Shabbat Lech Lecha is really the first Shabbos of the year. Jewish children traditionally start learning Torah from Parashat Lech Lecha, because this is really the beginning of our story. Bereshit is the cosmic background; Noach is the moral precursor. But it is at Lech Lecha that G-d introduces the concept that provides the link from the human to the Divine, which is also the pinnacle of human philosophy: the Halacha.

There is no Halacha in Bereshit. HKB”H relies on the G-dliness embedded in Creation to lead all things to right behavior. They should just know. Adam and Chava have rules, but rules are not Halacha. One rule they keep – Peru u-Revu. One rule, they don’t. Don’t eat the fruit. – Oops…

There is no Halachah in Noach. Noach is designed from birth to perform a task. G-d gives Noach orders, but orders are not Halacha. Noach is an exquisite computer, programmed with a Tzaddik chip, and compulsion is not Halacha. But the Human lurks within. And when, after six hundred years of waiting, and after finally exiting the Ark, Noach at last breaks his silence, it is to give full and ugly vent to the most animal of human emotions. He gets drunk, he behaves lewdly, he curses his own children.

In Parashat Lech Lecha, G-d takes a huge risk. Where Adam and Chava were left alone, Abram is cast out into the world before his adventure even begins – stranded by his father’s crackpot dream of some vague Destiny that awaited them in a land none of them has ever seen, Abram can not go back to Ur Kasdim, but neither does he know of any reason to go forward. Where Noach is Designed, Abram is Destined. G-d takes note of the particular human feature of Free Choice, and G-d takes a chance. “Lech lecha,” G-d exhorts Abram. “You there! Get up and go!” This is the voice of a parent tossing the young out of the nest. The Rebbe turning away from his Chassid, telling him it is time to go out into the world. This is Tough Love. Tough on Abram – but also tough on HKB”H. Ha-kol be-yedei shamayim hutz mi-yirat shamayim – Everything is in the hands of Heaven but the fear of heaven.

Will Abram choose to come to G-d on his own? Or will Abram merely follow his appetites? The odds do not appear favorable, considering all of human history up to this point. The Hassidic masters tell us that the greatness of Abraham is not that Abraham had this quality or that quality, not that Abraham was wise, or powerful, or faithful, or steadfast. The greatness of Abraham, I heard in the name of the Lubavicher Rebbe, is that G-d chose him. All else pales beside that fact. Once cast out into the world, Abraham’s task is to spread the teachings of his Rebbe, to pass them on to his family, to his descendants, and to the world.

Abraham Avinu and HKB”H – what a Chassid! What a Rebbe!

And what is Halacha, and how does it interact in human existence? Lech Lecha. “Go your own way.” Later, G-d will instruct Abraham to “stand on his own two feet”: Hithalech lefanai... Halacha is Comportment. Behavior. How we make our way through the world. And, as every traveler needs a map, we have Halacha as a guide. But, just as every map shows multiple routes to the same destination, the Halacha interacts with our Free Choice, leading us all along infinite branching paths. All of them are G-d’s paths, yet each of us goes our own way.

Lech Lecha. Le-Halacha.

In communities where unmarried men do not own a tallit, they must borrow one when they are called to the Torah. If they take a tallit that belongs to the shul – which is under communal ownership – they make a Beracha before putting on the tallit. However, on a borrowed tallit, no Beracha is made. The Pasuk states:

Ve-haya lachem le-tzitzit

Lachem - Yours. The proper performance of the Mitzvah requires that one own one's Tallit.

The mitzvah of Tzitzit is in the same category as Lulav – ve-lakachtem lachem ba-yom ha-rishon… One can only perform the mitzvah of lulav with a lulav that one owns, not with a borrowed lulav.

Lech Lecha – Go. You – You go. This is an act that only you can perform, and that you must perform for your own self. No one else can fulfill your destiny, Abraham, which is to teach the world that each of us is uniquely responsible for our own spiritual life. We can not bring others to Torah except by example. We can not create a Just Society, except by our own effort, within our own Daled Amot. One just person at a time.

Go forth, Abraham, for no one else can take on your destiny.

But, as Rashi points out – and as the text shows over and over again in a major motif that runs throughout Chumash – people try to.
Bereshit 12:3 “… and all families of the Earth shall be blessed in you.”
Rashi: “A man says to his son: ‘Be like Abraham.’”
Rashi makes it clear that our assignment and Berachah is to emulate Abraham.

This becomes major theme throughout Torah – and throughout human history! Because just as we want to strive to become like Abraham, others want to share in the blessings of Abraham – to become partners, or even to supplant him. And in so doing, they mistake the outer Abraham for the inner struggle of the Tzaddik, the Halachic philosopher who strives at all moments to approach HKB”H. What Rav Soloveitchik calls Halachic Man. They mistakenly grab at the Destination, when it is really only the Journey that matters.

Terach takes his family from Ur Kasdim, heading towards Canaan. Inexplicably, they stop along the way, and – like Moshe who also does not make it to Canaan – Terach dies at Charan. Yet at the Brit bein Ha-Betarim – 15:7 – G-d says “I am H’ who took you [singular] out of Ur Kasdim.” But Terah took him out! No – G-d tells Abram: look for My hand underlying all the workings of the Cosmos. Perhaps Terach believed that it was on his own initiative and inspiration that they came to Haran, but Abraham must look to G-d’s unifying and guiding hand in all that he encounters.

Terach had an inkling of the Beracha. He tried to reap the destiny of Abraham. Terah foresaw that destiny and tried to jump start it – to make it his own.

Now, in this week’s Parasha, Lot tries to copy his uncle – at Bereshit 12:5 we read “And Abram took… and Lot… and all the souls that they made in Haran…” Rashi: Abraham converted the men, Sarai converted the women. And Lot? Whom did he convert? Implicit is that Lot emulated Abraham – a kind of Bizzarro Abraham, like the cracked world of the old Superman comic books. A theme that arises continually throughout Humash. The exodus from Haran towards Canaan is the first “Erev Rav” – Like Abram, Lot too brought out his own supporters, people fashioned in the image of his own gods.

To underscore the parallels, other striking images of Mizraim appear. At the Brit bein ha-Betarim, Abram is led by Smoke and Fire. Indeed, the relationship of Sara and Hagar establishes the intertwined destinies of their two peoples – Sarah the Hebrew; Hagar the Egyptian.

More people try to emulate story of Abraham. In spiritual terms, these people exist on very high plane. On a level of prophecy, or of near-prophecy, full of resonances of the great destiny that awaits.

Nahor – has 12 sons; 8 with his wife, 4 with his handmaid.
Ishmael – has 12 sons.
Hagar and Ishmael – leave Sarah’s encampment and go off to the wilderness where they try to willingly sacrifice Abraham’s son – Ishmael – who is already a grown man.

And while all this is unfolding, Abraham is also trying to figure out what his Destiny is. He has human wishes and longings and desires, but his Halachic relationship with G-d continues to grow stronger, crying out for fulfillment. How is Abraham to know which is his true Destiny? Unlike all those who mimic him, Abraham keeps returning to G-d and seeking, asking for answers, asking to be guided and corrected.

13:7 - “there was strife between the herdsmen of Abram’s cattle and the herdsmen of Lot’s cattle…”
Rashi: Lot’s shepherds said: Abram is old and Lot is his heir, so we are not stealing, as this land will very soon belong to our master…” This is a double whammy: it is not only a cracked mirroring of the destiny of Abraham, but also compare it to the very first Rashi, which comments on G-d’s act of Creation of the cosmos and its implications for Klal Israel taking possession of the Land of Israel. These are people who have hold of a powerful and eternal truth. Yet, like Babel at the end of Parashat Noach, what they build around it is false. In general, this exercise is undertaken with passionate intensity, no less so today than in Biblical times.

Abraham continually, patiently seeks clarity, all the while doing what is needed, all the while seeking G-d’s inner message. Is Lot , in fact, supposed to inherit from him? Where did Lot’s herdsmen get that idea from?

Why, when Haran dies, does Terach take Abram and Lot – why not Nahor? Abram has become Lot’s surrogate father. Is there, perhaps, more to this?

After War of the Four Kings against the Five, at 14:21-22, Abraham rejects the notion of taking possession of the property of those he has defeated. “… whether [not] a thread nor a shoe-latch…” such odd language. It echoes the Halachic practice of Halitza. Can it be that Abraham is renouncing the notion of Levirate marriage, of raising up his deceased brother’s son? Perhaps, under the practice of the clan of Terach, Abraham was Lot’s biological father? Under such circumstances, it is understandable that Abram might believe Lot is destined to inherit from him.

But Abram sees by his surrogate son’s behavior that it is not meant to be. The shepherds fight – surely they take after their master, just as Rashi tells us the shepherds of Abram take after theirs – and when Abram tells Lot “Go ahead, you take what you want, and I’ll be content with what’s left over, (another message of Lech Lecha – use your power of Free Choice) what is Lot’s reaction? He chooses and goes, with neither argument nor thanks.

Now Abraham complains to G-d that the steward of his household will inherit from him – this was actually common in the ancient Near East, as people legally made household servants into family members, sometimes marrying them – or marrying them to their children – and explicitly settling inheritances on favored slaves.

But G-d tells him “No, Abraham, you will have your own descendants to inherit.”

And then Ishmael is born. But G-d says “not this one.”

All of this was within Abraham’s aspect of Greatness merely at being chosen by G-d to be called out, to be sent forth with “Lech Lecha”.

All this was Lo Le-Shemah

Rashi at 12:7
Bereshit 12:7 “… le-zaracha eten et ha-aretz ha-zot…” Abram builds a Mizbeach. Says Rashi: “Because of the news of Children, and because of the news of the Land.” G-d has promised Abram children and real estate. Abram reciprocates by building a sacrificial altar. He is his father’s son after all, for this looks awfully close to Idol Worship and Avoda Zara.

But alongside this very human aspect of Abraham, he also embraces the Halachic process as the key to life, embraces Yirat Shamayim as the fundamental attitude to life as he comes to realize that his Destiny is, in every sense of the word, his own responsibility. That he can embrace it. Even change it.

The Apotheosis of Abraham is the Akeidah, which is 100% lishmah – which is why G-d no longer speaks to him after. Abraham has Gotten It – he gets the message. However many trials Abraham may still face, he has internalized the Halacha as the way to interact with G-d, who runs the world. G-d now recognizes that Abraham is doing everything lishmah – so no more need to communicate.

All along the way, Abraham has asked for guidance. Why will You destroy the cities? Who is supposed to inherit from me? You promised me children, where are they? You promised me the Land, which part of it is to be my dwelling? By the time of the Akeidah, Abraham may not have resolved his human issues, but he has embraced the behavioral and moral imperative of the Mitzvot.

To some, the attitude of Abraham towards the life of his own son looks like that of the proud father of a suicide bomber. But remember the Rebbe’s Vort: that the greatness of Abraham resides in the mere fact that G-d chose him. All the rest, as the Rambam tells us, any human being can aspire to and accomplish. The Torah is teaching us – Abraham Avinu is teaching us – that even the most important things in our lives are only ours because G-d has chosen to give them to us. That we must value our most precious things – our children, our wives and husbands, our life itself – not because they are intrinsically precious, though they are, but because G-d has chosen to entrust them to our care. Now, how much more precious – how infinitely precious do these mere human things become! And when G-d decides to take them away, we do not suffer any less human pain, but we relate to our pain from a profound depth of meaning and with the knowledge that, for all the pain that resides in this sad and beautiful world, HKB”H is the Ba’al ha-Rachamim, weeping for us. Weeping with us.

The difference between a Tzaddik – a righteous person – and a Rasha – a wicked person – is that the Rasha knows that he or she is doing exactly what G-d wants. That G-d approves of the Rasha. “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” How often do we hear it? “All religion has ever done is create hatred and bloodshed. G-d just wants us to be moral people.” The Rasha’s relationship with G-d is all right, all of the time. G-d approves of the Rasha.

The Tzaddik is a different story. The Tzaddik – his house is a wreck, his relationship with G-d is a mess and will always be a mess. His efforts at helping people are weak and pathetic and ineffectual and even the smallest bit of progress requires infinite patience. There is nothing for the Tzaddik to do but try to serve G-d and be constantly aware that really all we can achieve is the effort. The Tzaddik stumbles through life, always trying to alleviate human suffering – it’s a fundamental Halacha – always trying to bring joy into the world – it’s a fundamental Mitzvah – always trying in every moment and in every way, big and small, to make the world a better place – it’s a basic Halacha. The Mishna says: Bishvili nivra ha-olam – The world was created for me. It’s Mashma that each one of us is personally responsible for taking care of the world.

The Gemara in Berachot (33B) says Makom she-baalei teshuvah omdim, tzaddikim gemurim einam omdim sham – IN the place where Baalei Teshuva stand, Perfect Tzddikim do not stand there. We all know Pshat on this – and it’s wrong. The Apter Rov says: the Baal Teshuva has attained a goal, which is why he or she rests there, on the spot. They have reached their destination. But the Tzaddik - ? A Tzaddik, says the Apter, never stands still. It is in the nature of the Tzaddik to constantly be on the move. Searching. Yearning. Striving. Most of us set goals and strive to achieve them. For the Tzaddik, there is no such thing as Accomplishment – only a burning desire to reach higher. To find Ha-Aretz asher er’eka – The Land that I will show you.

It is told by a talmid of the Chofetz Chayim that he once heard his Rav sitting up late at night in his private study, deep in Hitbodedut with HKB”H. The Chofetz Chayim had said Tehilim, had said Tikkun Hatzot. Now, his Talmid overheard him pleading: G-d, you have given me so much. You have sent me Talmidim, you have sent Jews from all over the world with whom I have spoken words of your Torah. You made me Zocheh to write the Mishna Berurah! Now, G-d, please, I keep asking you – when will You ever answer me? I keep begging you to tell me: G-d, you have given me so much, so very much. What can I do for you?

Yours for a better world

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dust to Dust


Dust to Dust: Hirhurim on the Fifth Perek of the Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuvah

by Rabbi Moshe Silver

(Text of Derash given at Princeton University Center for Jewish Life – Shabbat Shuva – 5767 – 30 September 2006)

Shabbat Shuva – we are on the cusp of Kippur, the moment where we seek final return to G-d, where we seek to cleave to HKB”H in an ultimate experience of reconciliation, of acceptance, of forgiveness. We have been building towards this moment since Rosh Chodesh Elul. In intensified prayer, in Selichot, in daily blowing of the shofar. And in the awesome and overwhelming days of Rosh HaShana. We are taught that G-d is at all times and in all places unchangeable. Indeed, it is incorrect to speak of G-d as being in time or space. Nonetheless, the Rabbis tell us that we should rise before the morning star, especially during the month of Elul, and pray for forgiveness for all Israel. The hours between midnight and the rising of the morning star is the time when G-d flies around the earth, when G-d rises and walks the cosmos alone, weeping for the destruction of the Beit Ha-Mikdash – the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Dirshu Ha-Shem be-himatz’o – Search for G-d where G-d is to be found.

As a guide to the process of Teshuvah, the Rambam wrote his Hilchot Teshuvah, the Laws of Repentance. It is a short treatise, yet immense in its power and in its insight into human nature. Intended, as are all of Rambam’s writings, to be the definitive work on the topic, Holchot Teshuvah is structured in ten chapters, and many people have the custom to read and dwell upon one chapter each of the Ten Days of Repentance from Rosh HaShana to Yom Kippur. This short work contains passages that Rav Soloveitchik calls the most beautiful and majestic in all of Mishne Torah. But if there can be said to be a focus and a core message to this work, it lies in the fifth Perek, which deals with Free Will. Speaking of Free Will, the Rambam writes: this matter is an essential principle, and it is a pillar of Torah and Mitzvot, as it is written:

ראה נתתי לפניך היום את-החיים ואת-הטוב ואת-המות ואת-הרע

דברים ל" ט"ו

The Rambam brings a Pasuk from Parashat Nitzavim. This is significant, because this Parasha is always read at the beginning of the ‘Aseret Yemei HaTeshuvah. Significant, because this Parasha begins the coda of Torah. Leaving aside the dispute as to whether the final eight verses of the Torah were written by Moshe himself, or by Yehoshua – from the first words of Nitzavim, through to the end of VeZot HaBeracha, is all the action of a single day. Moshe Rabbeinu’s birthday, in fact, as well as the last day of his life. “Ha-Yom” says the text in two significant places, both at the beginning of Nitzavim, and at the beginning of Va-Yelech. Further, the Zohar ties the “Ha-Yom” in Nitzavim to the day of Yom Kippur.

And what is significant about “Ha-Yom” – about this day? The Rambam tells us: it is our freedom to choose.

Just by the way, it appears that Pharaoh and Moshe are the only persons in all of Torah whose birthdays are recorded. (See Shemot 40:20 – “And it was on the third day [from the recounting of their dreams], Pharaoh’s birthday, he made a drinking party for all his servants, and he raised up the head of his Wine Steward and the head of his Chief Baker in the midst of his servants.”) We shall return to speak of this at the Grand Finale of our talk, IY”H.

“See, I have placed before you TODAY (ha-yom) Life and the Good, and Death and the Bad.”

What is the significance of this pair or pairs? Of Life / Good, and Death / Bad? How does it tie into Yom Kippur, into the process of Teshuvah?

The Midrash says “teshuvah kadmah ha-olam” – Teshuva existed before the world came into being. That HKB”H looked at the world to be and realized that it would not be able to stand without Teshuva. Just as a house requires a foundation, HKB”H laid down Teshuva, as it were, deep in the ground. Before the cosmos came to be, G-d dug deep and poured a foundation of Teshuva. We are not aware of it – we can not see it, or even sense its presence. But it is what holds up the edifice of the Universe.

Why is this process called Teshuvah? There are other words in the Hebrew language that apply to the process which we call Repentance. Kapparah – atonement. Mechilah – forgiveness of outstanding obligation. Selichah – begging for pardon. All these are merely elements of the process known as Teshuvah.

ראה נתתי לפניך היום את-החיים ואת-הטוב ואת-המות ואת-הרע

דברים ל" ט"ו

Life and the Good; Death and the Bad. The Torah is using simplistic language, because in engaging in Teshuva, we are returning to basics. Rav Kook writes that even Sin is also necessary, that the spiritual growth of the world unfolds along lines laid down by G-d in nature. And our nature comprises Sin. More, it is our nature to exercise our free choice. To follow our impulses. And so we come to realize that Good and Bad, Life and Death, Sin and Teshuvah – these are the poles between which the cosmos is suspended.

ראה נתתי לפניך היום את-החיים ואת-הטוב ואת-המות ואת-הרע

The Rambam brings a simple and straightforward Pasuk to reveal a subject that is so vast, and that lies at the very heart of what it means to live a life of Torah.

The word Teshuva, as everyone knows, means “return”, and it is translated into English as “repentance”. But let us explore the origin of this word.

The root “shuv” from which “Teshuvah” and all related words derive, appears for the first time in Bereshit 3:19:

בזעת אפיך תאכל לחם עד שובך אל-האדמה כי ממנה לקחת כי-עפר אתה ואל-עפר

The origins of Teshuvah are borne out in the Tefillah of this season. In the Yom Kippur Tefillah we say: “I am dust in my lifetime – how much moreso in my death?” And this draws us back to the Rambam’s pasuk. The twinned notions of birth and death, of creation and annihilation inhabit the concept of Teshuva. It is much to take on, much to confront, and much to bear responsibility for, as partners in G-d’s Creation, but Teshuvah is the process whereby we transform the world. Indeed, Teshuvah is fundamental to Tikkun ‘Olam, to our ongoing role in Maaseh Bereshit – the continuous and ceaseless Act of Creation. And so too it is at every moment fundamental to Torah, to what is unique to Judaism.

Teshuvah is not a “return”, in the sense of coming back to the starting point. Life flows not in circles, but in spirals. Sometimes Ch”VeSh” we return to a place lower than where we started out, sometimes BS”D to a much higher place. But the nature of life is that we never, never come back to exactly where we were before. It is the famous Socratic paradox – Plato’s spoof of Heraclitus: Change is the only constant in the world, and we are very much of this world. To Heraclitus’ statement that one can not step in the same stream twice, Socrates counters: No – you can not even step in the same stream once. But we are Torah-ists, not Platonists or Socratics. And through the process of Teshuvah, we ourselves effect a constant change in the Cosmos. Meanwhile, through our relationship to HKB”H, we inject a constant – nay, an Eternal – into the dialogue.

Rav Kook points to the course of nature itself as the evolutionary process whereby, sooner or later, we must come to the transformative process of Teshuvah. To return to our philosophers: the stream is a natural phenomenon. But in fact, the argument whether one can step into a “same stream” once – or not at all – is itself meaningless. We need neither Torah nor Greek philosophy to teach us that Change is constant in the universe. What Torah demands of us is not change, but transformation. The stream is G-d’s, and in that, it is profoundly unchanging. It is the nature of the stream to constantly change, but it is our duty to transform the stream by stepping into it. We are G-d’s deputies, the Divine placeholder on Earth. We are the catalyst whereby the world is made whole.

My first teacher and Rav, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, taught me that the task and destiny of Klal Israel is summed up in the Aleinu prayer, which we say three times a day: Le-taqen ‘olam be-malchut Sha-k-ai – to repair the world in the kingship of the Almighty. As Jews, our primary role is to transform the world and sanctify it. We take an animal skin and make it into a Sefer Torah. We take candles and a glass of wine and use them to bring palpable sanctity down from Shamayim to the earth. We take Saturday and turn it into Shabbat. As the things of this world of Time, Space and Motion move along according to their nature, Teshuva opens the way for us to perform Tikkum ‘Olam. It is the means whereby Torah brings us to active participation in the natural process whereby we grow, flourish, then decay and die, ultimately to return to the dust. If we live without Teshuva, we are victims of life, and we will become part of the dust.

[Rambam: Hilchot Teshuvah: Perek 5, Paragraph Aleph (translating freely)] Permission is given to each human: if the person wishes to turn himself towards the good path and be a Tzaddik – the permission is in his hand. And is she wishes to turn herself toward the bad path and be a wicked person [Rasha’] – the permission is in her hand. This is that which is written in the Torah: “Thus the Human will become like one of us, to know Good and Evil.” [Bereshit 3:22] As it is said: Thus, this Species of Humanity is unique in the world and there is no other species that resembles it in this matter: that the Human being is sufficient unto itself, in its knowledge and in its thinking, to know what is Good and what is Evil and to do all which it desires, and there is none to withhold the hand of a human being from doing either Good or Bad. Therefore it says thus: “Lest he put forth his hand…”

When we die, we shall return to the Earth and deconstruct our human selves back into the chemical components. Back, as Rambam says (in Holchot Yesodei Torah, chapter 4), into the Elements from which we are constructed. But if we live in the world of Teshuva, then we have the opportunity to enter into a creative partnership with HKB”H, and our return to dust will be an important transition in our own project of being Metaken ‘Olam be-Malchut Sha-k-ai. Indeed, we can say that our lives do not merely end at the moment where we revert to dust, but we build our own ‘Olam Ha-Ba in the form of the legacy we fashion in the way we live our lives. Thus, Plato appears to have gotten it the wrong way around. It is not the river which is either changing, or constant, or constantly changing – or changingly constant. Rather, it is G-d and Torah which are eternal. Everything else – including our own lives – is fundamentally illusory. The human mind is not capable of grasping the notion of G-d the Unchanging. So that, by analogy, we believe that we are the constant – that the river is in flux. And yet, to the extent that, through the process of Teshuva and working constantly on ourselves, we manage to live a life of Torah, then we can become the constant, regardless of how many streams we step in in the course of our lives.

It is this transformative process that our Pasuk points to:

ראה נתתי לפניך היום את-החיים ואת-הטוב ואת-המות ואת-הרע

[Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah, Perek 5, Paragraph 3] And this matter [free choice] is a great principle and is a pillar of the Torah and of the Mitzvot, as it is said: “Behold, I have placed before you today Life and the Good, and Death and the Bad.” And it is written: “Look, I place before you today a Blessing and a Curse.” As it is said: For the permission is in your hands, and let every person doo all that a person wishes to do, that is within the power of a human being to do – whether that person’s actions be good or bad. And regarding this matter it is said: “Who can be sure that their heart will remain…?” As it is said: For the Creator does not force people, nor does the Creator decree regarding them, to make them do Good or Evil – rather, all is given over to humans.”

How do we choose “life and the good”? Rav Soloveitchik discusses Rambam’s two aspects of faith: (On Repentance, p. 129 ff) ‘When speaking of the existence of God, which is the content of the first positive commandment, he [Rambam] declares, in Sefer Hamitzvot (“Book of Commandments,” which is in the way of an introduction to the Mishne Torah), that we are commanded “to believe in the Divine”; on the other hand, in the “Laws of the Principles of Faith” in the Mishne Torah, Maimonides does not use the same word “to believe” (le-ha’amin) but rather the word “to know” (lei’da). He writes thus: “The foundation and mainstay of all wisdom is to know (lei’da) that there is a Primary Being who is the Creator.”’

Rav Soloveitchik goes on to elaborate a theory of the Knowledge of G-d, which he introduces with the dismissive – and anyway problematic statement: “The meaning of ‘to believe’ is evident to us…”

‘Ini? Is it so?

I would suggest that a useful way to understand Rambam’s double mitzvah – to Believe in G-d, and to Know G-d – is in the realm of emotion and intellect. Belief is emotive. By definition, we believe in what we can not know. Indeed, when we believe in something, we may actually encounter it, yet never know it for what it is.

ChaZaL tell us that a child is born with only a Yetzer HaRa’ – translated as the “Evil Inclination”. Actually, the word Yetzer means: creative force; ability to form things. In its meaning of “inclination,” it is an active principle, not a predilection. Only when the child attains the age of Bat or Bar Mitzvah does the child acquire a Yetzer Tov – a “Good Inclination”. We generally view these two forces as opponents, warring with one another for control of our immortal soul, like the angel and devil sitting on cartoon characters’ shoulders and whispering in their ears “Eat the cake!” “Don’t eat the cake!”

Because the Yetzer Ha-Ra’ and the Yetzer Tov are two aspects of the soul, it is not our duty to destroy the Yetzer Ha-Ra’. Rebbe Nachman says that, if a person does not have a Yetzer Ha-Ra’, then one’s service of G-d is not complete. Rav Shlomo Carlebach brings that the ultimate wiping out of Amalek is not a military victory, not genocide, H”V, but comes about when the descendants of Amalek are sitting in the Yeshivot of Bnei Brak in Tzitzit and Pe’ot, wearing Tallit and Tefillin and learning Torah.

Together, the Yetzer Tov and the Yetzer Ra’ make up the Human Being. Karl Marx wrote with great admiration – even astonishment – of the boundless creativity of the Bourgeoisie, even as he was mapping their destruction. For, though he regarded the Bourgeoisie as a malignant force, his hope was that their creative powers would be harnessed for social good. Similarly, it is our job to harmonize the Yetzer Ha-Ra’ with the Yetzer Tov, harnessing the dynamic power of the Yetzer Ha-Ra’ to be the driving engine for a life of Torah, in joyous subservience to the Yetzer Tov.

Belief engenders Doubt. And Doubt, in its turn, gives rise to Faith, which is the reaffirmation of Belief after it has been tested by Doubt. Faith can not thrive without a pillar of doubt to lean against for support.

It is Belief that cries out in the Selichot prayer “G-d, show us a sign!” And it is Faith that tells us that, even if we do not see it, the sign is forever there before us.

And what of Knowledge? Each day in the morning service, we say the line from Tehillim – the Book of Psalms – (147:4) “[G-d] counts the number of the stars; G-d calls them all by name.” Rambam’s primary dictum, in Hilchot Yesodei Ha-Torah, is to know that there exists a G-d. Just as Belief gives rise to Doubt, and Doubt to Faith, so does mere knowledge of the existence of G-d drive us to a need for intimacy, to a thirst for a knowledge of G-d. As HKB”H has this intimate knowledge of the world – knowing each star by name – we yearn for a direct, intimate relationship with G-d. G-d provides for us Hasgachah Pratit – Personal Divine Providence – and we offer G-d “hoda’ah pratit”, a unique relationship of thanksgiving, of praise, and of deep emotional content. This personal knowledge of one being for another is the outgrowth of the knowledge that Rambam demands of us. Belief gives rise to Faith; Knowledge gives rise to Knowing. Knowledge is the intimate inner core around which Belief wraps itself. Spiritual practice pales as Belief encounters Doubt. In order to strengthen its Faith, Belief turns to Knowledge – which for Jews is based in Halachah and Talmud Torah. It is when the Emotional and the Intellectual are reconciled and unified that we begin to attain our potential as human beings; for our selves, vis-à-vis other people, and in our relationship to G-d.

The successful combination of Belief and Knowledge rests on our ability to recognize and use our emotions – an intellectual ability and requires a lifetime of training and vigilance. We are trained to reject the notion of proceeding from our emotions as something bad; as an inferior process. Feelings are associated with an anti-intellectual strain within Judaism.

Because human beings are “Rational Animals”. What is pshat of this phrase? It is not that our Animal side is dominated by the Rational. Rather, we are animals – creatures of feeling and of instinct – and we are burdened with self awareness and the driving need to analyze and understand both our world, and ourselves. The reality is that all human motivation is driven by feelings: primary among them is the avoidance of pain; secondary is the seeking of pleasure; and mixed in and among these two major sectors of emotion are appetites, addictions, irritations, and anger. The Animal and the Rational are uncomfortable roommates occupying cramped quarters.

Feelings: le-ha’amin (to believe); middot (good personal qualities); appetites and impulses: the Yetzer Ha-Ra’.

Intellect: leida’ (to know); halachah (Torah and Rabbinic law); self-assessment and self-control; the Yetzer Tov.

Teshuvah is the act of bringing these two aspects together. Of Returning to where we belong; for we dwell all our lives in Galut – in exile. It is fundamental to the Jewish experience. Exile is the natural state of Klal Israel – an experience that has been the crux of our historical identity ever since we left Mizraim (Egypt), and to this day. Even in the city of Jerusalem, at the end of Kippur after the last shofar blast has died away, they will be singing “Le-shanah ha-ba be-Yerushalayim” – Next Year in Jerusalem…

Paradoxically, the Rabbis tell us that it is only in the Wilderness that we can hear the Word of G-d – only in the experience of Exile after the Exodus from Egypt. Ba-Midbar: In the Wilderness. Be-medaber – in the act of speaking. Galut – Exile. “Gal-ut”, the act or state of being Galui – revealed.

The result of the mystical experience of the Desert, of the revelation at Sinai, is our way of life, as embodied in the Halachah. The Halachah teaches us to reconcile our emotional imperatives with our intellectual skepticism. It is Halachah that provides a safe, controlled environment within which we can give free rein to our emotions. And ultimately, it is Halachah that enables us to strip away the layers of self-delusion and – even if only once a year – to reconnect to HKB”H in the most fundamental way humanly possible.

The period of Teshuvah is long and intense. For all Jews it starts, in one form or another, at the beginning of Elul. For Sefardim, the Selichot prayers begin then. For Ashkenazim, the shofar is sounded every morning until Yom Kippur. Tomorrow night we will eat our Seudah Mafsaqet IY”H, then we will put on our white robes and go off to shul to immerse ourselves in twenty-five hours of intense Teshuvah. If Teshuvah has been on sale, so to speak, for the past month and a half, now is the moment when the season-ending specials are brought out. In the marketplace for Teshuvah and Mitzvot, Kippur is the category-killer.

But what then?

Once we have prayed, and fasted, and filled ourselves up with the powerful feelings of the day – what then? For, then we must return to the world, and we must live through another year without the sweetness and the intimacy of these days to sustain us.

What then?

Those of us who have been attempting to follow the Daf Yomi schedule are now learning the first perek of Masechet Sukkah. It is all about measurements. The transition from the spiritual to the mundane – from standing wrapped in our tallit, surrounded by hundreds praying and swaying, singing and weeping – is eased by our passage, both physical and spiritual, through the Sukkah.

In discussing the measurements of the Sukkah, the Gemara invokes the Halachic principle of Tafasta merubbeh, lo tafasta. Tafasta mu’at, tafasta. This is not merely a Halachah; it is Aleph to living a life of Halachah.

We can become addicted to Teshuvah. To the emotional uplift of this time of year. The Kloysenberger Rebbe says: Do Teshuvah five minutes at a time. There is a reason that so many Jews attend shul only on Rosh HaShana and Kippur: it feels so good – and you can not get that same feeling any other time of year.

And so, what then?

Life is lived day by day. The Rambam is telling us: it is our choice – but look at the choice that is before us. If we strive to live in accordance with our Yetzer Tov – Chayim – Life. And if we permit our Yetzer HaRa’ to dominate – Mavet – Death. And there is the difference, right before our eyes: living the life of Torah requires effort. Living a life without Torah requires… nothing.

[Rambam, Hilchot Teshuvah – Chapter 5, Paragraph 5] There is no power within us to understand how G-d knows all creatures and all actions; but we must know without a doubt that the actions of an individual are in the hand of the individual, and G-d neither drags a person, nor decrees regarding a person, to do as the person does. And this this is not known merely from religious tradition, but it is also clearly explained in the words of Wisdom traditions [Philosophy], that all are judged according to their actions qua actions: whether they be good or bad – and this is the crux upon which depend all words of prophecy.

Rav Shlomo Carlebach has a teaching on Shimi Atzeret, with the prayer for rain – Tefillat Geshem.

We recognize that the Sukkah is – not the outside world, but the Prozdor, the vestibule to the outside world – and we are taking the holiness that we have stored up during the previous two months, and preparing to bring it into the world. Into our daily lives.

And in the real world, what is our Torah duty? Le-taqen ‘olam be-malchut Sh-k-ai. This is not just clever homiletics; it is a Halachah straight from Shulchan Aruch. Ma she-efshar letaken – metaken! If it’s possible to fix something, you have to fix it.

How do we Metaken? Not by grand and sweeping emotional gestures; not only by deep and Gevaldig spiritual experiences, but through Halachah, one small step at a time. The Month of Elul. Rosh HaShana. Yom Kippur. All of these charge our batteries – but we tend to spend that charge all too quickly, rather than storing it up to run the engine of our soul for the rest of the year. Shlomo says – mashiv ha-ruach u-morid ha-geshem? It’s not about the weather. It is about people going from the intense high of emotional holiness, to the mundane but very necessary daily routine of sanctification through Halachah. Mashiv ha-ruach – the Ruchni, the Spiritual is blown away. Morid ha-geshem. The Gashmi – the physical – comes down to earth. With a thud.

And what then?

Torah – Judaism – Yiddishkei – are ultimately about the drawing together of what has been estranged, about the reconciliation of seeming opposites. Because that’s all they really are: Seeming opposites. Chassidim and Misnagdim. Ashkenazim and Sefardim. Klal Israel and G-d.

The child does not have a Yetzer Tov, but is in the grip of the Yetzer Ha-Ra’ – is a creature of pure appetite and desire. Indeed, we define “childish” behavior as the inability to stand having one’s desires thwarted; as the inability to postpone gratification. “Adult” behavior is exactly the opposite. It is the ability to temper feeling with reason – ultimately, ideally, to do so without engendering anger and resentment. We call this “maturity”.

In the mature individual, where both Yetzer Tov and Yetzer HaRa’ have a home, the two Yetzrim pass through cycles. Now this one dominates the other, now the other dominates. In the mature adult, these forces rarely are at outright war with one another; rather, they interact. They hand over dominance to one another. They tag-team the domination of our soul. And remember that the word Yezter, insofar as it means “Inclination”, is inherently a creative force. It is the essence of our created-ness The Creative Force for Bad, and the Creative Force for Good.

And so we pray: ve-chof et yitzri le-hishta’abed lach – “… and force my Yetzer to serve you…”

Why do children below the age of Bat or Bar Mitzvah not fast on Yom Kippur? Indeed, if they do fast for the purposes of Chinuch – education – it must be up to a point where they feel good about the experience, and not to the point where they become overwhelmed by physical suffering. The Yetzer Ra’ is pure appetite. Yet, physical hunger can be tempered by other appetites: by the good feeling the child gets from knowing that her parents, and the other adults in the community, look with approval on the child’s attempts to fast, and that the child will be praised for these efforts. This is pure Yetzer HaRa’ at work. But see, that it is in the service of the Yetzer Tov. Indeed, when the child attains the age of Halachic majority, she or he is said to possess the ability to use the Yetzer Tov to convert the rumblings of the Yetzer HaRa’ to the good.

Let us return to the problematic origins of the word Teshuvah. For there is one final aspect that we have not touched on. We must take the dust of which we are formed and sanctify that, too.

And what is this Dust? The Pasuk we quoted above is actually the second mention of the word “’Afar” – Dust – in Torah. The first mention is at Bereshit 2:7.

וייצר ה" אלקים את-האדם עפר מן-האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חים

“And G-d the L-rd fashioned the Human dust from the earth and blew into the Human’s nostrils the soul of life…”

Here is our first encounter with the Dust. It is our first, and closest encounter with HKB”H. It is our most intimate contact with G-d. The Ba’al Ha-Tanya says that the “blowing” in this verse is not mere huffing and puffing, but – like the Ba’al Tokeiah, the Shofar Blower, putting the very last dregs of breath into the wordless cry for G-d’s mercy – he equates this “blowing” to G-d digging deep into G-d’s own innermost essence and imparting of that very essence to humans. If this is the dust from whence we came, then returning to that state becomes the very highest fate and destiny we could pray for.

And now we know, by the way, why Moshe Rabbeinu’s birthday is mentioned. We Jews observe the anniversary of the death of our loved ones. In Yiddish, it is called Jahrzeit, Season. In Hebrew, the anniversaries of those who are great in Torah and Mitzvot are called Hillulah – Celebration. Because our job is not merely to be born into this world. Rather, it is to live our lives in such a way as to transform the world. Shlomo Carlebach says that when we die, we are led into a dark room. Before our eyes, two movie screens light up. On one screen, we see the film of our life the way HKB”H intended us to live. On the other screen, we see the life we actually lived. If the two movies are the same, that’s Heaven.

Moshe Rabbeinu, at the end of the Torah, is given the special honor of having his birthday recorded, as well as the day of his death. Unlike Pharaoh – whose sole duty was to be born into this world – Moshe had to struggle and strive every moment to maintain his personal Madrega – his own level, his lofty standards, both as a leader of his people, and as a person working hard at his relationship with G-d. The Torah is telling us that, in Moshe’s case, both movies are the same. No human being could aspire to any greater outcome.

This Yom HaKippurim, may we be Zocheh to embrace, and to return to the Dust from whence we came. It is the moment we come to be. The irreplaceable and unrepeatable moment of our first, and purest, encounter with G-d. Never again will we be on more intimate terms with our Creator. Yet – and here is the profound message, the true secret of Teshuvah. The ability of Teshuvah is to reconstruct ourselves, to strip down all that we have accrued unnecessarily, all the Falsehoods we have taken on, the lies we have become, or merely the mistakes we have made, and made ourselves believe that we have to live with them. Other peoples believe that they do something wrong, then they sincerely repent. Yesterday, I did something bad. Today, I repent. Now yesterday’s actions have been put in a box and they never need be looked at again. Forgive and forget.

Not so in the world of Torah. As Rav Soloveitchik points out, the process has the astonishing effect of re-creating who we are.

[Soloveitchik on Repentance; Pinchas Peli: Page 35] Repentance creates and shapes time – in all its tenses – and gives it an image and character in the order of future-past-present. The past returns to life in the light of the future. Occasionally, life is short – as in the case of the dry bones resurrected by Ezekiel in the Valley of Dura who, according to one opinion among the Sages (Sanh. 92, b), stood on their feet, sang for a short while and immediately returned to the dead. In this case, though the penitent revisits his sinful past, in his confrontation with it he immediately uproots and destroys it, thoroughly erasing it from his personality.

It is the first prayer with which we start each day: the opening Berakhot of the Arvit service, the evening prayer: We invoke G-d as me-shaneh ‘ittim u-mechalif et ha-zemanim… G-d who “alters around times and interchanges the seasons…” Each day, our first act of awareness of G-d is the knowledge that G-d determines the course of nature. That the most fundamental and fixed aspect of nature – the cycles of night and day, of day and year and season and time itself and the very passing of human lives – all this, which appears to us as so fixed and immutable – all is at the constant will of HKB”H.

And we are given the ability to partner with G-d to change that, even that most immutable aspect of our lives. To re-create our past.

Teshuvah enables us to roll the film backwards, to un-squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. To re-form of our two warring aspects – Rational and Animal, Tov and Ra’ – a unified and whole human being. In the Image of G-d. Through this process, we do not merely to transform ourselves, but we return to the moment we were created and re-make ourselves anew. And if you believe that G-d is distant, that G-d requires too much of us, that G-d is cold and remote and immotile – you have only to contemplate how much G-d has already given us. All that G-d requests of us is one step. Just one small step. Return to the Dust, G-d beckons, and I will be there to blow into you the breath of My very essence. The Breath of Life. The Spirit of HKB”H.

“I have run so far to be with you”, says G-d. “So very, very far. Please,” G-d is begging us, “take but one step.”

Shuvu elai ve-ashuva eleichem.

Yours for a better world -