Friday, August 26, 2005

Ekev (Archives)

The Order of the Parshah

Since Vaethanan and Ekev are both really one continuous flow, we backtrack somewhat to the end of the former. The section following the Shema focuses upon the Land of Israel, and the various temptations and dangers involved: beginning with unearned bounty—inheriting beautiful homes, vineyards, fields, and water wells “that you have not made” (6:10-11); assimilation and intermarriage with the pagan nations, and the deleterious influence bound to follow (7:1-11); on the other hand, the danger of cowardice and despairing of being able to conquer them, forgetting the promise of Divine help (7:17-26); and, finally, haughtiness, and relying solely on ones own strength: “my own strength and the might of my hand did this” (8:14-17). Intermingled with these warnings, the people are commanded to recount to their children the story of how all this happened (6:20-23; this is one of the sources for the mitzvah of telling of the Exodus on Passover night ); are reminded of the salient features of God’s providential protection during the period of desert wanderings (8:2-5); and, in general, are told of the blessings of the land, in abundant fruit and bread, water, and precious metals (8:7-10). This last is, in the narrow sense, the source for the Blessing after Meals; but, in a wider sense, to be generally thankful and aware of God’s bounty whenever experiencing the blessings of the land.

9:1-10:11: This section speaks of the sinfulness of the people, focusing particularly on the Sin of the Golden Calf; see below.

10:12 on: “And now O Israel.” Here the Torah begins summing up the overall lessons to be derived from the homiletic part of Moses’ address, with the rhetorical question, “What does God ask of you?” and a series of general commandments—”to love God … to follow in his ways... to fear him… to cling to him.” The Torah then sums up the lessons of the descent to Egypt and the Exodus, and reiterates the uniqueness of the land and, especially, the principle of reward and punishment (11:13-21). All these lead, repeatedly, to exhortations to keep the commandments of the Lord, culminating in the law code proper: “These are the laws statutes and laws…” (12:1; the beginning of Re’eh).

The Golden Calf Revisited

Special emphasis is placed in this portion, which begins with the sins of the people generally, on the sin of the Golden Calf (9:8-10:11, with two short asides in 9:22-23 and 10:6-9). As we already mentioned, one of the central and most interesting problems in understanding the Book of Deuteronomy derives from its special character as “Mishneh Torah”—a repetition or review of the Torah. There is much repetition, paraphrase, abridgement, and retelling of themes and stories and laws from the four earlier books of the Torah. The perennial question, in each case, is: Why does Devarim retell the earlier sections as it does? What does it choose to select, what does it choose to omit, and why?

A comparison of the manner of relating the incident of the Golden Calf in this chapter with the original narrative in Exodus 32-34 is highly instructive. First of all, most of the narrative details are omitted, leaving only the bare essentials—as only would be expected. In particular, the role of Aaron is almost completely played down: he is only mentioned in passing, in one verse: “And the Lord was also enraged with Aaron on your behalf…” (9:20). Likewise the role of the Levites, the one tribe that remained faithful to God, and even led the campaign against those who worshipped the calf (Exod 32:26-29), is also not mentioned; they are, however, mentioned in an aside, “at that time God set aside the tribe of the Levites to carry the ark of the Lord, and to stand before the Lord to perform service and to bless in his name” (10:8). It seems clear that the placing of the verse here is in fact no accident, but is an oblique reference to their merit at the time of the sin of the Calf, and their consequent reward (thus it is seen by the traditional exegetes; compare there, e.g., Rashi and Ramban).

But most significant, to my mind, is the complete absence of any mention of divine compassion, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, etc. The words hesed, rahamim, hanun, nihem, etc., do not appear here even once. In Exodus, the entire drama of the Calf centers around the dialogue between God and Moses, in which Moses insists, not only that God spare the lives of the Jewish people—rather than destroy them and make him a nation in their stead—but that He demonstrate His complete forgiveness and acceptance of their atonement, by his “face” going up among them. The climax of the chapter is in the epiphany in the cleft of the Rock, where God reveals the thirteen attributes of Mercy to Moses (see what I wrote on this at length in HY I: Ki Tisa). All this is entirely missing here.

On the other hand, it is emphasized that Moses beseeched God for forty days and forty nights, eating no bread and drinking no water (these phrases are repeated four separate times within a very small number of verses). The “tablets of stone” and the ark are also given much attention. Why?

The inevitable conclusion I reach is that the Torah wishes to emphasize here the aspect of Divine sternness and anger: middat hadin. This seems, perhaps, only natural. Moses‘ purpose here is to admonish the people, to prepare them to enter into the land, and to assure that they will maintain as high a standard as possible of loyalty to God and commitment to the mitzvot. He is well aware of the numerous temptations and dangers to which they will be subject once they enter the land. At this point, he has no need to remind them that they have an “out” in the Divine mercy and forgiveness in the event that they sin. On the contrary, he wants to impress them with the dire consequences of any possible straying from the path, and frighten them with the (very real) prospect of arousing God’s wrath. It was only by virtue of Moses’ intercession that they were spared the last time. Who knows what will happen if they do so again? Their entire history is recounted to them with the repeated leit-motif : ”you have been rebellious against me in Horeb… in Taberah and Masah and Kivrot ha-Ta’avah… and when God sent you up from Kadesh Barnea to inherit the land…” (9:8, 22, 24)—in brief, everywhere and anywhere, constantly.

“If you shall surely hearken to my commandments…”

Deuteronomy 11:13-21, known as Vehaya im shamo’a, occupies a central role in Jewish liturgy, serving as the second section of the Shema, repeated twice every day. Yet it is a very difficult and problematic passage. It states, in straightforward fashion, that if the people obey the mitzvot they will enjoy all the blessings that God is capable of giving: rain in its time, abundance of grain and fodder for your cattle, etc.; while, if they go astray, God will wrath angry against them, causing the heavens to withhold their rains and the earth its abundance. This of course goes against much of human experience: cases of entire communities who were righteous, and nevertheless suffered drought and famine, or were swallowed up, enslaved, or brutally murdered, by stronger, more violent nations, are legion.

Certainly, 20th century thought by and large rejected such causality, substituting for it natural cause and effect, governed by measurable, objective, scientific laws. In our parents’ generation, there was an almost unlimited belief in the ability of science to solve almost any and every human problem—and a concomitant rejection of religious explanations, or indeed of any non-positivistic explanations of phenomenon. Today, there is greater scepticism on this count. Many of the wondrous inventions of the earlier part of the twentieth century have been shown over the course of time to have carried in their wake dangers, some of which may yet threaten the very survival of humankind on this planet. The automobile has been a blessing in the mobility it has brought to masses of people, but also the source of major new dangers to health and life: pollution, road accidents, crowding. Atomic energy, once naively believed to be a potential savior, endangers our very survival. Various forms of heavy industry have upset the world’s ecology in ways undreamed of even fifty years ago; at this point, it is apparent to all that the human race, if it continues its activities unharnessed and unfettered, is the greatest threat to the balance of ongoing harmonious life on this planet, endangering species, forests, clean water, the very atmosphere, etc., etc. Who knows today what dangers may develop in the future from more recent developments: from genetic engineering, the unlocking of the genetic code, and other related biological manipulations; from hi-tech communications—whether from the direct affects of radiation, or from the psychological effects of isolation: that it’s now possible for a person to live his/her entire life in ones own home, ordering food and all other needs via Internet; entertainment, work, some say even “virtual” relationships, all via the computer screen and the wide band. How all this will affect the human soul and psyche, no one can tell. Even modern contraception, and the “rational,” “healthy” approach to sexuality seem to have brought in their wake AIDS—as if to say, that things are not so simple.

I am not advocating a return to the 19th century, a type of neo-Luddite position which calls for smashing all the machines. Rather, I am saying that the human race, collectively, needs to learn a certain modesty, a certain scepticism about its own ability to fully understand and control its own environment. Put quite simply, nothing human is “fail-safe” or “fool proof.”

What has all this to do with Vehaya im shamo’a? I see the central message of this section as the idea that there is a divine law innate in the universe, which we violate at our own peril. Decent, ethical behavior, grounded in respect both for fellow man and for nature, enables society to survive and flourish, while unmitigated competition and struggle among individuals destroys it. I wonder whether part of what bothers many moderns in this passage is its personalistic imagery of an angry, willful God. It seems to me that this passage may be read in metaphorical terms, and that nothing essential would be changed were one to read it in terms of what the Far Eastern religions call Karma: i.e., that the cosmos is structured in such a way that all human actions have consequences, whether immediate or long-term, whether visible or seemingly unseen. Perhaps the Torah and Hazal, when speaking of the concept of hashgahah, of Divine Providence, were referring to something very similar to this—the Torah, as is its way, using human language (vakm”l).

“To Love and to Fear My Name”

These sections of the Torah (both Vaethanan and Ekev) make frequent reference to both the love and the fear of God (love: 6:4; 10:12; 11:1, 13, 22; fear: 5:26; 10:12, 20; etc.). Interestingly, the prayer Ahava Rabba, that immediately precedes the Morning Shema, contains these phrases. After referring to the different aspects of relation to Torah (“to understand and to apprehend, to hear, to learn and to teach, to guard, observe and to perform…), and asking for “illumination of the eyes” in Torah and “cleaving of the heart” to the mitzvot, there appear the words ve-yahed levaveinu le-ahavah ule-yir’ah et shemekha (“and unify our hearts to love and to fear Your Name”)

The implication here is that, at least in the case of religious service, the emotions of fear and love can and should coexist, even be complementary. Yet the interrelation of love and fear is not a simple one. At least in the case of human emotions they are in fact conflicting, even contradictory (Sifrei, Devarim §32; and see Urbach, Hazal, pp. 348-358). Fear, in human relations, can be a paralyzing emotion. The warmth, the desire for closeness and intimacy, the trust and sharing of confidences that accompany love, are hardly compatible with fear, which, if not associated with physical anxiety for ones very survival, is certainly connected to insecurity, to the unpredictableness of the other, to never knowing where you stand, to the feeling of always “walking on eggshells.”

Religious thinkers, in describing the dialectic of love and fear in relation to the Divine, also note the contradictory aspect of the two. Love is seen as the result of fascination with the greatness, the beauty and sublimity of the Creation, which makes one wish to draw near and to know the Creator. Yet in that selfsame movement, one also realizes ones own smallness, ones insignificance and inconsequential standing as a human being—and this forces one to withdraw, overwhelmed by awe-stricken fear in face of the majesty and greatness of the Divine, what Otto calls the mysterium tremendum. (Maimonides, Hilkhot Yesodei ha-Torah 2.2).

Nevertheless, in the end we have the ability to overcome this bifurcation, this seeming conflict between the two poles. The prayer ends with the words ule-yahedkha beahava, “that we may unify You in love”—as if to say, that the unity of the human heart, including the uniting of the seeming opposites of love and fear in the service of God (symbolized, according to Hasidim, in the two payot), is the prerequisite for unifying God.

Vaethanan (Archives)

Moses’ Art of Rhetoric

This week’s Torah portion (and next’s) contains some of the central affirmations of Jewish faith: the Shema; the Ten Commandments; the description of the voice heard at Sinai as “a great voice which did not stop” (5:19); the statement, read in the Aleinu and which forms the backbone of Habad ‘s mystical theology, “You shall know this day and ponder within your heart, that the Lord is God… there is no other” (4:39); “you shall fear the Lord and serve him” (10:20); and many other key phrases. But with all these central statements, it is still hard to get a handle on the portion. Last week I raised the question of order: What is the coherence, the inner logic of the sequence of subjects, within this impressive, sonorous, awe-inspiring rhetoric?

Unlike the Hertz Humash, which divides the major part of the book into three distinct speeches, I see Moses’ farewell address as essentially one long flow: from the immediate historical context of the generation entering the Land (Chs. 1-3); to the drawing of moral lessons and conclusion from that history (Ch. 4); to a brief interlude in which Moses sets up three refuge cities in the Transjordan (4:41-43; three more in Eretz Yisrael proper follow in Joshua 20:7); to a long sermon, in which Moses picks up pretty much where he left at the end of Ch. 4, invoking in every possible way the importance of observing the hukim u-mishpatim (“statutes and laws”) and mitzvot (“commandments”); and flowing from there very naturally into the actual presentation and review of those laws, without so much as a break of any sort in the text, at the beginning of Chapter 12. Rereading the text, it occurred to me that the frequent repetitions of the phrases Shema’ Yisrael (“Hear O Israel”) and Ve-‘atah Yisrael (“but now, Israel”) may be a significant key to understanding the inner flow and logic of this group of chapters. It is as if the speaker took a long breath, then turned to his audience to say: “Now listen to this; this is the essential point, the heart of the matter”; or “Now that we’ve understand that point, let’s move on to the next area.” (We are so used to thinking about ”The” Shema in 6:4, that we often fail to realize that the word itself is a kind of rhetorical flourish.)

A brief outline of those places where this phrase is used:

4:1-40: “And now Israel…”—Moses turns here from simple chronology or historical narration to drawing moral lessons. As if to say: Now that you stand at the threshold of entering the land and inheriting it, the essential thing is to be loyal to God, and this mean, first and foremost, obedience to His laws and commandments. 5:1-6:3: “Hear O Israel, the statutes and laws…” At this point Moses goes into greater detail about the Sinai experience itself: not just its uniqueness, and the absence there of any image of the Divine, but the actual contents: the way it happened (5:2-5); the actual text of “these things” (i. e. , the Ten Commandments, vv. 6-18); and the aftermath—the people’s acceptance of the law and the commandments, and the rationale thereof (5:19-6:3).

6:4 -8:20 “Hear O Israel…” the famous words which we know as “The Shema”: God’s unity, the duty to love Him, the perpetual awareness of these words, etc. The lengthy section that follows, continuing into Parshat Ekev, is focused on the new reality that will be created by entering into the Land of Israel—the numerous dangers and temptations, both external and internal, spiritual and physical, that they are likely to encounter, and how to overcome these. (We shall elaborate further on this section in Ekev)

9:1-10:11 “Hear O Israel…” This section elaborates upon the people’s propensity to sin and rebelliousness, reviewing in detail the lessons to be derived from the past—particularly those involved in the incident of the Golden Calf.

10:12-11:32: “And now, Israel..” The summing up: What does God want of you. General moral and religious admonitions

To elaborate a bit more on Chapter 4: this chapter may be viewed as a mini-sermon in its own right, containing the essence of Moses’ teaching. It begins with the motif of the mitzvot and the special relationship with God as that which distinguishes Israel from the other nations (“your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations”; see vv. 6-10). The central theme is the rejection of iconism: the people must constantly remember that they saw no image at Sinai; hence, they must not make the mistake of worshipping images of anything—male, female; animal, bird, reptile, or fish; in the heavens, on the earth, or in the water (vv. 15-19)—because God has set these apart for the pagan nations only (! - itself an intriguing theological notion). The second half of the chapter (which was selected as the reading for Tisha b’Av morning) warns the people, who are still on the “threshold” of crossing into the Land, that a time will come when they will grow old and stale, sin, go into exile, and need to undergo a process of repentance there.

A Few Brief Insights

The staunch iconoclasm of Chapter 4 returns me to a question that I had hoped to speak and/or write about for Shavuot, but did not get around to: namely, the relationship between the Second and Third Commandments. I mentioned in Parshat Yitro the strange coupling in the Second Commandment of the rejection of other gods with the prohibition against making plastic images; I suggested there that the severity of the ban on those media that appeal to the sense of sight is based upon the Torah’s fear that human beings may be too easily seduced by that which is seen, apprehended through the eye. Judaism emphasizes the ear, the spoken and heard word, the letter of language, as somehow safer and less liable to be misused in a pagan way. But having said this, the Torah nevertheless warns us: it is permitted to use names, words, to conceive of, or at least to refer to the Almighty; but we need to be very careful about its misuses as well. Therefore: “Do not raise the name of the Lord [on your lips] in vain, or falsely.” The specific halakhic application of this is to vows and oaths but, by extension, it applies to all verbal use of God’s name.

The repetition of the Ten Commandments raises a question which, in various forms, is the central exegetic problem in Sefer Devarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) generally: namely, why, when quoting or retelling incidents or laws from the first four books, does it alter things in the way it does? The change in the wording of the fourth commandment between Exodus 20:8 and Deut 5:12 from zakhor (“remember…”) to shamor (“keep the Sabbath day..) is famous, and has even been honored by mention in the first stanza of the hymn Lekha Dodi. But no less important is the rationale given for Sabbath observance. Exodus 20 states, “for six days God made the heavens and the earth, the seas and their fulness, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore He blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it”—i.e., the Sabbath serves a spiritual, theological purpose of remembrance of the Creation. Deuteronomy 5:15 says: “you shall remember that you were slaves in the Land of Egypt, and that the Lord took you out of there with a strong arm and outstretched arm…” The reason is a more practical, down to earth reason: that people require rest, a minimum of one day a week off from physical labor—as known, more than anyone, by former slaves. In brief, a social reason.

There are too many Jews who focus too exclusively on only one of these poles or the other: either entirely spiritual, religious, transcendent, theocentric in their concerns (at least as far the interpretation of Judaism is concerned); or else seeing things only through a political, cultural, this-worldly, secular lens. Religion is seen by them as at best a nice part of our heritage, but not as a serious value concern. Perhaps the tension between the two versions of the Sabath commandment is meant to hint at the essential unity and complementary nature of these two aspects. For myself, I find that being an ”Ehrlikher Yid” and a “democratic socialist” sit quite comfortably together, without any contradiction.

Yihud Hahafakhim / The Unity of Opposites

It is a truism to say that the Shema is the central credo of Judaism; that Judaism ‘s uniqueness lies, first of all, in its teaching of monotheism, expressed in the words Hashem Ehad, “the Lord is One.” But what does it mean? One cannot speak of unity without diversity, without apparent multiplicity or duality. Thus, indeed, we find in Kabbalah and Hasidism great emphasis upon meditation and reflections around the recitation of Shema: in order to apprehend God’s unity, we need to meditate deeply and profoundly, so as to see beyond the apparent diversity of the world.

There are three different levels on which this unity within diversity, or unification of opposites, is experienced in reading Shema:

1) Rashi’s comment on this verse is surprising. Rather than waxing eloquent on the theological profundities of God’s unity, he relates to the actual state of religious consciousness in the world: “Hashem, who is for now our God and not the God of the idolatrous nations, shall in the future be One… as is said ‘On that day the shall the Lord be one and his name one’ (Zech 14:9).” In short, he outlines the tension between the eschatological vision, in which the entire world will accept as self-evident the kingdom of the one God, and the present situation, in which the tiny, beleagured Jewish people are the sole bearers of this truth. (Or perhaps, more radically: on that day we too shall come to understand that we do not have exclusive claim over the Creator; that there is a Jewish form of idolatry in which we, too, remake the Root of the Universe in the image of being the god and defender of our own particular tribe; and in the future we shall come to understand that “in every place incense is offered to My Name” (Mal 1:11); and that He is in fact the god of All.)

2) A second tension present in the Shema as customarily read in liturgical settings is between the first verse, Shema Yisrael, and the Rabbinic phrase customarily appended to it in an undertone whenever recited (except on Yom Kippur): Barukh shem kevod malkhuto leolam vaed (“Blessed is the name of the glory of his kingdom for ever and ever”). Why is this verse recited in an undertone?

The usual explanation is that the Shema refers to God “as He is in Himself”—in His hidden dwelling place in the recesses of the infinite. By contrast, malkhut hashem or kevod malkhuto—God’s sovereignty, His Presence or Glory, refers to the visible manifestations of His kingdom in the concrete world. But this presence is of course not visible to the naked eye; to the casual observer, the world seems to be governed by a series of natural laws—physical, biological, and, some would add, also social, psychological, historical, etc.—that are bereft of all morality or justice, and often quite cruel. To perceive God’s rulership in such a world requires an element of deep faith, some kind of seeing beyond: more deeply, more spiritually, beyond the immediate surface of things, into the world of mystical insight.

These two verses are sometimes referred to as Yihud Haelyon and Yihud Tahton—“The Higher Unity”—i.e., the declaration of the unity of the divine as it is within itself; and the “Lower Unity,” that of God’s sovereignty over the world as it is as such. In an unredeemed world, God’s kingship is as yet unrealized; hence, the tension between the two “unities.” We shall return to this below.

3) The third tension is between the initial verse of Shema and the second verse in the biblical passage: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul/life, and with all your energy / might.” In a famous homily (Mishnah Berakhot 9.5), the Sages interpret this as referring to the various dimensions of the human personality that need to be marshaled and channeled toward the service and love of God: “all your heart” (bekhol levavkha) refers to man’s divided impulses—his spiritual, transcendent longings, and his more earthly, biological impulses and instincts; the latter, according to this Rabbinic dictum, are not to be squashed or repressed, but rather harnessed toward the service of God. “Your soul” (khol nafshekha), refers to the life impulse itself, and the willingness to sacrifice life itself, if need be, for the sanctification of God’s name—i.e., the call to total dedication. “All your might” (kol me’odekha) refers to accepting whatever God dishes out to you in life, both good and bad.

But whatever the specific meaning of each phrase, the central message is clear: the human psyche is filled with ambivalence, ambiguities, and diverse tendencies steering the person him/her in diverse directions. The real problematic in religious life is not any theological perplexity (vexing and painful as these may at times be), but the gap felt by even the most sincere believer between what he/she knows and feels in his moments of greatest insight and spiritual elevation (mohin degadlut), and the inevitable spiritual dullness and heaviness caused by the distractions and responsibilities of everyday life, which hold us back from living on these profound insights. (Martin Buber, in his book Good and Evil, has an interesting chapter in which he posits that, except in the case of extreme, “radical” evil, the source of most human evil lies in the tendency to become caught up in the whirlpool of diverse tendencies, and not to focus ones life upon the One.)

I would like to expand a bit more on the second concept of unity, and discuss two different concepts of Unity.

One concept of unity sees the world as the site of a great battle between good and evil, the separation of the holy from the unholy. This was what the Dead Sea sect referred to as the War of the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness; the same approach lies at the root of Gnosticism and Manicheanism, of the rhetoric of Christian millenarianism, and, for that matter, of almost all religious systems which divide the world into black and white. It is certainly to be heard in many Jewish sources, and is alive and kicking in the more rigid segments of Orthodoxy today. In this approach, unity will be affected in the future through the defeat of the forces of darkness and the universal reign of goodness and light.

But there is a second option. Rather than seeing the defeat of evil as the essence of the religious task, it sees the spark of divinity already present in all things; it perceives the ultimate unity immanent within the world. This is the essence of the mystical type of consciousness, which is capable of uniting opposites. Many years ago, when I was still a student, I heard Norman Lamm give a talk about Hasidism; he said that its essential difference from other streams in Judaism is in its interpretation of the phrase ein od milvado (“there is none other than Him”—Deut 4:35). Traditional religious thought thinks of monotheism in terms of the idea that God is the only god--that the deities of the pagan pantheon are false, but that there is a cosmos, a physical world, that is separate from God but created by Him and subject to Him. Hasidism, by contrast, says that there is literally nothing else in the Universe but Godliness, but immanent Divinity. The goal of mystic perception, the essential insight to which all the long and arduous training is directed, is the awareness that beyond the evil and mundaneness and banality of the world, all is God. (Inter alia, this concept forms the central theme of Sha’ar ha-Yihud veha-Emunah, “The Gate of Unity and Faith,” one of the sections of Sefer ha-Tanya, the handbook of Habad Hasidism.)

Art Green, in his book Seek My Face, Speak My Name, has a lengthy and interesting discussion of these two levels of unity. He speaks of the higher unity, Yihud ha-Elyon, as “the great Oneness that lies both within and beyond, the One that is not followed by any two, the One that knows no other.” Then there is the lower unity, “the outer gate, the one within the many… Here we encounter God’s oneness in and through the world, not despite it.” He continues: “Life is about these two truths. We realize that all around us…. are emptiness and vanity, that everything but the ultimate One is mere illusion. At the same time we know that each moment in our lives and every person and object we encounter exists through the One, as a bearer of its presence.” (pp. 6-7)

Shabbat Nahamu

A seemingly strange question that I myself asking before Tisha b’Av and on Shabbat Nahamu, the “Sabbath of Consolation” that follows it, is: In what do we seek to find consolation? Or, more bluntly, do we really want a rebuilt Temple? Looking inside myself, I find something very appealing in the image of the Holy Temple, as a kind of transcendental ideal, in which God is served in perfect holiness, purity, and sublime spiritual intention; this remote, unattainable ideal serves as a kind of Platonic model again which to measure my own religious life. The idea of this being translated into reality—of being brought face to face with the reality of a bunch of sweaty kohanim busily slaughtering sacrifices just over the next hill, who are the same ordinary Jews you might met in the marketplace of Mahaneh Yehudah (pardon my elitism), in the #4 bus, or on line in the bank or Kupat Holim—is somehow frightening. Perhaps I’m still at heart a Galut Jew, or even a crypto-Christian (a work I’m currently translating claims that the motif of the heavenly Jerusalem is essentially Christian, as opposed to Palestinian Rabbinic sources). Perhaps we don’t really want it built because it would mean confronting something imperfect, and we need to believe in some sort of avodat hashem, some sort of Divine worship, that is higher than our own.

All this, in the aftermath of Tisha b’Av, reminds me a of teaching I once heard from Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l. A verse in the Book of Ezra (3:12) states that, when the foundations of the Second Temple were laid, the young people were happy and shouted with joy, but the old people wept to remember the First Temple and its great glory, against which the new temple seemed puny and pale. (Again, the shock of contrasting the remembered ideal with reality.) He compared this to the destruction of European Jewry. “One who did not see Jews leaving shul in Vilna after Yom Kippur does not fully understand the tragedy of the Shoah.”

This in turn leads me to further reflections on the Nahem prayer (no, I’m not rambling; bear with me to the end and you’ll see my point). On Tisha b’Av night, Dr. Yael Levin Katz gave a shiur at Yakar concerning the controversy over the changing of the text of Nahem; interestingly, among the participants was the son of Rabbi Rosenfeld, late editor of the British Kinot and author of one of the new Nahem texts. Yael presented much new information about this entire issue, including other alternative texts that I had not seen previously, as well as various views opposed to any change in the existing text, including those of Rav Unterman, Rav Zvi Yehudah Kook, Rav Soloveitchik (all ztz”l), and a much younger Rav Ovadiah Yosef. My eye was particularly caught by two texts which emphasized the “desolate, mourning” Temple Mount: by Rav David Shelush of Netanya, and by an otherwise unknown figure named Yosef Ben-Brit, from the village of Hibbat Zion. The former wrote of “the mourners of your Temple and the desolate Mount Zion… upon which the children of Hagar have built their mosque,” while the latter spoke of “the Temple Mount, mournful without a Temple and without Jewish worship upon it.”

It seems to me that one of the central tensions in Tisha b’Av (as in many other aspects of our Judaism) is that between the focus on centrality of place as against the centrality of the people. This is of course an old debate, that has been going on continuously over the past thirty-odd years. I was struck that Rabbi Rosenfeld, unlike the other two mentioned, speaks in his Nahem of the Jewish people, painting a picture of “the holy city, weeping for her sons who have fallen by the sword….” I suddenly remembered that he had also written a Kinah for the Six Million (an important desideratum for Tisha b’Av, still missing in most congregations)—again, the focus being on human loss rather than on holy places.

The question, at bottom, is this: Is Tisha b’Av a day of national mourning for the Temple, or the national day of mourning of the Jewish people—for all that has happened to our people throughout its long and often pain-ridden history: Exile, Crusades, Inquisition, Pogroms, Holocaust, etc. I mentioned earlier the philosophy expressed in the poem “Mi Yitan roshi mayim”: that Tisha b’Av is the focus for all these things, on whatever day of the year they happened. Most of the kinot are not concerned with buildings or artifacts, but with people, with communities, with “young men and virgins, elders, scholars,” and their suffering and death. There are many moving descriptions of the destruction of communities during the Middle Ages, up to the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 13th century.

Even reading Eikha itself, one is struck by an interesting fact: that the vast bulk of the dirges are about the suffering of the people: their fall from dignity and comfort to hunger, starvation, filth, and a gruesome death. Chapter 3 is a soliloquy of an individual; Ch. 4 describes mostly the suffering, starvation, and ravages of the siege; Ch. 5 (the only non-alphabetical chapter) likewise captures the sufferings of the people in short, poignant strophes, referring in only one verse to the desolate Mount Zion where foxes now go about. Only in Chapters 1 and 2 is there some sort of reference to the glory that was Jerusalem, to the Temple, that it is bereft of “those coming on appointed festivals”—but even there, the human element is predominant.

I would close the circle begun with the Shema by saying that universal knowledge of God is a prerequisite for redemption—and that this must include appreciating the Divine image in another human being; even (especially?) our erstwhile enemies. My own awakening came back in 1992 while watching the Madrid conference on television. There was something about the quiet dignity of Haydr Abd el-Shafi —the older, rugged-looking doctor from Gaza—that made me see the simple human pain and suffering of the Palestinian.

Perhaps it is destined that, just as on Rosh Hashanah we read Genesis 21 on the first day and Genesis 22 the second day, so too do we first need to affect some kind of tikkun, some sort of repair, of the rift between Ishmael and Isaac—in a way that we cannot even begin to understand today—and only thereafter the tikkun of Mount Moriah. Only then: “shall the nations turn with a clear language, that they shall all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him together (Zeph 3:9) and “I shall bring them to my holy mountain and they shall rejoice in my house of prayer, for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Isa 56:7).

Friday, August 12, 2005

Tisha b'Av (Archives)

Between 17th of Tammuz and 9th of Av

The two fast days of mid-summer, that constitute the two poles of the three weeks of mourning, are seen in the Midrashic tradition as corresponding to two central moments in the sacred history of the Torah: the sin of the Golden Calf, and that of the Spies. Moses, in response to seeing the people orgiastically cavorting before the Golden Calf, smashed the first set of tablets on the 17th of Tammuz; the weeping of the people “on that night” (Num 14:1), following the grim report of the Spies, is said to have happened on the 9th of Av. These two events, each in their own way, are seen as the great archetypes for the sins of the Jewish people in all generations—and of the process of Divine forgiveness (see HY I: Ki Tisa; Shelah Lekha.

The interplay between these two events, with all their theological, psychological, and other ramifications, present a rich mine for thought and speculation. I will confine myself here to one question, and one tentative answer. Since, as everyone knows, Tisha b’Av is a far more serious, deeply mournful day than the 17th of Tammuz, we must assume that the sin of the Golden Calf, notwithstanding first appearances (for what could be worse than idolatry?), was less grave than that of the Spies. How so?

My own rather speculative answer is that the making of the Golden Calf was motivated by a spiritual impulse gone wrong. The people experienced a deep lack in wake of Moses’ prolonged absence, and felt the need to do something, to fill their longing for some transcendent guidance. In the case of the Spies, the people sank into black despair; whatever spiritual impulses they had were totally extinguished, or at least driven deep inside themselves; they gave up on all hope, on all aspiration for anything more in their lives than dragging on and on in the gray, earth-bound concerns of a purely physical existence. Thus, the midrashic tradition, in pinpointing the incident of the Spies as the root of Tisha b’Av, the “holiday” of exile, saw this as the more weighty sin.

The Rav’s Tisha b’Av

More than with any other day during the course of the year, the figure of my teacher, Rav Soloveitchik ztz”l, is associated in my mind with Tisha b’Av. Not because he was a mournful or melancholy character (although he was decidedly not given to Hasidic flights of song and dance or ecstatic prayer), but because of the unique nature of the reading of Kinot on Tisha b’Av in his presence. Essentially, Tisha b’Av was the occasion for an all-day Torah lesson, from 8 in the morning until late in the afternoon. People from all over Boston and beyond crowded into the synagogue of the Maimonides School to hear him. Following Shaharit and Torah reading, he would deliver a discourse on halakhic and philosophic aspects of the laws of the day. In his inimitable way, he would weave together halakhic motifs and underlying religious and philosophical conceptions, demonstrating how the seemingly minor details of the halakhah express profound ideas.

The Rav conceived of Kinot as essentially a form of Oral Torah, elaborating, explaining, and complementing the Biblical lessons for the day, found in the Torah reading, the haftarah, and the scroll of Aikhah (Lamentations). The Kinot themselves, dirges written by Byzantine and Medieval Hebrew poets, such as those of Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kallir, are an artful interweaving of midrashic motifs and biblical verses. While reading the Kinot, the Rav would stop between each one, or at times after each stanza, to explain, elaborate, narrate, philosophize, polemicize, etc. The Rav seemed to have a particular affinity for the piyyut literature, which many Jews find impenetrably dense and difficult. Someone once asked the Rav what book he read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur during lulls in the davening, expecting him to name some Mussar (ethical) treatise or perhaps some work of Maimonides. The Rav replied, “the Mahzor,” explaining how these Medieval poems were vehicles of Oral Torah.

A few gleanings from those occasions. In an halakhic analysis delivered one year, the Rav explained how Tisha b’Av is a unique combination of ta’anit tzibbur (public fast day) and avelut (a day of mourning). The basic rules of the fast day: its parameters from dusk to nightfall, the prohibitions of eating, drinking, washing, wearing shoes, etc, are all characteristic of the more stringent public fast days—whether of Yom Kippur, its biblical archetype, or the seven latter fast days for drought years mentioned in Mishnah Ta’anit. On the other hand, it is a day of intense mourning. The Rav explained avelut—whether for personal bereavement over loss of a member of ones intimate family, or the collective mourning of Tisha b’Av—as a sense of alienation, of distance from God, even of confronting dark, nihilistic thoughts. Tisha b’Av is in essence not a day of prayer: one recites the mandatory daily prayers because they are required, but unlike other fast days it is not a day of prayerfulness, reflecting a living, vital sense of contact with God. On that day, we do not feel God’s presence or His attentive listening; the mottos of the other fast days or of the Ten Days of Repentance, “Seek the Lord when he is to be found” or “Who is like our God, in all our crying out to Him?” do not apply here. Hence, on Tisha b’Av there are no Selihot (penitential prayers), no recitation of the 13 attributes of mercy, no Avinu Malkinu, etc. Instead, the byword is satam tefilati—“Even when I call and cry for help, my prayer is shut out” (Lam 3:8)—which the Rav interpreted as a halakhic concept. (Consistent with this view, he did not even allow the recitation of a Mi sheberakh laholeh, the special prayer for the sick, on Tisha b’Av)

From here, he turned to the concept of theodicy. He saw Tisha b’Av as the one day of the year when one is allowed to ask even the most daring questions of God: “lehatiah devarim klapei ma’alah.” According to the Rav, this is derived from the Book of Eikhah, read on that day. The very title of the book, “eikhah,” is not only a statement but a question: “How?” Interestingly, this word serves as a leitmotif, repeated twice (or thrice) in the liturgy for Shabbat Hazon, the sabbath preceding Tisha b’Av, as a kind of foreshadowing of the day itself. In the Torah reading Moses asks “How can I bear alone your trouble and burden and strife?” (Deut 1:12); and in the haftarah: “How is the faithful city become as a harlot” (Isa 1:21)—in both cases, the verse being read in the elegiac melody of Lamentations. Many of the kinot are also built upon the word eikhah or other key words from the book, which they utilize as a precedent, as a kind of basis for asking penetrating, searing questions. This may be observed, for example, in the kinot “Ai -Koh Omer” and “Atah amarta haiteiv aitiv imakh.”

Radical Theology of Tisha b’Av

Thus far the Rav. Extrapolating from this in a somewhat more radical direction, I would describe Tisha b’Av as a day marked by dialectic tensions. On the one hand, in its aspect of ta’anit tzibbur, of public fast day, it is marked by the motif of Teshuvah, of returning to God, and by implication also of tzidduk hadin, of accepting the rightness of God’s harsh judgment. This is akin to the traditional approach that “because of our sins we were exiled from our land”— that all the terrible things that happened to the Jewish people (including those attached to Tisha b’Av by extension ) are ultimately our own fault. On the other hand, in its aspect of avelut, of mourning, it may be interpreted as a day when we look into the void, confronting the emptiness, the apparent senselessness and meaninglessness of the tragic events of life. One is allowed to ask “why?”—to openly declare that there are things that don’t make sense; that the world, that various occurrences in life, that many of the events in Jewish history, do not square with what the Good Book says. As Judaism runs the full gamut of human emotions and of human experiences, so too even this nihilistic, doubting, “irreligious” mood has its place in the annual cycle.

From this perspective, the third chapter of the Book of Lamentations makes new sense. The other four chapters are elegiac descriptions of the fallen glory of Zion, describing in stately cadence how the young men and virgins who walked about in finery, and the prophets and Nazirites and priests who lived lives of holiness and dignity, were reduced to rags and worse. Chapter 3, by contrast, is a Job-like soliloquy of a single individual. It runs the gamut of emotion, from feeling pursued by God—“He is a bear, a lion, lying in ambush for me in secret” (3:10); “he has set me as the mark to his arrow” (v. 12), etc.—to a sudden change in mood, in which the narrator is filled with confidence, trusting in the very God who had seemed an enemy: “The loving-kindness of the Lord is never done, his mercies are endless; they are new every morning… the Lord is good to those who wait upon him” (vv. 22-27), etc. This is in turn followed by a call for self-examination and teshuvah, turning to God, lifting up ones heart in wholehearted confession and repentance (vv. 40-42). But then again, “You have wrapped yourself in a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through” (v. 44). The same good, merciful God is now portrayed in a state of hester panim, of hiding Himself from man. In brief, this chapter is a kind of spiritual diary of a religious man, stricken by overwhelming suffering, whose heart is filled with questions and doubts, wondering whether there really is a God out there who listens and cares and responds to his troubles, or whether He behaves in capricious, cruel, even monstrous ways.

An interesting reflection on a newly relevant side-aspect of this issue of theodicy: whether one piously accepts God’s judgment or shakes ones fist at heaven and cries out “Why?”, these questions are of vital importance for Jews. For Jews, unlike Buddhists, the option of radical quietism is not a live option, because the world, and life, are not illusory, but are very real. Perhaps it is in the confrontation with these types of questions, most of all, that the ways of Judaism and the mystical, quietistic religions of the Far East part ways.

Since writing these words, there has been a great tumult over Rav Ovadiah Yosef’s remarks that the victims of the Holocaust were reincarnation of sinners of past generations, who thereby atoned their outstanding sins. The vehement secularist reaction, while understandable, seems to miss the point of Rav Yosef’s remarks. Rav Ovadiah was trying to come up with some sort of explanation for the most difficult, vexing problem for Jewish religious thought and, at least in theory, his position cannot be ruled out as a possible option. My objection to it is on two other grounds: First, “Sages, be careful with your words.” A discussion of such an esoteric, not to say sensitive, issue was totally inappropriate for a public lecture to a mass audience, particularly one broadcast live far beyond the confines of his Beit Midrash. “Hanei kavshei derahmana lamah li?” The traditional attitude is one of extreme hesitance and circumspection about discussing the details of God’s conduct of the world, what happens to each individual after death, etc. If he must, let him write an article in a Rabbinic journal. Second, his statement that these matters are “fundaments of the faith” and that anyone who denies them is a heretic is simply incorrect and wrongheaded. Rav Yosef Albo says that we must believe, in a general way, in Divine justice and in recompense for our actions. But whether these things are done in this world, in an afterlife through Heaven and Hell, or through reincarnation in the form of fish, snakes, cats, Polish Jewish children, or Chief Rabbis—who dare say? The Rambam’s remarks in the final chapter of the Mishneh Torah vis-a-vis eschatology: “One should not engage overly much in speculations on these matters, as they lead neither to love of God nor to fear of God… but one must only believe in them in a general way, and we shall not know how they will happen until they happen” may be applied equally well to these matters.

Shlomo Carlebach also used to talk about the Holocaust and the reincarnation or transmigration of souls, but in a very different vein. He claimed that the children of the generation born after the Holocaust, many of whom became student radicals, hippies, flower children, and “Holy Beggars,” were reincarnations of the victims of the Holocaust; after the horrors they experienced, they were filled with idealism and a burning desire for a better, purer, different sort of world. He of course exaggerated in the opposite direction, but what a difference!…

“…The Ruined and Desolate City…”

We wrote earlier (see Archives: 17th of Tammuz)of the movement to change certain aspects of the mournful seasons in Judaism following the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967. One of the focii of this movement was the Nahem prayer recited on Tisha B’Av afternoon. The traditional text speaks of “the city that is in mourning and in ruins, despised and desolate... without her children... like an abandoned woman... ruined by legions, inherited by Gentiles...” etc. —statements that are today patently untrue. We have attached here three attempts to create new versions of this blessing, more accurately reflecting the present reality: one, compiled by Prof. Efraim Urbach together with his late son Abraham, based upon sources from the Jerusalem Talmud, from the Siddurim of R. Amram Gaon and R. Saadya Gaon, from Maimonides, as well as the Italian and Yemenite rites; a second, by the late Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who in 1967 was Chief Rabbi of the IDF; and a third, by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld, in the Authorized Kinot, intended for British Jewry, published with the blessing of late Chief Rabbi Brodie. In addition, R. Hayyim David Halevi ztz”l, Chief Sephardic Rabbi of Tel Aviv, wrote in a responsum that one should not use the old text, because one is speaking falsehood before the Almighty.

תפילת נחם לתשעה באב

הנוסח המסורתי

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים ואת העיר האבלה החרבה, הבזויה והשוממה, האבלה מבלי בניה, החריבה ממעונותיה, הבזויה מכבודה, והשוממה מאין יושב. והיא יושבת וראשה חפוי כאשה עקרה שלא ילדה. ויבלעוה לגיונות, וירשוה עובדי זרים ויטילו את עמך י'ראל לחרב, ויהרגו בזדון חסידי עליון. על כן ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, כי אתה ה' באש הצתה, ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה. כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.

נוסחאות שתוקנו בשנת תשכ"ז בעקבות שחרור ירושלים

.1. נוסח שחובר ע"י פרופ' אפרים א. אורבך ז"ל ובנו אברהם אורבך הי"ד. מבוסס על תלמוד הירושלמי, סדור רב עמרם גאון, נוסח איטליה, נוסח תימן והרמב"ם.

רחם ה' אלקינו ברחמיך הרבים ובחסדיך הנאמנים

עלינו ועל עמך ישראל ועל ירושלים עירך, הנבנית מחורבנה, המקוממת מהריסותיה, ומיושבת משוממותיה; על חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון ועל עמך ישראל שהוטל לחרב, ועל בניו אשר מסרו נפשם ושפכו דמם עליה. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על חלליהם, והעיר אשר פדית מידי עריצים ולגיונות. ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירושה הורשת. פרוש עליה סכת שלומך כנהר שלום, לקים מה שנאמר: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.

2. נוסח שחובר ע"י הרב שלמה גורן זצ"ל, שפורסם ע"י הרבנות הראשי לישראל בשנת תש"מ בהוראה "שיש לאומרה… [כ]הולם את מצבה של עיר הקודש ירושלים כיום" (מבוסס על תלמוד הירושלמי, סדור רב עמרם גאון והרמב"ם).

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים
ואת העיר האבלה החרבה ההרוסה ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על הרוגיהם, ולישראל עמך נתת נחלה ולזרע ישורון ירושה הורשת. נערה ה' אלקינו מעפרה והקיצה מארץ דוויה. נטה אליה כנהר שלום וכנחל שוטף כבוד גויים. כי אתה ה' באש הצתה ובאש אתה עתיד לבנותה. כאמור: ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.

3. נוסח שחובר ע"י הרב אברהם רוזנפלד ז"ל ופורסם בסדר הקינות של איגוד בתי הכנסת של בריטניה, באישור של רב הכולל הרב ישראל ברודי זצ"ל

נחם ה' אלקינו את אבלי ציון ואת אבלי ירושלים

ואת העיר הקדושה המבכה על עמך ישראל אשר הוטל לחרב, ועל חסידי עליון שנהרגו בזדון, ועל גבורי ישראל שמסרו נפשם על קדושת השם. ציון במר תבכה וירושלים תתן קולה, לבי לבי על חלליהם, מעי מעי על הרוגיהם, אבינו שבשמים, נקום את נקמת עירך אשר נתת לנו לנחלה, וקבץ את שארית ישראל מכל הארצות אשר הדחת אותם שם, וישבו בה, וחרם לא יהיה עוד, כאמור: פרזות תשב ירושלים מרב אדם ובהמה בתוכה. ואני אהיה לה, נאם ה', חומת אש סביב ולכבוד אהיה בתוכה. ברוך אתה ה' מנחם ציון ובונה ירושלים.


Traditional Text

Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mourning, ruined, despised and desolate: mourning without her sons, ruined without her dwellings, despised, [being bereft of] her glory, and desolate without her inhabitants; and she sits with her head covered, like a barren woman who has not given birth. And she is despoiled by legions, and idolators inherit her, and they place your people Israel to the sword, and brazenly kill supreme saints. Therefore Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice: My heart, my heart [aches] for their slain, My innards, my innards [ache] for their slain. For you, O Lord, have ignited here with fire and You shall in the future rebuild her with fire, As is said: “And I shall be to her, saith the Lord, as a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art You, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

New Texts Composed in 1967 after the Unification of Jerusalem

1. Version composed by Prof. Ephraim E. Urbach and his son Abraham; based upon the Jerusalem Talmud, Siddur Rav Amram Gaon, Rav Saadiah Gaon, the Yemenite and Italian rites, and Maimonides:

Have mercy, O Lord our God, With your great compassion and your faithful lovingkindness, Upon us and upon your people Israel and upon Jerusalem your city, Rebuilt from its ruins, arisen from its rubble, and resettled from its desolation. Upon the supreme saints who were brazenly killed, and upon your people Israel who were placed to the sword, and upon its sons who gave their lives and spilled their blood for her. Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart [aches] for their slain, My innards, my innards [ache] for their slain. And as for the city which You have redeemed from the hands of arrogant ones and legions, And to your people Israel you gave a possession, and to the seed of Jeshurun you gave an inheritance Spread over it the sukkah of your peace, like a river of peace, to fulfill what is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

2. Version composed by ITF Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren, appearing in an announcement published by the Israel Chief Rabbinate in 1980, with the heading “that is to be said… as suiting the situation of the holy city Jerusalem today”; based upon the Jerusalem Talmud, Rav Amram Gaon, and Maimonides:

Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is mourning, ruined, and destroyed: Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart [aches] for their slain, My innards, my innards [ache] for their killed. And to your people Israel you gave a possession, and to the seed of Jeshurun you gave an inheritance. Shake it, O Lord our God, from the dust, and awaken it from its sorrow, Stretch over it the honor of nations like a river of peace and a running stream, For you, O Lord, have ignited here with fire and You shall in the future rebuild her with fire, As is said: “And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

3. Version composed by Rabbi Abraham Rosenfeld z”l, published in the Authorized Kinot for the Ninth of Av of the United Synagogue of Great Britain (Jerusalem, 1970), with the sanction of the Chief Rabbi Emeritus, Sir Israel Brodie z”l:

Comfort, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the holy city that is weeping for the people Israel who were placed to the sword, for the supreme saints who were brazenly killed. and for the mighty ones of Israel, who gave their lives for the Sanctification of the Name. Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem lets forth its voice. My heart, my heart [aches] for their slain, My innards, my innards [ache] for their slain. O Father in Heaven, avenge Your city that You have given us as an inheritance, And gather the remnants of Israel from all the lands where You have dispersed them, That they may dwell there, and there shall no longer be extermination, as is said: “Jerusalem shall be inhabited as an open city, for the many people and animals therein. And I shall be to her, says the Lord, As a wall of fire around, and I shall be for glory within her” [Zech 2:8-9]. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who comforts Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem.

Devarim (Archives)

Getting a Handle on the Parshah

And so we begin the last of the five Books. At first glance, the Book of Deuteronomy seems more straightforward and in a sense simpler than the other books; yet there are in fact many baffling aspects to it. Sefer Devarim is essentially different from the other books: it is neither narrative, like Genesis, the first 24 chapters of Exodus, and much of Numbers; nor systematic presentation of a series of laws in different areas, one after another, like Leviticus. Essentially, it is a prime example of the art of rhetoric: Moses’ final address to the people before his death.

Like many of my contemporaries, I grew up with the Hertz Humash, which divides the major part of this book into three sections, three great farewell speeches of Moshe Rabbenu: a historical review (1-4:40); exhortation to the observance of the covenant and its mitzvot, with the deriving of didactic lessons from the people’s history (5-11); and a codex of laws, containing both a capsule summary of those laws already given, and a considerable number and variety of new laws (12-26). The last eight chapters of the book contain various covenantal ceremonies and admonitions, the Song of Moses, and final words and deeds up to and concluding in Moses’ death. Today, I would question this facile classification, at least as a hard and fast division into three separate speeches. There is more of a sense of one thing flowing naturally from another: the history in the opening chapters and intermittently later is not presented as an end in itself, but as historiography, the writing of history with an implied interpretation, geared towards a specific purpose; the laws, in turn, follow naturally as the focus of the general exhortation that precedes it.

In any event, the question which most interests me (as in Numbers, but in a different way) is: Why is this book presented as it is? What are the salient themes? What is the logic of the internal order? In Vaethanan and Ekev, our task will be to try to get some handle on its sonorous, poetic rhetoric. But in Parashat Devarim itself, there is another basic question: following the introductory verses (which are themselves very interesting, giving a series of strange and previously unknown place names as the alleged locale for this farewell address; Rashi’s interpretation of this as shorthand for the locale of their sins is classic), the historical review begins with events immediately following the encampment at Horeb: “and God said to you… ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (1:6). If this is a historical review intended to serve a didactic purpose, why does it so conspicuously skip the two central events in the history of that generation—the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai? Instead, it plunges straight into a detailed recounting of the events in the desert emphasizing, on the negative side, the incident of the spies and, on the positive side of the balance sheet, the battle with Sihon and Og. It also goes into great detail about all sorts of folklore and ethnographic matters: the description of Og’s enormous iron bed, and where it can be seen (3:11); the respective names given to Mount Hermon by the Sidonites and Amorites (3:9); which nations lived in the land of the Ammonites before them, and who called them Rephaim and who called them Zamzumim (2:20); etc., etc. Only much later, in Chapter 4, and at greater length in the more didactic Chapters 5-11, does the Torah return to the central events of the Exodus and Sinai and, lehavdil, the great “fault-line” of the Sin of the Golden Calf.

The only answer that makes sense to me (and I haven’t seen this issue discussed anywhere) is that Moses began with what was closest at hand to his audience—the desert experience. We must remember that he was speaking to a new generation: its oldest members were still children or at most teenagers at the time of these great events; the majority of the adults had not yet even been born, and knew these cardinal events only as legends they had heard from their parents and elders. Thus, Moses must start with explaining how they came to be in the desert in the first place, why they are wandering, and specifically the sin of the Spies, which condemned their parents to wander in the desert for forty years. The “vindicating acts of the Lord” (tzidkot ha-Shem), visible in the victories over Sihon and Og, were closer at hand, somehow more easily comprehended, than the mysterious, supernatural events at Sinai, which to them was half legend. Only after this down to earth, almost mundane introduction, was Moses able to turn to the larger issues of meaning.

Some Reflections on Language

Some thoughts on the title of the book, Devarim, “words.” The Sefat Emet (Matot, 5651, s.v. Amru Hazal) discusses the difference between Moses and the other prophets in terms of the terms used to introduce their words. Whereas the later prophets use the phrase “Koh amar Ha-Shem” (“thus says the Lord”), Moses says “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah…” (“this is the word which the Lord has commanded”). The author mentioned says that this corresponds to the difference between Creation and Revelation; on a deeper level, “saying” is an external expression of will, whereas “word” or “speech” alludes to a more inward level, to the very essence of a thing.

This comment elicits reflections about contemporary conceptions of language. Much of 20th century philosophy is concerned with issues of semiotics, the meaning of language and speech; the so-called “post-modernism,” which has become very fashionable among intellectuals over the past decade, is largely concerned with the elusive nature of meaning, which is at the very heart of language. If I understand correctly what they are saying, the dominant conception is that language is almost infinitely malleable, flowing, subjective, constantly open to interpretation. Words are seen as conventions, symbols, whose meaning is determined not only by the author or speaker, but by each reader or listener in his own subjective hearing, reacting and “intertextual” associations with to it.

This is a far cry from the traditional Judaic understanding, in which the word is the carrier, if not the very embodiment, of the Divine Will. The word itself carries power and, as Sefat Emet puts it, is the very inner essence of the thing. This is also the reason, halakhically, for the stringent rules surrounding the utterance the divine name in vain, as well as of the power attached to words in the laws of nedarim and shevuot—vows and oaths. Is the lightness with which modern linguistic philosophy takes words as such merely a byproduct of secularization, or does it bode ill for the maintenance of a modicum of seriousness and dignity in our culture?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Rosh Hodesh (Archives)

“Bring an Atonement for Me that I diminished the moon!”

As this Sabbath is also Rosh Hodesh, it seems an opportune occasion to bring a particularly strange midrash related to the New Moon—prompted by a question I was recently asked about this by my friend and loyal reader Mark Feffer. The version below is from Tractate Hullin of the Babylonian Talmud; a shorter version, with only the final section containing the halakhic “punchline,” appears at Shavuot 9a; later on we will discuss parallels in Genesis Rabbah 6.3-4. Thus, in Hullin 60b:

Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi said: Two verses contradict one another: “And God created the two great luminaries” [Gen 1:16], and it is written, “the great light... and the small light” [ibid.]. The moon said before the Holy One blessed be He: Master of the Universe, can two kings wear one crown? He said to her: Go and diminish yourself. She said before Him: Master of the Universe, because I said a proper thing before You, must I diminish myself?! He said to her: Go and rule over the day and the night. She said to Him: Of what benefit is a candle in bright daylight? Of what benefit can I be? He said: Let Israel count days and years by you. She said to Him: the day is also impossible, nor are tekufot counted according to me. As is written: “and they [i.e., both the sun and the moon] shall be for seasons and appointed times, for days and years” [ibid. 1:15]. [He said:] Go and let the righteous be called by your name—Jacob the Small [ Amos 7:5], Samuel the Small [1 Sam 2:19], David the Small [1 Sam 16:11].

The first part of this midrash is based upon an inner contradiction in the account of the fourth day of Creation: the text first speaks of “two great luminaries” and immediately thereafter of “the great luminary” and “the small luminary.” The latter pair of phrase, expressing the obvious fact of the vast difference in intensity of light between the sun and the moon, known to mankind since hoary antiquity, prompted the conclusion that in some primordial era the sun and the moon must have been equal. (Following the approach of Gerald Schroeder’s Science of God and others who try to align Genesis 1 with modern cosmogony, this might correspond to the period when the great masses of super-hot gasses formed by the Big Bang were cooling down into cohesive bodies.) The moon found this situation disquieting; it seemed to her an elemental rule of nature?/society? that there must always be one “king”: that a situation in which authority is shared by two rulers is untenable (even though here, presumably, they both knew that God was the supreme ruler over them both). The corollary would seem to be that competition, not only for material resources or for sexual partners, but for power per se, is an inevitable part of the state of nature.

Did the moon, having brought this to God’s attention, expect to be named the supreme figure in the celestial realm and for the sun to be demoted? In any event, God made her smaller, creating the situation we know today. The moon, justly piqued, complained of this, and God suggested various alternatives: that she rule (i.e., be visible) during both day and night; that the calendar be determined by her. The moon points out that neither of these solutions will work. The last answer given is perhaps the most interesting: making a virtue of smallness, noting that such biblical heroes as Samuel, David, and Jacob (i.e., the Jewish people as a whole) are in various places described as “small.” (Perhaps this is one of the ideas in the parallel in Gen Rab 6.3, where the destiny of Israel among the nations is seen as parallel to that of the moon.)

He saw that the moon was not satisfied [by all this]. So the Holy One blessed be He said to her: Bring an atonement for Me that I have diminished the moon. This is what R. Shimon ben Lakish said: What is different about the goat of Rosh Hodesh, that it is said of it, “[a sin offering] for the Lord” [Num 28:15]. The Holy One blessed be He said: Let this goat be an atonement for Me that I have diminished the moon.


Having seen that none of his suggestions mollified the moon, God instructs Israel to bring a sacrifice every Rosh Hodesh—the moon’s special day—to atone on His behalf! This is a truly bizarre-sounding idea. How can the infinite, perfect, omnipotent and omniscient God require atonement? What is going on here? To begin with, there was an exegetical problem regarding the verse in Numbers 28:15 describing the additional offering brought on Rosh Hodesh: unlike all the other Musaf offerings described throughout Numbers 28-29, which are referred to simply as “a sin offering,” here the odd phrase, hattat la-Shem, “a sin-offering for the Lord,” is used, suggesting that this offering is somehow intended to atone for wrong-doing on the part of God Himself. What sin can God have possible committed? Perhaps the idea is that there was something unjust in the very fact that He created the Universe in such a way that there must be strong and weak, rich and poor (note that, in many cultures, sun and moon symbolize gold and silver), ruler and ruled. More important: by creating all living things—animals, human beings and, by imaginative midrashic extension, even the insensate heavenly bodies—with the instinct for competition rather than cooperation, He has bears ultimate responsibility for the injustices and frustrations that must inevitably follow. Perhaps these harsh facts of life (and could the universe have been created in any other way? One reading of the Garden of Eden story is that an eternal Godlen Age was unworkable) are in fact God’s “Original Sin.”

I can only touch very briefly upon another line of interpretation, appearing both in Maharsh”a (R. Shmuel Idels of Ostraha, the most important commentator on the aggadah in the Talmud), and in the previously-mentioned midrash in Genesis Rabbah 6.3: viz. that the moon here symbolizes the Jewish people, whose historical destiny was to assume a “diminished,” politically subjugated role through much of their history. God’s counsel to the moon is also His advice to the Jews: to accept their difficult, “smaller” situation, of having only “reflected“ light in this world (which is compared to night), with a kind of philosophical resignation; and to comfort themselves, (a) with occasional periods of ascent, and (b) with the promise of messianic redemption. (I mist admit that this interpretation has perhaps more of a ring of Jewish authenticity, of peshuto shel midrash, than my existential, universal reading proposed above; but I too am a product of my own, more open historical milieu, and perhaps my reading is at least another of the seventy faces of Torah.)

An interesting footnote: Torah Temimah (on Num 28:15) quotes Maimonides in Guide III.46, where he gives rationalistic, non-mythic explanation of the phrase “a sin-offering for the Lord” that prompted this midrash: that the ancient pagans offered a sacrifice to the moon every New Moon, and in order to alleviate possible suspicion that Israel’s Rosh Hodesh also entails sacrifices to a heavenly body, the Torah specifies that it is “for the Lord”—i.e., reaffirming monotheistic theology.