Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Ekev (Midrash)

The Two Sets of Tablets

This week’s Torah portion is essentially a review of the history of Israel in the desert and the moral lessons to be derived therefrom; hence, the incident of the Golden Calf is discussed there at considerable length. The final midrash on the parsha relates to the two sets of tablets given to Moses, before and after this grave sin, and the difference between them. Deuteronomy Rabbah 3.17:

Another thing. “Hew yourself [two tablets of stone…]” [Deut 10:1]. They asked R. Yohanan ben Zakkai: Why were the first tablets made by heaven, and the second made by man? [see Exod 31:18 and 34:1]

He told them: To what may this be compared? To a king who married a woman, and he brought the paper and the scribe, he crowned her [with jewels] of his own, and he brought her into his house. When the king saw her sporting [flirting?] with one of his servants, he was angered with her and threw her out. Her bride’s man [i.e., guardian or agent] came to him and said: My master, do you not know from whence you took her? Was she not raised among servants? And since she grew up among the servants, she is accustomed to familiarities with them? The king replied: So do you wish that I become reconciled with her? You bring the paper and the scribe, and you shall have my signature.

Thus said Moses to the Holy One blessed be He when they did that act. He said to Him: Do you not know from what place you took them out? From Egypt, a place of idolatry. The Holy One blessed be He said to him: Do you wish that I become reconciled with them? You bring the tablets yourself, and here is my hand: “And I wrote on the tablets…” [Exod 34:1].

God is compared here to an ardent royal lover who falls in love with a poor girl. When they are first married, his generosity and enthusiasm knows no bounds: He makes the wedding himself, adorns her with the finest clothes and jewelry, and no doubt makes the finest banquet imaginable. He does this as a sign of his great love. He does not at all think in terms of “mine and thine”; his generosity comes from the heart, as an authentic expression of love. But then a rupture comes: the woman commits an unseemly act, possibly even one of unfaithfulness. A reconciliation is possible, with the intervention of a well-meaning friend, but an element of mistrust remains. From this point on, the man’s ardor and generosity are somewhat dampened; he begins to watch out for his own interest. The formal, business-like, contractual aspect of marriage comes more to the fore. The king is willing to forgive, but he is also cautious. The woman, or those acting on her behalf, must also show a certain initiative, starting with a certain symbolic material investment, but no doubt including spiritual input as well.

So it is between man and God. God’s original posture is that of a loving, generous father, giving to his children without limits. After the rupture (here, in the Garden of Eden, after the Flood), conciliation is possible, but it needs to be worked at, but it demands a certain price: teshuvah, ma’asim tovim, painful introspection and change, good deeds, renewed dedication to following the right path. And afterwards, things are never quite the same.

But this drama may also be read on another level. The crisis in the relations between Israel and God also bring about a greater mutuality. Because of the need to “prove themselves,” Israel are no longer in a position of totally passivity and dependence, of simply receiving and enjoying the Divine plentitude—if you will, the position of quietism, of waiting for Divine grace, the attitude that God will make whatever needs to happen, happen. Rather, man must take the initiative, through his own actions, to create vessels for holiness. Kabbalah and Hasidism refer to these postures by the terms itaruta dil’eila & itaruta dil’tata: “awakening from above” and “awakening from below.” Tablets written by God and tablets written by man may well be seen as symbolizing these two aspects. Similarly, the Sefat Emet, if I remember correctly, in many places speaks of the first tablets and the second tablets as Written Torah, which is wholly Divine, and Oral Torah, symbolizing man’s active engagement, not only in acquiring knowledge of Torah, in absorbing it and understanding it, but in actively creating, innovating and renewing within Torah. The second part of our midrash deals with another subject: the blessings conveyed upon Moses, and upon Elijah. Here, Moses and Elijah are seen as the two pivotal figures in Jewish history: the great prophet and teacher who stands at the very beginning of the Covenant, and the harbinger of the End. (Note also the sequence in Malachi 3:22-23. I find it surprising that “Remember the Torah of Moses” is not invoked here.) In any event, our midrash is based on a rather intricate play on words, quoting the relevant passages in extenso:

The Holy One blessed be He said: Moses, by your life, just as you gave your soul for them in this world, so in the future, when I shall bring them Elijah the prophet, the two of you will come together. From whence? As is written: “The Lord, long suffering and of great power, who shall not clear the guilty. His way is in a whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are as dust at his feet. He rebukes the sea, and it dries up, and He makes all the streams parched; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades” [Nahum 1:3-4]. “In a whirlwind” [sufah] alludes to Moses, as is written, “And she could no longer hide him, and she took a basket made of bulrushes, and sealed it with bitumen and pitch, and she put the child in it, and placed it among the reeds [suf] by the bank of the Nile” [Exod 2:3]. “And storm” [sa’arah] alludes to Elijah, as is said: “And they were walking along and talking, behold, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated between them, and Elijah ascended heavenwards in a whirlwind. And Elisha saw, and cried out, ‘My father, my father! The chariot of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more. And he took his clothes, and rent them in two” [2 Kgs 2:11-12]. At that time he shall come and comfort you. From whence, from what is said: “Behold, I shall send you Elijah the prophet [before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord,] and he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the sons…” [Mal 3:23-24]


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