Thursday, August 03, 2006

Vaethanan (Torah)

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.

On the Second Set of Commandments

There are several interesting differences between the version of the Ten Commandments found in Exodus 20, and its repetition in this week’s reading, in Deuteronomy 5.

1) Perhaps the best known is the different opening word of the Fourth Commandment, that of the Shabbat. In Exodus 20:8 we read zakhor, “remember the Shabbat day,” while in Deuteronomy 5:12 the parallel reading is shamor, “observe” or “guard the Sabbath day.” This difference is expressed in the poem Lekha Dodi, recited at the Kabbalat Shabbat service at dusk on Friday: “Shamor and zakhor were spoken in one word.” This is no more than a poetic rendition of a midrashic theme, which states that God spoke both of these words simultaneously, “in a manner that the human mouth cannot speak, and the ear cannot hear.” In other words, the Divine word has qualities that transcend human comprehension, even in its manner of delivery, so to speak. This same midrash, and others in the same family, speak of all ten commandments as being somehow spoken all at once, and then deciphered by Moses, who transmitted them to the Jewish people; or, even more daringly, that the entire Torah was somehow spoken in one burst of Divine speech—a kind of verbal counterpart to the big Bang, if you will. Indeed, the Torah is not only the five books of the Pentateuch, which it is possible to read within a single day, nor even the entirety of Jewish tradition—Mishnah, Talmud, midrash, halakhah, Kabbalah, etc.; but is a kind of apotheosis of God Himself: a kind of map or blueprint from which the Universe itself was created; the embodiment of Divine Wisdom, which somehow starts from a single point symbolized by the letter yod of the Divine Name (see on this HY IV: Shavuot).

On the level of the literal, specific sense of these things: the word “remember” implies mental awareness, consciousness, inner spiritual cognition of the Shabbat, expressed in verbal form by “remembering” or “mentioning” or “declaring” the Shabbat holy—i.e., making Kiddush (according to the standard Rabbinic interpretation), and possibly other verbal articulations of the Shabbat as a special day. That is, the commemorative, celebrative aspect of Shabbat, and of religious institutions generally. The idea of “observance,” by contrast, refers to the negative aspect—i.e., resting as refraining from certain acts—and to the concrete one—i.e., expressed in action (or in non-action), rather than by “mere” thoughts or words.

This idea embodies something deeper: that the message of the Torah is not a simple, one-dimensional one, but that each word simultaneously embraces many layers and nuances and over- and undertones. Rabbi Mordecai Breuer, an Israeli teacher and philosopher of Bible with an unconventional approach, uses this concept to understand the numerous internal contradictions of the biblical text. Rather than reflecting different authors and documentary strata, these indicate the complexity and multi-facetedness of the Divine message.

2) A second major difference between the two versions also appears in the commandment of the Shabbat, this one in the rationale found in the concluding verse in the two respective places. Exodus 20:11 speaks of commemorating the Shabbat “because in six days the Lord made the heavens, the earth, the sea an all that is within it, and rested on the seventh day.” That is, a religious, even theological, symbolic meaning: you rest because God rested at the time of the Creation. In Deuteronomy 5:14-15 the rationale is human, perhaps even humanistic: “that your manservant and maidservant may rest like you, and you shall remember that you were slaves in the Egypt, and the Lord your God took you out from there… therefore God commanded you to rest on the Sabbath day.” Here the meaning is social, perhaps even pragmatic—first, that human beings simply need rest, and especially the right to rest as a kind of mark or sign of a person being a free man and not a slave; plus a certain theological-commemorative message, but one in which the paradigmatic moment is the Exodus, not the Creation (nor Revelation).

These two passages express two different kinds of religious mentalities. Various words have been used to describe it: Bible critics would speak of the Priestly school, with its emphasis on ritual, as against the Deuteronomic school with its emphasis on social legislation, on creating a just and equitable civil society; vertical vs. horizontal focus (although on second thought, perhaps the adjective “vertical” is less appropriate here. Art Green often speaks of the contrast between “inwardness” and verticality; I refer here to the spiritual in contradistinction to the social, ethical, interpersonal emphasis); priestly vs. prophetic religion; Catholicism vs. Protestantism as paradigms; Sephardic vs. Ashkenazic types of Judaism (viz., the more emotive or more scholastic-intellectual typologies). Among the modern schools in Judaism, there has been a tendency of classical reform or liberal Judaism to emphasize the latter—social action, ethical monotheism; while Orthodoxy is generally thought of as more attentive to the strict observance of halakhah and what are considered to be ritual or ceremonial details. In recent years there has been a rebirth of interest in the spiritual, or theological, mystical, God-centered moment, with or without strict halakhah—what in Hebrew people call the “religios,” using the Latin; that is, the sense of transcendent; or, in Far Eastern religions, “getting off the wheel of suffering” as opposed to social involvement. But there are also those who carry the ethical moment into intense political activism, seeing in the championing of radical, prophetic stands bound upon changing society in revolutionary ways as the deepest expression of religious faith and commitment.

It seems to me that, rather than arguing which is the more “authentic” expression of what religion should be, things might better be understood in terms of a tension or balance between the two. Both are necessary, valid expressions of the religious impulse (“God spoke one word, we heard two”—Ps 62:10). I don’t know whether both can exist in equal force in the same person, as one side is inevitably emphasized more than the other. But this is a matter of temperament. In principle, both are certainly important religious expressions or perspectives.

3) A third difference, which is minor but nevertheless worth noting, is that in Deuteronomy the last five commandments, those dealing with inter-human relations, are connected to one another by the connective vav, i.e., the word “and,” associating one with the next. Perhaps the sense is to suggest that they are all interrelated with one another, that there is a “slippery slope” leading from one to the next (although murder, the first in this group of five, is surely more heinous and serious than theft, coveting, false oaths, and even sexual misconduct).

4) In the ninth commandment, Exodus says you should not bear “false witness” (‘ed sheker), while in Deuteronomy the word used is “vain” in the sense of “for naught,” “empty” (shav). In the former, one misuses the oath to lend credence to an outright lie; in the latter, one takes an oath for no good reason, in a flippant manner.

5) The final commandment, that against “coveting,” in Exodus 20:17 twice uses the verb tahmod, “you shall not covet,” while in Deuteronomy 5:21 the verb used the second time is titaveh, “to desire.”

Putting aside the problem of the variant readings, this commandment is in a sense the most difficult to understand: how can the Torah command emotions? Generally speaking, the Torah is a very practical religion/code of law/approach to life, more interested in practical actions than with the vagaries of the inner life. An acquaintance recently noted that this is a central point in the Mitnageddic critique of Hasidism: namely, that Hasidism too much emphasized the inner motivations, at times at the expense of right behavior.

On the other hand, modern psychology asserts that a person cannot control his emotions by an act of will, but that sooner or later they will burst forth. The effort to exercise too iron a hand may ultimately be harmful. (Question: Medieval thinkers, and even Victorian culture, emphasized will power while disregarding the subconscious, uncontrolled part of psyche. Has modern culture swung too far to the other extreme?)

In any event, one line of interpretation of this commandment is that lo tahmod in fact means that one ought not to engage in acts that actively express your coveting that which belongs to your neighbor: e.g., you don’t steal his property, but you constantly nag him: “Please sell me your car, your house, your rare stamp collection, your Ming dynasty vase.” Coveting his wife (rather than commit adultery, which is the seventh commandment, not the tenth) would mean telling your neighbor, “Divorce your wife so that I can marry her (or at least legally sleep with her), and I’ll give you a million dollars!” On the other hand, lo titaveh, “do not desire,” as in Deut 5:21, more clearly refers to the emotions rather than to manipulations to obtain the desired object. But why is it used in Deuteronomy and not in Exodus, and why is it used in the half of the verse dealing with “desiring” one’s neighbor’s house, field, livestock, etc., but not regarding sexual desire, i.e., his wife, where it would be most expected? As the Sages would say, all this calls for further reflection and examination.

A Few Insights on the Parsha

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 Aikha 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 yedi’at hashem (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).


Post a Comment

<< Home