Friday, March 09, 2007

Ki Tisa (Rashi)

“There is No Sequence to the Torah”

Rashi begins his commentary on the incident of the Golden Calf—the central event in this week’s parsha and, many would say, the central moment of rupture in the entire Torah—with a seemingly technical comment about the exact chronological location of this event in relation to what precedes and what follows it:

Exodus 31:18. “And when He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone written with the finger of God.” Rashi: “And He gave to Moses.” There is no “earlier” or “later” in the Torah, for the incident of the Calf preceded the commandment regarding the making of the Sanctuary by along time. For on the 17th of Tammuz the tablets were broken, and on Yom Kippur the Holy One blessed be He was reconciled with Israel, and on the following day they began to volunteer materials for the Sanctuary, and it was erected on the first of Nissan.

There is no “earlier” or “later” in the Torah: that is, one cannot assume that the events described in the Torah occurred in the same chronological sequence as they are described; at times, the description of key events is moved forward or backwards for various reasons. This rule is one which Rashi generally advocates. Thus, at Exod 24:1 he makes a somewhat similar comment, in which he notes that that entire chapter, including a covenantal ceremony including sacrifices, the sprinkling of blood, and the declaration by the people that “we shall do and we shall hearken,” all must have taken place prior to the epiphany at Sinai—perhaps on the 2nd or 3rd of Sivan. There, as here, the great 13th century Catalan commentator, Ramban (Nahmanides), disagrees with Rashi, insisting that the Torah is written, not in accordance with some at-times hidden and possibly obscure conceptual order known only to the Author, but in the actual chronological order of the events as they happened.

Be that as it may: Why is this important? What are the implications of this dispute about dates? What difference does it make? It seems to me that, underlying the debate between Rashi and Ramban on this point, there is a basic disagreement as to the function of the Sanctuary or Temple itself. If, in fact, the command to the people to assemble materials for the Sanctuary and to begin its construction followed immediately upon the Sinai revelation, then the conception is of a place for God’s Presence to dwell among the people as a natural part of life. There is a straight line from the Exodus, to Sinai, to the Divine dwelling place. The building of the Sanctuary is a kind of fulfillment of all that preceded it. One is reminded of the aggadic gloss on Song of Songs 3:11: “Go out, you daughters of Zion, and see King Solomon, in the crown that his mother made him on his nuptial day and on the day of rejoicing of his heart.” This phrase is seen as referring to God: his “nuptial day” was Sinai, while the “day of rejoicing of his heart” was the day the Sanctuary was erected (Mishnah Ta’anit 4.8).

If, on the other hand, the Torah’s account does not reflect the actual order of things, but the order to build the Sanctuary only came later, it may have come as a Divine response to the sin of the Calf. Suddenly, God so-to-speak realized that the people needed a concrete symbol of His ongoing presence. The memory of Sinai, overwhelming as it was at the time, was insufficient by itself to prevent them from being tempted into paganism or syncretism. There was a pressing need for an established religious center—one based on the sense of human fallibility, guilt and the ongoing need for atonement.

Perhaps it was in such a spirit that Rambam alludes to the fact that the site of the altar in Jerusalem was not only the site of the Binding of Isaac, nor even alone the place where Noah offered his sacrifices after the Flood and where Cain and Abel offered their gifts to the Almighty, but the site from which Adam himself was created, and at which he offered a sacrifice: “we therefore find that he was created from the place of his atonement” (Rambam, Hilkhot Beit ha-Behirah 2.2).

One could say that there are two basic types of religious personality or of religious experience. There is the person who feels a basic sense of at-one-ness with God, who is filled with joy at the knowledge that there is a loving God who lies behind this wonderful creation. And then there is one who is filled with fear and trembling when he imagines himself standing before the Almighty, who is preoccupied with feelings of inadequacy, with an almost existential guilt and sinfulness, and a need to atone for his limitations as a human being. Or, to use the words of William James, there is “the religion of healthy-mindedness” and that of “the sick soul.”

True, the incident of the Golden Calf was not a primordial event like the eating of the fruit in the Garden that led to the Christian notion of “original Sin”; nevertheless, it serves in Jewish thought as central paradigm, as a traumatic event leaving a stain not easily removed.

This latter type—the guilt-ridden, “sick soul”—seems to have played a central role in the modern secularist critique of religion. It is not difficult to find examples of craziness and cruel repression bred by religion, whether in the stories of life-hating nuns in Catholic parochial schools, ruler-wielding rebbes in old-fashioned heders, or, of late, fanatical Muslims murdering their own sisters for real or imagined breaches of “family honor.” The assumption among many people is that religion, in general, means living with unnecessary negative emotions; that only the “empty skies” of the Beatles’ song Imagine enables man to live life to its fullness, without guilt or fear.

But things are not really so, as I trust we have shown in innumerable teachings in these pages over the years. We need only turn to the romantic imagery in the very next section of Rashi to find a very different mood:

“When he completed.” The word “completed” (kaloto) is written with defective spelling [i.e., with the vowel letter vav missing, as if it were the word כלה, “bride”], for the Torah was given to him as a gift, like a bride to a bridegroom, as he was unable to learn all of it in such a short time. Another thing: just as a bride wears twenty-four ornaments, as stated in the Book of Isaiah [3:18-24], so a sage needs to be expert in the twenty-four books.

The figure, either of Israel as the bride of God, or of the Torah as that of Israel—in either case, of Sinai as a kind of wedding—is a ubiquitous one in the midrash. It is interesting that the salient feature of the bride here is that she is barely known to the bridegroom, “like a gift” (this is no doubt an element in the symbolism of a bride traditionally being covered by a veil). In traditional societies—a far cry indeed from contemporary courtship and dating practices—marriage was usually arranged by the parents, and the bride and the groom were nearly unknown quantities to one another.

The 24 ornaments—a traditional number, derived from the not-particularly complementary list of feminine adornments in Isaiah 3—correspond to the 24 books of the Tanakh, while the idea of adorning the bride in preparation for her marriage (imagine the heavily bejeweled brides in traditional Yemenite weddings, for example) serves as the basis, in the Zohar, for Tikkun Leil Shavuot—the study of a sampling of passages from all over the Jewish literature recited on the night of Shavuot, in preparation for the reliving the ecstatic union of Sinai at dawn. There are likewise 24 chapters to the Mishnaic tractate of Shabbat, serving as the basis for the custom of some to read these chapters every Shabbat, divided among the three Shabbat meals.

A Tale of Two Errors

An interesting question occurred to me this year, rereading this perennially fascinating parsha. The main body of the narrative here deals with the sin of the Golden Calf. There is something strange about this: off hand, one thinks of it in terms of idolatry— the people turning to a calf instead of the God who took them out of Egypt and who revealed Himself at Sinai. Yet the immediate cause of their act is the absence of Moses: “for this man Moses, who took us up out of Egypt, we do not know what happened to him” (Exodus 32:1). The calf would thus seem to be a substitute, not for God, but for Moses. Somehow, the people do not want a living, speaking man, a teacher and leader who interacts with them, who guides them and judges their disputes—and at times also scolds them. Instead, they make an inanimate object of metal, around whom they can invent a cult of their own devising.

Later on in the parsha, we read an interesting dialogue between Moses and God. Moses asks God to “show me Your glory” (Exod 33:18). God refuses this request, as if He has placed a certain limit on man’s knowledge of Him; as if the quest for mystical knowledge, to see the face of God, is somehow illegitimate. “For no man can see me and live” (ibid., v. 20). Note: not that God has no face or form, that He is incorporeal, bereft of physical appearance. Rather, He is too awesome, too holy, too “wholly other,” for a mortal human being to see Him and yet remain a denizen of this world.

The question that occurred to me is: what, if anything, do these two scenes have in common? My answer goes something like this: the people wish to substitute the living God, the God who gives them a teaching, a path by which to live, taught by a living man, with a fetish, a molten image of “a bull who eats grass.” Moses, too, was perhaps unduly interested in the “appearance” of God. He, surely, is no idolater, no fetishist, but he wishes to see the Divine image. God refuses him, but instead tells him that he will make His “ways” known to him. Thus, after placing him “in the cleft of the rock,” God reveals to him His “ways”—His way of conducting the world. But what this means, in particular, is His forgiveness, His long sufferingness, His “attributes of mercy”—which mean, essentially, His tolerance for the foibles and limitations of human beings. God is at the outset very stern and strict, very demanding in His moral and ethical and behavioral expectations of human beings. But after the fact, when they fail, He does not destroy, but is ever willing to lift them up anew, to give them another chance. This is an important ethical lesson.

What haveese two scenes in common? It seems to me that the fetishist, on his primitive, gross, corporeal level, and Moses, in his refined, spiritual, transcendent, much more abstract level, both make the same error. Both are preoccupied with God’s essence, His being, with what He is. These questions are surely important—indeed, perhaps they are the most profound philosophical questions that can be asked. But there is something even more basic, in terms of living real human life in light of God: to “know” the living God by living a godly life, by realizing the vision of God’s holiness in the world through acts of goodness, justice and kindness to one’s fellow man.

It is interesting that Maimonides, who is usually thought of as an elite philosopher somewhat removed from the concerns of ordinary folk, concludes his Guie for the Perplexed with words very much to this effect. After discussing the deepest subjects of theology, and expounding the ”knowledge of God” and how it may be attained, he ends the entire work (Guide III.54) by stating that true knowledge of God lies, not in intellectual or mystical apprehension of the Godhead, but in imitating God’s ways in the ethical sense. “For let him who glories take glory in this: that he comprehends and knows Me, that I am the Lord, who performs love, justice and righteousness in the earth; for in these things I take delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:23).

Purim Postscripts:

A Prayer and Blessing: May it be His will, that by this time next year our Muslim brethren will have undergone a revolution of consciousness, to know that Allah is present everywhere and in all His creatures, and foreswear the path of violence. That they return to the synthesis of wisdom and culture with natural piety and worship of the One God, as it was in the flowering of Islamic culture in the Middle Ages. That the slogan “Ijtihad, not jihad”—Enlightenment, not Holy War—become the byword for all.

In case anyone was wondering: the distinguished, fin-de-siècle Middle-European gentleman shown in our Purim issue beneath the words “Remember! Do not forget! Oy, what was it I was supposed to tell you?” was Alois Alzheimer (1865-1916), the Viennese neuropath who first diagnosed the disease that bears his name. BTW, my question remains: does anyone know whether or not Alzheimer was Jewish?


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