Thursday, March 20, 2008

Vayikra-Zakhor (Mitzvot)

For more teachings, both on this portion, on Purim and on Shabbat Zakhor, see the archives to this blog, below, for March 2006.

“To Offer a Sacrifice to the Lord”

This week’s parasha gives a systematic presentation or codex of the basic types of animal sacrifice offered in the Temple and the mitzvot involved in their offering. Years ago I wrote about these chapters, asking the perennial question: How does it connect to us today? I suggested there (HY I: Vayikra = Vayikra: Torah) that it may be read as a kind of language or symbolic expression for the basic religious emotions.

To reiterate, I find three basic types of attitude towards God, corresponding to the three fundamental types of sacrifices: (a) awe, reverence, and self-abnegation before God (‘olah); (b) fellowship with God; seeing God (perhaps in radically immanent fashion?) as an intimate friend who shares our table and sits down to eat with us (shelamim); (c) guilt, contrition, failure, the sense of almost existential inadequacy (hatat, asham, me’ilah, etc.). These three are epitomized, respectively, in: the fixed daily offerings; the Paschal offering (Korban Pesah); and the great atonement ritual of Yom Kippur (Seder ha-Avodah; sa’ir ha-mishtaleah). Even though today we have no altar on which to offer these offerings, it seems to me that the emotional tone of ordinary daily prayer, of the Passover Seder, and of the Great Viddui (Confession) of Yom Kippur are very much a latter-day equivalent.

In addition, the basic idea of the sacrifices themselves is that of giving, of generosity, of offering something precious to God, of drawing close to Him by giving something of one’s self. Here too the core emotional and psychological attitude is not limited to animal sacrifices burnt on the altar, but encompasses a broad range of things: tzedakah, in which one gives of one’s wealth to others; prayer and study, in which one dedicates one’s time, the thoughts of one’s heart and mind, towards God; and acts of hesed, in which one performs kindnesses to others for the sake of Heaven. Thus, the basic ideas are in no wise limited to the Temple. As Hasidic writers are found of saying: each individual can become a mishkan for God to dwell on earth, and his service an altar upon which he offers his choicest talents.

Remembering Amalek & Reading the Megillah

This week there are two other specific mitzvot. The one, remembering Amalek, is fulfilled by the reading of the special Torah portion dealing with this subject this Shabbat; the other, the reading of the Megillah, will be performed this year on a single day, Thursday night and Friday, throughout the Jewish world.

The mitzvah of Amalek is paradoxical: at once to eradicate and utterly destroy, even wipe out even the memory of Amalek (originally, a desert tribe that viciously attacked Israel on their way out of Egypt; midrashically, the embodiment of all evil), but at the same time to remember them (“Do not forget!”)—an act performed this Shabbat by ritually reading the brief passage in the Torah that describes this very obligation (Deut 25:17-19; cf. Exod 17:8-16). I interpret this seeming contradiction as teaching that we must be ever conscious of Amalek, of the human capacity or even propensity for evil, both within the self and in the world without; in order to assure that the forces of good will ever have the upper hand (for this evil cannot ever really be eliminated) we must be constantly on guard against signs of Amalekism.

In my reading of the opening chapters of Genesis, I suggested that most forms or varieties of evil are a by-product of basic human drives, that are essential for life; the basic challenge is to civilize, to tame, to harness, to channel these powers into the service of the good and the enhancement of life. Thus, sexuality is needed to create life and build strong marital/familial bonds; aggression and even violence are necessary at times for sheer survival, or as a legitimate defense and protection of the weak; curiosity and intellectual pride are surely the crowning glory of humankind, but at times they may overstep their bounds into hubris, into an overreaching drive for knowledge or an exaggerated sense of one’s own power, as suggested in the stories of the Tree of Knowledge or the Tower of Babel.

Amalek, however, is pure wickedness: what Buber calls “radical evil.” It may be the impulse of the strong, or of the one who thinks he is strong, or who pins his identity on a false machoistic conception of masculinity, to prey on the weak. “And he trailed behind your rear, at all those who were weak, weary and tired…” This is evil rooted, not in any desire for personal advantage or benefit, nor in the service of any irresistible instinctive drive, but in sheer cussedness—hatred of the other, of the different, of the weak, or simply to feel superior.

The second special mitzvah to be observed this coming week is one not mentioned in the Torah at all (although some see it alluded to indirectly: see below), but a Rabbinic one: the reading of the Megillah on Purim night and day, and the other mitzvot associated with Purim. But although of “merely” Rabbinic provenance, it is viewed by the Sages as of great importance; halakhically, it takes precedence over just about everything else but met mitzvah (the burial of an abandoned, unattended, unknown corpse—perhaps the classic example of pure, gratuitous kindness to a fellow human being): possibly with some hyperbole, the Talmud notes that “priests at their Temple service, Levites on their song-platforms, and Israelites at their ma’amad vigils,” and scholars poring over their books, “all stop and come to listen to the reading of the Scroll” (Megillah 3a). Moreover, Rambam states that, of all the holy books, the Megillah alone will continue to be read in the time of Messiah (Hilkhot Megillah 2.18).

The question is: Why? Purim embodies three intertwined messages: a) that God acts in history ; b) that He does so in hidden ways, through the seemingly natural and even tragi-comic, ironic workings of human passion and machinations (there is more than a touch of the Rabelesian element in the Megillah story); and c) that these events take place to affect the salvation of the Jewish people, even (or perhaps especially?!) in Exile, where they are in large measure the passive objects of history. In brief, it is a celebration, more than anything, of the workings of Divine Providence—the most difficult and, some would say, counter-intuitive of all principles of Jewish faith. Perhaps that is why the day assumes the form of a carnival, celebrated with buffoonery and reveling in paradoxes.

This may also help to explain a strange maxim of Hazal we discussed several years ago: “From whence do we know that Esther is from the Torah? As it is said, ‘And I will surely hide My face (ואנכי הסתר אסתר את פני) on that day’ (Deut 31:18).” (b. Hullin 139b). The Talmud here makes a rather far-fetched pun in which the name Esther is based on a verse dealing with the hiddenness (astir et panay) of God’s face: on the one hand, we have the riddle of theodicy in all its force; on the other hand, the implication is that precisely there, in the hiddenness of God’s face, He is somehow, paradoxically, most revealed.


We continue our series, neglected for several weeks, with the third and last group of principles, those concerning God’s providence and His actions in the world. This group is doubtless the most difficult for many modern people. If the first five relate to God the Creator, and the second four relate to God as Lawgiver—which, even if not without certain theological difficulties, is at least perceived as grounding the universally-held human value of law and ethics, the last four principles, God as Author of History and as Judge, meting out reward and punishment to each individual, is far more difficult.

The tenth to thirteenth principles divide into two groups: the first two concern God’s active participation in the life of nations and individuals in the here and now, while the latter two are concerned with eschatology—events in the distant future, of Messiah and Resurrection of the Dead, in which the injustices of this life will be set aright.

X. God’s Omniscience: “He watches and knows our hidden things, He anticipates the end of a thing at its very beginning”

The tenth principle, that of Divine omniscience, is a logical predicate of Divine Providence. In order to judge us and administer just recompense, God must first know our actions, our movements, even the words we speak and our own intimate thoughts. It is the concept of Providence, more than any other, that distinguishes the Judaic God from the remote, uninvolved, “watchmaker” God of the Deists who sets the cosmos in motion and then retreats to His secret recesses.

The idea of God’s omniscience is the source of religious intimacy, and that which makes it possible to pray. It is precisely because He knows the actions of man, “He who looks and gazes to the end of the generations…,” and actively oversees the world, that He can be addressed regarding our mundane human concerns. And it is precisely this almost child-like posture that many modern thinkers find to be a problem.

XI. Reward and Punishment: “He recompenses man with grace [or: to the pious man] according to his acts; metes retribution to the evildoer according to his wickedness”

However, the real problem is not God’s omniscience, but the classical issue of theodicy: namely, How does God conduct His world? Is He actively involved in this world? And, if so, does He conduct it in a just way, causing the righteous to prosper and the wicked, sooner or later, to fall?

This idea flies in the face of ordinary experience of life, in which there too often seems no direct correspondence between a person’s (or nation’s!) moral and ethical behavior, and his/her/its fate. “When bad things happen to good people” is the title of a popular book by an American rabbi, and it is a perennial problem. Writ large, it is the underlying problem of Holocaust theology—but also of the destruction of the two Temples, and of all the disasters and expulsions and persecutions of Jews, and sufferings of other innocent people and peoples, throughout history. To which I would add, the so-called “answers” offered by the pious, from Job’s “comforters” to our own day, tend to be woefully inadequate. Thus, the explanations offered in certain Haredi circles for the Holocaust in Europe—that it was punishment for the assimilation and abandonment of tradition by large segments of German or Westernized Jewry, or punishment for Zionism, in which the Jews defied the Three Oaths mentioned in Ketuvot 111a, not to “force the End”—seem somehow obscene, an insult to the memory of the martyrs, many of whom were pious, devout and devoted Jews by any standard. And yet the alternative—that there is no explanation, that it is unfathomable, makes no sense—brings us perilously close to the notion, traditionally cited as a formulation of rank heresy, that Leit din veleit dayyan (“there is no justice and no judge”); i.e., that God has in fact abandoned His world to chance or, worse, to the vagaries of human evil.

This problem was already pondered by Biblical theology. On the one hand, we have the school of the Book of Deuteronomy, which asserts a clearcut mechanism of reward and punishment: e.g., the imprecations or curses in Lev 26 and Deut 28, or the Vehaya im shamoa read twice every day in Shema, in which God punishes or rewards in accordance with man’s actions. On the other hand, there are at least three biblical books—Job, Lamentations, and Kohelet—that struggled with and puzzled this problem, each in their own way, and that were unafraid to challenge Heaven. In the end, they did not end with any simple or pat answer, but with what were may be read as open-ended conclusions.

The Sages discuss this issue in many places. One classical sugya, in the opening chapter of the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 5a), discusses the meaning or cause of yesurim: human suffering. It begins by stating that, if an individual suffers, he should assume it to be due to some sin on his part, and take this as an opportunity to engage in moral reckoning and soul searching. But then it opens the very real possibility that it may not be punishment at all, but rather yesurim shel ahavah, “sufferings of love”—that is, suffering sent by God to somehow purify the individual, purge him of the dross in his soul, perhaps to alleviate the necessity of him undergoing punishment in the next life. And indeed, elsewhere in Hazal, olam haba, the life of the World to Come, figures prominently as the field in which unjust accounts in this life will be set right at last (but we will turn to that next week).

Maimonides himself set strict limitations on the applicability of hashgahah peratit, Individual Providence. First of all, he observes, most notably, that Providence does not cancel natural causality: that a person who lives in unhealthy fashion, who overeats or eats unhealthy food or never engages in physical exertion, will be more susceptible to illness; were he to have lived today, he would doubtless include a variety of behaviors and addictions—smoking, alcohol, reckless driving, promiscuous sexual behavior, and drug use—in which a person exposes himself to the relentless consequences of cause and effect. Moreover, he adds that not every trivial thing is as manifestation of Divine Providence, and concludes his discussion of this issue (in Guide III.17-18) by saying that only those who are on a high level, who “throw their trust upon God” and conduct themselves on the highest spiritual plane, will truly merit to have their lives governed by Divine providence.

Indeed, this area of Jewish belief is one in which there is perhaps the greatest diversity. As against Rambam’s rather austere and limited view, one finds the Hasidic-Kabbalistic view in which virtually everything that happens is God’s Will; there is even someone like the Izhbitzer, who verges on a type of determinism which largely limits human freedom. This school relies on the opinion within Hazal that “Even a leaf doesn’t fall off a tree in a certain way, pointing a certain direction, without God willing it so.” Incidentally, this view seems to be gaining a new lease on life in New Age writings, many of which stress “coincidence” as the form in which messages from the cosmos are embodied.

Why, then, if Rambam sees providence as applicable to a relatively limited area, does he include it among his basis articles of belief? Providence seems to be invoked here, inter alia, to encourage ethical and/or religious behavior. One must remember that Maimonides had a graduated approach to how and what ought to be taught to different groups of people. On the one hand, he saw the ultimate goal as that a person be motivated to “do the truth because it is the truth—and in the end the good shall come”: a kind of disinterested piety, beyond all ulterior motive, rooted in a deep love and awe of God and grounded in deep intellectual understanding. On the other hand, the path towards that goal, for “woman and children and those of lesser intellect” goes via promises of reward and threats of punishment (but which he also believed to be true; he was no Grand Inquisitor).

While there is much more to be said on this, indeed, I have barely scratched the surface, I must stop here. Perhaps we will continue next week.


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