Friday, August 22, 2008

Ekev (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this week’s parasha, see the archives to my blog, at August 2008.

“When You Eat and are Satisfied, You Shall Bless the Lord your God for the good Land”

Two major devotional mitzvot are inferred from this week’s parasha. The one, prayer, known as “service of the heart,” is inferred from the phrase “to love God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul” (Deut 11:13). But we have written so much about prayer over the years, and so often, that it seems superfluous to repeat ourselves here at this point. (Interested readers are referred to the archives of this blog, especially under the sections Hayyei Sarah [where I read Yitzhak as a paradigm of prayerful man], Tetzaveh [the chapter on the incense altar, which bears a mystical relation to prayer], and here in Ekev.)

The second mitzvah is Birkat Hamazon, Grace After Meals or bentsch’n: the obligation to thank God for providing us with food, on the occasion of completing a meal. This mitzvah, which appears early on in this sedrah (8:10) in the context of a number of things for which we must be grateful to God, is seen as the archetype of all blessings. It is the only blessing whose formal status is undisputedly de-oraita, a Torah obligation; it forms the central subject and basis of Rambam’s Hilkhot Berakhot.

The basic idea conveyed is that of gratitude: that we ought not to take the things we enjoy in life, from our basic need for nutrition on down, for granted; that we know and acknowledge that there is a God who not only created the universe “once upon a time,” but who maintains it and enables us to enjoy its bounty in an ongoing way. The attitude implied is diametrically opposed to that of “entitlement.” A human being must appreciate the miracle that we are here at all, that our life-needs are we (generally speaking) provided for us by the universe.

Although Birkat Hamazon is a “commanded” mitzvah, it also flows from the innate logic of religious life: the duty to thank and praise God for providing our needs is based on an elementary ethical principle. Just as it is self-evident that we should thank a person who has given us a gift, to acknowledge his generosity and magnanimity, so too is it with God. The Midrash says that this was the first mitzvah by whose means the Patriarch Abraham cultivated the religious awareness of strangers whom he encountered: his tent was open in all directions, so that he could engage in hospitality to all that needed it; after quenching their thirst and feeding them, perhaps offering them a place to rest, he asked them to thank God for the food they had been given. That was all the payment that he asked. This was a kind of basic instruction in religious life.

An acquaintance of mine from long ago, Pinhas Klein, who taught many neophytes to Judaism, once said that he disagreed with those who tried to initiate outsiders into observance through tefillin (as does Habad) or Shabbat or kashrut. The first and most basic mitzvah, he said, was that of blessing, which touches on the most basic level of the meaning of religious consciousness: blessings over food; blessings over other things which we enjoy, such as fragrant spices and herbs; blessings for seeing and hearing special things; blessings for the everyday, and blessings for the occasional or rare event; blessings for the good, and blessing for the bad; blessings for performing mitzvot, which provide the opportunity, so-to-speak, for religious experience, and blessings over things in the mundane, non-sacred realm of our activity. There is a Rabbinic dictum that one ought to recite one hundred blessings every day. Why one hundred? Ten is the base of our decimal number system, and as such represents multiplicity. 100 is 102—ten multiplied by itself, raised to the next higher level of magnitude. As such, one hundred signifies the sheer multiplicity of realms upon realms for which we need to be grateful to God.

To return to bentsch’n per se: the three essential blessings of Birkat Hamazon, those defined as being on the “Torah” level, represent three basic levels of Jewish religious consciousness. The first blessing, hazan et hokol, represents the universal level: God feeds all mankind, and indeed all of Creation, “from eagle’s nests to lice eggs”; the experience of satiation after partaking of food is a universal one. The second blessing, Birkat Ha-Aretz, relates to Jewish particularity: brit, Torah and aretz; the Abrahamic Covenant, the Torah, and the Land of Israel (the last of these also being, at least ideally, the source of food). The third blessing, Birkat Yerushalayim, reflects the Jewish situation in the real world: exile and loss, and yearning for the salient features of the lost Golden Age before we went into exile, and specifically its place-oriented sense of holiness: Zion, Jerusalem, the Temple, and the Davidic dynasty. As Heinemann observed, a prayrer/blessing for Jerusalem appears in many series of blessings: besides Grace After Meals, in the nuptial blessings, in those read after the haftarah, and in the daily Amidah.


Chapter Five: Love and Disputes—Positive and Negative

NB: For a teaching from Chapter Four, "Some Practical Human Advice," see below, Vaethanan.

Unlike the first four chapters of this tractate, Chapter Five does not present a series of teachings of tannaim of various generations, but arranges a series of teachings related to numbers: ten, seven, and four; without giving the names of their authors at all. Towards the end of the chapter, from §20 on, there are several mishnayot which are not specifically number based, but simply say what they have to say—although the first two of these are in fact based on a binary pair of contrasts:

Any love that is dependent upon a thing, once the thing is nullified, the love is nullified. But that which is not dependent upon a thing, is not nullified forever. Which was a love dependent upon a thing? The love of Amnon and Tamar. And that which is not dependent upon a thing? The love of David and Jonathan.

The classic and perhaps most common example of love motivated by a “thing” is sexual lust. Amnon was a prince, the son of King David, who desired his half-sister {!} Tamar, and was persuaded to seduce her by a friend in whom he confided; as soon as he’d had his way with her and satisfied his lust, his “love” immediately turned into hatred (2 Samuel 13:1-22; esp. v. 15). There may of course be other ulterior motives for love—or, more correctly, for feigning love: the desire for wealth (the “Sugar Daddy” syndrome of May and December marriages, or “You’ll find there are many who’ll wed for a penny”), power, career advancement, or some other advantage—but sexual lust certainly rates high on the list.

There is also a certain ambiguity in the terminology itself that tends to confuse matters: the Hebrew ahavah, like the English word “love,” may be used for both sexual desire or fascination, and for the deep emotional attraction or connection we ordinarily refer to by that word. Some might ask whether simple sexual desire, such as that manifested by Amnon, ought to be called love at all. Certain schools in Christianity, with its anti-sexual bias, like to draw a diametric contrast between love and lust, or eros and charitas (i.e., selfless giving to the other).

In any event, our mishnah contrasts this kind of love is with the deep fellowship and friendship between two men, David and Jonathan. (It is interesting that both examples are from the same family!) Jonathan in fact sacrificed his own chances for the throne, alienating his own father, for the sake of his friend. As if to say: selfless, disinterested friendship is deeper, more genuine, more lasting and authentically deserving of the term “love,” than sexual attraction. An obvious question implicit here is: why can’t there be both? Isn’t that what most of us hope for and even expect in marriage: a combination of deep friendship and emotional bond, lifelong commitment, offsrping, as well as shared pleasure and sexual satisfaction? Why does it seem to be posed in terms of either/or? Why couldn’t the mishnah have cited the love between our nation’s founding couple, Abraham and Sarah?

In our day, there are some “homophiles” (to coin a phrase) who try to see the love of David and Jonathan in homoerotic or homosexual terms. Some years ago, MK Yael Dayan created a mild controversy when she said as much from the floor of the Knesset, reinforcing our mishnah with a powerful phrase from David’s Elegy upon the death in battle of Saul and Jonathan: צר לי עליך אחי יהונתן, נעמת לי מאד, נפלאת אהבתך לי מאהבת נשים (“I am distraught over you, my brother Jonathan; you have been very pleasant to me; your love was more wondrous to me than that of women“; 2 Sam 1:26). But it does not seem self-evident to me that this verse celebrates a homoerotic ideal. It can equally support a male-friendship reading, not least because David is portrayed as being strongly attracted to many women (including Jonathan’s sister Michal), and that our mishnah’s reading is based on the premise that there’s was not a love not based upon any “thing.”

21. Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven shall endure; and that which is not for the sake of Heaven shall not endure. What is [an example of] a dispute for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And that which was not for the sake of Heaven? The dispute of Korah and all his congregation.

On the face of it, this mishnah seems quite straightforward and self-evident. But how does one identify whether the dispute is or is not for the sake of Heaven? One would have to be able to see inside the heart of the parties involved! This year, on Parshat Korah, I heard a talk by someone who cited R. Yehonatan Eibuschutz, in Ye’arot Devash, as to how one identifies a dispute that is, in fact, for the sake of Heaven. His answer was simple: if the people involved continue to be friends and to love one another notwithstanding the dispute between them, then it is clear that their dispute is motivated by the desire for truth and naught else.

Unfortunately, this is quite rare. The human propensity for disputes and polemics is very great; once a disagreement has begun, people tend to invest their own egos in “their side” and are reluctant to even hear the other camp. Moreover, the human tendency for fragmentation and division is universal: even in movements established for common goals (e.g., even something so mundane and pragmatic as losing weight!), there are factions and fractions and groupings. The ideological disputes in the kibbutzim during 1950s, which divided friends and families, is the most famous local example. I recall a bitter conflict within the Anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960’s between those who opposed the war on pacifist or humanistic reasons, and neo-Marxist ideologues who wanted a “worker-student alliance.” This conflict ultimately blew apart the Boston Draft Resistance Group in which I was active. The debate within Conservative Judaism over the issue of homosexuality is another example: as an outsider with friends adhering to both views, it seems to me that there has been too much acrimony and personal ill-feeling between the two sides. Haval!


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