Monday, October 06, 2008

Vayelekh-Shuvah (Mitzvot)

In memory of our dear friend Zelig Leader, whose soul ascended heavenward with the sound of the Shofar on the First Day of Rosh Hashanah.

For more teachings on the parashah, and on Shabbat Shuvah, see the archives to this blog at Septemeber 2006.

“Gather the people, man woman and child…”

This week’s rather brief parashah describes a special mitzvah observed only once in seven years: Hakhel—a gathering of the entire people for a public reading by the king of “this Torah”—i.e., the Book of Deuteronomy, or its gist. One can imagine it as a kind of reliving of Ma’amad Har Sinai, or a renewal of covenant. The Bible describes a number of occasions on which the people gathered to hear the reading of the Torah, and to renew their commitment to its observance: when Joshua gathered people before entering the land; in the days of King Josiah, when much of the Torah had been forgotten; by Ezra, upon the Return of the people to Zion from their exile in Babylonia. The ordinary Reading of the Torah in the synagogue, week by week, is also seen by some as a kind of reliving of the Sinai experience, but here it is greatly heightened.

This year is in fact the end of the shemitah year; the time specified for this gathering is during the festival of Sukkot—i.e., in another week and a half. It has been suggested that the shemitah served as a time of intensified study of Torah, for those who were otherwise preoccupied with labor in the fields (this is most probably the origin of the sabbatical year in academia and elsewhere); this public reading was thus a kind of ceremonial conclusion of that time. Three shemitot ago I was present at the ceremony Zekher le-Hakhel, a mass gathering at the Western Wall modeled after the historical Hakhel. A shiver went through me when I heard the voice of President Chaim Herzog reading the opening verses of Devarim in his inimitable Anglo-Jewish melody and accent: a dramatic, living exemplar of the renewal of Jewish sovereignty and recognition of its roots in the Torah.

Rosh Hashanah Miscellanea

A few thoughts that came to me during the course of the festival:

Tashlikh. A possible connection to Psalm 24: the powerful psalm in which we proclaim God’s Kingship, established “upon seas and rivers”—above the chaos of the pre-creation water. Sin comes from realm of tohu vavohu; casting it off is a kind of antithesis to that, an establishment of order, of creation, in our own lives.

Unetaneh Tokef. The concluding line of this poem, shouted out in unison, is: ותשובה ותפילה וצדקה מעבירין את רוע הגזירה—“Repentance/turning, prayer, and alms reverse the evil decree.” These three pillars exemplify the turn to the good that one must undergo in these Ten Days; it occurred to me that, viewed in depth, they are very radical; they involve a rejection of conventional modern values. Teshuvah: for many modern thinkers, man is not free, but his life is largely determined by genetics, by environment, by the “hard-wiring” of his bio-chemical makeup. The belief in teshuvah is a belief in choice, in responsibility, in a person determining the course of his life. Tefillah: the idea of a vital connection to God, with or without the aspect of requesting one’s needs (which is not the essence of Jewish prayer, certainly not of the liturgy of Shabbat and festival days) is seen from a certain modernist perspective as absurd. If there is a God, He is far too transcendent, far too impersonal, for us to cross the gap separating us from Him. Tzedakah: One may make charitable contributions, as an act of beneficence, perhaps being moved to pity and compassion at the sight of the poor man, but the Jewish concept of tzedakah is alien to modern culture. The Torah sees alms as a matter of justice, of giving the other that which is rightly his; that wealth is placed in our hands as a kind of trust with which to perform good deeds. All this is far from the current capitalistic ethos, which sees each man as “wolf to one another,” the marketplace as the paradigm and focus of all human culture, and the distribution of wealth through the market as the mechanism stimulating each person to do his best.

Akedat Yitzhak: The Akedah is greatest paradox of the Jewish religious experience. Either it represents the highest level of devotion, of submission of self to God, or it is demonic, primitive. Kierkegaard describes Abraham as a “Knight of Faith,” because he forego not only his own wishes to see his son grow up to carry on his life task and mission, but even sacrificed his own basic ethical understanding. For many traditional commentators, the Binding of Isaac is the pinnacle of Mesirat nefesh, of self-sacrifice for the sake of God; it served as the model for Kiddush Hashem, in ancient times and in the Middle Ages: total negation of self, of ego. The problem is often resolved by noting that God knew that he would send the angel to halt Abraham’s hand at the last minute; that He never wanted human sacrifice. Yet the question remains: what kind of God wants his faithful to blindly follow Him, to the point of nullifying the voice of their inborn sense of right and wrong, of conscience, to the point of slaughtering another human being? Is there not something unspeakably cruel in this conception? At this point, we reach the irresolvable clash between pure theocentric religion, and humanism. One may speak of religious humanism, as a kind of synthesis which combines the best of both worlds, but at the point of Akedah it somehow breaks down….

Questions for thought and research: Why, over and beyond the technical halakhic reason, are there two days rather than one of Rosh Hashanah, even in Eretz Yisrael? And more to the point: how can one explain this to the ordinary Jew? Where does the practice of opening the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, at numerous times during the prayers for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur originate? What is so special about such piyyutim as Melekh Elyon, le-El Orekh Din, Ohilah la-El, to require the congregation to stand up during their recitation? Or, in any event, what made the fathers of this custom, no doubt somewhere and sometime in medieval Ashkenaz, treat it thus?


Post a Comment

<< Home