Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim - Vayelekh (Zohar)

I again ask my readers to continue praying for the recovery of my grandson, Erez ben Liza Sheina.

After three lengthy essays unrelated either to the Zohar or to the weekly parashah (my own “teshuvah,” in the sense of completing unfinished business), I return this week to inyanei deyoma, to the cycle of the year, with some brief thoughts for the last Shabbat of the year, in anticipation of Rosh Hashana. During the festive days themselves, we shall return to our study of relevant Zohar selections.

For more teachings on this week's parshiyot, see the archives to my blog, at September 2009.

Thoughts on Teshuvah: On Trust and Mistrust

I would like to return to the Book of Job, which I alluded to briefly on Tisha b’Av. Some years ago, I wrote rather flippantly that in the introduction to the book—the opening two chapters that provide the setting for the poetic dialogue between Job and his three comforters—God and Satan sound almost like two buddies making a wager in a bar. (And, incidentally, this situation, unbeknownst to either Job or the three friends, empties all the deep philosophical discussion of theodicy in the next 40-odd chapters of their meaning, at least regarding the situation at hand. If it’s all no more than a wager of sorts between God and Satan, than God’s justice or injustice in subjecting Job to such excruciating suffering is irrelevant).

But reading these two chapters more closely, I found a deeper meaning to this “wager.” As will be recalled, Job is introduced as a person who is “innocent (or “whole”), upright, fears God, and abhors evil” (תם וישר וירא אלהים וסר מרע); he also enjoys “the good life”—a large family, and abundant livestock (the measure of wealth in those days). On a certain occasion, God boasts to Satan—who is not the antithesis or active enemy of God that he is in Christian mythology, but a kind of Chief Prosecutor of the Heavenly Court, “the Adversary,” ultimately subservient to God—about Job’s sterling virtues. Satan responds by saying something like: Ah, it’s all very well for him to be pious and good when everything is going well, but how will he react if he is deprived of his wealth and family and even of his home? God agrees to put Job to the test, giving Satan the authority to whatever he wishes with him. So, in two stages, Job’s world is reduced to rubble: first he loses his children and his property; then, after Satan shrewdly observes that people who can withstand the most horrific losses external to their person may be broken if one touches their body, Job is deprived of his health, suffers boils and skin afflictions that keep him in constant pain, and is shown sitting on a dung-heap.

In the end, God is vindicated: Job is perplexed by what is happening to him, which goes against conventional ideas about the way the world is supposed to be; he wants to understand why God is doing this to him, he even curses the day he was born—but he never gives up his faith in God nor, on the other hand, his conviction of his own innocence. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return; The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; may the name of the Lord be blessed” (1:21); and later on, when his wife suggests that he curse God so as to hasten his death and release him from his suffering, he replies “Shall we accept the good from God’s hands, and not the evil?” (2:10). Still later, in what some consider the high point of the book, there is his classic affirmation of faith: לו יקטלני לו איחל (“Even though He slay me, I will trust in Him…”; 13:15). All he wants is some sort of response from God—which he ultimately receives, when God answers him from the whirlwind (Chs. 38-41), in words that are themselves rather enigmatic.

What is the crux of the debate between God and Satan? Essentially: God believes in people, and in their power to adhere to the good. Job is not presented at the outset as an extraordinary human being, as a rare exemplar of virtue—even if in the course of the book he does rise to heights of nobility and even heroism—but simply as a decent, ethical, God-fearing person: as a kind of Everyman. If God calls Satan’s attention to him, it is not as an exception to the usual course of human life, but as one who shows the potential for goodness of human beings generally.

Satan is the perpetual cynic. He is the one who believes that every person has his price (as in the film Indecent Proposal); that every man or woman can be brought to violate his most deeply cherished principle if the price is high enough, or to break if the suffering is intense enough. In brief, every person acts only in his or her own self-interest; that, not withstanding Rambam’s lyrical portrait of the highest level of love of God, in which one “does the truth because it is true—and the reward comes by itself” (Teshuvah 10.2), people—all people—ultimately act out of selfishness; the only difference is that some people’s self-interest is “enlightened” and subtle, and others is coarse and gross.

I see this choice as a central one which—beyond the specifics of atoning for one or another sin, or being more attentive to one or another mitzvah—is perhaps the underlying challenge of the Days of Awe. On some deep level, I would even contend that cynicism and the religious life are incompatible. Of course, cynicism, about both the individual human being and about society in general is very tempting; there are many, many things in life that seem to affirm the purview of the cynic. Indeed, simply to survive in this world one requires a certain amount of scepticism and caution; one must consider the possibility that the other person with whom one is doing business is in fact a liar; that is why there are such things in the world as contracts, deposits, securities, bonds, etc. (Just recently, a pious rabbi from B’nai Berak for whom I had translated a sacred text gave me a protracted run-a-round about payment for work I had done; moreover, this was not my only life experience in which alleged piety and honesty in business have not coincided).

But scepticism and caution, unlike thoroughgoing cynicism, do not preclude belief in human potential for goodness. R. Nahman of Bretslav, in one of his best known stories, celebrates the type of the “holy fool.” I’m not sure one needs to be a “holy fool” who refuses to see dangers even in front of one’s nose. But it surely means, minimally, giving the benefit of the doubt to others, not assuming the worst about others, and certainly not plotting and scheming to “get back at others before they get back at you.” Significantly, the first quality mentioned about Job, both at the very beginning of the book and when God addresses Satan in verse 8, is tam—which may be translated as “innocent” (or even, pejoratively, as “naïve”) or as “whole / complete / without blemish.” As I see it, the teshuvah required of us specifically today, in a highly sophisticated, complex society filled with conflicts and competing interests, and with a culture rife with reductionist interpretations of all that is good in human life—religion, art, literature, ideas, ethics—to economic, psychological, or biological causality, is to accept the yoke of God, but also to believe in the essential goodness of one’s fellow man, as deeply buried inside him as it may be, and of course in one’s self, and in one’s own potential to change, to recapture the quality of tam ve-yashar.

One final point about the ethical message of Job. Two weeks ago, in the course of our discussion of homosexuality (HY X: Ki Teitse), we write about the Noachide Code and the concept of natural law in Judaism. In Chapter 31, the very last chapter of Job’s dialogue with his three comforters, Job vindicates his own behavior, setting forth the code of decent ethical behavior to which he has adhered. Remembering, again, that Job is portrayed as a non-Jew, living in the middle of Nowhere (“the land of Uz” may or may not be a real place on the Arabian peninsula; it really doesn’t matter), and clearly not subject to mitzvot, this chapter may be read as a basic ethical code, a kind of informal alternative or parallel to the Noachide code. What are some of the ethical norms he mentions here? Sexual modesty—not looking at women lasciviously or stalking another man’s wife; decency and honesty: avoiding falsehood, caring for manservants and maidservants, for orphans and widows, feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, not rejoicing in the fall of enemies. This chapter, it would seem, sheds clear light on the nature of the person who is “innocent and upright."


Post a Comment

<< Home