Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tisa (Aggadah)

For more teachings on this parashah, see the archives to my blog, at 2006_02_20_archive.html/, and at March 2007, February 2008 and March 2009.

God’s Ways in the World

Following the great rupture caused by the sin of the Golden Calf and Moses’ efforts to attain Divine forgiveness and reconciliation with Israel—the central theme of this parasha—there ensues a conversation between Moses and God betraying his own desire for profound, if not intimate, knowledge of God. He asks two central questions, phrased in two very brief phrases: “make known to me Your ways” and “show me Your glory” (Exod 33:13 and 18): that is, the mystery of theodicy, of God’s just Providence or, rather, the seeming injustice of what actually happens in the world; and the secrets of metaphysics—knowledge of God’s essence, the nature of His very being. A major aggadic sugya devoted to these Biblical passages appears in b. Berakhot 7a:

Rabbi Johanan said in the name of Rabbi Yossi: Moses asked three things of the blessed Holy One and they were given to him. He asked that the Shekhinah rest upon Israel, and it was given to him, as is said, “Is it not in your going with us” (Exod 33:16). He wished that the Shekhinah not rest upon the pagan nations, and it was given to him, as is said, “that I and Your people be distinct [from all other people upon the face of the earth]” (ibid.). And he wished that the ways of the blessed Holy One be made known to him, and it was given to him, as is said, “Make known to me, please, Your ways” (Exod 33:13).

Our sugya begins by describing knowledge of God’s way of conducting the world as a kind of gift given Moses, presumably because of his unique closeness to God. The question, as formulated, is the classic question of theodicy in all its severity: Why are there righteous people who suffer, while many wicked men are at peace in this world and seem to enjoy “the good life”? This is, in essence, the question of the Book of Job, or that question known in our own generation as Holocaust theology (albeit it may be argued that the sheer numbers, cruelty and arbitrariness of that event and, especially, its contradiction with the idea of the covenant with Israel, raised it to a new level).

He said to him: Master of the Universe, why is there a righteous man with whom it goes well, and there is a righteous man whom there befalls evil; a wicked man with whom it goes well, and a wicked man whom there befalls evil. He said to him: Moses, a righteous man with whom it goes well is a righteous man who is the son of a righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is a righteous man son of a wicked man; a wicked man with whom it goes well is a wicked man son of a righteous man; a wicked man whom there befalls evil is a wicked man son of a wicked man.

The answers given by our Talmudic passage are schematic, and not entirely satisfactory (and I cannot even begin to present a serious theological discussion of the issues here). In brief, there are four answers given: First, pedigree: incongruities with one’s own actions are to be understood as reflecting the righteousness or wickedness of one’s parents. Unreasonable as this answer may seem at first blush, as well as contradicting the basic Judaic belief in individual accountability (as noted in the verse quoted in the next stage of the sugya), there is a certain logic here: a person is the product of his home and of his parental training, and may be expected to revert to his early training sooner or later in life. Hence God takes this into account.

One [i.e., an anonymous amora] said: “A righteous man with whom it goes well is a righteous man son of a righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is a righteous man son of a wicked man.” But is it so? For it is written, “He remembers the transgression of the fathers to the sons” (Exod 34:7), and it says, “the sons shall not die for [the sins of] the fathers” (Deut 24:16)—and the verses contradict one another! But we have taught: there is no difficulty. In the one case it is where they hold fast to the deeds of their fathers; in the other case it is where they do not hold fast to the deeds of the fathers.

Rather, thus did He say to him: A righteous man with whom it goes well is a completely righteous man; a righteous man whom there befalls evil is one who is not completely righteous. A wicked man with whom it goes well is one who is not totally wicked; a wicked man whom there befalls evil is one who is thoroughly wicked.

The next two answers are equally unsatisfying, from the opposite direction: if one’s deeds are not thoroughly good or bad, the recompense may not correspond with what would seem to be the overall balance. The existence of shades of grey (and do these not exist in every real human being?) provide an “out” for inconsistency with the seeming rule of thumb that the good are rewarded and evildoers punished. The third answer suggests a kind of synthesis: the verdict is affected by one’s righteous action, provided one in fact adheres to one’s parent’s ways.

And this contradicts the words of Rabbi Meir, for Rabbi Meir said: Two things he was given, and one [i.e., knowledge of God’s ways, the secret of theodicy], he was not given. As is said, “And I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious” (Exod 33:19) even though he is not fit /deserving; “And I shall have compassion upon whom I shall have compassion,” even though he is not fit/deserving.

The final answer, that of Rabbi Meir, takes us in a new and important direction: God did not give Moses the answer he sought; we cannot understand theodicy. Gods ways are a mystery: at times, God seems to favor someone for no apparent reason. Or perhaps there is a logic to it, a rhyme and reason, but it is not the logic of the courtroom, not that of objective judgment, of ethical principles consistently applied, but the logic of the heart. As A. J. Heschel put it in The Prophets and elsewhere: God is a God of pathos, moved by love of His people Israel and, at times, by love of (or antipathy to) particular individuals. The logic is covenantal logic rather than purely ethical logic. And, as such, we are really left at our starting point: human beings cannot hope to understand God’s ways.

“No Man Can See Me and Live”

We now turn to Moses’ second request: his desire for what is sometimes seen as the deepest wish of the mystic: the desire to apprehend the Godhead, to see His Face, to know Him as He truly is, and not merely to infer His being from the reflections of His actions in this lowly world. To pull aside the veil and behold the Shekhinah: “Show me, please, your Glory.”

“And He said, you cannot see My face” (Exod 33:20). They taught in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah: Thus said the blessed Holy One to Moses: “When I wished, you did not wish; now that you wish, I do not wish.”

There are three different views expressed in this part of the sugya. The first portrays a kind of hide-and-seek between man (or Moses) and God. “When I wanted you did not; now that you want, I no longer do.” The initial encounter between Moses and God at the burning bush at Horeb, when he was still a shepherd, is seen as an occasion when God was prepared to reveal Himself to Moses—but Moses was too shy, frightened, overwhelmed by the prospect of the Divine epiphany. “He hid his face, for he feared to look.” (Exod 3:6). The hide-and-seek aspect of this encounter is reminiscent (for good reason!) of the elusive nature of the relation between the lovers in Song of Songs, who are constantly missing one another, looking for the other only to find that he/she has gone. “I arose to open to my beloved… and my fingers dripped with myrrh upon the bolt-handle. I opened for my beloved, but he had slipped away and gone… I sought him, but did not find him” (Song 5:4-6).

But this contradicts the words of R. Shmuel b. Nahmani in the name of R. Jonathan, as R. Shmuel b. Nahmani said in the name of R. Jonathan: In reward for three things he merited three things. In reward for, “and Moses hid his face” (Exod 3:6) he merited to the shining of his face [after descending the mountain; see Exod 34:30, 33-35]. In merit of “for he was afraid” (ibid.) he merited to “and they were afraid to approach him” (Exod 34:30). And in reward for “to look” (Exod 3, ibid.) he merited to “and the image of the Lord he saw” (Num 12:8).

The second view interprets the same verses mentioned earlier, in which Moses’ initially hid his face, as the basis for the unique gifts of grace he received later—including the shining of his face, and his receiving a vision of “the image of God” (the verse cited in Numbers 12 refers to this after the fact, but does not elaborate at all as to the nature of that vision).

“And I shall remove My hand, and you shall see My back” (Exod 33:22). Rabbi Hanna son of Bizna said in the name of Rabbi Shimon the Pious: This teaches us that the blessed Holy One showed Moses the knot of His tefillin.

The last view, that of R. Hanna b. Bizna, is a kind of compromise: Moses saw, but only “the knot of His tefillin”—literally, the knot placed in the nape of the neck which holds the tefillin of the forehead in place. In the symbolic language of Hazal, the phrase denotes a partial perception; a fleeting glimpse of the Godhead or, in Kabbalsitic language, ahoraim de-kedushah, “the rear part of holiness.” Whatever this may mean in exact terms, the overall message is clear: even Moses, who perceived far more of God than any other human being, was ultimately subject to the same restriction as any mortal, and could only apprehend God’s true nature in a fragmentary manner.


Post a Comment

<< Home