Preoccupation With Glory and the Deferral of Hope: Hayyim Angel’s ‘Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi’

What is the relationship between Prophecy and History? This is question that underlies Rabbi Hayyim Angel’s “Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi” (HZM), a newly-released commentary on the three biblical books by the same names. These books are traditionally considered to be the latest of the of the Bible’s prophetic writings, attributed to prophets living in Israel toward the beginning of the Second Temple Era. Angel’s basic approach to understanding the often obscure oracles in these books is to understand them against the background of their historical context. To this end, HZM includes several sections dedicated to explicating passages from Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as a chapter-length analysis of the book of Esther. These books are more historical in style than the prophetic oratories of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, and Angel analyzes them to create a historical context for interpreting the other books. Then, in the sections dedicated to understanding the prophetic oracles, Angel both analyzes the details of each prophet’s visions and explains the historical situation to which each prophet was speaking.

Throughout the book, Angel paints a vivid picture of the spirit of the nation in the period of the Second Temple discussed in the biblical texts, a picture he divides into two distinct eras. The first era is based on the book of Haggai and the first parts of the books of Ezra and Zechariah. In this era, the prophets are dealing with a people who are entirely obedient, but are preoccupied with “glory” (Angel uses this word throughout, presumably thinking of the common English translation of Yeshayahu 6:3, such as it appears in the King James Bible: “And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the LORD of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.”). The prophets are therefore consistently occupied with attempts to convince the people that, despite the destruction of the first temple and the ultimately lackluster second temple, God reigns supreme throughout the world. This job is made particularly difficult in the face of Persia reigning supreme throughout the world in a more empirically verifiable manner. In the face of this empirical reality, the prophets agree that Persia currently reigns, but they attribute Persia’s dominance over the Jewish people to the sinfulness of the Jews themselves. From this follows the prophets’ promise/prediction that if the people can maintain proper behavior, a messianic king will rise in the near future to restore the Jews sovereignty and to make God’s glory obvious for all to see.

These prophecies become the locus of an important discussion throughout the book, namely, the meaning of prophecies that did not come true. Angel sets up two approaches to this topic, both of which have support in classical sources. The first approach, which is probably the more widespread in Orthodoxy today, understands that when a prophecy fails to manifest itself (or a positive prophecy, at the very least), it means that we simply misunderstood the prophecy, which was really referring to the future.When Haggai talked about “the Branch” that will be the messianic king, we would be mistaken to think that he meant his contemporary Zerubavel. According to this approach, a prophecy cannot fail to come true; if one does seem to have failed to manifest, that just means that we, the readers, misunderstood the prophecy.

The second approach, which Angel attributes to the Malbim and other traditional figures, as well as texts in Tanakh, understands that prophecies are directed to a specific moment in time, and they have a meaning that is obvious at that time. When Haggai talked about “the Branch,” he really was talking about his contemporary, Zerubavel. However, prophecies are not definite promises or divine fiat. Instead, this approach argues that prophecies are meant to inform the people of the potential nestled within their historical moment. Haggai isn’t promising that Zerubavel will be the Messiah, he’s saying that Zerubavel could be the Messiah. If the potential fails to manifest, that is because the people failed to do what was necessary in order to bring the prophets’ visions to fruition. The vision is recorded in Tanakh not because it tells us, Tanakh’s readers, about specific historical events yet to come, but because of what it tells about the potential that has inhered in past historical moments, and is destined to emerge again in our future. It is this second approach that Angel takes throughout HZM, and it turns his interpretive focus from the nature of the predicted events to the actions of the people that caused those potential events to wither on the vine.

Whether because of religious/ethical sins (such as intermarriage) or more concrete political sins (like the majority of Jews who stayed in Babylonia instead of returning to Judea), the promised return of widespread Divine glory simply never appeared (Angel brings these two suggestions from a variety of commentators). This initiated the second era that Angel depicts, based on the books of Esther and Nehemiah, as well as later parts of the book of Ezra. In this period, the people have the same problem of the absence of God’s glory, which is much worse now that the second temple has been a disappointment and Zerubavel has failed to amount to anything significant. This gloomy atmosphere is matched in the prophecies of Zechariah and Malachi from the time, which do not promise immanent political redemption like Haggai and Zechariah once did. Instead these prophecies reject the people’s basic assumptions about the nature of Divine dominance.

Whereas the earlier prophecies had accepted the people’s basic problem that God’s dominance was not evident and reassured the people that the evidence would be arriving shortly, these prophecies challenge the people’s evaluation of reality. Who says that God’s dominance of history has be obvious the way human political dominance is? Maybe Persian political success does not impinge upon Divine supremacy. Maybe the covenant between God and the people of Israel transcends such limited understandings of “success.” This is the basic idea that the prophecies of the second era are trying to get across, according to Angel. More concretely, the prophets tell the people that the situation on the ground, Israel’s subjugation to Persia, is not going away, but that this doesn’t mean anything about their relationship with God. God is just as much with them and just as all-powerful as God was before the destruction of the first temple. Their political situation is a purely political problem, and the prophets do promise/predict an eventual political savior, but the political problem has no theological significance. The hope for redemption has been deferred indefinitely, and that’s ok.

The idea that there is no theological significance to political success (or failure), has its roots in books of Tanakh that Angel doesn’t mention, like Yirmiyahu and Yehezkal, but it runs against the dominant trend in both Tanakh writ large and the Torah itself, as well as, I think, some pretty basic religious intuitions. The Torah promises extended dwelling on the land of Israel for obedience to God’s law and proclaims exile as punishment for disobedience. The book of Melakhim depicts a tight correspondence between obedience to God and the length of a dynasty, until ultimately the people are exiled and the temple is destroyed. And if God is the sovereign lord of history (Angel uses the term “miracle of history” throughout the book), there is a basic degree of logic behind the idea that those who receive God’s grace will experience it on the historical, political, stage. Cutting the other way are all kinds of intuitions about the limitedness of human conceptions and evaluations, but these prophecies remain rather radical and innovative. Unfortunately, Angel glosses over the theological-political significance of these prophecies without much fanfare. He gets close when discussing Zechariah’s prophecy of Jerusalem without its walls from the the earlier era, but the discussion doesn’t quite make the leap from biblical interpretation to theological significance, and it, in my eyes, is a noticeable lack in the book.

Overall, the book is excellent. It is well-written and engaging, and it contains ideas that are important both in terms of the interpretation of Tanakh and in the religious lives of Tanakh’s readers. It just doesn’t seem to be aware of how important some of those ideas really are.

A Review of Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land”

Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land by Rabbi Michael Hattin, Jerusalem: Maggid Books, 2014.

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There are many approaches to writing about a section of tanakh, from the disinterestedly academic to the passionately religious. Even between those two poles, the chosen approach can be as nuanced as an academic approach that participates in religious discourse, or a religious book that makes use of academic tools. Rabbi Michael Hattin’s “Joshua: The Challenge of the Promised Land” falls squarely in the latter category. Joshua is not an academic book that gleans religious meaning from dispassionate study but a deeply and unapologetically religious book that uses the best tools of the secular world to uncover the meaning behind the biblical text.

Joshua is essentially a collection of essays on the biblical book of Joshua, arranged according to the order of the biblical text. Each chapter opens with a quick introduction to a section of biblical text, and in short order, an apparent problem within the text or the story is presented. By the end of the chapter not only is the problem resolved, but it is resolved in such a way that what had at first seemed to be a problem is now an expression of a religious theme or ideal. While each chapter focuses on a different concept, there are several recurring concepts that Hattin highlights as the dominant themes of the biblical book of Joshua. Hattin discusses the way the biblical text explores the character of Joshua as he takes over the leadership role of his late mentor, Moses, through parallels between events in the Torah and events in the book of Joshua. He also looks at the tension between divine providence and human initiative as the Israelites transition from the Wilderness, where they were entirely dependent upon God, to the land of Canaan, where they will have to run their own society.

The common thread that runs throughout Joshua is the idea that the biblical text is inherently meaningful. There is no such thing as a passage that doesn’t have relevance to our lives, including the long lists of geo-topographical data in the second half of the book. All of it is meant to guide us in our religious and moral development, and thus the act of studying the biblical text is religious, not literary. This orientation towards meaning drives much of the content of Joshua. The book’s hermeneutic, it’s guiding principles of interpretation, flow directly from this orientation. The discussions of both morality and archaeology throughout the book are not abstract, but driven by their relevance to the modern Jew. The same goes for Hattin’s discussions of rabbinic literature related to the book of Joshua.

The basic religious hermeneutic of Joshua is laid out in the introduction, in a section discussing the pros and cons of secular scholarship. While many fields of academia are trumpeted as greatly valuable, one field is rejected quite forcefully. According to Hattin, source criticism “hinges upon charging the text with literary superficiality that… relegated the underlying message to the proverbial dustbin” (pg. xx). However, it is not that he rejects source criticism, but how he does so, that makes his book so firmly religious. Source criticism can be rejected from a secular perspective; the rise of Literary Criticism in the last half a century more than demonstrates that. That Hattin chooses to reject source criticism from a strictly religious perspective is therefore incredibly significant.

The Tanakh is, at its core, a sacred document that describes the ongoing interaction between God and humanity, between God and the people of Israel. It is a document that continuously challenges us to ask penetrating questions that relate to the essence of human nature and the purpose and meaning of existence. Its ancient but timeless words kindle the spiritual yearning that glows in every human heart, the longing for God, for goodness and a better world. No assault on the text can ever rob it of this transcendent quality. (pg. xx)

With this, Hattin not only rejects source criticism, but also sets up a strictly religious hermeneutic that will guide the reader throughout the rest of the book. It is not simply that source criticism is incorrect, it’s that it fails to appreciate the inherently meaningful nature of the text.

Hattin makes a phenomenal attempt to integrate the narrative of Joshua with modern archaeological discoveries. He rightly trumpets the scorched ruins of H̱atzor as fitting the biblical narrative perfectly. He is willing to remain agnostic on some issues, leaving the challenge to the biblical narrative unanswered, but he is impressively willing to reinterpret the biblical text when the popular interpretation does not fit the archaeology. For example, the ruins of Jericho bear no indication that the entirety of the walls came down in the period of history under discussion. Hattin begins by suggesting why the ruins might indicate this when in fact the entirety of the walls had come down, enabling the reader to affirm the traditional understanding of the text. He then switches gears and discusses traditional approaches that don’t contradict the archaeological record. Applying this method to the issue of the speed of the conquest of the land, which the bible indicates is miraculously fast while archaeology suggests that it was very slow, Hattin differentiates between the conquering of the land, which was fast, and the settling of the land, which was slow. Hattin also points out that not only does this fit with the biblical data from other books of Tanakh, but also with the text of Joshua itself.

Hattin also tackles the moral difficulties of the book of Joshua. It is difficult to read the book of Joshua in the 21st century without being bothered, at least a bit, by the morality of a holy war to conquer the land of Canaan. Hattin’s main argument is that the narrative of Joshua cannot be taken in a vacuum; Joshua assumes the reader is familiar with many of the narratives and polemics of the Torah. Hattin quotes numerous biblical texts which suggest that the war against the Canaanites is not racial but moral; the Israelites are not wiping out a different race, but an incompatible moral system. In this light, the entire discussion of the morality of the conquest is flipped. In place of a morally dubious land grab, Hattin depicts the victory of a divine moral system over pagan moral relativism, of human dignity over oppression.

It is at this point that Hattin perhaps becomes a little overzealous in his depiction of the conquest as a moral war. Hattin sees this moral understanding of the war not just in the voice of the biblical text, but also in the minds of its characters. In discussing the textual depiction of Raẖab, Hattin discusses the way that Tanakh generally takes a rather dismal view of prostitutes, something that surprisingly fails to manifest here. Hattin argues that the reason for the generally dismal view of prostitutes is that they are seen as disloyal. In contrast, he argues that Raẖab should be seen as motivated by the vision of a moral society heralded by the arrival of the Israelite nation. This explains the Tanakh’s positive depiction of Raẖab, as her betrayal of Jericho is not a function of disloyalty but of a strong sense of morality. While this moral depiction of the entire conquest may be the way the Tanakh depicts the war, it seems incredibly forced to read this into Raẖab’s motivation. Hattin ignores the possibility that it is at least as likely that she was motivated by the survival of herself and her family, and that the reason the Tanakh does not depict her badly, despite being a prostitute, is that she was instrumental in the success and survival of the Israelite spies.

A similar instance is found in Joshua’s discussion of the battle with the Southern Kings. He describes the Southern Kings gathering together to fight the Israelites not just because they’re afraid for their survival, but because they see the Israelite invasion as the end of their immoral pagan societies. This moral awareness seems like a stretch in a situation where it is so much simpler and more likely to say that the kings were afraid of physical destruction.

Perhaps the most impressive part of Joshua is the total mastery Hattin displays over not just the biblical text of Joshua itself, but over any and all related rabbinic literature. Throughout the various essays that comprise the book, textual problems are resolved not just from the text, but also from the traditional rabbinic commentaries. But Hattin doesn’t just bring the commentary that he feels best resolves the problem; instead, he brings a variety of opinions, and then shows what in the text led each commentator to their opinion. When those opinions are actually based on midrashim from Hazal, he not only points this out, but goes in depth to show the various exegetical understandings underlying the midrashim.

However, Hattin’s approach to midrashim is frustratingly vague. He continuously refers to midrashim as “traditions,” but this phrase could mean prophetic revelations passed down from Sinai or rabbinic exegeses passed down through the generations. He is also unclear about whether he considers midrashim to be taken literally, figuratively, or some blend of the two. He reads them thematically, showing how the midrash plays off and expands themes of the text, but he doesn’t seem to take them to be entirely metaphorical in nature. Perhaps, however, it is for the best. Hattin’s studies in midrashim and their relationship to the text allow for appreciation of hazal not just as legalists and story-tellers, but as careful readers of texts in a way the “metaphorical” approach does not do. Midrashim are a complex and disparate body of work, and appreciating that complexity by default leads to some vagueness and ambivalence. Hattin does a good job of demonstrating that this in no way detracts from their significance; in fact, it makes them all the more meaningful.

Rabbi Michael Hattin’s Joshua: The Challenge of The Promised Land is a deeply religious book that is simultaneously engaged with modernity, a description that is equally apt when applied to Joshua’s audience. As part of Maggid Books’ new line of English books on Tanakh, Joshua serves as an introduction, not only to the book of Joshua, but to the field of Tanakh study in general. Many Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist Jews, presumably the book’s target audience, who might once have delayed their forays into Tanakh indefinitely will now find its pages open before them. Rabbi Hattin has succeeded in making Joshua not only accessible, but incredibly meaningful as well. While Hattin does not mention the immediate, everyday, relevance of each chapter, he demonstrates the basic meaningfulness inherent in the text and leaves the reader to apply it to their daily life. Simultaneously, he introduces the reader to a range of modern literary techniques for understanding tanakh, from literary parallels to keywords. Thus armed with both newfound skills and an orientation toward meaning, the reader can begin to approach Tanakh on his or her own.

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

 

The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

Parashat Behar 5775 – Shemitah and Yovel: Tension or Continuum?

 

Parashat Behar focuses largely, though not entirely, on the laws of Shemitah and Yovel, the Sabbatical and Jubilee years respectively[1]. These laws are often seen as a continuum, with one the former flowing naturally into the latter. Shemitah occurs every 7th year, when all of the Jews of the land of Israel must declare their land ownerless and let it lie fallow for a whole year; they may neither sow nor reap in the land. Yovel occurs every 50th year, just after every 7th Shemitah year. In Yovel, all sales of land are nullified and the lands are returned to their owner, and all slaves are set free. Thus Shemitah entails a nullification of dominance over the land, and Yovel entails a revoking of sales and ownership. However, this depiction runs across a critical flaw when it comes to the textual depiction of the return of lands and slaves in Vayikra 25:13, “In this year of Yovel you shall return every man to his portion [of land].” The text does not depict the return of lands as something separate from the freeing of slaves. In fact, it does not describe the return of lands at all. Rather it talks about the return of slaves as free individuals to their ancestral homelands. Thus Shemitah and Yovel are in fact conflicting, not continuous. Shemitah involves people stepping back from the land and their ownership of it, while Yovel requires people coming close to the land of their families. The former creates a sense of distance and otherness from the land, while the latter conditions a sense of familiarity and identity with it.

The tension can be resolved by reformulating the concept of the Yovel in a way that focuses on ownership after all. However, it is in the reverse way of it was formulated before. Instead of Yovel being about whether or not the land belongs to us, it’s about whether or not we belong to the land. Thus the whole of the Yovel/Shemitah passage can be summed up conceptually as, “The land doesn’t belong to us so much as we belong to the land.” Thus Shemitah and Yovel do in fact form a continuum, as we first recognize every 7 years that we do not really own the land, and then in the 50th year we take yet one step further away from ownership and recognize that we, in fact, are creatures of the land we are born on and are in a sense owned by it.

At this point it is worth bringing up a conceptual dichotomy discussed by Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar)[2] regarding the difference between what he calls “earth” (אדמה) and “land” (ארץ). Rav Shagar says that “earth” refers to the elemental reality that all humans are born out of, to what it means to exist as a human being. In contrast, “land” refers to the society people construct, the power-oriented political structures we create. All human have a connection to the earth, and groups of people create their own various lands. In Shemitah we step back from the “land”, renouncing any sense of ultimacy that we attribute to our constructed societies, we recognize that our ownership is anything but absolute. In Yovel, we are still getting back beyond our conditional societies, but the emphasis is not on shattering these false idols, but on getting back to the source, getting back to the basics of what it means to be human. While Yovel is not applicable in our day, Shemitah is made all but negligible by the innovation of the Heter Mekhirah[3], and the number of Jews who live the sort of agrarian lifestyle where these rules are really felt is negligible, it’s important to recognize that these laws still have something to teach us. In our societies, we often become too caught up in the hierarchies and stratifications that we use to categorize and understand the people around us. While these structures are important, we need to step back every now and then and realize that they’re only constructs, and that at the root of it we’re all people. Further, living in these structures causes us to get locked into very particular ways of understanding ourselves, and every now and then we need to get back to our very human essence, and realize that we can choose how we want to define ourselves and our world in the future.

[1] The ideas in this composition are based to some degree on “Father Sky and Mother Earth” by Rav Shagar, found in “On That Day: Sermons and Essays for the holidays of Iyar”, pg. 207-216.

[2] “On That Day”, pg. 37. Note that he also includes a third category, “State” (מדינה), that is absolutely worth reading about but was beyond the scope of this composition.

[3] Literally “Permission of Sale”, wherein land in Israel is sold to a non-jew in order to exempt it from the laws of Shemitah.

#ParshaGram

Yovel (Jubilee) – A Call for Authenticity “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan.” ~Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:10

If in the 7th year we give up control and step back from the world, in the 50th we return to it, not as masters but as people born out of it, as individuals born into certain physical and cultural context. In the Yovel (Jubilee) Year we embrace who we are, the culture and narrative we were born into, and are reborn into a fresh, new, world.

#parsha #yovel #jubilee #freedom #liberty #authenticity via Instagram http://ift.tt/1QhH9JY

Shemitah and our Relationship to the World

How do we relate to the world around us? Is it a tool that belongs solely to us or is a shared resource that we take part of? Do we use it to dominate our fellow people, or to elevate the communal good? In the Shemitah (Sabbatical) year, currently ongoing in Israel, we step back from our domination of the world and humbly take part in it, along with all our fellow people. “Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you—for yourself, your male and female servants, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you, as well as for your livestock and the wild animals in your land. Whatever the land produces may be eaten.” ~Vayikra (Leviticus) 25:6-7 #parashah via Instagram http://ift.tt/1GTcIbt

Parashat Tzav 5774 – Holiness and Distinction

אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו

Parashat Tzav can be split neatly into two parts. Chapters 6 and 7 of Sefer Vayikra are essentially a restatement of the first five chapters, but from a different perspective and a different goal. Where 1-5 consists of instructions to Bnei Yisrael[1] about what korbanot they can bring with what animals, 6 & 7 are directed towards Aharon and his sons, instructing them regarding the procedures involved in the korbanot. Chapter 8 switches to the topic of the Inauguration of the Mishkan and its vessels and Aharon and his sons. These chapters demonstrate quite clearly why Sefer Vayikra is called “Torat Kohanim”, “Law of the Priests”. Chapter 8 is particularly important in terms of Vayikra as a whole, as the majority of laws in Vayikra relate directly to the Mishkan and the Kohanim, both of which are inaugurated in Chapter 8. However, the significance of this chapter runs much deeper than just the practical. This concept of the inauguration of the Kohanim, indeed of “inauguration” in general, is an idea that runs deep throughout Sefer Vayikra, as well as the Torah as a whole.

Separating from certain items or activities is one of the main themes of Sefer Vayikra[2]. Vayikra 11 deals extensively with the various animals that Bnei Yisrael may or may not consume. The end of this chapter, namely verses 44-47, explains why this is so:

44 For I the LoRD am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves unclean through any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 45 For I the LoRD am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. 46 These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, 47 for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.[3]

Here we not only have the word “distinguish” mentioned above, it also occurs in context of the word “sanctify”. This will become more important as other texts are examined. Vayikra 20 deals with the practices of the nations that previously lived in the Land of Israel, with the focus primarily on inappropriate sexual relations. The main body of this discussion is opened with a focus on holiness in verses 7 and 8: “7 You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I the LORD am your God. 8 You shall faithfully observe My laws: I the LoRD make you holy.” The discussion ends not only with a reminder of the importance of sanctification, but also that of distinguishing:

24 and said to you: You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey. I the LoRD am your God who has set you apart from other peoples. 25 So you shall set apart the clean beast from the unclean, the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through beast or bird or anything with which the ground is alive, which I have set apart for you to treat as unclean. 26 You shall be holy to Me, for I the LORD am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine.

Once again Sanctification and Dividing show up as one, not only to show why certain animals are permitted and some are not, but also to give the explicit purpose for which Bnei Yisrael has been “set aside”: to be designated as ‘א’s. This combination of the sanctification and designation of Bnei Yisrael is parallel to the Inauguration and Sanctification of Aharon and his sons in Vayikra 8, which is marked by the refrain “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ”, denoting ‘א sanctifying Aharon and his sons,  their garments, and their place of work. Thus Bnei Yisrael’s relationship to their context, the Nations of the World, is parallel to the relationship of the Kohanim to their context, Bnei Yisrael.

This idea of designation goes far beyond the scope of Bnei Yisrael and its connection to sanctification. The idea that the world has purpose, is designated for something, is inextricably bound with the idea that the world was created, and thus it is not surprising to find a strong presence of the themes dividing and sanctification throughout the Creation narrative. Bereishit 1:3 says that ‘א “separated the light from the darkness.” In 1:6-7 א’ created the Rekiah to divide between the “upper” and “lower” waters. 1:14 & 18 detail the creation of the cosmos in order to divide between day and night. Beyond this, the theme pervades Creation in more subtle ways. Verses 9 and 10 depict the same process of distinguishing, this time in regards to the Land and the Water, without any use of those same terms. Additionally, another term is present throughout the story that carries this message. The phrase “לְמִינָהּ” is one that dominates the second half of the Creation story. More or less as soon as animals enter the picture, it becomes important to the Torah to mention that each worked according to its species and not otherwise. Thus the strict division of the species was created and maintained. Notably, Creation is capped off by a “וַיְקַדֵּשׁ” by Shabbat (2:3), as is the creation of the Mishkan in Vayikra 8.

Having taken a look at some of the appearances of this concept, we must re-examine what this “inauguration” means. To inaugurate a person or item means to bestow upon the person or item the status of a formal office or function. In doing so, one separates the inaugurated from whatever group they originally belonged to, designating them as different by virtue of their different purpose. This idea is portrayed in several different ways throughout the Torah. The verb “משח”, meaning to anoint or inaugurate, is used frequently. But just as frequently, as we have seen, the roots “קדש”, “sanctify”, and “בדל”, “divide” or “distinguish”, appear with nearly the same meaning, that of setting aside for a specific purpose[4]. The goal here then is not the separation and dividing itself, but rather the dedication toward a purpose that it achieves.

In Shemot 19:5-6 ‘א says, “5 Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, 6 but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.[5]’ These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.” One could not ask for a more explicit statement of both designation and sanctification, let alone one where the priesthood is mentioned simultaneously. If it was not clear before this, it is obvious from that line that anything said on this topic applies equally to the Kohanim and to all of Bnei Yisrael. Thus it is unquestionably clear that being set aside for ‘א is not a matter of blessing so much as a burden[6]. In Parashat Tzav, that means that the Kohanim are not better than the rest of Bnei Yisrael, they just have a harder job. Similarly, being ‘א’s nation is not about privilege, about being better than the rest of the world, but rather it is about serving the rest of the world in its relationship with ‘א.

[1] It is notable that in most ancient cultures, Near-Eastern and otherwise, laws were generally not available to the public, let alone shared with them directly and intentionally. By contrast, Bnei Yisrael were greatly empowered with regards to their laws and rituals. For more information, see Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna, and Jacob Milgrom’s commentary to Vayikra, part of the Yale Anchor Bible Series, Introduction.

[2] Robert Alter, as quoted in Rabbi Shai Held’s devar torah to Parashat Vayikra, available here: http://www.mechonhadar.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=9480e5b5-c804-4940-9d15-2d6595900432&groupId=11401&utm_source=CJLI+-+Vayikra+5774&utm_campaign=CJLI+Vayikra+5774&utm_medium=email

[3] Translations from The Jewish Study Bible.

[4] This is an understanding of קדושה compliant with both the understanding of Rashi and that of Ramban, as found in their comments to Vayikra 19:2.

[5] Jacob Milgrom, ibid.,  points out that the Mitzvah of tzitzit is thus exactly parallel to this verse from Shemot. Tzitzit’s stated purpose of remembering the Mitzvot will lead to being a Holy Nation, and The Royal/Priestly blue will remind Bnei Yisrael that they are a Kingdom of Priests.

[6] It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word generally used in contexts like these is “עול”, which means “yolk”, rather than  “משא”, meaning “burden”.

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

Thoughts on the Theological Value of the Tsimtsum and a Note on its Relationship to Purim

“The Tsimtsum” is the term used to refer to a mystical description of Creation that originates in the teachings of the great Kabbalist R’ Yitzchak Luria, better known as the Arizal. The Arizal described creation[1] as beginning with ‘א’s Infinite Light. Then, ‘א contracted (“Contraction” being a translation of “Tsimtsum”) His light, creating an empty space at the center. It was in this empty space that ‘א made His Creation. The Arizal’s depiction of Creation continues with the creation of a variety of mystical entities, but none of them come close to the greatness of the concept of the Tsimtsum. Before we can discuss that, however, we need to take a look at an essential split in the ways this idea has been understood historically.

Within a century, it began to be hotly debated whether the Arizal had meant this story literally or allegorically, as recorded in the book “Shomer Emunim” (שומר אמונים) by Rav Yosef Irgas (רב יוסף אירגס). This split gave birth to entirely opposite understandings of the meaning of the Tsimtsum. The allegorical approach understood the Tsimtsum as parable meant to teach a particular theological concept, or as a description of human perception rather than divine reality. The upshot of this approach is that the Tsimtsum didn’t literally happen; there is no space empty of ‘א. The literal approach understands the Arizal to have been teaching a historical truth. ‘א literally created a space where He wasn’t in order to enable the creation of things other than ‘א in that space. This approach has been less the less popular of the two, perhaps because of how incredibly bold it is. It talks about ‘א in very real, very human, terms, and makes very absolute statements of the nature of ‘א’s existence. But it is that sense of absolute reality that makes the depiction so compelling, because it flows from an understanding that the Tsimtsum had to be, that Creation could not have happened otherwise, rather than simply being a man-made parable. As this essay is on the theological value of the concept of the Tsimtsum, we will be taking an allegorical approach, but it’s important to keep the sense of existential need for the Tsimtsum in mind.

The basic idea underlying the Tsimtsum is the incompatibility of ‘א and his creation on an existential level. ‘א’s existence and the existence of that which is not ‘א cannot coexist. Therefore before there can be creation there must be a space that is empty of ‘א. This is most strongly felt in the literal understanding of the Tsimtsum, but the ideas and teachings of the allegorical approach flow from this incompatibility as well.

This sense of incompatibility also lies behind the early midrashic concept that the Torah speaks in the human language (דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם). This concept is a limiting force when it comes to interpreting the text of the Torah, stating that the words of the Torah convey meaning the same way that people do and that we should understand the Torah the same way we understand human speech. This idea is built on the sense that divine revelation in the abstract would convey so very much more than people are capable of understanding, that divine communication and human cognition are essentially incompatible. Thus, in order to enable people to understand the Torah ‘א had to limit his revelation therein to within the bounds of human language.

Taking this approach forward to our time, it becomes a valuable model for understanding many contemporary theological issues. Perhaps the most pressing issue for people living in the aftermath of the 20th century is the question of ‘א’s presence in history. The first point to bring up in that discussion is always that human initiative and free will cannot exist in the presence of divine preordination and determination. There is an inverse correlation between the degree to which a historical event can be attributed to man and the degree to which it can be attributed to ‘א. This has actually been used as a method of explaining ‘א’s apparent absence from some of the historical events of the last century, with thinkers like Eliezer Berkovitz and, to a lesser degree, Abraham Joshua Heschel arguing that human initiative is important enough to ‘א that contracts his historical presence instead of intervening in even the most tragic events. Even if we are unwilling to make such a morally and theologically bold statement, this tension is important for the questions we ask and the way we frame them.

This model is also valuable for discussing the nature of shabbat and the prohibition of melakhah, creative work. If we look at the original biblical shabbat, at the end of the first depiction of creation in Bereisht 2:1-3, it is clear that shabbat concludes ‘א’s “week” of Creation. However, if we look at it from the perspective of man, created on day 6, shabbat would function roughly as the beginning of the “week”. After the “first shabbat” of Bereishit 2:1-3, man is placed into the garden “to work it and to keep it,” thus beginning the creative work of man. Shabbat thus functions as a hinge joining the past week with that to come, marking both the end of ‘א’s work and the beginning of man’s. On shabbat we acknowledge that all the work of the past week should in truth be attributed to ‘א, that none of it should be chalked up to human initiative. As with the work of history, the work of the week can be that of man or that of ‘א, but not both simultaneously. Thus as we begin each week’s work we experience ‘א’s Tsimtsum as he makes room for man to create, and as we enter shabbat man performs a Tsimtsum where he recognizes than none of his work can really be attribute to the strength of his own hand. Tsimtsum is thus not only valuable in terms of the way it can frame the divine, but also in the way it helps us understand the human.

As noted above, some Tannaim saw the text of the Torah as something highly restrained by the limits of human cognition. However, it has long been acknowledged that the content of the Torah, the mitsvot[2] and the narratives[3], should also be understood this way. As humans we are all historically situated. We live in a certain place at a certain time, and that affects the way we understand things. The same is true of the ancient Israelites. Thus the Torah that was given to Bnei Yisrael in the desert had to be fit to the understandings of their specific historical situation, or they would not have been able to grasp it. Therefore ‘א contracted his revelation into the forms relevant to Bnei Yisrael historical situation, resulting in a very human text conveying divine laws and ideas.

Beyond the Torah of Moshe there is a whole realm of prophecy, all of which is subject to this conception of the Tsimtsum. It will be instructive to look at three understandings of the nature of Prophecy. Rambam understood prophecy to be essentially a human faculty. Through the perfection of both their intellect and imagination, a person could connect to the active intellect and draw divine knowledge from there (depending on whether you give more weight to the Mishneh Torah or the Moreh Nevukhim[4] ‘א may or may not be involved in occasionally blocking this connection). In this understanding ‘א remains in His infinite state, and the human individual develops themselves away from their limited human state until they can grasp a much more divine truth. However even this truth is limited by virtue of the prophet’s humanity. At the opposite end of the extreme is the way some people understand the biblical phenomenon of Prophecy, where the prophet essentially becomes an empty vessel through which ‘א speaks. In this understanding the prophets personality and consciousness are entirely overridden in moments of revelation, though they return afterward. In this understanding, the human mind cannot exist in the presence of divine communication and so it disappears during the process of revelation. In the middle is what seems to be more or less the proper understanding of biblical prophecy, where the prophet is a conscious partner in the revelation. The prophets receive revelation and communicate it to the people, a process that inevitably involves the personalization of the message. The same way that no two people explain the same topic in the same way, similarly no two prophets conveyed their prophecies in the same style[5]. In this understanding ‘א has to not only minimize his revelation to within the limits of human cognition in general, but also ‘א allows the prophet to express it within his own specific style. The common thread in all of these understandings is that Humanity and Divinity cannot share the same space, and the more of one involved in prophecy, the less of the other.

Taking a step back from the nature of prophecy to the very fact of its existence as a phenomenon, this too is a function of Tsimtsum. Prophecy involves the relationship between the Infinite (‘א) and the all too finite (the prophet), thus requiring the infinite to work on a finite level. Choosing a nation requires a similar focusing on the finite, as does stepping into history and working within a specific historical framework. That ‘א chose to work within human history means limiting Himself to the tools of human history and experience. All of Jewish history, from Yetsiat Mitsrayim to the Days of Mashiach, and all of the laws and prophecies that shape that history, constitute ‘א opting out of his infinitude in order to work in the finite sphere.

 

It’s also worth discussing this idea of the Tsimtsum in regards to the recently passed holiday of Purim[1]. The textual basis of the holiday of Purim is from Megillat Esther, a text that is unique in the canon of Tanakh in that it does not once mention ‘א, in any context. It represents the entire story as on of human intrigue and historical causation. The mitsvot of the holiday also markedly focused on the human instead of on the divine. Other than the commemorative reading of Megillat Esther, the mitsvot focus on feasting and building interpersonal relationships. The holiday would seem almost to be a celebration of humanness. However, a look at the Jewish tradition indicates that it is not generally seen this way. Instead, the story of Megillat Esther is seen as an indication of the way ‘א’s hand guides human history. In this respect it is particularly instructive to look at Mordechai’s “pep talk” to Esther in the 4th chapter of Megillat Esther.

Then Mordechai told them to return [with his] answer to Esther: “Don’t think to yourself that you will escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews. For if you keep silent at this time at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish; and who knows, it may be that for this very moment you came to royalty?”

Mordechai’s speech is intended to motivate Esther to save the Jews. This requires a sense that human initiative is what drives historical events, and thus Esther can change the course of history through her actions. However the rest of the speech continues to say that if Esther doesn’t act, “then will relief and deliverance arise for the Jews from another place,” implying that human initiative doesn’t really have any historical impact. Similarly, the speech ends by Mordechai suggesting that the reason Esther came to her position of power was so that she could save the Jews, despite the fact that Mordechai knows that the reason Esther came to power was that the king was looking for a new queen and he took a liking to Esther (Esther 2:1-17). Mordechai is saying that there is a greater will guiding historical events, one that supersedes all human initiative, in the middle of a speech about the importance of the actions of one human, namely Esther. This paradoxical approach is how Jews have often understood the entirety of Megillat Esther. The text itself depicts an entirely human story, but as part of a religious scripture it’s been understood that the divine will guides all of the events of the text. Purim as a holiday is about rejecting the Tsimtsum paradigm. Instead of seeing the human and the divine as incompatible, they are seen to be seen as mutually reinforcing. Esther is supposed to act because the divine plan brought her to the palace in order to act, but if she doesn’t then the divine plan will function anyway. Similarly the mitsvot of purim reinforce human social bonds and worldly experience, but they remain divine commands and ways of fulfilling the divine will. Thus Purim is about looking at the human and seeing the divine, without ever forgetting the fact that you’re looking at something truly human.

[1] דע כי טרם שנאצלו הנאצלים ונבראו הנבראים היה אור עליון פשוט ממלא כל המציאות ולא היה שום מקום פנוי בבחי’ אויר ריקני וחלל, אלא הכל היה ממולא מן אור א”ס פשוט ההוא ולא היה לו בחי’ ראש ולא בחי’ סוף אלא הכל היה אור א’ פשוט שוה בהשוואה א’, והוא הנק’ אור אין סוף. וכאשר עלה ברצונו הפשוט לברוא העולמות ולהאציל הנאצלים להוציא לאור שלימות פעולותיו ושמותיו וכנוייו (אשר זאת היה סיבה בריאת העולמות כמבואר אצלינו בענף הא’ בחקירה הראשונה) והנה אז צמצם את עצמו א”ס בנקודה האמצעית אשר בו באמצע אורו ממש וצמצם האור ההוא ונתרחק אל צדדי סביבות הנקודה האמצעית ואז נשאר מקום פנוי ואויר וחלל רקני מנקודה אמצעית ממש כזה.

~עץ חיים-שער א ענף ב

[2] See Rambam, Moreh Nevukhim 3:32.

[3] See the Hertz Chumash, essays on Parashat Noah,

[4] This is borne out in both the Kapah and Ibn Tibbon translations.

[5] “אֵין שְׁנֵי נְבִיאִים מִתְנַבְּאִים בְּסִגְנוֹן אֶחָד.” ~סנהדרין פ”ט

[6] This article was originally meant to be published before Purim.

Parashat Pekudei 5774 – Closing the Book on the Stories of Creation

וַתֵּכֶל כָּל עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן

Parashat Pekudei finishes the second half of Sefer Shemot, rounding out five parashot describing the Command and Construction of the Mishkan, with Chet Ha’Egel in the middle. The Mishkan is actually completed a few different times, all of which point in a very peculiar direction. First the construction of all the pieces of the Mishkan is completed in Shemot 39:32, where it says, “Thus was completed all the work of the Tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting,”[1] then in 40:33 Moshe finishes setting up the Mishkan, “And he set up the enclosure around the Tabernacle and the altar, and put up the screen for the gate of the enclosure. When Moses had finished the work,” and a few others besides. The sense of completion these verses evoke is almost as strong as those used in describing Creation. These verses in particular are paralleled to Bereishit 2:1, “The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array,” and 2:2, “On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and He ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done,” respectively. The parallels however go far beyond that. Both Creation and the Mishkan have a strong connection to Shabbat: on the original Shabbat ‘א rested from his work of Creation, and now we celebrate shabbat specifically by resting from the work of the Mishkan. Creation happens in seven days and the commands for the Mishkan were given in seven distinct speeches, each introduced by “The LORD spoke to Moses” or “And the LORD said to Moses”(Shemot 25:1; 30:11, 17, 22, 34; 31:1, 12). There’s one connection, however, that is particularly fascinating.

As part of the continuing theme of 7’s, both the first chapter of Bereishit and the last chapter of Shemot each have their own unique key-phrase, each occurring seven times. In Bereishit 1 it is “And God saw that this was good[2],”[3] while in Shemot 40 it is “just as the LORD had commanded Moses.” These two lines aren’t just numerically parallel, they also have one very important idea in common, namely, the express fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. In this manner Sefer Shemot closes the same way Sefer Bereishit opened. This creates a sort of bookend set up to the first two books of the torah. The Ba’al HaTurim highlights this in a comment to Shemot 39:32, saying that the word “וַתֵּכֶל,” appearing nowhere else in the Torah, is an indication that this moment is really the completion of not just the Mishkan, but of all of Creation. But what is this story that is contained here, stretching ninety chapters and two out of five books? What is begun in the first chapter of Bereishit that isn’t finished until now?

The answer is of course found in the common thread between the bookends, that of a creation that goes exactly according to the Will of ‘א. The order of Creation goes exactly according to ‘א’s Will, but in Sefer Bereishit it is one of the last things that does. Creation is capped by the creation of Man and the commandment to man not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which Man promptly disobeys, and history ensues. The course of History, since that moment, has been a battle of wills between Man[4] and ‘א. The Tanakh depicts the great drama of humanity as a back-and-forth of being at some times more and other times less in line with the Will of ‘א, beginning with Adam HaRishon. This doesn’t stop at the end of Sefer Shemot. One could argue that throughout Tanakh it becomes more and more extreme. But Shemot ends with the creation of the Mishkan, and that is incredibly significant.

Adam was given ‘א’s Will in an instant and failed just as fast. After that ‘א revealed his Will at various times and places to various individuals. It was not until Bnei Yisrael ratified the Covenant in Shemot 24, that any significant portion of Mankind affirmed the command of ‘א’s Will. In building the Mishkan a further step was taken. The Mishkan houses the Aron, which allows for continuous revelation. Bnei Yisrael do not just receive ‘א’s Will once, they receive it over and over again. But moreover, Man was created to work[5], to perform “עבודה,” specifically to “tend the Garden of Eden.”[6]After his failure, Adam is cursed that now he will have to toil for his own sake (Bereishit 3:17-19). It’s not until the creation of the Mishkan that Man is able to perform “עבודה,” that for which he was created, as an expression of the Will of ‘א. History can be divided into two sections: Adam to the Aron,  and everything from then on. It is a story that starts on a high note, but plunges rapidly. But that’s okay, because that downfall is what gives birth to the story. It’s not a story of the perfect fulfillment of ‘א’s Will. It’s a story about the struggle of Man, of the tension between Man’s Will and ‘א’s, and the wondrous mystery of their wills being in line with each other. The perfect beginning is shattered in an instant. The Aron means that every day Bnei Yisrael get to hear ‘א’s will anew. And the Avodah of the Mishkan means that every day Bnei Yisrael get a fresh chance to use their will express the Will of ‘א inherent in Creation.

[1] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[2] The version in 1:31 is slightly different, but close enough.

[3] This actually has huge theological implications, especially in comparison to other cosmological and cosmogonical beliefs popular three thousand years ago.

[4] A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, the chapter entitled “History”, the subsection called “The Pantheism of History”.

[5] Bereishit 2:5, 15.

[6] Ibid.

Parashat Vayak’hel 5774 – The Golden Calf, Disobedience, and Taamei HaMitsvot

אֵלֶּה הַדְּבָרִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם

While its ultimate purpose is something of a debate, it is inarguable that the Mishkan served as a Tikkun (Repair) for the Chet HaEgel. The Torah goes out of its way to highlight the parallels between the Mishkan and the Chet. The word “ויקהל” shows up exactly three times in the Torah: by Chet HaEgel, by the Rebellion of Korach[1], and by the donation of materials to the Mishkan, in the beginning of Parashat Vayakhel. The gathering of gold for the Egel is paralleled by the gathering of gold for the Mishkan, which is specifically depicted in the text as a holy act[2]. Aharon conceived of ‘א descending on the Egel in much the same manner that ‘א descended on the Keruvim in the Kodesh HaKodeshim[3]. But beyond these obvious points, there’s one very simple way in which the Mishkan atones for the Egel, so obvious most people skip right over it. There’s one phrase that shows up more often by the Mishkan, its rituals, and its sancta, than anywhere in the Torah: “אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ-הוָה,” “that the LORD has commanded you.”[4] With the Mishkan, there is a specific emphasis on following the command of ‘א. The Egel, in contrast, was a direct violation of a command. In fact, it was the first violation of a specific commandment, the prohibition of Idolatry, and thus not only was it the first instance of post-sinaitic Idolatry in Israel, it is also the first post-Revelation disobedience.

Chet HaEgel occupies a huge place in the history of Jewish Thought. This significance is not surprising in light of this being the first sin after Sinai. One midrash relates that it caused a cessation of Revelation stretching from Chet HaEgel until the time of Nechemia after the return to Israel from the Babylonian Exile[5]. This is based on the parallel verses of Shemot 32:8, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” and Nechemia 9:18, “This is your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Chet HaEgel is referred to as “a great sin[6],” a phrase that in Ancient Near Eastern legal texts specifically refers to Adultery[7]. The idea of Idolatry as Adultery in the relationship between ‘א and Bnei Yisrael is perhaps the main theme of Sefer Hoshea[8]. Idolatry is considered to be the basic idea underwriting all of Torah and Mitzvot[9]. All of these ideas are manifestations of the unity of Idolatry and the Rejection of ‘א’s Torah, an idea that started with Chet HaEgel and spread forward throughout the Jewish Tradition.

Rav Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin was one of the deepest and most prolific writers of the Hasidic movement. The number of books written about him is only slightly larger than the number of books he himself wrote, perhaps the most famous of which is an amazing book called Tsidkat HaTsadik. In the second chapter of that work, as well as in many places throughout his thought, he says that the entirety of the Torah can be found in the first two commandments of the Decalogue, the Command to Believe in ‘א and the Prohibition against Worshiping other gods. This builds on the common midrashic idea that all 613 commandments are included in the 10 Commandments[10], adding that the final eight of these can be broken down into the first two. Thus he says that all positive commandments are included in Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments are found in the Rejection of Idolatry. While at first confounding, a little bit of thought reveals the brilliant simplicity in this idea. Any time a person fulfills an action that ‘א  has commanded, that is an obvious affirmation of ‘א, His Existence, and His Kingship. Any rejection of ‘א’s command demonstrates the opposite. If one truly believed in ‘א, how could they violate His Command? Thus Rav Tzadok’s approach to mitzvot is an obvious development of the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, categorizing all positive commandments as affirmations of Belief in ‘א and all negative commandments as Rejections of Idolatry.

Perhaps the most extreme development of this idea is in the thought of the late Israeli thinker Professor Yeshayahu Leibovich, who was famous for his approach to Taamei HaMitzvot (Reasons for the Mitzvot)[11]. Leibovich thought that it would be better for a person not to perform a mitzvah than to do a mitzvah for any reason other than that it was commanded by ‘א. This is obviously a radical departure from classical Rabbinic thought, though he didn’t necessarily think so. He believed that the Rambam, perhaps the first big proponent of Taamei HaMitzvot, didn’t actually believe in Taamei HaMitzvot, stating that the Rambam only wrote them for the common masses who would be unable to perform the mitzvot for purer reasons. He explains that the greatness of Akedat Yitzchak was that Avraham’s great reward that he had been promised up until that point was that his children would become a great nation, and now that this had been taken away from him, now that he essentially had to take it away from himself, he still followed the command. This approach flows directly from the Chet HaEgel, from the unity of Idolatry and Disobedience, but it takes it even father. Lebovich was known for saying that anyone who did a mitzvah for any sake other than ‘א’s, it was “as if they were worshiping a strange god”. Thus, not only is Disobedience equated to Idolatry, but so to is Obeying for the wrong reason.

While Leibovich’s approach may seem a little extreme, it makes a little more sense when seen through the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, zt”l, who takes a similar, if slightly more balanced, approach to Taamei HaMitzvot.[12]

It has become a truism that religion is largely an affair of symbols. Translated into simpler terms this view regards religion as a fiction, useful to society or to man’s personal well-being. Religion is, then, no longer a relationship of man to God but a relationship of man to the symbol of his highest ideals: there is no God, but we must go on worshiping his symbol. (MQFG p.128)

 

He suggests that when a person performs a mitzvah for a specific reason, they have essentially made the reason for the command more important that the fact that it was a command. Doing a mitzvah is an act that puts a person in a relationship with ‘א, but if they do it for a separate reason then they’re just in a relationship with that reason, or perhaps more accurately with the originator of that reason, themselves. Reasons for mitzvot are generally determined according to what are thought of as the values ‘א would base the mitzvot on, and thus they really say  more about the values of the person who thought them up than anything else. Taamei HaMitzvot make a ritual all about the values of the person performing it.

 

To religion the immediate certainty of faith is more important that all metaphysical reflection, and the pious man must regard religious symbolism as a form of solipsism, and just as he who loves a person does not love a symbol or his own idea of the person but the person himself, so he who loves and fears God is not satisfied with worshiping a symbol or worshiping symbolically. (MQFG p.129)

 

Mitzvot performed with this mindset affirm not ‘א, but a person’s highest values, which they have thus put in place of ‘א. “Ritual Acts are moments which man shares with God, moments in which man identifies himself with the will of God” (MQFG p.139). When man performs mitzvot for the sake of ‘א, for his relationship with ‘א, he lives in relation to ‘א. When man performs mitzvot for the sake of his values, he lives in relationship to himself. While not going so far as to say this should preclude the performance of a mitzvah, Heschel echoes Leibovich’s main idea, that not only is Disobedience of a form of Idolatry, but even Obedience can take a Disobedient, and thus idolatrous, form.

The Nation of Israel was formed by the God of Israel taking us out of Egypt. The essential fact of both our existence and our purpose is that ‘א is our god who took us out of Egypt (Shemot 20:2). Upon this fact is based the whole structure of our commandments and prohibitions. This is what we rejected in Chet HaEgel, which we have been paying for ever since[13]. We have long since moved on from worshiping idols, but we have yet to obliterate Idolatry from our lives. The Idolatry of today is not the worship of gods of wood and stone(Devarim 28:64), gods that our hands have made(Yirmiyahu 25:6), but the external values of our everyday lives. The values are fine in their place, but they cannot reign above all else. “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance,” (A.J. Heschel, MQFG, xiii). This is our modern Egel, the Idolatry of our times. Not disobedience, but the corruption of Obedience. Every time we put some other value higher[14] than the Word of ‘א, every time we follow the Word of ‘א for corrupt reasons, we stand an Egel in place of the Keruvim[15] and we dance and play (Shemot 32:6) when we ought to stand in relation to ‘א and His Word.

[1] This may be why the famous film, the Ten Commandments, combined the Korach and Egel narratives.

[2] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Vayakhel, regarding the donation of gold being called “תנופה.”

[3] Rav Amnon Bazak, Nekudat Petihah, Parashat Ki Tisa; Rashbam on the Egel.

[4] Translations from the Jewish Study Bible.

[5] Quoted in Revelation Restored, Prof. David HaLivni.

[6] Shemot 32:30 and other verses.

[7] Exploring Exodus, Nahum Sarna

[8] A. J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. 1.

[9] Mechilta D’Rebbe Yishmael, Pisha 5; Sifre Shalah 111, Re’eh 54; Rashi to Shemot 23:13.

[10] Rashi, Shemos 24:12; Bamidbar Rabbah 13:16.

[11] Unless otherwise sourced, all information in this paragraph is from shiurim by, and conversations with, Rav Noam Himmelstein of Yeshivat Orayta.

[12] The information in this paragraph is from his book on prayer, Man’s Quest For God, from the section on Symbolism.

[13] Fascinatingly, the Kabbalah parallels Chet HaEgel with Chet Adam HaRishon, meaning that this Idolatrous disobedience is the root of not just the episode of the golden Calf, but also that of the first recorded rebellion against the Word of ‘א. In terms of this parallel, note the prevalence of Keruvim in the Mishkan. The only other place Keruvim are found in the Chumash is Bereishit 3:24.

[14] Note that this does not include godly values. The difference between Noah and Avraham, and Moshe at Chet HaEgel for that matter, is that when hearing the Word of Destruction Noah acceded to it, while Avraham stood against it in the name of the Judge of All Earth (Bereishit 18:25). ‘א’s Word is often in tension with His Values, and that is where we are meant to struggle and come to the right conclusion as people, without the help of Revelation (Mishne Torah, Hikhot Yesodei HaTorah, 9:1).

[15] See above.