Shiur: Kol Dodi Dofek #2 – Egypt, Sinai, Israel

The second of two classes on Kol Dodi Dofek from my 2020 Rav Soloveitchik course. In this class we explore the way Rav Soloveitchik’s Fate/Destiny dichotomy gives rise to two distinct forms of collective life for the Jewish people, the one based on a sort of bare life and material care, and the second based on living intentionally and seeking transcendence. This necessarily runs into the brutal fact of antisemitism, but also into the reality and possibilities of the Jewish state and the modern State of Israel.

Egypt, Sinai, Israel:
Two Modes of Bnei Yisrael

1. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, trans. David Z. Gordon (2006), 51

Just as Judaism distinguished fate from destiny in the realm of personal individuality, so it also differentiated between these two concepts in the sphere of our national-historical existence. The individual is tethered to his nation with bonds of fate and chains of destiny. In accordance with this postulate, one can say that the Covenant of Egypt was a Covenant of Fate, and the Covenant of Sinai was one of destiny. 

 

Fate

2. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 52

What is the Covenant of Fate? Fate signifies in the life of the nation, as it does in the life of the individual, an existence of compulsion. A strange force merges all individuals into one unit. The individual is subject and subjugated against his will to the national fate/existence, and it is impossible for him to avoid it and be absorbed into a different reality. The environment expels the Jew who flees from the presence of God, so that he is awakened from his slumber, like Jonah the prophet, who awoke to the voice of the ship’s captain demanding to know his personal national-religious identity. 

 

3. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 52–54

Jewish separateness belongs to the framework of the Covenant of Fate that was concluded in Egypt. In truth, Judaism and withdrawal from the world are synonymous. Even before the exile in Egypt, separateness descended upon our world with the appearance of the first Jew, our father Abraham. Abraham the Hebrew (ivri) lived apart. “The whole world was on one side (ever), and he on the other side” (Bereshit Rabbah 42:8)… Even if a Jew reaches the pinnacle of social and political accomplishment, he will not be able to free himself from the chains of isolation. Paradoxical fate watches over the isolation and uniqueness of the Jew, despite his apparent integration into his non-Jewish environment… This singular, inexplicable phenomenon of the individual clinging to the community and feeling alienated from the outside world was forged and formed in Egypt. There Israel was elevated to the status of a nation in the sense of a unity from which arises uniqueness as well. The awareness of the Fate Covenant in all of its manifestations is an integral part of our historical-metaphysical essence. 

 

4. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 55–63

The Covenant of Fate is also expressed in positive categories that stem from the awareness of shared fate. There are four facets to this rare state of mind. 

First, the awareness of shared fate appears as that of shared experience. We are all in the realm of a shared fate that binds together the different strata of the nation and does not discriminate between classes and individuals. Fate does not distinguish between nobility and common-folk, between rich and poor, between a prince dressed in royal purple velvet and a poor man who goes begging from door to door, between a pious Jew and an assimilationist… 

Second, the awareness of shared historical experience leads to the experience of shared suffering. A feeling of empathy is a basic fact in the consciousness of shared Jewish fate. The suffering of one segment of the nation is the lot of the entire community. The scattered and separated people mourns and is consoled together… 

Third, shared suffering is expressed in a feeling of shared obligation and responsibility… Forever after, the “I” is ensnared in the sin of his fellow, if he had it within his power to reprimand, admonish, and bring his neighbor to repentance. The people of Israel have a collective responsibility, both halakhic and moral, for one another… The commandment to sanctify God’s Name and the prohibition against desecrating it are clear in light of the principle of shared responsibility and obligation. The activity of the individual is debited to the account of the many. Every wrong committed by an individual stains the name of Israel throughout the world. The individual is responsible not only for his own conscience but also for the collective conscience of the nation. If he conducts himself properly, he has sanctified the name of the nation and the name of the God of Israel; if he has sinned, he causes shame to befall the nation and desecrates its God. 

Fourth, shared experience is expressed by cooperation. The obligation to perform acts of charity (tzedakah) and loving-kindness (hesed) is derived from the experience of unity that is so all-pervading and encompassing… The oppressive experience of fate finds its connection in the coalescing of individual personal experiences into the new entity called a nation. The obligation of love for another person emanates from the self-awareness of the people of fate, which is alone and perplexed by its uniqueness. For this was the Covenant of Egypt concluded. 

 

Destiny

5. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 65

What is the Covenant of Destiny? In the life of a people (as in the life of an individual), destiny signifies an existence that it has chosen of its own free will and in which it finds the full realization of its historical existence. Instead of a passive, inexorable existence into which a nation is thrust, an Existence of Destiny manifests itself as an active experience full of purposeful movement, ascension, aspirations, and fulfillment. The nation is enmeshed in its destiny because of its longing for an enhanced state of being, an existence replete with substance and direction. Destiny is the font out of which flow the unique self-elevation of the nation and the unending stream of Divine inspiration that will not run dry so long as the path of the People is demarcated by the laws of God. The life of destiny is a directed life, the result of conscious direction and free will. 

 

6. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 66–68

What is the content of the Covenant of Sinai? It is a special way of life that directs the individual to the fulfillment of an end beyond the reach of the man of fate — the striving of man to resemble his Creator via self-transcendence. The creative activity that fulfills the Covenant of Destiny flows from a totally different source, from man’s rebellion against an “as is,” factual existence, and from the longing that impels him to more enhanced and sublime forms of existence. Acts of lovingkindness and fraternity, which are integrated into the framework of the Covenant of Sinai, are motivated not by the strange sense of loneliness of the Jew, but by the sense of unity experienced by a nation forever betrothed to the one God. The absolute oneness of God is mirrored in the unity of the nation that is eternally bound to Him. “You are One, and Your name is One, and who is like Your people Israel, One nation”. The essence of Jewish fellowship on this level is a byproduct of the father-son relationship between the members of the nation and God… At Sinai, God elevated the Covenant of Fate, which He had concluded with a collective that was forced to be alone and that practiced loving-kindness to others as a result of its requisite isolation, to a Covenant of Destiny with a collective of people of free will and volition that directs and sanctifies itself to confront the Almighty. He transformed the “people”— an amalgam bereft of direction and purpose — to a “nation,” a term that signifies a distinct communal profile, a national physiognomy, as it were. The people of loving-kindness was elevated into a holy nation. The basis of shared destiny is the sanctity that is formed from a distinctive existence. 

When the man of destiny stands before the Almighty, he envisions the God of Israel who reveals Himself only with man’s approval and invitation. The God of Israel is united with the finite creature only after man has sanctified and cleansed himself from all pollution, and longingly and agitatedly awaits this wondrous encounter. The revelation of the God of Israel does not come, in any event, in all conditions and circumstances. It demands a special state of spirit and soul, in the manner of “Be ready for the third day” (Exodus 19:11). Without the readiness of man, the God of Israel will not reveal Himself. He does not surprise His creatures. He responds to man’s urgent petition. However, when man does not actively long for God with spiritual intensity, then the God of Israel shows no interest in him. When the God of the Hebrews chases after man against his will, He does not ask him for his opinion or desires. The God of Israel, however, consults with a person before an encounter. Already in Egypt the Holy One revealed Himself to Moses not only as the God of the Hebrews but also as the God of Israel who waits for man and invites him to His service to do His work. “So said the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they shall make a feast unto Me in the wilderness”(Exodus 5:1). 

 

Secular Israel

7. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 82–83

These mistakes are outgrowths of the primary error made by secular Zionism when it wished to erase both the feeling of isolation and also the phenomenon of shared suffering from our history books. The beckoning of the Beloved must open the eyes of all of us, even the most confirmed secularists. The State of Israel was not and will not be able to abrogate the covenant of, “And I will take you unto Me as a people” (Exodus 6:7) and put an end to shared fate–the source of Jewish aloneness. The State of Israel is as isolated today as the community of Israel has been during the thousands of years of its existence. And perhaps the isolation of the State is more pronounced than in the past because it is so clearly revealed in the international arena… The assumption that the State of Israel has weakened antisemitism is erroneous. On the contrary, antisemitism has grown stronger and employs false charges against the State [of Israel] in the war against us all. Who can foresee the end of this anti-Semitic hatred? The Covenant of Egypt cannot be abrogated by human hands. 

 

8. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 82

They also sin against the Covenant of Sinai, the covenant of a sacred community and people that finds expression in the shared destiny of a sanctified life. Only religious Zionism with its traditional and authentic perception has the power to “repair the perverted” (Ecclesiastes 1:15). If you were to ask me how the role of the State of Israel can best be described, I would answer that its mission is not to nullify the special loneliness of the community of Israel or to destroy the unity of its fate — in this it will not succeed — but to raise the people of the encampment to the level of a sacred community-nation and to turn Shared Fate into Shared Destiny. We must remember, as we have already emphasized, that fate is expressed, in essence, in the experience of life under duress — in an inability to run away from Judaism, in being forced to suffer as a Jew. This, though, is not the ideal of the Torah or of our Weltanschauung. Our solidarity with the community of Israel, according to an authentic Jewish outlook, must not come from the conclusion of the Covenant of Fate—that of the Encampment-Nation possessed of a compelled existence to which we are subjugated by outside forces—but by the conclusion of a Covenant with a sacred community-nation of Shared Destiny. Man does not find the experience of fate satisfying. On the contrary, it causes him pain. The feeling of isolation is very destructive. It has the power to crush man’s body and spirit, silence his spiritual powers, and stop up the wellsprings of his inner creativity. The feeling of isolation, in particular, troubles man because it is devoid of reason and direction. The isolated person wonders, for whom and for what? Isolation, which cleaves to man like a shadow, shakes his awareness and ability. An existence of destiny, which is based on the Covenant of Sinai, is different. This concept turns the notion of “nation” (a concept that denotes an ordained existential necessity, participation in blind pain, and a feeling of isolation devoid of meaning) into a “sacred people” and to the elevated station of a moral, religious community. Man draws from it strength and sustenance, creative power and a renewed joy in an existence that is free and rejuvenated. 

 

9. Rav Soloveitchik, Kol Dodi Dofek, 89

One great goal unites us all. A single exalted vision captures our hearts. One Torah (Written and Oral) directs us all to a unified end — the fulfillment of the vision of aloneness and the vision of the sanctity of an Encampment/People that ascends to the level of a Community/Nation and ties its lot to the destiny that was proclaimed to the world in the words of our ancient father Abraham: “And I and the lad shall go unto that place and shall worship God and return to you” (Genesis 22:5). 

 

Yom Kippur 2019 – Being Together with Man and God

Yom Kippur approaches. The long day of atonement the ascetic quest for apology, catharsis, and, if we dare to hope, reconciliation. This quest is in some ways driven by the persistent drumbeat of prayer, particularly the vidui, the rhythmic recital of the sins we have sinned. Ashamnu.

According to Rav Shagar, this detailed enumeration of our iniquities is not self-important, it’s not about itself. What it is about is our underlying posture toward each other. We don’t commit interpersonal sins, stealing or lying, without first seeing ourselves as separate from and in competition with those around us.

“The sins of guilt and betrayal mentioned in the confession are not necessarily private, specific guilts, but forms of being connected to the metaphysical guilt and betrayal rooted in the foundations of our existence; betrayal of the Other is inherent in the very nature of the human situation. I will always care for my children better than I will care for your children. “Man is a wolf to man” — This law is not psychological but ontological — this is the meaning of betrayal.” (Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 188)

When we sin against our fellow man, we act out our underlying sense that it’s us or them, and we always choose us. We are always at war, and we have always been at war; there is never more than a cold peace between me and the enemy I see across the table, nevermore than a lazy ceasefire.

What we need then, is to reimagine the way we exist in the world, not our actions, but the underlying orientation toward other people from which our actions spring forth. We cannot keep seeing ourselves as competing with everyone else in a zero-sum game for existence and happiness. We need to learn to see the other’s gain as my own gain as well, to see ourselves as part of a larger unity.

“The choir represents the intentional intermingling of individuals , and that is what makes it so powerful. It is enjoyable because of the harmony it creates between individuals, and therefore there is no better way to create the unified collective of the congregation.” (ibid.)

This is not a mystical, organic unity, however. We are not part of one solid organism called “the Jewish people,” “humanity,” what have you. This is individuals coming together as part of a larger project, with a shared vision of a brighter future, of the possibilities of transcendence.

That matters because this is a unity without difference. This is about different, separate individuals coming together out of choice. Consequently, I may actually experience another person gaining as my own losing; sometimes reality really is limited. This unity means taking a moment to re-evaluate what it means to lose.

“They say that love will win, but love cannot win. This is because where there is love there is no winner, and where there is victory there is no love. Quite the reverse, love loses, it is constantly losing, it is inextricably tied to giving up, to sacrifice and self-degradation.” (Rav Shagar, Nahalekh Beregesh, 336)

Losing is an inherent part of any relationship. Any time I commit myself to another person, I agree to make sacrifices for them. I recognize the importance, within my own life, of things and people other than myself. (For Rav Soloveitchik this was submission,;for Rosenzweig it was judgment; for Heschel ,self-transcendence; for Levinas, the infinite command of the other; and for Rav Froman, the true freedom that only comes from commitment.) This is all the more true when it comes to being part of a group. Choosing to be part of a collective means choosing to put the group before the self, at least in some areas and respects. It means choosing to lose for the sake of the group and the other people in it, because that itself is a kind of win. It may not take away the sting of the sacrifice, but it adds its own kind of sweetness, a pleasant aroma before God.

This sweetness is the theological horizon of unity. Yom Kippur is not just about society, and unity is not just interpersonal; our relationships with others are simultaneously our relationship with The Other, God who transcends human existence.

“The confession does not mention sins between man and God at all, something that gets to the heart of the confession; the guilt that it deals with is ethical-existential guilt of betraying the essence of existence, something that is manifest in societal wrongs, not in the religious realm between a person and his god. The social realm is the location of the kingdom of God, in it and through it the divine unity is realized – “Hear O’ Israel, the Lord is our god, the Lord is one.”” (Rav Shagar, She’erit Ha’emunah, 188-189)

Human unity and divine oneness are inextricably intertwined. Loving and losing can never be torn apart. Atonement begins with the recognition of fundamental sin. When we apologize to other people, when we begin to shift our basic posture toward them, we begin to reveal the kingdom of God. When we declare before God that we have sinned against other people, we declare the divine significance of the social realm. And when we begin to see others as collaborators rather than competitors, individuals for whom we would sacrifice rather than enemies to overcome, we begin to mend the tears in the very fabric being, both human and divine. Bagadnu, and no more. Peace, purity, and reconciliation.

Shiur: Nisan 2019 – HaḤodesh HaZeh Lakhem: Politics of the Calendar

 

I. Establishing the Calendar

1. The Economist, “Rulers of Time”

In the modern era, measurement of time provides a way to underline the clout of central government: both India and China, despite their size, have a single time zone, which keeps everyone marching in step with the capital. It also offers an opportunity for emphasising independence and non-conformity. Hugo Chávez turned the clocks back by half an hour in 2007 to move Venezuela into its own time zone—supposedly to allow a “fairer distribution of the sunrise” but also ensuring that the socialist republic did not have to share a time zone with the United States…

In theory, modern technology offers liberation from temporal tyranny, by allowing people to use whichever system they prefer. The internet runs on “universal” time, a global standard used by astronomers and other scientists, based on a network of atomic clocks. As modern as this sounds, it is really the latest incarnation of Greenwich Mean Time, with all its attendant imperialist cultural baggage. But smartphones and computers can seamlessly translate between time zones and calendar systems, allowing people to use whichever they like. There is no reason why e-mail clients or web calendars could not allow the use of the French Revolutionary clock and calendar systems, say, alongside Muslim and North Korean ones.

In practice, however, time zones and calendars are more than just arbitrary ways to rule lines on time. They do not merely specify how to refer to a particular instant or period; they also dictate and co-ordinate activities across entire societies, in particular by defining which days are working days and national holidays. These have to be consistent within countries and, in some cases, between them: just ask Saudi Arabia, which in 2013 moved its weekend from Thursday/Friday to Friday/Saturday, to bring it into line with other Arab states. The need for such coordination means there is no escape from centralised control of clocks and calendars—which explains why the tendency to politicise them is timeless.

2. Exodus 12:1-2

The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in Egypt, “This month is to be for you the first month, the first for you of the months of the year.

3. Mekhilta, Masekhta DePascha 1

“This month is to be for you…”as opposed to Adam HaRishon who did not count from it. Does “for you” mean as opposed to how Adam HaRishon counted, or perhaps “for you” means as opposed to how the non-Jews count? When it says “the first for you” that means “for you” and not for the non-Jews. Why does it [the second] “for you”? “For you,” as opposed to Adam HaRishon who did not count from it.

 

II. Changing/ Maintaining the Calendar

4. The Economist, “Rulers of Time”

North Korea is shifting its time zone this week to reverse the imposition of Tokyo time by “wicked Japanese imperialists” in 1912.

4. 1 Kings 12:26-33

Jeroboam thought to himself, “The kingdom will now likely revert to the house of David. If these people go up to offer sacrifices at the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, they will again give their allegiance to their lord, Rehoboam king of Judah. They will kill me and return to King Rehoboam.”

After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves. He said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan. And this thing became a sin; the people came to worship the one at Bethel and went as far as Dan to worship the other.

Jeroboam built shrines on high places and appointed priests from all sorts of people, even though they were not Levites. He instituted a festival on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, like the festival held in Judah, and offered sacrifices on the altar. This he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves he had made. And at Bethel he also installed priests at the high places he had made. On the fifteenth day of the eighth month, a month of his own choosing (אשר בדא מלבו), he offered sacrifices on the altar he had built at Bethel. So he instituted the festival for the Israelites and went up to the altar to make offerings.

6. Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:8-9

It once happened that two [witnesses] came and testified: We saw it in the morning [of the twenty-ninth] in the east, and in the evening [of the thirtieth] in the west. Said Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri: [It’s impossible for them to have seen the new moon in the morning, since the new moon is only visible in the west at evening, thus] they are false witnesses. However, when they came to Yavneh, Rabban Gamliel [who knew through astronomical calculations that the new moon should have been visible on the evening of the thirtieth] accepted their testimony. On another occasion two witnesses came and testified: We saw it in its expected time [on the night preceding the thirtieth] but on the night of its intercalation [the thirty-first] it was not seen, and Rabban Gamliel accepted their testimony. Said Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas: They are false witnesses. How can they testify that a woman has given birth when on the next day her belly is still [swollen appearing to be] between her teeth? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: I approve of your words. Rabban Gamliel sent him [Rabbi Yehoshua] a message: I decree upon you that you come to me with your staff and money on the day which according to you will be Yom Kippur.

Rabbi Akiva went [to Rabbi Yehoshua] and found him in great distress [that he was ordered to violate the day that was Yom Kippur according to his calculation], he said to him, I can bring you proof that whatever Rabban Gamliel has done is valid for it says: “The following are God’s appointed holy days that you will designate in their appointed times” (Leviticus 23:4), whether they are designated in their proper time, or not at their proper time, I have no holy days save these.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] came to Rabbi Dosa ben Harkinas who said to him: If we question the ruling of the Bet Din of Rabban Gamliel we must question the ruling of every Bet Din from the times of Moshe up to the present day as it says: “And Moshe ascended with Aharon Nadav and Avihu, and the seventy elders of Israel” (Exodus 24:9). Why weren’t the names of the elders specified? To show that every group of three [sages], that form a Bet Din, is considered as the Bet Din of Moshe and Aharon.

He [Rabbi Yehoshua] took his staff and his money and went to Yavneh to Rabban Gamliel on the day of Yom Kippur according to his calculation. Rabban Gamliel rose and kissed him on his head and said to him: Come in peace my master and my disciple, my master in wisdom and my disciple because you have accepted my words.

 

III. The Calendar Today

7. Rav Shagar, Bayom Hahu, 346

I don’t know how to depict this redemption, but Rebbe Naman’s words inspire me to think that, perhaps, if we stand vulnerable before God… this will enable a shift, something transcendent will reveal itself, something that is beyond difference. I am not talking about tolerance, nor about the removal of difference. The Other that I see before me will remain different and inaccessible and, despite this, the Divine Infinite will position me by the Other’s side. Again, how this will manifest in practical or political terms, I do not know. But Yom Yerushalayim will be able to turn from a nationalistic day, one which has turned with time into a tribalistic celebration of Religious Zionism alone, into an international day.

8. Rav Menaḥem Froman, Ten Li Zeman, 119

The event of the new moon (ḥidush) was, for the Sages, the most intense instance where we encounter the creator and renewer of the world. Revolutionary Marxism went to war against religion, primarily because it saw it as an anti-revolutionary force. Religious faith can lead us to conservative conclusions. Religion can sanctify the status quo as the handiwork of the Creator. However, we might also come to the exact opposite conclusion. If a person believes that the world is created (“meḥudash,” “made anew,” in medieval terminology), then he believes that the world could be radically remade anew.