Av 2019: Should You Believe in a Third Destruction?

Should We Believe in a Third Destruction?
Rav Shagar and Rav Froman on the Surprising Nature of Faith

  1. Yirmiyahu 7:1-15

The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand at the gate of the House of the Lord, and there proclaim this word: Hear the word of the Lord, all you of Judah who enter these gates to worship the Lord! Thus said the Lord of Hosts, the God of Israel: Mend your ways and your actions, and I will let you dwell in this place. Don’t put your trust in illusions and say, “The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord are these buildings.”

[….]

As for Me, I have been watching—declares the Lord. Just go to My place at Shiloh, where I had established My name formerly, and see what I did to it because of the wickedness of My people Israel. And now, because you do all these things—declares the Lord—and though I spoke to you persistently, you would not listen; and though I called to you, you would not respond— therefore I will do to the House which bears My name, on which you rely, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, just what I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My presence as I cast out your brothers, the whole brood of Ephraim.

Rav Shagar

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 269-271

I was recently at a symposium on the relationship between certainty and faith. One of the speakers told of a certain forum where a person raised the possibility that there could be a third destruction, as opposed to Rav Herzog’s famous words, spoken in the earliest days of the state, about how we have God’s promise that there will not be a third destruction. In response, he was thrown out of the forum, because of the “heresy” involved in casting doubt on the continuing redemptive process of the modern state of Israel. The speaker told this story in praise of the certainty of faith, and looked positively on the total unreadiness to hear claims like his. He saw it as a revelation of true faith. I was shook. I saw this as making faith into an idol, expressing an arrogant religion that refuses to accept the other. It comes from the violence laid bare in religious discourse.

To my mind, rejecting the idea of a third destruction comes from patriotism in the negative sense, rather than from a position of deep faith. Absolute certainty is a handhold that lets the speaker feel confident about the righteousness of his path, but faith happens only in the moment when a person gives up on certainty and opens up to the possibilities that exceed the limits of his understanding. In this context, raising doubts is not only not opposed to faith, it itself is the thing that can lead us to real faith. Raising doubts is not an educational goal, and I do not mean that we must encourage doubts, mainly because some people remain in a chronic state of baselessness. The trap of ideological excess can lead to acting like an idolater, coating their opinions with words of faith.

It’s important to remember that an answer like “perhaps” is a real possibility in existence, which can be just as certain as certainty. The very existence of a positive option itself changes the feeling of your life. For example, things in my life don’t have to be good in a simplistic sense in order for me to have faith; it is enough that I have faith that things could be good, that the potential exists, in order to experience the presence of God. Faith is not necessarily certainty, and therefore it’s possible for a faithful answer to the question “Is there a creator of the world?” to be: Perhaps. From this perspective, the presence of faith in the world depends on people, on their readiness to accept the existence of God in the world despite the lack of uncertainty…

It is specifically doubt that can lead to faith, because language forces us to define every phenomenon, and thus instead of actually encountering the phenomenon we suffice with defining it externally. Doubt opens up a language anew, in order to prevent rigidity and to enable us to once again come into contact with reality. If we say, “Yes, God definitely exists,” this statement can lead us to block off the possibility of revelation. It is specifically the ability to answer “perhaps” in regard to religious life that creates a space where the sudden possibility of revelation could take place.

  1. Rav Shagar, “Education and Ideology,” Luhot U’Shivrei Luhot, 184-188

Religious Zionist education… is inherently ideological, meaning that it inexorably aims at a specific understanding of the world, one which often differs greatly from the lived reality of young Religious Zionist men and women…

What is ideology? One definition comes from the critical approach to ideology in the last fifty years. Generally speaking, an ideology is an all-encompassing vision, like the great “isms” of modernity. This vision makes extreme demands on society, while ignoring the needs and ambitions of the “the little guy.” … ideology creates a gap between a person’s consciousness and his real existence. This is true of his individual existence, according to the more general explanation, and of his socioeconomic existence, which Marxism sees as a person’s true existence. The problem with ideology is therefore not that it serves the political and economic needs of the powerful. The problem lies in the very need for ideology, in grasping for a single supreme value and a lone source of truth, which has nothing to do with the truth of a person’s real existence… Ideology is a dead idea, an idol, and is therefore inhuman.

A similar critique applies to ideological education. Ideological education does not just convey ideas and concepts. In addition to the explicit messages, education also implicitly tells the student that they must obey these messages. Not only should they not be questioned, but any questioning of them is itself forbidden. It is a transgression, bringing on sanctions and punishment (primarily in the social realm), as well as feelings of guilt. In this context, the problem with ideology is that it creates people driven by abstract ideas and by alienation from reality. Another problem develops when ideology comes with a denial of the alienation it represents. Such an ideology does not recognize any other legitimate procedure for determining the true and the good. This leads a person to feel guilty and to violently make himself “toe the line.”

As we noted, Religious Zionism arose in the golden age of ideology, and it is ideological by nature. It demands an all-encompassing vision, without consideration for the individual or reality. Moreover, young Religious Zionist men and women live in multiple worlds, leading to an increased ideological excess. These Religious Zionist men and women have more than one identity. As just one example of their multiple identities, many religious youths struggle with the question, “Are you Jewish or Israeli?” The gaping chasm between the lived experience of Religious Zionist youth and the Torah, taken to be a totalizing entity, is unavoidable. In order to be accepted in this world, the Torah distances itself from the complexity of reality and becomes ideology.

I must emphasize that, as opposed to thinkers who deny any and all value that might be attributed to ideology, I think that there is no human existence without some degree of ideology. A person needs to explain himself and his life, to try and organize them in a meaningful way, and this requires ideas and concepts. In practice, the idea will never perfectly match lived existence, but it only becomes problematic when the difference becomes too great. At that point, the ideology ceases to be an interpretation of reality and becomes a false consciousness, as the Marxists claimed. I suspect that we often live in exactly this state. We rightly take pride in our idealistic youth, who are a refreshing holdout against the boring Israeli landscape. However, is idealism always a good thing? Does it not bear a heavy price? Is it not itself harmful? One of my friends described the harm like so: Religious Zionism combines an ideology about the land of Israel (as opposed to love of your homeland or faith) with its nature as a community of baalei teshuvah. It adds to this emphasized military service, making for a very dangerous combination.

  1. Rav Shagar, Shiurim al Lekutei Moharan, vol. 1, 159-160

Faith is an affirmation, a saying “yes” to reality as it is, with trust in it as it exists. I am not always able to give an accounting of how it will look, but the main point is not an accounting from a perspective external to life, but the fundamental approach, the readiness to say “Here I am” to what happens. Faith does not grant certainty that you will have money, rather it is faith in some personal, infinite good that constantly exists and is always present, and therefore the worry dissolves and gives its space to the possibility of living life itself. The very faith in life makes the way things are into good, into something independent of external circumstances, be they good or bad. Faith can be neither proven nor disproven; the value it contains is that it directs man to live his life. When a person has faith he is able to pay attention to his personal desires rather than constantly comparing himself to others and worrying about the future. In this sense, faith enables a state of renewal, as Rebbe Nahman writes in this teaching, “And then the soul shines in excess.”

  1. Rav Shagar, “My Faith,” Faith Shattered and Restored, 22-24

In effect, according to Rabbi Nahman, not only is faith not a public language, it is not a language at all. That is why it is so difficult to fully depict one’s faith. Something will always remain unspoken, a mystery and intimacy that cannot and should not be revealed, for baring it would violate the intimacy of faith. This is not to gloss over the communal aspect of faith, which is by nature a public language as well; however, the collectivity of faith is the second stage, not the first. […] Hence, what I am trying to describe here is not a philosophy or outlook regarding faith. Philosophies and outlooks are, in this context, nothing but rationalizations – apologetics, even – whose sole role is to justify what has already been arrived at, and which must thus be regarded with a certain wariness. They are not the substance of faith but explanations for it; thus, they are ancillary to it and always involve a degree of duality. To paraphrase the opponents of Maimonides and his school, who stated that a God whose existence must be proven is no God at all, I offer the absurd assertion that a believer who requires an intellectual proof for his faith is no believer at all.

There is no proof of faith, and no certainty of faith to be gained with a proof. In any event, proofs do not impact our existence like a gun pointed at one’s temple; they do not touch upon the believer’s inner life. That is why, when it comes to faith, I prefer to use terms such as “occurrence” and “experience.” God’s presence in my prayers is as tangible to me as the presence of a human interlocutor. That is not a proof but rather an immediate experience. Similarly, I do not assert that the sight of someone standing in front of me is proof of the person’s existence. That would be foolish: After all, I see you. But try as I might, I cannot refrain entirely from rationalization and apologetics. In fact, as soon as I put things into words, I am ensnared by the same fallacy. The price of language is duality, and, in the context of faith, unreality. Even what I am about to present here constitutes speech about faith; hence, it is a pale simulacrum. Faith does not reside in words, and certainly not in any exposition or essay. The language of faith is the first-person address of prayer. It is not speech about something, but rather activity and occurrence. That is why there will always be a gap between the words and what they aim to represent.

This is not to minimize rationalizations; to my mind, rationalism is a sacred task, without which “men would swallow each other alive.” Barring a shared rational platform, society cannot exist, because rationalism, despite being “speech about,” is a prerequisite of communication and understanding among people. Let us imagine a world where every individual “shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4), conducting himself solely according to his own inner convictions. Such a world would quickly degenerate into one where man would kill by his faith. Yet when we discuss faith in the personal context – the existential, not the social – rationalization is the source of the gap I am trying to bridge. Having clarified that, I will attempt to describe the difficulties faced by believers in the modern world, and how they can cope.

Rav Froman

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §84

I was the last rabbi of the town of Talmei Yosef in Yamit before the withdrawal. On Friday, the army set up a siege, and on Shabbat I spoke in the synagogue. I said, based on something my wife had said, that even though in just a few days they would carry us out of here, our struggle still has great value. We are protesting against injustice. I thought it was a nice speech. After the end of the prayers, when we went home, people approached me and very respectfully said to me, “What was the rabbi talking about? Why would he depress us like that?” I had thought my words would encourage people… In the town of Atsmonah, they planted trees during the withdrawal. I could have planted trees as a form of protest, but they planted the trees because even in the midst of the evacuation they believed it would not happen.

The same thing happened before the withdrawal from Gush Katif. I was in the town of Bedolaḥ the night before they came to empty it. I spoke there and I said that even if the town was evacuated, our struggle had not been in vain. One of the residents burst out at me and said, “You came here from Tekoa just to tell us that they’re going to evacuate us?”

Perhaps if I had been at the level of faith of that Jew from Bedolaḥ, a miracle would have occurred, and the evacuation would not have taken place. On the other hand, this could be the very peak of heresy, because ignoring reality means ignoring the word of God. […] Faith can be freedom from subjugation to facts, without being blind to reality, and the voice of God contained therein. This distinction is as slim as a strand of hair.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §131

Rav Shagar used to critique the religious community, saying that their faith was not realistic, it was illusory. In my eyes, the problem with religious people’s faith is that instead of faith in God it has become faith in ourselves, in the rightness of our path, our worldview, in who we are. It therefore closes our hearts off to the divine.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, Hasidim Tsohakim MiZeh §82

What is faith? Non-believers believe in a longstanding and orderly universe. Reason is all about discovering this universe’s underlying laws and logic, which together allow one to predict future results. But believers, as you know, don’t have reason… The life of faith is a life of dynamic innovation, where you can’t know what will be… It means casting reason aside, living in a world connected directly to God.

  1. Rav Menachem Froman, “This Too Is a Religious Position,” Ten Li Zeman, 217

The spiritual posture which the Gemara recommends in the face of historical upheavals is humility: there’s no way of knowing in advance where things will lead. Everything is apparently possible… According to this, we could explain the conclusion of the story, “Rabbi Zechariah’s humility destroyed our home…,” as ironi. Certainly the gemara wants us to be humble, but this humility isn’t a “mitsvah” that decides the fate of the entire world (Bavli, Kiddushin 40b). Even the greatest virtue (as the Rabbis say, “humility is greater than all other virtues”) cannot guarantee the future. History is the domain of the unforeseen, and case-in-point: It was the very righteousness of the spiritual leader of the generation that led to the destruction.

For someone uncomfortable with attributing an approach like this to the rabbis, I would emphasize that the gemara certainly connected this sort of posture toward history with a spiritual posture of fear of heaven: “Happy is the man who is fearful always.” Someone who stands astonished before the ups and downs of history, with neither certainty nor confidence (bitahon), maybe be expressing a more religious astonishment than someone who has an absolute criterion (ethical, religious, etc.) for evaluating the way history operates. The peak of knowledge is knowing that we do not know–this is perhaps the most central idea in medieval religious thought, and perhaps this peak is all a believer can enact when faced with the facts of life and their unforeseen consequences.

 

Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State: Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

Rav Shagar Goes Beyond the State:
Rosenzweig’s Non-Statist “Jewishness” and the Primordial Torah

More thesis notes.

In the last post, I focused on a passage from Rav Shagar entitled “Not Yet,” wherein Rav Shagar said that Religious Zionism has to shift its focus from the state to the community. While not rejecting statist Zionism in toto, Shagar withdraws all Religious value from the state and relocates it within the classical body politic of the Jewish Diaspora, the community.

Shagar does not give us a full depiction of what this non-statist religious community would look like. However, Shagar often argued that the Religious Zionist community should adopt the Haredi community’s minority posture, wherein they do not define themselves based on the space in which they live or the other groups with whom they interact. In several of these passages, he appeals to Rosenzweig for a philosophical formulation of this mode of existence, and in the derashah “Love and Law,” he describes this as how Judaism looked before the emergence of Rav Kook’s religious Zionism:

What was the spiritual situation before Rav Kook’s teachings? What was that “religious Jewishness” that we mentioned? […]

Rosenzweig taught that Jewishness manifests as commitment and being rooted in the covenant, which are the fundamental acts of Judaism. According to this definition, the Jewish exile is when you create of a sheltered, a-historical, family space, without being concerned for surroundings or engaged in the rules of history. The Jews “lack the passionate attachment to the things that constitute the primary… ‘objects’ of other historical peoples and nations, attachments that ultimately constitute their vitality and endurance as peoples and nations: land, territory, and architecture; regional and national languages; laws [=state laws], customs, and institutions.” Their land exists only as a holy land for which they yearn, and their holy language is not their first language, not the language that they speak in their daily lives. Jewishness is bound up and connected only and entirely in itself. “Our life is no longer meshed with anything outside ourselves. We have struck root in ourselves.” “And so, in the final analysis, [the Jewish nation] is not alive in the sense the nations are alive: in a national life manifest on this earth, in a national territory, solidly based and staked out on the soil. It is alive only in that which guarantees it will endure beyond time, in that which pledges it ever lastingness, in drawing its own eternity from the sources of the blood.”

The Jew being connected only in himself, of the nation in its very existence, creates a two-fold relationship with the “outside.” Other nations and cultures, either do not exist from the Jew’s perspective, the “outside” does not enter his horizon at all…”

The Jews are always at home, because they are never in a home; their home is their blood. As Rosenzweig lays it out, the critical distinction between the Jewish people and other peoples is that the Jewish people don’t have a state, or all the laws, customs, and institutions that come with it. Rav Shagar argues that the Religious Zionist community should adopt this sort of posture within the state of Israel. The state should be a geo-political space in which they live but with which they do not identify.

This is the same sort of existence Rav Shagar attributes to Haredism (if not to contemporary Haredi communities, which fail to live up to his idealized “authentic” or “rectified” Haredism). They live in the state but do not attribute religious value to it. Their religious lives are entirely separate from the state, and they follow its laws, speak its language, and participate in its institutions only incidentally. (Notably, Rav Shagar also attributes to them an understanding of holiness as bound up in the past, which he finds philosophically formulated in  [Stephane Moses’s] Walter Benjamin).

Similarly, Religious Zionism needs to reorient itself around the community as the locus of religious life, following the laws of the Torah community, bound up in “the infinite Torah” (seemingly the primordial Torah of the Kabbalah). They need to become, and embrace being, a minority within the state of Israel, defined more by their Jewishness than by their Israeliness. To the degree that they do identify with the state of Israel, this will be in contrast with and perhaps even in contradiction to their religious identities. As Rav Shagar says, being a Religious Zionist means living in multiple worlds, having a split, “schizophrenic” identity, and affirming contradictory values.

Purim 5774 – And It Was In the Days of Ahashverosh: On the Timely and Timeless in Megilat Esther

וַיְהִי בִּימֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ

The books of Tanakh are meant to be both timeless and timely. The Torah existed for thousands of years before the world was created[1] but was written in the language of man[2]. It is meant to have meaning on multiple levels. This means that while distinguishing the historical context of a biblical event is important, one should not disregard the unique extra-historical significance[3]. However, when a book opens up with a line like, “And it was in the days of..” it is clear that the history is going to be important. With this introductory line, the author of the Scroll of Esther tells the reader that this book is dominated by a timely message, which means that the timely significance will have to be drawn from there[4].

Which Persian king exactly is intended when the Book of Esther says the name “Achashveros” is not a simple question to answer. There are several perfectly good candidates, which is further complicated by  the presence of a second Achashverosh in tanakh[5]. However, sufficient examination of the history of the Persian kings of the era would indicate that the Achashverosh of Megillat Esther is the Persian king known as Xerxes. This in and of itself is not particularly meaningful, but what makes this important is Xerxes’s position shortly after Cyrus the Great, referred to in Tanakh as Coresh. Cyrus the Great is most famous for undoing the work of the Assyrian Empire. When the Babylonians took power from the Assyrians, Cyrus decided that the best policy was not the Assyrian policy of exiling peoples from their native lands, but rather that each nation should be returned to its native land, and be permitted to rebuild its temples in a semblance of independence[6]. The relevance of this to Megillat Esther is deeper than the sea, a fact that midrashei Chazal highlight beautifully.

Of all the various Midrashim on Megillat Esther, perhaps the most famous is that of the “כלים שונים”, the vessels used in the Feast of Achashverosh in the beginning of Megillat Esther. In an attempt to simultaneously answer the questions of why this first chapter is needed in the narrative and, more importantly, what Bnei Yisrael did to merit the decree of destruction[7], the midrash says that ‘א decreed destruction upon the Jews because they participated in the Feast wherein the vessels of the Beit HaMikdash were being used. This midrash is problematic on two fronts. Firstly, why is this a big enough sin to merit destruction. Eating from the vessels of the Mikdash is really more of a misdemeanor. Secondly, this is historically problematic. Achashverosh comes after Coresh, and Coresh was the king who sent the Jews back to Israel to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash, and alongside this he sent the vessels of the Mikdash back to Israel for the rebuilding. Thus when the vessels are being depicted by the Midrash as being in Shushan, they are actually already back in Israel. So what is going on?

In truth, this is not a problem at all, assuming one has a proper understanding of midrashim. Midrashim are not necessarily meant to be understood literally. Rather, what midrashim do is highlight and expand upon latent ideas in the text. Most midrashim are based off of incredibly close readings of the text, and if you can’t figure out what a midrash is based off of, it means you’re not paying enough attention. Thus midrashim, by depicting thematic scenes in the text, also draw your attention to these themes. If you take a midrash literally you miss the whole point, and worse, you obscure the value and and purpose of the text of Tanakh[8]. Thus the midrash of the vessels is not saying that Bnei Yisrael ate from the vessels of the Mikdash but rather exactly the opposite[9]. Instead of being in Israel eating from the vessels, the Jews of Shushan are in the exile eating from the vessels of King Achashverosh. This image becomes a startling theme evident throughout the text of Megillat Esther.

Megillat Esther, on a textual level, bears out the assertion of this Midrash. In all of Tanakh, only Jerusalem, the Beit HaMikdash, and Shushan are called “HaBirah”. Achashverosh’s first feast lasts 180 days, followed by a shorter 7 day feast, corresponding exactly to the amount of time from the command to build the Mishkan and its completion, plus the 7 days of its inauguration. Both King Shlomo and Achashverosh held feasts in the 3rd year of their reign, Achashverosh in order to show off his “Riches and Glories” (אושר וכבוד), Shlomo in context of a prophecy about building the Beit HaMikdash where ‘א promises him “Riches and Glory”. If one imagined a scenario where all the Jews are fasting, including their leader, and said leader has to appropriately enter the throne room of the King at great risk to their well being,that could either refer to the Kohen HaGadol in the Mikdash on Yom Kippur or Esther coming before Achashverosh in the Megillah[10]. When Mordechai is introduced it is specifically noted, as part of his introduction, that he is an exile. All of these verses serve to highlight the contrast between the Jews of the Exile and the theoretical messianic era occurring in parallel to the narrative of the Megillah, a parallel brought to its peak when one considers that the days of Achashverosh would have been shortly after the days of Zecharia.

The prophet Zecharia is one of the major prophets of the Return to Zion and the Second Temple. Thus, when the Jews of the exile had a question two years into the building of the new temple, they sent it to Zecharia. With the building of the Second Temple well under way, the Jews of the Exile needed to know if they should still be observing the fasts that were enacted to remember the destruction of the First Temple. In typical prophetic fashion, Zecharia launches into a tirade about how if they would just take care of the poor and their fellow man all roads would be open to them, how all they really need to do is to create Truth and Peace. These of course parallel the mitzvot of Purim to give gifts to the poor and others in need, and the scene from the last chapter of the Megillah Esther, in which a letter comprised of “words of Truth and Peace” is sent out. Perhaps most accusingly of all, Zechariah (Ch. 7) describes a messianic vision in which the nations of the world all come to Jerusalem (הבירה) in order to ask the איש יהודי for religious advice. In contrast, the only other  איש יהודי in Tanakh is Mordechai the exile, sitting in the gates of Shushan. Everything is turned on its head.

The consistent, timely, theme of Megillat Esther is obvious. The Jews of the days of Achashverosh knew that they were supposed to be in Israel, and yet they weren’t. Megillat Esther was given to them to remind them of their forgotten duty. They ought to have been in Israel helping build the Beit HaMikdash, not languishing in the Exile. This is the timely message, from which the timeless message can be easily recognized.

The Jews of the Exile knew what they ought to have been doing. They had a prophet declaring to them that Coresh was doing ‘א’s work in sending them back to Israel and that they ought to have gone to help build the Second Temple[11]. We don’t have prophecy today to tell us what to do. Instead all we have is ‘א’s word as embodied in the Torah, and generally speaking, we all know what it says. More often than not, we know what we are supposed to be doing. We know what the right choice is. The charge that Megillat Esther leveled at the Jews in the Babylonian Exile is the same charge we ought to be leveling at ourselves every day: you know what you have to do, now go do it.

[1] Talmud Bavli Shabbat 88b, Bereishit Rabbah 8:2.

[2] Sifre Bamidbar 112, Moreh Nevukhim 1:26.

[3] The Bible From Within, Meir Weiss, First Introduction.

[4] This essay draws heavily from R’ Hayyim Angel’s lecture “Megillat Ester: What they didn’t teach us in school” and Rav Menachem Lebitag’s lecture, “Between Ezra and Esther: considering author’s intent in Ketuvim”, both easily available at www.yutorah.org. Another useful resource in this composition were Yonatan Grossman’s essays on Megillat Esther from http://www.vbm-torah.org/ester.html.

[5] For more, see the above mentioned sources from Leibtag and Grossman.

[6]  This can be found at the beginning of Ezra and the end of Divrei HaYamim II, the very last verses of Tanakh.

[7] To highlight how difficult this question is, it is worth noting that not only does the text never mention Bnei Yisrael performing any sin, the only thing Haman really has to accuse them with before the King was that they were keeping to their own laws.

[8] R’ Yoel Bin Nun, http://www.ybn.co.il/mamrim/PDF/Pesach_Lot.pdf

[9] In a similar vein, the midrash says that feast was intended to celebrate the passing of Yirmiyahu’s date for the return to Israel. Achashverosh would have had no reason to celebrate the 70 years coming to an end, but the Jews out to have been celebrating in Israel and weren’t.

[10] This is reminiscent of the midrash stating that anytime “המלך” is used it is actually a reference to ‘א. Achasheverosh has replaced ‘א in the story, and his palace has replaced א’s palace.

[11] See R’ Leibtag’s “One Isaiah or Two?”, also available on www.yutorah.org.

Parashat Beshalah – On Who We Were and Who We Can Be

א’ יִמְלֹךְ לְעֹלָם וָעֶד

Parashat Beshalach is composed of 116 pesukim that split neatly into two groups of 58. In the first, which might be best titled ‘Miracles’, Bnei Yisrael are guided through the desert by miraculous pillars of cloud and fire and are saved from Egypt by ‘א’s miraculous intervention at the dead sea (Shemot 13:17-15:21). The second section, let’s call it ‘Complaints’, consists of Bnei Yisrael complaining to Moshe twice about lack of water and once about lack of food, their failure to uphold any of the requirements of the manna, and the battle with Amalek (15:22-17:17).

Miracles establishes the new status quo in the desert, wherein all of the people’s needs are cared for in a miraculous fashion. They are guided not by a human leader, but by pillars of cloud or fire that moved on their own. Despite this, the people still feared Paroah (14:10) and could not fight back when they were attacked at the Sea of Reeds, and so ‘א  fought for them, destroying the Egyptian army, and leading to the people fearing ‘א instead, and this is capped by the singular use in Tanakh of the root “have faith in” by a nation, “the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses.”[1] (14:31). This would seem to represent a great changeover in the mindset of the people after they leave Egypt. Unfortunately, things are not so simple.

In direct contradiction to the trust of 14:31, Complaints depicts a situation of complaining and doubting. The complaints betray not only a strange desire to return to Egypt, but also a complete lack of trust in ‘א and in Moshe His servant. What explains this strange contradiction? The answer lies in the unifying factor between the complaints of Bnei Yisrael after the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and their singular complaint prior to it.

The main thrust of their complaint before the Splitting of the Sea of Reeds is that they would rather have been slaves in Egypt. This formulation, and others like it, characterize all of the complains found in parashat Beshalach, but this one is particularly poignant because of one fact: Bnei Yisrael could have fought back. The torah specifically states that they left Egypt armed, and yet they don’t even try fight back. Not only do they not attempt to fight back, they don’t even ask ‘א to fight for them. The Ibn Ezra explains this problem with a deep psychological insight. He says that Bnei Yisrael were still stuck in their mindset as slaves to Egypt, and as slaves they could not possibly imagine the possibility of successfully fighting their masters. Slaves rarely succeed in armed rebellion. This “slave mindset” is the reason that they did not fight back[2], but it in itself is just one manifestation of a more basic issue: Bnei Yisrael are still thinking like they’re in Egypt.

This “Egypt-mindset” becomes obvious from a close reading of the text. The desire to be back in Egypt is an obvious example. More interesting is the parallel between “the people feared the Lord”(14:31) and “the people feared Paroah”(14:10). 14:31 is seem on the surface like a statement of praise for Bnei Yisrael, that they have achieved this new level of trust in ‘א. But this parallel highlight a subtly devastating problem in their relationship with ‘א. They’re relating to Him in the same manner they related to Paroah.  That’s why Bnei Yisrael emphasize all the things they had in Egypt and why the lack of those things cause them to question the presence and attentiveness of their new master. They don’t get that leaving Egypt didn’t mean trading one master for another. Leaving Egypt was meant to be a paradigm shift, and Bnei Yisrael didn’t get the message.

Several powerful midrashim highlight this idea.[3] The Mekhilta explains “And Moses led Israel onward from the Red Sea” (15:22) to mean that Moshe had to force Bnei Yisrael to move on from the sea, that Bnei Yisrael just wanted to go back to Egypt. The Midrash says that when Bnei Yisrael saw the Egyptian army wiped out in the Sea they took it to mean that they could return to Egypt without fearing for their freedom and worship idols there, which was why Moshe had to make them move on. Perhaps most strikingly, the Midrash Rabbah says that despite all of the miracles that had been, and would yet be, done for Bnei Yisrael, they brought the “idol of Michah” with them as they crossed the bottom of the sea. This is a reference to Shoftim 17-18 which depicts the creating and worshiping of this idol. As it had not been created at the time of the Splitting of the Sea, the midrash obviously intends not the idol itself but rather the idea it represents, that of Bnei Yisrael making a fundamental mistake in how they conceive of their relationship[4] with ‘א. Bnei Yisrael are may have physically left Egypt, but they brought their misconceptions with them.

The strongest indicator of this misconception is found in a seemingly innocuous line in the Song at the Sea. Shemot 16:18, “The Lord shall reign for ever and ever.” This phrase has since been reproduced all over the Jewish liturgy. However, much of its meaning is lost in the subtlety of Ancient Hebrew grammar. This phrase is technically in Future-tense, and so would literally mean not that ‘א reigns “now-and-forever” but rather that ‘א will in the future reign forever and ever. This is of course theologically untenable, but the vagaries of Ancient Hebrew grammar enabled commentators to explain it as “now-and-forever.”[5] The Mekhilta, however, understands this line literally, and sees there the ultimate corruption of Yetziat Mitsraim.[6] Essentially, this line places redemption now in the present, but in the future. Could there be any more powerful statement about the mindset of Bnei Yisrael?

This Galut Mindset has many ramifications. Most obvious but perhaps least significant, is just a matter of wanting to be in Galut. Being in Galut make one want to be in Galut, something that makes it very hard to leave. Rashi (Bereishit 47:28) actually puts the start of Galut Mitzrayim at Beraishit 47:27-28, the end of Parashat Vayigash and the beginning of Parashat Vayehi. The lack of a separation between the two Parshiyot is unique in the Torah, and cause the redundancy of the phrases “And Israel dwelt in the land of Egypt”(27) and “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt”(28) to be quite obvious. Galut only starts when they going from “dwelling” in Egypt to “living” there. In that sense, your mindset is at least as important as your location, which is why leaving Egypt doesn’t stop Bnei Yisrael from wanting to be there. The first step to leaving Galut is wanting to.

The second ramification of this idea is a function of how we live our lives on a daily basis. Is Redemption happening now, or are we still waiting for it? This issue is far from theoretical. Redemption makes certain demands of us, not just in terms of where we choose to live but also in terms of how we choose to live. Galut is a consequence of incorrect behavior, and Geulah means that we need to make sure we don’t bring Galut upon ourselves yet again. Our actions ought to reflect Redemption, regardless of where we live.

Lastly, a matter of vision and purpose. How we think of ourselves and our past dictates how we think of others and our future, and thinking about the future in terms of the past is both harmfully and unnecessarily limiting[7]. In Galut we have come to think of ourselves as “Hated Amongst the Nations,” something that was certainly true once, but is not necessarily so any longer[8]. The sense of persecution and isolation we have acquired in Galut colors how we see everything. Halakha in the Galut has been very defensive and isolationist, separating us more and more from the rest of ‘א’s children[9]. This need not be so. There have been enough more open and accepting Halakhic-decisors throughout Jewish history, the Meiri being a prime example, for Bnei Yisrael today to be able to interact with the Nations of the World in an open and Halakhic manner[10]. Beyond Halakha, the Redemption is a matter of eschatology[11]. Throughout the prophetic literature we find many different possibilities in terms of what the future redemption will look like. Many books discuss a war with the nations, either with them attacking Bnei Yisrael, with ‘א exacting vengeance on them for their crimes, or something in between. But there are also prophets for whom no such war will occur, where the End of History is depicted not as a age of Dominance but as an era of Harmony, where Bnei Yisrael enable the nations to live in the presence of ‘א. These are all potential eschatological visions. All are embraced by the last pair of Maimonides Principles of Faith. So which do we believe in? What future are we hoping for? Feeling like we are hated has many Jews hoping for the destruction of the nations. But ultimately this is an obscuration of Bnei Yisrael’s goal as a Light unto the Nations. We cannot be a Kingdom of Priests if there are none to aid in the service of ‘א. We cannot experience Redemption if our idea of Redemption is actually more reflective of Galut.

 

[1] Translations from http://www.mechon-mamre.org

[2] Rav Yehuda Amital, Z”TL, used this mindset as an explanation for ‘א taking the jewish people on a different path than the Road of the Land of the Philistines.

[3] All the midrashim in this paragraph are brought from their quotation in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalah (Hebrew)

[4] “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[5] See Onkelos, Ramban, and Rabbeinu Bechaye Ad loc.

[6] Quoted in “Seven Years of Lectures on the Weekly torah Portion,” Yeshayahu Lebovich, Parashat Beshalach (Hebrew)

[7] For an examples of this one need look no further than the paintings we make depicting the future. The Old City of Jerusalem is full to the brim with paintings depicting the Temple Mount with neither the Dome of the Rock nor the Al-Akhsa mosque atop it, clearly an eschatological depiction, and yet there is no Beit HaMikdash; Bnei Yisrael gather at the Western Wall, Or worse yet, sometimes the pictures do depict the Bet HaMikdash atop the Temple Mount, but Bnei Yisrael still gather at the Wall! Paintings like these are something only a Galut-mindset could create.

[8] Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks’ book, “Future Tense,” discusses this issue at length.

[9] Prof. Eliezer Berkovits, The Halakha: Its Power and Its Purpose (Hebrew)

[10] For those concerned that the Meiri is a minority opinion, I refer you to Mishna Eduyot 1:4, “Why do we mention the words of the individual alongside the words of the majority even though the law follows the majority? In case Beit Din should choose to rely on his words.”

[11] A fancy word meaning “religious thought about the end-times”.

Parashat Masei – Towards an Ethics of Responsibility

וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ

Parashat Masei concludes Sefer Bamidbar by discussing the division of the Land of Israel into twelve sections for the 12[1] tribes of Israel. Additionally, it contains a few extra passages related to the division of the land, such as the designating of 48 cities for the Levi’im, six as cities of refuge, and the command to the Daughters of Tselophehad not to marry outside their tribe, in order to keep their inherited lands within the tribe. In addition, there is a passage discussing the laws of killing, both intentional and accidental. As an unintentional murderer is able to flee for his life to a city of refuge, the placement of this passage seems a fitting extension of the designation of the cities of the Levi’im. However, the law of the city of refuge is mentioned briefly in Shemot 21:13, and discussed at length in Devarim 19, and thus, its insertion here seems a little odd. If this passage had been inserted by Shemot 21:13, no one would have batted an eye, and then when the text described the designation of cities for the Levi’im, it would simply have had to mention that six of their cities would be cities of refuge, and that would be that. Instead, this lengthy passage is inserted at the end of Bamidbar, and its placement requires explanation. This explanation can be found by comparing this passage with the parallel passage from Devarim 19, and the end of Vayikra 18.

As opposed to Shemot 21:13, Devarim 19 contains a discussion of cities of refuge as lengthy as the one found in Bamidbar 35[2] . However, the structure and content of the two passages vary greatly. The passage in Bamidbar is essentially a discussion of the laws of killing in general, and thus it also includes the laws of an unintentional killer by default. The first mention of the purpose of the cities of refuge doesn’t even mention that the killing is unintentional. “And the cities shall be for you as a refuge from the avenger, that the killer not die, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.” (Bamidbar 35:12) It’s only a few verses later that the intent of the verse is clarified: “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them, shall these six cities be a refuge, that every one that kills any person through error may flee there.” (35:15). By contrast, the passage in Devarim 19 is dedicated to the unintentional killer and the cities of refuge, and only mentions intentional killing in context of the possibility of an intentional killer hiding in the city of refuge. “But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and rises up against him, and smites him mortally that he die; and he flees into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die” (Devarim 19:11-12). Thus the passage in Bamidbar seems to equate the two modes of killing somewhat, whereas the passage in Devarim does not. This is reinforced by the fact that Devarim simply mentions the city of refuge as protecting him from the threat of death by the avenger, while Bamidbar depicts the killer being taken there for judgement:

Then the congregation shall judge between the killer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances; and the congregation shall deliver the killer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge where he had fled; and he shall dwell there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Bamidbar 35:25)

Further, while in Sefer Devarim the city of refuge is a privilege and a gift of safety for this unintentional killer, in Sefer Bamidbar the killer is actually forced to stay in the city (35:25), making it as much a punishment as a reprieve. It is clear from the passage at Sefer Bamidbar that while the unintentional killer should certainly be able to avail himself of the city of refuge, he is not totally guiltless.

While this explains what makes this passage unique it fails to explain its placement. Finding this explanation requires contrasting this passage with verses from Vayikra 18:

And the land was defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ), therefore I did visit the iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Therefore you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the citizen, nor the stranger that settles among you—for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ)—that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it (בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ), as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra 18:25-28)[3]

These verses, describing the transgressions of the previous residents of the Land of Israel that caused their ownership of the land to be forfeit, are clearly referenced in the passage in Bamidbar 35.

So you shall not pollute the land that you are in; for blood, it pollutes the land; and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him that shed it[4]. And thou shalt not defile the land (וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ) which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 35:33-34)

The passages even use the exact same wording, highlighting their innate connection. Moreover, both of these passages explain certain commands in terms of the effect trespassing them has on the land that the Nation of Israel will dwell in. The Land of Israel will not tolerate such intense trespasses. Even unintentionally, the killing of another person is such a severe crime as to have serious repercussions not just on the person[5] but on their surroundings as well, and, much like the sins of the nations that previously dwelled in the land, it costs them their ability to remain in the land[6]. Thus, the reason that the passage regarding the laws of a killer are placed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, right in the middle of a discussion about the Division of the Land, is that they are a condition for, and a feature of, dwelling in the land.

The narrative and subsections of the Division of the Land are the final section of Sefer Bamidbar. They are the final necessary preparations before the people enter the land, and into this section is inserted laws emphasizing not just the conditions of living in the land, but the responsibility of the people who live in it. Even the unintentional killer must stand trial and endure exile (Bamidbar 35:24-25). Even the Kohen HaGadol, responsible for the religious and spiritual life of the nation, must bear the responsibility for this tragedy (Ibid). Upon entering the land, ‘א’s active and overt interaction in the life of the people begins to decrease. ‘א helps the people conquer in Sefer Yehoshua[7], but in Sefer Shoftim[8] the mark of a good leader is the lack of active involvement by ‘א. As ‘א becomes less involved, the people are expected to step in and take up more responsibility. In a world where we do not ever see open miracles, this responsibility is paramount. We cannot expect ‘א to simply take care of things, and assume that absolves us of our responsibilities. We have to stand tall and take responsibility, even for accidents[9] and mistakes, even for those things done by the people in our charge rather than by ourselves. There is a marked difference between conscious transgression and unavoidable misconduct, but there is never a reason to shirk responsibility.

[1] The Tribe of Levi does not get a portion, as they are split up into 48 cities throughout the other tribes, but the Tribe of Yosef is split into two separate tribes, Ephraim and Menashe, so the number of tribes remains twelve. This trade-off between the tribe of Levi and the splitting of Yosef’s tribe can be found throughout the torah. The only place Levi is listed alongside both Ephraim and Menashe is at the end of Sefer Devarim in Moshe’s farewell blessings, where Shimon is not mentioned, and so the number twelve is preserved.

[2] Much of the analysis in this paragraph is derived from this article by Rav Yonatan Grossman: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.59/42mm.htm.

[3] This is foreshadowed in Bereishit 15:16, when ‘א explains the delay in the Bnei Yisrael’s inheriting the land by saying,“for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

[4] For those in whose eyes this seems barbaric, it is more than worth taking a look at Moshe Greenberg’s “The Biblical Grounding of Human Value”, https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BzQYdQcngakScnRLVmdDZGRMZ0U&authuser=0

[5] For more on this effect, see the sources and theoretical discussion found in this essay: http://pinkasot.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/the-moral-price-of-a-justified-war-a-clarification-of-my-position/.

[6] This explains the punishment of the unintentional killer in Sefer Bamidbar, where he is confined to the city of refuge. Much as the sins of Vayikra 18 merit exile, so does unintentional murder. Thus the city of refuge is not just a safe place, it’s also a form of exile, a little piece of “not the Land of Israel” inside the Land of Israel that the killer is stuck in.

[7] See the conquest of Yeriho in Yehoshua 6, for example.

[8] See the narratives of Otniel Ben-Kenaz (Shoftim 3:7-10) and Ehud Ben-Gerah (3:12-30), for example.

[9] “The difference between an accident and a tragedy is that an accident is preventable” ~ Yehuda Chaim Rothner