Shiur: The Funny Thing About Mitsvot – Adar Bet 2019

The Funny Thing About Mitsvot: Humanity, Divinity, and Irony

I. Take life lightly!

2. Rav Menachem Froman, They Make Hasidim Laugh, §27-28

27. Take life lightly! Clap your hands, run, dance! […] Stop being a Jew like me, who recites the Shema and takes the Mishneh Berurah and Shulan Arukh so seriously. Because truth be told, it’s also written that the Shema has to be recited with an intentional heart. And what exactly is an intentional heart? Lightness; it’s when your heart carries you through your Shema!

Let’s stop being like those who bear the cross of the Torah with such gravity! Let’s stop being like those who can’t take the Torah lightly. That’s what leads to heresy. That’s why the majority of the Jewish people no longer keeps the Torah. What is it I need? To dance the Torah, to jump the Torah! What’s missing is Purim. That’s what’s holding back my service of God.

Years ago, I suggested to my wife that we change our last name from Froman to Purim. Instead of saying, “Rabbi Froman will today meet with Arafat, representatives from Hamas, etc.”, they’d say it was Rabbi Purim! It would sound completely different! Then no one would take what I do too seriously…

28. […] In classical Judaism, all of the commandments commemorate the exodus from Egypt, but now we have reached a new era, an era of laughter and freedom. Until now, all the commandments were very serious. Passover is about pathos. The Torah has lots of pathos, it’s very serious. Now, we have a new era, a new Torah, the Torah of the land of Israel, the Torah of the Messiah. All the commandments commemorate the laughter of Purim, not the pathos of Passover.

To be or not to be is a serious, weighty question. However, Shakespeare wrote in the very same play that the whole world is a stage, that everything is a game. Do you hear me asking the most important question there is in life, whether or not to be? This question is just a joke, it’s a game… it’s just a game…

There is something that takes priority over the question of whether or not to be. It even takes priority over saving a life, which is so important that it overrides Shabbat. What is this thing that takes priority over saving a life? Being before God. Before God. Being before God in this world and the world to come, being before God and knowing that everything we have done in our lives is a joke. Life, death, it’s all a joke before God.

II. Do the Mitsvot, But with a Wink

2. Rav Shagar, Faith Shattered and Restored, “Living with Nothingness,” 103 n.35
Translated by Elie Leshem, with minor changes.

This spirit of lightness is expressed through the injection of faith with a humorous dimension. As Rabbi Nahman wrote, the power of humor lies in its capacity to illuminate the limitations of our world in relation to the divine infinitude.

 

3. Rav Shagar, Shiurim Al Lekutei Moharan, on Lekutei Moharan I:6

Rebbe Naḥman claims that the very concepts in which we live, concepts of sin and reward and punishment, in a certain sense corporealize God. They lack spirituality in comparison to the infinite, necessitating a “World to Come” teshuvah to make up for the lower, earthly, teshuvah. Rebbe Naḥman essentially demands that we do teshuvah for the forms of religiosity in which we perform the commandment of teshuvah, which he claims is plagued by corporealization of God. A person must act, but he must not turn this action into an ideology, a something, an object. He knows that his teshuvah necessarily fails, and this recognition elevates his repentance.

This means that every significant decision, like the mental (nafshit) act of repentance, must come from an inner silence. This lets a person drawn on his inner life, which cannot be put into words. Despite this, when the spiritual (ruḥanit) act emerges in the world it loses its innerness, requiring “repentance” to turn it into a true spiritual act. What does this mean? Imagine a person who decides to repent. He is forbidden from thinking that this decision expresses the absolute divine truth. If he thinks this, he has corporealized the divine. He must make the decision, but by nature of being an act in the world, it belongs to the category of “kingly honor” (kevod melakhim). It is by definition corporeal, so he must simultaneously repent for his repentance. He thus elevates and spiritualizes the repentance, returning it to its lofty source.

Rebbe Naḥman’s approach recalls how Soren Kierkegaard described the concept of irony. The spiritual character is different, but there is a degree of similarity between the idea of repenting for your repentance and Kierkegaard’s image of the ironic individual, who speaks seriously, but with a wink. This wink does not mean that he is lying, but expresses a dual perspective on reality. He sees with both his eyes at once: one perspective recognizes the seriousness of holiness, while the second, aware of the seriousness of holiness, feels uncomfortable with the inflexibility hidden in this seriousness; spirituality is not a “thing,” it is free and light by definition. This second perspective, the gaze, frees a person from his first perspective on holiness, thereby initiating it anew. The role of irony is to spiritualize human comprehensions of reality. The ironic individual wants to maintain his world while nullifying it (bitulo). He is the believer who takes his life seriously, but understands that sometimes you need a sideways wink in order to look at life seriously.

4. Rav Shagar, Shuvi Nafshi, 27-28

The religious act is inherently flawed by virtue of being an earthly act. Any religious statement must be nullified as it is being said, simply in order to make it sayable.

In order to give teshuvah the elevation it deserves, we have to do teshuvah while simultaneously doing teshuvah for that act of teshuvah itself. The act of teshuvah is in and of itself a sin in relation to the divine infinitude. It is therefore forbidden to get caught up in the motivation for the teshuvah, seeing it as an absolute motivation. It’s earthliness makes it necessary to do teshuvah for the teshuvah.

This is how Rebbe Naḥman elevates the teshuvah itself to the supernal teshuvah, the teshuvah of the world to come, which not our real world, but the teshuvah of the ideal world that does not yet exist. The doubled gaze enables a person to do teshuvah even if this teshuvah is earthly and insufficient.

 

5. Rav Shagar, Tsel Ha’Emunah, 57-58

The test of religiosity is not keeping the mitsvot, nor even suspending them or not keeping them, but how you relate to their suspension. A person can trust (bitaḥon) in the mitsvot and cast his lot upon them, but he must ask himself what happens when God rejects his performance of the mitsvot. Is the mitsvah itself the goal? What about when it doesn’t receive its light from the will of God? […] God’s laughter reveals the unusual combination of the person who trusts (bitahon) and the God who knocks his trust out from under him. […] This is a comical event, which reveals the total nothingness, the joke, of the person who thinks its so serious and important when he does a mitsvah. It’s as if God “pranked” the person; someone with a sense of humor will laugh along and even enjoy it, but someone who doesn’t will see it as a painful rejection. This necessary humor comes from recognizing the precariousness of human existence, the nothingness of humanity in contrast with the divine infinitude. […] Performing the act as a mitsvah is what makes it divine and absolute, for the mitsvah is what reveals God speaking to a person. […] Doing them any other way, no matter how lofty and important the motivations, remains within the human confines of “reasoned decision,” without connecting to the divine. […] The Jewish person celebrates doing mitsvot because that is where he finds God addressing him.

 

III. Freeing God from the Mitsvot

6. Yishai Mevorach, Teologiah Shel Heser, 102

It’s as if God is bound in the bonds of a person’s religious language and religious way of life. A person’s faith language carries with it a meaning that limits the words of faith – words like “God,” “divinity,” “holiness,” “commandment” – to the narrow sense of their religious form of life. The rabbis expressed this “framing” in homilies (midrashim) that depict God observing the commandments.[1] This congruence between religious life and God’s life creates an intimacy in the relationship of the believer and his god. Additionally, it testifies to the narrowness of the god’s world, constricted within the believer’s way of life.

Only a “secular believer,” sensitive to the enigmatic nature of his language, can encounter the infinite force of the divine, while he is forced to constantly turn his gaze up and down, backward and forward, because the word he speaks lacks any meaning or sense when he says “God.”[2] This understanding opens up a path to secular faith, to faith that encounters religious language and feels how it is full of force exactly by virtue of its lack of meaning.

[1] “Rabbi Avin bar Rav Adda said that Rabbi Yitzḥak said: From where is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, wears phylacteries? As it is stated: “The Lord has sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength” (Isaiah 62:8). Since it is customary to swear upon holy objects, it is understood that His right hand and the arm of His strength are the holy objects upon which God swore.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 6a, Koren translation and commentary)

[2] “One may not expound the laws of forbidden sexual relations before three people, nor the account of Creation before two, nor the Divine Chariot before one, unless he is wise and understanding from his own knowledge. Anyone who looks into four things is worthy of not having come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after. And anyone who has no consideration for the honor of his Maker would be better off if he had not come into the world.” (Mishnah Hagigah 2:2)

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Parashat Re’eh – On being a Redeemed Slave and a Redeeming Master

עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּפְדְּךָ יְ׳הוָה אֱ׳לֹהֶיךָ

 

Parashat Re’eh begins Sefer Devarim’s legal code in earnest. It begins with the requirements regarding emptying the Land of Israel of Idolatry, and ensuring that it stays emptied in chapters 12 and 13. Chapter 14 discusses what foods may or may not be eaten by Bnei Yisrael, and chapter 15 contains the laws regarding providing for the poor of the Israelite society. These laws, perhaps the most emphatic legislation of social justice in the entire Torah, contain one of the many apparent legal contradictions between Sefer Devarim and other books of the Torah. The laws governing the freeing of a slave, found in Devarim 15:12-18, are also found in Shemot 21:2-11. However, a closer look at the differences between the two passages demonstrates that they really need not be thought of as contradicting[1], and, in fact, their differences are a manifestation on the way the two pericopes focus on different aspects of what it means to be human.

The laws regarding Freeing a Slave in Sefer Shemot are found at the beginning of the Covenant Code, “ספר הברית,” that Moshe presents to the people after his first stay on Har Sinai (Code – Shemot 21-23; Presentation – 24:1-11).

If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve for six years and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing. If he came in [to slavery] by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he is married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gave him a wife, and she bore him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be the master’s, and he shall go out by himself. But if the servant shall plainly say: I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free; then his master shall bring him to the judge, and shall bring him to the door, or to the door-post; and his master shall bore through his ear with an awl, and he shall serve him for ever. And if a man sold his daughter to be a maid-servant, she shall not go out as the men-servants do. If she is not pleasing to her master, who has designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no power to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters. If he takes another wife, her food, her raiment, and her conjugal rights, he shall not diminish. And if he does not provide these three for her, then shall she go out for nothing, without money.

These laws are largely similar to those found in Devarim 15 that are part of the legal framework of the Israelite society that will be created in the Land of Israel.

If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you for six years; and in the seventh year you shall send him free from you. And when you send him free from you, you shall not send him empty; you shall furnish him liberally from your flock, and from your threshing-floor, and from your winepress; From that with which the Lord your God has blessed you shall you give to him. And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today. And it shall be, if he says to you: ‘I will not go out from you’; because he loves you and your house, because he fares well with you; then you shall take an awl, and thrust it through his ear and into the door, and he shall be your slave for ever. And also to your slave-woman you shall do likewise. It shall not seem hard to you, when you send him free from you; for double the work of a worker has he served you six years; and the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do.

There are many similarities between these two passages, but there are also several key differences. The verses in Devarim fail to mention that the slave who enters single leaves single, and one who enters married leaves married, but it adds the mitzvah to provide your former slave with produce and livestock in order to help him get back on his feet. The passage in Devarim treats male and female slaves the same, while the passage in Shemot explicitly differentiates between them[2]. The slave in Shemot wants to stay with his master because he loves his master, his wife, and his children, whereas in Devarim the slave loves his master and his master’s house.

These differences are all manifestations of a larger dichotomy, which becomes clearer when looking at a linguistic difference between the two pericopes. The verses from Shemot consistently refer to the slave leaving with the master as the slave “going out,” while the passage from Devarim refers to it as the master “sending the slave free.” The passage in Devarim seems to be focusing on the actions of the master, where the verses in Shemot are speaking about the actions of the slave. This dichotomy is compounded by the way in which the master is spoken about in each passage. Whereas in Shemot the master is referred to as “the master,” in Devarim the master is addressed directly as “you.” This all seems to indicate that the passage in Devarim is discussing the laws in terms of the master, whereas the one is Shemot is speaking of the perspective of the slave. With this in mind, the differences between the two sets of laws make perfect sense. The slave’s marital status and the special marriage/servitude of the slave-woman are only spoken of in Shemot, which deals with the slave’s perspective, while Sefer Devarim focuses on the need to release the slave at the end of six years and to grant the slave property, obligations that are incumbent upon the master. The split between the two books of the Torah also makes sense, in that the Covenant Code was addressed to people who had only recently been slaves in Egypt, whereas Moshe’s speeches in Sefer Devarim were said to their children who not only had never been slaves, but were about to go into the land as new owners of houses, fields, and presumably servants as well. The laws of regarding the freeing of slaves are spoken to both former slaves and future masters, and both of these are alluded to in the reason that the Torah gives for the laws. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today” (Devarim 15:15). These laws must be kept because the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, and so they remember what it is like to be a slave, but also because ‘א is the Redeemer and the Israelites, in imitation of ‘א must also be redeemers.

The tension between the mindsets of a slave and a master is ingrained in the Israelite consciousness. The freedom granted to slaves in the Yovel year is ultimately a function of servitude, as ‘א declares, “For Bnei Yisrael are to me as servants; they are my servants that I took out of the Land of Egypt” (Vayikra 25:5). Yet being a master, owning slaves, throughout the Torah, brings upon a person many laws obligating them in the way they must provide for and take care of the slave. A person who acquires a slave has acquired for themselves a master[3]. This tension is part of a greater set of tensions that make up what it means to be human. Perhaps the primary tension, underlying all of the rest, is found in the first chapter of the Torah. Man is an anomaly the orderly process of Creation, the only created thing that resembles the Creator (Bereishit 1:27). The tension between the created and the creator in Man underlies much of the stories throughout Tanakh[4], but also in the laws of the Torah. The commandment to rest on Shabbat is given two different reasons in the Torah. Bnei Yisrael must rest on Shabbat because they are like ‘א (Shemot 20:7-10), who rested on Shabbat, but also because they are like the rest of the created (Devarim 5:11-14), all of whom must rest equally.

We are complex beings, neither masters of our own domain nor slaves, without a hand in the course of history. Not quite created or creator, we are unique. However, this uniqueness is not a reason for us to sit back and rest on our heels. No part of the complex mosaic that is man provides an exemption from responsibility.  Having been slaves does not entitle the Israelites to mistreat others, and being endowed with Creator-hood, far from granting us privileges, enjoins us to rest from the act of creating. Whether we are created to conquer and to dominate (Bereishit 1:28) or to serve and to protect (Bereishit 2:15), it is clear that we are created to be responsible, both to our Creator and to our fellow creatures.

 

[1] I am indebted for much of the textual analysis in this composition to an essay by Rav Yonatan Grossman.

[2] Rashi actually explicitly deals with these contradictions in his commentary on Devarim 15:12, “Has the Torah not already stated ‘and when you buy a Hebrew servant’ Rather, the repetition here adds two new details. Firstly, that the female servant also goes forth after six years, and secondly, that the parting servant is to be provided with gifts.”

[3] Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Kiddushin, 20a.

[4] The story of the first transgression of Man in Bereishit 3 is a great example, as it is explicitly mentioned in Bereishit 3:5&22.