Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Taking A Captive (Shavuot 5767)

Moshe ascended to God. As it says: you ascended on high and you took a captive. What does ‘you ascended’ mean? You prevailed in disputing with the supernal angels. Another explanation: you ascended on high - no creature succeeded on high in the way that Moshe did. Said Rebbi B’rechya: the tablets were six hands breadths long. In the hand, as it were, of the ‘one who spoke and there was a world’ was two hands breadths, two hands breadths were in Moshe’s hands and two hands breadths were left between hand and hand. (Shemot Rabbah 28:1)

This curious source intends us to imagine a kind of wrestling match between God and Moshe – the tablets (six hands breaths in length) are a third in Moshe’s hands, a third in God’s hands with a third in the middle. After a tussle, Moshe succeeds in wresting them from God’s hands and bringing them back to earth for the Jewish people. The Talmud records a slightly different version of this source:

Rebbi Sh’muel bar Nachman said in the name of Rebbi Yochanan: the tablets were six hands breadths long and three wide. Moshe grasped two hands breadths, God two, and two remained spare in the middle. When Yisrael did that deed, God wanted to grab them from Moshe’s hand, but Moshe’s hand prevailed and he grabbed them from Him. (Yerushalmi Shabbat 4:5)

The ‘deed’ mentioned here is, of course, the making of the Golden Calf, which occurred just before Moshe came down the mountain with the tablets. What might this allegory be trying to convey?

The preparations of the heart are Man’s, but the answer of the tongue comes from God. (Mishley 16:1)

The preparations of the heart are Man’s - he organises his counsel and his words in his heart. But the answer of the tongue comes from God - when he comes to answer, God makes him wise with his words, or, should he merit, He prepares a good answer for him. (Rashi ad. loc.)

Many Jewish thinkers divide human experience into three parts: thought, action and speech and devote much thought to the interaction between them. In the context of this story and using the above verse from Mishley, the Shem MiShmuel offers the following insight.

The thoughts of Man are ordinarily outside of his control – things just pop into our heads whether we like it or not. The other extreme is action, which is entirely within our control. The realm of speech lies in between, which seems, according to Rashi’s reading of the above verse, to reflect a partnership between Man and God. While Man prepares his thoughts, they only express themselves correctly should God will it. This is the meaning of the three sections of the tablets in the Midrash – God holds the thoughts, Man holds the actions and the speech is somewhere in the middle.

When God saw that the Jews had made the Golden Calf, he attempted to wrest the tablets from Moshe’s hands. We are encouraged to imagine that God realised that it would best if Man had no control over his actions if rebellion and idolatry is what he uses them for – this is the image of the Yerushalmi. Moshe, as it were, prevailed over God and succeeded in grabbing the tablets. This may be understood as God’s consent to Man trying again to control his own world. Despite the inherent dangers, God concedes that Man must be allowed to exercise his freewill once more, hence he allows Moshe to take the tablets.

The Shem MiShmuel gives this an interesting spin – he sees the tablets gradually moving from God’s sole possession to that of Moshe as key to his reading of the Midrash. Once one takes control of one’s actions (the part of the tablets that started in God’s hands), God will enable one to control one’s speech (the unheld part in the middle). Finally, it may even be possible to take charge of one’s thoughts. This is the project of the Torah, which, when applied to its maximum extent, enables one to elevate and manage every aspect of one’s experience.

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Majesty Of The Toil Of The Torah (Bechukotay 5767)

If you walk in My statutes, observe My commandments and perform them. (VaYikra 26:3)

Apparently, the bounty of God is contingent upon our performance. Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner explains that prior to the giving of the Torah, the world existed on what he terms chessed shel vitur – God’s kindness to Mankind independent of our behaviour, whereas after our acceptance of the Torah, Divine benevolence must be earned. This is chessed shel mishpat – kindness predicated on justice. We may expect His munificence to be commensurate with our own behaviour. What precisely does the Torah require of us to merit the blessings that our Torah promises? Chazal discuss the precise meaning of our introductory verse:

If you walk in My statutes – one might have thought that this refers to observance of the Mitzvot but since the verse says: observe My commandments and perform them, the observance of the Mitzvotis mentioned. How then can one understand the phrase: if you walk in My statutes? You must toil in the Torah. (Torah Kohanim BeChukotay 1:2)

Walking in the path of God is synonymous with learning Torah. This is something separate from observing the Mitzvot which is mentioned only afterwards. Indeed, the toil inorah is considered to be the key to meaningful human existence. In Kohelet, King Solomon asks:

What benefit is there for Man in all his toil in which he engages under the sun?

At first glance, this is rather bleak, for it seems to indicate that nothing we do is of any value. Indeed, Chazal tell us that the early sages considered removing Kohelet from the Biblical canon because of the implications of this verse. However, after careful reflection, we see that the only reference in the verse is to his toil – i.e. the futility of following our own agenda. In contrast, the toil of Torah brings meaning and value to life.

It is noteworthy that no mention is made here of achievement in Torah, but rather of effort. Commitment to the holy task of Torah learning, irrespective of ultimate attainment is what is expected. To be sure, knowledge of halachah, Jewish outlook and all areas of Jewish wisdom are highly prized, yet it is our willingness to engage in the process of Torah learning, without regard to the end result, which defines the extent of our connection to the source of all truth.

The whole concept is best encapsulated by the following brief Talmudic statement, beautifully expounded by Rashi:

Said Rebbi Zeira: the reward of the chapter [of learning] is the run. (Berachot 6b)

The main reward of those people who run to hear a lecture from a sage is the reward of the exertion. Indeed, the majority of them do not understand sufficiently to retain the content or to repeat the teaching in the name of their Rav later on, in order to receive the reward of the learning. (Rashi ad. loc.)

The refinement of personality that results from the exertion of learning, even when comprehension or retention is limited, is the main reward. In fact, the famous maxim of Ben Hei Hei – that the reward is commensurate with the trouble (and not the achievement) - is encoded as a fact of halachah by the Rambam.

On this theme, we note the choice of the word halachah to refer to Jewish law. This usage strongly indicates the notion that beyond the actual legal ruling, there is a process of discovery involved that is valuable in itself. Study of Jewish law demands not just the readiness to regulate one’s behaviour by the required Divine standards, but also the willingness to embark on a journey that is of itself a prerequisite for personal growth.

It is the process of learning – the active engagement in plumbing the depths of the mind of God, rather than necessarily reaching a specific conclusion, that is crucial. As we see, it is the journey of learning that qualifies us for the afterlife. We assume that it is possible to integrate this concept so fully into one’s psyche that the toil of Torah becomes one’s natural reflex. This is demonstrated by the beautiful words of King David, expounded upon by the Midrash at the start of our Sedrah:

If you walk in My statutes. This relates to the verse: I considered my ways and I returned my feet to Your testimonies. (Tehillim 119:59). Said David: Master of the world! Every day I intend to go to a certain place or to a particular residence, but my feet take me to the Shuls and the Yeshivot. (VaYikra Rabbah 36:1)

Quite inadvertently, King David found himself propelled towards the sacred in life: his subconscious, so highly tuned to spiritual matters, guided him towards Torah opportunities. It is insufficient for us to merely observe the Torah. We must channel our energies and resources into the toil of Torah – for it is that, more than anything, which makes us fit to receive God’s cornucopia.