Friday, January 14, 2011

WHAT WE SAY, WHAT WE DO, WHO WE ARE: PARASHAT BESHALACH 5771/2011



                           WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE
Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi
RABBI ABNER WEISS’S WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING


PARASHAT BE-SHALACH:  2011/5771


WHAT WE SAY, WHAT WE DO, WHO WE ARE



The Lord is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation. This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu], my father’s God, and I will exalt Him (Ex. 15:2).

The Shabbat on which this verse is read is called Shabbat shirah, owing to the centrality of the song of triumph that is its centerpiece. So important is this song to the Jewish people that it was incorporated into the morning liturgy for every day of the year. It is, therefore not surprising that interpretive commentary on all its verses abounds. Indeed, the Torah Shelemah, one of the most exhaustive anthologies of midrashic comments on the Torah, lists no fewer than 18 midrashim on the phrase in our text: This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu].

I shall devote this Torah Teaching to just one of them, a comment in the Mekhilta:

Rabbi Yossi says: I shall declare the seemliness and praise of Him who spoke and the world came into being. Rabbi Akiva says: I shall speak of the prophecies and praises of Him who spoke and the world came into being before all the nations of the world. Behold, the nations of the world ask Israel, saying: “‘how is your Beloved different from [other] loved ones, that you dare adjure us’ (Song of Songs 5:10)?  For you die for Him and are slaughtered for Him.” And Israel says [in response] to the nations of the world: “Do you know Him?  Let me recite just part of His praise: ‘My beloved is pure and ruddy, preeminent above ten thousand’ (Song of Songs 5:10). ‘My Beloved is mine, and I am His.’  (Song of Songs 2:17). ‘I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine.’” (Song of Songs 4:3).

This part of the Midrash takes literally the phrase: This is my God and I will glorify Him [ve-anveihu]: I shall glorify Him with peons of praise. It is significant that Rabbi Akiva is one of the authors of the dictum.  The Talmud (Berakhot 61b) records his unutterably painful martyrdom and his amazing declaration of faith as an illustration of the imperative: “We are required to praise Him when evil befalls us, just as we praise Him for the good.” (Berakhot 54a). Rabbi Akiva’s declaration of praise in the face of unjustifiable suffering recalls the immortal words of Job: “Even though He slay me, in Him shall I trust” (Job 13:15). Truly of Rabbi Akiva could the Midrash declare, “ For you die for Him and are slaughtered for Him.  And his declaration of faith, his praise of God while staring death in the face, served as the precedent for countless Jewish martyrs in centuries to come. Thus did they accept death:  It is our duty to praise the Master of all beings, to ascribe greatness to the One who formed the works of creation.”(Daily Prayer book).

Clearly the point of this part of the Midrash is that we glorify God through what we say. The second part of the Midrash makes a different point: Rabbi Yishma’el says: Is it possible for creatures of flesh and blood to enhance the beauty of their Maker? Surely [the word] ve-anveihu [we shall adorn Him] must mean: “We shall adorn Him with mitzvot. I shall make for Him a beautiful lulav, a beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes, and beautiful prayer[s].”

The second exposition of our text agrees that it is important to glorify God with words of prayer, praise and gratitude. But words alone are insufficient. According to Rabbi Yishma’el, Jews are judged, not by what they say, but by what they do. Expressions of faith alone are inadequate. Judaism has no official catechisms. The Jewish imperative is a leap of action rather than a leap of faith. We are defined not by orthodoxy, but by orthopraxy.  The Midrash is even more nuanced. Our faith practices glorify God through the intentions that inform our actions—when we perform mitzvot enthusiastically rather than reluctantly, maximally rather than minimally. Rabbi Yishma’el reminds us that authentic spiritual practice is more than merely behavioral discipline. It requires the commitment of our hearts, minds and funds.

Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit adds a third dimension to our text. Expounding the word ve-anveihu of our text, he indicates its resonance with the Hebrew root naveh [sanctuary]. He says: “Make Him a beautiful sanctuary, since the word naveh clearly means the Temple.”   Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit cannot simply be echoing the view of Rabbi Yishma’el, who had already described the beautiful appurtenances of worship. What Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit must be saying is this: “How do I glorify God? I do so by providing Him with a beautiful dwelling place, as is written in Scripture: Let them build a sanctuary for Me, so that I shall dwell in the innermost part of themselves [be-tokham].”(Ex.25:8).

Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit agrees with Rabbi Akiva that we can glorify God with what we say. But praise can become mere lip service. He agrees with Rabbi Yishma’el that we can glorify God with what we do.  But punctilious observance can degenerate into empty, self-righteous religious behaviorism. What matters most to God is who we are. Do we emulate divine qualities in the way we live and relate to others? Do we project godliness? Have we become a personal sanctuary for the divine Presence? Perhaps Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit had an additional interpretation of our text in mind. The word ve-anveihu resonates with the phrase ani ve-Hu [I and He]. God is glorified when we are transformed by living in His presence.

The three interpretations of our text are by no means mutually exclusive. Rabbi Akiva is correct. Words are of vital importance. They can comfort and validate. They can express our noblest sentiments. But they can also hurt and destroy, blame, shame and enflame. How we speak to God matters greatly. How we speak to one another is no less important. Kind words are a balm to wounded souls. Ugly rhetoric can turn people into monsters, incite to mayhem and murder. Declaring that “we have those with whom we disagree in our crosshairs” can actually place them in the crosshairs of the weapons of the deranged.

Rabbi Yishma’el is also correct. Words of kindness not translated into deeds of kindness are cheap. Validating words without validating actions mean very little. Hypocritical utterances are far worse than silence. The broken promises of politicians seeking votes are all too well known.

And Rabbi Yossi Ben Durmaskit is correct. We glorify God by being the best we can be. Who we are is a function both of what we say and of what we do.


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