Wednesday, August 31, 2011

PARASHAT SHOFTIM: THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL 5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE 

PARASHAT SHOFTIM

THE IMPORTANCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL


And all the elders of that city, who are nearest to the slain man, shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley.  And they shall speak and say:  ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.  O Lord, forgive Your people Israel, whom You have redeemed, and do not allow innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel.’  And the blood shall be forgiven them.  So shall you put away the innocent blood from your midst, when you shall do that which is right in the eyes of the Lord. (Deut.  21: 6-9).

These verses conclude the ceremony of expiation for an unsolved murder.  The ritual was elaborate and profoundly impressive.  Representatives of the Sanhedrin would determine the location of the city closest to the unknown corpse.  Its elders would take a heifer with which no work had been done. They would bring it to a rough valley that would never be plowed nor sown again, and break the neck of the heifer.  Then the elders would make their solemn declaration: ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it.’ (BT Sotah 44b ff.).

The immediate implication of the dramatic rite of expiation is the acceptance of responsibility for unsolved homicides.  The Sages ask the obvious question: Could one possibly think that the elders of the city might have been involved in the crime?  Why should they have to say:  Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes seen It’? According to the Sages, the Torah implies that the leaders of their community are responsible for the welfare and safety of visitors.  Indeed, they were obligated to provide food, drink and lodging for strangers who needed these things, a precedent established by the Patriarch Abraham.  The Hebrew acronym for this obligation is eishelakhilah [food], sheti’ah [drink] and linah [lodging].  Alternatively, the final Hebrew letter mem of the acronym stands for levayah [escort]. ’ (BT Sotah 44b ff.).

The practice of providing escorts for Jews when they left the city limit was well established.  During the early Middle Ages, for example, when Europe was infested with highway robbers, unescorted travel was extremely perilous.  Travelers would be robbed, held for ransom or murdered.  Because the mitzvah of ransoming captives [pidyon shevuyim] was taken very seriously, robber barons would depend on ransoming kidnapped travelers for a significant portion of their incomes.  Accordingly, Jewish communities throughout Western and Central Europe developed an elaborate network of armed escorts to protect Jewish travelers.  Irving Agus, an expert on the economic history of Medieval Jewry, has written that the effectiveness of this network enabled western European Jews to travel extensively and thus corner the import-export market. He has also shown that the only way that people even as powerful as Charlemagne could get their important mail across Europe was with the help of the Jewish escort network.

This ancient practice helps explain the pronouncement of the elders in our text.  Jews accepted responsibility for the safety of strangers even after their departure from the local community.  For this reason, the elders would have to declare publicly that the unsolved murder was not the result of their negligence. 

As important as the lesson of taking responsibility for others is, our text teaches another, equally important, lesson.  The Torah’s location of the law of the unsolved murder is significant.  The laws of nondefensive warfare, known as milchemet reshut precede it. The discussion of mandatory warfare [milchemet mitzvah] follows it.   Why do the ritual of the heifer and the declarations of the elders interrupt the Torah’s exposition of the laws of warfare?  What is the connection? What is the significance of the juxtaposition of these apparently unrelated topics?

Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein has noted two striking and distressing effects of war.  The first is the unavoidable anonymity of the individual soldier.   Soldiers function as parts of a disciplined military machine and not as individuals.  They cannot come and go as they please.  They cannot do as they please.  To permit them to do so would be catastrophic.  The second distressing effect is that many soldiers, exposed to death and injury, lose their sensitivity to the value of human life. 

Rabbi Lichtenstein suggests that an important function of the ritual surrounding the unsolved murder is as a corrective both of individual anonymity and also of the loss of sensitivity.   By definition, the corpse abandoned in the field is anonymous, bearing no identifying marks.    No relatives have come forward to search for the missing person in the cities closest to the places he was believed to have visited.  The corpse was invisible to society.  The victim of the homicide was simply a corpse, a nameless statistic, without identifiable personal relationships.  He appeared to have been unnoticed, unmissed and unimportant in life. The Torah requires an end to this insensitivity, by showing symbolically that the community is the poorer for his loss. It elevates him to the center of a great drama and invests his death with permanent effects.  A life cut off without its hopes, dreams and potential fulfilled is like the valley that must forever be left unproductive and barren.  The lesson is the importance of the individual and the sanctity of human life, no matter how unimportant that life may seem to others.  The Torah’s location of the ceremony of expiation for an unsolved homicide in the middle of the laws of warfare reinforces this notion. War, by its very nature, necessarily negates the sanctity of life. The ritual for accepting responsibility for not preventing an avoidable homicide affirms its sanctity.

 If this is true of the value and sanctity of an invisible, anonymous individual, how much more so is it true of those around us, who love us,  live with us and/or                                                                                                                                                                                       serve us?  Emanuel Levinas, the eminent French Talmudist and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century, bemoaned the reduction of the other person to his or her function.   People are often identified by what they do rather than by who they are—the male carrier, policeman, garbage collector, sanitation worker, and so on.  We notice them and sometimes interact with them, but do not bother to find out their names.  They are effectively anonymous and effaced, reduced to their functionality. They represent le meme, the non-unique, the faceless same, the non-other, in the sense that they have been reduced to their function in our lives, an extension of our own personal agendas.

Sadly, even the closest are invisible in many families, serving the needs of the family system, their deepest feelings ignored, their most pressing personal needs disregarded.   Spouses have complained to me of their of invisibility.  “My husband listens to my words, but cannot hear what I am saying, has no clue as to how I am feeling.  We have lived together for years, have brought up children together, and have been physically intimate. But deep inside of me I feel invisible—and it hurts terribly.”   Children sometimes tell me the same thing: “ My parents just don’t get me.  They push me to be what they want me to be and cannot hear what I want to be.  Sometimes I wonder if they really know who I am.”

Levinas insists on viewing the other as a commanding presence, a summons to responsibility, needing respect, attention and validation—precisely because of his or her otherness.  It is simply immoral to efface the other, to reduce the other to a function of our personal agendas.  The other is of infinite value—a window into the [Divine] Other.

Without specifically referring to our text, Levinas has grasped both its lessons.  Let us hope that we, too, shall have learned those vital lessons.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

PARASHAT RE'EH: SELF INJURY 5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE 

PARASHAT RE’EH

SELF INJURY

You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not cut yourselves [lo titgodedu], nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.  For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth.(Deut.  14:1-2).

The Sages ascribe two radically different meanings to the phrase lo titgodedu.  You shall not divide yourselves into different groups.  For example, if there were a single Bet Din [rabbinical court] in a city, half of its members should not rule according to Bet Shammai and the other half according to Bet Hillel.” (BT Yevamot 14a). In contrast, other authorities asked:  what does lo titgodedu mean?  You shall not injure yourself physically [in mourning] the dead.” (BT Yevamot 13b). 

Apparently the first authorities cited, who believed the injunction was against forming divisive, competing groups, held that the phrase lo titgodedu would have been lo tagodu if it meant one thing only.  Accordingly, they felt comfortable in offering an interpretation that clearly did not reflect the simple meaning of the text. 

The injunction against divisiveness has long been a pulpit favorite.  It has provided preachers with a useful peg on which to hang their sermons about the importance of unity and harmony.   It presented ample opportunities to deride the infighting that has through the ages characterized Jewish communities and, indeed, all human societies.

But as attractive as this interpretation of our text is, it gives it a meaning completely out of the context in which it appears in the Torah.   Maimonides is adamant in his insistence that the essential meaning of our text relates to cutting and injuring oneself in reaction to the loss of a loved one.  Therefore the interpretation of lo titgodedu as the prohibition of disunity is nothing more than an asmakhta—a homily loosely supported by the Torah text. (Sefer ha-Mitzvot: Prohibition 45). 

People react in various ways to the death of a loved one.  For some, the loss is experienced as intensely personal.  It is as if a part of themselves is now missing.  Some are so grieved that they wish that they themselves had died instead of the deceased. In either case the reaction is self-flagellation.  The blood from the self-inflicted wound represents the loss of a part of themselves.  Blood symbolizes life.  By shedding their own blood, they act out their desire to die rather than to live with loss.  To be sure, self-flagellation is symbolic even though it is painful.  Cutting oneself does not really represent a significant loss of self.  It certainly does not represent actual loss of life. But symbol represents reality.

Powerful reaction to loss is well nigh universal. It assumed elaborate ritual expressions among the Australian Aborigines. On Ashura, the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Mohammad, many Iranian Shia in the holy city of Karbala still practice bloody self-flagellation.   

The halakhah prohibited this self-destructive response to loss.  Some might argue that our practice of rending our garments when a close relative passes is merely a sublimated form of cutting our bodies, a less self destructive, more civilized but yet powerful way of expressing our personal experience of loss.  I would agree that rending garments is rich in symbolism, but it is not essentially a kinder, gentler, less barbaric form of self-flagellation. It symbolizes, instead, our attitude to the death of the body.  The body simply clothes the soul.  When the soul departs, the body loses this function, and is as useless for the soul as a tattered suit of clothing is for the body.  Rending makes it useless, ready to be discarded.

Jewish tradition validates the need to express grief.  The stages of bereavement are psychologically inspired.  The initial shock and paralysis is expressed in aninut.  Before the interment, close relatives are not expected to have the mind or desire to perform positive mitzvot.  The seven-day period following interment, the shivah period, encourages friends and relatives to comfort the mourners, while allowing them to silently lick wounds and neglect personal appearance. The integration of the bereaved into society begins after shivah, with the lifting of restrictions on movement and gainful employment.  When the thirty days after burial [sheloshim]  are over, even restrictions on personal grooming are relaxed.  Twelve months after burial all restrictions on the bereaved children of the deceased are lifted.  The process of normalization is gradual and thoughtful.  It hastens full and guilt-free assimilation into every day living.  There is no hint of self-flagellation anywhere in the halakhic process of mourning. 


The classical commentators variously explain the prohibition of self-hurt. For example, as children of God we are never completely orphaned, since their heavenly Father is still with them (Sforno). For those who believe that death is but a transition point in the soul’s journey, our loved ones enjoy conscious life beyond the grave. Death is not the final frustration. It should not provoke self-inflicted injury (Ramban).


The prohibition of self-inflicted wounds is located in the context of the holiness of the Jewish people.  Our text emphasizes that this prohibition sets Israel religiously apart from other people: For you are a holy people unto the Lord your God, and the Lord has chosen you to be His own treasure out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deut.  14:2).  Self-mutilation was widely practiced in the ancient world as a religious ritual.  Faced with Elijah’s challenge to them on Mount Carmel, the prophets of the pagan god Ba’al prayed fervently to their deity to consume the sacrifice on their altar.  But when Ba’al failed to respond to their prayer, Elijah mocked them, urging them to raise their voices to rouse their slumbering god.  So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, according to their custom, until their blood flowed.” (I Kings 18:26-28). 

Violent masochism is still practiced as an act of self-sacrificial devotion.  The deranged priest at the center of Dan Brown’s best selling novel The De Vinci Code is a practitioner of this rite.  Brown describes the self-injury and the searing pain it brings in graphic, almost too graphic detail.  Although the story is fictional, the practice is not, and so the Torah inveighs against self-injurious pagan religious ritual.

Because this simple rendition of our text is so obvious, there is a tendency to overlook an even more universal implication of the prohibition.  It should not be limited to unacceptable mourning and religious practices.  It applies much more generally in our lives by forbidding self-inflicted injury of all kinds. 

A story from my clinical files explains what I mean. A young person came for relief of her obsession with her worthlessness. She had committed a terrible indiscretion after partying with college friends.   Intoxicated by alcohol, she had lost control and was sexually intimate with a number of frat boys.

 This behavior was completely out of character.  She had grown up in a very religiously observant family, had participated in all local church activities and had preserved her virginity.  This was the first time she had permitted herself to be pressured to join in the drinking.  After her sexual encounter, she was filled with remorse and self-loathing.  She felt weak and worthless. To make matters worse, she soon had a herpes outbreak.  Her pastor had been unable to help her cleanse herself spiritually.  Her obsession with her worthlessness had produced profound reactive clinical depression.

 I sensed that her depression was self-inflicted punishment.  Her herpes symptoms were controlled by medication, but there was no magic bullet for her self-loathing. The infection, God’s punishment, was not sufficient. She was so bad that she deserved even worse. Her depression, which totally deprived her of joy and happiness, was a far more effective punishment.  Because she was so religious and a daily reader of Scripture, her therapy included a discussion of the universal implications of our Deuteronomy text.

We hurt and punish ourselves in myriad ways.  Neglect of health is a self- inflicted wound.  Overeating and under eating and other addictive behaviors cause wounds that can be fatal. Irrational, neurotic guilt is a destructive way of beating ourselves up.  Our inability to forgive ourselves for costly errors of judgment cuts more deeply than the sharpest razor. 

We can profitably apply the prohibition in a multitude of psychological contexts.    God forgives mistakes. Why should His children refuse to do the same—even if they themselves have acted in error? You are the children of the Lord your God. You shall not hurt yourselves [lo titgodedu].              

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

PARASHAT EKEV: OVERCOMING OBSTACLES 5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE 

PARASHAT EKEV

OVERCOMING OBSTACLES



And it came to pass at the end of forty days and forty nights, that the Lord gave me two tablets of stone, even the tablets of the covenant.  And the Lord said unto me: ‘Arise, go down quickly form here, for your people that you have brought out of Egypt have dealt corruptly.  They have quickly turned aside out of the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves a molten image.’  And the Lord spoke unto me, saying:  ‘I have seen this people and behold it is a stiff-necked people.  Let Me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under the heaven:  And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’(Deut. 9:11-14).

The rapid spiritual deterioration of the Children of Israel is astonishing.  Just forty days earlier they had participated in an unprecedented direct encounter with God.  Never before had so many people simultaneously heard the Divine’s voice.  We know that they were profoundly moved by their collective epiphany because they expressed their unconditional commitment to the divine imperative:  All that the Lord has spoken, we shall do and we shall obey.’ (Ex. 24:7).  But, despairing of the return of Moses who had ascended the mountain not forty days earlier, they fashioned and worshipped a substitute deity.  What had happened?  How can we account for the incredible erosion of faith in a people who had experienced the hand of God in so many ways?

It seems to me that the conclusion of the narrative of the revelation at Sinai provides the clue to this incredible spiritual deterioration: 

And all the people saw the thunderings and the lightenings, and the voice of the shofar, and the mountain billowing smoke. And when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off [va-ya’amdu me-rachok].  And they said unto Moses: ‘You speak with us and we will hear; but let God not speak with us lest we die.’ And Moses said unto the people:  ‘Do not be afraid, because God has come to test you, so that reverence for Him will be upon your faces, that you sin not.’  And Moses drew near unto the thick darkness [arafel] where God was. (Ex. 20: 15-18).

The Israelite masses were overwhelmed by their encounter.  The entire natural order had been suspended.   The mountain trembled.  Smoke encompassed them.  Their sensations coalesced, sounds and sights merging, and an awesome superhuman voice roaring all around them, demanding their fealty. 

For three days they had been warned to keep their distance and forbidden to ascend the holy mountain.  But now, the mountain had ceased to tremble.  Normalcy had returned, and Moses had invited them to join him as he climbed the mountain to encounter God at first hand.

Their experience had simply been too overwhelming.  The awesome encounter had been too traumatic.  They were in terror of the divine might.  Before them they saw a thick cloud, an impenetrable barrier to the Divine.  So they stood afar off and asked Moses to enter the darkness alone.   It would suffice for them to hear God’s word at second hand from Moses.  They would be satisfied with a vicarious experience of the Divine. 

The perceived impenetrable barrier separating ordinary humans from God was the reason for Israel’s rapid loss of faith.  Their preparedness to have Moses encounter God for them was to have tragic consequences.  It is true that impressionist art needs distance to take form and to make sense.  Closely viewed, the canvas is a splotch of meaningless, confusing shapes and colors that can only be appreciated as a glorious creation at a distance.  But art does not resemble religious life experience.  One can no more experience the Divine through another person’s eyes and ears than one can read a story with another person’s eyeglasses.  Seen in this way, the words are distorted, the letters blurred and the meaning obscured.  Experiencing God at a distance is like kissing one’s beloved through a thick veil.  The contact is neither intimate nor authentic-- and yet this is what the Children of Israel chose to do.  

Distance alone does not account for Israel’s loss of faith.  Their perception of the impenetrable darkness does.  The arafel [thick black cloud] was, after all, an optical illusion.   Have you ever flown into a thick bank of dark cloud?  From a distance it seems substantive and impenetrable.  However, when the plane enters the dark bank of clouds, the darkness transforms into little wisps of insubstantial vapor, allowing passage as easily as a hot knife into soft butter. 

Moses alone saw the obstacle as an illusion, and entered the cloud to encounter God.      
The Children of Israel were stuck behind an imagined impenetrable barrier.  They did what so many of us so often do.  We perceive obstacles to growth and progress, and permit ourselves to remain stuck in imagined helplessness and hopelessness. 

A story from my clinical files will explain what I mean.  A very talented young artist came to my office for help following a severe psychotic break.  She had responded well to her prescribed medications but was struggling to pick up the shattered pieces of her life.  There were just too many overwhelming obstacles. Her memories of the frightening break had become recurring nightmares.  How could she be certain that any recovery she might make would not be shattered by another break and new terrors?    I used many standard therapeutic strategies to help overcome her fear, but the obstacles remained until I shared Israel’s reaction to the thick cloud.  It was an ah ha moment for her.  The obstacles were an illusion.  She was ready to enter the arafel and begin to ascend the mountain. 

I have met many people who are stuck behind obstacles of their own imagining.  Some barriers reflect their paralyzing disempowerment.  Others are the creations of childhood experiences long past or of self-images severely damaged.  The truth is that we remain stuck behind the figments of our imaginations and the phantoms of our fears.  The result is that we are observers of life and not its participants. 

The life-altering truth is that, like Moses, we can enter the arafel and watch it dissipate as we engage life directly.     

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

PARASHAT VA-ETCHANAN: GRATITUDE-- PARASHAT VA-ETCHANAN 5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS’ WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

 PARASHAT VA-ETCHANAN

GRATITUDE

And I besought the Lord at that time, saying:  ‘O Lord God, You have begun to show your servant greatness and Your strong hand; for what god is there in heaven or on earth that can do according to Your works and according to Your mighty works?  Let me go over, I pray You and see the good land that is beyond the Jordan, that goodly hill country, and Lebanon.’  But the Lord was angry with me for your sakes and did not listen to me. And the Lord said unto me:  ‘Let it suffice you:  Speak no more to Me of this matter…for you shall not go over this river Jordan. (Deut.  3:23-27).  

  Our text is Moses’ moving account of his personal pain at not having his life’s goal fulfilled.  He was addressing the generation born in the wilderness after the incident at Mei Merivah, when Moses had struck the rock instead of talking to it. They had not witnessed his shameful loss of control and angry outburst, but must have been aware of their consequence, that Moses was not to lead them into the Promised Land.

The account in our text includes details missing from the original narrative, which makes no mention of his passionate importuning of God.  In the original narrative, the Torah had made the following brief statement:

 And the lord said to Moses and Aaron: ‘ Because you did not believe in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them. (Num.   20:12). 

Having made this statement, the Torah immediately changes the subject, moving to Moses’ sending of messengers to the King of Sodom requesting passage through his territory to the Jordan River.  There is no mention of Moses’ intercession with God on his own behalf.. That subject was simply closed.

My revered teacher, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, raised an interesting question about Moses’ account of his fervent plea to enter the Promised land.  The Book of Deuteronomy is primarily concerned with two topics, a recap of the laws that had been transmitted to the previous generation (with some important additions), and long passages of reproof aimed at raising the moral consciousness of the assembled masses, some of them using historical experiences to make a point).  Moses’ very personal emotional disclosure simply does not fit the general structure of the Fifth Book of the Torah.  It is neither legislative nor exhortative.

Rabbi Soloveitchik resolved the difficulty by suggesting that our text was indeed a subtly conveyed reproof with an important moral lesson.   The original account in the Book of Numbers makes no mention of the reaction of the assembled Children of Israel to God’s unbelievably harsh punishment of their leader for his seemingly minor infraction.  Indeed, their silence was deafening.

No people had ever before had had a leader as dedicated and as selfless as Moses.  Two episodes, in particular illustrate his selfless leadership. 


The first is the incident of the golden calf.  One can easily imagine Moses’ profound disappointment and frustration at the collective apostasy of the Israelites.  They had witnessed the unprecedented involvement of God in human history, the series of plagues that had brought a mighty empire to its knees, the miraculous victory of the untrained former slaves over the fierce Amalakite forces, and, of course, the revelation on Mount Sinai.  So moved had the Israelites been by their personal experience of the divine epiphany that they had declared:  ‘All that the Lord has spoken we shall do and we shall obey.’ (Ex.24:7). But a mere forty days later, they had forgotten the miracles and the commitments.  While Moses tarried with God they had created a substitute deity.

The Divine anger at Israel’s betrayal was palpable: And the Lord spoke onto Moses:  ‘Go down for your people that you brought up from the land of Egypt has dealt corruptly.  They have turned quickly out of the way that I commanded them:  They have made themselves a molten calf and have worshipped it, and sacrificed onto it, and said:  “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”’  And the Lord said to Moses:  ‘I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people.  Now, therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may wax hot against them, and that I may consume them:  And I will make of you a great nation.’ And Moses besought the Lord his God and said:  Lord, why does Your wrath wax hot against Your people, that You have brought forth our of the land of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand?...Turn from Your fierce anger and repent of this evil against Your people.(Exodus, 32:7-11; 13).

God had promised to make Moses the forbear of a new nation.  A lesser, more ego-driven, person might have been tempted by the offer.   But Moses was not.  His loyalty to his people was uncompromising.   His position was clear:  If God would not spare his people; he had no wish to survive. “And now, forgive their sin. And if not, please erase me from Your Book that You have written (Ex. 34:34),” he boldly told God. Moses did not hold his peace.  He refused to be silent, but argued with
God on behalf of his people. The Talmud puts it this way: Samuel said: ‘This [verse] teaches that Moses sacrificed himself for them.’ (BT Berakhot 32a)

The second incident followed the despairing report of ten of the twelve spies, who discouraged the people from attempting to conquer the Promised Land. They urged return to Egypt under new leadership, having lost confidence both in Moses and in God.

Their lack of faith seemed unforgivable:  And the Lord said onto Moses:  ‘How long will this people despise Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, notwithstanding all the signs which I have wrought among them?   I will smite them with a pestilence, and destroy them and make of you a nation greater and mightier than they…. [Then Moses said]: “And now, I pray You, let the power of the Lord be great, according as You have spoken, saying:  ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abundant in loving kindness, forgiving inequity and transgression, who will by no means clear the guilty …Pardon, I pray you the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your loving kindness, just as you have forgiven this people form Egypt even until now. “ And the Lord said:  ‘I have pardoned according to your word.’ (Num. 15: 11-12; 17-20). 

God had again threatened to destroy the Israelites and to make Moses the forbear of an even greater nation than them.  Once again, Moses refused to be silent. He protested Gods’ judgment, defending his flock notwithstanding their unconscionable behavior.

The children of Israel must surely have been aware of Moses’ almost impertinent advocacy of their cause.  He had been prepared to challenge God not to frustrate their dream of becoming a great nation. 

But when his own dream was shattered and his hope of leading his people into the Promised Land frustrated, his people failed to protest. They did not say that unless Moses led them across the Jordan, they would not go either. Their silence was deafening. They did not reciprocate his passionate advocacy.

Rabbi Soloveitchick suggested that our text is the subtle articulation of the imperative of gratitude.  It was a gentle criticism of a people that had not repaid kindness with kindness--that had not learnt the lesson of gratitude.  Moses was determined to remind the new generation of the importance of this imperative.

We all need this reminder.  We are prone to say:  “What have you done for us lately? “ We quickly forget the kindnesses from which we have benefited and have too often failed to reciprocate.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

PARASHAT DEVARIM: THREE LAMENTATIONS/5771/2011


RABBI ABNER WEISS' WEEKLY TORAH TEACHING

WESTWOOD VILLAGE SYNAGOGUE

PARASHAT DEVARIM

THREE LAMENTATIONS


Behold I have set before you the land. Go in and possess the land that the Lord swore onto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob to give to them and to their seed after them.  And I spoke onto you that time saying:  ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone…How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]?
(Deut. 1:8,9,12)

One of the reasons why Parashat Devarim always precedes the Fast of the Ninth of Av [Tish’ah Be-Av] is Moses’ rebuke of Israel.  His rebuke is, in fact, a lamentation [kinah].  Lamentations are most commonly associated with the word eikhah.  It appears not only in the lament of Moses, but also in two other readings associated with this dismal period in the Jewish calendar. The Sages put it this way:

There were three who prophesized sing the word eikhah, Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah. 
Moses said: How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]? (Deut. 1:12).
 Isaiah said: [ Eikhah] How  has the faithful city become a harlot!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Isaiah1:21).    
      Jeremiah said:[ Eikhah] how does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces [how has she] become a tributary! ( Lamentations 1:1). (Eikhah Rabbah 1:1)

What is the connection between these three usages of the word Eikhah? There have been many suggestions, but the most tantalizing is the homily in Yalkut Shim’oni:

[The three-[fold use of the word Eikhah] may be illustrated by a certain woman who had three special friends. One saw her in her tranquil state [be-shalvatah]. Another saw her in her unstable, unsettled condition [be-fachazutah]. The third saw her in her disgraced, humiliated state [be-nivulah].

Thus Moses saw her in her tranquil state, and said: ’ How [eikhah] can I myself alone bear your cumbrance [torchakhem], and your burden [masa’akhem] and your strife [rivekhem]? (Deut. 1:12).

 Isaiah saw her in her unstable, unsettled condition, and said: ‘ [ Eikhah] How  has the faithful city become a harlot!  She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers (Isaiah1:21). 

 Jeremiah saw her in her disgraced, humiliated state, and said: ‘:[ Eikhah] how does the city sit solitary, that was full of people! How is she become as a widow, she that was great among the nations, and a princess among the provinces [how has she] become a tributary! ( Lam. 1:1).

The context in which Moses uses the word eikhah sheds light on the first part of Yalkut Shim’oni’s homily.  The exodus from Egypt was complete, the Amalekites had been defeated and the Israelites were ready to enter the Promised Land. This was conveyed by Moses’ words: Behold I have set before you the land. Go in and possess the land that the Lord swore onto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob to give to them and to their seed after them. (Deut. !:8). Moses was lamenting the non-fulfillment of the opportunity of taking possession of the land. Precisely at that time [ba-et ha-hi], when Israel was in a state of unprecedented tranquility, it missed the opportunity of capitalizing on its tranquility.

The nation was not harassed by outside enemies, and its physical needs—food, water and raiment—were well provided for. No distractions disrupted the harmony of nation. The Israelites had a golden opportunity of achieving unity and spiritual growth. But they blew that opportunity. Untroubled by enemies on the outside, they stirred up internal enmity. They quarreled and bickered, and wore Moses down with their pessimism, complaining and bickering.

Great leader though he was, Moses was overwhelmed by the burden. His people were simply not ready for the encounter with their national destiny. His eikhah lament was his broken- hearted response to the collective failure to capitalize on the unprecedented condition of tranquility.

Isaiah’s eikhah lament contrasts radically with Moses’ lament. Whereas Moses laments squandered tranquility, Isaiah laments needless instability. Moses led an undivided Israelite people, who nevertheless fought and quarreled. In Isaiah’s time, the disintegration of the body politic was imminent. Ten of the twelve tribes were about to be lost forever. The prophet foresaw the consequences of the prevailing national restlessness, spiritual betrayal and disharmony. So he bitterly lamented the fragmentation of the nation and the loss of the greater part of its ancestral homeland. This was Isaiah’s eikhah.

The Book of Lamentations is the record of Jeremiah’s lament about the destruction of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, and the exile of the remnants of Judah to Babylon. His eikhah laments the consequences of wasted opportunities and moral and spiritual instability.

Accordingly, the three   eikhas lament Israel’s curious inability to be content with tranquility, to cope adaptively with instability, and the tragic consequences of these flaws in the national character.

A wit once remarked that history does not repeat itself. Only historians do that. I think he was wrong and that Santayana was right: Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

 The condition of the contemporary State of Israel proves his point. Modern Jews cannot bear tranquility. During the rare periods when the threat of outside attack abates, Israelis create internal strife. Secularists attack religious Jews; the religiously observant throw stones and hurl insults at non-practicing Jews; Ashkenazic Jews demonize Sefaradic Jews; the political Right and Left accuse each other of betraying the national ethos; and religious courts delegitimize Jews whose ideology differs from theirs. Tragically, it takes an assault from without to produce Jewish unity within. This is Moses’ lament reincarnated.

But even the semblance of national unity under those circumstances is ephemeral. As in Isaiah’s time, the very threat of national disintegration produced dangerous internal conflicts that atrophied the national spirit.  Today, Right accuses Left of promoting policies that all but assure the acceleration of Israel’s putative demise—and visa versa. Here, too, we hear echoes of Isaiah’s eikhah.

Hopefully, the consequences of the national allergy to tranquility and its inability to manage stress will produce echoes of Jeremiah’s tragic eikhah.

 The primary focus of the midrash in Yalkut Shim’oni is the Jewish collective. But its lessons apply with equal force to us as individuals. Like our forbears in the wilderness and in ancient Israel, we are our own worst enemies. When things are going well we often tend to pick fights. Although they have so much going for them, too many marriages are punctuated by needless bickering. Many productive partnerships are imperiled by imagined slights, mindless power struggles and neurotic infighting.

 Many people are simply stir-crazy. Rejecting the tranquility with which they have been blessed, they adopt self-defeating behaviors, take unnecessary risks and do crazy things to lift them from their imagined ruts. Tragedy often follows, and lives are shattered—the risk takers’ and also the lives of those who have to pick up the pieces—all with a plaintive eikhah on their lips.

When we contemplate these flaws in the human spirit, we have much about which to be depressed. But Jews are not naturally pessimistic. Our national anthem is Hatikvah, The Hope. We have survived as a collective precisely because we have never lost hope. Shabbat Nachamu always follows Shabbat Chazon. Isaiah’s eikhah is followed by his healing words of consolation. It is never too late. Negative tendencies can be changed. Tranquility can be restored even to traumatized families. The Jewish people is capable of renewal. And renewal begins with each and every one of us.