Tag Archives: humility

The Audacity of Torah

Who gave us permission to serve the Lord?

Recorded live at TCS, The Conservative Synagogue of Westport Connecticut, an exploration of the fine line between expressions of piety in the service of the Divine and the seduction of self-pride.

Using biblical, Talmudic, liturgical and Maimonidian texts and anecdotes from the Novardok school of Mussar we come to a surprising conclusion. The Torah not so much commands us to worship the Lord as it does give us permission or license. We call this the audacity of Torah.

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Access source sheet in Sefaria here.

1. There is a popular Jewish joke about the former Novardok Yeshiva, founded by Rabbi Yosef Yozel Horowitz known as the Alter of Novardok (1847–1919). Novardok was one of the more extreme exemplars of the mussar movement that developed in Lithuania in the latter part of the 19th century. This yeshiva placed great emphasis on “the negation of the ego and the physical world”. Students wore tattered clothing and engaged in deliberately humiliating activities to achieve that end. The joke goes as follows:

Chaim, a new student, arrived at the Novardok Yeshiva. Being a novice and not knowing exactly what was expected of him, he simply observed what the other students were doing and copied them. When it was time for davening, observing his fellow yeshiva students engaged in fervent prayer and shokeling back and forth with great intensity, he did the same. During the period for Talmud study, he mimicked the others with their sing-song chants and exaggerated hand gestures. Finally, it was time for mussar self-examination, when each student retreated to a private corner, beat his fist remorsefully against his chest and repeated the refrain in Yiddish: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” (“I am a complete nothing!”) Observing the behaviour of these students, Chaim sat down and, pounding his fist against his chest, likewise repeated the same mantra: “Ish bin a gor nisht! Ish bin a gor nisht!” One of the veteran students seated nearby observed Chaim disdainfully, turned to another old-timer and commented, “Look at this one! He’s been here just one day, and he already thinks he’s a gor nisht!” source

(ח) אֶת שֵׁם הָאֵ-ל, הַמֶּלֶךְ הַגָּדול הַגִּבּור וְהַנּורָא קָדושׁ הוּא.

וְכֻלָּם מְקַבְּלִים עֲלֵיהֶם על מַלְכוּת שָׁמַיִם זֶה מִזֶּה.

וְנותְנִים רְשׁוּת זֶה לָזֶה לְהַקְדִּישׁ לְיוצְרָם בְּנַחַת רוּחַ. בְּשפָה בְרוּרָה וּבִנְעִימָה.

קְדֻשָׁה כֻּלָּם כְּאֶחָד. עונִים וְאומְרִים בְּיִרְאָה:
קָדושׁ קָדושׁ קָדושׁ ה’ צְבָאות. מְלא כָל הָאָרֶץ כְּבודו:

the name of the Almighty, the king, the great, the mighty, the awesome One; holy is He.

And they take upon themselves the yoke of sovereignty one from the other

and give permission one to another to sanctify their Creator in a spirit of serenity

with clear speech and sweet harmony

They proclaim [His] holiness in unison and reverently proclaim:

“Holy, holy, holy is Adonoy of Hosts the fullness of all the earth is his glory.”

(א) וקרא זה אל זה. נוטלין רשות זה מזה שלא יקדים האחד ויתחיל ויתחייב שריפה אלא אם כן פתחו כולם כאחד וזהו שיסד ביוצר אור קדושה כולם כאחד עונים כו’ ומדרש אגדה מעשה מרכבה הוא וכן תירגם קדוש קדוש קדוש ג’ פעמים כתרגומו:

Rashi on Isaiah 6:3

3.  They would take permission from one another so that one would not precede [the others] and be guilty of [a sin punishable by] burning; rather, they all commenced simultaneously. This is the basis for what is said in the K’dushah d’Yotzeir Or: “all, as one, respond [and proclaim God’s holiness…]”…

האם בני אדם יכולים להידמות למלאכים? מיכאל גרץ פוסטים23/02/2020

ר’ חיים בן שלמה טיירר מצ’רנוביץ’ (נולד ב1816) מסביר את הפסוק והתפילה כך:

“…כי באמת כבר כתבנו במקום אחר שמי שאוהב את ה’ יתברך לא אהבת עצמו בשום אופן, אין חילוק לפניו כלל וכלל בעשיית המצוות אם הוא עשאה או אחרים עושים ויבוא הטוב מכל מקום”.

אסור שתתקיים “תחרות” על עשיית מצוות. יהודי שעושה רק מצווה אחת ביום, עשייה זאת משמחת את הקב”ה. ואין לאדם אחר רשות לבקר אותו שזה רק מצווה אחת. והוא ממשיך:

“וזה הוא עיקר עבודתו לעשות נחת רוח לפניו, ומה לו אם יגיענו נחת רוח ממנו או מחבירו. … האוהב את בוראו אהבת אמת שמשתוקק שיגיע נחת רוח לבורא עולם, לא ישתדל כלל לחטוף המצוה מזולתו שהוא יעשנה”

אין אפוטרופסות על המצוות! אסור שחוג זה או אחר יטען שרק הם יודעים איך לקיים את המצוות, ולכן כל מצווה שיהודי אחר עושה פסול מלכתחילה. גישה כזאת גורמת צער לה’ במקום שמחה.

“ועל כן אומרים בקדושה של יוצר אצל קדושת המלאכים וכולם מקבלים עליהם וגו’ ונותנים באהבה ‘רשות זה לזה’ להקדיש ליוצרם בנחת רוח וגו’, …

ולא יחפוץ אחד להיות גדול מחבירו אף בעיני המקום, ועל כן נותנים באהבה רבה רשות זה לזה להקדיש וכו’ כי כל כוונתם שיגיע הנאה לבורא עולם יהיה ממי שיהיה מאתו או מזולתו…” (ספר באר מים חיים פרשת תצוה – פרק כח)

4. Rabbi Michael Gertz: Can Humans Resemble Angels 2/23/2020

Rabbi Chaim Ben Shlomo Tierer of Czernowitz (born 1816) explains the verse and prayer as follows:

“… Because we have already written elsewhere that whoever loves God will not act selfishly under any circumstance, there is no difference in him at all in doing the commandments whether he did or others do and the good comes from everywhere.

Ganze: There must be no “competition” for the observance. A Jew who does only one mitzvah a day does so pleasing the Almighty. And no one else has permission to criticize him that is only one mitzvah. And he continues:

“And that is the crux of his work please the Lord, and what if this Divine pleasure comes from him or from his friend. … Who loves his Creator A true love that longs for a spirit of Creator will never endeavor to snatch the mitzvah from others.

Ganz; There is no guardianship of the commandments! One or the other circle must not claim that only they know how to keep the commandments, and therefore every commandment that another Jew makes is wrong in the first place. Such an attitude causes God sorrow instead of joy.

And so they say with regard to the Kedusha: and everyone accepts them And lovingly give ‘each other’s permission’ to sanctify their creator in divine pleasure … ‘ And no one wants to be bigger than his friend even in the eyes of the God, and therefore, with great love, give each other permission to dedicate, etc. that all their intentions that come to give pleasure to the Creator of the world whether it comes from them or their fellow.

ברכות ל״ב א

וְאָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: מֹשֶׁה הֵטִיחַ דְּבָרִים כְּלַפֵּי מַעְלָה. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה׳״ אַל תִּקְרֵי ״אֶל ה׳״, אֶלָּא ״עַל ה׳״. שֶׁכֵּן דְּבֵי רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר בֶּן יַעֲקֹב קוֹרִין לָאַלְפִין עַיְינִין, וְלָעַיְינִין אַלְפִין.

דבֵי רַבִּי יַנַּאי אָמְרִי, מֵהָכָא: ״וְדִי זָהָב״. מַאי ״וְדִי זָהָב״? אָמְרִי דְּבֵי רַבִּי יַנַּאי: כָּךְ אָמַר מֹשֶׁה לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: רִבּוֹנוֹ שֶׁל עוֹלָם, בִּשְׁבִיל כֶּסֶף וְזָהָב שֶׁהִשְׁפַּעְתָּ לָהֶם לְיִשְׂרָאֵל, עַד שֶׁאָמְרוּ ״דַּי״ — הוּא גָּרַם שֶׁעָשׂוּ אֶת הָעֵגֶל. אָמְרִי דְּבֵי רַבִּי יַנַּאי: אֵין אֲרִי נוֹהֵם מִתּוֹךְ קוּפָּה שֶׁל תֶּבֶן אֶלָּא מִתּוֹךְ קוּפָּה שֶׁל בָּשָׂר. אָמַר רַבִּי אוֹשַׁעְיָא: מָשָׁל לְאָדָם שֶׁהָיְתָה לוֹ פָּרָה כְּחוּשָׁה וּבַעֲלַת אֵבָרִים, הֶאֱכִילָהּ כַּרְשִׁינִין וְהָיְתָה מְבַעֶטֶת בּוֹ. אָמַר לָהּ: מִי גָּרַם לִיךְ שֶׁתְּהֵא מְבַעֶטֶת בִּי — אֶלָּא כַּרְשִׁינִין שֶׁהֶאֱכַלְתִּיךְ. אָמַר רַבִּי חִיָּיא בַּר אַבָּא אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: מָשָׁל לְאָדָם אֶחָד שֶׁהָיָה לוֹ בֵּן. הִרְחִיצוֹ וְסָכוֹ, וְהֶאֱכִילוֹ וְהִשְׁקָהוּ, וְתָלָה לוֹ כִּיס עַל צַוָּארוֹ, וְהוֹשִׁיבוֹ עַל פֶּתַח שֶׁל זוֹנוֹת. מַה יַּעֲשֶׂה אוֹתוֹ הַבֵּן שֶׁלֹּא יֶחֱטָא?! אָמַר רַב אַחָא בְּרֵיהּ דְּרַב הוּנָא אָמַר רַב שֵׁשֶׁת: הַיְינוּ דְּאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: מְלֵי כְּרֵסֵיהּ זְנֵי בִּישֵׁי. שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״כְּמַרְעִיתָם וַיִּשְׂבָּעוּ שָׂבְעוּ וַיָּרׇם לִבָּם עַל כֵּן שְׁכֵחוּנִי״. רַב נַחְמָן אָמַר: מֵהָכָא: ״וְרָם לְבָבֶךָ וְשָׁכַחְתָּ אֶת ה׳״. וְרַבָּנַן אָמְרִי, מֵהָכָא: ״וְאָכַל וְשָׂבַע וְדָשֵׁן וּפָנָה״. וְאִי בָּעֵית אֵימָא מֵהָכָא: ״וַיִּשְׁמַן יְשׁוּרוּן וַיִּבְעָט״. אָמַר רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָנִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן: מִנַּיִן שֶׁחָזַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְהוֹדָה לוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וְכֶסֶף הִרְבֵּיתִי לָהֶם וְזָהָב עָשׂוּ לַבָּעַל״. ״וַיְדַבֵּר ה׳ אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֶךְ רֵד״. מַאי ״לֶךְ רֵד״? אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר: אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְמֹשֶׁה: מֹשֶׁה, רֵד מִגְּדוּלָּתְךָ! כְּלוּם נָתַתִּי לְךָ גְּדוּלָּה אֶלָּא בִּשְׁבִיל יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְעַכְשָׁיו יִשְׂרָאֵל חָטְאוּ — אַתָּה לָמָּה לִי? מִיָּד תָּשַׁשׁ כּוֹחוֹ שֶׁל מֹשֶׁה, וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ כֹּחַ לְדַבֵּר. וְכֵיוָן שֶׁאָמַר ״הֶרֶף מִמֶּנִּי וְאַשְׁמִידֵם״, אָמַר מֹשֶׁה: דָּבָר זֶה תָּלוּי בִּי! מִיָּד עָמַד וְנִתְחַזֵּק בִּתְפִלָּה, וּבִקֵּשׁ רַחֲמִים. מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ שֶׁכָּעַס עַל בְּנוֹ, וְהָיָה מַכֵּהוּ מַכָּה גְּדוֹלָה. וְהָיָה אוֹהֲבוֹ יוֹשֵׁב לְפָנָיו, וּמִתְיָרֵא לוֹמַר לוֹ דָּבָר. אָמַר הַמֶּלֶךְ: אִלְמָלֵא אוֹהֲבִי זֶה שֶׁיּוֹשֵׁב לְפָנַי — הֲרַגְתִּיךָ. אָמַר: דָּבָר זֶה תָּלוּי בִּי. מִיָּד עָמַד וְהִצִּילוֹ. ״וְעַתָּה הַנִּיחָה לִּי וְיִחַר אַפִּי בָהֶם וַאֲכַלֵּם וְאֶעֱשֶׂה אוֹתְךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וְגוֹ׳״.

אָמַר רַבִּי אֲבָהוּ: אִלְמָלֵא מִקְרָא כָּתוּב, אִי אֶפְשָׁר לְאוֹמְרוֹ.

And Rabbi Elazar said: Moses also spoke impertinently toward God on High, as it is stated in the verse following the sin of those who murmured against God in the desert: “And Moses prayed to the Lord and the fire subsided” (Numbers 11:2), and this verse is interpreted homiletically: Do not read to [el] the Lord, but rather onto [al] the Lord, which indicates that he spoke impertinently….

The Sages of the school of Rabbi Yannai, however, say proof that Moses spoke impertinently toward God on High is derived from here, Moses’ rebuke at the beginning of Deuteronomy: “And Di Zahav” (Deuteronomy 1:1). …The Sages of the school of Rabbi Yannai said that Moses said the following before the Holy One, Blessed be He, to atone for Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf: Master of the Universe, because of the gold and silver that you lavished upon Israel during the exodus from Egypt until they said enough [dai]; it was this wealth that caused Israel to make the Golden Calf.

Rabbi Oshaya said: This is comparable to a person who had a lean, but large-limbed cow. At one point, he fed it lupines, a choice food, and soon thereafter the cow was kicking him. He said to the cow: Who caused you to begin kicking me if not the lupines I fed you? Here, too, the sin was caused by an abundance of good. The Gemara offers another analogy: Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yoḥanan said: This is comparable to a person who had a son; he bathed him and anointed him with oil, fed him and gave him drink, and hung a purse of money around his neck. Then, he brought his son to the entrance of a brothel. What could the son do to avoid sinning? ….

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: From where in the Torah is it derived that the Holy One, Blessed be He, ultimately conceded to Moses that the reason for the sin of the Golden Calf was indeed the riches lavished upon Israel? As it is stated: “And I gave them an abundance of silver and gold, which they used for the Ba’al” (Hosea 2:10). …

In an additional aspect of the sin of the Golden Calf, God told Moses: “Now leave Me be, that My wrath will be enraged against them and I will consume them; and I will make of you a great nation” (Exodus 32:10). Explaining this verse,

Rabbi Abbahu said: Were the verse not written in this manner, it would be impossible to utter it, in deference to God.

5.

הנה כבר התבאר לך כי כל אשר התבאר לך במופת שלילת דבר אחד ממנו – תהיה יותר שלם וכל אשר תחיב לו דבר מוסף – תהיה מדמה ותרחק מידיעת אמיתתו. …

וכאשר הרגיש כל אדם שאי אפשר להגיע אל השגת מה שבכוחנו שנשיג כי אם בשלילה והשלילה לא תודיע דבר מאמיתת הענין אשר נשלל ממנו הדבר אשר נשללהו – בארו בני אדם כולם העוברים והבאים שהאלוה ית’ לא ישיגוהו השכלים ולא ישיג מה הוא אלא הוא ושהשגתו היא הלאות מתכלית השגתו. וכל הפילוסופים אומרים נצחנו בנעימותו ונעלם ממנו לחוזק הראותו כמו שיעלם השמש מן העינים החלושים להשיגו. וכבר האריכו בזה במה שאין תועלת לשנותו הנה. והמפולג שנאמר בזה הענין – אמרו ב’תלים’ “לך דומיה תהילה” – פרושו השתיקה אצלך היא השבח. וזה המרצת דברים עצומה מאוד בזה הענין – שאנחנו כל דבר שנאמר אותו שנכון בו הגדלה ושבח – נמצא בו מעמס אחד בחוקו ית’ ונשקיף בו קצת חסרון; אם כן השתיקה יותר ראויה וההסתפקות בהשגת השכלים כמו שצוו השלמים ואמרו “אמרו בלבבכם על משכבכם ודומו סלה”:

וכבר ידעת אמרתם המפורסמת (אשר מי יתן והיה כל המאמרים כמותה!) ואני אזכרה לך בלשונה (ואף על פי שהיא ידועה) להעירך על עניניה.

הַהוּא דִּנְחֵית קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַבִּי חֲנִינָא, אֲמַר ״הָאֵל הַגָּדוֹל הַגִּבּוֹר וְהַנּוֹרָא וְהָאַדִּיר וְהָעִזּוּז וְהַיָּראוּי, הֶחָזָק וְהָאַמִּיץ וְהַוַּדַּאי וְהַנִּכְבָּד״.

הִמְתִּין לוֹ עַד דְּסַיֵּים. כִּי סַיֵּים אֲמַר לֵיהּ: סַיֵּימְתִּינְהוּ לְכוּלְּהוּ שִׁבְחֵי דְמָרָךְ?! לְמָה לִי כּוּלֵּי הַאי? אֲנַן, הָנֵי תְּלָת דְּאָמְרִינַן אִי לָאו דְּאַמְרִינְהוּ מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ בְּאוֹרָיְיתָא, וַאֲתוֹ אַנְשֵׁי כְּנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה וְתַקְּנִינְהוּ בִּתְפִלָּה — לָא הֲוֵינַן יְכוֹלִין לְמֵימַר לְהוּ, וְאַתְּ אָמְרַתְּ כּוּלֵּי הַאי וְאָזְלַתְּ! מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ בָּשָׂר וָדָם שֶׁהָיוּ לוֹ אֶלֶף אֲלָפִים דִּינְרֵי זָהָב, וְהָיוּ מְקַלְּסִין אוֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁל כֶּסֶף. וַהֲלֹא גְּנַאי הוּא לוֹ! ברכות ל״ג ב

– עד הנה הגיע מאמר זה החסיד:

והסתכל תחילה שתקו ומאסו רבוי תארי החיוב. והתבונן איך הראה כי התארים אילו הונחו לשכלינו לבד לא אמרנום לעולם ולא דברנו בדבר מהם; ואמנם כאשר הצריך הכרח הדיבור לבני אדם במה שיתקים להם מעט ציור – כמו שאמרו ‘דברה תורה כלשון בני אדם’ – שיתואר להם האלוק בשלמיותיהם תכליתנו – שנעמוד על המאמרים ההם ולא נקרא שמו בהם אלא בקראנו אותם ב’תורה’ לבד;

וכבר הישירנו שלמה לזה הענין במה שבו די ואמר “כי האלוקים בשמים ואתה על הארץ על כן יהיו דבריך מעטים”

5.   Guide for the Perplexed, Part 1 59

It will now be clear to you, that every time you establish by proof the negation of a thing in reference to God, you become more perfect, while with every additional positive assertion you follow your imagination and recede from the true knowledge of God. …

Since it is a well-known fact that even that knowledge of God which is accessible to man cannot be attained except by negations, and that negations do not convey a true idea of the being to which they refer, all people, both of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him. All philosophers say, “He has overpowered us by His grace, and is invisible to us through the intensity of His light,” like the sun which cannot be perceived by eyes which are too weak to bear its rays. Much more has been said on this topic, but it is useless to repeat it here. The idea is best expressed in the book of Psalms, “Silence is praise to Thee” (lxv. 2). It is a very expressive remark on this subject; for whatever we utter with the intention of extolling and of praising Him, contains something that cannot be applied to God, and includes derogatory expressions; it is therefore more becoming to be silent, and to be content with intellectual reflection, as has been recommended by men of the highest culture, in the words “Commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still” (Ps. 4:4).

You must surely know the following celebrated passage in the Talmud (Berakhot 33b) –would that all passages in the Talmud were like that!–although it is known to you, I quote it literally, as I wish to point out to you the ideas contained in it: “A certain person, reading prayers in the presence of Rabbi Haninah, said, ‘God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous, the powerful, the strong, and the mighty.’–The rabbi said to him, Have you finished all the praises of your Master? The three epithets, ‘God, the great, the valiant and the tremendous,’ we should not have applied to God, had Moses not mentioned them in the Law, and had not the men of the Great Synagogue come forward subsequently and established their use in the prayer; and you say all this! Let this be illustrated by a parable. There was once an earthly king, possessing millions of gold coin; he was praised for owning millions of silver coin; was this not really dispraise to him?” Thus far the opinion of the pious rabbi.

Consider, first, how repulsive and annoying the accumulation of all these positive attributes was to him; next, how he showed that, if we had only to follow our reason, we should never have composed these prayers, and we should not have uttered any of them. It has, however, become necessary to address men in words that should leave some idea in their minds, and, in accordance with the saying of our Sages, “The Torah speaks in the language of men,” the Creator has been described to us in terms of our own perfections; but we should not on that account have uttered any other than the three above-mentioned attributes, and we should not have used them as names of God except when meeting with them in reading the Law.

Solomon has already given us sufficient instruction on this subject by saying, “For God is in heaven, and thou upon earth; therefore let thy words be few” (Eccles. 5:2).

אי אפשר לפי טבע האדם שיניח כל מה שהרגיל בו פתאום. וכאשר שלח האלוק ‘משה רבנו’ לתתנו “ממלכת כהנים וגוי קדוש” בידיעתו ית’ – כמו שבאר ואמר “אתה הראת לדעת וגו'” וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך וגו'” ולהנתן לעבודתו – כמו שאמר “ולעבדו בכל לבבכם” ואמר “ועבדתם את ה’ אלוקיכם” ואמר “ואותו תעבודו” – והיה המנהג המפורסם בעולם כולו שהיו אז רגילים בו והעבודה הכוללת אשר גדלו עליה – להקריב מיני בעלי חיים בהיכלות ההם אשר היו מעמידים בהם הצלמים ולהשתחוות להם ולקטר לפניהם והעבודים והפרושים היו אז האנשים הנתונים לעבודת ההיכלות ההם העשויים לכוכבים (כמו שבארנו) – לא גזרה חכמתו ית’ ותחבולתו המבוארת בכל בריאותיו שיצונו להניח מיני העבודות ההם כולם ולעזבם ולבטלם כי אז היה זה מה שלא יעלה בלב לקבלו כפי טבע האדם שהוא נוטה תמיד למורגל; והיה דומה אז כאילו יבוא נביא בזמננו זה שיקרא לעבודת האלוק ויאמר האלוק צוה אתכם שלא תתפללו אליו ולא תצומו ולא תבקשו תשועתו בעת צרה אבל תהיה עבודתכם מחשבה מבלתי מעשה: ומפני זה השאיר ית’ מיני העבודות ההם והעתיקם מהיותם לנבראים ולענינים דמיוניים שאין אמיתות להם – לשמו ית’ וצונו לעשותם לו ית’. וצוונו לבנות היכל לו “ועשו לי מקדש” ושיהיה המזבח לשמו “מזבח אדמה תעשה לי” ושיהיה הקרבן לו “אדם כי יקריב מכם קרבן לה'” ושישתחוו לו ושיקטירוהו לפניו. והזהיר מעשות דבר מאלו המעשים לזולתו “זובח לאלוקים יחרם וגו'” “כי לא תשתחוה לאל אחר”. והפריש ‘כהנים’ לבית ה’מקדש’ ואמר “וכהנו לי” וחיב שייוחדו להם מתנות על כל פנים שיספיקו להם מפני שהם עסוקים בבית ובקרבנותיו והם מתנות ה’לוים וה’כהנים’. והגיע בזאת הערמה האלוקית שנמחוה זכר ‘עבודה זרה’ והתקימה הפינה הגדולה האמיתית באמונתו והיא מציאות האלוק ואחדותו; ולא יברחו הנפשות וישתוממו בבטל העבודות אשר הורגלו ולא נודעו עבודתו זולתם: ואני יודע שנפשך תברח מזה הענין בהכרח בתחילת מחשבה ויכבד עליך ותשאלני בלבך ותאמר לי איך יבואו מצוות ואזהרות ופעולות עצומות ומבוארות מאד והושם להם זמנים והם כולם בלתי מכוונות לעצמם אבל הם מפני דבר אחר כאילו הם תחבולה שעשה העלוה לנו להגיע אל כונתו הראשונה? ואי זה מונע היה אצלו ית’ לצוות לנו כונתו הראשונה ויתן בנו יכולת לקבלה ולא היה צורך לאלו אשר חשבת שהם על צד הכונה השניה? – שמע תשובתי אשר תסיר מלבך זה החלי ותגלה לך אמיתת מה שעוררתיך עליו. והוא שכבר בא ב’תורה’ כמו זה הענין בשוה – והוא אמרו “ולא נחם אלוקים דרך ארץ פלישתים כי קרוב הוא וגו’ ויסב אלוקים את העם דרך המדבר ים סוף”. וכמו שהסב האלוק אותם מן הדרך הישרה אשר היתה מכוונת תחלה מפני יראת מה שלא היו גופותם יכולים לסבלו לפי הטבע אל דרך אחרת עד שתגיע הכונה הראשונה – כן צוה בזאת המצוה אשר זכרנו מפני יראת מה שאין יכולת לנפש לקבלו לפי הטבע שתגיע הכונה הראשונה והיא – השגתו ית’ והנחת ‘עבודה זרה’. כי כמו שאין בטבע האדם שיגדל על מלאכת עבדות בחומר ובלבנים והדומה להם ואחר כן ירחץ ידיו לשעתו מלכלוכם וילחם עם ‘ילידי הענק’ פתאום כן אין בטבעו שיגדל על מינים רביםמן העבודות ומעשים מורגלים שכבר נטו אליהם הנפשות עד ששבו כמושכל ראשון ויניחם כולם פתאום. וכמו שהיה מחכמת האלוק להסב אותם במדבר עד שילמדו גבורה – כמו שנודע שההליכה במדבר ומעוט הנאות הגוף מרחיצה וסיכה וכיוצא בהם יולידו הגבורה והפכם יוליד רוך לב – ונולדו גם כן אנשים שלא הרגילו בשפלות ובעבדות וכל זה היה במצות אלוקיות על ידי משה רבינו’ “על פי ה’ יחנו ועל פי ה’ יסעו – את משמרת ה’ שמרו על פי ה’ ביד משה” – כן בא זה החלק מן התורה בתחבולה אלוקית עד שישארו עם מין המעשה המורגל כדי שתעלה בידם האמונה אשר היא הכונה הראשונה. ושאלתך “אי זה מונע היה לאלוק מצוותנו כונתו הראשונה ויתן לנו יכולת לקבלה?” תחיב זאת השאלה השנית ויאמר לך ואי זה מונע היה לאלוק שינחם ‘דרך ארץ פלישתים’ ויתן להם יכולת להלחם ולא היה צריך לזה הסיבוב ב”עמוד הענן יומם ועמוד האש לילה”? וכן תחיב שאלה שלישית – על סיבת היעודים הטובים אשר יעד על שמירת המצוות והיעודים הרעים אשר יעד על העברות ויאמר לך אחר שכונת האלוק הראשונה ורצונו היה שנאמין זאת התורה ונעשה ככל הכתוב בה למה לא נתן לנו יכולת לקבלה ולעשותה תמיד ולא היה עושה לנו תחבולה להיטיב לנו אם נעבדהו ולהנקם ממנו אם נמרהו? ולעשות הטובות ההם כולם והנקמות ההם כולם? – כי זאת גם כן תחבולה שעשה האלוק לנו עד שיגיע ממנו אל כונתו הראשונה – ואי זה מונע היה אצלו לתת רצון במעשי העבודה אשר רצה וריחוק העברות אשר מאסם טבע מוטבע בנו?: והתשובה על אלו השאלות השלש וכל מה שהוא ממינם – תשובה אחת כוללת והיא שהאותות כולם אף על פי שהם שינוי טבע איש אחד מאישי הנמצאות אך טבע בני אדם לא ישנהו האלוק כלל על צד המופת. ומפני זה השורש הגדול אמר “מי יתן והיה לבבם זה להם וגו'” ומפני זה באה המצוה והאזהרה והגמול והעונש. וכבר בארנו זאת הפינה במופתיה במקומות רבים מחיבורינו. ולא אמרתי זה מפני שאני מאמין ששינוי טבע כל אחד מבני אדם קשה עליו ית’ אך הוא אפשר ונופל תחת היכולת אלא שהוא לא רצה כלל לעשות זה ולא ירצהו לעולם כפי הפינות התוריות; ואילו היה מרצונו לשנות טבע כל איש מבני אדם למה שירצהו ית’ מן האיש ההוא היה בטל שליחות הנביאים ונתינת התורה כולה:

(ג) ואשוב אל כונתי ואומר כי כאשר היה זה המין מן העבודה – רצוני לומר ה’קרבנות’ – על צד הכונה השניה והצעקה והתפלה וכיוצא בהם ממעשי העבודות יותר קרובות אל הכונה הראשונה והכרחיות בהגיע אליה – שם בין שני המינים הפרש גדול והוא שזה המין מן העבודה – רצוני לומר הקרבת הקרבנות – אף על פי שהוא לשמו ית’ לא חויב עלינו כמו שהיה בתחלה – רצוני לומר שנקריב בכל מקום ובכל זמן ולא שנעשה היכל באשר יזדמן ושיקריב מי שיזדמן “החפץ ימלא ידו” אבל נאסר כל זה עלינו והושם בית אחד “אל המקום אשר יבחר ה'” ואין מקריבים בזולתו “פן תעלה עולותיך בכל מקום אשר תראה” ולא יהיה ‘כהן’ אלא זרע מיוחד – כל זה הענין – למעט זה המין מן העבודות ושלא יהיה ממנו אלא מה שלא גזרה חכמתו להניחו לגמרי. אבל התפילה והתחינה היא מותרת בכל מקום וכל מי שיזדמן. וכן ה’ציצית’ וה’מזוזה’ וה’תפילין’ וזולתם מן העבודות הדומות להם:

(ד) ובעבור זה הענין אשר גיליתי לך נמצא הרבה בספרי הנביאים שמוכיחים בני אדם על רוב השתדלותם והתחזקם להביא הקרבנות ובואר לכם שאינם מכוונים לעצמם כונה צריכה מאד ושהאלוה אינו צריך להם – אמר שמואל “החפץ לה’ בעולות וזבחים כשמוע בקול יי? וגו'”; ואמר ישעיה “למה לי רוב זבחיכם? – יאמר ה’ וגו'”; ואמר ירמיה “כי לא דברתי את אבותיכם ולא צויתים ביום הוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים על דברי עולה וזבח – כי אם את הדבר הזה צויתי אותם לאמר שמעו בקולי והייתי לכם לאלוקים ואתם תהיו לי לעם”. וכבר הוקשה זה המאמר בעיני כל מי שראיתי דברים או שמעתים ואמר איך יאמר ירמיה על האלוק שלא צוונו ב’דברי עולה וזבח’ – ורוב ה’מצוות’ באו בזה? אמנם כונת המאמר הוא מה שבארתי לך וזה שהוא אמר שהכונה הראשונה אמנם היא – שתשיגוני ולא תעבדו זולתי ‘והייתי לכם לאלוקים ואתם תהיו לי לעם’; וזאת המצוה בהקרבה וכיון אל הבית אמנם היתה בעבור שתעלה בידיכם זאת הפינה ובעבורה העתקתי אלו העבודות לשמי עד שימחה שם ‘עבודה זרה’ ותתקים פנת יחודי; ובאתם אתם ובטלתם התכלית ההיא והתחזקתם במה שנעשה בעבודה והוא – שאתם ספקתם במציאותי “כחשו בה’ ויאמרו “לא הוא” ועבדתם ‘עבודה זרה’ “וקטר לבעל הלוך אחרי אלוקים אחרים… ובאתם אתם ובטלתם התכלית ההיא והתחזקתם כמה שנעשה בעבורה והוא – שאתם ספקתם במציאותי “כחשו בה’ ויאמרו “לוא הוא” ועבדתם ‘עבודה זרה’ “וקטר לבעל והלוך אחרי אלוקים אחרים… ובאתם אל הבית וגו'” – ונשארתם מכונים אל ‘היכל ה” ומקריבים הקרבנות אשר לא היו מכוונים אל ‘היכל ה” ומקריבים הקרבנות אשר לא היו מכוונים כמה ראשונה: ולי בפרוש זה ‘הפסוק’ פנים אחרים והוא מביא הענין בעצמו אשר זכרנוהו והוא שכבר התבאר בכתוב ובקבלה יחד שתחילת מצוה שנצטוינו בה לא היו בה ‘דברי עולה וזבח’ כלל ואין צריך שתטריד כלל שכלך ב’פסח מצרים’ כי היא היתה לסיבה מבוארת גלויה – כמו שאני עתיד לבאר; ועוד שהמצוה היתה ב’ארץ מצרים’ והמצוה הרמוז אליה בזה ה’פסוק’ ואמר ‘ביום הוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים’ – כי תחלת ‘צווי’ שבא אחר יציאת מצרים’ הוא מה שנצטוינו בו במרה – והוא אמרו לנו שם “אם שמעו תשמע לקול ה’ אלוקיך וגו’ “שם שם לו חוק ומשפט חוגו'” ובאה הקבלה האמיתית “שבת ודינין במרה אפקוד” – וה’חוק’ הרמוז אליו הוא ה’שבת’ וה’משפט’ הוא ה’דינים’ והוא הסרת העול. וזאת היא הכונה הראשונה כמו שבארנו – רצוני לומר אמונת הדעות האמיתיות והוא חידוש העולם. וכבר ידעת שעיקר מצות שבת אמנם היא – לחזק זאת הפינה ולקימה – כמו שבארנו בזה המאמר. והכונה עוד עם אמיתת הדעות – להסיר העול מבני אדם. הנה כבר התבאר לך שהמצוה הראשונה לא היו בה ‘דברי עולה וזבח’ – אחר שהם על צד הכונה השנית כמו שזכרנו: וזה הענין בעצמו אשר אמרו ירמיה הוא אשר נאמר בתהילים על צד ההוכחה לאומה כולה בסכלה אז הכונה הראשונה ולא היתה מבדלת בינה ובין הכונה השנית. – אמר “שמעה עמי ואדברה ישראל ואעידה בך אלוקים אלוקיך אנוכי לא על זבחיך אוכיחך ועולותיך לנגדי תמיד לא אקח מביתך פר ממכלאותיך – עתודים”. וכל מקום שנכפל זה הענין – זאת היא הכונה בו. והבינהו מאד והסתכל בו:

a. It is, namely, impossible to go suddenly from one extreme to the other: it is therefore according to the nature of man impossible for him suddenly to discontinue everything to which he has been accustomed. Now God sent Moses to make [the Israelites] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6) by means of the knowledge of God. Comp. “Unto thee it was showed that thou mightest know that the Lord is God (Deut. 4:35); “Know therefore this day, and consider it in thine heart, that the Lord is God” (ibid. 5:39). The Israelites were commanded to devote themselves to His service; comp. “and to serve him with all your heart” (ibid. 11:13); “and you shall serve the Lord your God” (Exod. 23:25); “and ye shall serve him” (Deut. 13:5).

b. But the custom which was in those days general among all men, and the general mode of worship in which the Israelites were brought up, consisted in sacrificing animals in those temples which contained certain images, to bow down to those images, and to burn incense before them; religious and ascetic persons were in those days the persons that were devoted to the service in the temples erected to the stars, as has been explained by us. It was in accordance with the wisdom and plan of God, as displayed in the whole Creation, that He did not command us to give up and to discontinue all these manners of service; for to obey such a commandment it would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that to which he is used;

c. it would in those days have made the same impression as a prophet would make at present if he called us to the service of God and told us in His name, that we should not pray to Him, not fast, not seek His help in time of trouble; that we should serve Him in thought, and not by any action. For this reason God allowed these kinds of service to continue; He transferred to His service that which had formerly served as a worship of created beings, and of things imaginary and unreal, and commanded us to serve Him in the same manner; viz., to build unto Him a temple; comp. “And they shall make unto me a sanctuary” (Exod. 25:8); to have the altar erected to His name; comp. “An altar of earth thou shalt make unto me” (ibid. 20:21); to offer the sacrifices to Him; comp. “If any man of you bring an offering unto the Lord” (Lev. 1:2), to bow down to Him and to burn incense before Him. He has forbidden to do any of these things to any other being; comp. “He who sacrificeth unto any God, save the Lord only, he shall be utterly destroyed” (Exod. 22:19); “For thou shalt bow down to no other God” (ibid. 34:14). He selected priests for the service in the temple; comp. “And they shall minister unto me in the priest’s office” (ibid. 28:41). He made it obligatory that certain gifts, called the gifts of the Levites and the priests, should be assigned to them for their maintenance while they are engaged in the service of the temple and its sacrifices. By this Divine plan it was effected that the traces of idolatry were blotted out, and the truly great principle of our faith, the Existence and Unity of God, was firmly established; this result was thus obtained without deterring or confusing the minds of the people by the abolition of the service to which they were accustomed and which alone was familiar to them.

d. I know that you will at first thought reject this idea and find it strange; you will put the following question to me in your heart: How can we suppose that Divine commandments, prohibitions, and important acts, which are fully explained, and for which certain seasons are fixed, should not have been commanded for their own sake, but only for the sake of some other thing: as if they were only the means which He employed for His primary object? What prevented Him from making His primary object a direct commandment to us, and to give us the capacity of obeying it? Those precepts which in your opinion are only the means and not the object would then have been unnecessary.

e. Hear my answer, which win cure your heart of this disease and will show you the truth of that which I have pointed out to you. There occurs in the Law a passage which contains exactly the same idea; it is the following: “God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt; but God led the people about, through the way of the wilderness of the Red Sea,” etc. (Exod. 13:17). Here God led the people about, away from the direct road which He originally intended, because He feared they might meet on that way with hardships too great for their ordinary strength; He took them by another road in order to obtain thereby His original object. In the same manner God refrained from prescribing what the people by their natural disposition would be incapable of obeying, and gave the above-mentioned commandments as a means of securing His chief object, viz., to spread a knowledge of Him [among the people], and to cause them to reject idolatry. It is contrary to man’s nature that he should suddenly abandon all the different kinds of Divine service and the different customs in which he has been brought up, and which have been so general, that they were considered as a matter of course; it would be just as if a person trained to work as a slave with mortar and bricks, or similar things, should interrupt his work, clean his hands, and at once fight with real giants. It was the result of God’s wisdom that the Israelites were led about in the wilderness till they acquired courage.

f. For it is a well-known fact that travelling in the wilderness, and privation of bodily enjoyments, such as bathing, produce courage, whilst the reverse is the source of faint-heartedness: besides, another generation rose during the wanderings that had not been accustomed to degradation and slavery. All the travelling in the wilderness was regulated by Divine commands through Moses; comp. “At the commandment of the Lord they rested, and at the commandment of the Lord they journeyed; they kept the charge of the Lord and the commandment of the Lord by the hand of Moses” (Num. 9:23). In the same way the portion of the Law under discussion is the result of divine wisdom, according to which people are allowed to continue the kind of worship to which they have been accustomed, in order that they might acquire the true faith, which is the chief object [of God’s commandments]. You ask, What could have prevented God from commanding us directly, that which is the chief object, and from giving us the capacity of obeying it? This would lead to a second question, What prevented God from leading the Israelites through the way of the land of the Philistines, and endowing them with strength for fighting? The leading about by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night would then not have been necessary. A third question would then be asked in reference to the good promised as reward for the keeping of the commandments, and the evil foretold as a punishment for sins. It is the following question: As it is the chief object and purpose of God that we should believe in the Law, and act according to that which is written therein, why has He not given us the capacity of continually believing in it, and following its guidance, instead of holding out to us reward for obedience, and punishment for disobedience, or of actually giving all the predicted reward and punishment? For [the promises and the threats] are but the means of leading to this chief object. What prevented Him from giving us, as part of our nature, the will to do that which He desires us to do, and to abandon the kind of worship which He rejects? There is one general answer to these three questions, and to all questions of the same character: it is this: Although in every one of the signs [related in Scripture] the natural property of some individual being is changed, the nature of man is never changed by God by way of miracle. It is in accordance with this important principle that God said, “O that there were such an heart in them, that they would fear me,” etc. (Deut. 5:26). It is also for this reason that He distinctly stated the commandments and the prohibitions, the reward and the punishment. This principle as regards miracles has been frequently explained by us in our works: I do not say this because I believe that it is difficult for God to change the nature of every individual person; on the contrary, it is possible, and it is in His power, according to the principles taught in Scripture; but it has never been His will to do it, and it never will be. If it were part of His will to change [at His desire] the nature of any person, the mission of prophets and the giving of the Law would have been altogether superfluous.

g. I now return to my theme. As the sacrificial service is not the primary object [of the commandments about sacrifice], whilst supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary object, and indispensable for obtaining it, a great difference was made in the Law between these two kinds of service. The one kind, which consists in offering sacrifices, although the sacrifices are offered to the name of God, has not been made obligatory for us to the same extent as it had been before. We were not commanded to sacrifice in every place, and in every time, or to build a temple in every place, or to permit any one who desires to become priest and to sacrifice. On the contrary, all this is prohibited unto us. Only one temple has been appointed, “in the place which the Lord shall choose” (Deut. 12:26); in no other place is it allowed to sacrifice: comp. “Take heed to thyself, that thou offer not thy burnt-offerings in every place that thou seest” (ibid. 5:13); and only the members of a particular family were allowed to officiate as priests. All these restrictions served to limit this kind of worship, and keep it within those bounds within which God did not think it necessary to abolish sacrificial service altogether. But prayer and supplication can be offered everywhere and by every person. The same is the case with the commandment of ẓiẓit (Num. 15:38); mezuzah (Deut. 6:9; 11:20); tefillin (Exod. 13:9, 16); and similar kinds of divine service.

(4) Because of this principle which I explained to you, the Prophets in their books are frequently found to rebuke their fellow-men for being over-zealous and exerting themselves too much in bringing sacrifices: the prophets thus distinctly declared that the object of the sacrifices is not very essential, and that God does not require them. Samuel therefore said, “Hath the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the Lord” (1 Sam. 15:22)? Isaiah exclaimed, “To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the Lord” (Isa. 1:11); Jeremiah declared: “For I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt-offering or sacrifices. But this thing commanded I them, saying, Obey my, voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Jer. 7:22, 23). This passage has been found difficult in the opinion of all those whose words I read or heard; they ask, How can Jeremiah say that God did not command us about burnt-offering and sacrifice, seeing so many precepts refer to sacrifice? The sense of the passage agrees with what I explained to you. Jeremiah says [in the name of God] the primary object of the precepts is this, Know me, and serve no other being; “I will be your God, and ye shall be my people” (Lev. 26:12). But the commandment that sacrifices shall be brought and that the temple shall be visited has for its object the success of that principle among you; and for its sake I have transferred these modes of worship to my name; idolatry shall thereby be utterly destroyed, and Jewish faith firmly established. You, however, have ignored this object, and taken hold of that which is only the means of obtaining it; you have doubted my existence, “ye have denied the Lord, and said he is not” (Jer. 5:12); ye served idols; “burnt incense unto Baal, and walked after other gods whom ye know not. And come and stand before me in this house” (ibid. 7:9-10); i.e., you do not go beyond attending the temple of the Lord, and offering sacrifices: but this is not the chief object.–I have another way of explaining this passage with exactly the same result. For it is distinctly stated in Scripture, and handed down by tradition, that the first commandments communicated to us did not include any law at an about burnt-offering and sacrifice. You must not see any difficulty in the Passover which was commanded in Egypt; there was a particular and evident reason for that, as will be explained by me (chap. xlvi.). Besides it was revealed in the land of Egypt; whilst the laws to which Jeremiah alludes in the above passage are those which were revealed after the departure from Egypt. For this reason it is distinctly added, “in the day that I brought them out from the land of Egypt.” The first commandment after the departure from Egypt was given at Marah, in the following words, “If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God, and wilt do that which is right in His sight, and wilt give ear to His commandments” (Exod. 15:26).” There he made for them a statute and an ordinance, and there he proved them” (ibid. ver. 25). According to the true traditional explanation, Sabbath and civil laws were revealed at Marah: “statute” alludes to Sabbath, and “ordinance” to civil laws, which are the means of removing injustice. The chief object of the Law, as has been shown by us, is the teaching of truths; to which the truth of the creatio ex nihilo belongs. It is known that the object of the law of Sabbath is to confirm and to establish this principle, as we have shown in this treatise (Part. II. chap. xxxi.). In addition to the teaching of truths the Law aims at the removal of injustice from mankind. We have thus proved that the first laws do not refer to burnt-offering and sacrifice, which are of secondary importance. The same idea which is contained in the above passage from Jeremiah is also expressed in the Psalms, where the people are rebuked that they ignore the chief object, and make no distinction between chief and subsidiary lessons. The Psalmist says: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, and I will testify against thee: I am God, even thy God. I will not reprove thee for thy sacrifices or thy burnt-offerings, they have been continually before me. I will take no bullock out of thy house, nor he-goats out of thy folds” (Ps. 50:29).–Wherever this subject is mentioned, this is its meaning. Consider it well, and reflect on it.

——————–

Footnote on “If it Were Not a Written Verse it Could Not be Said /אלמלא מקרא כתוב אי אפשר לאמרו

see

משה הלברטל and Moshe Halbertal Tarbiẕ /תרביץ כרך סח‎, חוברת א‎ (תשרי-כסלו תשנ”ט), pp. 39-59 (21 pages) here

Abstract

The formula ‘If it were not a written verse it could not bee said’ is a sentence that introduces few statements in the Midrash. This rare formula serves as a conscious expression that something daring is about to be said, and that without the shield of a written verse it could not be said. The analysis of the occasions in which the ‘If it were not’ formula occurs is thus a key for our understanding of rabbinic religious sensitivities. The study of midrashim that are introduced with the formula yields the following conclusions: (1) in most cases the idea expressed by the midrash is actually not written in the verse in its straightforward meaning. The formula reveals therefore a circular nature: the interpreter creatively rereads the text, and then he states that if his interpretation weren’t already in the text he would not have dared to offer his reading; (2) in answer to the problem what is considered daring in the Midrash the following pattern is manifested: most of the midrashim that are introduced by such formula represent God in anthropomorphic metaphors in which God’s role is reversed and transformed. Anthropomorphic metaphors are usually drawn from hierarchical human structures, such as king and slaves, father and son, husband and wife, etc. God is always represented as the figure which is superior in the analogous social relationship; He is the husband, the king, the father, and so on. In midrashim that are introduced by the formula ‘If it were not’, God is represented as the inferior partner in the analogy — he is a slave, a student, a wife and a defendant in a trial. In these metaphors or parables Israel or the righteous are represented as the superior figure. Another form in which hierarchical metaphors are reversed is exhibited in the Midrashim that use metaphors from non-hierarchical relationship such as friends and twins. The last part of the essay is devoted to uncover the same pattern in other midrashim that are not introduced by the ‘If it were not’ formula, and to a discussion of the significance of this phenomenon in rabbinic religious thought.

See also: Torah min Hashamayim Ba-aspaklaria shel Hadorot (Theology of Ancient Judaism) Vols. 1-2, vol. 3 by Abraham Joshua Heschel; pages 191- 198 and in English Translation: Heavenly Torah as Refracted through the Generations by Gordon Tucker pp 223 – 235

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one solution – revolution

Parshat Ki Tissa

There’s nothing like the day after the revolution has been won. You hug strangers and with kid on shoulder you breathe the air as though for the first time. You capture it all in your mind’s eye along with the smell and the very taste of a hard won battle for freedom. When revolutions are fresh, it seems as though nothing will ever be the same again. Everything is possible. This is how it must have felt in Egypt in Tahrir Square last Saturday, when the Egyptian modern-day Pharaoh finally… let his people go.

Soon enough the old problems reappear… you’re still unemployed and your dad is still underpaid. There’s a nagging feeling in your gut that with the military in charge, maybe you’ve just replaced one authoritative regime with another. You know that sooner or later you’ll get an answer. There’ll be a major test, maybe a crisis, maybe an election, and then you’ll know whether the revolution was a paradigm shift or just a power shuffle.

When the Jews left Egypt there was a honeymoon period. Sure, they were tested at the Sea of Reeds and tested God with a few petty complaints about the lack of fresh meat and sweet water, but it was only at the foot of Sinai that the wrapper came off the Israelite revolution.

Worshiping the Golden Calf was the first and arguably biggest communal sin ever perpetrated by the Jewish people. Before the calf, we were to be a holy nation and kingdom of Priests; after the calf we were forever tainted and got what we deserved; our own priestly caste. The Midrash says: “there is no generation that doesn’t take a small portion of the sin of the Golden Calf”. (Shemot Rabba 43, 3).

The common understanding is that the Calf was a momentary theological lapse. The generation of the Exodus replaced their newly adopted transcendent God for an old fashioned idol of molten gold. Theirs was that age-old stumbling block of idol worship. In his search for the infinite, man stops prematurely and settles for a piece of finite stone or wood.

The text suggests, however, that the Calf was not a God-substitute as much as it was a Moses-substitute.

And Aaron said: ‘Let not the anger of my lord wax hot; thou knowest the people that they are set on evil. So they said unto me: Make us a god, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 22-23)

Like much of the bible, the Golden Calf was not primarily about theology. The new god was to replace Moses, not God. Through the loss of Moses, it became clear to the people that they needed a new Moses. To Aaron, it became clear that the people had previously mistaken Moses for a god, an untouchable, a higher life-form, a singular messenger of God…. It became clear to Aaron and to us; the reader, that by his absence, Moses proved himself to the people to be just another common man. For the people, a common man would not do.

Theirs was not a misconception in the form or role of God, it was rather a misunderstanding in the newly defined purpose and powers of man. Theirs was not a lack of faith in God, rather it was in man that they were short of faith.

If the Calf had only been a mistake in theology, the affront would have been manageable. Rather the Calf showed that the generation of the Exodus Revolution had missed the whole point of the revolution. The Calf represented that day, when the sweet taste of a revolution turns foul.

The Calf was that act that knocks the wind out of you, knots your stomach and buckles your knees. It was at this moment that Aaron, Moses and we can imagine; God, realized that the revolution was over. This was not a paradigm shift. These people just did not get it.

The Exodus Revolution had proclaimed that you serve only one God… and therefore … and this is the punch line… you serve no object and certainly no man or power produced by man. The Exodus Revolution’s credo was that you serve no man, no king, no priest, no angel, no messenger.. You serve only God. You cannot delegate your responsibilities and neither will God. By example, God did not delegate the revolution and neither can you. As it says in the Haggadah:

“The Lord took us out of Egypt,” not through an angel, not through a seraph and not through a messenger. The Holy One, blessed be He, did it in His glory by Himself.

Thus it is said: “In that night I will pass through the land of Egypt, and I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt, from man to beast, and I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt, I the Lord.

 “I will pass through the land of Egypt,” I and not an angel;

“And I will smite every first-born in the land of Egypt,” I and not a seraph;

 “And I will carry out judgments against all the gods of Egypt,” I and not a messenger;

“I the Lord,” it is I, and none other!

These newly liberated Jews had missed the point.  They had replaced Pharaoh’s regime with a new regime to be run by this messenger of God, called Moses.  It wasn’t that these small-minded people were bad
rather they were just trapped in a bad place

These survivors were lacking in faith, not in God but in themselves. It was their misconception that a human being of flesh and blood cannot possibly talk face-to-face with God… the ultimate source of power. They did not believe in the spiritual and political power within man, or better yet, they were not willing to accept the responsibility such a belief created.

In the people’s view, Moses must have been a super-man. When Moshe failed to appear they realized that he too was only a common man. They built themselves another demi-god, not to replace God, rather to replace the common man.

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him: ‘Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him. (Exodus 32, 1)

The sin of the Golden Calf was ultimately that of giving up in the revolution; it was the counter-revolution par excellence. The people were confused and scared. They had no faith in themselves; they needed a god to follow… another Pharaoh. This was their sin.. the sin of timidity…. Which it turns out, may be the greatest possible crime a human being can commit. Timidity is an evil that every generation; every individual must protect himself from.

The question we continually must ask as individuals and as societies: Do we dare to take control of our own destiny or do we leave such things for others, for others who are; comfortably for us, not quite human? In short, do we want to go back to the Egypt of the past where we were slaves, or do we move on to our promised land with the responsibility of freedom on our shoulders?

By not relating to Moses as a human being; as one of their own, the people deified him. They distanced his role from theirs, which conveniently provided them with an easy way out… just build a calf. We see a similar approach to philanthropy and social services today. Have a problem… delegate it to professionals and build an institution.

Probably the greatest sin of orthodoxy is the sin of authority worship. Whether it be the patriarchs, the sages of the Talmud, the Rishonim, Achronim or current Gedoleh Hador…. The great ones of the generation. The message of the Calf is loud and clear… Our leaders may be greater only in degree, not in kind. They were not angels or messengers of God. We can and must relate to them as fellow men. The moment we begin to remove Torah personalities and leaders from our realm, the Torah becomes irrelevant to us. When we study Torah in this fashion, we do not make it more holy by putting it on a pedestal.. we demean it and make our own Golden Calf..

In the context of the Exodus narrative, this is the ultimate heresy. By making Moses the man, into Moshe the angel we have no Moses at all. Moses remains the man he always was, it is we who have lost our humanity and settled for the comfort of theological servitude.

At the end of the day… the revolution started in ancient Egypt, ended at the foot of Sinai. The Exodus Revolution was short-lived and God accepted the wishes of the people. He had had enough. If they wished for an intermediary angel, an angel they would have.

And now go, lead the people unto the place of which I have spoken unto thee; behold, Mine angel shall go before thee; nevertheless in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. (Exodus 32: 34)

and I will send an angel before thee; and I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite, and the Hittite, and the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite– unto a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in the midst of thee; for thou art a stiffnecked people; lest I consume thee in the way. (Exodus 33: 2-3)

 

God challenged the Jewish people by fulfilling their desire. I will keep my promises. You will go to the land of Milk and Honey. You will live happily in your land, and rooted in the land you will remain. My spirit will no longer bother you. You will no longer merit my anger. You will continue to be a stiff necked people, unable to govern yourselves and insensitive to the spirit, to the challenge of growthstiff as a corpse. The fate of the Jewish people was put into their own hands. To be satisfied with “the good life” or to meet the demands of a life worth living.     The generation of the Exodus took the first step.. they recognized the calamity of their mistake:

And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his ornaments. (Exodus 33:4)

The generation of the Exodus revolution went into mourning and died in the desert. Subsequent generations, up and to the present, have the mandate to learn the lesson of their failure and to keep the revolution alive. Either we continue to revolt against timidity, or we worship graven images.. that is the choice we have, through the generations.

So while the Golden Calf did represent a reversion to idol worship, it is a distinct type of idol worship. Theirs was the idol worship described by Maimonides in his introduction to the laws pertaining to idol worship:

In the days of Enosh, the people fell into gross error, and the counsel of the wise men of the generation became foolish. Enosh himself was among those who erred. Their error was as follows : “Since God,” they said, “created those stars and spheres to guide the world, set them on high and allotted to them honor, and since they are ministers who minister before Him, they deserve to be praised and glorified .. it is the will of God, blessed be He, that men should aggrandize and honor those whom He aggrandized and honored….This was the root of idolatry and this was what the idolaters who knew its fundamentals said. They did not, however, maintain that there was no God except the particular star (which was the object of their worship)… (Mishna Torah, Laws of idol worship, law 1)

The truth is that such benign idol worship is a slippery slope. Once you distance yourself from political and theological power, it is a short step to forget and loose all sense of the source of both political and spiritual power. Maimonides continues:

As time gradually passed, the honored and revered Name of God was forgotten by mankind, vanished from their lips and hearts and was no longer known to them. All the common people and the women and children knew only the figure of wood and stone and the temple edifice in which they had, from their childhood, been trained to prostrate themselves to the figure, worship it, and swear by its name. Even their wise men, such as priests and men of similar standing, also fancied that there was no other god but the stars and spheres, for whose sake and in whose similitude these figures had been made. (ibid. law. 2)

Instead of worshiping God in the spiritual realm, and bowing only to God in the political realm, man worships those objects that are “guiding the world”.

It is so natural, so understandable. The false humility of the timid has its inevitable consequences. Ultimately we become political and spiritual slaves of the false powers we have empowered. This is idol worship. This is the counter-revolution. This is the sin of the Golden Calf which haunts us in every generation.

When I was studying in Yeshivat Be’er Ya’akov, a Mussar Yeshiva under the guidance of HaRav Shlomo Wolbe zt”l I was introduced to the quest for greatness… Gadlut and its opposite; the sin of smallness Katnut.

I also came across the writings of a brilliant Rabbi who tragically died at 34. He combined the best of the 19th century Jewish movements of Mussar and Hasidism and his name was Avrohom Eliyahu Kaplan. In his book: Be’ikvos haYir’ah he writes in poetic terms about the false humility that is idol worship:

It is not pride that holds us back, but rather humility. We are humble and not brash. Our souls are like widows, without anything to lean on or security, without the power of knowledge. A humility not in God’s name is this; rather in the name of laziness that is in despair that is in laziness. It is for the poor who are happy with their portion.. that is, in their spiritual [portion].

It is this same misplaced humility that Nelson Mandela allegedly warned against on the day of his inauguration:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.’ We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. (click here for actual source of quote)

In these frightening but exhilarating times, let us all … Jews, Egyptians, Iranians, Yemenis, Americans … Let all human beings have the strength to keep our revolutions on track, to provide support and gather strength from each other and overthrow those who would extinguish our light. Let us not succumb to smallness…let us not be timid. Let us strive for greatness. Let us remember that the struggle never ends, both for individuals and for societies.

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