Parashat Devarim (Haftara to Shabbat Chazon)

In the following post, I am primarily going to discuss the Haftara to this week’s parasha. This Shabbat is the last shabbat before Tisha b’Av, and we read Isaiah’s entreaty, prophesied in the name of God, begging the people of Judah to reform their ways so that they may avoid the calamity that is about to befall them:

“Woe to a sinful nation, a people heavy with iniquity, evildoing seed, corrupt children. They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards. Why are you beaten when you still continue to rebel? Every head is [afflicted] with illness and every heart with malaise (…) Your land is desolate; your cities burnt with fire. Your land – in your presence, strangers devour it; and it is desolate as that turned over to strangers.

(…)

Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts? You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths, calling convocations, I cannot [bear] iniquity with assembly. Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood.

(…)

Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:4-17. Translation from chabad.org)

What strikes me in this passage is the recognition that man can go either way – man can be kind or wicked, can produce good or evil, and most importantly, man can change. Just because men have been acting badly does not mean that they need to continue to act badly; they can choose to reform their ways, “cease to do evil” and “learn to do good, seek justice, strengthened the robbed,” etc. But becoming good is a process – notice the verbs “learn”, “seek”, “strengthen” – they all point to a process that takes place over time, in the same way that the Jews’ descent into corruption was a process: “They forsook the Lord; they provoked the Holy One of Israel; they drew backwards.” Rome was neither built, nor destroyed, in a day, and neither was Jerusalem.

I would like to compare this to another vision of man – I’ll call it a Christian vision of man, but I am aware that Christianity is complex and multifaceted, and I am using “Christianity” more as a foil for Judaism than to say something about Christianity itself.

From what I understand, a Christian understanding of man is much more black and white. Man is born in sin, and remains steeped in sin, unless he accepts the salvation that Jesus offers, at which point man is transformed into a sinless person. Man is either saved or damned; and the process of salvation, of transformation from bad to good, is instantaneous and involves appealing to forces outside of the self (Jesus).

Isaiah, on the other hand, offers us a different path towards “salvation.” The salvation in question is not a state into which man passes once he’s saved. According to Isaiah, if the Jews reform their ways, they will have a chance “to redeem Zion.” The salvation will come to Zion, but not necessarily to man. For the process of man is never over. The struggle between our baser and higher instincts will continue. Isaiah doesn’t offer man a remedy that will free him from his evil inclinations, but he does remind man that there is more to him than just evil, and encourages him to try to be good instead.

And the reward for being good, rather than evil, is a redeemed Zion. We might not be able to change our essence, or eradicate the mean and petty that is within us, but if we try and be good, just, and kind, we can change the world around us, and mold our environment to be more good, just and kind – redeemed.

Parashat Pinchas

Already in parashat Chukat, God announced to Moses and Aharon that they will not be leading the Israelites into the land of Canaan, as a punishment for striking the rock to get its water rather than talking to it like God had commanded. Aharon dies shortly thereafter, but Moses continues to lead the people. In chapter 27 of this week’s parasha, after Moses and Elazar, Aharon’s son who took over as high priest, count the Israelites and ascertain that the entire previous generation had been replaced, God reminds Moses of the punishment.

The Torah is full of the phrase: “And God spoke to Moses saying”. Here, for the first time, following God’s reminder that Moses is not going to lead the Israelites to their final destination, we have the phrase “And Moses spoke to God saying.” (Numbers 27:15).

And what does Moses have to say that is so important? “God, the lord of the spirits for every flesh, should appoint a man over the congregation, who will go out before them and come in before them, and who will take them out and bring them in, and the congregation of God shall not be like sheep without a shepherd.” (27:16-17).

From the unusual phrasing “and Moses spoke to God saying”, it seems as though asking God to appoint a successor for Moses was wholly Moses’ initiative. How can that be though? The past couple of parashas describe the nation challenging Moses’ (and Aharon’s) leadership time and time again. The nation is not an easy nation to lead, and when the nation does not feel safe and cared for, they make trouble. What was God going to do had Moses not asked for a replacement upon his death?

I think that God actually wanted to lead the people directly, without mediation. I was reminded of the scene right after God tells the people the ten commandments. It’s supposed to be a moment of deep spiritual communion between the nation and God, but the nation can’t handle such intensity: “And the entire nation saw the voices and the flames and the sound of the Shofar and the mountain smoking and nation was scared, and they trembled and stood far. And they said to Moses: “You speak to us and we’ll listen, and God won’t speak to to us, so that we don’t die.”

The deeper the nation settles in the physical world, the less of a place for God there is. He is too majestic, too unstable, too powerful, too disrespectful of the natural, rational order of the world, and it is impossible to really build a life for oneself so long as God can come at any minute and turn everything upside down. But God, who created the world and the laws of nature and mankind, is unable to recognize that for his world and his creation to function, he needs to take a step back. Moses, the human, needs to remind him.

This episode reminds me also of the story that takes place towards the end of Samuel the Prophet’s reign. Samuel has gotten old, his children are corrupt, and the people, no longer satisfied with having only a prophet in the highest seat of authority, demand a king to lead them. The tell Samuel: “Here you have gotten old, and your sons have not followed in your path. Now place upon us a king to judge us, like all the other nations.” (Samuel 1, 8:5). Samuel is upset and goes to talk to God, who comforts him, saying: “Listen to what the people are saying to you, for it is not you that they have grown tired of; it is me.” A king derives his authority from his position; a prophet derives his authority from his connection to God. Thus, having a king lead the nation is one more distance between the people and God. But by now, God understood the creature that he created, and He (very reluctantly, especially if you take into consideration the rest of that story) agrees to do what is right for man, even if it hurts God a little. 

 

 

Parashat Va’era

Last week’s parasha ends badly for the Israelites, Moses and Aaron. After Moses and Aaron go to Pharaoh to demand from Pharaoh that he let the Israelites go so that they may worship God in the desert. Pharaoh feels that the Israelites – the slave class – is getting restless, and has enough leisure time to think about their situation, which could prove dangerous. As a result, Pharaoh decrees that the Israelites will hence forth collect their own raw materials, in addition to making their regular quota of bricks. The Israelites are distraught, and get angry with Moses and Aaron who upset the status quo. Moses questions God, who sent him on a mission that so far has only worsened the Israelites’ condition. But God remains confident, and tells Moses: “Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh, for with a strong hand he will send you out and with a strong hand he will expel you from his land” (Exodus 6:1).

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Parashat Shemot

While the book of Genesis tells the story of individuals, the book of Exodus tells the story of a nation. The transition from individual to nation can be felt in the first couple of verses of this week’s parasha:

And these are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob; each man came with his household: Reuven, Shimon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zevulun, and Binyamin; Dan, Naftali, Gad, and Asher. Altogether the descendants of Jacob numbered seventy, and Joseph was in Egypt.

And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation. And the children of Israel grew fruitful and multiplied and increased and became very great and the whole land was filled with them.

And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph. And the king said to his people: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel is greater and more numerous than us. Let us outsmart it, lest it become more numerous than us, so that in the event of a war, it might join with our enemies, fight us, and expel us from the land” (Exodus 1:1-10)

The book begins with the individual names of Jacob, the last patriarch, and of his twelve sons, but the focus quickly shifts to the collective: “And Joseph died, and so did his brothers, and so did that entire generation” (Genesis 1:6). Already in describing the passing of the previous generation, the movement towards the collective and away from the individual can be felt. “And a new king arose over Egypt, who had not known Joseph” (Genesis 1:7). The new king does not know the individual Israelite. He only knows the children of Israel as a collective, and it is this collectivity, this nation, that is threatening.

The rest of the parasha switches off between the individual and the collective. We have the story of the “Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shifra and the other was named Pu’a” (Exodus 1:15), whose names are mentioned explicitly, but whose only role in the story is to ensure that the next generation is Israelite gets born, and thus to help build the nation.

The story of the birth of Moses begins in chapter two: “And a man from the house of Levi went and took a daughter from the house of Levi” (Genesis 2:1). His parents are introduced only by the communal affiliations. Moses then is born, must be given away. Pharaoh’s daughter takes him in, and gives him his name, Moses, which is derived from the phrase “I plucked him out from the water” (Genesis 2:10). Figuratively, we could understand the water to be the Israelite collective – Pharaoh’s daughter took Moses out of the nation, and only then he could be an individual. Only after Moses grows up, can he go back out to “his brothers, and see their suffering” (Genesis 2:11).

In a similar way, the book of Genesis tells the story of the individuals whose descendants will make up the nation. Each link in the lineage is selected individually: Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob, each has an individual story, but are not yet part of a nation. Joseph, whose individual story is the most fleshed out of all his brothers, doesn’t make it into the list
of the tribes of Israel; rather, his two sons, of whom we know almost nothing, become two of the tribes.

Indeed, there is a constant tension between the individual and the collective; the more individual experiences we have, the further removed we are from the collective; but the deeper we fall into the collective, the harder it is for us to stand up for ourselves when our individual rights are abused, and the easier it is to forget that we are owed, and owe others, respect as individuals. Indeed, the Israelites in Egypt cannot stand up for themselves: they need Moses, who was raised away from his nation, to come and save them, for they cannot save themselves.

The story of Genesis is the story of the individual in this world. The first chapter opens with the creation of the world, and culminates with the creation of man in God’s image. Man in God’s image is the individual par excellence. After all, God has no peers. Genesis chronicles man’s existential struggles, his urges, his passions, his desires, and his moments of transcendence. Exodus, and the rest of the Bible, chronicles man as part of a collective. But as this parasha shows, the collective needs individuals. And so, in order to be part of the collective in a healthy way, we need to pass first through Genesis – we need to learn how to be individuals.