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Parashat 09/03/2010

Parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech
submitted by Robert Rabinoff

The first tochachah (passage of rebuke) in the Torah, at the end of Vayikra (Leviticus) ends with consolation, while the tochachah of Parashat Ki Tavo (last week’s Parashah) does not.  R. Yosef Soloveitchik points out that the consolation actually appears in the first part of our double portion, Nitzavim.  In several beautiful passages Gd promises Israel that we will in fact turn back to Gd and that our return will be accepted.  And it further implies that this acceptance will be a great relief to Gd as it were, and an end to Gd’s own “exile.”  I’d like to try to shed some light on the concept that Gd is in exile and can “return” from this exile.

We have discussed on many occasions that our tradition teaches us that the purpose of Gd’s creating the universe is to provide a platform whereby finite, created beings – humanity – can come to know their Creator.  That is, Gd, Who is infinite, as it were contracts within Himself to create a space for the finite to exist.  For a 60W lightbulb to be seen, the bright sunlight must be at least somewhat attenuated, or it will completely swamp the meager light of the bulb.

With this contraction of the infinite, Gd created the possibility of distance – a finite creature is in some sense always distant from the infinite, but a creature with free will can be more or less distant, and it is this possibility of movement that allows for the expansion of the finite back to infinity and its (re)integration with the original infinity to produce, as it were, a greater infinite whole than the sum of its infinite parts.

Thus our Sages say that when Israel goes into exile, Gd (the Shechinah) goes into exile along with it, and when Gd turns Israel’s captivity (i.e. restores us to the Land of Israel, and to a fully enlightened and integrated national existence) the Shechinah, as it were, also returns.  Thus verse 30:3 – v’shav H” elokeicha et sh’vutcha – and Gd will turn around your captivity.  Now Rashi comments that the verse should read: v’heishiv H” – with the verb in the causative construction (hiphil); that is, it should read “Gd will cause your captivity to be turned around.”  Instead it is in the simple construction (kal), implying that “Gd will return along with your captivity.”  Until the finite is reintegrated with the infinite there is, as it were, a lack within Gd.  (All of this is terribly anthropomorphic of course – Gd has no lack, and no “feelings” in the human sense.  We need to use such expressions because of our own limitations of perception and intellect.)

Just as Gd’s contraction to allow the finite to exist is built into the structure of creation, so Israel’s, and humanity’s, sin and distancing itself from Gd is built into the fabric of creation.  The Talmud has the following fascinating exchange on this topic (Avodah Zarah 4b):

And R. Yehoshua ben Levi said – Israel only made the Golden Calf in order to give an “opening of the mouth” to penitents, as it says: “Would that their hearts would be thus always, to be in awe of Me at all times.” [Gd said this after the Revelation at Mt. Sinai when the people asked Moshe to intercede for them, as the experience of direct communication with Gd was too overwhelming for them at their level of development.]  And this is what Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: “David was not suitable for that business [sinning with Bath-sheva], and Israel was not suitable for that business [the Golden Calf]”

The Gemara goes on to say that if an individual sins he can point to David as having done t’shuvah, and if a community sins they can point to Israel, which made the calf and did t’shuvah, and both were forgiven.

Rashi comments:

That is to say, they [Israel] had mastered and ruled over their Evil Inclination [at Mt. Sinai], and it was not suitable that it should rule over them, but it was a decree of the King that it should hold sway over them to give an “opening of the mouth” to penitents.  Thus if a sinner says “I won’t do t’shuvah because it won’t be accepted,” they tell him “Go out and learn from the incident of the Golden Calf that they rebelled [against Gd] and they were received in t’shuvah. [my bolding]

Since the universe is created finite it is by definition imperfect.  Hence t’shuvah and forgiveness both have to be built into the structure of creation.  If we had been created perfect; if Adam haRishon hadn’t sinned, what would have been the purpose?  Hence when we approached perfection at Mt. Sinai “before the time of the (final) redemption” it was a decree of the King that we had to stumble.  That stumble, like Adam haRishon’s, must have been built into the very fabric of creation “from the 6 days of Creation.”

What we learn in Parashat Nitzavim is that “before Gd created the disease, He created the cure.”  That cure is t’shuvah, return, and we are guaranteed that in the end, Israel will return to Gd “with all our heart.”  And when we do, Gd in His great mercy will remove the barriers that are within us, the encrustations and attachments to the material, ephemeral world, so that we can instead attach ourselves to Gd, the eternal.  Rosh HaShanah is in a few days, ushering in the period of the year when it is easiest for us to begin the process of loosening our attachment to the material and strengthening our attachment to Gd.  We have just a few days.  Let’s make the most of them!

Pirke Avot, Chapters 5-6

Mishnah 5:1

The world was created with 10 utterances.  What does this teach us?  Could it not have been created with one utterance?  But it was done to take recompense from the wicked who destroy a world created with 10 utterances, and to reward the righteous who maintain a world created with 10 utterances.

The wicked are described as “destroying” the world, while the righteous are described as “maintaining” it.  The opposite of destruction is creation, not maintenance.  Perhaps we can understand it this way – de-struction means going from a more structured state to a less structured state – an increase in entropy or disorder.  This is what the wicked do, whether blowing up buildings or killing people, or destroying the fabric of relationships within a single household; always it is in the direction of greater entropy.  Now actually, in a closed system, entropy will increase on its own to the maximum value (2nd Law of Thermodynamics) – think of an offshore oil well that used to provide energy to power homes and factories, and then blows up and now just provides pollution.  If we want to overcome the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics we must put energy into the system just to maintain it.  This is what the righteous do – through prayer and action in accord with Gd’s Will the direct the flow of Divine energy into creation, thereby maintaining it against the forces of destruction.  Perhaps our Mishnah is telling us that as parts of creation, that is the most we can do – connect ourselves with the infinite and become a pipeline for the infinite to infuse into the finite.  The actual creation itself is Gd’s work; we become Gd’s partners in its maintenance and evolution.

This concludes this year’s reading of Pirke Avot, and it’s the last Parashah of 5770.  May the coming year be a year of blessings, both material and spiritual, for all of us and for the whole people of Israel, and may all the peoples of the world be blessed through us.  L’Shanah Tovah uM’tukah!

Rosh HaShanah – 5771

Rosh HaShanah is upon us, and I would like to add a few short observations.  This year, as last, I will draw from the Machzor Mesorat HaRav which is based on the teachings of R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik zt’l.  It’s available from Artscroll ( and also from the Orthodox Union (

The Rav points out that human beings, uniquely in creation, can assume the roles both of subject and object.  The object is passive, inert, and acted upon.  The subject is active, he or she acts upon objects.  Gd of course is the quintessential subject, never passive, always acting upon, re-creating at every moment, the whole of Creation.  Torah makes it incumbent upon humankind to emulate Gd to the extent possible – in terms of our discussion, this means we must be as much as possible the subject, in control of ourselves and our thoughts, speech and action.  Further, it is sin which, by binding our awareness to the physical world of inertia, prevents us from achieving this ideal – as we say in the daily liturgy: Do not bring us into the hands of sin – sin becoming as it were the subject, controlling us with its hands, rather than our being in control of ourselves.  Our job during our whole life, but especially during the 10 Days of T’shuvah, is to break our attachment to the physical, not through asceticism, but by ceasing to identify ourselves with our bodies, our sense impressions, and even our thought patterns.

I would like to try to extend this idea (and here I’m on my own – please do not impute anything from here on to R. Soloveitchik!).  A Chassidic rebbe once said, “Don’t say ‘I have a soul.’  You are a soul.  You have a body!”  When we settle down inside ourselves we gradually contact the infinite source of our own nature, and more and more come to recognize that all the finite aspects of our personality – our bodies, our minds, our likes and dislikes, our patterns of perception – are nothing more than the garments of our soul, the modalities by which our soul expresses its unique individual nature within the realm of the finite.  This is being completely a subject: we act, yet we remain silent and infinite in ourselves.  Since we are not identified with the finite, objective aspects of our personalities, we are not acted upon.

As we grow in this status, we begin to extend subject-hood even to objects in our environment.  That is, we begin to evaluate even finite objects in terms of their infinite source, which is of course the same as our infinite source.  This begins with other people, since they are closest to us, and we thereby fulfill most of the interpersonal commandments of Torah, which are all aimed at teaching us to treat others as we would ourselves be treated – that is, as subjects of infinite worth in their own right.  (Think of laws against exploiting others in word or deed, respecting interpersonal boundaries, etc.)  But eventually it extends to all of creation – we see infinity “in every grain of sand.”  We see everything alive with the infinite potential of pure being, no matter how small or rigid it may be on the surface.

On Rosh HaShanah we accept upon ourselves Gd’s Sovereignty.  What better way to do so than to learn to see the Creation as it truly is, as Gd created it, every part of it displaying infinity, every part of it singing Gd’s praises, every part testifying to Gd’s infinite wisdom and beneficence!