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Parashat Bechukotai 5774 — 04/14/2014

Parashat Bechukotai 5774 — 04/14/2014

They will [then] confess their transgressions and the transgressions of their ancestors [which were done] through their acting disloyally to Me, and also for  going contrary to Me.  I too, will go contrary to them… (26:40-41)

Once he explained the verse, And the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters cover the sea (Yeshayahu 11:9) in the following manner. When we travel on the sea, all we see are the even waters that cover everything found beneath the surface. On the ocean bottom, just like on land, there are mountains and valleys, but because they are covered by water, they are hidden from our view.

   It is similar regarding human understanding. In the world today there are many ideologies and ways of understanding. just as people’s faces differ, their ways of thinking differ, too. The different ways of thinking are like mountains and valleys, but when Heaven ultimately sends down a spirit from Above, and the world will become filled with the knowledge of Hashern, all of humanity will know that Hashem is the one Gd over the heavens and earth. Suddenly, every way of thinking will agree on this, as the waters cover the sea. No “mountains or valleys” will be visible. (Chafetz Chaim)

Water, and especially the ocean, is a powerful metaphor in many spiritual traditions, including our own.  Torah is compared to water, and the act of creation begins with Gd’s Spirit hovering on the surface of the waters.  The first distinction Gd makes in the process of creation is to divide the waters above the firmament from the waters below the firmament.  And the Psalmist sings (Psalm 104) “This is the ocean, great and wide…”  And in our quote from the Chafetz Chaim, he cites the well-known verse from Yeshayahu, comparing the ocean to knowledge of Hashem.

Now the obvious quality of the ocean that lends itself to this comparison is that it is vast – so vast as to be essentially infinite.  As Shlomo haMelech says (Kohelet 1:7), “All the rivers go to the ocean, but the ocean does not get full” – because it is already full, and adding anything finite to infinity leaves infinity unchanged.  In the same way, knowledge of Gd is infinite, and can only be had by a mind that itself has expanded to infinity, so the ocean’s covering the seabed is an apt metaphor for the spread of the knowledge of Gd.

Another point.  The infinite ocean rises and expresses itself in waves.  The waves, taken by themselves, are bounded phenomena  that exist in the context of a finite extent of space and time.  Yet essentially the waves are nothing other than the ocean behaving in a dynamic fashion, rather than lying flat and inert.  After all, waves are nothing but the same water as the ocean, moving up and down rather than quiescent.  Similarly, when Torah says: Hashem is Gd, there is nothing besides Him (Deut 4:35), it is not saying that there are no other gods besides Hashem (although that is also true), but that there is nothing at all that is not Hashem.  All finite values, be they spiritual, like our souls, or physical, like our bodies, are the infinite “rising in waves” so to speak, but, essentially, are not separate from the infinite in any way.  If we perceive ourselves as separate from Gd, that is a fault of our perception, a fault which Torah is attempting to undo!

The Chafetz Chaim appears to be focusing on another aspect of the ocean: what is going on beneath its surface.  We know, of course, that the seabed is as varied a part of the earth’s crust as the dry land; other than the covering of water of course, there is really no difference between the two at all.  He contrasts the unbroken, unbounded surface of the sea with the variegated, individuated terrain of its depths, analogizing this to the unbounded knowledge of Gd as contrasted to different people’s individual thinking and understanding.  The point he emphasizes is that the “mountains and valleys” of individual thought “will not be seen.”

I think it is significant that he did not say that these differences will not exist, only that they will be subsumed in an overriding, universal consciousness.  We can understand this relationship with another analogy – if we light a candle in the middle of the day, the individual candle’s light is completely overwhelmed by the bright sunlight; unless we’re looking directly at it, we don’t see it at all, yet it is still there.

Why should it be that when we expand our minds to infinity, our individuality remains?  We see that this is so in Scripture, where there are many people who achieve a close relationship with Gd, yet they maintain their own individual characteristics.  Even Moshe Rabbeinu, whose relationship with Gd was closer than anybody’s, was a personality, not a featureless automaton.  He had emotions, presumably likes and dislikes; he fulfilled certain roles in the community.  All this may have been subsumed in his love for and service to Gd, but they remained part of his personality nonetheless.

I think the answer to this question is based on a deeper question: Why did Gd create human beings to begin with?  The answer that our tradition gives is that Gd wanted a creature that would come into a close relationship with Him on the basis of their own free will, and would create an ideal society that would reflect Gd’s perfection on the material and social planes.  Now it is clear that a complex society requires many different skills and talents, many different inclinations, and they all have to mesh together in a harmonious way if that society is to be ideal.  But the point is that Gd’s perfection is not simply like the flat, homogeneous surface of the ocean.  It is more like a perfect landscape of hills and valleys, farms and fields and cities, all different from one another but all blending together like a symphony in many dimensions.  And this is only possible if individual differences are preserved, perhaps even enhanced so that each individual can play his or her assigned role in creation to perfection.  What will no longer be seen are controversy and conflict.  Those features will not only disappear from view, they will disappear from reality!

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 4: What is a Jew? (Molad Journal, 1970)

From the time of the founding of the State of Israel the question “Who is a Jew?” has been one of the centerpieces of our national debate.  At one time the debate had to do with the Law of Return – if all Jews have an automatic right to citizenship in the State, it is imperative to define who meets the criteria to be granted citizenship.  Now that we are ostensibly involved in “peace” negotiations with the Arabs, Prime Minister Netanyahu has very reasonably demanded that any agreement recognize the State of Israel as the “nation-state of the Jewish people.”  Of course, this presupposes the fact that we can define the “Jewish people.”  Certain Orthodox groups want to apply a strict halachic definition of who is Jewish; this leads to the situation that exists in Israel today, where large numbers of Israelis, mostly from the former Soviet Union, identify as Jews, were persecuted in the USSR as Jews, fight in the IDF, yet are not halachically Jewish.  The heterodox movements also clamor to use their looser definitions, and there doesn’t seem to be any middle ground where people even speak with one another, let alone compromise.  The problem is that each side is making a different set of assumptions about the nature of Judaism, and it may be that the various sets are, to a greater or lesser extent, mutually incompatible.

In an earlier time, the question was easier to answer.  R. Steinsaltz points out that prior to the “Enlightenment,” a Jew was one who accepted upon himself to live in a Jewish community according to the norms defined by the halachic tradition, as developed over the centuries.  There was a common set of texts (Bible, Talmud) and a common set of rules for expounding them (e.g. the 13 hermeneutical rules of R. Yishmael, recited at the end of the preliminary morning service).  There was certainly room for differences of opinion, and debate was often extremely vigorous, but the Jewish community was well-defined, because everyone used the same starting point and the same basic rules of the road.

Nowadays, “everyone is a Jew by choice.”  We are not only not all on the same page, we’re no longer all reading the same books!  R. Steinsaltz proposes that the most accurate model of the Jewish people is in fact a family.  Families exhibit very close ties, even among people who are very different and rarely see eye-to-eye on anything.  Yet they would absolutely go to the mat for the sake of the other.  Why is that?  I think it’s because a family is bound together as one soul, so to speak, like the various branches of a tree are bound together and merge into a single trunk.  As we discussed a few weeks ago, all Jewish souls come from the same “soul root,” and are inextricably linked with one another, and have been throughout the history of Creation.  We have been a family since the days of the Patriarchs, even when we became a tribal confederation and then a united monarchy.  During one of the pogroms in eastern Europe, someone commented that if you pinch a Jew in Kishiniev and Jew in New York screams.  What we really need to do is to leverage this family feeling into some real unity among ourselves.  If we can do that, there is nothing on this earth that we have to fear!