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Parashat Ki Tavo 5773 — 08/21/2013

Parashat Ki Tavo 5773 — 08/21/2013

And I will remember My covenant with Ya’akov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and My covenant with Avraham I will remember, and the Land will I remember. (Lev 26:42)

And I will remember for them the original covenant, when I took them out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of all the nations, to be a Gd for them; I am Hashem.  (verse 45)

These are the words of the covenant which Hashem commanded Moshe to make with B’nei Yisrael in the land of Moav, besides the covenant he made with them at Chorev [Mt. Sinai] (Deut 28:69)

The first two quotes are from the end of the tochachah (rebuke) in Vayikra.  They hold out a promise that despite all our failings, Gd would remember us and redeem us from our exile.  According to Ramban (13th century), this refers to the Babylonian exile, which was predicted to end (and did end) after the relatively short period of 70 years.  The third quote comes from the end of the tochachah in our Parashah.  If it seems abrupt, it is.  There is no consolation at the end, no promise of redemption.  If you do well, you will have it good.  Otherwise, all these disasters will overtake you.  That’s the deal, period.  Ramban points out that this corresponds to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans, and to the protracted, seemingly endless exile that we are currently suffering through.  (It was already protracted by Ramban’s time, how much more so now, almost 800 years later!)  R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik points out that there is in fact a consolation after this second tochachah, but it comes some 50 verses later, in Parashat Nitzavim, where we are told that if Israel repents and returns to Gd, we will be immediately redeemed.  Furthermore, we are promised that at some point, we will in fact repent.  Thus redemption is guaranteed, but it is also up to us.  As the prophet Isaiah (60:22) puts it (in the haftarah for our parashah), b’ito achisheinah – I will hasten it in its time.  Our Sages ask, this appears to be a contradiction – if Gd hastens it (redemption), it will come before its time, but if it comes in its time, obviously Gd hasn’t hastened anything!  They answer, that if Israel is meritorious, through repentance, Gd will hasten the redemption.  If not, it will take place in its preordained time.  The choice is ours.

I am writing this towards the end of May.  The Catholic Church has a new Pope, Pope Francis, the first time a Latin American has become Pope (he is Argentinian).  He was expected to surprise, and has not disappointed.  It was reported that he said that an atheist who does good is redeemed, not just Catholics (here’s the link:  One commenter quipped: “Whoa! Atheists in Heaven?  What next? Jews?”  The reporter however wrote “… the Pope’s words may spark memories of the deep divisions from the Protestant reformation over the belief in redemption through grace versus redemption through works.”  Now it is not my purpose here to debate the theological subtleties of other religions, but I would like to point out that this debate within Christian circles is actually an echo of a very Jewish question that we have been discussing since the beginning of Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy) – what is the nature and rôle of human input in the working out of the Divine Plan of history?  Since the debate became associated with the schism in the Western Church, and with competing national interests among the various nations of Europe, it tended to become polarized into an either-or proposition (like free will vs. determinism).  I believe our tradition provides a more nuanced approach, and one which validates our existence as free-willed beings!

The two sides of this debate are basically (1) Gd does everything and (2) human beings have significant input in the created world.  The first side holds that our existence and all our actions are really Gd’s actions.  Gd is infinite, we are finite and fallible.  There is nothing we can give to Gd as Gd is completely Self-sufficient.  If we are to be redeemed – that is, if we are to transcend our finite natures and come into some kind of communion with Gd, the impetus will be from Gd, through His Grace.  A hint of this can be found in part of Gd’s response to Moshe Rabbeinu when he was praying for our continued existence after the sin of the calf – I will be gracious with those I will be gracious with, and I will have mercy on those on whom I will have mercy. (Shemot 33:19)

The other side of the coin is that we experience that in fact we do have free will – that is, we can make moral choices, to behave the way Gd commands us to behave or otherwise.  Concomitant with that is that we are responsible for the consequences of our actions.  This responsibility is laid out in many, many passages in Torah and in the rest of Tanach as well, not the least of which is the tochachah of our parashah (as well as the verses that precede it specifying the reward for observance of the commandments).  In fact, the idea that our actions do have significance is repeated at least twice a day by every Jew when reciting the Sh’ma (second paragraph).  In fact, it is actually very difficult for me to conceive of any religious system that would deny that we have free will and responsibility.  Even avowedly anti-religious philosophical schools don’t throw up their hands and declare “everything is random, it doesn’t matter a whit what you do, so go out and live it up.”  They may deny that Gd exists and is the absolute basis of morality, but they will find something to substitute for that basis.

Clearly Tanach accepts both horns of our dilemma as valid.  Apparently we need Gd’s Grace to grow, but we also need to take ourselves in hand and seek out avenues for growth.  As the common saying goes, “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”  Since Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur are coming up shortly, I might point out that this apparent dilemma is reflected in a debate in the Talmud about the atonement afforded by Yom Kippur.  One side says that it is the Day itself that atones (Grace), while the other side argues that an essential component of this atonement is our repentance (human input).  The conclusion is that both are necessary – like a kind of spiritual epoxy glue, we need the contents of both tubes, mixed together, to create the desired result.

I’d like to give a personal example of how this might work.  When I was doing my dissertation research I naturally put quite a lot of effort into understanding the particular issue I was dealing with.  I tried various approaches and didn’t get very far.  One weekend when I was relaxing in a hot bath, I got a flash of insight that allowed me to see all the way through the problem.  From that point it was just a matter of running some computer programs and writing it up and I was done.  That flash of insight is like Gd’s Grace, breaking through to the individual.  But how does it break through?  It is all the hard work to clear away the obstacles and to prepare the ground for Gd’s Grace to take root and blossom into a Grace-filled life.  It is living our lives in accordance with Gd’s commandments, to the best of our ability, and picking ourselves up with a plan and a resolve to do better when we slip up.  Behind it all is our faith in Gd’s existence, in His power and most of all, in His love for us.  In the words of our Sages, if we do what is incumbent on us, Gd will surely do what is incumbent on Him

Pirke Avot, Chapters 3-4

Chapter 3, Mishnah 19

This week and next we read two chapters of Pirke Avot so that we’ll be finished by Rosh haShanah.  Yes!  It’s that close!

[R. Akiva says: ] All is foreseen and free will is given, and the world is judged with good.  And everything is in accord with the amount of the deed.

Here is another classic dilemma – determinism vs. free will.  If Gd knows everything, including how we will behave, how can we be said to have free will?  And if Gd doesn’t know how any of His creatures will behave, how can we say He is omniscient?  And if He can foresee what is going to happen, but He cannot forestall it, how can we say He is omnipotent?  Even Ramban struggles with these issues and eventually throws up his hands and says that it cannot be understood from our level of awareness.  Rabbi Lau points out that in a sense the dilemma is meaningless to Gd, as the dilemma itself depends on the notion of time, and Gd of course transcends time.  From Gd’s point of view everything is “now” (although Gd’s “now” and our “now” must also be of quite a different quality), and there is no “before” (“foreseen”) and “after.”  The concept of time and the paradoxes that come along with it only arise when Gd’s nature is hidden and time, space and other boundaries predominate in the awareness.  In another sense, this hiddenness is absolutely necessary if finite creation is to exist – Gd has to contract himself to leave room for humans to exercise their free will.  The downside of this is we have these insoluble paradoxes.  The upside is we get to be Gd’s partners in creation!