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Parashat Ki Tisa 5774 — 02/12/2014

Parashat Ki Tisa 5774 — 02/12/2014

Whoever is for Hashem, [come] to me! (32:26)

The Midrash comments [by asking this rhetorical question]: Who does not want to be a member of the king’s household?  Thus, what Moshe actually communicated was, “Whoever did not give any of his gold rings for the sake of the Golden Calf, come to me!”  Immediately, the entire tribe of Levi gathered to his  side (Yalkut Shimoni).  In other words, when Moshe said, “Who is for Hashem?” he meant “Who is for Hashem alone?”  Who pays homage exclusively to Hashem, without including any other entities, chas v’shalom [Gd forbid]? …

That is, when an idea is wrong, it does not matter that the majority subscribes to it.  Such was the instruction of the Prophet Yeshayahu to King Chizkiyahu regarding the contingent of Shevna …

This is also what Eliyahu meant when he admonished the people [on Mt. Carmel], How long will you waver between two opinions?  If Hashem is the Lord, follow Him.  That is, “follow Him alone.”  Then the prophet adds, … and if the Baal, follow it (I Kings 18:21).  Here, too, the meaning is “follow it alone,” but do not sometimes follow Hashem and sometimes follow the Baal.  (Chafetz Chaim)

There is a great value to commitment; if we are truly committed to something, we will see it through even when the going gets tough, rather than ditching it at the first opportunity.  On the other hand, one needs to be careful that one doesn’t get committed to something false or harmful.  A suicide bomber is tremendously committed to his or her ideology, but the results are not positive either for the bomber or for the victims.  We would ideally know what (or who) we are committing to before we take the plunge, yet, ironically, it is generally only after we commit that we gain real, intimate knowledge of that to which we are committing.  Commitment generates intimacy and intimacy generates commitment.  Anyone who is in a successful relationship knows exactly what I mean.

Now the issue with this setup is that it’s a cycle that we have to get kick-started somehow.  In the case of animals, pheromones are generally the kick-starter.  They may have an effect on humans as well, but other aspects of sexual attraction will do as well.  In a solid relationship, the sexual aspect is sublimated to a deep friendship, where emotional intimacy grows until the intensity of a physically intimate relationship can be maintained.  For example, a Jewish marriage procedes in two stages.  The first stage, usually rendered “betrothal” for lack of a better translation, renders the couple married in virtually all aspects (an affair is full-fledged adultery, a divorce is required to end the marriage), but they don’t live together yet.  In Talmudic times (when people married at a much younger age), the betrothal might last a year or more.  The second stage, full marriage, occurred when the couple began their lives together in their own home.  By this time the intimacy-commitment cycle is in full swing and the relationship can grow.

The relationship between Gd and Israel is often described in the Rabbinic literature as a marriage, with the Torah being our “marriage contract.”  I think the same basic startup principles can be identified here.  Avraham, our progenitor, was dissatisfied with the idolatry that was virtually universal in his age, and, using his own powers of reasoning, was drawn to the idea that there was one Gd who created and sustains the entire cosmos.  This attraction grew and became perfected through the Patriarchal Age and through the Egyptian experience.  It became finalized when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Once we committed ourselves to Gd at Sinai, and Gd committed Himself to us so to speak, the intimacy between us could start growing, and has been growing over the millennia.

As in any relationship, exclusivity of focus on the other partner is important for building intimacy.  Thus at Sinai, Gd commits to us, as it were, with His first statement: I am Hashem your Gd Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and then follows up by prescribing that He is the only Gd: You shall have no other gods before Me.  We are  warned against idolatry numerous times in Scripture, and we experienced first hand what happens when the trust and intimacy of our relationship with Hashem is broken.  Fortunately Gd has provided us with a mechanism, t’shuvah / repentance, to repair the breach when it happens, as it inevitably does due to our being finite, imperfect creatures.

The same dynamic obtains in our individual relationship with Gd, only now the kick-start is somewhat different than what it was on the national level.  None of us is even remotely on the level of Avraham Avinu, that we would be able to deduce Gd’s existence from pure reasoning in opposition to the prevailing culture, and certainly none of us stood at Sinai during the Revelation (at least not in our current incarnation).  Instead we rely on several different inputs to help us get on the path to an intimate relationship with Gd.

First, we have Scripture.  We may not have stood at Sinai and heard Gd speak directly, but we can read and study Scripture and gain an inkling of Gd’s way of thinking and acting.  Second, we have our tradition of knowledge, including the methodology of interpreting Scripture, as well as a wealth of material that is not explicitly mentioned in the written Scripture.  This tradition has been passed down to us from teacher to student, from one mind to the next, in a chain that reaches back to the actual Revelation at Mt. Sinai.  When a teacher who has dedicated his life to his relationship with Gd takes a disciple, the trust that the disciple has in his teacher, and the love the teacher has for his disciple, allow the fullness of the tradition to be passed on in its purity.  As the student grows into a teacher himself, he takes the tradition and expresses it in his own voice, fine-tuned to the needs of his generation, and woven into the fabric of generations past for the good of all future generations.

Ultimately, our relationship with Gd can only be based on our knowledge of Gd.  Since Gd is infinite, we will never be able to understand Gd in a rational, finite, discursive framework.  All of our methods of gaining knowledge, Scripture, tradition, the teacher-student relationship, can never give us perfect certainty.  For that we must expand our ability to think, to comprehend and to experience, until we can actually grasp the infinite on its own terms.  We need to have faith in our tradition which tells us that such expansion is possible, and gives us techniques to make it possible.  But until we know Gd, our knowledge will remain incomplete.

Real faith is built on real knowledge.  We gain faith in Gd by seeing how He works in our own lives.  The basis of that vision is that we make a leap of faith to trust our tradition and the teachers of our tradition.  As we grow and verify what we have learned in our personal experience, the leap becomes smaller and the faith becomes greater.  Ultimately, we hope to gain as perfect a knowledge of Gd as humanly possible.  In that state Gd is as real and as intimate to us as our own existence.  We have transcended faith altogether.  In the prophet Hoshea’s words: I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you will know Hashem.

Shemoneh Esrei

The Beneficent One, Whose mercies never cease,

The Merciful One, Whose lovingkindness never ends,

You have always been our hope.

For all this may Your Name be blessed and exalted our King, continually and forever.

And all living things will thank/acknowledge You, Selah!

And praise Your Name in truth, Gd our Help and Salvation, Selah!

Blessed are You, Hashem, Whose Name is the Beneficent One, and Whom it is fitting to thank/acknowledge.

We begin this penultimate b’rachah by offering our praise and acknowledgment to Gd.  In this, the concluding section of the b’rachah, we start to take a broader perspective.  Gd has not just been good to us, preserved us in life, guided our steps, helped us fit in with the laws of nature and at the same time allowed us to transcend nature.  Now we expand our focus a bit.  All life praises Gd and acknowledges its infinite debt to its Creator (as in Perek Shirah [see]).  Gd has created an entire universe for us, as a place to grow and to connect with Him.

It’s become a cliché to say that life itself is a miracle, but it’s true.  Every breath we take is a gift from Gd.  If Gd did not continue to keep His eye on us for even a moment, our very existence would dissolve back into nothingness.  The entire purpose of our existence as sentient, self-reflective beings, is to understand this one fact – that we are not separate from Gd.  Therefore in every prayer we acknowledge Gd and thank Him for the precious opportunity He has given us.