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Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelech 5774 — 09/17/2014

Parshiyot Nitzavim-Vayelech 5774 — 09/17/2014

The secret matters belong to Hashem, our Gd, but the revealed matters belong to us and our children forever – that we may fulfill all the words of this Torah. (Devarim 29:28)

A person should not say “How is it possible that the Mashiach will come in our time, when we are so poor in good deeds?”  This is incorrect thinking, for it is known that when Hakadosh Baruch Hu wants to redeem us, He will not look so closely at our deeds. We find this stated explicitly in Shir Hashirim Rabbah (2:19), “The Jewish People said, ‘How can we be redeemed? After all, we are lacking good deeds!’ He [Moshe Rabbeinu] answered them, ‘Because of His desire to redeem you, He does not look closely ……

   Neither should a person give up on witnessing the Geulah, Chas v’Shalom, because he thinks that its time has not yet arrived. This, too, is incorrect thinking, as we know from Chazal’s comment on the verse, B’itah achishenah – “in its time, I will hasten it” (Yeshayahu 60:22): If we lack merit, He will bring it in its appointed time; however, if we are meritorious, He will hasten the Geulah [and bring it now] (Sanhedrin 98a).

   And it should not seem far-fetched to us that our generation could merit what the previous generations did not, for this is not a question. Granted, compared to the generations of old, ours is on a much lower level. But Hakadosh Baruch Hu joins the merits of each individual with the merits of his ancestors. In effect, therefore, we are like a midget riding on the back of a giant. The midget thus sees even further [than the giant]!

   Accordingly, every Jew must hope for the coming of the Geulah every day, knowing, “for Hashem’s salvation comes in the blink of an eye,” and, as we say in our prayers, “we are waiting for Your salvation all day long.”  (Chafetz Chaim)

This is the last Shabbat before Rosh haShanah.  Rosh haShanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world, as we say in the liturgy – in particular, the first Rosh haShanah was the 6th day of creation, the day humankind was created, and the day Adam and Eve had to be expelled from the Garden of Eden.  To a certain extent, it’s all been downhill after that.  That downhill has been especially pronounced for us in some ways, as our history amply demonstrates, although there have been some incredible high points as well, such as the Revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  Yet after each high, we find ourselves backsliding into the same mistakes, the same wrong action, time after time.  We become engulfed in materialism and lose touch with our inner, eternal essence.

In short, the world we live in is unredeemed, and it is our job to fix it.  We’ve obviously fallen down on the job.  Yet one can wonder, why do we have this job to begin with, and how should we go about doing it better?

The first question raises an important issue regarding the nature of free will.  The great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, quipped, “We have to believe in free will.  We have no choice!”  On the other hand, the very first of Rambam’s principles of faith states that Gd alone is the one who performs all action.  But if Gd is not only the director, but the actors and the script and the props and the stage and the theater and the audience, and we are somehow subsumed in all that, how can we be said to be acting at all, let alone with free will?!  Do our actions have any meaning at all?  Or are they simply the small slice of Gd’s activity that we can perceive with our limited senses.

Now Singer was correct in that we have no choice but to believe that we are morally independent actors, for without this belief, as Rambam himself states, there would be no basis for the rewards and punishments in the Torah.  You can’t reward or punish an automaton.  Reward and punishment are the reactions to chosen actions.  An automaton cannot choose, and any reaction upon it is as mechanical as its own actions.  It is simply a part of the world of natural cause and effect.  And we do experience that we can make moral choices, and we do see that our moral choices have consequences.  So from our perspective, there is free will and our actions do matter.

Gd’s perspective on the issue is very different, as it says, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so are My … thoughts higher than your thoughts.”  (Is 55:9)  From Gd’s perspective, He alone exists, has always existed, and will always exist.  He transcends time; time is within Gd, and not the other way around.  Gd is also unchanging, eternal.  This means that to the extent that there is any action, any change at all, it is within Gd, as it were, and not going on outside of Gd.  This means that the whole process of creation, estrangement from Gd, and eventual redemption, or reunification with Gd, is all a process that is internal to Gd.  The entire Kabbalistic notion of Gd’s “contracting” Himself to leave room “outside” Himself where human beings can express their free will, may be valid from our perspective, but, having come from human beings, cannot possibly encompass Gd’s perspective.

So the question returns: Do our actions matter?  Can we hasten the redemption, or should we simply resign ourselves to waiting patiently for it to come “in its time.”  The only answer I can come up with is that the only perspective by which we can live our lives, is the human perspective.  We are not Gd, we will never be Gd, we will never be able to see through Gd’s eyes no matter how spiritually advanced we become, because we see through the lens of a human body.  Therefore, whether on some level we are just “actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage,” on our level our lives have meaning and our actions have cosmic significance.  That means that we must strive to our utmost to make the most of the days and years we have been given, to bring the world closer to its ultimate fulfillment.  The new year that is about to begin is a perfect time to start.  L’shanah tovah and may this year be better than the last.

A Dear Son to Me

Essay 22: Boundaries of Holiness (21 February 2002)

R. Steinsaltz defines “holiness” as the infinite, transcendental underlying reality behind all the forms and phenomena of the universe.  Something is holy to the extent that it participates in, or reflects, this transcendental value.  But of course, since holiness is transcendental, it is beyond boundaries, beyond definitions, beyond words, which of course makes it difficult to write about it.  It is also unknowable, at least in terms of ordinary human knowledge, which also deals with boundaries (especially the boundary between the subject and the object of knowledge).

R. Steinsaltz points out that we have a paradoxical relationship with holiness.  On the one hand, we are inexorably drawn to it.  On the other hand, we are profoundly frightened by it, as it overwhelms our individuality.  There are those who actively immerse themselves in meaningless activity specifically to fend off the call of the boundless – to defend our boundaries, our individual self from our universal Self.  Nadav and Avihu came too close and died, because they approached in an improper manner.  Moshe Rabbeinu came as close as possible and lived, because he understood that “a [limited] human being cannot see My Face and live.”

Judaism is more a religion of action than one of philosophy.  It certainly asks, and tries to answer, the basic, profound questions of life, but more than that, it instructs us how to infuse holiness into our daily lives.  We may not be able to define holiness, but we can live it and radiate it for our benefit and for the benefit of the whole cosmos.