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Parashat Devarim 5776 — 08/13/2016

Parashat Devarim 5776 — 08/13/2016

Devarim 1:1 – 3:22

Note: Since Shabbat Devarim this year falls on Tisha B’Av, we do not read a chapter of Pirke Avot at Shabbat Minchah this week. This is in line with the prohibition of almost all Torah study on Tisha B’Av, as Torah study is a delight to the soul, and therefore is incongruous with the nature of the day. We defer the fast, however, to Sunday. The last meal before the fast begins (Seudah Mafseket) must be on Shabbat afternoon; since we eat the “third meal” (Seudah Shlishit) around then, we just make it a real meal instead of a snack. The fast begins at sunset, while it is still Shabbat. We pray the evening service after dark, when Shabbat is over, and at that point we read Eichah (Lamentations) and recite the Kinnot, dirges, of Tisha B’Av. Havdalah is deferred to Sunday night and is the shortened Havdalah (no candle or spices) that we say after a holiday.

How (eicha) can I alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife? (1:12)

How (eicha) has the faithful city become a harlot? (Yishaya 1:21 – from the haftarah)

How (eicha) does the city sit solitary… (Lamentations 1:1 – read on Tisha b’Av [tomorrow])

R. Steinsaltz sees a progression from the eicha of Moses through Yishaya to Yirmiya’s Lamentation over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Holy Temple, which we commemorate with the Tisha b’Av fast (Tisha b’Av comes on Shabbat this year, so the fast is observed beginning Saturday night). Why did Moshe use the term eicha only here, and not, say, at the sin of the Golden Calf or of the Spies?

The cantillation mark etnachta generally determines where the stress should be placed in a verse. In the verse, How can I myself alone bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife,” the etnachta falls on the words “myself alone (levadi),” and this was the root of Moses’ problem. The problem began with the fact that Moses was alone. What truly ate at him was that all of “your trouble, your burden, and your strife” fell only on him. … no one except Moses was interested in the momentous challenges of leadership. … Even those who were appointed leaders of hundreds or leaders of thousands would go to work from eight in the morning to three in the afternoon, punch the clock, and go home. Moses’ dilemma is not that there are problems, but that others do not get involved. … To a great extent, Moses’ problem in the wilderness, and Israel’s problem afterward as well, is that people are not proactive in involving themselves in things, but instead wait for things to be done for them.

This refusal to get involved is the key to Israel’s future problems. When a people is not involved in creating an ideal society, willing to accept any kind of values as OK, not willing to stand up for what is right, that society is headed for the kind of moral decay that Yishaya describes, the city turned to whores (OK, that was Neil Young). And the upshot of this kind of moral decay is ultimately the destruction Yirmiya laments: How does the city sit solitary, that was once full of people. R. Steinsaltz opines that the experience of the Babylonian exile was the rectification for this downward slide, as it finally began to sink into our collective psyche that we can only rely on ourselves for our survival and progress, and we will be able to rely on ourselves only if we are all involved and proactive. It is the awareness that when one person is left alone to deal with everything, this is a situation that leads to disaster. There is only one way out of this predicament: for every person to get involved. Only when we adopt this attitude will new opportunities begin to arise.

I would like to take off on this idea of “being involved,” because it sheds light on a great dilemma in religious philosophy. On the surface level we see in our country the price of staying uninvolved in political life. If we don’t look out for our interests, then other players who are looking out for their interests, and in fact put their narrow, parochial interests above the common good, will take over policy-making roles, and produce policies that benefit themselves, to the detriment of everyone else, not to mention the environment. So on the surface level, involvement is just self-preservation.

Why did we believe we could stay uninvolved? In earlier days, we had a much smaller population, and generally people lived out there lives within a few miles of the place they were born. People interacted with a very small circle of people. Life was much more solitary. This is comparable to a very rarified gas, with few molecules, spaced far apart, that don’t interact with one another very strongly. If something influences the gas at one end of its container, it could take a long time for that influence to propagate throughout the gas. In such a society, the myth of the “rugged individualist,” self-sufficient, bristling at any outside control, could flourish – it wasn’t that far from reality.

With increased population, and a greater rate of interaction between people, the old model of a group of loosely-connected but basically independent actors has broken down. Now people interact strongly and often, and with a larger group of people. Now there are complicated feedback loops enabled. What you say affects all the people around you, and that affects everyone around them, etc. We live in an interconnected world where the concept of “individual” has acquired restrictions. This is like a dense gas, or even a liquid or solid, where an influence in one part quickly propagates throughout the sample, sometimes in unpredictable ways. Now, like it or not, nobody is an uninvolved bystander. Society now has a more demanding task to balance individual rights with communal needs, like safety and security. The TSA lines at the airport and the gun control debate are vivid examples of the nature of the transition that takes place as a system becomes ever more tightly coupled.

So on one level, we are involved in our society whether we like it or not. The only question is, are we going to become consciously involved – are we going to take responsibility for making sure our actions are not causing negative effects elsewhere in the system, and are we going to help steer the system to higher levels of integration and a greater degree of balance, so that all can benefit? We all have different roles to play in the society; nevertheless we all have to ask ourselves these same questions every day when we get out of bed and begin the day’s activities.

Now I want to look at involvement from another angle. We have discussed in the past that underlying the individuality there is a level of existence that is unbounded and eternal, and that the mind can contact this field by transcending the thinking process. Since there are no boundaries in this field, there can be no time, space or motion/change. This field is totally transcendental to all the activity we see about us. With repeated contact of the mind with this transcendental level, the individual begins to be identified with it. At this point one perceives himself to be infinite and unbounded, while his mind, body and personality continue to act in the world. It is as if the individual becomes a silent witness to everything going on around him. The person is totally uninvolved in activity of any kind, be it individual or communal. Perhaps paradoxically, since the person is uninvolved with any specific outcome, he can act without hidden agendas and without any particular expectations of personal gain. His mind is also clearer and his body is healthier, as they are connected with their source, and thus actions undertaken by this person’s individuality are dynamic and life-supporting.

We can take this a step further. Even when a person has established his own identity as infinite, his senses still perceive their objects as finite, as they have been doing all along. But now, the senses begin to perceive deeper values of the objects of perception, finer, subtler levels. Eventually, a state can be reached where the object is also identified with the infinite value at its basis – the same infinite value that is at our basis. What has happened is that we have gone from being involved in activity to the point where our identification of our own essential nature was lost, to a state where we recognize our own essential nature as infinite and completely uninvolved with the activity outside us, to a higher state where we are again intimately involved with activity and perception, only now from a level where both are perceived as infinite. The activity is seen as waves on an infinite ocean, that underlies both the subject and object, the actor and the acted-upon, but the ocean is the primary reality.

If this development sounds like the cycle of exile and redemption, I believe that it’s because on some very deep level, that is what the story of exile and redemption is displaying for us – our own development and maturation as human beings.

I think this gives us an insight into the dilemma posed by philosophers of religion – is Gd transcendental or is Gd immanent. In another formulation, how could Gd create if He is completely transcendent? But if Gd is involved in the world, which is a world of change, how can Gd be unchanging? All these either-or dilemmas are insoluble on the level of intellect. The intellect is that which distinguishes between things, and therefore it can only function in the realm of duality. But any discussion of the transcendent is a discussion of a level that is beyond all duality – it is pure unity, as Rambam states in his second principle of faith (about Gd). On the level where we perceive everything as a wave of the underlying transcendental ocean of Being, I don’t believe the question even arises. Yes Gd is transcendent. Yet the transcendent expresses itself as waves, without ever losing its nature as transcendent. The waves are not, ultimately, different from the ocean. They only appear different to our limited consciousness, and therefore we try to distinguish between them.

This is like asking a quantum-mechanical particle where it is exactly. It’s the wrong question because it’s based on the wrong premise. If we ask whether Gd is transcendental or immanent, we are asking the wrong question, because our premises are derived from our ordinary experience in the world of differences. The way out of this dilemma is not to beat our heads against it, but to rise above it!

Haftarah: Yishaya 1:1-27

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, the Sabbath of Vision, after the first words of the reading: Chazon Yishaya ben Amotz / A vision of Isaiah, son of Amotz… It is also the third of the “Three of Affliction” read between the fasts of 17 Tammuz and Tisha b’Av (“the Three Weeks”) when we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples. Although these are the opening verses of the Book of Isaiah, it is generally agreed that they are not chronologically the first of his prophecies. Perhaps they were placed here out of chronological order because they are thematically a header for Isaiah’s corpus of prophecy, but that’s just my guess.

How (eicha) has she becom a harlot – faithful city that was full of justice, in which righteousness was wont to lodge, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your heady wine mixed with water. Your princes are wayward and associates of thieves; the whole of them loves bribery and pursue [illegal] payments; for the orphan they do not do justice, the cause of the widow does not come unto them. (21-23)

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to relate this passage, or the rest of the haftarah for that matter, to current events. “The whole of them loves bribery” – our entire government is run on bribery. It is impossible to run a campaign without substantial amounts of money, and the dependence of our “leaders” on the wealthy sources of that money has totally corrupted their activity. “For the orphan they do not do justice” – the poor are systematically harassed and blocked from any kind of advancement. Even public colleges are out of reach for many, and our students are becoming slaves to student debt. Our (US) health-care system provides life-saving care only for those who can afford it, and only at exhorbitant cost. “Why do I need your numerous sacrifices…” (11); “I cannot abide mendacity with [holy] assemblage.” (13) Our religious leaders have given Gd such a bad name that I suspect He wishes He were dead. Our churches and synagogues are filled with the noise of empty prayer, and fiery sermons pointing out the sins of everyone else. Our educational system has been choked to death and politicians poison whole cities.

Do you want to make America great again? Listen to the message of someone who’s been there, coming to us through the centuries, and start with yourself.