Monthly Archives: September 2017

Sep 11

D’var Torah: Ki Tavo

By Editor | Blogs

The D’var Torah this Shabbat was given by Rabbi Adam.

Just about two years ago now, I arrived in Oceanside, New York on Long Island in order to start a rabbinical school internship. We moved into the community over the summer, got settled in (much like we’ve done this summer), and things really got started a few weeks before the High Holy Days. I remember that one of the first shabbatot in which I was really active in the community was Ki Tavo. That morning we read (as we have done this morning) the extensive list of curses and threats that Moses makes against the people. We read it in an undertone, quickly; afraid of what we are suggesting about ourselves and our ancestors. That morning (like this one), I sat and listened to the litany of death and destruction suggested and raised the same umbrage: how can the Torah assert that these horrible things happen as a result of our sin? How can we believe in a God who would punish our misdeeds with genocide and plague?

What made that query even more acute in Oceanside was that this was a community which only a few years prior had survived Hurricane Sandy. Many members of the community had lost homes, cars, and invaluable possessions. Some people, years later, were still living in temporary accommodation. It was a town traumatized; the slightest suggestion of a thunderstorm on the evening news would prompt a wild rush for bottled water and non-perishable food. The synagogue itself had served as a shelter for weeks after the storm, being relatively undamaged mostly due to good luck and a slight difference in altitude.

Today, two years later, as we read the same curses, a new group of super-storms is terrorising the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. Harvey has humbled Houston, now Irma and José and Katie continue to wage war, bringing death and destruction to millions of people. In the midst of all this, we find the same nonsense being spouted from religious nuts and political pundits. Evangelical television preacher, Pat Robertson, has repeatedly affirmed that these disasters are punishment for sin: Katrina was a result of America’s embrace of homosexuality (so he termed it), and then Sandy, he oddly argued, was God telling us that He didn’t want a Mormon to be President (Mitt Romney was then running against President Obama.)

‘How absurd!’ we might say; ‘How offensive, to attribute disaster to human misdeeds!’ Yet, at the end of the today, can we really say that we’ve done any better? The curses we’ve read this morning- are they really any less horrible than the foolish statements of Robertson and others?

Unfortunately, I don’t think they are. To me, the curses we read in Ki Tavo- the death and destruction that God promises (via Moses) to bring upon the people should they choose not to follow the law- carry the same unfortunate implication of Robertson’s claims: either way it is bad theology. A vision of God in which our suffering is due to our sins is not one I can accept. An earthquake in the Indian Ocean is not punishment for idolatry, nor is a cancer diagnosis retribution for transgression. If that’s so, where does it leave us vis-a-vis Deuteronomy, which seems to frame for us a dark vision of Divine wrath?

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his notable book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, recycles an old theological game that can help us understand more. R’ Kushner tells us that there are three things which God can be: omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing), and omnibenevolent (all-good). Yet, the paradox which we find ourselves in is this: a functional theology requires that we pick two out of those three. We simply cannot have a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good; Evidence abounds in the world around us as to this impossibility. We suffer, death reigns supreme, and humans continue to choose senseless slaughter of one another over cooperation and collaboration. Thus, there are two configurations of this ⅔ paradigm that are worth our consideration:

Option 1: God is omnipotent and omniscient, but not omnibenevolent. This seems to be Deuteronomy’s take. God doesn’t always do good, in fact, as the curses remind us, sometimes God causes evil and suffering. It has a precipitating cause (our sin), but the result remains that God inflicts natural evil upon us, knowingly and in complete control of nature.

Option 2: God is omniscient and omnibenevolent, but not omnipotent. This may seem like a contradiction to the entire framework of religious life (God is in control), but it is one which our Sages continually tinker with, in response to and rejection of Deuteronomy’s curses. Could it be that God does want only good for us, and knows everything that’s going on, but simply isn’t always able to actually stop evil and chaos from reigning here and there? Perhaps we can also understand a sort of limited-omnipotence; That God is able to stop evil, but to do so would be an impossibility (for instance, God’s intervention would overwhelm the systems of reality and undermine the intention).

Option 3 is really not even worth considering (God is in complete control and wants only good but simply doesn’t know what’s going on.) That leaves with two choices for our paradigm: Deuteronomy’s curses, or the Sages’ vision of God. Their sense of God as not in complete control is borne out by a number of biblical verses (God has to tame the chaos in Genesis but some of it remains behind, God can’t actually change Pharaoh’s mind in Exodus, etc. etc.), but also by several traditions of Rabbinic Judaism, one old and found in the Midrash and the other medieval and emerging from the mystics.

In the Talmud [Bavli Megillah 29a], the rabbis include the idea that the Shekhinah (God’s feminised presence on Earth), was exiled with the people when the Temple was destroyed. That is, a part of God Itself suffered alongside the refugees who left Jerusalem. Side-by-side, hand-in-hand, this God is one of pathos. Not able to actually stop the destruction, instead God joins the people in their suffering. This idea, called galuta deShekhinah (Shekhinah’s Exile) in Aramaic gets expanded considerably by the mystics who follow those early Sages, more and more telling a story of a God who needs our help, who lives with a broken world. Perhaps what expresses it best is the revised creation story told by R’ Yitzhak Luria in his formulation of Kabbalah. It goes a bit like this:

Once upon a time, before anything existed, there was only Infinite Light encompassing all reality. When that Light decided to create a world within which it could shine, it had to first constrict itself, removing the Light from a circular space, empty and dark. In that empty space, the Light fashioned vessels of light, containers in which the new world would be formed. However, when the vessels were completed and the Light began to re-fill the previously empty space that had been shaped, the containers proved insufficient. They shattered, breaking the entire creative enterprise and scattering fragments of Light, like pulverised glass, all throughout reality. Then, creation started anew, this time with better formed vessels, more separation between the Light and its world. That creation is the one described in Genesis; A second creation into a void which now is full of a million little pieces of Divine Light.

The picture here of God is clearly not of a being in complete control! Creation emerges from a mistake, from a cosmic cataclysm which gives reality substance and gives life its sufferings. Those broken fragments, the Kabbalists argue, are all around us: in the air we breathe and the face of our neighbour. We can help the not-quite-omnipotent God with whom we have made a covenant by tracking down the shattered bits of Light and sanctifying them once again, restoring them to their proper place. This process is done through the mitsvot, the commandments, and relies, entirely, on our voluntary cooperation with a God who knows what’s going on, wants only good, but can’t quite do it by themselves.

Deuteronomy has one vision of God, but the Sages who built the Judaism we observe today, and especially the mystics had a different one, one more like this: where God is good but not omnipotent; where God needs us to help repair the world; where the Divine presence goes into exile along with the Jewish people as the Temple burns; where creation begins in a cosmic disaster. That is the God I believe in and the one whom we should turn to in times of disaster, not to plead for the punishment to end, but to find a comforting partner, sharing our burdens and our sufferings and offering us an out-stretched hand with which we can join and begin to work to fix the world we find ourselves in.

The choice is ours, for we have inherited a religion with more than one theology. Do we want to believe in Deuteronomy’s vision of a punishing God, bringing hurricanes and disease upon unfaithful followers? Or, do we want to believe in the Kabbalist’s vision of a God who needs our help, our partner in restoring Creation, who suffers as we suffer and shares our pains and our exiles? Each has its benefits and each its drawbacks, but this Shabbat, the choice is yours.

Sep 04

D’var Torah: Ki Teitzei

By Editor | Blogs

The D’var Torah this Shabbat was given by Rabbi Adam.

To this day, there is only one book I’ve ever read which has made me weep: Night by Elie Wiesel. I can still remember sitting on the kitchen counter trying to get through what is by no means a long novel before class the next day, and finding myself crying uncontrollably. I think that was probably 9th grade; Although I had learned plenty about the Holocaust before then, it meant something different in the words of Wiesel’s personal reflection and recollection.

I remember that it was one story in particular that Wiesel tells that really moved me- about the time he came the closest to losing any sense of faith. One day, the Nazi guards had executed a young boy for supposedly organizing a rebellion. Wiesel and his fellow inmates were marched along the gallows so they would see this boy hanging. Because he was young and emaciated, he didn’t weigh enough for the noose to actually break his neck; Instead, he died painfully over the course of several hours. One man, who was behind Wiesel in the line walking past, kept crying out in desperation, ‘Where is God now? Where is God now?!’ Another man went to answer, but only turned, pointed at the boy hanging on the gallows, and said, ‘God is up there, hanging by his neck.’

This story from Night and the emotions that accompany it returned to me this week in looking at our parashah. Ki Tetze deals with a whole variety of civil and criminal laws, most of which have only material and human concerns. Yet there is one which I think actually may be the most theologically rich statement in the entire Torah.

 

כב  וְכִי-יִהְיֶה בְאִישׁ, חֵטְא מִשְׁפַּט-מָוֶת–וְהוּמָת:  וְתָלִיתָ אֹתוֹ, עַל-עֵץ. 22 And if a man has committed a sin worthy of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree;
כג  לֹא-תָלִין נִבְלָתוֹ עַל-הָעֵץ, כִּי-קָבוֹר תִּקְבְּרֶנּוּ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא–כִּי-קִלְלַת אֱלֹהִים, תָּלוּי; וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא, אֶת-אַדְמָתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, נֹתֵן לְךָ נַחֲלָה.

 

23 his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you must bury him the same day; for he that is hanged is a curse unto God. Do not defile your land which the LORD your God has given you for an inheritance.

 

Believe it or not, this verse is the only place in the Torah where we are told to bury our dead. But this short bit has a lot more to say beyond purely practical concerns, for there is a tremendous theological insight buried within it. There’s two commandments here actually: 1) that you must hang someone who has been convicted of a capital case, 2) that you must not leave them hanging overnight, but instead take them down and bury them. So the question is: what is the reason for these two commandments? In particular, our question this morning is this: why are we told that we must not let a body hang overnight? What does it mean to say that the hanged person is a curse upon God?

Our tradition offers no less than 9 answers (as numbered in [MeAm Loez]):

Option 1

For the hanged man is a [result of a] curse to God. Literally, if you curse God, then you will be punished as such and hanged.

Option 2

For the hanged man is a curse to God, because of the person hanging there others walk by and they curse the rabbinic court which executed him. We say that a court which executes one person every seventy years is considered bloodthirsty.

Option 3

For the hanged man is a curse to God, because hanging is the most miserable way to die, so curses against God, anger with God, and blasphemy against God all hover around the corpse – thus why we are told to hurry up and bury him.

Option 4

For the hanged man is a curse to God. The punishment is the curse which curses God. There’s no way to add to the misery brought about through execution and hanging. The curse is that God has already decreed that they should hang upon a tree.

Option 5

For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because other people are going to see him and ask around saying, ‘What did he do?’ and they’ll come to curse the man who is hanged and potentially, God-forbid, say God’s name in vain.

Option 6

For the hanged man is a curse to God. Because the intellectual soul in a human is called ‘Image of God.’ If you hang a dead body overnight without burial, it’s a tremendous embarrassment and shame to the intellectual soul of the person, which is actually the eternal essence.

Option 7

For the hanged man is a curse to God. There are some who say that it is because others will walk by and ask, ‘Who is that hanging?’ and someone will answer, ‘Oh it’s so-and-so’s son.’

Option 8

For the hanged man is a curse to God. The actual reason is: Do not defile your land – because when someone is hanged their body rots and putrefies and through this the land and the air are corrupted.

Well everyone, it’s been a set-up – because I’ve saved the best for last. Option 9 makes this verse one of the most profound theological statements in the Torah. Option 9 is:

For the hanged man is a curse to God. That is, the hanged man is a degradation of God, Godself. For humans are made in God’s image and we are God’s children. This can be explained via a parable: Once upon a time there were two twin brothers born into a noble family. One of them advanced through the ranks of society and eventually became the King. The other brother fell in with a group of thieves and spent his life as a criminal. The criminal brother was eventually arrested, sentenced to death, and executed by the court. They hung him, but every person who walked past the gallows gasped and pointed, saying ‘Look, the King has been hung!’

Here in Option 9 the hanged man is of course, the thief and God is, of course, the king. The implication then is that we have to be careful to take someone down from the gallows because each human being is so close to being in the ‘divine image’ that they might literally be confused for one another.

Now, this isn’t to say that God looks like a person. In fact, quite the opposite – the message, as spelled out, is that the human soul is ‘twinned’ to divinity. In fact, there are many who argue that the human soul is chelek elohim mamash, a literal ‘piece’ of God. Thus, this vessel which has contained something divine has to be treated itself as divine, and runs the risk, as odd as it may seem, of being confused with the divine.

This, I think, is one of the most potent theological statements we can make. To say that a human corpse when hung curses God because it imperils the divine image within is profound. Human life is holy, human beings are holy, because they are a vessel for a literal piece of God.

There’s an aspect of the halakhah that might help us with this point: if you use any sort of bag to put your tefillin in, you can’t ever go and use that bag for anything else. The bag itself is irrelevant, but once it has become a container for something holy it too becomes imbued with that selfsame holiness.

So too, humanity is holy for each individual contains a piece of the Divine. If we can actually internalize this and accept it, it would radically change how we think and act in the world. Elie Wiesel’s faith was saved by acknowledging that God too was hanging – that in the murder of that young boy a piece of God died as well. Yet, our way of living out the idea of humanity being in the Divine image doesn’t have to be quite so extreme.

Take it to the micro-level of day-to-day life. Next time the person who is going 10 miles under the speed limit and making you late to get home makes you angry, remember that they are just as much a container of divinity as you are. Next time you see someone you love, consider that perhaps part of that love is about recognizing the divine spark within that person. Next time you think yourself better or more advanced than another because of physical appearance or fine dress, recall that what matters is also what makes us the same – the soul which carries within it a piece of God.

Wiesel stood in the depths of despair and saw God in the face of a young boy hanging from the gallows. We can do the same every moment of every day – in the face of the supermarket cashier, the estranged friend, the distant lover. If we really take to heart the interpretation of our verse, that a hanged man is a curse to God because of the fact that we may very well confuse the container of the divine soul with the divine itself – then we must find a way to see God in the face of any other, The Other, and in the face of each other.