Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Eminently Reasonable Avram

This week's Parasha begins the story of the travels, trials and tribulations of our forefather Avram (later Avraham). One of the most remarkable things about Avram is his attitude toward the Divine promises conveyed to him. Hashem tells him that he will be blessed and will achieve fame and fortune. Yet, when he departs from his homeland, we read:

And Abram took his wife Sarai, and his nephew Lot, and all of the wealth they had amassed, and all of the servants they had acquired in Haran; and they set out to go to the land of Canaan, and they arrived at the land of Canaan.

Ralbag, in his commentary to this verse, makes an interesting observation about Avram's conduct. Despite the promises he received from God, Avram is careful to bring all of his possessions with him. He does not leave home empty handed. Ralbag indicates that this is one of the key lessons we derive from this story. We must wonder - why is this so important?

We should note that this is not the only evidence of Avram's practicality. When a famine takes hold in the Land of Canaan, rather than wait for miraculous sustenance from Hashem - who, after all, told him to go to the Land in the first place - he immediately travels to Egypt to procure food.

When he approaches Egypt, Avram again demonstrates strategic thinking. Although Hashem has promised him manifold blessings, he is concerned about the possibility that the Egyptians might murder him and take his wife. So he asks Sarai to pose as his sister to avoid any such calamity. Apparently, Hashem's assurances did not cause Avram to develop a fantasy of invincibility. He still felt the need to protect himself at all costs.

All of these aspects of Avram's behavior revolve around the principle that the Ralbag highlighted; namely, Avram's pragmatism. Upon reflection, we can see why this characteristic is so important. Religious visionaries tend to be idealistic crackpots who believe God is with them no matter what and who pay little attention to the practical details of life. Because they feel they have been appointed by God for a special purpose, they exempt themselves from having to be concerned about their welfare and simply trust in Providence.

Avram stands in stark contrast to this image of the religious personality. He certainly responds to the call of God and leaves his birthplace. However, throughout his journey, Avram assumes as a matter of course that God expects him to behave in the most prudent way possible. Avram's God is a God of wisdom. He demands that His worshipers exercise their reasoning and intelligence to the fullest extent possible in all that they do; then, and only then, does Hashem intervene to assist them.

Of course, some of the factors that were crucial to Avram's success lay outside of the sphere of human influence. He had to depend upon God to arrange these matters in a way that would be favorable to him and his cause. However, Avram understood that the effects of Divine Providence are always contigent on the actions of its (potential) recipients. If those actions are not guided by wisdom and forethought, then the impact of Providence may never be felt.

Consider the following application: If Hashem promises us one million dollars and we already have 500K in the bank, we should not liquidate our account and wait for a million dollar check to arrive in the mail. God may be expecting us to use our minds to identify and pursue an investment opportunity with the 500K - and this may be how He plans on fulfilling His commitment. If we squander our resources in foolish anticipation of a miracle, we will lose out on the chance to benefit from God's blessing.

In the same way, regardless of his conviction in the promises of the Almighty, Avram displayed a consistently reasonable, cautious and strategic approach to handling the exigencies of life. His wise decisions to descend to Egypt and misrepresent his relationship with Sarai wound up gaining him the attention of the Pharaoh and his court. When he finally left Egypt, he did so as a wealthy celebrity - he was now acknowledged 'internationally' as a very special individual. Achieving this measure of fame and fortune enabled Avram to more effectively spread knowledge of God in the world.

When Avram made his choices, he had no idea that this would be the outcome. In retrospect, though, we see the effects his behavior had on his eventual success. Had he not opted to pursue the most prudent course of action to begin with, he would not have been in the right place at the right time for Providence to bless him.

We see from all of this that Avram was by no means a religious fanatic. He was a man of impeccable wisdom and foresight. And as the first Patriarch of the Jewish people, Avram serves as the ultimate example of a true man of God. He embodies the Torah's standard of human perfection.

It is worth mentioning one way in which this story has tremendous relevance for today. Many Jews anxiously await the arrival of the Mashiah and the fulfillment of Hashem's promise to redeem us from exile. In reality, though, the keys to the final redemption lie in our hands, not His. Hashem has assured us that, once we prepare the way for salvation, He will take care of all of the loose ends. But the process is one that it is our responsibility to initiate.

Monday, October 30, 2006

You Have To Believe, There's No Magic

(Please excuse the reference to a terrible song from the early eighties.)

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought it would be appropriate to consider how our tradition addresses "the occult". Of course, practicing magic, conjuring up spirits and consulting astrologers are all strictly prohibited by the Torah:

There shall not be found among you one who passes his son through the fire; a diviner, an astrologer, one who reads omens or a sorcerer. One who charms animals, one who inquires of Ov or Yideoni, or one who consults the dead. For anyone who does these is an abomination of Hashem; and, because of these abominations, Hashem, your God, banishes the nations from before you.

Famously, Maimonides explains that these activities are forbidden because they are nonsensical:

And all of these things are matters of falsehood and lies, and they are the very means through which the idol worshipers fooled the nations of the world into following them. And it is not proper for the Jewish people, who are exceptionally wise, to follow after these vanities, nor to entertain the possibility that they have any benefit. As the Torah states, "there is no divination in Jacob, nor charming in Israel." And it is stated, "For these nations that you will inherit listen to the omen-readers and charmers; but you, not so has Hashem, your God, given you."

Anyone who believes in these things and things like them, and thinks in his heart that they are true and wise but that the Torah has prohibited them; he is one of the fools and those lacking knowledge, and is grouped among the women and children whose minds are imperfect. But those who possess wisdom and sound mind know by clear demonstration that all of these things that the Torah prohibits are not things of wisdom; rather, they are emptiness and vanity that fools stray after, and all of the paths of truth have been corrupted because of them. Because of this the Torah states, when it warns us about these vanities, "Perfect shall you be with Hashem, your God."

In the Rambam's view, which is shared by many other authorities, these behaviors lead to a way of thinking which is inimical to Torah. "Magical thinking" is, in fact, one of the key elements of idolatrous belief and worship.

At the same time, there were some Rabbis that maintained that the practices prohibited by the Torah are actually effective, but that Hashem forbade our involvement in them for a different reason. Most notable among proponents of this view is Nachmanides, the Ramban:

And now, know and understand regarding magic, that the Creator (may He be blessed) created everything from nothing and made the upper realms the guides of what is beneath them; and He placed the power of the earth and all that is in it in the stars and constellations according to their motion and direction, as has been demonstrated in the science of astrology...However, it was one of His great wonders, that He placed within the upper realms alternate ways, and forces by which one might change the governance of the realms beneath them...But it is the regular governance of the constellations that the Creator (blessed is He) desires, which He placed in them to begin with, and this would be the opposite. This is the secret of magic and its power, such that the Rabbis said regarding magical practices that they "contradict the Council Above"; in other words, they subvert the simple forces of nature, which is a contradiction to the upper realms to some extent. Therefore, it is proper that the Torah prohibit them so that the world will be left to its normal function and its natural state, which is the desire of the Creator...

There are many who belittle the reading of omens and say that they have no truth to them at all...But we cannot deny things that have been clearly demonstrated before witnesses.

Note that the Ramban is operating within the framework of God's Unity. He could not possibly have entertained the notion that magical activities tap into forces that are completely independent of Hashem. Rather, he believed that whatever could be accomplished through these rituals was "built in" to God's creation from the outset.

This concept must be stressed because the Ramban's position is so often misunderstood. People frequently assert that "the Ramban believed in magic", as if he acknowledged the existence of a separate realm of evil forces that could be harnessed against the will of the Creator. This perspective is not only wrong, it is heretical!

Close analysis of the words of our Rabbis offers an important clarification. Both Rambam and Ramban maintain that all of existence reflects the design and wisdom of the Almighty, and that no force can operate independently of that design. Their dispute revolves around whether the magical activities proscribed by the Torah are really effective or not.

According to the Rambam, anything scientific is ipso facto permitted. Therefore, if magical rites were actually efficacious, the Torah would have allowed them. The problem is that whatever impact they do have is only imaginary. This is why they are prohibited.

Ramban disagrees with the Rambam and asserts that not everything "real" is necessarily permitted. Activities that undermine or subvert the course of nature are forbidden, precisely because they really work. Ramban thought that the occult practices described in the Torah operated through "loopholes" in the Creation that enabled man to tamper with the Universe to an extent that is inappropriate. This is why, according to Ramban, we are not allowed to engage in them.

Genetic engineering and cloning afford us modern applications of these theories. It seems likely that the Ramban would view these procedures as unacceptable meddling with the course of nature, while the Rambam would argue that, since they have a scientific basis, they are permitted.

There is one more fundamental issue that must be explored here. From his commentary, it is clear that the Ramban's attitude toward the occult was based upon the scientific knowledge that was available to him. He felt that the power of magical practices and the reliability of astrological predictions had been confirmed experimentally. The question is - what would the Ramban say about magic, astrology, etc., today?

Modern science has systematically discredited astrology, superstition and magic. There is not a single shred of empirical evidence that supports their validity. Thus it is almost certain that, were he alive today, the Ramban would change his view of the occult and agree wholeheartedly with the Rambam.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

It's Nothing Personal

How Righteous Was He?

The end of Parashat Beresheet describes mankind's descent into utter corruption and depravity, as well as God's decision to destroy humanity and start anew. Noah, a righteous man, is chosen by Hashem to be spared from the Flood and to rebuild civilization afterward.

In the opening verse of Parashat Noah, we read:

These are the descendants of Noah - Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generations; Noah walked with God.

In his commentary, Rashi cites the famous dispute of our Sages regarding the meaning of the phrase "in his generations":

Some of our Rabbis interpret this positively - that were he to have lived in a generation of righteous people, he would have been even more righteous. And some interpret it negatively - relative to his generation, Noah was righteous, but had he lived in the generation of Avraham, he wouldn't have been considered righteous at all.

What is the significance of this argument in the broader scheme of things? Why should we be concerned with the standard by which God judged Noah to be righteous?

Two Types of Intervention

I believe that the difference of opinion of our Rabbis stems from a more fundamental question about the Noah story. We are familiar with two forms of Divine Providence: Hashgacha Kelalit , or general providence, and Hashgacha Peratit, individualized providence.

Some narratives in the Torah exemplify individual providence, such as the accounts of Avraham, Yitshaq, Yaaqov, Yosef, etc. Others capture instances of general providence, such as the account of God's intervention at the Tower of Bavel.

Whether we understand events as reflections of individual or of general providence has important implications. When we study cases of individual providence, our primary focus is on the main character or protagonist. A recipient of hashgacha peratit is, by definition, someone whose behavior and character are exemplary and whom we should try to emulate. The Torah tells us about such people so we can do our best to follow in their footsteps.

By contrast, stories about general providence are designed to teach us about the ways of Hashem. Although they may include moral lessons as well, their main purpose is to provide us with examples of the wisdom, compassion and justice of God in dealing with His creatures.

We can now see why the story of Noah is more difficult to classify. Noah may have been saved because he was personally worthy of a high level of Divine intervention. If that is the case, then we must understand the saga of the Flood and the subsequent Rainbow Covenant in the same way that we understand the stories of the Patriarchs - as a reflection of hashgacha peratit for Noah. This perspective singles Noah out as a remarkable individual. If Noah was capable of developing such a deep and genuine relationship with God during the pre-Flood period, we can only imagine the level of perfection he would have reached if he had lived in the days of Avraham.

There is, however, another possibility. Noah may not have "deserved" God's miraculous assistance in his own right. God might have spared Noah from the Mabul not because of his extraordinary piety but simply in order to ensure the continuity of the human species, i.e., as a function of hashgacha kelalit. Hashem did not want to create Adam and Eve all over again; hence, he had to select at least one human family who would survive the Flood and go on to reproduce afterward. For this purpose, God chose Noah - the most refined man of that otherwise base generation - and commanded him to construct the Ark.If this interpretation is correct, then we must approach the story of Noah as a depiction of God's general providence, with Noah serving as nothing more than a representative of the human race. The narrative is not really about Noah. He was just the vehicle through which God preserved humanity.

Considering The Evidence

The fact that Noah gets drunk shortly after exiting the Ark certainly seems to support the latter explanation. Indeed, the Rabbis say that Noah brought a grape vine with him onto the Ark, implying that his behavior was a reflection of his personality from the outset, not merely a response to the trauma of witnessing the devastation of the Mabul. This indicates that he was not the kind of person who would be worthy of personalized Divine intervention.

The strongest proof for the view that the story of Noah is really about God's providence over humanity in general, and not about His care for Noah in particular, is the appearance of Noah in the Rosh Hashana prayers:

"And also Noah did You remember with love, and You recalled him for salvation and mercy. Thus did his remembrance come before You, Hashem our God, to increase his seed like the dust of the Earth and his descendants like the sand of the sea. As it is written in Your Torah, 'And God remembered Noah, and all the wild beasts and animals who were with him in the ark, and God caused a wind to pass over the land, and the waters subsided.'"

The Talmud in Masechet Rosh Hashana tells us that, in the section of Mussaf that deals with "remembrances" (zichronot), we are required to quote ten verses from Tanach that refer to God "remembering" His creatures. However, only verses that describe God's involvement with a collective are supposed to be used. We are not to recite verses that speak of hasgacha peratit, i.e., in which Hashem shows mercy to an individual. Why, then, would the Rabbis include Hashem's deliverance of Noah in the prayer?

We can infer from this that our Rabbis preferred to interpret the story of Noah in the framework of hashgacha kelalit. They suggested that we view God's relationship with Noah in light of His will to preserve humanity in general, and not in terms of individual providence. This makes Hashem's remembrance of Noah an appropriate addition to our Rosh Hashana tefillot.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Ten Generations and the Problem of Chronology

When did the Mabul (Deluge) occur? According to a simple reading of the genealogies recorded in Parashot Beresheet and Noah, respectively, the Mabul took place in the Hebrew year 1556 (i.e., 2204 BCE). An individual who is unfamiliar with the basics of history, Ancient Near East literature and geology will be unphased by this conclusion. For millenia, this was the conventional date assigned to the Flood, and for good reason - there was no evidence to suggest otherwise.

The findings of multiple branches of modern scholarship, however, have called this assumption into question on several grounds. From a geological perspective, for example, it seems certain that any cataclysmic flood that may have occurred in Mesopotamia would have taken place thousands of years earlier than the Torah indicates. Similarly, literature from other ancient cultures describes an event strikingly similar to the story of Noah, but seems to date it much earlier in history. This creates a problem for us: How can we accept the traditional dating of the Deluge when it appears to be contradicted by empirical evidence?

I would like to offer an answer to this problem that I believe to be correct, although I have not seen it mentioned in any contemporary Jewish articles on the subject. (A similar approach is alluded to in part by Kenneth Kitchen in The Reliability of the Old Testament).

Notice that the number of generations between Noah and Abraham is exactly ten. Similarly, the number of generations between Adam and Noah is ten. Finally, consider that the number of statements by which Hashem created the world is also ten. Coincidence? I think not.

It is quite reasonable to argue that the genealogies of Genesis and Noah are not exhaustive. They are summaries of the key "players" in the chain of generations, but do not make mention of every link in that chain. The number ten is chosen for its symbolic significance - it is reminiscent of the Creation of the World.

The emergence of Noah is, in a sense, the beginning of a new stage of "creation" after Adam. Thus, it is described as occurring after 10 generations. Similarly, the emergence of Abraham signifies the start of a new era of human history. It makes perfect sense that it should be characterized as the culmination of another 10 generations of human development.

Simply put, a list of ten generations can be understood as a symbolic summary of a genealogy that was in fact much longer. The summary is meant to convey an idea rather than transmit a comprehensive record of historical information.

There is further corroboration for this point from the Book of Ruth, which traces ten generations from Peretz, the son of Judah, down to King David. Many commentators point out that this genealogy stretches our credulity a bit, and that more than ten generations should have elapsed between the lifetimes of these two Biblical figures. Our solution resolves this problem beautifully as well. The ten generations described at the end of the Book of Ruth are not meant to provide an exhaustive list of David's ancestors. On the contrary, their purpose is to teach us that, with the birth of David, the evolution of Jewish leadership that began with Judah has reached a new plateau. A new chapter of Jewish history has been opened and, in what appears to be proper Biblical idiom, this is described as the culmination of a "ten step" process.

This approach allows a degree of flexibility in the interpretation of Biblical genealogy that renders many historical challenges to the Bible obsolete. We can no longer claim with certainty to know the years in which Adam was created or the Deluge occurred. However, we are thereby liberated from the need to "reconcile" the Biblical data with the conclusions of modern science.

This principle of interpreting genealogies of "ten" also explains a Mishnah in Pirke Avot:

"There were ten generations between Adam and Noah, to show God's patience in judgment; for all of those generations were angering Him, yet He waited before bringing the Flood upon them. There were ten generations between Noah and Abraham, to show God's patience in judgment, for all of those generations were angering Him until Abraham our forefather came and received the reward for all of them."

The Mishnah implies that the Torah's purpose in providing genealogies is not historical at all. If the Torah were an historical document, the Rabbis would not have commented on the "significance" of the number of generations between Adam, Noah and Abraham. This detail would have been viewed as an empirical fact like any other.

I believe that the Mishnah means to emphasize that the Torah's motive for presenting genealogies is not historical but philosophical. The Torah shows us that Hashem relates to us mercifully and tolerates our painstakingly slow spiritual progress. He allows us to advance at our own pace, even when He has every reason to expect much more of us.

Adam, Noah and Abraham each represent a distinct stage in the gradual development of mankind's relationship with God. The Torah teaches us that each of these transitions was a major achievement that was a long time in the making. This meant lengthy "Dark Ages" of primitivism, corruption and even paganism in the interim. Nevertheless, Hashem did not intervene until great human beings arose (i.e., Noah and Abraham, respectively) who were prepared to carry civilization along to the next level of enlightenment and growth.

These ideas are brought out by the genealogical record that separates these figures from one another by equal intervals of ten generations.

All in all, the interpretation of genealogies we have suggested underscores the fact that the Torah is a source of philosophical and ethical guidance, not a history book.

After writing this post, I found an interesting argument for this way of looking at Biblical genealogies here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Proof of Sinai?

Earlier today, I noticed a comment from my friend Jake Adler on the "Authenticity of the Bible" post. He requested a further post addressing the so-called "proof" of revelation at Sinai. This proof has been elaborated convincingly by Rabbi Chait here, as well as by Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb here, here and here.

The Proof of Sinai, or Kuzari Principle, has also come under serious attack within the blogosphere, even at the hands of people who are, for all intents and purposes, 'believers'. Thinkers on both sides of the issue have adopted an all-or-nothing approach; with one side claiming that Sinai offers decisive proof of the Torah's divinity and the other claiming that it offers no evidence whatsoever.

I believe that many of the objections raised against the Sinai proof are themselves deeply flawed and rooted in basic misunderstandings. At the same time, though, overestimation of the value of the "proof" in the eyes of some of its proponents is partially responsible for the backlash against it. I would like to take the liberty of reproducing a segment of an email I wrote to David Guttmann, author of the Believing is Knowing blog, last week:

My understanding of the so-called Kuzari argument, even as presented by Rabbi Chait, is not as a demonstration, strictly speaking. I believe the thrust of his article can be summarized and reworded less hyperbolically as follows:

"Most religions stake their validity on the 'honesty' of a prophet or small group of leaders who claim to have received revelation. Judaism is unique in that it bases its authenticity upon the collective experience, by the Jewish people as a whole, of key events in their history. The nature of the events in question - i.e., their public character and profound significance - is such that accounts of their occurence are no more or less suspect than the essential elements of any other record of a nation's history. No nation has ever been accused of fabricating the accounts of the formative events in its collective historical experience. As a matter of course, we accept such reports as authentic until proven otherwise. The accounts of the Torah thus deserve the same respect. To question their validity is to necessarily introduce a conspiracy theory the magnitude of which has never been observed in human history."

In other words, I submit that the argument succeeds in demonstrating that the accounts of the Exodus and Maamad Har Sinai are a part of the national history of Israel, not the personal claims of a particular prophet or priest. As such, they should be considered empirically factual until evidence is adduced to the contrary.

( If these events were not a part of the collective memory of klal yisrael, then we will be hard pressed to explain the fact that the prophets constantly make reference to them in their polemics against the Jews. Does it make any sense to remind people of the implications of something that they deny ever happened?)

The fact that records of these events constituted the formative history of a nation gives the accounts of those events a qualitatively superior kind of reliability. This is the "evidence" that our mesora provides as to its authenticity.

As David posted this morning, it is a grave mistake to confuse standards of proof with one another. If we expect to demonstrate mathematically that the Exodus - or any other event, for that matter - in fact occurred, we will wind up concluding that it did not. Historical events are never "proven" to have happened in any absolute, logical sense of the term. Our views of the past are based upon an evaluation of whatever evidence is available to us and a determination of the most reasonable or likely explanation for it. In this framework, and in this framework alone, the Proof of Sinai is a compelling one.

Despite the fact that history is far from an exact science, we possess a fairly consistent and coherent model of the past. Only revisionist historians who are willing to consider the possibility of intricate conspiracy theories, etc., present us with radically different versions of the historical record. Legitimate historians - though they may differ on details of interpretation and other nuances - usually operate within a common framework of empirical knowledge that shapes the direction of their research.

Now, let us examine the facts. There is no alternative account of Israel's history that has even a shred of empirical data to support it. Yet, archaelogists and so-called Biblical scholars will accept the wildest conjecture and the most unfounded and groundless speculation as long as it contradicts and supplants the traditional viewpoint.

It is important to keep in mind the paucity of the archaeological evidence we have in our possession, relative to the number of hypotheses and interpretations that have been built upon it. Most experts estimate that only .5%-2% of the archaeological material in existence has actually been unearthed and studied. This is a modest amount of data on which to base a complete rewriting of ancient history. We must also consider the fact that many archaeological discoveries have confirmed Biblical accounts, and that not a single archaelogical finding has ever decisively contradicted them (of course, in some instances, this is a matter of interpretation - but the presence of disagreement about the implications of a finding renders that finding "indecisive").

In summary, when we approach the subject of history and the verification of historical records, we must clarify the standard of proof we will be employing. There is no question that the character of the events in Egypt and at Sinai is such that the Torah's account deserves to be accepted as a reliable national history.

If we choose to deny that the events that the Torah describes actually occurred, then we are forced to work out an alternative explanation for Jewish religious and political life that will have no evidence to back it up and will involve conspiracy theories galore. This will lead us down the path of purely speculative historical revisionism and far away from any rational assessment of the data at hand. We would not take this kind of fanciful reconstruction seriously in any other area of historical study; thus, we should be equally unwilling to accept it with regard to the Torah's accounts.

This is the essence of the "Proof of Sinai" as I understand it.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Moment Magazine on Trick-or-Treating

As part of its bimonthly "Ask the Rabbis" feature, Moment Magazine asked me to respond to the question "should Jewish children Trick-or-Treat?" An edited version of my answer appears in the October 2006 issue of Moment and can be found here. This is the original response I composed:

The custom of “trick-or-treating” on Halloween can be traced back to medieval Celtic polytheism and folk religion. In modern times, of course, most trick-or-treaters are completely unaware of the original meaning of the ritual. The celebration of Halloween has become a predominantly secular affair, and its significance nowadays is more social than religious.

In view of the fact that the pagan elements of trick-or-treating have effectively been “neutralized”, is there anything wrong with allowing our children to participate? The Torah’s answer is “yes.” We are not permitted to engage in activities that have an idolatrous source, even after their association with that source has become obsolete. Why is the Torah is so concerned about these seemingly harmless practices, and why, by extension, should we be concerned about them?

The answer is that, through its prohibition of “foreign” customs, the Torah draws attention to its own uniqueness. Manmade religions and cultures are primarily designed to satisfy the emotional needs of human beings. Primitive people found themselves in an overwhelming, mysterious and threatening environment in the face of which they felt powerless and vulnerable. They created religious rituals and superstitions as a way of exerting magical influence over the forces of nature that they could not control physically. The religious traditions thus formed reflect the fears, anxieties, hopes, and fantasies of their adherents. Incidentally, for many people, even today, this is the most appealing aspect of religious life – the fact that it gives the faithful an emotional outlet and makes them feel good.

Not so the Divinely revealed Torah. Unlike primitive religion that breeds superstition, mysticism and intellectual stagnation, the Torah is designed to challenge and educate human beings at the highest level of which they are capable – morally, intellectually and emotionally. In order to accomplish its objective, the Torah helps us to develop a rigorous and realistic understanding of our world, our Creator and ourselves. In contradistinction to simplistic folk religions, Judaism is a comprehensive system of philosophy and commandments that must be diligently studied and observed to be appreciated. Indeed, the laws and concepts of the Torah are so profound and sophisticated that – much like the laws of physics – only a scholar who has dedicated him or herself to investigating them for years can even begin to grasp their depth and subtlety.

Within the framework of Judaism, a human being’s most sublime faculty – his or her intellect – is not only engaged in religious practice, it is the epicenter of religious experience. This is a far cry from the arena of primitive rituals in which human weaknesses and emotional insecurities beget piety. While the idolater seeks protection from the frightening realities that confront him, the committed Jew engages and studies reality, humbly admiring the infinite wisdom of his Creator.

In order to emphasize these crucial distinctions, the Torah prohibits us from adopting customs that have roots in idolatrous religions. These practices emerged from a worldview that is fundamentally opposed to Judaism and must not be confused with it. Rather than sending Jewish children out to trick-or-treat, we should use Halloween as an opportunity to teach them about the features of their heritage that make it truly unique.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Sukkot - Bringing Heaven Down to Earth

This article on Sukkot is dedicated to the memory of my paternal grandfather, Aziz ben Michael Maroof, who passed away this year on the fourth day of Sukkot. May his soul find its rest in the bond of eternal life. Amen.

A Busy Month

The month of Tishre is filled to the brim with holidays. Rosh Hashana initiates a spiritual momentum that reaches its zenith ten days later on Yom Kippur. Only four days are then given to us to recuperate from the intensity of the Day of Atonement before the joyous holiday of Sukkot begins. Although Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur share a common theme - repentance - it is more difficult to account for the observance of Sukkot at a time of year that is already overscheduled. Indeed, in view of the fact that Sukkot is a commemoration of our dwelling in the wilderness of Sinai after our departure from Egypt, it could just as easily (and, we might argue, even more logically) have been established in the springtime after Passover. Apparently, for a deeper reason, the Torah intended for Sukkot to be closely linked to Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. What is the conceptual relationship between the High Holidays and Sukkot that the Torah wishes to teach us?

The Enigma of the Four Species

Before attempting to answer this fundamental question, let us examine another aspect of the Sukkot festival. On Sukkot, The Torah commands us to "take for ourselves" four species - a palm branch (lulav), myrtle branches (hadasim), willow branches (aravot) and a citron (etrog) and to rejoice with them during the holiday. In the Holy Temple, this mitsvah was performed all seven days of Sukkot. Outside of Jerusalem, it was observed only on the first day. After the destruction of the Temple, however, the Rabbis decreed that the waving of the Four Species be enacted across the globe on all seven days so as to commemorate the Temple service.

The commandment of waving the species stands out from among all other holiday-related mitsvot in one respect: The Torah offers no reason for it! The Torah provides a rationale for eating matsah on Passover, fasting on Yom Kippur and even for dwelling in booths on Sukkot. However, it presents us with no explanation at all for the mitsvah of taking the Four Species.

In fact, the way in which the Torah presents the obligation to celebrate with the Lulav and Etrog in Parashat Emor is itself quite unusual:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: "Speak to the Children of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth day of this seventh month is a festival of booths - seven days dedicated to Hashem. On the first day will be a holy convocation, you shall do no laborious work. For seven days, you shall offer fire-offerings to Hashem; on the eighth day, it shall be for you a holy convocation, you shall do no laborious work. These are the holidays of Hashem, holy convocations, that you shall declare in their proper times - to offer fire-offerings to Hashem, burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings and libations, each day according to its requirements...'"

At this point, it would be reasonable for the reader to conclude that the discussion of the festivals has been concluded. But not so fast! The Torah suddenly reverses course and reopens the subject of the holidays:

'...However, on the fifteen day of the seventh month, when you are gathering the produce of the land, celebrate the holiday of Hashem for seven days - the first day shall be a rest day, and the eighth day shall be a rest day. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of a beautiful tree [etrog], palm branches, the branch of a myrtle tree and willow branches, and you shall rejoice before Hashem your God seven days... In booth shall you dwell for seven days....' And Moshe told the holidays of Hashem to the Children of Israel.

On the surface, it seems as if the mitsvot of Sukkot are appended to the discussion of the holidays as an "afterthought". Why did the Torah first summarize its entire treatment of the festivals and only then revisit Sukkot in more detail? Couldn't the Torah have provided us with a complete account of the holiday the first time around? Furthermore, we must wonder why the final section of the Parasha begins with the word "however". "However" usually introduces a new statement that will contradict expectations generated by a previous statement (ex. "it was hot outside; however, Jim did not turn on the air conditioning"). Here though, not only does the presentation of Sukkot not contradict the preceding material, it actually elaborates on and clarifies it! There is no doubt that the striking manner in which the Torah teaches us about the laws of Sukkot is meant to give us insight into their underlying significance.

Adam, Eve and Mother Earth

In order to solve the mystery of the Four Species and develop a better appreciation of Sukkot in general, let us consider the teachings of our Rabbis on the subject. Nachmanides in particular offers us several hints that we may be able to utilize in our quest for an explanation of the Species. In his commentary to Parashat Emor, he mentions that the purpose of the commandment is to rectify the sin of Adam, the first man, who consumed the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. According to one Midrashic opinion, the fruit that Adam erred with was the Etrog. Apparently, through utilizing the Etrog for a mitsvah, we obtain atonement for the mistake of our ancestor. Nachmanides also cites a Midrash that, at first blush, sounds quite surprising:

"Fruit of a beautiful (hadar) tree" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "Glory and splendor (hadar) are before Him".
"Palm branches (temarim)" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "The Righteous One sprouts like a palm."
"Myrtle branches" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "And He stands among the myrtles".
"Willow branches (aravot)" - this is the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it states, "Praise He Who rides above the heavens (aravot)."

How can the Midrash suggest that the Four Species represent Hashem Himself? Taken literally, this notion is not only blasphemous, it would be idolatrous. What did the Rabbis intend to teach us with this homiletic interpretation?

Let us consider one further Midrash of our Sages concerning the Lulav and Etrog. We know that in addition to holding the Four Species in our hands, we wave them in every direction during the Hallel prayer. This is said to be done in imitation of the trees of the field that tremble with joy when they witness the judgment of God. The Rabbis base this concept upon a verse in the Book of Psalms:

"The field will exult and all that is in it."

"The field will exult" - this refers to the world.

"And all that is in it" - this refers to the creatures.

"Then all the trees of the forest will rejoice - before Hashem, for He has come to judge the Earth."

Why do the trees rejoice? Because Hashem has come on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. And what has He come to do? "He will judge the Earth in righteousness and the peoples in fairness."

Here the Rabbis emphasize a thematic connection between Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot that manifests itself specifically in the waving of the Four Species. Through performing the mitsvah of Lulav and Etrog, we participate with nature, as it were, in its celebration of the Divine judgment that was finalized on Yom Kippur. To some extent, we understand that the description of trees rejoicing is meant in a metaphoric or poetic vein. But what do the Psalmist, and the Rabbis who elucidated his words, intend to teach us by utilizing this imagery? After all, what significance could Hashem's evaluation of human beings possibly have for the vegetation of the Earth?

Yom Kippur and Sukkot

I believe we are now in a position to develop a more comprehensive and meaningful approach to understanding the Tishre holidays in general and Sukkot in particular. Let us begin by considering the thematic objectives of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur in greater depth.

The overarching purpose of the High Holidays is for the Jewish people to repent before God. However, repentance is not a simple mitsvah. It is interesting to note that, no matter how much we repent, there always seems to be more to do. The process never reaches any definite conclusion. What accounts for this unusual state of affairs?

An analogy will lead us to the answer. Consider the removal of weeds from a garden. No matter how many times one hacks away weeds, they regrow quickly if the roots are not dug out. Cutting the vegetation above the surface of the ground is not sufficient because it is really just a manifestation of the root beneath. In the same sense, it is clear that the problems addressed in repentance - i.e., the particular sins we commit and promise to discontinue - are merely symptoms of an underlying spiritual "disorder" that cannot be resolved in a superficial way. If we are to develop as Jews, we must proceed to the "root" and attempt to dislodge it. Fortunately, the Torah helps us by identifying the character of the ailment we've diagnosed as well as providing us with a remedy for it.

The Torah teaches that from time immemorial, we human beings have found ourselves grappling with a fundamental moral dilemma that makes itself felt in every area of our individual and collective activity. On one hand, we recognize that we are small, frail beings with limited lifespans who stand in the presence of an Eternal and Inscrutable Creator. Every element of the material Universe, whether grand or minute, is governed by the principles of God's infinite knowledge. Intuitively, we realize that, as part of the created order, we too should admire and adhere to the dictates of His wisdom. Human life, if it is to have any lasting significance, must be organized around and shaped by a study of God's truth. Human beings must seek a connection with the ultimate reality if they have any hope of "being real" themselves.

At the same time, though, we naturally seek to dominate our environments and yearn to establish our own independent criteria of truth and morality. We strive to create personal, financial or political empires that will testify to the fact that we are "gods, knowing good and evil." In order to fully devote ourselves to these goals, we must ignore or deny the fact that we are nothing more than tiny parts of a Divinely governed Universe. We must orient ourselves to our environments in a utilitarian, pleasure-seeking manner that focuses us on the sensual aspects of world and blinds us from perceiving the intrinsic beauty and wisdom that they manifest. Only then can we manage to nurture our fantasies of grandeur and style ourselves creators rather than creations.

Before they sinned, Adam and Eve oriented themselves to the world as seekers of truth whose primary desire was to understand the Universe and their place in it. However, once they began manipulating their environment for purposes of pleasure, they became conscious of their own moral freedom and their ability to generate a manmade value system that would revolve around their own personal agendas rather than God's plan. This immediately hurled them into the throes of a painful internal conflict, i.e., they were attracted to the pursuit of wisdom but could not release themselves from the grip of their newfound egotistical and hedonistic fantasies. We, as the descendants of Adam and Eve, continue to contend with the intellectual and moral dilemma they bequeathed to us. The vast majority of our sins result from setbacks in our constant struggle with this problem.

The power of the High Holidays lies in the fact that they throw this fundamental conflict into clear relief. The sound of the Shofar on Rosh Hashana awakens us from our self-imposed dogmatic slumbers and refocuses our minds on the reality of God's Kingship and its implications. On Yom Kippur, we go even further, demonstrating our recognition of Hashem's holiness through a complete renunciation of the materialistic worldview that enticed Adam and Eve. Separating from all bodily pleasures and selfish pursuits, devoting every moment of our time to reflection on Hashem's greatness, we immerse ourselves in the ultimate truth. On this day we reach the pinnacle of awareness of God, such that the Torah says "before Hashem, shall you be purified." The very process of tearing away our illusions and focusing on God's transcendence can purify and transform us. Yom Kippur, then, is the intellectual antidote to the tradition of sin that has its roots in the Garden of Eden.

It should be immediately obvious that Yom Kippur, though necessary for our growth, is by no means sufficient. Prayers and fasting certainly offer us a powerful experience of clarification and intensive focus. However, we know full well that, as soon as we return to our conventional daily routines, whatever effects Yom Kippur has had will wear off quickly. Involvement in the day-to-day pursuit of a livelihood as well as exposure to temptations of pleasure and prestige will overtake us and cause us to lose a handle on the ideas that seemed so clear at Neilah time. Simply stated, real change cannot be effected in the abstract. It requires a shift in how we actually perceive, understand and respond to the concrete realia of everyday life. How can a more effective bridge be made from the spiritual heights of Yom Kippur to the mundane world of the physical and temporal?

Sukkot is the Torah's answer to this problem. On Sukkot, it is precisely the physical dimension of our existence that is addressed. We eat, drink, and sleep in the Sukkah. Every act of dwelling, no matter how apparently insignificant, is transformed into a mitsvah. Through fulfilling the commandment of Sukkah, we remain "before Hashem" - cognizant of His transcendence - while engaging in the very activities that usually distract us from Him. This is why, in describing Sukkot, the Torah states "And you shall celebrate before Hashem for seven days." The institution of Sukkot does not allow us to leave our experience of God's presence behind after Yom Kippur. On the contrary, we must extend it and carry it along with us into the Sukkah. Only then can our new level of abstract understanding begin to exert a substantial influence on the way we live our lives.

Giving a New Meaning to the Term "Fieldwork"

What is it about the Sukkah that makes it the ideal vehicle for 'extending' the Yom Kippur experience? Further reflection on the primary cause of human sin will help us appreciate the Torah's wisdom in its selection of Sukkot for this purpose.

As mentioned above, human beings fall into error when they disconnect themselves from nature and its lawfulness. Rather than seeing themselves as part of the Creation that should be living in harmony with it, they separate from it and attempt to lord over it. The Sukkah reverses this trend by placing us back "into the field", as it were, like Adam and Eve before their sin. Unlike a house whose artificial character reinforces our illusion of isolation from the Universe, the Sukkah reintegrates us with the natural world and its Source.

Thus, the Sukkah allows us to keep God at the forefront of our minds, even as we eat, drink and rejoice. In this sense, it gives us a taste of the ideal state of human perfection, as formulated by Maimonides in his laws of Character Traits:

A person must direct all of his actions toward achieving knowledge of God alone. So that his sitting, standing, and speech are all instrumental to this goal...Thus, a person who walks in this way all of his days is serving Hashem constantly - even at the times that he is engaged in business dealings and even when he is involved in marital relations - because his purpose in doing these activities is to satisfy his bodily needs so he can serve Hashem. And even at the time he is sleeping, if he sleeps so that his mind can rest and his body doesn't become sick - for it is impossible to serve Hashem when one is sick - then it turns out that his sleeping is service of God, blessed be He. And it is regarding this topic that our Rabbis commanded and said, "All of your actions should be for the sake of Heaven." And so did King Solomon say in his wisdom, "In all your ways you should know Him."

Demystifying the Midrashim

With this foundation in place, we can begin to understand the Midrashim introduced earlier. We wondered about the meaning of the "personification" of the trees of the field that we find in the poetry of the Psalms and in the discourses of our Rabbis. Now, the thrust of these texts becomes much clearer. The natural world, the "field" mentioned in Psalms, is already praising its Creator through conforming to His laws and statutes. On Sukkot, we literally enter the "field", and we grasp the produce of the "field" in our hands as we give thanks to God in Hallel. Through this, we demonstrate our sense of unity and solidarity with Creation. No longer are we struggling to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the Universe. On the contrary, we now seek to study, extol, and live in accordance with the magnificent design of the Almighty.

The Rabbis imply that, metaphorically speaking, the trees of the field "await" our arrival after the High Holidays. The entire physical Universe reflects the infinite wisdom of its Creator without resistance or reservation. Only mankind diverges from this pattern and attempts to establish an artificial, alternative world order that suits human ambitions and aspirations. As long as human beings remain out of step with the rest of the Universe, the natural world is somewhat deficient in its praise of God.

When the Jewish people returns to Hashem on Yom Kippur, we lay the groundwork for a spiritual renaissance - for reassuming our position as servants of Hashem rather than slaves of human agenda. This itself is reason enough for the rest of creation to rejoice. However, these feelings of optimism will be short-lived unless the sense of God's presence that we achieved on Yom Kippur is allowed to permeate our worldview in its totality and effect permanent change in our outlook. Our observance of Sukkot is meant to encourage us to translate the momentary epiphany of Neilah into a completely new orientation toward the material world. When we enter the Sukkah and grasp the Four Species, identifying with the vegetation of the Earth, we begin to view our own role in the world from a much more realistic standpoint - a standpoint that will we will hopefully internalize for good.

This also sheds light on the surprising Midrash that seemed to equate each of the Four Species with Hashem. Understood properly, the Rabbis did not, God forbid, intend to imply that physical objects could serve as representations of the Almighty. Instead, they meant to point out that the transformation we undergo on the High Holidays revolutionizes the way in which we view our environment. The instinctually or egotistically driven person who sees an Etrog will immediately consider it in terms of his own agenda - what does it taste like? Would it make a nice stew? Could I go into the Etrog farming business and be successful? Approaching the world through this framework is a tremendous liability, because it feeds into a human-centered view of the Universe. The more a person with this attitude is exposed to the resources of the material world, the further he will become steeped in the pursuit of instinctual gratification.

The person of Torah, by contrast, sees in the diverse qualities of the Species the providential design of the Creator that is revealed through them. Holding the Species together underscores the fact that, despite the differences they exhibit on a superficial, sensory level, all four of them derive from the same harmonious system of natural law. When he gazes upon the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravot, he sees Hashem - in other words, he moves beyond their physical characteristics and perceives the Divine wisdom they embody. The framework through which he processes his experiences is fundamentally different than that of the materialist, and this impacts the way he understands his environment and behaves within it. Because his whole perspective on the material world is rooted in his knowledge of God, exposure to its beauty can only propel him toward further dedication to Divine service.

Uniqueness of Sukkot

At this juncture we can make sense out of the unusual structure of Parashat Emor. Why does the Torah introduce Sukkot, seem to conclude the treatment of the holidays, and then introduce and explain Sukkot in greater detail? And why is the revisiting of Sukkot begun with the term "however"?

A closer examination of the Parasha's words will reveal the answer. In the first "conclusion" of Emor, we read:

These are the holidays of Hashem, holy convocations, that you shall declare in their proper times - to offer fire-offerings to Hashem, burnt offerings, meal offerings, peace offerings and libations, each day according to its requirements. This is in addition to the Sabbaths of Hashem, and in addition to all of the gifts, pledges and donations that you give to Hashem. However, on the fifteenth day of the seventh month....

The Torah did not intend to close its discussion of the holidays at this point. Rather, the Torah meant to emphasize a crucial distinction between Sukkot and the remainder of Biblical holidays. On all other holidays, the ultimate experience of being "before Hashem" is restricted to the Holy Temple where offerings are brought. Average Israelites would visit the Temple on the Festivals and would draw profound inspiration from it, but their role would never be crossed with that of the Kohanim.

On Sukkot, though, the concept of being "before Hashem" becomes common property. It is firmly implanted in our minds on Yom Kippur and integrated into our experience of daily living through the Sukkah and Four Species. On Sukkot, we achieve the ideal of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, of incorporating awareness of God into the most mundane aspects of our existence. The clearest indication of this new status is the mitsvah of waving the Four Species, which - although it is considered part of the seven-day Temple service for Sukkot, and should logically be restricted to Kohanim in Jerusalem - is performed by all Jews world over on the first day of Sukkot (and, since the destruction of the Temple, for all seven days of the holiday.) Because Sukkot transforms the very manner in which we relate to our environment, and ourselves it has the capacity of extending the holiness of the Mikdash beyond its physical borders. On this Festival, the Jewish people create their own personal sanctuaries in the form of Sukkot and are slightly less dependent upon the Holy Temple to represent God's presence for them.

Commemoration of the Exodus

We can now understand how Sukkot can function both as a commemoration of our dwelling in the Wilderness of Sinai as well as an addendum to the High Holidays. Yom Kippur leaves us in the lurch, bringing us to a spiritual high that is difficult to sustain once we've gone back to our usual routines. Sukkot enables us to extend the heightened awareness of God that we've attained - our state of being "before Hashem" - and to bring it back "down to earth" in the form of Sukkah and Lulav. This is precisely the purpose that the sojourn in the wilderness had for the Jewish people. Experiences of Divine revelation in Egypt and at Sinai were powerful and transformational, but their impact could have easily become diminished if the Jews had not been given the opportunity to fully absorb their implications. During their time in the desert, the Jewish people proceeded under the direct, intimate and watchful eye of Divine Providence. This offered them the chance to internalize God's message by living it before they would have to meet the challenge of conventional existence in the Land of Israel.

The Time of Our Joy

Our study of Sukkot has revealed to us the reason why the Torah established it as the culmination of the annual cycle of holidays. Whereas Passover, Shavuot and the Days of Awe teach us the fundamental ideas and principles of Judaism, Sukkot focuses on integrating the ideals of Torah with realities of mundane existence in this world. Through Sukkot, we become connected with nature on a different level, and this enables us to relate our daily activities to our intellectual and spiritual mission.

This understanding of Sukkot can explain another aspect of its identity. The Torah describes Sukkot as an especially festive holiday:

Seven days shall you celebrate this holiday of Hashem, in the place which Hashem will choose - for Hashem, your God, has blessed you with your produce and all the work of your hands, and you shall be purely joyous.

The Rabbis of the Talmud elaborate on this further:

The Rabbis stated that one who never had the opportunity to see the celebration of Sukkot (Simhat Bet Hashoeva) never saw real joy in his entire life.

Indeed, even in our prayers on Sukkot, we refer to it as "the time of our Joy", a phrase we don't apply to any other holiday, no matter how joyous. What is it about Sukkot that introduces an additional element of happiness into its observance?

I believe that the answer to this question is provided by Maimonides at the end of his Laws of Shofar, Sukkah and Lulav. He writes:

Even though it is a mitsvah to celebrate on all of the holidays, on the holiday of Sukkot there was a higher level of celebration in the Temple, as it is written, "you shall rejoice before Hashem for seven days"....The happiness a person experiences in the performance of the commandments and in the love of God who commanded them is a great form of service. And anyone who holds himself back from this joy deserves to be punished, as the Torah states, "because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart." And anyone who behaves arrogantly and assigns honor to himself and overestimates his importance in these areas is a sinner and a fool....

Maimonides echoes the statement of our Rabbis that Sukkot is the epitome of joyous holidays. He then proceeds to expound upon the importance of joy in the context of Divine service in general. On the surface, the Rambam's description here seems strange. How can being happy be a form of service? Isn't it simply a state of mind that either does or does not affect us?

In reality, the Rambam is offering us a profound insight. An illustration drawn from common experience will clarify his point. We have all found ourselves in circumstances where, because of preoccupation or distraction, we are unable to enjoy a happy occasion. We may be in attendance at a wedding but our concerns weigh upon us so heavily that we are not able to "throw ourselves" into the unrestrained joy that surrounds us. The presence of inhibition or inner conflict stops us from immersing ourselves in the pleasure of dancing, singing, etc. We may go through the motions, but our heart is not fully invested in the process. For this reason, our experience of the celebration remains incomplete.

The same circumstance obtains on all holidays of the Jewish year, except for Sukkot. On Passover, Shavuot, etc., although we are happy, we still experience an element of inner strain, an inability to fully engage in celebration. A dissonance exists between the abstract ideas we are studying and our own spiritual state. We are not yet "at one" with the theme of the holiday, its message still needs to be internalized. Even from a practical perspective, the harvest - which is another element of our holiday observances - has not yet been concluded, so we have concrete reasons to be preoccupied as well.

By contrast, on Sukkot, we have become fully integrated personalities. We find ourselves in harmony with our environment, with our value system and with Hashem. Inner turmoil is absent. Furthermore, Sukkot comes at a time when the produce has been collected from the fields, so that our agricultural concerns can safely be put to rest. Because we feel free of inhibition, preoccupation or reservation, we are capable of being fully engaged in the holiday experience. We can invest the entirety of our being - intellectual, emotional and physical - into the mitsvot of Sukkot, thus taking unmitigated pleasure in serving God.

It is now clear why the internal sense of joy we feel on the holidays is vitally important for our growth. The more completely we immerse ourselves in Torah and mitsvot, the more we develop our appreciation of Hashem's wisdom and cleave to His commandments. At the same time, we can now see why it is a state we are commanded to enter - it is a form of service - and not a simple emotional response. As the Rambam teaches us, true happiness can only occur within the soul of an individual who is willing to set aside other concerns and allow himself to feel it. We can always find things to worry about that can sap our energy and dilute the intensity of our intellectual and spiritual focus. It is our obligation to rise above these distracting elements and fully partake in the holiday spirit.

Sukkot, the time of our joy, provides us with optimal conditions for true happiness. The Torah directs us to take advantage of this special opportunity and to use it as a vehicle for drawing closer to our Creator.