Friday, October 9, 2009

Simha Delivered, Faith on a Limb

Rarely does the week of Sukkot deliver so generously on its promise of zman simhateinu, the season of our joy. On Tuesday morning Israel time, my hometown football squad beat their biggest rival in the most anticipated regular season game in team history. Even better I got to watch the game in the early AM hours with my father, with my brother only a gchat message a continent away. The next day the local baseball team clinched the playoffs in spectacular fashion, winning an extra inning game for the ages a day after the regular season ended. Throw in a visit to Israel by my sister, who joined my folks in the holyland for the week-long Sukkot holiday, and a holiday that began with my successful army tryout proved to be full of simcha all around.

Still not convinced? Then check out this sweet video I stumbled across this week about a most unlikely friendship. Or puzzle over those funny Norwegians and the novel Nobel they gave to an unsuspecting Obama.

The climax of Sukkot, of course, comes with the holiday of Shemini Atzeret, the "eighth day festival" tapped onto the seven days of Sukkot. Outside of Israel, Shemini Atzeret, like all festivals, becomes two days with the second day known as Simchat Torah. Here in Israel we keep things simpler, and so Simchat Torah and Shemini Atzeret occur on the same day, allowing for one jam packed holiday of celebrating the completion and renewal of the weekly cycle of public Torah readings.

Most folks associate the holiday with frenzied dancing and singing. I have always been struck by the final verses of the Torah. After following the text from the first day of creation, meeting a kaleidoscope of flawed forefathers, we come to the final verse, a pithy eulogy for a leader whose journey ends on the cusp of the promised land.

Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Lord knew face-to-face, in all the signs and portents the Lord sent him to display in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and all his courtiers and his entire country, and in all the great might and awesome power he displayed before the eyes of all of Israel.
Deuteronomy 34:10-12

Most of us close then close the book, signing off on the five books of Moses without appreciating a fascinating lesson that the Torah's greatest commentator, Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzḥaki, 1040-1105), gleans from the final verse. Thanks to a deceptively straightforward Torah essay by a friend, Yair Rosenberg, I was recently exposed to Rashi's teaching and want to share the inspiring lesson with you. Note that much of the following is quoted verbatim (literally, all the writing is his!) from Yair's compelling essay. Beg, barter and steal to see the original from Harvard Hillel.

The inspiring lesson starts with a classic puzzle: What was bothering Rashi, that is, why does he make such a perplexing comment on the final words of the Torah.

Rashi comments as follows:

“Before the eyes of all of Israel” – [What deed is this?] That his [Moses’s] heart inspired him to break the tablets [received at Sinai] before their eyes, as it says “and I smashed them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). And God ultimately agreed with Moses…saying “Yasher koach, well done, that you shattered them.”

And that’s it. Those are literally the great sage’s parting words on the Torah: Moses’s greatest accomplishment was smashing the Ten Commandments when confronted with the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. If ever there was a rhetorical anti-climax, this is it: ending the book of books with a recollection of the initial destruction of its key tenets. It is as though Rashi sees God as reminiscing at story’s end “Oh, and don’t forget Moses’s smashing of the tablets – high fives all around!” It is hard to think of a more unlikely way to conclude a biblical commentary than this.

Such a jarring grace note placed at the close of an otherwise graceful composition must surely have been intended. But what is Rashi attempting to convey? Of all Moses’s propitious deeds, why bring up this off-putting one, specifically on the very last verse of the Torah, where it seems least appropriate?

It helps to reflect here on what it means to come to the last line of the Torah, as we do this holiday: there comes a point when the Torah must end, and man must continue its work in an uncertain world. On Simḥat Torah, we find we have run out of pages, and that we must now write our own. That is the story of the midrash, the Talmud and so much that followed. These writings are the recognition that we Jews must take the values we have learned from our experience with history and conversation with the Divine and make those morals manifest through the ages. But how do we dare tread where God once did? How can we presume to know where the Torah should go and what is the right course for it to take? Is it not hubris to presume to extend and refine God’s word? Where did Jews work up the chutzpah to expand, contextualize and reinterpret over time? What permits us to pick up where the last verse left off?

The answer, says Rashi on that final verse, in found in Moses, and his breaking of the tablets. For in Rashi’s eyes, the shining moment of the man who knew God “face-to-face” was the time he was called upon to act without God there to instruct him. Descending the slopes of Sinai, Moses held in his hands the Ten Commandments, gifted to him by God for the nation of Israel. But there were no directions on the tablets as to what to do when they were summarily violated and rent asunder by human depravity – exactly what Moses found upon reaching the foot of the mountain. They did not have a handy inscription on the back stating “in the event of rampant hedonism, tear here.” Rather, for the first time in his life, Moses had to make a choice without God’s input, one that would determine the fate of the Jewish nation and its Torah.

What if God refused to reconcile himself to Israel after this? What if by breaking the tablets, Moses was breaking the last link left between Him and the Jewish people? The tablets did not come with a warranty entitling the recipient to another contract with God, and discarding them after enduring so much travail on the path to Sinai – Egyptian slavery and desert wandering – was hardly an obvious course to take. Yet Moses chose to break the tablets, realizing this act to be the only way to shock the people into recognizing the gravity of their misdeeds. He trusted both that Israel would repent and that God would judge them deserving of a second chance. This was perhaps the most momentous decision of Moses’s life, and he made it without divine directive. Instead, in Rashi’s phrase, “his heart inspired him.” Moses relied upon his experiences and moral intuitions derived from his encounters with the Divine, in the fervent hope that God would approve of his choice. Rashi’s final remark at Torah’s end reminds us that God did: “Yasher koach she-shibarta. Well done.” Of all Moses’s deeds, it was of this that God was most proud.

In a very real way, our continuations of Torah are like Moses’s shattering of the tablets - exercises in hope: hope in our own judgment, faith in our Torah’s values and trust in our God to understand and bless our best efforts. With that spirit in mind and Jewish texts in hand, we are ready to begin reading and enacting the Torah anew.

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