Rabbinic Thoughts on Shemot
Everyone thinks they know the story of the Exodus: No longer able to bear their oppression and enslavement, the Israelites cry out to God, who remembers the covenant and redeems them. The story of the slaves being freed is the foundational story of the Jewish people: Twice a day Jewish liturgy recounts the experience of slavery and liberation, and once a year, at Passover, Jews ritually re-enact the journey from bondage to freedom. And yet in some Jewish sources, the story takes on a seemingly very different hue. A narrative of subjugation and deliverance becomes, of all things, a tale of gratitude and ingratitude.
The book of Exodus begins on an ominous note: The text tells us that “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph”. This is a surprising turn of events—according to the book of Genesis, after all, Joseph was enormously powerful, second in power only to Pharaoh himself. He effectively controls the Egyptian economy and amasses tremendous wealth for Pharaoh. How is it possible that the new Pharaoh does not even know him? But Joseph is not the only biblical character whom Pharaoh does not know. A few chapters later, when Moses first conveys God’s demand to let Israel go, Pharaoh responds contemptuously: “Who is the Lord that I should heed Him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, nor will I let Israel go”. Commenting on Pharaoh’s purported ignorance of Joseph, a midrash asks, “But how can this be, for to this very day, the Egyptians know the kindness Joseph did for them?!” Rather, the Midrash answers, “Pharaoh knew Joseph but did not pay him adequate attention and was ungrateful to him. And in the end, he was ungrateful to God as well, as it says, ‘I do not know the Lord.’ From this we learn,” the Midrash adds, “that ingratitude is closely related to rejection of God”. When the Torah tells us that Pharaoh did not “know” Joseph, in other words, it means to suggest not that Pharaoh was unacquainted with Joseph, but rather that he did not acknowledge Joseph and the great debt that Egypt as a whole, and Pharaoh in particular, owed him. Pharaoh is ungrateful both to Joseph and to God. The midrash insists that these two types of ingratitude are of a piece, and even that one leads almost inevitably to the other; gratitude and ingratitude are ways of being in the world— the former has the potential to pervade and enrich every corner of our lives, and the latter has the power to metastasize and poison every aspect of our being. Pharaoh’s ingratitude permeates his entire world, and it drives his life in endlessly destructive ways. What does it mean to be ungrateful? At bottom, ingratitude reflects an inability—or perhaps an unwillingness—to acknowledge our dependence on, and our indebtedness to, anything.
We should take serious note of this interpretation. Gratitude is at the very core of another trait that we should all possess – humility. Only when we can acknowledge that our success is, in part, also due to the work of others in partnership, can we truly inculcate our humility. So it is with our relationship with God – only when we understand how we are partners with the Divine in our lives, can we truly be grateful for what we accomplish in our lives.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayigash
What does it mean to really approach another person? What does it mean to really approach God? The Rabbinic understanding of the first word of this week’s parashah (vayigash) opens a window into that question. Approaching people and approaching God are mirrors of each other—but there is more than one kind of approach, each of which can underscore different aspects of those relationships. The word vayigash means “to approach” or “to draw near.” Judah approaches Joseph as he prepares to make his argument to offer himself as a slave instead of Benjamin. Judah approaches Joseph—whom he does not recognize and only knows is the most powerful man in Egypt (save for Pharaoh)—to offer one last ditch attempt to save his brother Benjamin (and thus also his father Jacob) from pain. It is a physical movement, but what were Judah’s intentions? What was his stance? How did he make his move? What was he feeling in that moment? How did he want Joseph to react? All these questions are up to the reader.
There are three opinions in Genesis Rabbah, each one drawing evidence from elsewhere in the Bible about the use of the word. The first translates the word as “approaching” as in approaching for war. As it says (2 Samuel 10:13): “So Yoav and the people that were with him drew near in battle.” R. Nehemiah said: “approaching” as in conciliation. As it says (Joshua 14:6): “Then the children of Judah drew near to Joshua” – to conciliate him. The Rabbis said: “approaching” as in prayer. As it says (I Kings 18:36): “And it came to pass at the time of the evening offering, that Elijah the prophet came near.” The word “va-yigash,” according to this midrash, has three possible connotations, drawn from three different biblical sources: to do battle, to appease, and to pray. In each of these, the common thread is a stance of drawing physically closer. When Yoav, King David’s general, did battle against the Arameans (think: hand-to-hand combat), he approached the enemy battle lines with his army. This is also connected to the word “karav”, another word that can mean “to approach, which also means “battle”. One cannot wrestle from afar. Similarly, appeasement is something that cannot be done only with words from afar. It is a stance that can only be fully appreciated when is done in physical proximity to the other. When Caleb and his tribe wanted to secure his territory in the land, in order to make their request of their leader Joshua, they approached him so that Joshua was more likely to hear their case and give them what they asked for. Finally, prayer is also something that involves drawing close physically (think: the bowing and kneeling postures, as well as the stepping forward, that take people physically closer to the object of the prayer). Prayer is probably best understood here as request, the core stance of prayer in the Amidah, and also the context for Elijah’s approach: beseeching God to answer him and bring down fire on the altar in order to show up the prophets of Baal as the false prophets they are. Requesting is not done with words alone; it is done by coming near in body. When we approach, we approach physically. But, when someone draws close, they may be attacking, appeasing, or requesting. All this is contextual, and how you understand Judah’s actions depends on which of these connotations you think is being employed in our parashah. It might seem odd that, out of the four instances of va-yigash, three of them are between people (Judahites and Joshua, Yoav and the Arameans, Judah and Joseph) and one of them is between people and God (Elijah). In fact, this reveals a core assumption of the Midrash, to appease, or to request through prayer. Since the midrash moves freely between the two scenarios, it seems clear that the model of drawing close is the same, whether we are approaching God or approaching another person.
What this means for us today is that we need to be involved with others – it is not sufficient to make proclamations or grand statements; wee must literally “approach” – be there and present when we deal with other people. This personal approach is the basis for all relationships, which are, in effect, the way God moves among us.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Yayishlach
Devastated by her barrenness and immensely jealous of her sister, Rachel starkly demands of her husband Jacob, “Give me sons or I shall die”. She does eventually give birth to a son, but evidently,she means what she has said: Rachel wants sons, in the plural—one will not suffice. So,she names her eldest son Joseph (“may God grant more”), thus giving voice to her fiercedesire for another. Sure enough, she conceives again, and while traveling on the road towards Efrat, Rachel goes into labor. Labor is extremely difficult, and her midwife tries to comfort her by telling her that her wish has been fulfilled—she is having the second son she has yearned for. But in a painfully ironic twist, Rachel, who had insisted that she would die if she did not have sons, now dies in the very process of having one. With her last breath, Rachel names her son Ben-Oni, “son of my misfortune.” Attempting to create some distance between his new son and the tragic circumstances of his birth, Jacob re-names him Benjamin, or “son of my good fortune”.As always, the Torah is laconic about emotion; we are told nothing explicit about what Jacob feels as he buries his wife.Actually,both names are ambiguous. “Ben-Oni” could mean “son of my misfortune/affliction,” but it could also plausibly mean “son of my vigor.” The latter meaning, however, would make it difficult to understand Jacob’s decision to change the child’s name. “Benjamin,” in turn, could mean “son of my good fortune,” but also “son of the south.” Since Rachel’s last words are filled with such sorrow, she becomes associated in the Jewish imagination with weeping and lament. Yet Jewish tradition focuses neither on the tears Jacob likely sheds for Rachel nor on the tears she may well have shed for her own pain, but rather on the tears she sheds for her descendants who are later forced into exile. As the prophet Jeremiah reflects upon the destruction of the northern kingdom, dominated by the tribe of Ephraim, he is reminded of Rachel, Ephraim’s grandmother. Jeremiah invokes Rachel to express the grief felt by mothers for their lost and exiled children. According to Genesis, when he thought his beloved son Joseph had died, Jacob had “refused to be comforted”. Here, Jacob’s inconsolable grief over the fate of his son is transferred to his beloved wife, who similarly refuses consolation over the loss of her children.
God is so moved by Rachel’s tears that God promises to bring all the tears to an end: “Thus said the Lord: ‘Restrain your voice from weeping, your eyes fromshedding tears; for there is a reward for your labor’—declares the Lord—‘they shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future—declares the Lord—’your children shall return to their country’”. Sorrow will be replaced by joy, exile by homecoming; “the gift of hope overrides the despair of the lamenter.”What does God mean when God tells Rachel that there is reward for her “labor”.A remarkable Midrash imagines Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses all pleading with God to no avail concerning the sin of King Manasseh, who placed an idol in the Temple. But then Rachel steps forward and asks, “Master of the World, whose mercy is greater, Your mercy or the mercy of flesh and blood? You must admit that Your mercy is greater. Now, did I not bring mysister Leahinto my home? Jacob worked for my father for years, only to be with me. When I came to enter the bridal canopy, they replaced me with my sister.” Rachel reminds God that she did not protest; on the contrary, she actively aided Leah, sharing with her the sign she had given Jacob to enable him to distinguish between the two of them. Now, she entreats God for a similar display of heroic mercy: “You, too, if Your children brought Your rival into Your house [that is, brought an idol into the Temple] keep Your silence for them.” Despite being unmoved by all the appeals preceding hers, God is stirred by Rachel’s words. “God said to her, ‘You have defended them well. ‘There is reward for your labor’—that is, for your righteousness.Again, we see the character traits of our Ancestors serving as examples in our own lives.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayetse
When we meet our foremothers, Leah and Rachel, we immediately learn about their appearance. Specifically, that Rachel was beautiful and Leah, less so: “Lavan had two daughters, the name of the older was Leah and the name of youngest was Rachel. And Leah’s eyes were swollen, and Rachel was beautiful in form andbeautiful in appearance”. What motivates these verses? Why does the Torah need to testify to how unattractive Leah is? It almost seems likeharmful speech, to tell us which of the sisters is prettierthan the other. Even if it were necessary to emphasize that Rachel is beautiful, if Jacob loved her because he was attracted to her, does the description of her beauty need to come at Leah’s expense?This unflattering description of Leah seems gratuitous. Jewish Lawdistinguishes between different types of destructive speech. When Rabbinic texts refer to“lashon ha-ra”, it usually refers to relaying information about another person which is truthful, but nevertheless harmful. Yet, this is precisely the point. As the information about Leah’s sad eyes tells us nothing about Rachel and her appearance, we can understand that this verse is not primarily about Rachel at all. It is about Leah. And the Torah is not coming to gossip about Leah’s ugliness, but rather to tell us about her beauty. The Torah only appears to be gossiping about Leah in order to teach us a crucial lesson about Leah and through her story, about the natureof harmful speech.One Rabbinic Commentator quotes apassage from the Talmud and in his footnote says that were it not for the damage to Leah’s eyes she would have been as beautiful as Rachel’. It would have been sufficient to write that “Lavan had daughters,” and we would have known—based on the exegetical principle that when you have an unspecified plural you assume the amount is two—that they were two. ButLeahhadbeen involved with other experiences in life thatleft her bleary-eyed, world-worn, and bereft of her eyelashes. Leah was notborn with sunken eyes; she became less attractive on account of her sorrow.Through Leah’s naming of her children we can see how desperate she was for reassurance, for the love and approval of her husband, and even for the approval of people whom she hardly knows. The Midrash on this entire episode blames it all from the effect of “lashon-ha-ra”–harmful speech whichaffected Leah’s life. Perhaps we can use this episode to remindus of the power of words, and how careful we must be in uttering them.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Toledot
Isaac is a complex figure: at times motivated by inter-personal ties and connected, and at times both an isolated personality. Isaac was forty when he took as his wife Rebecca. He then prayed to God for his wife because she was barren. God acquiesced to him and his wife became pregnant. Isaac himself is not described as longing for a child. What compels him to pray according to the verses is “his wife” and his standing facing her. The description of this scene in a Midrash in amplifies what is occurring between them in two ways. In the biblical text, only Isaac prays, but in the Midrash, Rebecca is also described as praying. Second, the Midrash supplies the content of the prayer, which focuses not only on the request for a child, but also on the relationship between the two of them. He said before the Holy Blessed One: “Master of the Universe! Any future children that You will give me should be from this righteous woman,” and she said the same. Isaac’s behavior is quite different from that of his father, Avraham. When Avraham was in a similar set of circumstances and his wife Sarah was barren, he followed his wife’s suggestion that he try to have children with another woman. He abandons, to a certain degree, his wife in favor of his wife’s servant. Isaac, on the other hand, is described as standing alongside his wife, with her. Looking closely at the way that Rebecca is described by the verses provides some background for understanding the unique bond that exists between them. Rebecca has one salient quality; she is a figure that is bound to other people. She is a relational person who is connected to several different people, and these individual bonds do not impinge on one another—they are all described equivalently.
Isaac is a divided person: So attached to his wife, and so disconnected from his children. Why is it that he can’t bless his sons? What is the context for this inability? Maybe what we have in front of us is a variation on the original Akeidah (the near-sacrifice of Isaac) story: Here is a father who has two children, and who has, according to Isaac’s understanding of the Divine Will, just one blessing. One son will be left behind, sacrificed. Isaac is a father who believes that he has to choose between his oldest and youngest sons, and maybe even between his God and his children, a father who is afraid when he is called to respond and protect by means of the saying, “My father.” He is startled at the exact moment when, as a father, he is expected to supply a solution or response, a father who can’t hear his
son’s cry for order, for an arrangement that is both complex and connected. Esau cries “My father!” four times and in the end, he realizes, just as his father did, that there is no answer beyond silence. He gives up and he cries. The order that Esau is crying out for is one in which fathers don’t eliminate or sacrifice their children. He wants a world in which a father blesses his children, all his children, a world that is complex and connected—of people who love each other facing each other. Maybe, the connection and unconditional acceptance that Esau wants from Isaac is something that he can’t give because he never received it from his father, Avraham. Isaac inherits his father’s stubborn, distant obedience and acts that way with his son. Isaac can love, is able to connect, can see the other and notice someone else’s needs, as we see when in his relationship with Rebecca. But when it comes to his sons, he is distant and distancing. The echo of the Akeidah suggests that Isaac learns about relationships from Rebecca and about disconnect from Avraham.
May we learn from Isaac. about the multiple possibilities of relationship and with open eyes choose between them.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Chaye Sarah
Nothing is more important to us as Jews than the care and burial of our loved ones. Respect for the dead is common in all cultures, but especially so in Judaism. This approach to the laws and customs of mourning and care of the deceased is evident from its original source – this week’s Torah portion, in which we read of Abraham’s need to purchase land for the burial of his beloved Sarah.
Abraham does not even mind “overpaying” for this burial plot; so deep is his concern for the proper care of Sarah. This event is the basis for the bulk of Rabbinic Law concerning the treatment and dignity of the dead. The respect and care for the body of the deceased is paramount until the actual burial; the body must be guarded, it must be washed and dressed appropriately. In fact, it is forbidden to speak in the presence of the deceased! We are commanded to literally bury our loved one by the community, and not leave the gravesite until burial is conducted properly.
But even more than this – our Sages construct an entire set of laws and customs to then help the bereaved survivors. All the aspects of shiva is an attempt to help the mourners heal spiritually. This is when being a part of a community is so crucial. We need each other, whether we be mourners or comforters.
When our time comes to mourn, we pray that we will be comforted by our community, not only here, but for all who mourn in Zion.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts on Vayera
It is, by all accounts, one of the most remarkable stories in the Torah. Appalled by the corruption and lawlessness of Sodom and Gomorrah, God is moved to respond. But before acting, God makes a choice to consult with Abraham. Alarmed at the prospect of God acting unjustly, Abraham protests, demanding to know whether God will “sweep away the innocent along with the guilty” and asking indignantly, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” “Far be it from You.” There is much that is striking, even captivating about this story: a God who has so much respect for human beings (or at least for the prophets among them) that God will not act without consulting with them; a man who has so much confidence in his moral intuitions that he insists God live up to them; and a God who listens to and engages with God’s bold, presumptuous covenantal partner. And yet familiar as the story is, a close reading suggests that it is at once subtler and more radical than is conventionally assumed.
Rather than emphasizing Abraham’s initiative in challenging God, the text indicates that God actively seeks out an argument from Abraham: “Now the Lord had said, ‘Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do?” Why should God share God’s plans with this mere mortal? “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is just and right, in order that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what [the Lord] has promised him.” Considering this introduction, it seems odd to imagine that Abraham here serves as God’s “theological teacher,” as if God needs to be taught the very way the text identifies as God’s own way! So what is going on here? God wants Abraham to train his descendants to do what is just and right, but Abraham cannot teach what he himself has not yet learned. Abraham needs to learn how to stand up for justice and how to plead for mercy, so God places him in a situation in which he can do just that. Subtly, the text communicates a powerful lesson, one that is learned all too slowly, if at all, by those of us blessed with children: We cannot teach our children values which we ourselves do not embody. If Abraham is to father a people who will stand up for what is good and just, he will first have to do so himself.
With this, the Torah (and Rabbinic tradition) teaches us that morality and ethical behavior must be learned before it is taught to others. We must not forget that our children (and grandchildren) are always looking at us. Therefore, our “teaching’ is more than words; it is the way we conduct ourselves in their presence, both in private, and in public. And all of us are under God’s gaze.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Lech Lecha
One of the narratives in this week’s Torah portion tells the story of a family in the process of falling apart. God’s bountiful blessing of wealth paradoxically leads Abram and Lot, the patriarch and his nephew, into deep conflict. Having returned to Canaan together, the two now part ways: Abram remains in the land of Canaan, while Lot departs for Sodom. But the separation between Abram and Lot is not just geographical, it is also characterological. In the hands of the narrator, Abram and Lot become paradigms for two very different ways of perceiving and responding to abundance and wealth.
A close examination of the characters of Abram and Lot reveal a great deal to us. Lot is jealous of Abram for his wealth, and Abram, trying to make amends and stop the quarreling, offers him part of the Promised Land (given to Abram by God!), which Lot rejects. Eventually, Abram must go to Lot’s aid when he and his family are taken by the Sodomites during his travels.
What is crucial for the reader here is to try and understand the motivations of each character. We can certainly learn a great deal about our own issues form this narrative. What do we do when our wealth (which can be simply understood as a basic well-being of material needs) comes into conflict with members of our family? How do we share with others? How do we deal with jealousy?
All these issues have resonance within the Jewish Value System that we should follow. Let us begin to learn from the Torah, and its narratives, to help make those decisions.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Genesis
As we begin the Torah reading in a New Year, this first parasha offers us an insight into both the contrast with the ancient literature of that era, along with the specific insight of Judaism about Human Behavior.
Most of us focus our attention on the beginning of the Torah Portion, the accounts of Creation and Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, and the murder of Abel by his brother, Cain. However, if we look carefully at the rest of the portion, we notice the subsequent generations creating the first technology of the time: hunting, farming, metallurgy, building, and the like. It is interesting to note that the prevailing culture of the time, based on polytheism, thought that all accomplishments by humanity were simply received instruction from the gods. There was no sense that humanity could initiate these advances on their own; all was dependent on the gods. In stark contrast to this, it is clear from the Torah that our characters there had the innate ability to create technology on their own, with no help from the one God.
However, the moral teaching of the Torah tells us clearly that the early generations of the Human Family, although quite adept at creating the tools necessary for civilization, were, at the same time, extremely violent. Their moral behavior was alarming. One leader boasts that he killed a child who had merely bruised him.
Clearly then, the stage is set (along with the next Torah Portion of Noah) for the Torah’s account of Monotheism and Abraham in the third portion, Lech Lecha. In fact, the rest of the Torah is the framing of a just and moral society, inspired by a loving God. Let’s learn this together as the year unfolds!
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Sukkot
One of the most fascinating aspects of this holiday is the “Ushpizin” – Aramaic for “guests”. As you know, we focus on having our meals during the holiday (weather permitting) in the Sukkah. It’s a great Mitzvah to invite guests to join us at theses meals. Unfortunately, because of Covid, we will not be able to do this during the holiday.
However, the Ushpizin is not affected by the Pandemic. That’s because it is mystical and spiritual in nature. The Kabbalists instituted this custom, which is to invite special “guests” into our Sukkah, in addition to our guests of flesh and blood. Who are these special people? None other than many of our great ancestors, one on each of the seven days of Sukkot. They are (in order): Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph, and King David.
What a wonderful way to connect with our history! In addition, we are instructed to learn and speak about each of these “guests”, and to learn the moral characteristics that have made them such an integral part of Jewish Tradition. Much like the Tu Bi’shevat Seder (another Kabbalistic innovation), we can make this experience an opportunity for learning and growth.
So, this year, even if you can’t invite friends to your Sukkah for meals, have the Ushpizin at your table. You’ll be glad you did!
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Ha’azinu
The poem, Ha’azinu, is very beautiful and, a bit inscrutable. One of the ways that the Rabbinic tradition enables us to find meaning in this poem is to have it speak more generally about the Torah and God’s way of interacting with the world. The second and third verses, in particular, reveal a critical lesson regarding how we should relate to the Torah. It teaches us that the way we choose to relate to the Torah can determine its effect on us and its meaning for us.
Moshe’s teaching, which he wants his listener to absorb and be saturated by, is, of course, the Torah. When, in verse 3, Moshe speaks about calling out God’s name and eliciting a response, it seems that he has changed topic from the study of Torah to the praise of God. However, the Talmud understands that this second verse does not represent a shift in focus at all. According to the Talmud, the praising of God also refers to the Torah, specifically: the union of Torah and prayer. It encodes the requirement to make a blessing on the Torah before studying it.
The obligation to make a blessing on the study of Torah carries a lot of significance. The Talmud provides two consequences for neglecting these blessings. It claims that the reason why Torah scholars do not pass on their legacy to their children is that they do not make the blessings over the Torah. And it goes so far as to state that the Temple was destroyed on account of ignoring this mitzvah! However, the Talmud does not explain what it is about this particular blessing that makes it so critical. Why does omitting these blessings have such devastating consequences? In order to understand the significance of this ritual, it is critical to understand its context and where it comes from.
The reason it is so critical to make these blessings and to classify Torah as something that benefits us, as something that is loving and sweet, is that it is not at all clear from our experience that the Torah is primarily pleasant! This is reflected in our Portion this week. The Rabbis understand that the Torah can be difficult; it can be a nurturing and sweet elixir of life, but it can also be a poison. It can set high expectations that might crush us emotionally when we don’t meet them. Worse, if we do not engage with the Torah properly, it can have the opposite of its intended effect; it can make us into worse people rather than better. The Torah can even make us feel further from God and strain our relationship rather than making us feel closer to Him and that we understand each other. Therefore, we need to make a blessing on the Torah, because the success of our relationship with the Torah depends entirely on our attitude towards it. By declaring it an elixir of life, it becomes an elixir of life. If we think of it as a bitter medicine, an elixir of death, it can be hard, if not impossible, for us to swallow.
Perhaps, then, is the reason that Ha’azinu always is read right around Yom Kippur. The notion of confronting life or death is not a literal struggle; it is whether we are willing to accept the Torah as path toward meaningful life, or merely as an obligation. Let us use this metaphor to change our lives (and the lives of all those around us) for the better this New Year of 5781.
Rabbi Moshe Saks
Rabbinic Thoughts: On Prayer at Rosh Hashanah
Let me start by acknowledging that throughout history, most people prayed because they were in trouble (to alleviate sickness, sorrow, danger) or because they needed something. As the saying goes: There are no atheists in foxholes. Needing something, people naturally turned to a higher power, hoping, fantasizing, praying that God would answer their prayers and magically—against logic or empirical facts of the situation— save them or grant them a request. I, or a loved one, have cancer. There is no medicine that is working. The doctors have given up. Then people turned to God and asked for a miracle—to denature the pathology, to rouse the body to counterattack, and so on. The problem with that approach to prayer is that more and more scientific evidence has confirmed that natural processes operate by predictable laws, actions, and consequences. In religious terms, this means that God does not tinker or trifle with the laws of nature. There has been more disciplined recording and analysis of treatment and outcomes. The number of magical cures or outcomes have shrunk. Even the ‘miracles’ seem connected, or more highly correlated, to internal physical factors rather than to external interventions, such as a divine response to a person’s prayers. Under the circumstances, secular attitudes have grown steadily among the more educated and the more highly trained scientifically. The question arises more sharply: Why pray? Let me add a further word of introduction—reflecting some of my personal thinking. I believe that Judaism’s main contribution to the world (directly and through Christianity and Islam and its influence on Western civilization) has been not just the understanding of God as Creator and universal grounding of existence. Rather, it is the message of tikkun olam, that God intends, wants, and needs the world to become perfect. Judaism calls on human beings to live their lives and work on this tikkun. No less important is the Jewish teaching of a method to perfect the world. God has entered a covenant, a partnership, with humans, to repair the world together. Voluntarily, non-coercively, out of love, the two partners are pledged to work to overcome poverty, hunger, oppression, all forms of discrimination and injustice, war, and sickness—in order to heal people and make the world whole. This means that God will not bestow perfection magically or coerce people to do the right thing. God will help those who help themselves.
I also believe that there is a history to the covenant. As a true loving partner, God seeks human empowerment and dignity. As humans become more competent, God self-limits to invite and encourage humans to do more and take more responsibility for the outcome. (The age of prophecy ends; instead, people, Rabbis according to the Talmud, discover God’s instructions and directions.) From the beginning, human medical efforts are affirmed as covenantal actions—rather than seen as encroachments on Divine prerogatives (for example, Exodus 21:18 “and he shall surely heal”). As medicine becomes more competent, the Divine interventions come through human agency. The doctors’ miracles are the Divine interventions. What then is the role of prayer in an era of greater and growing human competence? And in an age when we seek to shake off magical thinking in order to relate to God more out of love, out of partnership, rather than out of servile need to win God’s favor and out of self-interested desire for favors? I would propose three functions for prayer. All humans live inside their own skins. One’s perspective is skewed by being focused on one’s self. By turning to God in prayer, one is motivated to move beyond a self-centered or narcissistic perspective for a moment to see the world from a Divine perspective—the whole world perspective. In praying, I see myself as a finite creature within the great whole. The world is not centered on me. This makes me (the individual) no less important. After all, every human being is an image of God— godlike, endowed with the intrinsic dignities of infinite value, equality, and uniqueness. But the universe does not rotate around me. When the individual prays and
sees the world from Divine perspective, they see the incredible beauty and in prayer, I see the world from the Divine perspective. We recognize how much goodness has been granted in our lives; how much health, life experience, intelligence, growth has brought one’s life (and the lives of our loved ones) this far. This is expressed in prayers of praise and thanksgiving (not request), which have always been part of traditional prayers. This category would include blessings for food, for health—“who straightens up the bowed down,” “who gives the tired new strength,” “who heals the sick”—and for the normal operations of our bowels and all the other openings and closings of tubes in our bodies (heart, brain, mouth). The second category of prayer is particularly significant in our time when humans are more competent. Sometimes, I call this category the ‘prayers of the powerful’ instead of the past ‘prayers of the powerless.’ It is about knowing one’s limits and respecting the capacity and dignity of the other. Instead of the incurable patient pleading for a miracle, there is the prayer of the doctor: God, guide my hand; God help me focus my judgement and wisdom to make the right diagnosis and prescriptions. Teach me to respect the patient and enlist their choices, to engage them in the therapeutic process. Help me see that I am not God. Remind me to respect the patient’s God-given body, to work with its natural rhythms in devising a cure. Teach me to accept my finitude and express it in not overtreating, in not turning the patient into a guinea pig for experimentation. Inspire me with love so that I will get up in the middle of the night and make a home visit to better understand and treat the sick person. There is an equivalent prayer for every businessperson, therapist, teacher, trainer, supervisor, and so on.
Finally, there is a third form of prayer: to join with a congregation, to become part of the Jewish people or the larger community, to identify with the concerns and needs of the whole nation. In such a case, I may even say the old prayers—the unchanged words even of prayers whose magical thinking or retributionist overtone I may not accept any more. In saying these prayers, I identify with my people and its tradition. I acknowledge that the covenant to perfect the world (or to sustain individual lives) has been going on for thousands of years. I embrace past generations and express my gratitude to them even when I disagree with their words or some specific values. Still I acknowledge with gratitude their contribution, that they brought us and the covenant this far and that I am the beneficiary. At such a moment, I open to the needs of the Jewish People and of the whole world and am inspired to join in the effort of tikkun olam.
At such moments, sometimes, I open up to God—not as the divine vending machine but as partner, sustainer, lover, redeemer of my people and myself. Thus, these prayers become prayers of solidarity, thanksgiving, and of eternal love.
Rabbinic Thoughts: Parshat Nitzavim
The Torah Portion this week brings up the question of the enduring sanctity of the land of Israel. The story of God’s promise of the land to Abraham’s descendants might be part of a one-time narrative of birthing a nation into history, a history that includes conquering a plot of land in the Middle East and building a model society there.
However, once that story ends in the destruction of the Temple and exile, it might be that a new chapter begins. Even if God’s covenant with the Jewish people is eternal, perhaps the promise of landed sovereignty expires, and with it any notion of the enduring sanctity of the land of Israel.
By contrast, we might read the boundaries of the land of Canaan as laid out in the Torah as binding for all time, thus designating a plot of land that is eternally sacred; or it is at least ripe for sanctity whenever the Jewish people control it with sufficient power and inhabit it with sufficient numbers.
The deeper question here is as follows: Is the land of Israel an important historical site or is it an enduring sacred space that constantly beckons the Jewish people to return to it even when they have left it for a long time? The Torah itself already seems to weigh in partially on this question. The Torah here describes a time in history when the Jewish people will be on the receiving end of all the terrible curses that the Torah prescribes for non-compliance with the covenant, which includes exile and dispersion.
It is foretold that from this place of dispersion, the people will turn to God and listen to the Divine voice once again. In response, “God will gather them from all the nations, no matter how far away. Our ancestors inherited, and you shall inherit it.” This clearly indicates that the people are meant to return to the land, which seems to retain some enduring significance for the Jewish people even while they are in exile from it.
But, a slew of other questions remain: Was the land stripped of its sanctity upon their exile? Does it get re-sanctified upon their return? If the answer to both questions is yes, can this process be repeated indefinitely or is there some limit on the number of exiles that either strip the land of its sanctity or keep alive the possibility of re-sanctifying it upon the people’s return?
The Rabbinic sources indicate clearly that Israel is an enduring Holy Land, and there is an eternal need to populate it, and preserve it as the central force in Judaism. Thus, we are the only People that have a specific piece of land tied to its national destiny. This is why Israel is so important to us.
Rabbi Moshe Saks