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