Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Parashat Va’etchanan 5775 The Crucible

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Vaetchanan 5775
The Crucible

The great tragedy of Moshes life was the fact that he did not complete his mission; he would not bring the people to the Promised Land. In fact, we might say that this is actually two tragedies: On a personal level, it is almost inconceivable that Moshe, our greatest leader and teacher, our staunchest defender and most dedicated shepherd, would not see the Land of Israel up close, not be forgiven and allowed to reap the rewards of his years of unflinching dedication. On the other hand, Moshes fate symbolizes a national tragedy: The entire generation that had experienced the wonders of the Exodus, the splitting of the sea, the Revelation at Mount Sinai and so much more, would also perish in the desert. The land will be inherited and enjoyed by their children.

Moshe begs to see the land. God understands precisely what it is that Moshe prays for, and although He commands Moshe to desist from further entreaties, God does, in fact, fulfill Moshes prayer in a very literal sense. Moshe is allowed to climb to a mountaintop vantage point and see the land, - but only from afar.

As Moshe continues his speech to the young generation who will soon go where he is not permitted to tread, it becomes painfully obvious to them that Moshe will not be joining them for the final leg of the journey. He takes this last opportunity to warn them about the consequences of idolatry, and pleads with them to keep the commandments in order to insure that the inheritance they are about to receive not be forfeited.

We may wonder how Moshes final words were received by this young, eager generation. Did they find it incongruous that Moshe, the greatest man they had ever known, the man who now stands before them and exhorts them about right and wrong, sin and its punishment, will himself be banned from entering the Land? Were they perhaps intimidated by the knowledge that even Moshe, who was the greatest prophet who ever lived, was unable to live up to Gods standards? Were they disheartened by the thought that if Moshe had fallen short, it seemed impossible that any mortal could succeed?

Apparently, Moshe was sensitive to these unspoken doubts and ruminations. As he begins his final series of lectures, he describes his personal predicament in very particular language, using an unusual turn of phrase that may give us a glimpse of his frame of mind and allow us to share his perspective. While other nations may worship the sun and moon and stars, he explains, the Jewish People is different. But you, God Himself took, and He brought you out of the iron crucible that was Egypt, so that you would be His heritage nation, as you are today. (Devarim 4:20)  While the image of the fiery crucible has captured the imagination of many commentaries and remains an enduring metaphor throughout Jewish history, Moshe may have had a very particular idea in mind when he first coined the phrase.

Rashis comments on this verse are terse; he explains that the crucible reference means that the Jews are like gold, but does not elaborate. Two 19th century scholars explained this passage at length, coming to widely divergent conclusions: Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Meklenberg (1785-1865) refers to the process of smelting in which metals are purified of dross, and explains that the period of enslavement in Egypt had the same purpose: The Jews were subjected to a painful process that rid them of those who were unworthy, in order to allow them to meet their destiny unencumbered by those who would hold them back. This human dross would have fomented even more unrest and rebellion, and would have been unwilling and unable to receive the Torah or to fulfill the covenant they would undertake as a nation.  

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) had a very different approach. Rather than intimating that there were impurities in the Jewish nation that had to be burned off in the fiery furnace of Egyptian slavery, Rabbi Hirsch saw the crucible as an experience that gave strength and polish to the morals of the newly-emerging nation. The fires destroyed everything that had been before, allowed the Jews to distill their essential qualities and hone their identity. It is this view of the crucible that may allow us to understand Moshes words: His reference to the crucible is his attempt to point out one of the defining characteristics of Jewish nationhood. We are a people with a great capacity to suffer because we have a profound ability to see the long-term repercussions of our actions. Our enslavement in Egypt had not come as a surprise; not only was it foretold to Avraham, it was willingly accepted by him and his descendants as part of a long-term covenant. Avrahams children would inherit the Land of Israel, they would become a covenantal community and enjoy a unique relationship with God - - but only after 400 years of exile, hardship and slavery. Yaakov accepted this birthright with all its conditions; he and his children, the very core of the Jewish People, were willing to suffer in the short term in order to achieve the long-term payoff. Only a people with complete faith in the future, only those who are willing to postpone gratification in favor of a much greater spiritual destiny, are capable of accepting a covenant of this kind.

Long before Nietzsches Twighlight of the Idols, Moshe reminded us that the crucible of Egypt and the experience of slavery did not break us, did not eradicate us as a family or as a covenantal community, did not corrupt our morals; it not only made us stronger, it made us who we are. As he stands at the borders of the Promised Land but is denied entrance, Moshe himself is a living example that gratification of personal desires is far less important to the Jewish ethos than is the larger national destiny. Moshe is able to accept a world in which he is denied his hearts desire, he is able to withstand his personal pain and frustration, because he has complete faith in the future of the Jewish People and the Word of God.

Moshes message to the nation moves seamlessly from an account of his own personal pain to an inspiring account of the strength of his beloved people, even in the face of setbacks that lasted many generations. They have come through the crucible as a nation and they are gold, they are strong, they have been endowed with greatness. The suffering and humiliation, even the death of loved ones that they experienced in the crucible of slavery, has made them stronger, more united, more determined, as well as more aware of the suffering of others. They have refined the ability they inherited from their forefathers to take the long view, to see past the setbacks, even when these have been tragic and extreme. And now, they must see past the death of their greatest prophet and leader. Jewish history, Moshe reminds them, is measured in millennia, not in minutes, and he assures them that they have what it takes to begin the next chapter -  just as we, even today, so many generations and so many setbacks later, have what it takes to march toward the fulfillment of our glorious destiny.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

                                                     Echoes of Eden

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