Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Parashat KI Tisa - My Great-Grandfather's Monument

My Great-Grandfather's Monument

This week (16 Adar) marks the Yahrzeit of my great-grandfather, Harav Yair Halevi Chamedes, Zatz"al, Rav of Riminiv, and later Rav of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Recently, my father, assisted by my brother, began to decipher his grandfather's old notebooks. These tattered notebooks represent a connection to Torah and the mesorah which every Jew should feel when he learns, but was understandably stronger, for we knew it was the Torah of our own family.
The personal excitement was incredible for all of us to read words written over 100 years ago. Today, I will share an idea from his notebook. The Yerushalmi Talmud teaches that we do not build monuments in the memory of tzaddikim -- their words and teachings are their monuments.

At the foot of the mountain lay the shattered tablets of stone, written by the hand of God. These stones, which were meant to symbolize the mutual fidelity between God and man, had now become a symbol of broken vows. The Talmud elegantly describes the scene:
Ulla said: "Shameless is the bride that plays the harlot under her bridal canopy." (Shabbat 88b)

Instead of her moment of glory, the Community of Israel has already found another beau. Her bridal canopy has become the scene of an orgiastic, cultic insurrection. The very future of the people hangs in the balance as the Divine Court meets to consider the sentence.
God turns to Moshe and enjoins him to let God wipe away the people:

And the Lord said to Moses, "Go down, for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made themselves a molten calf, and have worshipped it, and have sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, which have brought you out of the land of Egypt.'" And the Lord said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now, therefore, let me alone, that my anger may burn hot against them, and that I may consume them; and I will make of you a great nation." (Exodus 32:7-10)

On the one hand, God wishes to rid Himself of this stiff-necked people; on the other hand, man will not frustrate God's overall plan. The Torah will be taught, the Word of God will spread, Moshe (or perhaps the entire tribe of Levi) can continue the Divine mandate and fulfill the destiny of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the promise made to them years before.
Moshe refuses to be part of such a plan:

And Moshe pleaded with the Lord his God, and said, "Lord, why does your anger burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand? Therefore should the Egyptians speak, and say, 'For an evil intent did he bring them out, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth?' Turn from your fierce anger and repent of this evil against your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by Your own Self, and said to them, 'I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give to your seed, and they shall inherit it forever.' And the Lord repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exodus 32:11-14).

* * *

Moshe ably and swiftly disarmed the threat against his people. But he meets another obstacle, as we learn from the Midrash:

When Moshe was about to go down, he encountered the angels of destruction, of whom he was so afraid that he would not go down ... What did Moshe do? He went and seized hold of [God's] Throne ... [and] God spread out His cloud to protect Moses. Said He to him: "Arise, get down quickly from hence," but he replied: "I am afraid."
Come and see how great [is the harmful power of] sin. But yesterday he despised them [the angels], and now he fears them ... (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 41:7)

The Midrash notes the irony: earlier when Moshe went to receive the Torah he was also challenged by angels, who felt that the Torah should not be given to man. Evidently, they felt that the Torah was Divine and would be sullied if brought to earth. Moreover, they felt that it was fundamentally inappropriate for the Torah to be given to humans:

When Moshe ascended on high, the ministering angels spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: "Sovereign of the Universe! What business has one born of a woman amongst us?"
"He has come to receive the Torah," answered He to them.
Said they to Him, "That secret treasure, which has been hidden by You for nine hundred and seventy-four generations before the world was created, You desire to give to flesh and blood ?! What is a man, that you art mindful of him, and the son of man that you visit him? O Lord our God, how excellent is Your Name in all the earth, who has set your glory [the Torah] upon the Heavens!"
"Answer them," the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses.
"Sovereign of the Universe" replied he, "I fear lest they consume me with the [fiery] breath of their mouths."
"Hold on to the Throne of Glory," said He to him, "and answer them ..."
Moshe [then] spoke before Him: "Sovereign of the Universe! The Torah which You give me, what is written therein?
"I am the Lord thy God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt."
Said he [Moses] to them [the angels], "Did you go down to Egypt? Were you enslaved to Pharaoh? Why, then, should the Torah be yours? Again, What is written therein?"
"You shall have no other gods."
"Do you dwell among peoples that engage in idol worship? Again what is written therein?"
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
"Do you perform work, that you need to rest? Again what is written therein?"
"You shall not take [the name ... in vain]"
Are there any business dealings among you? Again what is written therein?"
"Honor your father and your mother."
"Have you fathers and mothers? Again what is written therein?"
"Thou shall not murder. Thou shall not commit adultery. Thou Shall not steal."
"Is there jealousy among you? Is the Evil Tempter among you?"
Straightway they conceded to the Holy One, blessed be He ... Immediately each one was moved to love him [Moses] and transmitted something to him ... The Angel of Death, too, confided his secret to him, for it is said ... and he stood between the dead and the living. Had [the Angel of Death] not told it to him, how would he have known it? (Shabbath 88b- 89a; see also Midrash Rabbah, The Song of Songs 8:15)

In retrospect, the argument of the angels seems valid: How can man, so imperfect, receive the Torah which predates the creation of the world? Moshe needed to be protected by the very Throne of God -- i.e. the Shechina -- in order to receive the Torah. Now, in the aftermath of the insidious rebellion, Moshe must once again grab hold of the Heavenly Throne.
But it is interesting to note that God did offer Divine protection. God embraced Moses, despite the crimes of the people whom he represented.

* * *

The two passages actually seem to mirror one another: Torah is too ethereal to be in the possession of man, yet there is no alternative to man, no other creature who can take possession of Torah and for whom Torah is appropriate.
It is interesting that the angels did not have similar objections to the patriarchal covenant formed with the forefathers. Quite the opposite -- the Torah was given in the merit of Abraham.

At that moment, the angels wished to attack Moses, but God made the features of Moshe resemble those of Abraham and said to the angels: "Are you not ashamed to touch this man to whom you descended [from heaven] and in whose house you ate?" God said to Moses: "It is only for the sake of Abraham that the Torah is given to you..." (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 28:1)

Perhaps the patriarchs could be described as righteous gentiles, people who were obligated to the Noahide Covenant. Certainly, they transcended that level, but the objections of the angels begin with the attempt to bring the Torah/Divinity to earth. The Torah was seen as existing on a completely different plane, a spiritual plane which man cannot sustain. The angels' assumption seems to be that the Torah necessitates angelic discipline and obedience.
Moshe responds that the Torah must be for humans, and God agrees. He protects Moshe and shows him the way down. The Midrash describes this scene with even more irony: As the people sin below, God prepares the Torah above!

While Israel were standing below engraving idols to provoke their Creator to anger ... God sat on High engraving for them tablets which would give them life ... Is this not a proof that unto You, O Lord, belongs righteousness? (Midrash Rabbah, Exodus 41:2)
Man's human inconsistencies do not "surprise" God. He knows our limitations, and yet is willing to give us the Torah.

The Torah, despite its unfathomable holiness, does have a unique human dimension to it. It is this facet which allows lowly man to become a partner with God. Moshe understood this idea when he heard the very first phrase emerge from heaven during the revelation at Sinai.

* * *

My great grandfather, Rav Yair Chamedes, in an essay written for Parshat Yitro (in the Hebrew year 5678, that is 1918) explained this concept as follows:
In a Midrash cited in the Holy Books it says that at the moment God uttered the First Commandment, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," Moshe responded with the blessing "Blessed is God who did not make me a heathen (goy)."
The simple meaning of this teaching is that as the Jews receive the Torah they lose the status of non-Jews. Furthermore, one could posit that each and every commandment has holiness to it, and this would have been an appropriate response to each of the Ten Commandments: As man receives Torah he becomes holier and separate from the heathen.
Rav Yair continues:

The commentaries have already posed the question "Why does it not say 'I am the God who created heaven and Earth?'" It seems clear to me that the intention of the Divine was that man's heart not become squashed within him if, God forbid, he finds himself unable to fulfill the entire Torah, and repentance would not be efficacious if man sinned against the King of Kings the Holy One Blessed be He. This could, God forbid, lead to hopelessness, which is the most dangerous of sins. Therefore God said "I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery," meaning, I know where you have come from, from a corrupt land, and I know that you are susceptible to sin.

Rav Yair explains that had God introduced Himself as Creator of heaven and earth, the relationship would have been based on objectivity. By introducing Himself as the God who took us from the Egyptian depravity, the starting point of the relationship is subjective and situational. Repentance is possible; sin, while horrific, is not completely unexpected, and can be explained. In fact, this is precisely the argument Moshe makes:

And Moshe pleaded with the Lord his God, and said, "Lord, why does your anger burn hot against your people, whom you have brought out of the land of Egypt with great power, and with a mighty hand?"

* * *

Moses's argument could easily have backfired. Precisely because God took us from Egypt, our actions may be seen as all the more extreme. But Moshe heard in the First Commandment this subjective, and therefore forgiving aspect of the relationship which God would have with man. Thus, even as man sins below, God can calmly write the words of Torah above. And as Moshe makes his way down, the Shechina will indeed protect Moses.

Rav Yair then brilliantly explained the words of the Midrash, describing Moses's response, the blessing "Blessed is God who did not make me a heathen (goy)". When God tells Moshe that He will destroy Israel because of their sin, and make a great nation from Moses' line, the exact words are: "I will make of you a great nation" -- in Hebrew goy gadol.

Had our relationship with God and Torah been based on utter objectivity, the sin of the Golden Calf should have caused the disappearance of the Jewish people. But God had introduced Himself as the God who took us from Egypt. Moshe knew, as soon as he heard that utterance, that when the people sin, he will have an answer. He will not be forced to become a nation (goy). This is the meaning of Moses's response upon hearing the First Commandment: "Blessed is God who did not make me a heathen/nation (goy)"!

The angels were correct -- the Torah is made of Divine stuff. But so is man.

God understands the failings of man, and the Torah contains allowances for human inconsistencies and failings. These failings are not grounds to deprive us of Torah. Quite the opposite. Our failings are the very reason that we need the Torah. The Torah helps us reveal the Divine within ourselves.

Sin is inevitable; this should not be a cause of depression, or of a sense of helplessness. Rather, we should be inspired to redouble our efforts and take up the divine gauntlet thrown at us long ago at the foot of the mountain.

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