Friday, August 31, 2007

Dangerous Blessings

As we approach the end of the Torah, the Jews are encamped on the borders of Israel gearing up for a dangerous invasion. A nation of escaped slaves, they face trained armies entrenched in fortified, defensive positions. The report of the spies echoes in their minds. Without a miracle, they are doomed.

But the prophet Moshe doesn’t hear the noise of impending war. He doesn’t see the enemy. His gaze reaches beyond. He sees the future.

A land of Israel at peace, blessed with fertility. Fields of wheat. Baskets of grapes, pomegranates, figs. And on a well-worn country path, a Jewish farmer is carrying his first fruits to Jerusalem, paying homage to the source of all this goodness.

When the farmer arrives at the Holy Temple, he expresses his gratitude in no uncertain terms. It would be fruitful (forgive the pun) to quote his declaration in full:

My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us. We cried out to G-d, Lord of our ancestors, and G-d heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress. G-d then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that G-d has given me.

Devarim 26:5-10

Apparently, a mere “thank you” doesn’t cut it. It would be insufficient to merely thank G-d for making fruit grow. For an expression of gratitude to be whole, it requires a broader perspective. Recalling the divine miracles that brought the nation to Israel in the first place inspires the Jewish farmer to a more heartfelt expression of his feelings. This is why he presents a synopsis of Jewish history when all he really wants to do is thank G-d for figs.

Moshe ends this section with an additional point, a point on which the entire parsha turns:

You… shall thus rejoice in all the good that G-d your Lord has granted you and your family.

Devarim 26:11

That there is an obligation to express gratitude is not surprising. But what does rejoicing have to do with it?

It would seem that joy is an essential by-product of this mitzvah. G-d wants us to enjoy His blessings and expressing gratitude to God enables and inspires a deeper enjoyment of life. The Talmud, however, understands things a little differently.

From here we learn that the declaration over the first fruits may only be recited in a season of joy. [It can be said anytime] from the holiday of Shavuot until the holiday of Sukkot – a time when people are gathering in their produce, fruits, wine and oil. After Sukkot, [farmers] bring their first fruits [to the Temple] but do not recite this declaration (Pesachim 36b).

Rashi ad loc.

In other words, the Torah is not saying that this declaration brings joy, but rather the reverse – it can only be said when people are happy. When are Jews happy? The Talmud identifies “happy time” as being from Shavuot to Sukkot, but this is a shocking statement. The months of Tammuz and Av are between Shavuot and Sukkot! The breaking of the Tablets, the Sin of the Spies, the destruction of the two Temples – all the worst tragedies of our history occurred during these months. Moreover, this period also includes Elul and Tishrei, i.e. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a happy time? This is the scariest part of the Jewish year!

Apparently, we are not talking here about happiness in a religious sense. It may not be the happiest time on the calendar, but it is the time when farmers cash in on all their hard work. They are comfortable financially – and that makes people forget about God (cf. 8:12-14). That is why this is the time for a declaration of gratitude. It keeps farmers from taking the land of Israel for granted, a particularly important thing to do from Tammuz to Tishrei.

The parsha might begin with a utopian view of the future, but the vision quickly turns dark. Very dark.

If you do not obey G-d your Lord and do not carefully keep all His commandments and decrees as I am prescribing them for you today, then all these curses will come to bear upon you.
Cursed will you be in the city and cursed in the field.
Cursed will be your food basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed will be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your land, the calves of your herd and the lambs of your flock…

Devarim 28:15-18

That is only the beginning. Some of the most difficult reading in all of Scripture appears in this week’s parsha. Moshe tells the people what will befall them if they fail to observe the mitzvot of the Torah and the prophecies are horrifically graphic. I will not recount them here. Suffice it to say that the parsha reads like a hybrid of Josephus’ record of the Temple’s destruction, a history of the Spanish Inquisition, and a Holocaust memoir – verse after verse, it is all sadly familiar to students of Jewish history. Custom mandates that this section of the parsha be read quickly and in a soft voice.

In the midst of it all, we find this revealing verse:

[These curses] will be a sign and proof to you and your children forever. When you had plenty of everything, you did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart.

Devarim 28:47-48

That is the usual translation, but literally, it reads like this:
…You did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart because you had plenty of everything.
Amazing! G-d’s blessings have become a curse! Owning plenty of everything and enjoying all of life’s pleasures can sink man into materialism, depravity and ultimately depression, carrying him far from G-d and earning him harsh retribution. But when the people are righteous, G-d bestows His blessings of abundance and wealth (cf. 28:1-12). How do we escape this destructive cycle?

The answer is gratitude. If we maintain consciousness of the Source of Blessings through complete and wholehearted expressions of gratitude, we can then rejoice in all the good that God grants us without fear of becoming self-centered pleasure seekers. It turns out that the mitzvah at the beginning of the parsha is the antidote for all that follows.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

The King and I

Elul is here and Rosh Hashanah is just one month away. It’s time to start getting ready.

How does a Jew prepare for the Days of Awe? What are we supposed to do? Repent? Pray? Give Tzedakah? These are all good ideas, but there is something else, something far more basic and far more difficult. Reb Yerucham Levovitz (1874-1936) put it quite succinctly. On Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, we will all have to stand before the King. Elul is the time to practice doing just that.

Well, how do people comport themselves before a king? It’s been quite some time since anyone has stood trembling in a throne room, wondering if they will be knighted or tossed in a dungeon. This is a good thing, of course, but it has a down side when Elul comes around. We simply don’t know how to relate to a king.

This problem is particularly acute for us Americans. Many of us still harbor negativity to the whole idea of monarchy – after all, our last experience with it was His Majesty King George III. Moreover, recent history has seen our leaders held up to ridicule; Quayle, Clinton and Bush are prominent examples, but it has been happening across the board. We have become accustomed to mocking authority. We have absolutely no sense of what it is like to live under a king.

The American system has been wonderful for us Jews and we are eternally grateful. However, this week’s parsha does not promote democracy. It orders us to appoint a king.

When you come to the land that God your Lord is giving you, so that you have occupied it and settled it, you will [eventually] say, “I will appoint a king over myself…” Appoint over yourself the king whom G-d your Lord chooses…

Devarim 17:14-20

On the face of it, it’s a surprising mitzvah. Who needs a king? The Jews already have a legal system, a court system, and prophets. Moreover, the Jews have God. God is King. Why appoint a mortal monarch? The truth is, we don’t really need a king. But in order for humans to relate to anything, it must exist in some form in our world. Without the benefit of experience, abstract ideas and concepts remain just that – abstract and nebulous. Living under a benevolent human king helps people relate to the Divine King. This is why the Torah promotes monarchy and not democracy.

Despite the fact that our parsha declares it a mitzvah, when the Jews do eventually ask for a king, it is considered a sacrilege! It happens several centuries later when the prophet Samuel is leading the nation. The elders of Israel come forward and make the following request of the prophet:

“You have aged and your sons have not followed your path. Appoint a king for us…”
G-d said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the nation, to all that they have requested of you. It is not you that they are rejecting. It is I that they have rejected from being King over them.”

I Samuel 8:5-7

“It is I that they have rejected from being King over them.” That’s a pretty severe accusation! Why is God putting such a negative spin on this innocent request? Doesn’t our parsha clearly state that it is a mitzvah to appoint a king? Why is this request now viewed as a rejection of the monarchy of G-d?!

The answer, says the Kli Yakar (R. Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, 1550-1619), is a small, but highly significant, difference in wording. A request for a king over us is a mitzvah, as per our parsha. But the Jews who came before Samuel did not ask for that. It was not a king over them that they asked for, but a king for them. This is something else altogether.

They did not want a Royal Highness. They were looking for something a lot more democratic. They wanted a “king” who would be under the constant scrutiny of the press, a “king” who answers to the people, a “king” not over and above the people but “for” the people. In short, they asked for a leader whose job description would be to serve the people, not a monarch who is served by the people. (It seems their request was granted to disastrous effect. The two professional failures of King Saul were caused by attempts to cultivate popularity with the people. Cf. I Samuel 13:9-13; 15:24.)

A king who serves the people might make for a legitimate political system, but it is not the kind of king described in our parsha. This explains why the Jews who came to Samuel did not fulfill a mitzvah. However, a question remains. Why did their request constitute a rejection of God? Certainly, the elders of Israel would never engage in an outright rejection of God and this charge should not be taken literally. But what does it mean?

Apparently, our assumption was correct. The political universe in which people live has a profound effect on their relationship with G-d. If you grow up and live in world devoid of respected authority figures, it becomes well nigh impossible to relate to a God who is King. Setting up a monarch who is a puppet of the people ultimately leads to a population that expects God to submit Himself to their will rather than vice versa. God understood that such a political system would undermine His relationship with the Jews and that is why He considered it a personal attack.

For Americans, “monarchy” is a dirty word. But we cannot escape the fact that Elul and Rosh Hashanah are all about accepting a monarch. We have a lot of work to do.