Eikev: Was it a "Rock of Ages?"


As was widely reported in Israel recently, a heavy stone fell out of the

Kotel (Western Wall) onto the pluralistic prayer platform.  You Tube clip accessible here.

As soon as I saw that report, I anticipated that the Haredi (“Ultra-Orthodox”) would surely say that this was no mere incidence of an ancient wall’s gradual deterioration; it was a sign of Divine disapproval of idolatrous behavior.  (Characterizing pluralistic prayer as such). My next thought was that this would provoke righteous indignation and ridicule from the non-Orthodox community. Of course, this is just what occurred.  There have also been counter-interpretations, such as that G-d was signaling that She is dissatisfied with the slow progress of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel. 

But while the incident is just another in the seemingly endless Haredi vs. non-Haredi, or Orthodox vs non-Orthodox conflict, it gives us the opportunity to ponder a core – arguably THE core -- theological question of Judaism: Does G-d intervene in Jewish history in response to our collective action?  

The proposition that G-d does so is, of course, prominent in Torah.  Even before there were Jews, G-d destroyed Dor HaMabul – the Generation of the Flood – due to its iniquity.  G-d destroyed Sodom, even though there might have been some innocents there (and note that Noah did not bargain for only the innocents to be saved).  G-d sentenced the Israelites to wander in the desert for 40 years for bad-mouthing the promised land, and for disobeying instructions not to commence a premature military campaign.  G-d exiled them twice for immoral behavior. We could cite many more examples. 

More generally, this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, is the source of the “middle section” of the V’ahaftah prayer, Deuteronomy 11:13-17.  It sets forth clear “if…then” propositions.  If we obey the mitzvot, we get rain and eat.  If not, we don’t, and starve.  This section of our liturgy is known as: Kabbalat ol hamitzvot (acceptance of the yoke of the commandments). 

But do we believe it?  

From time to time, the suggestion has been made that the Jewish people should reconvene the ancient 71-member Sanhedrin.  Let’s imagine that the Sanhedrin was indeed reconvened here in Jerusalem, and that it represented all the elements of worldwide Jewish theology, from “cultural” – aka “atheist” or “humanist” -- to deeply pious.   And the task put before the Sanhedrin was to update and revise the Torah.  What should be done about these verses?  If you were a member of the Sanhedrin, would you vote to keep them in, or delete them?

It may surprise you to learn that certain segments of the Jewish world have already voted, in a way, on this question by revising or omitting it from the V’hafta in their prayerbook.  The Israeli Reform prayerbook Ha’avodah Shebalev ("Service of the Heart") offers Deuteronomy 30:15-20 as option.  (I have set before you life and good, death and evil.  If you turn away from Me, you shall surely perish. Choose life!). The Reconstructionist liturgy of 1945 substitutes Deuteronomy 28:1-6  (more generalized blessings and curses) And some Reform congregations have omitted Deuteronomy 11:13-17 from the v’ahaftah in their customized prayerbooks. 

I would not vote on retaining or jettisoning these verses based upon my own feelings on their “factual veracity.”  In fact, my own feelings about the “objective” truth of the question is almost irrelevant to me.  I would base my vote on whether I thought the future of the Jewish people and of its mission to demonstrate ethical behavior would be served by keeping or removing these verses.  

There is a principle in psychology that if you want something to be true that is within your power to make true, you should act as if it is true.  Doing so will help it come to reality.  [One expression of this philosophy is Theodore Herzel’s famous statement, Im Tirzu, ein lo agadah: “If you will it, it is no fairy-tale.”    

I believe that it is best for the Jewish people to act as if G-d rewards or punishes our collective behavior, because such belief will incentive us to act more morally and bring about a better world.  

The Talmud, Tractate Kiddushin 40b, teaches that the fate of an individual, a nation, and indeed of the entire world are all determined by weighing the aggregate of their merits against the aggregate of their sins.  Thus, a nation will only be found “guilty” by G-d if the sum of its constituent individuals’ sins outweighs the sum of their merits; otherwise, it is found “not guilty.” “A single mitzvah can save the fate of the entire world,” if the weight of this good deed tilts the overall balance in its favor.”   

In this sense, the principle that all Jews are responsible for one another takes on immeasurable importance.  It doesn’t only mean that we are responsible for helping each other, as this phrase is commonly interpreted.  It certainly does mean that.  But more profoundly, it means that the very survival of all of us depends upon the actions of each of us. 

Wheher the Torah and Talmud are correct isn’t nearly as important as
our acting as if we believe that they are correct.   

In his book, Everyday Holiness, Alan Morinis tells the story about a group of students of Novarodok Mussar who obtained a dead fish.  They tied a string around its tail and suspended it from the ceiling of their room, sat around, and watched it decay.  This was meant as a contemplation meant to impress upon them the realithy of death and the way of all flesh.  A group of Slabodka students found out what the Novarodokers were doing and ran to tell their teacher, expecting that he would say something that would affirm their own style of dignified, decorous practice over those of the radical Novarodokers.  When they had finished pouring out their tale, their teacher asked them simply, “Does it work?”  

Our goal is to bring about a better, more ethical world.  If we want to hasten the flowering of redemption, we should individually act as if our collective moral behavior is necessary to bring the flower seed-nourishing rains.  Whether it’s true or not, we should act as if each individual mitzvah – or sin – may be sufficient to determine whether the Jewish people live or die.  May we always remember our awesome responsibility to each other to bring G-d’s blessings upon us all.  

Shabbat shalom u'mevorach from Jerusalem!

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3