Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Monday, November 14, 2011
This is Parashat Vayera. Vayera is from the Hebrew verb meaning ‘to see.’ Through the life of Abraham, we learn about when we can “see God,” and when we can’t. The stories we read today have a lot to do with the theme of guests and strangers. Abraham is the great teacher this week about the Mitzvah of Hachnasat Orchim, of welcoming guests to our homes. Abraham, we are told, is so wonderful, so committed to welcoming strangers to his home, that when he sees three strangers passing by his tent, he runs to welcome them, to do everything he can to feed them and make them comfortable—and this, even though he himself has just undergone circumcision without anesthesia! This kind of dedication to welcoming strangers, our sages teach, is what makes Abraham the father of many nations—for him and for Sarah, no one is a stranger in their home! And to make the point even stronger, our sages teach, we have the pitiful contrast between Abraham’s hospitality and Lot’s hospitality. Lot, too, welcomes the same three strangers into his home in Sodom and Gomorrah, but when the local mob wants to have their way with the guests, Lot offers them his own daughter to rape instead, in order to be nice to his guests. Gevalt! How despicable of Lot! He’s nice to strangers, but he’s willing to make his own daughter into less than a stranger, to dehumanize her, and give her to the mob. Disgusting! Thank God for Abraham! If Lot is willing to turn a member of his own household, his own family, into a stranger, thank God for Abraham, where no one is ever a stranger in his tent! There’s only one problem with this neat and tidy contrast between wonderful Abraham and disgraceful Lot: it doesn’t quite work.
You may recall that there is someone who is not treated as well as everyone else, even in Abraham’s tent. In fact, it’s more than one person: it’s Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and her son—Abraham’s son—Yishma’el. After Isaac, the beloved son, is born, Sarah demands that Yishma’el and his mother be driven out of their home. Abraham is distressed, and God Godself tells Abraham that he should listen to his wife. And so, mother and child are cast off by our beloved Abraham. They are rendered homeless in the desert. When they run out of water, Hagar places her child down to die and she weeps in despair. Until finally, God opens Hagar’s eyes, and she sees a life-giving well to save her and her son in the desert. So the question we are forced to ask ourselves is: how different really is old Father Abraham from Lot? After all, the both warmly welcomed strangers, and yet both were willing to turn members of their own family—their own children--into less than strangers, and to cast them off to oblivion!
Well wait a minute, we might argue. At least Abraham was distressed. And it was none other than God who told Abraham that it was okay to do this, that Yishma’el would eventually be okay! According to our English Chumash, God says “Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says...as for the [boy], I will make a nation of him, too, for he is your seed.” Lot had no such assurances when he offered up his own daughter! Well, God didn’t necessarily say what our English translation says. If we look very carefully at the Hebrew where God purportedly tells Abraham to send Hagar and Yishma’el away, it doesn’t say that at all! If you translate the Hebrew literally, God says ‘Al yerah b’einecha al hana’ar v’al amatecha,’ literally: “Don’t do what’s evil in your eye upon that boy and your handmaiden.” God goes on, “Ki asher tomar eilecha Sarah shma b’kolah,” “For whatever Sarah shall say to you, Listen to her voice.” Let’s put this in regular English: God seems to be saying: ‘Abraham, don’t do something if you see it to be evil in your eyes. Yes, listen to the voice of your wife when she cries out that Isaac must be the heir to the Covenant; but also remember, Avraham, that your son Yishma’el--he too is your son, your seed, the father of a great nation as well.” But it seems as if Abraham either ignored or couldn't grasp what God meant by ‘Al yerah b’einecha,’ ‘Don’t do what’s evil in your eye.’ He just focused on listening to Sarah’s voice, and thought God meant that he had to do Sarah’s bidding, and so he threw Hagar and her boy out. And in that act of confusion, of rejection, the greatest lesson in the world was now set in motion...
Think about the very name of the handmaiden, Hagar. Her name suggests the Hebrew ‘HaGer,’ which means “The Stranger.” Hagar is an Egyptian girl living in Abraham and Sarah’s tent. She’s the perennial outsider who remains a stranger even in our midst, the constant bugaboo, the fly-in-the-ointment. Her son Yishma’el “mitzachek,” he ‘plays around,’ his very presence ‘fools around’ with Abraham and Sarah’s great plans to create a new nation that worships the One True God. Hagar, the Stranger and her kid, they just don’t fit in with the program. What do you do with those nasty Strangers whose very presence undermines our noblest plans? We get rid of them. Drive them out. Surround ourselves only with people who pose no challenges to us. But in our story, God is greater even than Abraham and Sarah’s noblest goals. Hagar is no Stranger for God. And Yishma’el’s name literally means that God will hear his cries for help in the wilderness. It’s no accident that the Torah makes our heart break not for Abraham, but for Hagar in her moment of despair. It’s no accident that God opens her eyes to find life-giving waters. Judaism has long taught, through Abraham’s example, that it is through welcoming strangers into our home that we can make the presence of God appear—literally ‘to be seen’ in our lives. And the Torah teaches us that this applies kal vechomer, all the more so, to the Stranger whom we think we can never live with in our tents! In other words, it’s all well and good to have an open heart and an open mind, to welcome to your table all those who will agree with you. But what about the people in our own tents, in our own family, who do not agree with us? If we still see someone in our own tent, in our own family, as a Stranger—even as an enemy—then our work is not done! Then God is not fully seen yet in this world!
And now hold onto your hats: this is why God had to tell Abraham to be willing to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac! According to the Zohar, his command to offer up his beloved child Isaac, is the only possible way for Abraham to ascend to the highest level of Chesed, of Lovingkindess. We have long wondered, how is this willingness to offer up his child Chesed?! The answer is that Abraham must serve, together with Isaac, as the living example, once and for all for all the world to see—how we must burst through our blind spots, and see no one as a Stranger. With his knife poised over his son, Avraham finallly saw the “ra b’einecha,” the evil in his eyes--the ultimate betrayal of his own son. What God asked Abraham to do was to be willing to see his beloved child--Isaac (but also Yishma’el!) through the eyes of God Godself: to be willing to see how everyone whom we call “Stranger” is the beloved child of God! What Abraham finally saw in that moment, with his own knife poised above his beloved child, was what God sees, every time a human being is attacked, raped, abandoned, killed. When Abraham felt that unspeakable agony of the knife poised above his own little boy’s throat—he is showing all the generations of our people what we are doing to GOD every time we call another human being a stranger, an other, an enemy. And when finally, God stays Abraham’s hand, the Torah says “Vayisa Avraham et eynav vayar,” “And Abraham lifted up his eyes and he saw.” Now truly, Abraham saw. Now he can see: there are no Strangers. No enemies. Not even if they live in our very midst, in our very tents. And what did Abraham see, an ‘eyl achar,’ a Ram behind—a Ram to be offered in place of his child. That Hebrew word ‘achar’ hints at the Hebrew word “Acher,” which means, “Other,” or even “Stranger.” A ram for a sacrifice in biblical terms is a symbol of gratitude. It means: Thank God. Thank God, because now Abraham is Chesed, he is Kindness. And now he will never do what is evil in his eyes; now he sees that there are no Strangers.
And there’s one important coda to this story in the Midrash, in the rabbinic stories. After Sarah died, the Torah tells us that Abraham married another woman whose name was Keturah, whose name means ‘sweet-smelling spices,’ the sweet-spiced smell of that arises from a sacrificial offering. According to the rabbis, Ketura was none other than Hagar herself. Now, her name was forever changed: she was no longer The Stranger, but the sweet fragrance of Gratitude itself, taken back, with Chesed, with Love, with healing, into the home that she had been driven out of, back now into the tent of Abraham.
So there you have it: the solution to every problem known to humankind: look are truly see: before you is the child of God, just like your child. The solution to it all became possible in that moment of Abraham’s seeing what is evil in his eyes, and so now we must never again do what is evil in our eyes. It all became possible in Abrahams ability to see with God’s eyes, to find empathy, to find Chesed, ulitmate Kindness. Abraham’s final great trial challenges each one of us: who would you be if you walked through life seeing no one as a Stranger, no one as the enemy? How would you participate in society? How would you forevermore treat your family, your neighbors, your government differently? Our world is beset by innumerable problems from the ways in which we create strangers of one another. Albert Einstein purportedly once said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Thanks to Abraham’s courage, we can now all see the world through different eyes; through the eyes of empathy, of God’s empathy. When Abraham finally lifted his eyes and saw that there are no Strangers at that spot--the spot that would one day be the Temple Mount in Jerusalem--he gave that place a name. He called it Adonai Yireh: God will see. What it means is that here, once and for all, may we see as God sees, and do what it right. May we all fulfill our heritage, and show the world to see with the eyes of God.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Sunday, October 2, 2011
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Tuesday, May 3, 2011
The answer to this question is, in many ways, the very essence of Judaism. And it is also the essential theme of this week’s parashah: Kedoshim, the spiritual and literal heart of the Torah. It begins with the words Kedoshim tihiyu, You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God, am Holy. It’s quite a charge to the Jewish people when you think about it. We must embody, through all our generations, a uniquely Godly quality called Holiness in our every word, our every gesture, our every decision, our every action. But what is Holiness? In many ways, the meaning of that word is ineffable. Holiness is the quality that makes God, God! And our charge is to live out that Holiness, even though we are imperfect human beings. Our rabbinic and kabbalistic traditions use lots of textual allusions in these lines to reveal a deep truth in this Divine charge: that Israel is like a bride marrying the Groom, who is God. And so, as a people, we are wedded to that Holiness. In our very love for God, like a bride for a groom, we lovingly uphold the inner essence of our Beloved in our lives. So whatever Holiness ‘is,’ it’s all about separating ourselves from the world—just a little bit—just enough so that when we go about our day, there’s a little piece of the Godly in our every action. In essence, so that the eyes of God behold the world through our own eyes; so that the Hands of God move through our hands. It’s a beautiful teaching: the result is that we are called upon to be a people not quite the same as the rest of human society; we are called upon to be not mundane, but just a little elevated in our compassion, in our sense of justice; and separate from the world in our care and concern. But, of course, this is no easy task to accomplish. It takes a lifetime of practice. And our whole system of mitzvoth and study are there to get us to that lifetime of practicing Holiness.
In essence, the whole rest of parashat Kedoshim parses out specific examples of commandments where we can act out this Godly quality of Holiness. Case in point: the Torah tells us “uvekatzrechem et k’tzir artz’chem,” and when you reap the harvest of your field, “lo tichle pe’at sad’cha lakatzir,” “do not reap the corner of the field, [but leave it over for the poor].” It’s a beautiful commandment that creates a society where those who have nothing are remember by everyone else. The corner of every field belongs not to the landowner, but forever more to the poor. But our sages noted an interesting inconsistency in this commandment. When the command begins, God addresses the Israelites in the plural—uvekkatzrechem—when you, plural, harvest; and then it shifts to the singular and says ‘lo techaleh’ do not reap. Why this shift from plural to singular in one sentence? The Kli Yakar, a 16th century commentator, explains this shift with a mashal, a story: there was once a very poor village making plans for the celebration of Simchat Torah, and for the celebration, there was not enough schnapps, or alcoholic beverages to go around. So what did they decide to do? They sent around a barrel to every household, and asked each householder to contribute one glass of schnapps for the communal pool. The first householder thought to himself, ‘Since everyone is going to contribute, I’ll just put in a glass full of water. It’s not like anyone is really going to notice!’ Well, guess what? Everyone in the village had the same selfish thought. And what dismay there was on Simchat Torah when they discovered that they all had a barrel full of water instead of schnapps to celebrate!
So what’s the moral of the story? There is indeed a mandate on us all collectively as the Jewish people to be holy, to leave the corners of our fields for the poor. But don’t assume, just because the mitzvah is in the plural, that you “cut corners” for yourself. To be Holy means that you take the responsibility deeply, profoundly to yourself. In that subtle shift from the plural to the singular, therein is the essence of Holiness, of righteousness itself: it all rides on how much I can see how everyone, the plurality of us all, rides on me and this one decision I make right here, right now. That’s Holiness! That’s Righteousness! Take care, Israelites, our tradition teaches. Don’t just “forget” to leave the corner for the poor. Don’t figure out clever and deceptive ways to get around the injunction. The stakes are just too high.
After the Torah commands us about the corners of our fields, the injunction ends very clearly, very powerfully with the words, “Ani Adonai Eloheichem!” I am the Lord your God. And, of course, that’s a nice way to punctuate the command. Don’t be selfish or untrue, because I’m God. I said so. Don’t think you can get away with shirking this because I, God, know the Truth. As 21st century Jews, we can read this injunction, and we can understand why ending it with ‘…because God said so,’ might be very motivational for our ancestors. But perhaps that lacks a motivational power for many of us today. But before we right it off as having no more force, take a moment to consider the power of this statement in its context. The Torah reading began with the words ‘Kedoshim tehiyu,” You shall be Holy, for I, the Lord your God am Holy. And so remember what we said a moment ago: To be Jewish is to be Holy, to be ‘wed’ to God, yes. But even if you don’t know what to believe about God, we can all agree on what is “Godly:” it’s that apartness, the elevatedness, that practice of abstracting from our experience just enough to see and act with eyes and hearts and hands of compassion. So that little statement “Ani Adonai Eloheichem” isn’t just “I’m God and I say so.” It’s a way of saying ‘Remember who you are.’ ‘Remember your real purpose in this life.’ Don’t fall into the trap of being merely human. Yes, we’re human, but we have a spark of the Godly that lives in potential in our every action, in every moment.
Ani Adonai Eloheichem. There’s the potential for the Godly, the Holy, the Righteous in this very moment, in this very decision. Remember! Holiness happens in our realization that this moment, this choice, is actually bigger than you are. There’s an ethical imperative right here, right now. Holiness comes down to this one choice, this one realization: are you going to turn to selfishness, or are you going to face your responsibility to the world in this moment?
Another way of understanding this choice of Godliness, of Holiness is that it all comes down, quite simply, to the Truth of this moment. Are you going to face the Truth, or are you going to lie to yourself: that’s okay, everyone else will be contributing the schnapps. Oh, it’s okay, everyone else is going to leave the corner of their field. That’s okay, everyone else will pay their taxes honestly. That’s okay, I’m sure someone else—maybe in a better position than me—that someone else will save the Jews. Here’s what it means to be Holy: to be holy is to commit ourselves, body and soul, never ever to lie to ourselves.
And there it is: what is the righteousness that makes for a great man, a hero, like Jose Arturo Castellanos? It’s the righteousness of a man who refused to look away from the Truth. It’s the righteousness of a man who understood that there was an ethical imperative in this moment, in this choice, that was vastly greater than he. It’s the righteousness of a man who would not, who could not deceive himself. Why? Because Ani Adonai Eloheichem: because he understood that to be fully human is to rise above the mundane, to be separate and elevated above even his own complacency, above his own self-centered impulses. There is something so inspiring in this, and so beautiful that we Jews can celebrate this essentially Jewish imperative to Holiness, to Rigtheousness, reflected back from the heroism of a non-Jew. It gives us hope that the Holiness that lies at the heart of our Torah, is a Holiness that one day we can share with the all the human beings of this earth. Tomorrow, we will join together with Jews and non-Jews, Americans and Latinos, all races and creeds to celebrate this righteousness, this Holiness that can overcome all darkness and evil. May we indeed be inspired by the heroism of Castellanos, may his memory inspire us to affirm the Holiness of our Jewish souls. May we, like Castellanos, never again lie to ourselves. May we face the Truth, no matter how difficult that Truth is to face. And in that Truth, may we find the Face of God showing us the way to preserve life, to uphold justice, and transform this earth to a place, once and for all, of peace.
Monday, April 11, 2011
Case in point is the subject of this week’s Torah-reading: the Metzora, the ones afflicted with Tzara’at, that strange affliction that not only causes a white, scaly outbreak on the skin, but also on one’s clothes, and even in the walls of one’s house. And particularly, it seems, the houses of the Land of Israel are uniquely susceptible to contract this disease. Remember, last week we learned what this disease is really about: it’s obviously not just an illness. It’s a spiritual affliction that is the physical manifestation of a spiritual degradation. Tzara’at is the result of spreading Lashon Hara, evil speech, hateful, twisted, and corrupt ideas that can corrode the human spirit, and undo the very fabric of decent society. Engage in calumny, gossip, slander, hate speech, and you will be zapped in the Land of Israel with this disease. Speak unkind and careless speech within your family, and the very walls of your home will begin to rot away with this Divinely-sent affliction. A home afflicted is obviously a very powerful metaphor for the destructive nature of hateful speech: the house, the home, the safe-place—even this can be fodder for the spreading of the worst and lowest behaviors of humanity. So take care, Israelites, even in the privacy of your homes, and never spread hate or evil, no matter where you are!
But this idea of a house afflicted has even deeper implications about the moral power of the Land of Israel, implications that have resonance even into our own times: the Torah says, “When you enter the land of Canaan that I give you la’achuzah, as a possession, and I inflict tzara’at, an eruptive plague ‘b’veit eretz achuzatchem,’ in your house in the land you possess…” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, brings in an interesting Midrashic interpretation of this verse. He explains that the Israelites, when they came into the Land of Cana’an, actually inhabited the houses that had belonged to the ‘Amorites, the pagans who had been on the land before. He explains that the ‘Amorites concealed treasures of gold within the walls of their houses during the Israelites’ 40-year wanderings, because they knew that the Israelites would eventually come, dispossess them, and chase them from their homes. So they hid them. Why did they do this? Because they knew what God had told Abraham all those years before: that one day his offspring would come and inherit the Land. They knew that once their own sinfulness reached the critical breaking point, then the Israelites would arrive and they would be expelled from the Land. So they hid their gold in the walls knowing their time of expulsion was near, but they were ever-hopeful that eventually, even the Israelites’ sinfulness would result in their—the Israelitess’-- expulsion—at which time the ‘Amorites could return to their old houses, and get their gold back from inside the walls. But, with the hindsight of history, we know that the ‘Amorites never did return to the land, because their pagan sinfulness was so great, they were completely wiped out.
But it was good news for us! Even when our walls were afflicted, we had to rip down those walls, and lo and behold, we, the Israelites, discovered gold in those walls for us!
Embedded in this story, like the gold embedded in the walls, is the notion that the Land of Israel is not like other places. It has a moral reckoning for its inhabitants: if your immorality and sin become too great—the land will vomit you out…Our sages even see this warning embedded in the Hebrew of our Torah reading: there’s a funny repetition of the Hebrew word ‘achuzah,’ which means ‘possession.’ It says ‘When you come into the Land that I [God] give you la’achuzah, as a possession’…and then it talks about tzara’at in your house in ‘eretz achuzatchem’ in the Land of your possession. Why use the same word twice in the same sentence? Because, our sages explain, God wants us to know that we possess this land not by our own power, but because God gave it to us. And furthermore, if we start to claim absolute possession and ownership over the land, as if it’s ‘achuzatchem,’ as if it’s our possession—that’s when our very houses will start to rot with disease! It’s as if our tradition wants us to remember that “our” very land, “our” very houses on that land, they didn’t originally belong to us at all. It’s only when we humbly recognize this, then we can find the gold in the walls…
But wait a minute. There’s a disturbing paradox in this teaching, isn’t there? It’s only when we Israelites are arrogantly spreading evil speech that our houses get afflicted with this disease, and then, when we rip down the rotting walls—we’re getting rewarded for our arrogant speech with gold! Is that fair? Is that right? Why would God allow us to be rewarded for our evil speech in the land?
The answer comes when we consider the nature of our so-called ‘reward’ of gold. That gold in the walls, it was once the priceless treasures of those poor old ‘Amorites, now long gone from the Land. It represents their hopes and dreams of their future return to their homes. And now we get their gold. We even get their houses. It’s a reward, indeed. But put yourself in the place of that humbled Israelite, afflicted with a Divine punishment for their own arrogant words; now finding gold from someone else expelled by God from my own house for their arrogant sinfulness, now lost to this land and to history. As shiny and valuable as that gold may be, it doesn’t feel like much of a reward, does it. If you’re anything like me, that gold, even that house, feels kind of sickening. It feels tragic. And it leaves us in a tail-spin.
And this, I believe, is the very point of this teaching. Like so many of the wisest teachings of our Jewish tradition, it’s there to disturb us, to discomfit us, to bring about a dark uneasiness deep within our souls about our moral standing in the Land of Israel, and in the world: We Jewish people, look at our place in the Land of Israel. Look at our homeland, the very homes we live in. It is such a blessing. It is such a miracle. It is such a gift of God. Indeed, the Land is ours to possess! But take care and remember: this Land was once the possessions of others. Remember your own arrogance on that Land. Remember that as soon as you make an idol of the land itself, of your house itself, you literally bring down that house, you bring down the holiness of the Land, and you endanger your very place on the Land. Let the rotting disease on the walls, and the shining gold within stand as an eternal reminder of this truth.
No wonder there are such eternal passions surrounding the Land of Israel in the collective human unconscious. It’s a land that bears scars of loss, of moral struggle, and of our highest yearning for redemption. Isn’t it amazing how the deepest struggles in the modern state of Israel directly reflect some of our most ancient struggles about the land: different peoples claiming the land as their own; the Jewish people with our sense of our holy and God-given connection to the Land; the collective guilts and angers surrounding accusations of one people dispossessing another people. These themes and messages are not just current events. These themes have been defining the moral struggles of the Land literally since time immemorial.
We all yearn for a solution, once and for all, for the problems and challenges that beset our people in the Land of Israel. This is why our passions flare so fiercely. But our tradition wants us to understand that the Land of Israel, like it’s very name, Yisrael, mean’s ‘struggle.’ Struggle with God. Struggle for truth. Struggle for what is right and good in a place that is inherently and deeply complex. Embedded in the land is indeed the purest and most precious of gold—the gold of spirit, of insight, of Torah, of moral excellence. But that gold always comes with a price. It always bares the scars of those who have failed to live up to its worth. This is what it means to live in the Land of Israel—not to be free of struggle, but to lift that struggle up, and see it as a struggle toward goodness, toward holiness, toward humility, compassion and justice. So long as we look upon the walls of our homes in the Land of Israel, and see in the very walls a message that humbles us, that drives us not toward polarized hatreds but toward wisdom and justice, then the struggle of our Land, the struggle of centuries, is truly worth it.
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
Tuesday, February 22, 2011
Last week, President Obama delivered a message when President Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down from his place of power. Obama said “while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history -- echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice. As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.” These are beautiful and inspiring words of our president in the face of extraordinary change in the middle east. As Jews, we have watched the images on television, read the reports in the newspapers, and we heard Obama’s remarks. And we can’t help but have a terribly ambivalent reaction. This isn’t just any popular uprising for the sake of democracy. These are Arab countries. This is Egypt. Mitzrayim. This was our sworn enemy with whom we entered into an uneasy yet solid peace agreement decades ago. These countries can profoundly threaten the safety of the State of Israel. On the one hand, it is the common folk marching for justice, for their rights—something so very close to our Jewish souls. On the other hand, how many of those common folk would applaud and do anything to obliterate the Jewish State? What’s worse is that we’re all too aware of the threats of the mobs, particularly mobs of our enemies. We Jews bear the painful scars of mobs of crusaders, of Cossaks, of Nazis, of the mobs in Iran. We know what peril lies in mobs who have no love for the Jews or for Israel.
Indeed, in our own experience, we know from the dangers of mobs going awry. This week’s parashah is defined by the evils and dangers of mob mentality. I’m speaking, of course, of the mob of Israelites who feared when Moses didn’t come down from the mountain. The Israelites who demanded that Aharon fashion a god of gold who would go before them. The Israelites who said ‘Eileh Eloheicha, Yisrael’—this is your god, O Israel! –to the Golden Calf. God is enraged at this brazen act of idolatry. “Ata, hanichah li,” “Now, let me be,” God declares, that My anger may blaze forth against them and that I may destroy them. But it is at this intense and horrifying moment that something fascinating happens: Moses steps up and intercedes on behalf of the sinful Israelites. He argues for the sake of their survival. He reminds God that the Egyptians would note that this God of Israel is evil, who rescues the Israelites, only to destroy them in the desert. He reminds God of the favor incurred by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: of their loyalty and his covenant with their descendants. With this, God relents God’s anger. It’s an incredible moment: here we have the classic angry God of the biblical account. Only now, this angry God is surprisingly willing to be ‘talked down,’ by Moses.
When God says ‘hanicha li,’ “Let me be,” to Moses, and when you think about it, it’s a rather strange thing to say. God is God. God is all powerful. Why in heaven or earth would God say ‘Let me be’ to a human being, as if he were being restrained? In the Talmud, we find a extraordinary teaching of Rabbi Abahu that illustrates the power of this moment: Abahu says, “this teaches that Moses took hold of the Holy One, blessed be He, like a man who seizes his fellow by his garment and said before Him: Sovereign of the Universe, I will not let You go until You forgive and pardon them.” Rashi, the great medieval commentator, presents a different perspective on this. Rashi explains: “Here God created an opening, and informed [Moses] that the matter rested on him; if he would pray, God would not destroy them.” Either way you look at it—either it’s Moses taking a hold of God’s “garment,” or God using a figure of speech to prompt Moses—this is a moment of empowering Moses to rise to his greatest nobility of spirit, to defend his people, to speak the worthiness of the people of Israel before God. And miraculously it works!
It’s especially miraculous when you compare this moment to other moments of Divine wrath in the Bible. When God wipes out the world in the great flood, there’s no discussion at all. Noach doesn’t even have a chance to speak up. When God destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, at least he gives Abraham a chance to defend the potential innocent of the cities—to no avail, of course. There isn’t anyone worthy of saving there. But at this moment, the great sin of the people in worship ing the Golden Calf, there is something altogether new in the world. God says ‘hanichah li.’ Those Hebrew words, ‘Let me be,’ can also literally be translated as “Let me down:” Talk me down! In a sense, it really is an opening: God is saying, ‘Go for it, Moses. Now you can bring down my rage at them, even though they certainly don’t deserve it, I’m willing to be talked down. I am willing to forgive them, if you are truly willing to believe in them!
There’s a wonderful midrash where God literally says this point. “Whenever I win an argument with my children, as at the time of the Flood or of Sodom and Gomorrah,” says God, “I lose. Whenever I lose an argument, I win.” What this means is that at the Flood, and particularly at Sodom and Gomorrah, God won the argument, but in the ultimate sense, God loses. The rabbis of the Midrash are quick to recognize on a visceral level what we all feel when we encounter the destroying God of the Bible: God loses when people die at God’s hand, even if the victims deserved the punishment. When we human beings, however, win in the argument against God, when we talk even God down so that life itself is preserved, then ultimately God wins. God, the rigid judgmental God of old, wants to lose the argument! Our Torah reveals that God wants more than anything to lose so that the human spirit can express faith in itself to overcome our propensity to evil.
The mob of Israelites committed the worst kind of sin in the Bible: idolatry itself. And yet, God wants Moses to recognize their potential for holiness despite this sin. The reason for this is because here, unlike the Flood, unlike Sodom and Gomorroah, there really is the potential for the good. Moses speaks this potential, showing how they are the descendants of the covenant, how they bear a connection to something greater than their present limitedness, and when we human beings can own this sense of our potential, the destroying angry God willingly recedes.
It’s hard to resist comparisons between the ancient and the modern. Today, it’s not the Israelites, but the Arab peoples and the Egyptians who are the crowd whom we fear can become a mob. And now, the Egyptians have overthrown their Pharaoh. When Obama, and much of the world, and a real part of ourselves looks on this moment, we see indeed the potential for holiness in this act. But going from a mob to a holy people isn’t easy. Moses had to smash the tablets of the Ten Commandments to remind them how badly they had strayed. And indeed, in the middle east, the idolatries of Muslim Fundamentalism, of Israel-hatred and anti-Semitism often run rampant among the mobs. The precarious transitions of power can so easily be turned on an evil path. But then again, the people acted not out of hatred or a desire for violence, but out of a genuine desire for rights, for freedom, for justice in their land.
On some level, I can feel the presence of God hanging over the middle east at this moment, saying ‘hanichah li,’ ‘Talk me down.’ There is so much potential for this to go bad. And yet, God waits for the world, for us, and for the Middle Eastern peoples themselves to see and live by the potential for the good that is in this moment. We can only imagine how difficult it was for Moses to speak out on behalf of the Israelites’ potential. Like God, Moses too must have felt betrayed and filled with doubt about the Israelites goodness. And yet, he overcame his rage and doubts, and stood up for their potential. At this moment in history, we are like Moses. God has given us the opening. Can we rise to see the potential for real democracy, for a healthy and just society in Egypt and elsewhere, despite all our reasons to retreat into fear and defensiveness because of the people’s and the states’ shortcomings? Can we, like God in our Parashah, be the people of infinite compassion, despite everything, and applaud a genuine desire for the kind of democracy and blessings that we have here and in the State of Israel? Can we see past our ancient enmities, and be willing to join with the best among these people in a shared search for a more just and compassionate world? The potential is there. And the God of Israel, and of all people’s is waiting only for us to acknowledge this shared potential. May we find that potential fulfilled together. May we overcome our fears, even as we seek to do what we must to protect ourselves. And together, may the children of Israel and the children of Yishma’el join together to make the world a holier place.