Friday, September 15, 2006

DVAR TORAH: Nitzavim/Vayelech (It's not in heaven; choose life!)

As I helped my brother with his Talmud homework last week, the story from Baba Metzia 59a I realized that this all important sugya (short section unit in the Talmud) is coming up in the Portion of the Week. In a nutshell, the account of the argument over Achnai's oven It's Rabbi Eliezer versus the rest of the Sanhedrin on an issue of purity. Lonely Eliezer seem's to have God's backing as he causes many miracles to happen to back him up, a river defies gravity, walls bend, and a bat kol, a heavenly voice calls out and says "Rabbi Eliezer is right" to which the leader of the supposedly 70 people in the majority opinion says "we do not listen to heavenly voices, לא בשמים הוא Lo BaShamayim Hi, it is not in heaven". We find the context of this quote in Parashat Nitzavim.

11 For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off. 12 It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' 14 But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it. {S} 15 See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil, 16 in that I command thee this day to love the LORD thy God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments and His statutes and His ordinances; then thou shalt live and multiply, and the LORD thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest in to possess it. 17 But if thy heart turn away, and thou wilt not hear, but shalt be drawn away, and worship other gods, and serve them; 18 I declare unto you this day, that ye shall surely perish; ye shall not prolong your days upon the land, whither thou passest over the Jordan to go in to possess it. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed; 20 to love the LORD thy God, to hearken to His voice, and to cleave unto Him; for that is thy life, and the length of thy days; that thou mayest dwell in the land which the LORD swore unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them. {P}

The archaic nature of the 1917 JPS Bible aside, this little piece of Torah basically gives carte blanche to future rabbis to interpret the Torah as they will without threat of divine intervention in their interpretation. The Torah was given to us. Its secrets are ours to uncover, as we find in the first weird thing I ever found in a torah scroll: a great many revii dots over letters in the torah scroll (which I once actually mistook as revii trop and read each and every letter as a seperate revii). The final verse of chapter 29, this time my own translation: that which is hidden belongs to the Lord, but that which is revealed is for us and our children forever to perform all which the torah speaks (Hebrew term: Divrei Torah). This, I posit, is the source of my writing these each week. We are to reveal Torah through Dvar Torah, through speaking words of Torah from our own viewpoint, adding on to the 3500+ year old text with our own commentary and expertise. It is not in heaven, it's here for us to unravel. The name Israel in hebrew means "triumphing over God", and when Rabbi Joshua makes this statement to Rabbi Eliezer, God tells Elijah the Prophet, with a smile, "My children have triumphed over me".

I want to expand upon my conclusion to last week's Dvar Torah. Nitzavim ends with the four choices of life, death, good, and evil, and God implores us to choose life. I find this absolutely fascinating and so emblematic of what Judaism stands for. Life over good. Though we specificially wish for good life, we mainly ask for life itself at this time of year. Life brings both good and evil and has its ups and downs. If we only got good and there was no evil in the world, we would be at the same state as we were in the Garden of Eden. As I will, God willing, discuss in a couple of weeks, after the Holidays in regards to Parashat Bereishit, I don't think the Garden of Eden was such a good thing. They ate from the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil and not from the tree of Life. We refer to the Torah as the Tree of Life. It has good moments and it has bad moments, triumphs for the Jewish people, and occasions, possibly more numerous than the triumphs, when we had done shameful acts. The Torah, regardless of where you think it came from, and I tend to have a conservative (little 'c') view on this, is meant for human consumption. There is no life wholly good. Life has its ups and has its downs and it requires this dichotomy. If everything was good, life would be boring. To paraphrase Dark Helmet from Spaceballs, "good is dumb". Too much of a good thing could be a bad thing, as we see with the story of Choni the Circle maker, too much blesséd rain can flood and kill you.

Oh yeah, Vayelech is where Moses transfers his powers to Joshua on his 120th birthday and clears his throat to begin his final song. Kind of a scrawny cow compared to Nitzavim, but important nonetheless.

I wish for you to be written not only in the book of life, but sealed in the book of good life. In the spirit of the season, if I have wronged you in any way with my words (or anything else), I apologize.

Shabbat Shalom, Shana Tova,

PS: As of press, my webcounter is currently at 3080. Neat.

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