Friday, June 1, 2018

Parashat BeHa'alotekha: Experience

A Message for Parashat BeHa'alotekha 2018
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As Am Yisrael was positioned to begin its march into the wilderness, Moshe turned to his father-in-law Hobab and said:

We are journeying to the place of which God said to us, “I will give it to you.” Come with us and we shall be good to you, for God has spoken a good thing to Yisrael. (Bemidbar 10:29)

Hobab responded:
I shall not go, but to my land to my birthplace I shall go. (10:30)

The theme and content of this short dialogue is eerily similar to God’s initial encounter with Avraham:

Go forth from your land and your birthplace…to the land I will show you. And I will bless you(Bereshit 12:1-2)

Urging Avraham to follow His path to an undefined place, God then promised him blessing as did Moshe to Hobab at this time. But whereas God demanded that Avraham leave his “land and birthplace,” which he did, Hobab turned down Moshe’s offer and instead returned to his “land and birthplace.”

I believe that the Torah’s contrast of Avraham and Hobab represents an issue that is far more significant than their respective one-time decisions. It touches upon opposing theologies and different approaches to our understanding of God.

The great medieval philosopher R. Yehudah HaLevi famously distinguished between the “God of the philosophers” and the “God of Avraham.” He explained that the philosophers seek God through the sole medium of intellect. Their religion is based upon logical proofs and arguments. They therefore suffer the constant threats of advanced thinking and endure the setbacks of counter-proofs and rationalizations. Avraham’s perception of God, however, though similarly engaged with the intellect was instead built upon the steadier foundations of experience and relationship.

HaLevi pointed to the foundational moment when God summoned Avraham outside and showed him the heavenly stars (Bereshit 15:5). He cited the Hakhamim’s interpretation of that moment: “God said to Avraham: Leave your astrology!” (Shabbat 156a). And HaLevi explained: “God commanded Avraham to leave behind all logical wisdom based upon astrology and the like, and instead devote himself to serving the God Whom Avraham had tasted.”[1] He wrote that this represented the ideal approach of God, citing in this context the ideal state of “Taste and see that God is good” (Tehilim 34:9).

R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik z”l similarly noted the Hakhamim’s contrast between Avraham and his society. Whereas God was traditionally perceived as “the master of the heavens” – an unfathomably distant being, Avraham crowned Him as “the God of the earth” – the approachable God of men.[2] R. Soloveitchik elaborated:
Avraham…sought and discovered God in the starlit heavens of Mesopotamia. Yet, he felt an intense loneliness and could not find solace in the silent companionship of God, whose image was reflected in the boundless stretches of the cosmos. Only when he met God on earth as Father, Brother, and Friend – not only along the uncharted astral routes – did he feel redeemed.[3]
Stretching beyond the cold and impersonal understanding of “God of the heavens,” Avraham experienced the warmth of His embrace as “God of the earth.”

Am Yisrael’s travels in the wilderness represented a national experience akin to those of their forefather Avraham several centuries before. They had no “home base” or familiar grounding as they followed God’s hidden itinerary to the place which He decreed. But although they lacked any clear understanding of God’s plans, they were nonetheless committed to the mysterious and inexplicable mission of experiencing His embrace. Quite apart from the nation’s commitment to the Avrahamic search for “the God of the earth,” Hobab was unwilling to endeavor beyond the defined realm of rational understanding. He instead turned back to his “land and birthplace,” as he rejected Moshe’s offer of a numinous encounter with the Almighty for the intellectual apprehension of “the philosophers.”
The biblical imagery for our experience with God is the cloud. Am Yisrael’s journey was initiated by the “lifted cloud” (10:11), and following Moshe’s dialogue with his father-in-law, the pasuk reiterates:
And God’s cloud was over them by day as they journeyed on from the camp. (10:34)
I believe that this is why the Hakhamim envisioned Avraham’s ability to locate the place for the Akedah by means of a cloud that hovered over the mountain, as well.[4] And it was their intent when they stated:
“After Hashem your God you shall go” (Devarim 13:5) – This is the cloud.[5]
The Hakhamim described the eternal command of “following God” as a constant search for “His cloud.” They referred to the pursuit of “the God of Avraham,” which exists even when we are confused by His essence and perplexed by His actions.

Parashat BeHa’alotekha reminds us of our duty to march along the journey which was begun by Avraham and continued by our ancestors in the midbar. It teaches us that even as we are limited in our intellectual grasp of the Divine, we must continue to connect with Him through our shared experience, making sense of His ways in a lasting relationship.

[1] R. Yehudah HaLevi, Kuzari IV:17.
[2] Bereshit Rabah 59:8, cited by Rashi to Bereshit 24:7.
[3] R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, The Lonely Man of Faith (New Milford, CT, 2012), pg. 36-7. See, as well, R. Soloveitchik’s related discussion in Worship of the Heart (Jersey City, NJ, 2003), pg. 58-9.
[4] Bereshit Rabah 56:2, cited by Rashi to Bereshit 22:4, s.v. va-yar.
[5] Sifrei, cited by Ramban to Devarim 13:5.