Listen to this morning's class on Derashot HaRan 3 (1) here.
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Thoughts on Parashat Shofetim 2020
Over the course of the several years which I spent living in Israel, I developed a passion for two activities: learning and walking. In the two years following high school and two more after marriage, I spent the vast majority of my time poring over the many biblical and rabbinic texts of our tradition. During the “in between” time, however, I would take walks. Sometimes I had a destination in mind – the thirty-minute route from home to yeshiva and back, for example. But oftentimes I didn’t. Walking was my way of “airing out.” It was my brief respite from the walls of the bet midrash; my engagement with the sacred air of Jerusalem.
The Torah hints at a particular significance to walking in many different contexts.
In Parashat Shofetim, Moshe mentions the Cohen’s future words of inspiration to the people before leaving for war:
“Hear, Yisrael, you are approaching the battle today against your enemies…Do not fear and do not quake…For Hashem your God, is the One who walks with you, to fight for you with your enemies, to save you. (Devarim 20:4)
He will tell the soldiers that God’s security will extend beyond “being present with you” to “walking with you.” Indeed, the first discernable involvement of God with the world took place after Adam and Hava ate from the Ess HaDa’at: “And they heard the sound of Hashem the God walking about in the garden in the evening breeze” (Bereshit 3:8).
Am Yisrael was likewise instructed to follow in God’s ways by means of a figurative “walking.” It is a verb repeated in Sefer Devarim in many contexts, most famously in “After Hashem your God you shall walk” (Devarim 13:5) and “God will set you up for Him as a holy people…when you keep the command of Hashem your God and walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). By doing so, the nation will follow in the ways of Noah, who “walked with God” (Bereshit 6:9) and Avraham, who was instructed to “Walk in my presence and be blameless” (Bereshit 17:1).
“Walking,” then, describes God’s presence with us in this world, which we are instructed to follow. It is, in fact, the central aspect of the covenant which God presented to us: “If you walk to my laws…I will walk in your midst” (VaYikra 26:3, 12). And it is no wonder, then, that we refer to the expansive realm of Jewish law as that of “walking,” or halakhah!
But why walking? If the underlying concept in these various situations is the state of “presence” or “action” of us with God or God with us, then the Torah could have used words that more clearly portray that meaning. Why is “walking” the chosen verb for the ideal way in which Am Yisrael and God share together in a relationship?
Reflecting back upon the unique intersection of walking with the years of significant growth in my life, I sense a certain appropriateness. As we set out on a walk, we enter into a realm of transition. It’s the stage of “in between” – which comes after the place of beginning and before that of ending. “I love to travel, but hate to arrive,” Albert Einstein once said, in appreciation of this realm. Friedrich Nietzche likewise reveled in his feeling as a “wanderer on the earth – though not as a traveler to a final destination.” Walking represents not a place of “being,” but one of “becoming.” It is the time which is underlain by possibility and rich in opportunity.
We could never imagine describing God as a being who is “set in stone.” Though his perfection is unmovable, His engagement with the world is constantly developing. Much as Adam and Hava heard the vibrancy of His “footsteps” long ago, so too did our forefathers on the battlegrounds of war. And so too must we, in the relationship we will develop with Him over the course of our lives. But that relationship, of course, is reciprocal. Sitting back and awaiting His presence is futile. We can only hear His footsteps of involvement along the trails of a walk. We will only recognize God as our source of developing life when we set out to develop our life.
As he set forth the laws of debts and loans, Moshe paused to mention a dreamlike future of national prosperity: “Yet, there will be no poor among you,” he said, “Only if you surely heed the voice of Hashem your God, to keep to do all this command that I charge you today” (Devarim 15:4). Surprisingly, though, Moshe followed his lofty vision by addressing an alternate reality: “Should there be a poor person among you,” he began (15:7). He taught about the laws of charity and giving, and stated their importance, “For the pauper will not cease from the midst of the land” (15:11). Moshe was distinguishing between the ideal and the real. He was teaching that ideally, “There will be no poor among you.” In reality, however, “The pauper will not cease.”
In a letter to a student, Rav Kook wrote: “We must see life in two dimensions: as it is and as it should be. Absolute righteousness is always rooted in how things should be, but provisional righteousness, which touches more on acting in the present, is built on how things actually are…The two are connected, like alternating horizons on a long journey.” Life “as it is” presents us with the challenge of striving for and achieving one “as it should be.” Our mission, then, is to transform the “real” into the “ideal.”
Every once in a while, I’m able to appreciate “the ideal” as a source of inspiration and direction in my own life. As a high school teacher, my classroom is best characterized as a “controlled chaos.” Although I attempt to strike the balance between unhindered self-expression and the appropriate structure a learning environment, the “chaos” of my classroom sometimes overwhelms its “control.” It is on such occasions that I trek across the school building and find a seat in the back row of my father’s classroom. I see it as my entrance into the realm of “the ideal,” where I get a glimpse at the act of teaching “as it should be.” And although I know that the full mastery on display in my father’s class is worlds apart from the reality in my own, observing “the ideal” inspires me to continue on the road to its achievement.
The Hakhamim detected a similar dichotomy in the opening section of the Torah. They noted how God is referred to as “Elokim” in the opening line – a name that denotes midat ha-din, or “strict justice.” Later in the creation story, however, He’s referred to as “Hashem Elokim” (Bereshit 2:5) – the additional name referencing midat ha-rahamim, or “mercifulness.” The Rabbis suggested that the “original plan” was to create with the quality of strict justice. Seeing that the world could not survive in that state, He joined it with the quality of mercy. While the initial vision represents an ideal, the second relates to the human world of reality. And by revealing to us that ideal, God shed light on our mission. He was challenging us to couple our vision of life in this world “as it is,” with a healthy perspective of life “as it should be.”
Moshe’s message regarding the poor and unfortunate presents us with a lesson that impacts every facet of our lives. “Yet, there will be no poor among you” tells us to set our eyes on the ideal in every situation that we enter. Although it might be distant from our current reality of “The pauper will not cease,” seeing the ideal marks for us a destination. And that marker will, in turn, infuse every aspect of our lives with deeper meaning and inspiration.
Thoughts on Parashat Ekev 2020
It is told that on one Friday night, the Hafess Hayim (R. Yisrael Meir Kagan) reflected upon a well-known midrash regarding the taste of the man which fell in the desert. The Rabbis taught that the taste of the man was dependent upon each person’s individual thoughts or wishes. “What would happen if you weren’t thinking anything?” the rabbi wondered aloud. After a few minutes of silence, he answered the question himself: “If you don’t think, there is no taste.”
An important pasuk at the beginning of Parashat Ekev teaches that mindfulness was in fact the essential purpose of the man:
And He afflicted you and made you hunger and fed you the man…in order to make you know that not on bread alone does the human live, but on every utterance of God’s mouth does the human live. (Devarim 8:3)
Moshe explained that the man was more than just a source of nourishment. By setting the people of Am Yisrael in a context of hunger and discomfort, God forced them to recognize Him as the true source of their life. They were compelled to think about the appearance of each next meal. And the heavenly descent of the man made them mindful of its divine origin.
For the past several months I’ve commiserated with family and friends about the many annoyances of coronavirus. We’ve all complained about how the changes to social life, dining venues and travel habits have caused major distractions to our lives. Consider for a minute, though, that we’ve had it wrong all along. Maybe it was actually the life we knew before this pandemic which was more distracting! Think about it. Isn’t the current pace of our slowed-down days more conducive to focus than those of the past? And where better to notice what truly matters than in the natural confines of our homes, together with family?
Shifting our perspective, then, let’s appreciate this difficult time as a rare challenge of mindful “affliction.” It’s our modern-day reality of man.
Many of the superficialities which once dominated life are absent for the foreseeable future. The distractions which filled our hours and days have all but disappeared. So, seize this opportunity to become mindful. Use the time to focus on matters of essence. Clear your spiritual lenses to think deeply about yourself. Consider your connection to God. Reevaluate your values and reassess your mission in life.
Remembering that “If you don’t think, there is no taste,” commit yourself to discovering the true flavors of life.