This is based on my shiur on Rosh Hashana with some updates.
I’ve written and spoken on occasion about what I consider the great challenge of the Chumash (the Five Books of Moses). G-d’s role is cast in a way that is almost impossible to understand. There is a fundamental divide between the divine and the human perspectives and the Torah doesn’t do anything to hide it.
For me, the most personal expression of this is also quite a subtle one.
Avram was one of Terach’s three sons (I think they were triplets, given that they are described as being born the same year). One was named after the past (Av means father). One was named after the present: Nachor means ‘sneeze’. The third was Haran, named after education or the future.
The kids were named after the past, present and future.
Then Haran died and, a few verses later, Terach (their father) left his homeland of Ur Kasdim (Chaldea). The name of this place literally means “Destroyers of Light.”
Years later, after Avram has just fought the war with the four kings, G-d promises Avram he will have many descendants. Avram believes G-d and is credited with righteousness. Then G-d says something striking.
He says: “I brought you out of Ur Kasdim to this land to inherit it.”
Avraham doesn’t simply believe this. Instead, he says: “How can I know?”
There are many possible reasons for this response. One, that touches modern issues very closely, is that Avram didn’t want to dispossess the people already in the land. We know from the war that Avram had a treaty with those people. Another possible reason is that Avram thought he brought himself from Ur Kasdim; or at least that his father brought them out. He doesn’t credit G-d with bringing them out.
A third answer, the answer I want to focus on today, is for me the most difficult one.
In 1975, my oldest brother died in an accident in the Idaho wilderness. He had just turned seven. That same day, my parents left their home of 8 years. A home they had built nail by nail and board by board. They had built the hydroelectric system. They had hacked a life out of an incredibly inhospitable place. And, in a moment, they abandoned it.
When I read this verse, this is what I recalled. My parents left when their eldest son died. Perhaps Terach left Ur Kasdim for the same reason. Perhaps G-d (who is, after all, in control of everything) had taken Haran and driven Terach and his family from Ur Kasdim. From the place where light is destroyed.
Imagine being in Avram’s shoes. Imagine that G-d, with whom you have a direct relationship, had just implied that He had taken your beloved brother in order to make your family move.
Your trust would, at the very least, waver.
G-d’s response is to double down. He promises Avram’s descendants will be driven into slavery and then subjected to genocidal attacks. Afterwards, they will be redeemed and brought out to their land.
In the future, there will be no question that G-d brought the people out of place of darkness. But G-d will do it through darkness. He won’t just magically transport the people to freedom.
Instead, millions will die.
When the time comes for the first iteration of that reality (there is no country and I think it is speaking about Germany as much as it is about Egypt). Moshe resists G-d’s vision. He constantly and consistently resists. He can’t accept this vision. The Torah doesn’t hide this. It also doesn’t diminish Moshe for his perspective. Aaron does whatever G-d wants. He hops to it.
But Aaron isn’t chosen by G-d, Moshe is.
Moshe, the one who can’t just agree with G-d, is G-d’s chosen one.
In fact, this conflict of outlooks permeates the entire Chumash (the Five Books of Moses). In Parshat Vayikra (the beginning of Leviticus), the sacrifices are described from the perspective of the layman. In the entire reading, only one sacrifice is called Holy. The sacrifice of flour that is eaten by the priests. Everything else involves destruction. Animals slaughtered and burned in their entirety, even flour burned up into nothing. From the every man’s perspective, this isn’t Holy. And for those who like to point to animal sacrifice in other nations, it often wasn’t holy for them either. They ate (as far as I know), the meat that they sacrificed. It was like a barbeque. But we burned it up into nothing. But in the next reading, which comes from the priest’s perspective, almost all of it is Holy or Holy of Holies. These animals are somehow converted from physical reality to spiritual reality. Something greater is made. There is no loss and no destruction – just the release of holiness.
The Everyman, in this reading, can’t see this. There is more than one perspective.
Rather than ignoring the idea that there is more than one perspective, the Torah embraces it.
There is this divine perspective. This divine reality. This reality in which people, even people, can be sacrificed for spiritual ends.
Haran dies in Ur Kasdim. The result is the first family that moves between cultures and a couple – Avram and Sarai – who have the most influential marriage in the history of humankind. Haran would have died at some point – thousands of years in our past – and we can see the spiritual payoff. But we can also understand how Avram would have struggled with it. How he could never truly accept it.
We can even accept and celebrate the Exodus from Egypt. Yes, huge numbers of Jewish children were killed. Huge numbers of Egyptians died. Nonetheless, we see and celebrate the result. The positive, and spiritual, survives while the pain of those who are lost disappears.
In a way it reflects the divine maxim that kindness is preserved for thousands of generations while hate vanishes in three or four.
The Akeidah (Sacrifice of Isaac) brings it all into even sharper perspective. Hashem commands Avraham to sacrifice his son. Avraham can not understand. And, yet, he performs the commandment. He accepts the divine perspective even though he can not perceive it.
This is the Fear of G-d.
One of the members of my community was reflecting on the talk and, again and again, described the divine reality as a fundamentally irrational reality. But I don’t agree with that assessment. It isn’t irrational, it is just hard to internalize.
My understanding of this perspective is this: G-d created Mankind so He could have a relationship with us. But we needed to be fundamentally different for there to be a relationship. There need to be some core distance between us. Death provides that distance. Death and sin. As is stated before we leave the Garden of Eden – if we were to eat from the Tree of Life we would become like G-d and that would defeat the purpose of our creation.
We need sin, we need death, we need fear – so that we can be different than G-d. We must be different than G-d. But then, in order to serve our purpose, we have to try to bridge that difference. Not by truly internalizing the divine perspective. If that were the case, Aaron would have been chosen and not Moshe. No, we bridge the difference by deferring to G-d even as we fail to understand the grand vision we can never share with Him.
We build a relationship with G-d. A relationship in which we walk in the path of G-d as Creators who ultimately connect with the timeless. But a relationship in which we are not like G-d and do not see the world as He does. Only our priests, the Kohanim, take on that perspective. Like the first of their number, Aaron, they adopt that divine perspective. But that is not the place for the rest of us.
We Fear G-d. We accept that there is a greater vision. We can even describe it. But we can not internalize it.
As my mother used to say: “I can understand the music, I can analyze the music, but I cannot feel the music.”
There are so many of this ‘convert-the-physical-to-spiritual’ commandments that we no longer observe. Where we take something and seem to destroy it in order to create something spiritual. We don’t offer sacrifices. We don’t practice the art of ritual purity. We don’t follow a wide variety of the symbolic restrictions on other activities. We don’t subsume the natural to the divine.
But there are some of these commandments we still embrace. We can choose to live without interest. We can ignore the opportunity to share real-world risks and instead simply pretend that they do not exist. And, this year, we can practice Shmita – the Sabbatical year.
Many argue shmita is just crop rotation. We let the land lay fallow to let it recuperate. If this were so, we’d rotate our plots of land and keep 6/7 in operation in any particular year. At the least, we’d be saving grain for six years to cover the seventh. But we don’t. We expect the sixth year, which ought to be the least productive due to nitrogen depletion, to cover two years’ worth of needs. It doesn’t make any sense. We can’t understand it. We are sacrificing critical economic opportunities in exchange for some sort of spiritual connection.
In return, G-d promises us blessings. He promises us excess grain. He promises, shortly afterwards, that we will eat very old grain but keep planting. We will be G-dlike – creating even though we lack nothing.
We can’t understand it. It makes no sense. And yet… if we have the Fear of G-d we will embrace it.
We will understand that our perspective is not His (or Hers, if you prefer).
Nonetheless, we will embrace that alien perspective.
I have a very hard time with Shmita. But I can understand how it demonstrates the Fear of G-d. I can understand that if we keep it, the world will be able to appreciate and see the divine through out example.
We are in the middle of the Aseret Y’mai Teshuva – the 10 Days of Repentance. They span from the holiday of Rosh Hashana where we have the opportunity to hear the echo of the voice of G-d to the holiday of Yom Kippur – where we seek atonement for our sins.
The centerpiece of the Yom Kippur service, in ancient times, beautifully illustrates the opportunity of the divine relationship. It also demonstrates, in a way, just a slice of that divine perspective.
The centerpiece is the ritual of Azazel, called the scapegoat in many English translations.
Famously, there are two goats. One goat is sacrificed, the second is loaded with the sins of the people and shoved off a cliff in the wilderness.
Growing up, we had goats. Goats are mischievous and rambunctious. They are something else, though. Growing up we used to practice the ritual Azazel. But we never had the heart to actually hurt the goats. We loved them. Instead, we drove them away. One time, we actually drove a goat something like 20 miles away.
The goats always came back. Goats are loyal. Just like the Jewish people. Ultimately, they stay connected to their Jewish identity despite everything.
Anyway, there are two goats. One goat is sacrificed to Yud-Key-Vav-Kay – the name of G-d that embraces the past, present and future. The second is thrown over that cliff – and dedicated to Az-Azel. The name Az-Azel literally means ‘goat of disappearance.’
For me the lesson is clear. We all die. But we can become part of forEver (Yud-Key-Vav-Kay) or – like our sins – we can be a part of ForNever.
We can be a part of eternity; or it can be as if we never existed.
Being a part of forever requires building a relationship with G-d – not through belief, but through action. Even – especially – through reluctant action.
Just as was shown through the example of Avram and Moshe.
I am dedicating this talk to a woman who passed away recently.
She died on the second day of Rosh Hashana. Her name from Bettye Jean Hylton. She was 64.
She was an emergency room nurse who also volunteered at her church to support the homeless and poor.
Her brother, with whom I work, described her beautifully: “She lived as a humble caring person who never met a stranger and was willing to meet people where they were in life and work to assist them in getting better.”
She never met a stranger. She could relate to everyone. But she didn’t simply embrace them as they were. She didn’t simply adopt their perspective.
Instead, she understood there a path greater than the one they were on. There was some shadow of a divine path – and she dedicated herself to help others find it.
I never knew Bettye Jean Hylton. But as I prepare for Yom Kippur – for the Day of Atonement – I can imagine her soul is one of those which has become a part of ForEver.
May she rest with the divine and may her deeds and her example ripple through our lives.
May her kindness be preserved for thousands of generations.
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova.