Parashat Re’eh 5781
Israeli civil bureaucracy is a bit notorious for its complexity and rigidity. It’s saddled with lingering influences from Ottoman and British occupation and the Russian and Eastern European backgrounds of some of the early Jewish groups who returned in the Aliyah movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and set up the departments of state. But then, every once in a while, you get a moment of mercy, as we did this week.
My wife had been trying to file online all the documents necessary to get permission for a family member to enter the country for a family Simcha, a challenge right now during the resurging pandemic, and we were hitting wall after Kafkaesque wall, week after week. Finally, time was growing short, so we decided to go personally to the local Ministry of Interior office here in Tzfat. When we entered the office, the usually bustling place was quiet; just a security officer and an intake person at the door, a clerk yawning at her station, and some guys in a back room. The security officer was giving my wife a hard time getting in, telling her we should handle all this online, but she persisted and the guard asked her name. When she said her name aloud, one of the guys in the back room called out her name in surprise and came out to meet us. Just at that very moment he had been looking over the documents she had submitted online days earlier. He was warm and welcoming, ushered her into his office, resolved all issues and approved everything in a few minutes. Chasdei HaShem!
We tend to interpret these special moments of synchronicity as reassurance that there’s a guiding Hand in our lives. Rabbenu Azriel of Gerona notes that most of the miracles of biblical tradition are miracles of timing: the plagues in Egypt were extremes of nature but timed to just when Moshe called for them; the splitting of the Sea occurred just when Israel desperately needed an escape route; a flock of quails arrives just when the Israelites complain about food, and many other examples. The impeccable timing implies that Israel is in the direct, personal care of God.
In this week’s parashah, Moshe Rabbenu tells Israel:
דברים פרק יד פסוק א פסוק ב
בָּנִ֣ים אַתֶּ֔ם לַֽיקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֑ם לֹ֣א תִתְגֹּֽדְד֗וּ וְלֹֽא־תָשִׂ֧ימוּ קָרְחָ֛ה בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶ֖ם לָמֵֽת:
כִּ֣י עַ֤ם קָדוֹשׁ֙ אַתָּ֔ה לַיקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וּבְךָ֞ בָּחַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֗ק לִֽהְי֥וֹת לוֹ֙ לְעַ֣ם סְגֻלָּ֔ה מִכֹּל֙ הָֽעַמִּ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר עַל־פְּנֵ֥י הָאֲדָמָֽה: ס
You are children of HaShem your God, do not cut or shave yourselves between your eyes in mourning for the dead. For you are a holy people to HaShem your God, and you HaShem chose to be for Him a special possession, out of all the nations on the face of the earth (Dt. 14:1,2).
The halakhic context is that we should not mutilate ourselves the way some religious groups of the Middle East did, and still do, in their mourning rituals, because we are a precious people, body and soul. We are in God’s direct providential care, we are all children of God, so to speak. But this designation as God’s family is much misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews alike. Some non-Jews resent this notion of Israel as a chosen people, though, frankly, the scripture and tradition of every religious community make the claim that they are special to their deity. Some Jews take this in a self-congratulatory, triumphal way – even though just little earlier Moshe had said, with brutal honesty:
דברים פרק ז
(ז) לֹ֣א מֵֽרֻבְּכֶ֞ם מִכָּל־הָֽעַמִּ֗ים חָשַׁ֧ק יְקֹוָ֛ק בָּכֶ֖ם וַיִּבְחַ֣ר בָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אַתֶּ֥ם הַמְעַ֖ט מִכָּל־הָעַמִּֽים:
Not because you are greater in number than all other nations did HaShem desire you and choose you, for you are the least of all nations (Dt. 7:7)
דברים פרק ט
(ד) אַל־תֹּאמַ֣ר בִּלְבָבְךָ֗ בַּהֲדֹ֣ף יְקֹוָק֩ אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ אֹתָ֥ם׀ מִלְּפָנֶיךָ֘ לֵאמֹר֒ בְּצִדְקָתִי֙ הֱבִיאַ֣נִי יְקֹוָ֔ק לָרֶ֖שֶׁת אֶת־ הָאָ֣רֶץ הַזֹּ֑את וּבְרִשְׁעַת֙ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֔לֶּה יְקֹוָ֖ק מוֹרִישָׁ֥ם מִפָּנֶֽיךָ:
(ה) לֹ֣א בְצִדְקָתְךָ֗ וּבְיֹ֙שֶׁר֙ לְבָ֣בְךָ֔ אַתָּ֥ה בָ֖א לָרֶ֣שֶׁת אֶת־אַרְצָ֑ם כִּ֞י בְּרִשְׁעַ֣ת׀ הַגּוֹיִ֣ם הָאֵ֗לֶּה יְקֹוָ֤ק אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ מוֹרִישָׁ֣ם מִפָּנֶ֔יךָ וּלְמַ֜עַן הָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַדָּבָ֗ר אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֤ע יְקֹוָק֙ לַאֲבֹתֶ֔יךָ לְאַבְרָהָ֥ם לְיִצְחָ֖ק וּֽלְיַעֲקֹֽב:
(ו) וְיָדַעְתָּ֗ כִּ֠י לֹ֤א בְצִדְקָֽתְךָ֙ יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱ֠לֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵ֨ן לְךָ֜ אֶת־הָאָ֧רֶץ הַטּוֹבָ֛ה הַזֹּ֖את לְרִשְׁתָּ֑הּ כִּ֥י עַם־קְשֵׁה־עֹ֖רֶף אָֽתָּה:
Don’t say in your heart, when HaShem your God pushes out the nations from before you, that “it’s because of my righteousness that HaShem brought me to inherit this Land,” and because of the wickedness of these nation that HaShem drove them out before you. It was not due to your righteousness or the integrity of your heart that you are coming to inherit their land, but because of the wickedness of these nations that HaShem your God is driving them out before you, and to uphold that which HaShem promised to your forefathers, to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. And you should know that it is not on account of your righteousness that HaShem your God is giving you this good Land to inherit, for you are a stiff-necked people. (Dt. 9:4-6)
So we should not put on any airs. What, then, is the meaning and basis for being a special, holy people, children of God, getting God’s special providential attention? What is the meaning of the merit of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov?
In the Gemara Baba Kama (2b) a distinction is made between the vulnerability of an animal to injury from another animal, and the vulnerability of a human being to being injured by an animal. The rabbis note that in the Torah, when an ox is severely injured by another ox, the ox is said to be “pushed,” whereas when a human is injured by an ox the term used is “gored,” a more precisely focused attack. The rabbis conclude that a human being “who has a mazal,” can usually only be harmed by a more focused attack, while animals, which do not have a mazal, can be injured more easily. Rashi explains “mazal” in this instance not as luck, nor as planetary influence, nor as a guardian angel (cf. Shabbat 53b), but rather, that a human being “has knowledge to guard his body.” The sensitive vigilance of human consciousness affords some degree of protective care.
Maimonides takes this point further, and in a detailed discussion of the nature of divine Providence in his Guide of the Perplexed he sums up the theory:
When any human individual has obtained, because of the disposition of his substance and his training, a greater portion of this efflux [of divine Intellect] than others, providence will of necessity watch more carefully over him than over others – if providence is, as I have stated, consequent upon the intellect. Accordingly, divine providence does not apply in an equal manner to all the individuals of the human species, rather, greater providence is accorded to those with greater human perfection relative to each other. Consequently, it is necessarily so that His providential care for prophets is exceedingly powerful, according to their level in prophecy, and that His providential care for righteous and good people is proportionate to their righteousness and integrity. For it is the measure of this efflux of the divine Intellect that places prophecy in the mouths of prophets and grants integrity to the actions of good people and perfects the wisdom of the righteous in what they know. As for the ignorant and the disobedient, their state is degraded in proportion to their lack of this divine efflux… This is one of the fundamental principles of Torah, upon which it is built, that is, that divine providence cares for each and every person in the manner proper to them (3:18).
The foundation of Maimonides’ theory of divine providence is the principle that human consciousness receives a continual efflux from divine Intellect itself. Later in the Guide he states:
The [divine Intellect] is the connection between us and HaShem, blessed be He. Just as we apprehend Him by means of that light which He has caused to flow upon us, as it says “in Your light we see light (Ps. 36:10),” so, too, by that very light itself He gazes upon us, and because of it He is always with us, gazing and seeing (3:52).
Light, here, is a metaphor for the divine Consciousness, beyond anything we can imagine, that flows to each and every one of us at every moment, and constitutes our individual consciousness in all its aspects, perceptive, emotional and cognitive. Consciousness is still a mystery to neuroscientists and philosophers, but for Maimonides, whatever consciousness is, it’s a gift we find ourselves with, and can only have one possible source – the Intellect that emanates from God Himself. Our individual consciousness is far more limited than its divine source, certainly, but Maimonides states that, nonetheless, our consciousness and the divine Consciousness are on one continuum.
Everyone human being is being gifted this efflux from God at every moment, but not every human being takes advantage of this gift in the same way. According to whether we receive and cultivate it through virtuous action, disciplined thinking and training in wisdom, or ignore or reject it through bad moral and mental habits, so, in proportion, are we connected to or estranged from God’s providential attention and care.
Notice that Maimonides does not restrict this intimate connection between God’s Consciousness and our consciousness only to Israel, nor does he restrict God’s providential care only to Israel. All human beings have this connection. This is consonant with Maimonides’ understanding of God’s providential care in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Shmittah and Yovel, 13:13, based on the opinion of Rabbi Meir in the Gemara Baba Kama 38a. At the end of his discussion of God’s provisions for the tribe of Levi, that leads a spiritual life dedicated to divine service on behalf of Israel and the spiritual and ethical education of Israel, he states:
Not just the tribe of Levi alone, but each and every person of all people of the world whose spirit prompts him and he understands from his own mind to distinguish himself and stand before HaShem, to minister to Him and serve Him, to know HaShem and walk with integrity the way God made him, and who casts from off his neck the yoke of the many calculations that people seek – behold, such a person is sanctified holy of holies, and HaShem will be his portion and inheritance for ever and ever, and he shall merit in this world that which is sufficient for him, just as do the Kohanim and Levi’im. As King David, peace be upon him, says “HaShem is my portion and my cup, You support my lot (Ps. 16:5).
God’s providential care is offered to every human being, and good people everywhere can strengthen their connection with God through cultivating virtue and wisdom. Emmanuel Levinas suggests that if the Torah focuses on the special relationship God has with Israel, as descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, it’s only insofar as Israelites have, not the entitlement, but the responsibility to comport ourselves as essential, authentic human beings who care for the needs of other human beings in the manner of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov:
The heirs of Abraham – people to whom their ancestor bequeathed a difficult tradition of duties toward the other person, which one is never done with, an order from which one is never free… So defined, the heirs of Abraham are of all nations: any man truly man is no doubt of the line of Abraham (Nine Talmudic Readings, “Judaism and Revolution,” p. 99)
This is a family to which every human being can belong. Every human being who devotes him and herself to virtue and wisdom, to caring for others, can realize his and her potential to be embraced as child of God. As such, every human being can earn God’s continual providential care. And we can all realize that God is caring for us, not just at special moments of synchronicity, in which realize gratefully that we are cared for in a marvelous way, but really on all our paths, at every moment of our lives, together.