His Soul's Fire
This week's Torah portion manages to symbolize conclusion and renewal at one and the same time. It brings the Book of Exodus to its close, but the accompanying reading of the Torah portion for the New Month (Nissan) -- which contains the commandment of sanctifying the months symbolic of spiritual renewal -- creates a very powerful association with the idea of renewal.
Both these associations have a deeper aspect. Nachmanides expounds on the theme of the Book of Exodus (in his introduction to Parshat Shmot). He presents the thesis that the Book of Exodus should really be called the Book of Redemption. It begins by describing the descent of the tribes to Egypt, and it ends with the descent of the Cloud of God's Presence on to the Tent of the Meeting erected by their progeny, who had in the interim assumed the dimensions of a great nation.
The descent into Egypt, which marked the beginning of exile, also represents the loss of the special grace of God's Presence that accompanied the patriarchs, and the recovery of God's Presence, described at the very end of Parshat Pikudei, signifies a return to this special state of grace. Redemption is the closing of this circle of separation and reunion.
But the recovery of the special grace of God's Presence described at the end of the Book of Exodus represents much more than merely the reinstatement of what had already existed in the past. This recovery encapsulates the phenomenal spiritual accomplishment of Judaism.
All over the world, tiny enclaves of human beings manage to spend their lives in a state of grace.
All over the world, tiny enclaves of human beings manage to spend their lives in a state of grace, embraced by the consciousness of God's Presence. But invariably, these groups attain their state of grace by means of separation from the mundane world, and a total immersion in a life of prayer, meditation and poverty. Among all human societies there are small groups of human beings who spend their lives in these practices, and they are the only members of their social groups who are conscious of God's actual Presence as a part of their everyday reality. The degree of asceticism required to attain this special state of grace makes it an impractical life style for any large group.
Thus the fact that God's Presence rested on the tents of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and even when this Presence stretched to embrace their seventy descendants who went down to Egypt does not represent a unique departure in human history per se. Any small group of committed human beings can manage to attain this state of grace through dedication and self-sacrifice.
The singular achievement of the patriarchs -- and the reason that they represent a new departure for mankind -- was the creation of a nation of millions who could attain this state of grace, and manage to spend their lives with God's Presence while carrying out the tasks and bearing the burdens of ordinary human existence.
Thus when Nachmanides associates the Book of Exodus with the idea of redemption, the association involves the redemption of human existence itself, rather than the release from bondage of a particular group of individuals.
BACK TO THE GARDEN
By the end of the Book of Exodus, man as a species had regained the ability to conduct life in a state of grace in the Presence of God, an ability that was lost to mankind with Adam's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. From the expulsion until the Exodus -- a period of roughly two thousand years -- the ability to live in a state of grace was a capacity possessed by individuals and small groups only.
The absence of the ideal conditions prevailing in the Garden of Eden had heretofore presented an insurmountable barrier to man being able to achieve this state of grace as a species.
The redemption described in the Book of Exodus, therefore, represents a giant step forward in the development of the relationship between man and God. Before the Exodus, man as a species could only live in a state of grace in the Garden of Eden, a place where he could only remain as long as he was totally unblemished by the slightest contact with sin. Following the Exodus, the possibility of living in this state of grace was regained in the context of ordinary human existence. If we look at human history in terms of man's ability to coexist with God's Presence, we can conclude that with the Exodus mankind managed to regain entry into the Garden of Eden!
The historic processes that engineered this redemption in the world are described in the Book of Exodus.
The Book of Exodus, and the redemption it encapsulates, rests on a tripod:
- The miracles of the Exodus and the desert sojourn.
- The introduction of the special life style associated with Torah observance.
- The establishment of the Tabernacle.
In practice, today we retain our contact with all three elements of this tripod through the single vehicle of Torah observance. Many of the commandments were given specifically to preserve the memory of the events of the Exodus, while the system of daily prayers was introduced to preserve the contact with God that rested on the Temple service.
A study of the observant lifestyle easily demonstrates that its adherents are literally always in God's Presence at all hours of the day and through all activities of life. There is rarely a moment of human existence that is not covered by one of the Torah's commandments. The observant Jew, leading his everyday life, busy with his job, his family, pursuing his interests is constantly living in a state of Grace, ever in God's Presence through the observance of the commandments that apply to all of life's mundane activities.
This achievement of the Jewish people is an incredible accomplishment, unrivalled in human history.
This achievement of the Jewish people is an incredible accomplishment, unrivalled in human history. Never in history has a large body of human beings, usually numbering in the millions, managed to hang on to living in God's Presence for such an incredibly long uninterrupted stretch of time, nearly four thousand years by now, ever since the Exodus.
While Torah observance is surely the factor that made this achievement attainable, the phenomenon of continued Torah observance itself requires explanation. For it is clear to everyone that such observance requires dedication and self-sacrifice. What is the source of this commitment to observance that the Jewish people have always maintained, and what factor in the human spirit lies at the root of this attraction to conducting life in this state of grace?
The Ba'al Hatanya (Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the author of the Tanya) explains the psychological background of Jewish commitment. His explanation is based on the following passage:
For this commandment that I command you today: It is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven [for you] to say, "Who can ascend to the heaven for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?" Nor is it across the sea [for you] to say, "Who can cross to the other side of the sea for us and take it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?" Rather the matter is very near to you -- in your mouth and in your heart --to perform it. (Deut. 30:11-14)
If you would ask people their opinion of the message contained in this passage, the most common response would be skepticism. Dedication to Divine service is based on the love of God and the fear of God. Belief in God, love of God, fear of God are hardly common phenomena in our world. How can the Torah claim that they are so near, "in your heart and in your mouth"?
CLINGING TO GOD
The truth is that we are looking at the problem backwards. The commitment of the Jewish people over a four-thousand-year period to living with God is a demonstrable historical fact. They have clung to the idea of living with God with great stubbornness, sometimes in the face of the greatest adversity. Many have fallen out over the centuries, but a great multitude has always remained fully observant, loyal and faithful to their traditions.
In adversity, people only cling to the things that are central to their lives. Whenever it is possible to make life easier and more pleasant by adopting alternative lifestyles, the human instinct for survival encourages change and adaptation.
The aspects of behavior that remain unchanged through the vicissitudes of time are those that people cannot live without. Thus, the fact that Jews have remained loyal and faithful to the Torah for so long is living testimony that they cannot live comfortably without Torah observance. Just as humans cannot live without food, or sleep, and we have all learned through our experience with exams and diets, that no one stops eating or sleeping, no matter how strong their desire to do so, Jews cannot live without Torah observance.
The commandments are such integral parts of the Jewish personality that they are as basic as food and sleep.
When Moses wrote the above passage in the Torah three thousand odd years ago, one might have been able to question its accuracy, but the march of history has demonstrated its accuracy. The commandments must indeed be very "near to the Jewish heart and the Jewish mouth." They are such integral parts of the Jewish personality that they have proved just as impossible to discard as the need for food and sleep.
Explains the Ba'al Hatanya: This history indicates that the emotional attachment to God, the love of God and the fear of God must be integral parts of the Jewish personality. For human beings who do not come pre-equipped with these feelings, and who must therefore begin to develop them on their own, the climb to a state of grace is difficult indeed and often requires heroic measures. Precisely because this is so, only small groups of people at any one time have the necessary resources to attain the state of grace. For the same reason, because it is not "in their hearts and in their mouths," it is difficult for them to remain on this pinnacle even after it is attained.
Therefore, the real implication of the passage must be that Jews are born into the state of grace. Living in God's Presence starts for them at the moment of birth, because they are born with the love of God and the fear of God already implanted. There is no need for any heroic climb to attain the state of grace. All that is required is simple maintenance of what is already there. Torah observance is not an effort for a Jew, because it is merely the outward expression of what he already feels inside.
"LORD OF THE FLIES"
A good way to bring this down to earth is by examining the thesis of the "Lord of the Flies" by William Golding, a popular high school book that many people are familiar with.
The author presents the scenario of a group of upper class boys stranded in the jungle, out of touch with civilization. His thesis is that in such an environment the thin veneer of civilized behavior is rapidly stripped away from the group, and they revert to the savagery of jungle law. Thus according to the theory presented by the author, civilized behavior is not programmed innately into human beings, who are basically like any other species of wild animal, but is merely an adaptation to living in the organized modern world. As soon as the conditions that favor it disappear, the behavior itself will vanish.
While in the case of civilized behavior this is surely a highly debatable proposition, in terms of living in the state of grace of God's Presence there is no doubt as to its accuracy. The love and fear of God that are the necessary underpinnings of maintaining closeness to God as a life style over any stretch of time and outside the band of a narrow set of conditions are certainly not built into the human genetic program. They must be developed.
Therefore, verifiable evidence of the presence of these feelings in a particular group of human beings generation after generation, in the broadest possible variety of circumstances, amounts to nothing less than objective proof of the appearance of a genetic variation in the human species -- a new step in human evolution if you will.
COVENANT WITH ABRAHAM
We trace the beginnings of this special adaptation to Abraham:
And God said, "Shall I conceal from Abraham what I do, now that Abraham is surely to become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by him? For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of God, doing charity and justice, in order that God might then bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him." (Genesis 18:18-19)
God loves Abraham because Abraham is dedicated to teaching his children and his household the importance of doing charity and justice, and doing them not only because they are morally correct, but because they are the ways of God, and it is impossible to live in God's Presence without practicing His ways. The dedication to following the way of God is a precondition to God delivering on the promises He had made to Abraham.
This dedication has been a part of Jewish consciousness ever since. Each generation of Jews was taught the importance of living with God's Presence along with its mother's milk. Judaism teaches that spiritual values that are pursued with zeal and dedication generation after generation gradually become part of the essential human personality. We do not subscribe to the theory of Aldous Huxley. Man is not a savage beast but an image of God. In a being that was created in God's image, the trait of Godliness can gradually become incorporated into the personality itself.
God chose Abraham because Abraham chose God. All human beings are capable of this choice. All human beings are capable of spirituality and self-sacrifice. They can all attain a state of grace. They can all invest in teaching it to their children and grandchildren. Every human gene pool can incorporate the love and fear of God into its DNA. All human beings are created in God's image. There is nothing unique about Abraham and his descendants except the decision to dedicate life to the development of this potential that exists in everyone.
The message of the Book of Exodus is the story of this incorporation. The redemption is the transformation of the human character.
And now we turn to renewal.
In ancient Sparta, society focused on developing a nation of warriors. In Athens, the focus was on developing human beings who would be dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. If we look around the world we find differing levels of commitment among different societies toward many different values. In Scandinavia they place a very high priority on making social welfare available to all. In the United States the social emphasis is on providing equality of opportunity. Whatever human value is pursued with self-sacrifice and dedication produces results, and the results are inevitably commensurate with the intensity and duration of the input.
The Jewish people have invested its zeal into living in God's Presence.
The Jewish people have invested its zeal into living in God's Presence. They have pursued this course with great self-sacrifice and over an enormous span of historic time. They have pursued it with such intensity and over so long a period, that the fear and love of God became integral to every Jewish psyche, standard furniture in every Jewish soul. Whoever is a descendant of Abraham inherits this love and fear of God. It may never burst into flame in a particular Jewish heart, but the love and fear of God cannot fail to be present at least in a dormant form. As Jews do not have to develop these feelings, all that is required is renewal.
Change is difficult. The creation of a bond with God is even more so. Renewal is relatively simple and requires no special heroic effort. The most temporary immersion into a life of Torah observance is sufficient to make the dormant fire of the love of God burst into flame in the Jewish heart. Every Jew can always live in a state of grace.