Holding On To Hope in the Face of Our Inadequacy

Print pagePDF pageEmail page

by R. Gidon Rothstein

Sermons of the Aruch HaShulchan for Shabbat HaGadol (Drasha 6): Holding On To Hope in the Face of Our Inadequacy

Since today is the 23rd of Adar, there’s exactly a week before RH Nisan, when the daily readings in As If We Were There start. Get your copy today; get your friends’ copies today! There’s always time, but the earlier the better!

This sermon opens with an extended analysis of Tehillim 68. The first verses of the Psalm ask for Hashem to arise, scatter his enemies, so that the righteous will see and celebrate before Hashem. Aruch HaShulchan suggests that the psalm refers to two kinds of enemies, son’im who display their enmity openly and oyevim, who keep it inside; he reads the psalm to say they will come to different fates, the open enemies chased off the face of the earth, while the ones who only feel the enmity will be scattered, such that they cannot find a support system for their hatred.

There are also two kinds of celebration, simcha, the ordinary joy over good tidings or events, and sason, indicating an additional element of wonder or surprise at the bounty.

Aruch HaShulchan thinks the request to “arise” is asking for Hashem to intrude forcefully and openly in history, vanquishing those who stand against His causes in the world. Bereshit Rabbah 75;1 notes five other times in Tehillimthat David calls for Hashem to arise [in those other times, the word is kumah, a more commanding form of the verb than in our psalm, which says yakum, let Hashem arise].

That Midrash sees Tehillim 12;6 as a response, that only the robbing of the poor, the cries of the impoverished, [and not the causes David pointed to in the other verses, the Jews’ distress, anger with evildoers, helping the righteous, bringing an end to desecration of the Divine Name, or to avert the destruction of the Jewish people] stimulate Hashem to say it’s time to arise.

Stars and Earth: Deserved and Undeserved Bounty

Tehillim 68 was saying such a time had come (verse 6 refers to Hashem as avi yetomim, Father of orphans), so that it was appropriate of David to call for arising. Worried that Hashem could respond that the Jews’ sorry spiritual level prevents it, despite the troubles of the poor, David put in verse 8, which reminds Hashem of the Exodus from Egypt. There, the Jews didn’t deserve it, either, a proposition Vayikra Rabbah 23;2 infers from  Devarim 4;34’s reference to Hashem taking out “goy mi-kerev goy, one nation from another,” which equates the two, since both nations were idolaters.

He says that’s why several verses in Scripture refer to two kinds of redemption. Yechezkel 16;17 (which many of us know from the Haggadah—revavah ke-tzemach hasadeh, etc.) speaks of the Jewish people’s readiness for maturity yet being naked and bereft. It was Hashem Who gave us a way to live and grow, which Aruch HaShulchan takes as referring to growth in quantity and quality. In Egypt, the Jews grew in numbers, but it wasn’t until we went out and received the Torah that we were uplifted in quality.

The same dynamic underlay the dual promise to the Patriarchs that their descendants would be like the stars or the earth. There’s a lot of earth, but no piece of it has any remarkable qualities (each grain of dirt or sand has little particular value, there’s just a lot of it). Stars, in contrast, are each of them stars.

To Avraham, Hashem promised both; to the spiritually elevated Yitzchak [tradition refers to Yitzchak as an olah temimah, a whole sacrifice to Hashem, even after the Akedah], the relevant promise was that the Jews would be like stars; Ya’akov, whose difficult life foreshadowed his descendants’ troubles in exile, was promised they would nonetheless grow in population, that oppression wouldn’t depress their population.

Back in Tehillim 68, the Exodus becomes the support for asking for bounty, since it shows that Hashem gives that which isn’t deserved, like rain to the rest of the world; Hashem made us His nachalah, His share in this world, and now we need that status to help us, as we are in danger of not surviving without it.

Tishrei and Nisan: Deserved and Undeserved Redemption

The dynamic of deserving vs. undeserving appears in a debate in Rosh HaShanah 11a, where R. Eliezer says that the Messianic redemption will be in Tishrei, whereas R. Yehoshu’a says the future redemption, like the one from Egypt, will be in Nisan. It’s an odd debate, Aruch Hashulchan says, first because it does not seem to have any ramifications that make it worth our while to ponder.

More, it seems to imply that there’s only one month a year in which Mashiach might come, whereas we always assume, as do specific halachot, that Mashiach can come at almost any time (the example he gives is Eruvin 43a, if someone takes upon him/herself to be a Nazir on the day of Mashiach’s arrival, that person may drink wine on Shabbat and Yom Tov, since Mashiach doesn’t come on such days.  All other days of the year s/he may not, in case Mashiach comes and s/he is now a Nazir. That assumes Mashiach can come on any non-Shabbat or Yom Tov day).

Aruch HaShulchan suggests instead that this debate relates to another one between these two Tannaim, as to whether Mashiach will only come if the Jews repent sufficiently to deserve it (R. Eliezer)—since Tishrei is the month of repentance, saying that Mashiach will come then hints at that—or can even come without the Jews’ penitence (R. Yehoshu’a).

He notes that we always follow R. Yehoshu’a over R. Eliezer, so here, too, we are led to believe Mashiach can come in Nisan—that is, even without our deserving it. He starts to apply that to his time, to say that their current lowly state isn’t a barrier to redemption, but then interrupts himself to introduce some halachic material, and so will we.

What Pushes One to Pesach Sheini  

The halachic content starts with a discussion of Pesachim 90b, which concludes that we accept the ruling of Rav, that anyone whose ritual impurity will go away that night can be counted towards a Pesach sacrifice [in order to partake of a Pesach, the person has to be listed in a group that offers the Pesach that day; the question in the Gemara was what level of ritual impurity prevents a person from being included in that list].

As Rashi and Tosafot read it, that means that if the person has done all s/he needs to do to be rid of impurity by that night—including, most crucially for our discussion, that one with tum’at met, impurity created by contact with a corpse, has had the proper water sprinkled on him/her and has gone to mikveh—s/he can be included in a Pesach.

Rambam, however, disagrees, and thinks that person would have to wait for the second Pesach. Skipping Aruch HaShulchan’s review of the discussion, he suggests that Rambam understood a Sifrei to say that those who contract corpse-impurity at a level sufficient to require a Nazir to interrupt and re-start his nezirut will have to wait for Pesach Sheini even if they were done with the purification process on Erev Pesach.

Why should that be true? Aruch HaShulchan links it to the idea we saw before (and a few other examples, which we don’t have the space to discuss), that Hashem will save the Jewish people even if they never repent—which was in fact the whole purpose of exile. Just as in Egypt, Hashem saved us before we descended to the lowest level of impurity (for which the parallel is the deceased—contact with the deceased, and the impurity attached to it, is not a part of the Pesach story; all other forms of impurity are similar to the impurity of the Jews who were saved, so that a Pesach is relevant to them. But the lowest or fullest level of impurity is not, cannot be, part of the Pesach story or experience).

So, too, the future redemption will come despite us, but before we descend to the lowest levels. That’s in fact the story of exile so far, he says, that we’ve never repented as we should—because then the redemption would come immediately—but we’ve also never gone so low that we would have to be immediately and preventatively redeemed.

Whither Repentance?

R. Yehoshu’a’s view that redemption will come even without repentance seems to create the moral hazard that there’s no force to repent. To answer, he goes into a digression and never explicitly returns to this question, but if we follow what he does write, I think we’ll see where he’s going. He notes and wonders at the tradition (cited by Rashi to the Torah) that when Hashem speaks about afflicting a house with tsara’at, it will sometimes be a boon. The Emorites used to hide treasure in the walls of their houses, so that house tsara’at (which requires cutting away the afflicted section of wall) will lead the Jew to discover that hidden treasure.

Why would Hashem use such a roundabout (and somewhat distressing) way to give bounty to Jews? Aruch HaShulchansuggests that this is connected to Moshe Rabbenu’s request at the sin of the Golden Calf, that Hashem’s power be multiplied. Wondering why it needs multiplying, he argues that Moshe was asking that all the Jews’ sins eventually produce good in the world.

The sin of the Golden Calf eventually also led to the destructions of Jewish history and the lengthy exile, true; but that exile itself, the Jews’ unique survival in the face of repeat attempts to wipe us out, is itself (he says) one of the strongest demonstrations of Divine Providence, a matchless show of Hashem’s power and relevance to the world. (So, too, whatever sin led the homeowner to be punished with tsara’at will end up bringing good into his/her life as well).

He doesn’t say it, but I’m pretty sure he means that the good result of sin comes faster if we repent, so that even if Mashiach will come without repentance, there’s a deep value and reason for us to repent.

Conclusion

Although I’ve skipped much, the overall message is clear: the slings and arrows of exile and punishment, our continuing unworthiness and our despair of ever being worthy should not discourage us, neither about redemption nor about the value of returning fully to Hashem. Redemption will surely come, at some point, and repentance can make it arrive faster and better, letting our sins and misdeeds transform into the good that comes even out of all of the Jewish people’s missteps.

About Gidon Rothstein

Leave a Reply