Where People Are Supposed to Take Control

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Gd Will Always Help, Sometimes We Have to Start

In two consecutive verses, Meshech Hochmah seems to take opposing stances on how actively humans should try to shape their future. When the people complain out of fear of the approaching Egyptians, 14;14, Moshe tells them Gd will fight for them, and they should be quiet. Meshech Hochmah says Moshe meant more than their current situation.

Right then, Gd as it were “owed” it to the Jews to save them, they could claim, because Gd had interrupted their terrible but safe lives to take them out of Egypt. Moshe was teaching them they had cause and effect wrong; Gd would always save them, regardless of who owed what to whom. Even where “you be silent,” because you have no reason to claim you deserve salvation from Gd, Gd will still fight for you.

He closes with ve-haven, understand this, a word I think he appends to hint at some contemporary resonance to the idea. [Meshech Hochmah was printed a year after he passed away. The Hebrew Wikipedia article says he wrote it at age seventeen, in 1860, but was advised by his grandfather not to publish it then, lest he be pigeonholed as a Bible commentator rather than a more serious Torah scholar. Still, he may have edited it over the years. The point matters here because when we see him hint at a current events, there’s a big difference between 1860 and 1926-7.]

Having just asserted Gd would always protect them, Moshe seems to have then turned to Gd in prayer, only to be told, 14;15 (the next verse), why are you crying out to Me, tell the Jewish people to go. Meshech Hochmah cites Mechilta 3;1, Gd was saying all they needed was to go into the Sea. For the Midrash, the Jewish people were being too quiescent, too much like sheep in the valley following a shepherd [his phrase, one I note because it is commonly used about the Holocaust, like sheep to the slaughter. Whether it was true of the Holocaust, his complaining about Jewish meekness in the face of troubles seems prescient, not the only time in the work.]

Here, Moshe was not supposed to lead, the Jews’ actualized faith by jumping into a ragin Sea would be the merit causing it to split. To R. Meir Simhah Ha-Kohen’s reading, when verse 19 tells us the angel of Gd went to the back of the camp and followed the people (a phrase Rashi took as referring to the pillar of cloud), it means Moshe Rabbenu, because prophets are referred to as malachim, angels, as in Haggai 1;13 (his reference). It’s why Mechilta 5;2 stresses Nachshon’s role, that while the Jews were agitating over how to handle the situation, he jumped into the sea, and it split.

In two quick verses, Meshech Hochmah does what so many of us find difficult, asserts the truth of both sides of a dialectic. Gd will save the Jewish people whether or not they have valid claims to “deserve” it, while the Jews can elicit such salvations more readily when they put into action their knowledge of Gd and Gd’s role in the world.

The Flipped Priorities of Individuals and Communities

When the Torah describes the Sea standing up to let the Jews pass in the middle, 14;29, the word homah, wall, is spelled without a vav, making it equally possible to read it as hemah, wrath. A passage in Mechilta notes the Accusing Angel questioned Gd’s showing wrath only against the Egyptians, when the Jews, too, had worshipped powers other than Gd. Worse, as they drowned, the Egyptians were repenting, by acknowledging it was Gd Who was saving the Jews.

Meshech Hochmah says the answer lies in the Jews’ having repented back in Egypt, after their servitude had ended, so their repentance was unpressured, where the Egyptians were repenting only because they were being tossed around by the sea. He closes here too with a contemporary element, a prayer the Jewish people in his time will return to Gd from a place of comfort, because that’s more authentic and therefore more powerful.

The bulk of the comment focuses on a different point, one I find even more interesting. Mechilta also inferred from the verses that the Jewish people had four groups arguing over how to handle the threatening Egyptians. On the topic of intranational strife, he points out that for individuals, the Torah seems to care more about observance of mitzvot human beings would not have come up with on their own, like worshipping only Gd and no other powers or sexual prohibitions.

Common human misdeeds of character, like slandering others or gossiping about them, have no court-administered punishment. While that is for various technical reasons, he thinks it also shows the Torah’s focus—for individuals, the focus is shaping Jews’ “religious” lives more than their ordinary human ones. [He does not explain further; I think he means people know on their own—and society tends to reinforce it– that those are problems, so the Torah doesn’t have to expend energy or priorities on it, in general. For those kinds of failures, I think he means, society itself can and will police it.]

At the broad societal level, the opposite is true, Gd seems to react worse to a society that has lost its ordinary humanity than to one that is failing to serve Gd properly. Yerushalmi Pe’ah 1;1 contrasts David to Ahav (a king of the Northern Kingdom), noting David’s wars involved loss of life, and Ahav’s military victories were easy and freer of casualties, despite David (and his people) being fully righteous, in the sense of not worshipping other powers, where avodah zarah was rampant in Ahav’s time.

The saving grace for Ahav’s generation was how they treated each other, especially in not slandering each other (such as by not revealing where Eliyahu was hiding from Ahav). Similarly, Yoma 9b famously says the second Temple was destroyed because of the baseless hatred among Jews, and Sanhedrin 108a has R. Yohanan point out verses’ stress on Gd’s having brought the Flood in Noah’s time because of the hamas, the financial chicanery, of that generation.

As a final example [that I am sharing; he has more in the comment, I’m cutting in the name of space], Gd forgave the Golden Calf, but the sin of the spies, who slandered the Land of Israel and found the people willing to ignore all the good Gd had already done for them (a quality called kefuy tovah, which loosely translates as ungrateful, but focuses on ignoring or denying the good, not letting it shape one’s picture of the One Who had done all this good, more than not being properly thankful for it).

For individuals, good character is sort of a given, so religiosity focuses on the mitzvot Gd gave us. For societies, mitzvot like avodah zarah and arayot certainly matter, but the first step is building a place where people treat each other well, develop good character. [It’s music to my ears, because it is a point I have not managed to convince people of in our times, when we no longer seem to care about character in our religious or political leaders, but it’s in the Meshech Hochmah, so it’s not me making it up.]

The Two Sanctifications of the Land of Israel—Presence Vs. Connection

With some debate, the Gemara seems to conclude the sanctity of the Land of Israel dissipated with the destruction of the first Beit Ha-Mikdash and exile to Bavel, while the second sanctity lasted forever. Ever since, people have offered suggestions as to why. Meshech Hochmah sees an answer in the song the Jews sing after the Splitting of the Sea.

In the Shirat Ha-Yam, 15;16 refers to amecha Hashem, Your nation O Gd, and am zu kanita, this nation You have “bought.” [I think kanoh in Biblical Hebrew can also mean “develop a lasting relationship with,” but that’s not our issue here.] Meshech Hochmah thinks it refers to the two different levels of connection between the Jews and Gd in the two Temples.

In the first, where Gd’s Presence was more manifest (he points us to Yoma 21b, which lists five aspects of the first Temple missing from the second, including the manifest Presence), we were Gd’s people because of that manifest Presence. With a severed connection, so too was the connection to the Land.

In the second Temple, the connection was eternal regardless of Presence. He compares it to the difference between when a kohenet, a woman of the priestly clan, sins sexually, as opposed to a Leviyah, of the Levitical clan. The first loses her kedushah completely, because a higher level of sanctity also brings sharper repercussions. The Jewish people of the first Temple were at a higher level, like a kohenet, and the higher you are, the harder you fall. [I have omitted other inferences he makes along these lines.]

Or, Forced Vs. Voluntary

Alternatively, Shabbat 88a says Gd’s imposing the Torah on the Jewish people at Sinai gave them a significant out, because coercion does not impose real responsibility. Only in the time of Esther, when the Megillah says kiyemu ve-kibbelu, the Jews voluntarily accepted what they had once accepted at Sinai, was the covenant made of their own freewill. Rashba to Shabbat wondered why the Jews had been punished at all in the first Temple time, and answers they really hadn’t been, that when their failure to observe showed they really weren’t accepting the Torah, they also lost their right to the Land of Israel, so they went to exile. If so, the Land’s loss of sanctity was a natural outcome of the Jews’ disconnection from the covenant.

When they entered the covenant voluntarily, in the time of Purim (which he is assuming is at the very beginning of the second Temple era), it became permanent and irrevocable, as did the sanctity of the Land.

The two options fit nicely with the first comment we noted this time, whether Gd wanted the Jews to focus on Gd’s always saving them or on their role in sometimes eliciting that salvation. Was the sanctity of Israel impermanent the first time because it was based on Gd’s manifest Presence, and more lasting the second time because it was based on the Jews’ eternal status, or was it a matter of how active the Jews were in accepting the covenant?

With a reminder about how essential good character is to the makeup of societies, even more so than for individuals. 

About Gidon Rothstein

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