Paths to Focus on God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

In verse fifteen of chapter four, Moshe spends a few verses warning the Jewish people against falling into worship of anything other than God, closing in verse twenty with the reminder Hashem had taken them out of Egypt to be His nation. Next verse, Moshe turns the attention on himself, Hashem was angered with him al divreichem, according to Sefaria “on your account,” but more literally “because of your words.” With the consequence Moshe would not be allowed to cross the Jordan.

Moshe’s punishment was announced at Mei Merivah, where he and Aharon failed to properly sanctify God’s Name, yet here he attributes it to the people’s words. Meshech Hochmah thinks it’s both. Moshe’s continuous production of miracles in the desert made him a good candidate to be confused with a god, turned into an avodah zarah, an object of idolatrous worship (as we saw last week with Og).

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

The danger did not arise with the generation that left Egypt, because they had grown up with Moshe (he is defining “generation” loosely; Moshe was eighty when they left, and all those who were over twenty  died in the desert).  They knew him before he was all that, could stave off being impressed by who he became, by his not eating or drinking for forty days on Sinai, producing water from a rock, defeating mighty kings in battle.

They still thought of themselves as his possible equals, the reason they could say to him at the beginning of Korach, Bamidbar 16;3, the whole nation is sanctified, could complain about Moshe and Aharon placing themselves above the nation. [I am reminded of stories of people of R. Lichtenstein, zt”l’s, generation, who years later still treated him, probably thought of him, as a contemporary and equal.]

People of such a mindset were in no danger of thinking of him as a god.

The  Jump to Idolatry

That generation died out, though. The new generation grew up, or were born, when Moshe was daily defying the laws of nature, so it did not become ingrained in them that it was God doing it. [He does not explain further; I think he means Moshe did not repeat the fact of the miracle being from God all the time, so over time it faded from “Moshe did this as God’s messenger” to “Moshe did this.” ]

Hazal already implied a worry the people would conflate Moshe with God, in their note to Bamidbar 19;12, the people spoke against God and Moshe. Bamidbar Rabbah says they equated them. A generation used to Moshe’s ability to act supernaturally, less aware it was from God, offered the real danger they would come to worship him. His death would avert the problem, prove his mortality.

Had the original generation been around, they would have taught the younger one enough familiar contempt for it not to be an issue. In that sense, God “had” to kill Moshe because of the people’s words, to protect them from going wrong in their attitude towards Moshe.

[Meshech Hochmah does not explain here why the Torah ascribes it to his hitting the rock; I think he means that had Moshe spoken to the rock in front of this new generation, they would have known it was God, not him, as were all the other wonders, and the danger would pass.]

He closes with a call to pay attention to how far God goes to help us avoid worshipping any power other than God. (Whenever he issues a call, we can wonder what more was going on; here, I wonder whether he thought avodah zarah was still a real possibility in his own time, and wanted readers to be on the alert for it.)

Two  Roles For Shabbat

The presentation of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot in Va-Ethanan starts the commandment about Shabbat, 5;12, with the word shamor, guard, where the version in Yitro had zachor, remember. Too, the version in Yitro said Shabbat was about remembering God created the world, where Va-Ethanan speaks about God’s taking us out of Egypt.

Meshech Hochmah finds the key to the differences in an idea of Ramban’s, the Torah’s referring to Shabbat and holidays as shabbaton, a day of rest, contains the essential idea of rabbinic prohibitions of certain activities. [Surprisingly to me, he says Ritva praised the idea, where I wouldn’t usually think of Ritva as needed backup for Ramban.]

Without shabbaton, and what the Rabbis built out of it, Jews could and would have spent the day in strenuous but permitted physical activity (moving furniture, taking inventory in the factory, etc.). The idea fits one of the ways Yerushalmi Shabbat 15;3 identifies the core character of Shabbat, a day meant solely for study of Torah.  To be sure we did not lose ourselves in other activities, God implied, we should establish restrictions on our activities to focus us in the right direction.

The same Yerushalmi passage records another view, however, Shabbat is only for eating and drinking. Meshech Hochmah thinks the money spent on food and drink testifies to our certainty God created the world, can act within it at will. Our confidence God can give back to us any money we spend leads us to open our pocketbooks.

In the Desert and After

While the Jews were in the desert, their physical needs all provided, they just studied Torah, and the day of Shabbat was about eating and drinking, asserting God’s creation and control. When they entered Israel, and had to start working for a living, Shabbat shifted to being about Torah study.

It became important to guide the Jews away from any other distracting activities, permissible as they might have been. Hence, the shvutim, the rabbinic prohibition, prohibitions Meshech Hochmah thinks weren’t in effect in the desert (but were activated as soon as they crossed into Israel, he seems to mean).

His idea nicely lines up the verbs used in the two versions of the Aseret Ha-Dibberot with the underlying reason for Shabbat noted, and the stage of life the Jews were at. Starting their journey in the desert [although it was supposed to be a much shorter journey], the Dibberot focused on announcing God’s control of the world, with zachor, a commemoration fulfilled by following the Biblical prohibitions.

On the verge of entry to Israel, Shabbat was going to shift to shamor, linked to having left Egypt, a reminder to put away work one day a week and study Torah.

With  All  Our Hearts, Soul, and Might

The commandment to love God in the first paragraph of Shema, Devarim 6;5, says to do it be-chol  levavecha, be-chol nafsheha, u-v-chol me’odechaMeshech Hochmah elegantly links the three to Baba Kamma 30a, where the Gemara has three options for one who wants to become a hasid, someone of noted piety. The idea that fulfilling issues of berachot, blessings, ties in to  be-chol levavecha, all your heart, for Meshech Hochmah, because he thinks “heart” means intellect, and when we bless God, we use our intellect to understand and appreciate what God has done for us..

Baba Kama also knew of a path to hasidut in fulfillment of issues of Avot, for Meshech Hochmah  a way of saying character improvement, the same as be-chol nafshecha, all your soul, of our verse. [Note his assumption heart means intellect and soul means character; I could have imagined the reverse.]

The third strategy was care in nezikin, civil law, because man is a political animal (he says, clearly playing off of Aritstotle’s idea), and appreciates society, as a way to make up for his lacks. It is why Ben Zoma, Berachot 58, celebrated his advantaged over the first Man, who only secured bread after plowing, planting, and so on, where Ben Zoma awoke to fresh bread daily.

People each taking a particular role build a society, an advantage over animals, who take care of themselves more individually, less by cooperative action. Our social cooperation is our human strength, me’odecha, something we guard by being careful about nezikin, damages to others.

We become hasidim, notably pious, by turning one of our strengths completely to God. Care about berachot does it for our intellects, about Avot for our souls/character, and nezikin for what makes us human, our cooperative societies.

[He has made this verse, like Baba Kama, a seeming choice which of the three to love God with. While Baba Kama said that about becoming a hasid, a simple reading of this verse would have required us to love God with all three.]

Meshech Hochmah continues to find ways to turn ourselves determinedly towards God: taking away Moshe, who might have been turned into a god, giving us versions of Shabbat relevant to our particular stage in life, one for the desert, one for after, and laying out three possible paths to hasidut, the piety of mind, soul, or society.

About Gidon Rothstein

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