Three Views of How Zeh Gets Us Closer to God

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Murder Reduces the Divine Presence in the World

Mekhilta on Parshat Yitro assumes the five Dibberot on the left side of the Tablets paralleled those on the right, meaning murder parallels the declaration of Anokhi Hashem Elokekha, I am the Lord your God. Kli Yakar says a murderer reduces the Divine image and form in the world. To explain how that works, he points us to the verse in Parshat Noah regarding murder, 9;6. The Torah there says a murderer must be killed, ki be-tzelem Elokim, since in God’s [man was made].

Remarkably, Kli Yakar says we only need that reason for cases where the deceased invited the murderer to kill him/her, or forgave it. Without discussing God’s image, we would have thought the death penalty for murder is retribution, so where the victim accepted or requested it, the killer should go free. The Torah comes to tell us the divine piece of human beings rules out any right to forgive a killing nor—he adds—suicide. The Divine part of us does not belong to us.

Aside from violating the other person’s right to life, the killer reduces the Divine Presence in the world because if humanity mistreats the already worldly elements of His Presence (by killing a person who bears that Presence), as it were, God will refrain from letting more that Presence enter the world. Kli Yakar links it to Devarim 21;23’s warning not to leave the body of an executed sinner hanging on a tree because “killelat Elokim talui, a hanged person is a curse (or disgrace) of God.”

Kli Yakar thinks there are similar disgraces here: a hanged body reflects badly on the divine part in each person, as does murder.  So murder strikes at Anokhi.

Belief in God and Murder: A Ya’akov/Esav Dichotomy

He offers another parallel between the two: when Ya’akov bought the rights of the first-born from Esav, Baba Batra 16b read Esav’s dismissive “I’m going to die, what do I need the first-born rights for?” to express his underlying heresy. Instead of zeh Keli ve-anvehu, this is my God and I will praise/beautify him, the words the Jews said after the salvation at the Sea, Esav said lamah zeh li bekhora, what good does being first-born do me?

Ya’akov, who chose God, has descendants who get to hear the first of the Dibberot, and are therefore warned not to take on cousin Esav’s way of life. His fondness for murder indicates to Kli Yakar a desire to fulfill the wishes of the angel of blood rather than God, an inherent denial of God’s rule. Jews must avoid that, lest they trade their heritage for Esav’s.

Two ways to look at murder: wrong because it lessens the divine footprint in the world, on the one hand by killing a being bearing the image of God, at the same time making the world a place God has less “interest” in engaging, seeing how humans treat other bearers of the divine image. And/or by taking on the characteristic of Esav, his dedication to killing, the root cause of his denial of God, I think because to arrogate the right to kill—even oneself—denies God’s role in limiting our rights.

Newness of Torah, Newness of the Exodus

When the Jews arrive at Sinai, Shemot 19;1 says it was ba-yom ha-zeh, on this day (another focus on zeh, like we just saw with Kli Yakar). Hatam Sofer reminds us Rashi says it shows words of Torah should always be new to us, as if we received them today, because the Torah says ha-zeh, on this day, whatever day we are currently experiencing.

It’s a Rashi, so it’s well-known. Hatam Sofer extends the required newness to our experience of the Exodus, because the Torah had earlier warned us to remember ha-yom ha-zeh, this day, that we left Egypt. Rashi’s logic should mean the Torah also wants us to experience the newness of the Exodus every day, have it feel like the day we left. [Normally, we think the verse wants us to remember that we left daily; Hatam Sofer is arguing—reasonably convincingly, I think– that if ha-zeh regarding Torah means to experience it anew each day, the same applies to yetzi’at Mitzrayim.]

Then he takes it a giant step further. A verse in Tehillim, 95;7, refers to ha-yom im be-kolo tishma’u, a phrase Radak explains means Hashem will “acquire” us, return us to favored status as His servants, today, if we hearken to His Voice. Hatam Sofer adds that if we think of the Exodus as having happened today, the Giving of the Torah as having happened today, we will definitely obey God well enough to deserve this verse.

Similarly, Hoshe’a 6;2 refers to God reviving or making us whole after two days (according to the translations I found on Sefaria). Hatam Sofer says the two days are the day of yetzi’at Mitzrayim and of Matan Torah, and if we remember them properly, we will merit the salvation of ha-yom, im be-kolo tishma’u.

Two days to keep in our active consciousness, to keep fully alive in our daily experience, and then salvation could be ours. Says Hatam Sofer.

It Had To Be That Day

I normally try to spread out the comments of our three darshanim, but when I realized the first two focused on the word ha-zeh, I couldn’t resist seeing if Netziv also did. He did, but only in the verse Hatam Sofer just analyzed, and his reading diverges enough to justify seeing it, too. He starts earlier in the verse, where the Torah says on the third month after the Jews left Egypt (the Torah had not until now told us how long various stops came after the Exodus).

The traditional explanation attributed the note here to the Giving of the Torah’s being the goal when the Jews left, so the Torah marks it [not our topic, but similar to what I have heard about why I Melachim suddenly tells us how many years after the Exodus it was when Shlomo Ha-Melekh completed the Beit Ha-Mikdash].

Shabbat 86b said the words ba-yom ha-zeh, on this day, mean the first of the month, but Ha’amek Davar does not understand why the Torah wouldn’t just say that. [Bamidbar 1;1, for an example I thought of, dates a command of God’s to Moshe to the first of the month of the second month of the second year after the Jews left Egypt; Ha’amek Davar is wondering why it doesn’t do the same here, if ba-yom ha-zeh means the first of the month?].

The Threes of Torah

To answer, he cites another passage in Shabbat, 88a, where a certain Galilean blessed the God Who gave a three-part nation (priests, Levites, and ordinary Jews) a tripartite Torah (Torah, Prophets, and Hagiographa, Rashi there says, a reminder that in many ways all of Tanakh counts as “Torah”), in the third month, through the agency of a third-born child (Moshe), on the third day of their preparation.

If we accept his framework, the nation had been biding its time until month three, but as soon as month three arrived, ba-yom ha-zeh, the first day possible, God brought them to Sinai to get the process started.

Three ways to God’s graces, all rooted in zeh. Choosing the zeh of zeh Keli ve-anvehu, praising God, over the zeh of Esav rejecting the birthright and opting for murder over service of God, according to Kli Yakar; remembering the zeh of the day we left Egypt and received the Torah, for Hatam Sofer; and taking advantage of the first opportunity Divine Wisdom left open for us to move forward in our relationship with God, per Ha’amek Davar.

No downside to working on all three, either.

About Gidon Rothstein

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