Knowing Our Place in the World

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat Ki Tissa

There seems to be general agreement the helbenah included in the ketoret (Shemot 30;34) was galbanum, a bitter-tasting gum resin with what Wikipedia calls a peculiar, somewhat musky odor. Keretot 6b said it was there to remind us to include the sinners of the Jewish people [who, metaphorically, have a bad taste and/or odor] in our fast days.

Otherwise, We Couldn’t Fast

We could explain the idea in many ways; Kli Yakar takes it to be matir, to allow us, to call a fast day. The Gemara in several places considers the nazir a bit of a sinner for denying him/herself wine (Ta’anit 11a, e.g.); if so, members of a community that declares a fast day might be unnecessarily and therefore sinfully depriving themselves of food. Ensuring there are sinners in their midst, with all Jews arevim zeh ba-zeh, interwoven in responsibility for each other, the fast day is more certainly needed.

[He surprises me with his worry a Jewish community might sin by declaring a fast day they were too righteous to need. Other of his comments do not take such a positive view of the Jews of his time; I wonder if he was trying to be subtle, to flatter his listeners into being more generous and welcoming to their less-faithful fellow Jews. It suggests he faced a community confident of its righteousness, and too ready to reject the less-righteous.]

In the Ketoret After Teshuvah

His reasoning points to what would have led the Gemara to assume the helbenah was about including sinners in fast days specifically. Repentance turn sins into merits, he assumes, based on Yeshayahu 40;2, ki nirtzah avonah, her sins have become a ratzon, pleasing. (Yoma 86 has the idea the right repentance—called teshuva me-ahava, repentance out of love—can turn sins into merits; as far as I can tell, only R. Moshe Alshich, forty years older than Kli Yakar, has the connection to the verse in Yeshayahu. I do not know if Kli Yakar read Alshich.)

Add one more piece: Sanhedrin 37a says the “emptiest” of Jews are filled with mitzvot like a pomegranate is with seeds (based on Shir Ha-Shirim 4;3, a derivation we do not need get into). Kli Yakar wonders how they can be “empty,” if they are as full of seeds as a pomegranate. He says the Gemara must mean after repentance, when all their sins turn into merits. Fast days are about repentance, so the Gemara figured the lesson of the helbenah was about fast days.

And why include it in the incense? Because it is a practical example of a foul odor turning into the “reiach nichoach, pleasing fragrance” of the ketoret.

Moshe Transcending His Humanity

After the sin of the Golden Calf, 33;18, Moshe asks to be shown Hashem’s kavod, Glory, Honor, however we understand that. The simplest reading of har’eini, show me, would mean there was a way for God to reveal Himself more fully than usual, for Moshe to “see” more of God’s essence. Hashem declares it impossible, because people cannot “see” Hashem and live.

Most simply, we would think people could not bear or survive such a revelation, for some reason. [Think the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, for one imagining of it, at 1:35.]

Chatam Sofer reads it differently. Based on a Rambam about our character flaws being the barriers that distance us from God, Chatam Sofer thinks Moshe’s only remaining human flaw was his occasional excessive anger, which we see a few times in the Torah. He was praying to God to have that removed, for God to “cure” him of this trait. Hashem replied that if He did so, Moshe would no longer be human, his soul would leave his body.

The lethality of “seeing” God is that it can only be achieved by those who have conquered all their character flaws. But to be human, Chatam Sofer is saying, is to have flaws in need of burnishing. Moshe was very close to perfection— in his comment to the next verse, through gematria readings I leave for another time, Chatam Sofer asserts that Moshe died at the age of 120 because he then reached the perfection that transcended a human body.

Four remarkable ideas in one short piece of Chatam Sofer, I think: First, he doesn’t think God rejects the idea of changing Moshe’s character because it violates freewill or any other such basic element of creation, only because it would take Moshe out of the human realm. Second, the “death” of seeing Hashem is about growing out of one’s body, not the revelation itself hurting the body (an idea we could apply to other deaths as well, in theory). Third, rather than being “killed” for the sin at Mei Merivah, Chatam Sofer thinks Moshe finally overcame his last remaining human challenge, and ascended to a higher realm. Finally, there is his assumption the essence of being human is a soul working to become better enough to graduate from its body.

Insecurities To Which We Hold Fast, To Our Detriment

The beginning of the sin of the Golden Calf says the am saw Moshe’s return was being delayed, 32;1. Am is an amorphous word, open to multiple interpretations (Hazal, for example, thought it pointed to the erev rav, the non-Jews who had latched on to the camp on the way out of Egypt, as the ones who initiated this incident). Ha’amek Davar argues it was the poor, who were certain they had no merits to earn the divine providence they needed for God to sustain them.

They hadn’t really wanted to leave Egypt, he says, and only did so under the sway of Moshe and Aharon, trusting them and their merits to draw God’s munificence.

[I am not going to discuss how his view differs from Rashi’s; he is his own commentator and can read how he wishes. I do think it worth commenting on his certainty there was a dalat ha-am, poor people in the nation, when verses and tradition are clear the Jews took much gold and silver with them on the way out of Egypt, and their daily bread had already started raining down.

For Ha’amek Davar, there were still poor. He may mean in their spiritual merits, sure that they could not deserve Hashem’s hashgacha on their own, but even that is surprising—forty days after the Giving of the Torah, they are still/already convinced of their fundamental worthlessness. As the rest of the comment shows, I think he is talking about insecurity more than about the reality, and is reminding us how damaging the insecurity itself can be.]

When We Don’t Feel Safe

With Moshe gone—in their view, having passed away—their only avenue to a livelihood would be through “natural” means, because it calls for a lower level of providence [he is sure they knew they needed Hashem’s help always, just that it takes “less” such help for the world to follow its usual patterns, planting crops, harvesting them, etc., and they were comfortable they deserved that version of it].

Were he gone, they were stuck in the desert, with no one to conduit the providence they needed. Confused and worried, they began to strategize, and it brought them to worshipping a power other than God (not everyone who reads the incident says the Jews committed full-fledged avodah zarah; he is saying they did). He implies there are two places they might have saved themselves from what came: had they been more trusting in God’s bounty and protection, Moshe’s lateness would not have hit them so hard, and had they not then decided they had to act in response, they would not have started the chain of events to idolatry.

They were both insecure and overconfident of their understanding of how to proceed in the face of Moshe’s disappearance. A bad combination.

Whether as communities who wish to engage with our Father in Heaven or as individuals learning about what it means to be human, our three commentators show us ways we can and cannot take positive steps in our personal and communal relationship with Hashem.

About Gidon Rothstein

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