Parshat Lech Lecha: The Blessing of Theological Optimism

My shiur rebbe, R. Daniel Feldman, gives a parsha shiur every Thursday on the fourth aliyah of the week’s parsha, for a reason that strikes me as a very astute observation: 95% of all divrei Torah are on, if not the first passuk of the parsha, the first aliyah. This week I was struck by the truth of this observation, and resolved to do a dvar torah on an aliya other than rishon. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any good ideas about any other aliyot. So now I am giving a devar torah on rishon. So sue me. Anyway, let’s take a look at the first couple of pesukim, in which I think we can point out something rather interesting.

(א) וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ:

(ב) וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה:

(ג) וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה

Now, take note of how many times the root B.R.Kh (bless) appears. It’s a bunch of times. God seems to be stressing the quality of bracha as it relates to Avraham, or Avram, at this point. This is particularly interesting considering the opposite idea, that of “A.R.R,” a curse has characterized the story of Bereishis up until this point. Adam is cursed, Chava is cursed, the snake is cursed, the ground is cursed, Kayin is cursed, the people who would kill Kayin are cursed, the generation of the flood aren’t cursed but they’re wiped out so we’ll count it, and God says he won’t curse the land anymore, but right before Noach curses Cham and Canaan. So lots of curses, no blessings, until Avram, who will be the conduit of blessing to all the families of the earth. So what’s special about Avram?

What I’d like to suggest is that these two categories of Bracha and Me’areh, of blessing and curse, represent two ways of seeing God and the world, and that the generations before Avraham related to God as a “Curser,” and it was Avraham who began to recognize God as a source of blessing. What do I mean by this? One can see God, his creations, and his demands as a curse, as the demands of a capricious and irrational ruler who commands only by virtue of his power. Such a God does not desire the good of mankind, and in fact is seen to actively plot against it. Such a God merely wants his will submitted to, so that his subjects can be put in their place. Such a God’s creations are themselves curses, endless frustrations at which we endlessly toil, which can at any moment be used to kill us, should we get too unruly. Such a God’s only demand is submission and sacrifice, and even then its no guarantee.

This view of God could obviously engender rebellion against such a cruel taskmaster. When God rejects Kayin’s offering, he rebels, killing his brother and defiantly asking God if he’s responsible for his brother’s welfare. When God gets angry and punishes Kayin, his response is to complain about the extent of his punishment, essentially, “come on man, that’s totally unfair.” Kayin, seeing God as a capricious and unfair ruler, with unrealistic expectations and draconian demands, decides to rebel, and throws off the yoke of obedience to a God he sees as immoral.

But not all who have this theology rebel. Some stay frum. Very frum. True, God curses us, and our life, and our world. True, God’s commands are curses, demands that make our life harder and strain our intellectual and moral senses. But it doesn’t matter. God demands obedience and unquestioning devotion and submission. God’s commands must be obeyed for no other reason than that God commanded it, and it is not for us to question why or how. We must remain passive and submissive in the face of the divine command, and accept it wordlessly, for God is not good or moral or just, God is just a curse, a powerful force that compels us against our will. Noach is emblematic of such an attitude. His very name means passivity and throughout the story of Noach and his ark, it is striking that Noach says not a single word. He does not plead with God to save his generation, he does not attempt to understand, he just accepts the divine word for what it is. God repeats himself in the story, over and over, going at length as to what he’s about to do, the dimensions and the animals and over and over, as if he is trying to get Noach to realize, hey, I’m about to wipe everyone out, don’t you want to think about it? But Noach does not. Not that he doesn’t have thoughts. He is obviously distraught at the end of the story. But does he turn to God to express himself? No. He does not think he has the ability to. But there is no one to turn to. So he seeks to blind himself to the world, drinking himself into a stupor, shutting himself from anything that highlights the contrast between his feelings and the divine command. And in the end, in an act of imitatio dei, he curses his son and grandson.

The issue of course, with this view of God as a curse, is that it is wrong. And this is where Avram comes in. Avram’s relationship with God is one of bracha, of blessing. Avram sees God as the source of blessing in this world, as a God who wants the best for his creations. God’s demands may be, due to the infinity and omnipotence of God, beyond human comprehension at a given point in time, but they are not merely the demands of a tyrannical dictator. Thus, Avraham is willing to trust in God’s judgement without knowing exactly why he is doing so. He is willing follow God’s command to pick himself up, leave his home and everything he’s ever known, and move to wherever God shows him. He is willing to trust God’s assurance that he will have many children and inherit the land, despite all evidence to the contrary.(15:2) וְהֶאֱמִן בַּיקֹוָק וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.

But this faith is far from uncritical and unquestioning. In our parsha, Avram doesn’t react wordlessly to the promises God has made to him that seem unfulfilled. He asks God, (15:2) מַה־תִּתֶּן־לִי וְאָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי, and he wants to know (15:8)  בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה. These are not the accusatory, rebellious questions of a Kayin, (only a Noach would make such a mistake!) These are the questions of someone who believes that God wants the best for him and humanity, a God who is the source of blessing and not curses, and he is having trouble squaring what he sees with what he has been promised, with the God he believes in and trusts in and what’s going on in his life, and he is pouring out all these doubts and his fears to God, not challenging but asking. Indeed, it is only because he has that trust in God that such questions arise! When Avram attempts to challenge God’s destruction of Sedom, his main point is that (18:25) “חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם־רָשָׁע וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק כָּרָשָׁע חָלִלָה לָּךְ הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט”, that for God, the moral and just ruler of the world, to commit such injustice. For Kayin and Noach, the question never gets off the ground. Of course God would kill a whole city, hell, he’d kill a whole planet!

Avram is the first person to have a relationship with God that was more than that of a subject fearful of punishment from an cruel and irrational leader, which sees God’s command as a curse that can either be rebelled against or accepted as fate. Avram’s relationship with God is one that sees God as a blessing, of a moral and just ruler who can be trusted, and because of that trust, inquiry about the morality of justice of God is welcomed. It is that relationship and that theology, that of trust but also a critical sense borne of that trust,  that allows Avraham to later incredulously ask God הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל־הָאָרֶץ לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט , but also to pass the ultimate test of his faith at the Akedah.

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Devar Torah Lech Lecha (from 2013)

Anyway, so, I’m gonna start this devar torah on parshas Lech Lecha with two pesukim from an entirely different parsha. Bear with me. Shemot 6:2-3

(ב) וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְקֹוָק:

(ג) וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם

“Then God said to Moses, “I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They called me El-Shaddai. They did not know my name, YHWH.”

I told you it was relevant. Now, taken at face value, this verse is very problematic, because a cursory glance at Sefer Bereishis will show you that YHWH is a name that appears very often. Even if we eliminate all mentions of YHWH that are not in the character’s mouths, assuming that the pesukim are aimed at a Sinaitic audience, the name YHWH is spoken by both God and the Avot.

On this basis, biblical critics will claim that this passuk in Shemot is part of the “P document”, whose narrative really did not include YHWH up until this point, and the stories in Bereishit that have YHWH are part of a different document. This, of course, assumes that the “Redactor” was an idiot, who could not comprehend the fact that people might find the blatant internal contradiction problematic. So, if we are to assume a “competent Redactor”, who may be forgiven for small errors but not for relatively major ones such as this, we must assume that this contradiction somehow made sense to him, in which case the need for a Redactor of different documents disappears, or that he had to include both sources unedited because he bound by previous tradition, which essentially admits there was never really a redactor. At any rate, someone at some point had to have looked at this and said, “that makes sense”. So let’s make sense of it.

Let’s take a look again at the pasuk in question. God says he appeared (וָאֵרָא) to the Avot as El-Shaddai, as opposed to the fact that he did not make his name YHWH known to them. ( וּשְׁמִי יְקֹוָק לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם). We should first note that this is not the same as saying they did not know that the name YHWH existed. Rather, God did not make it known to them. What does that mean? The text seems to be implying is that it is somehow contrasted with appearing as El-Shaddai, in that the Avot related to God by way of him appearing to them as El-Shaddai, but did not relate to him by being knowledgeable of the name YHWH.Taken within the context of God talking to Moshe, that relationship is about to change, presumably by way of the events of the Exodus.

That being said, the question appears to be much deeper than simply one of a textual contradiction. What we’re asking after is the nature of the Avot’s Judaism. Unless one takes the tactic of Chazal and assumes that the Avot followed all the tenets of Rabbinic Judaism, which is difficult to take as peshat (www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8MG9YtaZXg), it’s relatively clear that the Judaism of the Avot differed from that of even Torah She’bichtav. Avraham serving milk and meat to his guests and Yaakov marrying two sisters are two of the more obvious examples, but more subtly, the Avot make no attempt to wipe out Avodah Zarah and they offer sacrifices whenever and wherever they want without any mediation from a priesthood. Something changes in the nature of Judaism from the Avot to Har Sinai, and that shift seems to be reflected in this passuk.

Backing up this notion, we see a vast array of names before Matan Torah that incorporate the root “el”….Yishmael and Yisrael being most prominent, but there are others. But the first name that we see that incorporates YHWH is Yehoshua, and even then, its added in by Moshe after Matan Torah (except for Yehuda, which this article I got this particular idea from says makes more sense as an abbreviation of “Yehdael”, except it doesn’t say that in the passuk, so Tzarich iyyun, I’ve wrote enough of this already, there’s probably a nice devar torah as to why Yehuda is an exception). Furthermore, the word “el” is significant in the Ancient Near East context, as, said as a proper noun, it is the name of the head of the Caananite Pantheon, even though it probably more generally meant “god” as a common noun. As opposed to YHWH, which was a God name that has no parallel in the ancient Near East, and even prompts Pharaoh to famously wonder who this YHWH he’s never heard of is. To the avot, YHWH was a chiddush. El was not.
So what I’d like to propose, and you can buy it or not buy it, but it’s at least a good attempt, is that YHWH represents God’s name and true essence as revealed through revelation, and Elohim and its variants represent God as the Avot tried to understand him within the context of the world they lived in. They used God’s name YHWH in conversation amongst themselves (e.g, Bereishit 16:5), even when addressing God (15:2), and they build altars and call upon him in that name (12:7-8). God makes promises about the future using his name YHWH.
But when it comes time to relating to their surrounding context, talking to their neighbors and doing public religious acts, they always find themselves needing to translate their concept of God into different terms, that of Elohim.  Yishmael is named with an “el”, even though the etymology given is from YHWH(16:11). Yaakov wakes up and realizes that YHWH is in the place that he slept, but still names it Bet El. Yosef rejects the advances of Potifar’s wife by saying he would be sinning to Elohim by acceding to her wiles. But more than that, the Avot and their families seemed to be constantly trying to explain to themselves what the nature of this radical new deity was. Hagar calls YHWH who appeared to her an אֵל רֳאִי, a “God of seeing”, a definition that is likely inadequate. When Avraham must explain his oath to God after the war of Sedom, he puts in “el” terms, הֲרִמֹתִי יָדִי אֶל-יְהוָה אֵל עֶלְיוֹן, קֹנֵה שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ, “I lifted my hands to the god YHWH, who owns heaven and earth”, (14:22) ie, like a polytheist God who has a set dominion, except his dominion is everything.

Those “translations” aren’t the only time the Elohim idea is used. Perek 17, which details Avraham and Sarah’s name change and Avraham’s circumcision, pretty much exclusively uses Elohim and variants, and the Akeidah is heavily Elohim-based. How do we account for that? I’d propose that when demanding action of the Avot that had to be done in the present tense, the Avot had to make do with the best notion of God they could muster, and not sit around waiting for a more perfect understanding. They had to use the best understanding they had of God to provide the basis for the actions they were commanded to do.

Thus, we return to our initial issue, a reasonable interpretation in hand. I appeared to the Avot as El-Shaddai, an approximation of monotheism based in their pagan context. As such, the religion that they practiced was different, perhaps slightly more pagan-flavored. But now, through the Exodus and the Revelation at Sinai, you will know my true essence, the full extent of monotheistic belief, the full impact on ethics and law and society that the Avot could not have imagined.

So now for the takeaway lesson part, because let’s be honest, a devar torah that just gives a peshat is a bad dvar torah. I think, especially in the absence of a truly Torah-based society, that each generation has its own context, its own “elohim”’s, so to speak, be it Hellenism, Aristotelianism, Humanism, Modernism, Nationalism, Romanticism, etc etc, each era has its own obstacles towards a true understanding of God’s true essence. And while any theology will have its issues, and there is a great danger of distancing one’s self further from the truth in attempts to reconcile religious belief with the context of the day, that does not necessarily invalidate the endeavor. Religion must be made practical and understandable and able to be done by people who consider themselves moral and intelligent human beings, and attempts must be made to make it so. Our understanding may very well be imperfect, but inaction cannot be the alternative.

Dvar Torah: A working theory on the first two parshiyos in Bereishit

In my last dvar torah, I attempted my own interpretation of the first sin of Adam HaRishon, and its effects on humanity. Very briefly, seizing upon an idea from R’ Hutner on a “partition of the heart” which prevents a person from fully recognizing religious and/or philosophical truth by presenting plausible and valid alternatives, the sin of Adam HaRishon (even though it is technically the sin of Adam and of the First Woman, who is not yet named Chava, I will use the term ‘Sin of Adam’ for its colloquial recognizability) introduced such a partition in the heart of humanity by making sin and disobedience of God’s will a plausible alternative. Pre-sin, Adam lived in a state where there was one path set in front of him, that of the Truth and Authority of God’s word and harmony with nature. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad, Adam opens up the possibility of multiple paths, which include possibilities of sin and disobedience, thus making obedience to God’s will not a matter of his nature, but a path that must be chosen over other alternatives that seem to be equally plausible and valid. It is this partition of the heart, that makes man unable to naturally and effortlessly recognize truth, which is created by Adam’s sin. This approach not only appears to be a justifiable approach in the peshat, but it also seems to me to be a serviceable synthesis of a variety of approaches to Adam’s sin, most notably the Ramban who believes that humanity’s free will was created by Adam’s sin, but also the Rambam (subjectivity was created by the sin), the Abarbanel (humanity’s alienation from nature was created by the sin), and the Nefesh HaChaim (humanity’s potential for evil as a real part of him, rather than something external, was ingested along with the fruit of the tree.) Of course, another appeal of this peshat is that it speaks to the modern condition. In a world where any given religious narrative is no more privileged than narratives opposed to it, where, to borrow Peter Berger’s phrase, the sacred canopy of religion has been punctured, a partition of the heart, where we assert religious ideas to be true despite the existence of other alternatives that could also be true, has been created.

The question is, where does that leave us? What do we do, or what can we do, about this partition of the heart?
I think the proceeding chapters in Sefer Bereishit, that make up the parshiyot of Bereishit and Noach, are, at their core, about humanity trying to undo the effects of the sin of Adam HaRishon. Each time, those attempts are rebuffed, for there is no going back to Eden; the flaming sword and the cherubs remain impassable. Each time, God enacts a punishment that is a corrective for the mistaken attempt to undo the Adam’s sin.

The first attempt is made by Kayin. Faced with the possibility of other alternatives, which may be correct, he chooses to eliminate the other option. His reaction to Hevel’s sacrifice being accepted is not to attempt to change his worldview to accommodate new facts, but to kill Hevel. Kayin seeks to undo the partition of the heart by the mere elimination of that which causes doubt. His punishment goes in the opposite direction; God tells him that נָע וָנָד, תִּהְיֶה בָאָרֶץ, he will be a wanderer, without a home, without a truth to return to, forever at the mercy of other opinions.
The second attempt is made by the Generation of The Flood. This generation denies the problem altogether. There is no partition between what I want and what is right, there is only what I want, and that it is right. There is no objective right or wrong, there is only the multiplicity of individual perspectives, which have no objective criteria to be judged by. וַיִּרְאוּ בְנֵי-הָאֱלֹהִים אֶת-בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם, כִּי טֹבֹת הֵנָּה; וַיִּקְחוּ לָהֶם נָשִׁים, מִכֹּל אֲשֶׁר בָּחָרוּ They see that the daughters of men are “good”, and they take for themselves wives from whatever they choose. The only criteria they use to judge their decisions is “good”, which is defined by their own choice. This once again, is an attempt to undo the sin of Adam, this time by denying that there ever was a pre-sin state where there was objectivity and clarity. Since all we know is ambiguity and multiplicity, that must be all that there is. There is no partition of the heart. God’s punishment once again, is a corrective. The waters of the flood bring uniformity and unity where there was once multiplicity. Only one family of man, and one pair of each animal, are saved.

The third attempt is made by the builders of the Tower of Bavel. I have previously detailed my understanding of the story here, but essentially, the Tower of Bavel builders go in the exact opposite direction of the Generation of the Flood. Since we see the dangers inherent in multiplicity and doubt, we will attempt to forcefully unify and obliterate differences. We will נַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם:  פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, we will take mud and put them in molds and make them into uniform bricks, stacked higher and higher until its top reaches the heavens. We will forcefully break down the partition of the heart and make doubt and multiplicity yield to our will. And God’s response is once again a corrective. He confuses their language, instituting difference and multiplicity despite the builder’s best efforts.

There is clearly no going back to Eden. The sin of Adam cannot be erased, and God seems to expend effort into making sure we understand that. But what are we to do? Being as we have seen God reject both uniformity and multiplicity, it seems there must be a balance and dialectic between the two. But what is that balance?

Perhaps the sign given to Noach after the Flood, the Rainbow, holds a clue. The Rainbow is a single beam of light that is refracted to show the multiple colors that make up that beam of light. God seems to be telling Noach that one must keep in mind that the multiplicity and ambiguity that characterizes the post-Edenic world all comes from and is part of a single source. Both sides of the partition of the heart, the multiplicity we see before us and the unity we posit as true, are true and valid and must be recognized as such. But while that multiplicity is all too apparent to us, and it is very real and must be struggled with, all perspectives are ultimately unified in the God who unites all opposites.

Good shabbos.

Devar Torah, Noach. (From 2012)

Noach

Migdal Bavel is a very weird story. I don’t think that claim necessarily requires so much justification, but what makes it so weird? For this, I need to show you the full text of the story:

(א) וַיְהִי כָל הָאָרֶץ שָׂפָה אֶחָת וּדְבָרִים אֲחָדִים:

(ב) וַיְהִי בְּנָסְעָם מִקֶּדֶם וַיִּמְצְאוּ בִקְעָה בְּאֶרֶץ שִׁנְעָר וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם:

(ג) וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר:

(ד) וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ:

(ה) וַיֵּרֶד יְיָ לִרְאֹת אֶת הָעִיר וְאֶת הַמִּגְדָּל אֲשֶׁר בָּנוּ בְּנֵי הָאָדָם:

(ו) וַיֹּאמֶר יְיָ הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת:

(ז) הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ:

(ח) וַיָּפֶץ יְיָ אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר:

(ט) עַל כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי שָׁם בָּלַל יְיָ שְׂפַת כָּל הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם יְיָ עַל פְּנֵי כָּל הָאָרֶ

And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech. 2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there. 3 And they said one to another: ‘Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.’ And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: ‘Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.’ 5 And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. 6 And the LORD said: ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is what they begin to do; and now nothing will be withholden from them, which they purpose to do. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. 9 Therefore was the name of it called Babel; because the LORD did there confound the language of all the earth; and from thence did the LORD scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.

So everyone knows the basic story, let’s build a tower, G-d’s all like, nuh-uh, and boom, languages. Which, of course, raises questions, like “Why is that a problem? And why is the solution/punishment to inroduce impediments to understanding?”. Hopefully we will answer those questions in time. But I want to call your attention to some of the some of the things the text seems to go out of its way to stress, quite unnecessarily, which don’t come across when you sum it up. First of all, the passuk goes at length to describe the bricks, the process used to make bricks….a lot of time is spent focused on bricks. Why is that necessary?

Second of all, the way the pesukim describe the people deserves some investigation. These people, at the start of the story, are of one language and one speech, which is supposed to be of some significance. They find this place with bricks,. They make a tower. But why? They seem to have this pathological fear of “spreading across the earth”, and building this tower its top in the sky, will make themselves a name, which will somehow prevent the spreading across the earth thing from happening. What is the relation between “making themselves a name” and “spreading across the earth?”, and how does the former prevent the latter? More fundamentally, though, what underlies this fear? Why are they so afraid to spread out over the earth?

In the end, God, by confusing their languages, ensures that they are in fact spread across the earth, as a consequence of the very endeavor they take to prevent that from happening. God acts specifically to frustrate their intention of not spreading out over the earth, their desire to make a name for themselves. It seems their sin has something to do not with the building of the tower itself, but rather their desire to not spread out over the earth. So, that raises two questions. Number one, what is wrong with said desire, and why does God frustrate it? Number two, why is the confusion of languages an antidote to whatever problem that causes?

Of course, I’m really just writing this dvar torah as an excuse to tell you about the Netziv on this story. The Netziv, writing a century before George Orwell, sees the story of Migdal Bavel as a cautionary tale of a totalitarian government, which is really remarkable to read in the commentary on Chumash of the Rosh Yeshiva of Volozhin. To the Netziv, He sees the tower built for surveillance, to make sure everyone stayed in the city that had been built. G-d reacts to the tower because he realizes that it will not be long before they start killing anyone who dares raise a unsavory opinion . To prevent such tyranny, G-d frustrates their plan. The Netziv views the danger that God comes to prevent as tyranny and enforced conformity.

I’d like to use this idea of the Netziv and expand upon it to build (no pun intended) my own idea. Why were these people of Migdal Bavel so afraid of spreading across the earth? Perhaps it was the flood, and the generation that brought it. That generation was typified as “chamas”, full of corruption. The Midrashic Literature on this word “chamas” stresses the lack of respect for boundaries and rule of law; theft was rampant, sexual boundaries were violated, etc. It seems to typify a sort of corrupt anarchy, where might becomes right, similar to Hobbes’s “state of nature” where there is “war against all”. To correct this state, G-d brings a flood. One substance, water, covers the earth. Man’s anarchical drives and passions are crushed by the uniform, undifferentiated waters of the flood. The problem was anarchy, the solution was to destroy it all with uniformity.

Migdal Bavel is after the flood. These people know about the dangers of letting anarchy get out of hand. They can’t let everyone just do whatever they want, go wherever they want. Things must be uniform and consolidated, pressed into molds and stacked in neat rows. The emphasis on the bricks convey this idea. Mud, spread out across the earth, is gathered and molded and baked and stacked with a bunch of uniform other bricks to build a tower made up of a bunch of undifferentiated, uniform, bricks, all the same as the other.

So they build a tower. For what? When I think of totalitarian regimes and building towers, I think of Animal Farm, by George Orwell. In his fable of how a noble revolutionary spirit leads to the same tyranny that led to the revolution to begin with, he has a fascinating subplot involving the windmill the animals build. It was originally conceived by Snowball (good guy pig) to make the lives of the animals on the farm easier, but when Napoleon, (bad guy pig) takes over, over the course of time the windmill turns into something not being made for the animals, but rather, for its own sake. Slowly, the windmill becomes more important than any of the animals.

So the Netziv may very well be right that it had a purpose as a surveillance tower at the very beginning. It is possible. But the passuk doesn’t tell us that, it says it was to combat the fear of being spread out, to make ourselves a name. It is interesting how the goal becomes to turn a plural into a singular “name”. The Midrash hints at this when it tells us that if a brick dropped to the ground people would mourn, but if a person fell off the tower, nobody would notice. The goal of the project became not to help the people, but to keep them undiffrentiated cogs in a machine, all putting uniform brick on top of uniform brick, building that tower until the far off goal of its head in the clouds.

It is to that possibility God reacts. If they have begun to do this, to build this tower, to make everyone the same and uniform, than nothing can stop this society from doing anything it wants, no matter how heinous. So G-d confuses their languages. I view this as he introduces differences into human beings. Instead of all being standard-issue bricklayers, they become different, speak different languages, have different cultures, different frames of reference. Now each human being, instead of being a cog in a machine, is uniquely suited for the task that suits him, because he is the only one who “speaks that language”. Each one is now indispensable.

The First Sin and The Partition Of The Heart

In recent years, building upon the theory of evolution, some scientists have begun to try and explain features of human behavior and psychology by appealing to “evolutionary” theories, that theorize that the reason we do xyz is because back when we were cave men, doing xyz served whatever evolutionary purpose. What interests me about such theories is not their scientific value, because I think there is ample reason to doubt the scientific value of guessing what cavemen acted like and what their society was like based on how we act today. One can accept the theory of evolution and the value of science in general while still doubting that drawing a target and then aiming an imaginary arrow at it is bad science. In fact, the fact that it is bad science is what intrigues me. It tells me that even in the secular halls of evolutionary science, man is still prone to myth-making, to trying to come up with stories that explain why humanity is the way it is, stories that posit some prehistoric world in which humanity acquired the traits we recognize today. The only real difference is the terminology. And that they’re really bad myths. They don’t give us any insight into the human condition, they don’t hit upon some basic part of being human, they merely attempt to make science do a job its wholly unsuited for.
The First Sin , that is, Adam and Eve disobeying the divine command, following the advice of the snake, and eating from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, and introducing death and suffering into the world, is on the other hand, a myth. It is quite clearly a myth, what with the world that exists before history described in vivid detail, the talking animals, the use of archetypal characters of “The First Man” and “The First Woman”, and an action that has consequences that speak to human traits. I am relatively confident in stating, perhaps controversially, that it was never meant to be taken as a factual account.  But it’s an exceptionally good myth, much better, and in a sense, heck, considering the bad science, in any sense, truer than any account given by evolutionary psychology. There is something about the story of the First Sin that cuts to the very core of what it is like to be a human being in this world, regardless of whether it happened factually and historically or not.
But what is that something, that feature of the story that speaks to something essentially human? Well, as with most things in the Jewish tradition, that is up for interpretation. I have offered my own explanation previously, adding to the already sizeable literature on the subject, but this year, I’d like to offer another explanation, one that is perhaps independent of my previous one, or perhaps not. I’ll let the reader decide, or future me decide, whether there is a consistent thought between the two. If not, I shall not be pestered by the hobgoblin of small minds.
So let’s ask ourselves a question? How did the first sin affect the first couple? How was humanity changed by it? Obviously, we have the peshat: You will die, you’ll have to work hard, and you’ll have to have painful childbirth. But what underlies all those? And there are further questions: How did the eating of the “Tree of Knowledge” affect them? Did they really become like gods, knowing good and bad? How does the fact that they realized they were naked play into things? I don’t know if I will answer all these questions, I’m kind of writing this with the idea half formed, but the point is that the affect on Adam and Chava was more than merely what the peshat says.
I want to start with an idea from R. Yitzchak Hutner which has, since I learned it, affected me a great deal, and I’ve used it in a number of contexts. Rav Hutner, in Pachad Yitzchak Shavuot 21, talks about the effect the fact of death, brought about by the first sin, has on man’s awareness of philosophical truths. Basing himself off a gemara on Sanhedrin 38a, Rav Hutner writes that man being created alone proves two philosophical truths that are dependent on the same thing: One, that Man is unique, worthy of the world being created for him and him alone, and Two, that all humanity is equal, coming from the same source. Once Adam sins and death is introduced, however, the notion that man is unique and worthy of the whole world existing for him and him alone is seemingly falsified, for the world will continue to exist after each individual dies, seemingly indifferent to that person’s existence. Once that concept, that of the uniqueness of man, is falsified, its twin concept, the notion of the unity of man, is also weakened. Those two concepts, then, according to Rav Hutner, can only be maintained through faith in the ultimate eradication of death, Techiyyat HaMetim. Thus, says, Rav Hutner, death, (and by extension, Adam’s sin) introduces an impassable partition of the heart, between what seems to be true and what is believed and affirmed to be true, between  ההרגשה שבלב and האמונה שבלב. Without the appearance of death, we could fully comprehend without any doubt the twin concepts of the uniqueness and unity of man. Once death comes into the picture, as a result of Adam’s sin, this partition in the heart is created, and now we must posit such truths on faith.

I want to develop this notion of a partition in the heart that’s created as a result of Adam’s sin. Even though Rav Hutner sees such a partition as merely a logical conclusion extrapolated from the fact of death, I want to push it a little further, to perhaps something he never intended. I’d like to say it was not death that created such a partition, but that the sin itself created the partition, which “created”, so to speak, death. How so?
I’d like to bring a somewhat embarrassing example from my own life to illustrate. I wore Tzitzis every day throughout grade school, high school, and camp, through sweaty sports games, through squishy car rides, through everything. And I saw people take them off for sports games, and just generally not wear them, and I couldn’t understand why. They’re not that uncomfortable! I’m fine in them. And then I got techelet tziztis, and then the beged tore, and then I had to wait for a new beged, but I didnt have any regular tzitzis. And I just went without them. And, wow, you know what, this is actually pretty comfortable! And when I got a new beged, it became a struggle every morning to convince myself to put the tzitzis on. I had tasted of the forbidden fruit, there was no going back. What had happened was I had lived my life until that point with the idea of not wearing tzitzis never being a real, live option. But when I went without them, for a couple of days, it created a new, heretofore unseen possibility, of not wearing tzitzis. I now knew that there was a possibility of living my life, not wearing tzitzis. Even if I had known this intellectually, it had never seemed like a live option until I actually did it. My life, had until my point, existed in a narrative that had me wearing tzitzis. Going without tzitzis, even for a little bit, created the possibility of multiple narratives, from which I would have to choose, and struggle with that choice.
Back to Adam and Chava. Adam and Chava are told, “Don’t eat from that tree, or else you’ll die”. They perceive of this command the same way kid me understood rules against not wearing tzitzis: “Why would I do that?” Their Ddenic existence was one in which disobeying God was not a live possibility. They existed in one narrative, that of harmony with nature (according to Abarbanel), and of truth and falsehood (Rambam). There was no notion of choice, or of struggle, of being tested by circumstance. If God told them not to eat from the tree, they weren’t gonna eat from the tree. But the snake comes along, and says to Chava, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to choose one’s own path, to determine good and bad for one’s self, on one’s own criteria? Wouldn’t it be great to know good and bad? And Chava likes the cut of his jib, and she eats from the fruit, and gives to Adam.

By eating from the fruit, they have not just disobeyed God; they have created the very concept and possibility of disobedience. They have learned that multiple, indeed, infinite, narratives exist from which they can choose. They can choose to eat from the tree or to not eat from the tree, or just avoid trees altogether. They can obey or disobey, be good or evil, virtuous or sinful, peaceful or warlike, tolerant or oppressive. They are like Gods, able to see the multiple paths of good and bad. But it is that realization that creates the partition Rav Hutner speaks of. If all narratives exist side by side, all of them possible, all of them within grasp, how do we know which one to choose? Before the sin, there was one narrative, the true word of God, the state of nature, and no possibility of others. Now, other possibilities than the state of nature exist, and they realize they are naked, and they will now have to work hard to produce food. Now, other possibilities than God’s word exist, and they attempt to hide from God when he calls to them. Now, other possibilities than their uniqueness exist and thus death is introduced into the world. The partition that Rav Hutner describes is the impassable barrier between the multiple possibilities and narratives of this world, and certainty in the true one. As long as there are other possible narratives that can be followed, religion remains something posited based on faith and revelation.
What are we to do about this state of humanity? On one hand, we work towards and pray for the day of the fulfillment of Devarim 30:6, וּמָל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-לְבָבְךָ, וְאֶת-לְבַב זַרְעֶךָ:  לְאַהֲבָה אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשְׁךָ–לְמַעַן חַיֶּיךָ.  But in the meantime? There is a famous vort of the Kotzker, on the words of Devarim 11:18,  וְשַׂמְתֶּם אֶת-דְּבָרַי אֵלֶּה, עַל-לְבַבְכֶם וְעַל-נַפְשְׁכֶם. The Kotzker asks, why “on your heart”, why not “in?” Answers the Kotzker, because the heart is blocked by an impenetrable barrier, and one cannot just place truth in their heart. They must place it on their heart, in stacks and piles, and wait for a moment that your heart’s barrier opens, in a moment of clarity or inspiration, so that in such a moment, truth merely needs to fall in.

Good Shabbos.

Dvar Torah Bereishis (from 2012)

I’ve decided to start putting up my old divrei torah up on this website just for ease of access and so that I have at least a kind of head start on this blog being productive. I’m going to still try to write new ones every week, but this will at least give me something.
Here’s one I wrote in 2012:
There are very few things that seem to make sense about Chapter Three of Bereishis, also known as “the one with the snake, the apple (not really an apple, btw), and Chava”. For one, there is a talking snake. Additonally, there is a command to not eat from a certain tree. No justification is given for this command. Then this talking snake, for some reason, really wants Chava to eat from this tree, which brings us to a very unhappy conclusion. What is going on here?

 

First of all, it must first be established that it is very doubtful that the Torah here means to bring us historical fact, for a number of reasons. The talking snake is one. The pains taken to describe a location that does not exist is another. The description of a reality fundamentally different from ours, and how our reality came to be. Point is, there are a lot of elements that convey to us that this is to be read as a mythical account,not “myth” as in lie”, but as a story talking about fundamental human truths, rather than just a story about why snakes don’t have legs.

 

What would be the purpose of this kind of mythical story being put into the Torah in this fashion? The theory goes that the Jews receiving the Torah at Har Sinai were no doubt familiar with the pagan myths of creation that existed in the culture around them. Thus, in order to show the fundamental differences between the pagan religions around them and the new religion they had now accepted upon themselves, some of the stories in the Torah are put into a mythical format, while making fundamental changes that show the Jewish perspective over the pagan perspective. One famous instance is comparing the account of the Great Flood in the Epic of Gilgamesh with that in parshas Noach. Whereas the gods bring the flood upon humanity in Gilgamesh because humankind has become an annoying, overpopulous, noisy, neighbor, the Torah attributes the flood to man’s moral corruptness. In fact, the pesukim seem to take great care to point out that a population boom is not to be blamed here. Perek 6, Passuk 5, states that “G-d saw that mankind’s wickedness had multiplied on the earth,” specifically inserting “wickedness” there to show it is not due to mankind’s reproductivity, but due to their evil, that the floodwaters come. 

 

Now that we have that idea, how can we apply it to understand the whole tree episode? I don’t know if the following works at all, but its an idea that’s been kicking around in my head for a couple of days, so here it is. I want to focus on two aspects that we see frequently in pagan creation myths that relate to our story. The first is where the Gods and man originate. In both of the creation stories given to us in this parsha, there is no origin story given to God. God is merely taken as a fact from the very beginning, quite literally in this instance. In pagan creation stories, this is not so. There is no creator, or originator of all that exists. Rather, the Gods just emerge from this primordial “stuff”, and usually start fighting right after that. There is no God that creates the other Gods, or is in of itself superior to any of the other Gods, which is why they have to start fighting for supremacy. This makes sense, as pagan gods were based on the forces of nature, and there are no forces in nature that are necessarily superior to any other, a sense likely magnified by the lack of technological sophistication of that age. The rain does not just decide, “Okay, I’m going to fall now, I don’t care what anyone else has to say about it”. This explains why there are all these fertitlity rituals. You have to give the fertility gods the strength to fight off the powers of drought and famine. There is no god that transcends the very concepts of space and time and nature, and can make his own decisions uncontested. 

 

Man usually ends up being created, as an afterthought, from some mud made by a god’s blood, after he has defeated the powers of chaos (we’ll get to that). While one result of this is that man is regarded to be fairly lowly, an afterthought of creation, made merely to serve the gods, the other result is that, fundamentally, there is no difference between man and god, save the fact that gods are just more powerful. Pagan gods are much more similar to superheroes, very talented versions of ourselves, then to our conception of God as a perfect and transcedent being. The gods in pagan theology are rather similar to mob bosses, actually. If you pay them tribute, they will provide you with protection from chaos and infertility, but if not, they will get very mad at you and cause you much harm. But, they, like mob bosses, though powerful, are still bound by the fact they are part of a closed system. The gods and man originate from the same stuff. So if you can find a way to manipulate the “stuff”, you can force the Gods to do your bidding. Thus, the concept of magic. By saying certain words, doing certain rituals, you can limit the Gods or manipulate them to your advantadge. By way of the mob boss example, I can’t necessarily defeat his whole criminal infrastracture, but I can, if I wanted to, put a gun to his head and tell him to go somewhere else. While in reality, that may not be a good idea, it illustrates that doing so is within the realm of possibility, as me and the mob boss are both human beings bound by the rules of nature. There are even accounts of people trying to defeat the gods, or win the secret of immortality from them, as in Gilgamesh. All of this would be impossible under a transcendent god, which, to my great chagrin, cannot at all be compared to a mob boss.  The second aspect of creation stories is the accounts of the gods’ defeat of the forces of chaos, usually represented as a sea monster of some sort who is defeated by a god in a big bloody battle. This goes back to what we’ve been saying; in pagan theology, forces must be defeated, and there is no such thing as divine decrees just becoming reality. In fact our first creation story seems to be polemicizing against this very idea. God creates everything in an orderly fashion, there is no opposition or battle. Even the great sea monsters, the terrifying creatures that feature so prominently as forces of chaos, were created by God on the fifth day (1:21).

 

Until this point, none of this have been chiddushim, instead established ideas I’ve read from authors like Yechezkel Kaufmann (worth a read, btw) and others. Now, here’s where I attempt to be mechadesh. The first story is neat, orderly, and conveys the idea of a perfect divine system. But look around you. Is the world really that perfect? I think not. How did things get messed up? Which of course, mythologically speaking, is just asking how *do* things get messed up?

  So, in the second story, we have a man created from the dust of the earth, breathes into his soul the breath of life (nothing in this story about tzelem elokim), and he becomes a living creature. He needs a companion. So woman is created, out of Adam’s rib. Instead of man being fashioned out of a piece of a god, meaning they are fundamentally similar, yet different, it is woman who is fundamentally similar to man, yet different. While this has a lot of more implications, specifically for gender issues, which I do not intend to touch with a 10 foot pole in this piece, an attempt is made to define man not vertically, by his relationship to a god, but horizontally, by his relation to a being both fundamentally similar and different than him.

 

  Now, they are given a command. Do not eat from the tree of knowledge of good and bad, or else you’ll die. No justification is given on God’s end. (I don’t think the “you will surely die” is a justification, rather a consequence) Nothing about needing that tree for something else. Just don’t eat it. Now say you are used to a pagan world view. Now imagine, back to our mob boss analogy, the mob boss saying to one of his “protected”, here, eat at any restaurant you want, except that one. What incentive does he have to make such a request? He must be hiding something. Whatever’s at that restaurant must be fantastic.

 

  On to the snake (I’ll get back to adressing “knowledge of good and bad”, soon). Though the same word is not used, I doubt that the image of a snake did not call to mind the ancient stories of the sea serpents battling with mighty gods for supremacy. Yet our snake is not a mighty sea serpent here. He is a cunning, slick talking fruit salesman. The Chumash may be suggesting a whole different kind of source for chaos and evil and suffering. Not through brute force does evil come to power, but through rationalization and moral weakness. The mind is the battlefield here. So let’s look at the content of the snake’s persuasion. The woman says she won’t eat from the tree, because she’ll die. The snake responds “You shall surely not die; for God  knows  that in the day you eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as a god, knowing good and evil.”

 

  Let’s analyze this closely. The consequence of eating from this tree is not death. Rather, you will become a god, which is defined as  “knowing good and evil”. In a pagan worldview, it is eminently possible that this Man and Woman can become like God by eating of this magical fruit, which taps into powers that go above God’s head. They will not just become as powerful as pagan gods, because we’ve already established that there’s only One All-Powerful, All Knowing God. They will advance to becoming all-knowing and all powerful beings, able to understand the cosmos and manipulate nature, and can dispense with the need for God. They now know what is good and what is evil, just as much as God does. They have outgrown such childish, primitive nonsense, they can look at the world with their eyes opened, and make their decisions without his help, thank you very much. And they eat from this fruit, waiting for their eyes to open at a world they can now partake of without restriction, with no authority to answer to. 

 

And their eyes are opened. And they realize they are naked. They realize how frail and vulnerable they are, not even given a coat to survive a winter, or reptilian thick skin, or claws or sharp teeth or prehensile tails endowed with nothing from nature except their larger than average brains, and maybe opposable thumbs. They are not gods, far from all-powerful, and further from all-knowing. They had disobeyed a divine command, thinking to raise themselves above it, but instead were brutally brought down to their place, far, far, far below God’s. 

The Passing Shade and The Withering Leaves: The Permanent Impermanence of Sukkot

I have an admission to make. I am terrible with Aravot.
Aravot

Every year, no matter what I do, what measures I take, what advice I put into practice, my Aravot are dead by the middle of Sukkos. I don’t quite know what I’m doing wrong. I look around in shul, and see people with aravot that are still fresh and healthy, and I am overcome with hatred and anger and fear. Fear? Yes. Fear. For are we not all aravot, desperately trying to stave off our own mortality, clinging desperately to the branch as we are shaken during Hallel, slowly drying up and turning purple? Was our fate not sealed the moment we left the sealed package, nay, the moment we were cut from the willow tree? Yet we persist in trying to fool ourselves, to wrap ourselves in wet paper towels, to put ourselves in fridges, despite the knowledge that we will all wither and die and be discreetly replaced by a fresher bunch of aravot bought on Hoshana Rabba and then beaten into the ground, to be later swept up by the custodian, who only knows of Hoshana Rabba as “that day with all the bleeping leaves.” Are we not, when futilely trying to keep our aravot alive, symbolically trying to delay the fact of our own mortality? Is it not natural to be angry at those unperturbed by their fate?

Well, dear reader, I can see you shifting uncomfortably in your seat now, muttering, “wow, that got morbid fast”. It’s not my fault though. I just came out of Yom Kippur. It seems that mortality, and, more specifically, getting humanity to acknowledge and react to its own mortality, plays a large role in the character of the day of Yom Kippur. Be it the Rambam’s reason for why we say vidui at mincha before Yom Kippur, (because you might choke and die during the pre-fast meal, Hilchot Teshuva 2:7), or whether it is the liturgy of the day, particularly U’Netaneh Tokef, with its picture of man as ” broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”, or the whole structure of the day, with a final deadline set for getting one’s affairs in order, and the frequent reminders of the imminent nature of that deadline, all point to a day that is preoccupied with the concept of man’s imminent mortality. Yom Kippur strains to remind us that you are going to die, at possibly any moment, and that you’ve been wasting a lot of your time
In trying to get a person to recognize this essential fact, in trying to spur one to take charge of their life, the liturgy necessarily tends towards the vehement and extravagant.

מה אנחנו, מה חיינו, מה חסדנו, מה כחנו, מה גבורתנו. מה נאמר לפניך ה’ אלהינו ואלהי אבותינו. הלא כל הגיבורים כאין לפניך, ואנשי השם כלא היו, וחכמים כבלי מדע ונבונים כבלי השכל. כי כל מעשינו תוהו, וימי חיינו הבל לפניך, ומותר האדם מן הבהמה אין כי הכול הבל.

What are we ? What is our life ? What is our piety ? What is our virtue ? What is our help? What is our power ? What is our might ? what then shall we say in thy presence, O Lord, our God ! and the God of our fathers ? Are not the mightiest heroes as naught, before thee ; men of renown as if they had not existed ? wise men, as if they were without knowledge ? and the intelligent, as if void of understanding ? For the majority of their actions is emptiness ; and the days of their life but vanity in thy presence ; even the
pre-eminence of man over beast, is naught for all is vanity.

 

 

This is all necessary as a corrective, as an overcompensation for humanity’s general mindlessness and laziness, but there is a danger of taking these notions too seriously, of going too far to the other extreme. For if death will come to us all, what value is human action? There is so little time, and so much to do! Where does one start? How does one even start? What use is starting when everything I do is laughably transient and temporary? What purpose is there to building on such shifting sands? Such a destabilizing blow to one’s feeling of security on this earthly plane can be debilitating and paralyzing.

And then comes Sukkos. Now, before we say anything else, Sukkos is a weird holiday. I would wager it is our weirdest holiday, by a rather wide margin. What are we celebrating? Unclear. What are we supposed to be so happy about? Unclear. (this question and answer brought to you by Ashkenazi Jewry! “Ashkenazim: Why Should We Be Happy?!”) Why are we taking a bunch of plants together and waving them and then walking around in a circle with them? Totally unclear. Why are sitting in huts outside? Well, God told us why: Because we sat in huts once, which is the third least satisfying answer given by God in Tanach, behind his answers to Iyov (look at all this stuff I made!) and Yonah (… And a lot of cattle!). So, Sukkos is weird. Trust me, this becomes important.

There does, however, seem to be an overriding theme in the things we do on Sukkos that I’d like to point out. There seems to be many things we use in Sukkos that are temporary by their very nature. First of all, the Arba Minim are all plants, all of which will, being as they are organic matter, will eventually die, some of which do so aggravatingly quickly, as I have mentioned. Yet we are bidden to take them, and attempt, often vainly, to keep them alive and fresh for the whole of the holiday. Secondly and more obviously is the Sukkah itself, the Sukkah is a temporary structure which we relate to as permanent. We are תשבו כעין תדורו, we sit in the sukkah in the manner in which we dwell in our permanent we homes, and each Jew is commanded to עושה סוכתו קבע וביתו עראי, to eat, sleep, and sit in the sukkah in a manner of  קבע, permanence, though the Sukkah itself is עראי, temporary. (Sukkah 26b). There is no attempt to deny the fact that this is a temporary structure, no demand to actually move into the Sukkah, but to sit in it כעין תדורו, “like the way you dwell”. You are sitting in a temporary hut, fully cognizant of its temporary nature, but you are relating to it as if it is permanent. For both the Sukkah and the Arba Minim, we are commanded to treat a temporary object with permanence.

And this all comes back to our destabilized post-Yom Kippur individual, debilitated and paralyzed by the knowledge of his own mortality and transience. Sukkot says to him, that yes, everything is temporary, everything has an end, and you will one day die, and this would seem to render all of your decisions as insignificant. Nevertheless, there is no excuse for passivity. There is yet value in acting as if your actions have significance, despite what may appear to be the case from your perspective. That yes, there is significance to the passing shade of the Sukkah and the withering leaves of the Arba Minim. And to that end, one must leap headfirst into the absurd, into sleeping and eating outside, into the carrying and shaking of plant-bundles, to force oneself to reclaim their ability to make decisions that are not paralyzed by despair and doubt. Perhaps this is why we read Sefer Kohelet on Shabbos Chol HaMoed Sukkos. For 12 Chapters, Shlomo HaMelech muses on mortality, transience, despair, doubt, and insecurity. And despite it all, his conclusion is  סוֹף דָּבָר, הַכֹּל נִשְׁמָע:  אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים יְרָא וְאֶת-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו שְׁמוֹר, כִּי-זֶה כָּל-הָאָדָם, “The end of the matter, all having been heard: fear God, and keep His commandments; for this is the whole man.”. He has affirmed that despite the transience of it all, there is still significance to his actions.

To conclude, there is an idea, which I thought was Talmudic, but actually comes from a Metzudat David on Mishlei 15:30, that  אין שמחה כהתרת הספקות, “There is no joy like the resolution of doubt”. Perhaps this is the joy of Sukkos. The resolution of humanity’s doubts in itself and the significance of its actions by using the transient and temporary for permanence.

Chag Sameach!