Friday, September 23, 2011

A Thought On the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: 

Parshat Nitzavim, which this year is combined with Parshat VaYelekh, always falls immediately before Rosh HaShana, and appropriately so.  For it is in this parasha that the Torah speaks at great length about the power of teshuva.  "And you will return to the Lord your God and obey God's voice... you and your children, with all your heart and with all your soul."  (Devarim 30:2).  This process of teshuva comes,  in the Torah's narrative, after the terrible curses described in last week's parasha, have befallen the nation: "And it will be when all these things befall you, the blessing and the curse..." (verse 1) that you will then repent and return.  And your returning - vi'shavta (the root of the word teshuva) - to God will be met with God's return to you: "And God will return your captivity... and God will return." (verse 3).

This parasha of teshuva, then, is actually the closing of last week's parasha of blessings and curses.   The Torah there ends its catalogue of curses rather abruptly, "... and you will sell yourselves there to your enemies as slave men and slave women, and no one shall buy you." (Devarim 28:29).  That's it.  You will be in the land of your enemies, afflicted and with no hope, more worthless than slaves.   Where is the hope?  Will God abandon us there?  To this, our parasha responds - if you repent, God will return you to the Land of Israel, and you will once again prosper.  You will no longer be "cursed... in the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your land,"(Devarim 28:17), but rather "... God will bring increase... to the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your cattle, and the fruit of your land,"  (Devarim 30:9).   And in response to the devastating prophecy that: "Just as God has rejoiced over you to do good to you and to increase you, so will God make your enemies rejoice to wipe you out and destroy you," (Devarim 28:63), our parsha echoes back: "For God will once more rejoice over you to do good, just as God has rejoiced over your fathers." (Devarim 30:9). 

It is instructive to compare this narrative of Sin-Curse-Teshuva-Return-Blessing to the parallel one that closed the book of Vayikra.  There, the Torah also speaks about sinning and being cursed by God.  However, the resolution there is not repentance and return, but rather confession and of God's commitment to the covenant.  Consider.  We are told near the end of those curses, "And they shall confess their sins and the sins of their fathers, in their trespass that they have trespassed against me, and even that they have walked contrary to (or haphazardly with) me." (Vayikra 26:40).    It sounds like the people have repented, and all should be well and good.  But then we read in the next verse: "Even I will walk with them contrarily, and I will bring them into the land of their enemies.  Perhaps then will their uncircumcised hearts be humbled, and they accept the punishment of their sin."  The people - although they have confessed - have not really changed their ways, and have not really humbled their hearts to God.  And, even at the end, this goal seems elusive.  For we are never told that this change takes place, but only: "... I will not cast them away or despise them to utterly destroy them, to annul My covenant with them, for I am the Lord their God." (verse 44).  It is not our repentance that saves us, but rather God's commitment to uphold the covenant and to keep the relationship that God has with us as a People.

Why does one narrative include teshuva, and hence a complete return - both of us to God and God to us - whereas in the other narrative this is absent?  A couple of possibilities present themselves.  On the one hand is merely describing two different scenarios.  Sometimes a person - or a nation - will not return fully, and only do a pro forma act of confession, and sometimes a person - or a nation - will do true teshuva, and God will respond in kind to these separate cases - in the first, a maintaining of the structure of the relationship, without its substance, and in the second, a true reestablishing of the relationship, with its full depth.  

This answer is fine as far as it goes, but it fails to note another relevant point, and that is the absence of the entire phenomenon of teshuva from the book of Vayikra.  For while Vayikra deals at great length with the atonement of sin, it never uses the phrase of shavta or teshuva, nor does it deal with it as a concept.  Sins are atoned for through sacrifices and the associated act of confession: " And it shall be, when he shall be guilty in one of these things, that he shall confess that he has sinned in that thing, and he shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord..." (Vayikra 5:5-6).  This is also true at the communal level and regarding the Service of Yom Kippur: " And Aaron shall bring the bull of the sin offering, which is for himself, and shall make an atonement for himself....". And again, "And Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel..." (Vayikra 16:11 and 21).  The emphasis here is more on the rituals and acts that achieve atonement, but not on the inner work of remorse, changing of one's ways, and returning to God.  That - the process of teshuva, only explicitly appears in the Torah at the end of Devarim, in this week's parasha.  Why is that?

I believe that the answer lies in how the Israel's relationship with God developed over time.   Turning for a moment to a halakhic take on our parasha, the Talmud of the Land of Israel expounds on the verse: " And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and he will do you good, and multiply you above your fathers" (Devarim 30:5), in the following way:

Your fathers were exempt [from tithes when they entered the Land of Israel] and became obligated [after the land was sanctified through being conquered and settled], so you were exempt [when you returned in the time of Ezra] and became obligated [when you settled the land].

Your fathers did not have the yoke of foreign government on them.  You - however - are obligated [and the land has sanctity] even though you are under the yoke of a foreign government.
(Shevi'it 6:1).

That is to say, your return to the land is greater in the Second Commonwealth than the First Commonwealth, since the land is imbued with and retains its sanctity even though you have no political power.  This idea is extended by Rambam (Laws of the Chosen House 6:16) to explain why the sanctity of the Land of Israel exists even after the destruction of the Second Temple, which was not the case after the destruction of the first Beit HaMikdash.  The difference, says Rambam, is that the first sanctity was connected to our political power, and disappeared when that ended.  The second sanctity, however, existed despite the lack of political power, and thus is perseveres even when we are driven from the land.

Rav Soloveitchik further elaborated on this point, and spoke to the nature of Israel's relationship to the land.  In the First commonwealth the connection was formed based on real-world and material benefits: political power, and a land filled with blessings - a land of milk and honey.  When this stopped being the case, the relationship ended.  In the Second Commonwealth, however, life was better outside of the Land of Israel, and many Jews therefore did not return.  Those who did return understood that the connection to the Land was much deeper than surface and material benefits.  It was a connection that transcended material concerns, and because it transcended such concerns, it persisted throughout all hardship, and could exist even when they were no longer on the land.  This relationship, however, could not happen at the beginning.  A relationship of this depth had to grow over time.  The people had to suffer hardship, and remain steadfast in their commitment to the Land, for the relationship to acquire this depth and this permanence.

What Rav Soloveitchik has said so beautifully in regards to the relationship to the land, can also be said in regards to Israel's relationship to God.  This relationship was initially formed on the basis of real-world, material benefit.  God had redeemed them from Egypt and provided for them in the desert.  And, as we see, when the people suffered privation, they turned away from God and looked to return to Egypt.  With such a relationship, when things go wrong, a true returning cannot take place, because a relationship of true depth has yet to be established.  The most that can be hoped for is a verbal acknowledgement that one has done wrong, and an act that symbolizes the need to fix what has been broken.  This is the verbal confession and the sacrifice.  It is like a recently married couple that got married because of they were physically attracted to one another, but has yet to develop a deep, lasting relationship.  When one of them does something to hurt the other, it cannot be solved by refocusing on the relationship and what truly matters, for the relationship is not there yet.  At this stage, it can only be solved by an admission of wrongdoing, and an act - flowers, a vacation, etc. - that serves to make things better.  The real danger here is that one of the parties will get up and walk away from the marriage.  For things to get better, they first have to be committed to stay in.  Hence, when the relationship with God was at this state, the people were only "walking with God haphazardly" as was God with the people.  What kept things going was a commitment to stay in and work on the relationship.  God is committed to the convenant.

If the couple, then, keeps in the marriage and keeps on working on the relationship, it can be transformative.  The relationship will grow deeper, and after the marriage has hit some bumps and even serious hardships and nonetheless survived, the relationship will become deep and lasting.  The entire dynamics will then change.  With such a relationship, although statements and symbolic acts are important, the true way one corrects wrong and hurtful acts is by returning to what really matters, returning to the deep connection to other and to the unwavering commitment to one another, not just to the marriage.    And when this happen, the relationship will grow even deeper.

And so it is with our relationship with God.  If we have kept fast to the relationship even when it has hit bumps, if we are committed not only when things are good, but even - perhaps even more so - when things are bad, if we understand that the relationship is not about surface acts but about deep connection, then our relationship will be deep, substantive, and lasting.   If this is - or can be - our relationship with God, then when we sin, and when we return and do teshuva with true depth and sincerity, our relationship, having suffered and persevered, will only grow deeper and stronger.

Shabbat Shalom!

Torah From Our Beit Midrash

The Talmud (Gittin 37b) quotes a mishna in Shivi'it (10:8) that states that when a person attempts to return a debt during Shmita, the creditor should say to him "I annul it."  But if the debtor says, "Nevertheless, I wish to return it," then the creditor should accept the payment.  The Gemara goes on to say that the debtor should be encouraged, or perhaps even pressured, to say "nevertheless" and to return the loan.

This ruling is quite startling.   One difficulty is that the Gemara and Sifrei are clear that loans are annulled at the end of the Sabbatical year.  Hence the phrase: "One who returns his loan during Shmita," has to be reinterpreted to mean "one who returns his loan after Shmita has passed."   Beyond that, regarding the actual annulment itself this case raises questions.  What is the meaning of this little dance that the debtor and creditor are doing, and how can it be allowed  to make payment of a loan after it has been annulled?   To understand more clearly what is going on here, one needs to look at what happens when loans are annulled by the Sabbatical year.

The many passages in the Talmud that discuss the annulment of loans suggest very strongly that the annulment occurs automatically at the end of the year.  However, this is not full explicit, and our passage points to a possible role that the creditor might have in this annulment through his declaration, "I annul it."   Indeed, the Mordechai quotes an opinion that without this declaration the loan is not annulled.  Even when Mordechai rejects this, he does so not through a definitive proof, but by saying, "The matter appears that the loan is annulled automatically," and "I have a tradition that this happens without any statement."  Clearly, there is room to argue that the statement of annulment is part of the process, but on the other hand there are so many sources that sound like things happen automatically.  Is there a way to resolve this?

I believe that the answer lies in understanding two aspects of what might be meant by annulment of the loan.  On the one hand, it is possible that the loan gets completely wiped out.  This is what we assume.  Interestingly, however, the Torah never says this.  The Torah rather says, "He may not exact the loan from his fellow or his brother."  This suggests that the loan exists, but it may not be demanded or extracted.  It is possible that these two approaches are reflected in the debate of Abbaye and Rava (Gittin 36b) how the Rabbis might have instituted a Rabbinic Shmita and annulled loans, if they really should be collectable.  Abbaye states: "Sit and don't act."  Rava states: "The court has the power to make property ownerless."  That is, according to Abbaye, Rabbinic Shmita, at least, does not annul the loan, but rather restricts the creditor from collecting.  According to Rava, however, the actual loan is annulled.

It is also possible that both are true.  Perhaps what happens automatically is that the creditor is prohibited from collecting the loan.  If, however, the creditor states, "I annul it," then the loan actually gets wiped out.  That might be what is happening in our mishna.  Because the loan still exists, then although the creditor cannot demand it, if the debtor wants to do the right thing, he will return it nonetheless.  Hence the statement in the mishna that "The Sages are pleased with whomever returns a loan during the Sabbatical year."   The creditor, on his part, has to then take it to the next step and say, "I annul it," perhaps thereby fulfilling the Biblical command, "Every creditor should release his debts."   This, then, wipes the debt clean.  Nevertheless, because the creditor is still out his money, it would be good for the debtor to repay it as a gift, and this is what we encourage him to do.

Finally, lulei di'mistafina, I would suggest a reading that is not according to the way we rule, but which fits nicely in the text of the mishna.  Although we rule that the Sabbatical year annuls loans only at the end, we must admit that it is quite ironic that a creditor can go through the entire Sabbatical year demanding and collecting his debts.  Perhaps this is not the case.  Perhaps during the Sabbatical year the creditor is foresworn against collecting based on the verse, "He shall not exact."  Nevertheless, the actual annulment of the loan only occurs at the end of the year.   This is consistent with the sources that state that the annulment occurs at the end of the year, and it also nicely explains the phrase: "One who comes to return his loan on Shmita."  When someone is returning it during the Sabbatical year, the loan still exists, but it cannot be demanded.  Then, if the creditor states, "I annul," it gets erased, or, if he does not state this, it will be erased at the end of the year.  This, then, also explains the sources that state that the annulment occurs automatically and this source which suggests that it is done via the creditor.  The latter is true and necessary during the Sabbatical year itself, the former is what happens, regardless, and the end of the year.

Happenings at the Yeshiva

The learning continues strongly, and the kol Torah is filling the Beit Midrash and the halls. 

My shiur had the first round of student-led chaburot given on Monday and Tuesday on the topics of Shmita and annulment of loans nowadays, the way in which Shmita annuls loans, and the strength or Rabbinic enactments and what type of court is need to reverse them.   I gave shiur on further details relating to the annulment of loans on Shmita, and on the mechanics of pruzbol.  We have now progressed to the topic of slaves in halakha, and will hear today a chaburah on the two aspects of slavery - the ownership of a slave as property, and the personal status of the slave.  After Rosh HaShana we will continue this topic, and look at the ways in which a slave is compared to land, and deal with some of the religious/theological aspects and challenges around slavery in the context of the mitzvah - as understood by the Rabbis - not to free one's slaves.

In preparation for Rosh HaShana, we had two special events this week.  Lisa Goldstein from the Institute of Jewish Spirituality was in on Tuesday and led an optional meditation session in the afternoon.  Then, on Wednesday, Rabbi Blanchard taught a shiur to the whole yeshiva on the aggadata of Yoma, and approaches to teshuva.    We are all looking forward to our Spirituality / Hakhana LiYamim Noraim two-day retreat coming up this Monday-Tuesday, which will be taking place at Baker Camp at Lake Sebago, which will be led by Rabbi Moshe Silver, and which will also consist of students and rebbeim sharing their own Torah and approaches towards developing a deeper connection and preparing for the Yamim Noraim.

On a sad note, we mourn the passing of Ida Hilsenrad, mother of our beloved Toby Weiss.   Rabbi Weiss, spoke beautifully about his mother-in-law at the funeral on Shomrei Hadas Chapel, in Boro Park.  Toby is sitting shiva at her home on Sunday and Monday and will be getting up this coming Tuesday morning.  We also mourn the passing of Gertrude Levine, sister of Yitz Greenberg.   May God console them amongst the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.