Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Mazal Tov!

הדרן עלך תלמוד בבלי, והדרך עלן!

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

True Faith in a Doubting World

In the fifth book of the Torah we begin this weekend, God warns us to keep His commandments. If we do not, we will be sent into exile, and 'we will be singled out for suffering' (Deut 29:20). The nations will stand in wonder at the torture and destruction of God's beloved nation, and they will say, 'it must be punishment for turning away from God's covenant' (29:24). And yet, no matter how far we fall, God will redeem us. 'God will return with our exiles, and have mercy; He will gather us from the lands of our dispersion', into Israel (29:3-5). God promises us this.

In Amos (9:13-15), we are again promised the vision of salvation, this time even more clearly and in far more detail:

"יג הִנֵּה יָמִים בָּאִים, נְאֻם-יְהוָה, וְנִגַּשׁ חוֹרֵשׁ בַּקֹּצֵר, וְדֹרֵךְ עֲנָבִים בְּמֹשֵׁךְ הַזָּרַע; וְהִטִּיפוּ הֶהָרִים עָסִיס, וְכָל-הַגְּבָעוֹת תִּתְמוֹגַגְנָה. יד וְשַׁבְתִּי, אֶת-שְׁבוּת עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּבָנוּ עָרִים נְשַׁמּוֹת וְיָשָׁבוּ, וְנָטְעוּ כְרָמִים וְשָׁתוּ אֶת-יֵינָם; וְעָשׂוּ גַנּוֹת, וְאָכְלוּ אֶת-פְּרִיהֶם. טו וּנְטַעְתִּים, עַל-אַדְמָתָם; וְלֹא יִנָּתְשׁוּ עוֹד, מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לָהֶם--אָמַר, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ."

"'When the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him who sows seed; the mountains shall drip with sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will bring back the captives of My people Israel; they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink wine from them; they shall also make gardens and eat fruit from them. I will plant them in their land, and no longer shall they be pulled up from the land I have given them,' says the Lord your God."

In Makot (24b), Rabbi Akiva and his friends visit Mt. Scopus. They witness a fox scamper through the ruins of the Holy of Holies. While his friends break down in tears, Rabbi Akiva laughs. Astonished, his friends ask, "How can you laugh?" He counters, "How can you cry?" The rabbis answer, "The Holy of Holies, concerning which God commanded that any stranger who enters it shall die, now is desecrated by foxes, and we should not cry?" Rabbi Akiva responds, "This is precisely why I laugh. Uriah prophesied that because of Israel's sins, the Temple would be plowed into a field. Zechariah foretold of elderly men and women once again inhabiting the streets of Jerusalem. Before seeing the fulfillment of Uriah's prophecy, one might have doubted that Zechariah's would come true. But now that we see the realization of the first, we can be sure that the second will also come true!" His friends took solace in this, and said, "Akiva, you have comforted us."

The two prophecies that Rabbi Akiva mentions are essentially re-formulations of the verses from the book of D'varim. Akiva saw the dreadful destruction of the Temple in its full effect, an epic destruction which, though horrific, demonstrated God's continued involvement and fidelity to His promises to our nation. Thus, the fulfillment of the exile was intrinsically a promise for redemption.

However, the Talmud also states in Sanhedrin that one possibility is that the ultimate redemption will come only after Israel despairs of it, and loses hope. Indeed, throughout the intervening two thousand years, we have, as a nation, become numb from our pain and suffering, slipping into national depression. Paradoxically, by suffering so much, we may lose the conviction that our suffering comes from God and is the fulfillment of a plan. And the way history plays out subsequently, faith in God's plans for history are further in danger.

In the past millennia, Jews and gentiles have accepted prima facie the authenticity of the Torah and other books of the Bible. Even without the fulfillment of the positive prophecies of reconstruction, they have survived with their faith in God and His word. They lived and died for a day when their children and grandchildren would be able to witness the fulfillment of God's promises. They needed no proof.

However, around the turn of the last century, scholars and skeptics have begun to question, not only the dating of certain works, or the exact authorship of certain parts of some books, but the very concept of God's revelation of His will and future plans to Mankind. Whole sections of Jews may not believe in the divinity of our scripture, or even in the existence of God! Humanity has become cynical, and so, have chosen to question God's revelation.

And so, the laugh of Akiva that echoed for more than a thousand years began to dim. The epic nature of the destruction is forgotten, and perhaps we are like all other nations, with no special divine providence guiding our suffering to ultimate redemption. This is the despair which is discussed by the passage in Sanhedrin. We might lose our faith!

However, we must pay attention to the historical currents that surrounded this movement. The return of Jews to Zion with the intent of rebuilding the land and Jewish culture gained steam. Eventually, European Jewry was destroyed, and out of the fire, like a phoenix, the modern state of Israel rose. The remnants beat back blood-thirsty hordes of Arab soldiers, intent on destroying them. This happened, not once, but five times. Jews returned and continue to stream to their land, and even the anti-Zionists admit that, if not ראשית צמיחת גאולתינו, we are living through, at least, עיקבתא דמשיחא.

This is God's most poetic answer to the skeptics. God counters their questions by making the living word of His books come true! Hashem always keeps us open to faith. Sometimes we are sustained by faith in the word, as the generations before us. However, if we begin to question its authenticity, he makes it come true, so we can no longer doubt it.

In Nitzavim and Amos, God promised us redemption, and placed his name on it as a seal of truth. Before, the destruction was enough of a promise to believe in the redemption. But in a world where this is no longer enough, God gives us the redemption to re-ignite our faith. It happens now as we watch! And yet, we are blinded by its shining light, even as we live through it. Future generations will ask us, did you not see the obvious fulfillment of God's word?

I realized, while speaking to a skeptical friend, that what we are witnessing with our own eyes is the irrefutable realization of the prophecies of God. These verses are our generation's personal Har Sinai experience; this is our revelation! We ourselves bear witness to the fact that God exists, and that He keeps his promises to Israel. Thus, the laughter of Akiva is renewed, and our faith in our future is strengthened.

God's hand forces history, and history, against all odds and against all precedent, favors Israel (by all accounts a dead nationalism) and the nation of Israel rises again in the land of Israel, just as the Torah and prophets foresaw.

The Talmud discusses two ways the redemption can play itself out. If we merit, it will be upon the wings of an eagle, in a glorious way, and can happen "hayom", any day. However, if we do not merit it, we will be forced into a redemption process of "in its time", with messiah as a poor man, riding on a donkey. This is a process where the Jews may suffer greatly, until they call out to God as a last resort.

It seems the redemption we witness today is a hybrid. There are aspects that are tremendously glorious, and some that are as sad and full of suffering as possible. This validates the thesis of the Vilna Gaon, that there is no binary choice between the glorious and inglorious redemptions, but a sliding scale. Any action we do, any show of true faith in the God of Israel, brings us one unit closer to the achishena, and any action in the opposite direction leads us towards the other pole of the scale. It is all actions that apply, but especially those that demonstrate Israel's fundamental reliance only on God, not on other nations (as evidenced by the haftarah of Shabbat Shuva).

Thus, while there of course is a messiah we await, who brings the process to its conclusion, the Vilna Gaon places the responsibility and merit for an easy, glorious redemption directly in our hands. How empowering! Each of our actions affects the redemption, and we are all, in a sense, messiahs.

The day of Tisha B'av is different from other fasts, in that it is not only a day of mourning, but also of repentance. If we learn this lesson, and redirect our actions towards our Father in heaven, we can contribute our lives to the task of bringing the national scale of geula towards the achishena scale, and further from be'ita.