Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bo: Tefillin - Ennobling Servitude

At the cusp of leaving Egypt, the nation of Hebrews is told, not once, but twice, the commandment of tefillin. In 13:9 and 16, the formulation is similar: we are told to bind our arms and place a remembrance between (above) our eyes, "for with a mighty hand, God released you from Egypt." What is so special about this particular mitzva that it is mentioned now, at this critical moment?

There is a tremendous pitfall when telling the story of the Exodus. Many revolutionaries have become obsessed with the clarion calls of freedom and liberation that pulse from the words of God, "Let me people go!". Often, they and we fail to complete the sentence, "...that they may serve Me." An absence of servitude and subjugation is seen as the goal of the redemption from Egypt. This could not be further from the truth. The Jews were liberated only to accept upon themselves the subjugation of God's law. In Avot (6:1), we learn that the only truly free person is one who has taken upon himself the yoke of Torah observance and learning. Freedom is not freedom when it is left unchecked.

A parable I like to use is that of a prisoner in a deep underground prison. He is locked in his subterranean cell, and the prison is an impossible maze built so that, even if one were able to escape one's cell, he would be lost forever in the labyrinth forever. Now imagine you go to your friend who is being held prisoner there. You unlock his door and say, "you are free." Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is now destined to roam aimlessly, never leaving the prison, with every moment bringing fresh false hopes that will only be dashed later on.

If, on the other hand, you were to hand your friend a map of the prison, and say, "I have outlined your course to find your way out. Do not wander aimlessly. Follow only the directions I give, and you will find your true freedom." At first blush, one could claim that I am trying to limit my friend's freedom. However, in truth, my channeling of his freedom into constructive, useful movement is the only true path to real freedom.

The commandment of tefilin is full of symbolic meaning that impresses itself upon the wearer. Rabbi Hirsch explains in his collected writings that the binding of the arm symbolizes our challange to allow our free-willed actions to be channeled and restricted by the bindings of God's law. The fact that the arm tefilin is applied before the head teaches us that our commitment to the fulfillment of the Torah's precepts comes before our desire and need to understand them rationally.

The symbolism of the commandment of tefilin is precisely the lesson of the map in the dungeon. Only by subserviating ourselves to the strictures of God's law can we truly be free, and find favor and peace in this physical and spiritual world.

Tefilin is therefore a most appropriate reminder to the nation of Israel throughout the generations. At this moment of freedom, remember what true freedom is. Remember why you are being set free, and to whom you are accountable. This ennobles us and sets apart our free-willed duty from the false freedom of the beasts. By recalling the tefilin, we can avoid the misunderstanding of liberty, and enjoy the true benefits of our deliverance.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

I Am That I Am

The first encounter of Moshe with God was permeated with symbolism and a sub-text that has philosophical meaning. Ever since I was a child, I was troubled by the laconic and seemingly evasive answer God gives when Moshe asks his climactic question. When Moshe understands that he will be God's messenger, whether he likes it or not, he asks God, "they will ask me, 'what is His name?' What shall I tell them?" God's answer is "אהיה אשר אהיה", "I will be that which I will be". What is the meaning behind this answer?

In a previous post, we discussed the Rambam's rational proof for God's existence. In other posts, I mentioned that there are other streams of thought in Judaism that decry the very attempt to prove this. Part of the importance of faith is that is not inherently provable as a necessity in our logical system of thought. It is a matter, in a word, of knowledge versus faith. I believe that these two streams are well-articulated in the interpretation of אהיה אשר אהיה found in the Rambam's writings and the Ramban's.

In the Moreh(א:סג), Rambam writes: "לפיכך הודיעו ה' אז מדע שיביאהו אליהם לאמת אצלם מציאות ה', והוא אהיה אשר אהיה. ושם זה נגזר מן 'היה', והיא המציאות. כי 'היה' מורה על עניין "כאן , ואין הבדל בין אמרך "כאן" או "וג'ד" בלשון העברי. וכל הסוד הוא בכפילתו הביטוי עצמו, המורה על המציאות כאלו הוא תואר. כי 'אשר' משמשת להזכרת התואר הסמוך לה, לפי שהיא שם חסר, וזקוק לסמיכות, כעניין "אלד'י" ו"אלתי" בערבית. ולפיכך עשה את השם הראשון, והוא המתואר, 'אהיה'; והשם השני, שהוא מתארו בו, 'אהיה', והוא הוא עצמו. וכאלו ביאר כי המתואר הוא התואר עצמו. והנה זה ביאור עניין שהוא מצוי שלא במציאות.נמצא תמצית אותו העניין ופירושו כך: 'המצוי אשר הוא המצוי', כלומר: מחויב המציאות., וזה הוא אשר הביא עליו ההוכחה בהחלט, שיש שם דבר מחויב המציאות, לא נעדר ולא יעדר, כמו שאבאר ההוכחות לכך. וכאשר הודיעו יתעלה את הראיות אשר בהם יאמת מציאותו אצל חכמיהם, לפי שאחר זה נאמר "לך ואספת את זקני ישראל." In essence, he says that the word אהיה means "that which exists". The next word, אשר, means "which is contingent upon". Thus, the statement אהיה אשר אהיה encapsulates the argument from contingency. In essence, God is that which exists (אהיה) in such a way that it is contingent upon (אשר) itself (אהיה)! God is therefore that (logically) first cause which exists necessarily, upon which all other things are contingent.

This converts Moshe's question and God's answer to an extremely important, fundamental discourse. The Jewish nation swelters under the oppressive weight of slavery. They have reached (according to the midrash) the lowest levels of spiritual impurity, and indeed, have reverted to idolatrous practices. How, asks Moshe, can they be shaken from this stupor and re-enlightened? How do I show them that there is only one God, and that He will now release them from their chains of bondage? How can I make them know You?

And God's answer is no evasion, no vague promise about being with the people in other times of national trouble (see Rashi). Rather, the answer according to Rambam is the rational proof of God's existence! It is with this that God arms Moshe as Moshe accepts his task.

On the other hand stands the Ramban. For him, the rational proof (if it even exists) is an inappropriate way to approach God. Perhaps the Hebrews felt abandoned by God in Egypt. According to some, the exile of Egypt was not a punishment so much as a crucible from which to forge the chosen People. And so, it may well have seemed to the Jews, as bitter weeks and months became years, as vilification led to slavery and genocide, that God had indeed abandoned the Jews. It was not so much that the Jews lost faith in God, but that they came to the opinion that while He may exist, His handling of worldly affairs is haphazard at best, and without a just course of cause and effect.

This, then, was Moshe's question: "When the Jews hear that I come as Your agent, they will not believe, for they do not believe that You execute justice and good in this world. How can I convince them that it is otherwise?" In other words, Moshe asks not of God's existence, but of his הנהגה, His method of interaction with the world. It is to this that God responds, in the words of the Ramban: "אהיה עמם בכל צרתם יקראוני אענם...ועוד אמר כיוצא בזה במדרש אגדה: מהו אהיה אשר אהיה? כשם שאתה הווה עמי כך אני הווה עמך. אם פותחין את ידיהם ועושים צדקה, אף אני אפתח את ידי".

For the Ramban, in essence, אהיה אשר אהיה is a statement to those who believe in God but not his justice. It means, I will act with you as you act. If you act with kindness, I will act towards you thus. If you cause suffering, I will cause you suffering. It is the concept of מדה כנגד מדה, the perfect balance and fairness with which God infuses His actions. In this statement of purpose, God states unequivocally that there is justice in this world. God is intimately interested in Mankind and our activities, and the length of hardships does not imply a breakdown in the system of God's calculus. The arc of the world may be long indeed, but it does bend in the end to justice. Even the suffering of the Jewish nation in Egypt is not for naught, and a lack of human perception does not make this any different. (Whether the כלי יקר is right, and the suffering of the exiles in Egypt is punishment for allowing the גלות to take hold of the hearts and minds of the Jews, or it is punishment for the sale of Yosef, or it is not punishment, and rather, a necessary step in the creation of the nation, makes no difference. The important point here is that שכר ועונש and צדק have not been forfeited by God.)

It is this reiteration of God's foundational principal in His relationship to his creatures that validly answers the hopeless sense of abandonment, and Moshe accepts it.

Either way, in 4:31, the Torah testifies to the worthiness of Moshe's question and God's answer: ויאמן העם, וישמעו כי פקד ה' את בני ישארל, וכי ראה את עניים, ויקדו וישתחוו. The nation had faith (Rambam?), and heard that God remembered the children of Israel, and saw their suffering (Ramban?), so they bowed and prostrated themselves.