Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Blessing on the Sun

In Sh'mot (24), the Torah tells us of the Jewish people's preparation for the revalation at Sinai. The midrash states that the Jews were not content with the plan that God transmit to Moshe the teachings, and he in turn teach them. "רצונינו לראות את מלכנו," we desire to "see" God, as it were. Indeed, the revelation took place with God speaking to the people directly. The midrash describes the mass expiration of the nation, and only after God ceases to speak do they become re-animated.

This event stands distinct from the midrashic interpretations at the end of parashat Tzav. The Torah says (8:36), "Aharon and his sons did all the things that God commanded by the hand of Moshe." Torat Kohanim notes on this: "ששים ושמחים לקבל מפי משה כשומעים מפי הקדוש ברוך הוא," they were happy to receive the teachings from Moshe as if they had heard them directly from God.

What changed? Why is it that the Jews are suddenly satisfied, indeed, joyful, over hearing the teachings through Moshe? By examining a rare occurence that is coming up this year, perhaps we can come to a deeper understanding of these midrashim.

This ערב פסח is special, because it coincides with the day that, according to tradition, the Sun is aligned with earth in exactly the same way it was on the day it was created in Genesis. This happens, according to the Jewish calendar, every twenty-eight years, and we say the blessing of עושה מעשה בראשית to commemorate it. However, it is a fact that this twenty-eight year cycle does not truly describe the astronomical reality. So why is it that we celebrate this, essentially a non-event?

Rabbi Eisen, in a class delivered in Jerusalem this year, explained that the mysteries of creation and the Divine manner of running the world are hidden from us. He gives an analogy: one may look inside a pot, and see precious stones and other treasures shimmering before him. He may then be told that what he is admiring is nothing other than the intricately painted lid of the pot. So the Torah shows us not necessarily an ontological truth, but a working-reality truth. It is truth in that it is the foundation of the way that God expects us to interact with the world around us. As the midrash states regarding the story of creation, we are unable to plumb the depths of God's infinite wisdom in creation, and so the Torah concealed with, "In the beginning". The very narrative of creation is a screen behind which the ontological truth hides, inaccessible to us.

Taking Rabbi Eisen's point further, the precision and truth of the twenty-eight year cycle is the precision and truth that the Torah chooses to reveal to us: it is a working truth, and is eminently valuable to us -- for it describes the way God wants us to interface with creation. Ontological truth is not what we need (or can even attain in many circumstances).[1]

This is the strength of the Oral Torah. The Yerushalmi (Pe'ah 2:4) states that "the words of the Sages are preferred to the Written Torah". This is because the Torah of the Sages is the practical concretization of the abstract Written Law in this world. And since Man is finite, he is unable to perfectly undestand many actual truths; however, he is able to come to a working truth, and it is this truth that God cherishes, for it represents Man coming forth, struggling against the darkness, closer to Him. And thus, when we bless on the sun this coming Wednesday, we are in essense celebrating the value, validity and importance of the Torah of the Sages.

Perhaps now we can better understand the two midrashim with which we began. At the foot of Sinai, the people naiively believed that they could plumb the depths of ontological truth: they wanted to "see" God. However, after experiencing the life-ending combustion that results from such an interaction with the Divine, they understand that for this world, the Torah of the Sages (represented by Moshe's transmission of God's word), the working truth, is sufficient, and to be cherished. It is then that, at the consecration of the Tabernacle in our parasha, they joyfully accept the words of God through Moshe, as if they had heard these words from God himself. The lesson of Sinai is internalized.

[1] In truth, this is taken further: Halacha concerns itself with scientific accuracy, but only as one of many considerations when rendering a decision. Far greater weight is given to social concerns, and the ease of perpetuation of a specific halacha (the whole idea of גזרה שאין הציבור יכולה לעמוד בה, that some otherwise valuable rabbinic enactments are abandoned when it is clear that the public would be unduly stressed to keep them, is a demonstration of this point). The calendar created around a 28 year cycle is the best possible calendar for human beings: it is accurate enough to not impact the correct seasons of the festivals for many millenia, and yet it is short enough to be remembered by human beings. A halacha that falls out once every 150 years is not practical. And yet, ברכת החמה, the blessing on the sun, would become just such a halacha if any greater accuracy were attempted by the creators of the Hebrew calendar. In short, for finite Man, halacha creates a realistic, practical framework, and that trumps ontological truth. For finite Man, the twenty-eight year calendar is the best possible calendar. And this is the aim and focus of the Torah.