Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Twice Offended and Thereby Praised

Rav Neriyah used to say that we live in a world of b'diavad, a post factum, imperfect, vitiated world where we cannot expect to find ourselves in ideal situations. Usually, this type of thinking is considered a pessimistic world-view. If only we could live in an ideal position, but alas, we wring our hands, we must deal with the unfinished, unpolished realia of practical existence.

A trademark of Rav Kook's thought is that he does not only take stock of reality and fit it into a framework with which we can manage, but that his transformative creativity is able to find the supernal good even in the most base and spiritually desolate aspects of circumstance. This potential is brought to fruit by the beginning of the Hagadah, where the Talmud teaches (Pes. 116a) that in retelling the story of the Exodus, we begin with the shameful and end with the praise. The Talmud points to two ways in which we do so: the first is by telling the story of ארמי אובד אבי, understood by Rashbam as describing Avraham as an Aramean, descendent of idolators1, who wandered from home at the command of God. The second is the reminder that עבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים, we were slaves, the lowest of the low, at one time.

Now, prima facie, both these stories seem to point to the low beginnings of the Jewish nation. Avraham was the son of idolaters, which, from a moral and religious point of view, is a low place to plant the seeds of the people destined to spread the light of monotheism. By the same token, a free nation, in its own land, would be shamed indeed to recall the disgrace and humiliation of an epoch of servitude to the Egyptian master. On the face of things, these shameful, humble beginnings are overcome by the praise, that in the end, God brought us out of slavery into the fresh air of freedom, and from the mire of paganism to the intellectual clarity of monotheism. These beginnings are something about which we might feel, "Thank God we're over that", something which, were it not for our yearly story-telling, we would be quite happy to forget.

Rav Kook2, however, takes slavery not as something to be brushed aside in embarrassment, but a beginning which was critical in its formative powers for the Jewish People. "To be able to submit the independent will and personal tendency in order to accept the yoke of Heaven, at which Israel excels, through which they have and will bring exceedingly great good to themselves and the world, this potential was acquired during the slavery and subservience..." Rav Kook sees our ability to submit to the will of God and faithfully bear his word to the world around us as a talent conditioned in the crucible of the Exile in Egypt. Furthermore, when a person is "so free that he is able to, through his own independent choice, subjugate himself in the appropriate situation...this is true freedom. 'Do not fear, my servant Ya'akov'..." Rabbi Carmy comments on the use of this reference from Tehilim that even though Ya'akov is referred to as a servant, he is described as possessing the attribute belonging only to the most free person, fearlessness.

So, it is precisely the exile in Egypt and Israel's slavery there which prepared it to accept the yoke of Heaven. It is only through this shame or offense of slavery that the praise of Israel, the chosen people of God, is possible.

Rav Kook continues: The lessons of monotheism essentially abstract theology to the extent that it is hard to attach to on an emotional level. Indeed, the further rarefied the philosopher's idea of God was, the less applicable He became to humanity, the less he was part of a vibrant tapestry of human life. The epitome of this is the First Cause conception of God. Even though Judaism certainly contains checks so that monotheism does not dry up into this kind of deism, it is still true that, to paraphrase Rabbi Carmy again, holiness has the potential to stifle the imagination. It is for this reason, Rav Kook says, that the progenitors of Israel began as idolaters. Idolatry, for all its base aspects, lends itself to physical, imaginative and creative talents. This exposure ended up benefiting the nation of Israel, providing the potential capacity to incorporate into the service of the true God the richness of their creative and vivid abilities. The bravery and physical fortitude, the imaginative elements of their personae are all able to shine forth when serving God, in their rightful, prescribed place.

Thus Rav Kook transforms what may seem to be a shy embarrassment regarding low beginnings into important, contributing factors to the essential qualities of Israel. Our very history is an example of מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, beginning in a shameful way, but through and because of this shame, becoming a nation worthy of praise. May the light of Israel shine, and help the world attain the perfection of messianic times.


1 In fact, this can help us understand, tangentially, the uplifting, and yet disturbing, story of עקדת יצחק. How can it be that God would even pretend to demand something of Avraham which goes against all that the ethic of the Torah repudiates so strongly? Perhaps the request, from the point of view of Avraham (and his contemporary readers and witnesses), was not so disturbing as our century's tempered, Judeo-Christian minds see it. It was common in those times to sacrifice the first, the best, in pagan rituals, and this undoubtedly extended to children and other humans, such as the cult of Molech. Thus, the initial request in the עקדה was not outside the normal religious experience of the time.

Furthermore, and this gets to the point of Rav Kook, pagan ritual was able to evoke a passion and vividness that is often lacking in monotheistic service. Abstracted, intellectualized spirituality tempers the raw emotions of Man, and can stifle creativity and excitement. Perhaps herein lay the test for Avraham - are you able to maintain the willingness to engage, heart and soul, in My service? Can you match the intense fervor of the idolators around you? And Avraham's הנני, Here I am - his immediate and unquestioning willingness - answers this question in the affirmative. (See also Rabbi Soloveitchik's Kierkgaardian summation in Emergence of Ethical Man (note on pp 156-157), "Abraham was great in his acting in accordance with the logic of the absurd.")

Beyond this, the ultimate lesson in this story regarding child sacrifice is clear - and in this, עקידת יצחק stands as a shining example of the morality God intends the world to learn from the light of the Jews, far above the pervailing morality of the times - "Do not set your hand against the boy, neither shall you do anything to him!" In no uncertain terms, the God of Avraham rejects completely the concept of child, or any human, sacrifice, as an acceptable method of divine service. The story of the עקדה certainly drives this lesson home in stark detail.

Of course, that which was seen as a positive action for the forefather, would be seen as a sin to us presently, and rest assured, God would not demand this of us. However, the story of the binding of Yitzchak becomes one full of moral lessons for the nascent Jewish People, and for the world, of loyalty to God even to the extreme, tender love between family members, passion and feeling in the service of the one true God, and a rejection of pagan practices.

Thanks go to Netanel Livni for a shabbat morning discussion which precipitated this footnote.

2 Thanks to Rabbi Carmy whose lecture on this subject pointed me to look at the הגדה של פסח of Rav Kook, עולת ראייה, Introduction to Maggid, which is the source for this essay.