Monday, December 5, 2016

Truth sprouts from the earth (iii): The superior truth of the penitent

‘As G-d was about to create Adam, four spiritual qualities disputed as to whether he should be created: 
Kindness said, ‘Let him be created for he will perform acts of kindnesses.’ 
Truth countered, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with falsehood’. 
Righteousness asserted, ‘Create him, for he will perform acts of righteousness’. 
Peace responded, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with strife.”...
G-d cast Truth to the earth and said, “Truth shall sprout from the earth.”

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:5

The superior truth of the penitent

Rabbi Tzadok Hakohen of Lublin[1] explains how the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, correspond to the four qualities that preside in the heavenly court mentioned in the Midrash. 

The personification of loving- Kindness (Chessed) is Abraham.[2] He established an inn in the wilderness to cater to the physical[3] and spiritual[4] needs of travelers, and even postponed prophecy in order to attend to the needs of what appeared to him as three idol-worshippers.[5] When God resolved to destroy the depraved cities of Sodom and Gomorrah it was Abraham who compassionately pleaded on their behalf.[6] And even God refers to Abraham as ‘…the one who loves Me.’[7]

Isaac’s cardinal traits were self-restraint, discipline, and a sense of duty. Unlike his father, Abraham, who lovingly taught the ways of God to everyone, Isaac only had a single disciple, his son Jacob. His extreme selectiveness stemmed from fear of Torah being abused or misused by undeserving recipients. Isaac also demonstrated utmost discipline when he remained passive while being sacrificed on an altar.[8] Issac corresponds to the quality of righteousness, - doing what is right out of a sense of obligation and duty.

Jacob inherited both qualities of his forebears, the kindness of Abraham and the righteousness of Isaac. His focus was to harmonize  - create peace – between these qualities by pursuing the truth of any given situation, for an accurate (truthful) perspective of a matter seldom results in an entirely kind or stern disposition toward it, but a blend of both – of course, in varying degrees of emphasis. Jacob thus corresponds to both Truth and Peace.

In the Midrash, Peace and Truth opposed the creation of Adam because they considered people incapable of meeting their standards. But, as we’ve just mentioned, Jacob seems to have succeeded at living up to both qualities?

In answer, let's look at the character of Jacob’s twin brother Esau. As Jacob’s twin, Esau also inherited the qualities of Righteousness and Kindness inherent in Abraham and Isaac. However, unlike Jacob, he failed to pursue truth and consequently lacked inner peace. His fragmented behaviour is visible when he pursude Jacob filled with extreme hatred and ill intent. Yet, after Jacob lavished him with gifts and honour, Esau swung to the opposite extreme, lovingly embracing his brother.[9]

Furthermore, Esau’s private and public ‘selves’ were severely discordant as well. In public he presented himself as a G-d fearing man, frequently praising G-d and enquiring about nuances in Halachic matters. In private, however, he seduced married women and committed murder.[10] Like Esau, most people seldom pursue the objective truth, and display major incongruence between presentation and their inner-self. They also tend to swing between altruism and selfishness, lacking the internal peace characteristic of Jacob.

Because the vast majority of people on earth tilt toward Esau rather than Jacob (of course not as extreme as Esau) , the qualities of Peace and Truth argued that we must follow the vast majority and therefore not create Adam - humanity.

But how did 'casting truth to the earth' and 'truth shall sprout from the earth' redeem humanity, resulting in our existence on earth? 

To answer this we need to delve into another concept related to our forefathers, this time including King David as well:          

Each forefather also represents a particular aspect of G-d and His relationship with the world. Abraham observed the complex design and harmonious order of the world and concluded that it must have a designer and creator. In light of Abraham’s discovery we observe Shabbat which testifies that G-d is Creator of the world, “for in six days G-d created the heaven and the earth and rested on the seventh.”[11]

Isaac represents the supernatural and miraculous nature of G-d in the world. Isaac’s chief motivation for Divine service was awe and reverence of G-d. The letters of the Hebrew word for awe, ‘yirah’, rearrange to spell ‘riyah’, sight. This implies that the awe of G-d depends upon seeing Divine revelations, and in sensing that G-d constantly see’s one’s behaviour.[12] Accordingly, Abraham said to Isaac, “On the mountain the Lord will be seen”,[13] implying that Isaac would experience divine revelation. Moreover, Isaac’s very existence was supernatural. His parents were incapable of conceiving children through natural means;[14] it was thus through open miracles that Isaac was born.  

Isaac’s recognition of G-d’s involvement in the world is on a higher plane than Abraham’s. The recognition that G-d created the world does not necessarily imply that He continues to intervene in human life and world events. Indeed, some philosophers believe that after creating the world, G-d withdrew and lets it run independently following natural law. Not so different to a clock, which, once created, continues running independently of its maker. The existence of miracles, however, testifies to G-d’s continued providence and involvement in the world.

The three festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, each of which commemorates awe-inspiring Divine revelations, reflect Isaac’s perception. Pesach celebrates the miraculous plagues that accompanied the exodus from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. Shavuot commemorates the revelation of Torah at Mt Sinai, while Sukkot celebrates the various miracles that G-d performed for the Jews during their journies through the wilderness.[15]

Jacob represents the realization that nature, including one’s own self, is an ongoing manifestation of God, constantly under His control, and that nature is merely a facade. This level of awareness is attainable only by transcending rationale and tapping simple faith, as, “Jacob was a simple man.”[16] This is because intellect, which tends to neatly categorize concepts, finds this awareness paradoxical, since human independence and Divine omnipresence seem mutually exclusive.

Jacob is associated with the festival of Purim, which celebrates G-d’s rescue of the Jews through the medium of nature rather than any openly supernatural means.[17] In describing the salvation, the scroll of Esther, read publicly on Purim, not only doesn’t mention any miracles but, does not, even once, mention G-d. Ironically, however, the text is referred to as the Megilah, meaning revelation![18] This serves to emphasise that the natural unfolding of events is a revelation of G-d. (To mention His name as though He is another character in the episode would detract from the message that everything is Him.) After the Megilah reading, a short liturgical poem is said which begins “The rose of Jacob”,[19] further highlighting Jacob’s connection to Purim. 

 Jacob’s grasp of G-d’s unity with the world surpasses Isaac’s. It asserts that nature is a manifestation of G-d and that through it G-d guides every step of our ‘ordinary’ daily lives, and not only when He reveals Himself intermittently through open miracles.  

However, King David demonstrates an even loftier level. Whereas the three forefathers were impeccable in their ethical conduct, King David taught people, through role modelling, how to return to G-d after wrongdoing.[20] Whereas the previous level emphasises that nature is a manifestation of G-d, it fails to stress that G-d is also present in lust, anger, and other destructive forces that incite evil acts. Only the penitent makes this apparent. But how?

 In the highest form of repentance, ‘negative’ energy – i.e. lust, envy, anger, etc – is not suppressed but harnessed and employed in divine service, actualizing the potential for good within these forces.[21] Furthermore, after estrangement from G-d due to transgression, the penitent feels immense joy in reconnecting with G-d, serving Him with increased fervour and attachment.[22] The penitent’s advantages are conveyed in the Talmudic teaching, “The place that the penitent reaches, even the righteous cannot reach.”[23] The above also explain why the prophet states, “Peace unto the distant, peace unto the close”;[24] mentioning the distant before the close to impress that the level of peace attained by those that were distant, is superior to that of those who always remained close.

Celebrating this deepest form of Divine unity is Rosh Chodesh, the head of the new month, the day on which the moon reappears in the sky after completely disappearing. The new moon represents a fresh start that follows a decline; the waxing that follows the waning. After making a blessing on the moon we repeat three times, “Long lives David, King of Israel.”[25]

With these ideas in mind, let us return to the Midrash and explain the significance of G-d casting truth to the earth. At first, both Truth and Peace, as associated with Jacob, opposed the creation of Adam because, as mentioned, the vast majority of people cannot follow in Jacob’s ways and live a fragmented life that tilts more toward Esau’s behaviour.

In declaring that ‘truth shall sprout from the Earth’, G-d revealed to the Truth and Peace that are in heaven that a higher form of truth and peace exists, one that  can only be attained by ordinary people who who live on the earth and sin like Esau, but, like King David, repent and return - sprout forth -  to G-d from below to above.

Both Truth and Peace bowed before this revelation and hence all four qualities consented to the creation of Adam.  

[1] Resisei Luyla, Sec. 43
[2] Zohar III 103b connects the remaining seven biblical figures with the Sefirot.
[3] Sotah 10a
[4] Bereishit Rabbah 54:6
[5] Shabbat 127a; Rashi on Bereishit 18:4
[6] Bereishit 18:23
[7] Yeshayahu 41:8
[8] Bereishit 22:1-19
[9] Genesis 32:4
[10] Midrash Tanchuma, Toldot 8
[11] Exodus 20:11
[12] "Contemplate three things and you will not come to sin [for it will instill awe into you]: a seeing eye, etc” Pirkei Avot 2:1
[13] Genesis 22:14
[14] Rashi on Genesis 18:11-12
[15] Horowitz, Yeshayah, Shnei Luchot Habrit, Mesechta Succot 
[16] Genesis 25:27
[17] Schneerson, M.M., Sefer Hamaamarim Meluket, Vol.5, p.121
[18] Torah Ohr 119a; Vital, Rabbi Chaim, Pri Etz Chaim, Shaar Purim, Ch.5
[19] Shulchan Aruch 692:1
[20] Babylonian Talmud Avodah Zarah 4b
[21] Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch, Ateret Rosh, Shaar Yom Kippur, 36b – 37b
[22] Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Tanya, Iggeret HaTeshuvah, Ch.8, p.98b
[23] Babylonian Talmud Berachot 34b
[24] Yeshayahu, 57:19
[25] Shulchan Aruch, Orech Chaim 426

Monday, November 28, 2016

Truth sprouts from the earth (ii) : True kindness

‘As G-d was about to create Adam, four spiritual qualities disputed as to whether he should be created: 
Kindness said, ‘Let him be created for he will perform acts of kindnesses.’ 
Truth countered, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with falsehood’. 
Righteousness asserted, ‘Create him, for he will perform acts of righteousness’. 
Peace responded, ‘Do not create him for he will be filled with strife.”...
G-d cast Truth to the earth and said, “Truth shall sprout from the earth.”

Midrash Genesis Rabbah 8:5


Rabbi Yeshayah Horowitz (usually referred to as the Sheloh) raises a question concerning the above Midrash.[1] Usually, when a person has equal merits and demerits G-d tips the scales in favour of the merits. Why did G-d not apply this principle to the heavenly debate above and therefore create Adam without having to cast Truth to the earth?

Peace and Truth, he answers, were not just identifying two flaws in Adam that counterbalanced the virtues identified by Kindness and Righteousness.  Rather, they claimed that the arguments of Kindness and righteousness are not virtues but vices! In relation to Kindness, Truth claimed that human beings are incapable of true kindness, untainted by ulterior motives. Meanwhile, Peace contended that human righteousness often leads to strife and hostility. For instance, after a fair court case, the losing litigant commonly resents the winning litigant, even though righteousness was performed.[2] So the heavenly debate was not a case of two merits versus two demerits, rather, Peace and Truth claimed that Adam had no merit at all.

But, how does casting ‘Truth to the earth’ and ‘Truth shall sprout from the earth’ change things in favour of Adam’s creation?

In answer, the Sheloh draws our attention to the sequence of kind acts performed by G-d in the Torah. Towards the beginning of the Torah G-d creates Eve as a helpmate for Adam for the sake of companionship and procreation.[3] Later in the Torah, shortly after Abraham was circumcised, G-d visits him to comfort him and aid his recovery.[4] Towards the end of the Torah G-d buries Moses.[5] Following the theme that we are to emulate G-d, these three Divine acts of kindness teach us to help people get married, to visit the ill, and to bury the dead.[6]
The Sheloh deciphers a pattern in the order of these acts of kindness in terms of how much reciprocation the kinddoer can expect from his kind act. One that helps a couple get married is most likely to receive a gift of appreciation from them. In visiting the ill, reciprocation is less likely since the person is in poor health or possibly dying. Finally, in burying the dead there can be no reciprocation.

The order of these kind acts thus follows a pattern of increasing levels of authenticity in the kindness - and a reduction in the possibility of having ulterior motives. Particularly, in the act of burying the dead we find the purest form of kindness, and from it we learn that the other kind acts can also be pure of ulterior motives.

This theme is alluded to in the Hebrew word for truth, ‘Emet’, ﬡמת. Phonetically, Emet consists of two words: ‘Em’ meaning ‘mother’ and ‘Met’ meaning ‘death’. (The letter Mem in the middle is the end of one word and the beginning of the other). ‘Em - mother’ signifies the kind act of helping people marry and have children, while ‘Met – death/deceased’ suggests the kind act of burying the dead. The central letter ‘Mem’, which is part of both words, represents visiting the sick whose existence vacillates between life and death. 

We can now understand how ‘casting truth to the earth’ and ‘truth sprouting from the earth’ swayed the heavenly court. Initially, Truth argued that Kindness was not a merit because it is tainted with self-interest. By casting truth to the earth, G-d demonstrated to Truth that just as the act of burying the dead in the earth is not motivated by ulterior motives, the other acts of kindness can also be genuine.

The idea of Truth sprouting ‘sprouting from the earth’ is that when one sows a seed, it is from above to below. But when it sprouts a shoot it is from below to above –in reverse. Along these lines, when the three concepts hinted to in the word truth are read in the reverse order, buring the dead comes first, then visiting the sick, and finally helping people marry. The order shows on the idea that the genuine altruism in burying the dead reflects back onto the other kind acts, showing that they too can be authentic.

G-d’s testimony that Adam’s (humanity’s) acts of kindness can be genuine, rebutted Truth’s criticism of kindness. This resulted in both Truth and Kindness voting in favour of Adam’s creation.  Now that the numbers in the heavenly court, for and against Adam’s creation were equal, G-d applied His principle of tipping the scales in favour of the merits (where merits and demerits are equal) and  created Adam.     

[1] Horowitz, Yeshayah, Mesechta Pesachim, Perek Ner Miztvah, Sec.51
[2] Another example is where one helps people because it is the righteous thing to do rather than out of genuine love and care, often embarrasses the recipient by making him feel like an inconvenience.
[3] Genesis 2:22
[4] Genesis 18:1
[5] Deuteronomy 34:6
[6] Babylonian Talmud Sotah 14a