Vaethanan: Prayer, Failure and the Desert; On Hope

At the beginning of this week’s perasha, we are told by Moshe of his furtive attempts to persuade Gd to let him enter the land of Canaan. “And I besought the Lord in that time saying’. Virtually every word in this verse is in need of explication. What is interesting is that each explication is used by the Midrash to teach a lesson regarding prayer. For example, the unusual first term, Va’ethanan, which contains the root ch n n, is linked to the similar word chinam, gratis. Thus, the lesson derived by the Sifri, quoted by Rashi, teaches “it is in the language of a free gift, for while the righteous could fall back on their good deeds, they ask that Gd grant them their request as a free gift…”. The idea is that true prayer is not a negotiation with Gd, in which one reminds Gd of one’s merits and requests fulfillment as a tit-for tat, rather, one asks from Gd as though one had no merits at all. Why this should be the case is an interesting question; the Tiferet Shelomo who points out that negotiating with Gd on the basis of merit is a dangerous exercise, for there is no person without sin; the risk is that invoking merit may also resurrect the old skeleton in the closet. The Kotzker goes even further – he states that no righteous person falls back on their merits because no truly righteous person actually would think of themselves as possessing merit; the merit they might be willing to fall back upon is their acceptance upon themselves of striving for merit in the future, but even this in their own eyes is deficient. I cite these approaches dealing with the risk of evoking one’s own sins is not because I have a strong belief in a judgemental punitive nit-picking Gd, but because this is in sync with the Hasidic approach that the human condition is a tragic one which no one, not even the greatest spiritual hero, is capable of transcending, and this coloring of the concept of prayer is crucial for our perasha.

For after all, this perasha is an odd place to learn about the value of prayer, as it is a failed prayer. After all, Moshe asks rather persistently to enter the land (the mystics say that Moshe prayed 515 different prayers, “taktu tefillot”, corresponding to the numerical value of the term “va’ethanan”), and yet, Gd says “no”. If anything, one would think that this perasha was an instructive admonition in how not to pray…

I’d like to suggest that perhaps the failure is the message. Prayer is about something other than getting one’s wish fulfilled. Prayer is a vehicle for personal transformation, and almost requires a recognition of the inability to get all that one wants all the time. Prayer may reflect a failure right at the outset- one may not even be able to pray. R. Nachman of Breslov in Likutei Moharan 99, reads this lesson from our verse: Va’ethanan el Hashem- Pray to Gd even when you are not in a “connected” state, even when you know that your attempt at prayer will be a failure, so that “be’et hahi”, when you do reach the appropriate spiritual level of devekut, of cleaving unto Gd, then “laymor”, then your prayers will themselves speak, so to speak, they themselves will “laymor” and elevate all the previous, failed prayers, along with them.

To R. Zadok Hacohen and the Sefat Emet the human situation of inadequacy, with redemption and growth coming through prayer, is at the core of this entire perasha. R. Zadok points out that the segue into the next few verses is puzzling. Moshe begins by narrating his failure in swaying Gd to allow him to enter the land, and then, in 4:1, proceeds: And now, Israel, hearken unto the statutes and laws that I will teach you so that you live and inherit the land, etc. How can Moshe, who failed to gain entry to the land, be setting down the way to live life in the new land? And why is this connected textually to his failure at prayer?

According to R. Zadok, Moshe understood why he failed in his prayer, and why he could not enter the land. He understood the “flaw” was with himself- he was too great a man. A man (and a generation, one could add- the Ohr HaChayim points out that Moshe’s failure here was true for the entire Dor Hamidbar, the generation he led through the desert, which had witnessed Sinail) who had achieved this great a level, who was so distant from sin and temptation, was not the person who could teach the most important lesson for the new Jewish society about to unfold, the lesson of Teshuva, repentance. He brings various prooftexts, from the BT Rosh Hashana, for example, to make this point, but even a common sense reflection makes this argument compelling. Essentially, there are people who are not allowed to make mistakes. The lesson of teshuva is that all humans are fallible, and yet the individual and society can overcome mistakes. However, there are classes of people from whom this lesson is invalid, and from whom apologies would not be repugnant. For example, no one would allow a physician the leeway for error that might lead to a patient’s death, and “repenting” for it would be an absurdity. This would hold true for leaders in whom one appoints to ensure the protection of a society. “Oops, I’m sorry, it was a mistake” is not an acceptable position for a leader whose country had been destroyed. Moshe who received Torah from Gd is not allowed to make critical mistakes of this sort and learn lessons from them. That is a not a privilege granted to individuals of that caliber. The Sefat Emet uses a somewhat different, but illustrative terminology here. He states that Moshe was the representative of Torah Shebichtav, the unchangeable Written Law, which needed to be fixed and protected in an inalterable fashion. A written text is not one that “grows” in itself, it must remain as it is in order that it may continue to instruct and provoke commentary. Society, however, life in the new land, which draws its strength from the Written Law; society is defined as Oral Law, the Torah Sheb’al Peh, the commentary on the fixed Written Law, a commentary which grows out of a community learning from its own existence and the problems that face it and how it encounters these problems. As the Sefat Emet says in other places, the role of the Oral Law is the perfection of human society from the perspective of Justice and equality. The prototype, as we’ve seen, is the case presented by the daughters of Zelophad, regarding a potential injustice and leading to its rectification, with divine acquiesence. This is the role of society in the new land, to bring about an ideal, just, humane society, continually striving for self perfection. This growth is not an option for Moshe and his Generation of the Desert.

In one of his letters, Kafka illustrates this uniqueness of Moshe and his Desert generation. In the letter of Jan 28, 1922, where Kafka agonizes over joining the Zionist movement, he refers to his situation as being “something like wandering the desert in reverse”. Living in the land might force him to become a settled member of society, as opposed to his current state of “wilderness- an organization according to which…there are elevations at lightning speeds, and also, of course, crushing moments that last thousands of years as if under the weight of the seas”. This state of “wilderness” is an appropriate description of the generation of Moshe. The heights of Sinai along with the cataclysmic fall of the Golden Calf. One must be special to reach such elevations and to fall in such crushing moments. A generation like that cannot create a new society tolerant of the normal human foibles; the range is too broad and the spectrum of responsibility beyond the capacity for ordinary human sensitivity. Thus, Moshe and his generation were not the ones to teach Teshuva or Torah Sheb’al peh, and thus, certainly, outside of the world of Tefilla. That is why Gd replies to their prayer, Rav Lach, you are beyond this. And this is why the very next passage is one in which Moshe says (4:1), you see that there is something that you will do, which I can’t do, because I am too tied to that desert, and that is- build up a normal healthy functioning society based on law and justice.

In Devarim Rabba 2:9, we are taught that Moshe could not enter the land because in death as well he needed to remain with his generation, so that at the end of days, he can march at their head and bring them into Israel. I would suggest that once a functioning just society is truly actualized, with the eradication of all social inequity and suffering, that is, the achievement of total tikkun olam, symbolized by the Mashiach and the end of history, then we will be ready to reintroduce the generation of desert, ready to accept their message in the most beneficial and constructive way. In the meantime, the approach to prayer is built upon recognition of Moshe’s failure. Prayer is not the coming of one superior person with great merits before Gd. The Yismach Yisrael riffs off the Midrash in Devarim Rabba 2:6, in which the plural phrase “laymor”, saying, is instructive of the appropriate route for prayer. Prayer, he explains, is effective when it is a cumulative reflection of a society coming before Gd. One prays recognizing that one is a human with social ties and responsibilities. One does not pray in the desert, one prays recognizing the human condition, as part of the people. This is why all our prayers are voiced in the plural. As an example, I would suggest glancing at the Viddui prayer, the “confessional” so central to the Yom Kippur service. The sins listed (ashamnu, bagadnu, etc) are all enumerated in the plural form, and even the most righteous person recites them all. Why? R. Haim Vital, in the Shaar Hakavanot, explains that even if one hasn’t violated one or the other specific sin, one is aware that one’s neighbor might have. In other words, as humans, we are aware of the potential of failure at the core of our existence, and thus pray that we, all of us together, can build a society based upon mutual positive growth.

Shabbat Nachamu- On Hope

Only for the sake of the hopeless ones have we been given hope.        (Walter Benjamin, Schriften I)

We frequently speak of hope. Hope seems one of the more lofty spiritual aspirations of mankind, yet one of the least frequently defined. Schiller seems to have summed it up for the Romantic era as “Im Herzen kuendet es laut sich an:/Zu was Besserm sind wir geboren!” (The heart proclaims it loudly within/We were born for better things!) What these better things might be is not detailed, apparently yearning was enough of a goal in the Romantic era. Whatever hope may be, it is earmarked for the future, perhaps only for future generations. Imber’s Hebrew poem, “The Hope”, now adapted for use as the Israeli national anthem, opens with a similar line: “As long as within the heart/A Jewish soul yearns…our Hope is not lost”. This hope is defined as (in the current official version) “To be a free nation in our land/The land of Zion-Jerusalem”.  While perhaps at the time this may have serced to define “The Hope”, there are few who would currently feel that these two lines expends that hope. Certainly we have not yet renounced the need for hope. So what is it that we hope for? Furthermore, must hope always be something aimed at the future? Is it possible that we can define hope in such a way that it reflects a process which can be actualized in the present, in the here and now?

In the Jewish tradition, the ultimate hope is clearly the Messianic hope. Is the Jewish hope for a Messiah a simple hope for a utopia in some mythological future? Is the hope that a Messiah will appear and transform the world into a happy place? I will attempt to demonstrate that a tradition exists, extending through the Hassidic masters on to Benjamin and Kafka, which places far more responsibility upon present generations, and makes hope a possibility for the present.

Isaiah 61:10 is one of the hopeful passages which refers to a utopian future: “Sos Asis B’Adon-oi- I will exult in the Lrd; my spirit will rejoice in my Gd, for he has dressed me in the garb of  redemption, in the cloak of justice (tzedaka) have I been draped…” This verse begins with a repeated term, Sos Asis, literally Exult I will exult. Repeated terms in the text almost always prompt a Midrashic exegesis, and here the Pesikta Rabbati offers a series of related readings, which deal with the hopes for the future-

1.                  sos- in the days of the Messiah, asis-in the fall of the Evil empire, rejoice-in the war of Gog and Magog. So far, these reflect the various eschatological biblical texts, with an emphasis on political redemption.

2.                  sos-saving all from the judgement of Gehinom (what we might call hell) asis- when the evil inclination is uprooted from our hearts, rejoice-when sins are forgiven. One might characterize this as an “internal” spiritual redemption.

3.                  sos- when the angel of death is terminated. Asis- in the messianic era rejoice- in the World to Come, which is endless. Perhaps this is meant to add an “external” spiritual redemption.

The Pesikta then continues with the verse, explaining the two garments specified in the verse- the first refers to that of salvation from oppression, and the second being that of Justice and charity. In short, we can see a coupling of the yearning for political change with that of spiritual transformation, with a bifurcation into political solutions and a call for justice and charity.

But what kind of justice do we require in the ideal situation?  This was a question that Walter Benjamin dealt with in his Theses. In Agamben’s phrase-

The Messiah is…the figure through which religion confronts the problem of the Law, decisively reckoning with it.

Will it be a state of exception, as the contemporary followers of Carl Schmitt might state, a state of being outside or beyond the law at the point of its fulfillment? Scholem, as well, felt that the mystics had an antinomian orientation whereby the utopian moment would reflect the dissolution of the law. Let us review then, a set of readings of another verse with a duplicated term, which appears in one of the signal texts dealing with Jewish law, Deuteronomy 16:20- Justice, Justice shall you seek after… Why is the word Justice repeated?

To some early Hasidic thinkers, such as the Avodat Yisrael, the repetition of the phrase signifies an “upper law” and a “lower law”; there is the “lower law”, that is, human law, which is meant to approximate, as much as is possible, the absolute, divine law, which in the ideal state. A variant of this is seen in the writings of the Hozeh of Lublin, who explains that proper application of law “below” prevents the need for divine application of the “supernal” law. On the other hand, there are more normative, this worldly readings in the early Hasidic masters, for example, according to the Kol Simcha (R. Simha Bunim of Pershischa), the repetition of the phrase is to warn against using law to subvert the law. If one is clever enough, one can marshal all sorts of texts to support a practice which is clearly wrong, and this kind of subversion is decried by the text.

The Sefat Emet, a later Hassidic thinker, attempts to synthesize these views in his yearly notes (His work is worthwhile working through, as he deliberates yearly over the same sets of texts and frequently opens up all sorts of possibilities). He initially cites the Kol Simcha quoted above, but rephrases him into a phrase worth citing given our current situation- (the duplication of the word Justice is to imply) that our pursuit of justice must proceed in justice. Not every means is justified for a valid outcome. Thus he globalizes the concern of the Kol Simcha, which was more local in terms of subverting law via law. However, over the course of several years, he swings toward a more spiritualized reading, with the difference from the early masters being that instead of dividing the two into an upper law and a lower law, he locates the upper law – within the heart of every individual. The phrase is repeated to encourage to seek deeply for the truth and justice within every person. Thus, we have a recognition, in summary, of truth above, truth below, truth within, and a truth without exception, in the here and now.

Returning to the Pesikta quoted earlier, the Pri Zaddik, a contemporary of the Sefat Emet, adds one element to the dichotomies read into the verse. He states that they can all be read as alternately referring to what is traditionally named “Messiah son of Joseph” versus “Messiah son of David”. From the earliest days of Jewish eschatology, the Messianic era was understood to be ushered in by two processes- one, brought about by Messiah son of Joseph, who was to fight the evil empires, and be victorious, but at the cost of his life. At that point, the Messiah, son of David would symbolize the utopian Messianic era, however that is understood.

Scholem understood Messiah son of Joseph as solely bringing about the end of history, without any sort of redemption. However, based on our sources, we may posit an alternative view. Kafka, in his musings about Messiah, wrote “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer necessary, he will only come after his arrival, he will not come on the last day, but on the very last day”.  Agamben suggests that Kafka may be understood if one considers the messianic event as being effected by a “bi-unitary figure”, “one of which is consumed in the consummation of history and the other of which happens, so to speak, only the day after his arrival”. As posited by the Pri Zaddik as well, this would suggest that all the dichotomies we have encountered represent two aspects of redemption, one in which the social sphere is transformed by a Messiah symbolized as mortal, and one spiritual which happens later. This reading is strengthened by the Lurianic understanding of redemption, in which the coming of the Messiah is a sign, an epiphenomenon of mankind’s having achieved a level of world-transformation, rather than the actual cause of this transformation. Perhaps we can equate Messiah son of Joseph with progressive social action for the betterment of all of humanity.

We can go a step further in this direction by introducing Walter Benjamin’s view of social action not only working towards the future, but redeeming the past as well. Benjamin, in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, argues that the approach to history ought be one of rescue, where the injustice perpetuated on the victims of history can be identified, learned from, and thus prevented in the present and future, thus serving as a kind of redemption of the past. The victims “have a retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers”.  His approach to history

…wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger… the Messiah comes not only as the redeemer, he comes as the subduer of Antichrist. Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins…

In other words, the goal of history, is meant  to rescue and redeem the hopes and dreams of those who were trampled by the victorious, those ruling classes who are also those who generally get to write the “standard” histories. By remembering and commemorating them, we are “endowed with a weak messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim”.

Redemption, as we are now defining it, is then constructed of hope- hope for a justly lived present, when attained would so alter our inner and outer worlds.  This level of transformation would act to redeem the hopes and aspirations even of those who suffered in the past. This is what is meant by the word “Tikkun”.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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