Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Our blank spaces in the Torah (Derashah Yom Kippur 5769)

I like the strong images in this derashah - the blank parchment, the missing al cheit, the פסקא באמצע פסוק - but, overall, I consider this year's Kol Nidrei derashah, posted below, a better derashah. Part of it is that I prefer the passion of the Kol Nidrei derashah. See more in notes 2 & 3 at the end.

Just short of entering Israel, months away from escaping the desert, the Jews were attacked by a plague of serpents, a punishment for their harsh speech against Gd. Many died - until Moshe, as instructed by Gd, formed a copper statue of a serpent and placed it atop a pole. The nation looked heavenward and remembered to pray to Gd, and the plague stopped. Afterward, Moshe kept the copper serpent in order to remind the nation of the price of rebellion.

Fast-forward some six hundred years. The Jews were now living in that promised land. The Jews of the north strayed into Canaanite idolatry, but the Jews of the south, led by righteous kings, primarily followed the Torah. Then a small idolatrous sect sprang up around that copper serpent. The cult persisted until King Chizkiyah boldly destroyed that historic heirloom, the work of Moshe Rabbeinu’s own hands.

The sages of the Talmud were shocked: How could Chizkiyah have decided to destroy an historic treasure, the handiwork of Moshe, an artifact from the Torah itself? If the serpent was actually an idol, wouldn’t his predecessors, the righteous kings Yehoshafat and Asa, have destroyed it themselves?

To which the sages answered, מקום הניחו לו אבותיו להתגדר בו, Chizkiyah’s ancestors did wish to destroy the statue, but they held back in order to leave him a place to make his own mark, to apply the Torah’s principles to the world of his day. Chizkiyah was challenged, by his ancestors, to convert the Torah’s words into action, on his own.

A second story:
Moshe came down from Har Sinai with a set of Luchos/Tablets, and found the Jews celebrating with a Golden Calf. He smashed those Luchos, then prayed to Gd to forgive the Jews. Gd acquiesced, and told Moshe we would have another chance, on the very first Yom Kippur, to receive the Luchos. But Gd told Moshe, oddly, פסל לך, chisel these new tablets for yourself.

The sages explained that HaShem told Moshe, “Chisel out these precious stones, form the tablets, for yourself; you get to keep the valuable leftover material, to enrich yourself.”

I can’t take that midrash only literally, though; what use did Moshe have for gems? He had food, he had clothing, he had a place to live, there were no luxuries to buy! Gd knew that Moshe would never make it out of the desert, so there would be no future need, either!

So I would explain that talmudic passage homiletically: Gd enriched Moshe in that He gave Moshe the valuable space around the Torah’s letters.

The letters were HaShem’s message to the Jews; the stone around them, carved away, was the space left for Moshe to become Moshe Rabbeinu, to give his own counsel and lessons and guidance to the nation, to teach the nation how to apply HaShem’s words in their world, how to create a Jewish society.

מקום הניח לו למשה להתגדר בו, HaShem enriched Moshe with this opportunity in which to achieve greatness.

That opportunity for greatness, for applying the Torah to our lives, is not limited to Moshe - it is an opportunity for all of us, as codified in the laws of writing a Sefer Torah:

• Each letter in a Torah must be מוקף גויל, surrounded by parchment. No letter may run to the edge of the klaf, and no two letters may be joined.
• No word may run into the next, either; every word must be evenly spaced.
• Every פרשה, every paragraph, too, must be separated from the next by a prescribed space.

Those spaces - between letters, words and paragraphs - are our מקום להתגדר בו, the place in which we achieve greatness.

King Chizkiyah was meant to achieve greatness by eliminating an ancient idol.
Moshe was meant to achieve greatness by teaching the Jews how to apply the Torah.
Neither of those apply to us. So what greatness are we meant to achieve, what are supposed to be the contents of our spaces?

Based on the writings of Rambam and Ramban, those spaces are where we define and apply our social relationships.

Rambam wrote that the Torah’s mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was meant to imply all of the ways we would find to implement that overall ethic. Gd gave us the starting point; we develop ways to implement this Divine instruction.

Ramban wrote, “אי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו, וכל משאו ומתנו ותקוני היישוב והמדינות כלם - It would be impossible to include in the Torah all of human social behavior and interactions, and the rules necessary for society and nations to function.” Therefore, the Torah mentioned some starting rules, such as “You shall not peddle gossip,” “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge,” “You shall not stand by the blood of your brother,” “You shall not curse the deaf,” “Rise before the aged,” and then it gave us a general rule: ועשית הישר והטוב, Do what is just and good.

Love your neighbor, Practice the good and the just - that’s what is in those spaces. That’s what is in our spaces.

In our spaces, we recognize that our money is a means of aiding others, and use it to help the needy.
In our spaces, we recognize that we share our environment and resources with others, and we preserve and share them.
In our spaces, we recognize that all Jews are part of one family and one covenant, and we act on our special responsibility to each other.

This is our opportunity for greatness. As Yeshayah said in the haftorah moments ago, “Open the chains of wickedness, untie the yoke, let the oppressed go free… break your bread for the hungry, bring the desperate poor into your home, clothe the unclothed and do not turn away from your flesh.”

(See Note 1 below.)

But we all miss opportunities to fill those spaces. What’s worse, these opportunities, once missed, tend to disappear forever. As the Chafetz Chaim noted, we can repent for violating laws, but how will we repent for missing opportunities? Even if we regret our inaction, the opportunity is still lost, the person or persons who needed our help still didn’t receive it!

I call this “the missing Al Cheit.” The list of “al cheit” sins in our machzor includes apologies for all sorts of actions, but there is no apology for, “על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באי-פעולה, The sin we have committed before You, Gd, through inaction.” This “Al Cheit” is not there, because it would be useless; saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t change the fact that we failed to act; we cannot atone until we heal the abused worker, restore the wasted environment, give to the ignored pauper.

The 10th day of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, can’t do anything, can’t forgive anything, on its own, in these areas. Instead, we need to wake up the next day, tomorrow, the 11th of Tishrei, and use our power to transcend our past mistakes and live up to the charge of filling in those blank spaces in the Torah with our own ethical practices:
• To start speaking more positively about other people;
• To stop wasting the resources we all share;
• To use our money for others, rather than hoard it for ourselves.

Our ancestors had spaces of their own in the Torah; they, too, were given these opportunities for greatness. At Yizkor, especially on Yom Kippur when all of the living and deceased are judged and forgiven for their sins, we remember with love those parents, grandparents and other relatives who made good in their own chances to act. But those lives and their chances were cut off at some point.

In a few cases in the Torah, we find a פסקא באמצע פסוק, an abrupt break, a blank space, right in the middle of a sentence. This is what happens when a person dies - it is an abrupt break in mid-sentence, and all projects, acts of kindness, social interactions, all of them come to a full stop.

That abrupt break is a tragedy, a loss - but, after the grief, it becomes an opportunity. That is מקום הניחו לנו אבותינו, the place our ancestors left for us to work, to grow, to accomplish. Like Chizkiyah, like Moshe, like every generation of Jews and human beings, we have been given the ability and space to accomplish great things. Let’s not end up saying an impotent על חטא for inaction - rather, let’s follow Yeshayah’s charge, let’s follow the counsel of Rambam and Ramban, let’s pick up where our ancestors and relatives left off, and so earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

1. I also used this derashah to talk about Agriprocessors/Rubashkin (where I wrote "See Note 1 below"), but I have not included it here because the derashah is better without it. I only did it in shul to address specific questions which have come up locally.

2. One of the reasons I'm not 100% thrilled with this derashah is the homiletic regarding Moshe and the leftover material from the luchos. To me, pshat in the leftover material is, indeed, that it was to enrich Moshe. What I did here is within normal homiletic bounds, but I don't really like doing it.

3. Another reason I'm not 100% comfortable: I like my derashos to be less abstract, more concrete in their recommendations.

4. Some sources: The gemara on Chizkiyah is Chullin 6b-7a. Gd's gift to Moshe is in Yerushalmi Shekalim 5:2. The Rambam's note is in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Avel 14:1, and Ramban's note is on Devarim 6:18 - ועשית הישר והטוב. The Chafetz Chaim's quote came from a biography of his, I don't recall which one anymore. It might have been in כל כתבי.

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