Friday, March 27, 2009

Birkat haChamah and Pesach: Antidotes for Hyperworship (Derashah Birkat haChamah 5769)

If you ever need a thought-provoking quote, go for Voltaire; he coined adages like, “Common sense is not so common,” and, “Originality is unrecognized plagiarism.” According to a few websites, Voltaire was also the author of this observation: “Behind every successful man stands a surprised mother-in-law. ”

This week, I’ve been mulling a Voltaire quote from a letter of his, in which he argued for the existence of a Creator. Voltaire contended that the universe itself is proof that there was a creator, and then he offered an additional argument, that Gd is necessary in order to ensure a just and fair society. He called Gd “the bridle to the wicked, the hope of the just,” and then he added these well-known words: “If the heavens, stripped of His noble imprint, could ever cease to attest to His being, If Gd did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.”

The Torah accepts Gd’s role as society’s unseen enforcer – note Kohelet’s reminder that there are always superiors watching what you do, and there are superiors watching those superiors as well – but it also goes one step further: Man needs Gd not only in order to protect society, Man needs Gd for the sake of Man, because we, as human beings, feel an inherent need to worship Gd.

Yes, Marx was not entirely wrong! Because we experience a natural need to find justice and plan in the universe, we must argue for the presence of a Judge, a Planner. We naturally embrace the existence of a Creator.

And more than that: The Torah believes that, as Voltaire predicted, where we cannot find a Creator, we do invent one.

The Torah says, אז הוחל לקרוא בשם ה', and Rashi and Rambam and others translate, “At that time people used Gd’s Name for mundane entities, labelling natural entities as gods.” Idolatry was not an attempt to get away from Gd – rather, it was an attempt to find Gd, to connect, through entities we could see and to which we could attribute power.

Witness the חטא העגל, the sin with the Golden Calf. The Jewish nation, camped at Sinai for almost six weeks without religious guidance, does not try to cut and run, does not imagine an existence without a Divine leader; rather, they seek to create a new conduit for reaching their Deity.
Man wants Gd.

At first blush, this concept of Man needing Gd for his own fulfillment sounds like a rabbi’s dream; what could be better than to have a congregation of people who actually want to believe, who actually yearn to be told there is a Gd?

But Judaism recognizes that this desire for Design is not entirely innocent; it may lead, in fact, to hyperworship and associated religious disaster, in two ways:

First, Judaism fears the Enosh phenomenon – that in Man’s search for meaning, we find an incorrect answer. As Enosh’s generation ignored the Unseen Gd in favor of visible, tangible proxies; as Jewish teens have, for decades, backpacked through the Himalayas in search of meaning they did not find in Hebrew school; so any of us might, to use the Torah’s words, gaze up at the heavens, at the sun, the moon, the stars, and decide to bow to their majesty.

Hence the Torah’s repeated admonitions against worshipping the bodies of the heavens.

Hence our insistence, when we pray, that we turn not to the stars and planets but to Gd.

And hence the Torah’s explicit harnessing of those heavenly bodies for its calendar and for its mitzvot, implicitly labelling those bodies as servants of Gd, carrying out Divine bidding.

In eleven days, on Erev Pesach, in a rare ritual, we are going to fulfill this last item, overtly identifying the Sun as a servant of Gd.

As we have discussed in various classes, as well as in the Pesach HaModia, we are on the verge of an event which occurs but once in 28 years in the Jewish calendar, Birkat haChamah, the Blessing of the Sun. Through calculations too complex for a derashah, we anoint this April 8th a day when the Sun returns to its original location from Creation. We step outside, we look at the Sun, and we declare, “Blessed are You, Gd, King of the Universe, who performs the deeds of Creation.” We will do this at 9:30 AM, communally, at the shul; those who cannot attend here can do it at home. It’s a simple blessing, found in your Pesach Hamodia. (For more, click here.)

This unusual Birkat haChamah is part of a more familiar pattern of mitzvot and berachot in which we explicitly declare that the Sun is created by Gd. We witness lightning, we hear thunder, we observe the ocean, we see great mountains, and we recite this same blessing labelling Gd the “performer of the deeds of Creation,” reminding ourselves that despite our longing to find Gd, we must always remember the error of Enosh’s generation, to recall that there is but one Gd.

And then there is a second danger associated with our longing for Gd, and that is the threat of complacency. Once we identify a Creator, a Planner, we risk leaving all action to this Gd as we remain on the sidelines.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch recognized a message regarding this risk, in the Torah’s apparent flip-flop regarding a מצבה, a stone monument.

In Bereishit we are told that our ancestor Yaakov, set up a monument of a single stone, to worship Gd. But in Devarim the Torah explicitly prohibits the מצבה, going so far as to say that Gd hates such monuments!

R’ Hirsch explained that a מצבה, made of just one stone, signifies simple admiration for Gd, devoid of any human contribution. Before the Torah was given, Man could, indeed, be a non-player, admiring Gd’s Creation and thereby worshipping Him. But once Gd charged us with fulfilling the mitzvot, we could no longer be non-players; we would be expected to assemble multiple stones and build a מזבח/altar for Gd.

As R’ Hirsch wrote, “Merely worshipping Gd in His Greatness and Allmight is not only a form of homage which is not pleasing to Gd, but, as our text expresses it, henceforth Gd “hates” any worship of His Greatness and Allmight which does not seek to express the moral submission of the whole of the human being to His Law, His Torah.” We are expected to be people of action.

Therefore, Gd commands that we learn Torah, that we keep kosher, that we give tzedakah, that we fill our lives with a form of worship which is far from silent, but which is active and demanding at every moment of our day.

Pesach is a perfect opportunity for this action; rather than commemorate the Divine miracles of the past with simple praise, we commit ourselves to the Torah and its mitzvot with the destruction of chametz and the consumption of matzah, educating our children and inviting in guests and reciting kiddush and making berachot – הלא זה יום טוב אבחרהו, this is the celebration which Gd desires, a celebration which commits us to Torah and forces us up from our recliners – or, in the case of the Seder, forces us into our recliners – as active participants.

The act of Birkat haChamah, of blessing the sun, can be a powerful moment. One of my few vivid childhood memories is of standing on the boardwalk in Long Beach, Long Island, the entire Hebrew Academy of Long Beach assembled, listening to our outstanding principal, Rabbi Friedman שליט"א, explain the mitzvah we were doing. I was in the second grade, and did not understand much – but I knew this was a special moment. Gd-willing, it will be equally special for our own children, and for us, this time around, and it will impress upon us once again the reminder that the sun is but a servant of Gd.

It is good that we long for Gd – but let us use Birkat haChamah to reinforce our awareness that the universe’s marvels are only servants to the Creator. And then, let us use the Pesach Seder that night to reinforce our awareness that praising Gd’s wonders is insufficient – we must also commit to action.

Or to borrow a line from the UJC/Federation’s new campaign ad: This Pesach, and every Pesach, symbolism is not enough. We must also act.


1. Yes, Marx still makes me uncomfortable.

2. Voltaire is credited for that mother-in-law line here. Others credit Hubert Humphrey.

3. Voltaire's line about inventing Gd comes from a letter to the author of The Three Impostorsl it is found in French and English here.

4. Kohelet's line is 5:7; the Enosh reference is Bereishit 4:26. See also Rambam's Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Avodah Zarah 1:1.

5. As an example of the way we specify that we are not worshipping sun, moon and stars, the prayer from the end of the Simchat beit haShoevah, in the Mishnah found on Succah 51b.

6. Hirsch's explanation of matzeivah is found in his commentary to Devarim 16:22; I used the Grunfeld translation.


  1. As R’ Hirsch wrote, “Merely worshipping Gd in His Greatness and Allmight is not only a form of homage which is not pleasing to Gd, but, as our text expresses it, henceforth Gd “hates” any worship of His Greatness and Allmight which does not seek to express the moral submission of the whole of the human being to His Law, His Torah.” We are expected to be people of action.

    Interesting. So in the Rav Shmuel/Rav debate on the point of the seder, you would come down in favor of the Rav (Four Sons)? (ie., that the point is not to inculcate us with a feeling of gratitude to God, but to teach our children to perform the mitzvot correctly)

  2. Great drasha.
    Rav Hirsch on he meaning of a Matzevah is one of my favorite things he wrote.

    I always understood it to also mean that after we were given the Torah we had to grow/build ourselves up to get closer to Hashem, thus the use of many stones (I think this might be in his comments about a Matzevah from ereishis).

    Prior to Matan Torah our relationship was different. The 'monument' was symbolic of Hashem's intervention in a point in one's personal history, sometimes manifested as "Todah", thanks, showing Hashem's interaction with Man as isolated incidents.

    After Matan Torah, our relationship became, well,a relationship, that should be constantly built.

  3. Tzipporah-
    Why are those goals mutually exclusive?


    Indeed, I see that there as well. Thanks!

  4. I don't think they are, but the traditional argument presents them as separate points, for which there can be only one clear answer...