Thursday, September 13, 2012

Empowerment or Abandonment?

[This is my article from this week's Toronto Torah.]

Nearly two thousand years ago, Rabbi Yehoshua battled Rabbi Eliezer regarding a question of halachah. Rabbi Yehoshua defended the view of the assembled authorities, but Rabbi Eliezer stubbornly summoned a celestial voice, which declared, "Why do you quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer? The law always follows his view!" But Rabbi Yehoshua dismissed the heavenly interloper, citing our parshah (Devarim 30:12), "Torah is no longer in the heavens." In the end, Rabbi Yehoshua emerged victorious. (Bava Metzia 59b)

Our parshah indeed asserts that Torah is no longer in the heavens; after G-d taught Moshe all He wished to convey, no novel messages could be communicated to humanity. All innovation and application must now come from the beit midrash, authored by human minds. In general, we tend to view this evolution positively; we no longer need to ascend to the heavens in order to ascertain the Divine will. Har Sinai is in our hands!

From another perspective, though, the assignment of Torah to humanity alone is a horrifying abandonment which threatens the very veracity of our transmission of Torah. On an earlier occasion when HaShem attempted to distance Himself from us, Moshe dramatically denied permission, declaring, "If You are not going with us, do not move us from here!" (Shemot 33:15) Why, then, was Moshe not troubled now? And why was the heavenly source of authentic wisdom closed in our parshah, long before the destruction of the Beit haMikdash and the severing of our close relationship with the Divine?

In truth, the declaration that Torah has left the heavens is both empowerment and abandonment. It is empowerment of the Sages, whose supersession of the prophets is acknowledged in the talmudic observation (Bava Batra 12a), "The scholar is greater than the prophet." Further, a sage may occasionally be privileged to Divine aid; as the Talmud (Bava Batra 12a-b) indicates, scholars may find themselves inspired by a Divine muse. So it is that a scholar who has reached his wits' end may suddenly find his capacity mysteriously augmented. (For more on this, see Ramban and Chatam Sofer to Bava Batra 12a, and Maharitz Chajes to Berachot 3a.)

At the same time, we are unmistakably abandoned, for the vistas open to a thoughtful sage are more limited than those to which a prophet can aspire. The Zohar (Mishpatim pg. 116b) observes that scholars are capable of philosophizing regarding the most abstruse matters, speculating upon even the Shechinah, while the prophet reaches a stage at which he falls upon his face and can see no more. Yet this is not a sign that the scholar is truly greater than the sage; the prophet must withdraw his gaze because he is exposed to fantastic wonders which the scholar will never come close to apprehending.

The reason for this partial abandonment may be seen in a note authored by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin regarding his mentor, the Vilna Gaon, "The heavens wished to give him, without any work or exhaustion, celestial secrets via angelic messengers… He did not raise his eyes to this. It was close to him, and he distanced it. I heard from his mouth that angelic messengers often rose early to his door, desiring to convey to him secrets of Torah without any work, and he did not turn his ear to them at all." (Introduction to Safra d'Tzniuta)

The Vilna Gaon understood that we are not meant to be recipients of free gifts; that which comes to us without labour is, in the terminology of the Zohar, nahama d'kisufa, bread of shame. As Adam and Chavah were instructed to work in the Garden of Eden despite its Divine bounty, so we are meant to draw our insights from the strain of our minds, not from prophetic communication. [Perhaps this is why we tend to feel greater satisfaction with the fruits of our labour than with the gifts we receive from others, as noted in Bava Metzia 38a.]

Our ancestors, standing on the edge of the Jordan River, were nudged from the nest like a young bird pushed forth by her mother. Certainly, there was an element of abandonment, but this was also a grant of independence critical to achieving our purpose.

Expanding this idea further, we may say the same for the gift of Free Will which is mentioned several sentences subsequent in our parshah (Devarim 30:19). Certainly, our religious lives would be more productive were G-d to take charge, but we are meant to work for our greatness. And as with scholarship, the one who works for his personal purification is promised Divine aid. (Yoma 38a)

In both our studies and our general religious lives, may we merit to struggle and to be rewarded with Divine assistance, and to earn a ketivah vachatimah tovah.