Thursday, January 9, 2014

Starting from the Stratosphere

Presumably, G-d was capable of splitting the Sea of Reeds prior to the Jews' plea for salvation (Shemot 14:21), there was no lack of water in the Divine reservoir before the Jews beseeched Moshe for something to drink (ibid. 15:26), the manna was available before the Children of Israel gave voice to their hunger (ibid. 16:3), and the Divine defeat of Amalek was no less possible before Moshe raised his hands toward heaven (ibid. 17:11). Why, then, were our ancestors compelled to plead for Divine assistance no fewer than four times in our parshah, and for the most basic of human needs – water, bread, and the defeat of their foes?

One might answer by citing the Talmud's explanation for childlessness of our ancestresses. (Yevamot 64a) The sages suggest that G-d calibrated His treatment of the matriarchs based upon the prayers he expected from those paragons of righteousness. However, this seems a cruel exercise for a nascent nation. Surely, a ragtag group of slaves, newly emancipated and entering an environment both foreign and hostile, could have been afforded the bare essentials of life while they found their equilibrium!

Indeed, the same question may be asked at the very start of the Torah. Adam and Chavah are formed on the morning of the sixth day of Creation, and given one instruction (Bereishit 2:16-17): Eat from all of the trees, except one. G-d places that one prohibited tree in the middle of the garden, where it is certain to attract their attention, and He assigns it great beauty. Why place such a challenging test before Adam and Chavah for their first day on the planet?

One answer might be found in a talmudic debate (Menachot 89a) regarding the way the kohanim calculated the amount of oil needed each night for the menorah in the Beit haMikdash. One view is that the kohanim started with a small amount, and added as needed until they determined the necessary quantity. A second view is that they started with a large amount, and reduced as they were able until they determined the necessary quantity.

The Talmud's focus on how the kohanim calculated their quota is odd; normally, the Talmud says of such discussions, "mai d'hava hava!" "What happened, happened!" Why do I need to know whether the kohanim started with a teaspoon of oil and worked their way up, or whether they started with a litre and worked their way down?

The answer may be that we are meant to learn from the philosophies behind each of the two oil-measuring approaches. As the Talmud continues to explain, the approach of beginning with a small amount is predicated upon the idea that G-d cares about the means of the Jewish people, and He does not wish to waste their property; therefore, the kohanim tried to use as small a quantity as possible. On the other hand, the approach of beginning with a large amount is predicated upon the view that the Beit haMikdash is a luxurious setting, and the poverty expressed by stinting on oil would be inappropriate for that venerated venue. The fundamental distinction between the two approaches is where we place our focus: Meeting our needs, or Rising to a majestic occasion.

Perhaps this is why G-d tested Adam and Chavah immediately after their "birth". Certainly, Hashem could have been patient with them, starting them slowly and having them work their way up to their full abilities. However, the Divine plan set the tone for their growth immediately, informing them that they were "a luxurious setting", like the Beit haMikdash. The spiritual poverty implied by early coddling would be inappropriate. G-d assigned them the highest possible test, and only after their failure did He make allowances for a lower bar.

Perhaps, too, this is why the Jews confronted thirst, starvation and the intimidating force of two separate foes in our parshah, all while taking their first, wobbly steps. Allowing a gentle "getting to know You" period out of concern for their welfare and emotional health would have been a case of what American President George W. Bush termed "the soft bigotry of low expectations". The Divine preference was to set the tone for our national existence by making the greatest of demands, establishing us as a luxurious setting, in which spiritual poverty would be unseemly.

The natural question, then, is how we will develop our own spiritual lives. Will we add a little bit of oil at a time, scraping by with a minimum of investment out of mercy upon our means? Or will we aim high, starting from the stratosphere and reducing only when we find it necessary? Let there be no poverty in our luxurious spiritual setting.

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