Sunday, April 15, 2018

Seventy Years, Still Under Construction (Derashah, Yom ha'Atzmaut 5778)

I was a guest-speaker at a shul this past Shabbat, in honour of Yom ha'Atzmat. I gave this derashah, and liked it enough to re-post it here. But I realize in retrospect (thanks, Batya) that some words of introduction are in order, so you might look at the first two comments on the post, below.

How can we celebrate?
Archaeologists have discovered a 2500-year old letter, dating to the destruction of the first Beit haMikdash. It was from a soldier named Hosheia, a Jewish commander defending our eastern border against the Babylonians. He requested, “Please send the arba minim.[1]

Chief Rabbi of South Africa Warren Goldstein notes that 2500 years later, early in the Yom Kippur War, an IDF commander named Yehoshua sent the same message to headquarters, “Please send the arba minim.[2]

I’ve been asked to speak “in honour of Yom Ha’Atzmaut and the 70th anniversary of Medinat Yisrael”, and the beautiful religious symmetry of those letters from Israel fills me with hope for our nation which has survived both the ancient Babylonians and modern invaders, and continues to seek the arba minim. I can celebrate this.

But then I read the daily headlines of Israel’s internal strife, and I have to wonder about this celebration. A Prime Minister facing criminal charges. Rising levels of poverty. An on-going crisis over drafting yeshiva students. Scandals in the rabbanut over kashrut supervision. Conflict over egalitarianism at the Kotel. Conversion quarrels. The struggle to cope with African migrants. Is this the answer to the millennia-old question of what it looks like when Jews run a country? This doesn’t look like something to celebrate; Yeshayah criticized the Jews of his day who ate and drank and sang when they should have been fasting and crying![3] And really, what have we achieved - is there an honourable mention prize for just reaching 70, no matter what condition the medinah is in?

But perhaps the answer is that terrible problems are not always a cause for grief; from the Torah’s perspective, a crisis can be a catalyst for celebration.

Example 1: Adam and Chavah
This idea goes all the way back to Gan Eden, and the curious way Hashem punished Adam and Chavah.

When the serpent convinced Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, it was not merely via the charms of an attractive fruit. The serpent lured Chavah by promising that if she and Adam would eat from the fruit, והייתם כאלקים, they would be gods, like Hashem. What did Chavah know about Hashem at this point? Rashi explains that they would be יוצרי עולמות – Creators of Worlds. What attracted Chavah and Adam was the capacity to create life.

Given Rashi’s explanation, I would have expected Hashem to punish them by removing all capacity to create – but instead, Hashem gave Chavah and Adam the privilege to bring life into this world! Hashem told Chavah: You will bring life from your body! HaShem told Adam: You will bring life from the ground! What was Hashem doing here?

When we look closer, we realize the genius the Torah is revealing. The human beings wished to be Creators, but to do it quickly and cheaply, just eat a fruit and you become like Hashem. So Hashem taught them that they could indeed create life, but it would involve time and labour and pain. Hashem took their weakness and their flaw, and turned it into an education which would refine them. Hashem converted their aveirah into a building block.

Example 2: Eigel
The same phenomenon takes place millenia later, in this morning’s parshah, as the Mishkan is dedicated. According to Rashi, the Mishkan was created to make up for the catastrophic Eigel [Golden Calf] – but it led to a grand and beautiful and joyous celebration! And even per Ramban,[4] who contended we were always meant to have a Mishkan, the יום השמיני, the eighth day of the Miluim, may have been added just to make up for the Eigel – but this day which was produced by the Eigel was a grand celebration, such that the Sifra calls it יום שמחת לבו, the day of Hashem’s great joy![5] How did the Eigel’s terrible sin, with its death toll in the thousands, lead to יום שמחת לבו?

Because the Eigel was born from a misguided attempt to communicate with Hashem, and the Mishkan turned that desire to communicate with Hashem into a building block for greater success – a success which went on for many centuries of avodas HaShem.

Example 3: זדונות לזכויות
This concept of recognizing an aveirah as a building block is not restricted to the era of the Chumash; it applies to us today, as expressed in a classic gemara. The amora Reish Lakish declared, גדולה תשובה שזדונות נעשות לו כזכיות, teshuvah is so great that it converts even intentional sin into merit.[6] How does an intentional aveirah become a source of merit?

In his Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook explained that aveirot teach us lessons. They cause us to feel unsettled and anxious, recognizing that we are out of sync, we have left the proper path. This anxiety triggers what he called העריגה והחפץ הקבוע אל השלמות, the longing and desire to achieve perfection.[7] And so the aveirah becomes not an instant of degradation but a long-term building block, a catalyst for greatness, turning our זדונות into זכויות.

Exercise and Psychology
This phenomenon of destruction which fuels growth[8] appears not only in Torah, but also in Teva [nature].

This is how muscles grow. When we strain our muscles with exercise, we inflict “micro-tears”, small rips in the muscle fibers. Soreness after a workout is a function of those tears. Those tears are what enable muscles to grow; in repairing the tear, we experience hypertrophy, the fibers grow. The tears are our building blocks.

And the growth potential of our mistakes is a core principle in developmental psychology. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote, “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. Just gifts given to us to learn from.[9]” Or as a famous athlete once said, “I've failed over and over and over again in my life, and that is why I succeed.[10]"

Nature knows: Failure generates success.

In sum: We would prefer not to sin in the first place, but we know our reality. Like the Haggadah, our lives are מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח, we start with disgrace and we conclude with glory – and it is the disgrace itself, eating from the fruit in Gan Eden, creating an Eigel, even performing זדונות, which generates that glory.

So keep moving forward!
This is a crucial concept for us to remember and implement personally after an aveirah.
·         We look at what we did wrong, and we ask ourselves what we can learn.
·         We detect the anxiety that comes from an unsettled neshamah.
·         We study the yitzrim which attract us, and figure out how they can become strengths – laziness can keep us from an aveirah, a gossiper can learn to share Torah, a ringleader can organize people for chesed.

When we recognize that our failure can point the way to our success, we will be inspired to follow Shlomo HaMelech’s counsel, כי שבע יפול צדיק וקם – The tzaddik falls seven times, but each time he gets up.[11] Or as Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith re-worded it: "Success consists of getting up one more time than you fall down." And that success will be well worth celebrating.

For Israel Today
Which brings me back to celebrating the 70th birthday of the State of Israel.

The problems and scandals and crises are there. And yes, we continue to face religious problems, in particular. In 1954,[12] Rabbi Chaim David HaLevi said, “We have a strong desire to give our state a religious character where the Torah of Israel will be its law  - though none of us believe that we will succeed, at least not in this generation.” Two generations later, we are still working on it.

But so much social and religious good has been achieved by this State, in facing and addressing its problems. Millions of lives have been saved, from trouble spots all over the world. Many thousands of Jews are only able to study Torah daily thanks to the financial support of the world’s greatest sponsor of Talmud Torah, the State of Israel. That same State of Israel includes Tanach in its public school curriculum. Kiddush HaShem is experienced daily via the actions of visibly observant Jews, from Israeli hospitals and non-profits to sidewalk interactions on Israeli streets to the corridors of the Knesset to the beneficiaries of Israel’s international aid projects.

And the troubles of today will lead to a greater Jewish state tomorrow.
·         The proper solution to Israeli poverty will lead to fulfillment of וחי אחיך עמך.[13]
·         The proper solution to the draft crisis will lead to more Torah study and defense of the medinah.
·         The proper solution at the Kotel will lead to more Jews davening and saying Tehillim.
These problems will turn out to be micro-tears in our national muscle, and they will leave us ever stronger. This is why we celebrate, and thank Hashem for bringing us to this day.

Hopelessness plagued the Jews early in Second Beit HaMikdash, too, in the days of the navi Zecharyah. We were embedded  in an assimilated exile; then we re-gained our homeland through Persian policies of conquest. Most Jews opted to remain in exile. Then the Persians withdrew their permission to build the Beit HaMikdash, and even the Jews who had returned to Israel sank into deep doubt and disappointment; some actually left.[14]

Zecharyah[15] summed up his generation's malaise with three words, “בז ליום קטנות,” We “degrade the day of small achievements.” But then Zecharyah described a vision of Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol, clad in בגדים צואים, filthy clothing representing our exile and poverty and degradation. In this vision, HaShem told a malach to remove Yehoshua’s filthy clothing and to replace it with resplendent Bigdei Kehunah, the glorious garments of the Kohen Gadol. That generation would build on its weak beginnings, and create a glorious structure.

At the age of 70, we are part of our own יום קטנות, struggling to incorporate our mistakes into a process of construction. It’s hard עבודה [work]; we are still under construction. But through Hashem’s orchestration, and our השתדלות [effort], we and our children will see the fruit - and for this we can celebrate.

[1] The set of four plant species used for a mitzvah on Succot
[2] Essay in Sixty Days for Sixty Years, “The Eternal Message”
[3] Yeshayah 22:12-14, and see Taanis 11a
[4] Ramban to Vayikra 9:3
[5] Sifra Miluim 15. And see Haameik Davar to Vayikra 9:1 on what יום שמחת לבו adds to יום חתונתו
[6] Yoma 86b
[7] Orot haTeshuvah 5:6
[8] ירידה לצורך עליה
[10] Michael Jordan, but I don’t want to distract from the derashah
[11] Mishlei 24:16
[12] החק ותועלתו בעיצוב חיי דת במדינה , in the anthology בין ישראל לעמים
[13] The Torah’s imperative to support our brethren
[14] Metzudat David to Nechemiah 7
[15] Zecharyah 4:10