What Does God Hope for Us When We Stray?

In the second part of his Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, Solomon Schechter focused on the revelation of God’s will, direction, and promise, an experience through which “earth was wedded to heaven.”

For it was in this act of God’s “grace,” the revelation (Torah, for Jews), that we were first offered “instruments” of “humility and righteousness,” showing us a path forward of “peace, strength… joy, and freedom.”

Our concern today is: what does God hope for us when we stray from that path? We’re imperfect; God knows it. So, while we may seek to live as God desires, it is all but inevitable that we, on occasion, will be wayward. Let’s see what Schechter teaches about the journey to holiness, with its ever-present temptations and falls, as well as their consequences, and the ways of return that God makes available to us.

 

1. “Holiness is the highest achievement of Torah and the deepest experience as well of the realization of righteousness…the holiness of Israel is dependent on their acting in such a way as to become God-like.”

2. For example, “as God is called merciful and gracious, so be thou merciful and gracious; as God is called righteous, so be thou righteous…” Sifre, 85a

3. The opposite of being God-like is defiance and rebellion from God’s ways, which constitute disobedience and sin. “Closely connected with rebellion” is the idea of one who “throws off the yoke of the Omnipresent, or of heaven.”

 4. This rebellion may, among other things, take the form of idolatry, having “a proud heart” that is “arrogant in decision,” leaving “no room for the Divine,” grave wrongdoing with or without “denying God’s knowledge” of our actions, heresy, wickedness of those “puffed up in spirit,” unchaste actions or thoughts, the shedding of blood (literally or figuratively), slander, robbery, the wrong administration of justice, usury, scoffing, lying, being hypocritical, and disrespecting those who deserve to be honored.

 5. “The effects of sin extend even further” to a “blighting influence upon the world, under which even the righteous suffer.”

 6. “The punishment of separation…is extended to sin in general.” That is to say, when one chooses to defy and rebel from God, one’s wish is fulfilled. “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you…” Isaiah 59:2

 7. What causes sin, the rebellion against God? It’s the yezer hara, the evil imagination or desire. “Other names” of this force are “the foolish old king,” “the spoiler who spares none,” “the malady,” and “the strange god.” As R. Simon b Lakish put it, “Satan and Yezer and the Angel of Death are one.”

 8. The main activity of the evil yezer “consists in seducing and tempting.” His ways “are of the insinuating kind, appearing first to the man as a modest traveller, then as a welcome guest, and ending in exacting obedience as the master of the house.”

 9. What are we to do with the yezer hara? We are to temper it, to overcome it. “The Yezer who forms such an obstacle on the path of righteousness was created with the purpose that man should make a strong effort to overcome him, thereby testifying his loyalty to the King God…”

 10. “The difference between the wicked and the righteous is that the wicked are in the power of their hearts, while the righteous have the heart in their power.”

 11. “The weapons used in this war against the Evil Yezer are mainly: occupation with the study of the Torah (God’s words of Instruction) and works of loving-kindness.” It must be seen, though, that “the conquest comes in the end from God.”

 12. “We are thus brought to the necessity of grace forming a prominent factor in the defeat of the Yezer. Hence, the various prayers for the removal or subjugation of the Evil Yezer.”

 13. “They asked the Holy One, blessed be He, ‘What is the punishment of the sinner?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, answered, ‘Let him do repentance and it shall be forgiven unto him…”

 14. It is true, too, that the wrongdoer suffers as part of atonement. “If thou seeks for life, hope for suffering,” as it is said, “And reproof of chastisement is the way of life.” (Sifre and Psalms) “This suffering has to be a sacrifice accompanied by repentance,” which leads to being “dealt with mercifully.”

 15. “Atoning power is also ascribed to” the occupation “with the study of the Torah (God’s Instruction) and acts of loving-kindness.”

 16. “Repentance is so beloved by the Holy One, blessed be He, that He is ready to overrule His own Law for its sake…This suggests that the admittance of repentance is an act of grace on the part of God, as forgiveness in general is.”

 17. “As to the nature of repentance, it is…first of all the returning from evil ways, that is, a strong determination on the part of the sinner to break with sin…Repentance begins in thought, and its effect is instantaneous. But it is followed up by words of confession.”

 18. “Repentance is as wide as the sea, and as the sea has never closed and man can always be cleansed by it, so is repentance, so that whenever man desires to repent, the Holy One, blessed be He, receives him.”

God and the World

In this installment of short blogs that highlight 18 special ideas of great Jewish thinkers, we will turn to the magnificent 19th century scholar/rabbi, Solomon Schechter. His classic Aspects of Rabbinic Theology can be roughly divided into three parts: God and the World; God’s Instruction; and Holiness, Sin, Repentance, and Return.

Here, in less than 850 words, we’ll see how Schechter answers questions (though not in the gender-neutral terms we now prefer) that matter a lot to us with respect to the subject of God and the World. How can the distant God of the heavens also be a God intimate with us in the world? What’s the nature of our relationship with the Divine? What is the Kingdom God seeks to create, and what’s our role in it?

GOD IN THE WORLD

 1. How puzzling and wonderful it is that the God who some say is far off, King of the Universe, Father in heaven, “too high for the mind,” is also “a personal God” who is “a father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows” (Psalm 78), a God who is “near in every kind of nearness.” Jer. Berachot 13a

 2. “God was at one and the same time above, beyond, and within the world, its soul and its life.”

GOD AND THE PEOPLE

3. “The intimacy of relationship is reciprocal.” “God needs us even as we need Him.”

4. “The recognition of…fatherhood is all that God wants from Israel.” “Israel loves Him and loves His house…and so does the Holy One, blessed be He, love them.” “He wants to hear Israel’s voice…and is anxious for them to listen unto His voice.”

THE KINGDOM OF GOD

5. “God is king and hence claiming authority; the king is God, and therefore the manifestation and assertion of this authority are the subject of people’s prayers and solicitations.”

6. “The invisible kingdom is mainly spiritual, expressive of a certain attitude of mind…” in which one desires “to receive upon himself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.”

7. Central is the love of God. “It is the man with such a purpose (aiming towards bringing about the perfect unity to the exclusion of self) who is called the lover of God.”

8. Lovers of God “desire only to accomplish the will of God and to lead others to righteousness, to sanctify His name and to deliver up his soul for the sake of His love…”

9. “An anonymous author…says ‘those who believe that works are the main thing are mistaken. The most important matter is the heart. Works and words are only intended as preparatory actions to the devotion of the heart. The essence of all the commandments is to love God with all the heart…’”

10. “The Rabbis often speak of the reward awaiting the righteous after their death of consisting …in reveling in the divine glory…But such a vision…is wisely confined to the next world…In this world, “the world of activity,” the righteous have no such peace; they have to labor and to suffer with their fellow-creatures.”

11. When God teaches that “these words which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6), the Divine means that we should “place these words upon thy heart, for through them thou wilt learn to know the Holy One, blessed be He, and cleave unto His ways.” Sifre, 74a. “And these ways, as we will see, concern this world.”

12. “The best control is thus to work towards establishing the visible kingdom of God in the present world. This (is) the highest goal religion can strive to reach.”

THE UNIVERSALITY OF GOD’S KINGDOM

13. “God wants to reign over free agents, and it is their obedience he desires to obtain.”

14. Before Abraham, God had only been…king of the heavens, but since Abraham, “he has become also the God and King of the earth.” After the patriarchs, “his kingdom became based on mankind’s knowledge of Him, and their realization of His nearness.”

15. …”the kingdom of God is in this world.” “…nearness of God to man means the knowledge of God’s ways to do righteousness and judgment.”

“In other words, it is the sense of duty and responsibility to the heavenly king who is concerned in and superintends our actions.”

16. “…you are my lovers and friends when you walk in My ways…As the Omnipresent is merciful and gracious, long suffering, and abundant in goodness, so ye be…feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, ransoming the captives, and marrying the orphans.”

17. “If… the essence of their preaching was righteousness and justice, and…if the kingdom does not mean a hierarchy, but any form of government conducted on the principles of righteousness, holiness, justice, and charitableness, then we may safely maintain that the kingdom of God…is universal in its aims.”

18. This is the promise the prophet made for the future: “And all the children of flesh will call upon thy name…” “And the Lord shall be King over all the earth: in that day shall the Lord be One and His name One.”

The Fruit of Tending a Tree

“Whoever tends a fig tree will eat its fruit, as one who keeps his master will be honored.” Proverbs 27:18

I love this analogy.

While I haven’t done it much in my life, I do know a bit about what it is like to tend to a fruit-bearing tree. There’s the planting, the proper watering, the needed pruning and cutting, the guarding and protecting from harm, and, of course, the timely cultivation. For the most part, the yield of such good tending, as was the case with the wonderful peach tree in the backyard of my childhood home, is fresh and delicious fruit.

Before we go any further, though, let’s recognize that tending to a fruit tree is itself a metaphor. This could be tending to one’s work and doing it well. Or it could be performing a charity assignment with diligence and effectiveness. In these and other such activities of life, we’re given the delight and enjoyment of stewardship.

So, now that we have both the work and the benefit of “tending a tree” firmly in our minds, let’s ask: what’s the proverb’s analogue, and what does it mean?

We’re taught to keep one’s master as one tends to the tree, and that doing so brings honor. Who’s the master, and what’s the keeping?

While a master could surely be a superior at work, I think first of fine teachers. Do we select them carefully and give them a prominent place in our lives?  Do we listen to and learn from them? Do we engage, perhaps even argue constructively, with them, and honor them and what they teach? Do we protect and keep them and their teachings in our hearts and minds as we go through life?

If we do, it could be said that we benefit from their “fruit” and are honored.

I also see as a “master” those fundamental principles that guide the conduct of our lives. This could be Divine guidance in the Bible. It could be the principles that characterize the best of American traditions. It could be the best standards of our culture – in its art, its ethics, and so forth. When we live by and keep to these principles, we share in the ongoing “fruit of the tree,” and are honored.

I certainly see God as Master. When we keep to God’s ways, I have faith that God blesses us.

Finally, I believe we have a “master” in the duties we bear. Don’t we feel a deep and abiding sense of honor when we serve, as a matter of duty, to fulfill our most vital obligations? I certainly felt honor when I lived out to the best of my ability a son’s duty during my mother’s final days of life.

Speaking of honor, I want to close with an insight that may fascinate you. The Hebrew root word that is translated as honor is kavod. This word does mean honor, but it also means burden.

It is indeed a burden to do the hard work of tending to a tree, as it is to serving those people and values we hold dear. Yet, in bearing this burden, we are also honored with peace and contentment, its sweetest fruit.

Handling the Most Important Work of Our Lives

“Iron yahad to iron; so a man yahad with the penai of his fellow.” Proverbs 27:17

I know. You must be asking: what the heck is he doing with the words of the verse? Two non-English words are used and italicized. Why? What does it mean?

Here’s the story. The Hebrew word, yahad, has several different meanings. And the use of each gives the proverb an entirely different meaning. To add to the complexity, this is also true with the Hebrew word, penai. The really cool part is that each resulting meaning is wonderful and has great value. In my view, this aspect of Proverbs – the capacity of certain verses to have many but different meanings – is one of the Book’s greatest attractions.

Let’s see how.

One meaning of yahad is “joins” or is “together.” So, we learn that just as iron joins to iron, a person joins with the face of his/her fellow.

We see this powerful idea expressed in many places throughout the Bible.

God meets Moses panim el panim, face to face. In other words, Moses sees the Divine attributes, and God sees in Moses human ways and capacities. Through this encounter, we find the essential basis for relationship.

Isn’t this true as well when we encounter each other? One could say that Jacob encountered both God and Esau in this way on that fateful day of wrestling. Looking into the face of another is indeed like looking into the face of God.

It is this relational reality, I think, that forms the basis of Martin Buber’s magnificent thinking about I-Thou. We must live true to the ideal that we see and act toward each other, Subject to Subject, as if we are relating to the Divine in each other.

So, back to the proverb, just as appropriate as it is for iron to join with iron is our joining with the face of our fellows, through relating to each other, panim el panim.

However, other interpreters see yahad as rooted in chadad, that is, “sharpens.” Here, we would then have: just as iron sharpens iron (as a knife sharpens another knife), a person sharpens the face of his/her fellow.

Since face has also been interpreted as “wits,” this verse could be teaching us that just as iron can be used to sharpen iron, we can, through wisdom, sharpen each other’s wits to lead better lives, by, for example, living truer to God’s ethical expectations.

Or, as R’ Hirsch teaches, it could simply be that our thinking is sharpened through the exchange of thoughts with others. One who relies only on oneself is likely to formulate erroneous ideas or simply be stagnant in thought. Thus, we could be taught here that just as it is better to have a sharpened knife, it is better to have a mind that is sharpened by dialogue in study with others.

Let me tickle you with another possibility.

Some sages, looking at the use of the root word, chadad, in Habakkuk 1:8, see it as to be “fierce.” This may be especially interesting, given the fact that the “face” in Lamentations 4:16 appears angry. So, it could be: just as iron can make iron fiercer, a person’s anger can kindle the anger of his fellow. It is human nature to respond to anger with anger. (Meiri)

Wow. How do we wrap this up? Are we just to leave the study, sated but confused? Or, should we see the experience simply as having gotten five pieces of wisdom for the price of one?!

Or, based purely on the fact that we’ve been given the possibility of so many fine interpretations, is there a special gem we shouldn’t miss?

Perhaps it would be this: Just as we are to show great care in the many ways we handle powerful metals, we should be diligent in the diverse ways we face the most important work of our lives – handling our relationships with each other, and with God.