My 4-year-old grandson and I went for a walk the other day and we stopped at a neighbor’s trampoline. As he was jumping, he spoke to me in words that seemed unintelligible.
“Selicha,” I responded in Hebrew, or “Excuse me.”
Selicha comes from the word Lisloach, or to forgive. Like most little boys and girls who take words literally, he stood there confused.
“Why are you telling me Selicha?” he asked.
The boy, of course, was on the money. Words are meant to be taken literally although we have to be reminded of this constantly. In this week’s Torah portion, Moses tell his flock: “Every commandment that I command you today must be observed and performed so that you might live, prosper, arrive and inherit the land that I have promised your forefathers.”
Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, known by the acronym Rashi, comes straight to the point in explaining the word “Every.” And the sage, who lived nearly 1,000 years ago, says “In its simple meaning.” Then, he adds a Midrash that puts a different spin:
“If you started a commandment, finish it, because a commandment is named only after the one who completed it.”
Moses knew this well enough. He spent his last hours in Egypt finding and recovering the remains of Joseph. But Moses was denied entry into the Land of Israel and Joseph’s bones were buried by others. Therefore, the commandment was attributed to Israel.
There has long been a debate among Jewish scholars of how to describe the State of Israel. Those who identify with the official institutions term the state Athalta DeGeula, or “the Beginning of the Redemption.” Others term the state Ikva Demishchta, the “Heel of the Messiah.”
Actually, the two sides agree more than they might admit. Judaism mandates the belief in the Messiah, who will bring the genuine redemption of the people. What is redemption? There are differing views but they all agree that redemption means the end of Jewish servitude. Or, as the protest signs off Jerusalem’s Balfour Street read, “End the Occupation.”
But many of those who talked of the beginning of redemption forgot this week’s Rashi. They saw the State of Israel as the end game. The state constituted a license to discard tradition and the commandments. It justified violating the Sabbath and virtually everything else — with the refrain of “This is not the Galut” or Exile. The teachers of Jews became hated even by those who grew up in traditional homes. Indeed, judging by the new Knesset, anybody can become a rabbi; anybody can declare food kosher. The rabbinical court is a source of ridicule, particularly by its secular counterpart. In any other country, this would be called anti-Semitism.
What Moses is telling the people as they prepare to enter the Land of Canaan is that it is not enough to start a commandment: You must complete it. The establishment of a Jewish state must lead to greater faith, greater devotion and greater observance. If not, what is the purpose of a state or any form of Jewish sovereignty? A Jewish army must defend the people at any cost; otherwise we can do what the Italians did in the Middle Ages and hire mercenaries. A school in the Jewish land must teach students how to live as a Jew. Or else, we can take a correspondence course in Latvia and even receive a doctorate at the end.
So, what is there to do for a Jew who wants to advance from the “Beginning of the Redemption” to the final realization? What is a Jew to do who wants to rise from the heel of Messiah to his head? The Midrash to Psalms provides the answer. And as Rashi would say, it’s simple.
The Midrash in Psalms 110 quotes G-d as telling the Jewish people that while they wait for the Messiah, they have only one thing to do: learn Torah. G-d will make the wars; He will jack up the stock market; He will even advance our careers. We have only one responsibility: to follow His word. That is the greatest truth.
To David, G-d says “Sit on my right.” Yes, G-d says, you will be king but right now Saul is still on the throne. His reign has not yet ended. Meanwhile, I will protect you even as Saul pursues you to destroy you. But you, David, will be king.
As my grandson taught me, some things must be taken literally. “Selicha” means you ask for forgiveness, not asking some little boy to repeat himself.
Groucho Marx said in one of his movies: “It’s so simple, a 4-year-old can get it. Now, go out and get me a 4-year-old.”