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‘Positive and Negative Parashat Kedoshim 5782

The Portion of Kedoshim is an amalgam of commandments. It contains no less than fifty-one commandments of all shapes and sizes, commandments between man and G-d and commandments between man and his fellow man. In this essay, we will concentrate on one of the first[1] commandments in the portion [Vayikra 19:3]: “You shall each revere your mother and your father”. The Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin [31a] compares this directive with a similarly worded directive that appears in the Ten Commandments [Shemot 2-:12] “Honour your father and your mother”. The Talmud notes that as far as honour is concerned, the father precedes the mother while as far as reverence is concerned, the mother precedes the father. The Talmud explains this as follows: “It is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son honours his mother more than he honours his father, because she persuades him with many statements of encouragement and does not treat him harshly. Therefore, the Torah preceded the mention of the honour due one’s father before mentioning the honour due one’s mother, emphasizing the duty that does not come naturally. Similarly, it is revealed and known before the One Who spoke and the world came into being that a son fears his father more than his mother, because his father teaches him Torah, and consequently he is strict with him. Therefore, the Torah preceded the mention of fear of the mother before the mention of fear of the father.”

It was much easier to understand the Talmud’s explanation fifty years ago than it is today. Every single sit-com produced in the sixties had at least one scene in which a child has broken some rule and his mother scolds him saying, “Just wait until your father comes home!” In the third decade of the twenty-first century, the roles of the parents have become much more fluid, even more so after the increased prevalence of remote working resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. Discipline no longer lies in the bailiwick of the father the same way that the mother is no longer a child’s sole source of comfort. How can we explain the Talmud in a way that is relevant to the modern Jew?

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, who lived in Pinsk, Belarus, and in Jerusalem in the previous century, writes in his monumental “Ha’dea veHa’dibur” that G-d will sometimes give man a surrogate for an expensive gift. If man is successful with the surrogate, then G-d will have more of a reason to grant him the real thing. In a similar vein, before a parent lets his child drive the family car, he will first see how the child does with a bicycle. If the child proves that he can ride his bicycle safely while obeying the rules of the road, then the parent might allow him to drive the car. But if he rides his bicycle in an unsafe manner, weaving in and out of traffic and not signalling, than there is no way he will be allowed behind the wheel of an automobile. Rabbi Sorotzkin brings two examples of Divine surrogate gifts. One example is the synagogue, which serves as practice for a future Holy Temple (Beit HaMikdash). If we treat our synagogues with the proper reverence[2], teaches Rabbi Sorotzkin, then G-d will find it easier to facilitate the building of the Holy Temple. The second example that Rabbi Sorotzkin brings is our parents, which serve as a sort of surrogate for G-d. If we treat our parents in the way with due respect and love, than that will make it easier for G-d to shine His Divine Presence upon us.

The esoteric Torah (Kabballah) describes two ways in which human beings relate to G-d: via love and reverence. Love is the desire for a closeness to G-d. Reverence is the feeling of awe that is experienced when one is in close proximity with something that is much greater than himself – a lofty mountain, a great vista, or even a famous person. It is important to note that “reverence of G-d” is not the same as “fear of G-d”. The fear of G-d, the fear of being caught by some cosmic policeman, is a negative feeling. Reverence of G-d is a positive feeling. It is the feeling of great awe that is spurred by the recognition of the immense distance that separates corporeal man and an Infinite G-d. The two feelings of love and reverence result from two very different ways in which G-d manifests Himself in our world. On the one hand, G-d is eminent: He is everywhere. In Kabbalistic jargon, “There is no place in the universe that is free of Him”. G-d was forced to “constrict Himself (tzimtzum)” in order to leave room for our world to exist. A person will desire closeness with G-d precisely because G-d is everywhere – He is there for the taking. On the other hand, G-d is transcendent. He is unfathomable, inscrutable. He hides behind a veil, watching our every move. The distance between man and G-d leads to reverence. He is untouchable and so we must dare not try to touch Him.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveichik, who led North American Jewry in the second half of the previous century, teaches that man is destined to live a dialectic life. Because G-d is simultaneously eminent and transcendent, whenever man feels that he has finally discovered G-d, he will suddenly find that G-d is nowhere to be found. Rabbi Soloveichik posits that as a result, man is destined to live a life that, at least in this respect, will always remain unfulfilled. Certain people find Rabbi Soloveichik’s philosophy too painful to follow. Who wants to live a life in which the pot of gold always remains at the end of the rainbow? Who has sufficient stamina to live a life of eternal frustration?

One source of man’s frustration with the “Eminent-Transcendent Dialectic” is that it is conceptually difficult to comprehend. G-d cannot simultaneously be “there” and “not there”. A number cannot be simultaneously positive and negative. The only number with this property is zero and this most certainly does not describe G-d. Similarly, a particle cannot have both a positive and a negative charge. Two identical particles of opposite charges cannot even exist together. When a positron[3] and an electron collide, they annihilate to a virtual particle[4] and this most certainly does not describe G-d. I suggest that we can use the Talmud in Tractate Kiddushin to soften Rabbi Soloveichik’s philosophy. Instead of trying to merge “eminence” and “transcendence”, two hard concepts that indeed mutually exclusive, we should consider “love” and “reverence”. Love and reverence, while very different, are not mutually exclusive. They are fuzzy concepts that can manage to survive in one enclosure. The Talmud teaches that a person feels a greater closeness to his mother than to his father. It does not say that a person does not feel any closeness to his father, only that the closeness that he feels to his mother eclipses the closeness that he feels towards his father. Similarly, the Talmud teaches that a person feels a greater fear of his mother than of his father. It does not say that a person does not fear his mother, only that his fear of his father eclipses his fear of his mother. We experience both love and reverence – and sometimes even a little fear – towards both of our parents. Our feelings towards our parents are admittedly complex but we can get our heads around them. Seen thusly, our relationship with our parents can serve as a surrogate for our relationship with G-d. We can use one to understand the other.

Paradoxically, G-d is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Nevertheless, the reverence that is inspired by His transcendence and the love that is inspired by His eminence must be experienced simultaneously. This paradox can and must serve as a mechanism not to drive man away from G-d, but to bring him ever closer.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5782

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza, Eli bat Ilana, and Geisha bat Sara.

[1] This commandment might actually be the first commandment in the portion, depending on whether the verse [Vayikra 19:2] “You shall be holy” is considered a commandment or a framework for the performance of all of the commandments, see the Ramban ad loc.

[2] This past Shabbat, we in Moreshet witnessed two examples of this kind of reverence. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people left the main synagogue for “street minyanim”. Last Saturday night, the Israeli government rescinded the mask mandate and as a result, two of the remaining street minyanim shuttered their doors. One of them returned their Torah scroll to the main sanctuary in a parade of singing and dancing.

[3] Put simply, a positron is an electron with a positive charge

[4] Either a photon or a Z-Boson.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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