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Re-Turning to God

From the very outset, many of the stories we encounter in the Book of Bereishit, appear to be much more about God than the characters portrayed. Often this is demonstrated (intentional use of the word) through the arduous entreaties that occur. The month of Elul also invites if not impels these deep conversations between “my Beloved and myself”. This week’s portion of Ki Tavo is no different, alas in some ways all the more alarming. The harrowing descriptions of the punishments that will occur, 28:1, …if you do not obey your God to observe faithfully all the commandments and laws…, are so graphically ominous, that we read them quickly and quietly, in a manner that perhaps reflects, “not in front of the kinder, the children”, which only increases the angst and bewilderment at Avinu, malkeinu, our parent our king.

Towards the end of the extensive, heart rending, descriptions, 28:63 there appears a verse with an image that on the surface is startling.

וְ֠הָיָ֠ה כַּאֲשֶׁר־שָׂ֨שׂ יְהֹוָ֜ה עֲלֵיכֶ֗ם לְהֵיטִ֣יב אֶתְכֶם֮ וּלְהַרְבּ֣וֹת אֶתְכֶם֒ כֵּ֣ן יָשִׂ֤ישׂ יְהֹוָה֙ עֲלֵיכֶ֔ם לְהַאֲבִ֥יד אֶתְכֶ֖ם וּלְהַשְׁמִ֣יד אֶתְכֶ֑ם וְנִסַּחְתֶּם֙ מֵעַ֣ל הָאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ׃

And as God once delighted in making you prosperous and many, so will God now delight in causing you to perish and in wiping you out; you shall be torn from the land that you are about to enter and possess.

We have discussed the rarity of the portrayals of joy and happiness in the past, which only exemplifies its taunting appearance here. How are we to understand this shocking image? 

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) in sermons delivered in the Warsaw ghetto between the fall of 1939 and the summer of 1942, in a majestic work known as Eish Kodesh (“Holy Fire”), ultimately depicts a God not so much one Who has hidden Their face but as an almost tragic figure in hiding because even S/He cannot look at that which is happening. In one of the earlier sermons on Ḥayyei Sarah that opens with the death of the matriarch Sarah, which occurs on the heels of the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22. He reminds us of the Midrash that argues that her death was precipitated by her shock at hearing the news that her husband had placed their son on an altar to be sacrificed. Building from this midrash in an audacious interpretive explanation, Rabbi Shapira reinvents Sarah’s death as a conscious surrender of her life. – Sarah committed suicide as a supreme act of theological protest, an act designed to teach God that human beings cannot cope with trauma as horrific as the loss of a child. Suffering on that scale is no occasion for spiritual cleansing, no reproof for the sake of moral improvement. It can only crush and extinguish the human spirit altogether. Ultimately Eish Kodesh suggests that God Himself becomes Sarah, unable to abide the suffering of her children.

I bring these remarkable insights not only because we are about to revisit these stories on Rosh Hashanah but also to strengthen the incongruity of a God that can ostensibly “take joy” in the downfall of His people. 

Rashi on the verse briefly quotes the correction and objection brought in the lengthier elucidation found in Tractate Megillah 10b. The quoted statement of Rabbi Elazar ensues an important discussion on the events following the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, where the angels wanted to sing in praise to God who saved the Children of Israel from their enemies, but the Holy One, Blessed be He, objected and exclaimed; “The work of My hands, the Egyptians, are drowning at sea, and you wish to sing songs?” This vindicates a God who does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked. On this well known teaching Rabbi Elazar posits the way the term Yasis in the verse is to be understood, God Himself does not rejoice over the downfall of the wicked. (How much more so His own children?) He highlights the form of the verb to be causative, Yasis not Yasus which would mean He will rejoice, rather the term used means He causes others to rejoice. 

The grammatical approach is dismaying, and is nowhere close to the outright opposition declared by God Himself in the proof text referenced in relation to the punishment that was dispensed to the Egyptians. Who is the God being described here? It is a God that perhaps too must seek forgiveness in the upcoming days where we are all invited to remember and recall our deeds. Might that be the possible circular form of relationship implied in the romantic play on the letters of Elul, referenced above. In Hebrew the letters א, ל, ו, ל form an acronym for אני לדודי ודודי לי – ani l’dodi ve’ dodi li , a line from the Song of Songs -“I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me.” In Psalm 27 so fittingly recited during this period we remind and beseech God, in a stirring emotional manner ;

לִ֭בִּי בַּקְּשׁ֣וּ פָנָ֑י אֶת־פָּנֶ֖יךָ יְהוָ֣ה אֲבַקֵּֽשׁ׃   

My heart entreats “Seek My face!” O Lord, I seek Your face. 

 אַל־תַּסְתֵּ֬ר פָּנֶ֨יךָ ׀ מִמֶּנִּי֮ אַֽל־תַּט־בְּאַ֗ף עַ֫בְדֶּ֥ךָ עֶזְרָתִ֥י הָיִ֑יתָ אַֽל־תִּטְּשֵׁ֥נִי וְאַל־תַּֽ֝עַזְבֵ֗נִי אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִשְׁעִֽי׃

Do not hide Your face from me; do not thrust aside Your servant in anger; You have ever been my help. Do not forsake me, do not abandon me, O God, my deliverer. 

It is this intimate image that we powerfully evoke where our God becomes אבינו our King becoming our Father/ Parent, that exacts accounts for both of our behaviors.

Shabbat shalom, Shana Tova

About the Author
Shalom is a senior educator and consultant for The iCenter and serves as faculty for the Foundation for Jewish Camp . Prior, he served as the AVI CHAI Project Director and Director of Education in the Shlichut and Israel Fellows unit for the Jewish Agency. He has served as a consultant for the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Jewish Peoplehood Committee. Shalom was also a scholar on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellows Program, after which he served as the Executive Director of Jewish Renewal for United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA). Shalom is an acclaimed public speaker on contemporary Israel who brings extensive knowledge, humor and passion. He feels privileged to live in Jerusalem and loves sharing stories about life in the Land of so much Promise.
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