SALT - Sunday, Hoshana Raba, 21 Tishrei 5779 - September 30, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
The next SALT follow's this one.
 
            Yesterday, we noted the discussion among the commentators concerning the opening verse of Parashat Vezot Haberakha, which introduces Moshe’s blessings to Benei Yisrael by saying, “This is the blessing with which Moshe, the man of God, blessed the Israelites” – referring to Moshe as “ish ha-Elokim” (“the man of God”), a title not given to him in any other context.
 
            Rav Avraham Saba, in his Tzeror Ha-mor, suggests that the Torah refers here to Moshe as “ish ha-Elokim” because the blessings he pronounced before his death reflect his “Godlike” quality.  Moshe died on the east bank of the Jordan River, without fulfilling his mission of leading Benei Yisrael into the Promised Land, because of the mistake he made at Mei Meriva when the people angrily shouted at him and hurled insults at him while demanding water.  While it is unclear what precisely Moshe did wrong at that incident – a topic addressed at length by the commentators – it is clear that the people were partly to blame for the tragic consequences.  It would have been understandable if Moshe had harbored resentment towards the nation for creating a tense situation which led to his failure.  But Moshe felt no such hostility, and continued to lovingly tend to Benei Yisrael during their final months in the wilderness, and even now, as he was about to die because of his mistake, his parting words were affectionate blessings to the nation, wishing them a bright future of success and glory.  At this moment, Moshe truly showed he was an “ish ha-Elokim,” that he was indeed like the Almighty.  God continues to care for us and provide us with our needs even when we violate His commands and fail to fulfill His wishes.  He is patient and forgiving even when we are sinful.  He showers us with blessing even when we disappoint and betray Him.  Moshe, the “ish ha-Elokim,” followed this example and extended his love and blessings to the people even when they were the cause of his downfall.
 
            The celebration of Sukkot marks the conclusion of two distinct series of festivals: the festivals of Tishrei (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot), and the festivals celebrating the various stages of the harvest (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot).  It marks the culmination of the period of repentance and atonement, as the sukka symbolizes our close, intimate bond with the Almighty after we’ve repented and earned His forgiveness.  In addition, it marks the end of the harvest season, when we express our gratitude for the material benefits He has graciously granted us, and we thus sing His praises holding four different types of plants and reside outside in nature, thanking Him for His bounty.  In truth, however, these two aspects of Sukkot are very closely related to one another.  On Sukkot, we express gratitude for our material blessings knowing that we do not necessarily deserve them.  At the conclusion of the harvest, we take stock of our good fortune – at the same time as we take stock of ourselves, of our conduct, of our moral and spiritual successes and shortcomings, and we are overcome with joy over God’s grace and compassion, His continually showering us with blessing despite our underachievement.  We commemorate the experience of our ancestors who were miraculously sustained through their travels in the uninhabitable desert even when they betrayed God; who received manna from the heavens each morning even when they worshipped a golden calf and when they assailed Moshe for what they perceived as his failed leadership.  At the conclusion of the harvest and of the process of atonement, we reflect upon God’s unending kindness and love for His nation, the protection and care He provides us despite our many mistakes and deficiencies.  And we are, hopefully, inspired to live our lives as an “ish ha-Elokim,” following His example of consistent, unconditional graciousness, and to dispense kindness even to those whom we might not consider strictly deserving of it, recognizing that even such people deserve our respect, goodwill and generosity – just as we rely on God’s kindness and grace even when we are unworthy of it.
 
 
 
            The Torah in Parashat Bereishit tells the famous, tragic story of Kayin, who murdered his brother, Hevel.  After God spoke to Kayin to condemn him for his crime and announce that he would endure a life of wandering, Kayin expressed his fear that people would seek to kill him for murdering his brother.  God then reassured Kayin by pronouncing a death sentence upon anyone who would kill him (4:15).
 
            The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 22:12), commenting on this exchange, tells that after Kayin’s crime, all the animals came to demand justice for Hevel’s murder.  Even the snake of Gan Eden that had persuaded Chava to partake of the forbidden fruit, thereby bringing death to the world, came to demand justice.  God responded to all of them that anybody who killed Kayin would be put to death.
 
            How might we understand this Midrashic image of the animals and beasts – and even the snake of Eden – standing up to demand Kayin’s execution for Hevel’s murder?
 
            Rav Moshe Amiel, in his Hegyonot El Ami (vol. 1, pp. 263-4), explains that Chazal here seek to illustrate the haste, zeal and passion with which people rush to condemn and criticize wrongdoing.  All too commonly, people who display little passion and devotion to religious values and principles become riled and are quick to judge and condemn violators of religious values and principles.  The scene depicted in the Midrash symbolically speaks of this phenomenon, of “animals” bereft of ethical scruples suddenly portraying themselves as bastions of morality in the face of another person’s wrongdoing.  As Rav Amiel observes, the easiest – and hence most popular – of all the Torah’s mitzvot is the command of “u-vi’arta ha-ra mi-kirbekha” – condemning wrongdoing and calling out violators.  It is far more appealing to denounce somebody else’s misconduct or poor character than to work to improve our own conduct and character, because it allows us to effortlessly feel superior without having to change ourselves.  Chazal here alert us to the fact that even the snake of Gan Eden can criticize and condemn, that joining a chorus of censure – even if at times is the right thing to do – does not make one pious.  We become righteous by working hard to improve ourselves, not by rushing to seize every opportunity to self-righteously condemn others.