Sanctity in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha

  • Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

MODERN RABBINIC THOUGHT

By Rav Yitzchak Blau

 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of
our beloved father, Harry Meisles (Elchanan ben Yitzchak) z"l,

whose yahrzeit falls on 26 Adar – the Meisles family.

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The VBM wishes a warm mazal tov to Rav Yitzchak Blau and Noa Jeselsohn

on the bar mitzva of their son Zecharyah Shimon.  May you continue

to have nachas from Zecharyah and from the rest of your children!

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Lecture #19:  Sanctity in the Thought of R. Meir Simcha

 

 

            R. Meir Simcha frequently cautions against attributing divinity or inherent sanctity to physical items.  The human need to relate to something tangible makes it difficult to focus our devotion towards an incorporeal God, and this naturally leads to worship of limited entities that are not truly worthy of such reverence.  R. Meir Simcha repeatedly emphasizes that no physical entity harbors inherent sanctity.  He contrasts physical items with God, the only being with inherent sanctity.  He suggests that only positive human choices can create sanctified objects and places.  R. Meir Simcha utilizes these themes to explain several biblical passages and narratives.

 

            The most famous example may be his explanation of Moshe's rationale for shattering the luchot.[1]  Many commentators wonder what motivated Moshe to carry out this bold act.  After all, there is something brazen about breaking an object God gave to you to deliver to the people.  One explanation suggests that Moshe wanted to perform a dramatic act in front of the nation to shake them up.  Rashbam argues that Moshe did not actually decide to break them; he simply could not hold them any longer once he saw the golden calf up close.[2]  A midrashic perspective contends that breaking the luchot represents the tearing up of the marriage contract between God and the Jewish people. 

 

            R. Meir Simcha's interpretation begins with an understanding of the sin of the calf.  The people had grown so dependent on Moshe that his absence sent them into a panic, a fright that led to the making of the golden calf.  Apparently, they thought of Moshe as indispensible for encountering divinity.  Without Moshe's presence, a substitute had to be found immediately.  Upon descending from the mountain, Moshe wanted to educate the people that his presence was not necessary.  In fact, during the thirty-eight years of divine anger and wandering in the desert after the sin of the spies, God did not communicate with Moshe.  Moshe has a special prophetic role, but only as the representative of the people and not as an independent force.

 

Moshe understood the people's desire for tangible representations.  This desire led them to sanctify him and to create a golden calf as a replacement if he remained unavailable.  Were Moshe to bring the people the luchot at that moment, they would simply shift their allegiance and reverence to the luchot.  He therefore had to break them.  The ongoing presence of the broken shards of the first tablet in the aron provided a permanent reminder of this message.  Even though the first tablets were fashioned by God Himself, transgressions can cause their breaking; only God Himself possesses non-contingent sanctity.

 

The basic human desire for something tangible to worship can lead to deification of a person or place.  The Torah takes steps to prevent this from happening regarding Mt. Sinai.  The verses that prohibit people or animals from going up the mountain during the giving of the Torah add: "When the horn sounds, then they can go up the mountain" (Shemot 19: 13).  Why did the Torah need to state this at the outset?  R. Meir Simcha explains that the Torah wanted to immediately clarify the nature of the mountain.  The mountain only has sanctity as a result of divine revelation; as soon as the divine presence leaves, the mountain becomes a place for animals to wander and graze.  This directive clearly conveys that the mountain is not inherently sanctified.  As R. Yossi taught: "A place does not bring honor to a person - a person brings honor to his place" (Ta'anit 21b).

 

Interestingly, R. Meir Simcha makes a similar claim about the Temple area, but this example proves far trickier than Mount Sinai.  Sinai maintains no special legal status after the grand revelation ends, but Har Ha-Bayit remains sanctified even after the destruction.  Yet, according to R. Meir Simcha, Halakha also clarifies the true nature of the Temple's sanctity. Even though the Temple has eternal sanctity, the sanctity is not a characteristic inherent in the structure.  The Sifra therefore permits the ritually impure to touch the Temple from the outside.  The ritually impure cannot enter the Mikdash because there a person encounters God, but they can touch the outside to illustrate that the Temple has no status on its own accord and all reverence must be directed to God.[3]

 

R. Meir Simcha notes that the status of the Mikdash changes after the people sin.  Once sins bring about destruction, the same Holy of Holies that once caused trepidation to the High Priest each Yom Kippur can be entered by Titus with a prostitute in tow.   The providence that reigned in the Mikdash when the people were worthy simply ceased, and Titus emerged unscathed.

 

The Torah also combats the possibility of deifying a person.  How would the people relate to Moshe, the man who had led them out of Egypt and helped sustain them in the desert with signs and wonders?  The temptation to worship him must have been quite significant.  R. Meir Simcha argues that the danger was minimal for the generation that left Egypt because they recalled Moshe's youthful beginnings and they would not forget that he was flesh and blood just like them.  However, the next generation, the one that would enter the Land, was far more susceptible to the danger.  This generation grew up with Moshe's signs and wonders but without the memory of his human origins.  Moshe therefore had to die before entry into the land.  God removed him from this world before the next generation could deify him.[4]

 

One might contend that this interpretation contradicts the Torah's explanation for why Moshe was barred from entering the land.  The Torah attributes this to a sin committed by Moshe in the episode of Mei Meriva.  In defense of R. Meir Simcha, it should be noted that the commentaries have struggled to discern exactly what transgression provoked this punishment.  This difficulty motivated Abravanel to assume that the Torah does not explicitly mention the real reason Moshe could not enter Israel.[5]  If so, we can more easily justify R. Meir Simcha's explanation.  Furthermore, a section in Devarim (4:14-6:21) juxtaposes the temptation of idolatry with the fact of Moshe's death.  R. Meir Simcha cites this juxtaposition to support his idea.

 

This issue played an influential role during the episode of the spies.  According to Chazal, Eldad and Meidad prophesied that Moshe would perish and Yehoshua would lead the entry into the Land of Israel.  This contributed to the people's trepidation after hearing the report of the spies.  Kalev's response stressed that the people control their own destiny without dependence on Moshe.  "We can surely go up" (Bamidbar 14:30) places the onus on the people.  R. Meir Simcha sharply notes that Yehoshua could not relate the same message, because he would be accused of minimizing Moshe's importance in a self-serving gambit to bolster his own leadership credentials.  Only Kalev could teach that success truly depends upon the community and not on great individuals.[6]

 

Another relevant passage in the Meshekh Chokhma explores the roots of paganism.[7]  Humans naturally experience appreciation for such things as beauty, love, and strength.  The pagans chose to embody these traits and associate them with individual gods.  They also attributed divinity to people who excelled in such traits.  All this stems from a faith built on the tangible and the visible.  Avraham, on the other hand, realized the true non-corporeal nature of God, a Divinity who can not be touched, seen, or fully comprehended.  While this represents the correct perspective on the infinite God, it presents difficulty for those accustomed to the tangible.  Indeed, Rabbenu Bahya writes that only the philosophers and prophets truly comprehend service of God.  Despite the complexity, the entire Jewish people carry on this tradition from Avraham.

 

How do the Jewish people accomplish this feat?  The Torah provides training for the intellect and purification of human feelings.  Torah study prepares the mind for the abstract thought needed to comprehend God.  At the same time, the Torah purifies those feelings that might otherwise lead toward paganism by channeling them in a monotheistic context.  The Torah channels love into love of friends, family, and one's nation.  The Torah endorses beauty in the context of hiddur mitzva.  Even in that context, R. Meir Simcha stresses that we throw out the beautiful etrog after the holiday.  The Torah finds a place for aesthetics but will not allow a cult of beauty to emerge.

 

This approach allows for a powerful reading of R. Chanania ben Akashya's famous statement: "God wanted to purify Israel.  Therefore, he gave them plentiful Torah and mitzvot" (Makkot 3:16).  The joint themes of Torah study and mitzva performance enable purification, free from the taint of idolatry.  With these two principles, the Torah develops both mind and emotions until they can lead the way to a more refined conception of God.

 

In the continuation of that passage, R. Meir Simcha states that true sanctity comes from humanity, not from religious fiat.  Har Ha-Moriya is not holy for intrinsic reasons but because Adam was created from its dirt and because Avraham brought Yitzchak to the akeida there.  The Torah describes it only as "the place God will choose" to convey that its sanctity does not come from a religious decision detached from humanity.  R. Meir Simcha repeats the idea that Sinai loses all its sanctity once the revelation ends; even Jerusalem and Israel only maintain their sanctity due to their historical connection with our patriarchs. 

 

Here, a second theme in R. Meir Simcha's thought emerges.  His position on these issues intends, first and foremost, to preserve a sense of the uniqueness of God.  God has inherent sanctity and no physical entity does.   Secondly, he wants to generate a strong sense of human responsibility.  We do not succeed in religious life by connecting with objects or locations that exhibit intrinsic sanctity.  Rather, we humans generate that sanctity with proper behavior.  The alternative and incorrect viewpoint assumes that where you pray is more important than how you pray.

 

R. Meir Simcha explicitly conveys this theme in his reading of the Bilaam story.  The Torah attributes the Jews' sinning with the daughters of Moav to the "word of Bilaam" (Bamidbar 31:16).  Where do we find a hint to this in the speeches of Bilaam?  Some commentators suggest that this was the counsel offered by Bilaam in Bamidbar 24:14.[8]  R. Meir Simcha offers an alternative approach.  Bilaam says that "God does not see iniquity in Israel" (Bamidbar 23:21), conveying the idea that Jewish People can sin and still retain divine favor.  After all, God took them out of Egypt despite their idol worship.  This message filtered down to Israel, and the people thought they could play around with paganism and sexual immorality without suffering any consequences.  In that sense, the "word of Bilaam" led to their downfall.  Here, R. Meir Simcha combats the notion that the Jews have a preferred status, irrespective of their behavior.  Human sanctity is not inherent; it must be earned in the crucible of difficult choices.[9]

 

This theme also emerges from R. Meir Simcha's explanation for the miraculous nature of the Temple.  The Mikdash unites the hearts of the entire Jewish People, and only the Jewish People merits miraculous providence.[10]   Note that he roots the miraculous in the collective effort more than in the geographic location.

 

In the context of his analysis of the shattering of the luchot, R. Meir Simcha writes as well regarding the sanctity of the Land of Israel:

 

There is no distinction in all the matters of the Torah, based on time or place.  It is the same Torah in Israel and the Diaspora (with the exception of mitzvot contingent upon the land).  So too, it is the same for the most lofty individual, Moshe the man of God, as for the lowest of the low.

 

            Here, R. Meir Simcha implicitly disagrees with the Ramban's view that the true realization of all mitzvot occurs only in the Land of Israel.  Rabbi Cooperman's footnote attempts to reconcile the two positions by arguing that R. Meir Simcha writes on a halakhic plane, while Ramban writes on a more philosophic and kabbalistic plane.  I believe this to be incorrect; R. Meir Simcha's analysis is certainly theological and not just technically halakhic.  Furthermore, the themes a given commentator chooses to emphasize also speak volumes about his world-view.  Ramban stresses the uniqueness of the Holy Land, whereas R. Meir Simcha repeatedly points to the Torah transcending time and place.

 

Of course, R. Meir Simcha does not deny the halakhic and hashkafic significance of Eretz Yisrael.[11]  At the same time, his two themes help provide an important perspective on the nature of sanctity.  Both themes remain relevant today.  Our desire for the tangible should not lead us to conceive of God in a less refined fashion, nor should we let sanctified location or holy objects take on greater significance than our human religious choices.



[1] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 32:19.

[2] Rashbam, Shemot 32:19.

[3] Meshekh Chokhma, Shemot 19:13.

[4] Ibid., Devarim 4:15.

[5] Abravanel, Bamidbar 20.

[6] Meshekh Chokhma, Bamidbar 13:30.

[7] Ibid., Shemot 12:21.

[8] See Rashi, Bamidbar 24:14.

[9] Meshekh Chokhma, Bamidbar 31:16.

[10] Ibid., haftara Devarim.

[11] Ibid., Bereishit 13:14.