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Parashat Hashavua Eikev 2013 / 5773 - Growing up and Taking Responsibility: Israel and the Diaspora

24.07.2013 by

In this week's parsha, Ekev, Moshe continues his combined message of reviewing the history of the Jews in the desert - focusing on their failures - while exhorting the people to behave better in the future, once they actually enter and settle the Land of Israel. One of the centerpieces of his speech is the story of the sin of the golden calf. He reminds the people that during the climactic moments, when he went up to Mount Siani and heard the word of God, and received the Ten Commandments and other parts of the Torah, the nation suffered a colossal failure of nerve, and asked for a god whom they could see, a golden calf, to go before them, in Moshe's apparent absence. Moshe reminds them that God was so angry at this behavior that  He wanted to destroy them, and it was only Moshe's prayers which prevented such a tragic outcome.

In fact, Moshe tells them this twice, first in chapter 9 verses 18-20 - "And I fell before God...for forty days and forty nights...and God heard me...", and again, at greater length, just a few sentences later, in verses 25-29 - "And I fell before God for the forty days and the forty nights...and  I prayed to God, and I said 'Lord God, do not destroy your nation and your inheritance, which you have freed in your greatness, which you took out of Egypt with a strong hand.'" The commentaries are apparently unanimous in identifying these two descriptions of Moshe praying for the people as referring to the same incident, and so the obvious question is why is it repeated twice in the same chapter?

The Rashbam, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (1085-1158, France), a grandson of Rashi, supplies an interesting explanation to the repetition. He says that had Moshe told the story of how his prayers saved the day just once, the Jews would have made an incorrect assumption. They would have come to believe that no matter how horrible the sin - and the golden calf certainly takes the cake in the horrible sin departmenmt - a leader, a prophet, can always pray to God for mercy, as Moshe did, and get us out of trouble. We don't really need to worry about divine retribution for our sins, the leader will pray our way out of it. Therefore, to explain that this is not true, Moshe tells the story twice here, to emphasize to them the uniqueness of the situation. Moshe is explaining that, having just gotten out of Egypt, he was able to argue that their demise now, in the desert, would lead the nations of the world to say that it was "due to lack of ability" that God "killed them in the desert" (verse 28), and that killing them now, at this early stage in their history, would make God look very bad indeed. Later on, however, once the Jews had successfully crossed the desert and entered the land of Israel, and defeated all the kings of the area (the Rashbam counts 31), this argument would no longer work, and the kind of prayer which Moshe offered after the sin of the golden calf would not save the people from punishment if, once in Israel, they sinned. If that happens, God will not be concerned that He might look bad if the Jewish people are punished and exiled from Israel, or defeated in battle, or suffer some other punishment, because the universal understanding will be that it's not that God failed, but, rather, it's that the Jews must have sinned, and failed, and deserve whatever tragedy befell them. Moshe repeats the story here to emphasize its particulars: it was only at that precise time in Jewish history, when you, as a newly created nation, still in the desert, were seen as God's responsibility, that I could get you out of a jam by appealing to God and saying "how will it look if you destroy the Israelites so soon after you took them out of Egypt? It will be seen a s a failure on your part." Once they settle in Israel, they will no longer be seen that way, and whatever happens to them will be whatever they deserve, and will be understood as such by others.

This is a fascinating distinction between the way the Jewish people are understood to function in exile and in Israel. In exile, we seem to be completely God's responsibility. If things go badly, it looks like God has in some way failed. Moshe convinces God to not destroy the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf by emphasising the חילול השם - the desecration of God's name - that that would entail. The Jewish people are seen as God's project, they are not autonomous, and, therefore, their failure is actually God's failure. Once they enter the land of Israel, however, they mature, and stand on their own two feet. The Rashbam's explanation about the repetition of the story of Moshe's prayer, that the Torah wants to emphasize that we can not rely on prayers like this once we are in Israel, indicates that God will have a different relationship with us once we achieve political autonomy - He will not be identified with our failures. Rather, they will be seen as our own.

(It is important to note the childishness of the sin of the golden calf. The people, once the idol is made, "...ate, and drank, and got up to play" -  ויקומו לצחק. The doll-ness of the calf, and the childishness of their need of an object to fetishize, is clear.)

This dynamic, while perhaps not identical with classical Zionist thinking about Exile and Redemption, parallels it in an interesting way. The early Zionists chafed at the lack of independence the Jewish people experienced in the Diaspora. We were not seen as, and did not behave like, autonomous actors, in charge of our own fate. We saw our situation in Exile as divinely decreed, and felt that there was nothing we could do about it. If things went badly for us it was God's will, and things would get better only if God decided that they should. Zionism was meant to put the reins of Jewish fate into the hands of the Jewish people. If we succeed, it is because we have done the right things, and if we fail, it will be due to our poor choices and decisions. We will no longer simply look heavenward and ascribe whatever happens to us as God's will, we will take responsibility. More radical, secular Zionism attempted to totally divorce Jewish history from the hands of God, but mainstream Zionist thinking paid, at the very least, lip service to the Rock of Israel - I believe it actually did and continues to do a lot more than that, and is actually profoundly connected to Jewish sources and traditions - while assigning responsibility for what happens to the Jewish people to the Jewish people.

This is a radical notion that the Rashbam presents to us. After the Exodus from Egypt, at the start of the Jewish project, our sins, no matter how bad, could be - had to be - forgiven, because to not do so would make God look bad, it would mean that He had failed to do His job and, like the children we were, take care of us. Entering the Land of Israel changed all that, and gave us a mature level of responsibility for what we did, made us the masters - and victims - of Jewish history. Zionist thinking saw our subsequent exile as a regression to that earlier, child-like stage of dependancy, and the return to Zion as a reclaiming of our adult autonomy.  As it was for the generation that first conquered and settled the land of Israel, the burden of Jewish fate is on us. We have no choice but to bear full responsibility for our actions. That is what Zionism really is.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shimon Felix

In exile, we seem to be completely God's responsibility. If things go badly, it looks like God has in some way failed.Rabbi Shimon

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