Torah Weekly

For the week ending 5 September 2009 / 15 Elul 5769

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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When Bnei Yisrael dwell in the Land of Israel, its first fruits are to be taken to the Temple and given to the kohen in a ceremony expressing recognition that it is G-d who guides the history of the Jewish People throughout all ages. This passage forms one of the central parts of the Haggadah that we read at the Passover Seder. On the last day of Pesach of the fourth and seventh years of the seven-year shemitta cycle, a person must recite a disclosure stating that he has indeed distributed the tithes to the appropriate people in the prescribed manner. With this mitzvah Moshe concludes the commandments that G-d has told him to give to the Jewish People. Moshe exhorts them to walk in G-d's ways, because they are set aside as a treasured people to G-d. When Bnei Yisraelcross the Jordan River they are to make a new commitment to the Torah. Huge stones are to be erected and the Torah is to be written on them in the world's seventy primary languages, after which they are to be covered over with a thin layer of plaster. Half the tribes will stand on Mount Gerizim, and half on Mount Eval, and the levi'im will stand in a valley between the two mountains. There the levi'im will recite 12 commandments and all the people will answer "amen" to the blessings and the curses. Moshe then details the blessings that will be bestowed upon Bnei Yisrael. These blessings are both physical and spiritual. However if the Jewish People do not keep the Torah, Moshe details a chilling picture of destruction, resulting in exile and wandering among the nations.


A Vanished World

“You will go mad from the sight of your eyes that you will see.” (28:34)

“The world is falling to pieces, and Adams and Weston are taking pictures of rocks!” — Henri Cartier-Bresson during World War II

Right now, as you are reading this, a million different things are happening in the world. Millions of lives are beginning and millions ending. A vast cacophony called life in all its rawness and gentleness is being played out on this ball turning silently in space. It all seems so chaotic. Great evil is going unpunished. And great goodness is going unrewarded. Where is G-d? Has He thrown up His hands in despair and gone off for a ride with the top down?

The basic credo of Judaism is that G-d is One. Not just that there is one G-d, but that His Oneness precludes the existence of anything apart from Him. This is what I mean when I proclaim in the Shema, Judaism's central declaration of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One.” One. Alone. Nothing else.

Let me ask you a question. If G-d is One, why is this world so full of conflict, so full of contradictions to His Oneness? In other words, if He is One how can evil exist?

A few months ago I was scanning through a magazine and my eye came to rest on one of the photo icons of our age — Ansel Adams’ immortal “Moonrise over Hernandez.” A beautiful full moon skirting a low bank of cloud, rising majestically from the horizon. The evening sky dark and brooding. My eye traveled down to the caption and I started to read:

“Because of my unfortunate disregard for the dates of my negatives, I have caused considerable dismay among photographic historians, students, and museums — to say nothing of the trouble it has caused me. ‘Moonrise’ is a prime example of my anti-date complex. It has been listed as 1940, 1941, 1942, and even 1944. At the suggestion of Beaumont Newhall, Dr. David Elmore of the High Altitude Observatory at Boulder, Colorado, put a computer to work on the problem. Using data from a visit to the site, analysis of the moon’s position in the photograph, and lunar azimuth tables, he determined that the exposure was made at approximately 4:05 p.m. on October 31, 1941. That is now the official date.”

October 31, 1941. Here was the doyen of American photography making art in all the beauty of a warm New Mexico evening, while, on the other side of the world, this same moon was witnessing the torment of a generation.

I wonder what was happening in Europe when Ansel Adams was making that photograph. October 31, 1941. My curiosity piqued, I fed the date into an electronic search engine. The answer made the hair on the back of my neck rise.

On January 20, 1942, at an idyllic lakeside house in Wannsee near Berlin, there was an intramural meeting attended by Heydrich, Eichmann, and other Nazi leaders. This is how the report begins:

“Protocol of the Wannsee Conference, January 20, 1942
Reich Secret Document 30 Copies
Protocol of Conference

“The following took part in the conference on the final solution (Endlosung) of the Jewish question held on January 20, 1942, in Berlin, Am Grossen Wannsee No. 56–58.”

There it was in black and white. “The final solution.” I was reading the death warrant of the Jewish people.

On page 4 of the Wannsee Protocol, the following statement is made:

“...since the Machtbernahme[rise to power of the Nazi Party], January 30, 1933, until the accounting day, October 31, 1941, a total of about 537,000 Jews had been brought to emigration...”

October 31, 1941. The day of accounting. While Ansel Adams was busy photographing a moonrise in New Mexico, the sun was setting on an entire generation. The Germans had drawn a red line under the emigration of Jews from the Reich. There was to be no more emigration. The final phase had been reached. The death sentence of European Jewry had been sealed.

And where was G-d?

Judaism teaches that G-d created the world to reveal His perfection.

Given that G-d can do anything He wants, it's logical that nothing should emerge from this wish except that which is perfect and complete in every way. Nothing in this world should exhibit any sign of lacking or deficiency. There should be no room for evil. What possible purpose could there be in His creations exhibiting seeming deficiency?

G-d’s perfection has many facets, such as His kindness, His wisdom and His justice. G-d could have chosen to reveal His perfection through any of these aspects. He chose, however, to reveal His perfection in one way only — by revealing His Oneness. And His Oneness is uniquely different from any other aspect of His perfection because, amazing as it may seem, we can understand it.

For the mind of man to fathom G-d’s kindness, His wisdom, or His justice is impossible. For example, when we talk of the wisest person in existence, we mean that no one is wiser; however, theoretically more wisdom could exist of which that person was unaware. G-d’s wisdom is greater not just in magnitude but in kind: G-d’s wisdom is not just the greatest wisdom that exists, but it is impossible for any wisdom to exist of which He is ignorant. Our concept of wisdom is relative, and G-d’s wisdom is absolute. Thus, we cannot fathom His perfection through His wisdom, nor His kindness, nor His justice, nor any other attribute that He possesses.

With one exception.

G-d’s Oneness is different. It is unique among the other aspects of His perfection because we can understand it. When we say that G-d is not two, we have defined exactly His Oneness — that there is no existence, no other power, nothing, except for Him. That we can understand. The negative defines precisely the positive. It's like all the information of a print being carried in the film. Even if viewing the "print" is beyond human capacity, the negative defines exactly the positive. Only G-d's Oneness can be revealed through its negative counterpart. For to understand, say, His wisdom by its opposite — saying that He is not foolish — is obviously absurd.

Since G-d’s will was to reveal His perfection, it follows that the perceiver of that perfection, man, must be able to grasp that revelation. Finite man must be able to comprehend something infinite. Since G-d chose to reveal His perfection through His Oneness, and we can only perceive that Oneness through its opposite, there must exist in this world the opposite of His Oneness — namely evil.

Through the existence of evil man can grasp G-d’s Oneness.

But this is no mere spectator sport. G-d gave the Jewish People the task of eradicating evil from the world — or more precisely revealing His Unity — by performing a set of spiritual tasks known as the mitzvot. Every mitzvah (commandment) has the power to reveal a little more of G-d’s Oneness in the world. It’s like a dirty window through which the light cannot penetrate. The light itself is in no way diminished by the dirty window. It’s just that the light cannot penetrate the dirt. G-d’s Oneness is not diminished in any way by the existence of evil. It is just obscured. Every mitzvah cleans away a little of the dirt from the window, until the light shines undimmed.

One day G-d will show us His utter dominion over all that exists, and our perception of this Oneness in its most complete form will come from having been the agents through which G-d’s Oneness was revealed.

  • Source: Based on the Da'at Tevunot of the Ramchal

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