An Uneasy Relationship with the God of History

Ki Tavo By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Sep 16, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

The Hebrew adjective for being ungrateful is kefui tovah. The idiom stresses the willfulness of the sentiment. The situation calls for an expression of gratitude and we squelch the impulse. The word kefui is related to the word kefiah as in the phrase current in contemporary Israeli politics, kefiah datit – religious coercion, both forms deriving from the root kafah, to suppress. The language makes it clear that saying thanks does not come naturally. We are reluctant to acknowledge a favor that might reveal our need or shortcoming. And so the Torah institutionalizes a thanksgiving ritual, though an unusual one.

Annually, the Israelite farmer, once settled securely on his land, was to bring the first fruits of his harvest to the altar in the Temple in a basket. Rabbinic law restricted the rite to the seven agricultural products for which Israel was famous – wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates – and stipulated that they be brought between the festivals of Shavuot andSukkot. The lines recited by the farmer are familiar to us because they constitute the heart of the Passover Seder. In fact, their currency was probably the reason they were selected as the Haggada’s centerpiece. The words uttered by the farmer to accompany his offering of first fruits were not a prayer of thanksgiving for the bounty of the earth, but rather a precis of Israelite history:

“My father [Jacob] was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me (Deut. 26:5–10).”

Invoked and thanked on this occasion is the God of history and not the God of nature. It is the gift of the land, not its fertility, which is the source of the pilgrim’s gratitude. The redemption from Egypt looms as the bedrock of biblical monotheism. This concise prayer affirms once again the Torah’s pervasive aversion to nature. The author of the Ten Commandments is not introduced as the creator of the universe, but as the redeemer of Israel from Egypt. Deuteronomy explicitly warns Israel against being lured by the grandeur of the heavens. Astral worship is relegated to others (4:19).

For the Torah, nature leads to idolatry, to the misguided notion that each natural phenomenon is the domain of its own particular deity. But monotheism is more than a numbers game. The God of history soars above nature, unfettered by fate. In a cosmos that has neither beginning nor end, the gods are merely part of the natural order. The Torah makes creation an act of history and hence subordinate to God’s will. Long ago Maimonides had argued intuitively that the primary purpose of the Torah was to vanquish the world view and practice of idolatry.

But I grow increasingly uneasy praying to the God of history these days. “The crooked timber of humanity” yields more bloodshed than brilliance. In the century just closed, Communism led to the extermination of three times as many victims as Nazism, and genocide remains a constant danger. As human ingenuity penetrates ever more deeply into the recesses of both the macro and microcosm, it is the world of nature that evokes my awe and amazement.

To Judaism’s great credit, its preferences for history was never oblivious to the ubiquity of evil or the absence of divine concern. As so often, a subtle exegetical insight gave rise to a momentous theological pronouncement. Just prior to the exodus, God instructs Moses to have the Israelites dab the blood of the paschal lamb on the doorposts of their houses. On the night that the firstborn of Egypt are to be slain, the Destroyer (ha–mashhit) will see the blood and spare them (i.e., “pass over”). God adds ominously that on that night, “none of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning (Exodus 12:22).” Rav Yosef, a third century Babylonian sage, felt the force of what’s left unsaid: If you do go out foolishly, you too will be smitten, from which he drew the harsh conclusion that: “Once the Detroyer is unleashed to wreak havoc he no longer distinguishes between the righteous and the wicked (B.T. Bava Kama 60a).” In other words, when insanity prevails, all are vulnerable, the divine calculus breaks down. Moral chaos overwhelms God’s compassion.

In the wake of the Spanish expulsion, Lurianic Kabbalah projected the disordered reality of Jewish existence onto the cosmos. The unending, painful exile of the Jewish people mirrors the divine condition. In Safed in the second half of the sixteenth century, Isaac Luria and his disciples crafted a mythical language which highlighted the limitedness of God’s power. As the divine light of creation poured into the vessels of order, the vessels inexplicably shattered, a turn of events that God chose neither to impede nor reverse. The disarray of human affairs is rooted in this cosmic calamity, while the task of humanity’s most tormented people, the Jews, is to restore the divine sparks of light to their pristine state through piety and prayer. With its acute awareness of radical evil, Lurianic Kabbalah mobilized Jews to work for God’s redemption.

Six years after the Holocaust, Abraham Joshua Heschel, who had lost his entire immediate and most of his extended family in the madness of the Final Solution, embraced both the God of nature and history in his unrestrained declaration of faith, Man is Not Alone. In the process, he avowed the unmitigated culpability of humanity for the horrors of history. “God is not silent. He has been silenced . . . . Man was the first to hide himself from God (Genesis 3:8), after having eaten of the forbidden fruit, and is still hiding. The will of God is to be here, manifest and near; but when the doors of this world are slammed on Him, His truth betrayed, His will defied, He withdraws, leaving Man to himself. God did not depart of His own volition; He was expelled. God is in exile (The Noonday Press, pp. 152–3).” If history, then, amounts to little more than recurring bouts of errancy, the fault lies squarely with us.

I appreciate the wisdom born of angst in all three expressions of faith. They illuminate the courage to keep theology tethered to reality. Though history may not be rife with ultimate meaning, we need God more than ever after the Holocaust to save us from ourselves.

Shabbat shalom,

Ismar Schorsch

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Ki Tavo have been made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.