Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            In the second of this week's double Torah reading we are presented with interesting issues.  The most obvious problem is trying to understand the long series of horrendous punishments to be meted out to our beloved nation, "If, instead, you despise My statutes, and if your soul abhors My ordinances so as not to carry out all My commandments, and so break My covenant (Leviticus 26:15)."  Then a seemingly unending series of unfortunate events is triggered.  This litany of woe is not only unbearable to contemplate, it's also difficult to comprehend.  What exactly are these disasters which come so willy nilly?  I believe that this narrative must be analyzed anew for each generation to fully appreciate the impact these calamities bring about.  Most of us think of wild animals wandering our streets as more comical than catastrophic.  But after Super Storm Sandy, we can visualize devastation in our neighborhoods. We just have to make adjustments to the descriptions.  However, my biggest problem is that I don't understand the blessings.  And it's that problem which I want to deal with in this week's article, and, perhaps, years of therapy.

            I want to begin with a small difficulty.  The last word in the blessings, which should carry great weight as the final note completing this paean to a wondrous future, befuddles me.  The verse states:  I will break the yokes of your oppressors and lead you komemiut (Leviticus 26:13).  What does komemiut mean?  It's gotta be good, but it just doesn't seem wonderful enough to end this section with the pizzazz I was expecting.  The semi-official Aramaic translation of Onkelos (1st century CE) renders it l'cheirutin, which probably means in freedom.  Rashi explains it as koma zekufa or standing tall.  The Talmud suggests it's sort of a pun on the word for floors (koma), and means a two story building (Baba Batra 75a).  In our daily prayers before Shema each morning we say:  O bring us home in peace from the four corners of the earth, and have us walk upright (komemiut) to our land.  My mother always scolded me not to slouch, but I never imagined that good posture was so important as to be the exclamation point concluding these magnificent blessings.

            My other problem is much more troubling.  The blessings tell us:  And I will place My dwelling in your midst, and My Spirit will not reject you (Leviticus 26:11).  The Ramban (Nachmanides, 1194-1270) has a long comment, which contains some very upsetting positions.  Initially, he explains that God will place a Divine dwelling place in our midst is a reference to the Mishkan and eventually the rebuilt holy Temple.  However, when he starts to explain this concept of God not rejecting or being upset with us, a major problem arises.  Nachmanides expresses the view that rain and crops will come with regularity and abundance.  The process will be natural but at some point everyone will recognize that the perfect reliability of it all is nothing short of miraculous. In other words the natural system of the universe will not be abrogated, but its implementation will be wondrous, and identifiable to all, friend and foe alike.

So far, so good.  But then he gets involved in a discussion about medicine. He suggests that those of perfect faith don't have to go to doctors because God has announced:  If you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and you do what is proper in His eyes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, heal you (Exodus 15:26).  The Ramban explains that this means that for those in that state of perfect hearkening to God's voice will need no other medical resources.  However, he explains that's it's permitted to go to doctors, but that's for those of lesser piety.  I find this disturbing on many levels.  The first is that he himself was a doctor.  It's so weird that he would go into a profession which he feels is a bit sketchy.  Also, this comment is used by many readers to encourage an attitude which is anti science and against self help in both practical and spiritual areas.

Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik (1903-1993) in the early sixties was giving a lecture about both Zionism and science in which he encouraged our urgent efforts to win back the holy land and voiced support for American efforts to reach to the moon.  In the audience someone objected to espousing positions in support of human effort in these areas by quoting our Ramban.  The Rav chuckled and said that he heard from his father (R. Moshe Soloveitchik, 1879-1941) in the name of his grandfather (R. Chaim Brisk, 1853-1918) that the Ramban never uttered that statement.  This was added by later editors.  Phew!  I feel better about Nachmaides becoming a doctor.

This position is even more important in the field of religious Zionism.  The Rav had no patience for philosophies which glorified passivity and reliance on miracles.  He wrote in many works the importance of humans as creators and masters of their fate.  He heaped scorn (according to his son in law Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein) upon those who counseled inactivity in both areas of science and Zionism.  The Rav recognized a tension between the almost otherworldly immersion in Torah study and initiative into a world of action, but he often praised those who bridged this gulf between the two realms.

Now we can follow this exalted path of spiritual connection combined with physical action to a sense of tremendous pride in the accomplishments of the State of Israel.  He lauded the Religious Zionist movement for achieving a great union of the two covenants made with God.  A passive pact made in Egypt and an active one of partnership forged at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  Our efforts, blessed by God, have enabled us to bring about this new Jewish state, and now allow us to return proudly upright to its holy precincts.  So, it is a great blessing to walk upright with God, and maybe that's why many Israelis call the 1948 War of Independence, Milchemet HaKomemiut.  And that's pretty magnificent.                     

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