Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Saturday, December 28, 2013

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Walk Article-Va'eera



Rabbi David Walk


            Maimonides opens his greatest work, the Mishneh Torah, with the words:  The foundation of all foundations and the pillar of all wisdom is to know that there is a Primary Being who brought into being all existence. All the beings of the heavens, the earth, and what is between them came into existence only from the truth of His being (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 1:1).  Oh, really?  Notice that Maimonides doesn't say 'believe.'  He says 'know' (Hebrew: leida).  What does it mean to know something?   And, how many things do we really 'know'?  If I only believe in God, am I somehow less good than those who know God?  In the Talmud Rabbi Nachman bar Yitzchak informs us that there is only one fundamental principal of Torah and it's taught by the prophet Chabakuk:  The righteous will live by their faith (2:4, Makot 24a).  This is all very confusing, and this issue is presented in this week's Parsha. 

            All the trouble begins with Pharaoh.  He says: 'Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out' (Exodus 5:2).  Thus begins a concerted effort to convince Pharaoh that God is God.  The result, of course, is the series of phenomena which we call the Ten Plagues.  But this gets us into the biggest dilemma.  Do we believe in signs and wonders?  A quick look at the mitzvah against believing in false prophets teaches us that we don't.  Maimonides writes:  Thus, we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder he performs alone, as if to say: If he performs a wonder we will listen to everything he says… Therefore, if a prophet arises and attempts to dispute Moses' prophecy by performing great signs and wonders, we should not listen to him. We know with certainty that he performed those signs through magic or sorcery. This conclusion is reached because the prophecy of Moses, our teacher, is not dependent on wonders (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 8:2-3).  This mitzvah to reject false prophets (Deuteronomy 13:2-10 & 18:15-22) seems to teach that we really don't pay attention to signs and wonders.  Instead we accept the covenant at Sinai as the basis for our relationship with God, no matter what else happens. 

            So, now we have two problems.  Must we actually know about God or is belief enough and what are all the miracles and wonders about?  Let's begin with the second issue.  The verses which describe the need for the plagues are basically aimed at Pharaoh and Egypt, as in "The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out My hand on Egypt and bring out the sons of Israel from their midst (Exodus 7:5)."  The process of educating the Egyptians is different than the curriculum for the Jews.  Maimonides takes a different approach.  He explains that 'All the wonders performed by Moses were not intended to serve as proof of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. The same applies to all other wonders (Laws of the Fundamentals of Torah, 8:1).'  I think that the general approach is that miracles are great but the basis of our relationship with God.

            Now the thornier problem.  There are verses which seem to demand knowledge of God, for example:  Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians (Exodus 6:7).  But there are other famous and powerful verses which seem to dictate that the requirement is belief.  The most prominent of which is 'And Israel saw the great hand, which the Lord had used upon the Egyptians, and the people revered the Lord, and they believed in the Lord and in Moses, His servant (Exodus 14:31).'  Maimonides seems clear that we must achieve an actual knowledge of God, and belief is not enough.  I quoted from the Mishneh Torah at the beginning of this article and he is just as powerful on the topic in his Thirteen Principles.  However this position is harder to defend in the modern world where philosophical proofs for the existence of God are generally frowned upon, even by philosophers of religion.  Today most Jewish thinkers talk about belief in God rather than systematic proofs which achieve knowledge.

            Ultimately I don't think that it makes much difference.  Emotionally I feel connected to the idea from the Talmud when quoting Chabakuk.  But I believe that the crucial idea is emphasized in the prayer U'va L'tziyon Goel  (And a Redeemer will come to Zion), which we recite daily before leaving synagogue to face the world outside.  At the end of this prayer our Sages arranged three verses which forcefully endorse a slightly different agenda:  But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord and has made the Lord his hope and confidence (Jeremiah 17:7), Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord God is an everlasting rock (Isaiah 26:4), And those who know Your name shall trust in You, for You have not forsaken those who seek You, O Lord (Psalm 9:11).  However we arrive at our relationship with God, either through intellectual knowledge or emotional belief, we must put our faith and trust in God that following the Torah and observing the mitzvoth will always be the best policy.

            The authors of this prayer are reminding us before we go out into the world that we will be judged by both God and man by our behavior.  We trust in God so that we are honest and upright at all times.  The motivation for our connection to God isn't such a big deal.  We left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai so that we'd show the world our trust in God and the Torah.   I hope that we display this trust every day.