Thursday, September 25, 2008

Nitzavim/Vayelech: The Song Is Over

“And Moshe spoke [in] to [the ears of ] all the congregation of Israel words of this song until they finshed (Devarim 31:30).

And what was the last verse at the end of this song? Basically, Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael: you’re all gonna blow it after I die.

What prompts this unbridled pessimistic prophecy?

I would go back to the beginning of Nitzavim, where the Torah singles out a specific type of person condemned to having “his name erased from under [the] heavens”. This retribution is more in reaction to an attitude than a specific action or sin: as the Torah details, this person will tell him/herself: “All will be well [lit., peace] with me, for I will do as I see fit [lit., in the stubbornness of my heart I will walk]”. The Torah adds: “So that the watered be added to the thirsty [le’ma-an sephos ha-rava es ha-tze’me-ah]”, which Rashi explains to mean that his shegagos will be counted as zedonos.

While it seems as if Rashi explains the result, he may actually be providing an elucidation of the stated attitude. The best way I can explain this attitude may be through an old joke about a certain tzaddik who used to confuse the yetzer hara by giving in without a struggle.

I would venture that the reason this attitude is singled out for such opprobrium is that it describes someone who wants all the benefits of belonging to the community without having to put in any effort at all to be part of said community. This person hasn’t even had to advance to the kefira of a “mah ha-avoda ha-zos lachem”; in a sense, the attitude is simply parasitic. There are actually worse things than being a “self-hating Jew.”

I knew someone who once got up in front of an Orthodox college community and presumed to lecture them upon thier apparent unwillingness to respect all elements of a tzibbur, or as he put it, the “tzaddik”, “bet”, and “resh”—the tzadikkim, benonim, and reshaim, who were all integral parts of the community.

Normally, I wouldn’t confuse a message with a messenger, but I knew for a fact that his (religious—and other) views were, to be kind, questionable (because he had told me be-ferush; beyond his pontifications regarding G-d’s existence, or lack thereof, he had strongly asserted that the halachos of intermarriage were irredeemably racist).

Nevertheless, I did wish him a yasher koach (he did have a point), but in the interests of intellectual honesty, I asked him what place porshim had in the scheme of things. He laughed; he knew I had him.

Whether or not this person actually fits the category is eminently debatable (although, since I know him pretty well, if he was asked, he might actually gladly claim to fit the bill). However, the point I want to make is similar to what I discuss in Re’eh, where I detail the draconian legal process associated with mesis u-mediach and its insistence on securing a conviction, and its counterpoint in the ir hanidachas, where the legal system is set up to ensure it is never carried out. My point there was that the punishment associated with the former was so severe because, if the behavior was unchecked, it eventually led to the latter.

Here we have something similar. G-d singles out the individual with the parasitic attitude, because unfettered individualism only leads to the breakdown that Moshe sadly but confidently prophesies.

May this year see the fabric of the tzibbur—all parts—stay together strong, and may the words of The Song prove Moshe Rabbeinu wrong (he would want nothing more).

Gmar Chasima Tova to all.