Friday, September 11, 2009

Nitzavim-Vayelech: Redemption Song

We thought we had enough destruction last week in the tochacha; apparently not, because after that comes a more personalized tochacha aimed at the one who engages in “shrirus halev”, [lit. “the path of my heart”] which I will loosely translate [this time, anyway] as an almost unthinking, reflexive position regarding almost anything that could have a self-serving agenda. The Torah virtually guarantees his destruction, mostly for attempting to separate his destiny from his people’s. This mini-apocalypse is followed by “hester panim” [G-d hiding His face, as it were], which Rashi terms the greatest curse of all.

I would instead like to draw an [admittedly] loose parallel between my point last week and what we see this week. I mentioned that the last and theoretically worst thing in the tochacha last week was G-d’s warning that we would all be returned to Egypt in boats in a kind of reverse Exodus/Splitting of the Sea. I mentioned that this may have been a [very disguised] blessing, as once we all realized we were in the same boat, it might serve as a unifier of sorts.

In this weeks parsha we have a similar theme: specifially, the notion of “hester panim” that occurs in Nitzavim, which one might see in this case as a sort of moral fog, exemplified by the various results of “shrirus halev” on the left and right. On the left, one only has to look at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, where a brouhaha was touched off by the inclusion of a film about Tel Aviv, and petition declaring the “object[ion] to the use of such an important international festival in staging a propaganda campaign’ which was circulated and by an array of various artists/celebrities ( A quick perusal of the signatories reveals a preponderance not only of Jews, but Israelis. On the opposite end of the religio-political spectrum, one might see a “shrirus halev” in insistence that one has done due diligence in combating fraud and white collar crime in the frum community by inviting an admitted malefactor [one who PLED GUILTY and agreed to a 5-year prison term] to give the opening address at a religious convention ostensibly dedicated to transparency; or the kind that insists that its more important to protect educational finances by fighting legislation to remove statutes of limitation from child abuse cases; or assuming that there is never any reason to cooperate with secular authorities, even if [or especially in] cases where grievous harm is being done to children. One might conclude that there was an agenda other than, as the Torah exhorts elsewhere, “doing right and good.”

The “moral fog” of “hester panim”, I think, is the locus of the corrective process of setting one heart right instead of assuming that one’s heart is already automatically straight. It also comes in the middle of a mess of catastrophes, instead of serving an automatic beginning of an irreversible redemptive process. In fact, in Vayelech, Moshe basically ends the Torah by telling the Jews You’re gonna mess up after I’m gone. Big time.

And then the Torah suddenly says Here the Song ends.

It’s the struggle that’s the song, whether on the personal or national level. And its ongoing, and not always pretty. However, its also possible that the most positive message can be garnered simply from the titles of the parsha: Nitzavim-Vayelech—We Stood, We Walked. We have to stand up before we move forward, and we will get knocked down repeatedly [too many times we do it to ourselves]. But—as long as we keep getting up and moving, the Song keeps playing.

Shana Tova to all.

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