God Fears The Death Of A Friend
08/31/10
Special To The Jewish Week
Freema Gottlieb
Freema Gottlieb

Candlelighting, Readings:

Shabbat candles: 7:08 p.m.

Torah reading: Deut. 29:9-31-30

Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10-63:9

Sabbath ends: 8:11 p.m.

 

 

 As Moses prepares to deliver his swan song, he receives a dire warning from God: No sooner will Moses “be gathered to his fathers” than Israel will “rise up and play the harlot ... forsake God, and break the covenant.” God forsees being abandoned by His people: “Will I hide? Will I indeed hide My face from them?” [Deuteronomy 31:16-18].

But why would God confide this unless he hoped that Moses, in his final moments, could do something about it? Implicit in all these rhapsodies of Divine anger and punishment is an aching, inchoate love that, falling back on itself, turns negative.

Until now, in moments like this, Moses’ intervention has been essential. To enter into human affairs, it appears, God needs at least one human to talk to, and Moses is that man. To Moses God can talk face-to-face “as one speaks to a friend” [Exodus 33:11].

This very personal relationship was vital for the entire people, like two friends with a single cup of tea. If one finds it too hot, he blows it cold, while if the other finds it too cold, he can add hot water. What Exodus Rabba explains in this parable of the way friends behave is that there was an unspoken pact: when God was wroth with Israel, Moses would rush to mollify Him, whereas if Moses was angry, God would calm him. However, this bond was totally predicated on Israel.

What then could God be looking for, when He singles out a man, or a nation? “But he looked for a man, a fence mender, somebody who could stand in the breach against me on behalf of the land, that I not destroy the land” [Ezekiel 22:30].

The grace God looks for in humans and in the Jewish nation is precisely the courage of one’s compassion, the strength to stand in defense of others, especially the Jewish people.

Until now God has only contemplated the death of His only friend. When Israel strays from the covenant, as they inevitably will, He will reflexively do the opposite of “face-to-face” — “I will indeed hide My face from them” [Deut. 31: 17–18], retreating into incommunicability, a state from which all other sufferings and persecution follow. God foresees this lack of verbal communication and finds it intolerable, as he does his favorite’s passing.

One might think that concealment of the Divine would be construed by the rabbis of the Talmud as a total negative, and that is precisely how, at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, a Jewish heretic in Caesar’s court would read the plight of world Jewry. However, from the Talmud onward, the rabbis displayed a typically Jewish characteristic with regard to this text, reading a positive into a negative. For them, hiding does not mean emptiness so much as it does a treasure hunt. Only with His people, and with people of faith, does God play these seductive games of hide-and-seek.

But what is God doing while hiding from His children? In the Talmud there is a notion that He is weeping. “Hide? Will I indeed hide My face?” evokes the image of a Master of the World so affected by human suffering that when, despite all his power, He cannot intervene, He wraps Himself round and round with His tallit, in order to hide in its folds and weep. This is derived from the verse “My soul shall weep in secret” [Jeremiah 13: 17].

“The Holy One, blessed be He, has a place and its name is ‘secret.’ It is there that He sits and weeps” [Tractate Hagiga 5b].

“But is there any weeping in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He?” the passage continues. In the Psalms it finds its reply: “Honor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary!” [Psalms 96:6]. Only joy and equanimity are appropriate in royal court etiquette. The tractate goes on to say, however, that there is no real contradiction; the idea of the Holy One weeping refers to the inner chambers, while appropriate decorum applies to the outer chambers.

Viewed from the outside, God behaves like a transcendent being, but in His secret heart, His innermost hiding place, He empathizes with the pain of His creatures, longing for humans to initiate the flood of tears that He cannot shed until flesh-and-blood lead the way. Chaim Vital’s slant on the Talmudic notion that “the gates of tears were never locked” is that, because humans are created in the image of God, what happens below affects the Divine sphere. An ordinary person crying for the loss of a loved one or filled with compassion for others impacts the Divine realm.

Vital’s suggestion, “When a person weeps and sheds tears for a righteous man, he/she also causes tears to be shed on high.”

A wonderful Midrash says that when Moses was finally ready to hand over his soul to die, God began to weep, saying: “Who will stand against Me on the day of anger? And who will speak up for Israel when they speak against Me?”

This picture conjures up a God who mourns His one true friend for His own sake, but also for His all but infinite capacity to elicit compassion and deliverance for the Jewish people.

 

Freema Gottlieb is the author of “Lamp of God: A Jewish Book of Light” and “Jewish Folk Art.” She has written for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement and Partisan Review.

Last Update:

08/31/2010 - 15:55

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