Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Exodus: Gift of the Torah

After the revelation of the gift of the Sabbath, and the gifts of manna and quails, the people are given the Thora, they are given the Testimony. “The Lord said to Moses, 'Come up to me on the mountain and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandments, which I have written for their instruction.'”[footnote:Ex. 24:12.] The Lord speaks to Moses from Mt. Sinai, teaching the ten commandments and Laws concerning slaves, restitution, and justice.[footnote:Ex. 20--23.] Moses tells the people the words, records them, then goes up with the seventy elders and Aaron. “...and they saw the God of Israel; and there was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heavens for its clearness.”[footnote:Ex. 24:10.] This verse calls to mind the vision of John in the book of Revelation, “...and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne...and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.”[footnote:Rev. 4:2,6.] And later, “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered (...) standing beside the sea of glass (...) and they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and of the lamb...”[footnote:Rev. 15:2--3.] There is something eschatological about Moses' ascension and encounter with God. Every time God reveals Himself, eternity is revealed, with the beginning and end of all things. The song of Moses is the song of the Lamb --- it is the song of the first victory and of the final victory, of the first liberation and the final liberation. It is the song of the Lord's triumph --- it is the song of Israel's triumph. Victory comes from the Lord.

So the tablets of the Law, the totality of the Thora, is given to the people from the heights of Mount Sinai. The revelation of the ten commandments is the revelation of both the real war --- between good and evil --- and the victory to be had through mercy and pardon, “The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, 'The Lord, The Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...”[footnote:Ex. 34:6--7.] But the war between good and evil remains hidden to the eyes of men who do not have the revelation of God or the perspective of those who climb the mountain of God, “When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, 'There is a noise of war in the camp.' but he said, 'It is not the sound of shouting for victory, or the sound of the cry of defeat, but the sound of singing that I hear.'”[footnote:Ex. 32:17--18.]

And when the tablets of the Law are finally given to the people, they are given on the day of Pardon[footnote:La voix de la Thora, p. 404 vs. 1.] making them even more precious than the first set destroyed by Moses. Having Moses write this second set also signifies the importance of man's cooperation with the Word of God. Man receives the pardon of God by publishing His Word through his own hand. God's pardon is received through and effective desire to make God's Law, His Word, one's own. God's Law, the first set of tablets, was part of the work of Creation. Written with God's finger as when we read the heavens were the work of his hands.[footnote:Voix de la Thora: p. 380; Ex. 32: 16.] God's pardon is also given with His Law, His Word, yet requires man to apply himself to God's Law and word. As Saint Augustin put it, God created us without us, but will not save us without us. The covenant with God was broken by man when man broke the command of God (As Moses broke the tablets), but God renews the covenant by the gift of pardon, by His forgiveness and mercy. The love of God for man is stronger than man's sin, his love is full of mercy and forgiveness. Yet God desires man's fidelity to His covenant and Law. God's love is not without justice, but it is determined by His mercy. The mercy seat is raised above the ark of the testimony. The testimony, the Torah, is placed inside the ark, it is protected from the flood of sin and impurity of the men surrounding it. It is precious, it is the foundation of the Lord's covenant with Israel, and without it, the Lord's seat of mercy has no foundation. The Lord's presence is situated above the testament, upon the seat of mercy, and it is from the place of mercy that the Lord will meet His people. The Lord will speak to them and give them His commands from the place of mercy.[footnote:Ex. 25:21--22.]

Monday, May 23, 2011

Exodus: Gift of Quails

The people were not only given manna however, they were also given meat --- quails.[footnote:Ex. 16:8.] Rabbinical commentaries insist on the fact that quails were not given out of necessity, but because of the people's doubting hearts[footnote:La voix de la Thora: l'Exode, p. 172; Ex. 16:6.]The demand for meat was itself unfitting: meat is not necessary for the life of man; the people had plenty of cattle they could have eaten; they did not ask to merely eat meat, but to gorge themselves. The inappropriateness is also hinted at by the inconvenience attached to the gift of this meat: small birds require lots of work to clean and many birds would be required to eat and be satisfied; the birds came in the evening, which required the people to work quickly --- while there was still light. Bread was the food given for the day, the time of grace, whereas meat was given as the shadows and darkness began to cover the earth.[footnote:ibid. Ex. 16:8.] The fact that God gives them meat anyway is surprising, but proves that God was able to completely provide the necessary and an overabundance even in the desert.[footnote:ibid. Ex. 16:6.]

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Exodus: Gift of Manna

If God's desire to belong to Israel is clear from the way He gives them a special place, a special land, for them to dwell in together, it is also clear that He wants this desire to be reciprocal. The Israelites wandered through the desert for forty years --- long enough for an entire generation to pass away, and for an entire generation to have lived the bulk of their lives on a journey. The memory of Egypt had to be purged, and the desire to be fully consecrated to the Lord had to grow. God gives a new gift to the people of Israel on their journey: the manna. “It was now necessary for the people to entrust the task of each and every person's subsistence --- as families --- to divine Providence and in conformity to the law of the Shabbat.”[footnote:La voix de la Thora : l'Exode, p. 170°1.] As slaves, the Israelites would depend upon their masters for food. Now that they are free, they must depend upon God for their subsistence. God will show them that they can, and must come to depend upon His gift --- His providence. “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law or not.”[footnote:Ex. 16: 4.] The ability to follow the law of the Lord is rooted in the trust we have in His providence. The first and fundamental consecration to the Lord is trusting that if we go out to gather what is needed for the day, the Lord will not fail to provide it, to give it to us. But if the Lord gives providentially, even to those who do not trust Him, He does so with a deeper consecration in mind: adhering or clinging to His Law. This is clear not only from the verses that follow regarding the Sabbath, but from the quality of the bread provided:

This “bread from heaven,” enveloped with dew, constitutes, according to the opinion of R. Aquilia, the food of angels (Yoma 75b) or the bread emanating from the kingdom of angels (Haguiga 12b; cf. Targoum Ps. LXXVIII, 25). Created at the very end of the work of Creation (Aboth V, 6), it was reserved to the just and fervent disciples of the Thora for future ages (Haguiga ibid.). The Torah was only given to be studied by those who consumed the manna, said R. Simon ben Yohaï (Hekilta). For food, explains the Zohar, is one of the factors upon which hinges man's aptitude for knowing the eternal truths. Unclean and fatty foods makes “the heart insensible.” (Yoma 39b), but the slighter the food, the more it renders the spirit apt to rise up to the knowledge of God. Therefore, one of the first measures taken for the future people of the Thora, immediately following their liberation, was changing foods. The people would now eat unleavened bread, which, having not risen, is slighter than ordinary bread. Once the people “had finished t heir provision of crackers” (Rachi), the children of Israel were nourished by an even more ethereal bread. This bread was the manna, so slight that it didn't even contain matter which needed to be evacuated from the body by the usual ways. (Yoma 75b)...[footnote:La voix de la Thora: l'Exode, p 170--171; 16: 4.]

God doubles His providential gift of the manna on the sixth day --- yet the people are not obliged to work harder to gather more. What has been gathered on the sixth day will also suffice for the seventh, the Sabbath. The only additional concern was preparing half the manna gathered on the sixth day for consumption on the Sabbath, and, interestingly enough, holiness was always manifest in Israel at times when the precepts of this preparation were taken seriously.[footnote:ibid., 16: 5.] Holiness, turning towards God, was therefore the aim of the Sabbath, to give thanks for God's abundance and to allow hearts left unsatisfied by the manna to be satisfied by the Lord, by the study and reading of the Thora.[footnote:ibid., p. 175; Ex. 16: 23.] The importance involved in keeping the Sabbath also touches the fruitfulness in the lives of the people. The Sabbath is itself a gift[footnote:Ex. 16: 29.] whose reception requires the observance of certain laws or commandments. In order to fully know the good of the Sabbath as a gift, certain attitudes and preparations are necessary. The gift of the Sabbath is not only for the people to rest and enjoy the Lord, but the Sabbath is also given so that the people might become gifts for one another. When the Lord commands everyone to stay in their place, Rabbinical commentaries understood it as encouraging not only the inward journey, the journey towards God, but also the return towards family and neighbor.[footnote:La voix de la Thora: l'Exode; p. 177, Ex. 16: 29.]

One final remark about the gift of manna has to do with verse 31 of chapter sixteen of Exodus. The mysterious bread was named by the women. “מן food (received) shared by God (מן is derived from מנה, gift, as in Leviticus 7:20 and מנה, a share, as in Psalm XVI, 11).”[footnote:ibid. p. 178.] “The women are the ones responsible for keeping up the spirit of trust in God, of sobriety and peaceful assurance in the future that the gift of the manna kindled. It is also worth note that the women were the first to designate the manna as the providential gift assuring each one his portion.”[footnote:ibid. p. 178; Ex. 16:31.] Recognizing the manna for what it is --- God's providential bread --- and naming it as such was a very astute way to keep the faith and hope of Israel alive. The gestures of God's love do not always come from Him in an obvious way, the role of the faithful is to “call a spade a spade,” in other words, when God provides providentially even though it may not be obvious, it is important to recognize and proclaim the gift of God. It is perhaps especially the woman's role to remind the family of God's providential gifts --- to remind the family of the presence of God's hand in our daily lives.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Exodus: Gift of Land, the Sabbath, and the Law

The children of Israel are becoming a sign for all nations of the one true God. They are becoming a people consecrated to the Lord, set apart for Him, “And when the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites (...), as He swore to your fathers, and shall give to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the first-lings of your cattle that are males shall be the Lord's”[footnote:Ex. 13:11--12.] The gifts of God to the children of Israel are both signs of their consecration to Him, and ways to become effectively consecrated to Him. It is the wedding bond God will establish with Israel. The gifts of God are the gifts of a lover to a beloved: they anticipate an unconditional response of love and preference. The gifts of God come with expectations of love, the expectations of a total loving response from the one who receives them. When the gifts of God are received selfishly (ex. Is. 47:8,10) the jealousy of God is kindled. Receiving the gift without recognizing the giver cuts the gesture off at its source. The gifts of God are given freely, He does not revoke them, but they are given by Him so that the children of Israel might form a common life with him and establish a reciprocal relationship.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Exodus: Gift of Light

As the people of Israel are leaving Egypt, the Lord is present as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.[footnote:Ex. 13:21.] This is a very touching gesture, He does not just lead Moses, or tell Moses where to go, the presence of the Lord is manifest --- visible --- for the whole people. The Lord is not the “light at the end of the tunnel,” He is the light that immediately illuminates and guides along the path. The Lord is not at the end of the journey, the Lord is present as a guide. The Lord does not refuse to be with His people until they go out to meet Him, He is already present, but guides His people towards a new plenitude, the possession of His gift. In order for the children of Israel to enter into possession of the gift of God --- the promised land --- they must be guided by the Lord. The Lord Himself is present along the way in order to prove, in a manner of speaking, the sweetness of life with Him and the goodness of the gifts He has to give. The pillar of cloud, according to Rabbinical tradition, made the painful and burdensome desert life more pleasant: “What is that coming up from the desert like a cloud of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all the fragrant powders of the merchant.”[footnote:The Song of Songs, 3:6; Voix de la Thora: l'Exode, p. 139; Ex. 13:21.] The Lord gives a destination to the journey, but He does not simply wait for the people in the promised land. The children of Israel are going to Canaan to worship the Eternal, but not because that is where He lives.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Exodus: Gift of Favor

The next moment we see the gift of God appear in Exodus is when the people are leaving Egypt. Exodus 12:36, “... and the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians.” The word favor could also be translated grace. According to the Targoum, this grace given to the Israelites caused their adversaries to give them over and beyond what they asked for. The Egyptians see their slaves in a new light --- the light of God, a light given by God --- and as the Egyptians see them in this new way, they give the Israelites twice as much as they ask.[footnote:Pentateuch with Rachi: Exodus, p. 88; Ex. 12:36.] Israel does not escape from Egypt, they are released and even thrown out --- and yet there is no violence --- no war or battle. Yet, without violent means, Israel receives twice the goods they asked for from their former masters and enemies. Israel leaves Egypt in complete dignity, and their oppressors recognize the favor that comes to them from the Lord, and in a certain way the Egyptians pay homage by giving their wealth away freely to the children of Israel. God promises this in Exodus 3:21. And we see that before the last plague, grace is given abundantly to Moses, causing him to appear great among the people of Egypt.[footnote:Ex. 11:3.] This is quite shocking and miraculous for Moses to appear such before a nation plagued at his hands, Moses was in no way an object of terror or collective hatred. His face was, on the contrary, such that the people, even the king's servants, revered his extraordinary personality and recognized his wisdom, his loyalty, and the righteousness of his cause. Neither Pharaoh nor his subjects dreamed of laying a hand on him.[footnote:Voice of the Thora: Exodus, p. 104; Ex. 11:3.]

Friday, May 13, 2011

Exodus: Introduction

Exodus presents a very different side of God's gift. The Hebrews left the land they were promised because of famine, and took up residence in Egypt. We find out at the beginning of Exodus that the people of Israel have become strong and numerous, and that a king who does not remember Joseph enslaves the people.[footnote:Ex. 1:8--10.] The problem of Exodus is how God will enable the Israelites to come into the possession of the land of promise. When Abraham first sojourned in that land, the Hebrews were not mighty enough or numerous enough to truly possess the land --- they did not inhabit it. When Jacob finally returns to Canaan it would seem like the time has finally come for peace and settlement of the country of Canaan, but as God foretold when speaking to Abram, “Know this, your descendants will be foreigners in a land that is not their own...”[footnote:Gn. 15:13.] For one thing, the promised land is still impure because of the Amorites[footnote:Gn. 15:16.] --- but God respects even the freedom of those who oppose His will. If God gives the Amorites four-hundred years to “fill the measure of sin,” it isn't because He wants their sin to worsen. Meïr Simcha of Dunabourg comments on Rachi, “Either the Amorite will fill up the measure of his perversion --- then his [Abram's] descendants will be allowed to conquer his [the Amorite's], or he [the Amorite] will come back to God and obey on his own the divine will, giving the land to the children of the Patriarch, in conformity with the ancestral tradition held since the days of Noah.”[footnote:La Voix de la Thora: Genèse, p. 152; Gn. 15:16.]

It is amazing to see that God allows the free will of people who are not Abraham's offspring, who are not heirs or members of the covenant to “interfere” with the realization of His promises --- with Him giving the gift of a land. If human gestures must be realized within a lifetime, the gestures of God often span a much longer period. God acts with wisdom, He acts at the most favorable time and in the most significant way to reveal as deeply as possible His love. It is not the material gift of land to the sons of Abraham that is important, it is the way God gives that land to them. God gives them that land in order to establish and develop a relationship with them. Their motivation for getting back to Canaan is a strange mixture of things. Whereas Abram left his land to go to the land God wanted to give him, the Israelites are stuck in a land that is not their own --- slaves in a foreign land. Now the people cry out to the Eternal for help and God responds.When God does respond to Israel however, He does not respond by immediately changing their circumstances; He responds by drawing closer to them.[footnote:Ex. 2:24.] The compassion of God, or closeness of God is described by four verbs which, according to the commentator Maharal, represent four degrees of divine help:1. Hears, means that their imploring has been “perceived” and that the wall separating creature from creator has fallen. 2. Remembers, is a higher degree: God will not forget, because he holds on to the memory of their father's merits. These first two stages are due to the divine grace accorded to the children of Israel suffering in exile. 3. The next stage brings with it a new progression, “God saw the people of Israel,” which implies that their distress was brought before His eyes and that His intervention becomes, consequentially, no longer an act of grace, but and act of justice. 4. Finally, God knew, He alone, the secrets which have not been made known openly, which include both the intimate sufferings unknown to others and the deep feelings of repentance and return to God that are born in the depths of the heart. [footnote:La voix de la Thora: l'Exode; p. 23, °24 ] The beginning of God's help is God coming closer to those who cry out to Him. The beginning of God's help is compassion. The beginning of God's help is an intensification of His presence. From the last passage we also learn what attracts God's presence and saving help. God draws close to those who cry out, to those with whom He has made a covenant, to those who are victims of injustice, to those who repent and return to Him. And yet, if we compare the reaction of Got to the reaction of a man confronted with evil, there is a troubling difference. A human reaction to the suffering of a loved one is immediately active and involves doing everything in one's power to eliminate or reduce that suffering. God is certainly in a position of power high enough to immediately remove the suffering of Israel --- and God has also revealed His preference and love for Israel. There are two points which may help understand how God could allow the suffering to continue: First, the Egyptians, who are oppressing Israel, are also created by God and created free. If God has willed them to be free, He will not go back on it. Second, without changing the free will of Pharaoh, God could still make it impossible, naturally, for Egypt to oppress Israel --- which He does, only not right away. So, if God allows so much time to pass before delivering Israel from oppression, it is because Israel's suffering is not an absolute evil. Israel's suffering causes them to call out to God, to return to Him --- and God, in turn, comes down to Israel. God does not want suffering for its own sake, but He allows it because He created men free, and because it causes Israel to reassess what is truly essential in their lives --- their covenant with the Lord.