Progress, Not Arrival

When I was very young I had a recurring dream, so vivid that I recall it more than fifty years later. I would walk down the stairs to the basement landing of my house and would find the basement flooded. There was a rowboat tied to the highest step. I’d board the boat and start rowing towards the far wall. As I approached the wall I’d row right through it and find myself back at the start of this long basement room. I’d continue rowing until I reached the far wall and would row through it again, returning once more to the beginning. Again and again until I awoke.

Given my background, intellectual makeup and current situation, it’s likely that I’ll never gain the breadth of Torah knowledge I’d really like. Unless I find the right long-term (and I mean lasting years) chavruta, study partner, I’ll probably never learn all of Shas (the full Talmud). I doubt that I’ll study, cover-to-cover, the entire Shulchan Aruch (Rabbi Yosef Karo‘s 16th century comprehensive compilation of halacha) nor the Mishna Torah (Rambam’s 12th century compilation of halacha). These are not unreasonable goals–I know a number of people who have achieved it. And there are so many other seforim (books) I desperately desire to study and I know that I’ll only touch a very few of them.

On the other hand, there are a number of seforim and sections of seforim that I have studied over and over and over. I do this because I’m delighted to find new, deeper insights every single time I engage with that fragment of Torah. I realize that I am very lucky, very blessed that our Torah reveals herself to me this way. Of course, I’ve studied each weekly parsha year after year after year, but so have a large proportion of observant Jews. Each year as I return to it I’m a new person, the world is often profoundly changed, and so is my understanding. I honestly can say that I’ve never studied a passage in a sefer a second, third or more time without something brand new popping up for me.

Another way of looking at that is that Torah, like reality, reveals truths in layers, a little at a time. Hopefully, each year we find that last year’s answers are no longer sufficient nor satisfying. Answers and interpretations which satisfy children, of course, will not be adequate for an adolescent, and the adolescent’s understanding shouldn’t satisfy a young adult and my knowledge at age sixty will, hopefully, at age seventy appear to me to have been hopelessly naive and simplistic.

Of course, one reason for this phenomenon is that we are all works-in-progress who are growing in maturity and wisdom. Taken from the other side of the equation, however, God, the subject/object of our study and exploration is never knowable to us. Just as soon as we think we have a hold on what God is really all about, it dissolves into meaninglessness and we have to try to build yet another, better model, another visualization. Of course we intellectually know, and are constantly reminded in almost every sefer we’ll ever pick up, that God is totally beyond our comprehension and that we should use our imagings only as stepping stones. Unfortunately, there is a common human failing, since we are finite beings, to fool ourselves that “this time I’ve really got it”. It’s sort of like the old song (attributed to Donovan, but I remember singing it at summer camp long before he started his recording career), “First there is a mountain then there is no mountain then there is…”

Just the other night I was studying Gemara Avoda Zara (4b) with a friend. In it, the Nations accuse Israel as being no better than themselves (and all other idolators) because we made the Egel HaZahav, the Golden Calf.  Of course, that question has bothered every generation since the tragedy occurred. How can a people who have in the past very few weeks experienced the miracles of the exodus, the splitting of the sea and, to top it all, receiving the Torah directly from the Creator Himself, turn their backs, build and then worship a tawdry statue? Among the common answers in our tradition is that we’d both grown too dependent on Moshe and also miscalculated the date he was to return from Har Sinai–thus we were desperate for another concrete form to worship. Others lay the blame on the ערב רב (erev rav), the “mixed multitude”, those parasitic hangers-on who opportunistically followed us out of Egypt (or those toxic, unneeded and unwanted parts of our personalities/neshamot). For different reasons, each of these and other well-known answers partially satisfy, partially dissatisfy and they all provide important moral lessons.

Rashi offers a totally different insight. He says that we had fought and totally overpowered the yetzer hara, the evil inclination which tempted us to build and worship this idol. And once we reached that great spiritual height, inexplicably God Himself, with a Gezeirat HaMelech (Decree of The King), overruled our resolve and forced us to commit this very great sin anyway. Rashi continues that this was in order to give פתחון פה (pitchon peh), literally the opportunity to open one’s mouth, the opening to make a plea for Divine Mercy and Forgiveness by future Ba’alei Tshuva, sinners who come to repent. In other words, according to Rashi, God took away our most precious possession, our bechira, free will, and in this case our free-will decision to follow God’s own commandments to have no false gods before Him, just because He had other plans of which we were not privy. We should also keep in mind that the immediate result of this sin was thousands of deaths!

While we can extract a certain amount of truth from Rashi’s idea, I believe he deliberately offers us such an outrageous and unbelievable explanation to open our eyes to the more profound reality that every attempt to explain and, thus, contain God or His actions will fail.

Ultimately, there is no answer of which we can conceive that will fully explain why God decided to inspire Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aharon, the Cohen Gadol, to offer aish zara, a “strange fire” which results in their deaths. We’ll never understand why God allowed the Shoah, the Holocaust, and all the other massacres and torments our people have suffered over the ages. We can’t answer why God brought Medinat Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, into being only to have it immediately attacked with intent to destroy us by all of our neighbors.

Of course there is much value in the progressive layers of provisional answers, and we very much need the wisdom and comfort they provide. But, in the final analysis, Rashi points the way to accept that no matter how complex an answer might be, no matter how much it defies all human logic, we will never arrive at the “real” answer because God is, indeed, beyond our ability to understand. There will always be yet another layer to explore and then transcend.

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