Thursday, November 22, 2007

Vayishlah III: Be Thankful For What You Have

(יא) קטנתי מכל - מלהיות לי [כל] החסדים וגו'. וכן קטן מהכיל את העולה ואת השלמים. ולפי שעשית לי חסדים ואמת יותר מן הראוי לי ואני עדיין לא קיימתי נדרי ולא עבדתיך כראוי, לכך אני ירא אעפ"י שהבטחתני. שאינך [דן] את האדם אלא לפי מעשיו, כמו שמצינו בחזקיה שאמר לו הנביא מת אתה ולא תחיה, ואחר כך בתפלת חזקיהו הוסיף הק' על ימיו חמש עשרה שנה:

(יג) ואתה אמרת היטיב איטיב עמך - אעפ"י שאין אתה מחוייב לקיים לי הבטחתך שהרי קטנתי וגו' אעפ"י כן עשה למען כבוד שמך שתתקיים הבטחתך, כמו שאמר משה להק' כשרצה לכלות את ישראל (ו)למה יאמרו מצרים [לאמר] ברעה [וגו'], וינחם י"י על הרעה. ובמקום אחר מבלתי יכולת י"י וגו' וישחטם במדבר וגו', ואמר לו הק' סלחתי כדבריך:

Rashbam in Bereishit 32:11, 13 highlights what is already evident in the Torah: Ya’akov’s deep gratitude to God even in the face of difficult circumstances. Ya’akov recognizes that he is not truly entitled to anything that God has promised him, inasmuch as he has had plenty of failings of his own in his relationship with God. He therefore merely asks God to act for the sake of divine glory, but not out of obligation to him.

I think this approach to the divine-human relationship has always appealed to me, and I have thus always had a problem with genres of post-Holocaust theology that focus on anger towards God and even talk about nullification of the covenant between God and Israel. I don’t begrudge anyone the right to get angry at God—I have at times felt that way myself—any more than I would so for any relationship that features a range of emotions. But when people use personal pain as a fulcrum for leveraging a new theology, I become uncomfortable. Are we really entitled to anything such that we can really demand that level of divine compliance, particularly when we cannot possibly as humans transcend our own perception of the world and see a larger picture? Isn’t it one of the most striking features of being alive that we are so out of no action—and certainly not merit—of our own? [In the words of R. Eliezer Hakappar in Mishnah Avot 4:22: שעל כרחך אתה נוצר ועל כרחך אתה נולד ועל כרחך אתה חי ועל כרחך אתה מת.] How, then, can we ever see ourselves as anything but in the black as far as our lot in life goes?

Perhaps I am overly privileged and optimistic. And I don’t mean to suggest that there isn’t a brit between God and Israel that has terms. But haven’t those terms more or less been met? We still exist, we still have a relationship with God, and we still have a foothold in the Land of Israel. I think Rashbam reminds us here, through his analysis of Ya’akov, that we sometimes forget the baseline of privilege that we enjoy nationally and personally, even if there remains a great deal of pain, uncertainty and fear.


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