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Parshat Shoftim: Loving Torah More than God

One of the earliest post-Holocaust stories, “Yossl Rakover Speaks to God” by Zvi Kolitz, is a visceral and raw account of the ramblings of a survivor in his last living moments after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. (The background is fascinating and one that is worth looking up). In one particularly poignant speech he chastises God for pulling the rope too strong at both ends, saying He may not blame those who have turned their back on Him.

I believe in His laws even when I cannot justify His deeds. My relationship to Him is no longer that of a servant to his master, but of a student to his rabbi. I bow my head before His greatness, but I will not kiss the rod with which He chastises me.”

He continues:

I love Him. But I love His Torah more. Even if I were disappointed in Him, I would still cherish His Torah. God commands religion, but His Torah commands a way of life — and the more we die for this way of life, the more immortal it is!”

The immortality of Judaism is realised in the bond between the Torah and the Jewish people, in some ways even more so than the connection between God and the people. The wedding ceremony, the covenantal union, has been sustained through the eternal loyalty of the people to the Torah and its teachings.

Emmanuel Levinas borrows the phrase from Zvi Kolitz “Loving Torah More than God” as the title and central idea in an essay on the Holocaust. For Levinas, Torah study means 'learning' to be ethical, it is a call to justice. When we relate to God in abstract terms, when we divorce God-talk from Torah-talk it is easy to make God in our image. But when we are in love with his Torah and not just with Him, when we are actively writing it afresh in every generation it becomes the vehicle of our religious ethical sensibility. Torah study thus represents ethical activism for Levinas.

The first generation stood at the foot of Sinai, they witnessed the thunder and lightning and heard the voice of the Divine. They experienced God first-hand. They were God-intoxicated. They craved the immediacy of God’s presence and despaired when He disappeared. They made images to match His image because they couldn’t conceive of God being WITHIN them only a God that was externally manifest. For a generation who experienced the miracles where it was only God who could save them, only God could bring redemption and only God could be the active agent of change and the direct voice of ethical instruction.

But Moshe is now speaking to a post-revelation generation. His words echo down the generations to so many of us who have not directly experienced open revelation or had an unencumbered encounter with the Divine. Moshe is calling us to search beyond the miracles and enter into a direct relationship with God, inviting us to intuit the Divine voice from WITHIN ourselves. To see that each of us has the tzelem Elokim – the Divine spark, the Divine call, the ethical mandate that is awakened through our allegiance and connection to the Torah. The Torah is the manifesto, the wedding contract, the photo album that you look through when times are tough to remind you of why you are here. Why you show up. Of the history that is shared, of the eternal connections that have been made, of the story you have created and of the future you have planned together. The Torah is the God-Man joint project. It is the covenantal contract, the eternal bond between a transcendent Being and His mortal partner. There are moments when that partnership will weaken, will suffer disappointments (from both sides) and will endure absent partners. However there is something about the Torah that stands as the orientating image, as the central motif that keeps our feet on the ground and our heads in the clouds. That allows us to walk the tightrope between humility and hubris, action and submission, kingship and lowliness. For Yosl Rakover, it did not matter that God had ‘let him down’ because he was so in love with His Torah and what it meant to him and so many generations before him. For Levinas, God’s presence in the world is evident not by any physical or even spiritual palpable manifestation but rather through His Law. In His ostensible absence, He demands everything of man.

“His majesty does not provoke fear and trembling, but fills us with higher thoughts. To veil his countenance in order to demand, in a superhuman way, everything of man, to have created man capable of responding, to turn to his God not always as a creditor, but also as a debtor: That is truly Divine majesty.”

God created us as creatures who can ‘respond’ to the call of the Divine and the call of others and so we must.

Last week we discussed the idea of what we choose to see. How our attitude to a situation can determine its outcome and the imperative to see ‘good’ acts as a central condition for entering the land. When describing the way in which society should function, this theme is carried into the pragmatic and practical realm. Judges must remain impartial, anything that will יְעַוֵּר֙ עֵינֵ֣י חֲכָמִ֔ים – “blind the eyes of the wise” must be avoided. In a parallel discussion, we are told that if we anoint a king, he too must implement every measure to prevent any corruption of his position. We are told that when he ‘sits on his seat of royalty’ he must write a Torah for himself and which should accompany him at all times in order that לְיִרְאָה֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהָ֔יו לִ֠שְׁמֹ֠ר אֶֽת־כׇּל־דִּבְרֵ֞י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּ֛את – “He shall revere God and keep all the words of this Torah” and so that לְבִלְתִּ֤י רוּם־לְבָבוֹ֙ מֵֽאֶחָ֔יו - “his heart shall not make him superior to his brethren”. Once again, the Torah is cautioning us, and as Lord Acton famously commented, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. The antidote to hubris is humility, the conduit to humility is fidelity to the laws and principles of the Torah. The law of a king writing a Torah and always having it by his side is indeed a preventative measure. It is an instrument designed to sustain humility and prevent corruption. But it is also a reminder of the human ability to ‘write a Torah’, of the Divine gift of agency - that we can write a letter in the scroll of the Torah. It affirms what Zvi Kolitz states and what Levinas transforms into a full philosophy of ethics “to love Torah more than God”. That if knowledge of God is not enough of a preventative measure against corruption and hubris then let the Torah be that for you. The Torah is a reminder of the wedding contract, not just between the people and God but between the people and the people. The generations that precede us and those that come after us. We have a responsibility to its law, its ethical demands, its history and its future. Like the institution of marriage is more than just its partners, the Torah is more than just its content and laws. The Torah is the covenantal story of our people; the beating heart of our relationship with God; the key to our survival; the essence of our individual and national purpose. It is the meaning of our existence. Above all, it is a reminder that our actions are more than just a reflection of individual and immediate considerations. When we create a society, its leaders – the Kings and the Judges - must be constantly reminded of their responsibilities to the greater good, to the just and fair governing of the people, to the bigger story of humanity and the Jewish people. They are a letter in the scroll of the Torah; the need to love Torah more than God.

In the words of Rabbi Sacks in his book A Letter in the Scroll:

“I am Jew because, knowing the story of my people I hear their call to write the next chapter. I did not come from nowhere, I have a past and if any past commands anyone, this past commands me. I am Jew because only if I remain a Jew will the story of a hundred generations live on in me…I cannot be the missing letter in the scroll.”

Shabbat Shalom

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