Friday, October 10, 2008

Which Rock is your Gd? (Derashah: Haazinu 5769)

What an unbelievable day it's been. Long, long story... but the derashah is done.
This is actually a derashah for a Bar Mitzvah this Shabbos, but I'll omit the Bar Mitzvah-specific details here.

Chaim, walking in the woods, suddenly encountered a bear. He froze - and then he watched in amazement as the bear put on a yarmulke and began to daven.
Chaim thought to himself, “I’m saved, I’ve found the only Jewish bear in the world!” He began to bentch gomel, thanking Gd… and he finished the berachah just in time to hear the bear finish his own last words: “המוציא לחם מן הארץ.”

Our parshah and haftorah also present “last words” - the closing songs of Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid haMelech.

Moshe and Dovid, although separated by some 500 years, lived very similar lives:
• They started out as shepherds, where they showed great מסירות נפש, great self-sacrifice, on behalf of their flocks.
• They were both very humble. When HaShem tried to appoint Moshe to lead the Jewish people, Moshe refused; when Shemuel came to annoint a son of Yishai, Dovid assumed it must be one of his brothers.
• Moshe and Dovid both led the Jews for forty tumultuous years.
• Both Moshe and Dovid were stopped just short of their goals, Moshe prevented from entering Israel, Dovid prevented from building the Beis haMikdash.
• And both present their final messages to the Jewish people in emotional, evocative verse.

But when it comes to those final words, Moshe and Dovid take strikingly different paths in describing the Gd who had led them all of their lives - Moshe gives Gd the title of צור, and Dovid adds the title of סלע.

Moshe sees Gd as a צור.

A צור is a rock; hence the description מעוז צור ישועתי, that Gd is the Rock of my salvation, and hundreds of similar usages in Tanach and in our davening.

A rock is inscrutable; as the pasuk says, מי יאמר אליו מה תעשה, who can tell Gd what to do? Like the eagle Moshe envisions hovering over its young, Gd is physically near, but inherently distant and unreachable.

Moshe refers to Gd as צור several times in our parshah, repeatedly in association with the Divine Names of קל and אלוקים - Names which connote power and justice, not warmth and mercy. The same is true elsewhere in Tanach.

Dovid also depicts Gd as a צור, but he adds a title which Moshe never uses: סלע.

Technically, סלע also means “rock,” but in a different way. As Malbim explains, the סלע is המקום שעליו תעמוד המצודה על שן סלע גבוה - סלע is the high boulder on which our fortress stands. Yes, Gd is a stern protector, but Gd also lifts me up, HaShem elevates me.

It is not accidental that where the name צור is associated with אלקים, Justice, the name סלע is associated repeatedly in Tanach with the four-letter Name of HaShem, the יקוק which represents Mercy.

Dovid names HaShem as a merciful, supportive Gd.

It is striking (so to speak) that Moshe was twice told to draw water from a stone, but the stone went by different names on the two occasions. In the first instance the stone was described as a צור; in the second instance the stone was described as a סלע.

The first time, Moshe was told to hit the stone - this was a צור, a hard stone. The second time, though, Gd told him to talk to a סלע - because a סלע helps and assists. And when Moshe hit the סלע, treating it as a צור rather than speaking to it, he lost his chance to lead the Jewish people.

Why, though, does Moshe describe Gd in his last words as a harsh protector, where Dovid sees Gd as closer, more helpful?

Moshe does not lack for appreciation of Gd - indeed, even as Gd is about to take his life, Moshe performs צידוק הדין, acknowledging that Gd is just and fair!

And why does Dovid see Gd as a loving nurturer? Dovid the warrior, Dovid the fugitive, Dovid the besieged father, certainly knew his share of danger and trouble and strife, the times when Gd did not appear to be near!

Perhaps the difference is that Dovid had one relationship with Gd which Moshe never had: Dovid personally experienced Divine mechilah, Divine forgiveness. Moshe was never forgiven.

Moshe earned forgiveness for the Jews, as a nation, many times over - but never for himself.
• When Moshe refused the job of leading the Jews initially, Gd reacted harshly and revoked his כהונה.
• When Moshe grew angry at the nation, Gd removed some of his Torah knowledge.
• And when Moshe struck the סלע, Gd removed his leadership position.

Contrast that with Dovid; after Dovid’s incident with Batsheva, HaShem told him explicitly that he was forgiven. True, Dovid suffered punishment as well, but he was told, “ה' העביר חטאתך, HaShem has removed your sin.” Moshe never received such a message; for reasons that are not at all clear but that may relate to the unique relationship he had with Gd, Moshe was never forgiven.

Divine forgiveness is a transformative element in our relationship with Gd.

In Moshe’s experience Gd is a protective צור, punishing Egypt, splitting the sea, raining down bread from the heavens and levelling mountains to ease our travel, for whom we are obligated in את ה' אלקיך תירא and ואהבת את ה' אלקיך - we are obligated to have awe for Gd, and to love Gd.

But this is an incomplete presentation of the relationship promised by Judaism, by a Gd who also declares, “I love you back,” אהבתי אתכם אמר ה'.

Judaism promises:
• a universe in which Man, capital M, is cosmically important and cosmically potent,
• a universe in which our souls are חלק אלוק ממעל, carved from the Divine throne itself,
• a universe in which we are not merely an insignificant protectorate of a benevolent Gd but בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם, we are children of this Living Gd,
• a universe in which Gd is not only מלכנו, our King, but also אבינו, our Father.

This is beautifully illustrated by the reality of Divine forgiveness. A monarch does not forgive an insignificant or distant protectorate. Either their sins are beneath his notice, or their sins are a violation of his law and deserve punishment.
• Forgiveness is reserved for relationships, for people about whom you care, for whom you love.
• Forgiveness enables us to grow and not be bogged down in our past, it even turns our sins into merits, buoying us onward and upward.
• Forgiveness lights up the face of the Kohen Gadol when he emerges from the Beis haMikdash on Yom Kippur.

This is one reason why a crimson thread hangs in the Beis haMikdash on Yom Kippur, and it turns white when HaShem forgives us. It is important for us to see the forgiveness from Gd, to have that visualization, so that we will understand Dovid haMelech’s סלע, that Gd loves us and forgives us.

(Bar Mitzvah part here)

We are now coming to Succos, which we call זמן שמחתינו, the time of our joy. Unlike for other Yomim Tovim, the Torah says “You shall be happy” three times regarding Succos. A midrash explains that Succos earns these special mentions of joy because, among other things, we celebrate having been forgiven on Yom Kippur. This is the joy which Dovid expressed in the Haftorah, this is the joy of a relationship with Gd, this is the joy which we feel when we recognize that HaShem is more than our protective צור - HaShem is also our loving סלע.

1. Credit for the opening joke goes to Jack, here.

1. The Malbim's explanation of סלע is on the other version of our Haftorah, in Tehillim 18:3.

2. The midrash about Succos is in Psikta d'Rav Kahana.

3. Remarkably, the string in the Beit haMikdash was tied to a stone at one point - and the stone is identified (Rosh HaShanah 31b) as a סלע.

4. One point I don't really address: Why wasn't Moshe given the same chance for forgiveness? Even if we can explain away the incident with the stone as consequence rather than punishment, as some mefarshim do, we must still explain the other circumstances. (See my notes in comment #4 to this post; I might have the beginning of an idea there.)

5. While giving this derashah on Shabbos, it occurred to me that it sounds very Christian. Interesting.


  1. Every time I tell that joke about the bear someone asks/says shouldn't the bear be saying "shehakol"?

    Moshe was never forgiven.

    That bothers me. After all that Moshe did, it seems to be unjust and unfair that he should be denied this.

  2. I like it.
    Another difference between Moshe and David is that Moshe is from Levi and David from Yehuda. Levi participated in the Shimon-Levi revenge and Yehuda apologized to Tamar and then was a true leader of the tribes when confronting the disguised Yosef.

  3. Jack, maybe it's related to Moshe's role as teacher of Torah and judge.

    In capital cases under Torah law, the accused's regret for his actions doesn't mitigate his punishment - the court has to go based on the evidence in front of them, and if necessary, Hashem will redress the balance in the World to Come.

    Maybe, then, by the same token Moshe had to be denied Hashem's forgiveness in order to teach the Jewish People this lesson - that sometimes there are inescapable consequences to one's actions.

    [That would also fit well with Moshe's original offense, which the Torah repeatedly (including in the instructions to Moshe at the end of our parshah) characterizes as a failure to "sanctify Hashem's name" in public. His death, then, demonstrates most clearly that Hashem's decisions are irrevocable, which is the ultimate Kiddush Hashem.]

  4. Jack-
    Yes, and someone asked me the question, too. I told him it was just the most easily recognized berachah-ending. (Of course, it could be the bear also had a hoagie roll with him in the bag with the yarmulka...)

    Very interesting point; I hadn't thought of that angle.

    The Rosh Yeshiva zt"l in KBY used to say that Moshe's death was a consequence rather than a punishment, and I've proposed that idea myself, but it doesn't address the other cases in which he was punished.
    Over Shabbos I started to contemplate it from a different angle: Moshe never asks for mechilah. Dovid certainly does - he throws himself on the ground, fasts, the whole nine yards. But Moshe, although he pleads to enter Israel, never asks for forgiveness.
    It reminds me of Moshe's role, along with Eliyahu (who has many similiarities to Moshe) and Yonah, as a navi emet, a prophet of Truth, for whom mechilah is an entirely odd idea. ואכמ"ל.

  5. The last comment was very interesting.
    However, although it may be true, I see another possiblity. This possiblity does not necessarily contradict the other one, it actually fits together with it. (mishtalev ito)

    The whole generation had a problem with asking G-d when they had problems. The purpose of much of what happened in the midbar was likely to teach them that G-d cares about and interacts with humanity. They had come from Egypt, where the "gods" where seen as powerful, supreme forces that were almost completely above and unconcerned with everyday man. If H' was uplifted and supreme above all elohim-(in the sense of heavenly forces/forces of nature, note: it is possible to state that G-d is above all elohim, in fact we do, durring kabbalat shabbat, in one of the tehillim-"meod na'alaita al kol elohim.") then so too according to His greatness the people would have difficulty understanding that He could also be close to and care about "insignificant" individuals.

    I think that Moshe was perhaps also slightly affected by this general view of G-d of Am Yisrael at that point of history.

    Furthermore, man is supposed to be in a state of balance between negation of self before G-d, like the angels who have very little separate identity, and having a sense of self-identity (like the animals, who almost only have that.) However, different people in different times in history would have had different standings in the continuum from one end to the other. Also, during different times in a person's life that person would go back and forth. (There is also a kabbalistic idea similar to this.) Moshe's role meant that he was supposed to be closer to the end of negation of self than any other person in history. This, in order that he could receive the Torah completely, without distorting it with any amount of distortion/reflection of or by himself within his prophecies. Because of this, "mechila would have been a strange idea." Much more could be expanded on this. I am not a great writer, but I would be immensely happy to find out that you had written something on this.

  6. Hello Michael,

    Yes, the idea of bitul, combined with the distant Gd, could lead him to a rejection of mechilah. I could see that - although I find it difficult, in general, to posit Moshe seeing Gd as distant and simultaneously being the בן בית with פה אל פה אדבר בו. Then again - if I were Moshe, I would likely understand that perfectly.