World of the Sages: Does God keep mitzvot?

Perhaps the Almighty was not always so fastidious in His observance of His own commandments.

July 16, 2009 11:38


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The Talmud tells us that in some spiritual realm the Almighty adheres to the very commandments that He commands us to keep: Just as we put on tefillin daily, so too God puts on tefillin (B. Brachot 6a-b). But what would be written in these divine tefillin? In our tefillin there is a declaration of our belief in the singularity of the Almighty - Hear O Israel, the God who is our Lord, is the only God (Deuteronomy 6:4); in the Almighty's tefillin there is a declaration of the uniqueness of Israel - And who is like Your people, Israel, one nation in the land (I Chronicles 17:21). Thus we extol God in our tefillin and God takes pride in us in his tefillin. The Talmud further notes that when God allowed Moses to see His "back" but not His face (see Exodus 33:23), what Moses actually saw was the knot of the Almighty's head tefillin (B. Brachot 7a). But perhaps the Almighty was not always so fastidious in His observance of His own commandments. Certainly the ministering angels felt that at times God was not following the directives He handed down. Our sages tell us that at the time of the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem, the ministering angels turned to the Almighty with three claims. First, the Torah commands that after slaughtering a wild animal or fowl, the blood must be covered with earth (Leviticus 17:13); yet in describing the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the psalmist says: Their blood was shed like water around Jerusalem, and there is no one to bury it (Psalms 79:3). Moreover, the prophet Ezekiel wrote: For her blood still in her - referring to Jerusalem - has been set on a bare rock; she did not pour it out on the ground to cover it with earth (Ezekiel 24:7). Thus, claimed the angels, You the Almighty did not fulfill the mitzva of covering the blood of the slaughtered. Second, the Torah commands: And with regards to an ox or a sheep, it and its offspring shall not be slaughtered on one day (Leviticus 22:28); and yet at the time of the destruction children were wantonly slaughtered with their parents. Thus, claimed the angels, You the Almighty transgressed this prohibition. Third, when speaking about the disease of tzara'at, the Torah describes the procedure in the case of a building afflicted with this spiritual malady: And the priest will order that the house be emptied before the priest will enter to examine the malady, thus nothing in the house may become ritually impure; only then will the priest enter to examine the house (Leviticus 14:36). A house afflicted with tzara'at only has the status of tuma, ritual impurity, once it is officially declared so by the priest. At this point all the contents of the house that are susceptible to ritual impurity contract the tuma. To avoid an unnecessary loss of property, the contents of the house would be removed before the priest would make his examination and declare his findings. If the priest would declare the house ritually pure, the contents would be returned; if the priest would declare the house ritually impure, the house would have to be pulled down, though the property removed from the house before the declaration would be saved. In light of this biblical law, the angels cited from the description of the sacking of the Temple: And they burned the house of the Lord and they tore down the wall of Jerusalem, and they burned down all its palaces in fire, and they consigned all its precious objects to destruction (II Chronicles 36:19). The angels argued: You the Almighty should have at least saved the Temple vessels before destroying the Temple, just as a priest ensures that the contents of the house is spirited away before declaring the house ritually impure. Ours sages tell us that God responded to the claims of the ministering angels with a cryptic answer: "Is there peace in the world? Since there is no peace, there is nothing." While these divine words are certainly powerful, if not somewhat despairing, how do they respond to the claims of the angels? Rabbi Haim Vital (1542-1620, Safed-Damascus) was the celebrated student of perhaps the most famous kabbalist of all time, Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (1534-1572, Jerusalem-Cairo-Safed) - or the Ari Hakadosh (the holy lion) as he is called. He reported in the name of his teacher that a biblical verse hints at the three claims put forth by the ministering angels: If a legal case baffles you, be it a controversy over blood, be it a controversy over law, be it a controversy over a spiritual malady - words of dispute are in your gates - and you will rise and ascend to the place that God your Lord will have chosen (Deuteronomy 17:8). The biblical verse refers to three types of cases in the court system - blood, law and spiritual maladies - that correspond to the three angelic claims: blood - covering the blood of the slaughtered; law - the prohibition of killing a parent and offspring on the same day; spiritual maladies - the directive to save the contents of stricken building. When this issue of God's flouting the law baffles you, says the Ari, know that it is because words of dispute are in your gates - when there is infighting, the Almighty is no longer bound by the dictates of the Torah. This is the meaning of God's succinct response, "Since there is no peace, there is nothing." The Ari concludes his commentary with the final phrase of the biblical verse - and you will rise and ascend to the place that God your Lord will have chosen. Only once we have overcome the infighting, the arguments that so frequent our gates; only when we ascend to the holy city of Jerusalem, that place that symbolically unites our people; only once we remain steadfast in our loyalty to the tradition of our forbears; only then can we hope for peace. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.

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