Jun 22, 2011

Ekev: Lift Up Your Eyes!

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

In this week’s parasha, we read Moshe’s description of God: "God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty and the awesome God. (Deut. 10:17)” This, of course, becomes the formula we recite in the first brachah of the Amidah. But a remarkable Talmudic passage on Yoma 69b discusses each Divine Attribute listed:

“Rabbi Mattena taught [that when Ezra praised God] he said: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God (Neh. 9: 32).” Thisseems to agree with what R. Joshua b. Levi said: Why were the [ancient formulators of the siddur] called Members of the Great Assembly? Because they restored the crown of the Divine Attributes to its ancient state.

[What does this mean?] Moses had come and said: “The great, the mighty, and the awesome God (Deut. 10:7).”

Then Jeremiah [who witnessed the first Destruction of Jerusalem] came and said: “Foreigners are destroying God's Temple. Where, then, are God’s awful deeds? Hence, when he praised God (in Jer. 32:18), he omitted the attribute ‘awesome’.”

Then Daniel [who witnessed an exile of the Jewish people] came and said: “Foreigners are enslaving God's children. Where, then, are God’s mighty deeds? Hence , when he praised God (in Dan. 9:4), he omitted the word ‘mighty’.”

But then the Members of the Great Assembly came and said: “On the contrary! Therein lie God’s mighty deeds that God suppresses God’s wrath and extends patience to the wicked. Therein lie God’s awful powers! Were it not for the fear of God, how could one single nation [Am Yisrael] persist among the many nations!”

But how could the earlier Rabbis [Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Holy Blessed One insists on truth, they would not ascribe falsity to God.”

This text brings home a crucial theological point: a relationship with God must be based on a person’s first-hand experiences. A lie – even a ritual phrase – can be a barrier between God and man.

But what is the deepest power of this text? Moshe formulates the traditional phrase “God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty and the awesome God. (Deut. 10:17).” Jeremiah and Daniel (called rabbis!) remove one Attribute each from Moshe’s description, based on their personal spiritual experiences of pain and exile in the world.

But then the Members of the Great Assembly, inheritors of this tense textual journey, decide to reinterpret the original text, finding God’s Presence even in the face of evil and chaos. They restore the crown of the Divine Attributes to its ancient state by committing themselves to finding a place for God in this world.

We have the ability to renew hope and faith – within and without. When we only look at the internet and TV we see the world as it is. When we take all the experience we know, all the real moments of need and actual encounter in the world around us, and elevate ourselves through a commitment to traditional forms, we begin to envision the world that could be. That will be. That we can make real.

A sweet opportunity to reflect in these ways includes finding some time to read Psalms. For now, let's end with words that become more relevant every day. May we one day share them with sparkling eyes and voices lifted in song: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains. Where does my help come from? My help comes from God, who Makes Heaven and Earth. (Ps. 121:1,2)”

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