March 31, 2007
The penultimate verse of this haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, the special Shabbat which precedes Pesah, seems ironic. Why should the final verses of the final prophecy of the last of the prophets, end by returning to the prophetic message of the very beginning: \”Be mindful of the Torah of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all of Israel.\” (verse 22) The very essence of the mission of the prophet was to uphold Moses\’ Torah. So why return to it now?
The following midrash alludes to the problem: \”The Supreme King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, built great fortresses: i.e. the two hundred and forty-eight positive commandments and three hundred and sixty-five prohibitions and gave them over to Moses, yet no man remembered him. So the Holy One blessed be He, said, ‘You have not remembered him, but I will cause him to be remembered, as it is said, \’Be mindful of the Torah of My servant Moses.\’\” (adapted from Ecclesiastes Rabbah 9:5)
Prophecy was not always such a successful means for achieving loyalty to God and His ways. This is why it was necessary to conclude the prophetic message where it had begun, with an additional reminder of what Judaism was all about. The modern Jewish philosopher, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, takes this as a sign that the only way to inculcate loyalty to God and the mission that He has chosen for us in this world is through a lifestyle of Divine service, namely, the life of Torah and the commandments. (See \’Seven Years of Weekly Discourses on the Weekly Torah Reading\’ Heb. Pp. 499-500)
Prophetic cajoling and/or a commitment to \’high ideals\’ and \’spiritual beliefs\’ will not raise anyone to a lofty plateau nor achieve religious world building. People are not built that way. Without action, which for Jews means commitment to God\’s commandments, a relationship with God cannot exist. This idea, of course, is what always made Jews religiously different, as is indicated in the commentary of Rabbi David Kimche (Provance, 12th century) to this verse: \”Until the day of judgment, remember in every generation, the Torah that was given to My servant Moses must be observed as it was written, namely, as it was written at Horeb and not like those who say it was given for a particular time and that we must now give it a spiritual interpretation. Rather this verse makes it explicit that this is not so.\”
Both Kimche and Leibowitz make it quite clear, Judaism is a religion of doers, not of spiritualizers.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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