Parshat Ki Tisa
March 13, 2004
Ezekiel was, by far, the least optimistic of the prophets in his assessment of the human condition. He considered the Babylonian exile to be the consequence of human misbehavior and alienation from God. Human beings, however, are incapable by themselves of breaking this cycle of exile and alienation without Divine intervention. Consequently, God, in order to rescue His own glory in the world, must lend a hand and rescue human beings from their troubled state and “cleanse them” of their impurity so that they may again regain their intimate relationship with Him: “I will sprinkle pure water upon you, and you will be pure. I will purify you from all of your impurities and from all of your fetishes. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh; and I will put my spirit into you. Thus I will cause you to follow My laws and faithfully to observe all of My rules. Then you shall dwell in the land which I gave to your fathers, and you shall be My people and I will be your God.” (Ezekiel 36:25-28)
This attitude toward the human role in personal and national redemption forms part of a larger debate in the rabbinic tradition. “Rav declares: ‘All the appointed times for redemption are over, and the matter depends entirely upon repentance and good deeds’. Shmuel states: ‘It is sufficient for the mourner to remain in his mourning.’ (Sanhedrin 97b) For Rav, redemption is contingent upon human initiative and action. Shmuel, on the other hand, seemingly follows Ezekiel’s lead and presumes that redemption is exclusively the product of Divine intervention.
The dialectic of this debate between these 3rd century Babylonian sages is important because their opinions represent two important responses to the human condition. Rav’s view is that the redemptive process is a reflection of human autonomy. God expects human beings to act upon the world’s need for redemption. How? By repairing one’s ways, acting responsibly and doing good works. Rav expects people to shape their lives and destinies. Shmuel, like Ezekiel before him, despairs of this possibility. If redemption is to come to the world it will only be by God’s hand. Human beings must simply sit out the current situation and wait for God to make His move because they are incapable of bringing it about on their own.
Of course, these positions reflect two extremes. A third position might synthesize the two of them. As we approach Pesach, we might pray that God give us the strength of will to be tools in the redemptive process so that we might use our skills to forward it on a personal level, on a national level, as well as globally.