Ascending and Descending in Elul - August 2012

   I live in a street which knows the meaning of thrift. My neighbours set an excellent example of it in all their domestic and community affairs. Many of its residents remember the poverty and famine which followed on the heels of the  Spanish Civil War and they all know how to make ends meet. We have flower-pots made from empty paint cans, discarded washing machine drums, and old concrete sinks- all painted the same terracotta red in deference to Andaluz style. They are generous people who know how to produce meals from thin air and who had been re-cycling avidly for many years before that term was even coined. Recently, one of my neighbours wanted to make a hand-rail for a particularly steep staircase in her house, and she came up to me with a length of solid lead piping and two lightweight wooden curtain-rod supporters asking would I put it up for her. I refused.

   Instead I went out and bought two metal supports intended for a stair-rail and said that, although I would prefer not to do it myself (though I could) her son was welcome to use the specially long screws and rawl-plugs I had and my old electric drill. We would all start looking for an appropriately light but sturdy wooden rail forthwith.

   There were two reasons for my refusal, both of them coincidentally related to this week’s Torah parashah (Ki Seitzei) which concerns a guard rail for a roof. Firstly I was not prepared to let her use the original curtain-rod supporters and pole as they would surely come away from the wall in seconds and cause an accident. Secondly I was not prepared to take the responsibility for the installation as I did not feel qualified to guarantee its security: Even with the correct accessories and tools, I would not trust my own workmanship in the matter of someone else’s safety. Rashi’s commentary on the “parapet” text at Deuteronomy 22:8 reminds us that –as good things are the fruit of the labour of good people, and bad things are produced by the work of bad people- if one neglects to erect a safe parapet even if the person falls by accident, the owner of the property is partly to blame. (Chazal apply the parapet rule to all issues of building and safety- and so was I in this case.)

But the story I have just told you has other messages for me, and possibly for you also.

In Haftaras Ki Seitzei we read of a situation in which the Divine Voice declares:

“For a short moment I have forgotten you,
But with great compassion I will gather you up.”

   In this haftarah, we are reminded that apparent disasters and failures may seem to be the result of our being abandoned by God, but that in fact these are often educational experiences which are sent to us in love. At the time we are experiencing them they may seem like endless torture, but in comparison to the times when we are in what one might call “good fortune”, they are, in fact merely momentary.

   Furthermore, despite what we may be feeling –we are assured that the Presence of God never actually leaves us, even in those times:

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed
But my kindness shall never depart from you”

   Psalm 89 considers the same realisation  when it focuses on the anguish of King David. On the one hand David feels that he has been promised a special protective blessing from HaShem, and on the other hand he feels that HaShem has most definitely deserted him, and to all intents and purposes seems to have reneged on His promise.

   Actually, David knew  that the Divine Presence is never completely withdrawn as well as did Isaiah. If this were not so, David would not have been able to contain his rage against HaShem, nor would he have wanted to continue in HaShem’s service. But he did. More than he could ever say, despite his eloquence.

   In the early verses of Psalm 89, David recounts all the promises HaShem has made him during hisbodedus and expresses these personal blessings as a form of personal covenant:

“Forever I (HaShem) will preserve my kindness for him (David)
And my covenant will be steadfast with him.”
Psalm 89:29

By verse 39, David is accusing HaShem of having neglected to support him in his personal and national endeavours...a tirade which extends right up to verse 47 with the cry:

“How long, HaShem- will you hide yourself forever?”
Psalm 89:47

The most significant thing about the psalm - and about David- is that he does not end with rage and disappointment. He brings his rebellious nature to heel and declares in the psalm’s final verse:

“Bless HaShem forever. Amen and Amen”
Psalm 89:53

   David’s submission to God in this verse was not born of blind obedience. It was the consequence of infused wisdom (da’as) and passionate love (deveykus).  He knew in his heart that HaShem had not really abandoned Him and he accepted both the good and the bad with the equanimity of one who is seeing the whole thing in the Divine perspective.

   Despite his all-too-human rage and anguish, David is in love with HaShem. The same vision, the same wisdom, and the same love pushed Isaiah to express the same theology in the haftarah. As we read before, HaShem assures us:

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed
But My kindness shall never depart from you”

In recording these emotional  responses to spiritual difficulties, David and Isaiah are giving us something which is more than a mere record of a personal journey. They are setting an example for us by declaring that faith and trust during such trials are definitely possible....and that they are part of a promise made between HaShem and His servants. A promise which involves action as well a change in mind-set, as I hope to show in the next section of this little essay.



A Parapet of Compassion

In the Torah Reading of Parashas Ki Seitzei we read:

“If you should build a house which is new,
 you shall make a parapet for your roof
 so that you will not place blood
 on your house if someone should fall.”
Deuteronomy 22:8

The message of  Ki Seitzei’s   “parapet law”, its “animal protection laws”, and its “worker’s rights laws” is that they are all examples of compassion in action. They are laws which are instituted in order to make Israel give examples of the way in which it hopes to imitate the compassion of God.

Let me unravel that just a little.

   We should never underestimate the power of good example.  David and Isaiah show us ways to see HaShem’s hand in seemingly dark times.   We can show others that same light in darkness—by demonstrating our own equanimity and by showing the depth of our own faith.  The Haftarah reading assured us that the compassion of HaShem will never leave us. We are not invited to wallow in the security which this promise may give us as contemplative individuals.  We are invited to put such Divine Compassion into practice ourselves.

   One of the special practices of the current month of Elul is the recitation of Psalm 27. In this psalm we declare that HaShem is “our Light and our Salvation”.  There is a way in which we ourselves can become bearers of that Light to shine it on those we meet. The light of bitachon and emunah- of trust and faith in HaShem- is not something which we store inside ourselves for our own use.   It is meant to be poured forth, shared, and spread out.  If we have  the intention of making a good example we are allowing ourselves to become useful in this process as lamplighters for the spread of that  bright  Godliness to others.

     When we say that “HaShem is our Light and Salvation” we are expressing the truth that  His Light  can  bring about not just our own  salvation, but that it can be the very saving of all those we meet and care for.  Example can speak louder than the written or the spoken word, and its lessons go very deep.   Though I did not entirely agree with him, a very dear friend once told me that he believed that (in this world) we could really only ever “meet”  HaShem  in the faces of those who represent Him truly.    He did not use the term “light of the Tzaddikim” but that’s what I heard.  Even for those of us who are merely average “benonim”, the responsibility to set a good example is always there too.  

 I picked up the same messages from the scriptural readings as I did from the "Tale of the Stair Rod" in my street. This is not surprising as This-World and the Other-World are merely facets of the same Divine reality:

   A roof with no parapet can be seen from afar. If we are not visibly concerned for the wellbeing of others (animals, employees, friends, family, neighbours)— we are not helping others to grow in faith and in reliance on HaShem.  

   We may think we are being practical or thrifty  when we stretch our natural and personal spiritual resources, but we should not think that this will be of any use in the end-for ultimately only HaShem’s own resources from His own "Treasury" can save lives and they are given as free gifts to the undeserving. The light which He gives us counts for more than our own effort could ever achieve.  Even the effort we think we are making is a gift from HaShem and not something  we can congratulate ourselves on.

    We may think we are helping others if we give them what they want, but if we really want to help, there are times when we must refuse in order to help them receive something even more valuable. This may hurt us and them, but we have God’s example in this way of teaching hard lessons with love. It is hard for us sometimes to accept such education, even at the hands of HaShem. For most of us it is even harder to practice the teaching role ourselves-either in our dealings with those around us, or in our management of our own soul’s resources.

And in times of personal darkness?

    Well, if we let “How long Oh Lord, How Long? be followed by “Blessed be HaShem for ever and ever”—Not only will we have erected a parapet to guard our souls from falling into despair— We will also have installed the safest and most effective handrail on the Ladder of Jacob that there is:  Trust in God. And we will have learnt one of the key lessons  of the contemplative life: that if we are to ascend on that ladder in  private prayer and contemplation in order to meet our God in hisbonenus, we must also return to bring the Light of Compassion into the world we had left momentarily behind. 

"And the Living-Beings (Chayos) ran and returned
Like the appearance of a flash of lightning"
Ezekiel 1:14

   For that compassion is the Light of bitachon and emunah—of  Trust and Faith—expressed and shared with all Creation.  It is the flame of the Chayos sent to  fill the apparently mundane with Godliness.

August 26 2012