These seven weeks between Tisha B’av and Rosh Hashana offer sweet sounds of consolation and comfort, reminding us that the best is yet to come. In the haftorah, Yeshayahu offers a glimpse beyond, presenting a description of aesthetic beauty that will be our future Jerusalem(1).
And I will make your windows out of kadkod stone and your gates out of hewn stones and all your borders of pleasant stones
An extraordinary Talmudic story accompanies this vision (2):
The Holy One, blessed be He, will bring jewels and precious stones, each thirty cubits long, and thirty cubits high, and make an engraving in them, ten by twenty cubits, and set them up as the gates of Jerusalem, for it is written, And I will make your windows out of kadkod stone and your gates out of hewn stones.
A certain disciple cynically responded, ‘We do not find a jewel even as large as a dove’s egg, yet such huge ones are to exist!’ Some time later he took a sea journey and saw the ministering angels cutting precious stones and pearls. He said unto them: ‘For what are these?’ They replied: ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, will set them up as the gates of Jerusalem.’
On his return, he found R. Yochanan sitting and teaching. He said to him: ‘Expound, O Master, and it is indeed fitting for you to expound, for even as you did say, so did I myself see.’
As remarkable as this story is, it concludes in a surprising and difficult manner:
‘Wretch!’ he exclaimed, ‘had you not seen, you would not have believed! You deride the words of the Sages!’ He set his eyes upon him, and he turned in to a heap of bones.
Many questions abound. Whether the story is to be taken literally is irrelevant (3). (we’ll leave the heap of bones for a different time) Just note the irony: for being cynical, the student received no rebuke, yet once he believes – he is reprimanded and even more??!!
As with most of these pieces, the question is better than the answer and I invite your responses (4).
Last week, in the Old City of Jerusalem, we were sitting at a Shabbos table; it was a classic scene. Our hosts were olim yeshanim (the husband and wife were hovering around 50 years since they had made aliyah). A French couple with a baby on one corner, 2 Aish Hatorah “in transition” young men – with various hairdos, and ourselves rounded out the picture. A lively discussion ultimately brought the Aish chevra to their burning questions: How do I know that Torah is true? How can one prove there is a God? What about evil in the world? In short, the tried and true probing questions. My wife gave beautiful and masterful responses (as a result I became religious :-) ) .
Upon reflection, one point that emerged for me is that those who are looking for ironclad, scientific corroboration for the existence of God and Torah may be frustrated. Yes there are indications, sources (read the Prophets for a blueprint of Jewish history), remarkable realities (against all odds, we Jews are still here- are we not?), strong intuition, logic (ontological, cosmological proofs), and most significantly our Sinaitic mesorah. Yet at the end of the day, there is choice.
It is interesting to note that Ramban, Behag and many others do not consider belief in God a formal mitzvah – for a commandment implies prior belief in a Commander (metzaveh). In their view, we must proclaim our belief in the Creator, prior to engaging in mitzvos. In other words human choice must precede performance of mitzvos.
Our parsha begins with choice. I place before you bracha u’kelala (5) (blessing and curse). If it was so obvious, who would choose the latter? (sure, he’ll take two sides of curses , well done please) A bit later, the Torah commands u’vacharta bachayim (6) – You must choose life. Choice implies there are other options. In the theological realm, options, by definition, mean that there will be persistent good and deep questions. Yes, there will be phenomena in the world not readily understood and not prone to pat answers. Ultimately, you must choose.
R. Yochanan is telling the cynical student, if your faith is predicated solely upon scientific corroboration, upon what you (or others) see, then even what you have, you really do not possess – because you haven’t chosen anything.
Herein lies the great dialectic: Simultaneously, we implore Jews to learn about God and to ponder the deep questions of existence. Stratification between the laity and the clergy is not a pronounced reality in Judaism. The Torah and its wisdom are open to all. All questions (that end in question marks) are encouraged; yet, you may not hinge your acceptance of Torah upon your limited rationality and keep only to the point of comprehension. As a friend of mine once remarked to a searching student – If you only keep that which makes sense to you, where is the Divine in your service? (7)
I am privileged to know many people who have chosen, against all statistical odds, to embrace a Torah lifestyle. In many cases, they still are searching for answers. They face questions dealing with personal and painful situations and great life challenges. They choose faith. In a famous line uttered to Moshe at the beginning of his career, after 210 years of servitude, Hashem says (8): My children are ma’aminim bnei ma’aminim (believers the children of believers). When we embrace emunah, we celebrate the fact that this is our heritage. May Hashem clarify our questions and may we choose belief.
4 Cf. Rashah, Sanhedrin ibid who raises the question. Intuitively, one can answer that a cynic deserves no response or it is simply futile. Only when one is open does rebuke stand a chance. It is difficult to advocate that approach here as Rabbi Yochanan seems not to be focusing on the fact that the student only believed when he saw reality as opposed to his initial disbelief.
7 The notion that acceptance transcends comprehension applies in the micro sense as well. One who accepts the Torah might have a difficulty understanding the morality of a particular mitzvah or the rationality of details of a mitzvah. Even before one “sees” the rationale, one chooses to accept.
Rabbi Asher Brander is the Rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla, Founder/Dean of LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel) and is a Rebbe at Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.