Friday, 29 May 2009

Written by Alasdair Nisbet

Today’s parashah is the longest in our calendar and includes plenty of meat, including the Nazirite Laws, the dedication of the Mishkan and the Priestly Blessing.The inspiration for my D’var Torah is presented in a book of weekly commentaries by the Israeli scientist and religious thinker Jeshayahu Leibowitz entitled Acceptance of the Yoke of Heaven.
I want to focus on only one verse – the very last:

“When Moses entered the Tent of Assembly to speak with God, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the cover over the Ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubs: and He spoke to him” (Num. 7:89).

Looking at the Hebrew reveals an interesting construct of the verb “to speak”.

God is described as speaking to Moses twice in this verse in two grammatical forms: at the end of the verse in the usual form, “and He spoke (va-yedabber) to him”.  This word, the future of medabber, is used countless times in the Tanach for God’s speech to a prophet.

It is the earlier use of the phrase to speak—middabber—that is interesting. This is not the pi‘el or active form of the verb but the hitpa’el or reflexive, form indicating an action which reflects back to the person who performs it.

On this verse, Rashi states: “middabber is like mitdabber”.  It is the respect for God to say here that He, God, was speaking to Himself.  In other words, when the Torah states “middabber to him”, the words “to him” really mean “to Himself”.  Moses heard God speaking to Himself and Moses heard from his inner self.  This was not an acoustic event, in which the sound reached Moses; there was a process in Moses’ self-awareness, whereby in the bold words of Rashi, he heard God speaking to Himself.  He became aware of what was happening in the Godhead.  He understood God’s meaning and he heard God’s voice from within his own self.

Rashi seems to capture what Maimonides later presents as the process of prophecy.  It is something which occurs in the self-awareness of the person who has reached the ultimate given to man in perceiving God.

This process of listening to God talking to Himself seems to be at the very heart of the concept of Progressive Judaism.

So what of ourselves?  Do we have the capacity to listen? Yes – but we have to stop first.  As William Henry Davies said in his poem “Leisure”:

“What is this Life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?”

I don’t agree fully with the phrase. “when we pray we talk to God and when we study God talks to us”.  In my life, what I am looking for is to connect with the divine speech of the Creator as described in Psalm 19:

“Each day pours out speech to the other and night to night passes on the knowledge.  No speech at all!  There are no words!  Their sound cannot be heard!  And yet, their scope extends through all the earth and their message to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:3–5).

I link this transcendent view of God in creation with a much more imminent or personal experience in Deuteronomy:

“For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off.…  The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart that you may do it” (Deut. 30:11,14).

S.H. Bergman said of prayer:

“the one who prays, knows, with the knowledge of experience, that beyond the visible dimensions of this world there is a hidden dimension of our existence in which something of the significance of a man’s being is revealed to him, revealed to a greater or lesser degree, in keeping with the strength of the communion”.

Like many Jews, I am determined that my children will become good Jews and I hope that they will do the same for their children.  The problem with me, like many others, is that I don’t spend enough time being a good Jew myself.

So all those parents who recite the Shema at night with their children should also find some time in their own busy lives, maybe in the morning before the family gets up or at night, to say the Shema themselves, and maybe the Amidah and possibly a few psalms and so on and so on.

I believe that we all have the ability and, in time, the capacity to hear God talking to Himself.  We will then become a part of the Progressive Revelation of God to us, the Children of Israel.  I hope that our response to that revelation will make all the difference.

Alasdair Nisbet
Chairman, LBC Development Board
May 2009

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.