Many years ago I accepted a position in Australia and resigned from my then congregation at Hampstead in north-west London. Someone expressed surprise that I was going, and said, “Hampstead is a place of arrival, not departure!”
He meant that when a rabbi got a job at Hampstead he had arrived and generally stayed for ever or at least for a lengthy period. It’s true: Hampstead really was a place of arrival. (When I went there someone else commented in the “Jewish Chronicle”, “an apple has got a plum job”.)
These thoughts are relevant to today’s sidra, which says, “When you come to the Land…” (Deut. 26:1-2) – i.e. “When you have arrived…”
How do you know you have really arrived in Israel? The first year you complain about the Aliyah officials in your country of origin who misled you, the next year you complain about the Ministry of Absorption officials who advised you badly, the next year you complain about the Treasury, which didn’t give you enough perks… and eventually you complain about a later wave of immigrants, who got a better deal that you did, and when this is where you find yourself, it means you’ve arrived.
Arrival means that you feel at home. The place is yours, the people are yours, the way of life is yours. You’ve arrived!
The Torah knows all of this, but it adds a further stage. When have you arrived? When you speak about it (“I have come to the Land which God promised!”) and you willingly accept your share of social responsibility (you offer your first fruits to the Land and its destiny).
NO GREAT FUN
What a terrible list of threats in the “Tochechah”, the warning of doom, that we read in this week’s portion!
Nakedness, hunger, poverty and subjugation are no great pleasure. These and other horrible experiences are predicted in the relentless series of curses. True to Biblical theology, they all come as punishment for not serving God (Deut. 28:47).
But there is something new and unexpected – not just that we didn’t serve God, but we didn’t serve Him joyfully.
It doesn’t mean that we joyfully rebelled against Him or defied Him with glee, but we failed to serve Him with joy. What God wants of us is not only to serve Him, but to serve Him happily – not merely routine, perfunctory service, but getting pleasure from observing His will, finding fun in faith.
Pinhas Peli points out that man is capable both of making God happy and of making Him sad (Gen. 6:5-6). Not what we would have expected – a God who feels emotion, who has times of joy and times of sadness. Speaking about Him in human terms is metaphor, it’s poetry. It uses human language not because it is really the truth but because it helps us to understand things from our limited human perspective. It helps us to see the message.
We can’t simply turn on a switch and become instantly happy, but if we look at whatever mitzvah lies in front of us and find an aspect that makes us feel good, we make God feel good too.
WHERE IS GOD?
Our enemies taunted us, “Where is your God?”. We asked the same question ourselves. Sometimes it was when we were suffering so badly that we wondered whether God had forgotten us and left us in the lurch.
We also asked the question when we simply wanted to know the Almighty’s location. We noted the prayerbook phrase, “Avinu Shebashamayim”, “Our Father in Heaven”, and said, “Heaven is above us in the sky, so that must be where God is”.
Simple logic, and it is supported by this week’s portion which calls upon Him, “Hashkifah mim’on kod’sh’cha min hashamayim” – “Look down from Your holy habitation, from Heaven” (Deut. 26:15).
But we still couldn’t help worrying. Since God has no bodily form how can He have a location? Can there even be such a question as “Where is God?” And that view too is supported by the Bible, for example in the final chapter of Isaiah with its grand assertion that no place is capable of containing Him (Isa. 66:1).
So how do we handle the references to heaven? By saying that we are not speaking of a geographical place but a symbol. We look up to God in a metaphorical sense. He is so far above us in every respect that poetry is the only means we have to depict the distance: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:9).
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and held many public roles. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.
Rabbi Apple blogs at http://www.oztorah.com