IN YOUR FACE!
September 19, 2017
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1086, Haazinu, Parsha Thought

TORAH IS NOT EMPTY!

Moshe continues with his admonition of the Jewish people in his last days on earth. In this week’s parsha, after reciting a long song, Moshe continues to focus on the proper attitude toward Torah.

Moshe says to them:

“For it is not an empty thing from you. Rather, it is your life, and from this matter shall you prolong your days on the land to which you cross the Jordan, to take possession over it.”

What did Moshe mean when he says, “it is not empty?”

Rashi comments on these words and states:

“You have nothing empty in the Torah that if you would expound it that it would not have in it reward.

In other words, there is nothing in the Torah that does not have meaning for us.

The Jerusalem Talmud adds, “If you find any part of Torah to be empty, it is from you.” In other words, if we find the Torah wanting, it is we who are wanting; it is we who are empty.

Rashi then proves this point by citing a verse which appears to contain irrelevant information. After we probe beneath the surface, however, we can discover the powerful message it contains.

ELIPHAZ’ CONCUBINE: A SPIRITUAL MESSAGE?

The verse he cites is in the Book of Genesis, where the Torah mentions that Esau’s son Eliphaz took Timna as his concubine and that Timna was a sister of Lotan.

What possible value can this information have for us?

Rashi answers that Lotan was a distinguished leader of his people and it is therefore puzzling that he would have let his sister become a concubine.

It turned out that, on the contrary, she was deeply honored that she could become closely attached to any descendant of Avraham. She said, “I am not worthy to be a wife to him. If only I could become his concubine!”

This information is important, Rashi explains, because it “publicizes the praise of Avraham, that rulers and kings would desire to cleave to his seed.”

The question can be asked, why Rashi had to bring this particular example of Timna to illustrate that everything mentioned in the Torah has meaning. There are so many other verses before and after the one about Timna that appear prosaic but convey profound lessons.

MENASHEH’S PROBLEM WITH THE VERSE OF TIMNA

We can shed light on this matter by referring to an enigmatic passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) concerning the Biblical king Menasheh, son of the righteous King Chizkiyahu.

Menasheh, one of the most evil of kings, a mass murderer and idolater, mocked the Torah.

The Talmud relates that Menasheh would cite the verses concerning Timna and mockingly say:

“Did Moshe have nothing to write other than ‘Lotan’s sister was Timna’ and ‘Timna was a concubine of Eliphaz’?”

Why was Menasheh so fixated on this particular verse?

A DOUBLE-EDGED SWORD

The answer lies in the name Menasheh itself.

Yoseph named his firstborn Menasheh because he said, “G-d made me forget my travail and my father’s house.” In that context, Menasheh was a positive name which implied forgetting the negative experiences of the past. Keeping troubling memories in the fore of our mind can be depressing and debilitating.

However, forgetfulness is not always selective. Some people allow their penchant for forgetfulness to apply to their faith and commitment to Judaism.

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 102b) King Menasheh’s “amnesia” was not only selective, but in the wrong direction. “Why was he called Menasheh?” the Talmud asks, “Because he forgot G-d.”

Where does the negative power of forgetfulness come from?

According to the Kabbalists and Chassidic thought, it derives from the “backside of wisdom.”

In simple terms, this means that our minds are biased toward the superficial and secondary aspects of knowledge. This attitude toward knowledge causes us to forget the important things in life, which are connected to the “face of wisdom,” representing the true and inner core of knowledge.

By analogy, the human body illustrates the difference between the face of wisdom and its backside.

Our bodies have a face and a backside. The face contains all of the important features that enable us to express ourselves clearly. If we show someone our face, that person can get an inner glimpse into who we are and what we are feeling. Our backside, by contrast, doesn’t have any power to reveal our inner feelings; it conceals them.

Similarly, Divine wisdom has a “face” and a “backside.” The face of wisdom is the Torah, which clearly reveals G-d’s wisdom and inner will. All other systems of knowledge, while they must have been created by G-d and contain hidden sparks of holiness, do not reflect Divine wisdom.

Torah also has a face and a backside. When we study Torah, and see it as the Divine wisdom it is, and not simply as an interesting collection of stories, or even a profound philosophical system, we connect to the inner dimension of G-d’s wisdom. That connection does not allow us to forget.

If, however, Torah is regarded by us as just another, albeit important, contribution to knowledge, we open ourselves up to the negative Menasheh syndrome.

KING DOVID’S ERROR

Moreover, even when we understand that the Torah is Divine and unique, we can still relate to Torah’s backside instead of its face. The Alter Rebbe in his classic work, the Tanya, discusses the mistake that King Dovid made when he described Torah as a song. For King Dovid, Torah was so powerful a song that he was able to distract himself from all his sorrows; he realized the beauty and power of Torah’s melody. Our Sages tell us that because he “denigrated” the Torah by reducing it to a beautiful song, he was punished and forgot a law that forbade carrying the Ark on a wagon.

King Dovid’s error was his praising of the Torah with a secondary praise, thereby obscuring the face of Torah as something utterly Divine and eluding any characterization, no matter how sublime.

This is why King Dovid’s punishment was forgetting a Torah law. The punishment reflected the nature of his error. He relegated the Torah to a secondary level; he was therefore punished with the forgetfulness that results from the backside of wisdom.

Obviously, there are many levels to the backside of Torah. At the highest level, it is to regard Torah as the most powerful force in the universe. That was King Dovid’s mistake - Torah transcends the universe.

At a lower level, the backside of Torah encourages one to regard Torah as no more than an equal partner with other systems of knowledge.

LOTAN’S SISTER: THE BACKSIDE OF WISDOM

The Chassidic work, Panim Yafos, discovers a hidden message in the Torah’s statement that Timna was Lotan’s sister:

Panim Yafos demonstrates that the name Lotan alludes to the backside of wisdom:

If we take the Hebrew word for wisdom, chochma, and transpose its letters with the letters that follow them in the alphabet, it yields the word Lotan. The letters that are closer to the beginning of the alphabet are the face; the letters that follow are therefore the backside of chochma. Moreover, the word “sister” also alludes to wisdom as it says, “Say to wisdom you are my sister.”

Timna wanted to rectify and elevate the status of secular wisdom by connecting herself to Avraham’s family. She realized that his grandson, Yaakov, had the power to rectify and refine the hind part of wisdom, but he did not fully accept her. As a result, she was content to become a concubine of Esau’s son Eliphaz, who was known for his wisdom as one of Job’s friends and counsellors. However, because her connection to Yaakov’s family was tenuous, and she was merely a concubine, this wisdom did not get refined. Instead, she produced a child named Amalek, the infamous father of the evil nation that sows doubts and causes forgetfulness.

Eliphaz, although sent by his father Esau to kill Yaakov, instead robbed him of his possessions. When wisdom was compromised as a result of Yaakov not allowing Timna to marry into his family and become rectified thereby, it impoverished Yaakov.

Yaakov also suffered years later when he was attacked by Esau’s guardian angel and suffered the dislocation of his sciatic nerve. This nerve in Hebrew is referred to as the Gid Hanasheh.

Panim Yafos points out that the root of the word Nasheh is similar to Menasheh, which means forgetfulness. This attack, and Eliphaz’ impoverishment of Yaakov, resulted from the failure to refine the backside of wisdom, which, ultimately led to the emergence of an evil monarch, Menasheh, whose very name, as we have learned, epitomized forgetting G-d and His teachings.

Menasheh did not like the connotation of this verse because it exposed him as evil and identified his glaring flaw of forgetfulness.

REMEMBER

There are 365 days in a solar year and there are 365 Biblical proscriptive commandants; the things that we are commanded not to do. According to the Arizal, the prohibition of eating the sciatic nerve, one of the 365 commandments, corresponds to Tisha B’Av, the day that both Holy Temples were destroyed and we were plunged into cruel exile.

This shows us that the idea of forgetfulness is the root cause of exile. It is no surprise that we are taught in the Talmud that one of Menasheh’s sins was the murder of his grandfather, the prophet Isaiah, who was the prophet of consolation and Redemption.

Menasheh’s lethal antipathy to Isaiah symbolized the utter disconnect between Redemption and Menasheh-forgetfulness.

It follows that if Galus-exile is a product of and contributes to forgetfulness, then remembrance is the antidote.

Indeed, many of the Torah’s commandments revolve around the theme of remembrance. We are commanded to remember the Exodus and the giving of the Torah every day, in two of the “Six Remembrances” that we recite daily. There are many other Mitzvos which are designed to jog our soul’s memories.

But remembrance is not just the opposite of forgetting. As we have seen, remembrance means that we are connected to the “face” of G-d’s wisdom. And when we are in His face, we experience G-d’s unmasked Essence. This is the Essence of Redemption. 

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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