Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger
Former Shaliach in Boca Raton (1999-2007)
Currently Executive Director and Community Rabbinic Scholar of Dallas Kollel
Judaism in a Secular Era:
Freedom and Responsibility
Six weeks from now, when the world and the Jewish People experience another Rosh HaShana, we will stand before God and celebrate the creation and continued existence of the world. Again and again we will address the Creator as Avinu Malkanu – Our Father Our King. But why do we need to reference God in this repetitive fashion? What is the difference between God as father and God as king? – For one, a king maintains a static relationship to his subjects, whereas a father’s children are always growing and maturing, thus the nature of the relationship develops dynamically over time. The import of that dynamic is strikingly set forth in this week’s Torah portion.
The forty-year period of Israelite wandering in the Sinai desert was engineered to ensure maximum dependency on God – so we are told in the 8th chapter of the Book of Deuteronomy, near the beginning of this week’s Torah reading. Everything was provided them on a silver platter. The only food available was the manna that fell from heaven, water appeared by the hand of God, and the Israelites’ clothing and footwear miraculously never wore out. On the other hand, the text goes on to say that when the Israelites enter the Promised Land, they will find nature’s bounty waiting to be tapped. Prosperity will be their lot – but only if they plow and plant, if they judiciously shepherd their flocks, if they mine and build. Human effort will be demanded and will be handsomely rewarded.
The chapter concludes with a warning about the inherent spiritual pitfall of life in the Land of Israel – the illusion of self sufficiency: “Beware, lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Lord your God … and you say to yourselves, my own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me. Remember that it is the Lord your God who gives you the power to get wealth”. Man must forever bear in mind that he is in partnership with the Almighty; man must invest blood sweat and tears, he must plan and execute, but it is God who provides the resources and the wherewithal for all of man’s noble efforts.
An obvious question arises: If life in the Land of Israel – which is of course the real world in which we all live – is so fraught with spiritual danger, why does God subject us to it, why does He not just leave us in the desert, providing for all our needs such that we would never be subject to the error of supposing that all of our accomplishments are to be credited only to our own ingenuity and toil!
The answer to this question may lie in one verse sandwiched in the above quoted chapter between the description of life in the desert and life in the Land of Israel: “Bear in mind that the Lord your God nurtures you just as a man nurtures his child”.
God cannot keep us dependent on Him as in the desert because the fundamental paradigm of His relationship with us is that of a parent, and the parent – child interaction by nature is dynamic. God wants his children to grow up, and to facilitate our maturation He provides us with ever expanding opportunities to exercise responsibility for our own fate and that of the world.
This insight may provide the key to unlocking the meaning of the broad panorama of Jewish history. God’s relationship to the Jewish People is constantly evolving, as He invites us to play a greater and more active role in shaping our destiny. Gradually over the course of millennia God’s hand pulls back from the arena of our lives; He recedes into the background, not out of disinterest or lack of power, but out of providential love and concern. Redemption requires the freedom, the open playing field that provides the opportunity for us to struggle on our own – with all the inherent risks – towards perfection.
In our times, with the dawn of modernity – the Emancipation and the Enlightenment – and then the Holocaust followed by the establishment of the State of Israel, we may have entered into a new stage of Jewish history. God’s kingship is no longer as visible, while His fatherhood – as the parent of adult offspring – has moved to center stage. God the father has deemed it time to provide us expanded freedom and absolute covenantal responsibility. Our fate and the fate of the world may now depend exclusively on us. As we slowly gear up for the Rosh HaShana celebration of the universal meaning of life, let us resolve to meet the challenge of spreading divine values, repairing the world, and sanctifying God’s name throughout the universe, thereby bringing redemption one step closer.