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NITZAVIM-VAYELECH

Deuteronomy 29:9 - 31:30

by Rabbi Edward Feinstein

Who is your spiritual hero? Asked this at a recent conference, I recalled a story from the Talmud.

The Rabbis of the first century considered the status of an oven invented by an entrepreneur named Achnai. Rabbi Eliezer, the patrician elder statesman of the academy, declared the oven pure. But his colleagues demurred and overruled him.

Rabbi Eliezer offered every argument. But his colleagues would not budge. The oven was declared impure.

Enraged that neither his stature nor his argument could sway the debate, Rabbi Eliezer produced a miracle: "Let the carob tree prove it!" he thundered. The earth shuddered and the carob uprooted itself and rocketed into the air.

"No proof can be brought from a carob tree," the scholars retorted.

"Let the stream of water prove it!" Whereupon the stream flowed backward.

"No proof can be brought from a stream."

Rage pent up soon becomes spite. And Rabbi Eliezer, now boiling with frustration, turned to the walls of the Academy and commanded them to fall in upon the assembled scholars. But his counterpart, Rabbi Joshua, arose and addressed the walls: "When scholars are in debate, what right have you to interfere?" And so, the walls did not fall in honor of Rabbi Joshua, but neither did they resume their upright position in deference to Rabbi Eliezer. To this day, the walls of Yavneh -- indeed, of all Jewish institutions -- lean over just a bit.

Finally, beyond all restraint, Rabbi Eliezer invokes the highest authority. "If I am right, let it be proved by Heaven." Whereupon, reports the Talmud, a Heavenly Voice called out: "Why do you dispute Rabbi Eliezer? In all things, the law agrees with him!"

At that moment, Rabbi Joshua arose again, and quoted a verse from this week's Torah portion: "It [the Torah] is not in heaven!" (Deuteronomy 30:12). What did he mean by this? Rabbi Yermiah explained: "The Torah has already been given on Mt. Sinai. Therefore we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice."

Rabbi Eliezer produced real and wondrous miracles. On this there was no dispute. Nor was there disputing the reality and authenticity of the voice from heaven. But the Rabbis vested authority in neither miracles nor voices. Rabbi Joshua speaks for the tradition when he orders God to recuse Himself from the discussion. God gave us Torah. And along with Torah, the authority to interpret it using the powers of human reasoning, imagination and compassion. Even God Himself cannot interrupt that process. Once the Torah was given, God is no longer revealed in miracles and voices, but in human intelligence and conscience. And how does God feel about all this? Listen to the story's postscript:

Rabbi Nathan was a mystic who periodically met with Elijah the prophet, God's messenger. Rabbi Nathan asked Elijah, "What did God do at that moment?" -- the moment when Rabbi Joshua pushed Him out of the Academy.

"He laughed with joy," Elijah replied, "and said, 'My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!'"

A spirituality of obedience and submission, dependent upon miracles and voices from the sky, represents spiritual childishness. Spiritual maturity demands the chutzpah to put away the need for signs and wonders, and to cultivate the authority of conscience and the powers of intelligence. We may not always be right. After all, Rabbi Joshua's position contradicts the Voice of Heaven. In giving up the voice of Authority from outside, we give up a degree of certainty in our religious life. But we gain the opportunity to become empowered as spiritual adults. That is the will and vision of a God who celebrates, "My children have defeated Me!"

Rabbi Joshua, the champion of spiritual maturity, is my hero. He understands the radical depth of Moses's teaching in this week's Torah portion (Deuteronomy 30:11-13): "Surely, this Torah which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond your reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us?...No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it."


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