Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Of Payment and Intimacy / Baba Metzia 86b

We have been studying a long sugya toward the end of Baba Metzia for what feels like half of forever. It’s complex and confounding, and we are not yet prepared to share any major thoughts, but for the moment, I’m intrigued by a short passage in which the Rabbis discuss on daf 86b the manner in which God responds to Abraham’s righteousness. It follows on the heels of a comparison between Abraham’s generosity in feeding the strangers (ministering angels) who appear out of the desert, and Solomon’s generosity in feeding the nation. Abraham wins not on an absolute scale, but on a per capita comparison. In response to the magnitude of Abraham’s generosity, God repays Abraham’s descendants when they, like the ministering angels, journey through the Sinai desert.
Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Everything that Abraham did personally for the ministering angels, the Holy One blessed be God did personally for his children. Whatever Abraham did through an agent, the Holy One blessed be God did for his children through an agent: And Abraham ran to the herd (Genesis 18:7) [corresponds to] And there went forth a wind from the Lord (Numbers 11:13); and he took butter and milk (Genesis 18:8) [corresponds to] Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you (Exodus 16:4); and he stood by them under the tree (Genesis 18:8) [corresponds to] Behold, I will stand before you there upon the rock, etc. (Exodus 17:6); and Abraham went with them to bring them on the way (Genesis 18:16) [corresponds to] and the Lord went before them by day (Exodus 13:21); let a little water, I pray you, be fetched (Genesis 18:4) [corresponds to] and you shall smite the rock, and there shall come water out of it, that the people may drink (Exodus 17:6).

But this disagrees with R. Chama bar Chanina. For R. Chama bar Chanina said, and the School of Ishmael also taught: As a reward for three things [done by Abraham] they [his descendants] obtained three things. As a reward for, [and he took] butter and milk, they received the manna; as a reward for, And he stood by them, they received the pillar of cloud; as a reward for, Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, they were granted Miriam's well.
Perhaps a chart will help you picture the two views more easily. Rav Yehudah argues that each and every kindness Abraham does for the angels – God’s messengers – is repaid in kind by God to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites. Not only that, but just as Abraham is kind to the angels during their trek through the desert, so God’s kindness to the Israelites is during their long trek through the Wilderness. Human kindness is repaid by God in a like manner.

R. Chama bar Chanina does not share the view that God repays kindness in such a precise (mechanical?) way, but rather that God seeks to the “major category” provisions the Israelites need to sustain and guide them through the Wilderness.

Several questions spring to mind: Does God actually repay people in the manner suggested here? Or, are the Sages conveying their view of the interaction – the flow of energy, love, and commitment – between heaven and earth?

Time and again, Torah and Gemara affirm: humans act, and God responds. What we do here has resonance in heaven and throughout the universe.

The Rabbis’ sense of the closeness between God and Israel is felt throughout Talmud, and expressed in a surprising way in this passage, where Israel’s failure to engage diligently in Torah study weakens God:
R. Elazar opened a discourse with the following proverb: “Through laziness the rafters (hamekareh) are weakened (yimach), and through idleness of the hands the house leaks” (Ecclesiastes 10:18). On account of Israel’s laziness, in not occupying themselves with Torah, the Holy One blessed be God is weakened (mach). The word “weak” (mach) means impoverished, as it is said, “But if the person is too poor (mach) for the estimated donation…” (Leviticus 27:8). And the word “rafters” (mekareh) refers to the Holy One blessed be God, as it is said, “The One who sets (hamekareh) his upper chambers in the heavenly waters” (Psalm 104:3). (Megillah 11a)
Does Israel’s lack of diligence actually weaken God? Or does it figuratively weaken God? Those who imagine God a Being will likely choose the latter option, finding the first option problematic. But for those whose conception of God is not as a Being, to the extent that our commitment to Torah study, and everything that arises from it (our concern and commitment to others in keeping with God’s covenant) bespeaks God’s influence in the world, God’s weakening is very real: we are the eyes, ears, arms, and legs of God in the world.

For me, the passage underscores the Jewish sense of our intimacy with God, expressed beautifully in a Yiddish poem by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The translation below was rendered by Rabbi Morton Leifman, and I commend to you the translation and musical adaption by Rabbis Mordecai Creditor and David Paskin found at The poem is meant to be a dialogue or conversation between God and Humanity. God speaks first.

I and You
Transmissions flow from your heart to my heart, My pain is intertwined, intermixed with yours. Am I not you? – Are you not me?
My nerves are bound together with yours.
Your dreams have met with mine.
Are we not one in the bodies of millions?
Often I see myself in everyone’s face, Hear in people’s weeping my own speech – a distant, quiet voice. Right under millions of masks my face lies hidden.
I live in me and in you.
From your lips flows a word from me to me.
From your eyes drips a tear – whose source is in me.
When a need springs in you – it’s in me. When you crave a human presence – tear at my door. You live in yourself. You live in me.
How many of us yearn for that sense of intimacy, merging, connection with God? The Rabbis sought it, and their interpretations and midrashim reverberate with that desire. They found it through study, prayer, and observance of their obligations to God. In our day, the door has opened to include pursuit of social justice, meditation, and more. However God is conceived, and however connection is achieved, it is about completing the circle and experiencing the oneness of all.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman