MARK Twain once said, I was born to poor, but dishonest parents.
A humorist of lesser renown, the late Fred Englard of Denver, once commented on the Jewish dictum, “give much, give little; it makes no difference so long as one’s heart is directed to Heaven.”
Englard said: He who gives little also has to direct his heart to Heaven.
Twain introduces us to twists and turns in human relationships. Poverty is not necessarily redemptive, ethically speaking.
Englard introduces us to twists and turns in the relationship with G-d. Wealth is not necessarily disadvantageous, spiritually speaking.
Netziv (Rabbi Naphtali Zvi Yehuda Berlin, 1816-1892) adds still another twist in a comment on the opening of this week’s Torah portion.
Under Netziv’s interpretive lens, the usual classification of Jewish relationships is oversimplified. That classification embraces relationships “between man and his fellow” (ethics) and between “man and G-d” (spirituality, ritual, prayer).
The Torah portion opens, “Noah was a righteous person; he was wholehearted [perfect, unblemished] in his generations.”
From time immemorial commentators have questioned the redundancy. If Noah was righteous, was he not wholehearted, and vice-versa? (Another age-old question concerns Noah in his generations, plural; that we’ll leave for another time.)
Noah, described as “righteous,” denotes Noah’s relationship to G-d. Noah, described as “wholehearted,” denotes his relationship to people.
Mark Twain and Fred Englard inform us that relations between people, and between people and G-d, may be subtle, not simple. A still more subtle issue: Is there a larger relationship between the two categories of relationships — ethics and spirituality —“between man and his fellow” and “between man and G-d”?
We often hear: So-and-so is a fine person, but not religious. Or: So-and-so is religious, but a crook.
This dichotomy may be true in some cases. But can we easily classify most people this way? Are the human and the Divine relationships so easily compartmentalized? Can ethics be essential to spirituality — can the human and Divine relationships be united?
For example, the fifth commandment reads: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” This is an ethical demand. But is this all? If a child can develop a positive relationship with parents, honoring them, respecting them, loving them, then it is easier for a child to make a qualitative leap — to develop a positive relationship with the Creator.
How a person treats the most important people in his life (ethics) may be a harbinger of how he treats Someone (G-d) even more important (spirituality).
Conversely, if a person’s relationship with his parents is troubled, it is harder for that person to make the qualitative leap, to develop a respectful, loving relationship with the Creator. Bottom line: There may be no easy and simple compartmentalization of ethics and spirituality.
The greatness of Noah may be that he was an integrated religious personality. His righteousness before G-d and his wholeheartedness with people may have reflected and reinforced each other.
A DIFFICULT variation on the same theme — the integration of ethics and spirituality — comes into play in two week’s time in the Torah’s most baffling passage (Gen. 22:1-19), in which Abraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac.
G-d commands Abraham, like no one before him or after him, to sacrifice his son Isaac — Abraham’s personal, covenantal and demographic destiny. We’ll leave for another time the meaning of G-d’s command, and simply ask: How was Abraham able to carry this out? How could a human being develop the capacity to follow G-d so fully as to be able to obey this command?
Consistent with the view that one’s relationship with G-d receives its training in human relationships (with parents, for example), perhaps there was an incident in Abraham’s life that enabled him to accept G-d’s command to sacrifice his son.
I heard from Rabbi Ron Y. Eisenman this possibility:
In the same Torah portion read in two weeks, Sarah tells Abraham to dispossess his son Ishmael (21:10-12), to drive him out of their home.
Now, there is no indication that Abraham loved Ishmael, the son of his concubine Hagar, any less than he loved Isaac, the son of his wife Sarah. Indeed, Scripture says of Abraham’s response to Sarah’s command, “the matter was extremely bad in Abraham’s eyes.” Whereupon G-d says to Abraham: “Let it not be bad in your eyes . . . everything Sarah tells you, heed her voice, because it is through Isaac that seed will be named after you.”
Abraham obeys. He does that which is excruciatingly painful. He drives Ishmael out of his home.
Unknowingly, he prepares himself for his final and most difficult Divine test — to drive Isaac out of his life.
THROUGH this unique event in the spiritual history of the Jews — the binding of Isaac — G-d implanted in the Jewish people the capacity to withstand any excruciating infliction. Indeed we have, from antiquity through the Holocaust.
Noah teaches that the opposite is true, too. Through Abraham and his love for Isaac, the Jewish people have acquired the capacity to love G-d and each other — a capacity to unite spirituality and ethics — first demonstrated by Noah.
Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News