Sunday, August 27, 2006

Antinomies Inform Us

Parshat Shoftim
In memoriam Richard Norman Wisan, PhD.

Looking through the Israeli Chabad pamphlet “Hiskashrus”, I noticed two ideas attributed to the Tzemach Tzedek, Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, on the idea of “two witnesses”.

The verse says, (19:15) “…by the testimony of two witnesses…shall the thing be established.” When we see the number two in the Torah, we often thing of pairs, generally opposites: two Tablets, one relating to other people, the second relating to God; two brothers, one following the Path, the other not; etc.

Philosophically we are a religion of distinctions, of opposites, of thesis and antithesis which must be held in mind together, not synthesized into an artificial harmony. Holy and profane, tameh and tahor, man and woman, immanent and transcendent, all are dealt with in different ways according to the philosophical position of the explainer. Paradox, tzvei dinim (Neo-Kantian dialectic), and balance, characterize the Chasidic, Litvish and Mussar approaches to the ideas we all hold necessary.

The Rebbe says, on the one hand,

Two witnesses – these are tzimtzum (contraction) and hispashtus (expansion) (two stages in Kabbalistic creation – the contraction of God to make room for the Universe, and the expansion of matter throughout the space left for it). The thing (word) – hints at the Word of God which caused Creation to happen.. By two witnesses is the thing established – For Creation to happen, both are necessary. Without expansion, there would be no physical Universe. Without contraction, there would be no space for the Universe to form.”

On the other hand,

Thing – hints at the words of prayer. Two witnesses – these are Fear and Love. By two witnesses the word is established – Only through both Fear and Love is Prayer established.”

The editors of Or Hatorah brought both ideas on the same page (Devarim 997), and they came from the same mind, so what’s the connection? Let’s free-associate about other antinomies.

Constriction-expansion: this brings to mind (since it’s Rosh Chodesh Elul) the verse in Hallel, “From the narrow place (meitzar) I called, O God, in the broad place (merchav) You answered me, O God.” R’ Meir Goldwicht of YU, in his Pesach tape two years ago, tells us that this is our personal Exodus, that we are to experience on Pesach at the Seder. From the meitzar, the narrow place, Mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow land, we called out, prayed. We were answered in the broad place, the desert, where miracles were performed for us and we were given the Torah. Right there, we have prayer, and its answer. But this brings in the Exodus.

Fear-love: these are motivators of action in prayer and mitzvoth. In a way, fear comes first, fear of punishment, the motivator of perfect behavior, of not violating any mitzvoth. But that is not the goal of Judaism, simple behavior. No, whether for the Rambam (perfect philosophy) or for most others (kabbalistic ascents), there is a further level of perfection, born out of love for God, and desire to cleave to Him, to know Him as the Rambam requires. This is the level of Ahavah. And according to the Rebbe, both Fear and Love are necessary for prayer.

So we have fear/love as aspects of total prayer, and we have Creation (constriction/expansion), and the Exodus (narrow-wide). They all come together. Both Creation and the Exodus are motivating factors in our relationship with God. We remind ourselves of them all through the davening, in the brachot surrounding Shma, in the Pesukei Dezimra – we keep recounting our history, and marveling at the wonder of Creation as motivators for proper intention in the central prayers – Shema and Shemoneh Esreh. Further, fear and love, fear of the Creator God who is all-powerful over the Universe, and love of the Savior-God who brought us out of the narrow place, the house of bondage, come together in our prayers, motivating us to rise ever higher in our service of the Divine.

As we enter the Teshuvah Season, in the beginning of Elul, we start to think about the coming Judgment, and the ideas of repentance, prayer and charity, all of which avert the stern decree. By balancing these antinomies in our consciousness, we can inform our prayers with the intensity needed for them to be heard.

We remember the peshat in the verse, that it takes the exactly parallel testimony of two witnesses in order to convict others, be they criminals or other false witnesses. By the same token, then, witnesses that disagree will necessarily acquit the sinner. These antinomies, then, certainly disagree, and will, God-willing, when properly meditated upon and brought into conscious reality, help to acquit us, to avert the stern decree.

May our prayers be heard as this season progresses, and all throughout the year.

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