Walk Down the Mountain - Parashat Vayishlah
This D'var Torah was given to Herzl-Ner Tamid Synagogue, WA, for Parashat Vayishlah 5778 by Rabbinic Intern Natasha Mann.
Walk Down the Mountain
I have a friend called Valentine. Valentine is two years old, and is currently in the ‘why’ phase. Perhaps you are familiar with the ‘why’ phase. I, however, have had very few two-year-old friends, and I happen to be a student rabbi, so naturally, I thought that I could answer each ‘why’ with something thought-provoking, inspiring, and educational. I was very wrong about that. I started out strong, but after an hour or so of every answer bringing only a new ‘why’, I decided to try a new tactic. Val said ‘why is it night-time’, and I said, ‘What do you think?’ This is, of course, when the conversation fell apart. Because Valentine said: ‘Because it is!’
‘Because it is’. ‘Because it is’ was a perfectly satisfactory answer to Val. But what happened inside me was sort of unexpected. Something in my mind railed against ‘because it is’. I hated ‘because it is’. And while Val moved on almost immediately, I have been thinking about ‘because it is’ ever since.
That answer is, I think, the essence of God’s answer in the Book of Iyov/Job. Iyov desperately wants to know why good people suffer, and God eventually gives a huge and dramatic speech out of a whirlwind, in which he tells Iyov that humans cannot possibly understand the universe, cannot possibly understand God. ‘Where were you,’ asks God, ‘when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ It’s an intense and powerful scene. And it is, I think, a longwinded way of answering ‘why is the world this way’ with ‘because it is’.
And while I do not like God’s non-answer to Iyov’s very good question, I also think that there is something honest in God’s response. I have a personal difficulty with getting stuck on questions that cannot be answered, or for which I cannot understand the answer. I have spent entire nights thinking about this one question: if the universe is expanding, what is it expanding into? How can the universe be expanding if there is nothing outside the universe? I have spoken with people much better at physics than I am about that particular question, in order to resolve it and move on with my life, but the problem is that I cannot understand their answers. I can’t. I’m not a physicist. My brain just won’t wrap itself around the issue correctly. Give me Talmud any day, but physics is not something I can even begin to follow. And yet I can promise you that it won’t be long until I get fixated on that question again. So while I don’t find myself liking God in the Book of Iyov very much, I do understand that sometimes the kindest thing to say is, ‘You can’t understand this.’
God gives a similar answer to Moshe in one of the most famous stories of the Talmud, from Menahot 29b. The story goes like this: when Moshe was up on Mt Sinai, he witnessed God writing the little crowns onto the letters of the Torah, and he asked why God was doing this. God answered Moshe that He was adding the crowns because one day, many generations from now, one particular man called Rabbi Akiva would come along, and he would interpret many laws from each crown. Moshe asked to see this man, and God took Moshe to sit in the back of Rabbi Akiva’s Beit Midrash, his study hall. However, much to Moshe’s distress, Moshe could not keep up with the lesson. But then one of the students asked where Rabbi Akiva had learned a particular law, and Rabbi Akiva answered that it was from Moshe on Sinai. Believe it or not, this comforted Moshe. Moshe then turned back to God and asked why God had chosen Moshe to receive the Torah, and not Rabbi Akiva. God replies, ‘Be silent. This is my decision.’ And then Moshe said to God, ‘You have shown me his Torah; show me his reward!’ And God showed Moshe the violent scene of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva. When Moshe protested that such a great sage would meet such a terrible end, God once again says: ‘Be silent. This is my decision.’
Volumes have been written about the relationship between Torah and rabbinic literature based on this story. You will have to forgive me for leaving that aside today. Instead, what interests me is God’s answer. It is, once again, basically an answer of ‘because it is’. But this time, it comes after God has already answered several of Moshe’s questions quite unnecessarily. God did not need to explain the crowns – he could have given a ‘because it is’-style answer to that first question. But instead, he answers Moshe, and each answer leads to an even more perplexed Moshe asking even more questions. So we see that each time Moshe learns more, he has more questions about what he has learnt. And then we see God shut the conversation down.
Thinking back to my two-year-old friend Val and his ‘why’ phase, this answer makes more sense to me. You see, usually it is the adult who ends up saying ‘because it is’. I’m not sure it says good things about me that Val had to provide that stopper on the conversation, but the stopper had to happen. Parents are not wrong to eventually say ‘because it is’ – they have to say that, so that dinner can get made, or so that bath-time can happen.
God had to stop Moshe’s questions, because at some point, Torah had to be given. If God had truly allowed Moshe to ask every question, Moshe would never have left the mountain, and the people never would have received the Torah. If God’s only priority had been to indulge Moshe’s curiosity, there would have been no Rabbi Akiva to learn laws from crowns. At some point, it had to be enough.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read the extraordinary story of Ya’akov wrestling with the angel. It is one of the most puzzling stories in the Torah. Once again, there have been volumes written about the symbolism, about who Ya’akov was really wrestling with, and why, and what it all means. And once again, I will have to beg your forgiveness as I put that all to one side. What I am interested in is that the being wrestling with Ya’akov says that he has to leave at daybreak. The wrestling seems to last all night, but by daybreak, it has to be over. Because Ya’akov has to go and face his brother. He cannot stay wrestling the angel forever.
In each case, the divine says to the human: this is enough. You have to move on. You may not have closure, but you cannot stay here. You have to take the next step. You have to walk down the mountain and bring the Torah to the people, Moshe. You have to face your brother and whatever danger you fear comes with him, Ya’akov. And Iyov, you have to keep living. You cannot stay here.
‘Because it is’ is a non-answer. It stops the conversation. But that is not all it does. In each of our cases, I think that the individual is stuck somewhere, stuck on some issue – in Ya’akov’s case, it even manifests with a physical struggle. And I think that the Divine says some version of ‘because it is’ in order to free the questioner. In order to say, ‘It is time to move on.’
It might be counterintuitive to you to hear a rabbinic figure tell you that letting go of a question might be a good thing. After all, we call ourselves ‘Yisra’el’ after Ya’akov and his struggle with the angel. Jews delight in questions. I am of course not telling you not to ask them. What I am saying is this: it’s okay not to know. It’s okay to struggle. And it’s okay to move on.
So here is my question to you: where are you stuck? Where have you been waiting for closure for so long that you have held yourself back?
Which mountain are you not walking down? And what would it take to convince you to take the first step?