A Song Of God’s Grace

A Song Of God’s Grace

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is a professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries,” winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candles: 7:07 p.m. (Wed.);
after 8:05 p.m. (Thu.);
before 7:03 p.m. (Fri.)
Torah: Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: II Samuel 22:1-51
Havdalah: 8:01 p.m.
Fast of Gedalia: 5:06 a.m.
to 7:52 p.m. (Sun.)

This week’s sedra, Ha’azinu, is one long poem or song, the most important one in all of Torah, according to commentators. Nachmanides calls it an ed emet v’ne’eman, “a true and faithful testimony” which “explains everything that will happen to us.” It is a summary statement of Jewish history by Judaism’s greatest prophet, Moses himself. One can only imagine the fervor with which it must have been read throughout the ages by Jews intent on ferreting from it the secret of Jewish history.

Indeed, Nachmanides does locate a secret within it, the message of God’s unfailing love, drawn from the Kabbalah, of which he was a primary interpreter. But you don’t have to be a kabbalist to know the historical reality to which Nachmanides was referring.

Nachmanides lived in Gerona, Spain, in a time of heightened persecution. In 1263, he himself took part in the famous Disputation of Barcelona and, shortly after, fled to Eretz Yisrael. Like many Jews before and after, he sought a reason behind Jewish suffering and found it in Ha’azinu. Simply put, Israel’s tribulations are punishment for its sins. But God never forgets us; when the time is ripe, God will redeem us.

So far so good — Talmudic tradition regularly guarantees redemption at the end of time, assuming that we mend our ways to deserve it.

But Nachmanides goes further, with his kabbalistically inspired notion that the redemption for which we yearn has no strings attached: ein bashirah hazot tanna’ei bitshuvah v’avodah — it requires neither prior repentance nor prayerful petitioning. God takes us back just because God is God: a parent who offers us unqualified love.

This is reminiscent of the classical Christian doctrine of “grace” which emphasizes human sinfulness and the need for God to offer loving redemption even to those who do not deserve it. Nachmanides’ radical suggestion remained, therefore, something of a minority position in Judaism. Jews, overall, remained convinced that we must act deservingly before redemption dawns. But Nachmanides’ corrective never went away.

The polar views of God as a demanding judge (on the one hand) and an all-compassionate parent (on the other) live in tension. We ought to act as if God does indeed demand that we rise to the occasion of deserving deliverance. At the same time, God knows, as we do, that perfection is beyond us, and when we are about to give up hope, we should remember that God really does offer unconditional love in the end.

All of this matters — not because of God but because theological models are templates for the way we humans, made in God’s image, are supposed to behave (a matter of some urgency this week, as we read Ha’azinu with the High Holy Days in mind). The expectations that govern God’s relationship with us should exemplify the ground rules of our relationships with others.

In practice, we are held to the highest standards when it comes to people who depend upon us or who otherwise come into our orbit: we must apologize especially to those we love, and strive to do whatever we can to correct the behavior that hurts them. But if we are on the receiving end of these relationships — if friends and family ask pardon of us, that is — we ought not to be unreasonably demanding of them. Rather, like God, we can welcome them back with the good grace of love that asks nothing beyond their sincere overture across the divide that separates us.

Redemption need not be only a cosmic vision of a better time in some distant future when history comes to an end. It can be that sanguine state of affairs where our own personal relationships are made whole, because on the one hand, we have tried to do our best, and, on the other, we have refrained from the temptation of expecting perfection.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman is professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College. He is the author of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism” (Jewish Lights Publishing). 

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