Shavuot - From Destruction and Desolation


הרב שבתי סבתו
ד סיוון תשעו
לרשימת השיעורים לחץ כאן
How does a fruit seed planted in the ground become a new tree? It undergoes a process of swelling and then bursting open, with a new small root pointing downward and a green bud pointing upw

חג השבועות

סיון תשע"ו    

Shavuot

June '16

    הרב שבתי סבתו

     Rabbi Shabtai Sabato

 

 

 

מחורבן ושממה לבניין וגאולה

From Destruction and Desolation
to Construction and Redemption

 

 

 

 

Don't Read Thus, but Rather Thus

A well-known dictum has it that "we cannot ask questions on a Medrash" – for it is often hard to reconcile between a Medrash and the simple meaning of the verse. In fact, we often encounter Medrashim that seem to have absolutely nothing to do with what the verse is telling us. The great commentator Rashi, apparently very conscious of these discrepancies, wrote in one place [B'reshit 3,8], "There are many Aggadic Medrashim [on this verse], but I have come only to explain the simple meaning of the verse."


Still, if we wish to understand the Medrash and the Torah verse as one, we have two choices: To try a new angle in understanding either the Medrash, or the verse. The following example from the Gemara
(B'rachot 7b) will make this point very clear.

How do we know that a person's name influences his life? R. Elazar said, from the verse, "Go and see the works of G-d Who has placed desolation [shamot] on the earth" (Psalms 46,9) Al tikri: do not read shamot, but rather shemot [which means 'names'].

 

The verse cited by R. Elazar is followed by another one:

מַשְׁבִּית מִלְחָמוֹת עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ קֶשֶׁת יְשַׁבֵּר וְקִצֵּץ חֲנִית עֲגָלוֹת יִשְׂרוף בָּאֵשׁ.
He puts a stop to wars until the end of the earth; He will break the bow
and cut off the spear; wagons He will burn with fire. (Psalms 46,10)

 

These verses clearly deal with G-d's putting an end to war and destroying arms. What can they possibly have to do with "names" and how they influence our lives? Quite conscious of this difficulty, R. Elazar said we should change the way we read one of the words, rendering it "names" instead of "desolation" or "devastation."

 

But how does this solve the problem? The word "names" has nothing to do with the rest of the verse! How can we derive an insight about names from a verse that says nothing about them? Are we to change the verse for the sake of an imaginary affirmation of our expectations?

 

This Talmudic passage is preceded by an explanation of the name of the heroine of the Book of Ruth (which we read on Shavuot) as stemming from the Hebrew root meaning "abundance:"

What is [the significance of] the name "Ruth"? R. Yochanan said, "that she merited to have David as a descendant, who inundated G-d with songs and praises."

 

The Gemara's question is actually, "Why was she called Ruth?" or, "What did this name cause her in her life?" R. Yochanan answered that the name Ruth alludes to a major development that will occur four generations later: Its letters resh, vuv and tuv stand for RiVah Hashem b'Tishbachot ("inundated G-d with songs and praises"), with the vuv standing for G-d's Name. That is, the name Ruth influenced King David, her descendant, and inspired him as he composed his many songs of praise to Hashem. R. Yochanan teaches that such a connection can even span four generations.

 

But it is still difficult: Is it possible that when Ruth was named, it was known what would happen several generations down the line?

 

 

Naomi: Pleasantness, or Bitterness?

When R. Elazar said, in the Gemara quoted above, "Al Tikri – do not read thus but rather thus," he was utilizing a well-known method by which the Gemara and Medrash explain over 600 verses. Some of the Al Tikri examples are well-known, and we even find one in our prayers:

R. Elazar said in the name of R. Hanina: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as is written: "And all your sons shall be disciples of G-d, and your sons' [banayich] peace shall increase" (Isaiah 54,13) - Do not read banayich, but rather bonayich, meaning 'your builders.'" (B'rachot 64a)

                                                         

Quite obviously, we cannot play around with Biblical verses and switch words however we choose. Rather, by teaching us Al Tikri, the Sages are guiding us to contemplate the deeper layers of a given word and to discover broader meanings than appear on the surface.

 

The entire Al Tikri methodology is based on and inspired by one phrase in the T'nakh – and it appears in the Book of Ruth. When Naomi, Ruth's mother-in-law, returns from Moav to Eretz Yisrael bereft of her husband and sons, she hears cries of surprise from every corner: The entire city was astir regarding them, and they said, "Is this Naomi?!" (Ruth 1,19)

 

Naomi responds with bitterness:

וַתֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶן, אַל תִּקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי, קְרֶאןָ לִי מָרָא כִּי הֵמַר שַׁדַּי לִי מְאֹד
. אֲנִי מְלֵאָה הָלַכְתִּי וְרֵיקָם הֱשִׁיבַנִי ה', לָמָּה תִקְרֶאנָה לִי נָעֳמִי...

She said to them: Al tikrenaDo not call me Naomi; call me Mara [bitterness],
for G-d has embittered me greatly. I went away full, and G-d has brought me back empty. Why then should you call me Naomi?
(verses 20-21)

 

Naomi knows that a person's name is not merely a tool for communicating with him, but rather reflects his identity and place in the world. The name Naomi, from the same root as noam and na'im, reflects pleasantness, serenity and completeness. But this does not describe her anymore, she feels; she is totally battered, beaten and disillusioned, and the only name that suits her is Mara, bitterness.

 

When our Sages taught "Do not read banayich, but rather bonayich," they mean that there is a connection between the two words "children" and "builders:" The children serve as building blocks for the family. In this light, let us read the verse again: "And all your sons shall be disciples of G-d" – When the sons of Zion are also disciples of
G-d, studying His Torah, they thus build the nation's spirituality and adorn it with peace and good neighborly relations.

 

 

Desolation and Names

We asked above what connection R. Elazar saw between the words "desolation" and "names" other than that they are spelled with the same letters. A name is something that expresses identity; what is its connection with devastation and destruction?  Once again, it is the Book of Ruth that provides the breakthrough in understanding the concept of "name." When Ruth had a son from Boaz, the neighbors named him:

וַתִּקְרֶאנָה לוֹ הַשְּׁכֵנוֹת שֵׁם לֵאמֹר יֻלַּד בֵּן לְנָעֳמִי, וַתִּקְרֶאנָה שְׁמוֹ עוֹבֵד...
Naomi took the child and… became his nurse. The neighbors called him a name, saying, 'a son has been born to Naomi,' and they called his name Oved. (Ruth 4,17)

 

The baby was named Oved in the customary manner, as is written, "They called his name Oved." But before that, they also "called him a name, saying, 'a son has been born to Naomi.'" What is the significance of this double-naming?

 

The word "saying" must be understood as meaning "that is;" the verse is explaining to us the concept of giving a name. In this case, giving the name means "a son has been born to Naomi." That is, a process of building and rehabilitating Naomi's hard-hit family is underway. When the neighbors thus "name" the newborn baby, they are saying that his mission is to help restore and rebuild the family anew.

 

This concept well jibes with the Torah's intention in giving us the mitzvah of yibum, levirate marriage: If a man dies and leaves no children, either his brother must agree to marry the widow, or she must undergo a divorce-like process from him, known as chalitzah. In the latter case, the Torah tells us that the woman must explain to the court that her brother-in-law "refuses to establish a name for his brother in Israel; he refuses to take me as a wife" (D'varim 25,7). We see here clearly that that giving a name means to rebuild a family.

 

There is thus an inverse connection between "name" and "desolation:" they stand for opposites. "Name" stands for building and rehabilitation, the opposite end of the process of desolation and destruction. What does this tell us about R. Elazar's teaching not to read the word as "desolation" but rather as "names"?

 

 

Birth and Growth

How does a fruit seed planted in the ground become a new tree? It undergoes a process of swelling and then bursting open, with a new small root pointing downward and a green bud pointing upward. The seed rots, and the bud turns into a plant. What comes first? Does the bursting of the seed cause the bud to burst forth? Or is it that the bud sprouting out causes the seed to burst open?

 

The answer is clear: The bud, the start of the formation of the next generation, is what causes the seed to break open and start deteriorating. In other words: The future construction is what causes the current destruction.

 

This is similar to the demolition of a one-floor building so that it may be replaced by a ten-story structure. The desire to build a taller building is that which leads to the destruction of the smaller one. The same with the wondrous process of birth: When the time comes for the fetus to be born, it forcefully pushes its way out, ripping apart delicate tissues inside his mother in the process. It is not the destruction of the tissues that causes the birth, but rather the birth that causes damage along the way.

 

We can now understand the above-quoted Gemara much differently: "How do we know that one's name influences his life?" The Gemara is actually asking how we know that one's future mission – that which he must build and rebuild – is what causes all the vicissitudes and shake-ups of life. R. Elazar then provides the answer:

"See the works of G-d Who has placed desolation [shamot] on the earth" (Psalms 46,9) Al tikri: do not read shamot, but rather shemot ['names'].

 

True, the verse is certainly referring to desolation, as we see from its context. But does this destruction stand alone? What brings it about? R. Elazar teaches us that "names," i.e., future missions and the structures being rebuilt, are that which lead to the present-day destruction and devastation. That which exists now is flattened in order to build a better world for tomorrow.

 

As proof of this approach, let us look again at the above verse cited by R. Elazar. In this verse of destruction, we would have expected to find G-d referred to as Elokim, the name of strict judgment, and not the four-letter Havayah name standing for mercy and compassion. The allusion here to mercy shows that the source of the current destruction is the future construction of a world without wars, as the next verse states:

מַשְׁבִּית מִלְחָמוֹת עַד קְצֵה הָאָרֶץ...
He puts a stop to wars until the end of the earth… (Psalms 46,10)

 

We can now also better understand this prophecy of the Prophet Yeshayahu:

לְמַעַן צִיּוֹן לא אֶחֱשֶׁה וּלְמַעַן יְרוּשָׁלַים לא אֶשְׁקוֹט...
וְרָאוּ גוֹיִם צִדְקֵךְ וְכָל מְלָכִים כְּבוֹדֵךְ וְקֹרָא לָךְ שֵׁם חָדָשׁ אֲשֶׁר פִּי ה' יִקֳּבֶנּוּ.

For Zion's sake I will not be silent, and for the sake of Jerusalem I will not rest... And nations shall see your righteousness, and all kings your glory, and you shall be called a new name, which the mouth of the Lord shall pronounce. (Isaiah 62,1-2)

 

What is this "new name"? It is redemption and salvation of Zion in the form of the rebuilding of Jerusalem. The Prophet continues: "It will no longer be said about you "abandoned," and your land will no longer be called "desolate"…" (verse 4) That is to say, Zion and Jerusalem will no longer be called "desolate;" they will rather receive a new name, one that expresses their new, rebuilt essence. Thus, the Prophet says straight out: "Do not read 'destroyed,' but rather 'a new name,' a new beginning"!

 

To elaborate yet further, let us note that when analyzing history, we are accustomed to the intellectual approach according to which every event is the result of previous events. That is, the past builds the present, layer by layer. But the approach of Torah and prophecy is the opposite: The future is that which builds and directs the present. The Divine target directs and guides that which happens now. Sometimes, in order to understand today's events, we must wait for tomorrow to clear them up.

 

The Torah faith-based approach is nourished by a deep belief that everything that occurs in the world is the product of Divine Providence. All the rivers flow towards the target designated in advance. Our "free will" affects only the steps along the way towards the goal, but not the final results, which G-d has set beforehand. This is what is meant by "Everything is foreseen but permission is granted:" The Divine goal is known and set in advance, but the way in which it will be attained is up to us.

 

 

David's Redemption

Now let us return to the Gemara that explained the name "Ruth" as a reference to her descendant David who "inundated Hashem with songs and praises." We now see that the question "What is Ruth?" is not what we thought, but is rather: What stands behind the chain of events in the Book of Ruth? What truly happened, and why?

 

R. Yochanan enlightens us by explaining that a spark of the tremendous soul of King David, held captive in the depths of Moav, was that which ignited the great tragedy of Naomi's family – the deaths of Elimelekh and his two sons – and it will also be that which will burst forth to bring about its redemption. King David, "sweet singer of Israel," stands behind the topsy-turvy events in the Book of Ruth, and he is the one who makes them happen.

 

This profound idea deserves elaboration. The Nation of Israel has a very exalted Divine mission, as the Prophet Yeshayahu expressed it:

וְהָיָה בְּאַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים נָכוֹן יִהְיֶה הַר בֵּית ה' בְּראשׁ הֶהָרִים
וְנִשָּׂא מִגְּבָעוֹת וְנָהֲרוּ אֵלָיו כָּל הַגּוֹיִם.
And it shall be at the end of the days, that the mountain of
Hashem's house shall be firmly established at the top of the mountains,
and it shall be raised above the hills, and all the nations shall stream to it.

וְהָלְכוּ עַמִּים רַבִּים וְאָמְרוּ לְכוּ וְנַעֲלֶה אֶל הַר ה' אֶל בֵּית א-להי יַעֲקב וְיורֵנוּ מִדְּרָכָיו
וְנֵלְכָה בְּאורְחותָיו כִּי מִצִּיּוֹן תֵּצֵא תוֹרָה וּדְבַר ה' מִירוּשָׁלִָם.

And many peoples shall go, and they shall say, "Come, let us go up to G-d's mount,
to the house of the G-d of Jacob, and let Him teach us of His ways,
and we will go in His paths," for out of Zion shall the Torah come forth,
and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.
(Isaiah 2,2-3)

 

G-d's Torah and commandments are that which prepare the Nation of Israel for its great task. If Israel had fulfilled its destiny in the Land of Israel, it would have become a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Sh'mot 19,6) unto Hashem, and would have drawn all the nations to the path of G-d. The peoples would have seen that "the Name of G-d is called upon" Israel (D'varim 28,10), and they would have come and converted of their own free will so that they could also be a part of G-d's Nation – just like the Queen of Sheba, who heard of King Solomon's wisdom and greatness and decided on her own to "join up."

 

But this is not what happened! Israel sank into the depths of sin, and its presence in the Holy Land did nothing to spiritually arouse the neighboring peoples. As a result, destruction and exile were decreed upon them – for a purpose that R. Elazar explains in the Talmud very clearly:

Hashem exiled Israel among the nations only so that converts would join up with them, as is written: And I will plant her [Israel] for Me in the land (Hosea 2,25); for doesn't a person plant one acre in order to reap fruits many times over?  (Pesachim 87b)

 

In other words, the Nation of Israel, utilizing its Free Will, made a bad choice of how to raise up and rectify holy sparks. Instead of doing it easily and happily in Eretz Yisrael, they were forced to do so amidst sadness, hardship, and bitter exile.

 

And this is precisely the story of the family of Elimelech's family and of Ruth the Moavite. If Elimelech, a great patron of his generation, had remained in the Land to support his countrymen at their time of hardship and help the poor and hungry during the difficult famine, the Nation of Israel would have gained a world-wide reputation as a people of sacred values, kindness and mutual support. Ruth the Moavite would have been drawn as if by magnet to the Land of Israel, and the soul of King David, hidden inside her, would have been redeemed with ease.

 

But Elimelech and his family chose differently. They shamefully decided to circumvent their fundamental obligations to their neighbors, and to leave for Moav – a nation with a historical record of not performing kindness: "…they did not greet you with bread and water on your way out of Egypt…" (D'varim 23,5) The consequences were destruction and devastation for the family, which paid in full for its grave sin. Ruth the Moavite, with the soul of King David within her, was redeemed the hard way, via suffering and poverty. However, she merited there in Moav to get to know the special soul of her mother-in-law Naomi - a paradigm of the exalted values of the Jewish Nation. Ruth therefore cleaved to Naomi, and returned with her to her homeland and people in Eretz Yisrael.

 

It thus turns out that it was King David's soul that brought about this entire stormy series of events. We can say that when Ruth the Moavite stood before the President of Judah, Boaz of Beit Lechem, in the middle of the night, and sobbingly presented her pure dream and goal – I am Ruth your handmaiden; would that you would spread your shelter over me, for you are the redeemer (Ruth 3,9) this was the spark of King David's soul knocking strongly on Boaz's heart, as if saying: "I have traveled a very far distance to reach here. Arise! The hour of my redemption has come – do not squander it!"

 

It could even be that this spark of David, ensconced deep in S'dom, was that which drew Lot to S'dom when he separated from his uncle Avraham. The Medrash alludes to this on the verse in Tehillim (89,21), "I have found David, My servant," saying, "I found him in S'dom with Lot and his two daughters, as is written, "…and your two daughters who are found [here]" (B'reshit 19,15; Medrash B'reshit Rabba 50,10).

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