In the years over which I have been writing these musings, I have touched on many themes in the readings for the Shabbat during Pesach. I've taken Ezekiel's dry bones on a walk. I've asked if we have left Gd behind (Ex. 33:15-16). I commend those earlier musings to you.
These readings bear the marks of well-worn paths. I wasn't feeling spirited enough to try and find yet another interpretation, so I read through the text, deciding to stop when something caught my interest. And sure enough, something did. It's the last part of chapter 34 verse 20.
We all well know the dangers of taking text out of context for exegesis, for it too often results in eisegesis. (To quote Tom Lehrer, "the rest of you can look that up when you get home.") The preceding verse, 19, plus the first half of verse 20 is straightforward enough, speaking about the dedication of all firstlings-whether animal or human to Gd, and the necessary redemption. (For some reason, there is one exception, in that a first-born male ass is redeemed with a sheep. Is this because of the role of the ass as a beast of burden? But I digress.)
The first half of verse 20 concludes with "kol b'khor banekha tif'deh" - all your first born sons you shall redeem. And then this somewhat of a non-sequitor, "v'lo-yir'u panai reikam," none shall be seen before me in their emptiness (i.e. none shall appear before Me empty-handed?)
Here was a verse worthy of deeper thought and study. Thoughts came and went, some interesting, others fleeting. Connections to the akedah. Memories of reading how, in the ANE (ancient near east,) it was common to never appear before a sovereign without a gift.
Well, it certainl;y makes a lot of sense that, if ritual sacrifice is part of what Gd has commanded the Israelites, that none should appear before Gd without such a sacrifice.
However, I'd like to utilize the more open feeling of the Hebrew, and interpret "reikam" as "their emptiness." This opens a whole new realm of interpretation. For what does it mean to appear before Gd in one's emptiness?
There are many kinds of emptiness. Emptiness of hand. Emptiness of mind. Emptiness of heart/soul. Emptiness of intent. Emptiness of faith. Emptiness of covenant. Emptiness of self-worth. Emptiness of kindness and compassion. Emptiness of interest.
If we appear before Gd empty of but one of these, or others, then what have we brought with us into our meeting with Gd? The Torah tells us to love Gd with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. If we come before Gd empty of any of that love, we are not living up to either Gd's expectations of us, and, perhaps, our own expectations.
I think of the many sedarim I have participated in over the years, and the many others I have heard about. Some of them were fraught with meaningful kavanah, others seemed to be merely empty repetitions of the keva. Just like appearing before Gd empty. It seems almost impossible, given the brilliant structure of the Seder and the Haggadah, that any such observance could be truly empty. And I am certain that, no matter how empty they may have appeared to me or others, it is not for me to judge or determine what intent and meaning others might bring before Gd with their own ritual observances. It is a prejudice to label ritual for ritual's sake as devoid of meaning or intent.
Sometimes, the ritual is all there is that we have left to bring before Gd. The mere performance of the ritual is something we can bring before Gd.
This did not at all go where I intended it to go. When I started out, I was hoping to create an abject lesson in looking for, fighting and fixing the emptiness in our own selves, our own lives, our own rituals, so that we can stop appearing before Gd in our emptiness. But Gd led me down another path, to discover how dangerous it would be to judge anyone as appearing before Gd in their emptiness.
So it looks like I've turned the phrase around. From "none shall APPEAR before Me in their EMPTINESS" it has become "NONE shall appear before Me in their emptiness," as if Gd were saying that Gd would never perceive anyone who comes before Gd as being empty! After all, we are all b'tzelem Elokim, so how can we truly be empty?
Ah-another tie-in to the Akedah. Gd was saying that, just as Gd provided the appropriate needed sacrifice for Avraham, so Gd to will see to it that no one ever has to come before Gd without the proper sacrifice. Rich, poor, and all alike will never have to come before Gd in their emptiness.
What a powerful thought. Even in the depths of our cynicism, our questioning of faith, belief, ritual, even of Gd, we never come before Gd in emptiness. Even dry bones can be brought back to life, so some kernel of life must be within them, they are never truly empty.
Hodu L'Adnai ki tov.
Thanks, Gd, you're good. What a great idea.
To you and yours a hag kasher v'sameakh and Shabbat Shalom,
©2002 by Adrian A. Durlester
5757-5760-Shabbat Hol Hamoed
Dem Bones Go For A Quiet Walks (Ezekiel 36:37-37:14) and
Have We Left Gd Behind? (Ex. 33:15-16)
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