A Present Yet Absent Deity

There is a close link between fulfilling God's commandments and agricultural life in the Land of Israel.

The passage in this week’s Torah portion that begins “And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken” is recited each day, as part of the Shema Yisrael prayer. In this passage, a direct link is established between observance of God’s commandments and the weather in the Land of Israel: “And it shall come to pass, if ye shall hearken diligently unto my commandments which I command you this day, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that thou mayest gather in thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil” ‏(Deuteronomy 11:13-14‏). But if Israel does not obey those commandments: “the anger of the Lord be kindled against you, and he shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground shall not yield her fruit; and ye perish quickly from off the good land which the Lord giveth you” ‏(Deut. 11:17‏).

There is a close link between fulfilling God’s commandments and agricultural life in the Land of Israel: While the reward for observance is a climate conducive to the growing of crops, punishment for failure to obey will be a suspension of rainfall that will lead ultimately to the uprooting of the Jewish people from their land. It is this ethos that Moses conveys to the Children of Israel on the threshold of the Promised Land, one moment before they are to enter.

The above recited verses are instructions intended to encourage the Israelites, once they cross that threshold and settle in the Promised Land, to choose good over evil − that is, to prefer the option of observing God’s commandments. Therefore, these verses “accompany” the Jewish people as they make their selection. But if the commandments are a means for connecting a person to the land he stands on, and if failure to observe them distances him from that land − what meaning do they hold for a person who has been exiled? What meaning will they have if the Children of Israel abandon their Creator and they are banished from the “good land”? Should the commandments be observed even after the nation has been sent into exile, or should they in effect remain behind, in the Promised Land?

After description of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel, the theology of the Book of Deuteronomy seems to turn again itself, to nullify the reasons given for obeying the voice of God. The sages who lived after the Temple’s destruction, during the period characterized by indications that God was concealing his face, as it were, were very preoccupied with this theological issue.

The midrash offers this interpretation: “It is written, ‘ye perish quickly.’ God is saying: Although I may exile you from the land, you must excel in the performance of my commandments, so that, when you return to the land, they will not be new to you. This idea is illustrated in the following parable: A king who was angered with the behavior of his wife, the queen, banished her to her father’s home and said to her: Adorn yourself with your jewels so that, when you return to the palace, they will not be new to you. Similarly, God said to Israel: My children, you must excel in observance of my commandments, so that, when you return to the land, they will not be new to you.

“As Jeremiah ‏(31:20‏) says: ‘Set thee up waymarks’ − these are the commandments which the Children of Israel excel in observing. [Here the midrash uses a play on words to create a connection between two words that share the same three-letter root − tzadi-yud-nun. One is tziyunim, waymarks, and the other is metzuyanim, excellent]. The phrase ‘make thee guide-posts’ refers to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And the Psalmist says, ‘If I forget thee, O Jerusalem ... Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth’ ‏(Psalms 137:5-6‏). It is written ‏(Jer. 31:20‏): ‘set thy heart toward the high-way, even the way by which thou wentest.’ God is saying to Israel: Look at the paths along which you walked in the past and repent; you will then immediately return to your cities [in the Holy Land]. As it is written: ‘return, O virgin of Israel, return to these thy cities’” ‏(Sifre Ekev, paragraph 43‏).

In his prophecy, Jeremiah turns to the exiles from the Promised Land and instructs them as to how they must conduct themselves: They are told to erect markers along the road by which they will both depart and return. The prophet tells the exiled people to note the specific route they take as they leave the Land of Israel so that they can ultimately retrace their steps and return to their land. In the midrash, the waymarks and guideposts Jeremiah refers to, undergo, in essence, a transformation from tangible markers enabling the Jews to make their way, to metaphorical guideposts intended to enable the nation to preserve its connection with God. His commandments are these metaphorical guideposts.

For Jews living in exile, the commandments lose their original meaning and become signposts whose function is to remind the Jews of their potential relationship with their Creator, and of the imminent redemption that will renew that relationship.

Since Deuteronomy’s theology essentially nullifies itself, the midrash serves as a means of preservation and safeguarding in the sages’ hands: That is, through its interpretive act, the midrash endows the observance of the commandments after the Temple’s destruction with theological justification. The midrash effectively says that the commandments must be performed not because God has commanded his children to do so, but rather in order to prevent the Israelites from losing their skills and even their traditions; they will need the skills and tradition when they eventually return to their homeland, as God has planned.

However, the parable the sages use in the midrash to explain their approach turns the tables and reveals an additional aspect of this reduction of the system of commandments. In the parable, God is the king and the Children of Israel are the queen. The king is angered by the queen’s conduct and banishes her from the palace, sending her back to her father’s home. At the same time, however, he commands her to continue wearing her jewelry so that when she returns to the royal court, she will still be accustomed to wearing it − it will not be new to her. The act of wearing the jewelry outside her home is the means by which the queen will train herself for her eventual return to the palace.

The act of wearing jewelry embodies a very meaningful erotic element. In the midrash, after the destruction of the Temple, the performance of the commandments is interpreted by the sages as opening up a realm of fantasy. In her father’s house, the queen continues to perform the king’s commandments as if he were actually with her; she continues to imagine his presence each and every day, although he is absent. The sages explain that the performance of the commandments in this situation is done without a specific directive being issued, and without the elements of obedience and punishment, because he who does the commanding and punishing is not present.

The commandments seem to assume the dimension of a one-sided courtship, the object of which does not respond. It is the courting of a lover who has banished his beloved. The suitor must interpret and draw conclusions from the text to discover how, precisely, God wants to be courted. The God of this midrash is an imagined deity, a longed-for deity. He is absent and has left behind a vacuum that shapes everyday Jewish life in a more radical fashion and, to a certain extent, in a more persuasive fashion than does the God of Deuteronomy, who tries to cajole, frighten and threaten his children into not forgetting him.