Torah Within Reach, Part 2: When God Has Gone Away
As Moshe hands over the reins to Yehoshua in Parashat VaYelekh, God foretells a dark future. Throughout the cycle of parshiyot, we have been tracing the theological underpinnings of robust, mutual relationship. But God knows that the close relationship cultivated with Israel during the desert years will not last. The people will abandon God and the Covenant. There will be much suffering. Yet, while later interpreters recognize this rupture—that God has left us, so to speak—our relationship with Torah persists as an ongoing channel for hope and repair. VaYelekh invites us to dive deep into Torah, even when God is “gone.”
Parashat VaYelekh describes how Israel will abandon God and forsake the covenant of mutual responsibilities that are the underpinning of this relationship:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְקוָק אֶל־מֹשֶׁה הִנְּךָ שֹׁכֵב עִם־אֲבֹתֶיךָ וְקָם הָעָם הַזֶּה וְזָנָה אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהֵי נֵכַר־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הוּא בָא־שָׁמָּה בְּקִרְבּוֹ וַעֲזָבַנִי וְהֵפֵר אֶת־בְּרִיתִי אֲשֶׁר כָּרַתִּי אִתּוֹ׃ וְחָרָה אַפִּי בוֹ בַיּוֹם־הַהוּא וַעֲזַבְתִּים וְהִסְתַּרְתִּי פָנַי מֵהֶם וְהָיָה לֶאֱכֹל וּמְצָאֻהוּ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת וְצָרוֹת וְאָמַר בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא הֲלֹא עַל כִּי־אֵין אֱלֹהַי בְּקִרְבִּי מְצָאוּנִי הָרָעוֹת הָאֵלֶּה׃
The Lord said to Moses: You are soon to lie with your ancestors. This people will thereupon go astray after the alien gods in their midst, in the land that they are about to enter; they will forsake Me and break My covenant that I made with them. Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them. They shall be ready prey; and many evils and troubles shall befall them. And they shall say on that day, “Surely it is because our God is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us.”
We might think betraying God and betraying the covenant are essentially the same. We find similar language in Yirmiyahu, that speaks of both as a means to explain why terrible things have befallen the people:
וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵיהֶם עַל אֲשֶׁר־עָזְבוּ אֲבוֹתֵיכֶם אוֹתִי נְאֻם־יְקוָק וַיֵּלְכוּ אַחֲרֵי אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַיַּעַבְדוּם וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לָהֶם וְאֹתִי עָזָבוּ וְאֶת־תּוֹרָתִי לֹא שָׁמָרוּ׃
Say to them, “Because your fathers deserted Me—declares the LORD—and followed other gods and served them and worshiped them; they deserted Me and did not keep My Instruction.
This verse sets up a literary parallelism, where deserting God and God’s Torah seem to be essentially equivalent. Yet, the Sages disentangle these two acts of betrayal, through a simple grammatical choice that has profound theological consequences. Abandoning God and abandoning Torah become two distinct clauses, and totally separate acts.1
רַבִּי הוּנָא וְרַבִּי יִרְמְיָה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חִיָּא בַּר אַבָּא אָמְרֵי, כְּתִיב )ירמיה טז, יא ( וְאֹתִי עָזָבוּ וְאֶת תּוֹרָתִי לֹא שָׁמָרוּ, הַלְוַאי אוֹתִי עָזָבוּ וְתוֹרָתִי שָׁמָרוּ, מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁהָיוּ מִתְעַסְּקִין בָּהּ הַמָּאוֹר שֶׁבָּהּ הָיָה מַחֲזִירָן לְמוּטָב.
…הַלְוַאי אוֹתִי עָזָבוּ וְתוֹרָתִי שָׁמָרוּ, מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁהָיוּ מִתְעַסְּקִין בָּהּ הַמָּאוֹר שֶׁבָּהּ הָיָה מַחֲזִירָן לְמוּטָב.
R. Huna and R. Yirmiyah said in the name of R. Hiyya bar Abba: It says, “They abandoned Me and did not keep My Torah” (Yirmiyahu 16:11).
…If only they had abandoned Me but kept My Torah—out of engaging with it the illumination in it would have returned them to the good.
In a totally counterintuitive read of the verse, instead of abandoning Torah as a manifestation of abandoning God, the Sages imagine that it is theoretically possible to abandon God but still keep Torah. The problem was when Israel did a two-fold act of betrayal and abandoned both God and Torah. This split between God and Torah is a theological game-changer. Suddenly, abandoning God is not the worst case scenario. Even if our relationship with God has dissolved, there is still Torah. The “illumination in Torah,” even without God, remains profound and impactful.
The way Torah’s illumination affects our lives need not be at all direct or linear. The midrash does not speak of “obeying” Torah but of “engaging with” Torah. It is not as simple as opening up the Torah to find a clear directive. Rather, through the ins and outs of our whole-hearted engagement with Torah, as we wrestle with its meaning, and articulate our questions and challenges, we move closer towards the “good”—learning how to be better and do better.
This idea that the illumination of Torah can affect our lives even when God is “out of the picture” carries a lot of weight in our contemporary moment. In the wake of modern thought and historical events, the idea that God is “gone” resonates with many. People draw stark lines between “religious believers” and “secular atheists,” and presume that these worldviews are entirely at odds. But there are rich alternatives to this binary thinking in our tradition.2 As one eloquent example, R. Yitz Greenberg, has taught prolifically about God intentionally contracting so as to make way for human agency.3
Our midrash offers expansive language for a blurred, gray space between believing in God and not believing. “If only my people had abandoned Me, but kept My Torah.” It is a powerful and productive paradox: We imagine that God believes in our relationship with Torah, even without God.
The contemporary Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai plays creatively with these motifs of betrayal, God and Torah; while also integrating a sizable dose of modern skepticism:
יהודה עמיחי פתוח סגור פתוח
כשא-לוהים עזב את הארץ הוא שכח את התורה
אצל היהודים ומאז הם מחפשים אותו
צועקים אחריו שכחת משהו, שכחת, בקול גדול
ובני אדם אחרים חושבים שזוהי תפילתם של היהודים
Yehudah Amichai from Open Closed Open
When God left the land He forgot the Torah
with the Jews. And from then they are looking for Him
yelling after Him “You forgot something, You forgot!” in a loud voice
and other people think this is the prayer of the Jews.
In this rendering, we become actively engaged with Torah, and we turn towards God, but not out of a serious religious quest, just because we want to return an object to its owner. Our efforts are mistakenly perceived as religious worship.
On the one hand, it is a humorous scene—reducing all of our extensive tradition of learning and prayer to the flustered activity of trying to track down someone who has forgotten something. But it is also devastating. The substance of our prayer to God becomes our desperate attempt to be rid of what God left behind—to unload the burden of Torah—and to release ourselves from needing to seek out God. God doesn’t respond in this poem—perhaps not ever—and it leaves us feeling that we will spend the rest of our lives in this futile attempt to catch God’s attention and give back the Torah. We are always trying to undo Sinai, but to no avail.
Amichai puts into words a feeling that might bubble up in all of us: Sometimes Torah can feel like a burden we want to get rid of. Sometimes we want to give back our heritage and move on with our lives. But we can’t undo our heritage and history—not Torah nor any other aspect of our histories that we might prefer we didn’t have to live with. For Amichai, this wish to unload the burden of Torah does not mean that our relationship to it and to God are over. Rather, this sentiment is exactly what propels us into relationship. In the end, we are constantly holding on to Torah and shouting towards God, and this makes up a substantive religious practice.
Could this be the kind of “engagement with Torah” Midrash describes, just holding onto it waiting for the right moment to be rid of it? And is this considered a relationship with God—shouting towards God who has gone the other way, so we can unload this burden and go back to our own lives? Amichai’s dark humor may not seem at all devotional, but I find that surfacing this skepticism and bringing it into religious language can actually strengthen a relationship to Torah, without getting stuck on whether or not we “believe” in God. Amichai opens a brutally honest and ultimately resilient picture of an approach to Torah and God that integrates our doubts and full range of feelings.
In fact, Amichai’s poem can be taken as a sweet inversion of the dynamic at Sinai. Instead of God deliberately giving Israel the Torah as an expression of a preexisting Covenant established long before with our ancestors, we are in the position of trying to give the Torah to God as an expression of our responsibility and care towards a stranger. Our deep sense of obligation to perform a simple act of kindness—to make sure to return a lost object—ends up being the foundation of an indirect yet ever-present relationship with God. Our own moral and social responsibility compels us to carefully tend to the Torah that was left behind. This by-the-way and accidental entry into relationship with Torah, grounded in our own moral instincts, might resonate more than the top-down God-driven revelation of Sinai. As we hold onto and care for the Torah, waiting for God, its Owner Who might never return, maybe we’ll find that we are curious about its contents.
The Torah as primarily a thing that is “forgotten” might suggest it is of little value. But actually, it is possible to be robustly nourished by what others have accidently left behind. One of the mitzvot connected to harvest is the mitzvah of shikhekhah—that a landowner who leaves behind sheaves during the harvest must leave them for others without land to reap. With this intertext, Amichai’s poem suggests that we can reap this forgotten Torah and be nourished by it.4
The fact of the matter is that sometimes we feel alienated from God, living in a world that reflects the failures and brokenness foreseen in the closing parshiyot of the book of Devarim. But even if we have no idea how to “return to God,” and maybe even if we don’t want to, Torah is still there for us. The illumination that comes not from Torah directly but from our complex ongoing engagement with it, has the power to reorient our sense of purpose and reset our inner compass. Most importantly, the bedrock of our connection to Torah, and to God, must grow out of the intensity of our sense of responsibility towards others, like Amichai’s image of the Jews’ insistence to return the lost object. When we are that deeply sensitive to our moral obligations, we might be lucky enough to notice the forgotten Torah and tend to it as we wait to return it. We can reap its teachings as we try to get the attention of our Creator, Who might never look back, but only ever wanted for us to find our way to lives of goodness, with God or without.
1 Perhaps this surprising bifurcation between abandoning God and Torah stems from language used elsewhere in Yirmiyahu that speaks of a two-fold wrong (כי שתים רעות עשה עמי).
כִּֽי־שְׁתַּ֥יִם רָע֖וֹת עָשָׂ֣ה עַמִּ֑י אֹתִ֨י עָזְב֜וּ מְק֣וֹר ׀ מַ֣יִם חַיִּ֗ים לַחְצֹ֤ב לָהֶם֙ בֹּאר֔וֹת בֹּארֹת֙ נִשְׁבָּרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יָכִ֖לוּ הַמָּֽיִם׃
For My people have done a twofold wrong: They have forsaken Me, the Fount of living waters, And hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, Which cannot even hold water.
2 See the Ateret Zvi prize-winning essay by Akiva Mattenson, “Out Beyond the Sea.”
3 Many of R. Yitz Greenberg’s Divrei Torah for the 5781 cycle draw out the implications of this theology.
4 Thank you to my colleague R. Avi Killip for drawing this connection.