Ki Tavo: Forty years to understand

Yet to this day the Lord has not given you a mind to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. I led you through the wilderness forty years – the clothes on your back did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet; you had no bread to eat and no wine or other intoxicant to drink — that you might know that I the Lord am your God. (Devarim 29:3-5)

No instant insights
despite the wonders on the way.

Forty years from revelation
to understanding.

Forty years to pare the husk
and find the heart within.


In a talk* that he gave at the Se’udah Shelishit (third Sabbath meal) on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tavo in 1996, http://etzion.org.il/vbm/english/archive/sichot67/50-67kitavo.htm, Rabbi Yehudah Amital (1924 – 2010) cites the Gemara (Avodah Zarah 5b) which recalls the incident in which the people grumbled against God and Moses that there was no bread and water in the wilderness and that they had come to loathe the miserable food… (B’midbar 21:5). Yet the Gemara says that Moses only reminds the Israelites of this incident some forty years later. We read there “As it is said, ‘And I have led you forty years in the wilderness . . . but the Lord did not give you a heart to know, and eyes to see and ears to hear, until today.’ [the quotation in the Gemara actually changes the order of the verses cf the Torah’s text itself as cited above)]. Said Raba: From this you can learn that it may take one forty years to know the mind of one’s master.” Rav Amital wonders what the Gemara is teaching us. He asks, “Does it really take four decades to learn a lesson?”
In order to address this, he brings the Talmudic analogy (Chagiga 15a) of toch – the meaning, value, or truth that lies at the heart or core of a system, and its kelipah – the shell or husk that surrounds it, and which can take many forms. Rav Amital notes that Chasidic thought differentiates between “a kelipah of desire, which one may penetrate to reveal the truth, and a kelipah of falsehood, which has no toch at its core. In such a case, he says, the shell is truly empty.”
Rabbi Amital, speaking twenty years ago, addresses a challenge no less pressing today, which he describes as a new culture of falsehood. He says, “Now it is the mantra of the West which rules, that image is everything, that only kelipah counts. Within this culture of hidden lies, falsehood is attractively packaged and marketed. Whether it is commercial advertisement or political propaganda, modern media present us with enchanting and beautiful externals, the connection between them and the internal value of the product or person being negligible.  There are even those who attempt to sell the toch of Judaism in the same way, by exhibiting all of its ostensibly desirable and appealing elements, instead of delving into its content and depth.”
Rav Amital brings a strange story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Chagigah 2:2) which tells of two righteous men, one of whom dies and whose spirit then appears to his friend and describes the afterlife. Among other things, he tells him of a woman there, who has the bizarre name of Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves, in whose ear the hinge of the gate of Gehinom [hell] revolves! The friend learns that she earned this punishment because of her false piety – she fasted a lot and took great pains to publicize it, or, according to another opinion, she exaggerated it.  However, the deceased informant adds that Miriam will be replaced in her uncomfortable position by none other than Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, who was the Nasi – the President of the Sanhedrin,** who when he dies, will take her place! The amazed friend wonders what could have been the sin of the Nasi? He learns that prior to becoming Nasi, Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach undertook to use his position to eradicate sorcery, but did not kept his resolution once he reached office. The friend immediately visits R’ Shimon ben Shetach, who resolves to fulfill his promise, but is awestruck, because he hadn’t ever actually spoken of his intention aloud, having only committed in his own heart to do so!
Rav Amital asks what we learn from this passage. He teaches that Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves’ curious name gives us the clue. He notes the marked difference between the onion and other vegetables: while other vegetables have a kelipah and a toch, the onion has only kelipah; after each layer of peel is shed, there is another layer of peel. The onion thus symbolises things which have only an exterior, but no core. This passage in the Talmud Yerushalmi comes to denounce that which has no inner truth or value, that which merely consists of a possibly attractive but actually empty husk. Miriam-Daughter-of-Onion-Leaves puts on a show of fasting, appearing to be pious, but really seeks public approbation. R’ Shimon ben Shetach lets himself believe that he wants the high office of Nasi in order to eradicate paganism, but he does not fulfill the promise, even though he made it only to himself.
Rav Amital adds, “Judaism demands that, just as one should not write a check unless he has funds to cover it in the bank, one must also have “coverage” for all his assertions, promises and even intentions. The Torah despises facades and hypocrisy.  We must inspect our actions, making sure that they validate our words and thoughts…”
He concludes, “With this in mind, we can return to the Gemara in Avodah Zarah cited above. The template of Moses in the desert shows us that it is insufficient to memorize and declaim the rabbi’s words verbatim, being satisfied with the way they appear at first glance, on a kelipah level. Instead, we must understand them well and plumb their depths, exposing the toch.  This requires a great deal of time, but it is the only way to ensure that at our core, we are people of truth.”

After the number seven, forty is the most frequently-occurring number in the Tanach, and it often seems indicative of some sort of transition or turning point (forty days of the Flood, of Moses fasting on Mount Chorev, forty days granted to Ninevah to repent, forty days of purification following the birth of a baby boy (double that amount for a baby girl); forty years was the age at which both Isaac and Esau were married, that Calev was sent to spy out the land, forty years of the Children of Israel’s sojourn in the desert,while several judges and kings ruled each for forty years.)
In the Talmud, we learn that a new level of understanding is attained at the age of forty – “ben arba’im le-binah,” (Pirkei Avot 5:26). Tradition tells us of three great Rabbis – Hillel, Yochanan ben Zakkai and Akiva who embarked upon their rabbinical studies when they were forty years old.
Forty is also paralleled in the period between the first day of Elul, when we begin to blow the Shofar to prepare for Rosh Hashana, until Yom Kippur, the end of the period of repentance. These 40 days are considered a meaningful period for striving to reach a deeper level of understanding of what is required of us.

*Rav Amital’s talk was summarized by Matan Glidai and translated by Yoseif Bloch.
**The Great Sanhedrin, similar to a Supreme Court, was made up of a Nasi (President), who functioned as head or representing president, but was not a member of the court, an Av Beit Din (the chief of the court), and sixty-nine general members.

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