A Talmudic passage describing God in a dialectical manner.
At the end of each Shabbat, a lengthy prayer, beginning with the words, “VaYetein LeCha…” (“And may He Give you…) is recited. Towards the end of this prayer, a passage from Megilla 31a is incorporated within the prayer:
R. Yochanan said: Wherever you find (mentioned in the Scriptures) the Power of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, you also find “Invatanuto” (His Humility/Gentleness) stated.
(Although the typical translation of “Anavut” is “humility,” the Soncino translation of the Talmud [http://halakhah.com/pdf/moed/Megilah.pdf] renders the word “gentleness.” Perhaps the translator did not think that the opposite of “power” was “humility,” or perhaps “humility” is too much of a human attribute, thereby making the translator uncomfortable and feeling that an alternative had to be sought after.)
This juxtaposition appears in the Torah, is repeated in the Prophets, and stated a third time in the (Sacred) Writings.
(The Jewish bible or “TaNaCh,” is comprised of twenty-four books, divided into three sections: Torah [the five books of Moses], Nevi’im [eight books], and Ketuvim [eleven books].)
It is written in the Torah: (Deuteronomy 10:17) “For the Lord your God, He Is the God of gods and Lord of lords,” and it says immediately afterwards: (Ibid. 18) “He doth Execute Justice for the fatherless and the widow.”
It is repeated in the Prophets: (Isaiah 57:15) “For thus saith the High and Lofty One, that Inhabiteth eternity, Whose Name Is Holy,” and it says immediately afterwards, (Ibid.) “with him that is of a contrite and humble spirit...”
It is stated a third time in the (Sacred) Writings, as it is written: (Tehillim 68: 5) “Extol Him that Rideth upon the skies, Whose Name is the Lord,” and immediately afterwards it is written: (Ibid. 6) “A father of the fatherless and a judge of the widows…”
Each of the biblical citations describes God as both Transcendent in terms of His Exaltedness and Greatness, and at the same time, exceedingly Immanent, Concerned with and Protective of the lowliest, most defenseless members of human society, something that apparently would not otherwise be expected of the Divine.
Reflecting upon the use of multiple biblical texts to demonstrate an idea.
I have long thought that when the Talmud finds it necessary to prove a point by positing that the same idea can be demonstrated by multiple proof texts drawn from throughout the biblical canon (see e.g., Tractate Bava Kamma 92b; Mishna Rosh HaShana 4:6), it reflects that, on the one hand, the concept is most certainly part and parcel of Jewish tradition, and yet, on the other, that it is somewhat controversial and therefore has to be amply supported by thorough documentation down through the ages.
Why does the Talmud and Jewish liturgy invoke so many different verses to prove this particular idea?
Why would we not expect that God Is by definition Humble/Gentle, and therefore find it necessary to refute such a notion with multiple biblical texts drawn from any number of sources?
It seems to me, that because God’s Attributes are so often highly refined versions of the behaviors that we are accustomed to finding among extraordinary people who excel in interpersonal relationships—Sota 14a describes the need of man to emulate the Divine by providing clothing for those who lack clothing of their own, visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, and burying the dead—when we think about powerful human beings, feeling and acting exalted because of their stations in life and their professions, we are simply unaccustomed to associating them with special sensitivity for the downtrodden and the suffering. At least at first glance, it is simply unexpected to think of the distinguished and the noble devoting quality time to helping those truly in need. Therefore, the Talmud in Megilla, as well as the prayer “VaYetein LeCha…” are engaging in what I would refer to as “reverse anthropomorphism,” i.e., describing God in terms that run counter to typical human characteristics. Instead of it coming as a surprise that God would Care about the weak and oppressed, it should be obvious, just as it should be obvious that human beings ought to do the same, regardless of how self-important they might otherwise feel.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits is quoted in the Faith and Freedom Haggada (compiled and edited by Reuven Mohl, Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2019, pp. 38-9) as positing that because of man’s dual nature, i.e., the respective centralities of the head and the heart, he is capable of two, often separate wisdoms: 1) cerebral intelligence and 2) recognizing the values of life. “VeYitein Lecha...”, by citing Megilla 31a, is perhaps urging us to bridge the gap between these two areas, and at the same time as we think great thoughts, extend ourselves to those who need our attention and assistance.
Rabbi Jack Bieler was ordained at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University in 1974. He has been an administrator and faculty member of Orthodox Jewish day schools for over thirty years. He is a Jerusalem Fellow and has published and lectured widely on the philosophy of Modern Orthodox Jewish education. He has served as Rabbi of KMS since 1993.
Rabbi Bieler has been a Panelist for Jewish Values Online for several years, responding to questions. You can find his answers by visiting Jewish Values Online, selecting the ‘View all panelists’ link, and clicking his name. A link will appear with his bio to show all answers he has submitted. Rabbi Bieler wrote one of the Blog entries selected as the three best for the first Quarter of 5779. You can see that entry on the front page of the Jewish Values Online Website.
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