“Rebelling with G-d”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

At the very end of parashat Vayeilech (the second of this week’s double parashiot, Nitzavim-Vayeilech), we read the conclusion of Moses’ valedictory address to the people, which he delivered on the very last day of his life.

Even as Moses charges the people to be faithful to the Torah, his disappointment oozes from his words. In the same breath that he tells the people to take the Torah scroll and keep it as a witness, he lashes out at them. As we find in Deuteronomy 31:27: “Kee ah’no’chee yah’dah’tee eht mer’y’chah, v’et or’p’chah ha’kah’sheh, hayn b’oh’deh’nee chai ee’mah’chem ha’yom, mahm’reem heh’yee’tem eem Hashem, v’ahf, kee ah’chah’ray mo’tee,” For I know your rebelliousness and your stiff neck: Behold! While I am still alive with you today, you have been rebels against G-d–-and surely after my death.

The frustration of leading the “stiff-necked” people has taken its toll on Moses, and even in the last moments of his life he could not help but express his deep chagrin.

The phrase, “Mahm’reem heh’yee’tem eem Hashem,” you have been rebels against G-d, has become a virtual refrain for Moses when describing the people, and reflects the pent-up disappointment of Moses as he looks back on his career and his inability to inspire the people to greater loyalty to G-d.

This is not the first time, or even the second, that Moses has used this expression. It is found twice before in parashat Eikev, first in Deuteronomy 9:7, when Moses warns the people against self-righteousness. It is found again in Deuteronomy 9:24 as Moses reviews the history of the Golden Calf and reminds the people that, but for his intercession and G-d’s gracious forgiveness, Israel would have been destroyed for their apostasy.

The Netziv (R’ Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, author of Ha’amek Davar, 1817-1893) points out that Moses uses this expression of “mahm’reem,” rebels, to underscore the unprecedented rebelliousness of the Jewish people. So great was the people’s disloyalty that even during the appearance of the Divine presence, and even in Egypt, as G-d revealed himself and brought the plagues on the oppressors of the Jews, the people rebelled, showing no faith.

My brother-in-law, Rabbi Moshe Wasserzug of Jerusalem, brought to my attention the acerbic interpretation of Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859, one of the leading Chassidic rabbis in the mid-nineteenth century, known for his pithy comments). The Kotzker Rebbe points out the rather odd choice of words in the Hebrew phrase, “mahm’reem heh’yee’tem eem Hashem,” you have been rebellious “with” G-d. The usual Hebrew expression is you have rebelled “against the word” of G-d or “against” G-d. Why does Moses employ the expression “eem,” which means, you have rebelled “with” G-d?

The Kotzker Rebbe apparently sensed in these words Moses’ extreme frustration with the Jewish people. With his characteristic irony, the Kotzker Rebbe sees Moses’ choice of words as an allusion to the fact that the people used G-d and religion as a means to cover up their trespasses. Under the guise of feigned religiosity and passion, the people performed all sorts of sinful deeds and committed perfidious acts. Unfortunately, the same hypocritical behavior can often be found in contemporary religious society. An example that comes immediately to mind is the behavior of a fringe group of the Neturei Karta sect, who under the guise of extreme religiosity have rallied to support the maniacal Ahmadinejad and his Holocaust denying cohorts.

It falls, then, to the noble Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) to redeem the Jewish people from the powerful condemnations of the other commentators. Taking into consideration the grammatical oddity of the connecting phrase “eem,” Rabbi Hirsch maintains that this word does not designate opposition to G-d, but rather connotes an intense connection with G-d. While it is true that the People of Israel were not entirely faithful to G-d, they also never totally defected from G-d. They were always “eem” Hashem. Even in their rebellion, they remained connected to Him.

It is very likely that this powerful connection to G-d, even in rebellion, assures the continuity of the Jewish people, both in bad times and in good. It is this frequent and contradictory “running away from G-d, toward G-d,” expressed poetically by Solomon Ibn Gabirol (1021-1058, Spanish poet and philosopher), that keeps the flame of faith alive in our people.

Let us hope that our people will eventually cease their rebellious ways. But let us pray that even those who may rebel, will always remain connected to the Al-mighty.

May you be blessed.