Tuesday, August 04, 2009

chasam sofer on "am chacham v'navon"

ו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן,
הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.
ח וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם, כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם.

These pesukim (Devarim 4:6-8) in last week's parsha relate how the nations of the world will come to recognize the wisdom of the Jewish people by observing the moral conduct engendered by observance of halacha. Pasuk 6 tells us that the nations will remark that we must be a great nation because we have such a remarkable ethical code; pasuk 8 echoes the same sentiment. Couched between these two sentences there is another pasuk that I left out:

"Ki mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim kerovim eilav k'Hashem Elokeinu b'chol koreinu eilav."

How does recognizing that G-d answers the prayers of the Jewish people fit the theme of pesukim 6 and 8 which speak of the rational appreciation of Torah law as a superior moral system?

The answer can be gleaned from a remarkable Chasam Sofer which highlights one word in pasuk 6 that changes the entire thrust of the parsha. Pasuk 6 starts: "U'Shemartem" -- guard yourself -- a word the gemara reads in many places as implying a prohibition. Turning the simple meaning of the pasuk on its head, Chasam Sofer writes that the Torah is warning, "u'shemartem", against thinking that Torah must be obeyed because even the nations of the world and secular scholars appreciate its rationality. Obeying halacha just because it "makes sense" and a Jew can be respected outside in the world for how he acts is a poor motivation, because what "makes sense" does not always accord with what the halacha actually demands.

Furthermore (and this explains pasuk 7), if a moral code that makes sense is all there is to Torah, then it makes no sense to daven by a sick person's bedside hoping s/he will get better. Can you explain to the nations how bacteria are affected by tefilah? Can you explain why G-d should save another person just because little you stand there and mutter a few perakim of tehillim? The wonder of Torah is not that "lo tignov" makes sense to any person who did not grow up in a jungle -- the wonder of Torah is that G-d actually listens to the tefilos of each and every one of us and responds in some way, "b'chol koreinu eilav."

[ I enjoyed this Chasam Sofer because of the way it subverts the pshuto shel mikra, but given recent events I'm a little worried lest the wrong impression be drawn. On the one hand, there is a need to be mindful of the temptation to mold belief and strip its mysteries to fit the perception of what others accept as "chacham v'navon". At the same time, there is a danger in losing sight completely of the impression one's actions make when viewed by the secular world. ]


  1. I have too much respect for the Chassam Sofer to think that he even for one minuter believed that this was the real meaning of the passuk. Ela Ma'i he was using the drash as a message he wanted to share with the members of his kehilla or the community at large who were enticed by the haskalah which was establishing itself in his time.

    I find the repeating of such derashot out of context disturbing and counter-productive and a cause of much of the distorted thinking and consequently behavior in our community. This is an area that needs attending to very badly.

  2. >>>the real meaning of the passuk

    I don't know what those words mean. A pasuk has multiple layers of meaning, all of which are equally "real".

    >>>haskalah which was establishing itself in his time

    And is fully established in our time, making the message all the more relevant.