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August 28, 2015 / 13 Elul, 5775
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The Art Of Gratitude


And this is Micah: “Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” (Micah 6:7).

It is what Mesha, King of Moab, does to get the gods to grant him victory over the Israelites: “When the king of Moab saw that the battle had gone against him, he took with him seven hundred swordsmen to break through to the king of Edom – but they failed. Then he took his firstborn son, who was to succeed him as king, and offered him as a sacrifice on the city wall. The fury against Israel was great; they withdrew and returned to their own land” (II Kings 3:26-27).

How can the Torah regard as Abraham’s supreme achievement that he was willing to do what the worst of idolaters do? The fact that Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son would seem to make him – in terms of Tanach, considered as a whole – no better than Baal or Molech worshippers or the pagan king of Moab. This cannot be the only possible interpretation.

*  *  * There is an alternative way of looking at the trial. To do so we must consider an overriding theme of the Torah as a whole. Let us assemble the evidence.

First principle: G-d owns the land of Israel. That is why He can command the return of property to its original owners in the Jubilee year: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants” (Leviticus 25:23).

Second principle: G-d owns the children of Israel, since He redeemed them from slavery. That is what the Israelites mean when they sing, at the Red Sea: “Until your people pass by, O Lord, until the people you acquired [am zu kanita] pass by.” Therefore they cannot be turned into permanent slaves: “Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves” (Leviticus 25:42).

Third principle: G-d is the ultimate owner of all that exists. That is why we must make a blessing over anything we enjoy:

 

Rav Judah said in the name of Samuel: To enjoy anything of this world without first reciting a blessing is like making personal use of things consecrated to heaven, since it says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” R. Levi contrasted two texts. It is written, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and it is also written, “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but the earth hath He given to the children of men!” There is no contradiction: in the one case it is before a blessing has been said, in the other, after a blessing has been said (Berachot 35a).

 

All things belong to G-d, and we must acknowledge this before we make use of anything. That is what a blessing is: acknowledging that all we enjoy is from G-d.

This is the jurisprudential basis of the whole of Jewish law. G-d rules by right, not by might. G-d created the universe. Therefore G-d is the ultimate owner of the universe. The legal term for this is “eminent domain.” Therefore G-d has the right to prescribe the conditions under which we may benefit from the universe. It is to establish this legal fact – not to tell us about the physics and cosmology of the Big Bang – that the Torah begins with the story of Creation.

This carries a special depth and resonance for the Jewish people, since in their case G-d is not just – as He is for all humankind – Creator and sustainer of the universe. He is also, for Jews, the G-d of history, who redeemed them from slavery and gave them a land that originally belonged to someone else: the “seven nations.” G-d is sovereign of the universe, but in a special sense He is Israel’s only ultimate king, and the sole source of their laws. That is the significance of the book of Exodus.

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