Coming to Grips

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

Shabbos Chazon, as it is commonly known, is the Shabbos preceding Tisha B’Av, taking its name from the well-known haftorah from the first chapter of Yishayahu. This chapter, whose custom is to be read to the tune of Eicha, is dominated by the tochacha, or rebuke, of the Jewish people. There is a general poetic grace to the words of the prophet; while for those of a literary background it speaks volumes, to the seeker of the ideas of God, it merely serves as the gateway into understanding the nature of the prophecy. When faced with these rebukes, we must look beyond the poetic value, and attempt to glean what God is telling us, as well as to learn how we can correct our defects, leading us back to God. 

In this first full verse of prophecy, we are faced with a poetic statement that is quite cryptic (Yeshayahu 1:3):

“An ox knows his owner and a donkey his master's crib; Israel does not know, my people does not consider.”

What now? We turn to Rashi for help. However, as we will soon see, we are only digging a deeper hole:

 “his owner: Heb. קֹנֵהוּ [is] like מְתַקְּנוֹ, the one who affixes him to the plowshare for plowing by day, and since he has accustomed him to this, he knows him. The dull donkey, however, does not recognize his master until he feeds him. Israel was not intelligent like the ox, to know, when I called him and said, “Israel will be your name” (Gen. 35:10), and I informed them of several of My statutes, yet they deserted Me, as is related in Ezekiel (20:39): “Let each one go and worship his idols.” Even after I took them out of Egypt and fed them the manna and called them, “My people, the children of Israel,” they did not consider even as a donkey.

 Another explanation is: An ox knows its owner: An ox recognizes his owner so that his fear is upon him. He did not deviate from what I decreed upon him, by saying, I will not plow today. Neither did a donkey say to his owner, I will not bear burdens today. Now, these [creatures,] who were created to serve you, and are not destined to receive reward if they merit, or to be punished if they sin, did not change their manner, which I decreed upon them. Israel, however, who, if they merit receive reward, and if they sin are punished.

does not know: i.e., did not want to know; they knew but trod with their heels, and my people did not take heart to consider.”

Even understanding the words of Rashi on a literal basis is quite difficult, and not solely due to the translation. In his first explanation, Rashi seems to be separating the ox from the donkey. Whereas an ox becomes attached to his master through acclimation to work, the donkey develops this same type of relationship when fed (the zoological implications are unimportant to this author). The Jewish people, having been identified as Yisrael, received a handful of commandments (ostensibly referring to the time from Yaakov through their sojourn in Egypt), and demonstrate their “substandard” intelligence by turning to idolatry. God provides all sorts of wonderful things in the desert, and yet the Jewish people, again acting in a manner inferior to that of the animal, turn away from God. 

In the second explanation, Rashi is tying the two animals together. Here, he seems to be expressing an idea of knowledge or lack thereof, of the good provided by God. The Redak (based on this author’s opinion) seems to expand on Rashi’s explanation, giving us a better idea of what Rashi is talking about. Animals adhere to the commands of their master, “knowing” the master is the provider of good. The Jewish people received much good from God, such as the exodus from Egypt and entrance into Israel, and yet behaved in a manner indicating they did not “know” God. Furthermore, they failed to recognize that unlike an animal, they were subject to reward and punishment. If they followed God, they would be rewarded, but if they rejected God, they would be punished. 

What is Rashi teaching us?

In his first explanation, we see a contrast between the behavior of the ox and the donkey. The ox, through working for his master, becomes accustomed to his role, directly leading to knowledge of his master. The donkey, on the other hand, requires food to reach this knowledge. What is the difference here? The analogy might be speaking of the two basic elements of man – the mind and the emotions. In this case, the ox reflects the mind. Within the ox lies a certain potential - to work for his master - and once it is actualized, he now knows him. The same can be said of the mind, the ability to comprehend knowledge and ultimately yediyas Hashem. Within every person lies the tzelem Elokim, the part of man created to perceive knowledge of God. For the Jewish people, it lay in its potential state until God identified the nation and gave some commandments. At that point, the Jews were now able to actualize this ability, to engage in yediyas Hashem through the understanding and performance of these various commandments. When a person involves himself in the commandments, understanding their benefits and ideas, he becomes “accustomed” to knowing God. His mind becomes naturally drawn to the ideas, much like the ox naturally knows its owner. What the prophet it telling us is that the Jewish people acted in a manner below the ox; they had this knowledge, and yet they chose to turn away from it. They used this actualized potential to pursue idolatry and other falsehoods. The donkey reflects the other side of man, requiring the world of the instinctual to develop his relationship with his owner. In this instance, the prophet is explaining how God provided the Jewish people the complete spectrum of emotional satisfaction. He took them out of Egypt, destroying the slave psyche predominant in the nation. He provided them with the manna, ensuring their physical needs were taken care of. He created for them a complete sense of security, an environment where all their emotional needs were addressed. This type of state is ideal for a person to be able to worship God accordingly. And yet, the prophet points out, this was not enough. The Jews still rebelled, still turned away from God. This seems to be the first explanation of Rashi. 

Rashi’s second explanation offers a different understanding of the flaws exhibited by the Jewish people. As we mentioned before, Rashi does not distinguish between the two animals. Instead, he focuses on the distinction between the Jewish people’s failure to “know” God as the Source of all good, as well as their inability to “recognize” that they were subject to both reward and punishment based on their behavior. This behavior by the Jews indicated they were on a level lower than that of animals that naturally recognize the good provided by their masters. Rashi is keying in on an important concept here. God bestowed much good onto the nation from the onset, yet the nation acted as if they did not know God was the source. How could they not “know”? In fact, as Rashi points out, they knew but dragged their heels. This means they knew, but there was some type of resistance to accepting this as being true. Why? Receiving the good from God no doubt brought much benefit to the nation. However, it also clearly demonstrated a sense of dependency. Man detests this reality, the fact that he is dependent. It is a shock to the ego, a reality difficult to swallow. We want to believe we are independent creatures, free to rule as we please. The reality of our dependency on God was on full display in the exodus from Egypt through the entrance into the Land of Israel and beyond. The objective was to tie the security of the Jews with God. However, the Jews failed to appreciate this goal, and instead viewed the reality of their dependency as a weakness, and therefore chose not to “know” God as the source of the good. This always leads to the embracing of other ideologies. A similar concept is found in Rashi’s notion of the Jewish people’s failure to recognize their tie to the world of reward and punishment. All mankind is subject to God’s justice, where his fate is tied to his actions. The Jewish people partake of this to a different degree, our adherence to the commandments the true arbiter of our fate. This notion is an affront as well to the ego. We want to believe we are masters of our destiny, where we control our fate. To “admit” we are subject to this world of schar v’onesh is to recognize that we, in fact, are subservient to a system beyond our control. Resistance to this reality leads to the apparent failure to “recognize” this fundamental truth. Sadly, the Jewish people failed to recognize this, to internalize this, and were subsequently driven into exile.

We are at the highpoint of the time of tochacha, culminating in the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple. The message of the tochacha is harsh, exposing our flaws to us, forcing us to recognize how we have strayed from God and exited the world of reality. We must turn to the prophecy of Yeshayahu, accept the truth of our flaws, whether they stem from our inflated egos or our subservience to the world of the instinctual. The words of the prophecy are our guides, and we should keep this in mind as the day of Tisha B’Av dawns.