Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Who Wears the Crown?

I am honored to recognize our dear friend Selwyn Gerber for hosting today's "lunch and learn" at Gerber & Co. in Century City. To listen to the recording, click on the link below:

The real meaning of Teshuvah - and how Rosh Hashanah makes it possible.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Sun Disappeared, the Moon Laughed, and I Discovered the Universe

I began to worry that we would miss it. Heading south from West Yellowstone with the whole family in tow, traffic was at a standstill. A mass exodus to the path of totality extended as far as the eye could see along the single lane of Route 20. Following the lead of several gutsy drivers, I turn the rented SUV onto a dirt road between the fields… 

Our destination was Rexburg, an innocent Western town with pretty parks, flapping flags and friendly folks. Eventually the traffic cleared and I got back on the highway. We made it to Rexburg in time to find a parking spot and join a crowd gathering in a large field to view the eclipse.

Reality eclipsed the hype.

Witnessing a total solar eclipse is incomparable to any other experience on earth. Those who missed it stare at the pictures in bewilderment, wondering what all the fuss was about. But a camera cannot capture the thrill and the terror of being in the shadow. You really did have to be there.

It’s not only photography that fails, language also has its limits. We have no words to describe intangibles like love, prayer, silence, or the color green. An eclipse, however, presents an even greater challenge. Writing about totality is like trying to explain infinity to a child. It is not just a want for words; the human mind is simply not wired for it.

BLACKOUT

I was unprepared. One moment there was a sun above my head, and the next, it was gone. I had underestimated the power of our star. Apparently, even the tiniest sliver of crescent sun is still a sun. And so, when the moment of totality arrived, it came as a shock.


We are unaccustomed to swift changes in the firmament. It takes an entire month for the moon to move through its phases. Prior to totality, the sun shrank too slowly for the eye to perceive movement. The daily sunrise and sunset are gradual and romantic, but there was nothing romantic about totality. The sun morphed before our eyes from a source of light into a source of darkness and we immediately felt the impact. Suddenly, the world went dark. Suddenly, a cold wind blew. Suddenly, stars appeared. Suddenly, we were screaming.

The great clockwork of heaven froze
. My time-conscious son Meir did not believe me when I told him afterwards that totality exceeded two minutes. He insisted it was no more than a few seconds.

I sense a
commotion around me, but the sound is off and the color is gone. A silent film playing in slow-motion. Everything is strange, foreign. The sky, the earth, people. Even the darkness is unfamiliar. It is not the darkness of night; it is the cold of outer space. Taking off my eclipse glasses, I look up and stare at the impossible.




It is magical and magnificent and splendorous and terrible. A globe of nothingness emanating rays of pure, ethereal light. The royal white mane of an invisible celestial lion.

I hear voices.

"Doesn't it look great on me?" The moon laughs, admiring herself in the mirror. "It's the sun's crown!" Her back is turned and she laughs again. I worry about her sanity.
A scientist, unsure of himself, makes a feeble attempt at reason. “That is not a crown. It is just the corona, the superheated gases of the solar atmosphere...”
"Gases, shmases! Are you blind? You don't see my crown? It is mine now. Mine! God knows, kings do not share crowns."
A simpleton speaks. "That crown is a curious thing. Dangerous, I say. When the sun wears it, it is invisible, and when moon wears it, she is invisible."
A prophet raises his voice. "What you see now in the heavens foreshadows the future redemption, when the light of the moon will once again be as bright as the sun, the way she was first created in Genesis.”
The moon is furious. "Silence!" she screams. "The future is today! I am King!" 
An old gentile woman whispers, "It is an evil omen. The end is near." A young boy starts to cry. 

I heed them no attention. Maybe some other time I'll ponder the meaning of it all, but right now that thing in the sky has me in a trance. It is so strange, so alien...

Peering out through the portal of the spaceship, I fix my gaze on the menacing, growing black hole at the center of the galaxy. The seatbelt light goes on as the pilot engages the hyperdrive and we head straight for the wormhole. Accelerating to light-speed…

I have always fantasized about space travel and here I am. I settle in to enjoy the trip, but then lurch back into reality. There is no spaceship. I am in Evergreen Park, in Rexburg, Idaho. I am on Planet Earth.

At long last, the fool on the hill sees the world spinning round. Totality is an ice bucket; an epiphany. We stand on a rock, speeding through the cosmos, dancing among celestial spheres.

We are always in outer space!

Excitement turns to panic. It cannot be. It just cannot be. Humans cannot survive in space. We can’t be here! We don’t belong here.

But then, where do we belong?

Totality strains consciousness to the brink of madness. Life is a miracle and we are so very, very vulnerable.

REVELATION

What is happening to me? Why am I reacting this way? There is nothing extraordinary about an eclipse. It is a simple alignment of the earth, moon and sun. A predictable phenomenon, solar eclipses occur somewhere on earth every eighteen months. Everybody knows the earth orbits the sun and everybody knows the moon orbits the earth. If darkness is so inspiring, the sun sets every night, for heaven’s sake. 

I suppose we could also ask why the Jewish People were shocked when God declared at Mount Sinai, “I am Hashem!” The Jews knew that already; they witnessed the Ten Plagues and the splitting of the sea. Everyone knew there was a Creator in heaven who cared for them, but when He pulled back the curtain and said hello, they fainted.

Totality is an “I am God” moment.

It was a magnificent spectacle – and it was also mundane. Trivial, actually. We don't even bother to recite a beracha on it. Our astonishment was entirely due to the fact that eclipses are rare. If eclipses were common we would pay them as much attention as a passing cloud. Nonetheless, I felt, we all felt, that we had witnessed a supernatural event. To quote my wife, the end of totality, seeing the sun burst forth from behind the moon, was like being present at the moment of creation. Let there be light!

photo by Dr. John Polansky


Despite our awareness that eclipses are ordinary, the experience shattered our complacency.

Why, you ask? Nature is nature. Nothing shocking about it. I share your question, but the problem of our irrational reaction is eclipsed by a second and far more important question. Why have we never noticed the universe before? You understand of course that this second question answers the first. After totality, the whole world looks different. Nature isn't natural anymore. "In His goodness, He renews the acts of creation every single day!" The triviality of the eclipsed sun is what makes it such a bright revelation of the Creator.

In retrospect, the eclipse was a silent pre-Elul Shofar blast. Out in Idaho, God yelled at humanity.

“Wake up and stop taking life for granted!”

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Humility on the Rocks: Mining the Mystery of Moshe's Mistake

This article was first published in Nitzachon, the Adas Torah journal.

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying, “Take the staff and gather the congregation – you and Aaron your brother – and speak to the rock in front of their eyes. It will give its waters. You will bring out water for them from the rock and you will give the congregation and their animals to drink.”
Moshe took the staff from before Hashem as He had commanded him. Moshe and Aaron then gathered the congregation in front of the rock and said to them, “Listen now, rebellious ones! Will we bring out water for you from this rock?!”[1] Moshe raised his hand and hit the rock twice with his staff. Abundant water came out and the congregation and their animals drank.
Hashem said to Moshe and to Aaron, “Since you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Jewish People, you will therefore not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” 
Bamidbar 20:7-12
The Sin at the Rock is an enigma. What did they do wrong? And why was the punishment so harsh? The more carefully we read the pesukim, the less clear the sin becomes. We typically quote Rashi, that Moshe erred by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it, but by no means is this the consensus among the commentaries.[2] In fact, there is no consensus. The Ohr HaChaim counts no less than ten different opinions among the rishonim. 

In his lengthy treatment of the episode, the Ramban rejects the offerings of his predecessors and ultimately insists that the sin requires a Kabbalistic explanation. However, there is a straightforward reading of the text the Ramban does recommend, that of the great Rabbeinu Chananel (henceforth, “the Rach”):
The most reasonable of the interpretations that have been offered on this issue, one which satisfies the questioner, are the words of the Rach. He writes that the sin was saying “Will we bring out water for you from this rock.” It would have been more appropriate for them to say “Will Hashem bring out water for you,” as they said [on a different occasion], “when Hashem gives you meat in the evening to eat…” (Shemos 16:8). So it was with all the miracles, [Moshe and Aaron always] made it known that Hashem was doing wondrous things for the people. [Now that they failed to do so,] the nation might think that Moshe and Aaron used their own wisdom to bring out water from this rock. This is the meaning of [Hashem’s statement years later], “You failed to sanctify Me” (Devarim 32:51)…
[According to the Rach,] it is understandable that [Hashem] used the expression ma’altem bi (Devarim 32:51) in reference to this [sin], for utilizing the sacred for personal benefit is called me’ilah… (Ramban to Bamidbar 20:8) 
In short, the sin was the usage of the word “we.” This allowed for the misconception that Moshe and Aaron were using their own magical powers to extract water from a rock. This was a me’ilah of sorts, a “theft” of the sacred, for they usurped Hashem’s miracle for their own benefit. Of course, this was not Moshe’s or Aaron’s intent, but nonetheless, the Rach feels that this was the impression given by their choice of words.

Compare the Rach’s interpretation with that of the Ibn Ezra, as explained by the Ramban:
“Will we bring out water from this rock for you?” They said to them, “Listen… is there any way in the world we could get water out of this rock?! Recognize that it is from Hashem. He is the one who took you out of Egypt and brought you to this place. He will provide for you here.”
According to the Ibn Ezra, Moshe is proclaiming his inability to make miracles on his own. In truth, the Rach may well agree with the Ibn Ezra; the Rach’s issue is not with Moshe’s actual intent, but with the ambiguity of his words. Nonetheless, even that is challenged by the Ohr HaChaim:
Was it not known that Moshe was the agent of Hashem? Everything he did was done with Hashem’s power! … Moreover, in Parshas Bo we find the following, “Moshe called all the Jews and said to them, ‘Take or buy for yourselves a sheep…’” (Shemos 12:21). He did not say it in Hashem’s name, for certainly it was a known fact that he was the agent of Hashem.
In other words, how could anyone in their right mind think Moshe was saying he will perform a miracle on his own, without Hashem?[3] Underscoring the Ohr HaChaim’s point, a more direct challenge to the Rach can be found in the Shema:
And it will be, if you listen to My mitzvos which I am commanding you today, to love Hashem your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, then I will give the rain of your land in its time, the hard rain and the soft rain, and you will gather your grain, your wine, and your oil…
Devarim 11:13-14
Here we have Moshe committing the very same sin! Instead of saying that Hashem will provide rain and water, Moshe says “I will give the rain!” Since we do not find that Moshe was punished for this “infraction,” we must infer that there was no problem here at all; it was understood by everyone that Moshe was just quoting Hashem. Why then does the Rach consider it a sin at the rock? 


A Higher Reality

In order to appreciate the wisdom of the Rach, we must first study a polar opposite approach. According to Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner, Moshe’s use of the first-person in the Shema was not a sin of me’ilah, but the very highest expression of humility before God. 
[Moshe] continually grew in this [awareness of divine omnipresence][4] until he successfully achieved it before he died to the highest degree possible for a living human being. As we find in Devarim, in the parsha of v’haya im shomoah, where [Moshe] initially says, “…to love Hashem your God” but then immediately afterwards, in the very next verse, he speaks in the first-person, “and I will give the rain of your land.” He is the giver and the actor, for, from his perspective, he has utterly ceased to exist and it is only the Shechina which speaks. This is why he said, “I will give.” As Chazal wrote in the Zohar, “The Shechina speaks from the throat of Moshe,” and as the verse states (Shemos 13:8), “Mouth to mouth I speak in him.” It does not say “to him,” but “in him.” Literally, in him. (Nefesh HaChaim 3:14)
Moshe uses the first-person because he has erased his identity and transformed into an instrument through which Hashem speaks to the nation. Total self-nullification was the defining feature of Moshe’s personality.[5] It distinguished him from the forefathers and made him a superconductor of the divine will for both miracles and prophecy. Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains:
The level of Moshe Rabbeinu was even higher [than that of the Avos], as the Torah testifies, “there never arose a prophet like Moshe” (Devarim 34:1). Hashem Himself described the nature of the distinction between them: “I am Hashem. I appeared to Avrahom, to Yitzchok and to Yaakov as El Shaddai, but I did not make known to them My Name of Y-H-V-H.” (Shemos 6:2-3).
[The avos] did not reach a level of prophecy where the natural forces completely ceased to exist. As the Torah states, “I appeared to Avrahom, to Yitzchok and to Yaakov as El Shaddai.” This is akin to the name Elohim, which means to say, “I am the master of all forces and at every moment My Will directs the entire system of forces as I set them up from the time of creation.” This is the meaning of El Shaddai. “However, in their prophecy I did not make known to them the dimension of My Name Y-H-V-H.”
On the other hand, the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu was on the level of the name of Hashem’s essence[6] and unity, Y-H-V-H, may He be blessed, and for this reason no force could block the light of his prophetic vision. This is also the reason why in all the miracles performed by Moshe everyone witnessed the utter nullification of all forces and [recognized] the literal truth of ein od milevado, nothing exists other than Hashem…
This is also the idea behind the words of Chazal at the end of Perek Kisui HaDam (Chullin 89a). “What it says about Moshe and Aaron is greater than what it says about Avrahom. By Avrahom it says, “I am dust and ashes” (Bereishis 18:17), but by Moshe and Aaron it says, “What are we?” (Shemos 16:5).” At the very least, “dust and ashes” implies the existence of dust, as opposed to Moshe Rabbeinu who said, “What are we?” – implying that they do not exist in the world at all. (Nefesh HaChaim 3:13) 
In other words, Avrahom, Yitzchok and Yaakov experienced Hashem as Master of the Universe, but Moshe experienced Hashem as if there was no universe

This is why the miracles of the Avos differed from the miracles of Moshe. When Hashem made a miracle for the Avos, it remained within the bounds of the natural order. Avrahom defeated multiple armies, but he had to go out to battle. Sarah had a baby at ninety, but she had to conceive and give birth. Yitzchok harvested one hundred times more than the norm, but he had to plant. Yaakov’s monochrome sheep gave birth to multicolored sheep, but they had to mate. The point is that the miracles of the Avos did not technically violate the laws of nature. In contrast, the miracles of Moshe – from the plagues to the sea to the manna – were distinctive in their total disregard for physics. This is not coincidental. Moshe achieved awareness of a higher truth: Y-K-V-H echad. Hashem is the sole reality, ein od milevado. From that perspective, natural law is not law, it is just the current divine will. That is why Moshe was able to transcend nature and serve as a conduit for acts of God unfettered by the laws of physics.

This also explains why Moshe’s prophecy was unparalleled. When Aaron and Miriam mistakenly compare the quality of their prophecy to Moshe’s, the Torah states, “The man Moshe was exceedingly more humble than any other person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). In his work on Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explains that Moshe’s extraordinary prophetic vision was a function of his extraordinary humility (Ruach Chaim 1:1). Moshe viewed his physical self as naught before the reality of Hashem.[7] With self-interest and ego nullified, Moshe was able to receive Hashem’s transmissions b’aspaklaria hameira, with crystal clarity, free of human static.[8]

Despite the challenge it presents to our senses, the concept of ein od milvado is not religious fundamentalism. It is the first fundamental principle of Judaism. 
The first fundamental principle is the existence of the Creator, may He be praised. That is, a perfect being exists which is the original cause of all else… If we were to imagine that this being would cease to be, then all reality would vanish and nothing would remain in existence. But if we were to imagine that all that exists would cease to be, His exalted existence would not vanish, nor be detracted from, for He requires nothing outside of Himself. (Rambam, Thirteen Principles of Faith)
The Rambam spells out the implications of this principle at the beginning of Mishneh Torah (Yesodei HaTorah 1:4).
The nature of His reality is thus unlike the reality [of created things]. This is what the prophet meant when he said, “Hashem our God is true” (Yermiah 10:10), He alone is true and nothing else is true like Him. This is what the Torah states, ein od milvado, “There is nothing else besides Him” (Devarim 4:35). In other words, there is no other true reality like Him.
Every believing Jew accepts the principle; only Moshe internalized it.


Back at the Rock

Now we understand why Moshe used the first-person when he brought out water from the rock. In order to facilitate the performance of this supernatural event, in order to channel a divine will in flagrant violation of natural law, Moshe needed to disregard physical reality, including the reality of his own self. As Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner explained, when Moshe transmits a prophecy in the first-person, he is absenting himself and allowing the Shechina to speak through him. And so at the rock, when Moshe said, “Will we bring out water…?” it was Hashem’s words that Moshe declared, not his own.[9]

According to the Midrash, Hashem actually instructed Moshe to speak in His name. 
“Speak to the rock.” Say in My Name, “Hashem said, ‘Give forth your waters!’” (Lekach Tov; Torah Shleima 60).
This Midrash lends credence to the Rach’s contention that Moshe should have made it clearer that he was acting as Hashem’s agent. Although Moshe did not quote Hashem explicitly, we can assume he was following orders and serving as Hashem’s mouthpiece. In fact, in the opinion of the Rambam, the legitimacy of this assumption was the source of Moshe’s sin. When Moshe called the people “traitors” (Bamidbar 20:10), the people naturally inferred that Hashem was angry with them; Moshe would never deride them without inside knowledge. Moshe’s sin was giving the Jews a false impression of divine displeasure (Shemonah Perakim, chap. 4).

In contradistinction to the Rambam who faults Moshe for appearing to speak in Hashem’s name, the Rach faults Moshe for failing to clarify that he was doing just that. The Rambam’s position highlights our issues with the Rach. Why does Moshe need to quote Hashem explicitly? As the Ohr HaChaim asked, doesn’t everyone know that Moshe always speaks in Hashem’s name?


Out of Matzah

In order to appreciate the Rach’s understanding of what happened when the Jews ran out of water, we would do well to go back to the early days in the desert and review what happened when the Jews ran out of food.
The entire community of Bnei Yisroel complained to Moshe and Aaron in the desert. The Bnei Yisroel said to them, “If only Hashem had killed us in the land of Egypt when we sat by the meat pot, when we ate bread to the fill! You have taken us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation!” 
… Moshe and Aaron said to the entire Bnei Yisroel, “Tonight you will know that Hashem took you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of Hashem. Your complaints against Hashem have been heard. What are we that you complain against us?” 
Moshe said, “Hashem will give you [quail] meat to eat in the evening and satisfying [manna] bread in the morning, for Hashem has heard your complaints which you have complained against Him. What are we? Your complaints are not against us, they are against Hashem.” 
Shemos 16:2-8
One month after the Exodus, when the Jews ran out of provisions and began to starve, they turned in anger against Moshe and Aaron and attacked them for taking the nation out of Egypt and into the desert. This was an embarrassing failure of faith. Moshe and Aaron didn’t bring them out of Egypt, Hashem did! 

How could the Jewish People lack clarity on an elementary truth which they witnessed with their own eyes? The answer is that the Jews certainly knew that Hashem was behind the miracles of the Exodus (Shemos 4:31, 14:31), however, they had difficulty conceiving of a companionate, all-powerful God who would starve them to death (cf. Shemos 17:7). This is what the Jews were saying to Moshe. “If Hashem wanted to kill us, He would have done it in Egypt. If we are starving in the desert, it can only be because of human error. It was your decision!”[10]

In response, Hashem delivers quail and manna. This was not intended merely to feed the nation, but to demonstrate by way of a miracle that Hashem takes personal responsibility for their welfare in the desert – because He is the one who put them there. This is what Moshe meant when he said, “Tonight you will know that Hashem took you out of the land of Egypt” (Rashi). According to the Ibn Ezra, both the quail and the manna served as “signs” which restored the faith of the Jews.

To further strengthen the recognition of Hashem, Moshe and Aaron repeatedly impress upon the people their powerlessness, their virtual nonexistence. “What are we?” Moshe and Aaron are making a critical point. They are nothing more than Hashem’s agents and therefore any complaint about life in the desert can only be taken as a complaint against Hashem Himself.

Armed with this historical background, we are prepared to return to the Rock.


Fixing a Broken Faith

It was a time of national crisis. The prophetess Miriam passed away and the nation’s water supply suddenly vanished. Stuck in the desert with nothing to drink, people panicked and the worst came out.
The nation challenged Moshe. “If only we had died with our brethren before Hashem! Why have you brought the congregation of Hashem to this desert? For us and our animals to die there? Why did you take us out of Egypt? To bring us to this evil place? This is not a place of planting, of figs, grapes and pomegranates! There is no water to drink!” 
Bamidbar 20:3-5
After all the nation has been through and all they have witnessed, these ugly words are the height of cynicism and ingratitude. It is an uncomfortable truth that this complaint was aired often in the desert. Although it took on different forms, the idea was the same. Whether regretting their departure from Egypt (e.g. Shemos 17:3), expressing nostalgia (e.g. Bamidbar 11:5), or harping for a return (e.g. Bamidbar 14:4), the Jews seem to have positive feelings for a place of pain and enslavement. This is quite difficult to understand. For a Jew, missing Egypt makes as much sense as missing Germany.

Before we suspect the Stockholm syndrome, we should recall that by the end of the Ten Plagues, the Jews were free and the Egyptian people were bowing to Moshe and gifting the Jews with gold and silver. With the drowning of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, Egypt ceased to exist as a sovereign state. The Jews could easily waltz back in and, in the ultimate poetic justice, take over the country and enslave their taskmasters. It took an extraordinary act of faith for the Jews to abandon the security of the Nile and walk into the deprivations of the desert and war with the Canaanites. Hashem said, “I remember the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials. You followed Me into the desert, into a land where nothing grows” (Yermiyahu 2:2). Great indeed was their love, but when the going got tough, some Jews regretted it.

However, the real travesty of the Jews’ complaint is not disloyalty or chutzpa, but the sin of heresy, the very same irrational heresy the people committed years earlier when they ran out of food. The Jews blame Moshe for the lack of water? The Exodus was orchestrated by Hashem, not Moshe! How could anyone think otherwise?

Human leaders are necessary, but they poses a threat to the sovereignty of Hashem.[11] It is far easier to become enamored with a physical human being than with an abstract infinite being. “Moshe was very great… in the eyes of the nation” (Shemos 11:3). When that happens, when a person is venerated, there is a danger of crossing the line from reverence to cult worship. “The nation realized that Moshe was late coming down from the mountain. They gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Get up and make us a god that will lead us, for we do not know what happened to the man Moshe who took us out of Egypt’” (Shemos 32:1). The Torah could not be clearer: The Jews built an idol, a Golden Calf, to replace Moshe. Apparently, some thought he was a god. 

The Golden Calf was destroyed and the perpetrators were killed, but years later, Jews were again saying that it was Moshe, not Hashem, who took them out of Egypt. The water crisis, like the food shortage, was a test and the Jews failed miserably. The signs and wonders of the Exodus were designed to demonstrate the reality of the Almighty and the fragility of all else.[12] This should have built a solid foundation of faith, but when the water dried up, instead of faith, the Jews experienced fear. Questioning the wisdom of the Exodus, they doubted God and blamed Moshe.

Hashem responds in the same way He responded years earlier when the Jews blamed Moshe for the lack of food. He decides that a supernatural event is needed to bolster belief in the divine origin of the Exodus and the goodness of God, and to remind the nation that Moshe is no more than a messenger. When they ran out of food, Hashem recalled the signs of Egypt with the creation of miracle food, and now that they have no water, Hashem creates a new sign, miracle water. 
“Take the staff and gather the congregation – you and Aaron your brother – and speak to the rock in front of their eyes…” 
Bamidbar 20:8
Notice the elements which evoke memories of Egypt: the use of the staff, the partnership of Moshe and Aaron. Both function to take the spotlight off the personage of Moshe. Most tellingly, Hashem instructs them to perform the miracle in the presence of the people. “Gather the congregation… speak to the rock before their eyes.” This is exactly how the signs were performed in Egypt. “He performed the signs before the eyes of the nation” (Shemos 4:30). The hope was that witnessing water flowing from a rock would sanctify Hashem’s name and, like the signs of Egypt, restore faith in the fundamental principle of Judaism, immortalized in the first of the Ten Commandments: Hashem exists. He is the sole power that runs the world, and He is the one, the only one, who took us out of Egypt and gifted us with freedom.

Moshe misunderstood. He thought this was about supplying drinking water. Moshe didn’t catch the heresy implicit in the people’s words, for in his humility Moshe viewed himself as nonexistent; nothing more than an agent, an angel, of Hashem. Moshe was accustomed to speaking in Hashem’s name, and so when he hears people blaming him for the Exodus, he innocently assumes they are referring not to him, but to Hashem.[13] After all, years earlier when they ran out of food, Moshe had made it clear that all complaints would be received as complaints against Hashem. This is why Moshe did not hear a denial of divine providence; all he heard was a protest about the lack of water.

Serving as Hashem’s spokesperson, Moshe uses the divine “we.” “Will we bring forth water from this rock?” With this dangerously ambiguous language, Moshe unwittingly undermined Hashem’s plan.
Hashem said to Moshe and to Aaron, “Since you did not trust Me to sanctify Me before the eyes of the Jewish People, you will therefore not bring this congregation into the land which I have given them.” 
Bamidbar 20:12
The miracle at the rock was supposed to put an end to the cult of Moshe. Ironically, Moshe’s humility exacerbated the problem. As the Rach wrote, to some Jews – particularly those who blamed Moshe for their predicament – Moshe’s choice of words sounded as if he was using his own powers to produce water. Worse, it reinforced the notion that Moshe was the one who took the nation out of Egypt. The situation has gone from bad to worse and Hashem is forced to take drastic measures. Hashem decrees that Moshe and Aaron will die in the desert. It is a tragedy, but the people must face the mortality of their heroes.

When the nation is bereft of its great leaders, when Miriam, Aaron and Moshe have all passed on and their bodies lie buried in the Sinai Desert, Jews will finally cease putting their faith in people, magic, and the natural forces of the world. Even the weakest will wake up and realize that the only dependable power is Hashem. In the end, Moshe will achieve in death what he failed to achieve in life: the nullification of man and the sanctification of Hashem in the eyes of the Jewish People. When that happens, the nation will finally be ready to enter the Promised Land.




[1] “Commentators say that there are statements posed as questions that are meant in the affirmative” (Ramban). Interestingly, three of the four examples cited by the Ramban are statements made not by man, but by Hashem. One is a famous verse, “Did you eat from the tree which I commanded you not to eat?” (Bereishis 3:11). The question is clearly rhetorical; the same could be said for Moshe’s question at the rock.
[2] The Ramban asks several questions on Rashi. 1. Hashem told Moshe to take the staff; that implies he should use it. 2. Why does the Torah (Devarim 32:51) call this a sin of me’ilah? 3. Moshe and Aaron spoke to the nation in the presence of the rock; that should satisfy Hashem’s directive to speak “to” the rock. We could add another question: Why was Aaron punished?
[3] Even when the Jews built a golden calf to replace Moshe, it was not because they thought Moshe was a deity. “It is a known fact that the Jews did not think Moshe was God and that he had himself performed the miraculous signs and wonders for them…” (Ramban, Shemos 32:1). However, elsewhere the Ramban suggests otherwise. “It is also possible to say that the nation believed in Hashem and prayed to Him to save them, but they also harbored doubts about Moshe, maybe he had taken them out [of Egypt] in order to rule over them. And even though they had witnessed miraculous signs and wonders, they thought it possible that Moshe had done it using [magical] wisdom…” (Ramban to Shemos 14:10).
[4] This is the concept of “ein od milevado,” i.e., nothing exists other than the perfect unity of Hashem, and the universe is but a mirage masking the presence of God. Despite its truth, Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner goes to great lengths to underscore the dangers of this concept and the threat it poses to Torah and Halacha (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 3:1-8). In short, this perspective is indeed the perspective of Hashem, but it is not for man to dwell on it (unless your name is Moshe). Humans are obligated to stay focused on their own legitimate perspective, namely, that the created universe is real.
[5] For more on the humility of Moshe, see Rabbi Paul Gelb’s article in this edition of Nitzachon.
[6] “All divine names are considered labels [which describe attributes]; the name of Y-H-V-H is the name of God’s essence” (Ruach Chaim 1:1). Citing the Zohar, Reb Chaim qualifies this statement in Nefesh HaChaim (2:2). The infinite nature of Hashem transcends human comprehension and it is forbidden to label it with any name. Y-H-V-H refers to the divine essence only inasmuch as it relates to the created universe.
[7] Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk goes so far as to say that Moshe elevated himself to a level where he lost his free-will and lacked the ability to disobey Hashem, cf. Meshech Chochmah, introduction to Shemos.
[8] “All prophets gazed through an unclear lens, but Moshe Rabbeinu gazed through a clear lens” (Yevamos 49b). The Rambam enshrined this point in his list of fundamental principles. “The seventh principle is the prophecy of Moshe Rabbeinu… He reached the level of angels. There did not remain before him any screen that he did not rend and none of the obstructions of physicality stopped him…”
[9] Hashem occasionally uses the royal “we,” as in “Let us make man” (Bereishis 1:26). “The use of pluralis majestatis, the royal “we” employed by human sovereigns to proclaim their will to their subjects, is indicative of the nature of their rule… he issues decrees and edicts solely for the general good and the general welfare… So, too, in our verse, the Creator announces the rule of man – for the good of the world and out of concern for its destiny. And so we find, in the section on the scattering of the people of the world: ‘Let us go down…’ (Bereishis 11:7)” (The Hirsch Chumash, Bereishis 1:26). This would not be the first or the last time Hashem asks a rhetorical question; see note 1.  
[10] What they failed to understand was that starvation was a deliberate part of the divine plan: it challenged the Jew and steeled his faith. “I afflicted you. I starved you. I fed you the manna… so that you would know that man does not live on bread alone, rather man lives by the word of Hashem” (Devarim 8:3). “[Hashem] who fed you manna in the desert… in order to afflict you and in order to test you, for your own good in the end” (ibid 8:16). See Ramban to Shemos 16:4.   
[11] See Shmuel I 8:7
[12] See Ramban to Shemos 13:16
[13] “I am standing between Hashem and you” (Devarim 5:5). Moshe’s unique position allows him to serve both as a Hashem’s representative for the nation and as the nation’s representative for Hashem. Indeed, Hashem occasionally speaks to Moshe as if Moshe is the nation. “Hashem said to Moshe… so that you will tell your children and your children’s children how I mocked Egypt…” (Shemos 10:2; Ibn Ezra ad loc.). It follows that from the perspective of the people, Moshe could be spoken of as if he was Hashem, as in the verse, Torah tzivah lanu Moshe, “The Torah was given to us (lit., commanded) by Moshe” (Devarim 33:4).

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Seven Times Seven? Yericho, Yovel & the Omer Count

A new shiur on the meaning of Sefiras HaOmer and the unique Kedusha of Shavuos. Click here to listen to the recording. 

A big thank you to Mrs. Shoshana Rivka Bloom of Link's TLC program for inviting me to speak.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Why Did He Take Us Out?

Firstly, a big Mazal Tov to the Perl, Bookbinder and Gordon families on the engagement of Rivkie Perl of Jerusalem to Shalom Bookbinder of Toronto! May the young couple be blessed with great Simcha & Shalom and all good things, עד בלי די!

A Yasher Koach to our dear friend Selwyn Gerber for hosting today's class and for bringing out an exceptional bottle of bourbon in celebration of Rivkie's engagement.

Click here to listen to the shiur, recorded live this afternoon at Gerber & Co.

Here's a preview: The shiur presents a new understanding of the Haggadah's mysterious line: "יכול מראש חודש, you might think [the story of the Exodus should be told] on Rosh Chodesh... the Torah therefore states, בעבור זה, 'it was for this' - [tell the story] at a time when Matzah and Marror are before you."

In other words, one might have thought Hashem took us out of Egypt because He wanted to rest His Shechina in the Mishkan on Rosh Chodesh Nisan. The Torah therefore teaches us that He did not do it for Himself, He did it for us. Now click on the link and listen, and you will understand. 

Friday, March 3, 2017

Shabbos at Sinai: Experiencing the Impossible

The Torah invests much ink and parchment in describing the buildup to the Ten Commandments. Remembering the seminal event of our history is a mitzvah in and of itself; we must read with a listening ear.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain..." (Shemos 19:20)
It sounds as if the Creator of the Universe left heaven behind, entered our world and landed on a hill in the Sinai Desert, but this is not the whole story. The reality of the revelation was more complex.
"Hashem came down on Mount Sinai" - One might think He literally came down onto it, the verse therefore states [later], "You have seen that I have spoken to you from the heavens..." (20:19). [The combined verses] teach us that He bent the upper and lower heavens and spread them out on the mountain like a sheet on a bed. And then the divine throne - כסא הכבוד - descended on them. (Rashi ad loc. citing Mechilta)
Hashem was on the mountain and in heaven, at the very same time? Yes. He brought heaven down with Him. This resolves the contradiction and Rashi believes that this is the correct way to understand the text. 

Forgive me, but what exactly are we supposed to do with this information? Disregard it as inscrutable and irrelevant? If that were true, the Torah would not record it, Rashi would not comment, and we would all live happily ever after. Hashem is describing the scene for posterity and He is undoubtedly telling us something important. Our job is to figure out what that something is.
תורה היא וללמוד אני צריך

II

The Torah gives us two versions of the Ten Commandments, one on location in Parshas Yisro and one forty years later when Moshe reiterates them in Parshas Va'eschananEarly commentators posit that the first version appeared on the original tablets which were smashed by Moshe when he saw the Golden Calf, and the second version appeared on the second set of tablets (Gaon cited by Ibn Ezra). 

Although both versions are basically identical, significant discrepancies do appear in the fourth commandment, the mitzvah of Shabbos. In the first version, we are told to "remember" - זכור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it, whereas in the in the second version, the mitzvah is not to remember, but to "guard" - שמור - the day of Shabbos to sanctify it. As the Ramban writes, this is indeed a fundamental change, for a mitzvah to "remember" requires a positive act, reciting Kiddush, as opposed to "guard" which is essentially passive, abstaining from violating Shabbos. 

The Gemora resolves the problem. שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Both obligations - to remember and to guard - are equally valid and were declared simultaneously by Hashem at Mount Sinai.

Generally, the Torah does not give reasons for mitzvos, however, Shabbos is one of the exceptions, and here we find another major discrepancy between the two versions of the Fourth Commandment. According to the first version, working for six days and resting on the seventh affirms that Hashem created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. The second version, however, makes no mention of creation. Rather, it states that by observing Shabbos we affirm the Exodus from Egypt. Both ideas find expression in Kiddush, where Shabbos is said to be both זכר למעשה בראשית, commemorating creation, and זכר ליציאת מצרים, commemorating the Exodus.


III

The changes to the text of the Fourth Commandment are not random; they are complementary. There are two ways for man to relate to God and, correspondingly, there are two types of holiness and two dimensions to Shabbos. 

As the infinite and timeless being that created our universe, God is unfathomable to the human mind. Awareness of God thus generates awe and humility, turning man into a vessel for Kedusha. It takes work to gain and maintain this awareness and that is the mitzvah of "Zachor." We must engage in a positive act, the verbal declaration of Kiddush, to sanctify the day of Shabbos with an awareness of the Creator. This is the original Shabbos recorded in the first version of the Ten Commandments.

When the Jews sinned and built a Golden Calf, it became clear that this ideal was too challenging. Human beings are born, raised, and live out their lives trapped inside a physical universe. As such, our minds are more comfortable with the concrete than the abstract, and a physical idol seems more real than something we cannot see or touch. Even if man knows the truth, it is unrealistic to expect him to maintain an uninterrupted awareness of the Creator. And so, for the second set of tablets, Hashem emphasized a more accessible type of Kedusha: awareness of Hashem's presence in our world. While Hashem's essence is infinite and unknowable, He is also the one who entered Egypt and saved the Jewish People. The truth is, we know Him well; He cares for us and He is a constant presence in our lives. No effort is needed to generate this Kedusha; it is always there. We need only to preserve it and abstain from violating it. This is the mitzvah of "Shamor."


"It is a sign between Me and you." The day of Shabbos speaks to fullness of our relationship and as such both types of Kedusha are present: God as Creator and God as Redeemer. The Creator is beyond us; the Redeemer is with us. This dichotomy is the paradox of the God/man relationship - and it cannot be any other way. One type of Kedusha without the other is not only incomplete, it is false. A person who accepts God as Creator but denies His involvement in our lives is no less a heretic than the person who humanizes God and relates to Him as a friend. An authentic experience of God requires the coexistence of both perspectives: שמור וזכור בדבור אחד נאמרו. Hashem said "guard" and "remember" simultaneously. This is the unified Kedusha of Shabbos.


IV

The duality of man's relationship with Hashem finds expression in the beracha we recite before performing a mitzvah. 
Blessed are You Hashem our lord, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His mitzvos and commanded us to...
The sentence begins by referring to Hashem in second person (blessed are You) and then switches mid-sentence to third person (His mitzvos). It is grammatically inconsistent and deliberately so. As we prepare to perform a mitzvah, we encounter the impossible, the concurrent presence and distance of the God Who sanctifies us.

Returning now to Sinai, the meaning of the contradictory verses is clear. When giving the commandments, Hashem spoke to us from the mountain and from heaven. Yes, that is impossible, but it is the familiar impossibility we call Kedusha.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The Flavor of Love: Towards a New Appreciation of the Manna

Although Pharaoh capitulated at the tenth plague and finally freed the Jews, Hashem wasn't done with him yet.
I shall strengthen Pharaoh's heart and he will pursue you. (Shemos 14:4)
Pharaoh pursues the Jews to the sea, the sea splits, and then... you know the story. The question is why? Why split the sea? If Hashem wanted to kill Pharaoh and destroy his army, He had ample opportunity to do it in Egypt during the Ten Plagues. There was no need for yet another miracle.



As the Egyptian army closed in on the Jews, Hashem told Moshe exactly why this was happening.

ואיכבדה בפרעה ובכל חילו ברכבו ובפרשיו - "I will be glorified through Pharaoh, and through his entire army, his chariots and his horsemen. (14:17; see also 14:18, 14:4)
Hashem split for the sea for His kavod, His honor and glory. Assuming that the Creator is not insecure or arrogant, how are we to understand the meaning of this? 


A clue to the answer appears later in the Parsha, in the story of the manna. When the Jews run out of Matzah, they complain.

The entire community of Bnei Yisroel complained to Moshe and Aaron in the desert. The Bnei Yisroel said to them, “If only Hashem had killed us in the land of Egypt when we sat by the meat pot, when we ate bread to the fill! You have taken us out to this desert to kill this entire congregation by starvation!” (Shemos 16:2-3)
Yes, it is a big chutzpah, but worse, it's heresy. The Jews accuse Moshe and Aaron of bringing them into the desert when they should know good and well that Hashem is the one who took them out of Egypt. Ignoring their pleas for food, Moshe and Aaron address the basic issue of faith first. 

Moshe and Aaron said to the entire Bnei Yisroel, “Tonight you will know that Hashem took you out of the land of Egypt, ובקר וראיתם את כבוד י-ה-ו-ה, and in the morning you will see the glory of Hashem. Your complaints against Hashem have been heard. What are we that you complain against us?” (ibid 16:6-7)

Moshe explains: "When Hashem gives you (quail) meat to eat in the evening and (manna) bread to the fill in the morning..." (ibid 16:8). In other words, since you seem to think we took you out of Egypt, the arrival of quail tonight will prove that Hashem orchestrated the Exodus, and in the morning, with the arrival of the manna, you will witness His glory.



Quail vs. Manna

According to the Ibn Ezra, both the quail and the manna served as "signs" that Hashem took them out of Egypt. The Ramban, however, points to the plain meaning of Moshe's words. The manna's function was different. It was an experience of Hashem's honor and glory, His kavod


What does this mean? What is Hashem's "kavod"?



The Ramban explains that the quail and the manna are not comparable. The quail were ordinary birds that were brought in by a strong wind; the manna was a unique creation ex nihilo. When Hashem performs extraordinary wonders, the full extent of His power and sovereignty - כבוד מלכותו - is made manifest. This, writes the Ramban, was what Moshe meant when he said, "In the morning you will see the kavod of Hashem."



The distinction between the quail and the manna is clear, but it raises a different question. Was the manna really necessary? If the arrival of the quail reminded the nation that Hashem took them out of Egypt, why the need for another miracle? If Hashem wanted to give the Jews bread, He could deliver sacks of flour the same way He delivered flocks of quail. Why perform the super-miracle of the manna?



Living on Light

The Ramban continues his comments on this verse with a description of the extraordinary nature of the manna. Extraordinary is an understatement. He begins by quoting Rabbi Akivah (Yoma 75b) who said that angels eat manna. The Ramban explains that to make manna, Hashem took the spiritual light that emanates from His Shechina and gave it physical form. Manna is the splendor of the Shechina corporealized!

It goes without saying that I don't have the foggiest clue what this means. To borrow an Artscrollism, Kabbalistic concepts are "beyond the scope of this elucidation" (see header). Nonetheless, I quote it for it brings us to the Ramban's next big idea.

If the manna was so lofty and spiritual, how did it sustain men of flesh and blood? The truth is, ordinary mortals cannot live on manna. However, the Jews of that generation were not ordinary. They witnessed the splitting of the sea, and it changed them. When the sea split, it was a revelation of God greater than the prophet Yechezkel ever saw. In the words of the Ramban, the souls of the Jews were "elevated" by the experience, and that is what made it possible for them to live on manna, the food of angels.

The Ramban thus links the sea and the manna: both are manifestations of the Shechina, and as such, the sea is what made the manna possible. These two miracles also share another distinction, a most puzzling common denominator: both the splitting of the sea and the manna stand out as the greatest miracles of our history - and we didn't need either of them. Both could be deleted from our history with no negative effect. But the question answers itself. It certainly is true that we did not need the manna or the sea - and that is exactly the point. These miracles functioned solely to reveal the kavod of Hashem.

If Pharaoh did not pursue the Jews and the sea never split, then the Exodus would simply be the salvation of an oppressed people. Had the manna never appeared, the quail would serve to keep the Jews alive in the desert. The formative miracles of our history would all be purely utilitarian, and this was not Hashem's intent.

The completely unnecessary revelation at the sea and the edible light called manna were Hashem's way of saying that something else is happening here: the Creator desires an intimate relationship with man. Hashem wants the Chosen People to recognize His kavod and to know who He is. He therefore orchestrated a ruse, a transparent excuse to reveal Himself for no reason other than love itself.

A Nes of Faithfulness; a Nes of Kindness

Now we understand Hashem's response to the Jew's embarrassing failure of faith. When the Jews forgot their history and blamed Moshe for taking them into the desert, Hashem refreshes the their memory with a replay of the two fundamental messages of the Exodus. First, He restores their faith by delivering quail and reminding them that He took them out of Egypt. This happens at night, matching the original emancipation - the Tenth Plague - which occurred at midnight. Hashem then reveals his kavod with the manna in the morning, just as the Jews experienced the splitting of the sea in the morning.

The timing of these events has great symbolic significance. The rising sun proclaims Hashem's kindness and the darkness of night calls for faith. This dichotomy, the contrast of day and night, was spelled out by the Psalmist. "To speak of your kindness in the morning and of your faithfulness in the evening" (Tehillim 92:3). Taking us out of Egypt was a divine act of faithfulness, a fulfilment of Hashem's promise to Avrahom. That is why it occurred at night, a time of faith. In contrast, the forefathers were never told about the revelation at the sea. It was a surprise gift; an expression of Hashem's love for His fiancee, the Chosen Nation. That is why it occurred in the morning, a time of kindness.

The same is true for the quail and the manna. Providing food was an act of faithfulness - Hashem had to take responsibility for the nation's survival - and so it came at night, like the freedom from slavery. But the manna, the light of the Shechina, was a divine kiss, if you will, and that is why it came with the rising sun, like the splitting of the sea. 

Faithometer

Hashem introduced the manna with these words:
"I will rain down bread for you from the heavens. The nation will go out and collect each day's ration daily, in order for Me to test them, will they follow my instructions or not." (16:4)
What is the test of the manna? The Ramban explains that it is not easy for people to live in a desert and have to rely on miracles for survival. To agree to such an existence requires an extraordinary degree of faith. By entering the desert after the Exodus the Jews demonstrated their loyalty and Hashem took note. "I remember the the kindness of your youth, the love of your nuptials; you followed after Me into the desert, a land where nothing grows" (Yermiyah 2:2). With the challenge of manna, Hashem continually tested the strength of the nation's loyalty.

The manna thus served as a barometer of faith and a geiger counter for sin. "Just as the prophets would speak to the Jews [about crimes they hide] in holes and cracks, so too the manna would tell the Jews what [lurks] in the holes and cracks" (Yoma 75a). Manna fell at the front door of the righteous, but the less righteous you were, the further you had to travel to find your portion of manna (ibid). It was a symbiotic relationship: manna produced faith and faith produced manna.

Stop Praying?

When the Jews were trapped between the enemy and the sea, they were obviously terrified. Some began to cry out in prayer (14:10). Moshe said to the people, "Do not be afraid! Stand and watch the salvation of Hashem... Hashem will do battle for you, and you will be silent!" (14:13). Hashem then said to Moshe, "Why do you cry out to me? Speak to the Jews and move!" (14:14).

It is surprising enough to hear Moshe telling people to stop praying, stranger yet, Hashem tells Moshe to stop too! Why is everyone so down on prayer?

The Ohr HaChaim explains that prayer may be an appropriate response in a crisis, but it is not always sufficient. Sometimes extra merit is required for salvation and the call of the hour is not prayer, but an act of faith. The blind march of the people directly into the deadly waves was needed to induce the divine intervention that split the sea.

Once again we find that the manna and the sea share a basic feature. This time it is not the quality or the purpose of the miracle, but the driving force behind it: faith. Both at the sea and in the desert, acts of faith produced acts of God. The reason is easy to understand. When we rise above self-centered, predictable behavior and demonstrate our love with a sacrificial gesture, Hashem responds in kind, violating the natural order to reveal His love for us. Ironically, on both sides of the relationship, meaning is derived specifically from the needlessness of it all. As in human relationships, love between man and God finds expression in the things you don't have to do. (See Mesilas Yesharim, chap. 18)