Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Pottery Barn Jew

“I blame the Pottery Barn holiday catalog for the fact that my husband and I, both Jews, spent last weekend in Home Depot picking out a Christmas tree.”

So begins an article printed in the New York Times this week. Although it is wonderful to hear that some Jews are still marrying Jews, the article succeeds admirably in its attempt to disturb. The writer mocks the consumerism of Christmas in America and assures us that the appeal is purely aesthetic, but that does little to assuage the revulsion of those of us with an iota of religious sensitivity, Jewish pride or even just an awareness of history.

The sad truth is, her story is probably far more common than we would like to admit.

Why is American Jewry so shallow? Why is their connection to their heritage so tenuous? The answer can be found in this week’s parsha.

Yaakov is old now, but he is journeying to Egypt to see his long lost son Yosef before he dies. On the road out of Israel, Yaakov receives a prophecy.

I am G-d, the Lord of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt for I will make you a great nation there.

Presumably, G-d would only tell someone not to be afraid if they were. What was Yaakov afraid of? Egypt’s a great country! It’s got exotic restaurants, tourist attractions, boating on the Nile… and Yosef runs the place! What could be bad?

The answer is that these are precisely the things that make Yaakov nervous. Yaakov is afraid of assimilation. And he was right – the Jews very nearly lost their identity during their stay in Egypt. This is why G-d came to Yaakov, to reassure him that his descendants would not vanish in the Egyptian melting pot. (R. Yaakov Kaminetzky, d. 1986)

Yaakov does not rely on miracles; he takes matters into his own hands.

[Yaakov] sent Yehuda ahead of him to make preparations (l’horot) in Goshen. (Bereishit 46:28)

L’horot is translated as “preparations” (Kaplan), but literally the word means to legislate or to teach. Rashi says the following:

According to the Midrash, l’horot means to set up a house of study.

This was Yaakov’s plan to ensure Jewish survival. Before he brought his family to Egypt, he set up Jewish schools. After he got there would have been too late.

Yaakov arrives in Egypt and is reunited with his son, but there is no time now to catch up on lost years. Some important business must be taken care of first. Pharaoh will want to meet the family and Yosef needs to prime them.

To his brothers and his father’s family, Yosef said, “I will go and tell Pharaoh. I will say the following to him: ‘My brother’s and my father’s family have come to me from Canaan. These men deal in livestock and are tenders of sheep. They have brought along their sheep, their cattle and all their possessions.’
“When Pharaoh summons you and inquires as to your occupation, you will tell him, ‘We and our fathers have dealt in livestock from our childhood until now.’ This is in order to ensure that you settle in the Goshen district, since all shepherds are taboo in Egypt.” (Bereishit 46:31-34)

What is going on here? Why the politicking? Who cares where they live? Was livelihood a problem for the brothers of Yosef? If shepherding was taboo, would it not be prudent for new immigrants to find a different line of work?

The real intent of Yosef and his brothers is not hard to figure out. The family had no emotional attachment to sheep; they just wanted to be left alone. The Egyptian distaste for shepherding was being used as a convenient excuse for living apart.

This is the story of the Jews in all of their exiles. Our fathers and the fathers of our fathers always preferred to tolerate the [anti-Semitic] decrees and persecutions of the nations of the world, just as long as they would not have to have a relationship with them. (Reb Yerucham Levovitz, d.1936)

This week’s parsha illustrates the traditional Jewish plan for survival in exile. It starts with a healthy fear of assimilation, followed by the early creation of Torah schools and clearly defined Jewish communities. This was obviously not the model for Jewish immigration to the United States and now we suffer the consequences.

Today our brothers and sisters joyously embrace the religions of America, whether it be Christianity, Secularism, Materialistic Consumerism or some bizarre combination of the three. They are lost to our people and don’t even know it yet. But don’t blame them or the Pottery Barn catalogue. Blame the grandparents who came to these shores without fear.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Halachic Process? In Your Dreams!

Every year we read Parshat Mikeitz on Shabbat Chanukah. Biblical commentators and pulpit rabbis have expounded on the Mikeitz/Chanukah connection for centuries and their ideas are many and varied. But there is always room for an original take.

The daily service in the Holy Temple revolved around several pieces of “furniture.” It goes without saying that there’s more to Temple furniture than aesthetic design or feng shui. Each piece has a specific message.

It is well established in Midrashic and Kabbalistic literature that the Temple is a microcosm of creation. It follows that the Temple furniture would represent G-d's gifts to His people and humanity. Probably the most famous of the Temple’s furnishings, the Menorah has long served as a symbol of the Jews and Judaism. What does it symbolize?

The easy answer would be to say that the Menorah symbolizes Torah. After all, we do have verses like these: “A mitzvah is a lamp and the Torah is light” (Proverbs 6:23) and “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light for my path” (Psalms 119:105). Unfortunately, Torah is already taken. The Holy Ark must represent the Torah for it contains the Tablets. These Tablets, received by Moshe from G-d atop Mt. Sinai, have the Ten Commandments engraved upon them. Undoubtedly, it is the Holy Ark that represents the gift of Torah.

Well then, we are back to our question. What does the Menorah represent?

The Netziv (R. Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 1817-1893) resolves this difficulty by pointing out that there are actually two Torahs. There is, of course, the written Torah, the Bible text. But then there is another Torah, the Torah SheBa’al Peh, the Oral Tradition. Taught to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, the teachings of the oral tradition explain the written Torah and provide legal definitions of the mitzvot. This tradition also includes tools for mining the text for fresh insight and guidance. Otherwise known as the “Halachic Process,” these tools allow Judaism to respond to new questions. The Oral Tradition was eventually put into writing as the Mishnah and Talmud.

The ark represents the Torah, but the Menorah represents Jewish Tradition, the teachings which flow from and illuminate the otherwise impenetrable Torah text. This is indicated by the design of the Menorah itself. Out of its central pillar, which represents the written Torah, flow six branches corresponding to the six orders of the Mishnah. (heard from Esther Schlisser)

There is a fundamental difference between the written Torah and the oral Torah, and this difference is clearly expressed by the Ark and the Menorah. The Ark is sealed in the Holy of Holies and is untouchable by man. The same is true of the Torah text. But when it comes to the oral tradition, man has an active role to play. We light the Menorah.

Let's turn now to our parsha. Parshat Miketz tells the the story of Yosef's swift rise to power. Yosef is a Renaissance man, but his knack for interpreting dreams proves to be his most valuable gift. This mystical talent gets him out of prison and into the court of the king. In the end, Yosef's understanding of Pharaoh’s dreams saves the world from famine.

Every time Yosef is presented with a dream, his response is the same: Dreams are G-d's business. Yosef told his first clients, the royal butler and baker, "Do not interpretations belong to G-d?" (Bereishit 40:8). And when Yosef won the contract to interpret Pharaoh's dreams, he said, “It's not me. Pharaoh's welfare is in G-d's hands” (41:16). Nevertheless, Yosef's recognition of the divine nature of dreams does not prevent him from taking an active role in interpreting them.

Yosef's approach to dreams can teach us a thing or two about the appropriate attitude toward the Oral Tradition. Yosef does indeed come up with his own original interpretations, but only after he acknowledges that the ultimate meaning of dreams goes far beyond mortal understanding. Only with this foundation of awe and humility before G-d can Yosef successfully interpret a dream. The same must also be true of our approach to the Oral Tradition and the Halachic process.

Chanukah celebrates a Jewish victory over the religious oppression of the Assyrian Greeks. Our enemies had nothing against the written Torah — on the contrary, they translated it into Greek! Their issue was with the Oral Torah, i.e. Jewish tradition. They were trying to destroy our Menorah.

The Maccabees defeated the Greeks, rededicated the Temple, and relit the Menorah. But first they had to find pure oil, unsoiled by the Hellenists. They found enough oil for just one day, but the Menorah miraculously kept burning for eight. The message is clear. Yes, the Menorah is not the Ark and it is our privilege to do the lighting. But we must first strive for the purest of oil, free of secular influences and personal agendas. When we respect the divine nature of the light, there's no telling how long our Torah will shine.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Chanukah vs. Purim

Chanukah and Purim are both highly popular and great fun, but comparing them gives us pause. As the two post-biblical holidays, they both commemorate periods when the Jews lacked independence, faced persecution and emerged victorious (i.e. survived). But yet, the two holidays are celebrated very differently. Latke-Hamentashen debates are entertaining, but the Chanukah-Purim contrast demands a serious response.

Chanukah is celebrated with the lighting of a Menorah. This is a bit surprising. Menorah lighting is a biblical mitzvah reserved for the Jerusalem Temple; considered a special privilege even among the Kohanim of old, we would have never expected to see every Jew doing it at home. Another mitzvah of Chanukah is the singing of Hallel. Each morning of the eight days, Hallel, an exuberant selection of chapters from King David’s Psalms, is added to the regular morning prayers. The extraordinary mitzvot of Chanukah express the heightened sanctity and spirituality of these special days.

Purim is different. On Purim, there is no Hallel and there is no candle lighting; instead, we have a party. Jews celebrate Purim with a proper feast, including plenty of fine wine. No such celebration occurs on Chanukah. Why the difference?

There is a good answer to this question, an answer that makes perfect sense. In the Purim story, the Jews were threatened with annihilation. The Persian Empire had embraced the final solution and the Jews were doomed. When the Jews are saved from this threat, they enact a holiday that celebrates their survival. This holiday appropriately involves rejoicing through the physical pleasures – after all, it was our bodies that were saved. Food, drink and festivities are the order of the day.

The situation in the days of the Chanukah story was altogether different. The Hellenists weren’t out to kill Jews; they just forbade the practice of Judaism. A Jew who abandoned his or her faith was welcomed as a full-fledged citizen of Hellenist society. As long as we went along with their agenda, our bodies were not in danger – but our soul was. So when the Maccabees defeated the enemy, the holiday instituted was a holiday that involved not the body, but the soul. The mitzvot of Chanukah are therefore entirely spiritual in nature. (cf. Levush 670:2)

Our comparison of these two holidays is incomplete. One more fundamental difference must be addressed.

How did the Jews react to these two persecutions? In the Purim story, the Megillah is clear. Esther told the Jews to fast for three days (Esther 4:16). Fasting, prayer and repentance are the national response and this is commemorated with the Fast of Esther the day before Purim. What about Chanukah? In the Chanukah story, the response was slightly different. Instead of a prayer rally, the Jews launch an insurgency. Against all odds, a small group of dedicated Jews, the Maccabees, takes up arms to resist the religious persecution of the Greek Hellenists.

How strange! When confronted with physical annihilation, the Jews pray and when confronted with religious persecution, they fight? Isn’t that kind of backward? Shouldn’t a physical threat be matched with force and a spiritual one with fasting and prayer?

Let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes. In the Purim story, the Jews are facing annihilation. As terrifying as that might be, unexpected it is not. Several such situations are recorded in the Torah and Moshe prophesized that the Jews would face such threats again. The Jew knows what this means – G-d’s divine justice is reckoning sins. The Jews fast, pray and repent and G-d overturns the decree. It’s standard operating procedure.

The Chanukah story, however, is inexplicable. Religious persecution? The Jews have never experienced that before; they’ve never even heard of it. If G-d was angry, He would destroy the Temple, exile them from their land and maybe threaten them with destruction. But none of that was happening. Instead, the Jerusalem Temple is transformed into a pagan house of worship and the observance of mitzvot is forbidden. How can such a situation be explained from a perspective of faith?

For a while, the Jews did not know how to respond. The Maccabees hid out in the Judean hills and caves of Modi’in, mulling over the state of affairs and pondering their options (cf. Leket Sichot Mussar vol. II, R. Yitzchok I. Sher, pgs. 146-147). Why is this happening? What does G-d want from us? Finally, after much deliberation, they come to a conclusion: This persecution is not about sin. On the contrary, it is about mitzvot.

If G-d has not destroyed the Temple but just taken away our religious freedom and our ability to serve Him, it can only mean one thing: He was not satisfied with the quality of our service. Our mitzvot must have lacked the requisite passion and joy and now G-d wants to see how much we really care. Will we stand up for the privilege to do mitzvot? Or does it not matter to us that much? (cf. Bach 670:4)

The Maccabees proved the depth of their commitment and G-d showed them miracles in return. They defeated vastly superior forces and returned to restore and rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. The Shechinah once again dwelled in the Sanctuary. And the miracle of the Menorah showed one and all that when mitzvot are done right, G-d’s presence will be manifest in our world.

Today, our Chanukah celebrations are appropriately mitzvah-centric. We too must demonstrate our love for mitzvot and cherish the privilege of lighting a Menorah and singing Hallel. In the merit of these mitzvot, the eternal light of the Shechinah can be brought into every Jewish home.

Friday, December 8, 2006

From Eisav with Love

We know that the lives of the forefathers are not merely a story of the past; they are also the blueprint of our future. The account of the conflict between Yaakov and Eisav foreshadows the history of the Jewish people and also serves as a guide for the correct approach in dealings with our enemies (Ramban). In these troubled times, it warrants an extra close reading.

In the beginning of the parsha, the tension builds. Yaakov returns to the Land of Israel and prepares to face the enemy he had fled so many years earlier: his very own brother, the unforgiving Eisav. Yaakov manages to peacefully defuse a potentially deadly confrontation with a three-prong preparedness strategy: prayer, appeasement and defensive war. Of all three, it is the prayer that is the most fascinating.

In his prayer, Yaakov pleads with G-d, “Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Eisav” (Bereishit 32:12). Does G-d not know who Eisav is that Yaakov has to inform Him that they are brothers? Besides, what is the relevance of their familial relationship at a time like this? What is Yaakov trying to say here?

The answer is chilling. Eisav is plagued with multiple personality disorder. One Eisav we are aware of, the other is less known. There is the violent, murderous Eisav and there is also the sweet brother Eisav who puts his arm around us and wants to be our friend. One destroys the body, the other, the soul. Yaakov prays to G-d to save him from the hands of both (“Bais HaLevi,” R. Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1820-1892).

The night before Yaakov is to face his bother, Yaakov does battle with the monster Samael. Spiritual counterpart of Eisav, the angel Samael is the incarnation of evil itself (32:25; cf. Malachei Elyon, Samael). This nightlong struggle symbolizes the struggle with evil the Jewish people will endure through the long night of national galut (exile). Like Yaakov, we will persevere and ultimately emerge victorious. But it might speed the process along if we better understood the nature of the battle.

Yaakov’s battle is described by the Torah with the word, “vayei’aveik” (32:25). This unusual word is translated as “wrestling,” but the root of the word is far from obvious. Rashi has two interpretations of this word. Either it comes from the root “avak” which means dust; when people fight they kick up a cloud of dust. Alternatively, it has the Aramaic root “avik” which means a knot; when two people wrestle, they hold onto each other and their limbs intertwine. The Chasam Sofer (R. Moshe Sofer, 1762-1839) understands these two interpretations to be descriptive of the two types of interactions Eisav has with Yaakov. One is a violent attack which kicks up dust. The other is when Eisav hugs us.

When Yaakov finally meets up with Eisav and his four hundred men, a strange thing happens. Instead of a war, we have a family reunion. Eisav runs to up to Yaakov and gives him a hug and a kiss. (Did he forget to take his meds?) Both brothers break down and cry (33:4).

Why was Yaakov crying? He should be relieved, not moved.

I would posit that Eisav’s hug was deeply disturbing to Yaakov – he would have much preferred a fight. Yaakov knew that this hug meant that there would come a time when Eisav would hug Jews again, and some of them might return the hug. At this vision, our father Yaakov broke down and cried.

Yaakov knew what he was saying when he prayed to G-d, “Please rescue me from the hand of my brother, the hand of Eisav.” Indeed, both Eisavs were active that day. First, the aggressive Eisav approaches with an armed force of four hundred to destroy Yaakov and his family. Then, as soon as Yaakov manages to escape that danger, Eisav the “brother” appears. He extends to Yaakov a warm invitation, “Let’s get going and move on, I will travel alongside you” (33:12). Brother Eisav wants to bond. Yaakov declines the offer and avoids that danger as well.

It stands to reason that the last scene in the drama, the interaction which takes place just before the final parting of ways, would hint at what is to happen at the point at which our galut is about to wind down and enter its final throes.

Rabbi Moshe M. Eisemann

In other words, in the end Eisav will embrace the Jewish people and lovingly welcome them into his melting pot. This is certainly the situation today (at least in America). Following the guidance of Yaakov, we must respectfully decline. It is up to us to reject the assimilationist Eisav and stand up for authentic Jewish values. It is the only way to ensure the survival of Jewish identity in the final stage of the Diaspora. It is the challenge of our times.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Dina in a Box

When Yaakov finally meets Esav and introduces his family, his daughter Dina is nowhere to be found. The Midrash relates that Yaakov had hidden her in a box. Fearful that Esav might want her hand in marriage, Yaakov put her in a suitcase so Esav would not see her at all. The Midrash goes on to say that this was a mistake. Had Esav married Dina, she would have transformed him into a righteous man. For the sin of withholding this opportunity from his brother, Yaakov was punished with the rape of Dina.

This extraordinary Midrash needs a lot of explanation, and it is not my intent here to attempt to explain it all. I would just like to suggest one idea.

Did Yaakov's lack of faith in his daughter weaken her sense of self? The fact is that Dina could have fixed Esav, but Yaakov didn't believe it. What is the impact on a child when a parent isn't aware of their strengths and as a result relates to them inappropriately? Is such a child possibly more susceptible to rape?

Am I out of line here?