Wednesday, December 26, 2007

"Let Us Make (Snow) Man"

On the East Coast winter has set in. We find ourselves once again standing tipee-toed stretching and feeling for that second glove up in back of the closet. Every woosh and click of the front door seems to carry in a moan of relief and a statement of "just how cold it really is out there" all expressed to the rhythmical stomping of boots on the front mat. The kitchen seems warmer and more inviting filled with the smell of all things baked, braised and starchy. The throw-blanket on the couch is rediscovered (along with that book that was lost underneath it) as is velvety sweet honey which now finishes our nightly tea. Yet it's the beeping of the Robutusm, Ludins and Puffs passing over the checkout which reminds us that not only is winter here, it's here for a fight.

We know that nature is a a most basic form of prophecy. So what's winter whispering to our souls? Of course to each one of us it whispers its own message, but to us as a whole what's it saying?

The Talmud states:
"All is in the hands of Heaven - Save the Cold and the Heat"

Elsewhere The Talmud States:
"All is in the hands of Heaven - Save The Fear of Heaven"

The questions are many and obvious.

Through Kaballah we are taught that the stem of the soul in its highest form in the highest world is rooted in two G-dly attributes , Love and Fear. The attribute of Love is represented in our world, the lowest world, the world of asyia by Fire - the heat of passion driving us to express and create. Fear tho is represented by water - the cooling intellect restraining our actions.

Free Will, Heat, Cold, all left in man's hands alone.

The cold season of winter is surely the season of intellect. A time of learning , study, contemplation and honing of the mind so it may lead us in the service of G-d. Its no coincidence that it's in this very time of year that we add a special passage in the daily prayer requesting rain - which represents Torah learning as expressed by Moses Our Teacher "May my teachings fall like rain" (Deut. 32-2).

Winter is not the season for sowing or reaping, cutting or threshing - nature tells us to head inside our homes and ourselves. To take some quiet time with a "Gluz Tae" - a glass of tea. Simply, think, learn study and build a better human infrastructure - so when the spring comes around the seeds planted in the winter will burst forth to beautiful blossoms.

Of course any extreme has its dangers and winter is no exception. A dose of heat is required - but the general direction is introspection - and the Great Chassidic Masters took from the Goanim a secret that these winter weeks were a special time that the gates of change were opened, a timed they named "shovovim" or "returning".

We all know that on the second day of creation G-d split the water, there were the waters that above in the heavens and the water below in the oceans. The water of the oceans cried to Heaven - "L-rd it is unfair we are so far from you", Heaven responded "There will come a time when man will bring sacrifices to me on the alter in the Temple , and he will be required to place with it salt that comes from your waters".

The two waters represent the two types of knowledge, the knowledge of Heaven and knowledge of earth.
The earthly knowledge said - "I'm so far from you"
"In this lowly world, what type of knowledge is there? We are so far from G-d who's hidden behind endless veils - even Moses the greatest prophet was told he cold not see the face of G-d and live! Even when a Jew struggles and wants to do the right thing he isn't sure what to do' "Givald!" said Knowledge," I'm so far from you!
Heaven answered - "You are right, earthly knowledge has severe limitations what people think is right could be so wrong and vise verse - but I made it so, earthly knowledge is not about attaining absolute truth, its about the quest and relentless pursuit to find it. Earthly knowledge has to nullify itself before the knowledge of Heavenly Torah - only through this "hisbatlus" nullification - or evaporation does the salt emerge to be brought on the Holy Alter.

So it's winter, and a time for collecting holy heavenly knowledge - we push aside all our earthly ideas of right and wrong - of sensible and nonsensical and open ourselves up to the wellspring of Torah Knowledge - as the snowflakes fall passed our windows - we are bent over our holy books and like the seeds sleeping in the ground, gaining nutrients and growing stronger - waiting for spring to awaken and put out new found selves into play.

The Unlikely Leader

“Jewish leadership” is currently very much in vogue. On university campuses and in JCCs around the country, seminars and “fellowships” are sprouting up that will train you in the art of being a “Jewish leader.” I doubt two Jews in America could even agree on the definition of a “Jewish leader,” but regardless, a case could be made that that signing up for one of these courses automatically disqualifies you. If Moshe is any guide, the ideal Jewish leader is someone who has no interest in being one. However, to be honest, this kind of cynicism is unwarranted. As we shall see, Moshe’s disinterest in Jewish leadership is not something we should aspire to.

It took God a lot of work at the Burning Bush to convince Moshe to go to Egypt and redeem the Jews. In the end, God succeeds and Moshe takes the job. Moshe was riding his donkey, headed for Egypt, when God appeared with one final message.

Tell Pharaoh, “God says, ‘Israel is My firstborn son. Send out My son so he can serve Me. For if you refuse to send him, I will kill your firstborn son.’”


“My firstborn son” – Here God signed on the sale of the birthright that Yaakov purchased from Eisav (cf. Bereishit 25:33).

Rashi ad loc.; Midrash Rabba 63:14

After all these years, nay, centuries, it is only now that God validates the sale of the birthright?! What has taken so long? And what is it about Moshe’s journey to Egypt that generates this most critical divine act of signing on the sale? This is a difficult Midrash. In order to understand it, we need to take a small step back.

In the book of Bereishit, the Torah reveals next to nothing about the early lives of Noach and Avraham. The wisdom of God’s choice is borne out by their successes, but we are not told why they were chosen in the first place. When it comes to Moshe, however, things are different. The Torah provides a full bio of his early life and it is quite impressive. Here’s a synopsis.

Moshe was born at a bad time. The Jews were enslaved and oppressed, and by law, all newborn boys had to be thrown in the Nile. When his parents couldn’t hide him anymore, they put him in a basket and set it afloat in the reeds by the riverbank. Discovered by none other than Pharaoh’s own daughter, she takes the baby out of the river, names him “Moshe,” and adopts him.

Moshe grows up. One day, going out to check on his brethren, Moshe sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. Thinking that no one is watching, Moshe kills the Egyptian and hides the body. The next day, Moshe goes out again. Seeing two Jews fighting, he confronts them. “Why do you hit your friend?” he asks. “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” came the reply. “Do you intend to kill me the same way you killed the Egyptian?” The word was out! The Jews had reported on Moshe and now he is wanted for murder. Moshe flees the country.

Arriving in Midian, Moshe sees the local shepherds abusing some girls at a watering hole. He intercedes, saves the maidens and draws water for their sheep. The girls’ father invites him for dinner and Moshe ends up marrying Tzippora and working as a shepherd for his father-in-law. Guiding his flock one day in the desert, he sees a burning bush. God has come to ask him to return to Egypt and redeem the Jews.

There we have it. Moshe is a man who will kill to defend his brethren. Even as an immigrant, he is not afraid to challenge the locals and fight for what is just and right. God chose a bona fide hero.

Moshe may have a great résumé, but if you think about it, he is an unlikely candidate for a savior of the Jews. First of all, he grew up in an Egyptian home, not a Jewish one. Second, Moshe was burned once helping the Jews. He saved a Jew, killing an Egyptian at great personal risk, only to have Jews tattle on him to the authorities (cf. Rashi to 2:15). Thirdly, his last experience with the Jews was watching some violent infighting and then, when he tried to intervene, they told him off. Moreover, Moshe is wanted in Egypt for murder. Today he is a happily married man; a citizen of Midian. He would have to be crazy to return to Egypt!

Nevertheless, at the Burning Bush, God asks him to go. In light of the above, Moshe’s response is not surprising.

Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh? And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?

Shemot 3:11

Moshe is making two points here. The first is easy enough to understand; Moshe is a humble man who has no idea why he is being chosen for this momentous task. But what is the meaning of Moshe’s second question? Rashi explains.
“And that I should take the Children of Israel out of Egypt?” – [In other words,] even if I am up to the task, why do the Jews merit a miraculous redemption from Egypt?
That’s a negative attitude, but keeping Moshe’s personal history in mind, it is understandable. Long ago, when he saw Jew fight against Jew, Moshe came to know why the Jews were enslaved.

“Indeed, the matter is known!”


“Now I know the answer [to the question] I have long wondered about. What sin did the Jews commit that they alone from among all the seventy nations are subjected to slave labor? But now I see that they deserve it.”

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 10

Moshe’s negativity does not end there. God and Moshe go through several volleys at the Bush; Moshe simply does not want the job. At one point, he says this:

They won’t believe me… they’ll say, “God never appeared to you!”


Not only does Moshe consider the Jews unworthy of redemption, he accuses them of cynicism as well. The mocking words, “Who appointed you an officer or a judge over us?” still burn in his ears. But here God drew the line:

God said to him, “What is that in your hand?”
“A staff,” he replied.
“Throw it on the ground.”
He threw it on the ground and it turned into a snake.


[God] was alluding to the fact that [Moshe] had just spoken Lashon Hara about the Jews. He had taken up the profession of the snake.

Rashi ad loc.; Tanchuma 23

Despite all his misgivings, Moshe takes the job. Not because he is promised riches or land and not because God forces him to do it. Simply because the Jews are his brothers.

This provides another stark contrast with Noach and Avraham. When God told Noach to build an ark, Noach asked no questions. When God told Avraham to sacrifice his son, Avraham says, “Hineini,” i.e., “Here I am, ready to do your bidding.” But when God instructs Moshe to return to Egypt and save the Jews, a discussion ensues. Apparently, God does not want to order Moshe to do it; God wants Moshe to want to do it. And when, in the end, Moshe mounts his donkey and heads for Egypt, God signs on Yaakov’s purchase of the birthright and declares the Jews His “firstborn.” Why?

Because Moshe does not allow his experience with a few bad apples to extinguish his feelings for the Jewish Nation. Ultimately it is Moshe’s deep-seated love and respect for the Jews that drives him to take on the responsibilities of leadership. And if a Jewish child who was raised by Egyptians can still love his brethren, if one who was betrayed and insulted by his own people still cares, if a man could leave the comforts of home to return to a land where he is wanted for murder in order to perform a mitzvah, if, after all he had been through, Moshe was still so authentically Jewish, then the sale of the birthright was indeed a success. For in Moshe we have living proof that Yaakov’s descendants are the carriers of the exalted Abrahamic gene.

This is why God chose Moshe, and this is why God needed Moshe to willingly embrace the mission. There may have been other candidates. But there was no one else who could prove the existence of the pintele yid.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

I'll Pass on the Cocoa

"Turn Back Turn Back Perfect One, Turn Back Turn Back That We May Observe You"
"What Can You Offer the Perfect One that Equals the Circling of the Camps?"
(Song of Songs 7:1)

It's that time of year when our mailboxes are flooded with catalogs selling enough nostalgia to make Norman Rockwell a bit cynical. Happy children on a rug in front of the fireplace playing with their new found gifts, parents in cozy sweaters smiling at each other... the perfect family... Rockefeller Center skating, Macy's window on Fifth Ave... even the snow, an extra shade of white.. in the spirit of the purity of the day...the holiday songs seemed to be playing at Temple Starbucks before the turkey was even carved ... it's just so beautiful.

So alluring is this image that one bright Jewish chap and his girlfriend decided to keep the commercialized version of the Holiday last year and write about it in the New York Times. The article was labeled "silly", "stupid" and "sad" by most reader's, but this year Id like to call it what it is - a sickening betrayal.

In the not too distant past Jews would surely bolt their doors and hide, for when Christmas Mass was over - the angry mobs were ready to avenge the death of their Lord's only son. Over the course of history the blood of hundreds and thousands of Jews spilled like water, the ground ran deep with the blood of our own . Old helpless men and woman struck down and beaten to death, young men and their sons were slain, woman and their daughters raped and killed... there was no mercy for our people .. no mercy for our people .. no mercy at all.... the cocoa drinkers celebrated the birth of their saviour by avenging his death... from people that lived thousands of years later...

Yet we, less than two hundred years after the slaughterings of our own family, forgive and forget... for what? For the promise of hot cocoa and a cashmere sweater...

Am I calling for revenge, shall we G-d Forbid take swords in our hands and strike babes from their mother's arms and slit their throats as the mother's cry in horror only to join a similar fate moments later - as was done to us - NEVER!! G-d Forbid!

But how dare we forget the darkness of the day - the impurity of the day.. in an age of multiculturalism we are all expected to hold hands and sing... Less than sixty five years ago.. the church sat by and let your grandfathers, your grandmothers, your uncles and your aunts be led to the slaughter in the Camps. They sat by in front of the fireplace drinking cocoa in cashmere sweaters with sweet holiday songs playing joyfully in the background... so beautiful... while the cries of six million, think about the number, six million were slaughtered. Their cries ignored by a church that knew quite well what was going on... holy night... peaceful night....

So what is this crazy blogger saying? Whats his point? He's a fanatic, he's old fashion, he's just trying to be shocking. Givald I'd love to be able shock some people from their crazy hypnotic slumber... I'm begging you that this year on Dec. 25 perhaps after dark ... take your children, and tell them our story of this night... how Zeidys and Bubbys were slaughtered after Midnight Mass but they died with the name of Hashem on their the modest daughters of Zion in protection of their purity jumped from windows rather than be defiled by the animals... how young scholars died clutching their seforim, their holy books... tell your children how lucky we are to live in this land, how grateful we must be to the United States and to G-d, that tonight we can wear a kippa, tzitzis and learn Torah.... then open any Jewish book of your choosing and learn for five little minutes... learn in memory of those killed by the sword.. so we wont have to mourn those lost to the promise of hot cocoa and cashmere sweaters...

In the verse sited above... the commentator Rashi explains that it refers to the nations of the world asking the children of Israel to turn back from the service of G-d and promising us peace and honor- We answer "what can you offer us that equals the circling of the camps" - to me tonight the meaning is - the Camps of Auschwitz and Burchanu. What little trinkets, what imagery can you lure us with when we saw what you truly let happen to us... when we were round up like animals, shot, gassed, burned and eliminated like dung - cast into pits. Tonight we'll stay with our G-d and with our own people, and for the memory of Zaidy and Bubby, the six million, and the thousands throughout history that died at the cross - I'll pass on the cocoa tonight.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Playing God

A disturbing question hangs over our story. It is an obvious problem and the answer does not yield easily.

When the sons of Yaakov arrive at Yosef’s door in search of food, instead of revealing his identity and openly confronting their unresolved issues, Yosef decides to play games. He accuses them of spying and he demands that they prove their innocence by bringing their younger brother down to Egypt (42:9-15). This is just the first stage of an elaborate scheme that both confounds and torments the family for months.

Why does Yosef pull this cruel prank on his brothers? Is it revenge that he is after? Is his thirst for revenge so intense that it bulldozes any concern for his own father’s distress? Regardless, revenge fails to explain Yosef’s game. If he wants revenge, Yosef ought to simply throw them all in the dungeon. Moreover, revenge is sweet. Yosef should be enjoying himself, not constantly breaking down in tears (cf. 42:23; 43:30).

What is the idea of shlepping Binyomin down to Egypt (42:15)? This seems to be a cruelty aimed directly at the innocent Yaakov (42:38). And what of the planting of the money in their packs (42:25)? Or the framing of Binyomin as a thief (44:2)? What in heaven’s name is Yosef doing?

The answer to all these questions is that Yosef is orchestrating a Teshuvah opportunity for his brothers. At the end of last week’s parsha, Binyomin stood accused of theft (44:12). Yosef claimed Binyomin as a slave and, in the last words of the parsha, told the other brothers to return “to their father in peace.” The crime scene of twenty years ago has reappeared. The brothers can once again eliminate their father’s favorite son!

The brothers sold Yosef because they feared that history would repeat itself. Just as Yitzchak wanted to give the berachos to his favorite son Eisav (25:28; 26:1-4), the brothers expected Yaakov to pass the berachos on to his favorite son, the child of his beloved deceased wife Rachel (37:3). And just as Yaakov had “stolen” the berachos away from his brother Eisav, so too would the power-hungry Yosef attempt to do the same. Yosef was a threat and so they eliminated him – only to create a new monster, Binyomin. Binyomin was the new Yosef, his father’s overprotected favorite. (Like Yosef before him, Binyomin must stay home when all his brothers go out to work, cf. 37:14; 42:4.) The brothers suspected that Binyomin might try to steal their birthright and now their fears have been confirmed. Binyomin is indeed a thief! But it is no surprise, really. It runs in the family.

Years back, as Yaakov was leaving the house of Lavan, Rachael stole her father’s Teraphim, pagan articles used for divination. Lavan took chase, and soon caught up with Yaakov and accused him of theft. Unaware that Rachel had stolen the Teraphim, Yaakov declared that whoever stole them should die (31:32). Our story is identical. The brothers are leaving Egypt and Yosef sends his officer to take chase. He catches up with them and accuses them of stealing Yosef’s goblet. Unaware that it is in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers exclaim, “If any of us (lit. your servants) has it in his possession, he shall die!” (44:8). According to the Midrash, the parallels to the past do not escape the brothers’ notice. When the goblet is found in Binyomin’s pack, they yell at him, “You take after your mother!” (Midrash HaGadol).

What Yosef has done here is reinforce the brothers' fear of a thieving Binyomin running off with Yaakov’s precious berachos. And to ensure their jealousy is primed, earlier that day at lunch, Yosef gave Binyomin five times more food than everyone else (43:34).

Now the brothers have a choice. They can eliminate the privileged Binyomin without even getting their hands dirty. Or they can protect him.

Yosef wanted his brothers to make the right choice, so he made it easy for them to deny Binyomin’s indictment. Before the brothers went back to Israel the first time, Yosef returned their money to their packs (42:25) and he did the same again now (44:1). His overseer claimed that it was a gift from God (43:23), but the brothers knew the truth. They knew that Yosef must have done it and they feared they were being framed (42:35). Now that Yosef’s goblet was found in Binyomin’s pack, the brothers could not ignore the the possibility that Yosef had planted it there. On the one hand, Benyomin has an inherited tendency for theft and was caught with the goods, but on the other hand, the Egyptian governor is a madman with a history of planting incriminating evidence. Whom to believe?
"Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them... but they did not recognize him" (42:7-8). Yosef recognized his brothers, when they were given over into his hands he recognized them as brothers and had compassion on them. But they did not recognize him when he fell into their hands to treat him as a brother. (Rashi ad loc.)  
Yosef engineered this trauma for the brothers because he loved them. Before revealing his identity, Yosef wants to give his brothers a chance to vindicate themselves. He wants to watch them stand up and defend Binyomin - Yaakov’s favorite, Rachel’s son, and the new threat to their own destiny. After experiencing their hatred, jealousy and false accusations, Yosef wants to witness his brothers judge Binyomin favorably. He wants to evoke the memory of his mother Rachel and watch the children of the “secondary” wives deal with that uncomfortable reality. And Yosef wants to see his brothers express caring and love for their father Yaakov and redeem themselves. Yehuda stands up and, representing all of the brothers, he heroically does all these things. Yosef can now declare "I am Yosef!" and reenter a healed family.


A question remains. What right did Yosef have to do all this? It may help heal the family, but it is a risky business and a painful one. Who gave Yosef the right to play God?

The answer can be found in Yosef's second dream. Yosef saw the sun, moon, and stars bowing to him. Celestial bodies take orders from God, not Yosef. Why are they bowing to Yosef? Unless this is precisely the point: Hashem is telling Yosef to play "god" with his brothers. Engineer a Teshuvah opportunity for them and then forgive them. Just like God.

A second explanation for Yosef's behavior is rooted in Yosef's lifelong career in dream interpretation. When the baker and the butler had their dreams in the dungeon, Yosef interpreted them to mean that the baker will die and the butler will live and be freed (40:8-19). Why did God grant prophetic dreams to an Egyptian butler and baker? There is only one explanation. Yosef’s accurate interpretation built his reputation and ultimately led to his own freedom from prison. It turns out that the dreams of the butler and baker were not for themselves at all; they were entirely for Yosef (cf. Rashi to 40:1).

Dreamers must act to bring about the fulfillment of their dreams. The butler would have realized the true purpose of his dreams, but Yosef ruined it by intervening and asking him to put in a good word for him (40:14). This delayed things for two years. In order for the dream to function independently as the catalyst for Yosef’s freedom, the butler had to first forget about Yosef and his request (40:23). Only then could history flow naturally from the human response to dreams. (This explains the Midrash quoted by Rashi to 40:23.)

Pharaoh also has dreams that Yosef interprets, again following the same pattern. As opposed to the Egyptian dream interpreters who thought Pharaoh's dream was about his seven daughters, Yosef knows that Pharaoh is not dreaming about himself. Pharaoh is dreaming about worldwide famine and as king, he is no personal danger. Pharaoh’s dreams are not for himself, but for others – for the salvation of his people and the empowerment of Yosef - but Pharaoh must act to make his dreams come true. These revelations about the nature of dreams do not go by unnoticed by Yosef.

When Yosef’s brothers arrive at his door, the Torah tells us exactly what when went through his mind: “Yosef remembered the dreams that he dreamed for them” (42:9). Not simply “his dreams” nor “the dreams that he dreamed about them.” Rather, “the dreams that he dreamed for them.”

Yosef’s multiple experiences with dreams taught him a fundamental truth. The prophetic element of dreams is never limited to the destiny of the dreamer alone. Yosef’s dreams of his brothers bowing before him could not be for his own benefit. On the contrary, those dreams served as the catalyst for his sale into slavery! Dreams are not for the self; dreams are for others. And dreamers (if they the survive) have an obligation to act.

When the brothers arrived, Yosef had an epiphany. His dreams, the butler's and the baker's dreams, Pharaoh's dreams - the string of dreams are all united and lead to one inescapable conclusion. Yosef is destined to play God with his brothers - for their own good. This was the meaning of his vision of his brothers bowing before him. Yosef the dream interpreter must bring all six dreams to fruition.

Yosef hates his mission, but he suffers through it, crying through it, recognizing that the very dream that instigated the brothers to sell him obligates him to orchestrate their atonement and reunite the family of Israel. But this understanding is predicated on the extraordinary idea that even dreams of power must always be interpreted selflessly.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Grand Reopening to all Commentators!

Somehow, without my knowledge, the settings of this blog were changed to restrict comments to team members. My apologies to all comers who got rejected. Hope no one took this personally or got turned off by the apparent snobbishness (snobiety?). I am happy to report that the problem has been fixed, so feel free to comment to your heart's content.
Thank you Esther Kestenbaum for bringing this to my attention!

Monday, December 3, 2007

A Series of Inexplicable Events

In this week’s parsha, there is a lot of strange behavior. In fact, the behavior of each and every character in our story is just inexplicable. And that includes Yaakov, Yosef, and God.

Let’s review. Favoritism, tattletaling, and grandiose dreams drive the brothers into a dangerous mix of jealousy and hatred for Yosef. It reaches the point that they simply cannot say a peaceful word to him.

Yaakov is also angered by Yosef’s dreams. He intends to “manage” the situation, but when he sends Yosef to check up on his brothers, they kidnap him and sell him as a slave. Yosef is brought down to Egypt where he is put up on the block and purchased by the royal butcher.

No one’s behavior makes much sense, but strangest of all is Yaakov. Knowing that they are not on speaking terms, how could Yaakov send Yosef to check on his brothers? Yosef was terrified to make the trip, as evidenced by his “Hinneni” (37:13; compare 22:1). Yosef must have wondered why Yaakov was asking him to do this, and the conclusion he came to was inescapable and horrible.

Yaakov was in on the sale! How else would the brothers explain Yosef’s disappearance? The family had clearly decided to eliminate Yosef, much like Eisav and Yishmael were rejected by the earlier generations. It runs in the family. This explains why Yosef never made any attempt to contact Yaakov. (Of course, Yaakov did not conspire to eliminate Yosef, as evidenced by his subsequent mourning over the loss of his son. The question of why Yaakov sent Yosef to check on his brothers remains unresolved.)

Yosef is out of luck. Yesterday he basked in Yaakov’s love; today he labors for an Egyptian. We would be forced to admit that Yosef has been abandoned not only by his family, but by God as well. But the Torah says otherwise.

God was with Yosef.

Bereishit 39:2

Yosef is a slave and God is with him? If God is with him, why doesn’t God arrange for his freedom? In what way is God with him?

God was with Yosef and He made him very successful… His master realized that God was with [Yosef] and that God granted success to everything he did… [His master] placed him in charge of his household…


God’s presence manifests itself in Yosef’s success, but this is a mixed blessing. Yosef’s success (and good looks) attracts the attention of his master’s wife. She wishes to commit adultery with him, but Yosef refuses.

How could I do such a great wrong? It would be a sin before God!


Now it is Yosef who is behaving strangely. It takes a powerful fear of God to withstand the constant seductions of a beautiful woman. But Yosef has it. Where did he get such extraordinary faith? It must have come from his upbringing in the house of Yaakov. But this was the house that threw him out! After experiencing the evil done to him by his family, we would expect Yosef to abandon the faith of his fathers. After all, he has ample evidence that this tradition does not a better person make! But Yosef does not fall into that kind of immature thinking. He remains a God-fearing man.

Enraged by Yosef’s rejection, Potifar’s wife accuses him of attempted rape and has him thrown in prison. It is hard to imagine a more hopeless station in life than an imprisoned slave in the dungeons of ancient Egypt. But when life has gone from bad to worse and dreams of honor are but a distant memory, that most unexpected verse reappears once again.

God was with Yosef.


Two new prisoners show up in the prison, and one night they both have dreams. The next morning, Yosef notices that they look upset.

“Why do you look so worried today?” he asked.
“We [each] had a dream,” they replied, “and there is no one [here] to interpret it.”
“Interpretations are God’s business,” replied Yosef. “Tell me your dreams.”


Yosef may be in a dungeon, but he holds on to his faith. More than that, even when it comes to dream interpretation, something Yosef does quite well, Yosef humbles himself. “Dreams are God’s business.” Nor is Yosef shy about his faith. Later, standing before the king of Egypt, Yosef declares, “It is not me. God will provide an answer concerning Pharaoh’s future” (41:16). Yosef is a strong, proud and vocal Jew, and his religious values are rock solid. His faith emerges unscathed by his brother’s betrayal, estrangement from Yaakov, life alone in a pagan society, seduction, slavery and imprisonment.

The series of inexplicable events that is our parsha leaves a trail of unanswered questions. But of all the mysteries, the most relevant and the most pressing is this: Did Yosef have faith because God was with him? Or was God with Yosef because Yosef had faith?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The Master of Dreams

Posted by Ishbitz Forever

Ishbitzer Rebbe shared with us a deep and beautiful secret, that in ancient Hebrew the word for dream "Chalom" and the word for bread "Lechem" - are formed of the same letters "Chet Lamad Mem" - this is to teach us from the depth of truth that just as one needs bread to live - so too one needs a dream.

Do dreams follow our hearts or do our hearts follow our dreams?

The story of Joseph is the story of the soul. There is part of our magical soul that dreams, wild and wonderful dreams unbound by the world around us fed only by the spiritual world on high. This dreamy part of our soul is looked down upon by the other parts of our being as a "child" - A "na'ar", never given any real respect.

Yet as we go through life - we have moments - moments when the dreamer is given a coat of many colors - colors so vivid and beautiful, so unimaginably breathtaking that they light up the night, they inspire and remind us that it is truly the intangible, the spirituality in our lives that makes life so magical and worth living. They are only moments.

The other parts of the soul knowing that what they have seen, felt and learned in these brief fleeting moments are so deep and true, begin to hate the dreamer. It is because of him that they now doubt their once clear mission.

The dreamer himself reaffirmed by these bursts of clarity becomes emboldened and suggests to the others that they simply let go and follow him to wherever it is he will lead, he will unshackle them from a mundane life and lead them to a higher goal.

They respond angrily, "Enough dreamer! Lets see how you survive in the real world where its dark and cold- It's easy to dream when protected by your father's love and clothed in color". So they rip off the coat of colors and throw him into a darkest pit - and proceed to sell him into slavery... and say, "Let us see what shall be of this dreamer!"

The dreamer is in hell, betrayed by those he loved and only wished to help. Hurt and alone... he seeks a new dream.. and it comes in the form of the warm bed of a most beautiful yet forbidden woman, a woman who wears many colorful clothes of her own . Her call is sweet and intoxicating, the urge to let go of the old and begin anew is too much to resist - why hold onto the painful quest a hopeless dream when these passions and dreams can be fulfilled. The dreamer about to succumb at her bedside - gains strength with a memory of another love upon seeing a vision of his father through a window to the future. For a brief moment he takes comfort that he at least has her colored cloak but the woman returns and claims that the cloak is hers, and the comfort he took betrays him, he is thrown into prison where there are no colors at all.

Once again lost and alone, the dreamer spends years in prison unable to do much at all - He has lost all his dreams to the pain. Yet it is here in this very dark prison where he learns perhaps the greatest secret of dreams - the most powerful power of dreams is not about the vivid colors or inspiration that the dreamer wears or spins - but helping others find their true dream - it is this giving of dreams that makes him "master of dreams." (Ba'al Chal'omus).

Only after this lesson learned do the other parts of the soul bow before him and accept the dreamer as their king and leader - for what good is a selfish dream - what is greater than to give the gift of dreams.

The Hailiga Ishbitzer writes, and I am sure these words are scorched with the fire of truth, the "The absolute greatest thing a yid can do is give another yid a place to stand" - a place to stand, a place to live, love and exist - and above all a place to dream.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Heresy of Entitlement II

[Read part-one here.]

I would like to both clarify and expand on my recent post on this topic.
  1. The central point of my post was that Yaakov never felt entitled to anything and that is why he was so grateful when God promised to protect him. The hypothesis is this: When you receive something that you think you are entitled to, there is little cause for thanksgiving. But if your expectations are zero, then anything and everything you get is perceived as a free gift and thanksgiving is in order. It turns out that Rashi in our parsha makes this same point quite explicitly. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that "the matriarchs were prophetesses who knew that twelve tribes would come from Yaakov" (Rashi to 29:34). Yaakov married four women, so that means that each wife is "entitled" to three sons. When Leah's fourth son, Yehudah, was born, Leah said, "Now I will thank God" (29:35). Rashi explains her meaning: "Now that I have taken more than my portion, I must thank [God]." This Rashi is based on a Midrash which illustrates the point with a parable:
    R. Berachya said in the name of R. Levi, "A Kohen went to the granary. One guy gave him a pile of ma'aser (a tithe that must be given to a Levite) and the Kohen did not thank him for it. Another guy gave him a handful of ordinary grain and he thanked him for it. [The first guy] said to him, 'My Master Kohen, I gave you a pile! This guy gives you a handful and you thank him?' [The Kohen] replied, 'You gave me my own portion, but this guy gave me from his own. That is why I thanked him.' Similarly, the matriarchs assumed that each one of them would have three sons, so when Leah had a fourth she exclaimed, 'Now I will thank God!'"
    Bereishit Rabba 71:4
    There you have it, black on white. People are never grateful when they get what's coming to them. It's just that Yaakov felt that nothing was coming to him.

  2. While Yaakov's attitude was that God owes him nothing, Yaakov was no shmata (doormat). The clear message of the bulk of the parsha is that Yaakov will not allow Lavan to rip him off.

  3. I wrote, parenthetically:
    God introduces Himself to Yaakov as the God of both Avraham and Yitzchak, cf. 28:13, but God stresses that Avraham, not Yitzchak, is Yaakov’s “father”!
    By this I meant to suggest that God was well aware of Yaakov's tendency towards the "din" attribute of his father, and God therefore wanted to remind Yaakov that Avraham, the man of chesed, was also his father. (For an altogether different and far more radical explanation of why Yitzchok is not called Yaakov's father, see Moznayim LaTorah here.)

    This is all the more interesting in light of the fact that Yaakov had just completed a fourteen-year stint in yeshiva, cf. Rashi to 28:11 quoting B.R. 68:11. Yaakov's "yeshivish" din streak expresses itself when he confronts the shepherds in 29:7, a la R. Shimon bar Yochai right out of the cave. Hameivin Yavin.

    Despite God's gentle reminder, Yaakov was not prepared to let go of Yitzchak as his primary model. At the very end of the parsha, Lavan proposes that they take an oath in the names of the "God of Avraham, the God of Nachor, and the God of their father (Terach)" (31:53). Yaakov is obviously not going to take any oath in the name of the pagan gods of Nachor and Terach, but we would imagine that Yaakov would have no objection to the God of Avraham. However, "Yaakov swore by the Dread of Yitzchak his father" (ibid.) Once again, Yaakov asserts the primacy of din over chesed. (See, however, 31:42.)

    [Continue with part-three here.]

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Do Two Wrongs Make a Right? The Balance Between Responsibility and Respect

Posted by R. Moshe Adatto

Was it proper for Rachel to steal her father's idols? According to the Midrash (quoted in Rashi 31:19), Rachel's intent was to stop her father from worshipping idols. She clearly felt that it was not only acceptable, but laudable for her to commit this act of theft for the greater good of saving her father from continuing a life of paganism. However, this appears to be a matter of debate. For if Yaakov agreed with her, how could he be so certain that a member of his household had not stolen them? If so, we are faced with a philosophical difference in perspective between a great Patriarch and an great Matriarch. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

(The Talmud's discussion (Shabbat 4a) about the propriety of one person committing a minor sin in order to stop someone else from a more major sin may well be relevant, although there is room to make a distinction.)

We might be tempted to support Yaakov's position based on the fact that Rachel was punished with an early death. However, this does not appear to be relevant to our discussion, because her death seems to be attributed to Yaakov's curse- "whoever you find your gods with shall not live," and not due to the G-d taking a position on the morality of her action.

From a contemporary standpoint this is a difficult issue to grapple with. In a culture of relative morality we are very uncomfortable as a society with the concept of people imposing their standards on others. Additionally, as Jews we do not want anyone else imposing their standard of absolute morality on us. However, we also believe in our responsibility to help others, and our understanding of what is considered help is certainly shaped by our beliefs and moral code.

I am not offering any answers, but I do feel that the balance between respect for other people's property rights (and their right to make their own decisions, as flawed as they might be) and care and concern for the spiritual wellbeing of others deserves thought.

Are you a Yaakov or a Rachel?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Thanksgiving and the Heresy of Entitlement

On the run from his brother Eisav, Yaakov is broke and alone. A yeshiva bachor by nature and seventy-seven years old, he must make his way northeast across hundreds of miles of trail to start life anew in a foreign land. Stopping for the night on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, Yaakov falls asleep under the stars and, for the first time in his life, he receives a prophecy. God promises him the world.
“I am God, Lord of Avraham your father and Lord of Yitzchak. I will give to you and to your descendants the land upon which you are lying. Your descendants will be like the dust of the earth. You shall spread out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south. All the families on earth will be blessed through you and your descendants.
“I am with you. I will protect you wherever you go and bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have fully kept this promise to you.”
Bereishit 28:13-15
There is much here that Yaakov must have been thrilled to hear. Not only does God guarantee Yaakov’s safe return home, He also gives him the land of Israel and promises to make him a source of blessing for all humanity. But most significantly, God promises him children. Lots of them. For a single man getting on in years with a long history of infertility in his genes, this is a wonderful piece of news.

Yaakov’s reaction is intense.
Yaakov took a vow. “If God will be with me,” he said, “if He will protect me on the journey that I am taking, if he gives me bread to eat and clothing to wear, if I return in peace to my father’s house, and if God makes Himself my Lord, then this stone that I have set up as a monument will become a temple for God, and of all that You give me, I will set aside a tithe for You.”
Yaakov is overwhelmed with feelings of gratitude and indebtedness, and he wants to give back to God in the only way he knows how. In return for God’s blessings, Yaakov commits to transform this site into a center of divine service and worship – and indeed he does just that when he returns to Israel many years later (cf. 35:6-7).

It is a beautiful story, but something is very wrong here. Yaakov left out all the important blessings! Nowhere in his “acceptance speech” does Yaakov mention Israel, nor does he respond to God’s promise to grant him children. It would seem that Yaakov is most excited about the prospect of clothes, food and returning to his parent’s home in peace. How mundane! Certainly, the divine promises of Israel and nationhood are of greater significance than mere survival. Does being the father of the chosen nation mean nothing to Yaakov?

The contrast with Avraham is striking. When Avraham arrived in Israel, God appeared to him and said, “To your descendants I will give this land” (12:7). Avraham’s response? “He built an altar there to God who had appeared to Him” (ibid). Rashi explains: “‘He built an altar’ – on the news about children and on the news about Israel.” But when God makes these very same promises to Yaakov, Yaakov is silent. Why?

It would seem that the different reactions of Avraham and Yaakov reflect their different personalities. Avraham was a man of pure chesed, kindness, and he was thus better able to relate to and understand God’s chesed. Yaakov, however, was a son of Yitzchak, the personification of din, strict justice. Indiscriminate divine love was something he had trouble with. (Read more about Yitzchak and din here.) Like his father Yitzchak, Yaakov never assumed that life was secure (cf. 32:8; compare 14:14). (Significantly, God introduces Himself to Yaakov as the God of both Avraham and Yitzchak, cf. 28:13, but God stresses that Avraham, not Yitzchak, is Yaakov’s “father”!)

Yaakov was overwhelmed by the “small” gifts of survival and safety. For those alone he swore to build a temple for God. The gifts of Israel and nationhood were altogether too much to take. Faced with the enormity of those blessings, Yaakov was speechless.

This humble attitude appears again later in the parsha. Yaakov marries two sisters, Leah and Rachel; Leah is able to have children, but Rachel is barren. Exasperated by childlessness and jealous of her sister, Rachel confronts Yaakov:
“Give me children! If not, let me die!”
Yaakov got angry with Rachel. “Shall I take God’s place?” he said. “It is He who is holding back the fruit of your womb.”
The logic of his response notwithstanding, Yaakov’s anger seems unwarranted. It goes without saying that Yaakov was a caring and sympathetic husband. Why is he angry with Rachel? The language of the Midrash is more direct. “Is this the way to answer a person in pain?!” (Bereishit Rabba 71:1).

In light of what we have learned about Yaakov, it is not difficult to pinpoint the source of his anger. It is one thing for a frustrated woman to demand a child, but it is another to exclaim, “If not, let me die!” Rachel was saying that she felt her life was meaningless – even useless – without children. From Yaakov’s perspective, this bordered on heresy.

God owes us nothing. Man cannot even claim that he has a right to the basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter. On the contrary, these are to be seen as divine blessings that leave man eternally indebted. Being alive is reason enough to rejoice and build a sanctuary to express thanksgiving to God. Children? The gift of children is an otherworldly blessing that is well beyond human capacity to comprehend or appreciate. How can anyone say that life is useless without it?

In a similar vein, R. Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494) points out that the purpose of life is not raising children. The purpose of life is to do mitzvot and cultivate a relationship with God. That is why, says R. Arama, Yaakov got angry with Rachel. She forgot why she was alive.

Rachel got the message. When she finally does have a child, she exclaims, “God has taken away my disgrace” (30:23). The simple meaning is obvious, but the Midrash has an innovative reading.
As long as a wife does not have a son, she has no one to blame for her blunders. But once she has a son, she blames him. “Who broke this container?” “Your son.” “Who ate the figs?” “Your son.”
Bereishit Rabba 73:5; Rashi ad loc.
Are we to believe that Rachel wanted a child so she could have someone to blame for her mistakes?! What is the meaning of such a bizarre statement? The answer, as many have explained, is that Rachel wants to be sure that her thanksgiving is all-inclusive. She is not satisfied with simply thanking God for the child; she wants to express appreciation for every single advantage gained. And that includes having someone to blame.

In the end, Rachel absorbed Yaakov’s beliefs. God owes us nothing. We owe God – for every little thing.

[Read part-two here.]

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Digging for Fun?

[Yitzchak] continued to prosper until he became extremely wealthy. He had flocks of sheep, herds of cattle, and a large retinue of slaves.
The Philistines became jealous of him. They plugged up all the wells that his father's servants had dug while Avraham was still alive and they filled them with earth.
Avimelech said to Yitzchak, "Go away from us. You have become much more powerful than we are."
Yitzchak moved away from there, camped in the Gerrar Valley and settled there. Yitzchak returned [to Gerar] and redug the wells that had been dug in the days of Avraham, which had been plugged up by the Philistines after Avraham's death. He gave them the same names that his father had given them.

Bereishit 26:13-18

Can anyone please tell me why Yitzchak, after he was evicted, snuck back into Gerar to redig wells for his enemies to enjoy?

Friday, November 9, 2007

Trust in Prayer

Posted by IshbitzForever

And Issac entreated Hashem opposite his wife, because she was barren. Hashem allowed himself to be entreated by him, and his wife Rebbeca conceived."

Genesis 25-22-23

The authoritative commentator known as Rashi explain the words "opposite his wife" as thus "This one stood in this corner and prayed and this one stood in this corner and prayed".

What is the significance of opposite corners - we have no such tradition that man and wife can not pray together or that retreating to different parts of the room help our prayers to be received, accepted or answered.

In addition we must introduce another puzzling explanation given by Rashi. Although we find that both Issac and Rebbeca prayed for a child, the verse tells us "Hashem Allowed himself to be entreated by him" (Isaac only)" - but what of Rebbeca's prayer? To this Rashi makes the statement, "One can not compare the prayer of someone who is righteous and whose parents were also righteous - to the prayer of someone who although they are righteous their parents weren't righteous" - meaning we cant compare the paryer of Issac who had a father like Abraham to the prayer of someone like rebbeca who had a father like Bethuel (an evil man). The question is blazing - is a new requirement for prayer to have a righteous parent? Isn't prayer the open and direct connection between every living creature and its maker our living G-d in heaven - what is Rashi talking about!?

So there's a story of a Great Rabbi, one of the Students of the Baal Shem Tov (Founder and Leader of the Hassidic Movement). This Rabbi hadn't had children for many years. One day his wife could take the pain no longer and yelled at her husband " I don't understand, people come from far and wide seeking your blessing for all their ills and troubles, you pray to G-d on their behalf and they are answered. Yet I, you're own wife sits in a sad and empty house without children and your prayers for me don't seem to be answered". The Rabbi softly answered "Those that come from far and wide believe I am a saintly man and they believe with all their hearts that G-d will surely listen to my prayers it's this very pure belief that carries their cause up to the deepest place in heaven before G-d's heavenly thrown - you on the other hand live with me, you know I am no saint just a struggling Jew trying to make the best of myself, your belief in me or my prayers is rightfully not without its doubts - hence my prayers for us must fight their way up, and so far they haven't reached their destination".

Isaac was the son of Abraham, he was installed with unquestioning belief in G-d from an early age. So much so that when his father told him that he was to slaughtered as a sacrifice he didn't flinch, an accepted the will of G-d as the only reality by which to live, utter trust. Rebbeca not so. She did not grow up with G-d at all, although she was good hearted, her religious experience surely began when she was wed to Issac.

When they prayed - each was in their own corner - they both had different approaches to prayer. Issac was sure G-d was listening - as he himself had been a miracle baby - and was sure G-d could change the worlds natural order in an instant as he had seen and heard his entire life - Rebbeca had not shared that upbringing, and could not pray the same way - Although she believed it could not be the same belief. One can not compare the prayer of one who is the child of a righteous man - because the child of a righteous man prays differently due to what he has been taught and seen while growing up.

Although prayer's function is primarily away to connect man and his creator - G-d set it aside as a tool we can use to call out to him in times of need. For it to function as such it needs trust, in both how closely G-d is listening, and how quickly G-d can change things.

Friday, November 2, 2007

In Search of a Matriarch

In this week’s parsha, Avraham decides it is high time for his son to get married. After all, Yitzchak is pushing forty. Instead of doing the Jewish thing and yelling at him to get married already or introducing him to a nice Canaanite girl, Avraham sends his butler Eliezer off to his old hometown of Charan to find Yitzchak a wife.

Eliezer is understandably confused. He asks the obvious:
What if the girl does not want to come back with me to this land? Shall I bring your son back to the land that you left?
Bereishit 24:5
Before he schleps across the Middle East on a camel, Eliezer wants to make sure he’s not wasting his time. He knows it would be a whole lot easier to make a shidduch if the girl could just meet Yitzchak first. Who is going to agree to marry a man sight unseen? Eliezer makes a reasonable request. Let me take Yitzchak along.

Avraham says no. And he explains why.
“Be careful! Do not bring my son back there! God, the Lord of the heaven, took me away from my father’s house and the land of my birth. He spoke to me and made an oath. ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ He will send His angel before you and you will take a wife from there for my son.
“If the girl does not want to come back with you, then you shall be absolved from my oath. But do not bring my son back there!”
It's a passionate speech, but what does it mean? Is Avraham saying that Eliezer is guaranteed success because God will intervene and send an angel? No, Avraham didn’t say that. In fact, after mentioning the angel, Avraham’s very next sentence is this: “If the girl does not want to come back with you, then you shall be absolved from my oath.” Clearly then, there are no guarantees. So what exactly is this angel going to do? (cf. Rashi 24:52) And why can’t Yitzchak go to Charan? In short, how has Avraham responded to Eliezer’s legitimate concern?

In order to understand Avraham’s response, we need to think again about Eliezer’s question. Eliezer was worried that the girl will not agree to come back with him to Israel; but the truth is, there is a bigger question that needs to be addressed first. What kind of girl are we looking for? How is Eliezer to decide who is right for Yitzchak? All Avraham said was to find someone from “my land and my birthplace” (24:4). No further instructions were given. How will Eliezer choose?

This problem does not seem to concern Eliezer. Eliezer is confident in his ability to find the right girl, for he has devised a little test that he implements as soon as he arrives in Charan:
He prayed, “O God, Lord of my master Avraham: Be with me today and grant a favor to my master Avraham. I am standing here by the well, and the daughters of he townsmen are coming to draw water. If I say to a girl, ‘Tip over your jug and let me have a drink,’ and she replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ she will be the one whom you have determined for Your servant Yitzchak.
The very first girl that Eliezer approaches is none other than Rivkah herself and, to Eliezer's amazement, she passes his test with flying colors (24:15-27). If you think about it, this test, which was Eliezer’s idea, was entirely unnecessary. Avraham was right. God’s angel saw to it that Rivkah was the first girl Eliezer met. There was no need for a test to find the right girl.

This is what Avraham was telling Eliezer. You will find the right girl immediately. Forget about your test. There is something else we need to look for.
“God, the Lord of the heaven, took me away from my father’s house and the land of my birth. He spoke to me and made an oath. ‘To your offspring I will give this land.’ He will send His angel before you and you will take a wife from there for my son.”

God didn’t really “take” Avraham away from his father’s house. God told him to go and Avraham chose to listen. Avraham listened even though he did not know where he was going: “Go… to the land which I will show you” (12:1). Avraham had faith and Avraham went, and in the merit of that mitzvah God said, “To your offspring I will give this land.”
The path that Rivkah must tread is the one that Avraham and Sarah had traveled – the road that they journeyed in following the will of God. It was that path that led to their destiny as the chosen people and is therefore the road that leads Rivkah to that same destiny.
R. Yitzchak Twersky, Amittah Shel Torah, pg. 94
In other words, what Avraham is saying here is that in order for her to merit the blessing of Israel in her own right, Yitzchak’s wife-to-be must pass the test of Lech Lecha. Now we understand why the local girls are out of the running.

This is no ordinary marriage. To enter Avraham’s family and become a matriarch, Rivkah must sacrifice all on the altar of monotheism. Her love for the One God must drive her to abandon her pagan family forever for an unknown fate with an unknown man, just like Avraham abandoned that same pagan family many years earlier for an unknown land. All Rivkah knows is that Yitzchak fears God. That should be enough. If the heroic Yitzchak were to show up at her door in person, there would be no test here at all.

Eliezer and Avraham were looking at this shidduch project from very different perspectives. Eliezer thought it was his job to find the right girl and bring her home, and he just couldn’t figure out how he was going to convince someone to marry a man she never met. But Avraham knew that God, not Eliezer, would find the right match for Yitzchak. Whether or not she would come to Israel had to be Rivkah’s choice, uninfluenced by anything other than the faith of her own heart. Even Yitzchak himself could not be the determining factor.
God orchestrated events and took the Jews out of Egypt only because of the merits of Sara, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah… [The Exodus was] a reward for Rivkah, who, when asked if she wanted to go with the man [Eliezer], said, “I will go!” (24:58).
Eliyahu Rabba 25
It is understandable that Eliezer, the faithful student of Avraham, was looking for a woman of chesed, loving-kindness (cf. Rashi to 24:14; compare 24:44). Avraham, however, was searching not for a chavruta for himself but for a wife for his son Yitzchak. Avraham wanted to see gevurah, strength, determination and sacrifice. While it turned out that Rivkah had plenty of both chesed and gevurah, ultimately, Avraham was right. Rivkah’s legacy to her people is not her chesed to camels but her gevurah for God. She is the paradigm of a woman who has the inner strength to drop everything and say, “I will go!”

Seeing Beyond

Posted by IshbitzForever

When she (Rebecca) finshed giving him (Eliezer) to drink she said, "I will draw water even for your camels until they have finished drinking."

Bereishit 24:19

The Talmud relates the following story:

The saintly scholar named Nachum Ish Gam Zu was laying in bed near death. He was blind and was missing his arms and legs. The ceiling of his decrepit home was creaking and began to crumble. "Remove everything from the house," Nachum told his gathered students, "then remove me - for as long as I am in here, my merit will prevent the ceiling from collapsing." The students did as their Rabbi instructed removing all utensils from the house. They then proceeded to carry the bed of their rabbi outside. The moment they were clear of the house the entire ceiling fell in.

The students asked, "Rabbi, if you have such merit how did it come to be that you lost your eyesight, your arms and legs?"

Nachum Ish Gam Zu said, "Let me tell you the story. I was once riding on a camel ladened with packages, and a poor man approached me asking for food. I got off my camel and proceeded to unpack to reach the food, but by the time I got to some the poor man had dropped dead of hunger. I was heartbroken and I said, "G-d, for my eyes not looking closely enough and seeing how hungry this man was, let me be punished by losing my eyesight. For my legs not moving fast enough to get down from the camel, let me lose my legs. For my hands not moving swift enough in unpacking, let me lose my hands" - and so it came to be. That is why you see me as you do today."

My friends - as Jews we are required to look around us. Not a casual glance, but good hard deep look. When we see an elderly person, we must wonder how they manage and ask if they need help with anything shopping, cleaning, cooking. When somone comes into shule and looks sad we must ask if they are ok, and follow up if something is wrong. This is true for countless situations. We can not pretend not to see, and when we do see we must open our hearts and look deeper.

Rebecca, although Eliezer simply asked for water for himself, she looked deeper and figured that for whatever reason he wasn't able to draw water for himself, so what will be with his camels? Not only did she not look away, she looked deeper!

Thursday, November 1, 2007


Posted by IshbitzForever

Sara died in Kiryat Arba which is Hebron in the land of Canaan; and Abraham came to eulogize Sara and to cry over her.

Bereishit 23:2

Whether through anecdote or adjective, when eulogizing, we use words to convey ideas about the deceased. We attempt to describe to the assembled who the deceased was as a parson and who they were to us. We pay tribute, give thanks and ask forgiveness. We hone in on lessons learned, and pledge not to forget.

Words however can never describe the piece of us that dies along with that person. The part of us to which only our beloved had the key, making us who we were. An entire dimension of our being lost forever. For this loss there are no words. The heart and soul's private loss can never be expressed - bystanders only see the evidence of this inner hell - the sobbing and tears.

The Talmud states "A woman dies only to her husband." The difficulty with the statement is obvious, what of children, parents and friends - do they not feel the loss?

According to Jewish tradition the husband and wife are really one.

This idea is not only expressed in Kabbalistic writings where we are taught the souls actually unite to form one complete soul - but reflected in matters of practical law. One tiny example - Just as one is required to rise and stand in the presence of a Torah scholar so to one must stand for his wife, the Talmud states the reason as "Ishto K'gufo" - "His Wife is like his Own Body."

A good woman is the light in a man's life and can inspire and help him be beyond what he could ever have been alone. She soaks into his being - she fills him - with a sense of beauty, magic, mystery, encouragement, hope, and strength.

When the Talmud tells us that "a woman dies only to her husband" - it means no one else dies along with her in their entirety like her husband, who has lost his entire being.

This last week my Rosh Yeshiva, my dear teacher, lost his wife after seven long years of cancer. Although I haven't seen them together but for the briefest of moments - I could get a tiny glimpse of what she meant to him during the Shiva. Their amazing relationship reflected in his anguished silence and streaming tears. It broke every heart. A brilliant man, lost and in a hell no person can save him from - we his students could only look on helplessly.

Abraham eulogized Sara, he said what he could put into words to the crowd, but then there were only tears.

A prayer for my Rabbi - "May G-d Console You Together and Among All the Mourners of Zion in Jerusalem." - Amen

Spiritual Self

Posted by IshbitzForever

"Rather to my land and to my family shall you go and take a wife for my son Isaac."

Bereishit 24:4

According to tradition, Abraham's father was so cruel that it was he that handed Abraham over to authorities to be thrown into a fiery furnace for rejecting King Nimrod as a god. It was the very family which G-d commanded Abraham to abandon that Abraham now sought a wife for his son. Puzzling.

The same can be asked of Issac himself, who sent his son Jacob to marry from "family" as well - the daughters of Laban - a liar, a thief and a worshiper of idols.

The answer is quite simple. In the eyes of G-d we are not credited for what we are given, but for what we achieve on our own.

Abraham is associated with the attribute of mercy - for although he displayed tremendous strength as exhibited by passing ten trials - among them the "Binding of Issac" - Abraham's father had displayed similar strength, as mentioned earlier, by offering his son Abraham to his god, Nimrod. Abraham inherited this quality of strength, it was only the attribute of mercy that he acquired on his own to which he was credited as "his attribute."

It was precisely because Abraham knew of the cruelty of his family that he sent Eliezer there.(See Midrash of how Rebeca's family was only motivated by greed, and even plotted to kill Eliezer.) The girl that grew up surrounded by cruelty, and still blossomed into a icon of generosity, can truly be defined by that attribute.

The same could be said of Jacob - the man of truth. To find worthy spouse - his father Isaac sent him to the house of the most selfish thief and liar. It was there he found a woman, Rachel, who was willing to give up her husband to her older sister. Her charitable heart was clearly of her own work and making.

In the service of G-d we are all obligated to use everything we are given, but we are defined by what we acquire on the lonely battlefield of our hearts.

Any comments on the new picture?

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sarah the Punisher

Sarah was taken twice - once by Pharaoh and once by Avimelech. Both times the bad guys were punished, but the punishments differ. Pharaoh and his people got hit with "severe plagues" (12:17) [a skin desease which made intimate relations painful - Rashi ad loc.] while Avimelech and his people got "sealed wombs" (20:18). Why the difference?

Now, both times the Torah states that these punishments came by the "word of Sarai/Sarah, the wife of Avraham" (12:17/20:18). The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) explains that an angel came and took orders from Sarah. These terrible punishments were thus chosen and directed by her. Our question is sharpened: Why did Sarah change her tactics?

My chavrusa, R. Avrumi Apt, posed an excellent answer to this question. When Pharaoh took Sarai, she was as yet unable to have children of her own. By taking her away from Avraham, Pharaoh was depriving them of living together as man and wife. Striking back measure for measure, Sarai made relations painful for him. However, by the time Avimelech took Sarah, God's blessing had already taken effect and she was able to conceive (cf. Rashi to 18:8). By taking her away from Avraham, Avimelech was preventing them from having a child together. In response, Sarah sealed up their wombs.

Reb Avrumi's answer is so good, I was determined not to quote it for fear that it would undermine my own. But then I remembered that Avrumi is an avid reader of this blog. Let's move on now to my p'shat.

It's not hard to understand why Sarai made sexual relations painful for the Egyptians. The Midrash (quoted by Rashi) states that the Egyptians were promiscuous. Sarai wanted to help cure them of that, so she made relations painful.

Sarah dealt with Avimelech differently because the Gerarites were different than the Egyptians - they were not promiscuous (cf. Rashi to 20:15). Their problem was more basic; they did not fear God. "Avraham said... 'There is no fear of God in this place'" (20:11). Sarah wanted to help them overcome their problem. How do you instill the fear of God in people? Seal up their wombs! It worked well. "The people were very frightened" (20:8). (See Chizkuni to 20:11.)

This provides a new understanding for what follows. "God remembered Sarah as He had said, and God did for Sarah as He had spoken. Sarah conceived and bore a son unto Avraham in his old age..." (21:1-2). Sarah could be blessed with a child only after she appreciated her barrenness as a vehicle for achieving the fear of God.

Is it any surprise that this child, Yitzchak, grew up to become the exemplar of the God-fearing Jew? (cf. 31:42)

For more on Sarah the Punisher, click here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Road Taken

Posted by Benjy Ginsberg
A young man who I study with got married last Thursday. His Shabbos Sheva Brochos was going to take place in my neighborhood, and because he was from out-of-town, he asked me if I would be able find accommodations for some of his guests for Shabbos. Naturally, I agreed, offering to house some guests and trying to find suitable arrangements for the others. I was especially grateful for this Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim and its fortuitous timing with Parshas Lech Lecha. My kids had been singing incessantly about the greatness of Hachnosas Orchim ("it’s something we should do"), and I was eager to provide them with a real-life opportunity to see this Mitzvah in action, if only to get a little peace and quiet.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim: the guests did not show up. We waited impatiently, peering out the windows, hoping until the last minute before sunset that our guests would arrive. As I walked to Shul that evening, I was feeling a mix of bewilderment and annoyance. Actually, I was pretty steamed. I had spent the entire week running around for this Mitzvah, only to have the rug pulled out from under me. Not even a phone call. I wondered, "How would Avraham Avinu have felt if he had put all of his efforts into the Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim, only to never have it fulfilled?" Then it dawned on me: he went through the same thing.

Parshas Vayera opens with Avraham interrupting his visit from G-d to serve as host for three wandering men – angels in disguise. As the Midrash relates, Avraham knew that they were angels – without need for food, water or hospitality – but he was glad just to go through the motions of Hachnosas Orchim. Why would Avraham want to go through the whole hassle of preparing a meal and bringing water, when he knew that it was not really going to be the legitimate Mitzvah of Hachnosas Orchim?

Indeed, the Parsha contains a number of episodes where Avraham exerts himself for a good deed without ever seeing it brought to completion. When the angels take their leave to travel to Sodom, Avraham spends a significant amount of time and energy davening to Hashem to save the wicked city, knowing full well that the city did not have nearly the amount of righteous people it would need for Hashem to save it. And, at the end of the Parsha, Avraham’s Mitzvah to sacrifice his son is aborted before he could finish his task. Granted, Avraham was probably on board with not having to kill his son, but there is definitely a pattern of Avraham’s mitzvos being left incomplete.

All of these episodes of Avraham were, of course, part of the ten trials that G-d used to test Avraham. But they were more than that. Avraham is also showing that sometimes the preparation of a Mitzvah can be just as important as the Mitzvah itself. He is more than happy to run for his guests, pray for men he has never met or travel long distances to show his devotion to G-d. For Avraham, the journey itself is rewarding.

Actually, this had always been Avraham’s ethos, from the time G-d told him, Lech Lecha – "Go for yourself". This commandment was not just about getting to Eretz Yisroel, or just to have Avraham arrive at G-d’s chosen destination. It was also the act of going by itself that would be beneficial for Avraham. It would show his commitment to G-d, his willingness to sacrifice, and it would be the first step towards cementing a relationship with G-d that would lead to the eternal covenant between G-d and Avraham’s children, the Jewish people.

There are certain Mitzvos, then, that have other benefits than just reward in the next world. The preparation, the diligence, the journey to a mitzvah’s completion offer a different kind of compensation, one that has benefits for us everyday.

There’s a Gemara that’s said everyday during Birchos HaTorah, which underscores this concept (paraphrased from Shabbos 127a):

These are the things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come: honoring one's parents, the practice of loving deeds; early attendance at the Beth Hamidrash; hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, preparing a bride for her wedding; burying the dead; meditation in prayer; and making peace between man and his fellow; while the study of the Torah surpasses them all.

All of these things are tremendous Mitzvos. However, they don’t just earn reward in the Next World, they also produce for the doer in this World. That’s because these Mitzvos build character, teach perspective and create a harmonious world. People that involve themselves with chessed, Torah and prayer don’t just acquire Mitzvos, they become better people. And that is rewarding by itself.

So, guests or no guests, I definitely gained from the preparation. I spent hours devoted to trying to help other people, my kids got into the Mitzvah, and I learned that sometimes Mitzvos have benefits that we don’t see right away. For me, then, the message was clear: An unfulfilled Mitzvah can still be fulfilling.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Between Pharaoh & the King of Sodom

Parshat Lech Lecha began with God's promises to Avraham, one of which was wealth. (It may pale in comparison with the other blessings, but money ain't nothing to sniff at.) Some time later, Avraham finds himself posing as Sari's brother in Egypt (12:13). Thinking that Avraham is his new brother-in-law, Pharaoh showers him with gold, silver, cattle and slaves (12:16). Avraham is more than happy to except these gifts; in fact, this was all part of Avraham's plan! (12:13).

The problem is this: Later in the parsha, Avraham refuses King Bera's legitimate offer of the wealth of Sodom:
“I have lifted my hand [in an oath] to God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth! Not a thread or a shoelace! I will not take anything that was yours. You should not be able to say, ‘It was I who made Avraham rich.’”

What is going on here? Why does Avraham accept money from the King of Egypt but refuse it from the King of Sodom?

The Maharal of Prague asks this question and presents an interesting theory. Avraham will only accept money if he is confident that it is a fulfillment of God's blessing. God's blessing of wealth may very well come through Pharaoh, but it cannot come through the King of Sodom. The King of Sodom's offer is the result of Avraham's battle with the four kings, which was the result of the capture of Avraham's nephew Lot. It is inconceivable that God's blessings would come through tragedy. This is the Maharal's explanation. (I was expecting the Maharal to say that God's blessings can't come through such an evil character like Bera; moreover, I was surprised to hear that God's blessings cannot come through tragedy.)

I would like to suggest two alternative explanations for Avraham's inconsistant behavior. Avraham's stated concern is that the king of Sodom will say, "It was I who made Avraham rich." Avraham does not want anyone to deny the divine source of his blessings. The evil king of Sodom was certainly no believer in Avraham's God of chesed and there was a real concern that he would undermine the kiddush Hashem of Avraham's success. However, there was no such concern about Pharaoh. Pharaoh was a believer. Pharaoh experienced firsthand the miraculous divine intervention that saved Sari (cf. 12:17) and, according to the Midrash, Pharaoh went so far as to hand over his own daughter to join the household of Avraham and Sari. "When he saw the miracles that occured for Sara, he said, 'Better my daughter should be a servant in this home than a master somewhere else'" (Rashi to 16:1). There was no concern that Pharaoh would deny the guiding Hand of divine providence that made Avraham rich.

I arrived at another explanation due to a question posed at the Shabbat table by my son Nachum. When Pharaoh found out that he was lied to and Sari was really Avraham's husband, why didn't he take his money back? Pharaoh only gave Avraham all those gifts because he thought that Avraham was to be his brother-in-law. Now that that was not to be and Pharaoh was quite angry at being tricked why did he allow Avraham to leave with all that ill-gained wealth? I told Nachum that this incident was a huge embarrassment that Pharaoh wanted to end as quickly and quietly as possible. The last thing he needed was Avraham going to the papers. Pharaoh told them to keep the money and then had them immediately escorted out of the country.

Avraham was confident that Pharaoh would never announce that he was the one who made Avraham rich. The King of Egypt didn't need nosey journalists inquiring into the circumstances!

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Where are you coming from?

My dear friend, האדמו"ר רבי חיים מאיר מארגארעטן, had a penetrating insight into Avraham's approach to outreach. Everyone knows that Avraham's tent had four doors, one on each side. This strange design probably made things real cold at night, but it facilitated the welcoming of guests.

Few have given this Midrash much thought. Is it too much to ask a guest to walk around and use the front door? What is the sense of a door on every side of the house? The answer, according to Chaim Mier, is profound.

A pagan stranger encountering Avraham for the first time knew immediately that he had to change. To stand in the shining presence of this angel among men was to feel that your past was one big mistake that needed to be erased. The burning desire to start life anew was overwhelming, but Avraham said no.

Yes, change is good, said Avraham, but don't throw out your past. It is not a mistake; it was given to you by God and it is an integral part of your personal journey. That is the idea of a door on all sides; every point of departure is designed by God to lead to Avraham's tent. You don't need to becoming from a different place - you come from exactly where you are supposed to come from. The past must not (and cannot) be surgically excised.

I would posit that Avraham's picked up this approach from personal experience:
Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land which I will show you.
Bereishit 12:1
The point of departure should never be ignored, forgotten or denied.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Who Was Abraham?

After Creation and the Flood, the Torah quickly gets down to business. With spellbinding detail, the Torah tells us the life story of an exalted and sensitive soul. It is a story of a poor refugee transformed into a prince among men; a story of power and honor; a story of dreams fulfilled, but yet, a story of trials, tragedy, and war. A man who changed the world and serves as a role model and a source of inspiration for Jews to this very day.

It is the life story of God’s beloved Avraham, the exemplar of kindness, the champion of monotheism, and the father of the Jewish People.

Avraham was the first of our three famous forefathers. His son, Yitzchok (Isaac), and Yitchok’s son, Yaakov (Jacob), complete the chain. Each of the Avot has a unique message, and together these messages form the ethical philosophy on which Judaism is founded. But the Avot do not lecture. Actually, they don’t say very much at all. It is only by studying their lives and their behavior as described by the Torah and the Midrash that we discover the principles they lived by. They communicate their message by personifying it.

The first message of the Avot, the guiding principle of our father Avraham, comes across loud and clear. Avraham stood for chesed, selfless giving and kindness. Apparently, the base of the foundation, the bedrock itself, is chesed. It is on chesed that all of Judaism must rest.

Chesed is the extraordinary idea of giving to others even that which they have not earned or do not deserve. This may be “unjust” in the strict sense of the word, but it is still divine. Creating and sustaining the world was a manifestation of God’s benevolence that Avraham recognized, appreciated, and taught, and he made it his mission to internalize and emulate that divine characteristic.

God knew this, but God was not satisfied.

No matter how righteous and spiritually conscious a person may be, as long as you are alive, God will prod you higher. God is always challenging man, and God’s challenges are custom designed. If Avraham recognizes God simply as the Giver, well, what will happen to Avraham’s faith when that perception is thrown into doubt? What if God tells you to go to Israel and when you finally get there, after traveling hundreds of miles, you find that you have arrived just in time for a severe famine (12:10)? What if your barren wife is kidnapped (12:15)? What if your orphaned nephew is taken captive (14:12)? And what if the supposedly loving God commands you to slaughter your own son (22:2)? What if, after everything you have done to educate the world about God’s love, the principle that you stand for is proven false? What do you think of God now?

God tested Avraham’s faith ten times (Mishnah, Avot 5:3), and our father Avraham passed every trial with flying colors. At the end of it all, God declares, “Now I know that you are a God-fearing man” (22:12). Avraham may have connected with the divine attribute of chesed, but He knew that, ultimately, man must submit before the unknowable, infinite God.

Avraham was on a mission to fix the world, and he waged a war against paganism and self-centeredness. He taught people about God (12:8,13:4) and succeeded in gaining a dedicated following (12:5). His open home (18:3-5), his unconditional love for every human being (18:23-33), and his unshakable faith inspired the masses, but there were pockets of resistance. Regimes of cruelty and terror existed, and their dictators were not exactly receptive to Avraham’s message.

The capital of corruption, the ultimate society of evil, was the infamous city of Sodom. “The people of Sodom were very wicked, and they sinned against God” (13:13). We’re not talking about human rights violations; we’re talking about institutionalized evil. Raping visitors was officially mandated (19:5-9; Bereishit Rabba 50) and kindness and charity to the needy was a capital offense, punishable by torture and death (18:21; Talmud, Sanhedrin 109b). Apparently, tourism and welfare were not high on the municipal agenda.

Throughout the twenty-four books of Scripture, Sodom is held up as the archetype society of cruelty, oppression, and sin (cf. Ezekiel 16:48-50; Lamentations 4:6; Isaiah 3:9). Sodom is the absolute antithesis of Avraham.

Avraham’s nephew, Lot, was a citizen of Sodom, and when Sodom was overrun and captured by invading armies, Lot was taken prisoner. Avraham responded immediately. He assembled an armed band of his followers and, with a surprise attack in the dead of night, succeeded in repelling the invaders and rescuing Lot. Sodom is now an occupied city in Avraham’s hands! (14:12-16).

The stage is set for a delightful Divine comedy. The Emperor of Evil, the exiled King of Sodom, who had somehow managed to survive the multiple invasions of his city, now has to face his nemesis. The poor fellow wants his city back. Irony of ironies! The tyrant who was so invested in the philosophy of self-centeredness, the man who believed charity to be a crime, now comes to Avraham asking for chesed! What a moment!

Expecting the worst, the King attempts to negotiate with Avraham: “Give me the people. You can keep the goods” (14:21). Avraham’s response is startling: “I have lifted my hand [in an oath] to God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth! Not a thread or a shoelace! I will not take anything that was yours. You should not be able to say, ‘It was I who made Avraham rich’” (14:22-23).

It is not wealth that Avraham is after. What Avraham wants is to make the most of this opportunity to educate the King of Sodom about the nature of chesed. Chesed can, unfortunately, be distorted by man into a tool for inflating a depressed ego. Man can give charity and then arrogantly claim that he has enriched the poor and saved the world. This is not selflessness; this is self-serving. The matrix of genuine chesed is the awareness that heaven and earth belong to God and everything we have was given to us by God as a free gift. We should recognize and emulate this Divine trait of chesed by selflessly sharing our God-given possessions and our time with others. That was the message of our great father Avraham.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Rosh Hashanah: Apples or Cigarettes?

If you think about it, the structure of the High Holiday season seems quite backwards. The High Holiday season, otherwise known as the Ten Days of Repentance, culminates with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. We regret our failings, admit that we were wrong, and resolve to be better. If we are sincere, God accepts our efforts at self-improvement and forgives us on Yom Kippur. This makes sense. But why do the Days of Awe start with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year? Wouldn't it make more sense to clean up the old year before we start the new one? Shouldn't the Day of Atonement come first?

The more we look into this question, the worse it gets. Rosh Hashanah is the “Day of Judgment.” Every year on Rosh Hashanah, G-d reviews our record, reevaluates His investment in us, and then decides our fate for the New Year. Happiness or misfortune, wealth or poverty, life or death—all are inscribed by God on Rosh Hashanah.

Now things are really backwards. What is the sense of having the Day of Judgment first and the Day of Atonement last? Wouldn't it be a lot more logical for God to allow us the opportunity for forgiveness before He judges us?

Another question: If Rosh Hashanah is indeed a Day of Judgment, why do we make a holiday of it? Have you ever seen a suspect sitting in the dock munching on apples and honey? Wouldn’t a cigarette be more appropriate? On a day that we would expect to be fasting, we enjoy festive holiday meals. Is this the right way to face God when He sits in judgment?

It would certainly make sense for us repent on Rosh Hashanah; after all, the two days of Rosh Hashanah are the first two days of the Ten Days of Repentance. Strangely enough, there is not one word of repentance in the entire Rosh Hashanah service! You would think no one sinned! Not only is there no repentance, there’s not much prayer either. That is, all of the personal requests that appear in the regular daily prayers have been excised from the Rosh Hashanah service. Instead, we spend the day praying for the nation and we ask God to bless the Jews and Israel with redemption and peace. This is all very nice, of course, but don’t you think the sages could have at least left in some of the ordinary prayers for wisdom, health and material success? After all, this is the day when God makes all the decisions!

How can we explain the strange behavior of Jews on this most frightening of days?

The answer to these questions, says Rabbi Aaron Kotler (1891-1962), provides the key to understanding the entire High Holiday season. The structure of the Days of Awe is very deliberate, and it is guided by the nature of both God and man.

The fact is, nobody could ever survive God's exacting judgment of who we are and what we have done. God, by definition, forgets nothing and overlooks nothing. According to the Rosh Hashanah service, even the angels tremble before the judgment of God. But there is one approach that works. On Rosh Hashanah we make no mention of sins at all; we don't even repent in the service. Instead we say to God, 'Forget the past. All I have done wrong, my mistakes and failings, the bad and the ugly—that's not the real me. Look at the present. Look at me now!' And we make Rosh Hashanah a day of renewal.

We make the first day of the year the most beautiful day of the year. We demonstrate our inner goodness and we insist that our shortcomings are merely superficial aberrations. We make Rosh Hashanah a day immersed in selfless prayers, a day of celebrating with family and friends, a day of being our very best in our relationships with our fellow man and God. We show God how good we can be, we reveal our appreciation for the truly important things in life and we demonstrate that despite our many mistakes all year long, deep down our priorities are straight. We then hope and pray that God will base His judgment on that.

But it is not only for G-d that we are presenting our true selves. We need to see it too.

The Ten Days of Repentance begin with Rosh Hashanah because we need to get a taste of our forgotten potential before self improvement can begin. So we begin the New Year with a Rosh Hashanah in which we strive to be our best. We follow it through with ten days of repentance and introspection and we devise a practical plan for implementing Rosh Hashanah into our daily lives. In this way we grow and develop as Jews and inspire God’s infinite compassion for the verdict on Yom Kippur.

Such is the magnificent structure of the Days of Awe.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Dangerous Blessings

As we approach the end of the Torah, the Jews are encamped on the borders of Israel gearing up for a dangerous invasion. A nation of escaped slaves, they face trained armies entrenched in fortified, defensive positions. The report of the spies echoes in their minds. Without a miracle, they are doomed.

But the prophet Moshe doesn’t hear the noise of impending war. He doesn’t see the enemy. His gaze reaches beyond. He sees the future.

A land of Israel at peace, blessed with fertility. Fields of wheat. Baskets of grapes, pomegranates, figs. And on a well-worn country path, a Jewish farmer is carrying his first fruits to Jerusalem, paying homage to the source of all this goodness.

When the farmer arrives at the Holy Temple, he expresses his gratitude in no uncertain terms. It would be fruitful (forgive the pun) to quote his declaration in full:

My ancestor was a homeless Aramaean. He went to Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an immigrant, but it was there that he became a great, powerful and populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us, making us suffer and imposing harsh slavery on us. We cried out to G-d, Lord of our ancestors, and G-d heard our voice, seeing our suffering, our harsh labor and our distress. G-d then brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with great awe and with signs and miracles. He brought us to this area, giving us this land flowing with milk and honey. I am now bringing the first fruit of the land that G-d has given me.

Devarim 26:5-10

Apparently, a mere “thank you” doesn’t cut it. It would be insufficient to merely thank G-d for making fruit grow. For an expression of gratitude to be whole, it requires a broader perspective. Recalling the divine miracles that brought the nation to Israel in the first place inspires the Jewish farmer to a more heartfelt expression of his feelings. This is why he presents a synopsis of Jewish history when all he really wants to do is thank G-d for figs.

Moshe ends this section with an additional point, a point on which the entire parsha turns:

You… shall thus rejoice in all the good that G-d your Lord has granted you and your family.

Devarim 26:11

That there is an obligation to express gratitude is not surprising. But what does rejoicing have to do with it?

It would seem that joy is an essential by-product of this mitzvah. G-d wants us to enjoy His blessings and expressing gratitude to God enables and inspires a deeper enjoyment of life. The Talmud, however, understands things a little differently.

From here we learn that the declaration over the first fruits may only be recited in a season of joy. [It can be said anytime] from the holiday of Shavuot until the holiday of Sukkot – a time when people are gathering in their produce, fruits, wine and oil. After Sukkot, [farmers] bring their first fruits [to the Temple] but do not recite this declaration (Pesachim 36b).

Rashi ad loc.

In other words, the Torah is not saying that this declaration brings joy, but rather the reverse – it can only be said when people are happy. When are Jews happy? The Talmud identifies “happy time” as being from Shavuot to Sukkot, but this is a shocking statement. The months of Tammuz and Av are between Shavuot and Sukkot! The breaking of the Tablets, the Sin of the Spies, the destruction of the two Temples – all the worst tragedies of our history occurred during these months. Moreover, this period also includes Elul and Tishrei, i.e. Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. This is a happy time? This is the scariest part of the Jewish year!

Apparently, we are not talking here about happiness in a religious sense. It may not be the happiest time on the calendar, but it is the time when farmers cash in on all their hard work. They are comfortable financially – and that makes people forget about God (cf. 8:12-14). That is why this is the time for a declaration of gratitude. It keeps farmers from taking the land of Israel for granted, a particularly important thing to do from Tammuz to Tishrei.

The parsha might begin with a utopian view of the future, but the vision quickly turns dark. Very dark.

If you do not obey G-d your Lord and do not carefully keep all His commandments and decrees as I am prescribing them for you today, then all these curses will come to bear upon you.
Cursed will you be in the city and cursed in the field.
Cursed will be your food basket and your kneading bowl.
Cursed will be the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your land, the calves of your herd and the lambs of your flock…

Devarim 28:15-18

That is only the beginning. Some of the most difficult reading in all of Scripture appears in this week’s parsha. Moshe tells the people what will befall them if they fail to observe the mitzvot of the Torah and the prophecies are horrifically graphic. I will not recount them here. Suffice it to say that the parsha reads like a hybrid of Josephus’ record of the Temple’s destruction, a history of the Spanish Inquisition, and a Holocaust memoir – verse after verse, it is all sadly familiar to students of Jewish history. Custom mandates that this section of the parsha be read quickly and in a soft voice.

In the midst of it all, we find this revealing verse:

[These curses] will be a sign and proof to you and your children forever. When you had plenty of everything, you did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart.

Devarim 28:47-48

That is the usual translation, but literally, it reads like this:
…You did not serve G-d your Lord with happiness and a glad heart because you had plenty of everything.
Amazing! G-d’s blessings have become a curse! Owning plenty of everything and enjoying all of life’s pleasures can sink man into materialism, depravity and ultimately depression, carrying him far from G-d and earning him harsh retribution. But when the people are righteous, G-d bestows His blessings of abundance and wealth (cf. 28:1-12). How do we escape this destructive cycle?

The answer is gratitude. If we maintain consciousness of the Source of Blessings through complete and wholehearted expressions of gratitude, we can then rejoice in all the good that God grants us without fear of becoming self-centered pleasure seekers. It turns out that the mitzvah at the beginning of the parsha is the antidote for all that follows.