Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Purim is Always Tomorrow (recorded live at Gerber & Co.)

Click here to download a shiur about Megillas Esther & Amalek entitled "Purim is Tomorrow" and here for a shiur about drinking on Purim entitled "Drowning Amalek in a Bottle: Ad D'lo Yada and the Sobering Problem of Evil." Both shiurim were delivered at Gerber & Co in Century City, Los Angeles. (The first last year and the second this year.)
Special thanks to Selwyn Gerber for being the host par excellence and all the good Jews who attended.
Both shiurim are based on my blog posts about Purim; those posts and more on Purim can be found by clicking the "Purim" label below.

Happy Purim!
Don't drink & daven!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Spoiling the Spoils of Esther's War

[Although this is technically the ninth installment of a series on the development of the Birchas HaAvos, it stands on its own as a piece about Megillas Esther. But don't let me stop you if you wish to begin the Trail from the beginning.]

At the end of Megillas Esther, the Jews behave strangely.

After Esther has Haman killed, she convinces Achashveirosh to issue a new decree, allowing the Jews to kill their enemies. Nothing strange about that. [Simply revoking the original decree wasn't an option, for "something written in the name of the king and sealed with the king's signet ring cannot be revoked" (8:8).] In this new decree, the Jews are given license to annihilate their enemies and take spoils (8:11). The Jews take full advantage of their license to kill, but for some reason they take no spoils (9:10). Now, that's strange! If you're going through the trouble of killing your enemies, why not take their money?

In his commentary to Parshas Beshalach (Shemos 17:16), Rabbeinu Bechaye (d. 1340) explains this in line with the Targum which states that all those killed were Amalekites. It is forbidden to take pleasure in the spoils of Amalek, writes Rabbeinu Bechaye, and Mordechai remembered well King Saul's terrible mistake of taking spoils after his battle with Amalek centuries earlier. This, says R. Bechaye, is why the Jews didn't take the money.

There are three problems with this approach. Firstly, if their enemies were indeed Amalekites and Jews truly wished to observe the mitzvah of annihilating them, that would require the destruction of the spoils, not just abstaining from taking them, as the Torah states, "erase the memory of Amalek" (Devarim 25:19; cf. Rashi ad loc.). Secondly, according to R. Bechaye, how could Esther take Haman's house (Esther 8:1)? And thirdly, even if this explains why the Jews didn't take spoils, it makes it far more difficult to understand why Mordechai and Esther had the right to take spoils included in the orginal royal decree. (For an altogether different approach which lacks these problems, see R. Dovid Tavil, Drashos Beis Dovid 11.)

I believe the answer to Rabbeinu Bechaye's question can be found in Parshas Bo. When the Jews were just about to leave Egypt, Hashem made the following request of Moshe: "Please (נא) speak in the ears of the nation: they should borrow - each man from his [Egyptian] friend and each woman from her [Egyptian] friend - silver vessels and gold vessels" (Shemos 11:2). Although it is certainly a Jewish value to be polite, nonetheless, it is unusual for God to say "please." The Talmud explains. "The academy of Rabbi Yannai said, the word "נא" always connotes a request. Hashem said to Moshe, go say to the Jews, please borrow silver and gold vessels from the Egyptians so that Tzaddik [Avraham] won't complain [and say to Me]: "They shall enslave them and afflict them" (Bereishis 15:13) You fulfilled for them, but "afterwards they shall go out with great wealth" (ad loc.) You did not fulfill for them?!" (Berachos 9b).

No one demonstrated better than our father Avraham how a Jew can simultaneously be fabulously wealthy and lead the battle against paganism. Avraham understood the blessing of wealth to be integral to the mission of the Jew and he did not want to see the nation sidestep their destiny. So when they left Egypt, Hashem begged the Jews to take the money so that Avraham wouldn't complain.

The problem here is obvious. Since when do Jews need convincing to take money? Moreover, if Hashem promised that the Jews would leave Eygpt with wealth, then it should be the divine promise that drives this request, not the fear of Avraham's complaint!

Strange as it sounds, it seems that Moshe (and, presumably, the Jews) didn't want the gold of Egypt. Even Hashem's promise did not suffice, for a promise of wealth can always be pardoned by the recipient. It was only Hashem's "please," driven by "fear" of Avraham's complaint, that convinced Moshe to pass on the message.

Why doesn't Moshe want the gold? Well, we know what Moshe thinks: "Master of the World, it's because of the gold and silver that you gave the Jews until they said 'enough!' - that's what caused them to build a Golden Calf!" (Berachos 32a). As we have seen before, money is a leading cause of paganism. This is why Hashem had to beg Moshe to take the money. [The fact that this teaching was also taught by the academy of Rabbi Yannai, and its significance in understanding the reason why Hashem had to say "נא" was pointed out by R. Reuven Margolias (נצוצי אור, ברכות).]

The story of Megillas Esther occurs at the end of Galus Bavel, just a few years before the Second Temple is built. Just like at the Exodus, the anti-Semites are vanquished and the Jews are given the opportunity to take the wealth of their oppressors with them as they return to Israel. In the spirit of Hashem's promise to Avraham, "afterwards they shall go out with great wealth," Mordechai and Esther have the right to take spoils written into Achashveirosh's new decree. But the Jews don't take any spoils - history has taught them a thing or two.

The Jews know that the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and Haman's decree were both divine reactions to the sin of idolatry. They did not want to fall into that again. Last time, they acquiesced to Hashem's request. They took the Egyptian gold and silver and it led to the sin of the Golden Calf. This time they were more than happy to pardon Hashem's generous blessings.

The Jews return to Israel impoverished, barely able to cover the costs of constructing the Second Temple. The even had to settle with a wooden Menorah! But idolatry qua idolatry was not an issue in the Second Temple era. (The allure of Hellenism was more social than theological.) Unlike the First Temple, the second was destroyed not for idolatry but for baseless hatred - and with its unique set of mitzvos, Purim fixes that as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Yaakov Comes Full-Circle

[This is the final instalment (for now, at least) of a series on the development of the Birchas HaAvos in Sefer Bereishis. Begin the Trail here. It has been an exciting venture. Originally envisioned as a three-part series, the trail mushroomed to eight as more and more pieces fell into place - all of it leading up to this final post. Special thanks to Alain Kuppermann for encouraging me to put it all in writing.]

At the end of the book, Yaakov is at the end of his life; the time has come to bless the children. Yaakov spreads out the family destiny among all twelve of his sons; forging them in the process into one united "Bnei Yisroel." But before he does that, Yosef visits him first. What transpires is a meeting of historic consequence:
ויגד ליעקב ויאמר הנה בנך יוסף בא אליך ויתחזק ישראל וישב על המטה
ויאמר יעקב אל יוסף אל שדי נראה אלי בלוז בארץ כנען ויברך אתי
ויאמר אלי הנני מפרך והרביתך ונתתיך לקהל עמים ונתתי את הארץ הזאת לזרעך אחריך אחזת עולם
When Yaakov was told that Yosef was coming to him, Yisroel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. Yaakov said to Yosef, "אל שדי appeared to me in Luz, in the Land of Canaan. He blessed me and said to me, 'I will make you fruitful and numerous, and have you give rise to an assembly of nations. I will give this land to you and your descendants as their property forever.'"
By now, we recognize this blessing of אל שדי. This is the spiritual blessing that Hashem gave to Avraham at the end of Lech Lecha, Yitzchok reserved for Yaakov at the end of Toldos, and Hashem Himself gave to Yaakov in Vayishlach. This is the Beracha that Yaakov is now passing on to Menashe and Ephraim, the two sons of Yosef:
ויברך את יוסף ויאמר האלהים אשר התהלכו אבתי לפניו אברהם ויצחק האלהים הרעה אתי מעודי עד היום הזה
המלאך הגאל אתי מכל רע יברך את הנערים ויקרא בהם שמי ושם אבתי אברהם ויצחק וידגו לרב בקרב הארץ

רש"י: וידגו - כדגים הללו שפרים ורבים
פרו ורבו, "be fruitful and multiply," is a signature element of the original Beracha of אל שדי! Yaakov is giving the Beracha of פרו ורבו to the sons of Yosef, thereby pronouncing them inheritors of the Beracha of אל שדי.

Later, when Yaakov gathers all his sons around him for their blessings, he again directs the Beracha of אל שדי in Yosef's direction:
מאל אביך ויעזרך ואת שדי ויברכך
What is amazing is that Yaakov chooses to share this particular blessing with Yosef. For, as we are well aware, there is another blessing in the family.

The Beracha that Hashem gave Avraham at the beginning of Lech Lecha, the Beracha that Yitzchok reserved for Eisav, the Beracha of material bounty and physical power - this Beracha too is held by Yaakov; under orders from his mother, he stole it from his brother. Why does Yaakov make no mention of this Beracha? Wouldn't this Beracha be more appropriate for Yosef? Does Yaakov not see that in Yosef the blessing of abundant grain and bowing brothers and nations is being fulfilled? Is it not obvious that Eisav's Beracha is Yosef's destiny? Why doesn't Yaakov strengthen Yosef's role as the supporter of the nascent Jewish people?

There can be only one answer: Yaakov sees the way things are developing, and he doesn't like it. Grabbing destiny by the horns, he steers it in a different direction.

Once upon a time, Yaakov bought in to Yitzchok's idea of a partnership between a "Yaakov" and an "Eisav," and he struggled against his mother's attempt to unify the blessings. But in his old age, Yaakov has come to see the wisdom of Rivkah. He doesn't want Yosef to be an idealized Eisav. He wants Yosef to be another Yaakov: a man who has it all. Consciously ignoring the facts on the ground, Yaakov directs the blessing of אל שדי to Yosef.

Yaakov knows exactly what he's doing. Listen to what he says to Yosef:
ברכת אביך גברו על ברכת הורי

The blessing of your father will override the blessing of my parents.
What does this mean? Note that Yaakov does not say that his blessing overrides his father's blessing, he says that it overrides his parent's blessing. Yaakov is talking about the Beracha he stole from Eisav! It came from Yitzchok, but Yaakov only got it because of Rivkah - ברכת הורי indeed! (See Rashi ad loc. who interprets the word הורי as referring specifically to a mother.) Yaakov is telling Yosef that his blessing overrides the Beracha of Eisav. Yaakov doesn't want Yosef to be Eisav 2.0; he wants Yosef to get the Beracha of אל שדי!

This gives us a new appreciation for Yaakov's strange statement at the beginning of the Parsha:
ועתה שני בניך הנולדים לך בארץ מצרים עד באי אליך מצרימה לי הם אפרים ומנשה כראובן ושמעון יהיו לי
Yaakov is telling Yosef, "I don't want your children to be any different than Reuven or Shimon! The entire family shall share in all the Berachos equally!"

The Midrash tells us that Yosef's two sons led different lives. Menashe, the older brother, served as his father's secretary in the government (Rashi 42:23), while Ephraim learned Torah with zeide Yaakov (Rashi to 48:1). When he blesses them, Yaakov famously switches his hands, directing the greater Beracha emanating from his right hand onto the head of the younger Ephraim. Yaakov explains that although both will be great, Ephraim will be the greater of the two (48:19), but in light of Yaakov's underlying agenda we can better appreciate what he is doing here.
Following in his father's footsteps, Menashe is primed to inherit Yosef's position. The natural thing for Yaakov to do would be to grant the Beracha of power, wealth and the role of supporting Klal Yisroel to Menashe. But Yaakov does the exact opposite. He gives Yosef's sons the Beracha of אל שדי, and elevates Ephraim, the יושב אהלים, over his older brother, the איש שדה! Strange as it is, we recognize this behavior. Yaakov is doing to Yosef's sons the exact same thing he did to Yosef himself - raising the spiritual over the physical and smothering the emergent Eisav in the Beracha of אל שדי.

[We're going to hold it here for now. Not that the trail's gone cold (compare 48:8, 49:25 and Devarim 33:13 to Bereishis 27:28-29; cf. Rashi to Devarim 33:28 & Rashi to Shemos 6:4), but we're halfway through Sefer Shemos and it is time to move on. There's always next time around, be"H & bl"n.]

I guess not. I had a thought on Megillah Esther that flowed directly out of the ideas developed in this series. That would make it part-nine.

Click here to learn how Yosef's dreams are informed by the family legacy and manipulated by none other than Yosef himself.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On the Trail of Blessings: Yitzchok's Wisdom, the Land of Israel & the New Yaakov

[This is the fourth installment in the series. Begin the Trail here.]

As we have seen, it was Eisav's job to subjugate all the forces of the physical world - both the inner negative drives and the outer pagan belief systems - to the One God. Surprisingly, the place for this important work is not in Israel. For when Hashem created the world, he placed each land and each nation under the influence of an angel through which he guides and directs their affairs. But not so Israel. Israel - both the land and its people - have no intermediary between them and God. They relate directly to God Himself (cf. Ramban, Vayikra 18:25). "Outside the Land of Israel, although it belongs to God, yet its purity is not perfect, because of "the servants" who hold sway there, and the nations go astray after their princes to worship them as well" (Ramban ad loc., trans. Chavel).

This explains why, when Hashem wants to debunk Paganism - He does it not in Israel, but through the Ten Plagues in Egypt. For in Israel there is nothing other than the One God.

This is also explains why Yitzchok refused to give Eisav the Land of Israel. Eisav's mission to subjugate the "gods" can only be done where the gods hold sway, i.e., outside the Holy Land.

Malbim compares Yitzchok's vision of Yaakov and Eisav to the relationship between Levi and the rest of the tribes, but the Yesachar/Zevulun relationship seems a better match. Zevulun leaves Israel to do business abroad, "Zevulun will settle the seashore, he shall be a harbor for ships..." (49:13), in support of his brother Yesachar (Rashi ad loc). "Rejoice Zevulun in your excursions and Yesachar in your tents" (Devarim 33:18). Like Eisav - the איש שדה - Zevulun is not bound to Israel, and like Yaakov - the יושב אהלים - Yesachar is in his tent.

Although Avraham was never supposed to leave Israel (cf. Ramban to 12:10), Hashem does let him go. This is because Avraham received the first Beracha of Lech Lecha, the blessings of materialism, as an independent Beracha before he came to Israel. Avraham can therefore exist outside of Israel and, interestingly enough, it is there that this Beracha is fulfilled - Pharaoh enriches him. (This explains Avraham's acceptance of Pharaoh's gifts outside of Israel verses his rejection of the gifts of the king of Sodom inside of Israel, as described in this post.) Unlike his father, Yitzchok was born into both Berachos as a unified package; this is why Hashem does not allow him to leave Israel at all (26:2). But when Yitzchok breaks the Berachos in two, he creates a New Jew - an "Eisav" who is not tied to Israel and whose destiny is on the international stage: "יעבדוך עמים וישתחו לך לאמים".

This resolves a difficult point in our story: Why does Yitzchok tell Yaakov to leave Israel? The need to find a wife is no excuse - Avraham sent Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchok; Yitzchok could have easily done the same for Yaakov. If Avraham's sole departure from Israel to escape a famine was criticized by the Ramban and if  Hashem (and, earlier, Avraham) explicitly forbade Yitzchok from leaving, then how could Yitzchok, unaware of Eisav's murderous intent, instruct Yaakov to leave?

In light of the above, the answer is obvious. Yitzchok designed a Beracha for Eisav which described his vision for his firstborn son: an international Jew whose mission lies outside the Land of Israel. When Yaakov steals these Berachos, he is not merely stealing blessings - he is stealing a mandate. And so, immediately afterwords, Yitzchok commands Yaakov to leave Israel and fulfill Eisav's role abroad, just as Yaakov's son Zevulun will do in the future.

Yitzchok immediately understood the consequences of Yaakov's theft. He tells Eisav, והיה כאשר תריד ופרקת עולו  מעל צוארך - "When he [Yaakov] falls, then you can cast off his yoke" [cf. Rashi] (27:40). Why should Eisav's submission before Yaakov be conditional on Yaakov's success? The answer is that Yitzchok is not referring here to Yaakov's traditional role as the יושב אהלים; Yitzchok is referring to Yaakov's new role as the איש שדה, the role he just usurped from Eisav. Yitzchok is telling Eisav, "Your brother has taken over your role as the גביר and you are therefore now subservient to him, but whenever he fails in that role, if he fails to do your job right, then there will no longer be any reason for you to be under his yoke." (כן העיר ר' צבי יונגר) 

This explanation enables us to understand the prophecy Rivka received when she was pregnant with her two sons: ולאם מלאם יאמץ - "Each nation will get its strength from the other." Rashi  explains, "when one rises the other falls... Tyre was not filled but from the ruin of Jerusalem" (cf. Megillah 6a). Another example of this phenomenon appears at the end of Parshas Vayishlach where the Torah lists eight Edomite kings which descended from Eisav. Rashi cites a Midrash, "Correspondingly, [eight kings] also came from Yaakov and the kingdom of Edom ceased to exist during that period..." (Rashi to 36:31).

History shows that Yaakov and Eisav cannot succeed simultaneously, but there is more here than a mere seesaw.

If "when one rises the other falls" is the sole point, then the original prophecy would have limited itself to those words. Instead, the prophecy states, "Each nation will get its strength from the other." This foretells Yaakov's "theft" of Eisav's destiny and explains their symbiotic relationship. When Yaakov successfully blends his new-found worldly power and Kingship with his original destiny of sitting in the tents of Torah then Eisav loses his raison d'être and his very existence as a nation begins to fade. But if and when Yaakov fails, then Eisav shall rise again.

This idea was foreshadowed by the very birth of the the two twin brothers. Eisav came out first, immediately followed by Yaakov "his hand grasping the heal of Eisav" (25:26). As the Alshich asks, why is Yaakov named for this seemingly meaningless event? (See Abarbanel, cited by Malbim.) In light of the above, the meaning is clear. Yaakov's grasping Eisav's heal illustrates not only the fact that Eisav will fall when Yaakov rises, but also tells us why: Yaakov is destined (doomed?) to seize his elder brother's very mission of power and destiny as the firstborn. Just as the prophecy foretold: ולאם מלאם יאמץ - Yaakov will get his strength from Eisav.

Eisav failed to live up to his destiny and Yaakov takes all. With both blessings securely in his pocket, Yaakov heads out of Israel for Charan - leaving his brother behind. But in this, their third generation, the Berachos of Avraham have evolved. En route, Yaakov receives this prophecy:
וְהִנֵּה יְהוָה נִצָּב עָלָיו וַיֹּאמַר אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ, וֵאלֹהֵי יִצְחָק הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ. וְהָיָה זַרְעֲךָ כַּעֲפַר הָאָרֶץ וּפָרַצְתָּ יָמָּה וָקֵדְמָה וְצָפֹנָה וָנֶגְבָּה וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כָּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ. וְהִנֵּה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ וּשְׁמַרְתִּיךָ בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵךְ וַהֲשִׁבֹתִיךָ אֶל הָאֲדָמָה הַזֹּאת. כִּי לֹא אֶעֱזָבְךָ עַד אֲשֶׁר אִם עָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי לָךְ
There is a new element here, a blessing that we have not seen before: ופרצת... Hashem is confirming what Yitzchok already understood: The Berachos fiasco was the only way compensate for Eisav's failure to live up to his destiny. A new Yaakov has been created - a hybrid of the יושב אהלים and the איש שדה. Spiritual Man is now vested with the mission of bringing the Beracha of Israel to the rest of the world! The ונברכו בך כל משפחות האדמה of Avraham - part of the physical blessing at the beginning of Lech Lecha - must now be realized by way of ופרצת - direct interaction with the nations, on their turf. This is what you get when you patch together the Avraham that Yitzchok divided in two. Yaakov leaves Israel, and in Charan he is fruitful and he multiplies - both physically and spiritually.

[Continue the Trail here.]