Thursday, December 20, 2012

Chanukah Afterthoughts

Click here for a live audio recording of:

Chanukah 2012: What's the Takeaway?

This class, originally titled, "Why Chanukah Is Not Thanksgiving" was delivered at the offices of Gerber & Co.

Friday, November 16, 2012

On the Education of Yitzchok

Click here for a new audio shiur on parshas Toldos.

The shiur is about our most mysterious Av and it is an attempt to learn something relevant from the little we know of his life. In the process, we learn about Yitzchok and Yitzchok learns about God.

Once again, a special thanks to Selwyn Gerber of Gerber & Co. for hosting.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Elul Audio

Two pieces of news: Firstly, the audio files below are now all in mp3 format allowing Apple fans to download them straight into their iwhatevers. Second, I've switched to "Box" for hosting my audio files. Now you can easily stream or download the talks. The download button is near the top right corner of the page. You'll see it. Enjoy.

Here are some recent (as in yesterday) and not so recent audio files to help prepare our hearts, minds and lives for the upcoming Days of Awe. Special thanks to Mr. Selwyn Gerber for graciously hosting these classes at Gerber & Co. in Century City.

Let Us Make Man: Experiments and Exercises for Elul (2012)

Before Teshuvah: Uncomfortable Questions for the Month of Elul (2011)

There Once Was an Elul: What Elul Was, Isn't, and Might Be (2010)

For more on Elul, click on the Elul label below, or take a look at our Elul Book Club blog. Keep in mind that the Elul Book Club has numerous contributors. The name of the author appears at the bottom of each post.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Korach: New Audio Shiur

Recorded this afternoon at Gerber & Co.

The Changing of the Guard: Understanding the Aftermath of Korach's Rebellion

After Korach's failed coup, the Torah introduces an interesting new Mitzvah: Guarding the Mishkan. Why must the Kohanim guard the Mishkan? Is this just an honor guard or is there more to it? And why is this the response to Korach's rebellion?  Find out the answers to these questions - and more - in this shiur. Just click the link above.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Out of Egypt: Lot, Michah & the Ten Lost Tribes

This is the final installation of a three-part series on the Biblical roots of Jewish assimilation in exile - and the long-term consequences thereof. Begin the series here

In the previous post we cited the Talmudic tradition that the Jews brought "Michah's Idol" with them across the Red Sea (Sanhedrin 103b). Who was Michah?

The Book of Judges tells the story. Generations after the Exodus, a man named Michah established a pagan temple in Northern Israel after his mother commissioned a silversmith to forge an idol (Shoftim 17:1-5). Although Michah's idol obviously did not literally cross the Red Sea, nonetheless, the Vilna Gaon believes that the Talmud is referring to this very same idol. When the Talmud says that Michah's idol crossed the sea, it means the pagan theology of Egypt crossed the sea. And many years later, this imported Egyptian paganism found expression in Michah's idol. 

This, says the Vilna Gaon, is what Moshe was referring to when he questioned the nation just before they entered Israel. 
"You know how we lived in the Land of Egypt and how we passed through the midst of the nations that you crossed. You saw their disgusting things, their idols of wood, stone, silver and gold that they had. Perhaps there is a man, a woman, a family or a tribe amongst you whose heart is turning away from Hashem our God today to go and serve the gods of those nations? Perhaps there is amongst you a root growing gall and wormwood?"  (Devarim 29:15-17) 
Moshe's concerns were well-founded. A poisonous root was growing among the Jews - the idolatry of Michah (Aderes Eliyahu ad loc.).

The temple founded around Michah's idol was located in the territory of the tribe of Dan and it stood there for centuries. It was a pagan house of worship until גלות הארץ, "the exile of the land" (Shoftim 18:30), when the Assyrian king Sancheriv invaded Northern Israel and exiled the Ten Tribes (Rashi ad loc.). 

The implication is clear. The exile and ultimate disappearance of the Ten Lost Tribes was due to paganism. But not just any paganism. This paganism was foreign and ancient. The Jews picked it up during their long stay in Egypt and then they transported it from Egypt to Israel. "Michah's Idol crossed the Sea." Unwilling to cleanse themselves of Egyptian culture, the Jewish return to Israel was flawed from the get-go, and the seeds of a future exile were planted even before they returned to their homeland.

All of this tragic history was foreshadowed by the character of Lot. Like Yaakov and his sons, Lot was forced by famine to leave Israel and move to Egypt. As we saw in part-one, Lot was seduced there by Egyptian materialism and he carried his new-found desires back with him to Israel. His longing for the Egyptian lifestyle draws him to Sodom and ultimately proves to be his undoing. Despite Avraham's best efforts to save his nephew, Lot is lost forever. Such was the cost of Lot's visit to Egypt and such was the cost of the Ten Tribes' visit to Egypt. This gives us a new appreciation for the prophets' comparison of the Jews to the people of Sodom (cf. Yeshaya 1:9-10; Yechezkel 16:48-49).

This parallel between Lot and the Ten Tribes is all the more compelling in light of the fact that Lot was in the running to be one of the forefathers of the Chosen Nation. It wasn't just Lot's shepherds who thought so (cf. Rashi to 13:7). Lot's descendants, the nation of Moab, thought the same. That is why they, more than other nations, were so frustrated with the selection of the Jews as the Chosen Nation at the Exodus. אילי מואב יאחזמו רעד - "Moab's heroes were seized with trembling" (Shemos 15:15; Gur Aryeh ad loc.). The truth of this notion is further indicated by Lot's granddaughter Ruth who converted to Judaism and became the matriarch of King David. (For more on Moab's claim, see this post.) Lot was supposed to be part of our people, just like the Ten Tribes. But he, like they, was lost.

When Sodom is conquered by the armies of the four kings and Lot is taken captive, Avraham goes to war, quickly overrunning the enemy. וירדף עד דן - "He pursued [them] until Dan" (Bereishis 14:14). "There [at Dan] his strength was drained, for he foresaw that in the future his descendants would set up an [idol in the form of a] calf there" (Rashi ad loc.). Here the forces arranged against Lot are related to the future idolatry of Dan! This is no coincidence, for Lot is indeed the predecessor of both Michah and the Ten Tribes. Both were guilty of importing Egyptian ideology to Israel, both were taken captive by invading armies, both could not be saved by their brethren, and both are ultimately doomed to disappear from the pages of Jewish history. 

Lot and those who follow in his footsteps, surrendering to the natural forces of assimilation, are doomed to fall before the natural forces of attrition. Like all peoples and all societies of the earth, it is only natural that they will be erased by the winds of time. But those who follow the footsteps of Avraham and Yosef, transcending nature and maintaining their identity in the face of foreign influence, such people merit the blessing of historical transcendence - membership in the eternal nation of Israel.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Out of Egypt: Yosef's Bones & Michah's Idol

Part-one of this post dealt with the foreshadowing of our story back in Parshas Lech Lecha. Read it here.

When the time comes for the Jews to leave Egypt, the state of their spiritual health is the question of the hour. After so many years of slavery, what remains of their faith and identity? Actually, this is the central question for all the rest of Chumash. How much damage has Egypt inflicted on the soul of the Jew?

The answer is sad. At the Red Sea, the angels of heaven famously questioned God, "Both the Jews and the Egyptians are idolators! Why are You saving the Jews and killing the Egyptians?!" The Jews were so assimilated, even the angels couldn't tell them apart from Egyptians. But in order for the Jews to merit an Exodus from Egypt, they must first get Egypt out of their system. How is this going to be accomplished?

First, they will have to disavow Egyptian culture. Second, they must affirm their Jewish identity. And indeed, Hashem commands them to do these two things before they leave the country. First they were commanded to slaughter a sheep - an animal sacred to the Egyptians - and place its blood on their doorposts (12:6-7). In this way, they rejected Egyptian paganism. And then they were told to circumcise themselves, affirming their identity as Jews (12:48). It was due to the merit of these two mitzvos that the Jews were able leave Egypt (cf. Rashi to 12:6).

As we have seen, this was unfortunately insufficient. At the Red Sea the angels still couldn't tell the difference between the Jew and the Egyptian. For the sea to split, the merit of an even greater rejection of Egyptian culture was needed and this was found in none other than the bones of Yosef.
"The Sea saw and fled" (Psalms 114:3). It saw the coffin of Yosef descending into the sea. Hashem said, "Flee before the one who fled!" As the verse states, "He left his garment with her and fled and went outside" (Bereishis 39:12). (Yalkut Shimoni 873)
Like his forefather Avraham before him, Yosef was a man of steel, uninfluenced by the fleshpot of Egypt. And in the end, it was the bones of Yosef HaTzaddik, the bones which withstood the seductions of exile, that split the sea.

It is perfectly natural to be seduced. But when man refuses to be assimilated into his environment and transcends his nature, then man is truly free - and nature itself will transcend its laws in his service and deliver him to freedom.

But the bones of Yosef was not the only unusual baggage the Jews carried across the sea. The Talmud tells us that the spoils of Egypt included some contraband as well.
"A rival crossed the sea..." (Zechariah 10:11). R. Yochanan said, "This refers to idol of Michah."
Sanhedrin 103b
The Red Sea was not amused.
The administering angels were astounded. "People who worship idols walk on dry land in the midst of the sea?!"
How do we know that even the sea itself was filled with anger? For the verse states והמים להם חמה  - "The water was a wall for them" (Shemos 14:29). Don't read it חומה, "wall," rather read it חימה, "anger." ["The water was angry at them."]
Mechiltah; see Baal HaTurim ad loc. that the anger was due to the presence of Michah's idol.
[The word for wall - חומה - is spelled here in abbreviated form without a ו (as opposed to just a few verses earlier (14:22) where it is spelled with a ו). This allows the word to be vowelized in a way which transforms its meaning from "wall" to "anger."]

We learned that the sea split before the bones of Yosef, for Yosef withstood the seductions of Egypt. The Red Sea is willing to violate the laws of nature in deference of one who transcends human nature, but it is rightly incensed to have to stand as a wall before Jews who succumb to paganism and dare carry the idols of Egypt across its seabed.