Monday, December 21, 2015

On the Trail of Blessings: Crocodile Tears & Unfounded Fears

This is the 7 3/4 installment in the "Trail" series. Begin the trail with part-one here.

As we have learned, the brother's hatred of Yosef was born of the suspicion that he was a second Eisav and the fear that he would steal the blessings of materialism originally intended for their evil uncle. When the brothers discovered that Yosef had become the viceroy of Egypt, their fears are affirmed. Yitzchok's failed experiment has morphed and materialized into the ultimate nightmare: absolute power, devoid of God. Yosef is Eisav reborn and unbridled!

Yosef reveals his identity and the brothers are dumbfounded. "The brothers could not respond for they were shocked by him" (45:3). From their perspective, they are at the mercy of a monster hungry for revenge. When do they recover from the shock? "He kissed all his brothers and he cried on them. After that, his brothers spoke to him" (45:15).

Why do Yosef's tears and kisses allay their fears? Because there is nothing new under the sun. Their father Yaakov also had an encounter with a vengeful brother after a twenty-two year absence. And like them, Yaakov was vulnerable and at the mercy of his brother's superior strength. But what did Eisav do? "Eisav ran to greet him and he hugged him. He fell on his neck and he kissed him and they cried" (33:4). Kisses and tears! Eisav greets Yaakov warmly and does him no harm. Apparently, Eisav was disarmed by the combination of Yaakov's prayers (32:10-13) and appeasement (32:14-21). The brothers now appreciated the wisdom of Yaakov's more recent prayers (43:14) and gifts (43:11) for the evil Egyptian, for it turned out that they have another Eisav on their hands. Yosef's kisses and tears fit in perfectly with their assumptions about him and it made them feel safe. For the time being, at least.

II

When Yaakov passes away at the very end of Sefer Bereishis, the brother's fears are reawakened.
Yosef's brothers saw that their father died and they said, "Maybe Yosef bears a grudge ישטמנו and he will repay us for all the evil that we did to him." (50:15) 
The word שטם is rare. This is its second appearance; the first is in this verse:
Eisav bore a grudge against Yaakov - וישטם עשו את יעקב - for the Beracha that his father had blessed him. Eisav said to himself, "Soon the days of mourning for my father will arrive, then I will kill my brother Yaakov." (27:41)
The brothers expect Yosef to behave like Eisav! He bears a grudge and will kill us now that our father has died, just as Eisav planned to do to Yaakov. So much for kisses and tears.

The tragedy is that the brothers were themselves guilty of the very character flaw they charged Yosef with. The word שטם appears only one other time in all of Chumash. On his deathbed, Yaakov spoke about each of his sons. "Yosef is a charismatic son... They made his life bitter, they attacked him, וישטמהו בעלי חצים, archers bore a grudge against him" (49:22-23). According to Rashi, Yaakov is referring to Yosef's brothers, "those who had a claim to the family inheritance." It was the brothers who bore a grudge against Yosef, not the other way around.

[Continue the Trail here.]

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Trail of Blessings: Home Sweet Home?

[This is the 6 1/2 installment of the series. Begin the Trail with part-one here.]

Getting home is an ordeal. Yaakov must first extract himself from his possessive father-in-law Lavan, then he has to face-off with Eisav, and finally Dinah is abducted. But even given these tragic delays, it still takes Yaakov an inordinately long time to get home.

On his departure from Israel, Yaakov prayed that he should be able to return to his father’s house (28:21), but now he doesn’t seem to be in any rush. He settles down in a place called Sukkos for a year and half (33:17) and then buys a field near Shechem (33:18). By the time he finally gets home, Yaakov is too late. Shortly before his arrival, his mother passes away (Rashi to 35:8). Yaakov missed the funeral (Ramban ad loc.).

Yaakov is faulted for taking his time and failing to honor his parents (Rashi to 28:9). Moreover, years back when he first left Israel, Yaakov made a promise that if and when he returns to his father’s home he would build a “House of God,” a center for divine service in Beis El (28:22). Although Yaakov is not technically obligated to fulfill this promise as long as he does not return home, nonetheless, Hashem is displeased with the delay (Rashi to 35:1). Hashem commands Yaakov to go to Beis El and build an altar (35:1) – even though he hasn’t gone home yet.

What is taking so long? Why doesn’t Yaakov just go straight home? Doesn't he want to see his parents and give them nachas? As usual, the key to unraveling the mystery is a careful rereading of the story.

Yaakov’s earliest opportunity to see his parents is after he gets past Eisav. Instead of going home, he moves to Sukkos. Why? The answer can be found at the beginning of his next move. “Yaakov arrives intact at the city of Shechem” (33:18). “Intact in body; his limp had healed” (Rashi ad loc.). In his nightlong battle with the angel, Yaakov was wounded in the leg (32:26,32). What was he doing in Sukkos? He was recovering!

What kind of homecoming would it be if Yaakov limped into his parent’s house? They would demand to know what happened and honest Yaakov couldn’t lie. He would have to tell of his night-long battle with the angel of Eisav. Cognizant of the principle of Maaseh Avos Siman L’Bonim, Rivka and Yitzchok would immediately understand the tragic implications for the Jewish people (cf. Ramban to 32:26). Not wanting to distress his elderly parents, Yaakov decided to delay his return until after his recovery. [This also explains why Yaakov didn't build an altar until after his arrival in Shechem. A wounded man is Halachically prohibited from bringing offerings (Meshech Chochma to 33:18).]

Yet even after his leg heals, Yaakov still does not go home. From Sukkos he moves to the outskirts of Shechem and buys a field. “He purchased a portion of the field where he pitched his tent from the sons of Chamor, the father of Shechem, for one hundred kesita” (33:19). His parents are waiting to see the grandchildren they have never met and Yaakov is investing in real estate?! What is he thinking?

To answer this question, we must first raise another.

Yitzchok’s blessing promised the “fat of the earth.” More specifically, it mentions “abundant grain and wine” (27:28). As we learned in an earlier post, these blessings are not limited to the Land of Israel; they come with the responsibility to farm the fields of the world and share the God-given produce with all the families of the earth. But yet, Yaakov does not go into farming; he earns his livelihood from cattle-ranching. 

"In the days of the wheat harvest, Reuven went out and found jasmine in the field..." (30:14). This comes in praise of the shevatim. It was the harvest season and he didn't reach out to steal wheat or barley, just some ownerless thing that no one cares about. (Rashi ad loc.)
Clearly then, the family has no fields and no grain. Why not? Why doesn't Yaakov take advantage of his father's blessing?

Another question. Since when is it a praise of a man to say he is not a thief?! Why would anyone suspect Reuven of stealing wheat? The answer is that as Yaakov's firstborn, Reuven has to grapple with the demons of privilege who taunt him with a claim on the grain of the diaspora (compare with the shepherds of Lot; cf. Rashi to 13:7). Reuven ignores these voices and takes the jasmine instead, but it begs the question. Why doesn't the family have fields of their own?

When Yaakov first reaches out to Eisav, he sends him this message: 
“I was living with Lavan and was delayed until now. I have oxen, donkeys, sheep and slaves…” (32:5-6). Father said to me [that I would be blessed] "from the dew of heaven and from the fat of the earth" (27:28). These are neither from heaven nor from earth. (Rashi ad loc.)
Spurning manifest destiny, Yaakov avoids agriculture. To return to Israel with materialized blessings in hand would be to rub salt into Eisav’s wound. Yaakov sticks to cattle ranching so he can claim that the blessings have failed and thus defuse his brother's jealousy.

The trick works. The brothers part amicably and Eisav journeys on to the land of Seir (33:16). Yaakov goes to Sukkos to convalesce from his wound, but as soon as he is healed, he buys a field. Why a field? It’s time to start planting!

As long as he had to contend with Eisav’s jealousy, Yaakov could not plant. As long as he was injured, Yaakov could not plant. But now, for the first time, Yaakov can finally activate the blessings. This is why Yaakov didn't go home. After all these years, Yitzchok’s first question is predictable. “How's the farming? Hashem blessed me with one hundred times more produce than expected (cf. 26:12). How did it go for you?” If Yaakov answers in the negative, Yitzchok will demand an explanation. Yaakov will have to admit that he never planted a thing because he feared Eisav’s wrath - but this is not something Yaakov can ever say to his father. Sensitive to his warm relationship with Eisav, the family has always protected Yitzchok from discovering the full extent of his son's evil nature. (Case in point: Instead of saying the truth that Eisav is out to kill and Yaakov must flee, Rivka tells Yitzchok that Yaakov should leave Israel and go to Charan to find a wife.) And so, unable to return home without wheat, Yaakov buys a field and gets to work.

When Yaakov first left Israel, he stopped to pray at Mount Moriah. There he asked to be able to return to his father’s house b’Shalom – "in peace" (28:21). Yaakov is not satisfied with merely getting back to his parent's house. Growing up with the stress and tension generated by his brother Eisav and his parent’s disparate ways of dealing with it, Yaakov yearns for his father’s undiluted love and the comfort and security of a peaceful home. “Yaakov wanted to live in serenity” (Rashi to 37:2). Yaakov strives mightily to tie up all the loose ends and return to a perfect world where Eisav is absent, blessings are fulfilled and no questions are asked. Alas, it is not to be. Peace eluded Yaakov in the home of his childhood and peace eludes him in his own home. After the death of his mother and his beloved Rachel, the raping of Dinah and the disappearance of Josef, Yaakov’s world is shattered beyond repair. For Yaakov, home sweet home will forever remain a fantasy.

[Continue the Trail with part-seven here.] 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Calf, the Goat and the Sanctuary

I would like to thank my father Rabbi Noam Gordon and my old friend Benji Ginsberg for taking the time to review this article. Their feedback was invaluable.

This piece was originally written for Adas Torah's "Nitzachon" journal and is quite long for a blog post. It can be easily printed out by clicking on the green print/pdf button at the bottom of the post.


Yom Kippur can be overwhelming. Confronted by alphabetical listings of our failings, the challenge of teshuva, long and difficult davenings, leinings and haftorahs, not to mention the struggle of the fast itself, it is hard to know where to put our focus. Under pressure from all the mitzvos of the day, basic questions often remain unaddressed and unexplained. And there is more at stake than Jewish literacy – if we lack clarity, we are in danger of being led astray by unrealistic expectations and misguided goals. But if we know the true meaning of Yom Kippur, we can harness it for meaningful and lasting spiritual growth.
The most basic Yom Kippur question gets surprisingly little attention. Why is Yom Kippur the Day of Atonement? What is so special about the tenth day of the month of Tishrei? The short answer is that Yom Kippur is the day Hashem pardoned the egel, the sin of the Golden Calf. Moshe came down from Mt. Sinai with a replacement set of tablets on the tenth of Tishrei, proof positive that Hashem forgave the sin that caused the first set to be smashed (Rashi, Shemos 11:33). This extraordinary act of divine love embedded itself into the fabric of time. Forevermore, the tenth of Tishrei would be a Day of Atonement.
It sounds wonderful, but unfortunately things are not so simple. While it is true that Moshe’s prayers saved the nation and Hashem did give a second set of tablets, nonetheless, the sin is still out there. Hashem decreed, “On the day of remembrance, I will visit their sin upon them” (Shemos 32:34). In other words, “Punishment for the egel is included in every punishment of the Jewish People” (Sanhedrin 102a). The unforgivable appears not to have been totally forgiven.

Cleaning the Calf
This obviously presents a problem for us come Yom Kippur. “Why doesn’t the Kohen Gadol wear [his usual] golden garments when he enters the inner sanctum to do the avodah? Because a prosecutor cannot be a defender” (Rosh Hashanah 26a). The mere presence of gold “reminds” Hashem of the egel and undermines the Kohen’s work as our defense attorney.
The egel hangs as a dark cloud over the Day of Atonement, but our strategy is more sophisticated than simply to avoid mentioning it. As we shall see, the entire service of Yom Kippur is designed to reverse the spiritual damage caused by the Golden Calf.
The egel is not just a sin, it is a belief system, an “ism.” By building an egel the Jews expressed the belief that people can only relate to the Creator through an intermediary (Ramban to Shemos 32:1). This is a self-fulfilling heresy, for “Hashem relates to us the same way we relate to Him” (Midrash cited in Nefesh HaChaim 1:7) and when we step back from the relationship, so does He. “When the Jews made the egel, the Clouds of Glory departed” (Vilna Gaon to Shir HaShirim 1:4). This is why Moshe had to break the Tablets. Tablets and an egel are incompatible, for the Torah is meant to bring Hashem into our lives and an egel keeps Him at a distance.
Why did the Jews make a Golden Calf? While they may have felt that God was too close for comfort, there was also a theological error in play. The Jews apparently thought that the Shechina prefers pure gold to flesh and blood. Since God is perfect, He must only be interested in perfection. This is a disastrous misconception; nothing could be further from the truth. God wants a relationship with humans, not statues.
On Yom Kippur, Hashem countered the egel by giving us Tablets of Torah – the “gateway” to a relationship with Him (Yoma 72b) – and instructing us to put them in a wooden Ark.[1] Not metallic, lifeless gold, but complex and organic wood, the symbol of man.[2] The message is clear. When a human being with Torah in his heart enters the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and stands together with the Ark in the direct presence of the Shechina, the intimacy of the God/Jew relationship is restored and Egelism is neutralized.[3]
One of the famous debates between the Tzedukim and the Perushim involved an apparently minor technicality of the Yom Kippur service. Rejecting tradition, the Tzedukim claimed that the Kohen Gadol must put the ketores on the firepan before entering the Kodesh HaKodoshim (Yoma 19b). Aside from textual support, there is a solid rationale behind this position. “A man cannot see Me and live” (Shemos 33:20). The Tzedukim felt that in order to survive, the Kohen Gadol needs a cloud of smoke to obscure the Shechina.[4] But our mesorah insists otherwise (Yoma 53a) and in light of the egel, this Halacha has great significance. The Kohen Gadol must first enter the Kodesh HaKodoshim and stand before Hashem, smoke-free. He need not be in the midst of performing a mitzvah, nor may he hide behind a cloud. Ketores can wait. On Yom Kippur, Hashem’s greatest desire is simply the presence of man himself.
Even the route to the Kodesh HaKodoshim is indicative. According to Rabbi Yosi, the Kohen Gadol walked along the north wall of the sanctuary, straight into the Holy of Holies through an opening in the north side of the curtain. Others argue that this behavior lacks the requisite reverence and the Kohen should take a roundabout path. “Due to the presence of the Shechina, it is inappropriate to walk straight in” (Yoma 52a), “staring the whole time through the opening into the Kodesh HaKodoshim” (Rashi ad loc.). But the gemora defends Rabbi Yosi’s position. Hashem loves us so much, He wants us to pray to Him directly. If we are so beloved before God, the Kohen Gadol, our representative, should feel free to walk straight into the throne room.
Understanding Yom Kippur as a response to the egel also explains why the Tenth of Tishrei is the Yom HaChasima, the day our fate is sealed for the coming year. Hashem decreed that every judgment must include some punishment for the egel, but with great compassion, Hashem set the “Day of Remembrance,” the day judgments are finalized, on the very day He pardoned the egel! We thus have the benefit of being judged on the anniversary of Hashem’s mercy, and Hashem Himself teaches us how to make the most of the opportunity. Every year the combined forces of our national teshuva and the Kohen Gadol’s service achieve a little more fixing, a little more cleansing and a little more forgiveness. As the antidote for the egel, Yom Kippur helps us secure a favorable judgement for the New Year.[5]

Goat Mysteries
The goats of Yom Kippur stand out in a service filled with mystical mysteries. Two lots are drawn to determine the status of two identical goats. One ticket says “La’shem.” The lucky goat who wins that ticket is offered as a korban chatas, a sin offering. The other ticket says, “La’Azazel.” This goat is the loser. He will be cast off a cliff in the desert. While the use of lots is peculiar, throwing a goat off a cliff is, to be frank, utterly bizarre. It flies in the face of everything we know about the service of Hashem.[6] But an even greater surprise is the atonement power of the Azazel Goat.
The two goats deal with two very different categories of sin. When a person is tamei, it is forbidden for him to enter the Beis HaMikdash or eat the meat of a korban. This is the sin of tumas mikdash v’kodoshav, defiling the Beis HaMikdash and its offerings with spiritual impurity. The La’shem Goat atones for this sin. In contrast, the Azazel Goat atones for… everything else! Every other sin is forgiven through the goat that is thrown off a cliff (Yoma 61a).
How goats atone is beyond our ken, but this much we can ask: what is so special about the sin of tumas mikdash, defiling the sanctuary? What is it about this one obscure sin that requires its own private goat on Yom Kippur, when all other sins are taken care of by the other goat?[7] Before we answer this question, we will first strengthen it.

One plus One Equals One
Although the service of the La’shem Goat and the service of the Azazel Goat could not be more different, the two goats are identical in appearance, height and cost. They are even purchased together (Yoma 6:1). The Torah is creating a bond between these two goats, a bond that transcends their differences. The Azazel Goat must stand in the sanctuary when the blood of the La’shem Goat is offered (Vayikra 16:10; Yoma 40b); it is as if his own blood is being offered. These halachos all betray a strange, alternate reality. The two goats are not two goats, they are the same goat.[8]
According to Rabbi Yosef Shlomo Eliyashiv, the unity of the goats is such that it is difficult to differentiate between them. This is why the usual verbal declaration is insufficient and we need a lottery to establish the separate identity of each goat.[9] In contrast, Rabbi Yoshe Ber Soloveichik believed it was the lottery itself that united the goats.[10] Either way, the consensus is clear: the goats are two components of a single offering.
Returning now to our question, the problem is exacerbated. If the goats are united, they should work together towards a common atonement. How and why does each goat atone for a different type of sin? 

A Goat for Hashem
As a korban chatas, a sin offering, the La’shem Goat fixes the sin of introducing tumah to the Beis HaMikdash. But it does more than that. The blood of the La’shem Goat actually sanctifies the sanctuary. “With his finger, he shall sprinkle the blood seven time on [the altar], purifying it and sanctifying it from the tumah of the Children of Israel” (Vayikra 16:19; Yoma 59a). Atoning, purifying and sanctifying are different things; how does one goat do it all?
Although we cannot see nor sense the negative spiritual energy called “tumah,” the gemora grants us a revealing insight into the meaning of the word.
Sin clogs the heart of man, as the verse states, “Don’t make yourself tamei by [eating rodents], for you will then be tamei because of them” (Vayikra 11:43) – don’t read “for you will then be tamei,” read rather, “for you will then be clogged” (Yoma 39a).[11]
A synonym for clogged, tumah is a dark force that restricts the flow of divine blessings and reduces Hashem’s ability to be present. Hashem relates to man the way man relates to Him, and if a person sins, Hashem cannot interact with him in a normal, healthy way. “[If a person] defiles himself below, he is defiled above” (Yoma ad loc.).[12] It follows that when “he sanctifies himself below, he is sanctified above” (Yoma ad loc.). Teshuva purifies the tumah generated by sin and allows “an increased flow of kedusha from Hashem” to enter the person (Nefesh HaChaim 1:20). In other words, when a sin is forgiven, man is purified of tumah and then automatically sanctified by the Shechina.
This explains the gravity of tumas mikdash and the imperative of cleaning it out, and it also explains why this is prioritized on Yom Kippur, the day dedicated to fixing the egel. When we set up a Golden Calf as an intermediary between us and Hashem, we corrupted the proper service of the One God and damaged the spiritual pipelines that connect Heaven and Earth. In other words: tumas mikdash. In order to bring the Shechina back into our world, we must first flush out the tumah generated by Egelism. This is the function of the La’shem Goat. It is literally “for Hashem,” as it prepares the sanctuary and the world for His Presence.[13] But there is another goat on this day, a goat of even greater import.

Resurrecting Adam
In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Ovadia Seforno advances a fascinating theory. If not for the sin of the egel, he writes, there never would have been a Mishkan at all. The original plan was for the Shechina to rest directly on the people, not in a building. Tragically, the Jews worshipped a Golden Calf and Hashem decreed that they be annihilated. Although Moshe saved the nation through the power of his tefillah, Hashem only agreed to return through the medium of a Mishkan.[14]
A little prehistory will be helpful here. We should remember that there was no Beis HaMikdash in the Garden of Eden. There was no need, for the Shechina rested directly on Adam.[15] This was Hashem’s original plan for the world, and according to the Seforno, this was Hashem’s plan for the newly minted Jewish Nation. Like the sin of the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden, the sin of the Golden Calf at Sinai clogged the pipes and shattered Hashem’s vision for the Jewish People. Plan B, a Mishkan, was implemented.
If the Mishkan only exists because of the egel, it follows that as the egel fades, the need for a Mishkan fades with it and Man can reclaim his original role as God’s sanctuary on Earth. It may strike us as radical, but the concept is actually well-established. “One who wishes to pour a wine libation on the altar should fill the throat of Torah sages with wine” (Yoma 71a). Speaking of a person who achieves the level of a “Kadosh,” the Ramchal writes, “Such a man is like the Mishkan, the Mikdash and the altar” (Mesilas Yesharim, chap. 26). On Yom Kippur, as we clean out the residue of the egel, kedusha flows down upon us and the medium of the Mikdash is rendered superfluous. This explains how the Kohen Gadol faced Hashem in the Holy of Holies[16] and it also allows us to understand the symbolism of the Azazel Goat.
Carried by a non-Kohen out of the Beis HaMikdash and into the desert, the Azazel Goat represents the ability of every Jew to deal with his sins on his own, without the aid of an external sanctuary.[17] We have the power to restore our relationship with Hashem wherever we may be – even when we find ourselves wandering in a spiritual desert. In a word, the Azazel Goat represents teshuva. In the absence of a Mikdash, teshuva is all we need,[18] and on Yom Kippur, the Mikdash is indeed absent, for it is replaced by Man.
This is more than just an inspiring thought; it is a reality with terrifying consequences. If Man is a sanctuary, then a sin is not merely a sin. Every sin is an act of sanctuary defilement!
The strange unity of the goats now makes perfect sense: the La’shem Goat relates to the Beis HaMikdash, while the Azazel Goat relates to the Mikdash within man. The La’shem Goat cleanses ordinary tumah from the sanctuary building, and the Azazel Goat cleanses all other sins – the tumah of Man – consecrating a sanctuary of flesh and blood for the Creator.[19] Each goat takes a different route, but their purpose is one and the same: creating a space where Hashem feels comfortable on Earth.[20]
The goats may be unified, but they are also in competition. In an astonishing Halacha, the gemora (Yoma 66b) rules that if the person designated to escort the goat to the desert becomes tamei, he should still enter the Mikdash to get the goat, defiling the sanctuary on the very day dedicated to its purification![21] It would be an easy matter to find a replacement – indeed if he calls in sick, that is exactly what we do – but during its fifteen minutes of fame, this goat wants make a point. When we cast off our sins on Yom Kippur and bring Hashem back into our lives, then we become the Mikdash and the Temple building is downgraded. Encountering Hashem in the Beis HaMikdash is not the ideal; what Hashem really wants is for us to find Him within ourselves.[22] Experiencing this intimacy with Hashem is the antithesis of the egel and the goal of Yom Kippur.

Confession or Blood?
The goats differ not only in the way in which they are offered, but also in the mitzvah of viduy, the verbal confession. In the first step of every sin offering, the supplicant places his hands on the animal’s head and recites viduy, confessing the sin for which his offering will atone. This act “places” the sin onto the animal.
Aaron shall lean his two hands on the head of the living goat, confess upon it all the sins of the Children of Israel… and place them on the head of the goat… and the goat will carry all of their sins into the wilderness… (Vayikra 16:21-22)
Typically, atonement is not achieved until the blood of an offering is sprinkled on the altar, but in the case of the Azazel Goat, the viduy is the critical part of the service. Once the viduy is recited by the Kohen Gadol, the Azazel Goat can die and it need not be replaced – even if it never makes it to the desert (Yoma 40b). In contrast, and in violation of standard procedure, the Goat for Hashem has no viduy at all. Its atonement is effected solely through the sprinkling of its blood on the altar (Yoma 61a). It is strange indeed that a goat headed for the desert receives a standard viduy and a sin offering lacks it.[23]
In light of our theory, this discrepancy can be understood. The viduy of the Kohen Gadol on the Azazel Goat represents the mitzvah of teshuva, the ability to return to Hashem without a Mikdash. According to the Rambam, the mitzvah of teshuva is viduy (Hilchos Teshuva 1:1), but in order for teshuva to be effective, one must first throw his sins away and cease the negative behavior (ibid 2:2). Azivas HaChet, the abandonment of sin, is an obvious prerequisite for teshuva. To recite viduy without first breaking the habit is akin to immersing in a mikvah while still holding on to the dead rodent that caused the impurity in the first place (ibid 2:3). This then is the Azazel Goat. Confessing sins on a goat and then throwing it off a cliff is simply a graphic depiction of ordinary teshuva.[24]
It is indicative that atonement for the egel was achieved by the prayer (Shemos 32:11-14) and confession (ibid. 32:31) of Moshe and not through animal sacrifice. As we redress the sin of the egel annually on Yom Kippur, it is only natural that we would want to make use of Moshe’s successful formula, and this is indeed the case. The text of the Kohen Gadol’s viduy on the Azazel Goat is derived from the text of Moshe’s viduy on the egel (Yoma 37a).
In contrast, the Goat for Hashem demonstrates not the power of Man, but the power of the Mikdash. As such, there is no human input and no verbal confession on this goat; atonement is achieved solely through the blood of the sacrifice. With its sanctuary-centric outlook, it is appropriate that this goat atones for no sin other than spiritual defilement of the Beis HaMikdash.

The Unfinished Sanctuary
Viewing Yom Kippur in the context of the egel shifts the focus off our sins and onto the big picture: the state of our relationship with Hashem. Simply stated, the goal of the day is to become a Human Mishkan. Of course, teshuva is imperative, but a person could technically fulfill the mitzvah of teshuva and still miss the point. For example, someone could regret missing minyan, but never ask himself when was the last time he really opened up to Hashem in tefillah. A person could resolve to elevate the quality of his Shabbos table with divrei torah and zemiros, but have no interest in guiding his private life or business affairs according to the dictates of the Shulchan Aruch. A person could become scrupulous about kashrus, but never thank Hashem for food with a well-articulated and heartfelt beracha. The point here is not hypocrisy. The point is that the egel is alive and kicking.
Do we relegate Hashem to the medium of a sanctuary or a shul, a davening or a Shabbos? Or do we realize that He expects daily Azazel offerings from the cliffs of Los Angeles? Do we yearn for Hashem to enter every aspect of our lives? Or do we prefer to keep Him at a comfortable distance?
Being and becoming an Orthodox Jew is a lifelong work-in-progress and teshuva, by definition, is always doomed to fall short, but if we understand Yom Kippur then we know it doesn’t matter. Yom Kippur is about how we relate to Hashem and we are in the driver’s seat. If we make sincere resolutions and take a step towards Him, then He responds in kind and moves towards us. But if we hold back and maintain the status quo, so will He.[25]
The gemora in Yoma (57a) tells a story. A Tzeduki challenged Rebbi Chanina, “Now that you are in exile you are definitely tamei and the Shechina is not with you, as the verse states, ‘Her impurity is on her hems’ (Eichah 1:9).”
“Come and see what the Torah says about the Jews,” Rabbi Chanina responded. “‘He dwells with them, in the midst of their tumah’ (Vayikra 16:16) – even when they are impure, the Shechina rests among them.”
“Even when they are impure, the Shechina rests among them!” Where, of all places, does the Torah make this radical statement about Hashem’s tolerance for tumah? In the middle of the Yom Kippur avodah, a service dedicated to purifying the sanctuary! And this is precisely the point: The Human Temple is perpetually under construction and perfection is unattainable and unnecessary, but if we are honest about building a sanctuary, we must hand over the keys. When Man invites Hashem into his life and grants Him unrestricted access, then the egel is undone and the Shechina arrives. This was the goal of the Yom Kippur service of old and this is what we are striving for on Yom Kippur today.




[1] “They should make an Ark of cedar wood” (Shemos 25:10). The gold cheruvim on the Ark also carry an anti-egel message. Male and female, they symbolize Hashem’s “marriage” to the Jewish Nation (Yoma 54a) and signify that we relate to each other directly, without an intermediary (Rabbeinu Bechaya to Shemos 25:18).
[2] “For man is a tree of the field” (Devarim 20:19). In another clear indication of the Ark as a symbol of man, the Ark was gold-plated inside and out to indicate that “a two-faced sage is no sage” (Yoma 72b).
[3] This is why the yetzer hara for idolatry is located in the Kodesh HaKodoshim (cf. Yoma 69b). It is at the site of man’s most intimate union with Hashem that the egel intervenes.
[4] According to the Chizkuni (Vayikra 16:13), this is indeed the purpose of the ketores.
[5] The Gemora draws a number of striking parallels between the Yom Kippur service and the para aduma service, e.g., segregating the Kohen seven days prior (Yoma 2a), the tumah of the person who burns the animal (68b), and the use of a red woolen string (41b; cf. 63b, 68a; see below, note 16). Inscrutable as these halachos may be, commonalities are understandable in light of the fact that the para aduma also served to cleanse the impurity generated by the egel (cf. Rashi to Bamidbar 19:22).
[6] The service of the Azazel Goat is such an anomaly, “the yetzer hara tricks the Jews by refuting it, claiming that the Torah must be false” (Rashi to Yoma 67b). This is why the Torah states, “Observe my decrees… I am Hashem your God” (Vayikra 18:4). “I am Hashem – I have decreed and you have no right to question” (Yoma ad loc.). The Ramban (Vayikra 16:8) cites Midrashim that view the Azazel Goat as a stand-in for Esav (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 2:7) and as a literal scapegoat, a “bribe” for the angel Samael, i.e. the Satan. Unfortunately, for those of us not versed in Kabbala this approach makes the goat more mysterious, not less.
[7] While it is true that the musafim of the Yomim Tovim and Rosh Chodesh are dedicated to atoning for tumas mikdash (Shavuos 1:1), our question is why this would be necessary on Yom Kippur when the Azazel Goat atones for all sins. Moreover, the La’shem Goat is not a musaf (Yoma 3a).
[8] See Yoma 40a, Tosfos, s.v. v’azdu; Yoma 61b, Gevuros Ari, s.v. itti afilu b’shabbos.
[9] Anonymous, Heoros B’Maseches Yoma: M’Shiurei Maran Rebbi Yosef Shlomo Eliyashiv, pg. 240-241. This perspective explains the time-sensitive nature of the lottery. If the goats are not used, then after Yom Kippur they revert back to their pre-lottery, undifferentiated status (Yoma 65b).
[10] Rabbi Aaron Lichtenstein, Shiurei HaGrid: Avodas Yom HaKippurim (Mossad HaRav Kook), pg. 84. This opinion is difficult to reconcile with the fact that we can pair an Azazel Goat from one lottery with a La’shem Goat from a different lottery (Yoma 64a).
[11] אל תקרי ונטמאתם אלא ונטמטם. Although spelled differently, the Hebrew word for “you will be clogged” is phonetically similar to the Hebrew word for “you will be tamei.”
[12] Since tumah limits Hashem’s relationship with us, the punishment of כרת (spiritual excision) for tumas mikdash (Bamidbar 19:13) is מדה כנגד מדה, measure for measure.
[13] According to the Rambam, bringing korbonos serves to undermine the pagan belief in sacred animals (Moreh Nevuchim 3:46). The presence of Shechina on Earth is not just a human need, צורך הדיוט, but also a “Heavenly need,” צורך גבוה, as the verse states (Tehillim 132:13), “For Hashem has chosen Tzion; He desires it as a dwelling place for Himself” (Ramban to Vayikra 29:46; cf. Nefesh HaChaim 2:11).
[14] Paraphrased from the commentary of the Seforno to Vayikra 11:2. The idea of the Mishkan as a response to the egel appears in Chazal; see for example, Tanchuma, Terumah 8 and Rashi to Shemos 38:21. Rabbeinu Bechaya (Shemos 25:6) goes so far as to say that the only reason the mitzvah to build a Mishkan preceded the egel was because Hashem wanted to provide the cure in advance.
[15] “When Adam sinned, he removed the Shechina from himself” (Tanchuma Yashan, Bechukosai 65). See also Pirkei D’Rebbe Eliezer, chap. 14.
[16] The Kohen Gadol is compared to Adam (Tanchuma, Pekudei 2) and Adam wore the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (Bamidbar Rabba 4:8). This perspective explains the surprising position of Rebbi Shimon that a Kohen Gadol is not liable for טומאת מקדש (Horayos 2:7). As a Mikdash himself, the sin of defiling the sanctuary building is mitigated.
[17] This is another feature the Azazel Goat shares with the para aduma (cf. Zevachim 14:1). See above, note 5.
[18] Rambam, Hilchos Teshuva 1:3
[19] There are two types of tumah: “actual” tumah which defiles the Mikdash and requires a mikvah for purification, and “spiritual” tumah caused by sin which requires Teshuva for purification. Although all sins generate spiritual tumah (cf. Nefesh HaChaim 1:11), the term “tumah” is used explicitly to describe the sins of eating non-Kosher food (Vayikra 11:4-7), idolatry (Yirmiyahu 2:23), sexual immorality (Vayikra 18:24) and murder (Bamidbar 35:34) – the common denominator being the departure of the Shechina caused by these sins (cf. Ohr HaChaim to Vayikra 11:45; Ha’amek Davar to Bamidbar ad loc.). It is no coincidence that the four primary sources of spiritual tumah are associated with four primary types of actual tumah: the carcass of a non-Kosher animal is tamei (Vayikra 11:8,39); worshipping an idol makes it tamei (Avodah Zarah 3:6); sexual immorality produces semen which is tamei (Vayikra 15:17); murder produces a corpse which is tamei (Bamidbar 19:11). Niddah and Metzora are both considered a death of sorts and are therefore also tamei.
[20] The unity of the goats is evident in a number of ways. According to Rav Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon, the Azazel Goat is also “La’shem” (quoted by Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 16:8). It is fascinating that the word “La’shem” of both Vayikra 22:27 and Vayikra 22:22 refer specifically to the Azazel Goat and include it in certain laws of the korbanos (Yoma 63b). Also indicative is the fact that pushing the goat off the cliff has the Halachic status of a shechita (Yoma 64a). The La’shem Goat also shares certain features with the Azazel Goat. It is taken outside the camp to be burned (Vayikra 16:27) and the person who does the burning becomes tamei (ibid. 16:28), just like the person who delivers the Azazel Goat to the cliff (ibid. 16:26).
[21] Unlike the Kohen Gadol himself, who is disqualified and replaced if he becomes tamei (Yoma 1:1).
[22] “My sole intent in the design of the Mikdash and all its vessels is only to indicate to you that you should model yourselves after it. Through your pleasing behavior you will style yourselves after the Mishkan and its vessels, completely holy, worthy and prepared for Me to literally rest My Shechina within you” (Nefesh HaChaim 1:4, author’s note).
[23] Chizkuni to Vayikra 16:6 asks this question and suggests that since the La’shem Goat it is for Hashem, it would be disgraceful for us to confess our sins on it.
[24] Just as it is with the goat, so it is with Teshuva: a sincere viduy is the critical component. Even if, God forfend, one does not live beyond Yom Kippur and never puts his resolutions into practice, nonetheless his viduy is still effective and the sins of the past are forgiven (Hilchos Teshuva 2:1). 
[25] This thesis explains why our Yom Kippur viduy does not, for the most part, mention specific sins, but is mainly about character refinement. (I am indebted to Benji Ginsberg for this insight.)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ready for Rosh Hashanah?

Click on the title below for an audio recording of a shiur delivered today at the offices of Gerber & Co. in Century City.

"I Am For My Beloved and My Beloved Is For Me"


One thing I forgot to mention (for after you listen to the shiur):



ומל ה' את לבבכם ואל לבב זרעכם



The word Elul appears in this passuk! It turns out that ומל ה' את לבבכם carries the very same message of מדה כנגד מדה as the passuk of אני לדודי ודודי לי.

Another amazing point that dovetails perfectly with the shiur: As a man of 99 years of age, Avraham was frightened to perform circumcision on himself. Hashem thus came and placed His Hand on Avraham's hand and they did it together (Medrash Rabba 49:2). And this took place on Yom Kippur! (Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer 29).


For past years' recordings, click on the "Rosh Hashanah" label below.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Avraham and the Sea: Building Faith in the Conquest of Israel

Dedicated in memory of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein

לע"נ הגאון רבי אהרן ליכטנשטיין ז"ל 


The holidays were established to correspond to the forefathers. Pesach corresponds to Avraham, as [Avraham told Sara] in the verse, “Knead and make [matzah] cakes!” – and this occurred on Pesach. Shavuos corresponds to Yitzchok, for the shofar blast by the giving of the Torah was from the horn of the ram of [Akiedas] Yitzchok. Sukkos corresponds to Yaakov, as the verse states, “and for his cattle he built Sukkos” (Bereishis 33:17).

Tur, O.C. 417

This teaching borders on the mystical and is obviously in need of commentary, but this much is clear: the Avraham/Egypt connection goes well beyond the baking of Matzos. Avraham was personally forced by famine to leave Israel and go down to Egypt – an event that foreshadows our national exile (cf. Ramban to Bereishis 12:10). Moreover, Avraham was told that his descendants would suffer exile and enslavement, followed by an exodus. As we shall see, the unfortunate details of that prophecy predetermined what was to come.

Things started off on a positive note. Hashem promised Avraham that his descendants would be as numerous and uncountable as the stars in the heavens (15:5). The Torah reports that when Avraham heard this piece of good news, “he believed in Hashem” (15:6). However, Hashem then made a second, even greater promise: Avraham’s descendants would inherit the Land of Israel (15:7). Here Avraham asks, “במה אדע” – “How will I know?” (15:8). Avraham wanted an אות, a sign, a guarantee (Rashi to 15:6).

Hashem was upset by this request; He viewed it as a lack of faith on the part of Avraham. “Your first father sinned” (Yeshaya 43:27) when he said, "How will I know” (Rashi ad loc.).

In response, Hashem decreed exile, suffering and slavery for Avraham's children.

“You should know that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs and they will enslave them and afflict them for four hundred years…” (Bereishis 15:13; cf. Nedarim 32a).

Avraham may have sinned, nonetheless, it seems cruel and unusual to punish a nation for the sin of an ancestor (cf. Kli Yakar ad loc.). An excellent explanation for this anomaly is offered by the Alter of Slabodka.

Avraham’s request for a sign was a failure of his otherwise unquestioning, pure faith in God - and this is why Hashem decreed that his descendants must be slaves. There is basic law of spiritual genetics: a weakness in an ancestor will be magnified in his descendants. If Avraham's faith is weak, then his progeny are in danger. Hashem’s plan was to reinforce the faith of the Jewish People through an experience of exile followed by a miraculous redemption, and this is exactly what happened. When the Exodus culminated with the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, “The Children of Israel saw what Hashem’s great hand did with Egypt, and they believed in Hashem.” At long last, Avraham’s weakness was fixed. (אור הצפון ח"א, מעמקי האמונה)

The only question is this: Why did it take so long? Were the ten plagues insufficient to prove the power of God? Why did the Jews need the splitting of the Red Sea to restore their faith?  

A more precise understanding of Avraham’s problem will provide an answer.

When Avraham was told that his children will be like the stars of the sky, he believed it. Similarly, Avraham's descendants, the Jewish people, believed Moshe when he told them that Hashem was coming to redeem them (Shemos 4:31). The Jews were on the brink of total assimilation. If Hashem wouldn’t intervene soon, Jewish identity would simply vanish from the earth. Like their father Avraham before them, the Jews appreciated their uniqueness as a nation and they were confident that Hashem would save them from oblivion. (We should note that Hashem took Moshe to task for doubting the faith of the Jews on this point, cf. Shemos 4:1).

However, when Avraham was told about the conquest of Israel, he balked and asked for a sign. Similarly, when Moshe told the Jews that after the Exodus they would march on Israel, they did not listen (Shemos 6:8-9). (The earlier divine message about going to Israel was only for the elders, cf. Shemos 3:16-17.)

The Jews were willing to accept that Hashem would preserve them, but that He would destroy the Canaanite armies and give them the Land of Canaan – that was another story. The plagues indicated nothing on that front. However, when they witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea – which served solely to drown the Egyptian Army – the Jews saw that Hashem was not only in the business of punishing their oppressors but was also willing to destroy the army of their enemy. As they sang afterwards in the song by the Sea, “Hashem is a Man of War!” (Shemos 15:3). This realization educated the Jews about the true nature of their relationship with the Creator. He isn't just the God of the forefathers. He is the King and Commander-in-Chief of the Jewish Nation!

It wasn’t only the Jews who appreciated the implications of the split sea. “Nations will hear and tremble; terror seized the inhabitants of Philistia. Then the chiefs of Edom panicked, trembling took hold of the heroes of Moav, all the inhabitants of Canaan melted…” (Shemos 15:14-15). As the Jews sang these stanzas, their fear of the Canaanites melted and their faith in Hashem hardened.

This explains why Hashem drowned the Egyptian Army, but it raises a new problem. If the splitting of the sea was designed to rectify weakness in faith, how then could the Jews fall? How could a nation that witnessed God’s infinite prowess and love ever put their faith in a man-made idol? The answer is that a Jew named Micha took an idol with him across the sea (Sanhedrin 103b). This treasonous act undermined the very faith that the sea was meant to fix. The idolatry of Micha found its way to Dan in Northern Israel and, unsurprisingly, it was the worship of his idol that ultimately led to the exile of the Jews from their land (cf. Shoftim 18:30; see this post).

Paganism is a resilient virus and its tragic consequences haunt our people throughout all of our long history. Its modern-day forms may take on a more sophisticated guise, but fundamentally, it’s all the same. To be blunt, humans have to believe in something. If that something isn’t Hashem, you’re pagan.

II

Apparently, the land grant of Israel is in some way more incredible than the miracle of Jewish survival. Avraham asked for a sign, the Jews of Egypt wouldn’t listen, and even as they were preparing to invade Canaan, the princes of Israel still didn’t believe it (cf. Bamidbar 13:31-33). (Sadly, to this day, our rights to our homeland continue to be questioned by many of our own people.)

Why is it so hard to believe that the Land of Israel is the Land for Israel?

Rashi, in his very first comment on the Torah, addresses a most basic question: Why did Hashem include the creation story in the Torah? It should suffice for us to know our obligations, the mitzvos. Why spend so many verses describing a creation that we can’t fathom anyway? Rashi explains that if the nations of the world would ever accuse the Jews of stealing the land from the Canaanites, if the UN or the EU dare describe it as the "occupation of Palestine," Parshas Bereishis will come to our defense. Hashem created the universe, ergo the earth is the Lord’s. He can grant the land of Israel to whomever He wishes, and He can take it away from them and give it to the Jews. (It goes without saying that the King of kings is perfectly just. Hashem told Avraham explicitly that the Jews will not be able to defeat the Canaanites until the Canaanites themselves deserve to defeated due to their own sins, cf. Bereishis 15:16.)

The potential accusation of theft against his descendants undoubtedly concerned Avraham. Avraham’s life mission was educating society about the infinite compassion of the Creator and his greatest fear was that the people would misunderstand the true nature of God. (This is why Avraham consulted with Mamre before performing circumcision, cf. Rashi Bereishis 18:1; Bereishis Rabba 46:3, and this was also undoubtedly part of the challenge of the Akeida.) The truth is, Hashem is also deeply concerned about what the gentiles think of Him. When there is a mistaken impression that God is malicious or weak, or that His Chosen People are corrupt, it is a “Chillul Hashem,” a desecration of Hashem’s reputation. This reverses the spiritual progress of humanity and nothing upsets Hashem more than that. Twice Moshe saved the nation by leveraging Hashem’s distain for it (Shemos 32:11-12; Bamidbar 14:13-16) and no other sin is less forgivable (Yoma 86a). The evil of Chillul Hashem can never be overestimated.

So when Hashem told Avraham that He would give the land of the Canaanites to the Jews, Avraham immediately feared the inevitable Chillul Hashem. Unaware that the Torah would include the creation story as a response, Avraham asked for a sign. A clear divine sign would prove to all the world that God designated the Land of Israel for His Chosen People, and no one could ever accuse the Jews of being thieves.

III

There is another way to interpret Avraham's fateful request; one rooted in its historical context.

The story begins with a war (cf. Bereishis 14:1-16). Four kings battled against five in central Israel, and when the dust cleared, Avraham’s nephew Lot was held captive. Avraham mustered his men and handily, or better said, miraculously, routed the enemy and conquered almost the entire country. I say almost because his advance stopped at Dan in the north. Avraham was weakened at Dan because he foresaw that his descendants would worship an idol there (Rashi to 14:14).

It was after his conquest of Israel that Avraham received the prophecy about Egypt and this is what makes Avraham’s request for a sign so difficult to comprehend.

Was Avraham unaware of the basic principle of מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, the actions of the forefathers are a sign for their children? Was it just a coincidence that Hashem waited until after Avraham’s victory before promising that his children would inherit the land? Is it not obvious that Hashem orchestrated Avraham’s conquest of Israel in order to forge the path for the future? (Hashem’s initial promise to give the land to his children also only came after Avraham’s arrival in Israel, cf. 12:1,7.) In short, Avraham is himself the very sign he is asking for!

The answer is that Avraham was acutely aware that his own life story foreshadowed the future history of the Jewish people – and this is exactly what made him nervous. Avraham was worried about what happened in Northern Israel, at Dan. If his own conquest of Israel was incomplete, what does that portend for his descendants? 

(There is a cause and effect problem here. Was Avraham's failure to capture Dan a sign of future exile, or was the idolatry of the Jews the cause of Avraham's failure to capture Dan? The answer, of course, is both.)

Avraham's question was this: if the Jews will worship idols, how will they remain secure in their land? The Land of Israel has no tolerance for paganism. The Torah states in no uncertain terms that if and when the Jews turn to paganism, they can expect famine and exile (Devarim 11:16). Avraham’s glorious precedent of conquest includes the seeds of its own undoing!

This thought was followed by an even more disturbing realization. If my descendants will worship idols, wondered Avraham, doesn’t that imply that there is a flaw in me? מעשה אבות סימן לבנים. If my children turn away from God, I must be lacking in my faith! Give me a sign, Avraham begged Hashem, give me a sign that will strengthen my faith so that my descendants won’t turn pagan! This is the meaning of Avraham’s request.

Hashem’s response was this: Signs and miracles are not the way for you, Avraham. If you want to strengthen your faith then we will have to take a different approach. “Know that your children will be enslaved…”

Hashem presented Avraham’s faith with the ultimate challenge: the predetermined suffering of unborn children. As Avraham surrendered before the unknowable mystery of God’s ways, his faith hardened. And as Avraham’s faith hardened, it became an ever stronger foundation and an ever deeper fount of inspiration for his progeny, the Jewish Nation of the future.

There is an elegant symmetry here. The foreknowledge of the Egyptian exile and exodus functioned to strengthen the faith of our father Avraham and the experience of it functioned to rebuild the faith of his descendants, the Jewish People. 

The power of the Exodus has not faded. To this day, more than any other mitzvah, Jews turn to Pesach as both the expression of and the source for their faith in Hashem.

IV

There is yet another way to interpret the conversation between Hashem and Avraham, one rooted in the chronology of events at the ברית בין הבתרים, the “Covenant Between the Halves.” Our discussion thus far has focused on the verbal dialogue and we have ignored the central element of the ברית, the element from which it takes its name. The cutting of animals in half.

Hashem said [to Avraham], “Take for Me three calves, three goats, three rams, a turtledove and a young dove.” He took all these [animals] for Him, split them down the middle and placed each piece facing its counterpart...
And behold! A smoking furnace and a torch of fire passed between the parts. On that day Hashem established a ברית, a covenant, with Avram, saying, “I have given this land to your descendants…” (15:9,17,18)

Rashi (15:10) explains:

The verse does not depart from its straightforward meaning. [The reason for this strange ritual] is because Hashem was establishing a covenant with Avraham to keep His promise to grant the land of Israel to his descendants, as the verse states, “On that day Hashem established a ברית with Avram, saying…”
It was the custom of those entering into a ברית to split an animal and walk between its halves, as we find later in Yermiyah (34:19)… Here too, the smoking oven and flaming fire which passed between the parts was the agent of the Shechina, which is fire.  

Timing is significant. Hashem told Avraham to split the animals immediately after Avraham asked, “How will I know,” and immediately before Hashem tells him about the future enslavement of the Jews. It is for this reason that Rashi (15:6) offers an alternate reading of the dialogue between Hashem and Avraham.

When Avraham asked, “How will I know that I will inherit Israel,” he wasn’t asking for a sign. He was asking what merit will enable the Jewish People to maintain their hold on their land. Hashem responds by telling Avraham to collect all the animals that are used for offerings. The meaning is clear. Hashem is saying that the Jews will survive in Israel in the merit of animal sacrifice.

Why animal sacrifice? How does animal sacrifice secure our homeland? The answer can be found in a Rambam.

The Rambam proposes an interesting theory to explain the meaning and purpose of animal offerings. In ancient societies, pagans deified the cow, the goat and the ram. To this day, pagans still consider it a severe sin to slaughter their sacred animals. The Torah therefore commands us to slaughter these very animals as offerings to the One God. By violating the animals pagans deem sacred, we reject idolatry and internalize the truth: Hashem is the only power on earth. (cf. Moreh Nevuchim 3:46).

In light of this teaching, we can understand Hashem’s answer to Avraham’s question. Avraham wanted to know what merit the Jews could rely on to secure their home in Israel. Avraham had good reason to be concerned. As we have learned, Avraham foresaw the idolatry of his descendants and he knew that idolatry means exile. Hashem’s answer was animal sacrifice. As the Rambam wrote, animal sacrifice is the antidote to paganism. If the Jews offer these “sacred” animals to God, it will heal their minds and restore their hearts to monotheism. 

Hashem always provides the cure before the disease.

V

There is a mysterious and manifest parallel between the ברית בין הבתרים and קריאת ים סוף

At the ברית בין הבתרים Avraham split the animals in half and Avraham and the Shechina walked between the halves, the Shechina represented by smoke and fire. At קריאת ים סוף, Hashem split the Red Sea in half and the Jewish People and the Shechina walked between the halves, the Shechina represented by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire (Shemos 13:22). The similarities are undeniable. It is no coincidence that the same word גזרים, “torn parts,” is used to describe both the animals (Bereishis 15:17) and the sea (Tehillim 136:14).

Clearly, Hashem wished to evoke His covenant with Avraham at the Red Sea. In light of all we have learned, this makes perfect sense. The Alter of Slabodka taught us that the splitting of the sea fixed Avraham’s failure of faith, and we explained how: at the sea the Jewish People saw firsthand that Hashem was prepared to annihilate armies for them. So here at the sea, with the Jews filled with perfect faith, Hashem revisits and reaffirms the ברית, His age-old promise to deliver them to their homeland.

On a deeper level, the splitting of the sea can be seen as Hashem’s long-delayed answer to Avraham. At the ברית בין הבתרים, when Hashem promised to grant the Land of Israel to his descendants, Avraham asked “How will I know?” Avraham wanted a miraculous sign, a divine guarantee that the Jews would conquer and live securely in their land. Centuries later, Hashem reenacts the ברית and splits the sea. That act revealed God to be a “Man of War,” prepared to defeat the armies of the Canaanites, and it also fortified the faith of the Jews, a necessary prerequisite for their security in Israel. “The Children of Israel saw... and they believed in Hashem.” קריאת ים סוף is the sign Avraham was asking for and it affirmed the ברית בין הבתרים for all the world to see.

The Tur taught us that Pesach corresponds to Avraham. Said differently, the Exodus was Hashem’s way of picking up on an ancient conversation – and the delay was an essential part of the message. 

When speaking to God you have to deal with the divine clock, but that shouldn't be a problem. If you have faith, you have patience.