Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Making Your Dreams Come True

How Yosef Redeemed Himself, Revised the Future, and Reunified the House of Israel

Originally published in Nitzachon

[A word of warning: readers of the Trail Series will recognize the ideas presented in the introductory paragraphs. However, this essay develops things further, breaking new ground and containing many new insights. If you liked the Trail Series, you will love this piece, and if you like this piece, then you must read the Trail Series - it provides the backstory.]

Although it is the subject matter of nearly half of Sefer Bereishis, the story of Yosef and his brothers rarely receives the scrutiny it requires. Familiarity breeds neglect. All too often, we rely on the superficial reading we learned in elementary school and fail to relearn the formative events of our nation as adults. This article is a limited foray into the many mysteries of Yosef’s life: his dreams, his dream interpretations, and his complicated relationship with his family. Although some points are speculative, our intention is to stir debate and hopefully play a role in bringing these issues back where they belong: at the forefront of our consciousness.
The saga was born of hatred. “His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers and they hated him” (37:4). Exacerbating the situation was the fact that Yosef spoke lashon hara. “He told his father every negative thing that he saw by his brothers the sons of Leah” (Rashi to 37:2). Under these conditions, it is reasonable for the brothers to be upset. However, the intensity of their feelings, the burning jealousy and the hatred, can only be understood in light of family history.
Avraham received extraordinary divine blessings – wealth, power, fame, a country and a dynasty – but not all of his children inherited it. Yishmael was found unworthy and expelled and Yitzchok took all. In the second generation, the same thing happened again. Yitzchok had two sons, Yaakov and Eisav, but Eisav was left empty handed and Yaakov was the sole inheritor. Now we are in the third generation and Yaakov’s sons can take nothing for granted. The big question is on everyone’s mind. Who will get the blessings?
Another worrisome precedent troubles the third generation. When Yitzchok selected his favorite son Eisav, Yaakov took action to prevent the blessings from falling into the wrong hands. He tricked his father and seized the blessings that were rightfully his. The brothers fear history will repeat itself. They suspect that Yaakov will follow in his father’s footsteps and give all the blessings to his favorite son Yosef. And when Yosef speaks lashon hara about them to Yaakov, they naturally suspect that Yosef is walking in his father’s footsteps, attempting to ensure the blessings don’t end up in the hands of an “evil” son.
Yet another piece of family history weighs on the mind of the brothers: that of Yosef’s mother Rachel. Our most influential matriarch, Rachel was a spiritual supergiant; a woman who exemplified selfless caring for others. However, blinded by rivalry, the sons of the other mothers may have had a skewed perspective. Rachel betrayed her fiancé, giving away the secret signs to her sister Leah. And in a bold act of righteous criminality, she stole her father’s treasured teraphim – and lied about it.[1] In short, both of Yosef’s parents are self-confident and forceful personalities, and when they believe something is right, they will do it, even if it comes at someone else’s expense. With genes like these, it is reasonable for the brothers to expect that Yosef will self-righteously seize their birthright. The brothers know that they are worthy and capable of furthering the family’s destiny, and that they need to protect their spiritual future from being usurped by Yosef. This is why they hate him.
And then Yosef has a dream.
The First Dream
Yosef tells his brothers what he saw in his dream.
“We are bundling bundles of grain in the field and my bundle suddenly stands up straight. Your bundles surround it and bow down to my bundle.” (37:7)  
Obviously, telling his brothers about his dream is not going to improve their relationship, but to understand their reaction we must once again turn to family history.
The brothers are undoubtedly struck by the appearance of grain in the dream. Why are the sons of Yaakov in a field harvesting grain? They are shepherds, not farmers! But then the brothers remembered the blessings. Many years earlier, when the time came for grandfather Yitzchok to bless his children, he began with these words: “Hashem will grant you from the dew of the sky and from the fat of the earth, much grain and wine…”
Grain is the first blessing and Yosef is claiming it for himself! The brothers’ suspicions are heightened, but it isn’t until the second dream that their fears are confirmed.
The Second Dream
Yosef has a second dream. He sees the sun, the moon and eleven stars in the sky bowing to him. He shares this dream with his family and the reaction is fierce.
His father yelled at him and said, “What is this dream that you have dreamt? Will we come – I, and your mother and your brothers – to bow down to you to the ground?!” (37:10)
Rashi explains Yaakov’s skepticism.
“Will we come – I, and your mother…? But your mother is already dead!”  He did not realize that it referred to Bilha who raised him like a mother.
Yaakov’s question is a good one, but why is he so upset? Once again, the answer is to be found in the blessings of Yitzchok. Thinking he was talking to Eisav, Yitzchok said, “…You will be master over your brothers and the sons of your mother will bow to you.”
Brother bowing to brother is a central feature of the blessings! As far as the brothers are concerned, the game is up: Yosef clearly sees himself as the sole inheritor and future master of the family. His father’s favorite and a son of both Yaakov and Rachel, nothing will stop Yosef from stealing what is rightfully theirs. Yaakov knows what his sons are thinking and he tries to downplay the dream’s significance, but the damage is already done.
To save themselves and to secure the legacy of Avraham, the brothers take preemptive action and sell Yosef into slavery. The tragedy here is that the brothers’ fears drive them to commit the very crimes they are trying to prevent: throwing a brother out of the family, plundering his share of divine blessings, and lying to a parent. All for the sake of Heaven and all in line with family precedents.
(There is one glitch that cannot escape notice. When Yitzchok spoke of bowing brothers, he referred explicitly to “the sons of your mother.” Yosef’s mother was Rachel, and Benyamin is his only full brother. All the other brothers were born of different mothers. Yosef’s vision of all eleven of his brothers bowing to him does not quite match up with the wording of Yitzchok’s blessing. Yosef and the brothers must have wondered about this.)
Yaakov is upset and the brothers are jealous because they understand what the dreams foretell. Yosef will rule. Yosef will inherit the rights and powers vested in the Abrahamic blessings. Right? Wrong.
It never happens. Yosef never does become king; that role is reserved for the tribe of Yehuda. Nor does Yosef become Kohen; that honor goes to Levi. While it is true that Yosef's two sons are elevated to the status of shevatim, it is difficult to see this as a fulfilment of the dreams or the blessings. Historically, the tribes of Ephraim and Menashe have no leadership role and no greater prominence than any other tribe.
So what became of Yosef's dreams? If the Torah records them, they must be significant. What do they mean?
Bowing Etiquette
When the brothers first arrive in Egypt and stand before Yosef, he accuses them of being spies. 
Yosef recognized his brothers and they did not recognize him. Yosef remembered the dreams he dreamt about them and he said, "You are spies! You have come to find the land's weakness." (42:8-9)
With this false accusation Yosef begins his long torment of the family, which includes the imprisonment of Shimon, months of anxiety for Yaakov, and the framing of Benyamin. What exactly is Yosef doing? Even if it were possible to suspect Yosef HaTzaddik of engaging in revenge, that untenable suggestion is refuted by Yosef's repeated emotional breakdowns. Revenge is sweet, not painful.
According to the Ramban, Yosef was busy making his dreams come true.
When Yosef saw his brothers bowing to him, he remembered all of the dreams he dreamt about them and he realized that neither of them was fulfilled with this [bowing] event. For he knew their interpretation. First, all his brothers would bow to him. This comes from the first dream, "we were bundling bundles of grain" (37:7), "we" means all of his eleven brothers. And the second time, in the second dream, the sun, moon and eleven stars bow to him. Since Yosef did not see Benyamin with them, he came up with this strategy of accusing them [of being spies] so that they would also bring his brother Benyamin to him in order to fulfill the first dream first.
This is why he didn't want to tell them [now] "I am Yosef your brother" ... as he does on the second time [they come to Egypt]. For [if he would reveal his identity now], his father would certainly come immediately [and the first dream would not be fulfilled independently]. Only after the first dream is fulfilled does he tell them to fulfill the second dream.
Absent this [explanation], Yosef would be committing a terrible crime to put his father through pain, making him bereft and in mourning for so many days over [the imprisonment of] Shimon and over [the disappearance of Yosef] himself. Even if he wanted to make his brothers suffer a little, how could he not have compassion on his father? But [the truth is that Yosef] did everything at the right time in order to make the dreams come true.   
As brilliant as it is, the Ramban's approach is difficult to accept. Are we to believe that the meaning of Yosef's dreams is the mechanical bowing of his brothers and his father, in a specific order? What is the significance of that? More disturbing is the idea that Yosef is making his father suffer in the pursuit of a personal agenda. Since when did making your dreams come true become a Mitzvah?  
The Dream Interpreter
The Talmud (Berachos 55b) teaches that dreams are flexible. Dreams have multiple valid possibilities and they materialize however they are interpreted.[2] This gives dream interpreters a remarkable degree of power and Yosef was dream interpreter par excellence.
The truth of this reality is indicated by Yosef's own words to the royal butler:
"For if you remember me, just as I have been good to you, you should please do me a favor and mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this [prison] house!" (40:14).
To ask for the pardon of a man convicted of attempted rape, a foreigner and a slave no less, is no small request, and a newly freed prisoner in no position to ask for favors. Yosef knows he is asking a lot and he tells the butler to do it "just as I have been good to you." What did Yosef do for the butler? All Yosef did was explain his dream and in return for that Yosef asks the butler to request a pardon from the king?! The answer is that dreams follow their interpretation. Yosef didn't just explain a dream; he saved the butler's life, and now he rightly asks the butler to do the same for him.
Cognizant of the power of dream interpreters, my father, Rabbi Noam Gordon, explained our difficult Ramban.  
Of course the plain meaning of Yosef's dreams is that he will be king, but Yosef does not want to be king. He does not want to usurp his brothers’ role and the very idea has torn the family apart. As a dream interpreter, Yosef has the power to grab a dream by the horns and direct it as he wishes. Exercising this ability, Yosef decides to defuse his dreams by interpreting them literally. His brothers will merely bow down to him and that will be the end of it. Once that is accomplished, Yosef can reveal his identity and the brothers will have nothing to worry about. The dreams will be gone.
Now we understand why Yosef put his family through this ordeal. It was the only way to get rid of the dreams. As the Ramban wrote, had Yosef revealed his identity right away, Yaakov would have come straight down to Egypt together with Benyamin and the option of interpreting the dreams literally would have been closed.   
It is a marvelous explanation, but taking things one step further, we end up with a disturbing result. Aside from his own dreams, Yosef also interprets the dreams of Pharaoh’s baker and butler. If dreams follow their interpretation, then Yosef is responsible not only for saving the butler’s life, but also for the death of the baker. Surely Yosef could have come up with an alternative interpretation! Who gave Yosef the right to kill a man?  
Disturbing as it is, this question pales in comparison with the one posed by next episode in Yosef’s career. When the king of Egypt dreams of stalks eating stalks and cows eating cows, Yosef is taken out of the dungeon to explain it. Yosef insists that it is all God’s doing – “It is not me… God is showing Pharaoh what He is about to do” (41:16,28) – but we know that this is only half the story. Hashem empowered Yosef to make the call.  Yosef is brilliant and creative and he has many options at his disposal, yet he decides to create a horrific famine. Why did Yosef do that?!
A Dream and a Nightmare
Yosef had two dreams. In his first dream, his father is ominously absent. Understandably, Yosef never tells his father about this dream. In Yosef’s second dream, his father is present, powerfully represented by the sun. Another basic difference: In dream number one, Yosef's brothers appear to be his slaves, but in dream number two, they are untouchable and he looks up to them as stars.
Hashem is presenting Yosef with two options. Yosef will be given the opportunity to enslave his brothers, but for that to occur, their father cannot be present.  Alternatively, Yosef can bring his father into the picture as the patriarch of the family, but that requires putting his brothers on a pedestal. It will be for Yosef to choose which vision to bring to life. On a deeper level, Hashem is presenting Yosef with two different versions of himself. Yosef can follow in the footsteps of his father Yaakov and be a Tzaddik or he can be a Rasha like Uncle Eisav. The choice is his.
At the very beginning of our story, Yosef was living at home and speaking lashon hara about his brothers. Which brothers, exactly? According to the way the Ramban translates the pasuk, the Torah is clear:
Yosef was seventeen… despite his youth, he led the sons of Bilha and the sons of Zilpa, his father’s wives, and Yosef spoke negatively about them to his father.”
Why did Yosef speak negatively about Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher? The answer is in the verse. Yosef did not consider them to be his brothers. He did not even consider them to be his father’s sons. They are the “sons of his father's wives." Yosef’s attitude suggests resentment and it undoubtedly has its roots in the early death of his mother Rachel and his strained relationship with her “replacement,” his stepmother Bilha.
When Yaakov reacted to Yosef’s dream, he was correct to focus on the moon, for the moon holds the secret to saving the family. As Rashi explained, the moon tells us that Yosef’s mother is alive and well. Her name is Bilha.
Yosef must make peace with Yaakov’s second marriage to Bilha and he must view himself as Bilha’s son. In so doing, his relationship with Dan and Naftali will be fixed, for he will cease viewing them as “sons of his father’s wife.”
They will be full-fledged brothers, sons of his own father and mother, and he will appreciate their strengths, not publicize their weaknesses. From there Yosef can move on to recognizing all of Yaakov’s wives as matriarchs and accepting all of Yaakov’s sons as brothers. If Yosef does that, the family will be whole. Otherwise, we are left with the nightmare scenario of the first dream.
Years later, Yosef is masquerading as an Egyptian viceroy and his brothers are all assembled before him, helpless and at his mercy. Yaakov is far away in Israel, low on food and anxiously awaiting his sons’ return. The time has come for Yosef to make a choice.
Bursting into tears, he cries out, "I am Yosef!  Is my father still alive?" He then kisses each of his brothers and cries with them (45:3,15).
Yosef is telling his brothers that he rejects the first dream and its dark temptations of revenge and power. What he wants is family. Yosef has chosen dream number two and for that Yaakov must be present, and so Yosef asks, “Is my father still alive?”
Yosef has passed the test and the mystery of Yitzchok’s prophecy is resolved. “Your mother’s sons will bow to you.” By embracing his brothers, Yosef has indeed transformed the sons of his father’s wives into the sons of his own mother. 
Yosef and Avraham
Secrets are buried beneath the surface of dreams and extracting them requires the right tool. Diamonds are mined with explosives. Dreams are mined with questions.
In Yosef’s second dream, he sees the sun, the moon and eleven stars. There is a very obvious problem with this picture. Stars are invisible when the sun is in the sky!
Yosef was not the first man to see stars during the day. Great-grandfather Avraham saw them too, in the midst of the bris bein habesarim.
The words of Hashem came to Avraham in a vision… He brought him outside and He said, “Look now at the sky and count the stars, if you can count them.” And He said, “So will be your descendants.” …The sun began to set… (15:1,5,17)
If the sun first sets at the end of the prophecy, then it must have been in the sky when Avraham was stargazing. How is this possible?[3] After acknowledging that the plain meaning of the text is that Hashem literally brought Avraham outside of his tent to view the stars, Rashi quotes a Midrash that reads the verse allegorically. Hashem said to Avraham, “Breakout from your destiny! You saw in the stars that you would not have a son. Avram has no son, but Avraham does have a son.” Rashi then cites another Midrash. “[Hashem] took him outside of the universe and lifted him up above the stars…” From that perspective, the sun can certainly be seen together with all the other stars.
Stars represent the forces of nature. Divine providence flows through the zodiacal constellations (mazalos),[4] particularly through the constellation in which the sun is currently located (cf. Rosh Hashanah 11b). When Hashem told Avraham to look at the stars during the day, He was directing Avraham’s attention to that month’s mazal. Hashem then said, “So will be your descendants!” In other words, divine providence and blessings will flow into the world through the Jewish People just as they flow through the mazalos. Hashem essentially said the same thing to Avraham years earlier. “Through you will be blessed all the families of the earth” (Bereishis 12:3). This is why the Jewish People have no mazal; they are themselves a mazal.[5] 
Seeing stars by day also represents the extrasensory ability to recognize invisible forces at play in our daily lives. “So will be your descendants.” This is the quality of the Jew. He knows there is a God who runs the world. He knows there is more to life than what meets the eye.
Yosef’s dream matches Avraham’s vision. Like Avraham, Yosef was given the gift of seeing stars by day. It follows that Yosef is the spiritual successor of Avraham, heir to the bris bein habesarim. This may mean that Yosef exists outside of the laws of nature and is not bound by destiny. It may mean that Yosef will be a conduit of blessing and provide sustenance for the entire world. Or it may mean that Yosef will always be cognizant of Hashem’s presence and providence. We cannot be certain of the meaning of the dream, but we do know that all of these things turn out to be true in the life of Yosef.[6]
In the ancient world, pagan man worshiped the heavenly bodies. In Yosef’s dream the scene is reversed; the sun, the moon and the stars bow before man.  This is a fundamental teaching of the Torah: The center of creation is Man. The message of the mazalos bowing to Yosef is that he has the power and the mandate to transcend natural law and bend the world – and his dreams – to his will.[7]
The Seed of Yosef
The divine promise Avraham received under the stars is being channeled now through Yosef. That promise was encapsulated by the words, ko yihiyeh zarecha, “so will be your descendants.” Yosef’s zera will be as uncountable as the stars.
What if Yosef does not want this blessing? What if he wants to share it with his eleven brothers? Is there any way out?
Yosef has a plan. Usually translated as descendants, zaracha literally means “your seeds.” Aside from the zera of Avraham, there is one other thing in Sefer Bereishis which is described as uncountable: the surplus of seeds produced by Yosef. “Yosef amassed produce as numerous as the sand of the sea, until they ceased counting, for it was without number” (41:49).[8]  Yosef the Dream Interpreter has manipulated the meaning of zera!  Redirecting the blessing from children to food, Yosef simultaneously saves mankind from starvation and secures the legacy of Avraham for all of Yaakov’s sons.
Where did Yosef get the right to intervene in Hashem’s plans? Why didn’t Yosef submit to the plain meaning of the blessings and the dreams? Who gave Yosef a license to kill the royal baker and create a world-wide famine? The answer is his own dreams! Yosef’s dreams taught him that he has been vested with the responsibility and the power to unify the family of Yaakov and nothing in the universe is more important. Killing the baker and saving the butler cemented Yosef’s reputation as an effective dream interpreter and ultimately got him out of prison, and the famine is what put Yosef in power and brought his brothers down to Egypt. Man and Nature must bow and collude with Yosef to make his dreams come true, collateral damage notwithstanding.
The Eisav that Wasn’t
Sefer Bereishis ends with a heart-wrenching episode.
The brothers saw that their father died and they said, "Maybe Yosef hates us and will repay us for all the evil we did to him!" They sent a message to Yosef. “Before his death, your father instructed as follows, ‘Tell Yosef to please forgive now the crime of your brothers…’” Yosef cried as they spoke to him. His brothers then went and prostrated themselves before him and said, "We are your slaves."
Yosef said, "Do not be afraid. Am I in place of God? You thought evil of me; Hashem arranged it for the good in order to bring about what we have today: the sustenance of a great nation. Now, do not be afraid! I will support you and your children." He consoled them and spoke to their hearts. (50:15-22)
Yosef's response is strange. They "thought evil” of him?! They did evil to him! And why is Yosef committing to support his brothers? They came pleading for their lives, not asking for a handout. 
The answer is that the brothers are not afraid of revenge; they are afraid of Yosef’s dream. Their offer to become Yosef's slaves was not driven by guilt for enslaving him – Yosef forgave them for that already (cf. 45:5). Rather, unaware that the dreams had already been neutralized, the brothers are acting in accordance with their understanding of Yosef's first dream. As long as Yaakov was alive, the second dream was in play and the brothers were as safe as the stars in the sky. But now Yaakov is gone. The brothers "saw that their father had died.” The second dream had run its course and now the time has come for the first dream to materialize. And so the brothers prostrate themselves before Yosef and declare, "We are your slaves!"
What is Yosef's response? 
"You thought evil of me." You think I wish to strip you of your blessings? You accuse me of fantasizing of a dystopia where I am dictator and you are my slaves? You suspect me of being Eisav reincarnate? You think I am evil?
"Yes, I had that option and I rejected it. You forget that I do not only dream; I also interpret dreams. My first dream, the vision of your bundles bowing to mine – it is not what you think! I do not see enslavement, I see food distribution, and you are bowing in gratitude. Due to my intervention, Hashem turned my dream into an engine for good, to sustain a great nation. My dream does not mean that I shall enslave you; it means I will support you!"
In the end, the brothers were justified in their fears that Yosef would be a “thief” like his mother and a “trickster” like his father. Rachel had the right and the ability to claim the blessing of Yaakov all for herself, but she gave it up for her sister. Yosef also had the right and the ability to claim the family blessings for himself, but like his mother, he gave it up for his brothers. Yaakov had to pose as his evil twin and deceive his father in order to prevent the blessings from falling into the hands of his brother. Yosef also had to pose as his evil alter ego, in the form of a vicious viceroy, and deceive his father in order to prevent the blessings from falling into the hands of his twin, the other Yosef. Like his mother and like his father, Yosef is a holy thief. Yosef the Tzaddik stole the blessings from Yosef the Rasha.
This gives us a new understanding of Yosef’s emotional outburst. “I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?” After all the years separated from family and living in the fleshpot of Egypt, Yosef is grappling with his own identity. Like Yaakov and Eisav in the womb of Rivka, the two Yosefs are engaged in a struggle for supremacy and the future of the Jewish People hangs in the balance. Yosef cries out in amazement, “I am Yosef! Does the Yaakov within me still live?!” With that question, Yosef provided the answer.       
As we read Sefer Bereishis, we watch Yosef grow from a self-centered child damaged by his mother’s death to a man who courageously exercises supernatural powers and lovingly embraces the brothers who tried to destroy him. Emasculating his dreams, Yosef sacrificed the promise of eternal royalty on the altar of family unity. Millennia later, will still bow before the man whose leadership, wisdom and selflessness healed the family and set the stage for the birth of the Chosen Nation.

[If you liked this piece, I recommend reading the Trail Series from the beginning for the full backstory. For a strikingly parallel interpretation of Pharaoh's dreams, read this post.]

[1] What the brothers thought of Rachel can be seen by their reaction when Benyamin is caught red-handed with Yosef’s goblet in his pack. The brothers jeer at him, “Thief, son of a thief! You are an embarrassment! You are truly the son of your mother. Your mother embarrassed our father in just the same way.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Miketz 10)
[2] The Gemara learns this from none other than Yosef himself, as the Royal Butler told Pharaoh, “Just as he interpreted [our dreams] for us, so it was” (41:13). Of course, it is not a free-for-all. Dreams will only materialize as interpreted if the interpreter is qualified and the interpretation is valid. According to Tosefos (ad loc. s.v. posrei chalomos) the mazal of a person at the time of his birth determines his ability to interpret dreams.
[3] Due to the force of this question, the Rashbam posits that despite the clear flow of the text, these events did not all occur at the same time (cf. Berachos 7b, Tosafos s.v. lo haya).
[4] “Every single blade of grass has a mazal in the firmament which hits it and says, ‘grow!’” (Bereishis Rabba 10). For more on mazalos, see Derech Hashem 2:7 and Nefesh HaChaim 3:10.
[5]Ein mazal l’yisroel” (Shabbos 156a). See, however, Rashi and Tosfos (ad loc.) who qualify this statement.
[6] Seeing stars by day is also a sign of tragedy (cf. Moed Koton 25b), another thing Yosef’s life did not lack.
[7] Every individual is obligated to say, “The world was created for me” (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5). “I rule over man. Who rules over Me? The Tzaddik, for I pass a decree and he annuls it” (Moed Koton 16b). “This is one of the conditions that Hashem set upon all the acts of creation: they are subjugated to the Torah and to those who labor [in Torah]. [The creation] must perform whatever they decree on it and their rule over it is akin to the rule of the Creator, may He be blessed. This is why you will find individual Tzaddikim who control the heavens, the earth, the stars, the sun and the moon” (Ohr HaChaim, Shemos 14:27, s.v. l’eisano). For a description of how the human neshama was designed to influence and control all the forces of the created universe, see Nefesh HaChaim 1:5-7. For the idea that a person immersed in Torah transcends the mazalos, see Nefesh HaChaim 4:18.
[8] The produce amassed by Yosef is called zera in 47:19, 47:23 and 47:24. 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

On the Trail of Blessings: Yitzchok's Wisdom, Eisav's Appetite & Yaakov's Mission

Occasionally old posts get refined and sometimes a post develops and grows to the point that warrants a reposting. Rare indeed is when it happens at just the right time. This week's parsha, in fact. (The new paragraphs follow the quote from Rav Hirsch.)

[This is the second installment in the series. It can be read independently or, for maximum reading pleasure, begin the Trail here.]

Yitzchok was no fool. His desire to bless Eisav was not driven by blind love for his son but by a compelling vision for Israel: Yaakov would be master of spirituality and Eisav would be master of physicality.

Do not misunderstand - Yitzchok has only the highest regard for Eisav. In Yitzchok's plan, Eisav has the awesome responsibility of sanctifying this world by harnessing it for the Creator's purposes. This is why Yitzchok tells Eisav to serve him a meal before he blesses him; it is Eisav's job to dedicate the physical in support of the Tzaddik - and it is only in this merit that he gets the Beracha.
Yitzchok wanted to bless Eisav in the spirit of his future calling...
The savage craft of hunting must be elevated and used for exalted humane purposes. For it seems that Eisav did not usually hunt in order to provide a nourishing meal for his aged, feeble father. He enjoyed hunting for its own sake, for the sight of the steaming blood of his prey...
Yitzchok therefore tells Eisav: "Please take your gear, hunt some game for me, and prepare a tasty dish for me" (27:4). You yourself, this time, use the tools of your trade to perform an act of kindness...
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch
Expanding on Rav Hirsch's insight, we can say that before granting Eisav his mandate, Yitzchok wants to see him perform. Yitzchok understands Eisav and he is training him in the appropriate use of his God-given gifts. 

Avraham and Yitzchok were not hunters; they were shepherds. For this family descended from Noah, the love and care of animals was a central tenet, as evidenced by Eliezer's test of Rivka. Coming from this tradition, we would expect Yitzchok to abhor Eisav's sport of choice, but Yitzchok is bigger than that. He does not attempt to quash Eisav's native talent; on the contrary, he embraces it and encourages his son to pursue it. On one condition: it must be elevated.     

Eisav was born to hunt and this defines his mission: to conquer the animal - both the external prey and the internal drive - and dedicate it for a higher purpose. In this way, unbridled physicality is tamed, sanctified and elevated. Eisav is thus privileged to play the central role in the ultimate purpose of creation: bringing down the divine presence and its accompanying blessings into our physical world. 

Yitzchok's directive to Eisav carries a deeper meaning. It is the birthright of the firstborn to serve as Kohen and offer sacrifices (cf. Rashi to 25:31,32). On its most basic level, animal sacrifice is the elevation of the animal soul before God, כי הדם הוא הנפש. In order for this to be accomplished, it is critical that the Kohen has the right intentions. If the Kohen has his own personal agenda in mind - for example, if he plans to eat the meat at the time and place of his own choosing - the offering is rendered invalid, פיגול הוא לא ירצה. 

The fundamental principle of sacrifice is thus the total subjugation and dedication of life itself to God - קודש להשם. The physical act is the easy part; the real challenge occurs within the human mind. This is what Yitzchok was telling Eisav: "In order for you to succeed in the offering of sacrifices, you must first learn to transcend your self. Let's try a practice run. Use your hunting talent selflessly. Do it for me and follow my instructions precisely. If you pass this test, you will qualify to be a Kohen."

Eisav failed. He does deliver game to his father, but he can't get his mind under control. Yitzchok instructed Eisav, "Capture for me" (27:3), i.e., be sure to find an ownerless animal and don't steal one (Rashi). However, Eisav heads out "to bring it" (27:5) - he said to himself, "If I don't find an animal on the hunt, I will steal one" (Rashi). Eisav will not submit to his father's instructions. Success must be achieved, by hook or by crook. Eisav's mind is warped and wrapped into itself and instead of sacrifice he is only willing to serve his own interests. Eisav will never be Kohen. (See Kli Yakar 27:3.)  


Understanding Eisav's mandate to transcend himself and do for others allows us to reconcile Yitzchok's blessing with the prophecy that Rivkah received before the boys were born:
ויתרצצו הבנים בקרבה ותאמר אם כן למה זה אנכי ותלך לדרש את יקוק
ויאמר יקוק לה שני גיים גוים בבטנך ושני לאמים ממעיך יפרדו ולאם מלאם יאמץ ורב יעבד צעיר
...and the elder will serve the younger.
Assuming Yitzchok knew this, how could he attempt to bless Eisav (27:29) הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ? The Ramban (27:4) concludes that Rivka never told him, but in light of the above, there is no contradiction here. Yes, Yitzchok foretells that Eisav will be more powerful than his brother; he even says that Yaakov will bow to him. But the elder will still serve the younger, for this is Eisav's role - to support his younger brother, the Tzaddik. Yaakov bows before Eisav not in servitude but in recognition of Eisav as the גביר - the source of his support!

Since selfless giving is Eisav's mandate, he is uniquely challenged in this regard - "blessed" with  impulsiveness, self-centeredness and the need for instant gratification (cf. Vilna Gaon on Rus; Reb Tzadok, cited in Ali Shor). He trades his birthright for a bowl of soup and is prepared to kill his brother in an act of vengeance. He was a rapist and a murderer (Baba Basra 16b). Most tellingly, Eisav strove towards paganism from the womb (Rashi to 25:22). Paganism is equated with hedonism - "the Jews knew that paganism had no substance; they only worshiped it in order to permit for themselves sexual immorality in public!" (Sanhedrin 63b) - but in Eisav's case it ran deeper than that. He pursued paganism before he was born!

A prenatal interest in sin would seem to contradict the Talmudic teaching that the evil inclination enters man only after birth (Sanhedrin 91a), but Eisav is different. For Eisav, paganism and its accompanying hedonism was no ordinary "Yetzer HaRa." Eisav's paganism was not ideological, nor was it "sinful" in the usual sense of the word, for man has no evil inclination before he is born. Rather, Eisav had a natural affinity for paganism (Gur Aryeh to 25:22). Eisav was predispositioned to be attracted to the forces of nature and obsessed with power because Eisav's life-mission is to subdue, transcend and channel his physicality, sanctifying it to the One God. If subjugating nature is your mission, God isn't going to make it easy.

Eisav failed. Instead of controlling himself, he indulges in all things physical. In the end, his head is buried in the Machpela Cave, but his body is not (Sotah 13a). His head was in the right place; the problem was his body, the negative drives he could never get under control.

In contrast, Yaakov's primary mission addresses not his body, but his mind and heart. Yaakov must elevate himself in the tents of Torah, and God therefore challenges him not with an appetite for hedonism, but with ethical dilemmas, crises and tragedy: 
  • Can he "steal" the birthright and blessings from his older brother? 
  • Should he honor his mother and delude his father? 
  • May he outwit his father-in-law Lavan? 
  • How will he deal with Dina's rape, Rachel's death and Yosef's disappearance? 
  • According to the Rambam, Yaakov's struggle with the angel was fought on the battlefield of the mind, in a prophetic state. 
  • Even Yaakov's assertion that he took Shechem with his "sword and bow" is an allegory for his prayers and supplications (cf. Targum and Rashi to 48:22). 
For Yaakov the issue is not battling a Yetzer HaRa but exercising his Yetzer Tov. Is his faith strong enough to weather a life of aggravation? This is why Yaakov placed stones around his head when he slept (28:11). He is not worried about his body; if a problem were to arise it would be a challenge to his head.

It is as Yitzchok said: "The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Eisav" (27:22). Yaakov perfects the universe of thought and Eisav perfects the physical universe. If Eisav cooperates, that is.

[Continue the Trail with part-three here.]

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Making It Real

Click on the link below to hear the pre-Rosh Hashana shiur delivered today at the offices of Gerber & Co. in Century City, CA. Once again we are indebted to our dear friend Mr. Selwyn Gerber for hosting.

זה היום תחילת מעשיך:  Making It Real

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Shabbos Tisha B'Av

Click here to listen to a talk delivered last night in "The Shul on the Beach" in Venice, CA. A special thank you goes to Joni Ziff for organizing the program and to all the wonderful people who attended.

What happens when Tisha B'Av falls out on Shabbos? 
What do we need to do to bring an end to the Galus? 
Listen and find out how the answers to these two questions are related.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Spies

I wrote a short piece on last week's parsha, but since it is built upon the Ramchal's (read Zohar's) explanation of the sin of the spies, I posted it on my other blog.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

G-d Does Not Exist.

From Guest Contributor IshbitzForever

Anochi Hashem Elokechah. 

As we say every morning in the Adon Olam - Beterem Kol Yitzir Nivra - "G-d preceded any and all existence." Logic would argue that it's only after the dimensions of time and space are formed that we can categorize things as either existing or not existing, so G-d can not exist, because G-d proceeded any such categorization and is above it.

So for G-d to declare he exists by stating, "I am Hashem your G-d" is a great and powerful statement. For G-d to say "I am" sets a remarkable precedent and gives us a very, very special key to our Avodath Hashem by granting us permission to approach G-d as an "Anochi" - an existing G-d, a G-d within our existence.

The Sages of the Talmud often attribute human emotions to G-d. G-d is angry, G-d is happy, jealous, forgiving, patient, empathetic and so on. Of course we know G-d is not human, nor does he share our emotions, yet so many times over and over again the sages painted a picture of a G-d using human emotions because in this world G-d allows and wants man to connect with him and we are confined to existence. So G-d "comes down to Sinai and does not raise Sinai to Heaven" (Sotah 5a), and wants us to serve him from our human perspective. 

"I firmly believe" is the cornerstone of the Torah, the Anochi Hashem - G-d taking on this clothing of Anochius. For it is only between two that a relationship can form in this world, and only between two can the oneness of spiritual intimacy be built and attained. Knesses Yisroel and G-d. Outside this world G-d is not one nor is he not one, the number one only applies when there is a two. And to create a connection, two is needed.

In addition, His Anochius is special to the Jewish people - Anochi Hashem Elokechah, only for the sake of the Jewish people and their service does G-d come down and take on the greatest Tzimtzum of Anochius. "I am G-d" - love me, serve me spread my light throughout  the world.

Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad. 

Why are we able to interact and serve Hashem as Elekeinu, as our personal G-d, a G-d within our existence? Because at Mount Sinai he said he is Echad. He allowed us to interact with His Anochius, His Oneness, His Existence in our world.

The Daily Relevance of the Decalogue

Click below to hear last night's shiur about the Aseres HaDibros. A big thank you to Mrs. Michal Aiseman for making it happen and to the Shoff family of Santa Monica for hosting.

The Daily Relevance of the Decalogue

Firewater From Heaven: The Red Sea, the Ten Plagues, and World Peace

Published in Nitzachon, the Adas Torah journal.

One of the great mysteries of the redemption from Egypt is the Splitting of the Red Sea. It may be the premier supernatural event of the Exodus, but it all seems so unnecessary. His country in ruins, Pharaoh had already surrendered. The Jew were on the march to Mount Sinai, laden with the spoils of Egypt and savoring the thrill of freedom. Why ruin the party with more drama?
Make no mistake, Hashem deliberately instigated the pursuit of the Egyptian army.
Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Speak to the Children of Israel. They should go back and encamp… by the sea. Pharaoh will say the Children of Israel are wandering about the land; the desert has closed them off! I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will pursue after them. I will then be honored through Pharaoh and his entire army, and Egypt will know that I am God. (Shemos 14:1-4)
Had Hashem not told the Jews to go back and camp by the sea, had Hashem not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, he never would have taken chase. The Splitting of the Sea thus holds the strange distinction of being the greatest miracle we didn’t need. Couldn’t we just leave Egypt in peace? Why split the sea?[1]

Right vs. Left
After the tenth plague, Moshe presents the mitzvah of tefillin and repeatedly relates it to yetzias mitzrayim:
Moshe said to the nation, “Remember this day that you departed from Egypt, from the house of slaves. For with a strong hand, bechozek yad, Hashem took you out…
“It will be for you a sign on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes… for with a strong hand, b’yad chazaka, Hashem took you out from Egypt…
“It shall be a sign on your hand and totafos between your eyes, for with a strong hand, b’chozek yad, Hashem took you out of Egypt.” (Shemos 13:3,9,16)
If tefillin is supposed to remind us that Hashem took us out with a “strong hand,” why do we wear it on the left arm, typically the weaker of the two?[2]  The surprising answer is that Hashem’s “strong hand” is actually His left! The Ohr HaChaim, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (d. 1743), explains:
We need to understand why Hashem didn’t choose the superior right hand for the performance of this mitzvah. Our rabbis have said it is because the [left arm] is adjacent to the heart which is on the left side.[3] What they said is true, but I believe I can [also] offer a good reason based on the Torah’s own explanation, “for with a strong hand [Hashem took you out of Egypt].” You should know that the attributes of the Almighty, He should be blessed, have two dimensions; one is called yad hagedola, the “great hand,” and the other is called yad hachazaka, the “strong hand.” “The great hand” is the quality of chesed and goodness, and the “strong hand” is the gevurah, the divine might, that makes evildoers pay for their crimes. Now, at the time of the Exodus, Hashem reached out with His “strong hand” and struck His enemies with ten plagues. This is why the Almighty ruled that tefillin… should be placed on our weaker hand which is symbolic of the “strong hand” that took us out of Egypt.
We can better understand this teaching of the Ohr HaChaim by quoting what he writes elsewhere:
Know that there is a divine attribute of chesed, kindness. To help humans understand it, it is called the “right hand”[4] and the “great hand.” The divine attribute of gevurah and din, might and justice, is called the “left hand”[5] and also the “strong hand.”[6]
To summarize. As an infinite being, Hashem obviously lacks a body and has no hands. The Torah’s references to divine body parts are just metaphors[7] to help us understand how Hashem relates to people: His “strong hand” refers to His judgement, and His “great hand” refers to His kindness.  Despite the fact that the strong hand is called “strong,” the great hand of kindness is actually the stronger of the two.[8] The divine “great hand” is thus symbolized by our right and the divine “strong hand” corresponds to our left.[9] This is consonant with the Kabbalistic tradition that “right” is chesed and “left” is din. It follows that since tefillin is meant to recall the judgement of Egypt by the (so-called) “strong hand,” we wear it on our left arm.

Strong vs. Great
On the one hand, the Ohr HaChaim’s contention that “yad hagedola” refers to chesed is consistent with the standard usage of the word gadol.[10] On the other hand, it flies in the face of the single place in Tanach where the expression is actually used. The Torah tells us that after the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea, “the Jews saw hayad hagedola, the great hand, Hashem used in Egypt and the Jews feared Hashem” (Shemos 14:31). The “great hand used in Egypt” is obviously a reference to the Ten Plagues and this is why it elicited a fear response. The “great hand” of the verse is thus not divine kindness, it is divine judgement, and this is exactly how both Rashi and the Ramban explain it.
“The great hand – the great gevurah performed by HaKadosh Baruch Hu” (Rashi ad loc.). “According to the teachings of Kabbalah, the yad hagedola was revealed to them, namely midas hadin, the divine attribute of justice, which Hashem expressed in Egypt” (Ramban ad loc.).
If pshat and Kabbalah are in agreement that the “great hand” is gevurah and din, how can the Ohr HaChaim claim that it is chesed?!
In all fairness, the Ohr Chaim ends his exposition on tefillin with this caveat: “Although we do find that the “great hand” is often used [to refer to justice], this is just the attribute of compassion agreeing with the attribute of justice, but the primary term for justice is the strong hand [not the great hand].” To be frank, his defense is unsatisfying. If the “strong hand” is the primary term for justice, why does the Torah say the Jews saw Hashem’s “great hand” in Egypt? It should say we saw His “strong hand”!
The problem here is not only with the Ohr HaChaim. The fact is, Hashem did take us out with His “strong hand.” Moshe said to the nation, “Remember this day that you departed from Egypt… for with a strong hand Hashem took you out…” (Shemos 13:3). If Hashem used His “strong hand” for the Exodus, why didn’t we see it? Why did we see His “great hand”?

The Ambidextrous Redeemer
After the Sea crashes down on the Egyptian Army and the Jews are saved, they celebrate and express their thanks to Hashem by singing the Song by the Sea. Its lyrics include this anthropomorphism:
Your right hand is decorated with strength; Your right hand smashes the enemy. (Shemos 15:6)
Rashi explains:
“Your right hand… your right hand” – twice. When the Jews fulfill the Will of Hashem, the left becomes right.
“Your right hand is decorated with strength” – to save the Jews, and Your other right hand smashes the enemy (midrash). In my opinion, the very same right hand [that saved the Jews also] smashed the enemy, doing something humanly impossible, performing two tasks with a single hand.
All of Rashi’s comments are in agreement about the basic meaning of this verse. The two stanzas refer to two different acts, the salvation of the Jews and the destruction of the enemy, and both acts were performed by Hashem’s “right hand.”
Now, the idea that Hashem saved the Jews with His right hand is understandable; after all, it was an act of chesed and chesed comes from the right. But how can we say that He destroyed the Egyptians with His right hand? Punishments are always performed by the left!
The midrash tells us that the revelation at the sea was such that even the lowest Jew saw something that the prophet Yechezkel never saw.[11] In what way was splitting the sea a greater revelation than prophecy? How was it a bigger miracle than the Ten Plagues? The answer is that the plagues were indeed miraculous, but they had a single function, to punish the Egyptians. The splitting of the sea, however, had a dual function. At the sea, Hashem saved the Jews with chesed and decimated the enemy with gevurah, and he did both in the very same act. Retribution and redemption occurred simultaneously. This revelation of achdus, Hashem’s unity, was unparalleled by the plagues. Ordinarily, Hashem keeps His unity hidden from man. Although we know it to be true, in our world diversity reigns and the infinite oneness of the Creator is unfathomable.[12] At the sea, however, Hashem revealed His achdus for all to see in a selfless act of love.[13]
Like Creation itself, splitting the sea was not something Hashem had to do – and that is precisely why it was so meaningful. By definition, an act of love is voluntary, and ideally it discloses something personal. Hashem wanted to forge an intimate relationship with the Jewish People and that required a revelation of His essence. This is why He split the sea.
Hashem charged into battle like a man of war, ripping the sea in half and drowning the Egyptians, and He did it all as a gift for the Jewish People. When they saw how much Hashem loves them, they realized that He does not have two different hands at all. The yad hachazaka and the yad hagedola are one and the same; Hashem’s left hand of justice is His right hand of kindness! “The Jews saw the great hand… and the nation feared Hashem and they believed in Hashem” (Shemos 14:31). They feared His justice, they believed in His love, they recognized His unity, and then they began to sing.
Your right hand is adorned with strength;
Your right hand smashed the enemy!

Fire vs. Snow
המשל ופחד עמו, עשה שלום במרומיו.
“Dominion and terror are with Him; He makes peace in His heights” (Iyov 25:2).
“Dominion” – this is [the angel] Michael. “Terror” – this is [the angel] Gavriel.
“He makes peace in His heights” – [In His heights] fire and water mix together and the water does not extinguish the fire. (Rashi)
The two halves of this verse appear unrelated until you read the midrash. “He makes peace in His heights” – Reish Lakish taught, “[The angel] Michael is entirely snow and [the angel] Gabriel is entirely fire,[14] and they stand next to each other without harming each other” (Devarim Rabba 5:12).
Michael is snow? Gavriel is fire?! If not for the assistance of our trusted commentators, the meaning of these strange statements would be over our heads. The Eitz Yosef (Rabbi Chanoch Zundel ben Yosef, d. 1867) explains, “Michael is entirely snow – this means he represents the attribute of compassion, which ‘cools off’ the attribute of justice.[15] Gabriel does the opposite.” Citing multiple sources, The Maharzu (Rabbi Zev Wolf Einhorn, d. 1862) asserts, “Michael… is always chesed and Gavriel is din.” The idea appears in the Zohar. “In every place, Michael is first from the side of chesed” and “Gavriel is from the side of gevurah.”[16] These characteristics fit neatly with what we say in the nighttime Shema, “On my right is Michael and on my left, Gavriel” (Maharzu ad loc.). 
This may all sound like esoterica bordering on the mystical, nonetheless, it is in the gemora. When, due to the many sins of Israel, the time came to destroy Yerushalayim, Hashem ordered Gavriel to “fill his cupped hands with burning coals from between the heavenly cheruvim and throw them upon the city” (Yechezkel 10:2). Instead of taking the coals himself, Gavriel had Michael pick up the coals first (ibid 10:7).
Rabbi Shimon Chasida said, “Had the coals not cooled off [as they passed] from the hands of Michael[17] to the hands of Gavriel, there would be no remnant nor survivor from the enemies of Israel.[18] (Yoma 77a)
To the prophet Yechezkel, the tempering of Hashem’s justice appeared as a vision of the angel Michael cooling off the burning coals of the angel Gavriel. This is a not a vision of God Himself, but of the differentiation and interaction of His attributes, chesed and din, as they make their way down into our world. The roots of divine compassion, high above the angels, cannot be seen by Yechezkel. Unfathomable to the human mind and impossible to depict in a vision, the higher reality is the seamless achdus of Hashem. The unity of left and right may not be visible to the prophets, but it was experienced by all who stood by the Red Sea and they put the revelation to verse. “Your right hand is adorned with strength; Your right hand smashed the enemy!” At the sea, even the lowest Jew saw something Yechezkel never saw.
This is not a minor theological distinction, it is night and day. The midrash is explicit.
Rabbi Eliezer said, “At the sea, a maidservant saw something that Yechezkel and Yeshaya did not see… For the prophets only saw prophetic visions, as the verse states, “The heavens opened and I saw visions of Elokim” (Yechezkel 1:1). Since they saw seraphim and holy chayos on the right and on the left they therefore did not recognize the honor of their creator.[19] However, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu was revealed by the sea, not angel, nor seraph, nor holy chayos appeared with Him, and as a result, the Jews recognized the honor of their creator with the sight of the neshama and the sight of the heart – and it seemed to them as if they saw it with their eyes! Even babes and the nursing young saw the honor of their creator, pointed at Him with their fingers, and said, “This is my God!”[20]
Some Kabbalistic secrets are not so secret. This one appears in the Halachic code of the Tur, in the Laws of Kaddish.
[Then you say] “oseh shalom bimromav,” He who makes peace in His heights. This is a reference to the angels which are fire and water, two opposites, and neither one extinguishes the other. (Tur, Ohr HaChaim 56)
Later in Ohr HaChaim (123), the Tur describes the well-known ritual at the end of Kaddish.
When saying “oseh shalom bimromav,” he turns his face toward the left, and when saying “hu yaaseh shalom” he turns to face toward the right.
This halacha is based on the gemora (Yoma 53b) which adds that since we are facing Hashem when we daven, our left is Hashem’s right and our right is Hashem’s left. After all we have learned, the Maharsha’s comments will not surprise us.
When he says “oseh shalom bimromav” (He who makes peace in His heights) i.e., above where compassion is found, he turns his face to Hashem’s right, and when he says, “hu yaaseh shalom aleinu” (He shall make peace for us) i.e., below, he turns to face towards Hashem’s left which indicates the attribute of justice.
At the end of Kaddish, in a powerful combination of words and movements, we make an appeal for Shalom, for peace. We speak not of the ordinary peace between men, but of the peace and perfection of Heaven. It is a prayer for Hashem’s unity to flow into our world so that the flames of justice will be smothered by the cool waters of His infinite compassion.

The plague of hail did more than knock down trees and kill the fools who remained outdoors. It also damaged the harvest. “The flax and barley were broken, for the barley was ripe and the flax had stalks. But the wheat and spelt were not broken because they were afilos” (ibid 9:31-32). What does afilos mean? It might mean “late.” Wheat and spelt grow later in the season and might have been pliable at the time of the hail. This would explain why they did not crack when struck like the hardened flax and barley. Rashi offers another possibility. “In the midrash (Tanchuma) there are sages who debate this and understand the word afilos to be a contraction of pilei pilaos.[21] [Hashem] performed a wonder of wonders for them that [their wheat and spelt] were not destroyed.”
Every one of the Ten Plagues was a great miracle. Why does the survival of some grain stand out as a “wonder of wonders”? Because it was an act of kindness in the midst of a plague. Here Hashem is hammering the Egyptians with a furious hailstorm and He makes a miracle so they will have food to eat. Judgement and kindness working in tandem is a truly wondrous thing, especially for polytheists who believe in competing gods. The hail was a sign of the Creator, the One God in whom justice and kindness live together in peace.
There is a second example of miraculous coexistence in the plague of hail.    
Moshe stretched out his staff on the heavens and Hashem gave thunder and hail, and fire traveled towards the earth. Hashem rained down hail on the land of Egypt. There was hail and fire flashed inside the hail… (Shemos 9:23-24)
 Hail is ice. How could fire burn inside hail? Rashi explains.
[It was] a miracle inside a miracle; fire and hail combined. Hail is water, but to fulfill the Will of their Master they made peace with each other.
Once again, we are faced with what appears to be a meaningless miracle. Fire and water made peace? What for? Why is Hashem wantonly violating the laws of nature? The answer is that the plague of hail came from a different place, a place beyond nature.
Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Stretch your hand on the heavens and there will be hail on the entire land of Egypt…” (Shemos 9:22)
“On the heavens” – According to the midrash (Aggadah), HaKodosh Baruch Hu raised Moshe above the heavens.” (Rashi ad loc.)
Above the heavens!” In our universe fire and water are incompatible, but the hail was not of our universe. It came from outside, from above the heavens, from a place of pure peace. “Oseh shalom bimromav” (Iyov 25:2). “In the heights there is nothing other than Shalom” (Ramban ad loc.).

The Gift of Plagues
The plagues were not so much about punishment as they were about religious education. As the Ramban explains, the plagues addressed the old problem of paganism.  
From the time paganism arose in society in the days of Enosh, man’s faith in God began to falter. Some denied God’s existence altogether, claiming the world always existed… others denied God’s knowledge of the details [of human behavior]… others conceded His knowledge, but denied His providence, making man like the fish of the sea that are not supervised by God and for whom there is no punishment or reward…
However, when Hashem favors a community (i.e., Egypt) or an individual (i.e., Pharaoh) and performs a wonder for them, altering the world’s ordinary course and its nature, the falsity of all those positions becomes clear to everyone, for the amazing wonder demonstrates that the world has a God who created it; He knows, He supervises and He is omnipotent. (Ramban to Shemos 13:16)
Hashem’s agenda was to convert Pharaoh from polytheism to monotheism, and to that end, He signed Pharaoh up for an introductory course in Jewish theology, otherwise known as the Ten Plagues. For the seventh class, fire and ice are the instructors and the lesson is unity, a unity unlike anything in human experience.[22] As Pharaoh was told explicitly, the hailstorm happened “so that you will know that there is none like Me in all the earth” (Shemos 9:14). On earth there is division and conflict; above there is only peace.
One thing is clear. Hashem wants Pharaoh and the Egyptians to know Him well, and according to the Ramban, it is because He favors them. They may not have received it as such, but the plagues were actually a gift.[23] There is nothing better for the condition of man and society than the knowledge of God.[24]
In light of what we know about the symbols of fire and snow, we can well understand how the wheat survived the hail. The hail was firewater from another world, a revelation of the wondrous coexistence of divine justice and compassion. It destroyed the barley, it protected the wheat, and it served as a sign that Hashem was moving forward with His plan to end paganism and bring peace to earth though the creation of His Chosen People. Of course, skeptics claimed it was meaningless. The wheat was soft and pliable and it survived the hail naturally. They had a point, but such arguments could only be entertained until the Splitting of the Sea.
Viewing the plagues in retrospect from the revelation at the sea, “the Jews saw the yad hagedola, the great hand, that Hashem used in Egypt” (Shemos 14:31). Great hand? We were taken out of Egypt by the yad chazaka, the strong hand, not the great hand! This is true, but after they were saved, the Jews had an epiphany. The yad hachazaka of Egypt and the yad hagedola of the sea are one and the same! There was miraculous chesed concealed within the terrible plagues – concern and caring for the welfare of both Jew and Egyptian. Hashem’s justice and compassion, punishment and kindness, destruction and creation, the left and the right, it is all one. This is the greatest wonder of all.
May the One who makes peace in His heights make peace for us and for all of Israel, and say: Amen!

[1] Classical commentators have addressed this question. See, for example, Ohr HaChaim 3:18 (end).
[2] The halacha that tefillin is worn on the left arm is derived from the Torah’s use of the word ידכה (Shemos 13:16), a conjunction of יד כהה, the weaker hand, which is the left (Menachos 37a).
[3] Menachos 37a; cf. Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 4:2.
[4] “Every turn you make should only be towards the right…” (Yoma 15a).
[5] “Is there “left” above [in heaven]? Rather, there are those [angels] who “go right,” i.e., argue in favor [of the accused in the heavenly court] and there are those who “go left,” arguing to prosecute” (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemos 8). “A person should always push away with the left and draw in close with the right” (Ruth Rabba 2:16).
[6] Chefetz Hashem to Shabbos 89a. Cited by the “Yismach Moshe” commentary on the Ohr HaChaim (Korngot, 2009).
[7] Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:8-9
[8] “Which divine attribute is greater, the attribute of goodness or the attribute of punishment? It should be said that the attribute of goodness is greater than the attribute of punishment…” (Yoma 76a). “The attribute of goodness is five hundred times stronger than the attribute of punishment” (Tosefta Sotah 3:4).
[9] Man was created “b’tzelem Elokim.” Although Hashem is infinite, incorporeal and unknowable to a physical being, man was designed in a way that enables him to have some insight into divine providence. For example, the statement that Hashem’s “eyes are always on the land of Israel” (Devarim 11:12) only has meaning to beings with eyes, and only someone who has experienced love can appreciate what it means when Hashem says, “I love you” (Malachi 1:2). The use of the left hand as a symbol of divine justice may thus allude to the fact that Hashem prefers not to use it. “I do not desire the death of the wicked one, but rather the return of the wicked one from his ways so that he will live!” (Yechezkel 33:11). Nonetheless, we would do well to remember that ultimately “the human mind is incapable of fathoming or investigating the true reality [of Hashem]” (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:9).
[10]Ha’el hagadol.” “Ha’el is the creator, and He is the gadol with chesed” (Rabbenu Bechaya to Devarim 10:17). The Jewish Nation praying to “Elohei Avraham,” the God of the man of chesed, is thus a fulfilment of Hashem’s promise to make Avraham into a גוי גדול (cf. Pesachim 117b). “לך ה' הגדולה” (Divrei HaYomim I 29:11) refers to the acts of creation (Berachos 58a). The Maharsha explains, “gedulah is the attribute of chesed, and with this attribute the acts of creation came to be, as the verse states, “עולם חסד יבנה” (Tehillin 89:3).”
[11] Yalkut Beshalach 244; cf. Rashi to Shemos 15:2.
[12] See Nefesh HaChaim 3:4-6.
[13] Chesed and din working in unison appears to be the central theme of the Song by the Sea. Examples abound. “The strength and vengeance of our God was our salvation” (Rashi’s translation of 15:2; see also Kli Yakar ad loc. and Ramban, s.v. zeh eli v’anveihu). “Hashem is a man of war; Hashem is His name” (15:3) – “The midas harachamim also waged war… at the very same time that Hashem waged war against the Egyptians He related to the Jews with midas harachamim” (Ohr HaChaim; cf. Seforno ad loc.). “With the wind of Your nostrils the waters piled up…” (15:8) – “This is the wonder: with the midas hadin He saved the Jews and with the midas harachamim he drowned the Egyptians!” (Chasam Sofer al HaTorah). “You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed [the enemy]. With Your kindness You guided us – You redeemed this nation!” (15:12-13). The unity of the event allows us to understand why Miriam only thanked Hashem for destroying the Egyptians (15:21) and did not even feel it necessary to mention the salvation of the Jews.
[14] Gavriel said… “I am the officer of fire” (Pesachim 118a). “There is a fire that overrides fire: [the fire] of Gavriel” (Yoma 21b).
[15] “Originally, they tied the red string on the inside of the door of the [Temple] Hall. When the goat reached the desert, [the string] turned white, as the verse states, ‘If your sins are red, they will be whitened like snow’ (Yeshaya 1:18)” (Yoma 67a).
[16] Zohar, Vayechi 235b and Tikkunei Zohar 455, 89a. For a plethora of Zoharic sources about the competing natures of Gavriel and Michael, see Margolis, Malachei Elyon, 24-31; 116-121.
[17] The Vilna Talmud has “cheruv,” following the verse in Yechezkel, but a shoulder note cites “Michael” as an alternative from the Ein Yaakov.
[18] When saying something negative about the Jewish People, the sages commonly use the euphemism “enemies of Israel.”
[19] לא היו מכירין כבוד יוצרם. [Sic!]
[20] Midrash Seichel Tov (Buber), Shemos 15.
[21] אפילות=פלאי פלאות
[22] “There is no other unity in the universe like the unity [of Hashem]” (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 1:70). 
[23] “We know the truth that HaKadosh Baruch Hu only wants to bestow goodness. He loves his creations like a father loves his son, but because of this love it is appropriate that a father discipline his son for his own good in the end, as the verse states, ‘Just like a man disciplines his son, so does Hashem your God discipline you’ (Devarim 8:5)” (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Derech Hashem 2:8:1). 
[24] According to the Rambam, when Dovid HaMelech said “Being close to Hashem is good for me” (Tehillim 73:28) the closeness he speaks of refers to “knowledge, i.e., the intellectual comprehension [of Hashem], not physical proximity” (Moreh Nevuchim 1:18). In short, knowledge of Hashem is good for mankind (cf. The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology, Vol. I, pg. 216). Further evidence of Hashem’s interest in the fate Egyptians can be deduced from His dismay at their failure. After the Egyptian army is destroyed, the angels in heaven began to sing. Hashem rebuked them, “The creations of My hands are drowning in the sea and you are singing songs?!” (Yalkut Beshalach 233).