Thursday, January 19, 2017

Give Love, Get Love: Why Moshe Was Chosen

Only thirty-two verses into the Book of Shemos and the Jewish People are already enslaved and oppressed, Pharaoh is engaged in genocide, and the young Moshe is comfortably ensconced in the royal palace. 

"And it happened in those days that Moshe grew up. He went out to his brethren, וירא בסבלותם, and he saw their burdens..." (2:11). 

Rashi explains. "He saw their burdens: נתן עיניו ולבו להיות מיצר עליהם. Translated literally, "He set his eyes and heart to be distressed about them." In plain English, Moshe invested the necessary effort to feel their pain. Although the phrase "he saw their burdens" is ambiguous, the introductory words "he went out to his brethren" indicates that Moshe was not a gawker or a journalist. Moshe cared about the Jews and related to them as a brother.

The depth of Moshe's empathy is described by the Midrash (Shemos Rabba 1:27).
"He saw their burdens" - What does "he saw" mean? [Moshe] saw their burdens and he cried. He said, "I feel your pain. I wish I could die for you! There is no labor more difficult than working with cement." He shouldered [their burdens] and helped everyone.
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi HaGalilee said, [Moshe] saw the burden of adults on children and the burden of children on adults, the burden of men on women and the burden of women on men, the burden of the elderly on the young and the burden of the young on the elderly. Abandoning his rank, he went and lightened their burdens. [He did it all] acting as if he was assisting Pharaoh.
God said, "You abandoned your own business and went to see the pain of the Jews and you treated them like brothers, I too will abandon the upper and lower realms and I will speak with you." This is what the verse states [by the burning bush]: "Hashem saw that he turned to look" (3:4), i.e., God saw that Moshe turned away from his own business to see their burdens, that is why "God called to him from within the bush..." (ibid). 
It was not the arrogance of noblesse oblige that motivated Moshe's charitable activities, nor feelings of guilt for his privileged position. Moshe was driven by a simple and pure love for his fellow Jews, his "brethren." However, the Midrash makes it clear that the selection of Moshe was not due to his love for the Jews or even for attempting to alleviate their suffering. Moshe was chosen specifically because he abandoned his rank and went down into the trenches. This elicited a matching divine response: "I too will abandon the upper and lower realms and I will speak with you." 

The Good Kapos

To help oversee the massive slave population, the Egyptians appointed Jews to serve as taskmasters, similar to the system of Kapos implemented millennia later by the Nazis. When Pharaoh gave the order to cease providing straw for bricks, it became the responsibility of the Jewish taskmasters to enforce the quota. Jews scoured the countryside in search of straw, but they came up short. 
The Jewish taskmasters appointed by Pharaoh's supervisors were beaten... The Jewish taskmasters went and cried to Pharaoh, "Why have you done this to your servants? Your servants are not provided with straw and we are told to make bricks?! Your servants were beaten! It is a national injustice!" [Pharaoh] replied, "You are lazy! Lazy! That is why you say let us go bring offerings to Hashem..."  
Rashi quotes a Midrash: 
The taskmasters were Jewish and they took pity on their fellow [Jews] and would not pressure them. When they supplied the bricks to the Egyptian supervisors and the total was lacking, they beat them for not pushing the workers [to complete the quota]. The Jewish taskmasters were therefore rewarded [years later] by [being appointed to] the Sanhedrin, the High Court.   
To qualify for the Sanhedrin, a great legal mind is insufficient. Hashem wants justices of great compassion; men willing to take a beating for their fellow Jew. (Compassion is actually a legislated Halachic requirement for a judge, cf. Hilchos Sanhedrin 2:3.) 

However, there is another point here. The taskmasters bravely challenged Pharaoh and declared, וחטאת עמך - "It is a national injustice!" Those who stood up against the tyrannical decrees of the Egyptian State are the ones selected to serve on the High Court in the future Jewish State. Hashem directs the flow of His Torah, His Halacha, and His Justice into the world through individuals who sacrificed for justice. Once again, we find the courageous acts of the righteous eliciting a matching divine response.

I Will Be What I Will Be

At the burning bush, Moshe asks Hashem what he should tell the people when they ask for God's name. Hashem responds, "I will be what I will be" (3:14). The answer is a riddle and the Ramban quotes a Midrash to explain it. "Just as you will be with Me, so will I be with you. If they open their hands and act charitably, then I too will open My hand... and if they don't open their hands..." 

Hashem is saying that He relates to the Jews "measure for measure." If the Jews practice caring and kindness toward each other, then Hashem will do the same for the nation. And if they don't, He won't either. This is what Hashem meant when He said, "I will be what I will be." What I will be is an open question. It depends on you.

Hashem Saw and Hashem Knew
And it was in this long era that the king of Egypt died. The Jews sighed from the work and they cried out and their cries rose up to God from the work. God heard their groans and God remembered his Bris, his covenant, with Avraham, with Yitzchok and with Yaakov. God saw the Bnei Yisroel and God knew. (3:23-25)
"And God knew"? What does that mean? Rashi explains: נתן עליהם לב ולא העלים עיניו. Hashem focused on their plight and determined to address the issue.

This explains "and God knew," but what about "God saw"? What does that mean? The verse already stated that Hashem heard the cries of the nation and remembered His promise to their forefathers. What is added by saying that he "saw" the Jewish People?

We know from Moshe that going to "see" the Jews does not refer to mere observation, it means experiencing deep empathy. The word is surely being used in the same sense here. Hashem saw and felt the pain of the Jewish People. 

At the burning bush we learned that when Jews are charitable, Hashem responds in kind. Putting these facts together, we can say that Hashem "saw" the Jews and focused on their plight because Moshe "saw" the Jews and focused on their plight. This explains why Hashem's "seeing" the Jews appears after remembering the Bris with the Avos. Hashem's empathy is a new and unplanned component of the redemption, one not included in the original Bris but inspired and brought down by Moshe.

I called my father in Israel this morning to present this insight and hear his reaction. He was positive. When I asked where this extra divine empathy might have expressed itself, my father immediately came up with an excellent suggestion. He noted that Hashem did not send an angel to redeem the Jews from Egypt, but took them out בכבודו ובעצמו, "personally." As the Torah records and as the Haggadah emphasizes, at midnight of the Tenth Plague, Hashem Himself entered Egypt to save the Jews. This is certainly an expression of divine love, one which does not appear in Hashem's promise to the Avos.

I am delighted with my father's pshat, for the singularity of divine revelation is the perfect response to the singularity of human kindness. Moshe lowered himself from his upper class perch, rolled up his sleeves and got into the trenches with the oppressed Jews, simply because he loved them. When the time came for redemption, Hashem did the exact the same thing. "I will be what I will be." When Jews love each other, Hashem loves them too.

After hearing my father's insight in the Kollel on Thursday night, Mr. Ben Schuraytz pointed out another parallel between the acts of Moshe and the Tenth Plague. When Moshe went out to his brethren to see their burdens, he strikes down an Egyptian who was beating a Jew. This is an apt description of what Hashem does in the Tenth Plague: He strikes down the leadership responsible for the oppression of the Jewish People. It is noteworthy that the Torah used the word ויך, "and he smote," to describe Moshe's killing of the Egyptian, the very same word it uses for the plagues, מכות. The parallel is even more striking when we consider the Midrash, quoted by Rashi, that Moshe killed the Egyptian by uttering a Name of God. Moshe knew that invoking the Divine Presence would bring about the death of the Egyptian - and Hashem later uses the very same method in the Tenth Plague! Revelation itself is what kills the firstborn. In both empathy and in justice, Hashem mimics Moshe.

"If I am not for myself, then who is for me?" When a Jew loves, then Hashem loves, and Hashem directs His blessings to the nation through the Jew who inspired the divine love in the first place. As the Midrash taught, Moshe was selected to be our savior because he cared.

Monday, January 9, 2017

On the Trail of Blessings: What Did Yosef Want?

I had a short and sweet insight just this morning and Jeff Rohatiner encouraged me to share it on the blog. Torah has a life of its own and the little insight has grown into part 7.25 of the Trail Series

Yosef was unable to control his emotions... "I am Yosef! Is my father still alive?" (45:1,3)
Apparently, Yosef was not finished with his brothers. His plan was as yet incomplete, but he was unable to follow through. Compassion for his brothers forced him to reveal his identity prematurely.

What more did Yosef want to do? What was his plan? According to some (Hakesav V'HaKabala; Meshech Chochma) Yosef wanted his father Yaakov to come down to Egypt and bow before him in fulfillment of his second dream. Whatever Yosef's intentions were, it is clear that he miscalculated. He was too weak to bring his plan to fruition.

Strange. Why would Yosef make a plan that he could not carry out? The answer is that Yosef failed to account for something. When Yaakov sent the brothers back to Egypt, he gave them a blessing.
Yaakov their father said to them, ... "The Almighty God - אל שדי - should grant you compassion before that man." (43:14)
Yosef was strong, but he could not withstand the blessing of Yaakov. A divine wave of compassion forced Yosef to abandon his plan and reveal his identity. 

A Father's Blessing

On second thought, Yosef was a very wise man and he should have anticipated this. Yaakov's blessing was not an oversight. On the contrary, it was exactly what Yosef wanted. 

Hashem granted Avrohom the power to bless (12:2) and the power to curse (12:3). Yosef knew that his father Yaakov inherited these powers, and Yosef also knew that blessings and curses function well even when the recipient is unknown. Yitzchok unknowingly blessed Yaakov and Yaakov unknowingly cursed Rachel. Nonetheless, ignorance did not mitigate the effect of their words.

Yosef wanted a Beracha from his father, a Beracha that God should grant him compassion for his brothers. As a teenager, Yosef would speak Lashon HaRa about them, but as a mature adult, he would do no such thing. Unwilling to tell his father that the brothers sold him into slavery, the only way Yosef could get the Beracha he so desperately needed was to orchestrate a ruse. And it worked! Yaakov asks God to grant "that man" compassion and we watch as Yosef's heart melts

A Blessing and a Curse

Blessings and curses play yet another role in our story. When Yosef first set his eyes on Binyomin, he blesses him. אלוהים יחנך בני - "May God have pity on you, my son" (43:29). That's a surprising thing to say. Why would Binyomin need divine pity?

Yosef was planning ahead. He intended to frame his brothers and he correctly predicted their reaction. When accused of stealing Yosef's goblet, the brothers say, "He among your servants with whom it is found should die!" (44:9). The brothers unwittingly curse Binyomin and this is why Yosef preemptively blessed Binyomin with divine pity. 

Now we have a faceoff. It's the brother's curse against Yosef's blessing. Who wins? Yosef! Unlike Rachel who was killed by Yaakov's curse, Binyomin survives his brother's curse and does not die. What Yosef is demonstrating is that the family legacy, the power to bless and the power to curse, belongs not to the brothers, but to him! Yosef is the inheritor of the legacy of Avroham, Yitzchok and Yaakov! 

This is exactly what the brothers were afraid of. As they understood it, Yosef's dreams foretold that he would seize the family blessings and rule over them. That is why they hated him and now Yosef shows them that they were right. Yosef could seize power, but he doesn't. Instead, Yosef shares the destiny of the nation with all of his eleven brothers. 

In the end, the brothers were right about the dreams, but wrong about Yosef.

[Continue the series with part 7.5 by clicking here.]