Saturday, August 29, 2015

Parshas Ki Seitzei - Twisted Love

Parshas Ki Seitzei bars an Ammonite or Moavite from marrying into the Jewish people even unto the tenth generation. While an Edomite and Egyptian may marry in the third generation.

What's the fundamental basis for the distinction?

The ban on Ammon and Moav follows that of the one on bastards and indeed both nations are the products of incest. Improper relations of this sort are occasionally referred to in the Torah as "Chessed" or kindness because they have the appearance of love to them.

The distinction goes to the two types of anti-Semitism defined by the Edomites and the Moavites.

Edom and Egypt were open in their hostility toward the Jews. They sought to persecute and kill them. Whatever malice they had depends on their strength and their national power. By the third generation they no longer present a danger. However Ammon and Moav represents a more insidious form of corruption as they demonstrated by hiring Bilaam and then attempting to corrupt the Jews.

Rather than bringing bread and water, true Chessed, to the Jews, they instead practiced a false Chessed, as that of their incestuous origins, by attempting to corrupt and pervert the Jews. Their weapon was intimate and insidious. Like the Caananites they could not be allowed to marry in even into the tenth generation because their form of hatred and evil represents a permanent threat.

Open enemies are easy to identify and defend against. Covert enemies however are far more insidious because they come disguised as friends. They appear to be on a mission of Chessed, but like the adulterous love that produces the Mamzer, their love is purely selfish, cruel and leads to destruction.

Some anti-Semites, like Edom and Egypt are open about their agenda. They believe that Jews are inferior and to be stamped out. They hatred is lethal, but not insidious. It is out in the open. The hatred of Ammon and Moav is more insidious because it is based on a jealous malice that recognizes the spiritual gifts of the Jews and seeks to corrupt and destroy them.

When they hate, Edom and Egypt come as enemies. But their occasional acts of kindness, as when Esav kissed Yaakov or when Egypt provided sanctuary to the Jews, are sincere. They have no hidden agendas. But when Ammon and Moav hate, they come as friends. Like Bilaam, they flatter in order to curse, they disguise their poison in compliments, their Chessed is false and fatal.

Jealousy is one of the most poisonous human traits. Its enmity is more dangerous because its possessors often do their worst while posing as friends.

Enemies like Edom, who were once family, may be redeemed. But the incestuous and adulterous relationship poisons love and whatever kinship once existed. It is based on a toxic brew of jealousy and selfishness that destroys everything it touches. Egyptians and Edomites could find a place within the Jewish people despite their atrocities, but Ammon and Moav could not because they would remain compelled to corrupt and undermine by their own jealous and selfish motives.

Egypt and Edom could come to respect the Jews, as Esav came to respect Yaakov and Pharaoh came to respect Moshe, but jealousy is not deterred by respect. Ammon and Moav did not need to learn what Esav and Pharaoh learned painfully. They already knew it. It only fed their jealous hatred.

Therefore you may not seek their good, for their selfishness and jealously will only turn it into evil.

Historically the worst enemies of the Jewish people came from corrupted members from within their own ranks. That is still true today. Enemies with Jewish last names motivated by narcissism and malice, jealousy and neurotic paranoia, who seek to kill and destroy Jews are our most ruthless and dedicated enemies.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Parshas Balak - False Prophets and Talking Donkeys

Parshas Balak is the first time that the perspective moves away from Moshe and the Children of Israel. Instead we get a look into the camp of their enemies. Why is this necessary?

For that matter why have G-d deliver prophecies through the mouth of an evil man or have a donkey talk? And why does Bilaam so gloriously praise Israel in these prophecies as a seemingly perfect nation when the narrative before had them on the brink of destruction before their sins.

And no sooner do Bilaam's prophecies conclude than they sin again and are hit with a plague.

Clearly the Jews, like all people, are flawed. Why does Bilaam seem unable to find any flaw in them to curse them?

The answers to all these questions are interconnected. And they begin with a talking donkey that sees an angel that her master does not. Why does the donkey see the angel when Bilaam does not? Because the donkey is following G-d's will and her master isn't.

Things derive their holiness from the extent to which they serve G-d's will. That's true of the Jews, Bilaam, the angel and the donkey.  Prophets are meant to be vessels for the word of G-d. A prophet becomes false when he replaces the word of G-d with his own message.

By having a separate agenda, Bilaam had become a false prophet. Because he wanted to curse what G-d had not cursed, he lost the ability to properly see the Divine. This was graphically demonstrated to him when he was unable to see an angel that even his donkey could see.

We perceive the Godly to the extent that we serve G-d's purpose. Bilaam had lost that perception. He continued to receive prophecies, but those were now suited to his new level.

Bilaam had sought to curse the Jews by viewing them negatively from a higher spiritual plane. This curse was meant to influence G-d to see their flaws. But ironically by trying to curse the Jews, he fell from the higher plane that allowed him to see their flaws.

As Balak led Bilaam to high places in order to look down on the Jews, Bilaam was still unable to look down on the Jews no matter how high he went. Like the donkey looking at the angel, his current status only enabled him to see something gloriously above him. And that is what his prophecy expressed.

When we read the Torah, we see events through the perspective of G-d. On that level, the Jews, like most people, seem perpetually hopeless, mired in sin and on the verge of destruction.

But from the far lower perspective of Bilaam, the Jews suddenly appeared angelic. He could find no flaws to exploit in order to curse them. Instead he had to advise Balak on ways to create those flaws. Bilaam had become blind to the evil he sought and he sealed his doom by trying to create it instead.

There are many perspectives in life, but not all are equally true. Bilaam, the donkey, Moshe and G-d all had their own perspectives. But a perspective is truest when it is closest to G-d. When the donkey talked, it was a warning to Bilaam that his perspective was now lower than that of a donkey. He had become more able to communicate with animals than angels.

And as a human donkey, he could see no flaw in the Jews, just as a donkey can see no flaws in a man or a man in an angel.

Bilaam's attempt to innovate, to play a double game with G-d, turned him into a false prophet, but Moshe had been punished with being barred from Israel for striking, rather than speaking to the rock. On his high level, as the greatest of all prophets, even a minor deviation from G-d's purpose, cost him his place in performing the will of G-d.

When those who curse the Jews are cursed, it is because they, like Bilaam, presume to attack G-d's purpose. In response, G-d punishes them by taking away what spiritual gifts they have leaving them cursed to be unable to perceive anything higher than those they cursed. When they bless the Jews, they are blessing G-d's purpose and are rewarded by being blessed to perceive more of it.

The Torah shows us some of the purpose of G-d to within our ability to understand it. It blesses us in that way. When we attempt to pervert it for our own purposes, it instead becomes a curse.

Like everything else in the world, it has the property of potentially being both a blessing and a curse. Like the earth that either grows a rich bounty or turns to dust, the blessing and curse are contained within everything in the world to the extent that those who call on it serve G-d's purpose.

Those who presume to speak falsely in G-d's name act as false prophets and are nothing more than talking donkeys. And even a donkey can reprove a prophet when she fulfills G-d's purpose. That was G-d's message to Bilaam.

Holiness is not static. It ebbs and flows to the extent that we serve G-d.

Sometimes we are all Bilaam or Balak, seeking to twist G-d's will into a shape that will give us what we want, without regard for what G-d wants. As Balak, we turn to dubious interpretations or dubious religious leaders. As Bilaam, we play the hypocrite with G-d, saying one thing and meaning another.

And sometimes we are Moshe, fulfilling the true will of G-d. And other times, we are talking donkeys unknowingly doing what G-d wants because it seems like common sense to us.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Parshas Noach - You Did Build That

The story of Noach and the flood raises two obvious questions for most people.

First, what could the human race have done that was so terrible that it had to be wiped out. Second, why would an omnipotent G-d bother with the whole business of constructing an ark. Why not simply send Noach and all the animals to the top of the highest mountain. Or simply prevent the water from entering the area where he already was.

The answers to these questions are interrelated.

G-d tells Noach that the end of all flesh comes because the earth is filled with robbery. Robbery seems like a peculiar reason. Certainly it's a sin, but why is humanity doomed because of it?

To understand that we have to look at the nature of robbery. Mass theft on the scale related by the Sages had eliminated the very notion. Theft was so widespread that property had literally become theft. No one could have anything that was legitimately his because everything had been stolen at some point and theft had become legitimized.

Let us consider the nature of property in the religious sense. Everything that a person has is obtained in partnership with G-d, as Chava said of her son. The purpose of a sacrifice is not to provide G-d with a burned animal. He does not actually need the animal as the prophets tell us. It's to pay tribute to the partnership. By bringing a sacrifice, we are saying that our accomplishments are due to G-d.

This is one of the most fundamental ways of worshiping G-d.

One of the things that G-d despises most is a sacrifice brought with stolen money since we are making Him a partner in our crime. And He cannot have any part in stolen property. Widespread theft made it impossible for people to recognize or worship G-d. And made it impossible for G-d to play a role in their lives. All life had become perverted since it could no longer connect what it had to G-d.

The generation of the flood had made it impossible for G-d to have a place in the world.

By commanding Noach to build the ark from scratch, a pure vessel was created to perpetuate life on earth. The ark was not merely a vehicle to save Noach and his family and the animals, it was the reason why they were saved.

By building the ark Noach showed why he was a righteous man. The 120 years spent building the ark brought something honest into a completely dishonest world.

The ark was built from scratch. It incorporated no stolen property. It was done in true partnership with G-d and served as a symbol of everything that the world should have been and no longer was.

Noach's ark was a small world in miniature as it should have been. It was a miniature earth. A model for the relationship between humans and animals and between man and G-d. In partnership with G-d, man had made a world, and G-d had responded by making that world able to bear life.

The generation of the flood had corrupted the world by corrupting the nature of property thereby excluding G-d from the world. The ark had not only brought Noach through the flood, it also brought back Godliness into the world.

Noach invested physical property with moral value. He made the ark more than wood, he made it into a temple. Through his honest partnership with G-d, he showed that physical objects could become sacred again in a world too corrupt for sacredness to exist.

The ark had to be built for the same reason that the world had to be destroyed. Like the Ark of the Covenant, Noach's ark was not only a physical symbol, it was a tangible connection between man and G-d.

Had Noach not built it, that connection would not exist. G-d can make anything, but it's up to man to labor and make a connection with G-d.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Parshas Shemos - First Born Son

One of the stranger and more inexplicable events takes place in Parshas Shemos. After Moshe has been dispatched to Egypt, taking along his family, on a mission from G-d... suddenly we are told that G-d encounters him and attempts to kill him. Then his wife circumcises their son and he is saved.

Not only is Moshe bound on a mission from G-d, but if G-d were to kill him, there would be no attempt involved. G-d controls the power of life and death. So what is really going on here?

Context is important in the Torah. And to understand what happens in Shemos 4-24, we need to look  at 4-23.

19 And the LORD said unto Moses in Midian: 'Go, return into Egypt; for all the men are dead that sought thy life.'

20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.

21 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'When thou goest back into Egypt, see that thou do before Pharaoh all the wonders which I have put in thy hand; but I will harden his heart, and he will not let the people go.

22 And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born.

23 And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born.'--

24 And it came to pass on the way at the lodging-place, that the LORD met him, and sought to kill him.  

25 Then Zipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: 'Surely a bridegroom of blood art thou to me.'

26 So He let him alone. Then she said: 'A bridegroom of blood in regard of the circumcision.'

This translation isn't very good, but it will do. There is a narrative flow to the arrangement.

G-d tells Moshe to warn Pharaoh that if he does not allow His first-born son, the Jewish people, to go and serve Him, Pharaoh's own first-born son will be killed.

But Moshe does not actually tell Pharaoh this. At least not, apparently, until much later. And why is G-d suddenly supplementing his detailed set of instructions, once again, along the way with a message that won't be relevant until the final plague?

There is one more thing worth noting. At no point did G-d command Moshe to take his family along. Moshe appears to do this on his own initiative and then appears to send them back to his father-in-law. Since they aren't mentioned again after this, it would appear that his family was sent back after the event at the inn.

G-d's warning to Pharaoh was really also a warning to Moshe. Circumcision enters a child into the covenant with G-d. It's the outward sign of service.

Moshe had intermarried while in Midian. And he had named his first son to reflect his exile. When he took along his family to Egypt, he was also bringing his son, at least one of whom was uncircumcised. How could Moshe go to Egypt and demand that Pharaoh free the Jews to serve G-d, when at least one of his own sons had not joined the Covenant?

G-d's warning to Pharaoh could be seen as an indirect warning. When Moshe does not heed it, he receives a second more dangerous warning that his wife understands and interprets correctly.And acts.

When Zipporah calls him a bridegroom of blood, she is describing the redefinition of their marriage. The circumcision sanctifies their marriage by reframing it in Godly terms. A marriage is Godly to the extent that its participants build their lives around incorporating those values in their lives.

Like Yosef, Moshe had spent most of his life apart from the Jewish people and any of their practices. The circumcision demonstrated Zipporah's commitment to living a Jewish marriage with her husband making it their second wedding. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Parshas Toldos - Love and Judgement

The Jewish idea of love is defined as Ahava Sheineah Teluiah BaDavar or A Love That Does Not Depend on a Thing.

"Any love that is dependent on something--when the thing ceases, the love also ceases. But a love that is not dependent on anything never ceases. What is [an example of] a love that is dependent on something? The love of Amnon for Tamar. And one that is not dependent on anything? The love of David and Yonatan."

(Pirkei Avot 5:16)

Is a love that is not dependent on anything truly not dependent on anything? It's not dependent on anything impermanent. It goes deeper than any surface matter.

What is an example of that? We can look to G-d's love for Avraham for the paradigm.

"For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him."

Bereishis/Genesis 18:19

The truly enduring value continues beyond the individual. It is something that he commits to beyond his own existence because it is so great a part of him that he cannot be conceived of apart from it.

Now let us turn to Parshas Toldos and the story of Yaakov and Esav.

"And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yaakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents.

And Yitzchak loved Esav because [his] game was in his mouth, but Rivka loved Yaakov."

(Bereishis/Genesis 25:27-28)

No reason is given for Rivka's love for Yaakov because it is an Ahava Sheinah Teluiah BaDavar, it is not a love that is based on a thing.

However a specific thing is given as the reason for Yitzchak's love of Esav making it an Ahava SheTeluiah BaDavar, a love that was based on a transitory thing.

Was Yitzchak's preference for Esav based merely on bringing him food? The Torah issues a strong warning about the dangers of bribery.

"...bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words."

(Devarim\Deuteronomy 16:19)

And indeed we learn that Yitzchak had gone blind. His love for the wrong son for the wrong reasons had become a literal blindness.

The Talmud describes how even minor favors distort the judgement of a judge.

The Gemara in Kesuvos [105b] states: "It goes without saying that monetary bribes are forbidden, but the Torah is coming to teach us that even 'verbal bribes' are forbidden." Flattery, kind words, and so forth can all affect a person's judgment. The Gemara lists several incidents demonstrating how particular Amoraim of the Talmud acted regarding rejecting bribes.

Shmuel was having difficulty crossing a rickety bridge. A certain person stuck out his hand and helped him cross the bridge. Shmuel asked what brought him to the bridge right then. The person told Shmuel that he had a case to be heard in Shmuel's court for adjudication. Shmuel disqualified himself from being a judge in the case since he had just received a favor from this person.

Yitzchak was not aware of this. He was unaware that he loved Esav for the meat that he brought him. But as a result he was blinded to Esav's evil deeds and unable to see what was wrong with his older son.

When he prepared to bless Esav, he asked him to bring him meat. The thing that he loved him for. His blessing for Yaakov in the guise of Esav and then to Esav concentrated on the physical aspects, the fatness of the land.

Esav had given up his birthright for lentil stew. And Yitzchak had nearly given him the blessings for meat. 

When Yitzchak realized that he had blessed Yaakov, his eyes were opened to the reality that his love for his son and his blessings had been dependent on a thing. Not an eternal thing, but a material thing. It was an Ahava Teluiah BaDavar. And the proof of that had been that he had been willing to bless an imposter who had brought him meat. He had not looked beneath the surface, but only at the material feel of his hands.

Yitzchak was meant to function as a judge, to assign the blessings to the son that would be worth of them for the reason that G-d had originally described, "For I have known him because he commands his sons and his household after him, that they should keep the way of the Lord to perform righteousness and justice, in order that the Lord bring upon Avraham that which He spoke concerning him."

And this was clearly not true of Esav who had married Caananite women. Yitzchak had been blinded and now his eyes were open.

Yitzchak only gives Yaakov the blessings of Avraham, when Yaakov journeys to marry properly and set up a household that will carry on that legacy.

The new blessing no longer concentrates on the material aspects of the land, but on the people, 

"Arise, go to Padan aram, to the house of Bethuel, your mother's father, and take yourself from there a wife of the daughters of Laban, your mother's brother.

"And may the Almighty God bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, and you shall become an assembly of peoples.

"And may He give you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your seed with you, that you may inherit the land of your sojournings, which God gave to Abraham."

(Bereishis/Genesis 28:2-4)

The emphasis is now on the people who inherit the land, rather than on the substance of the land. The emphasis is on future generations, rather than present day material power. It is now a love that depends on multi-generational qualities rather than present day attainments.

Like Yitzchak, we are required to relearn for ourselves that love requires judgement if it is to be meaningful.

Esav, who went out, had and has appealing material qualities, while Yaakov, who stayed in a tent, obscured himself with spiritual pursuits.

True judgement requires seeing past the material to the spiritual. And if we fail to do so, if we are swayed by the material bribes of the moment, then we are blinded only to realize that once we come to the awareness of just how interchangeable the material is.

Yitzchak loved his son for bringing him meat from the field. Only when he realized how interchangeable the thing that he loved the wrong son for was, did he waken from the blindness to turn away from the love dependent on a thing for the true love dependent on eternity.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parshas Vayislach - The Hunter and the Shepherd

Two parshas ago many wondered why Yitzchak would have tried to give his blessing to Esav. The answer to that can be seen by working backward from the blessing.

Yitzchak blesses the son he thought was Esav by saying, "The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed." The blessing that he goes on to give him is the blessing of the field.

"God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Let peoples serve thee, and nations bow down to thee. Be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee."

To secure this blessing, Yitzchak had sent out Esav to take his weapons and hunt him down a meal. Esav was the hunter, the one who went out and caught game, while Yaakov dwelt in tents, watching over the flock as a shepherd. While Esav goes to hunt meat, Yaakov slaughters tame animals for the meal.

Yaakov is the shepherd. Esav is the hunter. But Yitzchak chose to favor the son who was the hunter. And this makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that the blessings of Avraham that he passed on was to dominate the land. Who was more likely to dominate the land, a mild-mannered shepherd who dwelt in tents or a bold aggressive hunter?

Yitzchak, as a shepherd, had spent this time being hounded by the Philistines, driven from his father's wells and grazing lands, with no recourse. The son he favored was the one he thought would be able to stand up to the Philistines and fight for what was his.

Now when Yaakov and Esav meet again in Parshas Vayislach, Esav has become the hunter and warrior with an army at his back, while Yaakov is a shepherd, with a camp of people and animals. Both sons have become more of what they were all along. Esav has 400 warriors at his call and Yaakov has an army of sheep and other livestock. Esav dwells on his own mountain while his brother still wanders, pitching his tent, and trying to avoid persecution.

Yaakov pays tribute to his brother, in the form that a shepherd values, in animals, Esav does not appear to appreciate the tribute, but does approve of his brother's submission, and goes on his way. Esav offers to escort Yaakov, but Yaakov tells him that the flocks cannot keep up such a pace. Esav returns to his mountain and Yaakov builds barns for the flocks, and names the place after the barns, Sukkos.

Why name a place after the barns? Because they showed the contrast between the two brothers. Between the hunter and the shepherd. Esav was more vital, and in the short term, the dominant one. The genealogy at the end of Parshas Vayislach lays out how many kings and princes Esav had. But in the long term, the house of Esav went into a decline, while the house of Yaakov continued to grow.

By the end of the parsha, Esav is formed to move on, because Yaakov's flocks have grown so much that the land cannot support them both. The shepherd had already won.

Yitzchak was correct in assuming that one day his descendants would have to fulfill the blessings by conquering the land. And it's easy to see why he would have chosen Esav as the favored son, the one strong enough to do it. But conquering the land, is not the same thing as holding it.

Esav was more aggressive than his brother, not necessarily stronger. Yaakov was a shepherd and capable of building for the long term. Esav had power, but not endurance. That was how he came to give up his birthright for a mess of pottage. Esav could not have worked for twenty years for Lavan the way Yaakov did.

While Yaakov exerted himself to build a long term future, sacrificing the present for the future, Esav lived entirely in the present, satisfying himself with short term accomplishments of the moment. As a hunter, he lived for the next kill, while Yaakov built armies of flocks. That was one reason why Yaakov represented the destiny of the descendants of the patriarchs, while Esav did not. Instead Esav was a dead end.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Parshas Vaera - The Joy of the Joke

Yitzchak, the long-promised son of Avraham and Sarah, has a seemingly unflattering name. Instead of being named after some divine virtue, his name simply means "Laughed" commemorating the response of Avraham and Sarah when they were told by G-d that they would have a son at such an advanced age.

When Avraham is told by G-d that he will have a son, he laughs inwardly, and asks G-d only that Yishmael should repent and turn righteous. When Sarah is informed by an angel, she laughs at the idea of having a child at such an age.

Why then give their miracle child a name commemorating their skepticism?

Choosing the name, Sarah says, "Tzhok Natan Li Elohim", G-d gave me laughter, which here means joy. G-d gave Sarah reason to rejoice, her initial skeptical laugh of unbelief becoming a laugh of joy at the impossible. "And everyone who hears of it, will rejoice for me."

We laugh naturally at things that are ridiculous. We laugh because they are outside the norm. To Avraham and Sarah the idea of having a child at such an advanced age was ridiculous. But when it actually took place, then the skeptical laugh at the impossibility of such a thing because a joyful laugh at the possibility of it.

Avraham and Sarah did not doubt G-d. If they had been asked whether G-d could do such a thing, they would have agreed that He could. But were they willing to believe that it could happen to them?

Most religious people when asked would agree that G-d could create or destroy worlds. But can he take us out of a difficult trouble that we have? That we tend to be more skeptical about. Unconsciously they place limitations on G-d. The first laugh was the laugh of that limitation. The second laugh was the joyful laugh of seeing that limitation fall away.

In the Torah when people mock G-d, He then mocks them. How do people mock G-d, they assume that He is helpless to stop their evil. And how does G-d mock them? By showing them that He can. The "joke" is then on them.

The joke of Yitzchak was a beneficial joke. It was a punchline of faith. The punchline of a joke changes how we look at what came before it. It twists around our expectations. Similarly the punchline of Yitzchak showed Avraham and Sarah that their expectations of G-d had been limited and the culmination of their lives showed them another level of transcending that by seeing the infinite goodness of G-d.

Human faith is naturally limited. It is a ladder and there are always new rungs to climb. The birth of Yitzchak joyfully introduced Avraham and Sarah to a new level of faith.

The prophecy of Yitzchak showed that G-d could take the future of the Jewish people and bring it out of a child to a deeply elderly man and woman. The sacrifice of Yitzchak showed that G-d could take their child back from the edge of death. And that took even greater faith for Avraham. Finally with Yosef, Yaakov genuinely believed that his son was dead, from the testimony of his own children, and nevertheless G-d restored Yosef as well.

At each of these points there was a moment of transcendent joy at the realization that an impossible salvation has occurred. And through that joy, they and we, can learn to exceed ourselves in faith. When we move from skeptical laughter to joyful laughter, then we realize that the joke has always been on us and we laugh at ourselves with a new awareness of what we now know about G-d.