Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Parshas Vaeschan - The Unanswered Prayer and the Unexpected Legacy

Prayers rarely go unanswered by G-d. 

The five books of the Torah contain two examples of impassioned prayers that G-d does not grant.

The first comes early on when Avraham prays on behalf of Sodom and the second comes near the end when Moshe prays to G-d to be allowed to enter Israel, and is told by that it will not happen.

Both of the prayers of these two great men were not trivial personal requests, rather urgent cries from the heart for what they considered to be their fundamental mission in life. Avraham thought that his mission was reaching the world with the message of G-d, and Moshe thought that his mission was bringing the Jewish people into Israel. Both prayers were not granted because these were not their true missions.

Avraham's true mission, despite his greatest efforts, was not to reach the world, but to bring a nation into the world. He could not save Sodom, but he could teach his son, Yitzchak, to follow in his footsteps.

Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel. His mission was instead revealed at the very end of his life. Yet the message of his real mission appears in Vaeschanan, the very same parsha that begins with the rejection of Moshe's unfulfilled prayer, reaches its high point with the repetition of the Ten Commandments. Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel, but into the presence of G-d.

Vaeschanan is part of Sefer Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah. And Devarim only exists because of that unfulfilled prayer. 

If Moshe had gone into Israel, Devarim would not exist. It was only Moshe's recognition that he would not only die in a short time, but that he would die without being able to bring the Jews into Israel that summons up the mixture of admonishment and blessings, poetry and history that is Devarim.

Moshe is the first prophet who serves the familiar prophetic function of being sent to guide and admonish the Jewish people. Devarim creates the model that is repeated by prophets in Israel. 

Even after the Jews are exiled, the prophetic legacy of Moshe endures. 

Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel, but to bring Devarim, with its prophetic model, and all of the Torah to the Jews. Had G-d granted Moshe's prayer, Devarim would not exist.

And Devarim only comes into existence at the very end when the Torah is unveiled for the first time.

Moshe prepares to face death, and as his farewell to the Jews, the Torah he had been writing is fully revealed. As Devarim is all but complete, Moshe's legacy is complete. While other leaders, princes and prophets, will lead the Jews into Israel, and then into exile, and then back to Israel, Moshe continues to lead the Jews throughout history.

We may not always know what our mission is and what our legacy may be. Sometimes what we think our mission is, turns out not to be our actual mission. And our legacy may turn out to be something else entirely. 

Man does his best to define his own mission and legacy, but his perspective is limited. Even the greatest man can pour all his energy and effort into a mission, only for G-d to reveal what his true mission was.

On the brink of death and disappointment, Moshe pours out his heart to his people. And believing that he has failed at his greatest task, he brings it into being. The Torah that is unrolled on the final day of his life, completed by his final effort, his summoning of all his energies to inspire his people, is his legacy.

And on the final day of his life, Moshe realizes that he had not failed at his life's task, he has succeeded at something far greater. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Parsha Maasos - The Rebellion of the Rancher Lords

As the conquest of Israel is underway, the leaders of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and ask him to grant them the lands already conquered for grazing (Bamidbar 32),

Moshe, with uncharacteristic fury, accuses them of following in the footsteps of the original ten tribal spies who had discouraged the Jews from entering the land.

"And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers' stead, a brood of sinful men," Moshe blasted them.

What's behind Moshe's anger and what's the connection to the sin of the spies? Is it merely a casual connection or is there something deeper there?

The motives of Reuven and Gad are obvious, but those of the spies remain unclear.

Why were influential and prominent men so driven to discourage the settlement of Israel?

Rebellions by the Jews in the desert largely fell into two categories. There were mass rebellions over shortages of food and water, or general panic, and attempted coups by the powerful against Moshe.

The revolts of Korach and of the spies both fall into this latter category. Korach wanted power. But what did the spies want?

What do we know about the spies? They were influential men, the Torah describes them as, Roshei Bnei Yisrael, among the heads of Israel, every one a Nasi, a prince. But what made men influential and powerful? The obvious answer is status and wealth. What did wealth men back then? Herds.

The Jews, up until now, had been nomadic herders whose wealth was tied up in their herds.

When Pharaoh tried to take the wealth of the Jews to make certain that they returned, he wanted to keep their herds in Egypt.

When the Jews entered Israel they became, for the first time in their history, farmers, instead of just herders. The vision of the ideal society, as described in Micah 4:4, "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree", is a farming society where every individual has his own property.

The tribal and familial lottery system was meant to give everyone his own property to work.

Would such a society have been advantageous to the rancher lords whose economic power was based on accumulating large herds with many hands to help manage the herd?

Is this what led the spies to spread negative reports about Israel?

The spies were powerful and influential men. When they saw the land, they also saw a vision of a world in which they were no longer as important and prominent as they once were. And they did their best to mobilize a popular reaction to the conquest of Israel by the very people who might have benefited from it.

The tribes who wanted grazing land seemed to Moshe to be echoing the same original sin, of putting their own economic interests above the good of the nation, dividing the people into tribes, and pitting the wealthy against the poor, and tribe against tribe, as would continue happening during Jewish history. And he warned them that the road that they were going down could destroy the nation.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Parshas Vaera - The Order of the Plagues

We all know the names of the ten plagues that struck Egypt. And some of us may even remember the order that they took place in. But is there any reason for the particular order?

The plagues do become somewhat more devastating with time, but not entirely.

Take the plague of darkness, which was traumatic, but not truly damaging, as opposed to the invasion of wild beasts.

There is however an order of meaning to the order of plagues.

The plagues don't necessarily move forward in degrees of devastation, but in degrees of altitude.

From the first to the ninth plague, they begin at the very bottom, in the river, below the surface of the earth, and ascend to the sky, while the final plagues leading up to the end, hail, locusts, and darkness, emerge from the heavens.

In between them, the plagues slowly ascend, rising from the Nile, blood and frogs, up to the third plague, vermin, which arise when the dust of the earth is struck. The fourth and fifth plagues involve the animals, either wild animals invading or domestic animals dying, on the surface of the earth.

Then for the sixth plague, furnace ash is tossed "heavenward", and becomes boils.

The seventh plague, hail, falls from he heaven to the earth. The eight plague, locusts, likewise, descend from the heaven to the earth. But the ninth plague, darkness, blots out light across the heavens cutting off light to Egypt.

From the first to the ninth plague, the plagues rise from below the earth, to the earth, and then to the sky, moving upward from man and into the very heavens, demonstrating that G-d rules over the earth and the heavens, that He is the G-d of all creation.

And then, for the tenth plague, the damage is focused on the pinnacle of creation, the beings for whom all the earth and the heavens had been meant for, man, in his religious duty.

We are told that in the tenth plague, G-d visited devastation on the gods of Egypt.

How did He do this by slaying the first-born sons of Egypt? The first-born sons were traditionally the religious leaders of the family. They were the priests. Instead of serving G-d, they had served idols, instead of permitting the Jews to worship G-d, they had enslaved them to serve their idolatrous society.

And so, after demonstrating that the providence of G-d rises from below the earth to the heavens, directing the gaze of Egyptians upward from their provincial affairs, their property, their comfort, their homes, to the heavens, one final plague was unleashed to break their idolatrous society.

Each Egyptian refusal to contemplate the power of G-d, after each increasingly profound plague, was finally punished with the destruction of their gods, who, unlike G-d, were mere objects whose understanding and existence lived only in the priests who worshiped them, the first-born.

The final message of the ten plagues was there was no other G-d, in earth or in heaven.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Parshas Vayeishev - A Dream of Numbers and Symbols

In Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef's brothers refer to him as "Baal Hachalomot". Translations can range from the extravagant, "Master of  Dreams" to the derisive, "Dreamer".

But Yosef is indeed defined by his dreams. The era of direct interaction with G-d has temporarily ended. Of all the sons, Yosef is the one chosen to receive messages, and they are cryptic visions filled with symbols, suns, stars, moons, birds, cows, wheat, that are ripe with potent symbolism. His father Yaakov had been the first to communicate with G-d more heavily through symbols, a ladder, animals in the field, but he had received verbal messages of plain meaning. Yosef does not appear to.

Though Yosef is defined by dreams, he only receives two of his own, as a teenager. The latter two sets of dreams are those of others, Egyptian ministers and Pharaoh, interpreted by him. These dreams are divided into three pairs of two. Each dream has a counterpart.

Yosef first dreams two dreams. Then each of Pharaoh's ministers dreams a single dream that Yosef interprets as referring to one event. And then Pharaoh dreams two dreams requiring a single interpretation. In all of these cases, Yosef is tasked with finding the unity in the duality of dreams.

There is however a curious difference between Yosef's own dreams and those of the Egyptians.

The dreams of the Egyptian leaders are practical. These dreams are filled with numbers. Their symbolism is slight. They lay out a timeline of days or years which are indicated by numbers.

Yosef's dreams contain no timeline. There is no significance in the number of stalks. The number of stars refer to the members of his family, not the number of years it will take to realize this vision.

And here lies the fundamental difference.

Yosef's dreams were visions of faith while those of the Egyptians were practical guidelines. Where Yosef's dreams were not bound by time, the complexity of tribal alliances and affinities would continue long past the death of Yosef and his brothers, and cross deep into Jewish history over a thousand years later as Yehuda and Binyamin formed a common kingdom, while Ephraim, Yosef's son, split away, those of the Egyptian leaders were meant for the very near future.

Where Yosef had a destiny measured in centuries and millennia, the Egyptians he dealt with had little faith to carry them forward for longer than the days or, at most years, it would take to see it come true.

For the Egyptians, G-d offered little more than fortune. Yosef however was gifted with the opportunity to carry on a faith without any timeline. It was his challenge to continue to believe, even under the stone roof of a prison, even in darkness and chains, that his visions would be realized.

Without a direct verbal communication from G-d, he, the first of the descendants of Avraham, was called on to have faith in what he had never been directly told. He was the first true exile, both from man and from G-d.

We are told that at the very end of his life, Yaakov wished to reveal to his sons how much longer the exile would last, and was prevented from doing so by Divine intervention. Faith is not meant to be numbered in years.

Of Yosef's two dreams, only one contains numbers. That is the dream of the stars, the sun and the moon, not the dream of the harvest. We do not conduct censuses or count in earthly matters. We count only when numbering the minyan, the number of the sacred quorum, in the service of G-d.

Faith requires us not to count the years, but to number only when celebrating the glory of G-d. It does not reveal to us the practical matters of the near future, the harvests or life and death, but our ultimate purpose. Astrology, we are told in the Bible, is for others. It is not meant for us. We do not see our fate in the stars. We do not number ourselves and limit ourselves to those numbers. We do not count the years. We serve G-d and await the fulfillment of His dream.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Parshas Lech Lecha - Love and Faith

Parshas Lech Lecha begins with a command to Avraham to undertake a journey. The biblical patriarch's journey is not merely in space. All journeys in the Torah are also journeys of faith.

The physical act of putting one foot in front of another is also a spiritual and emotional experience culminating in the journey through the desert after the redemption from Egyptian slavery and the exile of the Jewish people.

The biblical patriarch is being commanded to go on a spiritual journey of faith. This is not a mere mental exercise. Nor is it a physical one. Or even a personal one. If it were, there would be no reason for us to be reviewing his story all these many thousands of years later. Instead, what Avraham finds on that journey has transformed the world and brought into being the world that we live in today.

In the parsha, G-d makes one of a number of promises to Avraham, in this one, right before the Brit Bein HaBetarim, the Covenant of Parts, and after the battle with the four kings, the following exchange occurs. G-d promises Avraham a great reward. Avraham inquires what use it will be since he is childless. G-d informs Avraham that his own child will inherit him and shows him that his children will be as many as the stars.

"VeHemin BaHashem, VaYahshevu Lo Tzedakah." (Bereishis/Genesis 15:6)

"And he believed in G-d and it was accounted as righteousness."

One obvious question that is often asked is why should a great man's willingness to believe a promise made by the Creator really be considered an act of righteousness? If G-d came to us and promised us something, wouldn't we at least try to believe?

But there is something deeply special and unique about this moment.

This is the first time the term "emunah" or "faith" is mentioned in the Torah. It was not mentioned by Adam or Noach or any previous figures. This is the first time that faith actually takes place.

How can this be?

If we look back on the lives of the men and women before Avraham, their relationship with G-d was largely transactional. If they followed G-d's commandments, they were rewarded. If they disobeyed, they were punished. The world ran on a fairly simple basis of punishment and reward.

Adam and Chava disobeyed G-d and were punished. Kayin killed his brother and was punished. The world became corrupt and all life was wiped out. Noach was righteous and was saved. The people of Babylon rebelled against G-d and were punished. There is no complexity in these relationships. And no mention of faith because there is nothing to have faith in.

One does not have faith in the police or the authorities. Or in a tornado. They simply exist.

When reward and punishments are dispensed logically and tangibly, faith is not required. The might of G-d is a matter of ordinary reality. It does not require any more of us than common sense.

Theodicy, the question of why the good suffer and the wicked prosper, was absent from human affairs which appeared to run in a wholly logical fashion. But despite this, mankind did not actually do the right thing. The world was not a moral place, but often immoral with an excuse or two.

Avraham's life ushered in a new phase of human existence. Theodicy came into being. As did faith.

The biblical patriarch was the first man in the Torah to suffer though he was righteous. His life was the first to take unexpected twists and turns despite his unswerving fidelity to G-d.

And he was the first man to be associated with faith. He is the first to be described as having faith.

Before Avraham, faith was unnecessary. Avraham however had to have faith. Despite not having a child, he had to have faith in G-d's seemingly impossible promise that he would have a multitude of descendants. He had to hold on to that faith even as he and his wife grew aged in years.

And by doing so he brought faith into the world.

If Avraham's life had proceeded in a more conventional fashion, faith would not exist. It was because he was frustrated and suffered, and believed in something that was no longer tangible, that faith came into being.

For the first time in human history, a man believed in something that defied logic and the ordinary affairs of the world, that a G-d whose ways no longer seemed to follow a straight line, would keep His promise.

And from this faith came something else.

"Ahava" or "love" is mentioned for the first time in relation to Yitzchak. Avraham's son, whom he loves, the subject of the promise G-d made to Avraham, and of the faith that Avraham placed in that promise, is the first person in human history to be described as being loved.

The great promise of Yitzchak, that summoned faith into the world, also summoned love. After this, Yitzchak is described as loving his wife, Rivkah. Yitzchak is described as loving Esav while Rivkah loves Yaakov. Yaakov loves Rochel and Yosef.

Suddenly, after over a thousand loveless years, the world has become filled with love.

Parents love their children. Wives and husbands love each other.

By bringing faith into the world, the family of Avraham has also brought love into the world. Both faith and love are intangibles. They ask us to supersede ourselves and devote ourselves to something beyond us. Without faith, love is selfish. With faith, love is overwhelming.

And thus Avraham is also, uniquely, described in Tanach as "one who loves G-d".

But these great loves are not smooth and straightforward. They also come with trials. Avraham is obligated to go and sacrifice his beloved son. Yitzchak is forced to realize that his love of Esav is wrong. Rivkah must send her son Yaakov away. Yaakov is forced to labor long years for Rochel. He loses her early and also loses his son Yosef, whom he believes to be dead for many years.

Faith and love both require trials. They are tests.

By bringing faith and love into the world through his example, Avraham brought into being a world that is more complex, where G-d is less accessible, and where His ways are more difficult to understand. And yet it is a world that has the emotional and spiritual tools with which we can build a deeper and more complex relationship with the Creator and with our fellow man.

The world as it was, was far too simple and straightforward. Whether in Eden or in the early epic years of man, G-d was tangible, the right and wrong choices were obvious, as were the consequences. This entirely logical world was not suited to developing man into a spiritual being. Despite the obvious reality, man still found countless reasons and pretexts for disobeying G-d.

Instead of a tangible reality that required no work on our part, a new world came into being where man had to labor, not just physically, as the eras after Eden and before the Flood, had to, but spiritually, where G-d and His ways were hidden, and where man had to labor to understand.

Faith was something that man, that Avraham, brought into being, through his determination to transcend the distance between his understanding of G-d's ways, and everyday reality. As the two became more distant, a deeper relationship grew based on man's aspirations.

When Eden or even the post-Edenic world gave man everything he needed to understand G-d, the Abrahamic world denied him this understanding and thus forced him to grow and labor spiritually.

Man, as in the Song of Songs and countless other works, is forced to hunt for G-d, to have faith, and to embark on a journey of faith to find G-d. And this is what makes man spiritual and moral.

Love requires striving, together or mutually, the tenuousness of existence, the absence of its existence in the past, present or future (that is why Adam and Chava were created separately) and the obscure mysteries of the other.

Through faith, there could finally be love, between man and G-d, and between human beings, because life now had mystery, our relationship with G-d had become more obscure, man had to strive to connect with G-d, and G-d with man, the relationship was tenuous and went in and out.

The world did not become perfected through Avraham's faith. In some ways, it became less so.

Lifespans already short, continued to shorten. And the presence of G-d, once accessible to many, receded to a privileged few, and then to hardly anyone or perhaps even no one. Life had become even less comfortable. But that discomfort began a journey. And that journey continues today.

The seeming withdrawal of G-d, the irrationality of a world in which good people suffer and bad people thrive, forces us to seek G-d, to strive for Godliness and for a Godly world. Absence makes the heart fonder. And the seemingly absence forced us, beginning with Avraham, to develop the spiritual tools of faith and love to find G-d.

The journey of Lech Lecha, of the exodus and the exiles, is the journey of man and of the Jewish people who embody that unique human crisis as no other, continues today.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Purim and the Redemption of the Tree of Knowledge

"Haman min ha'Torah minayin?" The gemara famously asks. 

Where in the Torah do we see Haman?

The unexpected answer to this odd question is, "Hamin haetz". The question that G-d asks Adam and Chava. "Did you eat from the tree I forbade you to eat from?"

What's the connection between the two very different parts of the Torah?

Bereishis comes at the beginning of the Torah. The story of Purim comes at the end.

What is the connection between the Etz HaDaat, the tree of knowledge, and Purim?

Purim's most famous mitzvah is drinking ad de lo today, until you can't tell apart Haman and Mordechai.

One view is that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the grapevine.

Wine is also the driving force behind Purim, Ahasverosh gets drunk, disposes of Vashti, marries Esther, gets drunk again and disposes of Haman.

Wine is the classic example of the Etz HaDaat. It mixes together good and evil. It unleashes the good and the bad in a person. It exposes a person to new knowledge both good and bad.

The grapevine disgraces Adam and Chava. It disgraces Ahasverosh but that disgrace paradoxically leads to his redemption.

The Haman, the Iago of the Purim story, manipulates Ahasverosh with wine. Esther, like Chava, also manipulates Ahasverosh with wine. But unlike Chava, Esther uses wine to bring out a better self of Ahasverosh, and redeems the Etz HaDaat. And in celebration we drink.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Parshas Devarim - The First Born and the Hidden Holocaust

A census is a boring thing and many people skip over the biblical tallies of the members of one tribe after another. Thousands of years later, who cares and why does it matter?

And yet, as demographers and statisticians will tell you, there are important stories buried in population numbers. There's a disturbing and fascinating one buried in the Jewish census.

After going through the counts of the various tribes, which range from the fifty and sixty thousands to the low thirties. The Levites, which are the least of the tribes, are counted separately. Unlike the Israelite census, which counted only men from twenty to sixty, the Levites were counted from a month of age. And they still only numbered 22,000.

Then the ritual of the redemption of the First Born was performed. The Levites were exchanged for the First Born, who had been sanctified by G-d, for the Levites. There are slightly more First Born Israelites than there are Levites and they are redeemed separately.

What's going on here?

To understand, let's look at those numbers again.

The Jewish people compromise over 600,000 men but little more than 22,000 first born sons.

Those numbers clearly don't add up and make for a ratio of around 1 to 27 first born to the total number of men.

If you take six families, assume that they have 5 children each, for a total of 30 children, and in half the families a son will be born first, then you have 3 first born males to 15 sons for a ratio of 1 to 5.

Why are there so few first born then among the Jews?

There are two possible answers.

1. We are told that in response to the Egyptian genocide, G-d blessed the Jews with fruitfulness. It's unknown how many children they had, but the count of the first-born would suggest that each family had well over a dozen children. No wonder the Egyptians were terrified of this baby boom.

2. When Pharaoh commanded the death of the boys born to the Jews, G-d could bless the family with yet more children, but not with more first-born. There can only be one first-born.

The number of first-born reveals the scale of the Egyptian genocide.

What should have been a 1/5 rate of 125,000 first-born instead became a 1/27 ratio of a little over 22,000. At a similar ratio, the number of Jewish boys killed by the Egyptians might have been in the millions making it the first Holocaust.

This also explains why the Jewish first-born were so special, they were miracle children and very few of them had been kept alive by their parents.

And it also explains why the final plague on Egypt was the death of the first-born.

Pharaoh had nearly wiped out the first-born of the Jews. And in return, G-d wiped out the first-born of Egypt.

In G-d's message to Pharaoh, He describes Israel as His first-born. The first-born child is special to the father. It is the symbol of his aspiration and hope for the future.

By eradicating the first-born, Pharaoh crushed the spirits of Jewish families. By slaying the first-born of Egypt, G-d broke the spirit of Pharaoh.

Like so much else in the Torah, we learn great things from small references, from numbers and from the secrets hiding between the lines of the word of G-d.