Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parshas Besalach - The Bowing of the Moon

The Midrash famously comments on the splitting of the sea that the sea "saw" Arono Shel Yosef, the bones of Yosef and split in his merit. Is there any basis for such a reading in the Torah?

Right before the sea splits, some Jews famously scream at Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?" (Shemos 14:11). This can be read as poetic phrasing, but it could also be viewed as a taunt in response to Yosef's casket proceeding forward.

A casket being carried forward could have inspired the taunt of, "Were there no graves in Egypt".

We are told that Moshe personally took Yosef's bones with him. (Shemos 13:19). Did Moshe, who was then quite old personally dig up or carry the bones? Unlikely, among other things it would have made him tameh/impure. But it does suggest that the casket had a pride of place in the procession.

Certainly if the sea split in response to it, it was at the front.

But we know that Yosef's bones were not the only ones carried out of Egypt. The other brothers are also buried in Israel. Yet Yosef is the only one mentioned. Why did Moshe become personally involved with his remains and why are the remains of the other brothers not mentioned?

Moshe and Yosef had a good deal in common. Both spent time among Egyptian royalty, yet put their fellow Jews first. Both were exiles who were cut off from their families. Both named their sons after their isolation in exile. Both were chosen to save the Jewish people, one by leading them to Egypt, the other by leading them out of Egypt.

Yosef was the first slave, the first Jew to be enslaved in Egypt. Moshe was the last slave, the first Jew to gain his freedom.

Yosef passed on the message, Pakod, Yifkod, G-d will surely remember you, to the Jews and made them swear an oath to bring him up out of Egypt. (Bereishis 50:24-45) That's the same message that G-d directed Moshe to bring to the Jews. Pakod, Pokadti, I have surely remembered. (Shemos 3:16).

Moshe was fulfilling a promise that the Jews had made to Yosef. The last slave was freeing the first slave.

And yet, what does this have to do with the sea? Yosef had many merits, but why would the sea particularly split for him?

As a child, Yosef famously dreamed that the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing to him. His father rebuked him for it. "Am I to come with your mother and brothers to bow to you to the ground?" (Bereishis 37:10). Yosef's mother was dead so the dream indeed seemed impossible.

The moon, representing Rochel, had already faded from the sky.

Yosef's brothers did bow to him. So did Yaakov. His brothers bowed to him because he saved them from starvation. His father bowed to him for the promise that he made to take his father's remains back to Israel for burial. But his mother never bowed to him. And he had not done anything for her.

So how did the dream come true?

Rochel is known as the mother of exiles, the one who pleads for the return of the Jewish people to their land. Slavery in Egypt was the first exile. The original exile. And her son was the only one of the children of Yaakov to be exiled. For the Jews to return, the sea had to split.

What did Yosef do for the moon? The Jewish calendar is lunar. While Rosh Hashana, the new year, is when the new year begins, Nissan, the month of the Jewish departure from Egypt, is considered the first month.

Before the final plague, G-d tells Moshe, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (Shemos 12:2) Without Yosef, Nissan would not be the first month. And so the moon "bowed". The tides of the sea split it apart. And the Jews began the long journey home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parshas Bo - For Whom Do We Toil

We are all familiar with "Let my people go". But Pharaoh's final sticking point wasn't the people. He first insisted that only the men be allowed to go. But after the plague of darkness, he says, "Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you."

Moshe however insists, "Thou as well will also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come there." (Shemos 10:24-26)

And for the first time, Pharaoh threatens Moshe with death. After the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh tells Moshe, "Take both your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also." (Shemos 12:32)

What can be the significance of cattle compared to that of human beings? And yet in the plague of the firstborn, along with all of the human firstborn who are slain, "from the first-born of Pharaoh" down to "the first-born of cattle".

Two of the final devastating set of plagues focus on cattle and it is emphasized that, "The LORD shall make a division between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt; and there shall nothing die of all that belongs to the children of Israel." (Shemos 9:4).

Finally, even as the Jews are leaving Egypt, they are given a command to, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.'" (Shemos 13:2)

Why are mere cattle endowed with so much significance that G-d not only makes a special distinction between the flocks of the Jews and those of Egyptians, and that Pharaoh even especially notes this. "And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go." (Shemos 9:7)

Why kill the firstborn of the cattle and why is one of the first commandments to the Jews regarding the sanctification of the first born of cattle? And why does Pharaoh make the flocks of the Jews into his final sticking point, being willing to let the Jewish people go, but not their animals?

To understand this, let's go back a little further.

The last message that G-d gives Moshe for Pharaoh, before he enters Egypt, is one that we never see him actually deliver. "And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. 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." (Shemos 4:22-23)

What is the significance of the first born? It's the portion that belongs to G-d as acknowledgement that everything comes from Him. That was the essence of the dispute between Kayin and Hevel, Cain and Abel. Hevel brought G-d "of the firstlings of his flock" while Kayin just brought offerings. (Bereishis 4:4).

Bringing the "firstlings of his flock" was the essence of religion at the time because it worshiped G-d by stating that everything came about because of Him and that human labor was only made productive by G-d.

The first born of human beings were priests who brought the first born of cattle and fruits as offerings to G-d. Israel was G-d's "first born son" that was meant to serve Him. "Israel is the LORD'S hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase; all that devour him shall be held guilty, evil shall come upon them, saith the LORD." (Jeremiah 2:3)

The flocks mattered because they were the ultimate statement that Israel served G-d. Many people pay lip service to religion. They say things, but don't really mean them. It's what people do with the first products of their labor that show where their priorities are. Possessiveness is corrupting.

Pharaoh wanted to hold on to the Jews badly enough to destroy Egypt. He would rather kill them than let them go. And if he had to let them go, he would at least hold on to their flocks. By sacrificing to G-d, the Jews would be saying that their labor all along had been for G-d, not Pharaoh.

They had never been truly enslaved by Pharaoh. They had only been in Egypt because G-d had decided it. This would retroactively nullify everything that Pharaoh had done to them.

Sacrificing to G-d was the "abomination of Egypt" (Shemos 8:22). It was the opposite of a culture of slavery where the Jews were meant to be toiling for Pharaoh and their Egyptian masters. There was no room for G-d in such an arrangement. Pharaoh was willing to let the Jews go to worship G-d, but to let them take all their flocks would mean a final sundering of his power to over them and his rivalry with G-d.

Pharaoh refused to give over his first born cattle to G-d and acknowledge that Egypt had only survived because of the divine help through Yosef. He refused to allow G-d's first born to serve Him. And in the final extremity he refused to allow their labor to be for G-d, rather than Pharaoh.

The fundamental question of human life is for whom do we toil. Do we toil for institutions and corporations, for pharaohs and governments, to satisfy the desires they create for us, or do we toil for G-d?

That was the fundamental question of the Exodus. It's still the fundamental human question. The flocks were the physical expression of human labor. To have faith, was to believe that they had come about through G-d. To have faith, was therefore to toil for G-d. Every man did not have to be a priest, but every man and woman had to acknowledge that the work of their hands had come from G-d.

This was the abomination of Egypt, unacceptable to a slave culture, where men worked by the will of other men to produce unearned wealth. The question of the Exodus was whether the Jews would serve G-d or Pharaoh. The plagues did not settle the question, neither for Pharaoh or the Jews. It's still the question of human history for all of us, Jewish and non-Jewish. Force alone does not settle the question. It only temporarily clarifies it for tyrants. The final answer must come from the human heart.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Parshas Vaera - A Man's House is His Palace

With Parshas Vaera, the process of subjecting Pharaoh and Egypt to a series of plagues begins. Certain plagues Pharaoh resists. Others he is intimidated by and submits to.

Is there a pattern?

Moshe and Aaron turn the Nile to blood, and despite the disturbing threat to the survival of a nation that depends on the river, we are told that "Pharaoh turned and went into his house". (Shemos 7:23)

And so for the next plague, G-d sends a more personal threat to Pharaoh. The frogs will "go up and come into thy house, and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs."

G-d places the order of the infestation as the order of importance that these events have to Pharaoh.

When his people were suffering, Pharaoh retreated to his house, his palace, and let his people dig for drinking water. But now the plague, even though seemingly less harmful and threatening, will impact directly on him, and make its way into his most intimate quarters leaving him no place to retreat to.

If he enters his home, the plague will be there. If he locks the door of his bedchamber, he will not escape it.


For the first time, Pharaoh surrenders. And he pleads with Moshe to "take away the frogs from me, and from my people". First comes Pharaoh. Then come his people.

The next plague contains no mention of Pharaoh's home and so he does not surrender. But the plague after that, wild beasts, does. It first comes "into the house of Pharaoh" (Shemos 8:20) and once again Pharaoh frantically submits. And Moshe, very aware by now of Pharaoh's set of priorities, promises that the plague will be removed from, "Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people".

The next plague kills all the cattle, but does not affect Pharaoh and so he does not submit. The plague after that causes plenty of human misery, but again does not seem to affect him in particular either.

After that, G-d sends a more direct message to Pharaoh, "I will this time send all My plagues upon thy person, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people". And yet this time the plague, hail, does not appear to affect Pharaoh particularly. Yet once again there is a mention of houses.


"Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought into the house, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.' He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses;" (Shemos 9:19-21)

The moral was a simple one. Each time Pharaoh had determined his response based on what the personal impact upon him was. If the plague affected his "house", he summoned Moshe and pleaded for relief. If it didn't, he allowed his people to suffer.

"House" had come to stand for selfishness. A personal space that a man could use to shut himself off from the pain of others.

Pharaoh's house was his ego.

The plague of hail offered Pharaoh and other Egyptians a chance to save not only their livestock, but their servants, as long as they were willing to listen to G-d and open up their houses. If they wouldn't, they would ultimately suffer.

It is this which causes Pharaoh to submit for the first time, even though he isn't personally threatened, with a unique admission of guilt. "And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: 'I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are the wicked ones."(Shemos 9:27)

With the next plague, locusts, with its threat of them filling "thy houses and the houses of all thy servants", Pharaoh attempts to preemptively surrender, but then hardens his heart. The final plague strikes all of Egypt, including the house of Pharaoh, so there is "not a house where there was not one dead."

The climax of the selfishness, the lack of empathy which had brought Pharaoh and his people to this pass, their lack of concern for anyone outside their own "house" was that every house had to suffer the ultimate price.

In sharp contrast to this are the midwives who defied Pharaoh's decree to kill the Jewish firstborn. As a reward, "And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses." (Shemos 1:21).

"If the Lord does not build the house, its builders labor in vain." (Psalms 127:1).

Pharaoh exploited Jewish labor on massive construction projects for his own glorification, only to see it all come apart. The Egyptian ruler had put his trust in physical houses, in fortifications that he could use to leverage his power, hiding behind walls, but G-d could penetrate those walls in any number of ways.

The House of Egypt was built on selfishness, on disregard for others, and so its punishment lay in forcing Pharaoh to recognize his own guilt, not his hostility toward the Jews, as neither he nor the Egyptians would have considered that a crime, but his disregard for his own people and everyone who wasn't him. This was the point that G-d made in the plague of hail. G-d showed more regard for the Egyptians, even as He was punishing them, than Pharaoh ever did.

Jewish houses were built by G-d based on values. They could not and would not endure without them. The houses of the midwives were dynasties, not mere buildings. Many of the houses of Egypt still survive as curiosities and wonders, but the people are long gone while the dynasties of the midwives still endure.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Parshas Shemos - No Religion Without a Nation

In Parshas Shemos, G-d's message to Pharaoh isn't so much, "Let my people go" as "Let my people go for three days".

While G-d's message to the Jews is that he will bring them to Israel, His message to Pharaoh is, "And now let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our G-d."

Why does G-d tell Moshe to try and trick Pharaoh, a trick which doesn't work in any case? Since G-d already tells Moshe that Pharaoh will only let them go after a great deal of punishment has been meted out, why bother with the ruse?

To understand that, let's examine why Pharaoh didn't want to let the Jews go. Pharaoh's plan for enslavement begins with the fear that the Jews will escape Egypt. But why worry about the Jews leaving if they haven't even been enslaved yet?

And if Pharaoh wants to enslave the Jews, why does he then start trying to kill them?

If the goal is to rid Egypt of Jews because they are becoming numerous, letting them leave would have solved the problem. If the goal is to benefit from their slave labor, why kill them?

Pharaoh's behavior toward the Jews is contradictory. Moshe's three day proposal exposes that contradiction.

If Pharaoh is only interested in exploiting the Jews as slave labor, the three day proposal is no great loss. Especially compared to the economic losses of the actual plagues. When Pharaoh shows that he is willing to take great losses rather than let the Jews leave for a brief holiday, he is demonstrating that he is not motivated by economic considerations.

Pharaoh's response to Moshe begins with an extended rejection of G-d. He lashes out at the Jews as lazy for wanting to worship G-d.

The three-day proposal is not really intended for Pharaoh. It's a demonstration for the Jews, that Pharaoh is not just a greedy tyrant who wants slave labor, not does he just hate them as a purely xenophobic reaction. He would rather see Egypt destroyed than allow Jews to live by their faith.

What was the real purpose of slavery? Had Avraham committed a sin that his descendants were destined to descend to Egypt and be enslaved?

Egypt was a lesson. It was a lesson that the Jews had to live as a nation in their own land. Even the nicest exile would decay into hostility and hatred over Judaism. The Pharaohs might find Jews useful as financiers, officials and tradesmen, but no matter how they adapted, religion would always remain a source of friction.

The paradoxical hatred of the Pharaohs for the Jews embodied the contradictions of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh feared the Jews would leave, but wanted to destroy them. He worked them to death, but accused them of being lazy. He would rather see Egypt ruined than allow them to worship G-d.

When the Sages state that one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael, it is as if he has no G-d, it was recognizing the fact that Jews would not be able to fully worship G-d without their own nation. 

Before Egypt, the children of Israel might have thought that they could go on as they were in a nomadic existence and still worship G-d, that they could have a religion and a people without a nation.

Pharaoh's refusal to even release them for three days at the cost of the destruction of Egypt showed them that the freedom to worship G-d is also dependent on physical freedom. To fully worship G-d, they also had to have the freedom to do by having their own nation.

G-d's three day offer to Pharaoh showed the Jews that Pharaoh did not just want slaves, but that his anti-Semitism was motivated by a hatred of their religion because of G-d. In later times, some Jews in the desert would complain that they had been forced to leave Egypt. The three day offer was a reminder why. If Pharaoh couldn't allow them to worship G-d for three days, then they could only truly live as Jews in an independent nation that would always leave them free to worship G-d.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Parshas Vayeshev - Repentance and Exile

Parshas Vayeshev seems to start out following a very familiar narrative. The good brother and the bad ones. A father who doesn't quite seem to know what's going and sibling rivalry that escalates into a conflict between good and evil and will serve to define a nation.

And yet, unlike Yishmael and Esav, all of the brothers remain as the founders of the Jewish Nation.

Why is that? Once the brothers have kidnapped and sold Yosef into slavery, shouldn't they have been cast out as a lost cause the way that Esav and Yishmael were? How is that reconciliation proved possible here and not in the past?

To start with, it helps to look at what's missing. G-d.

None of the brothers mention G-d in Parshas Vayeshev at all. Nor does Yosef mention G-d until he refuses the demand of Potiphar's wife and at the very end where he is given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh's servants.

After Yehuda has masterminded the sale of Yosef, both brothers go into exile. Yosef and Yehuda are both parted from the family, Yosef involuntarily and Yehuda by choice. Yehuda goes off and marries an inappropriate Caananite woman, a culture that Avraham and Yitzchak had specifically disapproved of marrying into. Yehuda appears to be going down the same road as Esav, having entered into hostilities with his brother and then started a family that was unacceptable within the nation.

When Yosef is tempted with an inappropriate relationship by Potiphar's wife, he refuses her saying that it would be a sin against G-d. This is the first time Yosef mentions G-d. Yehuda gives in to an inappropriate relationship leading to a family tragedy and the death of his two unworthy sons. One tragedy leads to another and Tamar refuses being an eternal widow and degrades herself to have children by him. Yehuda orders her burned in what would be a tragic culmination of everything.

But when Tamar shows him the pledges, Yehuda concedes the righteousness of her case. And in doing so he admits that there is a superior moral authority to his. That everything isn't settled by superior force.

While Yosef travels his spiritual journey in physical exile, Yehuda travels his spiritual journey in spiritual exile. By acknowledging Tamar's claim, he also returns to G-d and he becomes worthy to have children who will become the leading royal dynasty of Israel. This dynasty will begin with King David, who like his ancestor, admits when has done something wrong and repents.

The first time any of the brothers mention G-d is when after their confrontation with Yosef, in his role as Viceroy of Egypt, they find that the money has been secretly returned to them. And they ask, "What is it that G-d has done to us"?

While Yosef, even as an Egyptian Viceroy, constantly mentions G-d in his conversations with them, this is the first time the brothers mention G-d. And they do so in a moment of recognition that they are being punished.

(To see the contrast, consider the difference between the way that the brothers speak and that even the man over Yosef's household talks, saying to them, "Your G-d, and the G-d of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks".)

The first time that a named brother references G-d is Yehuda. It's he who states, "G-d hath found out the iniquity of thy servants". The next and final time that the brothers mention G-d is during their message to Yosef. "We pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of thy father."

The first mention of G-d is a question. What is G-d doing to us? Why are we being punished. It is fittingly Yehuda who offers the second mention, a concession that they had done wrong and were being punished by G-d. And the third and final reference names the brothers as servants of G-d asking forgiveness of the one they had injured in the final point of repentance.

This was why the stories of the bad brothers and the good brothers, the Yishmaels and Yitzchaks, the Esavs and Yaakovs, could come to an end. Even after terrible things, the brothers could be reconciled through a common faith in G-d and the recognition of a superior moral authority. This Esav and Yishmael could not do. It was why they and their descendants were permanently sundered from the Jewish people.

Esav never ceased to be angry at Yaakov. Yishmael never stopped his evildoing. Yehuda and the brothers had.

We all make mistakes. The Torah is not the narrative of perfect people who never did any wrong. It's the story of human beings, who had their weaknesses, but overcame them. Or didn't. Who made mistakes and then learned from them. Or didn't.

Even the horrifying actions of Yehuda and the brothers, the pain they inflicted on their brother and father, did not permanently close the door on them. The story of their conflict with Yosef is really the story of two exiles, the physical exile of Yosef and their spiritual exile, and their reunification as "servants of G-d" in a physical exile that would give way to a physical and spiritual redemption.

Yehuda and Yosef were both "lost" for a while. Yosef was lost physically. Yehuda lost his sense of right and wrong, his religion, his knowledge that G-d, not his will, was the true moral arbiter.

Yosef's story culminates with him saving his brothers, not merely from a physical famine, but spiritually by teaching them about G-d. The culmination of Yosef's life comes with him telling his brothers that G-d had intended everything that had happened and made it come out for good. That is the lesson that he had learned in Egypt. It's the lesson of all the exiles of Jewish history.

"What is it that G-d has done to us"?, "G-d hath found out the iniquity of thy servants" and "We pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of thy father" are the stages of repentance.

Yosef brings his brothers through to the final stage. The brothers initially submit to Yosef, but in the climax they submit to G-d. But it is Yehuda's repentance that brings the journey, entirely apart from his exiled brother, when he concedes that, "She is more righteous than me." In that moment, Yehuda conquered his ego, which had caused him and his brothers to commit a horrifying crime. He conceded that he had done something wrong. This is the first step of repentance.

It is what neither Yishmael nor Esav could ever do. Like Lavan, they could never admit they were wrong and so they were incapable of religion. Like the Pharaoh challenged by Moshe, there was no room in their hearts for G-d.

The Sages say that one who conquers himself is mightier than the conqueror of a city. Yehuda's repentance enabled him to begin a journey that made him the leader of the family in truth, not merely through force of personality, but through sacrifice and repentance.

It is Yehuda, not Yosef, who ultimately becomes the leader, because while Yosef is righteous, it is Yehuda who can return from a spiritual exile and find G-d again, and it is this quality that Israel would need more than any other. Yosef's dreams made him a prophet, but repentance is still needed even when the people have become unworthy of prophecy.   

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Parshas Vayislach - Lifting the Name of Exile

Parshas Vayislach begins with Yaakov appeasing Esav and the climax of its action is the abduction of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem by Yaakov's sons to his disapproval.

The question of whether Yaakov should have appeased Esav has been the subject of some debate among the Rabbis. And yet what stands out at the close of the previous Parsha, in Yaakov's confrontation with Laban and his entire history is the avoidance of conflict.

From the beginning Yaakov is described as Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim. He's a mild-mannered man who stays in the tent while his brother Esav goes out and hunts.

And yet Yaakov is not weak. He's able to lift the rock from the well, a physical feat that it takes all the shepherds to accomplish, and he wrestles with an angel. Nor is he a coward. He doesn't flee either Esav or Lavan until he is told to do so, respectively by his mother and G-d. He is even born wrestling with Esav, gripping his older brother by the heel.

What is it about confrontation that bothers him so much? We have a hint of it when he curses Shimon and Levi on his deathbed for their massacre of Shechem. He doesn't curse them. Instead he says, Arur Appam. He curses their anger.

Anger is also an attribute closely associated with Esav. 

Of Edom, the Prophet Amos says, "For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever." (Amos 1:11)

Despite the temporary reconciliation with Yaakov at the beginning of the parsha, Esav is unable to abandon a grudge. By the end of the parsha, he has left to find space away from Yaakov, a split that like that of Avraham and Lot, foreshadows a larger breach between peoples.

Yaakov rejects this endless hatred. The burning wrath. It's alien to his nature. He is an Ish Tam. A quiet man. He will do what is right, but try to do it in such a way that it angers no one.

It's why Yaakov is willing to appease Esav to try and bring out brotherly feelings in him. It's why he generally acts indirectly to take what is his, whether with Esav's birthright or Lavan's flocks.  

And yet this approach is insufficient. Yaakov's willingness to tolerate abuse rather than give in to anger allows Lavan to exploit him for decades. When driven to extremity, Yaakov finally unleashes his resentment on Lavan. It is this which finally convinces Lavan to make peace with him.

Edom's anger is a curse, but Yaakov's excessive desire to avoid conflict is also a problem. Esav can't stop hating and Yaakov hates being hated. Even when he's the victim, he doesn't want to take any course of action that will anger others and will make him seem hateful in their eyes.

"You have troubled me to make me odious in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land," he complains to his sons over the massacre.

This is still a problem for the Jewish descendants of Yaakov who fear being hated most of all. They will go to great lengths laboring for others to avoid being hated. But the actions they take to avoid being hated, like Yaakov, make them hated. The more they act indirectly, the more they are hated for it. Their avoidance of conflict leads to exploitation, conspiracy theories and contempt.

Before Yaakov's confrontation with Esav, he experiences a mysterious visitation. An angelic visitor wrestles with him until the dawn and changes his name. And yet unlike Avraham, whose name was changed permanently, Yaakov's name continues to be used, though G-d and the angel both announce that his name will no longer be known as Yaakov, but Israel.

The name Yaakov, with its reference to being born clutching Esav's heel, had a derogatory connotation to it. In the wrestling match with Esav's angel, it's Yaakov's thigh that is injured. The terms of the conflict have changed. Yaakov is no longer clutching Esav's heel. He wrestles with his angel on even terms, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh.

And he wins the name, Yisrael. He is no longer Yaakov, the clutcher of Esav's heel, but Israel, who can "wrestle with men and angels and prevail". Yet Yaakov continues to be his old self. He continues appeasing Esav. He relies on the goodwill of Hamor by buying land from him.

Yaakov or Jacob can be seen as his 'slave name'. His exile name. Yisrael or Israel is his triumphant name. It's a name that he rarely adopts and we see it mainly in his interaction with his children. It is they who can carry it because they are able to channel anger when necessary. Despite the conflict with Yosef, the climax of the story has the entire family putting aside its anger at each other.

Unlike Esav, they do not keep their wrath forever. Even when they do terrible things to each other, they forgive each other.

Why are they able to forgive each other? Joseph explains to his brothers why he does not hold on to his anger against them even though they sold him into slavery. "'Fear not; for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive."

Yaakov says something very similar to Rachel when she demands children, "Am I in the place of G-d?"

This is where Yaakov and Yosef differ from Esav. They see hardships as the work of G-d, not merely men. It is this attitude that enabled the Jews to survive for so long in exile. They saw themselves as not oppressed by men, but put through trials by G-d. The outcome is the one willed by G-d.

This is the source of their endurance. It is why G-d states that He loves Jacob, but hates Esav.

Jacob has many faults, but he ultimately turns to G-d as the author of his life. Esav does not concern himself with G-d. Instead he maintains endless grudges and hatreds for every setback. He never recognizes his own flaws or faults. Instead he is always seeking revenge for his failures.

And yet the suffering of exile, the life of Jacob, is not meant to be the permanent condition. Jacob is the most deprived of the forefathers, but he is also the path to Yisrael. The way to triumph.

Jacob allows men power over him because he believes it is G-d's will. He deals with matters indirectly, at the heel level, instead of at the thigh. Yisrael contends with men and even with angels because he believes that is G-d's will. He doesn't carry enduring grudges. Instead he does what is right. He can feel a momentary anger over an injustice without letting it consume him in pettiness.

This is what Yisrael is meant to be. It is his free name. It is the name of the end of exile.

The free Hebrew slaves could not yet become Yisrael. Instead they feared the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Caananites and nearly everyone they came across more than G-d. It was only their descendants who could enter the land.

When G-d changes Avraham's name and Sarah's name, it is right before he promises him a true son. It is at this point that his name changes. G-d changes Yaakov's name to Yisrael before the birth of Binyamin, his final son. Yet Yaakov's name continues to be used. What's missing?

In his deathbed blessings, Yaakov concludes with a blessing for Binyamin. "Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth; in the morning he devoureth the prey, and at evening he divideth the spoil.'" The evening is often believed to refer to the End of Days.

Previously, Yaakov is referred to as Yisrael in the blessing of Yosef's sons. In the climax of that blessing, he for the first time takes credit for the capture of Shechem.

"And Israel said unto Joseph: 'Behold, I die; but G-d will be with you, and bring you back unto the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.'"

Yaakov disavowed it, but Israel takes credit for it in the context of the conquest of Israel. A project that will fall to his descendants.

After Binyamin's blessing, the twelve sons are referred to as "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel".

The final transformation of Yaakov into Yisrael is an ongoing project. It will be complete with the End of Days when the wrestling match with Esav's angel will resume and be won. When evil will be defeated forever.

In the meantime the Jews carry the attributes of both Yaakov and Yisrael. Often they revert instinctively to appeasement. Other times like Shimon and Levi they refuse to tolerate oppression and pick up their swords only to be shushed by their Yaakov-brethren who fear appearing "odious" to the world.

In the climax of Ovadiah's prophecy, "the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble". In its climax, "Saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau". A judge must act fairly. He does not carry out a grudge. Instead he does what is right. He carries out justice.

It is this justice that will be the expression of Yisrael triumphant.

Yaakov understood the justice of his case against Esav and Lavan and Hamor, yet he feared to confront them with it. His sons lashed out for revenge with an anger that he deeply distrusted because it reminded him too much of his brother.

Not long ago the Jews were bedeviled by Esavs, who impose on them with force. Today they are bedeviled by Lavans who play word games and stand justice on its head in order to assault them. Then, like Hamor, they come for peace negotiations to keep what and whom they stole.

Yisrael will not act out of mere anger. The will act out of a sense of rightness. A sense of justice.

Finally then, who is Esav. Whom must Yisrael defeat and impose justice upon? While the Rabbis in the era of Roman occupation assigned the role to the imperial invaders, the answer was always in Obadiah's prophecy. Seir is not in Europe. It's in the Middle East.

Yemen is part of Edom. The Prophet Obadiah castigates it for standing by when strangers invaded Israel, looted them and then hunted down the refugees. This applies poorly to Rome, but it applies quite aptly to the Arab mercenaries who fought for Rome and other foreign invaders of Israel. Partial invasions that climaxed with the Mohammedan conquest that continues to this day.

Esav does not destroy the Temple. Instead he serves those who do, mocks the Jews on that day and loots whatever he can take. He suffers from an undying hatred of the Jewish people dating back to his ancestor. He claims that they stole his birthright. That his religion predates Judaism.

Yaakov is confronted by the descendants of Ishmael and Esav, and a dozen others, who were once Jewish or might have been Jewish, who claim a birthright that is not theirs. They carry a great wrath that tears at them. They believe that they are entitled to the birthright of Yaakov.

Like Yaakov, the Jews returned to their land while sending presents and trying to appease Esav. Yet this time the appeasement did not work. Esav remained angry forever. He would not give up his anger no matter how much Yaakov appeased him. And so Israel remains Yaakov rather than Yisrael until it contends with Esav, until it does not simply defeat him, but judges him and applies justice to him.

It is not enough to be angry at evil. When good people get angry, they often suffer from guilt over it. Evil can wear anger perpetually like Esav, but constant wrath destroys good people.

Evil must be met with true justice. Not the justice of the apologists which is appeasement. But a justice that addresses the crimes of evil. That accepts no moral equivalence. In the face of this justice, Esav is reduced to stubble. Its claims and demands, even its anger, is burned up completely.

What special power does Yisrael have that Yaakov lacks? Yisrael is the name that states that his status was won by him fairly. Yaakov can only appease Esav's wrath, but Yisrael can burn it to cinders. Yaakov apologizes for what he is. Yisrael claims it as his G-d given right.

Yaakov receives his new name from Esav's angel after defeating him, but like Avraham, he receives his new name from G-d before being blessed with a new son. The hope of the future of the Jewish people lies in raising children who need not clutch at heels, but who have the courage to be Yisrael and to contend with their enemies.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Succos - The Happiest Holiday

The Torah associates Succos with happiness more than any other holiday. It is the holiday we are told to rejoice on. It is the season of our rejoicing.

What makes Succos so happy? Why is it happier than Pesach or Shavuot, the other two of the three Regalim?

Pesach and Shavuot were both marred by rebellion and strife. At the sea, some Jews shouted at Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die in the wilderness". After the giving of the Torah, some made a golden calf. But Succos was free of any such strife.

When G-d settled the Jews in huts, there were no arguments.

This too is why the Clouds of Glory, which some believe Succos commemorates, received their own holiday, but not the miracles of manna or water. Both of these miracles were met with protests and complaints. But there were no protests or complaints over the Clouds of Glory.

Where there is argument and strife, there cannot be happiness.

Succos is the time of our rejoicing, because the Jewish response to these miracles was at its purest. It is fitting that the clouds were in honor of Aaron the High Priest, who loved peace and pursued peace, whose service was to love and bless the people. Succos comes from the same love and blessing.

The second day of creation is not described as good by G-d because the water was divided on that day between sky and sea symbolizing strife. And strife cannot be called good. What is good is the completion.

Pesach, which symbolized water, provided man's most basic necessity.  Moshe was saved from water and he led the Jews through water and helped provide them with water. Water is a basic necessity of survival, but having a basic necessity does not refine human character.

Shavuos, the next holiday in the cycle of three, celebrated bread and provided Torah. Satiation sustains a person. It gives him "something to chew on". But it doesn't provide a final resolution.

Succos provides the "house" which completes a person's place in the world. Bread and water isn't enough. It's a home that creates harmony. Succos completes the process with the final redemption, the battle of Gog and Magog to take place in Tishrei and the final rejection of the Sukkah by the world. And the ultimate Sukkah is Sukkat David, the Temple. When that is raised up again, then strife comes to an end and the purpose of the person is clarified.

It is the home that gives objects and people meaning. And so the water and the manna were accompanied by strife, but not the Sukkah. With Succos, there is home and happiness because the joy is complete.