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.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Parshas Vayeishev - The Wisdom of Dreams

At the very beginning of Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef is referred to as a 'Na'ar', a lad, an immature boy, in comparison to all his older brothers. And yet, we are told in the next pasuk that his father Yaakov loved him because he was a "Ben zekunim". One of the meanings of that phrase is that Yosef was sagely, he was wise in the way that the old are.

How could Yosef be both young and old? How could his brothers see him as an immature boy trying to take what was rightfully theirs while his father saw him as sagely?

One of the meanings of Avrech, the name that he is hailed by in Egypt, is young in years but a father in wisdom.

That's still the term we use for a young married man who learns Torah in an academic setting.

How could Yosef be both old and young, wise and immature at the same time? And what can we learn from him?

Why did Yosef's brothers hate him so much? It was his dreams that infuriated them. And they refer to him only sourly as the "Baal Hahalomot" or the "Master of Dreams". A similar term in Yiddish would be "Luftmensch". A man who doesn't properly exist in this world. But instead lives in a fantasy world.

It wasn't that his brothers did not have their own dreams. But for most people growing up requires putting aside one's dreams. Or at the very least keeping them private, instead of sharing them, as Yosef did.

The brothers saw Yosef's dreams as a sign of immaturity and irresponsibility. Instead of taking on an adult role, Yosef was retreating into a fantasy world in which he mattered more than they did.

And, to their minds, their father refused to discipline him because was too caught up in mourning his dead wife.

The brothers resented Yosef, but they also envied him. They envied him in the way that anyone who was forced to put aside dreams must envy someone who still believes in them. And so they cruelly chose to destroy his dreams to assure themselves that they had made the right decision.

By killing Yosef's dreams, they were also killing their own dreams.

But dreams also contain their own wisdom. That was Yosef's gift. Each of the brothers had inherited something special from their father. Yaakov's gifts had been divided into twelve.

Reuven had his quick temper. Yehuda had his leadership qualities. Levi had his zealousness. Naftali had his speed. Zevulun had his talents for business. But Yosef had his dreams. And it was Yaakov's dreams that took him from Beit El and returned him there. They enabled him to see a vision of the ladder of heaven that reached earth. Dreams allowed Yaakov to reach the divine.

And that was why Yaakov understood Yosef's gift of dreams in a way that none of the brothers did.

Dreaming requires both wisdom and youthful naiveté. The dreamer believes in the impossible and gains depths of inspiration.

Yosef was the best kind of dreamer. Like his father, he could take a vision, be enraptured by it, and yet translate it into practical solutions to real world problems, like dealing with a famine.

To the brothers, the world was a wholly tangible place. It is why Yehuda could never think that behind the veil of the woman he had just propositioned might be his son's widow.

Such unlikely things did not happen in his world.

Yehuda's stolidity was an important quality. It allowed him to confront Yosef and offer to sell himself into slavery. Because just as he could not imagine that the veiled woman was his daughter-in-law, he could not imagine that the cruel Viceroy about to drag away his brother in chains was also his brother.

Like the other brothers, Yehuda lived in the real world. But Yosef's talent for dreaming, for imagining, allowed him to transcend the ordinary, and to see how the ordinary could be transcended. It allowed him to execute the complex narrative of deception and revelation that ends when he confronts his brothers with his true identity. And in doing so he shows them that what they believe is the real world can be nothing more than a dream.

This was Yosef's special wisdom. It is both the wisdom of the child who hasn't yet learned the rules of the world and also of the old man who knows how absurd the world can be.

Yosef could bring his dreams into the real world. And transform the world.

That is what Yaakov sensed about him. The brothers were correct. He was indeed a Baal Hahalomot.

The unreality of the world is an essential religious virtue. The truly religious person understands that our reality is not final. The dirt beneath our hands and the sky above our heads can shift places at any time. The world is the product of G-d's will and it is far more marvelous than we can imagine.

Beyond our daily lives and limitations is an incredible dream. It is G-d's dream.

It is easy to forget that as we cope with our daily challenges. Yosef's brothers, struggling to wrest a living from their herds, had lost sight of that. They resented Yosef's dreams. They didn't want to think of the world as a place that could come apart around them at any moment. Yaakov however understood that the world was far too unstable a place to take it for granted. He knew that at any moment, angels might appear and animals might change their stripes. He knew that there was a ladder reaching from heaven to the earth.

Yosef's challenge was that of every dreamer. He had to convince a skeptical public that a dream can become a reality. And to do that he had to, like his father, go on a journey, wrestle with men and women whose imaginations roved no further than their greedy appetites, and then he had to wait for the moment that would open the sky and show them the truth.

And so Yosef was immature enough to see the world as a place that could be changed by a dream and wise enough to understand the meanings of dreams and the nature of the world to be able to make his dreams real.

Some people feel that they must choose between their dreams and their goals. But the wisdom of dreams unites them both.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Parshas Haazinu and Rosh Hashana: A Song and Holiday of the Future

Haazinu is one of the Torah's songs. And yet it's different from what we think of as a song.

Consider the Shirat Al HaYam, the song after the splitting of the sea, or the song that King David sings in an alternate haftorah for the Parsha (if it wasn't read between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) in gratitude to G-d for His salvation. Haazinu is quite different. In two ways.

Rosh Hashana is different from all other Yomim Tovim, holidays, in the same two ways that Haazinu is different from the Torah's other songs.

Yom Tov means, literally, a good day. And that's what holidays generally are. They are days on which we celebrate G-d's goodness, His past miracles and what they mean for our lives and our religion.

Rosh Hashana is rather less celebratory. It has its holiday aspect, but it is also a time of judgment when Sifrei Chayim U'Meitim, the books of life and death are open, and when our fate for the year is determined. It is a time of feasting and celebrating, but also of atonement and repentance.

And there is some discussion as to how much Rosh Hashana should tilt toward happiness or sadness.

Haazinu may be a song, but it too shares that ambiguous duality. Its poetry is offset by the grimness of its prophecies. Like Rosh Hashana, it ends with an ultimate salvation, but not before fear, trepidation and difficulty.

Rosh Hashana and Haazinu are not unambiguously happy. Instead they are both mixed. Why is that?

The second unique aspect of Rosh Hashana is that it is about the future. Jewish holidays generally look to the past for meaning. Pesach celebrates our exodus from Egypt, Shavuos reflects the giving of the Torah, Succos, the sheltering protection of G-d after the exodus, Purim and Chanukah also commemorate historical salvations.

Rosh Hashana (like Yom Kippur) however is a holiday of the future. We may look back at our deeds, but we are really looking forward to the year to come. We look to the future.

Haazinu likewise looks to the future. Most songs celebrate a salvation that already took place. However Haazinu looks forward to the challenges and difficulties of a time yet to come. Its salvation, like that of Rosh Hashana, takes place in the future.

And that explains their ambiguity.

It is easy to have a clear view of the past. Most of our holidays and fasts are unambiguous, either celebrating a miracle or mourning a tragedy. Rosh Hashana contains a little bit of both because the future is uncertain and unresolved. And even when, as Haazinu, it can be foretold, there is both tragedy and triumph in an unexperienced future that has not yet been resolved by our selective memories into either an unambivalent celebration or mourning.

The future contains both tragedy and triumph, home and despair, pain and joy. We don't quite know the outcome. But we know that we will have to live through it.

It is with this trepidation that we face the future. This is the power of Rosh Hashana and Haazinu.

We often look to the past. But it is the future that resolves our lives and our history. And to live out that future, we turn to G-d. The past can be known, but it is the unknowns of the future that remind us of our limitation. The future is the essence of mortality. It goes on. It is often beyond our control.

And though we can wholeheartedly celebrate or mourn the past, we turn to the future with hope and dread. We turn to the Author of the future asking Him for a better year and a better song.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Parshas Devarim - Fearlessness Through Faith

Fearlessness through faith is the theme of Devarim.

G-d and Moshe repeatedly tell the Jews not to fear. Indeed the conclusion of Devarim declares, "Do not fear them, for it is the Lord G-d that fights for you."

Why are the Jews repeatedly being told not to fear?

Devarim begins with the failed journey from Mount Sinai to Israel. That journey is aborted by the fear of the conquest. The Jews turn on Moshe and on G-d. And they are exiled to wander in the desert for 40 years. Now the Jews are once again told to advance and conquer, without fear.

Why is this generation more fit for the task than the one that left Egypt?

The Parsha uses two very similar phrases. First, at Har Sinai, "You have dwelled long enough in the mountain, turn and journey..." (Devarim 1:6) Then, after wandering in the desert, "You have spent enough time circling this mountain, turn around..." (Devarim 2:3) That second mountain is Har Seir.

The contrast could not be greater between Mount Sinai, the mountain of G-d, and Mount Seir, the essence of Edom and exile.

After a little time of dwelling at Har Sinai, of living in comfort, the Jews no longer had the determination and the fearlessness to conquer Eretz Yisrael. They had been dwelling in the ultimate place of faith, they had seen the miracles of the Ten Commandments, and yet they lacked faith when it came to an arduous challenge.

But after wandering for forty years in the desert, of being flush against Har Seir, the mountain of the ultimate enemy, of living in exile, they did have the faith to conquer and prevail.

Devarim begins with a curious phrase. Hoyil Moshe Be'er et Hatorah Hazot. Moshe began to expound the Torah.

We would expect the recitation of the Ten Commandments to follow. But that comes later. Or at least some laws. Instead Moshe discusses the departure from Sinai and the journey to Israel.

You have dwelled long enough in the mountain, turn and journey..."

How can the Torah begin where it seemingly ends? But the Torah truly begins when you put it into practice. When you measure it against the world, as the Jews did, and either succeed or are found wanting. Tests of faith determine whether our learning is meaningful or rote.

Moshe's recitation of the Torah begins with the first test of the Jewish people. After learning and living in peace, they lacked the faith to be fearless. It was only after they endured the exile, that they had the faith to overcome the fear. Only then could they truly believe that G-d would fight for them.

When you grapple with Edom, you can truly believe that G-d can help you overcome.

Fearlessness requires experience with fear. Faith requires tests.