Saturday, December 18, 2010

Parshas Vayechi - The Life of the Land and the People

Parshas Vayechi begins with Yaakov asking his son Yosef to swear a specific kind of oath to him, that he will take him out of Egypt and bury him in the land of Israel. The only other time we see such an oath applied is when Avraham obligated Eliezer to do the same, to swear to him that he would not allow Yitzchak to intermarry, that he was to take a wife only from his own people and that he would not take Yitzchak out of Israel.

Both oaths were applied when Avraham and Yaakov were nearing their end. Of Avraham it says, VeAvraham Zaken Ba Bayamim. And Avraham was aged in years. Of Yaakov it says, VaYikrevu Yemei Yisrael Lamut. And the time had come for Yisrael to die. Both of the fathers of the Jewish people, when nearing their end, looked to preserve their legacy and their heritage. To unite the past with the future. And though both men were nearing their end, the oaths are applied in Parshas with the word Chai in their title.

Avraham causes Eliezer to swear to him in Chayei Sarah. Yaakov causes Yosef to swear to him in Vayechi. Though both parshas narrate the end of their lives, they are described using Chai, because through these oaths, they lived on.

The common denominator between both oaths was the integrity of the Jewish people and the land of Israel. Avraham calls on Eliezer to provide a Jewish future for his son. A future in which he would marry a wife from his own kinfolk, while still remaining in the land that G-d had given him. Yaakov asks Yosef to bring him back to that same land, to the resting place of his forefathers. Both men were not just serving their own needs, but making a definitive statement about the unity and continuity of the land and the people.

The Jewish people could not exist had Yitzchak intermarried or abandoned the land. And it could not exist if the Jews had come to think of Egypt as their own land. That is why Avraham and Yaakov both applied the oath to the Brit, with which G-d had sealed an eternal covenant with Avraham that He would make him into a family of nations. The covenant depended as much on Yitzchak not intermarrying and remaining in the land, and on Yaakov returning to Hevron accompanied by his children, as it did on the Brit itself.

And it is why Yaakov only blesses Yosef's children after the oath, and treats them as his own sons, after the oath was taken. Because only by showing that commitment to the land and the people, could Yosef be considered worthy enough to have his children become tribes of Israel.

But one question remains. Why did Yitzchak not apply a similar oath to Yaakov, when the latter was sent off to find a wife with Lavan? Yaakov was both leaving the land and going off into a situation in which he might follow his brother's example and marry inappropriately outside his parents' supervision.

There were three conditions that caused the oaths to be applied. The first condition was that the one swearing had to have emotional resistance to carrying it out. Eliezer wanted Yitzchak to marry his own daughter. Yosef wanted his father to be with him even in death, and worried about triggering Pharaoh's wrath. The second condition was that fulfilling the oath required overcoming physical resistance by getting permission from a third party. Eliezer had to get permission to take Rivka with him. Yosef had to get permission from Pharaoh to bury his father in the Maarat HaMachpelah. The third condition was that it would take a miracle to accomplish the oath. For Eliezer it was the miracle of the well. For Yosef, it was the miracle of the Caanani kings standing aside to allow the burial to proceed. The oath of the brit invoked G-d as a partner in seeing that the oath was fully carried out.

But Yaakov had no emotional resistance to doing what his father told him. He needed no one else's permission to do it. He could carry on the Jewish mission with a perfect purity. But he did need a miracle. After leaving his father's house, he experiences a dream on Har HaMoriah, where Avraham sacrificed Yitzchak and where his own children would build the Beit Hamikdash. This bridge between the past and the potential future, the covenants of heaven and earth, formed the ladder. Here G-d repeated the covenant that his children would become a multitude and that he would be brought back to the land when all that G-d had spoken of would be fulfilled.

When Yaakov asked his son to swear, he was making him into a partner in carrying out G-d's promise. Just as Avraham had made Eliezer into a partner in carrying it out. By bringing Yaakov back to Avraham and Yitzchak, he was marking a place on a physical and spiritual map, not only an individual resting place, but a national rallying point. A plan that connected the future of his children at the end of days, with the first work of his fathers. All part of the greater covenant into which the oaths flowed. The oaths which stated that the life of the land and the people were one. That the Jewish people could not exist without a land. And the land of Israel could not exist without its people.

They might be separated at times through exile, but they would always return. Out of exile, even in death, they would return.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Parshas Miketz - Not Recognizing Your Own Brother

Parshas Miketz sees Yosef finally released from prison, given power over all of Egypt and what does he do with all that power? He prepares for a vast regional famine, yet seems to give no thought to his family. When his father finally sends his brothers down to Egypt to buy food, he puts them through a prolonged psychological torture session. Was it a need for revenge or something else? Did Yosef need to make the dreams come true so badly that he put his brothers and his father through hell? What was he really after?

When Yosef first encounters his brothers in Egypt, it tells us twice that he recognized them, and once that they did not recognize him. Why repeat that he did not recognize them twice?

First it says, וַיַּרְא יוֹסֵף אֶת-אֶחָיו, וַיַּכִּרֵם And Yosef saw his brothers and recognized them. First he saw them then he recognized them. He saw his brothers, but he did not yet recognize them as brothers. His first reaction was emotional. They had sold him into slavery in a far-off land and taken him away from his father. He saw them, he recognized them, but he did not accept them as brothers.

Then it says, וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף, אֶת-אֶחָיו; וְהֵם, לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. Now Yosef recognized them as brothers. But they did not recognize him at all. Not as a man. Nor as a brother.

What happened in between these two recognitions? Yosef asked where they came from. They told him that they had come from Canaan to buy food. With that response, Yosef knew that they still did not recognize him at all. They were here only to stock up their larder. They had not come to bring him back home. They didn't even know who he was.

When the brothers had seen him coming from afar, they had not called him their brother, but the Baal Halomot, the Master of Dreams. When they had cast him into the pit, they had not called him anything at all. When Reuven came back to retrieve him, he had called him Yeled, a child. Only when Yehuda had proposed taking him out of the pit where he been thrown to die of hunger and thirst, did he call Yosef a brother. His main argument for selling Yosef was that he was a brother.

When Yosef made them choose between slavery and starvation, he was echoing Yehuda's proposal. That is why the brothers immediately recognized in prison that they were being punished for what they had done to Yosef. Mida Keneged Mida. But Yosef was not in place of G-d, a point that he makes to the brothers later on. It is not his place to punish them. Only to make them come to the same recognition that he had. A recognition vital to the survival of the Nation of Israel.

The descent of the children of Israel to Egypt began with the arrival of the brothers, who are described as Bnei Yisrael, they are the sons of Israel in a national sense. Their descendants would be a minority in a mighty nation, eventually enslaved and broken down in every way. They would have to survive those trials and torments as a united people.

The enmity between brothers had led them to sell Yosef into slavery in Egypt. If the sons of Israel were to survive the centuries of slavery, Yosef had to know that they could put enmity aside. And so he set a simple test for them. Would they agree to escape slavery by leaving the brother that they had the least in common with in the chains of Egypt while they return home. Or would they refuse to leave a man behind.

The test that he placed for his brothers was a test of brotherhood pitted against the peril of slavery. It was only a test, but after the death of the brothers, it would become a reality. Would the sons of Israel do the bidding of their Egyptian masters and betray one another to gain more favorable treatment? Would the Pharaohs be able to pit tribe against tribe, and family against family? If that were to happen, there would be no nation to emerge from Egypt.

Despite everything he had gone through, Yosef was able to recognize his brothers as 'brothers'. He needed them to show that they would do the same for Binyamin even in the face of slavery-- setting an example for their descendants to stick together as brothers no matter what the pharaohs would do to try and break them.

Throughout the enslavement of the people of Israel, we see examples of such passive resistance, the midwives refuse to murder Jewish children, the taskmasters refuse to beat Jewish slaves. In each case, they put the welfare of the nation above their own. On the other hand we have Datan and Aviram who later play a role in instigating a tribal revolt in Levi and Reuven to gain power for themselves. When they refused to recognize Moshe's authority, they proclaim, הַעֵינֵי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵםתְּנַקֵּר--לֹא נַעֲלֶה Even if you put out the eyes of these men, we will not go up. But Yosef sought to open the eyes of his brothers and his own. He wanted to see that mutual recognition that they were all Bnei Ish Echad Anachnu, the sons of one man, not just in words, but in deeds.

And while the brothers did show they would stand up for Binyamin, their descendants would later war with one another. And throughout history the test of Yosef has not yet been fully met. We have still not recognized our brother. Or are willing to stand up for them even in the face of slavery and death.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Parshat Vayetzei - The Hands of Esav

At the very end of Parshas Vayetzei, Lavan confronts Yaakov and warns him that it is in the power of his 'hands' to do him harm, but G-d of your father 'spoke' to me and warned me against speaking to you for good or ill.

The obvious question is, if G-d had warned Lavan, then why did Lavan claim that it was in his power to do Yaakov harm. Lavan appears to be making a distinction between doing Yaakov physical harm through his "hands", and another sort of harm involving speech. Why then does G-d only warn Lavan against speaking to Yaakov, and not against physically harming him?

In the last Parsha, Yaakov disguised himself as his brother Esav and went to his father seeking his blessing. The disguise went smoothly, until Yaakov mentioned that he had come so quickly through the aid of G-d. Then Yitzchak became skeptical, wondering why he felt the "hands of Esav", but heard of the "voice of Yaakov". Nevertheless Yitzchak gives him the blessing of Esav, that of material prosperity and success. Later he also gives him the blessing of Avraham.

What was the difference between the two blessings? The first is the blessing of prosperity and power. The first blessing which Yaakov received through the wearings of the "Hands of Esav". The second blessing he received openly as the "Voice of Yaakov", was the spiritual blessing of Avraham, passed down to him by Yitzchak, which gives him the Land of Israel as a national inheritance.

When Yaakov worked for Lavan, the latter attempted to rob him in material wealth. But since Yaakov had received the blessing only in disguise through the "Hands of Esav", he had to receive material wealth in disguise as well. So he was forced to resort to a trick involving the marked and unmarked animals.

But that was not all Lavan tried to do, when he played a trick with Leah and Rachel, he was also attempting to interfere in the "Voice of Yaakov" blessing. And here he had no power. This is why the Haggadah interprets Arami Oved Avi with a second meaning of "An Aramean Tried to Destroy My Father".

When Lavan confronts Yaakov, the latter expresses worry only over Lavan seizing his family, which goes to the "Voice of Yaakov" national blessing inherited from Avraham, that he would become a great nation with many descendants that would inherit the land.

Lavan informs Yaakov that he has the power in his "hands" to do Yaakov harm. This refers to seizing his material goods. But G-d has already warned him against trying any attack on the "Voice of Yaakov" blessing, by interfering any further with his family. Instead Lavan offers Yaakov a treaty, which effectively cedes the land of Israel to Yaakov, while retaining the land on the other side of the boundary for Lavan.

Throughout history, Yaakov and his descendants might lose the material blessing of the "Hands of Esav", but they would always keep the "Voice of Yaakov" blessing of national survival and the eternal inheritance of the Land of Israel itself, which they might be exiled from, but always return to.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Parshas Lech Lecha - Shield of Avraham

In Parshas Lech Lecha, G-d appears to Avraham after the battle with the kings, and says to him, "Anochi Magen Lach", "I am your shield."

We incorporate this three times into our daily prayers (four times on Shabbat) in Shmone Esre, in the very first of the eighteen brachot, remembering our three forefathers (avot) Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. But the concluding blessing only uses one of them, Magen Avraham, Shield of Avraham. Why only Magen Avraham?

This particular blessing is so important that failing to concentrate on it requires repeating the Shmone Esre. What of the other Avot? What is so special about Avraham and about G-d's role as Magen Avraham, Shield of Avraham?

Let us look at the three descriptions leading up to it of G-d as, Melech Ozer, Moshia UMagen, the King who Aids, Saves and Shields. Each of these praises rises in stature, as is appropriate when praising G-d, by going from the lesser to the greater.

G-d as the one who aids us is the least of these. What does that mean? If we're in trouble, we call out for help, and G-d helps us get through the difficult situation. For example we're driving a car that skids out of control on a wet road, and with G-d's help, the accident isn't too bad, and after a few weeks of physical therapy, things are back to normal. We praise G-d for aiding us, because if not for Him, we would be dead or crippled.

Then there's G-d as the one who saves. So when we find ourselves in trouble, we call out to Him, and he saves us from our troubles without a scratch. So when that same car begins to slip, it pulls to a stop, with no harm done.

Then finally there's the G-d who shields. And when He shields us, we never even experience the crisis. We just drive on, never even experiencing any portent of danger. Because G-d is shielding us all the way. Now obviously this is the ideal experience. And that is why the G-d who shields is the highest level of praise.

But Shield of Avraham also requires the highest level of faith. When we experience G-d as aiding us through a difficult situation or saving us when we're in danger, it's easy to see His handiwork and know that He's protecting us. But when He's shielding us, it takes a lot of faith to remember that when nothing goes wrong, it's because of G-d acting as the Shield of Avraham.

Now let's look at each of the three Avot and how they match up to these three praises. Avraham was shielded by G-d. As a result he was never faced with any real physical threat. When he fights the kings, G-d appears afterward to tell him that he is being shielded. There is no mention of any actual danger.

On the other hand, Yitzchak does experience imminent physical danger at the Akeidah, but he's saved from it at the last moment. He experiences Hashem as Moshia. Yaakov not only experiences physical danger, he actually experiences physical harm. He's crippled by the angel, his children are abducted twice, but Hashem as the Ozer, helps him get through these troubles.

Yet if we look at the reward that G-d promises Avraham, when He tells him that "Anochi Magen Lach, Sharcha Harbeh Meod", "I am your shield, your reward will be very great", it is a long way off. Because the reward is Yitzchak, and Avraham has to wait for most of his life for that. Yitzchak has to wait for children, but less time than Avraham did. Yaakov has to wait the least amount of time (depending on which dating system you use) for children.

That is because Emunah Schar Emunim, Faith is the Reward of the Faithful. Because Avraham merited to experience G-d as a shield through his high level of faith, he was also given the privilege of living by that faith and waiting to see G-d's promise fulfilled. As it says in Habbakuk, VeTzaddik BeEmunotoh Yihyeh, The Righteous Shall Live by his Faith. Each of the forefathers embodied that in a different way.

When we recite Magen Avraham in Shmone Esre, we are reminded that we should be thankful not only for the times that G-d visibly saves or aids us, but for His shield over us, as it says later in Magen Avraham, Al Nisecha SheBekol Yom Imanu, For Your miracles that are with us daily. And so we aspire to the faith of Avraham, while praising G-d as the Shield of Avraham, who protects us from harm and peril even when we do not realize it. And if we forget, we are obligated to go back and recite the verse again, to be reminded of something that is very easy to forget, and yet so very important to remember.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Parshas Ki Sisa - A Bridge to G-d

Parshas Ki Sisa begins with the commandment to raise up the heads of the people of Israel by having them contribute a half shekel of silver. How does this contribution raise them up?

The phases of the Mishkan had involved first raising up Aharon as the Kohen Gadol, then the Kohanim as a whole, then the sons of Levi, each Kiper uplifting the designated group to a new higher state. This was the turn of the Jewish people as a whole.

As the Kohanim were analogous to the Kodesh HaKedeoshim, the Leviim were analogous to the interior of the Mishkan whose vessels they bore on their shoulders, the people of Israel were analogous to the walls of the Mishkan itself, creating the border and boundary of the House of G-d.

So the Jewish people were raised up by contributing the half-shekel of silver. This silver was used to form the sockets that held the beams that formed the wall of the Mishkan. So while the Kohanim and Leviim might minister within it, it was the Jewish people who were its walls. With them there was a House of G-d. Without them there was no house.

And the amount was designated as half a shekel because it was not the individual contribution that counted, but the willingness to join with each other. Together they formed the people. Just as each wooden plank alone formed nothing, so too alone we are only individuals. It is together that we have form and substance.

But the half shekel had a larger meaning as well. Because in the aftermath of the revelation of Har Sinai, the overwhelming experience left open the question for the Jews of how to connect to G-d. They had seen and heard incredible things, but those things seemed to them beyond their ability to relate to. G-d as they understood existed in a spiritual state, they existed in a physical one, and there was no bridge between them.

So when Moshe ascended the mountain, they came to believe that he would not return, because to reach such a high state was to be cut off from the physical world. And so in despair instead they turned to the gross physical deities of Egypt again.

But the silver half-shekel, as well as the sacrifices and the shalos regalim, showed them how the physical could be made spiritual. The silver half-shekel upholding the atzei shitim omdim, the acacia wood planks standing, turned their physical substance into an act of holding up the walls within which the spirit of G-d resided.

But what does one do when one has fallen too low to have the chance to physically connect to G-d in that way? As the greatest of prophets, Moshe could speak to G-d, Panim el Panim, face to face. When the Beit Mikdash stood, the Jewish people could visit and bring their first fruits and sacrifices up to G-d's "face", as it says, Velo Yerau Panai Reikam. But what about when this isn't possible?

The sin of the Het HaEgel demonstrated another way through Moshe's pleading. When G-d agrees to show him His glory, He places Moshe in the cleft of the rock. Vesmticha Benikrat HaTzur. Just as a moment before He says, VeKarati BeShem Hashem. The cleft of the rock in which Hashem places Moshe is Tefila, prayer.

Even when the Jewish people had sinned and were not worthy of seeing the face of G-d, they could reach the Tzur that is Hashem through the cleft through which Tefilot travel. And in doing so they might not see His face, but they would see Him from behind and gain his mercy.

Thus Hashem taught Moshe the Shalosh Esra Midot, the Thirteen Midot, which begin with the double repetition of Hashem's name. The first is to indicate that he is a merciful G-d before man sins. The second that he is merciful even after the sin. And though in this state man may not be able to see "His Face", but they can still reach him and gain his mercy.

Thus Parshas Ki Sisa serves as an education in how to reach G-d. Its beginning shows how to see his face by physically contributing to the projection of his presence on earth. Its conclusion shows how to reach him even when we cannot see him, through the cleft of the rock, in prayer. By these two means, the Jews were taught how to bridge the realm of G-d with their own.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Parshas Tetzaveh: Purim and Purity

Parshas Tetzaveh begins with the words,

וְאַתָּה תְּצַוֶּה אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית--לַמָּאוֹר לְהַעֲלֹת נֵר, תָּמִיד

And you will command the children of Israel, that they will bring you pure olive oil, pressed to be burned, to be lit, eternally.

Why first of all is the entire Jewish people being directed in the performance of the mitzvah of providing oil for the menorah, which is lit by the Kohanim.

Secondly, why do we need Shemen Zayit Zach Katit, pure olive oil of only the first drop of oil squeezed from the olive, if it's only going to be burned anyway. The answer to that is in the rest of the pasuk. Lehaalot Ner Tamid, we need only the purest oil for it to create a truly eternal light.

The Kohanim were expected to set an example in the purity of their behavior, down to the smallest of details. That is why their elevation is described as Kaper, a word usually used for atonement, because their elevation requires them to achieve a higher standard of behavior so that even their former actions which seemed accessible as Yisraelim, now require atonement in light of their new elevated responsibilities.

And now let's turn for a moment to Purim, which intersects with Parshas Tetzaveh.

The story of Purim is an uncomfortable one for modern audience, and not just because it ends with bloody fighting. But its "heroes", Mordechai and Esther seem too passive and self-effacing. By contrast, Ahasverosh, Haman are far more colorful characters.

But that too is the point. The modern sensibility celebrates egotism, and Haman and Ahasverosh were arrogant and egotistical figures, who knew what they wanted. And modern audiences are much more comfortable with them, which is what is behind postmodern revisionist reinterpretations of Vashti as a feminist heroine or of Ahasverosh as a romantic hero in the movie One Night with the King. Just as the movie, The Ten Commandments, turned the humble and self-effacing Moshe, into an arrogant posturing romantic hero in tune with the Hollywood ideal, so too modern audiences demand heroes who will exemplify egotism, rather than humility.

But egotism and arrogance taints the mixture. Everything that Haman and Ahasverosh did, they did for selfish reasons. Haman's hate emerged from a personal insult. Ahasverosh stops Haman, but only when he feels that Haman is threatening what is "his", his crown and his queen.

By contrast Esther and Mordechai repeatedly sacrifice and risk themselves. When Mordechai saves the king's life, Esther gives him the credit. Esther in turn risks her life to confront the king and expose Haman, though she would have been safe and well off in the king's palace. And when the battle is won, the Jews reject the spoils, thus leaving their victory untainted, and allowing us to celebrate it with the personal indulgence of the Purim festivities.

Esther and Mordechai were the pure drops of oil, who had to be pure in order to kindle an eternal light. The light of the Menorah was not merely a physical light, but also a spiritual one. Its power depended on the purity of its oil. This is not only the meaning of Chanukah, but also the meaning of Purim. Because the "oil" must come from the Bnai Yisrael, which is why Hashem commands Moshe to tell them to bring the oil. The fuel for the Menorah, as well as for all deeds, comes from us. And the extent to which they are pure, is the extent to which we put selfishness aside to become fuel for the light of G-d.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Parshas Bo - Kill Your Gods

Parshas Bo begins with a command, now the urgent time has come when events will come together to finally bring Israel's Egyptian slavery to an end. Yet before they leave, the Jews are expected to slaughter a sheep, the Korban Pesach. Unlike the Matza, which resulted when unleavened dough did not have time to leaven because of the speed with which the Jews had to leave Egypt, the Korban Pesach was eaten at leisure. In fact it was forbidden to eat it quickly.

What is the difference between the Korban Pesach and the Matza, both of which were obligations that one had to perform on the Seder night of the first day, or one had not fulfilled his paschal obligation.

During the Haggadah we say, "Korban Pesach Zu Al Shum Ma, Al Shum shePasach Hakadosh Baruch Hu..." What is this Paschal regarding, because the Holy One Blessed Be He passed by our houses when he came to slay the Egyptian first born. What is the significance of the entire event. Why the first born and why the lamb and the blood that marked the doors of the houses.

Did G-d not know otherwise which of them were Jews and which were Egyptians? To the contrary, G-d had demonstrated repeatedly that even with the earlier plagues, very fine distinctions could be made between Egyptian and Jew. There would be darkness for one and not the other. Hail for one and not the other. Wild animals for one and not the other. Certainly this night was no different.

Why then was this night different from all other nights and why were the First Born different from all others? To begin with, let us answer the question of why a lamb. The Jews had come to Egypt as shepherds, an abomination to Egyptians who worshiped the sheep. The Jews ate lamb, the Egyptians did not, so when the brothers visited Joseph, the Egyptians would not eat what they ate. So too when Pharaoh suggests that Moshe and the Jews bring their offerings to G-d in Egypt, he points out that they could not slaughter the deity of Egypt, and not be slaughtered themselves by the Egyptians.

Yet on this night everything changed. On this night, the Korban Pesach, whose service would involve the participation of a Kohen (though it could be slaughtered by anyone) but then involved the Jewish First Born, would be slaughtered inside Egypt itself. And while that happened the Egyptian first born who had led the service would be slain by G-d himself. The blood of the lamb would mark the doors of Jewish homes to demonstrate their rejection of the idolatry that had pervaded Egypt. By this act, the Jews demonstrated their difference vs the Egyptians, so that when the angel of Egypt at the sea complained, "These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers," the Korban Pesach was G-d's reply.

This was why the Korban Pesach was the first Mitzvah given and why the month of Nissan is also the first month. For Tishrei which contains Rosh Hashana is the month that marks the calendar's progression, as accepting G-d as king is required before we can proceed onward, but Nissan is counted as the first month, as before accepting G-d, we must first abandon the worship of all other things.

By killing the gods of Egypt, the Jews demonstrated that they were prepared to make a clean break with all that Egypt represented, and only then could they go free.

This too is why the Korban Pesach took place at leisure, with four days to prepare for it, and an extensive meal, for it is the groundwork that has to be completed before the redemption can happen, which is a slow process. But when that is done, the redemption itself can happen in an instant, which is symbolized by the Matza, the dough that had no time to leaven.

In Galut today, we do not have a Korban Pesach, or the means to lift ourselves up properly, and so we cannot do what we must. Instead we have the Matza, the waiting for that instant of redemption in which without warning, the world will change around us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Parshas Vaeira - Generations of Redemption

Parshas Vaeira begins with G-d informing Moshe, in response to Moshe's agonized appeal that his attempt to speak to Pharaoh had only worsened conditions for the Jewish people, that he is Hashem;

וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם

and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My name Hashem I did not reveal to them

The question commonly asked of course is that we see many times when G-d did indeed address Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as Hashem. Furthermore how does G-d answer Moshe by telling him this.

To answer this we need to look at why Moshe is upset. Yes conditions have gotten worse for the Jews, but to our way of looking at it, this is only a temporary phenomenon soon to be relieved by the Exodus. Did Moshe Rabbeinu have so little faith that he had to challenge G-d on this score?

To understand Moshe's problem, we have to remember that he had a different timetable than we do. Moshe's timetable was the one given to Avraham in the Brit Bein Habetarim, which said that the Jews would be in Egypt for 400 years. For all Moshe knew, his duty would be to spend the time remaining of those 400 years, which could be as much as a 190 years, appealing to Pharaoh and trying to inspire faith in the increasingly downtrodden Jews.

While this might seem unlikely to us, keep in mind that Noah had to spend almost as much time building the ark and warning his generation that the flood was coming. And the prospect of his people enduring two centuries of increasing suffering that might destroy their faith entirely, was too much for Moshe.

Now in that light let's look at the answer Moshe received from Hashem. To the Patriarchs, G-d had revealed himself as El Shaddai, setting borders and timelines for the events of the world. As El Shaddai, G-d had said to Avraham Avinu, that the Jews would have to be in Egypt for 400 years. But to Moshe and now to the Jews, G-d revealed himself as Hashem, who went beyond those limits to act out of mercy and compassion.

While Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov knew Hashem, they had not seen him transcend boundaries in this way. Moshe and the Jews however now would. Let us now look further at just how this phenomenon was expressed in both eras and how it can be reconciled fully with the covenant G-d made with Avraham at the Brit Bein Habetarim.

This Shabbat was also the Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death of Avraham Avinu. This week's Parsha Vaeira, carries an obvious echo in its name of Parshas Vaera, in which G-d appears to Avraham. What happens in Parshas Vaera, word is carried to Avraham by way of three angels that after all these long years, his wife Sarah will finally give birth and give Avraham the child he always wanted. The child that would begin the transmission of what would become the Jewish people. So too Yitzchak and Rivkah would have to pray and wait for their own children to be born. So too Yaakov and Rachel would have to wait a long time for Yosef to be born.

In nature, Sara, Rivka and Rachel could not give birth. It took an extensive amount of waiting and pleading for that to change. Eventually the limit was reached and El Shaddai granted them all children for G-d loves the prayers of the righteous. There was only one exception to this rule, Leah, who had children, quickly and easily.

Why did Leah have children quickly and easily, because as the rejected wife, she was oppressed and in pain already. And so G-d was merciful to her and she had many children, almost without limit. But unlike the Avot, their descendants, the Jews in Israel begin multiplying rapidly, because like Leah, they were suffering and oppressed. But how much of a divine kindness was this really, to create more children at a time when the Egyptians are degrading and oppressing the Jews?

Now let's take a look at the Brit Bein Habetarim again, in which G-d tells Avraham Avinu that the Jews be enslaved for 400 years and that they will return in the 4th generation of Egyptian slavery.

In the attribute of El Shaddai the Jews were destined to be slaves for 400 years. But in the attribute of Hashem, the covenant would still hold so long as it was in the 4th generation. But in response to the Egyptian oppression of the Jews, Hashem made them be fruitful and multiply. While naturally it might indeed have taken 400 years to have 4 generations, due to the oppression, Hashem made the people numerous and 4 generations was reached in barely half that time.

When Moshe arrives before Pharaoh and informs him that Hashem ordered that the Jews be released, Pharaoh replies that he does not know Hashem. As far as he's concerned the deadline is still 400 years. So Pharaoh knows El Shaddai, as a G-d of strict limits, but not one of mercy. And so Moshe accedes, and speaks of Elohei Haivrim. Having forfeited his right to mercy, by rejecting Hashem, Pharaoh must now deal with the absolute power of Elohei Haivrim.

And yet it is Pharaoh's own oppression that caused G-d to accelerate the generations so that the 4th generation is reached far earlier than it would have been under Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. But as it was under Leah in response to her own suffering. That is also why before Moshe addresses Pharaoh, we are interrupted to hear a partial genealogy of Leah's 3 elder sons. 3 of the 4 sons who were born easily and without delay. The partial genealogy lists four generations, beginning with Levi and down to Moshe and Aaron. With Moshe and Aaron, the four generations had been reached, and so it was they who stood before Pharaoh to tell him that by the word of Hashem the time had been reached and the Jews would be set free.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Parshas Shemos - The Increase

Parshas Shemos begins with an increasingly paranoid and oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh who does not know Yosef and proceeds to enslave and then attempt to exterminate the Jews. The germ of the problem can be found in the statement "Asher Lo Yada at Yosef", the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef.

Could it really mean that he had no idea who Yosef was? That seems unlikely, given that Yosef had died not that long ago, that he had been Egypt's second most powerful man, and that he had overseen the physical salvation and political and sociological transformation of Egypt. But rather it was a Pharaoh who did not know Yosef, his Hebrew name, only his Egyptian one, Tzafnat Paneach.

What was so significant about Yosef's hebrew name? The significance, as I said last week, is in the meaning. Yosef means to increase. And what is the source of that increase, the source is Godly. In his dealings with Pharaoh, Yosef had always stated that his achievements were achieved through God. It was God who sent the dream to Pharaoh. God who had sent the interpretation and prepared the remedy for it. And where to the old Pharaoh, Yosef was an emissary sent by God. To the new Pharaoh, there had been no God or Yosef, only Tzafnat Paneach, a man who had made some genuine national contributions, but was now dead, and his descendants and relatives had become a major problem.

What was it that touched off Pharaoh's paranoia over the Jews? The Torah tells us, that it was their numbers. The numbers of the Jews had increased greatly. And that made them a threat, because Pharaoh did not understand why they were increasing, because he did not know Yosef... did not know that their increase was a divine blessing.

The same Pharaoh who did not understand that Egypt's alternating increase in wheat and famine were of divine origin, did not understand that the increasing numbers of Jews, as the family of Jacob was being transformed into a nation, was of divine origin too. He was the Pharaoh who did not know Yosef and whose view was purely materialistic.

From a materialistic standpoint, the increasing number of Jews were a threat and an opportunity. Seeing them in materialistic terms, he chose to exploit them in a crudely materialistic way, by turning them into slaves. Since Pharaoh saw wealth as coming not from G-d, but from his economic system, more slaves would mean more prosperity.

And since the numbers of Jews were a problem, he addressed it in materialistic terms. First Pharaoh thought that the numbers of Jews were growing because of the unusual virility of the men, so he subjected them to harsh slavery. And when their numbers continued to increase, he decided it must be the fertility of the Jewish women, and attempted to wipe out the males, and leave the females so that Egyptians would marry the surviving girls and breed in large numbers. Yet both plans failed, for as Shifra and Puah told him, the Jewish women were not like Egyptian women. Beterem Tavoh Lachem Hameyaledet Veyaladu, even before the midwife comes to them, they give birth. Like living things, they are not dependent on the midwife, only on G-d.

At each stage both Pharaohs were guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the events going on around them, because they did not know Yosef, they did not know that the increase in all things comes from G-d. And in turn G-d demonstrated it to them by turning them into the mechanisms of their own destruction.

Every action taken by the Pharaohs created Moshe as the man he would become. Because of Pharaoh's decree, Moshe's parents were separated. Because of his attack on newborn Jewish baby boys, Moshe was cast into the Nile and wound up in Pharaoh's own home. Because of Pharaoh's continued oppression of the Jews, Moshe was forced to fight for them and then flee into exile. And so at each turn, Pharaoh's own cruelty made Moshe into the man that he was.

And once Moshe arrived in Egypt, each of Pharaoh's actions would perpetuate the plagues and rain further punishment down on Egypt. By this means Pharaoh's own arrogance and refusal to know who Yosef was, who had fed Egypt and made it great, who had shown his predecessors the future and who had made the nation prosperous and the Jews numerous-- would become the tool of his own destruction.

The question is often asked why G-d told Moshe to only ask Pharaoh for a trip of three days to worship G-d. Did G-d expect Moshe to lie to Pharaoh? And what was the point of such a charade.

Moshe's request to Pharaoh was indeed sincere. Because it was only in Pharaoh's power to grant the Jews a trip of three days. Pharaoh could not free the Jews from an exile that had been decreed by G-d. Only G-d himself could do that. Nor could the Jews on their own go beyond that three days.

Had Pharaoh agreed to Moshe's proposal at any stage, it would not have been an agreement that lasted beyond those 3 days. Past those 3 days, at Har Sinai, only G-d could have truly freed them from Egypt through the acceptance of his laws and his Godliness. And all of Pharaoh's legions would not have stood in His way, just as they did not stand in His way at the Yam Suf.

To increase their freedom beyond those 3 days, to take them out of Egypt once and for all, was not something that either Pharaoh or Moshe could do. It was something that G-d alone could do. Thus every single plague that Moshe raised his staff for failed to move Pharaoh to actually fully consent to the redemption. And every time Pharaoh agreed the resulting promises proved to be empty. Only when G-d himself "walked" the streets of Egypt, were the Jews taken out of Egypt with no one to stand in the way.

Yosef's original message to Pharaoh had been that G-d increases a nation's prosperity and takes it away as he sees fit, and that the wise ruler attunes himself to G-d. It was a message that that Pharaoh had understood, but that his successors had discarded, instead choosing to become rulers who did know Yosef or his G-d. And by forgetting the source of Egypt's blessings, they were instead punished with curses that emerged from their own actions.

And thus Egypt's rulers were forced to learn, that just as G-d could turn prosperity into famine, he could turn water into blood, send reptiles from the water to the land, place wild animals into the cities while destroying tame animals, raise the dust from the earth while bringing down fire and ice from the sky, bring night during the day and selectively kill only the first born, and halt the waves of the seas and then bring them down again. This was the G-d of Yosef who could undo all materialistic forms to show that Yosef, that increase in all materialistic things comes from him.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Parshas Vayechi - A Dream of Exile and a Dream of Freedom

At the sunset of Yaakov's life he begins making the final arrangements for his burial and the future of his descendants. First he asks his son Yosef to bury him in the Maarat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron. And then unexpectedly the father bows to the son.

To understand why Yaakov bowed to Yosef we need to take a step forward first. As his father Yaakov has fallen ill, Yosef brings his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to Yaakov for a blessing. And famously, their grandfather places his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on the head of Menashe, the elder son. Yosef objects, but Yaakov tells him, "Yaadati Bni, Yaadati. I Know My Son, I Know."

Why is Yaadati repeated twice? Yaadati Bni, Yaakov tells Yosef. Just as I knew you were my special son and gave you a special place, so too I know that Ephraim is the special son, and I have given him a special place as well.

What is the parallel between Yosef and his son Ephraim? When Yosef's first born son, Menashe was born, the name he was given meant, Ki Nasani Elohim Et Kol Amoli VeEt Kol Beit Avi, "For God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house".

This represented Menashe's role in helping his father and eventually uncles adapt to Egypt. Menashe served as Yosef's chief of staff, he made the Egyptian exile they were living in comfortable. With Menashe they were able to forget about the land they had come from and live comfortably in Egypt.

By contrast Yosef named his second son, Ephraim, Ki Hifrani Elohim Baeretz Oni, "for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction". Hifrani echoes Yosef's own name, in that they both refer to increase. Yet unlike Menashe's name, Ephraim's name does not deny that this is the land of the exile, a land of affliction, Eretz Oni.

The primacy of Menashe and Ephraim was not a mere matter of ego, just as the primacy of Yaakov and Esav was not a mere brother's quarrel. Menashe and Ephraim represented different attributes and different futures. While Yosef gave primacy to Menashe who made the exile comfortable, Yaakov instead gave primacy to Ephraim, whose name foreshadowed the harshness of the exile to come and the great expansion that the House of Jacob would experience even in Egyptian slavery. As indeed God would make the Hebrew slaves fruitful, even in the land of their affliction.

Yaakov avinu understood that the future would speak more to Ephraim than to Menashe and that dark times were coming. The shelter that Yosef had provided would soon enough become a pharaoh's cage, and the land that had come to seem like a dream of exile, would become a nightmare of slavery and degradation.

It was the blessing of Ephraim that would keep the people alive in this exile and in future exiles. And since until the end of days, the times of exile would outnumber the years of homeland dwelling, the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe was set down in eternity for the sons of the Jewish people... with Ephraim placed first. For there may be times when we are comfortable in exile, the blessing of Menashe, but more often we must survive the exile by living another day despite the oppression placed on us, and this is the blessing of Ephraim. A blessing all the more poignant as Ephraim's exile has outweighed that of our own.

Now to return to Yaakov's bow. The bow was the final fulfillment of Yosef's dreams. The first dream involved the stalks of wheat, which was fulfilled earlier when his brothers had come to buy food from him. Now the second dream was waiting to be fulfilled. But unlike the wheat, this dream did not symbolize a mere material dominance, but a spiritual dominance. The stars represented the lineage of the family of Abraham as ascending to reach their spiritual potential. Stars rather than dust. For the sun that was Yaakov to bow to the star that was Yosef, more than wheat, more than miracles and more than even love was needed.

And so Yaakov made a request of Yosef that seems at once trivial, but that struck at the core of whether his son was worthy of leadership in the line of the Family of Avraham. Yosef had become great in exile as Viceroy to Pharaoh. His brothers had bowed to him and his work had fed all of Egypt and Canaan. And now Yaakov asked him to turn his back on that, to bury his father in Israel, and by doing so communicate what his true priority must be. When Yosef agreed to fulfill his father's wish, at the risk of being considered a traitor by Pharaoh, he demonstrated that he was more than a sheaf, he was a star by showing that he could look past the material glory and power, to see where his family's greater destiny lay. Only then did Yaakov bow to him and in doing so pass on his leadership to him, along with the later message, Pakod Yifkod, the message with which G-d would send their redemption from exile and into freedom.