Saturday, December 21, 2013

Parshas Shemos - First Born Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Parshas Toldos - Love and Judgement

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

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

(Pirkei Avot 5:16)

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

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

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

Bereishis/Genesis 18:19

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

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

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

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

(Bereishis/Genesis 25:27-28)

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

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

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

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

(Devarim\Deuteronomy 16:19)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Bereishis/Genesis 28:2-4)

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

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

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

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

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