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.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Paradox in the Parsha - The Paradoxes of Chukas and Judaism

Parshas Chukas contains two of the most baffling questions in the Torah. One spiritual and the other logical.

The most famous of these is the spiritual question and it concerns the Para Adumah, the Red Cow.

The purification process of the Red Cow lifts tumaa, impurity, off a man who had come in contact with a corpse, but the Kohen who purifies him becomes impure. How can a thing which purifies also cause impurity?

This is a question considered utterly baffling and deemed a decree which cannot be understood.

The other question is the logical one. Why is Moshe punished in this Parsha and prevented from entering the Land of Israel? What was the nature of his offense?

Both questions are really the same question.

Moshe, like the Kohen, had labored on behalf of the Jews. They entered the land, he did not. Like the Kohen, he instead became "impure". Indeed G-d's indictment charges that Moshe had failed to make G-d holy in the eyes of the Jews. Lehakdisheni Leyenei Yisrael.

It's the same paradox. And it's the paradox at the heart of Judaism. At the heart of any serious religious inquiry.

We see yet a third clearer example of the paradox in the parsha.

G-d punishes the Jews with poisonous serpents. Their cure is to look at an image of a serpent. How does the same thing that cures also heal? Because it isn't the snake that cures or kills, it's G-d.

The central paradox of religion is to understand that the good things come from G-d, as do the bad things. This is what we grapple with in the face of death. Jews praise the justice of G-d and His ways upon hearing that a death has taken place. G-d gives. G-d takes away.

The process of the Red Cow, like the snake, can both purify and cause impurity. But there is no paradox. It isn't the ashes and water of the cow that causes purity or impurity. Only G-d can take a pure thing out of an impure thing. (Iyov 14:4) The Kohen, like Moshe, is there to fulfill that function. But the power to do so can only belong to G-d.

We dwell often on the exact moment of Moshe's error. Was he wrong to hit the rock instead of speaking to it? Was his error that he became angry at the Jews?

But we don't contemplate what led up to it.

Why did the Jews lack water? While Miriam's death was the specific cause, throughout their journey through the desert, G-d at times chose to subject the Jews to lack of water. Why?

When we look back at the various rebellions of the Jews in their journey through the desert, a common pattern emerges. These rebellions were rarely directly aimed at G-d. Instead the Jews accepted what G-d gave them, but blamed Moshe when there were difficulties.

The good things came from G-d. But the bad things were Moshe's fault.

That's a natural human fallacy. People often credit G-d for the good things but blame people for the bad ones. Or we credit ourselves for the good things, but blame G-d for the bad ones.

The great challenge of faith is to understand that both come from G-d.

"I kill, and I make alive; I have wounded, and I heal" (Devarim 32:39)

The Jews had seen more than enough miracles to believe in G-d. What they had to grasp was that everything comes from G-d. And it was Moshe's job to teach them this in a variety of ways climaxing with the recitation of blessings and curses.

It was important for them to understand that water could be brought both by striking a rock and speaking to it.

That G-d acts in a variety of ways, doing things that to our limited understanding may appear good or bad, but that there is a larger completeness behind all this that is wholly and entirely good.

This was what Moshe had failed to convey to them. The more suffering they experienced, the more they turned on Moshe, blaming him, as Korach's rebellion did, for their own misdeeds.

It was Moshe's fault that they did not have water or the food that they liked. It was his fault that they had to wander in the desert.

G-d blames Moshe for failing to "sanctify" to literally make Him holy in the eyes of the Jews.

How can G-d, the source of all holiness, be made holy? Through our greater recognition of G-d.

Impurity is distance from G-d. Holiness is closeness to G-d.

The entire process of the Red Cow is summoned into being by contact with death. Impurity is linked to birth and death. We see the two as being contradictory. Life and death. But birth contains the seeds of death. And death is the gateway to a great new birth. Both come from G-d.

Death causes despair. It reminds us of mortality. By recognizing that the same G-d who kills also creates life, that the two are a cycle which ends with eternal life, we are lifted above it.

We become holier through our larger sense of the unity of Creation. And by recognizing the greatness of G-d, we "sanctify" Him through that greater awareness.

The Kohen takes the impure man through the process of that recognition. Impurity is a symptom of flawed faith. Purification forces the impure man or woman to confront death and life in various forms, to come face to face with the great paradox of religion, and recognize the oneness of G-d.

There is only one G-d. The same G-d that gives life, takes life, grants water, denies it, causes the various natural phenomena that lead to impurity and offers the pathway to purity.

The impure may not approach G-d. They are forbidden from entering the Mishkan and the Beit HaMikdash because it is impossible to become close to G-d if you don't truly believe that He is the Author of everything. There is an aspect of heresy and blasphemy in even doing so.

The paradox of the Red Cow is the central paradox of religion. Its resolution is emotionally difficult. It requires that we accept that our difficulties come from the same source as our blessings.

Moshe was not able to guide the Jews to this realization. The failure to understand this would come to lead them to sin and to exile. They would become distant from G-d. The path to return to G-d begins with the realization that everything comes from G-d. That G-d is the totality of existence.

When we come to terms with this paradox, we are healed.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Ascending Aspirations of Chanukah and Purim

The Parsha most closely associated with Purim is Terumah and the one most associated with Chanukah is Behaloscha.

The names of both Parshas refer to the ways in which we ascend when we aspire and contribute.

Terumah comes from Rom. The portion that is separated is raised up as a contribution to G-d. Behaloscha likewise refers to an ascending, whether it is that of the priest rising to light the menorah or the light of the oil flame which, Rashi tells us, must be lit until the flame rises on its own.

The Terumah is collected from Ish Asher Idvenu Libo, the man whose heart is moved to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan. The flame of the menorah too is only properly lit when it rises on its own. The temples of G-d are best built with offerings that are freely and joyfully given.

The list of the offerings appear linear in value. Gold, silver and copper. This runs from the most precious to the less precious. The pattern continues with various fabrics dyed in colors. Turquoise, purple and red. Purple was the color of Roman royalty because of its great value. Red was used by the Redcoats because the wealth implied in red dye demonstrated power. Yet the most precious dye listed is turquoise which represents heaven. Only on the ark does the turquoise dyed cloth appear on the outside rather than under the hides. This listing then goes on to wood, the least precious of these.

But then it lists spices, oil and the precious stones used for the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Are these truly less valuable than wood? In pure material worth, they are more precious. But what these items, the Shoham stones, the oil, spices, incense and precious stones have in common, is that they were donated by the leaders of the tribes.

In Parshas Vayakhel, Nesiim is spelled defectively because, we are told, the tribal leaders waited to give. They intended to see what would be missing from the donations and fill it in. And so their donations mattered less for the delay. It is not the mere material worth of the item that makes it precious, but the enthusiasm and love of the donor.

In Behaloscha, Rashi inquires why the previous parsha which lists the offerings of the nesiim is linked to the menorah lighting. The answer is that Aaron felt bad that all the tribal leaders had provided lavish offerings, with which they had compensated for their previous tardiness, but he had been left out. And thus G-d told him, Shelecha Gedolah Miselachem, yours is greater than theirs.

Aaron's act of kindling the menorah, of lighting the flame so that it rose, was greater than their offerings. Furthermore his descendants, the Maccabees, would redeem the temple in Chanukah by fighting for its liberation against a corrupted leadership that had collaborated with the Syrian-Greek tyrant. It was not mere wealth that mattered, but the flame and enthusiasm of passion.

In Terumah, material donations are needed to create the items of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. But the actual dwelling place for G-d, is not built out of mere material, but out of our love and enthusiasm.

Purim likewise represents a material struggle against a material evil. The name of G-d is not even mentioned in Megilat Esther. But outside the picture were the small number of Jews who had returned from exile and were struggling to build the temple. The drama in the court of the king was ultimately about that rebuilding of the temple.

It is in Chanukah that the rebuilt temple is defiled and menaced. The war is not physical anymore, but more deeply spiritual. It culminates in the lighting of the menorah and the miracle of the oil. But the memorah that is lit, according to some opinions, is not the solid gold one of the temple. The menorah of the temple had been defiled. Instead a menorah of wood was temporarily used. Though it was made of the lowest material on the list, it served the highest purpose.

Material matters cannot and should not be disregarded. But neither are they all that matters. Material progress must culminate in spiritual achievement. The material becomes meaningless when it can no longer act as a metaphor and a vehicle for the spiritual. A wooden menorah that is kindled for G-d is better than a defiled golden menorah.

The gifts of the tribal leaders, precious as they were, mattered less than the humble wood donated immediately as an outpouring of devotion, and as the sacrifices of Aaron and his descendants.

Both Purim and Chanukah are holidays of the exile. Purim is a holiday of the day. Its primary mitzvahs are performed in the daylight hours. Its materialism is simple. G-d is hidden in the megillah. Its holiness comes in the challenge of finding G-d in prosperity, in celebration, in feasting and drinking, in the seeming triumph and the happy ending. Chanukah is a holiday of the night. Its most significant celebration is in the evening. Its physical victory is extremely fleeting. Its spiritual victory is the one that matters. In the darkness, light is all the more visible and even when G-d is absent, we can more clearly see Him. And thus it is Chanukah, not Purim, which has the most obvious miracle.

But the significance of both lies in the power of our aspirations to raise us up to G-d.

Mordechai's speech to Esther, answering her seemingly sensible objection and call to delay with warnings that salvation would come from elsewhere and her father's house would perish if she did not take action, seems irrational. And yet that is the significance of both Chanukah and Purim.

G-d will eventually always save us. He does not need us to act. Nor does He need us to build Him a home. Or to light a lamp for Him. The significance of such actions is not that they help Him, it is that in doing so we save ourselves by elevating ourselves.

In exile, G-d often appears distant. By reaching toward Him, we transcend ourselves.