Sunday, April 2, 2023

Shabbos HaGadol - The Hearts of the Fathers and the Sons

 Why is the Sabbath before Pesach known as 'Shabbos HaGadol' or the Great Shabbos?

The simplest answer comes from the reading of the Haftorah, after the Torah reading, which comes from Malachi 3 which concludes with, "Behold I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord." Or, in Hebrew, "HaGadol VeHanora". 

What does the reading from Malachi, which involves a reproof of the Jewish people and a promised final redemption have to do with Pesach? But then why does Elijah the Prophet show up at the Seder?

The answer once again is in Malachi.

"I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord, that he may turn the heart of the fathers back through the children, and the heart of the children back through their fathers-lest I come and smite the earth with utter destruction."

There are two times that Elijah is set to appear, the Bris, the circumcision, and the Passover Seder.

What do both of them have in common? They're part of the transmission of the tradition from fathers to sons. The Bris is the physical transmission of the covenant while the Seder is a verbal transmission.

This ties together the role of the Seder, not just as a memorialization of the past, but a call to the future. On Passover, we were again, and on Passover we are destined to be saved again. Elijah's reunification of generations is a prerequisite for a more positive salvation. The Malachi reading begins with a reproof of the Jews who have become cynical, who ask, like the wicked son of the Seder, what is the point of serving G-d?

"It is futile to serve God, and what do we gain from keeping His commandments and for going about in anxious worry because of the Lord of Hosts? And now we praise wicked men. Those who do evil are built up, they challenge G-d, they have, nevertheless, escaped."

This cynicism leads to the other enumerated sins. The people no longer have faith in G-d and do not pay tithes. They practice witchcraft, false oaths and oppress the weak. These are all sins that are closely associated with a disregard and a lack of fear of G-d.

The Jews have lost faith. And they lost that faith because of the generation gap that Elijah is sent to remedy.

The cynicism that leads to a loss of faith comes naturally with life experience. As time passes, disappointments accumulate, idealism no longer seems to pay off and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that the wicked prosper because they do what they want while everyone else misses out.

When a generation gap emerges, the adults with life experience have become cynical in this fashion while the younger idealistic generation rejects their cynicism and their wisdom and burns down everything that was in pursuit of a new ideal. As that younger generation ages, they in turn become cynical, seeing their peers 'sell out' and the cycle repeats itself.

Malachi is arguably telling us that the chain of transmission, the mesorah, depends on uniting the wisdom of the older generation with the idealism of the younger generation. It is the young who are best able to refresh the inherited ideals with their idealism and the older generation that can feel revived, even in the face of the cynicism of their accumulated life experience, with the idealism of the young.

Working together, the old and the young can restore faith and build a better world, set apart from each other, the old corrupt and the young wreak destruction. 

The Seder, when everyone gathers together, is the ideal moment for the revival of faith through a dialogue of generations. It is a time when everyone is meant to listen and to speak, when we can all learn from each other, and the hearts of the fathers and sons can come together again.

Pesach is the ultimate family holiday because redemption requires the unity of Jews as a family.

When the Prophet Elijah comes to see to his cup, late in the seder, it is hoped that this has been accomplished and the pathway to the redemption has been paved by the discussions that have come before leading to a family and a nation unified in its mission by both wisdom and ideals. 

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Parsha Terumah - The Sacredness of Objects Derive From Our Treatment of their Makers

Parshas Terumah begins with a sharp contrast between the building of the Mishkan, the first tabernacle, and the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. To the Mishkan, donations are solicited from anyone whose heart is moved, while King Solomon relies on draft labor brigades and workers from King Hiram, a foreign monarch, to construct it. And so the First Temple eventually falls and is destroyed.

The Haftorah for the previous parsha, Mishpatim, tells one of the causes. The account in Jeremiah relates how under siege by the Babylonian invaders, the nobles of the kingdom make a covenant to free their Hebrew slaves. Once the siege is lifted however they enslave them once again. The breach of the covenant to free their slaves is one of the causes of the destruction and fall of the kingdom.

Mishpatim begins with the laws of slavery because regulating the rights of even the people at the lowest state, thieves who have been sold into temporary bondage for their crimes, is at the foundation of ethics.

The Mishkan had a special status because its labor was voluntary. The First Temple was built with draft and foreign labor. The Second Temple was built by exiles returning from Babylon, a small number of the passionate 'Zionists' of the era under the leadership of the last of the prophets, built it in shifts, alternating between holding spears and working spades. This period serves as the backdrop for the story of Purim. Then, as now, the Jewish return from exile was contested with the anti-Zionist faction having lobbied Ahasverosh and the Persian Empire to force a halt to the building of the Temple until the triumph of Queen Esther and Mordechai not only saves the Jews from extermination but resumes the rebuilding.

The returning Levites, those old enough to have seen the First Temple as children, weep at how comparatively poor the new temple seems, and yet it becomes the epicenter of a Jewish revival. It is this temple that the Maccabees fight for. The Maccabees however are undermined and destroyed by Antipater, an Arab Roman official, and his son Herod. This foreign Arab dynasty seizes control over Judea. 

Herod then insists on reconstructing the Second Temple to make it more grandiose and promote the legitimacy of his dynasty of foreign murderous usurpers. In doing so, he effectively destroys it as well. Before the Romans destroy the Temple using brute force, Herod, an arm of Rome, destroys it by tainting it from within. 

The first Mishkan has a special status. It was never destroyed and tradition says that it was instead hidden away. The special purity of it has a number of sources, including the role of Moshe and Aaron, the fact that it was the first house of worship, but also one might say that it was built without force or compulsion, from the joyous free will of the Jews, who for all their flaws, poured their hearts into it.

The sacredness of objects can derive from different sources, but as we see in the case of the Mishkan and the Temples, they derive also from how we treat the people involved in their construction.

The Aron, the Ark of the Covenant, that held the Ten Commandments, which were divided into Bein Adam LaMakom and Bein Adam LaChavero, the commandments between man and G-d, and between man and man, relating to how we treat other people, was meant to be gilded with gold on the outside and the inside. This is seen as a reference to a number of homiletical teachings, including that our exterior personalities should match our internal character, but also perhaps that our internal devotion to G-d should also match our external treatment of other people.


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Parsha Bo - The Birth of Judaism

Until now, Moshe has mostly served as G-d's messenger to Pharaoh. With Bo, for the first time, Moshe steps into what will become his primary role as G-d's messenger to the Jewish people.

In Parsha Bo, Moshe is given a number of commandments, Rosh Chodesh, the celebration of the new month which makes it possible to celebrate the cycle of holidays, Passover, the commemoration of the coming exodus, the dedication of the first born, in counterpoint to the death of the Egyptian first born, and even a reference to Tefillin.  

At the start of Parsha Bo, G-d reveals that everything that has happened was primarily so that, 'Lema'an Tisapher Beoznei Binecho UBen Binecho", so that the Jews would retell the story to their children and their children's children. Pharaoh and the might of Egypt had been mere object lessons for G-d.

The students were the Jews.

In announcing the final plague that will strike down the firstborn, we are told that G-d will execute judgement on all the gods of Egypt. 

What does that mean and what does it have to do with the death of the firstborn?

Until now the Jews had operated in a passive role. They sat back and watched G-d do things while nothing was asked of them. Things proceeded as they had throughout human history with G-d intervening to punish the wicked, before everything went back to normal. But the climax of the Exodus was to break that cycle with the birth of Judaism and the Jewish people.

With the passover sacrifice, for the first time the Jews stopped being passive and became active. They brought the sacrifice and they placed the blood on the doorposts. The significance may appear minor when it was actually wholly transformative. By moving from the passive to the active, from helpless victims to men and women risking their lives and upending their normal routines to fulfill G-d's commandments, everything had changed. And thus the gods of Egypt were destroyed.

Much later, the Prophet Elijah will confront the priests and worshipers of Baal in era when idolatry had overtaken the Jewish people. Elijah challenges the priests of Baal to summon fire. And after they exhaust themselves in futile ritual, he calls on G-d and fire consumes the sacrifice, the altar and the water around it. The Jews, who had been uncertain call out, "G-d is the Lord." A cry that we still echo at the climax of the Day of Judgement on Yom Kippur.

The gods of Egypt, like Baal, were mere human inventions. Their existence was limited to the mind of man. G-d can turn rivers to blood or bring down darkness and locusts, but only man can acknowledge G-d, not just temporarily, as Pharaoh occasionally did, but as a lifelong and multi-generational commitment.

Before the Jews actively did anything to worship G-d, the gods of Egypt could not truly be destroyed. When the Jews brought the Korban Pesach, the passover sacrifice, and celebrated G-d, then there was a contest not just between G-d and the Egyptians, but between the Jews and the Egyptians, between Judaism and the pagan idolatry of Egypt. And in that contest, the gods of Egypt fell.

And out of that contest, Judaism was born and G-d became known in the world.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Parsha Vayetze - The Right Time

 Like Sarah and Rivka, the previous two generations of matriarchs, Rachel also appears unable to have children. While her sister Leah has a brood, Rachel bemoans her fate and demands Yaakov grant her children. Her husband replies harshly that he was not the one at fault or had denied her children.

But was there a reason for Rachel's condition?

If we examine the timeline, a potential answer quickly emerges. One that could have been apparent, but was not at the time.

Yaakov makes an agreement with Lavan, the father of both Rachel and Leah, to work 7 years for Rachel's hand in marriage. Lavan famously cheats Yaakov and substitutes her sister instead. He then offers to let Yaakov also marry Rachel after eight days if he works for another 7 years.

During these 7 years, Leah has seven children. It's an impressive record. During this same period, Rachel is unable to have children. 

Finally, when Yosef is born, Yaakov tells Lavan, "And it came to pass, when Rachel had borne Joseph, that Jacob said unto Laban: 'Send me away, that I may go unto mine own place, and to my country."

Is it a coincidence that Yosef is born when those 14 years are up?

When Yaakov married Leah, his 7 years of working for her were free and clear. However Yaakov would only finish working for Rachel in the next 7 years during which she was unable to have children.

Until the very end.

G-d perhaps wanted the children who would form the 12 tribes to be born 'free and clear' without Lavan or anyone else being able to lay a claim to that. The notion may seem absurd to modern sensibilities, but it doesn't take long for Lavan to do just that. And in the final confrontation between the two men, Lavan heatedly declares, 'The daughters are my daughters, and the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks, and all that thou seest is mine." (Bereishis 31:43)

G-d however had seen to it that none of the children would be born in a way that Lavan could lay any claim to them. Unlike the previous two generations, there would no Yishmael or Esav. All of the children would, despite setbacks, form the Jewish people. None of them would belong to the pagans around them.

This also explains the otherwise confusing and ambiguous process by which Yaakov becomes very wealthy by seemingly seeing to it that Lavan's flocks give birth to those kinds of animals that he chose as his wage. The underlying message is the same. The children and the animals may be born under Lavan's 'roof', on the lands of his family and the authority of his clan, but they will not be his.

G-d had separated out the children of Rachel and Leah, and the animals. Lavan would have no part in it.

When Rivka first set out to marry Yitzchak, the blessings of her family are repeated in the Torah. The Torah never writes out Lavan's blessings. Arami Oved Avi, he had tried and failed to destroy the Jewish people. He would never have his share in them.

Yaakov and Rachel suffered, not knowing why, until the right time had come. 

Parsha Toldos - The Answer to a Prayer

 Parshat Toldos begins with Yitzchak and Rivka, seemingly doomed to replay the tragedy of Avraham and Sarah by being unable to have children. The third pasuk tells us that "Yitzchak entreated G-d for his wife, for she was barren, and G-d accepted his prayer." 

While the pasuk makes no mention of Rivka praying, commentaries interpret Le'Nochach, a word in the pasuk, as meaning opposite, suggesting that they were both praying. Rashi comments that G-d accepted Yitzchak's prayer, not Rivka's, because he was the son of a tzaddik and she was the daughter of a wicked man. There are however obvious questions to be raised about this, not least of which is that it would imply that Yitzchak's prayers would be more effective than that of his own father's. 

There are a number of other answers as to why G-d might have listened to Yitzchak's prayer, rather than Rivka's. From a halachic perspective, men, not women, are obligated in the biblical command to have children. Alternatively, Yitzchak was praying for his wife, while she was praying for herself, and G-d more readily answers our prayers for others.

But the premise assumes that both Yitzchak and Rivka were praying for the same thing. Were they really?

No sooner does Rivka become pregnant that she experiences the children fighting in the womb and bemoans, "If so, why do I exist?"

As the children grow up, Rivka becomes the one who takes on the task of measuring the children, championing Yaakov, the good son, at the expense of Esav, the bad son. Yitzchak, in contrast, is extremely tolerant, not only of Esav, but also of Yaakov. When his younger son has tricked him into blessing him by pretending to be Esav, Yitzchak might have been expected to curse his son, or at least condemn him, the way that Yaakov would later berate Reuven, Levi and Shimon on his deathbed.

Instead, Yitzchak quickly states, "Let him also be blessed."

Rivka was praying, in what would become the timeless tradition of Jewish women reciting the Vezakeini prayer, for a good son, holy and righteous.

Yitzchak however prayed only for a son.

G-d answered Yitzchak's prayer, not Rivka's. 

Rivka initially assumed that G-d had answered her prayer. Faced with the internal discord, she agonized, unable to understand why G-d would have apparently answered her prayer only to deny her what she was truly praying for. And yet G-d, in a crucial way, had answered the prayer. Just not in the way she expected.

Yitzchak's uncritical prayer was answered uncritically. Rivka found that the answer to her more complicated prayer was also more complicated. Both parents had an important role to play. Yitzchak brought children into the world and loved them. Rivka provided the discipline and judgement to choose between good and evil.

Our prayers sometimes can be for basic things. Other times we want things our way. 

G-d answers our prayers, or does not, in the way that He knows best.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Pesach - Four Questions and Four Sons

 Pesach revolves around the number four. From the four expressions of liberation (arba leshonos shel geulah), to the four cups of wine, the four questions and the four sons, we celebrate surrounded by fours.

But is there a connection between the two key educational dialogue elements of the seder: the four sons and the four questions?

The four sons, righteous, wicked, simple, and the one who cannot even ask, serve as a kind of mission statement for the haggadah's approach to a multi-dimensional seder experience that reaches both the ignorant and the wise, who have their own questions.

The four questions or the Ma Nishtana, are the first questions taught to a child, the she'eino yodea lishol or the one who cannot yet ask on his own, to ask about the differences between the night of Pesach and the ordinary night.

It is possible to link the four sons to the four questions and in that way make sense of some of the answers to the four sons which can appear puzzling or abrasive.

Take the wise son who inquires, "What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?" The oddly narrow response involves the ban on eating anything after the Pesach offering, a practice that is commemorated during the post-Temple exile seder with the final eating of the afikoman or the leftover matza.

But let's overlap that with the first question of the Ma Nishtana. "Why is this night of Pesach different from all other nights? On all other nights, we eat chametz or matza, but on this night of pesach, only matza."

Let's get at the essence of the first question which is not at all trivial, but gets at the heart of Judaism.

How can it be that chametz, ordinary bread for example, is permitted and even celebrated the rest of the year, but is the worst possible offense on Pesach? 

The answer, on one level, is that nothing may be eaten after the Pesach offering. Time matters in Judaism. So do sequence and context. Judaism is not a series of unrelated commandments or behaviors, but a sequence and an order or seder. Matza may be permitted and commanded before, but not after the Pesach sacrifice, and chametz may be permitted all year round, but not on Pesach. 

The essence of the commandment of matza and the ban on chametz is chronological. It forces us into another mode, examining the contrasts between slavery and freedom, and the speed of liberation.

But matza is also a lechem oni, a poor man's bread. It is a reminder that freedom comes with sacrifice, not just the Pesach sacrifice, but personal sacrifice. The exodus forces the Jews to often make do with less, matza instead of bread, limited water, manna instead of the fish and leeks they will later lust for in the desert.

Restricting ourselves to matza, not bread, cakes, or challah, forces us to remember that reality because it is a fundamental part of our religious life. To serve G-d, we have to give up things. 

On a deeper level, the first Ma Nishtana question asks, why can't we just enjoy the things we eat, instead of limiting ourselves to matza? Why does life as a Jew sometimes have to be hard?

And the response to the first son is that the sequence matters because we are still working our way to the Pesach sacrifice, the final redemption. And nothing can come after that ultimate triumph. But until then we are limited and we face limits, the work we do and the lives we live can be hard and difficult.

But the conclusion will be glorious.

The second Ma Nishtana question asks why on all nights we eat all sorts of greens, but on Pesach, only marror, the bitter horseradish root. Likewise the wicked son demands, "Mah ha'avdoah hazot lachem" or "What is this service to you." The word avodah can mean service, but also labor and drudgery.

Why, he asks, do you adopt this miserable burden, this harsh life symbolized by eating marror. A life that he implicitly rejects.

The response, "You should blunt his teeth by saying to him: "'It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for him. If he was there he would not have been redeemed'" appears abrasive, but also lays out a certain basic communal truth.

Jewish communal suffering led to the redemption. Those Jews who opt out of the community and its challenges also opt out of the redemption. 

The wicked son wants an easy life, but it means that he will not share in the triumphs of his former people.

The work of serving G-d that we do is really liberation. While the wicked son's escape appears liberating, but is actually an enslavement. The Jews can become free while being slaves, while the wicked sons think that they are free when they are actually slaves.

Liberation of the spirit consists of that understanding. As Rabbi Moshe Feinstein said to Russian Jews in the Soviet Union, the government does not have the power to exile our souls. Exile is an internal state.

Finally the latter two questions and the latter two sons, simple and ignorant, emphasize the importance of accessibility.

The third Ma Nishtana question inquires about the two dippings. Repetition is the best way to reach the simple child who learns by hearing the same thing time and again.

But it also addresses, in the larger geulah-listic sense, the implicit question of why one exile is followed by another, why there is a repetition of exiles, enslavements, and sufferings. 

The answer is that G-d took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. Repetition is force, but also our redemption was not a natural result of our virtue, but Divine intervention. The Jews are not yet where we need to be and repetition is a required consequence of that reality. More growth is needed both for the simple son and for the Jewish people.

Finally, the son who does not know how to ask is paired with the question of why we recline at the seder.

Reclining is seen as an act of royalty, but it is also a leveling impulse. On Pesach, we 'level' ourselves and we are all obligated to ask the Ma Nishtana, to delve into the meaning of Pesach, as the Haggadah states, "even if we were all wise and knowing, and knew all the Torah, it remains a Mitzvah to retell the story of Pesach." 

And thus we recline to the lower level of even the least knowledgeable of the sons. 

"And you should tell your son on that day, saying 'It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt," the final Ma Nishtana answer states.

It is for the sake of the Jewish willingness to educate our children, to patiently teach them and raise them to love and obey G-d that the redemption really happened. It was not a redemption of just individuals, the majority of whom never even made it out of the wanderings in the desert, but of the Jewish people. "Not just our fathers G-d redeemed, but also us," is the message of the Haggadah.

The willingness to begin, to teach the child who does not yet know, is the purpose of the Ma Nishtana and the answer to the final one of the four sons who, like all children born, does not yet know.

But will.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Parsha Bo - How Pharaoh Tried to Stop Pesach

 As the final plague, the death of the first-born, approaches, Moshe warns Pharaoh that the final plague will kill all the human first-born and "all the first-born of cattle". (Shemos/Exodus 11:5)

The devastating death of the "all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sit upon his throne, even unto the first-born of the maid-servant that is behind the mill" is obvious. 

What exactly does the death of all the first-born of cattle add to this, especially since previous plagues, particularly Dever, a plague that killed the Egyptian cattle, already inflicted serious losses on the animals?

When G-d first warns about the death of the first-born, He does so long before in Shemos 4:22-23 even before Moshe has arrived in Egypt.

"And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: 'Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born.'"

There's no mention of animals. Why then do the first-born of animals suddenly make an appearance?

As the final plagues approach, Pharaoh continues his bargaining strategy. At the beginning of Parshas Bo, when threatened with a plague of locusts, he offers to let the Jewish men, but not the children, go to worship G-d. (Shemos 10).

After the plague of darkness, Pharaoh agrees to let all the Jews go.  "Go, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds remain; let your little ones also go with you", only for Moshe to retort, "You too will also give us hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for from it we must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come there."

It's this attempt to hold on to the animals that triggers the final plague, the death of the first-born of both humans and animals.

The final plague, the death of the first-born, encompasses the final two bargaining elements that Pharaoh had sought to impose, the children and the animals. 

These two elements, the children and the sacrificial animals, are also the essence of both how the Jews were oppressed in Egypt... and of Pesach/Passover.

The Jews arrive in Egypt to act as Pharaoh's herdsmen. When a future Pharaoh decides to wipe them out he begins killing their children.

Parsha Bo begins with the birth of Judaism as G-d tells Moshe, "Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these My signs in the midst of them; so that you tell in the ears of thy son, and of thy son's son, what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have done among them; that ye may know that I am the LORD.'"

G-d is no longer simply intervening in the matter of the enslaved Jews because he has a covenant with their ancestors or out of a matter of justice, but to build a deeper ongoing relationship with the Jews.

The events transpiring in Egypt are meant to build a larger legacy and to be recalled by their children as an annual event giving rise to the first Jewish holiday, Passover, and the first commandments of Judaism.

The transmission of a relationship with G-d through the children is the essence of Judaism. It is certainly the essence of Passover which to this day recreates the story of Egypt through the recital of the story in the Haggadah at the Seder.

The other core element of Passover, not practiced today due to the lack of the Holy Temple, is the Passover sacrifice.

What's the significance of animal sacrifice, an act that strikes many as barbaric today? Animal husbandry, the core of economic life in the ancient world, represented human labor. The act of animal sacrifice goes back to Kayin and Hevel, the first sons of man, of Adam and Chava,  

Hevel or Abel brings "of the firstlings of his flock" to G-d. (Bereishis/Genesis 4:4) as an acknowledgement that the best, the first, of his labor belongs to G-d who enables man to succeed.

Likewise, the birth of a son, Kayin, leads Chava/Eve to proclaim,  "I have acquired a man with the help of the LORD."

Children and our economic achievements are the result of a partnership with G-d. By raising children in the way of G-d and by bringing sacrifices, Jews acknowledged that everything we have comes from G-d.

Until the very end, Pharaoh does everything he can to obstruct this basis for religion, fighting against the Jewish determination to educate our children in the way of G-d, as many tyrants would go on to do throughout history, and then to obstruct the animal sacrifices that acknowledge that what we have comes from G-d.

Pharaoh did everything he could to stop Pesach from happening. The holiday is a testament to his failure and the inevitable failure of those tyrants like him who will ultimately fall to the will of G-d.