Thursday, June 15, 2023

Shavuot - Why Don't We Commemorate the Giving of the Torah?

The holiday of Shavuot is widely celebrated by Jews, not for its traditional agricultural meaning, but as the day when the Torah was given to the Jews on Mount Sinai. 

And yet there is no mention in the Torah of any such thing regarding Shavuot. 

Furthermore, the Torah designates no special day or celebration of the giving of the Torah. Mount Sinai does not become a place of any special religious significance and even if Jews were certain where it's located, there is no thought of returning there for a celebration. Likewise, the burial spot of Moshe, we are explicitly told in the Torah, has been hidden away where no one may find it.

Why is there such a seeming avoidance of forming a more direct connection with the place, the time and the man through whom the Torah was given?

Shavuot serves as the other side of a dual holiday, divided by the counting of the Omer with Pesach. The holiday of Passover was enacted to remember the exodus. Jews are commanded to remember the Exodus in great detail at the Pesach seder and also on a daily basis. The Shabbat kiddush, on the evening and the day, offer separate commemorations of G-d's creation of the world and the exodus from Egypt.

It would seem like the most natural thing to include the remembrance of the giving of the Torah alongside the exodus and the creation of the world.

Why do we not do that?

As Jews, we commemorate things that have been completed. G-d created the world and rested. He took the Jews out of Egypt. But the giving of the Torah is incomplete. The giving of the Torah was only the beginning of a journey. The receiving of it, that is the journey itself. 

The Torah does not command the Jews to commemorate the giving of the Torah. Only the Jews could commemorate that once they had begun the process of receiving it. 

The two Jewish holidays associated with the Torah, Shavuot and Simchat Torah, are the result of innovations by the Jewish people. It would be inappropriate for the Jewish people to add celebrations of the exodus or the creation of the world of their own accord. But, having studied the Torah, it is only proper for the Jews to hold festivals celebrating what was given and what they have received from G-d.

The blessing before food is fairly brief while much longer blessings follow once someone has eaten. 

Likewise the true celebration of the Torah can only come when we have become 'satiated' with at least some of it.

The Torah wants us to focus on what we do with it rather than the original moment on Mount Sinai because it is what we do with it, how we bring it into us and let it change us, that matters. It did not take long after the giving of the Torah for the Jews to worship the golden calf. Simply hearing G-d's voice and the commandments, as awesome and incredible as that was, did not make the Jews into who they needed to be. Only the actual laborious process of learning and keeping the Torah could do that.

The giving of the Torah was accompanied by incredible miracles, much like the exodus, but where the exodus from Egypt set us free, the Torah was the beginning of a commitment. And we are not meant to dwell too much on the place or on the man, but on our obligation to keep it.

Pesach is a reminder that G-d redeemed us and runs the world. Shavuot however is our celebration of the work that we have done. In Egypt we were passive, but in learning the Torah we were active. The exodus cannot be repeated, but the receiving of the Torah is an ongoing process. The exodus made us free for all time, even when we are enslaved, but the Torah is perpetually being received and remains incomplete. We strive to work on it, no longer passive, but as partners with the Creator.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Parsha Beha'alotcha - Modesty and the Menorah

Parshas Beha'alotcha begins with the command to light the menorah. It ends with us being told that Moshe was the humblest man who ever lived.

What is the connection between the two?

In the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, the windows were narrow on the inside and widened on the outside because the temple did not need the light of the menorah, the world needed that light.

So too a modest man is narrow on the inside and wide on the outside, making himself small so that his light shines forth. In contrast, an arrogant man is wide on the inside, convinced of his own genius, but narrow on the outside, so that little light from him reaches the rest of the world.

It was Moshe's humility, like the narrow windows of the temple that funnel the light of the Menorah to the world, that made him such an enduring influence. While modern society preaches self-esteem, Moshe's lack of it often caused leadership problems, yet made him shine so brightly that he had to wear a mask to hide his light. The light that shines brightest is not that of charisma or ego, but of faith.

Moshe did not lead because he was a great orator or a charismatic figure, but because of his faith. The same faith that took him from a prince of Egypt to a wanderer, a shepherd and a prophet, required a narrowness of self. Through self-effacement, Moshe brought light to a nation and to the world.

That is also the lesson of the menorah. And of the Jews. Through humility and a seeming diminution of horizons, a fragile lamp and an oppressed people light up the world.

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.