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.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Parshas Vayishlach - Jacob Wrestles an Angel for his Name

One of the most mystifying, perhaps the most mystifying incident, in the Torah comes at the start of Parshas Vayislach. 

Yaakov, preparing for a potentially fatal confrontation with his brother and rival Esav, issues a heartfelt plea for salvation to G-d. And, seemingly in response, an angel shows up to fight not Esav, but Yaakov.

The prolonged wrestling match ends with Yaakov (Jacob) limping and the angel beaten to a stalemate. 

Yaakov demands a blessing from the angel in exchange for releasing him, and the angel blesses or foretells his new name, not Yaakov but Yisrael (Israel), and yet the new name is hardly used.

What in the world is going on here?

Let's start by considering what a name, especially in the biblical sense, is. It's a description of someone's fundamental quality. Yaakov's name, literally heel, is uniquely derogatory and emerges from his birth clutching at Esav's heel. The new name, Yisrael, is a triumphant warrior name, For You Have Contended With Powers and Men and Triumphed, that is as far away from Yaakov as you could possibly get.

But what does it actually take to change a name? 

It does no good to change a name by going to court and filling out some paperwork. Changing your name doesn't change who you are. To change your name, you have to first change yourself.

For Yaakov to earn a name, he had to undergo a particular trial.

Yaakov starts out as Ish Tam Yoishev Oholim, a mild-mannered man who dwells in tents, in contrast to his rough and tumble older brother Esav. He receives multiple blessings, but all of them through subterfuge. He convinces Esav to sell his birthright and then his mother convinces him to impersonate Esav to receive his blessing from his father Yitzchak (Isaac). The second time Yitzchak blesses him, it's under the pretext of going to find a wife with his uncle Lavan, rather than the truth that he's escaping Esav's wrath.

And now, for the first time, when wrestling an angel, Yaakov doesn't trick his way to a blessing, but demands it straightforwardly of the angel. He doesn't pretend to be someone he's not or pretend to be doing something he's not doing, instead he demands it after earning it in a night of combat.

And the blessing he receives is a new name. And a new identity. That of a warrior. A man who can actually have the strength to carry the dominant blessing that had been meant for Esav.

But Yaakov has not truly changed overnight. It's why despite the declaration that his name will no longer be Yaakov, but Yisrael, both names are used and most often he remains Yaakov.

It is some of his sons who will embody the strength and become Bnei Yisrael: the children of Israel.

Instead of responding with imminent miracles to Yaakov's plea, G-d instead dispatches an angel to subject him to a physical trial of combat to show him the hidden potential he has suppressed.

So too the Jewish people in exile, often forced into inferior roles, into living as minorities and practicing subterfuge to survive, as children of Jacob often forget that they are also the children of Israel. And then, as with the rebirth of the State of Israel, they remember that they are capable of being mighty warriors.

The trials that sometimes force them to fight may seem horrible, and the despair at seemingly not having G-d answer a prayer can be dispiriting, but sometimes, like the angel that wrestles with Jacob, the answer is that sometimes the trials are sent by G-d to test us and to force us to remember what it is to be warriors and to fight.

People are fond of quoting Yeshayah 2:4, "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more", and they are less likely to quote Yoel 4:10  "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears; let the weak say: 'I am a mighty warrior.'"

There is a place for both, a time for war and for peace. 

This is a lesson that Yaakov struggles to learn with difficulty. The battle with the angel shows his potential, but he still bows to Esav. And in the next crisis, the rape of Dinah, it's his older sons who turn to violence while he remains mute. Their resort to violence becomes endemic and leads to the crisis of Yosef. 

The decision, when to choose violence and when to choose negotiation and even appeasement, is a difficult one, and there are no easy answers. No one answer fits every scenario. That too is the lesson.

But it is important to remember that the one blessing that Yaakov earns straightforwardly, that he demands and through which he receives the name Yisrael, comes when he is given no choice but to fight, and the most reluctant of warriors, the original "quiet man", triumphs and earns his name.

We all wrestle our inner demons. For some they're evil inclinations, but for Jews in particular, the test of violence is an incomprehensible moral crisis. Out of this crisis emerges, Israel.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Parsha Miketz - Don't Follow Your Dreams

Parshas Miketz begins with a dream. Previously, Vayetze had begun with a dream and Vayeshev had begun and ended with dreams. But there's a substantive difference between the earlier dreams, those of Yaakov, and the later dreams involving Yosef. In Yaakov's dreams, G-d or an angel had explained their meaning or purpose to the patriarch, whereas Yosef' had to explain his own dreams and those of others.

As the embryonic Jewish people moved closer to the point of exile, the connection with G-d appeared to grow tenuous. Until Moshe, Yaakov would be the last Jew whom the Torah describes G-d speaking to. In the Egyptian exile, the Jews were no longer able to hear G-d. Yosef's dreams, filled with abstract symbols, but without words, were the beginning of that exile in more ways than one. The dreams would help bring on a physical exile, but they were also the symbols of a spiritual exile from the close connection of direct conversations and clear messages that Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov had enjoyed with G-d. 

When Yosef encounters Pharaoh's two stewards, themselves exiled, in prison, he responds to their dreams by saying, "Are not interpretations for G-d? Relate them to me." 

It's a strange declaration, at once humble and yet full of a grand assertion. If G-d knows the meaning of dreams, how does it follow that Yosef can be so privileged as to know their meanings as well?

The brothers had mocked Yosef as the Baal HaHalomot or the Master of Dreams. His destiny and exile had seemingly begun with his own two dreams, in which he sees stalks of wheat and stars bowing. Yet there is a significant difference between these two dreams and the later dreams of Pharaoh and his stewards which may help explain both his title and why he is able to assert his ability to interpret them.

Yosef interprets Pharaoh's dreams and those of the stewards, but despite their obvious meaning, he never interprets his own dreams. It's the brothers and his father who see in them dreams of ambition and glory.

"Are not interpretations for G-d?" Instead of interpreting his own dreams, Yosef left them to G-d.

In the modern culture, we are often told to follow our dreams. When the brothers taunted Yosef as the Master of Dreams, they meant that his mastery was as vaporous as dreams and perhaps that he had been mastered by dreams that had no reality to them. But Yosef never allowed the dreams to master him. He did not interpret his own dreams or allow himself to be ruled by these visions of power and glory.

Yosef truly was the Master of Dreams because he did not follow his dreams. They followed him.

In prison, vastly distant from these visions of power and glory, Yosef did not follow his dreams, he followed his faith. He could interpret the dreams of others because he was not ruled by his own dreams.

When we interact with others, we are often driven by our own agendas. We want things from other people and our time with them is defined by what we want. Yosef never made requests or suggestions that would serve his own agendas until he had interpreted the dreams, of Pharaoh and his stewards. 

"Are not interpretations for G-d?" Yosef interpreted the dreams as he believed G-d had intended. He did not allow his dreams to dominate the dreams of others. Instead of following his own dreams, he helped others understand their dreams. And that is what made him so powerful. 

Sold into slavery, Yosef climbed the ladder in a society with no social mobility by helping others and refusing to take advantage of them even when, as with Potiphar's wife, he put himself at risk. He went from a lowly slave to the manager to an estate to the viceroy of Egypt by helping those around him. And he did so for the same reason that he interpreted their dreams, because that is what G-d would want.

That is what makes Yosef one of the most selfless figures in the Torah. 

We think of the Baal HaHalomot as someone who is driven by dreams, but it is actually the man or woman who masters their dreams and lives a life of meaning and purpose. Yosef could not have survived as a slave if he had spent all his time pursuing fantasies. He saw dreams as forms of meaning, not from his subconscious, but from G-d, and followed a destiny laid out by G-d, by helping others. 

Yosef's interpretation of dreams, like his waking labors, were based on paying close attention to other people and to the world around him, and creating a bridge between it and G-d. Cast off into exile, he brought light to wherever he was by seeing that everything around him was illuminated by G-d.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

The Chanukah of Chanukah - Why We Only Celebrate the Dedication of a Defiled Temple

What is Chanukah specifically?

Many discussions about Chanukah begin with the artificial distinction between the military victory and the miracle of the oil that burned for 8 days. This distinction is wholly artificial because the war had been fought by a priestly family over the desecration of the sacred service and concluded with the purification of the Temple. The military campaign and the reclamation of the Temple are the means and the end.

The miracle of the oil was the achievement of the goal for which the battle had been fought. To separate the two as if they belonged to two different world is like separating the blowing of the shofar at the Western Wall from the Six Day War. Both were miracles, but one was the moral climax of the miracle.

The miracle of the menorah was, in the old military slogan, "why we fight".

And yet Chanukah, the name of the holiday, references neither the battle nor, explicitly, the menorah. Chanukah simply means dedication. The first dedication occurred with the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle, in the desert, with the First Temple, built by Solomon, and the Second Temple, assembled by the returning exiles from Babylon under the leadership of the last of the prophets.

And yet, of all of these, as thrilling and meaningful as they were, the only chanukah, the only dedication that we celebrate for thousands of years, is the one that took place in the defiled, but liberated Temple.

It's puzzling, but not that much.

People who don't know much about Judaism sometimes reduce Jewish holidays to, "They killed us, we won, let's eat". In reality, only 3 holidays, Passover, Purim, and Chanukah, fit this description.

The traditional Jewish division of holidays has been into the biblical holidays, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, which endow the agricultural cycle of planting and harvesting that governed the lives of an agricultural society with symbolic and historical religious meaning by recalling key events in the redemption and the nationalization of the Jewish people, by visiting the Temple on these 'moadim' and, similarly to Shabbat, refraining from physical labor and secular activities.

And then there were the post-biblical commemorations, Purim and Chanukah, which commemorated specific miracles that occurred around the time of the Second Temple, which did not require any trips to the Temple or cessation of physical labor, but an appreciation of the presence of G-d in our lives.

These holidays were not just about the defeat of a genocidal enemy through military prowess, although the Jews fought and won physical battles in both Chanukah and Purim. These were national religious revivals.

Purim begins with a feast of evil, moves to a fast of repentance, and then concludes with a proper feast. 

Chanukah also begins with a Jewish people who have become comfortable with a secular society, losing their values, before suddenly coming to a terrible choice between being Jewish and imminent death.

In both Purim and Chanukah, two men, Mordechai and Mattisyahu, stood up with grand gestures of defiance that woke a slumbering nation and forced them to confront the forces that would destroy them.

And to do that, the Jews first had to dedicate, or rather rededicate themselves, to G-d and the Torah.

That is why we celebrate only one chanukah. Every other dedication of temples and tabernacles had begun with a perfect new structure. Chanukah's dedication alone begins with a soiled and defiled Temple, turned over to idolatry, deliberately tainted in every ugly and indecent way.

The Temple that the Maccabees liberate is a reflection of the state of the Jewish people.

The chanukah of Chanukah is the only one we celebrate because it is the only one that remains relevant to us in all these thousands of years. We are not worthy of the other dedications. The sacred buildings that were built are lost to us. But Chanukah reminds us that we can rise from the depths, and with dedication repair our inner selves, our society, and with it, the Temple where we most closely encounter G-d.

The final post-biblical holidays are appropriately enough the holidays of the baalei teshuva, the penitent ones, they are not the stories of the open might of G-d smashing down waves or bringing the commandments of the Torah in fire, but of a lost people who are still protected, unseen by G-d, and who return, no matter how much they have fallen, when they are willing to dedicate themselves to Him.

Chanukah and Purim are holidays of Teshuvah, not, like many of the fast days, through physical penitence, but through the commemorations of a national revival and a shining moment of rejuvenation.

They are not, "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." Rather they are, "They tried to kill us, we found G-d and won, let's celebrate."

Let us consider the Al Hanissim prayer: our only formal addition to the daily prayers for Chanukah. After briefly describing the rebellion and the battle, fought by G-d, it turns to the return of the Temple.

"And then Your children came to Your Holy of Holies of Your house, cleansed Your sanctuary, purified Your temple, and lit lights in Your holy courts. And they designated these 8 days of Chanukah to give thanks and to praise Your name."

The reference is to the lights plural. In other descriptions of the Second Temple, we've seen that a multitude of lights lit there would have shone down across Jerusalem filling the city with light. 

The emphasis in the prayer is not on the miracle of the oil, which a small number of warrior priests witnessed, but on the celebration of the dedication afterward that the entire city rejoiced in. The conclusion is the plurality of lights lit by all the returning priestly and levitical families in the Temple. A light show that lit up a nation similar to the way that each family spreads the light of their menorah today.

Why indeed does each family light the menorah? We're not high priests. And few of us are even priests. There is no other temple ritual that we so explicitly recreate, almost blasphemously, in our own homes.

And yet each of us lights to rededicate our homes, our families, and our flawed selves, to G-d.

In the moment of the lighting, each of us is a priest, striding through the rubble of a defiled temple, searching out that one pure jug of olive oil, a gift from G-d to a fallen man or woman, and hoping that in this lighting it will burn far beyond its normal capacity within our souls even when Chanukah ends.

In lighting the menorah, we ask G-d for a gift of purity, of purpose and conviction, not to make us over anew, but to empower us to reclaim and purify what has been soiled, and to rededicate ourselves again.

Chanukah, unlike Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashana, does not tell us that we can leave the past behind, and yet it allows us to celebrate, not a new beginning, but the bright start of cleaning up the mess.

It is the holiday of the Baal Teshuvah, of the broken responding to that self-knowledge of brokenness, not with despair, but with dedication and even joy at the Divine inspiration that has kindled their flame.

It is that dedication, that chanukah, the addition of light after light, sweeping back the darkness without and within, that we celebrate. It is a miracle. It is many miracles. But most of all it is the miracle that G-d kindles a light of inspiration and hope even within the defiled temple in Jerusalem or in a Jew.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Parshas Chayei Sarah - The Two Tests of Rivka

 After the death of Sarah, much of her namesake parsha is concerned with finding a successor matriarch. 

The journey of Eliezer, Avraham's servant, to find a wife for Yitzchak (Isaac) is chronicled in detail, and at its center is Eliezer asking G-d for a sign. The sign is that the woman who would be right for Yitzchak and for the next generation of the dynasty begun by Avraham is one who would show kindness by bringing water to a stranger and his camels. And he finds that woman in the form of Rivka or Rebecca. 

Kindness and hospitality were certainly key characteristics for Avraham, yet his ultimate crisis and test was having to sacrifice his own son. Rivka's own climactic test was a similar one. After years of being unable to have children, she suddenly had twins, only to be told that one of them was evil. 

Like Avraham, his daughter-in-law would have to sacrifice a child. 

And while Eliezer might not know what was to come, G-d certainly did. How would a test of kindness prepare her for the great crisis of her life?

There are two types of kind people.

Some are kind by inclination. They are nice people, but lack any real sense of mission. When their values are challenged, they either keep going through the same motions or they fall apart. Kind people who have a sense of mission are not simply nice by nature, but out of conviction. When a challenge arises, they can make the difficult decisions and painful sacrifices that have to be made.

Rivka actually experiences two tests in this parsha.

One is obvious. It's the central moment of the parsha. But the other passes by so quickly that we hardly notice it.

G-d selects Avraham for kindness. But He begins the selection by telling Avraham that he must leave his family and his people to begin a new life. Rivka is asked by Eliezer and her family to make the same choice.

"Will you go with this man?" they ask her.

And she replies that she will.

This is the second test and it's the same one that Avraham passed. Like her future father-in-law, Rivka leaves behind her family and her people to begin a new life. This is also what prepares her for the painful choice that she will have to make between Esav and Yaakov.

Avraham's sense of mission drove him to follow G-d's command to head into a new land. That same sense of mission which allowed him to leave behind his family also, when it came time, enabled him to make the painful choice to banish Ishmael and to sacrifice Yitzchak. That's the sense of mission that allowed Rivka to leave her family, to keep Esav from his father's blessing, and have Yaakov go into exile so that she would never see him again.

Yitzchak, having been sacrificed himself, could not make the hard choice. It fell to Rivka to do it.

As Jews, kindness and hospitality is part of our mission, but so is doing what we need to do to protect our values. These two missions are not contradictory. They are the same mission. The G-d who told us to welcome strangers, also told us to serve Him. That is why we are not meant to fall into the unthinking heresy of Tikkun Olam in which we have no mission other than to be nice to other people.

If Rivka had been merely nice, she would have made a pleasant addition to the household before falling apart at the first real crisis. 

As Jews, we must not only be nice, but to be able to make the hard choices that separate a pleasant life from a meaningful one.

Rivka passed both tests and that is what made her fit to become the second matriarch of Israel.


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Parshas Noach - The Duality of the Second Father of Mankind

Noach, as a figure, comes burdened with ambiguity from the very beginning. Instead of taking the Torah's declaration of his righteousness at face value, they dig into the qualifier of the verse.

"Noach ish tzaddik tamim haya bedorotav", "Noach was a perfectly righteous man in his time" becomes the basis of an argument over whether he was really a righteous man, or only righteous by the standards of his age. Would he have been a better or a worse man in a nobler time, they inquire.

If this seems unfair, Noach is the second father of mankind, and the man who plants a vineyard and gets truck in front of his sons and grandson. He's a righteous man, but unlike Avraham, seems to have little impact on those around him. And even his grandson turns out to be wicked and ends up cursed by him.

The duality and ambiguity of Noach is there at the beginning. His name, Noach, means rest. His father gave him the name hoping that with his birth, mankind would have rest from the curse of the earth.

And indeed there is rest, but because a flood covers the earth and wipes out all the rest of mankind.

Only after Noach leaves the ark and brings sacrifices, does the meaning of his name emerge when G-d pledges not to curse the earth again because of mankind. It is not because man has proven himself holy, but because, "the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth". 

The first letters of Noach also those of Nechama which can mean consolation or regret. Before the flood, Vayenachem, G-d regrets having created man. Afterward, Noach appears to seek consolation in wine.

Noach's own name, literally rest, can be used to mean respite from foes who are killed. That's the way it is used from time to time, from the prophets to Purim.

All this duality makes Noach a curious and fitting second father to mankind. A man who is both righteous and flawed with the familiar human weaknesses. Noach is not ideal, perhaps, and yet he's able to rise above his flaws through faith. 

An ideal man might have been saved from the flood and yet would not have met with G-d's tolerant response that the earth would no longer be cursed because "the inclination of man's heart is evil from his youth". 

Noach was not perfect, yet saved mankind despite his imperfections. Despite whatever flaws there might have been in his character, his faith in G-d persisted. He was a perfectly righteous man in an era where people did not aspire to heights, but sank to the lowest depths, not because he never sinned, but because he never stopped resisting the same forces that had dragged down a generation and that, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, threatened his own moral standing.

Gifted with a prophetic name, Noach did indeed win G-d's forbearance by struggling despite his flaws. And so mankind could win some respite and rest, that Noach himself, ironically, could not. Whether he labored to build the ark, to maintain it during the flood, or to rebuild mankind afterward, Noach may have been one of the hardest working men in the bible. And when he did rest, he fell into a scandal.

It was this quality, bringing sacrifices of the very animals he had worked so hard to preserve, the act of faith it implied, that won mankind rest from the curses of the earth. Man might be flawed in character, as Noach shows when, on planting the vineyard he is referred to as Ish HaAdama, a man of the earth, but his struggle and toil need not be external, if it is internal, as it was for the second father of mankind.