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.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Parshas Vaeschan - The Unanswered Prayer and the Unexpected Legacy

Prayers rarely go unanswered by G-d. 

The five books of the Torah contain two examples of impassioned prayers that G-d does not grant.

The first comes early on when Avraham prays on behalf of Sodom and the second comes near the end when Moshe prays to G-d to be allowed to enter Israel, and is told by that it will not happen.

Both of the prayers of these two great men were not trivial personal requests, rather urgent cries from the heart for what they considered to be their fundamental mission in life. Avraham thought that his mission was reaching the world with the message of G-d, and Moshe thought that his mission was bringing the Jewish people into Israel. Both prayers were not granted because these were not their true missions.

Avraham's true mission, despite his greatest efforts, was not to reach the world, but to bring a nation into the world. He could not save Sodom, but he could teach his son, Yitzchak, to follow in his footsteps.

Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel. His mission was instead revealed at the very end of his life. Yet the message of his real mission appears in Vaeschanan, the very same parsha that begins with the rejection of Moshe's unfulfilled prayer, reaches its high point with the repetition of the Ten Commandments. Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel, but into the presence of G-d.

Vaeschanan is part of Sefer Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah. And Devarim only exists because of that unfulfilled prayer. 

If Moshe had gone into Israel, Devarim would not exist. It was only Moshe's recognition that he would not only die in a short time, but that he would die without being able to bring the Jews into Israel that summons up the mixture of admonishment and blessings, poetry and history that is Devarim.

Moshe is the first prophet who serves the familiar prophetic function of being sent to guide and admonish the Jewish people. Devarim creates the model that is repeated by prophets in Israel. 

Even after the Jews are exiled, the prophetic legacy of Moshe endures. 

Moshe's mission was not to bring the Jews into Israel, but to bring Devarim, with its prophetic model, and all of the Torah to the Jews. Had G-d granted Moshe's prayer, Devarim would not exist.

And Devarim only comes into existence at the very end when the Torah is unveiled for the first time.

Moshe prepares to face death, and as his farewell to the Jews, the Torah he had been writing is fully revealed. As Devarim is all but complete, Moshe's legacy is complete. While other leaders, princes and prophets, will lead the Jews into Israel, and then into exile, and then back to Israel, Moshe continues to lead the Jews throughout history.

We may not always know what our mission is and what our legacy may be. Sometimes what we think our mission is, turns out not to be our actual mission. And our legacy may turn out to be something else entirely. 

Man does his best to define his own mission and legacy, but his perspective is limited. Even the greatest man can pour all his energy and effort into a mission, only for G-d to reveal what his true mission was.

On the brink of death and disappointment, Moshe pours out his heart to his people. And believing that he has failed at his greatest task, he brings it into being. The Torah that is unrolled on the final day of his life, completed by his final effort, his summoning of all his energies to inspire his people, is his legacy.

And on the final day of his life, Moshe realizes that he had not failed at his life's task, he has succeeded at something far greater. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Parsha Maasos - The Rebellion of the Rancher Lords

As the conquest of Israel is underway, the leaders of Reuven and Gad approach Moshe and ask him to grant them the lands already conquered for grazing (Bamidbar 32),

Moshe, with uncharacteristic fury, accuses them of following in the footsteps of the original ten tribal spies who had discouraged the Jews from entering the land.

"And, behold, ye are risen up in your fathers' stead, a brood of sinful men," Moshe blasted them.

What's behind Moshe's anger and what's the connection to the sin of the spies? Is it merely a casual connection or is there something deeper there?

The motives of Reuven and Gad are obvious, but those of the spies remain unclear.

Why were influential and prominent men so driven to discourage the settlement of Israel?

Rebellions by the Jews in the desert largely fell into two categories. There were mass rebellions over shortages of food and water, or general panic, and attempted coups by the powerful against Moshe.

The revolts of Korach and of the spies both fall into this latter category. Korach wanted power. But what did the spies want?

What do we know about the spies? They were influential men, the Torah describes them as, Roshei Bnei Yisrael, among the heads of Israel, every one a Nasi, a prince. But what made men influential and powerful? The obvious answer is status and wealth. What did wealth men back then? Herds.

The Jews, up until now, had been nomadic herders whose wealth was tied up in their herds.

When Pharaoh tried to take the wealth of the Jews to make certain that they returned, he wanted to keep their herds in Egypt.

When the Jews entered Israel they became, for the first time in their history, farmers, instead of just herders. The vision of the ideal society, as described in Micah 4:4, "they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree", is a farming society where every individual has his own property.

The tribal and familial lottery system was meant to give everyone his own property to work.

Would such a society have been advantageous to the rancher lords whose economic power was based on accumulating large herds with many hands to help manage the herd?

Is this what led the spies to spread negative reports about Israel?

The spies were powerful and influential men. When they saw the land, they also saw a vision of a world in which they were no longer as important and prominent as they once were. And they did their best to mobilize a popular reaction to the conquest of Israel by the very people who might have benefited from it.

The tribes who wanted grazing land seemed to Moshe to be echoing the same original sin, of putting their own economic interests above the good of the nation, dividing the people into tribes, and pitting the wealthy against the poor, and tribe against tribe, as would continue happening during Jewish history. And he warned them that the road that they were going down could destroy the nation.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Parshas Vaera - The Order of the Plagues

We all know the names of the ten plagues that struck Egypt. And some of us may even remember the order that they took place in. But is there any reason for the particular order?

The plagues do become somewhat more devastating with time, but not entirely.

Take the plague of darkness, which was traumatic, but not truly damaging, as opposed to the invasion of wild beasts.

There is however an order of meaning to the order of plagues.

The plagues don't necessarily move forward in degrees of devastation, but in degrees of altitude.

From the first to the ninth plague, they begin at the very bottom, in the river, below the surface of the earth, and ascend to the sky, while the final plagues leading up to the end, hail, locusts, and darkness, emerge from the heavens.

In between them, the plagues slowly ascend, rising from the Nile, blood and frogs, up to the third plague, vermin, which arise when the dust of the earth is struck. The fourth and fifth plagues involve the animals, either wild animals invading or domestic animals dying, on the surface of the earth.

Then for the sixth plague, furnace ash is tossed "heavenward", and becomes boils.

The seventh plague, hail, falls from he heaven to the earth. The eight plague, locusts, likewise, descend from the heaven to the earth. But the ninth plague, darkness, blots out light across the heavens cutting off light to Egypt.

From the first to the ninth plague, the plagues rise from below the earth, to the earth, and then to the sky, moving upward from man and into the very heavens, demonstrating that G-d rules over the earth and the heavens, that He is the G-d of all creation.

And then, for the tenth plague, the damage is focused on the pinnacle of creation, the beings for whom all the earth and the heavens had been meant for, man, in his religious duty.

We are told that in the tenth plague, G-d visited devastation on the gods of Egypt.

How did He do this by slaying the first-born sons of Egypt? The first-born sons were traditionally the religious leaders of the family. They were the priests. Instead of serving G-d, they had served idols, instead of permitting the Jews to worship G-d, they had enslaved them to serve their idolatrous society.

And so, after demonstrating that the providence of G-d rises from below the earth to the heavens, directing the gaze of Egyptians upward from their provincial affairs, their property, their comfort, their homes, to the heavens, one final plague was unleashed to break their idolatrous society.

Each Egyptian refusal to contemplate the power of G-d, after each increasingly profound plague, was finally punished with the destruction of their gods, who, unlike G-d, were mere objects whose understanding and existence lived only in the priests who worshiped them, the first-born.

The final message of the ten plagues was there was no other G-d, in earth or in heaven.