Saturday, December 26, 2009

Parshas Vayigash - Haod Avi Chai?

When Yosef reveals his identity to his brothers, his first question to them seems almost a non-sequitur. For a while now the entire conversation had revolved around Yaakov and his pain at losing Binyamin. Yehuda had just finished delivering an entire speech hinging on precisely that point. And then Yosef reveals his identity and asks if his father is alive.

Obviously Yosef was not asking a question to which he had already been told the answer many times. The difference now was not in Yakov's state of being in between Yosef's pretending to be an Egyptian and his revelation of his true identity, but in the identity itself. The change had not taken place in Yaakov, but in how the brothers now saw Yosef, and his question must be seen in that light.

To understand Yosef's question, Haod Avi Chai, Does My Father Still Live, we need to take a step back and look at the dynamic of Yaakov's family. Ever since the confrontation with Esav when Yaakov had chosen to appease his renegade brothers, and with the kidnapping of Dinah, a rift had existed between Yaakov and the sons of Leah.

Yaakov's elder sons were the children of an unfavored wife. And they were more aggressive than Yaakov was comfortable with being. And they had taken the lead and stopped listening to Yaakov during the abduction of Dinah, when they took the lead, spoke before their father to Chamor, and defended their actions to him. Reuven's actions in moving Yaakov's bed fall into that category.

Essentially Leah's older sons had taken over the leadership of the family, and when Yosef's dreams seemed to threatened that leadership, they disposed of him.  By acting in this way, they had removed Yaakov's authority and behaved as if their father was already dead.

Now Yosef's first challenge to them on the revelation of his identity connects right back to the original power struggle that caused him to be enslaved. Is Yaakov alive and their father, or is the elder sons of Leah, who in turn are unable to answer him.

If we look back or forward to the Haggadah, which quotes the Midrash, Arami Oved Avi Vayered Mitzraima, an Aramean (meaning Lavan) tried to destroy my father and he descended to Egypt.

The obvious question is how did Lavan's actions force Yaakov to descend to Egypt? The gap in time alone seems to render null and void any connection. But what did Lavan do to try and destroy Yaakov? He tricked Yaakov by giving him Leah in place of Rachel, thereby creating a divided household and a breach in the family. This breach caused Yosef to be sent to Egypt and Yaakov to follow after him.

But Lavan's actions that would cause Yaakov to go down to Mitzrayim, were ultimately the will of G-d. Thus Lavan's plot to undermine Yaakov's family would instead only go on to fulfill G-d's plan for them. What Lavan thought would destroy Yaakov, instead kept the entire family alive as Yosef was able to provide for them.

And Yosef's question marks a basic power shift in the family, as Yosef now takes charge and leadership of Bnei Yaakov. It is he who provides for them, designates where they should live and at whose table they eat. It is his sons who are split into separate tribes, giving him a limited parity with Yaakov.

Yosef's question affirms his leadership, by asking them to affirm Yaakov's leadership. Haod Avi Chai. By recognizing that it is their father who rules, they are able to submit to Yosef. Yosef in turn recognizes the divine providence and instead of ruling over them, brings them inside.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Parshas Mikeitz - Time's Up

Parshas Mikeitz begins with a title that informs us of the passage of time. But while telling us how much time has passed seems an ordinarily reasonable enough thing, the Torah previously and afterward had not been very focused on giving us that kind of information. Instead mostly the details of the passage of time have to be inferred from genealogies and events. Why then the grand pronouncement now of Mikeitz?

Mikeitz marks the departure of Yosef from prison and into ruling Egypt as Pharaoh's viceroy, almost in an instant he is plucked from prison, rushed through, given time only to shave and dress, and then rushed in to stand before Pharaoh. The significance of this is that Yosef had acted prematurely in the past. He had related his dreams to his brothers and father, long before the proper time. He had asked the cupbearer to intervene on his behalf, long before it was time. And now finally the time had arrived.

After 2 years in prison, echoing the 210 years that his descendants would be enslaved in Egypt, and the 2000 of the Great Exile, Yosef's time had finally come. And while another man might have given in to despair and abandoned any notion of a divine plan, on Yosef's first appearance before Pharaoh, he informed the ruler that any interpretation he gave would come from G-d and that the dreams illustrated the divine plan.

His experiences until this point had stripped away Yosef's youthful immaturity enabling him to recognize and take the long view. It was a skill that he would need for though Yosef was no longer a slave in prison, as a viceroy he was effectively the second most powerful man in Egypt, and yet a slave to Pharaoh. He was unable to leave the land of Egypt for more than a brief interval to bury his own father, and he would be forced to pass along a message across the generations to whoever might serve as G-d's messenger when it came time for his descendants and those of his brethren to be taken out of exile, to carry his body out of Egypt and back to the land that he been kidnapped from.

Yosef was effectively the first Hebrew slave of many, and his ability to wait until the Mikeitz arrived, until the time of slavery had ended, was to serve as a template for the Jews who would go on to be enslaved and in exile, in age after age, and land after land. Yet despite his sufferings or rather because of them, Yosef had learned to wait until the time of his redemption had arrived. And even in the darkest prisons, he could wait patiently for the divine plan to be fulfilled.

As the last day of Chanukah ends, we continue on in the cycle of the Hebrew calendar, the days, months and years, the commemorations and observances that mark the passage of time in our exile. Until our own Mikeitz arrives, and we are rushed out of our prisons, into the light, to stand before the Ruler of the World, and to know that at last the time when our dreams and prophecies have been fulfilled has finally arrived.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Parshas Vayeishev - A Light in the Darkness

The conjunction of Parshas Vayeishev and Chanukah features two sets of brothers, the sons of Leah and the Macabees. And both also feature something that was thought to be hopelessly lost, being found again.

Parshas Vayeishev begins with Vayeishev Yaakov Baaretz Megurei Aviv וַיֵּשֶׁב יַעֲקֹב, בְּאֶרֶץ מְגוּרֵי אָבִיו--בְּאֶרֶץ, כְּנָעַן., Yaakov wanted to dwell in the land where his fathers had sojourned. While his fathers had only sojourned there, Yaakov wanted to dwell there, which implies permanence. The famous Rashi mentions that Tzaddikim wish to dwell in peace, but G-d asks rhetorically why they are not satisfied with the rest of their afterlife, to want it here and now in this world.

There are two elements at work here. First Yaakov wanted to live permanently in the land, yet the second half half of the sentence informs us, Ba'aretz Caanan, that it was still the land of Caanan, not the land of Israel. It was not yet a place where Israel could live permanently, only sojourn. Secondly, Yaakov wanted to rest from all his troubles. Just as the story of Avraham's life had ended with Yitzchak's marriage, and Yitzchak's story had ended with Yaakov's departure, so too Yaakov thought that his story had ended with his sons. He could live out his years peacefully, without strife or struggle.

Instead the incident of Yosef occurred, because while Yaakov's sons would play major roles in what came next, Yaakov's own role had not ended. Avraham's role ended when he passed his mission on to his son Yitzchak. Yitzchak's mission ended when he passed on his own mission twice, through the blessings, to Yaakov. However Yaakov had yet to pass on his mission, and the role of his sons in this arrangement was as of yet unsettled.

It is a very human thing to want to be at peace, but achieving anything worthwhile in life requires struggling to overcome obstacle. Yaakov had not become a great man when he was an Ish Tam and a Yoshev Oholim, mild mannered and studious, his mission began when he was forced into exile, which developed the traits in him that made him great. And while Yaakov assumed that he would only have to endure one exile. In fact, like his descendants, he would be forced to endure not one, but two exiles. The second of which would last into the lives of his descendants, seemingly without end.

To want peace in this world is to give up the struggle for greatness and for truth. It is easy enough to be at peace by surrendering. And had the Macabees chosen to surrender, to give up their beliefs, they too could have lived at peace. But at what price. The Pasuk in Vayeishev tells us. It is only possible to dwell in peace, Vayeishev, on those terms, if you accept that it is Eretz Caanan. On the other hand if you want it to be an elevated place, you must stand for something, and that will force you to either be a Ger, to sojourn homelessly in the land, or to fight for the land. Yaakov wanted to do neither, he wanted to dwell in the land at rest, and that is only possible if you give up and accept that it is to be Eretz Caanan, and nothing more.

The Macabees refused to accept that it is Eretz Caanan. Just as we refuse to accept that it is Palestina. And so we cannot live there in peace, neither could they, without being willing to stand up and fight for what is right. And so Tzaddikim may wish to dwell in peace, but G-d tells them that the nature of this world is not such that they can dwell in peace in it, unless they accept that it is Eretz Caanan, at which point they will cease to be Tzaddikim. But if they wish to strive for it to be something higher, then this requires toil and struggle. Only in the spiritually elevated world of the hereafter can they dwell in peace.

And thus the events unfold. There is struggle and great darkness. Yosef, the 11th child, who makes the tribes complete, the bright star whose bright dreams seemed to light the way to the future is lost. He falls into darkness. He is thrown into a pit, given up for dead, sold into slavery in the most corrupted land on earth, and finally tossed into prison there, in the hands of his master, the Chief Executioner of Pharaoh.

The lad who had run and played with the younger sons of the maidservants,וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת-בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת-בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה, נְשֵׁי אָבִיו is exiled by his Leah's older sons (with whom he has a large age gap). And seemingly is lost. So too when the Macabees retake the Beit Hamikdash they find it hopelessly defiled, the walls pierced in 13 places, one for each of the tribes including Shevet Levi which conducts the priestly work, and each of the flasks of pure oil defiled. The Temple seems lost in darkness as well.

But though Yosef seems hopelessly lost and defiled, that one pure flask of oil survives, and lights the way for his father and his brothers, and for the survival of his people. So too the single flask of oil, out of all those that were lost and defiled, is lit and endures for eight days. Though both sets of brothers, the Tribes and the Macabees were imperfect, at the end God had prepared a single light found improbably in the darkness to lead them both.

And thus while the struggle for what is right may often seem hopeless. We may, as Yaakov did, wish to simply be left alone to dwell in peace, nevertheless are comforted by the knowledge that if we wish Eretz Caanan to be Eretz Yisrael, we must struggle on, and that for us too, the Lord God has prepared a light in the darkness, waiting for us when things look their worst.

As the preceding verses to Haftorah for the Parsha has God proclaiming of Joshua, the High Priest whose lineage had been tainted, "Is Not this Man a Brand Plucked Out of the Fire" הֲלוֹא זֶה אוּד, מֻצָּל מֵאֵשׁ , removing his dirty garments and replacing them with clean ones. And the Haftorah itself goes on to say זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר: לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת "This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts."

The brand plucked out of the fire, the clean flask of oil found amid the impure debris and the lost son sold into slavery found to rule as a viceroy, all these are a light in the darkness lit by God to show us that the struggle is not futile. And that though slavery in Egypt may await us, we should not give up and settle down to dwell in Eretz Caanan, but follow the light of God through the darkness wherever it may lead.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Parshas Vayishlach - Out of the Fields

Parshas Vayislach begins with Yaakov's encounter with Esav. Yaakov makes multiple preparations for this, but the bulk of it seems to involve appeasing Esav. Yaakov sends train after train of cattle to Esav. And he even calls this tribute, "Mincha Le'Esav", a term commonly used for Korbanot, Sacrifices to G-d. And worse when he meets Esav, he proclaims that seeing him is like seeing the face of G-d.

Satisfied that the blessings that Yitzchak gave to Yaakov, that he would dominate and rule over him, have come to nought, Esav hugs him and goes on his way. Yet what is the price that Yaakov pays for this tribute, for this Mincha Le'Esav?

The end of the Parsha lists in detail Esav's genealogy. Tribe after tribe, chieftain after chieftain. Why do we need to know all this information? We need to know it because it serves as a consequence. There in that moment stood Esav and from him would descend Amalek and Edom and Rome and Germany. In that moment so much evil might have been ended. Instead Yaakov paid him tribute. The Bracha of the firstborn that Yaakov had worked so hard for, was יַעַבְדוּךָ עַמִּים, וישתחו לְךָ לְאֻמִּים--הֱוֵה גְבִיר לְאַחֶיךָ, וְיִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ בְּנֵי אִמֶּךָ "You will be master over your brothers and the sons of your mother will bow to you." Yet Yaakov had no confidence in that bracha or in Hashem's promise of protection at Beth El and so instead it was Yaakov who deferred to Esav.

From there Yaakov's family approaches a city only to have Dinah kidnapped and molested by Shechem, the son of the ruler of the city. Hamor, the ruler of the city comes with his son in tow, to ask for Yaakov's permission to legalize the rape by marrying his daughter. And Yaakov remains silent. After all what can he do, on the one hand the obvious answer, certainly the conventional 'frum' one is to do a Mincha Le'Esav, to flatter Hamor and tell him what a great Lord he is, to defer to him and offer him presents and money in exchange for his own daughter. But in the aftermath of what was done to his daughter, this is too bitter a pill to swallow and so he says nothing and sits there and does not know what to do.

And then Bnei Yaakov Bau Min Hasadeh, the Sons of Yaakov Came Back From the Field. But of course Pasuk Heih already told us that Yaakov's sons were in the field. Why tell us a second time? Let's look back at Yitzchak's blessing to Yaakov. He prefaces it by saying, "The Smell of My Son is As The Smell of a Field Which the Lord Has Blessed." Yitzchak had sent Esav out not to go into the barn and kill a sheep, but had told him וְצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה Tzeh Hasadeh, "Go Out Into the Field" and hunt food. Why the field in particular? Why hunt food? Because going out and hunting represents the conquest of the physical world.

When Yaakov's sons, particularly Leah's sons returned from the field, they had come back from wrestling with the physical world. And they did not remain silent. Instead they decided there would be no more Mincha Le'Esav. Not only would they not pay to get their sister back or to enter into any arrangement, instead they would recover their sister, slay those responsible and take their property as loot instead.

From the perspective of the Galut Yid this is an insane idea. Go out and fight? Kill? Are you crazy? Okay, so something terrible happened here. But what can we do about it? Nothing, we sit there and remain silent. Then maybe we make a deal with Hamor or with someone over his head, we write a letter, make up a petition and then we'll lock up our women even more closely, maybe shave their heads and pray it doesn't happen again. And indeed that's exactly what Yaakov furiously tells his sons, Look how the Caananites are going to think of me. There's a lot of them and a few of us. They'll gang up on us and kill us all.

And what do the sons of Yaakov who have wiped out an entire city reply? Hakezonah Yaaseh Et Achoteinu? Should our sister be made as a harlot? And the Parsha gives them the last word.

The name of Dinah derives from Din or Justice and Law. Dinah can be read as Din Hashem or G-d's Law. When Shechem took and assaulted Dinah, he was also assaulting G-d's law which prohibited such things. The Torah is considered the Sister as well. When the Sons of Yaakov proclaim, Hakezonah Yaaseh Et Achoteinu, they are also saying, Shall the Torah Be Made into a Prostitute? Shall G-d's law be allowed to be perverted?

What happens when those who are responsible for upholding the Torah offer a Mincha Le'Esav, they shake hands with evil, they literally prostitute the Torah because they show that G-d's law is for sale. And that is why only after Levi and Shimon carry out Din Hashem on the city, does G-d call out to Yaakov and tell him to come to Beit El and make an altar. Before that Hashem does not call him, as if to say "You offered Esav a Mincha and now you want to offer me one too. You compared his face to the Face of G-d and now you want to see my face." Only when Din Hashem was carried out, was Yaakov summoned to serve G-d again. And indeed it is the sons of Levi who carried out the killing who become the servants of G-d and sacrifice at his altars. It is Moshe from Shevet Levi who leads the Jews out of Galut. Because of the willingness of Levi to fight for G-d, they deserve most of all to serve him and be close to him.

And how G-d commands Yaakov is significant too, he mentions "The G-d Who Appeared to You When You Fled From Your Brother Esav." This serves as a form of reproof of Yaakov who fled from Esav, despite having a Bracha and who sent a Mincha Le'Esav a second time, even though he had two reassurances from G-d.

Now when Yaakov travels to Beit El we are told וַיְהִי חִתַּת אֱלֹהִים, עַל-הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבוֹתֵיהֶם, וְלֹא רָדְפוּ, אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יַעֲקֹב And the Fear of G-d Was On the Surrounding Cities And They Did Not Pursue the Sons of Yaakov. Why now was there fear on the cities and not before when Shechem had kidnapped Dinah? The answer that was they had known before that Yaakov had the blessing to be master of the land and inherit it, yet they also knew that he had humbled himself before Esav. Clearly the blessings did not amount to anything and so they felt free to do as they liked. Now when they saw that a few boys had executed justice on a city, they saw Din Hashem and so they were afraid of G-d now.

There are two ways that people feel the Fear of G-d. One is that G-d carries out miracles and wonders as he did over Egypt. The second is that those who serve G-d enforce justice in the land. Yaakov like Avraham bought land in Eretz Yisrael, yet this meant nothing as far as taking possession of it went. How does one take possession of the land? When Din Hashem is enforced on the land. When there is Justice and Law in the land, then the land has a Master.

Of the three Avot, two of them, Avraham and Yaakov had two wives. Both of these Avot were partly in Galut outside Eretz Yisrael. Only Yitzchak who never left Eretz Yisrael only had one wife. Of the two pairs of two wives, one represented the Wife of the Galut and one the Wife of Eretz Yisrael. By Avraham Avinu, it was clearly Sarah who was the Wife of Eretz and Hagar who was the Wife of Galut. By Yaakov Avinu, Leah was the Wife of Eretz Yisrael and Rachel was the Wife of the Galut.

How do we know this? Leah was the wife who was buried with Yaakov in Eretz Yisrael while Rachel was buried outside the land. It is Rachel who prays for her children going into Galut. It is Leah who gives birth to the majority of the Jewish people, including to the tribes of Yehuda and Levi, both of whom returned from the first Galut and endure until today. By contrast the larger Galut of the Ten Shevatim was marked as the Galut of Yosef and indeed Rehovam who split Yisrael from Yosef was from Ephraim.

While Leah represents the struggle for Eretz Yisrael, Rachel represents the comfort of Galut. For the first seven years, Yaakov worked for Leah, without even knowing it. He remained for the next seven years for Rachel. Rachel was beautiful to his eyes, as Galut is beautifully seductive to those Jews who remain in it. Like the "Pot of Meat" of Egypt or the rich comfort of Goshen to which Yosef would eventually bring the other Shevatim, she was appealing to the eyes. Yet Rachel was also Yaakov's tie to the Galut and the idols in her tent testified to that attachment.

Yaakov remained closest to his Wife of the Galut, even after her death and indeed he lived much of his life in Galut and descended down and died in Galut Mitzrayim. By contrast the sons of Leah were not of that character. They fought for their rights and resented the Sons of the Galut and drove Yosef out. The culmination of the struggle forced them to accept the Galut and Yosef's rule in Egypt, yet when the Jews are led out it is not by a Ben Rachel, but by the Bnei Leah. The Sons of Levi lead the Jews out. In Eretz Yisrael a Ben Rachel, Shaul is given a chance to rule, but like Yaakov he spares Edom and lets the King of Amalek and his cattle live. And so David of Yehuda replaces him instead. When the final Geulah comes, Moshiach ben Yosef dies and gives way to Moshiach ben David to end the Galut for good.

What perpetuates the Galut? The Mincha Le'Esav. Every time a Mincha is given to Esav, we worship Esav instead of Hashem. After Yaakov gave a Mincha to Esav, the Bnei Yisrael who approached Edom were told not to go out to war with Edom and to only buy food and water from them. It was as if G-d was saying, "You gave tribute to Esav, now give him some more." When we give a Mincha to Esav, HaKezonah Yaaseh et Achoteinu, we turn the Torah which is our sister into a prostitute. We demonstrate that Torah law and values are for sale and can be compromised. When we rise like the sons of Yaakov, but stripped of the anger which Yaakov cursed, but in the name of Din Hashem which has been defiled, we shorten the Galut by serving G-d.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Parshas Vayeitzei - Building a Flock into a Nation

One of the difficult things to understand in this week's parsha is the matter of the striped, speckled and ringed animals. It appears as if an angel bears a message for Yaakov Avinu telling him of a way to trick Lavan. This seems like dubious behavior for a great man. It is also unclear why so much space is devoted to it, first in Yaakov offering the deal to Lavan, Yaakov actually implementing it and then Yaakov relating the events to Rachel and Leah. What exactly is the importance of all this.

To understand that we need to begin with the importance of sheep herding. From Avraham on down to Moshe and Shaul and David Hamelech, the key leaders of the Jewish people were shepherds. Being a shepherd is a symbol for being a leader who uplifts men. The shepherd who can take care of flocks of sheep, can care for a nation of people. Yaakov did not trick Lavan out of money, but out of herds which symbolize people. The struggle between them was the struggle between two ways of life.

We are told Arami Oved Avi, that an Aramean tried to destroy my father. Arami Oved Avi can mean more literally though that an Aramean worked my father. When Yaakov makes the deal with Lavan, he asks when he will be able to work for his own house. Beiti. Yaakov is not merely being greedy, he wishes to begin building his own house, Beit Yisrael. By contrast Lavan wants Yaakov to continue working for him, to be part of his house. This is the means by which Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov and explains both meanings of Oved. Lavan sought to destroy Yaakov by enslaving him to serve him and become part of his family, rather than building a separate nation.

Vayetzei is the tale of how Yaakov came to be ensnared in Lavan's house, tricked into serving him and working for him, exploited, denied the ability to leave and pursued when he did try to leave. The birth of the nation of Israel, indeed giving the name of Israel to Yaakov, required that he first break free of Lavan. Before the exile and slavery of Egypt, came Yaakov's own exile and slavery in Lavan's house. As the Jews would be worked, first treated as honored guests and residents and then deceived into serving and finally enslaved, so too this happened to Yaakov. The Jews were enslaved in Egypt for over 200 years and Yaakov was in Lavan's house for 20 years. Yaakov escaped Lavan with deceit and attained safety through divine intervention as the Jews would later escape through deceit (a trip of three days) and attained safety through divine intervention.

But back to the sheep. What exactly was the significance of the sheep. If being the shepherd represents leadership, Yaakov was demonstrating a point to Lavan that was at the root of their conflict. Lavan believed that he could assimilate Yaakov. Yaakov intended to demonstrate otherwise. He directed Lavan to remove all the marked sheep, all the sheep that looked and appeared different from the rest. All the sheep that remained were the "assimilated" sheep. It should seem through the ordinary natural way of events that those sheep would produce similarly unmarked sheep, nevertheless Yaakov demonstrated that from these sheep would come the ringed, speckled and spotted sheep.

The Jews were regularly referred to as Ivrim, which refers to Min HaEver Hanahar, from the other side of the river. People who were strange and different from the rest of the world. What Yaakov did with the sheep demonstrated that he could make Lavan's sheep his own, as he had made his daughters his own. Not only had he not been and would not be assimilated, but that he could and would build his own house that was different from the rest of the world. No matter the exile, no matter how many sheep seemed to have been lost, carried off by wolves, blended into other flocks, they would be recovered and emerge again.

When the angel comes to Yaakov and shows him the mating animals, this is not G-d's way of showing him some trick to one up Lavan. It is the assurance of the survival of the Jewish people. "For I have seen all that Lavan does to you," the message finishes, a promise of protection in exile against all that the Lavans do from then onward to the present day. It manifests itself in Egypt when Pharaoh's decree demands the cessation of Jewish married life and the murder of Jewish children only to have a great multitude of Jews emerge from Egypt. It continues on throughout history where generation after generation of Jews goes into the flame and yet the Jewish people survive and maintain themselves from age to age while the peoples and ideologies who oppress them perish from the earth.

It is in the next verse that G-d then tells Yaakov to return home to Israel. His exile is finished. After three days when Lavan realizes Yaakov is gone, much as Pharaoh realized the Jews were escaping after three days, he pursues Yaakov. After a futile confrontation he signs a pact with Yaakov concluding the parsha. Yaakov is no longer only a man but a house, Beit Yaakov, a nation with whom Lavan and all the Lavans of the world must now reckon.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Parshas Chayei Sarah - Life and Death

Parshas Chayei Sarah records three deaths. The death of Sarah and Avraham, our foremother and forefather, and the death of Ishmael. Even though Ishmael in actuality died a good deal later than Avraham, his death is recorded along with what little significance his life contained.

Where the description of Sarah and Avraham's deaths repeats the word Chai or Chayei twice, the death of Ishmael simply states it once. That is because where Sarah and Avraham had both a life in this world and a life in the afterlife, Ishmael had only his life in the world here.

Also because Ishmael's life was purely one dimensional physical life in this world, while Avraham and Sarah lived both a physical and a spiritual life. Hence their accumulation of years is described with the word Chai used twice, to indicate a fully lived life.

Hence it is said, Tzaddikim Bemitatam Keruyim Chaim, The Righteous in their Deaths are still called Living. Reshoim Bechayeichem Keruyim Meitim. While the Wicked even when Alive are considered Dead. That is because the good that people do lives on after them. The righteous may pass away from this world, but their contributions to it keep them alive in it. While the wicked are spiritually dead even when physically alive and contribute nothing to the life of the world.

Ishmael was dead even when alive, thus his death closes out Parshas Chayei Sarah, enumerated even while he was still alive. In contrast to Sarah whose death is told at the completion of her actual life.


When Avraham goes to bury Sarah, he seeks out the Maarat Hamachpelah, a particular cave that would become known as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

He chooses the cave because it is also the site of the resting place of Adam and Chava, the first man and the first woman. To Ephron the Hittite however the cave is an afterthought for the field. And so Ephron throws in the cave for "free", while trying to sell Avraham the field, which he had not asked for.

A cave is a place of depth, to see it requires going beyond the obvious. Ephron did not have that ability. To him the field mattered, not the cave or its hidden depths. To Avraham by contrast the cave mattered more than the field or the extravagant sum of money that Ephron finally demanded from him.

At the end when the purchase is made, the Torah writes, "VaYakam HaSadeh", "The Field Arose". It did not literally rise, but it gained dimension from its new place. Ephron had only seen it as a plot of earth, while Avraham had seen it as the resting place of his ancestors. Ephron had sold an ancestral plot of land for money, while Avraham had acquired one of the most significant places in the world without ever counting the cost.

By purchasing the Maarat Hamachpelah for Sarah's burial, Avraham had honored his wife by making her first person after Adam and Chava to be buried, and by using her death to gain title to one of the great cultural treasures of the world.


How do we know from the first that Rivka is a greater prophetess than Yitzchak? While Yitzchak has to take her into his mother's house in order to understand who she is, Rivka understood who Yitzchak was even when she saw him from afar. Her ability to see further proved valuable in distinguishing Esav from Yaakov, allowing her to guide Yaakov earlier on. While Yitzchak only became aware of the difference between Esav and Yaakov when in the same room with them during the brachos.


Rivka's family blessed her that her descendants should inherit the gates of their enemies. When did this happen? Shortly thereafter when Yaakov returned to Lavan's house, and managed to inherit both his daughters and most of his property, as Lavan's sons said that Yaakov had taken all that belonged to their father. Thus the blessing, quite possibly given insincerely by Lavan, wound up coming true at his own expense.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Parshas Noah - On the Borders of Good and Evil

In Parshas Bereishis, man begins by mixing good and evil in Gan Eden. By Parshas Noah, he has already sunk so low that the entire earth is no longer mixed, but almost entirely evil aside from Noah himself. What is evil? What does it mean to do evil?

Morality consists of boundaries, areas where we may go and where we may not good. Good is defined by staying within Godly boundaries. Evil is defined by crossing those boundaries and destroying them. Chaos and order. Good and evil. The Godly and the ungodly. These are the parameters of creation.

When God created the universe ex-nihilo, order was formed out of chaos through a series of divisions. When mankind sank into hopeless and irredeemable evil, those boundaries began to fray, and were finally collapsed completely.

Each boundary had been erected for the purpose of man and life on earth.

First the light was divided into day and night. Then the sky was divided into atmosphere and ocean. And then the ocean itself was divided to make room for dry land, where man and animals could live. The stars were created to govern the seasons and the passage of time. With the flood each of those boundaries was removed. Night and day ceased to function. The heavens poured down on the earth. The dry land was swallowed by the ocean. Seasons ceased to be.

As man tore down Godly boundaries, so too God tore down the boundaries he had erected for the benefit of man. And only the Godly boundaries that Noah and his family kept on the Ark saved them from becoming destroyed along with all other life. Only by keeping the Godly boundaries does humanity enable the maintenance a world where dry land is not flooded by the ocean, where the sky and ocean are divided, and night and day, and the seasons make life livable.

Just as the Sabbath is a boundary for the human week, so too does every commandment serve as a boundary for our thoughts and our actions. The commandments represent the way of God, and they are no different than the commandments imposed on the sea and the sky, the stars and all the world around. But the only difference is in us, that we can choose to keep them or not, and thereby face the consequences.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Parshas Bereshis - The Sacrifice of the Shabbat

The Torah begins with G-d creating the world. Day by day we are told what is created, and then on the seventh day after having created everything from all the stars in the universe to the tiniest bugs and finally man, G-d rests. But why does G-d rest? Is he a man that he becomes tired and needs to take a day off?

The Lord does not weary and falter. And the Sabbath is more than a day defined by negative, by the absence of work. The Sabbath is not merely the absence of work. It is the completion of work. All too often we tend to think of the Sabbath in terms of what we can't do, but that is not what the Sabbath is. The Sabbath is the culmination of a properly spent week. For six days G-d had brought material life into existence. On the seventh and final day he declared a rest from the material in favor of the spiritual.

The first week though marks the expulsion of man from the Garden of Eden, and the end of the first welfare state. And two curses are attached to that expulsion in measure to the sins that caused it.

Adam who sinned by disobeying G-d's command not to eat from the tree, is punished by having to work a cursed earth. He took from an agricultural product that he was not permitted to take, and in turn he is forced to work and sweat to produce agricultural products himself. He sinned by disobeying a negative commandment from G-d, and the earth refuses to obey his efforts to bring forth food from it. As Adam disobeyed G-d, the earth which he was once meant to rule, no longer obeys him.

Chava who sinned not by eating from the tree, a commandment that she was never given directly, but by causing Adam to eat from the tree in disobedience to G-d, committed a sin not against G-d, but against her fellow human being. As such her punishment was tied to her relations with other human beings, namely her husband and her children. Because she harmed others, she in turn would suffer through them.

But there is no curse that is an addition to what is, but rather is a subtraction from what was. In the Garden of Eden, Adam did not have to work and Chava bore children easily, and both of them lived with no threat or difficulties, because of how G-d had uplifted them. Their curses simply removed those benefits that they had formerly enjoyed, and forced them to live on a lower level without their former level of divine blessing.

Similarly the flood that drowned the world was the cause of G-d removing the Dai (enough), the barriers that He had erected when bringing forth the earth that prevented the water from flooding the land. When mankind itself showed no ability to say Dai, to say enough and control its appetites, the water in turn was unable to say enough, and flooded the land. 

After Adam and Chava's expulsion, it fell to their descendants to try and undo the curses by raising themselves up to a higher level of closeness with G-d.

Kayin and Hevel both worked, and brought portions of their labors as a sacrifice to G-d. The purpose of sacrifice is to pay tribute to G-d, to recognize that our labors are a product of His labor, that all we have is a gift from Him, and that all our labors must be with the knowledge that we are serving Him.

Kayin and Hevel however were very different men and brought very different sacrifices. Kayin worked the cursed earth and he brought from among his harvest, not the best or the worst, but the average. In essence then Kayin was saying that G-d was a partner, but not a superior. This was foreshadowed by his name because when Chava bore Kayin, she claimed Kaniti Ish Et Elohim, I partnered with G-d to create a man.

Hevel by contrast offered to G-d the best that he had, therefore recognizing that G-d was his superior. Therefore G-d took from Hevel's offering, but not from Kayin's, because only Hevel was attempting to ascend to G-d, while Kayin presumed that he was on the same level as G-d. This was the same fallacy that had caused Adam and Chava to eat of the Eitz Hadaat in order to become equal to G-d. It was the same fallacy that would drive the Tower of Bavel.

Through sacrifice, man demonstrates that is dedicating a portion of what he has gained to G-d as a form of perfecting all of it. Thus the wheat we harvest is inedible until we set aside a portion for the Kohen who is the servant of G-d. Similarly Israel finds itself expelled from the land for failing to keep the Shemita cycle, losing all the harvests over the failure to maintain the Sabbaths of the land.

Many people misperceive sacrifice as being about atoning for sin. In fact the primary role of sacrifice is to draw men closer to G-d by demonstrating that He is present in all that we do. Sacrifice in the Torah primarily involves animals and agricultural products, because they mainly concerned a time when Jews were herders and farmers. As slaves in Egypt, the Jews brought no sacrifices of animals until they were freed and they had property again that was all their own. In exile and cut off from their land, the Jews too brought no sacrifices of animals or grain. But animals and agricultural products are not the only kind of sacrifice there is.  

In the wake of the exile from the Second Temple, the fruit of the lips, prayers are one universal form of sacrifice, in which we set aside a portion of our time and thoughts to dedicate to G-d. And while most of us are no longer ranchers or farmers, we bring what we have as sacrifices to G-d. So businessmen set aside some of their profits for charity, scholars set aside some of their time for learning the Torah of Hashem, and so on and so forth.

But another and the first universal form of sacrifice is the Sabbath. For six days we work, and the seventh is set aside as a sacrifice to G-d. The Hebrew word for sacrifice is Korban, drawing close. We draw close to G-d through the Sabbath, a day when we rest from material things in favor of spiritual things, to mark the original Sabbath when G-d perfected the creation he had just made with its culmination in the Sabbath.

There is a Midrash that says, all days of the week each had a mate, a parallel day in which its creation was completed, for on the first day light was created and on the fourth day, the sun, stars and moon came into being to project and reflect that light.

On the second day, the waters were divided between the oceans and the sky, and on the fifth day, the seas and skies were filled with birds and fish. On the third day, dry land came into being as did all forms of vegetation. And on the sixth day, animals and man were created to live on the land.

The Sabbath though lacked a paired day which could fulfill it. That was the role of man. To do more than merely live on the land as the animals did, but to transcend the material as the Sabbath transcended the six days of material creation.

The Sabbath, like the sacrifices of animals and grain, or the Torah studied, charity given and good deeds done, is not about what we lose materially, but what we gain spiritually. Kayin stuck in the cursed earth could only see the material side of it and was unable to draw closer to G-d. Instead he allowed his animal instincts to rule him and became the world's first murderer. And then was forced to go from farmer to nomad, building cities he could never live in for long.

And the sacrifices of Kayin and Hevel are the last sacrifices mentioned in the Torah, until Noah returns to an empty world after the flood. Noah whose name expressed the hope that he would bring Manoah rest from the hard work of tending the cursed earth. But the rest that Noah brings is not the kind of rest they had in mind, for the world has become corrupt and Noah lacks the qualities needed to arrest that corruption.

Noah is described as a perfect man for his generation and he is, because he is obedient to G-d. However his influence does not extend beyond himself, not even to his own family. Noah is in isolation a perfect specimen, but he contributes nothing to others. This enables him to lift the curse of Adam, the curse of the earth, that came about because of disobedience to G-d. But the world is unworthy of benefiting from it, because it remains corrupt, and Noah does not influence them to change.

The rest that Noah brings is cataclysmic as the world is purged of all life besides Noah and his family and the animals he has brought along. In the wake of that tremendous global exile, Noah has the chance to begin anew, as the world has had a Sabbath of 40 days through the flood.

Noah's name has a meaning similar to Shabbat, both involve rest. And Noah was saved because he embodied the virtue of the Sabbath in its focus on the divine. But his descendants once again descend into making a corrupt world because while his service to G-d is intact enabling him to undo the curse of Adam,  he lacks the ability to undo the curse of Chava by influencing others to do good, instead of evil.

It is only Avraham, an even number of generations later, who tackles the curse of Chava. As Noah's name referred to his service to G-d, Avraham's name refers to his influence on man, as the father of nations. And Avraham does what Noah could not do by influencing his fellow men to find G-d. Just as Sara's name refers to her parallel role as princess of nations.

As a result, Avraham shows the ability to nullify Chava's curse, when Sarah impossibly gives birth at an advanced age. So too in the next two generations, Yitzchak and Yaakov show the same ability, when Rivka and Rachel give birth, despite being seemingly barren.

Avraham's uniqueness lies in his ability to undo both the curse of Adam through his service to G-d and the curse of Chava through his influence on his fellow man. Adam's curse lay in his disobedience to G-d, which Avraham nullifies through a series of tests, beginning with his recognition of G-d to his sacrifice of his son. Avraham's sacrifices show his willingness to obey G-d and to live under His will.

Chava's curse lay in her causing others to sin, which is far graver matter, because a Hoteh Umahateh et HaRabim, causes sinfulness transcending their own private error. While sacrifices can atone for sins between man and G-d, by man coming closer to G-d, one cannot atone for sins against one's fellow man through sacrifice. This is why Chava's curse remained unaddressed until Avraham and Sarah atoned for it by reaching out to others to teach them to do good and not evil.

By doing so, Avraham transcended Noah by not merely observing the Sabbath, but creating a "mate" for the Sabbath in the form of people who could transcend the material to actually see the role of G-d in the world. Noah was unable to arrest the world's spiraling evil, because while he served G-d personally, he could not brings others to do so collectively. And so human evil which began in the Garden continued to spiral out of control. Avraham brought the first sign of hope that human evil could be checked and even reversed. Thus he became worthy to found G-d's nation.