Saturday, January 23, 2010

Parshas Bo - Kill Your Gods

Parshas Bo begins with a command, now the urgent time has come when events will come together to finally bring Israel's Egyptian slavery to an end. Yet before they leave, the Jews are expected to slaughter a sheep, the Korban Pesach. Unlike the Matza, which resulted when unleavened dough did not have time to leaven because of the speed with which the Jews had to leave Egypt, the Korban Pesach was eaten at leisure. In fact it was forbidden to eat it quickly.

What is the difference between the Korban Pesach and the Matza, both of which were obligations that one had to perform on the Seder night of the first day, or one had not fulfilled his paschal obligation.

During the Haggadah we say, "Korban Pesach Zu Al Shum Ma, Al Shum shePasach Hakadosh Baruch Hu..." What is this Paschal regarding, because the Holy One Blessed Be He passed by our houses when he came to slay the Egyptian first born. What is the significance of the entire event. Why the first born and why the lamb and the blood that marked the doors of the houses.

Did G-d not know otherwise which of them were Jews and which were Egyptians? To the contrary, G-d had demonstrated repeatedly that even with the earlier plagues, very fine distinctions could be made between Egyptian and Jew. There would be darkness for one and not the other. Hail for one and not the other. Wild animals for one and not the other. Certainly this night was no different.

Why then was this night different from all other nights and why were the First Born different from all others? To begin with, let us answer the question of why a lamb. The Jews had come to Egypt as shepherds, an abomination to Egyptians who worshiped the sheep. The Jews ate lamb, the Egyptians did not, so when the brothers visited Joseph, the Egyptians would not eat what they ate. So too when Pharaoh suggests that Moshe and the Jews bring their offerings to G-d in Egypt, he points out that they could not slaughter the deity of Egypt, and not be slaughtered themselves by the Egyptians.

Yet on this night everything changed. On this night, the Korban Pesach, whose service would involve the participation of a Kohen (though it could be slaughtered by anyone) but then involved the Jewish First Born, would be slaughtered inside Egypt itself. And while that happened the Egyptian first born who had led the service would be slain by G-d himself. The blood of the lamb would mark the doors of Jewish homes to demonstrate their rejection of the idolatry that had pervaded Egypt. By this act, the Jews demonstrated their difference vs the Egyptians, so that when the angel of Egypt at the sea complained, "These are idol worshipers and these are idol worshipers," the Korban Pesach was G-d's reply.

This was why the Korban Pesach was the first Mitzvah given and why the month of Nissan is also the first month. For Tishrei which contains Rosh Hashana is the month that marks the calendar's progression, as accepting G-d as king is required before we can proceed onward, but Nissan is counted as the first month, as before accepting G-d, we must first abandon the worship of all other things.

By killing the gods of Egypt, the Jews demonstrated that they were prepared to make a clean break with all that Egypt represented, and only then could they go free.

This too is why the Korban Pesach took place at leisure, with four days to prepare for it, and an extensive meal, for it is the groundwork that has to be completed before the redemption can happen, which is a slow process. But when that is done, the redemption itself can happen in an instant, which is symbolized by the Matza, the dough that had no time to leaven.

In Galut today, we do not have a Korban Pesach, or the means to lift ourselves up properly, and so we cannot do what we must. Instead we have the Matza, the waiting for that instant of redemption in which without warning, the world will change around us.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Parshas Vaeira - Generations of Redemption

Parshas Vaeira begins with G-d informing Moshe, in response to Moshe's agonized appeal that his attempt to speak to Pharaoh had only worsened conditions for the Jewish people, that he is Hashem;

וָאֵרָא, אֶל-אַבְרָהָם אֶל-יִצְחָק וְאֶל-יַעֲקֹב--בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי; וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה, לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם

and I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, as El Shaddai, but by My name Hashem I did not reveal to them

The question commonly asked of course is that we see many times when G-d did indeed address Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov as Hashem. Furthermore how does G-d answer Moshe by telling him this.

To answer this we need to look at why Moshe is upset. Yes conditions have gotten worse for the Jews, but to our way of looking at it, this is only a temporary phenomenon soon to be relieved by the Exodus. Did Moshe Rabbeinu have so little faith that he had to challenge G-d on this score?

To understand Moshe's problem, we have to remember that he had a different timetable than we do. Moshe's timetable was the one given to Avraham in the Brit Bein Habetarim, which said that the Jews would be in Egypt for 400 years. For all Moshe knew, his duty would be to spend the time remaining of those 400 years, which could be as much as a 190 years, appealing to Pharaoh and trying to inspire faith in the increasingly downtrodden Jews.

While this might seem unlikely to us, keep in mind that Noah had to spend almost as much time building the ark and warning his generation that the flood was coming. And the prospect of his people enduring two centuries of increasing suffering that might destroy their faith entirely, was too much for Moshe.

Now in that light let's look at the answer Moshe received from Hashem. To the Patriarchs, G-d had revealed himself as El Shaddai, setting borders and timelines for the events of the world. As El Shaddai, G-d had said to Avraham Avinu, that the Jews would have to be in Egypt for 400 years. But to Moshe and now to the Jews, G-d revealed himself as Hashem, who went beyond those limits to act out of mercy and compassion.

While Avraham and Yitzchak and Yaakov knew Hashem, they had not seen him transcend boundaries in this way. Moshe and the Jews however now would. Let us now look further at just how this phenomenon was expressed in both eras and how it can be reconciled fully with the covenant G-d made with Avraham at the Brit Bein Habetarim.

This Shabbat was also the Yahrtzeit, the anniversary of the death of Avraham Avinu. This week's Parsha Vaeira, carries an obvious echo in its name of Parshas Vaera, in which G-d appears to Avraham. What happens in Parshas Vaera, word is carried to Avraham by way of three angels that after all these long years, his wife Sarah will finally give birth and give Avraham the child he always wanted. The child that would begin the transmission of what would become the Jewish people. So too Yitzchak and Rivkah would have to pray and wait for their own children to be born. So too Yaakov and Rachel would have to wait a long time for Yosef to be born.

In nature, Sara, Rivka and Rachel could not give birth. It took an extensive amount of waiting and pleading for that to change. Eventually the limit was reached and El Shaddai granted them all children for G-d loves the prayers of the righteous. There was only one exception to this rule, Leah, who had children, quickly and easily.

Why did Leah have children quickly and easily, because as the rejected wife, she was oppressed and in pain already. And so G-d was merciful to her and she had many children, almost without limit. But unlike the Avot, their descendants, the Jews in Israel begin multiplying rapidly, because like Leah, they were suffering and oppressed. But how much of a divine kindness was this really, to create more children at a time when the Egyptians are degrading and oppressing the Jews?

Now let's take a look at the Brit Bein Habetarim again, in which G-d tells Avraham Avinu that the Jews be enslaved for 400 years and that they will return in the 4th generation of Egyptian slavery.

In the attribute of El Shaddai the Jews were destined to be slaves for 400 years. But in the attribute of Hashem, the covenant would still hold so long as it was in the 4th generation. But in response to the Egyptian oppression of the Jews, Hashem made them be fruitful and multiply. While naturally it might indeed have taken 400 years to have 4 generations, due to the oppression, Hashem made the people numerous and 4 generations was reached in barely half that time.

When Moshe arrives before Pharaoh and informs him that Hashem ordered that the Jews be released, Pharaoh replies that he does not know Hashem. As far as he's concerned the deadline is still 400 years. So Pharaoh knows El Shaddai, as a G-d of strict limits, but not one of mercy. And so Moshe accedes, and speaks of Elohei Haivrim. Having forfeited his right to mercy, by rejecting Hashem, Pharaoh must now deal with the absolute power of Elohei Haivrim.

And yet it is Pharaoh's own oppression that caused G-d to accelerate the generations so that the 4th generation is reached far earlier than it would have been under Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. But as it was under Leah in response to her own suffering. That is also why before Moshe addresses Pharaoh, we are interrupted to hear a partial genealogy of Leah's 3 elder sons. 3 of the 4 sons who were born easily and without delay. The partial genealogy lists four generations, beginning with Levi and down to Moshe and Aaron. With Moshe and Aaron, the four generations had been reached, and so it was they who stood before Pharaoh to tell him that by the word of Hashem the time had been reached and the Jews would be set free.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Parshas Shemos - The Increase

Parshas Shemos begins with an increasingly paranoid and oppressive Egyptian Pharaoh who does not know Yosef and proceeds to enslave and then attempt to exterminate the Jews. The germ of the problem can be found in the statement "Asher Lo Yada at Yosef", the new Pharaoh did not know Yosef.

Could it really mean that he had no idea who Yosef was? That seems unlikely, given that Yosef had died not that long ago, that he had been Egypt's second most powerful man, and that he had overseen the physical salvation and political and sociological transformation of Egypt. But rather it was a Pharaoh who did not know Yosef, his Hebrew name, only his Egyptian one, Tzafnat Paneach.

What was so significant about Yosef's hebrew name? The significance, as I said last week, is in the meaning. Yosef means to increase. And what is the source of that increase, the source is Godly. In his dealings with Pharaoh, Yosef had always stated that his achievements were achieved through God. It was God who sent the dream to Pharaoh. God who had sent the interpretation and prepared the remedy for it. And where to the old Pharaoh, Yosef was an emissary sent by God. To the new Pharaoh, there had been no God or Yosef, only Tzafnat Paneach, a man who had made some genuine national contributions, but was now dead, and his descendants and relatives had become a major problem.

What was it that touched off Pharaoh's paranoia over the Jews? The Torah tells us, that it was their numbers. The numbers of the Jews had increased greatly. And that made them a threat, because Pharaoh did not understand why they were increasing, because he did not know Yosef... did not know that their increase was a divine blessing.

The same Pharaoh who did not understand that Egypt's alternating increase in wheat and famine were of divine origin, did not understand that the increasing numbers of Jews, as the family of Jacob was being transformed into a nation, was of divine origin too. He was the Pharaoh who did not know Yosef and whose view was purely materialistic.

From a materialistic standpoint, the increasing number of Jews were a threat and an opportunity. Seeing them in materialistic terms, he chose to exploit them in a crudely materialistic way, by turning them into slaves. Since Pharaoh saw wealth as coming not from G-d, but from his economic system, more slaves would mean more prosperity.

And since the numbers of Jews were a problem, he addressed it in materialistic terms. First Pharaoh thought that the numbers of Jews were growing because of the unusual virility of the men, so he subjected them to harsh slavery. And when their numbers continued to increase, he decided it must be the fertility of the Jewish women, and attempted to wipe out the males, and leave the females so that Egyptians would marry the surviving girls and breed in large numbers. Yet both plans failed, for as Shifra and Puah told him, the Jewish women were not like Egyptian women. Beterem Tavoh Lachem Hameyaledet Veyaladu, even before the midwife comes to them, they give birth. Like living things, they are not dependent on the midwife, only on G-d.

At each stage both Pharaohs were guilty of fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of the events going on around them, because they did not know Yosef, they did not know that the increase in all things comes from G-d. And in turn G-d demonstrated it to them by turning them into the mechanisms of their own destruction.

Every action taken by the Pharaohs created Moshe as the man he would become. Because of Pharaoh's decree, Moshe's parents were separated. Because of his attack on newborn Jewish baby boys, Moshe was cast into the Nile and wound up in Pharaoh's own home. Because of Pharaoh's continued oppression of the Jews, Moshe was forced to fight for them and then flee into exile. And so at each turn, Pharaoh's own cruelty made Moshe into the man that he was.

And once Moshe arrived in Egypt, each of Pharaoh's actions would perpetuate the plagues and rain further punishment down on Egypt. By this means Pharaoh's own arrogance and refusal to know who Yosef was, who had fed Egypt and made it great, who had shown his predecessors the future and who had made the nation prosperous and the Jews numerous-- would become the tool of his own destruction.

The question is often asked why G-d told Moshe to only ask Pharaoh for a trip of three days to worship G-d. Did G-d expect Moshe to lie to Pharaoh? And what was the point of such a charade.

Moshe's request to Pharaoh was indeed sincere. Because it was only in Pharaoh's power to grant the Jews a trip of three days. Pharaoh could not free the Jews from an exile that had been decreed by G-d. Only G-d himself could do that. Nor could the Jews on their own go beyond that three days.

Had Pharaoh agreed to Moshe's proposal at any stage, it would not have been an agreement that lasted beyond those 3 days. Past those 3 days, at Har Sinai, only G-d could have truly freed them from Egypt through the acceptance of his laws and his Godliness. And all of Pharaoh's legions would not have stood in His way, just as they did not stand in His way at the Yam Suf.

To increase their freedom beyond those 3 days, to take them out of Egypt once and for all, was not something that either Pharaoh or Moshe could do. It was something that G-d alone could do. Thus every single plague that Moshe raised his staff for failed to move Pharaoh to actually fully consent to the redemption. And every time Pharaoh agreed the resulting promises proved to be empty. Only when G-d himself "walked" the streets of Egypt, were the Jews taken out of Egypt with no one to stand in the way.

Yosef's original message to Pharaoh had been that G-d increases a nation's prosperity and takes it away as he sees fit, and that the wise ruler attunes himself to G-d. It was a message that that Pharaoh had understood, but that his successors had discarded, instead choosing to become rulers who did know Yosef or his G-d. And by forgetting the source of Egypt's blessings, they were instead punished with curses that emerged from their own actions.

And thus Egypt's rulers were forced to learn, that just as G-d could turn prosperity into famine, he could turn water into blood, send reptiles from the water to the land, place wild animals into the cities while destroying tame animals, raise the dust from the earth while bringing down fire and ice from the sky, bring night during the day and selectively kill only the first born, and halt the waves of the seas and then bring them down again. This was the G-d of Yosef who could undo all materialistic forms to show that Yosef, that increase in all materialistic things comes from him.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Parshas Vayechi - A Dream of Exile and a Dream of Freedom

At the sunset of Yaakov's life he begins making the final arrangements for his burial and the future of his descendants. First he asks his son Yosef to bury him in the Maarat HaMachpelah, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hevron. And then unexpectedly the father bows to the son.

To understand why Yaakov bowed to Yosef we need to take a step forward first. As his father Yaakov has fallen ill, Yosef brings his sons, Menashe and Ephraim, to Yaakov for a blessing. And famously, their grandfather places his right hand on the head of Ephraim, the younger son, and his left hand on the head of Menashe, the elder son. Yosef objects, but Yaakov tells him, "Yaadati Bni, Yaadati. I Know My Son, I Know."

Why is Yaadati repeated twice? Yaadati Bni, Yaakov tells Yosef. Just as I knew you were my special son and gave you a special place, so too I know that Ephraim is the special son, and I have given him a special place as well.

What is the parallel between Yosef and his son Ephraim? When Yosef's first born son, Menashe was born, the name he was given meant, Ki Nasani Elohim Et Kol Amoli VeEt Kol Beit Avi, "For God hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father's house".

This represented Menashe's role in helping his father and eventually uncles adapt to Egypt. Menashe served as Yosef's chief of staff, he made the Egyptian exile they were living in comfortable. With Menashe they were able to forget about the land they had come from and live comfortably in Egypt.

By contrast Yosef named his second son, Ephraim, Ki Hifrani Elohim Baeretz Oni, "for God hath made me fruitful in the land of my affliction". Hifrani echoes Yosef's own name, in that they both refer to increase. Yet unlike Menashe's name, Ephraim's name does not deny that this is the land of the exile, a land of affliction, Eretz Oni.

The primacy of Menashe and Ephraim was not a mere matter of ego, just as the primacy of Yaakov and Esav was not a mere brother's quarrel. Menashe and Ephraim represented different attributes and different futures. While Yosef gave primacy to Menashe who made the exile comfortable, Yaakov instead gave primacy to Ephraim, whose name foreshadowed the harshness of the exile to come and the great expansion that the House of Jacob would experience even in Egyptian slavery. As indeed God would make the Hebrew slaves fruitful, even in the land of their affliction.

Yaakov avinu understood that the future would speak more to Ephraim than to Menashe and that dark times were coming. The shelter that Yosef had provided would soon enough become a pharaoh's cage, and the land that had come to seem like a dream of exile, would become a nightmare of slavery and degradation.

It was the blessing of Ephraim that would keep the people alive in this exile and in future exiles. And since until the end of days, the times of exile would outnumber the years of homeland dwelling, the blessing of Ephraim and Menashe was set down in eternity for the sons of the Jewish people... with Ephraim placed first. For there may be times when we are comfortable in exile, the blessing of Menashe, but more often we must survive the exile by living another day despite the oppression placed on us, and this is the blessing of Ephraim. A blessing all the more poignant as Ephraim's exile has outweighed that of our own.

Now to return to Yaakov's bow. The bow was the final fulfillment of Yosef's dreams. The first dream involved the stalks of wheat, which was fulfilled earlier when his brothers had come to buy food from him. Now the second dream was waiting to be fulfilled. But unlike the wheat, this dream did not symbolize a mere material dominance, but a spiritual dominance. The stars represented the lineage of the family of Abraham as ascending to reach their spiritual potential. Stars rather than dust. For the sun that was Yaakov to bow to the star that was Yosef, more than wheat, more than miracles and more than even love was needed.

And so Yaakov made a request of Yosef that seems at once trivial, but that struck at the core of whether his son was worthy of leadership in the line of the Family of Avraham. Yosef had become great in exile as Viceroy to Pharaoh. His brothers had bowed to him and his work had fed all of Egypt and Canaan. And now Yaakov asked him to turn his back on that, to bury his father in Israel, and by doing so communicate what his true priority must be. When Yosef agreed to fulfill his father's wish, at the risk of being considered a traitor by Pharaoh, he demonstrated that he was more than a sheaf, he was a star by showing that he could look past the material glory and power, to see where his family's greater destiny lay. Only then did Yaakov bow to him and in doing so pass on his leadership to him, along with the later message, Pakod Yifkod, the message with which G-d would send their redemption from exile and into freedom.