Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parshas Vayislach - The Hunter and the Shepherd

Two parshas ago many wondered why Yitzchak would have tried to give his blessing to Esav. The answer to that can be seen by working backward from the blessing.

Yitzchak blesses the son he thought was Esav by saying, "The smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed." The blessing that he goes on to give him is the blessing of the field.

"God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine. Let peoples serve thee, and nations bow down to thee. Be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee."

To secure this blessing, Yitzchak had sent out Esav to take his weapons and hunt him down a meal. Esav was the hunter, the one who went out and caught game, while Yaakov dwelt in tents, watching over the flock as a shepherd. While Esav goes to hunt meat, Yaakov slaughters tame animals for the meal.

Yaakov is the shepherd. Esav is the hunter. But Yitzchak chose to favor the son who was the hunter. And this makes a certain amount of sense when you consider that the blessings of Avraham that he passed on was to dominate the land. Who was more likely to dominate the land, a mild-mannered shepherd who dwelt in tents or a bold aggressive hunter?

Yitzchak, as a shepherd, had spent this time being hounded by the Philistines, driven from his father's wells and grazing lands, with no recourse. The son he favored was the one he thought would be able to stand up to the Philistines and fight for what was his.

Now when Yaakov and Esav meet again in Parshas Vayislach, Esav has become the hunter and warrior with an army at his back, while Yaakov is a shepherd, with a camp of people and animals. Both sons have become more of what they were all along. Esav has 400 warriors at his call and Yaakov has an army of sheep and other livestock. Esav dwells on his own mountain while his brother still wanders, pitching his tent, and trying to avoid persecution.

Yaakov pays tribute to his brother, in the form that a shepherd values, in animals, Esav does not appear to appreciate the tribute, but does approve of his brother's submission, and goes on his way. Esav offers to escort Yaakov, but Yaakov tells him that the flocks cannot keep up such a pace. Esav returns to his mountain and Yaakov builds barns for the flocks, and names the place after the barns, Sukkos.

Why name a place after the barns? Because they showed the contrast between the two brothers. Between the hunter and the shepherd. Esav was more vital, and in the short term, the dominant one. The genealogy at the end of Parshas Vayislach lays out how many kings and princes Esav had. But in the long term, the house of Esav went into a decline, while the house of Yaakov continued to grow.

By the end of the parsha, Esav is formed to move on, because Yaakov's flocks have grown so much that the land cannot support them both. The shepherd had already won.

Yitzchak was correct in assuming that one day his descendants would have to fulfill the blessings by conquering the land. And it's easy to see why he would have chosen Esav as the favored son, the one strong enough to do it. But conquering the land, is not the same thing as holding it.

Esav was more aggressive than his brother, not necessarily stronger. Yaakov was a shepherd and capable of building for the long term. Esav had power, but not endurance. That was how he came to give up his birthright for a mess of pottage. Esav could not have worked for twenty years for Lavan the way Yaakov did.

While Yaakov exerted himself to build a long term future, sacrificing the present for the future, Esav lived entirely in the present, satisfying himself with short term accomplishments of the moment. As a hunter, he lived for the next kill, while Yaakov built armies of flocks. That was one reason why Yaakov represented the destiny of the descendants of the patriarchs, while Esav did not. Instead Esav was a dead end.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Parshas Vaera - The Joy of the Joke

Yitzchak, the long-promised son of Avraham and Sarah, has a seemingly unflattering name. Instead of being named after some divine virtue, his name simply means "Laughed" commemorating the response of Avraham and Sarah when they were told by G-d that they would have a son at such an advanced age.

When Avraham is told by G-d that he will have a son, he laughs inwardly, and asks G-d only that Yishmael should repent and turn righteous. When Sarah is informed by an angel, she laughs at the idea of having a child at such an age.

Why then give their miracle child a name commemorating their skepticism?

Choosing the name, Sarah says, "Tzhok Natan Li Elohim", G-d gave me laughter, which here means joy. G-d gave Sarah reason to rejoice, her initial skeptical laugh of unbelief becoming a laugh of joy at the impossible. "And everyone who hears of it, will rejoice for me."

We laugh naturally at things that are ridiculous. We laugh because they are outside the norm. To Avraham and Sarah the idea of having a child at such an advanced age was ridiculous. But when it actually took place, then the skeptical laugh at the impossibility of such a thing because a joyful laugh at the possibility of it.

Avraham and Sarah did not doubt G-d. If they had been asked whether G-d could do such a thing, they would have agreed that He could. But were they willing to believe that it could happen to them?

Most religious people when asked would agree that G-d could create or destroy worlds. But can he take us out of a difficult trouble that we have? That we tend to be more skeptical about. Unconsciously they place limitations on G-d. The first laugh was the laugh of that limitation. The second laugh was the joyful laugh of seeing that limitation fall away.

In the Torah when people mock G-d, He then mocks them. How do people mock G-d, they assume that He is helpless to stop their evil. And how does G-d mock them? By showing them that He can. The "joke" is then on them.

The joke of Yitzchak was a beneficial joke. It was a punchline of faith. The punchline of a joke changes how we look at what came before it. It twists around our expectations. Similarly the punchline of Yitzchak showed Avraham and Sarah that their expectations of G-d had been limited and the culmination of their lives showed them another level of transcending that by seeing the infinite goodness of G-d.

Human faith is naturally limited. It is a ladder and there are always new rungs to climb. The birth of Yitzchak joyfully introduced Avraham and Sarah to a new level of faith.

The prophecy of Yitzchak showed that G-d could take the future of the Jewish people and bring it out of a child to a deeply elderly man and woman. The sacrifice of Yitzchak showed that G-d could take their child back from the edge of death. And that took even greater faith for Avraham. Finally with Yosef, Yaakov genuinely believed that his son was dead, from the testimony of his own children, and nevertheless G-d restored Yosef as well.

At each of these points there was a moment of transcendent joy at the realization that an impossible salvation has occurred. And through that joy, they and we, can learn to exceed ourselves in faith. When we move from skeptical laughter to joyful laughter, then we realize that the joke has always been on us and we laugh at ourselves with a new awareness of what we now know about G-d.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Parshas Noach - World Full of Robbery

The most frequent interpretation of Hamas, the reason that G-d declares that the earth must be wiped clean of all living things, aside from Noach and the birds, insects and animals in the ark, is robbery. The famous Gemara says that the verdict was sealed only over Gezel or theft.

The question is why was theft such an extraordinary crime that it necessitated wiping out not only mankind, but also all life on the surface, for it's explicitly stated that all life had become corrupted. Animals have no concept or legal standing when it comes to property.

Furthermore why is this suddenly an issue that had not been mentioned previously during earlier generations which did not seem to have the same crime problem?

To understand that last point, let's go back to the two earlier sins. First Adam and Chava took from the Tree of Knowledge that they had been forbidden to eat from. Second, Kayin, unlike his brother, brought a sacrifice to G-d that was not from the best and resented G-d for rejecting it and despite being warned by G-d that this would lead him to sin, went on to kill his brother over it.

What did both acts have in common? The human mission on earth, at that point, was for man to act as stewards of G-d's world, to first watch over the Garden of Eden and then to rule the animal kingdom.

Adam and Chava "stole" from G-d by taking of the Tree of Knowledge. Kayin "stole" from G-d by working the earth and refusing to properly acknowledge whose earth it was, giving G-d a share, but not the best share. Those thefts were symptomatic of a wider culture of robbery that failed to fully acknowledge G-d's mastery of the world.

That culture of robbery doomed the generation of the flood, which abused its stewardship of the earth, over its plant life and animal kingdom, to corrupt the earth by using it without acknowledging G-d or His laws. And so G-d removed them and the plant and animal life that had been within their responsibility to care for and use.

The culture of robbery led the Dor HaMabul to steal from each other, for theft from man is a sign of a lack of faith, and led them to steal crops and animals without bringing sacrifices or otherwise acknowledging Whose they were.

Noach however walked with G-d. He remained Tamim, Whole, and was therefore saved. The ark was a renewed stewardship that allowed Noach to reclaim the duties that had been assigned to Adam and his descendants. By taking the animals and then bringing them as sacrifices, Noach was granted a new covenant of human stewardship over the earth.

That is why the salvation was accomplished through the ark and Noach's task of collecting the animals made him worthy to replenish the earth.The Covenant that G-d forms after the flood is made with all life and all flesh. The covenant with animals is formed through man. When man keeps his responsibilities as steward, then the covenant with all life works through him. When he rejects it, then he steals the animals.

While G-d stated that man was likely to break this new covenant as well, He would no longer curse the earth, destroying plant and animal life because man forgot his place in the world.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Parshas Chukas - The Word and the Stone

Moshe being barred from entering the Land of Israel is a pivotal moment in Jewish history and also one of the more baffling ones.

Why is Moshe kept out of the land? What is the real difference between striking a rock and speaking to the rock? Is there a practical difference beyond G-d's command? And why was Aaron, who appears to have little involvement, also dragged into this?

To begin with, let's examine the two incidents. First early on, not long after leaving Egypt, Moshe is confronted by a crowd demanding water. G-d tells him to strike the rock. He does it. Water comes out. Second, rather late in the journey, as they approach the Land of Israel, the assembly demands water. G-d tells him to speak to the rock. He strikes it instead.

Let's begin by comparing and contrasting the two incidents. Both times Moshe is told to take his staff. But the second time Aaron is included in the command, the first time he is not.

The early plagues and miracles were carried out by Aaron using the staff. The later ones, including the splitting of the sea, were carried out by Moshe with the staff. G-d had told Moshe that he was appointing Aaron as his "prophet", so to speak. Aaron performed lesser miracles, Moshe performed greater ones.

The first miracle has an appearance by Hashem, Moshe is told to strike the rock as he struck the Nile, and the water is mentioned as being only for the people, not their animals. The second miracle has no such appearance mentioned, the water is just meant to come from the rock and the animals will use it as well. The second miracle was meant to be of a more ordinary nature than the first.

In the first incident, the waters are described as Massa and Merivah. A test of G-d and quarrelsome.behavior. The "test" defined the structure of the miracle. "Because they tried the LORD, saying: 'Is the LORD among us, or not?'"

Accordingly the miracle was meant to answer this test by showing that G-d was here and would meet their needs in a dramatic way.

The second incident is only described as Merivah, quarrelsome. This time, after all these decades, the Jews no longer tested or doubted G-d. We can see this in the different phrasing.

'Wherefore hast thou brought us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?' is how it's phrased in the first incident.

"And why have ye brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, to die there, we and our cattle?" is how it's phrased in the second incident.

The second time they are taking issue with Moshe's leadership while recognizing G-d's ultimate leadership, as their phrasing shows. They are no longer testing G-d, they are however testing Moshe.

While the miracle of the first incident was primarily meant to address their testing of G-d, the miracle of the second incident was meant to deal with their attitude, their quarrelsome approach. This time Moshe and Aaron, as teachers, were expected to set an example by speaking to the stone, showing the people how to pray to G-d, rather than carry on the way they were doing.

This was not meant to be a showy miracle. It would be miraculous, but in a more ordinary way. It would show that you can ask Hashem for things and He will give them to you. And this was where they failed. Moshe fell into the same behavior that he was trying to dissuade. Like a father who begins yelling at his son, instead of guiding him, he set the wrong example. And that is why G-d declared Moshe and Aaron unfit 'parents' to bring the people into the land.

A miracle contains within it a lesson. By forcing the wrong miracle, Moshe taught the people the wrong lesson. He had been with them for so long, that like a parent, he had failed to realize that they had made progress. Instead he treated them as if they were no different than they had been 40 years ago. He berated them and struck the rock, instead of showing them that there was a better way, that not only the power of the staff could bring water from the stone, but so could the word of G-d.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Yiftah and G-d - The Importance of Distinctions

The story of Yiftah's Daughter is one of the more famous and tragic events in Shoftim, Judges, which is already full of tragic and dreadful events. On the surface it appears to be the tragedy of a man making a foolish vow. There appears to be no larger context to it.

But to understand the meaning of the story, we need to go back to the beginning.

Yiftah (Jeptah) is called back to lead the fight against the Ammonite invaders and he writes a letter to the King of Ammon, which is one of the first examples of diplomacy.

While Yiftah's background might make you think that he would like a fight, he tries to talk things out with the Ammonite king. After relating the story of how the disputed territory came into Israel's possession, he tries to turn all that history into something the King of Ammon can relate to.

"Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God hath dispossessed from before us, them will we possess." (Shoftim 11:24)

For a guy who lived a nomadic life and probably didn't have much of an education, Yiftah is pretty smart. He's establishing a common legal principle. "When you seize territory and credit Chemosh for it, that's your principle for claiming ownership. Now if we took land, that means our G-d gave it to us and you have to respect His decision."

Yiftah, in his diplomatic overture, had failed to make the proper distinction between G-d and Chemosh, acting as if there was some equivalence. Going to war, the Spirit of G-d comes on him and he makes a pledge that is just as dangerously lacking in distinction. He pledges that the first thing to come out of his gate will be a sacrifice to G-d. That first thing turns out to be his daughter.

G-d does not accept human sacrifice... however Chemosh was worshiped with human sacrifices.

The King of Moav in Melochim Beit offers a human sacrifice in the form of his son. Because Yiftah had failed to distinguish properly between God and Chemosh... he ended up offering his own daughter as a human sacrifice, not to G-d, who does not want human sacrifices, but to Chemosh.

Once his daughter came out, Yiftah could have saved her and himself by realizing who G-d is and what the difference between Him and Chemosh is. Instead he acted as if G-d, like Chemosh, wants human sacrifices. And that inability to distinguish between G-d and an idol to which people gave the blood of their children was the fatal  flaw that doomed him.