Saturday, December 5, 2015

Parshas Vayeshev - Repentance and Exile

Parshas Vayeshev seems to start out following a very familiar narrative. The good brother and the bad ones. A father who doesn't quite seem to know what's going and sibling rivalry that escalates into a conflict between good and evil and will serve to define a nation.

And yet, unlike Yishmael and Esav, all of the brothers remain as the founders of the Jewish Nation.

Why is that? Once the brothers have kidnapped and sold Yosef into slavery, shouldn't they have been cast out as a lost cause the way that Esav and Yishmael were? How is that reconciliation proved possible here and not in the past?

To start with, it helps to look at what's missing. G-d.

None of the brothers mention G-d in Parshas Vayeshev at all. Nor does Yosef mention G-d until he refuses the demand of Potiphar's wife and at the very end where he is given the opportunity to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh's servants.

After Yehuda has masterminded the sale of Yosef, both brothers go into exile. Yosef and Yehuda are both parted from the family, Yosef involuntarily and Yehuda by choice. Yehuda goes off and marries an inappropriate Caananite woman, a culture that Avraham and Yitzchak had specifically disapproved of marrying into. Yehuda appears to be going down the same road as Esav, having entered into hostilities with his brother and then started a family that was unacceptable within the nation.

When Yosef is tempted with an inappropriate relationship by Potiphar's wife, he refuses her saying that it would be a sin against G-d. This is the first time Yosef mentions G-d. Yehuda gives in to an inappropriate relationship leading to a family tragedy and the death of his two unworthy sons. One tragedy leads to another and Tamar refuses being an eternal widow and degrades herself to have children by him. Yehuda orders her burned in what would be a tragic culmination of everything.

But when Tamar shows him the pledges, Yehuda concedes the righteousness of her case. And in doing so he admits that there is a superior moral authority to his. That everything isn't settled by superior force.

While Yosef travels his spiritual journey in physical exile, Yehuda travels his spiritual journey in spiritual exile. By acknowledging Tamar's claim, he also returns to G-d and he becomes worthy to have children who will become the leading royal dynasty of Israel. This dynasty will begin with King David, who like his ancestor, admits when has done something wrong and repents.

The first time any of the brothers mention G-d is when after their confrontation with Yosef, in his role as Viceroy of Egypt, they find that the money has been secretly returned to them. And they ask, "What is it that G-d has done to us"?

While Yosef, even as an Egyptian Viceroy, constantly mentions G-d in his conversations with them, this is the first time the brothers mention G-d. And they do so in a moment of recognition that they are being punished.

(To see the contrast, consider the difference between the way that the brothers speak and that even the man over Yosef's household talks, saying to them, "Your G-d, and the G-d of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks".)

The first time that a named brother references G-d is Yehuda. It's he who states, "G-d hath found out the iniquity of thy servants". The next and final time that the brothers mention G-d is during their message to Yosef. "We pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of thy father."

The first mention of G-d is a question. What is G-d doing to us? Why are we being punished. It is fittingly Yehuda who offers the second mention, a concession that they had done wrong and were being punished by G-d. And the third and final reference names the brothers as servants of G-d asking forgiveness of the one they had injured in the final point of repentance.

This was why the stories of the bad brothers and the good brothers, the Yishmaels and Yitzchaks, the Esavs and Yaakovs, could come to an end. Even after terrible things, the brothers could be reconciled through a common faith in G-d and the recognition of a superior moral authority. This Esav and Yishmael could not do. It was why they and their descendants were permanently sundered from the Jewish people.

Esav never ceased to be angry at Yaakov. Yishmael never stopped his evildoing. Yehuda and the brothers had.

We all make mistakes. The Torah is not the narrative of perfect people who never did any wrong. It's the story of human beings, who had their weaknesses, but overcame them. Or didn't. Who made mistakes and then learned from them. Or didn't.

Even the horrifying actions of Yehuda and the brothers, the pain they inflicted on their brother and father, did not permanently close the door on them. The story of their conflict with Yosef is really the story of two exiles, the physical exile of Yosef and their spiritual exile, and their reunification as "servants of G-d" in a physical exile that would give way to a physical and spiritual redemption.

Yehuda and Yosef were both "lost" for a while. Yosef was lost physically. Yehuda lost his sense of right and wrong, his religion, his knowledge that G-d, not his will, was the true moral arbiter.

Yosef's story culminates with him saving his brothers, not merely from a physical famine, but spiritually by teaching them about G-d. The culmination of Yosef's life comes with him telling his brothers that G-d had intended everything that had happened and made it come out for good. That is the lesson that he had learned in Egypt. It's the lesson of all the exiles of Jewish history.

"What is it that G-d has done to us"?, "G-d hath found out the iniquity of thy servants" and "We pray thee, forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of thy father" are the stages of repentance.

Yosef brings his brothers through to the final stage. The brothers initially submit to Yosef, but in the climax they submit to G-d. But it is Yehuda's repentance that brings the journey, entirely apart from his exiled brother, when he concedes that, "She is more righteous than me." In that moment, Yehuda conquered his ego, which had caused him and his brothers to commit a horrifying crime. He conceded that he had done something wrong. This is the first step of repentance.

It is what neither Yishmael nor Esav could ever do. Like Lavan, they could never admit they were wrong and so they were incapable of religion. Like the Pharaoh challenged by Moshe, there was no room in their hearts for G-d.

The Sages say that one who conquers himself is mightier than the conqueror of a city. Yehuda's repentance enabled him to begin a journey that made him the leader of the family in truth, not merely through force of personality, but through sacrifice and repentance.

It is Yehuda, not Yosef, who ultimately becomes the leader, because while Yosef is righteous, it is Yehuda who can return from a spiritual exile and find G-d again, and it is this quality that Israel would need more than any other. Yosef's dreams made him a prophet, but repentance is still needed even when the people have become unworthy of prophecy.   

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Parshas Vayislach - Lifting the Name of Exile

Parshas Vayislach begins with Yaakov appeasing Esav and the climax of its action is the abduction of Dinah and the massacre of Shechem by Yaakov's sons to his disapproval.

The question of whether Yaakov should have appeased Esav has been the subject of some debate among the Rabbis. And yet what stands out at the close of the previous Parsha, in Yaakov's confrontation with Laban and his entire history is the avoidance of conflict.

From the beginning Yaakov is described as Ish Tam Yoshev Ohalim. He's a mild-mannered man who stays in the tent while his brother Esav goes out and hunts.

And yet Yaakov is not weak. He's able to lift the rock from the well, a physical feat that it takes all the shepherds to accomplish, and he wrestles with an angel. Nor is he a coward. He doesn't flee either Esav or Lavan until he is told to do so, respectively by his mother and G-d. He is even born wrestling with Esav, gripping his older brother by the heel.

What is it about confrontation that bothers him so much? We have a hint of it when he curses Shimon and Levi on his deathbed for their massacre of Shechem. He doesn't curse them. Instead he says, Arur Appam. He curses their anger.

Anger is also an attribute closely associated with Esav. 

Of Edom, the Prophet Amos says, "For three transgressions of Edom, yea, for four, I will not reverse it: because he did pursue his brother with the sword, and did cast off all pity, and his anger did tear perpetually, and he kept his wrath for ever." (Amos 1:11)

Despite the temporary reconciliation with Yaakov at the beginning of the parsha, Esav is unable to abandon a grudge. By the end of the parsha, he has left to find space away from Yaakov, a split that like that of Avraham and Lot, foreshadows a larger breach between peoples.

Yaakov rejects this endless hatred. The burning wrath. It's alien to his nature. He is an Ish Tam. A quiet man. He will do what is right, but try to do it in such a way that it angers no one.

It's why Yaakov is willing to appease Esav to try and bring out brotherly feelings in him. It's why he generally acts indirectly to take what is his, whether with Esav's birthright or Lavan's flocks.  

And yet this approach is insufficient. Yaakov's willingness to tolerate abuse rather than give in to anger allows Lavan to exploit him for decades. When driven to extremity, Yaakov finally unleashes his resentment on Lavan. It is this which finally convinces Lavan to make peace with him.

Edom's anger is a curse, but Yaakov's excessive desire to avoid conflict is also a problem. Esav can't stop hating and Yaakov hates being hated. Even when he's the victim, he doesn't want to take any course of action that will anger others and will make him seem hateful in their eyes.

"You have troubled me to make me odious in the eyes of the inhabitants of the land," he complains to his sons over the massacre.

This is still a problem for the Jewish descendants of Yaakov who fear being hated most of all. They will go to great lengths laboring for others to avoid being hated. But the actions they take to avoid being hated, like Yaakov, make them hated. The more they act indirectly, the more they are hated for it. Their avoidance of conflict leads to exploitation, conspiracy theories and contempt.

Before Yaakov's confrontation with Esav, he experiences a mysterious visitation. An angelic visitor wrestles with him until the dawn and changes his name. And yet unlike Avraham, whose name was changed permanently, Yaakov's name continues to be used, though G-d and the angel both announce that his name will no longer be known as Yaakov, but Israel.

The name Yaakov, with its reference to being born clutching Esav's heel, had a derogatory connotation to it. In the wrestling match with Esav's angel, it's Yaakov's thigh that is injured. The terms of the conflict have changed. Yaakov is no longer clutching Esav's heel. He wrestles with his angel on even terms, shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh.

And he wins the name, Yisrael. He is no longer Yaakov, the clutcher of Esav's heel, but Israel, who can "wrestle with men and angels and prevail". Yet Yaakov continues to be his old self. He continues appeasing Esav. He relies on the goodwill of Hamor by buying land from him.

Yaakov or Jacob can be seen as his 'slave name'. His exile name. Yisrael or Israel is his triumphant name. It's a name that he rarely adopts and we see it mainly in his interaction with his children. It is they who can carry it because they are able to channel anger when necessary. Despite the conflict with Yosef, the climax of the story has the entire family putting aside its anger at each other.

Unlike Esav, they do not keep their wrath forever. Even when they do terrible things to each other, they forgive each other.

Why are they able to forgive each other? Joseph explains to his brothers why he does not hold on to his anger against them even though they sold him into slavery. "'Fear not; for am I in the place of God? And as for you, ye meant evil against me; but G-d meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive."

Yaakov says something very similar to Rachel when she demands children, "Am I in the place of G-d?"

This is where Yaakov and Yosef differ from Esav. They see hardships as the work of G-d, not merely men. It is this attitude that enabled the Jews to survive for so long in exile. They saw themselves as not oppressed by men, but put through trials by G-d. The outcome is the one willed by G-d.

This is the source of their endurance. It is why G-d states that He loves Jacob, but hates Esav.

Jacob has many faults, but he ultimately turns to G-d as the author of his life. Esav does not concern himself with G-d. Instead he maintains endless grudges and hatreds for every setback. He never recognizes his own flaws or faults. Instead he is always seeking revenge for his failures.

And yet the suffering of exile, the life of Jacob, is not meant to be the permanent condition. Jacob is the most deprived of the forefathers, but he is also the path to Yisrael. The way to triumph.

Jacob allows men power over him because he believes it is G-d's will. He deals with matters indirectly, at the heel level, instead of at the thigh. Yisrael contends with men and even with angels because he believes that is G-d's will. He doesn't carry enduring grudges. Instead he does what is right. He can feel a momentary anger over an injustice without letting it consume him in pettiness.

This is what Yisrael is meant to be. It is his free name. It is the name of the end of exile.

The free Hebrew slaves could not yet become Yisrael. Instead they feared the Egyptians, the Amalekites, the Caananites and nearly everyone they came across more than G-d. It was only their descendants who could enter the land.

When G-d changes Avraham's name and Sarah's name, it is right before he promises him a true son. It is at this point that his name changes. G-d changes Yaakov's name to Yisrael before the birth of Binyamin, his final son. Yet Yaakov's name continues to be used. What's missing?

In his deathbed blessings, Yaakov concludes with a blessing for Binyamin. "Benjamin is a wolf that raveneth; in the morning he devoureth the prey, and at evening he divideth the spoil.'" The evening is often believed to refer to the End of Days.

Previously, Yaakov is referred to as Yisrael in the blessing of Yosef's sons. In the climax of that blessing, he for the first time takes credit for the capture of Shechem.

"And Israel said unto Joseph: 'Behold, I die; but G-d will be with you, and bring you back unto the land of your fathers. Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.'"

Yaakov disavowed it, but Israel takes credit for it in the context of the conquest of Israel. A project that will fall to his descendants.

After Binyamin's blessing, the twelve sons are referred to as "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel".

The final transformation of Yaakov into Yisrael is an ongoing project. It will be complete with the End of Days when the wrestling match with Esav's angel will resume and be won. When evil will be defeated forever.

In the meantime the Jews carry the attributes of both Yaakov and Yisrael. Often they revert instinctively to appeasement. Other times like Shimon and Levi they refuse to tolerate oppression and pick up their swords only to be shushed by their Yaakov-brethren who fear appearing "odious" to the world.

In the climax of Ovadiah's prophecy, "the house of Jacob shall be a fire, and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for stubble". In its climax, "Saviors shall come up on mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau". A judge must act fairly. He does not carry out a grudge. Instead he does what is right. He carries out justice.

It is this justice that will be the expression of Yisrael triumphant.

Yaakov understood the justice of his case against Esav and Lavan and Hamor, yet he feared to confront them with it. His sons lashed out for revenge with an anger that he deeply distrusted because it reminded him too much of his brother.

Not long ago the Jews were bedeviled by Esavs, who impose on them with force. Today they are bedeviled by Lavans who play word games and stand justice on its head in order to assault them. Then, like Hamor, they come for peace negotiations to keep what and whom they stole.

Yisrael will not act out of mere anger. The will act out of a sense of rightness. A sense of justice.

Finally then, who is Esav. Whom must Yisrael defeat and impose justice upon? While the Rabbis in the era of Roman occupation assigned the role to the imperial invaders, the answer was always in Obadiah's prophecy. Seir is not in Europe. It's in the Middle East.

Yemen is part of Edom. The Prophet Obadiah castigates it for standing by when strangers invaded Israel, looted them and then hunted down the refugees. This applies poorly to Rome, but it applies quite aptly to the Arab mercenaries who fought for Rome and other foreign invaders of Israel. Partial invasions that climaxed with the Mohammedan conquest that continues to this day.

Esav does not destroy the Temple. Instead he serves those who do, mocks the Jews on that day and loots whatever he can take. He suffers from an undying hatred of the Jewish people dating back to his ancestor. He claims that they stole his birthright. That his religion predates Judaism.

Yaakov is confronted by the descendants of Ishmael and Esav, and a dozen others, who were once Jewish or might have been Jewish, who claim a birthright that is not theirs. They carry a great wrath that tears at them. They believe that they are entitled to the birthright of Yaakov.

Like Yaakov, the Jews returned to their land while sending presents and trying to appease Esav. Yet this time the appeasement did not work. Esav remained angry forever. He would not give up his anger no matter how much Yaakov appeased him. And so Israel remains Yaakov rather than Yisrael until it contends with Esav, until it does not simply defeat him, but judges him and applies justice to him.

It is not enough to be angry at evil. When good people get angry, they often suffer from guilt over it. Evil can wear anger perpetually like Esav, but constant wrath destroys good people.

Evil must be met with true justice. Not the justice of the apologists which is appeasement. But a justice that addresses the crimes of evil. That accepts no moral equivalence. In the face of this justice, Esav is reduced to stubble. Its claims and demands, even its anger, is burned up completely.

What special power does Yisrael have that Yaakov lacks? Yisrael is the name that states that his status was won by him fairly. Yaakov can only appease Esav's wrath, but Yisrael can burn it to cinders. Yaakov apologizes for what he is. Yisrael claims it as his G-d given right.

Yaakov receives his new name from Esav's angel after defeating him, but like Avraham, he receives his new name from G-d before being blessed with a new son. The hope of the future of the Jewish people lies in raising children who need not clutch at heels, but who have the courage to be Yisrael and to contend with their enemies.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Succos - The Happiest Holiday

The Torah associates Succos with happiness more than any other holiday. It is the holiday we are told to rejoice on. It is the season of our rejoicing.

What makes Succos so happy? Why is it happier than Pesach or Shavuot, the other two of the three Regalim?

Pesach and Shavuot were both marred by rebellion and strife. At the sea, some Jews shouted at Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die in the wilderness". After the giving of the Torah, some made a golden calf. But Succos was free of any such strife.

When G-d settled the Jews in huts, there were no arguments.

This too is why the Clouds of Glory, which some believe Succos commemorates, received their own holiday, but not the miracles of manna or water. Both of these miracles were met with protests and complaints. But there were no protests or complaints over the Clouds of Glory.

Where there is argument and strife, there cannot be happiness.

Succos is the time of our rejoicing, because the Jewish response to these miracles was at its purest. It is fitting that the clouds were in honor of Aaron the High Priest, who loved peace and pursued peace, whose service was to love and bless the people. Succos comes from the same love and blessing.

The second day of creation is not described as good by G-d because the water was divided on that day between sky and sea symbolizing strife. And strife cannot be called good. What is good is the completion.

Pesach, which symbolized water, provided man's most basic necessity.  Moshe was saved from water and he led the Jews through water and helped provide them with water. Water is a basic necessity of survival, but having a basic necessity does not refine human character.

Shavuos, the next holiday in the cycle of three, celebrated bread and provided Torah. Satiation sustains a person. It gives him "something to chew on". But it doesn't provide a final resolution.

Succos provides the "house" which completes a person's place in the world. Bread and water isn't enough. It's a home that creates harmony. Succos completes the process with the final redemption, the battle of Gog and Magog to take place in Tishrei and the final rejection of the Sukkah by the world. And the ultimate Sukkah is Sukkat David, the Temple. When that is raised up again, then strife comes to an end and the purpose of the person is clarified.

It is the home that gives objects and people meaning. And so the water and the manna were accompanied by strife, but not the Sukkah. With Succos, there is home and happiness because the joy is complete.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Parshas Vayelech - The Second Hiddenness of G-d

Parshas Vayelech is often read between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and yet it references neither of them. Instead it's used as the answer to the famous question, "Esther min HaTorah minayin." Where do we see a reference to Megilat Esther and the miracle of Purim in the Torah in which the Jews are saved from Haman's evil decree of extermination.

The answer that Chazal give comes from Parshas Vayelech. "VeAnochi haster astir panay bayom hahu". "And I will hide, hide my face on that day."

Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 

And I will hide, hide my face on that day for all the evil that they have, in that they turned to other gods. 

Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:17-18

Purim and Yom Kippur have a linguistic connection of their own with Yom Kippur being described as Yom K'Purim, a day like Purim, even though the days appear to be complete opposites.

On Yom Kippur Jews fast and repent and plead for their lives. On Purim, they celebrate with abandon. And yet Purim is described as being even greater than Yom Kippur.

The connection between Yayelech and the events of Purim is made by the hiddenness of G-d. The Megillah never mentions G-d. There is no open miracle. Instead the hand of G-d is hidden. But Purim is preceded by Taanit Esther. The Jews fast and repent, they recognize that this crisis has come upon them because they sinned, and yet G-d remains hidden, but still saves them.

In these psukim, G-d appears to hide twice. He hides during the crisis. And He hides after the Jews repent and He saves them.

The first hiddenness of G-d is Yom Kippur. Though we are told that He waits for us to repent in Elul, we still must build a relationship with Him. This relationship is incomplete. We recognize that we sinned and do our best to repent, but the repentance is incomplete. We say that G-d is not among us, but He is. He remains hidden because we have not succeeded in rebuilding our relationship with Him.

Despite G-d remaining hidden, when we turn to G-d, He saves us from the evils that have upon us without revealing Himself. After Yom Kippur, the repentance, we eventually merit a Purim. And Purim is greater than Yom Kippur because even though G-d is still hidden, we have come close enough to Him to be saved from our troubles, even if we have not merited a larger revelation.

The first hiddenness of G-d is repentance in times of trouble. The second is salvation from those troubles.

Even on Purim, the Jews continue to be flawed. They continue to worship other gods, even if these aren't literal deities, but other 'masters' and 'lords' such as materialism or egotism. They have not yet turned away from these toward G-d and therefore G-d remains hidden from them. But as long as the Jews remember the missing space where G-d is, they can still merit to be saved by His hidden hand.

The worst form of sin is the abandonment of the knowledge that it is even wrong. It is when this takes place, that G-d turns away from people for they have forgotten Him. When they remember that the sin is wrong and that G-d is missing from their lives, then they may not see G-d, but G-d is in their lives, even if as a sense of emptiness and the knowledge that something is absent and missing.

On Yom Kippur, we acknowledge the sin. We try to fill the emptiness by turning to G-d. It is an incomplete process, but it still brings us closer to G-d even if we don't see it or know it.

Few people repent fully on Yom Kippur, but at the very least they must acknowledge that emptiness in their lives where G-d should be, but isn't. And then they may find that though they do not 'see' G-d, hidden miracles occur in their lives that save them from their troubles. If they celebrate these miracles, as we do on Purim, then they can come even closer to G-d. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Parshas Ki Seitzei - Twisted Love

Parshas Ki Seitzei bars an Ammonite or Moavite from marrying into the Jewish people even unto the tenth generation. While an Edomite and Egyptian may marry in the third generation.

What's the fundamental basis for the distinction?

The ban on Ammon and Moav follows that of the one on bastards and indeed both nations are the products of incest. Improper relations of this sort are occasionally referred to in the Torah as "Chessed" or kindness because they have the appearance of love to them.

The distinction goes to the two types of anti-Semitism defined by the Edomites and the Moavites.

Edom and Egypt were open in their hostility toward the Jews. They sought to persecute and kill them. Whatever malice they had depends on their strength and their national power. By the third generation they no longer present a danger. However Ammon and Moav represents a more insidious form of corruption as they demonstrated by hiring Bilaam and then attempting to corrupt the Jews.

Rather than bringing bread and water, true Chessed, to the Jews, they instead practiced a false Chessed, as that of their incestuous origins, by attempting to corrupt and pervert the Jews. Their weapon was intimate and insidious. Like the Caananites they could not be allowed to marry in even into the tenth generation because their form of hatred and evil represents a permanent threat.

Open enemies are easy to identify and defend against. Covert enemies however are far more insidious because they come disguised as friends. They appear to be on a mission of Chessed, but like the adulterous love that produces the Mamzer, their love is purely selfish, cruel and leads to destruction.

Some anti-Semites, like Edom and Egypt are open about their agenda. They believe that Jews are inferior and to be stamped out. They hatred is lethal, but not insidious. It is out in the open. The hatred of Ammon and Moav is more insidious because it is based on a jealous malice that recognizes the spiritual gifts of the Jews and seeks to corrupt and destroy them.

When they hate, Edom and Egypt come as enemies. But their occasional acts of kindness, as when Esav kissed Yaakov or when Egypt provided sanctuary to the Jews, are sincere. They have no hidden agendas. But when Ammon and Moav hate, they come as friends. Like Bilaam, they flatter in order to curse, they disguise their poison in compliments, their Chessed is false and fatal.

Jealousy is one of the most poisonous human traits. Its enmity is more dangerous because its possessors often do their worst while posing as friends.

Enemies like Edom, who were once family, may be redeemed. But the incestuous and adulterous relationship poisons love and whatever kinship once existed. It is based on a toxic brew of jealousy and selfishness that destroys everything it touches. Egyptians and Edomites could find a place within the Jewish people despite their atrocities, but Ammon and Moav could not because they would remain compelled to corrupt and undermine by their own jealous and selfish motives.

Egypt and Edom could come to respect the Jews, as Esav came to respect Yaakov and Pharaoh came to respect Moshe, but jealousy is not deterred by respect. Ammon and Moav did not need to learn what Esav and Pharaoh learned painfully. They already knew it. It only fed their jealous hatred.

Therefore you may not seek their good, for their selfishness and jealously will only turn it into evil.

Historically the worst enemies of the Jewish people came from corrupted members from within their own ranks. That is still true today. Enemies with Jewish last names motivated by narcissism and malice, jealousy and neurotic paranoia, who seek to kill and destroy Jews are our most ruthless and dedicated enemies.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Parshas Balak - False Prophets and Talking Donkeys

Parshas Balak is the first time that the perspective moves away from Moshe and the Children of Israel. Instead we get a look into the camp of their enemies. Why is this necessary?

For that matter why have G-d deliver prophecies through the mouth of an evil man or have a donkey talk? And why does Bilaam so gloriously praise Israel in these prophecies as a seemingly perfect nation when the narrative before had them on the brink of destruction before their sins.

And no sooner do Bilaam's prophecies conclude than they sin again and are hit with a plague.

Clearly the Jews, like all people, are flawed. Why does Bilaam seem unable to find any flaw in them to curse them?

The answers to all these questions are interconnected. And they begin with a talking donkey that sees an angel that her master does not. Why does the donkey see the angel when Bilaam does not? Because the donkey is following G-d's will and her master isn't.

Things derive their holiness from the extent to which they serve G-d's will. That's true of the Jews, Bilaam, the angel and the donkey.  Prophets are meant to be vessels for the word of G-d. A prophet becomes false when he replaces the word of G-d with his own message.

By having a separate agenda, Bilaam had become a false prophet. Because he wanted to curse what G-d had not cursed, he lost the ability to properly see the Divine. This was graphically demonstrated to him when he was unable to see an angel that even his donkey could see.

We perceive the Godly to the extent that we serve G-d's purpose. Bilaam had lost that perception. He continued to receive prophecies, but those were now suited to his new level.

Bilaam had sought to curse the Jews by viewing them negatively from a higher spiritual plane. This curse was meant to influence G-d to see their flaws. But ironically by trying to curse the Jews, he fell from the higher plane that allowed him to see their flaws.

As Balak led Bilaam to high places in order to look down on the Jews, Bilaam was still unable to look down on the Jews no matter how high he went. Like the donkey looking at the angel, his current status only enabled him to see something gloriously above him. And that is what his prophecy expressed.

When we read the Torah, we see events through the perspective of G-d. On that level, the Jews, like most people, seem perpetually hopeless, mired in sin and on the verge of destruction.

But from the far lower perspective of Bilaam, the Jews suddenly appeared angelic. He could find no flaws to exploit in order to curse them. Instead he had to advise Balak on ways to create those flaws. Bilaam had become blind to the evil he sought and he sealed his doom by trying to create it instead.

There are many perspectives in life, but not all are equally true. Bilaam, the donkey, Moshe and G-d all had their own perspectives. But a perspective is truest when it is closest to G-d. When the donkey talked, it was a warning to Bilaam that his perspective was now lower than that of a donkey. He had become more able to communicate with animals than angels.

And as a human donkey, he could see no flaw in the Jews, just as a donkey can see no flaws in a man or a man in an angel.

Bilaam's attempt to innovate, to play a double game with G-d, turned him into a false prophet, but Moshe had been punished with being barred from Israel for striking, rather than speaking to the rock. On his high level, as the greatest of all prophets, even a minor deviation from G-d's purpose, cost him his place in performing the will of G-d.

When those who curse the Jews are cursed, it is because they, like Bilaam, presume to attack G-d's purpose. In response, G-d punishes them by taking away what spiritual gifts they have leaving them cursed to be unable to perceive anything higher than those they cursed. When they bless the Jews, they are blessing G-d's purpose and are rewarded by being blessed to perceive more of it.

The Torah shows us some of the purpose of G-d to within our ability to understand it. It blesses us in that way. When we attempt to pervert it for our own purposes, it instead becomes a curse.

Like everything else in the world, it has the property of potentially being both a blessing and a curse. Like the earth that either grows a rich bounty or turns to dust, the blessing and curse are contained within everything in the world to the extent that those who call on it serve G-d's purpose.

Those who presume to speak falsely in G-d's name act as false prophets and are nothing more than talking donkeys. And even a donkey can reprove a prophet when she fulfills G-d's purpose. That was G-d's message to Bilaam.

Holiness is not static. It ebbs and flows to the extent that we serve G-d.

Sometimes we are all Bilaam or Balak, seeking to twist G-d's will into a shape that will give us what we want, without regard for what G-d wants. As Balak, we turn to dubious interpretations or dubious religious leaders. As Bilaam, we play the hypocrite with G-d, saying one thing and meaning another.

And sometimes we are Moshe, fulfilling the true will of G-d. And other times, we are talking donkeys unknowingly doing what G-d wants because it seems like common sense to us.