Sunday, October 9, 2016

Parshas Vayelech - The Secret Treasure of the Universe

Parshas Vayelech contains one of the grimmest moments in the Torah.

Sefer Devarim has seen some dreadful curses, but no moment in the Torah is quite as deflating as G-d's declaration that the Jews would sin and that G-d would forsake and hide from them, and then when the Jews would realize that they had done wrong and say, Ki Ein Elohai Bekirbi, Because G-d is not among us, Motzuni Haraot Haeleh, these things have come upon us. (Devarim 31:17).

And instead of welcoming back his people, G-d responds with, "And I will surely hide my face on that day."

That's the opposite message of the Shabbos Shuva drashos of so many Rabbis delivered on the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It's far away from all the assurances that G-d is only waiting for us to return, to take the first step and be welcomed and forgiven.

It seems hopeless.

To understand it though, let's take a step back. Parshas Vayelech is foremost about the Torah. The Torah rarely discusses itself. It exists foremost in an oral mode. Only occasionally in Devarim do we hear mentions of the process by which the Torah that we know came to us.

Why is the Torah necessary? Why do we even need it at all?

Devarim marks the twilight of the life of Moshe. G-d's greatest prophet is attempting to transmit his experience of revelation to us. He is doing that because future generations will experience diminishing levels of revelation. Those Jews who lived in Moshe's time would feel, in the future, as if G-d had hidden his face from them.

What is the origin of the Torah? There is a mass revelation at Mount Sinai. The Jews experience G-d speaking directly to them. And then G-d withdraws.

What is the Torah? The Torah is the result of Ein Elohai Bekirbi.

If there is total and open revelation, then there is no need for recording and codifying the revelation. Even in Moshe's time, it was possible to ask him a question about Halacha, as the daughters of Tzelafchad did, and Moshe would then forward the question to G-d and get an answer.

But without that degree of revelation, the Torah becomes necessary.

We tend to assume that G-d's reply of Anochi Haster Aster, I will surely hide, is a worsening of the condition. But this is not an impenetrable hiding. One example is Megillat Esther in which G-d is "hidden". But not so hidden that we cannot figure it out. Instead we are meant to seek G-d and find Him. Where do we seek G-d out? We cannot climb up Sinai, as Moshe did, after the tablets were broken. G-d is hidden in the Torah. The Torah is our treasure map to finding G-d.

By finding G-d, we atone for having pushed Him away. G-d is not distancing himself from the Jewish people. While they insist Ein Elohai Bekirbi, G-d is actually hiding among them through His word.

When they recognize that He is absent, He draws nearer to them and hides close to them in the Torah.

The song of Haazinu, like the rest of the Torah, is the encoded revelation of G-d. It is where we can find Him. It gives us the path of repentance and revelation for returning to G-d.

We describe the Torah as an Etz Chaim, a Tree of Life. The first tree of life in the Torah though is the one in the Garden of Eden. It's a mysterious entity. All we know about it is that G-d says that if man eats from it he will live forever, and he is driven out to avoid that from happening, and the Garden is then guarded by an angel with a sword.

But the Tree of Life was restored to man through the Torah. While Adam was prevented from eating of it, man today may eat of it and live forever. It is not a mere physical immortality. It is spiritual immortality. The Torah made the Jewish people immortal to the extent that they, not merely eat of it as Adam might have, but to those that grasp it (Mishlei 3:18) and make the commitment to it.

G-d, paradise and immortality, the original things that man lost, are still available to him, encoded in the Word of G-d. The secret treasure of the universe is there waiting for us. All we have to do is look.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Tisha B'av - An Uncomfortable Fast for Comfortable Jews

At its most basic level, Tisha B'av is meant to make us uncomfortable.

We are forced to sit on the floor, to hear a recitation of atrocities, to fast, to be plunged into depths of sorrow and to be served from normal social intercourse.

Is the purpose of this merely mourning?

Let's consider for a moment the sequel to Tisha B'av. It's Purim. Some 70 years after all the atrocities that we read, the Jews are living comfortably, they're feasting and partying with Ahasverosh. Only a tiny minority have come back from exile to rebuild Israel.

When the next crisis arrives, it catches them by surprise. Within 70 years they've gone from the horrors of Eicha to the comforts that we read at the beginning of Megilat Esther. And this phenomenon did not happen overnight. The horrors of Eicha gave way to a comfortable status quo. Most Jews forgot about Israel. They moved on with their new lives in a new empire.

We read the Eicha accounts at a distance. The Jews in Sushan would have known people who actually endured it. They would have had stories from parents and grandparents who experienced it.

How could they become so apathetic? Easy. It's been around the same amount of time since the Holocaust. Like us, they grew up hearing stories about it, but it became distant to them.

Their new way of life seemed like it would never change. Just as the way of life of the Jews in Jerusalem, the ones who did not heed Yirmiyahu's warnings, had seemed before the churban.

Tisha B'av makes us uncomfortable to challenge us, to take us out of our safe space and ask us to question the way that we live our lives. The most pernicious problems are those which become an accepted status quo. Rather than being a thing that we bemoan, we no longer even see them.

That was the state of affairs in Bayit Rishon. It had become the state of affairs once again in Sushan. It's what happens to Jews time after time as they settle down and bad habits become the way things are. And no one thinks twice about them.

In the past, prophets made us uncomfortable. Today we have to settle for their words. And we have to make ourselves uncomfortable. That is what Tisha B'av does. In the absence of Yirmiyahu to warn us and to make us uncomfortable, we have to read his words and step out of our comfort zone. We have to question our status quo. We have to wonder what we aren't seeing and aren't paying attention to.

That process doesn't stop on Tisha B'av. We must always be willing to do so even when we aren't sitting on the floor or going without food. We must always question the status quo we live in.

Comfort is the essence of the status quo. When we are comfortable then we assume that everything is good. When we are comfortable, we are asleep. We fall into a false innocence in which we are no longer aware that we are doing anything wrong because everything is pleasant and comfortable. We listen to those false neviim who reassure us that everything is good and everything is okay.

Everyone sins. Everyone makes mistakes. But when we are uncomfortable with our sins, then we can repent. When we are comfortable, then we no longer think of them as sins. When we become comfortable with sins and with wrongness, then we can no longer repent. And when we can't repent, then we can't change. We doom ourselves to destruction when we become comfortable. When Jeshurun grows fat, when we have lingered too long in the land, then the status quo takes over.

The temples were not destroyed until some form of bad behavior had become a status quo, not a sin that people felt uncomfortable with, and could be persuaded to repent from, but a way of life that was no longer questioned. And so Hashem made us uncomfortable. Eicha is the story of that discomfort.

The discomfort is horrifying. But it was also an intervention. Hashem's anger was motivated ultimately by love. If you do not love someone, then you might feel bad when you see them engaging in self-destructive behavior, but you don't feel anger. It's when there is a relationship there that the anger comes. Even the destruction of the temples and the exiles of the Jews were acts of love.

They were a last ditch effort to make us uncomfortable enough to break a corrosive status quo that was destroying us.

Tisha B'av is a much smaller commemoration of that discomfort. It asks us to be uncomfortable in order that we might change. It is a reminder that Hashem loves us and wants us to change. That the discomforts, large and small, that we experience as individuals and as a people, are Hashem's attempts to change us into the people we ought to be, our best selves.

Change requires discomfort. To accept the status quo is to lose the ability to become our best selves. The discomfort of Tisha B'av is a goad for change. It is a challenge to become the Jews we ought to be. And when that happens, the redemption of Israel can finally come. That redemption requires that we become uncomfortable. That we challenge our own personal status quo. That we change.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Parshas Acharei Mot - Sin and Duty

Parshas Acharei Mot begins with G-d telling Moshe to tell Aaron after the death of his sons not to just walk into the adobe of G-d and then moves on to a discussion of the Yom Kippur service.

What is the relationship between these two things, the death of Aaron's sons and Yom Kippur?

Earlier, Aaron's sons had committed a sin. They had died. This seems like the natural order of things. A grievous enough sin leads to death. But instead G-d informs Moshe and Aaron of Yom Kippur, and beyond it, of the larger idea that G-d forgives sins. And that this is a major function of the Kohen.

The priesthood is not meant for personal aggrandizement. The Kohen should not simply feel free to make himself at home in G-d's house. Or to take arrogantly take on privileges as if he were entitled to them. He is there to represent the people before G-d. And this is the function of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur. He asks G-d for forgiveness for their sins.

At the root of the death of Aaron's two sons was a misunderstanding about their place and their function. They were not members of a privileged royal family. But nor was their death a reminder that people were doomed to sin and die. Because Aaron's sons had forgotten their function, the Jews had a lesson in that sin could kill, but that G-d could and would forgive it as well.

By telling Aaron about Yom Kippur, G-d was explaining the proper nature of religious leadership to both him and to the Jews. Jewish religious leaders are not meant to aggrandize their own power, but to deepen the connection between the people and G-d. The Kohen must be humble. He must first ask for his own forgiveness. And he must remember that he is there to ask for forgiveness for the people.

In the House of G-d, Yom Kippur was an opportunity to rebuild the relationship with the Jewish people from the top down by reminding those at the top that they have a responsibility to those at the bottom. Religious leaders must go into the Holy of Holies to bring the people closer to G-d. Not for their own sake. But for the sake of bringing G-d to the people and the people to G-d.

When that is the case, then sin can be forgiven and the relationship restored. Without that, death can follow sin. By taking on the responsibility for the people, the Kohen Gadol could save their lives, as Aaron would do during the plague, and he could ask for mercy and forgiveness for them. 

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Pesach - Fear and Faith

The most obvious question to ask about Pesach, the remembrance of Jewish slavery in Egypt, is why was it even necessary? Its origins go back to the Brit Bein Habetarim, the Covenant of Parts, which G-d forges with Avraham. And yet the same forefather who pleaded with G-d urgently for the sake of the people of Sodom never utters a single plea on behalf of his descendants. Why is that?

The covenant is preceded by a unique event. G-d tells Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars. And then we are told, VeHeemin, Avraham had faith in G-d and G-d considered it as a righteous merit. Religiously habituated readers may wonder what is so extraordinary that believing what G-d tells you should be considered righteousness. And yet, if we look back at the story of Avraham, it is the first time that faith is mentioned.

Indeed it is the first mention of Emunah, faith, in the history of mankind.

There were righteous men before Avraham. And yet they are not associated with faith. Noah does what he is told. He is a righteous man. But we are not told that he had faith in G-d.

The covenant that leads to slavery is preceded by the extraordinary invention of faith. Noah believes that G-d will punish the world. Avraham however believes that G-d will grant him an impossible blessing. The righteous men before Avraham may have feared G-d, but he had alone had faith.

As the familiar story of Moshe and Pharaoh unfolds, we see a similar duality. Righteous Egyptians, whether it is the midwives who refrain from killing Jewish children at Pharaoh's command or the servants of Pharaoh who feared G-d and send their cattle and servants into the house ahead of the hail, are described as fearing G-d. Pharaoh's test is also to learn to fear G-d.

However when it comes to the Jews, Moshe is concerned with their Emunah, faith. He questions G-d whether the Jews will believe him. G-d provides him with signs for that purpose. And when he arrives, the nation believes (Exodus 4:31). The climax of the redemption comes again when we are told that the nation believed in G-d and Moshe his servant after the Egyptians are drowned in the sea. 

The Egyptians are expected to fear G-d. But the Jews are expected to have faith in Him. It is enough for the Egyptians to stop the evil that they are doing and fear G-d. But more is being asked of the Jews. In Egypt they are powerless. They have little control over their bodies and their lives. Instead they are asked to believe in the impossible that in a hitherto unprecedented intervention, G-d will liberate them from their bondage in Egypt. And though their faith is often shaky, they do believe.

Faith is a test. It has true meaning only when it is a test.

Avraham brought faith into the world as an individual. His Jewish descendants were to bring it into the world as a nation. Human faith is imperfect. Avraham asked for a sign resulting in the covenant. He and Sarah both seemed doubtful that she would give birth to Yitzchak at such a late age. The faith of the Jews wavered with Pharaoh's threats and punishments. And yet this was its purpose.

For ages the world had been based on the threat of force. Adam and Chava sinned and were punished. The flood wiped out the world. The Tower of Babel was disrupted. But mankind did not improve. Like Pharaoh, fear proved too insufficient to prevent evil from being done.

Pesach changed the equation. Fear was no longer the purpose of the exercise. Instead of punishing Pharaoh as an end, G-d did so as a means to show that faith was stronger than fear. The world was no longer a place where evil thrived until G-d punished it, it was a world in which the faith of the righteous would ultimately prevail over mere fear of punishment. The world had a positive force that was oriented not toward the past or the present, but that looked toward the future.

History was no longer a series of failures and punishments. It had gained a redemptive purpose.

The suffering of the Jews in Egyptian slavery was not a punishment. It was covenant. Like Avraham's tests, its purpose was redemption, not only of the people, but of the idea of faith in G-d. It was meant to show that the world faced more than a choice between fear or lack of fear of punishment. But that through faith, human beings could take on spiritual powers that would enable them to transform the world.

Fear put people before the choice of sin or don't sin. And human beings, being what they are, will sin. Faith however takes us beyond the choice of resisting a particular temptation or weakness. Instead it asks us to believe in the transformative power of G-d. It shifts the focus from the negative to the positive. From resisting our flaws to manifestly proclaiming the power of G-d and following His will.

The redemption from Egypt was a larger shift in human affairs. It was the beginning of a journey that would transform the world.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Parshas Metzora - The Inclusive Pariah

Parshas Metzora begins with the purification of the Metzora, the sufferer from the spiritual disease known as Tzaras. The Metzora's partner in the purification ritual is the Kohen and though the two men seem far apart, one a pariah who must shout his uncleanliness to the world, and the other, a priest who is obligated to maintain a high level of purity, the rituals have a similarity to them.

Like the Levi, the Metzora's hair is shaved off. Like the Kohen's ritual with blood, oil is placed on his ear, thumb and foot. The very ritual requires an encounter between the Kohen, who is required to maintain ritual purity, and the Metzora, who is the embodiment of ritual impurity, and the former subjects the latter to a ritual similar to that undergone by the original Kohanim.

The Kohen and the Metzora are both set apart from the community. Both are displaced from the conventional life of the community. The Kohen's role reserves him for a higher function. The Metzora has fallen through the cracks at the bottom. It's easy to see them as people who should never meet.

And yet it is the Kohen, who must maintain purity to serve G-d, who welcomes back the Metzora.

The rituals of the Kohen are not so different in some ways from that of the most disgraced and lowest individual among the Jewish people. Like the Metzora, the Kohen has to struggle to rise and atone. Holiness is a challenge for him as it was for the Metzora and as it is for any Jew. The purification ritual ends the Metzora's period of disgrace by honoring him with a meal offering with oil. It concludes with the Kohen anointing the Metzora with oil.

The Metzora has made the journey from uncleanliness to being the central figure in a divine service conducted by a Kohen. The Kohen is meant as a role model for the Metzora. And this would not be possible if the Kohen insisted on having nothing to do with the Metzora.

Just as the ritual is a lesson to the Metzora, that repentance can allow him to rise to being anointed by a priest of G-d, it is also a lesson to the Kohen that it is the role of Jewish leaders to reach out even to the most "unclean".

The Metzora is shown that in repentance he can have a shadow of the glory of the Kohen. While the Kohen is reminded that he may not be too different from the Metzora. Both rise in the service of G-d.

And both can fall.

The Metzora suffered his punishment for shattering the harmony of the community with his malicious behavior. The Kohen is called on to repair that harmony by returning him to it. Purification allows objects to be restored to homes, houses to be occupied and people to rejoin their communities.

Purification heals the fabric of the community.

The rule of Tumah Hutra Be'Tzibbur states that even when the entire congregation is impure, the Korban Pesach is still brought because "impurity is permitted in a congregation". When everyone is impure, it is more important to still maintain unity in the service of G-d. Under those conditions, even impurity becomes permissible.

Likewise even the Kohen Gadol is expected to bury a Met Mitzvah, an unknown corpse whom no else is available to bury. Though Kohanim have very strict requirements of purity, they are expected to transgress them when it comes to restoring a lost person to the community, even when he is no longer among the living.

The entire story of the Metzora would seem to be a narrative of exclusion. A pariah is driven out of the community. Forced to avoid people. Humiliated and disgraced. And yet the true lesson is the exact opposite of that. It is not a story of exclusion, but inclusion. It is the Metzora who attempted to exclude others from the community through slander. And it is the Kohen who restores him to it while showing him an example of inclusiveness and healing.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Parshas Tazria - Paradox of Faith

Parshas Tazria dedicates much of its time to a discussion of the Metzora, widely but inaccurately translated as leper, who suffers from Tzaras. One of the more peculiar laws of this spiritual affliction is that someone who has been quarantined as a Metzora is deemed to be getting worse if healthy flesh emerges, but pure if his entire body turns white.

A similar paradox is that of the Red Cow whose sprinkling purifies one who came in contact with a corpse, yet renders the sprinkler impure. This is considered a Hok, a law whose reasoning utterly eludes us, as it did King Shlomo, who reportedly aspired to understand it, but failed to do so.

Why does a man become 'impure' when he appears to be recovering and 'pure' when his whole body seems afflicted? Why does the act of rendering an impure man, pure, make a pure man, impure?

The nature of purity and impurity remains beyond our understanding. The paradox calls to mind a more familiar one, why do good people suffer while bad people prosper?

The old "Tzaddik ve'ra lo, ve'rasha ve'tov lo" (a righteous man suffers and a wicked man prospers) is every bit as difficult to understand as the Metzora or the Para Aduma, the Red Cow. And yet we think that we understand it better because we can grasp the subject matter. We may accept that we do not understand the spiritual mysteries of purity and impurity, but we assume that we do understand good and evil, and can judge the ways of G-d in this regard.

And yet in all of these areas, we are only seeing part of a cycle. And that cycle is only a part of G-d's plan.

The paradoxes of purity and impurity remind us that some of G-d's ways are inexplicable to us because we lack the perspective to understand them. This is no less true of human life, a subject on which we have no perspective, yet think we do, than of the Red Cow and the Metzora, on which we are willing to concede that we have no perspective.

Knowing what G-d wants from us is not the same thing as knowing what He wants to do and why. This is a mistake that we often risk making in our view of the world. We are ready to accept that purity and impurity is a mystical subject that we cannot grasp, but we are convinced that we know what our lives and the lives of our neighbors ought to be like. And yet our lack of perspective means that the larger world cannot help but be a paradox to us no matter how we might strive to understand it.

Life and death, suffering and joy, are as much paradoxes as the means of making the pure into the impure and the impure into the pure. We can never truly understand them. All we can do is accept them.

Tzaras mimics an illness, but it is not a disease. It is a spiritual affliction. It crosses from an area that we think we understand to an area that we do not. Likewise the Red Cow and its ashes come into play with death, a subject we think we know, but that we are quickly forced to confess is a mystery.

The paradox takes us from a subject that we think we know and then defies our understanding of it.

Faith begins with learning to accept the limitations of our understanding. The paradox is a sign post warning us that the road ahead requires faith. Disease and death often serve as such sign posts. Purity and impurity are tightly wrapped around the functions of life, from birth to illness to death. They remind us that though we experience the world and live in it, there is a limit to our understanding of it. We cannot truly understanding the meaning of our lives. We can only have faith that G-d's plan will help give meaning and dignity to our birth, our suffering and our joys, and our death.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Parshas Shemini - The Hour and the Generation

Parshas Shemini begins with the words Vayehi Beyom HaShemini. We learn that the opening Vayehi, And It Was, portends a mixture of tragedy and joy. As in Vayehi Yaakov, that saw Yaakov reunited and living with his son Yosef but in exile and as a prelude to slavery.

Shemini begins with the final dedication of the Mishkan, on the eight day after seven days of Moshe Rabbeinu performing the Avodah, bringing the Korbanot, Aaron steps into his role as Kohen Gadol, brings the Korbanot and as both brothers leave the Ohel Moed at the conclusions, they are privileged to see the Shekihna appear. A heavenly fire consumes the Korbanot. But Vayhei, though there is celebration there is also tragedy.

Two of Aaron's sons bring an alien fire and are killed by fire from heaven. Moshe tells Aaron that with this event the word of G-d, Bekrovai Ekodesh, has been fulfilled. Moshe warns his brother and the remaining sons not to leave, not to mourn and to eat of the Mincha. Aaron and his sons do all this and eat of the Mincha but the Seir brought for Rosh Chodesh, they burn entirely and Moshe demands an explanation.

Aaron's answer however is enigmatic, indicating that he had acted properly and seems to fully satisfy his brother. Yet is short on detail. The two most common explanations are that either the animal became posul or that only Kodshei Shaa like the Mincha were to be eaten, while Onenim, but not Kodshei Dorot. Yet this too leaves something out.

It's notable that the Pasuk appears to be engaging in a virtual pun, as Aaron and his two remaining sons, NaNotrim, are told to eat the Mincha, HaNotrot. Both Aaron's surviving sons and the Mincha seems to be described with the same term. But obviously it's not mere wordplay, there is a message and a point to it.

The Mincha that they are to eat is the remaining Mincha that had not been burnt, just as the two surviving sons, were the remaining sons who had not been burnt. Moshe describes the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, not as punishment but as glorification, much like a Korban. Like the Mincha, part had been burnt and part remained for Aaron. When Moshe warns them about leaving with the oil on them, as there is oil on the Mincha, the implication is that they too will die. This is what is done with a Korban that becomes Posul, to be burnt outside. So if they leave, they too will be burned outside and what has been a Mincha will become an entirely Posul Korban, which could altogether invalidate the entire Miluim.

Aaron and his sons eat the Mincha and the Korbanot which are Kodshei Shaa. Even though the sons are regular Kohanim and Onenim. But they are Onenim over the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and Nadav and Avihu were themselves a Kodshei Shaa Korban, so to speak, a one time event. Both those deaths and the special status of Elazar and Yithamar were unique events, Shaa. By contrast the Seir of Rosh Chodesh was a Kodshei Dorot and as far as the Dorot were to be concerned, Kohanim Onenim could not consume Kodshim. The holiness of the hour had been gained at great cost, like the reunion of Yosef and Yaakov, a terrible price had been paid. But it was a temporary price. The achievement that had been gained however was one for generations.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Parshas Shemini - Purity and Access

Parshas Shemini begins with the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and the death of Aharon's two sons for offering Aish Zar, an alien fire, which G-d had not commanded.

The obvious question is why did Aharon survive his role in the Golden Calf, which was idol worship, while his sons died for merely taking the initiative in making a change to the Divine service?

And why does G-d's response focus on "holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean" and then shift to an extended list of kosher and non-kosher animals, described as unclean, and then purity and impurity, before finally returning to the death of his sons six chapters later?

Impurity and uncleanliness exist as part of the cycle of life. A non-kosher animal is only bad if you eat it. Impurity is only bad if it taints something pure which then goes on to taint something holy.

Impurity in a human being can be removed, in part through the procedures laid out in the Torah. It becomes a severe sin however when impurity taints holy objects in the House of G-d. Chanukah was a severe crisis because the Bait Hamikdash had been thoroughly desecrated. At the lowest points in Jewish history, Jews not only worshiped idols, but brought them into the Temple.

The Golden Calf could be destroyed. And after repentance, the Jews could return to G-d and even be honored by having G-d dwell among them in the Mishkan constructed with their own hands. Aharon could preside as the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, despite his role in it. Because G-d does forgive and cleanse human beings of their sin. If He did not, we could not exist.

The severest sin is one that prevents this from happening by tainting the holy with the impure. Perverting the religion of G-d is worse than idolatry because it does not give people any place to return to. Idol worships can return to G-d. But when the Temple is tainted or the religion is tainted, the process of returning becomes more difficult because there is 'nowhere' to return to.

Idolatry creates "alternatives" to G-d. Tainting the worship of G-d however obscures His presence.

Offering an "alien fire" seems like a minor offense, but it leads to innovating alien religious practices, hijacking the worship of G-d and replacing it with a manmade religion that culminates in idolatry. The offense of Aharon's sons seems minor, out of context, but we should view it in the context of the decline of the Jews into idolatry once in Israel. Purity is a mandate, but also a metaphor.

The worship of G-d must be what He commanded. When the highest figures in a religion pervert it, then ordinary people find themselves cut off from G-d. Aharon's sons made a mistake, but like Uzzah, the seemingly minor act revealed a more dangerous error in thinking about G-d.

The Kohanim, the priests, are holy because they follow the commands of G-d. Their exclusive role however allows them to pervert and exploit their position, as indeed would happen later on. Purity, both physical and intellectual, is demanded of the priesthood because their special position allows them to either bring the people to G-d or to cut off the people from the worship of G-d.

Above all else, the details of the service, like the Kosher status of animals or the purity of people, matters because G-d commanded it. Its core holiness is defined by the source of that holiness, G-d. It is G-d who defines what is pure and impure. When those who are meant to help the people transmit and understand the word of G-d, mangle it instead, they render it impure.

The culmination of G-d's instruction to Aharon after the death of his sons is, "that you may teach the children of Israel all the statutes." (Vayikra 10:11) Service is the implementation of G-d's word. The fundamental role of those who serve G-d closest must be purity of service and teaching. Respect for G-d is not just an abstract idea, but an understanding. Touching the ark or bringing an alien fire shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what G-d is and disqualifies one to be in a position of religious authority.

Closeness to G-d requires greater purity because it is those who are close to Him who help define his presence for the people and help purify them. In this area, a taint that is hard to detect can be more severe than a grievous sin. A pig is deemed more un-Kosher than animals that lack any of the signs of the Kosher animal, because its hooves deceive one into thinking that it is a Kosher animal.

A Kohen who invents his own service is less obviously doing wrong than one who makes an idol. And yet this is also what makes it a worse sin. One does not see impurity. It is more subtle than the difference between Kosher and non-Kosher animals. And yet it is worse sin to desecrate the holy with impurity than to eat non-Kosher food.

It is the role of the Kohen and of religious leaders to mark these distinctions. When the Kohen corrupts the process, then he endangers the connection between G-d and the people.

When G-d mentions the death of Aharon's sons again, in Vayikra 16, it is at the beginning of the Yom Kippur service, the Day of Atonement. It is easier for people to atone and repent when they have role models and religious leaders to guide them. The ultimate purpose is closeness to G-d. And the Kohanim must remain pure in order to make G-d accessible to the people so that they may be cleansed.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Parshas Zachor - The Transactional Error

Zachor is the scriptural remembrance of Amalek's attack on the Jews after leaving Egypt which culminates with the Haftorah, the prophetic reading of King Shaul's war on Amalek, his disobedience before G-d and his rejection as king over Israel. It is read before Purim, which marks the third confrontation between Israel and Amalek.

This week it coincided with Parshas Vayikra, which lays out the laws of many of the sacrifices. Zachor's Haftorah also revolves around sacrifices, the captured animals from Amalek that Shaul decided to bring as sacrifices instead of destroying them as G-d had commanded.

Some wonder why Shaul was punished so harshly with the loss of his kingship for a seemingly light offense. He disobeyed the Divine commandment to destroy all the animals, but he quickly conceded that he was at fault. He sought no personal gain from the loot.

Why was G-d's rejection of him so total?

Shmuel's rebuke of Shaul contains what will become an ongoing theme in the prophetic rebukes of Israel. "Does G-d desire burnt offerings and sacrifices or in obedience to the voice of G-d? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams." (Shmuel 1 15:22)

This theme will be repeated until the destruction of the Temple. Its message is that the Jewish relationship with G-d is not transactional. Sacrifices are not a means of appeasing G-d, but an acknowledgement of Him. The view of sacrifices as a transaction in which G-d does something for us and we do something for him corrupts the true relationship between G-d and man.

That corrupting idea was at the root of the downfall of the First Temple. It's a rebuke that recurs time and again. Most harshly in Yeshayah. " To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me."

People do not have a transactional relationship with G-d. Sacrifices are not payment that allow us to do anything we want. Shaul and the people had assumed that they could disobey what G-d told them because they were doing something that "benefited" Him. But as G-d had said, He does not need sacrifices. The sacrifices are a form of obedience. Disobeying G-d undoes the sacrifice.

The Kings of Israel, even when they served G-d, too often lapsed into a transactional relationship in which sacrifices were brought in corruption, e.g. "They lay themselves down beside every altar upon clothes taken in pledge" (Amos 2:8). This was the final outcome of the attitude shown in the aftermath of the war against Amalek. Shaul's action wasn't the worst expression of it, but it was the gateway to it.

By declaring a city Herem, G-d states that it a society is so evil that every aspect of it is meant to be destroyed. Shaul and the people however chose to try and offer these tainted items as sacrifices. They were behaving in much the same way that would lead to a form of corruption in which stolen money was used for sacrifices, in which oppression would reign until G-d would withdraw from the Temple.

As the Sayings of the Fathers declare, "Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of reward. And the fear of Heaven should be upon you." (Pirkei Avot 1:3) Even though G-d wants us to do specific things and there are rewards, this is not a transactional relationship. Instead it is a personal relationship.

We are meant to serve G-d out of love or fear. Loving relationships are not transactional. You don't do something for someone you love because they are doing something for you. That's a business relationship. It's a commercial relationship. Not only did Shaul not understand what G-d wanted, but he did not even understand the nature of Israel's relationship with G-d.

This was the fundamental difference between Shaul and David. Both men made mistakes, but Shaul did not understand his relationship with G-d.

What connection does this have to Amalek and Zachor? We are meant to remember what Amalek did. But we should also remember why it happened. Amalek attacked after the Jews tested G-d asking, "Is G-d in our midst or not?" after lacking water. Then Amalek attacked. (Exodus 17)

The attitude was transactional. Either G-d gives us water or He isn't here. Either we're getting what we want from G-d or He is useless and probably not around. It's not an uncommon attitude. It states that our relationship with G-d is governed by the benefits that we get from it.

Likewise, it's easy to read the story of Purim as an absence of G-d. G-d is not mentioned once in Megilas Esther. The events can be viewed as transactional. Mordechai took in Esther. Esther was picked to be the queen. Mordechai told Esther about a plot against the king. Haman paid the king money to be able to kill the Jews. The king took the money. But then Esther revealed that she was Jewish. The king was reminded that Mordechai had saved his life first. And Haman was hanged.

But the whole purpose of faith is to see the Hand of G-d in what appears to be coincidental and even what appears to be transactional. "I got a good deal because I was smart." "I worked hard and took the right offer and made lots of money."

Leaving Egypt, the Jews had failed to see that. In Israel, Shaul was aware of G-d, but he viewed the relationship as a transactional one. G-d wants him to fight Amalek. So here are a whole bunch of sacrifices to honor G-d. In Persia, we were back to a transactional world in which G-d didn't even seem to exist. Returning to Israel meant lobbying the Persian monarchy. And Mordechai, by defying Haman, appeared to have not only ruined the best chance for the rebuilding of the Temple, but his defiance was leading to the extermination of the Jews.

And yet Mordechai was correct for he understood what Shaul did not, that the world was not governed purely by the transactional. That if the Temple were restored and sacrifices brought, they had to be clean. That pandering to Haman would prove to be a dead end. That you could not do good by evil means. That using Amalek to bring sacrifices to G-d was an insult to Him and a fundamental misunderstanding of our relationship with G-d.

G-d did not want Amalekite sacrifices. He did not want the Temple rebuilt through Haman.

By rejecting Haman, Mordechai atoned for the actions of his ancestor, Shaul. He showed his belief in a world that was not merely transactional, in a relationship with G-d that was truly meaningful by transcending the transactional.

The corruption of the relationship with G-d into a purely transactional, sacrifices in exchange for tolerating sin, had helped destroy the First Temple. Rebuilding a Second Temple required a rejection of that attitude, as embodied in Pirkei Avot and in Mordechai's defiance of Haman.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Parshas Tetzaveh - Faith and Exactness

Parshas Tetzaveh is notable mainly for the sheer mass of instructions for constructing the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, complete with exact measurements.

The modern man may reasonably ask, why G-d would care how many cubits each component of the building needs to be or why the amount of loops and threads must be specified.

Do the technical schematics of a building really matter to the Creator of the Universe? G-d had designed the entire universe from the quark to the cell, but did such exactitude here really matter?

The building of the Tabernacle was the climax of the redemption from Egypt. In some views, it was a recreation of the revelation at Mount Sinai. In others, it was atonement for the golden calf and the loss of faith that occurred when it appeared that Moshe had been gone for too many days and was believed to be dead. The count of the exact amount of days had been gotten wrong.

We see something similar discussed in the Gemara, Talmud, in Berachos. The Gemara wonders why Moshe tells Pharaoh, KeHatzot HaLaila, "About midnight will I go out into the midst of Egypt and all the first-born in the land of Egypt shall die." (Shemos, Exodus 11:5)

Why, the Gemara asks, does Moshe say at "about midnight", KeHatzot, instead of "at midnight", BeHatzot? Could there be doubt about the time of midnight in heaven? And indeed the actual plague takes place BeHatzi, at midnight. G-d certainly knows the exact time of midnight.

But the Gemara answers, Moshe was concerned that Pharaoh's astrologers would miscalculate the time and, even while the country was filled with the dead, would shout that, "Moshe is a liar". "He predicted that the firstborn would die at exactly midnight and they died two minutes after midnight."

Such irrational behavior would seem absurd, but then so did Pharaoh's resistance through multiple plagues and the eventual pursuit of the Jews right into the water.

What happened after Moshe departed showed a similar problem with the Jews. The count had been gotten wrong and a minority made the golden calf and the rest did not resist this abomination.

The Haftarah, reading, for Parshas Tetzaveh, is appropriately enough the instructions to the Prophet Yechezkel, Ezekiel, for the construction of the third and final temple. The instructions are once again detailed right to the exact number of cubits.

It begins with the verse, "Thou, son of man, show the house to the house of Israel, that they may be ashamed of their iniquities; and let them measure accurately. And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, make known unto them the form of the house, and the fashion thereof, and the goings out thereof," (Yechezkel 43:10-11)

Measuring accurately is a form of atonement. The precise ceremonies of the tabernacle and temple, the sacrifices and the construction, matter in every exact detail. Does it matter to G-d? It matters to us.

The Egyptians could not be trusted with the exact measure of the time of the plague. The Jews had been trusted with the exact time of Moshe's return, but had nevertheless gotten it wrong. On a larger scale, the exact time did not matter. Whether G-d slew the firstborn of Egypt at 12.00 or 12.02 would not make a difference in heaven. But it made a difference in faith on earth to Jews and Egyptians.

Likewise the exact details of the Tabernacle and Temple mattered because by following the instructions and measuring accurately, the Jews showed a willingness to follow G-d's instructions in detail, abandoning their own egotistical creativity about the designs to follow a heavenly design.

Faith is not some vague thing. It requires exact and specific commitments. Many people believe in G-d, but how many are willing to do something specific when asked. And yet it's specific commitments that show that faith is real and that it actually matters to a person.

The Egyptians feared G-d and did not love him and so they could not be given the exact time since they would seize on any excuse to deny G-d. The Jews had been given the exact time of Moshe's return, but they had also seized on an excuse about the time and a minority used the confusion to build the golden calf. The Tabernacle and Temple provided atonement by following exact instructions through faith out of love.

When you fear someone, you only obey when the object of the fear is right there. But when you can find an excuse to rationalize why you shouldn't be afraid, then you will do whatever you want. But when you love someone, then you are attentive to them. You listen to what they say and fulfill it. You get it right because you care.

Exactitude in the workplace is the difference between helping someone or saving a life and doing just enough to get by. It's the difference between caring and not caring.

Does G-d care how many cubits a component of the tabernacle is? Who knows. But He cares that we care. And that is what ultimately matters. Temples are meant to be embodiments of love and faith. By following exact instructions, instead of doing things casually enough to get by, the Jews atoned for their sins by showing that the will of G-d mattered to them, that they loved G-d and had faith in Him.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Parshas Besalach - The Bowing of the Moon

The Midrash famously comments on the splitting of the sea that the sea "saw" Arono Shel Yosef, the bones of Yosef and split in his merit. Is there any basis for such a reading in the Torah?

Right before the sea splits, some Jews famously scream at Moshe, "Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us out to die in the wilderness?" (Shemos 14:11). This can be read as poetic phrasing, but it could also be viewed as a taunt in response to Yosef's casket proceeding forward.

A casket being carried forward could have inspired the taunt of, "Were there no graves in Egypt".

We are told that Moshe personally took Yosef's bones with him. (Shemos 13:19). Did Moshe, who was then quite old personally dig up or carry the bones? Unlikely, among other things it would have made him tameh/impure. But it does suggest that the casket had a pride of place in the procession.

Certainly if the sea split in response to it, it was at the front.

But we know that Yosef's bones were not the only ones carried out of Egypt. The other brothers are also buried in Israel. Yet Yosef is the only one mentioned. Why did Moshe become personally involved with his remains and why are the remains of the other brothers not mentioned?

Moshe and Yosef had a good deal in common. Both spent time among Egyptian royalty, yet put their fellow Jews first. Both were exiles who were cut off from their families. Both named their sons after their isolation in exile. Both were chosen to save the Jewish people, one by leading them to Egypt, the other by leading them out of Egypt.

Yosef was the first slave, the first Jew to be enslaved in Egypt. Moshe was the last slave, the first Jew to gain his freedom.

Yosef passed on the message, Pakod, Yifkod, G-d will surely remember you, to the Jews and made them swear an oath to bring him up out of Egypt. (Bereishis 50:24-45) That's the same message that G-d directed Moshe to bring to the Jews. Pakod, Pokadti, I have surely remembered. (Shemos 3:16).

Moshe was fulfilling a promise that the Jews had made to Yosef. The last slave was freeing the first slave.

And yet, what does this have to do with the sea? Yosef had many merits, but why would the sea particularly split for him?

As a child, Yosef famously dreamed that the sun, the moon and the stars were bowing to him. His father rebuked him for it. "Am I to come with your mother and brothers to bow to you to the ground?" (Bereishis 37:10). Yosef's mother was dead so the dream indeed seemed impossible.

The moon, representing Rochel, had already faded from the sky.

Yosef's brothers did bow to him. So did Yaakov. His brothers bowed to him because he saved them from starvation. His father bowed to him for the promise that he made to take his father's remains back to Israel for burial. But his mother never bowed to him. And he had not done anything for her.

So how did the dream come true?

Rochel is known as the mother of exiles, the one who pleads for the return of the Jewish people to their land. Slavery in Egypt was the first exile. The original exile. And her son was the only one of the children of Yaakov to be exiled. For the Jews to return, the sea had to split.

What did Yosef do for the moon? The Jewish calendar is lunar. While Rosh Hashana, the new year, is when the new year begins, Nissan, the month of the Jewish departure from Egypt, is considered the first month.

Before the final plague, G-d tells Moshe, "This month shall be unto you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year to you." (Shemos 12:2) Without Yosef, Nissan would not be the first month. And so the moon "bowed". The tides of the sea split it apart. And the Jews began the long journey home.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Parshas Bo - For Whom Do We Toil

We are all familiar with "Let my people go". But Pharaoh's final sticking point wasn't the people. He first insisted that only the men be allowed to go. But after the plague of darkness, he says, "Go ye, serve the LORD; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you."

Moshe however insists, "Thou as well will also give into our hand sacrifices and burnt-offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the LORD our God. Our cattle also shall go with us; there shall not a hoof be left behind; for thereof must we take to serve the LORD our God; and we know not with what we must serve the LORD, until we come there." (Shemos 10:24-26)

And for the first time, Pharaoh threatens Moshe with death. After the plague of the firstborn, Pharaoh tells Moshe, "Take both your flocks and your herds, as ye have said, and be gone; and bless me also." (Shemos 12:32)

What can be the significance of cattle compared to that of human beings? And yet in the plague of the firstborn, along with all of the human firstborn who are slain, "from the first-born of Pharaoh" down to "the first-born of cattle".

Two of the final devastating set of plagues focus on cattle and it is emphasized that, "The LORD shall make a division between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Egypt; and there shall nothing die of all that belongs to the children of Israel." (Shemos 9:4).

Finally, even as the Jews are leaving Egypt, they are given a command to, "Sanctify unto Me all the first-born, whatsoever openeth the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of beast, it is Mine.'" (Shemos 13:2)

Why are mere cattle endowed with so much significance that G-d not only makes a special distinction between the flocks of the Jews and those of Egyptians, and that Pharaoh even especially notes this. "And Pharaoh sent, and, behold, there was not so much as one of the cattle of the Israelites dead. But the heart of Pharaoh was stubborn, and he did not let the people go." (Shemos 9:7)

Why kill the firstborn of the cattle and why is one of the first commandments to the Jews regarding the sanctification of the first born of cattle? And why does Pharaoh make the flocks of the Jews into his final sticking point, being willing to let the Jewish people go, but not their animals?

To understand this, let's go back a little further.

The last message that G-d gives Moshe for Pharaoh, before he enters Egypt, is one that we never see him actually deliver. "And thou shalt say unto Pharaoh: Thus saith the LORD: Israel is My son, My first-born. And I have said unto thee: Let My son go, that he may serve Me; and thou hast refused to let him go. Behold, I will slay thy son, thy first-born." (Shemos 4:22-23)

What is the significance of the first born? It's the portion that belongs to G-d as acknowledgement that everything comes from Him. That was the essence of the dispute between Kayin and Hevel, Cain and Abel. Hevel brought G-d "of the firstlings of his flock" while Kayin just brought offerings. (Bereishis 4:4).

Bringing the "firstlings of his flock" was the essence of religion at the time because it worshiped G-d by stating that everything came about because of Him and that human labor was only made productive by G-d.

The first born of human beings were priests who brought the first born of cattle and fruits as offerings to G-d. Israel was G-d's "first born son" that was meant to serve Him. "Israel is the LORD'S hallowed portion, His first-fruits of the increase; all that devour him shall be held guilty, evil shall come upon them, saith the LORD." (Jeremiah 2:3)

The flocks mattered because they were the ultimate statement that Israel served G-d. Many people pay lip service to religion. They say things, but don't really mean them. It's what people do with the first products of their labor that show where their priorities are. Possessiveness is corrupting.

Pharaoh wanted to hold on to the Jews badly enough to destroy Egypt. He would rather kill them than let them go. And if he had to let them go, he would at least hold on to their flocks. By sacrificing to G-d, the Jews would be saying that their labor all along had been for G-d, not Pharaoh.

They had never been truly enslaved by Pharaoh. They had only been in Egypt because G-d had decided it. This would retroactively nullify everything that Pharaoh had done to them.

Sacrificing to G-d was the "abomination of Egypt" (Shemos 8:22). It was the opposite of a culture of slavery where the Jews were meant to be toiling for Pharaoh and their Egyptian masters. There was no room for G-d in such an arrangement. Pharaoh was willing to let the Jews go to worship G-d, but to let them take all their flocks would mean a final sundering of his power to over them and his rivalry with G-d.

Pharaoh refused to give over his first born cattle to G-d and acknowledge that Egypt had only survived because of the divine help through Yosef. He refused to allow G-d's first born to serve Him. And in the final extremity he refused to allow their labor to be for G-d, rather than Pharaoh.

The fundamental question of human life is for whom do we toil. Do we toil for institutions and corporations, for pharaohs and governments, to satisfy the desires they create for us, or do we toil for G-d?

That was the fundamental question of the Exodus. It's still the fundamental human question. The flocks were the physical expression of human labor. To have faith, was to believe that they had come about through G-d. To have faith, was therefore to toil for G-d. Every man did not have to be a priest, but every man and woman had to acknowledge that the work of their hands had come from G-d.

This was the abomination of Egypt, unacceptable to a slave culture, where men worked by the will of other men to produce unearned wealth. The question of the Exodus was whether the Jews would serve G-d or Pharaoh. The plagues did not settle the question, neither for Pharaoh or the Jews. It's still the question of human history for all of us, Jewish and non-Jewish. Force alone does not settle the question. It only temporarily clarifies it for tyrants. The final answer must come from the human heart.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Parshas Vaera - A Man's House is His Palace

With Parshas Vaera, the process of subjecting Pharaoh and Egypt to a series of plagues begins. Certain plagues Pharaoh resists. Others he is intimidated by and submits to.

Is there a pattern?

Moshe and Aaron turn the Nile to blood, and despite the disturbing threat to the survival of a nation that depends on the river, we are told that "Pharaoh turned and went into his house". (Shemos 7:23)

And so for the next plague, G-d sends a more personal threat to Pharaoh. The frogs will "go up and come into thy house, and into thy bed-chamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneading-troughs."

G-d places the order of the infestation as the order of importance that these events have to Pharaoh.

When his people were suffering, Pharaoh retreated to his house, his palace, and let his people dig for drinking water. But now the plague, even though seemingly less harmful and threatening, will impact directly on him, and make its way into his most intimate quarters leaving him no place to retreat to.

If he enters his home, the plague will be there. If he locks the door of his bedchamber, he will not escape it.

For the first time, Pharaoh surrenders. And he pleads with Moshe to "take away the frogs from me, and from my people". First comes Pharaoh. Then come his people.

The next plague contains no mention of Pharaoh's home and so he does not surrender. But the plague after that, wild beasts, does. It first comes "into the house of Pharaoh" (Shemos 8:20) and once again Pharaoh frantically submits. And Moshe, very aware by now of Pharaoh's set of priorities, promises that the plague will be removed from, "Pharaoh, from his servants, and from his people".

The next plague kills all the cattle, but does not affect Pharaoh and so he does not submit. The plague after that causes plenty of human misery, but again does not seem to affect him in particular either.

After that, G-d sends a more direct message to Pharaoh, "I will this time send all My plagues upon thy person, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people". And yet this time the plague, hail, does not appear to affect Pharaoh particularly. Yet once again there is a mention of houses.

"Now therefore send, hasten in thy cattle and all that thou hast in the field; for every man and beast that shall be found in the field, and shall not be brought into the house, the hail shall come down upon them, and they shall die.' He that feared the word of the LORD among the servants of Pharaoh made his servants and his cattle flee into the houses;" (Shemos 9:19-21)

The moral was a simple one. Each time Pharaoh had determined his response based on what the personal impact upon him was. If the plague affected his "house", he summoned Moshe and pleaded for relief. If it didn't, he allowed his people to suffer.

"House" had come to stand for selfishness. A personal space that a man could use to shut himself off from the pain of others.

Pharaoh's house was his ego.

The plague of hail offered Pharaoh and other Egyptians a chance to save not only their livestock, but their servants, as long as they were willing to listen to G-d and open up their houses. If they wouldn't, they would ultimately suffer.

It is this which causes Pharaoh to submit for the first time, even though he isn't personally threatened, with a unique admission of guilt. "And Pharaoh sent, and called for Moses and Aaron, and said unto them: 'I have sinned this time; the LORD is righteous, and I and my people are the wicked ones."(Shemos 9:27)

With the next plague, locusts, with its threat of them filling "thy houses and the houses of all thy servants", Pharaoh attempts to preemptively surrender, but then hardens his heart. The final plague strikes all of Egypt, including the house of Pharaoh, so there is "not a house where there was not one dead."

The climax of the selfishness, the lack of empathy which had brought Pharaoh and his people to this pass, their lack of concern for anyone outside their own "house" was that every house had to suffer the ultimate price.

In sharp contrast to this are the midwives who defied Pharaoh's decree to kill the Jewish firstborn. As a reward, "And it came to pass, because the midwives feared God, that He made them houses." (Shemos 1:21).

"If the Lord does not build the house, its builders labor in vain." (Psalms 127:1).

Pharaoh exploited Jewish labor on massive construction projects for his own glorification, only to see it all come apart. The Egyptian ruler had put his trust in physical houses, in fortifications that he could use to leverage his power, hiding behind walls, but G-d could penetrate those walls in any number of ways.

The House of Egypt was built on selfishness, on disregard for others, and so its punishment lay in forcing Pharaoh to recognize his own guilt, not his hostility toward the Jews, as neither he nor the Egyptians would have considered that a crime, but his disregard for his own people and everyone who wasn't him. This was the point that G-d made in the plague of hail. G-d showed more regard for the Egyptians, even as He was punishing them, than Pharaoh ever did.

Jewish houses were built by G-d based on values. They could not and would not endure without them. The houses of the midwives were dynasties, not mere buildings. Many of the houses of Egypt still survive as curiosities and wonders, but the people are long gone while the dynasties of the midwives still endure.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Parshas Shemos - No Religion Without a Nation

In Parshas Shemos, G-d's message to Pharaoh isn't so much, "Let my people go" as "Let my people go for three days".

While G-d's message to the Jews is that he will bring them to Israel, His message to Pharaoh is, "And now let us go, we pray thee, three days' journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the LORD our G-d."

Why does G-d tell Moshe to try and trick Pharaoh, a trick which doesn't work in any case? Since G-d already tells Moshe that Pharaoh will only let them go after a great deal of punishment has been meted out, why bother with the ruse?

To understand that, let's examine why Pharaoh didn't want to let the Jews go. Pharaoh's plan for enslavement begins with the fear that the Jews will escape Egypt. But why worry about the Jews leaving if they haven't even been enslaved yet?

And if Pharaoh wants to enslave the Jews, why does he then start trying to kill them?

If the goal is to rid Egypt of Jews because they are becoming numerous, letting them leave would have solved the problem. If the goal is to benefit from their slave labor, why kill them?

Pharaoh's behavior toward the Jews is contradictory. Moshe's three day proposal exposes that contradiction.

If Pharaoh is only interested in exploiting the Jews as slave labor, the three day proposal is no great loss. Especially compared to the economic losses of the actual plagues. When Pharaoh shows that he is willing to take great losses rather than let the Jews leave for a brief holiday, he is demonstrating that he is not motivated by economic considerations.

Pharaoh's response to Moshe begins with an extended rejection of G-d. He lashes out at the Jews as lazy for wanting to worship G-d.

The three-day proposal is not really intended for Pharaoh. It's a demonstration for the Jews, that Pharaoh is not just a greedy tyrant who wants slave labor, not does he just hate them as a purely xenophobic reaction. He would rather see Egypt destroyed than allow Jews to live by their faith.

What was the real purpose of slavery? Had Avraham committed a sin that his descendants were destined to descend to Egypt and be enslaved?

Egypt was a lesson. It was a lesson that the Jews had to live as a nation in their own land. Even the nicest exile would decay into hostility and hatred over Judaism. The Pharaohs might find Jews useful as financiers, officials and tradesmen, but no matter how they adapted, religion would always remain a source of friction.

The paradoxical hatred of the Pharaohs for the Jews embodied the contradictions of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh feared the Jews would leave, but wanted to destroy them. He worked them to death, but accused them of being lazy. He would rather see Egypt ruined than allow them to worship G-d.

When the Sages state that one who lives outside Eretz Yisrael, it is as if he has no G-d, it was recognizing the fact that Jews would not be able to fully worship G-d without their own nation. 

Before Egypt, the children of Israel might have thought that they could go on as they were in a nomadic existence and still worship G-d, that they could have a religion and a people without a nation.

Pharaoh's refusal to even release them for three days at the cost of the destruction of Egypt showed them that the freedom to worship G-d is also dependent on physical freedom. To fully worship G-d, they also had to have the freedom to do by having their own nation.

G-d's three day offer to Pharaoh showed the Jews that Pharaoh did not just want slaves, but that his anti-Semitism was motivated by a hatred of their religion because of G-d. In later times, some Jews in the desert would complain that they had been forced to leave Egypt. The three day offer was a reminder why. If Pharaoh couldn't allow them to worship G-d for three days, then they could only truly live as Jews in an independent nation that would always leave them free to worship G-d.