Sunday, December 22, 2019

Parshas Vayeishev - A Dream of Numbers and Symbols

In Parshas Vayeishev, Yosef's brothers refer to him as "Baal Hachalomot". Translations can range from the extravagant, "Master of  Dreams" to the derisive, "Dreamer".

But Yosef is indeed defined by his dreams. The era of direct interaction with G-d has temporarily ended. Of all the sons, Yosef is the one chosen to receive messages, and they are cryptic visions filled with symbols, suns, stars, moons, birds, cows, wheat, that are ripe with potent symbolism. His father Yaakov had been the first to communicate with G-d more heavily through symbols, a ladder, animals in the field, but he had received verbal messages of plain meaning. Yosef does not appear to.

Though Yosef is defined by dreams, he only receives two of his own, as a teenager. The latter two sets of dreams are those of others, Egyptian ministers and Pharaoh, interpreted by him. These dreams are divided into three pairs of two. Each dream has a counterpart.

Yosef first dreams two dreams. Then each of Pharaoh's ministers dreams a single dream that Yosef interprets as referring to one event. And then Pharaoh dreams two dreams requiring a single interpretation. In all of these cases, Yosef is tasked with finding the unity in the duality of dreams.

There is however a curious difference between Yosef's own dreams and those of the Egyptians.

The dreams of the Egyptian leaders are practical. These dreams are filled with numbers. Their symbolism is slight. They lay out a timeline of days or years which are indicated by numbers.

Yosef's dreams contain no timeline. There is no significance in the number of stalks. The number of stars refer to the members of his family, not the number of years it will take to realize this vision.

And here lies the fundamental difference.

Yosef's dreams were visions of faith while those of the Egyptians were practical guidelines. Where Yosef's dreams were not bound by time, the complexity of tribal alliances and affinities would continue long past the death of Yosef and his brothers, and cross deep into Jewish history over a thousand years later as Yehuda and Binyamin formed a common kingdom, while Ephraim, Yosef's son, split away, those of the Egyptian leaders were meant for the very near future.

Where Yosef had a destiny measured in centuries and millennia, the Egyptians he dealt with had little faith to carry them forward for longer than the days or, at most years, it would take to see it come true.

For the Egyptians, G-d offered little more than fortune. Yosef however was gifted with the opportunity to carry on a faith without any timeline. It was his challenge to continue to believe, even under the stone roof of a prison, even in darkness and chains, that his visions would be realized.

Without a direct verbal communication from G-d, he, the first of the descendants of Avraham, was called on to have faith in what he had never been directly told. He was the first true exile, both from man and from G-d.

We are told that at the very end of his life, Yaakov wished to reveal to his sons how much longer the exile would last, and was prevented from doing so by Divine intervention. Faith is not meant to be numbered in years.

Of Yosef's two dreams, only one contains numbers. That is the dream of the stars, the sun and the moon, not the dream of the harvest. We do not conduct censuses or count in earthly matters. We count only when numbering the minyan, the number of the sacred quorum, in the service of G-d.

Faith requires us not to count the years, but to number only when celebrating the glory of G-d. It does not reveal to us the practical matters of the near future, the harvests or life and death, but our ultimate purpose. Astrology, we are told in the Bible, is for others. It is not meant for us. We do not see our fate in the stars. We do not number ourselves and limit ourselves to those numbers. We do not count the years. We serve G-d and await the fulfillment of His dream.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Parshas Lech Lecha - Love and Faith

Parshas Lech Lecha begins with a command to Avraham to undertake a journey. The biblical patriarch's journey is not merely in space. All journeys in the Torah are also journeys of faith.

The physical act of putting one foot in front of another is also a spiritual and emotional experience culminating in the journey through the desert after the redemption from Egyptian slavery and the exile of the Jewish people.

The biblical patriarch is being commanded to go on a spiritual journey of faith. This is not a mere mental exercise. Nor is it a physical one. Or even a personal one. If it were, there would be no reason for us to be reviewing his story all these many thousands of years later. Instead, what Avraham finds on that journey has transformed the world and brought into being the world that we live in today.

In the parsha, G-d makes one of a number of promises to Avraham, in this one, right before the Brit Bein HaBetarim, the Covenant of Parts, and after the battle with the four kings, the following exchange occurs. G-d promises Avraham a great reward. Avraham inquires what use it will be since he is childless. G-d informs Avraham that his own child will inherit him and shows him that his children will be as many as the stars.

"VeHemin BaHashem, VaYahshevu Lo Tzedakah." (Bereishis/Genesis 15:6)

"And he believed in G-d and it was accounted as righteousness."

One obvious question that is often asked is why should a great man's willingness to believe a promise made by the Creator really be considered an act of righteousness? If G-d came to us and promised us something, wouldn't we at least try to believe?

But there is something deeply special and unique about this moment.

This is the first time the term "emunah" or "faith" is mentioned in the Torah. It was not mentioned by Adam or Noach or any previous figures. This is the first time that faith actually takes place.

How can this be?

If we look back on the lives of the men and women before Avraham, their relationship with G-d was largely transactional. If they followed G-d's commandments, they were rewarded. If they disobeyed, they were punished. The world ran on a fairly simple basis of punishment and reward.

Adam and Chava disobeyed G-d and were punished. Kayin killed his brother and was punished. The world became corrupt and all life was wiped out. Noach was righteous and was saved. The people of Babylon rebelled against G-d and were punished. There is no complexity in these relationships. And no mention of faith because there is nothing to have faith in.

One does not have faith in the police or the authorities. Or in a tornado. They simply exist.

When reward and punishments are dispensed logically and tangibly, faith is not required. The might of G-d is a matter of ordinary reality. It does not require any more of us than common sense.

Theodicy, the question of why the good suffer and the wicked prosper, was absent from human affairs which appeared to run in a wholly logical fashion. But despite this, mankind did not actually do the right thing. The world was not a moral place, but often immoral with an excuse or two.

Avraham's life ushered in a new phase of human existence. Theodicy came into being. As did faith.

The biblical patriarch was the first man in the Torah to suffer though he was righteous. His life was the first to take unexpected twists and turns despite his unswerving fidelity to G-d.

And he was the first man to be associated with faith. He is the first to be described as having faith.

Before Avraham, faith was unnecessary. Avraham however had to have faith. Despite not having a child, he had to have faith in G-d's seemingly impossible promise that he would have a multitude of descendants. He had to hold on to that faith even as he and his wife grew aged in years.

And by doing so he brought faith into the world.

If Avraham's life had proceeded in a more conventional fashion, faith would not exist. It was because he was frustrated and suffered, and believed in something that was no longer tangible, that faith came into being.

For the first time in human history, a man believed in something that defied logic and the ordinary affairs of the world, that a G-d whose ways no longer seemed to follow a straight line, would keep His promise.

And from this faith came something else.

"Ahava" or "love" is mentioned for the first time in relation to Yitzchak. Avraham's son, whom he loves, the subject of the promise G-d made to Avraham, and of the faith that Avraham placed in that promise, is the first person in human history to be described as being loved.

The great promise of Yitzchak, that summoned faith into the world, also summoned love. After this, Yitzchak is described as loving his wife, Rivkah. Yitzchak is described as loving Esav while Rivkah loves Yaakov. Yaakov loves Rochel and Yosef.

Suddenly, after over a thousand loveless years, the world has become filled with love.

Parents love their children. Wives and husbands love each other.

By bringing faith into the world, the family of Avraham has also brought love into the world. Both faith and love are intangibles. They ask us to supersede ourselves and devote ourselves to something beyond us. Without faith, love is selfish. With faith, love is overwhelming.

And thus Avraham is also, uniquely, described in Tanach as "one who loves G-d".

But these great loves are not smooth and straightforward. They also come with trials. Avraham is obligated to go and sacrifice his beloved son. Yitzchak is forced to realize that his love of Esav is wrong. Rivkah must send her son Yaakov away. Yaakov is forced to labor long years for Rochel. He loses her early and also loses his son Yosef, whom he believes to be dead for many years.

Faith and love both require trials. They are tests.

By bringing faith and love into the world through his example, Avraham brought into being a world that is more complex, where G-d is less accessible, and where His ways are more difficult to understand. And yet it is a world that has the emotional and spiritual tools with which we can build a deeper and more complex relationship with the Creator and with our fellow man.

The world as it was, was far too simple and straightforward. Whether in Eden or in the early epic years of man, G-d was tangible, the right and wrong choices were obvious, as were the consequences. This entirely logical world was not suited to developing man into a spiritual being. Despite the obvious reality, man still found countless reasons and pretexts for disobeying G-d.

Instead of a tangible reality that required no work on our part, a new world came into being where man had to labor, not just physically, as the eras after Eden and before the Flood, had to, but spiritually, where G-d and His ways were hidden, and where man had to labor to understand.

Faith was something that man, that Avraham, brought into being, through his determination to transcend the distance between his understanding of G-d's ways, and everyday reality. As the two became more distant, a deeper relationship grew based on man's aspirations.

When Eden or even the post-Edenic world gave man everything he needed to understand G-d, the Abrahamic world denied him this understanding and thus forced him to grow and labor spiritually.

Man, as in the Song of Songs and countless other works, is forced to hunt for G-d, to have faith, and to embark on a journey of faith to find G-d. And this is what makes man spiritual and moral.

Love requires striving, together or mutually, the tenuousness of existence, the absence of its existence in the past, present or future (that is why Adam and Chava were created separately) and the obscure mysteries of the other.

Through faith, there could finally be love, between man and G-d, and between human beings, because life now had mystery, our relationship with G-d had become more obscure, man had to strive to connect with G-d, and G-d with man, the relationship was tenuous and went in and out.

The world did not become perfected through Avraham's faith. In some ways, it became less so.

Lifespans already short, continued to shorten. And the presence of G-d, once accessible to many, receded to a privileged few, and then to hardly anyone or perhaps even no one. Life had become even less comfortable. But that discomfort began a journey. And that journey continues today.

The seeming withdrawal of G-d, the irrationality of a world in which good people suffer and bad people thrive, forces us to seek G-d, to strive for Godliness and for a Godly world. Absence makes the heart fonder. And the seemingly absence forced us, beginning with Avraham, to develop the spiritual tools of faith and love to find G-d.

The journey of Lech Lecha, of the exodus and the exiles, is the journey of man and of the Jewish people who embody that unique human crisis as no other, continues today.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Purim and the Redemption of the Tree of Knowledge

"Haman min ha'Torah minayin?" The gemara famously asks. 

Where in the Torah do we see Haman?

The unexpected answer to this odd question is, "Hamin haetz". The question that G-d asks Adam and Chava. "Did you eat from the tree I forbade you to eat from?"

What's the connection between the two very different parts of the Torah?

Bereishis comes at the beginning of the Torah. The story of Purim comes at the end.

What is the connection between the Etz HaDaat, the tree of knowledge, and Purim?

Purim's most famous mitzvah is drinking ad de lo today, until you can't tell apart Haman and Mordechai.

One view is that the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the grapevine.

Wine is also the driving force behind Purim, Ahasverosh gets drunk, disposes of Vashti, marries Esther, gets drunk again and disposes of Haman.

Wine is the classic example of the Etz HaDaat. It mixes together good and evil. It unleashes the good and the bad in a person. It exposes a person to new knowledge both good and bad.

The grapevine disgraces Adam and Chava. It disgraces Ahasverosh but that disgrace paradoxically leads to his redemption.

The Haman, the Iago of the Purim story, manipulates Ahasverosh with wine. Esther, like Chava, also manipulates Ahasverosh with wine. But unlike Chava, Esther uses wine to bring out a better self of Ahasverosh, and redeems the Etz HaDaat. And in celebration we drink.