The Natural, the Supernatural and the Counter-natural

VaEra-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Therefore say to the Bnei Yisrael-chidren of Israel, “I am HaShem. I will extricate you from the burdens of Egypt and free you from their slavery. I will redeem you with a demonstration of My power and with great acts of judgment.

-Shemos 6:6

I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and thus will produce the opportunities to display many miraculous wonders and signs in Egypt.

-Shemos 7:5

At the end of parshas Bo, in validating the centrality of the mitzvos that serve as reminder to the exodus from Egypt, the Ramban famously explains that the makkos– the 10 plagues, were meant to pierce the veil that conceals G-d.  The strands of which that veil is woven are the Laws of Nature. All of the makkos were openly miraculous, flouting numerous Laws of Nature in the most overt way.

The Maharal and the Chidushei haRi”m explain that the 10 makkos , seven of which occur in our Sidra, were the bridge between the asara ma’amoros shebahem nivra haolam– the 10 pronouncements through which the world was created, and the aseres hadibros-the 10 commandments through which the Torah was revealed.  A world that does not perceive god as the Creator is unready to accept G-d as the Divine Legislator.  By laying bare the existence of a Force that superseded Nature, that could utterly manipulate Nature and that could bend Nature to It’s supernatural Will, the makkos removed any the lingering doubts about the existence of G-d the Creator and proved the truth of numerous principles of our faith.

Thus understood, one could jump to the erroneous conclusion that the G-d-concealing, illusion-of-independence-projecting, natural order is constantly at odds with G-d. In fact, nature is the regular and consistent expression of the Divine Will.  Why and when the Divine Will chooses to superimpose the hanhagah nisis– the miraculous management of the cosmos upon and, apparently, against the hanhagah tiv’is– the natural management of the cosmos, is something that only the Divine Mind knows.

In this same vein many of us striving to make good moral/ethical choices and grow spiritually regard our own human natures as G-d-negating, mortal enemies. We are conditioned to fight our natural impulses. We associate them with our yetzer hara – inclination to evil. But the pasuk says “everything that HaShem has made is for His own sake.”(Mishlei 16:4) That is to say for His greater Glory.  All of the works of creation are expressions of the Divine will.

When inanimate objects and living beings behave according to the laws of nature they are fulfilling the will of HaShem. The great challenge with things behaving “naturally” is that they appear to be on autopilot.  The Divine Will that created the Laws of Nature and that continues to direct natural law often becomes obscured by natural processes. This is why Torah numerologists have pointed out that Elokim shares an equal numerical value with  hateva-the Nature (86) and why Torah etymologists teach that the root of the word olam-cosmos, world, is he’elam-concealment.

When Rabi Pinchos ben Yair traveled to redeem a captive Jew (pidyon sh’vuyim-redeeming captives, is the highest form of tzedakah-charity) he reached the banks of the Ginai River and could go no further. He commanded the river waters to interrupt their flow so that he could cross through the riverbed and proceed on his mission of mercy. The river responded “you go to do the Will of your Creator and I go (flow) to do the Will of my Creator.  There is only a chance that you will fulfill the Creator’s Will but, so long as I flow, I’m most definitely fulfilling the Creator’s Will. If so, why should I cease my flowing so that you can get going?” (Chulin 7A).

Ultimately the river split for Rabi Pinchos ben Yair and he accomplished his mission of pidyon sh’vuyim. But the “conversation” between him and the river is significant in that it establishes beyond a shadow of a doubt that even inanimate things functioning according to the Laws of Nature are doing the will of the Creator, HaShem. It belies the philosophy that Nature opposes G-d. Nature is no more G-d’s enemy than the veil is the face’s adversary.

HaShem brought the cosmos into being through the “10 pronouncements”.  All that exists in the cosmos, and the way in which they function, are expressions of HaShems will. We define a mitzvah as a thought, word or act having a positive and ethical charge.  What makes them “good” or positive is that they are consistent with, and fulfillments of, HaShem’s will.  As such it follows that every one of HaShem’s non-free-will-endowed creatures that behave according to natural law is, in a sense, performing mitzvos.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, teaches that just as in the macrocosm, a river running downstream is “running to do with the Will of its Creator” so too, in the microcosm known as man, all the natural impulses induce man to “run to do the Will of his Creator.”  When a man thirsts, it is G-d’s will that he hydrate himself.  When a man hungers, it is G-d’s will that he ingest nutrition.  When a man desires intimacy it is G-d’s will that he procreate.  When a man grows fatigued it is G-d’s will that he sleep. When human acts of eating, drinking, procreating and sleeping are done as responses to the dictates of human nature they too are mitzvos.  When they are indulged in excessively, going beyond the dictates of nature, they are not. This is the point that the gemara is trying to get across when it says that when one engages in physical intimacy that he do so “as if compelled by a demon” (Nedarim 20B). Absent an irresistible compulsion to act, physical intimacy fails to rise to the level of “running to do with the Will of his Creator”

Over the past decade Perek Shirah has gained enormous popularity. This concept is the deeper meaning of Perek Shira.  When we hear a frog croaking cacophonously we run for a pair of earplugs. We hardly consider this croaking to be the music of a symphony orchestra. But when the frog tells King Dovid that “I sing HaShem’s praises day and night” (Zohar Pinchos 222:B)what it really means to say is that just acting naturally and croaking, in accordance with the nature endowed in the frog by its Creator, is sweet music, a “singing of the Divine praise.”

… [The frogs will be] in the homes of your officials and the people, even in your ovens and in the kneading bowls.

-Shemos 7;28

Why did Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah deliver themselves to the fiery furnace, for kiddush HaShem-the sanctification of the Divine Name? They argued a kal v’chomer- a fortiori to themselves: If frogs,[of the second plague] which are not commanded concerning kiddush HaShem yet it is written of them, “and they shall come up and go into your house . . . and into your ovens, and into your kneading bowls.” when are the kneading bowls to be found near the oven? When the oven is hot! [Then we must certainly do so.]

-Pesachim 53B

While behaving “naturally” is the default setting for “running to do with the Will of the Creator” it is essential to remember that in some unusual times and circumstances, supernatural and contra-natural behaviors are required in order to “run to do with the Will of the Creator”. The most basic instinct for all species is the survival instinct. Yet, during redemption process, when HaShem chose to superimpose the supernatural hanhaga nisis upon the hanhaga tiv’is, then, as part of the second plague, the frogs threw themselves into the hot ovens flames contravening their survival instinct.

While humans are endowed with free-will and the rest of G-d’s creatures are not, we must nevertheless learn from them and exercise our free-will choices appropriately. While choosing to maintain our lives and responding to the dictates of our natures is often a mitzvah, making choices that are contra-natural, even to the point of mesirus nefesh and self-destruction, can be “running to do with the Will of the Creator” as well.  As the pasuk says “[HaShem] Who teaches us — from the beasts of the earth, and makes us wiser — from the birds of heaven.”(Iyov 35:11)

As it goes for the macrocosm so it goes for the microcosm.  There is room for the redemptive and the supernaturally, contra-naturally miraculous within human beings as well.

Adapted from: Tzidkas Hatzadik 173

The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

How could men as great as the tribes of Israel have committed the crime of selling a brother into slavery?
Why was it Yehudah who took the lead in saving Binyomin?
Why does Yehudah begin his soliloquy with the word “bi= please”; instead of the standard word for please “na“?

Yehudah walked up to Yoseph and said בי אדני“Please, your highness, (alternatively; it is within me, my Master) please let me say something to you personally…”

Bereishis 44:18

“Send the boy with me” said Yehudah to his father Yisrael …”I will be responsible for him myself.  You can demand him from my hand. If I do not bring him back and have him stand here in your presence I will have sinned to you for all time.”

Bereishis 43:8,9

I will have sinned against you for all time: For the world to come.  [from Bereishis Rabbah 91:10, in other words Yehudah staked his share in the world to come on Binyamin’s safe return to Yaakov]

Rashi ibid

When the Most High allocated nations their birthright and split up the sons of man, He set up the borders of nations to correspond to Israel’s descendants.

— Devarim 32:8

Yehudah said to his brothers “what gain is there in killing our brother [Yoseph] … let’s sell him to the Arabs … “

Bereishis 37:26,27

 If one person kidnaps and sells another and [the victim] is seen in his hand then [the kidnapper] shall be put to death

Shemos 21:16

… Rabi Yochanan said in the name of Rabi Shimon bar Yochai: Dovid was not the kind of man to do such an act [the sin with Bas-Sheva] nor was Israel the kind of nation to do such an act that act [the sin of the golden calf] … Why, then, did they commit these acts? [G-d predestined it so] in order to teach us that if an individual sinned [and hesitates about the possibility and efficacy of repentance] he could be referred to the individual [Dovid], and if a community commits a sin they should be told: Go to the community [the generation of the Exodus] … This accords with the following saying of Rabi Shmuel bar Nachmani, who said in the name of Rabi Yonoson: What is the meaning of the verse “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, and so said  the man raised on high”? [It means this:] “So said Dovid the son of Yishai, the man who elevated the yoke of repentance.”

— Avodah Zarah 4B-5A

“Return to Me, and I will return to you,” says HaShem of the legions. But you say: “How can we return?!”

— Malachi 3:7

Parashas Vayigash begins with Yehudah’s soliloquy in his dramatic and historic encounter with Yoseph. The encounter was dramatic because Yehudah was “all-in”; he was risking everything; both his freedom during the balance of his temporal life as well as his eternity. It was historic because, as it culminated in Yoseph’s revelation to, and rapprochement with, the rest of his brothers, it meant that the rip in the fabric of Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; had been repaired and made whole again.

The cosmic significance of the shivtei Kah-the branches/ tribes of G-d; cannot be overestimated. As we see clearly from the passuk that states that all of humanity’s borders and birthrights were merely intended to correspond to Israel’s descendants,  the shivtei Kah were kivyachol-so to speak; G-d’s objective in Creation. So while human nature is to forget the unpleasant details in “alls-well-that-ends-well” narratives, it is still extremely troubling to consider that the first chapter of this story began with what was apparently a heinous crime; a sin that is covered by the commandment of “Thou shall not steal” in the Decalogue and that is a capital offense. How could the shivtei Kah the — founders of our holy nation — still be venerated as holy, exalted souls after committing such a cardinal sin?

Rav Leibeleh Eiger approaches this nettlesome question using the precedent set by the Gemara-Talmud; in Masechaes Avodah Zarah.  At times when we see the righteous acting sinfully — completely out of character, we understand that the point of their behavior was not the kilkul-spiritual ruination; of the sin but the tikun-metaphysical repair; brought about by their teshuvah-repentance; for that sin. The powerful teshuvah that these spiritual giants accomplished serve as templates — how-to guides — and provide inspiration for latter-day sinners who would love nothing more than to do teshuvah themselves but find the task too complex, daunting or discouraging.

Rav Leibeleh asserts that Yehudah is the father of sinning for the sake of instructing others on the fine points of teshuvah. Yehudah took a leading role in the sale of Yoseph into slavery i.e. the sin; so that he, among all of the brothers, would be the one to blaze the trail for the teshuvah / tikun for that odious crime as well. The entire point of the episode was to open a new avenue for teshuvah and a closer reading of his astonishing encounter with Yoseph yields a valuable lesson in the dynamics of teshuvah.

After approaching Yoseph for their historic encounter the very first words that Yehudah uttered were בי אדניbi adoni. Translated in a hyper-literal way these words mean “it is within me my Master.” The roshei teivos-first letters of the words; in this phrase are beis and aleph; an inverted sequence of the first two letters of the aleph-beis-alphabet and therein lies an allusion to the teshuvah dynamic.

Read more The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

Why didn’t Avraham bless Yitzchak?
Why was Yitzchak unaware of whom he was actually blessing?
Neither Yaakov nor Moshe required savory dishes before offering their respective blessings.Why did Yitzchak require a savory dish before blessing his son?

Yitzchak, who dined on Esavs game, loved him while Rivkah loved Yaakov.

— Bereishis 25:28

And it was as Yitzchak aged and his eyes grew too weak to see that he summoned his older son Esav and said “My son” and he [Esav] responded “I am here.” … “go out in the field and trap me some game and make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat, so that my soul will bless you before I die.”

— Bereishis 27:1,3-4

And Elokim said “the earth should issue forth flora; seedbearing grasses and trees that are fruits that produce seed infused fruits along species lines upon the earth.” and it (almost) happened. The earth issued forth flora, plants bearing their seedbearing own species and trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits …

— Bereishis 1:11-12

and trees that are fruits [The Divine Creative Will was] that the taste of the tree should be identical to the taste of the fruit. However, it [the earth was insubordinate and] did not do so but “the earth issued … trees [that are wooden] producing seed infused fruits,” but the trees themselves were not fruit. Therefore, when man was cursed because of his Original Sin, it [the earth] too was punished for its sin (and was cursed.)

— Rashi Ibid from Bereishis Rabbah 5:9

HaShem Elokim said to Adam “Because you hearkened to your wife’s voice and ate of the Tree regarding which I specifically commanded you ‘Do not eat from it’ the earth will be cursed on account of you. All the days of your life you will eat of it [the earth’s produce] with sorrow. It will sprout thorns and thistles for you … “

— Bereishis 3:17,18

HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  “Eat from all the trees of the garden. And from the Tree of Knowledge /Union of Good and Evil do not eat from it. For on the day that you it from it you will definitely die.”

— Bereishis 2:16,17

The woman saw that the Tree was good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.  She took from its fruits and ate and also gave some to her husband with her — and he ate.

— Bereishis 3:6

… but you shall not sever it; for man is a tree of the field

— Devarim 20:19

The Biskovitzer poses several pointed questions about the brachos-blessings; that Yitzchak bestowed on Yaakov, while under the impression that he was Esav:

Why, in fact, did Yitzchak deliver his brachos erroneously and unconsciously? Why was Yaakov’s worthiness for benediction concealed from Yitzchak, the conduit of blessing? Even with his physical vision impairment and the willful blindness caused by his love for his eldest son, as a prophet, Yitzchak could easily have been informed by HaShem that Yaakov is the son deserving of blessing.

We find two other great figures in TeNaK”h who bestowed brachos; Yaakov — first on his grandchildren Ephraim and Menashe — and then later, on his deathbed, on his sons. Immediately preceding his death Moshe blessed the Tribes of Israel as well. Yet neither Yaakov nor Moshe requested mataamim-a flavorful dish; in order to elicit their brachos; so why did Yitzchok?

In order to appreciate the Biskovitzer’s approach to resolving these questions we must first examine how some of the great Torah thinkers understood the roots of blessing and curse.

The Original Sin of the first human beings was not merely the first in a long unbroken chain of transgression on the part of humanity; it was qualitatively different from almost all subsequent sins.   The magihah-writer of the annotations; in Nefesh haChaim explains that while the original humans were endowed with bechirah chofshis-free will; there was still a paradigm-shifting difference between their bechirah chofshis and ours.

While our yetzer hara-inclination to evil; is internal and presumes to be, at minimum, a component of our essential identities, the yetzer hara of Adam and Chavah was extrinsic to their beings and distilled, clarified, unadulterated evil. Our yetzer hara’s “pitch” to us is: “here’s what I want to do.”  Whereas the nachash hakadmoni-the primordial snake; said “here’s what I think you ought to do.” The nachash hakadmonis powers of seduction and persuasion were delivered in the second person.  Like a presidential candidate from the opposition party trying to unseat the Incumbent kivyachol-as it were; the nachash hakadmonis exhorted Adam and Chavah to vote for the yetzer and against the Yotzer-the Creator; yet the “voters” never conflated the identity of the opposition candidate with their own.  When they exercised their bechirah chofshis to sin they understood that they were submitting to the will of the nachash hakadmoni — not acting on their own initiative.

However, as the Original Sin was the ingestion of the fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil the first humans incorporated evil into their very beings.  It is not merely that the Original Sin was qualitatively different from all subsequent sins; it was that, by its very nature, it effected that transformation. Man became what he ate, a tangled amalgam of good and evil. For the remainder of their lives Adam and Chavah, and all subsequent generations of human beings (until our patriarchs blazed the trail and the nation of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai) have been conflicted and ambivalent. Even when humans use, rather than abuse, their bechirah chofshis by choosing to do good and shunning evil they are often convinced that they have gone against their own desires. Once internalized, the yetzer hara becomes as inextricably linked with all human thought, speech and deed as a conjoined twin.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner taught that the meaning of the passuk (Koheles 7:20) “For there is not a righteous man on earth, that does good, and doesn’t sin,” is that even the greatest of tzaddikim-righteous people; do good with “something lacking.”  There good is not clarified, distilled unadulterated good. It may be miniscule, but on some deeply concealed subconscious level there is an admixture of self-interest — of a tad less than lishmah-for its own sake; — in even the noblest persons Torah learning and mitzvah performance.

Conversely, Rav Chaim and some other thinkers have argued that there is no evil perpetrated by even the wickedest people that does not incorporate some tiny smidgen of goodness. This is the meaning of the passuk (Iyov 7:20) “If there will be even one angel among a thousand, an advocate, to vouch for a man’s uprightness.” The better angels of our nature may be testifying to a 1 tenth of one percent amount of noble intentions against 99.9% of evil drives and motivations, nonetheless, it is there.

As man is a microcosm, or more accurately as the cosmos is a macro-man, the Original Sin brought about a merging and mixture of good and evil on a cosmic level. An overt manifestation of this effect on the cosmos are the presence of weeds, thorns and thistles growing in the same fields that grow the good, delicious and nourishing produce. The earth cursed through the Original Sin brings forth a jumble of good/nutritious and evil/noxious.

The Biskovitzers approach is predicated on the concept that, after the Original Sin, merely choosing good and rejecting evil is insufficient.  To effect a genuine tikun-repair; of the Original Sin birurim-sifting and selections; must take place. The hodgepodge of good and evil in both the microcosm and the macrocosm must be untangled and clarified. Until and unless evil is distilled and expunged from the muddled fusion, man and the cosmos will not have been rectified. It is not enough to bestow blessing on man still conflicted and ambivalent and on an earth still cursed and pregnant with the thorns and thistles of evil.

When Chavah was first tempted to commit the Original Sin she made three observations: that the Tree was “good to eat, desirable to the eyes and attractive as a means to gain intelligence.”   The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 65:13) says that while Chavah yearned for gratification of the palate, visual stimulation and intellectual satisfaction, Yitzchak declared that he would derive pleasure from taste alone. As he commanded his son “make me a flavorful dish the way I love it and bring it to me to eat.” Yitzchak was blind and he was ignorant i.e. he lacked knowledge of the factual events surrounding his bestowing of blessing. The Biskovitzer asserts that eliminating the elements of attractiveness to the eyes and the mind that initiated the Original Sin was indispensable to the tikun process.

It is striking and noteworthy that while the Divine Creative Will was that trees and their fruits should share an identical flavor, there was never an expression of the Divine Creative Will that trees and their fruits should share the same qualities of visual attractiveness or extend the same benefit to cognition. Yitzchaks blindness and ignorance of the facts removed two of the three factors of Original Sin. This cut things to the chase by leaving only the element that had been corrupted and broken even before the creation of the human beings; the dissonance in flavor between tree and fruit, between producer and product.

Paradoxically the earth’s anticipatory, pre-Original Sin contained within it the seeds of tikun at the very moment of kilkul-deficiency and ruination; for the Tikunei Zohar (99B) reveals that the Tree of Knowledge itself was entirely good. It was only in the fruits of this tree in which good and evil merged together. The Tree was created as clarified, 100% pure good while its fruits required birurim.  While Adam became what he ate, the Biskovitzer understood the Midrash to be teaching us that Yitzchak became what Adam had never ingested or tasted; the Tree itself. Yitzchak, the bark of the Tree of Knowledge itself, avoided the ill effects of the bite of its fruit. But like the Tree of Knowledge itself, Yitzchak the man-tree bore fruits of good and evil united in utero. These human fruits of the Tree of Union of Good and Evil required birurim.

The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 61:6) teaches that Avraham abstained from from blessing Yitzchak because, as both evil Esav and good Yaakov existed within him in potentia, blessing him would have been comparable to cultivating a “tree of life attached to a tree of lethal poison.” Now, in Yitzchak’s advanced age, maintains the Biskovitzer, the time had come for the tikun of the Original Sin by threshing away evil from good and bestowing blessing exclusively on distilled goodness and life. As the Zohar (Volume I, 143A ) reveals, when Yaakov received the blessings the earth finally emerged from its curse. The blessed Yaakov manifests man restored to his pre-Sin state. As death is the wage of Original Sin this is why, per our sages (Taanis 5B) our patriarch Yaakov never died.  Adam is rectified and restored through Yaakov and — as teshuvah and tikun always reach back into the past and modify it — we now have, as the Izhbitzer taught, an alternate narrative and a new reading of HaShem’s command to Adam:  “HaShem Elokim commanded the man saying:  ‘Eat from all the trees of the garden and [also eat] from the Tree of Knowledge of Good … (And) [But] Evil do not eat from it.’”  Yaakov is that clarified-by-birurim soul of man that reveals retroactively that Adam was nourished exclusively by the good of the Tree.

Only those who are purely good, with no admixture of even the slightest trace of evil, can be safely and truly blessed. To do otherwise is to irrigate and fertilize a field of weeds, thorns and thistles. This is why Yitzchak bestowed a blessing while Avraham did not. When Yitzchak tasted the savory dish that Yaakov and Rivkah had prepared for him he discovered his own fruit with no difference in flavors, the taste of the bark and the taste of the fruit were identical. Yitzchak, needed to be blind to, and ignorant of, the fruit of evil and to discern the uniformity of flavors, and the blessing worthiness of his “fruit” only through his palate.  This is one of the meanings of the gemara (Taanis 8B) that teaches that “blessing is not to be found other than in a thing hidden from sight.”

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Bereishis D”H Vayetzav
Neos Deshe Toldos
D”H Vayehi
Nefesh HaChaim 1:6 in
the Hagahah

Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Why did Avram seek advice before proceeding with milah-circumcision?
Why did some of his closest friends and disciples oppose his undergoing milah?

HaShem appeared to him [Avram] in the Plains of Mamre while he was sitting at the opening of the tent as the day[‘s heat] blazed.

— Bereishis 18:1

Why did HaShem appear to him in the Plains of Mamre?  [He appeared there] as a reward Mamre for his offering Avram positive advice and encouragement concerning circumcision.

— Rashi ibid

… And He said to him [Avram] “I Am Keil Shakai. Walk yourself before Me and become perfect. And I will tender My covenant between me and you …

— Bereishis 17:1,2

This is My covenant between Me, and between you and your offspring that you must observe: you must circumcise every male. You shall excise the flesh of your foreskin and this will be the mark of the covenant between Me and you.

— Bereishis 17:10,11

The refugee came bringing intelligence to Avram the Hebrew who was living serenely in the Plains of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshkol, and brother of Aner; they were the masters of Avram’s covenant.

— Bereishis 14:13

Why was Kiryas Arba-the Town of the Four; so called? Because of the four saintly people living there; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre and Avram

— Bereishis Rabbah 58:4

When the Holy Blessed One told Avram that he should circumcise himself, Avram sought the advice of his three beloved friends; Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. He first went to Aner and said “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Aner responded “He wants to make you a baal mum– someone defective/ an amputee?! The relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you in reprisal as you will not be able to flee.” He left him and then proceeded to Eshkol. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such.” Eshkol responded “You’re old. If you circumcise yourself you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood. You won’t be able to endure it and you’ll die.” He left him and then proceeded to Mamre. “HaShem commanded me to do such and such. What is your advice?” Mamre responded “You ask me about this? Wasn’t it HaShem who saved you from the fiery furnace and wrought all the miracles for you?  Wasn’t it HaShem who saved from the kings? If not for His Might and Power the kings would have slain you in battle. HaShem has saved all 248 of your limbs and organs [numerous times] and you’re asking my advice about the small appendage to a single organ?  Do as He commands.

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayera 3

הקנאה, התאווה והכבוד – מוציאים את האדם מן העולם
Jealousy, lust and the pursuit of honor eradicate a person from the world

— Pirkei Avos 4:28

The Izhbitzer School addresses various questions that arise from a superficial reading of the Tanchuma. How could Avram, greatest of the believers in HaShem, who had already withstood many Divine trials, grant Aner and Eshkol and Mamre “veto power” over a direct command from HaShem? Had all three advised against circumcision would he have actually complied with their advice instead of obeying HaShem? Why did Aner and Eshkol, described as “the masters of Avrams covenant” and as tzadikim-righteous ones; advise against circumcision? In Avrams previous and subsequent trials he did not seek anyone’s advice. Why did he seek advice regarding circumcision?

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer, understands the dialogues between Avram and his consultants as not being a question of “yes or no?” but of “how”?  What’s the best way to go about this? He wanted to decide whether to undergo circumcision inconspicuously or publicly.

The fact was that 20 generations had passed since Adam without anyone undergoing circumcision and that people have a strong predilection for resisting change and having a skeptical attitude towards innovation. Avram considered the possibility that publicizing this groundbreaking development in Man’s relationship with G-d would evoke enough opposition of others to try and prevent him from going through with it or, at minimum, mocking and scorning this bizarre operation, after all circumcision affects a most sensitive area. This societal ridicule and scorn would diminish the gravity and appeal of the Monotheism that Avram had devoted his life to teaching and preaching. Avram did not want HaShem to become cholilah-Heaven Forefend; a laughing-stock.

Additionally, Aner opposed publicizing the covenant of circumcision because of the personal danger it would expose Avram to. Opportunistic relatives of the 4 kings bent on vendetta killings would consider a circumcision-weakened Avram an easy target. Aner reasoned that one shouldn’t rely on miracles when natural means to avoid danger, in this case keeping the circumcisions secret, were available. While clear-headed and cautious, this advice did not appeal to Avram. HaShem had Chosen to Grant him victory over the kings in the most transparent, prominent and famous way. How then could fulfilling HaShem’s command publicly and openly lead to his downfall?

Eshkol thought that the threat of Avram dying as a result of post-operative complications was very real and that, perhaps, the trial of circumcision was a kind of auto-Akeidah; would Avram be willing to kill himself at G-d’s behest? But Eshkol fretted over the disastrous PR consequences of “passing” such a test. How many potential new monotheists would be discouraged and dissuaded? How many of Avrams proselytes would drop out of a religion demanding such supreme human self-sacrifice? How many people would condemn the G-d of Avram as a wrathful and capricious Deity?  If the circumcision-related causes of Avrams death were to become widely known an epic chilul HaShem-desecration of G-d’s name; would result.  On the other hand if the circumcision was a well-kept secret and, worst-case scenario, Avram did not survive it, the cause of death could reasonably be attributed to Avram’s “old-age” or any number of causes. Avram rejected this as well. He thought it inconceivable that HaShem would command him to do something that would result in his death.

Mamre’s recommendation and encouragement resonated with Avram for all the reasons that the suggestions of Aner and Eshkol did not.  Avram followed the advice of his consultant Mamre and “B’etzem hayom hazeh-In the very core of that day; Avram and his son Yishmael were circumcised. All the men of the household both homeborn and bought for cash from a stranger were circumcised with him.” (Bereishis 17:26,27).  Elsewhere Chazal have taught that the phrase “B’etzem hayom hazeh” connotes an in-your-face challenge to would-be opponents, scoffers, skeptics or those who would stop it outright.  As if to say “I/We did it out in the open at high-noon … stop us if you can!”

As he often does, the Biskovitzer concludes with a take-away lesson that we can apply to contemporary Avodas HaShem. He maintains that each of us have an internal Aner, Eshkol, Mamre. When we exercise our free-will to do good and perform mitzvos there are still “voices” within us that will try dissuading us from performing HaShem’s Will in the best and most fulsome way, more often than not by voicing some iteration of the fear of ridicule and public misunderstanding.

The approach of Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, takes to demystifying the Tanchuma requires some background divrei Torah:

There are three basic, deep-seated drives and yearnings of the human spirit/ psyche: The drive for pleasure and sensual gratification AKA taavah-lust; the drive for control and domination of others AKA kinah-jealousy; and the drive for transcendence and eternal perpetuity AKA kavod-the pursuit of honor.  Honor and transcendence accrue to those who produce progeny. As the passuk (Mishlei 17:6) declares “Children’s children are the tiara of grandfathers.”

All of these drives can be sublimated and harnessed for Avodas HaShem and, in a broad sense; each of the Patriarchs embodies one of these drives that have been refined and distilled into an essence of kedushah-sanctity; and Avodas HaShem. Avram, the pillar of chessed-lovingkindness; is the spiritual “hedonist” who seeks the ineffable pleasure of uniting with his Creator. Yitzchok, the pillar of gevurah-might and self-control; is the holy warrior who fights, controls and dominates his internal foe; the inclination to evil. Yaakov, the pillar of emmes-truth; is the father of twelve tribes and morphs into Yisrael. His progeny, who bear his name, are an eternal Nation that transcends time and space for truth is, by definition, eternal and transcendent.  That which expires and fades away cannot be true. As the passuk teaches “The lip of truth shall be instituted forever” (Ibid12:19).  That said, while each of the Patriarchs may have “specialized” in a particular drive every one of them was motivated by, and refined elements of, all three of these primal drives.

The drives toward pleasure and sensual gratification and for control and domination can metastasize into the pure evils of murder and fornication. In contradistinction, every yearning for transcendence and eternal perpetuity, i.e. honor, is essentially good and holy, it can never devolve into something truly evil.  At worst this drive can be less than perfectly lishmah– for the sake of Heaven. It can sometimes be underpinned by ulterior motives settling for ersatz honor that may outlast the split second but that is not truly eternal.  This helps explain why, in the development of kedushas Klal Yisrael-the holiness of the Nation of Israel; Avram and Yitzchok sired sons who were incarnations of the evils of kinah — culminating in murder (Esav) and taavah — leading to fornication (Yishmael), while all of Yaakov/ Yisrael’s sons were good and holy.

The mystery of HaShem’s covenant of circumcision is veiled in the passuk of “Walk yourself before Me and become perfect.” For we know that this alleged “perfection” was achieved through self-mutilation. The pre-circumcision Avram was imperfect although his entire physical plant was unblemished and intact. The letter hei was added to his name post-circumcision to express his new control of the five limbs/ organs that were beyond his control pre-circumcision  (see Bereishis17:1 Rashi v’heyei.) The covenant of circumcision, accomplished through excision of the foreskin, is an act of addition by subtraction, of perfection through deficit and maiming.

By loving and attaching themselves to Avram, by becoming the masters of his covenant, the three Emorites; Aner, Eshkol, Mamre were drawn to Avodas HaShem and the sublimation of the three primal drives. Aner was drawn to sublimating kinah, Eshkol to refining taavah and Mamre to purifying kavod.  Nevertheless in waging these cosmic, spiritual battles they were never more than the knight/warrior-Avram’s squires and weapons bearers (cp. Rashi Bereishis 14:24).

The Lubliner Kohen explains the Tanchuma in light of Aner, Eshkol and Mamres specialties in terms of the three primal drives. Perhaps subconsciously, the advice that they offer Avram gives voice to their own core motivations and drives. The kinah and taavah sensibilities, especially if not fully refined, can never grasp the mystery of milah-circumcision.  For the desire for control and domination would never countenance even a temporary loss or deficiency.  The kinah drive works under the adage of “dominate or be dominated” and lives in mortal terror of every loss, deficiency or temporary setback.  And so Aner tells Avram “the relatives of the Kings that you slew will seize this opportunity to kill you.” If you do not keep yourself whole and healthy, if you do not press every advantage to dominate and subjugate, then you will be the one who becomes dominated and subjugated.

The drive for sensual gratification is fundamentally narcissistic and selfish. The hedonist is a collector and a hoarder and is especially fond of those collectibles that complete, aggrandize and fulfill the self.  The notion of giving rather than taking, of relinquishing rather than retaining is utterly foreign to the taavah drive. And so when asked for his thoughts on milah Eshkol cries “you’ll hemorrhage and lose too much blood.”  Any loss is an anathema to the one driven by taavah how much more so when the loss of a body part or the bodily fluid containing the very life-force of the hedonist?

It is only Mamre, informed by kavod — the drive for transcendence; who possesses the sensibility that a temporal loss can result in an eternal gain, that nothing can become perfect unless and until it’s incomplete. On the contrary, being defeated and dominated, unfulfilled and incomplete, are the keys to eternity and deathlessness because, ultimately, the other two drives seek that which cannot endure.  Many of the greatest Emperors, who subjugated millions, saw their empires crumble in their lifetimes. All of them died knowing that their dominion would pass to others. Many of the greatest hedonists aged or were impoverished to a point where they could no longer indulge their lusts. All of them died and lost the sensual coil that they spent a short, blink-of-the-eye lifetime gratifying.  Only honor is transcendent. And so Mamre, whose defining middah was kavod, advised Avram to pursue the temporary loss of milah that would lead to the promise of offspring, the vehicle for deathlessness and undying glory.

~adapted from Neos Deshe Vayra D”H Vayera (the first)
Kometz Haminchah 40

Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Why is the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei offensive while the one mentioned in Behaaloscha defensive?
Why is victory guaranteed in the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei ?

 And when war will come in your land against the tormenter that puts pressure on you, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. Then HaShem your Elokim will remember you and will save you from your adversaries.

BeMidbar 10:9

When you set out to wage war against your adversaries HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them such that you will capture [his] prisoners.

Devarim 21:10                                                                                                                         

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel the other.

Koheles 7:14

And the two of them were naked, the Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame.

Bereshis 2:25

 Prior to the sin they were purely good and they related to “the face below” as they did [and still do] to “the face above” [i.e. as there is no shame in eating, hearing, smelling or seeing or in the organs that are the channels of these senses so too there was no shame in reproduction or the organs of reproduction]. For the component of evil that became incorporated in human beings is what differentiates between the two “faces”.  It is in the lower portion of the human gestalt where evil acquired an abode. By way of proof observe: The sign of the holy covenant is surrounded by a husk, the foreskin, which HaShem commanded to excise for it is there that shidah rested [see Yeshayahu 34:14].

— Ohr HaChaim ibid

There are several marked differences between the two pesukim-verses; describing the wars of the Bnei Yisrael– the Nation of Israel.  The pasuk in BeMidbar describes a defensive war, a war that “will come” to you while the pasuk at the beginning of our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; speaks of an offensive, aggressive war: “When you set out to wage war”.  While rescue and living to fight another day is promised in the former pasuk, victory over the opponent is guaranteed only in the latter pasuk.

When weighing the decision of whether or not to wage war there are a myriad of factors that require consideration. The first among them is if the projected war or fight is winnable. No individual, nation, tribe or even terrorist entity launches a fight or a war that they know that they can’t win.  While combatants may be prepared to lose many rounds or battles and to clash for years and even decades; no one sets out to lose the war.

That said few war decision-makers are 100% certain of their ultimate victory. Military history is replete with many “David vs. Goliath” upset victories. Hubris, megalomania, underestimation of the enemy, bad intelligence, poor diplomacy and a host of other uncontrollable factors may delude combatants into thinking that their victory is assured. Still, most rational military men understand that it takes more than valor or superior technology and manpower to win a war.  They understand that they must remain ever vigilant, persistent and brave because; “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

This is what makes the opening of our sidrah so odd. The prophecies of war should have been stated conditionally; “When you set out to wage war against your adversaries IF HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them and if you will capture [his] prisoners.” In point of historical fact the Bnei Yisrael were not victorious in every war nor did they always capture prisoners. Why then does the pasuk guarantee victory?

Understanding that all of the wars of Bnei Yisrael are not merely physical and geopolitical but metaphysical and spiritual and that, when applied to the microcosm of individual Jews, they translate into milchemes hayeitzer-the war against our inclinations to evil;  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains the distinctiveness of the war described at the beginning of our sidrah allegorically.

Imagine a great warrior king whose crown prince is his only son. While the king wants the prince to achieve the glory and honor that only military victory can accord, he is unwilling to actually risk his only, irreplaceable son’s battlefield defeat and death. And so the king, aware of the tactics, strategy and covert intelligence reports, waits until “the fix is in” and does not dispatch the crown prince to wage a war until and unless he, the king, knows that victory is not only probable — but a foregone conclusion. Military observers, combatants and reporters following the war may imagine it to be a closely contested competition — but the king knows better.

When it comes to milchemes hayeitzer our Heavenly Father and King, HaShem, would never risk the death and defeat of His only son; the Bnei Yisrael. While the war may endure a lifetime for individuals and the entire span of human history for the nation as a whole; the ultimate victory is not a question of “if” but of “when”. There is no possibility of defeat. In the end HaShem your Elokim will give you victory and deliver the enemy into your hands … including all that had been yours that the enemy had temporarily captured.

To carry the metaphor a step further: After deciding to wage a war because of its presumed winnability the first strategic consideration is whether to launch a preemptive or even surprise attack or to wait until the enemy makes the first move and, only then, to retaliate.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes on to view our sidrahs opening pasuk through the prism of the doctrine of Sefiros-Divine Emanations; in order to understand the offensive, aggressive nature of this war.

As this is the sixth sidrah in Sefer Devarim-the Book of Deuteronomy; it corresponds to sixth Sefirah of Yesod-Foundation. The Kabalistic tradition associates with the Sefirah of Yesod with the reproductive organ as this is the font and foundation of life and of the holiness of life.  It is precisely because it is the foundation for the entire structure of life and sanctity that so much passionate, powerful opposition to life and holiness concentrates against Yesod. For “Elokim has made one parallel the other.” It is there that many of the greatest battles of milchemes hayeitzer are waged.  This is why the war must be waged preemptively and aggressively. The only effective defense in this primary war is offense. This is why the bris milah-covenant if circumcision; is performed as soon as the human is born before any sentience of evil and lust inherent in the organ is even felt, i.e. before the enemy brings the battle to us … we strike a blow, and draw first blood.

Once the first, preemptive strike is struck there will still be many battles. These will be incessant and exhausting. There may even be many battles lost and much ground relinquished but “the fix is in”.  The war will be won. The King would never allow his only son to be vanquished and killed.


~adapted from Toras Emes Ki Seitzei the third D”H Ki

This post is an installment for Ki Seitzei 5774  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Why do the episodes of the war with Amalek and Yisro’s arrival serve as lead-ins to the revelation at Sinai and the Decalogue?
Is it better to be shrewd or gullible?
Is there any room for skepticism in the hearts and minds of believers in the 13 Articles of Faith?

And [thus] Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his allies by the sword

— Shemos 17:13

And Yisro priest of Midyan , Moshe’s father-in-law heard about all that Elokim had done for Moshe and His people Yisrael, when He extricated Yisrael from Egypt … And, along with Moshe’s wife and sons, Yisro came to the desert where Moshe was camped near Elokims mountain.

— Shemos 18:1,5

And Yisro … heard: What news did he hear that [motivated him enough] to come? The splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the war with Amalek. —(from Zevachim 116A, and Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Now I know that Hashem is the greatest of all the deities, for [He came] upon them [the Egyptians] with the very thing that they plotted.

 — Shemos 18:11

Of all the deities: This teaches us that he [Yisro] was familiar with every type of idolatry in the world, and there was no pagan deity that he had not worshipped. (from Mechilta)

— Rashi ibid

Destroy all the places, where the nations that you are driving out served their gods, [whether] upon the high mountains, the hills, or under every verdant tree.

— Devarim 12;2

For your gods were as numerous as the number of your cities, O Judah …

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

… yet upon every high hill and under every leafy tree[traditional places of idols and their worship] you recline, playing the role of a harlot.

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

The naïf believes everything; but the incredulous understands the correct footsteps to tread.

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

“Strike the scorner” this refers to Amalek “and the naïf grows shrewd” this refers to Yisro

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

I am HaShem your Elokim who extricated you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery

— Shemos 20:2

And he [Bilaam] gazed at Amalek, and took up his allegory, and said: “Amalek is the first among the nations; but his end shall come to eternal destruction.”

— BeMidbar 24:20

Like fire and atomic energy; faith can be a tremendously positive and constructive or a negative and destructive force. When one has faith in HaShem, true prophets and chachmei haTorah-authentic Torah sages; it sustains and nurtures the life of the faithful, as the pasuk teaches v’tzadik b’emunaso yichyeh-and the just will live in/through his faith (Chavakuk 2:4). However, when faith is invested in false gods, false prophets and/or assorted charlatans, there is nothing more corrosive, detrimental to society and self-destructive. To carry the simile further, just as nations are better served by building safe and secure nuclear power plants than in stockpiling surplus nuclear warheads, one must be extremely judicious and discriminating in deciding what and/or whom to invest their faith in.

So, while faith can potentially be the greatest of virtues, it is not to be confused with gullibility and naïveté. Faith unleavened by healthy doses of discernment and skepticism is folly and, as Yirmiyahu the prophet implies by describing the idolatrous Jews of his era as “playing the harlot” and having as many deities as cities, a kind of promiscuity of the heart and mind.  The emunah-faith; of one who has “complete and perfect faith” in the thirteen fundamental articles of Jewish belief is of diminished value if he also believes in every outlandish hoax ever publicized or if he can be swindled into buying the Brooklyn Bridge because he is convinced of the seller’s integrity.  For faith in truth and belief in reality to be commendable one must first stop suspending his disbelief in mirages and repudiate the bill-of-goods that he had formerly been convinced of for the lies that they are.

At one time or another Yisro believed in every possible manner of fabrication. Chazal teach us that there was not a single pagan deity that Yisro did not worship. To buy in to so much and such varied deception means that Yisro was possessed of an extremely credulous and gullible nature.  The lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word that defines this kind of folly is pessi-a naïf who’ll believe anything.

At the extreme opposite pole of human nature stands the letz-scorner/scoffer who believes in nothing and no one. Such people wear their incredulous disbelief as badges of honor marking them as wiser and as sharper than the credulous. They scoff at believers, first and foremost by mocking all that they believe in. Such skeptics scorn across the board and no target is safe from their sneering, scathing “appraisals.” Such letzim are the Wildean cynics who “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Amalek is identified by Chazal as the letz incarnate.  The national character of Amalek is wired to scoff and mock everything, up to and including all that is real, true and holy. How else can we understand that while all other nations were awestruck by the events of the Exodus from Egypt and the Parting of the Sea of Reeds, so much so that they had come to some level of belief in the invincibility-borne-of-chosen-ness of the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish people; and the Infinite Power of the G-d of Israel, Amalek remained unimpressed?  The preemptive attack launched by Amalek was their über-skeptical “I’m from Missouri, you’ve got to show me” moment.

The Izhbitzer explains that once letzim are inevitably set in evil ways they become irredeemable. All exhortations to tikkun-repairing ones evil; depend on getting the perpetrator to believe in the value of change and improvement. But the scoffing, scornful, skeptical letz does not recognize or tolerate chashivus-value and significance. One can try to rehabilitate the letz with both high-minded arguments and/or corporal-punishment “convincing” and both will be wasted on those who know the value of nothing. On the other hand, when dealing with a pessi there is someone to talk to and something to work with.  The ethical challenge of the pessi is that he believes in the value of too many things.  Discernment and a healthy dose of skepticism come with experience and education, sometimes even from education gleaned from the lessons and exhortations wasted on the letz.


Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Pharaoh asked Moshe to pray to end the plagues in a particular way. Why didn’t he?
Various plagues were wrought by HaShem, Moshe and Ahron.  Why was barad, in particular, brought about by Moshe?

“Try and test me” Moshe replied. “At precisely what time shall I pray אעתיר for you, your servants and your people … ridding you and your homes of the frogs so that they will only remain in the canal [i.e. the Nile]?”

— Shemos 8:5

Moshe and Ahron left the Pharaoh. Moshe cried out ויצעק to HaShem concerning the frogs that He’d brought upon the Pharaoh

— Shemos 8:8

Moshe replied “Behold I am leaving your presence. Tomorrow I will pray  אעתיר to HaShem, the mixed wild beasts will go away from the Pharaoh,  his servants and his people … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and prayed ויעתר   to HaShem.

— Shemos 8:25,26

[The Pharaoh asked them] “pray העתירו to Hashem. There’s been too much of this Elokim-induced thunder and hail. I will send you/ your nation away; you will not have to stay.” … Moshe left the Pharaoh’s presence and exited the city. As soon as he spread his palms up ויפרוש כפיו to HaShem the thunder and din ceased and the hail and rain no longer fell to the ground.

— Shemos 9:28,33

There are six things which HaShem hates, seven which His Soul abominates: 1. stuck-up eyes, 2. a lying tongue, 3. and hands that shed innocent blood; 4. A heart that works out malicious thoughts, 5. feet that are quick in running to evil; 6. A false witness who exhales lies, 7. and one who causes conflict among brothers.

— Mishlei 6:16-19

Rabbi Chanina the son of Dosa would say … One whose deeds surpass his wisdom, his wisdom endures. But one whose wisdom surpasses his deeds, his wisdom does not endure.

— Pirkei Avos 3:9

There are 10 different expressions [in Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue;] for prayer …

— Sifri on Devarim 3:23

In an abstract way we are aware of the Chazal that teaches that there are 10 near-synonymous expressions in Lashon Kodesh to describe humans communicating with HaShem. On a theoretical level we are also cognizant of the fact that diverse words carry assorted shades of meaning and that, as such, there must be 10 different ways to pray, 10 distinct media for prayer.

Yet, we are accustomed to congregational prayer during which everyone must be on the same page, both figuratively and literally. We also pray using a liturgy fixed by the anshei k’nesses hagedolah-the men of the great assembly; with later accretions canonized by tradition. And so on a practical level for us there is only one way to pray.  Gradations in the quality of our prayer vary according to levels of ones understanding of the liturgy and ones sincerity and depth of kavvanah-directing his heart and attention towards G-d. To us, the notion that varying circumstances require a different substance or even style of prayer seems utterly foreign.

In Parshas VaEra the Izhbitzer school teaches that the style and substance of prayer must react and respond to the particular needs being addressed and to the root causes of the distress that one is praying to resolve. Just as no two crises are exactly alike so too no two prayers can be clones of one another.

In each of the makkos-plagues; of frogs, mixed wild-beasts and hail we find the Pharaoh of Egypt beseeching Moshe to pray for the cessation of the makkah.  The Pharaoh is consistent. Every time he requests Divine intercession of Moshe he employs a conjugation of the word עתירה atirah-pleading. Yet only in requesting the end of the makkah of the arov– mixed wild-beasts; does Moshe actually plead with HaShem. In order to get the frogs back into the Nile Moshe employs tzeakah-shouting or screaming;  and to stop the makkah of barad-hail composed of fire and ice; Moshe prays with perishas kapayim-spreading his palms outwards and upwards.  The second Izhbitzer Rebbe, the Bais Yaakov, offers insight into the three crises and why the three different prayers were appropriate for each one.

Observing that both the makkos of tzefardea-frogs; and arov were incursions of wild animals into human habitats, the Bais Yaakov asserts that all creatures, both domesticated and wild, yearn for the proximity of human beings for they have a deep-seated, instinctive consciousness that their own actualization and fulfillment can only be brought about by human beings.  But for the vast majority of baalei chaim-animals; hobnobbing with human beings is not the proper means through which man might perfect and fulfill them. Among the Creator’s creatures Man alone is endowed with free-will and thus, with the capacity to exercise free-will to serve G-d.  These acts of avodah-serving HaShem; distinguish man from beast and are what drive away undomesticated animals from human habitats. The power inherent in various types of avodah is what make the different baalei chaim maintain their distance.

The croaking frogs and toads are distinguished by their ability to give voice to wordless cries, groans and screams. They have voices, but their voices cannot inform words.  Correspondingly, the type of prayer-based avodah that keeps frogs separate and distinct from human society is human tzeakah which is similarly inarticulate and wordless. When tzeakah is wielded by a human being it is a non-verbal, yet voice-based, form of communication.  This is why, when the time came to end the makkah of tzefardea, Moshe prayed with tzeakah.

Read more In Prayer; the Medium IS the Message

Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

What are we to make of the teaching of our sages that “Yaakov our Patriarch never died,” in light of his remains being embalmed and interred?

Yisrael is the name usually associated with this person’s most exalted state.  Why is  immortality attributed to Yaakov rather than Yisrael?

… and Yaakov lived in the land of Egypt for seventeen years … and the days grew near for Yisrael to die ….

Bereishis 47:28,29

Yaakov completed his directives to his sons, he withdrew his feet onto the bed, breathed his last and was gathered in to his nation.

Bereishis 49:33

… the physicians embalmed Yisrael … Egypt wept over him for seventy days

Bereishis 50:2,3

They came to Goren Ha’Atad on the east bank of the Jordan. There they conducted a eulogy of exceeding vastness and gravitas and [Yoseph] observed a seven-day mourning for his father … His sons carried him to Canaan and buried him in the cave of Machpeilah field bordering Mamre …     

Bereishis 50:10,13

“And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear” Says HaShem; “neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity … “

— Yirmiyahui 30:10

 … Thus said Rav Yochanan, “Yaakov our patriarch never died.” Rav Nachman objected: “Did those who eulogized him, embalm him and inter him do so for naught?” — Rav Yochanan replied: “I derive this from a scriptural verse, as it is said, ‘And you My slave Yaakov, do not fear’ says HaShem; ‘neither panic, O Yisrael; for, I will Redeem you from afar, and your offspring from the land of their captivity.’ The verse connects him [Yaakov] to his offspring [Yisrael]; as his offspring will then be alive so he too will be alive.”
Rav Yitzchak said, “Whoever repeats [the name] Rachav, Rachav, immediately becomes a baal keri-one who is impure due to an emission.” Rav Nachman said to him: “I have repeated it and was not affected in any way.” Rav Yitzchak replied: “I speak only of one who knew her and was familiar with her likeness.”

— Taanis 5B

“Today” [the here-and-now world] is for doing them [the mitzvos] while tomorrow [the world to come] is for reaping the rewards [of their fulfillment.]

                       — Eruvin 22A

אָז יִבָּקַע -Then your light will burst forth as the Morningstar, and your cure will spring forth swiftly; and your righteousness will precede you, the glory of HaShem will gather you in.

— Yeshaya 58:8

Your dead will live, my remains will stand up. Awake and sing, you that dwell in the dust—for your dew is as the dew of light …  

— Yeshaya 26:19

The very name of our weekly sidra can be translated as “and Yaakov lived” and seems to echo the incredible contention of our sages that Yaakov never died. Another of the sages expressed his skepticism and incredulity over this, alluding to the various pesukim-verses; quoted in the gray oval above indicating that Yaakov was embalmed, bewailed, eulogized, mourned and interred; hardly the way to relate to a person still very much alive. Rashi ad locum explains that the embalmers et al merely imagined that Yaakov had died but he was in truth, still living. The Izhbitzer School offers several approaches to understand the non-death of Yaakov.

It is essential to remember that the soul is eternal … that it never dies.  The Mei HaShiloach explains that as such, what we refer to as “death” is not so much a termination of life as it is a radical, jarring — even harrowing — transition. In death, man must emigrate from olam hazeh-the temporal world of “this;” to olam haba-the world to come or the world that is continually “coming.” Even when one can transfer all of their assets, relocating to a faraway country can be a very intimidating change.  With a foreign language, new currency, radically dissimilar climate, a different form of government and unfamiliar art, social mores and architecture the new country may require years, if not decades or generations, of assimilation and acclimation before the new immigrant achieves a true sense of comfort, integration and belonging.  If most of the assets must be left behind in a forced expulsion or in fleeing from war or persecution the challenges of emigration become even more daunting.

These scenarios of emigration are poor allegories for the unimaginable yisurei kelitah– agonies of acclimation; that the soul must undergo when emigrating from olam hazeh to olam haba. A large portion of the first perek-chapter; of Mesilas Yesharim is preoccupied with the numerous metaphors of Chazal that describe the qualitative differences between the two worlds and their respective organizations of reality.

The Mei HaShiloach teaches that death, far from being the end of life, is instead the souls “transoceanic” voyage. Dying becomes the Ellis Island, the quarantining, the issuing-of-the-green-card, the ulpan, the immigrant absorption center, the blue-collar-to-Ivy-League-educated-professional and the tenement-to-suburbia upward social mobility; all rolled into one. Add to that the element that unlike immigrants, the soul, once adjusted to olam haba, has not one wit of nostalgia for the “old Country” and it is no wonder that we associate the emigration that is death with the idea of the past being dead, buried and forgotten.

Read more Yaakov Never Died: Memory vs. Mortality

The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Why does Mikra Bikurim-the declaration accompanying the bringing of the first fruits/produce begin with a review of the Egyptian exile and exodus? In particular, why is there an emphasis on the population explosion during the Egyptian exile? Why do these pesukim-verses; serve as the opening of the maggid section of Pesach evening Haggadah-telling? Is there a common denominator between the two?

And then you shall respond and say before HaShem your Elokim: “my patriarch was a wandering Aramean. He descended into Egypt with a small number of men and lived there as an émigré; yet it was there that he became a great, powerful, and heavily populated nation.

Devarim 26:5

 … This was to teach you that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.

Devarim 8:3

According to the Jewish mystical tradition all of creation is divided into four tiers domem –silent (inert); tzomeach-sprouting (botanic life); chai-animate (animal life); medaber-speech-endowed life (human beings). Each tier of creation ascends to higher tiers through an upwardly mobile food-chain by nourishing, and thus being incorporated into, the level directly above it until, ultimately, it is assimilated into the human being, the creature that can face and serve the Creator. Minerals nourish plants and are absorbed through the roots buried in the soil and through photosynthesis. Plants are eaten by herbivorous animals providing nutrients for the animals’ sustenance and growth. Animals are ingested by carnivorous humans supplying the calories, vitamins and minerals human beings need to live and flourish.

This upwardly mobile food-chain has a spiritual dimension as well.

Man is more than highly developed biological machine that expires when enough of the moving parts wear down.  Man is endowed with a cheilek elokai mima’al-a spark of the Divine; and it is the union of soul and body that defines human life. Superficially the external symptoms of death may appear to be too many of the moving parts breaking down; in truth human death occurs as a result of the dissolution of the marriage between body and soul. This begs the question: If there is a spiritual element inherent in human beings what is it that nourishes the soul?  Eating food is often described as “keeping body and soul together” but how is this accomplished?

The Rebbe Reb Chaim Chernovitzer cites a teaching of the Arizal in response. Our sages teach us that even the smallest blade of  grass here below has a guardian angel on High that “bangs it on the head and exhorts it to grow”(Bereishis Rabbah 10:6). In other words, even the lowest tiers of creation have a spiritual element that animates them, lending them existence, form and substance.  In the case of grass, being a plant, a tzomeach-that which sprouts and grows; the grass’ “soul” demands growth. Presumably for animals the soul would demand and promote movement and vitality and for soil and all inert creatures the soul would demand and promote silence and stillness. Such that all food substances are also composed of both a body and a soul, albeit inferior to the human body and soul both physically and spiritually. The manifest, visible food is the “body” of the food, while the sacred emanation from on High exhorting it “to be” and not revert to nonexistence lending it form and substance is the foods “soul”.  When absorbed or ingested the physical element of the food nourishes the consumer’s material component while the “soul” of the food, i.e. its spiritual element, nourishes the consumer’s spiritual dimension.

This is the meaning of the pasuk “that it is not by bread alone that the human lives, but by all that comes out of HaShem’s mouth.” The motza pi HaShem-that which emanates from HaShems mouth; refers to the Divine Will that this thing/ foodstuff exist. It is the motza pi HaShem lending tzurah-form; and spirituality that is indispensable for human beings to live, not the corporeal, apparent bread alone.


Read more The Cry of the Decaying Kernel

Why Doesn’t the Segulah of Tzitzis Work?

Why are so many segulos ineffective?
In particular why doesn’t fulfilling the Mitzvah of tzitzis transform us into spiritual supermen, as promised by the Torah?

These shall be your fringes and when you look at them, you’ll remember all the commandments of HaShem, and do them; and will not [continue to] go astray [following] after your own heart and your own eyes, which [have had the ability to this point of] leading you to immorality.  So that you will remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your Elokim.

—BeMidbar 15:39,40

 “So that you will may remember and do all My commandments.” This is comparable to one thrown into the raging waters to whom the ship’s captain flung a rope. The captain told [the man thrown overboard]  “grasp this rope in your hands and don’t let go for if you do  … you’re a goner.” Similarly, the Holy Blessed One told Israel: “as long as you hold fast to the mitzvos [you will live] [as it says] ‘And [only] you who cling to HaShem your Elokim are all alive today’ (Devarim4:4). And it says ‘Take fast hold of mussar-reprimands /moral instruction; don’t let go; guard her, for she is your life.’ (Mishlei 4:13)”

—Midrash Rabbah BeMidbar17:6

 In this allegory the life-preserving rope represent the strands of the tzitzis-fringes. Through them, we remember HaShem’s commandments and do not “drown” in the “raging waters” of malicious transgressions.

—Commentary of Rav Dovid Luria ibid

 Antigonus ish Socho received the tradition from Shimon the Righteous. He would say: “Do not be as slaves, who serve their master for the sake of receiving reward. Rather, be as slaves who serve their master not for the sake of receiving reward. And the awe of Heaven should be upon you.”

—Pirkei Avos 1:3

We live in an era when the ideal of serving HaShem with no ulterior motives has become almost passé.  As one wit put it “How did the Ahm Segulah become the Ahm Segulos?” It seems as though almost every worthy cause and endeavor is marketed as a “you scratch My Back and I’ll scratch yours” tradeoff kivyachol-as it were; with HaShem … Many people grow bitter and disappointed when, despite their best efforts at adhering to the segulah-prescribed practices, the promised yeshuos-deliverances; never come about.

Yet distinctions must be made between latter day segulos of unripened vintage and of dubious provenance and segulos that appear in the Gemara — or in the Chumash itself. For notwithstanding Antigonus ish Socho’s admonitions for completely selfless, non self-serving avodas HaShem-serving G-d; there are many mitzvah practices whose promised rewards are, in fact, guaranteed by the Gemara or in the Chumash.

Apart from the article of our faith that, in a general sense, observance of the Torah’s commandments reaps rewards (while transgressions evokes Divine retribution in the form of punishments); there is a lengthy causality list linking particular mitzvos and areas of Torah study to earning specific rewards: “Length of days” for honoring parents or shooing the mother bird away from the nest before taking the eggs or hatchlings, bountiful crops in the years preceding the Sabbatical and Jubilee years in consideration of scrupulous halachic observance of those years, wealth for proper tithing and offspring who are Talmidei Chachamim-Torah sages; in exchange for care and concern in the kindling of mitzvah lamps/candles — to name but a few.

Still another distinction must be made between activities that are mesugal– supposed to cause material benefits to accrue; and those that are mesugal for spiritual advances, greater intellectual acuity and / or ethical edification.  This last category comes a lot closer to Antigonus ish Socho’s paradigm than those segulos that promise temporal benefits.

Rav Shmuel Dov Asher Lainer, The Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that the mitzvah of tzitzis–ritual fringes on four-cornered garments; is a segulah for comprehensive tzidkus-righteousness/ saintliness. Moreover, this segulah is explicitly described by the Torah. After all, the pasuk says that when we see our tzitzis we recall all of HaShem’s commandments and, knowing that they are commandments, not non-compulsory suggestions, and that we are the commanded, how could we do anything but carry out our Divine orders? Thus, the pasuk concludes with the promise/ prediction … “and you will do them.”

The Biskovitzer then poses a very pointed, but rather obvious question.  Why doesn’t this segulah work? One would be hard pressed to find a self-described Torah-observant Jew who does not perform the mitzvah of tzitzis regularly. So why are true tzadikim-righteous/ saintly people; i.e. those who both recall and keep all of HaShems mitzvos and who resist all petty temptations, so few and far between?

This question is of far more than mere philosophical or exegetical interest. For if a Torah guaranteed segulah does not fulfill its promise it can bear the toxic fruits of disillusionment, bitterness and doubt.  To paraphrase Einstein; the definition of skepticism is repeating the same experiment that worked so well in the past over and over again without yielding the expected results.

A close reading of the Midrash , writes the Biskovitzer, provides us with the answer.

If we viewed tzitzis as the sage of the Midrash does the segulah of tzitzis would prove effective and deliver on its promise to make us righteous and saintly.  But, instead, we are willfully blind to the life-rope / breathing-tube that a Merciful and Paternal Providence flings our way providing us with the means to escape the clutches of sin-cum-death.

The paramount rule of Divine Administration of all creation is midah k’neged midah-quid pro quo. For good or for bad; for better or for worse; HaShems rewards and punishments are not merely just, but are informed by poetic justice.  So if we refuse to see the real nature of HaShem’s mitzvos, i.e. that they are the lifelines that tether us to Him  … the Life of all lives, then, in return, HaShem blinds us to the reality of the temporal world and its temptations. Instead of seeing raging cataracts of sin tossing us willy-nilly and threatening to inundate us once and for all, we perceive the world as safe, tranquil and secure natural-habitat.

If the man thrown overboard were delusional; if he continued to breathe easy — imagining that he was still on the deck of the ship in calm, windless waters, he too would reject the rope the captain flung him. Unaware of the danger and the means of escaping danger at his disposal we would, tragically, drown.

This, concludes the Biskovitzer, is why not everyone who wears a tallis metzuyetzes-a fringe bearing four-cornered garment; is, perforce, a tzaddik recalling and scrupulously observing all the mitzvos of the Torah immune to all of the attractions that lead people astray.

We do not lose faith in the segulah of tzitzis because it fails to work — it fails to work because we fail to believe in what the tzitzis truly are.


—Neos Deshe Parshas Shelach D”H Dahber

Bshalach 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

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Internalizing Torah Lends Confidence … NOT Smugness

Why is the Torah’s system called Halachah?
How does Halachah tread the fine line between confidence and conceit?

If you will “walk/go in” My statutes and are careful to fulfill my commandments…

— Vayikra 26:3

 What nation is so great, that they have Elokim so close to it, as HaShem our Elokim is at whatever time we call Him?

— Devarim 4:7

Rabi Tanhuma taught: Once there was a ship that set sail on the Great Sea.  All of the passengers were idolaters except for one Jewish youth. A furious storm ensued and the ship was tempest-tossed and in severe danger of sinking. Each and every one of the travelers grasped his icons or idols in hand and began reciting his prayers, but to no avail.  So they said to the Jewish youth “cry to the L-rd your G-d, for we have heard that when you [people] cry to Him; that He responds and that He is mighty. The youth immediately cried out [to HaShem] with all his heart, HaShem accepted his prayer and the storm calmed.  When the ship docked at a port on a unfamiliar island the other passenger told the Jewish youth “Here; take some of our money, go into the island and secure some provisions for us.” He said to them: “Aren’t I lodger and a stranger in these parts [the same as everyone else, how will I find my way around?] They responded “is there such a thing as a Jewish ‘stranger’ ? No!  Wherever you wander … your G-d is with you! behold; ‘that they have Elokim so close to it!‘ ”

— Talmud Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1, Midrash Devarim Rabbah 2:16

 “And he [Yaakov] come into contact with the Place” (Bereshis 28:11) Rav Huna said in the name of RavAmmi “Why do we euphemistically refer to HaShem as ‘The Place’? because HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.” As another pasuk indicates (Shemos 32:21): ‘Behold there is a place with Me i.e all space is under My domain’. And so we see that  HaShem is the Place of His Cosmos … His Cosmos is not His place.”

— Bereshis Rabbah 68:9

The all-encompassing system of Torah observance is known as Halachah; a conjugation of the Hebrew verb translated as “walking” or “going”. Arguably, this term derives from the opening pasuk of our Sidrah. “If you will walk/ go” in My statutes etc.”  The system of Torah statutes empowers those who study and observe it to move about and not static. Absent Torah knowledge one is left essentially paralyzed.  It’s often said that knowledge is power. In particular, Torah knowledge proffers the power to move.

The Ramchal offers this famous metaphor for the strategy and tactics of the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil:

For the yetzer hara literally blinds his eyes and he becomes as one who walks in the darkness, where there are stumbling blocks before him which he fails to see. As our Sages of blessed memory said (Bava Metzia 83b), “You laid down darkness and it was night” (Psalms 104:20). This refers to this world [manipulated by the yetzer hara ]which is similar to the night.” … the darkness of night can cause two types of visual errors: it may conceal things completely such that one does not see what is before him at all, or it may deceive him so that a pillar appears to him as a man, or a man as a pillar. … The second error … is even worse than the first … inasmuch as it causes people to see evil as though it were goodness itself, and good as if it were evil, and, because of this, [the wicked] strengthen themselves in clinging to their evil ways. For it is not enough that they lack the ability to see the truth, the evil staring them in the face, but they also see fit to find … empirical evidence supporting their evil theories and false ideas.” (Mesilas Yesharim 3)  If a wanderer finds himself lost in a forest that is either pitch black or, at twilight time, where beasts appear to be men and vice-versa then, in this type of dangerous situation, the wisest strategy is to hunker down and not move.

Shifting from the realm of the metaphoric to the sphere of the practical, this means that the greater ones Torah expertise is — the more luminous his “lighting” — the greater his agility and maneuverability in living his life becomes.  Many of us have desisted from making certain moves for fear that we might be breaking some Torah law unknown to us. So — on a very pragmatic level Torah knowledge and observance confers the power and the confidence to move about in ways that would have been avoided while shrouded in the shadows of Torah-ignorance. Thus Torah transforms “standers” into “walkers” and “goers”.

The Izhbitzer teaches that the meaning of the opening pasuk is Im b’Chukosai– if My statutes become chiseled into you; — part and parcel of you — then and only then … Teileichu-will you go; i.e. will you be empowered to move. Only when the Torah becomes engraved upon a person’s heart, if it becomes an intrinsic part of him can he then “go” and move. Otherwise shev v’ahl ta’aseh ahdiph-it’s better to sit and do nothing.

Internalizing the Torah essentially means inculcating the Divine Giver of the Torah as well. As our sages taught: Oraysa V’kudshah Brich Hu kulo Chad-the Torah and the Holy Blessed One are all One (Zohar I, 24A; II, 60A). With HaShem directing traffic kivyachol-as it were; he who has chiseled the Torahs statutes into himself possesses an internal moral compass and an ethical GPS kivyachol. As the Midrash indicates the nearly-shipwrecked philo-Semitic gentiles traveling with the Jewish youth expected him to be incapable of losing his way or making a misstep even in a literal, geographical sense.

The Izhbitzer reveals an even profounder level of the mobility of those who “walk in/with the Torahs statutes/ decrees.”

The possibility of one losing one’s way or entering terrain or seaways fraught with danger is predicated on the notion that there are, in fact, diverse locations with dissimilar characteristics; some that are out of harm’s way while others are perilous. But if this were all a mirage, if a man thought that he had journeyed a thousand miles but had in truth never left the room; then whatever dangers or missteps that he confronted along the way were, in truth, illusory. One who walks with HaShem is in THE Place.  HaShem is sometimes referred to as “the Place” because, as our sages taught, He transcends space.  He is not situated within a particular space, on the contrary all individual spaces and locations are situated within HaShem.

Mindful of this inner truth, the Talmud resolves a very thorny question:  We derive all 39 melachos-categories of the creative activities; prohibited on Shabbos, as well as the precise specifications of each prohibited category, from the Mishkan-the portable Tabernacle that was home to the Divine Indwelling during the forty-year sojourn in the Wilderness. The category known as stirah-deconstruction/ demolition; is derived from the breaking-down of the Mishkan’s structure into its component parts whenever the Bnei Yisrael-the Jewish Nation; would break camp. Yet among the precise specifications for the prohibited category of stirah is that the one demolishing intends to build new construction on the site that he is now clearing:  “Rabbah asked Ulla, ‘Consider; all forms of melachah are derived from the Mishkan, yet there[in the case of the Mishkan]  it was deconstructing in order to rebuild elsewhere?’ Ulla answered ‘It was different there for since it is written: “By the Word of HaShem they camped and By the Word of HaShem they journeyed “(Bemidbar 9:23) it was like demolishing in order to rebuild on the same site.’ ”(Shabbos 31B). When one “travels” with HaShem no real change of location has occurred! In Halachah one can be a “traveler/ walker” with complete confidence. Still, the Izhbitzer cautions us not to allow confidence to outgrow healthy proportions and metastasize into arrogant smugness. In the pasukIf you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” the emphasis is on the word “if”.  Presuming that G-d walks with you, that G-d is on your side or, even, that you are on His; is always an uncertain, iffy proposition.  For even one who toes the halachic line may be contravening the depths of the Divine Will.

E.g. Debts are to be absolved during shmittah-the sabbatical year, and the Torah harshly criticizes potential lenders who withhold loans for fear of having to clear these loans. (cp Devarim 15:9) Yet the Mishnah still teaches (Shvi’is 10:8) that “If the borrower seeks to repay his debt during shmittah the lender should tell him ‘I absolve it’ but if the borrower persists and says ‘even so [I want to repay my debt]’ then the lender should accept payment from him. As the pasuk says ‘and this is the matter/ word of absolution.’ (Devarim15:2)” The very next Mishnah exclaims “the spirit of the sages is with all those borrowers who repay their loans on the seventh year.” (ibid:9).

On the surface, these Mishnayos seem counterintuitive and contra-halachic.  If the Torah refers to the sabbatical year as the shmittah-the absolution/ forgiving-of-debts year then it would seem that the releasing of loans is the very definition of such years. Then why should borrowers earn the sages favor by repaying their loans? We are compelled to dig beneath the surface and understand that the Torah contains depths of meaning beyond what is “written”, even within the oral tradition. Sometimes the halcahah, is like a baggy, loose-fitting cloak that conceals the true shape of what lies within [i.e. the Divine Will], rather than being a revealing, form-fitting, second-skin, leotard that conforms to the precise contours of that which/He Who is being clothed.

Regarding the mitzvah of shmittas kesafim-absolving loans during shvi’is; HaShem enlightened the sages to the Depths of His Will — that verbal forgiveness of the debt suffices and that actual absolution of the debt is not required.

But this is but a single example among the myriads of Mitzvos and Chukim of the Torah.  HaShem, kivyachol, is hedging His bets on us, His People.  He is, kivyachol, praying that we succeed in hewing to and completely fulfilling His Will. “If you will ‘go in’ my decrees etc.” because even if one observes every jot and tittle of the Shulchan Aruch-Code of Torah Law there is still no guarantee that he has conformed to the Will of HaShem on the profoundest levels, for what human being can plumb the Deepest Depths of the Divine Mind and Will?

~adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im
(the second of three)

Mei HaShiloach I Bechukosai D”H Im (the second)

If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Why is contact with the dead prohibited to kohanim?
Why would Divine Providence create a kohen with a congenital mum-blemish; that disqualifies him from serving?
The Megadeph was apparently motivated by the holy yearning to “belong” to K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Why was he so severely punished?

[Still, in spite of the kohen being physically blemished] he may eat the bread [i.e. food sacrifices] of his G-d, both from the holy of holies, and from the holy. But he shall not come to the cloth partition, nor approach the altar, for he has a blemish …  

—Vayikra 21:22,23

 And the son of an Israelite woman, whose father was an Egyptian man, went out among the children of Israel; and the son of the Israelite woman had a quarrel with a man of Israel in the camp. And then the son of the Israelite woman blasphemed the Name, with a curse. The people brought him to Moshe[’s court]. And his mother’s name was Shlomis, the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan.

—Vayikra 24:10,11

 the son of an Israelite woman…went out:  Where did he go out from? … He “went out” of Moshe’s court [with a] losing [verdict. How so?] He came into the encampment of the tribe of Dan [attempting] to pitch his own tent. So [a man of this tribe] said to him, “What right do you have to be here?” Said he, “I am of the descendants of Dan,” [claiming lineage through his mother] he said to him, “[But Torah says (Bemidbar 2:2): ‘The children of Israel shall encamp] each person near the flag-banner bearing his paternal family’s insignia,’” [thereby refuting his maternal claim]. He entered Moshe’s court [where his lawsuit against the tribesmen of Dan was tried], and he “came out” defeated. Then, he stood up and cursed. (Vayikra Rabbah 32:3)

—Rashi Ibid

 Rabi Eliezer son of Rabi Shimon was coming from Migdal Gedor … and was feeling … elated because he had studied much Torah . There he happened to meet an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, “Peace be upon you, Sir”. He, however, did not return his welcome but instead said to him, “Empty one, how ugly you are! Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’’ The man replied: “I don’t know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How Ugly is the vessel which You have made’ “.

—Taanis 20 A-B

 As it was taught, Shimon HaAmsoni … interpreted every [word] es in the Torah; [but] as soon as he came to, “You shall fear [es] HaShem your Elokim” he abstained [from interpreting the word].  His disciples said to him, “Master, what is to happen with all the esin which you have interpreted?” [Stumped by how to interpret the current ‘es’ Shimon HaAmsoni renounced the legitimacy of all his prior es readings. He taught his students … ] “Just as I received reward for interpreting all these words so too will I receive reward for retracting them [my elucidations.]”

                                                                                                                                      —Pesachim 22B

In Parshas Emor the Izhbitzer concentrates a great deal on the issue of תרעומות כלפי מעלה tarumos k’lapee ma’alah–grievances against G-d. When comparing and contrasting the Izhbitzers understanding of the kohen ba’al mum–who is physically blemished or disabled; and the Megadeph-he who cursed; i.e. the defeated litigant in a lawsuit in Moshe Rabenu’s court who cursed G-d; we find that their diverse approaches to tarumos addresses a trait central to the core of Jewish identity.

When a kohen becomes tamei-ritually impure; more often than not the cause is his carelessness or other human error. Moreover, being tamei is a temporary condition. In cases of tumah-ritual impurity; there is no permanent loss of the privilege of serving HaShem in the Mikdash. While a kohen tamei may be miffed at losing his turn at serving in, or even entering, the Mikdash, relatively speaking it is easy for him to accept and come to terms with his disappointment and frustration. However, many of the physical blemishes or disabilities that render a kohen a ba’al mum are congenital birth-defects. A kohen ba’al mum places the responsibility for his permanent ineligibility to perform the Divine service in the Mikdash squarely on Hashems shoulders kivyachol-as it were.  After all, as in the case of the ugly man whom Rabi Eliezer verbally abused, the kohen a ba’al mum considers HaShem “the Craftsman who made me”. He is bewildered over why his Creator/ Craftsmen would have brought him thisclose to the Divine Mikdash service by having been born into the patrilineal Ahronic line yet, ultimately, excluded him and distanced him from Divine Mikdash service through “crafting” a “defective product”. In short, the kohen ba’al mum bears tarumos-heartfelt grievances; towards G-d.

The Izhbitzer understands the mitzvah addressed to the kohanim ba’alei mumim of eating of the korbanos– sacrificial offerings; as a way of appeasing them and addressing their tarumos. Their pnimiyus-their inner essence; even physically, is equivalent to all other kohanim. While the kohen ba’al mum may be blemished externally and superficially, his inner core lacks nothing.  More pointedly; his internal organs become another vehicle for intimacy with HaShem. HaShem is Just and determines precisely how many kohanim ba’alei mumim there must be and which particular souls will be implanted into these “defective” bodies. Through the mitzvah of eating of the korbanos the kohen ba’al mum achieves intimacy with the Divine and, while being kept at arm’s length, kivyachol, in terms of service in the Mikdash, comes to realize that this too is a fulfillment if HaShems Will. In achieving this consciousness the bitterness of his tarumos are sweetened; transformed into wistful, brokenhearted yearnings for the closeness achieved through service in the Mikdash.  In turn these yearnings engender the closeness and intimacy that HaShem has with the heartbroken “HaShem is close to the brokenhearted” (Tehillim 34:19 cp Zohar VaYesheiv page181A)

In contradistinction to the letting go of tarumos of the kohanim ba’alei mumim; the Megadeph allowed his tarumos to become his undoing. Per the Izhbitzer the inclusion of the narrative of the Megadeph in the Torah is only to serve as a cautionary tale of just how much we all need to rid ourselves of tarumos k’lapee ma’alah, even those rooted in the most noble of yearnings.

Read more If You Want Me to Be Closer to You … Get Further From Me

Righteous Indignation—the Root of Prayer and Salvation

Shemos-An installment in the series

From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Blessed is Elokim, who has not removed my prayer, or His loving-kindness from me.

-Tehillim 66:20

The Izhbitzer taught that before the Divine Will to liberate is at hand a person remains blind, deaf and dumb to his own need for deliverance. The person cannot see his deficiencies and has no idea as to what he is lacking. However, once there is a Divine Will to liberate, It allows the one in need of deliverance to see the root cause of his deficiencies and proffers him the capacity to pray and cry-out for salvation.  Next, the one in need of deliverance begins to bluster and create a prayerful ruckus to HaShem. Then, HaShem shines his chessed– loving-kindness and the actual salvation transpires.

This is what the psalmist, King Dovid, meant when he wrote said “ … who has not removed my prayer, nor His loving-kindness from me.”  Even though the prayer is “mine” it is HaShem who implants the desire to utter it in my heart, He could remove it — but He chooses not to.

A long time then passed and the king of Egypt died. The children-of-Israel groaned (due to) [from] their slavery and they cried out; and their supplications ascended to G-d from [amidst] the slavery.

-Shemos 2:23

If one wanted to create a timeline charting the Geulah-salvation from Galus Mitzrayim-the Egyptian exile, the split second of this collective national groan would be the starting point of the timeline.  Before that moment they had no impetus, no drive to pray and call out to G-d. When the Divine Will decreed that the time for Geulah had come, HaShem stimulated their desire to be extricated from Galus and the will to pray for this salvation.  For the naissance of every salvation is the desire for salvation.

The Izhbitzer’s elder son, the Bais Yaakov, develops this concept further: The period of nocturnal darkness that is most intense and most concealing is the one directly preceding the dawning of the light. Our sages refer to this as קדרותא דצפרא–the starless morning gloom, and use it as a metaphor for the intensification of Jewish suffering. “A man and his young son were wandering on the seemingly interminable road and the boy began despairing of ever returning to civilization. ‘Father’ he asked ‘Where is the city?’ The man responded ‘Son, when we pass a graveyard that will be the sure sign that a city is not far off.‘  Similarly the prophet told K’lal Yisrael–the Jewish People ‘If you are swamped by travails you will be redeemed immediately — HaShem will respond on the day of your suffering’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 20:580)

When the new king ramped up the sadistic slave-labor he had overplayed his hand.  Somehow, the human capacity for adaptation to trying circumstances had allowed K’lal Yisrael to endure the slavery up until that point. They had grown inured and insensitive to the agonies and the indignities that their taskmasters heaped upon them.  But when the oppression intensified they finally sensed their own innate freedom and free men cannot tolerate being enslaved. They felt the pain and suffering of their slavery and began to sniff the sweet aroma of liberation. When it hurts, one groans and screams; ויזעקו   –“and they cried out.”

It wasn’t so much that the liberation was a response to the crying out, as the crying out was a reaction to the liberation process that had begun internally. By implementing the Geulah from the inside out it was, in fact, HaShem who gave them the drive to cry out.  This is the meaning of the pasuk “HaShem, You have heard the yearning of the humble: You will prime their heart, Your Ear will be attentive” (Tehillim10:17).  Once the human heart is primed for prayer that is the sure sign that the Divine Ear has already been attentive to the distress and taken the initial steps towards ending it. HaShem develops Geulah gradually until it is actualized. It begins with the end of endurance of Galus and the capacity to feel the pain, progresses to hope and the conviction that HaShem can help, flowers into crying out in prayer and culminates in the actual Geulah.

The Bais Yaakov adds an etymological insight: two nearly synonymous words in lashon kodesh-the holy tongue mean “to cry out”, זעקה-zeakah (beginning with the letter zayin) andצעקה  –tzeakah (beginning with the letter tzadee). Tzeakah is the verb employed when things are hopeless and the path to salvation is completely obscured. As that pasuk says “This case is identical to a man rising up against his neighbor and murdering him. After all, she was assaulted in the field, even if the betrothed girl had cried out (צעקה beginning with a tzadee) there would have been no one to come to her aid and save her (literally: she would have had no savior.)” (Devarim 22:26, 27)

Whereas zeakah is the verb employed when things are no longer hopeless and the salvation begins to become palpable. This type of “crying out” takes place when, sensing the possibility of salvation, one begins marshalling and concentrating all of his faculties towards the achievement of this goal, evoking a corresponding Divine response.  At its root the verb zeakah means to coalesce and band together as in וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ אֶל-עֲמָשָׂא, הַזְעֶק-לִי אֶת-אִישׁ-יְהוּדָה שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים; וְאַתָּה, פֹּה עֲמֹד “And the king said to Amasha: muster the men of Judah together for me within three days, and you be present here.”  It is this latter verb that connotes hope and faith in the salvation, which our pasuk uses to describe the crying-out; וַיֵּאָנְחוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִן-הָעֲבֹדָה, וַיִּזְעָקוּ – The children-of-Israel groaned due to their slavery and they cried out.

The first of the four famous expressions of Geulah (Shemos 6:6) is typically translated as “and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.” But the first Gerrer Rebbe, the Chidushei haRi”m  reads it in a way that resonates with the Izhbitzer’s  fixing the split second of this collective national groan as the starting point of the Geulah from Galus Mitzrayim. The Ri”m renders the first expression of Geulah as “and I will extricate you from your patience (savlanus), from your capacity to bear it [Galus Mitzrayim] anymore” for the redemptive process cannot begin as long as the exile can be tolerated.  Only after the Bnei Yisrael can no longer bear it and are disgusted by it, can the Galus be liquidated.  Getting in touch with their inner freeman, they must first grow furiously offended about the affront to their dignity — the insult, more than the injury, of slavery.

Hashem doesn’t take the slaves out of slavery until he takes the slavery out of the slaves.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach II Shemos D”H Vayeanchu
Bais Yaakov Shemos inyan29 D”H Vayeanchu page 29 (15A)
and inyan 30 D”H Vayeanchu page 30 (15B)

Originally posted Dec 2014

Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

What was the immediate purpose of Yoseph being privy to the dreams of his fellow prisoners?
Why is one dream about plants and the other about processed foods?
Why was the wine steward reinstated and the baker slain?

Soon thereafter the Egyptian king’s wine steward and the baker offended their master, who was the king of Egypt.

Bereishis 40:1

 [Regarding] this one (the wine steward) a fly was found in his goblet, and [concerning] that one (the baker) a pebble was found in his bread.  (Bereishis  Rabbah 88:2)

Rashi ibid

The wine steward told his dream to Yoseph,  “in my dream” he said, “there was a grape vine right in front of me and in the vine there were three shoots; and as soon as it began budding, its blossoms flowered, and its clusters matured into ripe grapes … I took the grapes and squeezed them into Pharaoh’s chalice and placed the chalice into the palm of Pharaoh’s hand.”

Bereishis 40:9-11

When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was good, he said to Yoseph: ‘I also saw myself in my dream and there were three baskets of fine white bread on my head; and in the topmost basket there were of all kinds of baked goods for Pharaoh [to eat] but birds were eating from the basket on my head.

Bereishis 40:16,17

Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Woman is destined to give birth every day, for it is said, ‘the woman conceived and gave birth all together (Yirmiyahu 31:7).’” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun (Koheles 1:9).” Rabban Gamaliel replied ”Come, and I will show you its simile in this world [currently under the sun]”. He went out and showed him a hen [hatching her daily egg]. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “Trees are destined to yield fruit every day, for it is said, ‘ and it shall bring forth branches, and bear fruit (Yechezkel 17:23).’ Just as the branches [exist] every day, so too new fruit will ripen every day.” A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him the caper bush. On another occasion Rabban Gamaliel sat and taught, “[The soil of] Eretz Yisrael is destined to bring forth pastries and silk robes, for it is said, ‘there shall be grain as large as a handbreadth in the land (Tehillim72:16).’”  A particular disciple mocked him quoting, “there is no new thing under the sun.” Rabban Gamaliel replied “Come, and I will show you its simile in this world”. He went out and showed him morels and truffles; and for silk robes [he showed him] the bark of a young palm-shoot.

Shabbos 30B

 Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Of all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing lacking a purpose.

Shabbos 77B

The kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zohar Miketz 197A

Rav Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of Rav Yonasan: in his dreams a man is not shown anything other than the musings of his own heart.

Brachos 55B

The musings of his own heart. i.e. what he ponders during the day/ waking hours [is what he dreams about while sleeping]

Rashi ibid

On a superficial level the fall from grace of Pharaohs wine steward and the baker and the wine steward’s rehabilitation reads like just another instance of palace politics that have characterized the courts of kings from time immemorial. However Rav Leibeleh Eiger avers that, as the primary “audience” watching this drama unfold was Yoseph haTzaddik-the righteous; there is a profound lesson to be learned from it. As Rav taught everything has a purpose even if the purpose is not readily apparent or easily understood.

The episode of Rabban Gamiel and his skeptical student teaches us that some of G-ds creations serve a dual purpose; their utilitarian function in the temporal here-and-now world, as well as serving as symbols and allegories for matters spiritual or belonging to the eternal world-to-come. The sanctified-poetic sensibility and the discerning eye perceive some of the loftiest, transcendent matters in the most mundane of allegories.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes a step further and says that some creatures and historical events one and only purpose is to function as hints and allusions to the inner metaphysical realities that they allegorize.  This is particularly true in the politics, intrigues, pomp and ceremony of royal courts as the operative principle is that “the kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.” This is even truer here with Yoseph haTzaddik as the Divinely intended audience. It is part of a tzaddiks job description to cultivate a penetrating and discerning awareness to tunnel in and mine lessons from the pnimiyus-inner content; of all that meets his eyes.

The primary qualitative difference between the respective dreams of the baker and the wine steward is that the bakers dealt with a final product , a processed food; fine white bread, while the wine stewards dealt with the most primary source of the beverage; the grapevine itself.  Both men found themselves incarcerated and in a dire predicament for having been deficient in their service to Pharaoh. The wine steward desired to do teshuvah-repentance; and tikun– repair; to restore his former relationship with his master and invested a lot of time reflecting on what went wrong and how he could set things right.

Read more Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

What is the significance of HaShem making promises to an unconscious , sleeping Yaakov?
Why did HaShem allow Yitzchak to be duped by Rivkah and Yaakov to be deceived by Leah?
Why does our mystical tradition refer to Rachel as the “revealed world” and to Leah as “the hidden world?

Yitzchak summoned Yaakov, bestowed a blessing on him and commanded him “Do not marry a Canaanite girl”.

— Bereishis 28:1

Yaakov left Beersheba and headed toward Charan … taking some stones he placed them about his head and lay down to sleep there … Suddenly [he observed] HaShem Standing  over him … [HaShem said] I am with you. I will Safeguard you howsoever you go.

— Bereishis 28:10,11,13,15

HaShem Elokim said “it is not good for man to be alone. I will Make him a challenging helper.”

— Bereishis 12:18

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a Bas Kol-Echo of the Divine Voice; emanates and proclaims, The daughter of A is destined for B.’”

— Sotah 2A

House and riches are the legacy of fathers; but a sensible wife is from HaShem.

— Mishlei 19:14

We see from all segments of the tripartite Torah that the match between a woman and a man is from HaShem[‘s Divine Providence.]

— Moed Katan 18B

There are those who must go after their mates and others whose mates come to them. Yitzchak’s mate came to him, as it is written “(He raised his eyes) and beheld camels coming [transporting his bride Rivkah.] (Bereishis 24:63)” Yaakov went after his mate, as it is written “Yaakov left Beersheba … (Bereishis 28:10) “

— Bereishis Rabbah 68:3

Yaakov loved Rachel and said [to Lavan] “I will work for seven years for Rachel your younger daughter.” … In the evening he [Lavan] took his daughter Leah to Yaakov who consummated the marriage with her … In the morning discovering that she was Leah [not Rachel] he said to Lavan  “How could you do this to me? Didn’t I labor with you for Rachel[‘s hand in marriage]? Why did you cheat me?

— Bereishis 29: 18, 23,25

A reasonable argument can be made that THE greatest enigma in all of Jewish thought is the conundrum of Yediah u’bechirah-HaShem’s perfect infallible Foreknowledge vs. human free-will. But spinning off of this supreme enigma there are many sub-riddles and mysteries e.g. the particular Providential involvement that our sages ascribe to one’s destined marriage partner. Another example are narratives, both scriptural and personal, of “all’s well that ends well.” There are times when what we think, say or do seems to be thoughtless, ethically neutral or even contrary to the Divine Will. However when later chapters of these biographies are written by the Divine Author, with the passage of time and with the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we realize that, in truth, what we thought, said or did carried a positive ethical charge and was consistent with the Divine Will.

Our sages divide the Providential involvement in matching men with their destined marriage partners into two broad categories:  those who must go after their mates and those whose mates come to them.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, explains that when the Divine Will ordained the creation of woman as a helper to man that, this help too, would manifest itself in two different ways: There are times when a man is proactive in the pursuit of a woman and chooses a mate based on what his rationale, and the rationale of his heart, dictate. He marries a woman in whom heperceives the qualities that will aid him in his life’s work and mission. Such men are among those “who must go after their mates.”

Then there are men whose mates are not at all in accordance with what would naturally be assumed or expected. They come to their husbands without the latter having invested any intellectual, spiritual or emotional capital in determining whether or not they would “make sense” as a married couple. HaShem sends this woman to this man in ways that are counterintuitive and that, at first, seem to thwart both the Divine Will and hinder or delay the achievement of the husband’s goals.

Read more Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

The Interplay of Dread and Love

Why didn’t Yitzchak Avvinu seek his bride himself? Why was Eliezer dispatched?
Yitzchak represents gevurah, how was Rivkah, a personification of chessed, a fitting match for him?
Eliezer was not a card-carrying PETA member. Why was it so crucial that the intended bride water the camels as well?
Yitzchak was on his way, from Be’er laChai Roee. He was dwelling in the Negev Land at the time. Yitzchak went out to converse in the field toward evening.  He raised his eyes and saw camels come into view.

— Bereishis 24:62,63

For I have declared “the world is built through lovingkindness.”

— Tehillim 89:3

… Yaakov swore by the Dread of his father Yitzchak.

— Bereishis 31:53

Ben Zoma would say: … “Who is mighty? One who overcomes his inclination. As is stated ‘one who is imperturbable is better than a powerful, champion warrior; and one who reigns over his own spirit [is mightier] than the captor of a city. (Proverbs 16:32)’”

— Avos 4:1

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel/opposite the other.

Koheles 7:14

He [Eliezer] said [a prayer] “O HaShem, the Elokim of my master Avraham, Please cause occurrences to go my way today and do lovingkindness with my master Avraham … If I say to a [one of the towns] girl(s), ‘Tip your jug over and let me have a drink’ and she responds, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels,’ she will be the one whom You have proven to be [the bride] for your slave Yitzchak. Through such a girl I will know that You have done lovingkindness with my master.

— Bereishis 24:12,14

As I live, says HaShem Elokim, surely with a mighty hand, with an outstretched arm, and with outpoured fury, I will be king over you.

— Yechezkel 20, 33

The Izhbitzer School teaches that the middos-defining character traits; of Avraham and Yitzchak, while antithetical to one another, are also complementary with each filling in what the other lacks.  Avraham was the exemplar of chessed-altruistic, overflowing loving-kindness; while Yitzchak was the paradigm of gevurah-strength-infused control.  Chessed is sourced in love while gevurah is rooted in fear and awe.

As the Lubliner Kohen explains both altruism and narcissism fall under the rubric of chessed as both are forms of love and, when acted upon, are both expressions of love. While altruism is a love that overflows the narrow boundaries of self and is considered holy, narcissism is a love directed inwardly and that never goes beyond the parameters of one’s own being. It is regarded as antisocial and evil.

The opposite can be said of gevurah. When this middah is self-directed we think highly of it and even revere it as sacred self-control. But gevurah that does not practice restraint and brims over the borders of the individual’s personality seeking to overpower others, often degenerates into dehumanizing, Machiavellian manipulation and, when a verbal or physically aggressive element is added, it becomes the foundation of all interpersonal violence and tyranny. Even when leading friends and overcoming foes is the call of the hour, the strength of true champion warriors flows from a deep-rooted self-control. As Douglas MacArthur, one of history’s greatest champion warriors prayed “O L-rd … Build me a son … who will master himself before he seeks to master other men.”

The Izhbitzer elucidates the pesukim-verses; leading up to Yitzchaks first encounter with his zivug-soulmate; Rivkah, through the prism of his middah of awe-based gevurah.  The lashon kodesh-holy tongue; root of the word Negev-desert; means dehydrated or dried out. Waters, perhaps because, absent containers, they are without form, represent lusts, yearnings and loves. Thus the Izhbitzer interprets the passuk “He was dwelling in Negev Land” to mean that Yitzchak, whose relationship with HaShem is described as “Dread” had exercised great gevurah to “dehydrate” himself of all lusts and yearnings. It is in the physical nature of dehydrated items to shrivel, shrink and withdraw somewhat into themselves and it is in the metaphysical nature of ovdei HaShem m’yirah bi’gevurah-those who serve G-d through awe and holy self-conquest/control; to shrink i.e. to be closely circumscribed by the boundaries of their own beings lest they contaminate their middah with manipulation and control of others; and withdraw from risks and being active altogether lest proactivity lead them to crossing the Will of the One they dread.

Read more The Interplay of Dread and Love

Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Do animals have rights?
Why was meat-consumption forbidden to Adam but permitted to Noach?
If permitting meat was a reward for Noach saving the other species during the great deluge why is fish-consumption permitted?

… fill up the land and subjugate it. Have dominance over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the sky and over every living animal that creeps on the land. And Elokim said “I have given you all seedbearing greenery on the face of the earth, and every tree that has seedbearing fruit — it will [all] be yours — for your consumption. And for all beasts of the earth, and for all birds of the sky and for everything that creeps on the land —that contains a living soul — all plant vegetation will be food.” It was so.

— Bereishis 1:28-30

There shall be fear and dread of you instilled in  all of the wild beasts of the earth and in all the birds of the sky, and in in all that creep on the land and in all fish of the sea, I have placed them in your hands. Every living thing that moves will be to you as food. Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.

— Bereishis 9:2,3

Rav Yehudah, quoting Rav, said “Animal flesh (meat) was not permitted to the first Man [nor to subsequent human beings until Noach emerged from the ark] as a food. For it is written [when Elokim spoke to Adam, the first Man] ‘I have given you all seedbearing greenery … it will [all] be yours — for your consumption and for all beasts of the earth.’ But NOT ‘the beasts of the earth’ for you[r consumption. But when the sons of Noach came [out of the ark] He permitted it [meat consumption] to them, as it says ‘Like plant vegetation I have now given you everything.’

 — Sanhedrin 59B

All the rivers run into the sea

— Koheles 1:7

Hillel would say: … “Do not believe in yourself until the day you die!”

— Avos 2:4

Once, Rabi Pinchas ben Yair was on his way to [perform the great mitzvah of] redeeming captives, and came to the river Ginnai. “O Ginnai” he said, “part your waters for me, so that I may pass through you”. It replied “You are about to do the will of your Maker; I, too, am [presently] doing the will of my Maker [by flowing naturally]. You may or may not accomplish your purpose; I am sure of accomplishing mine.”

— Chulin 7A

HaShem has made all things for His own purpose i.e. to praise Him.

— Mishlei 164 and Yalkut Shimoni ibid

Elokim saw the world and it was ruined.  All flesh had perverted its way on earth.

— Bereishis 6:12

 Even domesticated animals, wild animals, and birds would mate with those who were not of their own species.

— Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Noach 12


All creatures of the creation were brought into being with their full stature and capacities, their full assent, and their full beauty, as it says, “And the heaven and the earth were finished, and all the of their legions” [tzeva’am]( Bereishis2:1). Do not read the word as tzeva’am, but tzivyonam [their beauty].

— Rosh Hashanah 11A

Many great commentaries and thinkers have weighed in on whether or not meat-consumption was permitted to the first ten generations of humankind and if, indeed, it was not, why was it permitted to Noach, his sons and to all subsequent generations of humankind?

Sundry approaches maintain that early man was too exalted to be a carnivore (Abarbanel, Rav Kook) or that early man was too debased to be a carnivore (Keli Yakar).  Some argue that the pragmatic nutritional concerns of the weaker, postdiluvian human bodies combined with a simultaneous dwindling in the capacity of botanic life to provide nourishment necessitated a switch to a meat-supplemented / based diet (Malbim, Tzeror Hamor).  One school of thought maintains that the dispersion of mankind across the globe to far-flung habitats lacking reliable plant-food supplies rendered vegetarian/ vegan diets a recipe for starvation (Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Rav Dovid Tzvi Hoffman). Still others assert that mankind had “earned” the right to become carnivorous due to Noachs righteousness and/ or herculean efforts in saving and feeding all of the animal species (Ramban, Meshech Chochmah et al). This last approach begs the questions of why fish, which survived the mabul-great deluge; without Noachs intervention, are permitted for human consumption?

What all the widely divergent opinions do seem to agree upon is a human-centric line of reasoning. All concur that the solution to the riddle of why Adam and his descendants were prohibited from eating meat — while Noach and his descendants were not — inheres in some way or another in qualitative differences that occurred in those doing the eating; not in those being eaten.  The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, develops an approach that is, at least partially, animal-centric. However, to understand it we first need to appreciate the relative advantages in being human or in being animal.

Read more Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Why are the demographic categories of the Jewish people divided into two distinct pesukim?
What is the underlying dynamic of the conversion process?

Today you are all standing before HaShem your Elokim — your leaders, your tribal chiefs, your elders, your law enforcement people, every man of Yisrael.  Your young children, your women, and the righteous converts in your camp  — even the lumberjacks and the water-carriers.

— Devarim 29:9,10

Yisrael-the Jewish People; and Oraysa-the Torah; are one.

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavneh, they said,”The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said, “Behold, HaShem Elokim says ‘days are coming and I will send forth a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of HaShem.’” (Ahmos 8:11).  And it is said, “And they will roam from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it.” (Ibid 12). … Rabi Shimon bar Yochai said: Heaven forefend that the Torah should ever be forgotten in Yisrael, for it is written, “for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their descendants.” (Devarim 31:21) Then how do I interpret, “they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it”? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.

— Shabbos 138B-139A

There is a one nation scattered abroad and divided among the nations in all the provinces of your highness’ kingdom …  

— Esther 3:8

Rabi Yohsi of the Galilee said “ There is no ‘elder’ other than one who has acquired Torah wisdom”

— Kiddushin 32B

In both the written and oral Torah a rich and diverse metaphorical imagery exists to describe the relationship between K’lal Yisrael– the Jewish People; and Torah. Torah is alternatively described as our sister, our bride, our legacy, our primary topic of conversation, our obsession, our “tree-of-life” lifeline — and more. The relationship is layered and complex and every metaphor illustrates a different facet of K’lal Yisraels rapport with the Torah.

Yet there is one teaching of our sages that seems to go beyond describing a multifaceted relationship between two disparate entities and, instead, portrays the fusion of K’lal Yisrael and Torah into a single being. Torah is not something that we enjoy a relationship with, Torah is our alter-ego … our secret identity.  Accordingly there are direct corollaries between what happens in the life of K’lal Yisrael and in the texture of the Torah.

To use a somewhat coarse allegory to correspond to the subtle abstraction being allegorized; one could not stab Mr. Hyde in the heart and express surprise at the news of Dr. Kekyll’s death nor could one feed a starving Dr. Jekyll and be disappointed that Mr. Hyde had survived the famine. As they share an identity what happens to one must happen to the other.

The Maharal of Prague utilizes the truism of the shared identity of K’lal Yisrael and Torah to explain the Gemara in Shabbos 138-9: “how do I interpret, ‘they will flail about back and forth to seek the word of HaShem, and will not find it’? They will not find a clear halachah or a clear Mishnah in any one place.” On the one hand, just as Klal Yisrael, while battered and beaten in a seemingly interminable exile, is ultimately indestructible, so is the Torah.  A Torah forgotten is a Torah annihilated and destroyed.  But on the other hand, explains the Maharal, just as Klal Yisrael is a the one nation or, more precisely, the nation of oneness, scattered abroad and divided among the nations so too is the Torah , the truly integrated discipline, disorganized and scattered unlike any other field of study.  The Torah cannot remain intact and integrated as its alter-ego, Klal Yisrael, suffers dispersion and disintegration as a result of galus.

Another classic application of this truism is provided by the Izhbitzer at the beginning of our Sidra.

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Falling In or Standing Out?

Why is Viduy Maasros called a viduy when we aren’t confessing to any wrongdoing?
Chazal teach us that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged collectively and individually. How is that possible?
… I have removed all sacred shares from my home; I have given [the suitable shares] to the Levi, the orphan and widow, in accordance with all the precepts that You commanded us. I have not transgressed your commands nor have I forgotten anything. I have not consumed of it [the second maaser-tithe;] while in mourning, I have not apportioned / consumed any of it while tamei-halachically impure; nor have I used any for the dead, I have paid attention to the Voice of HaShem my Elokim and have acted in harmony with all that You commanded me.

—Devarim 26:13,14

Hashkifah-Look down; from your holy meon– habitation; in heaven and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us, the land streaming milk and honey, as You swore to our forefathers.

—Ibid 15

And the men arose from there, and they looked down upon Sodom …

—Bereishis 18:16

and they looked down:  Wherever the word הַשְׁקָפָה =hashkafah is found in TeNaK”h, it indicates misfortune, except (Devarim 26:15) “Look down (הַשְׁקִיפָה) from your holy meon,” for the power of gifts to the poor is so great that it transforms the Divine attribute of Wrath to Mercy.

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

Divine Judgment is passed on the world at four intervals [annually] … On Rosh Hashanah all those who’ve come into the world pass before Him like children of Maron i.e. single-file, individually

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

And [please] do not put Your slave on trial; for before You [under Your exacting judgment] no living being will be vindicated.

—Tehillim 143:2

Who can say: “I have made my heart meritorious; I have purified myself from my sin”?

—Mishlei 20:9

Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said in the name of Rav Yochanan: [All the same on Rosh Hashanah] they are all viewed [together] with a single [all-encompassing] look. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok said: We also have learned the same idea: “[From the place of His habitation He looks השגיח upon all the inhabitants of the earth.] He that inventively designed the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their doings” (Tehillim 33:14,15). … what it means is this: The Creator sees their hearts all-together and considers all their doings[collectively].

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

The revealed facet of this teaching of the sages is self-evident but the esoteric meaning is undoubtedly difficult to grasp

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

Rabi Yochonan taught “tithe so that you grow wealthy.”

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

 The juxtaposition of the Yamim Nora’im-days of Awe; and Parashas Ki Savo, almost always read a mere two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is among the oddest vagaries of the Torah calendar. Whereas the month of Elul, the yemei Selichos and Yamim Noraim are characterized by detailed A-Z confessionals the “viduy” maasros-“confession” of proper tithing; that we find in Parashas Ki Savo seems to be anything but a confessional. While the Sforno and other commentaries search for a subtextual sin being alluded to; on the surface it reads like a kind of turned-on-its-head anti-confessional informed by an apparently unseemly braggadocio.

In it the “confessor” does not own up to any wrongdoing at all. On the contrary — he spells out all of the righteous and law-abiding things that he has done vis-à-vis the tithing of his agricultural produce.  If this braggarts confessional were not enough the cocky confessor concludes his Divine conversation with a crude, insistent, strong-armed demand; boldly inviting Divine scrutiny and reeking of tit for tat: “Hashkifah … and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us … as You swore to our forefathers.” It’s almost as if the confessor was kivyachol-so to speak; challenging HaShem by insisting “I’ve done mine, now You do Yours!”

We know that on the yemei hadin-judgment days; of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Divine Judgment proceeds along two, seemingly mutually exclusive tracks; the individual and the collective.  On the one hand the mishnah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, like sheep passing beneath the shepherds crook for exclusive inspection, all pass before G-d single-file, kivyachol, to be judged individually.  But on the other hand the gemara, teaches that on Rosh Hashanah all are viewed and judged collectively with a single all-encompassing look. According to the Lubliner Kohen, the gemara was, so to speak, apprehensive of the awesome and awful implications of trying to survive such a withering examination and, so, it diluted “sweetened” absolute justice with the less demanding single, all-encompassing look. The Rambams comment that “the esoteric meaning of this mishnah is undoubtedly difficult to grasp” is interpreted by one of the great 20th century Jewish thinkers to mean that judging collectively and individually simultaneously are two antithetical elements in one process. It seems impossible that they could coexist.

That said, being judged as a member of a large collective is the safer of the two tracks and lends itself to greater optimism for a positive outcome for the defendants. As the Izhbitzer explains; HaShem judgmental scrutiny is infinite in its scope and breadth and plumbs the infinitesimal in its attention to detail.  Whenever He focuses on a single individual that individual is gripped by terror, for no individual can face G-d and declare that s/he is completely righteous and totally free of sin. One on trial by G-d can only exhale and begin to relax a bit when s/he is part of a communal body and when it is that collective entity, rather than its individual component parts, that is being judged. In a collective the component parts “clarify” one another for every soul is outstanding and pure in one specialized field. Or, as the Lubliner Kohen puts it, component parts of the whole are complimentary.  What one lacks another completes … and vice versa.

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

Why were there some who hoarded the manna?
What turned Wormy before it even spoiled?
Why did Yisro arrive right after the disaster at Rephidim?

Moshe said to them, “let no man leave any [mann-manna;] over until morning.”But they did not listen to Moshe, some men left some over until morning and it became maggoty with worms and putrid and Moshe grew angry at them.

— Shemos 16:19,20

And putrid: This verse is transposed, because it first became putrid and only later did it grow maggoty with worms, as it says: “It did not putrefy nor become maggoty with worms.” (ibid:24), and such is the natural progression of all things that become wormy.

— Rashi ibid citing Mechilta

They put it [the extra portion of mann that fell on Friday] away until [Shabbos] morning as Moshe had commanded. It did not putrefy nor become maggoty with worms.

— Shemos 16:24

The entire community of the Bnei Yisrael-the children of Israel; moved on from the Sin Desert traveling by the word of G-d, until they camped in Rephidim.

— Shemos 17:1

Moshe named the place [Rephidim] Testing-and-Argument after the quarrel of the Bnei Yisrael and after their testing of HaShem. They had asked “Is HaShem within us or not?”

— Shemos 17:7

To every thing there is a phase, and a time to every purpose under the heaven …   A time to love,  and a time to hate;  a time for war,  and a time for peace. 

— Mishlei 3:1,8

The lashon kodesh-Torah Hebrew; homograph/homophone middah can be defined as both a psycho-spiritual tendency, as in middos tovos-refined character traits, or as a unit of/ a tool for calculating measurements, as in middos umishkalos-measures and weights. From Maimonides to Rav Eliyahu Lazer Dessler (see Michtav m’Eliyahu II pp. 248-249), many baalei mussar-Jewish ethicists; explain the common root of these two dictionary entries as deriving from the truth that all of our psycho-spiritual tendencies are meant to be weighed, measured and applied in a precise, deliberate manner, at the proper time and under the correct conditions. Millimeters and kilometers are both true and valid metric units. But woe to the one who measures his footraces in millimeters and who gauges the thickness of his glass lenses in kilometers.

Even those middos that we consider to be intrinsically good can turn negative if pursued or applied excessively — nothing fails like excess.  The obverse of this coin is that there are no intrinsically evil middos and that we are meant to play the entire hand that G-d has dealt us. Perhaps the milk of human cruelty, jealousy and stinginess needs to be doled out with an eye-dropper and at very infrequent intervals (or even once in a lifetime) but as long as the eye dropper is wielded with measured, precisely calibrated applications, then cruelty, jealousy and stinginess become good middos as well.

Moreover, just as a merchant can put his thumb on the scale or otherwise falsify his weights and measures to short-change the customers, there exist counterfeit, false middos shebenefesh– psycho-spiritual tendencies; that somewhat approximate, but that misrepresent and counterfeit, the genuine article. The Izhbitzer examines two middos at the root of two narratives in our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; in light of this.

What motivated those who defied Moshe and left over a portion of their mann for the following day?  Most would aver that they lacked faith and trust in G-d, that despite already experiencing the mann’s miraculous descent from heaven and its extraordinary capacity to sustain them, they somehow felt that HaShem would not deliver on His promise the following day. But this really beggars credulity.  Why would anyone believe that HaShem would cause the mann to fall one day and fail to do so the next day?

The Izhbitzer maintains that their hoarding derived from not believing in themselves, from a self-confidence deficiency. In modern terms we’d call this low self-esteem or an inferiority complex. He says that the hoarders did not doubt HaShem’s munificence to the entirety of k’lal Yisrael-the Jewish people; and were sure that the following day mann would fall from heaven for k’lal Yisrael … just not for them personally — that somehow their particular allotted portions would be missing.  The Izhbitzer sharply condemns their low self-esteem terming this ersatz, counterfeit humility anavah beushah– rancid, putrefied humility.  Then as now, some people of a particular religious sensibility mistake low self-esteem for anavah-humility; a most laudable middah.   But the Izhbitzer teaches that no individual should consider themselves worse or less deserving than the balance of k’lal Yisrael. This is either taking humility to an exaggerated, and thus counterproductive, extreme or it is coming from an unhealthy element in the person’s makeup and is not sourced in true humility at all.

Read more Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence