Understanding Why We Believe in the Divinity of Torah

Rambam Mishna Torah – Yesodei Ha Torah – Chapter 8

Halacha 1

The Jews did not believe in Moses, our teacher, because of the wonders that he performed. Whenever anyone’s belief is based on wonders, [the commitment of] his heart has shortcomings, because it is possible to perform a wonder through magic or sorcery.

All the wonders performed by Moses in the desert were not intended to serve as proof [of the legitimacy] of his prophecy, but rather were performed for a purpose. It was necessary to drown the Egyptians, so he split the sea and sank them in it. We needed food, so he provided us with manna. We were thirsty, so he split the rock [providing us with water]. Korach’s band mutinied against him, so the earth swallowed them up. The same applies to the other wonders.

What is the source of our belief in him? The [revelation] at Mount Sinai. Our eyes saw, and not a stranger’s. Our ears heard, and not another’s. There was fire, thunder, and lightning. He entered the thick clouds; the Voice spoke to him and we heard, “Moses, Moses, go tell them the following:….”

Thus, [Deuteronomy 5:4] relates: “Face to face, God spoke to you,” and [Deuteronomy 5:3] states: “God did not make this covenant with our fathers, [but with us, who are all here alive today].”

How is it known that the [revelation] at Mount Sinai alone is proof of the truth of Moses’ prophecy that leaves no shortcoming? [Exodus 19:9] states: “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear Me speaking to you, [so that] they will believe in you forever.” It appears that before this happened, they did not believe in him with a faith that would last forever, but rather with a faith that allowed for suspicions and doubts.

Halacha 2

Thus, those to whom [Moses] was sent witnessed [his appointment] as a prophet, and it was not necessary to perform another wonder for them. He and they were witnesses, like two witnesses who observed the same event together. Each one serves as a witness to his colleague that he is telling the truth, and neither has to bring any other proof to his collegue.

Similarly, all Israel were witnesses to [the appointment of] Moses, our teacher, at the [revelation] at Mount Sinai, and it was unnecessary for him to perform any further wonders for them.

This concept [is alluded to in the interchange between God and Moses at the revelation of the burning bush]. At the beginning of his prophecy, the Holy One, blessed be He, gave him the signs [and wonders] to perform in Egypt and told him [Exodus 3:18], “And they will listen to your voice.”

Moses, our teacher, knew that one who believes [in another person] because of signs has apprehension in his heart; he has doubts and suspicions. Therefore, he sought to be released from the mission, saying: “They will not believe me” [Exodus 4:1], until the Holy One, blessed be He, informed him that these wonders [were intended only as a temporary measure,] until they left Egypt. After they would leave, they would stand on this mountain and all doubts which they had about him would be removed.

[God told him:] Here, I will give you a sign so that they will know that I truly sent you from the outset, and thus, no doubts will remain in their hearts. This is what is meant by [Exodus 3:12]: “This will be your sign that I sent you: When you take the people out of Egypt, you will serve God on this mountain.”

Thus, we do not believe in any prophet who arises after Moses, our teacher, because of the wonder [he performs] alone, as if to say: If he performs a wonder we will listen to everything he says. Rather, [we believe him] because it is a mitzvah which we were commanded by Moses who said: If he performs a wonder, listen to him.

Just as we are commanded to render a [legal] judgment based on the testimony of two witnesses, even though we do not know if they are testifying truthfully or falsely, similarly, it is a mitzvah to listen to this prophet even though we do not know whether the wonder is true or performed by magic or sorcery.

Translation from Chabad.

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

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

Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

This weeks installment is dedicated l’iluy nishmas Gitel Leah a”h  bas Menachem Mendel Hy”dMrs. Lidia Schwartz nee’ Zunschein whose yuhrzeit is this week.

Did the plague of darkness cross the boundaries of Goshen?
Why is the plague of darkness the only one in which the Torah reveals that the opposite was happening to the Israelites?

Moshe lifted his hand towards the sky and there was obscuring darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another nor could anyone rise from beneath [the palpable, immobilizing darkness] for [another] three days. However, there was light for all of the Bnei Yisrael in their dwellings.

—  Shemos 10:22,23

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the HaShem shines upon you. For, behold, darkness covers the earth and dark thick clouds [covers] the peoples; but upon you HaShem will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light and kings [will march] by the radiance of your shine.

— Yeshaya 60:1-3

No longer will the sun provide you with daylight and radiance, nor will the moon illuminate [the night for you]; but HaShem will be an everlasting light for you, and your Elokim will be your brilliance.

— Yeshaya Ibid:19

Even the darkness is not too dark for You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness is as the light.

—  Tehillim 139:12

HaShem will plague Egypt, plaguing and healing …

— Yeshaya 19:22

“Plaguing” the Egyptians and “healing” the Bnei Yisrael-the Children of Israel.

— Zohar commenting on the above pasuk

As in the days of your exodus from land of Egypt I will display miraculous things.

—  Michah 7:15

Rabi Yehudah combined and split up the makkos-plagues of Egypt; into simanim- mnemonics: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v

—  Haggadah shel Pesach

The Midrash says that wherever a Jew would sit down things would become illuminated for him. Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that the Midrash deduces this from the difference in the Torahs description of the Bnei Yisrael being unaffected by makkas choshech- the plague of darkness; compared to the makkas barad-plague and hail.  When describing the plague of hail the Torah writes: “It was only in the Goshen where Bnei Yisrael were, that there was no barad” (Shemos 9:26). If makkas choshech had been identical to makkas barad what we should have had was a pasuk reading something along the lines of “No darkness dimmed the land of Goshen” or “there was abundant light throughout the boundaries of the Bnei Yisrael.” Instead the pasuk emphasizes the dwellings of the Bnei Yisrael rather than a particular area on the map of Egypt.

In fact, darkness lay on the land uniformly and respected no boundaries.  Darkness fell into pharaoh’s palace and land of Goshen equally.  The dichotomy between the Egyptian and the Israelite experience during this plague was not geographically rooted.  Instead, it derived from the difference between the Israelite an Egyptian soul. As the Jewish soul cleaves to HaShem, the dynamic that allowed the Bnei Yisrael to be untouched by this plague was that the Ohr Ein Sof Baruch Hu-the Light of the Endless One – Blessed is He [alternatively the Endless Light– Blessed is He]; was with them and, perhaps, diffusing through them.

While we’re all very familiar with the simanim of the Haggadah: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v , dividing the 10 plagues of Egypt into two sets of three followed by a final set of four, Rav Leibeleh Eiger introduces another way of categorizing the plagues.  He asserts that only during the first nine of the plagues, of which darkness is the final one, did the Egyptians have the opportunity of exercising their free will to liberate the Bnei Yisrael and dismiss them from the land.  The final plague, makkas bechoros-the smiting of the firstborn; forced their hands.  At that point they had they no longer had any choice in the matter.  Viewed in this way the makkos are divided into 9+1.  Makkas chosech was the final plague while makkas bechoros was something qualitatively different altogether.  As such, makkas chosech was the beginning of geulah-redemption; of the Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptian exile.  As darkness engulfed the land the salvation began.

In Jewish eschatology one of the hallmarks of the ultimate Geulah at the end-of-days, is that the presence of G-d will be palpable and manifest and that all powerless idols and false ideologies will be exposed for the obscuring mirages they are. Their smoke —their pollution — will blow away, scattered by the fresh winds of truth.  The Geulah will be a kind of cosmic reboot where everything is reset and recalibrated to the Manufacturer’s factory settings.  In order to get a glimpse of the ultimate Geulah it is instructive to study the sources describing how these “factory settings” where first fiddled with and misaligned.

Read more Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

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

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

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Why was Yehudahs approach to saving Yoseph so different from that of Reuvens?
Why do the sages condemn those who find merit in Yehudahs tactics?

Reuven heard these words [the brothers’ plot to murder Yoseph] and tried to rescue him saying “Let’s not kill him.” And he said to them “Don’t commit bloodshed … “

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

Reuven responded and said “ didn’t I tell you not to commit a sin against the lad [Yoseph]? but you didn’t listen. Now a Divine accounting is being demanded for his blood”

— Bereishis 42:22

And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?”

— Bereishis 37:26

And the greedy one desirous of gain [ובוצע ברך] blesses himself … in having infuriated HaShem

— Tehillim 10:4

Rabi Meir says: This passuk  [ובוצע ברך] refers to none other than Yehudah, for it is written, And Yehudah said to his brothers: “What will we gain [ מה בצע] if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” So all who praise/bless Yehudah, the botzeia; infuriate [HaShem] …

— Sanhedrin 6B

There was a small city, with only a few inhabitants; and a great king came against it, surrounded it, and built great siege-works against it.  A poor wise man was present in the city who, by his wisdom, liberated the city; yet no one remembered that poor man.

— Koheles 9:14,15

[The above passage is interpreted as referring to the milchemes hayetzer-man’s internal moral battle to exercise his free will properly. The “great king” refers to the yetzer hara-inclination to evil; while the “poor-wise” man represents the yetzer tov-inclination to good. The Gemara comments:] “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.”

— Nedarim 32B

Rabi Yehudah quoting Rav said  “One should always busy himself with Torah [study] and Mitzvah [performance] even if he does so for ulterior motives for the result will eventually be that, from within the ulterior motives, he will [develop to] attain the level of [Torah study and Mitzvah performance] for its own sake.

— Nazir 23B

Both Reuven and Yehudah tried to dissuade their other brothers from harming Yoseph. But their diverse approaches are markedly different. Reuven is an ethicist exhorting the brothers to avoid sin and spilling the blood of innocents. Reuven appeals the better angels of their natures and argues, in effect, that virtue is its own reward and that they ought to do the right thing for its own sake. Yehudah is a pragmatist.  His tactic to get the brothers to drop their murderous plan is “What’s in it for us? What do we stand to gain either monetarily (Rashi’s interpretation) or in terms of our fathers affection?”  There is no trace of a moral or halachic argument in Yeudah’s words.

The Izhbitzer explains that Yehudah based his approach on the psycho-spiritual dynamic revealed by the Gemara-Talmud; that “At the time that the yetzer hara holds sway no one can even remember the yetzer tov.” When the Divine Will chooses to test us It causes us to completely forget the severity of the prohibition and to put the moral repugnance of the sin out of our minds. HaShem designed the mechanism of bechirah chofshis-human free-will; to function such that, in the heat of the nisayon-test; when the yetzer hara asserts itself, none can even remember the yetzer tov. While enmeshed in the ethical challenge to reject evil and embrace good, exhortations for moral and ethical behavior, to do the right thing for its own sake, will fall on deaf ears.  The time for understanding  and internalizing the lessons of the superiority of good over evil and that virtue is its own reward is pre-need. In the heat of the moment of trial the inclination to do good is nowhere to be found.

It is at times like these when the most efficient tool against embracing evil, abusing our bechirah chofshis, is to appeal to pragmatic considerations and ulterior motives. The Izhbitzer maintains that Yehudah was a down-to-earth “man of the world” well acquainted with hardheaded realities and that he recognized that the brothers were in the very thick of a great nisayon. There internal voices of conscience and morality had been silenced and he understood that any appeals based on morality and ethics emanating from him would be similarly ignored.  And so he forwarded the מה בצע –what’s in it for us?  What will we gain?; argument. Even when the yetzer hara holds sway people “remember” such practical considerations and, if compelling enough, they can dissuade would-be-sinners from doing evil or, at least, affect some damage-control and diminish the intensity of the sin.

The brothers were in the midst of a great nisayon, their collective memory loss of their yetzer tovs was so great that they were convinced that the murder that they sought to do was justified and was, in fact, the moral and ethical thing to do.  Many meforshim-commentaries take the approach that the brothers convened as a Sanhedrin and ruled that Halachah demanded that Yoseph  be put to death.  The Sforno (37:25) opines that they had ruled Yoseph to be a rodeiph-a “chaser” with homicidal intentions. In such cases anyone may kill the rodeiph to save the life of the would-be murder victim. While the Izhbitzer asserts that the brothers ruled that Yoseph, trying to drive a wedge between them and their father was amounted to sundering the unity of HaShem. In so doing Yoseph had committed a capital offense akin to idolatry.

Read more The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

Forbidden Kiruv

Why didn’t Yaakov simply pass Esav by instead of engaging him?
Why did Yaakov send Angels to his brothers rather than humans?

Yaakov sent representatives ahead of him to his brother, Esav, to Edom’s Field toward the land of Seir.

— Bereishis 32:4

The representatives returned to Yaakov and told him: “We came to your brother, Esav, and he’s also heading toward you. He has [a force of] 400 men with him.”

—Ibid:7

One who grows angry while passing by a quarrel that does not concern him is akin to one who seizes a [sleeping] dog by the ears.

Mishlei 26:17

Let sleeping dogs lie

Popular idiom version of passuk in Mishlei

Our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2) criticized Yaakov for this [sending representatives and gifts to Easv] comparing it to waking a sleeping dog by yanking its ears: The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov “he [Esav] was going his own way [not considering any hostilities to Yaakov] and you had to send him representatives and remind him [of the old dormant enmity] ‘to my lord Esav. Your humble slave Yaakov says … ’”?

— Ramban Bereishis 32:4

Yaakov remained alone. A man wrestled with him kicking up dust until the darkness lifted

— Bereishis 32:25

… Our Rabbis explained (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3, 78:3) that the wrestling man was the prince (guardian angel) of Esav.

— Rashi Ibid

… Rivkah became pregnant. But the offspring clashed/ scurried inside of her …

— Bereishis 25:21,22

Our Rabbis (Bereishis Rabbah 63:6) interpreted it [the word וַיִתְרוֹצִצו] as an expression of running/ scurrying (רוֹצָה) . When she passed by the entrances of [the] Torah [academies] of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would scurry and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of [a temple of] idolatry, Esav would scurry and struggle to come out. 

— Rashi Ibid

Question: Isn’t it true that the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; is not operative in-utero and that it is not within man until man is born … [if so why was Esav drawn to evil before he was even born]? The answer is that while it’s true that man has no yen and desire for evil, as part of his free-will equation, until after he is born; what Esav was doing here [when scurrying towards the temples of idolatry] was qualitatively different.  Esav was not yielding to the seductions of his yetzer hara, instead he was magnetically drawn towards his source, nature and species, as it were. For all things are aroused by, and inexorably drawn towards, the source of their intrinsic nature and self-definition.

— Gur Aryeh- supercommentary of the Maharal to Rashi Ibid

It is indeed odd that Yaakov would have awakened the sleeping dog/ giant. At first glance, what could possibly have motivated him to do so is incomprehensible.

According to one approach of the Midrashic sages the representatives that Yaakov dispatched to Esav were heavenly angels. Many commentaries have addressed Yaakov’s “need” for angels. Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that Yaakov was on what, in the contemporary parlance, might be called a mission of kiruv rechokim-bringing those distant from righteousness/ G-d closer.  Yaakov was unwilling to stand idly by as his twin brother degenerated deeper and deeper into the hellish depths of evil. He had hoped that the angels would prove equal to the task of discovering and nurturing Esav’s deeply buried goodness until it overwhelmed all his accretions of evil and washed them away in a cleansing wave of teshuvah-repentance.  After all, the passuk teaches us that angels are uniquely endowed with the capacity of advocating for deeply flawed individuals who possess as little as one tenth of one percent of decency and goodness: “If one has even a single angel out of a thousand advocating on his behalf by declaring his uprightness, then G-d will be gracious to him and say ‘redeem him from descending into destruction [i.e. the grave] for I havefound atonement/ ransom for him.’” (Iyov 33:23,24)

His interpretation is supported by a fuller, closer reading of the Midrash of “awakening the sleeping, vicious dog.” After citing the passuk in Mishlei the Midrash continues: Shmuel the son of Nachman  said “this is comparable to a traveler who awakened the leader of a gang of thieves sleeping at the crossroads and warned him of the imminent dangers [from wild animals]. Instead of thanking the traveler, the gang leader began beating his benefactor. The traveler cried foul ‘you cursed man [is this how you repay me for trying to save your life?]’ The gang leader then said ‘[you deserve it, it’s your own fault] I was slumbering comfortably and you woke me!’”

In this allegory Yaakov is represented by the traveler while Esav’s role is played by the gang leader. Nowhere in this allegory do we find a frightened Yaakov devising strategies and tactics to save himself and/or his family.  On the contrary, Yaakov is a selfless do-gooder trying to save the life and limbs of someone else, fast asleep and unaware of the looming, lurking dangers.  Yakkov’s good deed did not go unpunished and not only is he forced to struggle with the malicious ingrate Esav but, later, he was forced to contend with his evil guardian angel as well.

While it’s often said that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” it is still hard to grasp what occurred in this case.  Why did Yaakov’s well intentioned plan to save his twin from the wild animals of spiritual ruin go so badly awry? This is especially quizzical in light of the Zohar’s observation that “praiseworthy is he who takes the guilty/sinful by hand [and leads them along the path of repentance and tikkun]”

The Biskovitzer explains that while kiruv is a most praiseworthy endeavor it is wasted upon those whose evil is intrinsic and incorrigible rather than those whose evil is acquired through the incorrect exercise of their free-will. Echoing the Maharal’s clarification for Esav’s in-utero scurrying towards temples of idolatry and, no doubt, paraphrasing earlier sources, the Biskovitzer goes so far as to identify Esav with the primordial serpent who enticed Adam and Chavah into Original Sin.  In other words; Esav is not a good kid gone bad, he is just plain bad. He is not one who falls prey to the yetzer hara he IS the yetzer hara. Such evil is incorrigible, dealing with it in any way, even for the noble goal of its rehabilitation, is doomed to failure and to vicious, attacking ingratitude.

Read more Forbidden Kiruv

When Opposites Attract

Why did Avraham consider Eliezer to be cursed if Lavan referred to him as “the blessed of HaShem”?
If the cursed cannot bond with the blessed how are we to understand the unions of Shechem and Dinah, the Queen of Shevah and Shlomo the King et al?
Why didn’t Eliezer seek a girl who would do chessed proactively before having to be asked?

He [Noach] said, “Cursed is Cannan! He shall be a slave’s slave to his brothers”

— Bereishis 9:25

 “I will compel you with an oath in the name of HaShem, L-rd of Heaven and L-rd of earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites among whom I live.”

— Bereishis 24:3

“My master compelled me with an oath ‘Do not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites in whose land I reside. Instead you must go to my father’s house, to my family, and get a wife for my son there.’ I [then] said to my master ‘Perhaps the woman [from your family] will not follow me [back to Canaan]’? “

— Bereishis 24:37-39

Perhaps the woman will not follow me: It [the word אֻלַי (perhaps)] is written [lacking a “vav” and may be read] אֵלַי (to me). Eliezer had a daughter, and he sought a pretext so that Avraham would tell him, to turn to him [i.e. Eliaezers family], so that Yitzchok would marry his daughter. Avraham said to him, “My son is blessed, and you are cursed [Eliezer was a descendant of Canaan who had been cursed by Noach], and an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.”

— Rashi ibid

And Lavan said “Come O he who is blessed by HaShem! Why are you still standing outdoors? I have cleared the house [of what you might find offensive] and prepared a place for the camels.”

— Bereishis 24:31

Why is Mt. Sinai so called? [Sinai is, alliteratively, similar to the lashon kodesh-biblical Hebrew; word for hatred] Because it was there that hatred descended to the idolaters [for they rejected the Torah that was revealed there].

— Shabbos 89A and Rashi ibid

The intensity of the hatred that ignorami have for Torah scholars exceeds that of the anti-Semitism that the idolaters bear towards the nation of Israel …

— Pesachim 49B

As faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the hearts of men.

— Mishlei 27:19

He [Eliezer] prayed O HaShem, L-rd of my master Avraham, be with me today and grant favor to my master Avraham … If I say to a girl ‘Tip over your jug and let me have a drink’ and she responds ‘drink and I will also hydrate your camels’ she will be the one whom You have designated [as a bride] for your servant Yitzchok.”

— Bereishis 24:12,14

When discussing the metaphysics of matchmaking Avraham declares “… an accursed one cannot bond with a blessed one.” Yet TeNaC”h-the Jewish Torah canon; is replete with desired, attempted and actual unions, both marital and extra-marital, between evil and good.  The assertion that evil cannot unite with good, that curse cannot cleave to blessing; seems to be unsupportable in light of such matches and near-miss marriages as those of Shechem and Dinah, Potiphar’s wife and Yoseph, Kozbee and Zimri and Achashveirosh and Esther, et al.

Moreover Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, observes that while, per Chazal, Avraham rejected Eliezers marriage proposal on the grounds of Eliezer being cursed the Torah quotes Lavan as describing Eliezer as “he who is blessed by HaShem.”  Presumably “the Torah of truth” would not record nonsense, hyperbole or the insincere flattery of a sycophant. If Lavans words are true it means that at some point between Avraham rejecting his shidduch proposal and Lavan greeting him, Eliezer underwent a qualitative transformation from being accursed to being blessed.

The Lubliner Kohen illuminates the dynamic of a metamorphosis at least as astonishing as that of the caterpillar-into-butterfly variety.

Evil and Good are in a state of constant and intense antipathy towards each other.  They want no truck with one another and do not desire merger. Shlomo the king teaches in Mishlei that “as faces in the reflecting pool mirror one another, so too do the the hearts of men.” The nature of “emotion” is cyclical and reciprocal and so, the vicious cycle of abhorrence and recrimination between Evil and Good perpetually intensifies the alienation between the two.  But, at the risk of sounding trite, this begs the question: Who started the hostilities and estrangement?  Who’s to blame for the inability to come together?

A close reading of Rashi, “an accursed (one) cannot bond with a blessed (one)”reveals that it is evil that finds itself incapable of cleaving to good; it is not the other way around. I might add that this understanding is further supported by the gemara in Pesachim 49B that speaks of the hatred of the ignoramii and the idolatrous nations first, although it is safe to presume that the Torah Scholars and the Nation of Israel bear reciprocal loathing towards those who hate them. The passage in Shabbos 89A that pinpoints the origin of the Divine Hatred of the idolatrous nations at Sinai, only after they rejected the Torah, further bolsters this argument. Yet this makes it even more difficult to understand why it was Eliezer who initiated the proposed match between the daughter of Eliezer the cursed and the son of Avraham the blessed.

It is important to note that that Eliezer never articulated an explicit marriage proposal.  The proposal, such as it was, was an insubstantial allusion, a mere wordplay.  The Vilna Gaon explains that Chazal detected the subliminal marriage proposal in Eliezer employing the word אֻלַיperhaps; connoting a desired outcome, rather than פן–lest; connoting a scenario to be avoided. Moreover the Kotzker Rebbe insightfully points out that even this mere hint of a proposed match does not appear in the Torahs narrative of the actual dialogue between Eliezer and Avraham.  It is only later, during Eliezers repetition of that conversation to Rivkas family, that he had an epiphany and understood why he had employed the word אֻלַי rather than פן.

Along these lines, and to address the issues of evil and good bonding, the Lubliner Kohen maintains that during his actual conversation with Avraham, Eliezer revealed his subconscious desires in what contemporaries might call a Freudian slip, because he only had blessed potential at the time, but was not quite ready to transform into a full-fledged blessed being until after his encounter with Rivka. The nascence of his transformation from cursed to blessed began as soon as he accepted the mission of his master Avraham but, as he had not yet actualized his potential for blessedness he was, as yet, incapable of verbalizing his desire to unite with and cleave to the good and blessed on an overt level.

Read more When Opposites Attract

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.

Read more Nothing is Perfect Until it’s Incomplete

Only G-d Can Make an Identity

What is the true definition of Identity?

Why does the Midrash call the second blessing of the Amidah “HaShems blessing”?  as though the others are not.

I believe with complete faith that the Resurrection of the Dead will occur at the time when the Creator wills it … 

— 13th Article of Faith per Maimonides

 I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and magnify your name. You shall become a blessing.

 — Bereishis 12:2

Rabi Chiya bar Ze’eerah said [How was Avraham’s name magnified? Through becoming a blessing! HaShem said] “Your blessing precedes mine for [in the amidah-silent standing devotion] only after they recite the blessing ‘Shield of Avraham’ do they recite the blessing of ‘He Who resurrects the dead’ “

— BeMidbar Rabbah-Nasso 11:4

 [The Caesar] Antoninus said: “I am well aware that the least one among you [Tannaim-authors of the Mishnah] can bring the dead to life”

— Avodah Zarah 10B

 An Angel comes to the grave and asks [the deceased] “what is your name?” He responds: “It is known and revealed before the Blessed One that I do not know my name.”  

— Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer

Elokim made man level/straight; but they [men] have sought out many schemes.

— Koheles 7:29

[During the Resurrection HaShem] Desires to Straighten the crooked.

— Zohar Beshalach page 54A

People are resurrected in the same condition in which they died.  If they were lame, deaf or blind when they died; they will still be lame, deaf or blind when they are restored to life. Only afterwards will they be healed of their blemishes … they will even be wearing the same clothes …   [Why will HaShem resurrect the dead in this manner?] So that the wicked will not claim “[this is not true resurrection for] those who rose are not the same persons which He slew”. So the Holy Blessed One says “Let them arise in the same state as they went [while alive], I will heal them afterwards.”

— Midrash Tanchuma Vayigash 8

 Rabi Chiya bar Ze’eerah’s teaching seems odd. Why, asks the Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer, should the first brachah-blessing; of the amidah be considered any less “HaShems blessing” than the second?  HaShem is both “He Who resurrects the dead” and the “Shield of Avraham”?

The answer, simply put, is that while human beings could, theoretically, approximate the role of protecting Avraham from harm and enemies and thus presume the role of  “shield of Avraham”; no human being can quicken the dead — even for a moment. Thus of all the many prayers, blessings and liturgy that praise Him, HaShem chooses to describe the second blessing of the amidah as “His” brachah.

But this answer dare not be understood on a superficial level.  As we believe in hashgachah peratis-micromanaged Divine Providence; we know that even if a human being were to protect Avraham from harm and enemies he could not possibly do so without HaShem enabling him to do so. But if deeds accomplished through Divine facilitation (in other words all human endeavors) are still counted among human accomplishments then so should resurrection! The prophets Eliyahu and Elisha and, possibly, Yechezkal resurrected the dead. Moreover, as the Caesar Antoninus observed, any Tanna had this capacity as well. Some might argue that current microsurgery techniques that reattach severed limbs and restore them to full function is a kind of resurrection. Likewise, if cloning technology continues apace to the point that a fully functional and completely identical human organism can be replicated from a cadavers DNA, everyone will acclaim this as a medical miracle of resurrection.

Medicine has long been concerned with memory and identity loss through amnesia and dementia. World literature and folklore is replete with tales of identity swaps e.g. The Prince and the Pauper. While infrequent episodes of identity theft have always plagued society, in our era, in which identifying personal and financial information is routinely stored electronically, identity theft has become a crime pandemic. The Bais Yaakov teaches that what we believe as a part of our theology, what makes the ultimate Resurrection of the Dead uniquely Divine, is not so much that HaShem will restore life to lifeless corpses but that He will return the truest, profoundest identity to those who have lost it.

Read more Only G-d Can Make an Identity

The Deluge of Youth

What do mankinds greatest and worst generations have to do with one another?
“The Fountain of Youth” … why has mankind been searching for it from time immemorial?

And HaShem said: “My Spirit shall not keep on judging man forever, for he is nothing but flesh.  His days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

— Bereshis 6:3

I will be slow to anger for 120 years. If they do not repent I will bring the Flood upon them.

— Rashi ibid

Where is Moshe alluded to in the Torah? — In the verse: “For he is nothing but flesh” [the gimatriya-numerical value; of the Hebrew words משה –“Moshe” and בשגם  – “For (he) is nothing but” are equivalent. Moshe lived exactly 120 years]

— Chulin 139BR

Go [My prophet] and call into the ears of Jerusalem, declaring: HaShem says as follows: For you[r sake] I will remember the affection of your youth, the love of your nuptials; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an uncultivated land.

— Yirmiyahu 2:2

Remember, HaShem, Your compassion and Your loving-kindnesses; for they began before time. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions …

— Tehillim 25:6,7

Who Satiates your old age with good; so that your youth will be renewed like the eagle.

— Tehillim 103:5

 

Youth is an uncanny time in our lives.  While imprisoned within it we want nothing more than to escape it. Once we have escaped it we spend the balance of our lives yearning wistfully and futilely to return to it. By turns we long for the carefree times, irresponsibility, limitless possibilities, direction-changing impressions, dependence
on-others, physical attractiveness, good health, idealism and the simplicity of time when we were young.  From ancient and 16th century legends of Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth to the contemporary multibillion dollar cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; vast swaths of mankind have never ceased looking for ways and means of recapturing youth.

Most of all we long for the sheer vitality, power and strength that marks our early lives.  When we were young we had the speed, strength, stamina, mental acuity, inquisitiveness, reckless courage and optimism to accomplish great and meaningful things.  Many used their youthful, robust powers for good. However, lacking the skill and wisdom of age and experience; youth is also characterized by catastrophic mistakes, crimes and misdemeanors. Accelerating at youthful takeoff velocity, the young often take forks in life’s road that make U-turns impossible. The lion’s share of crimes is committed by the young.  Maturity and old-age are marked not only by longing for the restoration of youthful energy, but by remorse and regret over youthful indiscretions and catastrophic misdeeds.

Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, teaches that this is not merely true of individuals but for mankind as a whole. In its youth mankind was capable of great virtue and good — chessed neurim-the lovingkindness of youth; and of incredible transgression and evil — chatas neurim-the sins of youth.

Read more The Deluge of Youth

I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Is Judaism a meritocracy or an aristocracy?
Why do we dwell in our Sukkos on Shabbos but do not fulfill the mitzvah of Lulav on Shabbos?
Why is a stolen Lulav invalid for performing the mitzvah when one does fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah in anothers Sukkah?

[The nation of] Israel was crowned with three crown: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Ahron merited the crown of priesthood, as the passuk-verse; declares: “And it will be an eternal covenant of priesthood for him and his descendants following him.”(Bemidbar 25:13).  David merited the crown of royalty, as the passuk declares: “His progeny will continue eternally, and his throne will be as the sun before Me.” (Tehillim 89:37)

The crown of Torah lays at rest; waiting and ready for all, as the passuk declares:  “The Torah which Moshe commanded us is the inheritance of the congregation of Yaakov” (Devarim 33:4).  Whoever desires may come and take it. Lest you say that the other crowns are superior to the crown of Torah, consider that the passuk declares: “By me [Torah], kings reign, princes decree justice, and nobles rule” (Mishlei 8:15,16).  Thus, you have learned that the crown of Torah is greater than the other two.

— Rambam: Laws of Torah Study 3:1, 2

 

Today is to do them (the mitzvos) and tomorrow is NOT to do them. Today is to do them and tomorrow is to receive their reward.

— Eruvin 22A

Judaism contains elements of both an aristocracy and a meritocracy. On the one hand being a Kohen, a Levi or a candidate for Moshiach- the Messiah; is purely an accident of birth.  Jewish identity itself is determined by biological matrilineal descent while tribal identity is determined by patrilineal descent.

But on the other hand our sages teach us that a mamzer-one born from a kares prohibited union; who is a talmid chacam-Torah scholar; takes precedence over a Kohen Gadol-High Priest; who is an am haaretz-ignoramus. Anticipating sociological patterns, Chazal comment “take heed of [the dignity of] the children of the impoverished, for Torah [scholarship] shall emanate from them”(Nedarim 81A) and “[why is it] that the sons of talmidei chachamim are rarely talmidei chachamim themselves?” (ibid).  Some of history’s greatest Jews e.g. Onkelos, Rabi Meir and Rabi Akivah were geirim-righteous converts; or their descendants.  On this level Judaism is the ultimate meritocracy with no glass ceilings that impede upward social-spiritual mobility.

We will see that paradoxically; the aristocratic, heredity-based aspect is actually the more egalitarian, classless of the two elements whereas the meritocracy creates a stratified, multi-tiered hierarchy. Based on two Halachic differences between Sukkah and Lulav-the four species; the Izhbitzer understands the two mitzvos of the holiday in light of the hereditary- and merit-based components of kedushas Yisrael-Jewish sanctity.

On Shabbos the Halachah exempts us from fulfilling the mitzvah of Lulav whereas we are still obligated in the mitzvah of Sukkah.  The reason for the contrast is that Shabbos is a scintilla of Olam Haba-the Coming-World wherein avodah-serving the Creator through the exercise of free-will; no longer exists. There (then?) all that the person toiled to acquire in the here-and-now world through his choices and actions are secured in his heart. This is why all 39 categories of creative activity are prohibited on Shabbos. Whether we are speaking of our weekly Shabbosos or “The Day that shall be entirely Shabbos and eternal rest”, only one who has exerted himself on Shabbos eve will enjoy the fruits of his labors on Shabbos (Cp. Avodah Zarah 2A). Sukkah is an effortless mitzvah, one is merely “there.” Sukkah represents the hereditary kedushas Yisrael present in the heart of every Jew passed along like spiritual DNA from the patriarchs. The mitzvah of Sukkah resonates with same the kind of “all our work is done” sensibility that inform Shabbos and Olam Haba.

But Lulav, which we take up in our hands and move in every possible direction of human endeavor, is characteristic of all mitzvos maasiyos- the mitzvos requiring decision-making, exertion and activity. The Izhbitzer’s disciple, Rav Laibeleh Eiger points out that the gimatriya-numerical value; of Esrog is 610. When we count the other three species used to fulfill the mitzvah along with the Esrog the sum is 613, the precise total of all of the mitzvos. The 4 species embody every possible avodah endeavor. There is something very proactive, workmanlike and this-worldly about Lulav that makes it inconsistent with Shabbos.

Read more I’m Happy … Feeling like a Room without a Glass Roof

Defeating Self-Defeat

Why do people constantly sabotage themselves?
How does the scapegoat atone for the sins of Uza and Azael?

And Ahron [the Kohen Gadol-high priest] should place two lots on the two goats; one [marked] for HaShem and the other [marked] for Azazel

— Vayikra 16:8

And Ahron should press his two hands on the live goats head and confess all the sins of the Bnei Yisrael-Jewish people; on it, rebellious acts and unintentional offenses.  When, by doing so, he has placed them [all of these sins] on the goats head, he should send it into the desert with a man of the hour.

— Ibid 16:21

What would he [the man of the hour] do? He would take a crimson ribbon and tear it in two.  Half was tied to a sharp boulder while the other half was tied between the goat’s two horns.  He then pushed the goat backwards [over the peak] and it would roll down the mountain.  The goat was ripped limb from limb before it got halfway down the craggy mountain.

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

The Rabbis taught: [why] “Azazel”?  That it should be strong and hard … the academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught [why] “Azazel”? for it atones for the deeds of Uza and Azael [two fallen angels].

—Yoma 67B

Rami bar Chama taught: the numerical values of the word Hasoton-the Satan; is 364. This implies that for 364 days of the year he has authorization to prosecute but that on [one of the year’s 365 days] Yom Kippur … he does not.

—Yoma 20A

Reish Lakish taught: The Satan-the prosecuting attorney on High; the Yetzer Hara-the inclination to evil; and the Malach Hamaves-the Angel of Death; are one and the same entity.

—Bava Basra 16A

It is odd and almost counterintuitive that man, allegedly the most highly evolved of all organisms, should have the weakest of all survival instincts.  From the cradle to the grave humans are capable of reckless behaviors that endanger lives and limbs.  Humanities self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways.  From subconscious acts of self-sabotaging predicated on the excessive fear of failure, to cuttings and other forms of self-inflicted mutilation; from anorexia to obsessive overeating; from rampant consumerism that spells ecological disaster to nuclear fueled geopolitics that continue to push the envelope towards assured mutual destruction.

The most striking expression of the inclination to self-destruct is found in individuals who commit suicide including the most faddish and trendy iterations of murdering oneself including physician-assisted suicide, cop-assisted suicide and murder-suicides characteristic of both domestic violence and terrorist bombings. All in all both individual humans and humanity as a whole seem hell-bent on self-destruction.

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

The centerpiece avodah –Divine service; of Yom Kippur was the lottery of the two goats; one goat dedicated to HaShem whose blood was sprinkled in the inner sanctum while the other goat was designated as the sair laAzazel-the goat “dedicated” to Azazel; and was pushed off of a jagged cliff in the desert wilderness.  In the popular vernacular the goat that “lost” the lottery is commonly known as the scapegoat.  Many a proverbial quill has been broken in the commentaries attempts to explain such a puzzling avodah, especially on the holiest day of the year. The Ramban characterizes it as a bribe to the sitra achara-“the ‘other’ [dark] side”; while the Lubliner Kohen does not mince words and calls it an act of idolatrous worship that is, nevertheless, the Will of HaShem.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer Rebbe, offers a novel approach that recasts the sair laAzazel as the antidote for the human drive for self-destruction. But before presenting it I must introduce the foundation to unlocking the mystery of human self-destructiveness upon which the Bais Yaakov’s approach is based. It is a teaching found in the text and a hagahah-margin gloss; in Rav Chaim Volozhiners Nefesh Hachaim (pp.21, 23).

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

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

Jewish Spiritual Exceptionalism

When it comes to social media, they say that Facebook is for the people you used to know, Linked In is for the people you currently know, and Twitter is for the people you want to know. Facebook has served the “used to know” function for me and I have reconnected to many whom I grew up with in my old neighborhood.

One of the people I’ve reconnected with. and shared a number of restaurant meals. is a close friend from elementary school. He’s an extremely intelligent, well read, AP History teacher. He describes his political leanings as Scandinavian Socialist, which he says would classify him as a left-wing loony in this country. In any case, when we get together we discuss all the hot topics and I find our meetings enjoyable, informative, and challenging.

At a recent dinner we were discussing, American Exceptionalism, the theory that the United States is qualitatively different from other nations. Wikipedia has a good write up on American Exceptionalism which you might want to skim. My friend said that he has no problem with American Exceptionalism in theory, but that the role is often misused for unfair political or economic gain.

The conversation turned to Judaism and our “chosen” status. He asked why couldn’t Judaism just be one of many possible spiritual paths. I told him that Judaism has no problem recognizing the validity of other spiritual paths. However, we believe that with the Torah G-d granted the Jews a spiritual exceptionalism, with the giving of the Torah, and when we live up to our spiritual mission as described in the Torah, we will be recognized as a nation of spiritual leaders. I defined spirituality as developing a connection and awareness to G-d, the creator and master of the universe.

In addition to the Torah sources, I told him I believed in Jewish Spiritual Exceptionalism because I have met a number of Torah Observant people who are highly developed spiritually. I also pointed out that it’s logical that Judaism’s focus on G-d, through the learning of Torah and observance of Mitzvos in every sphere of life, would lead to the development of spiritually exceptional people.

The non-observant people I have communicated with online and off believe in a spiritual dimension. In fact, my friend above lamented the fact that he had not developed his spiritual side. Our Torah observance provides us with the potential to be spiritually execeptional as individuals and as a nation. We ally need to collectively and continually work on improving our connection to G-d through the improvement of our learning of Torah and observance of mitzvos.

At its root, Torah observance is not about happiness, it’s not about intellectualism, it’s not about a connected community, it’s not about a healthy lifestyle. Fundamentally, Torah observance is the means by which we create our connection to G-d and fulfill our spiritually exceptional role. Perhaps this is what we need to embrace and share with others.

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.

Read more Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

The Way of G-d – A Quick Overview

A few weeks ago, I posted 12 Fundamental Spiritual Beliefs based on Rabbi Chaim Moshe Luzzato’s Derech Hashem. The context was, if I only had a few minutes and wanted to give an overview, what would I teach from Derech Hashem.
I’ve refined them and created a graphic to help install these fundamental ideas into our long term memory.

WayOfGdOverview

The Way of G-d has four sections
1. Fundamentals of Creation
2. Divine Province
3. The Soul and Prophecy
4. Serving G-d

1. Fundamentals of Creation
Goodness - Hashem created the world to bestow goodness on man, who is composed of a physical body and spiritual soul.
Means – The greatest goodness is coming close to Hashem with our spiritually strengthening free will choices to do mitzvos and avoiding sins.
Environment – Although spiritual influences and forces direct what occurs in the physical realm, man’s free will choices influence the spiritual realm.

2. Divine Province
Purpose – Hashem created and oversees all things for the ultimate purpose of man, and humanity as a whole, to come closer to Him.
Challenges – All the qualities in this world, such as wealth, poverty, gratifications and sufferings,… serve as a challenge for man in pursuit of the goal of attaining closeness to Hashem.
Jews – At this point of history, the goal of fulfilling humanity’s ultimate purpose is dependent on the mitzvos and the aveiros of the Jewish People.

3. The Soul and Prophecy
Levels of the Soul – Man’s physical body is connected to the spiritual world through five levels of soul, the Nefesh, Ruach, Neshamah, Chayah and Yechidah.
Spiritual Perceptions – In addition to his senses, man can receive information about the world through his soul(s) and the processes of dreams, divine inspiration and prophecy.
Prophecy – Many prophets received prophecy in a dream-state, but Moshe’s clear waking-state prophecy was of an entirely different nature, and through it, the Torah was transmitted from Hashem to Moshe.

4. Serving G-d
Mitzvos – Man serves G-d and achieves his purpose in the world through the performance of mitzvos and the study of Torah.
Torah Study – Torah study plays a very large role in bringing man to perfection and the highest positive spiritual influences in the world come about through its study.
Emotion, Thought, Speech & Action – Emotion based mitzvos include love and fear of Hashem, while thought, speech and action mitzvos are classified as continuous (e.g. Belief in Hashem), daily (e.g. Shema), periodic (e.g. Shabbos) and circumstantial (e.g. Mezuzah).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein on The Mistaken Rejection of Torah Leaders

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein in Darash Moshe comments on the mistakes of those who reject Torah leaders:

Korach’s argument, the entire congregation — all of them — are holy, and why do you exalt yourself over the congregation of Hashem, is the basic argument of those who reject the Torah leaders and think that they know the Torah as well as the gedolim, and they do not need a teacher or a leader.

Without the tradition from one of the great men of the generation, one can easily err, just as Korach erred in the laws of tzitzis and mezuzah, and just like the apostasy of Eleazar ben Po’irah, who maintained that the sefer Torah is lying in a corner, and whoever wishes to learn may come and learn (Kiddushin 66a).

The fallacy of this assertion is not only regarding the Written Torah,as the Sadducees maintained, when they denied the authenticity of the Oral Torah. One who believes that the Talmud and all the sefarim in the world are lying “in a corner,” and that anyone can learn from them without the direction and guidance of Torah authorities, is an apostate.

As is manifest, all kinds of apostates find support for their erroneous views in some Rabbinic maxim. This is because they misunderstand the meaning of the Rabbis. Even the generation of the desert, upon whom the Shechinah rested, for they had heard the first two commandments of the Decalogue, still required Moses and Aaron and all the sages of the generation.

Drowning on Dry Land

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.”

Read more Drowning on Dry Land