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

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

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?”

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

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

Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the Year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos. When all of Israel comes to appear before HaShem your Elokim in the place that he shall choose, you must read this Torah before all of Israel so that it is heard by their ears.  You must assemble the Nation; men, women, children and converts who dwell within your gates and let them hear it …

Devarim 31:10-12

When they are a third grown by the end of the seventh year [then] produce and olives that ripen in the eighth year {i.e. the first year of the new seven-year cycle} have the halachic status of produce and olives of the Sabbatical “Year of Letting-Go ”] What is the source this rule? — Rabi Assi said in the name of Rabi Yochanan (some trace it back to the name of Rabi Yohsee the Galilean): The pasuk states: “At the end of every seven year cycle, at an appointed time of the year of Letting-Go, on the festival of Sukkos..” Why should the [seventh] year of Letting-Go to be mentioned here? When the festival of Sukkos is celebrated [coming as it does after Rosh Hashanah] it is already the eighth year? It is into teach us that if produce has grown one third in the seventh year before New Year, the rules of the seventh year are to be applied to it even in the eighth year.

— Rosh Hashanah 12B

The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam

— Tehillim 115:16

 Whatever HaShem wills He has done, in heaven and in earth, in the oceans and in all the depths.

— Tehillim 135:6

 A Pruning Song of David.  The earth and it’s fullness [belongs] to HaShem; the world, and its inhabitants.

— Tehillim 24:1/daily psalm of Sunday

 

Rabi Akiva would say … All is foreseen, yet freedom of choice is granted. 

— Pirkei Avos 3:15

Rosh Hashanah is often mistranslated as “the New Year” and while it is the moed-festival that comprises the first days of a new calendar year the more precise translation is “Year’s Head.” The difference may seem inconsequential and hair-splitting at first glance but takes on greater significance when considering the obverse. Is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the old year, meaning the outgoing year or, is the flip side of Rosh Hashanah the year’s tail, meaning the end of the upcoming year?

While this quandary is of primarily semantical interest every year, it is of particular interest when contemplating the impending year, 5775, the seventh year of the seven year cycle endowed with sabbatical and debt absolving properties. Per the halachah the cessation of agricultural activities indicative of the shevi’is-sabbatical; nature of the year begins when the year does; whereas the absolution of debts, reflecting the shemitah-“Letting-Go”; nature of the year begins when the year ends (Rambam: Laws of Release and Jubilee years 4:9). The Izhbitzer adds an insight into the essence of this extraordinary year that expands the years parameters beyond its “tail” terminus and that should have us thinking about it differently beginning from its “head.”

Man perpetually oscillates between G-d-reliance and self-reliance. The reality is that Divine Providence and Omnipotence is absolute and all encompassing as Rabi Akiva taught “All is foreseen.” Nevertheless the mysterious, Divinely granted autonomy of human beings; “yet freedom of choice is granted” seems to carve out a space for human self-reliance and self-determination and echoes the formulation of David the king that “The heavens are HaShem’s heavens; but He gave the earth to the children of Adam” i.e. that man was granted limited autonomy in terms of making moral and ethical choices, selections and refining in serving G-d.

Read more Beyond the Heads and Tails of the Sabbatical Year

Time, Space and Soul

What is so awful about charging interest? After all it is the lubricant that greases the gears of commerce universally.
Why must even nirtza slaves, those who chose to stay on with their masters when they had the chance to become free, be liberated on the Jubilee year?
When where and why is it permissible to articulate and explicate the name of G-d?

When you come into the land that I am giving you, the land must be given a rest interlude, a sabbath for HaShem.  For six years you may plant your fields, prune your vineyards and gather your crops. But the seventh year shall be a sabbath of sabbaths for the land, it is HaShem’s Sabbath during which you may neither plant your fields, nor prune your vineyards … You  shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants; This is your jubilee year;  when each man shall return to his hereditary property and to his family … Do not make him [your brother] pay advance interest , nor give him food for which he will have to pay accrued interest … And if your brother becomes impoverished and is sold to you, you may not work him like a slave. He shall be with you just like a hired servant, or a resident [farm] hand. He shall serve you only until the year of jubilee.

                                                                                                                                      —Vayikra 25:2-4,10,37,39,40

 A sabbath to HaShem: For the sake of HaShem, just as is stated of the Sabbath of Creation (i.e the Shabbos we observe on a weekly basis)

—Rashi Vayikra 25:2 from Toras Kohanim 25:7

 I.e., just as every seventh day is a holy Sabbath day, acclaiming that G-d Himself rested on the seventh day [after creating for the first six days] and thus confirming that G-d is the Supreme Creator of all that exists, similarly, man must refrain from working the land on the seventh year, for the Glory of G-d, not for the benefit of the land, so that it should gain fertility by lying fallow for a year.

— Sifsei Chachamim ibid

The mekubalim-expositors of the Torah mystical tradition; teach that all that HaShem created exists on the three parallel planes of olam/shanah/nefesh-world/year/soul i.e. in the realms of space, time and spirit. (cp. Sefer Yetzirah) In Parshas Behar the Izhbitzer school explores several applications of this concept.  Among our Sidrah’s opening topics we find the Shmittah/Shvi’is-sabbatical year; d’ror avadim-the liberation of slaves; and ribis-the prohibition of charging interest.  The Izhbitzer explains the common denominator of these three topics in light of olam/shanah/nefesh.

A ma’amin-one who is theologically correct and believes in the thirteen articles of faith should, in theory, have complete bitachon BaShem– reliance upon G-d.  Believing that G-d is Benevolent, Omniscient, Omnipotent and directly controlling of the infinite to the infinitesimal (hashgachah p’ratis) it would be foolish to place ones trust in anyone or anything else. Yet, as the chasm separating our dispassionate beliefs from our heartfelt emotions is vast; people are constantly looking for substitutes for G-d to place their trust in and to rely upon. First and foremost we search for things to vouchsafe our ongoing existence; ways and means that can maintain and sustain us and, broadly speaking, these ways and means fall into one of three categories; property, time-charges and other people.
Read more Time, Space and Soul

So Bad That it MUST be Good

A SPECIAL REQUEST: Please do not begin reading this devar Torah unless you intend to learn it thoroughly and reach the disclaimer at the very end. To do otherwise could prove hazardous to your spiritual development and health.

How can it be that a small spreading of the white negatzara’as rash causes ritual impurity but that if the rash spreads over the entire body it then becomes a sign of ritual purity?

Why is it that on a Sanhedrin tribunal judging capital offenses a mere majority of two voting for guilt is sufficient to execute capital punishment but that if the Sanhedrin votes for guilt unanimously that the accused is declared innocent and “walks”?

But if the white mark increases in size on the skin after it was shown to the Kohen, who purified it, the person must again show it to the Kohen.  If the Kohen observes that the rash on the skin has increased in size he shall declare the person impure, it is the leprous curse.

—Vayikra 13:7,8

[This is the law] if the leprous area flourishes over the skin so that it covers all the skin of the afflicted person from head to foot wherever the Kohen can see: When the Kohen sees that a leprous discoloration has covered all the [person’s] skin he must declare the afflicted person pure. It has turned completely white [and so] he is pure.

—Vayikra 13:12,13

Rabi Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously found [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? —Because we have learned that final sentencing must be postponed till the next day [after the completion of the trial] in the hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But these [judges who voted unanimously] will no longer [be capable of] see[ing anything exonerating or meritorious] for him

 —Sanhedrin 17A

Rabi Yochanan said, “Yehudah wanted to pass by [Tamar], but God sent the angel who is appointed over lust. The angel said to him, ‘Yehudah!  Where are you going? Where will kings come from? Where will great men come from? Where will redeemers come from?’”… “And he veered towards her on the road” (Bereshis38:16)—Coerced against his will [not in his best interests

                                                                                                                                      —Bereshis Rabbah 85:8

Belief in human Free-Will is a fundamental of our faith. In Hilchos Teshuvah (chapters 5,6) the Rambam argues spiritedly and convincingly for the veracity and reality the human Free-Will refuting the arguments and beliefs of the determinists and incompatibilists, even the ones who attempt to support their contentions by quoting pesukim from the TeNaC”h.  Later commentaries point out that the eleventh Maimonidean article of faith is Divine Reward and Punishment and that such a belief is untenable unless human Free-Will is real and not a myth.

That said it is equally important to remember that our Free-Will is limited and not absolute or all-encompassing.  In his treatise on Free-Will, Rav Elya Lazer Dessler uses the following allegory to illustrate this point: When two neighboring countries are war with one another in theory the potential exists for the absolute victory of one country or another.  In this scenario country “A” would conquer and annex every last acre of enemy country “B”s land, raising their national colors and imposing their laws and governmental system over every inch of what was formerly enemy territory.  But in practice, on any given day during any given battle of the war only a small portion or, in a multiple front war, several small portions of territory are actually being contested.  Armies advance and retreat and what was firmly under the control of one country or another last week, last month or last year may be in enemy hands today.  Nevertheless, in a long wars ebb and flow the actual current battlefronts comprise a relatively small to tiny portion of the combatant countries total land mass. Read more So Bad That it MUST be Good

The Holiness of “Going like a Sheep”

Vayechi 5774-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

The Elokim before whom my fathers , Avraham and Yitzchak, walked is the Elokim who has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.

-Bereishis 48:15

After the revelation at Sinai various directives of the Torah, some actually counted among the 613 mitzvos, express HaShem’s will for imitatio dei– by which man finds sanctity and goodness by endeavoring to imitate HaShem.  Be it “walking in His ways”(Devarim 8:6 & 11:22), “sticking to Him”(Devarim11:22&30:20)[ which Chazal interpreted as sticking to His middos-characteristics] or “be holy for I am holy”(Vayikra 19:2) the idea is the same one. To wit; that we humans should make our own behaviors, and the spiritual-psychodynamics that underpin them, as consistent with those of HaShem as the limits of our theology allows.

Rav Moshe Codovero’s classic work, Tomer Devorah is predicated on this principle.  First the author analyzes the thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy and then offers guidance and advice as to how to integrate them into our own lives,  Some have described the principle lyrically as dimui hatzurah l’Yotzrah– making the painting grow similar to the artist. (Cp Koheles Rabbah 2:26)

One of the twentieth century’s preeminent gaonim and chachmei hoavodah taught that while all this is true, that prior to the revelation at Sinai, in our Nations developmental period “walking in His ways” was not just one among many mitzvos or even the best technique for performing all the others. It was the be all and end all of the life’s-work of the patriarchs. HaShem proclaims His mission for Avraham as follows: “For I have paid special attention to him, so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of HaShem, to do charity and justice; HaShem will then bring about for Avraham everything that He promised.”  (Bereishis18:19)

The “way of HaShem” is not the merely way that He commands us to walk but that k’vyachol-as it were, the way / path that He treads Himself.  HaShem is our King, but also our Father, and in Divine Parenting “Do as I say, not as I do” is an anathema.  The “way of HaShem” is why He formed a covenantal relationship with Avraham and the nation that will spring from his loins. As such “walking in His ways” is the very cornerstone of Jewish patriarchy.

Still, the Izhbitzer explains, there are subtle yet defining differences between the various patriarchs approach to “walking in His ways.”

Avraham Avinu was defined by his middah of Chesed– loving-kindness, giving to, and pouring out upon, others. Avraham utilized love and kindness in every given opportunity to assimilate himself to His Creator. Yitzchak Avinu was defined by his middah of Gevurah-forceful self-restraint.  Yitzchak utilized awe and forceful self-restraint in every circumstance to emulate the way of His Creator. Yet Avraham was unfamiliar with the notion of mimicking Divine Contraction and Yitzchak was unaccustomed to imitating Divine Expansion.

But Yaakov was not defined by, and thus not restricted to, any particular middah. Yaakov’s very being was imitatio dei. Yaakov was a living self-portrait of HaShem that continually developed ever-higher fidelity to the Likeness of the portrait Painter.  Yaakov possessed the spiritual dexterity to copy HaShem in all of HaShems Divine middos. Whether the given situation called for chesed, gevurah or any other attribute across the theological spectrum, Yaakov, chameleon-like, conformed to the ways of His Creator.  In this respect his father and grandfather were, relatively speaking, more rigid and limited.

When Yaakov says that his fathers walked before HaShem he was humbly voicing a feeling of comparative inferiority.  He is expressing his observation of the proactive way in which they served HaShem. Capable of standing on their own two feet they, k’vyachol, walked ahead of HaShem. As Rashi (Bereishis 6:9) says “Avraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”  Defined by their own particular middos, Avraham and Yitzchak were able to improvise and adapt these middos in Divinely imitative ways to new situations. This was especially so in those situations that seemed to be repeating the past, situations that precedents had been set for.

In contradistinction, Yaakov himself needed constant shepherding by HaShem. “Elokim…has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.”  A sheep follows every move of the shepherd.  When the shepherd goes to the right or to the left, up or down, slow or fast, the sheep follow. Yesterday, watering his flock, the shepherd may have brought them right up to the riverbank. Today, floods have caused the waters to overflow and to repeat yesterday’s livestock management would not result in hydrating the sheep, but in drowning them.   Similarly Yaakov felt the need to follow HaShem like a sheep with no internal GPS to guide himself. Even if he confronted the “same” situation for the hundredth time, he awaited Divine guidance and then precisely shadowed HaShem’s Movements k’vyachol.

In fact, this was no inadequacy on Yaakov’s part but the very characteristic that made him the “choicest of the Patriarchs” and why it is his visage, and not those of Avraham and Yitzchak , that is chiseled on the Divine throne of Glory.

Yaakov lived the life that king Dovid prayed for “(When) HaShem is my Shepherd I will lack for nothing!” HaShem always leads a person, yet most people, bristling at the sheep-Shepherd relationship, turn their faces aside and willfully refuse to follow the leader.

The second Izhbitzer explains the relative advantage of Yaakov’s sheepishness in light of the following gemara:

And many nations will go and say: ‘ let us go and ascend up HaShem’s mountain, to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion will Torah go forth, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.

Yeshaya 2:3

Rabi Elazar observed; “to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov” (why is this place referred to as the house of the L-rd of Yaakov) and not the L-rd of Avraham or the L-rd of Yitzchak? Avraham referred to the site of the Beis Hamikdash as a mountain (Bereishis 22:14), Yitzchak referred to it as a field (Bereishis 24:63), but Yaakov called it a house “and he called the name of the place Bethel (Bereishis 28:19).

-Pesachim 88A

There is an inherent danger in being fixed in a particular middah. One who is intransigently stuck even in the noblest of middos may be found wanting in particular situations.  No middah is more splendid than rachmanus-mercy, rooted in the chesed that is the very foundation of the world. Yet our sages teach us that one who can never let go of mercy will first abuse it by bestowing it upon unworthy recipients and then overcompensate for that abuse with its antisocial antithesis. “All who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (Koheles Rabbah 7).

No one middah is complete and perfect unto itself. This is why Yaakov eschewed reliance on any particular middah.  Instead, he would assess the changing circumstances and look to HaShem for enlightenment and guidance minute by minute. He would move from middah to middah as the Divine will renewed Itself every moment. This is the meaning of the pasuk “No black magic can (harm) Yaakov nor any occult powers against Yisrael. ‘How is G-d acting at this moment’ is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael.”(BeMidbar 23:23).

Through his incessant imitatio dei, his constant cleaving to HaShem Yaakov became subsumed within the Divine Light.  The Divine Light surrounded Yaakov like a house. As a house provides shelter from the elements the surrounding Divine Light lent Yaakov invulnerability. No malevolent powers, nor the excesses or deficiencies of the monomaniacal fixation on a particular middah, could harm him. Nimbly darting from middah to middah Yaakov sheepishly followed HaShem at every turn. Unlike his father and grandfather Hashem, k’vayachol, served as a protective “house” for Yaakov.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach Vayechi D”H Vayomer Elokim
Bais Yaakov Vayechi inyan 7 page 426 (213B)
Also see Pri Tzadik Rosh HaShanah inyan 8 page 170

Dreaming but Not Sleeping

Vayeshev 5774-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

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

-Bereshis 40:1

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

-Rashi ibid

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

Zohar Miketz 197A

Throughout this Sidra there’s a marked disparity between Yoseph and Yehudah. All of Yoseph’s well-intentioned plans go awry First, he shares his prophetic dream with his brothers and they grow jealous of him. Then he tries to edify his brothers and some are ready to kill him while, in due course, they sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan consigning him to near-certain doom. He serves his master faithfully, resisting all temptations, but then gets framed for an infidelity that he was innocent of. Finally, he makes a minor effort at self-help, asking the Pharaoh’s wine steward to say something favorable about him to Pharaoh and, as a result, ends up spending another two years prison.

On the other hand, Yehudah seems to be living the proverbial charmed life. Even though he was the one who presented Yoseph’s goat-bloodied garment to their father, causing their father overwhelming anguish,  he still merited being in Yaakov’s proximity all those long years that Yoseph was in exile.  In the, apparently, very sordid affair of Tamar, all ended well and the progenitor of the Messianic line was born.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Yoseph envied Yehudah and had grievances about HaShem’s conduct of his own affairs. He wondered why HaShem crowned all of Yehudahs endeavors with great success, even those that were overtly risky or that ventured far into moral and ethical ambiguity.  Whereas all of his own actions, no matter how purely motivated, came under the closest Divine scrutiny, the “precision of a hairsbreadth” and, invariably, were found wanting.

The dreams of the Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker were meant to serve as an allegorical response to Yoseph’s grievances. Every king, including the King of all kings, has a servant like the wine steward and a servant akin to the baker.  The wine steward was restored to his position because he was not responsible for his offense.  There’s really nothing that he could’ve done to prevent a fly from buzzing into the wine goblet.  A fly is animate and has an instinct if it’s own. It’s even possible that the fly fluttered into the goblet after it was already in the Pharaoh’s grasp. However, the baker’s offense was unpardonable as an inert pebble should never have found its way into the king’s bread loaf. Yoseph was like the baker and Yehudah was like the wine-steward.

King Dovid, the quintessence of Yehudah, is described by the Zohar (Mishpatim 107A) as the Kings “jester”. As a powerful king himself how should we understand this unusual title? We know that King Dovid’s songs of Tehilim were sung as the wine libations were poured in the Beis HaMikdash on HaShems “table” kivayochol -as it were. If the purpose of a jester is to dispel sadness from, and bring merriment to, the king’s heart, then jesters and wine stewards employ different means to achieve the same goal. So, the jester designation can be understood in wine steward terms.

But the “jester” designation refers to the something deeper as well. Yehudah’s offenses, and those of his descendants, were deemed to be beyond the range of their  bechirah chofshis– free-will. As our sages taught; “the Angel appointed to preside over desire forced him” to consort with Tamar (Bereshis Rabbah 85:9).  Jesters allow their kings to toy with them and to defeat them at the royal courts’ games. When a person loses his bechirah chofshis he becomes G-d’s plaything, a mere puppet on HaShem’s string, as a jester might, a man who has lost his bechirah chofshis “lets” G-d win kivayochol.  The pasuk states: “that You may be justified when You speak, and be in the right when You judge” (Tehilim 51:6). When expounding on the episode of Dovid and Bas-Sheva the Gemara understands that what Dovid meant to say here was “let them [the people] not say, ‘The servant triumphed  against his Master’.” (Sanhedrin 107A). In other words, Dovid is telling HaShem “I’m your jester, I let my King win”

On the other hand, Yoseph was like the baker. HaShem had instilled Yoseph with a fiery clarity and brilliance and the passionate strength to withstand all tests. After all, the House of Yoseph was to be the flame that would consume the House of Esav (see Ovadiah 1:18). HaShem had placed Yoseph in a crisp, brilliant and immaculate place. He and his descendants needed to stay spotless in order to refute any of Esav’s contentions. As trying as Yoseph’s trials were they were never outside the scope of his bechirah chofshis. Yoseph was in complete control of his choices.

If something unseemly crept into Yehudah’s affairs it was as though the zigzagging fly splashed into the King’s wine goblet after it was already in the King’s hands.  There was absolutely nothing that the jester/wine steward could have done to prevent it.  If something inappropriate contaminated Yoseph’s affairs it was as though a tooth-shattering pebble was in the King’s bread.  The King grew furious and bitterly disappointed because this was absolutely something that the baker could have, and should have, put a stop to.

 

The righteousness of the unblemished will straighten his way; and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.

-Mishlei 11:5

 When an otherwise unblemished Tzaddik sins, the Divine trait of Strict Justice demands the harsh and “precision of a hairsbreadth” punishment to expiate the sin. But the Divine trait of Mercy seeks alternatives modes of Tikun-sin repair and amelioration.  It will not allow the Tzaddik to take the punishment. Instead It allows the Tzaddik to observe someone guilty of a coarser, more overt expression of the same sin taking their punishment.  This sensitizes the Tzaddik to his own misstep.  The Tzaddik sees the retribution being executed and, growing reflective and insightful concludes, in essence, that “there, but for the Grace of G-d, go I”. This is why the pasuk says “and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.”,  when the correct poetic meter of the sentence should have been “and the wicked shall fall by his wickedness.” The truth is that there are times and situations when the wicked fall due to the wickedness of the unblemished! They do so in order the enable the unblemished to straighten his way.

As sternly as Yoseph was judged compared to Yehudah, it could have been even more severe. In fact, mercy tempered the justice that he was dealt. The Pharaoh’s baker became the punishment proxy for Yoseph, the Divine King’s “baker”. The dissimilar dreams of the wine steward and the baker were not just revealed to Yoseph because he happened to be the best dream-interpreter available in the dungeon. They were revealed to him to help him understand the difference between Yehudah’s relationship with HaShem and his own, to help him identify with the baker rather than with the wine steward, to stop grumbling about alleged Divine miscarriages of justice, to realize his own strengths and responsibilities, to shift the responsibility for his tribulations to his own broad shoulders and thus be metaken– repair and repent for his shortfalls. 

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Vayeshev end of long D”H Vayeshev

 And Mei HaShiloach II Vayeshev D”H B’Inyan

 

Addition by Subtraction

Vayishlach 5774-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   Yaakov remained alone, and a man wrestled with him until just before daybreak.

-Bereshis 32:25

He had forgotten small flasks and [unwilling to squander them] returned [unaccompanied] for them. 

-Rashi Ibid

But Esav said, “I have plenty, my brother; let what is yours remain yours.”, “Please no!” Yaakov said “If indeed I have gained favor with you, then please accept my gift.  After all, seeing your face is like seeing the face of the Divine, you have received me so favorably. Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you.  Elokim has favored me [with it], and I have all [I need].” Yaakov thus prevailed upon him, and [at last] Esav took [it].

-Bereshis 33:9-11

Yaakov was among those Tzadikim who “value their property more than their bodies”(Chulin 91A).   So much so that he found it unconscionable to let a few small flasks go to waste.  Rav Leibeleh Eiger points out that his imploring Esav to accept his substantial gifts seems totally incompatible with his earlier behavior and attitude.  Even had he been less frugal, the fact that the recipient was the wicked Esav should have curbed his generosity and apparent urgency to part with his own property.

“But of the Tree of the Knowledge Joining Together of Good and Evil, do not eat of it; for on the day that you eat of it you will definitely die.’

– Bereshis 2: 17

The word Da’as means joining together and becoming as one. We’ve learned that the Original Sin, ingesting of the fruit of the Tree of the Joining Together of Good and Evil resulted in the Yetzer HaRa became internalized and integrated into mans very being. When Adam and Chava became what they ate this had a universal cataclysmic effect as the mish-mash of good and evil spread throughout the macrocosm as well. The catastrophic result of the Original Sin is that on both a human and a cosmic level there is no longer any unadulterated good or any unmitigated evil.

To resolve Yaakov’s inconsistencies Rav Leibeleh applies and expands this concept. He maintains that the physical manifestation of mans intrinsic evil is the foreskin. The bris milah-covenant of circumcision is intended to separate this congenital admixture of evil.  No one considers circumcision an act of maiming nor circumcised people to be amputees. On the contrary; the preamble to this covenant is “Walk before me and become perfect!” (Bereshis 17:1). One achieves perfection through excision of the superfluous. Circumcision is addition through subtraction.

Milah serves as the template for free-will endowed human beings to continue exercising their will in making birurim-refinements that sift the evil away from the good and expunge it. When HaShem bestows munificence and kedushah-holiness on deserving individuals that kedushah contains traces of evil as well.  It is the recipients’ mission and challenge to sift away and remove these smatterings of evil.  The Divine Wisdom determines the quality and quantity of evil that is in the mix, customizing the “compound” that requires refining so that it is appropriate to the soul tasked with the refining.

In our patriarch’s case, the vast stream of benevolence and kedushah overflowing from HaShem to Yaakov was adulterated by the pollutants of Esav’s evil. But until Yaakov isolated and detached the portions belonging to Esav that he’d received, he himself was as imperfect and spiritually maimed as one who is uncircumcised.  While Yaakov was, indeed, very parsimonious and possessive of that which belonged to him, he was eager to divest himself of all that belonged to Esav. This explains why he literally begged Esav to accept his gift. Yaakov was not giving away, he was giving back.

This helps explain the odd grammatical construct of pasuk 11; “Please accept my welcoming gift as it has been brought to you” is in the past tense. The pasuk would have been less stilted had it read: “Please accept my welcoming gift that I bring to you/ that I am giving you”. Subtextually Yaakov is telling Esav “Don’t imagine for a moment that I’m giving up anything (good/holy) that is actually mine. I’m merely transferring something that belonged to you from long ago. It had been brought to you in the past as an extraneous, superfluous add-on of evil at the time that HaShem’s shefa-overflow of benevolence came to me (כי חנני אלוקים). The welcoming gift that I present to you now was always meant to be yours.   On the contrary, you must take back what was always your portion from me so that what remains with me will be refined, unadulterated holiness. I must add to myself, perfect myself through this subtraction. Giving you this gift is another iteration of cutting away my foreskin.”

The very act of urging, pleading, nagging, almost harassing, Esav to accept the gift, was out of character for Yaakov.  While non-violent, it resonated of the type of compulsion and intimidation we normally associate with Esav, he to whom “the arms” belong, who lives by his sword and who engages in tyrannical imperialism. The technique of this gift-giving, actually divestiture, was itself, a part of the birur. “Prevailing-upon” his brother, Yaakov used his persistence as body language to tell Esav “Take your own haftzarah-your compelling, prevailing-upon away from me. ויפצר בו…ויקח

On that day Esav returned on his way to Seir. Yaakov journeyed to Sukkoth.  There, he built himself a house, and made shelters for his livestock. He therefore named the place Sukkoth. [Shelters]

– Bereshis 33: 16-17

The Torah’s narrative progresses from the episode of the “gift” to Esav to the final separation of the two brothers from one another. Rav Leibeleh concludes that this segue is as seamless and reasonable as the irreversible separation of the foreskin from the perfected body.

Adapted from Imrei Emes Vayishlach D”H Kach page 37  

Working Smarter — After Working Hardest

VaYetzai 5774-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

She (Leah) was pregnant once again, and bore a son. She said: “This time let me express gratitude to HaShem.” She named the child Yehudah. Then, she stopped having children.

-Bereshis 29:35

Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children. Rachel was jealous of her sister (Leah) and she said to Yaakov: “Give me children, or else I will die.”  Yaakov became furious with Rachel: “Shall I take HaShem’s place?” he said “It is He who is holding back the fruit of the womb”.

-Bereshis 30:1,2

 There are teachings of Chaza”l that, when measured in the crucible of reality, challenge our emunas chachamim– faith in the Torah sages.  Perhaps none so regularly and personally as this one: “If one were to tell you ‘I have toiled but I have not found- tried hard but have not succeeded’ do not believe him.  ‘I have not toiled but I have found- have not tried but have succeeded’ (again) do not believe him” (Megillah 6B).

How many of us have been frustrated by failure in our personal lives, our academic efforts and/or our careers despite having put forth our very best efforts? Conversely, how many times has unanticipated success come our (or our competitors) way, relatively effortlessly?

The Izhbitzer teaches that our two matriarchs Rachel and Leah, are, to all appearances, the exemplars of these two claims, equally lacking in credibility.   Rachel, after years of heartfelt prayer and buying a “fertility drug” (the mandrakes) was still childless. To that point, her life story had been one that veritably shouted: “I have toiled but I have not found”.   On the other hand, Leah named her fourth son Yehuda as a way of thanking HaShem for having “taken more than my fair share” (Rashi ibid). Taking more than ones fair share is another way of saying “I have not toiled… but I have found”.

But the Izhbitzer tweaks the claims of the sisters and, in so doing, answers our questions. For now, we’ll concentrate on Rachel’s claim that “I have toiled but I have not found”.

Imagine a person wanting to enter a home, banging loudly and repeatedly on one of the homes windowless and doorless solid exterior walls the livelong day, but, tenaciously maintaining his position at the solid wall and refusing to move towards the door.  While expending great efforts and burning many calories to achieve the goal of entry, he’s banging in the wrong place, his enormous efforts are misdirected. He may be working hard but he is not working smart. Were he to move a few feet and just rap on the door ever so lightly, it would immediately swing open and he would gain entry.

HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil.

Rachel was toiling mightily in prayer but where she really needed to concentrate her efforts was on the birur-the purification of her particular defining middah.   Rachel’s soul was endowed with a matchless capacity for jealousy. But jealousy can be a stingy, malcontent green-eyed-monster or the engine that drives self-improvement and self-actualization.

Unholy, evil jealousy begins with an attitude of “It’s not fair. You don’t deserve that. I hope that you lose it. Only then will justice be served!”  But jealousy can be sublimated into something good and holy, into the proverbial kinas sofrim –the academic envy of the wise students that spurs them to greater scholarship. The anthem of kinas sofrim is: “Hmmm…that looks good.  You’re certainly entitled to what you’ve gained but I’d like some too.  Some is good so more must be better. There’s plenty to go around and I won’t rest until I’ve gotten it, and more, too.” Kinas sofrim observes a good mousetrap and the boons that it brings  to the mousetrap builder and to society. It then goes out and builds a better one.

The Ramba”n fails to understand Yaakov’s vehemence.  What did Rachel do wrong?  After all, the Gemara advises those suffering from illnesses, in her case infertility, to approach sages and ask them to daven on their behalf (Bava Basra 116A).  Yaakov grew testy over Rachels misplaced yegiah-efforts and exertions. All her prayers, or any that Yaakov might have added, were like knocking on a brick wall instead of on a door.  He recognized that she was jealous, that this was her defining characteristic. But he realized that she had yet to be mevarer– to clarify and purify her middah.  Was her jealousy of the run-of-the-mill, catty, begrudging variety, or, was it the high-minded kinas sofrim that utilizes the irritants of envy to produce the pearls of ever-greater effort, innovation and achievement?

Rachel said: ‘Here is my handmaid Bilhah. Come to her and let her give birth on my lap.  Through her I will then also have a son.’

-Bereshis 30:3

“Isn’t it enough that you’ve taken my husband away?” snapped Leah “Now you’d even take my sons mandrakes? “All right” Rachel responded “Yaakov will lie with you tonight in exchange for your son’s mandrakes.”

-Bereshis 30:15

 Rachel offered Yaakov Bilhah, and negotiated a deal resulting in yet another pregnancy for Leah. These concessions brought more “competitors” into the marriage. By doing so she had rid her jealousy of any elements of pettiness and malice and distilled pristine kinas sofrim from her defining middah. With this small, yet significant step, she had stopped working hard and started working smart. She’d stopped pounding the brick wall and began lightly rapping on the door. Unsurprisingly, the door then swung open and she soon conceived Yoseph.

Essentially Yaakov bellowed at Rachel “I’m skeptical when you claim ‘I have toiled but I have not found’ because you’ve toiled, but in the wrong way, at the wrong spot. To unlock the doors of fertility you don’t need to pray anymore.  Purify your jealousy and you’ll be knocking on the doors.  You have not “toiled” smartly and that’s why you have not yet “found”. Work smart and those doors will swing open “

The second Izhbitzer adds that the efforts Rachel expended at working hard were not wasted.  The Gemara teaches that if one sees that their prayers were not answered they should pray again (Berachos 32B). The Divine Will decrees precisely how long we must work our hardest before we attain salvation by working smart. There is no free lunch and there is no free epiphany that allows a person the sudden intuitive leap of understanding to correctly identify precisely which middah is their own leitmotif . Once discovered, one may begin the “working smart” of distilling the goodness of, i.e. being mevarer, their middah.

To carry the allegory further, there is something about banging on walls that eventually, cumulatively points us towards the door. And so, even while working hard and, apparently, ineffectively; claiming “I have toiled but I have not found” is a lie. All the banging on te wall eventually culminates in allowing the wall-banger to see the door that he must knock on. We toil, then we find. We work smarter, davka after working our hardest.

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I VaYetzai D”H vaTomer haPa’am

Bais Yaakov VaYetzai Inyan 66 (page261) 

Of Angels and Men

VaYera 5774-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

 And he [Avraham] lifted his eyes and saw, three strange men standing near him

-Bereshis 18:2

The three “men” were angels

-Rashi ibid

When a man’s ways please HaShem, He causes even mans enemies to be at peace with him.

– Mishlei 16: 7

Two ministering angels , one good the other bad , escort a person home from the synagogue Friday evening.  When he comes home to find the lamps lit, the table set and his bed made the good angel says ‘May it be HaShems will that next Shabbos we find things the same way ’ and the bad angel is compelled to respond ‘Amen’ against his will

-Tractate Shabbos 119B

And Elokim said “Let Me Us make man”. Alternatively: “Man has [already] been made.”

-Bereshis 1:26

Chaza”l teach us that Malochim-Angels are fundamentally opposed to the creation and ongoing existence of human beings:  Rebee Seemon said: When HaShem, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed groups and parties, some saying, ‘Let him be created,’ while others urged, ‘let him not be created.’ As it is written, “Loving-kindness and truth met up, justice and peace kissed.” (Tehillim 85:11): The Angel Loving-kindness said, ‘Create man, because he will dispense loving-kindness’; the Angel Truth said, ‘Let him not be created, because he full of lies’; the Angel Charity said, ‘Create man , because he will perform acts of altruism’; the Angel Peace said, ‘Let him not be created, because he is full of strife.”’ What did God do? God took Truth and cast it to the earth, as it is written, “and truth will be sent to the earth.” (Doniel 8:12)The Malochim said before the Holy One, “Master of the Universe! Why do you despise Your seal? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth sprout from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12) …Me’od –‘Very ’) is [in reference to] Adam; [the letters מאד–very are a word jumble for אדם–man i.e. Adam=man is good] as it is written, “And God saw everything that God had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31), i.e. and behold Adam was good. Rav Huna the Elder of Tziporen, said: While the Malochim were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, HaShem created the first human. God said to them, “Why are you arguing. Man has already been made!” (Bereshis Rabbah 8:5).

This  Midrash implies that the creation of Man took place “under protest”. Even when temporarily suppressed many protests are ultimately successful. So it is not out of the question that the Angelic naysayers were complicit in the undoing of humanity through the first sin and the subsequent degradation of humanity by the generations of the Flood and the Dispersion.

The human predilection for lies and strife are a product of mans constrained G-d consciousness. An angel has but to lift its eyes to attain a limitless, incomparable awareness of HaShem and how His glory fills the universe. In marked contrast, even after years of intense exertion, mans G-d consciousness is meager. The light that man beholds is relatively dim and is known as “the Diminutive Face”.  Angels are illuminati bathed in HaShems infinite light. The angelic sense of superiority in terms of their G-d consciousness underlies the various “no-votes” protesting the very creation of man. Regarding uncircumcised man there was no adequate argument to refute the angel’s dismissiveness. There was no debating with them.  HaShem Kivayachol-so to speak had to ignore their protests and present His creation of Man as a fait accompli.

Many Mechabrim-Torah authors, in particular the Ramcha”l , explain that the very Raison d’être of Klal Yisrael- the Jewish People is to rectify the sin of the first man and to bring humanity back to the pre-sin state. As such it would stand to reason that our founding patriarch, Avraham, would earn the angelic seal of approval.

The second Izhbitzer, The Bais Ya’akov takes this approach in explaining the Angels post-circumcision visit with Avraham.

The new edition of Man, Avraham Avinu after the covenant of circumcision, could do something that angels could not.  As dim and meager as his light may have been he was capable of transforming darkness into light and able to draw new light into the gloom of our murky, materialistic world.  In marked contrast angels see things as they are without recognizing any potential for qualitative change. To an angel what’s light is light and what’s dark is dark. For the angels heaven is heavenly and the earth is, well, hopelessly earthy.

As long as the foreskin adheres to man all of mans internal light and potential for illumination are trapped and imprisoned within his being. But when man, Avraham, removes the foreskin his internal and external transformative powers are unleashed. Avraham spread G-d consciousness to the four corners of the earth and, in so doing, made something heavenly out of the earth.

The Tikunei Zohar reveals two remarkable, complementary acronyms in the phrase   מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָהWho (mee) will ascend (ya’aleh) for us (lahnu) to heaven (HaShamaymah) [Devarim30 :12].  The first letters of each word form an acronym for Milah-circumcision. The last letters of each word form an acronym for the tetragrammaton-HaShems proper four letter Name. The encoded allusion being that the circumcised one, Avraham, can in fact ascend to Heaven for us and bring HaShem to the earth.

An angel can take light and multiply the light, take the tiniest blade of grass and exhort it to grow tall, thick and lush (Bereshis Rabbah 10:6). But these are, after all, quantitative expansions not qualitative transformations. Angels are incapable of making the inert-mineral botanic or metamorphosing the botanic into animal or the animal into the human. Omnivorous man ingests the mineral, the botanic and the animal and, through digestion, integrates them into his speech-endowed being.  When man uses this nutrition to serve HaShem through speech AKA prayer he has not merely grown the grass tall…he has altered the grass into something human, speaking and prayerful.  The angels were forced to recognize their relative inferiority and could no longer argue the uselessness of man in HaShems creation.  Impressed and even awestruck they too wanted to partake of the circumcised mans meal.

 Adapted from Bais Ya’akov-Vayera Inyan 16 (page 72A ) 

Under the Black Hat: A Bar Mitzva Celebration

There was a bar mitzva in shul a few weeks ago. As is the custom, upon hearing the bar mitzva boy’s blessing over the Torah, the girls in shul, leaning over the mechitza, rifled – more like uzi-machine-gunned – toffees towards the bima. ‘Ouch’! – a little sister’s revenge – a strawberry toffee right in the bar mitzva boy’s face! Meanwhile, the rugby-scrum scramble for candy: there was such an excess of it – the frenzied stuffing of booty into plastic bags – that more than one of the older boys offered toffees to their dejected younger brothers. As order was restored, and the congregation prepared for the musaf prayer, I watched one of the older boys – also already bar mitzva, you could tell from his hat – working through a private dilemma: his bag of toffees was overflowing – too big for his pocket and too unwieldy to balance on the shtender in front of him. With the chazan intoning the kaddish directly preceding musaf, I watched the boy’s ‘eureka’ moment: he lifted his hat and plunked the bag of toffees on his head. By the time the congregation answered ‘amen,’ the boy’s hat was back in place, and he was shuckling away.

When a boy reaches bar mitzva, he becomes a bar da’as – a person of sound mind, responsible for his actions. Our sages tell us, ‘just as their faces are not alike, so their da’as is not alike.’ Da’as loosely translates as knowledge, but also means opinion, intelligence or even way of thinking. But what is this way of thinking – as distinctive as a person’s face – that makes a person responsible for his actions?

Da’as is one of those words – Freud writes about them in his essay on the ‘Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’ – that has different, sometimes even opposing, connotations. On the one side, da’as is an ability to make distinctions – that is, to see differences; on the other, da’as is the means to make connections. והאדם ידע את חוה – ‘And Adam knew Chava': through knowledge one achieves the closest kind of connection. But to know another person, there first has to be recognition of the separateness of that person. In the earliest stages of child-development, there is no real recognition of the other – just the expansive self, fulfilling his needs in relationship to a world whose independence he cannot yet fully recognize. Many of us know someone who seems still to inhabit (or at least wants to inhabit!) such a world; being an adult, however, means recognizing that the world is not just an extension of the self.

The power of da’as to join together is not, however, only shown in relationship to the outside world: a bar da’as distinguishes, orders and connects with different parts of his internal world as well. A bar da’as first distinguishes: there are some demands of the internal world which he will not heed. Metaphors abound to describe the agent producing desires to which a bar da’as must say ‘no': our sages call it the yetzer hara – or evil inclination; Freud calls it the id. But da’as contains its opposite as well: it is a means to distinguish, but is also a כח החיבור – a capacity to connect. A bar mitzva boy wears tefillin on his head and arm to show the connection between the realms of thought and action. Though we may know a precociously intelligent eleven year old, he is not a bar da’as – because he has not yet developed that capacity – da’as – to link thought to action [for those who like to note invidious gender distinctions: da’as is reached by a boy at 13, a girl at 12]. The prophet says, ‘on that day you shall know – וידעת היום – and rest it on your heart that G-d is One in the heavens above and the earth below.’ G-d’s unity is affirmed in the heavens, and then on earth: through da’as, the abstract ideal rests on the heart: da’as – knowledge of the heart – is an act of internalization, bringing the knowledge of Torah down to earth.

‘You shall love Hashem, your G-d with all of your heart’ – בכל לבבך. Hashem is the name of G-d as unknowable, ein sof – a G-d beyond comprehension. He becomes ‘your G-d’ – a personal and beloved God through love – the worship of the heart. Through the doubling of the letter bes – ב – in the word for ‘your heart’ לבבך, the Torah tells us that we should serve G-d with both our good and evil inclinations. It is not, therefore, a one-way street: da’as not only connects the upper to the lower world, but the lower to the upper world as well. Only on the sixth day of the creation does G-d behold His handiwork and call it ‘very good’ – טוב מאד. Not just good, as in the other days of creation, but very good, because on it, our sages tell us, the evil inclination was created – without which a man would not marry, establish a household or engage in creative activity. A person develops, opens himself up to unknown future possibilities, through harnessing all of the resources of his personality – both of his inclinations, all of his heart. One who is insensitive to the demands of his inner world risks becoming an external shell – ‘a frozen ego.’

The greatest form of individuality does not come through intellect alone, but though unifying upper and lower worlds, integrating parts of the soul. The tzadik – our sages tell us – brings together heavens and earth; he does so through the powers of da’as. This is what makes a person an individual: ‘just like their faces are different, so is their da’as.’ The face is where the soul shows itself in the body; da’as is that internal link between body and soul. My da’as is as distinctive as my face, the point where my energies and desires engage with the ideal image of who I want to be – my way of bringing the Torah down to earth. It’s the work of a lifetime, starting with bar mitzva – for one thirteen year old, standing in prayer before G-d, a bag of toffees tucked safely under his hat.

Bill Kolbrenner blogs at http://openmindedtorah.blogspot.com