It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?
Why do we read Parshas Parah only at this time of the year?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you… just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cowThis is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3


מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah only before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment for Shmini-Parshas Parah 5774–  in the series of adaptations
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

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim-An installment in the series of adaptations
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

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

Denying G-d and Denying Humanity

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

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 This weeks From the Waters of the Shiloah is dedicated in memory of Gitel Leah A.H. bas Menachem Mendel HY”D; Mrs. Lidia Schwartz, the authors mother, whose yuhrzeit is Thursday, 8 Shevat.
Please learn this dvar Torah l’ilui nishmasah.

HaShem will wage war for you [against Egypt] and you must remain silent. And HaShem said to Moshe, Why do you cry out in prayer to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel.

-Shemos 14:14,15

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “This is no time to pray at length, when Israel is in distress.” Another explanation [of God’s question (Why do you cry out to me?) implies]: “The matter depends on Me and not on you,”

-Rashi ibid

And so it was that as long as Moshe held his hands up Israel would be winning but when he let his hands down then the battle would turn in Amalek’s favor …  and his hands remained faithful; steady until sunset. 

-Shemos 17:11,12

All is foreseen, yet autonomy is granted

-Avos 3:14

And Rabi Chanina said “all is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven”

-B’rachos 33B

There are two conflicting approaches to confronting the enemy that appear in this week’s Sidra.  Towards the beginning of the Sidra, when the Jewish people literally had their backs against the wall with the pounding surf of the Sea of Reeds before them and the Egyptian cavalry giving chase from the rear, the Divine command for silence came.  Not only were the Jews not allowed to wage war against their enemies; they were not even permitted to pray for Divine intervention.

In sharp contrast to this, at the end of the Sidra, we find that prayer was the weapon of choice when the Jews were waging war against the Amalekites. Our sages teach us that during the Amalek war, when Moshe had his arms outstretched in prayer, the tide of the battle would turn in the Jews favor (Targum Yerushalmi ad locum).  When the hands would drop and the prayers stop, so would the military advances.  The Mei HaShiloach asks: why were there such a drastic difference in tactics and strategies for confronting these two mortal enemies?

His answer is based on the succinct epigram that encapsulates kivayachol -if you will, the “division of labor” between HaShem and human beings. “All is in the Hands of Heaven except the awe of Heaven IE how one serves HaShem.” This means that absolutely everything in our lives; our health, our wealth, our popularity and the success of our relationships is up to HaShem.  The only area in which we enjoy a true autonomy is in exercising our human free-will to make moral and ethical choices.

Both halves of the axiom are equally true.  To claim that “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” is patently heretical.  This position advances a false theology that would limit HaShem’s Infinite Power.  But in Judaism it is not enough to have an accurate and true theology.  One must maintain an accurate and true “humanology” (for want of a better word) as well.  To deny the second half of the axiom by saying that there are no exceptions to the rule; that ALL is in the Hands of Heaven, period, including “the awe of Heaven” IE including how one serves HaShem, is no less heretical.

The Mei HaShiloach explains that, historically, the nations of the world that have opposed, antagonized and oppressed  Klal Yisrael-the Jewish people have been proponents of one of these two heresies.  Their cultures, their weltanschauungs, their very collective national beings, were predicated either on the proposition that not everything is in the Hands of Heaven or that, on the contrary, all is in the Hands of Heaven including human awe of Heaven IE that human free choice is an illusion and that all human behavior, even apparent moral and ethical choices, are entirely controlled by HaShem .

The Egyptians under the Pharaoh are archetypes of the first heresy.  Having positioned himself as a deity in his own right Pharaoh could hardly have conceded exclusive and absolute control of the cosmos to a “rival” deity.  On the contrary Pharaoh portrayed himself as the one in total control of all the transpired in Egypt as he declared; “The [Nile] river is mine, and I have made it.”(Yechezkel 29:9).  He was a living incarnation of “It was my own might and the personal power of my hand that has brought me all this prosperity”(Devarim 8:17)

The nation of Amalek is the quintessence of their progenitor, Esav. Esav is portrayed by our sages as a yisrael mumar-a Jew who has traded true faith for heresy (Kiddushin 18A). There are as many ways to become a heretic as there are heresies and the precise nature as of the Esavs heresy is unclear.  However, Chaza”l (Sanhedrin 60A,Berachos 10A-Hagahos HaBac”h footnote 2) use this term, yisrael mumar, to describe another Biblical character; Ravshakei.

He was the one who said to the emissaries of King Chizkiyahu “Did I now arise against this land to destroy it without HaShem? HaShem said unto me: go up against this land, and destroy it.” (Yechezkel 36:10). Ravshakei and the emperor he represented, Nebuchadnezzar, had exercised their free-will to arrive at the decision to destroy Chizkiyahu’s kingdom.  Yet he did not consider himself accountable.  He attributed his own choice to G-d.  In his soliloquy Ravshakei asks many rhetorical questions.  Expecting no answers, he was actually telling Chizkiyahu’s emissaries “don’t rely on your military alliance with Egypt.  But don’t rely on HaShem either, for it was He who sent me to destroy you.   I am no more than a knight in the hands of the Divine chess master.”

The Izhbitzer asserts that Ravshakei’s ostensible affirmation of emunah is, in fact, a denial of humanity, of the grandeur of human free-will and that this denial of humanity is the precise heresy of Esav and Amalek as well. Esav/ Amalek is a mumar because of believing that all is in the Hands of Heaven, there is no “except etc.” Amalek maintains that all of the evil that he does is, chalilah, the Will of G-d, that absent HaShem’s Will he would never have been able to have done it.  Superficially, it is almost as if Amalek accords greater honor to HaShem than K’lal Yisrael does.  The stance of Amalek-Esav is that HaShem’s control and authority is absolute.  They deny that humanity has any autonomy at all.

As one great 20th century thinker put it, when our sages taught that Amalek is “one who knows his master and intends to rebel against Him” they don’t mean that Amalek intends to rebel against HaShem in spite of knowing  that HaShem is their Master, but because of knowing  that HaShem is their Master; that their rebellion consists of knowing that HaShem’s mastery over them is absolute.  There is no wiggle room.  Not one small space, albeit a tiny one, for human independence, autonomy and free choice.

We can now resolve the apparent contradiction between the dissimilar tactics of war employed to battle the Egyptians and Amalek.  When the enemy rides under the banner of “not everything is in the Hands of Heaven” then the Jewish response must be to emphasize HaShem’s control.  Against the Egyptians it would’ve been out of place for the Jews to highlight and emphasize human free-will.  Free-will, AKA “the awe of heaven”, human avodas HaShem, is best exemplified through prayer; the “service of the heart”(Ta’anis 2A). So they silenced their prayers, eliminating their part in the “division of labor” and HaShem took total control of the battle. All, absolutely everything, was in His Hands.

But when the enemy rides under the banner of “ALL is in the Hands of Heaven with no exceptions” and that human free-will is a sham, then the proper Jewish response is to exercise our free-will. Human free-will is best exemplified through our service of the heart , our avodas hatefilah.  And so, during milchemes Amalek when Moshe would raise his arms in prayer the Jewish warriors would advance.  When his prayers faltered IE when his arms grew weak so would the Jews military efforts. 

~adapted from Mei Hashiloach Beshalach D”H HaShem yilachem

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

Memory vs. Mortality

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

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

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

Bereishis 47:28,29

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

Bereishis 49:33

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

Bereishis 50:2,3

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

Bereishis 50:10,13

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

— Yirmiyahui 30:10

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

— Taanis 5B

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

                       — Eruvin 22A

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

— Yeshaya 58:8

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

— Yeshaya 26:19

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

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

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

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

Read more Memory vs. Mortality

The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

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

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

Bereishis 44:18

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

Bereishis 43:8,9

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

Rashi ibid

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

— Devarim 32:8

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

Bereishis 37:26,27

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

Shemos 21:16

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

— Avodah Zarah 4B-5A

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

— Malachi 3:7

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

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

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

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

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

Read more The Dyslexia of Teshuvah

Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

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

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

Bereishis 40:1

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

Rashi ibid

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

Bereishis 40:9-11

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

Bereishis 40:16,17

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

Shabbos 30B

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

Shabbos 77B

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

Zohar Miketz 197A

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

Brachos 55B

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

Rashi ibid

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

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

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

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

Read more Steer Clear of Band-Aid Solutions

Of Odd Couples and Sleepwalking in the Ways of HaShem

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

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

— Bereishis 28:1

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

— Bereishis 28:10,11,13,15

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

— Bereishis 12:18

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

— Sotah 2A

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

— Mishlei 19:14

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

— Moed Katan 18B

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

— Bereishis Rabbah 68:3

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

— Bereishis 29: 18, 23,25

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

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

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

— Bereishis 25:28

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

— Bereishis 27:1,3-4

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

— Bereishis 1:11-12

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

— Rashi Ibid from Bereishis Rabbah 5:9

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

— Bereishis 3:17,18

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

— Bereishis 2:16,17

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

— Bereishis 3:6

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

— Devarim 20:19

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

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

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

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

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

Read more Don’t Just Bless … Reverse the Curse

The Interplay of Dread and Love

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

— Bereishis 24:62,63

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

— Tehillim 89:3

… Yaakov swore by the Dread of his father Yitzchak.

— Bereishis 31:53

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

— Avos 4:1

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

Koheles 7:14

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

— Bereishis 24:12,14

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

— Yechezkel 20, 33

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

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

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

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

Read more The Interplay of Dread and Love

Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

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

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

— Bereishis 1:28-30

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

— Bereishis 9:2,3

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

 — Sanhedrin 59B

All the rivers run into the sea

— Koheles 1:7

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

— Avos 2:4

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

— Chulin 7A

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

— Mishlei 164 and Yalkut Shimoni ibid

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

— Bereishis 6:12

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

— Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Noach 12

 

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

— Rosh Hashanah 11A

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

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

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

Read more Stimulating the Appetite … to BE Eaten

Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

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

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

— Devarim 29:9,10

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

— Zohar III:73

Our nation is a nation only through her Torah

— Rav Saadiya Gaon

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

— Shabbos 138B-139A

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

— Esther 3:8

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

— Kiddushin 32B

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

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

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

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

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

Read more Yisrael and Torah … Two Halves of One Whole

Falling In or Standing Out?

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

—Devarim 26:13,14

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

—Ibid 15

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

—Bereishis 18:16

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

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

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

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

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

—Tehillim 143:2

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

—Mishlei 20:9

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

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

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

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

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

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

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

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

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

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

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

When Your Teenager Asks: How Can You Daven That Fast?

Dear Beyond BT

I would consider myself a very growth oriented BT and I’ve continued to progress over the years.

Recently my employment situation has required me to think about work when I am at home. This is a reality which can not be changed at this current time. As a result my kavannah during davening is suffering and my davening is often on the fast side.

The other day, my growth-oriented 15 year old Yeshivish son asked me how I could possibly daven that fast. I didn’t have a good answer, but someone suggested that perhaps I could at least stay in Shomoneh Esrai a little longer (by not stepping back) so at least it looks like I’m davening at a more respectable pace.

I’m a little uncomfortable with that, but at the same time I don’t want to provide bad role modeling for my son or get into a “Do as I say, not as I do” relationship.

Any suggestions on what to do and what to say to my son.

Thanks
Reuven

Originally Published May 13, 2009

How Can We Avoid Alienating our Families and Breaching Our Values?

Dear Beyond BT

My husband & I are the only frum people in our respective families, except for an emotionally unstable brother who is somewhat estranged from the family. We have sheltered our kids from as much as we could while still having a loving & close relationship with our parents & siblings.

However, something that has been a huge issue the last few years is interdating & intermarriage. We’ve got it on both sides, from both our siblings & our nieces/nephews and it’s rampant. We straddle the line between guarding our kids and not insulting the relatives, but it is getting harder & harder to do that.

Even the ones who marry Jews live together first. It gets increasingly sticky b/c we receive regular financial help (as compensation) from a relative whose children are ALL married/in serious relationships with non Jewish women. In their eyes, it’s just not important to marry a Jew; the most important thing is to be “happy”. Nothing I’ve said or done has made a bit of difference; I’ve tried.

What I still hate most about being a BT is not having frum relatives who embrace Torah & live by the same values. I want to have frum family to share Shabbat & holidays with. One would think after 30+ years I would just get over it but it just gets more and more difficult to the point of resentment. Baruch Hashem, my own kids will always be able to come to us (or each other) and I’m thrilled but I’m actually a little jealous of them as well.

Also, my daughter herself married a BT and I see her having to deal with the same issues with her in-laws I’ve had to deal with my entire life and I feel terrible, because it is so stressful for her. In some ways it’s even harder for her than it was for me b/c as an FFB she is less equipped to deal with it.

I would love to hear how others on Beyond BT deal with these issues. It seems that the only choice is to alienate the family or breach our values, neither of which are a solution.

– Susan

First published 12/15/2010

Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

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

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

— Shemos 17:13

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

— Shemos 18:1,5

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

— Rashi ibid

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

 — Shemos 18:11

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

— Rashi ibid

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

— Devarim 12;2

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

— Yirmiyahu 11:13

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

— Yirmiyahu 2:20

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

— Mishlei 14:15

Strike the scorner, and the naïf grows shrewd. 

— Mishlei 19:25

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

 — Shemos Rabbah Yisro 27

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

— Shemos 20:2

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

— BeMidbar 24:20

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read more Skepticism — the Beginning of True Faith

Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

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

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

— Shemos 16:19,20

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

— Rashi ibid citing Mechilta

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

— Shemos 16:24

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

— Shemos 17:1

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

— Shemos 17:7

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

— Mishlei 3:1,8

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

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

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

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

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

Read more Of Fanatical Humility and Impetuous Self-Confidence

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

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

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

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

—  Shemos 10:22,23

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

— Yeshaya 60:1-3

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

— Yeshaya Ibid:19

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

—  Tehillim 139:12

HaShem will plague Egypt, plaguing and healing …

— Yeshaya 19:22

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

— Zohar commenting on the above pasuk

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

—  Michah 7:15

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

—  Haggadah shel Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

The Ethics of “What’s in it For Me?”

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

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

— Bereishis 37:21,22

Don’t spill the blood of an innocent man

— Targum Yonasan ben Uziel ibid

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

— Bereishis 42:22

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

— Bereishis 37:26

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

— Tehillim 10:4

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

— Sanhedrin 6B

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

— Koheles 9:14,15

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

— Nedarim 32B

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

— Nazir 23B

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

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Kiruv

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

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

— Bereishis 32:4

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

—Ibid:7

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

Mishlei 26:17

Let sleeping dogs lie

Popular idiom version of passuk in Mishlei

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

— Ramban Bereishis 32:4

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

— Bereishis 32:25

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

— Rashi Ibid

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

— Bereishis 25:21,22

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

— Rashi Ibid

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

— Gur Aryeh- supercommentary of the Maharal to Rashi Ibid

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more Forbidden Kiruv