If You Can’t Stand the Light, Get Out of the Vision

Bo5774-An installment in the series
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

And Moshe said [to Pharaoh] “HaShem said as follows: ‘About midnight I will go out into the midst of Egypt; and every firstborn in Egypt will die …’ “

-Shemos 11:4,5

The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are staying; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you and there won’t be any lethal plague in your midst when I strike the land of Egypt.  

-Shemos 12:13

G-d will then move across to afflict Egypt. When He sees the blood over the door and on the two doorposts G-d will pass over that door and not allow the force of destruction to enter your homes to strike.

-Shemos 12:23

There was a pronounced difference between the Jews and the Egyptians during all the plagues prior to “the striking of the firstborn”. The Jews were invulnerable to the destructive effects of the plagues.   During the first plague, if a Jew and an Egyptian would drink from the same vessel, the Jew would swallow sweet fresh water while the Egyptian would gag on blood.  The ninth plague caused a palpable; immobilizing darkness to lie upon the land but the children of Israel had abundant light in all of their dwellings.  The same applied to plagues two through eight. Moreover, it was G-d Himself who produced these disparities.  No heroic measures were required on the part of the Jews.

These differences were so pronounced, foretold and deliberate that the Izhbitzer School interprets them to be part of the exodus process itself. HaShem sought to take one nation out of the midst / “the innards” of another nation.  Debunking the alleged equality between Israel and Egypt was part and parcel of the process. Yetzias Mitzrayim-the exodus from Egypt, was about more than liberating a group of Egyptian slaves; it was the birth of a nation and the creation of a new man.  Thus understood, the sequence of the plagues was not just a war of attrition to break the will of the Egyptians. The disparities that existed between the Jews and the Egyptians during the plagues gradually advanced the nation of Israel “through the birth canal” as it were, towards the ultimate goal of a new, distinct identity and absolute individuation.

In light of this Rav Tazdok, the Lubliner Kohen, asks several pointed questions:

1. The Egyptians had “earned” the striking of the firstborn as the wages of the sin of their continued refusal to release the children of Israel. But the Jews had done nothing to delay their own release. So why did they warrant the striking of the firstborn?
2. During the final plague, why were the protective measures of daubing the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the lintel and the doorposts and not leaving their homes all night necessary when no such measures had been needed during the first nine plagues?
3. As HaShem moved across Egypt to strike the firstborn Himself the rule of “once the destroying angel is given a license to act he does not distinguish between the wicked and the righteous”(Bava Kama 60A) should not apply. Then what did the Jews have to fear?
4.  How, in fact, did HaShem dispense kivyachol-as it were, with the services of the destroying angel when our theology teaches that “no evil (i.e. punishment or suffering) emanates out of the mouth of the Most High” (Eichah 3:38)

Before presenting his answer the Lubliner Kohen introduces a novel understanding of a particular type of death.

Imagine a simple, standard-issue garden hose being attached to a fire hydrant to extinguish a fire.  After just a few moments the hose would crack and burst.  Garden hoses are not engineered to withstand that level of water pressure per square inch.  This serves as an allegory for the human soul’s interface with G-d’s Infinite Light.  An overload of Divine Light accrues to “the breaking of the vessels.” This is the meaning of the pasuk “And He said: ‘You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.’ “(Shemos 33:20) to which Chazal appended this significant addendum: “But at the moment of death, man shall see [HaShem]” (Sifri B’Ha’aloschah 103).

The Tenach and the Talmud are replete with examples of those who reached for medregos– levels that exceeded the grasp of their own actual madregah and who perished from an inability to endure the intensity of the Divine Light:

Four great Tannaim entered the Parde”s. One of them, ben Azai, tragically “glimpsed and died” shattered by the intensity of the G-d knowledge he’d grasped there. (Chagigah 14B). This was the cause of death of Ahron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, as well. Those baalei teshuvah-masters of repentance, who fast-track their teshuvah-turning and reacquire perfection proverbially בשעתא חדא וברגעא חדא -“in one hour–one moment” also part with their souls in this manner. This was the cause of death for the exemplary baal teshuvah “Rabi” Elazar ben Durdai. (Avodah Zarah 17A).

This was precisely the dynamic at work during the final plague; the striking of the firstborn. HaShem Himself, (or as our sages put it בכבודו ובעצמו) kivyachol “emerged” and “moved across” Egypt. This was an unprecedented gilui Shechinah-Divine revelation. The Egyptians, engrossed as they were in idolatry and licentiousness lacked the necessary “vessels” to contain this tsunami of light.  In fact, the grossness of rank-and-file Egyptians’ impurity actually left them with no capacity to sense the light of holiness at all.

But before Matan Torah– the giving of the Torah, sacrifices were offered by firstborns. The firstborn of every nation possessed some modicum of sensitivity to holiness. Still, their capacity for absorbing holiness was minimal and constrained. The gilui Shechinah at midnight of the exodus came into the souls of the non-Jewish firstborn with all of the force of fire hydrant-pressurized water entering a garden hose. Unsurprisingly, they were instantly shattered.  Their deaths were not punishments in the conventional sense.  On the contrary, nothing became their depraved and debauched lives so much as leaving it through this one glorious moment of G-d-perception. No evil had emanated from the Most High.

As for the Jews; eventually they would develop “vessels” broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  The Torah, when describing the revelation at Sinai, attests to this after the fact: “has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have, and lived?” (Devarim 4:33) Yet, at midnight of the exodus this potential was underdeveloped.  For the Jews to have ventured outdoors then would have been a reckless exercise in “reach” that exceeded “grasp”.  As was the case with Rabi Elazar ben Durdai, such a meteoric ascent, in which lofty madregos are gained “in one hour–one moment” would have cost them their lives.

Paradoxically, it is the Jewish capacity for mesirus nefesh-giving up their lives for HaShems sake, which transforms their souls into vessels broad and sturdy enough to absorb the light of gilui Shechinah.  This was manifested just prior to Matan Torah, when they agreed to take the Torah, no questions asked.  All the other nations lacked this capacity.  When the other nations were offered the Torah they would ask “what is written within the Torah?” and when they discovered something in the Torah that rubbed against their grains; that disagreed with their constitutions, they rejected the Torah and its Author.

The blood of the Passover sacrifices that the Jews daubed on their doorposts served as a sign of the Jewish potential for mesirus nefesh.  On the night of the exodus the Jews were passing and skipping over the gradual, slow-and-steady approach to attaining madregos.  Even so, behind these doors signed with mesirus nefesh they were protected from the shattering and soul-taking effects of HaShem’s awe-inspiring, devastating Infinite Light.  As they could not stand the light they stayed out of the vision.

Adapted from Resisei Laylah 58 pp 172174
See also Mei Hashiloach II Bo D”H Vayomer (the first such D”H)

 

Can the Ends Really Justify the Means?

In this week’s Mishpacha magazine, Yonoson Rosenblum’s weekly column presented an interesting point. He writes:

“Chazal enjoin us in many places to carefully consider the impact of our words. Yet in many instances, it is impossible to know in advance what that impact will be, or to anticipate the ways in which the same words will have a radically different effect on two people. That is perhaps why Chazal also commended silence so highly — an option not available to columnists.

Last June, I had an opportunity to interview my friend Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz on the early teshuvah revolution in South Africa. The discussion turned to his first book, Anatomy of a Search, which describes his own path toward religious observance and that of a number of other baalei teshuvah. Written with the fervor of a still relatively recent baal teshuvah, the book contained one sentence laden with adjectives decrying the emptiness of secular society. When he subsequently showed the book to Rabbi Aharon Feldman, rosh yeshivas Ner Israel, Rabbi Feldman told him that he thought the book was very good, but he would have left out that particular sentence, as it would only alienate those he wished to reach by making them feel under attack. And indeed that was indeed the reaction of at least one set of Rabbi Tatz’s relatives, who told him that they felt personally offended by the sentence in question, and had promptly put the book down.

But here’s where it gets a bit complicated. Some years later, Rabbi Tatz met another South African, approximately his age. He described how as a young attorney, he and his wife had left South Africa as a personal protest against apartheid. They then spent a number of years in India as part of an idealistic search for meaning. Eventually they ended up on a beach in Israel, where it seemed to them that their search had reached a dead end, with no further avenues to pursue. At that point, the husband came across Anatomy of a Search, and was struck by the sentence in question, which seemed to encapsulate all the feelings about the secular world that had launched him and his wife on their journey in the first place.

All this took place many years ago. The former lawyer went on to learn for many years in yeshivah, and is today a rosh yeshivah.

Unquestionably, Rabbi Feldman’s advice was correct: Rarely is there any purpose served by making ones message unpalatable to those whom one is trying to influence. But in this case, davka the sharpness of the phraseology was what hit a young couple, at a moment of desperation in their lives, when they were prepared to make a dramatic change.”

If you could travel back in time to before you decided to connect more closely with Judaism, how would you have felt about these words? Does the fact that these precise words motivated one young couple (and, I assume others) excuse, justify or outweigh the fact that they turned off or offended others?

The Sabbath Manifesto

Have you seen the Sabbath Manifesto and the accompanying blog. Perhaps it’s a good start towards appreciating Shabbos.

From the web site:

The Sabbath Manifesto is a creative project designed to slow down lives in an increasingly hectic world.

We’ve created 10 core principles completely open for your unique interpretation. We welcome you to join us as we carve a weekly timeout into our lives.

1) Avoid technology
2) Connect with loved ones
3) Nurture your health
4) Get outside… See More
5) Avoid commerce
6) Light candles
7) Drink wine
8) Eat bread
9) Find silence
10) Give back

Some Musings on Words and Their Applications

By Rabbi Mordechai Scher
Beit Midrash Kol BeRamah/Santa Fe Torah Learning Coop

Like many who grew up in assimilated Jewish America of the 60s and 70s, I heard certain Yiddish terms commonly used to describe non-Jews. They were clearly used as part of a cultural lingo, to set apart the ‘other’ from ‘us’. What is interesting, and all too sad, is that the separation eventually appeared to me as a form of racism. After all, in nearly every way we lived the same as our non-Jewish neighbors; so why the insistence on a vocabulary of distinction and discrimination? It was clear that these terms were often intended to be pejorative. This bothered me even more when I had learned enough Torah to believe and understand that there are positive reasons for such distinction; but only in the larger framework of an overall commitment to Judaism. Now, the insistence on separation and discrimination solely for its own sake bothers me even more. Sadly, I recognize that this is a last vestige of a connection to Jewish history and tradition; but detached from that history and tradition it does not complement us at all. Even as we fled everything Jewish and ran to embrace nearly everything non-Jewish, we still insisted on these ridiculous, often insulting uses of language.

I can still remember with a laugh the one time an older relative saw me putting mayonnaise on a meat sandwich. She made a face and said, ‘that’s so goyish!’ This coming from someone who probably hadn’t eaten a bite of kosher food in decades. But that’s NOT goyish? And what rational reason did she have to object to something simply because it appears culturally non-Eastern European Jewish? Was she really worried about ‘hukoteihem’, the prohibition against imitating non-Jewish practices of religious import? The intonation made it clear that something ‘goyish’ is to be rejected.

Goy is, of course, a fairly neutral term in and of itself. Goyim simply means ‘the nations’. There is the Jewish people, and there are ‘the nations.’ Similarly, there is HaAretz (the Land, referring to the Land of Israel), and the rest of the world is Hutz L’aretz – outside the Land. For some of you there is New York, and the rest of the world is ‘out of town’. So, exclusive of intonation or other indications of disrespect, the term ‘goy’ by itself isn’t insulting.
Read more Some Musings on Words and Their Applications