Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Vayaitzay 5775, November 2014; Intellect, Cunning, and Trickery

I'll start this weeks comments with some very basic "why" questions. Why in last week's parsha Toldos did Rivka have to direct Yaakov to in detail to trick his father, when she had clear navuah of what was right that she simply could have shared directly with her husband?  Why did Elifaz, son of Aisav, attack  Yaakov, and then allow him to continue on his way? Why after having had a miraculous dream on Har HaMoriah did Yaakov awaken and immediately express concern over sleeping in a place of holiness, rather than assessing what he had seen? Why do Rochel and Leah agree to fool Yaakov at their father's demand, allowing Leah to be the first bride? And finally, why does Rochel steal and conceal her father's terafim (idols)?
A pie crust show the trickery that can be hidden beneath something so sweet as a pecan pie: not a direct, straight road at all!

In short, what is the meaning of all the duplicitousness and trickery and how can holiness involve such actions?

The Midrash haGadol tells the story of Eisav demanding that his son Elifaz pursue Yaakov as he departed Be'er Sheva, with explicit instructions to kill his uncle. Elifaz however had a G-d fearing mother, Adah, who warned him that he mustn't even attempt to kill Yaakov.  Elifaz had grown up being taught by Yitzchak and had truly learned from him some of the time, taking to heart the teaching that a pauper is like a dead man; and so he caught and robbed Yaakov of all he had, even his clothing on his body, but did not physically harm him in any way (Sefer haYashar).  G-d miraculously provided Yaakov with new food and clothing for the journey and Yaakov continued on to the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver, where he remained and learned diligently for fourteen years before going on to Charan.

On stopping at Har HaMoriah, Yaakov had his well-known revelatory dream (actually a series of visions or dreams). Awakening, he realized he was in the presence of the Shechinah, the spiritual, completing, feminine holy emanation of G-d which permanently rests on the site, the gate to Heaven. According to the Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer and Bereishis Rabbah, Yaakov then made a vow that if G-d would protect him from speaking ill, from immoral action, violence, and murder, he would provide sacrifices (todah and olah) and that if G-d would provide him again with clothing and food he would return a tithe back to G-d. After this, Yaakov was miraculously transported to Charan, where Lavan and his household lived.

Yaakov serves seven years of hard work for Lavan for the right to marry Rochel, but is instead married to Leah; after a week he is also married to Rochel with the requirement that he continue to work another seven years for the privilege. Lavan continues to trick him in relation to his wages, his responsibilities, his rights in the household; all despite the fact that from the time Yaakov arrived, Lavan began to prosper, growing rich and having his wives give birth to sons where formerly he had only had daughters.

When Yaakov prepares to leave Charan, he knows that Lavan's trickery will continue, and so he waits until Lavan leaves to shear his huge herds of sheep a three day distance away, then gathers his wives and sons and belongings and departs. Rochel takes the opportunity to steal her father's terafim, which she hid within her own saddle pillows without informing anyone else what she had done. Bereishis Rabbah says she stole them l'shaim shamayim, to prevent more idol worship in her father's house; Pirkei d'Rebbe Eliezer says though that she wanted to prevent the use of the idols in the household to reveal their flight to her father and his servants.  All the same, as soon as Yaakov's household had departed, the well of the region dried up and the other blessings Yaakov's presence had brought likewise disappeared; as soon as he was informed, Lavan knew what had happened and pursued and overtook Yaakov. Yet Rochel is now cursed by Yaakov's words inadvertently; not knowing that she was actually the thief and that Lavan is not simply deceiving them about missing his idols, Yaakov declares that anyone in his household who might be responsible is worthy of death.

But now arrives a critical moment often overlooked. G-d sends the angel Michael to Lavan with a sword first and secondarily a message: "Beware of speaking to Yaakov either good or evil!" Lavan takes this to heart and even speaks of it directly to Yaakov.

Here then is a key moment for our answer, and the other in the haftarah read this week, from Sefer Hoshaia (please note I'm only discussing the Ashkenazi reading; I realize that Sephardim read a different section this week). For Yaakov and his descendants have been hardened and polished, like diamonds, in their dealings with Esav, and with Lavan, in and out of the holy land. They have learned how to be as holy as possible while using only an absolute minimum of trickery or deviation from the purest path, how to accept personal responsibilities, how to remain holy in a foreign land, surrounded by the unholy and even the murderous.  They have acted together as a family, a people, and served G-d without question, and they are fully determined to continue doing so no matter what hostility or hardship is ahead. In fact, in their times surrounded by evil influences everywhere they survive as a nation we know. It is when they are at home in the holy land but allow themselves to become dissolute (as in the haftarah) that they lose their righteousness and allow themselves to be swayed to idol worship.  While anti-Semitism may be a condition of galus, the descendants of Lavan and the other nations are not allowed so much as to speak to Israel of good or evil here where we are.  When they do--and sadly of course they do--they themselves ultimately are punished by complete destruction. Meanwhile, after all these centuries, the descendants of Yaakov live on, filling Shamayim with our pleas and tefillos for our galus to end and for our return to the holy land.

The finished pie. Happy Thanksgiving, to those who celebrate it. Otherwise, just accept the symbolism ;)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Toldos 5775 November '14, Choosing the Self

Yissachar Moshe ben Hezkiah haLevi leaves in a  few hours for Israel, in this time of much distress.
This is being written on the day after the bloodbath massacre in Har Nof, in which two Palestinian men entered a synagogue full of men davening Shacharis and proceeded to shoot and hack four of them to death, injuring others, then shot and killed the first policeman to arrive on the scene before themselves being shot by police forces. The hatred, the blood, the senselessness are heavy in all our minds.

Today my son, a child born with a life-threatening illness that indeed almost killed him many times, whom we nursed through countless hospitalizations, trips to world research centers, and weeks of non-stop illness, today my son leaves for Israel.

We begin this parsha learning that after ten years of marriage, Yitzchak and Rivka have had no children. They daven together, and Yitzchak's prayers are answered explicitly rather than Rivka's, not through any fault of her own, but explicitly says Rashi because he was a tzaddik AND the son of tzaddikim, while Rivka's parents were reshaim. Nowhere do I find an answer though as to the question of whether her own prayers would have been answered had his not been adequate, and this is a question I myself ask but must continue to follow up. If anyone has sources with answers, I welcome them!

When she is pregnant, Rivka feels great physical distress, beyond that other women are able to describe to her from their own experiences. She travels to the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver to ask the meaning of her great pain that seems excessive compared to others' experiences.  Midrash Lekat Tov also tells us she explicitly asked them for a blessing of Hash-m's mercy on her. Shem himself receives prophetic understanding of her situation and explains to her that she is carrying twins and that (according to the Midrash haGadol) once they are born the entire Earth will be too small for the two to  live in peace, and so it is completely impossible for them to share one womb without struggle. Shem also explained the well-known prophecy that the two will constantly be in disequilibrium, one rising as the other falls. Rivka herself received prophetic vision at that moment of the two. She understood fully that Esav would be a rasha, and Yaakov a tzaddik. She saw the two nations of Israel and Edom in their full futures. However, she became very distressed, and so the only specific descendants she was shown from the two nations were the Jewish leader Rabbi Yehuda haNassi and the Roman Emperor Antoninus, who protected the Jews and discoursed in good faith with Rabbi Yehuda, according to the Eitz Yosef.

But there is a philosophical struggle we ourselves must address here (which Rashi hints at). How can the two be pre-ordained to be a tzaddik and a rasha? If Yaakov is pre-ordained by G-d to have no struggles in his faith and to be incapable of evil, why should he receive reward for his good? If Eisav has no control over his evil, how can he himself be faulted for it? Is he not then like a true wild animal, killing because it is his nature? We don't blame a large cat for leaping out of a tree to land on prey; it was not exhibiting evil, it was following its own nature and set of skills provided directly by G-d, after all.

While the prophetic visions were true, at the same time we have a principal about prophecy that a good prophecy from G-d must come true but an evil one can be altered if those involved do teshuva. This prophecy is in some ways good, in some ways bad, really overall simply factual: there are twin nations, they will both be great nations, and the actions of the Jewish nation will control which of the two is in power.  So in this case, the Jews themselves, Yaakov and his descendants, have always had the power force this to be a "good" prophecy, so long as they are completely devoted to Torah. To the extent that they are not, Aisav gains in power.

It was entirely within the power of both Aisav and Yaakov to choose their actions at every moment of every day. Each of them had the ability to turn the evil portions of the prophecy to good. Many of us have angry impulses constantly, resentments large and small, disasters which befall us. But each moment we also have the choice to respond with emuna and with the principles of Torah in mind. Bear in mind, Yaakov and Eisav lived the first 15 years of their lives in the company of Avraham himself. They saw heavenly beings coming and going from his tent and experienced his direct prophecies; they had the opportunity to learn Torah directly from him.  There could have been no question in either of their minds of the validity of the Torah and of G-d's reality and the promise of Olam Habah.  These special gifts were equally available to both brothers to use as they would, to appreciate and to incorporate into themselves. Do some of us have more gentle natures without effort, and some more violent impulses? Of course, no question. But likewise, the rewards from Shamayim recognize the level of difficulty for an individual to do a mitzvah, to behave according to Torah principles. One who struggles and overcomes receives a far more bountiful reward than one who is handed things on a silver platter.  Eisav in fact had the opportunity to achieve far, far more than Yaakov ever could have, by his very nature. He had the physical reality of angels in front of him regularly, discussing Olam Haba with Avraham Avinu himself. Yet this he rejected in favor of this world, physical wealth and power.

The problem of course is that if we now skip to the end of the parsha, we find that as a result of Yaakov's receiving the blessing from Yitzchak with the help of Rivka who saw in her prophecy before her sons' birth that this must happen, there was kindled in Aisav an unquenchable hatred.  The only reason Aisav did not kill his brother outright at that moment was his realistic understanding that the court of Shem and Aiver would catch him and sentence him to death if he were to do so, according to the Midrash Shocher Tov. Aisav hatched multiple plans for assassinating his brother through third parties, and so Rivka arranged for Yaakov to be sent to her own family out of Aisav's reach.

Midrash haGadol sums it up with the statement, "It is a well-known halacha that Aisav hates Yaakov." What can this mean, how can hatred be a "halacha?"  It is the nature of Galus, exile. We refer to our current situation as the Edomi (Roman, Aisav) exile. It was prophesied that Edom (the nation descending from Aisav) must hate the descendants of Yaakov (Israel). The whole world is obviously not Edom, but in this state we have reached following our descent to the point of this final, complete galus, Edom is also dispersed among the nation and hatred towards us is rampant. In an upcoming parsha we'll address the methods Yaakov himself modeled against this tide of danger, but in this moment we can only accept that it spreads among other nations including Yishmael who was already pre-disposed to hatred towards the beloved of Avraham and Yitzchak.

At the moment we can only do what we can do. We are in galus. We can daven for protection and G-d's love. We can daven to understand the world as much as possible. We can take action for self- and community-defense. We can reach out to those who will accept what we have to offer in peace. Most of all, we can simply rely on faith in hashgacha pratis, and act in every way we can to bring Moshiach.

My prayer is that my son has a safe trip, and that during the immediate future we join him in Yerushalayim because Moshiach has arrived to G-d's glory.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Chayei Sarah 5775 (November 2014), Ensuring leadership

While we discussed the haftarah as a key to understanding last week's parsha, I never mentioned the obvious parallel of the end of the haftarah, the section only read traditionally by Ashkenazi communities, about the revival of the son of the Shunamit woman, and how it is suggestive of the akeidah. While Yitzchak willingly ascended the mizbeyach and his father prepared to make of him a korban, the Shunamit woman calmly prepared her seemingly dead son's body and spoke calmly to her husband, she fell at Elisha's feet in agony over her son's loss and begged that if possible he revive the child.

Just so the midrash says, only a (somewhat falsified) vision of Yitzchak being sacrificed allowed the angel of death to approach Sarah in her great distress, for now at the beginning of this week's parsha Sarah dies, leaving a huge void for women and of course all holy households of the time. For while Avraham focussed only on complete obedience to G-d, Sarah with her equal or greater holiness could experience complete obedience while still feeling the emotions of a human parent.  Since as we have discussed before it is the women who bring holiness into the whole household and to the children far more than the men, the loss of Sarah as a teacher was huge. In addition, the yeshiva of Shem and Aiver was still available also to the men while only Sarah had ministered, supported, and taught the women of the world seeking Hash-m's teachings.

This week's parsha, of course, begins with Sarah's death followed immediately (after bargaining for the land holding Maaras haMachpeilah to inter Sarah and sitting shiva for her) by Avraham dispatching his servant Eliezer on a mission to bring back a girl of Avraham's family to wed Yitzchak. Eliezer departs on his journey expecting it to take a normal 18 days and is miraculously transported in only hours to his destination. On arriving, he sets a deal with G-d, that he will wait at the local well and look for signs of a noble girl whom he will assume must be from the holy family of Avraham.  Bizarre though this may sound when he could obviously simply inquire about how to find the family directly, he is both rewarded in the success of this method in the zechus of Avraham and Yitzchak, that Rivka indeed immediately ascended to the well; and simultaneously has his own hopes dashed as his main motivation in such a strange plan was presumably to be unsuccessful and to continue to push Avraham to marry Yitzchak to one of his own daughters.

Rivka as we know is a true rose among thorns, a tzaddekes eager to leave her family of intriguers, thieves, and murderers with alacrity. She speaks carefully, only the truth as she knows it, she speaks directly and clearly, and she takes risks in speaking up directly for her own sake to agree to leave immediately to Avraham's camp from her own home. She takes nothing but what she has been given by Eliezer, and her own nurse and servant Devorah as a chaperone.

Finally at the closing of the parsha, Avraham dies, having seen Rivka reintroduce light and completeness to Sarah's tent with her holiness and greatness.  Before his death, he recognizes that Sarah in having pushed to remove Hagar and Yishmael from the household was fully correct (he has in fact remarried Hagar now renamed Keturah, because her being removed from Avraham for a period of years has brought about her own complete tshuvah, which Sarah foresaw), and that likewise he had to provide a suitable wife for Yitzchak who could also serve as a Naviah and female leader of the G-d fearing people. If not for Sarah's wisdom, all could have ended very differently for Avraham's family and followers throughout the land.

This week's haftarah is taken from I Melachim (1-31), telling of Dovid haMelech installing Shlomo as his rightful heir and successor to the throne.  The obvious parallel is that it tells of Dovid in his old age, while the parsha speaks of Avraham in his.  This is very superficial though.

Dovid haMelech at this point in his live was suffering from extreme effects to his body of old age, and years of physical toil, distress, warfare, and exertion in the name of learning Torah as well. While he had put down the rebellion of his son Avshalom, he now unknowingly faced a rebellion hidden from no one but himself by Avshalom's younger brother Adoniyahu. The general Yoav and the former Kohen Gadol Evyasar who had been removed from office by Dovid haMelech were openly supporting Adoniyahu despite knowing full well that Shlomo had been promised and prophesied the throne.

Now Shlomo's mother, the tzaddekes BasSheva, along with Nassan haNavi, came to speak to Dovid. They clearly explained the situation and thread, first BasSheva in detail (she then left the king's presence), then Nassan who only corroborated what BasSheva told the king but who verified all she had said (the Ramban explains that while a nasi can simply allow nevua to take its course, it's incumbent on a navi to take action to make it do so).  Dovid called BasSheva back to his presence and pronounced that that very day he would crown and anoint Shlomo, which he then did, in the presence of Nassan, Bnayahu the head of the Sanhedren, and Dovid's retinue, Shlomo was coronated at the age of 12.

And so we see that it's not the machinations of would-be kings, king-makers, prophets, or generals who control the highest levels of action (and in fact who lead to the conditions whereby the first Beis HaMikdash could be build). It's the actions of the holy Jewish mother not demanding, not scheming, but using her intuitive nevua and her understanding of the needs of others which leads to the fulfillment of prophecy and the meeting of the needs of individuals, families, kingdoms, and whole peoples.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Vayaira 5775 (November 2014), Chessed

My disabled son at a camp/training program at Sunflower Bakery, a program which is a true embodiment of the meaning of chessed. This kosher bakery exists to train youth with disabilities to work in bakery settings to the maximum of their abilities, whether that is as a pastry chef or cookie maker, then helps them get all the necessary certifications for food service work and places them in paid jobs.  Only three of the full time staff are paid; the others, all women, are entirely volunteers, coordinating, applying for grants, screening youth applicants and more.

The parsha begins at the point when Avraham is recovering from his bris milah, and is visited by three malachim (angels, heavenly beings) in the guise of men. The Toldos Yitchak tells us that the second was the malach Raphael come to heal Avraham, the third Gavriel come to destroy S'dom, but the first, always noted as the first among the three, was Michael, come to announce to Sarah that in a year she would have born a son. His mission was not to Avraham, though that was whom he spoke to, but to ensure that Sarah was notified.

In contrast to Sarah's modesty, generosity, good nature, intelligence, and dutifulness to G-d's will, we now have the tale of Lot's family. His wife display's none of Sarah's modesty nor generosity despite Shem having taught Avraham, and Avraham having taught Lot that the family of Noach was saved in respect of their mitzvah of generosity and chessed in caring for the animals on the ark. Rather, she publicly went from house to house deliberately gathering attention and ensuring all nearby knew she had been asked to provide a small portion for guests to the home.  Even so the two remaining angels (Michael having returned to heaven after performing the specific task of informing Sarah) attempted to save her in honor of Lot's desire to do the mitzvah of hachnasas orchim.

After the destruction of the five cities, Avraham and Sarah left the area since there would be no more travelers whom they could provide for and teach. They traveled towards G'rar, where the kind Avimelech heard of Sarah's approach and attempted to marry her. Unlike the Egyptian Pharaoh who had lusted after her beauty, Avimelech knew of the greatness of her family and her own reputation as a prophetess, though somehow he did not fully comprehend and was deliberately mislead about Avraham being her husband and not another kinsman. Due to his righteous reasoning, he was not destroyed nor his land damaged, and Sarah was returned to Avraham. Avimelech makes public pleas directly to G-d along with all his household, and makes amends to Avraham and Sarah; they then pray themselves that all the women of the land bear children with ease. And for the first time we see the teaching that one who prays for another receives the blessing themselves, for it is now that Sarah becomes pregnant for the one time in her life. Bereishis Rabbah teaches that, "If anyone should give up hope that Hash-m will ever rebuild Yerushalayim, he would be told, 'Look to Avraham your father and Sarah who bore you (Yeshayahu 51:2).' As Hash-m rejuvenated Sarah in her old age, giving her children, thus will he do to Yerushalayim."

The haftarah of this week re-emphasizes the glory of the righteous Jewish woman; it is taken from sefer II Melachim and tells of the prophet Elisha and his interactions with an impoverished widow and with the Shunamit woman.  I will mention that both stories have deep cabalistic meanings which I will not go into at all here in my brief discussion of p'shat. The widow was in fact the widow of the righteous royal courtier Ovadya who provided for G-d fearing prophets under an idolatrous king. Her household had sold absolutely everything including their furniture and food to pay their debts after Ovadya's death, and the Royal Prince Yehoram threatened to take the widow's two children and sell them into slavery to make good on the debts.

While no miracle had ever happened in Ovadya's honor during his life or after his death, his widow pleaded to the prophet Elisha, and her own greatness merited a deep miracle. She was told to accumulate vessels from neighbors and anyone she could, and pour from the tiny jug of oil that was all that was left in her cupboard. The oil poured to fill every single vessel brought into the house until they ran out; then she was able to sell the pure olive oil to pay the money. But while the prophet may have been the human vessel to bring the miracle to fruition, surely only the true inner perfection of the widow herself who had helped her husband in his efforts to care for G-d's prophets in opposition of the king himself allowed the miracle to occur at all.

The final story is that of the Shunamit woman who has a single child who dies; only the prophet Elisha can revive him. Again, how often are the laws of the universe set aside, even by a great prophet? Certainly, how often for the good of a single family, a single mother? Pirkei d'Rebbi Eliezer says,
Why did this woman merit that the dead should be revived for her? Because she was always involved in acts of kindness towards others."

Sarah, Ovadya's widow, and the Shunamit woman all embodied perfect chessed. Through this they teach us, enrich us, and inspire us.