Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Beshalach 5775, January 2015, Miracles

This week's parsha brings us great miracles. But while the splitting of the sea and the appearance of clouds of G-d's glory and the falling of spiritual food are each unique occurrences, we need to focus on the real miracles of which we are reminded.

The Yam Suf split to create 12 passages for shevatim; the Shechina itself appeared to the sea and the waters spoke directly to Moshe, "I withdraw only for the Master of the world H-mself!" (Yalkut Shmoneh)  The waters in every body of water in the world, whether in a lake, a river, or a jar or pot likewise split (Shemos Rabbah) and the sound of the splitting could be heard throughout the world.  Yet people continue to give natural reasons as to the splitting of the sea; perhaps a strong wind, a strange current, an earthquake. And each of these could be an explanation.

Clouds of fire and glory led the Jews through the desert and wilderness, protecting them by night and day. Yet there are those who would explain this away with talk of fiery brands, smoke from torches, and bronze shields. And all these do exist and do function in this way.

Mann fell and fed the Jews. It fell 6 days a week like clockwork, and stayed fresh exactly as long as Moshe explained to the Jews it would (Yoma). It never fell on Shabbos, and a double portion could always be collected on Fridays. Exactly one omer per person per day was needed and that was exactly what each person would find they had collected, whether they tried to gather more or less (Rashi). Yet there are places where resins, insect debris, dried berries, and other foods fall to the ground and feed the local people.

But the Jews were becoming spiritually aware in their distancing themselves from the Egyptians and their idol worship. Rav Dessler asks, "Which is the greater miracle, Bread from Heaven or Bread from the earth?" (Michtav Me'Eliyahu) And this is the core of our parsha, for the B'nai Yisroel and we their descendants must see these miracles every day. A tiny dry seed is poked into the ground and we are able to bake a birthday cake. Water, a substance covering the earth, is what essentially enables our whole bodies to function. The sun feeds plants and begins entire food chains so that we may eat plants, animals, fish, birds, to our hearts' delights.  We have and have had shelter whether a cave, a sukkah, a tent, or a house; but each of these comes from materials provided by the world around us through G-d's miracle of making the world work according to predictable rules and allowing us to find the resources we need.

In fact, it is when the B'nai Yisroel attack Moshe by claiming that the miracles "he" had performed in Egypt were only destructive, and demanded more fresh water at Har Chorev so that G-d gave them a water-giving stone (Mechilta, Rashi) that Amalek was allowed to attack them. They denied the basic nature of miracles, that they are around us at all times, that they come directly from G-d, and that they are intrinsically good; they had no appreciation for the protection, food, water, and shelter G-d gave them and their ancestors, and they brought the nation of Amalek down upon the Jews for all time until the coming of Moshiach.

Every time we stop and think and appreciate the miracles of our lives, our gifts, and our world, we bring Moshiach closer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Parshas Bo 5775, January 2015, Rebuke

Shemot Rabbah speaks of three non-Jews who all have the temerity or audacity to rebuke Moshe Rabbeinu or his heirs relative to this weeks parsha. Yet two of them are considered completely righteous.
This little toy lamb has been named "Korban Pesach" for years by my children. Fortunately none of them has ever actually tried to eat it. (later…my teenagers read this and corrected me; the toy lamb has been nibbled on)

The first brought down in the midrash (Midrash haGadol) is an elderly Egyptian woman who accosted Moshe and Aharon as they left Pharaoh's palace when they had warned Pharaoh and his ministers about the coming plague of the death of the firstborn. She laughed at the Jewish leaders and told them their threat was nonsensical to her and those like her, who had no living relatives and cared nothing for officials.  Accused of false prophecy, Moshe warned her she would be the first to suffer from the coming plague.

The second is the princess Basya, daughter of the Pharaoh himself, and adoptive mother to Moshe. She reproached Moshe without mocking him, questioning gently how he could bring such pain on the household that had provided for his youth. Moshe calmly pointed out that she herself (who was righteous) had not been directly touched in any way by any of the plagues (a first born daughter, she herself was liable to death at that time had she not been G-d fearing). Moshe explained carefully that the punishments were coming directly from G-d himself, and that he himself was only a human messenger trying to avert the crises, not the cause of any pain Pharaoh and his household suffered.

The third person who Kehillat Rabbah discusses the third non-Jew rebuker related to this parsha: The Roman emperor Antonius, close friend and student of R' Yehuda haNassi. He is said to have asked whether in Olam Haba he would receive a share, and a portion of the levyasan. R' Yehuda assured him he would. Antonius then demanded to know why he could not in that case participate in Olam Ha-Zeh in the korban Pesach as it pained him emotionally to be separated from G-d in this way; R' Yehuda explained that this was completely out of his own hands, for only those who have accepted bris milah can possibly share in korban Pesach, as explicitly stated in this parsha.

For her mockery, the old woman did indeed suffer first among the Egyptians. Above all else she valued a ceramic statue of her oldest son reserved after his death for ceremonial use. As the deaths of the first borns approached, dogs attacked the relic and destroyed it utterly; it had been the only thing she valued at all in life.

For her kindness and attempt to understand the nature of divine judgment, Basya was accepted as a geyores, a convert, and departed Egypt with the Jews.

For his devotion and willingness to submit to R' Yehuda haNassi, Antonius was led by his heart to accept bris milah for himself, and became a true ger. We are told he will stand at the head of the table of converts, those who have voluntarily accepted all the pain, responsibility, and travail of Judaism voluntarily, in the symbolic great feasting hall of Olam Haba.

And so this is the greatness of questioning or arguing. If done properly, it confers great rewards on the questioner. Doing it properly involves showing understanding, caring, respect, and openness to new perspectives, as well as to the possibility that one's beliefs may be completely wrong. Done incorrectly, it can be a great danger and bring serious punishment on one who wishes to argue for argument's sake or to belittle others.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Va'aira 5775, January 2015, Mercy

Last week I started by discussing Socrates and his inquiries, how they led to Plato and Aristotle's philosophical work which parallels much of what they could have learned simply from Avraham, what Avraham was able to discover on his own by thought exercises which led him to G-d, while the same inquiries led the Greeks far astray.

One of the greatest questions the Greeks simply could not answer was how and why bad things should happen, and particularly why they should seem to happen indiscriminately rather than falling on the shoulders of the evil as it seemed should logically happen if there were justice on Earth, whether through natural intrinsic causes or those from a greater outside power. Socrates could not make sense of this.  It's fair to allow that this is a common problem, though, this misunderstanding of eternal justice, for we see at the beginning of this week's parsha that the problem befalls Moshe Rabbeinu himself.

Once Moshe returned to Egypt and with Aharon approached Pharaoh to demand the B'nai Yisroel's release, Pharaoh responded by increasing the slaves' workload. Shmos Rabba says Moshe accused G-d of deceiving him or dealing unfairly with the people. G-d responded by pointing out that Moshe, while he would prove to be the gentlest and greatest leader the people could have, complained in a way that the forefathers never had done; moreover, H- declared explicitly, according to the same source, that while it might seem unjust, nevertheless it was done out of divine mercy, no matter that even a man such as Moshe could not understand how this was merciful.

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch, commonly known as the Maggid of Mezeritch, lived at the time of the harshest conscription of Jewish boys into the czarist army. Most of the boys died of hunger and cold during their service; those who did not die were lost forever to the Jewish people after 10 or more years of being forced to forego all Jewish practice from tzitzis to kashrus to Shabbos. When R' Dov Ber was dying, he promised Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk to plead directly before G-d's throne if needed to implore for heavenly mercy from this horrid decree afflicting all the Jewish families and communities within czarist Russia. Not long after, R' Dov Ber did pass away; time passed though, and no change occurred to protect the boys or prevent their conscription. At last R' Dov Ber appeared to R' Elimelech in a dream, and he explained.  Now that he was in Olam Haba, said the Maggid, he could see how merciful and beneficial was the decree for all of the Jews of the land. He had no way he could explain this to R' Elimelech, for it was simply beyond human temporal understanding in this world; all the same, he could not pray to have the decree lifted for it is forbidden to pray for bad, and the Heavenly decree that Jewish boys be kidnapped into the czar's army was truly good when seen from Above.

Moshe learned this lesson directly from G-d's words as I said above. This is in fact why he was ultimately the most perfectly suited man to confront Pharaoh about the impending plagues; he was the only man on Earth to most truly come close to understanding the nature of Divine mercy. He was the man who could most convey to Pharaoh G-d's love and desire that the king and all of his people perform teshuva and return to H-m, for Moshe understood the depth of G-d's love and how much even the decrees that seem punitive are in truth performed out of that love and mercy. In addition, it gave him the ability to plead with Pharaoh as no one else could, having himself performed teshuva. Pharaoh never would have the right to complain that the options before him were not clearly presented or fully discussed; not one other man could have made things any plainer to him than Moshe Rabbeinu.


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Shmos 5775, January 2015; Causality

"I Love Learning Torah"

Socrates, the Greek philosopher, is known to have first concentrated on natural studies, trying to employ rationalism to discover the true forces and causes of all that happens in the world. He felt he disproved the existence of the Greek pantheon, but became stuck when he got to basis of real causality, why things must happen as they do, what forces cause and drive the basic injustices and unpredictabilities he saw each day. He therefore turned from biology to pure thought and philosophy and focused on ration and logic for the rest of his life. He simply could not come up with a reason why lightening should strike where it does, why the wicked sometimes seemed to prosper, why things must be as they are; yet he felt his cosmology was incomplete without that full understanding.

I mention Socrates because I am going to discuss a variety of opinions among commentators as to the question of why the Jews descended to Egypt and slavery. They were already G-d's chosen people, Am Yisroel. They were living in Canaan. What reasons and forces required that they all go down to Egypt, become enslaved, be redeemed, wander the desert, and go to war to retrieve their rightful homeland?  The necessity of this occurring has been discussed by many, it's not a trivial question at all.

Ramban says this occurred because Avraham went down to Egypt himself, without being so commanded by G-d; and moreover by doing so he endangered the tzaddekes Sarah even more than himself. Therefore Hash-m had decreed his descendants should endure Egyptian exile.

Abarbanel says rather that the 10 brothers who sold Yosaif brought the Egyptian slavery on the people. They sold him to slavery, they cast him into a pit, and his pain was at their hands morally. Therefore the people were punished middah-k'neged-middah.

In Nedarim is teaches three reasons related to Avraham again; that he drafted talmidai chachamim to war to free Lot, that he did not accept the promises of inheritance G-d gave him at the bris ben habesarim, and that after the war of the five kings and four kings, Avraham allowed to Sdomim to return home rather than keeping them near him and teaching them to give up idolatry.

Last week I heard Rabbi Jeffrey Fox give another answer in a shiur. He cited the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idolatry. Rambam states that simple reason and logic, as displayed by Avraham in his youth, reveal the obvious truth of G-d. All you need is the basic human ability to think (which Socrates, Plato, and then Aristotle extolled in Greece) to see that G-d must be. The people knew this, but were led astray over time to idolatry all the same. When Avraham was 40 years old, he came to fully understand the logical truth of G-d, and it was then that he condemned idolatry and began to fight against it; after this, he came in loving contact and direct communication with G-d.  While we frequently say that the Patriarchs followed the whole Torah, Avraham's religion, that which he taught, was not the specifics of how to wash pots to maintain kashrus nor exactly how an individual must put on tefillin. It was the uniqueness, perfection, and oneness of G-d.

Avraham wrote this down and transmitted it to his son Yitzchak, who of course gave instruction to his son Yaakov. Yaakov commanded that the descendants of Levi must continuously learn this so it would never be forgotten.

When the Jews descended to Egypt, though, eventually while surrounded by idolatry they turned to it (except the tribe of Levi). Quoting from the translation edited by Rabbi Isadore Twerski, "The children of Jacob returned to the mistakes of the nations, and to their straying from the true path. Out of love and out of keeping the covenant made with Abraham, G-d sent Moses our Teacher, chief of all the Prophets. Since Moses professed and G-d chose Israel as an inheritance, He crowned them with commandments, and made known to them the way to worship Him…."

Look at the above paragraph carefully. According to Rambam, if the Jews descended to Egypt because of some base mistake made by Avraham Avinu, all the same the result is astounding. The fact of their going to Egypt and descending into idol worship made possible, made inevitable, the giving of the actual Torah and its halacha.  Had the Jews not gone down to Egypt, Judaism would be a completely different faith in practice, based not on a G-d given Torah but rather on almost Socratic principles of reason.  The Torah is our minute-by-minute connection with G-d himself, it allows us to redeem ourselves spiritually at almost constant opportunities through the rewards of performing the mitzvahs.  If  Avraham Avinu erred and caused his descendants a few generations later to be sent into Egyptian slavery, out of that we received national redemption.