Category Archives: Torah Musings

The Power of One (or Two)- Megillat Rut

Last week I wrote about the importance of community when attempting to bring holiness into this world. This week, I want to say a few words about the importance of the individual. While the community is necessary to bring the Divine into this world, it’s not very good at change. And change, at times, is not only positive, it is necessary.

This is where we meet up with the Book of Ruth, or Rut. The megillah gives us a very clear backdrop for the events that unfold- “It was in the days that the judges judged.” This brings us back to the Book of Judges. Rut is clearly meant to be read with those stories in mind.

First, I must correct an assumption. I use the word judges, which is what the Book of Shoftim is called in English, but judges isn’t actually the right word. In Accadian, a similar language to Hebrew, there were two distinct words for “judging.” Danan- which meant judge as in “judge in a court of law,” and Sappat- which referred to leaders. Sappat, similar to Shaffat, the Hebrew word for “judges” also bears the definition of leaders, which would explain why only one of the shoftim was ever described as “judging.”

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program.

The Book of Shoftim is about leadership, just as the Book of Samuel that follows, and the Book of Kings that follows that, focus on leadership. What Shoftim shows us is the steady decline in leadership, both in the character of the leader and in his/her leadership capabilities and ability to unite the people.

We start out with some really great leaders- Otniel ben Kenaz, whom we don’t know much about fרםm the text, but Chazal seem to love, and Ehud ben Gera, who is a strong leader who unites tribes to defeat a common enemy. As we continue we get Devorah, whom I love, but, let’s face it, back then having a female leader wasn’t something to brag about. It probably meant there were no men capable of handling the job. Devorah also has trouble getting some of the tribes to follow her leadership- as we see from her song. Skip then from Gideon, who was an idolater, his son Avimelech, who started a civil war, Yiftach, who probably sacrificed his daughter or offered her to a pagan temple as a holy-harlot (kedesha), and then we have Shimshon- the intermarrying Nazir, fighting alone because even his own tribesman seem to want to hand him over to their enemies.

I skipped a few but you get the gist. As we go through the book the leaders get worse, the salvation becomes more fleeting and the people become more divided.

Why?

Because the people become worse and worse. We start the book with a messenger from God who comes to warn the people to clean up their act or bad things will ensue. They get back on track for, like, two seconds, and then they’re back to their old shenanigans, and, surprise surprise, bad things ensue.

At the end of the book we get a look at how bad things get. We have the story of Pesel Michah, the idol of Michah, which shows how deeply paganism was entrenched among the people, how perverted their ideas of God were and how wrong they had gone when it comes to conquering the land of Israel (Dan leaves their original portion because it’s too difficult to conquer and then wages war against nations that were not part of the 7 nations and takes their land without the blessing of G-d.) Then we have the story of Pilegesh Bagiva’ah. If you’re unfamiliar with the story then you’ve so far been spared from what may have been one of the darkest times in our nation’s history- it shows a complete and total breakdown of the social order, both on the individual and collective scales.

In comes the Book of Rut. There are all these people in the back ground who exemplify the problems of the period of the Shoftim- Elimelech and his sons, Ploni Almoni, the judges at the gate, the men in the field, the women of Beit Lechem. It paints a picture of a fractured, intolerant society. Elimelech abandons his people, his sons intermarry, the women ignore Naomi- at best, the field hands are less than polite to Rut, and the judges are intolerant and unwilling to help. And out of this dreary image of the future Boaz and Rut come to the forefront. They act as individuals. They are unafraid to go out on a limb, unafraid of the social repercussions. But all the while, they maintain the utmost devotion to God, to their people and to a high level of moral conduct. Each one makes sacrifices that threaten their social status, Boaz when he takes Rut under her wing and eventually marries her, and Rut when she leaves behind her family, home and all security to take care of her former mother-in-law, sharing her poverty and her future-less-future.

But they make these sacrifices, because no one else was there to do it, and something had to be done. The Book of Shoftim ends with the mantra- “In those days there was no king, every man did as he saw fit.” Here were two people who did not do “as they saw fit” but instead they did what was fitting, what was right. And from their union came the king, King David.

These two individuals rose above their own individual needs and sacrificed of themselves for the needs of another. Each instituted change. And each, in turn, changed the world.

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Bechukotai: Why I am sad to see Vayikra go

I don’t think there are many people out there who are sad to see us move on past the book of Vayikra. Not many people give thought to their favorite Book of the Torah, but even amongst the rare few who do, I don’t think Vayikra is a popular choice. Vayikra does not have any of the drama of Bereishit, triumphs and tribulations of Shemot and Bamidbar, or social consciousness of Devarim; let’s face it- Vayikra is like the kid who brought his pet rock collection to Show and Tell. Except instead of decorated rocks it brought animal sacrifice, ritual impurities like leprosy and vaginal bleeding, and a detailed list of inappropriate sexual relations.

And how does this snooze-fest of a Sefer conclude? With a list of conversion rates. The laws of erchin, which detail exactly how to appraise people and chattel who were designated by a vow to be donated to the Mikdash, but aren’t really “Mikdash material.” Woop-de-doo.

OK, maybe I’m being a bit harsh on the Sefer, some of you may even think this is sacrilegious and disrespectful, but I’m sure most of you are silently agreeing. Really, though, I’m just trying to make a point. Sure, we think Vayikra is boring, but it’s less about Vayikra being boring, and more about us being bored. It’s the same way I think advanced physics is boring, and many people would rather watch reality television than read a play by Shakespeare. Our interest has very little to do with the amount of truth, beauty, or insight something possesses, and much more to do with how much we understand and relate to it.

Most of us find Sefer Vayikra boring because it deals with kedusha (holiness, sanctification)- sanctified spaces such as the Mikdash and the Land of Israel, sanctified people such as the Kohanim (priests) and the Jewish people who are meant to become a “holy nation,” and sanctified times like Sabbath, festivals, and Sabbatical years. It informs us how to bring holiness into our midst, the various barriers to achieving it (impurity) and the duties it dictates when realized. Since we no longer live with the idea of sanctified spaces or people, we no longer have to deal with issues of purity and impurity; therefore, we no longer connect to these concepts. Only towards the end of the Book, when we discuss festivals and Sabbatical years do we begin to feel some stirrings of recognition.

This is a problem. This Sefer is part of the Torah, our Torah. If the Jewish people are meant to be a “kingdom of priests” then shouldn’t the “Torah of the Priests,” as the book is known, speak to us? I’ll give you an example. I remember when I studied Vayikra in midrasha (Seminary) my teacher was so excited when we got to erchin at the end of the Book. She explained that the beauty of this section was in the idea that after learning all about holiness and sanctification, we the people actually got to create it. She was practically jumping up and down as she explained how amazing it was that the holiness that emanated from the Holy One, blessed be He- the holiness that was meant to fill the Temple and then spread throughout the land of Israel- was not just God’s to bestow. Once we lived up to our status as a “holy nation,” we too could spread holiness through our words.

She was in the midst of a profound moment of clarity about religion and holiness while studying erchin. I couldn’t get past the conversion rates. For her, Sefer Vayikra was a thing of beauty. For me it was a list of restrictions that made achieving holiness feel about as uplifting as filing my taxes.

I was thinking about that this week as I was trying to figure out how to make Vayikra more relevant, and give it some context. Then I had a profound moment of clarity myself. Maybe it’s not that Vayikra needs to be put into the context of our lives, maybe our lives need to be put into the context of Vayikra.

Hear me out. We don’t have sacrifices and we don’t have a Temple and we don’t keep laws of impurity, but even if we no longer perform these actions, that does not mean the values they embody are no longer relevant. If they once served to bring the Divine into our lives, how are we meant to do that in our modern Mikdash-free world?

I don’t think there are many that would argue we don’t need a little transcendence in our lives. That’s not the issue. The issue is we don’t connect to the way Vayikra tells us to go about it. There are so many of us who search for ways to feel “connected” to the Divine. People travel, meditate- try to find the way to be “spiritual.” But, in my opinion, that’s not what Judaism is about. Spirituality is all about “me.” How do “I” connect? What can God do for me? Religion, on the other hand, is about what you can do for God and for God’s creations. That connectedness so many of us are searching for is not the goal, it’s the byproduct.

The modern world cannot abide by this selflessness; it goes against our basic understanding of human behavior. Evolution is based on survival of the fittest, it’s “every man for himself.” The individual has left the collective behind in his pursuit of life, liberty, happiness and gated communities.

Speaking of liberty, the modern world does not believe that spirituality can come from limitations and rules. After all, most modern psychological theories are based on the foundation of the pleasure principle. It is foreign for us to think that holiness is not exclusively achieved through meditation, by turning inward, but rather, first and foremost, by outward sacrifice, subservience and a commitment to social justice. The idea that communion with the boundless Divine involves adherence to a strict and limiting code of action sounds strange even to someone like me who tries to abide by it.

But who’s to say that modern society knows what it’s doing?

Now I’m not saying that the world 3,000 years ago when people may have kept these laws was better than what we have now; but a quick glance at today’s top headlines clearly illustrates that our modern beliefs and assumptions have not necessarily made the world a better and more just place; the sensationalism of the 24 hour news cycle should be proof enough. Sure, women in general might have it better and infant mortality rates may be down, but, then again, the leading cause of death for privileged young American women is self-starvation, and these lucky children we’ve managed to keep alive will come into a world bereft of its natural resources, yet filled with multiple forms of weapons of mass destruction.

I don’t believe humanity has lost its way. I believe that humankind has made astounding advancements throughout time. But I also believe that we have turned our back on certain truths that were once self-evident. Unfortunately, this world is confusing, and I am having a lot of trouble discerning what advancements are actually advancements and what age-old-truths are still true. But I’m trying. I guess that’s what I’m saying here. That we should keep trying. That we shouldn’t just be looking for ways to see ourselves in Vayikra, but we should also look for ways to bring some of Vayikra our lives. We should try to understand how these foreign concepts that once spoke to our ancestors can still speak to us today. Maybe what humanity is missing is a bit of the Divine.

So over the past few weeks I have tried to understand the truths of Vayikra. I will share with you now my understandings.

One of the most basic ideas that shines through the mitzvot of Vayikra is that holiness is not the starting point, nor is it some selfish goal; it is the natural byproduct of our very physical actions in this world and to our fellow creations. When we learn about purity and impurity, we learn that they are not the result of our state of mind, but of our physical state, actions and surroundings.  The parsha that tells us that we should be holy because our God is holy proceeds to focus on seemingly mundane acts of kindness and respect.

Likewise, Vayikra teaches us that we cannot bring the Divine into our lives alone, we need the community. The idea is to be a holy nation, not holy individuals. The Shechinah (Divine presence) rests in the Temple at the center of the nation, not in individuals. The most basic form of sacrifice is communal. Even when an individual brings a personal sacrifice and is allowed to partake, the kohen also receives his share. And then there are the commandments that don’t seem to relate to the Temple at all, but are a means of achieving sanctification. Charity has to be given to someone else. So do tithes. Shabbat is not just about my rest, but also the rest of my family, servants and animals. It is not just me that must rest in the Sabbatical year, it is also the land. And while all impurities separate us from the Divine, some, like tzara’at, can also separate us from the community.

Yet throughout all these guidelines that are supposed to make us into a holy people we are never told to meditate, to learn Torah, or to go on a journey to find ourselves. Instead, we are given a strict set of one-size-fits-most rules. There is not one word on human-rights, but there are many human-obligations.

And with this we return to erchin, to one of the most difficult truths to accept. Because erchin teaches us that even though we can create holiness- we can choose anything we want and sanctify it- once we do that, we can’t do anything we want with it. We can proclaim a donkey kadosh (holy), but we may not bring it to the Mikdash. We may only bring its worth. And we are not the ones who determine that worth. There are still rules, and we must abide by them. No matter how close we are to the Divine, we cannot substitute our judgment for God’s, rather we must use our judgment to understand and apply. And as difficult as this may be to swallow, it makes sense. Because first and foremost, what we learn from Vayikra is that God is the exclusive source of holiness, and it is only when we imitate our holy God that we bring holiness into this world, and we become holy.

The new mother isn’t “dirty,” and neither is feminism

Most weeks I am not painfully aware of the fact that all classical Torah commentaries, and most of the contemporary ones, are male. Not this week. Hello first chapter of Parshat Tazria.

For those of you wondering, yes, this post will be somewhat “feminist,” it will attempt to understand the Torah from a female’s point of view, my point of view. I know this is anathema to some, but, please, PLEASE DON’T STOP READING.

At least read the following proviso before you leave. Maybe it will change your mind.

Proviso: I believe in the divinity and eternal truth of the Torah, and I have the utmost respect for these sage commentaries whose breadth of knowledge, depth of wisdom, and purity of heart far surpass my own. I mean no disrespect. I would be less than nothing without the words and ideas that enlighten the world, my people, and me. They have inspired me to seek meaning and truth in every law, every story and every utterance; and so I offer the following in the spirit of the 70 facets of Torah and the “פשטות המתחדשים בכל יום” (“explanations that are renewed daily,” from Rashbam’s introduction to his commentary of the Bible). There are understandings that are new to us in each and every day, because we are always changing. No person is perfect, and no person understands everything- these things are solely the realm of the divine. Still, standing on the shoulders of giants we continue to drive forward, forging new paths of inquiry, and digging deeper, to find fresh wells of understanding.

In case you need more convincing, I bring one more source, from two Torah giants. In “Halachic Man” Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik quotes Rav Chaim of Volozhin (Rav Hayyim Volozhin, רוח החיים, Commentary on Avot 6:1, p. 34b):

“Only man is capable of creative interpretation חידוש, something which is beyond the power of angels, since the Holy One, blessed be He, created them in a state of perfection, they need not and, therefore, cannot develop and progress. But this is not the case with man, for he progresses and his intellect gains ever-increasing strength.”

End of proviso.

And now a disclaimer to the proviso.

Disclaimer: It is unfortunate the above proviso is even necessary. If is unfortunate that I have to prove something before my point of view is considered “kosher” or “worthy.” It is unfortunate that most of us have at least a few topics where we are unable to even attempt to open our minds and objectively listen to an entire idea before poking our little holes in it. You know, the holes that make it easier to tear it to shreds. I say this because I know that there are enough people, specifically of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion, who avoid anything with even a faint whiff of “feminism” that I’ve already lost some of my readers. But instead of lulling you into a false sense of security with witty rhetoric or inspired asexual thoughts on the Parsha before dropping the “f bomb,” I’ve come straight out and said that this post will discuss those pesky “women’s issues.”

Like the Enlightenment before it, Feminism has been perceived as a threat to the traditional Jewish lifestyle, and it has become an ugly word most Orthodox homes. The advances and benefits both of these “movements” have brought to the world as a whole, and the Jewish people in particular, are often overlooked as the community focuses its sights on the perceived dangers they present. While our (great) grandmothers understood that early feminists, the suffragettes, not only brought us women’s right to vote and a nifty song in Mary Poppins, it also paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement, and our mother’s understood that feminism gave us the fight for paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work, somehow our generation associates feminism with the deterioration of family values, baby killing, and rebellion against religion. Don’t believe me. Google feminism and check the third link. I don’t want to give them any patronage, but that site could just as easily have been made by Orthodox Jews.

To say this is a major problem is a major understatement. How can it be evil to assert that the experiences, ideas and perspectives of women- whether they be unique to their gender or shared with their male counterparts, belonging to one individual or the voice of a collective- should be heard, respected and considered? We are Beit Yaakov (Shemot 19:3, Rashi there), we are the women of Israel; we were spoken to first as Sinai and we were spoken to in a different voice, a softer voice. We have a unique point of view that should be treasured, not trampled.

Just because some of our questions or explanations sound different that doesn’t make them irreverent. The content of these questions should not be scary. If it scares us, then we lack faith. For if we believe that the Torah is truth, then we will find our answers within. New philosophies and areas of study are not weapons of destruction, they are tools of understanding. They can serve to deepen our understanding so that we may build stronger foundations of faith as we attempt to elevate ourselves, our nation, and all humankind to greater heights.

With all that said, we can use the first chapter of Parshat Tazria as a perfect example.

For those of you unfamiliar with Vayikra 12 or their feminine side, I’ll give you a short rundown that combines the two:

Woman conceives, spends 9 months, give or take, nurturing a life in her womb, and finally gives birth. If the little bundle of joy is a boy she is טמאה, ritually impure, for 7 days, and spends another 33 days in purity limbo- able to participate in family life, but forbidden from entering the Temple or touching sanctified food or items. If the little bundle of ambivalence is a girl double each of those numbers. When the respective time periods are complete she goes to the Temple and offers up a קרבן עולה, burnt sacrifice, and קרבן חטאת, sin offering. Yup, you heard it right, SIN offering. Then she’s pure again. Yay! Now she’s welcome to do it all over again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The “big questions” are as follows:

  • Why is a woman impure after childrbirth?
  • Why is a woman doubly impure after having a girl?
  • Why must a woman bring a sin offering after being a part of the greatest “miracle of nature”?

All these things make it sound like there is something fundamentally wrong, or sinful, about the birth process. Considering all the literal blood, sweat and tears women put into this while their male counterparts give out cigars in a nearby bar (they still do that, right?), the first impression these laws impart is not just offensive, it’s downright hurtful.

Our options are as follows. We could apologetically attempt to justify those first impressions, perhaps because we believe they are the original and exclusive intent of the Torah. Or we could believe that just as we must give our fellow man the benefit of the doubt, so too we must seek the most positive explanation possible, the explanation that gives meaning to the text and to our own lives, even if it means challenging our earlier impressions and assumptions. Or we could chuck the whole thing and say that a just and good God would never have made such laws about half of humanity, so there is just no way these laws are divine.

I don’t know about you, but I’m partial to the second option.

There are two major assumptions in the questions I asked. The first is that impurity is something negative. The second is that a קרבן חטאת is brought after a sin. Both these premises are faulty.

Impurity is not necessarily a negative thing. טומאה, impurity, is often mistaken as the opposite of קדושה, holiness; it is not. טומאה has its own opposite- טהרה, purity. A state of purity enables one to come into contact with holiness, but it does not necessitate holiness. A state of impurity precludes one from different aspects of holiness, such as entering the Temple. In our days, when there is no Temple, these states are largely irrelevant. When one is impure it does not in any way reflect on their spiritual state. One who buries the dead, performing one of the greatest mitzvot, is considered impure. So is the one who purifies this person with the ashes of the red heifer. There is no way these actions could be interpreted in a negative light. People are impure because something that they did or something they experienced creates a barrier, and makes it improper for them to be close to holiness. That is all.

קרבן חטאת is not necessarily brought after a sin. חטא means sin, but חיטא means disinfect. The root is similar. Additionally, חטא doesn’t so much translate to “sin” as it does to “miss the mark; it really means to be off course. It does not necessarily denote wrongdoing. Yes, the Torah introduces the chatat offering with the words “נפש כי תחטא בשגגה” “If anyone shall sin in error…” but this refers to incidents when the sin is clear, and unintentional. There are a number of instances when a chatat is brought where the sin is unclear (the chatat of the Nazir when he returns to his previous status, or the chatat of the High Priest on Yom Kippur), or the sin scholars associate with the offering is not necessarily unintentional (such as the sins attributed to the Metzora, the leper). So rather than assuming that every chatat is brought as the result of a sin, it makes more sense to see the chatat as a general category of sacrifices that are meant to “disinfect,” some of which are enumerated in Vayikra 4 and come directly after a sin.

When we rid ourselves of the assumptions that blind us we are free to explore new vistas of meaning.

Impurity can be understood as the direct result of the loss of life force. It is the common thread that runs through all states of impurity, such as that of the זב- a man who has “emissions,” the menstruating woman, the leper (dead skin) and the dead body. It also explains why the woman is impure for longer after the birth of a daughter- the daughter also carries the potential of nurturing new life in her body, so the vacuum left behind is greater. Though some of these conditions may be the result of misdoing, many are not. Just as most sins do not result in impurity (one who desecrates the Sabbath is not impure) most impurities are not the result of sin.

So why is one barred from the holy? It is my belief that there is something in this loss of life force, whatever it may be, that makes it difficult for this person and holiness to be together. Perhaps this is why Priests who are meant to facilitate the connection to the holy are not allowed contact with dead bodies, the highest source of impurity. I do not know if the difficulty is on the part of the person and their altered physical and/or mental state, or if it is on the part of the sacred, or some combination of the two. I can’t explain it any better, I hope it makes sense to you.

But even though this person may have done nothing wrong to be distanced from the Temple, they were still separated from it. And this does something to them. So at the end of their extended period of separation a chatat is brought. Radatz Hoffman (Rabbi David Zvi Hoffman, Germany, 1843-1921) explains that our place as a nation is to be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” When a barrier between ourselves and our destiny is created, we must make up for that. Similarly, Professor Yochanan Broyer  explains that the Torah does not look favorably upon those who remain in a state of impurity (as an example, see Vayikra 17:16). My teacher, Rav Mordechai Sabato, explained that as a people we are connected to the Temple, and our state affects the state of the Temple. The barriers impurity places between us and the Temple affect our relationship with the sacred and radiate onto it. When it is time for us to return, we must “disinfect” whatever negative impact our state has had on the state of the temple.

This is not to say that a woman who has just given birth is not close to God, just because she may not enter the Temple. There are a number of cases that a chatat and olah are brought at the same time (such as a Nazir and Metzora). Most of these cases the chatat is brought first, perhaps to raise the person to a level where they are able and deserving to bring the olah (T.B. Zevachim 7b). Such is not the case with the יולדת, the new mother. She brings the olah before the chata. The midrash points out that this explicitly teaches us the woman did not sin (Sifra here). I would like to add on to this midrash that this teaches us that a woman who just gave birth is perhaps closer to God than most, closer than even a Nazir after his period of asceticism. In fact, this woman does what even the High Priest on Yom Kippur may not, she brings her burnt offering to God before her chatat offering.

Delving into these texts we learn the extent that our physical state and experiences are directly tied to our mental state of mind and our ability to approach the sacred. Of this there can be no doubt. Everything is connected, even if we don’t always see it. Still, we should always look.

Even as a child I had a hard time understanding why someone would look for sin in the experience of childbirth. From vows that a woman may have made (Talmud) to Chava’s original sin (Seforno), these explanations seemed hurtful. I reacted to them by distancing myself from this section of the Torah. Now that I feel comfortable to question these things and the assumptions that go with them, I find myself treasuring this section of the Torah. I want to learn more about it. I don’t just thank the merciful God for allowing the new mother to atone for those vows she made in the throes of pain, as Ramban suggests, I thank God for understanding that the new mother may need time to recuperate with her child, time for her mind and body to adjust to the drastic changes they have undergone, before resuming her connection with the divine and giving thanks to her third partner in the creation of this new life. To me, this is divine mercy in its most abundant.

What does the splitting of the sea have to do with matchmaking?

“Matchmaking is as difficult (for God) as the splitting of the Sea”

(Rabba bar Bar Chana quoting Rabbi Yochanan, T.B. Sotah 2a)

Yes, the Talmud says some weird things. And yes, people, in general, say some strange things about marriage (those of you who read my blog are very well of aware of this one.) Still, this is an awfully strange metaphor. For starters, matchmaking is supposedly about putting two different things together, the splitting of the sea was about separating the same thing. And then there’s the very strange assumption that the miracle of the splitting of the sea was somehow difficult for God to pull off. I mean, besides that whole philosophical mind bender about God’s ability to make a rock He can’t lift (“if He wanted to”), it’s generally assumed that God doesn’t have to strain to make things happen on the physical plane. He isn’t called the Almighty for nothing. So besides the fact that the Rabbis construed a verse from Tehillim (Psalms 68) so it sort of fit this idea, the whole thing doesn’t really seem to jive well, at least at first glance.

So let’s take a second glance. Rashi on this passage informs us that matchmaking and the splitting of the sea have one particular common denominator- both change the order of creation. The sea was created as one. Man was created one, and Woman was created one. And even though Bereishit (Genesis 2:24) tells us “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother, and cleave to his wife, and they shall be one flesh,” I think most will agree that people don’t take to this the way the fish God created took to water; it doesn’t “come natural” to most.

This may provide an answer to our first question, but we still have the second problem- how does any of this pose a difficulty to God? If He made the rules of nature, why would it be difficult for Him to change them? Ever play a game with a six year old kid? They’re all-powerful; the rules seem to change as the game progresses, and for some reason, they always seem to change in the kid’s favor. God’s like this six year old. Now there’s a metaphor for you.

So then why would the splitting of the sea be difficult for God? Let’s set the scene. Pharaoh had let the Jews out of Egypt just 7 days earlier. It’s the seventh day of the festival soon to be known as Passover (actually חג המצות) and the Israelites are in danger of losing their newfound freedom.  The sea is in front of them, Pharaoh and his army are gaining. The people cry out to Moshe, and he tells them “Fear not. Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord… the Lord will fight for you , and you shall hold your peace.”

Nice speech by Moshe, but God doesn’t seem to agree. Moshe tells the people to stand their ground, God will do the fighting, and God tells Moshe “Why are you crying out to me? Speak to the Children of Israel and go.”

Then God tells Moshe to lift his staff and split the sea, and He reveals the plan to drown the Egyptians. Still, the original message is there: stop waiting around for God to do something, and get your butts moving. As Rashi puts it, Moshe was standing there praying, and God told him when the Children of Israel are in danger it is not the time for lengthy prayer, it’s time for action. They just have to move, because the sea would not dare stand in their way, not with all the merit and faith they had.

A midrash brought by Rabbi Yehudah (Mechilta) brings a similar idea. Apparently, no one really wanted to be the first into the waters. While everyone was arguing as to who would get the dubious honor, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped right in. The waters threatened his life, and he cried out to God. God chastises Moshe that he’s just standing there praying while God’s beloved were drowning. Then Moshe asked God “what can I do?” or, more literally translated, “what is in my hands to do?” Moshe was telling God he was powerless in this situation. But Moshe was mistaken, for “in his hands” was THE staff, the staff that had been making miracles happen since Moshe received his mission, way back in Chapters 3-4, by the burning bush. In fact, when Moshe was first recruited by God, he was worried that the people would not believe he was “on a mission from God,” so God gave him signs to show the people. The first involved turning this staff into a crocodile, but before giving Moshe this miraculous sign, God first asks Moshe “what’s that in your hand?” referring to this very staff.

See, Moshe had the tool for the redemption all along, right there in his hand. When God tells him to raise his staff, it’s kind of a “duh” moment. For the most part, the staff was the way Moshe had been making things happen. God was ready to take the training wheels off, to have the people initiate this one, armed with their faith in God and in themselves. And while the people were hesitant to wean themselves, this was not something that could be done without their cooperation. This next step towards redemption needed to be taken while standing tall on their own two feet.

And that’s what the splitting of the sea has to do with matchmaking. No matter how much Divine assistance goes in to putting two people together, no matter how natural or unnatural the union, at a certain point it’s no longer up to God, it’s in our hands. And that’s why it’s so difficult for God. You know how hard it is to watch people you care about make mistakes, but knowing they need to make these mistakes on their own? Could you imagine being a benevolent all-powerful deity, holding back when it comes to matters of free-choice and self-actualization? It must be hell having to watch people make stupid pig-headed mistakes waiting around for a “sign” or something “heavenly” or waiting for someone else “to make the first move.”

And that’s why it’s just as hard to pair people off as it is to split the sea. It’s not because God’s power is limited. It’s because God limits His power, and wants us to do things for ourselves. Unfortunately, we often want God to do things for us. Or refuse to see that He’s given us all the tools we need to do it for ourselves. It’s in our hands.

But I don’t *feel* redeemed

“If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed”

What kind of parent tells their child they wouldn’t have been redeemed? It seems so very wrong, yet this is precisely the answer the Pesach Haggadah delivers to the inquiry of the “wicked son.” I always thought Judaism had some pretty cool strategies for child rearing, minus that whole corporal punishment/“he that spares the rod hates his child” thing, but this seems a bit, well, wicked. As my new “New American Haggadah” Hagaddah asks:

Can a tradition that presents a God who suffered himself to be morally interrogated find no better answer than the label of wicked, either silencing the questioners into submission or banishing them forever from their seats at the table?

Most commentaries focus on understanding how the question could elicit such a damning response, but why is it we assume the response is so damning to begin with? Instead of examining the question, why don’t we examine the response? What does it mean when we say “If he had been there, he would not have been redeemed?”

What does it mean to be redeemed?

גאל means redeem, and redeem means גאל- but what does it really mean? Language is a series of symbols. What state of being does the term גאל symbolize?

As an aside, I should probably point out how stupid I feel that it took me this long to address this question. For years now I’ve been teaching that the entire seder is designed to help us come out feeling as though we ourselves have been redeemed; as we read every year at the culmination of the Maggid section, “In every generation a person must see himself as if he left Egypt,” and “The Holy One, Blessed be He, did not only redeem our ancestors from Egypt, rather he also redeemed us along with them.”

I should also probably mention here that even though we’re spending the whole night discussing the exodus from Egypt, the root for redeem, גאל, really only appears in these two sections of Maggid- once by the response to the “wicked son,” and the 7 times by the culmination of Maggid (Leitwort, anyone?). Otherwise we generally speak about יציאת מצרים- leaving Egypt, or God taking us out of Egypt- הוציא אותנו.

So this redemption that we’re trying to figure out is not just another word for the Exodus, and it’s not some word that’s thrown about all willy-nilly. It has some real meaning, and that meaning is something we are working to acheive throughout Maggid. What does redemption mean? How can I feel redeemed?

Our quest for meaning

Scientific inquiry generally starts out with a hypothesis, which is tested out in different situations. Let’s do that (sort of) here.

As I said, גאל seems to have a special meaning, one that carries a lot more weight than the more technical “exodus.” Webster’s Dictionary defines “redemption” as- psyche! I don’t have time to look in a dictionary, it’s erev Pesach. So let’s just wing it. Most people think redemption meant some type of salvation, generally physical, although some people add a spiritual component to it, since Hebrew already has a term for physical salvation- הצלה- which is also used to describe the exodus. Still, redeeming could be loosely understood to mean saving someone or something from a bad situation. This is not to be confused with the other Hebrew root, פדה, which also means redeemed, but is used in the context of redeeming firstborns, humans or animals, and similar stuff. The distinction between the two is a whole other post.

Ok, so now that we have our hypothesis, let’s put it to the test.

גאלה in the Torah

When you want to find out the meaning of a word, or a root, you go to the source. For the Jewish people, like it or not, that’s the Torah. So the first thing I did on my quest for enlightenment was pop open my handy-dandy Concordance to find out what the good book had to say. I’ll sum up what I found for you, but inquiring minds and people with trust issues should feel free to follow along at home with your own Concordance. To see if our definition fits we’ll be checking not only what the act of redemption involves, but also who or what is being redeemed, and who or what is doing the redeeming.

The first time our root makes an appearance is in a prayer uttered by our forefather Yaakov on behalf of his grandchildren, poised at the threshold of the Egyptian Galut. He blesses them invoking “The angel who redeems me from all evil,” “המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע” and asks that his children be blessed and allowed to flourish in the land.

  • Redeemer- angel
  • Redeemed- Yaakov
  • Act of redemption- saving from evil
  • Does it fit the hypothesis? Yup.
  • Next. This is the one that best fits our topic. It’s the section in the Book of Exodus (Chapter 6) where God explains to Moshe just what he plans for the Jewish people, and it’s become known as the four expressions of redemption.
6. Therefore, say to the children of Israel, ‘I am the Lord, and I will take you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will save you from their labor, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.

ו. לָכֵן אֱמֹר לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלֹת מִצְרַיִם וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבֹדָתָם וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדֹלִים:

7. And I will take you to Me as a people, and I will be a God to you, and you will know that I am the Lord your God, Who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.

ז. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים וִידַעְתֶּם כִּי אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם:

8. I will bring you to the land, concerning which I raised My hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as a heritage; I am the Lord.’ “

ח. וְהֵבֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי לָתֵת אֹתָהּ לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב וְנָתַתִּי אֹתָהּ לָכֶם מוֹרָשָׁה אֲנִי יְ־הֹוָ־ה:

  • Redeemer- God
  • Redeemed- Israelites
  • Act of redemption- saving from Egyptians
  • Does it fit the hypothesis? Yup.

The colloquial term “the four expressions of redemption,” appreciates that redemption is not just part of the process, it’s the whole shebang- once again pointing to the idea that redemption is something greater than just a physical act of salvation. It’s both a part of the process, and the ultimate goal.

But then things get sticky. Moving into Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, the word גאולה appears in an entirely new context- גאולת קרקע, the redemption of land. The text at the end of Chapter 25 describes a situation where a person experiencing financial difficulties is forced to sell his ancestral land. In such a case, a family member is allowed to buy back the land at any point. Buying back the land is referred to as redemption.

  • Redeemer- Family member
  • Redeemed- Land
  • Act of redemption- buying
  • Does it fit the hypothesis? It’s a stretch.

Additionally, the root גאל is used to describe people, it’s an adjective. The prophet Yechezkel refers to “Your brethren, even your brethren, men of thy kindred,” “אחיך, אחיך, אנשי גאולתיך.” Tehillim (Psalms 107:2) calls the Israelites “גאולי ה’.” Although it makes sense that this means “the redeemed of the Lord,” using Ezekiel’s usage it could also mean “those who are close to the Lord.”

We can easily explain the quote in Yechezkel as a secondary usage, taken from the idea introduced in Vayikra that the גואל of land is a family member. This would also explain the use of the root in its many forms in Megillat Rut.

It’s when we look in Bamidbar (Numbers 35) that the whole thing falls apart. The passage describes the cities of refuge, where someone who commits manslaughter, negligent murder, is meant to flee. There we are introduced to the “Blood Avenger,” the גואל הדם, a family member of the victim who takes the whole idea of “a life for a life” (Exodus 21, 22) literally.

  • Redeemer- Family member
  • Redeemed- Blood?
  • Act of redemption- killing
  • Does it fit the hypothesis? No way, Jose (who, my friend pointed out, makes an appearance in old English translations of the Haggadah.)

So how did we get from redeemer to avenger?

We didn’t. I tried, but the mental gymnastics involved were far too advanced, and I just couldn’t get my mind to bend that way. This must be why the BDB Dictionary translates the verb גאל as both “redeem” and “act as kinsman.”

Redemption as more than salvation

So we’re going to need to adjust our hypothesis. It seems like the various usages of the root גאל have a lot more to do with this idea of “do the part of the next of kin,” as the BDB puts it, rather than the “physical salvation,” that we originally thought. The salvation, in fact, seems to be just one of the things someone close to us is meant to do on our behalf. In a shiur I recently gave on this topic, the term “restore” was suggested as an alternative translation to “redemption,” and I tend to agree with that suggestion- the גואל restores land to the family, the גואל הדם restores the balance of life and death, and God restores the Jewish slaves to a state of freedom, as they, and all of humanity, was created.

To better understand this “restoration” we should ask ourselves: why is it a “next of kin” is doing the restoring?

To understand this let’s see what philosophers have to say about the true meaning of redemption. I did a quick search and, as it turns out, redemption seems to be a uniquely Jewish idea. Christians (and apparently Muslims too) focus on “salvation” as opposed to redemption- and it generally refers to salvation from sin and or the release of the soul from the physical confines of this world, into the Kingdom of Heaven, or Paradise. Certainly, the idea of an ultimate redemption taking place in this world, on the physical plane, is something we Jews can claim as exclusively ours.

A classic Jewish commentary explains redemption

The Ramban, Nachmanides, refers to the Book of Exodus as, “the Book of Exile and Redemption,” “ספר הגלות והגאולה”. At the start of the book the Jewish people are enslaved in Egypt, as it progresses God takes them out of Egypt, gives them the Torah and they build the Mishkan, Tabernacle, as a house for God. At the book’s end the Mishkan is dedicated and God’s Presence comes to rest there, within the Israelite camp. To Ramban, this is what it means to be redeemed. “To return to their proper place, to the level of their ancestors… and the Holy One, Blessed be He, returned and rested His Presence in their midst…” Redemption for Ramban means returning to their rightful status, restoration of the Jewish people to the level where they ultimately merit the honor of carrying God’s name and message in this world; as Ramban alludes to the Kaballistic concept, “they themselves were the Chariot.”

Contemporary understandings of redemption

A complementary understanding can be found in Rav Soloveitchik’s epically awesome article, “Redemption, Prayer and Talmud Torah.”

Redemption involves a movement by an individual or a community from the periphery of history to its center; or, to employ a term from physics, redemption is a centripetal movement. To be on the periphery means to be a non-history-making entity, while movement toward the center renders the same entity history- making and history-conscious. Naturally the question arises: What is meant by a history-making people or community? A history-making people is one that leads a speaking, story-telling, communing free existence, while a non-history-making, non-history- involved group leads a non-communing and therefore a silent, unfree existence…

…The case of existential slavery is, however, different: it is up to man, who is charged with the task of redeeming himself from a shadow existence. God wills man to be creator – his first job is to create himself as a complete being. Man, the mute being, must search for speech and find it, all by himself. Man comes into our world as a hylic, amorphous being. He is created in the image of God, but this image is a challenge to be met, not a gratuitous gift. It is up to man to objectify himself, to impress form upon a latent formless personality and to move from the hylic, silent periphery toward the center of objective reality. The highest norm in our moral code is: to be, in a total sense, “to liberate oneself from the bondage of a shadowy mé on (to use Platonic jargon) and to move toward the wide spaces of ontos on, real, true being, full of song and joy, the crystal-clear accents of speech. Man was commanded to redeem himself in order to attain full being…

…Once man gains insight into his true self, by activating the intellect, he finds himself on the road towards discovering ultimate redemption. When man recognizes himself, he dissipates not only ignorance, but also the mist of anonymity. He is not unknown anymore: he knows himself, and finds freedom in his knowledge…

A redeemed person is one who realizes their full potential, in thought, feeling and action; someone who knows who they are and acts in accordance with that knowledge. The same is true for a nation. Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook explains the redemption of Pesach in a similar fashion:

שתנאי הגאולה שנים המה: החירות העצמית, חירות הגוף מכל שיעבוד זר, מכל שיעבוד הכופה את צלם אלהים אשר באדם להיות משועבד לכל כח אשר הוא מוריד את ערכו, את תפארת גדולתו והדרת קדשו, והחירות הזאת אינה נקנית כי-אם על-ידי חירותה של הנשמה, חירות הרוח מכל מה שהוא מטה אותה ממסילתה הישרה והאיתנה היצוקה במהותו העצמית…

…ההבדל שבין העבד לבן -החורין איננו רק הבדל מעמדי, מה שבמקרה זה הוא משועבד לאחר וזה הוא בלתי-משועבד. אנו יכולים למצא עבד משכיל שרוחו הוא מלא חירות, ולהיפך בן -חורין שרוחו הוא רוח של עבד. החירות הצביונית היא אותו הרוח הנשאה, שהאדם וכן העם בכלל מתרומם על ידה להיות נאמן להעצמיות הפנימית שלו, להתכונה הנפשית של צלם אלהים אשר בקרבו, ובתכונה כזאת אפשר לו להרגיש את חייו בתור חיים מגמתיים, שהם שוים את ערכם. מה שאין כן בבעל הרוח של העבדות, שלעולם אין תכן חייו והרגשתו מאירים בתכונתו הנפשית העצמית, כי-אם במה שהוא טוב ויפה אצל האחר השולט עליו איזה שליטה שהיא, בין שהיא רשמית בין שהיא מוסרית, – במה שהאחר מוצא שהוא יפה וטוב.

…there are two conditions for redemption: the freedom of independence, which is physical freedom from any foreign enslavement, from any subjugation that forces the person’s image of God to be enslaved to any force that diminishes its worth, the its grandeur, glory and the majesty of its holiness; and this freedom is only achieved when the soul is free- freedom of the spirit from everything that causes it to deviate from the straight and mighty path that is molded into its individual essence.

..The difference between the slave and the free man is not just a difference in status, in which circumstances find this one enslaved to another and while this one is not enslaved. We may find an intellectual slave whose spirit is full of freedom, and, conversely, a free man whose has the spirit of a slave. The character of freedom is that uplifted spirit, which raises man, and the nation as a whole, to be loyal to their internal individuality, to the spiritual aspect of the image of God that is within. And with this aspect he can feel his life is a life of purpose, one that is worthwhile. This is impossible for the spirit of the enslaved, for the content of his life and his frame of mind will never shine with his individual spiritual attributes, but rather (it will reflect) what the one who controls him finds befitting, whether it is official or ethical- it is what the other finds worthwhile.

For both Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik, true redemption must include both the physical freedom to do as one desires and the spiritual freedom it takes to be aware of one’s true, authentic desires. As Judaism believes each person is created in the image of God, true redemption means possessing an awareness of ourselves as created in the image of God, and acting upon that, realizing our potential, in mind and in in body.

The same is true of redemption as a nation. Just as each person is unique, each person must understand how they can individually express their own aspect of the Divine, so too each nation has a unique character, their own mission. As Ramban states, the mission of the Jewish people is to carry God’s message in this world.

Our quest for redemption

The first step to redemption, to restoration, as individuals and as nations, is to understand who we are, our uniqueness, and our mission in this world. And it is here that the other meaning of גאל fits in. When we lose track of ourselves, it is up to our kinsman to come and help us understand, to restore us to our roots, to who we really are, and help us discover our own self’s worth, and live up to all our potential. Who better to do that than someone similar, someone who can help us see ourselves for who we are by showing us who they really are?

This is what the Haggadah is supposed to do. We begin at the beginning, when the Jewish people were only a twinkle in God’s eye, and follow the nation through diapers, as they begin to take their first steps in the dessert on their journey of self-discovery. We see how God interacts with the world, His mighty hand and outstretched arm, Divine justice and mercy, His salvation, and we are meant to learn from His ways, so we can realize the Divine within ourselves and appropriately bear his massage to the world.

At the culmination, we are meant to view ourselves as “redeemed.” Learning about the redemption, acting as though we went through it, is meant to help us feel as though we have, so we can understand who we really are, and act accordingly.

Perhaps this is why we can tell the “wicked son” he would not have been redeemed. It’s not that God would not have saved him, it’s just that God’s physical salvation is not enough. As we are told: The wicked son says, ‘What is this to you?’ To you and not him. And since he removes himself from the community, he denies the essence… if he was there he would not have been redeemed.” God does not deny him redemption, he denies himself redemption. We cannot learn about ourselves by distancing ourselves from our history, from our community and our roots. We need our relatives, our kinsman, to help us discover who we really are, and all the potential we possess.

We are told that the Matzah symbolizes both our affliction and our freedom. In the beginning of the seder we break a piece of matzah and hide it. After we read Maggid and eat our meal we search for this matzah, so that we can eat it for the Afikoman. I always learned that this was just one of those things we did to keep kids awake during the seder.

Actually, this is the point of the whole seder. We begin with freedom, we are born with free, and God redeemed us and restored our freedom, but it is not complete, fully realized. God cannot just give is redemption, we must take it. The potential is hidden, and it is up to us to search for that freedom, discover it, and make it part of ourselves.

This Pesach, may we all realize complete redemption, as individuals, a nation, and people of the world.

Parshat Pekudei: Of Mirrors and Men

Sometimes even Moshe gets it wrong

It’s not often that the Midrash tells us Moshe got it wrong, but that’s just what the Tanchuma on Pekudei does. Usually, Moshe Rabbeinu is portrayed as a great leader whose genuine humility helps him understand the people. Naturally, our curiosity should be piqued when the Midrash tells us otherwise.

It seems pertinent to mention that versions of this midrash appears in numerous works (such as T.B. Sotah 11B, Midrash Tanhuma 38:9 and Rashi on Pekudei, Midrash Rabba Shemot 1:12, and Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim 68), which is a testimony to the importance of the story to the Oral tradition. While the details and scope of the story varies, the gist of it remains the same: Among the donations for the Temple recounted in Parshat Pekudei, Moshe finds the women have donated their mirrors. Moshe is angered by this donation, possibly because mirrors are a sign of vanity, or of a preoccupation with physicality, or, as Rashi states, the evil inclination- all things that have no place in the House of God.

כשראה משה אותן המראות, זעף בהן. אמר להם לישראל: טולו מקלות ושברו שוקיהן של אלו
אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה: משה, על אלו אתה מבזה?! המראות האלו הן העמידו כל הצבאות הללו במצרים

When Moshe saw the mirrors he got angry at them. He said to Israel, “Take staffs and break them.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, “You disrespect these?! These mirrors are what raised all these multitudes in Egypt.”

God chastises Moshe, letting him know that those mirrors were more precious than any donation of gold, silver or precious stones. The women used these mirrors to raise the multitude of the Jewish people who left Egypt. The male slaves in Egypt were broken and tired from their hard work. Their wives would collect little fish from the Nile, prepare a meal for their husbands, and bring it to them in the fields. They would wash, eat, and drink, and then the women would take out the mirrors; side-by-side the couple would gaze at their reflections in the mirror. The women would tease their husbands, saying “I am more beautiful than you are.” Their husbands would become aroused, and the baby making would commence. The babies grow up, and they’re eventually redeemed from Egypt. Often, the story is preceded by the statement “In the merit of the righteous women of that generation, Israel was redeemed from Egypt.”

Nice story, but what’s the point?

In correcting Moshe, God is trying to explain something to Moshe about his preconceptions of physicality and sexuality. Moshe things these things are gauche, they have no place within the spirituality of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). God’s neat little story is meant to teach him otherwise.

On the most basic level God tells him that there would have been no one to redeem without these mirrors. Physicality is not inherently evil; it’s the foundation of our world. But the story does not just tell us: “The men were tired and didn’t want to make slave babies, so the women used mirrors to arouse them, and so I (God) had people to redeem.”

If the midrash is just trying to teach us about mirrors or physicality, it seems odd that each version of the midrash I have encountered mentions those little fish. Often such small details vary from one telling to the next, so the consistency of these little fish should clue us in to the real lesson of the midrash. Fish always remind me of the divine commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” Way before man received this blessing, (and by “way” I mean a whole day of creation,) the fish received it first. Must be why they’re considered a symbol of fertility.

Each version of the midrash also refers to drinking or wine. The first time we see wine mentioned in the Torah is by Noach. After the flood, Noach and his sons receive another blessing to be fruitful and multiply, (there’s that fertility again,) but we are not told that Noach is involved in any more “baby-making.” Instead, he plants a vineyard, gets drunk, and is involved in some sort of sexually compromising thing with his son. Any psych 101 student would diagnose Noach with PTSD. After witnessing the destruction of the world Noach can’t deal with the world, so he uses wine to escape; instead of building a future, Noach is stuck in the horrors of the past.

The Israelite women in Egypt also deal with devastation and death, and they too understand that wine is a powerful tool for escape. Yet instead of using it to hide from the harsh realities of the present, they confront those realities head on- stare them straight in the mirror- and then they work to overcome them. The wine offers their husbands a break from their seemingly helpless, hopeless fate, so that when they look in the mirror they no longer see a slave. These early “beer goggles” help them see themselves in a way they were unable to before- through the eyes of their partner. In that moment they feel desire- desire to be beautiful, to connect to another person. Suddenly, they want more than slaves struggling to survive; they want to be human, to be loved, and to grow a future. They want to be fertile.

Dear Midrash- Are you sure women can be righteous?

Fertility is the capacity to nurture something small- a seed, a potential- so in the future it may grow to fruition. Fertility is generally seen as a feminine thang. The pagans saw the fertile earth as the goddess. Of late media outlets have been exploding with the issue of fertility control- which they put into a nice little box called “women’s health.” Some feminist psychologists even believe that many men experience “womb envy”- they are jealous of women’s innate ability to nurture life.

I point this out because to me this midrash always seemed to be a celebration of women, yet when I googled the midrash in Hebrew, the top result was a complete perversion of this message. The writer understood our midrash as a lesson in apologetics- his entire understanding was based on the premise that it was strange for women receive a greater reward than men, since men were the ones doing the hard work. He proceeded to perform some mental acrobatics to turn this message into a lesson about the loads of reward women get for helping men learn Torah.

So while I see this midrash as a lesson using fertility as a metaphor for the uniquely feminine quality  that can nurture an unseen hope for the future, a quality which was the very thing that led to the redemption from slavery in Egypt, this author understands it as a reason to perpetuate patriarchal norms and keep women in their proper place- behind men. I know I sound like a raging militant feminist, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing, but if you read the original you’ll see I’m not exaggerating.

You see, this guy allowed his preconceived notions to dictate the way he viewed things, just like Moshe did in the midrash. It’s ironic. You know, because it’s, like, the opposite of what the midrash is trying to do.

We’ve done feminism, let’s throw in some Kabbalah

But don’t really blame this guy, his tunnel vision may not be his fault. I don’t really understand much about Kabbalah, and I’m not going to be some poser who pretends that I do, but this is what I’ve heard from people who actually know what they’re talking about. Apparently, there’s an idea in Kabbalah that there’s a fundamental difference between men and women that goes back to the creation (besides the obvious biological differences).

For men spirituality and physicality are inherently separate. Adam was created with dust from the earth, and then a divine soul was breathed into him. These two entities exist in the same space, but remain separate. For this reason, men can achieve heights of spirituality untainted by physicality.

Not so women. Woman was created from Adam’s side. (Not rib, check it out.) As she was fashioned from a mix of the spiritual soul and the physical body, the two are forever intertwined.

Up until now, there’s been no value judgment; one is not better or worse, they’re just different. But some people can’t abstain from judgment. The apologetic party line generally continues that there are pluses and minuses to this mishkababel we call woman.  On the one hand women are less likely to completely succumb to their base physical desires and leave spirituality behind; their actions will always have some spiritual component. On the other hand, their actions will always contain a component of physicality. According to this opinion, this is a bad thing.

Of course this idea was developed by men. Men who think that spirituality is best separated from physicality. Men who see the ideal in their own make-up. Men, who don’t understand that the feminine can also be an ideal.

What if it really was a man’s world?

These are the same men who were unable to look past the drudgery of their slavery to the future. When immersed in the physical they were unable to see a greater goal. Without their wives, the Jewish people would have been lost. It was the women who were able to hold on to hope and to see a tomorrow greater than today. It is for this reason the Midrash tells us “In the merit of righteous women our forefathers were redeemed from Egypt.” These women- the midwives, Miriam, Yocheved, Pharoah’s daughter and every other nameless woman who continued to build her family- these women leave their mark all over the story of the Exodus, because they made it happen.

And it happens over and over again throughout our history. Women, who are so often neglected by the Bible and the history books, always seem to play a major part of redemption story- whether it’s Esther in the Purim story, or Yehudit in the Chanukah story, women were instrumental in the redemptive process. As rare as it is to see women playing an instrumental role in the history books, it seems inevitable that every good redemption story needs its Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks; leaving women out of these stories just creates gaps that are too big for men to fill.

Learning our lesson

Thankfully, not all men are evil misogynists. (Laugh. That was a joke. Almost all men are evil misogynists. [That was also a joke. I really hope you understood that was a joke.])

Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook saw the highest level of spiritual attainment, kodesh kedoshim, holy of holies, in the elevation of the physical to new heights by its combination with the spiritual, not in the suppression of all that is physical. We were put in this world to elevate it to new spiritual heights, not abnegate it.

I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong. What I do know is that men and women need to see each other. We need to see the world the other way. It’s good to get fresh perspective, to understand that the world isn’t monolithic and there may be more than one ideal; or that just because we’re wired one way doesn’t mean that’s the only way. If this midrash teaches us anything maybe we can learn that if even a man as great as Moshe Rabbeinu got it wrong, it’s ridiculous to think we have it all right.

Which brings us back to the mirrors.

Mirrors reflect, but not perfectly. Their reflection flips the original, they show a 2D image of 3D objects, they only show us what is before them, and they only reflect the surface. We cannot rely on them absolutely. Moreover, while we may believe what we see is the whole truth, in reality, we choose the reality we see; we show our good side, (or our bad side depending on what kind of crazy we are,) we focus on our best features, we hold our mouths in unnatural positions, and on and on- all so we can see what we want to see and what we expect to see.

But this too is not necessarily a bad thing. When the women held up those mirrors, they helped their husbands see beyond the slaves they expected to see; they helped them see reality through their wives’ eyes. It wasn’t just the feminine perspective that led to the redemption; it was the men’s willingness to look in the mirror with someone else’s eyes.

Epilogue

The midrash tells us that the mirrors were used to fashion the kiyor, the basin, in the Mishkan. According to the midrash this usage is not coincidental. One variation of the Midrash points out that the kiyor was the vessel that sanctified the Kohanim, priests. Although Moshe believed that mirrors were wholly profane, perhaps because they are used to illicit sexual arousal and reflect only that which is physical and surface, God tells him that even these things can be holy. These mirrors built the nation, so they are to be used to sanctify the priests who represent the nation in divine service. As Rav Kook might say, these mirrors were kodesh kedoshim.

Another version of the Midrash tells us these mirrors that were used to seduce the Israelite men will be used in the future to bring harmony to husbands and wives. The water from the kiyor is used in the Sotah ritual, which I like to understand is meant to bring peace to a couple torn apart by a husband’s suspicions of infidelity on his wife’s part. (Who’s the apologeticist now? Me, that’s who.) In such a case the reality that the man sees and that the woman sees are so disparate that only a divine intervention from the Lord above can reconcile the two.

Yes, we see things differently. It is hubris to believe we see the whole picture. If we did, we’d be God. When it comes to this story it was the women were able to see a bigger picture and the men were open minded enough to listen to them and to be swayed by their words. That’s what led to the redemption from Egypt. Imagine what could happen if we did the same.

In every bit of honest writing in the world there is a base theme. Try to understand men, if you understand each other you will be kind to each other. Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love. There are shorter means, many of them. There is writing promoting social change, writing punishing injustice, writing in celebration of heroism, but always that base theme. Try to understand each other.

– John Steinbeck, journal entry (1938), quoted in the Introduction to a 1994 edition of Of Mice and Men by Susan Shillinglaw, p. vii

Mikdash and Modernity: Wanting to want the Mikdash

I’m teaching a class on Mashiach and the End of Days this semester. As I sat down to write this post it struck me as odd that in such a class I barely mention the Temple at all. I don’t discuss why we should want a Temple, or how or when it will be rebuilt. I have left the entire question of “will there be/won’t there be animal sacrifices?” until the end of the semester… if there’s enough time. While this may seem odd, it’s even stranger that I did not give this a second thought until now.

Then again, maybe it’s not so strange. For me, the concept of redemption has very little to do with a Temple, and very much to do with the sorry state of the world as is, and the promise of a better tomorrow. As cliché as it is, and as cliché as calling something cliché is, world peace is both an alluring and noble goal.

Let’s face it, we don’t really “connect” with a concept of a Mikdash (Temple) these days. The ceremony and opulence described is antithetical to many of our modern ideas on religion and spirituality. Also, it’s boring. While some may actually enjoy reading about the Ark, menorah and table in the parashot (weekly Bible portions) this time of year, most will agree that spending the better part of two chapters learning about the collapsible walls and their covers, and then repeating it just a few chapters later, is a tedious, uninspiring experience. Those that don’t are probably either deluding themselves or just plain delusional.

And yet, this is part of our Torah, part of our tradition. We haven’t had a Temple for almost two millennia, yet we continue to read about it and pray for it. But we don’t connect to it. Because, as much as we read about it and pray for it, we don’t really learn about it. And since we don’t learn about it, we don’t really understand it. And since we don’t understand it, we don’t “connect” to it.

I think if we are honest with ourselves, most of us will agree that we don’t give much thought to the concept of a Mikdash, and that when those thoughts do cross our minds, they are often negative. And while many people don’t really care that they don’t “connect,’ I think most of the people reading this blog post do; if you didn’t, I’d love if you could let me know why you’re still reading this. Yet most still feel vindicated in their apathy or ambivalence. Some might claim that they have learned about the Mishkan and Mikdash, and they still don’t “connect.” Others may believe that even if they did understand these concepts, they’re still outdated modes of worship that are no longer relevant to modern Jewish practice.

To each of these claims I say, “Poppycock!”

As you gasp in horror at my language, please allow me to explain myself. I firmly maintain that all mitzvot (commandments) are meant to be the concrete realization of abstract values. Values, at their most neutral, can be defined as concepts that provide rationale for choosing certain behaviors over others. Taking it a step further, I maintain that these abstract values are eternal in their essence. Here I’m going to count on Plato and a bunch of other heavyweight philosophers to have my back; they asserted that there was a metaphysical component to values. Values are not just tools we humans created to assist moral and practical decision making or establish order in society, but rather objective truths to which we must adhere.

Throughout the three millennia the Jewish people have been observing mitzvot the world around us has changed significantly, both for better and for worse, yet it is the practical embodiment of these values in the form of halachah that is meant to evolve along with the world, and not the values themselves. Inasmuch, even if the mitzvah practice is dated, the values it embodies are not, and if one were to understand the true value behind the mitzvah, one would also find a way to “connect” to it. Perhaps we would even try to create new practices to preserve the value ideal in our lives.

Some of you may take these ideas for granted; you may even think they are too conservative. Others will find them novel, yet intriguing. Some may see them as heretical. I ask you to “suspend your disbelief” (I know that’s not really how I’m supposed to use it), and accept the premise while I make my point. When I am done you are free to take umbrage in the comments section below. I will happily defend my thesis, at least to the point that someone convinces me otherwise.

As I was saying, mitzvot are the real-world fulfillment of transcendent ideals. Across the varied spectrum, one of the greatest challenges the observant Jew faces is the maintenance of the connection between these esoteric ideals and their practical manifestations in their hearts and minds. I find this to be ironic, as I believe that it is precisely the maintenance of this connection that maintains our connection to religious observance, by giving meaning to our otherwise often mundane actions.

Still, there are many reasons for the disconnect. Some truly believe that the reasons behind the mitzvot are as transcendent as their Divine source, and it is hubris for us to believe we can ever understand the connection. Their observance has nothing to do with the beauty or logic of the Torah, but rather their submission to its Divine authority, incarnated in the Rabbinic leadership. This is the type of thinking that may lead young soldiers to walk out of army ceremonies just because a woman in singing. Submission to the narrow-minded authority of clear-cut-and-dry halacha becomes the highest value, prized above more abstract halachic values such as kavod habriyot (respect for God’s creations) and deracheha darchei noam (the paths of the Torah are pleasant). Rabbinic authority, once understood to be the tool to realize transcendent values in our everyday lives, becomes an end unto itself. As someone who has often been described as “having problems with authority” I often feel sorry for these people. But more about that in my next post.

Other people don’t really see any deeper reason behind the mitzvot, they perform them perfunctorily, sometimes due to familial or social obligations, sometimes because of a strong attachment to tradition or a certain lifestyle, sometimes because they’re too ignorant or scared to try something different.

I am not really addressing any of these types of people. They just won’t get it. I’m talking to people who believe, or at least want to believe, that when they observe mitzvot their actions realize abstract values such as dignity, justice, peace and some other stuff that isn’t as simple to reduce into practically meaningless buzzwords. Of course that’s part of the problem. We often don’t have the time or the means to understand the values behind the actions.

So what do we do? We reduce the easy ones to the most banal values possible and try to ignore those that pose some sort of challenge. Compounding the challenge is the inherent impossibility of any physical action truly and completely expressing a metaphysical value. Is justice really served when an accident victim is compensated for the loss of a limb or a murderer is executed?

And even when we do our best to realize one value, some other value always seems to be compromised along the way. When we reassure our friend she has the right facial structure for her pixie haircut, we trample truth for the sake of mercy and comfort. When we unquestioningly open our wallets to the poor we choose charity over teaching self-reliance. While I in no way believe these to be the wrong choices, the prioritizing involved often leaves us feeling cheated. In any given situation our action may realize one value, but there will always be another opposing value left unrealized.

While this may make the connection between values and mitzvot more difficult to understand, it is often enough for us to observe the mitzvot without any of this intellectual soul-searching. Sometimes we can know something in our hearts, or feel it in our bones, without knowing it in our minds. I’m not sure how many of the high school students from the Beren Academy in Texas fully understand the eternal ideas that Sabbath observance realizes, yet they were ready and willing to choose it over a chance to compete in a state championship, another goal they had worked hard to attain.

So maybe for some people all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo is unnecessary when it comes to their everyday mitzvah observance. But what about those things that we don’t do every day, things that don’t elicit a visceral connection greater than any philosophizing could? What about the Mikdash?

There are a number of things we can do to understand the eternal beauty of those values embodied in the Mishkan and Mikdash. We can try to understand the values based on the practices the Jewish people have enacted to fill the spiritual void- practices like prayer, which we are told is supposed to take the place of our sacrifices. It’s interesting to note the opinion that says that prayer is actually a higher level than animal sacrifice (TB, Berachot 32b). Even though the practices are different, the underlying value each attempts to realize may be the same; as the world changed, so, too, did the practice.

Still, the practices seem so dissimilar it seems impossible to claim that underlying values of prayer and communal synagogues directly conform to those of animal sacrifice and a central Temple. On the same note, I keep using the term Mikdash, but I haven’t differentiated between the practical differences between the Temple in Jerusalem and its predecessor, the traveling Tabernacle, which are surely some sort of expression of varying value-ideals.

In order to really understand the values behind these mitzvot that were once so central to our faith, we should use every tool at our disposal. Perhaps the greatest tool we have is that of the text- the Tanach (Bible) itself. I know most people think these parshiot are boring, but it is the exhaustive detail that is offers the greatest insight. The Talmudic Rabbis and medieval commentators that many like to rely upon to shed light on these subjects had already translated the ancient rites into the modern practices when they discussed these subjects.

While on an immediate level this helps us connect more easily, it also stops us from delving into the original function and intent of the Mikdash. When we discuss how great it is that we no longer use animal sacrifices or a proxy such as a Kohen (priest) in our worship, we lose track of the original need for these things, a need that may not be being met by our modern modes of worship. Maybe if we were to try to understand the original values the Mikdash was meant to realize we would better understand our own modern practices; maybe we would see them as an improvement, but perhaps it would lead us to strive toward something even greater.

Right now I see I have broken the Golden Blogging Rule of 1500 words. The values behind this rule include such things as brevity and having people actually read what you write. So I’ll stop here, and in the coming weeks I will be expanding on these ideas. In the meantime take a stab at using these ideas to read the text of these parshiot, I’d love to read of your insights I the comments section below. In the next few weeks I hope to actually get around to uncovering some of the values behind the Mikdash experience, the difference between it and our modern day worship experiences, and what this all has to do with the Golden Calf we read about next week. Hopefully, our learning will lead us to feel a greater connection with these ancient rites. Maybe we’ll even realize there’s stuff about the Mikdash we are lacking, things we never knew we wanted.

The Big Bully in Beshalach

I can think of two girls who left my small Orthodox Day School because of bullying. I was almost completely unaware of one of the incidents, and only recently found out she left because of bullying, so I don’t feel too bad about it. The other is probably my deepest childhood regret.

I was supposed to be her friend. Sure, she dressed a little differently and had different interests, but she was nice and always agreed to be “it” first when we played tag. While my friends and I included her in our games on the playground and I never made fun of her to her face, I also never did much of anything to defend her or make her feel included. Other girls played jokes on her, made fun of her clothes and made up stories about her. Mostly I just sat and listened quietly. I was afraid that if I defended her they would also pick on me.

The low point of the first 7 years of my life came during lunch one day. I clearly remember sitting there with my brown paper bag while the other girls were making fun of her. Everyone was laughing, and I wanted to be included. So I told everyone she picked her nose and ate it. I’m pretty sure that’s the meanest thing I knew how to say at that age. I may have been 7, but I knew better. Every child knows better.

Why did we stop talking about it?

A couple of years ago bullying was the new hot topic. It was a major discussion for months. Then it died down. Although the problems, for the most part, remain the subject seems to have disappeared from the forefront of the national agenda.

The subject of bullying gained traction when the news started to report on an array of suicides directly tied to bullying, many against LGBT teens. Within Orthodox Judaism discussions surrounding the place of homosexual Jews within the community often veer off the topics of halachah and Jewish values and turn into ugly, religiously sanctioned bullying. What makes matters worse is that religiously sanctioned bullying is not always recognized. Though most will safely characterize the actions of a few Chareidi extremists in Beit Shemesh as bullying, they may not see the larger issue of hadarat nashim, the exclusion of women, the same way. When a respected Rabbi is accused of bullying the condemnations come flying from every direction, until it becomes impossible to have a real conversation about where the line is and when (what could be seen as) good intentions cease to justify questionable methods.

And don’t even get me started on state sanctioned bullying.

Why we “tolerate” bullies

In some ways bullying is similar to other types of abuse, as it fulfills a number of the same functions. It builds the aggressor up by bringing other people down. The bully gains power over their mark, gaining the ability to directly and indirectly influence and manipulate the mark’s behavior, thoughts and emotions.

But bullying distinguishes itself from other forms of abuse by its public nature. Those who stand idly by are not just complacent to the crime, they often benefit from it. On the most basic level the mark draws the wrath of the bully, thus sparing these “innocent bystanders.” Fear of the bully is a possible justification for their inaction, but, unfortunately, it is often not the chief motivating factor.

Everyone, especially teenagers, wants to feel like they belong. The bully doesn’t just prey on the weak, he highlights the mark’s real or imaginary differences from the group, and decides “one of these things is not like the other, one of these things does not belong.” Thus the bully disenfranchises his mark, and effectively removes them from the community. The community tolerates the bully because he functionally defines who is in the community and who is outside.

The alienation the bullied experience is often worse than the actual bullying. Many people can wrap their heads around the idea that the people who are cruel enough to bully are seriously disturbed, which may be enough to insulate them from some of the pain. But it becomes more difficult to maintain a positive self-image when the silence of your peers is so deafening it can no longer be seen as complacence, it starts to seem like concurrence. As the saying goes, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

And that is exactly what we see in Beshalach.

The triumph of evil

In many sense the tribe of Amalek is the quintessential bully.

When Moshe recounts the story of battle with Amalek in Serefer Devarim (25:17-29) we are told that they struck when Bnei Yisrael were tired and weary, attacking the most feeble at the rear of the camp in Refidim. As a child my teachers explained that in a large group the elderly, young and weak straggle at the rear. I remember picturing Amalek like a pack of wolves, searching for prey among the weak and sick buffalo, which lose the protection of the herd when they fall behind.

But people are not animals, or at least they shouldn’t be. The way of the world is that there are wolves. It’s no chiddush that there is evil in the world. The moral of the story can’t just be that sometimes bad people do bad things. So then what are we meant to learn from it? Maybe to understand the lesson of the attack, we need to understand more about how such an attack was possible, and how these people lost the protection of the group.

When Bnei Yisrael first arrive at Refidim we are told there is no water for them to drink (Shemot 17:1-7). God commands Moshe to take his staff, go to a rock in Chorev, and strike it (v. 5). Miraculously, water comes out of the rock. The next thing we are told is that Amalek has attacked. What happened? If we connect the stories that take place in Refidim we gain a better understanding. As Bnei Yisrael leave Refidim to retrieve water from Chorev, another name for Mount Sinai (33:6), the weak are left behind struggling. Amalek, a nomadic tribe that lives in the desert (Bamidbar 13:29), hears of the oasis and comes to claim the precious desert water for themselves.

Chazal add another dimension to the story of Refidim. They tell us Amalek attacked in Refidim because Bnei Yisrael slackened from the words of Torah, a play on words from the Hebrew phrase Rifu atzman midivrei torah (T.B. Sanhedrin 106a). But how can they be slack with the Torah when they won’t get it for at least a couple more weeks?

“Torah” as social justice

Long before the word Torah became almost exclusively tied to the Five Books of Moses it referred to any and all teachings. Before the present complaint about water, Bnei Yisrael complains about the lack of food. They are given the man and quail to fulfill their needs, along with a series of guidelines on the appropriate times and amounts of man collection. Here the word Torah appears twice (16:4,28), referring to the rules surrounding the gathering of the man. A similar account of statutes given at the Mara oasis (15:25) strengthens the idea that the commandments they have been given up until this point refer to the allocation of food and water resources.

Bnei Yisrael have not received any written teachings; they have no divine text to pour over day and night in an effort to extract every bit of wisdom possible. When Chazal tell us that Bnei Yisrael had slackened from the Torah they are not telling us that they were only learning in kollel 6 hours a day as opposed to 12. All they have are a few guidelines on how a proper society is meant to comport themselves, something which is understandably necessary for a nation of recently freed slaves. Our sages are telling us that Amalek attacked because Bnei Yisrael were not keeping the basic rules of social justice. Instead of evenly distributing water among everyone, or helping the weak up the mountain, they left them behind, every man for himself.

Our sages teach us Derech eretz kadma latorah (Midrash Rabba 9:3). One traditional interpretation of this saying is that proper behavior and good character precedes the Torah, it is a prerequisite for learning Torah and fulfilling the other commandments. Before Bnei Yisrael can stand at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the Torah and begin to work on their spiritual relationship with God, they must have a strong relationship with their fellow man. They must rise above the selfish animalistic instincts of a slave and understand that they have a responsibility to their brethren, and to the community.

Most people probably think they already do this. They stand up for their community. They probably don’t even realize that there are people left behind; by defining their community by such narrow standards they leave everyone who is even slightly different on the outside, straggling along trying to find a group to join, leaving them vulnerable to attack.

Most groups, not just Orthodox Jews, allow and even encourage bullying. They tacitly stand by while extremists define who is in and who is out. Our silent acquiescence defines our communities not by our who we are, some type of positive self-image or shared values and ideas, but by who we are not. I do not believe this is a healthy form of identification.

Every once in a while I wish I had a time machine, so I could travel back to 7 year old me. I wish I could tell her that if you have to trash someone to be included in a group, it’s not a group worth joining. I also wish I could tell her that groups should be defined by what people have in common, instead of by what sets them apart.

I wish I could let her know that she’ll never be truly bullied because bullies would sense that she was strong and independent and could give even better than she got. I also wish I could tell her there are better ways to spare yourself from bullying than giving as good as you got. Destroying someone else’s self-image will never help you understand who you are; but if she is truly at peace with who she is and what she believes, no one can take that away from her, no matter how different they are.

I wish I could teach her that she will find something in common with every person that she meets; as people we share so much that she can find a way to “fit in” anywhere. I also wish I could tell her that as good as belonging may be, she will learn and grow more from people who are different.

Most of all, I wish I could teach her that her strength and independence should not just be used to protect herself, but that she should use it to protect others. What separates us from the animals is our ability to put aside our needs and desires for the sake of others. If I only use my strength to protect and insulate myself, instead of speaking out for those who can’t, or for those who have been silenced, then there is nothing that makes me worthy of protection. As Hillel taught, “when I am only for myself, then what am I?”

Lech Lecha: What happened to humanity?

Sometimes we know too much.  Year after year we read through the Torah, we take so much for granted, and we forget to ask the most basic questions.  For the past two weeks we have learned of the creation of the world and of the stories that shaped humanity.  Every story told and every family tree recounted inform us to the universal history of mankind. Every person alive today is a direct descendent of Adam and Chava, their son Sheit, and Noah and his wife.  Noach’s descendents disperse and form the nations of the world, as described towards the end of Parshat Noach. But then the Torah does something strange. It ceases to focus on the history of humanity, and focuses on one individual, Avraham.

The first Rashi I remember learning as a child, the first Rashi in the Torah, asks why the Torah, a book of commandments, does not begin with the first commandment given to the Jewish people, but rather with the story of the creation of the world.  Following Rashi’s lead I would like to ask a different question.  If I were reading the Torah for the first time, beginning with “In the beginning,” I would wonder why it is the book stops dealing with all of humanity and focuses on just one man, his family and his challenges. What happened to the rest of humanity? And who is this man Avraham?

Let’s begin with my first question: What happened to the rest of humanity?  It’s not too hard to answer.  Throughout the portions of Bereishit and Noach we see humanity commit one sin after another, each evil act takes them further away from the Garden of Eden, with every transgression leaving an indelible scar on the creation God once proclaimed to be “very good.”  To answer the question, humanity failed.  That’s what happened.  So God needed a plan to get humanity back on track, a way to educate the world in the ways of God, the ways of righteousness and justice (based on Bereishit 18, 18).  So He chooses Avraham as the father of a nation that will be an Ohr Lagoyim, a light unto the nations.

Which brings us to my second question: Who is this man Avraham?  Out of the multitudes of people on the planet, Avraham was chosen. Why? The Torah itself does not tell us much about Avraham before his first communiqué with God, when he is told to leave his homeland for an as-yet-undisclosed location.  The midrash paints a vivid picture to fill in the blanks in Avraham’s past, but the question remains. What is the Torah trying to teach us by apparently omitting any insight into the character of Avraham that would explain why he is chosen?

There are those that claim we are not told anything about Avraham before he was chosen because his past was unimportant. He was nothing special before he was chosen, and the only thing that made him special was the fact that God chose him.  They extrapolate from this that the status of the Jewish people as the “chosen nation” is not dependent on our actions, but rather on God’s will. God designated Avraham and his decedents as special, and there is nothing in the world that can change that.

Others see things differently.  They believe the Torah gave us all the information we need to understand why Avraham was chosen, as long as we look in the right place.  Avraham was not chosen because of his past, but it was also not God’s command to Avraham that made him unique, but rather Avraham’s response to the command that set him apart. Who really knows how many times God called out to people, asking them to follow Him blindly? It is possible that God called out to many different people, a divine challenge issued from the heavens inviting any who wished to take up the gauntlet, but there is only one person who did.  When Avraham answered the call, upending his life and uprooting his family, it was not just God choosing Avraham, it was also Avraham choosing God.  Avraham chose to live his life a certain way, he volunteered.  God did not make him special, Avraham made himself special.  This understanding sees the description of a “Chosen Nation” as a responsibility, not a right.  If God speaks to us and we do not listen, how are we special?  Avraham took action, he took responsibility.  He chose to be chosen.

In the coming weeks, as we read through the weekly Torah portion, we will see Avraham and his descendants strive to be the best people they can possibly be, to be worthy of God’s attention, and worthy to be designated as the forefathers of a chosen nation.  As their children we are tasked with continuing that struggle.  We must continue to strive as they did, to live up to our God-given responsibility to serve as an Ohr Lagoyim, a shining example of righteousness and justice that will be a source of light unto all of the nations, bearing the torch and lighting the way for all of humanity.   Just as we should not take anything for granted in our Torah study, rather we must continually ask questions, so to we should not take for granted that, as a people, we are special, rather we must continually ask ourselves “How am I making myself special?”

Tisha B’Av- Filling the hole

I remember it clearly. It was the summer after 2nd grade. I was 8 years old. It was Tisha B’Av. I was in my room. I was crying. And I was singing.

There had been some youth program at our shul. Our shul had great youth programming. And I had great parents who always made me attend the youth programming. I don’t remember who ran the program that year. I don’t remember anything they said. I don’t remember what stories they told. But I remember the song that we sang.

אני מאמין באמונה שלימה בביאת המשיח,
ואף אל פי שיתמהמהה, אם כל זה אחכה לו
אחכה לו בכל יום שיבא
בכל יום שיבא

I believe with complete faith in the coming of Messiah,
And even though he may tarry, even so I will wait for him,
I will wait for him every day, for he may come,
He may come any day

I don’t know what it is they told 8 year old me that really got to me. Sure, it’s possible they told me that when Mashiach came new clothes would grow on trees, along with cotton candy and chocolate bars, but I doubt that’s what happened. I doubt that’s what made me want the redemption oh-so-badly.

You see, second grade was a hard year for me; I remember that. I had been suspended from school twice (after attempting to run away), I developed a reputation as a “problem child,” and so I switched classes in mid-year, leaving behind some friends. Something was definitely going on with me; I was having a rough time.

Like I said, I don’t know what happened that Tisha B’Av. I don’t know if it was something that was said, a game that we played, or maybe I just liked the tune of the song. All I remember is that I came home from that program, I went in my room, I shut my door for privacy, and the tears started flowing. And then I started singing. I sang with all might, I spilled my heart and my guts just as the prophet Jeremiah spilled his tears. The one feeling I remember is sadness. Not a regular sadness, but the sadness of loss, the sadness of bereavement, the sadness of being without- the feeling that there is an aching, gaping hole, and that the hole had wholly consumed me.

I wasn’t some saint. This is not one of those stories we hear about holy children who grow up to be sages and leaders. And it’s not like I had some difficult childhood. I may have been going through a rough time, but there had been no event in my life that warranted such an outburst of emotion. I don’t think I was special. I just think I was a child. I think that, like many children, I knew, instinctively, that there was something wrong with the world. And I didn’t just want it to be better, I wanted it to be the best.

Then I grew up. I think many people lose that feeling when they get older. They become jaded; they lose their belief in God, or in people, or maybe they lose their faith in the innate Godliness that every person on this earth has inside. People focus on survival. They focus on “me and mine.” They become “realistic,” and they forget to dream. But once we stop setting unrealistic goals, we lose both the ability and the opportunity to transcend reality.

Like I said, I grew up. But I was unwilling to settle for reality. The dream of some future, miraculous redemption, something that could fix all that was broken, that dream took hold of me, and it never let me go.

The dream did change, though. It became clearer. I understood a little better what the ache was, I began to imagine what was needed to fill the hole, and I began to understand that it wasn’t as simple as a whole lot of singing and praying, that would magically bring some house down from the heavens.

Fast forward to present day. I have spent the past week or so in the Old City of Jerusalem, exploring the ruins and the buildings (and re-buildings), learning its history, my history. After a while I began to notice a trend.

The Talmud tells us that the Second Temple was destroyed because of שנאת חינם, baseless hatred. This idea is generally connected to a well-known story in the Talmud (Gittin 55b). What I realized was that this was not the only time the Jews suffered at the hands of enemies from without, simply because they could not maintain peaceful relations from within.

(I am providing links for all the stories and sources I mention so as not to bog you down, or make the post too long to read. If you do not know the story mentioned, please take advantage of the link).

The various religious and political factions and sects of the Second Temple period are well known to many, as are the violent methods some of them used to try to get their way. Both Rabbinic tradition and Josephus point to these divisions as the cause of the destruction. What is, perhaps, less well-known is that it was the fighting brothers Aristobulus and Hyrcanus who invited Rome, and the destruction, to Israel in the first place.

You would think they would have learned from the mistakes of their predecessors. A mere century earlier a power struggle among the the Judean elite resulted in the increased involvement of Antiocus IV; his decrees prohibiting central Jewish practices and the desecration of the Temple led to the bloody Hasmonean revolt. Oh, and how do you think he knew exactly which buttons to push? Those decrees could only be the product of a Jewish mind. Previously, the Seleucid Greeks had been tolerant of Jewish tradition.

Going back to the First Temple period, we can see this in-fighting is nothing new. In the aftermath of the destruction, the assassination of Gedaliah, by a fellow Jew, led to the end of the Jewish settlement in Judah. And although our sages tell us that the First Temple was destroyed because of murder, idolatry and improper sexual relations, it seems that the persecution of Jeremiah and the abominable treatment of the lower classes and slaves were the more direct causes for the destruction, on both the political and spiritual levels.

As we see, time and again, our infighting and sectarianism leads to tragedy. I am sure you yourselves can think of more modern examples. But even if we go back to one of the first major destructions we have on record, the Assyrian exile of the 10 tribes, we can clearly see that it was the result of a civil war between Israel and Judah; Achaz the king of Judah asked the Assyrians to intervene. This intervention resulted not only in the destruction of the Israelite Kingdom, but also tens of years of war and hardship for the Kingdom of Judah.

How did these wars end? How was peace restored? No one knows exactly what caused Sancherib to abandon his siege on Jerusalem, but Assyria did not cause many problems after that. The reign of Chizkiyahu ushered in the last period of peace the Kingdom of Judah would know. If you ask me why, it’s because Chizkiyahu sought to rebuild his kingdom by uniting the remains of both the Israel and Judah together. Instead of just fighting, he focused on rebuilding. And because of that the people united and stood strong against the Assyrian threat.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

So from here we return to the famous story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. After Bar Kamtza is humiliated in front of the leaders and sages of the time, he attempts to avenge himself by turning the Roman consul against the Jews. He convinced the consul to test the Jews’ allegiance to Rome by sending a sacrifice to the Temple, he then renders the animal unfit for sacrifice, and leaves the rabbinic authorities with a weighty decision on their hands. They could sacrifice the unfit animal, they could kill Bar Kamtza, or they could refuse the sacrifice and suffer the consequences.

We are told that Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulus argued against the former two options, because they had unwanted halachic ramifications. In the end, the sacrifice was rejected and the decree was sealed. In the postscript Rabbi Yochanan tells us that “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah destroyed our Temple, burned our sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.”

The Talmud began the story by telling us it was “because of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza our Temple was destroyed,” but at the end we realize that it wasn’t just the Temple that was destroyed, and it wasn’t just some random series of events that led to the destruction. According to Rabbi Yochanan the deliberate decisions made based on the opinion of Rabbi Zechariah not only destroyed our Temple, but also exiled our people. Rabbi Yochanan places the blame squarely on his shoulders.

Why?

Many people point to the thread of failure of leadership that runs throughout this story. That’s not necessarily wrong, but it’s easy to blame the leadership, just ask anyone sleeping in a tent right now. Our leadership reflects the state of the people. We deserve the leaders we have. Rabbi Zechariah couldn’t see beyond the four cubits of halachah because the people he was leading couldn’t see beyond the four cubits of halachah. Every sect was preoccupied with what was important to them, what they believed to be true; everyone who was different could not be trusted.

Are we any better today? Each person, each group, can’t see beyond themselves to see the other. We don’t respect otherness. Even the most pluralistic outlooks on Judaism have trouble seeing the contribution of Chareidi Jews. If we are halachic we can’t accept that truth can come from someone who does not observe halachah, we barely acknowledge those who see halachah differently. We can’t accept that someone different may have something to teach us, may have truth we can learn from. We can’t accept that they too might be doing their best to make their way through this complicated world, that they are not all that different, and they may know something we do not. We don’t have to agree with each other to respect each other, or to accept each other.

Every year on my birthday I take a step back and evaluate where I am in my life, what has changed, for good or for bad, in the past year. This year I wondered why I didn’t do the same thing on Tisha B’Av, or why we, as a nation don’t. Yeah, it’s nice to look back on thousands of years of history to see how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve regressed but that won’t help us achieve redemption. When you have a big task, you have to break it down. So let’s break it down. Let’s see how far we’ve come in the past year, the past ten years, the past twenty. What’s gotten better? What’s gotten worse? What can I do to change things?

We tried being devout Jews. For hundreds of years our forefathers were on a level of halachah observance that I don’t think our people will ever reach again. It didn’t bring Mashiach. I am not saying halachah should be abandoned. But it’s definitely not enough on its own.

You see, Mashiach is not really the goal, Mashiach is a by-product. Just as we brought destruction upon ourselves, so too, we can bring redemption. Hate is a destructive force, it cant build. We don’t need anyone’s help to break ourselves down, is there any way we can learn to build ourselves up?

So what is the goal? My goal is to fill that hole. And the only thing that can fill that hole is love.

Much love,

DZ