Weekly Cycle

Friday, December 31, 2010

Leaving Egypt: The Importance of Acting as One and the Torah Portion of Bo

This week's Torah portion begins with Hashem telling Moshe, "Come [Boh] to Pharaoh..." Much has been written about how the verse states, "Come" instead of "Go," which implies that by going to Pharaoh, Moshe was actually coming closer to G-d Himself.

Another interesting aspect of the way the sentenced is phrased (which I have not seen discussed elsewhere) is the fact that the phrase is said in the singular. G-d does not tell Aharon to come, yet Aharon does come along with Moshe to face Pharaoh. This, in and of itself, can be explained, as G-d had said that Moshe would be a "master/god" over Pharaoh, while Aharon would serve as Moshe's "prophet," his spokesperson.  (Exodus 7:1)

However, there is an additional element that makes the use of the singular verb conjugation somewhat more perplexing: the very sentence that describes Moshe and Aharon coming to speak to Pharaoh is also in the singular!

3So Moses and Aaron came [sing.] to Pharaoh and said to him, "So said the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let My people go, and they will worship Me.ג. וַיָּבֹא משֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן אֶל פַּרְעֹה וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵי הָעִבְרִים עַד מָתַי מֵאַנְתָּ לֵעָנֹת מִפָּנָי שַׁלַּח עַמִּי וְיַעַבְדֻנִי:

The Hebrew word used is Vayavoh (he came) when it would appear that Vayavohu (they came) would have been the correct word choice. Also, immediately following the very moment that Hashem appointed Aharon as Moshe's prophet, there too, the words used are Vayavoh Moshe v'Aharon (Moshe and Aharaon came [sing.] to Pharaoh). (Exodus 7:10)

Prior to this, during the first time that Moshe and Aharon come before Pharaoh, the word used is in fact "Bahu," they came [plural]. (Exodus 5:1) Not only were they not successful on that occasion, but Pharaoh actually increased the burden of the Jewish people, which led Moshe to even complain to G-d and ask Him why He was doing this to His people.

The singular form had been used also at a previous occasion regarding Moshe and Aharon when they went to speak with the Jewish elders (Vayelech Moshe v'Aharon) (Exodus 4:29). At that time, they were successful in convincing the elders that the time for redemption had in fact come.

Vayavoh Moshe v'Aharon is used another time in the Torah, at the moment of the inauguration of the Tabernacle. (Leviticus 9:23) As Aharon is performing the inauguration sacrifices, Moshe and Aharon come to the Tent of Meeting and bless the people, and the Glory of Hashem appears to the entire people. Immediately after, the sons of Aharon, Nadab and Abihu, enter the Holy of Holies and improperly bring an incense offering. They are thereby both consumed. In direct contrast to Moshe and Aharon, when describing the actions of Nadab and Abihu, the Torah uses only plural verb conjugations.

We see a similar contrast of plural versus singular conjugations when it comes to the encampments of the Jewish people in the desert. The journeys and encampments are described in the plural, except for the encampment by Mount Sinai itself. There, Rashi explains, the Jews were like "one person with one heart." This great harmony among us was actually an essential requirement for acquiring the Torah itself.

The lesson appears to be a simple one. In order to be successful in doing G-d's will, the ultimate unity is extremely important. We have to seek it to such an extent that we do not even wish to be accounted for as separate entities. Let us learn from Moshe and Aharon and reach out and help one another in brotherly love. Let us also be willing to be helped by others, and let those who know more than us lead us in the right direction. As stated in Pirkei Avot, make for yourself a master and acquire a friend. This way you will be infinitely closer to your true Master and Friend. The more we realize that we are all One, the closest we will be to the One, the Only One.

When I imagine the Jewish people leaving Egypt, I always imagine them holding hands...

It was because of baseless hatred that the Temple was destroyed, and it will be through baseless love that it will be rebuilt. May we soon merit to regain the harmony we achieved at Mount Sinai, and merit to see the Temple rebuilt. May the Alef and Mem of Aharon and Moshe, followed by the Alef and Mem of Esther and Mordechai, finally be followed by the Alef and Mem of Eliyahu and Mashiach, speedily, in our days.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Leaving Egypt: Getting to Know G-d, and the Torah Portion of Va'eira

Thus says the Lord: Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom, nor the strong man boast of his strength, nor the rich man boast of his riches. But let him that boasts exult in this, that he understands and knows me, for I am the Lord Who practices kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth; for in these things I delight, says the Lord. (Jeremiah, 9:22-23)

Our entire purpose in this world is to know G-d. That is our main task, the ultimate worth, and that is exactly what Pharaoh was missing. In last week's Torah Portion, when Moshe and Aharon approach Pharaoh as ambassadors of G-d and tell him to let His people go, Pharaoh responds: ""Who is the Lord that I should heed His voice to let Israel out? I do not know the Lord, neither will I let Israel out." (Exodus 5:2)

In this week's portion, Pharaoh and the Egyptians begin to learn the hard way Who is G-d. Each of the plagues shows G-d's dominion over a different aspect of His Creation. The lesson, however, is also for the Jewish People: "And I will take you to Myself as a People, and I will be your G‑d. Then you will know that I am G‑d, the One who took you out from the subjugation of Egypt." (Exodus 6:7) The Baal Shem Tov explains that the verse hints that the Jews themselves had to re-learn Who G-d is, and What He is all about. (http://www.chabad.org/kabbalah/article_cdo/aid/379423/jewish/Losing-Awareness-of-G-d.htm)

The struggle to know G-d continues, and our final redemption is the ultimate fulfillment of our quest for His knowledge. About the Messianic times, Maimonides writes:

The sages and the prophets did not crave the era of Moshiach in order to rule over the world... or to eat, drink and rejoice, only so that they be free for Torah and its wisdom and be rid of any oppressor and disrupter... And at that time there will be no hunger or war, no jealousy or rivalry. For the good will be plentiful, and all delicacies available as dust. The entire occupation of the world will be only to know G-d... Israel will be of great wisdom; they will perceive the esoteric truths and comprehend their Creator's wisdom as is the capacity of man. As it is written: "For the earth shall be filed with the knowledge of G-d, as the waters cover the sea..."  (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:4-5).

May this era come soon, and when it comes, may we have the right priorities in place in order to be able to appreciate it.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oded in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Vayigash

In this week's Torah portion, Judah confronts Joseph, who he believes is the viceroy of Egypt. Judah tells him (again) about everything his father Jacob has been through: his loss of Joseph, how attached he is to Benjamin, etc. Almost immediately after that moment, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. The words used by Joseph, however, are quite enigmatic. "Ani Yosef HaOd Avi Chai?" "I am Joseph, is my father still alive?"

After all the talk about Jacob, including Joseph's own questions about his father, how can Joseph possibly be asking them if their father is still alive? Perhaps the question is simply rhetorical, as in, "how could my father possibly still live after such suffering?" Perhaps the question is referring to Jacob's spiritual life (as discussed in the past weeks)? Or perhaps this is not a question at all.

One way of punctuating the sentence would be: Ani Yosef, HaOd Avi, Chai. I am Joseph, the "Od" (the "more, the extension, addition to") my father, is alive. This interpretation would be in line with the interpretation of the first verse of the Torah portion of Vayeshev: Eleh Toldot Yaakov: Yosef. "These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph. Joseph is the continuation of Jacob. Their lives parallel each other in many incredible ways. These parallels are explored extensively by the Midrash: both had brothers that wanted to kill them; both had to go into exile, etc.

Another way of punctuating the verse would be as follows: Ani Yosef: HaOd. Avi Chai. I am Joseph, the "Od." My father is alive [now]. Jacob had the confidence to face Eisav once Joseph was born. Joseph was fundamental to his confrontation of Eisav. Perhaps once Joseph was lost, Jacob felt lost not just because he lost his son, but because his son was so important in Jacob's ability to fight the forces of evil and death. That is why, now, Jacob would become alive again. That is exactly what happened. What Jacob heard the news, the Torah states: Vatechi Ruach Yaacov, the spirit of Jacob became alive. Next week's portion is called Vayechi, "and Jacob lived."

The words used by Jacob when hearing his son was alive are: "Rav, Od Yosef Bni Chai," usually translated as "Enough! My son Joseph is still alive!" Rashi reads Rav and Od together, interpreting to mean, Rav Od Li, I have enough happiness and joy because my son Joseph is still alive. Interestingly, Jacob's words include "Rav" (which is the word Eisav used to Jacob when acknowledging the birthright. See Korach in the Parasha, here). When Jacob's children tell him the news they also state "Od Yosef Chai."

The word Od is intrinsically connected to Joseph. It goes back all the way to his mother Rachel's naming him. At the time, she states, "Yosef Li Ben Acher," may [Hashem] and to me one more son. Joseph embodies the idea of "adding," of expansiveness, of Od. Od also appears to be related to one of the names of Mashiach Ben Yosef, Oded. (See previous post about this here)

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov also gives great importance to the word and the concept of Od. In what is arguably the basis for all his other teachings (Torah Reish Peh Beis (#282)), Rebbe Nachman connects Od to the concept of finding good points in others and in ourselves. He takes this from a verse in the Book of Psalms: "Od Me'at v'Ein Rasha," "a little more and there is no evil person." If you find some little good in a person, you can change the scale of justice and bring that person to the side of merit, where they are no longer evil. Rebbe Nachman also interprets another verse from the Psalms, "Azamra L'Elokai b'Odi," "I sing to my G-d with my Od," to mean that through judging ourselves favorably we can come to sing to G-d. 

Every Jew has this spark of good, this Od, this Yosef HaTzadik within us that can tip the scales of justice in our favor and bring us to life, true life, in which we are constantly increasing and growing. That is the message of Joseph, who is connected to the attribute of Yesod (today was Yesod shebeYesod shebeGevurah), and is also one of the fundamental guiding principles of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in his life: he was never satisfied with past accomplishments; he was always looking to grow, to "increase in holiness." This is also the message of Chanukah, in which, every day, we add more light until one day, hopefully soon, we will light up the entire word and darkness will no longer prevail.

Chodesh Tov and Chanukah Sameach!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shechem in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Vayechi

This week's Torah portion describes Jacob's time in Egypt, particularly the blessings he gave to Joseph's two sons, Ephraim and Menashe, as well as those given to each of his twelve sons before Jacob's passing.

Jacob gives Joseph a double inheritance, making each of his sons, Ephraim and Menashe, one of the twelve tribes to inherit the Land of Israel. Interestingly, Jacob's statement giving Joseph the birthright has also been interpreted as Jacob giving Joseph the city of Shechem, where Joseph is ultimately buried:

22. And I have given you one portion [Shechem Achad] over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow."

And I have given you: Since you are taking the trouble to occupy yourself with my burial, I have given you an inheritance where you will be buried. And which is this? This is Shechem, as it is said:“And Joseph’s bones, which the children of Israel had brought up out of Egypt, they buried in Shechem” (Josh. 24:32).
one portion over your brothers: Heb. אַחַד עַל אַחֶי‏ שְׁכֶם, the actual [city of] Shechem, which will be for you one share over your brothers. [Accordingly, we render: Shechem, [which is] one [share] over your brothers.]- [from Gen. Rabbah 97:6] Another explanation:“One portion” refers to the birthright, and indicates that his (Joseph’s) sons should take two shares. שְׁכֶם is a word meaning “a portion,” as the Targum renders. There are many similar instances in Scripture:“For You shall place them as a portion (שְׁכֶם)” (Ps. 21:13), You shall place my enemies before me as portions;“I will divide a portion (שְׁכֶם)” (ibid. 60:8);“…murder on the way, שֶׁכְמָה ” (Hos. 6:9), [meaning:] each one his share;“to worship Him of one accord אֶחָד) (שְׁכֶם” (Zeph. 3:9), [meaning: in one group].

which I took from the hand of the Amorite: From the hand of Esau, who behaved like an Amorite (Gen. Rabbah 97:6). Another explanation [of why Esau is called אמֹרִי]: who deceived his father with the sayings (אִמְרֵי) of his mouth.
with my sword and with my bow: When Simeon and Levi slew the men of Shechem, all those [nations] around them (Jacob’s sons) assembled to attack them, and Jacob girded weapons of war against them. — [from Gen. Rabbah 97:6, Targum Jonathan ben Uzziel]

with my sword and with my bow: I.e., his cleverness and his prayer.

Rashi's comments point to the many distinct facets of the city Shechem, and the rich meaning of the place. First, Rashi mentions Shechem's role as a place of burial, given as a reward for performing this great mitzvah. Joseph performing this mitzvah leads to an incredible "chain of mitzvahs," performed by ever higher entities. The mitzvah of burying Jacob is charged to Joseph, whose burial is charged to Moses, whose burial, in turn, is performed by Hashem himself. (See Talmud Sotah) After Moshe passes, it is Joshua, a descendant of Joseph from the Tribe of Ephraim, who is charged with actually burying Joseph inside the Land of Israel. Interestingly, the passage quoted by Rashi is actually juxtaposed with Joshua's own passing. Even more fascinating is the fact that both Joshua and Joseph were 111 years old when they died. One could speculate about whether Joshua and Joseph were not in fact one and the same.

Rashi then explains how Shechem is associated with the extra portion of the firstborn. Shechem has many other associations with being the "first:" Shechem is the first place visited by Abraham, Jacob, as well as Joshua when entering the Land of Israel. Even in modern times, the first settlement established in Judea and Samaria after the Six Day War was Elon Moreh, which is another biblical name for the city Shechem. Shechem is the gateway to the Land of Israel.

Related to the above, Rashi then notes that Shechem was taken from Eisav, who behaved like an Amorite and lied to his father. Jacob is characterized by the fact that all of his children remained true to their Judaism and Jewish identity (Mitatoh Shleimah - "his bed was complete"). Furthermore, Jacob is associated, first and foremost, with the truth ("Titen Emeth L'Yaakov," "Give truth to Jacob"). The Torah also states that Shechem was acquired monetarily by Jacob (similar to how Jacob acquired the birthright), and that it is one of the places that Gentiles are unable to even claim that they were stolen by the Jews. (Genesis 33:18-19; Midrash Rabbah)

That said, Rashi mentions the radical actions of Shimon and Levi. It was also in Shechem that Joseph's brothers, led by the zealotry of Shimon and Levi, attacked Joseph and sold him as a slave. After Reuven's sin, Shimon and Levi were both in line to be the leaders of the rest of the tribes. However, their zealous violence prevented them from playing this role.

Finally, Rashi interprets the words used to describe weapons ("bow" and "sword") as a reference to cleverness (wisdom) as well as prayer. Often, much more can be accomplished through these two more peaceful means than through violence. The power of Jacob is his Torah and his prayer - "Koloh Kol Yaakov," "the voice is the voice of Jacob, while force is primarily the weapon of Eisav - "Yadoh Yad Eisav," "the hand is the hand of Eisav."

Shechem is Jacob's inheritance to Joseph. It is more than just a place. It is a way of being. It stands for all that was mentioned above and more: keeping the mitzvot, leadership, identity and continuity, truth, passionate moderation, Torah, wisdom, and prayer. Shechem in Hebrew, literally means "shoulders." It is as if Jacob is now passing the torch to Joseph, who is now literally "shouldering" the responsibility for keeping these values intact.

We see a hidden reference to the values of Shechem much later in history, with the appointment of Saul as King of Israel (I Samuel, Chapter 9):

1. Now there was a man of Benjamin, and his name was Kish, the son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiah, the son of a Benjamite man, a mighty man of power. 2. And he had a son whose name was Saul. He was young and handsome, there being no one of the children of Israel handsomer than he; from his shoulders (Shichmoh) and upwards he was taller (Gavoah) than any of the people.

Just like Joseph received a Shechem (portion; shoulder) over his brethren, so too was Shaul taller than all his brethren, from his shoulders upwards. He was also young and handsome like Joseph.

Shaul also had another similarity to Joseph. Just as Joseph had experienced all his brothers attack and nearly kill him, so too had Shaul seen all the other tribes nearly extinguish his tribe, the Tribe of Benjamin, in a bloody civil war that followed the events of Pilegesh b'Givah, the concubine of Givah.

As recounted extensively in the end of the Book of Judges, men of Givah had raped and brutally murdered a concubine woman. The Tanach's account directly parallels the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are even opinions that these men of Givah were a reincarnation of those of these two infamous places. All the Tribes of Israel demand that the Tribe of Benjamin hand over the men that performed this outrageous act to be killed, but Benjamin refuses. This leads to civil war.

Herein lies also a parallel with Shechem. The man called Shechem (presumably for whom the city is named after) raped Dinah, the daughter of Jacob. Because the men of Shechem refused to bring the rapist to justice, Shimon and Levi decimated the entire city. Maimonides writes that the acts of Shimon and Levi were in fact justified under Jewish law.

Joseph is given Shechem. Shaul, who had the potential for becoming Mashiach Ben Yoseph, is from Givah. In fact, he even rules all of Israel for a short period from Givah itself. (I must admit that I am not 100% certain that Givah refers to the same city as the concubine of Givah, but I have no reason to believe otherwise). Both Shechem and Givah are places that suffered tremendous atrocities in response to lack of justice, and both become associated with the respective leaders of the generation.

Furthermore, the reason why Shaul does not become Mashiach Ben Yoseph is because of his failure to decimate Amalek, when explicitly told by the prophet Samuel to do so. Shaul has all the values and characteristics that Jacob passes Joseph, connected to Shechem, including passionate moderation, wisdom and prayer. He was also the first, the first King of Israel. However, he appears to be deficient in the most important of all values, the very first one listed by Rashi: the accurate performance of a mitzvah. That is Samuel's ultimate rebuke to Shaul after the debacle of not utterly destroying Agag and Amalek: "And Samuel said, "Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in hearkening to the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams…" (Samuel I, Chapter 5:22)

Mordechai and his generation, in their fight against Haman the Agagite, somewhat rectify Shaul's mistake by showing ultimate self-sacrifice in order to fulfill God's commandments. The introduction of Mordechai, the last of the male prophets, in the Megillah (Esther, 2), very much parallels the introduction of Shaul in the Book of Samuel:

5. There was a Judean man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, 6. who had been exiled from Jerusalem with the exile that was exiled with Jeconiah, king of Judah, which Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had exiled.

However, there is one radical difference between Mordechai and Shaul. Even though both are from Benjamin, while Shaul is primarily associated with Joseph and Givah/Shechem, Mordechai is explicitly connected to Judah (particularly the King of Judah) and Jerusalem, which both represent total nullification and self-sacrifice.

Benjamin is a combination of Judah and Joseph. He represents the sefirah combination of Yesod shebeMalchut. As previously explained, Joseph represents Yesod and David, Malchut. Even geographically, the land of Benjamin connects the land of Judah and of Joseph. (See "Jerusalem in the Parasha," here) Benjamin connects these two facets of the Jewish people and of Jewish History.

Although Elijah (who, although from Benjamin, is clearly associated with the Tribe of Joseph, and Elijah even states explicitly that he is descended from Rachel) and Mashiach Ben Yoseph will pave the way of the redemption, ultimately, it all must be connected to Judah, to Mashiach Ben David. As we read in last week's Haftorah (Ezekiel 37):

19. Say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Judah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand.  

20. And the sticks upon which you shall write shall be in your hand before their eyes. 

21. And say to them, So says the Lord God: Behold I will take the children of Israel from among the nations where they have gone, and I will gather them from every side, and I will bring them to their land. 

22. And I will make them into one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel, and one king shall be to them all as a king; and they shall no longer be two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms anymore. 
23. And they shall no longer defile themselves with their idols, with their detestable things, or with all their transgressions, and I will save them from all their habitations in which they have sinned, and I will purify them, and they shall be to Me as a people, and I will be to them as a God.

24. And My servant David shall be king over them, and one shepherd shall be for them all, and they shall walk in My ordinances and observe My statutes and perform them.  

25. And they shall dwell on the land that I have given to My servant, to Jacob, wherein your forefathers lived; and they shall dwell upon it, they and their children and their children's children, forever; and My servant David shall be their prince forever.  

26. And I will form a covenant of peace for them, an everlasting covenant shall be with them; and I will establish them and I will multiply them, and I will place My Sanctuary in their midst forever.
27. And My dwelling place shall be over them, and I will be to them for a God, and they shall be to Me as a people. 

28. And the nations shall know that I am the Lord, Who sanctifies Israel, when My Sanctuary is in their midst forever.

May it be soon, may it be today, may it be now.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Daniel in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Miketz

This week's Torah portion describes Joseph's rise to power, after he had faced so much suffering and difficulties. His salvation comes through correctly interpreting Pharaoh's dream. Before giving his interpretation, Joseph famously states, "Bilada'y," the interpretation does not come from me, but from G-d. After years of hardship, Joseph saw very clearly that all that we have, including any successes along the way, comes from G-d, not us.

Joseph's power to interpret dreams brings to mind the prophet Daniel, who perhaps is more famously known for the fact that he was saved from the lion's den. Chapter 2 of the Book of Daniel depicts how, not only was Daniel able to interpret the emperor's dream, he actually had to tell the emperor the dream itself, because the latter had forgotten it. Daniel, like Joseph, attributes all of his success to G-d.

Just like Joseph received a new name from Pharaoh, Tzafnat Pa'aneach (revealer of hidden secrets), so too does Daniel receive a new name from the Babylonian emperor: Belteshazzar. Rashi explains that "Bel" is a name of a Babylonian god, and that "Teshazzar" is an Aramaic expression denoting wisdom. Perhaps one can also interpret the name to mean that wisdom come from being in the state of "Bli" (feeling devoid of something), as in Joseph's statement, "Bilada'y." Regarding "Bilada'y," Rashi comments: "בִּלְעָדָי. The wisdom is not mine, but God will answer."

These letters, Beit and Lamed, are the very first and the very last letters of the Torah. Much has been written about how, when inverted, they form the word Lev, heart, and how the letters have the numerical value of 32, of the "32 Paths of Wisdom," often mentioned in this blog). Perhaps equally important is the understanding that wisdom comes from Beit-Lamed, from Joseph's Bilada'y and Daniel's name, Belteshazzar, which also are contained respectively in the beginning and in the end, of the Tanach. (In Kabbalistic texts, it is explained that the Hebrew word for "wisdom," Chochmah, also stands for Koach Mah, the power that comes from knowing that we are Mah, "what/nothing.") This is in fact the beginning and the end of all of history, since, as we learn in Proverbs, wisdom was created before Creation itself, and the Talmud states that Mashiach, if he comes from the dead, will be like Daniel.


Why does the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) state that if Mashiach comes from the living, then he is like Rabbeinu HaKadosh (Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi), and if he comes from the dead then he is like Daniel, Ish Chamudoth (the desired man)? In my humble opinion, this statement has to be understood in light of another Talmudic statement (Berachot 18a-b), that the righteous are called alive even after their death, while the wicked are called dead even while they are alive. (This was touched upon slightly in last week's parasha's blog post, here)

Rabbeinu HaKadosh is the quintessential Tzadik Gamur (completely righteous). He said about himself that he did not benefit even "a little finger" from this world. In line with the above, Sefer Chassidim states that even after his passing, he would come to his home on Friday evenings to make Kiddush for his family.
Daniel, like Rabbeinu HaKadosh, is a direct descendant from quintessential Ba'alei Teshuvah, King David and Judah. Daniel is also the Ba'al Teshuvah. He was punished by Heaven for a mistake he committed when advising the evil Nebuchadnezzar. He told the emperor to give tzedakah and thereby stave off Divine retribution. The Talmud (Bava Basra 4a) states that the character of Hatach in the Purim Megillah is none other than Daniel. Hatach means "cut off," a reference to how, according to one opinion, Daniel was demoted from this position. According to the other opinion, Hatach is a reference to how royal matters were "Nechtachin" (decided) through him. There are two opinions as to Daniel's punishment: either it was that he was demoted from his position in government or that it was that he was thrown into the lion's den.


Daniel's being thrown to the lion's den is also connected to the story of Joseph, who was thrown into a pit by his brothers. This brings us back to last week's Parashah, in which Torah states that, "the pit was empty, it had no water." Rashi asks, why does the Torah need to tell us that it had no water, if it already told us it was empty: "תלמוד לומר אין בו מים, מים אין בו אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו: [To inform us that] there was no water in it, but there were snakes and scorpions in it. [From Shab. 22a, Chag. 3a]"

Here again, like in last week's blog (here) there is an example of how the Torah is one long name of Hashem, and that the text's spacing can be read slightly differently in a way that includes Rashi's interpretation:

"And they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty there was no water in it. And they sat down to eat a meal." In Hebrew:

וַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם: וַיֵּשְׁבוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם

It was pointed out to me recently, that וַיֵּשְׁבוּ, could be read as וַיֵּשְׁ בוּ, "and there was in it," which the same terminology used by Rashi. It was noted to me that the following letter is a Lamed, which is shaped like a snake or a scorpion. I believe that perhaps a better interpretation is that וַיֵּשְׁ בוּ לֶאֱכָל לֶחֶם, should be read as, "and there was in it something that could eat [Joseph] as a meal" or could "make him hot" (leCham), like the venom of a snake.

Interestingly, when it comes to Joseph, not only is it not considered a miracle that Joseph was saved from the snakes and scorpions, but in fact, the Torah states that this was Reuben's plan to save Joseph, by taking him away from his brothers and out of the pit later.

(It is worth noting that the Torah does not make this miracle explicit like it does regarding Daniel. Similarly, Abraham's miracle regarding the fiery furnace is also not made explicit, while the Tanach states unequivocally that Daniel's colleagues, Mishael, Chananiah, and Azariah, were saved after being thrown into a fiery furnace as well).

There are many explanations regarding Reuven's actions, and how they could be considered by the Torah to be an act of saving Joseph. The Orach Chayim states, based on the Zohar, that men have free choice while animals do not. Another explanation I heard from Rabbi Moshe Matts, is the principle of Netzach Yisrael Lo Yishaker, when it comes to issues of the eternity of the Jewish people (and in this case, the continuity of the Tribes of Joseph), the world does not have a say: our continuity is a given, and therefore the snakes and scorpions could not touch Joseph.

Perhaps a simpler answer is that both in the case of Daniel and Joseph there was not any doubt that they would be saved because from the time of Creation, G-d placed the fear of man upon the animal kingdom, because man has a Tzelem Elokim, the Divine image. Daniel did not lose this image, and therefore the animals feared him. (Zohar Shemot 125B) Similarly, Joseph had also not lost his Tzelem Elokim, and therefore the snakes and scorpions feared him as well.

Finally, it is also fascinating to see how that the animals related to the tests of Daniel and Joseph, lions and snakes and scorpions, respectively, are related to the two men. As mentioned before, Daniel is a descendant of King David and Judah, who were known in the Torah as "lions." Joseph says about himself, “Haloh Yedatem Ki Nachesh Yenachesh Ish Asher Kamoni.” Nachash in Hebrew means snake. Joseph was particularly capable of fighting off the Primordial Snake, the yetzer harah, such as in the case of Potiphar's seduction.

Even the dreams which each of the two great men had to interpret were very much connected to their respective personal stories. Pharaoh's dreams had cows and ears of grain. Joseph is compared to an ox by Jacob and Moshe, and one of his own dreams described in the Torah contained sheaves of wheat. Pharaoh's dreams were about seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and Joseph himself had experienced, more than once, how disaster can strike unexpectedly and one can go from the highest highs to the lowest lows.

Nebuchadnezzar's dream was about how his kingdom would decay and diminish in power over the generations, and Daniel himself had just experienced how the Davidic dynasty had decayed and become corrupted until ultimately conquered by Nebuchadnezzar himself.

Hashem has special ways of preparing us for the challenges we face. Life's tests are a preparation and a rectification, a tikkun, the purpose of which we often do not understand at the time. Sometimes we have to go through so much in order to be ready for what is to come. The Davidic dynasty was "cut off" only to rise again in Messianic times. May it be soon, and may we merit to see with our own eyes all that for which we have been preparing so arduously and for so long.

Leaving Egypt: Purposeless Work and the Torah Portion of Shemot

This week, we start reading the Second Book of the Torah, the Book of Redemption, Exodus (Shemot, "Names" in Hebrew). It begins by listing the names of the Jewish people that descended to Egypt and then almost immediately describes how they were enslaved and how they suffered. The kind of labor the Jewish people were subjected to was called "Avodat Parech," commonly translated as "back-breaking labor," according to Rashi's explanation.

13. So the Egyptians enslaved the children of Israel with back breaking labor. 14. And they embittered their lives with hard labor, with clay and with bricks and with all kinds of labor in the fields, all their work that they worked with them with back breaking labor.

There are many explanations as to what is meant by Avodat Parech. According to Rashi, the work was simply physically hard, crushing the bodies of the Jews. According to other explanations, however, what made the labor so detrimental was that it "broke the spirit" of the Jews, in that it was often wasteful and unnecessary: men were made to do women's work and vice-versa; the cities that they built for the Egyptians were Arei Miskenot, "pitiful cities," purposefully built on sand so that they would collapse and need to be built again. This kind of work makes the slave feel that he has no purpose, that he is worthless.

Deep inside, each one of us has a yearning to feel that he or she is needed; that their task in life is worth something. If that feeling is taken away, one is left with nothing.

Why was it necessary for the Jewish people to feel this intense loss of purpose? Perhaps it would later serve as a reminder for them. Instead of being purposeless servants of the Egyptians, they would serve the ultimate purpose as servants of G-d. This brings to mind the prayer said at the time one leaves a Jewish House of Study (Beit Midrash):

What does he say when he leaves? "I am thankful to You, the Lord my God, that You have placed my lot among those who dwell in the beit midrash and not with those who hang around street corners. They arise early, and I arise early. I arise early for words of Torah, and they arise early for idle matters. I toil, and they toil. I toil and receive reward, and they toil and do not receive reward. I run, and they run. I run to the life of the world to come, and they run to the pit of destruction." (Talmud, Brachot 28b; http://www.vbm-torah.org/archive/aggada/24aggada.htm)

Better to realize while still in this world that one's toil is without purpose, than to only come to that realization when it is too late to change.

More often than not, purpose is usually not contingent simply on the job itself, but also on who it is that you are serving. That is the difference between Torah and hanging around in the street corners. It is the choice between serving G-d and serving oneself.

Even the simplest job, when done with the right intention, can serve the highest of purposes. As Martin Luther King once said,  “If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.”  https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/21045-if-a-man-is-called-to-be-a-street-sweeper

The above also brings to mind, lehavdil, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's "Holy Hunchback," the Holocaust survivor who was a street-sweeper in Tel Aviv, and who lived the lesson he heard from his childhood Rebbe, Reb Klonymos Kalmon of Piasetzna: "Dear, sweet children, the greatest thing in the world... is to do somebody else a favor." (Listen to this very special story here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQwksf6ZslY)

The above also brings to mind Rebbe Nachman's story of the "Simpleton and the Sophisticate." While the "wise" man spent his days jumping from profession to profession because nothing was prestigious enough for him, the "simple" one was extremely happy and satisfied with much less:

The Simpleton learned how to make shoes, but because he was simple, it took him a long time before he grasped it. Indeed, he was not completely proficient in his craft, but he married and made a living from his work. ...  When he finished making a shoe, it would all too often turn out triangular as he was not fully proficient in his craft. But he would take the shoe in his hand and praise it greatly. He would take enormous delight in it, saying: "My wife, how beautiful and wonderful this shoe is. How sweet this shoe is. This shoe is pure honey and sugar!" ... He was simply filled with joy and delight at all times. (http://www.azamra.org/Essential/sophist.htm)

At the end of the day, each of us has their "calling" and purpose, their shlichut, their mission as an emissary in this world. May we all merit to realize Who sent us here, discover the work that is right for us, and stick to it long enough to see its fruit, both in this world and the World to Come.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rachel in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Vayeshev

In honor of the birth of Levanah Rachel bat Shimon Yehezkel, may she grow up healthy and happy, to a life of Torah, Chuppah, and Maasim Tovim.

The Torah portion of this week introduces us to one of the most central figures in all of Torah: Joseph. His story begins with the tension that existed between him and his brothers, a tension that Joseph himself helps fuel by telling them of two of his dreams that portray him as superior and the center of attention. The first dream involved sheaves bowing down to him, and the second involved stars. In the second dream, not only do the brothers (the stars) bow to him, but even his father and mother (sun and moon).[1][1] Jacob reprimands Joseph for the dreams, yet keeps them in mind and awaits their fulfillment. 

Jacob's reprimand is particularly harsh in that it makes reference to Rachel's passing (Joseph's mother), stating, "will I and your mother bow down to you," as if alluding to the fact that it could not be fulfilled. Here is the original text, with Rashi's commentary in grey:

9. And he again dreamed another dream, and he related it to his brothers, and he said, "Behold, I have dreamed another dream, and behold, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me."
ט. וַיַּחֲלֹם עוֹד חֲלוֹם אַחֵר וַיְסַפֵּר אֹתוֹ לְאֶחָיו וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֵּה חָלַמְתִּי חֲלוֹם עוֹד וְהִנֵּה הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְהַיָּרֵחַ וְאַחַד עָשָׂר כּוֹכָבִים מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לִי:
10. And he told [it] to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him and said to him, "What is this dream that you have dreamed? Will we come I, your mother, and your brothers to prostrate ourselves to you to the ground?"
י. וַיְסַפֵּר אֶל אָבִיו וְאֶל אֶחָיו וַיִּגְעַר בּוֹ אָבִיו וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ n.,הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֹת לְךָ אָרְצָה:

And he told [it] to his father and to his brothers: After he told it to his brothers, he told it again to his father in their presence.
ויספר אל אביו ואל אחיו: לאחר שספר אותו לאחיו חזר וספרו לאביו בפניהם:

his father rebuked him: because he was bringing hatred upon himself.

ויגער בו: לפי שהיה מטיל שנאה עליו:
Will we come: Isn’t your mother (Rachel) already dead? But he (Jacob) did not know that the matters referred to Bilhah, who had raised him (Joseph) as [if she were] his mother (Gen. Rabbah 84:11). Our Rabbis, however, derived from here that there is no dream without meaningless components (Ber. 55a/b). Jacob, however, intended to make his sons forget the whole matter, so that   they would not envy him (Joseph). Therefore, he said,“Will we come, etc.” Just as it is impossible for your mother, so is the rest meaningless.
הבוא נבוא: והלא אמך כבר מתה. והוא לא היה יודע שהדברים מגיעין לבלהה, שגדלתו כאמו. ורבותינו למדו מכאן שאין חלום בלא דברים בטלים. ויעקב נתכוון להוציא הדבר מלב בניו שלא יקנאוהו, לכך אמר לו הבוא נבוא וגו', כשם שאי אפשר באמך כך השאר הוא בטל:

11. So his brothers envied him, but his father awaited the matter.

יא. וַיְקַנְאוּ בוֹ אֶחָיו וְאָבִיו שָׁמַר אֶת הַדָּבָר:
awaited the matter: Heb. שָׁמַר. He was waiting and looking forward in expectation of when it (the fulfillment) would come. Similarly,“awaiting (שׁוֹמֵר) the realization [of God’s promise]” (Isa. 26:2), [and]“You do not wait (תִשְׁמוֹר) for my sin” (Job 14:16). You do not wait. [From Gen. Rabbah 84:12]
שמר את הדבר: היה ממתין ומצפה מתי יבא, וכן (ישעיה כו ב) שומר אמונים וכן (איוב יד טז) לא תשמור על חטאתי, לא תמתין:

Again, there are many questions here: Why does Joseph tell the dreams, knowing that they would probably incense his brothers further? If Jacob awaits the dreams' fulfillment, why would he want to negate it in any way, since it is well known that dreams are fulfilled according to their interpretation?

The first question is dealt extensively by many commentaries. There are many answers, the most prominent one perhaps is that these dreams were prophetic, and a prophet is not allowed to withhold prophecy under the penalty of death.

As noted above, Rashi addresses the second question, stating that Jacob spoke in this way to try to deflect some of the hatred that his brothers were feeling. Still, his answer seems particularly harsh, in light of how traumatic it must have been for Joseph to lose his mother at a young age, as well as how traumatic it must have been for Jacob himself.[2]

Certainly, Joseph was well aware about his mother’s fate. Jacob did not need to emphasize that. Perhaps Jacob’s question about whether Rachel would come with them to prostrate herself to the ground was not simply rhetorical, but was actually alluding to something much deeper.

Joseph’s dreams portray him as a foundation for his brothers, but one dream is related to physical matters (sheaves), while the other, the one that includes his parents, is related to spiritual ones. Perhaps, on a deeper level, Jacob’s question had to do with how Rachel would remain alive in this world on a spiritual level.[3]

Our sages state that Yaakov Avinu Lo Met, "Jacob our father did not die." Just as his offspring are alive, so is he. As long as his message is alive, he is still alive. If this was true of her husband, it certainly should be true about Rachel Immeinu as well. She also did not die. Spiritually, both Jacob and Rachel are alive today, because their children are alive, and so is their message. In general, we say that the righteous are even more alive after their death than before. (Tanya)

Rashi states that Bilhah brought Joseph up like his mother. Perhaps what is key here is not that she treated him like her own child, but that she behaved like Rachel, a true emissary of Rachel. Bilhah had been so influenced by Rachel that she kept her ways. (That would also help explain why Jacob did not move his bed to Leah’s tent, even after Rachel’s passing)

In Kabbalah, Rachel represents Malchut, which is also what the moon represents. The sun represents Chochmah, and Jacob is the sun.[4] Malchut is the ability to take something powerful and abstract and reflect it in such a way that can be absorbed, that can be brought into the reality of this physical world.

However, in order for Malchut to be able to perform its task, it must first be subservient to Yesod. The sefirah of Yesod, is the foundation for all the other sefirot, including Malchut.

Perhaps, on a deeper level, Jacob now understood that through Joseph, who represents the sefirah of Yesod, all the other Divine attributes and all their spiritual work and legacy for the future, including Jacob’s and Rachel’s, would now be able to emanate and be brought down all the way down into the most physical aspects of this world (Artzah, to the ground) and elevate the world in its entirety.

To this, Jacob was very much looking forward.

[1] The connection between the sons of Jacob, the Tribes, and the constellations is quite strong, as each constellation represents one of the Tribes, and the Jewish people are promised to be as numerous as the stars.

[2] It was fairly recently pointed out to me that Rashi's commentary is alluded to in the actual words said by Jacob, read in slightly different way (because the Torah has no punctuation, and is considered to be one long name of Hashem):  אֲשֶׁר  חָלָמְתָּ, contains the words רחלָ מְתָּ, Rachel is dead.

[3] The statement taken from אֲשֶׁר  חָלָמְתָּ, would then use all letters, and be the one to be asked rhetorically:  ? אֲשֶׁ רחלָ מְתָּ, “Has the fire of Rachel died? [Of course not].” The fire of the person stays long after the person is gone, just like Rebbe Nachman stated about himself, “my fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach.”

[4] Likutei Moharan, Chapter 1; although Jacob is also connected to Tiferet.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Korach in the Parasha, the Torah Portion of Vayishlach

The Torah portion of Vayishlach speaks of the dramatic encounter between Jacob and Esau. In their exchange, much has been written between the different approaches to life of the two. Esau says, "Yesh Li Rav," usually translated as "I have a lot," while Jacob states, "Yesh Li Kol," "I have everything [I need]." It brings to mind the expression from Pirkei Avot, "Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion." Much has also been written about what "Kol" means. In Kabbalah, Kol is explained as a reference to the sefirah (attribute) of Yesod, foundation. Jacob is now able to stand firm against his murderous brother Esau.
Esau's use of the word "Rav" is also quite fascinating. It can mean "much," but can also mean "master" or "superior." Esau is intrinsically stating, probably without acknowledging it consciously, that Jacob is his superior. This seems to be supported by Rashi's comment on this verse:
9. But Esau said, "I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours."
ט. וַיֹּאמֶר עֵשָׂו יֶשׁ לִי רָב אָחִי יְהִי לְךָ אֲשֶׁר לָךְ:
let what you have remain yours: Here he acknowledged his (Jacob’s) right to the blessings (Gen. Rabbah 78:11).
יהי לך אשר לך: כאן הודה לו על הברכות:
The Hebrew translation of the whole verse could very well be: "But Esau said, "I have a superior - my brother. Let what is yours remain yours."
There are two other instances in which a similar expression is used. Moshe says to Korach and his fellow Levi rebels, "Rav Lecha Bnei Levi," this is [too] much for you sons of Levi. Later, when Moshe asks for 515 times to come to Israel, G-d also uses the same expression, "Rav Lecha," it is [too] much for you. Much has been written about the connection between these two statements as well. Both times, it may be understood that what is being said to both Moshe and the sons of Levi is that they have a superior, a Master. This also ties into one of the early themes of Pirkei Avot and of Rosh Hashanah: Ta'aseh Lecha Rav - make for yourself a Master. (see Book 1, Week 1)
We know that Esau did not do Teshuvah in his lifetime, but perhaps his potential for Teshuvah, and the spark of good in him can be found here is as well. In acknowledging his brother's superiority, and that the blessings his brother took from him, even if somewhat deceitfully, are nonetheless his to keep, Esau is getting closer to one day, one day acknowledging the ultimate truth: he too has One Master.

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