Weekly Cycle

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Desert in Words: Seeing the Whole Picture and the Torah Portion of Ki Tavoh

This week's Torah portion, Ki Tavoh, begins with the description of the offering of the first fruits in the Temple and contains a long series of "curses" if the Jewish people do not follow Hashem's commandments.

In the ritual of bringing the first fruit, there is a fascinating recitation that each individual makes, in which he retells the story of the Jewish people. Its beginning, and particularly the choice of words used, is the subject of much commentary and debate:

5. And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, "An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. 

RASHI - An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather: [The declarer] mentions [here] the kind deeds of the Omnipresent [by stating]: “An Aramean [sought to] destroy my forefather.” That is, Laban, when he pursued Jacob, sought to uproot [i.e., annihilate] all [the Jews], and since he intended to do so, the Omnipresent considered it as though he had actually done it (Sifrei 26:5)...

who then went down to Egypt: And [apart from Laban,] still others came upon us to annihilate us, for after this, Jacob went down to Egypt [“and the Egyptians treated us cruelly…”]. 

with a small number of people: [Namely,] seventy persons. — [Sifrei 26: 5; see Gen. 46:27

The following verses go on to speak of how the Jews were miraculously saved by G-d's mighty hand and outstretched arm, and how they were brought now brought to the Land of Milk and Honey, and to the Temple.

Not only is the verse about the "Aramean" puzzling,  but Rashi's comment, as well as its placement, is even more so. How is a description of the suffering of our forefather Jacob, as well as continued the suffering in Egypt and beyond, part of the description of the "kind deeds of the Omnipresent?" Yet, that is exactly the case. Rashi is coming to teach us that the end of the story is dependent on its beginning. The suffering in the hands of the Aramean is what helped transform Jacob into Israel. The suffering the Jewish people as a whole is what made possible for them to have such a close and deep bond with G-d, to the point that they merited the revelation of G-d Himself and His miraculous redemption.

When one is in the middle of the suffering, one cannot hope to see how the present struggle will ultimately lead to positive and even miraculous outcome. When one plants a seed, that seed is stuffed into the ground and even decomposes. It is hard to see how this could lead to something good. Yet, when one has the first fruit in hand, and merits to bring it as an offering to G-d in the Temple itself, then it becomes clear that all that suffering was not in vain, but rather was fundamental in developing a closer relationship with G-d and in the success that followed.

This message is equally applicable to the curses that come towards the end of the Torah portion. The suffering described is also not for naught. It is part and parcel of the ultimate, highest blessings that are still to come. In fact these blessings are included in the very words used for the curses, albeit in a hidden fashion. It is simply a matter of interpretation.

Similarly, in a sense, Laban the Aramean did "destroy" Jacob, since Jacob was no longer the same after his experience living with such an evil and deceiving individual. The suffering and "destruction" that Jacob underwent made a him a better and stronger person, both spiritually and physically. This is true for Jacob as well as for all of his descendants. This was seen clearly in the times of the Tabernacle and of the first two Temples, and will be seen clearly again soon, with the building of the final Third Temple, speedily in our days. 

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Desert in Words: Tackling the "Evil" Inclination and the Torah Portion of Ki Tetzeh

This week's Torah portion begins with speaking about going to war and finding a captive. Our sages teach us that even though the Torah seems to be speaking about a physical war against an enemy nation, the verses are also applicable to our own internal spiritual war, against the Yetzer HaRah, the evil inclination.

In fact, Rashi states as much quite explicitly, even though, his statement is usually read in a different way:

10. If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, 11. and you see among the captives a beautiful woman and you desire her, you may take [her] for yourself as a wife.
ולקחת לך לאשה: לא דברה תורה אלא כנגד יצר הרע

 you may take [her] for yourself as a wife: Scripture is speaking only against the evil inclination. For if the Holy One, blessed is He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. [The Torah teaches us, however, that] if he marries her, he will ultimately come to despise her, as it says after this, “If a man has [two wives-one beloved and the other despised]” (verse 15); [moreover] he will ultimately father through her a wayward and rebellious son (see verse 18). For this reason, these passages are juxtaposed. — [Tanchuma 1]

The traditional reading of this Rashi is that, in permitting this marriage, the Torah is allowing the soldier to do, what he would likely do anyway because of his evil inclination. His desire for this woman would be so strong, that it's better to allow him to take her in a permissible way.

Perhaps an equally valid reading of Rashi would be simply to interpret Rashi to mean that this captive from your enemy's land is itself the evil inclination. All three segments mentioned by Rashi can be read in this way: the "beautiful captive" is the evil inclination, also the "despised wife," as well as the "wayward and rebellious son."
The evil inclination is not really "evil." It's is our natural, self-centered, animal instinct, which is base, yet nevertheless important for survival. In Kabbalah and Chassidut, instead of good and evil inclinations, the terms used are G-dly soul and animal soul.

The animal soul attracts us, on a base level because of the physical pleasures it can bring us, but on a higher level, for the mitzvoth we can accomplish with it. After all, most mitzvoth are physical in nature, so the physical drives of the animal soul are important to get the mitzvoth done in the best possible way. However, before being able to use the animal soul for mitzvoth, it has to be somewhat disarmed or "defanged:"

12. You shall bring her into your home, and she shall shave her head and let her nails grow. 13. And she shall remove the garment of her captivity from upon herself, and stay in your house, and weep for her father and her mother for a full month. After that, you may be intimate with her and possess her, and she will be a wife for you.
In Judaism, there are proper ways to perform physical acts that constitute mitzvoth. The most common are probably eating and having marital relations in a kosher way, but there are others as well, such as proper commercial dealings, proper speech, etc.

Not everyone in the Jewish people is necessarily required or up for the task of constantly engaging the animal soul to perform mitzvoth.

14. And it will be, if you do not desire her, then you shall send her away wherever she wishes, but you shall not sell her for money. You shall not keep her as a servant, because you have afflicted her.

There is room in Judaism for those that want to lead a more spiritual existence, such as those that wish to lead a life of Torah study. However, the Torah warns that one should not do so "for money." Pirkei Avot states, "Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig."

Judaism does not believe in complete ascetism. Some level of physicality will always be present. Still, those that have "afflicted" their animal soul, and chosen not to use it for mitzvoth, will not be able to "keep her as a servant." For these people, the animal soul will not be a very strong tool or aid in their G-dly service.

Similarly, when it comes to the son of the beloved wife (the G-dly soul) and the son of the despised wife (the animal soul), a person must realize that the animal soul is actually the firstborn. The animal soul comes to a person first, much before the G-dly soul. One should not underestimate its importance.

17. Rather, he must acknowledge the firstborn, the son of the despised [wife] and give him a double share in all that he possesses, because he [this firstborn son] is the first of his strength, then he has the birthright entitlement.
Yet, there are aspects of the Yetzer HaRah that have no positive characteristics whatsoever. There are parts of the animal soul that are like Amalek: wayward and rebellious to the extreme, a "glutton and a guzzler." These parts have to be destroyed altogether:

21. And all the men of his city shall pelt him to death with stones, and he shall die. So shall you clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.

The words in Hebrew for "listen and fear" are Yishme'u veYira'u,  יִשְׁמְעוּ וְיִרָאוּ - containing the roots for Reiyah (sight) and Shmiyah (hearing). These in turn are the roots for the names Reuven and Shimon, the first two sons of Jacob.

A question arises as to how the above applies to our patriarch Jacob on a simple level. There is a tradition that our patriarchs were so spiritually sensitive that they kept the Torah much before it was given at Mount Sinai. If so, how is it that Jacob gave the right of firstborn to Joseph, the son of Rachel, the wife he most loved, instead of Reuben, the firstborn, son of Leah?

Comes the Torah and joins the segment regarding the sons of the two wives to the segment regarding the wayward and rebellious son. A son that is deserving of death certainly would not be entitled to anything. There are differences of opinions as to what exactly were the sins of Reuven, Shimon and Levi, but there is one sin that all the older brothers of Joseph committed, which is in fact punishable by death. This sin is also addressed in this week's Torah portion (Ch. 24):

7. If a man is discovered kidnapping any person from among his brothers, of the children of Israel, and treats him as a slave and sells him that thief shall die, so that you shall clear out the evil from among you.
The brothers kidnapped Yoseph HaTzadik (Joseph the Righteous) and sold him as a slave. Rashi explains that there are other requirements for the death penalty, which were not met by Joseph's brothers, such as witnesses and a warning, and treating the person as a slave. Nevertheless, the verse appears to be direct reference to Joseph's situation. By kidnapping Joseph, the older brothers appear to have forfeited their firstborn right. As the Torah itself shows, it was exactly by kidnapping Joseph that the brothers brought upon themselves the very thing they were trying to avoid: Joseph's rule over them.

In fact, we read about this verse on Yom Kippur, in the context of the death of the Asarah Harugei Malchut, the Ten Martyrs (including tzadikim such as Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva) who were viciously killed by the Romans. The Roman emperor used this exact verse to justify killing the ten sages. He stated that their death was necessary to atone for the sin of the ten brothers of Joseph.

 Let us not wait until Yom Kippur to remember the lessons of repentance and atonement. Let us start today, right now, to tackle our animal inclination, treat our brothers properly, and to attach ourselves to Tzadikim Amiti'im, the true sages, of our generation and of the past. May we then merit to see the true and complete redemption of our people and of the world at large.  

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Desert in Words: Justice as a Communal Obligation and the Torah Portion of Shoftim

The Torah portion of Shoftim begins with a discussion of the appointment of judges. Below are a few of Rashi's comments on this subject:

18. You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. 

Judges and law-enforcement officials: Heb. שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים. שֹׁפְטִים are judges who decide the verdict, and שֹׁטְרִים are those who chastise the people in compliance with their order, (who strike and bind [not found in early editions]) with rods and straps, until he [the guilty party] accepts the judge’s verdict.

and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment: Appoint judges who are expert and righteous so that they will judge justly. — [from Sifrei]

19. You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words.
You shall not pervert justice: [This is to be understood] according to its apparent meaning.  

you shall not show favoritism: Even during the statement of pleas [by the litigants]. This is an admonition addressed to the judge, that he should not be lenient with one litigant and harsh with the other, [e.g., ordering] one to stand [while allowing] the other to sit, because as soon as one notices that the judge is showing more respect toward his opponent, he cannot plead his case any longer [because he thinks that it will be of no use].

20. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.

Justice, justice shall you pursue: Seek out a good court. (Sifrei; San. 32b)

that you may live, and you possess [the land]: The appointment of fitting judges is sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land. — [from Sifrei]

 It's very interesting to note that Rashi establishes obligations not only on those in the government in charge of appointing judges, not only on the judges themselves, but also on the law-enforcement officers as well as on the guilty parties. Last but not least, is the obligation of every litigant in seeking out a good court.

The pursuit of justice is truly a communal mitzvah, applicable to every single person and to the nation as a whole. It therefore comes as no surprise that the reward for appointing fitting judges is also a national one: "sufficient merit to keep Israel alive and settled in their land."

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Desert in Words: Destroying by Failing to Destroy and the Torah Portion of Re'eh

This week's Torah portion begins by Hashem laying out two paths before us: the path of blessing if we follow Hashem's commandments, and the opposite if we do not. The Torah then begins to enumerate some of those statutes, and contains a very puzzling statement:
1. These are the statutes and ordinances that you shall keep to perform in the land which the Lord God of your fathers gives you to possess all the days that you live on the earth.
2. You shall utterly destroy from all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods, upon the lofty mountains and upon the hills, and under every lush tree.
3. And you shall tear down their altars, smash their monuments, burn their asherim with fire, cut down the graven images of their gods, and destroy their name from that place.
4. You shall not do so to the Lord, your God.
How could we possibly thinking of doing so to Hashem? Rashi picks up on this, and addresses it in a long comment:
RASHI - "You shall not do so [to the Lord your God]: to burn sacrifices to God in any place you choose, but rather at the place that He will choose. Another explanation is: “And you shall tear down their altars… and destroy their name… [but] do not do so [to the Lord your God]”; this is an admonition [addressed] to one who would erase the Name [of God from any writing] or remove a stone from the altar or from the courtyard (Mak. 22a). Rabbi Ishmael said: Would it enter your mind that the Israelites would tear down the altars [of God]? Rather, [the meaning of “You shall not do so” is that] you should not do like the deeds of the nations so that your sins would cause the sanctuary of [i.e., built by] your fathers to be destroyed. — [Sifrei]"
Obviously, no one of the Jewish people would intentionally try to destroy Hashem's altar or His name. However, what the Torah is trying to tell us is that by allowing the worship of other gods, one would be in fact hurting Hashem's presence in the world. The utter destruction mandated by the Torah here parallels the total destruction of Amalek. Failure to destroy Amalek has a similar impact on Hashem's name: “And he said, For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal, [that there shall be] a war for the Lord against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:16)
RASHI - For there is a hand on the throne of the Eternal: The hand of the Holy One, blessed be He, was raised to swear by His throne, to have a war and [bear] hatred against Amalek for eternity. Now what is the meaning of כֵּס [as opposed to כִּסֵא and also [why is] the Divine Name divided in half? [I.e., why is the Name יָ-הּ used instead of י-ה-ו-ה ?] [The answer is that] the Holy One, blessed be He, swore that His Name will not be complete and His throne will not be complete until the name of Amalek is completely obliterated. And when his name is obliterated, the Divine Name will be complete, and the throne will be complete, as it is said: “The enemy has been destroyed; swords exist forever (לָנֶצַח)” (Ps. 9:7); this [who they are referring to] is Amalek, about whom it is written: “and kept their fury forever (נֶצַח)” (Amos 1:11). "And You have uprooted the cities-their remembrance is lost" (Ps. 9:7) [i.e., Amalek’s obliteration]. What does it say afterwards? “And the Lord (וַיהוה) shall sit forever” (Ps. 9:8); thus [after Amalek is obliterated] the Name is complete. "He has established His throne (כִּסְאוֹ) for judgment" (Ps. 9:8). Thus the throne is complete [i.e., thus the throne, here spelled with an “aleph,” is now complete]. — [from Midrash Tanchuma, end of Ki Theitzei]
Amalek affects not only Hashem's name, but also his throne. Perhaps that is also why this week's Torah portion complements the discussion of the need to destroy altars and images of alien gods with a discussion of the ultimate place of G-d's throne, Jerusalem:
5. But only to the place which the Lord your God shall choose from all your tribes, to set His Name there; you shall inquire after His dwelling and come there.

6. And there you shall bring your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, and your tithes, and the separation by your hand, and your vows and your donations, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep.

7. And there you shall eat before the Lord, your God, and you shall rejoice in all your endeavors you and your households, as the Lord, your God, has blessed you.
We find a similar parallel in Maimonides' ruling regarding who is Mashiach, the messiah (Laws of Kings and Wars 1:4):
If a king will arise from the House of David who diligently contemplates the Torah and observes its mitzvot as prescribed by the Written Law and the Oral Law as David, his ancestor, will compel all of Israel to walk in (the way of the Torah) and rectify the breaches in its observance, and fight the wars of God, we may, with assurance, consider him Mashiach.
If he succeeds in the above, builds the Temple in its place, and gathers the dispersed of Israel, he is definitely the Mashiach.
It is only after there is proper observance of Torah and the wars of G-d have been successfully fought, only can the Temple be built in its place. Then, as we say in the end of the Aleinu prayer, which concludes each of our daily services, "One that day, He will be One and His Name, One."

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Desert in Words: G-d's Committment to the Land, and the Torah Portion of Eikev

One of the main themes of this week's Torah portion is primarily about reward for following G-d's commandments. Last week's sixth Aliyah (reading) contained the first paragraph of the Shemah, and this week's portion contains the Shemah's second paragraph. It also contains a somewhat puzzling comment by Rashi.

The sixth aliyah has a few additional verses before reaching the part contained in the Shemah:

10. For the land to which you are coming to possess is not like the land of Egypt, out of which you came, where you sowed your seed and which you watered by foot, like a vegetable garden.
11. But the land, to which you pass to possess, is a land of mountains and valleys and absorbs water from the rains of heaven,

12. a land the Lord, your God, looks after; the eyes of Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

13. And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul...

Rashi - And it will be, if you hearken: וְהָיָה (Vehayah) is referring to what is said above (verse 11):“and absorbs water from the rains of heaven”

Why does Rashi feel that it is necessary to note that Vehayah is referring back to verse 11 (describing rain) and not a continuation of the previous verse, about how Hashem's eyes are always upon the Land "from the beginning of the year to the end of the year?"

The answer, perhaps, is a simple one. As mentioned previously, much of this Torah portion is about a certain quid pro quo, reward and punishment. Rashi's comment serves to emphasize that G-d's eyes will always upon the Land. Unlike the rain, harvests, etc., this is not subject to change. G-d will always look after the Land in a very special way, no matter what.

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