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Rabbi Staller's Drashot

March 5, 2021: Parah Ki Tisa

Moshe Rebbeinu– known for his humility, his leadership, and his close relationship with God– is not always known for his patience and cool head. Indeed, it is ultimately Moshe’s more impetuous urges that cost him the grand prize of entering Israel, as a frustrated Moshe resorts to physical violence and hits the water-giving rock that he is supposed to verbally persuade. Given that well-known weakness, it should come as no surprise in this week’s Parashah when Moshe, faced with the frustration and disappointment of the Jewish people’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, takes violent and capricious action and smashes the God-given tablets that he had just received. What should be surprising, though, is the reaction he receives. Whereas Moshe is punished harshly for his short fuse by the water-giving rock, here Moshe is praised! Reish Lakish, in Shabbat 87a, imagines God telling Moshe “Yashar Kochachah Al Asheir Shibarta,” good job breaking those tablets! Why is Moshe praised for destroying God’s gift to the world? 

Indeed, this surprising reaction and confusion seems to be reflected in different traditions surrounding the two sets of tablets Moshe receives. The Netziv points out that there is a slight difference noted in the Torah between the first and second set and tablets. While God fashions and writes the first set of tablets with the Divine Hand, by the second set of tablets God tells Moses to “fashion for yourself” the tablets the God will write upon. In other words, while the first set of tablets were entirely from God, the second set of tablets were carved out by Moshe, and only then written upon by God. 

Yet, while that distinction seems clear in the Torah, what is less clear is its significance. The Ibn Eza points to this difference between the two sets of Luchot as evidence that the initial tablets were actually holier, as they were entirely fashioned by God. And yet, while this seems intuitive– the more Godly something is, the holier it should be– Rav Saadiah Gaon, dealing with the same verses and noting the same differences, comes to the exact opposite conclusion. According to Rav Saadiah Gaon, the second set of tablets were superior in part because they were fashioned by Moshe, and not by God. In other words, the very difference that the Ibn Ezra pinpoints as a weakness in the second Luchot– Moshe’s role in carving them– is what Rav Saadiah Gaon praises about them. But what is Rav Saadiah Gaon even arguing? Ibn Ezra seems obviously correct! The godlier something is, the holier it should be. So why does Rav Saadiah privilege the second man-carved set of stone tablets over the first? 

In one of my personal favorite pieces of Torah, the Beit HaLevi, the namesake and great grandfather of our own Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, explodes this debate by challenging the very premise at the heart of it. While Ibn Ezra and Rav Saadiah Gaon argue about which set of tablets was quantitatively holier, the Beit HaLevi posits that the difference between the two sets of tablets was not a quantitative one at all. There is no “better” or “worse” set of tablets, but rather, two entirely different sets of tablets, with different qualities, that reflect different models of relationship with God. To that end, the Beit HaLevi quotes a number of Midrashim that highlight not only a difference in form between the two sets of Luchot, but rather, a difference in content. One Midrash states that, while the first set of Luchot contained the entirety of Torah, both written and oral, from Genesis all the way down to every question a student will ever ask their teacher, the second set of tablets contained only the ten commandments, and nothing more. Another Midrash adds that, despite the impossibly lengthy nature of these first sets of tablets, they had a miraculous quality that once one learned them they would never forget a single word of their content. The second set of tablets, however, introduced us to our current reality where our Torah learning is all too quickly forgotten. 

While these differences seem peculiar, hard to believe, and maybe even unnecessarily miraculous, the Beit HaLevi explains that these Midrashim, while perhaps not strictly literal, are trying to highlight an important qualitative change that occurred between the first and second set of Luchot. The first set of Luchot contained all of Torah, and ensured that its learners would never forget its content, because it fundamentally represented a passive model of Judaism and Torah engagement. The entirety of Torah is given to the Jewish people already fully formed and created, and their job was merely to protect it. However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized that the Jewish people– while previously drowned in the passivity of slavery and servitude– are waking up to their agency and peoplehood. They need to be actively engaged as creative partners, and not merely told to passively sit by and wait. If 40 days of sitting around doing nothing resulted in the Golden Calf, imagine what would happen if the rest of Jewish history was prescribed to just sitting around guarding God’s Torah! 

Thus, when Moshe breaks the first set of Luchot, he is not angrily committing an act of violence out of frustration. Rather, Moshe is recognizing that the model of religion, responsibility, and ultimately relationship with God that is encapsulated in the first set of tablets is fundamentally incorrect for who the Jewish people are and where they are in their journey. This nation needs to be actively engaged, and a set of Luchot that merely interacts with the Jewish people as passive protectors is doomed to fail. Moshe destroys the first set of Luchot not as a hopeless act of rebuke, but as a constructive recognition of the need for pedagogical flexibility and adaptiveness. Given that, we can understand the Yashar Koach that he receives. 

Having broken the old model of Judaism, Moshe and God turn towards a new set of Luchot as a reparative measure. Thus, the second set of Luchot engage the Jewish people not as guards protecting a pre-ordained Torah, but rather, as creative partners, charged with the responsibility of generating and curating Torah as the progenitors of the oral tradition. The second set of Luchot aren’t “missing” the oral Torah that were presented with the first. Rather, the pre-ordained oral Torah is replaced with the endless possibilities of human contribution, as the Jewish people are elevated from mere guards of the Torah to partners charged with its creation. In the words of the Beit HaLevi, the Jewish people transformed from the ark in which the Torah is protected, to the very parchment upon which the Torah is itself written. We are not merely protectors of the Torah, but we Jews are the Torah itself, as we live and breathe Torah day in and day out, and every question we ask and thought we have expands and creates new insights and new perspectives on Torah, reflecting the diversity of thought and experience within the Jewish nation. 

Thereby, the sin of the Golden Calf is not only a momentous occasion in Jewish history due to its sinful and destructive implications. Rather, the Golden Calf represents a fundamental shift in the history and trajectory of the Jewish people. In the face of the Jewish nation’s restlessness and impatience, God acknowledges that the Jewish nation needs to be engaged on its level, and a transition from passively following to actively creating and leading is needed. But more than a mere emphasis on action, God prioritizes creativity, as the Jewish people themselves become the generators of Torah. We have a say in what our religion looks like, as we are not merely vessels protecting an weathered tradition from contemporary threats, but rather, are the very authors and creators of a living and creative tradition that is meant to respond to the needs and challenges of the time and world it thrives in. Surely we can understand Rav Saadiah Gaon’s preference for the second set of Luchot, as empowering humanity to create Torah represents a cosmic shift in the trajectory of history and an immense privilege. 

But beyond that, I think there is a more concrete lesson for us. The Beit HaLevi spells out that it’s not just the corporate “Jewish People” that are charged with this broader responsibility to create Torah. Once we understand that the Torah is itself a living and creative work– one which needs the Jewish people’s contributions to continue to grow and develop, then each and every one of us is charged with being a part of that process. We all can offer something unique to the creation of Torah, as we bring out different life experiences and perspectives to the table. And so, the Torah is quite literally incomplete without each and every one of our contributions fleshing it out. Not everyone can be the next Gadol HaDor or brilliant Torah mind, memorizing every detail of Halakha and synthesizing complicated laws. But what would the rabbis and greats of the tradition quote and discuss if not for all the diverse perspectives and commentaries which they were lucky enough to learn from and engage with. Thus, as we turn towards a Torah and a tradition that is as alive and dynamic as we, its co-authors and adherents are, we can all agree with Reish Lakish, Yashar Kochachah Asher Shibarta– it’s a good thing Moshe broke those tablets. 

February 26, 2021: Purim Tetzaveh

Some years ago, the Jewish blogosphere was consumed with a relatively new controversy surrounding Purim and the reading of the Megillah. Some proud Jewish feminists noted a gender imbalance early on in the Megillah: Despite the Megillah being named after Queen Esther– our supposed protagonist of the story– only Mordechai gets a communal introduction in the Megillah. In the beginning of the second chapter of the Megillah, when the audience is first introduced to Mordechai and Esther, the custom has developed that the congregation recites the verse introducing Mordechai outloud together in unison– marking the dramatic significance of his introduction to the story. Yet, despite Mordechai and Esther being introduced in adjacent verses, and the supposed central role of Esther as the eponymous character of the Megillah, Esther does not receive a similar introduction. Thus, a push was born to correct this injustice and recite the verse introducing Esther out loud as well.

While I don’t intend to cast any aspersions on other customs or practices, this practice is not our custom at Stanton Street and will not be what we do this year. But I think undeniably it begs an essential question at the heart of the Megillah. Is Esther really the hero of the Purim story? We know the Megillah is named after her, and I, as I’m sure many of us, would love for there to be more empowered female heroines featured in the bible. Yet, despite this, a cursory read of the Purim story may leave one confused as to why it is called Megillat Esther and not Megillat Mordechai. After all, isn’t Mordechai the older, informed Jewish leader who is advising Esther, creating a strategy, and overseeing it? Esther, while undoubtedly brave in her approach of Achashveirosh, is just following Mordechai’s plan?

This question is just exacerbated when we look at the content of introductions the two characters actually get in the Megillah– irrespective of whether we recite the verses out loud. Mordechai is introduced as, “There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:5-6). Mordechai gets a lengthy introduction, situating him in the context of a long impressive legacy of Jewish leadership going back to the Jewish nobility of Jerusalem. But more than the length and pomp surrounding Mordechai’s introduction, the perspective is telling. Mordechai is the “certain Jew” that is being featured, and everything, even the introduction of Esther, is told from Mordechai’s point of view. While Mordechai’s entire family lineage, tribe, and history gets recorded, when we’re introduced to Esther we are merely told, “And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother” (2:7). In other words, even Esther’s introduction is entirely from Mordechai’s perspective, being told as a footnote in our introduction to Mordechai. Additionally, the contrast between Mordechai, who is situated as the descendant of many generations of Jewish greatness, and Esther, who is a parentless orphan, is striking. If this is Mordechai’s story, and as such Mordechai gets the hero’s introduction, why is this Megillah named after Esther?

Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein points out that, on a Pshat level, it is clear within the Megillah itself why the biblical story is named after Esther. "Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote, with Mordechai the Jew, with all emphasis, to confirm this second letter of Purim" (9:29). The Megillah records that Esther was the primary author in recording the Purim story, with Mordechai merely serving as backup. Indeed, the rabbis in the Gemara Megillah (7a) envision Esther herself petitioning the Great Assembly to include her story in the biblical canon. But this answer is itself just further question begging. Granting that the Megillah is named after Esther as she is the author and the main actor in the end of the Megillah, the question remains as to how that came about. How did Esther go from being a seeming pawn in Mordechai’s heroic plan to being the central focus and main hero of our story?

To address this, we must first understand the broader context in which we encounter Megillat Esther. For decades, people believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of our earliest manuscripts of traditional Jewish biblical texts from the temple period, did not contain the book of Esther in its bible as it either had not happened yet, or was not considered worthy of inclusion. In recent years, this has been challenged, and it seems that there may in fact have been a manuscript of Esther that had previously been illegible. However, the initial impression, even if mistaken, touches upon a significant and defining feature of the Megillah. Esther is not only one of the latest stories to take place in Tanach, but it is also the only biblical story to take place entirely outside the land of Israel. Thus, Megillat Esther is a particularly relevant story for those of us practicing Judaism today, as it is the first book of Judaism to be written in exile, by exiled Jews, for exiled Jews. 

Given that perspective, we can better understand the development of the story. While it is true that Mordechai, the well-rooted leader with a clear sense of vision, is an undeniably essential motivator in the development of the story– such that it would have been impossible without his planning– he is not the main character of the story. Given that this is a story of exiled Judaism by exiled Jews, the hero is not the out of place Jerusalemite trying to go by unnoticed in Persian society. Rather, our hero is the quintessential exiled Jew, encountering what would become in the centuries following the Esther story an all too familiar tale of struggling with assimilation, national identity, and fitting in. Esther is heralded as the hero and focus of the story, despite Mordechai’s essential role in orchestrating the events that take place, because the story is fundamentally about Esther and people like her. It is a story of coming to terms with your Jewish identity in exile, when the stakes couldn’t be higher, and that story is embodied through following Esther, not Mordechai.

This perspective also allows us to reapproach some of the previously difficult parts of the Megillah. We pointed out that there is a seeming imbalance in the introductions of the two characters. Mordechai has a long introduction, rooting him in a family, a tribe, and a location, whereas Esther is described as an orphan without mother or father. Rather than viewing these different introductions as being indicative of different levels of importance, we can understand that these different introductions serve different literary purposes. Esther is being contrasted with Mordechai. Whereas Mordechai, the Frum From Birth Yerushalmi who doesn’t even attempt to fit in to Persian society, is rooted in a long and storied tradition of Judaism– going back to his great grandfather who lived in Jerusalem– Esther is a parentless orphan. This detail is not merely a description of Esther’s circumstances, but a characterization of her Jewish identity. Esther finds herself in the beginning of the story rootless– with no clear lineage or family ties connecting her to Judaism. In fact, the only thing tying her to Judaism is the fact that Mordechai, the old Chareidi man, has taken her in. It’s altogether unsurprising that later in the chapter, after Esther is picked as the new queen, we are told that “Esther did not make known her kindred nor her people” (2:20). While this may have been a strategic play by Modechai, surely it did not take much convincing. Thus, Esther is merely mentioned as a parentless orphan as a footnote in the Mordechai story, as, at this point in her development, that’s all her Jewish identity amounts to. 

This characterization of a rootless Esther, toying with assimilation, is reflected in the broader image of Jewish society at the time. Notably, there is no talk of the “Jews of Shushan” in the first chapter, as Persian Jew seems to have been a weak or perhaps even nonexistant identity at the time. The Jews of Persia attended Achashveirosh’s party as Persian citizens, the same as everyone else in the kingdom. Indeed, the Rabbis criticize the Jews of the era for participating in Achashveirosh’s party– a rebuke of the clear cultural assimilation of identity that, while best exemplified by Esther’s rootlessness, has already been established by the lack of a Jewish presence in the first chapter of the book. 

Given this focus for the story, we can also better appreciate the dramatic turning point on which the Megillah revolves. While from the standpoint of the political intrigue, the climax of the Megillah is surely Esther’s approach of King Achashveirosh and the two parties that follow, the centerpiece of the Megillah is actually found in the chapters before that. The drama of the Megillah does not revolve around the tension of the Jewish people’s impending doom, as much as the personalized struggle of whether Esther will identify with the Jewish people enough to save them. As Mordechai says to Esther as he is trying to convince her to approach Achashveirosh and take a stand for the Jewish people, “If you altogether are silent at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will be lost” (4:14). Mordechai reveals the true plot twist of the Megillah: Everyone knows the Jewish people will be fine. If Esther doesn’t stand up and intervene for them, God will bring salvation from elsewhere. We know God promised not to destroy us, and Mordechai is confident God will keep his end of the bargain. The true stakes, though, are whether Esther’s “father’s household”– her stake in the familial tradition of Judaism– will be lost for all of time. Will she assimilate, and force God to bring salvation through other means, or will she identify with the Jewish people and put her neck out for the sake of her brethren? That is the true tension at the heart of the Megillah. 

Thus, we arrive at the turning point of the Megillah and the true drama at its heart. Esther’s response to Mordechai’s calls presents us with the answer to the true question and stakes at the heart of the Megillah. Will Esther identify with her Jewishness and cast her lost with the Jewish people? “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.'” (4:16). Esther calls for a period of national fasting, emphasizing that she too will fast with the Jewish people. In other words, the turning point is not Esther’s dramatic actions in the palace, but her religious act of accepting a communal fast, and thus, formally declaring that her lot is cast with the Jews. Ultimately, this turning point will lead to the true celebration of the Megillah as Esther takes her rightful place as the head of the Jewish people, leading a Jewish revival that culminates in the creation of a new holiday– Purim.

This change is also reflected in a subtle change we see take place over the course of the Megillah. We emphasized how, initially, Esther is presented as parentless and rootless, in contrast to the well rooted Mordechai. Yet, we also quoted a verse from the end of the Megillah that records Esther’s authorship. The verse we quoted there said, "Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote, with Mordechai the Jew, with all emphasis, to confirm this second letter of Purim" (9:29). Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil. Over the course of the Megillah, Esther the orphan has transformed into Queen Esther, but more importantly than that, Esther the rootless is now called Esther the daughter of Avichayil, firmly rooted in her Jewish identity and the place she occupies in the chain of tradition. 

Thus, we see over the course of the story the true drama at the heart of Purim. Faced with our first instance of exile– a story that takes place entirely outside of Israel– how will the Jewish people fare? Understandably, the exile has worn on, and assimilation is rampant. We know from the book of Ezra that intermarraige and family lineage was a major problem at the time, but Esther highlights the cultural and value mismatches that the assimilated Jews were guilty of at the time. But despite the depths of assimilation reached, Esther proves that it’s never too late to reconnect to our Jewish roots and to identify ourselves and our lot with that of the Jewish people. In many ways, Megillat Esther is the most important and relatable of the all of the works of Tanach for those of us alive today, as it serves as a blueprint and a model for how to thrive as Jews in diaspora. Indeed, the Mitzvot at the end of the Megillah– giving gifts and hosting celebratory meals– seem to be intentionally crafted for the sake of reinforcing Jewish community and perpetuating a sense of Jewish communal identity for this very purpose. While we may not all be Mordechais, coming from storied Jewish lineage with strong Jewish backgrounds and education, we can all aspire to the role model of Esther– a normal anonymous Jew who, after some struggle, confidently commits herself to Judaism and the Jewish people. Surely such a role model is worth naming a Megillah after. 

February 19, 2021: Terumah

Famously, Professor Yeshayah Leibowitz would go to Jerusalem on the 14th of Adar and leave for the 15th, missing both Purim and Shushan Purim and avoiding the holiday entirely. Professor Leibowitz was not just a spoilsport who didn’t appreciate a good party, but rather, raised substantive and difficult objections to the very nature of Purim. At the heart of Purim, we celebrate the Jewish military victory, as Esther secured the right to self-defense from King Achashveirosh. But, as the Megillah tells us, the Jew did not merely defend themselves, but rather, waged a bloody and deadly war, wiping out thousands. Professor Leibowitz felt uncomfortable celebrating this bloody and violent day, and, following a very strict interpretation of Halakha, came up with a clever way to avoid it. 

While we may or may not relate to Professor Leibowitz’s perspective on Purim, I think the difficulty that lies at the heart of Parshat Zachor, which we read this Shabbat, before Purim, might be a little bit more universal. We read on Parashat Zachor about Amaleik’s unjust attack against the Jewish people as they left Egypt, as a fulfillment of the Torah commandment to remember what Amaleik did to us. However, the commandment is not merely based in memory, but has a specific call to action. We are commanded to “wipe out the memory of Amaleik from under the sky” (Deut. 25:19). In the Haftorah, we read about Shaul being chastised by the prophet Shmuel for allowing even animals of Amaleik to survive– much less their king– as the command to wipe out Amaleik is so thorough as to include even animals and children. Surely if some find Purim to be problematic, Parashat Zachor is even more troubling.

Of course, we are hardly the first to raise the ethical issue of the command to destroy Amaleik. While some try to contextualize the Mitzvah and claim that total destruction was a norm of religious war at the time, we see many early parts of the tradition expressing similar discomfort at this commandment.  Indeed, the Gemara in Yoma (22b) tells us that Shaul’s hesitancy to wipe out Amaleik came from a similar place of ethical disbelief, as it records Shaul asking whether the animals and children really sinned, to be deserving of death. Our very first case of Amaleik ethical anxiety comes in the bible itself! 

While we live in a time period where the nationality “Amaleik” is meaningless, nonetheless, we still find this ethical hesitancy being translated into practice in the halachah. The Kaf HaChaim explains that the reason why we don’t say a Brachah on fulfilling the Torah commandment of remembering Amaleik is because it would not be fit to say a blessing over such a violently tragic command. The Kaf HaChaim compares it to a well-known Pesach-time Midrash that says that as the Egyptians drowned in the sea, God silenced the heavenly choir out of mournful respect. So too, while we may be commanded to wipe out Amaleik, we should be somber and respectful about the tragic reality of it. 

And yet, for most of us, I think leaving off the blessing is an insufficient consolation for what seems to amount to a commandment of genocide. Thankfully, as is often the case with the most ethically complicated parts of Halakha, it would seem that this discomfort is purely theoretical, as there is no nation of Amaleik to destroy anymore. Rav Soloveitchik, however, offered a rehabilitated understanding of the commandment to wipe out Amaleik, that both kept the Mitzvah relevant today, and addressed some of the ethical discomfort at the heart of it. Rav Soloveitchik explained that the focus on Amaleik in the Torah was not descriptive of a nationality or ethnicity, but rather, was an identification with a lifestyle and set of corrupted values. Amaleik was a ragtag group of bandits committed to evil. By saying we’re committed to wipe out Amaleik, we’re really saying that we are committed to take a stand for justice and wipe out evil in the world, whether it be Amaleik or the Nazis, the commandment would apply for all of time, as the Jewish people is situated as the eternal foe of evil embodied. 

While this approach preserves a powerful and contemporary meaning for the significance of this otherwise seemingly irrelevant Mitzvah, it faces its own host of difficulties. First of all, this interpretation does not fit very nicely with the literal command we see repeated throughout the Torah. There seems to be a clear focus on total destruction– including animals, women, and children. While that could just refer to an idea or a group of people, that certainly seems to be about wiping out a nation. But perhaps the biggest difficulty for Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation is not a specific question or challenge, but the methodology that underlies it. Ultimately, Rav Soloveitchik’s understanding of the Mitzvah hinges upon reinterpreting a literal word in the Torah, as the word “Amaleik” is transformed from being a nation founded by the historical figure Amaleik, to being an idea or philosophy. Generally, we shy away from taking major words or concepts in the Torah so non-literally. 

How, then, are we to rectify our discomfort with the command to wipe out Amaleik? I’d like to share an excerpt from of my role models and teachers, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. This piece was formative for me, and I think is one of the most important lessons we can take away from the challenge of destroying Amaleik. Rav Aharon writes in “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself”:

“At one point, during my late teens, I was troubled by certain ethical questions concerning [the destruction of ] Amalek etc. I then recalled having recently read that Rabbi Chaim Brisker would awaken nightly to see if someone hadn't place a foundling at his doorstep. I knew that I slept quite soundly, and I concluded that if such a paragon of kindness coped with these laws, evidently the source of my anxiety did not lie in my greater sensitivity but in my weaker faith. And I set myself to enhancing it.”

Rav Aharon recounts that when he was younger, he used to be troubled by ethical questions in Judaism, such as the commandment of Amaleik. But in the midst of those struggles, he’d remember that his role model– Rav Chaim Brisker– used to wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, out of a great anxiety that there was a baby in need waiting at his doorstep. Rav Aharon is not trivializing the ethical issue. He isn’t saying it’s not worth worrying about God giving us unethical commandments as long as there are hungry children. Rather, Rav Aharon is saying that one of his religious role models and mentors, Rav Chaim, was on such a high level of sensitivity and compassion that he couldn’t sleep out of his concern for the less fortunate, but somehow, he managed to live at ease day to day with the ethical challenges of Amaleik. The fact that Rav Aharon’s religious role model was able to survive the ethical challenge and keep his faith served as a grounding anchor for Rav Aharon.

Rav Aharon goes on to describe a theory of faith that is very unlike what many of us may be familiar with. It’s not the popular conception of an individual being touched or rescued, nor is it a moment of ecstatic belief. Faith is a muscle, and it needs to be developed. For Rav Aharon, one major way to keep one’s self grounded and work on their faith is rooting it in living breathing role models. As long as Rav Aharon knew that Rav Chaim– with his intellectual genius and unmoving moral character– was able to stay committed to Torah and Mitzvot despite the difficulties, surely he could make it work. This was enough of a grounding and basis to allow for further “faith building” development. 

Personally, I often find myself thinking back to an image of Rav Aharon when I encounter challenges in my faith or practice. I look to Rav Aharon not as a Chasid, who thinks that his Rebbe is perfect or has some magical vip access to God, but rather, as proof that it is possible. If Rav Aharon could face the ethical challenges of Judaism and decide it’s still worthwhile, then maybe I should have more faith. I do that knowing that Rav Aharon felt similarly about his Rebbe, and as such, I partake in a chain of faith and doubt that links me and all of us to the very first doubter in Judaism– Moshe, who himself doubted that he could lead the Jewish people.  Thus, we see how looking to a living and breathing role model of religion is an essential part of the tradition, as a way to keep faith real and tangible.

Particularly today, as we near the end of the COVID marathon, we live during a time where practice has become overly personalized and private. Now more than ever it is essential that we don’t allow Judaism to become the private domain of our own individual minds, as one’s Judaism was never meant to flourish in isolation. It is through building relationships with teachers, rabbis, friends, and families that we ground our religious experience not just in ideas, but in real life people. In this lonely and dark time, it is easy to give up on the refreshing and centering force of real relationships and role models. Let Parashat Zakhor remind us that, while it’s ok to struggle with your faith or your religion, you should never have to go it alone. 

February 12, 2021: Mishpatim

"Unlike our constitutional democracies or international law, the Jewish legal system doesn’t start from the fundamental premise that people are owed freedoms. Rather, Jewish law is built on the concepts of obligation and commandment—it focuses on what individuals and leaders must do to serve God, act justly toward others and bring about redemption." - Joseph Gindi, American Jewish World Service 

This division between “rights” and “responsibilities” is often identified as one of the core pressure points where the traditional values of halakhic Judaism are bound to come into conflict with the modern liberated values many of us hold. I remember back when I was 18, sitting in Yeshiva in Israel, and hearing, for the first time, as one of my rabbis made this powerful distinction between rights and responsibilities. Rav Bick’s parting warning to us before leaving Yeshivah was to inculcate a sense of commandedness, because the broader world’s focus on individual rights often makes it hard to feel duty-bound and responsible to Torah and Mitzvot. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks z”l writes ““One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility.”

Given that Jewish emphasis on responsibility and commandedness, it should come as no surprise that immediately after the drama of the revelation at Sinai, the Torah immediately changes gear and shifts from flashy narrative to dry law, giving the Jewish people a taste of the various responsibilities that await them. Perhaps it is this very emphasis on responsibility and commandedness that explains God’s need to immediately inundate the Jewish people with a seemingly disparate group of random halachot at the beginning of our Parshah. The ten commandments, while significant, are far from a complete picture of the full responsibility the Jewish people committed themselves to, and Parashat Mishpatim comes to flesh that out. 

One of the seemingly random sets of laws mentioned in this week’s Parashah is that of Nezikin, the laws of damages, i.e. tort law. The Torah says (Exodus 21:35):

And if a man's bull strikes his friend's bull and it dies, they shall sell the live bull and divide the money received for it, and they shall also divide the dead body.   

וְכִֽי־יִגֹּ֧ף שֽׁוֹר־אִ֛ישׁ אֶת־שׁ֥וֹר רֵעֵ֖הוּ וָמֵ֑ת וּמָ֨כְר֜וּ אֶת־הַשּׁ֤וֹר הַחַי֙ וְחָצ֣וּ אֶת־כַּסְפּ֔וֹ וְגַ֥ם אֶת־הַמֵּ֖ת יֶֽחֱצֽוּן:

If one ox gores another ox, the owner of the goring ox must sell his animal to compensate for the damage it committed. This verse, and those surrounding it, establish the very basic premise of tort law in Judaism. If a person, or their possessions, damage another person’s possessions, they are responsible to pay for that damage. 

As a child, I remember reading a Hanoch Teller book about Rav Moshe Feinstein that told the story that as a mere child, Rav Moshe quickly realized that the case of an ox goring another ox was a principle that could be extrapolated to chickens attacking each other, which were more commonly found than oxen, or even a carriage or car accident. Young Rav Moshe immediately understood what the project of halacha was trying to accomplish, creating legal categories that can be extrapolated to real life experience. 

But does Rav Mosheh’s comparison really hold up? Sure, a chicken and an ox might be interchangeable, but can a car– an inanimate machine steered by a human– really be compared to an animal? In the case of a vehicle accident, the driver is pretty clearly the actor involved. But when it comes to holding someone accountable for the actions of their animals, the question becomes much more complicated. Animals are animate living beings. Why exactly am I being held accountable for the damage my animal– an independent, living thing– commits?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Exodus 21:35) comments on the above verse and offers his rationale for the basis of monetary liability. Rav Hirsch explains that an owner is responsible for any damage their possessions commit because their possessions are considered an extension of them.  While Rav Hirsch describes humans as being comprised of a “mix” of their body and their possessions, perhaps we today can more clearly understand this idea as an “estate.” More than merely a human confined to a body, an estate is a much vaster claim of identity, incorporating material goods and possessions, and living beyond a person’s own life. Therefore, when a person’s animal damages, that person’s estate has damaged, and that person’s estate is liable to pay for the damage.

While this certainly makes some amount of sense, Rav Hirsch’s theory also has its downsides. The metaphysics of claiming a person’s possessions are viewed as an “extension” of themself is certainly bold. But beyond that, we know that the halachah has many fine distinctions between a human who damages and an animal who damages. If it’s true that an animal is just an extension of a person, then why does halacha distinguish between a human hurting someone with a weapon– a case of Chavalah, bruising, which would be tried as a violent crime with its own set of law– and hurting someone with an animal, which would be just be Nezek, typical damage, and governed by a separate set of laws?

Perhaps due to these weak points, the Ralbag, Gersonides, amongst others, offers an alternative theory as to why the Torah compels one to pay damages for destruction wrought by an animal. According to the Ralbag, the liability for damage lies not in the destructive act of the animal itself– an action which, according to Rav Hirsch, is attributed back to the owner– but rather, an owner’s liability stems from their negligence as they failed to fulfill their duty of guarding their possessions from damaging others. In other words, according to the Ralbag, the reason someone is responsible for the damage their property perpetrates is because of a Chiyuv Shmirah, negligence in their obligation to safeguard their possessions from harming others. Thus, there is no metaphysical claim of identification between an owner and their possessions, but rather, a moral imperative to guard one’s possessions from harming others. 

And yet, despite responsibility to guard one’s possessions from damaging other people’s property, we see in the Gemara that there appears to be some exceptions to this principle. For example, while the Gemara establishes laws of Harchakot, distancing, that obligate someone to ensure potentially harmful possessions, such as beehives, are at least a certain distance away from any neighbors, once an owner complies and distances his harmful possessions, if those bees actually go and damage a neighbor, their owner is not liable. 

The Nesivos Mishpat (155:18) asks why a beehive owner should be exempt as long as he distances his beehives. Who cares that the beehive is distanced, the owner still clearly failed to guard their possessions from harming other people! When it comes to an ox that gored, we don’t ask if the owner made an effort first. Either the owner sufficiently guarded their animal, and no damage would have occurred, or they didn’t, and hence they are responsible for the damage. So if we accept the position of the Ralbag, that the responsibility to pay for your animal’s damage stems from an obligation to guard one’s possessions, why is it that, when it comes to things like beehives, even if you don’t guard them well enough to prevent damages, you are exempt from paying for anything? 

The Nesivos explains that when it comes to certain things, such as beehives, if we held people too accountable for their bee’s damages, practically, no one would be able to raise a beehive on their property. Therefore, since people have the right to own a beehive and use it on their property, the halakha bends its usual standard of guarding, and doesn’t hold a beehive owner for the damages of its bees as long as they distance them from their neighbors. In other words, since a person has a right to have a beehive, there’s no way the halacha could be so onerous as to make beehive ownership practically impossible. 

What emerges from this comment of the Nesivos is a radical reconceptualization of the laws of Nezikin. The Nesivos, in this comment, is innovating that Nezikin is not just about one’s responsibilities– be it one’s responsibility to guard an animal, or one’s responsibility to pay for damage. The laws of damages found in our Parashah are a blueprint for establishing a society– a blueprint full of individuals’ rights and expectations. The Nesivos illustrates how at the heart of Nezikin lies one’s right to use their land how they see fit, even if that comes with a few bee stings. 

While this perspective does not contradict the primacy of commandedness of and emphasis on responsibility that Rabbi Sacks and others so accurately pinpoint at the heart of Judaism, it certainly complicates it. Judaism is often viewed strictly in terms of the devotional and subjugative. We know the rabbis encourage one to nullify their will in the face of God’s, and the huge emphasis on Mitzvot and halacha drills the value of responsibility into Jewish day school youth. But in addition to the element of Torah that is rooted in subjecting one’s will before God, there is also the creative impulse in Judaism, as Torah and Mitzvot come to tell us how to build a just society. 

While the long list of monetary commandments and technical tort laws in Mishpatim appears to solely be about one’s responsibility in the face of the daunting task of keeping the Torah, we see from our study of damages that the creative project and the privileged right to serve as God’s partners in building a society is intrinsically linked to the legal and obligatory commandedness of the laws governing damages. While we might not be able to extrapolate from oxen to cars, we can learn from the values at the heart of the halacha, as we strive to build a society that is neither fully self-negating in its focus on responsibility, nor hedonistically permissive with its focus on rights. Rather, it is only through recognizing that both rights and responsibilities go hand in hand in the project of building a divinely inspired society that we can fully understand the imperatives of the Torah, and work to strike the appropriate balance to create a society worthy of accepting the Torah at Har Sinai. 

February 5, 2021: Yitro

Merely a year ago, in January 2020, Stanford Medical School published a blog post about the conventions of naming diseases– presumably unaware of the 24/7 coverage the newly named COVID-19 virus was about to get. More specifically, the article discussed a live controversy in the medical world surrounding eponymous diseases. Should a condition be named after its discoverer, or even a prominent patient, or should technical medical names be used? In addition to offering greater scientific exactitude, technical medical names remove the potential stigma and association between individuals and various diseases. Surely, Lou Gherig would rather be remembered for his Yankee’s career than his illness. 

Yet, despite these obvious downsides, the convention remains, and is largely defended and maintained in the medical world. While this seems perhaps troubling, as we expect our scientific fields to maintain standards of nomenclature that reflect the rigorous standards of study expected in the field, the reason for the persistence of eponymous diseases is clear. Naming something after someone is a sign of honor and respect, as the newly named thing– even if it is a disease– provides a lasting legacy that honors the namesake well after their passing. 

Given our own contemporary significance surrounding naming and dedications, we can properly understand one of the most famous questions to arise in our Parshah. Why did Yitro merit to have this week’s Parashah named after him? The truth is, to some extent this question is a red herring. The “naming” conventions of the Parshiyot are relatively recent and not definitively established. Indeed, the original tradition was merely to refer to Parshiyot by the first verse or two in order to identify them– no names at all! But while the focus on the name of the Parashah might be misleading, it is picking up on an important and hard to miss question at the heart of this week’s Torah section. Why does Yitro, Moshe’s non-Jewish father in law who served as a priest of the presumably pagan religion of Midyan, get such a prominent feature in the Torah? If Yitro’s story wasn’t featured so prominently– being one of the first stories to be told after the Exodus, and immediately prefacing the giving of the Torah– the Parashah never would have been named after him. But what’s so special about Yitro’s visit?

We know that once he arrives, Yitro proves invaluable to Moshe and the Jewish people, offering advice on how to structure the court system effectively so Moshe can best relieve the courtload. And yet, despite the undeniable service the Torah tells us he provides, Chazal and the rabbinic commentaries are particularly interested in what happened before Yitro gets on the scene. The Gemara asks, and Rashi quotes here, what was Yitro’s motivation to leave home and meet the Jewish people? 

Rashi, amongst others, draw on Midrashim that indicate that Yitro came to convert having seen God’s actions. Thus, this story is significant as it shows us the greatness of God and God’s miracles, that even this pagan priest now wants to convert to Judaism. However, this explanation presents a major difficulty. The very end of the chapter tells us (Exodus 18:27), וישלח משה את חותנו, and Moshe sent his father in law away to his homeland. If Yitro was coming to convert and join the Jewish people, why does he ultimately go back to his homeland and not stay with the Jewish people– his new brethren. Furthermore, later on in the Torah, in Parashat BeHa’alotecha, we get either a retelling or a second visit of Moshe’s father in law. Here the Torah is more explicit:

29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them. 34 And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp. {S} 

 

במדבר פרק י

(כט) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֘ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־ הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־יְקֹוָ֥ק דִּבֶּר־ ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

(ל) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו לֹ֣א אֵלֵ֑ךְ כִּ֧י אִם־אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י אֵלֵֽךְ:

(לא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם:

(לב) וְהָיָ֖ה כִּי־תֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְהָיָ֣ה׀ הַטּ֣וֹב הַה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵיטִ֧יב יְקֹוָ֛ק עִמָּ֖נוּ וְהֵטַ֥בְנוּ לָֽךְ:

(לג) וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַאֲר֨וֹן בְּרִית־יְקֹוָ֜ק נֹסֵ֣עַ לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים לָת֥וּר לָהֶ֖ם מְנוּחָֽה:

(לד) וַעֲנַ֧ן יְקֹוָ֛ק עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם יוֹמָ֑ם בְּנָסְעָ֖ם מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה: 

 

Here it is even clearer. While perhaps this is an altogether different encounter, the point we can extract remains the same. Moshe actively begs his father in law to travel with them, and his father in law refuses repeatedly, insisting he return to his homeland. This is hardly a successful resolution if the Yitro story is indeed coming to tell us about the great conversion of Moshe’s father in law! What kind of convert to a brand new nation immediately separates himself from them, never to see them again! 

But if that’s the case, and this isn’t a story of historic conversion, we are left with our question. Why is Yitro’s entrance deserving of so much attention, and why is the figure Yitro worthy of having a Parshah named after him? After all, this seems to just be a minor family scene for Moshe, as his father-in-law brings his wife and children to be reunited with their father. While Moshe’s family reunion might be touching, it hardly seems that important to mention. So why is Yitro memorialized so significantly in the Torah?

I’d like to suggest that, while perhaps it might not be the most flashy or clever of answers, the key might be extremely simple. Why does the Torah mention Yitro’s visit, if ultimately it’s just a minor personal footnote on Moshe’s family life? Because it happened. Yitro, a non-Jewish priest to another religion, went out of his way to reunite Moshe’s family, help the leader of the Jewish people, and paid beautiful homage to God along the way. While it is true that this might not feed into a story of conversion or be a statement about God’s divine might, it is, nonetheless, a story of a nice and important service Yitro provided the Jewish people. Out of a sense of gratitude, the Torah records Yitro’s visit for posterity so it won’t be forgotten. 

The Torah is telling us an important message here. It is true that we, as a Jewish people, have our own mission and our own story, and it is easy to be swept up in the grand religious narrative of the Torah. But by going out of its way to record the kindness of Yitro, the Torah reminds us that, even if Yitro wasn’t some major part of the Torah’s narrative, it is essential to appreciate the kindness he offered and to remember who Yitro was. 

Moreover, the act of memorializing and remembering Yitro for what could have been a seemingly trivial side detail in the story gives us the opportunity to reflect upon the people and voices who may often be forgotten or overlooked despite their huge contributions and significance to our lives. If even Yitro–  who is of minor import and who legitimately does not fit into the Torah narrative of the Jewish nation– is worth memorializing and remembering, all the more so we should take the opportunity to remember and reflect upon those who contributed so much to our lives and have unfairly been forgotten. This month, February, is Black History Month in America. As Modern Orthodox New York Jewish Americans, plus whatever other labels or descriptors one wants to add, we all have our own narratives and stories that we are living through and dealing with, and they legitimately demand our full attention and investment. However, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to take a step back and learn about people who helped shape our lives and our stories who may often get forgotten, and to offer them the gratitude of memory in return for the debt that we owe them.

I want to emphasize that this is not merely a responsibility or opportunity as an American, but as a Jewish American. Beyond American Jewry’s significant and storied shared-history surrounding Civil Rights, our own American Jewish journeys and narratives are also grateful to and full of important Black Jews and Jews of color who have contributed to our community’s history and progress, and who, unfortunately, are often forgotten. In our own Shul, we are lucky enough to have an exhibit upstairs in our art gallery that features the recreations of the passport photos of some forgotten Jewish immigrants of color. Similarly, in past years, for Black History Month, the Jewish Museum on the UES has had an exhibit dedicated to the Black Jews of Harlem in the 30’s and 40’s, currently online, that presents a picture of NYC’s Jewish immigrant life that is often missed in the LES-focused histories of the time. 

I encourage everyone to take the time to appreciate those paintings, view those photos, and to take this opportunity to learn more about the diverse history and current practice of Judaism. But more than that, I challenge all of us not only to take advantage of this opportunity for learning about the past, but to translate it to growth in the present. There is a lot of work we can still do as we strive to make a community where all are welcome, and all feel welcome. Hopefully, by raising our awareness and appreciation to the broad and diverse history of our own Jewish community, we can inspire action and create a Jewish community where all members are seen, given a voice, and remembered.

 

January 29, 2021: Beshalach

Was Rambam a sinner?

While the question seems inflammatory, it is, in fact, one of hot debate over generations of the tradition. Of course, the label “sinner” might be hyperbole, as the sin in question is one very specific and niche prohibition found in this week’s Parashah. As the Jews are about to cross the Dead Sea and escape Egypt, Moses tells them (14:13):

כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

“For as you see Egypt today, you shall not see it ever again.” 

While this verse does not seem like the typical form in which commandments are given in the Torah– really more of a general observation about the state of destruction that is about to befall Egypt– our Rabbis actually learn this verse to be a prohibition. More specifically, this verse is learned as the basis of a Torah prohibition for a Jew to live in Egypt. The Yerushalmi in Succah records our Passuk as one of three instances of this prohibition in the Torah, and the Bavli (Succah 51b), expanding on that idea, explains that the large and thriving Jewish community of Alexandria was wiped out for violating this prohibition by living in Egypt. 

If that’s the case, and there is a prohibition to live in Egypt, does that make Rambam– as well as rabbinic greats such as the Radvaz hundreds of years later, and Rav Ovadiah Yosef in our own time– sinful for having lived in Egypt? In fact, the Sefer Kaftor UFerach, a fourteenth century rabbinic work about the land of Israel, quotes in the name of Rambam’s grandson that Rambam himself would regularly amend his own signature with the preface, “he who violates three prohibitions every day.” According to this shocking account of the Kaftor UFerach, Rambam himself agreed that his life decision was sinful, but nonetheless continued living in Egypt!

While not overtly dealing with this issue, Rabbeinu Bachayei’s comments (Devarim 17:16) give us one avenue of side stepping this issue. Rabbeinu Bachayei explains that this prohibition to return to Egypt was only a prohibition for the generation that left Israel. As we know, the nation that wandered the desert repeatedly told Moshe that they wish they never left Egypt and things were better there. Therefore, in anticipation of this desire to return to their enslavement, God commanded the Jewish people a special one time prohibition not to return to Egypt. If we were to adopt such an approach, there would be no issue, as the prohibition would have obviously expired well before Rambam ever moved to Egypt. 

And yet, while that would be true, the problem is that Rambam himself records a prohibition to live in Egypt in his Mishneh Torah. He writes (Hilkhot Melachim UMilchamot 5:7-8) that there are three prohibitions in the Torah to live in Egypt– much like the Yerushalmi above. Clearly, Rambam does believe in the prohibition of living in Egypt, like the Kafot UFerach suggested. However, Rambam qualifies this prohibition. He explains that the true Torah prohibition is only to move to Egypt “LeHishtakeia Sham,” to establish roots there. But if someone moves there for business or a job or some potentially short-term pragmatic reason and, next thing you know, they’ve lived there 30 years, then that isn’t enough a prohibition to get lashes for, although it is seemingly still frowned upon, if not outright prohibited. 

Fascinatingly, R’ Yosef Nathansohn, in his Shut Shoeil UMeishiv (2:4:107), expands this principle ever further. Based on this Rambam, R’ Nathansohn explains that there actually is no prohibition on any individual moving to Egypt in the first place. The prohibition is on the Jewish people, as a corporate entity, choosing to settle the land of Egypt as their homeland. In other words, if the nation as a whole decides to establish a coordinated seat of power in Egypt, and rejects Israel as its land, then and only then, they will be in violation of this prohibition of returning to Egypt. But any individual who moves their on their own, for the sake of survival or raising a family, they have not violated anything. 

While this expansion seems suspicious, if not outright apologetic, the truth is that it reflects a theme that much predates it. The Ritva (Yuma 38a) holds that the prohibition of living in Egypt only applies when the Jewish people have sovereignty over Israel, however, when there is no Jewish state, then all of the world is just “diaspora,” and it makes no difference if you live in Egypt or elsewhere. In other words, according to the Ritva, this commandment to avoid Egypt is only relevant if that statement it is making is in the context of the Jewish state. Rejecting the Jewish homeland to live in the country of the Jewish people’s historical oppressor is a statement and prohibited. But if we’re all wandering Jews, then there is no significance of any individual living in Egypt. This parallels nicely the theme put forth from R’ Nathansohn that the problem is the national statement of rejecting Israel, and not the individual choice of moving to Egypt.

And yet, while we may have a possible defense of the Rambam, the prohibition itself remains strange. The language of the Torah does not seem to be a commandment at all! Indeed, the Maharsha (Succah 51b) says, like we initially noted, that this isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, this is a promise. Moshe is promising the Jewish people that they will never have to see Egypt again once they get freedom. And of course this makes the most sense! The reason the language in the verse is so strange for a commandment is because it is not a commandment at all, but rather, an observation/promise as means of encouragement to the Jewish people at a stressful and dramatic moment. 

But if that’s the case, and the most simple understanding here– the Pshat in the Torah– is that there is no prohibition at all, and Moshe is merely reassuring the Jewish people, then what are we to do with this entire rabbinic discussion? How can we relate to the rabbi’s prohibition when it is so clear that the verse is offering a promise? Are the rabbis just ignoring the meaning of the verse to make up a Halachah? 

To answer this, I want to conclude with a comment of R’ Baruch Epstein in his Torah Temimah. He writes (Exodus 14fn7):

ואף על פי דלפי פשטות הלשון אין לשון זה אזהרה רק הבטחה, צ"ל מדהבטיח כן הקדוש ברוך הוא חייבים ישראל מצדם להשתדל בקיום ההבטחה וממילא מוזהרים שלא לשוב

“And even though according to the simple language this is a promise and not a prohibition, one must conclude that from the fact that God promised this, the Jewish people are obligated to take initiative to ensure its fulfillment, and therefore, are prohibited from returning to Egypt.”

The Torah Temimah agrees that this is a promise from God to reassure us, but the fact that it’s a promise does not preclude it from being a prohibition. On the contrary! The fact that God promised it to the Jewish people is the very reason why the rabbis saw it fit to learn a prohibition to return to Egypt. God’s promise is not a magical ticket for fulfillment, but rather, guidance as to what we should be valuing and aiming for. Thus, when God, via Moshe, tells the Jewish people they will never see Egypt again, it is upon us to make sure the necessary conditions are true for that promise to be fulfilled.

    While in a relatively obscure context, I think this principle of the Torah Temimah is a powerful one. We can believe fully and strongly in the truth of God’s promises and the reliability of God’s care, but that doesn’t excuse us from taking initiative. Quite the opposite. Even prophecy is a cooperative endeavour, where man plays an essential role in ensuring God’s promises become fulfilled. Rather than waiting around for some divine outside force to swoop in and make a difference in the world, we should view ourselves as God’s partners and actors, carrying out his mission for him. Only when we see ourselves as the means through which God’s promises and plans can be enacted in this world, can we truly partner with God and work towards making sure God’s promises really come true

January 22nd, 2021: Bo

An age old trope of media misunderstanding other cultures is the depiction of Kosher food as needing to be blessed by a rabbi. While nowadays– at least in New York– any talk of rabbinic blessings would likely be tongue in cheek, the myth of magical rabbinic approbation lives on in broader society. Personally, this misconception always struck me as particularly grating. While I don’t begrudge those who have made this mistake, the general pervasiveness of the myth speaks to a popular perspective on Halakha and Jewish practice that focuses on the magical or irrational elements. Rather than viewing Halakha as a detailed law code that can exist by power of its own inertia and internal logic, religious practice is reduced to a cultic practice of magic that requires constant intervention by rabbinic shamans to carry on.

Of course, anyone who lives a life filled with Torah and Mitzvot knows that that’s not how Kashrut works, and that magically sanctifying things through incantations and blessings is not a part of Judaism. If something is kosher it is kosher, and if it isn’t, it isn’t. And yet, while that might be true of the laws of Kashrut, our Parashah surprises us with a seemingly different take elsewhere in the Torah. After bringing about the plague of the first born and instructing the Jews on how to celebrate history’s first ever Passover, God abruptly pivots and tells Moshe (Exodus 13:2):

קַדֶּשׁ־לִ֨י כָל־בְּכ֜וֹר פֶּ֤טֶר כָּל־רֶ֙חֶם֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָ֑ה לִ֖י הֽוּא 

“Sanctify for me every first born. The first of every womb of the Jewish people, man or animal, is mine.”

The Jewish people are expected to sanctify the first born of both humans and animals to God.  Seemingly, this would break the mold of Kashrut, as indeed we are saying that there is a need for someone to come and imbue special status into this animal beyond its own makeup. Here, however, things get tricky. Because while God tells us to “sanctify for me every first born,” the rabbis in the Gemara tells us that first born humans and animals are “holy from the womb,” and even without any human interaction have a special status as dedicated to God. This paradox consumes much of the discussion surrounding the Mitzvah of dedicating the first born to God. Why is it, and how can it be, that God told man to “sanctify” the first born if, as Halakha indicates, the animal is considered holy from birth without any human initiative. 

The Gemara, of course, is not oblivious to this paradox, but the cryptic answer given leads to a whole new series of questions. The Gemara answers that while the animal might be holy from birth, there is a commandment in this week’s Parashah for the owner to explicate and verbally recognize the holiness of the firstborn. But that hardly seems elucidating! What is the point of that? What do we accomplish by verbally recognizing a process of Kedushah and status that works without our involvement? 

Rav Soloveitchik, in a parallel discussion surrounding the role of Kiddush on Shabbat– another instance of man “sanctifying” something whose holiness comes automatically– explains that in reality, while we might think of “holiness” as being a status like Kashrut that exists on its own– based entirely on something’s God-given make up– that is not true. In fact, holiness lies entirely outside the domain of God. Our human sense of Kedushah is a this-worldly interface with the divine, and is about how we translate and express our relationship with God in this world. Thus, concludes Rav Soloveitchik, there actually exists no instances of Kedushah or holiness without human initiative as, without humanity, Kedushah would be an irrelevant term.

Following in this direction, the Rav explains how both by Shabbat and by Bachor there can be a Mitzvah to “sanctify” something which is automatically holy. Technically speaking, from a legal perspective, Halakha has deemed these firstborns to be automatically holy, even without human initiative. But in the broader picture, that holiness is only relevant and manifest because of the role humanity plays in recognizing and striving for it. Without Jews keeping Halakha and humans striving for closeness with God, Kedushah– God’s interface with humanity– would be an irrelevant concept. Thus, as the Gemara tells us, there is a Mitzvah of recognition, or “Kiddush,” both by Shabbat and by Bachor, where through a ritual verbal expression,  the exceptions to the rules of holiness– which could have potentially obfuscated the greater message of man’s central role in creating Kedushah– are transformed into opportunities of reflection and internalization about the crucial anthropocentric nature of divinity in this world. 

This message of the paradox of the Bachor rings true on the more personal and relatable levels of our own personal practice. While it may be true that there are institutions and focal points of Kedushah and holiness that seem to exist on their own and persist on the basis of their own inertia– be it our Shul, our Minyanim, our Sifrei Torah and holy books, or our larger communal Avodat Hashem– none of them can mean anything more than the effort and initiative people put into them. While it is true that our storied Shul has, and hopefully will one day continue to outlive all of us, the holiness of the Shul does not stem from a blessing a rabbi recited 108 years ago when he laid the foundation down, but rather, from the Kedushah and meaning we find in it today.

Given that we are now around half way through my first year with the Shul, and at the start of a new year, I want to take this opportunity to urge everyone– myself included– to make sure to take every opportunity to create Kedushah and find meaning within the Stanton Street Community. Especially now as vaccine roll out ramps up and the possibility of post-COVID life seems possible to think about, I want to encourage everyone to find their role and expression within our Shul community. Without class-goers, event attendees, committee members, Gabbais, minyan-attenders, and various other volunteers, there is no Stanton community and there is no Kedushah within the walls. While our many outlets and avenues to connect provide opportunities for Kedushah– be it in-person minyan, virtual Zoom-Shiur or volunteering to be a part of a committee– without people there finding religious meaning, the holiness remains trivialized. As we continue to grow ourselves and our religious community, I hope all of us can pledge to take advantage of the many opportunities to find meaning in the Stanton Street Shul and together we can elevate the Kedushah already present within our holy community. 

 

January 15th, 2021: VaEra

For a religion, we certainly do not talk about theology very often. I’ve read countless articles about how Orthodoxy doesn’t mention God enough. And yet, while we might shy away from the big picture questions in favor of Halakhic minutia and clever insights into the Torah reading, a few times a year the Parshah calls our bluff and doesn’t let us hide from the ever-lurking big questions. Perhaps the most famous– and most troubling– will come up later in the year, when we read about wiping out Amaleik and the Canaanite nations. But while Amaleik might win the grand prize as the Parshah’s most prominent theological/philosophical issue, Parashat VaEra presents us with what must surely be the runner up: Pharaoh’s lack of free will.

God warns Moshe early on in our Parashah (Shemot 7:3):

וַֽאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֧י אֶת־אֹֽתֹתַ֛י וְאֶת־מֽוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.

And God is good on his promise. Following the fifth of the ten plagues, we start to see regular reminders of “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart” before each plague, as the Torah seems to imply that, were it not for God’s intervention, the Exodus would have ended well before the tenth plague. Why was God interested in prolonging the production? Rashi explains that God wanted to use the opportunity of the exodus from Egypt not just to free the Jews and to punish the Egyptians, but rather, God saw the exodus as the Jewish people’s introduction to the global stage, and as such, wanted to leave an impression. Thus, God forced Pharaoh to drag it out to ten plagues, giving God ten opportunities to perform open miracles for the Jewish people, demonstrating His power and their standing to the nations of the world. 

But this presents a major theological and philosophical difficulty: What ever happened to free will? It seems like God is removing Pharaoh’s free will when he hardens his heart and forces him to keep the Jews enslaved in Egypt! Does God remove people’s free will? And if that is indeed what is happening here, to what end is God doing that? If the goal is to prolong the exodus to put on a better show for the global audience, how can God punish Pharaoh with additional plagues when He knows that Pharaoh’s refusal comes against his will? How can Pharaoh be held accountable when God is hardening his heart? 

Fascinatingly, the Albo in his Sefer HaIkkarim tries to subvert this entire problem through a clever interpretation. He explains that any normal person would be so swayed by observing open miracles and experiencing the large-scale national attacks and disasters that befell the Egyptian people, that it was necessary for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart so as to restore his sense of neutral decision making and enable him to express his true free will. In other words, the plagues were so overwhelming that, without God’s intervention, Pharaoh would never had even had the opportunity to refuse Moshe’s demands and prolong the Exodus story. Of course, this explanation is very difficult to accept. Beyond the seeming lack of support in the tradition for such an approach, it’s questionable whether there is a substantive ethical difference between God “forcing Pharaoh to make a bad decision” and then punishing him for it and “setting Pharaoh up to make a bad decision” and then punishing him for it. 

Rambam picks up this question of free will and runs with it, invoking the Pharaoh story multiple times across his writings and turning “free will” into a fundamental core principle of Judaism. In Hilchot Teshuvah (6:3), Rambam addresses the problem of Pharaoh’s free will head on and explains that, while it is true that everyone has God-given free will to act as they desire, it is possible that one may sin so severely that, as punishment, God will refuse to allow that person to ever repent for their egregious sins, and de facto, that individual no longer has the freedom to perform Teshuvah. In our case, Pharaoh and the Egyptians sinned so badly with the way they treated the Jews during their enslavement, they lost the ability to repent and required ten plagues worth of punishment to set things straight. In other words, it is true that God is removing Pharaoh’s ability to act in a certain way, but that is not a limitation on Pharaoh’s essential human freedom, but rather, a necessary measure to ensure that the correct punishment is meted out.

Similarly, Nachmanides also bites the bullet and accepts that God can, in fact, remove a person’s free will and, like the Rambam, views the instance of Pharaoh losing free will as a punishment. Nachmanides, however, explains that the punishment was not just for the enslavement, but rather, also for Pharaoh’s repeated refusal to repent after each of the first five plagues. In other words, while Rambam thinks God is taking “repentance” off the table because it would be unjust for Pharaoh to repent and be protected from punishment before all ten plagues are administered, Nachmanides sees the final five plagues as coming as punishment for Pharaoh’s refusal to repent earlier. It took him five plagues to feel ready to admit defeat, so, as punishment, God revoked Pharaoh’s out and made him experience five more plagues. 

While Rambam and Nachmanides both, technically, address the ethical issue of free will, neither approach seems particularly satisfying. Ultimately, both thinkers are forced to bite the bullet and acknowledge that our Parashah contains a divine negation of free will– a sacrifice that many hearing this might not agree is worth making. But more than that, if, as Rambam says, the slavery was so brutal that it needed ten plagues worth of punishment to account for it, why didn’t God just bring ten plagues? Why was there the need for Moshe to keep going back to Pharaoh after each plague, warning him, waiting for his response, and then going back to God? God should have just brought all ten plagues, as Pharaoh deserved! 

Perhaps more simple, although not without its own difficulties, is the approach of Rav Yaakov Meidan, one of the Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. Rav Meidan explains that God’s “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” did not consist of a divine intervention or a removal of free will. Rather, according to Rav Meidan, all the Torah means by “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” is that God enabled Pharaoh by continuing to give him opportunities to harshly refuse Israelite freedom. God could have brought all ten plagues at once– a tragedy that Pharaoh surely would not have been able to sustain. Alternatively, after the very first time Pharaoh consented to let the Jews go if God would just bring an end to the plagues, when God saw that Pharaoh was not good for his word and was going to keep the Jews enslaved, God could have stopped playing games and punished Pharaoh for breaking his promise. But instead, God repeatedly kept His word, ending plague after plague at Pharaoh’s assurance that he would let the people go, despite the growing evidence that Pharaoh was promising in bad faith. Thus, while God did not act upon Pharaoh’s thoughts or emotions, he enabled Pharaoh to keep lying and oppressing the Jewish people by allowing his repeated lies at the negotiation table to go unpunished. This, in the perspective of the Torah, is as if God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart and actively played a role in Pharaoh’s actions.

God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart should serve to teach us an important and timely lesson. On the one hand, it is noble and commendable to fight tooth and nail to preserve the value of Teshuvah and continue to provide opportunities for even the gravest of sinners to learn from their ways and repent. The approaches of Medieval authorities such as Rambam and Nachmanides are difficult for many of us to accept, as they depict a world in which God’s patience is limited and the moment for repentance is fleeting. But on the other hand, when God met Pharaoh’s continued obstinance, violence, and dishonesty with naive good faith and little consequence, the Passuk depicted God as enabling– Himself party to Pharaoh’s actions. While in God’s case, this act of “enabling” might have been noble as part of a larger Exodus enterprise, we as a society must balance the dangers of enabling bad actors as we work to keep the doors of repentance and healing ever-open.

 

January 8th, 2021: Mevarchim Shemot

Thirty minutes into Captain America: The First Avenger, the audience has seen Steve Rogers’ super soldier inoculation, and is about to finally be introduced to Captain America– kicking off a franchise, and preparing the onslaught of Avengers and Marvel movies that followed. The drama of the moment is met with horns and music, as the scene cuts to a USO performance for deployed soldiers. A chorus of singers belt out over the band, “Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American way?” before finally singing the name “Captain America” for the first time of the film, and cutting to Steve Rogers in full costume.

This scene is a classic example of what Marvel does right that the many failed comic book movie franchises before them failed to do. Marvel realized that character introductions are key. If comic book movies need to spend time building the world, explaining characters’ origins, and setting up the franchise, then mere live action recreations of comic book panel exposition was not going to cut it. Flashy, dramatic, and engaging characters would get the audience hooked, and the franchise’s inertia would carry itself.

If they could acquire the rights to the bible, Disney could map this blueprint onto any of the biblical partiarch’s stories. BeReishit loves dramatic flashy introductions perhaps as much as Avi Arad and Bob Iger. Arguably all of the beginning of Genesis is a build up to the drama of God’s promise to Avraham of “Lech Lecha.” Yitzchak’s birth is heralded by an angel and ultimately culminates in the drama of the Akeidah. Rivkah struggles with pain as Yaakov and Eisav’s birth is foretold by a prophet and Yaakov is born clutching Eisav’s foot– a precursor for the sibling struggle that would plague his young life. One would expect that Sefer Shemot– a book that the Behag referred to as Genesis’s “sequel”– would follow this pattern and introduce us to our hero Moshe with a flashy and/or miraculous scene.

Yet, despite these expectations, the Torah seems to almost go out of its way to strip down the flash and appeal of Moshe’s origin story. The Torah says (2:1):

וילך איש מבית לוי ויקח בת לוי. ותהר האשה ותלד בן ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא ותצפנהו שלשה ירחים.

“A man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And she conceived and gave birth to a son. And she saw he was good and she hid him for three months.”

The characters are anonymized, as they are stripped of their names and personalities. We know nothing about the type of people, family, or household that bore Moshe– not even their names. Moreover, we hear nothing about Moshe’s actual birth beyond the fact he was “good.” Unlike the forefathers before him, Moshe has no dramatic Brit Milah scene, and he isn’t even named! Rather, in two Pessukim, Moshe is unceremoniously introduced as a nobody, born from no one, and good.

Unsurprisingly, Chazal note this unexpected divergence from the norm, and they use Torah SheBaal Peh to fill in the missing details of Moshe’s birth and early life– making Moshe’s story conform more with those Torah narratives that predate it. The Rabbis tell us that Moshe’s parents were Amram and Yocheved– leaders of their tribe and their people. Additionally, other rabbinic sources fill in the details surrounding Moshe’s birth, offering various miracles that occurred– suggesting Moshe was born circumcised, or that the room filled with light when he was born– and names are suggested, such as Tuvyah. The two short verses produce pages and pages of Midrash and literature as the sparsity and anonymity of Moshe’s birth and origin is striking given our expectations so far.

And yet, while our rabbis and tradition can fill in these details and add life and color to the narrative, it still begs the question: Why were these stories left out of the Torah narrative? Why is Moshe’s birth presented without any flashy edge or miraculous foretelling? If the rabbis can fill in these details, why didn’t the Torah?

Of course, this is hardly the only place where the rabbis of the Midrash wrote important additions to the Torah’s narrative. In fact, two Israeli professors– Avigdor Shanan and Yair Zackovitz– wrote an entire book entitled “Lo Kach Katuv BeTanach” which deals with instances where the rabbis of the Midrash added details that would seem worthy of having been mentioned in the biblical text itself. Their overarching theory is that in all of these cases, the Torah intentionally leaves out certain details from its presentation to emphasize certain themes or to make specific points.

In the case of Moshe, the Torah is intentionally making a contrast from the hero’s journey we have become familiar with from BeReishit. The narrative of BeReishit is one of family– more specifically, the Jewish First Family– as we learn about the creation of the family that was given God’s promise and would eventually become the Jewish nation. Given that narrative focus, it makes sense that every main character would be prefaced with a divine prophecy or their births would be punctuated by open miracles. The message being communicated is God’s special relationship with this family, and the unique role they will play in the future nation. Sefer Shemot, however, has an entirely different focus. Sefer Shemot is about the Jewish people gaining independence, and taking steps towards forming a nation unified around the values of the Torah. In other words, Sefer Shemot is about the formation of the Jewish people, and the national mission we accepted as part of the privilege of nationhood.

Given that different focus, we can appreciate the previously surprising introduction to Moshe. The Torah is making a powerful statement. We are no longer in Sefer BeReishit, and this story is not going to be about family connections and who bore who. While parietal lineage may have been essential in understanding the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, it plays no role in Moshe’s origin story– the reader is not even told who Moshe’s parents are! Rather, instead of focusing on the values of family, tradition, and transmission which were emphasized in Sefer BeReishit, Moshe’s story is about moral character and leadership– necessary traits for the leader of a nation. Moshe is chosen for his position due to the compassion he demonstrates for his fellow Jews, his willingness to take action, and the moral character he cultivated. His leadership is not the product of prophecy, heralded by angels, or foretold by miracles. Rather, it is earned by action. The story of Moshe reminds us that, while religiously it is true that the feeling of family is essential in understanding and fostering our shared tradition, as a nation, leadership will be earned through merit. 

This past Wednesday, we all experienced a tragic failure of leadership. As the windows of the capitol building were broken in on live television, and the confederate flag was paraded through the halls of the legislature for the first time in American history, Unfortunately, we Americans saw a real life application of the Torah’s lesson this week. Birth and position– be it who you were born to, how much money you’re worth, or even if you hold an impressive political position– does not make someone a leader. A leader takes action in the face of moral wrong, and leads by showing what it takes to develop moral character.

Moshe had to give up his childhood home life and flee for years because of his impulsive act of standing up against Egyptian injustice. He sacrificed his home and his family– precursors to the familial and personal sacrifices we will later learn Moshe makes, as he separates from his wife and often foregoes even food and water in service of the Jewish people. Leadership is difficult and requires personal sacrifice, but that is precisely because it is earned and not owed. Moshe’s origin story should serve as a counter role model to us during a time where our airwaves are sadly lacking the role model of a real leader. We should take this opportunity to examine ourselves and make sure that we work to invest our communal leadership and align our communal interests with those leaders who take action and stand for strong moral character. For, as we have all unfortunately seen this week, we will need leaders who are strong and brave and here to save the American way. 

 

January 1st, 2020: Vayechi

This week we’ll be finishing the Yosef story, and with it, the first book of the Torah, Sefer BeReishit. And while the Yosef story wraps up nicely– the family is reunited in Egypt, Yosef provides for them with land and food during the famine, and the tense question of who will takeover Yaakov’s mantle is seemingly resolved with the answer that the tribes will share it– the larger arc of the narrative should leave the reader wanting. While by now, most of us are already familiar with the story of Jewish history and anticipate the turns the story takes, for a first time reader looking at the Torah’s narrative of God’s divine plan, this entire Egypt chapter likely seems so strange. Why does God have to bring Yaakov’s family down to Israel just to enslave them in Egypt? Wouldn’t God’s miraculous salvation of Yosef have been a powerful ending to the story? Couldn’t the brothers have then moved back home after the famine and tried to build the nation of Israel? Why is the Jewish descent into Egypt– the culmination of the entirety of BeReishit– a necessary step?


I think the significance of the Jewish people’s long-term descent to Egypt is actually found in an often overlooked passage at the very end of last week’s Parashah. Before transitioning to the death of Yaakov and his blessings to his sons, the Torah tells us one final episode about Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt. The Torah tells us (BeReishit 47:13-26) how, during the height of the Egyptian famine, the people of Egypt had expended all of their silver, metals, and money purchasing food from Yosef, and were left penniless. Yosef, seeing that the people had no more money to buy back the food he had previously collected from them, instead issued a tax of farmland itself. Indeed, the Torah dramatically tells us that due to Yosef’s tax, the entirety of Egypt became owned by Pharaoh and all of its inhabitants became Pharaoh’s sharecroppers– surely a hefty tax! Having taxed everyone down to their very land, Yosef then collects everyone in the country and moves them from their ancestral farmland into cities– breaking their claim to the land, and displacing them. Indeed, it is not surprising that the Egyptian people respond to this new situation by saying Yosef has saved them, but “we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (BeReishit 47:25).


In other words, one of the last acts of Yosef– and thereby, one of the last acts of the Jewish people in Sefer BeReishit– consists of Yosef using his authority as Viceroy of Egypt to impose an exceptionally large tax on the Egyptians during a famine– a time of extreme vulnerability– ultimately leading to their near-enslavement. Unsurprisingly, many of the rabbinic commentaries note how peculiar this episode is– we rarely get other insight into Yosef’s political actions as viceroy– and how unsettling Yosef’s actions seem to be, and try to apologize for them. The Ramban, for example, rather than reading the Egyptian declaration “we will be slaves to Pharaoh” as an exclamation of despair or sullen surrender, instead reads it as a genuine offer. The Egyptians were so appreciative of the food they were receiving, they offered themselves to be slaves, but Yosef– ever the righteous Tzaddik– refused to let them enslave themselves, and instead, only took their land, agreeing to pay them the relatively high salary of 80% of their work if they agreed to work as sharecroppers. Therefore, the Ramban concludes with remarks of praise for Yosef’s generous rule.


Similarly, the Malbim continues in the Ramban’s path and explicates even more. The Malbim says:

לא רצה לקנות גם אותם רק קנה תחלה האדמה לבדה, כי לא יתכן למושל ארץ לקנות את עמו לעבדים בעד פת לחם, שעליו לפרנסם בעת הרעב, רק קנה תחלה את אדמתם לבד, וזה היה ברצונם, כי מכרו מצרים איש שדהו

"Yosef did not want to purchase them themselves. Rather, he just wanted their land. For it is not conceivable that a ruler would purchase his own nation into slavery for food. It is his responsibility to provide his constituents sustenance during a famine! Rather, first he purchased just their land, and this was with their consent, for everyone sold their fields.”

Again, similar to the Ramban, the Malbim views this episode as a praiseworthy vignette into Yosef’s righteous attributes. Moreover, the Malbim explicitly spells out his agenda, whereas the Ramban keeps his motivations ambiguous. The Malbim argues that it must be that Yosef was actually being lenient here and caring for the Egyptians, because otherwise, the story would be telling us about the corruption or immorality of Yosef– a supposed leader of his people– taking advantage of their vulnerability to enslave his nation for selfish ends. Leaders are supposed to care for their people! Surely this is not what the Torah is trying to tell us.


But perhaps, with all due respect to Yosef HaTzaddik, that is exactly what the Torah is trying to tell us. Perhaps the message of this unusual political vignette is not a random account of how righteous Yosef was as a leader, but rather, a set up and framing for the events that would follow. The last thing we hear Yosef do before the transition to Shemot and the Jewish enslavement in Egypt is Yosef’s taxation and enslavement of the Egyptian people. Surely this is no coincidence. When the Egyptians tell Yosef “we will be slaves to Pharaoh,” how can one help but think of a few pages later in the book, where we will find out that Yosef is dead, there’s a new Pharaoh in town, and now the Jewish people are the slaves. But beyond the juxtaposition between this story and the onset of Shemot, I think the framing of this very scene communicates a similar message.


This seemingly random and surprising scene of Yosef’s royal power is bookended with two verses that communicate the same message. First, before telling us about the enslavement that Egyptians had to face in order to afford food, the Torah tells us (47:11-12) that Yosef gave his family who just arrived in Egypt a large piece of land, and found ‘Lechem,’ bread for everybody in his family, all the way down to the babies. Then, the immediately following verse opens by saying “Lechem Ein BiChol HaAretz,” there was no bread in the whole land. The contrast is striking. While Yosef is gathering the choicest of farm lands in Goshen for his family, and scouring the country to collect enough bread for even the babies to feel full, the rest of Egypt is facing economic and social crises. This then transitions into the story of Yosef enslaving the Egyptian people– clearly a contrast with the generosity with which Yosef treated his actual family– and finally caps off with one seemingly out of place verse. This section in the Torah concludes, and thereby sets the stage for our Parshah to finish Sefer BeReishit, by telling us (Bereishit 47:27):

 וַיֵּ֧שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֑שֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּפְר֥וּ וַיִּרְבּ֖וּ מְאֹֽד
“And Israel lived in Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they claimed it as an inheritance, and they were multiplied and were many.”

The message could not be clearer. While the Egyptians just experienced the traumatic loss of their ancestral homeland, the forced relocation to crowded cities they had never known, and the degradation of defacto slavery– working the land like they did merely moments ago, but now as sharecroppers instead of owners– the Jewish people were thriving in the farmland Yosef selected for them. While all of Egypt is now relocated to the cities, it is the Jewish people alone who are given farmland to own and to live on– an Achuzah, an inheritance that can be passed down. Thus, the Torah bookends the episode of Yosef’s taxation with the clear contrast in how Yosef was treating his own family during the period. While the Egyptians suffered at Yosef’s hands, Yosef looked out for his own, and allowed the Jews to thrive in comfort.


Of course, historically, many of the classical Medieval commentaries on the Torah view this as praiseworthy of Yosef. Rashi cites a Midrash, as do others, that praises Yosef for displacing the Egyptians and ensuring that the Jewish people won’t be the only displaced strangers in the land of Egypt. Countless Midrashim point out how wonderfully Yosef cared for his family, and praise him accordingly, while conveniently neglecting the harshness with which Yosef treated everyone else. While I, of course, am in no place to disagree with the moral evaluation of Rashi or Chazal, I think this might be an example of historical context being particularly relevant. While Rashi and other early commentators were living as oppressed minorities in hostile nations, they saw Yosef’s care of his fellow Jews as praiseworthy, and related to the harsh penalties levied against the non-Jews as cathartic justice for the unfair taxation they were facing. However, given our current experience and perspective, as well as our historically unprecedented access to power and influence, as we now have our own nation, as well as a relatively comfortable (albeit unfortunately not without problems) position in American society, we can relate to this story in a new light.


Rather than merely seeing this as a story of the Jewish people’s survival, and focusing on how Yosef looked out for his own, we can now view this story as a morality tale and a warning. We have previously mentioned the insight of Rav Soloveitchik that God’s first promise to give Avraham the land of Israel at the Brit Bein HaBetarim was ideally supposed to take effect in the fourth generation– namely, Yakov’s children. However, the brothers repeatedly showed that they were unworthy of leadership. First, Shimon and Levi forgo diplomacy and violently massacre Shechem in a fit of passion merely days after first arriving in Israel. Then, the brothers sell Yosef, nearly killing him, in an attempt to claim his position of favor and influence with Yaakov– another political act of aggression and violence. Again and again the brothers show that, while God may be ready for the Jewish people to actualize and settle the land of Israel, the Jewish people are not yet ready to lead. Thus, while the first half Sefer BeReishit, which contains the stories of the three Patriarchs, give us the necessary background to the formation of the Jewish nation, the rest of the book of the Torah is about the Jewish people’s efforts to be good enough to actualize that promise of divine favor.


Given that, we can now fully appreciate this story of Yosef’s taxation in Egypt. While Yosef has improved on the sins of his brothers in many ways– finally overcoming the familial rivalry and tension that plagued every biblical hero until now– he is still far from perfect. Yosef is HaTzaddik as he stakes out an honorable and unusually righteous position as a loving brother and forgiving family member, but that does not necessarily make a just king. Thus, the Torah gives us insight into Yosef’s failure of leadership to highlight the work that remains for the Jewish people to ascend to their eventual promise of nationhood. They will have to themselves experience slavery and understand the suffering that Yosef has imposed upon the lowest in society before being able to rise to the royalty of their own kingdom. Indeed, throughout the Torah, one of the most common refrains is God’s reminder to “treat strangers well, for you were a stranger in Egypt.” Appearing more than nearly any other verse or phrase in the Torah, the reminder of slavery in Egypt serves as an ethical backbone for much of the Torah’s interpersonal Mitzvot.


Thereby, we can appreciate an added layer to the Egypt story that is being set up in the very end of Sefer BeReishit. The biblical First Family has overcome the internal plague of family tension and rivalry (for now at least), and are able to live and maybe even work together. However, there is still much for them to learn about having and exercising power, and being a role model on a global stage. Thus, the Egypt story comes to teach us the lessons of slavery and oppression, as only through understanding that can we truly establish a just kingdom that can actualize God’s mission of peace and fairness in the world.


While Rashi’s appreciation for Yosef’s love and care for his family still rings true as an important value to learn from the Yosef story, this added critical dimension challenges us to balance our internal-focused fraternity with outward compassion. To truly actualize God’s vision of a Mamlekhet Kohanim VeGoy Kadosh, a kingdom of divine emissaries a holy nation, we will have to go through the pain of slavery together with Moshe and the Jewish people, and learn the lessons of care and compassion for others. Only by virtue of the actualization of those values of fairness and compassion are the Jewish people eventually able to ascend to the global stage and become a kingdom. As we stand here today, lucky to have a Jewish nation, a comfortable home town, and a beautiful Shul community, we should take the warning of this week’s Parashah to make sure we’re sensitive to the broader world outside during this difficult time. Only when we are able to foster fair and compassionate attitudes towards others, all the while maintaining the closeness of our internal familial connection, will we be able to share the warmth of our community, and the message of our Torah with the broader world and truly be an Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations. 

 

December 25th, 2020: Vayigash

Given the events of the past several months– full of difficulty, tragedy, and unexpected surprises– it is perhaps fitting that we conclude this year with an unusual and unexpected act of solemnity: fasting on Shabbat. While generally we never fast on Shabbat, as Shabbat is a joyous day characterized by festive meals and celebration, the two exceptions to this rule are Yom Kippur, which supersedes Shabbat, and Assarah BeTevet, which this year fell out yesterday, Erev Shabbat, and extended an hour into Shabbat– ultimately dictating the earliest time we were allowed to say Kiddush. And while this year we only fasted an hour into Shabbat, the Halakha is that if Assarah BeTevet were to fall on Shabbat itself, we would fast all of Shabbat. But how can it be that this one, minor, rabbinic fast trumps Shabbat? Why don’t we just push off Assarah BeTevet to Sunday like we do when Tisha B’Av falls on Friday/Saturday? 

Rav Yosef Kairo, in his Beit Yosef– an earlier and lengthier codification of Halakha that would later be summarized into the Shulchan Aruch– quotes the Abudraham as the source for this peculiar halakha. The Abudraham explains that, while generally fast days are pushed off for Shabbat, since the fast of Assarah BeTevet commemorates Nebuchadnezzer’s first act of siege against Jerusalem, and in describing that siege the prophet says it occurred “BeEtzem HaYom HaZeh,” in the midst of that very day, we see that, like Yom Kippur, the day itself is important and non-negotiable. Therefore, even if it falls out on Shabbat, we must observe Assarah BeTevet on its proper day, and fast on Shabbat. Yet, while the Abudraham brings a verse to support himself, he hardly explains why Assarah BeTevet should be any different. Isn’t the precise date of every fast day important? Indeed, based on this difficulty, the Beit Yosef concludes that he is unsure about this Abudraham. Yet, despite R’ Yosef Kairo unsurety we all clearly have adopted the Halakhic practice of following the Abudraham. So what is special about Assarah BeTevet that it breaks the normal rules and forces us to fast on Shabbat?

One approach the authorities take to try to explain why Assarah BeTevet trumps Shabbat is to look at parallel cases of fast days superseding Shabbat. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, for example, points out that while the public fast days don’t generally override Shabbat, personal fasts– in particular, an elective fast one opts to observe out of fear of a bad dream– always override Shabbat. Since one’s Shabbat joy is already impacted by their worry over their bad dream, fasting is not considered to be minimizing their joy, but rather, enabling them to recover and celebrate. Similarly, we know that Yom Kippur overrides Shabbat and we fast if Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. But how are bad dreams and Yom Kippur relevant for Assarah BeTevet? The Chasam Sofer quotes the Gemara in Taanit that teaches every year that the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed anew. The Chasam Sofer explains that every year on Assarah BeTevet, God reevaluates his decision to destroy the Temple and whether it is time to rebuild it. Thus, Assarah BeTevet is not just a backward reflecting holiday commemorating the past, but, similar to both Yom Kippur and personal elective fasts, it is a moment of prayer for our current needs and desires, as we look towards a future rebuilt temple. 

Yet, while that might explain how it is possible to fast on Shabbat for Assarah BeTevet, it does not explain why we choose to. Even if Assarah BeTevet is a forward-focused day of prayer, why couldn’t we push it off a day when it falls on Shabbat? Why is it so important that Assarah BeTevet be specifically on its precise date, but none of the other rabbinic fasts? 

Fascinatingly, it is actually not so obvious that the precise date of the other Jewish fasts is so important. Our earliest source for the various minor fasts we observe is from the prophet Zechariah, who prophesies about their eventual reversal into days of joy. The prophet says (Zechariah 8:19): “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons” The Minchat Chinuch points out that in this verse– the very source for the fasts days that we observe– there are actually no specific dates enumerated for each fast day. Rather, they are merely referred to by their months. Based on this, the Minchat Chinuch arrives comes to the radical conclusion that the Mitzvah of fasting for these minor fasts is not actually tied to the days at all, but rather, the months. Since these fast days are memorializations and commemorations of events of the past, the specific moment or date is not essential. Any time during the “Chorban season” we can mourn the destruction of the temple and it will be equally meaningful. 

Therefore, says the Minchat Chinuch, if one were to miss a minor fast due to illness or other reason, they should just make it up on a different day in the same month! While we ultimately do not practically hold like the Minchat Chinuch, the idea he is conveying seems to run counter to our unusual Assarah BeTevet. If, generally speaking, the precise days of the month aren’t essential for the minor fasts, then our difficulty with Assarah BeTevet is even further exacerbated! So why is it that the date of Assraah BeTevet is so inflexible? 

While the forward hopes of rebuilding the temple and reestablishing order and justice in society may feel pressing, I think it is actually the past-focused perspective that explains our emphasis on celebrating the tenth of Tevet on its proper date. Unfortunately, it is all too familiar to us today in 2020 how in one moment everything can change forever. Much like Nebuchanezzer’s invasion signalled the end of life as the Jews of the time knew it, many of us had that moment in March or April of this year where it hit us that things are changed forever. The first time we put a mask on outside. The moment we cancelled our Pesach plans. Missing a family Simchah. However, while the onset of a new phase in life or a dramatic new shift can hit us in a moment, in the face of that tragedy and that shift, it takes years or generations to fully see the impact of that trauma and to really begin to address it. In other words, while Assarah BeTevet may signify the start of the tragedy of the destruction of the temple and the loss of Jewish autonomy, Tisha B’Av is not the end. The destruction of the temple did not “end” or resolve, but rather, led us to a new reality with new struggles and new challenges that we face every day. Thus, the precise date it “ended” is not so important, as the tragedy of the event did not end on that precise day. We can memorialize the still-felt impact of the temple’s destruction any day in Av if we need to, as every day is a testament to what a world without a temple looks like. But when we are trying to capture that shift itself– the moment that we went from our normal, comfortable, happy lives into an unknown period of chaos and struggle, we can think back to that moment it all set it in and our lives shifted. The drama of the day itself– BeEtzem HaYom HaZeh– emphasizes our powerless as in a moment, on any day, God can radically change our lives and the world, and it will take us more than one day of prayer and fasting, or one Tisha B’Av to fully recover.

While fasting and the self-criticism of Teshuvah seems particularly difficult this year, given the pandemic and our general circumstances right now, I think Assarah BeTevet presents us with a particularly meaningful opportunity this year. With the first vaccines being distributed and a faint light at the end of the tunnel being visible for the first time in what feels like ages, we are now transitioning to the “end” phase of the tragedy of COVID. But much like the national tragedy we commemorate on Tisha B’Av, the tragedy and suffering of COVID is not going to come to a clean and instant end. There’s months or years of vaccination distribution, economic, social, and mental health recovery, and so much work that is left to be done. Thus, Assarah BeTevet gives us the opportunity to reflect and the harsh wake up call that COVID presented to us all those months ago, and reminds us that, much like the Jewish recovery process from the temple’s destruction, there is much recovery that lays ahead. 

Thus, we should take this Assarah BeTevet weekend as an opportunity to follow the path laid out by the Chatam Sofer and to take this day as a day of current prayer for our hopes of rebuilding. In addition to our yearly hopes of rebuilding the temple, our Jewish society, and our religious/cultural identity, we have the end of the exile of COVID and the loneliness of quarantine to pray for– tempered by the realization that much work lies ahead. Hopefully, as we shift towards the final phase of our current COVID lifestyle, we can utilize these calenderic reminders as a way to process the difficulty we are all experiencing now, and come next year, we will have new appreciation, understanding, and gratitude when we come together on Assarah BeTevet and, looking towards our past to inspire our future, pray together as a community. 

 

December 19th, 2020: Miketz

Often times, we’re so familiar with the biblical stories that, in anticipation of what is about to come, we don’t stop and reflect on what’s going on right now. When we read about Yosef being brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, we all already know that Yosef will eventually become the viceroy to Egypt, bring his family down to meet him, and set the stage for the exile in Egypt and the rest of the bible. However, if we step on the breaks and take a moment to reflect on where we are in the biblical narrative, the events that unfold should strike us as unusual and unique. 

After successfully interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, Yosef is brought to Pharaoh to interpret his dreams– something we all take for granted as logical, as Yosef is the great dream interpreter. But at this point in the Torah, we have only just been introduced to this idea of a prophetic dream interpretation! Since when is this a method of divine communication? Granted, we have a few prior cases of divine dreams– Avraham at the covenant of the parts, Lavan during his pursuit of Yaakov– but in all of those cases, there was no “interpretive” element involved! God directly appeared and communicated with the Avraham and with Lavan, albeit while they were sleeping. Since when does God communicate via elaborate charades– hinting to people their future via a complicated guessing game of symbolism? 

While Yosef might be the first biblical figure to primarily interface with God via dreams, he is certainly not the last. Just last week, we read the Hafotrah from the book of Zechariah. Zechariah, the last of the biblical prophets, exclusively communicates with God via symbolic dreams. Throughout the book of Zechariah, the prophet has confusing symbolic dreams and is helped to arrive at their proper interpretation via an assisting angel. By Zechariah, it is clear that God’s shift from direct communication to dreams foretells the imminent end of prophecy and decline of the Jewish people’s relationship with God. In other words, Zechariah, as the last prophet to manage any form of intimate relationship with God, experiences a much more diluted form of prophecy where he only sees vague images in a dream, and a third party– God’s angel– has to help him interpret it. Thus, we see that divine dreams are representative of God distancing himself and opting for an indirect form of communication.

Similarly, I believe the emphasis on dreams here represents a monumental shift in Jewish history, and how the Jewish people communicate with God. Beginning with Yaakov already, dreams begin to play a more central role, as Yaakov has his famous dream with the ladder, only to later be followed up with another dream in Lavan’s house– this time, of sheep. By Yaakov, already, the Torah is indicating the beginnings of a shift in divine relationship and communication, as direct communication is still possible, but often supplanted by dreams. By the time we get to Yosef, though, there is no longer a possibility of direct communication with God, but rather, only opaque dreams. But why is God pulling back from the first family? Does Yosef not merit direct communication with God? 

Had God appeared to the tribes and said that Yosef will lead them, it seems hard to imagine that the brothers would have still objected and sold Yosef into slavery. Similarly, if Yosef had a communication from God that Egypt will experience famine, but Pharaoh never dreamt about it, Yosef would never have had an opportunity or platform to alert Pharaoh and prepare Egypt. In other words, while direct communication from God may express a closer relationship and intimacy with the divine, and thereby a more accurate and clear understanding and vision of the word of God, that clarity comes at the expense of human participation. By pulling back His presence and appearing through ambiguous dreams, God empowers the various actors in the biblical drama to take the steps and actions that will ultimately drive the story forward. Thus, we see an axiom emerge: the more God is actively involved, the less room there exists for man. 

That being the case, the sudden shift to dreams in Yosef’s story belies an important shift in the biblical narrative. Avraham was given a mission from God, with specific trials, tests, and directives. Yitzchak was tasked with the important responsibility of maintaining the work that his father Avraham trailblazed, cementing Avaham’s movement for the future. But starting with the moment that Yaakov fled his father’s household, and culminating with the story of Yaakov’s sons and the sale of Yosef, we begin to see the biblical heroes being empowered to make their own decisions with little to no directives from God. As the Torah shifts from a localized family drama to a story of national origin, God’s role begins to shift. Direct divine communication takes a back seat as, ultimately, it is only a nation that is empowered to act on its own that will be able to succeed in the divine mission. Thus, we see that by the end of Bereishit, we have a transition away from direct prophecy to the more hazy communication of dreams, as man is given slightly more agency in directing the narrative. 

Ultimately, the Jewish people fail to reach their potential and don’t rise to the challenge of the moment. After generations in Egypt, they sink into spiritual destitution– reflected by their socio-economic status, as they fall into slavery. Eventually, the Jewish people will need a figure no less great than Moshe to ween them off the flashy miracles of direct divine communication and prepare them for the more empowered and independent world of nationhood. But our story this week, moved forward by its peculiar dreams, reminds us before Moshe ever enters the scene that if we’re going to fill that national role and play on the international stage, we need to feel comfortable with our agency and our independence in shaping our narrative. 

 

December 12th, 2020: Vayeshev

Many may not realize that we stand here today, Shabbat Chanukah, on the precipice of one of the most controversial issues in Halakha. Despite hundreds of years of discussion, with every major Halakhic authority of the past few hundred years taking a stance, somehow this controversy rages on, unresolved. Of course, I’m talking about the notorious question in Halakha of whether to light Chanukah candles first, or to recite Havdalah first. While this question may not seem “controversial,” in the sense that the stakes feel much lower than the “controversial” issues we think of, it certainly remains subject to intense controversy as, somehow, this Halakhic issue has never reached a finalized conclusion. 

But what’s so controversial about this question? The Shulchan Aruch (OC 681:2) quotes the Terumas HaDeshen who rules that in Shul, the congregation should first light Chanukah candles and then recite Havdalah. While the Shulchan Aruch specifically locates this practice to the Shul, the Rema comments that the same practice should be adopted at home. As such, it seems like this should be a cut and dry question! Like all other realms of Halakha, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema are the decisive codification and final word on the Halakha, and thus, should settle the matter. And yet, many if not all of us, when we get home tonight, will first recite our Havdalah before lighting Chanukah candles– a clear contradiction to the words of the Rema!

But we needn’t worry, as we too are basing our practice on a well sourced custom. The Taz, commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, quotes the Maharal amongst others who disagreed, and argued that we should recite Havdalah first, and only then light Chanukah candles. And yet, while it is nice to know that the practice of reciting Havdalah first has authority behind it, even the Taz’s suggestion doesn’t fully align with the practice many of us are used to. For, in every Orthodox Shul in America tonight, the congregation will first light Chanukah candles before reciting Havdalah! Ultimately, our practice aligns with the later decision of the Mishnah Berurah (681:3) who rules that the Shulchan Aruch’s insistence of lighting Chanukah candles before Havdalah only applies in Shul at the communal lighting, but at home, we are free to recite Havdalah first.

Eventually, the practice developed in America to light Chanukah candles before Havdalah in Shul, but at home, to recite Havdalah first. But isn’t this compromise inconsistent? How can we Paskin one way at home and one way in Shul? And why is this issue so complicated and unresolved after centuries of Halakhic discourse? What is going on in this seemingly small detail of Chanukah that has led to so much unresolved discussion and controversy? To answer these questions, we must first understand what’s at stake here. We are faced with a question of prioritization, as both Chanukah candles and Havdalah compete for preferential treatment. But what exactly is motivating that question? Why should we be prioritizing one or the other? What statement is being made by choosing one Mitzvah first?

To answer that, I’d like to explore perhaps our earliest source in the tradition to make this unexpected grouping of Chanukah and Havdalah– the Midrash. Yet, unlike the sources we’ve seen so far, the Midrash does not discuss the Halakhic competition between Chanukah and Havdalah. Rather, the Midrash groups these two Mitzvot by placing the two of them at the heart of two separate but undeniably parallel stories about Adam’s first experiences on Earth. Thus, our rabbis create a new genre of literature the “early Adam story”– and give us two instances of this story: Adam’s role in establishing Chanukah, and Adam’s role in establishing Havdalah.

The early origins of Chanukah are particularly surprising. Off the bat, we know Chanukah is a holiday of rabbinic invention, so one would not necessarily expect the rabbis to identify its origins with biblical Adam. But beyond that, the details of the story are particularly strange. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 8a says that surrounding the winter solstice, there was an ancient holiday that was originally founded to worship God, and later became coopted by pagans and false religions as a day of worship for their deities. Thus, the rabbis retroject our reality– living in a world full of Christmas advertisements during the Chanukah season– all the way back to the times of Adam.

The Midrash in Avodah Zarah explains that Adam had been living on Earth for a few months when he realized that the hours of daylight had been getting progressively shorter and shorter. When winter came, and there were merely a few hours of daylight in a given day, Adam feared that the world was in decline, and there were only a few weeks or months left until the end of the world. Surely, daylight would get shorter and shorter until there was nothing but darkness. Thus, Adam fasted and prayed to God for eight days and nights. After eight days, the winter solstice had passed, and Adam realized that the days were getting longer again. Adam concluded that God must have designed the world to work in a cycle, where the days get shorter and longer, and the world is safe from destruction. To celebrate, Adam created a holiday. Every year, during the darkest week of the winter, Adam would light candles for eight consecutive nights to commemorate his eight days and nights of fasting, and to thank God for maintaining the world. While this Midrash does not mention Chanukah by name, it’s content is beyond clear. The Rabbis are describing the very first Chanukah celebration, and– shockingly– locating  it all the way back to the time of Adam.  

Similarly, the Yerushalmi in Berachot (60b) tells us another story about Adam’s early days on Earth– but this time, with a different focus. Between the thematic and textual parallels, there’s little doubt that these two stories are both parts of a larger genre of rabbinic Adam stories, and thus, are being grouped together, despite their disparate placement in the rabbinic canon. But this time, the story plays out slightly differently. The Yerushalmi says that at the end of Adam’s first day alive, he saw that the light was waning, and it was beginning to be dark. Adam, having never experienced night before, feared that the darkness meant God was about to kill him and destroy creation! But, as it grew dark, God showed Adam two pieces of flint and taught Adam how to make fire. Thus, equipped with fire, Adam– our Jewish Prometheus– was prepared for the cold darkness of night, and able to protect himself. Since we know Adam was created on the sixth day, his first full day must have been Shabbos. Thus, the Yerushalmi concludes that this episode with Adam must have taken place Saturday night, and serves as the historical basis for our practice of lighting a fire at Havdalah. To commemorate the very first Saturday night in human history, where God showed man how to make fire, every Saturday night in perpetuity, we Jews light a fire as part of our Havdalah ceremony Saturday night. 

Thus, we see the undeniable parallel between these two stories. Both stories feature a young Adam, new to Earth, unfamiliar with how creation works, and afraid that the natural processes of day and night, and darkness and light, somehow indicate an existential threat. Yet, perhaps more telling than these similarities, the parallel between these two stories highlight the differences between them. While in the Chanukah story, Adam’s reaction is to pray and fast, in the Havdalah story, Adam is equipped with flint to create fire for himself. And, following this difference, while the conclusion of the Chanukah story is Adam’s recognition that God has a plan to how he runs the world, and Adam can feel secure in God’s grasp, the conclusion of the Havdalah story features no holiday in God’s honor, but rather, Adam’s ability to take care of himself. 

Indeed, this seems to be the core difference between the two stories. In the Chanukah story, Adam is depicted as helpless, and God as the savior. Adam thinks he is going to be destroyed, prays and fasts to God, realizes God has a plan for how to run the world, and commemorates his previous anxious prayers as a future holiday of thanksgiving and appreciation to God. In the Havdalah story, while God still obviously plays a role and ultimately shows Adam the flint he uses to make fire, Adam is depicted as much more active. He does not pray or fast, but rather, solves his problem. He creates fire and cares for himself, albeit with God’s help. Thus, fittingly, the takeaway for future generations is not a holiday thanking God, but rather, a practice commemorating Adam– as we light a fire Motzi Shabbat to reenact Adam’s Promethean Havdallah. 

This difference between the two stories is not merely coincidental, but lies at the heart of an important contrast the tradition is trying to make. Chanukah, and its associated Mitzvot and observances, is a holiday dedicated to God’s role in Jewish history, as he miraculously protects the Jewish people and pulls the strings for his, often obfuscated, divine plan. Indeed, we know that despite the major role humans played in the holiday– raising an army and successfully rebelling against the world’s largest empire of the time– the rabbis in the Gemara don’t even mention the military battles as part of the holiday, instead emphasizing the miraculous oil that God allowed to burn for eight days. The rabbinic conception of Chanukah, thus, represents for us a recognition and appreciation for God’s hand in the world– as he miraculously bends the rules of nature in the case of the burning oil, and, as is the case in the Adam story, at other times maintains complex systems of nature in order to ensure life. 

All of this stands in stark contrast to the Havdalah story. It is no coincidence that Chazal’s recounting of the creation of fire parallels the story of Prometheus, as, much like Prometheus was disparaged and ultimately punished by the Greek gods of myth for his act of radical independence when he introduced man to fire, so too, Adam is staking out an independent way for humanity to take care of itself during the cold and dark nights where God often feels so far. However, unlike the Greek myth, the divine authority is not angry when faced with a reality of a self-sufficient humanity, but rather, proud. God teaches Adam how to use fire so that he can be independent, and not need God to fulfill his most basic needs. Thus, the story of Adam’s first Havdalah represents man’s ingenuity and ability  to take care of himself– a distinctly opposing message from that of the seemingly parallel Chanukah story.

Thus, the rabbis group together Chanukah candles and Havdalah to flesh out a fluid and complex spectrum of competing beliefs. On the one hand, Chanukah represents to us the idea of dependence on the divine and trust in God’s plan. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Havdalah represents rugged individualism and human self-sufficiency– also a value in God’s eyes. Indeed, these two opposing meanings are in fact expressed in perhaps the largest halakhic difference between these two Mitzvot. While the candles we light for Chanukah are Assur BeHana’ah, and prohibited from providing us any personal benefit beyond the ritual observance, the candle we light for Havdalah has only fulfilled its job if one has put his hands up close to it and personally benefited from its heat and light. Thus, the Halakhot represent the philosophical distinction, as Chanukah represents the distant and unobtainable elements of God and his divine plan, while Havdalah stands as a weekly reminder for man’s need to be able to be self sufficient, as the end of the weekend connotes one’s need to take care of one’s self and one’s family in the coming week. 

Thus, we can now return to our initial question. Why is it so controversial whether to light Chanukah candles or the Havdalah candle first? Because these two Mitzvot represent two completely opposing values. The question of which comes first is a question of which outlook and perspective should be prioritized. Do we fundamentally lean towards passivity and faith in the face of challenges, or do we rely upon our own human ingenuity and capability? Do we prioritize the distant and forbidden light of the Chanukah candles? Or do we first warm ourselves and fortify our families for the coming week by the heat of the Havdalah candles? Of course a question of such great important would inspire such immense controversy! 

Given this understanding of the stakes, we can now understand our own practice. How can we, inconsistently, light Chanukah candles first in Shul but recite Havdalah first at home? We are recognizing that questions of competing values and priorities are nuanced and complicated, and have to be sensitive to the context. In a Shul setting, of course faith and helpless devotion should be a priority. We come together in Shul to pray together and hone our spiritual sensibilities! In such a setting, surely the prohibited light of the spiritual Chanukah candles prevails. But at home, when we are in our own domains, and responsible for our own well being, we have to prioritize the light of Havdalah before acknowledging the message of Chanukah. Only once we have fortified ourselves and our households for the coming week of work and human labor, are we able to then reflect upon the background reassurance of the divine plan, as represented by Chanukah candles. 

Thus, we see that the Halakha is not only controversial and complicated, but deeply meaningful. Let us push ourselves to see the weekly light of Havdalah, and the special candles of Chanukah, not merely as obligations or ritual acts, but expressions of our religious commitments and life perspective. But more than that, let us make the most of tonight, as we light our Havdalah wicks and Chanukah candles together, to live a complex life, dedicated not to one extreme or the other, but a commitment to balance, as we work to maintain the multiplicity of values inherent in the Torah, and balance our own drive and need for personal initiative with the constant awareness of the larger divine arc we are all a part of. 

December 5th, 2020: Vayishlach

One of the Torah’s more puzzling stories, Jacob’s struggle with an angel before meeting his brother Eisav poses many difficulties. Why is an angel mysteriously appearing just to wrestle with Yaakov? Why is his name changed? What was Yaakov doing alone at night? Why is Yaakov injured, why is that injury so momentous it is commemorated for all of Jewish history in the laws of Gid HaNasheh, the prohibition to eat the sciatic nerve? The entire story begs for explanation. 

Our rabbis picked up on this ambiguity and tried to fill in some of the blanks. One famous Midrash explains that Yaakov had crossed his entire family over the Yabok river, but had forgotten some small jars for which he would have to return. While the imagery of Yaakov returning in the dark of night for small jars invokes the later themes of the Maccabees lighting up the long winter night with a small jar of pure olive oil, the text does not seem to be as supportive of the seasonal connection. Indeed, the text seems to indicate that Yaakov and his entire camp went to bed that night, and Yaakov alone awoke in the middle of the night to cross the Yabok river. The text tells us that Yaakov went to sleep with the rest of the camp and awoke in the middle of the night. Unless Yaakov was so wracked with anxiety over those jars that he couldn’t fall asleep, this hardly seems like the description of a quick trip to pick up a forgotten jar. So why is Yaakov sneaking around at night? 

The Rashbam sees Yaakov’s sneaking around alone at night as the key to understanding this entire story. According to the Rashbam, the Torah emphasizes that Yaakov is alone at night as a way of communicating that Yaakov was trying to flee from Eisav in the middle of the night, when no one would see him run. Indeed, this read makes sense with the flow of the story as, until Yaakov’s unexpected nighttime river-crossing, the reader had been given a very clear and detailed description of Yaakov’s preparations and three-part plan for meeting his brother Eisav. After detailing that meticulous plan and its reasoning, all of a sudden we are surprised with an impromptu scene of Yaakov sneaking around at night. Rather than assume that this too was part of the plan, but we merely didn’t hear about it, it makes sense to read this passage in light of the Rashbam. Yaaov wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, and, despite his planning and previous composure, gives in to his weaker urges and attempts to flee in the cover of dark, leaving his family behind him. 

Given this understanding of Yaakov’s river crossing, the story with the angel takes on a new light as well. The angel is sent not to arbitrarily wrestle Yaakov to force him to prove his strength. Rather, the angel is sent to stop Yaakov from running away and to force him to confront his struggles. Thus, the Torah emphasizes that the angel damages Yaakov’s heel and leaves him with a limp. On a strictly literal level, this injury renders Yaakov physically impaired and incapable of running away as he was initially planning, forcing him to meet Eisav and confront his brother. But in addition to that functional role in the story, the angel’s injury of Yaakov’s heel is a symbolic expression of the character development Yaakov is experiencing. We know from the very moment Yaakov is born, he is named after the Eikev, the heel, as he was born grabbing on to Eisav’s heel, as if to fight him for the birthright. This role of Yaakov as the deceptive younger brother nipping at Eisav’s heels is expressed doubly by the name Yaakov as, in addition to meaning heel, the root word “Eikev” also means deception or trickery– as Eisav reminds us after finding out his blessing was stolen when he says that Yaakov has “Yaakveini,” tricked me. 

Thus, by damaging Yaakov’s heel, the angel is both literally impairing Yaakov’s physical ability to run away, and symbolically attacking the part of Yaakov that opts for deception and trickery over honest confrontation. The angel renders Yaakov’s heel non-functional, symbolically rendering the persona of Yaakov the trickster as no longer relevant. The Yaakov that remains will no longer grab at Eisav’s heels or sneak around at night. Indeed, the man that remains is so different and distinct from the heel-named Yaakov that the angel concludes that he surely needs a new name to reflect his new character. Thus, Yaakov is renamed Yisrael, the officer of God, for he has the strength to wrestle with internal demons and face difficult situations. 

In light of the Rashbam’s interpretation, the story of Yaakov and the angel serves as an important reminder of the need to face our demons– or angels– and confront the lurking issues we struggle with. While it is so often tempting in life to give in to the urge of Yaakov, and to try and sneak away in the cover of dark, the Torah reminds us that the engine of Jewish history is propelled forward by those moments where people fought that urge and did the hard work of confronting their challenges. While it is surely relatable to feel overwhelmed and want to shy away from addressing difficult internal issues– as even Yaakov Avinu found himself giving in to that relatable human urge to flee from Eisav and not confront his childhood family issues– progress can only come through the difficult work of confrontation. 

Yet, while all of that is true, and is an important message to internalize, I want to focus on one particular detail of this story. In a very unusual characterization, right before the angel attacks Yaakov, the Torah tells us that Yaakov was alone– VaYivateir Yaakov Livado, and Jacob remained alone. I think the Torah is emphasizing to us that this entire situation– where Yaakov attempted to run away from his problems and gave in to his worst urges– was only possible because he was alone. He had a complicated family life, with warring wives, jealous children, and much disunity, and it is not surprising that, when faced with confronting his childhood problems with family, Yaakov finds himself alone, with no confidant or friend to confide in or help him. While it is true that this story presents us with a powerful tale of confronting one’s demons and working through struggle, that struggle was only possible and necessary because Yaakov found himself awake in the middle of the night alone. 

While we here at Stanton, living in a pandemic that feels endless and starting a winter season where the nighttime feels similarly interminable, can surely relate to Yaakov’s feelings of nighttime anxiety and struggle, we, unlike Yaakov, do not have to experience it alone. While in some ways this pandemic has dismantled the machinery of our community, leaving us without our regular programming and operations, in other ways it has given us the opportunity to show how our community really shines. The core pillars of community– supporting one another, sharing values and passions, and coming together for important ends– have been given a stress test by the immense need COVID has put upon us all, and so many find themselves feeling alone, isolated, or struggling. During this time, it’s essential to lean on your community and let us all support one another. 

In that vein, this Wednesday night at 7 PM, instead of my regular Tefillah Shiur there will be a special mental health event on Zoom with Dr. Michelle Friedman. We will discuss together as a community some of the struggles we have experienced so far, talk about tools and ways to cope in preparation for the potential many more months of COVID winter, and strengthen the bonds and ties that form our community. I urge everybody in our Stanton community to make every effort to attend, as the subject matter is so important for all of us, and as these are the moments that truly define what kind of community we choose to be. Hopefully this week’s Parshah will inspire us to live up to our namesake as the children of Israel, and to develop the courage to have hard conversations and struggle with tough realities, but without the need to go it alone. 

November 28th, 2020: Vayetzei

It’s a little known fact that, growing up, I was a huge Kanye West fan. While, lately, Kanye has become an even more political and complicated figure, back in the day, I loved his music and general wackiness. One set of headlines that I remember being the butt of endless jokes was Kanye’s naming choices for his kids, choosing the names North, Saint, Chicago, and I think most recently Psalm. While those names all seem unusual, Kanye explained how each one represented what the birth meant to him and his family. North represented a high point in their life, Saint was a blessing, Chicago was a return to family and family roots, and Psalm I don’t really know. Kanye’s a little too “preachy televangelist” for me these days. Yet, while Kanye received a lot of flack for his ego-centric naming conventions, when we turn towards this week’s Parashah, we see a somewhat similar idea.

The first three of Leah’s children all seem to be named after her personal experience of grief. Reuvein is named after God seeing her pain and giving her a child to make her husband love her more. Shimon is because God heard that Leah is hated by her husband and gave her another son to try and fix it. Levi is named after Leah’s desperation, as after her third child she exclaims that surely now her husband must escort her and give her intimate attention, as she is the mother of three of his children. All three of these names share an inward focus and a tragic meaning, as they reflect Leah’s feelings of inadequacy as she feels unloved by her husband.

Yet, after Leah’s fourth child, we see a sudden shift, and Leah takes her fourth son’s name in a different direction. Leah names her fourth son Yehudah, saying “הפעם אודה את ה׳,” “this time I will thank God.” What happened that all of a sudden Leah changed her tone and perspective, and decided to think not of her own grief, but of her appreciation to God? And moreover, if Leah was so appreciative of having children, why didn’t she name one of her earlier children after that thankfulness? Why did she wait until her fourth child?

Interestingly, the Baalei HaTosafot avoid this question altogether by interpreting the word אודה in Yehudah’s name as meaning “admit” and not “thank,” as the Hebrew root has multiple meanings. They explain that Leah named Yehudah after his future episode with his daughter-in-law Tamar, in which Yehudah dramatically admitted that he was wrong and Tamar was right. In other words, Yehudah is not named after thankfulness at all, and thus, there is no question as to why now, all of a sudden, Leah is so appreciative.
The vast majority of other commentaries, though, understand Yehudah’s name as being a statement of thanks. So why is Leah thankful now all of a sudden? The Midrash tries to answer this question by explaining that Leah had seen, through Ruach HaKodesh, that there were destined to be 12 tribes from her, her sister Racheil, and their handmaidens. Leah figured each of the four of them would have three children, and equally contribute to the Jewish future. Once she had Yehudah, her fourth son, she realized she was destined to have a great role in the formation of the 12 tribes and thanked God for the privilege.

This approach certainly answers our questions, but it makes a host of strange assumptions. Not only did Leah have a secret divine premonition, but she had a particularly vague one. It was clear that there would be the highly specific 12 children across four mothers, yet conveniently left out who would mother how many. Thus, while we can sympathize with the difficulties the Midrash is trying to address, its answer leaves us with a host of different unresolved questions.

The Ibn Ezra tries to answer this question by explaining that, even without Ruach HaKodesh, after having four children Leah had decided that she was done having kids. Leah had had four kids in four years and figured that she had had enough. Thus, having decided to stop having children, Leah turned toward God and used her baby’s name as an opportunity to thank God for the children she had.

While the Ibn Ezra’s answer also addresses our questions, it is a bit surprising. First of all, nowhere in the text is there any indication that Leah decided to stop having children with the birth of Yehudah. But beyond that, Leah later goes on to have two more children! Perhaps, one could explain that Leah thought that she was going to be done having children, and named Yehudah after that expectation, as indeed we see Leah giving her handmaid over to Yaakov as she figures she can no longer procreate. But either way, this explanation along with the Midrash before it leaves Yehudah’s name as a relic of history, as it represents Leah’s mistaken impression that this was her last child.

Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, the Maharam Schick presents a totally different interpretation of Leah’s words as she names Yehudah. The Maharah Schick explains that “הפעם אודה את ה׳” is actually a rhetorical statement. Leah says rhetorically “This time I’m going to thank God?” In other words, Leah recognizes that this is now already her fourth child, and she has been blessed with so much. How could she possibly have waited so long to thank God! Only now, this time, I will thank God? Therefore, says the Maharam Schick, Leah names her son Yehudah as a constant living reminder of her need to be thankful. Thus, Yehudah does not mark a particular moment of thanksgiving or praise, but lives as a lesson and a reminder to the namer, that appreciation and thanksgiving is not merely an action that we value in a specific moment. It is not only when one is finished that they turn and say thank you, nor is thanksgiving defined by a specific requirement or Chiyuv. Rather, much like a name, appreciation follows us throughout our life and colors our perspective, as an appreciative lifestyle requires one to be attuned to the world around themself, understanding the many things they have to be thankful for, and appreciating those who work and sacrifice to enable that life.

Indeed, some of the discussion that has come up over the halakhic permissibility of celebrating Thanksgiving surrounds this very point. Many religious critics of Thanksgiving point out that in Judaism, appreciation and thanksgiving should not be reserved for one particular day or one moment. Every day is thanksgiving, they say, as Judaism has an expansive sense of appreciation that permeates our prayers every day, and our experience every moment. And yet, I stand here today as a proud turkey eater and Thanksgiving lover, not only because of the great food, but out of a wholesale rejection of this approach.

The lesson of Yehudah, according to the Maharam Schick, is not that “every day is Thanksgiving.” Rather, the Maharam Schick’s point is that being thankful and appreciative is a lifestyle and perspective that colors your everyday experience. Leah names Yehudah after her own failing as a constant reminder, day after day, to live an appreciative lifestyle. And yet, while your lifestyle and perspective may color your daily experience, it certainly does not preclude one from seeking out actions, holidays, and opportunities to re-center and re-dedicate ourselves to our valued lifestyle and goals. Being Bnei and Banot Torah, dedicated to Torah values, is certainly a lifestyle and perspective, and yet we celebrate Torah and our relationship to it every Simchat Torah and Shavuot. Being Ovdei Hashem, dedicated to serving God and God alone, is an essential part of our identity and our worldview, and yet every Pesach we celebrate that very notion.

Thus, rather than not celebrating Thanksgiving since Judaism doesn’t have only one day dedicated to being thankful, the most Jewish observance of all would be to celebrate Thanksgiving and not let it be only one day. Rather than a commercial 24 hour period of sales, football, and hollow gestures of patriotism, our commitment to Judaism and Torah values compels us to view Thanksgiving as an opportunity to recharge and reorient ourselves towards a lifelong goal of living a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. Thanksgiving should be our booster shot of thankfulness, that carries us into the long winter, and helps transform our day to day lives and experiences into those characterized by a sensitivity to and appreciation of the world around us.

To that end, our Stanton Community, being a community and not just a house of minyan, has beautiful opportunities to embody a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. This past Sunday, Brina Chu led a group of Stanton volunteer’s in the Shul’s first Chesed/Social Action event of the season. We expressed our thanksgiving and appreciation to essential workers around the community by baking and distributing treats to local workers. While this event has already passed, there will be many more opportunities to show our appreciation in the future. If you are interested in getting involved with the Stanton Chessed/Social Action committee, take this opportunity to reach out and get involved.

Similarly, I want to call everyone’s attention to an upcoming opportunity to express our thanks and appreciation. This Tuesday night, at 8 PM, we will be hosting an Eruv fundraiser over Zoom, with a presentation by former YU Museum curator Zachary Levine, as he discusses the exhibit he curated about the historical development of the New York Eruv and its sociological impact on the New York Jewish community. The Eruv is one of the most essential and least visible pillars of our Shabbat experience, and as such, is easily taken for granted. This Eruv Drive presents all of us with an opportunity to express our appreciation and give back, by donating funds to support the continued maintenance and upkeep of the downtown Eruv that supports all of us. Please attend the event Tuesday night and learn about the essential social and cultural role the Eruv plays in the New York Jewish community more broadly, and about the role The Stanton Street Shul and the Lower East Side played in particular in this fascinating story of the New York Eruv. Even if you cannot attend the event, feel free to donate through the Shul to support the Eruv.

Together, through seeking out opportunities to internalize, reflect, and embody thankfulness– be they a meaningful Thanksgiving celebration, a powerful Chesed event, or even a modest but appreciative donation– we can create a community that not only acts thankful, but learns the lesson of Yehudah, and sees every day as an opportunity to live a thankful and appreciative life, as we thank God, our community, and those around us for the many gifts we all share.

November 20th, 2020: Toldot

The drama in the room is high when Yaakov, covered in goat fur and his brother’s clothing, enters into his father’s room pretending to be Eisav. The tension is pushed to its peak when Yitzchak observes that, despite the hairy hands, “the voice is the voice of Jacob.” Ultimately, Yitzchak is fooled and Yaakov succeeds in stealing his brother’s blessing from his father, and slips out through a back exit mere moments before Eisav shows up and demands his blessing. And yet, while this story is familiar to us by now, in the moment, it all must have seemed so bizarre. How could it be that this is God’s will? Why did God orchestrate the events of Jewish history such that Jacob had to deceive his father and steal Eisav’s blessing in order to carry on the religious mantle of Avraham and Yitzchak? 

While many of us grew up on this story, and are used to the foregone conclusion that Yaakov had to steal Eisav’s blessing, and that events had to play out this way, it may not, in fact, be so clear. Later on in the Torah, Yaakov’s son Yosef is sold into bondage in Egypt, and Yaakov is told that he was killed by a wild animal. Rashi (Bereishit 37:34) quotes a Midrash that says that Yaakov suffered 22 years thinking Yosef was dead, as a punishment for the 22 years Yaakov lived with Lavan and neglected his responsibility to honor his father and mother. In other words, according to this Midrash, Yaakov is punished for running away from home! But how could this be? If Yaakov had to steal the blessing from Eisav to be the leader of the Jewish people, thus angering Eisav and threatening his own life, how could he be punished for fleeing and protecting himself?

Rabbeinu Bachya (b. Asher 13th c. Spain) gives a technical explanation, saying that while Yaakov had to run away to protect himself from Eisav, he didn’t have to run away quite so long. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, Rivkah’s initial plan was simply for Yaakov to lay low for a few days, maybe meet and marry Leah while he was with Lavan, and then return when things blew over. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, while it’s true that Yaakov had to run away to avoid Eisav after stealing his blessing, Yaakov’s sin was the length of time he was absent. 

However, I think there may be another approach latent in the Midrashim. ֵThe Midrash Tanchuma Yashan (VaYeitzei 11) also ses Yaakov as suffering as a side effect of stealing Eisav’s blessing. However, the Tanchuma Yashan has a slightly different focus. According to this Midrash, after Lavan tricks Yaakov into marrying Leah before Racheil, Yaakov and Leah begin to quarrel. Yaakov is outraged that he was tricked, and he accuses Leah and her father of being dishonest. Leah shoots back at Yaakov that she is no more dishonest than Yaakov is himself, as he tricked his father into giving him Eisav’s blessings. In other words, in Leah’s criticism we see that Yaakov’s misdeed was not merely the length of his absence, but the deceit and the thievery itself, as Yaakov lied and stole his way to Eisav’s blessing. That being the case, we get an entirely different image of the scene at the end of our Parashah. This is not a tense moment of narrow victory in Jewish history, but rather, a shameful airing of Jewish failings, as Yaakov sinfully deceives Yitzchak and steals that which is not rightfully his. 

Indeed, in a broader context, this characterization of Yaakov as sinfully deceptive makes some amount of sense, as Yaakov is repeatedly characterized by his trickiness. We know Yaakov is named for a moment during his birth, in which he grabbed on to the heel (Eikev) of Eisav– as if to fight him for the right to be the first born. However, Eisav reminds us that that heel (Eikav) shares its etymological root with the biblical word for trickery, as he tells us that Yaakov has Yaakveinu, tricked me, after learning that his blessing has been stolen. As such, it is no surprise to see the Midrash similarly reprimanding Yaakov for his trickiness.

But surely Yaakov, and not Eisav, was the next link in the chain of tradition from Avraham, and was rightfully charged with leading the Jewish people! Didn’t Yaakov need the blessing to be bestowed with the blessing of his father, and his father’s father, and to carry on the Jewish faith? A closer look at the text might indicate otherwise. While we often think of the “blessing of the firstborn” as Avraham’s blessing that God gave him, and later passed down to Yitzchak, a careful read of the Torah indicates that there are actually two distinct blessings. First, there is the blessing of the first born (Bereishit 27:28-29)– which Yaakov steals from Eisav– which is a brief two lines about economic and political success. Yitzchak blesses Yaakov, who he thinks is Eisav, with a blessing of great harvests and political greatness, as enemies should be few and far between. 

Then, after Yitzchak learns of what has happened and Yaakov is about ready to flee, Yitzchak gives him a second blessing (Bereishit 28:3-4). Here, Yitzchak tells Yaakov, “and God should give you and your children the blessing of Avraham, to inherit the land of your dwelling which God gave to Avraham.” In other words, it is only after Yitzchak learns of what has happened, and now knows that he is speaking to Yaakov, that the idea of “Avraham’s blessing” is ever invoked. Both in the initial blessing Yitzchak gave, mistakenly thinking he was blessing Eisav, and in the consolation blessing Yitzchak ultimately scrapes up for Eisav, there is no mention of Avraham, God’s promise, or the land of Israel. It is only here, when Yaakov is about to leave Israel and risk not returning, that Yitzchak reveals to him that he is the carrier of Avraham’s tradition and that this land will be his. 

Thus, it becomes clear that the blessing that Yaakov stole– of great harvest and great national power– had nothing to do with the religious charge and the divine blessing that was initially bestowed to Avraham! It was merely a paternal wish for financial success for the firstborn– similar to how the laws of primogeniture guaranteed material and economic dominion over the estate to the eldest son at the time. Yaakov– in part inspired by the fears of his worried mother Rivkah– unnecessarily steals Eisav’s blessing of material success, justifying it as a necessary step to support the Jewish people. In reality, though, it was not a necessary step at all! None of this had to happen, if Yaakov merely understood his father’s relationship with Eisav better, and respected it, trusting that he would lead the Jewish people, and Yitzchak would find an appropriate role for Eisav to thrive in. However, Yaakov and Rivkah were so sure of their divine mandate and divine mission that they ultimately got ahead of themselves and took radical action, lying to Yitzchak, stealing from Eisav, and feeling the painful ramifications of their actions for decades to come.

There are many lessons to be learned from Yaakov’s mistake. For example, we see that the national success of the Jewish people does not need to be tied to material wealth and power, and need not come at the expense of our competitors or even our enemies. Eisav could have been blessed with wealth and political might, and still Yaakov could have succeeded as the leader of the Jewish people. Indeed, when Yaakov and Eisav later cross paths, Eisav has in fact expanded into a large and powerful nation, and it does not detract from Yaakov’s trajectory as the father of the Jewish people. Rather than being motivated by our relative national ranking, our priorities as a people and as a nation should not be to do better than others, or to grow our own wealth, but to carry on the tradition of Avraham and the mission given over by God.

But in addition to that point, the story of Yaakov at the end of our Parashah reminds us of how easy it is to be swept up in a moment of self-confidence. Yaakov was sure that he was on the right side of history, and in a panicked rush, he and his mother took dramatic action that ultimately led to much pain and suffering that, perhaps, could have been avoided. It is important and commendable to stand for things and to have a sense of moral compass and direction. But we must remain careful not to allow our strong sense of right and wrong to lead to hasty or morally empty actions. If even Yaakov and Rivkah can succumb to pressure and slip up in a moment of moral self-assuredness, all the more so we should remain vigilant. It is only if we are able to check ourselves and be sure that, despite moral self confidence, the actions we are taking and the opinion we are committing to are actually necessary and just, that we can be sure to avoid the tendencies of radicalism that often lead astray those who are charged with a powerful sense of mission and purpose. Only then will we be able to grow as Ovdei Hashem and work to actualize God’s mission of a more just and compassionate world. 

 

November 13th, 2020: Chayei Sarah

 

Those of you who tuned in to our first Parashah Shiur of the year (Tuesday nights at 7 pm on Zoom!) will have heard our discussion this week about the various themes surrounding the story of Avraham’s burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah goes into unusual detail surrounding the logistics, preparations, and specificities of Avraham’s acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah. Ultimately, the Torah spends nearly an entire chapter describing Avraham’s haggling with the Hittites and Efron– their local council member– before telling us that Avraham finalized the purchase and buried Sarah in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah. Why does the Torah need an entire chapter to convey these mundane details? When Racheil dies, we aren’t given any elaborate details about Yaakov’s acquisition and burial of her in Kever Rachel? Why is this story of Sarah’s burial so important?

In the Parashah Shiur, we identified two major themes that emerged in this section of burying Sarah. On one level, this story is a testament to Avraham and Sarah’s relationship. As a couple, Avraham and Sarah have been through the world together. They were together before God ever spoke to Avraham, and remained together through famine, familial struggles, barrenness, war, wandering, and much more. They forged an exceptionally deep bond as a couple– as reflected in the various Midrashim about the pivotal role Sarah played in creating the unique spirituality of Avraham’s tent, and in helping him preach to and convert the masses. Chazal tell us that Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women– a statement of how closely they worked together, merging their mission and purpose in life with the powerful emotional connection that bonded them.

Indeed, we quoted the commentary of Benno Jacob who sees the burial of Sarah as a story giving us insight into the deep personal relationship between Avraham and Sarah. Sarah is the first major biblical character to have a death and post-death fall out. Whereas, until now, biblical characters merely died in the background, with their years of death mentioned in long lists of genealogies, Sarah’s death exists in the foreground of the story, as the Torah’s focus and message here is about how to properly deal with the death of a beloved. Indeed, it’s unsurprising that Chazal reference this story in their discussion of a spouse’s burial responsibilities, and Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Rambam, views this story as the earliest source for our mourning customs. Clearly, one major theme in this story is the personal and intimate nature of Avraham and Sarah’s relationship, and the moving outpouring of emotion triggered within Avraham by the loss of his beloved wife. 

And yet, at the same time that a deeply personal and emotional story is being played out in the foreground, in the background of this story is an important foundational tale for the Jewish nation and its divine mission. At the same time that this story tells us about the great lengths Avraham was willing to go to to bury Sarah, it also serves as a receipt and a record of Avraham’s first purchase of land in Israel. Thereby, the small and personal tale of loss is merged with a pivotal moment in the historic trajectory of the Jewish people’s national development, as the burial spot that Avraham lovingly selects for Sarah is also the earliest spot of Jewish land in Israel, and thereby, a foundational backbone for the larger Jewish nation and its historical mission. Thus, in addition to being a story of a husband losing a wife, this section in the Torah is also a foundational tale of how the memorialization of our first matriarch laid the groundwork for the Jewish nation and Jewish country that would later thrive from her descendants. 

It is fitting that we read this story of Avraham burying and eulogizing Sarah this Shabbat– indeed, the very basis for much of the halakhot and Jewish practice surrounding burial and eulogizing–  merely days after the Jewish world experienced immense loss with the passing of Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. While these two Torah personalities were hugely different in their focus, the role they played in the community, and what they meant for us here in Stanton Street, there’s no denying that they both were pivotal figures in the development of the Jewish people. 

On the one hand, Rav Dovid represents to us the story of the Jewish nation and its historical development. Much like the memorialization of Sarah on Hittite land laid an important foundation for the Jewish community to grow and thrive– establishing Israel as the rightfully purchased birthplace of our national narrative, and eventually pushing its boundaries well beyond that little plot of land to the rest of the land of Israel– Rav Dovid played an important historical and foundational role for the American Jewish people. Rav Dovid served as an essential link to his father and his father’s generation, as the Feinstein family laid the groundwork for much of what would become modern American Orthodoxy. 

While Stanton Street in particular may have a complex and confusing personal relationship with Rav Dovid– at times punctuated with pain or ideological conflict– there is no question of the larger national role he played for the Jewish people. Without the immense dedication of him and his family, the small plot of Jewish land in the Lower East Side would never have thrived, much less expanded out beyond its boundaries to the rest of New York, and the rest of America. And, perhaps most impressively, Rav Dovid was able to fulfill that role as a national figure and as one of the carriers of our Mesorah, serving as an essential link in the chain of tradition, all the while maintaining intimate and meaningful personal relationships with the Jews and followers in his immediate community. Perhaps the most amazing feature of Rav Dovid’s leadership was his ability to balance the impressive legacy and broad influence he had with his love of and dedication to Lower East Side Jewry. Despite being a renowned Poseik and standard bearer for Rav Moshe’s legacy, R’ Dovid never lost his passion and investment in his local Yeshiva, Shuls, and followers. There is no doubt that Rav Dovid was a Lower East Sider. Because, as we see from Avraham and Sarah, the grand mission of Judaism– of actualizing God’s just and peaceful vision for the world– starts with personal and intimate relationships. 

At the same time that we mourn the tragic loss of Rav Dovid– one of the historic standard bearers of Orthodoxy– our hearts are overfilled by the painful loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In many ways, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is a foil to that of Rav Dovid. While Rav Dovid represents the historic trajectory of the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks– with his reimagining of the Chief Rabbinate as an opportunity to spread inspiring Judaism to the broader less religiously engaged world– represents the power of novelty and innovation in promulgating Jewish values. And, while my personal relationship with Rav Dovid– and I suspect this is true of many in this room– was ideologically complicated and distant, my relationship to Rabbi Sacks and his Torah felt more simple and intimate, colored by moving words and powerful emotion. This is due in part because of the unexpected nature of the loss, but also because of the radically different personality and contributions of Rabbi Sacks.

I remember in my junior year of high school, around Parashat VaYakheil, my art history teacher played a clip of Rabbi Sacks discussing the artistry that went in to the design of the Mishkan, and related it to a piece by Rav Kook reflecting upon the divinity in Rembrant’s art. The moving and spiritual way in which Rabbi Sacks spoke about beauty and aesthetics taught me an entirely new mode of Judaism– one that is sensitive, spiritual, and unafraid of being intimately emotional. This penchant for pulling at the heart strings and making even the most remote philosophical or theological concept an inspiring and moving call to arms characterized much of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah. For many of us in the room here, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is not only the loss of a major national figure– a communal loss for the corporate Jewish people– but a personal one, as we invited Rabbi Sacks to join us at our Shabbat table every week, as we read his weekly Divrei Torah and deeply identified with his sense of Jewish identity and mission. 

And so, in the face of this immense loss– suffering nationally as we say goodbye to the carriers of our tradition, and hurting personally as we lose role models that many of us felt personally close to– I am at a loss of words. Nothing I can say can sufficiently do justice to these two figures, and surely I am not the right person to attempt to. And so, I’d like to conclude with a passage by Rabbi Sacks himself:

"There is death, yes, but there is also continuity. We are never privileged to complete the task, but others will take it on and move a little closer to fulfillment. So long as there is a covenant between the dead, the living, and those not yet born, mortality is redeemed from tragedy. The dead live on in us, as we will live on in our children or in those whose lives we touched. As dust dissolves in living water, so death dissolves in the stream of life itself."

May their memories be a blessing. 

 

November 6th, 2020: Vayera

Surely the story of Lot must be one of the quickest falls from grace we see in the Torah. When we first meet Lot, he is a foster son and a ward of Avraham, joining him on his adventures and partaking in Avraham’s larger divine mission. After a seemingly small dispute over appropriate grazing practices, Avraham and Lot decide to split up. At this point, we still haven’t really seen any bad action on Lot’s part beyond a seemingly calm disagreement with Avraham. Ultimately, Lot decides to move to Sodom due to its economic success, as it has fruitful land full of produce and greenery, due to the geography of the land and its water access. 

While the educated reader, knowing full well that Sodom is later doomed to destruction as a center of depravity, may judge Lot for this decision, at face value, Lot is not to blame for moving to Sodom. Avraham was given the mission of settling Israel, not Lot. It hardly seems his fault that he would choose an economically comfortable land to move to, as who amongst us can confidently say we would have made a different choice given the same opportunity. 

That said, it is clear that there is a certain amount of perversion to Lot’s otherwise generally good character. When the angels first visit Lot, Lot demonstrates his laudable hospitality, a trait he surely learned from Avraham. And when the people of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand he relinquish his guests to a violent mob, we again see Lot’s commitment to his guests’ comfort, as he takes every measure within his means to protect his guests. And yet, here we begin to see signs of something being wrong, as part of Lot’s efforts to protect his guests involve offering his daughters up to the violent crowd in the angels’ stead. While perhaps Lot’s intent was in a good place, his actual suggestion was reprehensible– a clear corruption or perversion of Avraham’s values.

This perversion follows Lot in his story. Following Sodom’s destruction, angels take Lot and his daughters to a nearby hilltop to safely wait out the end of the destruction. There, alone with no one else but their father, Lot’s two daughters take turns taking advantage of their father as he sleeps, ultimately becoming pregnant and giving birth two two children– Amon and Moav, the national forefathers of the two border nations that would develop outside of Israel. Again we see an act of perversion surrounding Lot and his relationship with his daughters. Whereas in the first instance, Lot offered his daughters to strange and violent men, here, Lot creates a environment and household where acts such as rape and incest are thought to be tolerable.

However, even this reprehensible act of Lot’s daughters came with its own attempt at doing the right thing. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that while they knew that rape and incest were both forbidden, they feared that the destruction they had just witnessed in Sodom was more widespread, and that they may have been the only survivors left. Indeed, in many ways this is understandable, as the destruction of the flood was not that long removed, and the Torah parallels the aftermath of Noach and Lot in many ways. Both families experience total destruction of humans, animals, and land from a clear act of divine justice, and both families are just narrowly saved as a family unit. The ends of these stories also strike a funny parallel, as much like Noach’s offspring sees his naked shame as he sleeps in a drunken stupor, Lot’s children similarly act inappropriately as he sleeps. Thus, we can begin to see the rationale behind the shocking action of Lot’s daughters.

And yet, any of us in the room here can say with confidence that that explanation is not enough. Setting aside the perhaps more complex or abstract prohibition of incest, the violent act of taking advantage of Lot in his sleep is never acceptable, and a clear perversion of morality. How could it be that Lot, having grown up in Avraham’s household and lived with him until just recently, could have fostered such immorality within his own family?

I think the answer lies with the Rashi we quoted before. As we quoted above, Rashi quotes Chazal as explaining Lot’s daughters’ reasoning as being based on the assumption that the entire world had been destroyed in Sodom and, therefore, they needed to repopulate it. And yet, when we reflect on this reasoning, it should strike us as just how shocking it is. Lot until just a moment ago had lived his whole life in Avraham’s household. How is it possible that Lot’s daughters thought that they were saved, but everyone in the world, including Avraham and the various other righteous people affiliated with him, were wiped out? Surely they realized that they were not the most righteous people in the world to be the sole humans to merit salvation?

One must conclude that, despite their previous closeness, Lot did little to keep Avraham a presence and a figure in his household. Despite traveling with Avraham, Lot’s daughters heard little about him, and knew even less first hand. And when the moment came to move and part ways with Avraham, Lot made no effort to maintain a relationship and ensure his daughters knew of the righteousness of their adoptive grandfather. Rather, Avraham’s name was not a presence in the Lot household. While Lot personally may have learned from him, Avraham as a presence and a figure was relegated to Lot’s past.

Given that lack of connection to Avraham, we can begin to see how Lot’s perversion of justice began to settle in. While Lot may have absorbed values such as hospitality from Avraham, without the actual anchor of speaking to and seeing Avraham first hand, these lofty values and ideals became perverted and corrupted. Lot’s daughters, even farther removed from Avraham and his example, learned uncritically from their father, and accepted his perverse value system without any judgement, assuming they were amongst the few in the world to have just values and thus be saved by God. 

Thus we can understand Lot’s daughters’ self confidence that surely they were the only ones saved by God as he destroyed the world. Lot’s daughters didn’t have any conception that the society they lived in was uniquely flawed. They figured the rest of the world must surely be this way, and they alone stood out as moral actors. Without the  positive example of Avraham in their lives, Lot’s daughters were mistakenly led down a path of unearned moral self-confidence, ultimately leading to their own moral downfall.

The message of Lot’s daughters is a powerful one for all of us. There are many ideals and values we all care about and subscribe to in the world. We all value hospitality and welcoming, Minyan and religious ritual. But if those values remain lofty ideals– floating about in the abstract, without a concrete example to weigh against– they become perverted. If we want to build homes that propagate the values and morality of the Torah, we must lead by concrete examples. We must fill our homes with positive role models, and seek out opportunities to concretize and act upon our values. If we relegate it to the realm of the theoretical, paying mere lipservice to our values, we not only risk corrupting our values, but much like the daughters’ of Lot who looked around Sodom and figured this was what the whole world must be like, we risk losing our sense of perspective. 

And so, as we build our homes, our Shul, and our community, we must seek out those voices and role models who stand for good and amplify them as examples in our community. We must make sure that the Shul we build is not one where Torah values are assumed in the abstract, but never discussed or demonstrated. And we must expand our perspective beyond the narrow confines of our own walls of existence, and look to learn from the positive role model of those voices we bring into our community. Hopefully then we can rectify the wrongs of Sodom and build a community that embodies Torah values. 

 

October 30th: Lech Lecha

Serving as an early example of a story that begins in medias res, the Avraham narrative manages to entirely leave out Avraham’s back story and childhood, instead picking up with Avraham having already found God. But the Torah tells us that by the time Avraham heard God’s call of Lech Lecha, Avraham was already middle-aged (or, for the lives of Tanach characters perhaps more third- or quarter-aged). The four decades of growth and character development that brought Avraham to the place where he could hear God and respond are totally omitted! The reader is left wondering what Avraham’s early life was like, and how he became the heroic figure he is.

Thankfully, the rabbis and contributors to the oral tradition stepped up in the place of this lacking and filled in many of the details. Rambam, through a combination of his personal scientific beliefs and Midrashim, describes Avraham as a philosophical and scientific pioneer, extrapolating astrological and astronomical conclusions from his personal observations and hypotheses about the cosmos. Rambam (Avodah Zarah 1:3) makes oblique reference to Avraham’s father and mother as “foolish idolators,” a piece of important context and background info that is absent from the Tanach, but thoroughly developed by Chazal throughout the Midrash, as the rabbis sought to fill in the gaps the Torah leaves in Avraham’s childhood.

In particular, Rambam makes reference to perhaps the two most famous Midarshim about Avraham’s early life. Firstly, Rambam tells us that Avraham broke his family’s idols– a rabbinic legend that has grown and been retold in numerous ways, often framed with the claim that Terach, Avraham’s father, was steeped in idolatry and the production and sale of idols, and a young Avraham, as a sign of protest, destroyed his father’s idols and idol-making shop in an attempt to teach a lesson about monotheism. 

Next, Rambam moves on to the famous incident of the Kivshan, the industrial oven that Chazal see as the source of Ur Kasdim’s– literally the the fire of the Chaldeans– name. Rambam references the Midrash that tells us that the authorities had found out about Avraham’s rejection of idolatry in favor of monotheism, as well as his successful prostylezation to his brother Haran. As a punishment, they demanded that Terach give over his children to be thrown into the oven of Kasdim for heresy. The Midrash describes how Terach painfully watched his son Haran immolate in the flames first– picking up on the unusual formulation the Torah uses of “וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו,” “and Haran died in front of Terach his father”– and then gave over Avraham to presumably meet his brother’s fate. Ultimately, Avraham was saved from the flames of the oven by God’s miraculous intervention, and the event served as a major revelation for the religion Avraham was preaching. 

On their surface, both of these stories seem to present Terach, Avraham’s father, as a quintessential idolatrous sinner, leaving us to ultimately conclude, much like the Rambam, that Avraham’s revelation and commitment to God must have sprung out of nowhere– from Avraham’s unique perceptiveness and aptitude for astrology and theology. Steeped in a society and family of immoral and corrupt idolaters, little Avraham had to teach himself the truth of God’s singularity. Perhaps that is why Avraham is given little to no introduction in the Torah, as Avraham is meant to feel as if he just appeared out of nowhere, as the striking nature of his autodidactic realization of Hashem’s existence also feels surprisingly ex nihilo. 

And yet, this presentation is not fully complete. Shallowly, because we do in fact have at least one story presented in the Torah prior to Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha. Perhaps more importantly, that singular story seems to complicate our simple picture of Avraham’s unlikely origin story as a contrarian who rejects the values and culture of his family and surroundings to go off on his own. I’m referring to the few verses at the very end of Parashat Noach which serve as a preface to the story of Avraham in Lech Lecha. The Torah tells us (BeReishit 11:31):

 

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

לא  וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.

 

Before Avraham ever hears God’s call “to the land which [God] will reveal to him,”– which we the readers know to be the land of Canaan– Terach, Avraham’s father, rounds up the entire family and attempts to make it to Canaan, ultimately failing to reach the final destination and settling around Charan. This often overlooked verse should strike us as shocking. What was Terach, Avraham’s idolatrous father, who willingly sacrificed his son Haran for the sake of his corrupt ideology, doing by trying to make it to Canaan? Why is he journeying to God’s revealed place before we even hear of Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha?

Despite the impression one might get from a casual read of the Midrashim and oral traditions surrounding Avraham, I think the Torah here is trying to push back against the perception that Avraham appeared out of nowhere and managed to reach his spiritual level despite the sinfulness of his father and his father’s house. The Torah is prefacing the Avraham story by drawing our attention to Terach and paralleling Terach with his son, showing that Avraham and Terach both tried to journey to Canaan, perhaps reflecting similar religious urges and commitments. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra says that Terach’s trip towards Canaan happened after God’s call to Avaham, seemingly implying that, at least to start, Terach and Avraham were working together in the mission of realizing God’s call– a shocking idea for those of us accustomed to the popular conception of Terach as a sinner. Not only does it undermine our previous conception of Terach’s religious constitution, but it pushes us to see Avraham and Terach as closer to each other than one might have thought from the Midrashic stories. 

Perhaps we can take this idea even further, using the perspective of the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet comments on the beginning of Lech Lecha and claims that God’s call of “Lech Lecha,” the archetypal call to rise to the divine mission and spread God’s word to the world, was not uniquely spoken to Avraham. Rather, God had been calling out repeatedly to the world, looking for someone to take up his cause. Avraham was simply the first person to actually respond to God’s call. Given that perspective, we can even further appreciate Terach’s initial efforts to make it to Canaan. While perhaps he was ultimately incapable of living up to the charge of Lech Lecha and actually fulfilling God’s mission, Terach at least tried, hearing God’s call and taking important first steps towards actualizing it. Perhaps it was these first steps that laid the crucial groundwork that would enable Avraham to later fulfill his mission. 

Shockingly, Rav Kook takes this parallel between Terach and Avraham to an extreme. Rav Kook points to Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac– perhaps the most quintessential and important Avraham story– and asks how Avraham was able to muster the strength to rise to such a serious challenge. True, Avraham was a loyal servant of God, but sacrificing his son was a challenge of scale and kind that was completely unprecedented so far. Where did Avraham gain the constitution for such a harrowing and morally confusing challenge? Rav Kook answers by pointing to the Midrash of the fires of Or Kasdim. There the Midrash tells us that Terach, himself perhaps a religious leader in the community as a producer or at least owner of many idols, was willing to give over his own sons and risk sacrificing them– ultimately losing his son Haran– for the sake of his religious convictions. It was out of his commitment to his, unfortunately flawed, pagan ideals and religious commitments that Terach willingly offered over two of his sons to be murdered as sacrifices in the name of religion. Avraham remembered the conviction with which his father acted for his pagan beliefs, and was inspired to act similarly in service of Hashem, as he willingly offered Yitzchak as a sacrifice at the Akeidah.

Much like the parallel between Terach’s Aliyah and Avraham’s, Rav Kook’s parallel between the Akeidah and the story of the Kivshan not only brings Avraham and Terach closer as a familial unit, but it identifies some of the very qualities that made Avraham into the unique religious forefather he was with his idolatrous father Terach’s example. Avraham knew the details of Terach’s belief in flawed idolatry was incorrect, as God ought to be worshipped as a non-physical montheistic entity. But Avraham nonetheless was able to recognize and learn from Terach’s religious passion and commitments, perhaps even going so far as to work together with him in his initial trip to Canaan to heed God’s call. 

This interpretation also sheds new light on God’s emphasis that Avraham must leave “the land of his birth, his father’s house.” If Avraham was growing up surrounded by sinful idolaters, and was very nearly killed by his father, what sacrifice would it entail for Avraham to disconnect from his father’s house? Surely it would be a breath of fresh air to get out on his own and practice his religion without persecution! But the Torah is rejecting that narrative. Avraham was close with his father despite their disagreement, because he was able to learn from the good within him, despite the many significant and important matters they disagreed on– matters that dealt with the most severe of consequences, such as the true religion, the true God, and how to properly serve Him. Yet, despite all of that difference, Avraham was able to hold a close relationship with, and perhaps even learn and team up with his father Terach, all in service of God’s divine mission. 

Rav Kook learns from here an important message about the sparks of holiness that exist within everyone and everything– even literal heresy and heretics themselves. Avraham was able to mine the holiness within Terach and use it in service of God. Perhaps less mystically, we can view this teaching as a lesson on our need for flexibility and a willingness to learn and partner even with those we disagree with. Unfortunately, we live in a world where purity tests are all too common, and a person or organization fighting for justice can immediately be dismissed– or worse, labeled as malicious– due to important and substantive disagreements. It is all too common for organizations or movements that focus almost exclusively on pressing issues of justice domestically across America to be castigated and rejected in our community due to the positions its members may hold about political issues surrounding Israel, or other perceived flaws or disagreements. Of course the safety and security of Israel, our religious commitments, and our Jewish perspective are essential elements of our belief system and identity that we should never compromise on. But Avraham teaches us that, when the end goal is heeding God’s mission to serve him and actualize a more just world, we need to be able to work through our discomfort and disagreement and build coalitions. If Avraham could learn about religious commitment and self-sacrifice from his idolatrous father Terach, then surely we can learn much about issues of justice and activism in our home communities from people with whom we vehemently disagree about issues of religion or global politics. If we can work to emulate Avraham– not only in his example as a devout Oveid Hashem, but in his role of an Av Hamon Goyim, a father of many nations– who was able to forge bonds and work together with all kinds of people he disagreed with– we will be able to heed the call of Lech Lecha that, as the Sefat Emet teaches us, existed before Avraham and still continues to this very day, as we work to actualize God’s vision of a just world. 

 

October 23rd: Parshat NOACH

It has become a familiar trope that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While it should come as no surprise that the science and history behind this quote is questionable, and that this definition of insanity seems to actually originate in the literature surrounding 12-step recovery programs and embracing your powerlessness in the face of addiction, the idea remains resonant. And so, it is surprising that immediately after seeing his first creation fail and having to destroy the world, God seemingly does the exact same thing all over again. In this week’s Parashah, God brings a flood to wipe out the corrupt human civilization that developed after Adam, but saves Noach and his family to rebuild. But what has changed that God thinks Noach and company will do a better job than Adam and Eve’s family were able to do? How is God setting Noach up for success? Is God addicted to humanity?

To see what has changed, we must first compare these two creation stories– the creation of Adam and Eve, and the renewal of creation that takes place by the hands of Noach and his family. Both stories involve God’s “ruach” or wind blowing over the waters and separating out dry land from the seemingly unending wetness of the oceans. Following this separation of wet and dry land, produce is found by God’s command in Chapter 1, and by the dove’s return in Chapter 8, and then man is allowed to settle the world and given a command and charge from God. Adam is told (BeReishit 1:28-29): 
כח)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ 
כט)  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע:  לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food

Notably, Adam is charged with the command to multiply and conquer the land. To that end, he is given the right to exercise dominion, URedu in the language of the Torah, over the animals and creatures on the Earth. Noach’s charge is strikingly similar (BeReishit 9:1-3: 
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.
3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.
א)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נֹחַ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
ב)  וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ.
ג)  כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.


Noach’s blessing can be boiled down to very similar bullet points as Adam’s, as he is given a blessing of fruitfulness, charged with repopulating the Earth, and given special license over the animals and creation. However, it is amongst these large similarities that the subtle differences stand out.  Perhaps most famously, when one compares Noach’s permissions with those of Adam’s, one sees that Noach is given a broader set of allowances– namely, while Adam was only allowed to use animals, but had to eat strictly vegetation, Noach is allowed to eat animals as well. In other words, Noach was the first man given permission to eat meat.

While this halakhic shift in dietary restrictions is surely significant, oftentimes people are so preoccupied with the practical “what” question of “what was man allowed to eat,” they miss the perhaps more significant “why” question: why was man permitted to eat meat starting with Noach? To that end, I think we have to focus on the different charges Adam and Noach receive in relation to creation. Adam is charged with being Koveish, conquering, all of creation. To that end, he is allowed to exercise dominion over animals, but not allowed to eat them. If God is the king of all, then Adam is his delegate and governor, chosen to represent Him as the ruler of Earth. Noach, however, has no command of dominion. In fact, Noach has no command at all! God merely describes a reality– that animals will fear Noach. Whereas Adam is told to conquer the world, Noach is merely informed that the animals of the world will fear him.

This shift reflects the fundamental shift that takes place between the creation of the world during Adam’s time, and the recreation and renewal of Noach. Initially, man was charged with conquering the world and serving as its ruler. Man was meant to exist above the animal kingdom, not merely being the most powerful apex predator, but being of a different level of existence and being altogether– a spiritual one in the Garden of Eden, closer to God and the angels than to the materiality of his physical and animalistic body. This echoes Adam’s other commandment, LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and guard the garden, as Adam is given responsibility with his privilege and charged with caring for the entirety of creation. To that end, man had no right to eat animals, as a ruler is charged with caring for his subjects from above, and succumbing to their level and partaking in the predatory nature of the food chain was beneath mankind.Thus, Adam is charged with the command of VeKivshuah, conquering, and empowered with the right of URedu, dominion. 


Noach, however, represents the major shift that took place during the generation of the flood. Man corrupted their divinity and fell out of touch with the initial mission of Adam. Rather than steward and protect creation, man sought ways to manipulate and abuse it. Thus, God stopped treating man as a nearly divine-entity that is above the creation, but rather shifted to treat man like the animal that he is. This moment of “recognition” on God’s part is expressed in the verses immediately preceding the Noach story, at the end of last week’s Parashah. There the Torah tells us (BeReishit 6:3):
3 And the LORD said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.


After observing the generations post-Adam and seeing their corruption, God realizes that man is flesh– like the animals– and has decided to pursue his Earthly and physical existence at the expense of his spiritual existence. Thus, God needs to wipe out the Earth and start over given this new recognition and new reality. Creation has to be reordered to function without a human governor from above. This is why God brings about the Flood– to respond to this new recognition and understanding, and address the new reality. 


Given this context, we can now understand why Noach is allowed to eat animals. Man is no longer expected to be a divinely empowered ruler, who conquers the world and represents God’s interests to the creations within it. Rather, God is forced to concede that man is one of the animals like the rest. True, man is the ultimate apex predator, and as such the other animals will all fear us and be subject to our desires, but that is not a divine right of governing, but merely a reality that we are “better” or more powerful animals than all the rest. As such, man is part of the predatory food chain of creation, and the human history that we continue to be a part of today is set on the backdrop of man conceding to his animalism and taking his role in the creation as another animal. 
Yet, while the sinful ways of the generation of the flood convinced God of man’s inability to rule and govern as a steward for creation, we today have a unique opportunity to try and correct for man’s mistakes. The world we live in is in a precarious place. We are already past the point of feeling the effects of global warming, and seeing how man, as an animalistic apex predator, can kill and devour other creatures and earthly resources with no regard for its implications. And much like the generation of the flood, the sins of our generation– our selfishness and lack of thoughtfulness about the consequence of our actions on the planet– are resulting in disproportionate violence, economic hardships, and injustice for the most vulnerable in society. But unlike the generation of the flood, it is not yet too late to reverse course and do our part to care for and preserve the health of the world. We can still prove to God our ability to live up to the command Adam was given LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and preserve the garden he was born into. 


We should take the destruction story of Noach as a painfully relevant reminder in our days that, if we choose to live in a world of social Darwinism, governed by the hash rules of the animal kingdom, the strongest will survive at the expense of the less fortunate. If we want to avoid another global destruction, and prove to God that we are able to live up to His aspirations for us, we must all take collective responsibility for the challenges that lay ahead, and not be complacent as the world around us begins to slip away. 

Thu, March 4 2021 20 Adar 5781