Friday, January 27, 2012

Parshat Bo - פרשת בא

“החודש הזה לכם ראש חדשים ראשון הוא לכם חדשי השנה – This renewal of the moon shall be for you a beginning of new moons; it shall be for you the first among the months of the year.”
(Exodus 12:1)

Aside from detailing the last three of the ten plagues, this week's Parsha, Bo, is noted as it contains the first mitzvah commanded of the Jewish nation – that of Rosh Chodesh.

Harmless as this mitzvah is, many have wondered why it was selected to be the first mitzvah given to Am Yisrael. Surely there were other, more significant, (or at least more symbolic,) mitzvot that could have been chosen instead of this seemingly trivial commandment? What is so important about Rosh Chodesh?

There is a famous Pasuk that refers to the Chagim, “אלה מועדי ה' מקראי קודש אשר תקראו אתם במועדם – These are God’s appointed times for meeting, convocations to the sanctuary which you must proclaim at the time appointed for them.” To understand the concept of Mo’ed, normally translated as a time or meeting, one must refer to our Pasuk here.

Rav S. R. Hirsch proposes that all the Chagim are based on a concept of מועד, of coming together. But what is the connection between Rosh Chodesh and these מועדים? Rosh Chodesh isn't a מועד; it has no specific historic or seasonal associations. What indeed what is מועד? Does this word constitute a simple reference to time, to meeting, or is it rather to both?

Explaining his answer, Rav Hirsch continues by noting that מועד refers to a place or a time designated for meeting. In the pasuk above, the word has the latter connotation. מועדים are times or seasons designated for our meeting with Hashem. (Note that during these 'times' we confirm our religion. Shabbat is considered a testimony, as are the festivals. Indeed, the root of the word for testimony is עד. It should therefore be unsurprising that these two letters appear in the word מועד.) Explained in human terms, this meeting is to be a voluntary act for both parties. It is not to be a matter of a master summoning his servants into his presence.

For this reason only general terms are specified regarding the time of Am Yisrael’s coming to Hashem; He allows us a certain leeway in setting the conditions, as it were, for meeting up with him, so that the meeting may be of mutual choice. If it were that Rosh Chodesh were fixed, then all the chagim would be fixed too, and then it would be that we would have no input in arranging the time of our meeting with Hashem, and that we would be effectively tied down to a fixed schedule. In fact, it could be somewhat perversely argued that if the beginnings of months and hence also the festivals with them were to be tied inextricably to the astronomical phases of the planets so that the lunar calendar automatically determined the מועד and the מועדים, then we and Hashem would (l’havdil) appear bound to the blind, unchanging cycle of nature. That is absolutely not the case.

There is another aspect to this mitzvah that we may learn from. The moon itself has special value for the Jewish people. Unlike the sun which blazes intensely all day long, the moon is seen as somewhat inferior. But a better understanding of the nature of the moon is revealing. The Medrash explains that just as the moon waxes and wanes, so too does the Jewish people. Just at the moment when the Jewish people seem to be on the verge of extinction, they experience a turnaround in their fortunes. At the time of the giving of this mitzvah, the Jews were at the lowest level they had ever been at. Deeply affected by their experience in Egypt, the Jews were in a bad state. But just around the corner was one of the greatest events in the history of the Jewish people; the giving of the Torah at Sinai. (Similarly, we might note how the Holocaust was followed by the rebirth of the Jewish state.)

The Sfat Emet makes a similar point, claiming that while other nations are more linked to the sun, and can only stand 'during the day, when the sun is shining over them', only to fade away later on, the Jews do not need such external aid. On the contrary; in hard times, the Jewish nation emerges stronger instead of disappearing from view.

With the above in mind, we may now answer the question posed regarding the importance of this mitzvah. In a way, we can say that this mitzvah is parallel in function to the first letter of the Torah. Whereas the Torah could easily have started with the letter Aleph, it commences with a Bet to signify two roles and our entering into a holy partnership with Hashem. In a similar manner, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh demonstrates the qualities that set the Jewish people apart.

Shavua tov and chodesh tov!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Parshat Va'era - פרשת וארא

"לָכֵן אֱמר לִבְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְהוָה, וְהוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלת מִצְרַיִם, וְהִצַּלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲבדָתָם, וְגָאַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בִּזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבִשְׁפָטִים גְּדלִים. וְלָקַחְתִּי אֶתְכֶם לִי לְעָם, וְהָיִיתִי לָכֶם לֵאלהִים; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מִתַּחַת סִבְלוֹת מִצְרָיִם. - Therefore say to the children of Israel: I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will deliver you from their servitude, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. And I will take you to Me for a people, and I will be to you a God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt."
(Exodus 6: 6-7)

The first part of this week's D'var Torah is taken from the Ma'ayanei HaTorah, which cites Chidushei HaRim. It is written there that the ten plagues we read about during the course of this week's and next week's parsha readings are linked to the utterances with which the world was created (Pirkei Avot 5:1). There were ten of those, too, but the link goes a lot deeper than just that.

As the Chidushei HaRim explains, the ten utterances which caused the creation of the world acted to codify the laws of nature. As a result, it became impossible to observe the supernatural wonder of nature. In Jewish mystical thought, there is a concept of constriction - that God had to somehow constrain His eternal and omnipotent Self in a way conducive to forging the world as we know it. God effectively hid Himself through His acts of creation.

In a similar fashion, the ten plagues that are unleashed upon the unwitting Egyptians were directly related to each of these utterances. Step by step, they served to peel back the layers and reveal Hashem's presence in the world to one and all, that there is a creator and there does exist such a thing as an administrator of the universe who can change the rules of nature as He so wishes. Moreover, these ten plagues paved the path for the Jews to leave Egypt in a blaze of glory and made possible the ultimate revelation later on at Sinai. The ten plagues were not merely punishments for the Egyptians' oppression of the Jews; they also served to make a very strong statement about the nature of this world.

The relevance of the insight above is made apparent by something I read a few p'sukim later in verse 9: " וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה. - And so Moshe spoke to the children of Israel; but they did not hearken Moshe because of shortness of wind and for hard bondage." The verse seems simple enough, but the Meshech Chochmah explains that Moshe chose his words very carefully. His people were under extreme stress and were unable to listen to him. Had he told anyone that "Everything's going to be alright - God is going to save us all in the close future", he would have likely been completely ignored. Anyone who is experiencing such severe trouble simply cannot pay attention to the future; they are instead preoccupied with the present. As such, Hashem instructed Moshe to speak in the present tense and let them know that their redemption was imminent.

Returning to the first part of this D'var Torah, we may now understand just how vital it was for Hashem to perform these miracles. It wasn't just for the Egyptians. It was for the generation of Jews who never knew their forefathers and fore-mothers. They had never witnessed the miracles that Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov had. They barely knew what it meant to be Jewish. As such, the ten plagues allowed them to be liberated from the oppression of being limited and bound to nature. When they saw Hashem's hand behind nature, they were able to set out on the road that took them out of Egypt and home to Israel.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Parshat Sh'mot - פרשת שמות

וְלא-יָכְלָה עוד, הַצפִינו, וַתקח-לו תבַת גמֶא, וַתחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר ובַזפֶת; וַתשם בה אֶת-הַיּלֶד, וַתּשׂם בּסוף עַל-שׂפַת הַיְאר - And when she could no longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child in it, and laid it in the flags by the river's brink."
(שמות ב:ג)

This week's Parsha, Sh'mot, marks the beginning of the second book of the Torah. The Jews had been plunged into crisis with the evil decree issued by Par'oh that all male babies born that day would be killed. (Intriguingly, the commentaries note that Egyptian baby boys born then were murdered too, such was their desperation to see the future Jewish leader seen off.)

In the verse above, we read of how that great leader, Moshe Rabbeinu, who we learn was born 3 months prematurely, came to an age where he was impossible to hide. Because of the severe penalty for hiding a male baby from the Egyptian authorities, it was decided that he would have to be taken out of his home.

Once, in a conversation with a friend, I noted that pitch is used when the Torah relates the story of Noach's ark. There, it uses the phrase, "כָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ, בַּכֹּפֶר - and you shall pitch it, within and without, with pitch." Although the term is different, there is more than a passing resemblance between the two episodes, for Moshe's little ark was also smeared with a dark, sticky substance.

My friend answered me by saying that there is indeed a connection between the two episodes. He explained that Noach lived at a time during which there was the greatest destruction the world has ever known. Why was there such destruction? Not because the people were exceedingly wicked - for they were not. Rather, this generation was actually one of the most knowledgeable generations that ever existed. The problem, however, was that they used their wisdom to their own ends. For example, we learn that the people of the time knew that one who stole less than "shava pruta," (a minute amount) would not be considered culpable. (I forget the source, but I believe that it comes from a Midrash.) They would therefore feel free to steal from one another in a manner that exploited and abused this loophole in Biblical law.

The reason that this generation was punished so heavily was that it was a generation with unusually high potential. It could have become the generation to receive the Torah from God, but because the people were so perverse in their way of thinking, they merited destruction by being drowned in the מבול, the great flood that immersed the entire world. There is a saying in Judaism that אין מים אלא תורה, there's no water other than Torah, and here we see an expression of that: whereas this generation might have been deserving of receiving (and being immersed in) the Torah, because of the way they acted, they received, and were immersed under the thing that we equate Torah to - water.

By way of contrast, the generations that came to Egypt were considered worthy of redemption, even though they had sunk to a very low level. But if they had sunk to such a low level, why was it that then that they deserved the miracles of the exodus and receipt of the Torah?

We may answer this question by looking at the opening words of the Parsha: "וְאֵלֶּה, שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַבָּאִים, מִצְרָיְמָה: אֵת יַעֲקֹב, אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ - Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who coming into Egypt with Ya'akov; every man came with his household."

The phrasing of this verse seems odd - why does it say both הַבָּאִים and בָּאוּ? One word means "coming" in the present tense, and the other means "came," which is in the past tense. What is the explanation for this anomaly. The way to understand this, posits Rav Yehoshua of Belz, is that while the Jewish nation undeniably had come, (in the past tense) to Egypt, they were only present physically. We learn that they did not integrate fully or take on Egyptian names. This generation always saw themselves as being in exile, as temporary residents of Egypt. Due to this clear perception of their impermanent status in a foreign land, they deserved their eventual redemption, the receipt of (and immersion in,) the Torah, and ultimately their return to their ancestral homeland in Israel.

If we compare the two cases, the differences are clear. While one generation acted in a way that was technically pious, they were wicked to the core. The other generation, while almost completely rotten, was careful to never sink down that bit too far. By maintaining their identity, they kept their souls intact and merited redemption. I think we can take this message to heart, too. Many times we feel as if we are slipping religiously. But if we ask ourselves who we are at our core, we know what kind of people we want to be. So long as we preserve that concept of ourselves, we are never too far away from returning to our true selves.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, January 06, 2012

Parshat Vayechi - פרשת ויחי

וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף, אֶל-אָבִיו, בָּנַי הֵם, אֲשֶׁר-נָתַן-לִי אֱלֹהִים בָּזֶה; וַיֹּאמַר, קָחֶם-נָא אֵלַי וַאֲבָרְכֵם - And Yoseph said unto his father: 'They are my sons, whom God has given me here.' And he said: 'Bring them to me, please, and I will bless them.'

Although I have read this passage previously, and heard it discussed during my fifteen-years-plus of education in a Jewish environment, when I read this passage again today, I saw a question that I can't believe I didn't know the answer to.

The event described in the Pasuk above is that of Yaakov, Yoseph's father, blessing Yoseph's sons; Ephraim and Menashe. Intriguingly and famously, Yaakov crosses over his hands so that his right hand falls on Ephraim's head, even though he is the younger son. Noteworthy as this detail is, a lot of "commentary inches" are spent on interpretations as to the meaning behind Yaakov's actions.

That, however, is not what I want to focus on. The most obvious question that may be asked here is why were Ephraim and Menashe blessed before all the other tribes? Indeed, they hardly seem like they should join the rest of the tribes, as they are all brothers, whereas Ephraim and Menashe are only the descendants of one of the brothers. So, we can ask, why are they blessed first, and why do they merit their place as equals amongst their uncles?

Rabbi Shmuel Hominer, in his work, "עבד המלך, Servant of the King," explains exactly why these two young men deserved to join the rest of the tribes. He points out that from all the tribes, only Ephraim and Menashe were born outside of Israel. These two were born in Egypt, as Yaakov notes when he says: "וְעַתָּה שְׁנֵי-בָנֶיךָ הַנּוֹלָדִים לְךָ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם - And now your two sons, who were born unto you in the land of Egypt."

The significance of the brothers' birthplace cannot be understated. Yaakov realised that the blessing he was to give the thirteen brothers were not just for them as people, but for them as heads of tribes, for them as the heads of a future nation. Yaakov chose Ephraim and Menashe because those two knew what it was like to be in exile; away from the holy land. His blessing for them forms a well-known Jewish song, Hamalach Hagoel. The words at the end are particularly noteworthy: "וְיִדְגּוּ לָרֹב, בְּקֶרֶב הָאָרֶץ - and let them grow into a multitude, in the midst of the earth." Yaakov blesses these two brothers, the brothers of exile, that despite all that surrounds them, they (but read we, as all Am Yisrael,) should only grow into a strong and populous nation.

From Yerushalayim, Shabbat Shalom!