Friday, October 26, 2012

Parshat Lech Lecha - פרשת לך לך

וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, לֶךְ-לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּHashem said to Avram: 'Go for yourself, from your land, from your birthplace and from your father's house to the land that I will show you.'(בראשית יב:א) There are two parts of this Pasuk that I would like to deal with. The part that immediately interests us is the list of places that Hashem commands Avram to leave - Avram's land, his birthplace and his father's house. After that, Avram we read of the oddly vague "place that I will show you." There is one obvious question to be asked on the first part of this pasuk. It is posed in the Kli Yakar's commentary: when one lists where one hails from, one normally starts with the most local place and then mentions increasingly bigger areas. For example, I was born in Hendon, which is in London, which in turn is in England. Here however, the list order is reversed. One possible reason for this could be that when moving away from a certain place, a person notices things that he used to take for granted. Personally I have noticed many cases of American and English expatriates assuming an exaggerated persona. I believe that the reason for this is as much to do with being homesick and attempting to compensate for the inability to actually be immersed in the old country's culture as it is to play the culture card on local people. By this I mean that I will often exaggerate my Londoner accent for Israeli and American friends as it is both a talking point, and also reminds people where I come from and what kind of behaviour and customs to expect from me. It also serves to confirm to myself that I am different from Israelis and that although I have moved abroad, I am not a native. To misquote Sting, "I'm an Englishman in Jerusalem!" Coming back to the point, the word ארץ in Hebrew means land, but it also has another connotation. The word may be read as "א-רץ," meaning "I will run." The concept of the ground in Hebrew is the place you are heading to to, what your goal is. By way of comparison, Egypt is called מצרים, which derives from the word צר, meaning thin. Eretz Yisrael, a very thin strip of land geographically, is called "Eretz tova U'rechava - A good and wide land." How can that be? The answer is simple enough; that Egypt was a spiritually stifling place for the Jews to live in, whereas in Eretz Yisrael, our potential is significantly "wider" and expanded. It is only natural that a man once removed from his natural surroundings will pine for them and attempt to re-enact them in his mind. For this reason, Hashem first told Avram to leave behind the land he came from. He wasn't telling him to literally leave the land first, that would be impossible! What was meant was for Avram to leave that mentality behind, to abandon it completely. Only after he had left behind this mentality could he truly leave his home and his father's house without feeling the need to come back.But where shall he go to? We have grasped the fact that Avram had to leave behind all that he used to know, but where was he to head to? The Pasuk simply says the place "אשר אראך - that I will show you." How can Avram go somewhere without knowing where it is that he is to be heading?To answer this, we may look at the beginning of the Pasuk. The first two words Hashem said, "לך לך," may be translated as "Go for yourself," but it can also be rendered "Go to yourself." Or, alternatively, "Go (to) 50." 50 is known as one of the many numbers of Kedusha. The concept here is not that Avram was being instructed to merely head for a different place on the map, rather that he was being commanded by Hashem to go to his limit, to reach the highest spiritual level he possibly could. Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Parshat Noach - פרשת נח

"אֵלֶּה תּוֹלְדֹת נֹחַ. נֹחַ אִישׁ צַדִּיק תָּמִים הָיָה בְּדֹרֹתָיו: אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, הִתְהַלֶּךְ-נֹחַ - These are the generations of Noach. Noach was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted; Noach walked with God."
(בראשית ו:ט)

In Zichron Meir, Rabbi Meir Robman writes that there is a problem with the way we perceive Noach. From the verse above, it would seem quite clear that Noach was a particularly holy man, but a number of the commentators on the Torah talk about Noach in a denigratory manner. Commenting on Masechet Sandhedrin in his notes on the Talmud, Rashi points out that "There are a number of our Rabbis who praise Noach... and there are those who denigrate him; "According to his generation he was deemed righteous, but had he lived during the time of Avraham, he wouldn't have been counted as anything."

This perception of Noach's relative merit is not normally challenged, but upon consider things, we may realise that this is a rather odd state of affairs. And it's even more puzzling given the Radak's view of Noach. The Radak explains that "Noach walked with Hashem, he was attached to Him, and all his deeds were in His name," before going on to highlight his great strength in "defeating his natural inclination, for he lived in a generation of wicked and evil people but didn't learn from their ways."

So we have two ways of regarding Noach - we can say that he was only deemed a righteous man because he lived amongst a very low, base people and only by comparison could he be deemed a good man. Or we can say that he was genuinely righteous because he managed to ignore them and stay on the "straight and narrow." These two perspectives are the polar opposite of one another. Either way, we need to resolve this issue - either Noach was righteous or he was not!

The answer to this problem is that the two opinions do not truly clash - both schools of thought agree that Noach was righteous man; what they argue about is the meaning of the word "בְּדֹרֹתָיו - his generations."

When saying that Noach didn't compare to the men of Avraham's generation, Reish Lakish's opinion in the gemara might seem derogatory of Noach, but he actually wasn't criticising Noach. His point was that it although it wasn't his fault, Noach lived amongst wicked people, and because Noach lived at that particular time, he was limited spiritually. Had he lived at another time though, Noach may well have been able to attain a significantly higher spiritual level. Either way, I think this insight is genuinely relevant to all of us - we can't choose the time we were born into; we all live in the present. Maybe we would have done better if we had been around in the times of the Bet Hamikdash of old, maybe we feel that we would have done better if we'd have been born in the future. Maybe we feel that we are surrounded by people who are low, base and evil. All this is out of our control. As it says in Pirkei Avot: במקום שאין" אנשים השתדל להיות איש - In a place where there are no men, try to be a man." We can't help the fact that the world is such a cruel, relentless place. It's too hard to change the entire world when the situation is as bad as it is. But if we all start by changing ourselves for the good, the world will be changed for the better. After all, at a time when the world warranted destruction, in Noach's merit alone did the human race continue.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Parshat B'reishit - פרשת בראשית

In Lecha Dodi there's a line that I find particularly relevant to this week's Parsha. The line is: "סוף מעשה במחשבה תחילה," roughly meaning that "the end product is found in the first thoughts." This Shabbat we read B'reishit, which is the first Parsha in the Torah. The concept outlined above, of finding the DNA, as it were, for all that comes afterwards, can be found in various levels in this week's Parsha. As it forms the beginning of the entire Bible, it is here that we read of the creation of the universe - the very first thing that happened, according to the opening verse of the Torah. Following the concept above, we learn that everything in the Torah can be found in the opening act of B'reishit. Incredibly, the Vilna Gaon claimed to have a way of reading into the first word of the Torah 613 ways; one for each of the Mitzvot. It is told that that he was once challenged by a student/a group of his students, who asked him how he could see the mitzvah of Pidyon Haben encrypted here in the the word B'reishit. A tough ask, it would seem. But the Vilna Gaon had no trouble responding and answered by explaining that the letters of the word "בראשית" form an acronym. Each of the letters stand for בן ראשון אחרי שלושים יום תפדה, which means "Firstborn son - after 30 days you shall release" and sums up the essence of the mitzvah in six words. Another thing worth pointing out about Parshat B'reishit, the first Parsha in the Torah, is that it opens with the second letter in the Alef-Bet, not the first letter, Aleph. The typical explanation for this is found in the Medrash, where it is posited that the word ארור - Arur (meaning cursed) begins with an Alef, but as Bet is the beginning of the word ברוך - Baruch (meaning blessed), it is preferred so that there can be no way in which one could imagine that the Torah begins with even a hint of a curse. It's a cute answer, but there's plenty of other reasons, as well. In the Sh'ma, there's a phrase "ושננתם לבניך ודברת בם," meaning "And you shall teach them your sons and you shall speak of them. The "בם" here is rather vague. It literally means "them," and we are not helped by the fact thay they are introduced earlier on as "הדברים" - another vague term, meaning "things." Thankfully the Magid Ta'alumah provides a beautiful explanation as to what is being referred to. He notes that the Talmud starts with the letter מ, mem, in the tractate of Brachot. There we read the words, "מאמתי קורין את השמע - from what time do we read the Sh'ma?". The Magid Ta'alumah claims that the two letters of the word "בם" which we have such difficulty with actually correspond to the written Torah and to the oral Torah. The written Torah begins with a ב, as in בראשית, while the oral law starts with a מ - which together form the word בם. Thus, when we read the relevant part of Sh'ma, "ודברת בם," we may now understand what is being commanded of us - to continually speak words of Torah; both the written and the oral Torah. And all of this is alluded to in just the first word of the Torah! Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 05, 2012

Shabbat Sukkot

Although Shabbat Sukkot doesn't seem to have much that separates it from the rest of Sukkot, there is one thing at least upon which we may comment - Megillat Kohelet, one of the five special scrolls we read over the course of the year.Megillat Kohelet is always read during the festival of Sukkot, but it doesn't quite seem to fit - it's tone is decidedly downbeat and certainly appears to clash with the sentiment echoed in a a song commonly sung, "ושמחת בחגך - V'samachta b'chagecha - and you shall rejoice in your festivals" (Sourced from פרשת ראה: טז:יד).Two Psukim later in פסוק טז, we read, "שלוש פעמים בשנה... בחג המצות ובחג השבועות ובחג הסוכות - Three times a year... On Chag Hamatzot, V'Chag Hashavuot, and Chag HaSukkot..." We are clearly supposed to be happy on our Chagim, we must rejoice on Sukkot. So if we are meant to be happy, how can we read Kohelet, which talks about the "futility" of life?If we examine the text of the Mussaf Shmonah Esrei we say every day of Chag, we say "ומפני חטאנו גלינו מארצנו, ונתרחקנו מעל אדמתנו - But because of our sins we have been exiled from our land and sent far from our soil." This is certainly no happy statement, and if we pray the we are meant to, these words must surely evoke a certain emotion within us, an emotion rather dissonant with the theme of rejoicing. Again, it seems to clash. How do we resolve such a discrepancy?Rav Kook answers the question as follows. There are two types of negative feelings in life, one is sadness and one is pain. Pain is a necessary part of life, as it allows us to realise that something is wrong and to build on it. Sadness on the other hand, is restricting and inhibits us. When we are sad, we can become depressed and caught up in the act of "being sad." Humans tend to wallow in sadness. Sometimes people feel really bad about something, and then compound their feelings by playing a depressing song. That is an example of sadness; it's destructive and a waste of one's time and energy.Rav Kook argues that we are instructed to be full of happiness during our Chagim. We must not allow oursleves to experience sadness, or any type of negative feeling upon which we cannot build. Pain on the other hand, pain that we wrecked our Bet Hamikdash and consequently been cast into a 2,000 year long exile, is useful. That kind of pain allows us to temper our joy to a degree, and lets us realise that we are still homeless. So too, by reading Kohelet, we understand how all in life is transient. Even the greatest joy passes. Just like the Sukkah booths in which we live during the course of the festival, everything is temporary.Wallowing in melancholy is not a Jewish quality, it will get us nowhere. Being in touch with that twinge of pain however, is essential for us to build ourselves up.Shabbat Shalom and a Chag Sameach!Partially based on a D'var Torah I heard from a dorm-mate of mine (Etan) during my Yeshivat Hakotel days, and added to with thoughts of my own and others found from other sources.