Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim 3

After a lengthy list of laws and statutes, the Torah portion returns to the narrative of the Jews standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. G-d tells Moshe, “Behold I will send my angel to go before you, to guard you on the way, and to bring you to the place which I have prepared” (Exodus 23; 20). Rashi explains that G-d here warns Moshe and the people that they will come to sin with the Golden Calf, and instead of G-d leading them directly, He will direct the nation through the intermediary of an angel. This is what we find in the Torah after the sin of the Calf, G-d says to Moshe, “Now go and lead the people, to that which I spoke to you. Behold my angel will go before you...” (ibid. 32; 34).

We have a principle that Heavenly punishment always fits the crime, and this is indeed the case here. At the time of the Golden Calf the nation were afraid that Moshe had been killed, and would not return. Therefore they wanted another leader, to act as an intermediary between them and G-d. They said to Aharon, “Make for us a god (or judge) that will go before us, for this man Moshe, who brought us out from the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him.” (ibid. 1). They did not consider Moshe divine, rather a leader who was an intermediary between them and G-d. Similarly the concept behind the Calf was for to have an intermediary, not a god. Only after it was built did some of the people begin to worship the Calf itself, and proclaim it as a god.

However, even asking for an intermediary deserved punishment. When the people heard G-d at Mount Sinai they were afraid, and asked Moshe, “’You speak to us and we shall hear; let not G-d speak to us lest we die’. Moshe said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for in order to elevate you has G-d come...’” (ibid. 20; 16-17). Moshe rebuked the people for not wanting this direct contact with G-d. In fact we find that the desire for intermediaries was the origin of idolatry in the world. The Rambam writes (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Idol Worship, 1; 1) that in the generation of Enosh the people made a grievous error. They reasoned that it was not appropriate to pray directly to G-d, but they should instead pray to Him via the celestial luminaries that He had placed before him. Over the generations this led to forgetting that these were only intermediaries, and the people began worshipping them as gods.

So, from the outset, the building of the Golden Calf was bound to end in disaster. Though the Jews were only seeking an intermediary, that was itself a sin that would inevitably lead to idolatry. Therefore as punishment G-d told them that He would not be in their midst, but would only relate to them through an angel.

The Ramban points out that this punishment of ‘I will send an angel before you’ never took place. Moshe pleaded for mercy, “If Your presence will not go with us, do not take us out from here...” (ibid. 33; 15), and G-d consented when He said, “I will also do this thing that you have spoken” (ibid. 17). Although this decree did not take place in Moshe’s lifetime, it was fulfilled immediately after his death. Just before Yehoshua led the nation to do battle with Jericho the Bible states, “And it came to pass, when Yehoshua was by Jericho, that he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold there stood a man over him… and he said, ‘I am captain of the host of the Eternal, I am now come’.” (Joshua 5; 13-14). The Midrash Tanchuma (Mishpatim 18) explains: “The angel said to Yehoshua, ‘I am he who came in the days of Moshe your master, and he pushed me away and did not want me to go with them.’”. After Moshe’s death, G-d’s relationship with the nation changed, from being direct, to being only through an intermediary.

However, it seems strange that the Israelites were punished for wanting an intermediary, when at the end of this week’s Torah portion we find that they are not able to cope with direct revelation. “Go up to G-d, you [Moshe], Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall prostrate yourselves from a distance… Moshe, Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy of the elders ascended. They saw the G-d of Israel… G-d did not stretch out His hand [to punish] the great men of Israel - they gazed at G-d, yet they ate and drank.” (Exodus 24; 1-11). Rashi explains that G-d did not punish them on the spot, though they were worthy of punishment for gazing at Him. However, G-d delayed their punishment so as not to detract from the sanctity of Mount Sinai. The reason that they were punished was for staring at G-d while they were eating and drinking. They were unable to attain the proper level of spirituality but instead were sunk in their material actions. We see from here that even the leaders of the Israelites, with the exception of Moshe and Aharon, were unable to cope with such a direct relationship with G-d. Why then were they punished for wanting an intermediary?

The answer must be that their need for an intermediary was real, and thus their attempt to find one valid. However, their mistake was in settling for this lesser relationship with G-d instead of trying to elevate themselves spiritually to a level where they would be able to sustain a direct relationship. As long as they were in the desert, under the influence of Moshe, they were able to have G-d’s presence in their midst. But as soon as Moshe was no longer with them, instead of remaining on this spiritual level the people settled for intermediaries to lead them. The angel coming was not so much a punishment as it was the inevitable result of the people’s actions and spiritual level.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim 2

Our Torah reading opens with the words “And these are the judgements that you shall place before them”. Rashi comments: Wherever it says ‘These’ in the Torah it rejects that which has been stated previously. Wherever it says ‘And these’ it adds to that which has been stated previously. Just as those which have been stated previously, [the Ten Commandments] are from Sinai, so too, these commandments are from Sinai.

Why does Rashi need to tell us that the laws contained in this portion were also given at Sinai? Surely the entirety of the Torah was given by G-d to Moshe at Sinai, why does Rashi single out this section?

‘Mishpatim’, the name of the portion, also describes the laws contained in it. There is almost no narrative, only a seemingly haphazard collection of laws. However most of those laws are logical, and clearly understandable as necessary precepts for the functioning of a just society. All the Mitzvoth in the Torah can be divided into two main groups, the Chukim (statutes) and the Mishpatim (laws). Chukim are rules for which we see no apparent logical reason, for example Shatnez, the prohibition on mixing wool and linen in garments. Mishpatim are laws that would probably have been formulated, even without the Torah, for society to function smoothly.

Therefore Rashi comes to tell us that the laws in this section are not merely the result of societal norms, but are also Divine in origin. There is no qualitative difference between the laws of Kashrut or Shabbat, and those of theft or damages.

Why was it necessary for G-d to give us laws that we would have been able to formulate for ourselves even without the Torah? As the Talmud (Eruvin 100b) states: Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘If the Torah had not been given we would have learnt modesty from a cat, [the prohibition of] theft from an ant, sexual prohibitions from a dove and laws of marital relations from a chicken’. Why did G-d deem it necessary to write these laws which we could have discovered for ourselves?

The Mishna (Makkos 3; 16) says: Rabbi Chanania ben Akashya says ‘G-d wanted to give merit to Israel, therefore He increased for them Torah and Mitzvoth, as it says (Yishayah 42; 21) “G-d desired for the sake of His righteousness to magnify the Torah and make it glorious”. Rambam in his commentary to the Mishna explains: It is amongst the foundations of faith that when a person observes one of the 613 commandments properly, and does not have any intention other than to fulfil it out of love for the Creator… behold they will merit through it eternal life in the world to come. About this Rabbi Chanania said that because there are so many Mitzvoth it is impossible that a person will not perform at least one of them in their lifetime with the proper intention, and through that performance will gain eternal life.

By giving us a combination of logical laws and commandments which are beyond our comprehension, G-d ensured that we would be able to fulfil at least some of them properly, and thus earn our eternal reward.

However it is important to bear in mind that the reason that some laws seem to make more sense to us than others is because G-d created us with a finite degree of logic. The definition of some laws as Mishpatim and some as Chukim is almost arbitrary. All of the Torah is G-d’s plan for the universe, and the observance of the laws facilitates the proper functioning of the world.

However, had it all been logical it would have been difficult to keep the laws purely because G-d so instructed us. Had none of it been comprehensible to us we would have not understood that there is a purpose in the universe. By creating us with imperfect understanding, G-d has given us the opportunity to keep part of the Torah because we understand it, and part of it out of pure love for G-d with no ulterior motive.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Parshat Mishpatim 1

Looking at this week’s Torah reading, one would think that the Jewish Nation was made up primarily of murderers, thieves, violent criminals and other social miscreants. Why else would the Torah need to spend so much time enumerating all of the different types of crimes and their punishments? Not only the Written Torah, but also the Oral Law contains detailed discussions of criminal offences and legalities. One complete Order of the Mishna, one sixth of the Oral Law, is entitled Nezikin (damages) and deals with the power of the Beis Din (the courts) to punish infringements of the laws.

Yet it is common knowledge that, far from being the violent criminals portrayed through this legislation, the Jews have consistently been seen to be moral, just and honest. The Western World owes Judaism a huge debt for introducing many concepts that now form the basis of our society.

The Talmud (Bava Kama 30a) states that someone who wants to become a Chasid (literally, G-d Fearing), should devote himself to studying the laws of Nezikin. Not only do these criminal laws not make us criminals, but they actually make us more moral. The constant involvement with, and awareness of, the rights of others, makes a person think about his or her own actions, and take exceeding care not to infringe upon those rights.

This can be seen through the famous, but often misunderstood, law of “Ayin Tachas Ayin”, mistranslated as “An eye for an eye”. The word Tachas does not mean “for”, but rather “in place of”. Therefore, the Torah is not telling us that the punishment for injuring another’s sight is to lose one’s own sight; that would certainly not be a replacement for the injured party. In reality, each individual’s eyesight has a different value. A microbiologist who spends all day looking through a microscope would give his sight a certain value, while a musician would give a completely different value to his sight. Taking away a damager’s eyesight, therefore, would not be “in place of” the injury he caused. The Torah must be referring instead, to monetary compensation for damages inflicted to others.

If the Torah is only referring to financial payments, why did it use the language of paying with the damagers physical body? It must be in order to teach us the severity of the crime, and the significance of putting ourselves in the place of others, thus doing our utmost to avoid harming them.

The Torah does not present these laws as compensation for the injured party. We do not have a system of suing people for any perceived wrong. Rather G-d is instructing anyone who is involved in activities which could injure others, to be aware of the dangers involved in his actions. “Ve’ahavta l’re’echa kamocha”, “Love your neighbour just as much as yourself”; as much as one looks out for one’s own rights, so too a person must be concerned to guard the rights of others.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mishpatim Summary

For my translation of selections from Tosefet Bracha (by R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein) on Mishpatim click here

Summary of the Parsha

This week's Torah reading lists many of the damage and interpersonal laws. Some of the laws given are those concerning manslaughter and murder, kidnapping and stealing, injuring or cursing a parent, personal injury or damages, and killing or injuring slaves. The nation are also given laws concerning animals, damage by grazing, or by fire, the laws of custodians, and money lending. Other laws include those dealing with a man who seduces a woman, occult practices, and idolatry. We are commanded not to oppress widows or orphans and are obligated to lend money to the poor. We must accept the authority of the judges, bring the first of our produce and animals to G-d, and not pervert the system of justice. We are instructed to return lost objects and help unload an animal that is unable to carry its burden.

We are given the laws of Sh'mita, when we let the land lie fallow every seventh year. We are instructed not to oppress converts, and are told the laws of Shabbat and the three agricultural festivals. G-d tells us that He will send an angel before us to lead us into Israel, and warns us of the dangers and temptations that will face us once we enter the land. G-d promises to bless us and our children, and to help us conquer the Land of Israel.

Moshe relates all of these laws to the rest of the nation, and they unconditionally accept them. Moshe and the people offer sacrifices as a sign that they have entered into a covenant with G-d to accept the Torah.
The Parsha ends with the conclusion of the Receiving of the Torah. G-d calls Moshe to ascend Mount Sinai. The nation watch as he ascends into the clouds and smoke which cover the mountain top. Moshe remains there for forty days and nights.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yitro 3

The Ten Commandments can be divided simply into two groups. The first five deal with the relationship between mankind and G-d - “I am the L-rd your G-d...”, “You shall have no other gods before Me...” etc. The second five commandments, those on the second tablet, are about our responsibilities to our fellow man - “Do not murder”, “Do not steal”, “Do not commit adultery” etc. The only problem with this classification is the fifth commandment; although supposedly in the ‘man and G-d’ category, the commandment to “Honour your mother and father” appears to be purely interpersonal.

Furthermore, why is this one of the “Ten Commandments” anyway? The rest of the ten deal with major concepts vital to the stability of society or to our relationship with G-d. Honouring parents seems both trivial and so obvious that it need not be stated. And why does the Torah explicitly give the reward for this Mitzvah, “In order that you should....”. Surely every child must feel a sense of gratitude and debt to his or her parents, not only for physically bringing them into this world, but also for all the investment of time and love that their parents have made. Is one not “forced” to honour one’s parents even without any explicit command to do so?

The Sefer HaChinuch4 explains the commandment of honouring parents:

It is appropriate for a person to recognise and perform kindness to someone who has done kindness to him, and not be a scoundrel, estrange himself, and deny that goodness. For this is a very bad and disgusting trait in its essence both before G-d and people. A person should make himself aware that his father and mother are the cause of his existence in the world, and therefore it is truly appropriate for him to give to his parents every honour and every help that is possible. Because they brought him into this world and put every effort into him when he was a child. When a person fixes this trait into his character he will then be able to recognise the good that G-d has performed for him, that He is the reason he exists, and the reason for all his parents and grandparents back to Adam and Eve. And that G-d brought him into this world, provided for all his daily needs and keeps him in health and working order. And He gave him a cognitive and understanding soul, without which he would be like an animal without consciousness of self. Therefore a person should organise in his thoughts how appropriate it is for him to be scrupulous in serving G-d.

From this text we see that our assumptions were wrong. While it is true and obvious that we owe our parents honour and respect for all that they have done for us, this is not the reason that G-d commands it of us. The real question is why G-d created the world in such a way that people have parents, and require so much input for so many years. Surely He could have made us spontaneously generate, or at least have independence immediately after birth, like almost every other species. This commandment is telling us that the reason that G-d created human beings as dependent upon their parents, is in order that we can also recognise our dependence upon Him. Therefore the Mitzvah of honouring our parents rightly belongs on the first tablet with our other responsibilities toward G-d. That interpersonal component of honouring parents is so obvious that it does not require a specific commandment.

The Ten Commandments are listed in the Torah twice - in this week’s Torah reading, and in the book of Deuteronomy when Moshe repeats the laws before his death. Even though they are basically the same in both places, there are subtle differences which give a deeper understanding of them. Thus in Devarim (5; 16) the Torah says, “Honour your father and your mother as the L-rd your G-d commanded you...”. The underlined words are added into this version of the decalogue and seem to give added support to the idea above. The honouring of parents mandated here is not the simple repayment for past kindness performed by them, but is a way to get a closer appreciation of our relationship with G-d.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Yitro 2

The Jews encamped around Mount Sinai were like converts in many respects, approaching Judaism for the first time. Until now they had been a family, the descendants of Ya’akov; suddenly they became a nation with common goals and aspirations. Though Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov had been monotheistic and spread this belief throughout the ancient world, there was no obligation to keep the commandments which define Judaism until Mount Sinai.

Furthermore, there was no concept of matrilineal descent until Sinai. Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah all came from the family of Terach, but were no more ‘Jewish’ than Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov. Their children were part of the ‘Children of Israel’ because they chose to emulate the beliefs and attributes of their parents, but Yishmael and Esav exercised the freedom to abandon this lifestyle and take a different path in life. Since Sinai, however, a person is Jewish either because their mother is Jewish, or if they convert through the principles of conversion laid down at Sinai.

It is appropriate therefore that the portion begins with the arrival of Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, who was the first true convert. We have a tradition that Pharaoh had three chief advisors, Yitro, Iyov (Job) and Bilaam. He asked them for their advice about how to deal with the Jews, and whether to kill the baby boys. Bilaam agreed that Pharaoh should kill them, and consequently was killed by the Jews in the war with Moav. Iyov remained silent, and as a result suffered terribly later in life (as related in the book of Iyov). Yitro disagreed, and told Pharaoh not to persecute the Jews. He was forced to flee to Midyan and renounce his position of authority, but ultimately converts in this week’s Torah portion, and shares in the inheritance of Israel.

Yitro had also been the high priest of idolatry both in Egypt and in Midyan, and had tried every religion and cult in the world before coming to realise that Judaism was the one and only true religion. When Yitro says “Now I know that G-d is greater than all other gods” (Shemot 18; 11) he is speaking from first hand knowledge, as Rashi explains “This teaches us that he knew all the idolatry in the world and there was not a single idol that he had not served”.

Thus Yitro’s choice to convert to Judaism was motivated by his search for truth. It was this quest that allowed him to speak out against Pharaoh’s decrees, and the same goal led him to every religion in the world. Rashi’s language is carefully chosen; he not only knew every religion but had also tried them all, and experienced them. Often a belief system does not make sense unless one takes part in it, conversely often a philosophy seems utopian until it is put into practise. Only through studying and experiencing was Yitro able to come to the conclusion that Judaism was the only true religion.

Since Sinai we no longer have a need to experiment with other religions. We know the truth of Judaism from our parents, and they from their parents, in a chain of tradition stretching back to Sinai. However one who converts to Judaism often only reaches their decision to convert after having denounced other belief systems as false. In the famous story about Hillel and the convert (Shabbat 31a) we see that Hillel was sensitive to this affirmation through rejection of the other.

A person once approached Shamai and told him that he wanted to convert on the condition that Shamai would teach him the whole Torah while he stood on one foot. Shamai rejected him, and sent him away. The same person then approached Hillel, who told him “That which is hateful to you don’t do to others. That is the whole Torah, the rest is commentary - go and learn it.”

Why did Hillel not simply quote the verse from the Torah (Vayikra 19; 18) “Love your fellow as yourself”? The answer is that Hillel appreciated the ability of the convert to discern truth from falsehood through a process of negation. This is possibly a higher level than simply accepting the truth. The Torah only requires one to examine what they enjoy, and to act in a similar manner with others. Hillel’s statement also requires the convert to search out what they dislike, to understand better how to treat others.

One of the most difficult things is to seek truth. We have become inoculated by the society around us to the point where we question the very existence of an absolute truth. Even once someone accepts that there is such a thing as truth, the search to attain it can last a lifetime and necessarily involves hardship in forsaking any comforts of falsehood. Arriving at the truth is the culmination of a heroic effort, and therefore the Torah instructs us to recognise this effort, and several times (e.g. Vayikra 19; 33 and Devarim 10; 18) enjoins us not to afflict a convert, and to treat him or her with special respect

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Parshat Yitro 1

My translation of a piece of R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein's "Tosefet Bracha" on the parsha can be found here

“And Yisro heard...” (Shemos 18; 1). Rashi comments, “What did he hear that brought him [from Midyan to the desert]? The splitting of the Reed Sea and the war with Amalek”. Hearing of these two events acted as the catalyst which made Yisro leave the comforts of Midyan to join the Israelites in the desert. Surely such miracles would have been reported by every news agency in the known world, but nobody else came to join them. Why does the Torah stress that Yisro heard about these events? Why is this an appropriate introduction to the main part of our portion, the giving of the Torah and the Ten Commandments?

In Hebrew, as in English, ‘hearing’ also has connotations of understanding. It implies more than sound waves entering the aural canal. We find the best example of this meaning in the word ‘Shema’ in the recital of ‘Shema Yisrael...’. The instruction which we proclaim is not to hear audibly that G-d is one, but to understand that belief in G-d’s unity is the bedrock of our faith, and underlies all of creation. Though all of the other nations heard about the miracles that G-d performed for the Jews, only Yisro ‘heard’ and understood that the only possible response was to leave Midyan and come into the desert.

Yisro’s ‘hearing’ is therefore a very apt introduction to the Ten Commandments, when the Jews recited the famous words, “We will do and we will hear” (“Na’aseh v’Nishma”) (ibid. 24; 7). The Sages teach (Shabbat 88b) that when G-d heard Israel utter this phrase He exclaimed, “Who revealed this secret to My children, the secret that the ministering angels use for themselves”, as the verse states, “Strong warriors [angels] who do His bidding and obey the sound of His words” (Tehillim 103; 20). By pledging that they will perform anything that G-d commands without question, and only then try and hear what G-d has asked of them the Jews put themselves on a par with the angels, who also act unquestioningly to do G-d’s bidding.

After Yisro joins the nation, he watches as Moshe judges the people. He realises that having Moshe as the sole adjudicant for the nation will not provide a permanent system of justice, and that it will destroy both Moshe and the nation. He suggests the alternative of appointing courts and judges, with lower and higher courts for lesser or greater disputes. Yisro says to Moshe, “Now, listen to my voice” (ibid. 18; 19). The Torah continues that “Moshe listened to the voice of his father-in-law, and did all that he had said.” (v. 24). Why does the Torah state that Moshe heard Yisro’s ‘voice’ rather than just telling us that he listened to his father-in-law?

Yisro understood that he was a newcomer to the nation, and though he was Moshe’s father-in-law, he was not sure whether he would be accepted by the rest of the nation. Would they be prepared to listen to the suggestion of a former idolater, in contradiction of the practise of their leader Moshe? Yet Yisro felt that what he had to say about the courts was as much a part of Torah as the commandments that they had heard directly from G-d. It was as if G-d were speaking from Yisro’s throat, using the G-d given logic in place of prophecy. This is why Yisro stresses that is not making his suggestion out of pride, but because the ‘voice’ of Mount Sinai is using his mouth as a conduit. Moshe understands this and therefore listens to his ‘voice’.

This teaches us an important principle in Torah study, often the Talmud asks on a verse, “This can be derived from logic - why do I need this verse?” There are limitations to our logic, and there are things that we don’t understand, which the Jews accepted at Sinai to do, and later come to an understanding. Also, Torah punishment cannot be given for a law derived purely from logic, and the 613 commandments only include those which are explicitly written in the Torah, but for daily living logic plays a vital role. Therefore, even though the incident with Yisro witnessing Moshe’s judging only took place after Yom Kippur, four months after Mount Sinai, the Torah presents it here as an introduction to the receiving of the Torah.
Later in the Torah reading, having just received the Ten Commandments directly from G-d, the Torah tells us “All the nation saw the voices (alt. thunder), and the flames, and the sound of the shofar and the smoking mountain...” (ibid. 20; 15). The people experienced synesthesia, where sounds became visible to them. Apart from the fact that we find it difficult to even conceive of such a concept, how does seeing a voice differ from hearing a voice? Why was it necessary for G-d to perform the extra miracle of making sounds visible?

We see from here that there is a clear difference from the voice of reason which resonates in the mouths of the scholars, which should be heard, and the direct prophecy of the encounter with G-d. The people went beyond hearing, and could actually see the words. The hidden meanings of each phrase became clear. Just as in English the phrase ‘I see’ implies a greater level of understanding than ‘I hear’, so too the Torah is telling us that the Jews reached the highest level of prophecy and insight. All the secrets contained within the Torah were revealed to them. When the Talmud wants to introduce a point it often uses the phrase, “Ta Shma”, “come and hear”. The Zohar, however, which contains the esoteric secrets, introduces phrases with the words, “Ta Chazi”, “Come and see”. Unless one ‘sees’ the meanings and secrets clearly they have not entered into the realms of the hidden secrets of the Torah.

Thus we see three different types of understanding in our portion. Yisro understood from events that he saw that the correct response was to join the Jews. Moshe heard and understood that Yisro’s logic was as valid as the rest of the Torah which was given directly from G-d. And the entire nation understood the Ten Commandments with such clarity that they went beyond hearing, and were able to ‘see’ what G-d demanded of them.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Yitro Summary

Yitro (Jethro), Moshe's father-in-law, brings Moshe's wife Tzipporah, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, back to Moshe in the wilderness. Yitro observes that Moshe is the sole judge of any disputes. He says that this system cannot work in the long term, and helps Moshe set up a new system of law, by training and appointing judges at various levels to judge simpler cases, thus only the most complicated disputes will actually come before Moshe. He refuses Moshe's offer that he stay with the Jews in their journey through the desert, and returns to his own land.

In the third month after leaving Egypt the Children of Israel come to the Sinai desert and encamp at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moshe ascends the mountain. G-d tells Moshe to tell the people to spend three days preparing themselves, and to set up fences to prevent them going near the mountain. On the third day, G-d reveals Himself in a cloud of smoke and fire, accompanied by the blast of a shofar. G-d gives the Ten Commandments to the people. The people tremble with fear from hearing G-d's speech, and ask Moshe to act as an intermediary, relaying the Divine words to them. The portion ends with instructions prohibiting making idols, and instructions for building the altar.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Parshat Beshalach 3

After the Israelites have passed safely through the Sea of Reeds, and seen the Egyptians drowned, they sang a song of praise to G-d. The majority of that Song relates the downfall and death of the Egyptians. “I shall sing to G-d, for He is exalted above the arrogant, having hurled horse and rider into the sea… G-d is master of war… Pharaoh’s chariots and army He threw in the sea… In Your abundant grandeur you shatter Your opponents...” (Shemos 15; 1 ff.). Here it seems that G-d is praised through wreaking vengeance on His enemies.

This is in contrast to the specific prohibition against seeking revenge, “You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge...” (Vayikra 19; 18). The Talmud highly praises someone who does not seek revenge, “Those who are insulted, and don’t respond, that hear themselves being denigrated and don’t respond, who act from love, and rejoice in their suffering about them the verse states, ‘Those who love G-d are like the rising sun in its might’ (Shoftim 5; 31)” (Yoma 23a).

Furthermore, the song that the Israelites sang was forbidden to the angels to sing: After the Israelites had crossed through the Reed Sea the angels wanted to sing a song of praise of G-d. He said to them, ‘Should you sing a song while My handiwork [the Egyptians] are drowning in the sea? (Megillah 10b). It seems that the angels were expected to show compassion at the deaths of the Egyptians, despite the suffering that they caused to the Israelites. How were the Israelites themselves permitted to sing praises of G-d?

The Talmud also implies that revenge is not always a bad thing, “Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yehotzadak, any Torah scholar who does not seek revenge and bear a grudge like a snake is not a true scholar” (Yoma 22b). Elsewhere it states, “How great is revenge, for it was written between two names of G-d, as the verse states, ‘G-d, Who seeks revenge is G-d’ (Tehillim 114; 1)” (Brachot 33a). Furthermore, the Midrash states that the revelation of G-d’s revenge that the nations witnessed at the Reed Sea brought great glory to G-d:

“Then Moshe sang...” (Shemos 15; 1). This is the meaning of the verse “Your [G-d’s] throne was established from then” (Tehillim 93; 2). Rav Berachiah stated in the name of Rabbi Abahu that even though You are eternal, but You were not seated on Your throne, and not known in Your world until Your children recited the Song of the Sea. (Shemos Rabba 23; 1).

The resolution of this apparent contradiction is that there are two kinds of revenge. The common usage of the word revenge implies something which is motivated by pride and a base desire for punishment for one’s enemies. The Talmud explains:

“What is revenge and what is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour’s sickle, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow his axe. If he refuses saying, ‘Just as you wouldn’t lend to me’, this is revenge. What is bearing a grudge? A person asked to borrow their neighbour’s axe, and was refused, then the following the day the same neighbour asks to borrow an item of clothing. If he responds, ‘You may borrow it, because unlike you I do lend out my possessions’ this is bearing a grudge. (Yoma 23a).

There is also vengeance which is solely a quest for justice. Though in English the word ‘vengeance’ has a pejorative meaning, in Hebrew does not necessarily have connotations of vindictiveness. It is this type of vengeance which a Torah scholar must possess, and which was written in the Torah between two of G-d’s names.

The world was set up in a constant balance between G-d’s mercy and His strict justice. Without mercy the world would not have been able to exist for a moment, at the first sin everything would have been returned to emptiness and void. However, without justice G-d is not a G-d of truth. Therefore He must meet out justice, and reward and punishment so that fairness is preserved.

It is through G-d’s carrying out of justice that He is clearly perceived in the world. Every time that a sin goes unpunished, because of G-d’s mercy, there is an opportunity to think that there is no Judge and no justice. When the wicked are punished we see the Heavenly Judge in action.

However, only the injured party can seek this revenge. If someone else seeks revenge on their behalf it cannot be solely a quest for justice. This is why the Israelites were permitted to sing G-d’s praises, because they had suffered under the Egyptians. But the angels who had only observed their suffering were not permitted to rejoice at the downfall of the Egyptians.

We can now understand why G-d was not ‘seated on His throne’ until after the splitting of the sea. For 210 years the Egyptians had persecuted the Israelites with apparent impunity. They forgot that there was a G-d who ran the world. At the time of their punishment all the nations witnessed the fact that everyone ultimately receives their just desserts.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Parshat Beshalach 2

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Tehillim 93; 2), Rabbi Berachia said in the name of Rabbi Abahu: Even though You (G-d) have existed forever, Your throne was not sat in, and You were not made known in Your world until Your children sang the song [at the Reed Sea]. Therefore the verse states “Your throne is established from then (Az)” (Shemos Rabba 23).
How did the splitting of the Reed Sea and the Jews singing the Song of the Sea make G-d’s presence in the world more known than any of the other miraculous events seen so far? The Midrash implies that this miracle was in some way quite different from that which had gone before. Singing a song in praise had never happened until this time, as expressed in the following Midrash (ibid.):

“Az Yashir Moshe ...”, “Then Moshe sang ...”. This explains the verse “Her mouth is open with knowledge, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue” (Mishlei 31; 26). From the creation of the world until Israel sang the song at the sea we never find any person who sang G-d’s praises. Adam was created but never sang praise. G-d saved Avraham from the fiery furnace and from the kings. Similarly He saved Yitzchak from the sacrificial knife and Ya’akov from the angel and from Esav and from the inhabitants of Shechem, and none of them sang a song of praise. However when the Jews came to the Reed Sea and it split for them immediately they sang praise before G-d.

It perhaps does not make sense that no one had ever been moved to praise G-d before in spite of the miracles witnessed. Rabbi Y. Y. L. Bloch explains in Shi’urei Da’as that the essence of a song is found in a new experience, and all other songs written about a normal event will be but pale imitations of the original. So, when the Midrash says that no one had ever sung G-d’s praise until this time, it implies that until now miracles could be regarded as understandable in spite of their greatness. The splitting of the sea was something qualitatively different, and not so easily explained.

When G-d created the universe he set up systems of laws, the physical laws which have been understood and explained by scientists, and the spiritual laws which are metaphysical. The ancients had a clear understanding of the spiritual laws, as we see from the Egyptian advisors, who could also replicate many of the plagues and miracles. The Talmud (Chagiga 12a) states: “When G-d was creating the world it was continually expanding like the thread of a loom, until G-d stopped it … This is the meaning of the name Sha-dai; G-d who said “enough” to His world”. G-d is infinite, the act of creation necessitated limiting His influence (Tzimtzum) in order to make a finite world. Sha-dai is the name of G-d which connotes His role as limiting, setting rules and laws by which the world functions.

According to the spiritual laws, a righteous person deserves to have miracles performed for him or her. Avraham had demonstrated his unquestioning faith and trust in G-d, so it was not surprising that he was saved from the furnace or from the four kings. Conversely the Egyptians had harshly enslaved the Israelites, and deserved the plagues with which they were punished. To the discerning observer none of these events would be worthy of song, because they merely follow the laws which G-d set up at creation, implicit in the name Sha-dai.

However the miracles at the sea were of an entirely different nature. The Zohar (Exodus 56) states that the sea didn’t want to split. It complained that the Jews were no worthier of salvation that were the Egyptians, they were both idolaters. G-d chose to save the Israelites not based on laws of reward and punishment, but on future events, that they would eventually accept the Torah at Mount Sinai. By judging based not on the present but on the larger picture of the purpose of the world, G-d was displaying His true essence in this world, which we know as the name Y-HV-H. Only through showing His favouritism to the Jews did G-d reveal His true nature, and His larger role in world history. This is the explanation of the verses “And G-d spoke to Moshe, and said to him, ‘I am Y-HV-H. I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov by the name of G-d Sha-dai, but by my name Y-HV-H I was not known to them’” (Shemos 6; 2-3).

The Midrash, that G-d’s throne was not sat in until this time, nor was He known in the world is now clearly understood. Until this time everything could be attributed to the laws of creation, and Divine involvement with the world was concealed. But when the sea split before the Jews all of humanity witnessed and acknowledged G-d as the ruler of the world. This is why the Jews were moved to song, seeing a miracle, the like of which the world had never seen.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Parshat Beshalach 1

The splitting of the Reed Sea was one of the most direct and open miracles in the history of the world. The Talmud relates that even the lowest person crossing through the sea saw more of the spiritual realms than the prophet Yechezkel (Ezekiel) who received one of the highest visions of G-d’s throne of Glory. The verse says “This is my G-d” (15; 2), meaning that each person was able to physically point to G-d and say “Here He is!”. Yet only a few chapters later the Torah says about these same people who have just seen G-d “That they tried G-d, saying ‘Is G-d in our midst or not?’”. How could they have forgotten in such a short space of time the miracles that G-d had performed for them?

Consider the manna. Each morning the Jews would receive their daily food from the heavens. Not only did it arrive fresh and tasty, but it was also shrink wrapped in a layer of dew to preserve the flavour. This miracle begins in today’s Torah portion (16; 4) and continues throughout the entire forty years that they remain in the desert. This was a clear miracle, perceived by every individual person in the nation. Furthermore, it also shows that G-d is constantly involved with the world, and providing for his creations.

Imagine someone who was born during those forty years in the Sinai desert. The only way he knows of getting food is by waiting for it to arrive on the doorstep each morning. To him or her, this is the way the world works. If they would have had science textbooks then, surely there would have been diagrams showing exactly how to recognise manna, and showing how it falls from the heavens. We can picture his or her shock upon entering the land of Israel after forty years. They have never known any other way of life. All of a sudden they are told that by putting seeds in the ground they can grow their own food. Yet, at first, when they experiment, all they see is that the seed disintegrates. How miraculous it must have been for them to actually see grain growing from the ground. Not only are they amazed that dirt can sustain life, but they can plant as much as they like, and have a storehouse full of food, not having to rely daily on G-d’s kindness. They can grow a variety of crops, each with a unique taste and texture, and they can actually feel that they are earning and deserving their food, rather than just receiving a handout form G-d. To this person, which is the greater miracle, bread form the heavens, or bread from the earth?

We define miracles as those occurrences which apparently defy the laws of nature. But surely those very laws themselves are no less miraculous. We become accustomed to the way in which the world works, and therefore there is a danger that we may begin to take it for granted. G-d has given us the independence to provide for ourselves, and at the same time instructs us to maintain and acknowledge our dependence upon Him for everything we have. He has given us blessings before and after everything we eat, and for many other of the pleasures of the world. “Blessed are You, G-d, King of the Universe, who sustains the entire world with His goodness.3” This is our challenge, to continually recognise G-d in the world, not only in the extraordinary, but also, and even more importantly, in the mundane.

This is the mistake that the Jews made when they first left Egypt. They acknowledged G-d as the Worker of Miracles. They saw Him at the Reed Sea, as they had seen Him in the plagues that He brought upon the Egyptians. But when there were no more overt miracles, they questioned “Is the L-rd among usor not?” They had not yet opened their eyes to realise that the greatest evidence of G-d is His presence among us, in our daily lives. They had not forgotten the miracles, and had not lessened their belief in G-d, but they couldn’t see Him with them continuously. It is up to us to constantly try to find the miracles, both overt and hidden, which G-d performs for us.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Beshalach Summary

You can read some divrei Torah from Tosefet Bracha by clicking on the link. (My translation, R' Baruch HaLevi Epstein's Divrei Torah - aka the Torah Temima)

Here is a summary of the Parsha.

When Pharaoh sends the Jews out of Egypt, G-d guides them on a long route through the wilderness in order to avoid seeing war, which might cause them to return to Egypt. G-d leads them with a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire at night. G-d instructs them to turn back towards the Reed Sea1 so that Pharaoh will think that they are lost and be tempted to pursue them.

Pharaoh and the Egyptians regret letting the Jews leave and chase after them with horses and chariots. The Jews are terrified; the Egyptians are right behind them and the sea is facing them. With no way out they complain to Moshe. G-d instructs Moshe to hold out his staff over the sea, and it splits, allowing the Jews to cross. Once they have all crossed safely , G-d again instructs Moshe to hold out his staff, and the sea returns to its normal state, drowning all the pursuing Egyptians. The Jews, led by Moshe, sing praise to G-d for all of the good that he has done for them.

They travel onward to the wilderness of Shur, walking three days without water. They arrive in Marra but the water is too bitter to drink. The Jews complain about Moshe, who prays to G-d and is told to place wood from a certain tree into the waters, which sweetens them. In Marra G-d gives them some of the 613 commandments.

They journey on to Elim, and camp by twelve springs surrounded by seventy palm trees. Next they go to the wilderness of Sin. The Jews complain about the lack of food and moan about Moshe and Aharon's leadership. G-d sends them Manna and quails, and instructs them about Shabbat. G-d instructs Aharon to take a container, place Manna in it, and keep it as an eternal reminder that He provided for them in the desert.

Again there is no water to drink, so G-d instructs Moshe to hit a rock with his staff in front of the entire nation. Water then flows from it, and this spring follows them throughout their journey in the desert.

The nation of Amalek attacks the Jews at Rephidim. Joshua leads the men in battle, and they eventually succeed in weakening Amalek. G-d instructs them to write down what Amalek did, as an eternal reminder. G-d also states that he will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Parshat Bo

“By ten Divine utterances was the world created.” (Ethics of the Fathers 5; 1). The Kabbalistic texts explain the ten plagues in Egypt corresponded to these ten utterances with which the world was created. At the time of creation the greatest revelation of G-d’s Presence was ‘In the beginning’, when there was only G-d and nothing else. Each act of creation served to further disguise G-d’s role in the world. However, with the plagues in Egypt, each new affliction brought the Egyptians and the Israelites closer to the recognition of G-d as Master of the Universe. Therefore, the plagues correspond to creation in reverse order.

The second utterance of creation was “Let there be light” (Genesis 1; 3). This light was not the normal light that illuminates our world today, as the heavenly bodies were not created until the fourth day of creation. Rather, according to the Midrash (quoted in Rashi) it was an intense spiritual light, and G-d saw that the wicked were unworthy of enjoying it. Therefore He separated it from the rest of the universe, and set it aside for the use of the righteous in the World to Come. It is clear that this light was not what we call light, because originally it was mingled with ‘darkness’ until “G-d separated between the light and the darkness...” (ibid. 4). We know darkness to be simply the absence of light, and therefore it is physically impossible to have dark and light mingled together, yet this impossibility was the light and darkness of the first day of creation.

The second to last plague in Egypt was that of darkness. But again, this was not merely the absence of light, as the verse states, “the darkness will be tangible ... No person could see another, nor could anyone rise from their place for a three day period.” (Exodus X; 21 - 23). Ramban explains that this darkness was an opaque, fog-like condition that extinguished all flames, so that the Egyptians could not use lamps. For the first three days they were confined to their homes by this darkness, but for the next three days the darkness intensified and became so palpable that the Egyptians literally could not move (Rashi).

Furthermore, this darkness was mingled with light, as the Torah says “but for all the Children of Israel there was light in their dwellings”. Rashi explains that there were two reasons for this plague of darkness. Among the Jews there were many people who had assimilated to the point where there was no hope for them to return to the covenant of Israel. Therefore they were not able to be redeemed from Egypt. G-d provided the darkness so that the Egyptians would not see their deaths and claim that the plagues affected Jews and Egyptians alike. Secondly, G-d had promised that the Jews would go free with all the wealth of Egypt. During the plague of darkness they were able to examine the possessions of the Egyptians, and determine their locations. When the Israelites were about to leave the Egyptians were not be able to deny them anything, as the verse states, “G-d gave the people favour in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they granted their requests, so they emptied Egypt” (ibid.. 12; 36). So while the Egyptians were paralysed by the darkness, the Jews were able to walk through their homes, looking through their possessions with clear illumination. This seems to be the mingling of light and darkness before G-d decreed their separation at the time of creation.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Parshat Bo

Rashi begins his commentary of the Torah with his famous question. Why does the Bible begin with the account of creation and of the patriarchs. Surely G-d did not need to tell us all of that; this is not a history book. Rather says Rashi, the Torah should have begun with the first real mitzvah (commandment), that of declaring the new month, which is in this week’s Torah reading. It is clear from this question that today’s Torah reading introduces a qualitatively different type of Torah. Therefore it must also herald the beginning of a different Jewish Nation that is able to accept and relate to such a Torah. What is so special about the Mitzvah of declaring the new month that it should be the first commandment that G-d gave us as a nation?

King Solomon tells us in Koheles (Ecclesiastes) “There is nothing new beneath the sun” (1; 9). “Beneath the sun” is a phrase used to denote the natural order, the scientific laws of the observable universe. Everything has been set in motion from the time of creation, and therefore there is nothing “new” that can occur. All that we are able to do is to better understand how these laws operate, and thus to find ways of using them to our benefit. But we are not able to actually create anything new.

Of course this implies that there are “new” things, but that they are “above” the sun, beyond the realms of science and nature. Our Rabbis tell us that “beyond the sun” refers to G-d, the spiritual world, and the Torah which is our gateway to that world. Actual creation and renewal is possible, but only through the study and observance of the Torah and its laws. This is the world order that we as Jews have access to if we choose to delve into it.

The Hebrew words for new month are “Rosh Chodesh”. “Chodesh” is closely related to the word “Chidush” meaning renewal. By giving us the Mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, G-d is also giving us the power of Chidush. Here we have our opening into the world of Torah and closeness to G-d, the world beyond the sun. Therefore, Rashi questioned why the Torah doesn’t begin at this point, when we are given the key to renewal that separates us from the rest of the world.

Why is this the first commandment given to the Jews before leaving Egypt? Why couldn’t G-d wait until they were standing at Mt. Sinai, and they could have had access to the renewal of the new month at the same time that the rest of the Torah was given to them?

The book of Exodus begins with “There arose new king...”. The Chiddushei HaRim2 asks how is it possible that the Torah describes the king of Egypt as “new”, implying that he was somehow connected to this higher order beyond the parameters of the sun? He answers that G-d puts this power into the world, and it is intended for the Jews to connect to. If, however, they forget that they have this ability, and don’t utilise it, others are able to make use of this potential for renewal against them. This is what happened in Egypt. The Jews forgot what they were there for, and that they could connect to the spiritual power of Torah, the inheritance of their forefathers. Therefore Pharaoh and Egypt were able to use it to enslave them, as it says “There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Yosef”. Pharaoh was only able to forget about Yosef because the Jews had also forgotten.

Therefore, in order to get out of Egypt, the Jews needed the ability to start again. Despite the fact that they had sunk to the lowest levels of morality, and become as Egyptian as the Egyptians, G-d gave them the gift of Chodesh and Chidush so that they could rise out of the slump and begin again. This is why the new month sacrifices that are commanded in the Torah include a sin-offering. It is a mini Day of Atonement and gives us the chance to begin again.

Many other nations have risen to become superpowers, but eventually their strength collapses inwards as their society disintegrates. All the nations that once ruled the world no longer exist, they have been relegated to the realm of history. Once the social rot sets in, they find no way out. Only we Jews have survived every up and down of history. Whenever we hit a spiritual low and there appears no way out, G-d punishes us, but at the same time gives us the opportunity to begin again with a clean slate. Our G-d given ability to renew ourselves, as individuals and as a nation explains the seemingly impossible longevity of the Jewish nation in world history.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Bo Summary

This is a summary of this week's Torah portion.

For my translation of exerpts of Tosefet Bracha on the parsha click these links:

Tosefet Bracha - Bo

Tosefet Bracha - Bo (part 2)

Hashem tells Moshe that He is hardening Pharaoh's heart, so that through miraculous plagues the world will know for all time that He is the one true G-d. Pharaoh is warned about the plague of locust and is told how severe it will be. Pharaoh agrees to release only the men, but Moshe insists that everyone must be allowed to go free. During the plague, Pharaoh calls for Moshe and Aaron to remove the locusts and he admits that he has sinned. Hashem ends the plague but hardens Pharaoh's heat, and again Pharaoh fails to free the Children of Israel.

The country, except for the Jewish People, is then engulfed in a palpable darkness. Pharaoh calls for Moshe, and tells him to take all the Jews out of Egypt, and to leave their flocks behind. Moshe tells him that not only will they take their own flocks, but Pharaoh must add his own too. Moshe tells Pharaoh that Hashem is going to bring one more plague, the death of the first born, and then the Children of Israel will leave Egypt. Hashem again hardens Pharaoh's heart, and Pharaoh warns Moshe that if he sees him again he will be put to death.

Hashem tells Moshe that the month of Nissan will be the first month in the calendar year. The Children of Israel are commanded to take a sheep on the tenth of the month, and guard it until the fourteenth. The sheep is then to be slaughtered as a Pesach sacrifice, its blood to be put on their door-posts, and its roasted meat to be eaten. The blood on the door-post will be a sign to Hashem, to pass over their homes when He strikes the first born of Egypt.

The Jewish People are told to memorialise this day as the Exodus from Egypt, by never eating chametz on Pesach. Moshe relays Hashem's commands, and the Jewish People fulfill them flawlessly. Hashem sends the final plague, killing the first born, and Pharaoh sends the Jews out of Egypt. Hashem tells Moshe and Aaron the laws concerning the Pesach sacrifice, pidyon haben (the redemption of the first born son), and tefillin.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Parshat Vaera 3

“G-d said to Moshe… ‘Speak to Pharaoh, that he should send the Children of Israel from his land. But I shall harden Pharaoh’s heart...” (Exodus 7; 2-3). These verses raise two obvious questions - what does it mean when G-d hardens a persons heart? How does that accord with our understanding of free choice? Furthermore, if G-d has stated that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, what point is there in sending Moshe and Aharon to speak to him? This seems like mockery, asking Pharaoh to do something which has become impossible for him to do.

The Rambam writes (Hilchot Teshuva 5; 1 ff.): Each person has the opportunity to turn themselves towards the good path and be righteous, or to choose to follow the path of evil, and become wicked. This the meaning of the verse “Behold mankind is like one of us to know good and evil” (Genesis 3; 22). This means that human beings are unique in the world in that through their own intellect they know the difference between good and evil, and do whichever they desire, without anyone (or anything) preventing them. This principle is a foundation of the Torah and commandments for if G-d would decree that a person would be righteous or wicked, or if there were something forcing a person to a certain path, how could G-d command us to act in a certain way, or how could the prophets chastise us and instruct us to improve our actions?

However, it is possible that a person could sin so grievously, or so often, that strict justice dictates that they must be punished for this, and therefore have their free choice removed so that they are prevented from repentance. Therefore the Torah writes “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” (Exodus 7; 3). Since he sinned initially of his own choice, and acted evilly against Israel who were living in his land, justice therefore dictates that he eventually lose the option of repentance. Why then did G-d send Moshe to him to tell him to send the Jews from his land and repent, if that option was already removed from him? If a person should do something of their own free will, G-d may remove from them the ability to repent and they must die in their wickedness.

We have a principle that G-d helps a person to follow the path that they chose. Pharaoh chose to be stubborn and obstinate, therefore G-d caused him to take his path to its conclusion. His decisions to oppress and kill the Jews, and then refuse to listen to Moshe and Aaron, caused G-d to take him to a point where the gates of repentance were sealed before him.

Pharaoh was not the only one to exhibit this trait of stubbornness. G-d accuses the Jewish nation of being ‘a stiff-necked people’ at the time of the Golden Calf (ibid. 32; 9), and cites this as the reason that His presence will not remain within the midst of the nation (ibid. 33; 3). Yet despite their stubbornness, when confronted with the enormity of their sin they readily repent, as evidenced by their removal of the crowns that they gained at Sinai (ibid. 5).

Rambam writes (Hilchot Gerushin 1; 1) that a bill of divorce (get) may only be written with the voluntary consent of the husband. Yet later (2; 20) he writes that in a case where the law mandates that a husband should give his wife a get and he refuses, the beis din (Jewish court of law) should whip him until he says ‘I want to give my wife a get’. The Rambam is telling us that sometimes a person’s stubbornness gets in the way of their true intentions. Therefore whipping them removes the stubbornness, and enables them to give the divorce willingly.

In a sense this is what G-d was doing to Pharaoh. He smote him and all of Egypt with plagues to see whether he would repent and let the Jews go voluntarily. Only after the sixth plague, when it was clear that Pharaoh’s inner desire was not to repent did G-d actually intervene to harden his heart. By this time if Pharaoh were to repent it would not be in order to bring him closer to G-d, but only to avoid the plagues. He had reached the point where he needed to follow through and see the consequences of his actions, and receive his due punishment.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Parshat Vaera 2

This week’s Torah reading contains the four expressions of redemption, “I am the L-rd, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm, and with great judgements, and I will take you to Me for a people...” (Exodus 6; 6-7). The Midrash states that these four expressions also correspond to the four decrees of Pharaoh which caused the Jews to cry out to G-d, and to be saved.

The Ba’al HaTurim finds another quartet to which these four expressions correspond. He explains that the four expressions of redemption correspond to the four nations who would exile and enslave the Jews in the future.

How do these “fours” relate to each other? Pharaoh’s first decree was to subject the Jews to slave labour. Therefore the first phrase of redemption is “I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians,” specifying that G-d will end the slavery and the harsh labour. One of the main purposes of the slavery was to prevent the Israelite people from retaining faith in G-d. Because they were forced to work so hard they had no time left to contemplate religion and the promises that G-d had made to the forefathers. This corresponds to the first exile, to Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. At that time the greatest threat to the Jewish people was idolatry. The Babylonians were steeped in a culture of idol worship, and Nebuchadnezzar erected a statue of himself to which all his subjects were forced to prostrate themselves. The Jews were later punished for bowing to this idol. The phrase “v’Hotzeti”, “And I will bring you out” reminds us of G-d’s promise to Avraham at the Covenant between the Pieces, where G-d “brought Avraham outside” (Genesis 15; 5). The Midrash explains that at this moment G-d brought Avraham outside the influence of the constellations and astrology, and established a direct relationship between Himself and Avraham’s descendants. From this time forth there was no need for any idols or other intermediaries between the Jews and G-d. So too in Egypt, G-d promises to bring them out, to remove the Jews from the idolatry which they will be surrounded with in Babylon, and to redeem them from that.

The second expression of redemption, “I will deliver you from their bondage” corresponds to Pharaoh’s second decree to throw all the new-born males into the Nile. This parallels the second exile, of Persia and Medea, which culminated in Haman’s decree to wipe out all the Jewish people. During this exile the Jews were faced with physical destruction, just as Pharaoh’s aim was to physically destroy the nation by killing all the males. The word “v’Hitzalti”, “deliver” or “save” implies G-d’s saving from the threat of extermination.

The third expression of redemption, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” is G-d’s response to Pharaoh’s third decree. Pharaoh became ill with leprosy, and tried to cure himself by bathing in the blood of Jewish babies. The Hagaddah says: “Outstretched arm” this refers to the sword, as it says (I Chronicles 21; 16) “His sword in his hand, outstretched over Jerusalem.”. The simple explanation is that this refers to the slaying of the first born, which the angel of death performed with a sword. Just as Pharaoh had Jewish babies slain so that he could bathe in their blood, so he was repaid in kind when all the firstborn in Egypt were slain.

The third exile was that of the Greeks, which was unique in that it was the only exile where the Jews actually remained in the land of Israel. We do not normally think of the Greeks, the most “cultured” nation of the ancient world as being bloodthirsty murderers. However the mystical sources indicate that metaphorically they did just that. Blood is likened to the soul, as the Torah says “For the blood is the soul” (Deuteronomy 12; 23). Therefore removing a person’s spirituality is likened to shedding blood. The Greeks didn’t enslave the Jews or oppress them physically, rather they banned the study of Torah and other Jewish practices, forcing them to renounce their religion. Thus the Greeks are considered murderers in their attempt to remove the inner essence of the Jewish nation. The word “Ga’alti”, “redeem,” implies taking one nation out from the midst of another. Just as both Pharaoh on a physical level, and the Greeks on a spiritual level attempted to remove the inner essence of the Jews, so too G-d responds by removing the Jews from inside another nation.

The final decree of Pharaoh was instructing his taskmasters to stop supplying the Israelites with straw with which to make bricks. The real hardship of this decree was that it forced the Jews to spread throughout Egypt to search for straw, and thus prevented the Jews from being united. G-d responded to this decree with “I will take you to Me for a people”, G-d will externally impose unity upon the Jewish people, by being their G-d. The other three expressions of redemption all specify saving from oppression. However this final stage of redemption comes after all the external pressures have been removed, and is G-d bringing the Jews to Him, not away from something else.

The fourth and final nation to exile the Jews was Edom. They destroyed the Second Temple, and scattered the Jews throughout the world. Our Sages tell us that the Temple was destroyed because of the sin of causeless hatred between the Jews, a lack of unity. Therefore the exile was one which dispersed the Jews and aggravated that disunity. And the redemption from that exile must be a bringing together of all the Jews, uniting them in the purpose of being the nation of G-d.