Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

There is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!

First, Choose a Direction

This week’s reading begins with Rivka’s pregnancy, which came about only after many years and many prayers. And then we read a verse which, according to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki himself, begs further explanation: “And the children struggled within her, and she said ‘if so, why am I here?’ And she went to inquire of G-d” [25:22].

First of all, what’s the problem? Different children behave differently in utero. Some move around a great deal, while others are more placid. Women can often tell how their children will behave before giving birth.

So Rivka’s baby moved around a lot. Admittedly, a child like that is likely to be somewhat more taxing (and that may be an understatement). But this is not, to use the expression, “the end of the world!” So why does she say “if so, why a why am I here?”

Second question: where did she go? G-d fills the world, yet the verse says “she went to inquire” of Him.

And what is the answer she receives? “And G-d said to her, ‘there are two nations in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you; and the one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'” [25:23]. They are two brothers, and they will not get along. One will bully the other, she is told. And she is reassured and goes home, and indeed eventually gives birth to twins.

This, then, is the reassuring answer, that they are brothers who won’t get along?

Our Sages explain that what Rivka perceived was not “conventional” movement of a baby. There was a House of Study, dedicated to understanding G-d, led by Shem the son of Noach, and his great-grandson Eyver. And any time that Rivka went by this House of Study, she felt her baby (not knowing that there were, in fact, two babies) trying to get out to go study with them.

But by this time, there was also a great deal of idolatry in the world. And every time she walked by a house of idolatry, she also felt her baby trying to get out, to go worship the idols!

It was to the House of Study of Shem and Eyver to which she went to seek guidance. And that is where she learned that she was going to have twins.

Our Rabbis say that what bothered her so much was that her baby appeared to be pulled in every direction. He or she wanted to simultaneously serve G-d and serve idols. And the consolation was, these are two different children, each of whom is naturally drawn in one direction but not the other.

This was a consolation, they say, because then one could hope that the child naturally drawn to idolatry would nonetheless defeat this inclination and serve G-d. But if he didn’t perceive that idolatry and service of G-d were different and mutually exclusive, then he was lost at a much more fundamental level.

Unlike babies in the womb, we have within us both good and evil inclinations. We are all, in our lifetimes, drawn to both sides — and every person, on his or her level, sometimes makes the wrong choice. But our very first task is to know that there is indeed a choice to be made, that some actions are superior than others. The Torah tells us how to discern between them. And then, we must take stock. We must know in what direction we are going, rather than allow ourselves to be lost in our daily affairs. That will enable us to change for the better.

Our goal is to grow. We must attempt to become more G-dly, and bring more G-dliness into the world through our actions. If we are “all over the place,” lost in a cloud of good and bad behaviors, then indeed “why are we here?” We must take stock of our actions, choose our direction, and pursue the good. Then the bad will be subjugated to the good, even if the bad appears to be “greater,” dragged to the House of Study to be elevated and purified.

Daunting or Doable?

It is not in Heaven, such that one could say ‘who will go up to Heaven and take it for us’… For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” [30:12, 14].

At first glance Torah observance can seem daunting, filled with myriad rules and regulations governing every aspect of life. It seems impossible for a person to know everything! And in reality, this is true: Rabbi Tarfon says in the Chapters of the Fathers that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate yourself from it.” A person will never know and understand the entire Torah, but rather has a lifelong obligation to study, learn and grow.

This is only true, however, because there is unlimited depth and breadth to the Torah. That which we need to know in the daily course of our lives is well within our limits.

We find a similar concept in secular law: we follow complex legal regulations every day without a second thought, simply because we learn patterns of correct behavior. All of us learn to operate turn signals while we learn to drive a car, and from then on use those turn signals even when turning right at an empty intersection. At least, most of us use our turn signals! When you come across a complex situation that requires greater knowledge (think taxes), then we consult experts and try to follow their advice.

Once you learn to put on the right shoe first and tie the left shoe first, it becomes daily practice, even without learning the deeper meaning behind this behavior that elevates it to the status of a religious act. The Torah enables every person to perform the basic, correct behaviors, but all of the Torah that we learn continues to add depth and refinement to those same acts.

In discussing the Commandment to love G-d (as found in the daily recitation of Shema Yisrael from the Torah), Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim (whose Yahrtzeit is today, Erev Shabbos), cautions against simply reading the words without putting them into action. He compares this to a factory foreman who carefully writes the instructions given by the owner into a manual, and then each day gathers the workers and reads through the manual from beginning to end while the machines sit idle the entire day.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not only the Day of Judgment, but the beginning of a 10 day process of self-reflection, which should spark within us the desire to refine our behaviors during this coming year, to correct what we are doing incorrectly, and further perfect even what we are already doing correctly at more basic levels. There is always room for improvement that always room for growth, yet it is never so intimidating that we can’t get started.

May the coming holidays lead us to greater growth and commitment, to better behaviors that will manifest themselves throughout the coming year. May it be a new year of success, growth, and happiness for us and our families!

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

The Limits of Human Comprehension

This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!

The Eye of the Beholder

When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!

More than a Bonfire

In Judaism, our holidays are never mere celebrations or commemorations — they are opportunities for spiritual growth. In the case of Lag B’Omer, there are two key lessons for all of us, found in the two stories behind this rabbinic holiday.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from being the 33rd day of the Omer count. All Hebrew letters express a numerical value — “ל‎”, “Lamed”, is 30, and “ג‎”, “Gimel”, is 3. Thus we get the acronym “Lag” (pronounced “lahg”).

The Talmud tells us that during the time of the great teacher Rebbe Akiva, a plague raged through his yeshiva, his rabbinical school, during the Omer. He lost 24,000 students during this time; even the great schools in Babylonia, and those of today, are not as large. Rebbe Akiva went on to teach five more students, and it is they who transmitted much of Jewish tradition on to future generations — so one can only imagine what was lost because those 24,000 other students passed away. This is why many observe customs of mourning during the Omer period, except on the 33rd day when the plague ceased.

One person who did pass away on Lag B’Omer was one of Rebbe Akiva’s five key students: Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the work of revealed Kabbalah. Defying Roman persecution, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave to learn Torah together — for twelve years! The custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer celebrates the incredible light of Torah which Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai gave the world.

Why were all of the 24,000 scholars lost to us? Our Sages say that considering their spiritual level, they showed insufficient respect and love for each other. So throughout the Omer period, it is not sufficient to mourn by not shaving or listening to music; we must think about our obligation to show love and respect for every other person. And on Lag B’Omer in particular, we should celebrate — and ponder — the incredible light that one person can share.