Parashas Lekh-Lekha 5756

Most young Yeshiva children come home sometime around Shavuos with the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only the Jews accepted it.

The medrash, as told in the Yalqut Shim’oni, tells how first Hashem went to Edom and offered them the Torah. They asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replied, “Do not murder”. Edom declines because “our very substance is murder because our father, Eisav, was a murderer”.

Next, Hashem approaches Ammon and Moav. When they asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replies “You may not commit adultery”. They too reject the Torah, because, “our very substance is adultery because our father, Lot, was sexually immoral”.

The third example given in the Yalkut is the Ishmaelites. They too want to first know what is written in the Torah before accepting it. To them Hashem says, “Do not steal”. They answer, “our very substance is theft, because our father, Yishmael, was a thief”. In this way, each nation declined, until Hashem approached the Jews.

Hashem’s answer to each of the nations is strange. Why choose the one sin their forefather was known for? Especially since in each of these cases the sin is prohibited to all Benei Noach; they may not do any of these things even without getting the Torah.

By comparing this medrash to the opening pasuk in this week’s parshah, we can get a better understanding of the point of the story.

“Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your homeland, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you’.” (12:1) The first sentence recorded in the Torah of the Jewish mission on earth is a commandment for Avram to leave his home and his father.

Avram didn’t say, “I can’t worship G-d because my very substance his idolatry, because my father, Terach, manufactures idols”. Hashem orders Avram to leave the culture that made him, to leave his father’s sphere of influence, and he does.

Avram’s reply was “And Avram went, just as G-d told him”. (12:4) If Hashem said he could change, rise above Ur Casdim to become fit for both the land of Israel and the father of the people of Israel, then he goes.

Is man a creature of fate or of destiny? Is his future foretold, etched in rock, unchangeable? Or can he rebuild himself into something greater than he was?

Clearly the Torah insists on the latter. The very key to accepting the Torah is to be committed to use its ideas and its mitzvos to improve and to grow.

This was the failing ascribed to the other nations in the medrash. They saw a given flaw in their national character as their substance, immutable. Hashem wasn’t asking them about a particular prohibition, but about their commitment to leave their “father’s house”. If they do not believe they can change, what purpose can getting the Torah serve them?

You Lifted Us from Amongst all the Languages

In the Amidah for Yom Tov, we credit Hashem as the one who “lifted us from among the languages”. Importance is given not just to our nationhood (“You chose us from among the nations”) but also to our bond of common language.

George Orwell made our generation very aware of how language shapes thought. I was recently reminded of this idea when someone on the net asked the old question, “Is Judaism a race or a religion?”

On the one hand, your Jewishness is typically inherited from your mother. This would lead one to think of Jewish identity as racial. On the other hand, we accept converts, as would a religion.

As I see it, the problem is caused by the pigeon-holing. Why must it be one or the other? Because English has these two terms readily available, we — without even thinking — try to force this concept into one of these two categories. English, though, was created by Christians, and need not have a term that describes how Judaism views itself. We don’t even notice how the language channeled our thoughts.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to this week’s parashah makes a similar observation. Hebrew has no word for “religion”. It’s an alien concept. “Religion” connotes a belief system, rituals, ways of escaping the world into G-d’s comfort. But Judaism is about bringing G-d’s ways into how we act and react in the everyday world.

Another example he offers is “virtue”. In Latin languages the root is “vir”, manliness, virility. The German equivalent, “Tugend”, is from “taugen”, meaning useful. In Hebrew, the word is “mitzvah” a commandment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, pointed out how it had also had connotations of the root mem-tzadi-vuv, and could indicate “to aim” or “to focus”. There is no way for a Hebrew speaking person to talk about doing the right thing without some level of his mind getting vague hints that the “right thing” is “doing what G-d commanded so that we may achieve His goals for us”.

The Torah begins the story by telling us “The whole earth was of one language and uniform ideas (devarim)” (Breishis 11:1). The source of the problem was not only that their ability to communicate aided their plans, but it also lead them to being of like mind. One person was able to mislead an entire generation.

According to traditional histories, Avram was 48 when the Tower of Babel was built. He was an adult who consciously chose not to participate in the endeavor. And as a reward, when the other clans were given their own languages, causing them to spread out and become separate nations, Avram was not so punished, and still spoke and thought in Hebrew.

The gift of speaking Hebrew, then, is no small thing. It’s not just exposure to a holier mode of speech. Hebrew gives us the tools to organize our concepts in the way Hashem intended. Instead of asking whether Judaism is a race or a religion, with the connotation of those words, we can look at Am Yisrael, and Adas Yisrael, and the meaning given those terms by the Chumash.

Tiqanta Shabbos

This week I’d like to discuss three seemingly unrelated questions about the words of the tephillah:

  1. The focus of Shabbos Mussaf davening is the paragraph that begins “Tiqanta Shabbos…” What most readily jumps to the eye about the tephilla is that the 22 words it opens with are an anagram of the Hebrew alphabet in reverse. (“Tiqanta” starts with a tav, “Shabbos” with a shin, “ratzisa” — a reish, and so on.)While many tephillos are written with an alphabetic motif, it is far more rare for the alphabet to be presented in the reverse. What concept were the authors trying to express with this sequence?
  2. Yeshayah quotes Hashem, saying: “I am the first and I am the last; and besides me there is no god. And who is like Me…” (44:6) This same sentiment is found a number of times in tephillah. The pasuq is associated in the siddur with the similar declaration of G-d’s unity of the Shema. For example, in the paragraphs following the “short Shema” of Birkhos haShachar, as well as in the berakhah of ge’ulah [redemption] after the morning recitation of Shema “Emes Atah Hu rishon, ve’Atah Hu acharon — It is true that You are The First, and You are The Last…”The Kuzari makes a point of explaining that by “The First” and “The Last” we don’t mean that G-d has a beginning or an end. But this begs the question. First and last are terms that refer to a sequence. Something can be the first of a list, or the last in a collection. What is the list here? Of what is Hashem first and last?
  3. The Torah has two terms for “because”: “ki” (which also has 6 other translations, according to Rashi) and “lema’an“. These words also come up frequently in tephillah. We don’t expect Hebrew, since it was written by G-d, to have superfluous words. The two words must differ by connotation. But what is that difference?

Cause and Purpose

Aristotle lists four kinds of causes (Physics II:3). For example, consider a coffee table:

  • Material cause: What is it made out of? Wood, nails, glue, stain, varnish…
  • Formal cause: What is the form and function, the essence? It provides a place to put things down near the couch that is easy to reach when sitting on it. It therefore has a top, legs raising it to the desired level, it’s strong enough to hold a mug (remember to use a coaster!) or reading material.

These first two categories correspond to Aristotilian notions of Substance and Form, chomer vetzurah. The nature of the object being caused. The next two relate more to time.

  • Efficient cause: What produced it? This is what we usually think of when we speak of causality. The table exists because a carpenter converted the wood etc… into a coffee table.
  • Final cause: For what purpose, telos? The carpenter needed an income. The homeowner needed something to break up the space in her living room, to hold those nice pictorial books to give the room just the right look.

He therefore has two separate studies of events — causality (efficient causes; hereafter simply “cause”, matching common usage) and teleology (final causes). He believed that every event has a cause, an event that preceded it that forced it to happen, and a telos, an following event that was the purpose for this one.

Teleology is in disfavor today. Particularly in the era of Darwin, when life was seen to be the product of accident, the concept of telos was attacked, called a “fallacy” of the classical mind. For the Jew, however, there is no question. G-d created the universe, He did it for a purpose, and He insures that the purpose will be met. People have free will, and therefore act in order to place our plans into effect.
Everything has two reasons for happening: its cause and its purpose. This is provides us an answer to our last question. “Ki“, when used for because, introduces the cause. Therefor, in the Levitic song for Tuesday, we find “Let us greet Him with thanksgiving, with song let us shout for joy with Him. Ki — because G-d is a great L-rd…”

Lema’an” is associated with purpose. In the words of the Shema, “lema’an yirbu yemeichem, viymei bneichem — so that you will have many days, and your children have many days….”

Two Sequences
Aristotle was convinced the universe was infinitely old, and that it would last forever. Part of the reason for this belief is because of his concepts of “cause” and “telos”.

The cause of an event always happens before the event itself. For example, because the wind blew a leaf off the tree, it fell. First is the wind, then the falling. But every event has a cause. The wind too is an event, and it too has an earlier cause. We can keep on chasing earlier and earlier causes, and notice that the universe must have been older and older. This gives us a sequence of events, cause to effect, cause to effect…. In fact, Aristotle saw no end to this chain, and there for couldn’t believe the universe had a beginning.

The Rambam, in the Guide to The Perplexed (vol. 2, ch. 14), points out the flaw in this reasoning. He defines G-d as the First Cause.

We can now approach our second question. G-d is first of the sequence of causes. “Atah Hu rishon — You are The First [Cause].”

Aristotle has a similar argument that the universe could have no end. The purpose of an event, what the event should accomplish, comes after the event. The purpose for G-d providing wind to blow was that He wanted the rock to fall. Again, every purpose is also an event, and we have another sequence we can chase forever, in this case later and later in time.

This answers the second half of the question. G-d is The Last, The Culminating Purpose of all of creation. “All is called in My Name, and for My Glory I have Created it.” (Isa. 43:7)

The Day the is Completely Shabbos

In Birchas Hamazon, in the “harachaman” we add for Shabbos, the culmination of human history is called “Yom Shekulo Shabbos“, the day/time that is entirely Shabbos. Shabbos is called “mei’ein olam haba — the image of the World to Come”. This concept is also the subject of the Shemoneh Esrei for Shabbos Mincha.

Shabbos is not only testimony to creation, that Hashem is the First Cause. Shabbos is also intimately connected to, and preparation for, relating to G-d as the Culminating Purpose.

Rav Yaakov Emden connects the reverse alphabetical ordering of Tiqanta Shabbos with the concept of Mei’ein Olam Haba. We can suggest that this is the reason why. The sequence of letters in the alphabet are used to represent the sequence of events of history. The order of letters shows how we are viewing that sequence.

Normally, we can only see G-d’s hand in the world as First Cause. We look around and see “how great are your works, Hashem.” The alphabet of this world starts with alpha, the one-ness of G-d, and unfurls to the plurality of creation. Shabbos, however, we reverse the order — we start with the plurality of the universe, and end with the one-ness of G-d.

The zemirah says, “mei’ein olam haba, yom Shabbos menuchah — in the image of the World to Come, the day of Shabbos brings rest.” When we realize that everything that happens to us is for a purpose, everything is part of that pursuit of the Culminating Purpose, then we are at peace.

Parashas Chuqas

When looking at the mitzvah of tzitzis for parashas Shelach (Toras Aish: Vol. 1, No. 4, Mesukim MiDevash) we discussed at the color of tekheiles. This week’s parashah opens at the opposite end of the spectrum, the red heifer. As a preface, here is a very brief review of the relevant concepts.

We noticed that man feels torn between two poles: his physical desires, and his spiritual ones. But in order to feel pulled, the identity, the “I” that is feeling, must be a third entity that the two are actually pulling upon. This entity is active, a creator “in the image of G-d”, self-aware and the seat of free will. The physical and spiritual components are mere creatures of their respective realms, they feel like helpless subjects to the forces of their respective universes.

R. SR Hirsch found this concept key to understanding a number of the symbols that Hashem uses to communicate to man. In particular, the Torah has only three words for colors: adom, red; yaroq, green-yellow; and tekheiles, blue. (All other color words refer to particular colored objects. For example, “argaman” doesn’t mean “purple” it means “purple wool”.) These primary colors represent those same three pieces of the human condition. In our discussion of tzitzis we focused on blue. Tekheiles is the color of the sky. It is the end of the spectrum, and hints at the unseen beyond. Therefor it is the color of the Beis Hamiqdash and describes the special relationship between G-d and Israel. Tekheiles is used as a tool to inculcate within us the role of the spiritual man.

The parah adumah, the Red Heifer, brings us to the meaning of red. “Adom” is from “adamah“, earth. It is the closest to the energy that gets absorbed by matter. Therefor, red represents the physical man and the universe he lives in. With this background, we’ll try to under stand some elements of the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer.

What does it mean to be tamei or tahor? When the Torah discusses the subject, it uses the avoidance of tum’ah as a goal in itself, not as something that needs further justification. The explanation Hashem gives us for certain animals being non-kosher is merely “tamei hu lachem – it is tamei to you.” (Vayikra 11:4) Elsewhere, we find tahor used to mean pure; for example, pure gold is repeatedly called “zahav tahor.” (e.g. Shemos 25:31) But what is it that is pure, and from what kind of adulteration is it pure?

The Ramchal defines the personal attribute called taharah:

Taharah is the correction of the heart and thoughts… Its essence is that man shouldn’t leave room for the inclination in his actions. Rather all his actions should be on the side of wisdom and awe [for the Almighty], and not on the side of sin and desire. This is even in those things which are of the body and physical.

- Mesilas Yesharim Ch. 16

To the Ramchal, taharah is purity of the “heart and thoughts”. The tahor man has “no room for the physical.” It is the purity of the deciding mind from the physical creature.

To cast the words of the Ramchal into the terms we discussed in the introduction, taharah and tum’ah focus on the relationship between the physical and the mind. Taharah is the purity of the mind from physical prejudices. Tum’ah is its adulteration, so that the decision making process can not be freed of the physical urges.

This is mussar’s description of a personality trait called “taharah.” The halakhah‘s concept seems to derive directly from it. Rav SR Hirsch describes the tum’ah of a dead body:

A dead human body tends to bring home to one’s mind a fact which is able to give support to that pernicious misconception which is called tum’ah. For, in fact, there lies before us actual evidence that Man must — willy-nilly — submit to the power of physical forces. That in this corpse that lies before us, it is not the real human being, that the real human being, the actual Man, which the powers of physical force can not touch, had departed from here before the body — merely its earthly envelope — could fall under the withering law of earthly Nature; more, that as long as the real Man, with his free-willed self-determining G-dly nature was present in the body, the body itself was freed from forced obedience to the purely physical demands, and was elevated into the sphere of moral freedom in all its powers of action and also of enjoyment, when the free-willed ruling of the higher part of Man decided to achieve the moral mission of his life;

- Commentary on Lev. 11:47

R. SR Hirsch portrays the tamei object as one that causes the illusion that man is nothing more than a physical object, an animal, a helpless subject to physical forces and physical desires. In reality,

death only begins with death, but that in life, thinking striving and accomplishing Man can master, rule, and use even his own sensuous body with all its all its innate forces, urges, and powers, with G-d-like free self-decision, within the limits of, and for accomplishment of, the duties set by the laws of morality; …

“Thinking striving and accomplishing Man,” the conscious man, should use the “sensuous body with all its innate forces, urges, and powers,” the physical man, as a tool for doing good. The object which halachah calls tamei is that thing which will cause mussar’s tum’ah to awaken itself within the mind. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind that is prejudiced by physical needs and urges can not fully choose its own destiny.

Since the tamei is that which reinforces the idea that man is a being of mere physicality, tum’ah is only associated with the dead bodies of animals “whose body-formation is similar to that of Man, primarily the larger mammals.” The shemonah sheratzim, the only smaller animals that are tamei, are vertebrates “that live in the vicinity of human beings,” the weasel, mouse, mole, etc… All these are animals we see about us, living much as we do. The animals that closer resemble man have stricter rules of tum’ah. Similarly, menstruation and sexual emissions, which also cause tum’ah are things that happen to man, unwittingly, “willy-nilly submitting to the power of physical forces.”

In contrast, to become pure we immerse in a miqvah. The root of the word “miqvah” is ambiguous. The straight-forward definition would be “a gathering of water,” which a miqvah is in a very literal sense. But the word can also be read “source of hope.” Perhaps this is an allusion to the idea that it provides us with the faith that we are not mere creatures of the laws of biology, but can rise above those laws to master our own fate.

The sprinkling waters of the Parah Adumah consists of five ingredients: the red cow, a spring of hyssop, a piece of cedar wood, red wool, and water.

The parah is a work animal. However, to be usable for the mitzvah, this cow must never have been harnessed. It represents the physical man, which, in the state of tum’ah, is not controlled by the creative mind. For this reason, the parah must be pure red – the color of unadulterated physicality.

After the cow is burnt is referred to by a new noun – “sereifah“, a burnt thing. The first step to becoming tahor is destroying the notion that man is and ought to be an uncontrollable animal.

To this is added the hyssop, the cedar and the scarlet wool. The three are tied together by the wool to make a bundle. The hyssop is of the smallest plants native to Israel, it grows in the cracks of neglected walls. The cedar is among the tallest and proudest. This contrast is reduced to ash, showing the meaninglessness of ego and conceit, the flaws that conscious, self-aware beings are prone to.

The wool is called “tola’as shani”. “Shani” is from “shanah”, changed. The focus is on the fact that it is no longer what it was. That which was once white, a clean slate, is now red, overrun by physicality. These three are added to the “s’reifas haparah” – the entity that is mostly destroyed, but still retains some of the “parah”-ness.

This bundle is burnt to show the second step toward taharah. After the physical man is brought into control, we rid the mind of the effects, the flaws, caused by this contact.

The last ingredient is “mayim chayim”, living or “raw” water. Similar to the waters of the mikvah, the Parah Adumah water must be collected from nature. Water, the archetypal fluid, demonstrates change. By being “raw” the water is connected to the waters of creation, described in Bereishis 1:2-3.

This is the last step to reach taharah. Now that we have eradicated the error that man is a creature, a victim of physical forces, and the secondary effects of that error on the mind, we must be reborn (mayim), hopeful (mikvah) and committed to a new future.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

The Kohen and the Menorah

Hashem chose Aharon and his descendants to serve Him as Kohanim. It seems strange. If anyone should be chosen to be the first Kohen wouldn’t it be Moshe? Wasn’t he the Eved Hashem – the greatest servant of the Almighty?

The Gemara attributes to Moshe the attitude of “let the law uproot mountains.” He lived to the ideal, teaching by setting an example of what man can become. He was able to separate himself from everything earthly, and single-mindedly pursue the higher ideal. Moshe begins his final speech to his people with the words “Hear O skies and I shall speak; listen O earth to the words of my mouth.” Rashi comments that Moshe had to use a stronger language in speaking to the earth, as he was a man who was more heavenly than earthly. He was further from the earth, so it had to listen more carefully.

In contrast, Hillel (Mishnah Avos 1:12) enjoins us to learn from Aharon, who he describes as as a “lover of peace and a pursuer of peace. A lover of Mankind who brought them close to Torah.” Aharon represents another kind of teacher, one who is part of the people, and works from within the community.

Though society needs both a Moshe, an ideal to aspire to, and an Aharon, it is the Aharon who is chosen for the Kehunah, the priesthood. In order to represent the masses in the Avodah, you must be part of them.

In this week’s parashah, Hashem tells Moshe to instruct Aharon “Biha’aloschah es haneiros – when you cause the candles to go up”. This is a very odd way to phrase it. More straightforward would be bihadlikchah — when you light the candles.

One of the explanations Rashi offers for this strange terminology is that it refers to a law about how the menorah is lit. One may not light the menorah directly, by letting a fire touch the wick. Instead the Kohen holds a fire close to the lamp, and the wick bursts into flame from the heat.

This is a beautiful metaphor for how the Kohen teaches. He doesn’t instruct directly. Instead, he loves mankind, and by bringing the light of his example close to the masses, brings them to emulate.

The same is even more true of the Jewish People’s job to be a Mamleches Kohanim viGoy Kadosh – a Kingdom of Priests and A Holy Nation. We do not spread the truths of ethical monotheism to the world by prosletization, in fact it is asur to teach Torah to non-Jews. Rather, by striving for kedushah in the midst of the nations, we can teach by example.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

Parashas Eiqev

In this week’s parashah Moshe describes Hashem as “… haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah — the G-d, the Great, the A-lmighty, and the Awesome …”. These words were incorporated by the Anshei Kinesses Hagedolah into the opening of the Shemoneh Esrei.

The same phrase is also found at the conclusion of the poem “Nishmas”. There, the poet goes even further and gives each one an explanatory phrase. This yields the strange result that the very same poem that says that “even if our mouths were filled of poetry like the sea, and our tongues – joy, like the many waves, and our lips – praise like the expanses of sky … we would still not be sufficient to praise you”, this same poem then praises G-d in four words!

A student who lead the congregation as Chazan before the tanna Rabbi Chanina once embellished on these four simple adjectives. After he was finished, Rabbi Chanina corrected him, “Have you finished all possible praise of your Master?” No list of complements could completely describe Hashem. Had Moshe not spoken these words, and Hashem not told him to write them into the Torah, we would not have the chutzpah to use these four. (Berakhos 33b)

According to the Vilna Gaon, “haKel haGadol haGibor vihaNorah” was not only included in the first berakhah of the Shemoneh Esrei, but it is the basis for the structure of the rest of the berakhah too.

To the Vilna Gaon, these four names of G-d form a progression. They summarize how man approaches G-d.

Kel means not only G-d but judge or legislator. To be HaKel, THE Legislator, means that Hashem rules over the entire universe, His authority is all-inclusive.

Rabbi Yochanan (Megilah 31a) said, “Where ever you find G-d’s greatness, that is where you find His humility”. Perhaps we can understand this apparent paradox by comparing G-d’s properties to those of humans. Schools have a problem of overcrowding. There are just so many students a teacher can adequately pay attention to. As the number of students grows, each one can only get less and less attention. Not so Hashem. His infinity is not just that He is a “Kel“, G-d over all, but also “Gadol“, great enough to give personal attention to each person.

HaGibor. We said already that Hashem Legislates to all, and that He is not limited to looking only at the universal picture, but can pay attention to each and every one of us. The combination of these two facts yields “HaGibor“. G-d has the power and uses it to guide each of us in our daily lives.

VehaNorah. There are two types of Divine intervention, the behind-the-scenes subtle activity, that the non-believer dismisses as mere luck, and the flashy miracle that defies the law of nature. While the former is more common, it is the miracle that inspires awe.

These thoughts are elaborated twice in the berakhah, once before the quote of the pasuk, and once after.

Baruch. Chazal write often that “‘berakhah‘ is a term of increase”. To call G-d “blessed” means that He is limitless. This is HaKel.

Ata. It is incredible that man has the gall to talk to G-d, to refer to the Creator as “You”. What grants us that power? HaGadol, He is big enough to attend to each of us.

Elokeinu. The Vilna Gaon teaches that this corresponds to “HaGibor“. Elokeinu, our G-d, is different than HaKel, The G-d. There is a possessiveness, this might and authority of HaKel doesn’t only apply to the big picture, but he guides each of us, our fates and destinies.

Elokei Avoseinu. In our lives, Hashem’s intervention is subtle. However, for our forefathers He performed miracles. Whereas Elokeinu, our G-d, refers to Hashem’s constant guiding of history, Elokei Avoseinu, G-d of our Fathers, asserts that the same One can work outside of the laws of nature. In order to work toward the day when we too will merit an age of miracles, we next recall each forefather, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, by name, to recall and resolve to emulate their character strengths.

Next we repeat the four names of Hashem from this week’s parashah, and then elaborate on the themes in a different variation.

HaKel. This is elaborated as “Kel Elyon“, G-d above all. Again, we declare that He commands everything.

HaGadol. As we said earlier, this means that He not only looks at the universe as a whole, but pays attention to each and every one of us. This is why “gomel chassadim tovim”, Hashem supports us through His kindness.

HaGibor. The consequence of being the G-d above all, and able to relate to the individual is that this means He touches each of our lives. The Vilna Gaon translates “konei” in our context from the root of “litakein”, to fix. Konei hakol, Hashem fixes all, heals the sick, raises the downtrodden and the depressed.

VihaNorah. “Zokheir chasdei avos“. Hashem remembers how our fathers went beyond the call of obligation. We are only “benei beneihem“, the children of their children, twice removed from their stature. But whatever of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov we carry, may it be enough that we too merit miraculous intervention, that Hashem bring us our redeemer.