Shelach 5754

(Another version of this thought was included in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Shelach, in the “Bemachashavah Techilah” column, pp 1-2. -micha)

 

Inherent Tension

Judaism sees man as a synthesis of two opposite concepts. On the one hand, man is a physical animal, on the other, he carries “the spark of the Divine.” As the Torah describes it:

Then G-d formed Man, dust of the ground and breathed into his countenance the breath of life.

- Bereishis 2:7

Each of his parts pulls man in its direction. The physical man shares many of the needs of a creatures. He feels hunger, has sexual urges, wants comfort, heat when he is cold. He longs to satisfy his nerve endings.

We should be clear that the physical is not inherently evil. Shabbos would not be complete without three meals. Simchas Yom Tov, the joy of the holiday, is defined by the Torah by eating — by the holiday meal and partaking the Yom Tov sacrifices.

The spiritual man craves G-d and spirituality. He wants to be more than mere animal. Just as the physical man is not inherently evil, the spiritual man is not inherently good. Cult members too are striving to speak to G-d, to experience Him. As the Pesach Hagadah states, “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers.” We take pride that they searched for G-d even though they reached the wrong conclusion.

While we are tempted to think of these two parts of our mind as complete opposites, they have one thing in common. They describe man as a creature, as a passive being pushed by the forces around it.

Every person is torn between these poles. We find ourselves pulled by the physical and the spiritual parts of our minds. The fact that there is a “self”, the one feeling this pulling, gives us a third piece to the human puzzle. There is a part of man that must do the deciding, that is endowed with the G-d given free will to choose his actions.

Since it is the “I” who is getting pulled by these two forces, the part involved with free-will must also be the seat of awareness. When we describe man as being “in the image of G-d”, we are describing this element of him. Aware, a decider of his fate, a creator.

Tzitzis as a Description Human Nature

R. SR Hirsch understands many aspects of this mitzvos to be osos, symbols Hashem uses to convey certain concepts and priorities to the core of each Jew. He finds the role and function of each of these components of the human condition alluded to in the mitzvah of tzitzis in two different ways: in the color of the strings in the tzitzis, and in their number. In “Collected Writings” (Volume III page. 126) Hirsch comments:

We find only three terms to encompass the colors of the spectrum: adom for red, yaroq for yellow and green, and tekheiles for blue and violet….

Red is the least refracted ray; it is the closest to the unbroken ray of light that is directly absorbed by matter. Red is light in its first fusion with the terrestrial element: adom, related to adamah [footstool, earth as man's footstool -- M.B.] Is this not again man, the image of G-d as reflected in physical, earthly matter: “vatichsareihu me’at mi’Elokim” (Tehillim. 8,6).

The next part of the spectrum is yellow-green: yaroq.

Blue-violet is at the end of the spectrum: techeiles.

The spectrum visible to our eye ends with the violet ray, techeiles, but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue expanse of the sky forms the end of the earth that is visible to us. And so techeiles is simply the bridge that leads thinking man from the visible, physical sphere of the terrestrial world, into the unseen sphere of heaven beyond….

Techeiles is the basic color of the sanctuary and of the High Priest’s vestments; the color blue-violet representing heaven and the things of heaven that were revealed to Israel… no other color was as appropriate as techeiles to signify G-d’s special relationship with Israel. A thread of techeiles color on our garments conferred upon all of us the insignia of our high-priestly calling, proclaiming all of us: “Anshei qodesh tihyun li — And you shall be holy men to Me” (Ex. 19, 6).

If we now turn our attention to the pisil techeiles on our tzitzith, we will not that it was precisely this thread of techeiles color that formed the krichos, the gidil, the thread wound around the other threads to make a cord. In other words, the vocation of the Jew, the Jewish awareness awakened by the Sanctuary, that power which is to prevail within us, must act to unite all our kindred forces within the bond of the Sanctuary of G-d’s law.

By wrapping a blue thread around the others we are demonstrating a fundamental principle. Physicality and mental exploration have great value, but only as tools. The end must be to strive to go beyond the spectrum, to reach to be closer to Hashem then we are today.

Elsewhere R. Hirsch explains the concepts symbolized by the numbers 6, 7, and 8. Dr. Isaac Levy includes this explanation in his English translation of Hirsch’s commentary to this week’s parshah (16:41):

The origin of this meaning is to be found in the work of the Creation. The visible material world created in six days received with the seventh day a day of remembrance of, and bond with its invisible L-rd and Creator, and thereby its completed consummation. Similarly the symbolism of the number seven in the Menora, in the Temple, in the Mussaf offerings, in the sprinklings of the blood on Yom Kippur, in the Festivals of Pessach and Succoth, in Sabbath, Schmita, Tumma etc. etc. The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. The eighth day for Mila, Schmini Atzereth and Israel as the eighth of G-d’s Creations. With the creation of Israel G-d laid the groundwork for a fresh, higher mankind and a fresh higher world, for that shamayim chadashim and the `eretz chadashah for which Israel and its mission is to be the beginning and instrument (Is. LXV,17).

So that there are three elements in us. (a) our material sensuous bodies, like the rest of the created visible world = 6; (b) the breath of free will, invisible, coming from the Invisible One = 7; (c) the calling of Jew, coming from the historical choice of Israel = 8.

This too parallels the understanding of man that we have outlined. The six is physical, the seven represents free will, and the eight is man’s striving to be something more.

Tzitzis, worn so that “ye shall remember and do all My commandments”, is explained in this light.

These are the three elements out of which the tzitzis threads are woven. All these three elements are given to us, are woven into our being and are to be realized in completing our calling. But in these three energies two are to be the directing and ruling ones; the “six” in us is to subordinate itself to the seventh and eighth which are also given as part of us, and is to allow itself to be overcome, wound round, by the firm restraining bonds of duty…. Once the bodily sensuality has submitted itself to the bonds of duty through the Divine and Jewish elements, it becomes completely equal to its brother-energies, and like them, is to expand in free development within the limits of Jewish human duty.

The physical man finds expression, but only after he has been channeled and guided by G-d-like free-will and a drive to surpass nature. This is the essence of Hirsch’s vision of Torah im Derekh Eretz — Torah with the way of the world. Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth.

In Hirschian thought, the complete human masters the art of six and seven, the physical and the mental. Notice that Hirsch calls the seven divine, not the eight of the spiritual creature. It is the free-will that makes man like G-d, merely being a passive resident of heaven pales by comparison.

According to the Rambam, it is the eighth string which is the techeiles. In this way the tzitzis instructs each Jew that he has the tools to strive for some thing beyond mere human. He must take his physical resources and divine intellect and apply it to the spiritual realm.

© 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.

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 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

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.

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?

HaKel HaGadol HaGibbor veHaNora

I

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 explanetory 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. (Brachos 33b)

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

To the Vilna Gaon, these four names of G-d form a progression. They summarise 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.

VihaNorah. 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 brachah, once before the quote of the pasuk, and once after. They provide the structure for the entire blessing.

II

Baruch. Chazal write often that “‘brachah‘ is a term of increase”. The relationship between the idea of “increase” and G-d is unclear. We can’t really be claiming that G-d is missing something, and requires, increase — can we?

One resolution, in line with the Gaon’s approach to the b’rachah as a whole, is to say that it is a statement of fact; we are saying “You are maximally increased”. This is “haKel“.

A second is to define the word as, “You are the Source of all increase”; a statement that we recognize that all of our blessings come from G-d.

Third, Rabbiner Hirsch’s approach, is to focus on the one thing we can contribute to G-d. Since He allows us to make free choices, by choosing to support Hashem’s goals we are adding our efforts to his. By this approach, “baruch” means “I commit myself and my resources to You”.

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.

Hashem, the tetragrammaton. Chazal note that this name of G-d is used in Tanach to refer to Him when his actions appear merciful to us. Alternatively, we can look at the root of the word. The word is normally seen as a contraction of “Yihyeh – Hoveh – Hayah” — “Will be, is and was”. A G-d who is above time. The Trancendent Deity. A third alternative is that of Rabbiner Hirsch’s who sees it as the causative form of “havah“, to exist. G-d who sustains our existence.

Pairing off each of these three with the commentary’s corresponding translation for “baruch”, we can render “Baruch Ata Hashem” in these three ways:

  • You are inifinitely increased, You who are even above time.
  • You are the source of all blessings, You, the G-d of Mercy.
  • I commit myself to increase your influence in this world, you who gives me and the world our continued existence.
  • Ata Hashem. You are so trancendent, you even have the ability to be immanent. G-d is not too great to care about a single inhabitant of some uninteresting planet in some typical galaxy. No, because He IS great, because he IS above limitation, is why we can say “Ata“, “You”.

    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.

    Hashem Elokeinu. Two paradoxes. Our G-d, like Ata, reinforces the idea of an Immanent Deity.

    But also, we unify the Merciful One with the G-d of Justice. As Nachum Ish Gamzu would say “Gam zu litovah“, “this too is for this best. Or in the words of his pupil, Rabbi Akiva, “All that G-d does, he does for the good.” All that G-d does is good. Some seems harsh and punishing, some is more obviously merciful. But it’s all one. The difference is in our perception, not in the One who acts.

    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.

    Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov are seen as archtypes of three different types of divine service. The Maharal (Derech Hachaim on Avos 1:2) finds them to be the masters of Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim.

    Elokei Avraham. G-d of this world, the world where people interact, feel hunger, pain. Where we need a society to support each other. The G-d who commanded us to be kind to each other.

    Elokei Yitzchak. Yitzchak was otherworldly, nearly a sacrifice entirely to G-d. Elokei Yitzchak is the G-d of Avodah, of prayer and Temple service. G-d of our spiritual selves.

    Elokei Yaakov. The G-d of the “whole man, who sat in tents” of study. Perfection of that third world between the spiritual and this one, the mind which must decide which is to be the source of inspiration, and which to be the means to get there.

    When you say Elokei Avraham, Elokei Yitzchak, v’Elokei Ya’akov, you not only acknowledge that this G-d that we relate to on these three different levels is one and the same, but also we commit ourselves to improve in all three pillars of our life.

    III

    Next we repeat the four names of Hashem, and then elaborate on the themes in a different variation.

    Kel Elyon. This is an elaboration of “haKel”, G-d above all. Again, we declare that He commands everything. Even the other’s deities, the embodiments of nature, represent subjects to His Will.

    Gomel Chassadim Tovim. Hashem supports us through His kindness. As we said, “haGadol” means that He not only looks at the universe as a whole, but that He also is “big” enough to pay attention to each and every one of us.

    Gomel. To support, not just a single act of kindness, but like its root “gamal”, a camel, a continued source. Chassadim. Chessed, to go beyond the call of duty. Tovim. As we said above, ALL that he does is for the good, whether we can percieve that good or not.

    ViKonei Hakol. 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 – HaGibor. 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.

    “Konei” has two other meanings, to make or to acquire. These two meanings are related, for as R YB Soloveitchik zt”l teaches, the root of ownership is that people own what they make. From there, they barter or buy to transfer the ownership to others in exchange for ownership something they couldn’t make.

    Hakol, THE all, in distinction to “kol”, all. “Hakol” should be translated as “the universe”, not as “everything”.

    ViKonei Hakol can therefor also be rendered Owner or Maker of the universe.

    Zocher chasdei avos. VihaNorah. Hashem remembers how our fathers went beyond the call of obligation. We are only “bnei bineihem”, 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.

    Umeivi goel livnei vineihem. Umeivi — lehavi, to bring, not lishloach, to send.

    Another thought that hit me is how aptly these words literally apply to my generation. Two generations before me, “chasdei avos” our ancestors were pushed beyond the call of duty, to sanctify G-d’s name in Aushwitz, Treblinka, Babi Yar and dozens of other infamous locations. Umeivi go’el livnei vineihem. May Hashem bring the redeemer to us, their children’s children.

    Lima’an sh’mo, for the sake of His name. Not for our sake. G-d, don’t wait for us to merit it, to earn the redemption. For your sake. “Sheim”, name, is from the same root as “sham”, there. Both are references to another thing. The Jewish People are one of G-d’s names. People see us as Your People. Redeem us to redeem your name, so that people will think highly of the ideals of ethical monotheism.

    Bi’ahavah. With love. Maimonides defines the term as a perception of one’s unity with the beloved. In redeeming us “lima’an sh’mo”, for the sake of His name, G-d shows that we are His and He is ours.

    IV

    Melech. King. Not a “moshel” a dictator, but one who rules with the support of His people. “Ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim — for G-d has the Kingship, but he is a dictator over the nations”. Until the day that they accept Hashem’s rule, “And G-d will be King over the entire land, in that day He and His name will be one/unique”.

    Ozer. Helper. Beyond being just a king, one who organizes society, G-d also helps the individual.

    Umoshia. Savior, one who gets us out of trouble, even when we are not putting in effort for Hashem to be considered a helper.

    Umagein. Even further, a sheild, one who prevents the trouble to begin with.

    Although the Gaon doesn’t say so, the “Melech Ozer uMoshia uMagein” progression matches his approach to “haKel haGadol haGibor viHanorah”. Melech, like keil, is a legislator who takes the global view. Ozer implies the one-on-one of haGadol. uMoshia parallels His intervention in our lives, in contrast to uMagein, how he protects those who go beyond the call of duty on His behalf.

    Baruch ata Hashem…. As above.

    Magein Avraham. Protector of Abraham, the one who mastered the idea that this world is the tool, not the goal. That we are in this imperfect world together to help eachother, and to perfect it.

    Abraham would tell his guests, “Don’t thank me, thank the Creator of heaven and earth, who is truly the one who gave you this food.” This is the Protector of Abraham.

    Of Arks and Rainbows

    There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

    The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

    An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

    There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

    Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

    With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

    What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

    There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

    There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

    I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

    The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

    After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

    There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

    There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

    Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

    Atah Qadosh

    “You Are Kadosh, and Your Name Is Kadosh, and kedoshim praise You every day. Selah! [For you are G-d, King, Great and Kadosh. –Sepharad] Baruch Atah … the Kadosh G-d.”

    The question of kedushah is also central to the opening phrase of one of last week’s parashiyos. “Kedoshim tihyu… – Be kadosh for I Am Kadosh.” (Vayikra 19:2) But what is kedushah? Translating it as “sanctity” or “holiness” falls short as the meaning of the English words is not too clear, nor are we sure that they truly capture the connotations of the Hebrew original.

    The Toras Kohanim (Sifra) on the pasuk writes “‘kedoshim tihyu’ – perushim tihyu, you shall be separated”. Along these lines the Ramban writes “make yourself kadosh with that which is permitted to you” by refraining from the permitted. It would seem that they are defining kedushah as separation.

    However, Rav Shimon Shkop (Shaarei Yosheir, introduction) notes that this definition fails for the clause – “for I am kadosh”. There is no purpose or meaning in Hashem restraining Himself.  (For that matter, it is arguable that such perishus on Hashem’s part would mean the item in question would cease to exist!) Perhaps we could also note that the Ramban could not be defining kedushah since he uses the word “kadosh” in the definition. Rather, the Ramban is suggesting the way in which to obey the pasuk and become kadosh to someone who already knows what kadosh is.

    What we do know about Hashem is that He desires leheitiv, to bestow good upon others. The entire universe exists so that Hashem could have someone to receive His gift. Rav Shimon translates “ki Kadosh Ani” as “for I am fully committed to helping others.” The call to be kadosh is the call to live one’s life for the sake of bettering others. To be kadosh is to avoid that which serves no one but the person himself.

    Returning to the recurring theme of the opening berachos of Shemonah Esrei…

    If we turn to the phrase inserted in nusach Sefarad, we find kedushah associated with Hashem being King, and being Gadol, Great. These are both words that the Gra finds very significant in understanding the first berachah. Moshe’s praise, “haKel haGadol haGibbor vehaNorah – the G-d, the Great, the Mighty and the Awe Inspiring” finds reiterating development throughout that berachah. We therefore enter this berachah after having defined Gadol as “gomeil chassadim tovim – supports through good acts of kindness.” Hashem is Great because his Good fills all of creation. The total commitment to giving to others that Rav Shimon uses to define kedushah.

    So, our berachah becomes, “You are committed to being meitiv others, and your reputation (shimcha) is that of being meitiv others, and people who do good to others praise you. Selah!” It is not simply that the class of people who are committed to working for others rather than being self-focused also praise Hashem. It is working for the betterment of others which itself is praise.

    It is not coincidence that there are three clauses, and three iterations of the word “Kadosh” in the verse at the heart of Kedushah (Yishayahu 6:3). As we say in UVa leTzion, Targum Yonasan explains the pasuk as follows: “Kadosh in the heavens above, the home of His Presence; Kadosh on the earth, the product of His Might; Kadosh forever and ever is Hashem Tzevakos – the whole world is full of the Radiance of His Glory.” The “home of His Glory” is where Hashem is Kadosh. The earth, is where Hashem’s name, how people perceive him, is Kadosh. And the kedoshim, the people who allow others to experience Hashem’s good, fill the world with His Glory – their sanctity is his praise.

    Miqeitz: Time and Process

    The parashah opens “Vayhi mikeitz sh’nasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuk say “sh’nasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”? [1]

    Second, why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “mikeitz”, at the endpoint (from “katzeh”, edge [2])? How does it differ from saying that the “z’man”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived?

    This duplication of terms for time is echoed in next week’s parashah, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” [3] as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’akov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’akov was, the years of his life…” [4] The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

    Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. Among the motivations suggested [5] for the building of the Tower of Bavel was the fear that the flood was part of a 1,656-year cycle, and they would need to prepare for a second flood.

    The position is understandable. Plato [6] concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

    This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Chashmona’i revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. On the other hand, Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. [7]

    The Zohar [8] describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” [9] and in the navi, “yom Hashem” [10].

    In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz” [11].

    Shanah speaks of a retreat. A person can actively embrace that retreat, use it as a chance to build on what one already has. Or, it can be a time when he simply is a victim of circumstance.

    While there is a need for progress, there is also a need to step back, to review, to develop the idea into something we can incorporate within ourselves and can use as a basis for future growth. It can be a time to regain a balance between technological progress and one’s basic humanity and values. If he embraces and uses the time, then he has achieved productive review, “years of days”.

    Perhaps this is why the Malbim [12] explains Ya’akov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” [13]

    R’ Aharon Kotler zt”l commented to a student on the occasion of the birth of the student’s son about the phrase “The bris should be be’ito ubizmano”, using both “eis” and “z’man” to denote its proper time. Rav Aharon explained the difference. If the baby is healthy, then the bris is at the pre-decided time, on the eighth day. If not, then it will be at the right time for that individual baby. Ideally the bris would be at both.

    A z’man is a time that comes according to a pre-scheduled appointment, ready or not. It is a point in a shanah, in cyclic time that runs its celestial heartbeat regardless of human action. And so, the repeat of the exodus is “Z’man Cheiruseinu”, our time of freedom. An eis is a landmark in the course of progression. And so, one is “kovei’ah ittim baTorah”, one sets aside times for Torah.

    But neither a z’man nor an eis can represent the goal of the trip. Reflection without progress and progress without reflection as to its purpose does not get one to a meaningful goal. A keitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

    Yosef’s experience in the pit was not simply measured in years of survival, but also in personal progress. After the culmination, the qeitz, of shenasayim yamim, he was ready to emerge a leader.


    Footnotes:

    [1] We find the exact same turn of phrase in Shmuel II 14:28 and Yirmiyahu 28:3. In all three cases, the time measured is one in which someone (here — Yosef, Avshalom in Shmuel II) or something (the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash in Yirmiyahu) was in hiding.

    [2] C.f. Shemos 36:33, “And he made the middle bar to pass through the boards [of the Mishkan] from the katzeh to the katzeh.”

    [3] Bereishis 47:8

    [4] Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah” referring to the days.

    [5] Bereishis Rabba 38:1, third opinion

    [6] Timaeus 36c-d

    [7] Vayikra 23:39,43

    [8] Pinechas 249a-b

    [9] Eg. Sukkah 52b

    [10] Eg. Malachi 4:5

    [11] Devarim 4:25

    [12] Bereishis 47:8

    [13] Bereishis 47:9