Friday, October 26, 2012

Lech Lecha - The Faith of Abraham

In the beginning of Parshas Lech Lecha, God instructs Abraham to leave his homeland and to travel to the land that He would show him. God then blesses Abraham (Genesis 12:2):
ואעשך לגוי גדול ואברכך ואגדלה שמך והיה ברכה
And I shall make you into a great nation, and I shall bless you, and I shall make your name great, and you shall be a blessing."
On this verse, Rashi cites a midrashic interpretation from the Talmud (Pesachim 117b) that connects this verse with the opening blessing of the Amidah - the silent standing prayer which is the centerpiece of all Jewish prayer services. The blessing begins with the words, "Blessed are You, Hashem,  our God and the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" and concludes with the words, "Blessed are You, Hashem, Shield of Abraham". It is in connection to this blessing that Rashi writes:
"ואעשך לגוי גדול" - זה שאומרים "אלקי אברהם." "ואברכך" - זהו שאומרים "אלקי יצחק." "ואגדלה שמך" - זהו שאומרים "אלקי יעקב." יכול יהיו חותמין בכולן, ת"ל "והיה ברכה" - בך חותמין ולא בהם:
"And I shall make you into a great nation" - This refers to their statement, "God of Abraham." "And I shall bless you" - This refers to their statement, "God of Isaac." "And I shall make your name great" - This refers to their statement, "God of Jacob." You might think that the blessing would conclude with all of them, the verse therefore says, "and you shall be a blessing" - meaning, with you they shall conclude, and not with them.
Many commentaries point out that the reason we describe God as the God of each of the Patriarchs individually, i.e. "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", is to teach us that Isaac and Jacob did not simply accept the teachings of their father, but rather each one took the teachings of his father and developed it further. Each of the Patriarchs thereby established a relationship with God which was not simply derivative from the teachings of his father. Thus, the God of Isaac was not simply the God of his father Abraham, and the God of Jacob was not simply the God of Isaac or the God of Abraham. As Rav Avigdor Miller writes in his commentary on the Siddur (Praise My Soul p.371):
The word "G-d" is repeated for each [of the Patriarchs] because each was a pioneer and an original discoverer in the matter of coming close to G-d, in addition to continuing that which he received from his father.
Rabbi Shimon Shkop
Rav Shimon Shkop (d.1940) discusses this idea (הובא בספר עץ הדעת עה"ת) that each of the Patriarchs took his father's teachings and developed it further, so that the teachings of Jacob represented a synthesis of the strengths of all three of the Patriarchs. Being that this is so, we would expect - as the Talmud says - that the blessing would conclude, as it begins, by naming all three of the Patriarchs. Yet this is not so; the blessing concludes only with Abraham.

Rav Shkop sees this as an allusion to the history of the Jewish people. Abraham came to know God on his own, and he passed this knowledge down to his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob. Each of these, in turn, took this knowledge and developed his own unique relationship with God. This included coming to know God independently of the teachings they had received from their fathers. Thus, in one sense, the teachings of Isaac, and even more so, the teachings of Jacob, represent a higher, more developed form of faith than that of Abraham. We would, therefore, have expected that this more sophisticated form of faith would stay with the Jewish people for all time.

Yet, explains Rav Shkop, the Sages are telling us that this is not what will happen. Rather, באחרית הימים - in the final generations before the redemption, many Jews will drift away from their ancestral faith, and when their descendants are aroused to return, they will no longer have the benefits of their tradition, and will be forced to start from the beginning, like Abraham. 

Therefore, Rav Shkop says, we should not despair when we see that many Jews have drifted away from Judaism. For the Sages already predicted that this would occur, and that the Jewish people would ultimately have to return to the "simpler" faith of Abraham. The opening blessing of the Amidah concludes with Abraham alone to signal to us that the ultimate conclusion of Jewish history will depend on a return to the most basic elements of our faith, the teachings of Abraham, who taught us how to recognize the Creator on our own, even without the benefit of our ancestral traditions.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Noach - The Value of Diversity

Towards the end of Parshas Noach we read the famous story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9):
The whole earth was of one language and of unified terms. When they journeyed from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they settled there. And they said, a man to his fellow, "Come, let us make bricks, and fire them," and they had brick for stone, and asphalt for mortar. And they said, "Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, and let us make for ourselves a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth."
And God descended to see the city and the tower which the children of men had built. And God said, "Behold, they are one people with one language for all of them, and this is what they begin to do! And now nothing that they plan to do will be withheld from them! Come, let us go down and confuse their language, so that a man will not understand the language of his fellow." And God scattered them from there over the face of all the earth, and they stopped building the city. Therefore it was called by the name Babel, for there God confused the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them upon the face of all the earth.
The story of the Dor Haflaga - the Generation of the Dispersal - is one of the most enigmatic narratives in the Torah. Humanity joins together in a great project, to build a great city and tower, that would enable them to live together in unity. This would seem to be a good thing, certainly not a sin! Yet, while the Torah never actually accuses them of committing a sin, or even of doing anything improper, God clearly disapproved of this plan and instead caused humanity to be scattered over the entire earth.

The commentaries struggle a great deal to explain what the Torah is telling us in this story. There are many midrashim that tell us that the builders of the Tower were engaged, in some sense, in a rebellion against God; that they intended to ascend to the Heavens and wage war against God (an utter absurdity, if understood literally). Others say that the Tower was intended for idolatry, or to somehow prevent another flood. However, in the final analysis, the Torah does not mention any of these concerns, and instead focuses only on the fact that the entire human race was unified. The Torah is clearly indicating that, whatever other issues may have been going on, the critical problem was the fact that they were unified. And, in the end, they were not really punished, but simply dispersed over the face of the earth. Thus, the problem was unity and the solution was dispersal.

How are we to understand this? Aren't peace and unity among the most basic values taught by Judaism? The unity of the human race should have been a good thing; one that we should try to emulate! Indeed, the Ibn Ezra writes that even the most righteous men of that generation - Noah, his son Shem, and even Abraham himself - were among the builders of the Tower of Babel![1] Clearly, then, the intent of the builders of the Tower was not wicked. So what did they do wrong?

The Netziv
R' Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin
In his classic essay on anti-Semitism, She'ar Yisrael (usually printed in the back of his commentary on Shir Hashirim), the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, d.1893) explains that the fundamental problem with the Dor Haflaga was that their actions went against God's intended goals for mankind in two basic ways.

Firstly, because God's intent is that mankind should spread out over the entire earth, as God instructed Noah (Genesis 9:7), "And you, be fruitful and multiply; swarm in the earth, and multiply therein."

Secondly, and more significantly, the goal of the Dor Haflaga was not only to keep mankind united geographically, but also to keep them united ideologically, that they should have a unified culture and philosophy. The function of the Tower was to enable the people to supervise the surrounding regions, in case any group attempted to break away from the community and go off on their own. God, however, does not intend mankind to have a single monolithic culture. Rather, God's intent is for humanity to be diverse, with many different cultures and opinions and ways of life.

While the people of that generation may have had good intentions, they made the same error that has been made by innumerable intelligent people throughout history. They sought to create a utopia - an ideal society. And like every other utopia that has ever been proposed, their perfect society had one critical flaw: the repression of diversity. Every utopia requires a system - ultimately, a totalitarian system - that ensures conformity to the standards of the society. Once true diversity is allowed in, once people are allowed to make independent choices about how to live their lives, the utopia will quickly lose its utopian qualities.

We see here that diversity is a good thing, and that mankind is supposed to have many different kinds of people and cultures. This is true not only on a global scale, but even within the Jewish people themselves, in the twelve tribes of the children of Israel, each of which had its own unique culture and way of life.

Of course, there are limits to diversity. There are moral principles that God has imposed on all mankind, and even more so on the Jewish people. These cannot be set aside for the sake of diversity. However, within the parameters of the laws and teachings of the Torah, there remains a great deal of room for diversity. Indeed, the Chozeh M'Lublin (R' Yakov Yitzchak Horowitz, d.1815) commented on the famous passage from the Talmud (Makkos 3:16), "God wanted to give merit to Israel, therefore He increased for them Torah and mitzvos," that the abundance of mitzvos is intended to enable each individual to serve God in his own unique fashion.[2]

It goes without saying that peace and unity are extraordinarily important values, but they are not absolute values. Tolerance of diversity is an intrinsic aspect of genuine peace and unity and a peace and unity that is built upon conformity for its own sake has no value whatsoever. True peace and unity must be built upon a foundation of truth and the recognition of shared core values that are far more important than any superficial conformity. Indeed, such a unity of mankind is the ultimate goal of history. As God described the messianic age to the prophet Zephaniah (3:9), "For then I will change the peoples to a pure language, so that they will all call in the name of God, to serve Him in unity."

[1] Ibn Ezra (Genesis 11:1) states: ...היה אברהם מבוני המגדל, ואל תתמה, כי נח ושם היו שם. The Seder HaDoros (א' תתקע"ד) cites this opinion as well, נח ואברם ושם עזרו בבנין המגדל. Rav Miller similarly cites the Ralbag as saying that Noah and Shem were among the builders, but I was not able to find this in the Ralbag.

[2] ביאורי חסידות לש"ס from R' Y.Y. Chasida on Makkos 23b from Sefer Zichron Zos - Vayakhel.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Breishis - The Message of Genesis

Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki
(Traditional depiction)
In his opening comment on Genesis 1:1, Rashi (R’ Shlomo Yitzchaki, d.1105) cites a medrash that asks a surprising question:
אמר רבי יצחק, לא היה צריך להתחיל את התורה אלא מהחדש הזה לכם, שהיא מצוה ראשונה שנצטוו ישראל, ומה טעם פתח בבראשית
Rabbi Yitzchak said, The Torah only needed to begin from “This month shall be for you” (Exodus 12:2), for it is the first commandment that was commanded to Israel. Why did He begin with Genesis?
The Ramban (R’ Moshe ben Nachman, d.1174) cites Rashi’s question and asks:
ויש לשאול בה, כי צורך גדול הוא להתחיל התורה בבראשית ברא אלהים, כי הוא שורש האמונה, ושאינו מאמין בזה וחושב שהעולם קדמון, הוא כופר בעיקר ואין לו תורה כלל!
You can ask on this [medrash] that there is a great need for the Torah to begin with “In the beginning God created”, for this is the root of faith, and one who does not believe [in creation] and thinks that the world has always existed denies an essential principle and has no Torah at all!
והתשובה, מפני שמעשה בראשית סוד עמוק אינו מובן מן המקראות, ולא יוודע על בוריו אלא מפי הקבלה עד משה רבינו מפי הגבורה, ויודעיו חייבין להסתיר אותו, לכך אמר רבי יצחק שאין להתחלת התורה צורך בבראשית ברא, והספור במה שנברא ביום ראשון ומה נעשה ביום שני ושאר הימים, והאריכות ביצירת אדם וחוה, וחטאם וענשם, וספור גן עדן וגרוש אדם ממנו, כי כל זה לא יובן בינה שלימה מן הכתובים, וכל שכן ספור דור המבול והפלגה שאין הצורך בהם גדול, ויספיק לאנשי התורה בלעדי הכתובים האלה, ויאמינו בכלל בנזכר להם בעשרת הדברות "כי ששת ימים עשה ה' את השמים ואת הארץ את הים ואת כל אשר בם וינח ביום השביעי", ותשאר הידיעה ליחידים שבהם הלכה למשה מסיני עם התורה שבעל פה:
And the answer is that maaseh Breishis – the act of Creation – is a deep secret that can not be understood from the verses, and which can only be known clearly through the kabbala – traditional knowledge – received through Moses from the mouth of God, and those who know it are obligated to hide it.
Therefore, Rabbi Yitzchak said that there was no need to for the Torah to begin with “In the beginning God created”, [followed by] the story of what was created on the first day, and what was made on the second day and the other days, and the lengthy account of the creation of Adam and Eve and their sin and punishment, and the story of the Garden of Eden and the expulsion of Adam from it.
For all of this [material] can not be fully understood from the Scripture. And this is certainly true of the accounts of the generation of the Flood and the generation of the Dispersal (i.e. the story of the Tower of Babel), which are, in any case, not of as great a [theological] necessity [to know].
It would have been sufficient for the people of the Torah without these verses, and they would believe in the general concept as it is mentioned in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:11), “For six days God made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day.” The remaining knowledge could be left for the [exceptional] individuals as a “law to Moses at Sinai” with the Oral Torah.
Even before we get to the answer, we learn from this medrash an important basic principle for studying the Torah. The function of the Torah is to provide instruction. This is primarily expressed in the commandments, but it applies equally to the narratives found in the Torah. There are no stories in the Torah simply for their own sake. Every bit of information provided by the Torah is intended to convey a practical lesson relevant to us. If we fail to see what that lesson is, then we have not yet properly studied the material, for if there were no relevant lesson then the material would not have been included.

Thus, the medrash asks why the narrative of creation – indeed, the entire book of Genesis (and even the first eleven chapters of Exodus) – is included in the Torah. What practical lessons can we learn from these narratives that justifies their inclusion?

Rashi concludes:
משום "כח מעשיו הגיד לעמו לתת להם נחלת גוים", שאם יאמרו אומות העולם לישראל, ליסטים אתם, שכבשתם ארצות שבעה גוים, הם אומרים להם, כל הארץ של הקב"ה היא, הוא בראה ונתנה לאשר ישר בעיניו, ברצונו נתנה להם, וברצונו נטלה מהם ונתנה לנו:
Because, “The power of His acts He told to His people, to give them an inheritance of nations.” (Psalms 111:6)
For if the nations of the world[1] say to Israel, “You are robbers, for you have conquered the land of the seven nations!” They shall say to them, “The entire earth belongs to God. He created it and gave it to the one who is proper in His eyes. By His will He gave it to them, and by His will He took it from them and gave it to us.”
The Ramban expands on this answer. First he explains exactly what the basic message is that we are to intended take away from the entire narrative of the first several chapters of Genesis:
ונתן רבי יצחק טעם לזה, כי התחילה התורה בבראשית ברא אלקים וספר כל ענין היצירה עד בריאת אדם, ושהמשילו במעשה ידיו וכל שת תחת רגליו, וגן עדן שהוא מבחר המקומות הנבראים בעולם הזה נעשה מכון לשבתו, עד שגירש אותו חטאו משם, ואנשי דור המבול בחטאם גורשו מן העולם כולו, והצדיק בהם לבדו נמלט הוא ובניו, וזרעם חטאם גרם להם להפיצם במקומות ולזרותם בארצות, ותפשו להם המקומות למשפחותם בגוייהם כפי שנזדמן להם:
And Rabbi Yitzchak gave a reason for this (i.e. the inclusion of the narrative of Genesis). For the Torah begins with “In the beginning, God created” and tells over the entire account of creation until the creation of Adam, and that He gave [Adam] dominion over His handiwork and placed everything beneath his feet, and the Garden of Eden – the choicest of all the locations created in this world – was made into his dwelling place, until his sin expelled him from there.
And the people of the Generation of the Flood were expelled from the world entirely due to their sins, and only the righteous one among them survived with his children.
And their descendants were caused, due to their sin, to be scattered to different locations and dispersed to different lands, and each grasped onto various locations according to their families and their nations, according to their opportunities.
The Ramban here develops the idea that the basic primary message of the narratives of Creation, the sin of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the story of the Flood and Noah’s Ark, and the story of the Tower of Babel is that what we have in this world is dependent on our merit before God.

Thus, Adam was given the Garden of Eden, but lost it when he sinned. The generation of the Flood sinned, and they were eliminated and only the family of the righteous Noah survived. The generation of the Tower of Babel sinned, and were dispersed all over the world.

The Ramban continues:
אם כן ראוי הוא, כאשר יוסיף הגוי לחטוא, שיאבד ממקומו ויבוא גוי אחר לרשת את ארצו, כי כן הוא משפט האלקים בארץ מעולם. ... כענין שכתוב "ויתן להם ארצות גוים ועמל לאומים יירשו בעבור ישמרו חקיו ותורותיו ינצורו." כלומר, שגירש משם מורדיו, והשכין בו עובדיו, שידעו כי בעבודתו ינחלוה, ואם יחטאו לו תקיא אותם הארץ, כאשר קאה את הגוי אשר לפניהם:
From all of this we see that it is proper that if a nation continues to sin, it should be removed from its place and another nation should come to inherit its land. For this has been God’s law in the world for all time. …
As it is written (Psalms 105:44-45), “He gave them the lands of nations, and they inherited the labor of peoples, in order that they should guard His decrees and keep His teachings.” This is to say, that He expelled from there those who rebelled against Him, and He set His worshippers to dwell there, so that [His worshippers] should know that they inherited the land through His service, and if they sin against Him, the land would expel them, as it expelled the nation that preceded them.
The purpose of these narratives is therefore to teach us that our welfare in this world, and in particular, our claim to the land of Israel, is contingent on our obedience to the will of God. If we obey His commandments, then we will dwell safely in the land, but if we sin we will be driven out. It is to develop this fundamental theme that we have the book of Genesis, which first describes how this principle has functioned since the time of creation, and then describes how the Jewish people arose from our righteous ancestors to merit receiving the land of Israel. The Jewish people are not a genetic super-race that has a special right to conquer the lands of other nations. The Jewish people are chosen by God as His servants – a “kingdom of priests”, and it is only as His servants that we have any claim to the land of Israel.

The importance of this message as an introduction to the commandments is self-evident. Ultimately, the only thing that really matters is our obedience to God’s commands. Everything else is a distraction. This basic message is so central to Judaism that we are required to recite it every day in the second paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 11:13-17):
And it shall be, if you will listen well to My commandments which I command you this day, to love Hashem your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give the rain of your land in its season, the early and the late rains, and you will gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Guard yourselves, lest your heart be seduced, and you turn aside and serve other gods and bow down to them; and the anger of Hashem will burn against you, and He will shut up the heaven, so that there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield her produce; and you will be lost quickly from upon the good land that Hashem gives you. 

[1] The midrash often euphemistically describes questions or doubts that can arise in the hearts of the Jewish people as being challenges from the "nations of the world." (נחלת יעקב עה"ת מר' יעקב מליסא)

Sunday, October 7, 2012

V'Zos HaBracha - Torah is for Every Jew

Parshas V’zos HaBracha, which is read on Simchas Torah, is the final Torah reading of the yearly cycle. As is clear in the first few verses of the parsha, one of the main themes of this parsha is the centrality of the Torah in the identity of the Jewish people and their relationship with God. The “fiery law” of the Torah is the “inheritance of the congregation of Jacob.” The Torah is the portion of each and every Jew.

Every morning we recite the blessings on the Torah, saying:
ברוך אתה ה' אלקינו מלך העולם העולם אשר קדשנו במצותיו וצונו לעסוק בדברי תורה
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to be occupied with words of Torah.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
Rav Eliyahu Dessler (מכתב מאליהו א:89-91) explains that the term עוסק (to be occupied with) means to be totally focused on one matter to the exclusion of all else. This is our obligation towards Torah: to be totally interested in Torah, and only Torah, and our minds should never move from Torah.

But, Rav Dessler asks, how is this possible for ordinary people? If a person has a business or other affairs that he needs to deal with, doesn't this necessarily mean that he will be distracted from Torah?

Rav Dessler answers that this need not be so. Every person can make the Torah his total focus, even if he is also busy with ordinary matters. As Rav Dessler explains:
With my eyes I have seen a simple craftsman, an ignorant tailor, whose entire occupation in his business was only Torah. For all his thoughts and ambitions were focused on one goal – that his sons and sons-in law should be great Torah scholars. He himself lived on bread and water, and every penny he earned was devoted to this holy purpose. Thus, all his actions were literally עסק התורה – being occupied with Torah!
Our understanding of עסק התורה should not be limited only to the actual study of Torah. All activities that support and encourage the study of Torah are also part of עסק התורה.

The classic example of this is the partnership between the tribes of Zebulun and Issachar. The tribe of Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported the tribe of Issachar, who engaged in Torah study. This is what the verse refers to when it states (Deuteronomy 33:18), “Rejoice Zebulun in your going out [for commerce] and Issachar in your tents [i.e. the houses of study].”

Rav Dessler points out that both Zebulun and Issachar share in exactly the same rejoicing – for both tribes were equally devoted to Torah. Indeed, Rashi points out that Zebulun is mentioned first because it is he who enables Issachar to study Torah. (Rav Aharon Kotler adds that when Zebulun goes into the next world, he will gain the knowledge of all the Torah learning that he made possible in this world!)

The rejoicing of Simchas Torah is, therefore, not reserved for great Torah scholars. Every Jew, on his level, can and should be one whose true occupation is the Torah.