February 16, 2017

On the third day, Hashem will descend on Har Sinai. You shall set boundaries for the people all around, saying, “Beware of ascending the mountain or touching its edge. Whoever touches the mountain will die. A hand shall not touch it…for he shall not live. Upon an extended sound of the shofar, they may ascend the mountain. (19:13)

Based on the Talmud, the Meshech Chochmah explains why as soon as the Torah imposes the restriction against touching the mountain, it tells us just when this restriction would be lifted. This is unusual , as this is not the way the Torah deals with the other restriction linked to the giving of the Torah.

The people were also told that they were to separate from their wives beginning a few days before Matan Torah. This restriction as well would come to an end at some tine after the conclusion of the maamad ha-nivchar.

The people are eventually told, “Return to your tents” – but this is recorded in the text only after the Ten Commandments and much more. Why is the Torah much quicker to write about the relaxing of the ban against touching the mountain?

A simple answer is that lifting the restriction against contact with the mountain is a matter of proper etiquette. The Torah used harsh language in conveying the ban; it spoke of the certainty of people dying. Derech eretz demands that a note like that should not be sustained. The Torah immediately changes its tone by speaking of the lifting of the restriction that carries such dire consequences.

In a sense, this begs the question. Why was a transgression of the touching ban treated so severely in the first place?

We begin our answer with a basic observation: A chief concern of the Torah is the eradication of any idolatrous thoughts or tendencies from our people. Part of our utter rejection of avodah zarah is the non-physicality of G-d. It was important to stress to the Bnei Yisrael that in their encounter with HAShem at Sinai, there was no physical element. Hashem was not “seen;” He did not take on any physical appearance or form. He did not because he can not! Form, appearance are related to substance, boundaries, dimensions – all elements that simply do not and cannot relate to His Being.

A corollary of the above is that the quality of holiness natively resides in only one Being – namely, Hashem Himself. There is nothing in the created world – nothing – that is inherently holy other than He. Hashem wished that impressed upon the Bnei Yisrael at the time of matan Torah. It was crucial that they not have any mental space in which to think that the Torah was given on a particular mountain because of some inherent kedushah that it possessed. The Torah therefore presented to the people a matched set of realities. On the one hand, the mountain was treated as holy. On the other, they were immediately informed that the holiness – a holiness that was strictly enforced – was temporary. As soon as the shofar sounded, they would be permitted to trample the mountain to their hearts’ content. Moreover, even their animals would be free to graze upon it, and otherwise treat it in an undignified manner, as animals do.

Clearly, if the mountain could be treated so shabbily afterwards, its holiness could not be regarded as inherent and essential. The people learned that its kedushah was not intrinsic, but extrinsic – it came about because of the Shechinah’s presence upon it. As soon as the Shechinah departed, the kedushah vanished.

This treatment carried over into the beis hamikdosh – a place with much more lasting kedushah! It was certainly important here to underscore that there was no intrinsic spiritual quality in the building. So we find that those who are tame’im ritually impure – even those who are afflicted with tumas meis, the most severe form of tumah – may nonetheless touch the outside surface of the building. This reinforced the idea that the kedushah was a function of the luchos and the Shechinah that resided inside the building, and filled it with kedushah while they were there.

The lesson is that kedushah of a lasting form is never a function of God’s actions – and it goes without saying that it is no magic, mystical property that is simply inherent in some physical item. Where kedushah is caused by Him, it is simply a consequence of His presence, and disappears as that presence is removed. The shofar sounded to inform the people that the Shechinah had left the mountain. It’s kedushah immediately vanished, and it became no more holy than any rock pile. Longer lasting kedushah is created only by the actions of human beings, such as the kedushah of the beis hamikdosh.

It therefore becomes necessary to retool our understanding of a later pasuk. It is usually translated as, “Moshe said to Hashem: ‘The people cannot ascend Har Sinai, for You have warned us, saying, “Cordon off the mountain and sanctify it.”’ We understand, however, that Moshe did nothing to make the mountain holy. Its holiness was entirely a function of the presence of the Shechinah. Rather, the pasuk must be understood as referring to Hashem. “You have warned us to cordon off the mountain so that You will come and descend upon it.” That will create a temporary holiness on Har Sinai, one that will depart whenever the Shechinah decides to leave.

Shabbat shalom


February 9, 2017

“The water formed walls for them, to their right and to their left.” 14:28

On this verse the Meshech Chochmah wrote a long essay reflecting on the ways of the Torah regarding Reward and Punishment.

He writes: we detect a distinct difference between two categories of mitzvos. We call some commandments “received” mitzvos, i.e. those that we follow simply because Hashem dictated them to us, but would not have legislated on our own. We also find other mitzvos, those that govern intuitively proper behavior and character traits.

Different forms of punishment are attached to violations of the former group, such as the varieties of execution or corporal punishment that are meted out for prohibitions related to idolatry and forbidden relations.

The latter group, however, goes unpunished by human hands – technically, because they either require monetary restitution, or because they involve no physical activity, either of which being sufficient to preclude other forms of judicial punishment. As severe as shortcomings of the latter group may be, the Beth din does not punish the person of base character, the disputatious personality, or the chronic speaker of lashon hora.

This marked difference in treatment, however, only applies to individuals. The very opposite holds true for the way the tzibur, the community is treated. Chaza tell us that David’s generation was outwardly pious in their observance – but they fell in battle because of malicious informers among them.

Achav’s generation, on the other hand, was given to flirtations with avodah zarah – but prevailed on the battlefield, because they lacked those same flawed personalities!

When Hashem declares that He is willing “to dwell amongst them amidst their tumah,” He refers only to the tumah of breaching the “received” laws, even including idolatry. Rotten character, lashon hora and the like cause the Shechinah to flee.

The Divine reponse to the indiscretions of our people during the period of the first and second Temples illustrates the point. The community of the first Temple violated all the cardinal sins: idolatry, immorality, and murder. Yet, the Shechinah returned to them quickly in the form of the second Temple. The community at the time of the destruction of Second Temple was meticulous in its observance, but groundless enmity between people was rampant.

Some two millennia later, we still await a replacement Temple. I once joked that two things remain in Jerusalem from the Second Temple period….the Western wall and causeless hatred ( sinat chinom)!

Apparently, teach Chazal, the shortcomings of the second Temple were more grievous – at least when looking at the people as a community, rather than as individuals.

The gemara finds proof for the severity of monetary violence in the lead-up to the Flood. The Torah speaks of the “corruption” of the earth that led to the Deluge, which means idolatry and immorality. Yet, Hashem declares that He will destroy human society because of chamas/ theft and other monetary misappropriation by force.
Which, then, was it that so aroused Divine anger? Was it the corruption of the most serious sins, or was it the theft?

The gemara says that they both contributed; the fate of the generation was “sealed” through theft. This does not necessarily mean that the contributions were additive. Our approach above provides a different way of understanding their roles. For the “corruption” vices, HaShem was willing to treat them all as a collective, and treat them compassionately despite shortcomings that would have marked them for death as individuals. What sealed their fate, however, was their penchant for chamas, for theft.
A society of ethical depravity loses its standing with G-d. When people employed their weaponry to seize the property of others, they became two-legged beasts of prey, and lost their lease on Divine compassion.

Chazal relate that as the waters split to form the two walls of our pasuk, the Satan protested. “These Bnei Yisroel worshipped idols in Egypt. Why are You performing miracles for them?”
The guardian angel of the Sea agreed, and was angered enough to wish to reverse the miracle, and drown them! (For this reason the word chomah/ wall in our pasuk is spelled deficiently, without the voweled vav. This allows it to be read as cheimah/ anger, alluding to the Sea’s displeasure.)

While we must indeed deal in some way with Satan’s point, we note that he could have argued similarly after the succession of plagues succeeded in liberating them from the Egyptians? Why did he wait till the splitting of the Sea?

Our thinking above suggests an approach. While the Bnei Yisroel may have worshipped idols in Egypt and given up the practice of bris milah, they nonetheless displayed good character. They did not speak lashon hora. They loved each other. Seen as a community, they merited the Divine intervention on their behalf.

This changed as the shore of the Reed Sea, when their communal unity disintegrated, and they formed four different groups- each with a different strategy of dealing with the imminent threat of the approaching Egyptian armed force, including one that wished to return to Egypt! Their unity having evaporated, they had to be judged as individuals. Satan now had a point. As individuals, they were idolaters, and not deserving of any miracles?

While this approach is attractive, it does not explain all the anomalies in our pasuk. An earlier verse already introduced the image of the walls of water. There, chomah is spelled with a vav; there is no hint of the Sea’s anger at any injustice. Why not?

Satan’s ire was not ignited by the ten plagues. The Bnei Yisroel had dealt adequately with their prior sins through teshuvah. They turned their backs on the gods of Egypt by courageously slaughtering korban Pesach, despite the place of the sheep among the Egyptian deities. They circumcised themselves and their children. Satan’s arguments were sure to be rejected.

Reaching our pasuk, however, the Egyptians could also lay claim to teshuvah! They proclaimed, “We are forced into submission by Yisrael, because Hashem fights for them.” The Egyptians now fully accepted Hashem’s existence and power. Both peoples had repented for their past, claimed Satan. Why were the formerly idolatrous Jews treated preferentially? Why was their teshuvah accepted, but not that of the Egyptians?

The midrash continues with Hashem’s response to Satan. “Fool! The Bnei Yisroel served avodah zarah only because of the unsettled mindset brought on by the harsh servitude.” In other words, their aveiros were committed in a state of inner confusion. They did teshuvah, however, after many months of respite from the rigors of servitude, which had ended. Their repentance came about through careful, deliberate reflection. The Egyptians, on the other hand, committed their sins from a position of equilibrium and plenty. Their repentance, however, was a momentary panic-stricken response to the advance of the waters that were about to crash down on their heads. Such teshuvah could not compete with that of the Bnei Yisrael.

Shabbat shalom and a fruitful TuBishevat.


February 2, 2017

Moshe called to all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Draw forth and take for yourselves one of the flock for your families and slaughter the korban Pesach. (12:21)

Strangely the Meshech Chochmah sees in this verse the relationship between emotion and intellect in the life of the Jew. As a Lithuanian, naturally the intellect rules the emotion every time, though witnesses testify that Reb Meir Simcha himself was a very warm, loving individual.

Here is his comment on the verse.

“The difference between the faith of Jews and everyone else is as simple as the difference between the mind and the heart. Matters of the heart – emotions – are built upon the tangible and palpable. The heart is moved by what it experiences. We attach labels to some of those stirrings, and speak of love, and beauty, and courage. Ancient man sanctified the various forces that raged with him by deifying them. Each force became a different god. Hence, there was a god of love and a god of beauty and a god of courage. A human who excelled in one of these forces was known as a son of the equivalent god.

To this day, the world of strong emotions buttresses the belief systems of other people. The artwork and tapestries with which they adorn their holy places tap into the emotional responses of the viewers/worshippers, increasing their attachment to each particular faith.

Avraham’s way was different. He comprehended that God is not part of the created world in any way. He is not a force, such as we see applied to material things. He is without boundaries, limits or restraints. He cannot be comprehended or understood; if He could, He would perforce have to have some commonality with the physical world. His existence is necessary, and all existence is contingent upon Him. He brings everything into existence from absolute nothingness. His Oneness is unique, unlike anything else known to man.

All these notions are discernable intellectually, but not emotionally. Nothing that we touch or feel propels them. They exist in our rational selves. To get there, we had to elect the dictates of the mind over those of the heart. Our understanding of God is a product of cognition. Its depth is such that, as Rabbenu Bachya ibn Paquda puts it, only the philosopher or prophet can grasp it fully. Nonetheless, all of Israel fully believes in His existence and His Oneness, despite these being entirely conceptual notions. They disparage the alternative notions that are sourced in emotion, seeing them as part of a limited, changeable physical creation, which is nothing but a tool in the Hand of its Creator.

What role did Hashem assign the palpable and emotional experiences that are part of the nature He created, so that they would not interfere with what we are to know through the intellect alone? Surely they hold great promise to us as well! We find the mission of the emotions fulfilled through Torah. He created a Torah of great complexity, which would bolster the intellectual side of man, and hence give it prominence over what his heart might suggest and his imaginative faculty might formulate.

He also apportioned the various emotions to different mitzvos. Love would be channeled into love for his fellow man, and to cement the family relationship and the commitment to peoplehood. Revenge would be focused on enemies of God. Loving-kindness would be directed to other people.

Every emotion that typically resides within the human heart is given its due. Beauty is appreciated on Sukkos, when we take the esrog, the “fruit of the beautiful tree.” Significantly, it is savored only for a week – after which it is discarded, unlike other mitzah material, teaching us something about appreciating the esthetic, but not overvaluing its importance.

The roles of mind and heart are memorialized in the garb of the kohen gadol. On his forehead – the seat of the intellect – he wore the tzitz, upon which was emblazoned kodesh le-Hashem/ sanctified to Hashem. Man’s rational faculties are to be kept holy, directed to his Torah study and his prayer, and free of competing influences that would lead him astray from his focus on Hashem. On the choshen/ breastplate, however, the kohen gadol carried the names of the shevatim/ tribes of Israel. Man’s heart and all the forces within it are directed to the mitzvos, the majority of which serve the unity of the nation, like the beis ha-mikdosh, and the ten portions that go to the kohen, the Levi, and the poor.

Effectively, we as a people have crowned the head to be the king over all other parts of the body! We have opted to follow the rational faculty, through which we discern the absolute Oneness of Hashem, something that cannot be directly experienced. We place our trust in our sechel; we succeed in obeying it even when that means disregarding the most deep-seated emotions. Thus, entire communities of Jews have walked to their deaths at times rather than renounce their firm belief in the nature of God, although this is something that cannot be felt and cannot be adequately described.

We acquired this ability at the Reed Sea, when they jumped into the sea, offering their lives, in their minds, in support of their belief in Him, refusing to reach an accommodation with the Egyptians. We can paraphrase what Chazal say about Yehuda, and apply it to Klal Yisrael as a whole” “How did the Jews merit kingship? Because they jumped into the sea.” In other words, the Bnei Yisrael merited that the head, the sechel would rule over all the emotions when they jumped into the sea, indicating that they employed their sechel to comprehend the Oneness of God.

It is for this reason that Chazal instruct us that the most impoverished man in Israel must lean at the seder in the manner of free people. Our exodus from Egypt turned out to be impermanent. We subsequently lost our freedom and our land at times. Nonetheless, every Jew on the night of the seder is indeed a free man. He has escaped the agenda of the emotions, and transcended the limits imposed by his physical nature. He has merited kingship – the coronation of the sechel over all his other parts.

Therefore our pasuk commands “draw…and take.” Draw yourselves away from the way others approach the world, yielding to the dictates of emotions and imagination. Take those emotions and employ them in the life of the family and in the love of fellow. Take a sheep “for each father’s house,” which because of its size have to be shared with neighbours. The point of this is to stimulate the unity of the entire nation, not just small groups. Therefore, women participate even though ordinarily exempt from time-bound mitzvos. All of Israel can fulfil its obligation with a single offering – because joining them together is part of the goal of this first mitzvah that the nation participated in. In performing this avodah, all the feelings are channeled to the mitzvah, so that they are not free to challenge the faith of the mind, and demand visualization and concretisation of God.

If you ask, how is it that all of Israel can rise to this lofty level? The Torah supplies the answer. “You shall shall touch the lintel and the two door-posts with some of the blood.” Those three parts of the doorway correspond, Chazal tell us, to Avraham, Yitzchok and Yaakov, from whom we derive our emunah.

Shabbat shalom


January 26, 2017

One of my all time favourite comments of the Meshech Chochmah is in this weeks sedra on Shemot 6:6-7.
He not only explains the four expressions of redemption but he also brilliantly explains why the correspond to the four cups of wine at the Seder. Also, which expression corresponds to which particular cup.

“I will take you…I will save you…I will redeem you…I will take you to Me as a nation.”

Meshech Chochmah: These are the famed four expressions of redemption, each one addressing a different facet of our liberation.

“I will take you” means that Hashem will pluck the people from the surround in which they are embedded, as if delivering a child from the womb, and in the manner of “to take a nation from the midst of [another] nation.”
Despite having become Egyptian-like in their idolatry and faulty spiritual notions, Hashem would exticate a distinct people from among their neighbours

“I will save you” refers to the murderous designs of the Egyptians to physically annihilate them. Hashem would rescue them, as one who intervenes to save a victim from a murderer.

“I will redeem you” relates that Hashem would free them from their forced servitude.

“I will take you to Me as a nation” means that Hashem would craft them into a cultured people, a nation with order and structure.

The Yerushalmi sources the four cups of wine on the Seder night in these four expressions of redemption.
We can match the four cups to specific expressions, and how they relate to their particular positions within the Seder. When we do, we discover details of their practices and spiritual level that are not altogether obvious.

We begin with Kiddush, which speaks of the Jewish people sanctifying time, of declaring certain occasions holy. But only something holy can create holiness! The Torah commands us to be holy in a postscript to the laws of arayos/ forbidden relations. As Rashi says there, the creation of barriers against sexual license is an indicator of the restraint and transcendence that are necessary components of holiness.

This kedushah corresponds to the first of the four expressions of redemption. In order for Hashem to “take out” a distinct nation from the midst of another, the boundaries between the two peoples could not have become blurred through intermarriage. Somehow, in hundreds of years, both before and during servitude, the natural tendency of peoples in close proximity to each other to mix and mate was resisted. There were no half-Jews; therefore, there was a Jewish people that was available to be taken out. We know enough about the forces within people and their weaknesses to conclude that the Jews must have taken active steps against assimilation. Without fences between them, surely many would have succumbed. The Bnei Yisrael created the barriers to intermarriage by enforcing their separateness. Thus, their kedushah-behavior created the possibility of their being taken out. Kiddush therefore corresponds to the first expression of redemption.

“I will save you” implies the existence of a pursuer and a pursued, of a clear distinction between victim and victimizer. Intervention on behalf of the innocent against the evildoer becomes difficult – if not impossible – if the victim is a victimizer himself. Had the Bnei Yisrael behaved as so many other peoples – with people oppressing their own brethren through cooperating with the enemy by informing against each other – the distinction between the good and the evil would have been erased, and they could not be saved.
Their success in maintaining cohesive loyalty is linked to the third cup, the one recited over Birkas HaMazon. This mitzvah focuses on the antidotes to communal strife and dissension, which are fed by jealousy and greed. Those faults make people look upon their neighbors as competitors ready to rob them of what they want and need. Birkas HaMazon, however, teaches that every individual is provided with what he or she needs through exacting Divine Providence. No person is shortchanged because of the existence or needs of his neighbor. And while the Torah only requires us to bentsch after a meal that leaves us fully sated, our practice is to do so nonetheless even after a small amount of bread. We have incorporated histapkus/ the ability to make do with little in the way we perform the mitzvah. Histapkus is the polar opposite of the oversized appetites that turn neighbors into hated competitors. Hashem’s “saving” the Bnei Yisrael points to their possession of the traits that Birkas HaMazon generally teaches.

“I will redeem you” implies a proud national spirit. Without it, they could have been satisfied with an easing of the brutality of their servitude, and nothing more. Freedom would not have been one of their aspirations. The lowly self-image of the slave often allows him to prefer slavery (and its apparent benefits, such as easy access to female slaves) over the more elevated and refined benefits that come with freedom.
This elevated spirit owes, in the case of our people, to a sense of connection with the past, with an appreciation of the Avos, and identification with them and their mission. The Jews in Egypt spurned the opportunity to ingratiate themselves by culturally mixing. They kept their Jewish names, rather than take new, Egyptian, ones. This loyalty to their history, to the Patriarchs, is linked to the second cup, the one we drink after the first part of Hallel, which deals with remembering the Avos.

“I will take you to Me as a nation” speaks of the belief they never lost that they would one day become a great nation with an important mission. They refused to abandon their national language, proud not only of their past, but of their future, when they would once again use that language as part of a fully functioning, independent nation. They had absorbed the lesson linked to the final cup, which is recited after the second half of Hallel, whose theme is the future of the Bnei Yisrael as a great nation.

It is no accident that the four expressions of redemption take form at the Seder as four cups of wine, rather than four of anything else. As we have seen, the four qualities that the Jews in Egypt must have possessed to be redeemed in this four-fold manner are related to separateness. The Bnei Yisrael kept their distance, in multiple ways. We, in galus, do the same; the way we relate to wine both enforces and symbolized that separateness.

Shabbat shalom


January 19, 2017

In his introduction to Sefer Shemot, the Meshech Chochmah writes as follows:

Understanding Moshe’s role and his uniqueness plays an important part in our relationship to all of Torah.

Know that Moshe’s prophecy differed from that of all other prophets. We relied upon all other prophets because they established their credentials as speaking for Hashem through signs and miracles that they predicted and performed, or through a previously credentialed prophet certifying another navi, as Eliyahu did for Elisha.

As the Rambam writes, belief that is born of miracles is ultimately deficient. The working of a miracle does not prove that the miracle worker speaks in the Name of God. Rather, the Torah commands us to obey a prophet who has predicted and performed miracles on multiple occasions. It assigns legal credibility to such a person, even though what he tells us may not in fact be a message he received from Hashem. He is presumed to speak the truth, much as we rely on two eyewitnesses, even though we realize that witnesses occasionally lie.

Moshe was the sole exception. Hashem elevated the entire nation at Sinai. They rose to the level of prophecy. In that state, they witnessed Hashem speaking directly to Moshe. This explains the causal relationship in a later pasuk: “I come to you in the thickness of the cloud, so that the people will hear as I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.’ The end of the verse seems to be a non sequitur.

The plain sense meaning of all of this, however, is that because they all prophetically witnessed the conversation between Hashem and Moshe, his role as the Divinely appointed conduit of Hashem’s wishes could never and would never be doubted. While all other prophets could be challenged by other miracle workers, no number of them would ever be able to cast doubt on a single letter of Moshe’s Torah.

Actually, however, this does not follow! While the people knew of Moshe’s reliability at the instant they saw him conversing with Hashem, how could they know what he would do or say in the future? Perhaps he would exercise his free will, and interject his own thoughts and ideas later in his career!

Chazal tell us that all is caused by Heaven other than the fear of Heaven – meaning that humans make free-willed choices without interference from Above. Even God’s knowledge of the future does not interfere with the human capacity to make choices without compulsion.

We are left with an inescapable conclusion: After ma’amad Har Sinai, Moshe ceased to possess the freedom to choose! He lived on in a state comparable to the angels, who exercise no choice between good and evil.
This is less surprising than it sounds. Chazal speak of King David taking considerable pride when he finished writing his Tehillim. He believed that no one had ever done a better job. Then he encountered a frog, which claimed to indeed do the job far better than David could. Every second of the frog’s life was perforce a song of praise, in that he was incapable of anything but doing the bidding of his Master. David, endowed with free will, could never match that constancy.

While David accepted the mussar value of that encounter, we can still appreciate the advantage that the bechirah-endowed human being has over the frog. Our struggle to vanquish bechirah – to rise above the temptation to choose evil – affords us opportunities for spiritual advancement that no animal will ever know.

This was Chazal’s intention in teaching that if one who learns not with the intention of putting his learning into practice, it would be better if his embryonic sac had been turned on its face. In other words, there was no purpose for him to come into this world. We do not spend our time here in order to reach new levels of understanding. The neshamah comprehended far more than we do in its previous state, before it descended from Heaven. A person who learns for the sake of the knowledge alone, and not for the purpose of turning his knowledge into action, has gained nothing. Had his embryo’s development been stopped, he would have had access to even greater knowledge! Our journey in this world has no purpose other than the vanquishing of our desires. Learning alone does not confer any advantage, unless it is the kind of learning (i.e. when pursued with the intent to implement it) that itself demonstrates a victory over the yetzer hora.

Given that bechirah’s value is not absolute but instrumental, we understand that Moshe got to a point where it was of no further use to him. He had reached the summit of accomplishment in pushing back against the choice of evil. Having purified his physical nature to the full extent possible, he had turned it into a spiritual instrument through which Hashem and His truth could be discerned. Bechirah at this point would have been a distraction. It had served its purpose in facilitating his growth. Having achieved that growth, bechirah became irrelevant to his needs.

None of this applied to the rest of the people. They had been elevated to a level of prophecy, of clear understanding, only for the purpose of establishing the authenticity of Moshe’s message so that it would never be doubted. They had not struggled up the mountain of human striving to arrive at the peak as Moshe did. Their absolute clarity at Sinai was not something they had earned, but was given to them in order to firmly establish the rule of Torah.

This clarity is what Chazal really meant when they spoke of Hashem lifting the mountain over their heads to tell them that if they refused to accept the Torah, they would perish. The “mountain” means the incontrovertible understanding that without Torah, Hashem would have no purpose for the world, and everything would cease to exist. They understood so perfectly, that they rationally had no other choice but to accept it. Failing to do so would mean the end of existence.

For all the people besides Moshe, bechirah remained the key element in their game-plan for growth. Their moment of sublime, angelic existence had achieved its purpose. They would now have to revert to their previous role of battling some of the options that bechirah would put on the table. Their experience at Sinai momentarily stripped them of their bechirah. They comprehended the nature and role of Torah so perfectly that their very understanding forced them to accept the Torah! But without bechirah, there is no opportunity for reward. The rest of the nation could enjoy their moment of angelic existence in order to establish the reliability of Moshe – but they needed to revert to ordinary existence thereafter.

This is what the Torah meant by “Return to your tents.” The tent is the body, together with the myriad forces, wants and desires that surround the neshamah that it hosts. This tent provides abundant room for bechirah, and for reward and punishment. Moshe, however, was told “You shall stand here with Me.” He did not revert to the ordinary human state, but remained aloof from all physical needs and distractions. This allowed him to comprehend things with uncommon clarity – albeit, without bechirah. (Freed of any attachment to the physical, he separated from his wife.)

For all others, the brief moment of elevation at Sinai served to clarify what would be most important for the continuity of Torah – the role of Moshe as faithful conduit of the Divine Will.

Shabbat shalom


January 12, 2017

I have given you Shechem – one portion more than your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and my bow. (48:22)

The Meshech Chochmah quotes the Targum Onkelos who translates “my sword” as tzalusi lit. my prayer and “my bow” as ba’usi lit. my supplication.

In a brilliant analysis, known to and used by most rabbis, the Meshech Chochmah then goes on to explain that these expressions of prayer are not synonyms. They reflect two entirely different modes of conversation with HaShem.

Tzalusa refers to our fixed prayer, which is structured, and obeys a given form. In all such fixed prayer, i.e. the shemonah esreh that we daven three times daily, we must precede our list of requests with praise of Hashem, and follow it with thanks. If we tamper with the fixed content or even the formulas that express it, halachah tells us that we have not fulfilled our obligation.

Ba’usa, on the other hand, is free-style. It pops up even where you might not expect it. The gemara (Avoda Zara 8a) allows for it, for example, even within the structure of our fixed prayer. If we wish to innovate, we may add our own thoughts and prayers within each berachah of shemonah esreh, so long as our innovation is related to the specified topic of that berachah. What we say and how we say it, however, remains our choice. There are no givens. We can formulate our autonomous prayer any way we wish.

The two modes could not be more different. Our fixed prayer is part of our designated avodah, our service of Hashem. While kavanah enhances the performance of any mitzvah, it can still be minimally fulfilled simply with the intent to perform Hashem’s commandment. Our fixed prayer is not so different. Minimal intention suffices to at least fulfill the requirement of prayer, namely, kavanah in the first berachah, and a very limited degree of kavanah thereafter.

Personal, optional prayer is subject to stricter demands. To be effective, it requires full focus and attention, and knowledge of the meaning of the words. (This might be the intention of the gemara. that a person’s prayer is heard only if he places his heart in his hands. In other words, he needs to fully direct his heart to Hashem.)

Our fixed prayer revolves around the community, the tzibbur. It is best said together with others; the language is that of the group, not the individual. The gemara points to a seeming contradiction between prayer that is said to be unacceptable without full sincerity and that which is accepted despite shortcomings. The solution, claims the gemara, is that the latter applies to group prayer, to the tzibbur. The point is that the group davening is our fixed, established prayer, which is not as demanding of kavanah as the prayer of the individual.

We now understand why Yaakov spoke of his davening specifically as “sword” and “bow.” He wished to accentuate the differences between the modes of prayer. The blade of a sword is inherently dangerous. It requires very little effort to cause great damage. Simply grazing it can be injurious, even fatal.

Arrows are quite different. They are as potent as the force applied to the bow-string, no more and no less. One’s aim is crucial. A small deviation will cause the target to be missed. The arrows are as deadly as the effort put into them. Yaakov attributed his military victory over the city of Shechem, against great odds, and in standing up to the counterattacks of Shechem’s neighbors and allies, to the success of both modes of davening in which he engaged.

Shabbat shalom


January 5, 2017

Hashem spoke to Yisroel in visions of the night, and said: “Yaakov, Yaakov.” (46:2)

Meshech Chochmah explains that neither of the Patrirchs who preceded Yaakov was a recipient of a nocturnal vision. This is peculiar to Yaakov – and it occurs more than once.
Many years earlier, as Yaakov fled from Esav’s wrath and readied himself to face the uncertainties of living with Lavan, he experienced the prophetic dream of the angels ascending and descending the ladder than connected Heaven and earth. There as well the vision occurred at night.

These two episodes share a common element, which we can assume is the reason for this unusual way of communicating information to Yaakov.
In both cases, Yaakov was on the cusp of leaving the land of Israel, and exposing himself to the vicissitudes of galus. In both cases, Hashem wished to reassure Yaakov that He would be with him even in the dark night of exile.
The Sages state the upshot of this reassurance plainly and openly: “When the Jews were exiled to Bavel, the Shechinah went with them.

This motif in Yaakov’s life explains his particular contribution to our fixed prayer. Avrohom established shacharis; Yitzchok minchah. Yaakov – who gave his name to his people – ironically created the model for a davening that is halachically voluntary! Should not the name Yisrael be linked to a daily fixed prayer? Our people’s self-understanding is bound up with constant conversation with Hashem.

Perhaps. But a more vital understanding for that people is that Hashem will never abandon them. This is the unique contribution of Yaakov.

This contribution follows the pattern of the offering of the heavy limbs of animals slaughtered earlier in a given day. While generally the avodah of the beis hamikdosh grinds to a halt during the evening, the offering of the residual limbs is an exception. If the process of offering began by day with the animal’s slaughter and application of its blood on the mizbeach, the burning of the limbs (if not completed by day) may take place at night.

These halachos create an image, whose message is clear: when something is associated with Hashem during the daytime, i.e. connected to Him during times in which He illuminates our lives freely and easily, it remains attached to Him even when His countenance seems to turn away. When a curtain of darkness falls on an animal whose elevation towards Hashem began by day, the avodah of that animal may continue even at night.

Prophecy is subject to the same rule. A navi who once experienced nevuah while in the land of Israel (like Yechezkel) can continue to receive prophecy when he leaves the land.

These ideas yield a crucial bit of instruction to us. When a Jew holds firm to the mesorah – when he follows the ways and lessons of his forefathers who lived at a time of the open connection between Hashem and His people that existed when the beis hamikdosh stood in its place – then he can be treated as a continuation of an ancient and venerable people. The Shechinah continues to dwell among such people. If, however, he forgets the covenant of his ancestors and does not follow in their ways, but lives as if part of a separate people, then the Shechinah is not with him in galus! He is treated with scorn and derision, no longer as part of a proud, ancient group that once saw the glory of Hashem when it was open and manifest.

Shabbat shalom.


December 29, 2016

Now let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man and place him over the land of Egypt. (41:33)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the two dreams do not strike us as equally compelling. If we had to choose one of the two to convey the essential message, we would pick the one featuring sheaves of grain. After all, grain was what this was all about – its abundance, followed by its scarcity. Why, then, is the dream of the grain preceded by one about cows, which seems only marginally related to the message that Paroh was meant to receive?

Ramban’s approach to the dreams offers one solution.
He sees the two dreams as a matched set. The cows arose from the Nile, because it was recognized as the source of water – and hence sustenance – to the land. The cows themselves were used as draft animals; they pulled the plows that readied the land for sowing. The sheaves represent reaping – the other end of the growing cycle. The cows and the sheaves, therefore, bookend that cycle. Both contribute equally to the idea of the availability of food.

A Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia 2:5) relates a fascinating story that suggests a different solution to our original question. Alexander the Great visited a far-off kingdom, not in search of riches, but to learn how others dispensed justice. He observed a court case presided over by the local king. One party sold a garbage dump to another. The buyer discovered treasure that had been hidden away in that dump. The buyer and seller disputed whether the sale included the hidden treasure, and turned to their monarch for a just resolution. He learned that the two litigants had unmarried children, and suggested that they marry each other, and in that way, both sides would enjoy the treasure.
Alexander laughed, prompting his royal colleague to challenge him and ask how he would have ruled in his own kingdom. Alexander said that he would have had both litigants killed, and kept the spoils for himself. The king asked whether the sun shone and the rain fell on Alexander’s kingdom. Alexander responded affirmatively. “Do you have small cattle?” asked the king. “You had better own cattle. You survive in the merit of your cattle, as is written, ‘You save man and animal!’” (Tehillim 36:7)
The king upbraided Alexander concerning his ease with gross corruption of justice. Such a society, he argued, would surely not be sustained by G-d. It survived, he reasoned, because Hashem’s compassion reached the animals. He sustained them – and the humans along with them!

We know that Paroh established himself as a deity. He fully played the role, staying aloof from the petty affairs of man. He did not involve himself with the problems of ordinary mortals, not oversaw the running of his kingdom. The hands-on leadership of Egypt he left to layer upon layer of government bureaucracy. As the saying goes, woe unto the land whose government officials are many!

Such governments are notoriously inefficient and given to corruption. They almost beg for miscarriages of justice, especially by the powerful who can act as they please without fear of consequences. Thus, it was acceptable for defenseless foreigner like Yosef to be thrown into prison indefinitely and without recourse to justice, all because of what was essentially a private matter that affected a person in a position of power. Each official could do what he wished, without fear of reprisal.

Hashem’s message to Paroh with the dream of the cows was the same as the king to Alexander: Justice has been so corrupted in your realm, that the primary focus of the good years will be the animals. They are the ones worthwhile saving. Furthermore, if you expect real relief from the upcoming famine, you must first address the endemic corruption in your realm. The cow-dream came first to instruct Paroh that his first order of business was to make his subjects – not just their animals – worthy of Divine compassion in their own right.

Yosef jumps in with advice. ”Let Paroh seek out a discerning and wise man.” Having a deity sit on the throne and absent himself from the pedestrian affairs of real people virtually ensured corruption. Egypt needs an ordinary human being to judge and to guide it citizens, not a god-man whose sanctity prevents him from attending to the affairs of his realm, leaving it lawless and corrupt. This man’s capability should be in his grasp of accepted practice, and of efficiency.

Yosef continues: “Place him over the land of Egypt.” This, too, is a reaction to the frequent miscarriage of justice in Egypt. With an uncaring monarch on the throne, many a nobleman could trample upon the law and expect to get away without penalty. Yosef tells Paroh that the antidote to this is someone of authority over the entire land of Egypt, who will serve in an oversight position, and will be the ultimate recourse for those who feel they were mistreated. He will be motivated to act responsibly, because he will also be given ultimate responsibility in the event of any wrongdoing.

Yosef’s position dictated the charges he leveled against his brothers. He accused them of being spies – a crime against the State, and therefore governed by extrajudicial policies. He did not have to subscribe to any rules or protocols in dealing with a crime against the State. Sitting at the top of the pyramid of power, he did not have to submit to any oversight in this matter.

Paroh agrees to the arrangement. “I am Paroh. Without you no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”

He meant that he would continue in his guise as the river-god, and hold himself aloof from the everyday affairs of the realm. All those goings-on would be subject to the approval and oversight of his appointee, Yosef.

Shabbat shalom


December 22, 2016

“Then they took him, and threw him into the pit. The pit was empty. There was no water in it.” (37:24)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that the mishna teaches us about a relatively rare berachah, one that is recited upon seeing a place where some miracle occurred. The gemara explains that it is recited even for a miracle experienced by a single person. When he returns to the place of his deliverance, he recites the berachah, “Blessed is the One Who worked a miracle for me at this place.”

The Abudraham limits the berachah to a miracle that breaks the usual laws of Nature. Miracles that occur within the ways of teva are not treated the same way. We recite a berachah on the miracle of Chanukah, he continues, only because of the miracle of the cruse of oil, which was a violation of the laws of Nature as surely as the miracles of Eliyahu and Elisha.

Now, there is no question to us that the primary miracle of Chanukah was the deliverance of the community from the enemy oppressor, which resulted in Jewish self-rule for some two hundred years, until the destruction of the beis hamikdosh. It would be appropriate to mark such an event, to celebrate it yearly, through the burning of lights. It would not make much of a difference where one placed such lights, so long as they were visible.

This, however, is not the halachah in regard to the mitzvah of kindling Chanukah lights. Chazal ratcheted up the observance, effectively combining our awareness of Hashem’s miracles inside and outside of teva. They mandated that the ner Chanukah stand within twenty amos of the ground, at a height that lies within the common field of vision. In other words, they saw to it that the neros Chanukah would attract focus and attention, not just awareness. In doing this, they had us look to the menorah that stood in the Heichal, whose opening to the outside was exactly twenty amos. Miracles within and without the bounds of the laws of Nature are not so different, they are telling us. They are both sourced in the mikdosh, the place chosen by Hashem for His Shechinah, from which all kinds of miracles radiate.

We see this pattern in the life of Yosef as well. Returning from his father’s burial with his brothers, Yosef finds the pit into which had had been thrown, according to R. Tanchuma,mand stares intently into it. His brother were seized with anxiety. They worried that Yosef was not plotting his revenge against them. In fact, continues R. Tanchuma, his gaze focused on the pit because he wished to recite the blessing praising Hashem for the miracle that he experienced.

Here, too, we could challenge Yosef’s behavior. The miracle that Yosef thought to pay homage to was the sequence of events that led from the pit to his role as viceroy of Egypt. This chain of events, however wondrous, did not involve any subverting of the laws of Nature, though. A beracha, then, would not be warranted.

As in the case of Chanukah, however, one element of the story did involve an overt miracle. R. Tanchum (who is the same person as R. Tanchuma of the midrash cited above) taught that the pit in our pasuk may have been dry as a bone, but it was filled with snakes and scorpions. Yosef’s survival in it was nothing less than an overt miracle – and Yosef was therefore justified in reciting a berachah when he returned to the site decades later.

As in the case of Chanukah, HaShem created an overt miracle within the context of a more important (but less dramatic) turn of events, in order to underscore the role of Divine Providence in engineering an outcome. In relation to Yosef that outcome was his rise to power and dominion in Egypt; centuries later, the outcome would be the victory of the Chasmonaim over the numerically superior oppressors. In both cases, the Author of the overt miracle is the same One Who engineered a desired outcome without suspending the laws of Nature at all.

Shabbat shalom


December 20, 2016

Yaakov arrived whole at the city of Shechem…and he encamped before the city. (33:18)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the Sages Chazal ( Pesikta 23) see an allusion to Yaakov’s observance of Shabbat in the latter part of our pasuk. By encamping “before” the city, but not quite reaching its limits before twilight, Yaakov was forced to observe the laws of techum Shabbat in regard to travel within the city. While a person who encamps within a city can go anywhere within that city, well beyond 2000 paces, Yaakov could go no further than 2000 paces from the place he encamped. Since he only reached “before” the city by dark, his later entry to the city did not allow him full access to it.

This is rather unusual. It is Avraham whom we usually credit with observance of Shabbat and other mitzvot, and then extend the assumption to the other avos who followed. Why would there be an allusion in our pasuk to shemirat Shabbat specifically to Yaakov, and none to Avraham? The answer may have much to do with the historical roles that the two Patriarchs embraced for themselves.

As things progress through the hierarchy of domeim, tzome’ach, chai, medaber ( inanimate, vegetable, animal, human (lit. Talking) , we see nutritional needs and preferences getting more complex. Spiritual nutrition is no different. The vast majority of human beings can subsist on a diet of the seven Noachide laws. No more is necessary. The Jewish soul – sourced in a higher place, a place within Hashem Himself – needs the Torah, in general and in all of its detail. Without it, a Jewish soul finds itself in an unsustaining environment.

The Jewish people is charged with serving as the host to Divinity in the lower world. This mission can be discharged only collectively, not individually. We find, therefore, that certain numbers are critical. For the Shechinah to take up residence, a minimum of twenty-two thousand are needed; 600,000 varieties of soul-types present themselves to the Jewish nation.

Understanding this aspect of spirituality, Avraham devoted himself to widening his base. Yishmael’s decision not to follow in the path of his father increased Avraham’s concern. He reacted by creating his eshel/ hospitality center, for the purpose of bringing in the greatest number of people to the cause of Hashem’s truth. Because his intention was to subordinate his followers to the Torah, Chazal speak of a two-millennia long epoch of Torah that begins with Avraham amassing those followers in Charan. Even Avraham’s move to Egypt (rather than any of a number of other neighboring countries where food was available) was inspired by his mission of reaching numbers. Known for its purported wisdom, Avraham was eager to engage them in debate – and win over his audience.

Yaakov, on the other hand, came to the opposite conclusion. Unlike Avraham, he saw children perfectly united in loyalty to his mission, and suitable to continue it. He determined that his own family could host the Divine message, without recourse to others. (This is the significance of Hashem standing over him in Yaakov’s vision of the angels on the ladder. Hashem indicated that Yaakov himself sufficed to bear the Shechinah) He therefore determined to go a very different route.
He understood the need for his children to isolate themselves from others, rather than deliberately mingle with them. He circumscribed his mission, and drew limits and boundaries around his nascent proto-community.

Despite living in close proximity to Lavan, he made no attempt to wean him away from his idolatry, and was displeased when Rachel stole Lavan’s terafim when she wished to help him give up his avodah zarah habit. The separation was destined to continue on in time, beginning with the exile in Egypt, where Yaakov’s family preferred to isolate themselves in their own Goshen neighborhood.

Chazal allude to all of this in speaking about Yaakov’s dealing with techumim in regard to the city mentioned in our pasuk. They mean to introduce this as an innovation of Yaakov’s drawing boundaries, borders, limits – virtual fences and barriers that prevent free association. Such boundaries were foreign to Avraham, who promoted ease of access so that multitudes could come, learn, be inspired, and change their lives because of it.

Techumim would become part of the working vocabulary of Yaakov’s descendants at Sinai – but not before. Even though the Bnei Yisrael received the mitzvah of Shabbos at Marah, weeks in advance of matan Torah, the gemara teaches that eiruvei techumim was not part of the early instruction. This is consistent with our approach. On the road to Sinai, the Bnei Yisrael were still riven with dissension and dispute. They could not yet serve as a national bearer of the Shechinah and its message. Boundaries and limits to keep others out were simply inappropriate.

This changed at the Sinai encampment. In loving anticipation of the giving of the Torah, they became a single people, their hearts united in purpose and intent. They became a capable vehicle for the Divine , bearing Hashem’s message through the history that would follow. Like their forefather Yaakov, they then needed techumim, boundaries and limits, to keep them separate, distinct, and apart.

This approach is crucial to our understanding of the role Hashem prescribes for us. Whereas Avraham and Yitzchok are promised the Land – an area with boundaries – the promise to Yaakov exceeds all boundaries. “You will break out to the west, the east, the north, and the south.”

Only because Yisrael would set up and live within boundaries do they merit unbounded blessing.