Vayakhel-Pekudei

March 23, 2017

You shall place the golden altar for ketores before the Ark of testimony. (Shemot 40:5)

Meshech Chochmah writes that the pasuk certainly does not tell us to place the golden altar immediately in front of the aron, either within the Holy of Holies, nor right in front of it. We know where this mizbeach stood; it was displaced a considerable distance from the aron. It was further removed, in fact, than the shulchan and the menorah, both of which stood closer to the kodesh ha-kodashim. The simple reading of our text is an instruction that wherever it is placed, it should line up directly with the aron inside the kodash ha-kodashim, and not be displaced neither to the left nor the right.

Such a reading, though, is unsatisfying. If this were the Torah’s intention, the instruction belongs elsewhere. It would seem more appropriate in the section describing how Moshe set up the mishkan, and where he placed the kelim. A good candidate would be the pasuk that describes how Moshe placed the golden altar “in front of the paroches.”
Similarly, the Torah even earlier describes this altar as standing in front of the paroches. At either one of these places the Torah could have underscored that the altar should line up in a straight line (along the front-to-back axis of the mishkan) with the aron that stood behind the paroches.

We could imagine a different purpose for our pasuk: informing us about the function of the ketores itself. There were those – notably the Rambam[Moreh Nevuchim 3:45] that the aromatic ketores was meant to displace the otherwise foul odors that would seep into the structure of the mikdosh. We know the stench associated with abattoirs; the mikdosh was a place in which not only were animals slaughtered and butchered, but their fats were then burned day and night. The lingering effects would naturally be overpowering. The Torah, according to these sources, instructed as to burn powerful but sweet-smelling incense twice daily to counteract the less desirable smells.

Others strongly objected to this approach. If the function of the ketores were simply practical , why would the Torah list the ingredients of the ketores with great detail, and forbid any change in the recipe, as well as using the special blend for any other purpose? Ketores figured in the avodah of the week of the mishkan’s inauguration, before many animals had been slaughtered, and when the structure was taken apart and reassembled each day.

The Meshech Chochmah concludes that the purpose of the ketores was not just for the practical benefit of those who would come to the mishkan. Rather, it was what Chazal call tzorech Govoha/ a Divine need. This means that it was a necessary component in the precise manner in which Hashem wishes to be served in the mikdosh. Nothing in the avodah is arbitrary; the precise formulation of its requirements flows from its source in esoteric mysteries. Those privileged to have penetrated some of those mysteries are well aware of the lofty messages are incorporated in the ketores.

This, then, is the Torah’s intention in our pasuk. It describes the avodah of the ketores as “before the ark of testimony.” We are meant to understand that its purpose is not just to serve a practical human need, but to serve the Divine Presence that rests upon the ark of testimony.

Shabbat shalom

Ki Tissa

March 16, 2017

In our sedra the building of the Mishkan is followed by the law of Shabbat whereas in next week’s sedra the order is reversed, it is Shabbat followed by Mishkan.

The Meshech Chochmah addresses this issue in his own individual way in his comment on 35:2.

The Torah juxtaposes Shabbos and the construction of the mishkan in two nearby parshios. In Vayakhel Shabbos takes pride of place, followed by the mishkan. Earlier, in Ki Tissa, however, order was reversed, with Shabbos following on the heels of the mishkan.

Constructing the mishkan does not fit neatly into one of the other known categories of mitzvos that come into conflict with the laws of Shabbos. On the one hand, the avodah itself trumps the restrictions of Shabbos. Parts of the avodah that require the performance of one of the 39 types of forbidden labor go ahead on Shabbos just as they do during the week.

Building the mishkan, however, is not at all comparable to the avodah. The mishkan is the place where the avodah takes place, but the sundry procedures in putting it together are preparatory to the avodah, but they are not the avodah itself.

On the other hand, it is well established that procedures that prepare for the avodah, but are not part of the avodah per se, do not override the strictures of Shabbos.

We might be tempted to see mishkan construction, then, as a set of preparatory activities that facilitate the avodah, but do not rise to the level of avodah that can set aside the prohibitions of Shabbos.

We would be incorrect in making that argument. While preparatory activities for other parts of the avodah cannot be performed at the price of violation of a Torah precept, we could argue that the mishkan project is exceptional. There is no escaping the presence of Shabbos in the operation of the avodah; the avodah goes on as usual. Because the mishkan regularly displays business-as-usual on Shabbos, we could easily reason that its very construction also continues unabated on Shabbos.

Let us develop the thought. Why is it that Shabbos seems to lose out in asserting itself against the avodah? The answer might well be that the mishkan itself complements and enlarges upon the essential themes of Shabbos! Shabbos reminds us that the world came into existence only because Hashem created it ex nihilo. By its very nature, the mishkan unequivocally states that Hashem’s Will sustains the world, and His providence directs the course of all events. Because His Shechinah resides in the mishkan, we respond to that Presence with unceasing service of Hashem, and with the symbolic references to enlightenment, to sustenance, to connection with Him. It should not be surprising that some preparatory activities to the avodah, e.g. the cutting of the barley for the omer offering the next morning, do in fact push aside considerations of Shabbos.

The avodah doesn’t so much ignore the restrictions of Shabbos as it makes their case in a different way.
Why, then, do we not treat construction of the mishkan the same way? Why does our parshah tell us, according to the way Chazal understand it, that the mishkan-construction project ground to a halt on Shabbos?

The mishkan speaks the same language as Shabbos only when the Shechinah takes up residence within it, and the homage we pay it then teaches the lessons we mentioned above. The Shechinah does not make that move, as it were, until the mishkan is completed. Before that time, building the mishkan is on a lesser plane in relation to Shabbos than preparatory activities of the mishkan after the mishkan’s inauguration.

It was only after the sin of the Golden Calf, however, that the Shechinah would be localized in a small area in the mishkan. Prior to that tragic event, the Presence of the Divine was felt all over. “Every place that you mention my Name, I will come to you and bless you.”

No mishkan was needed to proclaim the reality of G-d through His Presence. Hashem was equally accessible all over. The mishkan’s function was different than what it was after the sin. It was to act simply as a place to serve the Shechinah that was manifest throughout the community. At that point in time, the process of building the mishkan was as much an “avodah” – and not just a necessary precursor – than what we would call mishkan later.

In Ki Tissa, prior to the chet ha-egel, the Torah places the building of the mishkan before Shabbos, because it, too, – and not the actual avodah – overrode the laws of forbidden labor on Shabbos. Only after the chet, when the Shechinah restricted itself to a much smaller area, was a completed, functioning mishkan necessary to house the Shechinah, and for that Presence to supplement the truth that Shabbos declares. Therefore, in our parshah, Shabbos is listed first.

Shabbat shalom

Tetzaveh

March 9, 2017

In this weeks Sedra, called Tetzaveh, we find the unusual phrase, you command the Jewish, not Me (Hashem) as it were. Why?

You [Moshe] shall command the Bnei Yisrael that they shall take for you pure, pressed oil for illumination (27:20)

Meshech Chochmah explains: We read last week about the main kelim of the mishkan. They included a menorah and a shulchan. The mishkan served as a model for other central places of avodah, including both batei mikdash. Thus, both of them also contained a shulchan and a menorah.

At least the second Temple did. Shlomo’s, however, had multiple menorahs and multiple shulchanos. This begs for an explanation. If increasing the number was such a good idea, why did we revert to the single menorah model for the second bais hamikdosh?

An answer may begin with our pasuk. Why do the people take the oil specifically for Moshe, as implied by the words “for you?” The mitzvah was not given only to him. Why is its purpose or benefit linked to him? We might find an answer in the position of the Ibn Ezra regarding the times at which HaShem spoke to Moshe.

We are aware of the limitation that Chazal put on Hashem’s availability to Moshe. This experience, they say, was a daytime phenomenon. Hashem did not speak to Moseh at night. The Ibn Ezra, however, does not see this as linked to the time of day so much as to the presence of light. When the night is well-illuminated through lamps, Hashem would speak to Moshe as surely as He did during ordinary daylight hours.

For Moshe, then, the light of the menorah had great meaning and purpose, which was not shared by anyone else. Man’s mind is clearer when he is surrounded by light, which puts him in a better, more joyous mood. Simchah is a precondition to any kind of prophecy. Thus, the menorah’s light enabled him to engage in direct conversation with HaShem during the times when natural light was unavailable.

After the death of Moshe, the menorah’s light served no direct purpose as a provider of physical illumination – not to Hashem, and not to anyone else. Rather, Chazal tell us that it offered testimony to the rest of the world that the Divine Presence was comfortable resting with the Jewish people. When God cherished them, the ner maaravi burned the entire day, after the other lamps had already gone out. This was a powerful statement by Hashem that He resided, as it were, with His people.

Assuming that after the death of Moshe the menorah’s function became entirely bound up with representing the kavod of the Shechinah, we can understand Shlomo’s decision – at least according to the opinion that both the extra menoros and shulchanos were fully functional.
The mishkan’s dimensions were 10x30x10 amos, for a total of 3000 cubic amos. Shlomo’s heichal, however, was 20x60x30, or 36000 cubic amos, twelve times the volume of the mishkan. If one menorah sufficed for the much smaller structure, twelve would be needed to represent the kavod of the much greater space filled by the Divine Presence.

In fact, Shlomo did not bring the number to twelve. He added ten of his own, to yield a total of only eleven. He did this to retain symmetry. The ten he added formed two groups of five; each group was placed to one side or another of Moshe’s menorah. Had Shlomo insisted on full proportionality, he would have been forced to place five on one side and six on the other, leaving the arrangement unbalanced.

In the avodah of the shulchan, we find that the Torah insists that it be “opposite” the menorah. From this Shlomo understood the link between menorah and shulchan. It followed that each additional menorah that Shlomo provided had to be associated with an additional shulchan.
All of this thinking was mooted by the destruction of Shlomo’s beis hamikdosh. The second bayis would not know of the open display of Divine Presence of the first. There would be no need for extra menoros or extra shulchanos. The configuration reverted to the essential design dictated by the original mishkan.

Shabbat shalom

Terumah

March 2, 2017

The staves shall be in the rings of the Aron. They shall not be removed from it. (25:15)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that Chazal tell us that removing the badim from the aron is halachically forbidden. Lke other prohibitions, it is punishable by lashes. Now, the aron is not the only major appliance of the mishkan that comes with staves. Both the altar and the table were equipped with staves. Regarding those two, however, the Torah only specifies that the staves be in place while they are being moved. Apparently, removing their staves at other times is not objectionable. Why are the staves of the aron different?

A midrash tells us that the Aron is identified with the Crown of Torah. Whereas not everyone is even eligible to wear the crown of kehunah or of monarchy, the Torah crown is available to anyone who wants to crown himself with it, simply for the asking. Thus there is constancy to the aron not shared by the other kelim.

Anyone, then, can have a relationship with Torah. But practical considerations can curtail the talmid chacham’s career. To thrive, the talmid chacham requires support from others. This may take the form of donations, or of creating investment opportunities for the him. This support is alluded to in our pasuk by the staves – the items though which the journey of the Torah becomes possible.

The gemara notes that in commanding the building of the aron, both the singular and the plural form of the verb is used. The Torah alludes to the roles of the few and many. By using both forms, the Torah suggests that the single talmid chacham should be assisted by the larger group of townspeople ready to offer their assistance. This universal support of Torah knows no restriction or limit. It must come all of the time; the staves representing support of the Torah must never be removed.

We can also suggest a different approach from the one we have taken till this point. It builds on a well-known position of the Rambam. He writes that the menorah in the beis hamikdosh was lit not only at night, but in the morning as well. This is readily understandable. The light functioned as a reminder to the world of the presence of the Shechinah in the midst of the Jewish people. Its role was not to provide illumination. “Does G-d need light?”

Lighting the menorah each morning drove home this point. The menorah would provide no useful illumination during the brightness of the day. People who understood that also comprehended that its function did not change at night. Just as it did not serve to provide illumination by day, its role was not to provide useful light at night either. The daytime lighting impressed upon us that we needed to look elsewhere for the symbolic significance of the mitzvah; it was not to be found in the practical role of providing light.

The staves of the aron stand in a similar position. When the aron was at rest, they served no clear practical function. From this we realized that even when the aron was transported from place to place, the staves did not contribute functionally. As Chazal teach us, the aron carried its bearers – not the opposite! As the symbolic abode of the One Who carries the universe, nothing needs to carry Him. The badim played no part in making it possible to bear the weight of the aron as it travelled.

Shabbat shalom

Mishpatim

February 23, 2017

In this week’s Sedra, the Meshech Chochmah deals with the relationship between the mishpatim – civil laws, many of which are necessary and logical and shared by other societies and the Chukkim and ritual laws peculiar to Judaism.

He sheds light on the old question of why the obvious, rational laws are also in the Torah.

” Moshe came and related to the nation all the words of Hashem, and all the mishpatim.”

The entire nations responded, “All the words that Hashem spoke, we will do.” (24:3)

He writes: Are mishpatim, the laws of civil conduct, not included in the “words of Hashem” that Moshe received from Hashem, and now conveyed to the people? Why are mishpatim singled out for special treatment?

Not all mitzvos require “acceptance” in the sense of agreeing to do what we ordinarily would not. It is much easier to make the human case for observance of some mitzvos than others. We can appreciate the distinction by looking at the laws incumbent upon non-Jews – the seven Noachide laws. One of those is called dinim, identified with a large number of laws of civil conduct that Man’s rational sense tells him are essential to a stable society. Laws about commerce, labor, contracts, etc. are part of the backbone of an orderly collection of human beings.

Rational people understand that they are indispensible; people generally do not see enforcement of these laws – what in our parshah the Torah calls mishpatim – as encroaching on their civil liberties and individual rights. Non-Jews are expected to enforce these laws – but nothing more. While they might agree on the morality of some actions and the immorality of others, this does not give them the moral right to enforce this thinking on those reluctant to join with them. Such moral compunctions should remain within the province of individual free choice. Moral arguments beyond those which all agree upon should not by foisted upon the unwilling, even by a majority. No person has the right to dictate morality to another beyond that which God Himself demands.

Halachah pertaining to Klal Yisrael, however, does not accept this thinking, even though it is fundamentally sound. The nature of the interconnectedness of all Jews creates a strong argument for enforcement of all laws of the Torah, beyond the dinim that all agree upon. “All Jews are guarantors of each other,” Chazal tell us. This means that any Jew’s misconduct impacts upon the quality of life of every other Jew. The intuitive laws included under the rubric of dinim include the understanding that no person has the right to damage another, or his property. Because of the special relationship of Hashem with the Jewish people, the violation of any precept of the Torah is the equivalent of breaking a neighbor’s window. The transgression of any one Jew damages the spiritual well-being of all other Jews. What otherwise would be part of the personal domain of choice of every person now becomes an item of collective interest and concern.
In the pesukim that follow, the Torah’s description of the Bnei Yisrael’s acceptance of mitzvos changes subtly. At first, they say, “All the words that Hashem spoke, we will do.” There is no mention of mishpatim, of the laws whose necessity is universally recognized, and that were explicitly mentioned in the preceding phrase. A few pesukim later,however, they attach the famous words “naaseh v’nishma” to “all that Hashem spoke” – without further references to “words” or to “mishpatim.”

Here is what happened. In our pasuk, the Bnei Yisrael hear both the “words” of Hashem and the mishpatim. They react to the former, which mean the mitzvos that we obey only because we heard them from Him, but not because we understand their importance even without being commanded. They react by accepting them in particular; the mishpatim, they believe, don’t require any special acceptance. They are part of the civilized human condition. The “words” of Hashem, however, they eagerly accept. That is, each man and woman accepted them as their personal, individual obligation. They did not see themselves meddling in the spiritual choices and affairs of others.
Before we get to the other verse that speaks of the Bnei Yisrael accepting Hashem’s orders, the people are readied and prepared for a covenant. Moshe will formally inaugurate the bris by soon sprinkling them with the blood of offerings. But first, presumably, they learn about the implications of that bris.

They learn that the relationship between God and His people is such that our fates and destinies are all interdependent. They understand that His providential management of the affairs of the nation depends on the spiritual level of the nation as a whole, not on the righteousness of individuals alone. Any one person’s transgression, therefore, impacts upon every other person’s life. In other words, all the other mitzvos of the Torah have now become similar to mishpatim. Just as the latter are a communal responsibility because violations of laws of theft, bailments, torts, etc. directly threaten the well-being of others, so are all other commandments. The community as a whole becomes a stakeholder in the religious observance of every Jew.

Thus, when they react to the new bris, they announce that they are accepting all the words of Hashem ­–equally, and without differentiating between them. Moreover, the acceptance has now moved from the arena of personal conscience to the protection of the entire nation.

Shabbat shalom

Yitro

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

Beshalach

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.

Bo

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

Va’ayra

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

Shemot

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