Devarim 5777

July 26, 2017

The Meshech Chochmah was a Master both of the whole Bible and the entire corpus of Rabbinic Literature.

For ten weeks we read special haftorot, 3 of rebuke in the run up to Tisha B’Av and 7 of consolation afterwards.
I have decided for a change to look at a comment of Meshech Chochmah to this weeks haftorah (Isaiah 1:13) which he links both to the Torah and to the time of the year.

” And You shall not continue to bring a worthless minchah. Incense is an abomination to Me….I can’t abide falsehood and assembly of your Rosh Chodesh and Yom Tov.” (1:13)

Meshech Chochmah writes that ironically, sometimes a bit of bad is a good thing. Chazal emphasise that a public fast day that does not attract the participation of sinners is not a proper fast day. They derive this from the composition of the ketores (incense mixture), which included by design chelvanah. While foul-smelling on its own, it took on a different characteristic when mixed with the aromatic spices that went into the ketores. There, the majority ingredients not only masked the bad odor, but were themselves improved by the minority ingredient that brought out some of the more subtle qualities of their aroma.

So it is with people and their faults. When three people are scrutinized as individuals, the shortcomings of each one stand out. One is found to be stingy, a second evil-tongued, a third quick to anger. When the three form a group, the majority bring out better qualities in the minority, and the minority can even at times enhance the quality of their positive traits The stingy one learns generosity from the others; the foul-tongued learns to keep silent; the quick-tempered discovers forbearance..

However, the opposite can also occur. The majority can decide to emulate the base characteristics of the minority, thereby strengthening them. For this reason, Chazal maintain that it is better when evildoers are scattered, rather than joined together.

This fundamental idea allows us to understand the workings of the mikdosh, which served to unite the hearts of all of Klal Yisrael, bringing them together to a single place. Miracles were a common occurrence there. While any one individual did not usually merit miraculous intervention, the community created by those individuals did merit such miracles. The deficiencies of each individual were erased in the group, as the majority brought out the latent good in the previously offensive minority. The collective possesses qualities that the individual rarely can lay claim to himself. One person contributes yir’as Shomayim, another ahavas Yisrael. One excels in his generosity, another in his Torah.

Individuals can bring a minchah; it cannot be brought by partners sharing it. Nonetheless, the community does bring a minchah, as in the omer offering on the second day of Pesach and the two loaves that are brought on Shavuos. A communal offering is treated not as a partnership of all the individuals in the group, but as a single corporate entity. This treatment, however, is reasonable only so long as the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts, i.e., where individuals engage each other positively, and the group bringing out latent goodness which was not expressed while they acted as distinct individuals. When this dynamic fails – when individuals no longer are drawn by the positive characteristics of their neighbors – their group korban becomes a shared partnership, rather than a single corporate entity. Since the minchah may not be brought in partnership, Yeshaya decries the minchah of his countrymen, who did not improve in each other’s company, but each person attempted to devour the other. Such a minchah he terms a “worthless” one. It flies in the face of the halachic requirement that the minchah come from a single, unifying entity.

Similarly, ketores in such a society becomes an “abomination.” The putrid component of the incense remains putrid when it does not collaborate with all the other elements that cooperatively produce a new, better fragrance. Its abiding stench makes the ketores “abominable.”

We can generally tease out passive and active ways in which people are able to rebuke their friends for their misdeeds. In the passive mode, no words need be exchanged. A sinner takes notice of one of his peers – one, perhaps, who faces even greater hardships than he does – acting in an exemplary manner. If the observer is open to change, he will take his example to heart. “If even he can act in such and such a way, all the more so should I be able to do that!”

Not peers, but leaders and greats use the active mode. Here, it is the very difference in station that is effective. When the sinner respects the speaker for his knowledge or piety, his words find room in the sinner’s heart.

The gemara states that Yerushalayim was destroyed because people did not rebuke each other. Developing the thought further, it cites the pasuk [Eichah 1:6]
“Her leaders were like sheep,” and explains that sheep walk with the head of one right up against the tail of another. The gemara refers to the passive mode of rebuke and influence, and why it did not function in the generation of the destruction. Rather than look to the “heads” of the other sheep, i.e. to emulate their exemplary qualities, people buried their heads in the deficiencies of their friends. There, they would find support for their own deficiencies, and excuses to maintain their own mediocrity rather than work on themselves to improve their character.

The active mode of rebuke did not fare any better. The same passage in the gemara tells us why. “Yerushalayim was destroyed only because they disparaged talmidei chachamim.” This kind of rebuke presupposes that the listener regards the speaker as a great, accomplished person. The gemara cites a pasuk,[Chronicles 2 36:16] “They insulted God’s malachim and scorned His words.” Malachim can be understood as “messengers,” but also in the narrower sense of the Divine messengers we call “angels.” The generation of the churban could not deny the greatness of their talmidei chachamim, so they flipped the argument. “Who are these people to reprimand us? What did they know of the affairs and challenges of ordinary people? They live like angels, aloof from the issues that everyone else must deal with. If they would have to live like us, they would act far worse than we do.”

Having destroyed both pathways to rebuke and improvement , their fate was sealed.

Shabbat shalom

Mattot-Massei 5777

July 20, 2017

Your servants have taken a count of the soldiers in our charge. Not one of them is missing. (31:49)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that the gemara in Yevamot (61a) understands nifkad/missing, as lacking in a spiritual sense. Not a single soldier was lost in the battle with his yetzer hora. In the trying conditions of the front lines, the excited passions of warfare, and the emotional release in surviving, soldiers sometimes fall prey to their desires and to opportunities to exercise power. The officers reported that their soldiers had, without exception, conducted themselves in an exemplary manner.

They emphasized that these soldiers were be-yadeinu/ “in our charge,” meaning that they were all accounted for physically as well. None went Awol. The officers knew where each of their men were at all times. None had been missing, then, in a physical sense as well. By keeping tight control of their men, they kept them away from morally challenging situations.

The officers could certainly take pride in the record of those under their command. But it led to a euphoric moment. They realized that they, the officers, had successfully countered the more primitive drives of a large number of people. Immediately, they connected the dots to another episode – and were overcome with guilt. “If we were able to prevent the many from sinning by exercising deliberate and focused control, why hadn’t we done more at the time of the incident with Pe’or and its worship? Why had we not stood up to the sinners, as we were able to do with our soldiers.”

We can therefore see what the officers later say in a new light. “We have brought Hashem’s offering: each person who found gold vessels, chains, bracelets…to atone for our souls before Hashem.” They sought atonement for their silence in the Ba’al Pe’or episode, in which they now realized they were complicit through inaction.

The military campaign against Midian turned out to be a win-win action. Both Hashem and the Bnei Yisroel were honoured by the outcome. The latter in not losing a single soldier to moral turpitude; the former because His providence ensured that the Jewish army did not suffer a single fatality on the military field of battle. This accounts for the seemingly long-winded description of the donation of the offering of the army officers: “They brought it to the Ohel Moed as a remembrance for the Bnei Yisroel before Hashem.”

The victory over Midian created a remembrance for the Bnei Yisrael of the greatness of Hashem, while also taking a place before Hashem, i.e. testifying before Him of the greatness of the Jewish army, whose soldiers – without exception – gave opportunistic aveiros the cold-shoulder.

We could suggest an entirely different approach to the “in our charge” phrase. Chazal emphasize that several of Man’s senses are not amenable to his complete control. Walking through the street, a person has no consistent way to evade the next scene that may enter his visual field. He may find himself looking at something that he really does not want to see. He may hear words in which he has no business hearing, and might detect the aroma of succulent meat offered to some pagan deity on an idolatrous altar. Try as he may to shield himself from undesired sensory intrusion, he cannot fully succeed.

The officers alluded to this. Their men, they announced, had resolutely held themselves apart from aveirah. They exercised control over their actions. They put limits on where their legs would carry them, their hands would touch, and their mouths would speak. These were all part of what is in “our charge.” They could not control, however, everything that flowed into their internal lives from the outside. They did find vicarious pleasure in what they saw, which wasn’t always so holy.

As the gemara says, the soldiers “sated their eyes with aveirah.” Despite having a perfect record in regard to what they could control, they came up short on what they could not. For this they needed atonement, and responded with their offering of part of the booty.

They called it “Hashem’s korban,” rather than “a korban for Hashem.” Those who went out to battle returned not only gratified at the outcome, but stunned by the conduct of the war. They had not lost a single soldier. They saw in this an enormous contribution of Divine hashgachah. Any offering to Hashem is ordinarily accompanied by a feeling of giving something to Him that belongs to us. The offering after the battle with Midian was so lopsided, that the participants could not develop a sense of possession and ownership towards the spoils of war. Everything they took had been handed to them by HaShem. When they took their offering to the Ohel Moed, they saw themselves bringing not a korban for Hashem, but Hashem’s korban. The korban belonged to Him before it was ever designated as holy.

King David expressed this elegantly: “From Your hand we have given You.” (Chron 29:14)

Shabbat shalom

Pinchas 5777

July 13, 2017

On the first day of the seventh month there shall be a holy convocation for you. You shall do no laborious work. It shall be a day of shofar-sounding for you. (29:1)

Meshech Chochmah: In Vayirka 23:24 the calls the day Rosh Hashanah a time of remembrance of the shofar. Halachically, this alludes to our practice of suspending the sounding of the shofar when Rosh Hashanah falls out on Shabbos. In such years, we have to suffice with a remembrance of the shofar of previous years.

Moving to a more conceptual approach, we can explain the “remembrance” of the shofar quite differently. We can discern two kinds of self-examination that can be part of the teshuvah process: “seeing” and “remembering.” The most obvious form of repentance begins with a person taking a good look at himself. He inventories himself, and finds himself in possession of things – whether objects or behaviors – of which he must quickly purge himself. So he rids his possessions of what he is not fully entitled to keep, and distances himself from aveiros that he routinely commits.

There is another dimension to teshuvah that is more subtle. “Looking” at himself and his observable behaviour, he will not find anything in himself that is so troubling, at least after doing a good job with the first form of repentance. We know, however, that sin leaves its mark. It impacts upon the inner person, even when the external one remains visibly unmoved. The change requires a much deeper kind of self-examination. The sinner must “remember” every aspect of his former self, and see how sin has subtly changed his leanings, preferences and character. When he does, he realises his vulnerability – how the person ravished and changed by sin stands ready to fail when confronted with challenges that have still not arrived.

These two forms of the teshuvah process find a parallel in the way Hashem acts towards us in an exculpatory manner. Sometimes He “sees,” meaning that He reacts towards some unfavorable decree against us, towards some untoward consequence poised to strike, by removing the threat. He “sees” our change in behavior, or some evidence of contrition. At other times, however, His reaction is more subtle and discerning. He doesn’t “see” the observable, but “remembers” some special merit, or some argument that puts a person in a better light. His protective reaction then is more comprehensive. He places the person out of harm’s way, including that of fully natural factors and catastrophic events that might arise in the course of time.

The citizens of Ninveh repented – but only “from the robbery in their hands.” Because their repentance was relatively superficial – Chazal go so far as to call it deceptive – the pasuk says that “Hashem saw…and regretted the evil that He had said He would do.” Noting an observable change in their behavior sufficed only to call back an immediate threat to them.

Chazal reject the presence of gold on a shofar, likening its sounding to avodah in the inner precincts of the beis hamikdosh, where the kohen gadol had to leave behind his golden garments in favor of plain white ones. They don’t mean that shofar is unusually important, just as the inner avodah on Yom Kippur is dear and exalted because it is so rare. Rather, they mean to point to the inward focus of the sound of the shofar.

Some aveiros remain functionally invisible to their owners. Practices that are extremely common do not strike people as sinful, even if objectively they are. People take refuge in the argument that there is no need to be more pious than everyone else. Sometimes people act on the authority of an erring beis din. Those who relied on the decision of a legitimate beis din certainly see themselves as blameless. Indeed, they are not obligated to bring a korban chatas for such a transgression.

The conventional chatas is an outer korban, whose avodah is restricted to the courtyard area. As we move to the inner parts of the mikdosh, however, we suddenly find that atonement is offered for aveiros that people dismiss as irrelevant because they see themselves as beyond reproach. When a faulty halachic decision affects the entire nation, there is a korban – and it involves the inner altar and the paroches! In other words, in the external part of the mikdosh there is no recognition of guilt for this kind of sin, but the inner parts are sensitive to the impact of what seems like a blameless act. As we move to the innermost part of the mikdosh, the sensitivity increases even more. In the Holy of Holies a korban is offered for those who entered the mikdosh without knowing that they had become tamei. Such a person is conscious only of his attempt to do a mitzvah through coming to the mikdosh; he has no idea at all of his tumah.

Conceivably, he acted with all the mitigating factors that could apply: i.e., with the permission of a court ruling, and in the company of a great many other people. Nonetheless, in the holiest, innermost part of the mikdosh, even such a chet registers – and must be dealt with. In the space that is “closest” to the Shechinah, the effects of the smallest, seemingly invisible, chet are more critical.

Chazal mean something similar when they say that the sounding of the shofar is like an avodah of the interior parts of the mikdosh. Here, too, they mean that the avodah of the shofar reaches inward to the unseen and unobservable, not to the external and superficial. Thus, on Rosh Hashanah, a person’s teshuvah must be one of “remembering,” not just “seeing” the obvious flaws. He must inventory all his activities, bar none. Even activities that are perfectly permissible and even those that are objectively mitzvos. All need to be scrutinized to detect even the slightest unwanted admixture of something that can leave a lasting negative impression, even if it not experienced as an overt chet.

Several times in the course of the day of Rosh Hashanah, we reach to a pasuk in Tehillim: “Sound the shofar at the moon’s renewal, at the keseh for our festive day.” Keseh is usually translated as “the appointed time.” It also conjures up something covered up and hidden. It is a day to remove all that intervenes between ourselves and HaShem . Even the small sub-threshold sins should be uncovered and addressed.

Shabbat shalom

Balak 5777

July 6, 2017

Moshe said to the Jewish judges, “Let each man kill his people who were attached to Baal Peor.” (25:5)

Meshech Chochmah: The gemara, Sanhedrin 64a, contrasts the “attachment” verb here with the one that the Torah uses in a happier context. In Devarim 4:4 the Torah speaks positively of those who “cling”/ devekim to Hashem. Our verb, nitzmadim, is related to tzamid, an ornamental bracelet that is attached to the body, but only loosely. It is free to move to and fro. The verse in Devarim, however, speaks of a tight and unyielding connection to Hashem.

Chazal convey a profound thought about the way sin impacts us – more specifically, the different ways that different types of shortcoming affect our inner selves.
Parsing the second verse in Vayikra – which introduces us to voluntary offerings – the gemara in Eruvin 69b derives that the words adam…mikem/ “a man among you” excludes the offering of a renegade, while the word behemah/ animal licenses our accepting offerings from people who act like animals, i.e. sinners. The takeaway is that if a sinner wishes to bring an offering in the mishkan or mikdosh, we do not object. Rejecting his overture, pushing him away, might end any possibility of his future repentance. We do not extend the same courtesy to the renegade, the mumar.

Chazal understood that our mesorah linking sinners to the word behemah was not merely a pejorative swipe at less-than-righteous people. It was a statement about the nature of sin. Animals seek to gratify needs – needs of eating, drinking, reproduction – even comfort. These desires are not the product of any intellectual gift from on high. The intellect has no use for physical things and activities. On the contrary. Chazal say that a person only sins when he is overcome by a spirit of insanity – or irrational thinking, the polar opposite of sechel/ proper intellectuality. The sotah brings an offering of barley, the classic animal fodder.

The renegade’s lapse comes from a very different place. The one who has pledged his allegiance to idolatry, or espouses warped religious ideology, has not given in to his animal lusts. His failure is rooted in his soul. For this reason, Chazal teach that in most regards, thoughts of, and even determination to perform some aveirah are not reckoned by Hashem as the equivalent of actually committing the sin.

Avodah zarah, however, is an exception. Thought is within the province of the nefesh. When that thought is firmed up, it is directly fixed to the nefesh; if the thought is a warped and contorted one, it impacts the soul. Sinful activities that owe to Man’s animal nature are concluded only when translated into action, which is mediated and given expression by his animal apparatus. The thought of doing it has no real effect until it becomes active.

The ordinary sinner falls prey to his animal instincts and wants, not because his sechel is flawed, but because it is insufficiently strong or resolute to assert itself against the animal part of his nature. The Torah encourages such a person to take part in the system of korbanos. Not so the renegade. Having perverted his nefesh, he is no longer “a man among you.” He is fundamentally different from his brothers and sisters, and barred from participating with them.

The Baal Peor episode, however, was exceptional. Chazal describe the entrapment of the Jewish men by the Midianite women. Lured into what seemed to be an innocuous shopping expedition, the men were quickly victimized by a bait-and-switch operation that they could not have anticipated. Propositioned by an attractive young woman, their animal passions were quickly ignited. When the woman insisted upon a quick, ritualized service to her god before yielding to him, each victim succumbed. There was no intellectual component in the service at all. The obeisance paid to Baal Peor was nothing more than a continuation of a sin of animal lust and passion.

Pinchas, say Chazal, remonstrated with the Creator. “Twenty-four thousand of Israel die for the likes of these [Zimri and Kozbi]?” He stressed “of Israel” to underscore that they remained part of Israel, despite participating in avodah zarah. While idolatry typically changes a person, leaving him categorically different from others, making him no longer “a man among you,” these sinners were all different. Their shortcoming was restricted to their animal selves, having failed to use their sechel to police their passions.

We return to our opening citation of Chazal. The Peor-worshippers attached themselves to an object of idolatrous veneration. But the attachment was loose, indeed. It did not come from their inner selves. A married woman will adorn herself with bracelets to attract the romantic interest of her husband. The Peor-worship as well was nothing but an adjunct to a welling up of physical desire. Not so the connection of those who cling to Hashem, whose attachment runs deep, and is sourced in their nefesh and sechel, which control and limit the raging forces of the physical.

For this reason as well, Chazal tell us that Moshe was buried opposite Baal Peor, to help atone for those who sinned there.

Shabbat shalom

N.B I once read somewhere that Moshe Rabbenu was buried on the mountain opposite Baal Peor to make the choice even more stark. You can chose…either Moshe Rabbenu or Baal Peor but there is nothing in the middle!

Chukkat 5777

June 29, 2017

Much water came forth, and the assembly and their animals drank. (20:11)

The Meshech Chochmah explains that he episode of drawing water from a rock does not redound to the credit of the Jewish people, and cost Moshe and Aharon their entry ticket into Israel. It seems ironic that the Torah would stress that this resulted in a great abundance of water. Were they rewarded for getting it wrong? Should not Hashem have made a point of providing them with their needs and nothing more?

We are distracted from the truth by a common misconception, which looks at “more” as “better.” In fact, Divine blessing shows itself in quality, not in quantity. When Hashem tells of a blessing of prosperity, He says, “You will eat your bread to satiety,” which Rashi tells us means eating only a small amount, which nonetheless is blessed with providing complete satisfaction to the body. The manna, coming as it were directly from the Hand of Hashem, did more than that. It was a spiritual food that gladdened the spirit as well as the body.

Had Moshe and Aharon not departed from their Divine instructions, the people would have received miraculous water that behaved like the manna, where quantity simply did not matter. Gathering extra manna got a person nowhere. Each person received precisely what sufficed for his needs. The water they asked for in our parshah would have come to them in the same way. Quantity would have been irrelevant; an uncharacteristically small amount would have sufficed to satisfy all their desire for water.

This blessing, however, would only have been available for people. Animals would have required large amounts, appropriate to satisfying their physiological needs. Thus, the original plan was to supply them with “water from the rock, and give drink to the assembly and to their animals.” They are not promised “much” water, because the people would have been blessed with extraordinary satisfaction from an insignificant amount of water.

(Not so, the animals. This is why the word “v’ess” intervenes between “assembly” and “animals,” as if to suggest – as is usually the case with two subjects separated by the word “ess” – that the two would be very different. Animals would be fed an abundance of water; people would enjoy the superior blessing of satisfaction through just a little.)

Alas, this did not happen. Moshe and Aharon departed slightly from the script; the people did not have a chance to observe a kiddush Hashem of the highest order. The water-miracle was therefore downgraded. It was “much water” that came forth. To the observers who did not even realize that they had passed up something much better, quantity did mean a great deal. Furthermore, “the assembly and their animals drank,” both together, both responding to the physical properties of the water, while missing the boost that at least the people could have received from the water’s spirituality.

Just what was the kiddush Hashem that would have resulted in a higher-order miracle? R. Yosef Albo argues that it would have been accomplished had Moshe taken the initiative on his own, and pledged to produce water from a rock. People would then not only have witnessed Hashem caring for them miraculously, they would have seen Hashem comply with the wishes of His faithful servants.
This leads us to a mystifying observation. Several prophets did act on their own, performing miracles by calling for – and getting – Divine assistance. Eliyahu did this at Har Carmel, bringing fire down from heaven to consume his offering; Shmuel did it years before, in bringing a thunderstorm in the middle of a usually rain-free summer.

Now, Moshe was arguably at the pinnacle of prophetic power. Why did he almost never – with the exception of the earth’s swallowing up Korach’s rebels – order the miraculous on his own?

An answer can be found in the unique place of Moshe’s prophecy. It was entirely clear to all observers that other prophets were human beings, endowed with a prophetic spirit. Moshe, however, was in a class of his own. He prophesied while fully conscious; he seemed to be a demi-god, independently possessed of godly powers.

To make it quite clear that Moshe was not an independent agent – that he acted only when empowered by HaSHem, and succeeded only through His power – Moshe did not perform miracles on his own. He demonstrated that he acted only as an extension of Hashem’s Will.

The Korach rebellion offered the only exception to this practice. Korach’s minions gathered around Moshe, and challenged him. “Everyone in this nation is holy. We are not in need of your services. You have nothing to offer that we don’t already possess.” They undervalued Moshe, not overvalued him. There was no danger of their believing him to be Divine. This was the one occasion where Moshe could safely call for a miracle on his own, without fear of untoward consequences.

Shabbat shalom

Korach 5777

June 22, 2017

“Speak to the Bnei Yisrael and take from them one staff for each father’s house” (17:17)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that by this time, the Korach rebellion had been quashed, thoroughly and totally. Not one, but three different dramatic forms of death had been dealt to the participants. Some were swallowed up by the earth. Others met death through a fire that burnt them internally. Huge numbers died in a fast-moving plague. You would think that by now, people would have gotten the message. All the conspirators, representing different kinds of claims against Moshe, had been destroyed.

What need was there for further confirmation of their authority? What were staffs that sprouted almonds going to prove to them that they did not already know?

The sprouting staffs provided the Bnei Yisrael with a dramatization of how they had fallen prey to Korach-and-company’s argument through a fundamental error. They had seriously misunderstood the nature of the kehunah. They believed that the priestly role was given to those who most deserved it. At the time, those from the shevet of Levi could lay claim to spiritual achievement above and beyond other tribes. The balance of spiritual power, they concluded, could change with time. If other groups would rise in spiritual stature, they would supplant the kohanim from the tribe of Levi.

Hashem’s choice of shevet Levi, however, was not conditioned upon its spiritual superiority. Rather, the kohanim shared some sort of property – whether discernable or not – that related them organically to the position of masters of the avodah. The kohanim were rather like the Jewish people as a whole, in a fixed position of specialness, even when seemingly undeserving of distinction.

Twelve staffs were selected. Their very selection pointed to a relationship that was innate, rather than earned. The “natural” first-born – Reuven – had lost his prominence because of his mercurial temperament. His distinction was replaced by Yosef, whose two sons – Ephraim and Menasheh – , with each elevated to the position of a semi-shevet. Yet in the selection of the staffs, Ephraim and Menasheh were treated as one group, not two.
Reuven, in turn, was back on an equal footing with all his brothers. It was as if Hashem had turned back the clock, and treated them according to their “natural” qualities, rather than according to how they had used their talents.

With the staffs of the shevatim thus arrayed according to their “natural” qualities, it was Aharon’s which sprouted fruit. Aharon emerged as the victor not only at that moment, but his selection quieted all complaints “for all time.”

In the “timeless” hierarchy of the people, Ephraim and Menasheh became one again, as they will be in the future. Chazal have this in mind when they teach that Aharon’s covenant was greater than Dovid’s. Aharon would have righteous and evil offspring – but they would all be kohanim. Dovid, however, was told that his descendants would hold on to the throne only when they remained true to their commission.

The people learned that any hope of the kehunah passing to others on the basis of merit was ill-founded. Aharon’s selection was a Divine statement about an inalienable quality in Aharon and his descendants – one that would be a permanent fixture for all time.

Shabbat Shalom veChodesh tov

Sh’lach Lecha

June 15, 2017

At the end of this week’s Sedra, the Torah writes the reason for the mitzva of Tzitzit ( it is the third paragraph of the Shema)

So that you will remember and perform all My mitzvos, and be holy to your G-d. (15:40)

The Meshech Chochmah comments:
We know and appreciate that the universe that Hashem created testifies to His greatness and wisdom, as well as to His own existence which is eternal, and precedes all time. We also understand that the world that we immediately inhabit is dynamic and changing. It does not, from our point of view, bear the same stamp of His absoluteness. Because He gave Man bechirah, the ability to choose between good and evil, Man’s choices constantly move the world further away or closer to the goal of Creation: arriving at a completed and fulfilled state. In other words, Man was tasked with the job of bringing the world to its intended completion.

When we examine the laws of nature, we find much of Hashem’s wisdom – but we do not always find a mirror of His perfection, at least not from a human perspective. To the contrary, we find randomness and apparent arbitrariness. Should we conclude that these laws will be subverted in the perfect worldly existence to come? That they will be replaced by kinder, gentler laws of nature?
Most definitely not.

Part of the perfection of our world – despite allowance for human free-will, are laws of nature that themselves are fluid and dynamic. Specifically, when Man acts properly, Nature becomes less arbitrary, and more skewed in favor of those who fulfill His Will. In a more perfected existence, the present laws of nature are not replaced, but operate more responsively to Man’s needs – which then coincide with His plan and desires. These laws become tools of Divine Providence, which moves from general oversight of Creation to the supervision of the needs of individuals as individuals. Rather than serving as counter-examples to Hashem’s control of the world, they become the modalities through which He maintains a world that has grown closer to His goals.

The days of Shimon ben Shetach exhibited this relationship between Nature and Hashem’s Will. The Talmud relates that the rain always fell on evenings in which people were indoors, and did not inconvenience human travelers. This rain nurtured crops bountiful in quantity and quality. No laws of nature were shunted to the side to accomplish this. Rather, the traditional laws were squeezed to produce results that reflected Divine pleasure in the actions of Man.

Another example is the copious blessing bestowed upon Oveid ha-Adomi during the time that he provided sanctuary to the Aron. There was nothing “miraculous” in the sense of overriding the laws of nature. Rather, those laws were used to channel blessing to the right recipients.

This is also what Chazal meant when they explained the meaning of one of Hashem’s Names as the One who “said dai / enough to his world. We should not understand that as limiting His creative powers in the world. Rather, they mean that He invested enough preparation and wisdom within Creation for it to support His guiding of it towards its eventual perfection and completion – all without the need for miraculous “overrides” of natural laws and forces.

Summing up so far, neither Man’s ability to choose (often resulting in moving the world more distant from Hashem than close to him), nor the apparent “blindness” of Nature to matters of moral right and wrong act to thwart the eventual perfection of this world. To the contrary. And this brings us, at long last, to tzitzis.

“He covers Himself with light like a garment.”[Psalms 104:2]
A midrash relates this to the process of Creation. Hashem wraps Himself in some light, which He then causes to shine from one end of the world to the other. With this, Chazal use inadequate human words and images to help us understand a bit of the incomprehensible – the first stages of Creation, in which some emanation from Hashem spreads out to create the backdrop of all existence. The image is powerful. It is appropriate, however, to speak of light as shining forth. Garments, though, don’t do that. How does light become a garment?

The Torah wishes for us to understand that this supernal light acted indeed like a garment, whose function is to separate and divide what it covers from the gaze of the external observer. Any unmediated “light” of Hashem would both overwhelm us in its brilliance, as well as strip us of any room to exercise bechirah. Its clarity would leave us no room to make the wrong choices. Even though in fact nothing separates and divides us from Hashem Who animates and empowers everything without exception, experientially the “light” was designed to cover and obscure His presence and nature from us. The light was modified to act like a garment that hides what is beneath.
Just as the Divine light paradoxically became an obscuring garment during the process of Creation, Creation itself remains an ongoing covering garment, shielding the Creator behind it, leaving Him hidden enough that we can find room to sin.

This creation-as-garment is the backdrop of the drama of tzitzis. Through this mitzvah, HaShem reminds us that the garment of Creation remains incomplete. It calls to Man to complete it.

The mitzvah of tzitzis tells us, quite literally, that there are loose ends to Creation. The strings that flow freely from the corners represent the unfinished business of existence, the parts of the garment that still have not been woven firmly into the rest of the fabric.

These strings, however, do not simply jut out from the woven part of the garment. They sprout from the section of knots and windings, in which the loose tendrils begin to come together in a larger form, but always surrounded by a single strand of techeles. That strand, representing the Honor of Hashem, reminds us that even in the work that Man does, he is surrounded and supported by the assistance of Heaven. Even in the arena of Man’s freely-willed activity, in reality it is He Who is the Force responsible for all activity.

Moreover, the work of Man is begun for him by HaSHem, Who reads his heart, and helps him along the path he chooses for himself. The anaf, the section of windings, also reminds Man that he should not follow his eyes and heart, but must rein in his passions and desires, and ensure that at all times he binds and ties himself to Hashem.

Shabbat shalom

Behaalotcha 5777

June 8, 2017

The rabble that was among them cultivated a craving, and the Bnei Yisrael also wept again, saying, “Who shall feed us meat?” (11:14)

The Meshech Chochmah writes that there was obviously no shortage of meat. In fact, a surfeit of cattle led to Reuven and Gad choosing to pass up their portion of the Land in favor of more appropriate grazing land on the east side of the Jordan. What they lacked was not the meat, but the ability to eat it the way they preferred, which was simply to satisfy their desire.

According to R. Yishmael, they were halachically constrained from consuming meat as a desirable menu item. Meat was permitted to this generation only as part of some holiness exercise, like the meat of a korban shelamim. Even those who disagree with R. Yishmael still had them subject to innumerable laws and restrictions regarding the preparation of meat before it could be eaten. They wanted the license to eat like they had earlier in Egypt – “we remember the fish that we ate for free.”
As Rashi explains, free means unencumbered by the demands of any mitzvos. Specifying fish is particularly apposite, because all of a fish is permitted – even its blood.

We can detect another dimension in their complaint. It was, after all, the Manna that they tired of, and wished some “real” food in its place. This becomes understandable if we remember that it was Moshe’s merit that brought them the Manna which was more spiritual than material, and is called the food of the angels.

Food does more than sustain us. Different foods affect our personalities differently. While plants nurture forces of life and growth within us, only animal flesh carries with it craving and lust. This is why the gemara states that an ignoramus may not eat meat. Without Torah, he has no defense against the elevation of his level of desire that the meat contributes to him.

Those who clamored for meat longed for the experience of passion and desire. The Manna was good food – perfect food, really. But they did not get from it the passion-surge that they reasoned they would get from meat. They longed for meat because they longed to experience longing!

The same phenomenon accounts for their “crying in/for their families,” which the Sifrei takes to mean arayos. This may not mean classes of forbidden relationships, as it is usually understood, but the experience of lust and desire in their intimate lives.

After the experience at Sinai, Moshe had become a “godly person,” and separated from his wife. Typical desires had become irrelevant to him on his lofty level. They had not become irrelevant to his people, some of whom wanted to see those desires return to their previous strength and prominence.
Moshe’s superior spiritual level made him the perfect conduit to provide the spiritual food of Manna to his people. By the same reasoning, however, he was useless in providing meat that was laden with desire. He therefore registered his complaint to Hashem. “Where will I get all this meat?” He knew that his merit was a mismatch for it.

So Hashem told Moshe to gather seventy people, each one worthy of receiving some of his spirit. Great as they were, they were not clones of Moshe – nor were they close. They had not separated from their wives; they still knew the meaning of taavah. If they would elevate their inner selves to the point that they, too, could be recipients of some of a Divine spirit, they would be suitable conduits to provide meat to the people.

Moshe, however, on his greater madregah, was not capable of providing the meat.

Shabbat shalom

Naso 5777

June 1, 2017

“On the day that he completes his nazir-abstinence, he should bring him to the opening of the Ohel Moed.” (6:13-4)

The Meshech Chochmah ask: who is the “he” of the second half of this posuk? Who is bringing whom?
We have no indication that some third party is involved in escorting the “graduating” nazir to the beis ha-mikdosh at the conclusion of his nezirus-period.

Interestingly, we also have no clue from the text about the prescribed length of that period. Chazal teach that if the nazir himself does not specify his period of abstinence, we fix it legally as thirty days. The Torah text itself, however, does not suggest a recommended length of term.

Nor can there really be a standard term. The purpose of the institution of nezirus is hinted at in a pasuk: “an abstinence of abstaining for Hashem.”
Nezirus is meant to be a corrective – to help an individual who wishes to extricate himself from his lusts and pride and excess. It should be employed as Shimon ha-Tzadik celebrated it, as used by the shepherd from the south. (Shimon ha-Tzadik regularly refused to take part in the eating of the offering of a nazir who had become tameh. He allowed one exception. A shepherd explained that he had knelt to draw water from a spring, and was taken in by reflection in the water. Pride welled up inside of him as he realized that he was quite good looking. To offset what he regarded as a threat to the humility he cherished, he vowed to become a nazir, and allowed his hair to grow disheveled and unattractive. Shimon ha-Tzadik eagerly hailed the shepherd’s motivation, and took part in his korban.)

No period of time can be predicted to suffice for the person warring with his inner desires. Each person needs to determine for himself how long a period will be therapeutic, and adequate to rein in his urges. He may require thirty days – or a hundred. Each person’s background and circumstances will differ from those of the next.

How can a person know when his goal of spiritual climbing has been reached? How can he determine that he has freed himself from the grip of the forces of his yetzer hora that, unchecked, leave him desolate and unrestrained? When can he tell himself that his intellect exercises control over his lower desires, rather than the opposite?
Our pasuk provides the answer.Our spiritual climber arrives at this destination when he is able to look at himself and his own needs as objectively as if he were looking at an unrelated third party. When he can view his situation without any worry of self-interest he can assure himself that he is enjoying the world appropriately, without engaging in excess.

Enjoy he should. Let his life-style place him firmly in the midst of the community of Man, rather than standing outside of is like an ascetic. Partaking of the physical pleasure of this world in an appropriate, i.e., not exaggerated, manner is what Hashem wants us to do.

The abstinence of the nazir is not a spiritual summit that we are asked to climb. To the contrary. It is an artificial device, meant to be cure spiritual illness. Generally, however, abstinence is viewed more negatively that positively. The nazir is called a “sinner” for having denied himself that which HAShem permits.

This is what the Torah means by “he should bring him.” The nazir’s work is done when he can stand outside of himself, as it were, and look at his needs as if he were looking at another person. During his term of nezirus, he loosened the grip of his passions and desires. That allowed him to work on his self-awareness so that he can recognize – as no other can – how much is too much, or too little – for his spiritual and physical well-being.

This necessary exercise in self-restraint and pulling back from enjoyment of the world comes with a price, which is also acknowledged in our pesukim. Every nazir brings a chatas/ sin-offering as one of his offerings. In the course of his nezirus he loses the opportunity to perform some mitzvos. He cannot assist in the burial of his relatives (because he vowed not to become tameh); he must forego the wine of kiddush and havdalah (having vowed against the consumption of wine). If his nezirus-exercise accomplishes what he designed it to do, he is praiseworthy. The benefit exceeds the cost.

Yet, he must address the fact that he indeed paid a price. (This is similar to the situation of a person who is disturbed by the contents of a dream, and finds it calming to fast, as he would any day of the week. He may fast even on Shabbos. But he is instructed to fast another day for having fasted, thus denying himself his usual forms of oneg Shabbos.)

The chatas of the nazir deals with this. The nazir brings korbanos similar to those of the nesi’im / princes at the inauguration of the mishkan. The inauguration-offerings of each nasi included three varieties: olah, chatas, and shelamim. The word for inauguration is chinuch, which also means “education.” Nezirus is an exercise in self-education. It attempts to teach its student how to temper an unwanted haughty spirit and diminish inflated material desires. The appropriate offering is therefore the offering of chinuch.

Shabbat shalom

Shavuot 5777

May 29, 2017

The Meshech Chochmah writes in connection to the Festival of Shavuot:

” We must know that the giving the Torah on Shavuot was not only for the religious rituals, but also for the most reasonable practices, such as kindness to the poor and the stranger. For without faith in God, the human being becomes like a savage beast, showing no pity on even his own father… Therefore, it says that on the Festival of Shavuot you should celebrate the giving of the Torah, not just for the religious rituals, but also for the rational precepts, for they, too, are only made possible because, “I am the Lord your God.”

This short piece contains an extremely pessimistic vision of human nature – that left to our own devices, we devolve into cruelty and selfishness. But he also is making a radical theological claim: that without faith in God, there is no stable foundation for basic social ethics.

Is this really true? Do we not know all kinds of secular social systems that have elaborate codes of laws that maintain social order and enforce standards of moral decency? Most modern states manage, very effectively, to outlaw murder and theft without any particular reference to God.

How does this work? A social collective forms, with no particular moral code. They seek to establish laws that everyone can agree on, that will maintain order and safety. They quickly outlaw all extreme forms of violence, create property rights, and enforce contracts. These forms of justice require no higher faith -only the mutual interests that form a social contract. Because nobody wants to live in fear of murder or theft.

But what these social contracts do not inevitably deal with is care for the most needy or vulnerable members of society. They do not necessarily legislate care for the poor. Because not everybody is poor, so not everybody agrees that this is a necessary investment. And if not everyone (or at least a sizable majority) agrees , then in a legal system based on social contract, we cannot obligate compliance. So charity comes to be thought of as completely voluntary.

Everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognises that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody is actually obliged to give to the poor.

Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Poverty is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.

This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation.

Perhaps that is what the Torah is worried about as well, when it disrupts the serene flow of our journey through sacred time with an abrupt reminder of the hungry poor. For what do our holidays amount to if we only see them as a set of festive rituals and synagogue gatherings? How well will our Shavuot be observed if we forget that the Torah that we are celebrating not only proscribes religious ritual, but commands social justice?

These sacred festivals are summoning us not only to worship, but to national repentance and personal sacrifice.

Chag Sameach