Friday, December 27, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Va'era

Va'era opens with a powerful, yet quizzical, declaration - "And God spoke to Moshe and said to him: I am God. And I appeared to Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov with El-Shaddai, but by my name God (YHVH) I was not known to them" (Shemot 6:3). All the commentators are troubled, for certainly God used his name, YHVH, when he appeared to the forefathers. Rashi and Ramban both respond that while God used this name, God had not demonstrated it. Until this point in human history, God had not acted in a way that manifested this aspect of who God is.
What is it that this name signifies? According to Rashi, the name of God represents truth. Now will begin the process whereby God will demonstrate God's trustworthiness, where God will now make true the promise to the forefathers - to give them the land of Israel. In contrast, Ramban understands that this name refers to God's transcendence over nature, a God who has power over the natural world and the laws of nature. It was now, in the process of the Exodus, that God made manifest God's self through miracles and plagues that violated the natural order and that demonstrated God's ultimate power.
The need to know God's name, and thus get a glimpse into God's nature, is a theme that runs through the process of the Exodus. At the burning bush, Moshe assumes that Benei Yisrael will ask him for God's name, and asks God to reveal this to him. When Moshe and Aharon appear before Pharaoh, what is his very first response? "Who is YHVH that I should listen to his voice to send out Israel. I do not know YHVH and, even Israel I will not send out." (Ex. 5:2).
This demand is not just coming from below. Indeed, again and again, plague after plague, we are told that the purpose of these miraculous events was for the Egyptians to know God's name:
"And Egypt will know that I am YHVH when I stretch out My hand over Egypt" (7:5)
"So says God, with this shall you know that I am YHVH" (7:17)
"And thus will you know that I am YHVH in the midst of the land" (8:18)
The connection of the makkot with knowing God's name is strong evidence to Ramban's explanation that this name indicates what is demonstrated in the makkot: God's power and God's operating outside of and over nature.
A close reading of the verses, however, shows that not all the makkot demonstrated the same thing. Malbim shows that the makkot fall into three groups of three, as is reflected in the mnemonic of the hagaddah - d'zakh, adash, bi'achav.
The first group is introduced with "you will know that I am YHVH". God exists, and is powerful. Thus the Nile - the god of Egypt - is smitten with blood and frogs. The third in each group - in this case the lice - was not to teach a lesson, but only a makkah, a punishment for the Egyptians' enslavement of Benei Yisrael.
Following this, the second group is introduced by "You shall know that I am God in the midst of the land" (8:18). This group demonstrated that an infinite God could be involved in the finite world, and could care about its particulars. God was "in the midst of the land" and could single out a particular nation - Israel - and give it direct providence. This is a radical theological idea: an infinite God can care about and relate to finite people. As this was the particular emphasis of this plague, it was only in this group that the Torah states that God made a distinction between the cattle of Bnei Yisrael and those of the Egyptians, and Moshe and Aharon underscored this point when they framed these makkot to Pharaoh.
Finally, the last group was introduced with "And you will know that there is none like Me in all the land" (9:15) - that God is all-powerful. It is thus regarding these last makkot that the Torah emphasizes that there had never been anything like them in all of recorded history. This, then, is Ramban's point that God is all-powerful, not constrained by the laws of nature, and operating outside of and over nature.
This is how the makkot were framed for Pharaoh and for the Egyptians. Of course, the lesson was not only for them. As God's announcement of God's name in the opening of our parasha makes clear, Israel also does not yet know God by who God is. And this is a situation which must be rectified.
Consider God's promise of what he will do for the people. First we are told that Moshe must "say to Benei Yisrael that I am YHVH". We are then presented with a powerful list of verbs of v'hotzeiti, vi'hitzalti, v'ga'aliti, v'lakachti (6:6-7)- I will take [them out of Egypt], I will save [them from their servitude], I will redeem [them with an outstretched arm], and I will take [them to me as a people]. These verbs in quick succession are building to a climax, to the vi'heiveiti verb, I will bring them into the land, the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. But before that climax can be achieved, the following verse interupts:
And you shall know that I am YHVH who takes you out from the burden of Egypt (6:7)
The message is clear. What is necessary before entering the land, before the climactic vi'heiveiti, is this knowledge of God's name, this knowing of God. The culmination of the Exodus is entering the land. And the culmination of the Exodus is God's revealing God's self to Israel, and Israel's knowing God directly - knowing the name of God.
It is thus that next week's parasha opens with a declaration that the lesson of the makkot is for Israel as well:
In order that you shall tell over in the ears of your children and children's children how I made a mockery of Egypt and the signs that I put in their midst, and you will know that I am YHVH. (7:2)
The message is clear. The makkot were not just, or even primarily, to punish the Egyptians - they were to demonstrate who God was, yes to Egypt, but perhaps primarily to Bnei Yisrael: "that you shall tell... and you will know". It is thus worth noting that the Torah does not primarily refer to the plagues as makkot - smitings, but as moftim and otot - signs and wonders, phenomena that are meant to teach and to demonstrate.
The makkot thus served to teach lessons about God to Mitzrayim and to Bnei Yisrael. It was through understanding their significance, that we - in this formative moment in history- began to know God, to get a glimpse of who God is, to understand God through God's action, to know God directly, to know God's name. It was only then that we could live up to God's mission, could live a life as God's people, in the Land of Israel.
God's use of God's name with the forefathers had not been sufficient, because God had not yet manifested this name through action. What we say is important, but ultimately, it is what we do that matters, and it is through our actions that we are ultimately known. "Lo hamidrash hu ha'ikkar ela ha'ma'aseh." (Avot 1:17). "It is not the expounding that is the most important" - that will best teach our values and our commitments and demonstrate who we are, "but rather the action." Actions speak louder than words.
However, because action is such a powerful communicator, we cannot let it stand on its own. In our own lives, we often do not bother to give a framing to the actions that we do, and their import is often lost. This is certainly true when it comes time to punish - to give figurative makkot. A major challenge of parenting is how to punish so that children do not just remember the punishment, the figurative makkot, but that they learn the lessons that we are trying to impart. Even when the action is framed, the framing is often lost - just as many people only know of the makkot and overlook the explicit framing in the Torah.
We must rise to this challenge. We must take the time and effort to clearly frame our actions at all times, but in particular when power, force, and authority are involved. It is quite easy for the wrong lessons to be learned. We must make it clear what the lessons are - why we are acting as we are. If we do this in our parenting, then our children will truly internalize the values that we want them to learn, and will know our name, will understand more deeply and intimately who we are, and will truly know us.
Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

A Bridegroom of Blood

At the crucial juncture between Moshe accepting the divine mission and his returning to the people and becoming their leader, a curious and perplexing event occurs.  Moshe begins to head back to Egypt, and then, abruptly we read: “And it came to pass by the way in the inn, that the Lord met him, and sought to kill him” (4:24).  The “him” here is ambiguous – it might refer to Moshe, the immediate antecedent, but it just as plausibly could refer to Moshe’s son, the focus of the next verse.  But what is going on here?  God wanted to kill Moshe or Moshe’s son?  Why?  What sense does this make? 

What is even more puzzling is Ziporah’s actions, which came and saved the day:

Then Ziporah took a sharp stone, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet, and said, Surely a bridegroom of blood are you to me. So He let him go: then she said, A bridegroom of blood you are, of circumcision.

It seems that Moshe and Ziporah’s son had not been circumcised.  But in what way did the act of circumcision save Moshe from his death?  And what does Ziporah mean when she talks about “a bridegroom of blood”?

To understand what is going on here, we need to go back a few verses.  Here is what the verses say immediately before this story of the inn:

And you shalt say unto Pharaoh, Thus says the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn.
And I say unto you, Let my son go, that he may serve Me: and if you refuse to let him go, behold, I will slay your son, even your firstborn.

If we understand that it was Moshe’s son who was at risk, the parallel is striking. God warns that God will slay Pharaoh’s firstborn, and then God attempts to kill Moshe’s son, perhaps even his firstborn (see Targum Yonatan 4:24).

Once we note the parallel between the event in the inn, and the foretelling of the slaying of the firstborn of the Egyptians, other parallels also become clear. Ziporah circumcises her son and thereby saves him from death. On the night of the Exodus, men who were not circumcised could not eat from the Pesach sacrifice, and thus could not be part of those who would eat the sacrifice in their houses. And to be left outside of the Israelite houses, would mean death. “And you do not leave any man from the doorway of his house until morning… and God will not allow the destroyer to enter into your houses to smite you.”  (12:22-23). To be an uncircumcised man is, at this moment, to risk being slayed by God or by the forces that God has unleashed.

This then brings us to the issue of blood.  Ziporah mentions blood twice: “Surely a bloody husband are you to me… A bloody husband of circumcision.”  What often goes without notice is that this is actually the first time in the Torah, the only time in the Torah, that blood is associated with circumcision. When Avraham was commanded to circumcise himself and his children, the Torah only mentions the removal of the foreskin.  Similar to when the Torah commands the mitzvah in the book of VaYikra.  In those verses, the focus is on cutting and on removing the foreskin.  Here, the focus is on the blood.

And blood saves from death. For indeed, it was not just the being in the house that saved the Israelites, it was the blood of the Pesach – a sacrificed linked to circumcision - that was placed on the doorposts and on the lintel.  And it was the blood of circumcision that saved Moshe’s son in the inn (this point is already noted by Ibn Ezra).

This link, of circumcision blood to the blood of the Pesach, and its salvific power is alluded to every year during the Pesach seder.  When we expound on the verses that tell the story of the Exodus, and the state of the Israelites in Egypt, we read the verse from Yechezkel: “And I passed over you and saw you wallowing in your blood, and I said to you, In your bloods you shall live.  In your bloods you shall live.”  What blood is this referring to? According to the classical Rabbinic interpretation, which picks up on the plural of the verse, it is two bloods: the blood of the Pesach and the blood of the circumcision.  It is these bloods which protected our lives in Egypt, these bloods which gave us life.  Indeed, Targum Yonatan on Shemot 12:13, states that the blood of circumcision - presumably done to enable the eating of the Pesach - was mixed with the blood of the Pesach sacrifice and they were both put on the doorposts in Egypt to save them during the plague of the firstborn.

What will be the story of the people at the climax of the Exodus, is being enacted here, in the inn, with Moshe and Ziporah.  In Egypt, God comes down to slay the Egyptian first born, this sets free the destructive powers of “the destroyer”, and it is the blood of the Pesach that protects them.  In the inn, God has just declared the slaying of the first born, this sets destructive powers in action (see Targum Yonatan 4:25), and even Moshe’s child, or perhaps Moshe himself, is at risk.  But Ziporah leaps into action, knows what to do, and the blood of circumcision protects them.

So what is it about the blood of circumcision?    The parallel with the blood of the Pesach points to simple conclusion: the blood of circumcision is like the blood of a sacrifice.  Or more to the point, the circumcision is a type of a sacrifice.

It is this blood, this life-force, and yet not a human life, that has this salvific power, that saves Moshe’s son and it is the parallel blood of the animal sacrifice that saves the Israelites in Egypt. 

This idea is initially shocking. We don’t do human sacrifices.  And yet, the story of the Akeida speaks to a powerful urge that people had, at least at that time, to give what is most dear to them to God, to give even their child to God. God prohibits it. This is the ultimate message of the Akeida: God does not want human sacrifice.  God will never ask us to sacrifice our children. And yet, the human urge does not disappear. This can be heard in Rashi’s comment on the verse where the angel says: “Do not do anything to the lad.”  Rashi states that Avraham said to the angel: if I can’t kill him, let me at least wound him. To which the angel had to say: don’t do anything to him.

So what happens to this urge? What happens to the phenomenon of child sacrifice?  It gets transformed into the act of circumcision.  Consider Rashi (Breishit 22:1), quoting the Midrash: “Said Yitzchak to Yishmael – you are bragging that by being circumcised at 13 you made a great sacrifice.  That is one limb.  If God were to ask me to slaughter myself, I would not refuse.”

Akeida is an extreme circumcision.  Circumcision is a symbolic, or reenacted, Akeida.  The letting of blood, the cutting of one’s child – and I am bracketing the critically important question of why it is sons and not daughters – is the act of bringing one’s son into the covenant with God. It is how we symbolically sacrifice our children, how we give what is most precious to us to God.  It is thus how we give ourselves to God and it is how we give our children to God. We do not destroy life in the service of God. Our sacrifice, the cutting and the spilling of blood of the circumcision, is the dedicating of a life to the service of God. 

Indeed, many of the rituals around circumcision echo this idea: first, the quoting of the above verse from Yechezkel during the ceremony.  But more powerfully, there is a tradition that the lap on which the infant is placed is like an altar.  If the lap is an altar, then the infant is being cut on the altar, is being sacrificed.   And the Haredi concerns around forgoing metzitza bi’peh, is linked, I believe, to the power of blood- related rituals, and the focus on the blood of circumcision. [For another, even more graphic example of this symbolism, and the link of milah to the Akedia, see Mishneh Brurah, 584:12.]

I share these ideas not because they sit easy with me.  Thinking of circumcision as a type of symbolic Akeida is a disturbing idea.  And yet, there is power to this reality, to the reality of blood.  And power to the idea of sacrifice. We live lives that are sterile, are refined, and hence often out of touch with the raw power of blood, and with the life force that can drive us to passionately serve God, that can drive us to want to sacrifice everything in the service of God. Let’s not forget that it was this blood that saved Moshe’s son, perhaps saved Moshe, and that saved the Israelites, giving them life, and enabling the redemption.

Shabbat shalom!

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat VaYechi
Character, Fate, and Free Will

What is the interplay between character, fate, and free will?  How much does the character that one is born with determine whether he or she will be good or evil?  Is it ever possible to change who we are, our essential character, and - if not - can we at least find a way to rise above our natural shortcomings?

We have already seen in the person of Yaakov that there are times when a person can - through challenging life experiences and through strength of will - truly change their character. How they can go from being a Yaakov to becoming a Yisrael. Even in such cases, one wonders if it is possible to fully leave one's old self behind. Thus, we find that for the rest of Breishit, Yaakov is referred to both as Yisrael and as Yaakov, perhaps a function of which aspect of his personality comes most to the fore in a given situation.

What is clear is that such complete transformations are extremely rare. It is close to impossible to fully - or even partially - change our character. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said: "It is easier to go through all of Shas than to change just one character trait."

Most of the time drastic changes are beyond our reach. We know that there are certain parts of our character and personality that we would like to change but feel that we cannot.  Some of these may be character traits that we were born with, some may be due to our environment and early life experiences, but right now they are a part of us, and we are stuck with them. In such cases, the key is not to try to disown a part of ourselves, but to consider how we can best channel and direct such traits to a good purpose:

R. Hanina b. Papa expounded: He [the angel who is in charge of conception] takes up the drop of semen and places it in the presence of the Holy One, blessed be He, saying, 'Sovereign of the Universe, what shall be the fate of this drop? Shall it produce a strong man or a weak man, a wise man or a fool, a rich man or a poor man?' Whereas 'wicked man' or 'righteous one' he does not say, as R. Hanina states. For R. Hanina stated: Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of God.
(Niddah 16b)

Our genes and our environment may determine our physical strength, our intellectual abilities, even our character traits, but they do not determine what type of a person we will become.That is in our hands:

"He who is born under Mars will be a shedder of blood." R. Ashi observed: Either a surgeon, a highway bandit, a ritual slaughterer, or a mohel. Rabbah said: I was born under Mars (and am none of these)! Abaye retorted: You too inflict [judicial] punishment and have people executed.
(Shabbat 157a)

The Rabbis referred to the stars, we refer to our genes, but the point is the same - some part of who we are has been determined before we are born, but it is we who choose who we will become.

Nowhere does this play out more clearly than in the lives of Shimon and Levi and their descendants. Shimon and Levi were violent men, and, fueled by their righteous indignation over the rape of their sister, they wiped out the city of Shechem. At the time, Yaakov was appalled at their actions, but only criticized their actions insofar as they endangered the family: "And Jacob said to Simeon and Levi, You have brought trouble on me to make me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanites and the Perizzites; and I being few in number, they shall gather together against me, and slay me; and I shall be destroyed, I and my house." (Breishit 34:31).   It was only on his deathbed that Yaakov found the strength to criticize them for the immorality of the violence itself:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; instruments of cruelty are their swords. O my soul, do not come into their council; to their assembly, let my honor not be united; for in their anger they slew a man, and in their wanton will they lamed an ox. Cursed be their anger, for it was fierce; and their wrath, for it was cruel; I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel.
(Breishit 49:5)

This curse - as were the blessings to the other brothers - sees their character as fixed, and possibly determinative for their descendants. Hence the punishment that will be visited on their descendants is also predetermined - "I will divide them in Jacob, and scatter them in Israel" - and the portion of the tribe of Shimon, in the land of Israel, was scattered throughout the territory of Yehudah, and the tribe of Levi received no portion per se, only the cities of refuge, and were destined, as Rashi puts it, to "go roundabout to the threshing floors collecting their trumot and ma'asrot."

While it may be that their violent nature was a fixed part of their character - consider the Rabbi's statement that it was Shimon and Levi who hatched the plot against Yosef, and that Shimon was put in jail by Yosef to prevent him and Levi from destroying Mitzrayim - nevertheless, it was not their destiny. They could still choose, in the words of R. Ashi, whether to be a surgeon or a bandit, whether a mohel or a murderer.  While Shimon chose the path of destruction, it was Levi who directed the trait of violence in the service of God. When Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, defied God's and Moshe's authority, flagrantly fornicating with a Midianite woman in front of the Mishkan and shattering any boundaries of decency, it was Pinchas, a kohen of the tribe of Levi, who rose up and - in his religious zeal - executed Zimri and brought an end to the plague.  It was Pinchas who was able to use the trait of violence in the service of God.

Now, violence in the service of God is a very dangerous concept, especially in today's reality of fundamentalist violence and terrorism.  It is important to note that, in the case of Pinchas, it is doubtful whether Pinchas acted, as the Rabbis would have it, based on his own zeal, or whether he was following the command of Moshe to the judges to execute - as a matter of law - those who had transgressed (Numbers 25:5).  Even according to the Rabbis, such violent zealousness was to be discouraged and severely limited.   Similarly, the revolt of the Maccabees, led by Matityahu, began with an act of religious zeal and violence against a Jew who offered a sacrifice to the Greek gods, in which Matityahu is explicitly compared to Pinchas (cf. Maccabees II, 2:26).  While this act was the spark which started the revolt and ended in the miracle of Chanukah, it is interestingly absent from the Rabbinic literature.  Violence in fighting against the occupying Seleucid Greeks was praised, whereas violence against those who transgressed was bracketed.  Violence is a dangerous trait, especially when fueled by religious zeal, but sometimes it does prove necessary.

This trait, then, is a dangerous one, but for the most part the Levites learned how to use it correctly, and how to use it in the service of God. They followed Moshe's call to defend God's honor at Har Sinai after Israel had sinned with the Golden Calf, this time acting on direct order and in a judicial context, and - in the Temple - they became involved in the daily spilling of blood in the service of God - in the tamed and sublimated form of animal sacrifices.  Thus we find that in the blessing of Moshe, the blessing of the tribes at the end of Devarim, Levi is blessed, while Shimon is passed over in silence.The tribe of Levi had redirected its character, and its curse was transformed into a blessing:

And of Levi he said, Let your Tummim and your Urim be with your pious one, whom you did test at Massah, and with whom you fought at the waters of Meribah; Who said to his father and to his mother, I have not seen him; nor did he acknowledge his brothers, nor knew his own children; for they have observed your word, and kept your covenant. They shall teach Jacob your judgments, and Israel your Torah; they shall put incense before you, and whole burnt sacrifice upon your altar.
(Devarim 33:8-10)

Thus, even the curse of Yaakov, to be scattered in Israel, turned into a blessing, " And the Lord spoke to Aaron, You shall have no inheritance in their land, neither shall you have any part among them; I am your part and your inheritance among the people of Israel.  And, behold, I have given the sons of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, the service of the Tent of Meeting." (Bamidbar 18:20-21).They have no inheritance in the land because they have God as their inheritance.

Our future, its specifics, its meaning and its significance, is not fated, is not predetermined. It is what we make it to be.  It can be a curse, or it can be a blessing.

And our traits are not who we are in our core essence. They are not our soul, they are not our identity.  "'Cursed is their wrath' - Even when he criticized them, he only cursed their wrath [and not they themselves]." (Rashi, Breishit 49:7).People may have bad traits, but it is the traits, and how they are directed, that needs to be labeled as "bad."  As Jews, as parents, and as people working on our own self-improvement we need to believe that people - ourselves, our children, those we care about, all people - can always choose to be good.Their traits may be bad, their actions may be bad, but as long as we retain our belief in the potential goodness of every person, as long as we criticize the traits and not the person, we can hope for and work towards change.And if we cannot change our traits per se, at least we can find ways to direct them to the service of God, and to live up to the model of Levi, the tribe chosen by God to serve God in God's Temple.

Shabbat Shalom!  

Reprinted from 2010