Saturday, November 7, 2020

Don’t Read the Akedah in a Vacuum

Parshat Vayera

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the most written about passages in all of the Torah is the tale of Akedat Yitzchak. Between the commentaries who try to make sense of it, as well as a number of great philosophers, everyone has an opinion as to what is the lesson to be taken from the Binding of Isaac. Surely there are many lessons! 

While the text itself offers many hints, most of which are literally lost in any translation, two phrases which don’t get enough attention are the opening, and the message of the angel who stops Avraham from completing the deed. 

The opening phrase is “אחר הדברים האלה” (and it was after these events/words/things) that God called to Avraham and gave him the instructions that would change history. 

After what things? After which events? After what words were exchanged? The word דברים has different meanings, and therefore different possibilities can be applied to this introduction. Did the instructions from God follow naturally – was it always God’s intent to send Avraham, with his son, to the top of the mountain? Or was this a response to something else that happened prior, leading to “after these events, God (then/had already) tested Avraham”? 

The message of the angel is to stay your hand, “For now I know that you are God fearing, and you have not held back your son from me.” 

Why does the angel emphasize his knowing now that Avraham is God-fearing? Wouldn’t that have been obvious? Especially according to the commentator who suggests that והא-לקים נסה את אברהם means “God had already tested Avraham” and there is something else going on here, perhaps the declaration that Avraham is God-fearing is actually the point of the story. 

In his book on Avraham, Professor Yonatan Grossman shares a number of ways the text of the Torah in the Akedah narrative reflects language that has been utilized in previous tales. The emphasis of some of these connections are credited to Rav Yoel Bin Nun. 

There are three narratives that precede the Akedah: 1. Avraham and Sarah in Gerar, which includes her being taken by the king and all which follows that abduction, 2. Birth of Yitzchak and the sending away of Yishmael and Hagar, 3. The peace accords between Avraham and Avimelekh, who is accompanied by his general, Fichol. 

Consider that Avraham explains his need to declare Sarah his sister based in the concern that he is unaware whether there is a “Fear of God” in Gerar (20:11). Compare this to the angel’s discovery that Avraham is indeed God-fearing (22:12). 
Avimelekh arises early in the morning (20:8) as does Avraham (22:3). 
Avimelekh challenges what triggered Avraham “to do this thing” (to declare his wife his sister) (20:10), and the angel uses that same phrase noting “on account of your doing this thing” (22:16) you are now going to be blessed. 
In preventing Avimelekh from touching Sarah, God notes to Avimelekh in a dream “I know that you did all this in innocence, so I have prevented you from sinning and from touching her” (20:6). Avraham is told “Now I know you are God-fearing, you were not preventing your son from me.” (22:12) 
There is a promised made between Avraham and Avimelekh (several times at the end of chapter 21), and God makes a promise to Avraham at the end of the Akedah tale (22:16). 

The two Avimelekh narratives thus come full circle in their connection to part of Avraham’s experience on the mountain. 

Another series of parallels exist in the Yishmael tale: 

God instructs to send Yismael out of the home (21:12-13), and God instructs to take Yitzchak to the mountain (22:2). 
Yishmael and Hagar take bread and water with them (21:14), Avraham takes the items he’ll need for the sacrifice (22:3). 
We are given a depiction of the journey of Hagar and Yishmael (21:14), just as we are given a depiction of the journey of father and son (22:4-8). 
Yishmael is on the precipice of death (21:16), as is Yitzchak (22:10). 
An angel of God appears from the heavens (21:17 and 22:11) to intervene in a way that will save the child. 
God opens her eyes and Hagar sees a well (21:19), and Avraham opens his eyes both to see the mountain and the ram (22:4 and 22:13). 
Hagar gives water to Yishmael to drink (21:19), effecting his survival, while Avraham slaughters the ram in Yitzchak’s place (22:14), effecting Yitzchak’s survival

It is true that the stories are very different, and the other tidbits and details certainly prove that point. But there is no denying that motifs are clearly repeated, and are used both as literary devices and as calling cards that there is something deeper going on here. 

Is Avraham being sent to the mountain with Yitzchak to have a greater appreciation of his relationship with his son? Is he being sent there to prove his God-fearing status? Are these happening because this is what he is up to in his life? Or is it a response to some of the flags raised in the narratives of the previous two chapters, in the way Avimelekh is deceived without his even having a chance to prove his being God-fearing, and in the way Hagar and Yishmael are expelled from the home without being given a chance to mend broken relationships. 

The point I take in noting these parallels is much simpler than any involved analysis can give us. It boils down to two things: 
1. Nothing happens in a vacuum. God operates this world in terms we understand as מדה כנגד מדה (measure for measure) and even when we think He is not watching, when we see the measure for measure in our lives, we know that He is indeed watching. 
2. The second point is a question of how we emerge from any trial. Do we, like Avraham, demonstrate that we are God fearing? If yes, then no matter what we’ve been through, we’ve passed the test. If not, then we still have much to work on. 

We are all going through a trial. While there is much debate as to where it started and when it will end, one thing is clear to me. It is the human response, both up until now, and that will follow in the coming weeks and months, that will determine whether we are deserving of having our lives return to normal. 

When we put our fate into the hands of man, we are simply violating the words we say daily in Tehillim 146 (the first Hallelukah): 
 1Hallelujah! My soul, praise the Lord. 
2I shall praise the Lord in my life; I shall sing to the Lord as long as I exist. 
3Do not trust in princes, in the son of man, who has no salvation. 
4His spirit leaves, he returns to his soil; on that day, his thoughts are lost. 
5Praiseworthy is he in whose help is the God of Jacob; his hope is in the Lord his God.
 א  הַֽלְלוּיָ֡הּ הַלְלִ֥י נַפְשִׁ֗י אֶת־ה’: 
ב    אֲהַֽלְלָ֣ה ה' בְּחַיָּ֑י אֲזַמְּרָ֖ה לֵֽאלֹהַ֣י בְּעוֹדִֽי:
 ג   אַל־תִּבְטְח֥וּ בִנְדִיבִ֑ים בְּבֶן־אָדָ֓ם | שֶׁ֚אֵ֖ין ל֥וֹ תְשׁוּעָֽה: 
ד   תֵּצֵ֣א ר֖וּחוֹ יָשֻׁ֣ב לְאַדְמָת֑וֹ בַּיּ֥וֹם הַ֜ה֗וּא אָֽבְד֥וּ עֶשְׁתֹּנֹתָֽיו:
 ה  אַשְׁרֵ֗י שֶׁ֚אֵ֣-ל יַֽעֲקֹ֣ב בְּעֶזְר֑וֹ שִׂבְר֖וֹ עַל־ה' אֱ-לֹהָֽיו: 

When we fear God more than anything else, we will return to normal. May we merit to see that reality shift very soon.

Friday, October 30, 2020

The Canaanites were in the Land – Avraham’s Status in a Land Not (Yet) His Own

Parshat Lekh Lekha 

 by Rabbi Avi Billet

“And Avram passed through the land, until the place of Shechem, until Elon Moreh, and the Canaanite(s) were then in the land.” (12:6) 

The remark about the Canaanites stands out as a side comment that almost seems irrelevant to the narrative at hand. A similar side comment appears in 13:7 - “and the Canaanites and Perizites were already then inhabitants of the land” – as we watch the dispute between Avram’s shepherds and Lot’s shepherds. Rav Hirsch notes there that more nations occupying the land limits the amount of space available for foreigners to have their animals graze, hence the need for Avram and Lot to part ways. 

In our verse, many commentaries aim to extract a message from the 3 Hebrew words which tell us about the presence of the Canaanites. Most commentators quote Rashi who notes that “Canaan had arrived to conquer the land from Shem’s descendants (some of whom were still in the land, such as Malki Tzedek). God had Avram walk the land indicating to him that ‘I will be returning this land to your children, who are of the descendants of Shem.’” 

This image paints the inheritance of the land as a sort of conflict between Canaan (the son of Noach’s son, Cham) and his descendants against the descendants of Shem, Noach’s more righteous son. As a result of this significant starting point, the question of the inheritance of this land is whether in God’s eyes the “land of Canaan” is in the hands of its rightful owners in the first place, or is Canaan an “occupier” of lands not really their own? 

In the following paragraphs, we will weave together a picture based on a number of interpretations, concluding with the teaching of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (Chasam Sofer). Ibn Ezra has an interesting caveat, in the event that his interpretation (second sentence in the next paragraph) is incorrect: “If [my assertion of the meaning of the verse] is not the case, there is a secret. The one who understands it should be silent.” 

Canaanites were there for it was not yet time for the Bnei Yisrael to inherit the land (Targum Yonatan). It is logical that Canaan had taken the land from someone else (Ibn Ezra). The Canaanites were deliberately conquering the country from the Semites, and the note regarding their presence is a stark reminder to Israel to look to later (such as when they receive the Torah, such as when they are conquering the land in Yehoshua’s time…) that Canaanites were already a thorn in Avram’s side back in his day [suggesting that if they want this problem to go away they have to do a better job conquering in Yehoshua’s time) (Chizkuni). Their presence made Avram afraid to call out in God’s name until he arrived in Shechem and Eilon Moreh, where God promised him the land (Ramban). 

Indicating that the Canaanites were “then in the land” shows the deeds of God and His desires for those He loves. Avram was passing through the land with many animals. Obviously his animals grazed, but no one said anything to him. This was a tremendous miracle. Avram recognized that God was fulfilling what God had indicated to him in a blessing (Radak). Or HaChaim similarly notes Avram’s free and untroubled passage through the land, but also notes that the land was named for Canaan specifically, because he was cursed to be the servant of servants to his brothers. This way, the land is owned by a slave, and can easily be reassigned to a non-slave, Avraham. 

The Chasam Sofer puts the note about the Canaanites in a historical context. Noach divided the world as such that Shem received Asia and the Middle East, Yefet received Europe, and Cham received Africa. But everyone abandoned their lands before the dispersion when they went to the valley at Shinar to build the tower, aiming to live an existence with one language and one mindset. This move caused them all to technically give up their inherited lands, leaving the land available to whomever might come along and conquer and claim it for themselves. That’s how Canaan ended up in this area. And since Avraham was the only Semite who did not give up on this land, the Canaanites essentially stole the land from him. God therefore promised him that in due time, this land would be returned to him, he the sole descendant of Shem interested in having the deed going back to its rightful owner (Toras Moshe). 

One way or another, it seems that the presentation of the Canaanites in the land at this time is meant to be a lesson to Avraham and his descendants, either that the Canaanites were here at this time, legitimately or illegitimately, but the land was promised to Avraham for his descendants to inherit in the future, or that they should remember what it is like to have Canaanites in the land when you are living there and take the lesson that Canaanites and you don’t live together well in the long term. 

The history of land ownership throughout the world is fraught with controversy. Who owned what land “first”? Who has indigenous rights to any land? (See this video of Europe’s changing borders in the last 1000 years to see how the modern map came to be:

Rashi and the other commentaries use the book of Bereishis as a deed indicating that the “Land of Canaan” had its ownership assigned by God at different points in history. It was His will that it be owned by the Children of Israel, even if at times they’d be exiled from it, and even if at times their behavior would anger God. He would never abandon His people, and He would always want them to be the owners and stewards of the Land we have always known to be Eretz Yisrael. (After the conquering of the land in the book of Yehoshua, the phrase “Eretz Canaan” appears in the Tanakh 5 times, while “Eretz Yisrael” appears 11 times. Otherwise it is called “HaAretz”) 

$$$$$$ The history of the United States is certainly mired in a bit of controversy. There was a gradual conquering of a land from those who were “indigenous” (though we know little of how many wars and conquerings took place prior to the arrival of Europeans), but those who founded this country believed they were like the ancient Israelites, possessing the land that was Divinely granted to them. [We can not right what some moderns view as historical wrongs. History is filled with darkness – the task before us is to bring light to ourselves and others in our times.] 

Whether we view are ourselves as American Jews, Jewish Americans, or simply as Americans, we have a responsibility as citizens to take part in the democratic process. Sunday is the last day for early voting, and Tuesday is Election Day. Be sure to vote! 

No candidate will be endorsed here (though it is imperative to know what a candidate stands for when voting for him or her), but the need to vote on the proposed Amendments is critical. The following is a summary of the Amendments, but you should read them in detail to understand them – see a sample ballot here: 

Amendment 1: If you believe only citizens 18 and older who are permanent residents of Florida should be allowed to vote, Vote Yes. If you disagree, Vote No

Amendment 2: If you think minimum wage should be raised to $10 an hour, and increased by $1 every year until it reaches $15 an hour and subsequently adjusting annually for inflation, Vote Yes. If you disagree, Vote No. 

Amendment 3: If you would like to see the method of how primaries are done changed permanently, with everyone being allowed to vote in all primaries, regardless of party affiliation, Vote Yes. If you disagree Vote No. 

Amendment 4: If you would like to see proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution needing to go through two elections instead of one, Vote Yes. If you’d like to things to stay as they are, with proposed changes to need only one election to pass, Vote No. 

Amendment 5: Proposes to increase the period of time during which accrued Save-Our-Homes benefits may be transferred from a prior homestead to a new homestead, from 2 to 3 years. If you want this time increase, vote Yes. If you want it to stay at 2 years, vote No. 

Amendment 6: Proposes to extend tax deductions on homestead properties to widows or widowers of disabled veterans, for the length of time that they remain in the home or widowed. If you agree to giving the surviving spouse the same benefits, Vote Yes. If you disagree, Vote No. 

May we be blessed to see democracy at work, and may we accept all results from the elections. May Hashem watch over all of us, and see to it that no matter what may come November 4 (the day after Election Day), we should all be blessed with peace and goodness in the coming years.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Achdus – The Ups and Downs of Unity

Parshat Noach

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch lived in Germany from 1808 to 1888, and was at the early stages of his career around 100 years before the Third Reich came to power. Reading his commentary on the Tower of Babel and the Dispersion, one wonders if he was prophetic regarding how far mankind could go in seeking a name for a community, or if he just saw the writing on the wall because the country which was his home for his entire life showed signs of how far a desired social order could be taken. 
Sometimes when the words “unity” and “community” are bandied about, images of Fritz Lang’s German-expressionist film “Metropolis” come to my mind. The opening scenes of the “Shift change” are a little frightening to consider when we think of the importance of individuality, and the value of every human being. In 1927, Lang was demonstrating what it means when people are reduced to “workers” who no longer have a discernible identity. (see clips at the end below)

Regarding those building the tower of Babel, Hirsch writes “there was nothing wrong in the act of building a city or tower per se. The people’s sin, then, was in the purpose for which they built and in the attitude that accompanied their actions. Everything turned on their stated aim, ‘Let us make a name for ourselves!’” 

Hirsch goes on to claim that such a statement “can be directed against two parties: against God, Who is over mankind; and against the individual, who is under or subordinate to mankind.” 

When considering their motivations, he suggests they intended to make an edifice that future generations would have to continue building, through creating a structure “that would be an everlasting monument to the power of the community and its preeminence over the individual.” 

Quoting Amos 9:6, he notes that God based His world on the community. “People are different from one another, and their views are different. Their duty is to complement one another… but this [only works] if the community assumes the same attitude toward God as the individual should, that is, if it subordinates its will to God.” 

The worry Hirsch expresses is over the realization the individual will come to when he realizes that his powers are limited, while the community is not limited, and therefore the community “may easily come to regard itself as the highest goal.” This would supplant the uniqueness of the yachid. 

If the community doesn’t call out in God’s name and “if the individual is called upon to be a servant of the community, but not to serve God; if the community presents itself as an end, instead of merely as a means toward an end – then mankind’s whole moral future is lost. Man… thinks the community is exempt from serving God and from observing the laws of morality.” 

Continuing in his worry over the future of the individual, Hirsch writes “the individual is expected to sacrifice his life, and the community is expected to renounce its allegiance to morality… When the community builds its edifice of glory the toll in human life is deemed to be of no importance… The individual believes he has not lived in vain if he has sacrificed his life for the community, even if it is for a vain cause, as long as that cause brings glory to the community. Millions may die, yet the community is easily comforted and adds new layers onto the edifice of glory… From a spiritual and moral standpoint, the means becomes an end in itself.” 

And so Hirsch draws attention to when a community gets it right versus when it is morally misguided. “If a community is in sync with its true purpose, then even if it has millions of members, it will require no artificial means to hold the people together; the bond between them lies in the consciousness of every individual, and the unifying point is God. If, however, a community does not exist for the sake of the individual… then the individual members must be compelled, or enticed by artificial means, to submit and to sacrifice themselves.” 

Hirsch turns his attention to the lessons of history noting that in other times as well “the lust for glory prompted the building of a ‘tower’ and the indiscriminate consumption of all else, in order to obtain the building blocks for its own triumphs,” namely those of the power-driven authoritarian leader. Think of Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China – was the goal on God, while focusing on the unique contributions of the individuals who built these structures? Or was the goal to “glorify the tyrant who knew how to exploit the energies of his community to set a laurel wreath upon his own brow”? 

Was the individual so demarcated for destruction in the Tower of Babel episode? “The future of mankind, which depends on the inalienable dignity and moral significance of the individual, was jeopardized by the plans of the generation and its leaders. This is why God’s intervention is described as the work of Hashem (using God’s name of mercy), the Divine providence that ensures the future of mankind.” (Compare this, as Ramban does, to the name Elokim which appears throughout the flood narrative.) 

And so the big problem was that “the community sought to be the individual’s sole master. This was an attack on the inalienable worth of the individual, which does not depend on the glory of the community, and which can never be reckoned in terms of mere bricks, not even those used in building the glory of the community. It was also a denial of God’s name. God summons every individual directly to His service and thereby makes every man, be he prince or slave, free and equal. The Name of Hashem tolerates no slavery! The moment the community says ‘we shall make for ourself a name’ and does not summon each individual in Hashem’s name… then God descends to see the edifice the community has been building and to assess the intent of the builders." 

 That community was a failure in many ways, and “its misuse of power sought to subjugate the individual to its rule.” This prompted God to disperse them across the globe. 

Perhaps my suggestion that Hirsch had a keen reading on what was in store for his country, starting fewer than 50 years after his passing, is now a little more clear. The dangers of people creating an edifice for a higher power were demonstrated in that expressionist film, made in Germany in 1927, and six years later, the world’s most evil dictator came to power and turned “Metropolis” into a reality in his efforts to create a master race. 

We are not living in such a time, yet community is nevertheless challenged in our times. In some ways, the individual’s identity has been removed or at the very least challenged. What, then, is the solution, and the take-home lesson? In the tower of Babel the only salvation for mankind, which was on a road to the destruction of individuality, was decentralization. People needed to move away and forge their own destinies, perhaps through starting their own nations and dynasties that would appreciate each person’s role and contribution much more than this misguided utopia could never provide, as it was, by basically all accounts, a product of the tyrant Nimrod, who lusted for power like no one else in his era. 

Our goal is supposed to be the promotion of God as King, and of realizing that no person is as free as the one who chooses to be subservient to the King of kings, the Master of masters, our Father in heaven. (Avos 6:2, and see also Talmud Brachos 17a) 

When we, as a community, can gather with that focus in mind – prayer, connection, and becoming one with Almighty in declaring His Name and in sanctifying His Name, we become worthy of our charge and our position in this world. 

We should only be blessed to see a complete return to our task, which is to gather together to declare God’s Oneness, and to be the community that celebrates each individual’s right and power to be an independent thinker, while we unite together in our devotion to the mission our forefather Avraham made his personal life goal, to call out in God’s Name, and to sanctify His Name in every way possible in the eyes of the nations.

The following are film clips from "Metropolis" (1927) by Fritz Lang. 

This is not the original music from the film

Note the reference in this clip at 3:56 (as well as the scene of Moloch before that moment)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Meaningful Life – As Indirectly Taught by Adam and Eve

Parshat Bereishis 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the more misunderstood passages in our Rabbinic texts is one of the Mishnayos we read on Friday night, from the second chapter of Meseches Shabbos. 

“There are three transgressions for which women die during childbirth: Not being careful about niddah (the laws concerning conduct during the menstrual period), taking challah [from dough], and the lighting of candles [Friday night].” 

The Mishnah cannot be understood to be teaching causality because women who do not observe these do not tend to die in childbirth in any observable pattern, and while it is thankfully uncommon today, some women who are meticulous of these laws have nevertheless passed away during or shortly after giving birth. 

How we understand this Mishnah is helped by a passage in Midrash Tanchuma at the beginning of Parshas Noach. 

“Why are women commanded these three mitzvot? God said, ‘Adam HaRishon was the beginning of My creation, and he was commanded regarding the Tree of Knowledge.’ And the verse says regarding Chava (Eve) ‘And the woman saw [that the fruit was good to eat and desirous to the eyes, and she ate from it and gave to her man who also ate from it].’ She thus caused his death and spilled his blood. It also says in the Torah ‘One who spills the blood of a person (HaAdam) with the person (BaAdam) that individual’s blood will be spilled.’ She thus has her blood spill and she must be careful of her menstruating period to atone for the blood of ‘HaAdam’ that she spilled. 

“Regarding the mitzvah of Challah? She defiled the challah of the world (this refers to Adam), as Rabbi Yosi ben Dosemka explained: Just as a woman kneads her dough in water, and then lifts her Challah, so God did with Adam HaRishon as the verse says ‘and a mist rose from the ground and moistened the earth’ which is followed by ‘And God formed man of the dust of the earth.’ 

“Regarding candles? She extinguished the candle of Adam as the verse says (Mishlei 20), ‘The candle of God is the soul of Adam (a human, but could refer to Adam the man),’ therefore she must observe the lighting of the candles. “ 

Ramban uses the near-1000 years of Adam’s life as the anchor for his depiction of the first millennium of the world described in the Torah, which he compares to the first day of creation (when light was created), as he refers to Adam as the “light of the world who best recognized his Creator.” 

Ramban notes that there was likely no turn towards any form of idolatry before Adam’s passing at age 930! Perhaps Ramban’s view is based in a simple equation that as long as people could still see the man who never had human parents, who was formed from the earth and had God breathe life directly into him, there is no doubt at all as to Who or What God is, and what His role is in the world. When that connection is gone, that idea can be forgotten by those who never knew Adam personally. The prevention of idolatry can certainly bear witness to Adam being “the light of the world,” and thus his eventual death being caused by Chava is something which needs a corrective in the form of Shabbos candles. 

Pinchas Kehati quotes a Midrash Rabba – different from the Tanchuma quoted above – which also refers to Adam as the “challah of the world.” 

While it may not be fair to point to Chava and say she killed Adam – she certainly didn’t commit murder outright – there is what to be said for her being responsible for their expulsion from the garden, which may have led directly (or indirectly, depending on how you calculate these things) to Adam’s death, which at the very least is a symbol of bloodshed. 

The Torah tells us that their banishment from the garden resulted in their being blocked from re-entering, so they may not have access to the Tree of Life. Quoting the Rabbis of the Talmud (Shabbos 55b) Ramban notes that in the garden they were supposed to live forever. This could be because their soul was in a spiritual space that would prevent death, or, from a different perspective, because they’d have access to the Tree of Life, which would provide immortality. 

Ramban specifically comments on the words “On the day you eat from the tree you will die” that “you will then become mortal and will no longer exist forever. Eating was initially simply meant to be an act of pleasure/leisure (but not a necessity for living). It is reasonable that the fruits of the garden were absorbed in the body in a perfect manner, to sustain those who’d eat them (similar to how we understand the Manna). But when man was cursed to eat the ‘grass of the field’ and ‘you’ll eat bread produced by the sweat of your brow…’ that began the deterioration of man from being a primarily spiritual being in a physical body to being more ‘dust-like’ – eating food which grows from the ground, [priming the body for the day until] when ‘to the dust you shall return.’” 

No matter how we view life and immortality pre the eating of the fruit, reality certainly changed when Chava succumbed to the pressure of the serpent herself and had Adam eat the fruit as well. Her punishment, “You will give birth with difficulty,” seems to be what the Mishnah in question is referencing when it suggests death is always lurking in the shadows with childbirth. At the same time the Mishnah gives women a formula for doing a “tikkun” (correction) to Chava’s blunder. These mitzvot are meant to serve as a tremendous merit for women, and may that blessing always be so as we see many Jewish children brought into this world, guided by their God-fearing mothers who are blessed with relatively easier birthing experiences that result in good health for all. (Amen) 

While it is probably not healthy to punish later generations for the errors of forbears or previous generations, it is important for the living to learn lessons from history, and to do what we can to not repeat past mistakes. 

The exact scenario of the Garden of Eden is not one we face, but considering the following examples, and the examples of this narrative, what are our choices? 

  • When we know a behavior is wrong in God’s eyes, in the Torah, in halakha, do we nevertheless succumb to our desires and go against what we know? 
  • When we know we have fallen prey to the Evil Inclination, do we do what we can to have others join us so we not feel so lonely in our disjointed path? 
  • When we can specifically outline the path that has brought us to the place where we do not want to be, do we take corrective steps that specifically help us undo the damage to ourselves, to our souls, to our relationships – especially through countering the measures that brought us to this place? 
  • Do we see ourselves, and our fellow humans, as beings created in the Image of God, who are worthy and deserving of respect, kindness, dignity? Do we practice that in the way we relate to others – especially those with whom we disagree, and those with whom we may have had a falling out? 
  • Do we live life in such a way that our passing will be marked with sadness and feelings of loss by people beyond our immediate family? 
  • Do we find ourselves following in the footsteps of Adam, of being a light for ourselves, for others, and for those we encounter? 

In these days post the Holiday season, and as we embrace the very plain, holiday-less month of Cheshvan, we have the opportunity to contemplate what the coming days, weeks, months, and year (or even years!) can look like for ourselves when it comes to answering these questions. 

In many ways the society around us is broken. In the final days leading up to the upcoming election, we are seeing the worst emerging from people – hatred, vitriol, violence. Social media (and many parts of mainstream media) is a cesspool of demonizing the other. Even Jews are hating Jews who view the world through different lenses. There are no easy answers – no one is completely wrong, and no one is completely right. 

What Adam and Chava teach us is that humanity shares the same ancestors. They remind us that we once had it made in a Garden. Our common goal is to be worthy of returning to that very special place. 

We have a responsibility to follow Adam’s lead, to be a light in the darkness, and a light for the world. Wherever we can inspire, we should inspire. Whenever we can uplift, we should uplift. However we can bring peace between peoples, we should be blessed to do so. 

In this way, we will merit the “tikkun” (corrections) the world needs, to see the light, and to return to an ideal in which serving God is our goal, and everything else is just background noise because everything is as perfect as Eden was meant to be.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Many Ways of Returning

Shabbos Shuva Yisrael 

by Rabbi Avi Billet 

Haftorahs are often relegated to the realm of “when will this be over as I don’t understand it,” but sometimes the Haftorah achieves an element of prominence through the Shabbos being named for it, and its message being most clear and poignant. The Haftorahs that feature most prominently throughout the year are the “3 prophesies of difficulty” which lead up to Tisha B’Av, the “7 prophesies of comfort” which follow Tisha B’Av, the first of which is “Shabbos Nachamu,” and then our Haftorah for “Shabbos Shuva.” Some of the narrative Haftorahs that pop up during the year may feature prominently as well because everyone likes a good story, but even the narratives don’t take on a life of their own, as they are often overshadowed by the events in their corresponding Parsha. 

It is also interesting to note how some Haftorahs repeat, such as the Haftorah for Shabbos Chanukah is the same as the Haftorah of B’haalos’kha, the Haftorah for Noach is a combination of the Haftorahs for Re’eh and Ki Tetze, and our Haftorah from this week is part of the Haftorah for Vayetze (Hoshea 14). 

Considering that our Haftorah, specifically chosen for its call to “Return to God” (Shuva Yisrael!), seems to fit nicely in the context of the Shabbos between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as it carries a message of Teshuvah, one wonders what that has to do with the story of Yaakov fleeing from Eisav, running away to Charan, establishing his family, and building his wealth before finally returning home – the topic of Parshat Vayetze, the other time our Haftorah is read during the year. 

One possibility, suggested by Rabbi Yehuda Shaviv in his book “בין הפטרה לפרשה” (Connections between the Haftorah and the Parsha) is that the word “Shuva” (return) can be referencing a physical return to the homeland. In Parshat Vayetze, Yaakov is eventually told by God, after many years in Lavan’s house, that it is time to return to the land of his fathers. 

This suggestion actually makes a lot of sense when we look back at the same message being delivered in the calendar context of this week’s reading of the prophet Hoshea’s words when we consider the Haftorahs we read in this time period to be connected. The most recent two Haftorahs that we read were on the second day of Rosh Hashana and on Tzom Gedaliah. On the second day of Rosh Hashana, the cry of Rachel is recalled by the prophet Yirmiyahu, as she is told her efforts on behalf of her children will not go unnoticed, as “ושבו בנים לגבולם” – they will return home from exile! The next verses there reference how Ephraim undergoes Teshuvah (repentance) and regret over misdeeds – certainly a fitting set of messages for Rosh Hashana. 

On Tzom Gedaliah we read the Haftorah of all fast days, “Dirshu” (Yeshayahu 56) which is primarily an exortation to the people to return to God in a spiritual way, following the model of righteous gentiles who either convert to Judaism or seek out God out of a deep spiritual longing. 

On the continuum of our “Haftorah record keeping” we can see how there are a number of messages of “Return” featured here – one of which is what we call Teshuvah, a return to Godliness, while another is a need to yearn to return home. 

In Yaakov’s case, we can certainly argue that there was another concern, that his exile to Lavan would be the source for the destruction of his family, and their collective religious future. We know this from how the Haggadah depicts Yaakov’s venture into Lavan’s territory. But we can also see the writing on the wall when we consider the story of Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh, the great student of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, about whom Koheles Rabba informs us that when the center of Torah moved to Yavneh, Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh moved away from that community to be near his wife’s family in Emaus, where his connection to Torah was simply lost – he even forgot all that he had learned. The Talmud also tells us in several places that Rabbi Elazar ben Arakh was also known as Rabbi Nehorai, who famously said (Avot 4:14), “Exile [only] to a place of Torah, and don’t say it [the Torah] will follow you” presumably because it doesn’t work that way. For Torah to survive, a concerted effort needs to be undertaken to maintain its study and practice. 

Another example of this is in the prayer of the Kohen Gadol on Yom Kippur, which he said after finishing his Avodah and left the Holy of Holies for the final time. According to the version of his prayer that appears in the Talmud Yerushalmi in Yoma, he would say, “If we are slated to go to exile, our exile should be in a place of Torah.” Rabbi Yissachar Tamar explained how important this prayer was, because whenever Jews were exiled to a place without Torah, they were caught up in assimilation, they forgot their Torah, their faith become inconsequential, to the point that it was lost from their descendants completely. 

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein noted that the Haftorah of Shuva constitutes a form of response to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, which is meant to precipitate a feeling of mourning (which needs comfort) and to inspire Teshuva (the repentance kind) that brings us closer to God after having been driven apart from Him. “Reading the haftara of Shuva stems from a double obligation of repentance: a) the obligation of repentance generated by the Ten Days of Penitence; and b) an obligation of repentance following the destruction of the Temple.” 

On account of a debate raised by Tosafot in Megillah (31b) as to whether the Haftorah for this week should be “Shuva Yisrael” (from Hoshea 14) or “Dirshu” (the Haftorah for fast days), Rav Mosheh concluded his thought about why Shuva is indeed the Haftorah we read today, noting there are “2 models for prophecies of repentance that translate into 2 kinds of haftarot. There are prophecies that present us with repentance and pardon in all their glory and describe a high spiritual state, and there are prophecies that deal with repentance at a very base level.” 

He argues that “Dirshu” challenges people on a high level to aim higher. This may reflect the reality that the people who most often hear that Haftorah, on fast days, are only Jews who are fasting, who are typically more involved in active Jewish observance, who are thus inspired to aim higher in their repentance efforts. On the other hand, the Haftorah of Shuva speaks to a lower common denominator, to the Jewish people in its totality, regardless of levels of knowledge, observance, or commitment. Return to God simply because He is your God. 

“It seems that the haftara of Dirshu is more appropriate, as Rabbenu Tam rules for certain years. ls it not better to turn to the people with a call to superior repentance rather than to be satisfied with inferior repentance? 

“However, the consideration that guides our custom is to select Shuva precisely because of its low common denominator. The prophecy of Dirshu is surely more exalted and uplifting than Shuva. However, Shuva's deficiency also makes it more desirable. Dirshu presents man with tall demands. Fortunate is he who merits to realize them, but not everyone can do so. The threshold is so high and the demands so great that many people cannot meet them. Its realization depends on an elevated spiritual state, and while it is certainly preferable, it is difficult to achieve. Shuva, on the other hand, does not set lofty demands. All that Israel has to do is come home to God. There is no need for a profound spiritual change, and a feeling of privation suffices to draw man close to God. Such repentance is in everyone's reach.” 

Whether a longing to return home to the land of Israel, a longing to return to God, a desire to raise the bar on our own Torah study and observance, or an inspiration to repent and change one’s ways, our Haftorah’s call of Shuva should be the final wake up call we need to put ourselves on the right path that makes us ready for Yom Kippur, so we can be blessed with the good and better year we all hope to see for ourselves, our families, our community, Am Yisrael, and the good people of the world.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

In Your Mouth and Heart - The Opportunity to Connect with the Almighty

Parshat Nitzavim Vayelekh

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the more potent reminders of where the life of a Jew should be focused comes towards the end of the Nitzavim component of our double-parsha, when Moshe tells the people “This mitzvah that I command you is not beyond your understanding, it is not in the heavens… nor on the other side of the sea (for which we’d need to send someone there to get it and explain it to us)… the word is very close to you, for you to fulfill with your mouth and heart.” (30:11-14) 
Our job is to fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah. “You are Israel, and you were created for this, and the soul of Israel is a partner to the soul of the Torah,” writes Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (Netziv). 

Netziv explains that “In your mouth” means all you need to do is study, and “in your heart” means that it must be your heart’s desire to fulfill that which you learn. However, he notes that the Torah’s cantillation marks – the way the Torah is essentially punctuated – seem to present a different way of understanding. Were there to be a pause (Tipcha) on the word “b’fikha” (בפיך- “your mouth”) that would indicate that there are two ways to embrace the Torah, first with your mouth, then with your heart. But the punctuation indicates that the mouth and heart are to be used together! And so he concludes that there is a second message to be gleaned from this more precise reading, which is that what you do with your mouth (study) is meant to be done with such alacrity and zeal that what is learned enters the heart! 

How much of what we do as Jews, activities that are specifically Jewish in their definition, are done based on what we have actually learned or studied? Or are we just copying what we have been trained to do, whether by our parents, our schools and teachers, or by our living and being part of the Jewish community? How often do we learn a halakha and apply it to our regular routine? Do we expand on our Jewish practices? Do we intensify anything we do? Do we daven with greater understanding, or with aiming to develop or deepen our relationship with the Almighty? When we say birkat Hamazon, or any blessings, do we simply recite them by rote or are we communicating our thanks and appreciation for the things we appreciate in life? When we make charitable contributions, whether to needy individuals or to organizations we support, do we do so begrudgingly, or do we see ourselves as messengers of God Who has instructed us to help the indigent, the needy, or those doing amazing things, whether saving lives in one form or another, or supporting the study of Torah and the perpetuation of what defines our uniqueness more than anything else (hint: the Torah)? What is our view of Rabbinic rulings and decrees? Do we embrace them, and the fences they often set up for us to prevent violating Torah laws? Or do we find them to be burdensome and unworthy of our attention? 

King Solomon wrote “The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like flat headed nails well driven…” (Kohelet 12:11). Rashi describes the sayings of the wise as rabbinical decrees. Seforno explains that a flat headed nail can be dislodged to see and understand where, how and why it was driven in, and that the same applies to Rabbinic rulings, if one wants to understand the reasoning behind them. Our own intuition and logic may not always be sufficient to understand what the Rabbis had in mind. But where there is a decree there is a thought process, and that thought process should be studied, so we may better appreciate that which is our mesorah, our tradition, our heritage. 

A second lesson the Netziv draws from this statement is in focusing on what is called “Teshuvah Me’ahava” – returning to God out of love. He asks, “How can a person love God? Love, by nature, comes from the equal feelings transposed from both parties, or through an intellectual bond between people.” His answer is striking, but very important to consider. We refer to God as a father – as Avinu Malkeinu – so we must consider our relationship with God to be like that of a father to a child. There is something natural about the parent/child loving relationship that we all understand, but we can’t necessarily explain rationally. 

The verse (30:12) presents a thought we might consider, that the mitzvah is “in the heavens.” While the Torah then says we should realize that the Torah is in fact close to us, etziv says the suggestion of “the heavens” may cause us to contemplate the cosmos through which one can have a chance to achieve a love for the Almighty, Who gave us life and all the goodness we might glean out of our time on earth. 

In fact, Maimonides writes that love for God is not automatically ingrained in a person. It comes from a philosophical thought process, a theological exploration, but mostly a study of wisdom. 

Netziv continues his analysis of this verse saying that while finding love for the Almighty can be a difficult venture, the promise Moshe gives to the people is “it is close to you, for it is in your heart.” It is in your heart through the method called “Rinah” – song, joy, praise of the Holy One, as well as the joy of Torah. We know from the paragraph of Shema, which instructs us to love Hashem, that the way to love Hashem “with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might” is through “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. And you shall study/review them with your children and speak of them…” (Devarim 6:6-7) 

The more we study, the more we learn, the more we read, the more we apply what we have learned to our day to day existence, the more we feel love for Hashem, which is of course a cardinal mitzvah! While there may be truth (in some contexts) to the sentiment that “familiarity breeds contempt,” the argument being presented by Netziv is that the more familiar we are with Hashem, the more we will come to love Him. And familiarity comes from a place of seeking to know and understand God better. The way to do that is not to have a simplistic relationship of “When good things happen to me, God is watching me; when bad things happen to me, God is upset with me.” 

The believer, and the person looking to elevate one’s relationship with God says “God is always watching. Everything that happens is in God’s hands. I must do my part, my hishtadlus, and the rest is up to Him.” But the only way to truly live that way is not just through saying the right things, but through living a life of growth, of contemplation, of investigation, of introspection, seeking knowledge, seeking answers, seeking truth, seeking a relationship with God. 

Netziv concludes that a person needs to have a craving and a desire to have such a relationship with the Master of the World. Anyone can sing songs all day, or even study Torah all day, and these activities can be meaningless in the scheme of building that connection, because the song or the Torah might be the means unto themselves. “I like music. I like the intellectual process.” But if the goal is to love God, then everything – song, study, cosmos, and everything else – is perceived through the lens aimed at learning to know God in order to love God. 

With all we’ve been through in the last 6 months, it is time for us to move past pitying ourselves and our circumstance and taking the steps we must to engage our mouths and our hearts to bring God and His Torah even more into the fabric and essence of our very being. 

With so much Torah available at our fingertips on our bookcases, over the Internet, and even through apps and websites we can access on our phones, as well as the many channels available to us through organizations, programs, and study partners, it is simply a question of how/when can I allocate time to this growth in my connection with God? 

If we truly want it, then neither a high mountain or a wide sea can get in our way. After all, it’s in our mouth and heart. We just need to tap into its wealth and extract what will get us to embrace God and take on the challenge of growth for this coming year and the many to follow, with God’s help.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

This Day

Parshat Ki Tavo

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Chapter 27 of Devarim begins with Moshe’s instruction for the ritual that is to take place on Mt Gerizim and Mt Eival under Yehoshua’s leadership. It is an interesting study, comparing what is instructed and what actually takes place, so if one is so inclined, open up the book of Yehoshua to chapter 8:30-35 and compare it to Devarim 27:1-8. There are other important details of that time period which can be found at the crossing of the Jordan in chapter 4.

Immediately following these instructions, Moshe makes the following proclamation:

דברים פרק כז
הַסְכֵּ֤ת׀ וּשְׁמַע֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל הַיּ֤וֹם הַזֶּה֙ נִהְיֵ֣יתָֽ לְעָ֔ם לַיקֹוָ֖ק אֱלֹהֶֽיךָ:
וְשָׁ֣מַעְתָּ֔ בְּק֖וֹל יְקֹוָ֣ק אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ וְעָשִׂ֤יתָ אֶת־מִצְוֹתָו֙ וְאֶת־חֻקָּ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּֽוֹם:

… Pay attention and listen, Israel. On this day you have become a nation to God your Lord. You must therefore obey God your Lord and keep His commandments and decrees, as I am prescribing them to you today.

As he notes in others places, Rashi notes that “this day” refers to every day, essentially arguing that we should always feel a sense of renewal in our commitment to and relationship with the Almighty, most specifically in the covenant we have with Him.

For us, we can certainly think of other meanings of “this day” as suggesting that there are specific days in our calendar year which might actually be viewed as “This Day” (with a capital T and capital D). The verse we are familiar with (see the next line) argues that Shabbos is a special “This Day” which is specifically focused on being a covenantal day with God. וְשָׁמְר֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֑ת לַעֲשׂ֧וֹת אֶת־הַשַּׁבָּ֛ת לְדֹרֹתָ֖ם בְּרִ֥ית עוֹלָֽם: (Shmot 31:16) The idea of renewing the covenant of Shabbos with God on a weekly basis is clearly a goal we ought to be undertaking each week. &&&&& But perhaps “This Day” can be taken a step further when we consider the story of Elisha and the Shunamite woman.

The Zohar indicates that the day when Elisha came to visit her (Melachim II 4:11) “And it was on That Day and Elisha came there...” – that day was Rosh Hashana. Furthermore, when Elisha asked her, “Shall I speak to the king on your behalf, or to the commanding officer?” (4:13) he was asking her if he should put in a good word for her with The King – namely with the Master of the World.

Her response was “I live among my nation.”

There is so much to be learned from this response, about what it means to be part of a community, of what it means to see merit in a kehillah, and of what it means to not be looking for special favors.

Elisha may have had inroads with the highest echelons of both political and spiritual leadership. But in the end of the day, the Shunamite woman was content with her lot, wanted to do her part to help the Man of God, and truly wanted nothing in return. Her connection with the Almighty was one of faith. When she went to seek out Elisha after her son (that Elisha had blessed her to have) died, she even says, “Did I ask for a child?” (verse 28) Once she was gifted the child she felt it unfair to have him taken away so suddenly, so she indicated to Elisha to right the wrong. But she had been content before the child was even born. What an amazing blessing – to be happy with one’s portion. That is what Ben Zoma refers to as being wealthy in Pirkei Avot chapter 4!

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk noted that this passage (Devarim 27:9-10) was spoken by Moshe along with the Kohanim and Leviim. He argues, based on a Midrash Tanchuma, that God forged 3 covenants with the Bnei Yisrael: upon leaving Egypt, in Chorev, and this one. The one from Chorev was cancelled with Israel on account of their involvement with the Golden Calf, which indicates that it was not cancelled with those who were not involved with the Golden Calf, namely the Tribe of Levi. Therefore they are the ones who can present it to everyone else, because they were never cancelled from being attached to this covenant.

This is a simple reminder that those who are the holiest of Jews maintain the connection with God, perhaps we might call it a lifeline, for the rest of us. They, our greatest leaders, keep us united as Jews and with God even when other indications suggest we are losing a sense of oneness that has always defined our people.

Netziv writes that “becoming a nation” is usually understood to mean creating an army who support the king, while the phrase also needs to be understood in the context of how it is presented. In our verse, it refers to being in “God’s army to represent His kingship to the world.” He goes on to say that this instruction is given specifically to Israel, because “only the great ones of Israel (gedolei Yisrael) and the Torah scholars can truly enlighten all people…”

“Listening to Hashem” (verse 10) means to listen and be precise in understanding the written Torah, which has in it hints to all matters of wisdom in the world, to the point that its knowledge could be translated and transmitted to all nations.”

We are on the precipice that leads up to Rosh Hashana. In exactly two weeks, Shabbos and Rosh Hashana will coincide and we will be embracing a new year like no other in recent memory. How many of us have had a Rosh Hashana where we were uncomfortable going to shul? There are no arguments or data points that will likely help change what is our anticipated reality for this year’s High Holidays – but hopefully we will see better times very soon!

The Slonimer Rebbe notes that looking at This Day of which Moshe speaks as Rosh Hashana reminds us that what our lives are lived for is our relationship with God. When we cry out to God on Rosh Hashana asking Him to remove any bad decree, we are accepting ourselves as His people. We are not to see ourselves as asking for life, for food, for health, for our children, for parnassah as means for our own happiness.

We are to look at all of these blessings as means to help fulfill our task as Jews. When we hear phrases of שמע ישראל and ושמעת בקול ה' א-לקיך, what do they remind us of, if not our most fundamental instructions of what our relationship with God is supposed to be all about?

Rosh Hashana is a day in which we crown God king, and it is also a day in which we renew any covenant we have with the Almighty.

We know very little about the Shunamite woman. But we know at the very least she was a woman of faith who trusted in God, wanted to do right for the man she saw as representing God, and was willing to literally put her money where her heart was in designating a space/loft for Elisha to rest from his travels.

Her indication, to Elisha’s Rosh Hashana request to her offering to put in a good word witht the King was, “I need nothing. I am content to be part of my people.”

How do we view Rosh Hashana? Is it a time of renewed commitment? Strengthened commitment? Taking our covenant with God more seriously? Do we seek out the wisdom of our great leaders and scholars?

It is never too late to take more upon ourselves. We would do well to look beyond simply seeing Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur as days we need to get through. They are “This Day.” They are “EveryDay.” They are days that serve as models for us for all year round of how to truly return to the Almighty, especially after we’ve veered and found a need to get back on track.

This Day is before us. Are we ready?