Yisro’s Belief

parashas Yisro 5782

H’Shem had made a complete mockery of Egypt. This was demonstrated in its entirety by the culmination of the judgment upon Egypt: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Measure for measure, H’Shem enacted judgment upon Egypt. Turning the Nile River into blood, reminded Pharaoh of his guilt, concerning his decree against male infants, that they be drowned in the Nile. The perishing of Pharaoh and his army at the Sea of Reeds was an expression of H’Shem’s judgment against Pharaoh.

Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, an ex-priest of Midian, “heard of all that G-d had done for Moses, and for Israel his people” (Exodus 18:1, JPS). He journeyed from Midian to the encampment at Sinai, and brought with him Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and also Gershon and Eliezer, the two sons of Moses. He proclaimed, “Now I know that the L-RD is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:11, JPS). He continued, by implying that in the same manner that the Egyptians conspired against the Children of Israel, so was Pharaoh and his army destroyed. I.e., measure for measure, by means of water.

Yisro had worshipped many gods; and, according to Tanchuma, he had renounced idolatry many years ago. Yet, it was not until he heard of H’Shem’s plagues against Egypt – each one symbolizing H’Shem’s superiority over an Egyptian god – and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, when Pharaoh was defeated, that he recognized H’Shem as “greater than all gods.”

Up until then, his belief was predicated upon rational inquiry; he had his doubts about the efficacy of the many deities that he used to worship. Yet, when he heard of H’Shem’s greatness being demonstrated in a tangible way through the plagues, and the splitting the sea, his belief was upgraded to the level of knowledge, because of H’Shem’s miraculous intervention for the sake of Israel’s Redemption. In other words, “seeing is believing;” although, in this case, it was enough for Yisro to “hear” “of all that G-d had done,” for his belief to become manifest.

Actual Faith

dvar for parashas Beshalach 5782

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” – Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach

 “If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land. – R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org

The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.

Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists within the framework of that person’s practical existence.

At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. Yet, the “proofs” of the existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our own lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith), specifically, requires a profound degree of awareness.

“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.” – Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, the handmaid was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The Midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.

Search Within the Darkness

“And the L-RD said unto Moses: ‘Stretch out thy hand toward the heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.’ And Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days; they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”– Exodus 10:21-23, JPS 1917 Tanach

Or HaChayim explains that, according to certain rabbinic commentators, the darkness that originated in a heavenly place, may be likened to the description, found in psalms, “He made darkness His hiding-place, His pavilion round about Him; darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies” (Psalms 18:12, JPS; Shemot Rabbah 14). This verse conveys the understanding, that, H’Shem, who is surrounded by atmospheric darkness, is hidden within those phenomena. This may explain why Moshe raised his hand to the sky, instead of his staff. “Inasmuch as the darkness was of a supernatural kind, Moses did not consider it appropriate to raise his staff against supernatural phenomena” (Ohr HaChayim on Exodus 10:23, sefaria.org).

Another view likens the darkness that encompassed Egypt for three days, to the darkness of purgatory (Or HaChayim on Exodus 10:23; sefaria.org). Or HaChayim comments that both views may be feasible, within the context of the plague’s duration. According to Rashi’s rendering, there were two sets of three-day periods of darkness, since each plague always lasted for a week. So, during the first three days, no person could see another; and, during the second three days, “no one could get up from where he was.” (The third day of darkness occurred at the encampment of the Egyptians, who had pursued B’nei Yisrael to the edge of the Sea of Reeds).

How might these considerations be understood, in a manner of rendering some significance to the comments, beyond their face value? If we consider that H’Shem, Who is surrounded by dark clouds, refers as well to our inability to draw close to Him, unless we enter a place of unknowing, wherein we cannot fully rely on our intellectual understanding of Him, we are gaining understanding of the nature of His essence, as well as our relationship to Him.

For the Sake of His Glory

dvar for parashas Va’eira 5782

“For this cause have I made thee to stand [endure], to show thee My power, and that My name may be declared throughout all the earth.” – Exodus 9:16, JPS 1917 Tanach

“G-d’s name would be declared from generation to generation because of the signs which He performed.” – Ibn Ezra, sefaria.org

H’Shem continually hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could remain recalcitrant against G-d’s divine plan to free B’nei Yisrael from bondage, and endure the subsequent plagues; thus, this may be understood as enabling Pharaoh to continue in his resistance. As the ruler of Egypt, the world’s leading superpower at that time, Pharaoh was not interested in receiving a higher authority than himself.

Even his so-called gods, the Egyptian deities that his people worshipped, were approached from the perspective of gaining outcomes that would best suit his own ambitions. I would surmise that there was no sense of obedience to these deities, in terms of committing to a set of principles, or guidelines, thusly decreed from a sense of morality; there was only an attempt to appease the wrath of the deities when some natural occurrences were unfavorable to the population – an opportunistic strategy.

Yet, with H’Shem, there is both justice and mercy, above and beyond the understanding of mankind, in regard to His commandments; therefore, He responded with justice upon Egypt, carried out in the form of ten plagues; and, mercy towards the Children of Israel, who cried out to him in their suffering. Elsewhere it is written, “I will be gracious (חנן) to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy (רחם) on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).

Because of Pharaoh’s unrepentant heart, H’Shem could not show mercy towards him; moreover, by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, he strengthened his position. Rashi explains that the first five times, Torah mentions that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” thus implying an act of self-volition. Only, for the sake of bringing about the fulfillment of the plagues decreed upon Egypt, did H’Shem permit Pharaoh to remain resistant. He was essentially bringing Pharaoh’s unrepentance to fruition for the sake of G-d’s glory, as He was able to demonstrate His sovereignty through the plagues.

Birth of Moses

parashas Shemot 5782

“And there went a man of the house of Levi, and took to wife a daughter of Levi. And the woman conceived, and bore a son; and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.” – Exodus 2:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Towards the end of Joseph’s life, he explained to his brothers, that G-d would surely visit his people – pekod pekodti – a redeemer shall come. This was the assurance given to his brothers, so that their descendants who would meet with challenging times, culminating in their enslavement in Egypt, would have hope for their redemption down the road. After 136 years of slavery, a redeemer was born, who was named Moses. Torah describes him as טוב – a “goodly” child. Commentary explains that, “When he was born the whole house became filled with light” (Rashi on Genesis 2:2, Sotah 12a; sefaria.org).

Additionally, “the meaning of this goodliness is that she saw in him some unique quality which, in her opinion, foreshadowed that a miracle would happen to him and he would be saved” (Nachmanides, sefaria.org). Therefore, she took it upon herself to seek a way to save him; and, after three months she placed him in an ark (תבת) that was “made of reeds, and “daubed it with slime and with pitch; and she put the child therein” (Exodus 2:3), and she laid the ark near the reeds, by the bank of the River Nile.  Thus, the prophecy was set in motion, as conveyed by the sages, “that Miriam prophesied, ‘Mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver Israel’” (Nachmanides, sefaria.org).

All of this was required, because of the decree that had gone out from Pharoah’s court, “And Pharaoh charged all his people, saying: ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river, and every daughter ye shall save alive” (Exodus 1:22). Yet, that day, Pharaoh’s daughter, who was named Batya, was by the river, and saw the child. She brought the child into the court, to raise as her son. Thus, was the redeemer’s life preserved in the very place that the command had been issued against his life. Moreover, Moshe’s sister, Miriam was watching nearby the river to see what would happen; Pharaoh’s daughter, Batya told her to fetch a Hebrew woman to nurse the child; so, of course, Miriam brought the child’s mother to Batya, to nurse him for two years. So, Moshe grew up cognizant of his Hebrew heritage, because of the instruction given to him by his natural birth mother.

Engraved Words

“This do, and live; for I fear G-d.” – Genesis 42:18

“The fear of the L-rd is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do his commandments; his praise endures for ever.” – Psalm 111:10

Where to begin on the road to freedom? Elsewhere, it is written, “Serve the L-RD with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Psalm 2:11). Here, we see that serving H’Shem in awe and reverence will lead to rejoicing. Yet, not to get too carried away with our rejoicing, we must balance this emotional expression with “trembling,” that will lead to a healthy respect and fear of H’Shem.

Instead of pursuing happiness, by whatever means might be pleasing to us, we are to embrace discipline (Psalm 2). It is important to bring an attitude of sincerity into our hearts, for the sake of remaining within the bounds of the guidelines of life given to us by kitvei kidesh (holy scripture). Then, happiness may ensue, as a result of our devotion to H’Shem. When we put our trust in H’Shem, rather than in the things of this world; pursuing righteousness, instead of material pleasures, then, we will be on the right path towards true freedom.

The sages explain, that the word cherut, meaning to engrave, as in the commandments were engraved on two stone tablets, may also mean freedom, with a slight change in the vowels. The consonants remain the same, forming the shoresh, the root word ChRT.  And, so when we adopt the commandments as an ethical means to approach life, we take it upon ourselves to live the way that G-d intended us to do so. Yet, these are more than a set of ethics, derived by a human source; these are commandments that imply a divine authority as their author.

When Jacob arrived in Egypt with his family, his son, Joseph, harnessed his chariot and went out to greet him. Joseph provided for his family to live in the land of Goshen – a land removed from Egypt proper. As a consequence of their living in this location, they were isolated to some extent from the rest of Egyptian society. They had more freedom to follow in the footsteps of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as opposed to getting caught up in the idolatrous ways of their neighbors. Yet, even in the midst of the uncertainty, doubt, and fear, that settled in years later, after the children of Israel became enslaved in Egypt, there was the promise of hope in the redeemer.

Joseph’s Trials

dvar for parashas Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23) 5782

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.” – Genesis 37:3, JPS 1917 Tanach

Jacob, loved his son Joseph more than any other of his children, for Joseph was “the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). Joseph was the firstborn to Jacob’s wife, Rachel. Joseph was favored enough by Jacob to make him a coat of many colors (Genesis 37:3); the coat was a symbol, demarcating Jacob’s intention of elevating him to the status of the firstborn. Reuben had lost that status because of a previous transgression (Genesis 35:22). This would explain why Joseph was given the responsibility to check up on his brothers who were “feeding the flocks in Shechem” (Genesis 37:14).

Joseph’s brothers were already jealous of him; when he told them of his dreams that foretold he would rule over them “they hated him even more” (Genesis 37:5). When Joseph was sent to check up on his brothers, they took advantage of the situation. And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stripped Joseph of his coat, the coat of many colors. Then, they threw him into a pit and sold him for “twenty pieces of silver” to a caravan that was passing through Shechem. Joseph’s brothers dipped Joseph’s multi-colored coat into the blood of a goat (Genesis 37:31); then, they took the coat to their father Jacob as evidence of Joseph’s alleged death by way of a wild animal (Genesis 37:20).

When Joseph arrived in Egypt, by way of the caravan of Ishmaelite traders, he was sold as a slave, and became a servant in the house of Potiphar. Even so, in the midst of his nisyanos (challenges), H’Shem was with him;  he had been put in charge of the household and became successful in all of his endeavors. Yet, he was wrongly accused of indiscretion by Potiphar’s wife; hence, he was sent to prison. Even there, H’Shem was him, and strengthened him; he was placed in charge of the prison ward. All throughout this time, Joseph’s plight was for the sake of his refinement: “Joseph was sold for a servant; his feet they hurt in fetters, his person was laid in iron; until the time that his word came to pass, the word of the L-RD tested him” (Psalms 105:17-19, JPS).

The Deference of Jacob

“And Jacob sent messengers.”

– Genesis 32:4, JPS 1917 Tanach

“This parasha was written to show how H’Shem saved his servant from a stronger foe, and sent his angels to rescue him. In addition, it teaches us that he [Jacob] didn’t rely on his righteousness, and made every effort to save himself.” – Ramban, sefaria.org

Previously, the Torah speaks of two camps of angels, one that accompanied Jacob to the edge of the land of Canaan, and another camp that served to accompany him and his entourage once they entered Canaan, the land promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and their descendants (see Genesis 32: 2-3). Now, at the beginning of parashas Vayishlach, the Torah, seemingly so, alludes to these angels that were assigned for protective measures (Genesis 32:4).

“Jacob sent messengers [malachim] before him to Esau his brother unto the land of Seir, the field of Edom” (Genesis 32:4, JPS). The Hebrew word, malachim can mean messengers or angels. In the literal sense, Jacob sent messengers to Esau; yet, on another level, the angels granted to him for protection may have also gone ahead of Jacob’s entourage.

Regardless of the interpretation, if Jacob had the opportunity to seek divine protection from angels who would actually defend his entourage, he did not rely on this; rather, he made a three-fold preparation for an encounter with Esau: prayers, appeasement, and a defensive strategy. He prayed to H’ Shem for deliverance from the hands of Esau; sent gifts to Esau to appease his resentment; and he divided the camp, so that if one camp was attacked, the other would have the opportunity to escape. Although Jacob could have prevailed upon H’Shem to rescue him through an angelic force, he chose humility, by subjecting himself in all deference to his brother, Esau.

Immanent and Transcendent

parashas Vayeitzei (Genesis 28:10 – 32:3) 5782

Jacob journeys on foot to Haran, in order to take a wife from his own kindred. Along the way, he encounters the place (hamakom). He “spent the night there, for the sun had set” (Genesis 28:11). “And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of G-d were ascending and descending on it” (Genesis 28:12). This ascent and descent of the angels upon the ladder in Jacob’s dream may be understood as being symbolic of prayer (Sforno).

Consider that this place (hamakom) is described as “the House of G-d,” and ”the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28:17). So, a parallel may be drawn between this place (hamakom) on earth, and “the place (hamakom),” used to describe where the L-RD resides in Shomayim (Heaven): “Blessed be the glory of the L-RD from His place (makom)” (Ezekiel 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Additionally, both the first and second temples were built on this very same spot. When Solomon built the first Temple, he gave a speech, stating, “I have surely built Thee a house of habitation, a place for thee to dwell in for ever” (1 Kings 8:13, JPS 1917 Tanach). Contrast these words, spoken by King Solomon when he inaugurated the first Temple, with his words, later in his speech: “But will G-d in very truth dwell on the earth? behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded” (1 Kings 8:27, JPS).

This contrast points to the understanding found in the Talmud, that G-d may be both transcendent, in His place (hamakom) in Heaven, and immanent, for example, when His Presence, the Shechinah appeared at the Beis HaMikdash (Temple). “And it came to pass, when the priests were come out of the holy place, that the cloud filled the house of the L-RD, so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud; for the glory [kavod] of the L-RD filled the house of the L-RD” (1 Kings 8:10-11, JPS).

The Talmud further notes that even though G-d resides in Shomayim (Heaven), He can still hear the whispered prayers of a penitent, standing near a column, during a prayer service at a synagogue. Perhaps, the column itself suggests a connection between heaven earth.

Nevertheless, for many people, G-d seems to be distant, far away from the mundane business and chatter of the world. This dilemma may be approached through finding the opportunity to speak to G-d, from the depths of the heart, preferably, during a quiet time set aside for this purpose. Although, even in the sanctuaries of prayer today, the service allows for an individual connection to G-d, when we resolve ourselves to tune out any distractions within or without.

Sins of the Heels

parashas Toldos 5782

“And the children struggled within her.” – Genesis 25:22, JPS 1917 Tanach

Esau was the firstborn, while Jacob was born grasping Esau’s heel. This is how Jacob received his name, Yaakov, meaning heel, or supplanter, because, eventually, he supplanted the rights of the firstborn. Additionally, “Jacob’s holding on to the heel of Esau may symbolize those values that Esau would symbolically stamp his foot on, those values would be the very ones Jacob would cherish” (Akeidat Yitzchak 23:1:10, sefaria.org).

According to Akeidat Yitzchak, Esau would tread upon the very values that Jacob cherished, the values that Jacob emulated in his father Isaac, the same values of Abraham. Jacob was destined to supplant Esau in regard to the rights of the firstborn, so that the legacy of Abraham, replete with the qualities of chesed (kindness), gevurah (moral restraint), and tiferes (harmony) would be continued.

Another rendering of the phrase, “sins of the heels,” is in reference to the pasuk (verse), “Wherefore should I fear in the days of evil, when the iniquity of my supplanters [heels] compasseth me about” (Psalm 49:6, JPS), concerning King David’s fear that the sins of his heels, those that most people disregard, i.e., “trample upon,” would prevent him from entering Olam Haba (the World-to-Come). How much more so, should we also be concerned for the sins that we might otherwise overlook, without doing teshuvah (repentance) or working towards self-improvement in those areas of our lives.