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.

Pharaoh’s Myopia

parashas Beshalach 5782

Was Pharaoh deceived? Or did he deceive himself?

G-d led the Children of Israel in a roundabout way to the Sea of Reeds, so that they would not have to be confronted by the Philistines, when passing by their territory. Otherwise, they might have fled back to Egypt at the prospect of war. Having escaped the frying pan, they ostensibly entered into the fire. For H’Shem had a strategy in mind, in order to bring about the demise of Pharaoh, and his army who had pursued the Israelites into the wilderness.

In order to lay a trap for Pharaoh, H’Shem brought B’nei Yisrael to a gorge at the edge of the sea. As Pharaoh’s army closed in on them, the Children of Israel began to panic. Yet, Moshe said to them, “Do not fear, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will show to you today” (Exodus 14:13, Israeli Bible).

As for Pharaoh, he apparently thought that Israel was indeed trapped at the Sea of Reeds, as if one of his own gods, whose idol stood there as a towering giant near the gorge, was somehow powerful enough to bring Israel as prey into the hands of Pharaoh, so that he could retrieve what he and his people still considered to be “their slaves.” His perception, based on his trust in the deities that he worshipped, contributed to his deception. For there is only one Master of the Universe, Who has prominence over the affairs of mankind. Pharaoh’s shortsightedness prevented him from seeing the situation in any other way than what appealed to his sense of self, pride, and stubborness.

Additionally, Pharaoh had been shown the sovereignty of the Almighty’s hand, Who proved Himself to be more powerful than the Egyptian gods. Yet, he remained recalcitrant, unable to perceive reality through any other lens, other than his own narrative norm. He suffered greatly for this myopia, inasmuch that he himself was doomed to be drowned in the Sea of Reeds, along with his entire army. Why were the Egyptians as well, unable to see the truth that was set out before their very own eyes? Trying to explain away the plagues, and even the splitting of the sea, as “natural phenomena,” instead of the hand of G-d, they remained stuck in their myopic vision, unaware of the false nature of their gods, and the limited reality of their worldview.

“Go and see the works of G-d, awesome in His deeds toward mankind. He turned the sea into dry land, and they passed through the river on foot; we rejoiced in Him there.”

– Psalms 66:5-6, The Complete Jewish Tanach, chabad.org

Expect Redemption

motzei Shabbos: parashas Shemot 5782

“Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say unto them: The L-RD, the G-d of your fathers, the G-d of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, hath appeared unto me, saying: I have surely remembered you, and seen that which is done to you in Egypt.” – Exodus 3:16, JPS 1917 Tanach

“It was a sign for Israel. When any redeemer would come with this sign, ‘I have surely thought of you,’ they would know that he was a true redeemer.” – Midrash Tanchuma Buber; sefaria.org

A prophecy given to Abraham, speaks of a time that his descendants, “shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years” (Genesis 15:13, JPS). Therefore, this was known well to the Children of Israel, who were enslaved, that towards the end of the allotment of time given in the prophecy, they should begin to expect a redeemer. Now, the time was at hand; so, when Moses returned to Egypt from Midian, he first approached the elders, along with Aaron, who accompanied him: “And Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the children of Israel” (Exodus 4:29, JPS).

At this pivotal moment in the lives of the Children of Israel, when they heard the words that H’Shem had given to Moses, and saw the signs given him to validate that indeed he was the one who H’Shem sent, they responded in a manner that expressed their hope, trust, and faith in H’Shem, who sent the redeemer: “And the people believed; and when they heard that the L-RD had remembered the children of Israel, and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed their heads and worshipped” (Exodus 4:31, JPS).

As we look ahead, along the trajectory that this world is heading, the days will approach whereof the light will be diminished by darkness; then, we should lift up our heads and look towards the Final Redemption. Our expectations will increase in direct proportion to our understanding that we can only place our trust in H’Shem. “And it is a time of trouble unto Jacob” (Jeremiah 30:7, JPS). The birthpangs of Moshiach (Messiah), the travails that will be brought upon the world, will precede the Final Redemption (Sanhedrin 97a).

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.

Camping with the Angels

motzei Shabbos: parashas Vayeitzei 5782

“And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of G-d met him. “And Jacob said when he saw them: ‘This is G-d’s camp.’ And he called the name of that place Mahanaim.” – Genesis  32:2-3, JPS

An impasse was reached in the life of Jacob after his encounter with Laban at Mitzpah. This might also be thought of as a brief moment of respite, between the danger that had passed, regarding the threat of Laban, and the impending encounter between Jacob and Esau. After making a covenant with Laban to guard against future infringements against either of their sense of autonomy (Genesis 31:52), Laban departs, returning to his place, after having pursued Jacob, who, himself is on his way back to his father Isaac, bringing along with him, his wives and children. The Torah records, immediately following his treaty with Laban, that angels of Elokim (G-d) met him; so, he ascribes the name mahanaim to that place.

Literally, mahanaim means two camps; commentators note that this implies that two camps of angels met with Jacob. The first camp of angels were those that had accompanied him along the way from Laban’s land, where he had lived for twenty years; the second camp of angels are said to be those who will now accompany him into Eretz Canaan. Another rendering may be made as follows: that in the plain sense, perhaps, the name mahanaim refers to the two camps that met immediately preceding the appearance of the angels. That is the camp of Jacob and his family, who had set out to return home; and, the camp of Laban and his men, who pursued Jacob when he learned that he fled.

Where they actually met, and made a covenant after the confrontation, is referred to as Mitzpah, meaning “watchtower.” This place is mentioned later in kitvei kodesh (holy scripture) and seems to have continued to be a type of boundary marker between two peoples, the Israelites and the Ammonites. Thus the presence of the angels may concern the peace that is hoped to ensue after narrowly averting a potential conflict. Either way, in a more general sense, another implication may be the reassurance from G-d, that he watches over us in times of trouble, as he watched over Jacob. “For He will give His angels charge over thee, to keep thee in all thy ways” (Psalm 91:11, JPS).

“This heap is witness between me and thee this day. Therefore was the name of it called Galeed; and Mizpah, for he said: ‘The L-RD watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.”

– Genesis 31:48-49, JPS 1917 Tanach

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.

The Foundation Stone

“And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.”

– Genesis 28:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

The word lighted, “and he lighted upon the place,” in Hebrew is vayifgah, from the shoresh (root word), paga. According to chazal, the word implies prayer; hence, the origin of the evening prayer being attributed to Jacob. Therefore, this event in Jacob’s life was the precedent for prayer, the third prayer of the day, that marks the transition from day to night.

What significance does this particular prayer serve? Within the context of the evening shema, the prayer draws emphasis to G-d’s faithfulness to Israel; we remind ourselves of His faithfulness to us, because darkness signifies the exile; yet, He is with us, as He was in the past: “In all their affliction He was afflicted” (Isaiah 63:9).

The stones that Jacob placed around his head, twelve stones, are said in the midrash to have been taken from the mizbeach (altar) made by Abraham. The next morning, Jacob “took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar” (Genesis 28:18). In other words, of the twelve stones that he originally placed under his head he took the stone, one specific stone. Although, according to the midrash, symbolically, the twelve stones became one, representing the unity of the twelve tribes of Israel.

According to Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer, this stone was given the name evehn shetiyah (the foundation stone), many generations later. This stone symbolizes the center of the world, from where all the earth was created. Jacob poured oil on this stone, so that it could be used as a mizbeach (altar), later, when he would return from his journey to Haran. This location is where the first and second Temples stood, many generations after Jacob. It is also where the third Temple will be built in Jerusalem.

As mentioned above, the maariv (evening) prayer, recited after nightfall, is a reminder of H’Shem’s faithfulness to us, during this Galus, i.e., the current exile. With our hope focused on the time of the Final Redemption, we may look forward to the time when K’lal Yisrael (All of Israel) will be united. “And He will set up an ensign for the nations, and will assemble the dispersed of Israel, and gather together the scattered of Judah” (Isaiah 11:12, JPS 1917 Tanach).

“‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the L-RD of hosts. He shall bring forth the top stone with shoutings of Grace, grace upon it.’” – Zechariah 4:6-7

Gateway to Gan Eden

“And the life of Sarah was a hundred and seven and twenty years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.” – Genesis 23:1

Abraham purchases a burial plot for Sarah in the land of Canaan. This becomes the first piece of real estate that was purchased in the land that was promised to Abraham and his descendants. “Sarah died in Kiriatharba — the same is Hebron — in the land of Canaan” (Genesis 23:2). This purchase established a “foot in the door” of eternal promise for the descendants of Abraham.

“I will give to you, and to your seed after you the land where you are an outsider – the whole land of Canaan – for an everlasting possession, and I will be their G-d.” – Genesis 17:8

There is a midrash that refers to the Cave of Machpelah where both Sarah and Abraham were buried, as the gateway to the Garden of Eden. For the purposes of this essay, what may be inferred, is that those who were buried there, attained entrance into the Garden of Eden. This can be supported in regard to both Sarah and Abraham.

For Sarah, there is clue given that her soul continued to live, and where else, except for Gan Eden, where the righteous bask in the kavod (glory) of the L’RD? This clue is found in the first phrase of the parahshas, vayihyu chayei sarah, and this was the life of Sarah. The verb, vayihyu is spelled in an irregular manner, implying something that has a sense of permanence. R. Bachya explains, that this is a reference to the soul of Sarah, continuing to live on in Shamayim (Heaven).

As for Abraham, consider the following: “And Abraham expired, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people” (Genesis 25:8). This phrase, “gathered to his people” (vayei’asef el amayv) is likened by Sforno to the bundle of life. The “bundle of life,” that he refers to is found in reference to a prayer expressing the intent of Abigail, David’s future wife, for the eternal well-being of David: “yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the L’RD thy G’d” (1 Samuel 25:29).

In the Merit of

“The L-RD, the G-d of heaven, who took me from my father’s house, and from the land of my nativity, and who spoke unto me, and who swore unto me, saying: Unto thy seed will I give this land; He will send His angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife for my son from thence.” – Genesis 24:7, JPS 1917 Tanach

“Therefore, I know that He will send His angel to make Your way prosper, to fulfill His promise to me.” – Rashbam, sefaria.org

When the time arrived for Abraham to find a wife for his son, Isaac, Abraham sent his trusted servant Eliezar on the mission, back to the land where Abraham had lived. Abraham explained to Eliezer that H’Shem would “send his angel” before him on the journey. When Eliezer arrived, he prayed, “‘O L-RD, the G-d of my master Abraham, send me, I pray Thee, good speed this day, and show kindness unto my master Abraham” (Genesis 24:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). In this manner, he prayed in the merit of Abraham, as per the tradition even today, regarding the prayers of the chassidim, in the merit of their Rebbes.


What is fascinating to note, is that within this parashas, there is another mentioning of prayer in the merit of a righteous person. Preceding Eliezer’s return, “Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide; and he lifted up his eyes, and saw, and, behold, there were camels coming” (Genesis 24:63, JPS 1917 Tanach). Tradition infers that the field where Isaac meditated, i.e., “prayed,” was the field of the cave of Machpelah, where Sarah was buried. Therefore, commentary speaks of him, praying in the merit of his mother (the matriarch of the Jewish people) for Eliezer’s mission to be successful.


“The angel of the L-RD encampeth round about them that fear Him, and delivereth them.”

– Psalm 34:8, JPS 1917 Tanach

Stewardship

drash for parashas Noach 5782

“All the springs of the great deep were split, and the windows of the heavens opened up.”

– Genesis 7:11, JPS 1917 Tanach

The judgment upon mankind was enacted through the natural forces of both the earth and the heavens. What can be gleaned from this occurrence, that destroyed mankind, except for the eight who were spared? Even the various species of plants and animals, fish and birds were only preserved through the efforts of Noach and his family. They may be said to exemplify what is meant by stewards of the earth. For the sake of mankind, all of the earth was created; so, stewardship cannot be separated from this truth. Is being environmental sanctioned by the Blueprint (Torah) of life? I believe so; yet, the underlying philosophy of radical environmentalism (deep ecology) borders on a type of “natural religion,” irrespective of Creation with a capital “C.”