Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mishpatim - The Vav

Rashi comments on the words - Ve'Eileh HaMishpatim, Vav Mosif Al HaRishonim"-the letter Vav connects this to what preceded it. Rashi explains what this means- that just as what's come before is from Sinai, so too what is about to be stated now is from Sinai.

Rav Shlomo Yoseif Zevin points out that the laws in this parsha are civil laws, mishpatim. Every civil society has such laws. People make laws and people changelaws. What is different about our laws? What separates us from the rest of the world is this one little letter, this connector,the VAV. We might mistakenly think that what makes us unique as a culture are ourritual practices and observances. While these are beautiful, modes of practice are not what truly set us apart as a society, because rituals abound in every culture. What's unique about our religious way of life is that our standards of civility are of Divine origin.

Rav Elchanon Wasserman points out that the true meaning of "Tzidkatcha TzedekLe'Olam VeToratchah Emet" – “Your justice is just forever, and Your Torahis true” is that Jewish law is fair because the Torah is true. It is that divinity of Torah that sets us apart and that makes our laws true.

Jews of all ages and backgrounds without exception need to constantly reinforce within ourselves our belief in the divinity of our laws, specifically the societal laws. Rabbinic tradition permeates the religious lives we live. Trusting and respecting the rabbinic system is key to our continued commitment to traditional Jewish life. It is possible, yet tragic, to emerge from an upbringing in a traditional Jewish community without respect for halacha as a true way of life. It is possible to live in an orthodox community and not get that the way we are to relate to and treat others is a holy, Divine matter.

The Vav that links the Mishpatim to G-d must be studied and our commitment to this connection must always grow stronger. May G-d bless us that it should be so.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Yitro: Eagles Wings, Consequence and Motion

"ואשא אתכם על כנפי נשרים ואביא אתכם אלי" "And how I bore you on eagle's wings." This line is provocative, asking to be felt and then understood (as TS Elliot once said of poems, that they are felt before they're understood). Here is one approach from the old school and one from the new.

G-d says that he'll carry the Jewish People on eagle's wings. The Seforno says that the meaning of the eagles’ wings is that they carry the eagle to a place where no one else can go. The concept is that G-d has taken us as His, separate and apart from all other nations and their ways. The Seforno is also consistent in his interpretation throughout this pasuk. Regarding what it was that G-d is reminding them that they’ve seen in Egypt, Seforno explains that G-d is reminding them how he entreated the Egyptians to leave their evil ways, not wanting them to die. Only because of their corrupt stubbornness did G-d G-d have to destroy them. The theme of the pasuk, according to Seforno is that there are consequences for evil behavior and that G-d expects better from us.

Aviva Zornberg explains that metaphor, in contrast to simile, provides space for interpretation. She writes that the metaphor of eagle's wings “strikes the reader with an exotic force” and at once creates a conception of “intimacy, protection, love, speed.” It is Zornberg's contention that by portraying G-d as the eagle carrying its young this pasuk suggests our lightness. The point is that, despite how we feel, our physical beings are in reality weightless. The Hebrew word for honor – kavod means weighty, and at this historic moment, as we were being uplifted and chosen by G-d, we were told not to be taken by a sense of our own grandiosity. In relation to
G-d’s greatness our delusions of grandeur are deflated, our own heaviness is put in proper, limited context.

Dr. Zornberg explains that the description of G-d carrying us on eagles’ wings creates images of carrying and being carried, old and young, strong and weak. It reminds us that as important as our past experiences make us feel, “history is driven entirely by G-d’s motion.” The reason a metaphor is employed here may be that the idea being conveyed is a hard one to accept. What Milan Kundera calls “the unbearable lightness of being” is difficult to embrace head on. We need to come to it through an image, to take it in, in a way that “the ear is capable of hearing". Have a great week.

Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

Friday, January 18, 2008

Beshalach: What Are We?

Moshe asked "Veanchnu mah? - What are we?" (Shmot 16:7). The Gemorah says he outdid Avraham in humility. Avraham referred to himself as a worm. (There's a mnemonic to remember the three great men who spoke a famous line of humility about themselves. ADA"M - Avraham, Moshe, and Dovid. Dovid referred to himself as a worm and not a man.) The usual understanding of this comparison is that it pits seeing oneself as nothing against saying you're a tiny something.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski cites a different perspective in the name of Rav Meir Shapira. Moshe was talking to people when he said he was nothing. Avraham was talking to G-d when he made his humble statement. While we don't come close to Avraham's greatness, we do all tend to be humble when we stand before G-d. It's when we deal with other humans that we feel like something special (or act that way as a defense mechanism).

Moshe's greatness was that despite his awareness of the fact that he was unique in having spoken to G-d face to face, taken the Jews out of Egypt, and received the Torah, he felt humble around other people. The people he spoke to were angry ingrates, and yet he said without sarcasm, "what are any of us?"

Rabbi Shapiro bolstered his approach with an event from the life of Rav Yonasan Eibschitz. Rav Eibschitz liked to stand to pray on Yom Kippur nearby someone who inspired him with their simple sincerity. One year at Mincha leading into Yom Kppur he overheard an elderly man paraphrasing a line from the prayers and adding with tears, "Yes, in my life I am dust, and how much more so when I die." He stayed close to that man, taking in his humility.

On Yom Kippur morning the man got an aliyah. And he shouted at the Gabbai, "Why did you give me Revi'i, and this guy got Shlishi!?! Is he more deserving of the Kavod then me?" Rav Yonason couldn't help but question the man, reminding him that yesterday he'd referred to himself as dust in this life. The reply was, "When I was praying to G-d I said I was dust because before Him that's what I am. But compared to this man - why I'm more Mechubad - worthy of honor than him!"

Perhaps the greatness of of Moshe's words lies in that it was a question. There's humility inherent in the fact that he asked about what he was, rather than declaring tha he was anything.
Moshe was open to the answer and we see that he lived his life as a something. This, despite the fact that he questioned G-d's nomination from the start.

The first (mistaken) notion that people have of humility is efacemnt of self. Denying your own worth is not humility. A more sophisticated understanding of humility is that it is knowing who you are. Great, humble men like the Chafetz Chayim and Rav Moshe Feinstein were cognizant of who they were and acted accordingly. What really rounds off the true Jewish view of humility is G-d. We gain perspective when we think of ourselves as what we are, creations of G-d. We are each a Tzelem Elokim, thus we are each great. And as much as we acheive we are all always men and not G-d, whether we speak before man or G-d.

May we be blessed with true humility.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

BeShalach:Moshe's Hands

The text seems to say that when Moshe's hands were raised The Jews were victorious against Amalek and that when his hands were down thy suffered a loss. The Mishna asks "Is it possible that the hands of Moshe could make or break war? Rather, the Mishna states, when the Jewish People raised their eyes toward heaven they won and when they didn't then they lost." As cited in the Maayna Shel Torah (although I couldn't find it in the original work) the Sfat Emet says that it sounds like there's a connection between Moshe's hands being up and the people looking to G-d. Why then would he ever lower his hands? The Sfat Emet reads the Mishna to mean that when they looked to Heaven Moshe's hands got strength and when they didn't then Moshe's hands weakened.

The Sfat Emet's approach is strikingly powerful. He's saying that the leader needs to get strength from the people and then he feeds that strength back to the people. But if the leader's not getting from the people then it becomes harder, perhaps impossible. to keep his strength up, to keep giving. Thus Moshe could only lift up his hands to strengthen them if they were looking to G-d and inspiring him. It seems to me that this fits with why Moshe's hands were lifted by other leaders. He needed someone that was "into it" to give him support.

I don't hear this idea articulated often, but is ubiquitous in Jewish education. A friend of mine told me about being in a super class in high school. And the teacher shared a lesson with them that they ate up enthusiastically. The next day they asked her how it went over with the other class she taught it to. And she said, "They took notes," meaning that they didn't get it. This is a regular reality for teachers. It's not uncommon to have some students who thrive on what you teach and inspire you to work on your serve and others who don't even care about which side of the racket is up and that can make you less into it too. Teachers, like tennis instructors get recharged by students they can volley with.

This idea applies to all forms of leadership. It's hard when you give but don't get a response that reinvigorates you. This is why if you have any positive feedback for rabbis or teachers or lay leaders I urge you to tell them. In the end it's the community that wins or loses based on the strengthening of the hands that they provide or don't provide. If you're an looking to heaven along with them, they may know it and if they do it surely gives them strength. But sometimes a teacher or a preacher can't tell that they're being heard and they can start to lose their strength. They need to hear not just comments like "Nice speech," but things like "I was very moved by what you said about the need to learn with our children and to tell them stories, what book do you recommend." I actually heard someone say the latter to a rabbi and saw it give him strength.

I first heard of this Mishna in Rosh HaShana years ago in BMT. Rav Moshe Horowitz told us the idea and then led us in song, "Elaaaah Bizmaan..." The traditional explanation of this Mishna, the idea that our spiritual vision is key to our success, impressed me and has stayed with me. The Sfat Emet adds another dimension, that our attitude strengthens or weakens leaders and vice versa in a perpetual cycle. May we be blessed to look toward heaven in a way that leads to our success. May we be blessed to strengthen our leaders and in turn be strengthened by them.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bo: Relate Into The Ears

Hashem said to Moshe, "Come to Par'oh,
for I have made his heart
and the heart of his servants stubborn
so that I shall place these signs of mine in his midst.
And so that you may relate in the ears of your son
and your son's son that I have amused myself with Egypt,
and my signs that I placed among them
- that you may know that I am Hashem.

We're instructed to tell our children of all that G-d did, specifically to tell it into their ears. I want to deal with the ears, but first an aside, which understands the command described here differently than the conventional understanding we will adhere to in the rest of this piece.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski addresses the question of why Moshe is not mentioned in the Hagada. He suggests based on a close reading of our text that the command herein described only applied to Moshe. His children were the only ones that didn't experience Yetziat Mitzrayim and therefore Moshe had to tell them about it. The reason Moshe's name is not mentioned is that it allued to his telling in which due to his humility he left himself out of the story. (And the moral is for us to learn from Moshe's humility).

Years ago I asked friends and students why ears are singled out here. Jeff Korbman, a dear friend, pointed out that "we whisper in ears at moments of intimacy and importance." Dani Rabinowitz, a student, said that "the Torah probably specifies ears to make sure that the children would actually hear what was being said and weren't just pretending". (She astutely added that today many are especially expert at feigning attention while actually tuning out what they're being told). These ideas echo the words of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch who states that emphasis on ears indicates the imperative to "tell right into him, to impress it so deeply that through the ears it enters the heart".

Rav Yaakov Weinberg takes the mention of ears as a cue in the opposite direction. He takes speaking to ears as a metaphor for speech that is spoken only to ears, heard only superficially. Such words are spoken onc and not transmitted further (as in the expression "falling on deaf ears"). In Rav Weinberg's view we should tell very young children about the miracles of Mitzrayim despite the fact that they can't really comprehend. This is why we teach kids the fundamental statements "Torah tziva lanu Moshe…" and "Shma Yisrael". Words that enter ears even partially make an impression. There is the possibility that greater understanding will follow at a later time.

In Shma words of Torah are described as placed upon our hearts. The Kotzker Rebbe explained that words aren't always taken into a heart. But once stated they can rest on top, and when the heart opens they will be there to go in. This explains why children are taken to the Beit HaMikdash for the public Torah reading of Hakhel. This also explains why a day school education is important even if it may seem ineffective.

Perhaps this can help us deal with my friend Scott's haunting lament that Yeshiva taught him Gemora and Chumash and Tefila but not love of Torah. Perhaps the answer is the best anyone can do for anyone else is to place words in ears and on hearts. The absorption of truth and goodness is a private process, and a personal responsibility.

One last thought - Rav Weinberg noticed that the pasuk ends by stating that the result of teaching our children is that we will know what we taught. As Rav Yisrael Salanter said it's worth speaking even if only one person gets the message, even if that one person is you.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

VaEirah - Who's The Slave

The early parshiot of Shmot contain one blatant and one subtle story of slavery. Let’s look at the subtext, the bondage of a different type, which plays a crucial role in our tale of redemption.

Par'oh's refusal to release Am Yisrael is perplexing in light of the devastation he suffered. Par’oh becomes more understandable in light of the personality of an addict. For example: An alcoholic typically causes his downfall, then swears to make amends, then continues to destroy his life. He can't stop. Despite rationally knowing there would be consequences to his actions, Par'oh couldn't control himself. He felt compelled to pursue self-destructive behavior. Like an alcoholic.

Rabbi Abraham Twerski suggests that to different degrees we all mirror an alcoholic's personality. He proposes reading any book on alcoholism and substituting "alcohol" with "yetzer hara". The result would be a treatise on our daily struggles and temptations. Our compulsive drives do not differ greatly from those of any addict. Food, TV, gossip, sleep, video games, sports, movies, sex, politics, power… Each of us risks becoming hostage to our own physical selves like the despot who enslaved our ancestors in Egypt.

In Twerski On Spirituality, the author calls addiction"the most absolute type of slavery the world has ever known." This is because a person under the influence "is likely to do things he never thought possible, but when he is in the grip of addiction, the drug is a ruthless totalitarian dictator." Under his regime "the addict completely loses the unique human distinction of being free." Despite America's title as land of the free, many appear free while really, like Par’oh being enslaved in the worst possible way - to oneself.

A friend of mine pointed out the following: Being the addict that he was Par'oh (like all of us sometimes) dealt with his own insecurity by feigning power and control. Chazal tell us that he claimed to have no imperfections, and would go down to the Nile early in the morning to use it as a bathroom. He was enslaved to his role of a deity. He was consumed by baseless fear of Bnei Yisroel taking over. Then he enslaved others. This is not unusual. I suspect we have all seen a bully pick on others because of his own sense of inadequacy. The more Par'oh fought to claim control, the more he lost control, like the common addict, like the common man.

May we be blessed to learn from the overt and covert varieties of slavery present in our sojourn in Mitzrayim. May we win the battle against slavery of all forms.

If this thought was useful to you, please let me know.