Friday, October 26, 2012

Lech Lecha – Stars and Dust Forever

By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann

The Jewish People are compared to stars and sand (Breishit 22:17.)

Some say that the stars represents us at our height and the sand represent us at our low. We have souls and are created in G-d’s image. On the other hand we are earthy beings with physical desires. The images of the stars and the sand serve to remind us of our duality. Great men have suggested carrying two cards in two pockets: one labeled “KEKOCHVEI HASHAMAYIM” and the other marked "KECHOL AL SFAT HAYAM.” They say that the secret is to know when to look at which piece of paper.

Another approach is that while both stars and sand convey one idea of a great number, there is a basic difference between them. The stars shine and stand alone. And while there may be too many to count, you can point to each star individually. On the other hand, grains of sand blend together. It is impossibly difficult to pick out a grain on its own. These are two aspects of being a Jew; we have a potential as part of a nation, also each of us needs to shine alone, our star.

The Kli Yakar (Shlomo Ephraim z"l of Lenshitz, died 1619) notes that there are not two but three similes used for what G-d will make Avraham’s descendants like: stars, sand (Breishit 22:17), and dust (Breishit 28:14). Each one of these conceptions represents a separate message.

The stars represent us in our prime. In Devarim 1:10 Moshe states that G-d increased us like the stars. Rashi comments that this refers to having made us great.

Although sand is often interpreted to represent us at our lowest, the dust actually better serves to symbolize us at our most dishonorable point. Sand really represents our survival against the nations. We endure like the sand, which breaks the waves when the oceans threaten to destroy the earth. As Dovid HaMelech describes, “all the billows (mishbarechah) and waves have passed over me” (Tehillim 42:8) – persecution threatens to destroy us, but like the tide against the shore, it hits us, breaks, and passes. And this is why when Yaakov meets with Eisav after it all, he chooses to evoke specifically the image of “the sand on the river bank.” That metaphor best fit the moment, representing our ability to break the blow of our oppressors.
(The Malbim, also interprets the sand as representing a protecting boundary against destructive forces. He notes that this image is employed in Yirmiyahu 5:22)

Dust represents us when we hit rock bottom. It is from that state that we rise up, call to G-d and return to super strength. This is what it states in Tehillim 44:26 – that we fall to dust and then cry to G-d. This is also what Yaakov was promised, that his descendants would become like dust but then regain power and spread to all corners of the earth.

We all have highs and lows, when we need to remember the other extreme. And we possess the resilience to break the forces that we sometimes fear will drown us. Wise words from Peter Himmelman put it this way:
These eyes do see
that you're nearly free
And if you hang on a little longer
you're going to see it too
Some days seem to drag on forever
you need all your strength
just to keep your head together
Soon you'll see things are going to get better at last
This too will pass

May we be blessed to remember our blessing, that we are like the stars and the dust and the sand.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Noach: Why G-d Does Miracles In The Least Miraculous Ways

A lot of ideas that are considered basics of Jewish philosophy come from the Ramban on Chumash. One example of this is in this week’s parshathe idea that G-d does miracles in a way that is as close to nature as possible. This explains why even though the only way the ark could only hold all the animals in it was it via a miracle, G-d had Noach build a big ark (though He could have done a bigger miracle by fitting all the animals in an even smaller vessel and not bothered Noach to make a big boat).

A strong question can be raised, why is it such a fundamental fact in Judaism that G-d does miracles within nature? An important lesson here is that we remember that even though large miracles do happen we need to stay close to and live in the natural world.  This relates to the Ramban's fundamental assertion, marshaled at the end of Parshat Bo that the point of big miracles that happen rarely is to remind us that seemingly commonplace natural events are miraculous.

Also relevant is the concept of ein somchin al haneis  - one should not rely on a miracle. By doing a miracle in a way that resembles the natural order of things, G-d is reminding us to live and work in the natural world we inhabit and not sit and wait for supernatural miracles. This also relates to the idea of hishtadlus and bitachon. By doing a miracle as close to nature as possible G-d reminds us that we must make efforts that make sense in the natural world and then we can trust that miracles will come from above.

Additionally, this relates to hakarat hatov - the concept often misunderstood to mean saying thank you, but which really means seeing the good. G-d stays close to nature when he does miracles to remind us to pay attention to the daily miracles we dismiss as merely natural.

G-d acts within nature because that’s where we must live.  This is where we strive to lead holy lives. In this physical world we reach toward connecting with G-d.

The mishnah states that the world stands on 3 things - Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim. The mishnah includes not only the fact that this saying came from Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik but also that he outlived Anshei Knesset HaGedolah.  Why are we told this random biographical fact about Rabbi Shimon?

This seemingly extraneous information is directly connected to Rabbi Shimons's statement. He outlasted the great era of The Men of the Great Assembly and lived on to see less glorious times. He was saying that even though that golden era was gone what was important was on a day in and day out basis to adhere to Torah, prayer, and kindness. That's what keeps the world going.

On a similar note after the chagim, as we complete a full week of school and begin a stretch of such weeks, as we go through the six months till Pesach we need to focus on the holy potential of daily life. We need to remember that G-d’s miracles are embedded in every miraculous moment of our day to day routines.  May we be blessed to see G-d’s close to nature, big miracles.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Belated Sukkos Thoughts

The Jewish element of Sukkos is obvious, but I think this is a universal holiday as well.  This is why we bring sacrifices for all the nations of the world at this time.  Also, this is why we do it in this season because of what people around us will or won't say regarding the season we choose to go out and sit in huts.  Then there's the story about the nations of the world being offered one mitzvah to keep in the end of days - and they choose Sukkah.


Rav SR Hirsch writes beautifully how the Sukkah speaks to all economic situations.  If one is poor then they sit in the Sukkah and remember that his or her forefathers were in the desert, and had nothing to their name, G-d cared for them. And if someone is financially rich and things are otherwise going well, one steps out of their ample home and remembers in the end it's just him or her and G-d above.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Breishit - Is Time On Our Side?

By Rabbi Neil Fleischmann


In the beginning
G-d must have created time
Thus, “the beginning”

Introduction : Using Time To Increase Space

Once, a man got to ask G-d any question he wanted. The man opened with – “G-d, what’s a million years to you?” And G-d replied, “A million years to me is one second.” The man then asked, “G-d, what’s a million dollars to you?” And G-d replied, “A million dollars to me is one penny.” So the man asked G-d, “G-d, can you spare a penny?” And G-d replied, “Sure I can, in just one second.”

To us, time and money are everything. We run through time trying to get more money and more things worth money. It is important to remember that time and money are figments created for us. For G-d time and space (represented by money, which buys us things that exist within space) do not exist.

Rabbi A.J. Heschel (The Sabbath, Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York 1951) explains that we try to grab and gather things because we feel intimidated by the passing of time. In the end we are left feeling unfulfilled and embarrassed, knowing that the point of time is not merely to accumulate things. He writes: “It is impossible for man to shirk the problem of time. The more we think the more we realize: we can not conquer time through space. We only master time in time.” Shabbos is a day when we no longer treat time as the enemy but recognize time as special in and of itself. The ultimate goal is for the approach of Shabbos to spill over into the week, so that on a daily basis we see time as a thing itself.


What came first the chicken or the egg? According to the Ramban the answer is neither, rather there was something that preceded both. The Ramban writes that before G-d created anything He created a giant mass from which everything else was created – Something From Nothing – Yesh Mei’Ayin. From that original mass, known as Chomer Hiyuli, everything else was created (Peirush Ramban Al HaTorah, Chavel Hebrew edition pg. 12).

The Rabbis state (Breishit Rabah 68:10, Rashi on Shemot 33:21) that G-d is called HaMakom because “He is the place of the world, and the world is not his place.” After Moshe asks G-d, in 33:13, “show me your honor,” G-d shows him a cleft on a mountainside and says, “Behold there is a place by me. Rashi cites the Tanchuma, which explains that G-d does not say that He is in this place, but refers to it with this seemingly awkward phrasing, because of the following idea: Space is a creation of G-d, secondary to G-d. The Ohr HaChayim in his commentary on Bamidbar 1:1, cites this Medrash and applies it to his explanation of the word BaMidbar – in the desert. 


Pardes Yosef points out that while time is clearly something that was created for the sake of people, its creation is not overtly mentioned. He explains that the word “Breishit”, which means “in the beginning of G-d's creations,” implies the creation of time, because without time things could not be called earlier or later.

Dovid HaMelech – King David states that the average life of a man is seventy years (Tehillim 90:10). Chazal break down the years of a person’s life in Pirkei Avot and say what the purpose is for each stage of life. The Maggid of Dubno cites these and other examples in his development of the parallels between time and space. Just like a physical body is comprised of a myriad of intricate pieces that contribute their part towards completion, so too time is a measured entity made of up of specific details. Just as our bodies need to be developed and do not get fit if we don’t maintain them, time is also potential that needs to be worked on and refined. Segments of time do not automatically fill up with their tasks unless a person struggles to make it so. (Sefer HaMidot - Book of Traits Chapter 12, the Maggid of Dubno)

In the time of the Talmud, Ptolemy gathered 72 Torah scholars and sequestered them in separate rooms with the command to translate the Torah into Greek (Megilla 9a). A miracle occurred that they all made the same judgment calls in making changes from literal text to translation in order to avoid insults, misunderstandings, and repercussions. One of the changes they implemented concerned the order of the first three words of the Torah. As Pardes Yosef sees it, they reordered the words to read Elokim Bara Breishit – G-d created in the beginning to convey that G-d created time.

When we take time for granted, we take life for granted. Rabbi Noach Weinberg notes that we would all be shocked if we saw someone sitting on a speeding bus throwing dollar bills out the window into the wind. But when we see people making inadequate use of time this is a tragedy too. 

Once an American man was vacationing on an exotic island. He sees a local man sitting and fishing. He speaks to the fellow and learns that the man happily lives on the island and gets by via fishing and eating the fish he catches. The American explains to him that he could get better equipment and catch more fish. So he does. And he sells the extra fish and makes more money. Then the American advises him to buy a boat. So he does. And he makes more money. In time he buys several giant boats and then opens a store and eventually a franchise. The company goes public and the old fisherman is on the board of trustees of several major banks. Finally he retires. His friend asks him, “What are you going to do with your time now?” The fisherman says that he’s looking forward to sitting on the shore and catching fish.

We often run through time accumulating things that we think we need. In the end what we need is health and happiness and closeness to G-d. It behooves us to think well about what we expend energy acquiring as we journey through our one, only, brief trip on this planet.

May our reading about the creation of time and space remind us to cherish every second of life on this earth with which we are blessed.