The Generation Gap
In the history of a people, as in that of an individual life, things don’t always go as planned.
The original plan was to go like this: On the 15th of Nissan in the year 2448 from creation (1313 BCE), the people of Israel are taken out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. After seven weeks of preparation and self-refinement, they receive the Torah, their mandate from G‑d as His “nation of priests and holy people,” at Mount Sinai. From Sinai it’s an eleven-day journey to the land of Canaan—the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Israel’s eternal homeland. There Moses builds the Holy Temple to serve as the seat of the divine presence in the physical world, and the people of Israel implement the blueprint for life contained in the Torah, establishing the model society which serves as the keystone of a harmonious world-community embodying the goodness and perfection of their Creator.
That, however, is not what came to pass. Instead, the journey from Sinai to the Holy Land took not eleven days but forty years. The generation of the Exodus became “the generation of the desert”—only two of the 600,000 adult males who left Egypt lived to enter the Land of Canaan. The grand plan over which Moses was to preside was delayed, and still awaits completion. Moses’ disciple, Joshua, began the conquest of the Holy Land, but the task was completed only five centuries later by King David. David’s son, Solomon, built the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, but this was not the eternal edifice which Moses would have constructed; it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 3338 (423 BCE), rebuilt by Ezra in 3408 (353 BCE), and destroyed once more, by the Romans, in 3829 (69 CE). The people of Israel failed to fully live up to their role as a “light unto the nations,” and were exiled from their land. The perfect and harmonious world which we were to have achieved by entering the Land of Canaan under Moses’ leadership still awaits attainment by Moshiach.
What went wrong? The story is told in our Parshah, and is repeated (with the addition of a few important details) in Moses’ account in the first chapter of Deuteronomy.
The children of Israel were encamped at Kadesh, on the border of Canaan, in preparation to enter the land, when they approached Moses with a request:
“Let us send men before us, so that they shall search out the land for us and bring us back word as to which road we should take and into which cities we shall come” (Deuteronomy 1:22).
Moses conveyed the people’s request to G‑d, and G‑d replied: “Act according to your own understanding” (Numbers 13:2, as per Rashi on this verse). Moses sent twelve spies—one representative from each of the twelve tribes of Israel—to scout the land and report on its terrain and its inhabitants. Forty days later, on the eighth day of Av of the year 2449, the spies returned, bearing samples of the land’s huge and luscious fruit, along with the following assessment:
“We came to the land that you have sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey; this is its fruit.
“However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very great; we also saw giants there. The Amalekites dwell in the Negev; the Hittites, the Jebusites and the Emorites in the hills; and the Canaanites at the sea and on the banks of the Jordan.
“We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than we.” (Numbers 13:27–31)
Their report caused the nation to lose faith in their ability to conquer the Holy Land, despite G‑d’s promises. Indeed, the Sages note that the Hebrew word mimenu, “than we,” also translates as “than he”: the spies were, in effect, saying that “they are mightier than He”—that the conquest of the Holy Land is beyond the capacity of the Almighty Himself! All night the nation wept and bemoaned their fate, crying to Moses: “Why is G‑d bringing us to this land to fall by the sword, and for our wives and children to fall into captivity?”
Thus it came to pass that on the Ninth of Av—a day which was to bode many tragedies for the people of Israel—G‑d informed Moses that the generation that received the Torah at Sinai was not fit to enter the land of Canaan. He decreed that they would live out their lives as wanderers in the desert, until a new generation could take up the challenge of conquering the land of Canaan and developing it as a “Holy Land”—as the focus of G‑d’s presence in the material world.
Virtually all the commentaries pose the question: What happened? Where did they go wrong?
The spies dispatched by Moses were no ordinary individuals: “They were all men of distinction, leaders of the children of Israel” (Numbers 13:3). Furthermore, in all of history, it would be difficult to find a generation whose lives were more saturated with miracles than theirs. Egypt, the most powerful nation on earth at the time, was forced to free them from slavery when “the mighty hand” of G‑d inflicted ten supernatural plagues. When Pharaoh’s armies pursued them, the sea split to let them pass, and then drowned their pursuers. In the desert, miracles were the stuff of their daily lives: manna from heaven was their daily bread, “Miriam’s well” (a miraculous stone which traveled along with the Israelite camp) provided them with water, and “clouds of glory” sheltered them from the desert heat and cold, kept them clothed and shod, destroyed the snakes and scorpions in their path, and flattened the terrain before them to ease their way.
For these people to doubt G‑d’s ability to conquer the “mighty inhabitants” of Canaan seems nothing less than ludicrous. Yet these were the people whose leaders said, “We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than we”—and even “than He”!
Where did they go wrong?
Chassidic master Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi explains that the problem was one of excess spirituality.
The daily miracles experienced by the generation of the Exodus did more than provide them with sustenance and protection; they shielded them from any and all involvement with the material world. For the first generation of our existence as a people, we lived a wholly spiritual life, free of all material concerns; the very food which nourished us was “bread from heaven.”
Indeed, it could not have been any other way. Our sages have said that “the Torah could have been given only to the eaters of the manna.” To properly receive and assimilate the divine wisdom, one must be utterly free of the responsibilities and frustrations of physical life—something that is possible only in the kind of environment which our ancestors enjoyed during their sojourn in the Sinai Desert.
This is why, says Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the spies and their generation were loath to enter the land. Becoming a people with a land would entail plowing, sowing and harvesting; it would mean engaging in commerce and levying taxes; it would require a bureaucracy to run the land, and an army to defend it. Their underlying problem with the land was, as the spies expressed it, that “it is a land that consumes its inhabitants”—it consumes one’s time and energy with its corporeal demands, and infringes on one’s capacity to study the divine wisdom of Torah and meditate upon its truths. They were unwilling to relinquish their spiritual utopia for the entanglements of an earthbound life.
Based on this, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the spies’ argument, “We cannot go up against these people, for they are mightier than we,” notwithstanding the tremendous miracles which G‑d had performed and was performing for them. We cannot have it both ways, argued the spies. Either we are to be a spiritual people engaged exclusively in spiritual pursuits and sustained by supernatural means, or else we are to enter the natural world of the farmer, merchant and soldier, and become subject to its laws. And under these laws—which decree that the numerous, mighty and well-fortified will defeat the few and the weak—there is no way we can defeat the inhabitants of Canaan.
They even went so far as to extend this line of reasoning to the Almighty Himself. If G‑d wishes for us to live a spiritual life, then certainly He can sustain us with miracles. But if His desire is that we abandon our supra-natural existence to enter the land and assume a natural life, then He Himself has decreed that natural law will govern our fate. In that case, He cannot empower us to miraculously conquer the land, since were He to do so, this would defeat the entire purpose of entering the “land.” So, “they are mightier than He”—even G‑d cannot help us, if He Himself has chosen to transform us into a material people!
This also explains the spies’ mysterious allusion to “the nefillim, the descendants of the giants, the fallen ones” whom they encountered in the Holy Land.
Who were the nefillim? The Midrash relates that in the years before the Flood, when violence and promiscuity pervaded the earth, two angels, Shamchazai and Azael, pleaded before the Almighty: “Allow us to dwell among the humans, and we shall sanctify Your name!” But no sooner had the two heavenly beings come in contact with the material world than they too were corrupted, and played a major role in the disintegration and destruction of their adopted society.
We saw them there, said the returning spies to the people, the fallen angels who survived the Flood but did not survive the land. If these heavenly beings could not survive the plunge to mundanity, what could be expected of us, mortal and fragile men?
Having It Both Ways
What the spies and their generation failed to understand is that, indeed, men are not angels. Wholly spirit, the angel dissolves on contact with earth. But the human being, hewn of spirit and matter, is a synthesis of the celestial and the animal. Man is empowered to make heaven on earth, to make “holy” an adjective of “land.”
This is the essence of the divine objective of creation and the mission entrusted to us at Sinai: to build “a dwelling for G‑d in the lowly realms.” To imbue our plowing, sowing and commerce with a holy and G‑dly purpose.
In charging us with this mission, the Creator empowered us to indeed “have it both ways”: to create a land that is holy, a nature that is miraculous, a reality that is not bound by its own defining parameters, for it serves a purpose greater than itself.
Achieving this aim required a two-phased program: an initial state of unmitigated holiness and spirituality, followed by “entrance into the land” and assumption of its material labors. Because in order to sanctify the land, one requires a vision of the divine truth of truths—which can be attained only by a nation of “manna eaters.” So, first there had to be that period of utter isolation from the material world. However, this phase of our national existence was not an end in itself, but the way in which to acquire the tools and resources to miraculize the natural and elevate the everyday.
If the “generation of the desert” would themselves have been capable of making the transition into a people of the land, the transformation of the material world into a home for G‑d would have been fully and perfectly achieved in that very generation. If they would have believed in their divinely granted capacity to “have it both ways,” their sanctification of the land would have combined their ultimate apprehension of the divine truth with a full involvement with the natural reality.
The generation of the desert failed to actualize the unique opportunity which presented itself at that particular juncture of our history: for there to be a single generation which straddled both worlds, a single generation which first inhabited a world of utter spirituality and then proceeded to apply it to a life on the land. Instead, they fell prey to the tendency of man to “compartmentalize” his life, to label his experiences and attainments as “material,” “spiritual,” “sacred,” “mundane,” “natural” and “supernatural,” thereby delegating and confining them to their respective domains.
So it was left to their children to embark on the longer, more difficult journey, a journey only now reaching its culmination: to bridge the formidable “generation gap” which separates us from our manna-eating ancestors, and apply the pristine truth they received in the desert to our own earthbound lives.
On a Personal Note
In addition to the cosmic-historical saga, the very same process and challenge exist, in a miniature scale, in every individual life.
In our own lives, we each have a “generation of the desert” and a “generation which enters the land.” Our childhood and youth are a spiritual and miraculous time: our needs are provided to us “from above” without effort or worry on our part; the business of running the world is blessedly none of our concern. Such a hermitic existence, while contrary to the ultimate purpose of our lives, is the optimal environment for the acquisition of the beliefs, values and knowledge which will guide and inspire our development of the world when we subsequently “enter the land” in our adult years.
The same is true of each particular day of life: we begin our day with a sacrosanct hour of prayer and Torah study, before crossing over into the workday and embarking on the development and sanctification of the material world.
Here, too, exists the danger of succumbing to a “generation gap” between one’s “Sinai Desert” and “Land of Israel,” of adopting the “either/or” mentality of the spies. Therein lies the eternal lesson of the Torah’s account of the incident of the spies: do not allow the wisdom, sensitivity and inspiration of your youth to remain an isolated period in your life. Do not allow your moments of attachment to G‑d each morning to remain a “miracle” with no bearing on the natural course of your day. Cross into the land, but do not leave your spiritual “childhood” behind. Remember that the purpose of it all is to make your life and world a “holy land.”
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
eleased Into Jewish Time
Separateness is not the same as narrowness.
There are aspects of the Passover story, of the Jews being spared and the separateness that they
are marked with, as described in the Torah portion Bo, that rub up against some of my more
modern and inclusive sensibilities. Having strong ties to academia and the arts, I’ll admit to being
influenced by narratives that conflate separateness with narrowness and universalism with
Yet, in my most recent re-reading of Bo, that presumption has flipped. Even though the story — of the final three plagues (locust, darkness and death of the firstborn Egyptian child), the angel of death passing over the Jewish homes and the Exodus from Egypt — has remained the same.
My focus when it came to this text had long been rooted in these grim final three plagues, and also in imagining the faith required of each Jew to mark their doorpost with blood for the angel of death to pass over. And, finally, of course, to the actual Exodus from years of bondage. (There is a lot here — As we sing during the Passover seder and telling of the Passover story on the first two nights of Passover. “Dayenu” — this would have been enough) But in readings past, I’ve been less attuned to another crucial aspect of this portion: the beginning of Jewish time.
As God reveals:
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months for the year for you. (Exodus 12:1) The Hebrew month of Nisan, when Passover falls, becomes the first month of the Hebrew calendar year marks the beginning of creation), but, more significantly, it commemorates the transformation — both physically and spiritually, from slavery to freedom.
Additionally, we find in Bo, the command for passing down the Passover story, which is ultimately the Jewish story:
And you shall explain to your son on that day, it is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt. And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead — in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt. You shall keep this institution as its set time from year to year. (Exodus 13:8)
I’ve sat around many different Passover seder tables over the years. The same question is often posed to the participants, as a way to bring the story forward: What enslaves you today? And I hear similar answers, such as smartphones, such as social media, such as untenable schedules and expectations.
How amazing is it, then, to imagine our foremothers and forefathers exiting that narrow place, i.e., Mitzrayim (the Hebrew word for Egypt) — into the ever expansive Jewish time?
When I’m feeling overwhelmed and enslaved by the trappings of my modern urban life, it is a great solace to re-enter this story, now, as the mother of two children — and to be reminded of our time-bound separations (Shabbat, for example), a respite from many of our current-day shackles, and to recall the Passover Exodus — which places God at its center.
And while I still hold dear many tenets of and relationships to the secular world, I also recognize belief as what inspires openness within me. It is what teaches me to sanctify moments in my life, in the life of my family, and to see God in others. It is what allows me to slow down enough to consider the possibility of miracles, the expansiveness of both physical and spiritual transformation.
Shabbat Shemot January 5-6, 2018
As the book of Exodus - Shemot begins, we read of a new king in Egypt, one that does not
know Joseph. The Hebrews (not yet Israelites) are enslaved and forced into oppressive labor.
Pharaoh decrees all Hebrew newborn males are to be drowned in the Nile. Shifra and Puah, midwives who feel awe/rear/reverance for God, defy Pharoah's order and continue to deliver babies. A Hebrewboy is born, hidden, and placed in a basket in the Nile wherehe is found by Pharoah's daughter. She raises the babyMoses as her own son. Moses goes out into the larger worldand sees one of his kinsman beaten by an Egyptian.He acts,
kills and buries the Egyptian. Seen, he flees for his life toMidian and meets the high priest Yitro/Ruel whose daughterZipporah he marries. Meanwhile, God hears the cries of toppressed Hebrew slaves and reveals God's self and God'strue name to Moses at the burning bush. It is furtherrevealed that as God's agent, Moshe will lead the peoplefrom slavery to redemption. Moses is unsure of his fitness tothe task and refuses 5 times, finally accepting this heavy responsibility. God sends Moses' brother Aaron andthereafter they are a team, together convincing the people that they are agents of God. Thus begins a series of events that will repeat, each time with greater consequences for all actors.This parasha tells incredible stories of brave individuals acting morally in times of extreme danger. We will delve into one or two stories during in our Torah discussion.
Please don’t let the Kerhonkson Synagogue be the best kept secret in the Hudson Valley!
Enlarge our community by bringing a friend to the Friday night event. It is a great chance to
include people who are looking for the embrace of a warm community and may not be drawn to
prayer. There will be a short joyous welcoming of Shabbat followed by a pot luck dinner and
Reb Sally Shore-Wittenberg Spiritual Leader Kerhonkson Synagogue
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Posted by Rabbi Joshua Rabin
Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and leader of Burma’s National League
for Democracy, wrote an article in 2012 entitled “Word Power,” where she argues that “Words
can move hearts, words can change perception, can set nations and people in powerful motion.”1
The Burmese government also recognizes the power of words, and is using this power to
dominate and destroy one of Burma’s religious and ethnic minorities. The government is
persecuting the Rohingya Muslims, engaging in acts that are tantamount to genocide.2 As part
of this campaign of terror, the government is attempting to erase the word “Rohingya” from
the nation’s vocabulary. This is an act of ultimate cynicism and cruelty that uses the power of words to obliterate. In a call for help, the Rohingya need leaders around the world to say their name in an effort to affirm the people’s identity and very right to exist.
Unfortunately, many political leaders fail to give voice to the oppressed in the face of genocide. Although “Never Again” remains a cry by the Jewish community, the fact is that since the Holocaust, acts of genocide have taken place in Cambodia, Rwanda, East Timor, the Kurdish region of Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, and the Darfur region of Sudan. In fact, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power argues in “A Problem from Hell” that even in the United States, “the forward-looking, consoling refrain of ‘never again,’ a testament to America’s can-do spirit…proved hollow in the face of actual slaughter.”3
Too often, leaders respond to cries from oppressed peoples not with words that could potentially end the bloodshed, but rather, with a deafening silence. Instead, we must all work to align our words with our deeply held beliefs to move the people and nations of the world to take action.
When we think about the plight of the Rohingya through the lens of the Torah, Parashat Vayigash helps us recognize that we can demonstrate such leadership, even where we have failed in the past. Last week’s parashahconcludes with Joseph, disguised as an Egyptian viceroy, accusing his brother Benjamin of stealing, forcing the remaining brothers to decide whether or not they will come to Benjamin’s defense. Parashat Vayigashopens with Judah pleading to Joseph to enslave himself rather than Benjamin, to protect his father from heartbreak: “For how will I go to my father if the boy is not with me?”4
Judah’s action is radical for a character who previously stood by in silence in the face of the suffering of a family member. In an earlier parashah, Judah mistreated his daughter-in-law Tamar by denying her right to remarry his son after the death of her husband, and nearly allowing her to be publicly executed. Judah did eventually speak up for Tamar, but only after she came to him in a great act of desperation. Perhaps that incident changed Judah, as he redeems himself as a moral actor in this parashah, speaking out to protect Benjamin. In a moment when he could have lost his brother for good, Judah found his moral voice and used it. He becomes the brother who reunites Jacob’s family, and, for the first time in the Torah, shows that each of us is our brother’s keeper. We can learn from Judah that even where we have failed to speak out previously, we can muster the strength, dignity and courage to do so today.
In his November visit to Burma, President Barack Obama showed tremendous moral courage and dared to utter the word “Rohingya” before the Burmese government.5 At the same time, Aung Sung Suu Kyi, the same person who was willing to live under house arrest for leading a democracy movement in Burma, has been unable to say ‘Rohingya’ in public.6 We must recognize that the only way to stop a genocide in Burma is to continue making the Burmese government “uncomfortable,” as a recent report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom suggests,7 by putting pressure on leaders around the world to say ‘Rohingya’ and speak out for those voices has been suppressed.
Words are powerful, and like Judah, we must use them to thwart attempts to oppress the powerless. We must challenge our leaders to give voice to those who are suffering from atrocities, refusing to allow them to suffer in silence. Only by employing leadership through our words, and allowing them to move us all to action, can we ensure that genocide and other injustices will not continue under our watch.
1 Brian Pellot, “Why won’t Aung Sang Suu Kyi say the word ‘Rohingya’?,” Religion News Service, 4 December 2014, http://www.religionnews.com/2014/12/04/wont-aung-san-suu-kyi-say-word-rohingya-commentary/.
2 For more information, see “All You Can Do is Pray”: Crimes Against Humanity and Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Burma’s Arakan State (Human Rights Watch, 2013), and “I Thought They Would Kill Me”: Ending Wartime Torture in Northern Myanmar (Fortify Rights, June 2014)
3 Samantha Power, “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York, New York: Perennial, 2003), 513.
4 Genesis 44:33-34.
5 Todd Pitman and Julie Pace, “Obama says ‘Rohingya,’ displeasing Myanmar hosts,” Associated Press, 14 November 2014, http://bigstory.ap.org/article/37d0b4b596d34d0f8e831109ae5636f1/group-obama -say-rohingya-myanmar-visit. President Obama’s entire quote was, “Discrimination toward the Rohingya or any other religious minority, I think, does not express the kind of country, over the long term, that Burma wants to be.”
6 See footnote 1.
7 Burma: Religious Freedom and Related Human Rights Violations are Hindering Borders Reforms. Findings from a Visit of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (Washington D.C.: U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2014), 11.
Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
Appearance and Reality
by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks
Finally after 22 years and many twists and turns, Joseph and his brothers meet. We sense the
drama of the moment. The last time they had been together, the brothers planned to kill Joseph
and eventually sold him as a slave. One of the reasons they did so is that they were angry at his
reports about his dreams. He twice dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him. To them that sounded like hubris, excessive confidence and conceit.
Hubris is usually punished by nemesis and so it was in Joseph's case. Far from being a ruler, his brothers turned him into a slave. That, however, turned out not to be the end of the story but only the beginning. Unexpectedly, now in this week's parsha, the dream has just come true. The brothers do bow down to him, "their faces to the ground" (Gen. 42:6). Now, we feel, the story has reached its end. Instead it turns out only to be the beginning of another story altogether, about sin, repentance and forgiveness. Biblical stories tend to defy narrative conventions.
The reason, though, that the story does not end with the brothers' meeting is that only one person present at the scene, Joseph himself, knew that it was a meeting. "As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them ... Joseph recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him."
There were many reasons they did not recognize him. They did not know he was in Egypt. They believed he was still a slave while the man before whom they bowed was a viceroy. Besides which, he looked like an Egyptian, spoke Egyptian and had an Egyptian name, Tsofenat Paneakh. Most importantly, though, he was wearing the uniform of an Egyptian of high rank. That had been the sign of Joseph's elevation at the hand of Pharaoh when he interpreted his dreams:
So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.' Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph's finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain round his neck. He made him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, 'Make way.' Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:41-43)
We know from Egyptian wall paintings and from archaeological discoveries like Tutankhamen's tomb, how stylised and elaborate were Egyptian robes of office. Different ranks wore different clothes. Early pharaohs had two headdresses, a white one to mark the fact that they were kings of upper Egypt, and a red one to signal that they were kings of lower Egypt. Like all uniforms, clothes told a story, or as we say nowadays, "made a statement." They proclaimed a person's status. Someone dressed like the Egyptian before whom the brothers had just bowed could not possibly be their long lost brother Joseph. Except that it was.
This seems like a minor matter. I want in this essay to argue the opposite. It turns out to be a very major matter indeed. The first thing we need to note is that the Torah as a whole, and Genesis in particular, has a way of focusing our attention on a major theme: it presents us with recurring episodes. Robert Alter calls them "type scenes." (1) There is, for example, the theme of sibling rivalry that appears four times in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. There is the theme that occurs three times of the patriarch forced to leave home because of famine, and then realising that he will have to ask his wife to pretend she is his sister for fear that he will be murdered so that she can be taken into the royal harem. And there is the theme of finding-future-wife-at-well, which also occurs three times: Rebecca, Rachel and Jethro's daughter Zipporah.
The encounter between Joseph and his brothers is the fifth in a series of stories in which clothes play a key role. The first is Jacob who dresses in Esau's clothes while bringing his father a meal so that he can take his brother's blessing. Second is Joseph's finely embroidered robe or "coat of many colours," which the brothers bring back to their father stained in blood, saying that a wild animal must have seized him.
Third is the story of Tamar taking off her widow's dress, covering herself with a veil, and making herself look as if she were a prostitute. Fourth is the robe Joseph leaves in the hands of Potiphar's wife while escaping her attempt to seduce him. The fifth is the one in today's parsha in which Pharaoh dresses Joseph as a high-ranking Egyptian, with clothes of linen, a gold chain and the royal signet ring.
What all five cases have in common is that they facilitate deception. In each case, they bring about a situation in which things are not as they seem. Jacob wears Esau's clothes because he is worried that his blind father will feel him and realise that the smooth skin does not belong to Esau but to his younger brother. In the end it is not only the texture but also the smell of the clothes that deceives Isaac: "Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field the Lord has blessed" (Gen. 27:27).
Joseph's stained robe was produced by the brothers to disguise the fact that they were responsible for Joseph's disappearance. Jacob "recognized it and said, "It is my son's robe! A wild animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces." (Gen. 37:33).
Tamar's appearance dressed as a veiled prostitute was intended to deceive Judah into sleeping with her since she wanted to have a child to "raise up the name" of her dead husband Er. It seems that in the pre-mosaic law of levirate marriage, other close relatives like a father-in-law, not just a brother-in-law, could fulfil the duty. Judah was duly deceived, and only realised what had happened when, three months later, Tamar produced the cord and staff she had taken from him as a pledge.
Potiphar's wife used the evidence of Joseph's robe to substantiate her claim that he had tried to rape her, a crime of which he was wholly innocent.
Lastly, Joseph used the fact that his brothers did not recognise him to set in motion a series of staged events to test whether they were still capable of selling a brother as a slave or whether they had changed.
So the five stories about garments tell a single story: things are not necessarily as they seem. Appearances deceive. It is therefore with a frisson of discovery that we realise that the Hebrew word for garment, b-g-d, is also the Hebrew word for "betrayal," as in the confession formula, Ashamnu, bagadnu, "We have been guilty, we have betrayed."
Is this a mere literary conceit, a way of linking a series of otherwise unconnected stories? Or is there something more fundamental at stake?
It was the nineteenth century Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz who pointed out a fundamental difference between other ancient cultures and Judaism: "The pagan perceives the Divine in nature through the medium of the eye, and he becomes conscious of it as something to be looked at. On the other hand, to the Jew who conceives God as being outside of nature and prior to it, the Divine manifests itself through the will and through the medium of the ear ... The pagan beholds his god, the Jew hears Him; that is, apprehends His will." (2)
In the twentieth century, literary theorist Erich Auerbach contrasted the literary style of Homer with that of the Hebrew Bible.(3) In Homer's prose we see the play of light on surfaces. The Odyssey and Iliad are full of visual descriptions. By contrast, biblical narrative has very few such descriptions. We do not know how tall Abraham was, the color of Isaac's hair, or what Moses looked like. Visual details are minimal, and are present only when necessary to understand what follows. We are told for example that Joseph was good-looking (Gen. 39:6) only to explain why Potiphar's wife conceived a desire for him.
The key to the five stories occurs later on in Tanakh, in the biblical account of Israel's first two kings. Saul looked like royalty. He was "head and shoulders above" everyone else (1 Sam. 9:2). He was tall. He had presence. He had the bearing of a king. But he lacked self confidence. He followed the people rather than leading them. Samuel had to rebuke him with the words, "You may be small in your own eyes but you are head of the tribes of Israel." Appearance and reality were opposites. Saul had physical but not moral stature.
The contrast with David was total. When God told Samuel to go to the family of Yishai to find Israel's next king, no one even thought of David, the youngest of the family. Samuel's first instinct was to choose Eliav who, like Saul, looked the part. But God told him, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).
Only when we have read all these stories are we able to return to the first story of all in which clothes play a part: the story of Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit, after eating which they see they are naked. They are ashamed and they make clothes for themselves. That is a story for another occasion but its theme should now be clear. It is about eyes and ears, seeing and listening. Adam and Eve's sin had little to do with fruit, or sex, and everything to do with the fact that they let what they saw override what they had heard.
"Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him." The reason they did not recognize him is that, from the start, they allowed their feelings to be guided by what they saw, the "coat of many colors" that inflamed their envy of their younger brother. Judge by appearances and you will miss the deeper truth about situations and people. You will even miss God Himself, for God cannot be seen, only heard. That is why the primary imperative in Judaism is Shema Yisrael, "Listen, O Israel," and why, when we say the first line of the Shema, we place our hand over our eyes so that we cannot see.
Appearances deceive. Clothes betray. Deep understanding, whether of God or of human beings, needs the ability to listen.
1. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, New York, Basic Books, 1981, 55-78.
2. Heinrich Graetz, The structure of Jewish history, and other essays, New York, Ktav Publishing House, 1975, 68.
3. Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957, 3-23.
This article can also be read at: http://www.aish.com/tp/i/sacks/285753841.html
Follow the link to this week's dvar on Parsha Vayeshev written by
Jimmy Taber at the American Jewish World Service.
Jacob returns to his roots Vayishlach(Genesis 32:4-36:43)
from Appel's Parsha Page at aish.com
Some years ago, an elderly woman I know traveled with friends in a car across America. For this
woman, Denver was the highlight of the trip, for this was where she had spent the first 15 years of
her life. After arriving in the Mile High City, she sought out her old neighborhood, and found the
house in which she'd grown up. The current occupants allowed her to come in, and the woman spent
a couple of hours delightedly inside her childhood home, a wave of serenity enveloped her - which
continued throughout the remainder of the trip. Then, one week after returning home, she passed away.
Returning to one's roots, to the start of one's journey, can be a powerful human experience. In addition
to providing closure, it can also help a person more fully recognize all that has been on the long road of life.
A striking example takes place in this week's Torah portion, Vayishlach. After a hiatus of some 20 years, Jacob returns home to Canaan. Two decades earlier, penniless and in fear, he had fled his brother Esav. One night, during that fearful journey, at a spot named Beit El, he had a vivid dream in which the Almighty promised His help and guidance.
Now some 20 years later, after Jacob reenters Canaan, the Almighty commands him to return to Beit El. This time, however, Jacob is not alone, for he returns married and with 12 children. Instead of being penniless, he is quite wealthy. And whereas previously he was in fear, now it is the local populace which is frightened of Jacob and his entourage.
But it is not simply his material state that has improved; as well Jacob is a changed man spiritually. At that earlier encounter with God at Beit El, Jacob had chastised himself for not recognizing the holiness of the place. (Such a mistake is really not so surprising, however, given that the Almighty had never appeared to Jacob before that time.) In the second encounter 20 years later, though, Jacob knows he is following God's instructions, and actually anticipates a meeting with the Divine.
This spiritual growth of Jacob is alluded to in a subtle way in the text. After his first encounter with God, he erected a "matzeva," a single-stone pillar, in acknowledgment of his communion with God.At his later visit to Beit El, the Almighty tells him to build a "mizbayach," a multi-stoned altar.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (19th century Germany) explains the distinction between these two modes of worship. The natural single stone pillar, a product of God's creation, symbolizes God's kindness to man. The altar, however, constructed of various stones assembled by man, reflects a different orientation.It symbolizes man's need to actively involve himself in performing acts that fulfill God's will. That is the meaning behind the sacrifices that were placed upon the altar; they symbolize the need to bring oneself closer to God and fulfill His bidding.
When Jacob set out on his journey some 20 years earlier, he vowed that if he were to return safely, he would dedicate himself wholly to the service of God.Now that the years had passed, he'd successfully returned from exile, and had made tremendous strides in spiritual growth.
At this point, Jacob is ready to start a new chapter in his life. Not surprisingly, God sends him back to the place where his journey began, giving him the opportunity to reflect on all that has happened during the last two decades. God makes this most clear, reminding Jacob that Beit El is the place "God appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esav." (Genesis 35:1)
One chapter of Jacob's life, a chapter that began at Beit El, is now closing. And an exciting new chapter is about to begin.
Sheepish Leadership. Parshat Vayeitze
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky from Torah.org
Sheep. You wouldn't think they'd play a major role in determining our leaders, but they did.
The Midrash says that one of Moshe's defining acts that moved G-d to choose him as the leader
of Israel was his attitude toward his animal flock. Once a ewe wandered from the pack, and
Moshe scoured the desert to find it. He finally found the parched and exhausted creature, and
he fed and carried her back to the rest of the flock. G-d was impressed. On the way home,
Moshe saw a very fascinating sight. A burning bush. The rest is history.
King David was also a shepherd. The Midrash tells us that David's handling of sheep was also the impetus for G-d to choose him to lead His flock. David had a very calculated grazing system. First he would allow only the young sheep to pasture. They would eat the most tender grass. After they finished, David allowed the older sheep to graze. In this manner the tougher meadow grass was left for those sheep with stronger jaws. The Midrash tells us that G-d was impressed with David's abilities to discern the different needs of varying age groups and foresaw in those actions the leadership qualities needed to be King of Israel.
So much for the careers of two of our greatest Jewish leaders as shepherds. What troubles me is this week's Torah portion which contains a long episode that also deals with sheep. It expounds in detail exactly how Yaakov manipulated genetics and had the acumen to cultivate an amazingly large and diverse flock. However, I am troubled. Why is a long narrative of seemingly inconsequential breeding techniques detailed so intricately? The Torah spends nearly twenty verses on a half-dozen varieties of sheep colors and explains how Yaakov bred them. Why are such seemingly insignificant breeding details given so much play in the Torah? Let us analyze the story:
Yaakov worked fifteen years for his father-in-law, Lavan. No matter how arduously he toiled, Lavan constantly tried to deny Yaakov compensation. Finally, he forced Yaakov to accept a share in the sheep as wages, but only with certain stipulations. He would only compensate him with sheep that were an mutation from the normal flock. First, he set Yaakov's wages to be paid with only speckled lambs that born of Yaakov's flock. Yaakov, in a procedure that would have astounded even Gregor Mendel, produced sheep exactly according to those specifications. Next, Lavan allowed him striped sheep. Again, miraculously Yaakov cultivated his flock to produce a bounty of striped sheep! The Torah repeats the episode in various colors and stripes. What could be the significance of its importance?
Rabbi Aryeh Levin was once standing outside his yeshiva in Jerusalem while the children were on a 15 minute recess break. His son, Chaim, a teacher in the yeshiva, was standing and observing, when suddenly his father tuned to him. "What do you see my son?" asked Rav Aryeh. "Why," he answered, "children playing!"
"Tell me about them," said Reb Aryeh. "Well," answered Reb Chaim, "Dovid is standing near the door of the school, with his hands in his pockets, he probably is no athlete. Moishie is playing wildly, he probably is undisciplined. Yankel is analyzing how the clouds are drifting. I guess he was not counted in the game. But all in all they are just a bunch of children playing." Reb Aryeh turned to him and exclaimed, "No, my son. You don't know how to watch the children.
"Dovid is near the door with his hands in his pockets because he has no sweater. His parents can't afford winter clothes for him. Moishie is wild because his Rebbe scolded him and he is frustrated. And Yankel is moping because his mother is ill and he bears the responsibility to help with the entire household.
"In order to be a Rebbe you must know each boy's needs and make sure to give him the proper attention to fulfill those needs."
Yaakov had a very difficult task. His mission was to breed twelve tribes -- each to be directed in a unique path. Some sons were to be merchants, others scholars. Judah was destined for royalty, while Levi was suited to be a teacher of the common folk. Each son, like each Jew, had a special mission. Hashem needed a father for the twelve tribes who would not breed all his children in the same mold. If Moshe's and David's destinies were determined by their care and compassion for their animal flock, perhaps Yaakov's development of twelve tribes was pre-determined by his development of a wide array of his flock. Only someone who knew how to cultivate unity in diversity would know how to produce the forebearers of the Jewish nation.
Peeking Into the World to Come
In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi,’ Talmudic rabbis delve into the practical questions around the Jewish
afterlife. Like: will it be here on Earth? Will the Messiah be there, or will we be led there by his
arrival? And what does redemption look like? Also, is the food kosher there?
By Adam Kirsch
November 7, 2017 • 12:00 AM
As we saw last week, the final chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin is concerned with the World to Come. But what exactly is the World to Come, olam haba? Is it heaven, or the afterlife, or the end of the world, or the resurrection of the dead, or the messianic era? Will we all get to see it, or does it require extraordinary spiritual merit? These are the kinds of questions the rabbis ask in Chapter 11 of Sanhedrin. At the center of their speculations is the figure of the Messiah, whom the rabbis refer to simply as the Son of David, ben David, since he will be a descendant of the biblical king. At some point in the future, the rabbis are sure, the Messiah will come to redeem the Jewish people. But what exactly will this involve, and when is it going to happen?
The sages offer a variety of answers. One view is that the world was created with a fixed timetable; when it expires, the Messiah will come and everything will be transformed. Thus in Sanhedrin 97b, Rav Ketina says, “6,000 years is the duration of the world, and it is in ruins for 1,000 years.” There is a clear analogy with the days of the week and Shabbat, and with the cycle of the Sabbatical Year. Other sages offer different schedules: Rav Yehuda learned directly from the prophet Elijah that the world will exist for 85 Jubilee cycles, which works out to 4,250 years. Another sage claims to know a man who discovered a secret scroll “among the Roman archives” which predicted that the world will last exactly 4,291 years.
But where does the Messiah fit into these timetables? The rabbis warn against speculating about the date of his arrival. Rabbi Natan quotes the prophet Habakkuk: “For the vision is yet for the appointed time, and does not lie; though it tarry, wait for it because it will surely come.” Natan says that “this verse penetrates and descends until the depths,” by which he means that “the appointed time” of the Messiah is unfathomable. He goes to enumerate various theories about the Messianic age and refutes them all: The Messiah will come, but “not in accordance with our rabbis,” he declares. Rabbi Yonatan agrees: “May those who calculate the end of days be cursed,” he says, since when their calculations prove erroneous they may stop believing in redemption altogether.
If the Messiah is not destined to come at a particular time, however, this raises the question of why he doesn’t just come now. “Since we are awaiting and the holy one, blessed be he is, is awaiting, who is preventing the coming of the Messiah?” the Gemara asks. The obvious answer is that the messianic age is conditional on God’s judgment, which in turn depends on the conduct of the Jewish people. As Rav puts it, “All the ends of days that were calculated passed, and the matter depends only on repentance and good deeds.” Rabbi Eliezer agrees: “If the Jewish people repent they are redeemed, and if not they are not redeemed.”
But what is it that will make the Jewish people finally repent? One strain of rabbinic thinking holds that only unprecedented suffering will provoke a wholehearted return to God. By this logic, what the Talmud elsewhere calls “the footsteps of the Messiah” will involve terrible trials, which the rabbis take turns describing. People will be unable to earn a living through work; Torah scholars will be persecuted; food will be so scarce that it will be impossible to find a fish to feed a sick person. In general, Rabbi Yochanan says, “If you saw a generation who is steadily diminishing, await” the coming of the Messiah. It’s notable that these are not spectacular or supernatural afflictions, on the order of the 10 Plagues. They are, rather, natural human problems, poverty, and oppression, which will increase until they become unbearable. At that point, when the Jewish people can take no more, God will take mercy on them and send the Son of David.
Rabbi Yochanan captures the paradox of the Messiah in a resonant formula, in Sanhedrin 98a: “The son of David will come only in a generation that is entirely innocent or entirely guilty.” If all Jews are innocent of sin, they will deserve the reward of the Messiah; if all are guilty, they will need the Messiah to save them from destruction. Another sage elaborates that these two paths will bring the Messiah in different guises. If the people merit redemption, he will come “with the clouds of heaven,” in a miraculous fashion; if they do not merit redemption, he will come “lowly and riding upon a donkey.” This dualistic thinking can lead a specifically Jewish kind of antinomianism, which would appear in the heretical movements of Shabbetai Zevi and Jacob Frank—the idea that sin is the best way to force God’s hand and bring about the messianic age.
This ambiguity leads some sages to hope that they do not live to see the messianic age because it will be preceded by so much suffering. “Ulla says: Let the Messiah come, but after my death, so that I will not see him,” and Rabba agrees. On the other hand, Rav Yosef believes that the redemption will be worth its price in suffering: “Let the Messiah come, and I will be privileged to sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement.” Rabbi Simlai offers another animal image: “It is comparable to a rooster and a bat who were looking forward to the light of day.” The rooster is happy when the sun rises because it allows him to start crowing, while the bat is sad because he is a nocturnal creature who is happiest in the dark. Just so with the dawn of the messianic age: It will be a glorious time for the righteous, while heretics and sinners ought to be afraid of it.
So is the messianic age the same thing as the World to Come? Apparently, the two are connected because discussion of one leads automatically to the other; but they are not identical, as the rabbis go on to explain. The messianic age will be an earthly dispensation. To Shmuel, it will be different from the world we know in only one respect: “The difference between this world and the messianic era is only with regard to servitude to foreign kingdoms alone.” That is, the Messiah will restore the Jewish state in the Land of Israel, but he will not introduce a magical period of universal peace and plenty. According to Shmuel’s definition, one could even say that we live today in the age of the Messiah because a Jewish state exists. Nor will this period necessarily last forever. Rabbi Eliezer says that it will last just forty years; other sages say seventy years or three generations.
The World to Come, on the other hand, is a supernatural phenomenon and cannot be quantified or even described. According to Yochanan, “all the prophets prophesied only about the Messianic era, but with regard to the World to Come,” a verse from Isaiah applies: “No eye has seen it, God, aside from You.” Reish Lakish says that it will involve restoration to Paradise, to the Garden of Eden. This is more like what we think of as heaven because admission to it depends on the merit of the individual soul. But what qualifies a soul for redemption? We learned at the beginning of Chapter 11 that every Jew has a share in the World to Come, with the exception of those who reject central principles of Judaism. This suggests that the World to Come is not something that has to be earned by special effort.
But in the Gemara in Sanhedrin 111a the rabbis debate this point. According to Reish Lakish, “one who leaves even one statute” unfulfilled is doomed to Gehenna, the underworld; only perfect obedience to the law earns the soul a place in the World to Come. But Rabbi Yochanan rebukes Reish Lakish for taking such a strict view: “It is not satisfactory to their Master that you said this about them.” Rather, Yochanan reverses the equation: “If one learned only one statute,” he deserves admission to paradise. The two sages argue the point at length, each citing biblical verses in support of his position. Strictness and leniency are the two poles of the Talmud between which the rabbis are constantly torn; but with the World to Come, it seems that leniency will prevail.
As You Remembered Sarah
The Torah chronicles the pain of infertility — and the ongoing hope for a child.
This past Simchat Torah, synagogues across the country recited a prayer created by an organization called Yesh Tikva (Hebrew for “there is hope”). The prayer, recited during a holiday when children are a focal point of the service, acknowledges the struggle many in the community face in trying to conceive and have children. Yesh Tikva’s Fertility Prayer says in part:
Give these men and women the strength and courage to persevere on their journeys. Grant them healing and comfort. Strengthen them and surround them with love and support.
As you remembered Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Hannah, and you have heard the voices of the righteous men and women when they beseeched you, please listen to our beseeching to help the men and women of our community. Receive with Your mercy and desire our prayer. Fulfill our wishes for the good, and so may it be Your will, and let us say Amen.
It’s fitting that this prayer is said just a few weeks before we read the Torah portion Vayera, in which we see Abraham and Sarah, who are childless and “already old, well on in years, and Sarah no longer had female periods.” They are told by a group of strangers that next year, they will have a son. In response to this news Sarah “laughed to herself, saying, ‘Now that I am worn out, shall I have my heart’s desire? My husband is old!’”
The Bible is filled with stories of Jewish women battling infertility, and about the pain they experience along the way. In the first chapter of the Book of Samuel, Hannah is taunted by her sister-wife Peninah because she cannot conceive. In Genesis (in the Torah portion Parashat Vayetzei) Rachel feels tortured because her sister Leah can conceive, while she cannot. The command to “be fertile and become many” was the first given to man in the first Torah portion, Bereshit. When that proves impossible, it is not only a personal pain, but can be a religious one as well.
In Vayera, we see how timeless the struggle with infertility truly is. And the pain is so deep that it can cause a woman to laugh in the face of messengers of God.
The Torah, and Judaism in general, contains a blueprint for raising Jewish children. It instructs us what we should teach our children and gives us the why and the how. But it also contains reminders to be mindful of those who yearn to become parents, and nuggets of hope for those still trying to conceive. Upon scoffing at the idea of having a child, Sarah (and the rest of us) are reminded, “Is anything too difficult for God?”
In Vayera, after giving birth to her son Isaac, Sarah said “God has given me laughter.” And just as we are reminded of the pain and the hope of the struggle to conceive, which is experienced by one in eight American couples, we are also reminded of the joy of becoming parents, especially after such a long wait.
Lech-Lecha: A Call for Unity
What we can learn from Abraham's other child.
BY ERIKA DAVIS
Lech-Lecha is best known as the Torah portion in which God first makes his promise to Abraham that he will be the father of a great nation. It means “go,” and God instructs both Abraham and Sarah to go to the land he will show.
That story is … nice, but when I read Lech-Lecha I’m always intrigued by the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, Hagar. This story, particularly the banishment of Ishmael and Hagar at Sarah’s insistence in a later Torah portion, can be seen as a dividing point between Judaism and Islam. However, I’m wondering if we instead can see it as the unifying point of our faiths. Which, let’s be clear, can be hard to see.
The interactions between Hagar and Sarah are complex. Abraham is promised by God to become a father of a great nation, yet the two of them are old; Sarah has already started menopause, how is it possible for two as old as them to parent a nation? Out of desperation, perhaps, Sarah gives her handmaiden, Hagar, to Abraham so that a son can be born to Abraham. But, when Sarah sees Hagar is pregnant the plan doesn’t seem as great and she treats Hagar so harshly that Hagar flees.
Hagar eventually returns, not because she wants to, but because God makes a promise to her, that her son also will father a great nation. So should we as Muslims and Jews unite because God tells us to, just as God told Hagar? Perhaps. But, I don’t think it’s just that God has instructed Hagar to go back to Sarah, but that God has showed us that we must unite. The story could’ve been different. God could have let Hagar go with the promise of a great nation to her unborn son, but instead God brings the two women back together, uniting the complex family that is Hagar, Sarah, Abraham and their sons.
There is so much that divides us, from race to religion to economic status. Quickly we can discern that someone is different from us, and for a variety of reasons we gravitate to people who are like us, usually because that’s what is most comfortable. We live in a time when it has been increasingly acceptable to point out the ways in which we are different; never in my lifetime has there been such an overt, pseudo-Christian, white nationalist fervor in our country.
Never has it been so imperative that we see beyond our differences and find places of overlap, places of complex unity. Unity, that on the surface, isn’t there. But, when you scratch the surface, like scratching back the theme of “go” in Lech-Lecha can be found. For instance, some Muslims fast on the 10th day of the first month of the Muslim calendar. Sound familiar? This fast day parallels the timing of Yom Kippur, the 10th day of the first month of the Jewish calendar year. When the prophet Mohammed noticed his Jewish neighbors fasting for Yom Kippur he required that his followers also fast on that day. This tradition lives on to this day. (Although because the Jewish and Muslim calendars are structured differently, these holidays don’t always coincide with each other.)
In another link between Jews and Muslims, Moses is mentioned in the Quran more than any other person— 135 times, compared to 67 times for Abraham and six for Mohammed. And the life and story of Abraham is described similarly in the Quran to how it is in the Tanach (Hebrew Bible).
This complex unity has deep roots in our Jewish tradition and specifically in this Torah portion. All three major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Islam and Christianity — see Abraham as their father. In the Jewish tradition it is Isaac who Abraham takes to sacrifice; in Islam it is Ishmael. From Ishmael we find the lineage of the people of Islam and from Isaac, our own Jewish lineage. God promises great nations from both children of Abraham, making the same covenant with both sons at different times.
Lech-Lecha clearly shows that Jews and Muslims are brothers, and often in liberal Jewish spaces we refer to Muslims as our “cousins.” Our ancestral matriarchs are different, but we share the same father in Abraham. Over the years the narrative has often been that Jews and Muslims are too different to be united, yet here we see pointed evidence in our text of not kumbaya-looks-good-for-a peace-event-unity, but factual, complex and familial unity. There is boundless possibility in this unity for greatness, acceptance, love and earth-shattering change if we could see beyond the small difference and listen to the words of this Torah portion.
Ishmael’s name means God listens, and our uniting Jewish prayer begins with the word Shema , “listen.” Maybe it’s time we did.
Positive Speech Builds a Brighter World
Posted By Rabbi Pinchas Avruch | Series: Kol HaKollel
This week’s Torah portion, Noach, is replete with conspicuous lessons of G-d’s treatment of evil in the world. The most hedonistic, self-serving society in the history of the world is annihilated in a flood, and nature is permanently changed with the introduction of seasons and, with them, shortened life spans. The next generation, while unified, builds a tower to go to the heavens to fight G-d, so G-d introduces languages and ethnicities into the world. Even Noah’s misuse of the vine generates a curse for one third of humanity.
Yet, for all of these glaring messages, one of the most profound messages is subtly nestled in the narrative of the initial stages of the flood. In G-d’s instruction to Noah and in the account of Noah’s follow through on his orders (Beraishis/Genesis 7:2 and 8) the Torah describes G-d’s command that Noah take seven pairs of the animals which are clean (“tehora”) and two of the animals which are not clean (“lo tehora” and “ainena tehora”). Our tradition teaches us that the Torah does not have any extra words or even any extra letters. There is a unique Hebrew word for “unclean” (“tamai”); why is it not used? Why does the Torah expend eight extra letters (in the Hebrew text) to say “not clean” instead of “unclean”?
The Talmud in the Tractate Pesachim (3a) introduces verse 8 as a proof in discussing the concept a person should never utter a coarse expression. Rashi on the Talmud notes that the alternative expressions are not inherently coarse, but that one who is wise always searches for a bright and clean articulation. Maharsha (acronym for Moreinu Harav Shlomo Eidels of Ostroh, Poland; 1555-1632) questions the conclusion of the Talmud; the extra verbiage is only indicative of a lesson to be drawn if it is unique, but the existence of extra wording in both verses 2 and 8 indicates it is the norm. Maharsha resolves his own challenge with a lesson found in Tractate Bava Basra; verse 2 is teaching us to refrain from speaking disparagingly of animals, even animals which are not of Kosher species.
G-d is about to send a flood that will forever alter the course of life on earth. Thousands upon thousands of people and animals will die. The entire earth will be buried under tons of hot water that will cover the highest mountains by 25 feet, forever altering the geology and topography of the planet. The world will be uninhabitable for an entire year! And in the course of all of this – right NOW – G-d needs to teach us that refined people choose their speech carefully, even when discussing animals?
Yes. The world was destroyed because of the breakdown of ethics and fair play. The Medrash relates that the people of Noah’s time would steal in legally insignificant amounts, to avoid legal recourse. These behaviors reflect the corruption within and concretize it further. Negative speech is no different. It is a reflection of our cynicism and frustration and serves to legitimize and perpetuate them. Rashi is telling us that one whose life effort is striving for G-dliness and maintaining a “G-d consciousness” in all his actions does not just avoid crass expressions, but tries to maintains a bright, positive outlook, an attitude that is manifest in his speech. And this attitude is directed at all of G-d’s creations, whether they are used in our service of Him or not, whether they are Kosher or not.
Our gift of speech is like a fire. With it we have the power to warm and foster growth or, Heaven forbid, destroy. Let us use this precious, unique gift to build a bright and positive world.