Wednesday, January 27, 2010

B'shalach 5770-2010

"Va'chamushim - Armed or Otherwise" --

In this week's parasha, parashat B'shalach, after enduring slavery for 110 years (by rabbinic count), the Israelites are finally led to freedom.

Lest the newly-released slaves be intimidated by the possibility of war and wish to return to the land of Egypt, G-d does not lead them into the land of the Philistines. Instead, He directs them toward the wilderness, to the Sea of Reeds (a.k.a., the Red Sea).

In Exodus 13:18, Scripture describes the state of preparedness of the recently released slaves: "Va'chamushim ah'loo v'nei Yisrael may'Eretz Mitzrayim," the children of Israel were armed when they went up from Egypt.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) states that the word "Chamushim," in this context, can only mean "armed." Rashi then explains that had the Hebrews traveled on an inhabited route they would not have outfitted themselves in advance with all they might need since they could have purchased any necessities as they traveled. But now that their route was to lead through the wilderness, it was necessary to be well equipped for all possible eventualities they might encounter on their journey. This, says Rashi, explains how the Israelites had sufficient weapons to do battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:13), Sichon (Numbers 21:24), Og (Numbers 24:35) and Midian (Numbers 31:8), and that even after forty years of journeying through the wilderness, were able to cross the Jordan and enter the land of Canaan well armed (Joshua 1:14).

After sharing the literal reading of the word Chamushim, Rashi offers his famed alternative interpretation. Basing himself on the Midrash Mechilta and Tanchuma, Rashi suggests that the word Chamushim is derived from the Hebrew word Chamisha, five, and implies that only one of five Israelites departed from Egypt. The other four fifths, died in Egypt during the three days of the plague of darkness. Apparently, the vast majority of the Jews were so assimilated that they refused to leave Egypt. In response, the Al-mighty eliminated them during the plague of darkness so that the Egyptians would be unaware of what happened, sparing the surviving Israelites embarrassment.

Whether meaning "armed" or "one-fifth," the word "Chamushim" has captured the attention of several commentators who elaborate on its meaning, and offer a host of interesting insights and observations.

Basing his comments on the standard interpretation of Chamushim to mean arms, the Chozeh of Lublin (R' Jacob Issac Horowitz, 1745-1815, the Seer of Lublin, Father of Chassidut in Poland) refers to the translation of the Targum Onkelos, in Genesis 48:22, in which Jacob bequeaths the city of Shechem to Joseph. The patriarch Jacob says to his son, "I took [Shechem] from the hand of the Emorite with my sword and with my bow." Onkelos there translates "sword and bow" to mean "prayer and request." The Chozeh maintains that the most powerful weapon in a Jew's arsenal is prayer. Any success that our people have in war is due only to the Jews' state of spirituality. When the Jews came to the Sea of Reeds they battled, not with physical weapons, but with prayer. As the verse clearly states (Exodus 14:10), "The children of Israel cried out to G-d."

Rabbeinu Bachya (Bachya ben Asher 1263-1340, Biblical commentator in the Golden Age of Spain) raises the question as to why the Jews needed weapons at all, since they were under G-d's direct Divine protection. Citing the Talmudic dictum in Pesachim 64b, underscoring that one may not rely on miracles, Rabbeinu Bachya explains that G-d intervenes only after a person has expended a modicum of personal effort.

If that is the case, why did G-d have to split the sea? Now that they were armed, why didn't He just instruct the Israelites to do battle with the Egyptian?

The Chatam Sofer (1762-1839 Rabbi of Pressburg, leader of Hungarian Jewry) explains that this too underscores the revolutionary nature of Jewish morality. The Torah states clearly in Deuteronomy 23:8, "You shall not reject an Egyptian [who wishes to convert to Judaism] for you were a sojourner in his land." Had the Egyptians not welcomed Jacob and his children and allowed them to reside in Egypt, our people would not have survived the famine. The Egyptians were owed a great debt of gratitude, and therefore the Israelites had no moral right to do battle with them. The Torah states that Moses said to the Jewish people (Exodus 14:14), "G-d shall make war for you, and you shall remain silent." While it's true that the Egyptians invited the Israelites to come to their country in return for Joseph having saved them from famine, the people of Israel still need to express their gratitude to the Egyptians. But, if they were not permitted to do battle with the Egyptians, why did the Hebrews need to be armed? In order to specifically show that although the Israelites could have fought back, they, nevertheless, chose not to use their arms against their benefactors.

The Brisker Rav of Jerusalem, Rabbi Yosef Ber Soloveitchik suggests that there is a connection between Chamushim, armed, and the very next verse, which states (Exodus 13:19), "Moses took the bones of Joseph with him." The armaments that are referred to in verse 18 were the bones of Joseph. The Midrash, Yalkut Shimoni, states that the sea split upon seeing the bones of Joseph. The Kli Yakar explains the connection by suggesting that the sea fled against its own nature (Psalms 114:3) as a reward for Joseph who changed his own nature when resisting the seductions of Mrs. Potiphar.

One might assume that multiple interpretations of the word Chamushim would be not only conflicting, but confusing. However, as is true of much of biblical commentary, many cogent lessons are extracted from the abundant interpretations, each with a validity of its own that applies within the parameters of its own particular context. We must embrace them and appreciate each of them for the vital lessons they teach.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bo 5770-2010

"Finding Favor in the Eyes of the Egyptians"--

In this week's parasha, parashat Bo, the ninth plague, darkness, strikes. In response to the plague, Pharaoh tells Moses that all the Hebrew people may go worship their G-d, as long as they leave their flocks behind. Moses insists that the livestock go with them, and that not a single animal be left in Egypt. G-d hardens Pharaoh's heart, he chases Moses away, warning Moses never to see him again, upon penalty of death.

G-d tells Moses that there is one more plague that He intends to visit upon Pharaoh and the Egyptians, and then He will send the people free. That plague is to be the death of the firstborn.

In preparation for the final plague, G-d tells Moses to speak to the People of Israel and instruct them to request of their Egyptian neighbors vessels of silver and gold. Scripture then describes the reaction of the Egyptians (Exodus 11:3): "Va'yee'tayn Hashem et chayn ha'ahm b'ay'nay Mitzrayim," and G-d made the people find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and as a result, Moses was greatly admired in the land of Egypt, in the eyes of the servants of Pharaoh and in the eyes of the people.

The Ibn Ezra (R' Abraham Ibn Ezra, 1098-c.1164, Spanish Bible commentator) suggests that it was this "new status" of the Jews in the eyes of the Egyptians that accounts for the Egyptians' willingness to give their valuables to them. Other commentators, however, say that the status of the Jews is unrelated to the gifts that they received.

Shadal (Samuel David Luzzatto, 1800-1865 Italian historian, theologian and biblical exegete) in his commentary on the Bible, explains at length that the sudden favorable attitude of the Egyptians was a fulfillment of G-d's previous promise that the people would find favor in the eyes of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:21). Shadal explains that when the Egyptians saw the great plagues and the miracles that were visited upon them on behalf of Israel, they began to recognize the greatness of Israel and their mighty G-d who saves them. They began to appreciate the terrible suffering that the Hebrews had endured in slavery, and, for the first time, recognized the Jews' humanity, who were, after all, flesh and blood, like themselves.

Shadal further argues, that when people are absorbed by their own success, they look down upon the lower classes as if they hardly matter. Consequently, they see nothing wrong with causing the common people pain and suffering. But when the downtrodden suddenly rise up, even a little, from the depths of their despair, the upper classes begin to acknowledge them, have compassion on them, and, at times, even develop an affection for them. Says Shadal, that explains why Mrs. Potiphar started casting her eyes upon the lowly Hebrew slave, Joseph, after she noticed his unusual success.

The Ramban, Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator) further explains this phenomenon noting that the Egyptian population bore no grudge against the Hebrews. In fact, they eventually recognized that the Jews were righteous, and that the Egyptians themselves were wicked. This response is rather astounding since one would have expected the Egyptians to hate the Jews, blaming the Jews for the terrible suffering brought upon them through the plagues. But G-d's intervention resulted in only positive feelings.

The sudden reversal of fortune underscores how tenacious the inexorable cycle of history and life can be. We had previously noted that in a single generation the Jews of Egypt were turned into slaves a mere few years after they had been the most admired people in Egypt. Suddenly, the hated slaves are transformed into the most favored people in Egypt. Not only do the Egyptians bear no grudge against them, they willingly give them gifts of their own possessions.

The Netivot Sholom (1911-2000, Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, Slonimer Rebbe, known for his insightful commentaries on the Bible) cites the Zohar (part 2:184) which states that light can only emerge from absolute darkness. This pattern was set in the time of creation, as Scripture states: "And it was evening and it was morning." It is this dialectic that accounts for the fact that a child is born selfish, and only later learns to become a giving human being. Abraham was told at the time of the Covenant Between the Pieces that his people would be exiled, enslaved for 400 years, and persecuted, and then would leave with great wealth. A similar theme is found in the words of the Psalmist (34:15), "Soor may'rah v'ah'say tov," first, depart from evil, then you can do good. In fact, the more difficult it is to tear oneself from evil, the greater is the ensuing good. This is very often the conclusion reached by psychologists and personality experts who maintain that only when those suffering from drug addictions or alcoholism hit bottom, are they ready for rehabilitation.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Monday, January 11, 2010

Va'eira 5770-2010

"Shortness of Breath and Hard Works" --

This week's parasha, parashat Va'eira, opens with the Al-mighty's very moving declaration to Moses regarding His intentions to save the Jewish people from enslavement in Egypt.

G-d announces (Exodus 6:5-8) that He has heard the cries of the Jewish people resulting from their enslavement. He has remembered His covenant, and will take the people out from under the burdens of Egypt. The Al-mighty will rescue the people and redeem them with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. Declaring His special mutual relationship with the Jewish people, G-d says that He will take the people to Him and be their G-d, so that they shall know that the L-rd is their G-d, who takes them out from under the servitude of Egypt. Finally, G-d promises that He will bring the people to the land that He promised to give to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and will give it to the people of Israel as an inheritance.

In Exodus 6:9, the Bible tells us the reaction of the people when Moses relates this very hopeful message to the children of Israel, "V'lo shahm'oo el Moshe mee'ko'tzer roo'ach, oo'may'ah'vo'dah kah'shah," the people did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and of hard work.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) as well as most of the other commentators, explain that the people's failure to heed Moses' words wasn't due to their lack of faith, but to the extraordinarily difficult physical and emotional circumstances under which they labored in Egypt. Moses, however, in his humility, blames himself by saying (Exodus 6:12) that he is "ah'rahl s'fah'tah'yim," of uncircumcised lips, and that his inability to explain himself properly causes the people not to listen to him. If that is the case, argues Moses, "V'aych yish'm'ay'nee Pharaoh?" How will Pharaoh ever listen to me?

The Mechilta 21:5, cites Rabbi Judah ben B'taira who says: Is it possible that a person is told favorable tidings and does not rejoice? "A son has been born to you!" "Your master is letting you out of slavery!" and you do not rejoice? Why then, does the verse say that they did not heed Moses' words? Suggests Rabbi Judah ben B'taira, it was simply too difficult for the people to abandon the idolatry to which they had become accustomed.

The Yalkut May'am Loez adds insightfully, that when Moses and Aaron first told the people that G-d had remembered them (Exodus 4:30-31), the people listened, because they were told about the impending redemption without being told that they would have to abandon their idolatrous ways. But now, when Moses told them in the name of G-d that G-d is taking them to be His people and that He will be their G-d, they did not accept this, for they had become so accustomed to idol worship for so many years.

Two contemporary commentators point to subtle differences in the meaning of the phrase "kotzer ruach," shortness of breath. The Meshech Chochmah (Commentary on the Pentateuch by R' Meir Simcha HaKohen of Dvinsk, 1843-1926, author of the classic work, Ohr Sameach) asserts that when a person suffers greatly, the pain is so vivid that they simply can not process any promises of a bright future and salvation. The only thing that the people of Israel could possibly respond to under those circumstances was a promise of freedom that would instantly result in relief from their back-breaking toil. Therefore, G-d, once again, instructed Moses to take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt (Exodus 6:13).

On the other hand, the Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 1847-1905, Chassidic leader, author of Sefat Emet al HaTorah), interprets "shortness of breath" not physically but spiritually, not due to hard work, but due to the inability to hear and absorb such concepts. Having experienced extensive exposure to the impurities of Egypt, their Jewish souls no longer possessed the spiritual receptivity to hear what Moses had to say.

It is told that the great Chofetz Chaim (R' Yisrael Meir HaKohen of Radin, 1838-1933, acknowledged as a foremost leader of world Jewry) was once sitting with some of the religious leaders of Radin and complained that the Jews of his generation were of insufficient faith. At one point during the discussion, one of the leading rabbis of the Yeshiva of Radin said to him: Why are you surprised? Recall the reaction of the Jews in Egypt when Moses came to them. Those Jews still remembered their holy forefathers and knew for certain that the exile would not last for more than 400 years. And yet, their hearts were stuffed up by the incredibly torturous work, causing them to sink to the 49th level of impurity. Our generation is, after all, so many generations further removed from our forefathers and our exile doesn't seem to have any end. Is it any wonder that our faith is diminished?

Once again, we see many parallels to contemporary times. Many of our co-religionists have been trapped by the blandishments of our times, by the mystique of contemporary idols, like Mammon. They are surrounded by a culture that worships youth, physical beauty and is sexually saturated. We are not only distanced from our forefathers, but many of our young people have no idea who Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were, let alone what they stood for. Is it any surprise that they can not hear the message of G-d that is being directed at them?

The challenge of the Jews in Egypt was great. The challenge of the Jews in the time of the Chofetz Chaim was profound. But, they survived. What, pray G-d, will be with our generation, who not only can not hear, but does not know how to listen?

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here

Monday, January 4, 2010

Shemot 5770-2010

"In Those Days, In These Times" --

This message may be a little late, but there seem to be strong parallels between the story of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and the Chanukah story. The parallel as well with the contemporary North American Jewish experience is particularly striking.

As recorded in last week's parasha, parashat Vayigash, even before the Jews come down to Egypt, we learn of Jacob's concern that his children will assimilate in Egypt and of Joseph's sensitivity to this issue. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them to quickly return to their father in Canaan and to say to him that G-d had made his son the master of all of Egypt. (Genesis 45:9-10) "R'dah ay'lai, ahl tah'ah'mohd," Come down to me, do not delay! Joseph then tells them to say to old Jacob, "V'yah'shahv'tah v'eretz Goshen, v'ha'yee'tah ka'rov ay'lai, ah'tah, oo'vah'neh'chah, oo'v'nay vah'neh'chah," you will reside in the land of Goshen and you'll be near me, you, your sons, your grandchildren, your flocks, your cattle and all that is yours. Joseph further promises that he will personally provide for the entire family in Egypt so that they not become destitute during the five years of famine that still remain.

Obviously, Joseph wants to keep his family apart from the mainstream Egyptian culture that is immersed in idolatry and immorality. A separate residential area in Goshen would also enable his family to pursue shepherding, which was regarded by the Egyptians as a loathed profession. Besides, Goshen was a very fertile area, described in Genesis 47:6, as "the best of the land."

When Joseph's brothers first meet Pharaoh, they declare (Genesis 47:4), "La'goor ba'ah'retz ba'noo," we've only come to sojourn in Egypt, to be strangers. But Scripture soon points out the folly of trying to maintain one's unique identity as a minority in the face of a strong mainstream culture. In Genesis 47:27, we are told, "Va'yay'shev Yisrael b'eretz Goshen, va'yay'ah'cha'zoo vah va'yif'roo, va'yir'boo m'ohd," Israel settled in the land of Egypt in the region of Goshen; they acquired property in it, they were fruitful and multiplied greatly. Despite their intentions to remain apart, the Hebrews soon became real estate owners and proud Egyptian citizens. So much so, that when the book of Exodus opens and describes Jewish life after the death of Joseph and his generation, Scripture says (Exodus 1:7), Oo'v'nay Yisrael pa'roo va'yish'r'tzoo va'yir'boo, va'ya'ahtz'moo, bim'ohd m'ohd, va'tee'ma'lay ha'ah'retz oh'tahm," And the children of Israel were fruitful, teemed, increased, and became strong--very, very much so; and the land became filled with them.

The Yalkut Shimoni and the Midrash Tanchumah both read into the phrase, "and the land became filled with them," that the theaters and the circuses were filled with them! Just as we have experienced so many times in our long history, the Jewish people come to a new country, begin earning a living by selling notions and needles on pushcarts, which soon become general stores, which evolve into chains of department stores and boutiques. They begin to play a key role in the country's economy and culture. Within a short time, the Jews become the impresarios and the cultural leaders of the land, the George Gershwins, Sol Huroks, Jack Bennys, Leonard Bernsteins, Jerome Robbins, Barbara Streisands, Jerry Seinfelds and Jon Stewarts.

The Netziv (R' Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, Haamek Davar, 1817-1893) asserts that when scripture states that the whole land was full of them, it implies that the people of Israel no longer resided only in the land of Goshen. That's why by the time of the 10th plague, the death of the first born, the Torah says (Exodus 12:23): "Oo'fah'sahch Hashem ahl ha'peh'tach," G-d passed over the entrances of the [Jewish] homes, because the Jews had moved from their ghetto in the Egyptian "Boro Park," and were now living on Fifth and Park Avenues. The Hebrews wanted to be like Egyptians, rather than live in the Ghetto of Goshen as Jacob and Joseph had hoped.

What was the result? Mass abandonment of Jewish life and Jewish observance. If there are any doubts about the effects of assimilation in Egypt, the Bible's description of the Exodus puts them to rest. Scripture describes the departure of the Jews from Egypt as follows (Exodus 13:18): "Va'chamushim ah'loo v'nai Yisrael may'eretz Mitzrayim," literally interpreted, it means that the Jewish people left armed. But our rabbis see much more in the word "Chamushim." They maintain that only one fifth (from the Hebrew for five--"chamesh") of the Jewish people wanted to leave Egypt, the rest were die-hard patriots! Despite the brutal enslavement, four-fifths of the people chose to remain in Egypt.

How could it happen that one generation after the Hebrews are hailed as the saviors of Egypt, they are transformed into hated and abused slaves? The Egyptians had given up everything–their money, their homes, their animals, their lands. Nonetheless, the Egyptian people are so grateful to the Jewish advisor who has saved them from starvation and certain death, that they cry out to Joseph (Exodus 47:25)"Heh'cheh'yee'tah'noo," you have given us life!

But when Joseph dies, a new Pharaoh arises who sees the Jewish people as a threat--a fifth column. Pharaoh is concerned lest there be war and that the Hebrews will join Egypt's enemies. So, in short order, the previous adulation turns into oppression (see Shemot 5761-2001, "The Not So Obvious Process of Enslavement"). It appears as if the vicious hatred that acculturation stirs in the hearts of the non-Jews, is a natural result of assimilation.

It could also be that the hatred is brought upon the Jewish people by themselves, through their own arrogance, and their desire to be even more Egyptian than the Egyptians themselves. After all, it was not Pharaoh who nationalized Egypt and took away individual ownership of property. It was Joseph who confiscated the people's lands. And, as much as they admired Joseph, the seed of resentment was planted, especially once the years of famine ended and the Egyptian people found themselves removed from their farms, serving as serfs to Pharaoh. Once the old Pharaoh was gone, the new Pharaoh rises, who does not like sharing power with Jews. The Egyptian people soon wise-up as well, and begin to assert themselves, blunting the influence of those Hebrew immigrants who think they are "better" than the native Egyptians.

In light of the above scenario which has been repeated only too often in Jewish history, we need to ask ourselves whether we are reliving that experience today? Are Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod today's Josephs? Will their leadership, along with the frequent reports of corruption of individual Jews, cause a benevolent American exile to turn into an Egyptian nightmare?

It may be too early to tell. But, it is never too early to be wary.

May you be blessed.

A complete archive of Rabbi Buchwald's Weekly Torah Messages can be viewed here