Monday, July 26, 2010

Eikev 5770-2010

"The Great, Mighty and Awesome G-d"

In this week's parasha, parashat Eikev, we learn of G-d's unconditional love for His people. Notwithstanding Israel's grievous sins, G-d's love remains steadfast. The demands that He makes upon the people of Israel are only for their good, and despite their straying, G-d continues to shower His beneficence upon His beloved people, Israel. In one of the most memorable passages of the Torah, Moses asks rhetorically (Deuteronomy 10:12-13), "And now, O Israel, what does the L-rd your G-d ask of you? Only to fear the L-rd your G-d, to go in His ways, to love Him, and to serve the L-rd your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul; to observe the commandments of the L-rd and His decrees, which I command you today, for your benefit."

Following this powerful pronouncement, Moses describes the greatness of G-d. In Deuteronomy 10:17, Moses says: "Kee Hashem Eh'loh'kay'chem, Hoo Eh'loh'kay ha'Eh'lo'kim, va'Ah'doh'nay ha'Ah'doh'nim, ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'no'rah, ah'sher lo yee'sah fah'nim, v'lo yee'kach shoh'chahd," For the L-rd your G-d, He is the G-d of the powers, and the L-rd of L-rds, the great, mighty and awesome G-d, Who does not show favor, and Who does not accept bribes.

Unlike mortal rulers, G-d does not favor the prominent or the rich. Instead, with great compassion, He metes out judgment for the orphan and the widow. In fact, the greater a person's status and potential to do good, the more demanding is G-d of that person.

If parts of the aforementioned biblical citations sound somewhat familiar, it is because this well-known description of G-d constitutes the opening paragraph of the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish life, that is recited every single day, "Ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'no'rah," G-d the great, mighty, and awesome G-d.

In Talmud Yoma 69b, we find the following question:

Why were the "Anshei K'nesset Hagdolah," Men of the Great Assembly called by that grand name? [They answer], because they restored the crown of Divine attributes to its ancient completeness. For Moses had come and said (Deuteronomy 10:17), "G-d, the great, mighty and awesome G-d." Then Jeremiah came and said (Jeremiah 32:17), "Aliens are destroying His temple. Where are, then, His awesome deeds? Hence, he omitted the attribute of "awesome." Daniel came and said (Daniel 9:4): "Aliens are enslaving His sons. Where are His mighty deeds? Hence, he omitted the word, "mighty." But they [the Men of the Great Assembly] came and said, on the contrary, therein lie His mighty deeds, that He suppresses His wrath, that He extends long suffering to the wicked. Therein lie His awesome powers: For, but for the fear of Him, how could one single nation [Israel] persist among the many nations?

But [the Sages ask], how could the early rabbis [Jeremiah and Daniel] abolish something established by Moses? Rabbi Eleazar said: Since they knew that the Holy One, Blessed be He, insists on truth, they would not ascribe false things to Him.

In his brilliant monograph entitled "Prayer," Dr. Eliezer Berkovits (1908-1992, modern Orthodox theologian and educator) explains that there is no room for flattery in prayer. "Anything but strictest honesty of thought and sentiment is inconceivable before G-d... In the eyes of Jewish tradition, the dropping of a phrase of invocation that was used by Moses was an act of impiety toward the Master of all prophets, of which particularly, such outstanding personalities as Jeremiah and Daniel should not be counted. Yet, it was found justified, because one dare not stand before G-d with insincerity in one's heart. One must come to G-d in truth. We must mean what we say. How else can one approach G-d, Who knows the innermost recesses of the human heart?"

According to Professor Berkovits, the Talmudic discussion regarding changing or maintaining the original wording of Moses' description of G-d: "Ha'Kayl ha'gah'dohl, ha'gee'bohr, v'ha'noh'rah," the great, mighty, and awesome G-d, underscores the efficacy of obligatory prayer. It is often assumed that spontaneous prayer, praying out of intense feeling or due to personal crisis, is the most poignant and exalted form of prayer. But one who turns toward G-d only in times of distress is often selfish and lacking sincerity. Where were you when your world was perfect? Did you thank G-d, did you acknowledge G-d, when everyone was healthy and in good spirits?

It was precisely for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly were given their special honorific title. Certainly these sages appreciated the pain and travail of Jeremiah and Daniel, who felt that they could not bring themselves to say what they considered falsehood when they saw the terrible human suffering and the Temple in ruins before them. Nevertheless, the Men of the Great Assembly said, "No." We realize that G-d's goodness is with us even through the suffering, pain and hurt. To the contrary, they said, so great is the mightiness of G-d, that He controls His anger and is long-suffering even with the wicked. This, in fact, is G-d's awesomeness, for were it not for the fear of G-d, how could a single nation [Israel] survive among all the heathens? Therefore, they restored Moses' original phraseology to the Amidah.

It is, in truth, only when we see the full picture of G-d, that mortals are able to appreciate His greatness. Focusing on individual tragedies makes it impossible to see the overall and overwhelming goodness of the human condition, which is all due to Divine beneficence.

How fortunate are we, O Israel, that we are judged by a great, mighty, and awesome G-d--our Father in heaven!

May you be blessed.

Please note: This year, the joyous festival of Tu B'Av, the fifteenth of Av, is celebrated on Sunday night and Monday, July 25thth and 26th, 2010. Happy Tu B'Av (for more information, please click here)

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Devarim 5770-2010

"On That Day the Lord Shall Be One and His Name One" --

The book of Deuteronomy, known in Hebrew as Devarim, opens with the people now standing at the border of Canaan. Having led the people of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years, Moses offers the first of a series of farewell messages. He recounts the many years of wandering, and warns the people against the temptations that await them in Canaan.

In chapter 2 of Deuteronomy, after dwelling on the people's abortive attempt to enter Canaan, Moses recalls the victories that were won in the final years of their wanderings. Noting that rebellion had brought shame and punishment upon the people, Moses underscores that their obedience was crowned by blessing and triumph.

Upon reviewing the travels and the encounters, Moses reiterates G-d's instructions to the people as they approached the borders of the children of Esau who dwell in Seir. Deuteronomy 2:5: "Ahl tit'gah'roo vahm, kee loh eh'tayn lah'chem may'ahr'tsahm, ahd mid'rahch kahf rah'gel, kee y'roo'shah l'Eisav, na'tah'tee eht har Seir," Do not contend with them [the children of Esau] for I will not give you their land, not so much as the sole of the foot to tread on, for I have given Mount Seir to Esau for possession.

Moses notes that even though the Israelites were not permitted to do battle with the children of Esau, they were permitted to purchase bread and water from them. The people, however, moved on in their travels without passing through the land of the children of Esau.

Moses then recalls the people's encounter with the Moabites on the border of Moab, how they crossed through the Brook of Zered, and faced down the Ammonites and the Amorites.

In Deuteronomy 2:19, Moses reminds the people of G-d's warning before their encounter with the Ammonites: "V'kah'rav'tah mool b'nei Ammon, ahl t'tzoo'raym, v'ahl tit'gahr bahm, kee loh eh'tayn may'eretz b'nei Ammon l'chah y'roo'shah, kee liv'nei Lot n'tah'tee'hah ye'roo'shah," And when you come close to the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you the land of the children of Ammon for possession because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.

Although Moses' review of what happened to the Jewish people as they approached the land of Canaan seems to be pretty straightforward, this narrative is far more than a simple history lesson.

In Deuteronomy 2:5 and 2:19, we see that the people of Israel are specifically instructed not to touch the people of Edom (Esau) and Ammon, or to possess their lands, for those lands were given as inalienable possessions to their inhabitants. Perhaps the reason for allowing these nations to hold onto their lands was due to the special relationship between the people of Israel and the nations of Edom (the descendants of Esau) and Ammon (the offspring of Lot). Since they are related to the Jewish people, Israel is forbidden to make war with them, or to harass them. Even in later times when David fought against the descendants of Esau and they became subservient (Samuel II 8:14), we see that David did not dispossess them from their land. In fact, they later became independent again (Kings II 8:20).]

The rabbis note an interesting exception with regard to the Moabites. After all, they too were descended from Lot and were related to the people of Israel, yet, Israel was permitted to conquer their land. The commentators ascribe this to the fact that Moab hired Bilaam to curse the Jewish people in an attempt to defeat them. Consequently, there is no prohibition to make war with Moab or to incite them. This explains why a portion of the land of Moab that was previously overrun by Sichon in his battle, was possessed by Israel. However, even the Moabites were rewarded for their part in sparing Abraham's life when Lot did not reveal that Sarah was really Abraham's wife and not his sister (Genesis 12:10-13:1)

The two verses that were previously cited regarding the prohibition of possessing the lands of Edom and Ammon are by no means a simple recounting of history. In fact, they confirm a fundamental principle that many take for granted. The fact that G-d plays an especially Providential role in the history of Israel is confirmed by the story of the Exodus, and by the wanderings in the wilderness. But does G-d also play a key role in the lives of other nations? Clearly, He does. It is the permanent allotment of the lands of Edom and Ammon to their native inhabitants that confirms the concept that G-d holds sway over all the nations, cares for them all and judges them. He is the one single G-d. He is G-d alone, and there is no power besides Him. Other gods are false, and their adoration futile.

The book of Deuteronomy, often regarded as simply a rehash of Jewish history, is in fact a primary source for the concept of a "universal" G-d. It is here that monotheism is proclaimed in its full glory. Two little seemingly "throw-away" verses in Deuteronomy, 2:5 and 2:19, powerfully proclaim a singular all-embracing G-d of the world, Who cares for Israel as well as all the nations of the world.

May you be blessed.

Please remember: Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of new month of Av, began on Sunday night, July 11 and continues through Monday, July 12. It marks the beginning of the "Nine Days," a period of intense mourning leading up to Tisha B'Av. This Shabbat is called "Shabbat Chazzon"--the Sabbath on which we read the prophetic vision of Isaiah (Chapter 1) and its foreboding message of impending destruction.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Va'etchanan 5770-2010

"Moses Blames the People for His Fate" --

As this week's parasha, parashat Va'etchanan, opens, Moses pleads with G-d to allow him to enter the land of Israel. In fact, the word "va'etchanan" literally means, “I [Moses] pleaded” with G-d.

At this point, Moses recalls G-d's rejection, as recorded in Deuteronomy 3:26, saying: “Vah’yit’ah’bayehr Hashem bee l’mah’ahn’chem, v’loh shah’mah ay’lai,” But G-d became angry with me because of you, and He did not listen to me. So angry is G-d with Moses that He insists that Moses stop speaking to Him further about this matter. Instead, G-d instructs Moses to go to the top of the mountain and look with his eyes westward, northward, southward and eastward, because he will not cross the Jordan.

This is not the first time that Moses holds the Jewish people accountable for his fate. In the opening chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the sin of the scouts, as well as G-d’s decree that none of the men of that generation would enter the land of Canaan. Moses says (Deuteronomy 1:37): “Gahm bee hit’ah’nahf Hashem big’lal’chem lay’mor: Gahm ah’tah loh tah’voh shahm,” G-d became angry with me as well, because of you, saying: You too shall not come there [to the land of Canaan].

The fact that Moses blames Israel for causing him to be ineligible to enter the land of Canaan is rather strange. After all, when G-d told Moses to bring forth water from the rock at May M’reeva, we are told, in Numbers 20:1-13, that G-d punished Moses for hitting the rock rather than speaking to it. In Numbers 20:12, G-d specifically says to Moses and Aaron: “Yah’ahn loh heh’eh’mahn’tehm bee, l’hahk’dee’shay’nee l’ay’nay B’nei Yisrael, lah’chayn, loh tah’vee’ooh eht hah’kah’hal hah’zeh ehl ha’ah’retz ah’sher nah’tah’tee lah’hem,” Because you did not believe Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Children of Israel, therefore, you will not bring this congregation to the land that I have given them. Furthermore, Moses’ inability to enter Canaan because of his sin at May M’reeva is reiterated toward the end of the Torah (Deuteronomy 32:51), immediately prior to Moses’ passing. These references clearly contradict placing the blame for Moses’ fate on the people of Israel.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) explains that when G-d proclaimed to the generation of the scouts that they could not enter the land of Israel, He decreed at that time that Moses, as well, would not enter the land. Since the people were no longer worthy of having Moses bring them into the land, Moses himself could not enter.

In a fascinating parenthetical note, the Malbim states that had Moses entered the land, he would have immediately built an everlasting Temple, the Canaanite nations would have all surrendered, and the Messianic period would have been ushered in.

All this, of course was dependent upon the behavior of the people of Israel, their loyalty to G-d, and their acting as a kingdom of priests and a holy people. But after they sinned with the scouts, their fate was sealed, and Moses could no longer bring them to the Promised Land. Instead, there would be a period of enslavement and exile, followed by the eventual destruction of the Temple.

That is why Moses says to the people that G-d was angry at him because of them, and could not enter the land. Nevertheless, explains the Malbim, the decree forbidding Moses to enter the land was not irreversible. The punishment could have been rescinded had it not been for Moses’ own sin of hitting the rock. Had Moses sanctified the name of G-d publicly by speaking to the rock, the faith of the people of Israel would have been restored, resulting in Moses being granted permission to bring the people into the land.

My good friend, Hilly Gross, suggests a rather intriguing alternate explanation. He asks, Why is Moses laying such a heavy “guilt trip” on the people of Israel, blaming them for his fate? After all, Moses had never lost an argument with the Al-mighty, and on several previous occasions had successfully persuaded the Al-mighty to forgive the people. Mr. Gross suggests that Moses blamed the people in the hope that they would now pray for him and ask that the decree against Moses be rescinded. After all, the power of public prayer is far greater than individual prayer. If Moses’ personal prayers could not persuade G-d, perhaps the people’s collective prayers could convince Him to annul the decree against Moses, enabling him to enter the land of Israel.

Unfortunately, at this point in his relationship with the people, Moses, the talented leader, Shepherd of Israel, was unable to persuade them to pray for him. Perhaps the people were too caught up with their own concerns to care about Moses. Perhaps, they felt that now that most of the older generation had already perished in the wilderness, Moses had utterly failed them.

Perhaps the real reason why Moses does not enter the land of Israel was because he had lost the people’s support, and could no longer rally them to his side. A new leader was necessary for a new generation of Jews, who would regain the people’s confidence, lead them to the Promised Land and vanquish their enemies.

Moses, the Egyptian prince, whose charisma was always able to win over his followers, and whose powerful personality was able to bring even the mighty Pharaoh to his knees, no longer possessed that special spirit. He was now ready to pass the scepter of leadership on to the next generation, to Joshua.

May you be blessed.

Please note: The observance of the fast of Tisha B’Av, marking the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, starts on Monday night, July 19th and continues through Tuesday night, July 20th, 2010. Have a meaningful fast.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Matot-Masei 5770-2010

"Do Not Pollute the Land...Do Not Defile the Land" --

In the second of this week’s double parashiot, Matot-Masei, the Torah describes the contours of the Levite cities and deals at length with the special cities of refuge that were set aside for unintentional murderers.

As part of the related discussion regarding the taking of life, the Torah, in Numbers 35:31, warns not to accept ransom for the life of a murderer who is worthy of death or for an unintentional murderer who leaves the city of refuge before the death of the High Priest. In this manner, the Torah stresses the ultimate sanctity of life, underscoring that under no circumstances may murder be condoned or excused. Those who take life are not permitted to buy their freedom, lest the land itself [Canaan] in which G-d dwells, be contaminated.

The Torah then states (Numbers 35:33): “V’loh tah’chah’nee’foo eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem bah, kee hah’dahm, hoo yah’chah’neef eht hah’ah’retz,” You should not pollute the land on which you are, for the blood pollutes the land. The verse then dramatically asserts that the land will have no atonement for the blood that was spilled in it, except by the blood of the one who spilled it. The very next verse then warns the people (Numbers 35:34): “V’loh t’tah’may eht hah’ah’retz ah’sher ah’tem yoh’shvim bah, ah’sher Ah’nee sho’chayn b’toh’chah,” And you shall not contaminate the land that you inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the L-rd dwell in the midst of the Children of Israel.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, foremost commentator on the Bible) translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” as a warning to the people not to “make the land evil,” or as Targum Onkelos (Onkelos, c.35 C.E.-120 C.E., author of the definitive Aramaic translation of the bible) renders it, “You shall not bring the land into ill repute.”

The Ramban (Nachmanides, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spanish Torah commentator), quoting the Sifrei, translates the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” based on the root of the Hebrew verb that means to “flatter.” After warning that no ransom may be taken for the life of a murderer, the Torah adds a further admonition that a murderer may not be shown favor or discharged because of his powerful position or the influence of his family.

The commentators explain that the Torah warns not to defile the land, because the Divine presence cannot tolerate a place of impurity. Since the essence of the Divine presence dwells in the midst of the Jewish people, the people would need to be exiled from the defiled land so that the Divine presence could continue to be with them. We learn from this that the exile of the People of Israel is due to the exile of the Divine presence, and not the other way around.

The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Yehudah Leibish Malbim, 1809-1879, leading Torah scholar in Germany, Romania and Russia) also explains the words, “v’loh tah’chah’nee’foo,” to mean “flattery,” which he defines as something “that is not as it appears to be”--a righteous person who is evil inside; a land that looks fertile, but yields poor quality fruit. Citing the Al-mighty’s warning, the Malbim explains that this is what the Torah in Deuteronomy 28 predicts will happen if the people fail to heed G-d’s words, “You will bring much seed out of the fields, but you will harvest little (v. 38). You will plant vineyards, and work them, but you will not drink wine (v. 39). You will have olive trees throughout your boundaries, but you will not anoint yourself with oil (v.40). All your trees and the fruit of the land, the locusts will inherit” (v. 42). This, the Malbim asserts, will be the quid pro quo, the punishment, for “flattering” a murderer by declaring him innocent in return for a bribe.

I would like to suggest a possible metaphorical interpretation to these verses. Perhaps, in these declamations, the Al-mighty warns His people to be faithful to the land of Israel and to be honest with themselves regarding the land of Israel. Supporters of Israel must not delude themselves into thinking that all is perfect in Israel and must not overly flatter Israel. Indeed Israel’s faults, shortcomings and blemishes must always be acknowledged. On the other hand, our people must not defile the land by focusing only on its shortcomings and blemishes, and fail to see its overwhelming goodness and merits.

Even in this day and age, when Israel is under unprecedented attack, accused of genocide and of war crimes, when every means of self-defense is denied Israel no matter how cautious and careful the government is, our credibility will be lost if we are not forthcoming regarding the shortcomings of Israel, the land and the people.

Of course, at a time when the whole world is critical of Israel, we have a right to fiercely defend it by focusing more on its unprecedented achievements than on its faults, which only provides further ammunition to our enemies. Deep in our hearts, we need to recognize and know that everyone and everything can always improve, and that striving for perfection will always remain the historic goal of our people and its Torah.

Therefore, let us neither flatter the land nor defile the land, but rather regard it with truth and honesty, to help it achieve perfection. Finally, let us pray that peace prevail in Zion and hope that Israel’s citizens shall soon merit to dwell in tranquility and security.

May you be blessed.