Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Ten Plagues, A lesson in Repentance

The Midrash Tanchuma in Parshas Vaera can teach us a quite powerful lesson. It quotes a verse in Iyov, "Behold, G-D, in His omnipotence, will raise up. Who can instruct as He does?" (Iyov 36:22) The Medrash tells us that this means that G-D instructs the wicked how to repent their evil ways. This is done through G-D giving the wicked a certain illness or other hardship that relates to their misdeed. The ten plagues are the paradigm for this idea.

Blood: The reason for this plague was because the Egyptians did not allow the daughters of Israel to use the mikvah and purify themselves from their menstrual impurity. Thus, they effectively were prohibiting the Jews from procreating since a man can not lie with his wife unless she cleanses herself in the mikva. Therefore, the Egyptians were reminded of this sin by being punished with blood.

Frogs/Crocodiles: The Egyptians would force the Jews to chase after these creatures and bring them to the Egyptians. Therefore, the Egyptians were punished with the very thing that they forced the Jews to do.

Lice: The Egyptians would force the Jews to sweep the streets and market places (a pointless task as well) therefore the dust that the Jews were forced to sweep turned to lice.

Wild Beasts: The Egyptians would force the Jews to capture wild beasts for them just to torture the Jews. Therefore, the Egyptians were tortured with wild beasts.

Pestilence (for the animals): The Egyptians forced the Jews to watch after their animals in the desert, the mountains and the valleys in order that the Jews should not procreate by being allowed to return home. Therefore, all of the animals that the Jews had to watch were killed.

Boils: The Egyptians would force the Jews to get hot water for their baths and cold water if it was too hot. They tortured the Jews in order to take care of their bodies so their bodies were punished by being covered in boils.

Hail: The Egyptians made the Jews plant gardens and orchards. Therefore, G-D brought the hail to destroy these plantations.

Locusts: The Egyptians made the Jews plant wheat and barely. Therefore, G-D made the locusts come and destroy these crops.

Darkness: The reason for this plague was in order to get rid of the Jews that were wicked. G-D could not bring a plague on them while the Egyptians could see because then the Egyptians would say that just like we are plagued so too are the Jews. Then the Jews would not be freed. Therefore, G-D cast darkness over the land of Egypt to punish the wicked Jews.

Death of the firstborn: The Eitz Yosef says that it was because the Egyptians killed many Jews.

Going into Pesach we can learn many important things from the ten plagues. However, I think that the most important aspect is that of reflection. This is a time of year where we can reflect and think about G-D's influence in our lives. What types of messages has He been sending to us. Should I be repenting for certain things? Have I made the wrong choices? Little signs, or big signs, can help guide us in the right direction, all we have to do is look.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

How to Understand Korbanos, Rationale vs Spirituality

There is a huge dispute that takes place in this week's Parsha. It is between the Rambam and the Ramban. It is extremely intense and shows the difference between a great Rav using his own rationale to explain complicated matters and a great Rav believing that there must be a deeper meaning (aka a spiritual, not comprehensible by man, meaning). Of course, I am discussing the dispute brought up in the Ramban in Vayikra 1:9 where he goes off on a tangent arguing with the Rambam about Korbanos.

The Rambam, in the Sefer Moreh Nevuchim (3:46) says, "
Scripture tells us, according to the Version of Onkelos, that the Egyptians worshipped Aries, and therefore abstained from killing sheep, and held shepherds in contempt. Comp. "Behold we shall sacrifice the abomination of the Egyptians," etc. (Exod. viii. 26); "For every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians" (Gen. xlvi. 34). Some sects among the Sabeans worshipped demons, and imagined that these assumed the form of goats, and called them therefore "goats" [se‘irim]. This worship was widespread. Comp. "And they shall no more offer their sacrifices unto demons, after whom they have gone a whoring" (Lev. xvii. 7). For this reason those sects abstained from eating goats' flesh. Most idolaters objected to killing cattle, holding this species of animals in great estimation. Therefore the people of Hodu [Indians] up to this day do not slaughter cattle even in those countries where other animals are slaughtered. In order to eradicate these false principles, the Law commands us to offer sacrifices only of these three kinds: "Ye shall bring your offering of the cattle [viz.], of the herd and of the flock" (Lev. i. 2). Thus the very act which is considered by the heathen as the greatest crime, is the means of approaching God, and obtaining His pardon for our sins. In this manner, evil principles, the diseases of the human soul, are cured by other principles which are diametrically opposite."

In essence, the Rambam says that the reason we, Jews, are required to sacrifice to G-D is simply to counteract idolatry. There is no inherent importance in sacrifices. If there were never any idol worshipers then there would be no need for sacrifices. Once, however, there are people that sacrifice animals to a false god or worship these animals then we receive our commandment to sacrifice to G-D.

The Ramban goes balistic on the Rambam (1:9). He says that the Rambam's words are completely false. One of the proofs he brings is that Noach (Breishis 8:21) brought sacrifices after the flood even though there were no idol worshipers. Also, the Torah says by Noach that there is a "pleasing smell" for G-D. This implies that there is some deeper reason why sacrifices are important and it is unrelated to negating sinners, but rather relates to the spiritual meaning and quality of the sacrifices.

I think this argument is the paradigm for a rational approach to a subject vs a spiritual approach. The Ramban says that it is impossible that G-D would tell us to do something just to negate a desire of ours. It must be that there is a deeper spiritual meaning that is a sod (secret) that is extremely important. This idea shows the school of thought that everythin
g has a spiritual aspect and humans are incapable of understanding G-D's purpose for this world.

The Rambam is of a different school of thought. He looks at Judaism and says that there must be a logical aspect to everything. G-D would not institute a law, especially such an integral one, without a very pressing need. Rambam is telling us that the Jewish people lived in a society where animal worship and animal sacrifice was the central aspect of life. Therefore, G-D realized that there was a need to incorporate this into every day of life. If we look at the Jewish people's history we can see that there was a great desire for idol worship. G-D, in his infinite wisdom, allowed us to fulfill our desire for this in an appropriate way.

These two Rabbis represent the two different schools of thought that exist inside Judaism. There are the "spiritual" Jews that believe everything they do has some type of spiritual meaning. Then there are the Jews that believe that Judaism is full of ideas that are meaningful in life. There are some commandments that are not understood, but the commandments help us experience life in this world as well as the next. That is the question, do Korbanos, and by extension all mitzvos, have meaning in this world or is it all spiritual?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Life and Religion

It is interesting to see how life changes with responsibility. Unless someone goes into the pulpit or chinuch (teaching) there is no way to focus one's life on Judaism as can be done while in regular school. Life has so many distractions and obligations that a person that desires to care for his or her family can not just sit and think about G-D and religion. This is something reserved for the youth.

This is why our younger years are so important, it is when we create our foundation for who we will be and what we believe. Most people do not change as they get older, in fact, they usually get more stubborn and refuse to change.

However, even after we begin our path to responsibility and restrictions on time, we must set aside time, if only for 5 minutes, to think about G-D and Judaism. This can be through learning a sefer or discussions with friends. The most important point here is that one should constantly have G-D and Judaism on the mind. Realistically, it is impossible to focus on these things all day, but one should try and incorporate them into everyday thoughts.

These problems are why I think halacha is so important because there is very little time that most people can actually sit and learn. Halacha forces a religious Jew to constantly be aware of his religion from what he is going to eat to how he must behave. A Jew can never just let go and do whatever he or she wants, but must realize that all their actions are being scrutanized. Halacha is there for people that are living their lives to still be able to connect to their religion on a regular basis even though they don't have time to delve into the sources.

This is the beauty of Judaism. It is not an external set of ideas that one must separate from regular life. Judaism is all about incorporating the religious ideals into every aspect of life. Even a person with no time can still be extremely devout because if one lives their life and acts in accordance with halacha then they are connecting to G-D and following His will.

Some people think that the only way to connect to G-D is to learn Gemorah all day. This is but one aspect of Judaism. The biggest idea is that one should live their life according to the Jewish way of life. By doing this, one connects to G-D since they are constantly thinking of Him and actively incorporating Him into life.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why Single Out Fire

In this week's parsha, Vayakhel, G-D tells the Jewish people that they are not allowed to work on the Sabbath. The work is not defined or clarified here in any way except that G-D says that one is not allowed to kindle a fire. G-D tells the Jewish people that one is supposed to work the six days of the week and on the seventh day the Jewish people are to rest. Why is this so and why is fire singled out?

The pasuk says:

3. You shall not kindle fire in any of your dwelling places on the Sabbath day."

Rashi tells us:

ג. לֹא תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת:

You shall not kindle fire: Some of our Rabbis say that [the prohibition of] kindling was singled out for a [mere] negative commandment, while others say that it was singled out to separate [all types of labor]. -[from Shab. 70a]
לא תבערו אש: יש מרבותינו אומרים הבערה ללאו יצאת, ויש אומרים לחלק יצאת:

Rashi tells us that some of the Rabbis believed it was just a simple commandment with no deeper meaning and others believed that it helped define what work was supposed to mean.
I have a very different idea that might be able to help us appreciate Shabbos in a whole new light.

Let me start by pointing out an argument between the Karites and the Jewish people in regards to Shabbos. The Karites would not have fire in their house on Shabbos whatsoever, even if it was kindled before Shabbos. In fact, this was the test by the Rabbinate of the time to tell if someone was a karite. The Rabbis said that this is a clear misrepresentation of the Shabbos day because only kindling a fire is not permitted, but surely a fire is allowed that was kindled before Shabbos started. In fact, there is even a commandment to light Shabbos candles in order to welcome in the Shabbos day.

Here is my take on why it is important to have a fire in a Jewish home to welcome in the Shabbos day. The main idea of Shabbos, as we read in kiddush every friday night, is to recall how G-D created the world. He formed and molded the world in six days (I am not getting into the age of the earth debate here, just symbolism) and on the seventh day he rested. Therefore, we remember that G-D is the creator of the universe by celebrating Shabbos. This is the whole point of Shabbos, to take out a day from our week and remember that G-D is the creator of the world and the controller of the universe.

Now, what does fire have to do with this? Fire (or heat) gives man the ability to create. Fire makes food edible, allows us to work our machines, and is the basic catalyst for everything. Without fire, we would be as primitive as the animals around us. Therefore, fire is forbidden on Shabbos so that we recognize that G-D is the creator of all things and not man. We, as a species, are self centered and self aggrandizing. For thousands of years we thought the universe revolved around us and most people still think the world revolves around them. Shabbos is the time to realize there is a higher power out there and there is more to just our self-centered lives.

Having a fire in the house that was lit for Shabbos also helps achieve this goal. It helps us recognize that before Shabbos, there was work in order to make Shabbos possible. It helps us attain a greater appreciation of the Shabbos day by focusing on the benefits of fire and how we are dependent on G-D for these benefits as well as the creation of the world.

This is why I think the Torah specifies creating a fire on Shabbos. If someone lights a fire on Shabbos then they are basically denying G-D's authorship of the world, or they are making the statement that they are unwilling to acknowledge that G-D created the world. Shabbos is the day to show our gratitude towards G-D. By abstaining from kindling fire and performing other melachos (work) we are showing G-D that we acknowledge that He is the creator of the world and that all power is in His hands.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Aharon and the Golden Calf

In Chapter 32 the Torah tells us of the conversation between Moshe and Aharon after Moshe returns to the camp. It says:

21. Moses said to Aaron: "What did this people do to you that you brought [such] a grave sin upon them?"
כא. וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל אַהֲרֹן מֶה עָשָׂה לְךָ הָעָם הַזֶּה כִּי הֵבֵאתָ עָלָיו חֲטָאָה גְדֹלָה:
Rashi Comments:
What did this people do to you:
How many tortures did you [Aaron] endure, that they tortured you until you brought this sin upon them?

מה עשה לך העם הזה: כמה יסורים (סבלת) שיסרוך [סבלת], עד שלא תביא עליהם חטא זה:

22. Aaron replied: "Let not my lord's anger grow hot! You know the people, that they are disposed toward evil.
כב. וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן אַל יִחַר אַף אֲדֹנִי אַתָּה יָדַעְתָּ אֶת הָעָם כִּי בְרָע הוּא:
Rashi Comments:
that they are disposed toward evil:
They are always going in a bad direction and testing the Omnipresent.

כי ברע הוא: בדרך רע הם הולכין תמיד ובנסיונות לפני המקום:

23. They said to me, 'Make us gods who will go before us, because this man Moses, who brought us up from the land of Egypt we do not know what has become of him.'
כג. וַיֹּאמְרוּ לִי עֲשֵׂה לָנוּ אֱ־לֹהִים אֲשֶׁר יֵלְכוּ לְפָנֵינוּ כִּי זֶה מֹשֶׁה הָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הֶעֱלָנוּ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לֹא יָדַעְנוּ מֶה הָיָה לוֹ:
24. I said to them, 'Who has gold?' So they took it [the gold] off and gave it to me; I threw it into the fire and out came this calf."
כד. וָאֹמַר לָהֶם לְמִי זָהָב הִתְפָּרָקוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ לִי וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה:
Rashi Comments:
I said to them:
one word only: “Who has gold?” [and not “give me your gold”], but they hurried and stripped themselves and gave it to me.

ואמר להם: אמרתי להם דבר אחד למי זהב לבד, והם מהרו והתפרקו ויתנו לי:
I threw it into the fire: I did not know that this calf would come out, but out it came.
ואשלכהו באש: ולא ידעתי שיצא העגל הזה ויצא:

25. And Moses saw the people, that they were exposed, for Aaron had exposed them to be disgraced before their adversaries.
כה. וַיַּרְא מֹשֶׁה אֶת הָעָם כִּי פָרֻעַ הוּא כִּי פְרָעֹה אַהֲרֹן לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם:
Rashi Comments:
Heb. פָרֻעַ, uncovered. Their shame and disgrace was revealed, as in “and he shall uncover (וּפָרַע) the woman’s head” (Num. 5:18).

פרוע: מגולה, נתגלה שמצו וקלונו, כמו (במדבר ה יח) ופרע את ראש האשה:
to be disgraced before their adversaries: Heb. לְשִׁמְצָה בְּקָמֵיהֶם, that this thing should be a disgrace for them in the mouths of all who rise up against them.
לשמצה בקמיהם: להיות להם הדבר הזה לגנות בפי כל הקמים עליהם:

I am completely baffled and bamboozled by this entire story according to Rashi. Was Aharon at fault or not? According to Rashi it seems like he was not, but then the Torah continues by saying that Moshe was angry at Aharon and Aharon was the cause of the disgrace to Israel. How, then, could Aharon be innocent of this sin?

The Ramban realized this difficulty in Rashi and therefore said:

(כא): מה עשה לך העם הזה כי הבאת עליו חטאה גדולה -
כמה ייסורים סבלת שייסרוך עד שלא תביא עליהם חטא זה. לשון רש"י.
ואיננו נכון בעיני, כי החטא הזה מן החטאים שייהרג עליהם ולא יעבור. ואולי אמר לו כן להגדיל אשמתו.

והנכון בעיני כי הוא כמו מה עשיתי מה עוני ומה חטאתי לפני אביך כי מבקש את נפשי (ש"א כ א). יאמר, מה שנאה הייתה לך עם העם הזה כי סבבת להשמידם ולכלותם. ומפני שהיה אהרן להם לאיש מוכיח ולמכפר, והיה ראוי שיחוס וירחם עליהם, אמר לו כן.

Loosely translated this means: This can not be correct since this sin that Aharon committed is Idol worship which is Yehareig vial yaavor (Be killed and do not transgress). How then can he blame the people for "forcing" him to do it, he should have died rather than make this golden calf. Therefore, the real meaning of this verse is not that Moshe was calling Aharon a victim, but the perpetrator of this heinous crime.

The Ramban tells us what really happened in this incident:
ויתכן שגם משה נכון לבו בטוח בצדקת אחיו שכוונתו לא הייתה רעה, אבל על אשמת העם האשים אותו, כי היה ראוי להוכיחם והם נכשלו על ידו. והוא השיב שהטעוהו בדבריהם:

He tells us that Aharon's intentions were pure and the pressure of the nation got to him, so he caved in. True, Aharon did make the Golden Calf, but every step of the way he tried to deter the nation from worshiping it. He tried to get them to attain gold from their family, but they used their own. He tried to get them to focus their efforts toward G-D by making a holiday to Hashem, but they sacrificed to the Golden Calf. Aharon thought he could control the situation, but he could not.

The fault of Aharon was that he thought he could handle a situation that was too big for him. This is why he says to Moshe that the nation is an evil people. Aharon was Mr. Optimist, what happened that he all of a sudden called the Jewish people evil? He was frustrated and let down that they followed through with their evil plan instead of allowing him to deter them.

The most valuable lesson we can learn from this is understanding our own limitations and how to respond with that. Aharon should have told the Jewish people that he would not make the golden calf no matter what. Had he done that then he would have totally prevented it or he would not have been involved at all. By involving himself, although his intentions were good, he legitimized the golden calf. This most probably allowed even more Jews to join in by thinking that Aharon was the one that created it so it must be kosher. Aharon bit off a little more than he could chew and this is why Moshe was angry at him and asked him why he caused the nation to sin. It was Aharon's involvement that caused the greatest Chillul Hashem (Desecration of the Name).