Tag Archives: Blessing

Parshat Nasso (2012)


Parshat Nasso
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The Priestly Blessing: What Does It Mean to Have Favor?

Last year we explored the ritual of the Sotah the ancient ceremonial practice for a suspected adulteress. This parsha also talks about the almost ascetic Nazarite vow. And among these seemingly otherworldly mitzvot is the command of the Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly Blessing.

In our tradition few things are considered more sacred than the Birkat Kohanim, and probably nothing is more loved. That is because this ritual is one of the deepest rooted traditions in all of Judaism. Those who are critical of biblical representation of history have had to concede to the ancientness of this traditional blessing after finding it partially preserved on a silver scroll dating from the 7th century BCE, which is the latter part of the Assyrian exile. This predates the previously presumed authorship in the post-exile period in the days of Ezra the prophet. The item was a personal amulet, showing that already in those days this blessing was a considered deeply endearing and culturally pervasive.

The ethereal nature of this benediction comes from the honored place that it has in our tradition as being the height of blessing during the Temple service in ancient times. This was pronounced during the hight of the day and immediately after the priests would emerge from sacrificing in the Holy of Holies.

In order to distinguish and honor the Birkat Kohanim it became common Ashkenezi tradition that it be recited by the Kohanim – the living descendants of the priesthood – on high holidays when one was in a mindset of joy and expectation. The priests are called up during the Musaf service, to remove their shoes, wash their hands, lift hands to the sky and recite the ancient blessings presented to us here in this parsha. Though Sephardim (Jews from Spain through the Middle-east) have maintained the older custom of it being recited on weekdays as well during the Mincha prayer service; thus Jews in Israel and Sephardim worldwide are accustomed to recitation of the Priestly Blessing daily.

Though today in modern Israel nothing is more spectacular than watching the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim said from the Kotel – the Western Wall in Jerusalem, outside of the site of the Holy Temple. The entire plaza filled with Kohanim lifting their hands, spread out under their tallitot, fingers spread uniquely and widely to represent the windows of heaven. It makes the scripture come alive for us, “Behold, He stands behind our walls, He looks in through the windows, peering through the lattices.” (Song of Songs 2:9) We reckon G-d peering down to us from the windows of heaven to send us blessing. We cover our eyes in reverence, and do not attempt to peer knowing that we cannot comprehend such greatness anyhow; but as we stand facing the priests we look inwards to G-d and accept blessing into our lives.

And that is precisely the point that needs to be stressed about this blessing. Even though we call it the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing, it is actually not a blessing from the priests. Notice how our parsha begins:

“And Hashem spoke to Moses, saying:

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying:

This is how you shall bless

the children of Israel,

saying to them…”

| Vayedaber Hashem el-Moshe lemor.

| Daber el-Aharon ve’el-banav lemor

| koh tevarachu

| et-benei Yisra’el

| amor lahem…

Numbers 6:22-23

Let us follow the Rashi, and some other pieces of commentary to help us interpret this text. Though this blessing is short and simple, the meaning of these few words runs very deep.

What we notice first-off is that G-d is speaking to Moses, to tell Aaron and his sons to bless the people in this manner; and with these words. It is not something they thought up themselves, nor was it merely the advice of Moses. This is a mandate from G-d. Not just in that generation, but for all generations; as Rashi points out that it commands the Kohanim to “amor / say” in the infinitive tense, just like when we are commanded to “zachor / remember” (Exodus 20:7) and “shamor / keep” the Sabbath (Deuteronomy 5:11); meaning it is a perpetual commandment to do so from that time on to the present. This blessing is to be pronounced loudly and clearly, so that all can hear. It is to be said patiently and with full intention and concentration; as Rashi says “u’b’lev shalem / with wholeheartedness.” Even though they are pronouncing the blessing, it is G-d who is providing the blessing. This is made obvious to us from the first words of the blessing:

“May Hashem bless you

and safeguard you:

| Yevarechecha Hashem

| veyishmerecha

יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהֹוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ:

There are three lines of blessings that are pronounced by the priests. It is the tradition that after each verse is said the congregation responds “amen” and “kein, yehi ratzon” in agreement and acceptance. This is our first blessing, that G-d should protect us, and keep us. That he should watch and guard over us.

Now one of the first questions we should ask ourselves is, “why should these blessings start this way?” Why do we start with this concern first? Any of us who have taken basic psychology in college will quickly see why, once we consider Rashi’s commentary. Despite the clearly and simply meaning being that G-d should bless and guard us, it does not just apply in extreme cases of G-d saving our lives. He does not watch over us like a superhero. It means G-d watching over and protecting us and our needs on all levels.

Bless: that your assets be blessed

|

Safeguard you:

that robbers should not come

and take your money…”

יברכך: שיתברכו נכסיך |

|

וישמרך: |

שלא יבואו עליך שודדים |

ליטול ממונך… |

Rashi on Numbers 6:24

The first blessing that G-d wishes to bestow upon us is for our physical needs, and also to grant us security. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where our needs are laid out like a pyramid as it is theorized, we as human tend to rate our needs from most fundamental to the auxiliary. Our basic needs are our first needs and foundation of the others, with our more abstract feelings and self-actualizing at the top. But in this theory of human behavior we cannot move on to other luxuries of healthy, higher human behavior until we get our most essential needs met. The first of these is our physiological needs; shelter, food, water, and sleep, and the like. What we need to live. Then second, closely tied to the first comes the need for safety; only when our physical needs are met can we even begin to consider our personal safety. For example, one doesn’t even have the luxury of consider the quality and safety of your home or food until they have those type of provision met. G-d seems keenly aware that He needs to start with what we need the most first! The rest of the blessings nicely follow this same patters.

Rashi begins to further explain this verse to us through a parable of sort in the latter part of his commentary to verse 24. He says its like if a master was to was to give a servant a gift, sadly you are not able to watch the gift once it is handed over so anyone can steal it from him. Rashi comments that this would be terribly sad. Quiet frankly it would be better if he had never gotten the gift at, if he never got any enjoyment out of it himself. Rashi thus explains that for this reason G-d not only gives us blessings, but the Almighty also protects those things He blesses us with as well.

Our second blessing continues the pattern:

“May Hashem cause His face to shine on you

and be gracious to you.”

| Ya’er Hashem panav eleicha

| vichuneka

יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וִיחֻנֶּךָּ:

In this we see the “face” of G-d, meaning the attention and consideration of the Divine, focused on us, radiating on us in pleasantness. G-d shinning His face upon us means to convey the mental picture of G-d turning to us with smile and laughter, aglow with happiness as He looks down upon us from heaven. But how Rashi literally describes it in his words is as smiling, breaking out into laughter, and “yellow-faced;” meaning radiating with pleasantness, instead of flushed with anger.

Now the second part of this blessing here is one of the parts of the Birkat Kohanim that I find the most interesting, as it’s probably one of the least understood parts. Actually its just a one-word phrase. “Vichuneka / and be gracious to you.” That is because most of us are more used to using this phrase poetically; “and deal kindly with you,” “have pity on you,” and more commonly “have mercy on you.” It is the last of these meanings that most properly conveys the literal and simple understanding of this word; as to chanan means to pardon someone, or grant them amnesty. It means to show merit-less mercy to a person. One does not presume to be worthy of G-d blessing them, but we do have full trust in the concept that G-d is gracious enough to want to bless us.

Rashi and our sages also break it down even more precisely for us to consider.

And be gracious to you:

Give you favor.”

ויחנך: |

יתן לך חן: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:25

Rashi’s interpretation gets to the heart of the word. Chen means grace; a noun. It is charm and etiquette, a beauty that comes with refinement and good form. When one shows another grace they mercifully look down upon someone with an attitude that is favorable.

This is not to say that we are expecting G-d to play favorites. Though it might appear so to outside people, this just isn’t the case. But what it does mean is that G-d, who is on a higher level of compassion and understanding, chooses to look down on us humble people in a kind way. It’s like the poise that one shows when they interact with a silly or confused child; you do not yell at them in their folly, but instead react with laughter and smiles. So should it be for us that Hashem should look upon us this way.

The Ohr haChaim explains it this way:

Be gracious to you, etc.:

Which should be interpreted by us to mean

grace and favor.

The reference of this interpretation

is from the verse:

‘And Hashem was with Yosef

and showed kindness unto him,

and gave him favor

[in the sight of the keeper of the prison].’

(Genesis 39:21)”

ויחנך וגו‘: |

פירוש יתן לך |

חן וחנינה, |

ועיין מה שפירשת |

י בפסוק: |

ויהי ה’ את יוסף |

ויט אליו חסד |

ויתן חנו |

וגו’: |

(בראשית לט, כא) |

Ohr haChaim on BaMidbar

The Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim ben Mosheh Ibn Attar z”l

of Morocco and master Kabbalist of Jerusalem

In this explanation we are shown the example of Yosef haTzadik – Joseph the righteous patriarch. He asks us to call to remembrance the situation in which Joseph was unjustly imprisoned in an Egyptian jail. He was in the most lowly situation possible, sold into slavery and then further humiliated by being wrongly incarcerated. But even in that situation G-d was with him, by providing a person that would do kindly for him. G-d gave him favor in the sight of the prison warden, who lightened his suffering as much as he could. May it be that G-d should do likewise for us, placing people above us who choose to look kindly upon us.

But G-d does not just wish to look down at us. He also wishes to look up at us! This is expressed in our final line of the Birkat Kohanim:

“May Hashem raise His face to you

and grant you peace.”

| Yisa Hashem panav eleicha

| veyasem lecha shalom.

יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ, וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם

Even during this most grandiose of religious rituals, when we are considering G-d and reverencing Him as the awesome and transcendent One in order to receive blessing from Him, G-d does not ask us to humiliatingly grovel before Him. Instead G-d takes a remarkably accessible and demure position when considering us for this final blessing.

“May Hashem raise His countenance toward you:

by suppressing His wrath.”

ישא הפניו אליך: |

יכבוש כעסו: |

Rashi on Numbers 6:26

G-d restrains any inclination to react towards us in a way that appears to bear anger or scorn. G-d says He wishes to restrain and hold back His wrath; and unlike us humans, not become overcome by rage. Instead His will is to level His anger, and look up towards us to grant us peace. Amein, so should it be for us and all Israel.

Again, this is not just our wish for ourselves, nor just an extension of the good wishes of the Kohanim. This is G-d’s wish for us. For this reason it calls back to remember who is really doing the blessing here, it is G-d through the benediction of the Kohanim:

“And so shall you bestow My Name

upon the Children of Israel

and I shall bless them.”

| Vesamu et-shemi

| al-benei Yisra’el

| va’ani avarachem.

Numbers 6:27

The blessing is a way for G-d to connect with the people, to attach His essence with them. The priests would bless them with His explicit Name, Havayah (יהוה). They stand as witnesses to this blessing and partners in the mitzvah of pronouncing it, but the blessing is G-d’s insomuch as He is the one to actually bring it to fruition in our lives. This blessing is the Birkat Kohanim because they stand as witnesses, but it is G-d’s Holy Name that endorses this blessing.



Parshat Bechukotai (2012)


Parshat Bechukotai (2012)
Leviticus 26:3–27:34

Answering the Question: “Why did G-d make this happen to me?”


And you will flee when no one is pursuing you” (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם, Lev. 26:17) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

With this weeks parsha we are completing the Book of Leviticus. This year this parsha is paired together with Parshat Behar as a double-parsha. This entire book of Leviticus has been related to the establishment of the Miskhan (the Tabernacle) and detailing the service and expectations that was laid upon the people of Israel. As we start this parsha we notice that all of a sudden the tone switches from talking about the responsibilities of the nation, to stating what the benefits and consequences of adherence to the Torah’s commandments are.

This parsha is quite short, less than two complete chapters in it’s entirety. And the aliyot (the individual readings) are also quite short as well. Normally people would be thrilled that they have a shorter section to learn to lein (Yiddish meaning cantillation, read in its proper melody from the Torah scroll), but this is not an easy reading. The sections that detail the curses and judgments are most often read by the most competent reader, because according to our tradition it is to be delivered in a very different fashion from any other Shabbat Torah reading; it is to be read in a whispering tone, and as quickly as possible. We read it this way in order to not arouse or incite judgment, and so that we do not dwell on negativity.

Though the differences become apparent even before the reading begins. Normally being called up to the Torah is the greatest honor one can have. In our tradition we are so repulsed by the idea of leveling judgment against people that the person who is called up to read these sections of curses does not allow themselves to be customarily called up by name to honor them for their reading. No matter how “qualified” one is in Torah learning, we are never to take pride in being associated with the calamity that befalls someone for their wrongdoing.

The world-over it is the general custom of the religious leaders to make themselves famous for preaching fire and brimstone. People literally yelling from the rooftops, with great satisfaction in themselves, all the ways that one can be harmed and punished. But here when it comes to delivering the tragedy of punishment we as Jews are not allowed to raise our voices, nor are we to linger upon the suffering of the sinner. We discuss it because we must, but G-d forbid that this happen to someone. We mildly and quickly get through this task as we take no joy in it.

The difficulty of reading this parsha though really is more in the message, more so than being an issue of skill. It is especially difficult for the Jewish people because it really does seem to begin going through a point-by-point presentation of the sufferings Jews have experienced, even though this was written long before the expulsions and persecutions in exile.Sadly we know the Torah is right about this because it really happened, and so recently in our history that it pains people greatly still to this day in a very raw way. These things can happen, it’s a tragic truth. In light of this the discussion then naturally seems to lead to asking “why,” instead of debating the “if.”

But if we are to answer the question that is expressed as “Why did this happen? Did we really deserve this?” we must first deal with an even less sophisticated question that goes, “How can a good G-d do this? Why did He make this happen?” It’s almost seems like a fair question because the horrors in this parsha are so extreme it seems inconceivable that G-d would do these things to His people. The key error lies in the understanding of the words “do” and “make,” implying such calamity is the work of G-d.

But unsophisticated questions tend to demand equally ill-formed answers. The way the gentile nations have generally answered this question is by turning to polytheism, good gods do good and bad gods cause evil. Their attempts at monotheism are still even colored through this perception, in which evil is personified in “the devil.” However, as Jews we are not permitted this luxury of dualism. We are challenged to have to deal with G-d’s role in all this because the scriptures clearly tell us that both good and evil are caused by Him alone. We read in book of Isaiah the profound declaration:

“From the rising of the sun and from the west

there is nothing besides Me

I am Hashem, there is nothing else.

I form light and create darkness,

makes peace and creates evil;

I Hashem do all these things.”

| “Mimez’rach shemesh umima’aravah

| ki-efes bil’adai:

| ani Hashem v’ain od

| yotzer or uvorei chosech,

| oseh shalom uvorai ra;

| ani Hashem oseh kol eyleh”

Isaiah 45:6-7

Traditional Judaism has always maintained this understanding of G-d, because logic naturally dictates that if G-d is omnipotent (all powerful) then everything must be ordered by Him alone. However, orthodoxy is neither naïve nor trite. It does not place G-d in the position of a tit-for-tat enforcer nor does it over simplify the nature of individual suffering, our tradition can’t because the scriptures do not suggest this at all.

I don’t want to spend too much time on this point, because it really is basic Judaism; but something I can go into volumes with. Verse 7 above is paraphrased as part of our liturgical reading of the morning, it is said daily as part of the blessings to the Shema (our most holy confession). We recognize that G-d creates the world daily. G-d is active in the world, not in just some distant point in history but still today and everyday renewing the act of creation. However this is a distinct difference between what is formed and made, and that which is merely created. In the void He formed the world, fashioning it; G-d made the universe. And when He formed it He created it in a balanced state of fullness and light, He provided everything that was needed to sustain that world. However, evil and woe are like darkness. They not necessarily a thing, it’s the void and aftermath that is left as a result in the breakdown of the proper function and order in our lives. Other times its just a the absence of the good stuff getting to that place yet. There are two lessons in that: 1) that just like life has good times, there are also bad times, 2) woe and hardship are not a formulated response, but merely the unfortunate result of things not going according to ordered plans.

G-d as creator made us to function well, under good and optimum circumstances just like any good designer would. G-d created this world as a brilliant form of craftsmanship, with all the features and accessories needed to help us get the job done. For us to be mad when life breaks-down is like being upset with a manufacturer because our plans for using their product didn’t pan out or we just didn’t use it properly. It isn’t realistic or proper for us to look at the world that way. The responsibility of the Divine was to give us the best chance in real situations, not to vow to save us against from every possible annoying fluke.

When we comprehend that, then we can be a bit more adult in our ways of looking at the words “do” and “make.” G-d doesn’t do anything to us, any more than He makes us do anything; those are very childish words if we use them in this tone. Instead G-d takes responsibility in being the creator who created us to function best when in line with His instructions. He should not been seen as a manufacturer who is designing a product to blow up in our faces at the first wrong step.

So in this mentality G-d nonetheless takes responsibility. He stands behind His product, disclosing what it takes for it to perform properly and warning us of how to troubleshoot when things go wrong. Because things most certainly do have a habit of going wrong at some point, that is the nature of life.

Troubleshooting Life

Do you need to troubleshoot life? I know I do, and often. Any of you who have ever worked for a help-desk know troubleshooting skills not just requires the knowledge of the complex, but also attention to the subtle. The range of what someone points to as “wrong” can span from a total malfunction to merely just someone’s baseless dissatisfaction.

One of the first tedious parts of troubleshooting is to have to go over the instructions. Are we doing everything that we are supposed to do in order to get the appropriate results? Our text explains to us as follows:

“And if you do not listen to Me,

and do not do all these commandments,

and if you grow tired of My orders

and if you loath My laws

so that you will not do all My commandments

and thus break My covenant,

after that I will make this to happen to you…”

| V’im lo tish’mu li;

| v’lo ta’asu et kol ha mitzvot ha’eileh

| v’im bechukotai tim’asu

| v’im et mishpatai

| tig’al nafshechem l’vilti asot et kol mitvotai

| l’hafrecheim et briti,

| Af ani ei’eseh zot lachem

Leviticus 26:14-16a

The Torah warns us if we do not abide by all these ways we are breaking our “terms of service agreement.” If we do this we are gonna break our lives! No really, look at the text again. It first wants to make sure that we understand the seriousness of what we are doing.

Then the text goes into explaining what to look out for, the warning signs of malfunction:

“I will appoint upon you panic;

with consumption and fever,

and I will completely destroy your sight,

and make you depressed,

and you will sow your seed in vain,

and your enemies will eat it.

|

And I will set my face against you

and you will be defeated before you enemies;

and you will flee

when no one is pursuing you

| V’hifkadeti aleichem behalah

| et ha’mishachepet ve’et hakadachat

| m’chalot einaim,

| umedivot nafesh;

| uz’ra’tem larik zar’achem

| va’achaluhu oi’veichem.

|

| V’natati panai bachem,

| v’nigaf’tem lifnei oi’veichem;

| v’radu vachem son’eichem

| v’nas’tem v’ain rodeif at’chem

Leviticus 26:16b-17

The first troubles that the Torah presents us with as signs of judgment are subtle and mild, but can easily be mistaken for something else all together.

This first wave of curses is very perplexing and even troublesome. What are we saying about G-d; that He causes us to have panic, depression and such? Are we saying that G-d takes control of our emotions in order to wreck them? And these inflictions, are we suggesting that G-d causes illness in us?

In our tradition the points of free-will and the fairness of such a course of actions is not even an issues to grapple with. The Rambam interprets Midrash Rabba concerning creation to be surmised in the idea that “only good descends from G-d above.” (Rambam, Guide For The Perplexed, III:X; concerning Midrash Rabba Chapter 1, p. 266). When G-d creates He makes everything good, just as we read in the creation story the continual phrase is used “and G-d saw all that He created and behold it was good.” And we firmly believe G-d does not give illness nor does He impose on our emotions. How can it be that here we have G-d being described as causing both physical and mental inflictions?

The Rambam, as a physician, gave us a unique perspective in how to interpret this. In fact he gives us one of the only interpretations from among the classics that we have to examine. That is not to say the commentators didn’t deal with these verses, they wrote lengthy commentary on these sections. However, they could only give us a description of what the symptoms were. The Rambam was more concerned with what the cause was. As a physician he realized that in order to bring remedy we must first recognize the cause, as a condition is not merely a set of symptoms that need to be alleviate. The symptoms of illness are merely a reflection of the extent to which disease has advanced.

As pointed out the world was created “good,” and in fact when all the living creatures were created He declared that everything was “tov me’od / very good;” (Genesis 1:31). He created life and the world good, and then some. Nonetheless as we have learned from Isaiah, G-d does say that He causes ra – harm, evil, and calamity. However, as the Rambam point out early on in the Guide, things such as good and evil are only descriptions in relations to something. He says this is like saying “round” or “flat.” Not either physical property is good or bad necessarily, it is just a description of how we perceive something. How it looks to us. Such words are very similar in meaning and relation to the terms emet and sheker; true and false. It’s a description and qualification, not a judgment or characterization.

The Rambam explains to us that this similarly can also be applied to the words oseh and bara; makes and created. When G-d created to world He created, meaning he made something from nothing. There was nothing, no universe or anything to function. Then He created the world purposefully, everything He made has a function. He points out that that G-d also created things such as the mouth, eyes and ears so that we can speak, see, and hear. Though the Rambam points out the following verse to demonstrate his philosophical view of what happens when something goes wrong in this natural world:

“And Hashem said to him:

Who places a mouth in man,

or who makes one mute,

or deaf

or see

or blind;

I Hashem.”

| Vayomer Hashem elav

| mi sam peh la’adam

| o mi-yasum ilem

| o cheresh

| o fike’ach

| o iver halo

| anochi Hashem.

Exodus 4:11

The Rambam explains that this verse teaches that each of the body parts were created for their function. That when the function is withheld it merely means that the body part doesn’t work properly, we don’t jump to the odd suggestion that a person must not have a mouth if they can’t talk, or eyes if they can’t see, nor ears if they can’t hear. But that G-d as maker of those body parts is the one who takes responsibility for the issue as He is he only thing in the universe, He is solely its creator, there is no one else to blame; He is responsible by default and does not shirk that in any way. Then He sums it up with “I am Hashem,” its okay to hold Me responsible; I’m big enough to take it.

But if we consider it, the above mentioned maladies are examples of things that are not necessarily inflictions, but withholding of an appropriate function; example, He gave a mouth but didn’t give the speech. We need to see the terrible things mentioned in our parsha as a mere result of G-d withholding blessing – and not necessarily imposing a causative and active role of punishment. He just isn’t providing what we need for our lives to work right. Nachon, got it?

Not Being Run Out: Sometimes we run from blessing, instead of being driven

I know I have kept you for a long study, with me ranting on. But it is very important for us to look at the symptoms, the characteristics of these maladies caused by us not living properly and according to the rules set out for our lives in Torah. And by looking at them we will also see that they are really things that have their root more in us than in G-d. They are:

Panic (בֶּהָלָה) – literally fear, and sudden terror. Panic and terror will begin to consume you. One will begin to be overcome by fear and frenzy.

Consumption (הַשַּׁחֶפֶת) – literally wasting disease and emaciation. One’s health looks swept away, they being to look anguished. Rashi says this means consumption of the face, so that one begins to look sad in the face due to wasting. People often used this term historically to describe illnesses like tuberculosis, wasted away and pained to that point.

Fever (הַקַּדַּחַת) – this is very simple to understand, it simple means fever, and the results of sever illness like malaria. But the Radak tells us this can be understood as “fire in the bones;” that is how intense the effects are. Rashi also sees this connotation, and says furthermore it can be understood as being fired up to the point one is enraged, and furious (citing Deut. 32:22) The fire inside, be it in our body or emotions, burns too hot and to our detriment. Fever like fury can overwhelm a person to the point of an overwhelming trembling and loss of control over their functions and composure.

Destroy your sight (מְכַלּוֹת) – G-d will allow our outlook to be destroyed. (Rav Hirsch) We begin to experience impairment of our faculties. As we look into our future all we will see is uncertainty and doubt, which leads to the next infliction…

Depression (וּמְדִיבֹת) – we will become overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness (Rav Hirsch). We will be overcome by debilitating depression and sorrow.

The parsha continues on describing other things that are less easily understood as being rooted in our own defect; that we will sow in vain, our enemies will reap from our hard work instead of us. But in the last clauses of verse 17 we see G-d does have a undeniable hand in all of this, because He sets His attention towards us and yet we are defeated by our enemies. G-d watches on, as we fall into calamity; not coming to our aid.

But before we get carried away and try to relieve ourselves of responsibility the Torah continues and shows a truly tragic truth of what happens when we live a life outside of Torah blessing, we aren’t run out from blessing; quite to the contrary.

And you will flee when no one is pursuing you (וְנַסְתֶּם וְאֵין רֹדֵף אֶתְכֶם) – we become overwhelmed by our own sense of paranoia. Instead of being driven out, we run ourselves off from a state of blessing by our own guilt, shame and fear of repercussions of our actions.

In the end, the yeridah – the descent and fall into bondage and foreign oppression is of our own doing. Often times we aren’t carried away, no one forces us out of a place of peaceful living; we are so haunted and hunted by our avoidance of our Torah responsibilities that we run from ourselves until we find we are not longer free to return on our own terms. It further describes this type of paranoia in verses 36-37, that we will become overwhelmed by insecurity, that even the rustling leaves will send us running in fright, like being chased by a sword though no one is there; that we are so overcome by our invisible fears that we, and those that accompany our descent, stumble over each other; running from insecurities rooted in our own conscience.

Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. Though there are all kinds of unspeakable things displayed for us as hardships for improper living and not honoring the Torah, G-d still holds out to us a hand of mercy. Though we might get worse, and worse, and worse yet the more we run from ourselves; in the end G-d says that He will not just write us off. No, instead He declares that no matter how far we run, He is intent on setting us right in the end; not to leave us ultimately to our disrepair.

“Yet even after all that, even

when they are in the land of their enemies

I will not reject them, nor abhor them,

nor grow tired of them

and then break my covenant with them –

for I am Hashem, your G-d

|

But I will for their sakes remember

the covenant of their ancestors,

whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt

in the sight of the nations,

that I might be their G-d:

I am Hashem.”

| Ve’af-gam-zot

| biheiotam be’eretz oiveihem

| lo-me’astim velo-ge’altim

| lechalotam

| lehafer briti itam

| ki ani Hashem Eloheihem.

|

| Vezacharti lahem

| brit rishonim

| asher hotzeti-otam me’eretz Mitzrayim

| le’einei hagoyim

| lihiot lahem le-Elohim

| ani Hashem

Leviticus 26:44-45

Though G-d does not write us off, and promises to ultimately grant redemption to use all, liberating us eventually; it does not necessarily say this life, though. It is true that all Israel has a share in the world to come (Pirkei Avot). But ignoring Torah has consequences. G-d does not cast people out of His kingdom for their humanity and faults; He will make a place for us all, in a way only He understands. It will come about by Him remembering His promise and the merit of our ancestors. This should comfort us. But on the other hand we should be a bit saddened by this explanation; because the truth is the suffering and being run amok could end at any time if we just decided to remember His covenant and the meritorious lives displayed by our Jewish ancestors.


Parshat Yitro (2012)


Parshat Yitro
Exodus 18 -20

Family: The duty which comes before even religion itself

And Yitro – the high priest of Midian,

father-in-law of Moses –

heard all G-d did

for Moses and for Israel, His People;

when Hashem brought Israel out of Egypt.

Moses’ father-in-law, Yitro, brought along

Tziporah, Moses’ wife.

After all, he had sent her away

along with her sons.”

| V’yishma Yitro, kohein midian,

| chotein Mosheh

| et kol asher asah Elohim

| l’Moshe ul’Yisrael amo

| ki hotzi Hashem et Yisrael mi mitzrayim.

| Vayikach Yitro chotein Mosheh

| et Tziporah eishet Mosheh

| achar shiluchei’ah

| v’eit vaneiha

Exodus 18:1-2

Jethro and Moses, as in Exodus 18, watercolor ...This parsha is one of the few parashiot that is named after a person. It is named after Yitro (Jethro) who is the father-in-law of Moses. Yitro is identified as the high priest of Midian. The people of Midian were a tribal people who were primarily identified with the region east of Eilat and Aqaba, on the Arabian peninsula. However they were a nomadic people, who likewise migrated through the Sinai peninsula. If you recall when Yoseph was sold into slavery he was sold to the Midianites, that are identified as traveling arab merchants (Gen. 37:28). This is all to say they were a significant people, a regional force. And Yitro as a high priest held a role best identified as a chieftain of his people.

What we are going to learn as we explore this parsha is that Yitro is going become a convert, and join with the people of Israel in this parsha. During his conversion ceremony he makes one of the first blessings recorded:

And Yitro said:

Blessed is Hashem who rescued you

from the hand of Egypt

and from the hand of Pharaoh;

who rescued the people from under

the hand of Egypt.

And now I know

that Hashem is greater

than all the deities.

As they planned, it happened back to them.”

| Vayomer Yitro,

| Baruch Hashem asher hitzil etchem

| miyad Mitzrayim

| umiyad Paroh

| asher hitzil et ha’am mitachat

| yad Mitzrayim.

| Atah yadati

| ki gadol Hashem

| mikol ha’elohim

| ki vadavar asher zadu aleihem.

Exodus 18:16-17

Yitro, like most converts, is most impressed with how greatly G-d has preserved the Jewish people both on a personal and on a national level. He thus invokes the Four-Letter Name of G-d (יהוה), because he has come to understand that greatness of G-d and to associate the G-d of Israel as the Supreme G-d, the Master of All. Yitro then goes on to offer sacrifice and offerings to Hashem; (v.18) followed by a communal meal in which Moses, Aaron and all the elders of Israel took part. This was not ecumenicism, this was understood as true and total conversion; the religious and dietary barriers no longer there as he is recognized among the congregation of Israel.

When we look at this parsha we should understand that the conversion of Yitro is a big deal, truly he was a celebrity in his day. His conversion attested to the credibility of the Hebrew faith and the openness to which it showed those who were drawn to follow this religion.

As we look at the commentary of the rabbis for the first verses of chapter 18 we are going to see a bunch of very interesting but seeming unrelated points. For example Rashi spends a great deal of time dealing with the fact that Yitro was a man who commanded great respect. He also states that since Moses met him he had associated his own success to his relationship with Yitro. The scriptural text and the rabbis go to great lengths to point out how now as Yitro comes before Moses he comes reverently, but Moses despite the seeming change in positions still shows deference and respect towards his father-in-law.

Through out this parsha Moses is going to respect Yitro as one would a parent. In a lot of ways, this is the nature of the relationship. Yitro apparently was without sons, this is why his daughters were doing the work of the tending the flock and were alone to be harassed when Moses encountered them the first time and rescued them. As the relationship grew and Moses married into the family of Yitro it is certain that it was Yitro who taught Moses everything he needed to know about how to survive the life of a shepherd nomad, a skilled and dangerous life he was not accustomed to. But we must remember first off that even though Yitro was like a father to Moses, he was the true father of Tziporah first.

So when Yitro comes to join Moses, he announces by messenger even before he arrives that he is bringing Tziporah and their two sons as well. (v.6)

Whats Going On With This Family?

The most obvious question that we are faced with when we approach this parsha is, “why is Moses separated from his family?” If we look at the commentary of Rashi for an explanation it gets an even more confusing at first. Rashi tells us that Yitro announced his coming with Moses’ wife and children, while hinting that Yitro believed that Moses might be unreceptive of them. Rashi says that Yitro considered that if Moses wouldn’t come out to greet and accept him, then he might instead be more inclined to do so for his wife, if not for her sake then he hoped certainly for the sake of his children. Why would he suggest this?

The simple reason is, Yitro’s concern comes from the fact that Moses has now become a man of great status since going down to Egypt, the roles have become reversed. Would Moses still be the endearing son-in-law or had he become too self-important for this type of relationship? Secondly, would Moses affirm his Midianite wife and their children or would he dismiss them as illegitimate?

Also, we must keep in mind that the children of Israel were coming to conquer the Land and settle it, whereas the Midianites are among the inhabitants of Canaan. As the story of the exodus continues the tension between Israel and Midian is going to increase, so by the time we get to the book of Numbers the Midianites will be aligned with the Moab in their war against the Israelites (see Numbers chapter 22, see Parshat Balak).

However, it appears that his concern is unfounded. When Moses approaches Yitro he will bow to the ground in respect, they will inquire of each others wellbeing warmly and Moses would welcome them into his tent. The relationship had not changed, Moses still showed respect and reverence for his father-in-law, even though Moses was now the spiritual leader and Yitro the student it would appear, but the love hadn’t wained in the least bit.

But it is still perplexing as to why Moses did not travel with his family, and they are only now joining him. Why did Moses appear to almost abandon his family while he went off to Egypt on his mission from G-d?

Rashi explains to us his commentary for the next verse:

Because

the Holy one, Blessed be He, said to him

while in Midian

‘Go, return to Egypt’ (Exod. 4: 19),

[therefore] ‘Moses took his wife

and his sons, etc.’

(Exod. 4:20)

And Aharon went forth to meet him,

near the Mountain of G-d.

[Aharon] said to him: ‘Who are

these with you?’

[Moses] said to him:

‘This is my wife that I married in Midian

and my sons.’

[Aharon] said ‘No!

We suffered enough regret because of the first of us

[who went down to Egypt],

and yet you want to go ahead

and increase them!’

And [Moses] then said to her:

‘Return to your father’s house,’

so she took her two sons and departed

[to Midian]”

כשאמר |

לו הקבה |

במדין |

לך שוב מצרימה, (שמות ד יט) |

ויקח משה את אשתו ואת |

בניו גו‘ |

(שם כ) |

ויצא אהרן לקראתו ויפגשהו |

בהר האלהים. |

אמר לו מי |

הם הללו. |

אמר לו |

זו היא אשתי שנשאתי במדין |

ואלו בני. |

אמר לו |

על הראשונים |

אנו מצטערים |

ואתה בא |

להוסיף עליהם |

אמר לה |

לכי לבית אביך |

נטלה שני בניה והלכה לה |

Rashi on Exodus 18:2

Rashi tells us that when Moses went down to Egypt he met-up along the way with his brother Aharon, who was also tasked with helping to liberate the people of Israel; the two working as a pair, Moses as prophet and Aharon as priest. When Moses finally encounters Aharon he asks him who he had brought along with him, among the people was his wife Tziporah and his two sons.

It appears to me that Moses would have most likely traveled with a band of Midianites, being nomadic merchants they could have easily made their way to Egypt going along with the regular trading caravans. Secondly, they would have needed assistance in actually crossing into Egypt, as our sages tell us the kingdom of Egypt had a closed border; the land bridge between Africa and Asia by means of the route past Gaza was easily secured, being only a small highway and not much more. Just as unlikely as Yoseph could have made it to Egypt without an escort, it is just as likely Moses would have also found entrance to be an obstacle. Moses is infiltrating into Egypt, where he is not welcome, most likely hiding among Midianite merchants to cross over.

Aharon is quick to object though when he realizes they are his family. He points out that the hostility of the Egyptians towards the children of Israel came about because only a few people came to settle there, 70 persons in total (Exodus 1:5). Aharon says that Moses would only be instigating further resentment if he came with more “illegal aliens.” So Moses instead sends his sons and wife back to Midian, to the house of Yitro as he is the cho’tan, (father-in-law), the male patriarch of their clan; therefore it is his responsibility to care her. Keep in mind that during this time in history women do not possess any autonomy, they are always answered and cared for by a male. If not their father or husband, then by another relative in their absence.

Now generally when someone divorced a wife, the custom was to send them back to their father’s house. Had Moses intended to end their marriage, or was he still her cha’tan; her husband, her man?

This is a real issue between them, as Moses and Tziporah had already suffered problems in their marriage related to Moses being seemingly more caught up in his task for G-d than showing concern for his own family. Immediately after the burning bush Moses and her would already face a crisis, as G-d had sought to kill their son because Moses had failed to circumcise him on their way down to Egypt. Tzipporah instead would perform it herself, saving his life. However, his lack of concern in the matter left her noticeably angry with him as she threw the foreskin at his feet; with her saying “ki chatan damim atah li / for you are a bloody husband to me.” (Exodus 4:25) One can only imagine how deep this sense of neglect and rejection ran. How relevant were they as family when Moses did not show concern to bring his son under the symbol of the covenant, almost like he is illegitimate?

In the end it appears that this fear and paranoia was unfounded, Moses still cared for them when they were reunited. But that doesn’t mean that this family still didn’t have some serious issues to work out. In our study of Parshat Shoftim we discussed how Yitro gave Moses advice on appointing judges and magistrates to hear cases for him, delegating so that he would not be overwhelmed settling all the matters of the people. Though Yitro’s words of wisdom offer a benefit to Moses, it wasn’t just to make his life easier; he expected better for his daughter and grandchildren. Moses could not fulfill his responsibility of husband and father while micromanaging the whole nation of Israel.

Moses, is truly “the most humble of men” as the Torah tells us (Numbers 12:3). Most people would resent having to take correction from the in-law. Furthermore, Yitro was now just a commoner among Israel, holding no position, and correcting him in his home and congregation; nonetheless Moses would take his correction to heart.

The reason the rabbis are forced to have to deal with this topic is because unlike other religions, abandoning your family for the call of G-d or in pursuit of asceticism is unthinkable in Judaism. Buddha abandoned the family he fathered and was rewarded with enlightenment. Jesus tells people that if one is not willing to reject their family for him then you are not worth of G-d. And those types of examples are not just metaphors, the followers of these and other like religions are not without a myriad of examples of people following through with this type of total abandon. However, among the Jews such a mentality is anathema. It’s a mitzvah – an obligatory commandment – to make a family, and then a responsibility to maintain it.

In the Tanya we learn that one of the human tendencies when having a religious experience is to want to abandon everything and merely connect with the spiritual. To the point that the soul wishes to leave the physical world behind and merge back into the world of Divine Essence. However, it points out that we instead are commanded to go back to our lives and do righteousness there. And in our mundane lives we elevate those things and encounters we have to holiness; that is our task.

Abandoning and neglecting ones family is something that most people and cultures would frown upon. For this reason people often need to have creative excuses to offer for their actions. The first one that is generally used by fanatics is that they know this is the will of G-d because He spoke to them. This reason is completely false, because we never have an example anywhere in the Scriptures where one was allowed to abandon their wife and children; such dispensation was not even given to Moses who spoke with G-d “face-to-face.”

The second reason usually given is that they are the only person who understands what G-d wants, He needs them. And this reason is just as false for the same reasons. No one knew G-d like Moses did, neither before him or after him (Deuteronomy 34:10). He was the writer of the Torah, no one knew the words of G-d, His laws and ways better than Moses. Though G-d called Moses to task, G-d did not essentially need Moses. Others were capable and needed to be accomplished in administering Torah justice in order for it to continue on anyhow. It was Moses’ job as teacher to enable the people to keep Torah, but he was not needed to make the system work. No one is so wise that without their help G-d is handicapped, it was not true for Moses and certainly it isn’t true for any us.

Moses did fulfill his calling, but also at this point arises to his responsibility as head of his family. He was just as responsible for his job as leader as he was being father to Gershom and Eliezer. Not for any lofty purposes, his role as father was not so that he could produce a dynasty; in fact his sons never become men of any importance at all. He was merely fulfilling his fatherly duty because it was the right thing.

No matter who we are, and how important we think our mission in life is, if we put anything before our own family the scriptures speak to us “lo tov hadavar asher ata oseh / this thing that you are doing is not good!” (Exodus 18:17)


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