Thursday, January 19, 2017

Parshat Shemot - Believing for a Better Future

Parshat Shemot commences the chapter of exile and servitude for the Jewish people in the land of Egypt. Thus begins the torment that Pharaoh and the Egyptians brought upon the Jews, with the murder of the infant boys, the back-breaking labor, and the ravaging of the slave’s wives, causing great anguish to our nation. A very dark period indeed.

The Torah says: “A man went from the House of Levi, and he took a daughter of Levi...The woman conceived and gave birth to a son.” (2:1) That man was Amram, and the woman was Yocheved. The son would grow up to be Moshe Rabbeinu, who would eventually lead the Jewish people out of Egypt, out of slavery.

Rashi (ibid.) explains the significance of this background information: “He [Amram] had been separated from her [Yocheved] because of the decree of Pharaoh, and he remarried her...he went on the account of his daughter [Miriam]’s advice who said to him “your decree is more severe than that of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh decreed only on the boys, but you have decreed as well on the girls…”

Amram remarried Yocheved because Miriam argued that his actions were in fact worse than Pharaoh! This obviously begs the question: Surely Amram understood on his own that to refrain from procreation altogether is more destructive than killing only one gender. So why did Amram leave Yocheved to begin with? And if Amram had a strong justification for his actions, what was it about Miriam’s argument that so convinced her father to change course?

The Gemara in Sotah (12a) sheds some light on the dynamics of Amram’s decision. The Gemara states that Amram exclaimed upon hearing the decree: “Our effort is for naught, he then arose and divorced his wife, thereupon all the men arose and divorced their wives.” The Sifri in Devarim (26:7) explains that “effort” refers to the sons (see the Meharsha in Sotah as well). Because of Pharaoh's decree, Amram felt that any efforts at building the nation, at building society, were for naught. Pharaoh’s cruelty was so great that he decreed even to kill the male babies of his own countrymen (Rashi 1:22). The hatred that Pharaoh had for the Jewish people was so strong that he was willing to mass-murder the babies of his own people, lest the savior of the Jews be born through them. So jarring, and so depressing, was the prospect of bringing children into this world, in the face of such evil. In this time, a period so dark and destructive to our nation and to the world, perhaps Amram did not want to have any children exist, only to suffer at the sight of this abuse.

However Miriam argued against this sentiment. She reasoned that no matter the situation, even at the worst of times, we must continue to move forward at all costs – we must continue to grow and build. We cannot let the destroyers deter us from progressing. We must approach life with the attitude that things will improve, and remain strong in the hope that we will see a better day. Yes, they are killing our boys, but do not let them win by stopping us from raising the next generation. This argument compelled Amram to return to Yocheved. Moshe, the מושיען של ישראל, was born and lead the Jews out of Egypt.

An attitude of despair was quite prevalent in the world post-holocaust; many made the calculation, understandably so after losing their entire families to the Nazis and witnessing the depravity of the world, to leave Judaism and to “check out” from society. How can one, after experiencing such evil, face the world with starry-eyed visions of תיקון עולם? How can one be expected to trust the world again?

Yet there were also those select few, dreamers and optimists, who did not allow the experience of evil to corrupt their view; rather they drew strength from the mission that they felt Providence had foisted upon them to build a new world. Orthodoxy was all but assumed dead in post WWII America, but the pioneers stayed strong and forged ahead, for they continued to look forward, girding themselves with the strength of the past, of their ancestors, to hope for a better future. And just a few years after the destruction of European Jewry, the sociologist Egon Mayer, in his book, From Suburb to Shtetl: The Jews of Boro Park (1979) with a study of the Orthodox Jewish community in the 1970’s, concluded: “they were facing a cultural renaissance, rather than the complete assimilation considered inevitable by much of the previous sociological literature on the subject.” (Beyond the Melting Pot, Alberto Bisen and Thierry Verdier – N.Y.U 2000). Today we reap the benefits of those optimists’ “efforts”; they were not for naught.

My wife is a descendent of two such dreamers, who settled in America and built a Torah home. After losing their 4 children in the war, they rebuilt their family from scratch and today, their many grandchildren and great-grandchildren are proud Torah Jews bringing pride to the Jewish people and Hashem. I hope and pray that I can instill in my family and coming generations this same sense of mission, and the hope that the world can, and will be a better place.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Parshat Vayechi - Beyond Death

In this week's parsha after all the tumultuous episodes in the life of Yaakov, Yaakov knows his time is coming to an end. And just as his father Yitzchak had done, and his father Avraham before them, he attempts to sort out his affairs and bless his children. He requests of Yosef not to bury him in Egypt, rather his will is to be buried with his forefathers and wife Leah in Eretz Yisrael in the Ma’arat Hamachpela. Later he blesses Ephraim and Menashe and all the rest of the Shevatim. Ultimately Yaakov’s mission in this world draws to a close as the Torah says: “When Yaakov finished instructing his sons, he drew in his feet onto the bed; he expired and was brought in to his people” (49:33). Thus concludes the difficult life of Yaakov.

The Gemara in Ta’anit (5b) makes a perplexing statement:

א''ר יוחנן יעקב אבינו לא מת
Rav Yochana said: Yaakov, our forefather, did not die

There are a multitude of explanations of this passage, some interpret it literally, others allegorically. However, Rav Tzadok, in his Sefer Resisei Layla (אות נו׳) explains that Yaakov perfected himself so, and lived on such a high spiritual level. Consequently, while normally the physical body is at odds with the spiritual, for Yaakov, the body was not a contradiction to his soul. The process of death, as is known in Kabbalah, is a wrenching and painful process of the soul being removed from the body, known as חיבוט בקבר. As the soul moves to the next world, it is confronted with the decay of the body. Since the soul has been housed in the body for so many years, this process serves to “re-train” the soul to dissociate itself from the body, and it is a painful process indeed. Yaakov, however, due to his greatness, had so divested himself of this עלמא דשיקרא that the process of “death” meant as little to him as one who removes a coat. The transition of the soul leaving the body was merely the shedding of an ancillary skin. In this way, death did not exist for Yaakov, thus, “Yaakov, our forefather, did not die”.

Still, I have wondered, what was so significant in particular about Yaakov Avinu that he reached this exalted status? Did not Avraham and Yitzchak Avinu also live on such “angelic” levels that they too should be considered as having “not died”?

Rashi in Vayeishev (37:1) quotes the Midrash Rabbah (פד-ג):

וישב: ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה, קפץ עליו רוגזו של יוסף…
Yaakov desired to dwell in tranquility, [but] the pain of [the] [episode of] Yosef seized upon him.

The Midrash elaborates that HaShem exclaims: “is it not enough that the righteous will receive their share in the World To Come, but they also want tranquility in this world?” Meaning, Hashem in a sense deliberately gives challenges and withholds “rest” from the righteous, in this world. But why? What does this accomplish for them? And what is wrong with desiring tranquility? Is it not conducive to accomplishing our goals? Wouldn't a life of serenity allow Yaakov the “head space” to grow further in his service of Hashem?

In discussing this Midrash, the Alter of Novharadok (מדרגת האדם - נקודת האמת) makes an important distinction. There are two specific, but very different, states that a man can reach: שלוה and מנוחה. Shalva, explains the Alter, is when all of a man's needs are met. Of course, in this state, man can find a sense of calm and achieve great things. However it has one caveat: the minute one is lacking any particular “need,” he can be thrown into a tizzy of confusion or even madness, thus uprooting all his gains. Menucha, on the other hand is a much loftier level with greater stability. It is a state where man has peace of mind, but not because his needs have been met, but rather despite his lack of those needs. He has risen above; he has in fact uprooted his desires completely and is unchained, able to grow as he wishes.

The Alter explains that this was the “mistake” that Yaakov made, for Yaakov was asking not for this elevated state of Menucha, but rather he wished for Shalva. He wished to live out his final days in tranquility serving Hashem as his father had done. In response, Hashem sent Yaakov the episodes of Yosef. According to the explanation of the Alter, Hashem did this in order to convey to Yaakov the following message: the only way to truly grow is through challenges. When faced with difficulties, if a person rises to the challenge he can discover strengths within himself that he did not know existed. Rather than avoid dealing with the challenge and being left “as is”, he gains tools to handle anything that comes his way. These gains are concrete, they cannot be shaken when he is faced with lack of needs. Now, he has no needs. He has only strength.

However, the response to pain and trauma can go two directions: he can either bow to the pain, and let it overtake him building a protective shell that separates himself from humanity. Or he can embrace the challenges and allow it to be the harbinger of metamorphosis from a mere man to a totally different being, an elevated being that “doesn’t die”. Not because he is entirely above this world, but because he has risen beyond, through the realities of this world. For trials and tribulations have the power to cleanse a person from the alluring facades of this world, to give a person a laser-sharp focus on what is truly important: G-d, Torah, our families, and giving to others.

Yaakov, who suffered immeasurably in this world, whether it was Eisav, Dinah, Lavan and his trickery, the death of Rachel, or Yosef's absence, Yaakov had indeed risen to a higher level through his “few and bad...years of his life” (47:9). Yaakov’s comment was not a complaint to Pharoah but a statement of fact that his life did not compare to the quality of life that of his fathers, yet he had risen to new elevated status, seemingly even above them. Yaakov achieved a state where he was not attached to this world, and this lack of attachment to his body meant that he did not die.

May we all be able to recognize the strengths in ourselves through our challenges and use them to grow in our connection to Hashem and our true values in life.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Parshat Vayigash - Nothing Too Small

In this week's parsha, the episode of Yosef and his brothers culminates with their reunion. Yosef finally reveals himself, and all appears to be forgiven as Yosef proclaims: “Do not be distressed, nor reproach yourself for having sold me here, for it was to be a provider that G-d sent me ahead of you…Thus G-d has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land and to sustain you for a momentous deliverance” (45:5-7).

In this light, Yosef offers the brothers to move down to Goshen, promising to support them, saying: “And I will provide for you there – for there will be five more years of famine – so you do not become destitute, you, your household, and all that is yours” (45:11).

The Ba’al Haturim discusses Yosef's insistence on his father and the brothers coming to Mitzrayim: “It is good for you to come here [Egypt] even if it means to leave the land of Israel, for you may become destitute in Torah, as you may not be able to learn Torah because of the famine…” The Ba’al Haturim explains that the motivation for the family to move was not material concerns, but rather spiritual; that perhaps the famine may cause them to “become destitute” in their Torah study.

The reason to leave the land to protect one’s Torah study is not without precedent, as codified in the Rambam (Melachim 5:9):
“It is always prohibited to go from the land of Israel to outside of the land, except to study Torah or to marry a woman or to save (possessions) from non-Jews, and [then] to return to the land. And so [too] may he go out for business. But to dwell outside the Land is prohibited unless there is intense famine…”

However, we could ask the following two questions on the Ba’al Haturim cited above. Firstly, why does he base the reason for leaving the Land, not on account of the famine, but rather because of limmud haTorah? From the Rambam we see that famine is apparently an even more valid reason, as it is even permitted to dwell in Chutz L’Aretz due to a famine, while one is only permitted to leave temporarily for Torah. What in particular about Torah study necessitates leaving the Land in this case? Additionally, what does the Ba’al Haturim mean in saying that the Shevatim would become “destitute in Torah”? Are we not talking about our great ancestors? How is it possible that they would become destitute, ie. completely lacking, in Torah study due to a famine? The very idea that they would abandon their Torah seems preposterous.

We could say the Ba’al Haturim is alluding to a profound insight about the study of Torah. Of course the Shevatim would have continued to study while remaining in the Land of Israel, even amidst the famine. Nonetheless, despite their dedication, the famine would inevitably affect their learning on even the most minute of levels. In some miniscule way, their understanding might be lacking. Their concern and sensitivity for this small decrease thus necessitated leaving the land.

However, one could think that the allowance to leave the Land of Israel to learn Torah only applies to those who are unable learn at all in the Land, or if their staying in Israel would be a severe impediment to their success in Torah study. But how do we know that if someone were to encounter a slight drop, that he would be permitted to leave? Perhaps this is what we learn from the Shevatim and their move: that even the slightest decrease in one's Torah learning is so tragic that it requires leaving Eretz Yisrael.

From this explanation we can come to a deeper appreciation of every bit of Torah, no matter how “small.” In truth, when it comes to Torah learning, nothing is small and no attainment is insignificant. Therefore, even the potential loss of some of it is taken with utmost seriousness. Each piece of Torah is immensely valuable in its own right as well as a step towards even greater knowledge. Too often, we can fall into despair, feeling that our achievements are worthless; or that if we were to undertake something new, we would not succeed. This is a cancerous attitude, which only serves to impinge on our happiness – the ultimate key to progress. And happiness aside, this mentality surely stunts any potential growth, as it forces us into defeat before we even begin! This mindset must avoided at all costs and discarded immediately. Rather, we should learn to view any and all accomplishments not only a sign of progression, but as having tremendous value unto themselves. They can then foster a positive attitude which will be the key to our ultimate, higher goals.

We should be blessed with this level of spiritual recognition and inculcate this attitude of growth within ourselves.

Shabbat Shalom

Naftali Kassorla

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Parshat Mikeitz/Channuka - Rising to the Occasion

Last week’s parsha concludes with Yosef in prison after having been accused of assaulting Potiphar’s wife. Placed with the Sar Ha’mashkim and the Sar Ha’ofim, he successfully interprets their dreams. Yosef requests of the Sar Ha’mashkim to remember him and mention his name to Pharaoh to be released. However, the Sar Ha'mashkim forgets, and Chazal say that as a punishment for putting faith in the wrong place, Yosef remained confined for an extra two years. Next, Pharaoh is stricken with dreams for which he cannot find a meaningful interpretation. Finally, the Sar Ha’mashkim recalls Yosef and suggests that he be summoned to interpret the dreams.

Pharaoh sends for Yosef, and in a flash he is brought before Pharaoh. Pharaoh gives great honor to Yosef saying, “I have dreamt a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I heard it said of you that you comprehend a dream to interpret it.” Pharoah ascribes a tremendous amount of power to Yosef, that he alone can interpret the dream. Yet Yosef responds, ״בלעדי אלוקים יענה את-שלום פרעה״ – “That is beyond me; G-d will respond to Pharoah’s welfare.” Rashi explains Yosef's response, “That is beyond me” as:  “The wisdom to interpret dreams is not mine, rather ‘G-d will respond’ that is, He will put a response in my mouth ‘for Pharoah’s welfare.’”

The Mesiach Ilmim (רבי יהודה כלץ), a commentary on Rashi, expounds on this as follows: The word בלעדי does not mean “other than me”; Yoseph did not tell Pharaoh, “I will not answer. G-d is the one who will respond instead.” Yosef was actually saying that although the capability of interpretation comes from G-d alone, Yosef would act as the conduit of G-d in relaying the messages. Rather than remove himself from something he was incapable of doing, he recognized his position as G-d’s messenger.

This is such a powerful idea for us, for so often we are confronted with challenges that may seem impossible, which feel like they can only be overcome by G-d himself! We feel that we cannot muster the strength or the wisdom to know the right thing to do, and to be able to do it. Or perhaps we have lofty goals that we feel incapable of accomplishing. Yet if we let go and ascribe all greatness to G-d, if we recognize that the results are ultimately decided by Him alone and realize that we are merely His messengers, we can overcome any challenge and reach heights of wisdom that we could not fathom to have reached on our own. We should not cower when faced with daunting tasks, but rather view ourselves as second to the All-powerful King for Whom no challenge is too great. In that light, we can do anything with His help.

This is a fitting message for the holiday of Chanukkah, when Hashem “delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” Rather than capitulate when faced with the sheer absurdity of the imbalance, both in numbers and strength, the Chashmonaim – scholars of  the Torah – trusted in G-d. Their shortcomings did not cause them to fear, but instead to submit themselves to Hashem’s mission, and they emerged victorious.

This should give us chizzuk in all our endeavors, small and great. With G-d’s help, may we grow and accomplish the so called “un-achievable”.

Shabbat Shalom
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