For the Sake of His Glory

dvar for parashas Va’eira 5783

“For this cause have I made thee to stand [endure], to show thee My power, and that My name may be declared throughout all the earth.” – Exodus 9:16, JPS 1917 Tanach

“G-d’s name would be declared from generation to generation because of the signs which He performed.” – Ibn Ezra, sefaria.org

H’Shem continually hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could remain recalcitrant against G-d’s divine plan to free B’nei Yisrael from bondage, and endure the subsequent plagues; thus, this may be understood as enabling Pharaoh to continue in his resistance. As the ruler of Egypt, the world’s leading superpower at that time, Pharaoh was not interested in receiving a higher authority than himself.

Even his so-called gods, the Egyptian deities that his people worshipped, were approached from the perspective of gaining outcomes that would best suit his own ambitions. I would surmise that there was no sense of obedience to these deities, in terms of committing to a set of principles, or guidelines, thusly decreed from a sense of morality; there was only an attempt to appease the wrath of the deities when some natural occurrences were unfavorable to the population – an opportunistic strategy.

Yet, with H’Shem, there is both justice and mercy, above and beyond the understanding of mankind, in regard to His commandments; therefore, He responded with justice upon Egypt, carried out in the form of ten plagues; and, mercy towards the Children of Israel, who cried out to him in their suffering. Elsewhere it is written, “I will be gracious (חנן) to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy (רחם) on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).

Because of Pharaoh’s unrepentant heart, H’Shem could not show mercy towards him; moreover, by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, he strengthened his position. Rashi explains that the first five times, Torah mentions that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” thus implying an act of self-volition. Only, for the sake of bringing about the fulfillment of the plagues decreed upon Egypt, did H’Shem permit Pharaoh to remain resistant. He was essentially bringing Pharaoh’s unrepentance to fruition for the sake of G-d’s glory, as He was able to demonstrate His sovereignty through the plagues.

erev Pesach 5782

While in bondage in Mitzraim, the B’nei Yisrael had sunk to the 49th level of impurity, having neglected to distance themselves from the surrounding environment of idolatry. The Midrash records that when about to cross through the Sea of Reeds, the angels questioned their merit, saying both these and those, i.e., the Children of Israel and the Egyptians, were both idol worshippers. Why should these be spared, and the others not? Yet, H’Shem honored the covenant that he made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in order to bring His newly acquired nation out of bondage, and into covenant relationship with Him through the Torah.

H’Shem brought us out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where He gave us the Torah. He had said to Moses, “This shall be the token unto thee, that I have sent thee: when thou hast brought forth the people out of Egypt, ye shall serve G-d upon this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, JPS 1917 Tanach). The revelation of Mount Sinai was the pinnacle of the redemption. “The tablets were the work of G-d, and the writing was the writing of G-d, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16, JPS). The Hebrew word for engrave is charut. The Sages note that the word cherut, meaning “freedom” is from the same shoresh (root word). This implies that our true freedom is derived through Torah.

B’nei Yisrael, in a manner of speaking, was also enslaved to sin in Egypt, having assimilated to the immorality of Egypt at that time. Although freed from actual physical bondage, they were still slaves to sin; yet, through the Torah, we may seek freedom from bondage to the yetzer harah (the evil inclination). We may break through the limitations of our own personal Mitzraim (Egypt; from “nitzavim,” limitations), and, figuratively speaking, pass through the Yam Suf (Dividing of the Sea), into the freedom that entails a responsibility to follow our yetzer tov (good inclination).

parashas Metzora 5782

“Then the kohen is to command that two clean living birds, cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop be brought for the one being cleansed.” – Leviticus 14:4

The cleansing of the metzora, a person who has contracted tzaras, a skin condition similar to leprosy, is done by means of a unique procedure. “He who is to be cleansed” (Targum Yonaton) is cleansed through a unique procedure, using “two clean living birds, cedar wood, scarlet and hyssop” (see above). The “ingredients” that contribute to the purification of the metzora, are carefully chosen in recognition that tzarras (leprosy) is primarily a “spiritual malaise,” that results from lashon hara (gossip; literally, “evil tongue), as well as other transgressions that indicate a lack of empathy towards others. So, the metzora is quarantined, living in isolation until his purification, so that he may contemplate his insensitivity towards others.

The cedar wood is chosen as part of the remedy, because this is a high and lofty kind of tree, that reminds the metzora of his haughtiness. For, the aggrandizement of himself over others, led towards a callous disregard of the reputation of those he slandered. This is typically understood today as placing ourselves above others, for the sake of a false sense of esteem, as if we are better than those that we put down with ill-chosen words, whether implicitly or explicitly. For,

“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” – Psalm 51:9, JPS 1917 Tanach

His Intangible Presence

“This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:4

The midrash explains that because the verse reads, “this is your god,” instead of “this is our god,” the us of the pronoun, “your” implies that the Egyptian idolaters amongst B’nei Yisrael were the instigators of the ruckus; they were addressing the Israelites, in an attempt to impose an Egyptian deity upon Israel. On the part of the Israelites, because of a failure to comprehend an abstract rendering of H’Shem, as an intangible Be-ing, they readily accepted a more concrete form of a god, to replace what they could not see.

Yet, it is important to note, that one way to view this is that the calf was meant to replace Moses as a leader, as referred to in the verse, “Make us a god who shall go before us; for that fellow Moses – the man who brought us from the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1, JPS 1985 Tanach). As conferred by Nachmanides, who explicitly states that the idea of the people was to replace Moses as a leader.

Even so, this type of mentality is challenging to understand, since from our vantage point, it is clear that the golden calf was an inanimate object, utterly incapable of serving as a guide. Yet, in their minds, it represented the one who had led them up until this point, whereas they had thought he was lost.

What happened to Moshe? He was on the mountain for forty days; yet, the people miscalculated, and expected him back sooner. They quickly grew impatient, and resorted to an alternative plan, abandoning Moses as lost, perhaps, even consumed amongst the fiery presence of G-d upon the mountaintop (Targum Yonaton).

What can be learned from their impatience? From a psychological perspective, after separation anxiety settled into their hearts, panic may have compelled them to listen to the prompting of the foreigners, prompting them to take immediate action to produce something concrete to cling to, representative of their aspirations and goals, a reassurance of safety in the wilderness.

We need to search our souls and ask ourselves how much we have made the progressive shift from concretization of G-d to a more abstract understanding of Him. For even though this was the expected path for the Israelites, having been led out of Egypt, where idolatry flourished, into Eretz Yisrael, where the One True G-d was worshipped eventually in the Temple, we are still subject to the same lure of the material world, in the face of our insecurities. Additionally, the concretization of values, beliefs, and “idols” is counter to the pure worship of the heart that H’Shem expects of us.

Today, in regard to our avodah (service) towards H’Shem, we should behold His presence, without placing any conceptions in our minds, in regard to His “appearance.” Whether in prayer or meditation, this is the ideal. For, “Thou shalt have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3, JPS). For us, today, this would include anything that would entail as an obstacle between a person and G-d. In other words, anything held in the heart, figuratively speaking, as more important to us than G-d.

parashas Tetzaveh 5782 – Enlightened Soul

weekly Torah reading: parashas Tetzaveh 5782

“And thou shalt command the children of Israel, that they bring thee pure olive oil, beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually.” – Exodus 27:20, JPS 1917 Tanach

The seven-branched menorah in the Mishkan was the only source of light inside of this sacred structure. The lamps were lit by the kohein, and gave off their light, within the Kadosh – the larger portion of the Mishkan, where the menorah, showbread table and incense mizbeach rested. “The spirit of man is the lamp of the L-RD” (Proverbs 20:27, JPS). And, so, in like manner that the menorah gave off the light, within the confines of the Kadosh, so, too does G-d illuminate our soul, when we remain within the boundaries of His established will for us.

Yet, if we tread upon the demarcations of moral integrity, as prescribed by His commandments, then we bring darkness upon ourselves, as our sins separate us from G-d (Isaiah 59:2). Viktor Frankl, the eminent psychological thinker and psychiatrist, who survived Auschwitz, proffers that man’s conscience is directly linked to G-d. This teaching reflects the wisdom of the above-mentioned proverb, connecting man’s spirit to G-d. Thus, in its undiluted state, the spirit may be said to be in accordance with the guidance of the conscience.

Taking this a step further, when in alignment with G-d’s will, light will animate the soul; yet, when we do not adhere to our conscience, we darken our moral understanding. The conscience is weakened – G-d forbid – in this manner. Yet, strengthened when we remain in our integrity, according to the standards set by H’Shem. This is akin to “flexing our spiritual muscles.” If we falter, we may seek to return to G-d, by making a greater effort through teshuvah (repentance).

Take for Me

parashas Terumah 5782

“Speak unto the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering; of every man whose heart maketh him willing ye shall take My offering.” – Exodus 25:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

While H’Shem conversed with Moshe on Mount Sinai, He gave him the instructions for the building of the Mishkan. In order for the Mishkan [portable tabernacle in the desert] to be built, first, a collection was necessary. The collection was a freewill offering of the people for H’Shem, for the sake of building a sanctuary, where H’Shem would dwell. Everyone gave according to what their heart inspired them to give.

The Hebrew word, “lakach” is translated as “take;” although, “bring for Me an offering” would seem more linguistically correct. According to many commentators, the Torah is teaching us that when we bring an offering, we are actually taking for ourselves. I.e., the benefits of giving to a G-dly cause, outweigh the cost. We receive much for our efforts, for we have a reciprocal relationship with H’Shem. When we give, we are blessed with abundance, as is written elsewhere.

For example, regarding the tithes, brought during the first Temple period, it is written, “Bring ye the whole tithe into the store-house, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now herewith, saith the L-RD of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall be more than sufficiency” (Malachi 3:10, JPS).

Yisro’s Belief

parashas Yisro 5782

H’Shem had made a complete mockery of Egypt. This was demonstrated in its entirety by the culmination of the judgment upon Egypt: “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host hath He cast into the sea” (Exodus 15:4, JPS 1917 Tanach). Measure for measure, H’Shem enacted judgment upon Egypt. Turning the Nile River into blood, reminded Pharaoh of his guilt, concerning his decree against male infants, that they be drowned in the Nile. The perishing of Pharaoh and his army at the Sea of Reeds was an expression of H’Shem’s judgment against Pharaoh.

Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, an ex-priest of Midian, “heard of all that G-d had done for Moses, and for Israel his people” (Exodus 18:1, JPS). He journeyed from Midian to the encampment at Sinai, and brought with him Zipporah, the wife of Moses, and also Gershon and Eliezer, the two sons of Moses. He proclaimed, “Now I know that the L-RD is greater than all gods” (Exodus 18:11, JPS). He continued, by implying that in the same manner that the Egyptians conspired against the Children of Israel, so was Pharaoh and his army destroyed. I.e., measure for measure, by means of water.

Yisro had worshipped many gods; and, according to Tanchuma, he had renounced idolatry many years ago. Yet, it was not until he heard of H’Shem’s plagues against Egypt – each one symbolizing H’Shem’s superiority over an Egyptian god – and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds, when Pharaoh was defeated, that he recognized H’Shem as “greater than all gods.”

Up until then, his belief was predicated upon rational inquiry; he had his doubts about the efficacy of the many deities that he used to worship. Yet, when he heard of H’Shem’s greatness being demonstrated in a tangible way through the plagues, and the splitting the sea, his belief was upgraded to the level of knowledge, because of H’Shem’s miraculous intervention for the sake of Israel’s Redemption. In other words, “seeing is believing;” although, in this case, it was enough for Yisro to “hear” “of all that G-d had done,” for his belief to become manifest.

Actual Faith

dvar for parashas Beshalach 5782

“Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the L-RD caused the sea to go back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the children of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall unto them on their right hand, and on their left.” – Exodus 14:21-22, JPS 1917 Tanach

 “If they came into the sea, why does the Torah write: “they came unto dry land?” If they came unto dry land why does the Torah call it “sea?” (Shemot Rabbah 21.10). The verse teaches that the sea was not split for them until they had set foot in it while it was still sea up to the level of the nostrils (to demonstrate their faith). Immediately after they had done this the sea was converted to dry land. – R’ Bachya on Exodus 14:22, sefaria.org

The nature of faith, is not only an abstract quality of belief, per se, in something that is unseen. True emunah is to actually believe in what one cannot see, beyond speculation, as if it exists in actuality, and has an influence in a person’s life. Therefore, while many people confess a belief in G-d, only in tandem to the day to day challenges, does that belief become more of an actuality.

Belief in G-d is more than an intellectual exercise in speculation, in order to compel us to have a reference point (usually, somewhere in Heaven) to direct our prayers towards in times of need. The nature of faith denotes an interface between a person’s belief system and practice, not as something removed from a person’s life, compartmentalized in a region of the mind, wherein a disconnect exists within the framework of that person’s practical existence.

At the Sea of Reeds, the Almighty’s Presence within the pillar of fire, and the pillar of cloud, were manifestations of His actual existence. Additionally, the splitting of the sea served as a sign of His power, not only to the Children of Israel, also to the rest of the world at that time. Yet, the “proofs” of the existence of G-d, the manifestation of His Presence, and the signs of His interaction in this world are not as easily found in our own lives, surroundings, or greater environmental milieu. Instead, emunah (faith), specifically, requires a profound degree of awareness.

“The L-RD is my strength and song, and He is become my salvation; this is my G-d, and I will glorify Him; my father’s G-d, and I will exalt Him.” – Exodus 15:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The midrash states that even a lowly handmaid saw more at the Sea of Reeds than the prophet Ezekiel saw in his visions (see Ezekiel ch. 1). In other words, the handmaid was able to perceive more in regard to H’Shem, because of her actual experience, where G-d’s intervention was clear. The Midrash emphasizes the importance of seeing G-d’s direct interaction in our lives; this type of interaction is referred to as hashgacha peratis – G’d’s guidance over the life of every individual on earth, even on a personal level. Once we begin to open our eyes to this truth, then our belief will take root in our soul.

Search Within the Darkness

“And the L-RD said unto Moses: ‘Stretch out thy hand toward the heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, even darkness which may be felt.’ And Moses stretched forth his hand toward the heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days; they saw not one another, neither rose any from his place for three days; but all the children of Israel had light in their dwellings.”– Exodus 10:21-23, JPS 1917 Tanach

Or HaChayim explains that, according to certain rabbinic commentators, the darkness that originated in a heavenly place, may be likened to the description, found in psalms, “He made darkness His hiding-place, His pavilion round about Him; darkness of waters, thick clouds of the skies” (Psalms 18:12, JPS; Shemot Rabbah 14). This verse conveys the understanding, that, H’Shem, who is surrounded by atmospheric darkness, is hidden within those phenomena. This may explain why Moshe raised his hand to the sky, instead of his staff. “Inasmuch as the darkness was of a supernatural kind, Moses did not consider it appropriate to raise his staff against supernatural phenomena” (Ohr HaChayim on Exodus 10:23, sefaria.org).

Another view likens the darkness that encompassed Egypt for three days, to the darkness of purgatory (Or HaChayim on Exodus 10:23; sefaria.org). Or HaChayim comments that both views may be feasible, within the context of the plague’s duration. According to Rashi’s rendering, there were two sets of three-day periods of darkness, since each plague always lasted for a week. So, during the first three days, no person could see another; and, during the second three days, “no one could get up from where he was.” (The third day of darkness occurred at the encampment of the Egyptians, who had pursued B’nei Yisrael to the edge of the Sea of Reeds).

How might these considerations be understood, in a manner of rendering some significance to the comments, beyond their face value? If we consider that H’Shem, Who is surrounded by dark clouds, refers as well to our inability to draw close to Him, unless we enter a place of unknowing, wherein we cannot fully rely on our intellectual understanding of Him, we are gaining understanding of the nature of His essence, as well as our relationship to Him.

For the Sake of His Glory

dvar for parashas Va’eira 5782

“For this cause have I made thee to stand [endure], to show thee My power, and that My name may be declared throughout all the earth.” – Exodus 9:16, JPS 1917 Tanach

“G-d’s name would be declared from generation to generation because of the signs which He performed.” – Ibn Ezra, sefaria.org

H’Shem continually hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that he could remain recalcitrant against G-d’s divine plan to free B’nei Yisrael from bondage, and endure the subsequent plagues; thus, this may be understood as enabling Pharaoh to continue in his resistance. As the ruler of Egypt, the world’s leading superpower at that time, Pharaoh was not interested in receiving a higher authority than himself.

Even his so-called gods, the Egyptian deities that his people worshipped, were approached from the perspective of gaining outcomes that would best suit his own ambitions. I would surmise that there was no sense of obedience to these deities, in terms of committing to a set of principles, or guidelines, thusly decreed from a sense of morality; there was only an attempt to appease the wrath of the deities when some natural occurrences were unfavorable to the population – an opportunistic strategy.

Yet, with H’Shem, there is both justice and mercy, above and beyond the understanding of mankind, in regard to His commandments; therefore, He responded with justice upon Egypt, carried out in the form of ten plagues; and, mercy towards the Children of Israel, who cried out to him in their suffering. Elsewhere it is written, “I will be gracious (חנן) to whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy (רחם) on whom I will show mercy” (Exodus 33:19).

Because of Pharaoh’s unrepentant heart, H’Shem could not show mercy towards him; moreover, by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, he strengthened his position. Rashi explains that the first five times, Torah mentions that “Pharaoh’s heart was hardened,” thus implying an act of self-volition. Only, for the sake of bringing about the fulfillment of the plagues decreed upon Egypt, did H’Shem permit Pharaoh to remain resistant. He was essentially bringing Pharaoh’s unrepentance to fruition for the sake of G-d’s glory, as He was able to demonstrate His sovereignty through the plagues.