Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshas Vayeira 5771: How do we speak?

Parshas hashavuah Question: In this weeks parsha we have Avraham pleading with G-d not to destroy Sodom?
and the cities around it and also G-d ordering Avraham to sacrifice Yitzchak. What similarity is there in the two speeches and what can we learn from it?

This weeks parsha is Vayeira Bereishis (Genesis) 18:1-22:24

What is the commonality between these two speeches? Lets look at how they go:
Avraham starts at 50 righteous people, then slowly decreases until he reaches ten. He goes from the easiest to justifyto the hardest. After all, in a group of cities if there are fifty righteous people it is easy to justify- if there are only 10 it is much harder to justify. It is the minimum number for a community- thus the amount for a minyan, but at the same time one could argue it does not make sense to save a few cities if between them they can only offer up a bare minimum for a community of righteous people!

G-d starts of telling Avraham that he must sacrifice his son and progresses to the specific son of Yitzchak. Now, Avraham lived in an era where the sacrifice of a child as a form of worship was known, if not common. However, there were limits- the son of the king, due to inherit the mantle of royalty, would not be sacrificed; the child who was to inherit and head up the family was not sacrificed; it was those that came afterwards that wereconsecrated to idols. In a similar vein we see later in history during the medieval period that in royal families where there children beyond the necessary heir- carreers in the military or priesthood were the norm so they would not be there to compete with the heir. But here the item that does nto make sense is the one that is being pushed- the heir, the one to continue the nation, the one destined to to lead the Jewish people is to be sacrificed. Again we see the progression from the understandable to the finality which seems to not make sense and which cannot be justified.

So we see this common idea in both speeches- but we also see that in both cases the people do not go straiight to the final idea, but progress down to it. There is a progression and a chance for the unexpected, the strange to be able to become more familiar and more acceptable.

This idea has both positive and negative implications- on the positive side we can learn that when we seek tot each, to bring people into, or improve, their Jewish observance, we should do it slowly. Let them progress at a speed where they can assimilate an idea, adjust to it and thus move from what makes the most sense and is easiest to them, to that which may not make sense and is thus harder for them to implement. On the negative side you have the often repeated idea that as peopel desacend into sin they generally do the “lighter” actions first. As they become acclimatised to that, they progress downwards going deeper and deeper into sin until they are performing actions that previously they would have found unthinkable but now they are comfortable with. For this reason chazal warn us against associating with sinners or even doing things that are allowed if they would lead us into this negative spiral. Just because something is allowed, does not mean it is desirable- and the yetzer hara utilises our own weaknesses and feeling of comfortable with acts , forbidden or marginal, to eventually make those acts which are completely forbidden seem desireable-after all.

October 20, 2010 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Parshas Lech Lecha 5771- Converts before leaving for Canaan

Note: Two questions this week as the first one while important, is a bit too easy.

1) Where does this week’s parsha show that even prior to leaving to go to the land of Canaan Avraham had converted people to Judaism?
2) In what way is the name change from Sarai to Sarah important to reflect the coming birth of Yitzchak?

This weeks Parsha is Lech Lecha- Bereishis (Genesis) 12:1-17:27

The answer to question 1 is found in Chapter 12 v5

5. And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had acquired, and the souls they had acquired in Haran, and they went to go to the land of Canaan, and they came to the land of Canaan. ה. וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן אָחִיו וְאֶת כָּל רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ וְאֶת הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן וַיֵּצְאוּ לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ אַרְצָה כְּנָעַן:

Rashi points out that “הַנֶּפֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר עָשׂוּ ” (translated as “souls they had acquired “) refers to converts. A pointer to this is the word “עָשׂוּ” “made”- Obviously Avram and Sarai did not make souls; the sense in which they “made” the souls is that they “made” them into followers of hashem and thus “made” them holier.

An interesting question was raised by one of the posters on Yahoo Answers:
Gershon asked:

According to the Kedushat Levi, Abraham converted in chapter 15.
So, if Abraham wasn’t yet converted, how could he convert people to Judaism?

What was he converting them to here vs later? First lets look at Avraham now- he is Avram, he has yet to be renamed to Avraham yet he already has complete faith in G-d, so much so that he is ready to give up the life of a nobelman and go to an unknown country without knowing the specifics because G-d tells him to! So what were his beliefs? How far had he come and what had these people converted to? We know they were not Noachides since there were many Nachides in the world led by Mechizedek (Shem according to many authorities) whom Avraham recognised as priest of G-d later in this parsha (and who then permanently transferred the priesthood to the Jewish people).

We see a progression in the covenant between Avraham and Hashem in this parsha. First he promises to take him to a new land and make him a mighty nation. Then we have the brit bein hebetarim and the covenant is made more specific- it will be a direct descendant of Avraham that will inherit; and we are told that they will be exiles and slaves, and will then return to inherit the land. Finally we have the birt milah. Two signs of the covenant are now forged- Avraham’s name is changed (from Avram) and the brit milah is a physical sign of the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish nation.

Now- if we look at the start fo the Parsha, we see Avraham is already a believer in G-d and keeping mitzvot- otherwise there would be no differentiation between him and his followers and Melchizedek and his followers! In what way does he differ from the way he is at the end of the parsha?

It is in the symbols of the covenant between him and G-d- his name and the brit milah. Thus, while he obviously had some of the commandments already at the start of the Parsha, we know he was missing at least one of the major commandments- brit milah.

And thus the Kedushat LEvi’s remark that Avraham only converted (along with the members of his household
all of whom were circumcised at the same time) at this point. Prior to this, they believed in G-d, they were Jewish in action, but they did not yet have a formal covenant and relationship. The bris milah was the marriage document, the formalisation of the relationship between the Jewish nation and G-d. Before now, they had the beliefs, they lived and worshipped as Jews- but it was like the period of Kiddushin prior to the completion of marriage at Nissuin. The earlier covenants were the betrothal- the brit milah the marriage.

Question 2: What does the name change of Sarai to Sarah reflect on the coming birth of Yitzchak? Rashi remarks that “Sarai” is a qualified name- i.e. “My Princess”- she is for me (i.e. Avraham), but not for others. The name “Sarah” is unqualifed- she is a princess over all, not just for Avraham. Thus the coming child is destined to be the progenitor of a nation and to be over all. Sarah is a national name, Sarai a personal name- Yitzchak, who was to be the leader and one of the Avos of the Jews would be born to Sraah, the princess over all, and not to Sarai.

On another note, their is the idea that our names are linked to our fates- thus the custom of giving a gravely ill person a new name, and one which is only permanent if they recover. In this case, the fate of Sarai was altered to the fate of Sarah- when just living and relevant to a personal future, whe did not have the mazal to bear a child; when her future was linked to the nation, her mazal changed and thus, even at her advanced age, she merited to have a child.

October 12, 2010 Posted by | Torah | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Parshas Noach 5771- The sins of the generation

Parsha question: What was the sin of the generation of the Tower of Babel?
Note: There are multiple answers to this question- from the mundane to the esoteric.

This weeks Parsha: Noach Bereishis (Genesis) 6:9-11:32

The Torah states in bereishis Chapter 11

6. And the Lord said, “Lo! [they are] one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they have commenced to do. Now, will it not be withheld from them, all that they have planned to do? ו. וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הֹוָ־ה הֵן עַם אֶחָד וְשָׂפָה אַחַת לְכֻלָּם וְזֶה הַחִלָּם לַעֲשׂוֹת וְעַתָּה לֹא יִבָּצֵר מֵהֶם כֹּל אֲשֶׁר יָזְמוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת:

But it does not state what is that they were doing that was so terrible. What was wrong with them being united and building a tower to signify this unity?

The Midrash and various commentaries (Ramban amongst them) shed light on this incident. Earlier in the chapter it stated:

4. And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.” ד. וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה לָּנוּ עִיר וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם פֶּן נָפוּץ עַל פְּנֵי כָל הָאָרֶץ:

It is the the phrase “וְנַעֲשֶׂה לָּנוּ שֵׁם” (make ourselves a name) there that gives an indication as to their intention. What does this mean? The Torah uses the idea of the “70 nations of the world’ as a symbolic indication of all the nations of the world. Thus why we see that for the sukkot sacrifces there were a total of 70 bulls- one to atone for each nation of the world. Mystically, each of the 70 nations is said to be linked to one fo the 70 Mazalot (a direct translation would be constellations or groups of stars- here the meaning is more symbolic, the mazelot being the heavenly angel assigned to look after the nation), and their fate could be read in the stars. The wise men/sorcerors of the nations saw there that a nation was due to rise that would not be under the mazelot but rather directly under G-d and beyond the boundaries of the natural world.

How do we know they were concerned with the natural world and its boundaries and did not look at this in siritual terms? In verse 3 it states

. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and fire them thoroughly”; so the bricks were to them for stones, and the clay was to them for mortar. ג. וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹמֶר:

In other words- they wanted to challenge G-d, but abandoned the spirtitual realm for the physical- emphasising theit attachment to the physical ( “clay was to them for mortar”). Here was their first sin- the abandoning of all elements of spirituality to emphasise their attachment to the ohysical. In effect, they denied G-d and the creation of the spiritual world and only looked at the physical world.

The second sin was that they sought to alter G-d’s plan for the world. they sought to block the creation fo the Jewish nation as they feared the giving of the Torah, foreseeing that in the time of Mashiach it would lead to the Jews having mastery over the world as they represented G-d to the rest of the nations. And this lead to the third sin: they sought to replace G-d! How did they plan to do this?

Here the Midrash states that they sought to place a statue on the top of the tower with a sword drawn to callenge th eheavens. But it was not just a statue, but meant to be a representation of one of the mazalot, in essence, they would choose which angel to worship and have all 70 nations worship that one angel exclusively, killing all that differed. In essence, they wished to create an alternate deity that would be worshipped and thereby block the emergence of the Jews into the world.

It was ultimately this plan that led to their downfall. The nations were fine while they built the tower, each telling itself it would be able to grasp power and rule over all when the time came. When the time came for them to choose which of the mazalot they would worship, the chaos began. G-d made each one desire to rule, and to realise that if the mazalot of the other nation was chosen, they would be subjugated by them. It was this argument that led to the fracturing of the alliance as each naiton saw in the stars they would have a cnace to rule, and they refused to subjugate themselves to another!

Thus we see the three sins of the dor haflaga (generation of the dispersion)
1) abandonment of the spiritual for the physical
2) they sought to alter and block G-d’s plans for the world (denying his divnity and rulership)
3) they sought to replace G-d.

October 5, 2010 Posted by | Parshah, Torah, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment