The delicate perception – Parshat Vayetze

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“Leah’s eyes were delicate” (Gen. 29:17). This is the way the Torah characterizes our matriarch Leah in the section Vayetze. The adjective “delicate” may refer, both in Hebrew and in English, to either weak or attractive. There are exegetes who explain that Leah’s eyes became weak because of too much crying, since she thought that as a firstborn, she had to marry Esav, who was a firstborn, too. Others explain that her eyes were beautiful, attractive and nice.

In both cases, the word “delicate” invokes a balance that must be taken care of so as not to break it, so as not to let it get worse, if weak, or not to ruin it, if beautiful.

On the other hand we may also ask why the Torah has chosen to describe Leah according to her eyes. The word “eye”, in all its forms, appears about two hundred times in the Torah. Only in about ten of these it refers to the actual vision organ, the physical eye. In the other 190 instances the word “eye” refers to “sight”, “appearance” and “opinion”; it refers, then, to the perception of reality. For example, “he raised his eyes” refers to sight; “it stays the same” [lit. “it stays in its eyes”] refers to appearance; “it is good in his eyes” or “he found favor in his eyes” refers to opinion.

Let’s go back to Leah. It may be that the Torah does not speak about her physical eyes, but rather her way to perceive the world, her way to see. Leah had a very delicate, fragile, sensitive way to perceive reality.

“He loved Rachel, too, more than Leah” (Gen. 29:30). Since the text says “too” it implies that he adds the love for Rachel to his love for Leah. Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi, Narbonne 12th-13th centuries) explains: “this announces that he also loved Leah, even though he had not chosen her at the beginning to be his wife, but he loved her as a man loves his wife. He just loved Rachel more” (commentary on Gen. 29:30)

Yaakov loved her, but she did not perceive it: Yaakov’s love of his other woman, Rachel, made Leah perceive herself as hated. “The Lord saw that Leah was hated” (Gen. 29:31) and Radak explains that “Yaakov did not hate her, but loved her. Since he loved Rachel more, she thinks herself hated; i.e. that compared to Rachel she was hated” (commentary on Gen. 29:31).

It is as if she said “if he does not love only me, if it is not me the most loved one, the only explanation is that I am hated”. This feeling tainted her very existence. God offered her the possibilities of feeling different, of strengthening her self-esteem by giving birth, by creating new life. But Leah saw herself always as “the hated one”. Without the ability of feeling his husband’s love, she entered an existential struggle against her sister Rachel and against her own existence. Every child she bore had the imprint of this struggle: Reuven “because God saw [raah] my suffering”; Shimon “because God heard [shama] that I am hated”; Levi because “this time my husband will join me [yelave]. Only with the fourth child she calms down a bit and proclaims “this time I will thank [odeh] God” and therefore he was called Yehudah. But then, again, she continues her competition with Rachel without seeing, appreciating, perceiving the love that existed in Yaakov.

Through Leah’s life and her fragile perception, the Torah poses before us the possibility of learning to transcend our own fragile perception, so as to see the world beyond our own limitations, so as not to let us base our conclusions about ourselves on the competition with our fellows.

“Leah’s eyes were delicate”. And what about ours? It is upon us to make them either weak or beautiful, it is upon us to make our perception either negative or positive.

Abraham’s pains – Parshat Haye Sarah

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When God commanded Abraham to take his son Yitzhak and to offer him as a holocaust, the Torah introduces the subject by stating that God put Abraham to a test: “nissah et Abraham” = He tested him (Gen. 22:1). We may translate it, in modern terms, “He challenged Abraham”.

The Torah defines this divine commandment as a test, a challenge. Following this definition, our Sages understood that other commandments God gave to Abraham are, indeed, challenges: “Abraham went through ten challenges and he came out successful of all of them, showing how great was Abraham’s love of God” (Pirke Avot 5:3) What were these ten challenges? They don’t tell, but Maimonides, in his commentary to the Mishna, explains that all of them are written in the Torah and provides us with the sources (Rambam’s commentary to Pirke Avot 5:3).

Abraham, like a hero, overcomes the challenges because his love of God bestows on him extreme strength! Abraham’s deep faith and total trust on God make us generally thought of him as a person with no pain or sadness. God is with him and he knows it: is there any place for sadness? Why should he feel pain, if everything is because of the Lord and for the Lord?

A more detailed reading of the Torah, however, allows grasping Abraham as a plain human being, with all the strengths and weaknesses any other person has. His faith wasn’t for him a shield against adversity or against the ups and downs of the soul. Yet it offered him the tools to overcome them. Good things elicit nice feelings, while adversity elicits rage, sadness or pain. Nobody is free of it and nobody should be free of it, since this is a natural expression of the human soul. Abraham teaches us that even while having an intimate dialogue with God, pain shows up. It is all about not to succumb because of it, but rather to dare feeling it in its sharpness and overcoming it.

Parshat Haye Sarah begins telling about Sarah’s death: “Abraham came to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her” (Gen. 23:2). He feels the pain of the loss – death is a definite separation even for one who holds a constant dialogue with God. The old patriarch, however, does not succumb: he gets up from his pain so as to make all the necessary arrangements for the burial. He then comes back to his pain, inhuming Sarah. And then again, he recovers to care for the future – his son Yitzhak’s marriage and the welfare of all his other children.

There is an interesting midrash, in the Tanhuma collection (Parshat Ekev, art. 3) that echoes Abraham’s pain because of Sarah’s death and presents us with a list of afflictions of Abraham. Even the ten challenges stated elsewhere are here part of those afflictions! The text shows Abraham not as a superhero, but as a human being like you and me that teaches us, through his life example, to cope (he does as we should) with God, with the shocking reality, the feelings and the faith. It is not an exhibition of suffering as trophies; the midrash teaches us how important it is not to avoid pain when it arrives: only by dealing with it we can overcome it and feel better on. Pain always leaves consequences, but if we do not face it, it will not remain as a rest, but as a steady burden.

The text says: “Whoever feels pain at the beginning, will be calm at the end. And no one has felt pain at the beginning more than Abraham: he was thrown into the oven, had to abandon his father’s home, was chased by 16 kings, went through ten challenges and buried Sarah. But in the end he was calm, as it is written: ‘In time Abraham became old, while God had blessed him in everything’ (Gen. 24:1)(Midrash Tanhuma, Ekev, art. 3)

Somewhere over the rainbow – Parshat Va-yera

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A tragedy that completely changes life is not, thanks God, a regular happening. It may nevertheless happen, God forbid.

Before calamity strikes, one can always try to change things so as to avoid it. But once that disaster has begun nothing will change the course of events: “Rav Yosef said: Once permission is granted to the angel of destruction, it does not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked” (BT Baba Kama 60a).

Still, many times we see how difficult it is for a person to leave the place where tragedy is striking. It may be so because he or she either tries to change what cannot be changed, or hopes for a miracle based on virtues achieved, or bemoans loosing any material or spiritual investment. Even after all is over there are those who remain stuck in the psychological place of the disaster and ruminate: “Maybe it’s something I’ve done?”, “Perhaps I’ve could done differently”, “Maybe it happened to me because I was too confident on my future”. Those who surround the person, from near or afar, also look for a reason, sometimes to comfort, sometimes to accuse: “He chose that and this befell him”, “it’s God’s will”, “God knows why He did it to you”, “she thought she had the future in her hands… and oops!”

It’s about being too judgmental to oneself or to the others, about sinking in remorse or beating others.

However, the book of Job teaches us that God does not rule His world according to a fixed and inexorable formula. There are things that happen with no explanation, not always the reason is clear, not always there is a connection between the person and what happens to him or her beyond their power and will.

Lot and Sodom also teach us that this kind of judgment is neither efficient, nor correct, nor just.

Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim were destroyed by a cataclysm brought by God because the people there were extremely corrupt, wicked and cruel. A simple tale: absolute proven wickedness brings divine punishment.

And then there is Lot. Was he wicked? No: he cares for the strangers in need of a roof. Was he righteous? No: he does not hesitate in offering his daughters as a pray to Sodom men’s savage lust. Lot has both a good side and an evil one. He was undoubtedly brought up in a good family, together with Abraham, and was influenced by an ethical education. Yet the wicked environment he lived in must have influenced him, too.

He survived, but suffered a tragedy. We may tend now to connect the dots looking for justification: his men caused a conflict with Abraham, he chose to live in a place where “the inhabitants were very wicked sinners against the Lord”, he offers his daughters as a sexual pray to the men of Sodom, he lingered instead of running for his life even when the angels announced the imminent destruction. Lot himself may have had similar thoughts.

The angles said to him: “Flee for your life, do not look behind you [aharekha in Hebrew]… lest you be destroyed” (Gen. 19:17). You can survive the tragedy, but do not look behind you so as not to be absorbed by the catastrophe. But may the actual looking back to the city cause Lot’s death? Rabbi Yaakov Lorberbaum reminds us that everybody saw the catastrophe and nothing happened to them! (Nahalat Yaakov on Gen. 19:17). it is not about not looking at the cities, but not to look “behind you”. The Hebrew term for “behind you” is “aharekha”, which has a double sense: behind you (what you had, what you’ve left, what you’ve done) and after you (what will come after you, what you’ll leave after you). The angels say to Lot: do not try to find in your deeds a reason for the tragedy, do not ask “if I’ve done good why is my future destroyed?”, do not rely on your good deeds to stop a disaster that is already happening. Do not afflict yourself with what happened or would have happened. There is a tragedy and it is not directly connected to you, even if it strikes you. Now save yourself and continue building your life.

And Lot’s wife? She looked behind him… not her! She tried to explain what happened as related to Lot, his behind and his after: It’s something he has done? Perhaps he didn’t do enough? What has become of the good future we were to have because of him?

She rubs salt into the wound, she preserves (as with salt) the situation without giving place to rehabilitation, she spreads salt on the ground and doesn’t let anything grow in it. She is fixed in her own salting way until she herself becomes the salt.

Don’t look for a reason neither behind nor after you, don’t judge cruelly neither yourself nor others. Enhance your ways, thank God for your possibility of going on and help others to build and progress.

Separate from me, for we are kinsmen – Parshat Lekh Lekha

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Disputing is a regular thing among humans. Each one has the capacity and the freedom of holding a personal idea; different convictions may derive in an argument. Arguments may be a source of spiritual enrichment, as well as the development of personality and of interpersonal relations. However they may sometimes derive in conflicts or even fights.

We may define three levels: argument (that can be fruitful and enriching), conflict (where each one is fixed in his own position without respecting the other’s idea) and fight (where the conflict becomes violent: not only there is no respect of the other’s idea, but where the intention is to silence it by physical subjugation).

The first two levels, the argument and the conflict, are based on disagreement about ideas; they are therefore typical human. The fight, on the other hand, adds verbal and physical violence, an animal behavior where ideas are not important, but only physical power to subdue the enemy.

We all risk to fall from conflict to fight, even though it is an animal reaction; we have to do all the efforts to move away from this destructive option.

What about conflict? Shouldn’t we avoid it? Sometimes we manage to do so. But mostly it is easier for us to be fixed in our conceptions and not to bestow substance on the other’s idea. This fixation is the reason of going from an argument to a conflict. We cannot always avoid a conflict. More than avoiding the conflict, it should be more positive and effective to learn how to deal with it without declining into a fight and how to get out of it after having entered the conflict.

Dealing with a conflict in a constructive way depends on the capacity of respecting the other person. Respect means to bestow upon the other meaning, existence, weight. In Hebrew the word respect, kavod, is close to weight, koved. We don’t have to actually agree with the other’s conception, but we must bestow upon it substance and existence. In this way both conceptions, his and mine, prevail.

This is an approach that must be present in both parties of a conflict. Each one must know and accept that one is equal to the other regarding his or her ideas and standpoints, even when they cannot agree on them. If one thinks the other is inferior, vile, deplorable, defective, ignominious… the respect is gone and there is neither a constructive, nor effective conflict dealing. Conversely, if one thinks of himself as winner, superior, hero, accepted, elevated over the other… neither here there is any respect. Even more, if one accepts the other out of mercy, piety, commiseration, it isn’t more than arrogance and patronizing, but no respect: one is regarded as needy, impaired and the other one as complete and prominent.

Sometimes preserving respect requires separation. This is also a solution: both parties acknowledge their limitations and the difficulty of being together. In order to preserve fraternity, love and mutual respect, we shouldn’t force the parties to live under one roof when this tends to create conflict.

The relationship between Abraham and Lot was of this kind. For them it is apparent that common life may be possible when one of them surrenders (nullifies himself) to the other. Wisely Abraham declares: “Let there be no strife between you and me…for we are kinsmen… Separate from me” (Gen. 13:8-9).

The Malbim, in his commentary to these verses, explains that the strife was produced because they were kinsmen. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out that the verse does not say “between us”, but “you and me”. I understand by this that Abraham bestows upon Lot the same importance that he does upon himself. He does not say “Don’t quarrel with me”, as if the center of the conflict were Lot; neither he says “between us”, so as to blur the differences. “Between me”, with my conceptions and my existence, “and you”, with your conceptions and your existence. The positions are so opposed that if we continue living together we will end by not respecting one another; we will try to subjugate the other one and to nullify his status.

Does this separation mean severing the relations? No! The proof comes several verses afterwards, when Abraham rescues Lot from captivity. It is rather as Rashi explains: ” ‘If you go to the left, I will go to the right‘: wherever you’ll be, I won’t be far from you and I will help and protect you”.

We had an argument, we were fixed in our conceptions, we developed a conflict, we couldn’t get out of it, but we will always take care of the mutual respect. Therefore, separate from me so as to continue being kinsmen.

When the deeds are nice, then nice to meet! – Parshat Noah

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Who was Noah’s wife? The Torah does not mention her name, while she is one of the silent heroes of the story, together with her sons’ wives.

When somebody is mentioned by name in the Torah, it means he or she has a substantial task either during this specific story, or elsewhere in the Torah. The others, who play no central role or there is nothing special to teach about them, remain anonymous. That happened to the many sons and daughters of the first generations: “and he begat sons and daughters” runs the typical verse summarizing the lists of generations in Genesis. Anonymous sons and daughters, being that their stories, albeit important, are not substantial to the message the Torah wants to teach.

It is also written that Yaakov had other daughters, besides Dinah; they remain anonymous: “All his sons and all his daughters sought to comfort him” (Gen. 37:35) – some say “daughters” refers to daughters-in-law, while others say they are his actual daughters.

In most cases the anonymous remain anonymous. There are certain instances, however, in which our Sages decide to fill what is missing. For example, Abraham’s servant who went to look for a wife for Yitzhak: the Torah simply calls him “Abraham’s servant”, but many midrashim say he is Eliezer the Damascene, Abraham’s house steward. Another example is Pharaoh’s daughter, whom many midrashim identify as “Bithiah, Pharaoh’s daughter”, Mered’s wife as appears in 1 Chronicles 4:18.

The rationale in these two examples is pretty understandable: the two characters played a central role in the history of the Jewish people, even though the Torah does not mention their names.

There is another identification case which is very astonishing: Noah’s wife. Neither has she a name in the Torah, nor has she played a substantial role (important, yes; but not necessarily substantial). Even though it was not crucial to identify her, our Sages decided to link between her and another character: Naamah, Tubal-Cain sister. “Rabbi Abba bar Kahana said: Naamah was Noah’s wife… but the Sages said: it was another Naamah” (Genesis Rabbah, 23:3).

Naamah was Lemekh’s daughter, a descendant of Cain. Why Rabbi Abba bar Kahana thinks that the seed of Cain must have survived the Flood? There is no hint in the Torah pointing to that: Noah’s wife is Naamah, the daughter of Lemekh, a descendant of Cain? That means that the humankind developed not only from Seth, Adam’s third son and Noah’s ancestor, but from Cain too! It would have been much simpler to follow the plain text, leaving Noah’s wife in her anonymity. Why to embroil things? Why to anchor humanity to the seed of Cain the wicked?

Perhaps this is the allusion here: Cain wasn’t wicked. He sinned, yes. He committed a very serious transgression, yes. But perhaps he changed his ways, he tried to repair what may have been repaired, he tried to build instead of perpetuating destruction? We mustn’t forget the rehabilitation Cain tried to go through: God expelled him to a place of wandering: “itinerant and wanderer you shall be on the earth… and he settled in the land of Nod [Wander]” (Gen. 4:12-16). And it is in the land of wandering that Cain builds a city, settles and builds in a place where it seems to be impossible to do that (id. verse 17). Not only does he build, but he calls the city by his son’s name: Hanokh, a name related to establishment, to foundation, to progress and to teaching forth.

Cain does not perpetuate extinction: he has done a terrible thing by killing his brother, but he seeks rehabilitation and restoration. Cain does not repeat the wrong; confronting destruction he and his descendants propose construction, restoration and continuity. His descendants Yaval, Yuval and Tubal-Cain were the developers of civilization: music, settlement, livestock, metalworking, agriculture. They find themselves repairing what their father Lemekh did: he killed and boasts about that, while his sons reply by building and progressing.

And Naamah? She is only mentioned as Tubal-Cain’s sister. And if she is called by name, it means her deeds are substantial… but they are not mentioned at all!

The link between her and Noah’s wife comes, perhaps, to teach us her crucial task in continuing the building despite the extinction. She makes all the efforts, together with Noah, to continue life despite the Flood and the human corruption. She is the one that silently preserves hope of construction despite the evil, cruel and corrupt ways of other humans. She is the one who does not surrender to the destruction urge and struggles against the inclination towards the bad, so as to shed light on darkness. She represents, as a descendent of Cain, the positive impulse the humans have to repent, correct the crooked, struggle against destructive tendencies and to rehabilitate.

Why is her name Naamah? The midrash goes on saying: “because her deeds were pleasant [na’im]”

A responsible responsibility – Parshat Bereshit  

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The first two sections of the Torah, Bereshit and Noah, present one of the basic problems of the human behavior and feeling: the attitude toward responsibility. I call it a problem, since this attitude has ups, downs and failures.

Human beings, we suffer from hypo-responsibility and hyper-responsibility. Sometimes we try to evade our duties and being accountable for our actions. In other instances we exaggerate in fixing limits (to ourselves, as well as to others) acting with disproportionate zeal.

Yes, we also do things with the right, constructive and positive responsibility. But in many areas and many times we all, without exception, fall into the extremes of too high or too low responsibility.

God created the Human Being with the capacity of discerning between values, of measuring causes and consequences and of creating a moral system. This very capacity may become, however, a double edged sword. We may feel we are locked in by these very values and try to escape, avoiding thus our responsibility. On the other hand, we may actually be controlled by the fear of erring, of sinning, fear of not knowing how to discern, remaining thus enslaved by our own axiological behavior.

Parshat Bereshit presents some examples of this human failure in implementing responsibility. Reading this text should be a sort of calling to overcome this failures and to try to learn, as many times as necessary, the subtle art of living in responsibility.

The story of the forbidden fruit, of the tree of knowledge of good and bad, is a clear example of this failure both because of hypo- and of hyper-responsibility. Both attitudes lead to destructive consequences.

God forbids the Human being to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and bad: “as for the tree of knowledge of good and bad, you must not eat of it; for as soon as you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). This prohibition was introduced before God divided the Human being into two – a male and a female. The ban is thus valid for both the man and the woman.

The serpent asks a tricky question: “So, God said to you that you shall not eat of any tree from the Garden?” (Gen. 3:1).

Now, a responsible answer should have been: “He has only forbidden us to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and bad”. But the woman, reacting out of hyper-responsibility, adds a restriction and declares: “It is about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said neither to eat it, nor to touch it (id. 3:3). This addendum moves the forbidden thing away… and makes it more tempting. Trespassing this new self-imposed limit will not only have no punishment, but will modify the perception of the original ban, as well. From now on the reasoning may be: “Nothing happened to me when I touched the tree (contravening the self-imposed restriction), therefore nothing will happen to me if I eat the fruit (contravening the original ban)”.

Exaggerating the limits, even though it comes out of the desire to avoid transgression, derives into the saturation and finally the revocation of the original injunction, violating thus the very norm meant to preserve.

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhakee, France 12th ctry.) explains, regarding Eve’s addendum: “She added to the commandment, therefore she was led to diminish from it. That is why it is written (Proverbs 30:6): ‘Add thou not unto His words’ “ (Rashi to Gen 3:3).

We find also in the Talmud that this verse is a clear example of whoever adds, in the end diminishes (BT Sanhedrin 29a).

Now God asks the man: “Have you eaten of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” (Gen 3:11). Why God, being omniscient, needs to ask? He already knows what had happened! God does not ask to know, but to encourage the man to implement responsibility. However, here we see a failure because of hypo-responsibility: “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” (id. 12). “It wasn’t me!”, says the man, “it was You! And the woman!” The man focuses only on part of the reality to avoid taking any responsibility.

What would have happened hadn’t the women reacted by hyper-responsibility?

What would have happened hadn’t the man reacted by hypo-responsibility?

It is useless to speculate about what would have been. The Torah challenges us, human beings reading it, to take the path on which those primeval beings did not dare walk.

It is upon us to react by a responsible responsibility.

Sympathy or Empathy? When we have to face Tzedakah

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During the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, between Rosh Hashanah and the end of Yom Kippur, God examines His Creation and, in particular, the Human Being. He inspects our actions, our intentions and above all what we have done of His Creation. There are two sides to God’s examination: His side and ours. Each and every one of us needs to engage in profound soul searching. These are well known principles of Jewish tradition. We also believe that God is ready to change His severe decree on us if we engage in three actions: Tefilah [prayer], Tzedakah [social justice] and Teshuvah [rectifying repentance].

It is Rabbi Elazar who teaches us that “three things cancel the severe decree: Tefilah, Tzedakah, and Teshuvah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit 65b / Halakhah 1). He learned this from what God said to King Solomon after finishing the building of the Temple: “if My people, upon whom My name is called, shall humble themselves and pray [this refers to prayer, “tefilah”], shall seek My presence [this refers to social justice, “tzedakah”] and shall return from their evil ways [this refers to rectifying repentance, “teshuvah”], I will then hear from Heaven, forgiving their transgressions and healing their land [this refers to canceling the severe decree]” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Prayer, tzedakah, and repentance – three acts that profoundly affect our soul if we carry them out truly and sincerely. Sincere prayer implies an intense self-examination, it is a kind of trial of ourselves. We ask God, we acknowledge His power, we confess in front of Him. In this way we become aware of what we have, the good and the evil, and of what we lack. The introspection enclosed in prayer returns unto us and influences our soul. This return unto oneself is implied in the Hebrew verb for praying, which grammatical form is in the reflexive: “l’hitpalel”.

The teshuvah, the rectifying repentance, implies examining of our acts, mending any harm we could have induced to our fellow person, asking forgiveness from the one we’ve harmed and committing not to repeat the transgressions or the negative acts we have done. This is a very tough process for the soul to take. It demands taking full responsibility on our negative acts, as well as the explicit acknowledgement of having done them. This is, perhaps, the most difficult part of the teshuvah, since it requires a complete acknowledgment of our acts without justifying them, totally humbling our souls. If we present justifications to what we’ve done we are actually saying that it was not that negative, since there’s a reason for our deeds. In there is a reason, if there are constraints the responsibility falls, even partly, on someone or something else. The teshuvah demands assuming responsibility without reserves. The profound self examination should lead us to grasp when there actually were reasons or constraints and when there weren’t such.

Of those three acts Rabbi Elazar enumerates, I have found that tzedakah, social justice, is the most difficult for the soul to accomplish. It demands an essential change in human spirit. Why is it so? Because it requires from us to stop considering ourselves as the center and to try and understand reality from the other person’s perspective and experience. It demands we declare “it is not me who understands other’s affliction, but it is rather the sufferer who makes me understand his or her grief”.

You might say: “But tzedakah means giving money to the needy. Nothing could be easier!”

Just giving money is not tzedakah – it is charity. I’m giving someone else something that I think he lacks and that I can spare. Yes, it is a great act to do – but this is not tzedakah, social justice. It doesn’t cause me to change; it doesn’t cause me neither to really understand the other person, nor to access his distress, to experience reality through his soul. Charity briefly mitigates the tribulation of the feeling; the needy’s feeling, perhaps, but mainly that of the giver. Charity is the consequence of the giver’s woe regarding the indigent person. It is a positive consequence since we help, albeit shortly, somebody in need of money, clothing, or a meal. Charity is undoubtedly a great act – but it is not tzedakah.

Our Sages taught us that real tzedakah means to give needy people what they lack: “If he has no clothes, clothe him; if he lacks housewares, buy them for him; if he or she haven’t got married, help them to do so; even if he used to ride a horse with a servant running in front of him and then he became poor, buy him a horse to ride on and have a servant to run in front of him.” (Maimonides, Hilkhot Matnon Aniim 7:3).

Tzedakah means to restore dignity to those who have lost it; to restore trust to those who have lost their trust in others, as well as to restore to others the trust in that person; to help those with no jobs find their livelihood; to restore self-confidence to the weakened; to restore the smile to the sad; to help those who hold back their tears weep; to restore our capacity to compliment others.

We have to withdraw from ourselves, from considering ourselves as the center, so as to understand what comes from the other’s place and affliction. Because tzedakah means helping the other one to attain what HE or SHE lacks and not what WE think they need. The difference is huge, because needy is not only one who looks like indigent. A needy person may be wealthy or poor, happy, or sad, someone who looks like needy, as well as someone who seems to be doing fine… doing fine until we truly understand his and her soul.

The hametz of today, like in those old days

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jametz-matza-libertadPesah is approaching and all the cleaning works have begun – there are those who actually do it, those who think of doing it and those who are aware of those who clean for Pesah. In any case, the issue of hametz, the fermentation of cereal, is one of the central themes of this festival, since “Unleavened bread will be eaten these seven days, but no cereal ferment shall be seen, nor any sourdough shall be seen within all your borders” (Exod. 13:7)

Why getting rid of the hametz is so central in a festival that reminds us of liberty, of our freedom from slavery in Egypt?

Cereal ferment symbolizes two essential principles related to freedom. So essential they are that it is not enough to recall them in our minds, but a practical action must be taken to strongly root them in our souls.

Firstly, the hametz represents the Egyptian culture. Egypt was known in ancient times as the land of the leavened bread and the beer. The fermentation process of cereal grains or of dough requires a specific expertise to get a refined product.  The process must be controlled to avoid ruining the dough by letting it become rotten. The Egyptians were masters in it and there are some scholars who think they even invented the technique. Dr. Tova Dickstein reminds us that the Greek historian Herodotus called the Egyptians “bread eaters” (“A new look at Hametz, Matza and everything in between”, Ne’ot Kedumim website). It seems to be that this was a widespread nickname for the Egyptians in the ancient world (H.E. Jacob, “Six thousand years of bread”).

The hametz, the cereal ferment, has a very close relation with Egypt and is even a mark of identification of the ancient Egyptian culture. So more so, Egypt was known because of its bread, and not because o its pyramids!

Avoiding hametz means to disengage from the Egyptian culture to earn freedom, to become independent, to establish and develop a different culture.

If so, why don’t we avoid the hametz completely, instead of only during seven days a year? Because it is a symbol and not the thing in itself. It reminds us of something that has to be recalled once in a while to avoid the indifference created by the routine.

Moreover, freedom does not mean the denial of the other culture, but the independence from it. The Egyptian culture had many positive assets, as well as negative elements like the slavery they imposed on us. We take the positive and reject the negative. Accepting the hametz during the year, while rejecting it during Pesah, during the festival of freedom, teaches us in a very strong way both the emancipation from the alien oppressing culture and the reinforcement of its positive aspects.

Secondly, the hametz symbolizes waiting. Sometimes it is important to wait, but in other instances it may mean to miss the opportunity. If our ancestors would have waited instead of leaving Egypt when God gave them the opportunity, we would have never been liberated. In Hebrew there is a single verb to express “missing an opportunity”: l’hachmitz. It derives from “hametz” and Rabbi Yoshia says: “The same as you don’t leaven the matzah, you don’t leaven [=miss] a mitzvah, but you fulfill it as soon as you have the opportunity” (Mekhilta d’Rabi Yishmael – Bo, Masekhta d’Pis’cha 9). This is a negative waiting that causes loss and destruction. Refraining from hametz during the seven days of the Festival of freedom reminds us that there are certain instances in which we risk to lose everything if we just hold and wait.

Disengaging from the alien culture so as to emancipate from it and grasping the right moment so as not to miss the opportunity – these are two foundational and essential concepts of the Jewish civilization. Both are related to hametz, the ferment of cereal, and our separating from it in Pesah.

Parshat Lekh-lekha “I will bless you”: Providence and faith – a continuous saga

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lejlejaThe relationship between the Human Being and God turns around the axis which at one extreme there is the Divine Providence, while at the other we find the faith. Faith, ‘emunah‘ in Hebrew, refers to trust. Lack of faith, even temporary, not trusting devotedly in God, has been regarded along the history as a spiritual flaw.

But in human daily reality we cannot believe all the time at the same intensity. We do not always feel that Divine Providence… sometimes it is even not actually active. At least not as active as we expect it to be. And then our faith is strongly shaken, undermined. We ask ourselves: Have I stopped believing? Can I have faith at all?

We tend to understand the faith in God as a concept requiring full engagement. Either all or nothing. There is no room for questions, no room for doubts. Those who ask or hesitate are not true believers.

Is it possible to think differently about belief and the person of faith? Maybe true belief results from the permanent internal struggle between the desire that nothing bad happens and the not always agreeable reality? Maybe faith is exactly that challenge rocking us between hope and reality?

Abraham is an example of this spiritual struggle. In parshat Lekh-lekha there are many expressions of faith in human proportions: a faith that goes from absolute trust to doubts and back to trust; one that asks God, gets appeased by a supporting answer and gets worried because of an obscure response. Abraham goes into the unknown with complete faith, following God’s call: go forth… to the land I will show you… I will bless you… you will become a blessing. He arrives, indeed, to the land – where reality is different from faith: there is abundance and famine, there are friends and enemies, there is serenity and discord, certainty and doubt.

There was a famine in the land, so Abram went down to Egypt” (Gen. 12:10). “They will say, ‘this is his wife’, and will kill me… Please say you are my sister, so that it will go well with me for your sake” (idem 12-13). Abraham fears, worries, wonders: he does not stay in the land God had shown him, neither relies he on the blessing God promised him. He goes down to Egypt because of the famine, is anxious about his life without thinking “God will protect me”. He prefers to lie and to ask his wife to do likewise.

Our Sages counted these actions as tests of God unto Abraham (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan recension A, Ch. 33 and recension B, Ch. 36)

Nahmanides, on the contrary, says that Abraham sinned here, since he did not believe:

You must know that our father Abraham did unintentionally a big sin, bringing his righteous wife into the obstacle of transgression… but he must have believed that God will save him” (Nahmanides, exegesis to Gen. 12:10)

Most of the exegetes, however, defend Abraham in different ways, possibly because it is difficult to think of our father Abraham as lacking of faith. In my humble opinion, there is no spiritual weakness in what Abraham did, but a true human uncertainty. Moreover, the big test Abraham went through is renewing his faith, his trust, his confidence in God after the challenges he had to cope with. And he passed the test.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century) presents us Abraham’s high virtue as that of a sincere and brave man of faith, who copes with spirituality and worldliness:

Abraham did not trust God, Who feeds and supports even in the desert (…) he put in danger his wife’s moral welfare so he could survive. (…) The Torah does not present us the great personalities of the People of Israel as perfect ideals… it does not say about any person: “here there is the ideal person that makes the Divine into human” (…) Knowing the sins of the great personalities does not diminish them. On the contrary, their personalities become greater. Were they shinning in absolute purity, we would have thought their nature is different from ours and impossible to imitate. Without craving and inner struggle, their virtues would have been the result of a superior nature“. (R. S.R. Hirsch commentary to Gen. 12:10-13)

Abraham’s greatness lies in his coping with faith, with hope and with fear, just as we, ourselves, cope with them. He reinforced his trust in God even though he did not receive from Him all what he wanted, as he wanted it and when he wanted it. Abraham feared and believed, hoped and worried, trusted, had disappointments and renewed his trust.

Just as we do.

May Abraham be blessed, and may we, his followers in questioning and in meeting God again and again, be blessed, too.

 Parshat Noah – Love words and peace

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Genesis 11:1-9

1 The whole earth had one language and the same words… 4 Then they said, “Come, let’s build us a city with a tower with its top in the heaven, so that we will make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth…6 And the Lord said, “Behold, it is one people with one language for everyone and this they begin to do. And now nothing will prevent them to accomplish what they plan. 7 Let us go down, and confound their language there, so that they won’t understand each other’s language. 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city.

What is the cause of the punishment the “generation of secession”, the people that began building the Tower of Babel?

In my humble opinion they were not punished at all. God rather helped them (and us) to progress.

If we look attentively at this story, we will see that there is no sign of “punishment” in God’s words. These are words that put forward a challenge.

God’s will is to prevent these men to accomplish what they have planned, to build a very tall tower to avoid being scattered (“lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth“). We see, indeed, that after confounding the languages “the Lord scattered them abroad from there upon the face of all the earth“.

Why to disperse them? What’s so wrong in letting them be grouped in a single place?

We have to look into the opening verse of the saga: “The whole earth had one language and the same words“. And when God decides to disrupt the plan of those people, He says: “it is one people with one language for everyone“.

The main problem seems to be that humans don’t speak but one language and the same words. There’s no variety, no other ideas other than one conventional opinion. The result is that they do not disperse. Since dispersion means independence of ideas: everyone chooses for himself, thinks for himself, without having to align with the dominant opinion, with the “same words”.

Uniform thinking avoids conflict: no arguments, no need to convince, no confrontation of two different positions. You might say this is the archetypical peace – we all think together the same thing, we all agree without any hesitation.

Nevertheless, this is not a real peace situation. This is rather oppression. When each individual in society thinks and feels exactly the same, there is no room for self-expression: it is a society of robots and not of humans, anymore. This is the goal of totalitarian regimes: to suppress any thoughts beyond the accepted-dictated-only one.

One of the most difficult obstacles to peace and fraternity is the assertion of the existence of one and only truth. A consequence of this is that any other opinion is necessarily false, since it does not align with the only truth.

The story of the Tower of Babel teaches us that the Human Being needs to develop an independent way of thinking. The big and difficult challenge is to achieve peace preserving different positions, without eliminating each other.

A peace of one truth, of one opinion, isn’t but an illusion. The real peace is built when it is possible to accept that there is a different opinion, when the “other one” exists with his/her independent thought. However, not all different opinion is acceptable to build peace: only the one that does not exclude, does not disdain, does not annul the other opinion, is the one that enables recognition of the “other one”, and thus builds peace.

This is a living peace, that changes, that develops. “Peace” of only one opinion is static and any thing that is not like it, causes it to collapse.

A living peace, on the other hand, is a flexible situation that needs to be updated, adapted and thought again and again. Because it is a peace built on difference and not on identity. The “Keli Yakar” (Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim of Luntschitz, Poland of the 16th Ctry.) explains in his exegesis to these verses:

They thought they will achieve peace by grouping themselves together. But I [says God] know that peace comes from dispersion” (Keli Yakar to Genesis 11:6)

He takes also the words in the Book of Esther: “There is one people dispersed and distributed” (Esther 3:8) and stresses that a real “one people” is the one that succeeds in being one while being scattered:

It is a real one people when it is scattered and dispersed, when they don’t struggle each one with his fellow person. But if all of them are grouped in one place to escape struggling one nation with another, then they will enter a bigger struggle, an internal war of one against his fellow” (idem, verse 1).

Therefore, I don’t see here no punishment, but a challenge: Not to annul the differences, not to blur or to wash the dissimilarities by words or deeds that do not recognize the difference. On the contrary, we have to accept the difference, the dissimilarity, the boundaries that define myself as somebody else, that define the society as one distinct from others. Together with this, we must respect the difference, the dissimilarity. We must consent to its existence and not to annul it. If I think like you, then I am not myself: I become you. If I respect your thought (even without agreeing with it) and you respect mine, then I give you existence and you give me existence.

It is in this way that there is peace… our task is to permanently renew this peace.