Monthly Archives: January 2015

Parshat B’shalah

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After having crossed the Yam Suf safe and sound, the children of Israel bursted into song and praise: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord, and spoke, saying: I will sing unto the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and his rider hath He thrown into the sea.” (Ex. 15:1).

The terrible enemy, the Egyptians who sought their ruin, were drowned in the sea and the danger disappeared. The natural response is joy – the euphoria is a perfectly expected reaction.

Nevertheless, there is midrash stating that God does not rejoice in the death of the wicked ones: “Rabbi Yohanan says: Why is it written ‘ and the one came not near the other all the night’ (Ex. 14:20)? The angels wanted to sing a song of praise and God said to them: ‘My creatures are drowning and you want to sing?'” (TB Meguillah 10b and TB Sanhedrin 9b).

There is hence another stance on the same incident in the Yam Suf, on the very defeat of the cruel and merciless enemy. This stance teaches that even though there is deliverance here, there is loss there. Even though it relieved the persecuted one, the situation is far from being perfect. The joy and happiness cannot be the only manifestation when there is loss in lives, albeit this loss is unavoidable when there is no other way to stop the evil.

Rabbi Yohanan’s opinion expresses a deep spiritual understanding that the respect of God’s creatures is a fundamental principle in the Torah. It follows the call in Proverbs (24:17): “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thy heart be glad when he stumbleth“.

The joy after salvation is natural, but we must learn to regulate it when the death appears as the cause of this salvation. We are happy and joyful because of the deliverance, but we are not happy on the death of other human beings.

It is better if the situation was different, if there were no cruel people who wish to humiliate, annul and even annihilate others. It would be better if evil was nonexistent and if every person knew how to respect the lives of the others. But the naiveté of this ideal is not a reason for celebrating the death of the enemy.

The joy is for the salvation and not for the death.

We have learned this is a spiritual lesson in the course of many generations. The Song of the Sea still expresses the primordial human reaction: an exultant joy on the death of the enemy and the end of his threat of killing us. Nevertheless the Torah demands us to transcend the animal level. And we arrived to understand that we must rejoice life and not celebrate death. There may not be another way to get rid of a persistently cruel power but to destroy the source of evil, notwithstanding this is not a reason to rejoice, but to increase the motivation for transforming the human destructive nature into a constructive and positive power.

This understanding finds a strong expression in Purim. The festival does not fall on the date when we were forced to kill in order to defend ourselves. We do not celebrate the bloodshed and the death of our enemies. On that day we fast – it is a time for the accounting of the soul. We rejoice in the deliverance and we celebrate it the morrow of the battle, because we are happy for having been saved, but not because our enemies were killed.

There is a tension between the drive to rejoice when our enemy falls and the respect of life the Torah demands of us. We have to live and to cope with this tension so as to elevate our souls to the level sanctity and to induce ourselves and our fellow persons to build a humankind worthy of sharing God’s likeness.

Parshat Va-Era

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If God is omniscient, how does it come that the Human Being has free will?

This question stands before us in the first quarter of Parshat Va-Era and will go with us all along the next parshiot, until the crossing of the Yam Suf. God said to Moshe: “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. Pharaoh will not hearken unto you, and I will lay My hand upon Egypt” (Ex. 7:3-4). Pharaoh has apparently no possibility of accepting Moshe’s request. Even if he would have wanted to do that, God’s would harden his heart. Where is there the justice, here? God not only requires something the person cannot possibly accomplish, but He punishes him because of the stubbornness God Himself causes!

The interpreters dealt extensively with this problem. There are some who say that Pharaoh would have had to resist God’s decree, since the Human Being has the power of changing a little what is innate (Ibn Ezra, commenting on Deut. 5:26). Others consider there is no strict fate here, but a plain prophecy, as if saying: “You shall see, this is exactly what he is going to do, I know him”. (Pesika Zutarta, Midrash Sekhel Tov). Another group of interpreters think that Pharaoh was being punished because of former sins (Rashi, Rav Hayim Paltiel).

In midrash Shmot Rabbah (13:3) we are told in the name of Shimon ben Lakish: “[God] warns him once, twice, thrice, but if he does not reconsider his deeds, God closes the gates of repentance”. Resh Lakish teaches us here that the person has many opportunities to do well and to chose a positive way, one of construction and of respect of his/her fellowmen. The person has many opportunities to amend his/her mistakes and to change the destructive choices he or she has made by good and constructive choices. It is the personal experience of Resh Lakish, who demonstrates, not only by means of theory, but by concrete facts, that one may transform a life of destruction into one of building. He did it himself. He does not speak from the arrogant heights of a preacher moralizing according to a perfect theory, but from the practical experience that illuminates the abstract idea.

However, when the person stubbornly remains in a closed position that does not respect the others, a position of powerful egocentrism; he or she loses the capacity of change. At a certain point the decline is inevitable and unstoppable. The strongest of the wills shall not succeed in modifying the trend of destruction and loss – of self destruction and loss.

This is what happened to Pharaoh. His bullheadedness, his obduracy, led him to lose the capacity of overcoming and managing his destructive tendencies. He turned into an automaton and conducting himself and his followers into a catastrophe.


Parshat Vaiyehi

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Yaakov is approaching his last days. He asked Yosef to bring his two children, Menashe and Efraim, so he could bless them.

Yaakov is old. He does not see well any more.

Yosef places Menashe at his father’s right side, while Efraim stays at the left side. Yaakov, however, puts his right hand on the head on the second son, Efraim. On the firstborn’s head, on Menashe, he puts his left hand.

Yosef tries to correct the situation. His father does not see well; maybe he didn’t realize, or he got confused. Perhaps he has mistaken Efraim by Menashe.

But Yaakov answers: “I know, my son. I know”.

He’s well aware of what he does. He is not confused, he is not mistaken. He sees something that Yosef cannot see.

He feels in Efraim something that goes beyond the perception of physical senses. Yaakov is open to understand something that is not within the boundaries of the consensus, that is not the acceptable thing “because this is the way it always was, because this is what has to be and will be”.

He has always dared try what had never been tried before. He has always had the courage to break the mould because he understood that the person is not fixed according to a rigid pattern. The Human Being builds himself and changes. There are basic conditions, he or she have limitations, indeed. But the person is not fixed.  With the basic conditions and the space enabled by the limitations, the Human Being changes, renews himself, surprises.

Yaakov does not want to establish the foundation as structure. In other words, he does not want that the primary conditions (or the known conditions established by a preconception) set one only development option for the person, be it the physical or the spiritual development.  That’s why Efraim is not the second, even though he was originally the second. And Menashe is not the first only because at the base he was the first. They developed differently and Yaakov understood that. He expressed this understanding in the way he chose to bless his grandchildren. Grandchildren that he declared his own children, since the original evidence of being Yosef’s children does not prevent them to develop into Yaakov’s spiritual sons.

We, his descendants, we are called to open our spiritual eyes as he did, to see what is unexpected in the Human Being, what is not fixed in the Human Being, what is not defined.

We are called not to surrender to a simple and automatic repetition, but to dare find the person veiled by the masks of predefinitions.