Are the Egyptians the New Jews?

The following article is adapted from Rabbi Pear’s Shabbat HaGadol Sermon: “Are the Egyptians the New Jews? A Jewish Response to the Arab Revolts.”

I recently became a global citizen.  In search of an affordable graphic artist to design a new logo for Shir Hadash I came across a website that ‘puts out to bid’ various projects to freelancers throughout the world.  The client – that’s me – gets to view all these bids and then decide on the best one.  To my surprise, the project I offered – design a new logo for a Israeli based Jewish religious institution – garnered tremendous response.  Two things in particular surprised me.  First, the bids were incredibly low.  There were professionals in India, individuals with college degrees, some with second degrees even, willing to work for me ‘until I was satisfied’ for about $25.  Heck, in Israel, I can’t even get someone to work for me ‘until I’m almost not totally unsatisfied’ for double that amount.
The second thing that surprised me was the tremendous diversity of the respondents.  Yes, I received many responses from India, but also from Pakistan, and Latvia, and Estonia, and Italy, and Mexico and England (the most expensive of course) and many, many other places … including Egypt!  This last respondent was the most fascinating.  He saw that I’m Israeli (in fact, next to my name the website placed a large Israeli flag); he saw that I’m Jewish and he saw that I was asking to have work done for a Synagogue among other things.  Did he flinch? Not at all.  “Shalom” he wrote me.  “I’m not sure you’d be willing to hire an Egyptian, but if you would, I promise I’d do a great job.  I’d love to work for you!”
I was moved.  I had always harbored bad feelings towards Egypt, partly because of that whole slavery thing, and partly for that whole waging war against nascent Israel thing.  Sure there was now peace, but it was most certainly a cold peace at best.
[I think I also have a problem with Egypt partly because of a visit I made there once when I was in college.  After a day of touring I fell asleep in my hotel room, while my two roommates decided to ‘go out’ to check out the Egyptian nightlife.  At around three in the morning I was awakened by a Rooster dancing on my head and pecking my nose.  Apparently my friends bought said rooster during their night out and thought it would be hilarious to introduce him to me while I was deep in sleep.]
So yes, I have always had a problem with Egypt.  But then I receive this wonderfully uplifting note from a total stranger.  Apparently the forces of globalization have some very positive effects.   Which got me thinking … Maybe all those times I had a problem with Egypt, it wasn’t really with Egypt per se, but rather the leaders of Egypt.  Maybe the average person wasn’t so bad after all.  Maybe, in fact, behind all the rhetoric and politics, maybe behind all the headlines and shrill protesting and Israeli flag burning, maybe, just maybe, there were millions of everyday Egyptians ready to say ‘Shalom’ to total Israeli strangers.
And that got me thinking about the Exodus.  What was the situation then?  Was it simply Pharoah running the show; he was a dictator after all.  Did the average Egyptian and the average Jew actually get along?  Or was the anti-Semitism introduced by Pharoah actually a national pasttime?  Did everyone get in on the whole opression thing?
According to the Torah, I tend to think it was the latter.  After all, we are told that every Egyptian, from the mighty Pharoah all the way down to the lowliest water carrier, suffered during the Plagues.  Everyone of them was punished … suggesting, of course, that God somehow held everyone one of them somewhat responsible.
But wasn’t it Pharoah and his taskmasters who did all the enslaving?  What role did that poor water carrier play?
According to many sources, the answer is that Pharoah, as powerful as he was, could not possibly have instituted slavery without the tacit support of the entire population.  If the people had protested, he would have had no choice but to abort his plan.  Thus, when they did not protest, their sin of omission enabled the slavery to take place.
A number of interesting proofs assert this same point.
For example, the Gemara tells us that Pharoah consulted with three people before enslaving the Jews – Bilaam, Yitro and Iyov (or Job).  Bilaam encouraged Pharoah to enslave the Jews – and was thus punished by God.  Yitro would have no part of Pharoah’s plan and ran away in protest – and was thus rewarded by God.  Job simply remained silent.  How did God react to this inaction?  According to the Gemara, not well.  Job’s silence in the face of the Jews’ impending suffering was criminal – and thus God punished him with all the suffering we are familiar with from Job’s story elsewhere.  In other words, if one has the opportunity to protest and he does not, even if his protest may not be successful, he is liable for his lack of action.  It’s almost as if he allowed the act to take place.
Another interesting source is provided by the Vilna Gaon.  He states that Pharoah, no matter how powerful a dictator he was, was nevertheless limited in his behavior by the tacit support of the average Egyptian.  If he was totally out of line, a revolt would have removed him from power.
What’s the proof of this assertion?
The Vilna Gaon points out two things.  First, that the Gemara states that Pharoah told all the midwives a secret – that if the baby’s head was up (while still in the womb) it was most probably a boy, while if it was down it was probably a girl.  Why did they need to  know that information.  Couldn’t they simply have waited until the baby was born, and then kill all the males as Pharoah commanded?  Why did Pharoah think they needed a ‘heads up’ – pardon the pun – beforehand?
His second question relates to the ‘excuse’ given by the two Jewish midwives who refused to murder the male babies.  If you remember the text, they tell Pharoah they couldn’t have killed the babies because the Jewish women give birth so fast that the boys were already born before they, the midwives, arrived.  “So what?” asks the Vilna Gaon.  How is that an excuse at all.  So you kill them after they are born.  Why does it matter that they were already born?
The Vilna Gaon answers the second question by addressing the first.  Pharoah made sure the midwives knew how to determine the sex of the baby in utero because he knew that if they waited until they were born, the mothers – and others – would protest the murder.  By murdering them before they actually left the womb, the mothers didn’t even know their children were being murdered; they simply thought it was a miscarriage.  In this way, Pharoah did not appear overtly evil – at least in the eyes of his own people.  For if they had actually known about his plan, they most assuredly would have protested.  And it is for this reason that the midwives excuse made sense.  Yes, they could have technically killed the babies after they were born, but if they did so, the gig was up; people would know Pharoah’s true intentions and perhaps begin to revolt against him.  We learn from this yet again the power of the seemingly powerless.  If they had protested, Pharoah could not have succeeded with his plans.
And thus, according to these above sources, as well as others, even the lowly Egyptians were guilty because they allowed Pharoah to ‘get away’ with murder.
But not everyone agrees with this assertion.  The Ramban, for example, argues that the Egyptians didn’t know about Pharoah’s plans at all.  He, of course, can draw some support for this assertion from the same Vilna Gaon insight quoted above.  Pharoah obviously was trying to deceive the people so they weren’t aware of his plans.  If that’s the case, then, they can’t be held responsible for not protesting.  After all, they can’t protest what they can’t see.
… which raises an even greater question than the one we began with.
Recall, for a moment, how we started this discussion.  The Torah itself  tells us that all the Egyptians are punished.  Why?  According to most sources, because they all shared some type of culpability.  The one angle we explored was their lack of protest (there are others, but that’s for another time).  Fine.  That makes sense.
But now the Ramban comes along and suggests that perhaps the Egyptians didn’t know what was going on, and therefore couldn’t protest — and therefore also could not be held liable for not protesting.  Which seems to suggest a certain degree of innocence.
But that can’t be.  The Torah has already told explicitly they are punished!
So does that mean the Ramban is wrong?
Perhaps not.  Perhaps there is something else the Egyptians did that made them liable for punishment.  But if not their outright participation in enslaving the Jews, and if not their tacit support by not protesting, then what?
Let us digress for one moment and ask the following question: Who is the key figure in the Hagada that seems to be totally absent from all discussion on Seder night?
My answer: Joseph.
Joseph, after all, is the reason the Jews are in Egypt in the first place.  If he never went down there, and if he never succeeded in becoming the vice-premier, it is doubtful the brothers would have followed him down, and even less so that they would have stayed.
So yes, I think Joseph plays a significant role in the whole story.  And so do the Sages, though not in the obvious way you might expect.  For example, one ritual enacted by the Sages is dipping the Karpas into salt water.  Did you know that some have the custom of dipping it in Charoset because it’s usually reddish (due to the red wine in it), and this reminds them of when the brothers dipped Joseph’s coat of many colors into the blood of an animal in order to show it to their father and claim that Joseph must have been killed?  Or did you know that the world Karpas, according to Rashi, does not mean simply ‘green vegetable’ – like parsely or celery – but rather colorful coat – i.e., Joseph’s coat?
And another thing?  Why do we tell the story of the four brothers?  Some suggest it’s connected to Joseph.  After all, what’s the reason Joseph was sold into slavery?  Because his brothers hated him.  And why did they hate him?  Because their father Jacob favored him at their expense.  Perhaps, suggests some commentators, the reason why the story of the four brothers is included in the Hagada is to teach us that a parent must learn how to relate and educate each of his or her children in whatever way they need educating.
And here’s the clincher to prove that despite his apparent absence, Joseph IS actually a major part of the seder.  We drinkg 4 cups of wine.  Why?  According to the Babylonian Talmud the answer is because the Torah uses four different terms to describe the redemptive process of God taking us out of Egypt.  OK, sounds good to me.
But not to the Jerusalem Talmud.  It offers an entirely different explanation: We drink 4 cups of wine because in the dream of the Wine Steward – the dream that Joseph interprets and is the cause of his eventual liberation from prison – in this dream there are four times the word ‘cup’ is mentioned.
So there you have it.  Joseph is a part of the seder after all.
But what does that mean?
To understand its meaning, we have to realize that Joseph is but one model of Jewish leadership.  Throughout our history, there is a second model as well – and that is Yehuda.
What is the difference between these two leaders?  Joseph represents the Universal, the desire to take Jewish values and spread them throughout the world, even if at times that jeopardizes the uniquenss of the Jewish way along the way. Yehuda, in contrast, is uncompromisingly parochial.  First and foremost he represents the need to strengthen our Jewish identity, our commitment to our uniqueness, and our devotion to one another – even if that comes at the expense of our other mission to reach out to the rest of the world.
We have both models of leaders because, in truth, we need both models of leadership.  It is irrelevant to be able to speak to the world if what we have to say is not particularly meaningful; and thus we need Yehuda’s insistence on understanding the unique Jewish message.  On the other hand, what good is it to survive as Jews and celebrate Judaism if we are unable to spread that message in such a way as to transform the world?
Perhaps the Sages ‘slipped’ Joseph into the Hagada to remind us of this need to synthesize both leadership styles.  Especially on Passover.  After all, one could be forgiven for abandoning the world at such a time.  We were enslaved.  We were murdered.  We were almost destroyed.  “Please,” I hear myself saying, “Give me a break.  You want me to care about the rest of the world right now.  It’s impossible.”  And yet, while one can be forgiven for turning inward when contemplating the Passover experience, the Sages remind us that this is not ideal.  We must also, even at this difficult time, remember the message of Joseph.  That the Jewish story is also meant to play a role in the lives of the whole world.  We dare not ignore others.
OK, now I believe we can return to answer the question on the Ramban.  Recall the problem: The Ramban said average Egyptians were not guilty of enslaving the Jews, but the Torah tells us they are punished nevertheless; so what was their sin?
Perhaps – and here I am summoning the Joseph within me – their sin had nothing to do with their relationship with the Jewish people.   Perhaps their sin was something not against Jews but against themselves.
Consider this.  The message of the exodus is not simply that the Jews needed to be free, but also that the entire world needs to be free.  That only with freedom can a person – any person – fulfill their ultimate potential and ultimate service to God.  Moreover, it is also a message of God as liberator, as lover of freedom, and of man created in God’s image, and thus also a lover of freedom.
Perhaps the sin of the average Egyptian is not that he enslaved others but that he allowed himself to become enslaved.  That he allowed a dictator to rule over him, to establish a caste society in which no movement, no moral freedom and no independence was permitted.  That he allowed himself to remove all possibility of serving the one True God because he refused to even attempt to throw off the shackles of one so-called god-dictator.
… and of course, once this Egyptian gave up all hope for his own freedom, the absolute enslavement of another became inevitable.
Let us now take this lesson and apply it to the various popular revolts spreading throughout the Arab world.  As a Jew and and Israeli, yes, I am a little concerned about what might follow.  Nothing is guaranteed, and yes, it is quite possible that extremists will replace the old regimes, who may have been corrupt, dictatorial and oppressive, but also stable and something Israel knew how to deal with.  Yes, that is all possible.
But so too is something very different.  Maybe, just maybe, the decision by millions to throw off the shackles of their oppression, and to finally insist on their own freedom, maybe this is a sign of good things to come.  Certainly they are not doing this for our sake.  But that doesn’t matter.  For far too long they weren’t even prepared to do it for their sake.
This change in attitude portends well for their societies and ultimately for the world as a whole.  No, everything will not be punky dory by tomorrow.  And yes, there might be some extremists that take over in the interim.  But if the average person continues to insist on his freedom, continues to raise his voice in protest every time someone rises to usurp his liberated status, well, then, in the long run not only will his society benefit but so too will all of ours.

In this week’s parsha we are commanded to Love thy Neighbor as Thyself, or in the original, ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  The question is: Is that even possible?  Can I ever love a person as much as I love myself?

Even Rabbi Akiva, who of course promoted this commandment above all others, understood there were limitations in applying it.  For example, when two people are lost in the desert and there is only enough water for one of them to survive, Rabbi Akiva writes that if you are the one in possession of the water you do not need to share it with your friend.  If you do, you both will die, so it is better to have at least one of you live, and since you already have the water, it should be you.

If the shoe were on the other foot, is that what you would really want?  Is that truly loving one’s neigbhor as one’s self?

Or take for example the case of Hillel.  He, too, was a champion of the this commandment, equating it as the basis of the entire Torah.  But he, too, had some problems with applying it practically, and therefore when asked by the convert what is the Torah’s essence, he didn’t quote this commandment accurately from the Torah.  Rather, he reformulated it into the negative; that which is hateful to you, don’t do to others.  A little less lofty than the love required in the Torah, but perhaps more manageable as well.

And the list of limitations go on and on; Rabbi after Rabbi extol the commandment but then tell us it only applies in certain situations.

Which leaves us with another question: If this commandment cannot be fulfilled, why is there at all.  Why not begin with the limitations?

Perhaps there is another way of reading this commandment, one that allows us to take it at face value but also fulfill it at the same time.


Before exploring that possibility, let us look at another commandment from this week’s Torah portion, the mitzvah of honoring one’s elders.  I first began to think about this mitzvah due to an e-mail sent out by Yeshiva University to its former Rabbinical students.  In this e-mail, a link was provided to a humorous, though disturbing, story that took place in Japan.  Apparently an elderly woman got onto a bus and asked a young 18 year old man to vacate his seat so she could sit down instead.  He refused, despite the seat he was occupying was specifically designated for the elderly.  What was her response?  She took her cane and beat him senselessly, breaking his nose and bruising him all over.  Needless to say, she got her seat.

Contrast this scene with something I witnessed here in Jerusalem a few years back.  An elderly woman entered the bus, at which time a young man instantly got up from his seat to give it to her.  Before he could do so, though, another individual entered the bus behind the lady; this second individual was blind.  Now there was a traffic jam at the front of the bus.  The young man couldn’t get out unless the elderly lady either walked past her seat or went in reverse and pushed back the blind man.

So what happenned?  The elderly lady instantly sprung into action, performing some type of yoga move where her arms reached across the aisle while her legs straddled some seats.  The blind man kept walking down the aisle – below the cat like elderly lady – without even knowing she was there.

This somewhat hilarious scene got me thinking.  The mitzvah of honoring one’s elderly includes the halacha of standing up for people over the age of 70 when they walk in front of you.  This is a real halacha, not just a nice idea.  If an elderly person walks within four amout of you, you stand.  What is the halacha, I thought, if this elderly woman was also blind … and for good measure, let’s throw in deaf as well.

In other words, what is the halacha vis-a-vis standing for an elderly person if that elderly person will never know whether or not you stood for them, and maybe won’t even know that you were there in the first place.  If they can’t see or hear you, they will have no way of knowing about your behavior, and thus also, they cannot be offended in anyway if you don’t stand for them.

So do I have to stand in such a case?

The answer is yes; and the reason why is quite simple.  When we stand for the elderly, we are doing so not just for them to feel honored, but we are also doing so for us, and for society as a whole.  We are reminding ourselves about the importance of elderly, about the wisdom they represent, and how we should desire to pursue that wisdom.  And thus, even if they will never know if we showed that honor or not, it is important for us to do so to insure we remember that what they represent is important to us.

The Meshech Chochmah takes this idea and applies it to other cases of showing honor, such as the commandment to show honor to one’s parents.   To make his point, he first reminds of the famous Rashi that teaches us that one may not violate Shabbat even if ordered to do so by one’s parents.  Rashi tells us that we learn this law thanks to the juxtaposition of the commandments to honor the Shabbat and honor one’s parents found within the Ten Commandments.  The Meshech Chochmah asks: Why do we need this special learning, why a specific source?  Why would we ever think that we could violate Shabbat (a mitzvah ben adam l’makom) in order to fulfill honoring one’s parents (a mitzvah ben adam l’makom)?  He answers by quoting the Gemara which states that honoring one’s parents is really ‘only’ a hechsher mitzvah – the preparation for a mitzvah – and therefore might not be protected in the same way a regular mitzvah is.  In this way, he continues, honoring one’s parents is like building the Beit HaMikdash.

Rather than clarifying matters, this initial insight creates more fog.  First, why call honoring one’s parents and building the Beit HaMikdash hechsher mitzvoth?  Aren’t they actual mitzvoth?  Second, and if they are ‘only’ hecksher – preparation – for the mitzvah, then we would think they are even less important, and surely we don’t need a specific learning to teach us that you must not violate a bein adam l’makom in order to fulfill them.

The key to explaining the Meshech Chochmah is to focus on his use of the hecksher mitzvah of building the Beit HaMikdash.  That mitzvah, of course, is also (like Shabbat) a bein adam l’makom; by comparing it with honoring one’s parents perhaps suggests that honoring one’s parents also has such a component.  And if so, then we might need a specific learning to teach us that Shabbat takes precedence; after all they’re both on the same level without such a teaching.

And one more thing.  The use of the term hecksher mitzvah to explain the building of the Beit HaMikdash is very different than the use of the same term to describe other acts.  For example, hecksher mitzvah can be used to describe the act of chopping wood that will eventually be used for a Sukkah.  The mitzvah, of course, is the Sukkah; the chopping of the wood is one of the acts that precedes this mitzvah, but is not a mitzvah in it of itself.  Not so with the building of the Beit HaMikdash.  So why call it a hecksher mitzvah if in fact it’s really a mitzvah itself?  Because in addition to being a mitzvah by itself, it enables the fulfillment of so many other mitzvoth.  Without the Beit HaMikdash we are not just lacking that one mitzvah but an entire world of mitzvoth made possible by its existence.

So, too, says the Meshech Chochmah with regards to honoring one’s parents.  Yes, it is a mitzvah by itself.  But it also accomplishes – and enables – so much more.  By honoring one’s parents one is not simply providing a service to them; he is also gaining something personal for himself.  Like with the case of honoring the elderly, it’s not just about doing something for others, but also about becoming who I am supposed to become.

In this case, the benefit is as follows: In honoring one’s parents, one is connected to the tradition, the wisdom of the Torah and ultimately the strength of our past generations.  In honoring one’s parents, one gains access to the wealth of collective teachings, and begins the journey all the way back to standing at Har Sinai.  Honoring one’s parents, then, is also a hecksher mitzvah – it opens up the door to allow me to fulfill all the mitzvoth in the world.  That is why I need a specific learning that tells me in the instance of a conflict with Shabbat I should not violate Shabbat.  Without that learning, well then, obviously, I would follow the ‘honoring one’s parent’s’ mitzvah because it is usually what allows me to appreciate mitzvoth to begin with.


I would now like to take this idea and apply it to our initial question, of how we are to understand the mitzvah of “love your neigbhor as thyself.”  What I’d like to suggest is that there is a component of this mitzvah very much akin to the hecksher mitzvah component of honoring one’s parents.  To explain …

There once was a study completed that demonstrated people favor other people that somehow remind them of themselves.  In this experiment, researchers hired two different types of people to pretend to get sick at a mass rally taking place again Richard Nixon on the National Mall in Washington DC.  One type of person looked like the protestors – hippy dress, bearded, placards nearby protesting against Nixon.  The other type of person looked like a ‘young Republican’ – suit and tie, well groomed, etc.  Each ‘actor’ would pretend to get sick and see how people reacted.  If when they bent over in pain, someone asked how they were doing, they would go a step further and ask them to help them stand up.  If they agreed, they’d go a step further and ask them for a glass of water.  If they agreed, then another task – perhaps to walk them out of the crowd.  If they were still with them, they they’d ask for bus fare to get home.  If still there, then they’d have the gaul to ask them to accompany them home, about 7 miles away.

What was shocking was the different reactions elicited by the different actors.  The ‘like’ individual, the one who looked like the protesters, was helped tremendously.  Many people stopped; many helped; many even gave him money and a few accompanied him home.  Not so with the ‘other-looking’ actor.  Most ignored him.  The few who didn’t ignore him didn’t go too far out of their way to help.

From this we learn that the first step in a long process of aiding another depends very much on how you look at that person.  If you look at them as someone like you, then many of the subsequent steps are easy.  If you view them as different than you, then many of those subsequent steps become impossible.

Nechama Leibowitz has an interpretation on a verse in our parsha — other than the “love your neighbor’ one – that could be applied to our verse in such a way as to suggests the same teaching offered by this experiment.

First, let’s look at her verse, which happens to appear in our parsha just a few verses after our verse appears.  There it describes the importance of respecting the stranger, explicitly stating that one should “Love him like yourself” — pretty similar to our verse of “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  But this second verse has something our verse doesn’t — an explanation why.  “ואהבת לו כמוך כי גרים הייתם בארץ מצרים” – We are to love the stranger because we can identify with his situation, since like him, we too were strangers in a foreign land and understand what that means and how that feels.  In other words, Nechama Leibowitz reads the ‘like yourself’ not as an adjective describing your love but rather as a motivation enabling it.  The ‘like yourself’ does not relate back to “love him” but rather the second half of the verse “because you were strangers.”

Let’s take this idea and apply it to our ואהבת לרעך כמוך.  It should not be read as love your neighbor as you love yourself, but rather: Love your neighbor – period.  And how do you accomplish this?  By כמוך – by viewing your neigbhor as yourself, as someone similar to you.  For once you see him as someone like you, then the loving him is much easier.  Once you see him like yourself – just as the protesters saw the actor as one of them – then all the subsequent acts of love are much easier.  In this case, that means that not only is loving him much easier, but so too is fulfilling ALL the mitzvoth ben adam l’chavero that might come up between two people.

This, then, is another ‘hecksher mitzvah’ as the Meshech Chochmah understands the term.   By looking at a person a certain way, you make so many other mitzvoth with that person – and others – possible.

… all of which leaves but one more question: How are we to achieve that ability of seeing people who look different than us as ‘us’ – as people who are כמוך.

The answer to this question follows our verse, as well as the verse Nechama Leibowitz quotes.  “Because I am the Lord your God.”  By realizing that there is One God that means God is not only my God but the other’s God as well, and then by definition, we are both God’s children.  We are a like after all.

Time Travellers

In the Hagada we are presented with what obviously must have been a very important historical seder, the seder of Rabbi Akiva and the other four sages.  The question is: Why was the seder at Rabbi Akiva’s place?  After all, the other sages mentioned were of equal stature.  Among them was Elazar ben Azariah who became the head of the Sanhedrin at the amazingly young age of 18.  ere teachers of Rabbi Akiva, founders of the Yavne Academy, the President of the Sanhedrin.  There was also Eliezer, the star pupil of Rabbi Yochanan (and a teacher of Rabbi Akiva), about whom it was said, “If all the sages of Israel were on one pan of a balance scale, and Eliezer were on the other, he (and his wisdom) would outweight them all.”  There was also the famous – and humble – Rabbi Joshua (another teacher of Rabbi Akiva), as well as the tzadik Rabbi Tarfon about whom the Gemara tells us fulfilled the mitzvah of honoring one’s parents more so than anyone else ever had.  So again, why was the seder held at Rabbi Akiva’s?  Shouldn’t protocol have dictated it be at one of the more senior sages?  And if you want to say that their yearly seder rotated locations, so why then does the Hagada choose this particular year – in this particular place – to freeze in time as the seder of memory for all generations?

Another question that might shed some light on this first query:

It is an universally accepted tradition to retell the story of our freedom by first discussing our g’nut – or disgrace – and then follow it with shevach – our elevation, or redemption.  What is less univesally accepted is what exactly is meant by these two terms.  In the Gemara, for example, there is an argument about them, where one opinion holds that our disgrace was physical – our slavery in Egypt – and thus are elevation was physical as well – namely our exodus from Egypt.  The other opinion holds, however, that our true degredation was when we were idol worshippers – as in the time before Abraham – and our elevation therefore was not something physical but spiritual: We once were idol worshippers but now we believe in the one True God.

The Hagada, of course, tells both stories, starting with 1) the Avadim Hayinu answer to the four questions – which represents the g’nut of slavery followed by the shevach of freedom – and subsequently 2) the Ovdei Avodah Zara answer – with the g’nut of idol worship followed by the shevach of monotheism.

In contrast to the Hagada, the Rambam suggests in his Mishne Torah that we should reverse the order, that yes, we start with g’nut and end with shevach, but that the first g’nut should be about idol worship and only afterward should one discuss the physical slavery and subsequent freedom.

That position in it of itself is not overly shocking; after all, such an opinion existed in the Gemara as well.  But what is shocking is that the Rambam’s own Hagada did not follow the Rambam’s actual halachik opinion.  His Hagada, like all of ours, starts with Avadim Hayinu and then goes onto the idol worship question.

So why doesn’t the Rambam hold like the Rambam?

According to some (such as Rav Rimon from Alon Shevut), the Rambam believed in two types of Haggadot – one for Eretz Yisrael in the time of the Beit HaMikdash and one for Galut, exile.  In the latter case, when one is in exile, one has to be especially concerned about one’s physical predicament.  In the galut, a Jew could disappear easily.  He could – as history demonstrates – be threatened and challenged and even destroyed at any moment.  Such a Jew, therefore, must first ensure his physical freedom and avoidance of slavery; such a Jew, therefore, should start his recitation of the answer to the four questions by focusing first and foremost on physical redemption … and then only afterwards does he have the luxury to turn to spiritual matters.

A Jew living in the time of the Beit HaMikdash, however, must realize that physical freedom is not the end goal.  It is the means to the end.  It enables one to fuflill his ultimate purpose of serving God free of outside influence and without being prevented by outside forces.  Therefore, when a Jew lives in his own land, when he doesn’t have to worry about the physical slavery of the galut, then he must begin his answer with a spiritual focus, by discussing how we once lacked the knowledge of God but now we have it – and we must do something special with it.

The Rambam lived in the exile and therefore used the Hagada of the exile; he first addressed physical slavery and then only afterwards discussed spiritual matters.  His halachik ruling, though, was not for his time – and not for his place.  It was for the ideal situation, when Jews are free to live in their own land and pursue their ultimate purpose.  In that case, one focuses first and foremost on the spiritual.

What I take away from this insight is the Rambam’s special ability to ‘time travel’ – to live in one place but to constantly have his eye and heart elsewhere, in Jerusalem, in a land of freedom, with a people focusing on fulfilling their ultimate purpose, not just ‘getting’ by.

I experienced a glimpse of this idea during our own seder as well.  It was just the family so we decided to go all out and make it a very special – and fun – event for the kids.  Towards that end I designed a game to keep the kids’ attention at high alert.  It was called ‘Get Moshe into the Nile’ and included the following rules.  The kids would have to pass their baby brother from one to another, all the while avoiding being captured by me, who represented the big bad Pharoah.  As I have three girls, they represented some of the heroine of this part of the story – Yocheved (Moshe’s mother), Miriam (his sister) and Batya (his rescuer from the Nile).  The eventual goal was to get their baby brother all the way to a wading pool I had set up on the balcony; and not just to the pool, but to the baby bathtub – Moshe’s ark – in the center of the pool.

As it turned out, the baby was sleeping, so we decided to use dolls instead of a live child – which in turn made the game a little more fun.  Rather than handing the ‘baby’ from one to another, now the kids could throw the dolls to each other, over my head, under my legs and any way possible to keep him out of my reach.  When I was lucky, I would be able to bat the baby down, preventing them from winning; they would quickly grab the doll and start over.   As my wife watched the game unfold, I think she was particularly happy our baby made the wise decision of falling asleep.

At one moment in the game something fascinating happenned.  One daughter passed baby Moshe to the other.  She then jumped on a ledge on the balcony and called for her sister to pass Moshe back; after all, she was already past me, and if her sister could lob baby Moshe over my head, she would catch him and then have a free pass to throw (they gave up on placing a long time ago) Moshe into the pool.  Her sister heard her and tossed Moshe over my head.  He landed in the hands of the other sister … but only for a moment.  He was too high, and thus she could hold onto Moshe only for a moment.  In the next second he slipped from her hand and fell off the balcony several floors below.

We all gasped.  “Moshe” we all cried.  And then we laughed.

For me, the most interesting moment was the cry of “Moshe’s name.”  For that one moment, we were not playing a game but actually in Egypt trying to rescue Moshe.  We were experiencing a different time and place, something only humans can do.

Of course, we not only can relive the past unlike all other animals, we can also project ourselves into the future.  And amazingly, when done right, we can feel the past and the future in the same way we feel the present — real, live and happenning.  Sometimes, when we’re really good, we can even experience these three times at the same time!  That is when we get a taste of eternity, a taste of a moment that breaks all limits of time.

This, I think, is what made Rabbi Akiva so special.  Yes, he was a great scholar.  But so too were all the others.  No, it had to be something else that made all of them want to spend seder with him.

Think for a moment about a famous scene in which we are told Rabbi Akiva comforted others: He and some fellow scholars are on the Temple Mount bemoaning the destruction of the Temple.  Everyone is crying – but Akiva is laughing.  How is that possible? they ask.  He responds by telling them just as the prophecy that foresaw this destruction came to fruition so too will the prophecy that envisions its rebuilding come true.

For me, it is his laughter that is key.  To believe in a better future is one thing.  But to laugh about it is something entirely different.  Laughter is a sign of an emotion.  He wasn’t just envisioning the future; he was there!  He was feeling it at that moment.  He thus transcended his present and took his friends on a time travel journey to the future.

This is why I believe they all wanted to be with Rabbi Akiva on seder night.  They needed someone to take them to the past and then to the future, to span all time zones and all generations, to truly make it a night like no other.

And of course that is our mission as well.  To return to the past and really, really feel it, so much so we experience the same emotions one might have if he were actually there.  And to be catapulted to the future, to a time when we have returned to Israel and begun the process of redeeming Her completely.  And then even further in the future, to a Messianic age of complete redemption.

Food, Glorious Food

I came across an interesting Halachik discussion the other day; it was entitled “The Halachot of All You Can Eat Buffets.”   Apparently it was inspired by a law suit brought by a disgruntled All-you-can-eat sushi bar patron.  As the Los Angeles Times describes it, an individual with diabetes was caught taking out the fish (the more expensive item) from the rice (the less expensive item) on each sushi roll.  The restaurant owner kicked him out, after which the patron sued, claiming that the owner was discriminating against him because of his diabetes.  He couldn’t eat the rice, he argued, since it contained sugar, so he had no choice except to remove the fish only and discard the rest (let’s leave alone the obvious response for a moment — i.e., that such a person should have gone to an all-you-can-eat FISH restaurant, not a sushi bar).

The halachik discussion I referred to above picked up on this news item and considered the halachik ramifications for both this case as well as such buffets in general, discussing what is and what is not permissable in a whole array of situations.

Interesting, I thought, but also a little bit absurd.  Don’t the Jewish people have more pressing issues to deal with than the halachik requirements of an all-you-can-eat buffet (and besides, maybe we shouldn’t be frequenting such gluttonous infused places in the first place).

But on second thought I realized that food is very much part of the Jewish people’s core curriculum — that absurd as it may be to discuss such a buffet, exploring the details of food-related questions could very well provide a (pardon the pun) fruitful path to pursue.

Consider parshat Shmini.  The Mishkan (tabernacle) has just been dedicated and God’s presence is once again felt within the Israelites desert camp following the ‘fallout’ from their sin of the golden calf.  The moment is glorious and joyous.  Even the terrible tragedy that immediately follows — i.e., the death of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu (more about that in a moment) — does not entirely eradicate the excitement of what is taking place.  It can’t.  After all, this is their second chance.  With the erection of the Mishkan, God has decided to save the Jewish people and begin anew, forgiving them of their sin and offering them a way forward to deep meaning and a blessed national life.

But then the Torah does something difficult to understand.  Here we are at a moment of great meaning, pregnant with possibility.  And what does the Torah say next?  What follows the erection of the Mishkan?  What is the first message given to the renewed people of Israel?

The laws of Kashrut.

Now I’m not against kashrut, and certainly believe it’s an essential part of our tradition.  But does it really deserve such hallow placement.  God could have said anything at this point in time, and anything God said would have been afforded — justly so — great significance.  This is the way forward.  This is your mission.  This is what’s essential. But no, all God offers are the laws of Kashrut.  Basically, the laws of an all-you-can-eat buffet.  In doing so, doesn’t it feel like the Torah missed a wonderful opportunity to teach us something of utmost importance?

Let’s make the question stronger.  When God created the world, what is the first thing God tells the newly created human being Adam?  Yes, you’re right — it’s a command about food again.  You can eat this (everything in the Garden of Eden) but can’t eat that (except for the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil).  Is that really the most important thing God could think of at this incredibly unique moment in history?  God has just created a world; God has just created a human being.  How about telling us what it means to be such a creature?  Or tell us our mission in this world?  Or a little bit about God?  Creation?  Anything?  Is a discussion about food at this point in time really the best God can do?

It doesn’t stop there.  Think about the time following the Jews’ departure from Egypt.  The Exodus!  What an amazing moment in time, perhaps only second in significance to the creation of the world.  Again, when the whole world is watching, what message does God choose to share with us?  No, not what it means to be free, or something else equally inspiring.  Rather, God tells us about how we are supposed to cook the Karban Pesach (the Paschal sacrifice offering) and eat the Matzah.  Wow!  Again at such a crucial point in history the discussion focuses on food.  Why?


Perhaps part of the answer can be found by exploring another part of this Parshat Shmini – the already alluded death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu.

Most commentaries view their death as just desserts for some great sin.  What exactly that sin was we are not sure.  Perhaps it was approaching the holy of holies intoxicated.  Or maybe it was their arrogance of trying to usurp power from their father and uncle Moshe.  Some say it was because they chose not to get married.  Others suggest it was their initiation of a new ritual not commanded by God.

There are other commentators who take an entirely different tack, suggesting that their death did not arise out of some sin but rather due to their incredible holiness, that God wanted them ‘back with God’ for some reason, that their Earthly human mission was over.  They were Tzadikim, or righteous ones, argue many commentators.  In fact, these commentators (including Rashi) suggest, the reason we read about their death on Yom Kipur is due to their tremendous holiness, for just as their righteousness provided atonement for the Jews of the desert, Yom Kipur can provide atonement for Jews today.

Hasidic masters such as the Mei Shiloach and Rebbe Nachman go a step further.  Not only were they tzadikim, but they were the holiest of the holy.  They died because of their tremendous love of God and all things spiritual.  They had become so spiritual, in fact, they no longer had a need for the physical or any of those mundane things – like food, family and even life – craved for by regular humans.  They turned their back on the physical so as to ascend ever higher in their pursuit of God and godliness.

Perhaps this view is best understood by the Torah’s double use of the word ‘lephanay Hashem’ — in the face of God.  It was to ‘God’s face’ that they turned and ‘in God’s face” that they died.  They did not turn away from God but the opposite; they sought God out.

[That Nadav and Avihu might pursue such behavior should not come as too much a surprise.  We have both a communal as well personal precedent to suggest this was nothing more than a continuation of who they always were.  For example, back in the Book of Exodus, we are told that all the elders, including Nadav and Avihu, ascended Mount Sinai during revelation.  Rashi says that they tried to sneak a peak at God’s presence, the Schinah, while there and should have in fact been punished with death for this attempt, but God did not want to ruin the great joy of the day.  That they tried again by themselves in this parsha, therefore, was not out of character.  Moreover, nor was the courage it took to even try to approach God in such an intimate way.  After all, consider their personal lineage.  Aaron, of course, was their father.  But their mother, too, plays a significant role.  She was Elisheva, about whom the Torah tells us was the daughter of Aminadav and the sister of Nachshon.  Why do we need to know who her brother was?  Because Nachshon is a known quantity as well – he was the one who jumped into the Sea of Reeds when everyone else hesitated, through which the entire sea was split.  He was a man of great courage, prepared to risk his very life for the sake of God.  Nadav and Avihu inherited such genes as well.  (An aside: Generations later there is another individual that dies out of a great desire to draw closer than appropriate to God — Uzzah.  He is the individual who touches the holy ark without permission.  Guess who his father was?  Aminadav.  Sure, this Aminadav is not the same as the father of Elisheva and Nachshon, but given the recycling of names, we certainly can assume he came from the same stock, and shared with his son Uzzah the same courageous dna).]


So there we have it, the reconstituted lives of Nadav and Avihu.  No, they were not sinners but the opposite, the holiest of the holy.

… and yet, I’m still not entirely at peace with their death.

Nor should I be.

And perhaps the best place to understand the reason for my discomfort is with another individual who wanted to see “God’s face” just like Nadav and Avihu — but in his case he was rebuffed directly by God.

I am talking about Moshe of course.  As you may remember, following the sin of the Golden calf God wanted to destroy the entire Jewish people.  Moshe intervenes and saves their lives.  Sensing that this might be a good time, he asks to see God’s glory, to which God responds that no man can see God’s face and live.  You can only see the back.

In other words, Moshe wanted to approach God’s face as well, to leave behind the physical and approach the pure spirituality of God.  But God says no – that’s not for you Moshe.  You must live – and that means live in this world with all the physical attributes within it.  You must eat, marry and raise a family, find a job even.  The mission is not to leave it all behind.  It is not to do what Nadav and Avihu will attempt to do, to draw so close to me and become such pure spiritual beings that they have no need for the physical.  Rather, it is to elevate the physical — the ‘animal’ side of you — for holy purposes.  It is not to destroy the physical, but simply connect it to the spiritual.


Now for the puritans amongst us, one might feel that Moshe’s path is a cop out.  If I can achieve true spirituality, why not go for it?  OK, I understand for most people this won’t be possible — so for them, let them see only God’s back, but for me, I want to go for the whole thing, God’s front.

To them I share an amazing insight of the Pri Eitz HaChaim.  He quotes the fascinating Midrash found in the Talmud Tractate Berachot that states what Moshe saw when he gazed at God’s ‘back’ was in fact the knot found on God’s tephillin.  What an amazingly convaluded midrash.  What does it mean that Moshe saw the tephillin knot on the back of God’s ‘head’ — does that even make sense?  Can God even have tephillin?

The Pri Eitz HaChaim’s response:  When one looks at the front of a person wearing tephillin, he or she will see two straps on both sides of the person, the right and the left, symbolizing the attributes of hesed (compassion) and din (strict judgement).  But if one looks at the back of the person — at the knot of the tephillin — the observer will then realize that these two straps, straps that look very much apart and represent qualities quite distant from one another, are in fact attached.  They are in fact one.

Sometimes, when one pursues God and godly matters, he or she believes that there is only one way, that it’s either/or.  I must either give everything up in pursuit of God’s face, or I must give up the pursuit itself.  But that’s not true.  Believe it or not, you actually get a better view from the back, where you will see that it is possible to achieve both.

This, I believe, is the message of the death of Nadav and Avihu.  Pursuit of God at the expense of ‘life’ is not the goal.  Seeing God’s face at the expense of the deeper lessons found in seeing God’s back is not the mission.  Becoming the holiest of the holy by fleeing this world is not the path.  Rather, the way forward is to follow Moshe’s example, to combine the physical with the spiritual, the mundane with the holy, for in doing so one elevates both.


Now let us return to the matter of food.  Why does God speak about food right after the erection of the Mishkan?  Why at the beginning of the Exodus?  Why at the beginning of the world?  Because in all these cases mankind is about to start a new endeavor, and to do this properly, he must understand who he is and what his mission includes.  Food is not the issue, but what it represents is.  Food is a physical matter; the pursuit of it we share with all animals, and one might therefore think its something to shun.  But no, we are not angels.  We do not run away from the physical.  We must admit that we need the physical and it is a big part of who we are.  And then following this confession, we must elevate it.  Some cultures celebrate the body.  That is not Judaism.  But nor is celebration of the spirit alone.  It is the synthesis that we celebrate.  The elevation of the body – who we are – to the spirit – to where we want to go.

[When I first delivered this talk in shul, I concluded by talking a little about the Jerusalem Marathon that took place the day before.  Some questioned the value of a Marathon being run in Jerusalem.  After all, it is a very ‘greek’ thing to do; it celebrates the body.  I responded that the Marathon I witnessed was not a celebration of the body but rather a celebration of the connection between the body and the spirit.  People ran together, and many of them ran for charity.  It was about accomplishing something difficult, and proving one could overcome the odds.  I saw a blind person running with a string around his hand tethered to a guide running with him.  What trust.  What dedication on the part of the guide.]

The Story of Bouvre

In the introduction to the Ein Yakov the author quotes a tannaitic dispute about which verse in the Torah is the most important.  Ben Zoma says it is the Shema – which seems to entail the belief in, and love for, God.  Ben Nanas says the verse VeAhavta L’reyacha KaMocha – love your neigbhor as thyself – is more comprehensive.  Ben Pazi then surprises us all with the seemingly unspirational verse: “Two sheep shall you sacrifice, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.”  Even more surprising is the fact that the tosefta concludes: “And the halacha is like Ben Pazi.”

How can this be?  What is so important about the verse about sacrifices?

One traditional response is that this verse alludes to consistency – the person brings the sacrifice in both the morning and the afternoon, and it is brought every day without fail.  Many people wait for inspiration to strike.  Others are able to maintain passion for only a short while.  This verse emphasizes the need for consistency, the ability to always feel inspiration, always feel passion, and to always be prepared to sacrifice to God.  In a way, then, this verse IS more comprehensive than the previous two.  I may have love of God, but is it constant?  I may have love of others, but can I guarantee that it won’t fail?

Although I appreciate this sentiment, I would like to offer an additional suggestion why this verse is important, one that focuses on the ‘sacrifice’ component found within it.

To the certain extent, the reason for my additional suggestion is due to something I read recently in the NY Times.  The article in question quoted a Gallup Poll that scientifically described what happiness is and which type of people possess it.  In conclusion, the Poll provided a profile of the happiest type of person in the United States, declaring that he was tall, married with children, had a household income of more than $120,000, an observant Jew and an Asisan American.  As this was a profile only, it didn’t matter that some of these attributes might be contradictory.  The NY Times, however, was not satisfied with the ‘theory’ of this person; it wanted to know if such a person really existed.

And in fact he did.  His name is Alvin Wong, and he lives in Hawaii.  He’s a Chinese American who converted to Judaism and is observant.

When I read this article, two things hit me.  First, of course, is the fact that the profile assumed the happiest person would be an observant Jew.  People often consider the rules of such a lifestyle restrictive, and perhaps even counter-productive in the pursuit of happiness, which we normally assume requires freedom.  Apparently not.

Second, I liked the fact that the NY Times didn’t want to leave the well enough alone upon simply receiving the theory of who is the happiest person; it wanted to focus the search and see if a real, live person was involved.

I think something parallel is going on with our question about Ben Pazi’s verse.  The other two verses are very general, certainly outward looking.  They include love of God and love of others.  What about love of self?  What about focusing not just on the outside, but the inside?  And what about not just something in theory, but something in practice?

To address these questions, let us ask another question.  Included in the rules of bringing a sacrifice is the prohibition of supplementing it with either se’or or honey.  Why?  Rabbi Norman Lamm has a fascinating response.  He suggests that se’or – which is usually translated as yeast – really refers to the ingredient that would allow something to sour, such as sour dough.  He then goes on to say that the prohibitions against se’or and honey is really a symbolic prohibition against things that are sour and sweet, or more philosophically, things that are at the extreme ends of the taste spectrum.  By not bringing these extremes, we inspire ourselves to avoid extremes in other parts of our lives as well, and thus try to pursue what the Rambam calls the golden mean, the middle of the road, the path of moderation.

That’s a nice idea … but I’m not sure it fits perfectly into VaYikra’s full treatment of sacrifices.  After all, we are allowed to – and in fact commanded to – bring honey and se’or for other sacrifices, such as those that are called ‘reishit’ and those connected to Shavuot.  Why?

One possibility is because both of these other sacrifices suggest completion.  The first fruits are sacrifices of Eretz Yisrael, which in turn symbolizes the completion of the journey of Am Yisrael.  Shavuot of course is the completion of the search for Torah; we do the work, but then God grants us the gift regardless.  Regular karbanot should not suggest completion.  When I bring a sacrifice to God, by and large I should view it as part of the process, that I am not yet complete but rather have a long way to go.  The sacrifice is not the end of the relationship but rather the beginning, or at the most, in the middle of the process.  On Shavuot, though, it seems appropriate to express gratitude to Hashem for allowing us to reach this milestone; so too with Eretz Yisrael related karbanot.

In other words, the regular karbanot are about inspiration for the future, about reminding oneself of the work ahead.  We see this same relationship in a couple of parallels.  For example, when the book of Genesis speaks of man’s role in the world, it says we are to l’avdah and l’shemrah, to work and to protect it.  The Midrash there says this refers to sacrifices.  Since l’avdah also means to serve, and is often translated as prayer or worship, this makes good sense.  But why l’shemrah?  Because bringing the karbanot is not just about the initial worship service; it’s also about maintaining that experience for the future as well.

Another example.  There are two type of karbanot, animals and grains.  Regarding the first, many commentators point out that this is symbolic of God as creator, for God created the life of the offered animals.  But God didn’t stop there.  God also created the grains that would in turn sustain the created animals.  God, therefore, is not a disinterested creator; no, God creates AND sustains.  Similarly, our experience with karbanot is supposed to be both ‘creation’ as well as sustenance of that experience afterwards as well.

Now, perhaps, we can return to the initial question of why Ben Pazi’s verse makes sense.  The first verse speaks about love of God.  The second verse speaks about love of others.  Ben Nanas, the author of the second opinion, argues that his verse is more comprehensive, for love of others includes the love of God as well, for we see God within our love of others.  Perhaps we can say Ben Pazi’s verse includes both of the previous ideas … and adds a new one as well.  Certainly karbanot speak to our love of God, for that is why we are bringing them in the first place.  They also speak about love of others; recall, for instance, that we share the food of the karbanot with many people.  In fact, we invite many to participate in our feasting, for if we leave any of it over, it becomes a sin.  So we have love of God and love of others.  What else is there?  Love of self.  And indeed, that is what karbanot strive for as well.  We love ourselves – especially the person we know we can become.  This love, in turn, enables karbanot to inspire us to not accept who we are at present, but rather to strive to improve and grow.

Let me conclude with a fascinating insight about a phrase we are all familiar with:

In the 1400’s and 1500’s there was a famous story about a hero known as Bouvre, which gave rise to a book describing his many adventures.  The book was in fact so popular that it became the first non-religious book ever translated into Yiddish, somewhere around 1540.  It remained popular for hundreds of years afterwards, and eventually was retitled the Bouvre Mayse, the Bouvre Matter.  Eventually people forgot the heroics of this individual and simply remembered that there was an amazing, almost unbelievable story by this name.  Shortly after that, when someone wanted to impugn a story as not being true — but rather being too fantastical to be true — they would describe it as a Bouvre Mayse, or in time, a Bove Maysa, and eventually, a Bube Maysa.

What a shame.  A story about a hero who accomplished much is forgotten and replaced with scorn.  In some respects this is parallel to our story of karbanot.  The process was meant to inspire us to become better, to become heros ourselves.  Over time, though, this process too became impugned by those interested in mocking our ancient traditions.  Let us redeem it through knowledge.

Spock vs. Homer

In the beginning of parshat VaYikra we are introduced to the concept of karbanot – or sacrifices – with the phrase “if a person brings a sacrifice from amongst you” or in Hebrew mikem.  One midrash on this verse suggests the word mikem teaches us how beloved the Jewish people are.  When we do a mitzvah – in this case, bring a sacrifice – it is said that it comes from mikem, from amongst all of us, from amongst the Jewish people.  Elsewhere in VaYikra, however, when it speaks about someone sinning – as demonstrated by receiving blemishes upon his skin – the word mikem is absent.  In this latter instance, God does not recall all the Jewish people, just the singular act of the lone individual.

Rav Soloveitchik suggests an additional way to understand mikem.  He says it need not be read as “amongst all of you” but rather “from within you” — as in, from within the one person conducting the sacrifice.  In other words, the sacrifice is a genuine representation of who this person really is; it comes from within him.  In contrast, when a person sins, as in the second verse brought by the midrash, the word mikem is absent because a sin doesn’t come from inside the individual.  It is an external force that causes one to sin; a person may do it, but it doesn’t genuinely reflect who that person really is.

I believe there are two lessons for us emanating from this insight.  First, of course, is how we look at others.  When a person does a good deed, we ought not question their motives.  No, it’s not because they had some ulterior motive.  To the contrary, this is who they really are; this act reflects their genuine soul, or neshama.  And when they sin, the opposite is true.  We need not gloss over the bad act, but at the same time we ought not impugn the person’s essence either.  Yes, they sinned, but that act does not necessarily represent who they are nor who they want to be.  We must help them overcome that act and bring out their true self.

A second lesson relates to how this insight suggests we should look at ourselves.  Here, I would like to bring some wisdom I came across in a new book entitled Sticks and Carrots by Professor Ian Ayers of Yale University.  In this book, the author suggests there is a daily battle between two people that effects us all — our current self and our future self.  Our current self is the one who says when dessert comes I’ll only have fruit.  Future self is the one who sees the desserts actually coming and says, “Hey, wait a second, I didn’t know there would be chocolate cake; I’ll have a slice of that instead.”  Current self is the one that thinks, the one that knows what’s best for us, and the one that truly represents who we are and who we want to be.  Future self is the one who often overrides that desire by desires of his own.  Ayers compares current self to Spock of Star Trek fame; future self is Homer Simpson.  Spock is the one who says I want to learn more Torah, make it to minyan or spend more time with my family.  Homer is the one who convinces me to push off my Torah study until tomorrow, replace minyan with sleep and surf the internet for sports scores rather than spend time with the family.

Since current self is the real ‘me’ it makes sense that I should have the right to run roughshod over future self, who is an interloper of sorts.  Ayers compares it to Odyseus and his command to his sailors to tie him to the mast so he could both hear the song of the Sirens but resist the temtptation to jump overboard or wreck the ship.  In modern day situations, he suggests current self make deals to insure future self doesn’t ruin our plans.  For example, he has a website stickK that allows a person to have their credit card charged automatically anytime they do something they don’t really want to do.  If, for instance, I wanted to diet, I could have my credit card charged – and the money donated to charity – everytime I ate something I told myself – as Spock – I didn’t want to eat but ending up eating – as Homer.  He suggests it works best when the charity I give the money to is one that I despise, thus providing further incentive to stick to my commitments made as Spock.  In so doing, even though I hate where my money has now gone, it seems an appropriate action as it will hopefully deter future self from violating what current self really wants.

This book helped me to understand a difficult Rambam.  In Hilchot Gerushin the Rambam writes that if a husband is recalcitrant and doesn’t give a get we force him – even beat him –  until he wants to give the get.  How can this be?  A get must be given of one’s own free will.  The ‘forcing’ him cancels this will, no?  The Rambam says no.  After all, if this person is in other areas of his life a God fearing individual, if he keeps Kosher and Shabbat and does mitzvot in general, then clearly that’s who he is – or at least, wants to be.  In this one instance he is blinded by some external force, some outside influence, that convinces him that he doesn’t really want to give the get.  But that’s not him.  That’s not who he really is.  So we beat that false person out of him so he can return to his ‘current self’ and make the decision he really wants to make if he had no outside influence from future self.

We all want our actions to reflect who we really are.  We all want them to be mikem, a genuine outgrowth of our true neshama.  To accomplish this, we may need help from others or even help from ourselves.

VaYakhel – Two Mishkans

The parsha begins with the command to gather all of Israel and command them about two things – Shabbat and the building of the Mishkan.  Regarding the latter, the midrashim are replete with sources connecting this command to what took place ‘last week’ – in parsha Ki Tisa – when the Jews committed the sin of the Golden Calf.  The Mishkan was commanded now as a means to offer the Jews a tikun – a repair – for their sin.

Just a couple of teachings will suffice to make this connection.  First, one Midrash suggests we notice the language used.  With regards to the Mishkan, we are told that “Moshe gathered all of Israel”; by the sin of the golden calf, the Torah describes “and all of Israel gathered against Aaron.”  With the Mishkan, Moshe said “These are the things” while in Ki Tisa Aaron says “These are your gods.”  With the Mishkan – “and Moshe spoke to them” – and with the golden calf – “And they spoke to Aaron.”  And finally, in order to build the Mishkan, Moshe called for donations of gold; to build the calf, Aaron called for donations of gold.

Another Midrash connects the Mishkan and the sin by pointing out the underlying motivation of the sin was the natural human desire to concretize spirituality.  Intangible ideas are not enough; people need to bring these ideas into the physical world.  And thus the golden calf.  The command to build the Mishkan was meant to ‘understand’ this human tendency but then transform and elevate it.  “You need to build something physical … fine.  But not an idol, but rather a means to draw close to God.”

Both of these above Midrashim – and countless others – make the point clear: The Mishkan was commanded as a result of the sin.

… which leads us to the following problem.  The Mishkan was not simply commanded in this week’s parsha; it was also commanded several weeks ago in other parshiot as well, parshiot that precede the sin of the golden calf.  So if it’s in response to the sin, how could it have preceded it?

The traditional response is that there is no chronological order in the Torah – Ain Mukdam o’ M’uchar b’Torah – so it doesn’t matter when the command was first given.  A more homiletical response might be that God created the cure – in this case the Mishkan – before the disease even appeared – i.e., the sin.

I would like to suggest a third idea, one that suggests that perhaps there were two Mishkans, one before the sin and one after.  And if that is too shocking an idea, then at least we should say there were two separate commands for the Mishkan, one before and one after that superceded the first.  In a sense, this idea of two Mishkans is not so radical.  After all, we often talk about such ‘before and after’ circumstances in the Torah.  For example, the creation story seems to describe a First Adam and a Second Adam; certainly a pre-fall Adam and post-fall Adam.  More recently, the Torah describes the first luchot – the tablets with the ten commandments written on them – and the second luchot.  The first were miraculous, written by the ‘hand’ of God, while the second (following the smashing of the first by Moshe) were written by Moshe and required human involvement.

In parallel to the luchot, I would like to suggest that the first Mishkan, too, was more miraculous in nature.  After the sin, however, a different type of Mishkan was required, one that would necessiate human endeavor just as the second luchot necessiated it as well.

The Shem M’shmuel seems to suggest a similar point when he notes that ‘before the sin’ the Mishkan could have been built by any one person within b’nei Yisrael.  The actual Torah phrase is “kol ish” – or every person – willing to volunteer.  On this phrase, the Midrash in parshat Truma says “God said to Moshe, ‘Even one person from amongst the Jews could do this by himself.'”  In other words, something miraculous could have taken place to enable even one individual – any individual – to build the entire Mishkan by himself.  After the sin, however, the language changes and no longer can the Mishkan be built by any one individual.  Rather, now the power of the community is necessary; everyone must be involved.

[This idea is further supported by the opening verse of the parsha: “And Moshe gathered the entire community (eidah) of Israel and commanded them on these things …”  The traditional way to understand ‘these things’ is to look at what follows, the mitzvoth about Shabbat and then the Mishkan.  Others, however, say ‘these things’ can be described by what precedes the phrase — namely, “And Moshe gathered the entire community …”  What did God command Moshe to tell Am Yisrael?  To ‘gather the entire community’ – that’s the mitzva!]


Once we understand that the ‘second’ Mishkan necessiated a communal effort as opposed to the individual effort required for the ‘first’ Mishkan, we must now ask another question: Why?  What is it about the power of unity that corrects for the sin of the Golden Calf?

Here I would like to offer two ideas.

First, notice the word eidah used within the opening verse.  It means community, but it also comes from the root eid, or eidut, witness or testimony.  The Mitzvoth that follow in this parsha, namely Shabbat and the Mishkan, are all about testimony, about how Am Yisrael gives testimony to the fact that God created the world and rested on Shabbat (that’s what we do with kiddush and why we stand when reciting it, just as one giving testimony in court must stand as well), and about how Am Yisrael gives testimony that God is very much involved in our world, as it does through the Mishkan.

Here’s something interesting about the laws of witnesses.  If there are three witnesses or even a hundred witnesses, if they all come and testify at the same time, they are considered as one group.  On one hand this is very powerful, but it is also dangerous.  For if even one of these witnesses is disqualified, then the entire group is as well.  In other words, if there are 99 people in a group of 100 that are all ‘kosher’ for testimony, they testimony will nevertheless be thrown out if that 100th person if found to be not kosher.  [That’s why at a wedding the Rabbi will often point out that the two witnesses for the ceremony were appointed to the exclusion of everyone else in the audience; after all, many of those in the audience will be relatives of the bride and groom, and thus not qualified to be witnesses, and if they were allowed to ‘join’ the other two kosher witnesses, they would disqualify their testimony.]

After the sin of the golden calf, it became clear that many Jews were no longer kosher.  One might have the tendency to say that’s their problem.  So long as I do my thing, and I remain a good Jew, I don’t need to worry about those other Jews.  So long as I don’t cheat on my taxes, or steal or act immorally, then I don’t care about those Jews that do.

But it doesn’t work that way.  Those that cheat on taxes or steal or otherwise act inappropriately directly reflect on who you are, on who all of Am Yisrael is.  The correction for the sin, therefore, cannot be building the Mishkan by one person alone, by an individual who does not need nor is connected to others.  Just the opposite.  The tikun must be everyone’s involvement.  We are all connected to one another and responsible for one another – and thus the command to build the Mishkan must reflect that if it is to truly serve as a tikun for the sin of the golden calf.

Another idea.

Why is Unity so important?

The Chavas Da’at suggests that on a practical level it helps us succeed where disunity would guarantee failure.  Why, he asks, does Haman begin his plea to the King to kill all the Jews with the statement that ‘they are dispersed and lack unity?’  Because the King might have feared messing with the Jews if they were united.  They would meet to discuss the decree.  They would figure out how to challenge it.  They would figure out how to defeat him.  So Haman puts his mind at ease and tells them they can’t possibly do any of these things because they don’t even talk to one another.

This idea is similarly taught in the first Kli Yakar on Deuteronomy.  He says there are two ways people in danger can save themselves.  The first is through the mitzvah of ‘love the Lord your God.’  In that case, even if a person is weak and undeserving, God may choose to save them nevertheless because of their desire to cling to God.  The second case is by way of nature – nothing miraculous at all.  It is through the mitzvah of ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’  When one fulfills this mitzvah, he will have an interest in helping others – and others will want to help him.  Therefore, even if God forsakes him, even if he has no mitzvoth to his merit, the natural tendency of others to help him will rescue him from danger nevertheless.

Before the sin of the golden calf, Am Yisrael could have relied on the first way of being saved – through loving God.  After the sin, though, that avenue was removed.  They showed they didn’t love God as much as they should have.  All that was left, then, was to love their neighbor – to be united.  Thus, the second command to build the Mishkan necessitated the requirement of unity, of getting everyone involved.

Similarly, anytime one wishes to accomplish something meaningful, even if he lacks the protection of God, he may nevertheless be successfull if he at least unifies with others.