Jan 11 2018

Read the Writing on the Wall

In this week’s reading, G-d tells Moshe and Aharon to show Pharoah the miraculous signs that prove Moshe is speaking on G-d’s Command, and Pharoah must indeed let the Jews go free to worship. G-d predicts that Pharoah will test them in this way: “when Pharaoh speaks to you, saying, give for yourselves a sign, you will say to Aharon, take the staff and toss it down before Pharaoh, and it will be a snake” [7:9].

And this is exactly what happens. Pharoah demands the sign, and Aharon provides it. Pharaoh then calls upon his magicians, who similarly make their sticks transform — but then Aharon’s rod consumes theirs [7:12]. And Rashi says that Aharon’s staff did so not while it was a snake, but after it had turned back into a staff, as the verse says: “and the staff of Aharon consumed their staves.”

In other words, what Moshe and Aharon were able to do immediately went beyond the capabilities of ordinary tricks and even black magic. It was clear that they had delivered precisely the sign for which Pharaoh had asked, and yet Pharaoh did not respond. He did not allow the Jews to go, because his ego and previous beliefs forced him to deny reality.

People often ask why it was fair that G-d hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to permit the Jews to go. But our rabbis explain that G-d hardening Pharaoh’s heart did not force his refusal, but, on the contrary, preserved Pharaoh’s freedom to choose. The miracles and plagues were so overwhelming that any rational person would have been forced to release the Jews and avoid further destruction.

In the beginning, it was not so. The signs were there, and the signs were clear, but the signs were not so overwhelming as to deny Pharoah his freedom of choice without special Divine Intervention.

I was in Israel during the first Gulf War, in 1991. Dozens of SCUD missiles were fired at Israel’s cities. A single missile hit an American barracks in Saudi Arabia, killing twenty-five soldiers and wounding nearly 100 more. Yet only one or two Israelis were killed by all of the missiles that were fired.

And the stories were legion.

A building collapsed, and a survivor was left with only his head visible above the rubble. When they extracted him, he was completely unharmed.

A neighborhood had just completed a new and improved bomb shelter. But when the sirens went off, everyone ran to the old one by habit. Not a single person went to the new shelter, although everyone knew it was available to them. The new and empty shelter sustained a direct hit and was completely destroyed.

A pair of young men were living in a Tel Aviv apartment, aware of their elderly neighbor in the next building who needed help getting around. Hearing the sirens, they spontaneously decided to run to their neighbor to help instead of staying in their own sealed room. The missile landed directly in front of their building, destroying their apartment. They were caught outside between the buildings, but were entirely shielded from the blast.

Those were the stories. And a pair of obviously religious Yeshiva students were in a taxi in Jerusalem, driven by an older, bareheaded driver, as the radio played an interview of a woman who had survived one of the missile attacks. The reporter asked her what she thought of all the miraculous events, and she said “miracles? What miracles? We just got lucky!”

At that point the taxi driver said loudly, “she’s still in shock. She doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’ll come to her senses and realize what’s going on!”

We should not expect to be shown signs so overwhelming that, like Pharoah, we would be forced to concede without Divine Intervention. But if we look around us, we can perceive the signs we need, even in events much less significant than the explosions of SCUD missiles. Stay on the lookout, and they are not difficult to see, and always inspirational when we find them.

Jan 05 2018

Egyptian Amnesia

As we concluded Sefer Bereishis, the Book of Genesis, last week, the nascent Jewish People found themselves in very good circumstances. Yosef was second only to Pharoah himself, having saved the entire country from famine. There was no reason to expect what actually transpired.

The verses themselves suggest what happened. “Yosef passed away, and all of his brothers, and that entire generation. And the Children of Israel multiplied and spread, grew and were very strong, and the land was full of them. And a new King rose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef.” [Ex. 1:6-8]

The generation to whom the Egyptians owed gratitude passed away. As long as Yosef was alive, no Egyptian King would imagine that the Jews would be disloyal, but now Yosef is gone. And the Jews were successful, so much so that “the land was full of them.” In other words, “there were too many Jews.” And that is when a new king arose who forgot all that Yosef had done, all that the Jewish people had done to benefit Egypt.

There is an argument in the Talmud about what it means that the king “did not know Yosef,” as Rashi tells us. One school of thought is that there was truly a new king, but the other says that the same Pharoah stopped thinking of the Jews as a benefit to the country, as if he had never known Yosef.

In truth, these opinions are not as different as they might seem to be. The Egyptians wrote and depicted what happened in their country. There were records of what Yosef had done. They presumably did not knock down the storehouses. Certainly Egyptians were telling the story of how they had famously saved themselves and even fed neighboring countries during the years of famine. Even common people knew this, much less the successor to the throne. He did not need to have known Yosef to know what he accomplished on behalf of all Egypt.

Fundamentally, the new Pharoah expressed a lack of gratitude to the Jewish People, and demonstrated the familiar pattern of anti-Semitism. The reality was that the Jews had only benefited the Egyptians and the entire region. The myth was that the Jews were disloyal, and would exploit the Egyptians and the resources of the country. And the myth won.

Look at what is happening in the Middle East today. The reality is that Jews built a flourishing country on their ancestral homeland, inventing new technologies to make it fertile, advancing medicine, and bringing democracy, limiting the power of government, to that portion of the world — not just for themselves, but for everyone. Arab citizens of Israel have rights and opportunities found in none of the dozens of Arab countries. The myth is that the Jews are occupiers, exploiting the resources of the country, creating problems throughout the region. And before the United Nations of the world, the myth wins.

Our obligation is always to do better. We must model gratitude. When someone does a kindness for us, we have an obligation to recognize the generosity of that person, express our thanks, and above all not reciprocate good deeds with bad ones. That is the Egyptian model, the one we help eradicate every time we thank those who help us!

Dec 14 2017

The Misunderstood Maccabees and Miketz Miracles

Holy TempleThere is a lot of misinformation about the Chanukah holiday. People teach that the Greeks took over Israel, the Jews fought back, the Jews won the battle, and then there was the miracle of the oil — enough oil to explain the Menorah, Latkes, and Sufganiyot (Israeli jelly doughnuts). That one small flask of oil certainly went a long way.

But if there is one phenomenon that exemplifies the confusion, it would have to be the Maccabiah Games. It offers young Jewish athletes from around the world the opportunity to participate in… a pale imitation of the Olympics, which are, of course, modeled after the original Greek games. We, too, can be just like the ancient Greeks!

And that is exactly the wrong message. Because the victory of Chanukah came from being as unlike the Greeks as one could imagine.

The war that gave us Chanukah was not fought between Jewish Maccabees and the Greeks alone, but the Jewish Maccabees versus Hellenized Jews as well. There were many Jews who fell for the Greek ways, and their glorification of the human body — the reason behind the original Olympic Games. Jews competed in those games, and worshiped Greek idols.

The Maccabees were the very opposite of the Greeks. They neither celebrated nor possessed physical or military prowess; it made no sense that they won the war. The Medrash says that with prayers alone they felled thousands of Greek officers, leaving the military in disarray. The miracle of the oil was only one of many miracles that happened at that time, but showed Divine favor towards the Maccabees. The war did not end before Chanukah; it continued for several years after the miracle of the oil. But at that point to the Maccabees knew that they would emerge victorious.

In this week’s Torah reading, which is always read during Chanukah, we find a similar sequence of miracles happening to Yosef. He was sitting in an Egyptian prison, jailed because of a false accusation. Thus he could have despaired — but instead knew that everything came from G-d. And when it was time for him to leave that prison, he went from prisoner to viceroy, second only to Pharoah, in just a few hours. Another person could have lost his mind from this sudden, bizarre change of circumstances, but Yosef knew that it was all in accordance with a Divine plan.

Yosef knew that the dreams he had as a young man were prophetic revelation: he would eventually rule over his brothers. And it was the plot of those same brothers, their selling him to be a slave in Egypt, which led to the fulfillment of that prophecy! It makes no more sense than the idea that a single prayer could kill Greek military officers, but there it was.

The lesson of Chanukah is that, just as with Yosef, things are not as they seem. Everything is happening according to a Divine plan, though it may be beyond our comprehension. The Jewish obligation Is to recognize that “many are the thoughts in a man’s heart, but it is the prescription of G-d which will be fulfilled” [Proverbs 19:21]. Chanukah tells us that our path is not one of physical, intellectual or business prowess, but Divine Intervention. And in the end, victory is preordained: the Jews survive against all odds.

Dec 01 2017

War & Peace… Together

Our reading begins with Yaakov returning to the land of Cana’an, re-encountering his brother Esav after several decades of separation. This was, however, no ordinary family reunion.

After Yaakov received his father’s blessing intended for Esav, Esav decided to kill Yaakov. It was for this reason that Rivka, their mother, advised Yaakov to run to the house of her brother Lavan [27:41-43] Rivka told Yitzchak that she wanted Yaakov to marry a non-Canaanite woman, and thus Yitzchak sent Yaakov there to marry Lavan’s daughter [27:46-28:2] — but this was engineered by Rivka to save Yaakov’s life.

Now, Yaakov is returning. Will 34 years of separation have placated Esav, or will he greet Yaakov with murderous intent? Yaakov was afraid, and sent messengers ahead with gifts for his brother “to find favor in your eyes” [32:6]. To which Rashi adds, “for I am at peace with you, and request your love.” Yaakov did not want to fight, he wanted peace.

Yet we also learn that Yaakov divided his caravan into two camps — so that at least half would escape if they were attacked. Rashi quotes the Medrash which says that Yaakov prepared himself in three different ways: with gifts, with prayers, and with preparation for war.

Modern day pacifists would claim that two of these things were contradictory, that one cannot simultaneously claim to want peace while arming for battle. Our Sages say, “the stories of the fathers are signposts for the children.” On the contrary, sometimes being well prepared for war is the best way to ensure peace!

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