Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Friday, December 31, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Traditionally Jews have called the five books in our Torah by the first significant word in each volume.  There are secondary names for each book which describe the content, but these names are ignored or even unknown to most Jews.  So, we call the tome that we began last week, Shmot or names.  However, I believe that this appellation is more significant than just the coincidence that this is the second word in the work.  Last week names are prominent in the Torah reading.  We repeat the names of all the tribes, and Moshe asks God what name he should use when referring to the Deity who sent him to redeem the Jews.  Later in parshat Ki Tisa (Exodus 33:6-7), God informs Moshe of the 13 Attributes which describe God's relationship with mankind.  These 13 are really more names for God.   So, the concept of names is a major sub-topic in this book, known mostly for the story of the redemption.  But I think the most important discussion of names takes place right at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.

            Let's set the scene.   After Moshe's first audience with Pharaoh, the Egyptian monarch has increased the work load for the Jewish slaves.  Moshe is very disappointed at the apparent failure and angrily accuses God of making things worse for the suffering Jews, he said: "O Lord! Why have You harmed this people? Why have You sent me?  Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name, he has harmed this people, and You have not saved Your people (Exodus 5:22-23)."  God then explains to Moshe that the redemption process is just beginning and that he shouldn't lose hope.   However the introduction to this explanation contains a philosophic approach to the names of God.   God spoke to Moses, and He said to him, "I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them (Ibid 6:2-3).    Obviously the first question which jumps out at us is:  What's the meaning of the different names?  What is significant about the fact that the Patriarchs experienced God with different terms than the generation of Egypt?  The Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Ya'akov Sforno, 1470-1550) presents, perhaps the most straight forward approach.  He explains that the name Almighty God (E-l Sh-adai) implies the promise of future events, without the Patriarchs themselves observing their fulfillment.  On the other hand, the Tetragrammaton (the four letter name, which we never pronounce) is the essential name of God, and represents the eternal nature of the Deity, who is always there and always fulfills promises.  Moshe will get to live through the fruition of the many assurances made by God to the Patriarchs.  This experience will, therefore, give greater insights into the nature of God than the fathers of our people ever had. 

            There is a secondary problem in the verse.  We've just discussed the different names used to refer to God, but what about the different verbs utilized in the verse?  What's the difference between God appearing and God being known?  When God appears to someone, it is a passive event for the observer.  Even though our ancestors earned these encounters with God, by their efforts to spread the concept of ethical monotheism, nevertheless their familiarity with God was limited.  Only in the generation of the exodus from Egypt is the greatness of God's power manifest in the world to the extent that these participants in these momentous events achieve the intimacy described by the Torah as knowledge.

            There's a common misconception about the biblical term yadah or know.  Often people assume that this is used as a euphemism for sexual relations, especially in Genesis.  However I strongly believe that it connotes a deep spiritual or intellectual connection, rather than a sensual one.  The Torah is teaching us that the only ones who really know each other are partners in a true soul mate marriage.  The rest of us may recognize people, but don't have a profound awareness of who they really are.  How many times are we surprised or disappointed by the behavior of a friend or acquaintance?  I don't think that happens very much to soul mates. 

            The Jews in Egypt are about to experience events so amazing that they gain a hitherto fore unknown intimacy with the Creator.  The miracles and wonders of the exodus would afford a glimpse into the workings of the Divine, which can only be described as knowing God.  This doesn't mean that the enslaved Jews of Egypt were greater than the Patriarchs in any way other than the fact that they were privileged to see God at work.

            This idea is extremely important.  For 2,000 years pious and righteous Jews proclaimed with tears and conviction:  Next year in Jerusalem!  Observant Jews prayed with devotion:  Sound the great shofar for our freedom; raise a banner to gather our exiles, and bring us together from the four corners of the earth into our land.  How many of our ancestors got to visit Jerusalem?  How many of us?  It was no coincidence that when the Ethiopians were landing at Lod, there were people blowing shofars.  We are living to see the fulfillment of many Biblical prophecies.  It seems that our generation has a lot in common with that generation in Egypt.  Both have gone from disaster to glory.

            I believe that it's very important to see ourselves in the text when we read the Torah.  This week I think that it's easier than usual.  So, first let's look for ourselves in the text, and then let's look for God around us.  We've seen more prophecies fulfilled than any generation since Egypt.  Why do we have so much trouble seeing God in these events?  It's time to recognize and then know God.

            I just don't get it.  Why do so many Jews both on the right and the left refuse to see and know that God is guiding the events of our times?  I guess it explains the behavior of the Jews in the desert.  We're being offered redemption, and we're complaining about the accomadations.  

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This week's Torah reading is awesome.  The Jewish people emerge from their family, clannish roots to become a nation, albeit an enslaved one.  God appears to Moshe Rabbeinu as the Director in Chief of all history.  All this is very impressive, but, to my thinking, there's a tremendous problem.  There are many difficult episodes in our Torah and Tanach, but, for my money, the hardest to explain is right here in our parsha.  I have tremendous trouble explaining the following scenario: Now he (Moshe) was on the way, in an inn, that the Lord met him and sought to put him to death.  So Zipporah took a sharp stone and severed her son's foreskin and cast it to his feet, and she said, "For you are a bridegroom of blood to me." So He released him. Then she said, "A bridegroom of blood concerning the circumcision (Exodus 4:24-26)."  I'm eternally mystified by this occurrence.  Let's see if we can't make some sense of this short tale.

            Even though the Midrash suggests that some sort of demon, in the form of a snake, was threatening Moshe, the verse is clear that God is the attacker.  What was Moshe's crime?  It seems on the surface level that postponing your son's circumcision is a capital offense.  Is that possible?  No, even never doing a bris isn't a capital offense!  Moshe even had good excuses.  He was under direct orders from God to travel to Egypt, and we don't perform circumcisions while on the move.  According to tradition, the Jews didn't perform circumcisions the entire forty years in the desert, because they never knew when they would have to set out on the journey.  One approach to explain God's anger is presented by both the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, 1085-1156) and the Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir, 1089-1164).  They both say God was upset by Moshe's delaying his mission to Egypt.  The Ibn Ezra adds that bringing his wife and children with him was ill advised, because the Israelites would say, how could it be that he has come to take us out, when he has come with his family to settle down?  The circumcision isn't the problem; it's the family itself.

            But none of this is very convincing.  I noticed an idea in a fascinating little book called Wrestling Jacob by Rabbi Shmuel Klitzner.  Rabbi Klitzner compares this story to the story of Bilaam.  Moshe has this encounter with God before his major confrontation with Pharaoh to energize him from his excessive humility. He never wanted to go.  Bilaam had his famous conversation with his donkey right before his assignment to curse the Jews, to remove his hubris.  This guy, on the other hand, wanted very badly to go, but God was restraining him.  I found this idea extremely interesting, and it got me thinking about other similar incidents.  It appears that immediately before almost every great confrontation or clash in our Bible there is a soul searching private moment.  Perhaps the most famous is the source for the title of Rabbi Klitzner's book.  Before Ya'akov's meeting with Esav after over twenty years of separation, he has an enigmatic contretemps with a stranger.  Most say that the stranger was the angel of Esav, but it's definitely a strange close encounter of the fourth kind.  But there are more.  Joshua meets with an angel who identifies himself as God's general the night before his battle for Jericho (Joshua 5:13-15).  Devora and Barak have quiet time of encouragement together before the tremendous victory over Sisera (Judges 4:14).  And I think that the first Pesach Seder in Egypt falls into this category of private time before public challenge.  Remember, the Paschel lamb can only be eaten by those who are specifically connected together before the sacrifice, and it must be eaten within the confines of the private home.  What do all these encounters signify?

            I believe that we're being taught an extremely important lesson.  We think of the giants of our people as courageous to the point that they no longer have our petty, personal fears.  That's just not true.  No one eliminates these anxieties; these great individuals have learned to control the phobia common to us all, to achieve greatness in spite of them.  Bravery is about persevering and succeeding even though we're afraid.  It isn't courageous people who are fearless; it's foolish people.  All these episodes provided these heroes with the opportunity (or, perhaps, the danger) of thinking through the enormity of the assignment before them.  Have you ever spent the night before a major undertaking tossing and turning through a sleepless night?  These are the Biblical equivalent of those panic attacks.  In the Bible the projected dread perfectly frames the situation for the protagonist. I'm not sure that that's true of my nightmares.

            This brings to the final point.  What is the point of this weird occurrence in the inn?  How does this aborted execution over the circumcision prepare Moshe for his confrontation with Pharaoh?  I think that Moshe is being informed of, perhaps, the most difficult part of his agency on behalf of God.  He will not be an engaged father.  This all consuming task of taking the Jews out of Egypt, presenting them with the Torah, and leading them through the desert for forty years will prevent him from leading a normal family life.  Most, if not all the parenting jobs will fall upon Zipporah, his wife.  This realization almost kills Moshe, but he carries on with the mission.  This sad, but necessary, scenario will bite him again, when at the end of life he is succeeded by his disciple and not his sons.

            Thank God, very few of us have to make this kind of sacrifice to fulfill our roles in life.  But there is an extremely important lesson in all of this for every one of us.  Our major challenges in life are always primarily personal.  We mistakenly try to separate our private lives from our public duties.  It's impossible.  It's just like House Speaker Tip O'Neil once wisely observed, "All politics are local."  All of our commitments are very personal, not matter how publicly they may be carried out.  Hopefully, we find the strength to carry out these obligations with the sincerity and morality that we try to display in our private lives.    


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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's an issue which plagues me almost every year.  Why do we end the book of Genesis at this juncture?  If I had been asked to edit the books of our Torah, I would have had the first book continue until the exodus, and the next book would contain the second half of what we call Exodus and the entirety of Leviticus.  Almost all of the latter material is about the Temple and sacrifices.  I have trouble ending Genesis as a cliff hanger.  The Jews are stuck in Egypt without the moral leadership of either Ya'akov or Yosef.  I know that we can't view these holy volumes as regular works of literature, but I do firmly believe that sophisticated literary analysis techniques can help us squeeze more meaning from these sacred texts.  When does a book end?  Unlike these articles which end when I reach a thousand words, books end when you've finished making your point or communicating your message.  So, what is the overriding message of Genesis?

            A few years ago I asked and answered this question.  Then I suggested that the overriding theme of Genesis is sibling rivalry.  So, the book begins with the story of Cain and Abel, continues with the tales of Yitzchak-Yishmael, Ya'akov-Esav, Yosef-everybody else, and finishes with the blessings for Ephraim and Menashe.  This incident ends with Menashe feeling pride for his younger brother, who eclipses him in their grandfather's blessings and in Jewish history.  This act of selfless graciousness is therefore, the fitting end to Genesis.  However, this year I'd like to propose a totally different answer to this query. 

            Genesis begins with the creation tale, culminating in the fabrication of humans, and the story of the Garden of Eden.  What's the moral or the essence of this tale?  That humans were created with tremendous potential.  This latent capability is so huge that we are actually formed in the image of God.  However, fulfilling this promise requires us to confront many challenges.  These challenges are also opportunities.  The world is filled with temptations, represented by the snake.  A wise congregant recently sent me a cartoon from the New Yorker.  In the picture Adam and Eve are walking away from an apple tree which has the snake wrapped around it.  Adam has just taken a bite from the apple and tells Eve, "Hey, I've figured out how we can have a kid without giving up another rib."

Even the joke acknowledges that there are lessons to be learned even in the failures.  So, the Garden is a learning experience from which we are forced to emerge with added responsibilities, hard work for the guys, hard labor for the girls.  We are banished from the Garden and it is guarded by supernatural forces.  We must conquer and build our own gardens.  These new settlements will have their own rules that we must learn to navigate to make these communities succeed.  We can't go back; we can only go forward.  Even if and when we reenter Eden; it won't be the same, because we will have evolved.  The primordial free lunch has been eternally shut down.

Now, let's look at the end of Genesis.  In chapter fifty we have the burial of Ya'akov and the instructions of Yosef.  The Jews have left the land of Israel and won't go home for a long time.  Yosef instructs them that when it's time to go home again, they must bring his mortal remains with them.  We have ended the idyllic period of the Patriarchs, and find ourselves far from home and in dire straights.  But unlike the exile from Eden, there is a promise of eventual return.  It's that promise which is so fascinating.

Yosef gathers his brothers, and tells them, "I am going to die; God will surely remember you and take you up out of this land to the land that He swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob (Genesis 50:24)."  The expression he used which is translated as 'remember' is pakod yifkod.  This pkd root can mean a number of things.  It is used to mean count, remember and visit.  In modern Hebrew it usually is related to ideas like assignments, roles or jobs.  This expression is so significant that it is repeated one verse later, and Moshe is told to use it when he announces his mission to the Jewish people (Exodus 3:16).  What is the significance of this term in this context?

There are two terms which the Torah uses when relating that God will remember us.  One is the more popular zachor, and the other is pakod.  Since we've said many times that there are no synonyms is Hebrew, we must ask:  What's the difference between these two terms?  Zachor is the regular, garden variety, remember, which is also used when describing humans.  With the Creator, Who never forgets, this word means that God is putting into effect a previously made promise.  However, pakod implies something entirely different.  Pakod involves not only that God is fulfilling a promise, but is also giving an assignment.  When God remembers to save Noach in the ark, the Torah says zachor.  But when God miraculously makes Sarah pregnant, the verse says pakod.  This is because removing the flood was totally God's assignment, but birthing and raising Yitzchak was a joint effort between God and Sarah, with a little Avraham on the side.  Pakod entails hard work on the part of the recipient.

Now we can explain the ending of Genesis.  Just like the emergence from the Garden of Eden was accompanied by explanations about how hard life in the outside world would be, so, too, Yosef explains at the beginning of the Egyptian bondage that this experience will require toughness on the part of the Jews.  Individuals, nations and our entire species begin in Paradise with others taking care of us.  But maturity requires us to take control of our destiny and to stop our complete reliance on parents and Maker.  We can now end the book, because the point has been made.  That's a thousand words.  I can end the article.             

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            Recently, I went to a shiva house after a truly tragic loss.  The father of the departed, whom I'm honored to call friend, made a profound observation.  He recounted two ideas he had heard from Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz, one of modern Judaism's great thinkers.  Rabbi Steinzaltz once told my friend's father that it was important to always be happy.  However, the same great rabbi also explained the famous Yiddish expression 'shver tzu zein a Yid (It's hard to be a Jew).'  He expounded that the difficulty of being Jewish is that as Jews we are always on call.  The Torah and our law never allow for time off or time outs.  This constant spiritual pressure makes life hard.  So, my friend, the mourner, asks how can we reconcile perpetual joy with perpetual pressure?  He then presented a marvelous metaphor.  When building a baseball team (We share an affection for the game.), who are the players that you want on your team?  You want players who relish (especially at Heinz Field) having the bat in their hands when the game is on the line.  Everybody wants teammates who love to step to the plate with the bases loaded and two men out.  That's how we Jews should be.  We should love the stress of constant Torah requirements and live to face life's tribulations.  This is exactly what happens at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.

            We begin our parsha with Yehuda confronting his brother Yosef, who continues to pose as an Egyptian leader.  Yehuda displays tremendous courage by aggressively challenging Yosef's decision to incarcerate Binyamin for the theft of his chalice.  The verse then reports that Yosef could no longer restrain himself.  Yosef is traditionally categorized as the zadik or righteous individual because of his ability to display restraint (Hebrew:  ipuk).  The most famous example of this self-control, of course, is his rejection of his boss' wife.  But the verse (Genesis 43:31) has already recorded that Yosef displayed this Herculean control over himself in the presence of his brothers, even the beloved Binyamin.  However, here we are told that in the face of Yehuda, soon to be dubbed the lion, Yosef is unable to maintain his self-discipline.  At this critical moment Yehuda emerges as the dominant brother.  What does Yehuda have that allows him to claim the scepter, and even impress the normally unflappable Yosef?

            I believe that the answer to that question is found in a comment by the Sfat Emet (R. Yeudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Gur, 1838-1906) at the beginning of this week's Torah reading.  This great Chassidic Rebbe explains that the first word in our parsha, vayigash (and he approached or confronted), is very significant.  The verse says that he approached towards him, without specifying to whom he drew near.  So, the Rebbe goes through all the options.  First of all the Rebbe suggests that he approached God.  In the midst of his confrontation with Yosef, Yehuda moves toward God in supplication for the success of his endeavor.  What gives the Yehuda the right to prevail upon God to take up his case?  Yehuda's name tells the tale.  His name means the one who acknowledges and appreciates all that is done on his behalf.  This ability to show gratitude is critical to a successful spiritual existence.  He is an intimate of God because of this trait.  He has great strength because even in this moment of crisis and (according to the Rebbe) God's concealment (hester panim), he continues to nullify his needs in acknowledgment that all comes from our Creator.  He can sublimate his safety to defend his brother because he always intuits God's presence, power and pathos. 

            Next, he drew near to himself.  He reached deep into his innermost psyche to discover his own motivations.  He wanted to determine whether or not he was sincere and genuine in his defense of Binyamin.  Often we act out of personal motives, while claiming altruistic goals.  He gratefully concluded that his intentions were earnest and heartfelt.  Then he was ready for step three.

            Finally, he was ready to advance upon Yosef.  There's a Midrash that at this moment all of Egypt trembled before the power of Yehuda.  Well, without taking that point of view literally, the very sensitive and perceptive Yosef felt Yehuda's strength, but it wasn't military or political.  It was enormous mystical and moral might.  The ethical energy and spiritual superiority of Yehuda overwhelms the usual self control of Yosef.  He can no longer display ipuk; the fa├žade crumbles for all to see the Yosef hidden within.  With all of his defenses breached, he weeps so demonstratively that all Egypt notices.  I believe that at that moment all witnesses saw the supremacy of Yehuda.

            Generally, that zadik attribute of ipuk (restraint) is our goal.  In most circumstances, we apply the dictum from Pirkei Avot:  Who is the great warrior?  One who conquers his inclination (Ethics of the Fathers, 4:1).   Exhibiting zadik-like self-possession is perfect for business transactions, social interactions and personal behavior.  However, once in a great while an unusual circumstance arises in which holding it all in, isn't appropriate.  It's at that crucial instance that we require the attribute of Yehuda to deal with the situation. 

            Yehuda, in his guise as King David, and Yosef, in his Ephraim incarnation, are the major players in Jewish history.  Yehoshua from Ephraim and Calev from Yehuda are the only survivors of the desert.  When the nation splits into two kingdoms, one is Judea under David's heirs and one is Israel under Ephraim's successors.  And in the future our Sages relate there will be two Messiahs, one from the House of David one from Yosef's heirs, the House of Ephraim.  They continually vie, but we need them both.  Yehuda is the valiant lion (Genesis 49:9), and Yosef is the powerful and steadfast ox (Deuteronomy 33:17).

            I believe that normal life experiences usually demand the self control or ipuk so wonderfully portrayed by the mature Yosef, but everyone encounters situations which require us to be lions.  So, we must learn from both these amazing role models and their outstanding character traits.  However, there is nothing normal about Jewish history, therefore it is Yehuda and his leonine aspect whom we await to bring ultimate salvation.                          


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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            It's a war out there!  This declaration is true on many levels.  Obviously in the geopolitical theater, we have to be aware that our beloved countries are on a war footing with militant Islam.  With the release of the sequel to the eye opening film Wall Street, we are reminded that most of Gordon Gecko's (This is before he started selling car insurance.) advice came from The Art of War by Sun Tzu (d. 320 BCE).  But this week of Chanukah reminds us that there is a spiritual struggle going on for the hearts, minds, and souls of our fellow Jews.  Purim tells the story of salvation from physical threats to our continued existence (Haman=Hitler).  Chanukah, on the other hand, is a fight for spiritual survival.  Here in the United States, based on the raw population data, we are losing this war.  These different kinds of wars sometimes require similar strategies.  When Sun Tzu said, "He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks," I think that's true when applied to military forces, corporations or the Jewish people.  However, the spiritual battle must have different tactics, as well.  Let's try to see those special needs.

            First, we must identify the enemy to whom we are losing so many of our co-religionists.  Throughout the Middle Ages, Sephardic Jewry lost out to the dominant Moslem population.  At the turn of the twelfth century it is estimated that ninety per cent of Jews lived in Moslem countries.  By 1939, Sephardim made up only ten per cent of world Jewry.  Where did all the Sephardim go, long time passing?  Gone to Moslems, everyone.  In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there was a movement towards conversion to Christianity amongst Ashkenazic Jewry, mostly for social advancement.  But nowadays, most of those Jews who stop identifying themselves as Jews, don't identify with another religion either.  So, who is the threat?  Although you might hear of many candidates, like evolution or atheism, I think that the real adversary is Madison Avenue.

            The pernicious effects of advertising even reach those of us who never even consider patronizing the business.  In a revealing study reported in Psychology Today (April 13, 2010), researchers explored the psychological effects of the fast food industry.  Logos for the major fast food chains (if I have to give examples of these, you must live on another planet) were briefly flashed on a computer screen.  Then the participants were asked to read a passage of text.  The subjects read faster after seeing the Golden Arches than before they saw them or than control subjects who weren't shown the symbols. Also the researchers found:  Most striking of all, just a glimpse of the golden arches changes our psychology so that people become impatient about financial decisions—they wind up unwilling to postpone immediate gain for future rewards, so they sacrifice savings, against their own economic interest. Exposure to fast-food symbols also seeps into the way we approach leisure (Sept. 1, 2010).   It's not consuming the food that has these negative affects.  It's just the ads, logos and billboards.  Again from the report:  It turns out that every time we see such marketing devices, they act as psychological primes, reminding us that time seems to be speeding up in contemporary society, making them reluctant to volunteer, and causes them to make bad economic decisions.

            Wow!  Our lives are being negatively impacted by these forces outside our control.  We squander leisure time, go bankrupt and increase stress, without tasting the product.  On most sports programming in the States, there's a new ad campaign trying to convince us that only cool people can drink certain brands of beer.  And, clearly, only cool people are happy.  I think that this multi-faceted phenomenon is the real enemy to a meaningful or spiritual lifestyle.  We have met the enemy, and it is the media.

            So, what can we do to prevent losing this new version of Chanukah's cultural war?  The ultra-orthodox position is to attempt to isolate themselves from all secular influences.  I can't deny that there is merit to this approach.  Personally, I reject this position for two reasons.  First of all, I appreciate many aspects of modern culture.  I believe strongly that knowledge of literature, science and history can help my spiritual efforts.  They add to my soul.  Also, I don't believe that it's possible to totally blockade our senses.  Every nook and cranny of our world is permeated with these symbols, logos and messages.  Hiding is rarely a safe strategy, for ostriches or humans.

            I would like to suggest two propositions.  The first one was in last week's parsha.  When Yosef succeeds in avoiding the temptation of his boss's wife, Rashi, based on the Midrash, tells us that he saw his father's image.  Strength can come from role models and heroes.  Who are our heroes?  If it's our favorite team's slick shortstop or the star quarterback, we're in trouble.  We need spiritual heroes for ourselves and our children.  If our kids only hear us criticizing rabbis and only warm words for athletes and media stars, what message will they imbibe?  We need fewer American Idols and more Jewish heroes.

            My second proposal comes from Chanukah.  In the famous argument between Beit Hillel and Beit Shamai about how to light the chanukiah, Shamai is more logical.  Let's light the candles like the miracle happened, less oil every night.  But we have a greater lesson to learn from Beit Hillel.  Always strive to increase the spirituality in our lives and world.  That's key to success in the spiritual war.  Continually amplify and enhance the spiritual components of our lives.  Go to synagogue a little earlier, add more time for Torah study, always do more.

            Finally a suggestion from Sun Tzu:   If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.  Just like the Maccabees, we can win this war, but it takes a great effort and preparation.  Have a happy and meaningful Chanukah!

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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            There's a famous Yiddish expression 'man plans, God laughs (Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.)'  This week's parsha seems a prime example of that proverb.  Everyone seems to have one plan and something else happens.  It starts with Ya'akov, who wants to live in tranquility and immediately the friction between the brothers begins.  Yosef wants to share the good news of his dreams, and becomes public enemy number one.  Ya'akov thinks that he is watching over the matter while the animosities just continue to grow and fester.  Reuvain believes that he is going to bring Yosef home safely, only to find that he has been sold into slavery.  The brothers believe that they've seen the last of Yosef only to make him more powerful than ever, and allow the fulfillment of his grandiose dreams.  Nothing turns out according to the perpetrators design.  It's all so humbling, but I don't think we ever learn the lesson.

            The story in which our Sages develop this idea is the very complex tale of Yehuda and the development of his dysfunctional family, which, of course, spawns Mashiach.  Yehuda's attempts to marry off his sons and grow a dynasty seem disastrous.  His eldest, Er, marries Tamar and then dies mysteriously.  The second son, Onan, refuses to impregnate her, apparently because the offspring would be called after Er.  This is the Torah's first example of yibum or levirate marriage, an attempt to continue a family name and legacy through a brother.  Onan also dies, probably as a punishment.  Yehuda, now seems afraid to marry her to his youngest son, Shelah, lest he also die.  Yehuda's stated plan is to wait for Shelah to grow older and then to mate him to Tamar.  Tamar, who really wants to be part of the Yehuda clan, hatches her own plan.  By disguising herself as a prostitute, she becomes pregnant through an unsuspecting Yehuda.  When Yehuda proceeds to condemn her to death for a complicated form of adultery (she's married to the family.), she reveals the evidence of paternity.  At full term she gives birth to Peretz and Zerach.  Peretz eventually begets King David and the Messianic lineage. 

            Before I continue the thread of our tale, allow me a short digression.  Peretz and Zerach represent another instance of a first born being supplanted by a younger brother.  This type of situation tends to not turn out so well.  Esav and his grandson Amalek become Israel's greatest threat and enemy.  In the case of the spurned Zerach, his offspring is the infamous Achan who after the destruction of Jericho stole from the plunder designated for destruction, which led to the nation's defeat at the battle for Ai.  We proudly discuss the success of the chosen child, but sadly ignore the fate of the rejected.

            But back to our task.  In Midrash Raba (Genesis 85:1) our Sages describe the scene as the events of Yosef's kidnapping unfold.  They postulate that Reuvain put on sackcloth and fasted over the fate of his lost brother, whom he had meant to save.  The brothers were busy negotiating an acceptable price for their brother turned commodity.  However, our Sages believe that God was involved with creating the light from which would emerge the Mashiach.  In other words, our actions down here are significant, but in ways we've never imagined.  The impressment of Yosef into slavery set the stage for the exodus saga.  While the machinations of Yehuda and Tamar were so much more than a family soap opera; they sowed the seeds of our eventual redemption.  It's fascinating that the Midrash (Breishit Raba 51:1) mentions a custom I've never observed.  It suggests that every Shabbat people should read the story of Lot and his daughters.  Here's a story which superficially is horrendous, a tale of incest.  But eventually Ruth and David emerge from this mess.  The message is clear:  some very unsavory circumstance can result in marvelous outcomes.  I think the Midrash wants us to accept the fact that no matter how bad our work week may have been, our Shabbat can still be satisfying and uplifting.  Maybe the bad weeks can produce the best Shabbatot.

            What changes a miserable turn of events into a sparkling new dawn?   What is needed to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear?  A straight forward reading of our Midrash about the fallout from Yosef's sale, seems to teach that things turn out well because God is pulling strings.  We're doing our own thing while God is planting the seeds of salvation.  I'm not enamored of that approach.  Even though I do believe in Hashgachah Pratit or God's direct supervision of certain events, I think that we must look harder for an answer to this paragraph's question.  Because this point of view makes us irrelevant.  If God brings about the happy ending, what are our efforts worth?

            Peretz becomes the progenitor of the Davidic dynasty because he observes and emulates the great courage and responsibility of his father, Yehuda.  Ruth evolves into the grand mother of David and Mashiach by great effort to fulfill the principles of her adopted faith.  To just say that God did it, denigrates their sacrifices and exertions.  Are the blood, sweat and tears of our forebears immaterial to the progress of Jewish destiny?

            I don't think so.  I believe that God's plan has an infinite number of possible pathways.  We have a major influence in which route is taken.  And that influence is based upon a combination of action and intention.  The Talmud (Horiyot 10b) states a sin done for an admirable purpose can be greater than a mitzvah done for nefarious goals.  The great example usually cited for this principle is the deed of Tamar.  In other words the most important ingredient of this chulent called Jewish History is good intentions, sprinkled liberally on our actions.

            Because we know that often things won't turn out the way we expected, is not a good reason for inaction.  We must be active participants in Jewish destiny because it's the right thing to do, not because we know what will happen.  We do what our souls deem right, because it's right.  God will let the chips fall where they should.                


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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            When I was a little kid, I regularly watched a television show called Fury (The story of a horse and the boy who loved him).  I remember asking my mother if there couldn't be just one week where they didn't get into trouble and have to be saved.  Couldn't there be just one episode without tension and danger?  My mom said something about how there would then be no story and no one would watch.  I was thinking that I'd watch.  Well, now decades later, I'm still waiting for episodes without strife and struggle, but now I'm discussing my life and not a TV show.  Toil is the stuff of life.  From the single celled protozoan to us, life is a tussle.  That's just the way it is.  Ya'akov also wanted respite from life's scuffles.  That's how our Sages describe the beginning of next week's parsha:  And Ya'akov settled down where his father's had sojourned (Genesis 37:1).  The Midrash describes how an exhausted Ya'akov just wanted a tranquil existence, but immediately began the battle between Yosef and his brothers.  Serenity wasn't to be.  This appeal came after the anxious moments of this week's reading.  That is what we'll analyze this week.

            The major stress in our parsha comes from the apprehension Ya'akov has over his impending reunion with his brother who has sworn to kill him.  I mean that would make me nervous, especially since he was bigger, stronger and had an army of 400 men. The verse records that Ya'akov was very much afraid and distressed (32:8).  The climax of this concern comes in the description of the quintessential struggle scene:   And Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn (verse 25).  Sorry, Linda, this is better than WWE.  We all can picture this famous incident, a heavily muscled Ya'akov wrestling with a serene, winged angel.  And, of course, there is the well known interpretation that this was the guardian angel of his brother Esav.  Somehow this represents the grappling which will take between Jew and his enemy throughout history.  Cool.  But, as I've done in previous years, I'd like to give an alternate explanation.

            The Noam Elimelech (Reb Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhinsk, 1717-1787) writes a fascinating commentary on the passage that Ya'akov was left all alone.  He comments that the complete Zadik is one who is always worshipping God in truth.  The Zadik accomplishes this great goal by constantly focusing on the exalted nature of God, by isolating himself within his thoughts.  In this way his concentration and meditation on these issues can bring the Zadik to ascend step by step to the most exalted levels of supernal existence.  Phew, sounds awesome, but what does it mean?  When a person seeking spiritual growth contemplates and meditates alone on holy aspirations, great things can happen.  But it's not easy.  The Rebbe points out that in this contemplation one also notices the lower urges and aspects of oneself as well, and this can be depressing.

            Let's compare this picture of Ya'akov alone at night to last week's image of Ya'akov alone at night.  This week he's actively fighting; last week he was passively observing the spiritual beings ascending and descending on the ladder.  This week his struggle is with that reality that part of him ascends and part of him descends.  According to the Rebbe, Ya'akov's being alone is on purpose.  He chooses this opportunity before his imminent clash with his brother to think through his own status.  And that's when he finds the fight, not with any external force representing his brother, but with the warring factions within himself.  Remember the verse states clearly that he was alone.  When you're alone, there's only one being with whom you can fight.  You got it.  I have met the enemy, and it is me.  The realization that he has lower or Esav qualities mixed in with his finer points almost cripples him.  He strives to follow the model of his father and grandfather, but is shaken by these other elements within him.  He wants to represent these positive qualities in his confrontation with his brother, but the last twenty years in the house of Lavan have hardened him to the point that he's not sure whether he's still the simple man of the tent or has become a carbon copy of Esav's man of the field. 

            This existential struggle reminds me of the scene in the third Superman movie (1983) when an evil incarnation of Superman fights the moral Clark Kent.  We are all in the throes of this struggle to determine who we really are.  It's so uplifting to know that even the spiritual giants like Ya'akov go through these machinations as well.  The tension between heaven and earth observed in the image of the ladder goes on within us all.   The Rebbe goes on to describe one other detail in the story.  The verb we translated as wrestle comes from the Hebrew word for dust.  The Midrash says that this dust rose all the way to the Divine throne in heaven.  The Rebbe says that these dust particles are the negative actions which embarrass us before God, and that require repentance on our part.  Repentance, Teshuva is described as the one act which also reaches the Throne.  So, the battle is set between the negative acts and the Teshuva process, the good me and the less good me. 

            So, which is the 'real' or essential me?  Jean Paul Satre once said that 'one never becomes anything else but what one already was.'  Satre viewed that as a negative, because he wants us to evolve and grow.  I think that we grow by the challenges to who we are, but eventually we must return (lehashiv, Teshuva) to whom in essence we really are.  Therefore at the end of this long and dark night, Ya'akov concludes that he's not the same of Esav and cannot travel his path.

            We all must go through the same battle to discover who we really are.  Sun Tzu (544-496 BCE) said that strength does not come from victory; it comes from struggle.  If there is no struggle, there is no progress.  Hopefully, we emerge, battle scarred and hardened, but with the sure knowledge that we are the heirs to Ya'akov and his legacy.               


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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Walk Article



Rabbi David Walk


            This year I'm teaching a class on Jewish symbols.  I hope the participants are enjoying this subject as much as I am.  This venture, which includes forays into Jewish art as well as history and mysticism, is relevant this week, because we encounter, perhaps, the most powerful image in our Bible, namely Jacob's Ladder.  There are so many renditions of this motif, that it's hard to single one out, but I have my favorite.  Shalom of Safed (1890-1980) painted such a clear and powerful version of this theme, that I can't think about his story without picturing his adaptation.  The descending angels are facing us and almost coming out of the painting to us, while the ascending angels are departing showing us their backs.  I think it's time to revisit this incident, and see what this powerful symbol suggests to us this year.

            There are so many approaches to describe the significance of the Ladder, that it's hard to focus on just one.  In the Midrash Raba there is a fascinating argument over whether the ladder represents the altar in the Holy Temple, which actually stood on the scene of the dream, or symbolizes Mount Sinai, where we received the Torah.  These two positions disagree about the best means of ascending spiritually.  Is it by worship or by Torah study?  Is spirituality essentially of the heart or of the mind?  The Midrash Tanchuma suggests that the ladder stands for the great sweep of Jewish history.  On each rung we encounter another foe, bent on our destruction.  However, we rise above the fray to survive for another day, a new encounter, and a higher rung.  Maimonides (1135-1204) presents another vision which is the prelude for two mystical interpretations.

            According to the Rambam in his Guide for the Perplexed:  "And, behold, the Lord stood erect on it (Genesis 28:13)," that is, was stably and constantly up on it--I mean upon the ladder, one end of which is in heaven, while the other end is upon the earth. Everyone who ascends does so climbing up this ladder, so that he necessarily apprehends Him who is upon it, as He is stably and permanently at the top of the ladder. It is clear that what I say here of Him conforms to the parable propounded. For "the angels of God" are the prophets with reference to whom it is clearly said: "And He sent an angel (Numbers 20:16, Guide Book I, Chapter 15)."  So, the ladder is a connector between the spiritual realm and this world, while the word mal'achim in the verse can be translated as                                                                                                                                          angels or messengers. Maimonides describes them as God's messengers or prophets, not                                                           celestial beings

            Let's take this viewpoint one step further.  According to Reb Shneur Zalman of Liady (the first Lubavitcher Rebbe, 1745-1812), it's our prayers which ascend                and descend.  These thoughts and aspirations are the agents going back and forth between us and God.   He says:  Therefore, one must begin from the bottom and work upwards in prayer, which is a ladder set on the ground, its top reaching towards heaven, until it reaches the One. Thereby the angels of God ascend and descend (olim ve-yordim) bo--in man.  According to the Rebbe every human is their own ladder.  And this explains why the messages go up before they come down because the communication starts with us.  We initiate the holy connection by praying.  Hopefully we spend our lives trying to ascend this spiritual scale getting ever closer to God. 

            Reb Chaim Volozhin (greatest student of the Vilna Gaon, 1749-1821) in his signature work, Nefesh Hachaim (Soul of Life), also addressed the issue of the ladder.  He explains that the ladder isn't set in the ground, but towards the earth (Hebrew: artzah).  In other words the ladder's anchor or base is in heaven, and represents heavenly material being directed in the earth's direction.  Reb Chaim portrays the ladder image as a connector between the source of our souls or neshamot in heaven with the life spirit or nefesh which animates our bodies down here.  The mystical term for this connector is spirit or ruach.  This clarification goes a long way towards clearing up the use of these three terms.  Reb Chaim also uses this motif to elucidate a major idea of his, that we are the conduit through which divine presence and influence enters this realm.  We control the flow of spiritual material on this stairway between heaven and earth.  Ya'akov is being taught that Godliness exists in this world to the extent that we motivate it.  Since it's our thoughts, words and actions which jump start this flow, the verse describes the messengers as first ascending and only then descending in response to our initiative.

            Reb Shneur Zalman describes a process of ascent, elevating our pleas heavenward. Reb Chaim, on the other hand, portrays a system of drawing divine power and influence down into our world.  I would like to think that they're both right.  Our efforts to reach beyond our physical limitations towards our heavenly source, penetrates the permeable membrane between the realms.  This allows some of the celestial stuff to enter our lives and our world. 

            This idea is so significant to me, because prayer is so very difficult that grabbing onto images like this can make the effort a bit easier.  For successful prayer, I believe that we have to feel the tension of lifting ourselves upwards, while bringing a little of heaven down here.  Meditating or focusing on this powerful image of the Ladder as a bridge linking the two realms across the immense void may help in the endeavor to communicate with the supernal.

            Ultimately, we must be motivated by the knowledge that God's promise to our beloved ancestor, 'I am with you, and I will guard you wherever you go' applies to us in our struggle to fulfill this task of bringing sanctity into the world around us.  When it comes to spiritual ascent, we can't be afraid of heights.        


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