Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

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

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Walk Article

AND THE WINNER IS…

Vayechi-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            As the Gregorian calendar year of 2012 comes to an end there are the inevitable newspaper articles, TV shows and websites declaring the best and worst of the year that was.  Many of these dubious decisions scream at you from tabloids while waiting in line at supermarket checkouts:  biggest story, best athlete, or biggest scandal.  It seems that I always disagree with the so-called experts, but I always find it interesting.  There was an artsy type magazine that listed the best movies of the year, and even though I had gone to the flicks about ten times during the year, I hadn't seen even one of their top ten films.  My favorite list is ESPN's worst ten plays of the year.  I can't wait for that display of incompetence.  This year's winner should be a particular fumble on Thanksgiving Day by a certain quarterback plying his trade in the marshes of New Jersey.  All of this is conjecture and speculation, but this week's Torah reading presents us with a clear cut decision, sort of like Marquez over Pacquiao.  The seeming leader is definitively knocked out.  Although I wouldn't mind continuing the sports discussion I'm talking about the competition between Yehuda and Joseph.

            These two titans (I'm not referring to either the mythological kind or the Tennessee type.) continually clash throughout the last fifteen chapters of Genesis.  First it's Yehuda who counsels to sell Joseph into slavery.  Then we compare their behavior in the stories of Tamar and the wife of Potiphar.  Next it's Yehuda, who after convincing Ya'akov to send Benjamin to Egypt in his care, confronts Joseph over the theft of the chalice.  Finally, it's Yehuda who is sent ahead of the family to work out with Joseph the living arrangements in history's first ghetto, Goshen.  By time we get to this week's parsha it's clear that the competition for future leader of the Jewish nation is a two man race.  And in case you missed the nuances, our Torah reading begins with Ya'akov elevating the two sons of Joseph to the status of full fledged Tribes in Israel.  Joseph is the clear favorite entering the home stretch.  But then during Ya'akov's death bed bestowal of blessings, the envelope is torn open, and the winner is…Yehuda.  And even though we are informed of the ultimate victor, that doesn't prevent these two families from constantly struggling for the top leadership roles.  Joshua is from Joseph's loins, and when the kingdom is split the north is under Joseph's heirs, while the southern region is controlled by the progeny of Yehuda, and the Sages say that a Mashiach from Joseph will precede the one from Yehuda.

            The two best blessings are reserved for these two giants.  Even though the poetry is difficult to translate, it's clear that Yosef is endowed with power, wealth and fertility.  He is also granted certain leadership qualities like charm, and he is referred to by terms of leadership like shepherd and head (Genesis 49:22-26).  However, the ultimate prize is bestowed upon Yehuda, Joseph is compared to the powerful and valuable ox, Yehuda is referred to as the royal lion.  The blessing continues:  The scepter shall not depart from Yehuda nor the staff from between his legs (verse 10).  According to the Talmud these items refer to both kingship and, and the other kind of Jewish management, scholarship (Sanhedren 5a).  The clear symbols of power belong to Yehuda, and will remain with him forever.

            The end of that verse is extremely controversial.  This leadership will either be until the coming of a person called Shiloh or the bringer of tranquility (Hebrew:  shalva), a messianic reference, or, perhaps, the establishing of the centrality of Shiloh the town where the temporary Temple stood (1220 BCE-1015 BCE).  Of course the role of Shiloh was eclipsed by Jerusalem, the city of Yehuda's heir, David.  The Christians have lobbied long that this is a reference to their founder, who seems to have had a birthday this week.

            But this, of course, brings us to the central question:  Why did Yehuda emerge from the shadows as the clear winner in this eternal competition?  Some have suggested that Joseph never explicitly sinned and is, therefore, called the Zadik, while Yehuda fell in the incident with Tamar.  However, Yehuda confesses his impropriety and becomes the prototype for penitent.  The Talmud later reveals that the perfect zadik can't stand in the place of the ba'al teshuva (Sanhedrin 99a).  That's a winning hand.  The Rav (Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik) explained the famous Midrash (Genesis Raba 85:1), which states during the sale of Joseph:  God was preparing the light of Mashiach, to mean that how the brothers emerged from that episode would decide who would be the eternal leader of the Jewish nation.   It was Yehuda.

            I've got a slightly different point of view.  I've got this feeling that God didn't choose the winner; our great-grandfathers did.  Time after time Yehuda steps forward to deal with problems and everyone accepts his leadership.  At the sale of Joseph, Yehuda proposes, the others acquiesce.  When it's time to get more food in Egypt, Yehuda steps up to the plate and Ya'akov agrees.  When Joseph is accusing Binyamin, Yehuda confronts him and he acknowledges Yehuda's force of character, and his sincere penitence.  Look at the beginning of the blessing:  Judah, as for you, your brothers will acknowledge you (40:8).  The process was very democratic, and the nomination seemed to be by acclimation.  Everyone had fallen under the spell of Yehuda, the brothers, Ya'akov and Joseph.

            By the time the envelope was ripped open, it was obvious to all who won in the category of best leading man.  I think that's what the Midrash means when it says God was preparing the light of Mashiach as Joseph was being sold to Egypt.  God wasn't choosing; God was confirming with a ray of light.  The great leaders choose themselves.  People often ask:  How will we recognize the Mashiach?  I really don't know, but I have a feeling that when the time comes, it will be as clear as dawn breaking after a long, dark night.           


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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Walk Article

THE REAL JOSEPH

Vayigash-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            This is very embarrassing.  When I read the stories of Joseph, I often find myself thinking about what a jerk he is.  I mean it's bad enough that their father so clearly favors him, why must he broadcast the contents of his dreams?  Does he want his brothers to know that God favors him, too?   It really seems that he could use a Dale Carnegie course.  Of course, my problem is that although I feel this way, the text and our Sages report his greatness and success in both the short and long term.  He is the dubbed the Zadik and numbered among the few who never sinned.  Perhaps my biggest problem is that everyone is so taken with his charm.  Where's that charming character when gleefully rubbing his brothers' faces in his choseness?  I think that there's a relatively simple solution to this conundrum.  He grew up.

            The seventeen year old Joseph of chapter thirty-seven is not the same young man as the Joseph of chapter thirty-nine, who is enslaved in Egypt.  The flow of the Biblical narrative is interrupted by chapter thirty eight with a story about Yehuda and his tribulations.  When the curtain rises on Joseph's new status in Egypt, I think that we have Joseph 2.0.  He's lost his edge and his arrogance.  His haughty self assurance has been surgically removed by life's vicissitudes.  The Midrash records that he was sold a number of times before his arrival at the house of Potiphar.  Maybe that means that he went through a number of stages of personality development.  The new Joseph has charm and grace to go along with his other talents.  Only then does the text record that he finds favor in everyone's eyes (Genesis 39:4).  And it's only two verses later that we're told for the first time that he's good looking.  The charm is noticed before the handsome features, and neither was perceived until he got to Egypt.

            But I think that the first hint of a new Joseph is found in last week's Torah reading.  When the famine started to affect Israel, the verse reports that Ya'akov saw that there was grain for sale in Egypt, but in the very next verse Ya'akov said to the brothers that he heard that there was grain in Egypt.  The great commentary, Rashi, is also concerned about how Ya'akov saw that there were provisions in Egypt, and observes:  Is it not true that he did not see it, only that he heard of it? What then is the meaning of "saw"? He saw with the divine "mirror" that he still had hope in Egypt, but it was not a real prophecy to explicitly inform him that this was Joseph (42:1).  In other words, Ya'akov had some Divinely inspired information, but it was short of full prophecy, because he didn't discern the presence of Joseph.  The Rav, Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik, observed that the term see usually applies to discovering something surprising.  What was surprising?  Well, two things.  First, the food in Egypt was being rationed to prevent hoarding and inflation.  And, secondly, the provisions were being sold to foreigners suffering from the famine.  These two examples of moral benevolence confused and amazed Ya'akov.  His awareness that something special and surprising was happening in Egypt prompted the use of the term seeing instead of hearing.  But, of course, this wonder was a mere shadow of the bigger shocker on the way.

            This new kinder, gentler Joseph seems to have disappeared the moment the brothers appear before him.  Instead of warmly greeting them he feigns ignorance of their identity.  But this is also a new phenomenon for Joseph.  The young Joseph was totally incapable of holding back from revealing everything on his mind.  Whether it was the behavior of his brothers or the content of disturbing dreams, the youthful Joseph seems to not have any unspoken thoughts.  This new Joseph plays his cards close to his vest.

            We get another view of Joseph's newfound knack for introspection in the scene when the brothers are ushered into his presence:  And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he made himself a stranger to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, "Where do you come from?" And they said, "From the land of Canaan to purchase food." Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (42:7-8).  Why does verse eight just repeat what we just read in verse seven?  The Rav explains the repetition of Joseph's recognition of the brothers as a declaration that Joseph was ready to see the brothers in a new light.  The recognition was that they were not the same brothers who bullied and tortured him as a lad.  If he had only identified his siblings, there would have been no room for either reconciliation or future cooperation between them or their offspring.  But the new Joseph looked at them again and saw a chastened group, softened by life's tribulations, and, perhaps, by their father's continued grief for the absent Joseph.  Only after this second look could he come to think verse nine:  And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them.  There's still a chance that the dreams might come to fruition.

            Now, we're ready to fully understand the scene at the beginning of this week's parsha:  Joseph could not bear all those non-family members standing beside him, and he called out, "Take everyone away from me!"  Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept out loud (45:1-2).  Joseph's sentiments are genuine; he has evolved.  But what about the brothers?  They couldn't respond because they were dumbfounded.  The Hebrew word is niv'halu, and could be translated as perplexed, confused or terrified.  They never believe Joseph's reform until the death of Ya'akov when they plead for their lives.

            Joseph has morphed into a mature leader.  The brothers have difficulty accepting it, and we can't blame them because the danger is real.  But maybe we should learn to have more faith in the power of growth and development.  From this story, I believe that we can learn the power of change, but perhaps even more importantly we must learn to accept the changes in others.              


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Sunday, December 9, 2012

Walk Article

THESE CANDLES

Chanukah-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Well, here we are at another Chanukah.  I enjoy this festival.  It feeds into my need for punctuality (I light my candles as soon after sunset as possible.) and fancy for fire.  It is remarkable how popular this relatively minor festival remains amongst members of the Tribe.  Many Jews who aren't overly concerned with things like dietary laws or Shabbat make an effort to commemorate the Festival of Lights.  I know that the Christian celebration of some obscure occasion around the same time may feed into this fad.  Gloria Feldt points out that most Jews don't even know when Chanukah falls out until a Christian friend asks them, "Oh, and when is Chanukah this year?"  However, this doesn't explain the fascination with Chanukah in Israel, where Christians are much rarer than latkes.  There is some mystique about this holiday which assures its continued place in the hearts of our brethren, but it's not immediately clear what it is. 

            I have a strong hunch that the philosophic basis of this celebration isn't the reason for its popularity.  For most American Jews the idea of starting a shooting war to stop the dominant culture from eroding Jewish practice would be horrifying.  Many of us have abandoned Jewish customs voluntarily.  Again, it's probably true that many American Jews only celebrate Chanukah because the surrounding environment, media and malls, remind us to.  Most Jews in America feel fully integrated into the fabric of Americana.  Perhaps the greatest irony of the Chanukah phenomenon is the fact that Jewish Olympic-style competitions are called Maccabiahs.  Remember, one of the Maccabees' reasons for starting the rebellion was the participation of Jews in the Greek athletic games, in which men competed nude.

            Another aspect of this holiday which I don't believe is the basis of its beloved status is the power of the Rabbis.  This post-Biblical event was instituted by the Sanhedrin, great Jewish court, as a holiday.  It is a remarkable expression of rabbinic authority that we recite over the Chanukah candles:  Blessed are You, Lord, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His mitzvoth and commanded us to kindle the light of Chanukah.  It wasn't God who commanded this practice it was the rabbis, using the power derived from the Torah to establish this mitzvah.  That's pretty cool, but I still don't think that most Jews feel that they are showing their great reverence for rabbis by lighting the candles.  We rabbi types have not become that revered.

So, what is the source of the appeal of Chanukah and its little candles?  First of all, the story itself is heroic and inspiring.  We love underdogs successfully standing up to powerful bullies.  At their greatest victory (Emmaus) they were outnumbered like six to one. Even if the details of the exact issues are a bit hazy to many observers, the fact that the weak challenged the strong over matters of principle continues to resonate within the hearts and minds of modern Jews.  But I believe that there is even more going on.  The Chidushei Harim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, 1798–1866, the first Rebbe of Gur) wrote that the mitzvah of lighting candles on Chanukah contains the spiritual enlightenment of the original miracle of the menorah in the Holy Temple on the first Chanukah.  Somehow we're really lighting those original candles.  The Rebbe's support for this position is the text of the law in the Tur Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim, 671) which states that we light the candles l'hazkir to cause us to remember the original miraculous candles.  It doesn't just say to remember, because we're actually renewing and reliving the event.  We have the courage and strength of the Maccabees when we light this little flame.

The Chidushei Harim finds further corroboration for his idea in the poem many of us sing immediately after lighting the menorah.  We recite:  Haneirot halalu kodesh heim,  These candles are holy.  He claims that we're proclaiming that these are the very same holy candles of the Temple.  Normally, the candles that we light are usable and practical, like on Shabbat and holidays, not these lights.  That's also why in the blessings that we recite over the mitzvah of lighting we call this the candle of Chanukah, not just a candle lit on Chanukah.  It's the real, original candle itself.  The flame traverses the millennia. 

When we gaze at or even meditate on the light of the candle we should sense something special.  Just as the Maccabee warriors were able to withstand the superior forces they faced, we see this little flame also successfully competing for our attention with the far brighter electric lights of the home and the grandiose displays of light in the surrounding neighborhoods.  The perseverance of this flame inspires our steadfastness.  This identification with the modest blaze extends into the legal aspects of Chanukah practice as well.  When we see Chanukah candles burning, even if we haven't participated in the mitzvah by kindling our own, we recite:  Blessed is the Lord, God…Who performed miracles for our ancestors in those days during this season.  These unpretentious flames spark a visceral response within the breast of every proud Jew.  And the Sages of yore didn't straight away institute this holiday.  They saw that the Jews themselves over a number of years were continuing to identify and connect with the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple.  The flickering flame was only instituted to reflect a much greater blaze continuing to burn within every Jewish heart.  That warm pride of accomplishment and belonging continues to smolder in many even otherwise lukewarm Jews.

Chanukah is still cool, because its message of underdogs and righteous pride still inspires us. The season may help push its popularity, but it has its own voice as well. Our national ability to persevere and survive the tribulations of history is a story which never grows old.  The little flame still has a brave tale to tell.  Happy Chanukah!!       

 

            


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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Walk Article

BROTHERHOOD

Vayeishev-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            We begin this week our annual retelling of the stories of Joseph and his brothers. While the brothers, with the possible exception of Yehuda, tend to fuse together into a blur, Joseph is just a compelling character.  One of the greatest in all literature.  He has more chen than anyone else we may ever encounter.  Now, what is chen?  Joseph finds it in his relationships with his master (not to mention the mistress), his jailor, his Pharaoh, and, maybe, all of Egypt.  It can be translated as favor, charm, grace or just 'it'.  He's the one you want at your party or the friend you don't mind your parents meeting.  It definitely has to do with good looks, but it's more than that.  We're told that he had chen before we're informed that he had male model good looks.  The chen hit you first.  You only noticed his rugged handsomeness later, maybe while you were trying to figure out why you were so attracted to him.  So, here's my question:  Why were his brothers totally immune to this chen?  By the time he is sold into slavery even the sons of the maidservants (Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher) who had been his comrades, have blended into the unanimous opposition to Joseph and everything about him.  Why?

            The popular answer to this conundrum seems to be jealousy.  This answer just seems too simple to cover all the complexities of the situation.  Even though there must have been some jealousy on the part of the sons of Leah (Reuvain, Shimon, Levi, Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulon) against the first born of Rachel, it doesn't begin to answer the implacable hatred displayed by all the brothers, except, presumably, Binyamin.  So, I believe that we must search elsewhere for a way of decoding this mystery.  The Toras Harav Foundation which is publishing works of Rabbi Soloveitchik recently released a volume called Visions and Leadership:  Reflections on Joseph and Moses.  This book's first chapter discusses this issue.  So, if over the next 700 words you find material that you like I probably got it from the Rav, and if you find stuff you think is infantile and dumb, blame yours truly.  I'm actually quite big on infantile.

            The key to unlock this enigma is found in the dreams.  Before I review the content of these dreams, allow me to explain the overriding issue which consumed these sons of Jacob.  They knew that they were the continuation of the covenant of Avraham.  They also knew that in the previous two generations some children stayed in the fold and some fell by the wayside.  Therefore the brothers were obsessed with coming up with the recipe by which they could all be Jews and heirs to the legacy.  The brothers concluded that the secret formula was:  How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony (Psalms 133:1)! There must be perfect unity and accord between them for the family to stay together.  No more competitions for control and leadership.  Then one morning they awake to find Joseph attacking their plan with his enthusiastic rendition of his dreams.

These night visions become the basis for Joseph's world view and develop the antipathy amongst his siblings.  In the first dream one bundle of grain arises to impose his rule over the over the other eleven bundles.  In the other dream one star is acknowledged as leader by the other eleven stars and by the sun and moon.  The brothers read this as an act of war.  They see Joseph announcing that he will unilaterally declare himself family leader and that eventually everyone will accept this coup d'etat, and bow to his take over.  They state that position in this verse:  "Do you intend to rule us? Will you actually reign over us?" And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said (Genesis 37:8).  They hated him because they interpreted the dreams as saying that he would impose his rule over them by force, and they would eventually accept this reign.

But how did Joseph read the tea leaves?  Joseph had a great fear not expressed by the brothers.  He knew that the dreams would happen outside of Israel.  If the vision was about his control over them in Israel they would be dreaming about sheep and goats, not grain.  Joseph intuited that to survive in the Diaspora they would need a strong leader who would arise from their midst.  He believed that this leader would dwell as an equal together with his brothers until summoned by Divine decree.  The brothers would accept this leadership as coming from God in the second dream when they would be spiritually inspired beings like stars as opposed to economic commodities like bundles of grain.  Then they would acknowledge that their earthly reality was a reflection of a more essential heavenly reality.

Okay, now I believe that we can understand why Joseph felt compelled to share his dreams with his brothers.  This was part of an ongoing discussion or debate about the future of the clan.  To me a curiosity is whether or not Joseph had this position before the dreams.  I think that he did, because the language in the verse states that they hated him even more.  This may mean that the announcement was to support his already existing position and their added animosity was a continuation of the previous contention. 

Now, I think that I can explain why Joseph's charm didn't work on his brothers.  They had to reject his charisma because that was their philosophic position.  We all must be equals; no room for favorites or prima donna's.   His chen was exactly what they were against.  Even his former allies, the sons of Zilpah and Bilhah, turned against him, because it wasn't personal; it was political.

Joseph's dreams reinforced his already strongly held position.  Don't we often dream what our minds have concluded?  Now he used the dreams to buttress his position, and warn his brothers to not be surprised when the wheel of destiny would bring his program to fulfillment.  I can hardly wait to see how all this turns out!         

               


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Monday, December 3, 2012

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Walk Article

THE ESAV FACTOR

Vayishlach-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Esav gets a raw deal in Jewish tradition.  Whatever he does is interpreted as evil and nefarious.  He kisses Ya'akov, and the rabbis say he wanted to bite him (a la Bela Lugosi).  He invites Ya'akov to visit his home, and we suppose he wants to corrupt his nephews.  He offers gifts, and we accuse him of insincerity. Remember two readings ago, he was the one who was swindled, not once but twice.  The Sages behave towards him like we treat politicians running for office.  Always assume the worst.  You know they're lying when their lips are moving.  It really seems that he can do nothing right.  Is this attitude a literary conceit, or is it really mandated by a careful reading of the text?  To test out this situation I'm going to analyze one small incident and try to determine if the rabbis are being fair or overly critical of our ancestral uncle.

            Let's set the scene.  Towards the end of the reunion between Ya'akov and Esav after a separation of decades, Ya'akov is pressing Esav to accept the generous gift which he has offered.  But Esav begs off claiming:  I have plenty, my brother; let what you have remain yours (Genesis 33:9).  Ya'akov, on the other hand is adamant about his generosity, and declares:  Please take this gift I have brought you, for God has been very gracious to me. I have everything (verse 11).  Eventually Esav relents and accepts the present.  This seemingly innocuous exchange is infused by our rabbis with great controversy.  What did each party mean by their statements?  The great medieval commentary Rashi follows the Midrash in explaining that Ya'akov's statement that he has everything means that he has all his bare (or bear for Jungle Book fans) necessities. Esav, however, spoke haughtily for when he said that he has plenty, he meant much more than he would ever need (Midrash Tanchuma).  Is this really what they meant?  I'm not sure that I see it in the words themselves. Maybe the rabbis are just picking on Esav.

            By the way, Ya'akov's proclamation that he has everything (kol) has found its way into Jewish tradition as part of our Grace after Meals.  We thank God for granting us blessings in everything, from everything and everything (ba-kol, mi-kol, kol).  These three terms are used in various verses, one each for the three Patriarchs, describing their blessings from God.

            The Kli Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz (1550 –1619) explains the theological ramification of Ya'akov and Esav's statements.  When someone says that he has a lot, it does sound a bit like bragging because like many who have a lot, he wants more.  However, when someone claims that they have everything it implies that they have no need for more, because that person already has all there is to possess.  He then explains that an evil person with great wealth will often pray for more, even though this person has no need for it.  I love the idea of evil people praying.  I guess they don't make villains like they used to.  I wish that I could get good people to daven.  But the idea is that such a person who describes what he has as a lot is often ruled by the assets rather than the person controlling the wealth's influence over one's life.  There is a suggestion of this at the end of verse nine, when Esav hints at the idea of what's mine is mine and what's yours and is yours.  There is a suggestion of competitive greed in that statement.  Sadly, our society often feeds into that sentiment that life is a race to see who can amass the most stuff.

            One hundred and fifty years after the Kli Yakar, the Ohr Hachayim Hakadosh (Rav Chaim ben Moses ibn Attar, 1696-1743) suggested a variant approach to this exchange.  Esav is explaining in verse nine that he doesn't want the gift for two reasons.  First, he says that I have so much I don't need your gift, and secondly, Esav calls Ya'akov a brother, because he's telling Ya'akov that the giving of this gift won't establish a brotherly love between us.  Now Ya'akov responds by stating the word please (Hebrew: na) twice, once for each point made by Esav.  Ya'akov makes clear that the gift isn't to reestablish a fraternal bond.  The gift is proffered by an inferior to a superior:  Then receive my gift. For I see your face as one sees the face of God. You have received me with favor (verse 10).  The other point which Ya'akov makes is that Esav shouldn't be concerned about taking the gift, because Ya'akov has everything and will feel no loss if he receives the present.  In this scenario there isn't any evil intent, but there's also no love lost.

I really think that Ya'akov is concerned with another issue in this exchange.  Ya'akov is trying to undo the damage of his stealing the blessings from Yitzchak.  In verse ten Ya'akov requests that Esav take his gift, but in verse eleven he begs that Esav take his blessings.  I believe that the blessings he refers to are the stolen ones.  The pilfered blessings were to rule over your brethren (27:29).  Ya'akov is saying take back these blessings, and, please, be a political master over me.  Ya'akov is displaying such subservience because Ya'akov really doesn't want this power.  It's not in his nature.  He's never been comfortable with the purloined blessings.

             I think that we have some clarity concerning Ya'akov's interests, but what about Esav. I don't think that we know.  Is the real Esav portrayed in chapter 27 when he harbors a grudge and plots fratricide?  Or is it the gracious, avuncular Esav depicted here?  We don't know.  I'm not sure that our ancient Sages knew either.  So, why do they paint such a dastardly picture of Esav?  Because they were advising their followers to be wary of Esav's descendants, those with political power over us.  We may never discover the true nature of the Biblical Esav, but the suggestion to be extremely cautious in our dealings with those who rule over us, is very good advice indeed.      


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Friday, November 23, 2012

Walk Article

AN AWESOME PLACE

Va'yeitze-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            When I was growing up (a process that I'm not sure is yet complete), the two most important annual events in my home were the Pesach Seder and the Thanksgiving meal.  And one of my memories of those Turkey day fetes, along with the Detroit Lions football game, was the Perry Como holiday special.  Of course, today we'd never have watched this variety show, because the NFL has totally consumed the day.  Anyway the last scene of this program was the setting up of a family feast, and they would always sing There's No Place Like Home for the Holidays.  And some of the lyrics still ring true:  For no matter how far away you roam -When you long for the sunshine of a friendly gaze, for the holidays - you can't beat home, sweet home.  That sort of corny sentiment still resonates.  And there's perhaps no better time to discuss this issue of the relative merit of different locations than this week's Torah reading.

            This week we read of Ya'akov's flight from home ahead of his brother, Esav's, fratricidal intentions.    The opening verse of our reading mentions both our Patriarch's departure from Be'er Sheva and his destination of the ancestral home in Haran.  Both are stated because he was not only fleeing his brother but also seeking a wife of the proper background.  On the first night of this journey he has, perhaps, the most famous dream in all literature.  The verse states:  And he dreamed, and behold! a ladder set up on the ground and its top reached to heaven; and angels of God were descending and ascending upon it. And behold, God was standing over him, and said, "I am the Lord, God of Abraham your father, and God of Isaac; the land upon which you are lying to you I will give it and to your seed…And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, "Indeed, the Lord is in this place, and I did not know." And he was frightened, and he said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven (Genesis 28:12-13, 15-16)."  It's a bit ironic but even though he makes a big deal about how remarkable his lodging is, we're not sure where he actually dreamed the dream he dreamed.  However, we know that the location is important because the word makom (place) appears six times in these few verses.  Some commentaries claim that he was on the Temple Mount, while other authorities opt for the town of Beit El (or Bethel) a bit further north, near where my daughter lives.  But I'm not concerned with that debate.

            What interests me is what Ya'akov means by this locale being both the house of God and the gate of heaven.  Rashi states that the house of God must mean the Temple Mount.  The Ramban suggest that there are two different locations being described.  I'll conveniently ignore him.  The idea of the dwelling place of God seems to imply that God in some way can be found there.  Now if we really believe in that philosophic concept that all of our children have sung about, namely that God is here and God is there and God is truly everywhere, then having a discrete domicile for our Deity must be explained.  To evade the question allow me to state that we may just be stating that there is somehow a greater concentration of Godliness in that place.  This is what we mean by saying that a place or thing is holy.  There is more Godliness or access to God in that location or item.  Remember we Jews believe in three varieties of holiness based on the oft quoted verse:  Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts, Who fills the cosmos with His presence (Isaiah 6:3).  They are the sanctity of time, place and people.  It may be that Avraham invented the holiness of people, Yistchak initiated the sanctity of time, and, now, in our verse Ya'akov is creating that special status for places.   

            Rashi also comments on the other description of the locality as a gateway to heaven:  A place of prayer, where their prayers ascend to heaven. And its midrashic interpretation is that the Heavenly Temple is directed exactly towards the earthly Temple (verse 16).  So, now we have a conundrum.  Is this amazing place the location where God can be found and encountered because God is imminent, or is it the portal through which our prayers or offerings can be beamed up to Heaven, because God is transcendent?  Well, I think both.  But which concept predominates?  I think that depends on a very important condition.  That condition is the difference between a house and a home.  What turns a physical building into the spiritual focus of our lives?  Well, that is answered in the Mishneh:  Rebbe Yehuda says that an extra wife must be prepared for the High Priest on Yom Kippur because the Torah demands that he must say a confession which is for himself and his house, and his house means his wife (Yoma 1:1).  In other words having a loving partner in the house turns it into a home.  I think that teaches us that the Temple Mount is only the Home of our Creator when there are Jews there worshipping to the glory of God.  When there are no adoring throngs assembling to experience the Divine Presence, there really isn't any Divine Presence there.  Under those circumstances, the Temple Mount becomes the launching pad for our prayers and is the gateway for access to Heaven, but it isn't the sanctuary which somehow houses God which the verses in Exodus talk about (Exodus 25:8).

            This is equally true about our houses.  These lodgings, apartments, domiciles only become hearth and home when shared by loving couples.  Only when there's anticipation of a caring reception is there a concept of I've got to get home.  Otherwise, that place is only shelter and dormitory.  This week has been special to me, because I didn't just get married, I've acquired a home.  So, now I've got an awesome place which I look forward to being at, and something very wonderful to be thankful for, and can identify with another idea:  There's no place like home.         


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Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Walk Article

DO PRAYERS WORK?

Toldot-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Many of us pray on a regular basis.  But why?  Here's the definition of prayer on Wikipedia (my best friend):  Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.  I like that definition.  We pray to establish contact with something greater than ourselves, perhaps because it makes us feel greater than we are.  The act of worship, therefore, is not a means to an end; it is an end in itself.  But is that the reason why we pray?  I don't think so. Wendy Cadge, a sociologist at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA, found that ninety percent of Americans claim to pray regularly (more than half claim daily).  In her 2008 study she discovered that their prayers fell into one of three categories -- about 28 percent of prayers were requests of God, 28 percent were prayers to both thank and petition God, while another 22 percent of the prayers just thanked God.  Notice, there's no mention of communicating with or connecting to a Higher Power.  It's all about either give me or thankYou.  When I asked a group of elementary school children why their parents go to synagogue most said to see friends or fulfill social obligations.  Granted that's a slightly different question, but still we don't see people praying for the purpose which seems to define prayer, namely making contact with the Infinite.  Prayer services turned out to be not much different than a visit to the mall.  It's either to see friends or get something that you need.

            I think that the average person's view of prayer is formed by the stories about praying we see in the Bible.  The most famous examples of prayer, like Moshe begging to enter Israel before he dies (Deuteronomy 3:23), or when his sister is sick (Numbers 12:13), Chana when she was barren (I Samuel 1:11), or Jonah in the whale (Chapter 2) are people asking for specifics things and getting them.  One of the most famous examples is right in our Torah reading:  Yitzchak prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord answered him, and Rivka his wife conceived (Genesis 25:21).  To many of us prayer is like a successful turn in the game Go Fish with the happy player proclaiming 'Got what I wanted!'       

               This raises a tremendous problem.  How can humans expect that they can change God's will?  The famous German philosopher, Immanuel Kant calls this preposterous and presumptuous.  However, many Jewish sources state that God wants us to pray for these things and actually Rivka was barren so that she and Yitzchak would pray for her to have children (Talmud Yevamot 64a).  It's some sort of test, and it is indeed part of God's plan.  We don't really alter the Divine Game Plan; it's all factored in.  That explains why so many of the prayers written by our Sages contain many requests.  Many authorities from Reb Yosef Albo through Rav Kook understood this phenomenon in a slightly different way.  Don't think that we have moved God, instead think of us spiritually relocating through our prayer experience from one position to a higher one, and now we are situated in a way to receive God's bounty.  God's not moved by our prayers: we are. 

            There's another way of looking at the prayer of Yitzchak in our parsha.  The Talmud (again Yevamot 64a) asks why the Torah uses the word va'ye'etar to describe Yitzchak's prayer?  The word derives from the term for a farm implement, something like a rake.  The answer is that just like a rake moves the grain from one place to another, so, too, our prayers rearrange God's traits in such a way that we now are receiving God's compassion and concern rather than Divine justice.  We haven't really impacted the Cosmos very much.  We've just reshuffle the deck into a more advantageous arrangement. 

Although those positions about receiving specific items because of our prayers are acceptable Jewish approaches to prayer, they still bother me.  Even though part of me identifies with those who come to pray because of a major emergency in their life, still I shudder at the thought of prayer resembling a trip to Walmart.  So, why are so many of our prayers (both historical and in our prayer book) about requests?  Reb Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm (1824-1898) wrote:  The essence of prayer is ethical growth (musar).  God does not require a reminder of our needs.  If one merits, God provides.  The fundamental nature of prayer is to remind ourselves that God is the Creator and Source of all bounty (Chachma U'musar, chapter 110).  I would add the educational element.  The list of requests that the Sages wrote for us is also a reminder of what are the essentials of life, which we should be concerned with.  Because we often forget priorities.

Perhaps we can look at prayer from another perspective as well.  Sometimes when we talk to a really good friend or soul mate, we don't want them to provide any answers, advice or solutions.  We just want them to listen.  And if this is happening on the phone, they don't have to say anything, just periodically clear their throat or mumble their assent.  We just want to know that someone who cares and loves us is listening.  It's amazing how much better we feel when we've expressed our thoughts, unburdened our souls in an empathetic environment.

I just ordered a new decorative piece for the top of my talit.  It's not silver or the skyline of Jerusalem.  It just states in midnight blue on sky blue:  Know before Whom you stand.  That's all we want or need.  When we plead:  Listen to our voices (Shema Koleknu); we're proclaiming that we just want to know that You're on the other end of the line.  So, when we ask:  Do prayers work?  The answer is yes, but they work in ways we didn't expect.          

 

 


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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Walk Article

GETTING MARRIED

Chaye Sarah-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            Perhaps the biggest decision a person makes in their lifetime is whom to marry. It's right up there with choice of profession, sports teams and jelly bean flavors. Was I being facetious?  Perhaps not.  In this week's Torah reading we not only have the marriage of Yitzchak to Rivka, we also have a detailed description of the marriage arrangements, which don't include much in the way of choice.  A trusted family factotum travels great distances to find the proper young (traditionally, very young) woman for the master's only son and heir.  Although she is asked for her consent to the union, Rivka doesn't seem to ask any of the questions we'd assume should be asked to make the consent a reasonable decision.  There's no mention of his looks, intelligence or entertainment preferences.  Yitzchak isn't even asked.  His choices seem to be take her or take her.  No, that wasn't a typo.  Where're the dating scene, the online data search, the probing questions, like 'Do you like reality TV'?  But my real question is:  What can we moderns learn from this story since it doesn't reflect our reality at all?

            Well, maybe nothing.  Professor David Elgavish of Bar Ilan University's Department of Bible says that the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebecca is a rich Biblical source for studying marriage practices and customs in the ancient world.  Yeah, and, except for a few college professors, who cares?  I actually like history, but I don't read the Bible to learn anthropology.  I need stuff which affects my life, and hopefully makes me a better person.  So, what can we learn from this account?  The question is actually even more acute because in this particular case the text does the unusual step of repeating most of the action.  It's like we get an instant replay, just like the NFL.  Not only that but this is the longest chapter in Genesis, and no other story is presented with such exquisite detail.

            I believe that there are in our text a number of important ideas which can affect the reader in a positive way.  I, personally, don't have something to say about every detail, but that doesn't bother me, because, perhaps, those points are important to different generations in different circumstances.  The emphasis at the beginning of the narration is to my thinking extremely important.  In the search for a proper wife for his master's heir, the trusted servant is looking for a woman of outstanding character, especially kindness.  There's no mention of the things that so many seek, like looks, wealth or family prominence.  Wouldn't this be a better world if the first question asked before a blind date would be:  Is he/she kind?  And, of course, in the story the deal maker is Rivka's outstanding aptitude for hospitality and kindness to strangers.

            But for me the truly momentous material is at the end of the chapter.   The potential mates encounter each other in a rather awkward moment, while Rivka is approaching Avraham's encampment.  Again, Professor Elgavish makes a big deal out of the sociological ramifications of putting on a veil and descending from a camel.  Neither of these actions seems like a pivotal activity in our scene, but to each his own.  Rather I'm thinking that this first meeting isn't working out so well, and it doesn't look so good for the shidduch.  However, that's not what happens.  Yitzchak listens to what happened, and accepts the deal.  Rivka had already accepted it before leaving her home.  So, now comes the concluding verse in the story and it has four verbs describing the actions of Yitzchak.  In the first half of the verse Yitzchak brings Rivka to the tent of his mother and takes her as a wife.  I believe that these are technical terms and actions signifying the establishment of a state of marriage between them.  This is similar to the two stages of a traditional Jewish wedding, the Kiddushin (betrothal, giving of the ring) and the Chupa (consummation, Sheva Brachot).  At that point we have no idea how this is all going to turn out, but now comes the most significant phrase in the chapter.

            At this point we are told two things, that Yitzchak loved Rivka and that he was consoled or comforted over his mother's death.  What?  Here's the point:  Just like there are two stages to the wedding process; there are two objectives in a marriage.  The first is love, a touching relationship between husband and wife, which includes both physical and emotional attachments.  If any reader doesn't understand that last sentence, please, contact me privately.  But notice, in the ideal Jewish marriage the love comes after the wedding.  In our age of love matches, rather than arranged marriages, I would say that in the ideal marriage the initial love deepens and matures over the years.  Now the second idea, he is comforted after his mother's death.  Something significant is happening.  Rashi says that all the miracles which occurred during the life of Sarah returned, and I think that he is just saying the point I want to make in another idiom.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik, in another context, explains that there are two paradigms for marriage, natural and covenantal.  The natural format is relatively obvious.  They get married in a socially acceptable way for the purpose of having children and establishing the building blocks of a healthy society.  Then there's covenantal marriage, which sees marriage in an historical framework.  Rabbi Meir Soloveitchik (the Rav's nephew) wrote that these couples have faith in the future.  Okay, but there's so much more.  They see their marriage in both directions of time.  It renews a past ideal and builds for a better future.  Why was Yitzchak comforted?  Maybe you can say he was a Mama's boy, and never got over her death (I actually said that in a previous article).  However, I think his consolation came from the fact that when his mother died he thought that this template for marriage died with her, because he never saw another covenantal marriage.  And imagine his incredible joy when he discovered that he had such a marriage!

            For some reason weddings and marriages are on my mind, and the true hope for a successful marriage must have the desire to achieve true love, but must aspire to something more, covenantal marriage, which is for the ages.  Of course, it helps if you find a Rivka.

                        


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Sunday, November 4, 2012

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Walk Article

HOW ARE YOU SLEEPING?

Va'yera-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

In 1935 the two most important personalities in Modern Orthodox Judaism, and perhaps the greatest Jewish thinkers of the twentieth century, met for the first and only time.  It was like the passage of two great ocean liners, one emerging on her maiden voyage into the great shipping lanes of our globe and the other slipping into her home berth for the last time.  In July of that year Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1903-1993) during his sole trip to Eretz Yisroel paid a call on the Chief Rabbi of Ashkenazic Jewry in Palestine, Rav Avraham HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), who was in the throes of his ultimate illness.  He passed from this earth on September first.  In recalling that visit many years later, Rabbi Soloveitchik remembered Rav Kook's great love for the Jewish people and mentioned how Rav Kook's thought influenced his own thinking.   It's hard to discuss the major issues confronting the observant Jew who wants to interact positively with this world without quoting extensively from these two giants, who agreed on so many of these issues, like science, philosophy, Zionism, etc.  So, it's of interest to me that these two soaring personalities disagreed so profoundly on the extremely difficult conclusion of this week's Torah reading.     

Our parsha covers a lot of material but it climaxes with the stories about the birth and growth of Yitzchak.  The final episode is the attempted sacrifice of Yitzchak. This tale looms large in the Jewish psyche.  Besides its haunting literary power, it has attained a central place in our High Holiday liturgy.  We read this section on the second day of Rosh Hashanah and many of the penitential prayers (Selichot) recited during that season are based upon that incident.  In those prayers the emphasis is on the merit we inherit from Avraham and Yitzchak for their willingness to perform this act of devotion.  When we call attention to the credit God heaped upon our Patriarchs for their worshipful behavior, we refer to this event as the Binding of Isaac (Akeidat Yitzchak).  However, when I read this story all I can think about is the thoughts running through the mind of Avraham:  How can I do this?  Should I confer with Sarah?  Should I tell Yitzchak?  How can God's promises to me be fulfilled without my successor, Yitzchak?  For me this is the Test of Avraham, not the binding of Yitzchak.

            And that's equally true for both of these scholars, who are still called the Rav by their respective communities.  They both try to pry into the mind of our beloved ancestor, and ask the question of questions:  What was he thinking during the three day trek from the communicating of the instruction until the cathartic moment of the blade poised over the outstretched neck of the precious lad?  What I find fascinating is the fact that each uses the same metaphor, to describe Avraham's mental state, but, as we'll see, in very different ways.

            Rav Kook expresses the idea that the greatest contribution of Avraham was in his great love for God.  He attained his special status and relationship with God as a result of this profound and unshakeable love.  Therefore, it's understandable that for the former Chief Rabbi the most significant verse in the story is the fact that Avraham awoke early in the morning with the proper enthusiasm for fulfilling this Divine task.  This is how he describes Avraham's thinking:  The peace of mind of the holy soul, of our holy father did not cease. His sleep was not gone from him, because of the clear knowledge, which came to him through the word of God, and no feeling of darkness, negligence, or depression became intermixed in the longings of his purified heart. He passed the night in the restful and gaily holy sleep of the upright, and the time of rising arrived as usual. And the strength of God which turns his legs into hinds, to run as a stag and be mighty as a lion, to do the will of God supported him, for he rose early in the morning (Olat Ra'aya I, pp. 86-87).

            Rabbi Soloveitchik, on the other hand, thought of Avraham as the ultimate philosophic seeker of truth.  This cosmic game of Hide N' Seek results in Avraham discovering the God of history, covenant and commitment.  Avraham and God begin a covenantal community of two, which will come to fruition with the progeny of Avraham.  Now comes the request of the Akeida, which appears to be an absurd cruelty whose end result may make the covenant a nullity.  So, Rav Soloveitchik describes Avraham's reaction this way:  God says to Avraham: "Take now your son…" I want your son who is the one whom you love. Do not fool yourself to think that after you obey Me, I will give you another son. You will not have another child. You will live your life in incomparable solitude. Neither should you think that you will succeed to forget Yitzchak. All your life you will think about him. You will spend your nights awake, picking at your emotional wounds. Out of your sleep you will call for Yitzchak, and when you wake up you will find your tent desolate and forsaken. Your life will turn into a long chain of emotional suffering (Divrei Hashkafa, pp. 254-255).  Well, that sounds pleasant!

            There you have it.  Rav Kook's Avraham sleeps like a baby; Rabbi Solveitchik's suffers incurable insomnia.  Whose vision is accurate?  These towering intellects present a clear choice concerning the nature of the Torah personality.  Is religious devotion full of warm fuzzies or does piety consist of the cold pricklies of solitude and anguish?  I must opt for the image of Rabbi Soloveitchik, because of his conclusion.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik the ordeal of the Akeida changes the covenantal relationship between God and Jew forever.  Previously this attachment seemed merely utilitarian for their mutual benefit like many treaties.  But from now on, this existential community of God and man is converted into an eternal passion fraught with realities which contradict the very ideal for which the faithful suffer (The Emergence of Ethical Man, p. 157n.).  The devotion to God is hard, but worth it.

            So, how well do you sleep? 


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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Walk Article

OF MARSHMALLOWS & COVENANTS

Lech Licha-5773

Rabbi David Walk

 

            In the late 1960's, Professor Walter Mischel of Stanford University conducted one of the most famous studies in child psychology.  Mischel himself had an interesting childhood.  He fled with his family to the United States at the age of eight from Vienna after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany.  In the experiment kids aged four to six were given a marshmallow, and told that if they waited fifteen minutes they would be given another marshmallow.  Most kids tried to resist the temptation, about one third waited long enough to get the treat.  This was a great test of the benefits of delaying gratification, which has been shown to be an extremely important trait for success in life.  After considering this experiment for a long time, the only improvement I would suggest is to substitute Rolo's.  They're like the greatest candy ever devised by man.  But I digress.  What did this test and its variations teach us?

            Mischel discovered that there existed an unexpected correlation between the results of the marshmallow test, and the success of the children many years later. The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that "preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent". A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated with higher SAT scores. A 2011 study of the same participants indicates that the characteristic remains with the person for life. Additionally, brain imaging showed key differences between the two groups in two areas: the prefrontal cortex (more active in high delayers) and the ventral striatum (an area linked to addictions).  A variation on the test was conducted at the University of Rochester and just reported last week.  They divided children into two groups: one group was given a broken promise before the marshmallow test was conducted (the unreliable group), and the second group had a fulfilled promise before their marshmallow test (the reliable group). The reliable group waited up to four times longer (12 min) than the unreliable group for the second marshmallow to appear.

            Besides the fact that I find this stuff really cool, what can we learn from these tests and their results?  I think that there are many Torah examples of the marshmallow experiment.  Perhaps the most famous is the Tree of Knowledge (maybe it wasn't apples but marshmallows or, better yet, Rolo's).  The strength to resist the Tree is the ability to control one's urges and desires, a valuable lesson.  We say that the true hero is the one who can control their own inclinations (Pirkei Avot 3:1).  Maybe the Knowledge of the Tree was the understanding of oneself.  This may also be the rationale behind the tenth commandment.  When we're instructed not to covet, we're really being told to control our appetites.  Everyone is fascinated by and attracted to forbidden fruit, but the measure of a human may be based upon one's strength to enjoy only those delights which are permitted by morality, reason and societal norms.

            But this week's Torah reading presents us with the ultimate example of delayed gratification.  In chapter fifteen we have history's second instance of a covenant (brit).  Last week a covenant was granted to Noach for all of mankind, promising no more floods and sealed with the rainbow.  This week we encounter the covenant between God and Avraham, which becomes the basic agreement for our special relationship with God.  God informs Avraham of the upcoming bondage and exodus from Egypt.  No specifics are given about this future event, because it is also the paradigm for all the cycles of Jewish history, persecutions followed by redemptions.  What is the essence of the covenantal relationship?  Well, the covenant itself is made up of a ceremony and mutual commitments which are unbreakable.  According to Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Heschel (1907-1972), the fundamental nature of the covenant is giving our sacred word of honor.  This pledge given in a moment in time goes on and on for ever.  It is this unshakeable loyalty which makes the covenantal commitment so momentous.  We carry the event with us forever.

            The Rav (Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, 1903-1993) looked at the spirit of the covenant in a different light.  He suggested that at the core of a covenant is an eternal commitment.  Covenant and eternity are identical.  According to the Rav, what makes this week's covenant the prototype for all others, is that Avraham's commitment is based upon a fulfillment he will never see.  The promise of the land of Israel will be fulfilled by his children inheriting it, not him.  The covenantal personality is a historical personality.  Normally, we think of the delayed gratification of the pious personality is waiting for reward in distant time, perhaps the world to come.  The Rav changes that perception.  The zadik's gratification is only achieved by one's progeny.  This presents a new vision of eternal life, my DNA lives on.  I perform my mitzvoth not so that I will be compensated, but so that my grandchildren will see the redemption.  I anticipate the salvation, but don't expect to experience it.

            Remember the University of Rochester variation on the marshmallow test?  If I have faith in the person making the promise, my ability to pass the test is enhanced.  When I'm disloyal and break the eternal covenant of the Jewish people, it's quite often because I don't have the prerequisite faith in the One administering the test.  Do I really believe that God will deliver on the promises?  I'd like to think that our people's continued existence against all the expectations of history is ample proof of the Administrator's good will. 

            Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living.  I think that's true, but the Jewish way of expressing that thought is:  The uncommitted life is not worth living.  When we reread the Biblical covenants executed by our ancestors, we must re-enlist in this eternal struggle, commitment and test.  I want my grandchildren to get two marshmallows.           


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