Thursday, May 3, 2018

Shomer Omer Lag-In; or, the Min-Hug

It’s been said in certain quarters that frum women particularly hate Pesach; one unnamed rabbinic eminence has asked—not exclusively rhetorically—why G-d would give a holiday that inspired such loathing.

It remains uncertain how pervasive this loathing is, or even if said loathing is that gender specific, or even if it should be; recent medical literature even points to an intestinal malady that is uniquely characteristic to matzo consumption, which might serve to reframe exactly what it is that makes people invest the initial consumption of chametz after Pesach with a “redemptive” quality.  (It makes more sense then that Krias Yam Suf occurred on the last, as opposed to the first, day.)

Beyond Passover misia is the enigma that is the Omer, specifically the minhagei avelus that pervade the period.  It has been attributed to the Kotzker Rebbe that “If Torah was a minhag, everyone would keep it”; the Omer, because of its length and universal application, provides those who wear their minhagim on their sleeves the opportunity to, for lack of a better term, flaunt it: “which Omer do you keep” and “what do you do/not do during the Omer” keeps the discussion circulating.

For those who relish the opportunity to keep another minhag, and do so publicly—almost akin to the Rebbe who led his disciples in a dance after the reading of Eicha to “celebrate” the opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of mourning the churbanos—the restrictive nature of the Omer and the concomitant inconveniences don’t present a problem, the actual nature of what is actually being mourned during the Omer notwithstanding.  [Hence: the “min-hug”: this is one mintage that gets more PDA, for lack of a better analog.]

For those who might be Omer-skeptical, the questions and apparent self-contradictions surrounding the period likely amplify the annoyance with the inconveniences to the point that it might conjure up a loathing for the Omer minhagim that rivals the Passover misia.

To understand this phenomenon, one needs to reexamine the ostensible proximate cause of the avelus: the sudden deaths of 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s most prominent disciples, punished by the plague for not according each other with sufficient respect.  Not everyone is in accord as to the nature of the deaths; there are some who maintain that they were all martyred by the Romans, but the most salient theory is that they all died of “askara”, a rather painful illness. Rabbi Akiva eventually retransmitted all of this lost knowledge to a grand total of five disciples.  

The classic reasons given for the mourning are the near-loss of a critical mass of Torah knowledge and the concomitant admonitions regarding forging better relations between fellows.  (Battles over minahgim that descend to adhominy might portend an ironic violation of the entire premise of the Omer (“No fighting in the War Room!!!”); fortunately, people have (usually) found better things to fight about.)  

A closer examination of the narrative and its context might provide an ironic counter to the min-Hug, both in the scope of the avelus and the actual ultimate message surrounding the cause.

First, consider the options for observance: Pesach-33; Rosh Chodesh-46; the stoppage in some circles for Yom Haatzma’ut; and the machlokes re whether the plague stopped on lag but started again the next day.  No matter which regimen is chosen, the existence of a choice indicates that the avelus has an attenuation built right into it.

Second, reconsider the message of the plague: an Divine near-erasure of his own Torah as a signal that some things can subvert the message from within.  Consider that the 24,000 students were “not according each other the proper honor”: with such a critical mass of elite disciples, this could not have gone unnoticed among the less elite; furthermore, as this ostensibly public display of dissension occurred on the heels of the second Churban, which was attributed primarily to sinas chinam, the spectre of disunity and its post-

Therefore, if the primary vehicles of tradition are broken down, k’vayachol it was time to start again from scratch even with only 5 as opposed to 24,000.  The 24,000 would have ostensibly been sending the wrong message about what Torah was supposed to be about, and the transmission was stopped by the plague that affected the transmitters.

Tangentially, one should consider the Tanna usually associated with Lag b’Omer: Rav Shimon Bar Yochai.  As Rabbi Norman Lamm has noted in a few essays about RSBY, there was a difference between the Tanna who emerged from a twelve year sojourn in the cave  burning everyone he saw whom he deemed to be lacking in Torah just by looking at them, and the Tanna who emerged a year later when ordered by G-d to immediately return to the cave for “destroy[ing] My world” and was considerably more conciliatory.  Consider the possibility that the 24,000 students might have had power on a level of RSBY and instead as it were destroyed each other; in fact, later on in the Talmudic narrative RSBY again gazes to death a colleague who seems to be falling into the habit of disrespect and noncooperation that might have been characteristic of R Akiva's departed disciples, and also the disciple who was the original cause of the report that consigned him to the cave.

In a certain sense, one should almost celebrate Lag Ba’omer—if not the entire Omer itself—as a renewal: a Divine recalibration of the tradition transmission that was supposed to more faithfully represent what that tradition was/is ultimately supposed to be about.

So: don’t get a haircut.  Don’t shave.  Don’t get married.  Don’t concertize.  Just don’t make a big deal of it.  Especially when others legitimately might do some of the don’ts.  And one might be advised to not use more comprehensive performance of the minhag as an excuse to be disrespectful to those who might have a shorter Shomer Omer checklist—unless one thinks the best way to learn history is to repeat it.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Beshalach--Split Seas, Hairs, Differences

In the run up to Krias Yam Suf, one alien population is exchanged for another.

In the process, G-d removes potential traitors from the lists of the redeemed, but allows—as it were—Moshe Rabbeinu to bring another potential fifth column right into the newly (or almost, at least) emancipated Bnei Yisrael. 

As is the Torah’s wont, the chronology of the narrative is ostensibly reversed: the “erev rav” or mixed multitude is explicitly referred to in last weeks parsha (12:38) even if hinted at again at the beginning of this weeks parsha in 13:17, the “am” that Pharaoh “beshalach”’ed was erev rav, ostensibly “converts” who nevertheless were going to report if/when the Hebrews were going to complete their escape), while Rashi explains in the next pasuk (s.v. “Chamushim”) that 4/5 of the Hebrews dies during the three days of the Choshech plague, having proven themselves unworthy or unwilling to leave Egypt.  (Rashi mentions this last week too (10:22), but here “chamushim” provides a more direct scriptural hint.)

What did they do that warranted such a drastic punishment?  Rabbi Gidon Rothstein explains it this way: “Rashi ascribes it to their not wanting to go. In his view, anyone willing was taken out, regardless of their other (often significant) sins.  But this tradition says that the overwhelmingly large segment of the people preferred to stay, and died in darkness...Chazal and Rashi had no problem saying that most Jews, with all the troubles of slavery, wanted to stay.”

Take it a step further. Even if the full emancipation wasn’t going to occur until Pesach, the signs of redemption were already there: TB RH 11a indicates that the actual enslavement of the Hebrews stopped on the previous Rosh Hashanah, coinciding with the first plague of blood.  Furthermore, leave aside the open miracles occurring; the political winds seemed to be blowing in the Hebrews’ direction by the time the seventh plague of barad occurs, when the text refers to the “G-d-fearing” in PHARAOH’S court (9:20), and those who told the king before the next plague “Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?” (10:7).  At that point it was likely clear to G-d that even both “natural” and “supernatural” evidence wasn’t going to sway these people into joining their brethren and sistren in the national destiny.  In fact, they may have misread the political changes (deliberately or otherwise) and concluded that they had a chance now to become Egyptian citizens, as the slavery had been suspended and the Egyptians were now "favorably disposed toward the people": they might have been so determined to to stay that they would actively try to stop the redemption process and side with their erstwhile Egyptian masters, even to the point where they would put their fellow Hebrews--and even family memebers--in danger.

Ergo: something far graver than “other (often significant) sins” that caused the mass death at the hands of Heaven.  Again: the hands of Heaven, not by the hands of other Hebrews.  Only G-d could made this determination and remedy it: the Hebrews could not have done it yet.

So then—now that we know the Pharaonic motivation behind replacing one set of fifth columnists with another—why did Moshe Rabbeinu actually want these “gerim” when G-d Himself was—as it were—reluctant?  There is ample midrashic evidence that the ananei hakavod, manna and water well distinguished between the formerly enslaved Hebrews and erev rav, and yet when they were the first group attacked by Amalek the other Jews rallied to save them, impressing Yisro with their dedication to unity; yet when it came to not only the egel—where they were the primary drivers behind panicking the rest of Bnei Israel into the formation of the idol—but later, by the slav and then the meraglim, they planted the idea in everyone else’s heads that things had been better in Egypt.  Moshe apparently had a prophetic reason for bringing them along, mostly having to do with needing a multinational cover during the inevitable exiles—but was the short-term damage alleviated by the long-term view?

In light of current events, one might have to look at how one is to define “ger”, and especially in the context of how it relates to the Egyptian oppression in which the term is often used.

Comments and exhortations all over cyberspace and elsewhere lambasting religious Jews who ostensibly support Trump and therefore by extension are oppressing “immigrants” often say things like: “The Torah says more than 30 times not to discriminate or oppress the stranger because you too were once strangers in Egypt”; ”You too had brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s because all Jews were communists or parasites or too religious.”

As much as these seem to be a caricature of a certain type of Orthodox progressive [though the two sentences are lifted directly from an extended rant someone’s Facebook wall, with “likes” nearing triple digits] it bears mentioning that the progressive definition of “ger” is as distorted as the fallacious analogs between Jews trying to flee the Holocaust and the current “refugee crisis”.  [So as to not bore everyone with the details about how to explode the latter revisionism here--because it’s been done elsewhere--suffice it to say for now that our “brothers and sisters barred from the United States in the 30’s” didn’t try to blow everyone up with explosives.]  The definitions of all “gerim” are first and foremost halachic ones, and both—moshav and tzedek—are subject to a very rigorous process of vetting when is comes to permanent residency. 

In fact, the tie between “you too were once strangers in Egypt” and the restriction keeping the Egyptian convert [of both genders] outside the community for three successive generation indicates that the memories weren’t exactly all good, enough that a multigenerational vetting was required; and furthermore,  during the time of the United Kingdom of David and Shlomo—a, if not the, high point in the classical period—there were further restrictions imposed upon accepting new gerim because of the political and spiritual successes of Israel.

In fact, going back to the parsha, Moshe’s inclusion of the erev rav as “gerim” is contraindicative of the left’s views of immigration:  Moshe didn’t as it were fight G-d because he thought G-d was “oppressing the stranger”; Moshe wanted to force them into that national project [and the midrashim gingerly take him to task for doing it prematurely].

It’s possible that Trump’s approach to immigration isn’t exactly the “Torah” approach.  [His supporters might claim that he fulfills the “Biblical” requirements, but they definitely not operating from a halachic standpoint.]  However, the twisting of certain Judaic and halachic concepts completely out of context to make a political point about what “should be” a “ger” doesn’t change the definition, particularly when there is ample contraindicating texts and precedents.

“[M]ore than 30” times zero is still zero.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Bo—False Starts

Rashi in Bereishis 1:1 (s.v..."Bereishis"!!!) cites the midrashic question as to why the Torah did not begin in this weeks parsha (12:1) with what is ostensibly considered to be the first mitzvah given to Bnei Yisrael: “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

The answer that is given is almost as oblique: “What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation? … should the peoples of the world say to Israel, “You are robbers, because you took by force the lands of the seven nations of Canaan”, Israel may reply to them, “All the earth belongs to the Holy One, blessed be He; He created it and gave it to whom He pleased. When He willed He gave it to them, and when He willed He took it from them and gave it to us…”

Irrespective of the tenuous nature of theological claims in general, why even bring this up?  One only has to look at Rashi on Genesis 12:6, s.v. “ha’Kna’ani az ba’aretz”, to see who the real “robbers”/“occupiers”/“colonialists” were even in antiquity: “Th[e Canaanites] were gradually conquering the land of Israel from the descendants of Shem, for it had fallen to the share of Shem when Noah apportioned the earth amongst his sons…for this reason the Lord said to Abram “to thy seed will I give this land” — “I will in some future time return it to thy children who are descendants of Shem”.”  (The PLO at one time or another has tried to pass themselves and their people off as Canaanites.)

We were taking back what was rightfully ours in the first place!!!  Why even give credence in our own texts to hostile Judeophobic notions, even if as identifiably faulty premises?

I once heard from a salient pulpit that the message in the midrash wasn’t intended to be an answer from us to the complaining world at large;  12:6 would suffice as an answer for that.   Rather, the midrash is for us to answer ourselves, between ourselves, as a reassurance and a warning (it doesn’t want to mention that the land could be and/or has been taken from us).

I would take it one step further: that when it comes to Jewish prerogatives, Jews in particular should not be too quick to dismiss said prerogatives in the face of accusations of violating an ostensible universal morality, and especially not confuse said ostensible universal morality with actual morality, and certainly not Jewish imperatives.

For starters—said morality isn’t always.  Hence the reference to “robbers” in the midrash on Genesis 1:1—while we can easily make a non-theological case that we haven’t robbed any land, pace Genesis 12:6—we shouldn’t even have to bother.  The accusation is a prima facie false one.  (The analog to contemporary times should be obvious.)

For another—there is certainly no Jewish value in subverting one’s own principles for the benefit of mortal enemies of the Jews, even leaving aside theology.   Too many times recently certain mitzvos and principles have been used by theoretically well-meaning and some other obviously disingenuous characters to gaslight the Jews out of certain prerogatives, or for not putting others’ interests ahead of their own.  

One most recent example might be the misuse of Hillel’s dictum in Mishna Avot 1:14—“If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself alone, what am I? And if not now, then when?”

Let’s forget that this dictum really has very narrow applications to begin with: for the overwhelming better part it refers to activity of a spiritual nature and the need to remain heavily communally involved, and that to attempt to garner “points” as it were on one’s own short-circuits the purpose of spiritual activity.  The universal application of this dictum to equalizing certain tenets of progressive social justice with Jewish imperatives is beyond a distortion.

Additionally, assuming that those who might have some—even if severe—misgivings about certain tenets of progressive social justice and their loudest practitioners and representatives are ipso facto “selfish”, “indifferent”, “persecute the foreigner”, “willfully blind and ignorant”, to name a few—while assuming that the side that professes the aforementioned tenets of progressive social justice do not engage in the same if not worse tactics—engages in the same level of “righteous indignation”, “arrogance” and “hypocrisy” they level at those who they deem to be “only for themselves.”

Furthermore, is the notion that some “can only be moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed at “one's own kind”” axiomatic?  That might be more tenuous that the notion that some are “moved to speak out and act when that slight and wrongdoing is directed” at their own only if they can speak out about others at the same time, never mind those who have universalized dicta to the point that the “others” come before us.

(In this age of "whataboutism", let's put it in even blunter terms: the alternative to what is apparently considered by some to be an administration of gazlanim is a cabal of ganavim.  Maybe even ganavim bemachtaros.)

Even forgetting the more salient if theocentric interpretations of Avot 1:14, those who would universalize the mishna even get the order wrong:  "If [We] Are Not For Ourselves" always comes before "If [We] Are For Ourselves".

Leave the final word to Yoni Netanyahu before Entebbe:

“If we don’t do it ourselves, no one is going to do it for us.”

Friday, January 5, 2018

Shemos--Same As The Old Boss?

“’And a new king arose who knew not Joseph’--Rav and Shmuel: one says the king was new, one says his policies were new" [TB Sotah 11a]

Among other things inspired by the Trump administration, there have appeared attempts to draw from the Jewish experience attempting to find a salient analog for this administration.

Those who haven’t compared Trump outright to Haman [if not Hitler] have occasionally made him out to be a modern Ahasuerus with Stephen Bannon playing the role of Haman himself.

Bernard-Henri Levi has actually drawn the most direct analog between the changing or changeling Pharaoh of this parsha and Trump [find the quote].

It is eminently possible—pace Levi—that Trump’s mercurial temperament may eventually lead some of his most ardent supporters to experience a painful disillusionment akin to Exodus 1, particularly if his oft-stated penchant for the “Ultimate Deal” forcefully overrides his ostensible sympathies for a permanent Jewish presence over the Green Line.

However, not only are none of the aforementioned analogs salient, but one can find better ones in the literature, some not far off.

Start with the Pharaonic.  There are several hints scattered around the text in Genesis that the “previous” Pharaoh may not have been as Hebrephilic as might be assumed by the “melech chadash”.  To wit: Pharaoh actually hands almost all administrative power of attorney to Joseph, simultaneously absolving him from the wrath of a possibly angry and restless and starving populace when austerity measures are imposed.  (“And the people cried to Pharaoh—go to Joseph….”)

(This is also reminiscent—conversely—of the relationship between Ahasuerus and Haman as described by Yoram Hazony in “The Dawn”, his classic political study of Megillas Esther: spooked by Bigtan and Teresh’s assassination attempt, the King takes all decision making out of the political system and concentrates it in Haman’s hands.  It is possible that Pharaoh had the same idea by handing power of attorney to Joseph, and would have given himself the royal privilege of executing him—like Ahasuerus did Haman—if royal prerogatives were threatened.  (One might notice a few linguistic parallels between Miketz and Esther that the writers certainly made use of: “yafked pekidim”, for one.]

(We also might mention the ethnic tension that exists even under this ostensibly benign regime: even before Joseph gets out of jail, the pejorative references to his Hebrew origins by Mrs. Potiphar and the wine steward; even after Joseph has come to power, there’s the blatant refusal of the Egyptians in his court to eat at the same table as the 10 Hebrew tribes.)

Additionally, in Vayechi, when Joseph has to negotiate directly with Pharaoh to bury his father back in Hevron under suspicions of dual loyalty (maybe the earliest Biblical example thereof), Yosef has to threaten to blow the lid off of Pharaoh’s veneer of omniscience (“I keep my oath to my father, or I reveal that you don’t know Hebrew”), we get a glimpse that the relationship is more tenuous than a casual glance at the text reveals.  (If one removes the possible Hebrephobic context, one also reveals a natural tension and mistrust between a #1 and his #2 which is otherwise endemic to politics.)

In the end, using either Pharaonic narrative—pre- or post-Joseph—probably does less to illustrate how to gauge the “Jewish” relationship with Trump, from either angle. 

Even more forced would be an analogy to Ahasuerus, who TB Megilla describes as being nearly as anti-Semitic as Haman: celebrating (erroneously) the perceived non-fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophecy of return after 70 years, and punctuating said celebration by profaning the Temple hardware; putting a halt to the previously greenlit rebuilding of the second Temple (maybe he wasn’t so sure he had the count right, after all); and, finally, letting Haman craft and promulgate the genocidal edict he always wanted to issue but never really could bring himself to.   So—very much unlike our current President—this King assumed his office with clearly Judeophobic inclinations, and his policy bent that way from the get go, particularly with regards Jerusalem.

The better example?

Darius, the son of Ahasuerus and Esther herself, who reverses his father’s edict halting the rebuilding of the second Temple that his predecessor Cyrus has initially greenlighted.  As noted in TB RH 3b-4a, the esteem in which Darius was initially held “soured” (as the Talmud puts it); one reason given is that he gave specific construction edicts vis a vis the Temple, so that in case the Jews proved disloyal, he could dismantle it forthwith.  Yet everything eventually turned out mostly better than it had been prior to his reign: he was no Cyrus, but he certainly wasn’t his father.

The possible lessons?

For the harder “Right”:  Rav Shimon Schwab was known to say the Americans are not our enemies, but they are not our friends.  Before one attaches willy-nilly any reflexively Judeophilic intentions to even a benign ruler—even one who makes some very clear reversals of a predecessor’s hostile policies—one would be behooved to remember “Al tivtechu bindivim” and “Al tisvada larashus”.   One should definitely be thankful that the administrational alternative didn’t come to pass; but don’t be too quick to “marry” oneself to all its initiatives.  Bannon's dispensability should be proof enough.

For the progressive “Left”:  Stop trying to apply “Esav sonei es Yaakov” and other “machmir” interpretations of governmental Judeophobia to this administration.   For one thing, any Leftist “chumras” are almost mezuyafin mitocham: one might think them as cute as counterintuitive, but they actually look and sounds ridiculous.  Furthermore, there might have been a time where anti-Trumpers could attempt to make a prima facie case that this administration was either hostile to Jewish initiatives, or at least, not any “different” than their WH predecessors, which the overwhelming majority of leftists celebrated and protected.  Assertions of that WH “having our backs” were more than arguable then, and are almost entirely indefensible now in the wake of the new Jerusalem policy.  

They kept trying to say—and still try to say—“pen”.  Apparently, the answer is “ken”.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Vayigash—Diplomatic Protocol

Yehuda had learned the lessons the hard way.

He learned them in ways his forebears may not have, the painful nature of of their travails notwithstanding; it’s one of the major reasons the enduring messianic kingdom is ultimately established through him.

What did he do that they didn’t?  And where was he effective where they might not have been?

One irony of the Yehuda narrative is that unlike the ostensible mistakes of his ancestors, which usually involve midrashic amplifications of what textually seem like minor infractions but are exegetically revealed to be actions that carry heavy spiritual consequences, Yehuda’s warts are blatantly narrated and are otherwise apparently exegetically blunted.

Starting with the sale of Yosef, his primary role in deceiving Yaakov and temporary loss of prestige as a result, going through his become an eminent personage among Canaanites, his sons’ rather sordid deaths, and the entire episode with Tamar.

Meanwhile, he has forced himself into a corner by essentially pledging himself as a surety for the return of Binyamin, in part as a penance for the sale of Yosef, but in part because, as the enforcer of the code of silence regarding the sale, he hasn’t left himself with a lot of room to maneuver.

However, starting with his admission in Chapter 38 and now with his effective carrot-and-stick approach with Yosef, Yehuda—having made his own mistakes—avoids the ones his ancestors made and not only succeeds in his mission but also catalyzes the first tribal reconciliation.

What mistakes did his forebears make?

Often in the interests of peace, they may have been too diplomatic; too much carrot, not enough stick.

Avraham and Yitzchak are criticized by Chazal for giving away too much in their dealings with the Avimelechs and the Philistines, who are portrayed as taking a lot more than they gave, even as both Avraham and Yitzchak recognized the extractive if not rapacious nature of the populations they were negotiating with.

Yaakov himself goes a step further before he meets his brother for the first time.  He prepares on three tracks: prayer, militarism, and diplomacy.  In fact his approach exemplifies almost the ideal response, even to the point that he is almost as worried that he will be forced to kill others as much as he or his over ones might be killed.  Yet—while the material flattery detailed in Chapter 32 isn’t criticized—Yaakov’s self-reference as “your servant Yaakov” to Esav is viewed as a positive, if only because the diplomatic balance is tipped ab initio: Yaakov is presenting self-effacement before he can show strength.  

[One wonders whether Shimon and Levi’s ostensible”overreaction” after Dina’s rape and the surreptitious manner in which they subdue the entire populace—even given the ultimate justification for the action—is to preempt a possible overture that might be deemed too diplomatic, which might be borne out by the exchange with Yaakov at the end of the Chapter after Shechem is wiped out.]

Even Yaakov’s sending Yosef to look after his brothers in the middle of Chapter 37 after having himself referred to the hostilities between the brothers [a possible angle to interpret “shamar es hadavar”?] indicate a somewhat misplaced faith in diplomacy.

It might no be accidental that Yehuda learns his most crucial diplomatic lesson and where to draw lines from his erstwhile daughter-in-law Tamar, who has seduced him in response to his essentially rendering her an agunah despite the fact that his sons were at fault for their demise.

When Tamar forgoes the explicit naming-and-shaming even at the possible cost of her life using material evidence and coded language that only Yehuda could and would understands, she actually exemplifies the best of diplomatic traditions even more than a knee-jerk adherence to pre-Sinaitic notional of halbanah: knowing that both she has taken advantage of Yehuda’s blind spots and on the cusp of fulfilling a messianic mission, she invites him to now consent to the mission he’s been avoiding.  What she DOES manage to by not making it personal is keeping said mission under wraps, even from him, until this very moment.  Making it personal by embarrassing him might save her life but would cancel the mission for both of them, and somehow she’s seen enough to count on her triggering an epiphany of his part.

[In fact—at the risk of violating a certain level of moreh halacha lifnei rabbanim—anyone who uses Tamar as the paradigmatic example of avoiding embarrassing someone even at the cost of ones own life—STOP IT.  There’s SO much more going on in the Yehuda-Tamar narrative; making the ostensible halbanah its sole locus and then generalizing it as a teachable moment for tinokos shel beis rabban ensures that understanding the maaseh never gets past that level.  It’s frankly….embarrassing.]

The sum total of all these lessons—his and his forebears—were not lost on Yehuda in crunch time.  And—like the texts that until now seems to scrutinize him more than the exegetes—this time, the textual narrative in Chapter 44 is very diplomatic/carrot, but the subtexts are very….stick.  [“I’ll kill you and your master.”]

And while the instant effect looks perplexing—Yehuda didn’t know who he was talking to—the ultimate effect almost mirrors the midi kneged mida in reverse that Yehuda experienced when Tamar subtly called him out and he admitted that she had the mission correct: this time, Yosef assuages Yehuda, telling him that there was a mission to complete that he was unaware of, but that this time he did everything he was supposed to.

And finally, Yosef, by revealing himself and letting his brothers know that this stage of the mission has been completed and even giving them credit for helping bring about the completion—also tells them that, in way, this was all pre-game: the real contest hasn’t even begun yet.

Which is why it’s Yehuda who gets sent to Goshen to lay the groundwork.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Chanukah—Another Day, Some Other Way

It might be that the real backstory of Chanukah is the one they don’t want to tell you.  

In this age of “whataboutism”, it might be time they did.

A recent facebook “debate” centered around a thesis proferred by the late Christopher Hitchens—as a “religious” atheist if there ever was one—for whom the paradigmatic beta noire of a holiday was Chanukah, "the original victory of bloody-minded faith over enlightenment and reason”.

In fact, some who are otherwise not reluctant to celebrate Chanukah publicly and ignore the implication that the holiday ostensibly represents a “victory of faith over reason” have nevertheless been bothered by three specific facets of the narrative:

1] That the holiday might centers around the first civli war in Jewish history where the victory of one side over the the other is celebrated; usually, where there is civil strife in the classic literature—for example, Tu b’Av as a coda to Pilegesh b’Givah—the reconciliation, and not a/ther victory, is what gets celebrated;

2] That the victors achieved victory through two means that might have been decried even then, certainly now: religious coercion and guerrilla warfare;

3] And that the victors—as they were primarily from the Preistly caste—ultimate shattered the Israelite Torah version of “separation of powers” that had been a central operating principle in religious legislation.

In fact, as the celebration has become as established as it did, there is no reason to diminish it and hide the ostensible “warts”, but real them for the lessons they teach.

For one thing, it should be easy to dismiss Hitchens, and Yoram hazy and others do just that.  To wit: Greek philosophy was based on the notion that it has been revealed by the oracles; the fight, then was between two “faiths”, rather than between faith and reason.  In fact, the Greeks derided Judaism as too rational and not sufficiently revelatory.

In which case: the coercion started with the Greeks, and the Jews who joined them weren’t just looking to be “frei”—they were actively taking sides against their own.  One might even argue that the Maccabean coercion wasn’t coercion “lishmah”: it was a hora’as sha’ah to keep other Jews from switching sides or turning in their own; almost a way to avoid killing quislings who might otherwise have killed you.  

That gets you to the first point: sometimes being extreme is necessary.  But to paraphrase Rabbi Norman Lamm—one can be extreme, but being extremist is certainly not ideal.  One might want to maintain a high level of spiritual commitment, and might be tempted to utlliize the same extreme tactics to maintain those levels that were forged in crises.  But it’s JEWISH history that instructs us that such approaches are less than sustainable.

There are two other examples aside from Chanukah that hint at this narrative of caution.  One is Pinchas.  It was in these pages where an attempt to cast Pinchas’ action against Zimri and Kozbi as extreme rather than extremist appeared some time ago.  To further exemplify the pitfalls of zealous approaches, Pinchas himself ostensibly comes into play twice later on in Tanach; once when he refuses to make accommodations to allow Yiftach to undo his thoughtless vow, and he can’t prevent the internecine mass bloodshed and national crisis that results from pesel Micha and Pilegesh b’Givah.

Another is Chizkiyahu.  Unwilling to commit to procreation because of visions of the inevitable corruption of his offspring until forced to, he imposes a very effective national system of education—at swordpoint. [Why link the two?  Consider: like Yaakov, Chikiyahu feared extremist tendencies: knowing what his son might be like and what he might have to do to keep him in line, it might have come out instead on a national level.]  What’s often quoted about this pedagogical method is the tangible results: children of both genders knew hilchos tumah v’tahara.   What’s often not pointed out is: the precipitating factor wasn’t so much a perceived lack of knowledge as it was a war of extermination being waged by Sancheriv, who had already conquered the other ten tribes; Chizkiyahu likely rightly feared that the tendency to fervently pray for deliverance would overwhelm educational prerogatives, to the spiritual and mortal detriment of his nation.  Either way, it worked at the time, but the rapid moral and spiritual descent of the nation after his passing is stark.

Finally—in an almost Chekovian fashion (“Any fool can face a crisis; it's this day-to-day living that wears you out”), we have the 8th day Chanukah laining, an almost spiritual rush of the last five korbanos nesi’im, and the beginning of Beha’alosecha almost as an afterthought…or is it?  Is that why the day to day of hatavas haneros involves Aharon, to indicate the importance of the day to day and not necessarily the sustained high?

Sometimes, even if one has been on a “right" “way”, one might have to find another “way”.  

Sometimes one will be forced to find that “other way”.   The deflection isn't always a reflection of a spiritual defect more than might be indicative of unfulfilled potential.   While that knowledge might not necessarily make such an ostensibly forced shift any less painful, maybe the ability to make that distinction might help better meet such a challenge when it arises.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Vayishlach--Anu Chnyukin ve'Hen Chnyukin

Bereishis 36, detailing the Edomite lineage, is ostensibly out of place in the Genesis narrative.

So much that, when Chazal underscore the degree of opprobrium cast at those who might consider any verse [or letter, for that matter] of Torah shebik'tav to be "trivial or silly information", and find a paradigmatic figure exemplifying this kind of rishus, it's no accident that, as detailed in TB Sanh. 99a, they trot out the idolatrous king King Menasheh and his tendency to [pace the Soncino translation] "examine [] verses to prove them worthless", with 36:12 in this week's parsha ("v'achos Lotan Timna") as his first such targeted verse.

It's also no accident that a larger message can be gleaned from characters ostensibly separated by degrees but united by a tendency to use a public display of following amplified religious strictures for personal gain, usually as a power play.

Let's start with the forefather of Chapter 36: Esav himself.

Two weeks ago, Rashi and the midrashim sprinkled a few examples of Esav's public religious displays, even those in parallel with his less than thinly veiled sociopathies, as how he married at 40 to emulate his father as a "rehabilitation" from decades of serial rapine.  However, the paradigmatic example given is how he would demonstrate both his "piety" and "scholarship" simultaneously by asking his father how one "tithes" straw and salt.

Last week, Rashi and the midrashim note that Esav sends his son Eliphaz after Yaakov on a mission of murder.   Various reasona re given as to why, when he finally does catch up with Yaakov, why he does stay his hand, but his "plea" to Yaakov is telling:  "What shall I do about Father's command (tzivui shel abba)?", as if he can convince his uncle that he still has a mitzvah to fulfill--which his uncle helps him fulfill by allowing his nephew to rob him.

Eliphaz' daughter Timna--the subject of the enigmatic 36:12--decides that one way or another she is going to attach her self to the Abrahamitic faith ["better a handmaid to that nation than a noble of this one"].  Rejected by Avraham--possibly because of her mamzerus, possibly because her language echoes that of Pharaoh when he forces his princess daughter Hagar out of the palace to join Avraham's retinue [see Rashi on 16:1] and Avraham remembers too well how THAT turned out--she liaises with her own father and produces Amalek, literally and figuratively the ultimate bastard in all of classic Jewish literature.  [While TB Sanh. 99b does note that maybe Avraham was too forceful in his rejection of Timna and the mida-kneged-mida result was Amalek, other commentaries justify Avraham's rejection both before the fact--discerning ulterior motives on Timna's part--and certainly after, as one bastard begets another, further casting light on Eliphaz character and his "spiritual" DNA.

Needing further study is how Menashe himself actually uses spirituality as a power play several times in Perek Chelek.  Noted for his erudition by Chazal, Menashe feels compelled to reveal himself in a dream to Rav Ashi to prove his scholastic bonafides; and he also "convinces" G-d to accept his ostensible "penitential" prayers: "If He answers me, fine.  If not, He is just like the others..."

Also needing further study is a possible connection between Esav's son Korach--who fought against the Jews with his father as a legendary Canaanite warrior--and Korach who I have referred to in these pages as both a "religious Stalinist" and "religious democrat" (in the North Korean tradition of "democracy").  That Korach used his religious bonafides--best example being how he and his followeres shunned their ertswhile wlly On ben Peles when his wife uncovered her hair--to further his power play is well-nigh indisputable.  Whether Korach ben Esav portayed any of his father's or half-brother's false pieties is as of yet unknown to the author.  However, as the root of both of their names signify "baldness", it might follow that the "spirituality" of a Korach might lack roots.

There's a further lesson beyond just being attuned to the danger of false piety as a power play.

The well known Lamentational midrashic maxim asserts: chochmah bagoyim ta'amin, Torah bagoyim al taamin.  It's possible that this hasn't been defined narrowly enough:  a good example might be the discussion surrounding the possibility that a non-Jew who keeps Shabbos is chayav misa and the possible conclusion that it would only happen if a non Jew would keep every last possible Sabbatical minutae to the degree that the Jews did that one week in the desert.

(A non Jew could be "yotzei" his "chilul Shabbos" by, as the joke goes, carrying where there's an eruv he's too "frum" to hold by.  In any case, le'masseh, a genuinely shomer shabbos non Jew might happen as often as a ben sorer umoreh or ir hanidachas, that is to say, never.)

However, the larger lesson might be this: if someone who wasn't given the Torah uses the Torah and its principles as a cudgel to beat those who actually received the Torah--particularly if they assert that they are "keeping the Torah better than the Jews are" and they use that particular claim in making power plays--that's when Torah bagoyim al taamin would apply.

One historical example might be the oft mentioned "Cusim".  After converting en masse were initially perceived to be more punctilious in their general mitzvah observance than the native born Israelites.   However, after it was discovered that they had kept their imported idolatry and attendant rituals and had even built a clandestine shrine on Har Grizim, Chazal perceived the completely political nature of their "Judaism" and retroactively vacated the conversions.

More contemporary examples abound on either side of the political fence, but more particularly nowadays when further left progressives lecture Jews (especially Zionists) upon their failures to uphold "Jewish principles" as they see them, and it's particularly nauseating to see Jews ally with them, and even more nauseating when visibly religious Jews ally with them.

(To maintain a veneer of bipartisan criticism, one must only remember how eminent conservative George Will took it upon himself to lecture Zionists about their Jewish failures in conducting the 1982 Lebanon War.  However, the most blatant current example might be the recent picture circulating of a young man clad in a black velvet yarmulke proudly posing in a photograph with Linda Sarsour after a recent "symposium on anti-Semitism" at the New School.  Ironically, Sarsour herself looked almost as nauseated in the photo as some of her detractors might have been just viewing the photo.)

But perhaps the lesson is simpler.

There's a family story about a seder before my time when a guest tried to explain [this was in the 1950's] how he could be both religious and a socialist.  After he'd bored the guests long enough, he finally said "well, after all, I'm no tzaddik".

To which my great grandmother replied:

"Nein, nein, du ist yuh a tzaddik...

"...A PEY tzaddik."

Don't be a pey tzaddik.