Category Archives: Chumash

Permanent Relief

The destruction of the army of Egypt at the Red Sea, whose 3326th anniversary will be marked this Monday, did not just provide the Jewish people with a momentary respite from conflict but was intended to be an eternal victory. The people cried out to G-d, and Moshe told them: “Do not be afraid. Stand, and see the salvation of G-d, for even as you see the Egyptians today, you will not see them ever again” (Shemot 14:13).

Indeed, it was so. Pharaoh’s army was crushed, and his empire smashed. We would have new enemies, but Egypt would not surface again for centuries – and even then it was a different Egypt. The question is: why was this necessary? At the Red Sea, the Jews were in danger of being massacred, and all they wanted was to be saved, to live another day. “Let us live today, and we will worry about 100 years from now 100 years from now!” Was it necessary to guarantee eternal relief? Who can think centuries ahead when we are focused on living until tomorrow?

It is interesting that Ramban quotes the Mechilta that “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” But what exactly is the mitzvah here?

Apparently, the splitting of the Red Sea was not only a miraculous rescue but was also intended to transform our thinking and national self-image. We could not function as a nation as long as the specter of the Egyptian monster loomed over our heads. Had the Egyptians been defeated but survived, we would have made it to the other side of the sea but still remained fearful slaves (in our own minds, fugitives) always expecting the omnipotent master to return and subjugate us. We needed finality, closure – to put our trepidation of Egypt behind us so we could move forward – and just serve and revere G-d.

How important is this? Extremely. It is what we lack now and it underlies all the anxiety that we feel during these days of waiting – Iran, Kerry, PLO, interminable negotiations. There has been an obvious decrease in terror and death in Israel over the last number of years, due primarily to the substantial and powerful presence of Israeli forces in Arab towns and villages, even notwithstanding this week’s brutal murder of a distinguished Israeli police commander en route with his wife and children to a seder in Kiryat Arba. Terror cannot be stopped entirely, as long as the will to perpetrate it remains among the evildoers. Crime still exists even though there are policemen, and disease still exists even though there are doctors and researchers.

But despite the successes of the last decade – due to the physical presence in the cities, the denial of work permits and free passage, cutting off the flow of money, and even the presence of a security wall – everything still seems temporary, ad hoc. It has worked so well that it is constantly suggested that Israel withdraw from the cities and towns, increase the number of work permits and allow free passage, transfer millions of dollars, free terrorists and relax the security apparatus. Those who ask for an easing of checkpoints are essentially acquiescing to Jewish deaths. Haven’t we heard this all before? And how long will it be until the cycle of terror, death and mayhem is restored?

It is all so predictable and pathetic, and all because there is no hope of closure – no matter which Abu rules the Arab roost. The Netziv wrote (Harchev Davar, Devarim 33:11) that there is much we can learn from the difference between the wars of Shaul and David. King Shaul conquered his enemies and plundered their lands – but just sowed the seeds for future conflict. King David, instead, conquered his enemies and occupied their lands – installing his own rulers and eventually subduing the indigenous population. Shaul’s victories were never conclusive – so he reigned during a period of endless war. David’s wars brought ultimate peace and tranquility – unlike Shaul’s wars or Israel’s wars today. Of course, the distinction is not just a matter of strategy, but also depends on the merit of the generation and its leaders.

“Stand, and see the salvation of G-d.” Victory is possible – if our goals are clear, if our commitment is unflinching, and if our faith is unwavering. The enemy today is less powerful than the Egyptians of old, but some of us are still fond of helplessness – “leave us alone and we will just serve Egypt” (Shemot 14:12), better Red than dead. The advocates of this approach – some of whom presently conduct Israel’s negotiations with the Arabs – have talked it into themselves that partitioning Israel again and creating another terrorist state is actually in Israel’s interests.

That attitude is seductive. But “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” It is prohibited to despair, as it is prohibited to think that our history is all politics and diplomacy and nothing else. But it is not prohibited to believe that we can vanquish our enemies on our own; those are the lessons that G-d entrusted to us when we left Egypt under His protective hand. David’s kingdom endures, not Shaul’s – and it is David’s song of triumph over his enemies that is recorded for posterity.

“You will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is the measure of victory and the barometer of peace – that our enemies will never again threaten us because their empire has been removed from history. If we can’t achieve that in the short term, then at least we benefit in defining that as the objective. As King David sang (II Shmuel 22:5-6, 31, 50) “When the pains of death encircled me and the torrents of godless men frightened me…then G-d is a shield to all who take refuge in Him… Therefore I will thank You G-d among the nations and sing to Your name”, as we await the days when “He does kindness to His anointed one, to David and his descendants, forever.”

 

Esav’s Hatred

      To say we live in strange times is an understatement when we consider that, just a month ago, anyone who suggested that Israel’s leading allies in the struggle against Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be France and Saudi Arabia would have been a candidate for institutionalization. The French are not exactly renowned for their war-mongering, and the Saudi’s hatred of Israel and Jews is religiously-based and implacable (Jews are still not allowed to visit Saudi Arabia under normal circumstances.) But the French, the Saudis and the Israelis – each for different reasons – do not want to live in a world where mullahs can go nuclear.

     This odd twist confirms the statement attributed to John Foster Dulles, himself noted for his hostility to Israel, that “The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests.” Or, as others have said it: “Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Part of the current situation arises from the recognition – despite the Obama administration rhetoric – that America has retreated from its dominant role in world leadership, and that vacuum has been filled by others – especially by Russia’s Putin, whom Israel’s PM Netanyahu visited this week.

But as the world changes, there is one remaining constant, itself mindboggling.

There is no more enigmatic or consequential story in the Torah than Yaakov’s encounter and struggle with the angel of Esav. Yaakov was left alone and a “man” wrestled with him until dawn. Yet, when the two brothers finally met, Esav was docile – embracing, kissing and crying on his brother Yaakov, as one would expect from long-separated siblings. Nonetheless, our Sages debated the extent of Esav’s sincerity. Rashi (Breisheet 33:4) cites all the opinions: that Esav was genuinely touched; that Esav was faking it and meant ill; and a third opinion, as well, that it was both: “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai stated: it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov, but at this moment he was overwhelmed with compassion and kissed him with all his heart.” But what kind of law is that? How can an emotion be based on a law? And, if it is indeed so, why should it be any different here? How are we to ever know when our brother Esav means well or not?

A halacha is an immutable law. It defines a reality that cannot be changed or undone – but needs analysis. If Esav is synonymous with the major powers in the world, then this “halacha is an historical verity, and should not at all be a surprise to us, even today. Less than seventy years after the Holocaust, the reservoir of world guilt has been completely depleted. It is still dangerous to be a Jew – in Israel, where a sleeping soldier can be stabbed to death on a public bus by a teenager who undoubtedly will be released from prison in a few short years; in Europe, in South America. Hardly a week goes by in which a Jew is not attacked in some part of the world for being or looking Jewish. A non-Jewish Swedish reporter recently donned a kipa to determine if these reports were true; he wrote that he spent that day in fear for his life.

The propriety of mila and shechita are being widely debated where they have not already been banned – and all under the cover of a higher morality. Iran boasts about developing the capability to eradicate Israel off the map – as King David wrote long ago (Tehillim 83:5) “Come, let us cut them off from being a nation and the name of Israel will be no more.” Too many others are indifferent or supportive, worried only about whether or not it will affect them.

The American President, convinced of his rhetorical abilities and showing none of the infirmity of his growing domestic unpopularity, is ready to have a signing ceremony that depends on the trustworthiness of the Iranians. Obama’s most recent offer to Iran was, essentially, “if you like your nuclear weapons program, you can keep your nuclear weapons program – as long as you say you won’t.” If and when it fails, and the Iranian bomb looms over Israel and the Middle East, he can always add: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” After all, that line is already in the teleprompter.

Rav Moshe Bleicher, former Rosh Yeshiva in Shavei Hevroin, wrote that Esav’s power is the antithesis of that of Yaakov, and indeed more popular than Yaakov’s. Both Esav and Yaakov believe in tikkun olam, perfecting the world – something everybody loves. Esav, the “man of the field,” knows how to develop the world. He is extremely talented in that sphere. He forms governments – stable governments – develops economies, and cultivates resources. The Talmud (Masechet Avoda Zara 2b) says of Rome (Esav) that it builds the infrastructure that makes life better and promotes the common good – bridges, markets, bathhouses, civilization, science, entertainment, and health care. Over the centuries, Esav also fashioned values that now animate Western society, and that sound very good as well – equality, rights, free expression and others. Compared to what Esav the nation brings to the world, what does Yaakov the nation offer? A few good sermons? Conscience? Comedians? Nobel Prizes?

It is no wonder that Yaakov feared their confrontation – and at the very moment when his life in exile was over (so he thought) and his existence as a nation in its own land was beginning anew. It is very hard to compete with Esav. We have lost more Jews to the words of Esav than to his sword. To many Jews, the fields of Esav are much more alluring than the tents of Yaakov, and always have been.

That is why “it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov.” Esav is a counterforce to the children of Yaakov. When we stray and stumble, when we come too close to aping the world of Esav, then his hatred overflows for no discernible reason and forces us to look at ourselves. And his hatred is inexplicable, as is the world’s obsession with Israel, as is its focus on Israel’s imagined sins and its utter disregard for real massacres occurring elsewhere. In fact, there are places in the world today where Jews are hated and the haters do not even know why – places where Jews are hated and the haters have never even met a Jew.

When the brothers met after their long separation, Esav still hated Yaakov, but he had compassion when he realized that Yaakov was no threat to him. The world was his. While Esav was conquering surrounding tribes and building his empire, Yaakov was rearing children and raising sheep. Yaakov was limping, wounded, weak and submissive; there was no need for Esav’s enmity. It would take time for Yaakov’s family – his nation – to grow and develop, to internalize his ideals and to represent the G-d’s will in the world in a way that impresses people with our morality and goodness. That is when the battle will again be joined. That still hasn’t happened, and it won’t, if week after week, the world is shocked (or, by now, probably amused) by the sordid revelations in the tabloids about some sort of misconduct in the Jewish world.

That is not the reality of Jewish life, but that is a growing perception, and only we can change the perception.

Esav develops the earth – his “fields” –  but only Yaakov and his sons can unite the heavens and the earth – to exalt the world so that it can become the repository of G-d’s truth and His presence. That is the ongoing struggle of Yaakov – to transform ourselves, our families, our homes, and our lives in points of holiness for the betterment of all mankind.

 

Secrets

Secrets
A few years ago, I visited the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s most secretive organization, about 20 minutes or so outside Washington, DC. Well, I didn’t actually visit it. I was right outside – my business was in the vicinity – but stumbled upon it. It is a massive complex surrounded by fences, barbed wire and guard posts. What struck me was that the parking lot contained, without exaggeration, thousands of cars crunched together, and I marveled that the NSA with so many thousands of workers could do its work without leaks or breaches of security.
Hello, Edward Snowden.
Snowden, who presents as such a weird duck that one wonders how he got a sensitive job at all (he didn’t work in that Maryland facility), has taken the liberty – as many leftists do – of harming US security and revealing secrets because of the undetermined and inscrutable cause for which he is fighting. For sure, the reality that private conversations can be monitored and private emails read and intercepted came as a shock to the American civil system that prides itself on personal space and the right to privacy. Granted, government officials claim that no calls/emails of private citizens were invaded, but, understandably, no one really believes them. Usually, it takes time for abuses to surface, if they do at all, and these allegations are simple to deny and difficult to prove. There is some poetic justice in the “most transparent administration of all time,” as the Obama-nation proclaimed it would be, looking to justify its spying when it lambasted prior administrations for doing the same and less. And the IRS scandal, which really pried into and interfered with American lives, is still awaiting its liberal John Dean to blow the lid off the cover-up. Is there anyone in the administration with a conscience, at long last?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care about the NSA. My life is not that interesting that the government should want to unleash spies to target me and probe my phone calls (few and brief) and emails (even fewer and briefer). I have long felt that the passive but persistent encroachments on personal freedom affect only the criminals, not the law-abiding, in which group I cast myself. The streets of most American cities are loaded with cameras (only the red-light cameras threaten me). Wherever we walk – subway or stores – we are watched by cameras. None of that bothers me; I am not about to mug or shoplift.
The more aggressive and useless invasions of privacy still grate, especially the airport security personnel. It is senseless to search every 75 year-old named Agnes when the real targets are 25 year-olds named Ahmed. Much of it, in any event, is security theater that provides the illusion of security but mainly serves to protect higher-ups from accusations of negligence if, God forbid, something goes wrong. “We followed our standard procedure of strip-searching nonagenarians with hip replacements and we dutifully confiscated the water bottles from screaming children. We must have missed something in that group carrying their prayer rugs who were whining about racial profiling.”
In any event, the Israeli satirical web site Latma (Latma.co.il) had it right when it “reported” a few weeks ago that “Americans are very upset to learn that the government has been spying on their private lives, even before they have a chance to post about it on Facebook.” There is something bizarre about a nation of emotional exhibitionists baring their every secret (and more) in the public domain, and then griping about a loss of privacy. Of course, the government has no right to intrude, and every American possesses a constitutional right to make an absolute fool of himself/herself by reporting on the inanities of their lives and sharing every stray, incomplete thought in incomplete and ungrammatical sentences. But a little self-awareness is also appropriate.
Privacy unappreciated and underutilized tends to dissipate, and in the US, fame and fortune are the rewards for those who can be the most public about what is usually most private. Let us not shed crocodile tears for those whose inner sanctum is breached by others before they have a chance to shatter the walls themselves. Privacy was always a cherished value, lauded by the Torah that grants everyone four ells to himself, and castigates those who reveal themselves or allow others access to their intimate lives. The beginning of Masechet Bava Batra discusses “hezek re’iyah,” the harm that accrues to a person when others can see him and his boundaries are invaded by the sight of others. But there can be no “hezek re’iyah” if we willfully put our lives on display.
Tzniut – modesty, humility – is not only about clothing, but most simply about privacy, about carving out areas in life in which only one’s closest and dearest are admitted. It is a lost value for several reasons, but primarily because the accessibility of our lives to others has led many to get less attention, not more, and immodesty in all its forms – verbal, physical, material – is often just a cry for attention. As every petulant child knows, even negative attention is attention.
A Snowden toils in obscurity until he realizes the acclaim and riches that will be garnered by public exposure of secrets and the betrayal of his country. At least Jonathan Pollard – who should have been released yesterday, ten or twenty years ago, or tomorrow – passed classified secrets to a US ally – Israel – but did not intend to harm America. Snowden did not reveal his secrets to benefit anyone but simply to sow mistrust, weaken the United States and curry favor with anti-American forces across the world. I wonder how he will be treated if he is ever caught.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 31a) states that it was reported that a disciple revealed a secret kept for 22 years in a certain study hall. Rav Ami kicked him out, saying “this one betrays secrets.” Today, he would go on the talk-show circuit. But secrecy, privacy and modesty are the virtues of refined people. Rashi (Bamidbar 24:5) notes that Bil’am perceived the majesty of the camp of Israel in that their doors did not face each other, so no one could peer into another’s tent.
How quaint. How modest. How beautiful. And how missed is that world.

Back to Egypt

The shock waves in Israeli society due to the controversy of “equality of burden” – work and army service as it relates to Haredim – have generated much commotion, excitement, trepidation, anger, and some very, very strange statements. Topping the list is this refrain, allegedly uttered by some prominent Roshei Yeshiva, that essentially says: “if any such evil decrees pass that threaten to undermine, weaken or even change the Haredi program of Talmud Torah, then we will have no choice but to return to Russia and Poland.”
In fact, such an assertion was first made at least 15 years ago by a leading Rosh Yeshiva, when similar proposals for Haredi service, work, reduced child allowances and curriculum reform were made back then. The sentiment is certainly understandable. In a community that feels that it has achieved the apex of spirituality – duplicating the grandeurs of Eastern European Jewry – undoubtedly a retreat from the current ideal is perceived as a dire threat to its future. Better, then, to return to the glory days of the shtetl where the Czar and other rulers allowed the Jews to dwell in peace and tranquility, each man under his vine and fig tree. The statement is thus almost Biblical in its audacity.
Actually, it is Biblical.
Several times during our sojourn in the wilderness, when the going got tough and sin diverted us from our cherished objective of settling the land of Israel, a variety of leaders, in their discontent with Moshe’s stewardship of the nation, exclaimed (sometimes implicitly) “Nitna rosh v’nashuva Mitzroima!” – “Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Bamidbar 14:4). Even on the banks of the Red Sea, days after being liberated from the Egyptian house of bondage, there were voices crying that it is “far better that we serve Egypt than die in the wilderness” (Shemot 14:12). At least for the latter, the threat of imminent death was real, even if their faith was somewhat tenuous. The lure of Egypt, contrived and fictitious as it was, was ubiquitous.
Yet, for all the nostalgia for Egypt from group of malcontents– its foods, ambience, family life, beaches and resorts, all of which caused the horrors of slavery and persecution, and the murder of their male infants, to fade – no one ever actually attempted to return to Egypt. Those disenchanted after the sin of the spies decided to conquer the land of Israel without authorization, and failed – but there was never an actual movement to return to Egypt. It was a rhetorical device that packed an emotional wallop in its criticism of present trends but was never taken seriously by anyone. If so, why was it said? Why would something so preposterous resonate with anyone to the extent that the Torah would record it?
Surely, no one takes seriously “threats” of returning to Poland, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Besides the facts that those countries also have mandatory conscription (do Jews forget the Cantonist decrees?!) as well as little interest in subsidizing Torah study as does the State of Israel, the gruesome memories are still raw. Those are countries that are drenched in Jewish blood, in which six million Jews were murdered just seven decades ago, and from which several million Jews fled in the half-century before that – primarily to the United States but also to South Africa, South America, England, Australia, and yes, the land of Israel. Eastern Europe became a graveyard for Jews, certainly physically but also, it needs to be said, spiritually as well.
For all its glories, and the majesty of the Yeshiva movement in Lithuania that inspires us until today, it was relatively small in numbers. The largest of the yeshivot barely numbered in the low hundreds of students at the peak of their existence, and most were far smaller than that. Most Jews were unlearned, and many completely dropped out of the world of Torah observance (far more in percentage than what we witness today with our so-called “youth at risk”), as evidenced by the substantial numbers of Jews that abandoned even their nominal observance the moment they arrived on American shores. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were swept away from Torah by the Enlightenment, Communism, Socialism, and secular Zionism. The nostalgia has no basis in fact, like our memories in later years of the home runs that we never slugged as young men but thought we did.
Worse, one reason those movements took root in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the grinding poverty of the “Haredi” world of that time that attempted to glamorize privation and suffering but found that they weren’t quite as marketable as they hoped. Rather than provide a kosher means to escape ghetto life and poverty, many leaders closed the gates and erected even more interior walls, with the result that many Jews just upped and left – Torah, not just Europe. Are they making the same mistake again today? Embracing policies that consistently lead to poverty and the need for public support – from a public that is less and less willing to provide – is not a recipe for long-term success. Hence, the warning that if pushed, they will leave and take their indigence with them to other shores.
The idle threat intoned in the wilderness to return to Egypt was not serious – except for this: it reflected a desire to escape their destiny as Jews and to somehow carve out a different destiny for themselves. “Going back to Egypt” meant severing one’s spiritual and emotional ties to the rest of the people of Israel, as if to say: “the rest of you are on your own. We want nothing to do with you, neither your honey nor your sting. We are a nation unto ourselves. Good luck.”
Is that the message that is being sent today as well? I would hope not, both because it won’t succeed and especially because it is such a poor reflection on Torah Jewry.
Count me among those who believe that threats of incarceration for Haredi resisters are wrong, misplaced, counterproductive and will not succeed. But those who in their anguish about the need to change certain aspects of Haredi life in order to be a part of the nation in all respects do a disservice to their constituents and the Torah itself when they make idle threats that sound – and are – bizarre and outlandish, and not to be taken seriously.
Thus, we are taught: “Wise men: be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile and you are exiled to the place of evil waters, and your disciples who follow you will drink those waters and die, and the name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avot 1:11).