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Vayeira

  1. Avraham promises his guests a morsel, but gives them a feast. Why? My brother Isaiah points out that he sees G-d in the men. He recognizes the divine in others. While I think this is true, I think the point here is a little different. Avraham promises them a morsel, but never says they should eat or drink it. He realizes these are angels. So why make a feast of it, with cream, milk, lamb, cake? It shows his fundamental pleasure in serving the divine. This is Love. And perhaps this is why the angels eat – to reciprocate.
  2. The p’shat has the cadence of negotiation, but not actual evidence of movement by the parties. You could read it as Avraham simply be asking Hashem – how much goodness is enough to save the city? Avraham could be trying to learn about Hashem – unwilling to accept the idea that the righteous can’t save the wicked. Perhaps Avraham stops the questioning at 10 because he too doesn’t see that as enough to rescue the place.
  3. Lot seems like Avraham in so many ways. He offers up his daughters to protect total strangers. But the differences become apparent with the food. Lot serves the man matzoh. This is no feast. Why not? Perhaps Lot is saving their lives out of a sense of duty, Avraham serves his guests out of a sense of joy. Lot is righteous, but he wouldn’t live in S’dom if he sought the joy of service.
    1. Why does Lot offer up his daughters? Because he cares about the men enough to do so. The problem is that he doesn’t care about his own daughters sufficiently. He lacks Sarah – who sees that it important to protect not just the present, but the future.
    2. What is Sodom’s sin? They seem to be extremely productive, but totally lacking in the characteristics that provide security to others. One might argue they have a bit too much Ayn Rand in them.
  4. Avraham explains to Avimelech that he saw no fear of G-d and so he figured he had no protection of G-d.  But he’d just seen S’dom – not a G-d fearing place – crushed and Hashem has already promised a quiet death in old age. So how could he think this. Maybe he didn’t. He made the argument to Sarah, when they went to Egypt – but he didn’t make the argument to her here. It is quite possible that she decided to deploy it here. And he just followed along. Why? We’ll see more about her soon.
    1. Why is Sarah so attractive despite being so old? Sarah was a powerful person – far more forceful with her husband than any wife in Chumash. Perhaps, to men of power like Pharoah and Avimelech, she offered a new kind of relationship.
    2. Lot’s daughters sleep with their father. But it seems they made the right call given what they knew. Perhaps this trace of appropriateness is what enables the elder daughter to be the ancestor of David. The younger one just goes along and doesn’t get this honor.
    3. There is a critical scene of prayer here. The origin of Shacharit, Avraham rising and standing in a place where he had encountered Hashem. But no words are spoken and Hashem does not respond. Instead, Avraham is ‘zochered’ indicating he was suffering an existential crises seeing S’dom destroyed. Hashem saves Lot as a result – but doesn’t tell Avraham anything. It is a lesson to us in prayer. We can stand ‘where’ G-d has been encountered before, and we can pour out our souls. Even if we don’t see the results, and even if Hashem doesn’t speak to us – he may still respond and address our deepest needs.
  5. On one level, Sarah seems to be a hateful and mocking person – oppressing and then driving out Hagar, laughing at the concept of Yitzchak. She is different than Avraham, but an important part of their union. Avraham loves to serve and protect others – he is Chesed. But she stands up for their legacy. Avraham acts in the present and prays for the future. Sarah actively works to secure her legacy and that of her husband. We should learn from her: even with the promises of Hashem, we need to actively defend our future.
  6. Avraham internalizes the lesson of Sarah – and faces Avimelech directly. He is now mixing the love of service with the active self-protection of Sarah. It represents a tremendous growth.
  7. And now we have the Akeidah. Now Avraham is ready for the ultimate test. He has trust, he understands his must protect his legacy, he defends others’ interests even at risk to himself. But now he must show and learn that Hashem is at the core of all of it. Legacy, trust, others interests – all have to be subsumed below one consideration, fear of Hashem. It is an impossible challenge, Avraham can’t make sense of it. But he performs it anyway – calling Hashem’s bluff. And this somehow guarantees his legacy, locks in his trust and shows that his middah of carrying for others is the core attribute that sets him apart.

Please look to the Rosh Hashanna Day One and Rosh Hashanna Day Two for a totally separate analysis of the latter part of this parsha.

Lech Lecha

  1. Lech Lecha starts like an old-fashioned long distance marriage. The bride leaves her land, the land of her birth and her father’s house and goes to a distance place she’ll be shown. The proposal is a good marriage in return. Avram accepts this marriage  just as Rivkah does later. He doesn’t know everything about the ‘groom.’ We think of Avram as a static character – but in fact this is just the first stage in a complex relationship.
  2. We progress from a man willing to fearlessly step into the void on G-d’s command. But then a famine hits, he goes to Egypt and he’s afraid of the Egyptians. How can he not think he’ll be protected? I think this sets up a great dichotomy in Avram – it is the baseline of a repeating pattern he must conquer.
  3. Here we truly set up the character of Lot and Avram. They are referred to as brothers. They aren’t fighting, their shepherds are. But Avram is so concerned about conflict that he’d rather push his ‘brother’ away than fight with him. Note that when it comes time to leave – it is Lot who takes the initiative. He travels Mikedem (which is best translated as ‘first.’ ‘From the East’ doesn’t make sense geographically.Avram has a relationship with another person that we’ve never seen before. We see a hint of it earlier – Avram works with his wife, another relationship first.
  4. When Lot is taken, Avram acts immediately and fearlessly – striking a very powerful force in the night with a tiny army. He is fearless where he takes the initiative. Particularly to protect those he loves. But there is something else that is interesting. Avram has a contractual alliance with two men – a brit. This seems to obligate them to come with him. This existence of this brit highlights the fact that he has no brit with Hashem.
  5. After the war, Avram doesn’t seem to believe Hashem’s promise – he wants more reassurance. Hashem promises him great reward and shows him the stars. And Avram believes. But more happens: he believes and it is counted for tzedek – righteousness. This line reminds me of the early Christians who wanted a society that didn’t need law. It could function on love alone. This seems to be Hashem’s goal – and it is the reason Avram’s belief is treated as tzedek.
  6. But it all changes so fast. Hashem recasts Avram’s leaving of Ur as an act of G-d. And somehow that undermines the belief. Avram demands reassurance. Why? If I look at myself, I am most comfortable with the choices I make. But when I feel like I have no control, I get fearful about what’s coming. Avram thought as Lech Lecha as he own act – but if Hashem did it, then he was actually out of control. It returns him to worry. The result is a very dark brit. A brit preceded by promises of slavery. And a brit that is not timeless. Avram never again asks for reassurance.
    1. Why are the iniquities of the Amorites iniquities critical to the bnei Avram returning? Because Avram’s contractual allies are Amorites. They have a brit with him and that protects their descendants. It is why their iniquity is not complete. But men can’t make timeless britot – only Hashem can. When it expires, their iniquities will be complete.
  7. After the birth of Ishmael we see the great brit – the timeless brit. Avram’s has internalized trust in Hashem with the actual birth of a son. Having children is our most G-dlike act – Shait (Seth) is described as being in Adam’s image using the exact same words as Adam is described as being in Hashem’s image. Avram recognizes that his greatest fear – not being able to emulate Hashem – won’t happen. With this recognition, he takes Hashem into himself – becoming Avraham. This trust, based on Avraham’s procreation, is sealed with the brit milah. We exist because Hashem kept his promise to Avram, but we are Jews because we learned that trust. We show our trust with the brit. But what is (up to this point) his greatest fear has been conquered.

In honor of Josh Black’s ufruf, I added the following comments at lunch:

The earliest action that sets Avraham apart is that he works with Sarah. There is no mention of love – just shared work and shared creation. From an intellectual (not biological) perspective, their marriage is the most important in human history. Avraham was the first man who worked with his wife and this changes everything. In their relationships, Yitzchak and Yaacov have explicit love, but their marriages have far greater troubles. I’m not telling you not to love. After all, this book of Torah never mentions Avraham’s love for Hashem or visa versa. But it is still there and it is mentioned Devarim as the source of our covenant with G-d.

My message is this; may you find shared purpose. A fundamental love with grow from it; an implicit love. The offspring of such a union will far exceed the merely physical and the world will be a better place.

Noach

  1. Hashem’s policy of ‘encouraging through forgiveness’ ends in Parshat Bereshit. We have now entered another stage – ‘encouragement through threat.’ The story of the flood is the baseline of this threat – like a paddle hanging on the wall of an old-fashioned school house. Recording the measurements and capturing the dates of this event serve to make it seem more realistic and frightening.
  2. Noach builds the ark and he ‘makes come the animals’ as Hashem commanded him. But Noach doesn’t close the ark. Hashem does. Noach does the act of saving; his command and covenant are to be a life preserver. But the act of closing out the world condemns it. If Noach did it, it would ruin whatever part of Noach Hashem sees as worth preserving. Perhaps this is why the Ark has no side-facing windows – Noach can’t witness mass death.
    1. There are five dates mentioned in this story. Although all appear to be relative to Noach’s age, the next time a precise date is mentioned is in the taking of the Pesach lamb. Why are dates so important? This story takes only one year and ten days in the life of a man who lives to be 950 years old. Perhaps it is a reminder that our reaction to the day-to-day realities of brief crises can define us forever.
  3. We know not everything was killed in the flood. There are scientific reasons for this (no massive cross-species genetic narrowing, animals aren’t common across the world etc…) and Torah reasons. For example, earlier in Bereshit we call Yaval and his brothers the fathers of three different lifestyles – why not just call them the first if they’ll all be mingled with Noach? We do know there was a massive flood – the stories are global. So what happened? There are three verses of actual destruction – 7:21-23. The first verse uses gavah for death – but it is a precursor of death – Avraham gavah and then died. Jacob gavah and then was gathered etc…. It might mean physically give out. The second verse uses mait for death – but only for those creatures which have nishmat ruach chaim; a living soul gifted by G-d. The last verse uses the root macha for blotting out all established things. It is something that happens after death and refers to ‘erasing the legacy’. For example, it is used for a wife who must marry her husband’s brother so he isn’t macha. Perhaps the flood describes totally crushing hardship, the death of those with G-dly souls and the erasure of all legacies.
    1. Hashem zachors Noach. Zachor is used as a verb by Hashem in cases where there is a covenant that won’t be kept unless Hashem zachors. It has nothing to do with the zachoree’s own merit. Hashem has a brit with Noach to preserve the animals. If he doesn’t zachor him and get him off the ark, it will be necessary to start eating animals and the covenant won’t stand. The same pattern exists with Yishmael and, on multiple occasions, the Jewish people. Perhaps this sort of desperation underpins why we read the story of Yishmael on Rosh Hashana and (as Rabbi Fischer of Portland Oregon points out) use Noach as the first Zachor used in the Yom Kippur davening.
  4. Why were non-human creatures hit in the first place? Here it says ‘your fear and your dread shall be upon all the beasts…’ But in Bereshit (1:26) it says ‘you will rule over the fish….’ We sometimes read that as a prophecy or command – but what if it was a fact? What if we commanded the animals directly; which is why Noach could be commanded to make them come. If so, it explains how we corrupted them. After the flood, we do not have control. We only cause fear and dread. The animals’ are no longer culpable for our acts.
    1. Noah’s offering triggers a second covenant from Hashem. It says that the earth will not be cursed because of man and Hashem won’t hit every living thing – but it implies that wrath can be reserved for man. The only protection is that seed time and harvest will not cease. That is very limited protection indeed.
    2. Why would a burnt offering trigger this covenant? Perhaps the smoke carries with it the soul (nefesh, not nishmat) of the animal and makes clear the animal is not responsible for the corruption. This might be why this covenant is with Hashem himself and does not include Noach.
    3. Cain was protected, but now murder must be responded to and the job is outsourced to man. Having the responsibility for law raises man.
  5. The third covenant of this parsha promises that there will be no more earth-destroying floods. But the promise is very limited. It only promises that water won’t be used for this, not that the destruction of man can’t occur through another path. This is like a father saying to a child “I was really mad and I took away that toy. I’ll never take that toy away again.”  This promise continues the theme of ‘encouragement through threat.’
  6. This reading mentions, before the tower of Bavel, that people were dispersed and their languages split. This seems to be a natural process that breaks down by family and nation – not a G-d-imposed process of confusion. What is going on here? They key is the word used for language – lashon.
  7. The tower story never uses the word lashon. Instead, the word translated as language is safah. Safah  indicates a border, edge or distinction. It more naturally refers to social lines than linguistic. And the first sentence could have combined things and distinctions as a qualifier of all the land – only some people were involved. Perhaps the p’shat story of Bavel actually reads: “All of the earth that shared a common distinction and had united things settled in a valley and decided to undertake a massive project out of human-made products to keep their society unified and declare their importance. Hashem sees and he realizes they will build a G-dless society that will achieve whatever it wants and become dominant. So he confuses the differences within the group so that one man will not listen to the next and scatters them worldwide, confusing group distinctions everywhere and ensuring such a movement won’t happen again.”
    1. Hashem doesn’t kill the people of the tower. Why? Because it isn’t necessary. The people don’t have a relationship with G-d but that can be fixed easily by weakening their relationships with their all-powerful society.

Better than Eden (a reaction to the 2012 election)

In the last week, I’ve witnessed an overriding theme develop among conservatives in the analysis of the recent election.  From Mark Steyn to Rabbi Pruzansky they see a fundamental shift in the American spirit: Americans have become big babies begging for a nanny state to take care of them. They like free stuff and will surrender liberties and common sense to get it. In essence, Americans will stop making their own decisions in exchange for a nice big lollipop. This realization has driven conservatives to despair. Their advice varies from running away from home to disowning the nanny to just grinning and bearing it until it gets so bad the nanny begins hitting the crack pipe even harder and the other babies realize they need to get their own acts together.

These are not hopeful visions.

Underlying the despair is a simple economic argument: when people get free stuff they don’t just give up their liberties, they tend to stop producing. Economies collapse when you eliminate the negative incentives of not working. And this phenomenon can lead to the decline of the military and political power of the United States. Our vision of the City upon the Hill will be erased.

And the world will suffer.

But why isn’t free stuff good? Isn’t this our vision of the Garden of Eden: mankind living without any work required, trees ripe for the picking whenever the desire appears? Heck, I think G-d even provided healthcare. Talk about single payer!

So what’s wrong with this vision?

Haven’t modern leftists simply replaced the Nanny God of past imaginings with the Nanny State of future theory? Haven’t they simply constructed a new city upon the same hill? And if the nanny state could be tuned to work economically, what would be wrong with it?

To put it another way, Man and woman were happy in the Garden of Eden. They were kickin’ back in the original nudist colony. Love was free. All was well. And then G-d sent along the snake and they learned about Good and Evil and life began to suck.

Whether or not you believe G-d wrote the Bible, you have to ask: why would G-d do that?

Disney knows the answer. ‘kahuna matata’ isn’t a fulfilling way of life. If people don’t create – if they don’t produce – moral rot sets in. And, in Genesis, G-d sees this. G-d uses the word ‘good’ to assess his own creations; He creates the plants and sees they are good. But man stands out. He is the first of the creations G-d does not see as good. Why? Because man was created in the image of G-d – and for man goodness is not in his creation itself but in what he himself creates.

So, G-d, adds Eve. But even that isn’t enough. Man still isn’t creating So he adds the snake to the mix and breaks down the garden.

How does the snake help?

It was clearly necessary for Adam and Eve to experience risk before they’d be productive. He needed to experience evil – which is the absence of divine and risk free peace – before he could be pushed into creating the good. Prior to that, man was like a large child, using his eyes and his nose to guide him towards pleasure – a false good. According to some Jewish traditions, the forbidden fruit was an Etrog. It looks beautiful. It smells beautiful. And if you are guided by your eyes and nose, you would want to eat it. But it tastes awful. In the Garden, it revealed the shallowness of our base desires.

And that, not economic risk, is the fundamental problem with the modern nanny state. We are trying to recreate the Garden of Eden – a world without risk. But we haven’t addressed the fundamental issue – that most people become children, thoughtlessly chasing pleasure and nothing more satisfying, when things are too easy. It is an underlying cause of our sexual culture. We don’t build families on shared purpose and physically reinforced love. We just [expletive].

The fact is, at some point those who pursue pleasure open their eyes and realize that what looked good, smelt good and felt good left them empty and depressed. It distances them from peace just as Eve’s choice distanced her from G-d.

The Bible sees this and in the Garden is presents our fundamental and continuing moral weakness; we need evil to create good.

But that is not the ideal.

The ideal is a world without risk, but one in which we create nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where everybody has healthcare and a worry free life – but continues to add to the world nonetheless. The ideal is a garden where, on a regular basis, people stop producing to celebrate family and community – and thus add meaning and value to the labors of the period passed. As a religious Jew, I would say that the ideal is a week in which we work, and a Sabbath on which we rest with the divine; thus making creations out of the labor just accomplished.

This is an image which (while the terminology might change) classical liberals and modern liberals and fascists and communists can all share.

What we don’t share is how to get there.

Classical liberals emphasize reinforcing the avenues of the good – so all will be spurned to create more and innovate more and find ways to reduce the experience of evil. They emphasize the work week before the Sabbath.

Modern liberals emphasize eliminating evil (risk) by sharing resources – and hope mankind will be creative and productive due to a community spirit or (for the recalcitrant) government coercion. They emphasize the Sabbath before the work week.

We can see this dichotomy in healthcare. Classical liberals emphasize innovation driven by market-based models. This will create cheaper healthcare and new technologies to serve people better. But some will be left out in the cold and will not experience peace. Modern liberals emphasize universal coverage. There will be less innovation and more cost/unit of care delivered. But the evil of not helping those with therapies that are available to some will be eliminated. And modern liberals hope innovation will occur even without profit incentives for revolutionary technologies.

In reality, neither party gets what it wants. We have a system that rewards better outcomes but because it is not market-based, new technologies do not compete on price. And we’re getting a system that will result in rationing and a major reduction in innovation – so all will experience more evil. But that evil will be hidden because we can’t see innovations that haven’t occurred.

We have neither creation nor rest.

Of the two paths, I see far more promise in the classical liberal one. Our standard of living is far higher that it has even been in human history – and a major driver of that is innovation and creation. We don’t want to hamper those forces in the name of a premature Eden.

But I don’t see Eden at the end of the classical liberal road. I just see a never-ending road with ever improving creations and ever improving quality of life – and the constant necessity of risk for those who can’t or won’t get on the path of creation. Many free market conservatives people give an unusually high proportion of their income to charity. But even while doing so, they understand that when this charity becomes a handout rather than a hand-up, its character changes. Instead of reducing risk (evil), it can undermine the creative goodness of the receivers.

In the world as it works, with people who react to prosperity as we do, we cannot conceive of a risk-free Garden in which mankind produces.

But despite this, I do not despair.

There is a way back to the Garden, as it should have been not as it was.

This way involves one very challenging task – getting people to create when they don’t need to.

And that is the clarion call of this election.

We have ample evidence of what doesn’t work in trying to make creators of those who don’t need to be producers.

Communism and the New Man don’t work – the human spirit can’t be badgered into a new form.

Prayer and religious devotion – by themselves – don’t work. We had a personal relationship with G-d in the Garden – and it wasn’t enough.

Taking away the rewards of creation in a spirit of fairness or universal equality doesn’t work. The experience of the good doesn’t exist if somebody can’t claim some ownership of their own work. And yes, deciding to gift the product of one’s labors – or accepting payment for those labors – is ownership. Any society that does not allow ownership is a slave society. Slaves in the American south were far better fed than Ukrainian peasants, but it made them no more free.

So what does work?

The American example is the closest we’ve come to encouraging creation even when risks were reduced. The low-regulation and low-tax example – combined with a social safety net and massive charitable giving – produced many people who would work and produce even while at peace. But we still needed the risk – the risk of falling off the path of productive employment.

But because that risk was not sustained, our example has been derailed. The safety net has become a way of life, and more and more people have been lulled out of their creative drive. Recent attempts to combat risk have focused not on providing the poor with temporary food help or medical care – but on issues like reducing the risk of fertilization. In other words, we have once again become adolescents primarily motivated by the opportunity for sex.

As it stands, the American example is now in the process of collapsing in on itself.

So how do we proceed?

The solutions are more fundamental than government. The solutions lay in the development of human goodness. And that is a process not of mass media, coercive power or shouting – but of daily rigorous self and civil improvement.

And we know it can work.

Our example is William Wilberforce. Wilberforce was a man who had everything – wealth and a best friend who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at the age of 24. And yet, he both spread productivity and fought evil. He is primarily known for playing a major role in ending the slave trade throughout the British Empire – thus eliminating a major source of evil and opening up the opportunity for productive lives to millions of Africans.

But he did something perhaps even more remarkable. He reformed English society.

We like to laugh at the Victorian Age and its hypocrisy. However, England before Wilberforce was far worse off than the United States today. In Wilberforce’s day, 25% of single women in London were prostitutes and poverty and vice were rampant. Britain was an old empire by then (after all it had been 200 years since Queen Elizabeth had sunk the Spanish Armada). And Britain was socially unraveling.

Wilberforce reformed this society. Not all of his efforts were laudable or successful. For example, he tried coercive vice laws but they were no more effective in creating better people than was communism under Lenin. But he tried something else as well; education. And this education was not just skills training or political training, but a concerted effort “to train up the lower classes to habits of industry and virtue.”

In other words, he used education to encourage industrious behavior (which creates good) and virtue (which mitigates risk). Virtue, of course, includes both the personal mitigation of risk (like avoiding drink) and the mitigating of other’s risks by giving support and charity in times of need.

Over time, many in the upper classes took it upon themselves not just to employ servants, but to look in on and safeguard their moral development. We like to mock this – after all it is a major conceit to assume the lady of the house was in some way better than her maid – but it produced results. Perhaps the lady of the house was improved by trying to make a positive example of herself. And perhaps her involvement in the salvation of her servants enabled her to occasionally see their humanity and share in it. After all, even in the presence of hypocrisy, there is merit and value in attempting to live up to higher ideals.

As we look ahead, we should look back to this example. While we may be laughed at by the cool kids, it is indeed incumbent upon us to reinforce the lessons of industry and virtue.

In our personal development, and in our interactions with others, we should do everything we can to introduce those mired in the drunken and false pleasure of the subsidized life, to the far more fundamental pleasures of the act of creation and the experience of Sabbaths built upon one’s own labors. And we should honor those who achieve – even imperfectly – those goals.

This is an exercise in charity, in conversation, in education and in self-development.

Yes, politics are important, but the fundamental solutions to our nation’s challenges lay closer at hand.

People are meant for something greater than the pursuit of that which is looks and smells good from a distance.

We are meant to have lives that are fulfilling even as they are filled with true peace.

And whether those on the left or those on right lead our country, our obligations to pursue and share this vision remain the same.

 

May you be blessed in your endeavors,

Joseph Cox

Bereshit

  1. There is a critical line: “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.  “And God blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it; because that in it He rested from all His work which God in creating had made.” Hashem hallowed the seventh day by resting from his work. Holiness requires two things – creative work and divine rest. This is why Adam’s job is to work and guard the garden.
    1. The first word of the Torah is “In the Beginning.” Countless books have reflected on this in many ways. Implied in the word is that there is a beginning to time. There is a start. Time, in other words, is created. This one concept separates our world fundamentally from Hashem’s. Why not say time was created? Any phrase describing the creation of time would be senseless. Perhaps this is why there is a word vo’u that has no context and no other uses. It suggests incomprehensibility.
  2. There are two creations – a source of endless Bible criticism. Let’s look at the dual creations of plant life. In English, they seem identical – but the words for vegetation don’t match up in Hebrew. The first has deshand eisev mazriah and eitz pri. Roughly translated these are sprouted vegetation, seeded grasses and fruit trees that make fruit of their own kind. They are reproducing plants. The second has siach hasadeh and asev hasadeh. What is different? Hasadeh – a field, nominally one for human needs and a place for human creation. The second set of vegetation has a purpose beyond itself and its own reproduction. It waits for man to work it. Now let’s look at man. The first creation has man in the likeness of G-d. And man is commanded to rule the earth and eat from it and reproduce. Rest is not included, the seventh day hasn’t happened yet. And, bundled with everything else, man is very good. He fits. But the second man is different. It is the second creation that sees spirit blown into man and an animal with soul created. Like the vegetation, this human has a purpose beyond himself and his own reproduction. The importance of spirit is emphasized by his humble physical roots from the dust of the ground. Looked at evolutionary – perhaps there was man without soul before homo soulus builds upon him.
  3. Adam and Chava are not creators. They aren’t living up to the role of soulful beings in the image of Hashem – creators who rest with the divine. Instead, they are all Kadosh rest and no creative good. Just like a spoiled kid needs to experience difficulty to start creating with his/her life, they need to evil to be driven to do the good. The snake is the catalyst for this.
    1. One opinion argues the fruit is the etrog. No amazing characteristics are required for this to be true. Chava judges good with her eyes and expected taste. She is not a creator of the good like Hashem. She sees the fruit and to her long-range sensors (eyes and nose) it would seem good – even wonderful. But when she eats it, she will realize it is not good at all. She will know evil. And with it she will recognize that her perception of the good was limited. Hearing – hearing the voice of Hashem – is the way to true goodness.
    2. Midrashim argue the snake had the appearance of a man. Then it lost its arms and legs as described in the text. Perhaps the snake was that prior man – man without soul.
  4. It is fascinating that Hashem doesn’t seem to punish Cain. He marks him, but for protection not death. Why? The answer comes earlier. Hashem says “you can improve… you can rule over [longing for sin].” Hashem is trying to give Cain a chance to improve himself. This is like our governments giving Iran or North Korea another chance after they commit an atrocity. We want punishment to be unnecessary and so does Hashem.
  5. We have three brothers. And they progress down a path. First is Yaval who was the first to live in tents and herd cattle. yaval means income.Herders are pushed from the best land and make use of large amounts of inferior land – but they aren’t nomads who follow their flocks. They separate themselves in order to make an income. Next is Yuval who grasps the harp and ugav (a shoresh that implies promiscuity as well as a flute). The form of yuval implies more urgent income – perhaps income based on entertainment involving sex and music. The third brother is Tuval Kain. It could be translated as “you acquire acquisitions” – the strongest of the three. This family relies on sharpened blades.
  6. At the beginning of this reading, lemech takes Hashem’s gesture towards Cain and totally misunderstands it. He sees reward for murder. I’m reminded of my triplets – give one a pass and the next will totally take advantage of it. Perhaps in response to this trend, Adam gets a second line Shait. This son makes it common to call to Hashem and by the end of the reading his descendant Enoch is walking with G-d.
  7. But the swordsmen of Tuval Kain are still there. Perhaps they are powerful. And perhaps their sons are those who take ‘good’ daughters from the mass of people. These sons who didn’t even create their own power steal the good rather than creating it. In a way, these men are living in an Eden and taking the good. But instead of pursuing knowledge or life, they take the good for reproductive urges. Going back, these seem like pre-soul men; programmed to conquer and reproduce. Hashem’s response is to say His soul will not yadon (from the root dinan) in man forever because he is flesh. He stops the approach he took with Cain and drops the limitless hope and forgiveness. His soul can not stay in these people. This is the only use of the root dinan  in Torah. It seems to mean ‘encouraging through forgiveness’. In the run up to the flood, this sort of encouragement is gone. It is a phase change from a world where evil exists to encourage the good to one where suffering can also exist because not punishing evildoers produces more evildoers.

Shavuot (second day)/Pesach (eighth day)/Shemini Atzeret

  1. We have the deer and hart included because it teaches us a core lesson of Kedusha. You can’t offer a blemished animal because it has evil in it (loss of potential). And you can’t offer a deer or hart because Kedusha is about converting creation into holiness. But if you don’t create something you can’t convert it. It is equivalent to offering a blemished animal.
  2. We see the bread of affliction being tied to haste. Why? Because the only reason the Jews had to make food in haste was because they couldn’t plan and take the initiative. The haste is a representation of their affliction and so is the Matza.
  3. Why does it say the time for departure was evening or late afternoon. We know if isn’t from the previous reading. It was nightfall or perhaps early morning in that reading. The reason this is the time is because, with the Pesach offering the Jews marked their doors as non-Egyptian. They did it in the evening. While they had not physically left Egypt, they had taken the first step to leave Egypt in the spiritual sense.
  4. We read here that Shavuot has the widow, orphan and stranger among you but not within your gates. They weren’t within the gates from a farming perspective because they weren’t land owners (Leviim were because of maas). But we make a special point of including them despite the fact that they are outside the gates. This is why in Parshat Emor we include the commandment to leave the corners of fields (even for strangers who are not necessarily poor) right after the commandment to keep Shavuot. Perhaps this is why we read Ruth on this holiday.
  5. Sukkot (here) is about the threshing floor, wine vat, produce and work of the hands. Because all can clearly and directly participate in this, all are within the gates when the people are listed. We see a clear contrast with Shavuot.

V’zot Ha’beracha

  1. Rabbi Twerski of Portland Oregon asked me how it could say Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehilat Yaacov “Moses commanded us a Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob” if Moshe is speaking. If we go back to the beginning of the Parsha, Moshe is called “the man of G-d” for the first and only time. When his blessing starts, it says vayomer Elohim misinai bahThis is translated as “He said, Hashem came from Sinai…” but it could just as easily be translated as “Hashem said, from Sinai came…” In other words, at this point Moshe is a man of G-d. And G-d and Moshe are speaking together. When did Moshe command G-d? After the Golden Calf, Moshe uses his favor in G-d’s eye to defend the people. It is his greatest moment of leadership and when – according to the pshat of the Torah – he changes G-d’s mind. Perhaps this is why the very next verse of this parsha says v’yehi veshurun melech, “there will be a King in Yeshurun (Israel)”.
    1. May Reuben live and not die, and not have his number die. We number names, number zachar, number circles & number animals. What does a number miss? Vs. Pekudim. It denies personal potential – or even group potential beyond bulk. Being without number is to rise above these statistical measures. But to have your number die is to fail to realize even them. It is the lowest measure.
  2. What army? Only military action by Leviim is internal – they aren’t in the army. But they strike the loins – literally gifts. Why? It points to a distinct army – one that might strike the offspring with its teaching so that those who rebel won’t recover. It is often more effective than killing.
  3. Mimeged comes up 5 times and these are the only places it shows up in Chumash and I don’t have it in my shoresh dictionaries. So what is it doing here? Let’s look at the first three: mimeged of heaven is dew, mimeged of sun is grain, mimeged of moon is garish – thrust out. Does heaven produce dew? No, it produces rain – dew is a result of temperature and condensation. Does the sun produce grain? No, it helps but it is just an ingredient. Does the moon produce that which is thrust out (I presume, children)? No, it is correlated. These are all indirect or related blessings, nothing direct. This is like Joseph – whose separation led to the survival of the brothers. It is in his character to bless indirectly and be blessed indirectly.
  4. Why does Zebulun rejoice in departure? They are sea people, fisherman and traders. Don’t sailors rejoice at return? This rejoicing speaks to a fundamental confidence in the success of their ventures. It is the best blessing for sailors.
  5. We come to the end of the tribes, but Shimon is unmentioned. Why? We are seeing the impact of human choices. The tribes aren’t blobs or groups – they have individual names. They go above Mispar and beyond Pekudim into real personalities and potentials. Moshe is blessing them – he is loving them far more clearly than Jacob whose ‘blessings’ were far more mixed. But things have happened in the intervening years. Levi was cursed with Shimon – but Levi changed paths and converted his curse to a blessing. Shimon did not. Levi rose, but Shimon – already – has lost the capacity to be blessed.
  6. “Fortunate are you, O Israel! Who is like you, O people whose salvation is through the Lord.” What is salvation? It is almost defined here as the magen (shield) and sword of Hashem. The most famous shield is the magen Avraham in the Amidah. But as Rabbi Bick of Yeshivat Har Etzion points out, that magen is promised to Avraham after his war. Avraham was fearful – but after the fight. Perhaps we see this today in those who suffer from PTSD. Hashem is his magen – his psychological shield against terror and fear. On Sukkot, when we perform Hoshanot (prayers for salvation), we live in Sukkot. We recognize, by living in Sukkot, that Hashem is our shield.
  7. The final words of Torah: Moshe is the greatest prophet. Why? Because of the evidence. We are, at bottom, a real-world religion. The p’shat is, in our lives, the truth. Our challenge is to take what we’ve been given and create a Loving relationship with Hashem – as our forefathers and Moshe had.

Shabbat Chol Hamoed (Pesach and Sukkot)

  1. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, there is a phrase repeated three times in this short reading in various variations – matzati chain be-einecha, I find favor in your eyesIt is a common turn of phrase – but never this common. Christians might translate it as ‘grace’. It is not exclusive to G-d. Jacob says it to Esav. It first comes up with Noach – Hashem finds favor in his eyes. Moshe distinguishes himself by taking this favor and sharing it with the undeserving people. This is the sign of a great leader.
  2. “I will make all my goodness pass across your face.” What is all the goodness of the Lord? I think this is the only mention of the goodness of the Lord. His actions and creations and gifts are credited with goodness – but Hashem’s goodness doesn’t appear. What is this? If goodness is the actualization of creative potential then what Moshe is seeing is the total actualization of Hashem’s creativity in this world. If so, it is an amazing concept and something beyond the appreciation of any man. Perhaps this is why it simply ‘passes’ by even Moshe.
  3. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, there is a weird concept of seeing G-d’s back, but not his front. When we read the text, Hashem seems to be saying ‘you’ll see all my goodness’ which is his back. If we go back to Bereshit, goodness follows Hashem’s acts of creation. Hashem hides himself with his hand – the body part of action. Perhaps Hashem’s actions actually hide him – but once the actions are removed, Moshe can see where Hashem has been and the goodness he has done. What Moshe can’t see – what no man can see – is where Hashem is going. There could be many many reasons for this. Not the least of these might be complexity – we can perceive one past. But with free will, there might be infinite futures (all within a divine plan) – and a man could be destroyed by that perception.
  4. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, Moshe has to carve out the second set of tablets? Perhaps because he plays a new leadership role. Hashem made the first set to welcome the Jewish people. The second set required Moshe’s argument. It is a gift not just from Hashem, but from Moshe. Hashem puts the words there – he creates the content. But Moshe enables the context.
  5. There is this concept of kindness to the thousandth generation but hatred only to the third or fourth. There are many takes on this – but one is simple. It says in Devarim that the forefathers loved Hashem. They got a brit or covenant as a result. This brit results in a long-term promise of kindness. But in the intervening time, the Jewish people rebel. For this, we suffer terribly – for three or four generations. It is our challenge to rejoin the long-term track. Note that there is a brit here, but a short-term one.
  6. As mentioned in the parsha writeup, note that the commandment of Maseicha has (for the first time) been added to the list of inappropriate worships. This is perhaps a reaction to the egel. Not only shouldn’t you make other gods, but you shouldn’t worship your own peoplehood. As if you needed me to tell you that.
  7. Why break the donkey’s neck if it is not redeemed? Does this somehow gift it to Hashem? It just seems like a waste of a working animal. The first born are tied back to the death of the first born in Egypt. The survival of our first born is a testament to this miracle and our connection to Hashem. Perhaps, it is a reminder that when our productive efforts are divorced from our relationship to Hashem, then the fruit of those efforts are as worthless as a donkey with a broken neck.

Sukkot (first two days)/Pesach (second day)

  1. “On the same day it shall be eaten; ye shall leave none of it until the morning.” After this command there is a litany of emphasis on it. Why is it so important? If Kedusha is maximizing the conversion of spiritual potential into reality then it becomes clear. If you sacrifice an animal in Kedusha you maximize its potential. But if you waste its meat – if you let it rot – then that is a slap in its face. It is a waste of potential and that is unholy.
  2. We read in this read, “These are the appointed seasons of Hashem, you shall proclaim them to be holy proclamations.” Why repeat proclamation? Why is proclamation part of the definition of the day? Perhaps it is because the human element is critical. Hashem can have them as his seasons, but our proclamation in inherent to their importance. It is a meeting of the will of Hashem and of his people.
  3. As previously pointed out, why do converts need the corners of the fields and why mention it here? They aren’t necessarily poor and if they are, they can be counted in the poor group. I believe the reason is tied into the placement of this command with Shavuot. Shavuot is p’shat, a harvest festival. We give the poor and converts the corners of the fields to indicate that even though they aren’t inheritors/owners of land, they are still a part of this festival. They own the corners.
  4. Yom Kippur is a day of impoverishing the soul. We can compare the Sukkah to a Chuppah (wedding canopy) for our marriage to Hashem. Sukkot is a renewal of an old relationship. In this context, the soul impoverishment of Yom Kippur could be likened to love sickness. We insure that our hearts yearn for Hashem so that our remarriage will truly be one of joy.
  5. Only the native born are commanded to live in Sukkot. Why? On Sukkot, you take yourself out of your normal roof and settle for the risk and challenge of living under Hashem’s canopy. But a convert doesn’t need to do this. His very act of conversion is a lifelong act of Sukkot. He has given up his normal roof for a marriage to Hashem and his people.

Yom Kippur

  1. The Holy of Holies is referenced as being within the Parochet/curtains or the House of Parochet/Curtains. The woven curtains cross between the outside world and the holiness of the Mishkan and the Holy places and the Holy of Holies. The inner curtains are a point of crossover between the timeless and the point of conversion of creative energy. Yom Kippur is about crossing that divide – about crossing over to a timeless world we cannot exist in.
  2. Of all the items of clothing, the coat is singled out for special consideration as individually holy. The word used for coat is ketonet. It is not beged, which implies deception. When we approach Hashem we cover our raw nakedness – but we do not clothe ourselves in untruth.
  3. Azazel seems like another being – a boogieman in the uninhabited desert. We assign one goat to Hashem and one to Azazel. The name for Hashem used is the word of timelessness – not elokim which identifies power. Something that goes to Hashem is timelessly preserved. Az-Azael literally means goat of disappearance. Things that go to Azazel vanish from time – as if they never existed. It is null – like the disappearance of an undeveloped soul.
  4. To protect ourselves from the anan or cloud of Hashem we create our own anan from incense. It covers the witness (the word used for the Aron). But how can we cover the witness with incense? Why would this work? Why isn’t this deceptive? The key is that the incense is Hashem’s recipeBy using His tools we earn a covering of our sins. It is part of his mercy that he allows us to do this. Yom Kippur is such a tool.
  5. The blood (or spirit) of the offerings is used for a particular act – purifying the altar. These offerings repair our connection to Hashem. Only after that connection is repaired do we have the ability to make our sins vanish from this world.
    1. My brother Isaiah points out that the bull may atone for the golden calf (Aaron’s sin) while the goats atone for Yisrael (Yaacov) using goats to deceive his father.
  6. We are commanded to afflict ourselves. The literal word means impoverish. As mentioned in a previous dvar, you are impoverished when you feel a lack of something. To impoverish your soul is to make yourself aware that there is a gap that needs filling – and enabling Hashem to fill it.
  7. In this final reading we see that the Yom Kippur role is not tied to individuals, but to the position of the Kohen Gadol. We can perform an impoverishment within ourselves – but repairing the powerful connection to the divine represented by the mizbeach (altar) is the act of a nation.