Posts Tagged ‘torah’

“[T]he adherents of Jewish liberalism… traced the origin of the Reform Movement to [Moses Mendelssohn]. Mendelssohn’s writings, however, in which every word of the Jewish text is declared to be divine wisdom, prove the error of this thesis.”

Hermann Schwab, The History of Orthodox Jewry in Germany, Ch. II

The virtue of piety also requires that one should not cause any creature to suffer, even animals, and should show mercy and compassion toward them. Similarly, it says (Proverbs 12:10): ‘The righteous man knows the soul of his beast.’ And there are those who are of the opinion that ‘causing an animal to suffer is a prohibition of the Torah’ (Shabbos 128B). And at the very least it is a Rabbinic enactment.

-Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, The Path of the Just, Ch. 19

When each letter of ‘wisdom’ (חכמה) is spelled out — ‘chet’ (חי”ת), ‘kaf’ (כ”ף), ‘mem’ (מ”ם), ‘hey’ (ה”י) — the numerical value is 613 (the number of commandments in the Torah). An allusion to this is in the statement (from Avot): “Who is wise? He who sees that which will be born,” i.e. [the value of] the hidden letters (with which the revealed letters are ‘pregnant’).

(Shla”h, Masechet Yoma)

antiisrael

We constantly hear in the media and from left-leaning individuals and groups, as well as from the United Nations and the spokespeople of the various world nations, about the evils perpetrated by the State of Israel any time it takes defensive actions against the groups or individuals that have sworn to destroy it. The enemies of Israel, which include terrorist organizations, various Arab countries, as well as radicalized Muslims within its borders, continually attempt Israel’s destruction through targeting, endangering and murdering its citizens through aggressive acts of war or terrorist attacks.

Yet the heat in the media and the world stage is always directed against Israel. She is always the culprit, the aggressor, the criminal, the abuser, the genocidal murderer. It has long been decried in the pro-Israel media the blatant bias and hypocritical double standard of Israel’s detractors. The same defensive actions by any other country are hailed, while vicious genocides taking place routinely in Muslim countries are ignored. It is only Israel that may not defend herself. It is only Israel that must turn the other cheek to its would-be slaughterer, and that evokes the anger, hatred and condemnation of the world for defending itself and overcoming its attackers.

Well folks, it may surprise you to know that this is NOT a phenomenon unique to the modern State of Israel or to our “civilized” age. Rather, so has it been from the very beginning of our history. Since the inception of the Jewish nation in ancient times, the ire and rage of the nations has been directed at Israel for the simple crime of not getting stomped underfoot by those who would destroy her.

Imagine my shock at finding this phenomenon articulated ever so openly in a midrash — an ancient Jewish oral tradition — concerning the events in this week’s Torah portion.

This week we read B’Shalach, in which, after the crushing cataclysm of the Ten Plagues destroys the once-mighty Egypt, the nation of Israel emerges, under Divine protection, and crosses the Red Sea amid indescribable miracles, even as their former oppressors pursue them to bring about a “final solution.” We all know the story — the Egyptians drown in the Sea, the Israelites are delivered safely upon dry land, and the scene climaxes with the simultaneous outburst of prophetic song known as “the Song of the Sea.”

In that song, the people of Israel declare, “The nations heard and became enraged (שמעו עמים ירגזון)!” Why would the nations become enraged when they hear of Israel’s miraculous delivery from Egypt at the sea? Wouldn’t they be awed? Inspired? Humbled?

The Midrash comments:

MechiltaBShalach

‘The nations heard and became enraged’ — When they heard that G-d lifted Israel [above its enemies], they became angry. G-d said to [the nations]: ‘How many kings have been appointed among you, yet my children (Israel) did not become enraged? … How many sovereign governments have been established among you, yet my children did not become angry? … Now [that Israel is ascendant] you are angry? … I will give you cause to be angry that you do not desire!’

The midrash calls out the nations for their own devilish hypocrisy and shameful double-standard. Every nation has the right to independence, sovereignty, security — except the nation of Israel? Where was your indignation when they were an oppressed minority in Egypt? Now that the Egyptians are under the foot of Israel, you shout about “war crimes”? Have the actions of the nations ever held a moral candle to those of Israel or the Jewish nation? Can any nation claim a superior record of the defense of human rights or contributions to the betterment of the condition of humanity than the Jews? Turn your words toward yourselves, you hypocritical fiends! For when you defend evil and point the finger of blame at those who are just, you invite that evil upon yourself.

How sad for the world that the lessons of history continue to be ignored.

As I heard Rabbi Berel Wein once say (though I’m sure he’s said it many times), “Tanach (Bible) is not a history book, it’s today’s newspaper.”

I have been energized by Israeli MK’s Naftali Benet’s recent initiative to have as many Israelis (and Jews generally) learn one chapter of Tanach a day, in order to strengthen our understanding of our historic mission and unbreakable link to our destiny in the Land of Israel. Nonetheless, I haven’t been following the daily prescription according to the “new order,” that is, starting all together from Chapter 1 of Genesis and proceeding forward. Since, as a Torah-observant Jew, I read the weekly Torah portion, I will complete the Five Books of Moses once annually anyway. So, in addition to my weekly “dose” of Torah, I am adding one chapter a day of the books of the Prophets.

That said, I have been, for years, trying to make slow progress through these books, and have already completed Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Isaiah. (I skipped Kings because I had intended to learn that together with a study partner, though that didn’t materialize, so I started it on my own after finishing Isaiah.) I am now completing the 20th chapter of I Kings (Melachim Aleph), and I have some thoughts to share.

We live in a time in which Israel’s continued existence constantly comes under threat from its enemies (who are everywhere, not just in the Arab countries surrounding the Land of Israel, or within its tiny borders). And despite our efforts to “defend ourselves,” our issues of security never seem to become resolved.

What can we learn, or shall I say, what are we CALLED UPON to learn from our holy books? (For that is their purpose, is it not? To learn from them, not to coldy read from them as some kind of quiet entertainment.)

Here is what I found in my reading for today. In short, Ben-Hadad, the king of Aram (modern-day Syria), wages war on Israel time and again, continuously seeking its destruction, but is thwarted again and again, not because of the righteousness of its kings, but because of the mercy of the great G-d of Israel. Before Ben-Hadad can attack Israel again, a prophet comes to the king of Israel and tells him (I Kings, 20:28):

Melachim20

“The Man of G-d (i.e. prophet) approached and said to the King of Israel, and said, “Thus said the Almighty (HaShem): Since Aram said that the Almighty is a G-d of mountains (only), but He is not a G-d of valleys, I have given all this great multitude (the army of Aram) into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Almighty.”

Did you catch it? No, it was not a typo, because it’s in the Hebrew, too. That’s right — the verse says “and (he) said” twice. “The Man of G-d (i.e. prophet) approached and said to the King of Israel, and said…” Why twice? What does this add?

Rashi’s comments are illuminating.

Melachim20-28Rashi

Rashi points out that there must have been a SECOND statement, in addition to this one, that the text does not record. Based on a comparison with later context, Rashi concludes that the second statement was that once the king has Ben-Hadad in his grasp, he should NOT show him any mercy! As we will see, the king will be reprimanded for not following this dictate (yet if the prophet had not said it, it would not have made sense later for the king to be taken to task for this, as we shall see).

So, of course, G-d was right and Israel defeats Aram again, and this time, the King of Aram is desperate for his own survival. Of his army of over one hundred thousand men, only he and a few close servants survive and find hiding.

Melachim20-31

“[The king of Aram]’s servants said to him: ‘Behold now, we have heard that the kings of Israel are kings of kindness. Let us please put sackcloth upon our loins and ropes upon our heads and go forth to the king of Israel. Perhaps he will allow you to live.”

Isn’t it amazing how our reputation as kind and merciful (and our predilection to be duped by our enemies’ false sincerity) hasn’t changed in three millenia? But you don’t think the King of Israel falls for this one, right?

Melachim20-32

Wrong! “They girded sackcloth upon their loins and ropes upon their heads, and they came to the King of Israel and said: ‘Your servant Ben-Hadad said: ‘Please allow me to live!” [The King of Israel] said: ‘Does he yet live? He is my brother!'”

At the first sign of a peaceful overture, the Jewish king is filled with nothing but love for his former enemy.

The King of Israel then makes a pact with his newfound “brother,” and sends him peacefully back to Damascus to his rule.

The prophet then disguises himself and appears to the King of Israel on the road, and asks him to resolve a dilemma:Melachaim20-39-40

The prophet in disguise tells the king that he was among the soldiers of Israel who had gone out to war with Aram. While at war, another soldier brought him a prisoner, telling him to guard the man with his life, or deserve a penalty. Nevertheless, the prisoner escaped. The king replied, “You decided your own sentence!” I.e. You accepted upon yourself the terms when you agreed to guard the prisoner, now face the penalty!

The prophet then reveals himself and explains that this was a metaphor for the king’s own actions.

Melachim20-42 Melachim20-42b“[The prophet] said to him: ‘Thus said the Almighty: Since you sent away My enemy from your hand, your life shall be in place of his life, and your nation in place of his nation.”

This confirms Rashi’s explanation earlier that the King of Israel must have been likewise commanded to “guard his hostage” and not let him go as he did, just like the man in the prophet’s parable.

So as Berel Wein said, these scriptures are today’s news. Will we learn from history and cease to accept the false promises of those who have sworn to destroy us? As Rashi has explained, sometimes the seemingly merciful course of action is that which is most unwise.

J-Street needs to read the Tanach.

[Paranthetically, I think it worthwhile to examine one more of Rashi’s comments to this passage. HaShem calls the king of Aram “איש חרמי,” which I have translated, based on Rashi, as “My enemy.” Rashi offers an alternative translation of the word חרם, that is, “entrapment.”

Melachim20-42Rashi

It was as if HaShem was saying to the King of Israel: “How many traps did I set for you until [the king of Aram] fell into your hands!” Over and over HaShem offered the King of Israel divine assistance in entrapping his enemies to that he may be victorious over them, yet the King of Israel has squandered all these efforts. Will we make the same mistakes? It appears to me that, G-d forbid, we are.]

ToledothYaakovYosephIntroduction

It is known that the soul of man is hewn from the four spiritual elements from which all the upper realms were formed, and they are the four letters of the Tetragrammaton (the four letter Name of G-d)… So too, the body of man is formed from the four elements of the lower realm, that are comprised of both good and evil, owing to the sin of Primordial Man (Adam), and they are fire, wind, water and earth. All of (man’s) attributes, both good and evil, are rooted in the four elements of the body, as [Rabbi Chayim Vital] wrote in the 2nd Gate (ש”ב) of the Gate of Holiness (שער הקדושה): ‘Therefore, all the wicked attributes are divided into four types, according to the following particulars. From the element of fire comes forth arrogance, since this elements is higher and lighter than the rest, and included in it are anger, and the desire for office in order to lord over and hold oneself higher than others, as well as hatred of others. From the element of wind comes forth that speech which is called vain chatter, and it includes flattery and lies and slanderous speech (לשון הרע) and boastful speech. From the element of water comes the desire for enjoyment, for the water causes all sorts of enjoyable things to sprout, and included in it are greed and jealously. From the element of earth comes the attribute of sadness in all its particulars, and included in it are slothfulness in the fulfillment of the Torah and the commandments because of one’s sadness over one’s [lack of] attainment of material acquisition… All these [wicked attributes] are on the side of the evil inclination, the evil component of the four elements. The good component is their opposite. The first is humility, which is the distancing from all anger and arrogance. The second is to be silent as a mute, not opening one’s mouth except out of necessity or [words of] Torah or [fulfillment of] commandments. The third is one who detests worldly pleasures other than those that are necessary for upholding one’s bodily existence. Fourth is joy in the service of the Creator… and being happy with one’s lot. All these [good attributes] on the side of the good component of the four elements.’

-from the Introduction to Toledos Yaakov Yoseph, by Rabbi Yaakov Yoseph of Polnoye, disciple of the Baal Shem Tov

So I recently was asked to start giving a weekly class on Jewish history to Jewish teens attending public schools in the Seattle area.

I consider myself something of a history afficionado, particularly when it comes to Jewish history, but I never took pains to memorize all the details necessary to be an authority on the subject. But as the teacher of an official class, I thought it right to set about some serious research.

Anyhow, for whatever reasons we started the course examining the “modern” period, which begins, for some arbitrary reason, in the mid-17th century (C.E.). Our first session consisted of a “get-to-know-you” kind of ice-breaker. The 2nd week we met we discussed the state of Jewry in Eastern Europe (Poland) in the 17th century, and the Chmielnicki massacres that ravaged those communities.

A good time was had by all.

As I prepare ahead, I researched as much as I could about Shabbetai Tz’vi, the messianic pretender who would mislead the lost sheep of Israel during this desperate time, and one of the positive spiritual movements that would follow, that of Chassidism.

I research Chassidism, and the movement’s founder, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem. Of course, I knew that the Baal Shem Tov himself did not leave behind any writings, and his teachings are generally known to posterity only through his disciples.

One such disciple was a man named Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye. I never actually bothered looking up Rabbi Yaakov’s writings before, but this time curiousity got the best of me. I looked up Toledos Yaakov Yoseph on HebrewBooks.org and downloaded it.

Open reading the opening passage, I felt its ideas, though essentially none of which I wasn’t already aware, are so important, basic and vital, that they deserve repetition in this forum to anyone who may read them:

“…The body of man is not the man, but the clothing of the man who is created with 248 limbs and 365 sinews, and G-d breathed in him a living soul comprised of 248 spiritual limbs and 365 spiritual sinews that are clothed within the 248 limbs of the body. Then the limbs of the soul carry out their activity via the tools that are the limbs of the body. The sustenance of the spiritual limbs is the fulfillment of the Torah that is comprised of 613 commandments parallel to the 613 parts of the body. Each limb of the 248 limbs is sustained by a particular commandment relating to that limb… This is what the godly rabbi, our master, Rabbi Chayim Vital, wrote in his book, The Gate of Holiness (שער הקדושה ח”א פ”א): ‘Therefore, a man must strive with all his ability to fulfill all 613 commandments. When one fulfills a certain positive commandment, one should intend to remove from the particular limb of his soul relating to that commandment its impurity (זוהמת הקליפה ההיא). Then one will imbue that limb with the holiness of that commandment (אז תחיל עליו אבר המצוה הקדושה ההיא) after the impurity is removed. So too when one refrains from a trangression, one should intend that through this, the impurity that is in the particular sinew of the soul that relates to that trangression be removed. Then one will be able to draw forth the spiritual bounty that is drawn through the spiritual channel. Through this, one’s spirit becomes a throne and a chariot for the holiness of G-d.’ …Know and understand his holy words, for this is a great principle of the entire Torah and the service (of G-d) to bring one to the level of, ‘And you who cling to the L-rd…'”