Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Divine Chariot


Command the Children of Israel to send out of the camp all with an eruption (tzara'at), or discharge (zav) and whomever is defiled by the dead. Both male and female shall you send out, and they shall not defile their camps amidst which I dwell. (5:3)

It is imperative that a person afflicted with tzara'at, suffering from an abnormal discharge known as zav, or one who has come in contact with a dead body (tamei la-nefesh), be sent from the camp. These three cases, know in halakhic terminology as avot ha-tuma (fathers of contamination) are severe cases of defilement. For these avot ha-tuma, the Torah requires isolation.  The text concludes: "Amidst which I dwell" (5:3). It would appear that the thrice-reiterated command to "send out" the defiled (5:1,2,2) stems from the presence of the Divine in the camp.

The very location of the passage is curious. The Book of Vayikra, the book of the Torah normally considered dedicated to issues of sanctity, holiness and defilement, indeed contains both a lengthy discourse on the laws of tzara'at (Vayikra 13:1-14:57) and a segment on the laws of discharge (15:1-15). While the laws of those defiled by the dead are mentioned in Sefer B'midbar (19:1-22).  The material would seem to belong in Sefer Vayikra, the book of holiness, sanctity, and defilement.

So, the Sages wonder about the placement of this particular segment of the larger "defilement code," laws pertaining to sanctity and holiness, at this particular point in the Book of B'midbar.


In formulating the command to expel the metzora, zav, and tamei la-nefesh from the camp, the Torah employs the phrase, "Amidst which I dwell" (5:3). The core of the phrase consists of two terms, shokhen, rooted in the stem sh.kh.n and meaning rest or dwell, and betokham, meaning amidst or among. This formulation should be familiar. It is a slight variation on the phrase used to describe the purpose of building the tabernacle. In Shemot 25:8 G-d informs Moshe of the ultimate end goal of constructing the Mishkan:

And they shall make me a sanctuary (mikdash) so that I may dwell amidst them (ve-shakhanti betokham).

The sanctuary is the dwelling place of the Divine presence. The most common term for the sanctuary, mishkan, comprises yet another variation of the stem sh.kh.n, meaning dwell or rest. In a similar vein, the Book of Shemot and the completion of the construction of the Mishkan, closes with the image of the Divine cloud, symbolizing the Divine presence, resting upon the Mishkan (Shemot 40:34-35). In this light, the phrase utilized at the end or our parasha, "Amidst which I dwell (asher ani shokhen betokham)" (5:3), is perhaps a technical reference to the Mishkan, the abode of the Divine presence located at the center of the Israelite camp.

Whoever touches a dead body and does not purify himself, defiles the Mishkan of G-d, his soul shall be cut off from Israel. (B'midbar 19:13)

While the text here does not explicitly refer to trespass or physical contact, that does appear to be the intent. As Rashi (19:13) comments: "if he enters". Once again, tuma and the presence of the Divine are inherently contradictory categories. Defilement prohibits one from approaching the Mishkan.

Consequently, some have interpreted the expulsion of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp as a pragmatic matter, that their presence in the camp may lead to their approaching the sanctuary or trespassing upon its grounds. As already noted, this is defined by the Torah as "defiling the Mishkan of G-d" (19:13). Therefore the three severe avot ha-tuma are sent from the camp, so that they do not trespass the border of the Divine.


A cursory reading of the first four chapters of B'midbar are often thought of as an accounting, concerned primarily with numbers, and rendering for us the precise number of Israelites and Levites numerous times. However, this is only part of the story. The chapters should also be understood as a sustained discourse upon the physical arrangement of the Israelite camp.

On some level, it is no surprise that the numberings and consequent arrangements of the camp detailed in the census narrative (1:1-4:49) are followed by a legal segment detailing the expulsion of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp. These laws of encampment follow naturally on the heels of the narrative detailing the arrangement of the camp. Both are variations on the theme of hilkhot ha-machaneh, the laws of the arranging of the camp.  But there is more to it than this.

Early on in the census narratives, the Torah informs us that the Levites will be counted separately (1:49). This is due to their unique function as servants of the Mishkan (1:50). In elaborating upon this point, the Torah informs us that the Levites are to encamp around the Mishkan so that "there will be no wrath (ketzef) upon the Children of Israel" (1:53).

Immediately afterwards, in the conclusion of the verse, the Levites are charged with guarding the Mishkan. After all, the Torah informs us that "the stranger" or non-Levite who attempts to participate in the transport of the Mishkan is subject to the death penalty (1:51). To put all of this together, part of the Levite's role consists of guarding the Mishkan from the possibility of encroachment. Just as the census narrative (1:1-4:49) is concerned with the possibility of trespass, so too the encampment code (5:1-3), which immediately follows, is concerned with the possibility of trespass.

This leads us to an even deeper thematic element. Throughout the census narrative, the Torah focuses not just on the physical arrangement of the camp, but also on the functional arrangement of the camp. The Levites are counted separately and encamp around the Mishkan because of their unique function as servants of the sanctuary (1:48-53). These functions devolve upon the Levites by virtue of their being selected by God to replace the first-borns, those who might have otherwise had the privilege of serving the sanctuary (3:11-13). As the text emphasizes, the mishmeret, or charge, function, and duty of the Levites is in fact the mishmeret, or charge of the Israelites, one they (the Levites) carry out as replacements or perhaps representatives of the Israelites (3:8-9).

None of this is coincidental. The physical and functional arrangement relation to Mishkan described above should be understood as reflecting a particular spiritual arrangement and relationship. The Mishkan constitutes the dwelling place of the Divine and the location of Divine service. As such, the physical and functional arrangement of the Israelite camp in the desert naturally revolves around the Mishkan. The structure of the community must have holiness and sanctity at the center. But it must also be concerned about how to preserve sanctity in its midst and the implications of the Divine presence in the camp.

As such, once again it is no wonder that the narrative depicting the physical, functional and spiritual arrangement of the camp (1:1-4:49) is followed by a segment of the laws of defilement and holiness, the Divine directive to expel the three avot ha-tuma from the camp. Both involve the themes of sanctity, relation to sanctity and the protection of sanctity. In contrast to our original assumption, the opening of B'midbar is in fact also about some of the key themes of Sefer Vayikra. It too is concerned with sanctity, relation to sanctity and the safeguarding of sanctity.


However,  haven't the Levites already been commanded to guard the sanctuary? In light of the Levites mandate, can the pragmatic concern of trespass be considered a viable interpretation?  Or is thee something more?  Let us take a look again at the text. The precise language of the rationale provided by the Torah reads as follows:

And they shall not defile their camps amidst which I dwell. (5:3)

While this can be interpreted as a technical reference to the presence of the Mishkan at the center of the camp, the text makes no explicit reference to the Mishkan and nor do we have any reference to any pragmatic issues of trespass.  A simpler reading of the text would seem to indicate that G-d's presence is located in the camp itself. For this reason, these three severely defiled individuals must be removed from the camp. In point of fact, the Ramban (5:2) adopts this interpretation. To paraphrase the Ramban's terminology:

"It is necessary for the camp to be holy and suited for the resting of the divine presence." 

But by what virtue can the camp be said to be holy or to comprise a place where the Divine presence rests?  Let's turn our attention to the story of the degalim, the standards around which the Israelites encamped, which should help elucidate the point.


In introducing the degalim, the Torah refers to "every man by his standard, with the signs of his father's house, around the tent of meeting shall they encamp" (2:2). But what are these standards? What is the point of the reference to the "sign of his father's house"? For that matter, what is the point of the tribes being grouped into four standards, each consisting of three tribes and then arrayed around the Mishkan?

Based upon a Midrash found in B'midbar Rabba 2:6, and in accord with associations already defined in other parts of the Torah, the Ibn Ezra formulates a relationship between each tribe and its respective form. For the standard of Yehuda, the form is a lion, in line with the statement of Ya'akov in his blessing to Yehuda that "Yehuda is a lion" (Bereishit 49:9). For Reuven, the shape pictured upon the standard is a man. It was Reuven who found the dudaim, the plant carrying the power of fertility and the ability to make a man (Bereishit 30:14).

Based upon the blessing of Moshe (Devarim 33:17), the standard of Ephraim carries a picture of an ox, and finally, although the source is obscure, the Ibn Ezra maintains that the standard of Dan bore the image of an eagle. The exegesis of the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban regarding the images depicted upon the four chief standards grouped around the Mishkan creates a fascinating parallel.

The Book of Yechezkel, in describing Yechezkel's vision of the merkava, the divine chariot upon which the Divine throne and presence rides, depicts a vision of four heavenly creatures who comprise the chariot. These creatures have four faces, the face of a man, the face of a lion, the face of a ox and the face of an eagle (Yechezkel 1:10). But these are of course the images found on the standards of Yehuda, Reuven, Ephraim and Dan.  As the Ibn Ezra formulates things:

"The degalim resembled the keruvim, the divine creatures seen by Yechezkel" (2:2). 

In a similar vein, the Ramban (2:3) approvingly cites a Midrash claiming that G-d created four directions in the world, surrounded his throne with four heavenly creatures to bear his throne, and in accord arranged for Moshe the degalim. While the theology may remain somewhat obscure, the literary claim should be obvious. The encampment of Israel, the arrangement of the tribes into four degalim surrounding the Mishkan, is meant to parallel the imagery of Yechezkel's vision.

Just as the heavenly creatures surround and bear the throne of the Divine, so too the camp of Israel surrounds and bears the Mishkan, the seat of the Divine presence. The theological or metaphysical significance of the parallel should be interpreted accordingly. Just as the Divine creatures of Yechezkel's vision accompany and bear the throne of G-d upon its heavenly journey, so too the camp of Israel accompanies and bears the throne of G-d upon its earthly journey.

While the Ibn Ezra and the Ramban do not make the point, Yechezkel 1:24 compares the sound of the creatures and the divine chariot to the sound of a "camp." In addition to this connection to the opening of B'midbar, Yechezkel's vision of the Divine first manifests itself as "a great cloud and fire" (1:4). This of course is the very image of the Divine presence that accompanies Israel and its camp in the desert.

A cloud and fire cover the Mishkan upon its completion (Shemot 40:34-38) and during the ensuing journey (B'midbar 9:15-16). This dual parallel between the vision narrative in Yechezkel and the encampment narrative in B'midbar implies that we confront the same story in both cases, the transport of the Divine presence by G-d's merkava, or chariot. The process occurs in both the heavenly and earthly realms.

But there is more to it than just parallel processes. The second book of Shemuel refers to the ark as "the ark of G-d, whose name is called the L-rd of hosts (tzeva'ot) who dwells upon the keruvim" (II Shemuel 6:2). The creatures of Yechezkel's vision are known as keruvim. They possess an earthly counterpart, the keruvim stationed on top of the ark, whose outstretched arms form the throne of G-d.

In the language of Shemuel, G-d can be said to "dwell upon" the keruvim and ark. But as fitting the King of kings, G-d is also accompanied by hosts or assemblies, known as tzeva'ot. The Divine chariot is born and accompanied on its journey by the heavenly angelic assembly. But what is the earthly counterpart of G-d's heavenly host?

The resolution to this question may lie back in Sefer Shemot. During his dialogue with Moshe that proceeds the unleashing of the plagues upon Egypt, G-d informs Moshe, "I will lay my hand upon Egypt, and bring out my hosts (tzivotai), my people, the Children of Israel from Egypt" (Shemot 7:4). Similarly, the story that opens B'midbar constitutes another story of G-d's tzava, his host or assembly, the Children of Israel. It is in fact the story of his earthly host or assembly, which escorts, accompanies and bears His presence as earthly counterpart to His heavenly host.

Therefore, the entire camp of Israel constitutes a microcosm of the heavenly macrocosm if you will, a parallel construction to the Divine realm. This is the point of the organization according to standards. As such the camp serves to bear the Divine presence, not just in the Mishkan, upon and between the keruvim, but in the entire camp itself.  The census narratives (1:1-4) are not merely about counting, or physical, functional or even spiritual organization. Rather they also form a type of organization, where the camp is organized as an echo or copy of the Divine realm, where the Divine presence is brought into the entire camp.


In light of the above interpretation of the degalim as a kind of merkava and the organization of the camp as far more than a mere physical arrangement, we no longer need wonder about the language of the rationale provided by the Torah for the removal of the metzora, zav and tamei la-nefesh from the camp. Likewise we no longer need wonder about the meaning of the Ramban's claim that "it is necessary for the camp to be holy and suited for the resting of the divine presence." As a copy of the divine merkava and resting place of the Divine presence, the entire camp is holy.

Consequently, the severe cases of defilement, those defiled by tzara'at, zav, or death must be removed from the camp. The laws in question, and the placement of our short code of defilement and sanctity (5:1-3), follow naturally on the heels of the census narratives (1:1-4:49), the organization of the camp as tzeva'ot Hashem, the earthly assembly bearing and animated by the Divine presence.

Finally, from this perspective the opening of B'midbar is more than just a continuation of Sefer Vayikra and its key concerns of holiness, defilement and the sanctuary. In a certain sense, Sefer B'mdibar is a continuation of a key theme central to the book of Shemot. As mentioned earlier, Shemot 25:8 reports the true telos, goal, of constructing the Mishkan, "And I will dwell in the midst of them," and the book ends with the arrival of the Divine presence in the Mishkan (40:34-35).

But in some sense, as the beginning of B'midbar reminds us, the Divine presence has in fact arrived amidst the entire community of Israel. The end of Shemot is only the beginning of the story. Sefer B'midbar is in fact where this theme plays out, the story of what happens when G-d dwells in the very midst of the Children of Israel.

This was how it was in the beginning, before sin was introduced into the world through our disobedence to the Divine command.  This desire, to dwell once again in the midst of His people, of course culminates in the person and work of Y'shua the Messiah about Whom John writes:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with G-d, and the Word was G-d.  He was in the beginning with God . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt (lit. tabernacled) among us, and we beheld His glory (shechina), the glory (shechina) as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.  (cf. John 1)

And of course, let's not forget how everything wraps up at the end the age:

And I heard a loud voice from heaven saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of G-d is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. G-d Himself will be with them and be their G-d   (cf. Revelation 21).

*I am indebted to Rabbi Chanoch Waxman for providing many of the ideas and themes presented here.  

Thursday, June 16, 2016

In Due Time

"Evil is always ultimately self-destructive ..."


Which is one of the reasons why aligning oneself with evil is a fool's gambit.  The "success" of evil is an illusion.  Human endeavors that displease G-d can only lead to the inexorable downfall of those who seek to advance them.

Therefore, it's not wise to talk too much about the "success" of those who turn their back to G-d and spurn His directives, lest we fall into the mire of resentment and inaction. In fact, we should know, without any trace of uncertainty whatsoever, that it is the apparent success of evildoers which actually serves to bring about their downfall.

We can be confident that G-d will never allow those who use the gift of life for achieving purposes in opposition to His will to enjoy supremacy in His world.  For these people have preemptively cut off their own future by their evil acts. The life of the lawless is astoundingly and fleetingly short. 

On the flip side, we, who are determined to shun any influence that might alienate us from G-d and who are striving to come close to Him with every deed and act of our lives, we have been assured and promised that we will inherit the earth on that future day of salvation for which we all yearn and patiently tarry.

Although the reality may certainly appear otherwise and the battle is going hard against us, we are acutely aware of a greater Reality Who will not be confounded and Who has promised to be with us when we go through the fire and when the water is raging around our necks.  G-d is certainly not sitting on His throne, wringing His hands, wondering what to do next, and neither should we.  Greater is He that is in you than He that is in the world. 

And as for those who array themselves against us to do us harm and practice evil, well ... they have already set themselves up for a fall and great will be their fall.  We will look and see them no more, for . . . 

<i>Vengeance is Mine, and recompense; their foot shall slip in due time; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things to come hasten upon them.’ For the L-rd will judge His people and have compassion on His servants, when He sees that their power is gone, and there is no one remaining, bond or free. (cf. Deuteronomy 32)</i>

And also this:

<i>And when the servant of the man of G-d arose early and went out, there was an army, surrounding the city with horses and chariots. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?”</i>

<i>So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.”</i>

<i>And Elisha prayed, and said, “L-rd, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” Then the L-rd opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw. And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.</i>  (cf. II Kings 6)

Those who are with us are more than those who are with them.  That's the reality and that's the truth.  May He find us living in the light of reality and holding fast to the truth when He comes.

Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazek!  Be strong, be strong, and let us be strengthened!  

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Islam as Ideology, Violence as Strategy

Islam's Violence is Rooted in Instability

by Daniel Greenfield

Islamic violence is nearly impossible to deny. But why is Islam violent? The usual answer is to point to Koranic verses calling for the conquest and subjugation of non-Muslims. That certainly covers the theological basis for Islamic violence. But it fails to explain why Muslims continue to practice it. Even against each other. Violence has become the defining form of Islamic exceptionalism.

Optimists speak of reforming Islam. But such reforms had over a thousand years in which to take place.

Islam is an ideology. Its violence is a strategy. That strategy fit the needs of Mohammed. Mohammed chose to use force to spread his ideology. He needed to recruit fighters so he preached the inferiority of non-Muslims, the obligation for Muslims to conquer non-Muslims and the right of his fighters to seize the property and wives of non-Muslims as incentive for them to join his fight. Furthermore he even promised them that if they should fall in battle, they would receive loot and women in paradise.

The strategy was barbarous, but quite effective. Mohammed had created a new super-tribe in a tribal society. The tribe of Islam united different groups in a mission of conquest. The Islamic religion allowed the varying clans to be more effective and ambitious than their victims. Within a surprisingly short amount of time the chain of conquests made Islam into a world religion. The most effective Islamic conquerors could not only claim vast territories, carving up civilization into fiefdoms, but they could prepare their sons and grandsons to continue the chain of conquests.

Islam made the standard tactics of tribal warfare far more effective. Its alliance was harder to fragment and its fighters were not afraid of death. But at the same time Islam remained fundamentally tribal. It made tribal banditry more effective, but didn’t change the civilization. It codified the tribal suspicion of outsiders and women into a religious doctrine. That still drives Islamic violence against non-Muslims and women today.

And yet Islam could have reformed. All it had to do was choose a different civilizational strategy.

The current clash of civilizations is between cooperative societies and hierarchal tribal societies. Western countries are cooperative societies. They succeed by bringing together a variety of peoples into cooperative organizations. These organizations negotiate and exchange everything from goods to mutual defense. Primitive versions of such organizations existed in Mohammed’s time. They have also existed within Islamic societies, but they have been inhibited by the tribal instability of Islamic civilizations. Cooperative societies emphasize internal conscience over external posturing. Religion is a matter of personal morality, rather than collective conquest. Economic resources are developed by harnessing new ideas and techniques to provide wider benefits to the society.

Islamic tribal societies are governed by extended family groups and other hierarchies that, like Islam, serve a similar role. While such societies can be locally stable, albeit backward, expanding them is difficult because their only point of unity comes through conflict with outsiders. Without external conflicts with non-Muslims, tribal societies degenerate into internal tribal conflicts.

That is what happened in Iraq and Syria, not to mention Yemen and Libya. Most Muslim countries are delicately balanced on the edge of a precipice and they can be very easily tipped into horrifying violence between different groups if their fragile internal order breaks down and there are no outside enemies.

The Muslim expansion became unsustainable once the external spread of conquest limited the access of Muslim armies to non-Muslim victims. Islamic unity did not survive Mohammed for very long. Stability came through feudal societies which were slow, backward and unwieldy, but prevented conflict.

Ultimately the only stable Muslim society is a slave state. Modern dictatorships, which strive to imitate modern countries by building up professional elites of doctors, engineers, lawyers and generals, are eventually undone by them. It’s the genuinely backward kingdoms that rely on oil wealth and slave labor which best weathered the changes of the past generations and maintained their ruling privileges.

And here we come to the fundamental crisis of Islamic violence.

Islamic civilization is fundamentally unstable and unsustainable. Contact with the modern world destabilized it setting off a series of chain reactions. Islamic civilization, particularly in the Middle East, could not make the transition to modernity. Those countries that had oil could buy their way out of the problem with generous subsidies at home while purchasing influence abroad. The Saudis made their own people rich while controlling the West. They financed wars without needing generals by funding terrorists. They kept a tribal society going by hiring foreign professionals to do most of the technical work.

Most Muslim countries however couldn’t buy that type of immunity from modernity. And even the Saudis had only bought a temporary immunity that is running down along with oil prices. The most Islamic societies had followed the old Mohammedan practice of exhausting the land. But where were they going to move on to?

The mass migration to Europe is part of the answer. While Europeans are shocked at the sight of millions of people just picking up and walking away, the Middle East still has deep nomadic roots. Most Muslim countries are political and historical fictions. Family groups matter far more than national identities.

Outside Israel, agriculture in the Middle East is sparse. The strong attachment to the land that is found among Israelis or Europeans is absent. Feudalism associates working the land with inferiority and feudalism is a more recent memory among Muslims than among most Europeans. Success means expanding into someone else’s land and living off the spoils rather than staying and working your own.

Western cooperative societies eagerly welcome Muslim migrants because they expect them to cooperate and contribute. But that is not happening. Muslim societies are hierarchal, not cooperative. The new arrivals expect to fit into a hierarchy. If they don’t encounter a strict hierarchy, they seek to “conquer” by establishing their hierarchy with the supremacism of the Koran as their guide.

Western societies seek to settle permanently. They plan for the long term. Nomadic tribals burn through resources, viewing cities and institutions as assets to strip, raid and dispose of, before moving on. The Islamic migration is not a new phenomenon and Europe is not meant to be its stopping point.

This is a variation of Mohammed’s old strategy. While some Islamic groups, such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, stay behind to battle for the dying lands of the Middle East to establish their own perfect society, large numbers of Muslims are choosing to move on to fresher pastures. This cycle will only repeat itself.

This strategy is why Islam continues to be violent. It’s why exporting democracy is useless.

Democracy works in cooperative societies. It can only work within tribal societies as a democracy of groups. And it requires that these groups prefer cooperation to conflict as a civilizational strategy.

Islam favors conflict over cooperation. In the absence of outside enemies, its doctrine allows its quarreling groups to name each other as infidels, heretics and enemies. To reform Islam, Muslims would have to make the civilizational transition to a cooperative strategy. They would have to fundamentally change their values, their priorities and how their societies function.

And there is no sign of that happening.

Islamic civilization becomes unstable once it expands beyond its tribal limits. Its only coping strategy for that instability is violence, whether directed externally at non-Muslims or internally at other Muslims. Its economic development tools are limited and make supporting a modern society very difficult because they emphasize maintaining internal hierarchal stability over innovation and progress.

Islam is violent because it’s unstable. Its only tool is violence. Its societies exhaust their limited resources and then invade their neighbors. They repeat the same strategy until they are stopped. Then the exhausted Islamic civilization becomes a staid slave society that is stable, but backward. If that society is disturbed, then the egg cracks and the whole horrible process of war, invasion and exhaustion begins again. That is what we are experiencing right now. And there is no easy answer to this problem.

We can inhibit the expansion of Islamic migration. Or it will wash over our societies and destroy them

Friday, June 10, 2016

Chag Sameach!

Approximately 3500 years ago this weekend about 3000 Jews died for fashioning a golden calf and reveling before an idol (cf. Exodus).

Approximately 2000 years ago this weekend about 3000 Jews were saved when they responded to the Good News of the Messiah (cf. Acts).

G-d is good!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Nothing Happens by Chance

I ran across this shiur (lecture) last week and I thought it was a nice complement and expansion of my previous post.  I posted the more salient portions of the shiur below.    The parasha (Torah portion) and haftara (reading from the prophets) from last week spoke very much to the admonitions I highlighted in the previous post (Jew, Go Home) and go a long way in explaining the current situation of the Jew at present.  

I am more convinced than ever before that it is not Judaism that needs reforming, but rather the Jew. Our situation will not improve until we stop trusting in man to save us, confess our sins, repent, and return to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The Torah tells us plainly that as long as we are determined to live as if everything is a result of happpenstance, then G-d will respond in kind until we come to our senses, bow the knee, and confess that there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved.    


The core of Parashat Bechukotai is the rebuke, and the haftara serves as a response to that reproach. The haftara's opening words – "O L-rd, my strength, and my stronghold, and my refuge in the day of affliction" (16:19) – prepares us for a prophecy of consolation. But the continuation of the haftara includes a harsh reproach, and even the concluding verse – "Heal me, O L-rd, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved: for You are my praise" (17:14) – does not describe consolation and redemption, but merely expresses a wish and a desire for salvation and healing that are not yet visible on the horizon.


It should, then, be understood that the haftara is not one of consolation in the classical sense, that it does not come to describe a rosy future that will replace the gloomy present, and that we must understand its goal in a different manner. If we come to summarize its message in a single word, it is trust.

Over the course of the parasha, the Torah describes the ups and downs that will befall the people in the wake of their actions. G-d will bring upon them a sword that will avenge His covenant and make them flee before their enemies, and at the end of the parasha, we are told that He will return them to the desolate land in the wake of the covenant that had been made with their forefathers. 

It is important to emphasize the haftara's place in the framework of the book of Yirmiyahu. It is found not in the context of chapters of consolation, but rather in the very heart of a series of chapters of harsh and threatening reproach. To illustrate this, let us cite a few verses from the beginning of chapter 16, the same chapter from which the haftara is taken:

For thus says the L-rd concerning the sons and concerning the daughters that are born in this place, and concerning their mothers that bore them, and concerning their fathers that begot them in this land.

They shall die of grievous deaths; they shall not be lamented; neither shall they be buried; but they shall be as dung upon the face of the earth: and they shall be consumed by the sword, and by famine; and their carcasses shall be food for the birds of the sky, and for the beasts of the earth.

For thus says the L-rd, enter not into the house of mourning, neither go to lament nor bemoan them: for I have taken away My peace from this people, says the L-rd, both love and mercy.

Both the great and the small shall die in this land: they shall not be buried, neither shall men lament for them, nor gash themselves, nor make themselves bald for them: neither shall men break bread for them during the mourning, to comfort him for the dead; neither shall men give them the cup of consolation to drink for his father of for his mother.

You shall also not go into the house of feasting, to sit with them to eat and to drink.

For thus says the L-rd of hosts, the G-d of Israel; behold, I will cause to cease out of this place before your eyes, and in your days, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride. (Yirmiyahu 16:3-9)

The prophet's expression of the feeling that G-d is his strength and stronghold does not come against the backdrop of success and rescue, but out of the depths of crisis and threat, and here lies its significance.


The words of the Chazon Ish regarding trust:

An old mistake has settled in the hearts of many with respect to the idea of trust. The term bitachon, "trust," which describes a meritorious and essential quality among the pious, has come to be understood as an obligation to believe – in any situation where a person stands before an unknown future, and there are two possible future outcomes, one good and one not – that surely it will turn out well, and that if he remains in doubt, and worries about the opposite result, he lacks trust. This understanding of trust in incorrect, for as long as the future has not been clarified through a prophetic vision, it is not decided, for who knows G-d's judgments. But the idea of trust is to believe that nothing in the world happens by chance, and that whatever happens under the sun is all by G-d's decree.

The gist of what he says is that trust in G-d does not mean optimism that G-d will only do nice things for a person, but rather trust that whatever will happen to him is most appropriate for him, and that it will be done because of G-d's relationship with him. In words, it is not that I am confident that G-d will act in a particular way on my behalf, bur rather I trust in G-d and in His judgment.

This quality of trust in G-d despite the punishment and the price that He extracts fits in well with the words of Yirmiyahu, which come in response to the difficult reality of his time. "G-d is my strength and My stronghold" despite the fact that mirth will cease and people will die – this is the message of our haftara. This is why the haftara opens with an expression of trust, continues with a description of sin and its punishment, and concludes with another expression of trust.


If we examine the concluding verses, we will immediately discern that the final verse is a call from man to G-d and an expression of his hope for salvation. Expression is thereby given to the continued connection between the prophet and his Maker, despite the troubles, and to his trust that G-d is the address regarding his difficulties. 

In contrast, the two previous verses – which belong, from the perspective of the structure of the chapter, to the reproach that precedes them, as opposed to the final verse which in the prophetic source relates to what follows – well express what we said above. The prophet presents man with two alternatives: continued cleaving to G-d and trusting in Him, which at some point in the future will be translated into salvation from trouble, or else abandoning him. Connection or abandonment – this is the choice that a person must decide between in a time of crisis.

In this context, we must relate to the verses in the middle of the haftara that relate directly to the quality of trust:

Thus says the L-rd; cursed be the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his arm, and whose heart departs from the L-rd. For he shall be like the juniper tree in the desert, and shall not see when good comes; but shall inhabit the parched places in the wilderness, a salt land and not inhabited.

Blessed is the man who trusts in the L-rd, and whose hope the L-rd is.

For He shall be like a tree planted by the waters, and that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit. (17:5-8)

The verses illustrate our assertion that the quality of trust constitutes the essence of the haftara, and they are well integrated into this framework. 


Besides the very expression of trust that constitutes the essence of our haftara, it is important to emphasize another point that connects the haftara to the parasha. The primary battle being fought in the parasha is that between providence and chance. The main struggle is with the idea that everything happens by chance, rather than with idolatry in and of itself. A famous expression of the attitude that bursts forth from these verses, and the battle against it, is given by the Rambam:

This is one of the paths to repentance, for when trouble arrives and people cry out and shout, they will all know that it is on account of their evil deeds that evil befell them. As it is written: "Your iniquities have turned away [these things]" (Yirmiyahu 5:25). And this will cause them to remove the trouble. 

But if they do not cry out and shout, but rather they say that this befell us because such is the world and this trouble was by chance, this is a path of cruelty and it causes them to cling to their evil deeds, and it leads to other troubles. This is what is written in the Torah: "… and you walk contrary to Me, then I will walk contrary to you also in fury" (Vayikra 26:27-28). That is to say, when I bring trouble upon you so that you should repent, if you say that it is by chance, I will add fury. (Hilkhot Ta'aniyot 1:3)

In general, Yirmiyahu does not fight against this attitude, but rather he fights against those who abandon G-d in favor of idolatry. One who worships an idol does not necessarily deny spiritual providence over the world, but rather he attributes it to false gods. The issue of trust in G-d versus reliance on man does not even arise, because the question is not whether to trust, but in whom to trust. 

Our haftara relates to idol worship, but it also struggles with the abandonment of G-d owing to the feeling that the world is a place of chance, and therefore a person must put his trust exclusively in man. The words of the prophet who is aware of this problem bring him to emphasize the importance of trust in G-d as He who runs man's world and they are appropriate for the parasha of rebuke which deals with the same issue.

We can now say that the gist of the haftara lies in its expression of the quality of trust. And this in a twofold sense:

1) The trust in providence as opposed to chance and human causality.

2) The importance of trust in G-d in times of crisis.

Themes of the Haftarah for Parashat Bechukotai, by Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Jew, Go Home

This is what the L-rd Almighty, the G-d of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce.   Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters.  Increase in number there; do not decrease.   Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile.  Pray to the L-rd for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”  (cf. Jeremiah 29:4-7)

They say the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  The Jews have been sent into exile and the exile will come to an end in one of two ways: (1) when we begin to properly discharge our duties as Jews or (2) when the ancient hatred and animosity of the nations is leveled against the Jew yet once again.  In either case, there will be none to blame except ourselves and, sadly, considering the history of our people, I fear it will only be the latter which will serve to wake us from our slumber.  

For centuries men have discussed Jew-hatred and more recently, anti-Semitism, postulating as to its causes.  More often than not, the discussion lays much of the blame at the feet of of the nations as evidenced in their baseless hatred borne of ignorance, madness, and paranoia.  To a certain degree this is arguably true.  Our history is certainly filled with Amalekites and Hamans whose attacks against us were based on nothing more than the premise that "there is a certain people dispersed among the peoples . . . . who keep themselves separate.  Their customs are different from those of all other people . . . it is not in the king’s best interest to tolerate them." (cf. Esther 3)  

And yet, what we have so often failed to ask ourselves is when do we need to fear Amalek the most? Is it not when our hands are slack and no longer raised towards the heavens? Were those not the moments when the battle favored Amalek against Joshua?   Should we really expect that it would be any different today?  Do not our sages remind us that when Amalek comes, the Jewish people must somewhere or other have neglected their duties?  

In the Midrash Tanchuma and Talmud Arakhin 5b it reads: "The enemy comes (against the Jews) only for laxity of hands in upholding the Law."  All too often the Jewish people have called into question the divinity of its mission and expressed doubts about whether G-d was among us or not, and as a result of this doubt and mistrust, neglected their duties as Jews i.e. performing the Word of G-d.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch comments:

So long as the Jewish people fully comprehends and carries out its duties, so long as it remains a "kingdom of priests" to its G-d and a "holy people" in its intercourse with mankind, then it matters not that, so long as there is night upon the earth, it should be "scattered" and also appear to be "different" in the eyes of the peoples; it matters not that its priestly and holy wandering should "set it apart" from the customs and ways of the peoples and that - so long as there is night upon the earth - this very separation should provide enemies like Haman a welcome excuse for persecuting the Jews for their own ends.  Above the madness of the nations, the intrigues and plots of ministers, and the weakness of princes stands G-d, Who can sway not only the waves of the ocean but also the hearts of the princes for the deliverance of His faithful ones.  (R' S.R. Hirsch, Adar I, p. 368-369)

As long as there are Jews in the world, Haman and Amalek will always find a way to justify their enmity and hatred.  That is simply the way it is in this present world.   My concern lies elsewhere. My concern primarily lies with the willing defection from Judaism and Torah-observance of my brethren which actually does much to infuse and augment the persecution of the Jews by the nations with plausibility.  

The sense of security and comfort of which many Jews in this country boast couldn't be more illusory, hollow, and false.   And the Jews who boast the loudest are often the ones who have shirked their duty as Jews with the greatest fervor, while imagining that they could buy the friendship of the nations and permanently secure that friendship by discarding everything that distinguishes them as Jews.  

So, what has happened here in America?   In no other place and in no other time have we failed to demonstrate to the nations how to live a life of Divine service more than here in America; here in America, where we have enjoyed unprecedented benefits of citizenship, we have failed to show ourselves as loyal servants of G-d.  Instead, we have obtained and fought to secure and maintain those benefits, in large part, by slackening our hands and diminishing our commitment to the Torah.

For the most part, we have not related to American society in a very positive way.  We have done very little to inspire our fellow-citizens to live righteously.   Instead, we have advanced causes which are not only contrary to the Torah, which we are supposed to represent, but we have championed policies which have worked against the peace and prosperity of this nation whose welfare was to be our chief concern during our temporary sojourn here. What opportunities we have forfeited.

What we have forgotten is that we are citizens of a territorial state and also a member of the Jewish people, a people who are rooted in the Torah and who belong to Him no matter where we have been scattered.   G-d's objective was never for us to disappear among the nations, but expressing and demonstrating loyalty to our host nations was actually a religious imperative and obligation, as detailed so clearly in the passage from Jeremiah 29 above.  And those obligations are not mere payment for the hospitality of our gracious benefactors.  We owe loyalty even to oppressive regimes.

G-d prescribed for us a duty to be loyal to every state and every country which provided for us a home, along with our wives and children, even when this hospitality grew cold and the nations became indifferent and even hostile.  We were never exhorted to seek special representation or advocate for special treatment.  Rather we were to live as inconspicuously as possible and pray to the L-rd for the prosperity of the nations with the understanding that the welfare of the nations was bound up with our own.

Our chief duty among the nations to which we have been scattered is to demonstrate to the world the highest ethical and moral standards the world has ever known.  The Chasam Sofer expressed concern that assimilation and compromising Torah principles might even serve to prolong the exile.  He compared the betterment of the Jews' position in exile to a king who built a palace for his exiled son. Instead of rejoicing, the son lamented that his improved and luxurious living conditions only indicated that the king did not intend to bring him home any time soon.  [Rabbi Shlomo Sefer, Chut HaMeshulash].

Instead we abandoned the Torah and even exchanged its "burdens" for the acceptance of our host nations and began to seek how we might satisfy, gratify, and enrich ourselves, rather than remain true and loyal to the countries who allowed us dwell in their midst.  Our desire to be rid of the burden of serving Him blinded us so that we could no longer see that the heavier the oppression the greater the opportunity we had to sanctify G-d's name by promoting the welfare of our host nation.

Somewhat ironically, perhaps, non-observance has proven to be the cause of antisemitism rather than the cure so many thought it would be.  The persecution of the Jews will not spare those who are determined to desecrate the Sabbath, eat pork, and continue living non-Jewish lives.  The hatred of the Jewish way of life is merely a disguise for hatred of the Jew.  Who knew that there would be so many antisemites among our own?  The only result that we will reap from our rejection of and deviance from the Torah will be more suffering and a deepening of the exile for our recalcitrance and rejection of Him as predicted by that same Torah for which we currently harbor so much disdain.

I am not hopeful that the Jews in America are going to awaken any time soon and return en masse to the G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  But I am confident that Hashem is going to once again use the nations to remind the Jew who he is, who G-d called him to be, and the lives he called us to live.

Has the Emancipation, with its newly found freedom and opportunity, resulted in more joy, greater satisfaction and a still happier existence than what our forbears experienced?  Do you believe that you no longer need to remember the past?  Do you really think that somber times will never recur?   

O, you deluded ones!  Look at the society which is now freely open to you.  Look around in the marketplace of life.  Has the race of Haman died out completely with his ten sons? Could you not find someone from the Rhine to the Oder, from the Volga to the Danube who is capable of being his successor?  Be sober and observe.  Indeed, the horizon of the Jew may well become somber; sultry clouds hang in the German sky.  Even in our own Jewish circles indications for gloom are apparent.  No one is secure.

[R' S.R. Hirsch, 1858]