Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Rerun

I know that I posted this previously, but I rewrote it to be printed in local shuls. So here is the new, improved, and ending with a mussar vort version.

Parshat Va’era : Moshe Rabbeinu gets a new job

The Torah is not supposed to repeat itself or waste words, right? If not, then why do Moshe and Hashem's conversations in the beginning of Sefer Shmot seem like deja vu? Last week and this week’s parshiot seem to have the same material. It has actually been my observation that people tend to tune the conversations out, as the get the gist of it, and are waiting for the plot to move on. There must be more to it.

The first of these coversations takes place at the burning bush, (in chapters 3 & 4) and the second in Egypt. (in chapters 6 & 7) Let's note the similarities before we examine the differences. You can check for yourself, but I will simply list the common elements.

In both prophetic conversations:

1) Hashem identifies Himself
2) He explains that He has noticed Israel's suffering
3) He explains His plan to fulfill his promises to the Forefathers, rescue the people and take them to Israel
4) Tells Moshe he must go to Pharaoh and ask for time off for His people.
5) Hashem shows Moshe a wonder to perform to ensure belief
6) Moshe complains about his difficulties as a communicator *
7) Hashem assigns Aaron to help Moshe.

Two questions come to mind. First of all, why does Moshe need this much repetition? Didn't he get it the first time? Secondly, there must have been a shorthand way to say that these elements recurred. "And the Lord told Moses all the things that had been said in Midian", or something to that effect, leap to mind. One could answer the first question by saying that Moshe had faced his first setback, (Pharoah rejected the request and took away the Israelites straw) and needed a pep talk. But this does not answer the second question.

There are also, of course, differences. Professor Nehama Leibowitz always argued that when you run into any of these biblical “repetitive” passages, the differences are what deserve our attention. In this case it is these differences that show that the second round is much more than a “pep talk”. What then are the differences?

In the middle of this second version of the conversation, (at the point when Moshe complains about his speech) Moshe and Aharon are reintroduced through a long family tree. There is a key, tell-tale statement at the beginning. In chapter 6, verse 11, Hashem says,

“Go in, speak unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.' 12 And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: 'Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?'”

Moshe had already spoken to Pharaoh. Pharaoh had not hearkened unto him. Why is Moshe expressing this in the future tense? I would argue that Hashem is not repeating his demand in verse 11. He is changing Moshe's job. This is the key that unlocks all of the problems.

Let me explain what I mean. In chapters 3 & 4, Hashem has appointed Moshe to be the leader of b'nei Yisrael. When this did not lead to their immediate release, they let him know at the end of chapter 5 that he was fired as their leader for making things worse. As it says in chapter 6, verse 9, “And Moses spoke so unto the children of Israel; but they hearkened not unto Moses for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage”

So in chapter 6, Hashem is sending Moshe no longer as the leader of the Jews, but as His ambassador to Pharaoh. This is a very new role for Moshe, and he balks at being Hashem's ambassador just as he balked at becoming the leader of b'nei Yisrael.

This is also why Moshe first shows a sign and wonder to Pharaoh in chapter 7. As leader of the Jews he had no need to turn a staff into a serpent. He only had to do that for the elders of the Jews. But now in chapter 7 he has to prove his bona fides as a Divine messenger to Pharaoh.

Hence all of the repetition. Moshe needs to be reassured again and told that Aharon will help him, etc., etc. for a new position.

There are other pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis. But the bottom line is that originally Hashem wanted the Israelites to send Moshe to demand their freedom. When they backed out, He became our advocate and sent Moshe to free us. Perhaps in our generation, we can learn from the mistake of our forefathers in that first redemption and work tirelessly to be the agents of Hashem’s will in bringing the final redemption. At its essence, Zionism is activism. And perhaps that is Hashem’s first choice for us.

Shabbat Shalom,

* I tend to assume that "heavy tongue" and "uncircumsized lips" do not refer to physical disabilities, any more than modern idioms like "tongue tied", "forked tongue" or "big mouth" do. They refer to difficulties with certain types of communication. In Moshe's case, it probably means a difficulty with diplomatic niceties. We are all familiar with the story of Moshe and the hot coals. I think that is designed less to explain the language of "heavy tongue", and more to explain elements of Moshe's childhood within the Rabbinic narrative of warning in Pharaoh's court.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Thanks through Haiku

Blogger now has a new "stats" feature that shows all sorts of information about who is looking at your blog. I found out some cool stuff! One of those things is that the number one referring website to mine is from my friend Neil Fleischmann's blog.

Neil and I share may traits, tastes and interests, and I appreciate that shout outs. (Shouts out?) I would like to thank Neil through his poetry form of choice, the Haiku.

Neil Fleichmann is cool
Life is felt by him deeply
Expresses it well

Thanks, man.

NY's Funniest Rabbi

Postings From An Eclectic Soul

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Role of Rabbis

Israel's latest tempest in a teapot is the controversy over a public Rabbinic decree banning the renting of homes to Arabs. You can catch up simply by doing a Google news search for the words "renting to Arabs". That's what I did, and you can see the results for yourself.

Many have complained about the edict. The issues of racism, and oversimplification of a complex halachic issue, have been written about extensively. Rightly so. I would like to emphasize another problematic aspect of the decree, that was alluded to in Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's response

He complains, "...almost the entire unfolding of events that resulted from the dissemination of this letter was foreseeable and, to a large extent, obvious. The public furor, both social and ideological, the rift that has opened among the citizens of the state—between camps and within camps, the op-eds in the various media outlets, the various positions, often impassioned and overheated, the attack on the religious-Zionist rabbinate from the right and from the left, even from Torah giants—it was all foreseeable. One reads it and wonders what happened to the wisdom of those who are enjoined to consider future ramifications?" (the emphasis is mine) 

In Talmud study we often ask to find the essential point of contention between two perspectives. In this case, I would argue that Rav Aharon believes that the role of Rabbis is to bring Jews together on areas of consensus, and the authors of the ban see their role as defending particular ideological positions within society. 

Assuming that this is  correct, I would simply like to point out that Rav Aharon is speaking in the voice of Rav Kook, whereas the other camp has apparently abandoned Rav Kook's approach. This breaks my heart. Rather than belabor the point, I will simply quote the relevant piece from Rav Kook. Please read his words carefully, and ask yourself if 21st century Rabbis, including Religious Zionist Rabbis, follow his guidance. 

The Rabbinate

The rabbinate is that great spiritual force, that crucial force which always shaped public opinion in the Jewish world… In our era, however, it has been greatly damaged, and its influence has waned. This development has had a detrimental affect on every aspect of our collective lives… 

Now that we desire to reestablish and thoroughly repair our national lives, we must also implement deep and penetrating reforms into the rabbinate of Eretz Yisrael, to breathe new life into this essential, spiritual force… [into] a significant force that will influence every aspect of our national revival…
Rabbis must play a prominent role in Israel’s revival. They must work with the people in every facet of the building and the national restoration… A continuous, mutual connection must exist between the rabbinate and every productive force in the land.

[Rabbis must] constantly strive to bring people closer to each other and introduce a spirit of peace between all factions and parties, by way of the holy sentiments that are equally shared in every Jewish soul. 

Rabbis must stay far away from all factional disputes and differences, they must view everything in a positive light, focusing only on the side of every faction and every event. This way, they will be able to infuse a spirit of sanctity, faith and pure Jewish awareness into the nation’s entire collective existence, materially and spiritually.

HaRabbanut, Ma’amarei HaRe’iyah, pp. 52-54

Rav Kook