Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Yosef's Second Dream

One of the frequently asked questions about the previous few parshiyos is: Why didn't Yosef HaTzadik write home?
Recall that Yosef's time in Egypt was not spent in altogether bad conditions.  Other than a few years in prison he actually lived quite well.  For the first few years he served as major domo for an important Egyptian official, Potiphar.  After being released from prison he served as major domo to Pharoah himself.  During his time in both positions he would have had ample opportunity to send a message to his father as to his whereabouts but there is no record in the Torah that he did.
Now there is the classic answer from the Midrash, that the brothers made him swear he wouldn't but (and perhaps I'm succumbing to personal bias here) I always thought that such an oath would probably be disregarded once he was out of danger.  On the other hand, the suggestion that he didn't send word because doing so would have ripped the family apart when Yaakov Avinu figured out what had happened does sound plausible.
I would like to suggest two further possibilities.
One is quite practical.  Let's say that Yosef, now a servant of Potiphar, sent a message to Yaakov Avinu.  He could have been discrete, saying that while on his way to his brothers he was kidnapped and taken down to Egypt.  This way he could explain his current situation without implying that his brothers had been complicit in the process.
But what would the outcome have been?  Without a doubt Yaakov Avinu would have sent down some or all of the brothers (sans Binyamin) to either buy his freedom or rescue him in some other fashions; the same brothers who - unknownst to their father - sent him there in the first place.  Could we really believe that Yosef, having been freed by Potiphar and handed over to his brothers, would happily walk off into the empty, lonely Sinai with the same brothers he had such bad memories of?  There's a matter of trust to consider.  So perhaps that might explain why he didn't send a letter.  There was no practical way to get home.
But here's another consideration.  Yosef, we are told, subjected his brothers to the torments they suffered from his accusations because he wanted to bring his dream of the 11 of them bowing down to him to fruition.  The only way to do that was to convince them that he was powerful and to get them to bring Binyamin down to Egypt.  As we see from recent parshiyos he was successful.  The 11 brothers all bowed down in sincerity to him.  Fine.
But recall that Yosef had a second dream, one in which his brothers bowed down to him along with his father and mother.  After all the effort he put into making the first dream come true we find no record of the second dream coming to pass.  Or do we?
Chazal tell us one of the suspicions Yosef had when the brothers promised to bring Binyamin to him was that they would grab some no-name from the Egyptian market place and present him as the youngest brother.  This was certainly a fair concern.  Yosef had left home when Binyamin was still quite young and frankly, if the brothers couldn't recognize him because he was older and bearded, how could he be sure that he'd recognize Binyamin after all this time?
The answer might be from something Yaakov Avinu repeatedly says throughout the narrative.  Binyamin is especially precious to him, remember, because he's the last child from Rachel Imeinu, his favourite wife, now that Yosef is gone.  Chazal tell us at the beginning of VaYeshev that Yosef's face was similar to Yaakov Avinu's.  Could it be that Binyamin strongly resembled Rachel Imeinu?  That would serve two purposes in this story.  The first is that his presence would be a constant reminder to Yaakov Avinu of Rachel Imeinu.  The second is to allow Yosef to recognize Binyamin.  He would certainly remember what his mother looked like, after all.
The final peace in the puzzle in Yaakov Avinu's blessing to his sons when they take Binyamin down to Egypt.  At this point the narrative depicts him as a broken man.  When he was about to meet Eisav years earlier we saw a very different Yaakov Avinu.  He prepared for that confrontation through prayer, gifting and preparation for battle.  Here he simply asks God to have the unknown Egyptian rule show rachamim, basic mercy, to the brothers.  No demands, no threats of bringing down Divine wrath if Shimon is not released or Binyamin doesn't come back.  Just simple mercy.
This therefore would seem to be the fulfillment of the second dream.  When all eleven brothers bow down before Yosef, Rachel Imeinu is present through Binyamin acting as a reminder of her and Yaakov Avinu is essentially bowing down through his request for mercy.  Thus the second dream also comes true.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

How To Study Tanach

As a follow-up to my previous post I would like to elaborate on what I think is the best way to learn Tanach.  I noted in that post that I think that learning Tanach (and again, I really mean Nach because learning Torah in-depth goes without saying and is already part of everyone's standard curriculum, I hope) would address a huge moral lacuna that is currently afflicting Orthodox Judaism.  Learning Talmud gives one a legalistic understanding of Judaism but to appreciate the big picture, to gain a real appreciation of the moral imperatives God wants of us one must learn Tanach.
Now the first stumbling block people usually point to when folks talk about learning Tanach is the idea that the text is so deep that without a really strong reliance on understanding how Chazal read the text there is a real danger of reading the Bible and coming to false conclusions and developing heretical understandings.  There is a legitimate concern that people will bring their own automatic assumptions to the table and read the text with those biases.  And I would agree this is a legitimate concern.
After all, modern readers suffer from this innate bias of assuming that our current secular moral system is the pinnacle of human civilization against which all other moral systems, Torah included, must be judged.  Many people also automatically assume that what they take for granted in terms of understandings of the universe and how it works were known to people living centuries or millenia ago.  Either that or they think that these people were simplistic idiots because of their lack of "modern" knowledge.  Reading the Bible without removing these biases can certainly lead to the wrong conclusions.
I'll illustrate with a famous and often-misunderstood narrative from the Bible - the incident of David HaMelech and BatSheva.  For those who haven't read the original, it goes like this.  One day David HaMelech sees BatSheva, a beautiful woman, bathing and decides that he wants her.  He summons her to the palace and they are intimate together.  There's only two problems - she's married to one of David HaMelech's soldiers, and the king got her pregnant.  So David HaMelech summons her husband, one Uriah, back from the battlefield ostensibly for an update on the military situation and then tells him to go home and spend the night with his wife.  Uriah, out of sense of duty to his comrades (and perhaps because he's a wee bit suspicious) refuses and goes back to the battlefield.  David HaMelech instructs his senior general, Yoav, to leave Uriah exposed on the battlefield whereupon the poor soldier is killed leaving David HaMelech to marry BatSheva.
To say that this scenario is problematic is an understatement.  The Gemara clearly wrestled with this and came up with various explanations to try and bring a less negative light to the story.  We are told, for example, that all of David HaMelech's soldiers left a get with their wives in case they didn't come home to avoid any agunah problems.  We are told that Uriah deserved death because he refused David HaMelech's order to go home to his wife.  And while some of these explanations raise an almost "Oh come on!" reaction a close reading of the text actually does support some of them.  A good peirush will point out that while David HaMelech faces God's wrath for his sins, when those sins are listed in detail adultery is not amongst them.  The text is otherwise complete in listing the misdeeds so why not, unless the Gemara's point about the get is correct?
One thing is clear: reading the text unaided or without a non-expect commentary will lead to superficial and incorrect understandings of the text, something we should always avoid.
However, a different problem develops when one goes too far in the other direction.  Trying to read Tanach only through the lens of Chazal and relying completely on their understanding while ignoring the pshat of the text is dangerous as well.  Yes we need to read Chazal's explanations but the pshat has value as well.  Without Chazal we run the danger of transposing our feelings and thoughts into the Tanach's narratives.  To use my example, we might see David HaMelech as an ancient Bill Clinton and not as the supremely important and pious figure that he is to us.  On the other hand we might see him dressed as a Satmar chasid, long curly peyos swaying as he shockles over his gemara while composing Tehillim and speaking in Yiddish to his courtiers.  Using either approach we would completely miss out on the brilliant, complex personality that produced a king favoured by God who was a scholar, warrior and poet whose exploits and writings would be unmatched in history.
But what of the fear that we will see him as all too human?  While this is often raised I would like to point out that Chazal might just have wanted us to appreciate that aspect of the characters in Tanach.  Recall that the Bible we have today did not evolve by chance but was extensively edited by Chazal.  If we have the text of Yechezkel's prophecies, for example, it is because Chazal decided not to hide them away for all time because of the controversial parts in them.  If we have Koheles' musings on life and death which seem problematic from an emunah point of view it's because Chazal felt we could, with proper study, understand them without devolving into kefirah.  If we know the story of David HaMelech and Batsheva it's because they wanted us to know about it in all its unseemly details.  Were Chazal worried we'd lose our appreciation of David HaMelech's holiness by reading that story then it likely would not have made the finally cut.
Chazal, you see, were far more understanding of how to transmit our history and moral lessons than their most pious defenders give them credit for.  David HaMelech's slip with Batsheva, for example, does not diminish his holiness and greatness.  He erred, as all humans do, but remains on a supremely high level because of everything else he did.  The world is not black and white.  A great man can sin but remain a great man nonetheless.  Chazal knew this, they appreciated that our ancestors were humans, great and holy but human nonetheless and did not try to shield us from this reality by censoring our history.
Therefore it's important to approach the study of Tanach carefully but from this realistic position.  Two basic commentaries can be recommended for introduction to the text.  In English, Judaica Press has a fantastic Nach series (they were 2/5 of the way through Chumash when the Artscroll Stoned Chumash came out and ended their plans) and in Hebrew Mossad HaRav Kook has produced a fantastic commentary, Daat Mikra. 
We are reading the stories of and the words of great people, people to whom God Himself spoke and relayed His messages to mankind.  We learn from their deeds and from their mistakes and even more importantly from how they responded to their mistakes.  We seek out the overarching moral priorities to better learn how to be more moral Jews and human beings.  Used in this way, the study of Tanach becomes essential to understanding how Judaism should work.

Monday, 24 December 2012

Putting Tanach Back Into The Curriculum

Rav Shimon Eidensohn over at the venerable Daas Torah blog has a post containing a statement by Rav Sternbuch, senior honcho in the Eida Chareidis, on whether or not learning Tanach is something people should do nowadays.  Not surprisingly he comes out against such study although he does give some advice for those intent on doing it as to which mephorshim to use in order to better understand the text.  However I believe that by trying to keep the study of Tanach out of the basic Jewish curriculum he accidentally highlights one of the reasons for the current levels of trouble in the frum community.
His statement, "The reason for avoiding teaching Tanach is it tends to give a less spiritual understanding – G‑d forbid –  of G‑d’s relationship with us" seems to say it all.  Yes, he does clarify his position to an extent and in a way that I agree with.  It is axiomatic that one cannot understand Tanach by simply reading the text without a proper commentary accompanying it.  The good book (and to be precise, any reference from here on to Tanach is to the Nach part) is simply incomprehensible without it.  There are incomplete narratives, varying statements, contradictions and other such problems with various parts.  Furthermore, most of the prophecies deal with complex and deep subjects and what they're actually referring to is a matter of debate amongst the commentators.  To simply read the Tanach and decide for oneself what a part of the text means is unacceptable from a Jewish point of view.
But the statement that learning Tanach gives us less of a spiritual understanding of the Divine is, in my humble and poorly-learned opinion, the reverse of what the case really is.
My father always noted that the Tanach, as opposed to the Talmud, cut through complex ethical and social issues to provide unmistakable positions on them.  The Tanach isn't a legalistic text.  It does not contain records of debates between the Sages of the First Temple period.  It doesn't deal with civil or criminal laws in any great depths and even common things like Shabbos and kashrus are barely mentioned.  What it does do, over and over again, is return to the point that the practice of Torah observance should be an end towards great moral behaviour and appreciation of the Divine.
This is, unfortunately, the opposite of much Talmud study nowadays.  As a Rav I once heard speak noted, one can learn multiple pages of Gemara and never mention God once.  Much of the Talmud is devoted to pain-staking and hair-splitting analysis of Jewish law, the intent behind the mitzvos and the optimal way to practice them.  This is important, there is no questioning that.
But the moral point behind why it is important to excel in mitzvah observance often gets lost in this.  Go into the average Jewish bookstore and look at the shelves.  How many volumes are dedicated to the analysis of this section or that in Jewish law, civil, criminal or ritual?  How many are dedicated to ethical and moral behaviour?
This is where Tanach comes in and where it becomes a threat to the current frum status quo.
Consider all the repeated scandals plaguing the Torah observant community.  One has to wonder how people who claim such a high level of devoutness, people like Nechemya Weberman who belongs to a Lubavitch-offshoot that has the hagaavah to call itself Molochim, can commit the crimes they do while aspiring to the highest level of mitzvah observance when it comes to other areas of their life like kashrus and Shabbos.  What are they thinking?  How do they justify themselves?
It's tempting to suggest that these folks know they're commiting a fraud and are keeping up the "kosher" appearance in their lives just because they don't want to lose the position in their social circles.  Some may be psychopaths in the classic, not axe-wielding, defintion of completely lacking a conscience.  While this might be true for some, it's clearly not the case for most.  From what we know of these people they sincerely do not believe they have commited any sins when they are found out.  Statements about from rabbinic authorities downplaying their misdeeds or finding some kind of halachic loophole to justify them.  They harbour no regrets.  When they say vidui on Yom Kippur these crimes aren't part of their personal cheshbon.
But Rav Sternbuch's statement, on the other hand, might go a long way towards explaining many things, from the most gross crimes commited by otherwise observant Jews to the petty harrassing of yeshivah students by their rebbes leading them to go OTD as a result. 
An education in in-depth Talmud nowadays does not seem to provide any kind of a moral underpinning for the Torah observant lifestyle.  Instead it provides one with minutiae, obscure facts and a belief that the halachic system is like any other legal system.  It contains rules and it contains exceptions to those rules and knowing that can provide one with a solid basis for commiting most any crime one wants to.
Where is the fear of God?  Well it wasn't mentioned in the relevant sugya.  After spending 10 pages reading the Chachamim debating on a particular point, the Talmud does not conclude with "And thou shalt remember to fear the Lord always".  Sure the Torah repeatedly reminds us "v'yareisa meHaShem Elokecha" but like the rule on not eating falcons or eagles it doesn't reach a level of personal relevance for many. 
The Tanach is dangerous to the system because it does the opposite.  It asks the questions that so many wish to avoid: If you're a SOB, what worth do you think performing the mitzvos has?  Where did you get the idea that you can sin and then offer a sin offering l'hatchilah?  Why do you think God wants any part of your finagling and mangling of His Law? 
The great nevi'im did not argue about whose cow injured whose and whose responsibility it is to pay for the whole thing?  They spoke to grand moral issues and of God's designs for us, His requests for our behaviour.  A good chapter of Yishiyahu or Yechezkel slaps down the folks who justify yeshiva rebbe pedophiles while demanding women sit at the back of the bus.  Yirmiyahu reminds us of the consequence of simplistic piety being used to cover a rotten moral system. 
In short, the Tanach reminds us that while other people might be fooled, while we might even successfully delude ourselves, God is above all that and sees through the crap to the truth of the matter even when we desperately want to deny it.
Perhaps that's the root of Rav Sternbuch's concern.  So much of what passes for policy in the Orthodox community is at odds with the basic moral system as presents clearly and unambiguously in Tanach.  The only way to avoid dealing with the contradiction is to announce that the Tanach is way too complicated to understand (even those it's clear that many parts come straight out and say what they mean) and therefore should simply be avoided.  Problem solved!
No, no it's not.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Heard In The Office

So I'm sitting with a patient, a young Muslim woman of Pakistani extraction who is in to talk about the depressed feelings she's had since breaking up with her boyfriend of seven years.  Seems he had emotionally moved on and she's been heartbroken ever since.  In addition she belongs to a fairly small Muslim sect so shidduch possibilities aren't the greatest. Despite being in her very early twenties and a nice looking girl she's genuinely worried that she'll be single for the rest of her life.
I ask her how she deals with her fears and she says that her religion gives her strength.  Then she pauses.
"I don't know if you'd understand."
I ask her why.
"Well, um, I don't want you to think I'm being offensive but..." (long pause) "do you believe in God?"
Now it's my turn to pause for an instant.  Then I point to my kippah.
"I'm Jewish. We came up with the idea of Him in first place."
"Oh," she says, "I didn't know that. Wow.  Anyway..." and on she goes.

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In one of the ER's I work in there is an older lady who is an African nun.  She's also a good ER doc and she's always interested in talking with me when our shifts overlap.  I think she's looking for another religious person to talk to and there aren't that many in this ER (or any others I've worked in, come to think of it).
So the other night I come in to replace her for the overnight shift and she stops me and says: "Lord Ironheart,  there are Jewish Chrisians, right?"
I pause because my first answer has at least two offensive words in it and she's a nice lady who clearly didn't mean anything insulting so it wouldn't be fair to unleash them on her.  So I rephrase as best as I can and say "Um no, none at all."
"But why?"
"Well," I say knowing that I have to tread carefully, "you know all that stuff about God in a body, dying for our sins and the Trinity?"  She nods vigorously.  "Yeah, well we don't believe in any of that.  In fact, it's against our faith to think of God doing anything like that."
She looks stunned.  "You don't believe in J----s?"
I shake my head.  "Nope."
"That's incredible!  I never knew that!"

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Holiday Of Intolerance

Intolerance is a dirty word in today's liberal culture.  Live and let live, everything's okay as long as it doesn't hurt someone, anti-racism, anti-homophobia, you name it and there's a movement demanding tolerance in it.  This is generally touted by secular culture as humanity's moral pinnacle - the creature of a society in which no one is offended and everyone is prepared to see things from the other guy's point of view without allowing for personal bias and thoughts of superiority.
It sounds great on paper but when examined carefully it is quite a dangerous philosophy.  For one thing, it doesn't exactly generate a lot of creative or constructive energy.  If everything's groovy then there's nothing much to strive for.  For another thing, it leaves people enamored by such thoughts in a very vulnerable position.  Another philosophy, one that is aggressive and judgemental, could easily sweep in and take over as it pushes the milquetoast liberalism aside.  We are witnessing this in parts of Europe as a vibrant and very opinionated Islam makes steady progress in intimidating the essentially valueless atheistic culture that replaced Chrisian and fascist nationalism after World War 2.
In fact, if you wonder why some atheist groups are so militant it is exactly for this reason.  They are well aware of the saying in the Gemara (somewhere): "don't be too sweet lest you be eaten up".  They know that only by assuming an aggressive posture of their own can they survive against people who actually have a core dogma.  Thus they have created one of their own out of the framework provided by political correctness and begun to inflict it on general society.  Clearly they are still working on their self-confidence as to date the most the atheist liberal lobby has managed to accomplish is a sustained attack on the sclerotic remnants of Chrisian culture while deftly ignoring any real threats under the rubric of multi-culturalism.  However, there is no reason to believe they won't increase their assertiveness in coming years as it becomes clear that a new culture has come to town and intends to replace secular liberal norms with its own.
Where do we as Jews fit in?
On one hand, the culture of open tolerance has been good to us.  Judaism is a rich national philosophy and as such it is automatically a threat to any other such dogma.  That is one reason for the long and miserable history we have had in Chrisian and Muslim lands.  One can trace the rise of Jews in Western societies directly to the decline Chrisianity has suffered in the last 70 years or so and it is not hard to see that the lowly dhimmi position of Jews in Muslim countries has not changed because public religion remains very strong there.
On the other hand there is a dangerous seductiveness to secular liberalism.  Read through the lyrics of John Lennon's Imagine and it's all right there.  It's much easier to believe in nothing than to actively hold a serious of views that are contested by the world around you.  It's easier to say "live and let live" than to take a stand on an issue and maintain that one view is right and one is wrong.  Perhaps that's one reason for the decline of public religion in the West.  Laziness and selfishness are essential human traits, the principle tools of the yetzer hara.  To have values takes energy and often requires confrontation.  It demands sacrifice and personal deprivation at times.  It sometimes insists that reward for proper behaviour is deferred and it intimates that bad things sometimes happen to good people for reasons we cannot understand.  Better to stand for nothing.  It takes less time and effort.  A random universe in which things just happen doesn't have to be justified, just survived.  Party now because there's nothing after.
Despite heterodox views to the contrary, Chanukah is not a holiday celebrating religious freedom.  It is a commemoration of a war between two cultures, one the forerunner of today's "Pleasure first and second" society and the other our ancestors who were trying to uphold the laws of our Holy Torah.  The Greeks saw no value in self-abnegation.  For them the physical was everything and the idea that a culture would hold that unlimited enjoyment of the physical world was wrong was incomprehensible to them.  For us it is the opposite.  We are special creations of God, the ultimate purpose of all He made and we cannot be like animals that have no greater goal than survival, the next meal and procreation.  Being human means restrictions and being Godly means lots of them but that is the highest goal.  The Greek system was not only different, it was wrong.  It was incompatible.  One could not be a good Greek and a good Jew.  A choice had to be made.
Nowadays we are quietly faced with the same struggle.  Secular views constantly wash up against our Torah bulwarks and sometimes drops splash over.  The new fashionable struggle to find a way to somehow create the openly gay Orthodox Jew, for example, is one such drop.  Another is the effort to create egalitarian worship in a culture that values and emphasizes the uniqueness of each gender and its contributions to the whole of the Jewish nation.  Worst are the values known as "It's only illegal if you get caught" and its innovative cousin "It's only illegal if there's a statement b'feirush in the Shulcan Aruch".  The idea that one can cheat on taxes, cheat on someone from a different cultural group, and it's okay to lie and cover it up, is one that has come in from society and been turned in some quarters into a Torah value.  All of these are examples of how the mityavnim have resurfaced in our day and age to pervert our Judaism slowly, a bit at a time.  The goal of mutual tolerance is not something we see as positive.  We know what is right and what isn't and have to stand up for those ideals.
Therefore as Chanukah descends on us and our arteries slowly sclerose from the unending barrage of oil goodness we are about to consume we should take a step back and ask ourselves if our daily behaviour is as pure as we like to think it is or have we incorporated a practice or two without even realizing it that doesn't belong there?  If there is a time of year for such introspection this would be it.  The light of the flame from the Menorah in the Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt) was pure and unadulterated.  That purity is our goal.
May we all have a meaningful and fattening holiday.