Faith and Reality

Soon after the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, they were attacked by Amalek. Moses orders Joshua to lead the fight, and goes up on a hill. He raises his hands, and the Israelites prevail. He gets tired and lowers them, and Amalek gains the advantage. He arranges with Aaron and his nephew, Hur, to support his hands until the sun goes down and Israel is finally victorious.

Lots of hands here. What does this all mean?

Prior to the Amalek war, there was the incident of the water at Refidim. The Israelites had gone three days without finding water, and arrived at a place called Marah. There, the water was bitter. The people complained. Moses cried out to Hashem, who instructed him to throw a branch into the bitter waters to sweeten them.

And so it was, the water became potable. The Torah adds a comment, "There He gave them a law and a statute, and there He tested them." What was this test? Later, they arrive at another waterless place called Refidim. They complain, asking rhetorically why were they brought from Egypt to die by thirst? Moses cries out again, and is instructed to smite the stone, thus bring water out of the rock.

The sages interpret the name of this place, Refidim, to mean "their hands were softened - rafu yadayim - from the Torah." in other words, they became lax in keeping God's commandments.

How so? It seems to me they have a legitimate beef. Without water, they are goners. Why is complaining such a sin?

In the first episode, at Marah, Rashi comments that their misdeed was not in being concerned about the lack of water, but their complaining about it. Instead, says Rashi, they should have simply asked Moses to pray for them. What is the difference, besides respect (which is certainly big)?

In a word, Faith. If you believe things will work out, but you don't see it, you ask. If you don't believe things will work out, you complain. Complaints are a form of accusation, and reflect a suspicion of the one to whom they complain. A request evinces both respect and the belief that the person being asked has the power to grant the request.

Earlier still in the chapter, as the Israelites stood before the Reed Sea with an angry Egypt at their back, they were nervous. Moses calms them by saying "You stand here silently and God will fight for you." God immediately criticizes Moses, saying "Why do you scream to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward." Going forward means into the sea.

Where had Moses screamed to God here? He had just promised Israel that God would fight for them!

The answer is in perceived reality. There was no need for God to fight, as there was a clear path ahead, through the Sea. Only those with Faith could see this deeper reality, that God did not bring the Israelites out of Egypt to die by the Sea. If that is your reality, then the Sea is no obstacle. If it is not your reality, indeed you panic. Moses had it half right, that God would certainly not allow the Israelites to perish, but he needed to inhabit a reality where such a speech was not even necessary. It was only needed if you saw the Sea as an insurmountable obstacle.

Now we can understand the other episodes. If they complained, it was because they did not believe that they would survive, that water could come from a stone or a bitter well. This is the ultimate goal of the Torah, to believe that the world can be the Torah world. That God can triumph. That God protects us. We don't complain. Reality interferes? We ask, and we believe it will change. Jewish history has proven this over and over again.

Moses' hands in the air symbolize faith. "His hands were Faith until the sun set." When his hands were in the air, the Israelites saw their victory in that gesture. That faith changed reality, gave them the balance of power over a superior army. When his hands were tired, they began to doubt, and then reality changed for them. Moses found the way to keep his hands up, and in the end that Faith changed Reality and Israel prevailed.

So about the Secret and all that, there is some basis for this. Believing in success is indeed the prerequisite, however we need one thing more. We need hands. We need to do, to ask, and do some more. Thus it is in our personal lives, thus it is in our world. Those who define reality in evil terms are evil people. Those who see reality regarding the Good, will be good.

May our best hopes become the world's reality.

Fixing Broken People?

There is a Mishna that states: ".. A mitzva brings about another mitzvah, and a sin brings about another sin. The reward of a mitzva is a mitzva, and the reward of sin is a sin." What does this mean? How can the "reward of a sin" even exist? Shouldn't the Mishna say, "the loss of a sin is a sin?"

The story of Joseph and the brothers is a powerful one which addresses these issues head on. When the brothers come to Egypt to buy food and find themselves in front of a Joseph that they do not recognize, he decides to put them through the wringer. He accuses them of being spies, and forces them to bring their younger brother Benjamin back to Egypt with them the next time they come. What was the point of this whole exercise? Revenge? Don't think so at all.

Joseph is referred to as "Yosef hatzadik," or, Joseph the righteous one. This means more than just staying moral in an immoral land. Joseph is a "matzdik," someone who justifies what happens to him. That is how he could be a faithful servant when a prisoner in an Egyptian jail. Other men would've been broken, would have fallen into depression. Joseph took it upon himself to help out all the other prisoners.

The second meaning of "matzdik" is to cause others to be justified. Joseph sought to lift up all those with whom he had contact. His purpose was to help others discover the good in themselves, and improve their own lives. This is the reason he put his brothers through such an agonizing trial of character.

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik ZT"L, explained the brilliant psychological insight of Joseph. Joseph saw that his brothers were consumed by guilt. Now, guilt after a sin is a healthy thing IF it will lead to repentance. There is another kind of guilt which is destructive, and it is this to which the Mishna quoted above refers. It is when a person feels that they are so bad that they can never be good. That is the "reward" of sin that is a sin itself. A person throwing up their hands in surrender will never successfully repent. Thus, they have rewarded themselves with license to sin freely. That mindset is a sin.

The brothers believed that they were irredeemable. When they first come to Egypt, and Joseph accuses them of espionage, the brothers express their guilt to one another. "But we are guilty on account of our brother (Joseph) whose suffering we saw as he begged us to spare him. We did not listen to him." When Joseph hears this, he must leave the room and cry. Certainly it was an emotional moment for him, but his tears were more than simple emotion. He was crying because the brothers were, in effect, saying that they could never properly repent.

The musical notes that these words are read with in the synagogue are called "zarka." This means "throwing," and musically it goes down to the lowest part of the register. It symbolizes giving up, throwing away any hope and sinking into deep depression. The brothers felt they could never repent, that their sin was too great. Joseph, the great justifier, determined to prove to them otherwise.

The Rambam, in the laws of repentance, describes the ideal penitent as someone who "finds himself in the same place, with the same woman, and the same temptation, but refrains from sinning this time." Joseph engineered a situation where the brothers would be in an identical situation with Benjamin to that they were in with him years before. Having planted his cup in Benjamin's bag, Joseph seeks to keep Benjamin as a slave in Egypt, and allow the brothers to return home to their father. I believe that if the brothers had done this, Joseph would never have spoken to them again.

But they didn't! This time, Judah stepped up to the plate and took responsibility. He offered himself instead of his brother. It was safe to assume that some of the bitterness that Joseph had received from the brothers would be transferred to Benjamin, who became his father's next favorite son. The brothers could have easily gotten rid of this favorite as well, without having to lift a hand. But they didn't. That is what Joseph wanted them to see, that they were capable of becoming penitents. He wanted them to feel their own potential to do better.

And so it is when confronting a person who is broken in our eyes. Lecturing, haranguing and criticizing will only make things worse. Somehow, a way must be found to show the person their own potential. They must come to the realization that they need to change on their own. All we can do is show them love despite, not because of, their shortcomings. We don't want to encourage self-destructive behavior, but we do want to build up the self-confidence of this special person. Gentle encouragement to believe in oneself is the way of Joseph, the great justifier.

How to Confront Evil

Moses first connects to God when he happens upon the burning bush. This bush, a dried out and highly flammable plant, was engulfed in flames. Miraculously, it remained unharmed and unburned. When Moses approaches, God informs him that he is standing upon holy ground, and he must remove his shoes. He then proceeds to instruct Moses of the mission: go to Egypt, bring the children of Israel out to freedom.

Moses is highly skeptical. First, he asks for all kinds of proofs and raises all kinds of potential problems. How do I know you will be with us? If they ask me what Your name is, what should I tell them? Each time, God reassures him and gives him usable answers.

Then, Moses hesitates again. "I have a heavy mouth and a heavy tongue," Moses said. God responds, "who will put a mouth in a man in the first place?" In other words, your stuttering should not slow you down. Nonetheless, Moses begs to have a spokesman, something which upsets God, but he agrees. He will send Moses's brother Aaron.

I never quite understood this entire dialogue. How can Moses argue with God? If God tells him he can do it, well darn it, he can!

There is a tension between the world of faith in the world of practical reality. In the world of faith, miracles are evident. But Moses, like Jacob before him, realizes that he lives in the world of practical reality. Jacob had been assured of a secure future, yet when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men, he became terrified. What of God's assurance? It was not enough for Moses either, because Moses understood the apparent absurdity of his mission. He was supposed to go to Pharaoh and demand that he free hundreds of thousands of valuable slaves. How is that going to work?

In the world of faith, it's no problem. But in the real world, what hope would there be that Pharaoh would agree to such an outlandish request? And yet that is the symbolism of the burning bush. The physical world won't allow that bush to survive. But the physical world is not the only world we inhabit. Our world connects to the spiritual world, which is the world of faith. Our mission is to break through the physical limitations of the physical world, and bring the holiness of the spiritual world into our lives.

In other words, when you confront the burning bush, take off your shoes. That is where holiness is, in those windows into the world of faith. The bush was such a window.

But we do not commonly encountered burning bushes that are not consumed, so where can we access the spiritual world? Through our power of speech! Moses needed to learn this lesson, more than any other. Yes, he stuttered, and that should disqualify him from delivering such an important message. But God tells him that it is not the physical property of speech that matters, but the spiritual content of it. "Life and death are in the hands of speech," said King Solomon. The way we use our power of speech will determine if we inhabit a world that is connected to the spiritual world of faith.

So Moses had nothing to fear, because God promised He would be with him. Moses was afraid this promise wasn't enough, if he had to function in the physical world. God was telling him that his speech would be inspired, and would break through the limitations of the physical world. He would indeed get Pharaoh's attention.

What's fascinating is that Moses did not tell Pharaoh that his enslavement of the Hebrews was immoral. He didn't thunder about freedom and liberty as basic human rights. And when referring to God, he did not imply that God was also in charge of the Egyptians. He talked about the God of the Hebrews, and he talked about what would happen to the Hebrews if they aren't given the opportunity to go and sacrifice to Him. Not a word about the Egyptians, their theology, or what would happen to them.

All Moses said is, "let my people go to sacrifice to our God in the wilderness, lest He strike us with sword or plague." Fascinating. God is guiding Moses into the psychology of Pharaoh. The Egyptians believed in multitudes of gods, and believed that each nation had their own. He was not confronting Pharaoh, he was not insulting Pharaoh. He was speaking his language, and urging him to accept in his own terms the religious need to let the Israelites go.

Confrontation may be fun, and sometimes we certainly must speak truth to power, but there is a smarter way. Use our speech to connect with the other, and to gently move them on the path of spirituality. The way we talked determines how much of a miraculous life we can live. We should take courage from Moses's example, and not be afraid to go and talk to Pharaoh. And we should take heed of how God instructed Moses to do so, with understanding and a determination to communicate.