The magical character button

Take, for example, the perplexing story of the Israelite midwives. Pharaoh gave them an order to put to death every male child that was born. The midwives disobeyed him and kept the boys alive as well. When Pharaoh confronted them, they gave him an excuse: "The Israelite women are very lively, and before the midwife arrives, they have already given birth!" Pharaoh realizes that working through the midwives will not do the job, so the issues a general order that all male children must be thrown into the river.

I find this story completely confusing. First of all, how do the midwives have the nerve to give such a lame answer to Pharaoh? Granted that they were prepared to risk their lives and not kill the males, but what kind of excuse is this? Why didn't Pharaoh simply respond that they should kill the male babies when they find them? Further, why did Pharaoh accept such insubordination? He held the power of life and death over the Israelites, or so he thought, so why didn't he punish the midwives?

The ease with which the Israelites had access to Pharaoh and could openly debate Pharaoh's policy towards them with him directly is also amazing! Moses, Aaron, the representatives of the Israelites all seem to have free run of the palace! One could never imagine such a thing in World War II Germany.

A further question. What was Pharaoh's goal of having the male children killed? If he sought to limit the growth of the Israelite population, as implied in the verses which stress just how fruitful Israel was, he should've had the female children eliminated. After all, one male could impregnate many females, so killing the male children is less effective. If here and there, a male child was missed, the Israelites would continue to multiply in any case. Not so if the girls were killed.

One more question, and then we will try to answer them all. After the Israelites are liberated, and after they have received the Torah, there are a number of Commandments relating to the various nations that have oppressed us. First and foremost, is the commandment to eradicate the memory of Amalek. Then, we are enjoined to not despise the Edomite, "for he is your brother."

But one contrast seems to be striking. Regarding the Ammonites and Moabites, the Torah tells us to not allow them to join our people ever. Why? Because they did not bring out water and bread to us as we traveled through the wilderness. Regarding Egypt, however, we have an opposite approach. "Do not despise the Egyptian, for you were a guest in his land." What? What kind of hospitality was that? Decades upon decades of bitter servitude? And what kind of crime did the Ammonites and Moabites commit? It seems that what they did was far worse than the Egyptians! How can this be?

Our rabbis, perhaps in response to this question, tell us a story about Pharaoh's intentions regarding the Israelite males. His fortunetellers had informed him that a savior had been born to the Israelites. This savior would liberate them from Egyptian slavery and lead them out of the country. Pharaoh was not prepared to allow this to happen, so he ordered all of the males to be killed. In this way, he hoped that that savior would be among those eliminated.

From all of the above questions, I have come to a possible explanation. It is that the Egyptians were not "anti-Semitic," and did not hate the Israelites in the least. Allow me to explain.

I believe there are three kinds of jealousy in the world. The worst kind is one where the jealous individual despises the object of his jealousy and wishes him every harm. This is what Cain did to Abel. The best kind of jealousy is where the jealous individual wishes to learn from the example of the object of his jealousy and thus improve himself. In rabbinical literature, this is called "Jealousy of the scribes," which simply causes the jealous individual to become ever more scholarly.

But there is a middle kind of jealousy, not hatred, but not love and admiration either. It is when the jealous person wishes to subordinate the object of their jealousy to their own ambitions. Think of a hostile corporate takeover as opposed to a smear campaign.

I believe that Pharaoh and his Egyptian leadership possessed this kind of jealousy. They wanted Egypt to be the most powerful and successful empire in the world but were jealous of the remarkable success of the Hebrews. They held no hatred towards them, which makes sense in the context of what Joseph had done in saving Egypt. Nonetheless, they did not wish to befriend them or learn from them. They wished to harness their uniqueness for their own aims.

If this is true, we can understand the initial reluctance of Pharaoh to simply order the execution of the Jewish male babies. He told the midwives, in typical Mafia fashion, "Make it look like an accident." Make sure that the male babies are not successfully born, prevent the necessary life-saving actions during childbirth and let the babies die by themselves. To this, the midwives responded that by the time they got to the Israelite women, they had already given birth. Pharaoh had never ordered them to actually actively kill the babies. The Hebrew term used is "cause them to die." The words for kill and murder are not the same.

Pharaoh's obsession with a hostile takeover of the Israelites also explains why he wanted the male children eliminated. In the ancient world, certainly, it was the males who determine the identity of the family. If the girls would be killed, the Israelite males would then marry Egyptian girls and thus convert them to the Israelite way of life. If the boys were gone, then all that would be left were the girls who would then be married by Egyptians, guaranteeing their complete assimilation. That, after all, was Pharaoh's goal. He preferred the neater method of making it look like an accident, but when push came to shove, he ordered the boys thrown into the river.

(In a side point, our sages teach us that the stories of the book of Genesis foretell what would befall the descendants of the patriarchs in later generations. When Abraham and Sarah descended to Egypt because of a famine, Abraham requested that Sarah proclaim herself his sister instead of his wife. He was afraid that if they knew that he was her husband, they would kill him and take her away. Indeed, when she said that Abraham was her brother, that did save his life. She was then taken to be Pharaoh's wife. In a sense, this was the new Pharaoh's goal as well. Eliminate the potential husbands, and take the girls to be the Egyptian wives.)

There is a test written into the commandments to see whether we are truly free of both negative kinds of jealousy. The great sage Rabbi Akiva claimed that the essence of the Torah was the commandment, "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself." Somebody with one of the two negative jealousies will be incapable of fulfilling that commandment. Certainly, if they hate their competitor it will be impossible. But even if they simply view the person as a competitor, while they may not hate them, they will not be able to love them. Only one who views a competitor as a teacher will be able to observe this law.

Imagine you have a button which, when pressed, will grant your "competitor" immediate excellence and success. Would you be able to press that button? I'm not talking about a case where your competitor is seeking to put you out of business. I'm talking about a case where you both are simply doing your business and trying your best. Would you help your competitor? If your interest is to learn how to continually improve, you will press that button with gusto and then ask your competitor how he or she made it to the next level.

Now we can understand the difference between the Egyptians, on the one hand, and the Ammonites and Moabites on the other. The former were not haters. Yes, they were jealous, and they got punished for it. But they did not seek to destroy, only to subsume. But the Ammonites and Moabites refused to bring water and bread to a thirsty and suffering mass of humanity only from hatred. As a result, their character invalidates them from future entry to the nation of kindness, the nation of Israel.

The True Power of Children of Israel

Why does the Torah tell us at such great length of the dysfunctional relationship of Joseph and his brothers? We have three separate Torah readings to cover this entire story! That is a lot of focus, and the question is why.

The details of the story are known far and wide. I wish to probe Joseph's behavior towards his brothers when they came to Egypt to purchase food. Joseph was the second in command, and it was his job to oversee the food distribution during the years of famine. When the brothers, with the exception of Benjamin, stood before him, he recognized them quickly. They, however, did not recognize him. The Torah tells us that, "And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed to them, and now he became estranged to them and spoke harshly to them."

Joseph chooses to run his brothers through the wringer. He accuses them of being spies, requires them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt the next time they come. Until then, he will incarcerate Simon. At that moment, the brothers discuss among themselves their guilt in selling Joseph. "When our brother cried to us and begged us, we did not listen. Now his blood is being sought." Reuben responds with, "Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?"

Joseph is moved by this discussion, and must leave the room in order to cry. What moved him so? And if so, why did he continue the charade of accusing them of spying? Isn't their contrition clear? Why not reunite the family already?

The Torah gives us a hint by mentioning that Joseph's memory of the dreams was the catalyst for his behavior. Some commentaries see on Joseph's part an attempt to force the fulfillment of his dreams. 10 of his brothers have already bowed down to him. He still needs Benjamin to do so, and he needs the sun and moon, representing his father and mother, to do so as well. Since Rachel has already passed away, the commentaries say this refers to her maidservant, Bilhah. The problem I have with this approach is that Jacob did not bow down to Joseph when he arrived in Egypt. In fact, he only did it far after the fact, as he was on his deathbed. Joseph never seems to force that issue.

The commentary of rabbi Solomon Sorotzkin points out that the brothers expressed their guilt to each other when Simon was going to be locked up. They saw in this Divine retribution, where nine brothers consigned the 10th to slavery and incarceration. They were nine in number when they sold Joseph, and now nine of them would return to the land of Canaan, while the 10th would go to jail in Egypt. This indicated divine punishment for their parallel offense.

I believe that it was Reuben's comment that he had warned the brothers at the time not to harm Joseph that moved Joseph to tears. He probably hadn't known that not all of the brothers wanted to do away with them. Nonetheless, this contrition was not enough. It was the contrition of a thief who gets caught, no more than that. Joseph had a more rigorous goal for his brothers: to accept with joy his leadership. To become part of the mission, part of the team.

Joseph's dream about the brothers bowing to him was misunderstood by the brothers. To them, it is the vanquished that bows to the victor. For them, it was a zero sum game. If Joseph won, they lost. What was missing was the possibility that they were all on the same team.

That is what Joseph interpreted the dreams to mean. To him, bowing indicates submission to the mission. Subjects bow to a king in a gesture of willingness to join together in the national interest. There must be one leader, and bowing acknowledges that leader. Nonetheless, all are on the same team. And, in the case of Joseph and his brothers, what is this team called?

It is called a family. Family is the key to the Jewish people's mission. In a normal family, each individual is committed to the welfare of the others and of the whole. The family of Jacob have a mission, and everybody needs to be on board with it. Joseph sought, by this whole performance, to bring the brothers to the point of recognizing that he is the best leader for the family mission. When they reconcile at the end, he keeps stressing that they're selling them to slavery enabled him to save countless lives and entire nations.

Now, however, that the must be understood to have been a tragedy. The brothers must be brought to the same situation, where they face the same exact choice. Benjamin is the new Joseph, he is Jacob's new favorite son. Jacob is probably even more protective of Benjamin than he was of Joseph! So Joseph needs to see that the brothers are now going to stand up for each other, and become a true family. He is going to test them. He does it now with Simon, and they pass. He will do it with Benjamin, and when they pass that test, he can reveal himself.

How many families craft a mission statement? Individuals do it. Businesses do it. Families should as well. A family is the greatest possible team, and can accomplish the greatest feats. The family of Israel, even in the first generations, transformed the world.

Chanukah is a festival of family. The lighting of the candles is incumbent upon each household, not each individual. In theory, a person could fulfill the Mitzvah of candle lighting without touching a match and without seeing a flame. As long as the menorah is lit in the home, every member of that household has fulfilled their obligation.

The Talmud gives different levels of observance of this Mitzvah. The basic one is to have one candle for each household. The higher level is to have the amount of candles depend on the amount of members of the family. Thus, a family of four with light for candles every night Chanukah. The highest level is to light one additional candle with each night. That is the way we do it.

This emphasis on the family is not by accident. It was one family that brought about the entire miracle of Chanukah! The Macabbees were the sons of one man, Matityahu. This family chose a mission of national importance, and immediately attracted an army capable of defeating the powerful Greeks! That is how important a family mission is! Families create a team like nothing else. Thus, we fulfill the Mitzvah of Chanukah with an emphasis on the family.

On this Festival of Lights, let's kindle the light of family, and let's sit down as a family and write a mission statement. What a wonderful transformation this can bring! It is the secret of the power and eternity of the Jewish people.

Cain's Choice

The story that the medrash tells us about Lemech killing his ancestor Cain and his child Tuval Cain is, indeed, tragic. It brings up deep questions about Divine Justice. According to the Rabbis, Lemech was blind. He was out hunting with bow and arrow, accompanied by his third son, Tuval Cain, who was his "eyes". At one point, Tuval Cain sees what appeared to be an animal, and helped his father aim and shoot. When they discover that it was, indeed, Cain they had killed, Lemech claps his hands together in grief, accidentally killing (I guess by a blow to the head) Tuval Cain.

What does this story mean? Where was God's protection of Cain? Further, why did Lemech deserve to be the accidental victim of this tragedy? In truth, I believe that Lemech was not such an accidental killer, in a larger sense. The death of his ancestor and his son was not unrelated. In fact, one could say that Lemech killed his son before he killed him, and by so doing, he killed Cain forever. How so?

Think about it. Cain was now the father of all mankind. Abel died without offspring. The future of the human race is Cain's and it hinges on his sincere repentance for the act of murder he committed. Cain has, indeed, repented of the deed, but whether he has repented of the mindset that lead to the deed remained an open question. I suggest that it only became clear when the result of Cain's parenting and education of his children became visible in Lemech. What did Lemech do?

A couple of things. The Torah tells us about the careers of Lemech's three sons. Jabal was a shepherd. Jubal was a musician. Tuval Cain was a welder and blacksmith. According to Ramban, the great medieval commentator, Tuval Cain manufactured swords and spears, tools of violence. All three sons were taught their professions by Lemech. Thus, the first mistake of Lemech was in training his son to make these terrible things. The second was that he, himself, was a hunter. At this time in history, mankind was to be vegetarian.

Why would Lemech teach Tuval Caim armament manufacture? He would echo the gun lobby by saying that people kill, not weapons. By why make weapons in the first place? Perhaps he was afraid of others, and wanted to be able to defend himself. If so, that is the clear repudiation of Cain's repentence. Cain had been assured by God of a sign that would protect him. Cain had no need to arm himself. Indeed, Cain was ecstatic with his forgiveness. He finally found the Good Life. But not so Lemech.

In the Torah, there are two sections of Curses, one in Leviticus, and the other in Deuteronomy. They are both preceded by short sections of blessings and reward. "If you follow in my ways.." a number of wonderful things will happen. But if not, then a very long and fearful list of consequences follows. Now, according to the Talmud, God's attribute of kindness is greater than His Wrath. If so, then, I would expect the blessings to be much more plentiful than the curses.

In truth, I believe they are. The Curses, while certainly longer in text, are a list of details and specifics. The blessings, while shorter, are more global. A person who sees the world through negative lenses will find a thousand reasons to suffer. A person who sees and seeks the good will live in a world filled with light, flowers and music.

When a person begins to think of possibilities, they open up to them. The question of life is what possibilities one sees. Lemech saw a world of dangerous possibilities, that people could turn on him, that there were killers in potential. Further, by being a hunter, he himself had opened himself to killing. According to Jewish tradition, a shochet (kosher butcher) should also be cantor. Since he works in a cruel field, he should compensate by asking mercy for the people.

So when Lemech taught his son to make swords, he showed that Cain's repentance did not develop completely. The mindset that ignited his fratricidal jealousy was still influencing his descendents. Thus, since his repentance wasn't complete, his punishment now came at the hands of his descendent. And Tuval Cain was Lemech's victim too, by introducing him to this bleak mindset and influencing him to make tools of war.

When Adam and Eve saw what had become of the Cain lineage, they realized that the world would become a very bad place to live in. They took the only course they could to correct things, and had another son, Seth. Through him, humanity would have a better chance.

So this is the power of positive thinking, of what we choose to look at. Do we see the beauty in life, the wonders of nature, the glory of God? If so, weapons, jealousy, violence have no place in our heart and in our world. If we see the problems, the faults, the dangers, the they will be plentiful and they will be exaggerated. Even small things, like a brother succeeding where we failed, will become terrible sufferings for us.

The choice is ours. It starts with what we choose to look at in this world, to think about, to spend our time and energy on. If we choose to relive, in our minds, our achievements, the highlights of our days, we will be positive people, and our life will be The Good Life.

Where Is Noah's Ark?

The legend of the flood is remarkable in that it finds echoes across many different cultures, in every region of the world. The Hopi Indians in North America talk about righteous people surviving a flood by floating in giant reeds. Indigenous tribes in Hawaii talk about a righteous man who survived the flood in a ark and saw a rainbow at the flood's end. The famous Gilgamesh epic from Mesopotamia includes the survivor sending out a dove and a raven to see if the waters had receded.

All of this indicates that the flood is, indeed, accurate history. If so, it's reasonable to expect that a vessel as large as the ark might indeed have survived. Those who believe it has, claim it lies under the ice that permanently covers the summit of 17,000 foot Mount Ararat, in Northeastern Turkey. So far, though, all of the photographs, videos, and testimonies, are unconvincing at best.

After the biblical flood has receded and Noah and his family have emerged from the ark, they bring a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord. God smelled the pleasant aroma of their sacrifice, and decided that He would never bring another flood of such magnitude to the world. The Torah tells us God's reasoning: "For man's inclination is just evil from his youth, and therefore I shall not destroy everything as I have done."

That is a very strange reason! If man's inclination is evil, that sounds like more of a justification to bring more punishments, not less!

The biblical commentary of Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin expresses one line of understanding. Prior to the flood, he says, the physical substance of the earth was thicker and more influential over the character of man. So much so, that once man became entrapped in his evil ways, he could not escape. It was, in a sense, a form of spiritual quicksand. After the flood, however, the physical earth had been purified by the waters. Now, man's physical essence had been weakened. This gave his spirit a fighting chance. (Perhaps this can explain the dramatically decreased lifespans of the post-flood generations.)

The main word, according to Rabbi Sorotzkin, in God's explanation for His change of heart is "Inclination." Before the flood, man's essence had become evil. God only destroys when there is no hope of redemption. After the flood, man's good essence, presumably inherited from Noah, was primary. Any evil behavior was a function of man's inclination, the temptations of the moment. Before the flood, man was described as having "Only evil thoughts, all of the day." Now, man had a chance to think and do good things as well.

I believe that Noah's Ark does, indeed, exist, in a much more important place. Think about Noah. Here is a man surrounded by the most corrupt culture and history, who maintained his decency. Noah had tremendous faith, Noah refused to join in with the violence and upheavals of pre-flood society. That was a time when anarchy reigned, when the powerful judges abused their power to steal whatever they wished. "The land was filled with violence and theft." The rabbinical commentaries add sexual corruption even amongst the animals to underscore just how bad things were.

Imagine being one person in that whole crazy world who knew this was wrong! What tremendous strength of character! And so, God chose Noah and those he influenced, namely, his family, as the last great hope for humanity.

And inside that ark, something even more wonderful took place. The entire animal kingdom sent representatives to survive the flood. Who took care of them? Noah and his family. This was an intense, full time job of loving kindness. The ark was a bastion of faith, decency, morality, and caring.

I believe that any place where these character traits are taught, encouraged, and practiced, is where Noah's ark is. The world is going through upheavals, as it has been more or less since then. There are tremendously evil people and groups that wish to destroy civilization. The call of the extremist is very powerful. Those schools, houses of worship, places of kindness such as nursing homes, hospitals, homes for the disabled and so many thousands and millions of others, are all Noah's ark.

You see, when God smelled that sacrifice, he was smelling the beautiful aroma of Noah's beautiful character, his faith and his caring. God said that this is the real potential of humanity. If humanity does fall, it is only a temporary inclination. Whenever we see the world around us sending negative messages and descending into negative behavior, we should go into a Noah's Ark to find new strength.

And, then, we must also leave the ark and reenter the world as Noah did. But when we leave the ark, we must make sure that the ark never leaves us.

Noah and the Children of Hamas

The story is well-known. Man had become so corrupted that God decided to start over. Only one human, Noah, had maintained his righteousness. This was quite an accomplishment, as he went against the flow of all mankind. In doing so, he merited salvation for himself, his family, and representatives of the entire animal kingdom. The world was to be destroyed in a flood, Noah and his crew would be preserved in a floating Ark.

A consistent principle of Tora is that all punishments fit the crime, and that every remedy works on a deeper spiritual level. Thus, Noah's Ark is more than simply a lifeboat. It is a corrective for all of the ills of the society that earned destruction. How so?

There were a number of sins that the generation of the flood was guilty of. First of all, idolatry was prevalent. Second of all, sexual immorality was commonplace. Thirdly, theft and violence defined this society. If I had to choose an underlying character trait that fueled these transgressions, it would be cruelty. Idolatry presupposes a cruel god or gods who must be appeased (see the article on idolatry from last week). Sexual immorality presupposes cruelty through exploitation. The Bible says that the "Sons of the powerful ones took whom ever they wished to be their wives." They took them whether they wanted or not. Thirdly, theft and violence are certainly indicators of cruelty.

The experience of being in the Ark was an antidote to all of these sins. There was no idolatry in the Ark, only a reconnection to one God. Noah was not an idolater, nor was his family. As for sexual immorality, there were two of every species. They did not cohabit at all during the entire period of the flood, according to rabbinical tradition. Regarding theft and violence, there was none of that.

Regarding the underlying character trait of cruelty, the opposite was in force. Noah had to feed all the animals daily. They had to be fed before the humans sat down to eat. Their needs had to be cared for. This entire enterprise called for kindness and love. No one loves another human being more than its mother and father. That is because they have sacrificed greatly for the child. The more one does for others, the more one loves them and cultivates the character trait of kindness. Noah's Ark was an incubator of kindness. In truth, Noah's Ark was the ultimate act of kindness on God's part towards Noah, his family, and all the animals.

I think there is something even more significant in the Ark experience. When Noah emerges from the Ark, it is not long before he indulges in drink and becomes intoxicated. Drunkenness is usually a manifestation of depression, and I think Noah was deeply depressed. What was the reason for that? After all, God has spared him and his family, and had cast a rainbow in the heavens to promise that they would never be another flood. What was there to be sad about?

I believe that Noah's Ark represented a return to the womb for all of mankind. Inside the mother's womb, all is love and kindness. So it was inside the Ark. It was a period of complete innocence and purity. There was no cynicism, no bitterness, no sin. Life may have been cramped in there, but it was deeply beautiful.

Sometimes I look at the toys my little children play with. When I think about it, it can actually make me sad to realize that they will outgrow them. In fact, someday my children, with God's help, will reach a ripe old age. At that point, the mobile that had them squealing with joyous laughter as infants will have no significance. That made me sad. Why do we need to leave behind such a beautiful time of life, when the simplest things fill us with joy?

I am guessing that this is the reason Noah was sad. The innocence of the Ark was going to fade, and he knew it. He chose to escape to another "beautiful" place, alcoholic stupor. Everything is happy, everything is simple. In that stupor, Noah took off all his clothes. Was this a subconscious attempt to return to the womb?

This might also explain Noah's reaction to his son, Ham, who saw his nakedness. He cursed him to be a slave to his brothers. Perhaps he saw in Ham's reaction the cynicism that would lead to renewed corruption in the world. Better he'd be subservient to his righteous brothers, who represented a better chance for humanity.

But was Noah's sadness and fear justified? Perhaps not, and perhaps one aspect of the Ark provides the hope that could've spared Noah his depression. The aspect was a special window, or a glowing stone, that was called a "Tzohar." Whether it was a stone or a window, I believe it represents the same thing: spirituality. If it was a glowing stone, it illuminated life inside the Ark, just as the soul illuminates the body. If it was a window, it provided a glimpse of heaven, which inspires spirituality.

According to tell music legend, and angel is present inside the womb when every fetus develops. It teaches the fetus the entire Tora. Just as the child is to be born, the angel touches the baby on the lip and causes him to forget everything he had learned. What is the point of that? To imbue the child with deep spirituality. It's not the details of Tora that is important for a baby, it is the thirst for it. The baby will want to reacquire that spirituality just as any person wishes to recover a lost precious object.

Thus, spirituality is the key to eternal purity and happiness. To maintain the joy of the womb into adult life we must be spiritual people. Cruelty is a physical character trait, predicated on causing physical and emotional hurt. Lust is a physical character traits, seeking to acquire physical pleasure and possessions. Kindness, however, is a spiritual trait where the person denies themselves in order to help others. The tzohar and the kindness required by the running of the Ark provides a spirituality to the rebirth-womb experience of mankind. Let us be spiritual people.

Creation and the Land of Israel

Indeed, the great commentator Ramban is puzzled by Rabbi Isaac's question. Why does the Torah begin with creation? Obviously, because belief in God is the creator of the universe is at the center of everything! I would expect the Torah to begin with it! To this, the Ramban replies that the Torah could have included a simple phrase, perhaps in the first of the 10 Commandments. "I am the Lord thy God who created the heavens and the earth." That would do it. Instead, we have the entire creation story, including Adam and Eve, the tree of knowledge, Cain and Abel and more. They are there to teach us a powerful lesson, and it is that which Rabbi Isaac is presenting.

As we read the stories of Adam, Cain and Abel, and so forth, there is a common thread. The people in the story commit a sin and are exiled from where they were as a result. Adam and Eve are banished from the garden of Eden, Cain, after he slays his brother, must wander around the world. What we are being taught is that there is a spiritual content to the physical land. The land of Israel, especially, simply cannot tolerate sinners upon it. Hence, the seven nations of Canaan who practiced human sacrifice and other abominations, could not be abided by the holy land. In their place, came the nation of Israel, with its commitment to God's Torah and morality.

Thus, we are being taught that our actions and moral stature have consequences.

But I might still ask why, then, the Torah doesn't have a problem-free rendition of the Genesis story? Why go into details about the six days of creation? After all, science has demonstrated convincingly that the earth is far older than just 6000 years, and that each stage described in the creation epic lasted far longer than a simple day. If the Torah would have simply said, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth," and left it at that, there would be no conflict between science and the Bible. Why give me 31 verses that give an impression at odds with scientific discovery?

There are different ways of resolving this seeming contradiction. Some claim that the world was, indeed, created in six days and that those six days were, indeed, about 6000 years ago. They say, however, that God created the world as if it were in midlife. Dinosaur fossils and astronomical echoes of the Big Bang (13.7 billion years ago) are simply there to give the impression that the world is older. I don't like this approach, because it implies that God intentionally tried to mislead mankind. The idea that God created dinosaur fossils of dinosaurs that never actually existed seems, to me, ridiculous.

Some interpret the six days of creation as referring to epochs, rather than 24 hour days. The sum total of those epochs might indeed be 13.7 billion years. I am okay with that. But there is another explanation that excites me.

Dr. Gerald Schroeder, the author of Genesis and the Big Bang, demonstrates how 6 24-hour days can equal 13.7 billion years. It all depends on where you are measuring the time. His premise is that the universe is stretching, and that time is a physical property that gets stretched along with it. Similar to a sheet of rubber with lines drawn every centimeter. Stretch it out, and those lines get farther and farther apart. The universe has been expanding at a rate of 900 billion times per day. As it expands, the relative passage of time changes dramatically. Imagine someone at the location of the Big Bang who sends out a pulse of light every second. For them, a second is a second, a 24 hour day feels like a 24 hour day, and 5 1/2 of them feel like 5 1/2 days.

Now, imagine someone on earth, which is billions of light-years away, receives the pulse of light. The next pulse will not arrive one second later. It can't because space has been stretched out so far. Instead, it will probably arrive millions of years later. The equation is: 900 billion×5 1/2 days (the amount of time from the beginning of creation until the creation of Adam) divided by 365 days a year equals 13.6 billion years! In other words, if we measure the first 5 1/2 days of creation at the origin of the Big Bang, from God's perspective, as it were, it equals 13.6 billion earth years. Only when Adam is created does the location of the clock shift to Earth.

The Big Bang theory posits that the universe existed as energy in a minuscule speck. Energy takes no space, so even a speck may be an exaggeration. That speck exploded and began to form matter, and the universe began to stretch and an increasing rate. Dr. Schroeder accepts the Big Bang theory and has shown us how the timing described in the Bible can be in complete agreement with the paleontology and astronomy that indicate the world is quite old.

What is amazing is that this Big Bang theory is not just from the mid-20th century, but was stated 750 years ago. The great Ramban, in his commentary on Genesis, describes exactly the same process. Everything was in a small speck that had no substance to it, and then God caused all matter to be generated from this one speck.

Perhaps the 31 verses of the creation story are put into the Torah so we should realize that science cannot throw us any curveballs. Taken together with the Ramban's explanation of Rashi and Rabbi Isaac we gain a new level of understanding. While science hasn't shown this yet, there is a spiritual component in creation that requires harmonized living by human beings. "The world stands upon three things: Torah, service, and acts of kindness," teach our sages. Perhaps they are doing more than just giving us good advice, perhaps they are describing this as yet unmeasured spiritual element in creation. We, who have the Torah, no this intrinsically. The more we harmonize our lives with the spiritual essence of the land, the more we will grow and blossom.

The missing story of the Sukkot

A further indication of the mystery of when these sukkot actually were provided by God, as indicated by the above-quoted verse, is the fact that two great scholars debate what these sukkot actually were. One, Rabbi Akiva, claims they were actual sukkot, like the ones we use today. Rabbi Eliezer, on the other hand, claims they were the "Clouds of Glory" that tradition holds surrounded the Israelites in the wilderness. How can there even be such a debate if this were a clear historical event?

For these reasons, I wish to propose a different reading of the verse from Vayikra. "You shall dwell in sukkot (the booths) .. for I caused the Children of Israel to dwell in Sukkot (the place) when I brought them out of Egypt." The clear historical event being referenced is the arrival of Israel in Sukkot, their first stop as a free people. This moment was as important, if not more so than the Exodus itself. How so? Why have a major festival about it?

Because the Torah is telling us that Sukkot is, in a manner of speaking, Yom HaAtzmaut. It is the day we became a nation and the day we began our journey throughout history to "fix the world in the Kingdom of the All-Powerful." The verse starts off telling us, "YOU must dwell in booths," and continues in the third person, "because I caused the ISRAELITES to dwell (be established) at Sukkot."It could have said "because I caused YOU to dwell etc..." My reading of the verse is, then, that we live in booths on this holiday because God established the Nation of Israel as an independent nation with a Divine mission at Sukkot. Why there? Because this was our first encampment as a free people. This was the very beginning of our national journey.

But it was a false start. We stumbled just a few months later with the Golden Calf, which caused Rabbi Eliezer's Clouds of Glory to be taken away, not to return until the 15th of Tishrei, i.e., our Sukkot date. It was then that the journey truly began and has not been interrupted since. For this we celebrate. We commemorate Israel's founding, which is certainly up there with the Exodus and the Revelation.

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Eliezer, who argue whether the actual sukkot in which we dwelled during those first decades of our national journey, are in reality debating HOW we are to go about this national mission. The goal is bringing God's Kingship to all of humanity. Are we to achieve this passively, observing the commandments and waiting for God to transform the world? Or are we to be proactive partners in this all-important mission? Are we witnesses or participants?

Rabbi Eliezer says that Sukkot are actually Clouds of Glory. That kind of sukkah is made by God, and we are simply the witnesses to God who dwell in that heavenly sukkah. In this, he is true to form. Rabbi Eliezer consistently sees man's role as to be the recipient of Divine wisdom and direction, and not as a co-creator of that wisdom. Thus, in a famous Talmudic story, Rabbi Eliezer seeks to prove his point in a Jewish legal debate by invoking signs from Heaven. He calls forth a heavenly voice, which proclaims, "What have you (other rabbis) against Rabbi Eliezer, whose opinion is always followed in Jewish law?" Rabbi Joshua, another scholar participating in this spirited debate, rebukes the Divine voice. "The Torah is no longer in Heaven!" he declares. But Rabbi Eliezer feels that it is.

Rabbi Akiva, on the other hand, believes in man as full partner with God in fixing the world as God's Kingdom. His approach to Jewish law is one of interpreting and extracting laws by analysis. He, therefore, suggests that the sukkot we had after we left Egypt were, indeed, sukkot made by man, with materials from the Earth, not from Heaven. His approach is most appropriate for Jewish relevance, as it enables the scholars of each generation to adapt to changing times and societies with an authentic Judaism.

We need both approaches. We need the traditions of Rabbi Eliezer to ensure that Judaism remains authentic. We need the exegesis of Rabbi Akiva to ensure that Judaism remains relevant. At the end of the argument cited above, the Talmud tells us that another rabbi, Rabbi Nathan, encountered Elijah the Prophet and asked him how God felt about being "overruled (as all of Rabbi Eliezer's divine signs did not carry the day)." God smiled, replied Elijah, and said: "My children have conquered Me." Rabbi Norman Lamm translates the reply differently, changing the word "conquered" to mean "made Me eternal." (Lenazeach is to defeat, whereas laasot nizchi means to make eternal. They both can be seen in the word used, "nitzchuni.")

Thus, Sukkot celebrates our arrival in freedom, our national founding at Sukkot. We then embarked on our world-fixing journey, dwelling in either Clouds of Glory from above, or earthly sukkot from below, depending on whom you ask. Either way, Sukkot now has tremendous importance, for it is no longer a commemoration of the past (as are Pesach and Shavuot), but a celebration of the Jewish future!

The Rebellious Son and School Safe Spaces

This commandment is a deeply troubling one, and commentaries have been wrestling with it from time immemorial. It is the commandments of the Rebellious Son. This child refuses to listen to his father and mother, and despite their disciplining him, he persists in his ways. He is to be brought to the court, and, possibly, given capital punishment.

The rabbis have worked hard to make this seemingly excessively harsh commandment makes some sense. First of all, they teach us that the Torah has limited application of this commandment so much that, perhaps, never such a case arose. By interpreting every word, we receive requirements such as: the child must be exactly at the bridge age of maturity, a period that lasts about three months, and he must have stolen a certain amount of meat and consumed a certain amount of wine, and that his parents must have similar voices, and that they must be able to walk.

Yet, even by limiting it, it still seems a difficult commandment to understand. Where is the guilt? Why is this child / man being put to death? The sages claim that it is a preemptive punishment. Based on these behaviors, it is a certainty that this young man will grow up to be a criminal of violent nature. It is better for him to die now, while he still is innocent. In this, the sages see a strong proof of the concept of reward and punishment in the world to come.

Nonetheless, this answer raises the question of free will versus God's foreknowledge. How can we be sure that the child will grow up to be a violent criminal, if there is free choice? Perhaps he will repent! One commentary suggests that the phrase, "He doesn't listen to his father's voice and his mother's voice," does not just referred to his biological father and mother. His Father, refers to Our Heavenly Father, and his mother refers to the assembly of Israel. In other words, this child has already rebelled against God and against the people of Israel.

But still, perhaps he will repent? Should we kill him and remove that possibility?

There is a verse in the Psalms that reads,."..[God] Understands to all of their actions." It does not say, "God understands all their actions," rather, "TO all their actions." In other words, God's knowledge of each person is so complete that he can know with certainty how they will behave in every future situation. It seems that the same is true of the rebellious son. The Torah is telling us that, if these symptoms are in place, there is no chance that he will not become a violent criminal.

The commentary Ohr Hachaim points to one word which may be the key to this entire, unusual, mitzvah. The rebellious son, "does not listen." In truth, however, the word for this is mistranslated. Literally, it means, "he is not someone who hears." It's to be compared to the King's guards, who are robbing the citizens. When the citizens come to complain to the King, will these guards allow them in? Of course not. This is what happens when one allows one's evil inclination to be one's ruler, such as is the case with the rebellious son.

I believe that this is the hidden message in the requirement that the rebellious son have eaten a certain quantity of meat and consumed a certain quantity of wine. The eating of meat itself is no great sin! When it is stolen, it becomes a sin. But when the young man drinks wine, he is drowning the spark of conscience with it. This is how he ensures that he will never hear "the voice of his father and the voice of his mother," whether it refers to his biological parents or to God and the Jewish people.

To be sure that indeed it is the young man himself that was the problem, the Torah requires the parents to be speaking with a unified voice. It requires them to attempt to discipline this child. And it requires them to be physically capable of carrying out such discipline. Clearly, their parenting was not perfect, since they are victims of the young man's punishment as well. But it is the young man who has chosen, despite being given an opportunity to grow up in a proper educational environment, to stop listening. If the parents were negligent or incapable of disciplining the child, he would not be deemed a rebellious son. That rebellion must come from within, must include a conscious decision to listen to no one but his own desires.

As we prepare for Rosh Hashanah, the message of this commandment is clear: Listen! Seek out lectures on ethical improvements, on Torah values. Listen to the needs and insights of those close to you. And, most of all, listen to the sound of the shofar, for the shofar is the voice of conscience.

The commandment that never was

The rabbis of the Talmud debated whether this commandment was actually a reality, or simply a theoretical. Rabbi Yehuda says that there never was, and never will be, an instance of the Rebellious Son. Why, then, was it written? The famous answer, "Inquire into it, and receive your reward." In other words, since the study of the Torah brings with it reward, here is another mitzvah to study for more reward.

One could ask why we need an impossible Commandment to study? You could say "Inquire into it and receive your reward" about all of the commandments of the Torah! Further, with an introduction like that, I would expect there to be volumes upon volumes of exegesis on this topic of the Rebellious Son. There aren't. There is one short chapter in the tractate Sanhedrin, just a few pages.

In a lighter way, one could explain the instruction to "inquire into it" to mean "extract so many requirements for a guilty verdict from nuances in the biblical text so as to make an actual case of this completely impossible." Indeed, here are the requirements that our sages extrapolate from these verses:

The parents must be of the same height and have the same voice. They must both be completely physically functioning, not lame, not deaf, dumb, or blind, and with both their hands. The child must be in the physical process of maturing, which the sages teach us is approximately three months before his bar mitzvah up to his bar mitzvah. The child must eat a certain amount of meat and drink a certain amount of wine.

With all of these requirements, an actual case of the Rebellious Son indeed becomes an impossibility.

There is, however, an opinion in the Talmud that this commandment was, indeed, fulfilled. Rabbi Yonatan claims that he saw it, and even sat on the rebellious son's grave. In a similar discussion, the commandment of the "Seduced City," one that worships idols in its entirety and must be completely destroyed, is debated. One Rabbi claims that it never happened and never will happen, while Rabbi Yonatan claims that it did happen, and he sat on the archaeological mound of the remains of that city.

This argument is difficult to understand. Are they arguing about historical facts? As a rule, such arguments do not take place in the Talmud. Secondly, why does Rabbi Yonatan stress that he sat on the grave of the rebellious son, and sat on the mound of the seduced city? What does this symbolize?

One could say that Rabbi Yonatan is teaching us something we all have experienced, namely, "Never say never." Ripley's Believe It or Not actually exists. But this answer leaves the question of whether they are debating historical facts in place. Can we find another approach?

The Mishna tells us that the rebellious son is judged according to his ultimate destiny. A child who meets all of these requirements will certainly, 100%, grow up to become a violent criminal. Thus, it is better that he die now, before his bar mitzvah. In that way, he will arrive at the World to Come as a righteous child, rather than as an evil adult later on.

This is also problematic, as it seems to contradict the concept of free choice and to deny this individual the opportunity of repentance. Nonetheless, the sages seem to be teaching us a lesson that, under certain extreme circumstances, a person can immunize himself from the pangs of conscience. Indeed, when it comes to the requirements of the parents, the sages are showing us that this child must have nothing to blame his bad behavior on. His parents must be exemplary, unified, capable. They must rebuke him and teach him as he grows. If all of these things are in place, and the rebellious son continues with contrary behavior, then he has demonstrated his impossibility of repentance.

This suggests to me a new explanation of this puzzling commandment. I will give a parable. A road that passes by a steep cliff must have a strong fence to keep cars from going over the edge. Such a strong fence could be constructed as to make crashing through it and going over the cliff completely impossible. The cliff, however, does not disappear and cease to exist because of the presence of the fence. It is simply impossible for any car to crash over it. Pure physics.

So it is with this commandment. A convicted rebellious son is theoretically possible, but physically and psychologically impossible. Why? Because if the parenting is perfect, as the sages require, human nature will not allow the child to fail. Only if the parents are faulty will the son become rebellious. True, he will no longer be subject to the Rebellious Son penalty, but he will be tremendous trouble to his parents and society nonetheless, and that's no good.

Thus, the commandment is not in vain. Rabbi Yehuda is urging us to inquire, and learn just how to make sure that this sad situation will never happen. By understanding this commandment, we will understand how to be excellent parents and teachers. The reward will be, as we said above, that there will never be a rebellious son, or even a slightly rebellious son, not in law and not in practice. Rabbi Yehuda tells us that, with proper parenting, there never was and never will be a failure.

And what are these lessons of proper parenting?

  1. The parents must have the same voice. This is a literal impossibility since men and women are constructed differently vocally. What it means is that they must be speaking the same message. They must be speaking it in the same fashion. When a child receives a unified message from his parents, he will learn right and wrong with clarity.
  2. The parents must be of the same height. While this is more practical, it still is rare. I believe the height mentioned here refers to spiritual height. It must be of the same stature, sharing the same religious commitments. Not just their voices must be unified, their actions must be as well.
  3. They must not be lame, blind, deaf, or dumb. In other words, they must be aware of and involved in their child's development. They must hear, see, teach, assist and accompany their child actively, throughout the formative years.
  4. The commandment applies to a child in the three months before he becomes physically mature. In other words, special attention is paid to those moments in life when a path must be chosen and when a change is to take place. Teaching children how to make important decisions is not easy, but maybe the most important lessons that they will learn.
  5. The child must eat meat and drink wine. If he does one without the other, he is not judged as a Rebellious Son. The eating of meat symbolizes lusts and passions. The drinking of wine symbolizes the silencing of the voice of conscience. Every human struggles with lusts and passions, but without the voice of conscience, there is no hope for correction.

Rabbi Yonatan, by claiming that he sat on the grave of the rebellious son, and on the mound of the seduced city, is not disagreeing with Rabbi Yehuda! The great Maharal of Prague explained Rabbi Yonatan's statement as being an allegory to the Jewish people. "My firstborn son is Israel," and our father is God, and our mother is the eternity of Israel. The Israelites sinned, they rebelled against both. The result? Exile. Jerusalem was the seduced city and was destroyed by the Romans. When Rabbi Yonatan tells us that he sat on these things, he may have used the word "sat" as a code word for "mourned." The mourner "sits shiva." All of Israel mourns the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem on the ninth of Av.

What I learn from this commentary is that, according to Rabbi Yonatan, this commandment was factual in part. Aspects of the rebellious son were our national shame in the past, and the exiles and sufferings of the Jewish people were the accompanying judgment. And so, if we inquire and improve the way that we influence each other, the way that we lift ourselves up as a nation, we shall certainly receive our reward! What will that reward be? That there will no longer be a rebellious son and a seduced city, rather a loyal son and a rebuilt city!

Jealousy and the Evil Eye

The long and the short of it is that we do, with reservations. European Jews are always saying, "keneyna hara.” That means, "Let there be no evil eye!" It's even mentioned in the Talmud. And the Talmud gives us a remedy as well. What is it?

The Talmud instructs us to clasp our hands and recite the following formula: "I am a descendent of Joseph the righteous, and therefore the evil eye has no power over me." Then a biblical verse is to be recited, and the person has nothing to fear.

How does this work?

Abraham was given the power to bless. He was, for all intents and purposes, God's conduit for blessing. How was this so?

In order for a blessing to take place, there must be some good to begin with. Blessing means increase, as we have previously noted in another entry, so it increases an already existing good.

Other people may see the blessings we have and react to them in one of two ways. They can either be jealous of the blessing, or rejoice in our good fortune. The jealous types will curse, and the generous types will bless. The former wants to destroy our blessing, the latter wants to increase it.

When a jealous person sees another's success, their jealousy is the equivalent of the evil eye. In fact, it is the definition of it. An eye looks at something, examines it. The evil eye, in effect, is asking a very difficult question: "Does this person really deserve this blessing?"

And then, in heaven, ever sensitive to the needs of fairness, this person's blessing is examined. Just like a blessing requires something to grow from, so, too, a curse requires something to destroy from. If there is anything imperfect in the blessing, or its recipient, the evil eye's curse has upon what to take hold. Heaven may remove the blessing because of the accusation called "evil eye".

Abraham always saw the good in others, and thus had the power to bless. He found the good points, was generous of nature, and was God's conduit for blessing. Joseph, however, was even more powerful. He defeated the evil eye time and time again. Let's look at his story briefly.

Starting with his father's favoritism, Joseph was the victim of the evil eye of his brothers. He could have been bitter towards them, thus creating the negative energy that their evil eye could use to destroy him. He didn't, and his first example of immunity to the evil eye was demonstrated. Later, when Potiphar's wife cast her eye upon him, he defeated it by not succumbing to her temptations.

Finally, when he was blessed with the leadership of Egypt, he never gave in to pettiness, never resented anyone else's success, and never sought to take revenge against those who caused him harm. Thus, he defeated the evil eye at every turn.

That is how we can, too. By always being positive, never being vindictive or jealous, we following Joseph's footsteps. This little Talmudic gesture is meant to remind us of that, and not simply a "counter voodoo technique."

Never hesitate to bless, never hesitate to rejoice in others success. Always be a conduit of positive energy, and you will be immune to the evil eye when success comes your way! May this happen soon!