You are a King

"The Lord did not guide them through the land of the Philistines, lest they see war and return to Egypt," we are told in the book of Exodus. This is strange, considering the fact that they will see war sooner rather than later in any event. In fact, shortly after they finished crossing the Red Sea, they are forced to do battle with Amalek!

But, before that, there is a much more fundamental question. After all, had the Israelites gone via the Philistine territories, they would have witnessed the splitting of the Red Sea. That miracle, considered by the Hagadah of Passover to be five times more significant than the 10 plagues, would never have happened! Why, then, does God need to explain His reason for avoiding the land of the Philistines as relating to war? They needed to go to the Red Sea in order to witness that earthshaking miracle!

The Katav Sofer offers a powerful explanation. Earlier in Exodus, the people do not believe Moses's news about the upcoming redemption "from shortness of breath and hard labor." The Rabbi explains the psychology. If you tell someone who is suffering that their situation will improve slightly, they will believe you and welcome the news. If you tell them that they will have a complete recovery within 24 hours, they will most probably reject what you say as false comfort.

The Israelites were suffering so tremendously that the only news they could handle would be of some improvement in their situation. It's enough to tell them that they will be eventually leaving Egypt. That, they might believe. But to tell them that there would be tremendous miracles and wonders, 10 plagues and the splitting of the sea, would be too much for them to accept. And so it was. Someone who is in such a low situation is incapable of believing in anything more than a moderate improvement in their situation.

Thus, says the Rabbi, the newly freed slaves will still be unable to trust in their own future. They will not have faith in the face of something terrible that they have never seen before: war. They will immediately run to that which is familiar, to Egypt. It's not that they are bad people, it's that nothing in their experience has prepared them for the possibility that they could actually fight and win a war! It is simply too much to ask for them to accept.

All of that changed at the Red Sea. When Israel witnessed God split the sea, and drown the Egyptians in it, their view of what is possible changed completely. "The maidservant at the sea saw more than the prophet Ezekiel in his prophecies," say our sages. They now know that God is capable of anything in this world, and that they are on His team.

When the Jewish people arrive at Mount Sinai, God tells Moses that they shall be "a kingdom of priests." In other words, every Israelite will be both a king and a priest. What does this mean? Why this strange combination? Let's look at a king first. This is practical, for we all have the potential to become kings.

What defines a king? Simply, the ability to rule a people and get things done. The king gives an order, it must be carried out. It is potential and power. The Israelites became like kings at the splitting of the sea because they now believed in the power of God, and themselves as God's people, to create tremendous change in the world. And, indeed, Jews have been changing the world from then on. But, if the king rules his people, who rules the king? Who, or what, tells him what to do?

Kings are certainly guided by policy, tradition, advisers and so forth. But the main thing that guides the king is his goal and purpose as being king. A king dedicated to his own glory and wealth, as history has known so many times, will be a tyrant and an oppressor. A king guided by the desire to protect and advance his people will be a benevolent king.

This is where the concept of "priest" comes into play. A priest is dedicated to the service of God. He is a servant. Thus, a king who regards himself as a servant of his people and his God will fulfill his role magnificently. This is the task of the Jewish people. We must be kings, aware of our potential to change the entire world. At the same time, we must regard ourselves as priests, as servants of God. We must let Him define our goals, the goals that guide us in our "kingdoms." God wishes to protect and advance humanity, to improve it and bring it to a state of peace and goodness.

Thus, the detour to the Red Sea prepared the Israelites for the wars that would start in just a few days and weeks. The difference was, now that they saw God's potential and power, they were capable of believing in their eventual ability to prevail. They became kings, and next turn their steps towards Mount Sinai, where they will become priests as well. This is the Jewish mission in every generation: to believe in God and achieve the impossible.

Sweeter Than Revenge

It appears that Joseph reconciles with the brothers after he reveals his identity to them. He calms them down and says, "while you may have thought [selling me as a slave] was a bad thing, God considered it a good thing. It enabled the saving of an entire people [from starvation]." They then proceed to live their lives apparently at peace. But all is not well.

After their patriarch, Jacob, dies, the brothers are seized by the fear that Joseph will now take revenge upon them. They invent a message from their father: "Please forgive the sins of your brothers, for they have done evil to you." When Joseph hears this, he cries. Why, now, years after they supposedly reconciled, are the brothers in a panic that Joseph will pay them back? What was left undone?

There is an amazing story told about the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein. After a dispute between two people was adjudicated by him, Rabbi Moshe instructed the parties to forgive each other. One did so easily. The other hesitated. Rabbi Moshe pressed him. The fellow said, "Not to worry, everything is okay." This was not good enough for Rabbi Feinstein. "You must say explicitly that you forgive him," insisted the Rabbi. The man gave in.

After the litigants left, a student asked Rabbi Moshe why he was so insistent. The Rabbi answered, "On Yom Kippur, we read the prayer about the 10 martyrs, the 10 rabbis killed by Rome. The prayer says they were killed as a punishment for the sin of the brothers when they sold Joseph. Wasn't that resolved at the time? The answer is, Joseph never said to the brothers that he forgives them. He said that it was for the best, that God had a plan, but he never said, 'I forgive you.'"

In other words, there was no complete reconciliation. The brothers felt this, and years later they still had a sense of guilt and fear regarding Joseph. How did this happen? Wasn't Joseph extremely magnanimous with them? He seemed to imply that they shouldn't feel any guilt whatsoever! "God considered a good thing," Joseph reassured them.

That is exactly where Joseph erred. His mistake was in absolving them from sin. If he absolves them from sin, then they didn't do anything wrong. How can they ever apologize? The brothers never do apologize. Joseph had prevented it. The closest they get is the invented message, put in the mouth of their deceased father, begging Joseph to forgive them. When they deliver this message to Joseph, they fall on their faces and proclaim, "We will be your slaves." But they, themselves, never say they are sorry. And Joseph never demanded of them. And so, they swept it under the rug where it continued to fester throughout their lives, and throughout Jewish history at different times.

Why did Joseph and the brothers fail to deal with the elephant in the room? Why did Joseph short-circuit his brothers' need to apologize? While that's a question for psychologists, I will hazard a suggestion. Sometimes people are uncomfortable being human. Being human means that you have feelings and that you are fallible. Very often, the people who appear toughest are the most sensitive. That toughness is an overcompensation for vulnerability. Joseph cries a lot in this whole episode, and those tears are his humanity seeking to express itself. Each time he suppresses it and acts as if he is above all this, his vulnerability chokes him up.

There is an additional aspect. There is no conflict between individuals that is not two-sided. Joseph also needed to apologize for the way he treated the brothers in his youth. His dreams, his privileged status, and his being a tattletale to his father contributed to the brothers' hatred. True, what they did to him was far worse, but he had what to say "sorry" for as well.

But if he absolves them from any guilt, he also absolves himself. Thus, Joseph's approach of, "Let's leave the past alone and just get on with our lives," is extremely unhealthy. We must own and embrace our own humanity. I once asked my teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, if one is allowed to tell one's spouse how another person has hurt them. Would that be considered "Lashon Hara," or, evil speech? Rabbi Soloveitchik answered, "of course he can tell. If he can't tell his wife, it will eat him up from inside. Who else can he tell?"

The blockage to reconciliation is when we try to be above ourselves, negating our own humanity and feelings. We need to be truthful about what is in our hearts. We need to think about those with whom we have uncomfortable feelings, and we need to embrace them, too. That means being honest, sharing our feelings, and deciding together if we really want to have a future relationship. I can promise that reconciling like this is far sweeter than any revenge could ever be.

Alcoholism and the month of Elul

As you would imagine, quite the opposite. The Jewish New Year opens the season known as the "Days of Awe". This is a time of judgment and introspection, of repentance from sin. That's hardly a goal to be accomplished through all night partying. Judaism is a religion of life in the here and now, with the goal of the future. It never preaches escapism, with the sole exception being Purim, a subject for another post later in the year.

In fact, religious Jews consume more alcohol than the average citizen, yet have the lowest incidence of alcoholism. This is because of the circumstances of that drinking. It is almost entirely ritual based, from the Friday night kiddush, to the Saturday morning Kiddush, to the Havdala on Saturday night, to the various occasions of life that call for a "lechaim". In other words, almost all of the drinking is a celebration of life and faith, rather than an escape from it.

And so it is that we enter the month of preparation for Rosh Hashana with the words of love from King Solomon. Solomon, as we know, was the author of Ecclesiastes, a book probing the meaning of life. In it, he tells how he "tried everything out" to see where true human happiness and fulfillment lie. He tried partying, laughter therapy, materialism, you name it. His conclusion? All these are escapism, and while they may make for a pleasant diversion, they fail the ultimate test of true happiness.

That, says King Solomon, lies in "fear (of) the Lord and fulfill(ment of) His commandments". Beats partying by a country mile. That is the spirit we must cultivate as we enter this most potential-filled time of the year. It is a time of love from God to man and man to God.

What's love got to do (got to do) with it?

Easy. Love is identity. Live requires two beings to exist and know who they are. A love relationship requires an "I" and a "Thou". A conflicted person is limited in their ability to love. Repentance and re-dedication to our spiritual identity make love possible and strengthen it. Thus, love of God, repentance and introspection all grow together in this month of "I am for my beloved, and my beloved is for me."

May we all be blessed with a month of love leading to a year of life, peace and fulfillment.

How to Use the Staff of God

In the remarkable scene when Moses and Aaron confront Pharaoh, there is a contest of the staffs. Aaron throws his to the ground, and it becomes a snake. Pharaoh, unimpressed, signals to his magicians to do the same thing. Surprisingly, God allows the trick to work, and the Egyptians' staffs also become snakes. The big twist, pardon the pun, is that Aaron's snake swallows the snakes of the Egyptians, and then returns to being a staff when Aaron grabs it. The Egyptians are left without their staffs or snakes. Tradition tells us that the staff of Aaron did not gain size despite having swallowed the three Egyptian snakes.

The commentator Katav Sofer writes that this episode teaches us a fundamental principle of miracles. Both a snake and a staff can inflict pain, but one is the initiator and one is merely the means. A snake initiates the attack. A staff is a passive piece of wood in the hands of somebody else. Pharaoh believed that he was a snake, that he controlled the suffering inflicted on the children of Israel.

In truth, he was merely a staff. His snakes were swallowed by Aaron's snake, and became a staff in Aaron's hands. In other words, Pharaoh was a puppet, not an initiator.

Why was the staff necessary for performing miracles? In order to hide the miracle as much as possible. This is because open miracles are vastly inferior to concealed ones. Open miracles involve a complete suspension of the rules of nature. Such a suspension will, of necessity, be short-lived. God prefers nature, and will not suspend its laws indefinitely. Even the miracle of the manna, the longest lasting miracle in the Torah, came to an end after 40 years.

God vastly prefers a hidden maker of miracles. In other words, He prefers when we human beings are the agents of miracles. He prefers when we lift up the world towards heaven, rather than heaven coming down and stepping on nature's toes. So, even though the plagues in Egypt were fairly open miracles, Moses and Aaron should still use the staff to show that a man must be the one to bring about the miracle. God does the work, but man must be the initiator.

In Judaism, there is a rule: we do not rely upon miracles. A person is not allowed to enter into an impossible situation and rely on the fact that God will suspend the laws of nature to save him. There is a joke about the man who is urged to get on the bus out of town before the flood waters rise up and drown him. He declined, claiming that he will pray and God will save him. The water comes up to his waist, and a boat floats by. "Climb aboard," the people yell. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me." The water is up to his shoulders, and a helicopter lowers a ladder for him. "No," says the man, "I have faith that God will save me."

He drowns. When he gets up to heaven, he complains that he had perfect faith! "Why, God, didn't you save me?" To which God replies, "You fool! I sent you a bus, a boat, and a helicopter. Why didn't you get on board?"

God does not prefer revealed miracles. In a very real sense, God wants us all to use The Staff of God that is in our possession. He wants us to pursue the good, even if it seems impossible. We must reach out the staff, and God will do the rest.

What is the greatest miracle? When a person lives their life according to the Commandments. This world is so full of temptation, social pressure, and skepticism. It is very hard to live a life of faith. I remember being teased about the kosher hamburgers I insisted on eating and a non-Jewish summer camp. And yet, I would not touch the nonkosher hamburgers. A person living a life of holiness is, indeed, the greatest miracle. In all of life's moments of choice, we must grab the staff of God and stretch it out. A miracle will happen, and we will walk in the right path.