The Five Words of The Jew

The rabbis often identify unnamed characters in the Bible with other, identifiable, characters. One of the strangest ones is the wife of Joseph, given to him by Pharaoh. Her name is Asenat, the daughter of Potiphera. Potiphera is the same as Potiphar, the Egyptian master to whom Joseph had been sold as a slave. It was his wife who tried to hit on Joseph, and ultimately caused his being thrown in jail. On the surface, it would seem that Joseph got the daughter of the woman instead of the woman herself.

But our rabbis say that Joseph's wife was not the daughter of Mrs. Potiphar! She was only the adopted daughter of Mr. Potiphar. Instead, she was actually a close relative of Joseph's: the daughter of his sister Dina! And, even more interestingly, that meant that she was the daughter of Schechem, the Prince of the city of the same name who had raped her. In the aftermath of that rape, the two brothers Simon and Levi annihilated all of the men of Schechem. Their father, Jacob, was displeased with them for this act of violence.

Without commenting on the historical accuracy of this identification, the rabbis clearly seem to be teaching us something by identifying Joseph's wife with that incident. What is it?

Jacob, on his deathbed, bequeaths the city of Shechem to Joseph. The city, Jacob continues, "that I took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow." The Aramaic translation of the verse says, "that I took from the Amorite with my prayer and my request." Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin questions the order of sword and bow. In battle, one uses the bow and arrow first since it shoots to the distance, and only when the enemy is in close quarters does one pull out the sword. Why are they reversed in this verse?

Rabbi Sorotzkin answers that "prayer," or the sword mentioned in the verse, is specifically referring to the recitation of the Shema. "Request," or bow and arrow, refers to the silent devotion which is comprised of requests. The order is important! First, we must strengthen for ourselves our core beliefs. These we do when we recite the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith. Only then are we ready to reach out to the distant world, with requests for the future for everybody. We need to know who we are before we can define what to ask for and what our vision for the world is.

There is a midrash that says the following: "Because he (Joseph) was early, and did not do as they did, he shall receive Shechem in his portion." What does this mean?

In truth it was Simon and Levi who conquered Shechem, so they should have been the ones to inherit it. Their act of cruelty and violence, however, was such a trauma for Jacob that he would not allow them to inherit that city. How did Simon and Levi come to behave in such a fashion? They didn't live according to the five words, and here they are:

"The Lord is our God, the Lord is one… And you shall love…" (I know, in English it's about 13 words, but in Hebrew it's five.)

Before a Jew interacts with the world, he must internalize these five words. Joseph did. When he went to Egypt, he showed his faith by resisting the temptations of Potiphar's wife, and he showed his love by serving and helping even the lowliest prisoner in the jails of Egypt. Perhaps, when the medrash refers to Joseph rising early, it is referring to these five words of the Shema. Because Joseph always read the Shema first, he did not act as others, specifically Simon and Levi, did. Their action was anything but an "And you shall love" kind of action.

Thus, I believe that Joseph's wife was part of a correcting and healing of the moral wound of the massacre at Shechem. Jacob recognizes that Joseph would never have behaved in such a fashion. Instead, Joseph's marriage choice brings some healing. His wife, after all, is the mother of Efraim, whose descendents will inherit that city. Through his daughter, Prince Shechem is brought back to life in terms of legacy and inheritance.

These words, "the Lord is our God, the Lord is one, And you shall love…" must guide us before we act, even before we pray.

Where is God Nowadays?

There is a pattern in Jacob's life of doubt and Divine promise. God repeatedly reassures Jacob that He will be with him, protect him, and redeem his descendents. Jacob, nonetheless, appears constantly worried. In the Torah reading of this week, we read how Jacob has learned that his son Joseph is still alive. He excitedly prepares to go down to Egypt to see him, but he has a nagging fear. He is afraid that his children and grandchildren will become Egyptian, and will lose the tradition of the patriarchs. He knows how tempting that society can be, and fears that it will be the end of the Abrahamic mission.

God, accordingly, reassures Jacob that he should go to Egypt. "I will bring your descendents back up from there, and Joseph will put his hands upon your eyes." The first part of God's message indeed appears to reassure Jacob. But what does the second part mean? What is the significance of Joseph putting his hands on Jacob's eyes?

Based on the commentary of Rabbi Meir Simcha, I believe that it is a powerful lesson in faith. Jacob's concern is a real one. It makes sense, it is something to worry about. But God tells Jacob that he must trust Divine Providence. Even though the laws of nature make it almost impossible for the Israelites to not assimilate, Jacob must remember that God controls the laws of nature.

Take, for example, the story of Joseph. He became the second to the king, the prime minister of all Egypt. By the laws of nature, that could not happen. Joseph was an inconsequential prisoner in an Egyptian dungeon. To go from there to the pinnacle of power in the greatest empire of the ancient world in one day simply cannot happen. And yet it did. So, Jacob, do not fear the inevitable spiritual demise of the Jewish people in Egypt, because it is not inevitable. I, God, am watching, and will not allow that to happen. The proof is Joseph. You thought he was dead, but he was very much alive, miraculously so. When your time comes, he will be the one to close your eyes. He is the symbol of hope, and so you have nothing to fear.

But there is tension in our understanding of God's involvement. In the earlier generations, God was an active participant in human affairs. This was no more evident than in the exodus story, where God brought plagues and split seas. In fact, God tells us directly to Jacob. When he says, "I will bring your descendents out of Egypt," the sages in the Hagadah stress that God will do this Himself. There will be no angels involved, only direct Divine intervention.

But as time goes by, God's direct involvement decreases. At some point in Jewish history, prophecy ends. Today we no longer have someone getting direct, articulate messages from God. All we have is our Torah and our traditions.

There is, however, one mode of communication that remains open. The sages tell us that we still have what is called, "the Holy Spirit." What is that? In practical terms, it means Divine inspiration. It means that something of God is available to guide us when we need it. It's not the same as prophecy, we're not getting discernible words and instructions, but it comes from the same source. It moves our soul, it moves our heart.

The patriarchs also represent this historical development. Abraham's life was quite charmed. God was with him, he succeeded everywhere he went, he only had a minimum of stress. Isaac's life was a little less smooth. Jacob, however, only knew struggles and travails. Even though God promised him protection, he became afraid at every step of the way. Before reuniting with Esau, he feared the destruction of his entire family. Why? Didn't God's promise him a successful progeny?

When a child is born, his parents must do everything for him. His mother nurses him and warms him. His parents clothe him and clean him. They move him where he needs to be, and take complete care of him. As the baby grows, he begins to be able to do things for himself. At some point, the baby will protest when the parent tries to do something for him that he feels he can do himself. He will begin to proclaim his independence. Eventually, he will be completely independent in living his life. He will, however, always retain an emotional need and connection to his parents.

So it is with mankind. It is natural, it is necessary, that we grow up. In the beginning, God has to do everything for us. As history develops, we become more and more independent. No more massive miracles, no more prophecy. Indeed, with the exile, there was no more holy Temple with the ark of the covenant. We were on our own. That is, with the exception of that emotional connection and need for God, our Father in heaven.

There is a principal in Jewish thought called "The acts of the fathers are a signpost for the sons." This teaches us that the lives of the patriarchs for a paradigm for the future history of their descendents. Therefore, Abraham was the example of a divinely guided life. Isaac less so, and Jacob was the most independent. He felt his role was to live a life in this world, not relying on any divine intervention. Therefore, he looked at the laws of nature and was worried about how he would surmount them. Esau was stronger, and he was coming with 400 men! According to nature, Jacob was in trouble. Now his descendents were going to the most seductive society in the world. How will they ever retain their identity? According to the laws of nature, it can't happen.

Along comes God's promise, which will become the divine inspiration that will guide Jacob. You live your life, says God, and your soul will guide you in the right direction. Joseph will put his hands upon your eyes. God is now in your soul, trust that.

The final phase of the baby's growth is when the baby becomes an adult and has his own children. That is the mark of completed maturity. Now, the baby must do for another what was done for him. He now exchanges places with his parents, and takes responsibility for the next generation's well-being. Nonetheless, it is his parents inspiration in his soul that enables him to do so successfully.

So where is God? Why should we pray? Because we have matured and now it is our job to help God do His work. By praying, we invite God's inspiration into our souls. That inspiration will guide us to seek to do the divine work of fixing the world. We should not look at nature and see limitations, rather we should look at it and see challenges. When we pray, we become the agents of change. Where is God? In our souls. By praying, we gain the power to change the world.

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.

Faith and Reality

I contrast this week's reading with the portion of "Lech Lecha", where Abraham is told to leave his birthplace and go to a land that God will show him. Abraham follows, not even knowing where he is going. His faith is strong enough to tell him that if God is guiding him, his destination can be nothing but successful.

The Israelites were promised the land of Canaan. This promise was given to Abraham and repeated to each of the patriarchs. It was repeated again to Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. There was no doubt, there was no question.

There was no need for spies. With our perfect hindsight, we can say that the people should have gone as Abraham went, with faith and confidence.

Why, then, did Moses agree to send the spies? The plot thickens when we consider that Moses had an inkling that the spies would not do good. He prays that Joshua be spared "the plotting of the spies". This happens before they are sent. If he had a gut feeling that something was amiss, why did he send them anyway?

One could answer that his prayer for Joshua was not that the spies were going to speak ill of the land. It was rather that they would be jealous of Joshua, who was Moses's protege. These spies were princes in their own right, and may have felt inclined to violence against Joshua in a sort of coup. There is an echo of the story of Joseph and his brothers, who were jealous of his status in his father's eyes and wanted to kill him before they sold them into slavery.

According to that answer, Moses didn't fear the spies as far as the land goes, only as far as Joshua goes.

I think, though, there is another explanation. According to Jewish law, a judge must be completely free of influenced by litigants. A litigant who gives a gift to a judge, even if it is to judge fairly, has eliminated that judge from eligibility in his case. Judges are human beings, and even though the gift was to be objective, they can no longer be objective.

So too with the spies. They needed to be objective, not with a personal agenda. I feel they have a personal agenda, perhaps against Joshua, perhaps a need to demonstrate their own independence and leadership. Maybe they needed to go against Moses in order to state their claim to leadership. Thus, Moses prays that Joshua maintain his objectivity. There is a lot more to say in this direction, which I hope to address in a future post.

With all that, the question is stronger. Why did Moses send them if it was so risky?

I believe it was because the people were hesitant. Moses knew they were afraid of the battles ahead. And he knew that psychologically, the best way to proceed is in small steps. Therefore, the first step would be to send advance scouts. He specifically gives them military and strategic instructions, including what roads to take, what the fruits are like so they will know how much provisions they will need and so forth. They are NOT to evaluate whether or not the project is worthwhile. They are only to give logistical details.

If the people had been on the level of faith of Abraham, Moses would've never sent spies. He felt that the approach of reality was necessary here.

If Moses made such an error, what can we ever say? The best we can do is try to learn from what the Torah tells us. And what the Torah is telling us is to follow God's Word without hesitation and fear. If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help. The sequel of the spies episode is the story of the "ones who jumped the gun".

They decided, after God decreed 40 years in the desert as punishment for the spies, to go immediately into the land of Israel. Moses warns them that God will not be with them, and they have no chance of success. They go anyway, and are soundly defeated in their first military encounter.

If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help.

The Jewish people in the state of Israel is at a crisis of faith. We are being asked to follow the path of "reality" in our relations with the Palestinian Arabs, Iran and the other existential threats of our day. On the face of it, the state of Israel exists in defiance of the laws of nature and reality. If God is not with us, none of this could exist. If God is not with us, no amount of land-for-peace or other peace process concessions will make us more secure.

Our job is to bring God with us. "And it was when the Ark traveled, Moses said 'Rise up oh Lord and let Your enemies scatter before Thee...'". If God walks with us, we need do nothing more than show up. What is needed is an awakening of faith in the Jewish people, and in God's promise to Abraham, "to thee and thy seed will I give this Land".