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Parashat Beshallach 5774 — 01/08/2014

Parashat Beshallach 5774 — 01/08/2014

When Pharaoh sent the people away, the Lord did not lead them by the way of the land of the Philistines… (Shemos 13:17)

When the Jews left Egypt, Hakadosh Baruch Hu weighed two possibilities as to which way to lead them towards Eretz Yisrael by way of the desert or by way of the land of the Philistines. In a manner of speaking, it was a “toss-up:’ for each possibility had an advantage and a drawback.

   The advantage of their going through the land of the Philistines, a settled area, was that food would be readily available. On the other hand, there was a great danger that while among the Philistines, they would become spiritually sullied by them. After having just emerged from the “forty-ninth level of impurity,” did it make sense to have them re-enter a domain of impurity? Who could guarantee that they would not mix with the gentiles and decide against going on to Mount Sinai to receive the Torah?

   The advantage of going by way of the desert was the absence of spiritual impurity. The Jews would not be exposed to idols or to those who worshipped them. On the other hand, though, where they would find enough food?

   In the end, Hakadosh Baruch Hu “decided” that it was preferable to lead them by way of the pure desert, and not expose them to the impurity present in the land of the Philistines because the danger that they might become sullied was too great. … Hakadosh Baruch Hu said, I have no choice. I must provide them manna in the desert – bread from Heaven…” (Chafetz Chaim)

It should be obvious that talking about Gd’s “deciding” to take one course of action over another is an anthropomorphism and is not to be taken literally (as the Chafetz Chaim indicates with his liberal use of quotes).  I think that we can better understand what this idea of a Divine “decision” means by considering the two sides of Gd’s “dilemma” as representing real choices we need to make for ourselves.  In the case under discussion here it appears that the two opposing poles of the debate are whether to isolate ourselves from the world and preserve our own purity, or to actively engage with the world.  This is a choice we are continually called upon to make, and different circumstances may dictate different choices at different times, both on the scale of an individual in his or her lifetime, or on the historical scale for the people of Israel as a whole.

Perhaps we can see the beginnings of this dilemma in the activites of our Patriarchs, Avraham and Yitzchak.  Avraham was the embodiment of chesed, lovingkindness.  He went out of his way to interact with strangers, feeding and housing them, and all the while teaching the new concept of monotheism.  He built altars to Gd and broke idols.  He was actively engaged with society, persuading, confronting, teaching.

Yitzchak Avinu was Avraham’s polar opposite.  It is said that while Avraham had thousands of students, Yitzchak had but one – his son, Ya’akov.  Yitzchak’s role in the development of the Jewish people was one of consolidation and direction-giving.  He redug the wells that his father had originally dug and named them with the same names.  While he didn’t totally isolate himself from society – even concluding a treaty with Avimelech, it is clear that outreach was not Yitzchak’s thing.    His focus was more on self-development, integrating the tradition he had from his father, and passing it on to Ya’akov.

We find the same patterns in subsequent Jewish history.  When we left Egypt Gd had us spend what turned out to be 40 years in the wilderness.  We were fed by Gd, sheltered in the Clouds of Glory, drank water from the rock, and studied Torah from the ultimate teacher of Torah.  Even upon entry into the Land, we are warned not to allow the inhabitants to remain “lest they be a stumbling block” for us.  We are to isolate ourselves in our Land and remain pure and holy.  Any influence we are to have on the outside world is to be on a subtle level, as a conduit for Gd’s blessings   When we fail to maintain our distance from the other peoples of the world, they do in fact become stumbling blocks for us, eventually leading to the destruction of the Temple and our exile from the Land.

During the period of the Babylonian exile there was, of necessity, a much greater interaction between the Jewish people and our neighbors (and hosts).  Much of the Talmud is in Aramaic, and is sprinkled with Greek, Latin and Persian words.  This was also a time where many proselytes joined the Jewish people, some becoming great Sages and leaders.  The standard Aramaic translation of the Torah (Targum Onkelos) was written by a convert of the Roman royal family.  Jewish influence was quite widespread, and has remained so in the West either directly, with Jews rising to positions of leadership in virtually all spheres of activity, or indirectly through the injection of Jewish ideals of justice and morality into society as a whole.  The downside of this interaction is that we have always had a problem with assimilation; from the end of the Babylonian exile when the great majority of Jews elected to remain in Babylonia and not return to Israel, to the present crisis of intermarriage and non-observance.

In the modern day we see the same dynamic at work.  Among the Chassidim in the US there are groups that are active in outreach and engagement with the larger world (Chabad) and others that vigorously wall themselves up and permit only the most minimal interaction necessary to keep the community alive (Satmar).  Some recent unfortunate events have demonstrated that although it may be possible to build walls to keep the impurity of the secular world out, those walls do nothing at all to save us from the negative thoughts and emotions that we harbor within ourselves.  In fact, the negativity inside us is probably more difficult to battle, as it is easier for it to hide itself behind a wall of self-justification and rationalization.

Which is the way for us to go forward?  Maybe this approach will be fruitful.  We noted when we began to discuss the Shemoneh Esrei that our Kabbalistic tradition identifies the three Patriarchs with the three sefirot (levels of emanation from Gd) Chesed (Avraham), Gevurah (Yitzchak) and Tiferet (Ya’akov).  Chesed is expansion, free flow of the Divine effulgence from the transcendental, infinite realm into the finite creation.  Gevurah is the boundaries that channel and direct the flow.  For creation to remain viable, both tendencies – outward and inward, or, in our terms, engaged and isolated – are necessary, and they must be in proper balance in relationship to one another.  The result of this balance is Tiferet = Ya’akov.

And just as this need for balance between opposite tendencies is necessary on the cosmic level, so it is necessary for the Jewish people as a whole.  “There is a time to every purpose under heaven … A time you may embrace, a time to refrain from embracing.”  Our generation has been very blessed in living in a situation where we have been able to influence our society in a generally very positive fashion.  On the other hand, we have been influenced by our society, and a good deal of that influence has not been so positive on our cultural integrity, as the recent Pew report suggests.

The same need for balance applies to each one of us as well.  We certainly cannot remain totally disengaged from the material world in which our souls are enmeshed, but we do need to be careful that the material world doesn’t deflect the soul from accomplishing its purpose.  There are times when we need to be inward, allowing our mind to detach from its focus on externalities and to settle down and expand and experience its own infinite inner value.  Once we have established ourselves in that, we are in a better position to look outward and take on the world in all its rich diversity.  Without times of inwardness, we will have only limited success when we look outward.

Perhaps our verse and the Chafetz Chaim’s commentary on it are telling us that we, as a people with a special mission in the world, need to take the same approach.  We need to ground ourselves firmly in our inner, spiritual values before we can hope to move into the world and maintain ourselves, let alone be a force for good.  The inner must support the outer, the spiritual must infuse itself into and enliven the material.  Our mission as a people, which began when Pharaoh sent the people away continues based on the same principles even today.  Our success in that mission depends on each one of us.

Shemoneh Esrei

And return to Jerusalem, Your city in mercy,

And dwell within it as You said,

And build it speedily in our days, an eternal building,

And quickly establish the throne of David within it.

Blessed are You, Hashem, Who builds Jerusalem

Jerusalem has been the heart of Israel and of the Jewish people ever since King David conquered it and made it his capital about 3000 years ago (Arab lies and propaganda notwithstanding).  The heart of Jerusalem was the Temple, where Gd was less hidden, more palpable, than anywhere else on earth.  The city and the Temple represented, indeed embodied, the innermost reality of the Jewish people.  In the words of Yaaros D’vash: Without Yerushalayim under Davidic rule, life is not worth living … The destruction of the Holy Temple and the loss of the House of David have harmed us, causing us to plummet from life to death.  Just as we cannot live a worthwhile, meaningful life if we are cut off from our inner selves, so the Jewish people’s ability to fulfill its mission is hampered or crippled when there isn’t a functioning Temple and a functioning Davidic monarchy in Jerusalem.  This makes this b’rachah relevant even today, when modern Jerusalem is a thriving city under Jewish sovereignty.  It behooves us to pray that it stays Jewish and continues to grow in vibrancy and spiritual health, until such time that we will deserve to have the Mashiach come and restore the dynamsty of King David.