Archive for category Weekly Parsha

Parshas Ki Siso — The Sin of the Golden Calf

40 days after the Almighty revealed Himself to the Jewish nation at Sinai, the people seem to have reverted to the most primitive kind of paganism.

Or did they?

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Parshas Zachor — The Dangers of Deism

Understanding the philosophy of Amolek, and why there is no compromise with evil.

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Parshas Terumah — The Heart of the World

And you shall make Me a dwelling (mikdash), and I will dwell (v’shochanti) among them (Sh’mos 25:8).

The construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert — which foreshadows the Beis HaMikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem — offers a compelling perspective on the nature of the universe.  But a complete understanding requires an explanation why the Almighty commanded the construction of a mikdash, which lay four hundred eighty years in the future, rather than a mishkan, which is what the Jewish people were about to build.

The word mishkanliterally means “that which creates a dwelling.”  In the desert, with no land, no permanence, and no boundaries, the tabernacle provided the focal point around which the Jewish nation could coalesce.  Of course, the spirit of HaShem is everywhere.  But the House of God that would reside in the midst of the people would bind them together in a way that the conceptual knowledge that they were a holy people could not.  Indeed, a careful reading of the verse reveals HaShem’s true intention.  Build Me a tabernacle, commanded the Almighty, and I will dwell not in it but in and among them, the people.

Consequently, we understand that the Mishkan was never intended to be permanent.  Its purpose was to sustain the people until they could enter the land.  At that point, they would no longer require a mishkan, for the land itself would bind them together.  From then on they would require a mikdash — literally, that which creates sanctity.  Once in the land, the purpose of a House of God would be to remind the people of their divine mission and inspire them to strive for ever higher levels of spiritual achievement.

To that end, the people would gather three times a year for the pilgrim festivals — Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos.  And herein lies the secret of the Mikdash, as explained by the Chassidic classic Arvei Nachal.

Just as the universe is created with three physical dimensions, similarly is it created with three spiritual aspects:  space, time, and life.  As a microcosm of the physical universe, the human body provides the most familiar model for the pattern of spiritual existence.

Within the body, the heart pumps blood throughout the system.  Through arteries and capillaries, the blood reaches every corner of the body, carrying with it oxygenated blood that literally breathes life into every cell.  Returning to the heart, the blood is pumped through the lungs to become oxygenated once again, so that the body’s internal cycle of life can continue.

The same pattern manifests itself in the nature of time.  According to the kabbalists, time is not linear but circular.  In the course of each year, every soul visits every day and every moment in the 365 days that describe the solar year.  Just as the flow of blood deposits life-giving oxygen to the body’s cells, similarly does each soul deposit kedusha, sanctity, to the individual moments that together form the body of time.  And just as the body’s cycle begins and ends with the heart, similarly does the annual cycle begin and end with Yom Kippur — the holiest day, and the heart, of the year.  The extent to which the Jew renews his relationship with the Almighty on Yom Kippur will affect not only his own fortunes for the coming year, but the fortunes of all mankind.  Symbiotically, our involvement in Torah and mitzvos draws the innate kedusha from the temporal fabric of the universe and allows us to return to the next Yom Kippur on a spiritual level higher than we were on the year before.

Finally we come to physical space.  Once established in the land, the Jewish people  spread out to settle their country, striving to strike the perfect balance between material prosperity and spiritual purpose.  Their involvement in Torah and mitzvos throughout every corner of the Land of Israel would draw out the spiritual essence of the land, enabling them to achieve greater levels in preparation for each successive festival, when they would come together at the Beis HaMikdash — the heart of the world.  Inspired and elevated by each festival, the Jews would return to their homes, elevated in their spirituality so that they could elevate the land on which they toiled, thus creating a virtuous cycle that brought them ever closer and closer to their Creator.

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the great sage Rabban Yochanon ben Zakkai decreed that every shul, every place of Jewish prayer, should be treated as a mikdash ma’at, and Temple in miniature.  Every time the Jewish community comes together to pray, on weekdays and on Shabbos, on festivals and on the High Holy Days, we have the opportunity to renew the cycle of spiritual elevation.  Prayer is not for God; it is for us.  It is not a burden; it is a privilege and an opportunity.  It is not an inconvenience; it is as fundamental to our existence as our life’s blood, as our heart, and as our soul.

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Parshas Mishpatim — The Slow Road to Sanctity

You shall not ascend my altar by steps, so that you will not reveal your nakedness upon it.  And these are the statutes that you [Moses] shall place before them [the Jewish people]

Exodus 20:23-21:1

During the early days of the Second Temple era, the sages divided the Torah into portions, or parshios, to be read on successive Sabbaths.  The juxtaposition of any two of these parshios always alludes to some principle in Jewish thought.  In the case of this week’s Torah portion, however, the connection with the end of last week’s parsha seems particularly elusive.

After the drama of the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, the narrative switches to a rather dry and technical description of the altar in the Tabernacle.  Not by stairs should the kohain go up, lest the gaping of his robes expose his private regions to the stones upon which he walks; rather, he should ascend by a ramp, so that his shorter, more even steps will not result in any impropriety.

Immediately afterward, the Torah introduces the mishpatim, the statutes that govern civil law by establishing the legal parameters of business dealings, private property, loans, and damages.  Superficially, no two subjects within Torah could be more disconnected from one another.

The revered Chassidic Master, Reb Elimelech of Lizensk, offers a tantalizing explanation.  As we go through life, we should see ourselves as kohanim, the priests of the Almighty, engaged in a perpetual quest to ascend spiritually, approaching ever nearer to a more perfect service upon the conceptual altar of the Creator.  Every attainment of a new spiritual level is called by the kabbalists a madrega — a “step” onward and upward.  The Jew is not meant to remain static, but to pursue ever more challenging goals in pursuit of spiritual perfection.

The danger, however, is that we may try to take too much upon ourselves, that we attempt to move forward by unrealistic leaps, that we may seek inspiration in the ethereal at the expense of more fundamental forms of heavenly service.  By reaching for the stars, we may find ourselves without firm footing underfoot, rendering ourselves vulnerable to the indictments of the divine attribute of Justice.  By artificially propelling ourselves to a level that we cannot realistically sustain, we may find ourselves judged with a strictness that is beyond our capacity to endure.

The ramp up to the altar, therefore, serves to symbolize the measured, determined consistency with which we should approach our commitment to spiritual growth.  HaShem may bless us at times with great leaps forward and moments of dazzling inspiration, but spiritual development is often like physcial development — painfully slow and paradoxically mundane.

This, teaches Reb Elimelech, is the connection between the details of the altar and the words that introduce this week’s portion, “And these are the statutes…”  If we look for spiritual excitement only in mystical secrets and ethereal mysteries, we will inevitably miss the most essential opportunities for spiritual growth that our daily routines provide us.  The concern for others, for their money and their time and their property, the respect for boundaries both personal and legal — these are the sensitivities that most effectively and meaningfully transform us into spiritual beings.  If we think we can overlook them in our quest for personal revelation and divine intimacy, we will have no foundation upon which to stand.  If we carefully cultivate them, we will awaken within ourselves a spiritual perspicacity that will enable us to recognize the presence of the Almighty in every aspect of our lives.

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Parshas Yisro — Spiritual Balance

The first five Commandments, comprised by the first of the two tablets, describe mitzvos bein adam l’Makom — commandments between man and G-d. The second five, comprised by the second tablet, describe mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro — commandments between man and his fellow.

These two lists are not independent but profoundly interrelated. I explain it here in the context of Pirkei Avos.

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Parshas Beshallach — The Truest Expression of Gratitude

Then Moshe and the Children of Israel will sing …

As if with one voice, the commentaries wonder at the future tense employed here by the Torah.  The meaning of the verse is clear:  then, after the splitting of the sea and the destruction of Pharaoh’s chariots, the Jews sang their praises of the Master of the World who had provided their miraculous salvation.

If so, why the future tense?

All the commentaries begin with Rashi:  Then, when [the nation] saw the miracle, it felt inspired to sing.  But what has Rashi added?  Is it not obvious that their song of praise was inspired by the events through which they had been saved?

Perhaps we can find a clue in the structure of our daily prayers.  The weekday Amidah, the standing prayer, is divided into three distinct sections.  The first three blessings are expressions of praise, through which we demonstrate our recognition that we are standing before the Almighty, the One who hears supplications and has the power to answer them.  The final three blessings are expressions of gratitude, wherein we thank HaShem for listening to and considering our entreaties.

The body of the Amidah, the thirteen central blessings, are expressions of request, wherein we ask for the Almighty to bestow upon us the basic necessities of life, so that we are able to serve Him by studying His Torah and upholding His commandments.  By recognizing that G-d is the source of all blessing — of intelligence, health, sustanance, justice, and all things physical and spiritual — we remind ourselves of our own responsibility to direct our lives in fulfillment of the higher purpose for which we were created, and we focus our attention on self-evaluation to determine whether or not we are living up to our individual potentials.

Of this central group of petitions, the final blessing poses something of a curiosity.  Shema koleinu — Listen to our voices, we cry out, and accept our prayers with favor and mercy.  What is the value of asking HaShem to listen to our prayers?  If He is already listening, then this request is superfluous; if He is not listening, then it is pointless.  Moreover, why is it positioned at the end of our list of requests?  Presumably we should ask G-d to listen before we begin to ask, not after we have finished asking?

I believe I heard the following explanation from Rav Dovid Gottleib:  If I ask my friend to lend me ten dollars, and he lends me ten dollars, naturally I respond by saying, “Thank you.”  However, if my friend tells me he doesn’t have the money, but he will get it for me, I also respond by saying, “Thank you.”

In the first case, I am expressing my appreciation for having gotten what I want.  But in the second case, even though I still don’t have the ten dollars, I nevertheless express my appreciation.  Indeed, in this second case my thanks describe a higher level of gratitude, not merely for having gotten what I want, but for my friend’s interest, concern, and effort, which ultimately mean more to me than mere money.

Similarly, in the blessing of Shema koleinu, we are not asking the Almighty for what we have already requested; rather, we are asking Him to embue us with the perception of His involvement in our lives.  More than the things we have requested, we want to feel that HaShem cares about us, that He is responsive to our needs and our desires, that even when He withholds from us what we want it is because He recognizes that the fulfillment of these requrests is not in our own spiritual best interest.  Indeed, at no time are we closer to G-d than when He is in the process of granting our petitions, for it is then that He is most actively involved in our lives.  The moment our requests are answered, we once again feel a sense of independence, which is a manifestation of the illusion that we can survive for even a moment without the grace of G-d.

If we apply this principle to the splitting of the sea, we can understand that the Jews had two different ways that could have praised HaShem for their salvation.  They might have expressed their gratitude after they had been saved, seeing then that they were truly secure from the threat of the Egyptian army.  However, a higher expression of gratitude would have been to sing the praises of HaShem as they were passing through the sea, for it would  have been at that moment, with the walls of water towering above them and Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down upon them, that HaShem was closest to them.  At that moment, their trust in the inevitabilityof their salvation inspired a song like no other, describing their gratitude for the greatest gift any human soul could desire — true spiritual intimacy with the Divine.

Nevertheless, to have stopped in the midst of their flight to safety to begin singing would have shown needless dependence upon HaShem’s miraculous intervention.  Rather, they waited until their survival was assured.  But the Torah testifies to the feelings that motivated their song.  Then, when they were still fleeing from the Egyptians between the walls of water, the Children of Israel would sing.  Even if their mouths would not form the words until later, their hearts were already inspired to sing as the greatest possible expression of gratitude and closeness to their Creator.

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Parshas Bo — The Crossroads of Repentance

During the last days of prophetic vision, some 25 hundred years ago, the sages divided the Torah into parshios – portions, and decreed that successive parshios should be read publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service, so that the Jewish people would hear the reading of the entire Torah from year to year.  The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.

 

It is curious, therefore, that the sages saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Plagues upon Egypt into last week’s parsha, while leaving the final three for this week’s Torah portion.  The commentaries discuss at length the arrangement of the plagues into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself.  Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, it would better have been placed the point of division after the sixth plague – which completed the second set of three – than after the seventh.

 

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does stand out from all the rest by virtue of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.  After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague had abated.  But after the plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission:  This time I have sinned; God is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.

 

*****

 

In its discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am a tzaddik – a righteous man.”  The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation.  Why?  Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man.

 

If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession in the face of the extraordinary suspension of nature, whereby the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians, opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.

 

From the very beginning, it had been the Almighty’s plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go, so that God would have cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.”  After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart.  In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was God who hardened Pharaoh’s heart:  because Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.

After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions:  first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, God informs Moshe that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  How can both be true at the same time?

 

*****

 

The power of tshuva – repentance – is unimaginable.  In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men.  Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth.  Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, God Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.

 

We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, God had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart.  In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.

 

No force, that is, except himself.  Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…

 

The moment was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured.  Instead of seizing the moment and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into oblivion of his past.

 

And so last week’s parsha ends:  by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country.  But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.

 

How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth?  How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?

 

And what do we do with these opportunities?  Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, return reflexively to the habits of the past?  Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard.  The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.

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Parshas VoEira — The Faith of our Fathers

Students of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi.  His synthesis of Talmud, midrash, and kabbala, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, sets Rashi in a class by himself as he draws our attention to nuances, forces us gently to consider scriptural anomalies, and weaves the breadth and depth of Torah philosophy into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

 

Consequently, scholars grow nervous when Rashi appears to point out the obvious.  And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

 

And Elokim spoke to Moshe, and He said to him, “I am HaShem; and I appeared to your forefathers, Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov, as Keil Shakkai, but My name HaShem I did not make known to them” (Shmos 6:2-3).

 

Rashi first explains that scripture’s use of the name Elokim – referring to G-d’s attribute of justice rather than His more dominant attribute of mercy – places our verse in its proper context as a response to Moshe’s complaint at the end of last week’s parsha, “My Master, why have you brought evil (i.e., injustice) upon this people, and why have you sent me?”

 

Rashi then addresses HaShem’s remark concerning the revelation of His name to the patriarchs.  The name HaShem represents mercy and therefore implies the fulfillment of promises; consequently, even though G-d identified Himself to the patriarchs using the name HaShem, He never revealed Himself to them as such through the fulfillment of promises that would only be honored in the time of future generations.

 

It is Rashi’s next comment, however, that confounds us.  On the words And I appeared, Rashi offers this insight:  to the patriarchs.

 

Since the verse continues to tell us that HaShem appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the only three patriarchs of the Jewish people, to whom else could Rashi have thought we might mistakenly suppose HaShem had appeared?

 

*****

 

The Zohar explains that Torah wisdom is both inherited and acquired.  Even if a scholar eventually surpasses his parents or his teachers in wisdom, it is the wisdom of his parents and teachers – which they themselves received through their link to Sinai – that has enabled their child and their student to reach whatever heights he has attained in Torah.  Even Moshe the Lawgiver, whose unique mastery of piety and spiritual wisdom sets him apart from every other figure in Jewish tradition, built his own accomplishments upon the spiritual foundations of his forebears.

 

However, to this rule there are three exceptions:  the patriarchs – Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov – so called because they had no one else from whom to learn and no one else’s accomplishments upon which to build.

 

Born into a generation in which all knowledge of HaShem had been effectively forgotten, Avrohom came on his own to a recognition of his Creator and spent his life developing within himself the attribute of chesed – lovingkindness – the perfection of mitzvos bein adam l’chaveiro, commandments between man and his fellow.  And although Yitzchok inherited from his father a knowledge of the Almighty, he nevertheless labored to develop within himself the entirely different quality of gevurah – spiritual self-discipline – with no model from whom to learn the process of perfecting mitzvos bein adam L’Makom, commandments between man and G-d.

 

Finally, as much as Yaakov learned chesed from Avrohom and gevurah from Yitzchok, he had no model for how to perfect within himself mitzvos bein adam l’atzmo, commandments between man and himself, by blending these two mutually exclusive qualities into a new attribute called emes – ultimate spiritual truth.

 

From this point on, with the establishment of these three qualities woven into the spiritual fabric of the universe and infused into the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, all Torah accomplishment rests upon the foundations of the patriarchs.

 

*****

 

Where does Rashi find an allusion to this profound and mystical lesson in the beginning of our parsha?  Maskil L’Dovid explains that this idea is essential to understanding HaShem’s reply to Moshe.

 

According to Sfas Emes, Moshe complained that G-d had brought evil upon this people because he, Moshe, had calculated that the Jews had endured all the suffering necessary for them to earn redemption.  If the accounts balanced, reasoned Moshe, then to make the people suffer further was not only pointless but unjust.

 

What Moshe could not have realized was that, even if the Jews of this generation did not deserve any further suffering, the survival of future generations would one day depend upon the collective Jewish suffering the people were experiencing now.  To become stronger through continued tribulations, and to have undeserved suffering “on credit” against future transgressions, the continued oppression of the Jews in Egypt would provide shelter from the harshness of divine judgment later on.

 

Consequently, HaShem rebukes Moshe, not for his reasoning but for his lack of trust.  “I appeared to the patriarchs,” says HaShem, “not because of what they inherited but because of what they made themselves.  And yet, without the advantages you have as their beneficiary, they never lacked in trust that I would ultimately fulfill the promises I made to them.

 

“That trust,” explains HaShem, “is the basis of how they became great, how they became the patriarchs whose merit now stands by you, just as the merit of your generation will stand by those who come later.”

 

Three times a day, we begin our silent prayer by acknowledging our relationship with HaShem – our G-d and the G-d of our fathers.  By standing upon the shoulders of our forebears, we benefit from the connection and the resources we have inherited; at the same time, we acquire our own merit from which our children will benefit as we have.  The power of each, and the power of both together, is beyond our comprehension.  And the trust we have in that power, especially in the darkest of times, is the key to our ultimate redemption.

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Parshas Sh’mos — The Staff of Leadership

And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.'”  And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  And he said, “A staff.”  (Exodus 4:1-2)

The trepidation of Moshe (Moses) to accept the onus of leadership  is understandable.  After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what credibility would Moshe have in the eyes of the people?  How would he convince them that he had truly been appointed by the Almighty to lead them out of slavery?

G-d’s answer, however, is more difficult to comprehend.  If HaShem wanted Moshe to cast his staff upon the ground so it would miraculously transform into a snake, let Him simply have said, “Cast your staff upon the ground.”  Why did the Almighty first ask Moshe to identify the object he was holding?

Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moshe had a choice of three possible answers.  As a shepherd, Moshe could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook.  As an eighty year old man, he could have refered to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick.  Finally, he could have called it as he did — a mateh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Moshe’s objection was not directed solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader.  And so, HaShem presented Moshe with a test.  What is that in your hand?  the Almighty asked, implying that Moshe’s answer would answer Moshe’s own question.  Did Moshe see himself as an old man, needing a cane to support him?  Did he see himself as a simple shepherd, adept at leading sheep but not his fellow Jews?  Or did he see himself as possessing the nobility of character necessary to successfully  shoulder the responsibilities of leadership.

Confronted with these choices, Moshe could only answer the truth.  It was not lack of humility but honesty and integrity that compelled Moshe to admit that he was neither a feeble old man in need of support nor a mere shepherd whose purpose in life was defined by his lowly profession.  Moshe recognized that the Almighty had made him something more, had instilled in him the qualities that prepared him for greatness.

Further on in the narrative, HaShem commands:

And this staff you shall take in your hand, with which you will perform the miracles (4:17)

As a constant reminder of Moshe’s confidence in himself, HaShem commanded him to carry the staff with him always, and to use it as the instrument through which he would bring about HaShem’s signs and wonders.  In this way the Almighty communicated to Moshe that if Moshe believed in himself, the people would recognize his confidence and accept his leadership.  And so they did.

In contrast, when the prophetess Devorah instructed her husband, Barak, to lead the people into battle against the Canaanite general Sisera, Barak refused to go unless Devorah accompanied him.  Devorah replied:  “I will surely go with you; however, your effort will bring you no honor” (Judges 4:9).  Rather than rise to the occasion, Barak refused to believe that he could succeed on his own.  Devorah did not argue, for she understood that  no people will place their confidence in a leader who has no confidence in himself.  Instead of becoming a hero, Barak assured his place as little more than a footnote to history.

It’s worth noting that accepting the responsibilities of leadership is not synonymous with seeking power.  Moshe neither sought nor desired the position of leader over the Jewish people, but neither did he refuse the position when it was thrust upon him.  From Moshe’s example we learn that a healthy reluctance to assume power over others is a sign of true character and authentic leadership.

Perhaps the most troubling development in contemporary politics is the selling of the presidency, as well as many state and local offices.  Only the very rich — or those with very rich friends — can realistically aspire to positions of political authority.  And what motivates those willing to spend their own millions or the millions of others to win the privilege of wielding power?  When was the last time we saw even the palest reflection of the reticence of Moshe in any of our public servants?

During the era of the judges, the usurper Avimelech massacred his 70 half-brothers to seize control over the Jewish nation.  Only one brother, Yosom, escaped and, before he fled into hiding, he paused to chastise the people for standing by and permitting Avimelech to carry out his bloody coup.  In his rebuke, he offered a tantalizing parable, paraphased here:

The trees went looking for a leader.  They came first to the olive tree, but the olive tree said, “Should I leave my oil to hold sway over the trees?”  Next they came to the fig tree, but the fig tree said, “Should I leave my sweetness to hold sway over the trees?”  Then they came to the grapevine, but the grapevine said, “Should I leave my wine to hold sway over the trees?”  Finally, all the trees came to the thornbush, which said, “Come take comfort in my shade; and if not, a fire will go forth and devour you all” (Judges 8:7-15).

Of course, a thornbush has no shade to offer, and can do nothing but inflict injury and discomfort.  But when men of quality and accomplishment (symbolized by the olive tree, the fig tree, and the vine) recognize that the people have no desire to be led, but simply seek leaders who will do their bidding, then why should they abandon their own fortunes to shoulder the fruitless and thankless burdens of leadership?

And when no worthy leaders can be found, where else will the people turn than to those who make the promises the people want to hear, no matter how impractical or implausible?  And how often are those promises complimented by threats, veiled or otherwise, of the consequences of looking elsewhere for “leadership”?

When leadership devolves into the hands of those who can afford to make the loudest noise and the most sweeping promises, then the people have no right to complain about the quality of the leaders to whom they have subordinated themselves.  Only when people seek genuine leaders will they find individuals worthy of leadership.  And only when people are willling to follow will they find worthy individuals willing to lead.

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Parshas Vayechi — The Consolation of Exile

The last days of Yaakov, the beginnings of Egyptian bondage, and the fragrance of Eden.

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