The Rich Man Is Merely the Poor Man’s Agent Parshat Mishpatim

How can we ensure that Jewish ideals — such as protecting the downtrodden and most vulnerable people in our society — emerge from the abstract and find expression in our daily lives? Our weekly portion, Mishpatim, in addressing the issue of lending, provides an insight to this question and sheds light on the core biblical values of compassion and empathy.

“When you lend money to My people, to the poor person with you, you shall not behave toward him as a lender; you shall not impose interest upon him” (Exodus 22:24).

Rabbi Hayyim ibn Attar, in a brilliant illumination, beautifully explains this passage in his commentary, Ohr HaHayyim, which enables us to understand this difficult character change. In an ideal world, he teaches, there ought to be no rich and no poor, no lenders and no borrowers; everyone should receive from the Almighty exactly what they require to live.

But, in His infinite wisdom, this is not the manner in which the Lord created the world. He provides certain individuals with excess funds, expecting them to help those who have insufficient funds, appointing them His cashiers or ATMs, or agents in the world. Hence, we must read the verse as, “If you have extra funds to lend to my nation — which should have gone to the poor person, but are now with you through G-d’s largesse — therefore, you were merely given the poor person’s money in trust, and those extra funds that are you “lending him” actually belong to him.”

If you understand this fundamental axiom — that the rich person is actually holding the poor person’s money in trust as an agent of the Divine — then everything becomes clear. Certainly, the lender may not act as a creditor, because she is only giving the poor man what is in actuality his.

This is the message of the exodus from Egypt: No individual ought ever be owned by or even indebted to another individual. We are all owned by and must be indebted only to God. This essential truth is the foundation of our traditional legal system, which is uniquely just and equitable. It is especially considerate of the needs of the downtrodden and enslaved, the poor and the infirm, the orphan and the widow, the stranger and the convert, the “chained wife” and the indigent forced to sell their land. From this perspective, not only must we submit to Jewish law, but it is crucial that our judges be certain that Jewish law remains true to its ethical foundations.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

The Value of Humility Parshat Yitro

Ours is nothing if not a tradition of speaking truth to power. Abraham does it to God near Sodom and Gemorrah. Moses does so to Pharaoh in Egypt. And in this week’s portion, Jethro speaks truth to Moses in the wilderness.

“The thing you are doing is not right,” Jethro admonishes Moses for hoarding his power. “You cannot do it alone.” Fearing that the centralization of power will cause a rebellion and wear Moses down besides, Jethro advises Moses to delegate authority by creating a more layered, and shared, system of government.

Even so, Jethro’s admonition invites some skepticism. After all, hadn’t Moses already succeeded (with God’s and Aaron’s help) at bringing the people out of slavery?

The answer is contained in another question that Moses himself once put to Pharaoh: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?”

The premise of the question reveals two important facts. First, it tells us that Pharaoh, by his refusal to acknowledge God’s might, is almost intractably stubborn. Second, it shows that Pharaoh is a narcissist, utterly devoid of humility. Taken together, it is not hard to conclude that Pharaoh’s sense of self-importance is what ultimately dooms him as a leader. His absolute power corrupted him absolutely.

And so, just as Pharaoh became hard-hearted and self-important, so too does Jethro fear Moses (however humble he was at the outset) doing the same.

The Book of Deuteronomy recognizes the risk Jethro foresaw when it requires the king of Israel to keep a copy of the law and “read it all his life so that he may learn to revere the Eternal, his God . . . [and] not act haughtily toward his fellows.” The mandate to know and keep the Israelite constitution, and thereby share power, teaches the king humility and that no one, not even he, is above the law.

Not long ago, after declaring that our nation is in crisis, a certain candidate for the presidency went on to proclaim: “I am your voice. I alone can fix it.”

Jethro teaches otherwise, for none of us alone can judge, or govern or “fix” an entire nation. A government of laws and not men depends on the humility, good faith and participation of us all.

Rabbi John Franken is the spiritual leader at Bolton Street Synagogue and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Genealogy Only Goes So Far Parshat Bo

Why is the killing of the firstborn the final, and most significant, plague? True, it brought death into every household, rattling Egypt at its foundations, but certainly the plagues of hail — really, fire in blocks of ice falling from the sky — or total, crippling darkness for three days and nights were not inconsequential demonstrations of God’s power. Any of these plagues could have dealt a knockout punch to the most cold-hearted of dictators. What, then, is it about the killing of the firstborn that proved most effective?

I suggest that it is because it destroyed a certain institution of ancient culture that God found objectionable — primogeniture, the primacy and veneration of the firstborn. Turning to the earliest pages of Genesis, we find the theme of the firstborn early in the Torah, when sibling rivalry between Cain and Abel is translated into the rejection and acceptance of their respective sacrifices to God: The hypocritical gift of the firstborn Cain is rejected, while the more sincere offering of the younger Abel is accepted.

Part of Cain’s vexation is due to the fact that he sees his firstborn status as having been overlooked — and indeed it was, since sincerity of devotion is ultimately more important than order of birth.

Thus, Abraham’s eldest son, Ishmael, must step aside for the younger Isaac because the former is a metzahek — a scorner and an adulterer — which renders him unfit for the birthright. Of Isaac’s two sons, Esau must give way to Jacob, since the former scorned the birthright, first by selling it for a mess of pottage and then by taking Hittite wives.

With the birth of the Jewish people in the Book of Exodus, a revolutionary concept emerges: The prevailing rule of the firstborn rapidly comes to an end.
From the moment it began its ascent in the world, Judaism’s message has been that an individual’s merits are more important than an individual’s genealogy.

Many generations later, the rabbinic sages emerged as the leaders of the Jewish people. These scholars taught — and demonstrated — the principle of meritocracy: One becomes a leader through study and devotion, not as a result of yichus (ancestry). A prime example of this can be found in the teaching from the Mishnah, “a mamzer [person born of adultery or incest] who is a Torah scholar takes precedence over an ignorant High Priest.”

This revolutionary message is one of Judaism’s great lessons for humanity. This concept should empower all people to throw off their shackles of
genealogy and birth order.

Ultimately, only those who dream the impossible will ever achieve the incredible.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

The True Purpose of the Plagues Parshat Vaera

Parashat Vaera is all action: The first six plagues descend on Egypt and Pharaoh responds in kind, creating the dramatic and suspenseful story that will culminate in God redeeming the Israelite slaves from Egypt. The plagues are high drama, a fast-moving blockbuster film.

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Insects. Pestilence. Boils. My skin crawls and my scalp itches just writing about this batch of creepy, crawly, infectious plagues. The six plagues in Vaera come in two sets of three plagues each. In each set, Pharaoh is forewarned about the first two plagues and surprised by the third. And after each set, he refuses to free the Israelites.

Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal is what we often remember from this series of events (even my 4-year-old child knows to sing, “No, no, no, I will not let them go” at this point in the story). However, in Exodus 7:3 it is actually God who says, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” This statement raises a fascinating question: is God responsible for Pharaoh’s obstinacy?

The plagues are not only intended to crush the Egyptian slave masters and cruel king into submission in order to free the slaves, but they also provide evidence of God’s power to an enslaved people.

It is critical to remember that at this point, the Israelites have been slaves for over 400 years. They are accustomed to oppression and all that comes with it — lack of choice and agency, demoralization, and dehumanization. And they are used to not having God around. A far cry from Abraham or Joseph’s personal relationships with God, God is conspicuously absent during the Israelite’s enslavement in Egypt. And this absence lasts enough generations for the tales of their ancestors to fade from familiarity into distant legend.

The Israelites, maybe even more than Pharaoh and the Egyptians, desperately need proof of God’s power and might. The plagues unite them, not only as an oppressed people accustomed to life’s cruelty, but also as a people on the verge of liberation. These first plagues are those first glimmers of hope. It’s a brilliant strategic move by God who understands that the Israelites can’t be expected to just will themselves out of Egypt; they need inspiration and guidance. Parshat Vaera provides the essential stepping stones toward the freedom we know is just over the horizon.

Rabbi Ana Bonnheim recently moved to Charlotte, N.C., with her husband and two young children. She served as the associate director and director of year-round programs at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas for the past eight years.

This commentary was reposted/printed with permission from ReformJudaism.org. The original post can be read here.

The Power of Women Parshat Shemot

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiIn decreeing the destruction of the Israelites in Egypt, why does Pharaoh distinguish between the genders? Apparently afraid to keep the Israelite men alive lest they wage a rebellion against him, Pharaoh is confident that the Israelite women will not pose a threat, as they will presumably marry Egyptian men and assimilate into Egyptian society.

This strategy underscores Pharaoh’s ignorance — or denial — of the pivotal role women play in the development of a nation, and stands in stark contrast to the perspective of our Sages, who in the Midrash Yalkut Shimoni declare that it was “in the merit of the righteous Israelite women that the Jewish People were redeemed from Egypt.”

The Talmud teaches, “I always call my wife ‘my home,” since the real bulwark of the home is the woman of the house. As the Jewish nation emerged from a family, and family units are the bedrock of every society, it is clearly the women who are of supreme importance.

Pharaoh was blind to this. Apparently, he had no tradition of matriarchs such as Sarah and Rebecca, who directed the destiny of a national mission. For him, women were the weaker gender who were there to be used and taken advantage of. This is why Pharaoh attempts to utilize the Hebrew midwives to do his dirty work of actually murdering the male babies on the birth stools. To his surprise, the women rebelled: “And the midwives feared the Lord, so they did not do what the king of Egypt told them to do; they kept the male babies alive.”

Pharaoh begins to learn his lesson when Moses asks for a three-day journey in the desert; Pharaoh wants to know who will go. Moses insists: “Our youth and our old people will go, our sons and our daughters will go — our entire households will go, our women as well as our men.” A wiser Pharaoh will now only allow the men to leave; he now understands that he has most to fear from the women!

And so it is no wonder that Passover, the festival of our freedom, is celebrated in the Torah with “a lamb for each house,” with the women included in the paschal sacrificial meal by name no less than the men. In our time, we find this idea expressed in the observances of the Passover Seder (the drinking of the four cups of wine, the eating of matza, and the telling of the story of the exodus, etc.), which are binding on women no less than men.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

Righting a Wrong Parshat Vayechi

My parents always bless my siblings and me on Friday night. Unlike families in the Torah, they don’t do it in any special order. They just start with the closest child.

In this week’s parshah, Vayechi, Yosef asks his father, Yaakov, to bless his children. Chizkuni, who lived in France in the 1300s, said that Yaakov crossed his hands instead of having the children switch places so he could honor both his favored grandchild and the firstborn. When Yaakov puts his hand on Ephraim’s head first, Yosef tells his father not to. Yaakov tells Yosef that they will both begin great nations, but he still blesses Ephraim before Manasseh. Why did Yosef really tell his father to bless Manasseh, the older one, before Ephraim? Blessing the younger son and not the older one is a tradition in the Torah that goes back to Cain and Abel, when God liked the offering of Abel’s, the younger brother, more than God liked Cain’s.

Abraham’s second son, Yitzhak, was the one he loved and blessed. In turn, Yitzchak liked Esav better than Yaakov, but Rivkah loved Yaakov better.

Yaakov “married” Leah. Yaakov loved the younger daughter, Rachel, more than the older one.

Yaakov is partial to his second youngest son, Yosef. Yosef has his own children and wants his father to bless them. His  father is blessing the younger one first, and Yosef tells his  father not to. Maybe he was making the same mistake of child favoritism by telling his father to bless one child more than the other instead of both equally.

Maybe Yosef learned from example, a bad example. Yosef saw his father blessing one child and not the others, and loving one child more than the others, and learned from that.

On the other hand, Yaakov was trying to bless Yosef’s children equally, because Menasseh was on his right and Ephraim was on his left, and then Yaakov put his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his right hand on Manasseh’s head.

Yaakov saw the mistake he made when blessing his own sons and was trying not to make that same mistake blessing Yosef’s sons, and Yosef didn’t realize that. Yaakov did something wrong, and he was trying to redeem himself. Yaakov is trying to set an example for his grandchildren, a good example.

Blanca Berger Sollod is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

The Importance of Helping Others Parshat Va-yiggash

This week we are reading Parshat Va-yiggash, which means “and he approached.” It is the story of how Judah defends his brother, Benjamin, who is accused of stealing Joseph’s goblet. This parshah takes place in Egypt several years later now that Joseph is a top Egyptian official.

The parshah opens with a beautiful monologue by Judah, pleading that Joseph imprison Judah instead of their youngest brother, Benjamin. Judah declares that his elderly father, Jacob, will die from grief over the loss of Benjamin. He uses the word “father” 14 times in 17 verses. Joseph cannot hold back his tears and reveals himself to his brothers twice — the first time asking if his father is well and the second time forgiving his brothers for selling him into slavery.

In my family, my great-grandmother, Devorah, and her sister, Naomi, were brought to an orphanage after a pogrom took the lives of all of the other Jews in their Polish village. One day in the orphanage, a Jewish man from South Africa sat next to 12-year-old Devorah and offered to take her to his country to live in safety. My Aunt Linda wrote a beautiful book about my great-grandmother called The Night of the Burning.

In both the Joseph story and in my family’s history, there are individuals who can be considered to be “upstanders.” In the biblical text, Judah stands up for Benjamin when he is accused of stealing Joseph’s golden goblet that Joseph’s servants had planted in Benjamin’s bag. Likewise, Judah’s heartfelt plea leads Joseph to stand up when he reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them.

In the case of my great-grandmother, the upstander is Issac Ochberg, who undertook a treacherous journey for children he did not even know. Mr. Ochberg brought hundreds of Jewish orphans to South Africa, including Devorah, Naomi and others. Individuals like Judah and Ochberg are examples to us all to speak up, show kindness and assist others in need.

Henry Glaun is a seventh-grade student at Krieger Schechter Day School.

Forgiveness, Reconciliation with the Past Parshat Miketz

Many years ago, I taught an adult education class on biblical heroes. Among those we studied was Joseph. We focused on Parshat Miketz and discussed Joseph’s contentious relationship with his older brothers and their later reconciliation.

Although intellectually I believed that Joseph had indeed matured; emotionally I felt otherwise and sensed that somehow we hadn’t grasped the full story. I asked the class: If Joseph had indeed matured, why hadn’t he communicated with his father? After all, he had been his father’s favorite. Jacob hadn’t thrown him into a pit or plotted to sell him into slavery. It’s not as if Jacob would have inquired about him, for the brothers had taken Joseph’s tunic, dipped it in blood and let Jacob think that Joseph was dead. Surely, Joseph could have imagined the impact of such news on Jacob.

Perhaps Joseph’s anger toward his brothers was so great that he wasn’t ready to return home and forgive them. But didn’t he have any compassion or love for his father?

Yet, in the years that followed, as my sons got engaged or married, my discomfort with Joseph’s seeming lack of concern for his father has resurfaced, but from a different perspective. My earlier discomfort had to do with my unsuccessfully trying to see myself as Joseph. Being extremely close to my parents, I couldn’t imagine being apart from them for so long without wanting to know how they were doing. Now I read the text through Jacob’s eyes, feeling his pain when he learns from his sons that Joseph is dead.

I’ve come to realize that the story of Jacob and Joseph is not really one of a father’s grief and a son’s anger turned to indifference, but rather one of a once-close parent-child relationship that comes to be characterized by separation, loss and silence. As close as I remain to my sons, bar mitzvah, like marriage, is celebrated as a rite of passage in which a child separates from his or her parents.

Joseph comes to understand that he had taken resentments and anger toward his family and projected them onto Judaism itself. Thus, when he asks his brothers about Jacob, his words reflect a new more mature Joseph who emotionally and spiritually is ready to come home. Joseph realizes that Jacob’s shortcomings as a father don’t exempt or excuse him from being the kind of son, or human being, that he knows he is capable of being.

Dr. Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in ­Fairfield, Conn. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.

Which Is the Greater Chanukah Miracle?

101014_riskin_sholmo_rabbiAs we prepare for the festival of Chanukah, it behooves us to revisit the significance of the lights of the chanukiah, as well as the Al Hanissim and Hallel praises that mark our eight-day celebration.

Based on the text of the prayer of Al Hanissim (literally, “for the miracles”), which appears in the thanksgiving blessing of the Amidah and the Grace after Meals throughout the festival, it would appear that the essential miracle of Chanukah is the military victory of a ragtag militia of Judeans over a vastly larger fighting force, the army of the Greco-Syrian Kingdom.

However, another source, first found in the late Tannaitic work Megillat Taanit and cited by the Babylonian Talmud, emphasizes an altogether different miracle only hinted at  in the Al Hanissim prayer.  According to this source, which barely even mentions the military victory, the main miracle was a single cruse of oil sufficient for one day lasting for eight days.

Faced with this apparent dispute within our own tradition, which, then, is the primary miracle of the holiday? If both, why did the Almighty have to perform the second miracle of the cruse of oil at all? The military victory would have been sufficient to restore Israeli sovereignty, and the Maccabees could have waited eight days to secure new oil before lighting the menorah! Moreover, it would have been halachically permissible to use ritually defiled oil if no other oil was available.

According to Beit Hillel, the main struggle — and miraculous victory — was the victory over the false ideology of Greco-Pagan Hellenism. The battle of ideas is won with better ideas, in this case, the light of Torah knowledge. Since knowledge is cumulative, developing as text is joined to text, so too, ideas are built upon ideas, and hence, the progression from one light to eight.

We can understand the essence of the miracles that we celebrate by considering the fact the Maccabees were fighting against not one, but two destructive enemies. On the one hand, they were battling the Greco-Syrian military forces that were physically threatening Judean independence. And on the other hand, they were combatting the Greco-Syrian ideology that was spiritually threatening the Torah’s message of commitment to a God of peace.

The Al Hanissim prayer and our Hallel praise emphasize the military victory that brought us independence; the kindling of the menorah (in accordance with Beit Hillel) emphasizes the ideological, spiritual victory of a religiously committed Judea against the pagan-secular Hellenism. Both victories and each miracle were crucial in order for Israel’s legacy not only to survive, but to prevail.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.

A Biblical Text of Terror

In the midst of this week’s parshah is a lengthy story about Jacob’s only daughter, Dina. While Jacob briefly appears in this story, he plays a surprisingly insignificant role. Indeed, after Jacob hears that Dina has been raped by Shechem, a local Hivite prince, he neither tells anyone nor takes any  action, choosing to wait until his sons return home.

Even when Hamor, Shechem’s father, asks that Jacob agree to let Dina marry his son (who apparently, after defiling Dina, has fallen in love with her), it is not Jacob, but his sons who provide Hamor with an answer. They tell him that Dina marrying an uncircumcised man would bring shame upon their family. However, should all male Shechemites (that is, Canaanites living in the city  of Shechem) be circumcised, there would be no objection to Shechem’s marrying their sister. Indeed, if all Shechemite men were circumcised, Israelite men in general would allow their daughters to marry Shechemites and they would conceivably marry Shechemite women.

This promise, it turns out, is a trick. While the Shechemite men are still in great pain from their recent circumcisions and thus unable to defend themselves, the sons take brutal revenge against not just Shechem, but all of the Shechemites.

This section of Genesis can best be described as a “text of terror,” a term coined by Christian feminist theologian Phyllis Trible to refer to scriptural narratives in which women suffer as victims.

According to the ancient midrashic tradition, Dina herself was to blame. Since God created the first woman from Adam’s rib, a part of his body that was covered, women were to be modest by nature. Thus, Dina acted unnaturally by going out and endangering herself.

Yet, the biblical text does not fault Dina for socializing with the Canaanite women. As “The Torah: A Women’s Commentary” notes, the justification that the brothers give for their acts of revenge indicate that in their view, Shechem’s offer of bride money and gifts after he had sexually defiled their sister maligned her character by  implying that she had made herself available to him as a prostitute.

In my understanding, Dina comes to believe that the real motive of her brothers for killing the Shechemite men and taking the women and children captive was not to  revenge her honor, but to justify their conquering the land of Canaan. Certainly, I think, my interpretation is plausible. Yet, like so much else in this text, Dina’s own understanding of her brothers’ action is  unknown.

Ellen M. Umansky is the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Professor of Judaic Studies at Fairfield University in Fairfield, Conn. A version of this article first appeared on reformjudaism.org.