Saturday, 4 January 2014

Talking Donkeys? Are we in Shrek?

The story of Bilaam and his donkey has confused people for many years. A talking donkey makes many people confused- even Bilaam himself! If this perplexed the greatest scholars, what are we to make of it?
It says 22:24, "And God opened the mouth of the she-donkey and said to Bilaam: What have I done to you that you have struck me these three times?" Since God is indeed mentioned in the text, we know that Hashem is directly responsible for this phenomenon. The question is, how?
Nehama Leibowitz brings forth quite an interesting peyrush on the matter. She quotes the Mishnaic commentary Tiferet Israel, saying, "This was on the first eve after the creation. But this does not imply that they were actually created them, It cannot be assumed that the Ram for the sacrifice of Isaac discovered by Avraham and Bilaam's donkey existed, on the basis of this, for thousands of years and that scriptures would not even mention this great miracle. What is meant is that creation had been invested by God with the power of bringing forth these wonders at the appropriate time."
What this means is that right before Shabbat on the sixth day, Hashem created the potential in the world. This potential was brought into the world much later but there was, and always will be that potential. 
The phrase 'If walls could speak' comes to mind. Bilaam must have been very surprised when his donkey started to speak. I bet he didn't like the stories the she-donkey had to tell either. 
While everyone else seems perplexed, Rambam, who aids such people, finds no such issues with it. He assumes the whole encounter between Bilaam, the donkey, and the angel was in a prophetic vision from Hashem. How un-creative of him. 
Ramban happens to be more concerned as to why the she-donkey is able to see the angel at all! I mean, if you were stuck with Bilaam, wouldn't you be looking for a miracle too? But he does bring up an interesting point.
In more words, he asks: if the donkey was able to see the angel, why couldn't Bilaam? Did he need glasses or something?! He rejects this approach and redirects. 
"but it is plausible that God, the one who added to the She-donkey the power of speech, also added to its power of visual perception and, as a result, it saw as a person sees. And the reason the scripture does not state regarding the donkey 'and god uncovered the eyes of the she-donkey,' as it states regarding it's master Bilaam is because the entire matter of the donkey was a great miracle, indeed like a new creation, IE., something completely different than anything in existence previously, listed among the things that were created during twilight at the end of the Friday of creation and it cannot be called just an 'uncovering of the eyes.' However, our sages, of blessed memory, mention only the opening of the donkey's mouth among the miracle-objects created during twilight."
He says that Hashem granted the sight to the donkey along with the speech, and because it was so extraordinary, it could not stam be put out there like Bilaam in the commonplace happenings. Thankfully, all of these commentaries exist for us to understand their answers, and get to the bottom line of what happened. 

Good and Bad? Whats that?

In Parshat Bereshit appears the first sin of man and wife. Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree and are suddenly imbued with the knowledge of Good and Bad. If supernatural trees are common place in your daily life, let me explain everyone's question.
If a tree is knowledgeable, and is alive like all vegetation, does that make it fleishig? Just kidding, that's not what actually 'bothers Rashi'. Though, Rashi stays mysteriously silent about the topic.
The real question is, what does the 'knowledge of good and bad' actually entail? Is it a kosher restaurant guide? A list of acceptable/unacceptable things to do on a first date? What?! It gets confusing sometimes!
Sorry to all of you in the shidduchim scene, that's, unfortunately, not it. But, close enough. The Ibn. Ezra says, "That it's fruit produced sexual desire, and this is why Adam and Eve covered their nakedness immediately after they ate from it." Talk about 'forbidden fruit' metaphors. Holy sexual tension batman. 
The Ramban, of course, disagrees with this approach. Because God- Forbid we agree with our fellow, learned Jews and not put down their Torah insights. He points out that the serpent had mentioned that the fruit would make them more like Hashem. There you have it folks, lust and power, women are just marvelous. 
Ramban explains this by saying that he thinks before they ate the fruity deliciousness, they were, "Faithful workers, whose work was faithful, and they do not deviate from their tasks." This kind of makes them sound like a less mischievous version of minions from Despicable Me.
No one agrees with him though, so that's okay. Don't worry little Ibn. Ezra, big bad Ramban can't hurt you anymore. 
The Rambam actually, somewhat, minutely, kind of, sort of, if you try really hard, validates the Ibn. Ezra's claim. He compares the before and after in Gan Eden to weight watchers. There's just less and less. Oh sure, there was more knowledge, but just So much confusion. I mean, how many points is that?
Before the fruit, that would have, by the way, been NO points, man and woman were given an 'overflow of intellect,' allowing them to distinguish between truth and falsehood. So how was it the snake tricked Eve? She was given all the information and was still tricked by a smart talker. 
That sounds like every teenage mother I know.
Anyway, Rambam continues on to say that only after the sin did man develop a taste for good and evil. Or, fine and evil, as he puts it. 
He does not mean in the moral sense. And no that is not one of the five senses. Instead what is sweet and good to the physical senses, yes, those five senses, he considers good, even though the Sforno says, it's actually harmful. See kids, listen to your mother.
Or at least learn from your Aunt Myrtle. The fruit cake might smell good, but once you get inside you realize its all gone to purgatory.
As Onkelos translates, it was a tree "of knowledge of good and bad" not a "tree of knowledge."
Rav Hirsch ends this Torah battle and wipes the floor with these guys. He says that the previous interpretation is simply not right. Oh snap! "Freedom of choice distinguishes man as man... Had man been unaware of the concept of good and evil, God could not have assigned him a prohibition; and once man violated the prohibition, God could not have held him responsible and punished him."
If you stick a cookie in front of a baby, or most seminary girls for that matter, and sternly say, "Don't touch," they're going to ignore your existence. They do not actually know it's bad, all they know is they heard some noises out of your mouth. Either way, it's time to wax that lip.
Rav Hirsch says. "Through this tree, knowledge of good and evil will be acted upon and decided, and man will choose what is good or bad in his sight."
But who cares about what some men think! God is the ruler of the world, not us! Ah, see the infinite wisdom of Rav Hirsch. Earth can return to the 'Gan Eden' state, but only if we base what's good or bad in what Hashem says is good or bad. 
"We need to go above our imagination, thoughts, and personal preference and instead, obey the revealed will of God. Only then," Rav Hirsch says, "will we fulfill our purpose on earth and be worthy of having the world shaped into a paradise for us."

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Why Did God Choose Avraham?

Parshat Lech Lecha begins with the words:
 "Vayomer Hashem el Avram, Lech Lecha Mae-artzecha Umimoladetecha umebeit avicha el haaretz asher ar-echa." 
"Hashem Said to Abram, Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives, and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."
Avraham must leave to eventually to settle in the Holy Land of Israel. 
The question is, why does Avraham merit being the patriarch of the Jewish people? The pshat (Text) gives no explanation as to what Avraham Has done to prove his worth. This is the future of the Jewish people at stake here!
We end up seeing Avraham's worth through parshat Lech Lecha, Vayera, and Chayei Sara. He has awe inspiring qualities and amazing belief in Hashem.
The Or Hachaim HaKadosh points out an interesting matter. The Pasuk says Hashem spoke to him and then later, when he arrives in Israel, he appears to him. Yet, in every other instance, Hashem appears to the person and them speaks to them. For example: Moshe and the burning bush. 
Why would Hashem switch around what seems to be the natural order of things?
Rabbi Benjamin Yudin answers the Or Hachaim Hakadosh. Following Avraham, every individual to whom God appears has a sense of belief and trust in God. From where do they get it? From none other than Avraham Avinu himslef. Just as a father literally passes down his DNA to his children, so too Avraham Avinu passed down belief in God. It is literally in our blood. 
Avraham, however, did not have anyone who would pass belief down to him. Hashem couldn't simply appear to him just yet. He does not appear to Avraham until he tests him to see if he would be willing to follow his decrees. 
But why can't he teach monotheism in his homeland? They certainly needed it.
Because he needed to go against his nature. Only by doing so could he truly exhibit his true belief in Hashem and allow God to appear to him. 
The greatness of Avraham is summarized by Lech Lecha. it was something which Avraham could not understand but went through with anyway. 
As Rav Johny said, "He was a really nice bloke."
Rabbi Frand institutes it to his faith and courage to allow himself to be thrown into the fiery furnace instead of denying Hashem.
Avraham's extraordinary trait of eternal optimism, his refusal to acknowledge the impossibility of any task is inspiring. For example, when Hashem tells Avraham to count the stars in the sky, He actually tries.
The Ramban says that he was chosen from his endurance through the persecution the Chaldeans put him through for his faith in Hashem.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks furthers this idea, saying, "(He) had the courage to be different.... He recognized God.. (but), his faith did not start with an answer, it started with the question, 'Is it possible that the world lacks a ruler?', To which God replied, 'I am that ruler.'" 
Nechama Leibowitz decisively says that, "The very fact that God had chosen him as the object of his trials was in itself evidence that he was worthy to be chosen." Rabbi Benjamin Yudin gives a different answer. 
In a private interview, he explains his interpretation.
"There were other monotheists in the world besides Avraham. If there weren't, 'yeshivat shem v'aver' wouldn't have existed. Avraham happened to be special. He was able to take his belief in God and act on it. He brought Hashem into the everyday and made it a way of life; a lifestyle. He influenced those around him and those after him to walk in the way of Hashem. That is what it means in 18:19, "For I have loved him, because he commands his children and his household after him that they keep the way of Hashem, doing charity and justice, in order that Hashem might then bring upon Abraham that which He had spoken of him."
It was not enough that he was a good guy or a monotheist, though you cant be a good guy without belief in one God, he needed to be both. And on top of that he needed to be able to bring people into the fold. He was able to synthesize man to man, with man to God. Such was the greatness of Avraham."

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

You can do it!

I was thinking earlier about Adam and Eve and the forbidden fruit. I mean, what does the knowledge of good and bad actually entail? And besides for that lets back up for a second. God can do anything in the world. Why does he choose to use a tree? What does this symbolize? God could have commanded Adam not to leave the garden. That seems quite reasonable. What does the tree mean? So I asked my papa and he said that the whole reason was so Adam understood the order of things. God was saying "Yeah, life is great, go ahead have fun. But you are accountable to me." But that didn't answer my question so I asked my father. He told me that Rashi, Ramban, Rambam, sforno, chazal, all these amazing commentators tried answer the question of the creation of the universe. He told me that they had issues with it and it is said that someone who focuses too much on the creation does not have a good time, per se. It is not good for them quote unquote. And that frustrated me. He told me that all these commentators are so amazing and they didn't get it so I shouldn't expect to get it either. That goes against everything our religion believes in. When Abraham was talking to God and God told him he would have children and he did not believe him, God told Abraham to count the stars and you know what, he actually tried. I don't know if this is just him being naive or commendable. He imbued within himself and into us the idea of going beyond the impossible. We can do whatever we set our minds too. My father told me I should not even try to explain the miracle of creation, that it was too difficult. But that is wrong. It may technically be impossible, but I can still accomplish it because I am a Jew. If I work towards it and do my hishdatlut, God will help me. You wouldn't think that anyone could go against God's ruling. Especially Abraham. Abraham was loyal like a golden retriever, but we Jews fight for what we believe in. When Abraham heard the city of the sodom was going to be destroyed, He fought with God. he asked if there were 40 righteous people in the city will you save it, if there are 30 righteous people, will you save it? And he kept on going, he tried. He fought against God! He did the impossible and lived to tell about it. That is the greatness of the Jew. We have the capability to do whatever we set our mind to. Do not believe anyone who tells you we can't accomplish. Israel, a country that was made less than a century ago, is now the leading nation in startup companies. We are the only democracy in a region filled of War, death, and hate. We won a war in 6 days and 5 hours. We have revolutionized the computer industry. Technology would have never been the same without us. The field of medicine is florishing because of Jewish doctors who put in their time and energy into life saving procedures, experiments and ideas. The Israeli military is full of 18 year old boys, just out of high school. They're immature, they're untrained, and yet they are successful. They are able to save so many people's lives against terrorism everyday. Jews all around the world are the best business men, the best politicians, the best journalists. They excel in every category they are entered in, every category possible. So never listen to someone who says that you cannot do something. Only God can make that judgment, God, and you. You need to work towards the things you want. No one else will for you. But if you put in the hard work you can accomplish the impossible.