Letters Feb 2007 III
Reader: I had a question for you. Rebecca deceives Isaac by dressing Jacob like Esav, to insure Jacob receives the blessing. I saw commentaries on this that said Rebecca had a prophecy that this was how it was suppose to be; that Jacob resisted, but Rebecca told him to listen to her and do as she says. I still have a question. Why was it okay – on a character level – for Rebecca to be deceitful? Wouldn’t Hashem want all this to happen another way...without deceiving Isaac? It is actually not my question...someone asked me and I didn’t have an answer.
Mesora: The Gemara states that a person may tell a lie for certain considerations, including Shalom Bayis (peace in the home). But here, not only was Shalom Bayis an issue, but also, Rebecca saw that confronting Isaac with the facts that Esav was undeserving, would not be successful: perhaps Isaac would not accept that truth, or could not accept it, as it might destroy him. Remember, Isaac loved Esav, since Esav “deceived” him (see Rashi on “Tzayid b’piv”). Isaac was fooled by Esav’s cunning and subterfuge, which led Isaac to believe that Esav was righteous.
We learn that honesty may be avoided “temporarily” for a greater good: “permanent” honesty…that the true Ben Torah (Jacob) receives the Blessings of Avraham from Isaac. If however, at this point, Rebecca and Jacob upheld honesty, then the future of the Bnai Yisrael would be jeopardized with someone like Esav receiving the blessings. So the greater good must be our objective in life, not a temporal act of honesty, which leads to diasater. When the Torah teaches, “From a false matter distance [yourself]” we must interpret this to mean that it is the “ultimate good” which we must not lie about. So Rebecca was seeking to keep intact the ultimate good of establishing the Jewish nation. Therefore, her temporal lie was justified, and warranted. Similarly, to save one’s life, we must lie, since the ultimate good is “life”, where we may study more Torah and achieve greater love of God. So lying now to spare my life is truly in line with the “truth” God wishes for us.
Reader: Yes, I need a little more...was Rebecca wrong to do what she did, but once she chose this way to secure the birthright, Hashem understood? It just seems to me that there had to be another way to secure the birthright. I mean, in Hashem’s blueprint for the world, did He plan that this is what Rebecca would do to secure the birthright? I am just not satisfied with the answer even though intellectually I understand it. Thanks.
Mesora: Rebecca was not wrong, for the reasons stated.
You wrote, “in Hashem’s blueprint for the world, did He plan that this is what Rebecca would do…” Your words indicate a philosophical outlook that God is directing each of our actions. But He doesn’t, as Moshe said to the people “And choose life”. (Deut. 30:19) This means that it is us who chooses our actions – not God – and Rebecca chose hers. God wants us to use our intelligence. That’s why we each have the faculties of reason, and free will. God doesn’t have a play-by-play blueprint for our individual actions: if we are to be righteous or wicked. He allows man to make free choices at any point in life. So God allowed Rebecca to choose an appropriate response to Isaac’s ignorance of Esav’s wickedness. This is why Isaac trembled when he realized that Jacob truly deserved the blessings, and Esav did not. This “trembling” response makes it clear that Rebecca had real grounds not to confront Isaac...she knew he would not handle it well.
I would add this lesson: God was going to kill Moses when he didn’t perform circumcision on his son. (Deut. 4:24) A Rabbi taught that this teaches that Moses was not essential to God’s plan. God can achieve whatever His plan is, whichever way He desires. God didn’t need Moses...or Rebecca.
Now...what His plan is, man does not know. So to suggest that God had some other way “for Rebecca to do this” is incorrect. For we have no knowledge at all regarding what God’s plan is for the world.
All we know is that He desires we use our mind, and our free will. And Rebecca did so. He also didn’t need Isaac to bless Jacob, so that He could have providence over Jacob. The blessings were not essential to God; they are for man.
Reader: Another question…How does God’s love for us work in conjunction with God’s system of reward and punishment?
Mesora: Reward and Punishment is a system intent on directing man towards the good here on Earth, and then granting us an eternal good in the Afterlife. In last weeks Parsha, Moses tells the Jews fearing for their lives after hearing God’s “voice”, that they should not fear, but that Revelation was performed in part so the Jews shall always have the fear of God before them, and not sin. God wishes man to veer away from sin, which can cause him to lose the good in this, and the next life.
Since knowledge of God is the happiest state in which man can exist, God offers us this involvement on an even greater level in the next world, if we learn to enjoy and appreciate it here. God does not need man, or anything. God’s creation of man was the greatest kindness He performed for us: He gave us existence…the ability to perceive amazing truths, starting with the truth that there exists a Creator. This concept was so amazing to Moses that he asked God to show him His true nature. Being physical, an organism that perceives through physical senses, God, instructed Moses that in this life, we could in no way know what God is, since God is imperceptible to human senses. But Moses’ question displays that man seeks more than anything, the true knowledge of the Creator, and of His created reality. Man can reach the level where he yearns for this knowledge. God created each of us with the capacity to find knowledge the greatest fulfillment.
This pursuit of wisdom, over all others, is the most enjoyable pursuit, and God desires that His creations be in a state of bliss. To direct mankind toward the best life, and to protect society from harmful people, a system of courts was necessary, forming part of Reward and Punishment. But the Reward and Punishment you speak of is God’s…not that of human courts.
If we died at 80 or 90, together with our souls, and there was no remnant of our existence…we would say that such a life is futile. Even if we lived 1000 years, and then our bodies and souls were no more, what benefit would such an existence serve? Meaning, that which is good, is synonymous with what is eternal. And God enables us to live eternally, thereby substantiating our temporal, Earthly existence with much value. Our knowledge of this afterlife “reward” propels us to engage in the Torah lifestyle that will earn for us an eternal, pleasurable life in the pursuit of greater wisdom. If we would engage in wisdom here, we would have little interest in other matters. And we see that subsequent to Moses’ excel to a higher plane of existence; God instructed him that returning to his wife was not an option. Meaning, his personal life was now surpassed by his relationship with God. A life of studying God and His creations yields much depth and excitement. He created us precisely to enjoy life in this way. And He desired this enjoyment never ends, but rather, increases in intensity. The next world is where man reaches a higher awareness of truth, and God. And as a wise Rabbi taught, it is where we learn the majority of our Torah.
To help us not stray from Torah, the “reward” of the next world is taught as an inducement. But this is when we are yet young and relatively ignorant. When we have finally learned much, we realize that the promise of the next world is in fact a promise that our current studies will not end, and will reach new plateaus after death. The promise of the next world is in fact a security in the continuation of the pursuit of wisdom. In this perfected view of the afterlife, man does not seek the next world as extraneous to Earthly, Torah study, but rather, as a continuation on a higher plane.
One reason we are taught of reward is to steer us towards the good, even though when we are young, we view that reward as an extraneous. But the primary we are taught of reward is to enlighten us to our true existence, which is the afterlife. Since this is the eternal state we will enjoy, it greatly overshadows Earthly life. As Pirkei Avos states, this word is the vestibule for the banquet hall: the afterlife. Therefore, God intimated the afterlife in the Torah. It plays a primary role in our understanding of our existence. But it must not play a primary role in our attachment to the good life of Torah. For if one learns and performs mitzvahs, only to receive the next world, he in fact forfeits much of it, since his learning and mitzvahs are not performed out of a conviction of their truths, but for an imagined good. To help us not focus on living for such an imagined and false notion, God concealed the afterlife, making it known by hints alone. This embodies the very attachment we should have to it: a removed attachment, where our primary Earthly concern is discovering the beauty of God’s wisdom in creation and in Torah.
Reward and Punishment is truly God’s expression of His love for us: it is His expressed concern that we do not forfeit the good here on Earth, which serves to secure our eternal reward.
Reader: Does the Torah say that every religion leads to God, regardless of the opinions those religions hold about God?
I also would like to ask: Isn’t Abraham a perfect example of a Noachide that came to know the One God; therefore, earning merit to have a special relationship with Him? Before Mt. Sinai, what “Torah of Hashem” was Abraham passing to his children and his children passing to their children?
Mesora: The Torah came before many modern religions, so it does not address each one by name. However, they all share similar corruptions, and this, the Torah does denounce in principle. It is foolish to assume that since another system is dubbed “religion”, that this naming in any way dictates a similarity to God’s only revealed truth: His Torah. It is an error of this society, that we give credence to what is popular, and what carries emotional draw. We are taught from our youth to fear anything termed “religion”. Anything with that title or connection “must” have some truth, we are taught. We are also taught to respect all mankind, and we then confuse that truth, with the danger of respecting all religions performed by all “mankind”. However, this is false. The simplest explanation why all other religions are false, is based on God’s command: “This entire matter which I command, you shall guard to perform it: do not add to it, and do not detract from it”. (Deut. 13:1) All religions either add or detract from Judaism, thereby denying God’s word, and opposing God’s will. They cannot lead to God while violating His will. Abraham knew the Noachide laws, and also studied the universe, arriving at many truths about God. This was God’s original will for Adam, and why God gave Adam just one command according to Rabbi Yehuda (Talmud San. 56b) God desired that Adam use his intelligence to guide his life, without commands, but by reasoning.
Doug: Can I raise a different question for your consideration? It’s about the Noahide commandment to establish courts of law. While this seems rather straightforward on its face, delving into it raises some disturbing questions. For example:
(1) What exactly is the commandment? Is it just to establish courts of law, so that the US court system would qualify as fulfillment? Or is it to establish courts of law that enforce the “seven Noahide laws”?
Mesora: As your quote from Maimonides states, (Kings, 9:14) the law is to establish courts that try cases regarding Noachide law.
Doug: (2) If the latter, this clearly doesn’t exist in the US. Only two of the seven laws are enforced in the US (and probably are not interpreted in the same way as a Torah court would do so); theft and murder. In fact, I think I’m safe in maintaining there is no court in the world anywhere today that enforces the seven Noahide laws. Going further, I would guess that there never has been a time in the entire history of the world - with the possible exception of Israel during certain times of history - where courts have been established that enforced the seven Noahide laws.
(3) If (2) is true, then are all Noahides today guilty of violating this commandment because we haven’t established courts that enforce the seven Noahide laws? Yet I would maintain that it is a practical impossibility in today’s society to do so. So is a Noahide held responsible for failure to fulfill a commandment that is - for all practical purposes - impossible to fulfill?
Mesora: The Torah teaches that God exempts us from what is coerced: meaning, over that which we have no control. So no, you are not held accountable.
Doug: Sean passed along to me the attached comments from Maimonides. I find them troubling, particularly the statements that; (a) [If a Noachide] saw a [Noachide] who transgressed one of these [commands] and didn’t judge him and kill him - behold! This [Noachide] is executed by decapitation; (b) A gentile is executed [on the basis of the testimony] of one witness and [the verdict of] a single judge. No warning is [required]. Relatives may serve as witnesses. These concepts seem diametrically opposed to the idea of Torah courts and justice with which I’m familiar. I welcome any light you can shed on this.
Mesora: As a Rabbi once taught, the severity of punishment for the Noachide in comparison to the same infraction by a Jew, is not an inequality: the Noachide is not killed for “stealing”, but rather for his “systemic breakdown” of the Noachide lifestyle. If the Noachide was in fact punished for stealing per se, then his penalty should mirror the Jew’s penalty, as the crimes are identical, and God does not play favorites. However, as the crime of the Noachide is “breaking the system” and not stealing, the Noachide is punished more severely than the Jew since his infraction is worse: he is not maintaining a minimal set of laws. To deserve continued life, God demands that man observes this minimal set of laws…Noachide laws. If such a man cannot abide by them, and breaks any of those laws, his life has lost its purpose, and he is killed. Since the system is so minimalist, the Noachide is held to it with a higher degree of severity. And any deviation will meet wit death. Therefore, more stringency is applied to all areas: only one witness is required whereas Jews require 2 or 3; relatives can give testimony whereas Jews cannot; no warning is necessary before committing a crime whereas Jews require a warning on the spot if they are to be killed.
Noachide laws are not diametrically opposed; in fact, they are primarily the same as those 7 of a Jew, but with greater stringencies, since a Noachide is asked to observe far less than a Jew.
Shlomo: Someone sent me an
email with a link of a very well produced movie that explains “The Secret of
life”. It is very interesting but long. If you don’t have time to watch it,
they basically say that the rule of what makes things in your life happen is
the law of “Attraction”. They don’t deny Hashem, but try to explain that
everything that happens to a person in his life is a result of what he thinks.
If one is thinking about the negative things like getting parking tickets etc.,
you get more of it. If one thinks about good things, that’s what you attract
and get. By using your attitude to control your emotions you can create a
positive life. Is this inline with Jewish teachings?
Mesora: Shlomo, You wrote, “If one is thinking about the negative things like getting parking tickets...they happen”. What is your explanation of this cause and effect relationship?
Shlomo: The video I sent you explains that there is a law of “Attraction” in the universe, or G-d, whatever people want to call it. That if you think of something, that’s what you attract to yourself. If you have time check out the video and let me know what you think.
Mesora: So…with thought alone, a human can generate positive or negative activities? Is this the position?
Shlomo: One attracts to himself what he is thinking. “Think good and it will be good.” But one also has to react to the opportunities presented to him, “Hishtadlut.” However it all starts with thought, keeping the negative out, and focusing on the positive.
Mesora: You seem to describe the phenomenon of “self fulfilling prophecies”: predictions that, in being made, actually cause itself to become true. This is a psychological principle applicable to people who succumb to a strong belief in destiny. But this opposes Judaism’s outlook of free will.
A person, who feels neglected, may seek to be abused and ignored, as it gives him or her some concrete measure of the self, albeit negative. But at least they know where they stand, and that is, ironically, quite comforting. In such a person, the insecurity of one’s measure, is worse than the abuse. So they force themselves into abusive situations, and make others despise them…all for the sake of arriving at some self-evaluation. Such individuals may – for a myriad of emotional reasons – have a need for others to pity them. So acting poorly to others to attract neglect actually caters to some wish that someone pities them, and they enjoy that feeling. When an emotion is satisfying – even a negative emotion – people will sacrifice normal pleasures and even self-esteem to experience that emotion. It is like an addiction. People sacrifice friendships and all basic bodily needs to have one more high on that drug. People suffer nightmares too for the similar reason that the wait for life’s catastrophes is more painful than the actual experience…which most times is not as severe as imagined.
In the world of the psyche, there is no “normal”. Each person has his and her own hierarchical order of “gratification”. To a masochist, pain is preferred to the absence of sensation. To an anorexic, thinness is preferred to health. And to one seeking pity, failure makes him think that others now pity his state. Why people feel the way they do is not the issue, and many causes exist. The point here is that the self-fulfilling prophecy you describe caters to the imagined “destiny”, or to one who wishes pity, or one of many other emotions.
No. Judaism does not endorse a passive attitude of any kind, where people invent falsehood as this, simply to excuse themselves from responsibility.
Destiny does not exist: free will and responsibility do. And one should not pay pity to another, who has the ability to emancipate himself from foolish emotional crutches. One should either advise or rebuke a troubled person, depending on his findings, and after careful evaluation of how another person will receive such counsel.
Reader: Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim, In the JewishTimes this week you state: “However, no prohibition exists to cut one’s facial hair as I mentioned. The prohibition is to cut one’s face in five spots as a mournful act, performed by heathens. Therefore, we do not use a razor blade on our face above the jaw line, lest we accidentally duplicate those heathen cuts. However, there is no reason not to use an electric shaver since the blades do not come in contact with the face.”
I believe that you are confusing the prohibition of shaving with a razor which is because of imitation of their priests (Rambam Hilchos Avodas Kochavim chapter 12 halachos 7-8) with the prohibition of cutting oneself and making a bald spot out of mourning (Rambam Hilchos Avodas Kochavim chapter 12 halachos 12-16)
I am not disagreeing with the permissibility of using an electric shaver. I just wanted to correct the theoretical classification of the prohibition of shaving with a razor.
Mesora: You are correct, that is my error. Thank you. Good Shabbos to you as well.
Omphile: Greetings Rabbi. You wrote: “To avert this catastrophe where the nation might project physical characteristics onto God, He included a number of features in Revelation at Sinai. Foremost was the command to rail-off the mountain. This controls man’s physical attempt to ‘approach’ God.”
Isn’t there a danger that people could misconstrue this ‘railing-off’? I mean someone can easily say that God doesn’t want us to get NEAR him, that He IS at this particular place. Why cant the explanation simply be that God wanted a particular area cleared for the fire?
I understand that having
different people at differing heights on Sinai (Moses, Aaron the
masses) teaches that we are not all equal (in our perfection/understanding of
God) and so a person should ‘know his level’
and not attempt to comprehend that which is above his comprehension. Which then begs the question,
how one can avoid areas of Torah that are beyond him. How is one to know when to back off? For example, it is my understanding that the area about the red heifer has only being understood by Moses and Solomon (if I’m not mistaken). Yet you still see Rabbis today studying the area.
Mesora: Good to hear from you Omphile.
One does not need to be guarded from entering a firestorm. Furthermore, God stated that the railing off was to prevent the people from trying to “see” something. (Deut. 19:21) Moses then clarified that “And any form your eyes did not see…” at Sinai. (Ibid 4:6) Moses taught that the Jews must not assume there was anything to see. Deuteronomy 19:20 states that God came down on Sinai. And 20:19 states that they heard God from the heavens. Perhaps this “apparent” contradiction was to make the point that God is “in” neither location.
Regarding your second question, a person knows when he is unclear. If he makes no headway in a given area, he is wise to distance himself, as we learn, “What is distant from you, do not explain.” Now, even though few have discerned the ideas behind the red heifer, this does not mean one is prohibited from indulging in its study. What it does mean is that if you encounter difficulty in comprehension, then you should leave it alone.
Reader: My question concerns passages in the Torah that condone slavery: are they to be taken as G-d allowing this type of economic and social practice; or instead, are we to see it as revolutionary for it’s day---meaning the relaxation of the severity of the master slave relationship existing in the world at that time (agricultural societies mainly) and therefore, as people striving for progressive reform, were we to build on that until slavery was to eventually be abolished totally? How does an Orthodox Jew today understand these passages? I ask the same sort of question regarding animal sacrifices. Kindly provide me with sources supporting your answer.
Mesora: The institution of slavery in Torah is purely monetary. A master with one pillow must forfeit it to insure his slave’s comfort, over his own. The very fact that slaves are freed at the Jubilee indicates it’s temporal nature. It is not a social issue left up to the current cultural norms. It is a permanent law as are all Torah laws. Man doesn’t change, so Torah doesn’t change. (See this week’s Parsha Mishpatim for sources of your specific questions. See also Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Servants.)
Regarding sacrifice, it was incorporated into Torah law as well, as a lesson that man must not succumb to animal worship, as did the Egyptians. And although this practice has almost entirely vanished, human nature, which generates this urge, is alive and well. To address this part of human nature, sacrifice will always remain applicable. (See Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed”, Book III, chap. XXXII)
Torah never expires.