Sunday, January 31, 2016

Parashat Mishpatim 5776 Not in Heaven

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Mishpatim 5776
Not in Heaven

As the chapters following the Revelation at Sinai unfold, the narrative seems to have been replaced by a slew of laws. Servants, cattle, damages and punitive obligations fill the pages of this week’s Torah portion, and it seems as if the lofty experience of standing at Sinai and witnessing the theophany has been eclipsed by the pedestrian realities of everyday life.

The shift is quite dramatic: The first 20 Chapters of Shmot were filled with pathos and action: An abused nation and its savior, a magical staff, mighty plagues and the splitting of the sea, the introduction of the manna and the wonder of Shabbat inspired us and connected us with heaven. All this, followed by the Revelation at Sinai literally, the most awesome experience mankind has ever experienced. And then, somehow, the narrative gives way to everyday hustle and bustle, the real-life problems that are the central feature of Parashat Mishpatim: If an ox gores and causes damage, restitution must be paid.

There is no question that these laws are both logical and necessary for the functioning of the nation; what may need explanation is their context. Why the sudden shift from the spiritual apex at Sinai to the minutiae of Mishpatim? Why the shift from religious law to common law?

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter once famously observed that the physical needs of our fellow man are our own spiritual obligation. Parshat Mishpatim may be understood in much the same vein: Our financial obligations are, in fact, spiritual obligations. All our workaday interpersonal relationships are part and parcel of our religious life. While we might be tempted to think that the reduction of lofty, Divine law into hard currency is demeaning, the Torah seems to be teaching quite the opposite: Had Torah law dealt exclusively with overtly otherworldly, spiritual concerns, it would not be the Living Torah, the Torah of Life, that it is. A Torah that deals exclusively with our relationship with God would be a Torah that is irrelevant for much of lifes realities, and not a way of life.

In other words, it is precisely the context which makes these laws so interesting and compelling. Last weeks parasha ended as the People took a collective step back from the overwhelming religious experience at Sinai. Hearing God speak directly to them proved too much for them; the nation asked that Moshe act as an intermediary, that he alone stand and receive the Word of God and teach them in a more manageable, recognizable fashion. When the heavens opened and they each heard the ten statements uttered by God Himself, the people begged for God to stop. They felt incapable of accepting the Torah directly from God, and asked that Moshe receive it on their behalf. Immediately following this request, Parashat Mishpatim begins: These are the laws God then shared with Moshe. This is the precise content that God intended to transmit directly to each and every member of the nation, but which they felt incapable of receiving directly. Parashat Mishpatim, with its seemingly mundane and detailed social laws, is the content of that awesome and awe-inspiring Revelation.

So much non-Jewish religious belief focuses on the spiritual world, on the aspects of holiness and spirituality that are divorced from human experience and interaction. We might have imagined that the Torah, too, would concern itself only with this aspect of human capability. Yet the unmistakable message of the laws God taught Moshe at Mount Sinai is that no such division exists in Judaism. The Torah, which comes from heaven, is not in heaven, nor is it designed for heavenly beings. Torah deals with the reality that unfolds on the lowly terra firma, and not in some rarified atmosphere occupied by beings who are wholly spiritual.

The social obligations enumerated in Parashat Mishpatim are Divine law. An elevated level of human interaction is also holy, and no less a spiritual commandment than the laws regulating our service of God. The obligation to perfect human society is a Divine imperative.

Echoes of Eden

Audio and Essays Parashat Mishpatim

Audio and Essays Parashat Mishpatim

New Echoes of Eden Project:
Not in Heaven

The Oral Torah and the Glow of Moshe

Accepting The Torah; Being United

Eye For An Eye

Even From the Altar


Soul Matters

From Logic to Metalogic

'Lex Talionis': Law and Ethics

The Ten Commandments: Part II

These Are the Laws

Monday, January 25, 2016

Parashat Yitro 5776 Dual Loyalty

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Yitro 5776
Dual Loyalty

Hearing of the wonders that had transpired, Yitro, Moshe’s father in law, arrives in the Israelite encampment in the desert. He is genuinely happy to hear of the wondrous events that had brought about the Israelites’ reversal of fortune, transforming them from lowly slaves into free people. Yitro joins Moshe, Aharon and the elders in a thanksgiving feast.

When the celebration ends, Yitro observes Moshe and is struck by his son-in-law’s enormous workload. Yitro, the leader (“kohen”) of Midian[1], knew something about leadership and public service. He knew that Moshe could very quickly be overwhelmed and “burned out” by the enormity of the responsibility. This over-extension strikes Yitro as a terrible strategy, and he suggests a system in which the burden may be divided and, whenever possible, delegated.

The wisdom of Yitro’s suggestion is immediately apparent, and his proposal is incorporated into the Israelite camp’s basic structure.

As an aside, we might pause to appreciate the irony of the situation: Moshe and Yitro would never have met had Moshe not fled Egypt - and his escape was precipitated by a very pointed question hurled at him accusingly: “Who appointed you judge over us?”  Upon seeing two Jews struggling, Moshe jumped into the fray – only to be accused of overstepping his authority. Now, Moshe had become the authority, the sole arbiter of justice, the judge for all Israel.  

And so, Yitro assesses the situation and proposes a method for curtailing Moshe’s workload, delegating responsibility and sharing authority – with one exception. There is one aspect of Moshe’s position that will not be shared: Moshe alone will continue to stand between the people and God. The difficult questions that rise through the lower courts will be brought to the Almighty by Moshe for clarification and adjudication.

You are going to wear yourself out, along with this nation that is with you. Your responsibility is too great. You cannot do it all alone. Now, listen to me; I will advise you, and God will be with you. You must be God's representative for the people, and bring [their] concerns to God. (Shmot 18:18-19)

Moshe has a dual role: He is both God’s representative and the people’s representative, and it may be this dual role that explains why the story of Yitro’s arrival is inserted at this particular juncture.

According to tradition, Yitro arrived in the Israelite camp months later - after Yom Kippur, in the fall –whereas the following portion, the Revelation at Sinai and all the events described in the next several chapters, transpired in the spring.[2] Ostensibly, the reason Yitro’s arrival is recounted at this point is because it is, in a sense, the continuation of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea: The report of the great miracles and triumphs the Israelites had experienced had reached Yitro in Moav, spurring him to visit and pay his respects.

However, there may be a deeper, more substantive reason to insert Yitro’s visit at this point. Yitro apparently had a uniquely clear grasp of the nature of Moshe’s role. Having himself served in a position of leadership, Yitro was able to see the day-to-day operation of the Israelite camp from a more removed perspective, akin to that of a systems analyst or organizational consultant. The judicial structure Yitro suggests is predicated on his very discerning and insightful understanding of Moshe’s essential role. And what more important juncture to clarify Moshe’s dual role, as God’s representative to the people and the people’s representative to God, than on the eve of the Revelation at Sinai? Indeed, in the events that immediately follow Yitro’s arrival (Chapter 19), in Moshe’s most celebrated role, he brings the Word of God down to the People, and represents the frightened, awe-struck nation when they are afraid to hear the Word of God. Moshe is far more than an ambassador, representing one side of the dialogue; he faithfully represents both sides, with both precision and compassion. It is this role that continues until the end of Moshe’s life.

In the story of the Exodus, Moshe’s role had been secondary; God spoke through him, Aharon spoke for him - even his own “magical” staff took a more prominent role in the plagues and miracles. But at Sinai, Moshe’s role becomes perfectly clear. Moshe is far more than a judge, far more than a neutral messenger of God’s instructions. From this point on, Moshe is both the “Servant of God” (a description that eventually becomes his epitaph[3]), bringing the Torah down from heaven, and, at the same time, the defender, protector, representative and teacher of the Jewish People. At Sinai, Moshe becomes, for all time, Moshe Rabbenu – Moshe, our teacher, leader, and master. Yitro was the first to identify Moshe’s dual role, and the first to give it practical expression, in preparation for the events that would soon unfold.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

[1] See Rashi and Unkelos, Shmot 2:16.
[2] Rashi, Shmot 18:13.
[3]Dvarim 34:5. 

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat Yitro

Deconstructing Tu Bshvat


Monday, January 18, 2016

Parashat B’shalach Heavenly Bread

Echoes of Eden
Rabbi Ari Kahn
Parashat Bshalach
Heavenly Bread

The road from Egypt to Mount Sinai was not an easy one. The difficulty was not only due to the nature of the terrain the Israelites had to cross, or even the fact that their former masters pursued them in a murderous frenzy; the basic logistics of the care and feeding of such a large populace proved to be a formidable challenge. Having Divine logistical support proved quite advantageous, as they made their way under the protective cover of clouds of glory, the sea split miraculously at their approach, and their drinking water flowed from a rock.

While all of this help was, quite literally, a Godsend, there was one type of assistance that went beyond their physical needs, providing sustenance that was spiritually transformative as well: the manna. The manna fell every morning, six days a week, with a double portion on the sixth day; on the seventh day, no manna fell. The lesson of Shabbat was “hard wired” into the food they ate, giving their most basic physical sustenance religious significance.

Although Shabbat was first introduced in the early verses of Bereishit, we have no evidence that the Divine perspective on creation to which Shabbat bears witness – that God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh by ceasing to create - had somehow trickled down to human awareness or practice. Before they left Egypt, did the Jews know about the Sabbath day?

There is a rabbinic teaching (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:28) that the Israelite slaves were granted a weekly day of rest in Egypt. On the advice of an Egyptian prince named Moshe, Pharaoh instituted a six-day workweek for the empire’s slaves, as a means of increasing their productivity. It is altogether possible that no one, Egyptian or Israelite, suspected that this day of rest had religious significance, not to mention religious origins or motivation: Pharaoh would most certainly not have acquiesced to Moshe’s suggestion had he known that he was granting a religious freedom.

But what of the slaves themselves? Did they see their day of rest from the toils and tribulations of slavery in physical/social terms, or as a religious/spiritual necessity? Once freed, did they conclude that their new society had no need for a day of rest because they were no longer physical laborers? Their new reality was so completely different to the reality they had known in Egypt: Their food fell from heaven, and the “work” they had to do to access the manna only vaguely resembled standard agriculture. They “harvested” fresh produce each day without the back-breaking tilling and sowing, planting, pruning, and myriad other laborious tasks that every farmer knows so well. In fact, their food did not even grow from the ground; it came down from heaven. In a sense, there was something almost “Eden – like” about their existence. Was there a need for a day of rest in this idyllic existence, they might well have wondered?

The manna gave a clear and resounding answer: Yes, even in the desert, protected and sustained by miracles, there is Shabbat. Apparently the Shabbat experience in the desert was designed to be very different from the Shabbat they had known in the dark days of slavery. In Egypt, the most important element of the seventh day had been the cessation of labor; the spiritual and theological experience of emulating God and giving testament to His act of Creation was arguably eclipsed by the sheer relief from excruciating physical labor.

In the desert, when they are free almost entirely of physical constraints, God comes into focus. The manna is the ultimate teaching aid: The first lesson is that all food ultimately comes from God. Consider the slave mentality: They had, for hundreds of years, been building great edifices for the Egyptian empire. Despite the misery of their lives, they were able to see the tangible results of their labor, and to draw a direct correlation between effort and result. Though they did not benefit from their accomplishments, they were able to measure their progress and perhaps even take pride in what they had built. But the slave can feel alienated from God; slaves do not sense a partnership with the Almighty. On the other hand, the farmer, whose livelihood is dependent upon the cooperation of “nature,” is acutely aware of each and every one of the problems that can destroy a crop. The farmer has a far more organic sense of partnership with God, and a far more natural need to pray, to communicate with his or her “senior partner.”

In the desert, the Israelites were not farmers; they had no need to do work of any kind - and yet, they “harvested” the manna. Their sustenance would still be the result of a sort of partnership with God, and the method through which their physical needs were met served as both a respite from the years of servitude and an introduction to the new reality that awaited them in the Promised Land. The desert experience allowed them to internalize the concept of a partnership with God, and to prepare themselves for the reality that awaited them in the Land of Israel – a reality that combines physical and spiritual sustenance; a reality which taught them to look heavenward for sustenance.

Through the manna, they learned the most basic lessons: God created the universe and everything in it in six days and rested on the seventh. He alone is the source of all sustenance, both physical and spiritual, and on Shabbat, when we give testament to God as Creator and Sustainer of the universe, we recharge not only our physical strength, but our spiritual resources as well.

For a more in-depth analysis see:

Echoes of Eden

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Audio and Essays Parashat B’shalach

Audio and Essays Parashat B’shalach

New Echoes of Eden Project:


Parshat B’shalach / Doubt

Parshat B’shalach / Faith And Prayer

Parshat B’shalach / Crossing the Sea; a people divided

Parshat B’shalach / Purification

Parshat B’shalach / Lessons along the way

Parshat B’shalach According to the Vilna Gaon

Pharaoh's Responses to the Plagues


The Long Shortcut

Parshat B'shalach 5770 - From Logic to Metalogic

Parshat B’shalach: The Eleventh Plague

The Tragedy of Lessons Not Learned

The Holy Habitation