Rabbijn Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo (1946) werd geboren in Amsterdam en woont sinds 1977 in Israël. Als kind van een Portugees-Joodse vader en een niet-Joodse moeder heeft hij een lange weg afgelegd. Op zijn 16e is hij ‘uitgekomen’ (Joods geworden) bij Chacham Salomon Rodrigues Pereira. Jaren later haalde hij zijn rabbijnentitel aan de orthodoxe Gateshead Yeshiva. In Jeruzalem richtte hij de David Cardozo Academy op. Rabbijn Lopes Cardozo publiceert regelmatig en neemt daarbij geen blad voor de mond.
Now Yosef was the ruler over the land; it was he who sold grain to the entire populace of the land …” (Bereshit 42:6)
ויוסף הוא השליט על הארץ הוא המשביר לכל עם הארץ…
When looking at the lives of the Avot, the three forefathers of the People of Israel, it is remarkable to note that not one of them was officially called a tzaddik (righteous man) by the Talmudic and midrashic Sages. Only Ya'akov’s son Yosef was granted that title. (1) This is rather strange, since it cannot be denied that Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov were also outstandingly pious people.
It may be that the reason for this special honor is because, paradoxically, Yosef did not at all appear to be a tzaddik. If anything, the reverse might have been more accurate.
There can be little doubt that during Yosef’s reign in Egypt, he must have been seen as a ruthless person who didn’t hesitate to make the lives of his fellow people unbearable, particularly those of his brothers and father. We should not overlook the fact that the Torah and commentaries offer readers a huge advantage, telling them the whole story in just a few chapters, so they have no time to resent Yosef before discovering his righteousness at the end of the story! This privilege, however, was not granted to any of the people with whom Yosef actually spent a good part of his life.
Yosef’s life is the epitome of complicated human existence in the extreme. It is a life in which human conditions are far from ideal. There are no black-and-white choices in which it is easy to take a stand and where the good guys and bad guys are clearly identified. Every choice includes a complex mixture of good and bad. Even with the best intentions, people sometimes cannot help hurting those they really love the most and doing favors for those who are corrupt.
Reading the story, one wonders what must have gone through Yosef’s mind and heart when he took a tough stand against the people of Egypt by buying up everything they owned until he left the entire population with no personal possessions and enslaved to Pharaoh. The text also clearly indicates that he uprooted everyone from their homes, and all of them became refugees in their own country. (2) This was nothing less than mass population transfer and dispersal, one of the worst human experiences. Commentators explain that this was the only way he was able to save the country from even greater disasters and, in fact, the only way to revive the economy. (3) Still, it must have greatly distressed him to bring about such upheaval in the nation. Few must have understood what he did, and millions must have cursed him for making their lives miserable.
Yosef’s behavior toward his father and brothers must have caused him sleepless nights, year after year. While ruling the Land of Egypt, he never told his father that he was still alive. His own life must have been unbearable every time he thought of his suffering father. How can I endure one more day knowing that my father is in constant anguish because of me?
His terribly strong stand against his brothers, when they came to Egypt to buy food, must have given him nightmares and caused him depression as well. What will my brothers and all the servants in the palace think of me? No doubt, in their eyes I must seem like a cruel despot looking for sadistic ways to hurt people whenever possible. What are they thinking of me as I am imprisoning Shimon and forcing my brothers to bring Binyamin to Egypt?
Still, as many commentators explain, he had no option but to do what he did. In fact, it was his deep devotion and his concern for them that motivated him. (4)
Revealing True Motivation?
Surely he must have dreamed of the day when he would be able to reveal to them the true motivation behind his harsh actions.
But, as the Torah clearly reveals, even this Yosef was not granted. His father never knew what his real motives were, and his brothers clearly showed after the death of their father that they suspected Yosef would take revenge on them. (5) How painful it must have been for Yosef when he realized that even in his old age he could not tell anybody why he did what he did without revealing what his brothers had in fact done to him. And that was not an option for him.
He was convinced that he would go to his grave considered by millions to have been a merciless leader. The fact that he saved the economy of the Egyptian people would make little difference in the eyes of all who would never comprehend why he needed to achieve that goal through the harsh measures he took. Their expression of gratitude (6) may well have been the kind of forced courtesy often given to a dictator.
What a relief it would have been for him had he known that hundreds of years later the Torah and its commentators would reveal the entire story and prove his righteous intentions! Still, one wonders whether he would have even agreed that God include this story in the Torah, giving his brothers a bad name!
The Tzaddik’s Tragedy
This, indeed, is the tragedy of practically every tzaddik. Tzaddikim are, for the most part, people who are unable to reveal their true intentions and righteousness. Often they must work under the most agonizing circumstances, sometimes hurting people when it is the only way to prevent an even greater tragedy. This is the reason why they cannot always be “nice guys” and “well-mannered people.”
Tzaddikim hold to a higher purpose; they cannot allow themselves to sway with the winds. The saying “When you stand for nothing you fall for everything” applies to them. But standing for something may very well give one a bad name, no matter how noble the intentions. One can only hope that perhaps someday people will discover what they were really all about and how painful it was to be a “hidden tzaddik.” Unfortunately, there is usually little chance of that happening. After all, who is as privileged as Yosef to have his or her real story written in an eternal book?
This is the reason why the title “tzaddik” was bestowed upon Yosef in particular. While it is true that his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were illustrious people, the sages realized that only Yosef had to do so much that he detested doing, so as to become a real tzaddik. In fact, the Midrash makes it abundantly clear that it was the tough measures he took that earned him the title “tzaddik.” (7)
To be righteous, with the full awareness that nobody will ever know the real story, and to have one’s deeds condemned, is one of the most painful human experiences and is a great tragedy. Only the knowledge that the One Above knows the real story, and the conviction that it is more important that others benefit from one’s deeds than to be assured of the recognition of one’s real intentions, gives the ultimate feeling of spiritual satisfaction for which the tzaddik strives.
(1) See Midrash Tanchuma, Buber ed., Noach 4.
(2) Bereshit 47.
(3) See Sigmund A. Wagner-Tsukamoto, "The Genesis of Economic Cooperation in the Stories of Joseph: A Constitutional and Institutional Economic Reconstruction", Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 29, no. 1 (2015): 33-54.
(4) See, for example, the commentaries of Ramban and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on this chapter.
(5) Bereshit 50:15.
(6) Ibid., 47:25.
(7) See Midrash Tanchuma, Buber ed., Noach 4.
In honor of the special birthday of our dear friend Jenny Weil, Jerusalem. May she be blessed with health and happiness!
History, the study of cause and effect in the annals of humankind, has been a serious challenge for honest historians. In many ways, interpreting history is conjecture. It is more what one would like to believe happened than what actually occurred which motivates many a historian (Benjamin Franklin). After all, how can any historian ever know what really was the cause and effect in a specific instance? Sometimes, what we believe to be the cause is, rather, the effect.
Our sages draw our attention to this phenomenon when they deal with the sale of Joseph and his emancipation from prison. Referring to the words, “A definite period was set to the world to spend in darkness” (Iyov 28:3), the Midrash states: “A definite number of years was fixed for Joseph to spend in prison, in darkness. When the appointed time came: 'And it came to pass at the end of two years and Pharaoh dreamed a dream…’” (Bereshit 41:1, Midrash Rabbah)
Rabbi Gedalyah Schorr, in his monumental work, Ohr Gedalyah, points out that this observation radically differs from the traditional, academic way of dealing with historical events.
Reading the story in the traditional way, we would no doubt conclude that because Pharaoh dreamed a dream which required an interpretation, Joseph, known to be a man with prophetic insights into dream interpretation, was asked to come and see Pharaoh. After having successfully solved the dreams, he was not only freed but elevated to the position of second-in-command of Egypt. This would mean that Pharaoh’s dream caused Joseph’s freedom.
A careful read of our Midrash, however, suggests the reverse. It was because Joseph had to be freed and become the viceroy of Egypt that Pharaoh had to have a dream. The cause was, in fact, the effect.
As mentioned before, this approach opens a completely new way of understanding history. Judaism suggests that at certain times God sends emanations to this world so as to awaken human beings to act, just as Pharaoh received his dreams in order that Joseph’s imprisonment would come to an end.
A later example of this is the story of Chanukah. The Jews knew that logically there was no chance of a successful uprising against the Greeks, but God created a notion of revolt within the minds of the Maccabees. The greatness of these few Jews was manifest in their correct reaction to this heavenly directive. They realized what needed to be done, however preposterous.
Midrashic literature often compares the Greek empire to “darkness which blinded the eyes of the Jews” (“Choshech ze Yavan”, “Darkness that is Greece”). The traditional interpretation is that Jews in the Maccabean period were blinded by the Greeks’ worship of the body and followed their example.
It may, however, have a much deeper meaning. The Greeks were also the inventors of historical interpretation. Greek thinkers were among the first to try and understand history in its more scientific form as reflected in the need to search for cause and effect. From the point of view of the Midrash, this approach blinded the Jews from sometimes reading history as divine emanations and the human response to them. It misconstrued the deeper meaning of history, reversed cause and effect, and darkened the clear insight of the Jews.
One of the most mysterious aspects of the human psyche is the dimension of motivation and taste. Human beings suddenly hear an inner voice or feel a mysterious pull to do something the source of which they do not understand. This is true not only regarding human actions but even taste and preference. History is replete with examples of human beings radically changing their taste in art and music. Melodies are considered to be superb and irreplaceable; then, half a century later, they lose favor. So it is with art, fashion and even the color of our wallpaper.
There are no rational explanations for these phenomena (notwithstanding various scientific suggestions). We would argue that all of them are the result of divine emanations communicated to our world. While it is difficult to explain why these divine messages come, perhaps their main purpose, particularly regarding music and art, is to offer man a feeling of renewal and an insight into the infinite possibilities of God’s creation. Some messages may be a divine response to human beings’ earlier deeds or moral condition. The sudden predilections for more aggressive forms of music or art may be a warning that man has abated his earlier dignity.
In the case of emanations, as with the Maccabees, the main challenge is in “hearing” the message, correctly interpreting it and subsequently knowing what it demands of us. This itself requires divine assistance and moral integrity and is not available to all. (In fact, it can be dangerous.)
Throughout history, Jews have experienced many divine emanations. Several of them, cited in the latter part of Tanach, allude to the coming of the Mashiach at specific times. (See, for example, the book of Daniel.) Some of these dates are long behind us and Mashiach has not appeared. This should not surprise us. Dates of Mashiach’s arrival, as cited in Jewish sources, were in no way final statements. They were divine signals that at these times the world would be more conducive to the coming of Mashiach, but they were not guarantees of his arrival. When humankind failed to respond in the appropriate religious and moral manner, the special moment passed with no outcome.
It is easy to recognize in this day and age that we, too, are confronted with new and powerful happenings which may be emanations from above. One cannot deny the unique events which have transpired in Israel over the last seventy years. Many of them, the good ones as well as the dire ones are difficult to explain by the conventional standards of historical interpretations. Perhaps it may behoove us to view much what is happening today in Israel as a divine message that there is need for a radical change of heart regarding our identity, our Jewish connection, the moral quality of our society and Judaism at large. It may be worthwhile to contemplate this possibility and act accordingly.
“These became the chieftains of the sons of Esav: the sons of Eliphaz, Esav's firstborn… Chief Korach, Chief Gaatam, Chief Amalek…” (Bereshit 36:16-17)
The Jews’ most formidable enemy in Biblical times was the nation of Amalek. This nation was, and symbolically still is, the personification of evil, brutality, racism and anti-Semitism. Amalek is seared into the Jewish consciousness as the unprecedented enemy of the People of Israel after their exodus from Egypt. What revealed Amalek’s moral bankruptcy was not only that they dared to fight the Israelites but that this evil nation attacked the Israelites from the back, focusing on the weak and tired people. (1)
In later days, it was Haman the Amalekite, known from the Purim story, who once again displayed the evil intentions of this nation. Only through a miracle was Israel saved from the hands of this wicked person.
Who was Amalek? The Torah tells us that the first Amalek was the son of Esav’s son Eliphaz. He was the eponymous ancestor of the Amalekite people. Eliphaz took a concubine by the name of Timna, who then became pregnant and gave birth to Amalek. (2) This means that Amelek was a descendent from Yitzchak and Rivka!
The Rejection of Timna as a Proselyte
The Talmud inquires why Timna married Eliphaz and provides us with a stunning explanation: “Timna desired to become a (Jewish) proselyte, so she went to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov, but they did not accept her. As a result, she went and became a concubine to Eliphaz, the son of Esav, saying: ‘I would rather be a servant to this (Jewish) people than a mistress of another nation.’ From her Amalek, who afflicted Israel, was descended. Why so? Because they should not have rejected her.” (3)
This Talmudic statement is difficult to understand. It is, after all, unclear why the forefathers refused to take her under their wing and why they did not allow her to join the Jewish people, especially when we know that they went out of their way to convert as many people as possible. (4) Furthermore, one would expect the Talmud to justify the decision of the three forefathers; instead, the sages rebuke the Patriarchs for their failure to accept her for conversion. The sages’ commitment to truth exceeded their love for the Patriarchs. This is unprecedented. They could have suppressed the story, or they could have stated that Timna was indeed unworthy. The fact that they did not do anything of that sort proves their integrity and uncompromising commitment to truth.
What is even more surprising is that they considered the Patriarchs’ refusal to accept Timna into Judaism as the prime reason why Israel would later be afflicted by the offspring of the first Amalek.
This reminds us of a statement made by Ramban when he discusses the reasons why the Arab nations have exhibited so much hostility toward the Jewish people. When Hagar became pregnant from Avraham and subsequently looked down on Sarah (who could not become pregnant), Sarah complained to Avraham about her. “Then Avraham said to Sarai: ‘Behold, your maid is in your hands; do to her that which is good in your eyes.’ Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she (Hagar) fled from her.” (5) Ramban’s comment is most telling: “Sarah, our mother, sinned in dealing harshly (with Hagar) – and Avraham, too, by allowing her to do so. God heard her (Hagar’s) suffering and gave her a son who was destined to be a lawless person, who would afflict the seed of Avraham and Sarah with all kinds of suffering.” (6)
In later days, it was Rabbi Shmuel Mohilever, rabbi of Bialystok and one of the great leaders of the Hibbat Zion movement, who made a similar comment when the Turkish government was about to banish from the Jewish settlements those Russian Jews who had moved to the country but had not taken Ottoman citizenship. He cried out and said that it is because of “Drive out this handmaiden (Hagar) and her son” (7) that the Muslims – the children of Yishmael son of Hagar – would now cast out the sons of Sarah from their land. (8)
Once again we are confronted with an unbending commitment to truth. Even when running the risk of putting our spiritual heroes in a compromising light, the sages did not shrink from criticizing the Patriarchs and Matriarchs when they felt the need to do so. And once again we hear a daring statement that because of this, Jews still encounter hostility from their enemies thousands of years later.
Esav’s Bitter Cry
On another occasion, the sages again spoke of the injustice done to the ancestors of Haman. They stressed that much of Haman’s hatred for Jews resulted from the way Ya'akov had dealt with his brother Esav. On the words in the Megillah, “And Mordechai understood all that was done; and Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes; and he went out into the midst of the city and cried a loud and bitter cry,” (9) the Midrash Rabbah dares to make the following observation: “One bitter cry did Ya'akov cause Esav to cry (after he had stolen the blessings from Esav), as it says: ‘When Esav heard his father’s words, he cried an exceedingly loud and bitter cry’, (10) and it was paid back to him [Ya'akov] in Shushan when his offspring [Mordechai and the Jews] cried a loud and bitter cry [because of the great trouble that Haman, the offspring of Amalek and Esav, caused the Jews].” (11)
This may have been the reason why the sages declared that some descendants of Haman taught Torah in Bnei Brak, (12) and some later authorities felt that one could perhaps accept members of the nation of Amalek as converts. (13) Somehow, they felt that not all members of Amalek were totally evil; nor were the people of Israel completely blameless.
Why, indeed, did the sages emphasize the injustice by our forefathers? Why not keep quiet? They certainly didn’t want to justify the anti-Semitism of the Amalekites or the hate of the Arab nations. Nor did they wish to embarrass the Patriarchs, knowing quite well that they were men of great spirituality. They were fully aware of treading dangerous ground when they showed a soft spot for Amalek. But after all was said and done, they took the plunge. A risky balancing act.
I believe that a careful look in the Torah may provide us with the answer. The Torah demands of the Jews: “You shall erase the memory of Amalek from beneath the heavens. You shall not forget.” (14) This commandment seems to be a paradox: How can we erase the memory of Amalek if we are not allowed to forget what he did?
Blot out the Memory of Amalek
However, it is very possible that the Torah hints here not only to the monstrous deeds of Amalek, but also to the injustices that were done by our forefathers when dealing with Esav and Timna. “Blot out the memory of Amalek” may quite well mean that we are obligated to uproot from within ourselves the ways in which our ancestors dealt with the ancestors of Amalek. “Do not forget” that this behavior was unjustified and consequently caused ongoing pain to this people, and consequently to the People of Israel.
In other words, the Torah teaches us to erase Amalek’s memory by doing everything in our power not to give cause to unwarranted feelings within ourselves toward nations and people. We create our own enemies, and we Jews have to teach ourselves and others to prevent this by all means.
This, however, cannot be done once and for all. It is a constant demand that should never be forgotten.
The earlier critical observations by our Sages are therefore most crucial. By emphasizing the injustices done by our forefathers, and their disastrous repercussions, they gave us the means to fulfill the mitzvah of blotting out Amalek’s memory and paradoxically never forgetting what they did to us. Not only because they are our arch-enemies, but also because we should not give cause to bring them into existence.
While the sages surely did not want to fully justify Amalek’s or the Arab’s animosity towards the Jews, they made it abundantly clear that our forefathers did not behave with impunity. They carried a great amount of accountability in this most unfortunate situation.
Finally, one wonders, whether the Talmud is teaching us to approach every proselyte with much care and love. Sending them away, telling them that they are unworthy, may be completely unjustified and a desecration of God’s name on top of that. It can lead to major disasters as in the case of Timna.
The Israeli Chief Rabbinate or any other rabbinate should take notice!
(1) Devarim 25:18.
(2) Bereshit 36:12.
(3) Sanhedrin 99b.
(4) Rashi on Bereshit 12:5.
(5) Bereshit 16:6.
(6) Ad loc.
(7) Bereshit 21:10.
(8) This incident was recounted by Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz who heard it from his mother. See Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Notes and Remarks on the Weekly Parashah, trans. Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Brooklyn, New York: Chemed Books, 1990), 30.
(9) Megillat Esther 4:1.
(10) Bereshit 27:34.
(11) Bereshit Rabba, Vilna ed., 67:4.
(12) Sanhedrin 96b.
(13) See Mishne Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:4, and the interesting discussion in R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, Seridei Esh, vol. 2, no. 73.
(14) Devarim 25:19.
“And he was frightened, and he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’.” (Bereshit 28:17)
ויירא ויאמר מה נורא המקום הזה אין זה כי אם בית אלהים וזה שער השמים
Being religious is fraught with danger. People are often pulled in directions where they can easily break their necks. To be religious is to allow your neshama (soul) to surpass your body, taking it to places where it cannot dwell and may self-destruct.
In Plato’s Phaedo, the metaphor used to describe the relationship of the soul to the body is that of a person locked in prison. (2) Platonic philosophy aims at liberating a person from their body, which is a prison. Only in that way can they achieve self-perfection. For Aristotle, although ethics and politics are serious issues, the essence of a person – the very activity that is distinctly human – is intellectual contemplation of eternal truth. The highest human achievement lies in the privacy of a person’s thoughts. Its content has no practical human benefit. The most exalted human being is the philosopher, who must be free of the body’s demands, because they interfere with contemplation.
In Judaism, this is not what life is all about. According to biblical thought, the body is not perceived as being in conflict with the soul. It is not an obstacle, but a most welcome companion. Otherwise, what is the purpose of the body? Just to be a nuisance that one would be better off without? Jewish thought holds that it can’t be God’s intention to create the human body simply to deliberately frustrate man. True, the body may sometimes pose challenges, but ultimately this is to allow the complete human being, not just the soul, to grow. The purpose of human beings is not to dwell in Heaven and contemplate, but to act with their bodies and bring Heaven down to the material domain in order to transform the world into a better place. The meaning of life is to be effectively realized by bringing about the interpenetration of the soul and the body.
A Combined Effort
The mind of a human – the custodian of all spiritual and ethical values – is, on its own, incapable of action. On the other hand, all the forces and energy in the body are intrinsically indifferent to ethical or spiritual concepts. Only in a combined effort of mind and body can they build the world. Everything that people do must be able to permeate their thoughts, and everything that people think must find a way into their bodies (Heschel). While this might very well lead to disaster, it can also bring a person to an exalted state of life. This is the task and challenge for which we were created.
Knowledge alone is never a cause for action. Western civilization has mistakenly believed that it is possible to educate the body by reasoning with it. So it continued speaking to the mind, but never really reached the body. This has led to disastrous consequences. Many philosophers have delivered themselves into the hands of evil as a result.
The distinction between body and soul is similar to a difference in organic functioning; it does not reflect the radical dualism that is implicit in Plato’s prison metaphor.
Mysterium Tremendum Et Fascinans
Perhaps the most acute case of a man nearly losing his body while being religious is that of Ya’akov falling asleep and dreaming of a ladder on which angels ascend and descend. (3) The top of the ladder reaches Heaven, and God stands over it. The great German Lutheran thinker, Rudolf Otto (1869–1937), called this experience “numinous”, “a non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” (4) It consists of a mysterium tremendum et fascinans – an awe-inspiring and fascinating mystery; an altogether otherworldly experience of an objective presence that generates wonder, fear, and dependence, but also enormous spiritual vitality.
This, says Otto, is what Ya’akov experiences when he falls asleep and has his dream. There is no greater religious moment than this. It is an unprecedented encounter with God. But it is also extremely dangerous. The experience is so overwhelming that Ya’akov runs the risk of losing his body. The dream carries him to Heaven, a place where his body cannot dwell. It is paralyzed and nearly eliminated.
Just before his soul leaves his body, against all expectations and as if through a miracle, Ya’akov wakes up. His reaction is most telling: “Behold, God is in this place and I did not know it.” (5) This is an instant of ultimate crisis. It is tremendous to have a religious moment, but what happens when it is impossible to handle? What am I going to do in the real world with this flash of intense unparalleled revelation?
The Need for the Mundane
The biggest problem is not with the moment itself, but with how to keep it alive and take it with me throughout the rest of my life, in a way that is beneficial. And if I can’t, what then is the purpose of this moment? Not only will it fade into oblivion, but it will be a trauma that will haunt me for the rest of my life! It can easily turn into madness. Ya’akov’s religious experience leaves him without solid ground under his feet. Plato and Aristotle would have been delighted, but Ya’akov is scared to death. It is all meaningless unless I can translate this into the mundane.
While his mind and soul are still in Heaven, Ya’akov does the only right thing to do: he looks to the ground and picks up a stone. He wants to find the mundane, because it is there that life takes place. And unless he can apply his experience in a practical way, all of these heavenly events will have been in vain.
“And Ya’akov rose up early in the morning and took the stone that he had placed under his head and set it up as a memorial stone and poured oil on top of it. . . . Ya’akov made a vow. ‘If God will be with me’, he said, ‘if He will protect me on the journey that I am taking . . . then I will dedicate myself totally to God. Let this stone, which I have set up as a memorial, become a house of God. Of all that You give me, I will set aside a tenth to You’.” (6)
The Financial Act
Not only does Ya’akov root his heavenly experience in the mundane by taking a stone to sanctify it with a physical substance, but more importantly, he links it to a mundane financial act. He translates it into ma’aser, promising that he will tithe all his physical possessions. He “de-religionizes” his experience, understanding that being religious cannot mean withdrawing from this world. It must mean engaging with this world and giving it religious and heavenly meaning. He knows that his episode with the ladder is a slippery slope on which one can easily break one’s neck. To redeem this experience, it must be established in a specific space – in a physical act, in the ordinary – not by night, but only by day when human beings are awake.
What Ya’akov does is most remarkable. He introduces one of the great foundations of Halacha: To give a religious moment an ongoing effect, it must be translated into the tangible, the mundane. It must establish patterns of bodily reactions and conduct, which testify to an acute corporeal awareness of a reality beyond body. To achieve an authentic state of religiosity, there must be an element of everydayness, of the commonplace, which often includes what others may call trivialities. There must be a finite act through which one perceives the infinite (Heschel). Every trifle is infused with divinity.
Rather than ignore the body, Halacha draws a person’s attention to its complexities. Halacha tells man not to fall victim to grandiose dreams. There are limits to human existence, and it is exactly this fact that makes life a challenge and a joy. The body places man firmly in a world where he cannot survive if he doesn’t act. Man’s view of the relationship between his body and soul reflects his attitude toward dependence on the outer world – is it embarrassing, or is it uplifting?
Dreams and Unfulfilled Halacha
It is most telling that in the Torah, the world of dreams comes to an end with Sefer Bereshit, the book in which almost everybody experiences dreams: Avraham, Ya’akov, and Yosef dream, and even Avimelech, Lavan, and Pharaoh, too. But once the Torah is given, there are no more dreams. It is as if the Torah teaches us that mitzvot take the place of dreams. A dream is an expression of an illusory world. It represents dimensions of Heaven, where the impossible can happen – where time doesn’t play a role, where man is passive and things happen to him that are beyond his actual capability. Dreams that take place as a religious experience transform man’s world into a utopia for which there is no foundation, and those dreams have no chance of ever being actualized. They are unworldly and therefore dangerous. They are deaf and invulnerable to the cries of the real world.
But people need to dream. Dreams allow a person to be insane for a few moments. There’s a need for it, but it cannot be the foundation of their life. We must dream in order to demand of ourselves the impossible, so that it becomes conceivable, even if only once. But it must have a link to reality. Once it is totally disconnected, it loses its purpose.
Dreams are also moments of anticipation – “I have a dream!” – and one way in which people can make their dreams come true is by acting as if it is already taking place. Halachic requirements are often frozen dreams. They make people do things they are not yet ready to do. They are still spiritually beyond him. An example of this is lighting the Chanuka menora for eight days. We are required to add another candle every night and light it. It is as if we are ascending in spirituality throughout those eight days, with the last night being the most intense and powerful one. In fact, though, it is the first night that excites most people. To the average person, the new is more exhilarating. So the Jew is asked to act as if in a dream: light the candles as though you are becoming more and more excited with each day, so that one day you may really feel that the last candle is the most electrifying one.
We are not asked to dream the inconceivable. We are asked to dream what is actually achievable. It is the Halacha that rescues us from unrealistic dreams, substituting them with those that are viable. Mount Sinai and the giving of the law replaced impossible dreams with those that are within our grasp.
(1) This essay was originally published in Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Jewish Law as Rebellion: A Plea for Religious Authenticity and Halachic Courage (Jerusalem: Urim Publications, 2018), chap. 20.
(2) Plato, Phaedo, 81e. See also the introduction in Plato’s Phaedo, trans. Eva Brann, Peter Kalkavage, and Eric Salem (Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 1998), 3.
(3) Bereshit 28:11–12.
(4) Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John W. Harvey (NY: Oxford University Press, 1958), 10-11.
(5) Bereshit 28:16.
(6) Bereshit 28:18-22.
"And Yitzchak shuddered a great shudder…" (Bereshit 27:33)
ויחרד יצחק חרדה גדלה עד מאד…
Nothing is more difficult than admitting a mistake, yet nothing is more human than making one.
In several places, the Torah deals with the need for and the merit of admitting one's mistakes. After all, a life spent making mistakes is not only much more honorable, but the alternative is much worse. People who make no mistakes usually accomplish nothing. And only those who spend their time in self-absorption and vanity are faultless. There is no road in between, and there is no escape. Owning up to our errors is greater than merely knowing how to avoid making them. It is wisdom gained.
In the book of Bereshit, we read about a powerful example of having the courage to admit a mistake. When the sons of Ya'akov met their brother Yosef, the second in command of Egypt, they finally realized that they had badly erred in the way they had dealt with him 22 years earlier, when they had sold him to foreigners.
After Yosef treated them harshly and put them in jail, they recalled their behavior toward him and how they had sold him all those years ago:
“And they said to each other: ‘We are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the suffering of his soul when he pleaded to us, and we would not hear; therefore this suffering has befallen us.’” (1)
When carefully examining this case, we realize the enormous courage and strength that the brothers displayed at this crucial moment in their lives.
Rashi informs us (2) that the brothers drank no wine from the day they sold Yosef until they saw him in Egypt. This seems to imply that during all those years their joy was diminished (as in a state of mourning), perhaps because they were continually deliberating and re-evaluating their earlier decision to sell Yosef. Not a day passed that they did not ask themselves if they had acted correctly, and for years they had presumably come to the conclusion that justice was on their side.
Only after more than twenty years did they have second thoughts, realizing that they had been wrong for all that time! This must have been a devastating and traumatic experience; one that few of us could endure. Who is able to declare that he has lived for so many years in error and now has the courage to change his mind?
Owning up to a mistake that was made through an impulsive decision is difficult enough, but admitting a wrongdoing that was thought about for years and was seen as absolutely justified is a completely different ballgame.
Often, we make the terrible mistake of entrenching ourselves in our errors instead of admitting them. Consequently, we are no longer capable of taking a fresh look at the issues involved. The mind is, after all, a devoted captive of our desires and personal wishes.
One must live the way one thinks, or end up thinking the way one lives. To live is to regret so as to live anew.
Our main problem is thinking that admitting our mistakes weakens our stand in the community. We believe that we lose the respect of our fellow human beings and will be taken less seriously by those around us. However, looking more closely at our story proves different.
As long as the brothers insisted on their innocence, Yosef responded harshly, calling them spies and showing them little respect. Once they showed regret and openly admitted their mistake, he realized their astonishing greatness and behaved toward them with much compassion.
Looking into another story that deals with a similar issue, we see how Yitzchak “trembled violently” (3) after he discovered that he had mistakenly given blessings to his son Ya'akov and not to his first-born, Esav.
Unlike what many people believe, the sages point out that what made Yitzchak tremble was not so much his realization that he had wrongly given the blessings meant for Esav to Ya'akov, but that he suddenly understood how he had for years misread Esav's constitution and temperament, thinking he was fit to receive those blessings.
It is remarkable that the realization of his mistake was seemingly more traumatic than when he was told years earlier by his father Avraham that he was to be sacrificed on Mount Moriah. Nowhere do we read that this caused him to tremble violently.
Throughout the Talmud and later commentaries, we see how the sages did not shy away from admitting a mistake. A famous case in point is mentioned in Tractate Shabbat:
“When Rabbi Dimi came, he said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: ‘How do we know that woven [material] of whatever size is [liable to become] ritually unclean? From the tzitz [the head plate worn by the High Priest].’ Said Abaye to him: ‘Was then the tzitz woven? But it was taught: The tzitz was a kind of golden plate, two fingers wide and it stretched around [the forehead] from ear to ear… And Rabbi Eliezer son of Rabbi Yose said: I saw it in the city of Rome [where it was taken after the destruction of the Temple, and it was indeed made of gold]…’ When Rabbi Dimi went up to Nehardea, he sent word: ‘The things that I told you were erroneous.’” (4)
He changed his mind. The importance of this admission is borne out by the fact that the Talmud took the time to record it!
My Sons Have Defeated Me
This may well be the reason why even God sometimes makes a "mistake". In a famous passage in the Talmud, we read that the sages decided a certain law against the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer who was known to be the sharpest mind of his day and was fully supported by God:
“On that day Rabbi Eliezer brought every imaginable argument, but they [the Sages] did not accept them. He said to them: ‘If the law is as I say, let this carob tree prove it.’ Thereupon the carob tree was torn [miraculously] a hundred cubits out of its place [proving that God was on his side] – others say it was four hundred cubits! ‘No proof can be brought from a carob tree’, they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the law is as I say, let this stream of water prove it’, whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water’, they rejoined. Again he argued: ‘If the law is as I say, let the walls of this schoolhouse prove it’, whereupon the walls inclined to fall.”
“But Rabbi Yehoshua rebuked them [the walls], saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halachic dispute, why do you interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Yehoshua. Nor did they resume their upright position, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined. Again he said to them: ‘If the law is as I say, let it be proved from Heaven’, whereupon a heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the law is as he says!’ But, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It [the law] is not in heaven.’ (5) What is meant by this? Rabbi Yirmiyahu said: ‘It means that the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because You, God, have long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, “One must incline after the majority.” (6)’(7)”
This remarkable story raises many questions: Why did God not agree with Rabbi Yehoshua? He had clearly stated in His own Torah that when opinions conflicted, one should follow the majority of the sages and no longer rely on any heavenly voice. Why did He deliberately try to confuse the sages by giving His opinion against His own instructions?
One way of looking at it is that God decided to give the impression that He had made a mistake when saying that Rabbi Eliezer was right and the sages wrong! This is borne out by the continuation of the story:
“Rabbi Nathan met Eliyahu [the prophet, who is considered to be immortal] and asked him: ‘What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do at that moment [when Rabbi Yehoshua declared that he would not obey His heavenly voice]?’ He replied, ‘He smiled [with joy], saying, My sons have defeated Me; My sons have defeated Me’.” (8)
Indeed, when mistakes are raised to the level of God, the ultimate Source of wisdom, and God admits His "mistakes," we can rest assured that it is nothing less than honorable to act similarly. God risked His reputation of being all-knowing. Instead of fearing a loss of prestige, He felt that admitting His mistakes only enhanced His dignity.
Even more astonishing is the observation in the Talmud that God brought a chatat (sin offering) on His own behalf to atone for His having diminished the size of the moon. (9)
Nothing more needs to be said.
(1) Bereshit 42:21.
(2) Ibid. 43:34.
(3) Ibid. 27:33.
(4) Shabbat 63b.
(5) Devarim 30:12.
(6) Shemot 23:2.
(7) Bava Metzia 59b.
(9) Chullin 60b; Shavuot 9a.