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Torah Studies: Vaera

Torah Studies: Vaera

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After G‑d had sent Moses to Pharaoh to ask for the release of the Jewish people from Egypt, not only was the request not granted, but the enslavement of the people became more oppressive. Moses therefore asks G‑d: “Why have You dealt badly with this people?” The reply he receives, in effect, commends him to follow the example of the Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who did not ask questions of G‑d. The Rebbe examines the nature of the virtue of the Fathers, the reason why Moses asked the question, and the contemporary implications of G‑d’s answer.

1. Moses’ Question

At the end of the previous Sidra, Shemot, we read of Moses’ question to G‑d: “Why have You dealt badly with this people?” The force of his question was this: How could a mission which had been ordered by G‑d, which had been carried out by Moses, and which concerned the redemption from Egypt, have resulted in harm to the Jewish people? The redemption itself was wholly good;1 Moses, the emissary, was he of whom it was said, “And she saw that he was good”;2 and the initiator of the mission, and the redeemer was G‑d Himself (G‑d as He transcends nature,3 for the redemption of a people already sunk to the “49th gate of impurity”4 could only be a supernatural event), who is certainly wholly good and compassionate. So what could have been the source of the harm?

The answer with which Moses’ question was met (in the opening of this week’s Sidra) was, “And He said to him: I am the L-rd. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as G‑d Almighty (Kel Sha-dai), but by My name ‘the L-rd’ (the Tetragrammaton) I did not make Myself known to them.” In other words, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob underwent many trials and deprivations, and yet they asked no questions of Me.

Yet there are several points of difficulty in this story: (1) Moses had attained to greater spiritual heights than the Fathers. He was the seventh generation in descent from Abraham, and the Rabbis say: “The seventh is always (especially) precious.”5 How then, if they had not raised questions about G‑d, could Moses have done so? (2) G‑d, in His answer to Moses, was underlining the virtue of the Fathers. Why did He not then say, “I appeared… to Israel” instead of “…to Jacob?” For “Israel” connotes a higher spiritual state than “Jacob.”6 (3) Every narrative in the Torah has a moral implication for every Jew.7 And the Torah goes out of its way not to use an impolite expression even of an animal,8 let alone of a Jew, more still of Moses, the finest of them all. So we must assume that when it gives voice to a criticism of Moses, it must have a pressing reason for doing so, namely to emphasize to every Jew the necessity for emulating the Fathers who raised no questions about G‑d’s conduct.

But this is hard to understand. For it presupposes that every Jew in every generation has the choice of behaving like Moses or like the Fathers. It is true that, as the Rabbis say,9 “there is no generation that does not have a man like Abraham, like Isaac, like Jacob… and like Moses.” But this refers only to isolated individuals. And the Torah was given to all; it “speaks of the majority.” So how can we say that to every Jew it is open to act like Moses or like the Fathers, and that in this respect they should follow the Fathers?

2. Moses and the Fathers

The difference between Moses and the Fathers is that Moses embodies the attribute of Knowledge (chochmah)—and thus it was through him that the Torah, which is the Divine Knowledge, was given. Relative to him, the Fathers were the embodiments of the Emotions (middot). Abraham served G‑d primarily through love and compassion. He is called, “Abraham, My loved one”;10 and to men as well as to G‑d his relation was one of kindness, both material and spiritual. Isaac exemplified the service of fear and austere judgment: The Torah speaks of G‑d as the “Fear of Isaac.”11 And as a result he could tolerate no evil in the world. His “eyes became dim” when he knew of the idolatry of Esau’s wives.12 And lastly Jacob represents mercy—the perfect synthesis of love and fear, kindness and judgment. “The G‑d of my father, the G‑d of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac has been with me’’—that is, he embraced both their modes of service. Therefore all his acts were perfect, whether in withstanding the trial of wealth (kindness) while he was with Laban and “the man (Jacob) increased exceedingly,”13 or in the trial of anxiety (judgment) when Esau came to confront him accompanied by four hundred men. In all this, “Jacob came whole”—that is, in a state of perfection.14

This is not to say that we do not find the attribute of Knowledge amongst the Fathers, nor of Emotion in Moses. The Fathers learned Torah, as the Rabbis say:15 “G‑d made Abraham’s two kidneys like two wise men who instructed and advised him and taught him knowledge,” and16 “From the days of our Fathers the Yeshiva (the academy for learning Torah) never departed from them (the Jewish people).” And Moses displayed both compassion and austere judgment: Compassion when “he saw their (the Israelites’) burdens”17 and his eyes and heart went out to them; judgment when he admonished the Jew who was fighting with his fellow,18 “Why did you smite your neighbor?” Nonetheless Moses’ primary attribute was Knowledge, namely that he gave the Torah to the Jewish people and that it is called by his name: “Remember the Torah of Moses My servant”19 And the primary mode of service of the Fathers was through the Emotions—a path which through them has become the inheritance of every Jew.20

3. The Reason Behind the Question

We can now understand why Moses, despite his higher spiritual achievements than the Fathers, brought a question against G‑d. For Knowledge, or intellect, seeks to comprehend everything. And when it encounters something that it cannot understand, this acts as a barrier to going further in the service of G‑d. Moses sought an answer—an explanation of what was incomprehensible to him so—that he could continue along his path to G‑d through knowledge.

4. The Faith Which Has No Questions

The answer which he received was, “I am the L-rd. And I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as G‑d Almighty (Kel Sha-dai) but by My name ‘the L-rd’ (the Tetragrammaton) I did not make Myself known to them.” Before the Giving of the Torah, G‑d was revealed only as Elokim—a finite disclosure, revealing G‑d as He is immanent in the world,21 the world of plurality: Hence the name Elokim which is in the plural. But after Sinai, He was revealed in His four-letter name—as infinite, transcending all divisions, a Unity. At that moment, divisions were dissolved,22 the division between higher and lower powers, between Knowledge and Emotion.

What G‑d therefore said to Moses was: When you stand at the threshold of a redemption which will culminate in the Giving of the Torah, you must surpass the division between Knowledge and Emotion. And even though you are primarily a man of Knowledge, this must be conjoined with the emotional power to have a faith which does not raise questions.

This is why He used the name “Jacob” instead of “Israel” in speaking of the Fathers. “Jacob” refers to a lower level than “Israel” (“Jacob” is related in Hebrew to the word “ekev”—the heel; while “Israel” is composed of the letters “li-rosh”—the head ismine). And the implication to Moses was that his Knowledge should embrace and be embraced by his Emotions in kabbalat ol—the acceptance of the weight of faith. The higher (knowledge) and the lower (the “heel”) should interpenetrate one another.

5. Knowledge and Action

Not only do the emotions carry the strength to have a faith which goes beyond questions, but they also lead to action. Love brings a man to “do good”; fear leads him to “turn from evil.”23 But knowledge, in itself, leads to detachment. The mind becomes engrossed in learning and loses its concern with action. Even though it may thereby gain the knowledge of what to do, it loses the inclination to do it.

This is why the Rabbis warned: “He who says, I have nothing but (my learning of) Torah, does not even have Torah.” That is, the learning of Torah in itself could lead naturally to detachment, whereas the Jew must accompany it with actual service towards G‑d and acts of compassion towards man. Learning, alone, without acting, is not true learning.

6. “Father” and Offspring

And this is why Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, whose main path of service was through the Emotions, are called the “Fathers.” A father is someone who begets children. And the “generations of righteous men are their good deeds.”24 Being men of Emotion, and since Emotion leads to action, their (principal) achievement was “good deeds.”

And in another sense, too, their achievement lay in their offspring. They were not detached; they were concerned with the welfare of others; and therefore they transmitted their values to their children as an everlasting heritage.

This explains the puzzling comment of Rashi on the word (at the beginning of our Sidra) “I appeared.” Rashi comments, “to the Fathers.” But this seems self-evident and not worthy of mention, since the Torah itself continues, “to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The point that Rashi is making, however, is that it is as “Fathers” that their primary virtue lies earning them G‑d’s revelation. This was not for their individual spiritual achievements, but for their being men with offspring (whether understood as “good deeds” or as “children” who inherit their righteousness). G‑d loved Abraham because:25 “I know him, that he will command his children and his household after him, and they shall keep the way of the L-rd.”

7. The Meaning of G‑d’s Answer

The answer which G‑d gave to Moses’ question was therefore that without foregoing his character as a man of Knowledge, nonetheless he should be animated by the Emotions, as the Fathers were, so that firstly his faith would become unconditional, asking no questions, and secondly he would become a man who translated his knowledge into action. Indeed, we find that Moses eventually went beyond the Fathers in this respect. While they were shepherds, removed from the world, Moses translated the Torah26 and transmitted it to the world and bore the burden of the Jewish people to the extent that he could say:27 “You say to me, ‘Carry them in your lap…?’”

The two-way process of revelation at Mt. Sinai—when the “high came down low” and the “low became high” thus had its counterpart in the inner life. The high, that is the intellect, descended into the field of action, and the low, that is the “heel” of Jacob (the symbol of kabbalat ol, or absolute acceptance of G‑d’s will) ascended until it shaped the intellect into its own unconditional faith.

And this is the moral for every Jew of G‑d’s reproof to Moses: That the highest and lowest amongst Jews should work together mutually. The “heads of your tribes” must “descend” to involve themselves with “the hewers of your wood and the drawers of your water,”28 who must in turn “ascend” by learning Torah (both in its “revealed” and “inward” aspects) and by performing the Mitzvot and “beautifying” them. And each Jew, even the “heads of your tribes,” must not be so detached in his studies as to neglect his involvement with the world, and his unconditional acceptance of the will of G‑d. This power—to unite “higher” and “lower”—is our inheritance from Moses. And this conduct, which in Moses brought the redemption from Egypt, will, in us, bring that final redemption which transcends all boundaries—the imminent realization of the Messianic Age.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. III pp. 854-62)

Footnotes
1.
Cf. Torah Or, Vaera, 56d.
2.
Shemot 2:2. Sotah, 13a.
3.
Cf. Likkutei Torah, Tzav, 12c.
4.
Zohar Chadash, beg. of Yitro.
5.
Vayikra Rabbah, 29:11.
6.
Cf. supra, p. 44.
7.
Cf. Zohar, Part III, 53b.
8.
Cf. Pesachim, 3a. Supra, p. 6.
9.
Bereishit Rabbah, 56:7.
14.
Ibid., 33:18. Shabbat, 33a.
15.
Avot deRabbi Nathan, beg. of ch. 33. Cf. Bereishit Rabbah, beg. of ch. 61. Tanchuma, Vayigash, ch. 12.
16.
Yoma, 28b. Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Akum, end of ch. 1.
18.
Ibid., 2:13.
20.
Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Aivel, 14:2.
21.
And so the name Sha-dai represents G‑d as He appears in the finite world—He who said to His creation dai—enough! Bereishit Rabbah, 46:2.
22.
Cf. Shemot Rabbah, 12:3.
23.
Tanya, Part I, ch. 4.
24.
Rashi, Bereishit, 6:9. Bereishit Rabbah, 30:6.
25.
Bereishit 18:19. Rashi, Ibid.
26.
Rashi, Devarim 1:5. Cf. Sotah, 36a.
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inge reisinger zwickau January 26, 2017

thank you very well explained Reply

sunil subba India January 25, 2017

The unifying of the higher and the lower and after the questioning phase with the creator it seems leads to greater actions which makes it balanced. Reply

george phoenix, arizona December 29, 2010

Crystal Skull Perhaps an exciting perspective on Moses is that he asked questions to God and got direct answers! That God thought so highly of him as a person, that he honored Moses with direct cognitive answers. This would no doubt be the very essence of the Kaballah, where man begins to transfigure from flesh into word, as he leads the exodus from the darkness of exile and separation , into the light of God's answers to our existence, and the meaning of our suffering, and the destiny which awaits. Where the Star of David becomes juxta imposed to symbolize the justice which rules our world--where those who were first , will be last , and those who were last will be first. Reply

Smilie North York, Canada December 29, 2010

Veara Please clarify what this article is about. Are we not to ask questions of G-d so that we may do right by Him and learn, so that He would be proud of us? I want to make discussion about this and if I could talk to G-d, I would like to talk, without insult. Reply

Yisroel Cotlar Houston January 14, 2010

To Jan Schulman That is correct. We do learn from Moshe that we are allowed to question G-d.

But this is Moshe - a holy man chosen for the task of redeeming the Jews. It must have been more than a simple question - one asked by a child. It must have been a Torah-true question.

For Moshe, like the Patriarchs and the rest of the tribe of Levi, studied the Torah.
As to how the Torah existed before it was given, see How Did the Torah Exist Before it Happened? Reply

Jan Schulman Oxnard, CA January 13, 2010

I don't understand... This was before Moses was given the Torah, so how could he have known what the Rabbi's have since interpreted and explained -- based on Torah? Moses actually knew nothing, or little, of Judaism. Certainly the Jews had fallen to a very low state and he could not have learned from them (the slaves). And I have not read anything that says G-d "educated" him in the ways of the Tzaddick. So Moses was like a child to his Father, G-d. How could he not question, as a child question? And I thought we were meant to question G-d. To ask Him why? To complain to Him. To ask of Him. That is what I learned in my Chabad classes. I must be mistaken, but I don't understand. Reply

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