Friday, November 28, 2014

If God Leaves Us - Then What?

At the beginning of Vayeitzei, Yaakov has this vision and hear directly from Hashem. One of things God tells him is that (28:15) “for I will not forsake you until I will have done what I have spoken about you.” I have always read this pasuk as comforting to Yaakov. Hashem is promising to be with him. However this year I read the pasuk and could was worried for Yaakov; for the pasuk implies that there is a possibility of Hashem forsaking Yaakov at some future point in history, once Hashem has done what He promised.
I think there are two ways to alleviate this concern. First, the Torah advises that we live in the present. On the pasuk in Parshat Shoftim “Tamim Tiheyeh Im Hashem Elokecha” Rabbi Samson Raphael  Hirsch explains this to be a mandate to live in the moment. Be fully aware of what is happening now, and do not let future considerations temper the feeling in that moment.

I recently taught the Mishna at the beginning of the 9th chapter of Berachot in a similar fashion: the Mishna explains the blessings of HaTov V’Hameitiv (on good tidings) as well as Dayan Haemet (on bad news).  The Mishna goes onto to explain the proper blessing for an event that is bad in the short term, but good in the long run; or vice- versa. For instance: what is the blessing on a catastrophic flood that decimates a field now (bad now), but will lead to that field becoming much more fertile and prosperous in the future (good later)? Or what is the blessing if a person finds a valuable object that he will be able to keep (good now), but the laws of that land mandate that a high tax be paid to the king on such finds, and this person does not have that much liquid assets and knows that finding this object will cause complications and problems (bad later)? In both cases the Mishna states that the proper blessing is based on the experience now: if it’s bad news in the present, say Dayan Ha’Emet. If it’s good news now, then say HaTov V’Hameitiv. Be  fully present in the moment and be mindful to fully experience what is going on NOW, and later you can process/ put into perspective.

Perhaps this is how we should understand Hashem’s promise. It’s true that the future may bring periods during which it appears as if Hashem has forsaken Yaakov or his descendants. But Yaakov should respond to the present situation of the Divine promise of protection and respond purely with gratitutde.

Alternatively, perhaps we are supposed to understand Yaakov’s follow-up declaration as a response to this inferred possibility of a future moment of Divine forsakenness.  Yaakov says, “If you God give me food to eat and clothes to wear….then I will tithe from all that I have” (28:22). Perhaps Yaakov is teaching us the secret to spiritual survival and maintaining a connection with Hashem during those times when it may appear as if He has forsaken us: 1) Say brachot- recognize that the food we have comes from Hashem and 2) Do Chesed- bring God into the world by being Godly and providing for others. If we seek Hashem out in all of our endeavors and strive to emulate His ways- then we stay close to Him and prevent Him from forsaking us.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Salt In A World of Conformity

Parshat Vayera contains within it the story of Sodom and its destruction. Lot and his family are saved, but Lot’s wife is turned into a pillar of salt as they flee (19:26). Rashi quotes the Midrash that when lot invited the two mystery guests into his home, he asked his wife for some salt for their food. Lot’s wife responded, “You also want to introduce this evil custom?!” She had no salt in the house, and she went to her Sodomite neighbors asking for salt, and revealing that she had guests in her house. It was her fault that the neighbors surrounded Lot’s house looking to harm the mystery guests.

A couple of questions stand out: 1) to which “evil custom” is Lot’s wife referring? 2) Why didn’t Lot’s wife have salt? It’s safe to assume that if she had no salt, then no one else did (and this is implied by the continuation of Midrash that states that her asking others for salt was her scheme to inform on Lot’s guests.)
Salt is a key seasoning for food; not only because of its own flavor, but due to its ability to highlight other flavors. In this way salt “celebrates” the diversity of flavors that exist. And it is in this way that salt stands in contrast to the character of Sodomites. In Sodom conformity was required. Outsiders were shunned, and differecnes were neutralized. If an out-of-towner needed a place to stay and he was taller than the bed he was given, the Sodomites would cut off his legs. If he wa s a little short, the people of Sodom would torture him through stretching. All of this to highlight the premium that was placed on conformity in Sodom. That’s why no one in Sodom kept salt in their houses. And it is the practice of Salt, of accepting and even celebrating differences that Lot’s wife was so worried that her husband had brought home with his guests.

It is no surprise that Lot’s wife turns into a pillar of salt. It’s Hashem’s way of teaching her, and Sodom – and all of us- that salt is a key ingredient to life, not just physiologically (our bodies need to have the proper amount of salt in order to thrive) but also the message behind salt. Jewish life is about valuing differences, even as we focus on a common goal of Kiddush Hashem. 

Perhaps this is why every korban is required to be accompanied by salt. Perhaps this is why even today, every time we make Hamotzi we should be careful to make sure that salt is in the picture.