KNOW YOURSELF – Parshat Vaera

KNOW YOURSELF – Parshat Vaera

Twenty two years ago almost to date, in early February of 1996, a computer program called Deep Blue was making history in the game of chess. It was the first ever computer program to beat a reigning world champion, Garry Kasparov, in a chess game. It was an amazing technological feat at the time, and it soon became evident that humans were no match for machines in analysing positions and calculating millions of possibilities and variants, to pick the winning outcome in a game of chess.

A month ago, in December of 2017, history was made again. This time, a computer program developed by a British company now subsidiary of Google, a self-learning algorithm called Alpha Zero played a 100 games match against the world’s top chess engine, Stockfish 8. At the end of the match, the score was as follows: Alpha Zero vs Stockfish: 72 games drawn, 28 wins for Alpha Zero, 0 wins for Stockfish. The result was nothing short of remarkable. The Guardian called it “a major breakthrough for artificial intelligence”, and various professors from top universities around the world characterized the program as ”an outstanding engineering accomplishment”.

But the result was much more than just an ”engineering accomplishment”. What makes this moment unique and particularly amazing is that Alpha Zero was actually never taught by humans to play chess. It was simply given the rules of the game and was allowed to play against itself for just four hours. And in those four hours it learned chess to such a level that not only it ridiculed  the best chess engine ever made, but also produced some games of phenomenal beauty and incredible complexity. In short, by playing alone, against itself, Alpha Zero learned more about the game of chess than we humans were ever able to teach a machine.

Which brings me — strangely enough — to this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Vaera. Allow me first to set the scene and explain the idea, and then I promise to come back to this connection in the end.

In the opening verses of the parsha, the Torah says the following:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹ-הִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְ-הוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣-ל שַׁ-דָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ-הוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃ — And G-d spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am Hashem. And I appeared to Avraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Shaddai, but through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them.” — Exodus 6:2-3

To the best of my knowledge, these two verses are the only ones in the Torah where three different names of G-d are mentioned in such quick succession: Elokim, E-l Shaddai and Hashem.

Of course, the three names are significant and each refers to G-d in a different manner.

Elokim is the name which came to represent in Jewish tradition the attribute of divine justice. It represents G-d’s ability to discern between right and wrong, between permitted and forbidden, between innocent and guilty. The name also symbolizes G-d as a force of nature, a controller of the world. It is probably for this reason that in Hebrew, the word takes on a plural form — because it’s meant to describe G-d as encompassing and surpassing everything, in essence a Power beyond all other powers. It is in this form that G-d presents Himself during the Exodus, it is in this form that He chooses to perform the miracles, and it is in this form that He starts His dialogue and revelation to Moses.

But then G-d says “I am Hashem”, using the holiest of His Names. A contraction of the past, present and future tenses of the verb “to be” (היה הוה ויהיה), Hashem is the Name that represents in Judaism the attribute of divine mercy. G-d is a benevolent entity, a parent, a Being who is about to bring the salvation from the Egyptian slavery not just because it is the right thing to do (that would be pure justice, i.e. the name Elokim), but also because He heard the suffering of the people and wants to help them. Though they might not deserve it and though the years of slavery might not technically be over — after all, the Jews were in Egypt for “only” two hundred and thirty years instead of the promised four hundred — G-d comes here to tell Moshe that salvation is indeed at hand. The near future is a time for freedom, revelation, mission and destiny, because G-d wants it so, because He swore to Avraham, Isaac and Jacob to unconditionally take the Jewish people as His own.

And of course, the third divine Name that appears here, E-l Shaddai, comes to complete this picture. The Name is a contraction of the Hebrew words א-ל שדי (“E-l she’dai”) — G-d who is able to sustain the world all by Himself. He is “enough” for the world to continue to exist and because of that, He is also enough to deliver the Jews from slavery. At the Seder, in the Passover Haggadah, there is a song called Dayeinu, in which we recall all the good deeds that G-d performed for us in Egypt, and we declare ourselves content with them. Each of them, in and by itself, would have been enough to merit our eternal gratitude. Dayeinu, for we were in the care of El She-dai, the Almighty.

Three divine Names mentioned in our parsha — three ways to perceive G-d: as a force moving the world, as a merciful parent, and as an entity in whose merit the world (and us) continues to exist.

But there is a problem in these verses… Can you spot it? Let me read to you the verses again:

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר אֱלֹ-הִ֖ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו אֲנִ֥י יְ-הוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָ֗א אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶל־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹ֖ב בְּאֵ֣-ל שַׁ-דָּ֑י וּשְׁמִ֣י יְ-הוָ֔ה לֹ֥א נוֹדַ֖עְתִּי לָהֶֽם׃ — And G-d spoke to Moses and said to him: “I am Hashem. And I appeared to Avraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as E-l Shaddai, but through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them.” — Exodus 6:2-3

It’s the very first time, G-d says, that the Name Hashem is actually “known” in the world. The patriarchs didn’t know it. Only they did. G-d did reveal His holy Name to Avraham, Isaac and Jacob. The Name is mentioned countless times in the Torah, in the Book of Genesis, including in verses talking about the life of the patriarchs. So what does it actually mean that “through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them”?

In his commentary, Rashi picks up on a particularity of the language:לא נודעתי vs לא הודעתי — “I did not become known” vs “I did not make Myself known”. His idea: the patriarchs knew the name, but did not necessarily relate to G-d through it. It was their decision, not G-d’s, to keep the Name “unknown”. Also, this Name, Rashi explains, is connected to faith in G-d’s ability to fulfill His promises. And in the time of the patriarchs, those promises — of a land, of a destiny, of a mission — were only formulated, but not yet fulfilled. True, the covenant between G-d and the Jewish nation did start with the patriarchs, but the Name Hashem only “became known” to the Jews once G-d started to actually fulfill His promises.

It’s a clever answer, but personally I like another one, provided by Chizkuni, Rabbi Hezekia ben Manoah, who lived in France in the 13th century. Picking up on the same particularity of language that Rashi notices, Chizkuni simply writes:

“Through My Name Hashem I did not become known to them” — The first answer that comes to mind is that the patriarchs never bothered to ask Me about it. They should have asked as I revealed Myself to Avraham as such already. Yet they believed in Me without the need for miracles and proof.

Of course, Chizkuni is praising here the unwavering and unconditional faith of the patriarchs. But one cannot help but notice the slight disappointment in Chizkuni’s explanation: “They should have asked”… yet they did not.

And here is where the key actually lies… Unlike the patriarchs who relied solely on faith, Moshe did ask G-d. In fact, this is how the Exodus actually starts. In a memorable exchange in the middle of the previous parsha, Moshe turns to G-d and says the following:

“Behold, I will go to the children of Israel and I will tell them: “The G-d of your forefathers sent me to you.” And they will ask me: “What is His Name?” What shall I answer? — Exodus 3:13

Who are You? What’s Your real name? These are the questions which frame the beginning of the Exodus, the beginning of our journey to freedom. And G-d answers there  אהיה אשר אהיה (”eheie asher eheie”) — “I will be the one whom I will be” or, otherwise said, believe in Me that I will become whatever you need me to become: protector, parent, guide, judge, provider, confidant, sovereign, G-d…

But it all started with a question. And now, if you were wondering what is the best way to know G-d, here is the answer: just ask. Of course, the full answer is incomprehensible to the human intellect. Not even Moshe knew everything, though he spoke with G-d “face to face”, whatever that means. But there will surely be an answer, and in that answer G-d will be revealed.

However, the story does not end here, and only now we are ready to come full circle. Moses’ question in chapter 3 (“Who are You?”) is not the first one that Moses asks. Before he seeks G-d’s Name, just two verses before, he asks: Who am I, to go to Pharaoh and take the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

At first glance, the question is just an indication — among many others — of Moshe’s tremendous humbleness. I am nobody, I am unworthy for the mission, please send another. But it is really so much more! It is a question through which Moshe is trying to discover himself. And in that discovery lies the trigger to the whole enterprise to discover G-d.

Interestingly enough, G-d never really answers Moshe’s existential question. He just says: “you will succeed in front of Pharaoh because I am with you”. Or otherwise put: don’t worry about the mission, I’m in charge, you’ll just be my mouthpiece, nothing more. But who you really are is YOUR task to figure out. I’m not giving you the answer, because it isn’t Mine to give. It is yours to seek and hopefully discover.

* * *

I’ve started this speech by talking about Alpha Zero and its unbelievable achievement in the realm of chess. It all started with four hours of play against itself. It started with understanding the game not because someone taught it, because someone programmed it to play or calculate or find good moves. It taught itself how to do all that. And in doing so, it became — at least as of now — the best chess playing entity in the entire world.

Discovering and “knowing” G-d can follow a similar path. Through self-discovery, we get to know the צלם אלקים, “the image of G-d” within ourselves. And in doing so, in getting really in touch with that little spark of divinity (which some might call soul or consciousness), we come closer to knowing its Source, whether it’s the just Elokim, the Almighty El Shaddai or the merciful Hashem. May we all find the courage and strength to seek our true potential, to delve deep without ourselves and to emerge stronger, better and more faithful Jews and human beings.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Beth Zion Congregation, Cote St-Luc, QC

The Most Hated Man

The Most Hated Man

If I asked you who is nowadays “the most hated man in America”, what would you reply? I am sure some of you would point to President Donald Trump, who has had his share of dislike and even hatred from various individuals and groups in the United States. But since I made  a personal promise a long time ago to stay away from politics in all my derashot, I can tell you this is not the answer I am looking for.

So, who is “the most hated man in America”? (more…)

Parshat Ki Tisa “Obstacles”

Parshat Ki Tisa “Obstacles”

My mom earned the nickname “the cat” as she seemed to have at least 9 lives. So many close calls and yet she would miraculously pull through. I remember after she passed away numerous people remarking “I really was expecting one more miracle”. This year her yahrtzeit falls just after purim and parshat Tetzaveh and before parshat Ki Tisa. This happens many years that are not leap years.

For my d’var torah in her memory I want to focus on the luchot the tablets with the 10 commandments. It is interesting to note that there were two versions of the tablets one that was written by Hashem that Moshe shattered, and a second pair written painstakingly by Moshe’s own hand. We are told how Hashem wanted to destroy us when we sinned with the Golden Calf and how Moshe fought on our behalf. Hashem accepts Moshe’s prayers and gives Moshe a formula of 13 attributes pertaining to Hashem’s mercy that will assuage Hashem’s anger, and the section ends with Moshe brazenly saying to gd that you will “forgive our iniquity and error, and make us Your heritage” (Ex 34:9)

In life we are given hurdles to rise above. The original tablets are broken and Gd who loves us wants to destroy us. All is lost. Moshe and the Torah say no. Moshe tells Gd to forgive us. Mom said no. Born a preemie in the 1960s she fought to stay alive as a baby. She was told she may never have kids, and my sisters and I proved the doctors wrong. When told she may never walk again she countered with “that’s what wheelchairs are for”. After the second tablets were made both the new and the old were housed together in the Temple. The Jewish spirit, my mother’s spirit, is one and the same. Together we look at hurdles and challenges as opportunities for growth to be overcome.To see the handmade tablets next to the broken Gdly ones, is to look at what could have been and feeling accomplished with the new version while never forgetting the old version.

My mother was one of the strongest, kindest, and most resilient people I know. Knowing and loving her have made me strong. It is her example I strive for daily. For a woman so worried about her legacy, mom your accomplishments still ring true in my heart, and everyone else’s that you touched.

Parshat Pinchas — The Covenant of Peace

Parshat Pinchas — The Covenant of Peace

The first portion of the Torah that I ever layned was one that has a very strong connection with this week’s parsha. It actually wasn’t from it, but rather from the very end of last week’s parsha, Balak, and it wasn’t a particularly happy episode. I still remember that paragraph, as if it were today:

“Pinchas son of Elazar son of Aaron HaKohen saw and he stood up amid the assembly and he took a spear in his hand. He followed the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman into her stomach – and the plague was halted from upon the children of Israel. Those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand.” – Bamidbar 25:7-9

Indeed, not a pretty episode… Not only because we learn in it that 24,000 people died during the plague, but also – in my opinion – because an act of violence was necessary for this terrible plague to end. (more…)

A Broken Matzah

A Broken Matzah

On Passover night we break the middle Matzah for numerous reasons. Tonight is a night of duality where we balance signs of slavery with signs of freedom. Some of the answers are as following. Simply to get the children’s attention, encouraging them to ask questions. Our Joy cannot be  complete because we are still in exile waiting for Mashiach. As poor slaves we know to always save some for a later time. It is also a sign of freedom and hope to quote Lenard Cohen “There’s a crack in everything that’s where the light comes in”. Lastly it is because we are sharing. No matter how dire our situation as Jews we are compelled to help someone less fortunate than ourselves. When we have 2 pennies to our name we still give 1 of them to charity. Chag Sameach


Parashat Ki Tisa on Love

Parashat Ki Tisa on Love

For over 15 years now, since I was still working for the Jewish Community in Bucharest, I have been writing weekly Divrei Torah in Romanian for the benefit of the Jews there. It was, I guess, my way of giving back to the community I once belonged to, the community that formed me as an individual.

Writing those materials has not always been easy. There were a few “broken” cycles, where I could not – for various reasons – produce a commentary every week. There were times when I felt like stopping it altogether, especially when I was not living there but rather far away, in New York or here in Montreal. It’s also been hard to write because of my lack of inspiration, my own limitations, especially after a few cycles have passed.

Last year, as we began reading the Torah anew on Simchat Torah, I took on a slightly different enterprise: instead of the parsha, I started writing about the Haftarah. Almost immediately, new challenges arose. The texts sometimes looked rather cryptic, other times they seemed repetitive and hard to digest, and yet other times it was not easy to connect the Haftarah back to the associated parsha.

The Haftarah we read this week is no exception to these rules.

First – we don’t read it very often, and that makes is harder to study in detail. More than half the years, Shabbat Ki Tisa coincides with Shabbat Parah, when we read instead a special portion dedicated to the laws of the red heifer.

Secondly – Ashkenazim begin reading the Haftarah at the beginning of chapter 18 in the Book of Kings, while the Sefaradim skip the first 19 verses altogether and only start with the second part of the story. And this poses a challenge because you have to wonder why that is and also to try and connect the two halves.

Thirdly – the connection to the Torah portion is not so obvious. In the parsha, we begin by discussing מחצית השקל – the half-shekel offering taken from the Jews in order that “no plague come among them when counting them.” (Ex. 30:12) Then, the Torah moves on to describe – in painstaking detail – the episode of the Golden Calf and its tragic aftermath, and finally it concludes with G-d’s gifts to Moses and the Jewish nation: the forgiveness for sin, the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) and the receiving of the Second Tablets.

There seems however to be a disconnect between the first half of the parsha and the second half. What would be, at first glance, the link between the half-a-shekel offering and the atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf? Surely none…

But this apparent disconnect is actually mirrored in the Haftarah.

The first half of the Haftarah (read only by Ashkenazim) describes a meeting between Elyiahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) and the prophet Ovadiah who – we learn in the text – is responsible for the saving of a hundred of Hashem’s prophets, persecuted and hunted down by the evil queen Jezebel. The second half of the Haftarah describes in detail the “contest” on Mount Carmel between Elijah the Prophet on one hand, and 450 prophets of Baal. The contest is meant to establish – in the eyes of the Jewish nation – who indeed is the one and true G-d. Again, seemingly no connection between the two halves…

In order to understand this, we have to take a closer look at a very inconspicuous couple of verses at the very end of our Haftarah. After the challenge between Elijah and the false prophets is set, after the offerings are slaughtered and placed on the altars and the 450 false prophets try in vain to get their idol to bring down fire on the altar, after water is poured – at Elijah’s request – over the offering to Hashem in order to make the miracle of divine fire even more obvious, Elijah prays to G-d saying:

Hashem, G-d of Abraham, Isaac and Israel! Today it will become known that You G-d are with Israel and that I am Your servant, and that at Your word have I done all these things. Answer me, Hashem, answer me – and let this people know that You are Hashem, the G-d, אחרנית לבם את הסבת ואתה – and You will turn their heart backward. (Kings I 18:36-37)

Dozens of commentators have tried to understand these verses. What exactly does Elijah mean when he says that “G-d will turn the heart of the people backward”?

In the Talmud (Tractate Brachot 31a), Rabi Eleazar reads it as a past statement and concludes that Elijah spoke insolently toward G-d, implying it was G‑d’s fault for the fact the people turned to idolatry. “You turned their heart backward” – i.e. You allowed them to become idol worshippers.

A Midrash quoted in the Jerusalem Talmud takes a different, but even more outrageous approach. “You turned the heart backward” actually is a direct threat (or shall we call it blackmail?) to G-d: “If You don’t answer me now” ­– says Elijah – “I will deny and say that You turned their hearts backward (to idol worshipping).”

A 12th century commentator known as the Ralbag, Rabbi Levi ben Gershom, takes a similar position. In his view, it was G-d’s constant protection that caused the people to stray. Too much good – he implies – is prone to lead individuals and nations to a life without challenges, which, in turn, makes it easy to turn idolatrous by means of association. People ask themselves: How come I get all this good for nothing? It must be that either I am a G-d myself OR whatever action that goes on around me is bringing about this good. In a time when idol worshipping was the societal norm, that was a very dangerous thing to think and – in the eyes of the Ralbag – that actually led people to believe that all their blessing and wealth came from the idol Baal.

In a very difficult position as a global commentator, Rashi takes the middle approach between the earlier sources. He doesn’t actually point a finger at G-d, but he does say: “You allowed them to turn away from You, it is in Your hands to turn their hearts back to You.”

What do we do with all these statements and accusations? Do we need to start looking for a lawyer for G-d, as “charges” are brought against Him at such intense levels?

What is amazing is that none of this is actually new… From the very heart of our parsha, a similar episode comes to mind. From up on Mount Sinai, G-d sees the Jews worshipping the Golden Calf. His answer is swift and harsh. He turns to Moshe (Moses) and says:

I have seen this people and behold, they are a stiff-necked people! And now, let Me be! Let My anger burn against them and I shall annihilate them; and I shall make you a great nation. (Ex. 32:10)

Moses is quick on the uptake. How can You think about killing them? Remember the Patriarhs. Remember Your promises. Remember the Exodus. What will the nations of the earth say if you destroy them? And finally – just like Elijah centuries later – the final “blows”:

I implore! This people has sinned a great sin and thus made for themselves a god of gold. And now, if You would but bear their sin! – but if not, erase me now from Your book that You have written. (Ex. 32:31) If Your Presence does not go with us, don’t bring us onward from here. (Ex. 33:15) Show me Your glory! (Ex. 33:18)

To all that Moses asked on Mount Sinai, G-d acquiesced. Centuries later, He did the same for Elyiahu HaNavi on Mount Carmel.

And this is where the answer to all our questions truly lies: in a relationship that is built on pure love.

Arrogant or not, Elijah was right in asking G-d for a miracle at Carmel. Those were times of crisis, times when the Jews needed reminding who they were and Whom they were serving. At Sinai, Moses had a similar crisis. G-d was angry, but what was more problematic was that He was right to be angry. The Jews had just broken every promise, they fell from the highest top into the lower abyss and nothing short of miraculous was able to save them. The dictum that urges us to “not rely on miracles” (לא סומכים על נס) was temporarily suspended, because people were dying, physically and spiritually.

But in both cases – it was not the righteousness of the requests or the dire circumstances in which they were made that prompted G-d’s positive response. It was that the requests originated in love.

In the Haftarah, it was Ovadiah’s love for Hashem and for his fellow human beings that prompted him to risk his own life to save the hundred prophets of Hashem. In the parsha, it all started with a contribution of half a shekel, G‑d’s way of making sure everyone counts in the relationship with Him and with others. Commentators point out that it was because G-d loved the Jews so much that He repeatedly counted them throughout the Book of Numbers, as well as at the beginning of our parsha. He counted them with half a shekel because He wanted them to stay safe – “so that no plague come among them” (Ex. 30:12) – and so that each person understands that they are only half of a shekel, half of a relationship. The other half is found when we become part of a relationship of love, when we find our bashert, when we engage with another and together we become a whole.

In both cases – after love is established as the true leitmotiv of the story – the relationship gets bumpy and needs fixing. (What relationships don’t really?) And the fix is possible specifically because of the beginning, because the love that started everything simply cannot be ignored. The enormous love Hashem has for us was the fuel that kept it all going.

But equally important was the courage, self-sacrifice and devotion of a few individuals who understood the real power of that love and did not fear to use it for good. One of my Rabbis at the yeshivah – interestingly or fatefully named Rabbi Yaakov Love – once said that Yom Kippur, the day when G‑d forgives our sins is an amazing day. Because G-d does not forgive believing that we will stop sinning, but rather knowing that we will be back next year in front of Him with our sins. He doesn’t forgive because of who we are or what we do, but because He loves us unquestionably, unconditionally and unequivocally.

For love, Moses turned G-d’s words on their head and said: Yes, the Jews are a stiff-necked people, and that is precisely why You should save them, because once You make them Yours they will never really leave You. Yes, they have sinned, but it is You who gave them the ability to sin through the gift of free will, Your greatest gift of love. And now, because You love them and they love You (though they keep forgetting that) – You should continue to lead them from this place on, through the ages of history.

For love, Ovadiah conquered his fears of the establishment and kept the hundred prophets of Hashem in a cave, with bread and water. For love, Elijah “blackmailed” G-d and challenged Him into showing His glory to a nation that did not deserve to witness it. For love, all these individuals did things that were never expected and never fully understood, but which brought about the salvation and consolation we so desperately needed.

And so the pieces of the puzzle come together under the roof of relationship and love.

One of my Rabbis, Rabbi Avi Weiss, once pointed out that the Hebrew word אהבה (love) comes from the Aramaic root הב (hav) – to give. So, what do we give for our loves?

When our relationships falter or when important things are at stake, what do we do? Do we really give our best to fix them, to prevent bad things from happening? Do we sacrifice our time and energy – for real, not just for show – to make it work? Do we go through fire and water to protect and save our brothers and sisters, our loved ones, to shield them from harm? Do we fight for the values we inherited from people we loved in the past or which we miracle when it is discovered in people we know in the present? Do we pass along those values, so that our children can benefit from them as well? Do we raise a prayer (or sometimes even a fist) at G-d to bring about a desperately needed?

Do we truly love? And if the answer is YES, how far are we prepared to go for that?

Shabbat Shalom!

Prepared by Rabbi Sorin Rosen
Delivered on February February 27, 2016