Thursday, December 07, 2017

The Celebration of Hanukkah: "Rededicating" the Original Winter Festival

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 8A) tell an incredible story about the experiences of Adam, the first man, immediately following his expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The sin and exile of Adam and Eve took place in late Autumn, just around the time of year when the days start to become progressively shorter, the sun rising later and setting earlier on a daily basis. Adam took note of this gradual, worrisome change and assumed that it was a further sign of Divine punishment, the death that had been decreed upon him for violating God’s command. Eventually, he reasoned, there would be no more daylight at all, and plants, animals, and human beings would perish forever. 

Fearing for his life, Adam spent eight days in prayer and repentance, beseeching the Almighty for a second chance. Then the winter solstice arrived, and the days began to lengthen again, little by little. When Adam observed this, he realized that the systematic variation in the amount of daylight was nothing to be scared of. It was simply part of the incredible, breathtaking, self-renewing natural order that Hashem had designed in His infinite wisdom. Thrilled and comforted by this new insight, Adam celebrated his discovery for eight days. 

The following year, Adam established a sixteen day holiday - eight days prior to the solstice and eight days afterwards - to commemorate what he now understood to be the predictable pattern of the seasons. Although his intent was to honor Hashem with this festival, it was later corrupted into two pagan holidays (Saturnalia and Kalenda) that were observed by the Romans consecutively from December 17th through January 1st. These dates sound familiar to us because they coincide with what we now know as the “holiday season”, an institution derived from pagan Rome that was adopted by later religious traditions and is perpetuated until today.

It is noteworthy that our Torah includes no winter holidays whatsoever. The Yamim Tovim of the Torah are all observed in the Spring, Summer and Fall. One might argue that this is due to the fact that the holidays of the Torah are all linked to the annual process of harvesting and gathering produce from the fields, a process that concludes before the advent of the colder months. However, it seems that there is a deeper and more fundamental reason why the Torah carefully avoided establishing any festivals in the wintertime.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the Torah’s rejection of winter holidays is directly related, in some way, to the fact that idolatrous religion embraces them. After all, one of the essential objectives of the Torah is the uprooting of idolatry and the elimination of any vestige of pagan ideology from civilization. But what is it about the worship of idols and its attendant rituals that the Torah regards as especially abhorrent? Why is the Torah so passionately opposed to the religious fervor of well-meaning, sincere idolaters? And what does the pagan mind find so compelling in the idea of a winter festival?

The primary motivation behind idolatrous religion is the emotion of fear - fear of hunger, fear of sickness, and, most importantly, fear of death. Ancient mankind was driven to invent a pantheon of gods that they imagined would provide them with security against the existential threats posed to them by the unpredictable forces of nature and by their own frailty and mortality. Typically, the mythology of these pagan religious traditions included rich, vivid descriptions of the afterlife and elaborate rituals designed to ensure that one would eventually obtain eternal life. 

The approach of winter was undoubtedly a frightening experience for humans in antiquity. Days shortened, temperatures dropped, trees lost their leaves and fruits, animals hibernated, food was scarce, and illness was rampant. Even the wise Adam found a reason to be anxious as Autumn came to a close, but his discovery of the consistency and beauty in the Divinely ordained patterns of nature led him away from raw terror to a greater, more satisfying recognition of God and His handiwork.

The fear that gripped ignorant pagans during this time, by contrast, inspired them to turn even further away from the realities of nature and to seek superficial reassurance from their superstitions, believing that the “magic” of their rituals would ward off the danger posed by the cold indifference of winter. The rituals centered around chasing away the darkness, cold and death of winter, and therefore entailed kindling lights and bringing evergreen trees into the home (as if to say that, just as evergreen trees survive the winter fully intact, so should we.) 

This explains why the most prominent and emotionally intense celebrations on the pagan calendar took place in the wintertime. The more frightened the idolaters were, the more fervent they became in their religious engagement.

The Torah promotes religion based not on fear and anxiety, but on love of wisdom, justice and truth. Therefore, despite the fact that Adam established a holiday at the end of December to honor God and His magnificent creation, the Torah did not incorporate it into the Jewish calendar, for fear that it would feed into the idolatrous and superstitious impulses of people who were scared of winter temperatures and winter darkness.

Similarly, because the pagan mind was deeply preoccupied with its fear of death and desire for immortality, idolatrous religion and ritual was obsessively focused on preventing death and, where that failed, guaranteeing eternity. By contrast, although Judaism fully subscribes to a belief in the afterlife for those who pass away, it does not write one word about the World to Come, forbids kohanim (“priests”) from any involvement with the dead, and prohibits a person who has contact with a corpse from entering the Temple or offering sacrifices, assigning him the severest form of ritual impurity. 

Without a doubt, the goal of the Torah here was to differentiate itself from the fear-driven superstitions of idol worship. The Torah does not want us to run away from our fears and into the embrace of religion. It wants us to serve God, seek knowledge and pursue mitzvah observance out of love, for their own sake. 

If the Torah was so careful to avoid the establishment of any winter celebrations, why did the Rabbis advocate the institution of Hanukkah, which practically coincides with the “holiday season” of the gentiles? Moreover, how could they allow it to become a “festival of lights”, seemingly an endorsement of the pagan overtones of this time of year?

It seems that our Sages understood that the very nature of the miracles of Hanukkah provided them a golden opportunity to reclaim the original “winter festival”, initiated by Adam and Eve, that had been hijacked and corrupted by the vile forces of paganism. This is because the events commemorated on Hanukkah embodied the ultimate triumph of genuine faith, wisdom and truth against paganism, moral bankruptcy and primitive superstition.

The Syrian Greeks sought to impose their materialist, idolatrous worldview upon all of their subjects and to rid the earth of the contrary influence of monotheism, justice, and Torah that was championed by the Jews. The victory of a small, untrained group of kohanim over the mighty army of the Syrian Greeks, followed by the rededication of the Temple and the reestablishment of Jewish religious life in the land of Israel against all odds, was really a victory for Divine Wisdom and truth over primitive paganism, ignorance and superstition. The lights of the menorah, rather than magically “warding off” demonic forces of death and destruction, reflected the eternally enlightening power of Torah and wisdom that no human regime, however evil, determined or unscrupulous, will ever manage to extinguish or eliminate. 

Because the Hanukkah celebration was in its essence a celebration of the defeat of idolatry and the primacy of Torah truth, the Sages had no fear that this “winter festival” would ever be corrupted or distorted by the insidious influence of paganism. On the contrary, Hanukkah became the ideal occasion for us to acknowledge the real light that illuminates and warms us even amidst the cold darkness of the winter months - the light of Hashem’s wisdom, Hashem’s Torah and Hashem’s commandments. 

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Letter to My Daughter - Thoughts on Jewish Feminism

Dearest Zehara,

When you were born we made a huge catered party because we wanted to be sure that it was clear that our celebration of the birth of a girl was no less joyous and exciting than the celebration we held for the birth of your brother just a few years previously. We were honestly thrilled to be blessed with you, even though, judging by your fussiness, you weren’t as thrilled to be joining us.

Zehara, we never intended to educate you any differently than we educated your brothers. Our hope was that you would grow up exactly as you are today - a young woman who is naturally a feminist, confident but not self conscious or pretentious in her feminism. You are proud of being a Jewish woman, you were in awe of becoming a Bat Mitzvah, you love studying Torah and keeping the mitzvot, but you don’t feel the need to “protest” against the voices in the Orthodox community who think that your religious life is less important than that of a boy.

When you became a Bat Mitzvah, you insisted that accommodations be made so that you would be able to eat breakfast after davening, not before. Your insistence was a gentle one but you did not compromise your principles one iota. The school was wrong for offering breakfast after davening only in the seventh grade, when the boys become Bar Mitzvah, and not in sixth grade, when the girls become Benot Mitzvah.

The administration of the school made a weak attempt to talk you out of your position, mentioning that some rabbis hold that women are allowed to eat before Shaharit, or that, according to some, women don’t really have to pray Shemoneh Esreh at all. But you correctly responded that this made no sense, because men and women have exactly the same prayer obligations. You were having none of it, and you won. That is my ZZ.

When the idea of you reading the Megillah was suggested, you did not worry about the social or political implications of having a woman perform this mitzvah publicly. You didn’t think of it as controversial - of course a girl can read the Megillah according to halakha, she is equally included in the mitzvah, so what need was there for any further discussion? Neither did you try to show off or ruffle the feathers of those who may be uncomfortable with it. You just accepted the challenge and started studying.

Your identity as a Jew and your identity as a woman are not in conflict with one another. They are beautifully integrated within you, like the many strands of a havdala candle combine together to produce a single, sacred flame that cuts the darkness effortlessly. You have always had the ability to continue forward with confidence, trusting Hashem implicitly, and He has always been there for you, illuminating the path ahead.

In our society, we often hear talk of the “glass ceiling”. The glass ceiling refers to the idea that there is an invisible barrier that prevents women from rising too high or achieving too much in their chosen fields. We can’t see this barrier because it is not a physical ceiling. It is a cultural barrier, a concept, a limit on how much our society believes it is “OK” for a woman to succeed before the men feel threatened. When a woman reaches great heights, our society, without even thinking, naturally places obstacles in her path and attempts to stop her from advancing any further.

Zehara, if ever a glass ceiling was above your head, you’ve shattered it and you haven’t even noticed. You’ve followed your dreams with positivity and determination and have never ceased soaring heavenward. Nothing has stopped you yet, and I don’t believe anything will in the future, because Hashem is with you. And the reason he is with you is because, in your heart and mind, you’ve always been with Him.

We will never forget the time you submitted artwork for the Montgomery County Water Authority contest. The prize was one hundred dollars and the honor of having your drawing featured on one of the pages of that year’s calendar. Thousands of students from dozens of schools participated in the contest, but this did not matter to you - you were already planning what you would do with the money.

I did not want to discourage you or detract from your boundless optimism, but I felt obligated to remind you that there were thousands of participants, and that you might not actually win. You ignored this inconvenient detail and proceeded on the assumption that you would win. And, as we all know, you turned out to be right. Win you did. Again.

Then there was the time that I was earnestly seeking an alternative to the rabbinate. I wanted to stop working as a shul rabbi and seek some other form of employment, some other career. You were not happy about this; for some unknown reason, you wanted me to remain a shul rabbi. You insisted on it. Well, once again, your prayer was answered, and I wound up the rabbi not of one, but of two shuls at the same time! Thanks a lot, ZZ.

Zehara, now that you are a woman, I would like to share with you just a small part of the story of how I became a so-called Jewish feminist. After all, in most ways, I am very traditional, religiously and otherwise. I’m even a bit old fashioned. How did I wind up a vocal advocate for women’s learning, committed to equal educational opportunities for boys and girls?

The truth is that I did not always think this way. There was a time that I accepted the more traditional view about women, a view that suggests that their Torah learning should be more limited than the boys’ and is not as important. I imagine that if you had grown up with a father that believed those things, if you had been raised in a household with the previous version of me, you would have had a very different experience!

Obviously, today, I am very, very far from that traditional view. In fact, I reject that view. I’m not going to provide you with a detailed map of the path I have traveled or a catalogue of the choices I have made and the consequences I have endured as a result. And I’m not going to use this as an opportunity to offer you a full, comprehensive picture of all that I feel and think about how the role of women in Judaism should be understood. But I would like to tell you about how and why I began the process of changing my perspective and moving away from the old fashioned one. 

Zehara, in life, we can’t always pinpoint the very moment that the direction of our thinking about a subject began to shift. But I will never forget the day that my mind was opened and my perspective on feminism changed forever. A professor of mine in graduate school was teaching us about the history of education of deaf and mute children.

Did you know that for most of history, it was assumed that people who could not hear or speak were also unable to think or learn? Did you know that children who were deaf and mute were considered mentally retarded and were not given any education at all? Nowadays, we know that even though these children have special challenges, they can still be just as brilliant, thoughtful, and curious as anyone else. They can learn just as well as anyone else. We just have to use different methods of teaching them, methods that don’t involve the listening and talking we usually depend on.

This may not seem earth shattering to you, but to me, at that time, it was. After all, the Mishnah and Gemara, the Halakha, declares that deaf-mutes are not responsible for keeping the mitzvot because they lack intelligence. Our own great Rabbis believed that deaf-mutes were mentally retarded and could not be educated. 

They didn’t think this way because they disliked people with disabilities or wanted to discriminate against them. They thought this way because this was the way that everyone thought back then. This was the “science” of their times, science that continued to be believed, and taught, and followed until just about a hundred years ago.

Our Rabbis knew that people who were mentally retarded could not be expected to keep the mitzvot. They also “knew”, based on the best information available to them, that people who were deaf-mutes were mentally retarded. Through no fault of their own, they made a mistake.

It slowly dawned on me that the Rabbis’ thoughts about women and girls must also have been based on the science of their times. They saw that women were not as intellectually inclined, as academically sophisticated or as curious about the world as men were. They saw that girls behaved more emotionally, more sensitively, more playfully and less seriously and studiously than boys.

They assumed what everyone else at that point in history assumed - that girls naturally had less intelligence than boys, that women were better suited to housework than homework, that the highest goal of a woman should be motherhood rather than Torah knowledge, and that females should be educated differently than males, or not at all.

Our Rabbis cannot be blamed for this error any more than they can be blamed for believing the world was flat or that the sun revolved around the Earth. The holy Sages were not, G-D forbid, misogynists - they did not hate women or disrespect women. On the contrary, they passed many, many laws - laws that became part of the Halakha - in order to protect the rights and dignity of women, to prevent them from being abused or mistreated by the men in their lives or in their communities, to ensure that they would be shielded from any harm.

Women were always treated with respect and reverence in the Jewish world. The Book of Melakhim tells us about how Shelomo Hamelekh, King Solomon, reacted when his mother came to visit him in his palace, “And when Batsheva came to Shelomo to speak with him…the King stood up to greet her, bowed to her, sat down on his throne, and had a throne placed for her. She sat at his right hand.” King Solomon showed the ultimate respect to his mother. He did not accord any less honor to his mother than he would to his father, and neither should we.

The Rabbis knew that women are precious to Hashem and created in His image. However, they believed that women were granted less intellectual ability than men and that they were not capable of achieving the heights in Torah and spirituality that men could. They based their view on what they believed to be scientific observation - the same scientific observation that led Aristotle, the greatest of the Greek philosophers, to believe that women were not equal to men.

But there was another great Greek philosopher with a different opinion: Aristotle’s teacher, the illustrious Plato. Plato taught that men and women were absolutely equal in every way, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. He was ahead of his time, because he realized that appearances can be deceiving. He said that sometimes we need to ignore appearances completely and look beyond the surface in order to discover what is, as you used to say, “for really real.”

It was true that women behaved differently from men. It was true that girls had less serious interests than boys. It was true that the females focused more on food and clothing and relationships than the males did. But this didn’t stem from their inner nature as women or girls. It did not have to be that way. It happened because the girls were raised differently than the boys.

Girls weren’t encouraged by their parents or by their communities to study seriously, to develop their minds, or to think deeply. So they didn’t. Girls were taught how to cook, sew, keep house, and raise children. So they did. But if they had been given the same opportunities as the boys, and had been educated the same way as the boys, then they would have equalled or surpassed the boys in knowledge, sophistication and wisdom.

People mistakenly believed there were real differences of mind and soul between men and women. Great people, including Aristotle and even our Sages, were convinced that women were less intellectually and spiritually capable than men, that educating women would be a waste of time.  But what these thinkers were actually observing were differences in the way men and women were taught, trained, and raised, not differences in how men and women were created.

Plato understood this, and in understanding this he was over 2,000 years ahead of the rest of the human race. Even his own student, Aristotle, couldn’t see what his wise teacher saw. Plato lived in the fifth century BCE, about 2500 years ago. That was about 2300 years before John Stuart Mill, who lived in the 19th century, would begin writing and speaking out about these ideas and insisting that women be given more and better educational opportunities. Today, we know that Plato and John Stuart Mill had it right when almost everyone else had it wrong.

If the Rabbis of the Talmud had known all that we know today about deaf-mutes and their ability to learn, there is no doubt in my mind that they would have taught  and applied the Halakha differently than they did. Had they possessed more accurate scientific knowledge, they would not have treated deaf-mutes as mentally retarded and would not have excluded them from the community of Torah learners and mitzvah-performers.

Similarly, had our Sages understood what we do today about the innate equality of males and females - if they had had the privilege of seeing brilliant female brain surgeons, lawyers, mathematicians, scientists, engineers, and Torah scholars - there is no question that they would have had a totally different view of the proper role of women in Jewish life.

Many of the statements about women in the Talmud and Midrash, and some of the halakhot applicable to women, reflect the Rabbis’ own beliefs about women, beliefs that they mistakenly thought were “scientific facts.” Today we realize that many of these ideas were totally incorrect. But just because we know more than the Rabbis did about women doesn’t automatically mean that we can change the rules of Jewish law on our own.

On the contrary, we must continue to observe the Halakha as it was formulated by our Rabbis thousands of years ago. That is the way the system of Torah that Hashem gave us is supposed to work - its laws remain fixed and can only be changed by an official Rabbinic Supreme Court called a Sanhedrin. 

Of course, we eagerly await the arrival of Mashiach and the establishment of a new Sanhedrin that will review and update any laws that are incompatible with current scientific knowledge, including knowledge about the equality of the sexes. In the meantime, though, within the limits of the halakha as it exists now, we must live out our Judaism in light of our awareness that there is no intellectual or spiritual difference between women and men.

Zehara, to me, you are the ultimate proof of this eternal truth. You embrace your uniquely female qualities. You love being a young woman and enjoy the blessings of femininity. Yet you also engage in Torah study with the fullness of your mind and soul; not as a girl or woman, but as a Jew who seeks knowledge. You pray with intensity and sincerity, not as a girl or woman, but as a human being who yearns for closeness to Hashem.

Zehara Yehudit Maroof, your name means “Famous Jewish Light”. You are a source of “Jewish” light and inspiration to us with your amazing Megillah reading, in your study of Torah and performance of mitzvot, and in the beauty of your kind, generous and compassionate personality.   

ZZ Joon [dear ZZ], you have never been one to seek attention. But you are loved and admired by all who know you and have come to recognize your remarkable intelligence, your warmth, your concern for others, and your deep commitment to Hashem and to Torah. You really are a “Famous Jewish Light” that we pray will continue to shine brightly for many years to come.

Like the farmer who won that big award, you are outstanding in your field!

Love Always, 


Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Not So Fast

One of the most famous chapters in the Hebrew Bible is Isaiah Chapter 58. General familiarity with it is due, no doubt, to the fact that it was selected by our Sages as the Haftara reading for Yom Kippur. However, its harsh and unrelenting critique of religious hypocrisy and the shallowness of mechanical ritual observance is most definitely the source of its immense and enduring power. 

Contemporaries of the Prophet Isaiah complained that despite their fasting and self-flagellation their prayers elicited no response from the Almighty. They cast doubt upon the omniscience of God and insinuated that He did not see their holy deeds or turned a deaf ear to their plaintive cries. The Jews simply could not fathom why their acts of piety had no results.

For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know My ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we afflicted ourselves, and you have not noticed?’

The prophet’s rejoinder to the people is clear and straightforward -  

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your debtors.
Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to afflict themselves?Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to Hashem?

Fasting had become a ritualistic activity, a kind of magic strategy for winning God’s goodwill. But the fast day was mere pageantry; there was no self-reflection, no introspection, no genuine change. Indeed, the same unjust, violent and selfish objectives pursued on ordinary days continued on the “sacred” days of fasting.

Isaiah does not stop at offering a critique of the fasting, however. He provides recommendations for a better approach to replace it:

Is not this the fast that I have chosen - to loose the fetters of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and that you break every yoke? Is it not to deal your bread to the hungry, and that you bring the poor that are cast out into your house? When you see the naked, cover him, and that you hide not yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth as the morning, and your healing shall spring forth speedily; and your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of Hashem shall be your rear guard. Then shall you call, and Hashem will answer; you shall cry, and He will say: 'Here I am.' If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, finger-pointing, and speaking wickedness; And if you pour out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then shall your light rise in darkness, and your gloom be as the noon-day."

A true fast, the prophet insists, has nothing to do with abstaining from food and drink or with dressing in sackcloth; rather, it is a day of freeing the imprisoned and taking care of the poor, needy and homeless. It is a day of uprooting injustice and wickedness from our midst and of eradicating the forces of oppression. Were this to transpire on a fast day, the prophet tells us, God would unquestionably respond to the prayers of the Jewish people and alleviate their suffering.

We must ask one basic question about the lesson of Isaiah in this chapter. We can fully understand and sympathize with his condemnation of the hypocrisy of those who afflict themselves through avoidance of nourishment, expecting God to favor them, while continuing to pursue evil. We can also appreciate his emphasis on the importance of facing the REAL problems that plague Jewish society – indifference to the poor, exploitation of the needy, obsession with material goods and power and endless conflict over them. Addressing these issues would mean seeking to implement real, lasting change in our communities.

Why, though, does Isaiah claim that “this” – the struggle against injustice – “is the fast that God has chosen”? After all, a fast has a specific definition – it is a day of no physical indulgences, or at the very least, no eating and drinking. Isaiah should have said “forget about fasting – it’s not necessary – just do these things, care for the needy and the oppressed, battle the wicked and arrogant, and then you will be redeemed”. But he does not say that. He says that the fight for justice IS the fast. How can this be?

I believe that Isaiah offers a profound insight here that is relevant to every single one of us. Before revealing that, though, let’s consider a more general question, a perennial mystery that is deeply vexing and is worth exploring.

Religious people seem to have little difficulty observing rituals. Indeed, not only will they go to great lengths to keep the commandments, they even embrace additional stringencies that can invite further hardships and complications upon them. They may adopt stricter practices in the laws of kashrut, Shabbat, or the wearing of Tefillin, and this is part and parcel of what it means to be a religious Jew.

At the same time, for some inexplicable reason, religious people have tremendous difficulty keeping even the most BASIC laws that govern conduct between themselves and other human beings. They struggle mightily to refrain from gossip, slander, insulting or embarrassing others, cheating in business, and other such violations of the Torah.

Prophets and rabbis, from time immemorial, have commented upon and bemoaned this inconsistency and hypocrisy. How can we take our relationship with God so seriously while neglecting our relationships with our fellow men and women – especially when these relationships are also meant to be governed by the wisdom and laws of the Torah we revere? Why aren’t we just as careful, just as strict, just as amenable to self-sacrifice in the area of interpersonal mitzvoth as we are when it comes to the mitzvoth between us and our Creator? After all, these commandments are all written in the same Torah!

I would like to suggest that there is a very basic reason for this double standard. Religious ritual, because it is between the individual and his God, is thought to elevate the person, bringing him even closer to his Creator. In fact, when someone is more stringent in his observance, he may believe that this makes him superior to others who are less meticulous in their practice. In other words, at least in our imaginations, rituals can set us apart from and above our fellows and have the power to situate us “closer to God”, as it were. 

It is inherently appealing and relatively easy to embrace a lifestyle that reinforces our pre-existent sense that we are especially important to and adored by the Almighty, not to mention much more valuable in His eyes than most of the other inhabitants of this planet.

Laws that govern our interactions with other people, by contrast, have just the opposite effect. They emphasize that, in reality, we are NOT more precious, special or worthy than others simply by virtue of some minor religious, practical or material advantage we may possess. The homeless person who sleeps on the street is no less deserving of dignity than I am, no less entitled to a warm bed or a hot meal than I am, and no less of a beloved creature to God than I am. 

The person toward whom I harbor negative feelings or who owes me money or who works for me is just as significant a member of the human race as I am. I have no right to mistreat him, slander him or oppress him. I have to think about his feelings, his concerns, his welfare and his struggles. To observe these laws requires me to humble myself, to recognize that I stand in this world on an even playing field with those around me and that I have no inherent right or prerogative to place my needs and desires above those of my fellow human beings.

Let us return to the issue at hand – fasting. The purpose of fasting is to humble oneself, to break down one’s ego, drop one’s defenses, and honestly evaluate one’s character and conduct. However, fasting can also be transformed into a ritual action, a ceremony that makes me feel holier, purer, and closer to God. It can reinforce my innate sense of superiority, encouraging me to think even more highly of myself than I did previously and to feel even more entitled than I did before. This is precisely what was happening in the era of Isaiah (and what continues to happen today!). 

The fasting, rather than fostering humility and repentance, merely served to inflate the egos of the participants, causing them to expect even more from the Almighty and to be even less sensitive to the needs of those whom they believed were not as important as themselves.

This is why Isaiah explains that we have the concept of fasting all wrong. The essence of fasting is not pumping up your ego with an extra dose of piety through self-affliction but is focusing on your unworthiness, your flaws, and your defects. It is not about looking heavenward and saying “look how great I am, how much better I am than these less religious dullards, I must be so precious to you, Oh God, so please answer me.” 

Instead, it is about looking at the human beings around you who are created in the image of God just like you are and who have problems just like you do and who have families and emotions just like you do and who are suffering from poverty and oppression, and saying “I am NOT better than you are, I am not more entitled to blessing than you are, I have no right to exploit or mistreat you, and I have no right to sit idly by while you suffer the indignity and pain of being oppressed or persecuted.”

This, Isaiah says, is the essence of fasting – internalizing an attitude of humility and a consciousness of our shared humanity which will put an end to callous indifference and selfishness and will inspire the sincere pursuit of justice world over. Abstaining from food and drink is one way of opening our hearts to these insights but when we fail to “fast” properly we reduce the whole exercise to an empty, and even counterproductive, ritual. Not eating and drinking merely scratches the surface of what a genuine fast is all about.   

Monday, November 17, 2014

Conclusion of Sefer Yehoshua - Tying the Loose Threads Together

Audio Chanting and Summary of Chapter 24

The Book of Yehoshua concludes with a final address delivered by Yehoshua to the entire nation, leaders and laypersons alike. This speech was given at Shekhem, and begins with a description of the pre-history of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham’s father Terah who served idols and charting the development of the nation of Israel through Avraham, Yitschaq, Yaaqov and Yaaqov’s descendants. Yehoshua mentions the highlights of the Exodus from Egypt, the dramatic salvation at the Sea of Reeds, the period of wandering through the desert and the miraculous military successes and conquests that Hashem orchestrated for the benefit of the Jews.

Yehoshua first exhorts the nation to serve Hashem in purity and to reject all other gods. However, he then presents them with the option of changing their minds and reverting to the gods of Terah or of their Canaanite neighbors, saying only that “as for myself and my household, we will serve Hashem”. The Jewish people responded to this offer with an unequivocal affirmation of their intent to serve only Hashem, the God Who has been the source of their salvation from the beginning, and to reject any other mode or object of worship.

Yehoshua responds that Hashem is too holy and too demanding; committing to His service is a significant and risky challenge! The Jews rebuff Yehoshua and again insist that they will remain true in their dedication to Hashem. Yehoshua makes an official covenant between the Jewish people and Hashem, and places a large rock under an oak tree beside the sanctuary of Hashem as a memorial to that covenant.

Yehoshua dies at the age of 110 and is buried in his territory in Timnat-Serah; the bones of Yosef are laid to rest in Shekhem, in the portion of land that Yaaqov had purchased centuries earlier in that area. The final verse of the Book of Yehoshua tells us that Elazar son of Aharon, the Kohen Gadol, passed away and was buried as well.

Several questions can be raised regarding this chapter. First of all, what is the need for two speeches – one directed to the leadership and one addressed to everybody? Couldn’t Yehoshua consolidate his remarks in one speech?

Second, we know that at this time the Mishkan was positioned in Shiloh, not Shekhem. Why does Yehoshua deliver this final address in Shekhem rather than Shiloh and why does the text imply that they were standing beside the Sanctuary of Hashem nonetheless?

Third, why did they wait so long to bury Yosef’s bones in Shekhem?

Finally, why does Yehoshua chart Jewish history all the way back to Terah’s time, and why does he raise the possibility that the Jews might want to give up the Torah and revert to the idolatrous traditions of their distant past? Doesn’t the first speech insist that the Jews must keep their commitment to Hashem no matter what?

Several modern commentators and scholars have grappled with these problems and none has provided a fully satisfactory explanation for them. I would like to offer a suggestion of my own that I believe is persuasive and meaningful in its own right even if it doesn’t resolve all the difficulties.

The Book of Yehoshua can rightly be understood as the “postscript” or epilogue to the Torah. It describes the fulfillment of all of Hashem’s promises to the Jewish people and is the conclusion of the historical saga that began with the enslavement in and Exodus from Egypt. In that way, the Book of Yehoshua is the conclusion of a national narrative, the final stage of the founding of Israel as a community in its own land.

The first closing speech of Yehoshua, which presupposes the inviolable nature of the covenant made at Sinai and is directed to the LEADERSHIP alone, is a fitting end to the Book of Yehoshua insofar as it is the history of a nation that was first introduced in the Book of Shemot.

At the same time, however, the dramatic departure from Egypt and conquering of Israel is not only the story of a newly founded polity; it is also the fulfillment of the promises made to the Patriarchs and is the final chapter of THEIR complex and dramatic story. When Avraham arrived in Canaan, he pitched his tent in Shekhem and was there informed that his descendants would inherit the land. When Yaaqov returned from “exile” in the house of Lavan, he immediately purchased a parcel of land in Shekhem, and before departing, he instructed his household to rid themselves of any foreign gods and buried them “under the oak tree in Shekhem”. When Yosef is seized and sold by his brothers into slavery, it is because he went to check on them in Shekhem. When Yaaqov blesses Yosef at the end of his life, he tells Yosef that he has bequeathed to him “Shekhem ahad al ahekha”, meaning one parcel of land more than his brothers – this parcel of land is Shekhem.

Seen from this angle, then, the Book of Yehoshua is not only a sequel to the Book of Devarim, it is the conclusion of the Book of Beresheet – the life stories of the Patriarchs – as well. In that context, Shekhem is clearly a critical location at which all of the dramatic turning points took place, and it is therefore fitting that Yehoshua would deliver his final speech there.

The last speech begins from Terah and focuses on the individuals whose progeny became the Jewish people; it deals with the Abrahamic covenant that we are members of INDIVIDUALLY and as FAMILIES, not nationally as citizens (Berit Milah is an expression of this aspect of our covenant with Hashem). And while the national covenant would naturally be reaffirmed at Shiloh, home of the national sanctuary, the individual/familial covenant between the descendants of Avraham and Hashem would be best renewed at Shekhem, the location that is emblematic of the Patriarchs and their physical and spiritual journeys – even if that meant having to bring the Ark over to the exact place in Shekhem where Yaaqov originally commanded his household to dispose of any idols in their possession.

Unlike the national covenant, maintenance of which is incumbent upon the leaders of the nation as a whole (addressed in the first speech), the Abrahamic covenant is a matter of personal choice, participation and commitment on the part of each individual, hence Yehoshua’s statement in the second speech “as for me and my household, we will serve Hashem!”

Yehoshua is a descendant of Yosef and dies at the age of 110 just like Yosef himself did. Their burials are juxtaposed, with the burial of Yehoshua symbolizing the end of the era of the Exodus and the burial of Yosef in Shekhem representing the end of the saga of Beresheet – keep in mind that the final verse of the Book of Beresheet describes Yosef being placed in a coffin above ground in Egypt; he was waiting for his return to Israel and proper Jewish burial for centuries!

We need not assume that the Jews actually delayed the burial of Yosef’s bones all this time, although it is possible that Yehoshua did this for the thematic effect. What is important is that CONCEPTUALLY the link between the burial of these two key figures interconnects and ties up all of the loose ends in the Torah narratives of the Patriarchs of Beresheet and of the Jewish nation of Shemot-Devarim, making the Book of Yehoshua the proper integration and resolution of the plot lines of both of these grand and rich narratives. Beresheet precedes Shemot-Devarim and here the conclusion of Shemot-Devarim precedes the conclusion of Beresheet – on a literary level, this A-B-B-A structure indicates the ultimate intertwining and interconnecting of the two stories into one complete, unified and indivisible narrative.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Yehoshua Chapters 20-23

Yehoshua Chapter 20
This chapter begins with a phrase we have not seen before in the Book of Yehoshua “וידבר ה אל יהושע לאמר” – “and Hashem spoke to Yehoshua, saying…” While Hashem has spoken with Yehoshua on many occasions, here the language of the Torah itself is used, reminding us of the familiar and oft-repeated opener “and Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying…” The reason for this seems to be that we are about to be told of the designation of the Cities of Refuge, which would serve as safe havens for individuals who commit murder accidentally.

Moshe Rabbenu himself wanted to participate in this mitzvah to the extent he could, so he established the first three cities on the eastern side of the Jordan River after the conquest of the land of Sihon and Og. However, technically speaking his act was not legally effective until all six were selected and consecrated, which is precisely what is described in our chapter. Once again, we find Yehoshua completing a task of Moshe Rabbenu; in this case, he is literally finishing a mitzvah begun by his mentor. The use of the Torah’s phraseology, generally reserved for commandments to Moshe, highlights this concept.

Such offenders must flee to these cities before their trials and, if found guilty, return there until the presiding Kohen Gadol (High Priest) dies. The detailed regulations of the treatment of the accidental killer are recorded in the Torah in Parashat Masei and again in Parashat Vaetchanan . What is noteworthy is that – in the Torah and in the Book of Yehoshua – the designation of these cities is always presented as a critical part of the settlement of the land.

Setting up these cities is not merely a practical measure taken to protect the rights of the inadvertent murderer or to provide an opportunity for rehabilitation. Rather, guarding the sanctity of life is of the essence of Jewish settlement. The cities accomplish this in two ways: By insisting that the murderer be exiled despite the fact that his action was unintentional, the Torah emphasizes the gravity with which it treats the loss of life and the care that must be taken to preserve it. At the same time, by allowing the killer refuge from revenge-inspired attacks at the hands of his victim’s family, the Torah demonstrates that his life is similarly precious.

Thinking back to the story of Cain and Abel in Beresheet, we recall that the first murder is also followed by the exiling of Cain. That narrative establishes the precedent that land upon which innocent blood is spilled becomes defiled as a result. A society that tolerates disrespect for the infinite value of human life denies the fact that mankind was created in Hashem’s image and reduces him to a mere animal. This is not a society that can aspire to the levels of holiness and wisdom to which we, the Jewish people, are summoned.
Yehoshua Chapter 21

This chapter describes how, once the twelve tribes are settled in their respective territories, the leaders of the households of the Tribe of Levi approach Yehoshua, Elazar the High Priest and the Elders of Israel to request the cities that the Torah promised them.

Like the tribe of Shimon, the tribe of Levi is destined to be scattered throughout Israel. However, unlike Shimon, the tribe of Levi transformed its passion into something positive and constructive – a passion for Hashem and His Torah. Therefore, rather than merely being denied their own contiguous parcel of land, they are “strategically located” throughout the tribes, with each tribe (including those in the Transjordan) contributing cities and their outskirts/surrounding areas for the Levites to settle in and cultivate.

This meant that there would be local “religious authorities” and teachers stationed throughout the Jewish commonwealth who would have a strong connection to the Mishkan/Bet Hamiqdash and embody and proclaim its principles but who would reside among the people. This way, every tribe, no matter its physical distance from the national sanctuary (be it the Mishkan or, eventually, the Bet Hamiqdash) and the infrequency of its visits there, will maintain a constant link to the mission of Torah study, holiness and justice represented by the Sanctuary through its engagement with the Levites and their teachings.

It is also worthy of mention that the cities of refuge were Levite cities: the Levites were given forty eight cities in total (thirteen cities for the Kohanim close to Jerusalem, ten cities for the rest of the family of Qehat, thirteen cities for Gershon, and twelve for Merari), all of which could serve as safe havens but only six of which were the official “cities of refuge” required by the Torah and established by Yehoshua.

The chapter concludes by once again highlighting the fact that Hashem had delivered the entire land of Israel into the hands of the Jewish people, exactly as he had promised their ancestors. No one had been able to stand up against them, threaten or defeat them. Whatever doubts may have lingered in the minds of the Jews regarding Hashem’s fulfillment of His promises – perhaps the lengthy sojourn in the wilderness and its attendant problems had caused some to lose hope – were now completely laid to rest.
 Yehoshua Chapter 22
This chapter focuses upon the tribes of Gad, Reuven and half of Menashe, and is the “epilogue” of their story. In exchange for being permitted to dwell in the Transjordan in the territory captured from Sihon and Og, the tribes of Reuven and Gad had promised Moshe Rabbenu that they would join the remaining tribes in fighting the battles of conquest and would not return to their homes until the settlement of the land was completed. They fulfilled their commitment and were given an acknowledgment and inspiring send-off from Yehoshua as they departed to resume life with their families on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Shortly after this, however, the Jews in mainland Israel make an alarming discovery: since their return, the tribes of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe have constructed a large altar beside the Jordan River, an exact facsimile of the sacrificial altar of the Mishkan! This was understandably interpreted as a sign of rebellion against Hashem and an affront to the national unity of Israel that presupposed a single Sanctuary and Altar for all.

A delegation led by Pinhas and representatives of each of the tribes is dispatched to confront the leadership of the Transjordan Jewish community regarding this disturbing development. They come prepared for civil war if necessary. The elders of the two and a half tribes explain that they never, G-d forbid, intended to use the altar they had constructed for any sacrificial worship, nor did they mean for their action to be construed as one of separatism or rebellion.

On the contrary, they were genuinely concerned that their children, when visiting the national sanctuary in mainland Israel, might be rebuffed and rejected by their brethren as if they were non-Jews. The fact that they live in a geographically distinct area could cause the majority of the Jewish people, as well as the two and a half tribes themselves, to lose their sense of being one nation serving One God.

The minority population in the Transjordan could be perceived as “outsiders” by those in Israel proper, and this discrimination, so to speak, would in turn shape the identity of the children of Reuven, Gad and half of Menashe. The symbolic altar, a precise copy of the one in the Mishkan, would remind their descendants that they are, in fact Jews, and that is why they possess an altar that is never used for any sacrificial service but merely evokes the memory of the national sanctuary on the western side of the Jordan. This plausible and sincere explanation is accepted by the delegation and no further action is taken against the two and a half tribes.

This narrative takes us back to the original discussion between the tribes of Reuven and Gad and Moshe Rabbenu. The tribes declared their intention to build pens for their animals and cities for their children in the Transjordan, where their families would remain and to which they would return after fighting alongside their brethren in Israel. Moshe Rabbenu, in agreeing to their proposition, reverses the order, instructing them instead to construct cities for their children and pens for their animals. The Rabbis comment that the tribes of Reuven and Gad cared more about their animals than their children! How did they feel justified in registering such a sweeping indictment of the tribes based upon a nuance in word order alone?

This story in the Book of Yehoshua sheds light on the answer. Moshe Rabbenu foresaw what the two tribes could not or did not – that their children’s connection to the Torah and the Jewish people would be jeopardized by the decision to remain on the eastern side of the Jordan. Their choice was motivated by financial concerns but neglected to take the spiritual welfare of future generations into account. 

It was only after the two and a half tribes returned to the Transjordan that the religious implications of their distance from mainland Israel dawned upon them, and they took action to rectify or, at the very least, ameliorate the problem by constructing the symbolic altar. Truth be told, the tribes in the Transjordan developed a much weaker Jewish identity over time – they would be the quickest to assimilate into non-Jewish culture and, centuries later, would be the first Jewish population to be sent into exile.

Text of Chapter 22
Audio Reading and Summary of Chapter 22

Yehoshua Chapter 23
This chapter records one of two “closing speeches” that conclude the Book of Yehoshua, delivered once stability and security had been achieved by the Jews in their settlement of the land of Israel. For this speech, Yehoshua gathered together the leaders of Israel, including judges, elders and officers. He reminded them of the support Hashem had provided them during the process of conquest and the fact that He had fulfilled all of His promises and assurances to the Jewish people with respect to their acquisition and division of the land.

Yehoshua reassured the Jews that his own death would not have any impact on the relationship between Hashem and His people moving forward. On the contrary, based on their own experience of His providential involvement in their lives, they knew that Hashem could be trusted to assist them in capturing and annexing the remaining swaths of territory that, at the time of the speech, were still under Canaanite dominion.

However, Yehoshua warned the leadership of the nation to be careful to diligently study and observe the Torah of Moshe Rabbenu, loving and worshiping Hashem, and not to allow the Jews to pursue intermarriage with or imitation of their gentile neighbors. If they do fail in their commitment to Torah and mitzvoth, Yehoshua warns them that they should expect Hashem to be equally reliable in His promise to withdraw His support for their military and political efforts and to exile the Jews from the holy land He had granted them.

Text of Chapter 23
Audio Reading and Summary of Chapter 23

Friday, November 07, 2014

Sefer Yehoshua Chapters 12-19

Yehoshua Chapter 12
This chapter summarizes the conquests of Yehoshua and his army in the land of Israel. Fascinatingly, it begins with a recap of the conquest of the Transjordan under the command of Moshe and the territory he captured from Og, King of Bashan and Sihon, King of the Emorites. It concludes with a list of the thirty-one kings (southern and northern) who were overthrown and defeated, and their land acquired, by Yehoshua and his army. 

In a proper scroll of the Book of Yehoshua, reproduced in some editions of the Tanakh, this list of kings is recorded in the Biblical poetic form, with wide spaces on the page dividing each verse in half. Songs and poems are typically used in Tanakh to indicate the conclusion of an era or the occurrence of a significant transition in history, focus, spiritual awareness, or leadership (consider the Song at the Sea when the Exodus is finally complete, the song of Hanna heralding the new era of leadership in the time of Shemuel, or the song of Devorah.)

The reason for the connection back to Moshe Rabbenu’s initial conquests should be clear in light of what we have discussed previously. Throughout the book, there is a continual effort to relate Yehoshua’s actions, decisions, and experiences to those of Moshe Rabbenu, to demonstrate that he is, in effect, completing work that was started but left undone by his master and mentor.

 Here too, Yehoshua has successfully conducted the conquest of large swaths of the land of Israel, bringing the task first begun by Moshe Rabbenu to the next stage of its development. It was critical that Moshe Rabbenu be the one to capture the territory on the eastern side of the Jordan River so that the military operations on the mainland of Israel could be viewed as the extension and conclusion of his efforts and not seen as an unprecedented initiative of Yehoshua and the new generation of Jews.

Yehoshua Chapter 13

Yehoshua had reached an advanced age but there was still much territory left in Israel to be conquered. This land, still in the hands of its original Canaanite inhabitants, would have to be captured by the Jewish people after Yehoshua’s death. Hashem commanded Yehoshua that, despite the fact that the conquest was not yet complete, he should begin the process of dividing the land amongst the twelve tribes. In so doing, Yehoshua would be finishing a task that was started by Moshe Rabbenu on the eastern side of the Jordan River. 

After defeating Sihon and Og in the Transjordan, Moshe had distributed their territory to the tribes of Reuven and Gad and half the tribe of Menashe. The chapter provides a detailed description of which portions were allocated to which tribes, and mentions that, even following the conquest led by Moshe himself, some Canaanite inhabitants remained in the area and continued dwelling alongside these tribes. The text notes twice that the tribe of Levi, consecrated to the worship of Hashem, would not receive a portion in the land – service of Hashem and its associated benefits would serve as their inheritance instead.

Yehoshua Chapter 14

This chapter opens by recapping the inheritance of the two and a half tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan River, as well as emphasizing once more that the count of “twelve” tribes does not include Levi – it treats Ephraim and Menashe, subdivisions of family of Yosef, as two tribes. The point is made that the apportionment of the land by Yehoshua, the elders and Elazar the Kohen Gadol is “as Hashem commanded Moshe”, it is just as significant and binding as that which was done by Moshe during his lifetime, and is in fulfillment of the same divine commandment.

At this point, the tribe of Yehuda, represented by the illustrious Kalev ben Yefuneh, approached Yehoshua to claim their inheritance. Kalev recounted his role as one of the spies dispatched by Moshe Rabbenu to scout the land forty-five years earlier; only he and Yehoshua returned with a positive and encouraging report and were, therefore, worthy of entering Israel. Kalev mentioned that he was only forty years old when he first visited the Holy Land as one of the spies; as he prepared to receive the reward he had earned for his faithfulness to Hashem, he had reached the age of eighty-five but was still as youthful, strong and vigorous as he had been forty five years earlier. He declared his readiness to vanquish the giants who resided in the territory destined to be his, and he proceeded to conquer the intimidating inhabitants of Hevron and settled there as he had been promised.

The Torah tells us that the spies went up to Hevron during their mission. According to the Rabbis it was Kalev alone who visited Hevron in order to pray next to the graves of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs who are buried there. While Yehoshua had Moshe Rabbenu as his mentor and source of support, Kalev had no special connection to him prior to the sin of the spies. Unlike Yehoshua whom we expect to side with Moshe Rabbenu,  Kalev’s independent spirit and willingness to break ranks with the other ten spies was startling. 

The Rabbis seem to suggest that he derived his courage and inner strength not from a close relationship with Moshe Rabbenu but from his meditation upon the example set by the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. The Avot and Imahot had no interest in the approval of their society and made no attempt to “fit in”; they were fiercely independent and chose a path they knew to be correct, regardless of what anyone else might think. This is  precisely what Kalev did in the episode of the spies and it was therefore fitting that he inherit the territory that contained the burial plot of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs whose memory inspired him to greatness.

Yehoshua Chapter 15

This chapter proceeds to describe the borders of the Tribe of Yehuda in all of their detail. We are told of the conquests of Kalev, including the fact that he drove the infamous and imposing “Children of the Giant” out of Qiryat Arba. Kalev promised that whoever was successful in capturing Qiryat Sefer would be rewarded with the opportunity to marry his daughter, Akhsa; his own brother, Otniel ben Qenaz, conquered the city and married her. She was displeased with the property that her father Kalev had given her and her new husband as a “nest egg”; it was arid land that would be difficult, if not impossible, to cultivate. Her husband Otniel did not want to confront his brother on this issue, so she personally pleaded with her father to provide her with springs of water that would enable her to irrigate the fields she had received. Kalev graciously honored her request and presented her with a field that had plentiful sources of water both above and below it. The chapter closes by mentioning that the tribe of Yehuda could not (or, at least, would not) conquer Yerushalayim, leaving it in the hands of the Yevusim for the foreseeable future.    

The Rabbis interpret the scenario with Kalev, Otniel and Akhsa along totally different, spiritual lines. According to their reading of the incident, Kalev offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to whomever was able to reconstruct the thousands of halakhot that had been lost during the thirty days of mourning that followed the death of Moshe Rabbenu. “Qiryat Sefer”, the “City of Book”, is understood as a symbolic reference not to a military conquest but an intellectual achievement. 

Otniel rose to the occasion and, with his remarkable powers of reasoning, was able to rediscover and restore the details of law that had been forgotten after Moshe’s passing. When Akhsa complained to her father, it was about the fact that he had given her “dry land” – suggesting, idiomatically, that he had married her off to a person who had only Torah and spirituality but no practical means of supporting her on a financial level. Therefore, Kalev provided the new couple with additional fields that he knew would allow them to live comfortably and harmoniously together.

The Rabbis could not accept the notion that Kalev, a “man of spirit”, would allow his daughter to be married to a man whose only merit was military prowess. There had to be more to Otniel (later to become the first “Judge” in the Book of Shofetim) than a mighty warrior. Thus, they understood the story as a parable that reflected the spiritual strength of Otniel and his ability to resolve a major religious crisis – the loss of halakhot – that had vexed the Jewish people.

Interestingly, this account of Kalev, Otniel and Akhsa appears twice in the Tanakh - once here and once in the Book of Shofetim. The commentary Malbim explains that both the physical conquest version of the story and the spiritual one are true, and that the verbatim repetition of the narrative is intended to reveal to us BOTH dimensions of what actually took place.

Yehoshua Chapter 16

This brief chapter provides us with a detailed description of the borders of the territory given to “Yosef”, specifically to the tribe of Ephraim. The fact that Yehudah and Yosef receive a great deal of special attention in this regard makes sense in light of the fact that the blessings of both Yaaqov and Moshe Rabbenu to these brothers/tribes emphasized the unique significance the role they were destined to play in leading the Jewish nation.

Maps are very useful for helping us envision the exact areas delineated in this and several other geographically rich sections of the book of Yehoshua. The two tribes of Yosef – Ephraim and Menashe – settled in a large swath of land to the north of the territories of Yehuda and Binyamin. When we study the Book of Kings, we will learn how this territory later became the seat of the Kingdom of Israel, which declared independence from the governance of the Davidic dynasty or “Kingdom of Yehuda” shortly after the death of King Solomon.

Yehoshua Chapter 17

This chapter concludes the description of the territorial borders of Yosef by addressing the land inherited by the tribe of Menashe. Two special features distinguished Menashe’s portion in Israel from that of the other tribes. First, Menashe is the only tribe that “straddles” the Jordan River, with half of its population settled in the Transjordan and half in mainland Israel. Second, the daughters of Tzelofhad – members of the tribe of Menashe – had been promised their father’s share in Israel despite the fact that, generally speaking, women did not receive their own inheritance.

 Both of these unusual circumstances are addressed in detail in this chapter, especially the fulfillment of the commandment of Hashem to Moshe that the daughters of Tzelofhad receive their father’s portion in the land since he had no sons to represent him. The territory of Menashe is also noteworthy in that several of the cities that were given to Menashe were located within the borders of other tribes.

The chapter concludes by mentioning that the two tribes of Yosef approached Yehoshua to complain that the amount of the land they received was not commensurate with the size of their population (it is interesting to note that Yehoshua himself was a member of the tribe of Ephraim.) Yehoshua recommended that they solve their own problem by clearing a forest that was situated within their territory as well as by driving out some of the remaining Canaanites in the land and expanding their current borders. 

The children of Yosef protest that the Canaanite cities are too formidable for them to conquer; they are amply equipped with iron chariots and a strong military. Yehoshua reiterates that the very complaint they are lodging against him contains the answer to the problem – if they are indeed so numerous, they should be more than capable of clearing the forest he had mentioned and of defeating the resident Canaanites regardless of their might. 

Yehoshua Chapter 18

This chapter begins with a description of how Yehoshua moved the Mishkan from Gilgal to a new location in Shilo. Yehoshua gathered the entire population together and criticized the tribes who had been reticent about conquering and settling the land that Hashem had promised them. He encouraged them to complete the process as soon as possible. To this end, he requested the appointment of three men for each tribe who would scout the land and record the borders of the seven portions of land that remained for the seven tribes who had not yet acquired any territory of their own. 

Once these seven parcels were identified, they would be assigned to the respective tribes by lottery and the responsibility of capturing and settling them would fall to their recipients. The chapter concludes with a detailed description of the borders of the territory of the Tribe of Binyamin, which was positioned in between Yosef (Ephraim) to the North and Yehudah to the South.

The connection between the relocation of the Mishkan and the remainder of the chapter is difficult to understand. Why was this the appropriate time to move the national sanctuary to a new neighborhood? Apparently, Yehoshua understood that the Jewish people had become comfortably habituated to living as one in a single valley in Gilgal – the same kind of lifestyle they had enjoyed for the past forty years - and that this was a key reason for their resistance to continuing the conquest of the land. They preferred to stay together, close to the Mishkan and under the direct supervision of their leaders and elders. 

By disbanding the camp at Gilgal and relocating the sanctuary to Shilo (within the forests of his own tribe, Ephraim), Yehoshua undermined the status quo that had become so cozy and familiar and thereby pushed the tribes to go out on their own and establish new settlements in the land. 

Undoubtedly, there are echoes of the famous story of the Tower of Bavel in this narrative – the idea that the entire population occupied one valley, wished to remain united and feared and opposed any prospect of dispersion. Here, as there, only a commandment of Hashem and a pulling of the rug from underneath their feet compels them to pick up, move out of their immediate comfort zone and go about the business of inhabiting the entire land.

Two aspects of the borders of the Tribe of Binyamin are important to mention. First, Binyamin lies between Ephraim/Yosef and Yehuda. It is certainly no accident that Yosef and Yehuda the brothers were ultimately reunited and reconciled with one another as a result of the situation with Binyamin who “came between them”. Geographically, Binyamin creates a bridge to connect the two “personalities of leadership” and their descendants who will determine the political and spiritual future of the nation. 

Second, the Hebrew term “ketef”, or shoulder, is used numerous times in the description of the borders of Binyamin, alluding to the blessing of Moshe Rabbenu that Hashem’s presence will dwell “between the shoulders” of Binyamin. The Bet HaMiqdash will ultimately be built in the territory of Binyamin, and this national center of worship of Hashem and Torah study is the foundation that brings Yehuda, Yosef and the entire Jewish people together as one despite their differences. 

Yehoshua Chapter 19

This chapter describes how the six remaining tribes (Shimon, Zevulun, Yissakhar, Naftali, Dan and Asher) conquered and settled their respective territories in the Land of Israel. While many of the details appear to us uninteresting, clearly the delineation of borders between the tribes is very significant for both practical and theological reasons that are rooted in the specific promises made to them by Hashem, the specific berakhot recorded in the Torah that they received from Yaaqov and Moshe, and the special role that each is destined to play in the future of the Jewish people.

 Although they are beyond the scope of a summary, commentaries have been written on these chapters that indeed attempt to uncover the symbolic import of the allocation of particular areas or cities to particular tribes. On a very simple level, if one reads the blessings of Moshe Rabbenu at the end of the Torah in front of a map, one will see that the order of his blessings corresponds to the layout of the tribe’s inheritances in the Land of Israel (and excludes Shimon, who don’t have a separate area of their own.)

A few highlights are worthy of mention. The tribe of Shimon was told by Yaaqov Avinu that they would be dispersed throughout Israel and was not even acknowledged in the blessings conferred by Moshe Rabbenu at the end of his life; in this chapter, we read how they are not given their own swath of land but instead receive scattered cities within the boundaries of the Tribe of Yehuda which were ample. Their counterpart, the Tribe of Levi, will be discussed in the next chapter.

The chapter describes how the tribe of Dan attacked and conquered Leshem/Layish and renamed it Dan; this incident actually occurred after the death of Yehoshua and is recorded in the Book of Shofetim but is included here because of its relevance to the theme of conquest and settlement.

The chapter concludes by mentioning that Yehoshua was given the territory that he requested, Timnat Serah, which was located in the land allocated to his own tribe, in the mountains of Ephraim. Yehoshua built a city there and remained there until the end of his life.

This marked the conclusion of the division of the land to the extent that it was completed before his death; there was still much land left unconquered and unsettled, and many Canaanite settlements remained within the borders of Israel, but Yehoshua failed to inspire his generation to take the process of conquest any further than this. Some commentaries blame him for this, claiming that his initial reluctance to complete the task quickly set the stage for it not to be completed at all.