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Posts Tagged ‘desert’

Temptations, Tests, and the Search for Spiritual Courage

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

I was recently walking down the street when I smelled one of the most amazing unkosher cuisines I could ever remember smelling. As I stared at my food enemy, I had a thought which I imagine most religious Jews have at one point or another. I wondered: Was God testing me with this great smell? Was this amazing scent a way to bring my downfall?

Pondering this trivial “test” led to a greater philosophical and theological question: What is the religious nature of temptations and tests?

The Torah says, “Remember the entire path along which the Lord your God led you these forty years in the desert, He sent hardships to test you.” (Deut. 8:2). We read that G-d has Bnei Yisrael wander in the desert for 40 years as a test.

What is this about? To place a nation (man, woman, and child) through such transient and confused misery for decades as a test? I also often wonder if the Jewish people are being tested today, with our own state in Israel and unprecedented wealth and influence in the US. What will we do with the great blessings we’ve been granted? What does this idea mean that G-d tests us as individuals and as a nation?

It must be more than schar v’onesh (that God is merely keeping our score card) or that G-d is merely flexing power in the world.

I also can’t relate to the cynical answer found in the book of Job, where God tests Job because of a disagreement with Satan. My belief in a benevolent and personal G-d precludes the possibility of random tests.

Still within distance of smelling my temptation of the day, I began to ponder answers:

For years, the most compelling answer to me has been that it is through the struggle of these challenges that we truly grow. These temptations are ways of teaching people about G-d and the incredible human capacity for compassion and spiritual depth. The Ramban argues that this was exactly the purpose of the Akeidah (the binding of Isaac) for Avraham.

Alternatively, perhaps there is a utilitarian approach that more people can learn from a test than the one having to undergo the discomfort of the test. The Rambam and Radak argue that the purpose of the test at the Akeidah was not for Avraham to learn but for the future adherents of the Abrahamic faith to learn. This sets a gold standard for others to try to follow.

Rav Kook goes even further, arguing that Avraham was being tested in order to “prove” to the pagan religions that monotheism can match the religious passion of pagan worship through the act of inward sacrifice, without the need for savage and barbaric sacrifices. One is being tested in order to teach others through its example.

Another utilitarian approach is that tests can provide opportunities for others to do mitzvot to help when we are struggling. It is for the moral good of the community at large.

These explanations may be true and all of them are worth thinking about but Rav Tzadok teaches that just as a person needs to believe in G-d so too one needs to believe in oneself. These days many of us (including myself) are struggling less with why we are tested by G-d and more with how we can overcome our obstacles and challenges to live a happier, more meaningful, more successful life. Do we believe in our own capacity to overcome in the face of adversity?

One tool that we can all consider experimenting with: The Gemara says that the Torah is the seasoning for the yetzer hara (personal evil inclination). The Maggid of Mezritch offers a beautiful interpretation that since the yetzer hara is the main dish and the Torah is the seasoning, we must serve God with the full ecstasy of the yetzer hara. The purpose is not to destroy or subdue the yetzer hara but rather to spice it up – to access its energy and channel it towards good.

This is to say that when we experience struggle we should use that temptation and channel that new energy towards good rather than attempt to dismiss or remove the temptation. This is why the Midrash explains that without the yetzer hara there would be no business or procreation. In a complex way, we need our desire for self-advancement to further societal goals.

‘Third Time, Ice Cream!’

Thursday, January 24th, 2013
There is an interesting phrase used in Israel which is recited when one unexpectedly encounters a person for the second time within a short period:  pa’am shlisheet, glida (“third time, ice cream”).  This is commonly understood to mean:  If we soon run into each other again (the third time), you will buy me an ice cream (since I was the one who said the phrase).
Some believe that the phrase is based on a similar German one.  But the German one doesn’t mention specifically the third time, and refers to a drink instead of ice cream.  Some have suggested that it is based on a British saying “third time, I’ll scream”, which Israelis would supposedly have heard during the British Mandate period about 75 years ago.  However, this too, has been debunked – since there is no British phrase like that!
So, we would like to postulate a new theory, one based on the first three times that the Israelites eat and drink after being freed from Egyptian slavery – all three of which are described in this weeks’s Torah portion of Beshalah.
After the crossing of the Red Sea, the Israelites traveled to a place named Marah, their first campsite following their final escape from the Egyptians (Exodus 15:22-26).  Finding no drinkable water there (hence the name Marah, meaning “bitter”), the people began to complain.  Moses cried to God for help, and God responded by showing Moses a tree.  Moses cast the tree into the bitter water, miraculously turning it fresh and drinkable.  Thus were the Israelites provided with water to drink at their first campsite.
From there, the Israelites proceeded to the oasis of Elim, their second campsite (Ex. 15:27).  There, they found 12 fresh water springs and 70 palm trees.  Thus were the Israelites provided with not only water to drink (as previously), but also dates to eat.
Next, the Israelites trekked toward their third campsite, which was in the wilderness of Sin (Ex. 16:1-36).  Once again they complained, this time about the lack of meat and bread.  And again, God responded by miraculously providing for them:  That evening, a flock of quails covered the campsite, and in the morning, God sent down manna from the heavens – the first occurrence of a miracle that repeated itself every day apart from the Sabbath, for the next 40 years.
Verse 14 describes the manna as being dak ka’kfor (“as thin as frost”).  Onkelos, who lived about 2000 years ago, translated the Torah into Aramaic, the common language of the day.  His translation for the word kfor (“frost”)?  Glida – which in modern Hebrew, is the word for “ice cream.”
With the above in mind, the meaning of pa’am shlisheet, glida (“third time, ice cream”) finally becomes clear:  The first time the Israelites ate or drank after leaving Egypt, they had water.  The second time, they had dates.  And the third time?  Glida – ice cream!
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Exploring The Hills

Friday, November 23rd, 2012

One of the off the beaten track areas in Eretz Yisrael that I enjoy taking adventurous visitors to are the southern Hevron Hills.

As we drive south from Yerushalayim, passing through the very cradle of Jewish history, with its rolling green hills along the Patriarchs and Matriarchs path or the “Road of Heroism” as it is some times called, we resist the magnetic pull to stop at Gush Etzion or Hevron and continue south, fully cognizant that more Jews walked on this path than on any other road in history.

Soon, after passing the turn off to Hevron, the rolling vineyards give way to another dimension of the Land. The rich vineyards and orchards become sparser and give way to a gradual descent into a dryer, wider expanse. We are entering the borderland of the Judean Desert.

The southern Hevron hills stand as a sentinel facing east and the desert as it rolls down towards the Dead Sea.

Here one can see the desert as far as the horizon.

It is to this land, suspended between civilization and wilderness, that young David sought refuge from a jealous King Shaul. Here he locked horns with Naval HaKarmi and met his wife to be, the wise and beautiful Avigayil.

Mosaic in the Synagogue

To think that we are gazing at the very same hills and ravines where this drama took place. The very same hills! It is a place where the Bible truly comes to life.

There is even a new Jewish pioneer town, Carmel, situated just where it was in ancient times. Talk about “the children returning to their borders!” I always find it inspiring to visit one of these villages unannounced. Invariably the residents are only too happy to answer all questions and, more often than not, invite you in for a visit. The smaller and more vulnerable the village, the more hospitable its residents. I have some favorite tiny ones that I just love to bring unsuspecting visitors to. They can not help but be affected, indeed bitten by the spirit.

View of the synagogue in Susya

We come to our destination, Susyia. Today Susyia is a thriving village that attracts students form across Eretz Yisrael to their prestigious schools Its field school is home base for those who come to study the region for a day or a month where. They take their touring very seriously.

Next to modern Susyia is the excavated ancient town of Susyia. In the centuries when Jews were banned from Roman and Byzantine Jerusalem, and from the center of the country, they were forced to cling toan existence on the fringes – like in the South Hevron hills.

Unearthed recently is an entire Jewish town dating back to the times of the Talmud. Homes, ritual baths, guard walls and towers to warn of approaching bandits, wells, burial caves, underground work shops and escape tunnels – an entire town

Perched on the upper part of the town is the synagogue. Resplendent with an intricate weave of moasiac floors depicting Jewish symbols and Hebrew dedications and blessings, it was lovingly revealed by Israeli archeologists a few years ago. To think, a robust Jewish community lived right here where we sit. They prayed and conducted their business just where we stand. For hundreds of years Jews clung to the place until the Moslem conquest and the final expulsion or forced conversions in the seventh century. And today we are back. What a country!

Machtesh Ramon

Monday, July 23rd, 2012

Machtesh Ramon is considered by some to be the most exquisite site on the planet. Located south of Beersheba in the Central Negev, not only is Machtesh Ramon the most spectacular geological sight in Eretz Yisrael, it contains within it some unique geological formations that are not found anywhere else on earth. A machtesh (erosion cirques or box canyon) is a geological window, giving us a look into the Earth’s crust. Unique to the Negev and Sinai deserts, only 7 machteshim have been identified, Machtesh Ramon, Machtesh HaGadol, Machtesh HaKatan and two even smaller ones on Har Harif in the Negev; there are also two in the Sinai.

The term machtesh is a geological term borrowed from the word machtesha “mortar” (as in mortar and pestle). Both the Machtesh Katan (Small) and the Machtesh Gadol (Large) look like mortar bowls in which grains are pounded with a pestle. This “look” holds true for both the Small and the Big Machteshim, but not for Machtesh Ramon which is stretched out and narrows at one end – resembling the shape of an elongated heart.

These enormous, craterlike machteshim are neither meteorite craters nor volcanic calderas, although they are frequently described as craters. Machtesh Ramon is an erosion landform, actually a valley surrounded by steep walls and drained by a single wadi (riverbed). The name Ramon is probably from the Arabic “Ruman” meaning “Romans,” and probably linked to a trail that the Romans built here.

Machtesh Ramon has pretty impressive measurements, making it the largest machtesh in Eretz Yisrael. This makes it the largest on earth as no other part of the globe has this phenomenon. The crater is 45km long, 2-10 km wide (28 miles long and five miles wide) and 500 m deep. Its deepest point is Ein Saharonim (Saharonim Spring) – which also contains the Machtesh Ramon’s only natural water source and sustains much of the wildlife in the machtesh including ibex and onagers.

The onager, or wild ass (the biblical pereh), was an animal that had disappeared from Israel. In 1983, two herds of onagers were successfully re-introduced at two locations: Machtesh Ramon and at another site in the Arava Desert. They are the smallest of wild horses and cannot be domesticated. In Roman times, the meat of an onager was considered a delicacy. Some other animals in the vicinity are leopard, striped hyena, sand fox, Dorcas gazelle and the fat desert rat. A variety of plants grow in the Ramon area, including Atlantic pistachio trees, buckthorn, globe daisy, tulips and other bushes and shrubs.

Machtesh Ramon contains many types of rocks including clay hills – known for their fantastic red and yellow colors – as well as forms and diverse colorful sandstone.

At the borders of the crater impressive mountains rise. Har Ramon (Mt. Ramon), at the southwest corner of the machtesh, is one of the highest peaks in the Negev (3,400 feet – 1,037 m.), Har Ardon (Mt. Ardon) at the north-eastern end, and two table-like mountains – Har Marpek (Mt. Marpek – “Elbow”) and Har Katum (Mt. Katum – “Chopped”) are along the southern wall. Giv’at Ga’ash, a black hill in the north of the machtesh was once an active volcano.

Shen Ramon (Ramon’s Tooth) is made of molten rock which hardened while underground. This black sharp-edged rock later rose up through cracks in the Earth’s surface, and today stands in striking contrast to the nearby creamy colored southern wall of the crater. In the centre of the machtesh is Ha-Minsara (The Carpentry Shop), a low hill made up of black prismatic rocks. It is the only place in the world where prisms made of heated sand turned into liquid – and then when cooled naturally formed rectangular and hexagonal prisms that look like woodchips left behind by an indifferent carpenter. Also, vertical dikes of magnum that squeezed upward through fissures can be seen at various spots through the machtesh.

The ruins of a large prehistoric stone structure known as Khan Saharonim are found in the Machtesh. It lies along the ancient Incense Route, a trade route used by the Nabateans, and is the remains of a caravanserai, a roadside inn where the travelers would rest and recover from the day’s arduous journey. Dozens would gather and camp together and regroup before moving forward in an effort to protect themselves from bandits hiding out in the desert. These ruins acted as a way station for the traders and their animals (khan is the Arabic word for a caravansary) as they proceeded further westwards to the Mediterranean seaport city of Gaza. Not far away to the north are the ruins of the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat.

Mordechai Kedar: Tribal Democracy

Friday, July 13th, 2012

At the end of last week, for the first time in its history, free democratic elections were held in Libya for the 200 members of the Transitional Legislative Council; 120 “independent” members, meaning representatives of tribes and cities, and 80 representatives from nationwide political parties. As of this writing, the official results have still not been publicized, but according to the assessment of observers, Islamic forces have won a minority of seats in parliament. It should be mentioned that during the past year a Salafi jihadist stream led by Abd al-Hakim Belhadj appeared in Libya, which was a cause of very great concern to some external observers.

Libya is a desert country, part of the dry, arid Great Sahara Desert. Life in the desert constrains its residents to live within a family framework, the size of which is limited by available sources of livelihood in the desert environment. Near a spring and its vegetation, which provides food and drink for them and their flocks, they would prefer to remain within a larger framework which would enable them to defend the sources of their livelihood. But in this arid environment of scant resources, they practice that which Abraham said to Lot in the Judean Desert “Please part from me” (Genesis 13: 9) and thus they live within smaller frameworks. The smaller the group, the more solidarity, toughness and cruelty is demanded in order to defend itself, its sources of livelihood and the honor of its daughters and wives from outsiders,

In Libya there is another factor which has had the effect of increasing tribal cohesion, and this is the dictatorial control of Qadhaffi. In the context of life under a dictator, in which the tribe also serves as a defense of the individual against the oppression of the regime, the regime must work with the tribe, which defends the individual, in such a way as to arrive at agreements with the tribe and to honor its autonomy, its leaders and its laws and customs. The desert tribe gives its members immunity from the state apparatuses; the situation of the Bedouin in the Negev vis a vis the Israeli government and in Sinai vis a vis the Egyptian government, are a good examples of this.

The conditions of the desert together with the dictatorship of Qadhaffi created a situation where the great majority of the Libyan population was engaged in an ongoing battle against the forces of nature and the cruelty of man. This situation strengthened the tribal frameworks and turned them into fearless and merciless fighting militiamen. The difficulties create toughness, the battle justifies violence and the problems strengthen solidarity. This situation explains why Qadhaffi had to be so cruel in order to impose his rule upon the population, because there must be a match between the level of violence practiced by a society and the violence that a regime must use in order to subdue a society to submit to his authority for an extended period. There are rumors in Libya that the number of kalashnikovs possessed by the populace is twice the number of residents. Even if this rumor is an exaggeration, it is not far from the bitter and violent reality of this state, because people have weapons and will use them whenever a disagreement arises between them, and where a society engages in blood feuds, it is very difficult to put an end to them, and they continue for a long time and cause many casualties.

The Western democratic model is built on a basic rule, which is that everyone – individuals as well as groups – is constrained not to act with violence but to conduct disagreements and conflicts between them in a legitimate way, not by violence. Another rule is the importance of the individual who goes to the poll and votes according to his conscience, not according to the dictates of his family. However the elimination of the tribal framework and its function is an impossible task in the short run, and therefore young democracies must allow traditional, ethnic, tribal, religious and sectarian frameworks to express themselves, within a young democratic system. This forces it to fight for its legitimacy and survival vis a vis long-standing frameworks that are traditional, legitimate, strong, and sometimes violent .

Chukas: Chastisement And Perfection

Thursday, June 28th, 2012

Hashem criticized His holy nation relentlessly, yet Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zt”l, observes that for 38 of Israel’s 40 years in the desert, Hashem expressed no criticism at all. Herein is a lesson in Israel’s greatness.

“And the sons of Israel, all the congregation, came to the wilderness of Zin, in the first month” (20:1).

Thirty-eight years have elapsed since the episode of Korach. Miriam passed away in the first month of the fortieth year since the Exodus, Aharon passed away in the fifth month and Moshe passed away in Adar, the twelfth month (Megillah 13b).

From the preceding section of the parah adumah until now, no events or prophecies are recorded in the Torah, and by now all the generation of the episode of the meraglim have passed away (Rashi, lbn Ezra). No complaints are mentioned, and even by the very stern standards of Hashem no fault is found in the nation.

This lack of criticism is actually an immense encomium both for the old and for the new generation. In view of the supremely exalted standards required by Hashem, and considering the scathing criticism to which the generation had been so frequently subjected, the absence of any comment for this period of 38 years is actually a declaration of extraordinary commendation.

The severe chastisements proved a great blessing for this holy nation, for the people gained in greatness from each episode until they rose to the heights of perfection Bilaam recognized when he spoke the words of Hashem’s sublime approbation.

A great question arises: How can the psalm declare “Forty years have l quarreled with this generation; and they knew not My ways” (Tehillim 95:10)? For 38 of these 40 years not a word of criticism is written in the Torah, except in the episode of the daughters of Moab (25:1). Especially when we consider the words of Bilaam (23:8-4:9), this crushing expression of disapproval seems wholly unjustified.

It is clear that the Torah is written so as to serve as a stimulus to remorse and penitence forever. Just as the pious Jew beats his breast and recites on Yom Kippur a confession of a list of sins he had not committed, so also does our nation read the Torah contritely and flagellate its conscience for national sins which actually would be the pride and boast of any other people had they performed so few misdeeds as those for which Israel is castigated so severely.

“It is better for the righteous ones when Hashem shows His wrath in this world” (Shabbos 30a), and because of the stern disapproval shown to this greatest of all generations they became the most perfect in history. But all the castigations are merely the Face of Hashem. What actually was in the Mind of Hashem?

For the answer, we have recourse to the superlative declaration of Hashem’s eternal love, as enunciated by our archenemy Bilaam (23:7-24:17).

Compiled for The Jewish Press by the Rabbi Avigdor Miller Simchas Hachaim Foundation, a project of Yeshiva Gedolah Bais Yisroel, which Rabbi Miller, zt”l, founded and authorized to disseminate his work. Subscribe to the Foundation’s free e-mail newsletters on marriage, personal growth, and more at www.SimchasHachaim.com.

For more information, or to sponsor a Simchas Hachaim Foundation program, call 718-258-7400 or e-mail info@SimchasHachaim.com.

Depending On A Wise Sister

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

It is a scene that still has the power to shock and disturb. The people complain. There is no water. It is an old complaint and a predictable one. That’s what happens in a desert. Moses should have been able to handle it in his stride. He has been through far tougher challenges in his time. Yet suddenly he explodes into vituperative anger:

“Listen now, you rebels, shall we bring you water out of this rock?” Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. (Numbers 20: 10-11).

It was such egregious behavior, so much of an overreaction, that the commentators had difficulty in deciding which aspect was worst. Some said it was hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as God had instructed. Some said it was the use of the word “we.” Moses knew that God would send water; it had nothing to do with Aaron or with Moses himself. Others, most famously Maimonides, said that it was the anger evident in the words “Listen now, you rebels.”

The questions I want to raise are simply these: What made this trial different? Why did Moses momentarily lose control? Why then? Why there? These questions are entirely separate from that of why Moses was not allowed to enter the land. Although the Torah associates the two, I argue elsewhere that this was not a punishment at all. Moses did not lead the people across the Jordan and into the land because that task, involving a new generation and an entirely new set of challenges, demanded a new leader. Even the greatest figures in history belong to a specific time and place. “Dor dor u’parnasav – Each generation has its own leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a). Leadership is time-bound, not timeless.

Behind Moses’s loss of emotional control is a different story, told with utmost brevity in the text: “In the first month the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There, Miriam died and was buried. Now there was no water for the community…” Moses lost control because his sister Miriam had just died. He was in mourning for his eldest sibling. It is hard to lose a parent, but in some ways it is even harder to lose a brother or sister. They are your generation. You feel the angel of death come suddenly close. You face your own mortality.

But Miriam was more than a sister to Moses. She was the one, while still a six-year-old child, to follow the course of the wicker basket holding her baby brother as it drifted down the Nile. She had the courage and ingenuity to approach Pharaoh’s daughter and suggest that she employ a Hebrew nurse for the child, thus ensuring that Moses would grow up knowing his family, his people and his identity.

Small wonder that the Sages said that Miriam persuaded her father Amram, the gadol hador (leading scholar of his generation), to annul his decree that Hebrew husbands should divorce their wives and have no more children since there was a fifty percent chance that any child born would be killed. “Your decree,” said Miriam, “is worse than Pharaoh’s. He only decreed against the males, yours applies to females also. He intends to rob children of life in this world; you would deny them even life in the World to Come” (Midrash Lekach Tov to Exodus 2:1). Amram admitted her superior logic. Husbands and wives were reunited. Yocheved became pregnant and Moses was born. Note simply that this midrash, told by the Sages, unambiguously implies that a six-year-old girl had more faith and wisdom than the leading rabbi of the generation!

Moses surely knew what he owed his elder sister. She had accompanied him throughout his mission. She led the women in song at the Red Sea. The one episode that seems to cast her in a negative light – when she “spoke against Moses because of his Cushite wife,” for which she was punished with leprosy – was interpreted more positively by the Sages. They said she was critical of Moses for breaking off marital relations with his wife Zipporah. He had done so because he needed to be in a state of readiness for Divine communication at any time. Miriam felt Zipporah’s plight and sense of abandonment. Besides which, she and Aaron had also received Divine communication but they had not been commanded to be celibate. She may have been wrong, suggested the Sages, but not maliciously so. She spoke not out of jealousy of her brother but out of sympathy for her sister-in-law.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/parsha/depending-on-a-wise-sister/2012/06/27/

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