Thursday, September 24, 2009

Fascinating Find

Coins depicting the image of a man with the name "Joseph" have been found in Egypt, according to a Cairo newspaper. While the Jerusalem Post quotes the significance of this find as "countering the claim held by some historians that coins were not used for trade in ancient Egypt, and that this was done through barter instead," it seems that this find has another dimension of significance: it is further outside confirmation of the Biblical narrative.

Shabbat shalom and G'mar Chatima Tovah!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Vayelech: Personal and National Teshuva

In this week's haftarah for Vayelech, Hoshea exhorts the Jewish people to return to God. "שובה ישראל, עד ה' אלקיך כי כשלת בעווניך...אשור לא יושיעינו" Return, O Israel, to God, for you have failed in sin...[say] Assyria will not save us..." (Hoshea 14:2) The prophet tells the Jewish nation how to repent: say that the great powers of the world will not save us, and abandon idolatry, and return to God. What is the connection between Jewish return to God and an admission that we have no one else to rely on?

Perhaps the answer lies in the psychology of repentance. Throughout our lives, we encase ourselves in protective layers of posessions and alliances. As social beings, we find protection from the elements and from enemies in the comforting warmth of the Group. We have amassed great wealth, prestige and honor, and these things serve us as security blankets. It is a poor man who finds himself penniless, and even worse indeed is one who finds himself without friends and a social position to rely on.

While these things are a normal and healty part of the human condition, they can become a person's worst enemy. One may allow his possessions and position to shift his understanding of his own vulnerability. When we have nothing, we realize quickly that it is God upon whom we must ultimately rely. However, the things we surround ourselves with and the social positions we attain make it very easy to hide this truth from ourselves. We become enamoured by ourselves, and feel that our position dictates that we are untouchable, protected by our peers, and so forth. This makes it very hard for a person to see God in his own life. The religious experience of knowing God as the beginning and end can be dimmed. This makes it very hard, indeed, for a person to repent sins. Sins may become permitted (as the Talmud says) in our own minds, after committing them, and seeing no immediate reprecussions. An aura of invincability can easily descend, making us rely on our stature as a sign we are always (and perhaps by definition) doing good. Teshuva and true closeness to God is a forgotten relic of a less prosperous time.

Into this atmosphere, Hoshea speaks: In order to cleave to God, we must first divest ourselves emotionally from the things and positions we rely on. We must come before God in a kittel, in a burial shroud. We must remember that we carry none of our prestige and wealth with us to the court of God, but our good deeds and our bad deeds. This divistement allows us to realize who we really are, and is the first step to repentance. Viewing ourselves truly, and not through the rose colored glasses of our own egos, is foundational to Teshuva. And so, Hoshea tells us to admit that nothing we rely on is really reliable -- we come before God with ourselves, plain and simple. We can only rely on Him.

In a larger sense, the message of Hoshea is aimed not at the individual alone, but at the nation of Israel. For each year, we repent as a nation. What is the first step to re-build the fractured relationship our nation has with God? Admission of reliance. Reject the nations you rely on for support, alliances and economic prosperity. Internalize that it is from God that Israel succeeds or fails, and based on our fulfillment of our national obligations to Him. Understand that, אשור לא יושיעינו, the superpowers will not save us, but God will. (In an interesting twist of history, the letters of אשור correspond to the Latin letters of A-S-U-R, which make up the letters of both the USA and the USSR, driving home the poin doubly, that the world powers, the superpowers, are not to be relied upon by Israel.)

The flip-side of this message can be found in our parasha: if we cannot rely on them, who can we rely upon? "Be strong and brave, do not fear or balk before them, for Hashem, your God, it is He that accompanies you, he will not forsake you!" (Deut. 31:6) When we rely on God, we will find victory, security and happiness.

The message is clear: on an individual and on a national level, we are to divest ourselves of perceived external protection and support, for these things only allow us to grow distant from God, and sell us the lie that we can rely on others, not only on Him. By renewing our covanent with Him, personally and nationally, may we merit a year which is better, a year in which the safety, happiness and security of each Jew and the nation as a whole is clearly, obviously, unmistakeably, in the hands of God.