Friday, February 5, 2010

Va'eira; the stench of the frog heap

by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman


The popularly known refrain to the Negro spiritual was "let my people go." But while it is an accurate Biblical quote, it is also an incomplete one:

The full text reads (Ex 8:16 among others," ...ko amar Hashem shalach ami veya'avduni-...thus saith the L*rd, let my people go (so that/and) they shall serve me."

In other words, the proper question we might ask ourselves is "wherefore freedom?"

What is the point, to what end, do we seek to live in a "free"society? The notion of freedom is explicit, and so is its purpose. The text seems to indicate that freedom without properly understood Divine ends necessarily devolves into a dark nihilistic morass. Society and its malcontents (sic) desperately need to imbibe this imperative to place spirituality, the quest for Divine service, front and center of any social enterprise.

Some wore buttons in the seventies proclaiming "shalach et ami/ let my people go/Free Soviet Jews." While earlier waves of refuseniks sought emigration out of a yearning for Jewish identification and religious fulfillment, latter day waves were clearly less so motivated, often placing material yearnings paramount over the spiritual. Tel Aviv is warmer than Moskow, but being in the Land should mean so much more.

Likewise, many synagogues today find themselves in trouble when they place monetary or materialistic values over spiritual ones. When education and learning take a lower priority, apathy and malaise are the bitter fruit. Their long term assurance is not guaranteed.

A remarkable textual allusion offers a rich homiletic support to this idea. As the plague of frogs is halted, their rotting frog corpses were gathered in "gigantic heaps, fouling the air with their vile stench."

(Ex 8:10) "vayitzberu otam chamarim chamarim vativash ha'aretz."

Notice that the word for heaps, "chamarim," in the Hebrew is spelled minus the letter yud, the usual plural indicator. The duplication of the word chamarim serves to call our attention to a deeper understanding of the word, in the sense of "CHoMeR," or materialism. Most tellingly is the verb "vayitzberu." Its root is TZiBuR, meaning a congregation, i.e., a "gathering." In a sense, then, the Torah is warning synagogues about misplaced priorities. And the doubling of the missing yuds, so striking in their absence, spells a name often referring to G*d.

How often G*d Himself is missing from synagogues. There is no room left for Him for He is crowded out by the massive ego heaps and materialism run amok. So what this is really teaching us, is that when the spiritual is missing, from out of a heightened and disproportionate focus on the material, a foul temper then rules the day.

The purpose of the synagogue is similar to the purpose of the Land of Israel: to be a vessel for the spiritual development of its inhabitants. Ego is to people what materialism is to values. Both have their place, but neither should predominate. Physicality, the physical structure, is but to serve spiritual ends. The body is the vessel for the soul's manifestation and expression.

Indeed, even America, in its mandate to espouse the freedom and safety of its people, was envisioned by its early Puritan founders to be a New Israel, seeking freedom of worship to escape the spiritual bondage of the Church of England. America was their Promised Land, England was their Egypt, while the oceanic voyage was their Exodus, their crossing of the Great Sea. Freedom was but to serve spiritual ends.

It behooves us today to take this lesson to heart. Let us ponder its meaning, drawing from the message of our timeless Torah. As long as we make G*d the center of our lives, seeking to understand the proper path of our life's true work, we shall be spiritually free. When we see each other as fellow reflections of the Divine, as true brothers and sisters to one another, we will always be able to count on each other for support. For without that common bond, we are all merely but frogs on a heap.

Shabbat Shalom

© 2000 - 2010 by Rabbi Baruch Binyamin Hakohen Melman

These words of Torah are written in the merit of my beloved father, Israel J. Melman, obm, Yisrael Yehoshua ben Harav Ya'aqov Hakohen Melman, z"l

http://seferchabibi.blogspot.com/2007/07/yahrzeit-of-my-father-27-tammuz.html

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9506EEDC1630F93BA35754C0A9649C8B63

Chabibi stands for CHidushei Baruch Binyamin ben Yisrael Yehoshua

(a chidush, from the word chadash, means a new, original or fresh perspective)

Dedications are available.

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About Me

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I played violin with Reb Shlomo and studied under him for over nine years at hundreds of concerts and learnings. Shlomo wanted to give me smicha before he passed. Deepest influences: My father,obm, who was a great scientist and human being, and my grandfather, obm, who was a great Torah scholar who was a musmach of the Mir Yeshiva and taught in Slobodka in Russia before WW1, and was also personal friends with the Chafetz Chaim and came to America in 1914. He knew the Talmud by heart! You could stick a pin in a word and he could tell you what word was on the other side! And my mother, Esther bat Baruch, z"l, who was a scholar of classical Hebrew and Tanach and who gave me a love for the language. And her mother, Anna (Sucher) Deutsch, who was born in Horodenka, spoke six languages, and shared her aged wisdom and eternal sweetness with me. I studied at Brandeis, Hebrew College, Pardes as well as seven years at The Metivta/ITJ earning my Advanced Semicha (yoreh yoreh)under Rav Halivni. What's truly amazing is that Shlomo and Rav Halivni each received semicha from Rav Hutner! But my deepest influences of them all are my sweetest sweetest girls who have taught me the most!