I recently came across an interesting article in the technology section of the Wall Street Journal. The article was about smart ovens; ovens with artificial intelligence. You can take a piece of seasoned fish, stick a prod in it, and put it in the oven. The oven recognizes that what is inside of it is indeed a fish and the oven begins cooking it to its own learned specifications. And, if you are a busy person who is cooking while trying to complete other tasks elsewhere in your home, you can turn on the oven app on your smartphone, and a camera can show you via live stream what is happening inside of your oven.
The gemara in Masechet Peshahim connects a few verses to each other in order to establish that searching for hametz must be done by the light of a flame. In Mishlei “The human spirit is the lamp of Hashem, searching every inmost part/נֵר ה’ נִשְׁמַת אָדָם חֹפֵשׂ, כָּל-חַדְרֵי-בָטֶן.” And in Zephaniah, “And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with lamps/וְהָיָה בָּעֵת הַהִיא, אֲחַפֵּשׂ אֶת-יְרוּשָׁלִַם בַּנֵּרוֹת.” The Sefas Emes comes to teach that during the time that the Temple stood, it was very clear that everything in this world came from Hashem. Now, without the physical structure, we need help finding that point within us that shines and reminds us that Hashem dwells within us. We might know that the Mishkan and The Beit Hamikdash and Yerushalayim are inside of us, that God dwells within us, as it says “ושכנתי בתוכם”, but that does not mean that we actually see it or internalize it and its demands on us.
In Jeremiah it is written “She is Zion, nobody seeks her/צִיּוֹן הִיא, דֹּרֵשׁ אֵין לָהּ.” And the Gemara in Maeshect Sukkah teaches the fact that nobody is looking for her, implies that she should be sought. The Sfas Emes understand this to teach that from the fact that we do not see our inner point of holiness/נקודה פנימית means that it must be sought--we need to do some soul searching. This is the purpose of the Hannukah candles. Their light shows us what is inside of ourselves. That divine spark is always there, but we often need help to see it. This is only the first step.
Back to our smart oven. Even though I can see inside of it through an amazing aid, it can’t do everything for me. I still have to go back and flip the fish to ensure that it does not burn. So too with the Hanukkah candles. Once I light them, and am able to take a look inside, the task is not over. It should serve as a reminder that the necessary work to illuminate the world with God’s light has only just begun.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Hanukkah Sameah,
My great grandfather served in the Russian army before World War One. The story goes that after he made his way to America, he always had rock candy in his mouth, which is essentially pure sugar. He had been through a lot, and he only wanted sweetness for the rest of his life.
This week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayishlah, tells the story of Jacob’s intense struggle with an angel. Jacob suffers tremendously in his life before this altercation (he has to flee from his parents home for more than twenty years, his brother has sworn to kill him, etc.), and suffers during the fight, and is left with scars afterward (he is injured in the back of his thigh).
The Esh Kodesh (the Piasetzna Rebbe--the Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto), in a teaching/drasha from November of 1939, asks why does Jacob feel the need to be blessed by the angel before the struggle ends. The verse reads “Then he [the angel] said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’/וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; .וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי” The Piasetzna Rebbe teaches that at this moment, Jacob was concerned about future generations. There is an old Rabbinic idea that what happens to the parents is a foreshadowing of what is to come to future generations (ma’ase avot siman l’banim/מעשה אבות סימן לבנים). After Jacob encountered and struggled with the angel, and was also injured during that encounter, the angel wanted to leave. Jacob thought, “is this going to happen to my children? After they suffer and are wounded and left with scars, will it be that their salvation will merely be that their oppressors will not be able to do more and that they will not fall into their hands? And now they can just return to the state they were in before they suffered?!?” This cannot be so, only “I will not let you go, unless you bless me/.וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.” After suffering, God will provide salvation, not solely an end to the suffering.
There is no need for us to compare our sufferings to those of Jacob our Father/יעקב אבינו or to those of the Piasetzna Rebbe for us to recognize that being a human involves going through difficult struggles in life. And the Piasetzna Rebbe is trying to tell us that we should be asking for more than merely the end to that suffering. Life can be bitter at times. We should not just pray for an end to that bitterness. We should hope and ask that life be sweet. May this Shabbat be a taste of sweetness so that we know what we are searching for in the future.
In 1902 Theodor Herzl wrote a utopian vision for what the Jewish state could be in the future. It was titled Altneuland, or Old New Land. Included in this novel is the phrase, “if you will it, it is no dream” (this phrase became a popular Zionist slogan and there is even a song to the Hebrew translation of the words--im tirzu ein zo aggada/אם תרצו אין זו אגדה). The way that this phrase is generally thought of, is that if you want something bad enough, it can come true. If you want to get to Israel, you will get there.
In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Vayetzei, Jacob leaves Be’er Sheva and heads for Haran (likely somewhere in present-day Turkey). While he is on the way, the Torah tells us that “And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed...וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא. וַיַּחֲלֹם” Our Rabbinic tradition teaches us that the Patriarchs established for us the three prayer services of the day. Abraham established the morning prayer/shaharit/שחרית, Isaac established the afternoon prayer/minha/מנחה, and Jacob established the evening prayer/ma’ariv/מעריב. Our verse above is the prooftext that the Rabbis use to prove that Jacob established ma’ariv. They say that he “lighted upon/וַיִּפְגַּע” means that he engaged in prayer.
Rashi, the medieval French commentator, is intrigued by this idea. He points out that the Torah does not explicitly tell us that Jacob prayed. The idea that he “lighted upon” or perhaps “encountered” the place, suggests that the Land jumped to him! To Rashi, “the Place” can only mean one place, Mt. Moriah (which later becomes known as the Temple mount in Jerusalem).
The Sfas Emes asks a good question regarding Rashi’s interpretation. What does establishing ma’ariv and the Land jumping to Jacob have to do with each other? He teaches that it must be that if a person wills it, one can stir up the holiness of God in any place. That is what Rashi means when he says that Mt. Moriah uprooted and and came to Jacob. It shows that Jacob wanted so badly to be heading towards holiness, towards the legacy of his father and grandfather instead of heading to Haran. And this is the essence of ma’ariv. The Sfas Emes explains that when it is dark, the only way to reveal divine light is if a person can fully desire holiness. That passion brings light into the dark of night, where it naturally would not have been.
One can never be too far from this light, as it says in Isaiah (57:19) “Peace, peace, to him that is far off and to him that is near/שָׁלוֹם שָׁלוֹם לָרָחוֹק וְלַקָּרוֹב.” Sometimes we feel that we are far from holiness. Sometimes we feel that we are far from being our best selves. Even when we feel that far, we need to know that God is with us--we can even use that distance and channel it towards the desire for reunion. A reunion with holiness; a reunion with the parts of the self that bring about a better reality for us and those around us. If we want it bad enough, we can move mountains. The challenge is to never give up. As we head into the winter, the darkest part of the year, moving farther and farther away from the High Holidays, it might be easy to give in to the cold and the fatigue that comes with it. Let us find reminders to help us snap out of it and stay focused on bringing about a world filled with light. If we want it bad enough, there is no difference between dreams and reality.
A number of years ago, my favorite football team, the Chicago Bears, traded for an All-Pro quarterback by the name of Jay Cutler. Before this trade, the Bears had never really had a good quarterback. I was living in Chicago at the time. The city was ecstatic. A friend called me to tell me the news and I ran into my apartment with another friend of mine to watch sports news for the next several hours and we were smiling the whole time. It was as if the Messiah was coming. The energy around the city was at an all time high! And then, as the years went on, Cutler turned out to be a human being and not the Messiah. Partially because of his errors in play, his erratic playing style, the team’s lack of winning, his attitude and some other intangibles, the city fell out of love with him. The city would not offer unconditional love. Love would come only as long as winning did.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.