What is a ‘Kur Habarzel’?

And so we sit by the Seder and tell the story of how Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. That’s terrific, really nice. But what do you answer Moshele or Sarale if they ask, “But Tatty, Abba, Mommy, Ima —I don’t get it. Didn’t Hashem put us into Mitzrayim? Why are we thanking Him for taking us out?” That is a pretty good question, wouldn’t you say? Do we know what the answer is?

Hashem told Avraham Avinu (Avram at the time) that his descendants would be enslaved in a foreign land (Bereishis 15:13). Even assuming that this was a necessary punishment to Avraham Avinu to compensate for some lack of perfection that might ultimately be negatively reflected in his descendants (see Maharal’s Gevuros Hashem at great length), can we really feel a sense of gratitude at a freedom from a slavery imposed by the Emancipator Himself?

Hashem clearly wants us to recall our slavery in Egypt as well as our Exodus. The Mishnah (Pesachim 10:4) tells us, “We start the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim with our degradation,” and, according to one opinion, that is the meaning of the passage beginning “Avadim hayyinu” —that we were slaves in Egypt.

Curiously, the Torah also speaks of a most beneficial effect of the slavery; it was a “kur habarzel” —a smelting furnace used to purify iron. This phrase is used in Devarim 4:20, in Melachim I 8:51, and in Yirmiyahu 11:4. Why is this so? In what way did it purify Bnei Yisrael? We are told that Bnei Yisrael worshipped avodah zarah perhaps no less than the Egyptians by the end of their stay in Egypt, that they had sunk down to the 49th of the 50 levels of impurity. Is that the smelting furnace of which we speak?

The mefarshim speak of the slavery as an experience that forced Bnei Yisrael into a refinement from a certain baseness that all human beings possess —i.e., animalistic tendencies and ta’avos, physical needs and desires. This is expressed in Malbim’s explanation of the ‘kur habarzel’ concept, as well as in Kli Yakar on Shemos 13:16.

What is the magic? How did the slavery in Egypt refine us? Was the slavery really spiritually beneficial, the way these mefarshim make it sound?

One answer might be the idea that  the Chovos Halevavos states in Sha’ar Habechinah, that a beneficial effect of pain (and a beneficial effect of infants and babies and children undergoing pain as they grow up) is that pain curtails our ga’avah; we feel less arrogant, less entitled to what we see as our just due, making us appreciate the good in our lives. And it humbles us by clarifying that we are not the masters of our own fate. These are the spiritual benefits of pain, he says. Perhaps we can extrapolate and apply that concept on a national level, to the national psyche of the Jewish people. A Nation humbled can produce a Nation of people interested in Hashem’s will, not their own self-gratification. Thus, the kur habarzel.

But I would suggest a deeper reason, a more fundamental one, one that takes us to the core essence of a Jew’s relationship with Hashem. The Shelah Hakadosh (Masechess Pesachim, Matzah Ashirah 21) writes, “Hakadosh Bauch Hu’s will was for Bnei Yisrael, on a national level, to undergo and internalize the experience of submissiveness, of servitude, so that their essence as avdei Hashem be easier for them to absorb… That is why we find that Eretz Yisrael is still sometimes referred to as Eretz Canaan, as Canaan is from the root of keni’ah (submissiveness), since Canaan is the quintessential eved…”

(This actually allows us to better understand the concept that Chazal teach us, that the Yetzias Mitzrayim experience creates a situation where “You (Bnei Yisrael) are My servants, and are no longer servants to servants (i.e., to Pharaoh).” Yes, we have substituted one slavery for another, but they differ from each other as Heaven differs from Earth.)

The real meaning of the Shelah Hakadosh is reflected in understanding the very core of Klal Yisrael’s existence. The Tanya (see Chapters 2-3) writes that the seat of our animalistic tendencies is in the heart —the seat of our emotions, our ego, our sense of self. That am the center of my existence, at the root and core of everything that I do. But the Jewish people—every Jew—must, and can, find it within him or herself to rise above that. The seat of the nefesh Eloki, the spark of G-d found within us, is in our seichel, our understanding, which is our ability to perceive and relate to things outside of ourselves —beyond my sense of self— i.e., Hashem; that the root and core of our existence is, at its most basic level, geared towards ratzon Hashem—the will of Hashem. The Jew represents a creation whose raison d’être —very purpose of existence— is doing the will of Hashem.

But for that to happen, for that unnatural existence to exist —and it is unnatural for a living organism with an ego and sense of self to dedicate its very existence to a Higher Being, and totally self-negate itself— required a kur habarzel to purify and refine the very crux of one’s reality. And that is precisely what slavery does. For a slave indeed lives for its master. A slave’s essence is to do the will of whoever owns it. A slave lives with total self-negation.

And Hakadosh Bauch Hu said to Avraham Avinu: Your children, who will become a Nation dedicated to my existence, whose very existence will indeed be bound up with Mine, will first undergo centuries of slavery, so that embedded in the very nub of their selves will be a self-negation, enabling the ultimate self-negation, the Jewish Nation.

And so the Jewish Nation came into being at Yetzias Mitzrayim. After searing the ability to self-negate into the National consciousness, we were then taken out of Mitzrayim, freed from servitude to Pharaoh but retaining the ability to be avadim. Only now could we be avdei Hashem.

Rabbosai, Ladies: Do we think truly of ourselves as avdei Hashem? As people whose every move, action, and calculation has only the Master in mind? People whose only reason for existence is to do the will of Hashem?

If the answer is yes, or even if you are working towards that and would like to “get there,” then you are ready to celebrate and thank Hashem for our cheirus (freedom) from Mitzrayim while acknowledging that it was all part of His Master Plan—shiebud and cheirus. For that process seared the ability to be avadim into our souls, and then transferred that ability to His service. After all, we could have been like Canaan, who was cursed with eternal servitude and remains cursed to this day. We give thanks, celebrate Pesach, and joyously thank Hashem for giving us a Torah whereby we became “Avadai heim asher hotzeisi osam mei’Eretz Mitzrayim” —which we now understand can, must, and should be done with full understanding of the irony that it was He who brought us there in the first place.

THANK YOU! Part 2

We learned last week about the korban Todah, and how it is brought in certain specific situations when a person’s life is considered to have been in danger, and the person was saved through what we would call ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ means. We then raised the question that since our everyday lives contain reasons enough for hoda’ah (thankfulness), since we need to be constantly grateful for our very existence and for the countless daily miracles which are involved in just “living life” —what specifically happens when our lives are in danger and we emerge safely that induces one to bring a sacrifice? Moreover, our daily gratefulness for “normal” life is actually quite compelling. As the Chovos Halevavos explains, without Hashem we can do nothing. Thus, our gratitude and appreciation must encompass everything. All is a gift from Hashem. So what is it that triggers the korban Todah?

The Ramban at the end of Parshas Bo (Shemos 13:16) writes about the purpose of creation: “And that in fact is the ultimate objective of the Creation itself… for we have no other explanation of Creation… And Hashem has no desire from the earthbound creatures except that mankind shall know and acknowledge to Hashem that He (Hashem) created them. The purpose of raising one’s voice in prayer and the purpose of synagogues and the merit of communal prayer is this: that people should have a place where they can gather publicly and acknowledge to Hashem that He created them all and caused them to be, and where they can publicize this and declare before Him “We are Your creations!” This is the intent of our Sages in that which they said to explain the passuk ‘and they shall call out mightily to Hashem.’ From the use of the word mightily, we learn that prayer entails calling out in a loud voice (in other words, that part of prayer which is the acknowledgement of Hashem being our Creator).”

We learn from this Ramban that hoda’ah —acknowledgement, admission, of Hashem as the source of all— has an element that calls for public, even loud, pronouncement and acknowledgement. This is also reflected in the commentary of the Netziv to Vayikra (7:13). The Netziv points out a certain anomaly that seems to be unique to the korban Todah. The korban Todah is, after all, a form of shelamim. Why is it, then, that the time given for eating the Todah is less than the time given for any other shelamim? A shelamim may be eaten for two days and one night (i.e., the day that it is brought, the following night, and the next day), whereas the Todah may be eaten only the day on which it is brought and the following night. Even more puzzling is the fact that the Todah has entails much more food to eat than a standard shelamim. In addition to the korban Todah itself, one brings forty large loaves of bread with it (of which 36 are eaten by the owner of the korban and/or his guests and four are given to a Cohen). If anything, asks the Netziv, the time allowed for eating the Todah should be much longer than the standard shelamim (since we want to avoid leaving over from the korban, which would entail creating ‘nossar’).

The Netziv explains that the Torah specifically wanted this great potential for nossar to loom large in the case of the korban Todah. For this will bring the desired result that the owner of the korban will need to invite many guests to share in his se’udah —and that will result in a more public forum for the korban Todah, as the guests will inquire as to the reason for the large se’udah and the owner of the korban will surely tell his story, his hoda’ah, his thanksgiving and acknowledgement and the ness nistar that saved his life. This public acknowledgement is the reason that the Torah mandated eating the Todah within such a relatively short time —to ensure this public gathering, and thus, a more public hoda’ah.

This, says the Netziv, is quite possibly the reason that the halachah requires that the berachah of ‘Hagomel’ —recited upon any one the occurrences that would require the beneficiary to bring a korban Todah— be recited in front of ten people. The Netziv notes the irregularity of this requirement, since such a quorum is usually necessary only in the event that a ‘davar shebekedushah’ —such as kaddish or kedushah— is being saidWhy is a minyan necessary here? The reason, says the Netziv, is to ensure that the ‘hidden miracle’ be publicized, just as it must be by the korban Todah itself, as we have seen above.

We find a private hoda’ah in our silent recitation of the shemoneh esrei, which features a special berachah called ‘hoda’ah.’ There we say, “We gratefully thank you, Hashem… for our lives which are given over into Your hands, and for our souls which are entrusted to You; for Your miracles which are with us daily and for Your wonders and favors in every time… You are the beneficent one, for Your compassions are never exhausted…” What do we find here? That a person must first proclaim to himself or herself, in the depths of his or her heart, mind and soul, that he or she admits, recognizes and acknowledges that his or her everyday life, all of his or her regular activities are enabled, empowered and made possible by Hashem. This must first be recognized, acknowledged and accepted by a person in his or her own heart —to his or her self. This is all said regarding the normal ebb and flow of life. This does not call for a public pronouncement. This would not easily move or inspire anyone. On the contrary, these things need to be reflected upon, thought about, and realized.

However, when something breaks the norm, and a person is thrust into a situation where he or she is forced —yes, forced— to come to grips with human frailty and weakness; where one is woken up from the regularity of continuity in daily life and confronted with Hashem in his or her life —that inspiration, that stimulus, that arousal must  be shared with others, must be proclaimed, must serve as an uplifting exciting lesson for all, which will enable them all to internalize the message and utilize that inspiration within the regularity and uniformity of everyday life, ensuring true, real, lasting hoda’ah.

THANK YOU! Part 1

(Although the Korban Todah was introduced to us in last week’s sedrah, nevertheless, as an expression of thanks to Hashem for the upcoming wedding of my daughter, im yirtzeh Hashem, I will share some hoda’ah thoughts with you this week. And as they say in Israel, v’itchem haselichah.)

The Midrash in Parshas Tzav extols at length the virtues of bringing a Korban Todah and the very concept of hoda’ah (gratitude). The Midrash, in a short paragraph, sums up its significance in a way. The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 9:7) states that in the future, (this may refer to yemos haMashiach or some other period) all korbanos will cease to be brought, except for the Korban Todah and all forms of prayer will cease except for ones of thanksgiving —hoda’ah. Without entering a discussion of the idea of korbanos and tefillos ceasing, the Midrash certainly demonstrates a certain essentiality in the idea of hoda’ah.

One of the ironies of hoda’ah is that the Korban Todah is brought in certain specific situations when a person’s life is considered to have been in danger (e.g., a long ocean or desert journey, a life-threatening illness, captivity) and he or she was saved. Now, on the one hand, this ‘salvation’ is not necessarily brought about by a miraculous occurrence. The situations that call for a Korban Todah happen to be pretty much a part of normal life, as is the yeshu’ah from them. Yet of course, one does not bring a Korban Todah every day. In fact, it is not even clear if one may voluntarily bring a Korban Todah as a korban nedavah if the events enumerated above did not occur.

But don’t our everyday lives contain reasons for hoda’ah? In fact, the Chovos Halevavos points out that we need to be constantly thankful for our existence, for our being created as humans and, of course, the fact that we are Jewish should give pause for reflection and gratitude. So what specifically happens when our lives are in danger, and we emerge safely —especially since we are not talking about open miracles?

The word hoda’ah is usually translated as gratitude or thankfulness. Yet another meaning of the word, which is used quite often, is admission or concession. The question is, are these two meanings connected? Do they converge in some larger conceptual abstraction?

The answer, of course, is that they do.

The Chovos Halevavos writes in his introduction to Sha’ar Avodas Elokim that logic compels a person to accept the service of Hashem upon himself or herself if he or she would merely follow the rules of common sense that dictate that a person is obligated to act favorably towards one who has acted favorably towards him. Being thankful is a way of thinking. The Chovos Halevavos goes on to depict the various ways that people —decent human beings— express gratitude for favors they received. Thus a person, upon reflection, will take this to a higher level and realize that we are surely obliged to be grateful to Hashem for His great goodness towards us. The Chovos Halevavos asks us to consider how Hashem has no iota of self-interest in all that He does for us, and thus is even more ‘deserving’ of our acknowledgement, appreciation, and gratefulness.

It is clear from the Chovos Halevavos that a person is ‘wired’ to feel thankful —to parents, to a superior, to a friend, since he says that that defines a normal, decent, human being. How does that connect to the ‘other’ meaning of hoda’ah —‘admission’?

The answer would seem to be quite clear. We all have egos and a sense of self. And that makes it hard to be grateful! Why? Because we are not talking about courtesy. We are not talking about uttering a lip-service ‘thank you’. We are talking about a deep feeling, from within, that whatever I have accomplished, gained or attained could not have been accomplished, gained or attained through my own efforts alone. I needed help! I needed someone else or something else to make it happen! To enable me to make it happen! Therefore, to acknowledge truly and sincerely that help and to feel that gratitude takes a tremendous amount of self-knowledge coupled with self-effacement. For I must yield to the admission that left to my own resources —I could not have done it! That there is a piece of you as part of my accomplishment! That I was essentially unable on my own to have carried out that which I wanted to.

Now, imagine how that plays out in our relationship with Hashem. It is not for naught that the Chovos Halevavos says that this is the most essential and basic component in our avodas Hashem! For without Hashem we can do nothing! Not only would we not even exist, but any ability we have, whether it be the ability to think, to feel, to plan, to implement, to overcome obstacles, to walkto decide —everything, or rather nothing, would be possible without Hashem’s enabling, without Hashem’s actively endowing me with the ability to do whatever it is that I would like to do.

And so, certainly gratitude is intertwined with an ‘admission.’ I have to admit that I am not capable. I am not able. I need someone else. Not only do I need —but that which I did is, in reality, the product of not just me —but me AND…

And I always need Hashem, for whatever it is that I decide to do! The ultimate gratitude is the ultimate admission that left to my own devices —I am nothing and can accomplish nothing. And that is an almost-impossible admission. Because I certainly feel as if I used my capabilities, my energies, my intellect —yet I need to acknowledge that it is all a gift from Hashem. (The one possible exception to this is man’s free will, bechirah, and how he uses this faculty. That, and the way it is seemingly an exception to this rule, will, im yirtzeh Hashem, be the subject of a future column.)

IM YIRTZEH HASHEM next week, we will discuss what triggers the Korban Todah if my life is, or should be, a life of gratitude.

Why Zachor MUST Precede Purim

As I write this week’s column, I am assuming that by the time that you will be reading it, things will be clear in Our Town, and we can get on with the business of hating our real enemies, as per Megillas Esther. At times, modern man seems to have an issue with needing to have a real live enemy, whom one hates. (I like to think that all the ‘haters’ out there whom we may have lately were just kidding and practicing for Purim, since hating is not something that we do easily.) Yet hate we must at times, as the passuk (Tehillim 139:21) says, “Why, those who hate You, Hashem, I will hate, and against those who would rise up against You I will quarrel.” In fact, Rambam in Sefer Hamitzvos (Positive Mitzvah 189; the mitzvah of ‘Zachor’) writes, “Wherein He has commanded us to remember what Amaleik did to us in his eagerness to harm us; we are to reaffirm it at all times, arouse the people to make war upon him and to hate him, so that our hatred for him not be weakened or lessened with the passage of time. Thus you see that Shmuel Hanavi, in proceeding to exhort Shaul to fulfill the commandment to destroy Amaleik, recalled the story of what Amaleik did, in order to arouse the hatred we must harbor towards Amaleik and then go on  to destroy him.”

Rambam’s mention of Shmuel’s telling Shaul to do the devar Hashem and destroy Amaleik, as commanded (we are going to be reading this account on Shabbos as the haftarah of Parshas Zachor) addresses an apparent question. One might wonder why Shmuel needed to give this introduction at all. Eradicating Amaleik is a mitzvah which is incumbent upon a King, why the storytelling? The Rambam here is “casually” teaching us that the purpose of this account, and the purpose of the very mitzvah of zachor, is to arouse our attitude towards Amaleik, so that we indeed hate him as an embodiment of evil, as one who denies Hashem. Klal Yisrael’s raison d’être in this world is to proclaim the existence of Hashem, as the Ramban in Parshas Bo so eloquently states: “Therefore, because we see that there are constantly mitzvos that are reminders of the principles of our faith (e.g., tefillin, mezuzah, kerias shema, sukkah), the Sages state ‘be as scrupulous in observing a minor commandment as in performing a major one (Avos 2:1), because all of them are in truth major and beloved, since through them a person is constantly acknowledging Hashem, for the ultimate objective of all the commandments is that we should believe in Hashem and acknowledge to Him that he created us… and that in fact is the ultimate objective of the creation itself for we have no other explanation for creation ; and the most High has no desire for earthbound creatures except this, that man should know and acknowledge  to his G-D that G-D indeed created him.

Amaleik is clearly the antitheses of this. Thus, as harsh as is the word hate, it remains the very goal of zachor, as explained by the Rambam. Amaleik, as the Rambam further describes (Positive Mitzvah 188), is but the most acute and fanatical of the children of Esav: To destroy Amaleik from amongst all the descendants of Esav.” The never-ending battle against the Jews, called anti-Semitism, absolutely irrational so much of the time, has its roots in the battle over malchus Hashem. That is why we find the similar phrase describing B’nei Yisrael’s obligation to destroy Amaleik as Hashem’s promise that He would do so, “Timcheh ess zecher (zaicher) Amaleik mitachas hashamayim. Ki mochoh emcheh ess zaicher Amaleik mitachas hashamayim.” We are playing for high stakes indeed. Hashem states that His malchus is lacking, k’vayochol, as it were, until the total eradication of those who would deny Him. But it is apparently important to establish a desire to do so, stemming from a hatred, as part of our values system —to declare that we hate those who would deny Hashem.

The Gra explains in his commentary to Chanah’s prayer in Sefer Shmuel that Esav has four specific areas of attack against B’nei Yisrael, which he exercised at four specific points in history. According to this premise of the Gra, Haman was attacking the uniqueness of Klal Yisrael’s relationship with Hashem, namely, Klal Yisrael as described in the sixth chapter of Avoskinyan echad, one of the primary possessions of Hashem in this world. Not Klal Yisrael per se, rather, our singularity as Hashem’s representatives in this world. Thus, the Gra explains in his commentary to Megillas Esther (8:16), “Layehudim haysah orah vesimcha vesasson viyekar,” which Chazal tell us alludes to the following four mitzvos: Torah, Yom Tov, milah and tefillin. These four mitzvos are described as ‘osos’ —signs, symbols of our affiliation, a representation our bond with Hashem. And as Haman, the scion of Amaleik, tried to eradicate that association, the Jews upon his defeat, reaffirmed precisely those very signposts of our status.

Purim is indeed a day of joy, gaiety, merrymaking, even drinking. But before Purim, as the Gemara and halachah make abundantly clear, there must be zachor. Realizing and recognizing evil, remembering and acknowledging that evil does exist and that we are enjoined to eradicate it in whatever way is available to us.

Purim must be preceded with understanding its essence as a day celebrating a proclamation of the ultimate victory of Hashem and His people who acknowledge Him over those who would deny, or even hesitate and equivocate and “explain” matters in a “natural” way. For what could be more natural than the story of Purim? Thus the accompanying unbridled joy, which has its value only within the context of the Ramban that we learned —acknowledgement of Hashem’s existence and His enabling all that occurs. Seeing Him in nature, in the laws of physics, in history, in our amazing biological systems, in all the goodness with which we are blessed. And hating those who would “explain it all away” in their contorted efforts to deny Him. The ultimate praise of Hashem, the ultimate hallel, as Chazal say in Gemara Megillah, is simply reading the story, and seeing the events unfold as a master plan of Hashem and as a vindication of His representatives.