Tag Archives: Judges

Two Reincarnations You Need to Know About

This week’s parasha, Yitro, begins: “So Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons… to the desert where [Moses] was encamped, to the mountain of God.” (Exodus 18:2-5) After the Israelites safely made it to Mt. Sinai following the Exodus, Moses’ family returned to join him. However, we had previously read that when Moses first left Midian for Egypt before the Exodus, he had taken his family with him! (Exodus 4:20) Where did they go? Rashi answers:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Moses] in Midian: “Go, return to Egypt” (Exodos 4:19), “and Moses took his wife and his sons…” (Exodus 4:20), and Aaron went forth “and met him on the mount of God” (Exodus 4:27), [Aaron] said to [Moses]: “Who are these?” He replied, “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my sons.” “And where are you taking them?” [Aaron] asked. “To Egypt,” he replied. [Aaron] said, “We are suffering with the first ones, and you come to add to them?” [Moses] said to [Tzipporah]: “Go home to your father.” She took her two sons and went away.

Aaron protested Moses bringing his family down to Egypt—there were already enough people suffering there! Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167), meanwhile, comments that it was Moses himself who sent his wife back home after the “incident at the inn”. Recall that on their way to Egypt:

… it came to pass on the way at the inn, that God met him, and sought to kill him. Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: “Surely a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” (Exodus 4:24-25)

These difficult words require a great deal of explanation. Apparently, God sought to “kill” Moses, and Tzipporah saved him at the last second. The classic answer is that Moses’ second son, Eliezer, was born on the same day that Moses first ascended Sinai and met God through the Burning Bush. Moses spent a week on the mountain, meaning he returned on the eighth day—the time for Eliezer’s circumcision. Moses reasoned he needed to leave immediately, as God commanded, so he decided he would get going and do the circumcision at an inn on the way. When he arrived at the inn, he forgot about the circumcision! Tzipporah stepped in and got it done.

At this point, Moses realized that having his little children with him would probably be a distraction from his mission. The Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) explains that this is why Moses sent Tzipporah and the kids back to Midian. The problem for Tzipporah is that she missed out on the whole Exodus! Did she not deserve to be there as well? (A modern parent “stuck at home with the kids” can probably relate.) How would this lost opportunity be corrected? And what does it have to do with that circumcision at the inn? Why was it so important for the child to be circumcised at that very moment?

Tzipporah: Moses’ Successor

‘Deborah’ by Gustave Doré

Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano (Rema miFano, 1548-1620) addresses the first problem in his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot (Likkutim, 3). He says how Tzipporah was deeply saddened that she had missed out on the Exodus, especially God’s miraculous salvation at the Splitting of the Sea, and the song that followed. So, God gave Tzipporah another chance. He had her soul reincarnated in Deborah the Prophetess and Judge! The “Judges”, Shoftim, starting with Joshua, were the successors of Moses, and the chief Jewish leaders of the era, before the time of Kings.  Deborah was the fourth Judge of Israel after Moses.

When Deborah took the reins, Israel was being terribly oppressed by the Canaanite king Yavin and his mighty general Sisera, who rode with 900 undefeated iron chariots (Judges 4:2-3). Deborah summoned the warrior Barak to lead the Israelite forces against Sisera. Barak told her: “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8) The commentators wonder why he insisted that she join him for the battle? In light of the Rema miFano’s teaching, we can understand the answer: Because she had missed it last time, Deborah needed to be there at this redemption, and see God’s miraculous salvation for herself.

Of course, just as with the Splitting of the Sea when there was a great song sung afterwards, Deborah also sang a song following the salvation from Sisera (Judges 5). In fact, Deborah’s song is the Haftarah that we read after the Song at the Sea in parashat Beshalach. The Sages make an explicit connection between the two redemptions. And the connection goes deeper.

At the Splitting of the Sea, the Torah tells us that 600 of Pharaoh’s chariots were drowned. In Deborah’s battle, Sisera’s 900 chariots were drowned as well, as we read: “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook, the brook Kishon…” (Judges 5:21) The Talmud (Pesachim 118b) asks what the connection is between these two sets of drowned chariots, and wonders why the Tanakh calls Kishon an “ancient” brook? It answers that after the drowning of the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea, the Israelites were still afraid and “of little faith”. So, God commanded the Sea (or, the angel in charge of the seas) to “spit out” the drowned Egyptians so that the Israelites would see their corpses. The Sea protested:

“Does a master make a gift to his servant and then take it back from him?!” [God answered with a promise:] “‘I will give you one and a half times their number.” [The Sea] replied: “Master of the Universe, can a servant claim [a debt] from his Master?!” [God answered:] “Let the brook of Kishon be surety for Me.” Right away, he spewed them forth on the dry land…

Many decades later, when Sisera came to battle Israel, his warriors went down

to cool off and refresh themselves in the brook of Kishon. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to the brook of Kishon: “Go and deliver your pledge.” Right away, the brook of Kishon swept them out and cast them into the sea, as it is said, “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook” [Judges 5:21]. What does “that ancient brook” mean? The brook that became a surety in ancient times.

And so, the battle with Sisera was a giant spiritual rectification. In the time of Moses, God made a promise to the Sea regarding a quantity of chariots. That promised was filled in the time of Deborah, who was a reincarnation of Moses’ wife Tzipporah. In the time of Moses, his wife Tzipporah missed a miraculous salvation, so she came back as Deborah to witness the spiritual continuation and fulfilment of that first salvation! She got to sing her own song, too, just as Moses did in the past. God made it up to Tzipporah in a big way—as Deborah, she was the Moses of her generation!

‘The Defeat of Sisera’ at the Battle of Mount Tabor, by Giordano Luca, c. 1692

And what exactly had Tzipporah done to merit this? The Rema miFano answers:

“Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son…” for this she merited to reincarnate in Deborah, and to sing a song through the Holy Spirit. She alluded to this when she said in her song “When locks of hair go untrimmed [bifroa peraot] in Israel…” [Judges 5:2] referring to periat milah [circumcision]…

For that huge mitzvah of circumcising her son and saving Moses’ life, Tzipporah earned the merit to come back as Deborah, lead an entire generation, and witness a miraculous salvation comparable to the Splitting of the Sea. That leaves one last question: why was it so absolutely vital for the child to be circumcised at that particular moment, so much so that God sought to “kill” Moses for not doing it?

The Two Eliezers

The son that Moses was supposed to circumcise at the inn was Eliezer. We know essentially nothing of this person. The Torah does not divulge any details at all about his life (he is only mentioned once, in this week’s parasha). However, there is one other person (and only one other person) in the Torah named Eliezer, and that was Abraham’s devoted servant. Of course, there are no coincidences in the Torah. So why did Moses’ son carry the same name as Abraham’s servant?

Abraham’s servant Eliezer was an exceedingly righteous individual. In fact, the Sages say he was one of only nine (or ten) people in history to avoid an earthly death and “enter Heaven alive” (Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:43). The Midrash famously states that when Abraham tasked Eliezer with finding a wife for Isaac, Eliezer had hoped that Isaac would be able to marry Eliezer’s own daughter. Although Eliezer certainly “converted” (as much as was possible then, before the Torah’s giving), he was nonetheless still impure because he was a Canaanite, cursed since the time of Noah. Abraham told him that as much as he would have liked Isaac to marry Eliezer’s daughter, the fact of the matter was that Eliezer still carried a curse: “You are cursed while my son is blessed, and cursed and blessed cannot go together,” Abraham said (Beresheet Rabbah 59:10).

The righteous Eliezer, too, needed a rectification. The Sages offer a number of explanations as to how his curse was eventually lifted. Eliezer wanted nothing more than to be a full-fledged Jew, blessed from birth. God made it happen: Eliezer the servant was reincarnated in Eliezer the son of Moses! Because of this, it was of tremendous importance that Eliezer the son of Moses be circumcised on the eighth day as required. This was the key to make Eliezer blessed and Jewish once and for all. His entire tikkun depended on it. We might now understand why Moses’ error was so grave, to such a degree that the Torah says God sought to eliminate him entirely! Tzipporah saved the day and merited an incredible rectification of her own. (It is worth mentioning that a part of Eliezer’s soul also reincarnated in Caleb, as the Arizal explains in a number of places.)

‘Eliezer and Rebekah’ by Gustave Doré

Everything comes full circle at the Sinai Revelation, in this week’s parasha. Eliezer the servant—now Eliezer the son of Moses—stands with all the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) states that it was at this very point when the zuhama—referring to all the curses and spiritual impurities, going all the way back to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden—were lifted and removed from all those that stood at Sinai. Eliezer’s tikkun was complete. Amazingly, Eliezer the servant alluded to this himself back in Genesis, as the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) beautifully points out (on Exodus 20:13):

The number of words [in the passage of the Ten Commandments] is 172 (עק״ב), which was alluded to by Eliezer [when he gifted Rebecca with jewellery] whose weight was a beka (בק״ע). And the two bracelets that he gave her hint to the Two Tablets. And their ten shekels of gold allude to the Ten Commandments…

By being a most devoted servant of Abraham, and bringing Isaac the perfect wife in lieu of his own daughter, Eliezer merited to stand at Sinai himself.

Rosh Hashanah and the Coming of Mashiach

On Sunday night we usher in the holiday of Rosh Hashanah and welcome the 5777th year according to the Jewish calendar. This day commemorates the birth of Adam, and his judgement on the very same day. Among other events, it also marks the Akedah – the “Binding of Isaac” on Mt. Moriah. Of course, the Torah does not mention any of this explicitly, and does not even mention the term “Rosh Hashanah”. The plain text of the Torah only tells us that the first day of the seventh month should be a “memorial” day, and a time to hear the shofar’s blast.

In discussing the mitzvah of the shofar, the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b) compares the sound of this instrument to the weeping of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was the powerful general of King Yavin of Chatzor. The fourth chapter of Judges tells us that Sisera oppressed the Israelites for twenty years with his mighty army of 900 iron chariots. Finally, the judge and prophetess Deborah summoned Barak to raise an Israelite army of ten thousand. With God’s help, the Israelites finally defeated Sisera and his forces until “there was not a man left”. Sisera himself escaped and hid in the tent of a woman named Yael, who promptly killed him with a tent-peg while he was asleep.

'Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him' by James Tissot

‘Jael Smote Sisera, and Slew Him’ by James Tissot

Following the victory, Deborah and Barak sang a special song full of cryptic verses and prophecies. The song ends by describing how Sisera’s mother eagerly awaits the return of her son from battle. When he fails to arrive, she weeps by her window. People try to comfort her, to no avail. The song ends quite abruptly at this point, and states that all of God’s enemies will ultimately perish.

Why did the Sages compare the sound of the shofar to the weeping of Sisera’s mother? Further still, the commentaries on the Talmud relate that Sisera’s mother cried 100 times, and for this reason we blow the shofar 100 times! Others have pointed out that the account of Sisera’s mother in the Book of Judges has exactly 101 letters, which is why many communities blow the shofar an additional, 101st time.

Some understand this shofar-blowing as counteracting the cries of Sisera’s mother. Sisera was a very wicked man, and it appears his mother was no different, hoping that her son was late from battle because he was delighting in the spoils of war (Judges 5:30). A more positive way of looking at it is that a mother loves her child regardless of how wicked that child may turn out. We hope that God – our Heavenly parent – also continues to love us despite our faulty ways. We blow the shofar 100 times to imitate Sisera’s mother in the hopes of stirring some divine mercy.

Sisera and Rabbi Akiva

The Tanakh uses two different words for the “window” by which Sisera’s mother cries: first she looks out a chalon, and then through ha’eshnav. The first refers to her looking out a literal window and seeing that her son is not returning. The second refers to her glimpsing into the future – with some Midrashic sources suggesting the eshnav was some kind of fortune-telling tool that Sisera’s mother was proficient in. What did she see when she looked into the future?

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 96b), the descendants of Sisera “studied Torah in Jerusalem”. Who was Sisera’s primary descendent? None other than Rabbi Akiva himself, the greatest of Talmudic sages! Sisera’s mother saw that not only will her son fall in battle and be killed, but his descendants will become part of the very nation he sought to destroy!

In that case, perhaps we blow the shofar to mimic Sisera’s mother as a request for divine protection in the new year, a plea for the enemies of the Jewish people to have the same fate as Sisera and his descendants. Indeed, blowing the shofar 101 times also corresponds to the gematria of Michael (מיכאל) – the guardian angel of Israel.

Rebuilding the Temple

Some suggest that Sisera’s mother peered even further into the future. The gematria of ha’eshnav (האשנב) is 358, equal to Mashiach (משיח). Sisera’s mother gazed far enough to see that at the very end of days, her Israelite enemies will be restored to their Promised Land, and live there in peace and glory.

Maybe we blow the shofar to remind us of this as well, in the hopes of getting our very own glimpse of the future. According to Jewish tradition, the arrival of Mashiach will be signaled by a tremendous shofar blast heard around the world (Isaiah 27:13). And Mashiach’s coming is associated with a “Judgement Day”, too, when all souls past and present will be judged for the final time. This ties right into the spirit of Rosh Hashanah, with two of its major themes being the shofar and judgement.

Interestingly, the gematria of Rosh Hashanah (ראש השנה) is 861, equivalent with Beit HaMikdash (בית המקדש), the Holy Temple, the rebuilding of which we await upon Mashiach’s arrival. In fact, there is just one place in the entire Tanakh where the term “Rosh Hashanah” is mentioned. This is at the start of the fortieth chapter of Ezekiel, where the prophet receives a vision of the future Temple, and records all of its dimensions. This passage follows Ezekiel’s doomsday prophecies of Gog u’Magog, describing the travails surrounding the coming of Mashiach.

(Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

(Yonatan Sindel/Flash 90)

The Final Judgement

Another prophet, Micah, describes a future time of great struggles before God reveals Himself once more: “As in the days of your coming out of Egypt, I will show you wonders.” God will then make judgement, and cleanse everyone of their sins:

Who is a god like You, that pardons iniquity and passes over transgressions…? He will again have compassion on us, He will subdue our iniquities, and cast all of [our] sins into the depths of the sea… (Micah 7:18-19)

This passage is the source of the Rosh Hashanah custom to go to a body of water and symbolically cast off our sins. The custom is known as tashlich, from the word used in this verse to refer to casting sins into the sea. Again we see a major theme of Rosh Hashanah tie into acharit hayamim, the End of Days.

The last major theme of Rosh Hashanah is that of God’s kingship. In our Rosh Hashanah prayers, we replace the words HaEl HaKadosh – “the Holy God” – with the words HaMelech HaKadosh – the Holy King. It is said that each Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish people coronate God anew. This relates to a Messianic prophecy as well:

And there shall be a day which shall be known as Hashem’s… And it shall come to pass in that day that living waters shall go forth from Jerusalem… And Hashem will be King over all the earth. On that day, Hashem will be One, and His name will be one. (Zechariah 14:7-9)

In light of the above, it is evident that the main themes, customs, and rituals of Rosh Hashanah are all geared towards inspiring a singular vision: that of acharit hayamim, the coming of Mashiach, and the return of God’s revelation. Rosh Hashanah is a yearly mini-judgement to remind us of, and prepare us for, the Great and Final Judgement to come, and the ideal world that is said to follow. The shofar is therefore an alarm of sorts, a wake-up call to prompt us to do everything we can to bring about that final phase of mankind. This is what God wants us to remember when He commands in His Torah, quite simply, that the first of Tishrei is a day of remembrance. To remember how God intended this world to be when He created it – a world of peace, blessing, and pure goodness; a Garden of Eden.

Shana Tova u’Metuka!

The Eighth Day of Pesach: Isaac, the Afikoman, and Mashiach ben Yosef

Of the three patriarchs, the holiday of Passover is most intimately tied to Isaac. According to tradition, Isaac was born on Passover. Commenting on Genesis 18:10, Rashi explains that the angels’ visit to Abraham and Sarah occurred on Passover, and the angels promised a son to be born – Isaac – exactly one year from that time. This important detail helps to solve a key chronological problem. Earlier, God had told Abraham that his offspring would be subjugated for 400 years. However, when one makes an accounting of the timeline, they will find that the Jews were only in Egypt for a total of 210 years! How could this be?

Commenting on that verse (Genesis 15:13), Rashi calculates how the Exodus occurred exactly 400 years from the birth of Isaac. Thus, God’s word was perfectly fulfilled, since Isaac was the very first of Abraham and Sarah’s offspring. Although Isaac was not subjugated in the sense that the Jews in Egypt were, nonetheless he was certainly troubled by the Canaanites and Philistines, as the Torah records, and was considered a “foreigner” in the Holy Land throughout his life, since God had not yet officially granted the land to the Jews, nor did Isaac settle it permanently.

Digging further, if Isaac was born on the first day of Passover, then his brit milah (circumcision) would have been on the eighth day of Passover. Though the eighth day is not celebrated in Israel, it is celebrated in the diaspora. According to Chassidic custom, as initiated by the Baal Shem Tov (the founder of Chassidism) the eighth day of Passover is associated with Mashiach. In fact, it is customary to hold a Seudat Mashiach, a “Mashiach Feast” on the final afternoon of the holiday, complete with matzahs and four cups of wine. Just as Passover celebrates the First Redemption (led by Moses), the last day of Passover is meant to represent the Final Redemption (led by Mashiach). And it is only commemorated in the diaspora since, after all, it is diaspora Jewry that needs the Final Redemption and the Ingathering of the Exiles more than anyone.

Finally, during the Pesach seder we have three matzahs to go along with the Pesach platter. It is taught that these three matzahs represent the three patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. One of the fifteen steps in the seder is yachatz, where the middle of the three matzahs is broken in half. The larger half is covered and hidden as the afikoman, while the smaller half remains at the seder table. Thus, the matzah which we break is specifically the one associated with Isaac.

So then, what is the deeper connection between Mashiach and the Redemption, Passover and the Afikoman, and the forefather Isaac?

Who is Mashiach?

The Jewish mystics teach that there are actually two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef, and Mashiach ben David. This is derived from a number of texts and principles. One of these is the fact that the Tanakh has a clear pattern when it comes to major national events: first comes a descendant of the matriarch Rachel to usher it in, and then comes a descendant of the matriarch Leah to complete the mission. For example, Yosef (a son of Rachel) came to Egypt first to set the stage, and then came Yehuda (a son of Leah) to prepare the land for the actual arrival of the rest of the family (see Genesis 46:28). First, Joshua (of the tribe of Ephraim, and a descendant of Rachel) brought the Jews into the land of Israel following the Exodus, then Othniel (from the tribe of Yehuda) finished the job of conquering and settling the land. The first king of Israel was Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin, and a descendant of Rachel) and only then came King David (again of Yehuda). Thus, in every major event, we see clearly that first comes a descendant of Rachel to prepare the way and fight the battles, and only afterwards comes a descendant of Leah to finish the job.

In the same way, the Sages teach that first comes Mashiach ben Yosef (a descendant of Rachel), whose mission is to fight all the battles on behalf of Israel, and only after this comes Mashiach ben David (a descendant of Leah), who completes the messianic role. And who is Mashiach ben Yosef? Amazingly, the Sages say that this is none other than Isaac, reincarnated!

Of all the patriarchs and major Torah figures, Isaac is spoken of the least in Scripture. Hardly anything is said of him. It is explained that this is because Isaac has not completed his mission, and his story is not over. He has yet to fight many battles. The Sages permute his name – Itzchak (יצחק) – into the words Ketz Chai (קץ חי), literally that he “will live [again] at the End”. This is one reason why Itzchak (which means “will laugh”) is in the future tense. Isaac is Mashiach ben Yosef, who will come at the End to fight the final battles. Beautifully, the gematria of Itzchak (יצחק) is 208, equivalent to Ben Yosef (בן יוסף), also 208.

This brings us back to Passover and the afikoman. The middle matzah is broken in half. One half – the one associated with the patriarch Isaac – remains on the seder plate, together with the other matzahs that symbolize the other patriarchs. The other half – the larger one – is hidden away, only to be revealed at the very end. This is symbolic of Isaac’s final role as that of Mashiach, whose arrival is also concealed until the very ‘End of Days’. And on the eighth and final day of the Passover holiday – the day on which Isaac was circumcised and entered into the Covenant – we hold a ‘Mashiach Feast’ to celebrate the coming Final Redemption, may it arrive speedily and in our days.

Chag sameach!