Tuesday, January 27, 2015

why do the last three makkos get put in their own parsha?

1) The 10 makkos are split over two parshiyos: seven in Parshas Va'Eira, three in Parshas Bo.  Wouldn't it make more sense to read all 10 in one parsha?  Why do we split them?  

If you are a mystic, you will maybe answer that the makkos correspond to the sefiros, and the three sefiros of chabad that correspond to the final three makkos are qualitatively different than the other seven.  Kol ha'kavod if you understand what that means.  

The Ramban offers another answer.  He suggests that the function of the last three makkos differed from the function of the earlier seven. The purpose of the first seven makkos was punishment: to force Pharoah and the Egyptians to admit that they were in the wrong.  By the time makkas barad was over, that goal had been accomplished -- the Egyptians were ready to cry mercy.  But that was not enough.  The last three makkos were not a punishment, but were a demonstration of G-d's might, not only to prove G-d's power to the Egyptians, but also to stamp the memory of yetzi'at Mitzrayim on the psyche of Klal Yisrael for all generations.  It's a subtle distinction.  Why the first seven makkos were not enough to show G-d's might and give Klal Yisrael something to talk about and remember for generations to come is a question I can't answer.  

The Abarbanel has a great answer.  If you look at the reaction of Pharoah and the Egyptians to the earlier makkos, it's almost identical in every case.  Moshe brings the makkah, Pharoah asks for the makkah to be removed, Moshe davens to Hashem and takes it away, and then Pharoah goes back to business as usual.   If you look at the reaction to the threat of arbeh, something changes.  Pharoah's servants beg him to do something before Egypt is destroyed, so Pharoah calls Moshe, listens to his demands, and instead of throwing him out, he asks, "Mi va'mi ha'holchim?"  OK, who do you want to take with you?  Let's negotiate.  Maybe the men I can let go, but do you really need the women and children?  Pharoah is at the bargaining table.  Now, it's true that the negotiation fails and Pharoah doesn't give in, but the very fact that Pharaoh is at the table and talking is a dramatic change.  From arbeh on, the geulah is a done deal - the rest is haggeling over price, so to speak.  And so we read arbeh through the end as a separate parsha.

There is a mussar haskel here: once you are at the table to bargain, you've already lost the battle.  

2) Last week I did a post on the reward given to the dogs for not barking during makkas bechoros.  My wife pointed out that one can easily explain that the reward of "lakelev tashlichun oso" has nothing to do with whether animals deserve reward, but is an obligation upon us to show appreciation even to inanimate objects from which we have gotten benefit.  This may explain the Mechilta, but the Yalkut is still difficult. 

Why were the dogs given this reward of getting treifa meat?  Ksav Sofer suggests that the dogs not barking served to distinguish Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptians.  Not eating treifa is because "anshei kodesh tehiyun li," so that we may be distinguished by kedusha.

Friday, January 23, 2015

the "weight" of evil tips the scales in our favor

The Midrash connects the pasuk in Mishlei (27:3)

כֹּבֶד אֶבֶן וְנֵטֶל הַחוֹל וְכַעַס אֱוִיל כָּבֵד מִשְּׁנֵיהֶם:
The weight of a stone and burden of sand -- the anger of a fool is heaver than both.

With the "hichbadti es libo" of our parsha using an elaborate play on words. I’ll do my best to make the simple pshat here intelligible in English.

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא: כבדתי את ישראל בעולם, שנקראו אבן, כמה דתימא (בראשית מט, כד): משם רועה אבן ישראל.
ונטל החול, אלו ישראל, שנמשלו לחול, שנאמר (הושע ב, א): והיה מספר בני ישראל כחול הים, שנטלתי אותם בעולם ואמרתי (זכריה ב, יב): כל הנוגע בהם כנוגע בבבת עינו.
ועמדו והכעיסו לפני, ובקשתי לכלותן ולהשליכן מעל פני, ואמרתי בשביל פרעה הרשע, שלא יאמר לא היה יכול להצילן ועמד עליהן והרגן.
הוי, וכעס אויל כבד משניהם.
הוי, כי אני הכבדתי את לבו:

Bnei Yisrael are called “even,” a rock: “m’sham ro’eh even Yisrael.”  The Midrash reads k-v-d in the pasuk not as referring to the weight of a rock, but like the word kavod, honor -- Hashem has given us, his rock, a place of honor in the world.  We are compared to the sand of the sea; the “burden of sand”alludes to Hashem taking us under his protection.  However, the Jewish people angered G-d and caused him to want to lash out at them.  Were he to do so, Pharoah would claim that G-d does not have the power to protect and save them.  Therefore, G-d holds back his anger.  More than the love G-d has for Bnei Yisrael, what protects us is the foolishness of Pharoah, the “weight” of the chilul Hashem that would be caused by allowing him to make false claims.  In our parsha, Hashem tells Moshe to go to Pharoah, “ki ani hichbadti es libo.”  Again using a play on words, the Midrash associates the “hichbadti” of Pharoah’s heart with the weight of foolishness referred to in Mishlei.

What are Chazal trying to teach us? We wouldn’t know that Pharoah would attribute it to his own power if Bnei Yisrael did not go free, or that that would be a big chilul Hashem?
When life is smooth sailing, then people think that G-d is treating them nicely.  When the going gets tough, then people think that G-d abandoned them and doesn’t care .  The Midrash is telling us that’s not how it works.  Sometimes the biggest tovah Hashem can do is to put a person in hot water.  It’s not Hashem’s love, the kavod he gives us, his promise to protect us, that brought the geulah from Mitzrayim – rather, it’s the fact that Pharaoh at the end of the day can’t win, as that would be a bigger crime than any wrong we could do.  Ki ANI hichbadti es libo” – Hashem says just like I gave you kavod and protection which you know is l’tovah, I’m the one giving hardening Pharoah’s heart and in doing so am giving you an you an even bigger tovah, because it’s that hardened heart of Pharoah that is your ticket to geulah. 

Unlike the meforshim who learn that the word “kaveid” in the end of the Midrash refers to the “weight” of the chilul Hashem caused by the evildoer, I would suggest that the end of the Midrash is really the same play on words used in the beginning of the passage.  Just like “koved even” refers to something that honors Klal Yisrael, the “ka’as avil” of the evildoer which is “kaveid” means that what appears to be “ka’as avil,” evil, can itself be the vehicle that ultimately brings even greater honor and geulah to Klal Yisrael.    

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Pope Francis, (l'havdil), the Rambam, and our parsha on whether pets go to heaven

The NY Times thought it worthy of front page headlines last month when it reported that Pope Francis said that even animals can make it to heaven.  What’s the big deal?  Because the "traditional" Aristotelian view, also adopted by the Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim (III:17), is that there is no concept of reward and punishment for animals.  According to the Rambam, only humans merit hashgacha pratis and individual reward/punishment, but Fido and Rover are no different than rocks, plants, cars or robots. 

Animal rights activists’ celebration was short-lived, as the NY Times later rewrote and updated the story (see the editor’s note at the end of the article) with an admission that it basically reported a myth as news without bothering to fact-check first (I know – shocking.)  Reuters quoted Vatican’s deputy spokesman Father Ciro Benedettini as putting it this way: ““There is a fundamental rule in journalism. That is double-checking, and in this case it was not done.”
The Rambam writes that there is no source that would contradict his view, but the Torah Temimah, unlike the NY Times, did some fact checking and was not convinced.  The pasuk in our parsha (11:7) relates that on the night of Pesach no dogs barked in the neighborhood of Bnei Yisrael.  The Mechilta comments that the dogs received reward for their silence, as the Torah later writes that a person who has treifa meat should throw it to the dogs.  The Yalkut (187) writes that in the merit of their not barking the dogs were rewarded with the ability to singing shirah and their excrement is used to tan hides that are used for tefillin, mezuzos, and sifrei Torah. Don’t these sources indicate, asks theTorah Temimah, that G-d does reward (and potentially punishes) even animals?! 

The Torah Temimah answers that all we see from these Midrashim is that the dogs received some reward in this world for their good deeds.  That doesn’t mean that Fido would go to heaven, as the NY Times thought. 
Once you accept the underlying logic of the Rambam, I don’t see how that distinction works.  If animals are not subject to reward/punishment because they lack the ability to choose right from wrong, then what difference does it make whether the reward/punishment is given in this world or the next?  Furthermore, the Ramban in Parshas Noach (ch 9) takes the Rambam’s position a step further and writes that punishment is not given to animals even in this world:

תמה אני, אם הדרישה כמשמעה, מיד החיה כמו מיד האדם להיות עונש בדבר, ואין בחיה דעת שתיענש או שתקבל שכר. ואולי יהיה כן בעניין דם האדם לבדו, שכל החיה שתטרוף אותו תיטרף כי גזרת מלך היא, וזה טעם סקול יסקל השור ולא יאכל את בשרו

The Ramban has to explain that the punishment given to a shor haniskal is a “gezeiras melech,” but if not for that special gezeirah, a shor or any other animal would not be subject to punishment even in this world.
R’ Noson Gestetner gives a simpler answer to the T”T’s question. The Rambam himself writes that while Hashem does not have hashgacha pratis on individual animals, he does have hashgacha on the “min,” the species.  We say every day that G-d is “masbi’a l’kol chai ratzon.”  Hashgacha may not dictate that this particular lion will catch this particular gazelle for lunch today, but G-d does ensure that  lions in general have food to eat and what we call nature continues on its course.  In a similar vein, when the Midrash promises reward to the dogs for their silence, it does not mean this or that particular dog got a reward – it means the species of dog as a whole received a reward.  What’s the difference between rewarding the species and rewarding the individual creature?  R’ Gestetner suggests that the “min” of dog or other creature is governed by an angelic “sar” that can make choices and therefore can receive reward.

Perhaps there is another possible model we can use to explain how animals can receive reward/punishment.  Rav Dessler frequently speaks about accruing reward by serving as a “kli” for someone else’s advancement in avodah.  For example, when Reuvain prays for Shimon to recover from an illness, Shimon may not have made any choice that would warrant his earning a reprieve from punishment, but since Reuvain has made a positive choice to daven based on Shimon’s condition, Shimon’s spiritual stock goes up as well.  Dogs may not have the ability to choose right from wrong, but perhaps by virtue of the fact that they served to highlight G-d’s hashgacha over the houses of Bnei Yisrael and were a kli for kedushas Hashem, they therefore deserved to be rewarded.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

hil talmud torah

The main topic of chapter 4 of Hil Talmud Torah in the Rambam can be summed up in the first two words of halacha 2: "Keitzad melamdim?"  The Rambam discusses how a teacher should teach, questions he is responsible for answering, etc.  So it's interesting that he ends the perek with this halacha: 

 אין ישנים בבית המדרש.  וכל המתנמנם בבית המדרש, חכמתו נעשית קרעים קרעים

I would have put that halacha in the dinim of kedushas beis hamedrash/beis haknesses, but it seems from the Rambam that not sleeping in a beis medrash is not a din in the kedusha of the place, but is rather a din in talmud Torah.  You can't learn (to say the least!) if you are asleep!

There is another example of a chidush from the placement of a halacha in the next perek. Had you asked me, I would have placed the chiyuv to visit a rebbe on Yom Tov somewhere in hilchos Yom Tov.  Chapter 5 of Hil Talmud Torah deals with the chiyuv of showing respect to a rebbe, and there the Rambam writes:

 וחייב לעמוד מפני רבו, משיראנו מרחוק מלוא עיניו, עד שיתכסה ממנו ולא יראה קומתו; ואחר כך יישב.  וחייב אדם להקביל את פני רבו, ברגל.

The Rambam doesn't see it as a din in Yom Tov, but as a din in talmud Torah.

Friday, January 16, 2015

the strength to have hope

Right after Moshe told Hashem that even Bnei Yisrael were not listening to him, the Torah takes what seems like a detour from the story of yetzi’as Mitzrayim into a discussion of the yichus of the shevatim and their families (6:14-27).  What is this discussion of lineage doing here?  Rashi has an answer, but I wanted to share a classic Ishbitzer.

Sometimes we see people who are really suffering but somehow they never lose hope and never stop davening.  Where does that strength come from? The Beis Ya’akov writes that when Hashem wanadiants to help a person, Hashem gives them the strength not to despair; Hashem inspires a person to turn to Him.  I think I’ve posted the Mei HaShiloach before: “terem nikra’u ani e’eneh” means that even before we start davening, Hashem responds to us by giving us the desire and strength to daven.
Bnei Yisrael thought they were the lowest of the low.  There was no point to listen to Moshe because whatever he said, it wasn’t going to make a difference.  Hashem therefore taught Moshe this parsha about their yichus.  Hashem reminded Bnei Yisrael that slavery did not define who they were – what defined who they were was their yichus to the Shivtei K-h, the greatest of the great.  Hashem restored their belief in themselves, gave them hope, and as a result they were able to believe in the possibility of redemption and daven to make it happen.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Moshe's question and the law of noncontradiction

One of the three classic laws of logic is the law of noncontradiction: something cannot be A and not A at the same time.  I can’t be at work writing this and not be at work at the same time.  I don’t think we need to get into proofs – most everyone reading this will accept that this law is true and makes sense.

Does G-d obey the law of noncontradiction?  Can G-d make something that is A and not A at the same time? 
My goal is not to get into a debate about whether G-d can make a rock that he can’t lift or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  My goal is to explain a parsha in chumash. 

Moshe Rabeinu at the end of last week’s parsha questioned why the shibud had grown more intense as a result of his coming to Pharoah to ask for Bnei Yisrael’s release.  M’mah nafshacha: if it was time for Bnei Yisrael to be let out, then why is the oppression increasing?  And if it’s not time for them to leave, why was he sent?
The opening of our parsha is presumably a response, but if it is, it’s an ambiguous one.  Moshe is told that G-d revealed himself to the Avos as K-l Shakai, but not with the shem Havaya.  What does that mean and how does it answer the question?

The Netziv explains that the K-l Shakai defines the purpose of creation: to reveal G-d’s glory.  Whenever G-d intervenes in the world to further our awareness of his greatness and his presence, that’s K-l Shakai.
The shem Havaya simply means that G-d is immanent and in control of everything.

The problem is these two names seem to contradict each other.
M'mah nafshach: If G-d interacts with the world as K-l Shakai, then things that happen that hide G-d’s presence cannot be attributed directly to Him.  Those are roadblocks to K-l Shakai’s revelation, obstacles to seeing his glory.  

But if G-d interacts with the world as Havaya and everything is governed by hashgacha, then hashgacha can’t have to do with G-d’s glory because it means he is behind things that disguise his glory and presence and even cause it to be diminished.

As the Netziv writes, “Im shemi ‘K-l Shakai,’ aino hakol b’hashgacha.  V’im hakol b’hashgacha, al korchach aino choshesh l’kvodo v’ain zeh ‘Shakai.’”
Does the law of noncontradiction hold true when we are talking about G-d?

What Hashem was telling Moshe is that even the Avos could not fathom how Hashem could be both “Shakai” and “Havaya” at the same time, but they knew not to ask.  We cannot imagine the law of noncontradiction not holding true, but G-d is an exception.  For Him, both “Shakai” and “Havaya” can both be true at the same time.  Hashem can b’hashgacha be behind the oppression of the shibud increasing, and at the same time, that very same event which seems to contradict everything we would associate with G-d’s glory, is itself a manifestation of K-l Shakai, the revelation of his glory.    

The Netziv writes that this parsha was not just an answer to Moshe, but is a “limud l’doros.”  We can’t understand it all, and will never have all the answers.

a glimpse into the future

The nice thing about Jimmy Carter still being around and voicing his idiotic ramblings is that it gives us a picture of what President Hussein will be like in 20 or 30 years, when he too will run around meeting terrorist dictators, blaming the world’s problems on the Jooooz, and trying to recreate his image after the full effect of his failed and destructive policies is felt.  Something to look forward to!  And no doubt, he will still have his self-hating Jewish defenders then as he does now.

We know how bad things are in France, but it’s not much better in Britain.  Reuters reports, “A quarter of Jews in Britain have considered leaving the country in the last two years and well over half feel they have no long term future in Europe, according to a survey published on Wednesday.”  And I am sure if we survey other countries in Europe the results will be similar.  But here – well, things are different in the US, aren’t they?  Things like that could never happen here, right?
The current situation reminds me of the gemara in Gittin in the sugya about the churban where the gemara describes how there was a huge city filled with Jews and they were having a big celebration.  The enemy attacked and started killing Jews on one end of the city while on the other end they were still partying, completely oblivious to what was going on.  How long do you think the party here in the US will keep going? 

I listen to talk radio when I drive and I read lots of conservative blogs and I have heard and read the same question time and again: why do Jews overwhelmingly support leftist politicians and their policies despite their obvious anti-Israeland anti-Jewish bias? 
The wish I knew the answer.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Chasam Sofer on the Ra'avad and corporeality of G-d

The Chasam Sofer in his commentary on last week’s parsha sneaks in an interesting pshat in the famous comment of the Ra’avad regarding hagshama, the corporeality of G-d.  Here’s a link because I don’t think my summary does justice to it.  The Rambam (Teshuvah 3:7) paskens that thinking that G-d has a body or a form is apikorsus, but the Ra’avad argues that “gedolim v’tovim chashvu kein.”  The Ra’avad understood the Rambam to be making a distinction between thinking of G-d as having a body, which is heresy, and thinking of G-d the way the philosophers do, as an abstract being. The Ra’avad’s argument, as the Chasam Sofer presents it, is that the Rambam’s distinction is semantic and not real.  Even if you think of G-d in the way the philosophers do, or even the way kabbalists do – applying any intellectual construct to the concept of G-d – is just as bad as thinking that G-d has a body.  Just because you box G-d into an abstract construct instead of a physical one doesn’t make things better.  When the Ra’avad writes “gedolim v’tovim chashvu kein,” he doesn’t mean that other Rishonim or philosophers thought G-d has a body.  What he means is that the abstract conception of G-d which they subscribe to, which the Rambam himself subscribes to as a defender of philosophy, is no less problematic than thinking G-d has a physical body. 

So how then can we ever think of G-d?  As Moshe Rabeinu asks, when Klal Yisrael asks what G-d’s name is, what can he tell them?  How do we worship a being without thinking of him?  For the Ra’avad, “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh,” the philosophical or kabbalistic idea of G-d, is just a beginning.  The next pasuk continues, “Anochi Elokei avicha Elokei Avraham Elokei Yitzchak Elokei Ya’akov…” (3:6)  Even though the Avos themselves could not fathom G-d’s true essence (“u’shmi Hashem lo noda’ati lahem,” as we read in our parsha), the fact that G-d appeared to them and allowed their brain to have some conception of Him is a matir for us to think of G-d in the same way.  Of course we are not the Avos and we cannot even imagine what conception of G-d they might have had, but we don’t need to do that – all we need to do is say whatever the Avos thought of, we are worshipping the same being.  We don’t know what G-d is, but we know he is “Elokei Avraham…” and we can hang on his coattails.
I’m not sure what to make of the balancing act the Chasam Sofer is trying to oull off.  On the one hand, he finds justice in the Ra’avad’s critique – the very act of trying to apprehend G-d imposes limits on Him that are false.  G-d by definition is beyond anything we can conceive of.  Yet on the other hand the Chasam Sofer does not seem to accept that the need to worship, to relate to G-d, therefore must allow for us to draw a mental “picture” of Him (as the Piecezna seems to suggest in Bnei Machshava Tovah).  He draws back and says that a person should just resign himself to saying whatever the Avos thought of, ditto for him, and that’s it.