Tuesday, November 25, 2014

does G-d answer prayers if the recipient doesn't deserve it?

The Mishna (Brachos 4:4) quotes the view of R’ Yehoshua that if a person is in a dangerous place he can daven a “tefilah ketzara,” a very short tefilah.  The text of that tefilah includes the words, “… b’chol parashas ha’ibbur yehiyu tzorcheihem lifanecha.”  What is the “parashas ha’ibbur?”  The Rishonim explain that it means even when Bnei Yisrael are “porshim l’aveira.”  

If Bnei Yisrael are doing aveiros, then how can we ask or expect Hashem to show mercy?  They are not behaving in a way that deserves mercy!  In the Mishnayos Oholei Shem the author uses this as a proof that tefilah is a metziyus – it functions like a law of nature.  You don’t ask whether an object is deserving or not for the law of gravity to work -- it just works.  In that same way, tefilah can elicit rachamim irrespective of the merits of the request.

Proof from this past week’s parsha: Chazal (Midrash Tanchuma) write that because Eisav let out a cry when he found out the brachos were taken from him, Ya’akov’s great… great gransdson Mordechai midah k’neged midah was forced to cried in pain at Haman’s decrees.  Surely Ya’akov was deserving of the brachos that he received, and Eisav was undoubtedly a villain.  Nonetheless, a true cry, even if it comes from an Eisav, can produce tremendous results in shamayim.  (See Netziv in Harchev Davar 27:9 for a different approach.)

Another proof: In parshas Va’Eschanan, Hashem ordered Moshe to cease davening to go into Eretz Yisrael.  If Hashem did not want Moshe to go, then all the tefilos in the world shouldn’t have made a difference.  Why demand that he stop?  Just don't listen!  Again, we see that tefilah operates as a force within teva. Hashem didn’t want Moshe to go, but Hashem would not overturn teva to prevent Moshe from taking the law into his own hands.

Monday, November 24, 2014

living with the times

The Alter Rebbe had a motto of “living with the times,” meaning taking the parsha and applying it to the present day and your life.  It is not hard to read current events into this past week’s parsha: you have the conflict between Plishtim and Yitzchak; you have the ridiculous claim on the part of the Plishtim that they treated Yitzchak well when no such thing was true; you have Ya’akov being accused of duplicity by Eisav; you have Ya’akov forced for flee for his life and run from the fry pan of Eisav into the fire of Lavan’s home.  But of all the events in the parsha, the one line that I think most resonates with current events is, “V’tich’hena einav m’re’os.”  We, like Yitzchak, are blind.  We grope in the dark.  So much is unclear to us and the projects that we want to give our blessing to are often the wrong ones (yes, it could be that Yitzchak really knew the truth, but the plain reading of the text is not that way). We hope that like then, it all works out in the end.  

Why does Yitzchak return to the wells of his father only after being banished from the land of the Plishtim?  Is it, as the Netziv suggests, because it was only then that he found himself living again in proximity to those wells and could turn his attention to them?  The Ishbitzer says there is something deeper going on here. Even in the Rishonim (e.g. Ramban), we find that those wells of Avraham carry symbolic significance. Those wells were sources of spiritual nourishment, alluding to the future batei mikdash.  When Yitzchak was kicked out of the land of the Plishtim, he did not only think to himself, "What's wrong with those people?"  He thought to himself as well, "What's wrong with me?"  Yitzchak thought that if the world was not appreciating who he is and what he stood for, it meant that there was some spiritual defect within himself that needed correcting.  And so he returned to his father's wells, to the source of it all, to refortify himself.  

Thursday, November 20, 2014

the one crime Eisav couldn't be forgiven for

My daughter e-mailed me from seminary (in Eretz Yisrael) that especially this week I should post something about Eretz Yisrael. I haven't thought much about the parsha yet, but I e-mailed her back a few quick ideas.  R’ Moshe Tzuriel in his Derishas Tzion points out the strange conversation between Yitzchak Avinu and G-d the gemara (Megillah 6) quotes. Yitzchak Avinu, the great melamed zechus (see Shabbos 89 – parenthetically, isn’t it ironic that the personality most associated with din musters the greatest arguments for mercy?), pleads with G-d to give Eisav a break, to which G-d replies that Eisav is a rasha. Yitzchak asks again, “But can’t anyone be melamed some zechus on him?” To which G-d replies that Eisav is the one who will destroy Eretz Yisrael. “In that case,” says Yitzchak, “There is nothing to talk about.”

We’re talking about Eisav, the guy who Chazal describe as a kofer, a murderer, guilty of arayos (Baba Basra 16). Not only that, but when Yitzchak asks Hashem to have mercy, he says [quoting a pasuk], “Yuchan rasha” – Yitzchak knew that Eisav was a rasha! Yet, despite Eisav’s sins, Yitzchak was still willing to ask for mercy on his behalf.  It’s only the revelation that Eisav would attack and destroy Eretz Yisrael that cut off the debate. This is a crime that Hashem is not willing to show any tolerance for.

The Kuzari (II:14 also quoted by R' Tzuriel) learns that the whole dispute between Ya’akov and  Eisav revolved around control of Eretz Yisrael.

Derech derush, R’ Moshe Avigdor Amiel in his Hegyonos El Ami writes that even though we have a general rule that 3 times makes a chazakah, we see from our parsha that this rule does not apply to the mitzvah of yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Avraham dug wells that the Plishtim filled in; Yitchak dug wells called “Eisek” that were fought over; Yitzchak dug more wells called “Sitnah” that were fought over – 3 times failure. Yet Yitzchak didn’t give up and finally succeeded the next time around.  No matter how many setbacks there are, when it comes to yishuv ha'aretz, it’s never time to give up.

P.S. Someone was kind enough to send the following link: 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

did Rashbam think Rashi was written b'ruch hakodesh?

Earlier in the week I mentioned R’ Dessler’s letter (4:31(2)) in which he argues that Chazal’s pshat in pesukim is just as much part of the mesorah as anything else, just we have license where we cannot understand or accept that pshat to read and interpret the text differently.  Learning pshat against Chazal is in effect a b’dieved situation, a response to the needs of “nevochim.”  R’ Menashe Klein, in his Shu”T Mishneh Halachos 5:165-169 (link) discusses this same issue at length and takes a very different view.  In a nutshell (it's a kuntres that goes on for a few pages) R’ M. Klein does not think Chazal ever meant their pshat as THE interpretation of any pasuk – they simply offer ONE interpretation of many, all of which are latent in the pasuk.  When meforshim are critical of a pshat brought by Chazal, the point is not that the interpretation is false -- the point is that Chazal's reading should be taken as derash and not pshat.  The argument is often over what level of meaning an interpretation is operating on, not whether that interpretation is true or false, as multiple true interpretations of the text are possible on different levels.  Revealing other meanings in the text is a l’chatchila, as this serves l’hagdil Torah.  (Judging from the comments and e-mail in response to last post, most people intuitively side with R' Menashe Klein.)  Two things struck me in his kuntres: 1) his tolerance of contextualization - an interpretation in Chazal/Rishonim may have carried particular meaning in its time or place, but in other periods other readings may be preferred (Rashbam at the beginning of Vayeishev's refers to "pashtus hameshachdim b'chol yom"); 2) not only can one learn pesukim is ways that are different than Chazal, but he writes that so long as the halacha is not impacted, one can do the same for Mishnayos and gemara. 

Another question he raises is whether Chazal and/or the Rishonim wrote everything b'ruach hakodesh.  I recently heard a speaker claim that regardless of whether other people believe Rashi was written b’ruach hakodesh, the Rashbam certainly didn’t think so.  I respectfully beg to differ with that reasoning.  In the famous tanur shel achna’I story, R’ Eliezer calls down various miracles to occur to prove that he is correct.  Surely public miracles are even better proof of Heaven’s assent than a private voice of nevuah or spirit of ruach hakodesh.  Yet we don’t pasken like R’ Eliezer.  The reason why is not because we have doubts about whether R’ Eliezer’s words are inspired –  it’s because that has nothing to do with the matter.  Torah is given to us to puzzle over with our own brains.  There is no contradiction between thinking that Rashbam felt his grandfather’s interpretation of chumash was written b'ruach hakodesh and Rashbam thinking that given the chance to revise, his grandfather would have updated that interpretation to read more like Rashbam’s own.
M’inyan l’inyan on the topic of pshat and derash, the Sifsei Chachamim on last week’s parsha asks a question that is so fundamental that you have to wonder why it didn’t come up earlier.  Rashi (24:17) offers two interpretations of “Vayakam s’dei Ephron”:
תקומה הייתה לה שיצאה מיד הדיוט ליד מלך.
ופשוטו של מקרא: ויקם השדה והמערה אשר בו וכל העץ לאברהם למקנה וגו'
We think of Rashi’s interpretation as “pshat;” he cites Midrash only to the extent that it helps explicate the plain meaning of the text.  So m’mah nafshach: if the pasuk is understandable according to the “peshuto shel mikra” (Rashi’s second interpretation), why does Rashi bother to quote Midrash?  And if the pasuk is not understandable according to the “peshuto shel mikra,” then why does Rashi cite it at all? 
The Sifsei Chachamim’s answer addresses that particular Rashi, but as he notes in his question, whenever Rashi cites multiple interpretations (even where he doesn’t label one pshat and one derash), the same question can be asked, so we need a general rule.    The question sounds fancy, but the answer is I think simple: whether a pshat is good or bad is not something that can be evaluated in absolute terms.  It’s a relative judgment compared to some other possible reading.  Whenever Rashi cites multiple interpretations, it’s because each one is lacking when weighed against the other.  Yes, the pasuk can be read according to “peshuto shel mikra,” but that comes at some expense; yes, the pasuk’s meaning is clearer in some ways if interpreted using Midrash, but that comes at some other expense (see S.C. for the strenghts and weaknesses of each pshat brought by this Rashi).  Whenever Rashi offers multiple interpretations, Sifsei Chachamim always looks for a weakness in each that is counterbalanced by the other pshat.  (Contrast that with, for example, the Sefas Emes, who will often show that both interpretations in Rashi complement each other to bring out a single hashkafic point.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

two ways to say maybe

In his meeting with Lavan and Besuel, Eliezer recounts that he asked Avraham before leaving: “Maybe the girl won’t come with me?”  Rashi notes that the word, “ulai,” “maybe,” is written without the letter “vav,” so that if you didn’t know better you might read it as “eilai.”  The Midrash explains that Eliezer had a daughter that he thought might be a prospective match for Yitzchak.  Raising the question was Eliezer’s way of giving voice to his hidden hope that Yitzchak might marry “eilai,” into his own family.

The meforshei Rashi ask why this allusion appears only here, when Eliezer recounts the story, and not earlier, when he is speaking to Avraham directly.  The Kotzker famously explains that it’s only after the fact, after he found Rivka, that Eliezer realized his own hidden motives.  So long as he had a vested interest in the matter, he didn’t even realize how it tilted his perspective. 

Another clever answer: before he came to Lavan and Besuel’s home, Eliezer thought his hava amina that Yitzchak should marry his daughter was ridiculous.  But when he saw the mechutanim, Besuel, and he saw Lavan, he thought why not me?

The Ksav v’haKabbalah suggests that this Midrash is not based on the missing letter “vav” alone, but is based on the phrase used to pose the question.  There are two different words that can be used to talk about “maybe”: the word “ulai” and the word “pen.” The word “pen” is used when you don’t want the possibility being discussed to happen -- the equivalent of the English “lest.”  After Adam eats from the eitz hada’as, the Torah says, “pen yishlach yado v’achal gam m’eitz hachaim,” i.e. “lest he eat from the eitz hachaim.” The word “ulai,” on the other hand, is when you want the possibility being discussed to happen.  Ya’akov sends gifts to Eisav because “ulai yisah panai,” i.e. “maybe he will greet me in peace.”  Ya’akov wants Eisav to accept his gift, not to turn away.  When Eliezer raised the possibility of Rivka not wanting to come with him, he doesn’t use the word, “pen,” i.e. “lest she refuse to come,” but rather he uses “ulai” – it was something that secretly, he wanted to happen.


This pshat gives you a new perspective on a key pasuk in our parsha. Rivka tells Ya’akov to dress up as Eisav and go to get brachos from his father.  Ya’akov responds, “Ulai y’musheini avi,” i.e. “Perhaps my father will touch me [and feel my smooth skin].”  Ya’akov doesn’t use the word “pen,” i.e. “I can't do it lest my father feel that it is not me,” but rather he uses the word “ulai,” indicating it is something he wanted.  Despite his hesitancy to go into Yitzchak and deceive him, Ya’akov reveals in his question that he really desired for Yitzchak to place his hands on him, as that was the mechanism for the delivery of brachos.  

what can one say?

What can one say on a day such as this?  Rav Zalman Melamed perhaps put it best (link):

"We must remember that we are in the midst of a struggle for our right to all of Eretz Yisrael, to Jerusalem in particular, and even more, for the Temple Mount, site of our Holy Temples."

"I request, my beloved students, that you deflect all the pain, anger and trauma to the right channels: Study more Torah, do more good deeds, adding merits that will bring our Redemption closer."

I was in the kosher supermarket with my wife on Sunday and was standing by the checkout where they have a display of little candies and things and I remember thinking (and saying to her afterwards) that Jews are being persecuted all over the world, and here our minds are on kosher Tic-Tacs.  

I don't mean we should all take vows of prishus or anything like that.  That's not going to happen. But we can do our best to empathize and be mishtatef b'tza'aran shel Yisrael.  We can do our best to set aside more time for Torah, for tefilah, and for speaking out for the values we hold dear and for our people.

I can't find the link now, but there were two sites where you could contribute money that would go to the families of those killed.  If someone has the link, pls send it to me and I can add it to this post bl"n.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Did Ibn Ezra/Rashbam/Radak/other pashtanim believe what they wrote?

The footnote at the end of letter 31 - part 2 in vol 4 of Michtav has become well known these days because it deals with the issue of apparent contradictions between Chazal and  science, a topic widely discussed mei'Hodu v'ad Kush in the Jewish blogsphere.  I want to call your attention to the body of the letter, which raises a no less important issue, albeit less well known.   Rav Dessler in that letter distinguishes between two types of derashos of Chazal: 1) derash which is obviously not meant as a literal interpretation of the text, but rather adds a level of meaning above and beyond what the text says; 2) derash which serves to illuminate the plain meaning of the text by filling in lacuna, providing context, explaining obscure words, etc.  This second type of derash fills the same function as what, if it came from another source, we would call pshat.  Which brings us to the key question: if Chazal give us "pshat" in pesukim, asks Rav Dessler, why did the Rishonim nonetheless still engage in learning "pshat" in those very same pesukim, oftentimes in ways that contradict or ignore the interpretations of Chazal?  How can the Rashbam, the Ibn Ezra, and others push aside Chazal in favor of their own reasoning?

I find Rav Dessler's answer striking.  He suggests that these Rishonim only wrote for the "nevochim," those poor confused souls who could not accept Chazal's interpretation of the text, but were willing to accept the text as true given some other more reasonable (in their eyes) interpretation.  The Rishonim wrote to demonstrate that 1) the text does lend itself to multiple interpretations, apart from the one given by Chazal, and 2) there is no inherent problem in accepting those other interpretations as pshat provided they do not contradict any fundamental theological principles.  Therefore, even if you have trouble digesting a pshat of Chazal, your spiritual goose is not cooked, so to speak.  By way of analogy, Rav Dessler compares the efforts of the pashtanim to the Rambam's Moreh -- a book intended to provide guidence to a specific audience with specific needs, not a book meant to provide the ideal of best answers to all philosophical problems.  So too, the Ibn Ezra, the Rashbam, the Radak, meant to address the needs of a specific audience, not to provide the "ideal" interpretation -- that is limited to the words of Chazal.

In other words: "pshat" is a b'dieved, a crutch for those not yet comfortable or not yet ready to accept the "gospel" (excuse my terminology) of Chazal's explication.

And so I ask the question which I used as the title for this post: did the Ibn Ezra believe what he wrote?  Did he think his interpretation -- where he differed from Chazal -- was correct?  Did the Rashbam?  Surely these giants were not "nevochim" themselves.  So when we read an Ibn Ezra that tosses aside a Midrash and suggests some other reading of a text, are we to think that in his heart the Ibn Ezra really believed the Midrash's interpretation to be the most plausible, and his critique is just a ruse, i.e. he is just going through the motions of presenting the text in a way that he thinks a "navoch" would be comfortable with? 

(I don't know if there is an online Michtav I can link to, otherwise I would.  If someone finds one, pls let me know.)

Thursday, November 13, 2014

standing on the shoulders of giants

1) The Midrash writes that once when R’ Akiva was darshening his students started to doze off, and so he posed a question to wake them up: why did Esther merit to rule over 127 countries?   Answer: because Sarah lived 127 righteous years.
Why does the Midrash make a point of telling us the context – the students nodding off – in which R’ Akiva taught this derasha? I’m sure it must make teachers feel better to know that even R’ Akiva struggled to keep his student’s attention, and maybe it makes students feel better to know that dozing off in class is not a new phenomenon, but I doubt this is the message Chazal wanted to convey. And what exactly was it about R’ Akiva’s question that woke them up?
R’ Akiva lived in the period immediately following the churban of the bais hamikdrash – a time of great transition, from greatness to galus. It was not ordinary physical sleep that R’ Akiva’s students were overcome with, but rather it was a lack of spiritual and emotional energy to deal with what seemed to be the overwhelming challenges they faced. 
Esther’s name comes from the words, “hester panim.” Esther too lived in a time when G-d’s presence was hidden. Nonetheless, Esther rose to rule over the entire world. How? Because generations beforehand there was a Sarah Imeinu whose spiritual influence extended long into the future to protect her children even amidst that hester.
The Chiddushei haRI”M explains that R’ Akiva was telling his students that no matter how bleak things looked, they were standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before them, and could therefore still achieve great things.
 
2) Helping someone in need is not the gemilus chassadim that was Avraham Avinu's hallmark.  Providing help to someone in distress is basic human decency; to not do so would be callous.  You're not a tzadik for doing what should be the norm. 
 
So what made Avraham special?  Let's look at what Rivka did to prove that she shared that same midah.  Along comes a caravan of camels, led my a group of able bodied men, laden with "kol tuv" of Avraham, all kinds of goods and material.  Due to Eliezer having kefitzas haderech, these camels haven't even broken a sweat.  They could travel for miles more without a break.  Rivka is just three years old, barely old enough to be out alone.  What does she do?  She offers to draw water not just for Eliezer, but for all his camels.  Imagine the reaction of anyone seeing this scene - it's ludicrous!  They would laugh at her offer.  Surely Eliezer and his men were far more capable of caring for the camels than Rivka was, surely they had enough of their own provisions to tend to the camels if they needed food or drink, and surely there was no way Rivka's help (barring a miracla) could have made much of a difference.  But she offered anyway. 
 
R' Yitzchak Isaac Sher explains that what made Rivka (and Avraham) special is the desire to help even when there is no apparent need, even when it won't seem to make much difference, and even when others can get by without it.  So why help?  Because you want to do good.