Thursday, February 26, 2015

the beauty of the zayis

1. The Midrash opens our parsha by explaining why Hashem chose to call Bnei Yisrael specifically a zayis, an olive, when there are so many other beautiful plants that the Jewish people are compared to in Tanach:

 ואתה תצוה הה"ד (ירמיה יא) זית רענן יפה פרי תואר קרא ה' שמך וכי לא נקראו ישראל אלא כזית הזה בלבד והלא בכל מיני אילנות נאים ומשובחים נקראו ישראל בגפן ותאנה שנאמר (תהלים פ) גפן ממצרים תסיע תאנה שנאמר (הושע ט) כבכורה בתאנה בראשיתה כתמר שנא' (שיר ז) זאת קומתך דמתה לתמר כארז שנא' (תהלים צב) כארז בלבנון ישגה כאגוז שנאמר (שיר ז) אל גנת אגוז ירדתי וקראן בכל מיני שלחים שנאמר (שם ד) שלחיך פרדס רמונים ובא ירמיה לומר זית רענן יפה פרי תואר אלא מה הזית הזה עד שהוא באילנו מגרגרין אותו ואח"כ מורידין אותו מן הזית ונחבט ומשחובטין אותו מעלין אותו לגת ונותנין אותן במטחן ואח"כ טוחנין אותן ואח"כ מקיפין אותן בחבלים ומביאין אבנים ואח"כ נותנין את שומנן כך ישראל באין עובדי כוכבים וחובטין אותם ממקום למקום וחובשים אותן וכופתין אותם בקולרין ומקיפין אותן טרטיוטין ואח"כ עושין תשובה והקב"ה עונה להם מנין שנא' (שמות ב) ויאנחו בני ישראל וכן (דברים ד) בצר לך ומצאוך כי אל רחום ה' אלהיך הוי זית רענן יפה פרי תואר
Just as the zayis is pounded and crushed and beaten until it finally produces a drop of precious oil, so too, Bnei Yisrael are sometimes beaten and oppressed by our enemies until we finally cry out a precious cry to G-d and he answers us.

How does that answer the question?  Why not compare us to the grape or the fig or some other fruit that doesn’t require pounding and beating to bring out its beauty? 
The Sefas Emes (5639) explains that it’s no chiddush to say you are wonderful and beautiful when everything is perfect and life and smooth.  What Chazal are telling us is that even when we need a little pounding, even when Hashem is forced to bring suffering on us, when we are not looking so good, it doesn’t mean he loves us any less or wants to hurt us.  Even when we are being punished, that punishment is like the crushing of the zayis – it removes the outer chaff and reveals the wonderful oil that is stored inside (see this previous post for a different approach).

2. There is an interesting Midrash in the middle of the parsha that says that when Hashem told Moshe, “V’atah hakreiv eilecha es Aharon achicha v’es banav…” Moshe was angry and upset.  Hashem consoled him by noting that Moshe was the one who delivered the Torah to Klal Yisrael and therefore has that merit.

Is it possible that Moshe was jealous of Aharon being selected instead of him?  The same Moshe Rabeinu who pleaded with G-d to select Aharon to be the go’el of Klal Yisrael instead of him?
There are a bunch of meforshim who all take basically the same approach, but I’m going to use a Ksav Sofer because he puts the answer in the context of a vort from his father the Chasam Sofer that at least for me, given the events I’ve been dealing with, had a little more meaning.  The Navi (Melachim I 2:1-3) writes that when David haMelech grew old and was about to die, he commanded his son saying as follows:

וַיִּקְרְבוּ יְמֵי דָוִד לָמוּת וַיְצַו אֶת שְׁלֹמֹה בְנוֹ לֵאמֹר
אָנֹכִי הֹלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ כָּל הָאָרֶץ וְחָזַקְתָּ וְהָיִיתָ לְאִישׁ:

He then goes on with additional instructions about being a mentch and keeping Torah, etc.  There is one phrase that doesn’t fit.  “Anochi holeich b’derech kol ha’aretz” is not, as the rest of what David goes on to say is, an exhortation to Shlomo to do anything.  It’s a description of David’s condition, a recognition that he is about to die.  Shouldn’t it therefore come before the word, “Vayitzav…,” before David starts giving Shlomo a final charge?

The Chasam Sofer answers that once a person passes on, they are no longer a “holeich.”  Their situation is static – they cannot “go” anywhere.  They are spiritually fixed in place.  But there is an exception.  If a person has decedents who take inspiration from his life and therefore dedicate themselves to doing more mitzvos and learn Torah, that person’s spiritual “stock” (so to speak) continues to rise even after death -- they continue to be a "holeich."  David exhorted Shlomo to first and foremost make him a “holeich,”make him someone who will continue to grow and not remain static after death.
When Moshe heard that not only Aharon, but also his children as well, were called to be kohanim, he was jealous of that spiritual legacy that Aharon would be able to pass on to his children.  Moshe Rabeinu did not have children who were like him, but he desired to be a "holeich" even after death as well.  Hashem consoled Moshe with the observation that he, Moshe, gave us Torah, and through our learning, we, all of Klal Yisrael, not just Moshe’s children, in effect carry on his legacy. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

on the loss of my father

No matter how stupid anything I write here is, I could always count on the fact that I would have at least one reader – my father.  I could say the same about life in general.  Even when I did something stupid, even if he disagreed with me, even when he might have been critical, my father said his piece but was always there for me to rely on.  Unfortunately, last Monday on 27 Shevat my father passed away.
I started my hesped last week with an anecdote, thinking that even if I choke up and don’t make it through the whole thing, this one story alone would be enough to sum up my father: last Sunday I was out somewhere with my wife and kids, and on the way back one of my girls wanted to stop and go shopping.  Now, my wife and I regard shopping with teenagers as a form of torture, so we went home instead. After we got home, my daughter resumed pleading her case, and this time she played her trump card – “Grandpa takes me shopping.”   What my daughter did not take into account was that there is nothing that my father would not do, no place he would not go, no errand he would not run, no matter how time consuming, boring, or burdensome – even going shopping with teenage girls – if it was for the sake of his grandchildren.  Grandpa was willing to endure what even a parent would not.  My brother mentioned that one of his kids once called home to say that she was getting out of school two periods earlier than usual and she knew she would be told to sit and wait for the bus, so she was just calling to let them know that she called Grandpa first and he was already on the way to get her.  There are many such examples I could go on and write about.
And as I learned during shiva, it wasn’t even just his own grandchildren that my father did these things for.  There was the neighbor’s twins who don’t have grandparents that he took out for ice cream every year on their birthday.   There was another neighbor’s son that he took to a baseball game.  And again, there are many similar stories we heard that I could relate.
My father was born in 1933.  Like so many others in his time, his education consisted of public school and a smattering of Hebrew school classes afterwards.  He attended college only to get an Associate’s degree, and then he went out and joined the workforce to make a living.  He for years worked in someone else’s business, only later in life owning a share and managing it on his own.  Yet my father made sure that his own children did attend yeshiva, even if he had to struggle very hard to make tuition payments and scrimp and save to do it.  He made sure that I was able to go to college, graduate school, learn for smicha and in kollel.  He pushed for Marine Park Jewish Center to move beyond being the typical “traditional” synagogue that once was so common in America and become a place that the new orthodox families in his neighborhood would feel comfortable attending – and today that shul is bursting with mispallelim.    He worked with my brother and helped him when he started his own business at a very young age.   “Ashrei mi she’ba l’kan v’talmudo b’yado” – my father may not have been able to learn up a blatt gemara, but he had “talmudo b’yado,” a life of actions and good works that helped better his family, his neighbors, and his community.
There is more that could be said and should be said, but the past week has been very difficult, and it will take some time to get back into the swing of things.  I just wanted to share the news with those who may not have heard. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

civil law and the source of human rights

1) Why does the Torah place open its discussion of civil law with the idea of eved ivri?  Why not talk about theft, propertly law, shomrim, etc,. all of which seem more common and more basic to establishing a just society than the laws of someone sold into slavery as a result of not being able to pay his debts?  And then there is the term “eved ivri” itself: Rashi already notes that it’s a confusing phrase – does it mean a slave (even non-Jewish) owned by a Jewish master, or does it mean the slave himself is Jewish?  Rashi has to connect the pasuk of “ki tikneh eved ivri” to another pasuk in Devarim of “ki yimacheir lecha achicha ha’ivri” to clarify and derive that it is in fact talking about a slave who is Jewish.  I was studying Chumash (a different parsha) with my youngest daughter a week or so ago and she asked a great question: if the Torah means what Rashi says, why doesn’t the Torah itself say so clearly?  We could ask the same question here: why does the Torah opt for the longer, more ambiguous phrase of “eved ivri” that requires a peirush Rashi to unravel instead of just simply saying “ivri,” which is both shorter and leaves no doubt that it means someone who is Jewish?  Lastly, the introduction of “ki tikneh eved ivri,” “When you acquire a Jewish slave…” seems unnecessary.  We are not discussing the laws of kinyanim here; we are discussing when and how the slave goes free.  The fact that the slave had to have been bought seems redundant and irrelevant to the main point of the parsha.  Why does the Torah bother to mention it?

When we hear the word “slavery” we immediately think of whippings, discrimination, perhaps even torture.  But this is not the concept of slavery the Torah speaks about in our parsha.  I would bet that if people went through the laws of avadim they might even find that they would be willing to trade their jobs with the job of being an eved because of the protections and security built into the system.  Why is the Torah’s concept of slavery so different than the concept we think of?  “Ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim” – Hashem has declared that we are his servants.  A Jew is not hefker.  We are responsible to Hashem, but by the same token, Hashem as our master looks after our interests as well. The Alshich explains that this is the meaning behind the phrase “eved ivri.”  Torah tells the potential slave master up front that when he buys a slave, what he is buying is an someone who already is indentured, someone who is already an “eved” and belongs to a Higher authority than their own.  There are limits to what can be done to the Jewish slave because ownership is not absolute – it must answer to a prior claim, to the real “owner” of every ivri, namely G-d.  Without that extra phrase “eved,” the entire moral thrust of the parsha is missing. 
It’s this concept of “ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim” which is the backbone for the entire parsha of Mishpatim and therefore serves as its first chapter.  Just this past week a news anchor declared that “our rights do not come from G-d,” something that would have been news to the founding fathers of the USA.  More importantly for us, it is a mistake the reveals the chasm between the Torah’s idea of rights, which do stem from G-d, from “ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim,” and the idea of rights in other cultures and societies. 

2) In an earlier post I wrote that the eved ivri is pierced only if he chooses to stay on with his master and not at the time that he chooses to sell himself because at the time he made the choice to become an eved he may not have known what he is getting himself into.  If after experiencing avdus he still hasn’t learned the lesson, then he deserves to be punished.  The Sefas Emes raises an objection: shouldn’t the choice to remain an eved be a less serious offense considering that the eved has gotten used to the situation and become habituated to it?  “Ahavti es adoni v’es ishti v’es banay…”  For better or worse, the slave is comfortable where he is and doesn’t welcome change. 
The answer is that it’s this habituation to being a slave that is exactly what we are punishing!  To say that one is comfortable being an eved only proves how low and degraded the individual has allowed himself to become. 

3) Let me end off with something about shekalim.  I don’t think there is a charity in the world that would turn away donations, yet that’s exactly what the Torah seems to suggest: “he’ashir lo yarbeh v’ha’dal lo yamit,” the rich can’t give more than a half a shekel and the poor can’t give less.  Shouldn’t the person who wants to give be encouraged, not turned away?

Some organizations send letters where you can just check a box to confirm the amount you want to give.  What’s interesting is the scale of the donations you can choose from on these letters: you have your organizations where the lowest amount is something like $18, but then you have the organizations where the lowest amount is $100 and it goes up exponentially from there.  It’s either a deliberate ploy to try to get a higher amount or it just doesn’t occur to them that some people may not have $100 to plunk down.  In either case, when you get that letter, you feel what’s the point of checking the box that says “other” and sending in your $18 – that’s clearly not what they are interested in.  The same idea holds true for shekalim. Imagine if when the shekalim were collected the first gut stepped forward with a huge  sack of money, the next guy has an even bigger sack, and then along comes a guy like me with a half shekel – I would just turn around and go home.  Why bother when clearly it’s the big rollers who are managing the whole show?  So the Torah says there is one box to check here: half a shekel.  Everyone can pitch in equally.
But what about the guy who is so motivated, who wants to give more?  The Sefas Emes says a brilliant answer: that individual is giving, and what he is giving is worth more than his dollars – he is giving others the opportunity to have a share and participate. He is giving part of “his” mitzvah to the tzibur so that everyone can have a chance.  That’s no less a form of generosity than writing a bigger check, and sometimes it's an even harder mitzvah to do.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

is there a makeup if you miss reading parshas shekalim?

What’s the din if b’dieved a tzibur was not able to read parshas shekalim on the appropriate Shabbos – can they do a makeup next Shabbos or some other time? 

At first glance one would think that the 4 parshiyos are just like the special readings done on any Yom Tov. If, for example, you don’t do the correct Torah reading on the first day of Pesach, you can’t make it up the week after Pesach. So too, if you miss reading shekalim on the appropriate week, there is no makeup.

R’ Akiva Eiger paskens this way, but the Eishel Avraham and Maharam Shi”k disagree. The gemara (Meg 29b) compares the takanah to read shekalim to the din of learning hilchos yom tov 30 days before a chag. Since the new shekalim had to be brought by Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the reading was done 30 days earlier to give people advance notice to prepare. Obviously if you don’t start learning hilchos Yom Tov exactly 30 days before a chag, that doesn’t mean you should give up – aderaba, start the next day or as soon as possible (Shu”T Maharam Shi”K 365).

It sounds like the machlokes revolves around the classic issue of whether the reason behind a takanah impacts the din’s parameters. According to R’ Akiva Eiger, there was a takanah to read shekalim on a specific shabbos – the reason behind the takanah does not change anything. According to the Maharam Shi”k, we take the reason into account.

If you want to go a step further, perhaps the Maharam Shi”k would say that if indeed the reading of shekalim belonged on the list of takanos of special Torah readings for special days, then R’ Akiva Eiger would be right. But it doesn’t belong on that list. The takanah is not a din in kri’as haTorah – it’s simply a reminder. It’s the equivalent of the gabai giving a klap on the bimah and yelling out “Don’t forget whatever.” There is no halachic structure called “give a klap on the bimah,” so Chazal used the structure of kri’as haTorah instead to accomplish the same goal. The gemara’s comparison to the din of learning hilchos hachag before Yom Tov is not just a superficial analogy to make the point of when shekalim should be read -- it's telling us that the two halachos are fundametally similar.  Just like learning hilchos ha'chag is just a means of getting us in the mindset for Yom Tov, so too, reading shekalim is just a means to an end, a utilitarian reminder.  Not so the kri'ah on Yom Tov, which is an expression of and helps establish the underlying kedushas hayom (for more on that, see this post).

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

why the eved is punished only after the fact

Our parsha teaches us that if an eved ivri chooses to remain with his master instead of seizing the opportunity to go free at the end of his servitude, his ear is pierced as a punishment and he remains enslaved until yoveil.  Why pierce the ear?  Rashi quotes from Chazal that the ear that heard on Sinai that ‘Bnei Yisrael are servants [only] to me [G-d]’ and ignored that message and took a human master deserves to be punished with piercing.    

Everyone asks: if that’s the reason for piercing the ear, shouldn’t it be done when the individual first gets himself sold into slavery?  Why wait until the sentence is over and he chooses to opt for an extension?
R’ Shmuel Ya’akov Rubenstein in his sefer She’eiris Menachem answers that when a slave is first sold, he may not realize what he is getting himself into.  The full force of what slavery means may hit a person only after he experiences it, after he tastes what life is like under else’s thumb, and after he has suffered a bit.  If after all that the person still prefers slavery to living as a free man, then the Torah says this person deserves the punishment of piercing.  

The Shem m’Shmuel explains that the eved ivri suffers from delusional thinking.  He comes to his master and claims that he prefers to remain enslaved because he loves his wife and his children, “ahavti es ishti v’es banay…”  He does not realize that “his” wife and “his” children are merely chattel, property of his master.  He entered slavery perhaps not realizing fully what he was getting into, and after spending time as slave he is no wiser to his circumstance than he was before. 
A person sometimes cannot be blamed for making a wrong decision.  The full import of choices are sometimes realized and felt only after the fact.  But a person can be blamed for ignoring reality and not learning from his circumstances. 

where's the outrage?

I could do multiple posts a day every day for reasons to be disgusted with President Hussein and the Democrat party, but there are other blogs to read for that (not that the Republicans are much better…) Killing of Jews by an Islamic terrorist is now just some random act of violence (link)? This takes the cake. But what is more disturbing than President Hussein, from whom I do not expect better, is the lack of reaction to any of what is going on by many of our communal organizations. Where’s the outrage? Where are the marches? Where are the full page-ads? Where are the rallies and sit-in? The laissez faire attitude of American Jewry is incredible.  

Here is the reality we face: Iran is going to get the ability to make a nuclear bomb because this President has no interest in stopping them (link). The EU is going to pressure Israel to pull back to pre-1967 borders (link). European Jewry is under attack (link) and vanishing (link).

I think back to the 30,000 or so Jews who gathered in the streets of NY to say tehillin (read: protest) not because of all of the above – no! They gathered to say tehillim because yeshiva students would have to register for the draft in order to defend our country, our State of Israel (link). This is the only thing that is worth staging a protest for, worth gathering in the streets to be noticed when davening for?! I give up – I have no clue what most of the folks in our community are thinking. 

It is absolutely depressing.  People such as myself have very little power to do anything. I don’t run an organization, I don’t have funds to get the word out, I don’t have political power of influence. I wonder if the little I can do actually makes any difference, but even if it's just a blog post, even if it's just an e-mail to a Senator, it's better than doing nothing. 

One thing we can do that I know does make a difference is to daven -- daven that Hashem overlooks our own stupidity and shortcomings and gives us the help that we may not deserve, but that we sorely need.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

a seudah on the first Yom Kippur?

The Torah introduces the parsha relating Yisro’s suggestion to appoint judges by telling us that the episode occurred, “mi’macharas…,” (18:13) “It was on the day after….”  The obvious question: the day after what?  Had you asked me, I would have said it means the day after the immediately preceding episode of Yisro coming, offering korbanos, and sharing a meal with Moshe, Aharon, and the elders.  The Mechilta, however, comments that “mi’macharas” means the day after Yom Kippur. It could be that there is no contradiction between the Mechilta and the simple pshat – it could be that the day after Yiso’s arrival also happened to be the day after Yom Kippur.  Ramban, however, rejects that possibility out of hand.  If “mi’macharas” means the day after the seudah, it cannot also be the day after Yom Kippur, because that would mean the seudah was eaten on Yom Kippur!

Ramban put’s it like this:
  כי לא אכלו ביום הכפורים, אם היה להם יום הכפורים בשנה ראשונה קודם שנצטוו בו
The Ramban’s language seems to give away a weakness in his argument that Maharal picks up on.  What does the Ramban mean when he says they could not have eaten *if* there was a Yom Kippur?  Apparently there is room for doubt, or room to argue that there was not a Yom Kippur in the year that Yisro came.  We only find the commandment of how to celebrate Yom Kippur later, in Parshas Acharei Mos.  Maybe Yom Kippur was not celebrated until the second year in the desert, after the construction and dedication of the Mishkan, but not that first year when Yisro came.  Perhaps in that first year it was still permissible to eat on Yom Kippur.

The Maharal understood that Ramban was using the word “if” as a hypothetical, like the word “if” in this sentence: if you had studied for your test, you would have gotten a better grade.  But the word “if” can also be used as a conditional statement, like in this sentence: you can’t have desert if you don’t finish your food.  The Taz in Divrei David suggests that this is what the Ramban meant – the day of Yom Kippur is conditional on fasting.  You can’t have a Yom Kippur and eat your cake too.  The Ramban was not implying the possibility that Yom Kippur was not celebrated – he was saying that it would be impossible to have a Yom Kippur absent fasting.
The Taz is telling us a chiddush: the kedushas ha’yom of Yom Kippur goes hand in hand with it being a day of fasting.  In other words, fasting is not just something you do on Yom Kippur -- fasting is part of the definition of the day of Yom Kippur.  To use the term Yom Kippur, as the Mechilta does, to describe a day in which a festive seudah was eaten, is an oxymoron.  (What about a choleh who must eat on Yom Kippur – do other aspects of the same kedushas hayom remain intact or is the whole kedushas hayom diminished in some way?  Something to think about…)

There is another reason Ramban might find the Maharal’s position unpersuasive.  Ramban in many places (see the notes in the Chavel edition for a list) holds that regardless of where a mitzvah appears in the text of Torah, the command to observe that mitzvah was been given at Sinai.  The fact that Yom Kippur is first described in Parshas Acharei Mos does not mean that before that point in time there was no mitzvas ha’yom of Yom Kippur.  Rashi offers a different reason for not reading “mi’macharas” as the day after Yisro shared a seudah with Moshe and Aharon, so it could very well be that Rashi does not accept this position of the Ramban.  Something to look into…

Friday, February 06, 2015

breaking boundaries

According to some views (see Ramban), the parsha of Yisro’s coming to join Klal Yisrael is out of place.  Chronologically, the story took place after mattan Torah, yet it appears here in Parshas Yisro before mattan Torah.  Why? 

The Ishbitzer in Mei haShiloach explains that this parsha is an introduction to what Torah is all about.  Yisro worshipped every avodah zarah in the world -- he was a priest to avodah zarah!  And still, Yisro was drawn to Torah.  There is no tumah that is so strong that it can prevent a kabbalas haTorah if a person wants to receive it.
Those last words are key -- a person has to want to make a kabbalah.  The gemara says that when Moshe went up to get the Torah the angels put up a protest and did not want Torah to be given to mankind.  Hashem told Moshe that he should answer them.  The Maharal (Derush al haTorah) asks why Hashem told Moshe to answer the angels – why didn’t Hashem himself intervene and give them an answer?  After all, it was Hashem who decided that he was going to give his Torah to the Jewish people!  The Maharal answers (and this is a good vort to keep in mind for Shavuos) that G-d’s giving the Torah to mankind instead of angels is predicated on mankind wanting the Torah.  The desire for Torah has to come from within us and be expressed by us – it has to be our answer, not something G-d can thrust upon us.

According to one view in Chazal it was hearing about the splitting of Yam Suf that drew Yisro to Klal Yisrael.  What was it about this event in particular that caught Yisro’s attention?  The Beis Ya’akov explains that kri’as Yam Suf revealed something significant.  Hashem created the world with boundaries.  We read in Parshas Braishis how Hashem divided the land from the sea so that the oceans stay in their place and the land exists in its place.  There are boundaries as well between people and between nations.  Klal Yisrael is distinct from the rest of the world and has a relationship with Hashem like no other people.  Kri’as Yam Suf revealed that those boundaries are not absolute -- what was once a sea can become dry land.  If so, reasoned Yisro, the boundary between himself – an outsider, a foreigner -- and Klal Yisrael could be overcome as well. 
This same message is also reflected in the other view that holds that Yisro came because he heard about the battle with Amalek.  As we discussed last week, when Moshe lifted his hands and caused Bnei Yisrael to look up in tefillah, the tide of battle turned in their favor.  Picture the two armies of Bnei Yisrael and Amalek deadlocked in battle, each bound by the limits of their own efforts and own strength.  Suddenly, the people see Moshe’s hands raised, they turn to Hashem, and they break through the enemy lines.  The boundaries that had been there before, whether the boundaries of the enemy lines, whether the limits of their own ability, were no more. Again, boundaries are not absolute.  With enough will and enough tefilah, they can be broken.

I didn’t see it in the Beis Ya’akov (I didn’t go through all the pieces), but perhaps this is why the Torah prefaces mattan Torah with the story of Yisro. What greater boundary exists than the boundary between heaven and earth?  This was the angels complaint – how could a heavenly Torah be sent down to earth?  And irony of ironies, the parsha of mattan Torah itself stresses that the people had to remain in the boundaries set aside for them, distant from the mountain, to obey the mitzvah of hagbalah.  We therefore need to first read about kri’as Yam Suf, the battle with Amalek, the coming of Yisro, to appreciate that not all boundaries are absolute – moral Moshe can go up to shamayim, Hashem can come down to har Sinai, and human beings, with all our frailties, can receive a Torah as well.