Thursday, January 23, 2020

a band-aid or a vision?

1) Last week's parsha ended with Moshe's poignant question: Why have things become so much worse for Klal Yisrael because of his shlichus?  Why has he been a cause of suffering instead of a cause of redemption?

The opening of our parsha contains the 4 leshonos of geulah.  Those learning daf yomi should remember the gemara (Brachos 5) that lists a number of things that can be acquired only with yisurim, among them Eretz Yisrael and Torah.  This is Hashem's response to Moshe.  Why must Klal Yisrael experience such suffering?  Because their destiny is "v'lakachti" = kabbalas haTorah, "v'hei'veisi" = Eretz Yisrael.  (Chasam Sofer)

Despite such lofty dreams and promises, Klal Yisrael didn’t listen to Moshe's message  -- “V’lo sham’u el Moshe m’kotzer ruach u’mei’avodah kasha.”  Moshe came back to Hashem and asks how he can possibly deliver the demand to liberate Klal Yisrael to Pharoah if even Klal Yisrael won’t listen to him.  Hashem responded: “Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe v’el Aharon v’yitzaveim el Bnei Yisrael v’el Pharoah melech Mitzrayim l’hotzi es Bnei Yisrael mei’Eretz Mitzrayim.”  (6:13) 
Meshech Chochma explains that Hashem is not simply reiterating his command to Moshe to deliver the original message.   In fact, the message has changed. 
Originally Moshe came to Klal Yisrael with this glorious vision of a wonderful future --  not only did he promise freedom from the backbreaking drudgery of slavery, but he promised independence in their own beautiful country, not to mention kabbalas haTorah, spiritual salvation.   A person who is in pain doesn’t want to hear lofty dreams and promises.  All they want is immediate relief.  When a person is suffering, that suffering becomes their all consuming focus.  They don't have the patience to listen to anything else.  Hashem therefore told Moshe to go back to the people with one message alone: “Va’yitzaveim… l’hotzi es Bnei Yisrael mei’Eretz Mitzrayim.”  For now, it’s enough to talk about and work on getting out of slavery.  The dream and the fulfillment of those 4 leshonos of geulah could come later.
It's a beautiful diyuk in the pesukim, but I have one simple question: Hashem certainly knew that Klal Yisrael wouldn't listen to the whole speech and just wanted that message of relief.  So why did he send Moshe to tell the people the 4 leshonos of geulah in the first place?  Why not just deliver the short and sweet message up front?
I think the answer is (I think I touched on this once before) that even though the dreams and the lofty vision will not be listened to or absorbed quite yet, they still have to be articulated.  A mission without a dream, a vision, is a band-aid.  Band-aids don't inspire.  Band-aids get you though the here-and-now, but don't give you a reason to look forward to tomorrow.  Moshe had to first define to Klal Yisrael what geulah is -- not a band-aid, but rather a vision, an ideal.  Once the goal was defined, then he could come back and give out band-aids to deal with the here-and-now. 
We've been through this in recent history as well.  Do we want a Jewish homeland as a band-aid for anti-Semitism and suffering in galus?  Or do we want a homeland because we have a vision of a future that goes beyond escaping the pain of the moment?  The former may be what we need right now, but the latter is what defines our ultimate goal.
2) When Pharoah came running to Moshe to ask him to get rid of the frogs plaguing Egypt, Moshe asked Pharoah when he should pray for the plague to end.
Moshe was made a shliach of Hashem to bring makkos.  Who ever said anything about praying for the enemy? 
This question is discussed by R' Bunim m'Peshischa and made it ways into the torah of Sefas Emes as well.  Last week we discussed the emunas chachamim of Klal Yisrael in Mitzrayim.  I used the word "emunah" in that post and not some other term primarily because that is the term R' Chatzkel Levenstein used, but it actually fits better than other terms because emunas chachamim is an extension of emunah in Hashem.  "Es Hashem Elokecha tira" -- "es" comes to include yirah of talmidei chachamim. 
The whole point of the makkos was to establish that Hashem is the one in control, not some Egyptian diety, not natural forces, not Pharoah.  Moshe davening to remove a makkah and it happening  is not a contradiction to that mission but aderaba, a fulfillment of its purpose.  Moshe as an eved Hashem was an extension of the yad Hashem.  His control was a reflection of Hashem's control over Mitzrayim.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Amram's separation from Yocheved -- B'hadei kavshei Rachamana lamah lach?

Yesterday I mentioned the gemara (Sota 12) quoted by Rashi that Amram divorced Yocheved because he did not want to have any more offspring given Pharoah's gezeira to kill all male babies.  When Klal Yisrael saw what Amram did, they followed suit.

Everyone is learning daf yomi these days, so Brachos 10 is inyana d'yoma: Chizkiyahu was on the verge of death and so Hashem sent the navi Yishayahu to go visit him and tell him that he is being punished for not fulfilling the mitzvah of having children (Since when is a bitul aseh a reason to be chavay misa?  Sorry, not my topic for now.)  Chizkiyahu argued that he cannot be blamed -- how can he have children when he knows that from him will come the wicked king Menashe?  Better to not have children then to bring such evil into the world!  Yishashayu, however, rejected that reasoning.  "B'hadei kavshei Rachamana lamah lach?"  Your job, Chizkiyahu, is to fulfill Hashem's command, not to make calculations and cheshbonos as to whether that will end up being a good thing or a bad thing.  Chizkiyahu relented.

Achronim ask how to fit this gemara together with the gemara quoted by Rashi.  Why should Amram have worried about how he can have children in light of the danger of Pharoah's decree?  "B'hadei kavshei Rachamana lamah lach?"  Our job is to just do the mitzvah, not make cheshbonos.

You don't need lomdus for this -- some basic chilukim are enough to answer the question.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

emunas chachamim

A small observation from R' Chatzkel Levenstein (Ohr Emunah):

Rashi quotes the Midrash that in response to Pharoah's decree to kill all the male children, Amram went ahead and divorced his wife.  When Klal Yisrael saw what Amram had done, they followed suit and separated from their wives as well.

If you pause to think about this for a moment, it's incredible.  You can have gedolim galore who tell us that smartphones are evil, and what's the typical reaction (I'm speaking about myself)? -- they are fanatics, they are out of touch with reality, they don't know what life is all about.  This is in response to giving up something small like a phone!  Imagine if the gedolim were to tell everyone to give up living with their wives -- can you imagine the outcry?  (Sadly, some people may actually be happy, but that's a different story : ) 

R' Chatzkel goes a step further and points out that Amram did *not* in fact order anyone to stop living with their wife.  Amram simply separated from his own wife.  Klal Yisrael so believed in and trusted in Amram that they immediately followed suit without having to be told anything.  The people emulated his behavior without having to be given explicit instructions.  If Amram did it, it meant it was the right thing to do. 

Amram in the end took the advice of Miriam and reversed his position, and here again, Klal Yisrael followed suit.  One could easily imagine the potential accusations of Amram flip-flopping, of his being unsuited to lead because he was so inconsistent, etc.  But that's not what happened. 

Despite, according to some views, Klal Yisrael falling to tremendously low levels in Mitzrayim, the people still retained their basic emunah -- including their emunas chachamim.

a classic R' Ovadya

An interesting machlokes that is classic R' Ovadya:

R' Ben Tzion Aba-Shaul held that the authority of the Beis Yosef is based upon "rov" -- since the consensus among the majority of poskim is like the Beis Yosef, we accept his view as the final word in psak.  This approach leaves open the door to there being cases where the consensus proves to be not like the Beis Yosef, and the halacha would accordingly follow other views.

R' Ovadya (Yabia Omer 9 O.C. 104:5) strongly disagrees and writes that the Beis Yosef is correct not because of rov, but rather b'toras vaday, as if there was a halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai (!) telling us that his opinion is correct.

R' Ovadya argues as follows: we have a rule that dinei mamonos cannot be decided based on rov (ain holchin b'mamon achar ha'rov).  Therefore, if I am trying to force you to cough up money, so long as you have even a minority of poskim that support your arguments, I can't get a penny (kim li).

There is an exception to this rule: Achronim write that if the minority opinions stand in opposition to the Beis Yosef, their view has no weight and is viewed as non-existent.

If R' Ben Tzion Aba-Shaul is right and we rely on the Beis Yosef only because of rov, then why when it comes to dinei mamonos, where rov is not sufficient proof, can we not accept minority views against the B"Y?  It only makes sense if we accept the Beis Yosef as 100% accurate, a vaday.

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

the greatest tragedy of all

Chazal offer different reasons why parshas Vayechi is a parsha stuma, a "closed" parsha, one with no break between its opening and the previous parsha.  One view suggests that the text is alluding to the fact that Yaakov's access to ruach hakodesh was closed off and he was unable to reveal to his children what will happen in the end of days.  Another view sees the parsha stuma as an allusion to Klal Yisrael being closed off in galus.  A final view quoted in the Yalkut explains that the parsha is closed because, after suffering for so many years of heartache and pain, Yaakov was finally closed off and removed from all sorrows.

Although the same Midrash quotes all three views, the last one clearly stands out as  anomalous.  The first two explanations see a parsha stuma as alluding to something negative -- Yaakov's loss of ruach hakodesh, Klal Yisrael's loss of freedom.  Not so the third view, which sees the stuma as alluding to Yaakov's loss of sorrow -- what could be better than that?

Chasam Sofer (derashos, 5593) explains that in fact, this third view actually reflects the most negative perspective on the parsha and sees in it the greatest tragedy of all.  Here we have Yaakov Avinu entering galus where he knows he will die, here we have the shivtei K-h leaving Eretz Yisrael with no idea when they will ever return home.  What happened when they entered the land of Mitzrayim?  Last week's parsha ends by telling us that they settled in Goshen, "va'yeiachazu bah vayifru vayirbu me'od."  They had beautiful homes, lots of kids, mistama they started businesses, and life was good!  There was probably a kosher pizza or two or three in Goshen, a sushi joint with fresh fish from the Nile, etc. -- all the amenities we like to have.  And with no break our parsha starts, "Vayechi Yaakov...," Yaakov had a second wind in life and he too could enjoy his final years in Mitzrayim.  What's so bad?

Chazal tell us that when you see this scene, instead of jumping for joy, you should shed a tear.  Does anyone living that life in Goshen -- a life similar to the life many of us live in galus USA -- remember that this is galus, that this is not where we are supposed to be and not where we should want to be?

The greatest tragedy of the parsha is that we've forgotten the tzaros -- we've gotten used to galus and we're successful and happy here and we could care less about getting out. 

Chasam Sofer elsewhere writes that when the navi tells us that the fast days that commemorate the churban habayis, among them today, 10 Teves, will one day be transformed into days of simcha, it does not mean that we will suddenly forget everything from the past.  Aderaba, the simcha comes davka because we never forgot the past.  It's only because we continue to think about beis hamikdash even when we don't have it,  showing that we still connect to it and long for it, that we will eventually be able to celebrate it's return.  But if we forget, if it doesn't bother us that it's not here, then what exactly is going to move us to happiness when we do get it back?

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Yosef and Yehudah -- oil and menorah

We have been reading these past two weeks about the tragic descent of Yosef, who is first thrown into a pit by his brothers, then sold into slavery, where he is falsely accused by Eishes Potifar and thrown into prison, and then, just as he thinks he has found someone who can help win his release, he is promptly forgotten about by the Sar haMashkim the moment the Sar steps out of prison himself.  And so we find Yosef languishing in prison, seemingly with no hope of escape.  All that is about to change as Yosef is called out of prison to interpret Pharoah's mysterious dreams.  “Va’yiritzuhu min ha’bor” -- Rashi struggles to explain the use of the term “bor” in place of was called in last week’s parsha a “beis ha’sohar.”  Why change terms?  The Zohar solves the problem by reading the pasuk as bringing our narrative fill circle.  The pasuk is not referring to the prison, but rather is referring back to the original pit, that bor where he brothers threw him.  Yosef is on the way out of that pit, on the way to reconciliation with his brothers and fulfillment of his own dreams.

In last week’s parsha (sorry for no post last week – bad cold) the Torah interrupted the Yosef-narrative with the story of Yehudah and Tamar.  There is a parallelism between the stories: both Yosef and Yehudah are rejected by their brothers (as Rashi explains, when the brothers saw the pain caused by Yehudah's plan of selling Yosef they removed him from his position of leadership); both are tempted by women; both Tamar and Eishes Potifar according to Chazal had intentions l’shem shamayim.  Ultimately both narratives intersect in next week’s parsha (will be away from home so probably no post then either) -– VaYigash eilav Yehudah -– and come to a resolution.  From a literary perspective the story is a work of art; if I remember correctly Robert Alter has a wonderful chapter on this whole episode in his book The Art of Biblical Narrative. 

The pshat / narrative relationship between the two stories clues us in to dig deeper into what is going on here.  Malbi”m explains Yehudah’s relationship with Tamar leads to the birth of children from whom will stem the lineage of Mashiach ben David.  At the very moment that the story of Yosef’s sale to Egypt portends our descent into exile, the seeds of redemption are being planted!  At the same time that we are reading of Yosef coming into Egypt, which serves as the paradigm for our physical survival in alien galus culture, we are reading about Yehudah, who keeps the spiritual promise of redemption burning.

This contrast can help us understand another element of the story that will come up in next weeks' parsha.  Rashi tells us that Yaakov sent Yehudah ahead to establish a yeshiva in Goshen before the family arrived.  Why did he need to send Yehudah?  Why not entrust the job to Yosef, who was already there?

We all know that Chanukah celebrates the miracle of the Chashmonaim finding a pure jug of oil that stayed lit for 8 days.  But what about the menorah itself?  Chazal (Menachos 28) tell us that the Chashmonaim did not have the solid gold menorah of the Mikdash; they were forced to light with a plain metal menorah.  Why did a miracle happen to preserve a jug of pure oil, even though technically tumah hutra b’tzibur and any oil could be used, but no miracle happened to ensure the integrity of the menorah itself?

Rav Kook suggests an answer that I am going to take the liberty of reformulating to fit our theme: oil = the spiritual light of Judaism = Yehudah.  Menorah = the physical structure that the light rests on = Yosef.  Yosef looks like an Egyptian, talks like an Egyptian, dresses like an Egyptian –- like a chameleon, he changes his colors to blend in with his environment.  By doing so he is able to become “hu ha’mashbir” who provides for his brothers, and indeed, ensures all of Egypt’s survival during years of famine.  Yehudah, on the other hand, remains in Canaan with his father and brothers.  Yehudah is even willing to sacrifice himself rather than allow Binyamin to be taken into the alien Egyptian society.

When it comes to our material survival, especially in galus, external trappings don’t really matter that much.  Even if the menorah of gold is not available, we can make due with second best.  You can dress like an Egyptian and talk like an Egyptian and still make it.  But when it comes to our spiritual inner core, there are no compromises.  Only the purest of the pure will ever be acceptable. 

On Shabbos we are about to enter the month of Teves.  The Ch haRI”M explains the name Teves comes from the same root as “ha’tavas ha’neiros,” cleaning out the wicks and preparing the menorah for new candles to be lit.  Teves is not the ohr itself -– it’s the physical preparation needed to make ready to receive the ohr.  It’s the Yosef of the story -- “Tvoach tevach v’hachaein,” Yosef commands in our parsha; take the last letter of tevach and the letters of hachein and it spells Chanukah--- laying the physical groundwork upon which a Yehudah can flourish.   Tavas = Aramaic for “tov.”  Not lashon kodesh, because, like Yosef, the “tov” has to dress itself up in the garb of Aramaic.  Teves is the start of the three month period (Teves, Shevat, Adar) where Tziporah had to hide Moshe Rabeinu from the world because the Egyptians counted on a 9 month pregnancy and didn’t realize he would be born early.  Moshe is there, just hidden; Yosef is behind that Egyptian dress, he is just in disguise.  Cleaning out the dirty wicks ain't pretty, but underneath the grime is a pnimiyus of tov preparing the way for those new wicks to produce the ohr.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Yisrael / Yaakov

Let me start with an observation of the Chasam Sofer (d"h va'yivaser Yaakov):

Yaakov managed to wrestle with Eisav’s angel (see Malbi”m who says this is not some external enemy, but is the darker side within Yaakov himself -– a very modern reading) and win and as a result he is given the name Yisrael.  Right after that it seems that the wheels fall off the bus.  First comes the parsha of Dinah.  That is followed by the death of Devorah, the nursemaid of Rivka, as well (according to Chazal) as Rivka herself.  Yaakov resumes his travels only to have Rachel die in childbirth.  Finally we have the sin (or non-sin, as Chazal read it) of Reuvain being “bilbeil yetzuei aviv,” whatever that means.  

What happened?  How can so much unravel so quickly after Yaakov reached such heights?

Second point: once the Torah tells us that “Va’yisa Yisrael va’yeit ohalo mei’hala l’Migdal Eider,” the beginning of the next pasuk, the phrase that introduces the episode with Reuvain, “Va’yehi bishkon Yisrael ba’aretz ha’hi…” seems entirely redundant.  (34:21-35:1)  Absent any indication that Yaakov had moved elsewhere, we would automatically assume that the story took place in the previously mentioned location.  What is the Torah adding?

Netziv explains that the Torah is not talking here about Yaakov’s physical location -– it’s talking about his mental space.  Yisrael = the higher plane of Yaakov’s being, the aspect of his consciousness most connected with G-d.  “Va’yisa Yisrael” –- Yaakov’s head was travelling in the clouds in a positive sense.  He was trying to reconnect to G-d after the death of his mother.  “Vayishkon Yisrael” –- Yaakov was engaged in hisbodedus and hisbonenus, reconnecting with the Shechina.  Had it been me saying the next sentence  you would all jump on me, but it’s not me, it’s the Netziv: it’s precisely because Yaakov was so removed from the daily concerns of olam ha’zeh, precisely because he was caught up in being Yisrael at the expense of his being Yaakov, that Reuvain was able to get into trouble right under his nose.

The gemara darshens that one who calls Avraham by the name Avram has violated an issur.  However, even though Yaakov’s name was changed to Yisrael, his old name still remains in use.  Shem m’Shmuel quotes his father the Sochotchover as explaining that the root of the name Yaakov = EKV, heel, the lowest of low in a human being.   Living on the highest plane, being Yisrael, is possible not in spite of, but aderaba, because of the connection that remains to that level of Yaakov, of recognizing one’s own shortcomings, limits, and failures.

If you become Yisrael but drop the Yaakov, then the wheels inevitably fall off the bus.

A little rant you can skip: If you open any Jewish newspaper these days, you have to admire our accomplishments as Yisrael.  Do you remember when the siyum ha’shas was held in MSG?  Back in those days they didn’t even think that they would even fill the Garden.  Now, there will be spillover because even MetLife Stadium cannot hold all the participants. We’re doing great, aren’t we!  More people learning, more yeshivos, more Torah. 

Make no mistake about it, it is a great thing.  But at the same time, we’ve lost site of the fact that outside our little bubbles , whether it be Teaneck, the 5Towns, Boro Park, Lakewood etc., there is a world of Jews who are just plain Yaakovs and barely that, and there is utter decimation and chaos.  Considering the lack of basic Jewish education and the intermarriage rate, what are the odds of the grandchildren of young assimilated American Jews today retaining any vestige of their jewishness, or even being Jewish at all, in two generations?  There is a complete disconnect between the world we live in –- not just on issues of halacha, but even on "political" issues like support of the State of Israel --  and the world they live in.  Yisrael -– the middle letters spell "rosh" -– is completely cut off from Yaakov = eikev, the heel.  That is a very, very bad thing for them, and for us as well.

Monday, December 09, 2019

dont wait for the pitchforks

1) My wife made the following observation:  Yaakov is the model of the Jew in galus.  The Torah tells us that when Yaakov heard Lavan’s sons murmuring accusations against him, he realized that it was time to leave.  He didn’t wait for them to sharpen the pitchforks and come after him.

Listen to the rhetoric of the Labour party.  Listen to the rhetoric of the Democrat party.  Listen to the reports of what is already happening in France, in Belgium, in other parts of Europe.  Don’t wait for the pitchforks.

2) “V’atah haloch halacha ki nichsof nishsafta l’beis avicha lamah ganavta…” (31:30)

Chasam Sofer asks mah inyan the reisha of the pasuk to the seifa of the pasuk.  What does Yaakov wanting to return to his father’s house have to do with the theft of the terafim?  One surely does not excuse the other or explain the other.

He gives a pilpulistic answer, but the Rishonim are already bothered by this question and explain al pi peshat that Lavan was saying that he understood that Yaakov ran out not because he was a thief, but because he was so anxious to get back to this father’s house.  Nonetheless, the terafim were missing and Yaakov or someone in his family must have taken them.

Rav Drook quoted a nice explanation of the pasuk b’shem R’ Shimon Shkop, but the idea is already found in the Malbim.  Imagine a kollel guy who spends pesach with his in-laws and when it's time to return home he packs up their large screen TV along with his own luggage.  When the shverr runs after him to ask what's going on, it’s not the theft per se which is so troubling -– the shverr can afford another large screen TV.  What bothers him more is what someone who ostensibly is immersed in Torah would need a large screen TV for.  Here too, Lavan was saying to Yaakov Avninu, “You claim to be so anxious to leave here and return to your holy father’s house.  Avodah zarah is an anathema to your father!  So why did you walk out with my idols in your trunk?”  It’s the hypocrisy which stings and stinks more than theft itself.

You don't have to actually walk out with the TV to be guilty of theft.  Sometimes it's the deyos and ideas of the outside world that we steal and bring into our world even though they are completely incongruous with what our lifestyle should be.