Thursday, May 26, 2016

mah nochal... v'tzivisi es birchasi

Al pi dereh ha’teva, land should be least fertile in the year just before shemitah, after it has been farmed for six straight years without rest. Yet, the Torah says that davka in that sixth year the land will produce a greater abundance than usual in order to provide enough food to last through the  shemitah year. This proves, says the Shem m’Shmuel, that the land of Eretz Yisrael does not follow the normal laws of nature. It’s all hashgachas Hashem.

According to many meforshim shemitah is a lesson in bitachon. It’s one thing to skip work for one day of Shabbos, like we all do – it’s quite another thing to take an entire year off. Ramban comments on the pasuk, “Ki tomar mah nochal ba’shanah hashevi’is…” that the pasuk is mesuras, the phrases are out of order. The meaning is not, “When you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year?’” as during the seventh year there is plenty of food left from the sixth year -- there is no mystery about what to eat. The meaning of the pasuk is, “When in the seventh year you ask, ‘What shall we eat [in the upcoming eighth year]?’”  Since you can’t plant in the seventh year, there will be no leftovers for year eight. The bracha, according to Ramban, is that the food from year six will last even until then.

R’ Shimon Sofer explains the pasuk k’peshuto, without reversing the order of the phrases. Even though the farmer’s storehouse is fully stocked for that seventh year, he still feels he can't eat anything because if he does, he will have nothing left for year eight.   "Mah nochal...?" right now, in year seven, even though the fridge is full, because if it's eaten now, what will be left for the future? 


That's how many of us go through life (es chata'ei ani mazkir).  We are so nervous about the future, so worried about what will be, that we can't enjoy the bracha of what we have in the present moment.  It's human nature to be concerned about the future, to fear uncertainty, but it has to be balanced with bitachon as well. 

There is a famous Noam Elimelech that asks why the bracha of "v'tzivisi es birchasi" for the sixth year to produce such a bountiful harvest is couched as a response to the question of "Mah nochal...?"  Why does the Torah not just tell us that Hashem will give a bracha in year six?  The N.E. answers that Hashem would give the bracha automatically, but by asking, "Mah nochal..?" and showing a lack of bitachon, the farmer jeopardizes it.  He doesn't really deserve the bracha anymore.  Nonetheless, Hashem overrides the normal outcome and in this case, "v'tzivisi es birchasi" despite the lack of merit.  

The N.E. demands a very high level of bitachon.  To not even worry, to not even b'chdrei ha'lev ask, "Mah nochal...?" is hard.  The Chasam Sofer has a more positive spin to the pesukim.  A normal person wants to earn his living and not live on handouts.  There is an idea of "nahama d'kisufa," an embarrassment in doing so.  "Mah nochal..." reflects that attitude -- if we don't work, what will we eat?  We don't want a handout.  Hashem could just as easily do a miracle and provide food during the shemitah year for the farmer without the land being worked at all.  But since we want to earn our own keep, Hashem does us a chessed and allows us to do so.  "V'tzivisi es birchasi" in year six, when the farmer does have the opportunity to farm the land, to work, so that he feels he has a hand in producing something, in earning the bread on his table. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

beheimas shevi'is -- chatzi shiur by an issur aseh

The gemara (Bechoros 12b) writes that if you trade in peiros shevi’s for a cow, the calf of this “beheimas shevi’s” would be exempt from dinim of bechora. Since the kedushas shevi’is of the fruits transfer to the cow, it’s bechor cannot be offered as a korban because peiros shevi’s are “l’achla,” only for eating, not for being burned. The Rambam offers his own reason for this din (maybe based on a different girsa – see the nosei keilim) and quotes the derasha that peiros shevi’is are only “l’achla” to the exclusion of “sechora,” business transactions.

Asks the gemara: by this same logic, why don’t we say that the mitzvah of challah should not apply during shemitah? Since there would be a chiyuv to burn challah if the dough became tamei, why not apply the same rule of “l’achlah” but not for burning? (How the Rambam would learn this question if the reason of beheimas shevi’is has to do with sechorah is difficult).

The gemara answers that there is a special gezeiras hakasuv of “l’doroseichem” by challah that tells us that it applies at all times.

The Maharit Algazi is not happy with this question of the gemara. His objection is built on three assumptions, the first two being relatively simply, the third being quite a chiddush:

1)There is no shiur m’doraysa as to how much dough you need to separate to fulfill the mitzvah of hafrashas challah. Just like separating one stalk of wheat is enough to fulfill the mitzvah of terumah m’doraysa, so too, you can seperate a drop of dough to fulfill the mitzvah of challah.

2) The prohibitions of burning or sechorah stem from an aseh of “lachlah.” Since the shiur achilah in the Torah is always a k’zayis, the shiur of these issurei aseh must also be a k’zayis.

3) The din of chatzi shiur only applies only to a lav and not a mitzvas aseh. Therefore, there is no issur of chatzi shiur on an issur aseh either.

Putting it all together, he asks: why is the gemara bothered by how to be mafrish challah during shemitah – just be mafrish less than a k’zayis, which is enough to fulfill the mitzvah d’oraysa of challah but less than the shiur of the issur aseh learned from “l’achlah?”

Is assumption #3 really true? We’ve discussed before whether there is any significance to chatzi shiur of a mitzvas aseh, but even if one holds there isn’t, maybe one can still argue that the din of chatzi shiur should still apply to an issur aseh since it effectively functions like a lav.

"es Eisav saneisi?"

Over Pesach I read R’ Jonathan Sacks’ latest book, Not In G-d’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, and I’ve been meaning to jot down some thoughts about it but just never seem to have the time. I still don’t have time, so this will be b’kitzur one point. What I admire about R’ Sacks writing is his clarity and erudition. What I sometimes find hard to digest is his attempts to portray Judaism   as always consistent with modern Western liberal, democratic, humanist values (if you’ve ever taken a university Western Civ course [do such things still exist?] you know what values I mean).

Let me give you an example from the book. In the second half of the book R’ Sacks takes a few episodes in Braishis, e.g. Avraham’s banishment of Yismael, Ya’akov’s conflict with Eisav, Yosef’s conflict with his brothers, and he argues that these stories have been misunderstood. Rather than a rejection of the unwanted son/brother, the intent of the Bible is to flip the traditional storyline on its head and actually validate the “other” brother/son/outsider. In G-d’s eyes, everyone has value and no one is rejected. He goes so far as to read the opening of Vayishlach, where Ya’akov sends gifts to Eisav, as a sort of attempt to return the bounty of the brachos, an acknowledgement that maybe the stolen brachos should rightfully have been given to Eisav after all. Read in this way, as validating the “other,” religion becomes a force that unites people, rather than a divisive force that can lead to violence.

I thought I was maybe missing something, so I told this derasha to my son and asked him if there is anything that strikes him as odd.  He immediately quoted the pasuk in Malachi, "…v’es Eisav saneisi?” (1:3)  How can you think that Eisav is validated?  I would have thought that what seems to be a mefurash pasuk against your thesis deserves a mention in the text, but R’ Sacks addresses it only in a footnote to the chapter at the back of the book.  His answer is that the navi was speaking about a particular time where there were particular difficulties, but this is not to be taken as a general rule or a normative statement. Putting aside the fact that were an reaction to a particular situation and not a nevu’ah she’hutzrecha l’doros it would never have been written, I think the more basic issue is how do you know what is the rule and what is the exception? How do you know that your derasha on Braishis represents the TRUTH, the categorical rule, and the pasuk in Malachi is the exception? Maybe it’s the other way around? It seems to me at least that Eisav has been historically seen as a bad guy who should be avoided at all costs. Halacha hi she’Eisav sonei Ya’akov. K’she’zeh kam zeh nofeil. The Derashos haRan uses this very pasuk in Malachi as a springboard to argue that the conflict between Eisav and Ya’akov is inherent in their (our) nature, not just a product of circumstance. The two sides can never share common ground.  R’ Sacks is not bound to adopt the view of the Ran, but I would have liked to see how he it. A nice derasha is no more than that – a nice derasha. Whether it reflects the majority view of ba'alei mesorah and Jewish philosophers is unproven.


One other quick point: I think the whole argument of the book is academic.  Until someone in the camp of Yishmael of similar renown to R' Sacks starts making these same arguments, there is nothing to talk about.  To preach peace and tolerance while your enemies plot your destruction is does not make any sense to me.

There is much more to say about the book… maybe one day I get back to it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

mekalel vs mekoshesh - opposite sides of the coin

Rashi writes that the episodes of the mekalel and the mekoshesh happened at the same time; both wrongdoers suffered the same fate of being imprisoned, albeit separately, until Hashem revealed what should be done with them. Despite the superficial parallel, there is a subtle difference in the description of how each case was handled. In our parsha we are told, “Vayanichu’hu bamishmar lifrosh lahem al pi Hashem,” (24:12) the mekalel was jailed   until what should be done was revealed to them, plural. In parshas Shlach, the Torah says that the mekoshesh was jailed “ki lo porash ma yei’aseh lo,” (15:34) because it had not yet been revealed what to do with him, singular. Why the switch between singular and plural? The end of the parsha may provide a clue.

After telling us that Bnei Yisrael took the mekalel out and stoned him, the Torah adds, “U’Bnei Yisrael asu ka’asher tzivah Hashem es Moshe.” (22:23) It’s a seemingly unnecessary addition, as the pasuk just told that that Bnei Yisrael did as they were instructed. Seforno, Netzi”v and Ohr haChaim (who has other answers as well) suggest that the Torah is emphasizing that Bnei Yisrael carried out the punishment of the mekalel simply to fulfill Hashem’s command, not with any sense of vindictiveness. Meshech Chochma (see also Tiferes Shlomo), however, reads the end of the pasuk as referring not to the punishment that was administered, but rather as referring back to the mitzvah of baking the lechem ha’panim described earlier in the perek. According to one view quoted in Rashi, it was this parsha of lechem ha’panim that the mekalel ridiculed. Why would G-d want us to offer 9 day old bread instead of fresh baked loaves? What sense did it make? The Torah closes the episode by telling us that not only was the mekalel punished, but his scoffing had no effect on the community. Bnei Yisrael made and offered lechem ha’panim as they had done beforehand, without regard to the questions and doubts raised by the mekalel.

The story of the mekoshesh is the flipside of that of the mekalel. Instead of sowing seeds of doubt in the community, the mekoshesh’s goal was to strengthen the community’s commitment. Chazal tell us that when Bnei Yisrael heard that they would have to spend 40 years in the desert, they thought all was lost. The mekoshesh deliberately was mechalel Shabbos to show that life would go on as before – there was still a kedushas Shabbos, still obligations and requirements that needed to be fulfilled. Maharasha goes so far as to ask why the mekoshesh’s actions are not classified as a melacha she’aina tzericha l’gufa considering that he had no real practical use for the melacha performed.

Rashi tells us that the mekalel and the mekoshesh did not share the same prison cell – perhaps the message is that they were worlds apart in what they were trying to accomplish.

Returning to our original question, the reaction to the mekoshesh was to try to figure out what to do with him, singular. The community’s belief and observance was at least as strong as before, if not stronger, due to the mekoshesh’s self sacrifice to make the point that Torah and mitzvos were still in force.  He, as an individual, would still have to suffer consequences. The reaction to the mekalel was to figure out where they, plural stood – whether the community as a whole had been impacted by the words of the mekalel, by his questions and scoffing. The conclusion of the parsha resolved not only the question of his fate, but the question of the community’s as well. ( There is a piece in the She’eiris Menachem that led to the ideas in this post.)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

theft of a good word -- the mechanism of brachos

Apologies for posting on last week’s parsha so late in the week.  I've just been really pressed for time.

The Torah writes that Hashem will punish the person who worhsips Molech “l’ma’an tamei es mikdashi u’lchalel es shem kodshi.” (20:3)  There is an obvious difficulty: the person might be miles and miles away from the makom mikdash when he is worshipping Molech. How does his actions cause the mikdash to become tamei?  Rashi answers that “mikdash” in this context doesn't mean the “beis hamikdash,” but rather means “knesses Yisrael.” We, the nation, become defiled when even one individual does wrong.

Ramban brings proof from Rashi from a famous gemara in Brachos that most people know, but probably read a little differently than Ramban. Chazal tell us that someone who eats food without making a bracha is a thief, as he/she has stolen from Hashem and from Knesses Yisrael. If you’re like me, you probably understood the gemara to mean that what the thief stole is  the food. Not so says Ramban. [Does the food belong to the collective community of Knesses Yisrael?] What the thief stole is the presence of the Shechina from Klal Yisrael. Hashem wants us to say brachos – that helps sustain the world and brings us close to Him. If you don’t say a bracha, you have robbed Klal Yisrael of hashra’as haShechina. So too, explains Ramban, someone who worships Molech drives Hashem’s presence away, and therefore harms the community as a whole.

Rashi agrees with Ramban that it’s not the food we are robbing by not saying a bracha, but he gives in two words a different explanation of what is being stolen.  What you are stealing, says Rashi (Brachos 35b) is “es birchaso.” You owe Hashem a bracha and you stole it away from him!  Sometimes you can be a thief even if you don’t owe any money – you can owe a thank you as well, and be a thief for not giving it.  I don't think this new definition of gezel only applies bein adam laMakom.  You can steal the thank you you owe your spouse, the bracha of mazal tov you owe your friend, the good morning you owe your neighbor.  My daughter did some math problem well and she complained to me that I didn’t tell her “good job.” Es chata’ai ani mazkor – I was a gazlan! I stole the praise I owed her. We have to be careful to pay not just our monetary debts, but also the debt of words of praise we owe to Hashem and others. 

Maharal in Gur Aryeh on this pasuk disagrees with the Rishonim and learns the gemara k'peshuto that it is in fact the food which you are stealing.  Everything in the world is like hekdesh – “l'Hashem ha’aretz u’melo’ah.” The way we release the food from the ba’alus of hekdesh is to transform Hashem from owner to giver, and the way to do that is by saying a bracha. When we describe Hashem as “Baruch…” what we are saying is that Hashem overflows with generosity and gives to us.  We are no longing stealing -- we are accepting a gift.


Maharal in Nesiv ha’Avodah (ch 14) says yet another hesber of how a bracha removes the status of hekdesh. The way something normally is removed from the domain of hekdesh is through pidyon – substituting something else of value in its place. Bracha, explains the Maharal, works through the same mechanism.  When you recite a bracha on that delicious food that is hekdesh, you are giving hekdesh a valuable substitute in its place -- yourself.  You become the thing that is holy in place of the food, and therefore the food can be eaten.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

setting down roots

1) To the man on the street, the concept of “holiness” belongs in the domain of the spiritual elite. The Dalai Lama, for example, is called “His Holiness” – the expectation is that someone who is “holy” will be living in a monastery in Tibet, not be riding the subway and be walking the streets of Manhattan. That’s what makes the opening of our parsha so remarkable. “Dabeir el kol adas Bnei Yisrael… kedoshim te’hiyu.” Davka here, when speaking of kedusha/holiness, the Torah demands that Moshe gather all of Klal Yisrael to make sure every single individual gets the message. That message is twofold: 1) yes, there is a lofty level of kedusha that only the spiritual elite can reach, but there are also levels of kedusha that each and every one of us can incorporate into our own lives; 2) even if we never reach those lofty levels, we can at least look to them as guides to the path we should be following. Even the GR”A claimed that he did not get beyond the lower rungs of positive midos described by the Mesilas Yesharim. So what are we doing when we learn such a book? We are setting our sights on where we should be headed, even if we never get there.

2) The meforshim (see the very nice Ohr haChaim) discuss why the Torah mentions “u’netatem kol eitz ma’achal” as a preface to the mitzvah of orlah. The Torah could just tell us not to eat the fruit of a tree during the first three years without talking about planting -- obviously you have to plant a tree to have fruit.  The Midrash quotes the pasuk of “acharei Hashem Elokeichem teileichu” and asks how it is possible to follow G-d.  The gemara in Sota answers that the pasuk means to follow the midos of G-d – just as he is rachum, so too we must show rachmanus; just as he is gomeil chassadim, so too must we be gomeil chassadim, etc.,  The Midrash here adds an additional element: just as G-d planted, “Vayita…gan b’Eden,” so too, we should be like him and plant. “U’nitatem…” is not just the circumstances under which the issur of orlah applies -- it's a command in its own right, a way of being more like G-d.  The Tanchuma writes that Hashem said that even if we find Eretz Yisrael filled with every good thing, we shouldn’t just sit back and enjoy that bounty, but we must plant. Why plant if there is no need?  Our Midrash provides the answer – because planting is a way of becoming more like G-d.

The Midrash also connects “u’nitatem” to the pasuk of “eitz chaim hi la'machazikim bah.”  Our pasuk is talking about planting real trees that produce real fruit; the "eitz chaim" is a metaphorical tree, the tree of Torah -- what does one thing have to do with the other?  The Sefas Emes explains that there are physical roots and spiritual roots.  When a Jew plants a tree in Eretz Yisrael, the goal is not just to set tree roots into the ground -- the goal should be to better the world, the goal should be to bring Hashem's plan, not just dates and figs, to fruition.
 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

5 Iyar -- birchas haTorah, not birchas hamazon

One item that caught my attention in R’ Mayer Fendel’s book Nine Men Wanted for a Minyan was his response to the question of why we celebrate Yom Ha’Atzmaut. The person posing the question argued that the declaration of the state had little immediate significance. There was and still is so much work needed to be done to build Eretz Yisrael – so many more steps are needed to transform aschalta d’geulah (assuming it is at least that) into a full geulah. Even from a secular perspective, 5 Iyar was immediately followed by war, not tranquility.  The infrastructure of the country had to be built and numerous hurdles overcome.  You don’t celebrate a siyum when you are holding on daf beis! What exactly happened on 5 Iyar that warrants hallel and a yom tov?

Rav Fendel’s answer, if I remember correctly (I don’t own the book), was that having a sovereign political entity that all Jews can call home is of monumental significance. There will never again be an incident like, for example, what happened to the
St Louis. Whenever and wherever a Jew is, there is now someplace he/she will always be accepted and welcomed.

That answer is certainly correct, but I would like to add my own two cents. The Sefer haChinuch asks why it is that when it comes to the mitzvah d’oraysa of birchas hamazon, we say the brachos only after finishing a meal, not beforehand, yet when it comes to the mitzvah of birchas hatorah, we reverse things and davka recite the bracha before learning. (Sounds like he assumes birchas hatorah is a birchas hashevach just like bh”m). Why the difference?

The
Sefer haChinuch answers that the difference is in the nature of the hana’ah. You only get the enjoyment of satiation that comes from having a good meal after the meal is over. However, when it comes to the hana’ah of delving into a sugya, the enjoyment comes as soon as you start -- the enjoyment stems from the process of learning, regardless of whether you ever reach or ever can reach an endpoint or conclusion. A hana’ah sichlit is a different type of hana’ah, says the Chinuch.

True, you don’t make a siyum when you are only holding on daf beis – but you do say a birchas haTorah. 

If all you see when you look at Eretz Yisrael is a physical place, a country like any other, albeit with more Jews living there, then ain hachi nami, you may not have much to celebrate yet. We’re not ready for birchas ha’mazon; the satiation is not there yet. But if you see the building of our land as the unfolding of giluy malchus shamayim, then it’s a hana’ah sichlit, then the process alone is worthy of bracha and celebration. There is a pnimiyus to Eretz Yisrael, to the physical land and trees and mountains, that does not exist anywhere else in the world. There is inherent spirituality that resides in every blade of grass and every brick that is there.  Every drop of that that we enjoy is worthy of celebration, even if we don't see the whole picture yet.  That’s what we say hallel and give thanks for.  5 Iyar is not a birchas ha'mazon -- it's a birchas haTorah.

K’ma’aseh Eretz Mitzrayim asher y’shavtem bah lo ta’asu…” Do we need to be reminded that we once lived in Eretz Mitzrayim? “Uk’ma’aseh Eretz Canaan asher ani mavi eschem shamah lo ta’asu…” Do we need to be told that Hashem is bringing us into Eretz Yisrael?  The Kli Yakar answers that the Torah is telling us exactly what wrong deeds are the “k’ma’aseh Eretz Mitzrayim” and “ma’aseh Eretz Canaan” that the Torah is warning us of.  Firstly, there is the “k’ma’aseh Eretz Mitzrayim” error of “y’shavtem bah,” of choosing to dwell there as if galus was home, not understanding that Mitzrayim and every other galus is just a temporary waystation. We sometimes forget that we don’t belong here no matter how nice it is.  Secondly, there is the wrong of “ma’aseh Eretz Canaan,” where “ani mavi eschem shamah,” where I am bringing you there, where I need to twist your arm and drag you through a desert and bring you there willy-nilly.  It shouldn't be Hashem that is dragging us there -- we should be running and dancing with joy on our own accord to get there.


B'ezras Hashem we should get the message on our own, without a BDS movement or an Obama or what goes on in London, Brussels, and Paris to remind us. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

more on molech and contextual interpretation

Although the Targum Yonasan in last week’s parsha interprets the issur of molech as a prohibition against marrying an aku"m, seemingly against the Mishna in Megillah, the T.Y. in this week’s parsha (20:2) interprets the pasuk prohibiting molech as an issur avodah zarah. Why the difference? My wife’s grandfather, R' Dov Yehidah Shochet, explained that it depends on context. In last week’s parsha, the issur of molech appears in the context of issurei arayos. Therefore, the Targum explains the pasuk in a way that best fits that context, as an issur arayos (baruch she’kivanti - see last week's post). In this week’s parsha, the pasuk appears at the beginning of a perek and the context is not yet set. Therefore, Targum renders the pasuk literally and explains it as an issur avodah zarah.

The Ibn Ezra says exactly the opposite. Back in last week’s parsha, where the context is arayos, Ibn Ezra interprets the molech pasuk as an issur avodah zarah. In this week’s parsha, where the context is not set, he writes, “yitein m’zar’o lamolech – v’ha’ta’am: lishkov im ovedes kochavim” -- here he interprets it as an arayos-related issur.  Very hard to understand.

The question that begs asking is why there is this switch in context switches between the parshiyos – why in last week’s parsha does the issur of molech appear towards the end of the list of arayos but in this week’s parsha it is in the lead off position before any arayos are discussed? Furthermore, why does the order in which the arayos are presented changed between the two parshiyos?