Monday, March 30, 2009

the relationship between Mishkan and korbanos (I)

There are two ways in which the relationship between Mishkan and korbanos can be understood: 1) the Mishkan exists so that there is a special designated place in which to offer korbanos -- korbanos are ikar and Mishkan is tafeil; 2) korbanos are instrumental to the Mishkan -- Mishkan is ikar and korbanos tafeil.

The formulation of the Rambam at the opening of Hil. Beis haBechira:

מצות עשה לעשות בית לה', מוכן להיות מקריבים בו הקרבנות, וחוגגין אליו שלוש פעמים בשנה

suggests that the Mishkan is merely instrumental to the offering of korbanos.

Yet, the Ramban has a striking line in his intro. to sefer VaYikra that suggests just the opposite:

כי כאשר היה ספר אחד בענין הגלות והגאולה ממנו, והשלימו בענין אהל מועד וכבוד השם אשר מלא את המשכן, צוהו בקרבנות ובשמירת המשכן, שיהו הקרבנות כפרה להן ולא יגרמו העונות לסלק השכינה

The Mishkan serves as the place in which the Shechina dwells and korbanos are merely instrumental in bringing about kapparah to ensure that Hashem's presence does not depart because of our sins.

I would like to suggest two nafka minos in halachic contexts to this philosophical debate... stay tuned.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

burning chameitz (II)

I hate to leave off the night with topics like the previous one, so let's get back to some Torah. The Sha'agas Arye (#87) asks the same question we raised here in slightly different form. The Chachamim dismiss R' Yehudah's requirement that chameitz be disposed of by burning (Pesachim 27) by arguing that such a stringency leads inevitably to a leniency -- if one has chameitz but not firewood, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of disposing of chameitz.

Recall that according to the last mishna in Temurah the ashes of issurei hana'ah which must be burned may be used, but the ashes of issurei hana'ah which can be disposed of in any way may not be used if these items are burned.

If chameitz comforms to the same rule, then why should the Chachamim draw attention to a potential leniency caused by a lack of firewood when there is a a far more glaring leniency inherent in R' Yehudah's opinion -- according to R' Yehudah who demands that chameitz be burned the ashes of chameitz would be permitted while according to the Chachamim these ashes would be prohibited.

Since the gemara does not raise this possibility it suggests that even the Chachamim would permit the ashes of burned chameitz -- but why is chameitz different than other issurei hana'ah?

a strange defense - part II

The second critique of Rabbi Slifkin is that R’ Kanievsky and R’Shternbruch and others from their world do not retain the exclusive right to speak on matters of mesorah. In that I fully agree, and as I wrote last post look forward to Rabbi Slifkin producing haskamos from R’ Hershel Shachter or someone of that ilk to bolster his views. Until that happens, the point is academic.

It is with respect to his third critique that it is ludicrous to disallow disagreement with an authority because he is a great Torah scholar that I find myself most strongly disagreeing with Rabbi Slifkin. Once again, he knocks down an easy strawman rather than deal with the real issue.

The issue is NOT whether there can be legitimate disagreement on Torah issues. Anyone who deals with a machlokes Rambam and Tosfos or Shach and Taz knows this. The issue, and I will put it bluntly, is given the overwhelming criticism of Rabbi Slifkin’s views by gedolei yisrael and Roshei Yeshiva, who is he to disagree?

The Pri Megadim can disagree with Rabbi Akiva Eiger, but no matter how well I learn a sugya it indeed would be ludicrous for me to disagree. At best I can say R' Akiva Eiger is tzarich iyun to me. In one of the biographies of R' Baruch Ber it is related that when R' B.B. would say a shiur and answer a question RAKE left b'tzarich iyun he would say the shiur is just a hava amina but not a real answer or surely RAKE would have thought of it!

Not only does Rabbi Slifkin think he is a bar plugta of the gedolei hador, he writes quite confidently that "virtually none of them knew about the sources in Rishonim and Achronim on which I was relying". Indeed! I find my eyebrows raised reading rhetoric like this, but maybe it's just me.

The question R' Slifkin raises as to why Rav Hirsch's writings should not be expunged from Torah texts because of some of the non-traditional views Hirsch held just as his [Slifkin's] works have been banned shows a shortsightedness as to why and how works become part of the canon of great Torah texts and why certain people become enshrined by history as great Torah leaders. One can point to the writings of any Torah great and find views that are sometimes difficult to understand -- the fact that you may not have an answer for Tosfos' critique of Rashi in no way diminishes Rashi's greatness. It is the totality of vision, thought, and character that makes a gadol, and given that totality of personality, we assume there must be logic and justification even behind writings that strike us as perplexing. Does Rabbi Slifkin truly believe he has shown a mastery of the totality of Torah literature that would demand we give his writings the same benefit of the doubt we might give to a Rav Hirsch even in the face of the staunchest opposition?

Rabbi Slifkin "defends" his opponents by suggesting that they adhere to a different understanding of mesorah than the one he subscribes to and within that framework their opposition in understandable. Putting aside for a moment whether the fact that so many Torah giants subscribe to a different viewpoint itself should give one pause (see part 1), it does not seem to dawn on Rabbi Slifkin that disagreement with his views may not stem from an alternate framework of mesorah, but simply because the understanding of sources he is so confident even gedolim are ignorant of is either 1) wrong; 2) only partially correct; 3) perhaps defensible as an "..v'od yesh lomar" but not the best approach; 4) not for public consumption for other reasons. (See R' Daniel Eidensohn's blog who made these same points here.)

Would a person in their wildest dreams think of saying they "choose" to pasken like a Magen Avraham against a Ta"z even though the greatest poseki hador say otherwise? Does that fact that in previous doros other poskim might have paskened like that Magen Avraham make any shred of difference? I think not. So why in areas of emunos v'deyos do the same rules not apply? Unless there are gedolei yisrael on whose shoulders you sit, "Torah archeology" of past views and your personal interpretation of whether or not they agree with your views carries little weight.

Rabbi Slifkin argues that just as one can be part of the chareidi community without necessarily following the gedolim's advice as to who to vote for in the Israeli elections, so too, perhaps one can be chareidi and still agree with his views as opposed to those of gedolim. Does Rabbi Slifkin see no difference between what gedolim advise in a non-halachic context and what they teach with respect to fundemental emunos v'deyos?

For the final time let me reiterate: R' Slifkin's books are of little interest to me. I am far more interested in R' Elchanan's chakira of whether psik reisha assumes an implicit kavanah or needs no kavanah than whether chickens can really live without heads; I am far more interested in the geder of kinyanim than whether elephants can jump. What I find far more troubling than a few books is the attiutude toward gedolei torah this controversy has engendered. R' Slifkin claims "thousands" in the chareidi community agree with his approach but "virtually nobody dares say so." I am reminded of Hillary Clinton's famous remark about a "vast right wing conspiracy" -- is this really how we should think of gedolei yisrael? Is the public lack of support just a product of societal pressure and politics reaching even the hallowed halls of the Beis Medrash, or could it be, just maybe, that when push comes to shove, gedolei yisrael from the right and left (as I noted before, I have not read a single haskama from the YU Roshei Yeshiva either) plain and simple do not think these ideas should be taught or supported publicly?

a strange defense - part I

It was by chance that I noticed on Parshablog that R' Slifkin quoted me in an essay in "defense" of his opponents. I don't think I have mentioned R' Slifkin directly on this blog and my original post, which he attibutes to an explanation of the banning of his books, was nothing of the sort. My post was written in reaction to what I view as a corruption of the entire meaning of mesorah that has resulted in part as an outcome of R' Slifkin's approach, but also in part due to other forces at work in contemporary Orthodoxy.

In for a penny in for a pound, so let me just respond to a the three errors that R' Slifkin claims that I make (as an aside, my original post is here):

1) R' Slifkin charges that I interpret the mesorah to be monolithic-- THE mesorah, meaning the views accepted as mainstream by the chareidi world, and therefore am dismissive of interpretations that may be legitimate. If anyone looks back at my original post (and esp. if one is a regular reader of this blog) I think it is more than clear that this strawman has nothing to do with me. I can only wonder how a paragraph in which I cite R' Soloveitchik can be read as advocating respect only for chareidi viewpoints (do other chareidi blogs have siderbar links to R' Aviner)?!

The point that R' Slifkin missed is that whether chareidi, dati-leumi, or Centrist, the mesorah has boundaries and those boundaries are defined by gedolei yisrael. Just because one denies that Judaism is a free-for-all where you can pick and choose from a grab back of historical shitos and hashkafos (my original point) does not mean one advocates a monolithic view of hashkafa. But it does mean aseh lecha rav -- there must be some tradition taught and lived by gedolei yisrael to which one subscribes. If not for R' Soloveitchik's approval of secular education, if not for R' Kook's defense of Zionism, the dati-leumi and Torah u'Madda camps would be intellectually diminished as valid Torah hashkafos. It is not enough, for example, to say that we look to the Rambam as an exemplar of a synthesis of Torah and secular wisdom and therefore reject the advice of contemporary gedolim to steer clear of secular literature -- "Torah archeology" of past viewpoints without guidance on what theoretical conclusions may be drawn or practically implemented is a dangerous game to play with great and grave intellectual pitfalls (more on this important point to come).

Rabbi Slifkin claims that "the rationalist view" finds contemporary support in the "Torah u'Madda" community. Here is a simple way to end this controversy: Rabbi Slifkin, just publish your works with a haskama from the leading Roshei Yeshiva of the mesorah you affiliate with, i.e. Rav Hershel Shachter, R' Mordechai Willig, etc. Ikkar chaseir min hasefer quite literally! I know of no such haskamos that have been printed. Why rely on questionable speculation of what R' Soloveitchik might have held when his greatest talmidim are a phone call away? -- and who so far as I know have written nothing in your support.

To reiterate, it's not just the books that are at issue here, but an entire hashkafa of Judaism. The controversy about books in many cases masks a far deeper controversy. Many fierce advocates of Rabbi Slifkin's books that I read in the blogosphere also espouse views such as orthopraxy, such as the belief that historical-scientific evidence trumps tradition, etc. (views that R' Slifkin himself may not espouse). R' Dr. Moshe Bernstein of YU recently reacted in the YU newspaper to the invitation by students to a speaker whose views undermine the belief in Torah m'Sinai. He wrote that fundemental traditions cannot be questioned even when all the evidence calls our beliefs into doubt; we must simply remain b'tzarich iyun. To those who belief scientific fact trumps belief, there are no tzarich iyuns and no need for haskamos for what the laboratory has proven. Based not only on the chareidi teachings of R' Kanievsky and R' Shternbruch, but also based as well on the view of Professor Bernstein (whose Intro to Bible class I enjoyed immensely) and others like him, I respectfully disagree.

how to clean for Pesach: a study in contrasts

Hat tip to Mother in Israel for her analysis of Mishpacha Magazine's guide to cleaning for Pesach in just one week (assuming the garage and attic are already done, mind you). All I can say is you never know when you will find a slice of bread stuck to a window, so do use the Windex. Compare that with R' Aviner's tips on how to clean for Pesach in one day. There is one point in particular I would highlight:
Question: Does a husband have to help his wife?
Answer: A husband does not have to help his wife nor does a wife have to help her husband. Rather, the two of them have to clean together since this is a shared home, and it is a shared life as well.
No time to write more -- I'm busy cleaning : )

Thursday, March 26, 2009

burning chameitz

There are two manners to dispose of issurei hana'ah: through burning and through burial. The difference between these methods is that ashes of items which must be burned become permitted after the burning process is complete, but items requiring burial remain prohibited forever. The reason for the distinction is explained by Tosfos (Temurah 33b): once the Torah command to burn an item has been fulfilled, the mitzvah of disposal is finished and there is nothing more the Torah requires. Items that do not require burning have no proscribed method of disposal and therefore the task of eliminating them is never absolutely completed, hence these items never become permitted.

The Rambam paskens (Psulei haMukdashin ch 19 based on Temurah 34):

כל הנשרפין, לא ייקברו. וכן כל הנקברין, לא יישרפו: שאף על פי שהוא מחמיר בשריפתן, הרי הקל באפרן--שאפר הנקברין אסור.

While burning an item that requires only burial may seem like a great idea in that the disposal is more thorough, in actuality this may lead to mistakingly thinking the ashes are permitted. Therefore, only items which must be destroyed by burning should be burned and all other items should be disposed of in the appropriate way.

The Achronim point out that there is one Rambam that seems to contradict this rule of thumb. Writing in Hil. Chameitz u'Matazah (ch 3) the Rambam paskens:

כיצד ביעור חמץ: שורפו, או פורר וזורה לרוח, או זורקו לים; ואם היה החמץ קשה, ואין הים מחתכו במהרה--הרי זה מפררו, ואחר כך זורקו לים.

The Rambam clearly rules like the Chachamim, who allow chameitz to be disposed of by any means, and not like R' Yehudah, who required burning it. Yet, the Rambam still allows for chameitz to be burned. Why in this case is the Rambam unconcerned for the improper (and prohibited) use of the ashes of chameitz which have been burned? Why does chameitz not follow the general rule that items which do not require burning should not be burned?

Kallah Magazine

The latest edition of Kallah Magazine, edited by my wife, is out in various locations (5T, Teaneck, Queens, areas in Brooklyn). Help yourself to a copy (it will be online in PDF soon).

Sunday, March 22, 2009

VaYakhel: leadership of the Nesi'im

Rashi (35:27) explains that the word Nesi'im is written missing a letter yud because the Nesi'im waited until all the gifts for the Mishkan had been given before donating their share, and, as the pesukim tell us, Bnei Yisrael did such a good job that there was nothing left to give except for the precious avnei shoham. When it came time to dedicate the Mishkan the Nesi'im learned their lesson and were the first to give before all others.

Clearly the Nesi'im were not stupid people and their rationale in not donating first must have had some logic behind it. What was the hava amina here, why was it wrong, and what are we to learn from it?

I grasped this Rashi thanks to my experiences at a new workplace. There are two types of mentoring and leadership that go on when you try to teach someone a new task. One type of mentoring involves letting the novice try his/her hand at things and then running around and filling in the gaps that are left. There is another type of mentoring that goes on when you step foward and model a new task start to finish for the novice and then step away and push him/her to do it. The difference between these two methods: the first approach is reactive, in that the mentor must respond and correct the failings of the novice as they occur; the second approach is proactive, in that the mentor first demonstrates and models what should be done and then works with the novice to meet those expectations.

The Nesi'im initially had in mind the first model of mentoring and leadership, and with good reason -- they had little reason to expect that everyone could rise to the challenge of building a Mishkan, and therefore figured that they would sit back and fill in the gaps.

The ideal, however, is the second model. Instead of waiting for others to reach their limits and then start pushing and working to close gaps, a leader should be proactive and step up to encourage others to transcend their limits by demonstrating and embodying the ideal being promoted.

haseiba: independent mitzvah or not

The Rambam writes in ch. 7 of hil. chameitz u'matzah:

בכל דור ודור, חייב אדם להראות את עצמו כאילו הוא בעצמו יצא עתה משיעבוד מצריים, שנאמר "ואותנו, הוציא משם . . ." (דברים ו,כג). ועל דבר זה ציווה בתורה, "וזכרת, כי עבד היית" (דברים ה,יד; דברים טו,טו; דברים טז,יב; דברים כד,יח; דברים כד,כב), כלומר כאילו אתה בעצמך היית עבד, ויצאת לחירות ונפדית לפיכך כשסועד אדם בלילה הזה, צריך לאכול ולשתות והוא מסב דרך חירות. .

The Rambam places haseiba in the context of the requirement to demonstrate cheirus, freedom, implying that it is an independent obligation, not simply a detail in the fulfillment of the mitzvah of 4 kosos or matzah. The Rambam continues later:

ואימתיי צריכין הסיבה--בשעת אכילת כזית מצה, ובשתיית ארבעה כוסות האלו. ושאר אכילתו ושתייתו--אם הסב, הרי זה משובח; ואם לאו, אינו צריך.

The fact that there exists an obligation (at least ideally) to do haseiba outside the mitzvah of matzah or kosos would seem to underscore this point.

The Brisker Rav writes that the nafkah minah as to whether haseiba is an independent mitzvah or not is whether one would be obligated to re-drink if one forgot to recline (see Tosfos Pesachim 108). According to the Rambam, if one drinks without haseiba one has fulfilled the mitzvah of drinking a kos, but failed to fulfill the independent mitzvah of haseiba. One can only fulfill haseiba using a cheftza shel mitzvah -- since the mitzvah of drinking a kos was already fulfilled the first time around, the extra cup counts for nothing, therefore, there is no point to drinking again.

The Rosh disagrees and writes that if one drinks without haseiba one must re-drink. Haseiba according to the Rosh is not an independent mitzvah, but is part and parcel of the mitzvah of drinking a kos -- if one drinks without haseiba, one has failed to properly fulfill the mitzvah of that kos and must redo it.

Friday, March 20, 2009

women's donation to the Mishkan

Too much work, too little time to write... The Torah tells us that the women also donated to the Mishkan, expertly weaving while the wool was still attached to the sheep (35:26). Yet, we know the halacha that a women's handiwork actually belongs to her husband. Isn't it husbands and not wives who deserve the credit from the pasuk? I saw an answer quoted in the name of R' Chaim Volozhiner's mother (and yes, it is because of who said it that I am writing this). The reason a husband is entitled to keep his wife's handiwork is because he provides her with mezonos, food and support. Since in the desert the women did not need their husband's support, as the man fell equally for women as well as men, this takanah of ma'aseh yadayim belonging to the husband did not apply!

(Yes, according to pshat there was not yet in the midbar a din of kesubah much less a takanah of ma'aseh yadayim, but if that's your approach then please try to explain to me the Rashi about Yosef showing Ya'akov his wife's kesubah without diving into an abyss of allegorical mush. We discussed this before v'ain kan makom l'ha'arich.)

Update: "Rebbetzin Volozhiner" may get creativity points for her answer, but my wife prefers pshat to derash and when I mentioned this question on Shabbos she immediatly pointed out that who says the women who donated were married -- maybe they were the single girls and the whole kashe doesn't get off the ground.

Monday, March 16, 2009

haseiba and the mitzvah of 4 kosos

We ended the week with a kashe of the Mishne laMelech comparing krias hamegillah and the mitzvah of haseibah. To briefly summarize: Why in a case of safeik mukfaf / safeik not mukaf do we read the megillah only on the 14th and rely on sfeika derabbanan l'kula as an exemption for the 15th, but with respect to safeik of which set of kosos require haseiba we do not say that haseiba on the first set of kosos exempts haseiba on the last set based on sfeika derabbanan l'kula.

The Emek Bracha offers the following answer: with respect to the mitzvah of krias hemegillah, since one must read on at least one of the two days, either the 14th or the 15th, the 14th takes precedence based on rov or zerizus. Once there is at least a safeik that the mitzvah of krias hamegillah has been fulfilled, no further obligation exists (since sfeika derabbanan l'kula). The same cannot be said with respect to haseiba. Haseiba is not an independent mitzvah with a safeik whether it should be fulfilled using the first 2 or last 2 kosos -- rather, haseiba is a condition in the mitzvah of the kosos. Since each kos might be a kos that requires the condition of haseiba as part of its fulfillment, the fact that the first kosos were drunk with haseiba has no effect on the obligation to meet the same condition for the last kosos.

The issue the Emek Bracha's answer raises, namely, whether haseiba in an independent mitzvah or a detail in the mitzvah of drinking 4 kosos, may be at the crux of another debate among Rishonim, as we shall bl"n see.

Friday, March 13, 2009

delivering punishment with pure motives

Why did Moshe declare "Mi laHashem eilei" (22:26) before charging the Bnei Levi with the task of killing their bretheren (ish b'achiv) who worshipped the eigel? This could not be a clarion call for all those who were not idolators to gather because the vast majority of the Jewish people took no part in the eigel worship!

The Netziv answers that the task of putting down the uprising of eigel worshippers was dangerous -- who says that these people who submit easily to the sword and not fight back? We know the rule of thumb (Pesachim 7) is that one is not obligated to do in a mitzvah where there is a high risk of danger. Therefore, there was no explicit command from Hashem to kill the crowd of idolators and no obligation to do so. However, writes the Netziv, such calculations of risk / benefit apply only to regular people intent on performing the mitzvah to accrue reward. If a person is overcome with a love of G-d and performs a mitzvah motivated only by that love, no amount of danger will stand in the way -- such shluchei mitzvah ainan nizokin no matter what the degree of danger present. It was these people who Moshe called out to gather to him to perform the task of killing.

The Netziv also notes that the killing was done "ish b'achiv", to bretheren, to people who the Levi'im recognized and were related to. There is always a danger when imposing a punishment that a little bit of personal animosity may creep in, maybe a little bit of joy at another's downfall. Not only did Moshe seek out only those motivated by love of G-d, but he told the Levi'im to stike only at those who they otherwise felt brotherly love for so that the punishment was delivered only with the purest intentions.

safeik mukah chomah / safeik which kosos require haseiba

Time to start transitioning from Purim to Pesach, and what better way to do that than with a question of the Mishne laMelech. The Ran in Megillah says that a city which is safeik mukaf chomah / safeik not mukaf chomah and therefore in doubt whether to read megillah on the 14th or the 15th should read on the 14th with a bracha. Ran writes that you can't say safeik derabbanan l'kula on each individual day (and parenthetically, you see from this Ran that the chiyuv kri'ah which is m'divrei kabbalah is treated like any other safeik derabbanan) because then you would not end up reading on either day and then entire mitzvah would be uprooted. Therefore, since the first opportunity to read is the 14th, Ran says to read on that day, say a bracha because this is the day that most of the world reads on (rov), and then once the 15th comes you can assume that you already fulfilled the mitzvah the day before and apply safeik derabbanan l'kula.

There is another Ran that we discussed about a year ago (see here, here, here) that the M.l"M. suggests contradicts this Ran. The gemara in Pesachim tells us that only two of the four kosos we drink on Pesach night require haseiba but leaves unresolved as to whether it is the first two or the last two kosos. Therefore, concludes the gemara, we must do haseiba for all four kosos. The Ran asks: why not apply the rule of safeik derabban l'kula to this issue and not require haseiba at all? Ran answers that we cannot apply the rule of sfeika derabbanan where it would eliminate the mitzvah of haseiba entirely. Shouldn't there be more to the Ran than this? Based on the Ran's own reasoning in Megillah, shouldn't the logical conclusion to the gemara's question be to do haseiba on the first two cups, as that is the first opportunity to do the mitzvah of haseiba, and then rely on safeik derabbanan l'kula for the last two cups? Why does the Ran employ this line of reasoning with respect to megillah but not with respect to the mitzvah of 4 kosos?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"lo yarei Elokim": Brisker Rav on Amalek's corrupt ideology

Amalek is described as "lo yarei Elokim" (yes, I know some meforshim explain this to apply to Bnei Yisrael). The Brisker Rav asks why this designation is applied only to Amalek -- were the other nations any less lacking in yiras Shamayim?

The Brisker Rav answers by quoting Chazal's explanation (Bava kamma 79, daf yomi learners take note) as to why a ganav pays keifel but not a gazlan. A ganav tries to avoid being caught; he steals at night, or hides in the shadows because he is afraid of the police. A gazlan will rob you in broad daylight without inhibition. Therefore, explains the gemara, the ganav is worse than a gazlan -- the ganav shows that his fear of man is superior to his fear of G-d, while the gazlan does not.

Couldn't one argue, says the Brisker Rav, that the ganav deserves to be treated less stringently, because at least he shows some fear, as opposed to the gazlan who lacks any inhibition?

The answer is, says the Brisker Rav, that the gazlan makes no cheshbonos at all and therefore follows whatever his desires dictate. He does not intentionally disregard G-d; G-d is simply not on his radar screen. The ganav, however, does make cheshbonos -- he is afraid of being caught and restrains himself accordingly. Once you start making cheshbonos, then the question begs itself as to why that restraint is shown only in the presence of man and not in the presence of G-d.

The nations of Canaan are like the gazlan who makes no cheshbonos. They would have attacked any nation that appeared threatening to them -- the Jewish people just happened to be the ones who were in their line of fire. Amalek, on the other hand, had a deliberate cheshbon -- "atah ayeif v'yageiah", they deliberately plotted their attack for when the Jewish people were least prepared to fight and saw battle as an effort to undermine the singularity of the Jews as G-d's chosen nation. The lack of yiras shamayis the pasuk refers to is not hefkeirus lack of ideology, but rather refers to a deliberate anti-religious ideology that ignores and undermines spiritual values.

hard wired to believe

Interesting article in the New Scientist suggesting that our brains are innately hard wired to believe in G-d. Key quote:
Even so, religion is an inescapable artefact of the wiring in our brain, says Bloom. "All humans possess the brain circuitry and that never goes away." Petrovich adds that even adults who describe themselves as atheists and agnostics are prone to supernatural thinking. Bering has seen this too. When one of his students carried out interviews with atheists, it became clear that they often tacitly attribute purpose to significant or traumatic moments in their lives, as if some agency were intervening to make it happen. "They don't completely exorcise the ghost of god - they just muzzle it," Bering says.
Of course, the New Scientist has all sorts of theories to explain why the brain should behave in this way, and Richard Dawkins, who has suggested that religion is a product of cultural indoctrination, has his own way to spin these facts. It never seems to occur to the scientists that these explanations are like trying to explain why the mind construes it to be warm and sunny on a summer day -- maybe the mind accurately senses something about reality?

shushan Purim: finishing the job

Why are we all celebrating today just because in Shushan and in Shushan alone they had an extra day to take care of our enemies? I think the answer has to do with a failure that has dogged our people since time immemorial -- the failure to finish the job. Whether it was Shaul's failure to finish off Amalek or Tzahal's most recent venture into Gaza, we always seem to pull back before the job is done, overcome by either our own innate sense of (misplaced) rachmanus or because of outside pressure and constraints. The Jews of Shushan did not leave things half-done by using only the one day everyone else had to fight our enemies; they made sure to take an extra day to finish the job. Perhaps this is why not just Shushan, but walled cities from the time of Yehoshua are included in this celebration. Had Yehoshua finished the job of conquering Eretz Yisrael, who knows how the rest of Jewish history might have turned out. We are in a sense still struggling to finish that original mandate of kibush and yishuv Eretz Yisrael. Let's hope we one day soon figure out how to finally complete that task.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Toras Purim: Nothing Certain other than Taxes: Vayasem Achashveirosh Mas

“Vayasem haMelech Achashveirosh mas al ha’aretz…” (10:1)

The conclusion of the Megillah focuses on the establishment of the holiday of Purim and the rise of Mordechai to a position of power. Why would the Megillah insert into this climactic conclusion the seemingly irrelevant details of Achashveirosh’s fiscal policy of burdening his people with taxes?

The Alshich answers by pointing to the earlier episode at the beginning of the Megillah where we learned of the lavish parties Achashveirosh hosted in an attempt to pacify the inhabitants of Shushan and other lands and solidify his weak rule – clearly, the throne of Achashveirosh rested on a weak foundation. Yet, by the end of the story Achashveirosh’s political power solidified enough for him to impose taxes over his vast kingdom. The rise of Achashveirosh’s power and fortune must be understood, says the Alshich, in the context of Achashveirosh’s efforts, whether willingly and wittingly or not, to rescue the Jewish people. It was this merit of aiding in the salvation of the Jewish people that secured Achashveirosh’s reign.

Yet the question remains: why is it specifically the institution of “mas”, taxes, which the Megillah draws our attention to? What is the significance of “mas” as a symbol of Hashem’s bestowing might and power on Achashveirosh?

Commenting on the pasuk, “Vaya’al haMelech Shlomo mas m’kol Yisrael” (Melachim I:5:27), the Koznitzer Maggid explains:
The term “mas” alludes to that which is said in Ya’akov’s blessing to Yisachar, “Vayehi l’mas oveid,” meaning Yisachar bore the burden and yoke of malchus shamayim. The opposite of mas is s”am, the sitra achara, which blinds (sam=suma) a person’s eyes from his Creator and leads him to do as he pleases. This is the meaning of “Vaya’al Shlomo mas” – Shlomo transformed s”am to mas, meaning the people accepted the yoke of malchus shamayim.
Clearly mas is a very powerful concept, as v’nahapoch hu – s”am is changed to mas by Shlomo haMelech and a Beis haMikdash is built!

Perhaps a deeper insight into the power of mas can be derived from its component letters. Chazal tell us (Megillah 2b) that the two letters that spell mas, the mem and the samech, were miraculously suspended in the luchos, i.e. the middle of these letters have no connection to the surrounding stone and needed to miraculously hover in mid-air. What lesson are Chazal teaching through the miracle of these suspended letters of mas? The letters of Torah connect to stone; Torah connects to our mundane physical life and governs all that we do. Yet, there are different degrees of connection. A person may be very much immersed in this-worldly activity and have only a smattering of connection to Torah; a person can be so removed from the mundane that he seems to nearly exist outside the boundaries of physical existence. The mem and samech were those letters that represent the least connection to the physical – they do not even contact the stone, and only by sheer miracle remain suspended in the physical luchos without dropping out and leaving an empty space. The mem and samech of mas represent the complete immersion in kabbalas malcus shamayim that the Koznitzer speaks of to the point of barely clinging to any physical existence in this world.

We see this idea reflected in the gematriya value of these two letters. A drop of milk which falls into a pot of meat is considered non-existent if it is less than 1/60th of the volume of the pot. A fetus is considered non-existent until 40 days have passed from conception. Mem and samech are the boundary between physical existence and non-existence, part of the physical luchos and physical world, yet just barely so.

With this background we can better appreciate the Noam Elimelech’s (Parshas Terumah) reading of the following Mishna: a person with an ayin yafeh will separate 1/40 of his crop for terumah while a person with ayin ra’ah will separate only 1/60. What is the meaning here of ayin yafeh and ayin ra’ah? -- if a person truly had an ayin ra’ah he would not give terumah at all! R’ Elimelech explains that Chazal are hinting at the two types of tzadikim who protect the Jewish people: tzadikim with ayin yafeh, who protect the Jewish people by looking only at their goodness and thereby drawing down chessed from shamayim; tzadikim with ayin ra’ah, tzadikim who have the power to nullify evil that comes into the world. Perhaps we might rename these two tzadikim as mem tzadikim and samech tzadikim based on the denominator of these two percentages 1/40 = mem, 1/60 = samech. The mem tzadikim of ayin yafeh are the tzadikim given charge of the birth of chessed; the number 40 corresponds to the 40 days needed for a child’s neshoma to come into the world, the 40 days for Torah to come into the world. The samech tzadikim are the tzadikim who eliminate evil, as 60 corresponds to the shiur bitul necessary to nullify.

Perhaps the influence of mem and samech can even be detected even in Parshas Titzaveh, which on most years is read immediately before Purim. This is the only parsha in chumash (after his birth) in which Moshe Rabeinu’s name is absent. Yet, writes the Vilna Gaon, if we look carefully, there is a hint to Moshe’s name even in this parsha. The number of pesukim in the parsha is 101. If you take the gematriya of only the hidden parts of the letters spelling Moshe’s name:

Mem = mem – mem : 40
Shim = shin – yud – nun: 60
Hey = hey – aleph : 1

The total comes to 101. The message of the GR”A is that Moshe may be absent if we look only at the surface, but b’pnimiyus his presence remains.

Purim allows for stretching a point and in that spirit it is worth noting that the GRA’s gematriya of the letters of Moshe’s name adds up to a mem (40) followed by a samech (60) and ending with a one. We might dismiss this extra one as a mispar kollel, but my wife Ariella suggested that perhaps 101 is deliberate. Chazal tell us the difference between an “oveid Elokim” and “asher lo avado” is the difference between learning something 100 times vs. learning it 101 times. 100, or mas, is drawing the yoke of malchus shamayim into this world; 101 is the role of Moshe, transcending the physical entirely.

Parenthetically, the GR”A’s gematriya methodology of looking at the hidden letters reveals another interesting aspect of mem and samech:

Mem = mem (40) + mem (40)
Samech = samech (60) + mem (40) + chaf (20)

The gematriya of the first part of the letter’s spelling matches the gematriya of the second part of the letter’s spelling: 40 / 40 and 60/40+20. Mem and samech are the only two letters that balance in this way (or so my cursory review suggests, but I may be wrong). If the inner spelling represents pnimiyus and the outer letters chitzoniyus, perhaps mem and samech are the two letters that most represent the ideal of tocho k’baro.

Perhaps I am seeing mem and samech in too many places, but a final gemara which came to mind when thinking about these letters of mas is the question of the gemara (Brachos 4) as to why there in no letter nun in the alphabetical acrostic of Ashrei. The gemara answers that nun is left out to avoid mentioning the idea of nefila. Is it just a coincidence that when nun is left out the two letters that become juxtaposed are mem and samech? Or perhaps it is the juxtaposition of mem and samech, the mas of kabbalas malchus shamayim which is what eliminates the nun of nefila?

What does all this have to do with the mas of Achashveirosh? Between the lines of the Megillah is the story of galus coming to an end and the attempt to rebuild the Beis haMikdash. Achashveirosh’s parties celebrated what he thought was the end of the 70 year exile period of the Jewish people without redemption occurring. He promises Queen Esther up to half the kingdom, which Chazal (Megillah 15) explain to mean up to that which will divide the kingdom in half, meaning rebuilding the Mikdash. Yet, it is precisely his descendent Koresh who eventually gives full permission for the rebuilding to start.

“VaYa’al hamelech Shlomo mas” was the necessary precursor to building the Mikdash; “Aicha yashva badad… hayisa l’mas” was the undoing of those efforts; “Vayasem Achashveiros mas” was perhaps the start of a new rebuilding.

As the Alshich teaches, the prosperity of the kingdom of Achashveirosh was only due to his efforts to help the Jewish people; his mas of tax was possible only because there had already been paid a mas of renewed kabbalas malchus shamayim during his reign.

Purim is the time of v’nahapoch hu, where we are each empowered to turn s”am to mas and in that way start a new rebuilding of Mikdash in our time.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Tetzaveh: R' Chaim's question on the menorah that kept burning

Speaking of Brisker torah... The Midrash Tanchma on this week's parsha cites R' Chanina Sgan haKohanim's testimony that a miracle occurred in the Mikdash and the menorah burned from one Rosh haShana to the next without needing to be relit. In R' Shternbruch's sefer "Ta'am v'Da'as" he quotoes that R' Chaim Brisker was puzzled by this Midrash. If the menorah burned without interruption, how did the Kohanim fulfill the daily mitzvah of hadlakas hamenorah?

The Imrei Emes answered this question based on a din in hilchos Shabbos. Adding oil to a lamp so that it burns longer violates the melacha of mav'ir. Therefore, explained the Imrei Emes, all the kohanim needed to do on a daily basis is add some oil to the already burning menorah and that is considered lighting!

R' Shternbruch adds that this may answer the question of how hadlakah was done, but it does not resolve how the daily mitzvah of dishun hamenorah, cleaning the wicks was done. Me thinks that R' Shternbruch gives up too much ground to the Imrei Emes. Those learning Bava Kamma are probably wondering (based on 60a) whether what constitutes mav'ir in the meleches machsheves world of hilchos Shabbos can also be called mav'ir in other domains as well. Be that as it may, there is another point missing in R' Shternbruch's discussion. Recall that we learned Chanukah time that R' Chaim holds that there is in fact no chovas hagavra to light the menorah; the mitzvah is for the cheftza of the menorah to remain lit. The Rambam paskens that even a non-kohein can light the menorah provided it is then moved into its proper location -- as long as the menorah ends up burning in its proper place who lights and where they light is just a hechsher mitzvah. When R' Chaim uses the word hadlakah, I would venture to say he employs he precisely the way the Rambam uses it (Hil. Temidim ch 3.), especially given that R' Chaim himself (GR"CH al haRambam) focusses on these very words -- "hadlakas haneiros hi hatavasam"! Given that background, it seems obvious that it's not the absence of hadlakah=lighting which troubled R' Chaim, but it is the absence of hadlakah=cleaning the burnt wicks and preparing for a new lighting, the absense of a process of hatavah, which R' Chaim found so troubling. That was the original intent of the question, and that point is not addressed by the Imrei Emes' otherwise clever answer.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

a critique of Brisker lomdus

My son had an interesting critique of Brisker lomdus as it relates to the idea of something being categorized as having a certain "shem". As explained by R' Moshe Lichtenstein in his essay "What Hath Brisk Wrought":
In one common construct, an inquiry into the issue in question attempts to determine whether the law in a given case is linked to laws in other halakhic areas or whether it reflects the operating of an independent concept, often considering the inquiry to be satisfactorily concluded by proclaiming that the legal phenomenon under discussion reflects a “hallot shem (legal status or category) of X.” The categorization is taken as self-explanatory, and the question of why there should be such a category is dismissed without further ado.
I think an example would illustrate the point better than a definition. The Rambam paskens (Hil Tshuvah 1:1) that viduy, confession, is an integral part of the tshuvah process without which the mitzvah is incomplete. Yet, the Rambam paskens (Ishus 5:5) that if a man is mekadesh a woman on the condition that he is not a rasha we assume the kiddushin is valid because perhaps in his heart the mekadesh did tshuvah (Kiddushin 49). How can tshuvah be done in the heart if verbal confession is an integral part of the process? R' Soloveitchik answered (Igros haGRI"D) that tshuvah sans viduy removes the person from having a "shem rasha". However, there is an additonal level to the mitzvah of tshuvah whereby tshuvah itself serves as a kapparah. This additional kiyum is incomplete sans viduy.

My son argued that the whole idea of a "shem" anything makes no sense. Either something is X or it is not -- it makes no sense for something not to be X but to have a "shem X".

I think his critique is valid as a substantive and not just a semantic point. I think he is correct in understanding that the whole reason Briskers use the terminology of "shem" is precisely to split hairs in the way he finds discomforting -- Briskers do think that something can not be X but be labelled with a "shem X" nonetheless.

Rather than a shortcoming, this ultimately proves to be the genius of Brisk -- through categorization items that appear unrelated can be shown to have a common underlying conceptual root and items that appear similar can be finely distinguished. Retuning to the example I used, the creation of a "shem rasha" shifts the discussion of the status of the sinner engaged in tshuvah from a moral question of whether he/she is good or evil (tzadik or rasha) to a legal question of whether the individual falls into the category of rasha. A person may indeed still be shy of moral absolution yet no longer fall into the legal class reserved for the rasha.

I thought the critique showed good insight for a H.S. freshman and took some thinking about to formulate a clear answer to (which I may not have succeeded in doing). Something to think about.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

stealing from theives: v'gunav m'beis ha'ish

The gemara (Baba Kamma 69b) writes that one who steals from a thief is exempt from paying keifel because keifel is obligatory only where "v'gunav m'beis ha'ish", when property is taken from its owner, not where property is taken from a thief.

Does the gemara mean that one is not labelled a thief for taking stolen property (Robin Hood?), or does the gemara mean that one is a thief but there is simply no penalty of keifel?

The Rama (C.M. 34:7) paskens that one who divides stolen goods with a thief is not disqualified as a witnesses. The Tumim asks why this should be so -- why is witholding stolen goods any different than denying possession of a pikadon left in one's care? Witholding a pikadon is viewed as theft and disqualifies the person from being an eid; shouldn't the same be true of witholding stolen property?

The Ketzos answers that there is a basic distinction between these cases. The pikadon left to be watched is considered in its owner's possession until the watchman falsely claims it as his own. It is the moment of denial which transforms the pikadon into stolen goods. However, in the case of splitting booty with a thief, the goods are stolen property once the thief makes off with them; the splitting of the spoils adds nothing to the crime of theft which has already been perpetrated. "V'gunav m'beis ha'ish" is not just a dispensation from keifel, but teaches that there is no crime in taking stolen goods. Therfore, splitting the booty does not disqualify one as an eid. (See the Nesivos who disagrees).