Tuesday, May 31, 2011

better than words alone

pidyon haben and ma'ariv -- which mitzvah comes first?

R' Shlomo Hyman (Ch R' Shlomo, Kiddushin siman 3) writes that he once attended a pidyon haben where a fellow Rabbi suggested that since it was close to ma'ariv time they should first daven ma'ariv and only then do the pidyon -- tadir v'she'aino tadir - tadir kodem. R' Shlomo Hyman disagreed. If someone comes to collect a debt at ma'ariv time, you can't put off paying just because the mitzvah of ma'ariv is more tadir than the mitzvah of paying a debt. (He takes this as a given, but doesn't explain why it is true. I think what he means is that you only apply precedence rules like tadir when it comes to issur v'heter, not to dinei mamonos. For example, no one would say that you should pay Reuvain before Shimon because Reuvain borrows money more often is therefore a tadir debtor!) Pidyon haben is not just a mitzvah, but it is a debt that must be paid to the kohen. When this sevara was told to R' Chaim Brisker he approved of the psak.

Monday, May 30, 2011

the desire for degalim

The Midrash writes that at mattan Torah Bnei Yisrael saw Malachim descending in precise order, in camps of degalim, and Bnei Yisrael desired the same for themselves. Moshe, however, complained to Hashem that to set up degalim would be an impossible task. No matter where he would tell a tribe to camp, they would argue why davka that spot and not somewhere else. If he would say camp in the east, they would inevitably (so Moshe thought) argue that they belonged in the west, and vica versa. Hashem replied not to worry, as the Shevatim already knew where to go. When Ya'akov's coffin was carried from Mitzrayim by the Shevatim, each Sheivet stood on a different side. They would accept the same pattern here.

Here we see a perfect example of the paradoxical nature of man so often stressed by the ba'alei mussar. Bnei Yisrael wanted to have degalim like angels, yet at the same time Moshe saw that they would bicker like children over whatever plan he would have to carry that out. We can reach for the greatest heights while at the same time being plagued by the basest desires and temptations. Why? Because as great as our intellectual achievement and ambition, at the end of the day we remain tied to our own base humanity. We unfortunately see this again and again in our day and age when people who contribute time and effort to building mosdos and doing great things are featured on the front pages of newspapers being led away in handcuffs.

So much for the hava amina of the Midrash. What are we to make of its conclusion? So what if years earlier the brothers arranged themselves in a certain pattern when they carried Ya'akov's bier -- why should the Shevatim in the desert accept the same arrangement? Ya'akov's funeral was an extraordinary circumstance, a one time event -- why would what was done then set precedent for what should be done generations later? I think the simplest answer is that precedent, even when adopted under extraordinary circumstances, is very hard to break. Once something is done even once, even is a unique circumstance, change becomes more difficult than simply accepting what was done.as the norm.

Any better answers? I've seen a few, but nothing that has grabbed me yet.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


For you members of the tribe who have been pulling the lever for Democrats because your grandparents did it, your parents did it, and now you do it, if this weekend of Obama hasn't opened your eyes, I don't know what will. As an American I consider the man a disaster -- high unemployment, the wrecking of the health care system, a foreign policy that emboldens our enemies, and worse -- the man is ruining the country. As a Jewish American, I the man's anti-Israel policy (as if anything else should have been expected from a talmid of Rev. Wright) is the final straw. Those of you in NY who voted in Chuck Schumer, a supporter of every left-wing cause out there, because he is good for our community as well -- where's the Senator to speak on your behalf? Those of you in Midwood and Flatbush who pull the lever for Anthony Weiner, outspoken defender of taking away healthcare as you know it -- where is your friend on Congress to remind the President that the Palestinians are not friends of democracy? Bottom line: if the choice is backing the leader of their party or backing you, you are going under the bus. But something tells me in a year from now we will still have 75% of our brothers and sisters acting like lemmings, pulling the lever that brings the most anti-Jewish and anti-Israel president since Carter back into power. No one can outdo the Jewish people in their love for leftist liberal causes, even if it means cutting their own throat in the process.

Witness the sad case of Alan Dershowitz. In 2008 he wrote an op-ed piece describing why, as a supporter of Israel, he preferred Obama to McCain. He felt Obama would support Israel no less than any Republican president. A year later in 2009 Alan Dershowitz wrote far more defensively, "Many American supporters of Israel who voted for Barack Obama now suspect they may have been victims of a bait and switch." In other words, many American supporters of Israel were naive rubes who willfully ignored all the evidence before their eyes and voted a man with no sympathy for Israel or the Jewish people into office. Dershowitz still didn't see the picture fully, and he went on to criticize aspects of Obama's policy without wholesale condemnation of the man's approach. But Dershowitz is a Harvard law professor; he may be a slow learner, but at least he eventually gets it. He commented that the the most recent Obama speech that it, "...Dealt a serious blow to the peace process and damaged the global image of the United States." The man is finally waking up -- at this rate in a few years Dershowitz will be leading tea party rallies in Harvard square!

Here's the problem -- we don't have a few years for the Dershowitzs and those even less intelligent to wake up. It took less than three years from the time Hitler was elected Reich Chancellor until the Nurenberg laws were passed. How long until Iran has atomic bomb capability and rockets capable of reaching Israel? How long do you think it would take a Palestinian state alongside Israel to mount a full scale terrorist war?

Back to our regular program shortly... I just had to get that out of my system. We live in depressing times.

Rashb"i and the value of individualism

מעשה בתלמיד אחד של ר"ש בן יוחאי שיצא חוצה לארץ ובא עשיר והיו התלמידים רואין אותו ומקנאין בו והיו מבקשים הן לצאת לחוצה לארץ וידע ר"ש והוציאן לבקעה אחת של פגי מדון ונתפלל ואמר בקעה בקעה מלאי דינרי זהב התחילה מושכת דינרי זהב לפניהן אמר להם אם זהב אתם מבקשים הרי זהב טלו לכם אלא היו יודעין כל מי שהוא נוטל עכשיו חלקו של עוה"ב הוא נוטל שאין מתן שכר התורה אלא לעוה"ב הוי ותשחק ליום אחרון

The Midrash (Shmos, 52:4) tells the story of a student of R' Shimon bar Yochai who left the yeshiva and returned quite wealthy. The other students were jealous and wanted to follow his example. Rashb"i took them out to Meiron (there are different girsa'os as to the place name) and miraculously caused a valley to fill with gold. He told them they could take what they want, but their portion in Gan Eden would be reduced as a result.

One might read this as a going "off the derech" tale -- a guy leaves yeshiva and a few months later is seen driving a Rolls, wearing a Rolex, coming out of a fancy restaurant after eating his filet mignon. But that's not really what this story is about. The student is still referred to as "talmid.. Rashb"i" and the tale centers around his returning to the yeshiva, to his old chevra, not his leaving. Rash"i does not direct his message to the returning talmid, who seems to have been accepted back, but rather to the other students.

R' Eliya Lopian (Lev Eliyahu, P' Pekudei) writes that there was nothing nefarious about the talmid's actions or intentions. Quite the contrary, being a "talmid of Rashb"i" it stands to reason that this ben yeshiva would use his riches for tzedaka, for chessed, to support the yeshiva. This is the guy wearing a suit and black hat you see pictured in the yeshiva's advertisement for its annual dinner, the guy who is alumnus of the decade because he has torah u'gedulah b'makom echad, he can bankroll the yeshiva while being kove'a itim, he enjoys his wealth but still keeps a kesher with his makom Torah.

Don't we all want to be that guy? Shouldn't we want to be that guy?

Rashb"i's answer is that our being that guy, becoming someone we are not, involves a sacrifice that just isn't worth it. The gold that filled the valley of Meiron is the schar we earn from overcoming our individual difficulties and tests. Sure, the rich talmid earns schar for the good works he can sponsor, but those rewards are not a substitute for what we might attain following our own path. There is tremendous schar for learning b'dochak, for histapkus b'mu'at -- there won't be a dinner to honor people who live these ideals day in and day out, they will likely pass under the radar of public attention. Yet, they too have riches. Their valley of gold awaits collection in a better world than ours.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

lishma on a communal level

"Im teilchu imi b'keri," for which the punishments of the tochacha are given, refers to the abandonment of Torah and mitzvos. The preceding wrongdoing, "Im lo tishme'u li," must be some other defect. The Netzi"v explains that the key word in the phrase is "li" -- the pasuk doesn't mean mitzvos are not being done; it means mitzvos are being done for reasons other than their being Hashem's command. But so what -- Mitoch she'lo lishma ba lishma? We accept a lack of lishma as an important stepping-stone toward eventually doing things for the right reasons. Why is it deserving of such harsh punishment here?

The Netziv answers that while on an individual level mitoch she'lo lishma ba lishma, the same is not true on a communal level. Society cannot institutionalize a b'dieved -- it has to be built on ideals.

I think this is an important principle in general, not just with respect to lishma. A yeshiva, a shul, a community organization should at least on the books have as its mission statement nothing short of excellence.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

where your feet may take you

אמר דוד רבש"ע בכל יום ויום הייתי מחשב ואומר למקום פלוני ולבית דירה פלונית אני הולך והיו רגלי מביאות אותי לבתי כנסיות ולבתי מדרשות הה"ד ואשיבה רגלי אל עדותיך

The Midrash at the opening of our parsha tells us that David haMelech would awaken each morning and think about going various places, but his feet would always carry him to the Beis Medrash. It's hard to imagine David haMelech waking up, thinking that maybe it's a good day to go to the Mets game (OK, maybe the Yankees) but then finding that when he got off the #7 train his feet took him willy-nilly to the Beis Medrash. I hope we have a better impression of David haMelech than that!

I think Chazal here are addressing the biggest challenge, aside from parnasa, that faces those who dedicate their life to learning Torah. Most of us who are not learning spend our working day either providing a service or making something -- hopefully the service we provide is useful and what we make provides some benefit to others. At the end of the day a doctor can go home and can feel good about his job -- he spent the day helping the sick. A social worker can go home and feel good because he/she helped the poor or needy. A construction worker can look at a building or bridge and feel accomplished that he/she helped bring it about. A lawyer... OK, I'll quit while I'm ahead (lawyer joke). What can the guy who spends his day learning say for himself? He's 25 years old, he has two kids, he can barely make ends meet, and he comes home at the end of a long day and after 10 hours of struggling he can say that maybe he understands pshat in a Tosfos in Bava Kamma -- it just doesn't give you that warm and fuzzy feeling. I can guarantee you that if not his parents, then his friends, maybe a neighbor, maybe an acquaintance ,has at least once asked this guy, "Nu, so when are you going to do something productive?" meaning, do a job like the rest of us and contribute to society. And the truth is that if his parents, his friends, his neighbors, have never asked this question, the guy, assuming he is a thoughtful, reflective guy, has undoubtedly asked the question to himself on more than one occasion.

Right after birchas haTorah every morning we recite a list of mitzvos that provide reward in this world as well as the next -- gemilus chassadim, kibud av, hachnasas kallah, etc. The common denominator between these mitzvos is that they are all about service, about contributing to the public welfare, the common good. But there seems to be one exception to the rule, and the exception is actually the most important mitzvah on the list -- "v'talmud Torah k'neged kulam." How does that fit?

If you read yesterday's post you know the answer, but R' Elchanan spells it out -- learning Torah brings G-d's presence into the world, and there is no greater public good than that. Without talmud Torah the world literally could not exist.

David haMelech woke up every morning and thought about going to a "beis dirah" -- making the world into a dirah ba'tachtonim for Hashem's presence, making the world a makom for the Mekomo shel Olam, contributing to tikun ha'olam and society as a whole. How do you do that? Maybe join the Peace Corps, build a hospital, help in a homeless shelter? All good ideas, but David heMelech had an even better idea -- his feet took him to the Beis Medrash. The chiddush of the Midrash is not that David haMelech went to the Beis Medrash instead of some other place -- pshita, lai ka mashma lan, would we have thought otherwise? The chiddush is that David haMelech's Torah study -- Torah study in general -- has meaning in the context of our broader ambition and goal of making the world a better place.

The Midrash does not mean David's thoughts were a b'dieved that he overcame through his feet. Quite the contrary -- David haMelech's thoughts were intentional and deliberate. By focusing on the aspiration to do great things for others, to make the world a better makom and better dirah, his feet had the necessary motivation to carry him to Torah study.

The mitzvah of "V'halacha b'derachav" is all about helping those around us by imitating G-d. "Mah hu rachum...;" "Mah hu mevaker cholim..." etc. To that list of "vhalachta" behaviors we can add another -- "Im b'chukosai teileichu..." This "halicha b'derachav" brings bracha to the world as much as anything else.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

bechukosai -- laws ingrained in nature

Parshas Bechukosai does not begin, as so many other parshiyos do, with "Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leimor," or "Vayomer Hashem." Why is that? Because, explains the Ishbitzer, the ideal of "Bechukosai teileichu" is not one which can be commanded or achieved through effort. One must be zoche to it. A person lives in a perpetual state of "im b'chukosai," existential doubt as to where he really stands viz a viz G-d's expectations. When you read social commentary, isn't it amazing about how certain people are in their positions? I don't think it's just a facade for writing or debating; I think it's how they really feel. We've lost sight of that little word, "im."

Why the word "bechokosai" -- We aren't dealing with esoteric halachos here whose reason is unknown? The Midrash explains the derivation of the word chok as used here:
חקים שבהם חקקתי את השמים והארץ
The moral order of Torah, the idea of bracha for doing good and tochacha for failing to do good, is not superimposed on top of the bri'ah, but is inherent within it. The rules of Torah are engraved into the fabric of the natural world (see Nefesh haChaim). We once explained that this is the meaning of the Midrash that Hashem created the sea on the condition that it splits when Bnei Yisrael needed it to.

The Midrash continues that unlike a King who commands others but lives above the law, Hashem himself fulfills the mitzvos even before we do:
גוזר גזירה הוא מקיימה תחלה
If mitzvos existed only for some utilitarian purpose -- for a healthy lifestyle, to have an ordered society, etc. -- it would make no sense for G-d himself to observe them. G-d can not be healthy or ill; G-d has no society he needs to live in or perfect. Why does G-d do mitzvos? We know that G-d sustains the world, he is mechadesh... ma'aseh braishis every moment. Since mitzvos are part of the world's natural order, they are kept even by G-d himself. It follows that a person who keeps mitzvos fulfill this same role of sustaining the world (see Netziv on the parsha's opening).

Monday, May 16, 2011

A sampling from the Tif. Tzvi

A sampling of lomdus / interesting tidbits from Rav Kornmehl's teshuvos: ( the numbers in parenthesis correspond to simanim in cheilek 2)

(2) Rav Kornmehl opines that a ba'al koreh must have in mind to be motzi the tzibur, which means that although m'dina d'gemara a katan can get an aliya, there would have to be a gadol reading on his behalf. This is contrary to the psak of R' Moshe Soloveitchik, who once dealt with the case of a ba'al koreh who declared he will not have in mind to be motzi anyone. R' M. Soloveitchik advised that the ba'al koreh's intent made no difference -- the chiyuv is on the tzibur to hear keri'ah, but the ba'al koreh is not motzi them in anything. (R' Yosef Engel in Tziyunim laTorah who suggests this issue may be a machlokes Rishonim.)

R' Kornmehl in this piece makes a great diyuk in the Rambam in passing, but then seems to just gloss over it. Rambam writes in Tefilah 12:1:
משה רבנו תיקן להן לישראל, שיהיו קורין בתורה ברבים בשבת ובשני ובחמישי בשחרית
Then in Halacha 3 the Rambam writes:
אין קורין בתורה בציבור, בפחות מעשרה אנשים גדולים ובני חורין
The Rambam switches from "korin b'rabim" in the first halacha to "korin... b'tzibur" later on. Why the switch in language and does it have any significance? I wonder if others deal with this point (no, I haven't had a chance to check the Frankel Rambam's index.)

(3) He suggests that tefilah on a d'oraysa level has no set time, no set text, and need not even be articulated (avodah sheb'lev) because it is a subcategory, or a kiyum of the mitzvah of emunah.

(6) Why do women say a bracha and perform certain mitzvos aseh she'hazeman gerama but not others? Rav Kornmehl writes that the difference between shofar, lulav, etc. and tefilin (to take a few examples) is that tefilin are tashmishei kedusha. Women do not engage in mitzvos from which they are exempt that involve using (and hence potentially desecrating) an article of kedusha. Apparently the minhag was for women not to fulfill the mitzvah of sukkah either, which Rav Kornmehl fits into his theory by referring to the gemara, "...Chal shem shamayim al ha'sukkah," that sukkah is invested with kedusha as well.

(7) He writes that "kol b'isha ervah" applies to the speaking voice as well. Ideally women should therefore not give a public address/lecture (though Rav Kornmehl admits that this l'chatchila advice will likely not be heeded). Interestingly, there is a kula in this teshuvah as well. He writes that neither shiras Devorah or the possibility of women leining megilah pose a kol isha problem because "b'avidtayhu tarid," the listeners are engrossed in listening to the text and cannot devote their attention to the voice of the speaker.

(13) R' Akiva Eiger (Shut, siman 8) famously distinguishes between misasek on Shabbos and misasek with respect to other issurim. In the former case, misasek does not count as a ma'aseh aveira; in the latter case misasek is a ma'aseh aviera, but the Torah does not punish the crime. Nafka minah: what if an eved was about to pull up a stalk of wheat that he thought was not connected to the ground, but which his master knew was connected -- does the master have to stop the eved because of the mitzvah of shevisas avdo? If misasek is a ma'aseh aveirah, albeit one that does not warrant any penalty, the eved must be stopped. If however misasek is not a ma'aseh aveira, then the master has no obligation to intervene.

Rav Kornmehl writes that every act of a minor on Shabbos is in effect an act of misasek, yet the Torah warns that we are not allowed to allow our children to be mechalel Shabbos. QED that one must intervene to stop any misasek. I'm not sure I understand the proof. There is a special gezeiras hakasuv, "L'hazhir gedolim al ha'ketanim," that applies uniquely to children.

Rav Kornmehl connects the discussion to a sugya those learning daf yomi will be familiar with (Menachos 37b-38). Ravina saw Mar bar Rav Ashi's tzitzis were torn and he was wearing them outside on Shabbos. The gemara has different versions of the story -- in one Ravina told Mar bar Rav Ashi of the problem so he would not desecrate Shabbos; in another, Ravina remained silent because they were walking in a karmilis and the issur would only be derabbanan. Rav Kornmehl just throws out a few mareh mekomos without spelling out fully what he means, but the direction of his thinking is clear. Mar bar Rav Ashi would have been a misasek in this case, as he was unaware that he was doing any issur. Whether or not Ravina should have alerted him to the problem depends on R' Akiva Eiger's safeik.

(18) According to those poskim that do not apply the rule of "ain shliach 'dvar aveira" by issurei derabbanan, what would be the din if I did an akira on an object and then handed it off to someone else to deposit elsewhere on Shabbos? Am I chayav for the issur of hotza'ah? Rav Kornmehl says not. He makes a nice distinction between hilchos Shabbos, where the issur is on the gavra, and other issurim, where the issur is on the effect being produced. Where the only concern is outcome, even an action performed by a shliach can generate a chiyuv. However, when it comes to hilchos Shabbos one is chayav only if one personally does a complete melacha.

Bl"n maybe more to come.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

mechiras chometz for supermarkets

I've been slowly reading over some more of Rav Kornmehl's teshuvos (link) and there is some interesting stuff that I hope to have a chance to do some further posts on. I feel a little like someone who lives next door to a house with a "George Washington slept here" sign on it -- in my case, someone who saw R' Yosef Engel, who shared torah with the Rogatchover, someone who clearly, from his writings, knew how to learn, lived just a few doors down from my present home. I can't help but be a little curious about what he had to say.

I'll save lomdus for a different time; for now I want to return to Rav Kornmehl's impression of his American ba'alei batim. As I wrote in the post on eiruvin, R' Kornmehl, coming from the world of pre-war Vienna, had a markedly negative impression of American ba'alei batim. These sentiments come across again in his teshuvah (siman 32) regarding a store owner who did a mechiras chometz but continued to do business selling chometz over Pesach. The Rabbi who posed the question apparently made reference to R' Moshe's psak (O.C. 149) that in such a case the mechira is still valid (I believe R' Soloveitchik disagreed). While not taking issue with Rav Moshe's psak directly, Rav Kornmehl qualified it in such a way as to render it irrelevant to the case at hand. Rav Kornmehl distinguished between ba'alei batim in pre-war Europe, whom he felt understand the severity of the issur of chometz and came to their Rav to do a mechira with the best intentions in mind. A shopkeeper who kept his store open was, in Rav Kornmehl's words, in a situation of "ones" -- it was not a deliberate flaunting of halacha, but a response to outside pressures, parnasa or otherwise. Not so in America. Here, writes Rav Kornmehl, the ba'alei baitm look at the mechira as a trick of some sort, a ritual done to satisfy observant customers who demand it, but inherently meaningless mumbo-jumbo. The willingness of a shopkeeper to keep his store open only proves the point. Rav Kornmehl goes so far as to suggest that a Rabbi who abets such a sale may even be guilty of lifnei iver!

Here's what's interesting: R' Moshe's teshuvah was not written for European ba'alei batim -- it was written in America in 1957! R' Moshe writes the chazakah that a person will not deliberately choose issur over heter (see Chulin 4b) applies equally in America as anywhere else because at the end of the day the shopkeeper has stepped forward to do a mechira. Why the mechira was done, whether the shopkeeper intends to open his store and sell chometz on Pesach, what he thinks of the whole ritual -- these are all devarim sheb'lev (this is spelled out more clearly in (I.M. 4:96)).

I think Rav Kornmehl would respond that devarim sheb'lev cannot undo a valid kinyan. However, the storekeeper who opens on Pesach to sell bread after doing a mechira demonstrates clearly that in his mind a sale never occurred -- there was no transaction to begin with.

Shemita and bitachon

After discussing all the laws of shemita and yovel the Torah writes:

וְנָתְנָה הָאָרֶץ פִּרְיָהּ, וַאֲכַלְתֶּם לָשֹׂבַע; וִישַׁבְתֶּם לָבֶטַח, עָלֶיהָ.
כ וְכִי תֹאמְרוּ, מַה-נֹּאכַל בַּשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת: הֵן לֹא נִזְרָע, וְלֹא נֶאֱסֹף אֶת-תְּבוּאָתֵנוּ.
כא וְצִוִּיתִי אֶת-בִּרְכָתִי לָכֶם, בַּשָּׁנָה הַשִּׁשִּׁית; וְעָשָׂת, אֶת-הַתְּבוּאָה, לִשְׁלֹשׁ, הַשָּׁנִים.

It's unclear when exactly the farmer will ask this question, "Mah nocahl ba'shana ha'shevi'is?" (see Ramban, Kil Yakar) The sixth year is a regular farming year, so the farmer has no need for alarm. By the time the seventh year rolls around, the farmer's storehouses will be overflowing with the harvest from the previous year; the farmer again has no cause for concern.

The Alter of Navardok in Madreigas ha'Adam answers that it's not in the sixth year or seventh year that the farmer will worry -- it's in the first year. From day one the farmer knows that a shemita is coming, so he spends six years planning and worrying about how to get through that one year.

The farmer who does this may keep shemita to the letter of the law, but he circumvents the entire spirit of the law. The lesson of shemita is that our parnasa depends on Hashem, not only on our own efforts. The Midrash extols the level of bitachon demonstrated by simple farmers who keep shemita. What kind of bitachon does it show if you scrimp and save a little bit each year because you don't trust that you will find the resources to get through that seventh year of shemita?

"V'nasna ha'aretz pirya, v'achaltem la'sova," says the Alter, is not a bracha -- it's a mitzvah. Enjoy the bounty of the land, eat your fill of produce, trust that there will be enough for the seventh year. Don't scrimp and save like your life depends on it to get through shemita.

This is Navardok bitachon in its purest form, no histhtadlus required. For many of us, myself included, it's easier to swallow a model of bitachon that allows or even obligates us to make our own histadlus before relying on Hashem.

The Alter reveals a fascinating paradox inherent in this model of bitachon: What happens if the farmer ignores this directive and does spend his time socking away grain for the lean year? "V'tzivisi es birchasi..." only applies to those who exercise their bitachon and fulfill the "mitzvah" of "V'achaltem la'sova..." If you sock away the grain instead -- no bracha, no bountiful harvest The situation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- the farmer who spends his time socking away grain for six years will not receive a bracha and in year six will suddenly say, "Aha! You see, I was right to store away what I can, because this year's crop is no different than any other year!" It's only the farmer who makes the initial commitment and takes the plunge with bitachon who will be zocheh to see the fruits of his effort in that sixth year.

By definition, the value of bitachon is not something that can be proven beforehand -- those who exercise bitachon will enjoy its rewards; those who don't will see exactly the results they expect to justify their lacking.

Monday, May 09, 2011

the miracle of seeing miracles

After Sarah was returned to Avraham and Pharoah gave him all kinds of gifts, the Torah tells us (Braishis 13:1) that Avraham left Egypt to journey back to Canaan with his wife and all his possessions. Ramban comments that the Torah specifically emphasizes the fact that Avraham took his possessions with him to show that nothing was stolen from him; no one falsely claimed that Avraham got Pharoah's gifts through trickery; no one falsely claimed the gifts were given in error. Adds the Ramban, "This is a miraculous event."

Let's put this in context: Pharoah had tried to take Sarah to be his wife. As a result not only was he personally punished, but every member of his household suffered as well. It was only the return of Sarah and Avraham's prayers and forgiveness which earned Pharoah a reprieve. Do you think Pharoah or any member of his household would dare start up with Avraham under those circumstances? There were open miracles occurring on behalf of the man to ensure his protection!

What we see from this episode (see Michtav m'Eliyahu vol. 5) is that the recognition of the miraculous is no less a miracle than the miraculous occurrence itself. The reason why is simple: We see reality through the lens of our own biases and preconceived notions. It's not like BOOM, G-d does a miracle and people stand their agape and are awakened from their slumber. Instead, what happens is BOOM -- G-d does a miracle and people stand around saying maybe that BOOM is a jet plane? Maybe it's due to solar spots? Maybe we just imagined it? etc. Even the most flimsy reed of a teirutz is better than changing one's view of reality. Therefore, it was indeed a miracle that Pharoah and his country overcame all the teirutzim and recognized that indeed a miracle had taken place, and they behaved accordingly viz a viz Avraham.

We're far more theologically sophisticated than Pharoah, so we in our time can witness miracles and chalk it up to the sitra achara, we can convince ourselves that we don't have time to think about miracles because talmud torah is even doche binyan beis hamikdash (but strangely it seems to not be doche watching the superbowl or world series), etc. I don't need to belabor the musar haskel point relevant for inyana d'yoma.

"Chizkiyahu she'asisa lo kol ha'nisim ha'lalu v'lo amar shira lifanecha....?!" (Sanhedrin 94)

Thursday, May 05, 2011

eiruv, for better or worse?

This post is for you 5-Towners. While on the topic of Rav Kornmehl's tshuvos, let me mention another interesting one. Some background: In the 5 Towns we enjoy a large eiruv that extends from Far Rockaway all the way down to Woodsburgh, up to North Woodmere, and beyond (actually it is multiple eiruvin linked together -- map here). The eiruv I believe is now maintained under the auspices of the Yeshiva Gedolah of the Five Towns and was inspected a year or two ago by R' Hershel Shachter (don't trust me 100% on any details -- I honestly am the last person who knows anything about the community I live in). While my kids are all now beyond needing a stroller, I am fully appreciative of the benefit an eiruv provides for parents who need strollers, diaper bags, goody bags, and what-not to bring with their kids to shul. And why shouldn't Shabbos davening be a family experience? Not to mention not having to worry about carrying keys, tissues, etc. Eiruvin make our Shabbos and our communities that much more family friendly and easy to live in.

All that being said, the blessing of an eiruv has it downside as well. One example to illustrate the point: On the occasion that I go for a Shabbos walk, I sometimes deliberately pass one particular house to see what is going on there because my wife and I noticed once they have an interesting Shabbos minhag. They have a regular basketball game going on, the players dressed in appropriate bigdei chol, a big cooler set up in the driveway with drinks, different teams rotating chances to play, etc. My wife and I have seen the name thing multiple times -- it's like a minhag kavua. B'shlama kids who are dressed in their bigdei chol and come to the park to play baseball with their bats, mitts, and gloves, like Shabbos is Little League day -- well, it's hard to have ta'anos on kids. But this basketball game is older teens and adults, so its a bit strange, at least to me.

Chachaim adif m'navi - Rav Kornmehl saw it coming. He writes (Tiferes Tzvi II:65 here) that he was approached by the Rabbanim of the 5 Towns and asked his view about whether an eiruv should be constructed. He replied that although he appreciates the benefit an eiruv would provide to mothers with young children and the potential of the eiruv to circumvent chilul Shabbos by those who would carry anyway, nonetheless, it is a tikun that will bring great kilkul . "Rabim yaschilu l'hakeil b'kol inyanei Shabbos al y'dei hischadshus ha'zos." He thought little of the ability of the American community "medina meshubeshes b'boros, kalei hada'as gavru l'ma'alah...," to understand the mechanism of eiruv, and felt that it would be seen as a joke -- a means of circumventing Shabbos, a legal trick, which would lead inevitably to the question of what else can be circumvented and how. Besides which, he wondered how the eiruv would be maintained and checked and by whom.

The language is quite strong -- Rav Kornmehl pulled no punches -- but in the end, it was to no avail. In the very next tshuavh relates how the Rabbanim and ba'alei batim begged and pressed him until he gave in and sent a letter to R' Moshe asking how to best make the eiruv k'halacha (he had questions about using the overhead elecrtic wires, which is another topic). So the eiruv came to be. Interesting, none of this background appears on the history page of the 5 Towns Eiruv website, which starts its story 27 years ago with Rav Eider being the one consulted. Rav Kornmehl doesn't even get a mention -- I'm not sure why.

So what has changed (if anything) in the intervening years and are we better off or worse? Well, the community has changed. The level of Jewish education and observance has increased across the board, for those on the right as well as those on the left. Supposedly (heard second hand, so take it with a grain of salt) once upon a time a local 5T synagogue asked Rav Soloveitchik his opinion about having a car driven by an aku"m pick members up to take them to shul on Shabbos. I think by and large such shaylos are a thing of the past. The chain that blocks the parking lot on Shabbos is hardly necessary anymore. The technical details of how an eiruv works are probably not much better understood today by the general populace than they were decades ago, but there is a certain respect for the process of halacha that has (baruch Hashem) seeped into our communal psychology. And we have in the Five Towns a Yeshiva Gedolah of bnei Torah and others who check the eiruv every week. Rav Kornmehl, coming from a European background, did not seem to put much faith in the knowledge of his American ba'alei batim. That was then, and this is now -- I don't know if Rav Kornmehl could have envisioned the degree of growth of Torah in suburban America.

And yet, Rav Kornmehl's concerns still ring true to some degree. The technical details of hilchos Shabbos are better known, but is the spirit of kedushas Shabbos improved?

mashiv ha'ruach

Much earlier this year I did a post (part I, II, III) on the unusual circumstance of someone who comes to shul very late on Shmini Atzeres, when the tzibur is up to musaf, and he/she hears mashiv ha'ruach announced before he/she has davened shacharis -- should he/she (this happened to my daughter) say mashiv ha'ruach in their tefilas shacharis, or wait until musaf like everyone else? No special reason to post on it again now except for the fact that I finally found someone who deals with this issue. Had I been more familiar with the history of my current home town I might have known the answer back then.

Back in the early days of Cedarhurst, NY (before my time), one of the Rabbonim who settled in the community was R' Nachum Tzvi Kornmehl. Rav Kornmehl had been a rav in Vienna before the war and then upstate NY in Albany and Rochester, and from what I understand he came to Cedarhurst thinking of retirement, not of the next move in a long career of rabbanus. Hashem had his own plans and Rav Kornmehl ended up leading the Young Israel of Cedarhurst, which then stood in a building about the size of a large house (I think Rav Kornmehl lived there as well), about a fifth of the size of its current edifice. In his Shu"T Tiferes Tzvi (II:39 - available here) he opines that in the case I described mashiv ha'ruach should not be said in shacharis. Aside from the logic of not creating two different minhagim with respect to shacharis, he also makes a textual diyuk. The Mishna, in discussing the recitation of mashiv ha'ruach, writes that "Ha'acharon [the one who davens musaf] mazkir v'harishom [the one who davens shacharis] aino mazkir." Since shacharis comes first, shouldn't the Mishna first tell us that the rishon does not say mashiv ha'ruach and then tell us that the acharon, the one davening musaf, does? And why use the terms rishon and acharon instead of shacharis and musaf? Rav Kornmehl suggests that the Mishna is discussing our very case -- the tzibur is already prepared for musaf, yet there is still a straggler who has not davened shacharis. The tzibur will be saying mashiv ha'ruch, but the rishon who has not yet davened shacharis (it's not shacharis time anymore for the tzibur, so the Mishna does not refer to it as such) will not.

I don't know if the diyuk alone is enough to convince you, but its sharp.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011


The Ba'al haMaor (end of Pesachim) writes that there is no bracha of she'hechiyanu recited on sefiras ha'omer because we no longer have a korban ha'omer; counting sefira should evoke sadness over our loss of the Mikdash, not be celebrated with she'hechiyanu. The Akeida on this week's parsha (saw it secondhand) writes that there is in fact a bracha of she'hechiyanu on sefira. He compares sefira to the count of a zavah to become tehora -- the count of seven weeks of sefira is our purification process for the sake of kabbalas haTorah. The she'hechiyanu we recite on Shavuos is not only on the Yom Tov, but also celebrates the successful completion of sefirah (I can't think offhand of another bracha of she'hechiyanu recited only after the mitzvah is completed). Something to have in mind when you say she'hechiyanu on Shavuos night.

What if someone asks you what night of the sefira it is and you answer, "Tonight we count 15" -- have you forfeited your right to count with a bracha after that or not? R' Moshe Stern (Shu"T Be'er Moshe (3:81)) answers that you can still count with a bracha. He basis himself on a Chasam Sofer (O.C. 15) that takes issue with the Magen Avraham's chiddush that you are yotzei kiddush when you mention Shabbos in davening ma'ariv Fri night. True, says the Chasam Sofer, m'doraysa you don't need a bracha on wine for kiddush, you don't need to be b'makom seudah, but once Chazal were metakein to do the mitzvah in this fashion, a person obviouslly has no intent to be yotzei except in accordance with Chazal's dictates (we once discussed a similar idea in the Pri Megadim's pesicha ha'kolleles 3:8). Here too with respect to sefira, we use a particular formulation for the mitzvah: we mention weeks, followed by days, followed by the word la'omer or ba'omer. "Tonight we count 15" is not the formula prescribed for the mitzvah and therefore does not count. (The Be'er Moshe goes so far as to suggest that even if you just leave out the word "ba'omer" or "la'omer" you could still count with a bracha because the formula is wrong, but he is not willing to go up against the Magen Avraham who argues. In the example of night 15 (or any # past 8) you would be missing both the count of weeks as well as the la'/ba'omer, which is a more serious defect.)

Monday, May 02, 2011

why are malkos called "bikores"?

Rashi explains that the term "bikores" used in the parsha of shifcha charufa refers to the punishment of malkos. The term "bikores" comes from the same root as kri'ah, reading -- malkos is called bikores because of the pesukim of rebuke read while the guilty party is flogged.

Maharal asks: Why does the Torah use the obscure term "bikores", which you need a Rashi to understand, instead of the more common term "malkos"? Isn't the term "malkos," which refers to the lashes administered, a better definition of the punishment than "bikores," which refers only to the incidental reading of the pesukim?

There is a tremendous musar yesod here: Apparently the psychological blow that comes from hearing words of rebuke are in fact far more painful and far greater punishment than the physical blows that accompany them. A person can still in his/her mind believe themselves in the right even while getting beaten up. The same is not true while listening to Beis Din read off what an evildoer they actually are.

(Parenthetically, see this recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Ed for an interesting spin on flogging.)

2. I want to follow up yesterday's post on da mah she'tashiv with a hypothetical that I think helps reinforce the point. It sounds idealistic to shoot for the whole truth and nothing but the truth and not to try to "misrepresent" Judaism -- but does that really make sense? Suppose someone is about to commit suicide. You can intervene and possibly save that person's life, but to do so you need to bend the truth a little bit to tell them a story that will hopefully get them down from the roof.

Do you:
1) Sacrifice a little bit of truth for the sake of getting the person out of danger, trusting that you can work things out when they are in a position to see think more clearly;
2) Or do you cling to the ideal of truth at all costs, refusing to color things in the slightest, even if it means they will jump?

Kiruv seminars are meant for people in the process of committing spiritual suicide. If talking someone down from the ledge is made easier by sacrificing a little precision in argument, you tell me -- is the trade-off worth it?

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Da mah she'tashiv

In next week's chapter of Pirkei Avos we read, "Da mah she'tashiv l'apikores..." The Yismach Moshe (P' Tzav, in his Shabbos haGadol analysis of the haggadah's response to the chacham and rasha -- I missed my chance to post it then, so I'll make up for it now) wonders why Chazal stress the need to "know how to respond to the heretic" as distinct from other Torah knowledge. Just the answer to the apikores with whatever the Torah teaches about the particular Torah topic he/she has questions about -- know Torah and you know how to respond?

Apparently that's not sufficient, or not the best approach. The Y.M. explains that the lessons of Torah will not penetrate an unreceptive heart or mind. Unadulterated Torah truth is not always the best answer. One must "know" what to say, how to respond, which means sometimes offering different answers than what one might say in the beis medrash.

I don't work in kiruv, but from what I have read it seems that kiruv seminars are more akin to theatrical performance than university debating matches. To critique arguments presented by kiruv lecturers as not philosophically precise or not l'kol hadeyos of halacha or hashkafa is to miss the point. Rigorous philosophical of halachic truth and a "response to the apikores" are two completely different arenas.

I'm not so concerned about a kiruv professional "pulling one over" on an apikores and getting him/her as a result to be shomer mitzvos. The road to return will be filled with many changed opinions and impressions, and ideas that grabbed the ba'al teshuvah initially will hopefully become more refined and sophisticated as their religious thinking progresses. What is more disconcerting is bnei Torah who accept answers that may be appropriate in the context of "da mah she'tashiv" as being the absolute truth, not subject to question, dispute, or alternative viewpoints, without realizing that greater amkus and critical thinking is necessary on their part.