Sunday, July 31, 2011

Av and Aharon haKohen

"Braishis bara Elokim es..." The word "es" hints to the aleph-beis, aleph through tuf, which represents the unfolding of Hashem's presence from aleph, a singular point of complete unity, to the complete universe with all its various elements. The aleph-beis reversed represents tzimtzum, the reverse process, i.e. Hashem withdrawing and withholding his presence from the universe.

Tishrei is the month of judgment, the month of Rosh haShana, Yom Kippur, y'mei hadin. The name of the month begins with tuf-shin-reish, a backwards rendition of the aleph-beis. Din entails Hashem holding back until we prove ourselves worthy and pass muster.

The month we enter tomorrow is Av, aleph-beis, the first two letter in their proper order. Av is the month characterized most by Hashem's giving of himself, his midas hachessed.

Because Av is so filled with potential for chessed, the forces of destruction are strongest as well, because every force of kedusha is counterbalanced by the potential to squander that goodness and destroy it. However, even amid destruction, chessed is still there, below the surface. "Mizmor l'Assaf" -- kinah l'Assaf m'bayei leih?! The gemara answers that the title mizmor is appropriate for a psalm describing destruction because the destruction of the Mikdash was itself as act of chessed, as Hashem vented his anger on stones and wood instead of further punishing Klal Yisrael. Chessed sometimes has to be wrapped up in din to make its way into the world, but it still gets here.

Rosh Chodesh Av is the yahrtzeit of Aharon haKohen. Maharal explains that the letters of Aharon's name, (aleph) - hey-reish-nun, are the middle letters of the units of 1's (hey), tens (nun), and hundreds (reish) in the aleph-beis. Aharon is pnimiyus -- just as these letters are the innermost ones of their respective units, Aharon's personality had inner depths that could not be seen on the outside. Aharon taught us to not be fooled or swayed by the way things appear on the surface -- what appears to be a kinah could really be a mizmor. Aharon was the rodef shalom who forced people to look below superficial differences and find a deeper unity that could draw them together.

The passing of Aharon represents the removal of our sensitivity to that deepest level of pnimiyus. Unfortunately we know too well about kinos, both of past and present tragedies. We have no sense of "Mizmor l'Assaf," we do not feel justice or goodness in tragedy, even below the surface. We see Av as a month of aveilus; we have lost any sense of its character as the month of chessed, the month of ahavas shalom, the midah which Aharon epitomized. We as a people are splintered by superficial divisions and have lost any sense of the common core below the surface that unites us.

We can only hope for the day when that sense of pnimiyus will return and Av's true character will reveal itself.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

tefilos on behalf of someone else

Last week we touched briefly on the power of one’s tefilos to affect another person’s ruchniyus. The Maor Va’Shemesh writes that even those who did join in the physical battle against Midyan shared responsibility for the soldiers’ hirhurei avirah during battle. Why are those who remained behind responsible for the aveiros of the soldiers? Because had they been davening better for the soldiers' success, there would not have been aveiros!

We find the same idea in this week’s parsha. One who murders b’shogeg must remain in a city of refuge until the death of the kohen gadol. The Mishna says that the mothers of the kohanim used to deliver food to these refugees so they wouldn’t daven for the death of their children. What did the kohanim do wrong to deserve this? The gemara explains that they should have davened that there be no killings on their watch (see Maharal, Gur Aryeh, on Rashi 35:25!)

(Parenthetically, the Targum Yonasan says the K.G. should have davened for this on Yom Kippur, opening the door to the question of why a K.G. appointed after Y.K. who dies before the next Y.K. responsible. I'm not so bothered if the details of derush don't match the halacha 100%, but see the notes in the Gan Ravah which discusses this.)

Another example: The gemara (Brachos 10) tells us that Brurya told her husband, R’ Meir, that rather than pray for the demise of the sinners in the neighborhood, he should daven that they do teshuvah.

Question: Hakol b’yedei shamayim chutz m’yiras shamayim – commitment and belief must be arrived at through free will, bechira chofshis. How then can one person’s tefilos influence whether another person will do teshuvah, will do aveiros or mitzvos?

There are two basic approaches to the issue:

1) Tefilah has an indirect effect. Most of the meforshim I have seen take this approach. Bechira does not take place in a vacuum. There are always obstacles which prevent us from being truly free to make any choices we like. Temptation, a lack of ability to focus on what is important, jobs and stress which sap energy and concentration all tilt the scale. Another person’s tefilah cannot cause me to choose to do the right thing, but it can cause Hashem to remove some of the obstacles that might be preventing me from framing the issue properly and being truly free to choose.

2) Tefilah has a direct effect. This approach is developed by R’ Dessler in Michtav m’Eliyahu. Every cheit in effect is a chilul Hashem, as it minimizes Hashem’s glory in the world. Onesh is not punitive or vindictive, but rather is meant to restore that glory to its proper place by showing that those who act improperly suffer consequences. But what if Hashem’s glory could be restored in some other way? That’s exactly what happens when someone else is inspired to daven for a chotei. Instead of sin desecrating G-d’s name, sin becomes a vehicle for people to draw close to Hashem.

There seems to be differences in the way this idea is presented in different essays in Michtav. In my simplified version the chotei escapes punishment because the chilul Hashem he/she caused is rectified in some other way, namely by arousing tefilos of others. In other places R’Dessler seems to stress that tefilah must also impact the chotei. By becoming aware that he/she has served as an inspiration to tefilah, the chotei him/herself is inspired to do better. In yet other places Michtav relates this idea to his concept of nekudas habechira. We do not actively engage in choosing every action we do. Most of what we do is by rote and habit – e.g. I did not really have to exercise my bechira chofshis in deciding not to eat treif for lunch today. On the other hand, someone who is used to eating a Big Mac for lunch and then becomes a ba’al teshuvah may really have to exercise bechira and choose to not go down that road again. Which situations require active bechira varies by person. Somehow tefilah can change someone's nekudas habechira so they are not forces to choose how to act in scenarios that might trip them up. I’m not clear on how this works or how it fits together with the other points R' Dessler makes.

Along similar lines as this topic, Chassidishe seforim in many places mention that a tzadik has the power to elevate tefilos of others even where those tefilos are inadequate or would otherwise be rejected (one example: see Tiferes Shlomo, Parshas Pinchas, on “Vayakreiv Moshe es mishpatan…:) I don’t fully understand how this works. How can someone else help my tefilos do their job if the words are undeserving? Maybe somebody can explain it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

the mitzvah of not surrounding the enemy

1. The Sifri darshens that when Bnei Yisrael waged war on Midyan they were told to not surround the Midyanim, but to leave one side open for escape. A surrounded enemy is a hopeless enemy and a far more dangerous enemy – the Torah doesn’t want us to wage war this way. Ramban counts the command to fight in this way, “Vayitzbe’u al Midyan,” as separate mitzvas aseh; Rambam does not. Meshech Chochma explains that the Rambam held that this din is just a detail that falls under the broader mitzvah category of waging milchemes mitzvah.

Yesterday we discussed the chiddush of the Rogatchover that the battle against Midyan was not technically a milchama, but rather was an act of nekama. Perhaps the machlokes Rambam/Ramban hinges on that chakira. Rambam's view (as understood by the Meshech Chocma) makes sense if one assumes the battle with Midyan was a war like any other war, and therefore falls under the umbrella of milchemes mitzvah. Ramban may have disagreed because he understood the fight with Midyan as nekama, a distinct and separate category from normal warfare.

(It is still a bit difficult according to Ramban why the mitzvah given in the context of nekama should apply to other war situations as well. It seems Ramban understood that the mitzvah relates to the act of fighting, irrespective of whether that act takes place in the context of nekama or milchama.)

2. Rav Shteinman in his sefer on chumash raises the question (link) of whether a bracha was recited over killing the men of Midyan (or over killing Amalek). It sounds from his wording that his safeik was only with regard to the killing of Midyanites in particular, which he compares to misas Beis Din, but not to war in general. Again this reinforces the notion that the parsha of nekama is a unique category.

Monday, July 25, 2011

the battle against Midyan: war or kinetic military nekama?

1. I have to thank Havolim for mentioning a beautiful sevara of the Rogatchover that I otherwise might have missed. The Rogatchover notes that the Torah characterizes the fight against Midyan as an act of nekama, not a war. Placing this battle in its own halachic category explains a number of its unique characteristics:

a) On Shabbos I saw the Taz quotes a Tzeror haMor who holds there was no heter to take a yefat to'ar during this war. Tos' (Shabbos 65, also quoted in the Da'as Zekeinim al haTorah) asks why the generals were concerned lest the soldiers had sinned with hirhurei avirah -- if actually taking a yefat to'ar in battle was permitted, how could hirhur of the same be prohibited? The Tzeror haMor's approach renders this question moot. Tosfos is forced to answer that the concern was for the women who were exceptions to the rule of yefat to'ar and could not be taken.

The Taz assumes that the Tzeror haMor held there was no heter of yefat to'ar for wars waged outside Eretz Yisrael and he marshals proof otherwise. However, based on the Rogatchover one could suggest a different justification for the Tzeror haMor’s view: the battle against Midyan was not a war, but rather was an act of nekama.

(Parenthetically, from a mussar perspective it makes perfect sense that there be no heter of yefat to'ar here. The troubles with Midyan started because of the enticement of znus -- would it make sense to allow the same situation to develop? On the other hand, chassidishe seforim argue just the opposite -- the reason the soldiers at first let the women live was to prove their ability to overcome the yetzer ha'ra that had previously possessed them and do teshuvah gemurah.)

b) Ramban asks why the Torah teaches the halachos of kashering and toiveling only after the war with Midyan and not earlier, after the wars against Sichon v'Og. He answers by quoting the gemara in Chulin (17) that katli d'chaziri was permitted during wars of kibush v'chiluk -- chazir was allowed to be eaten during the wars of conquest of Eretz Yisrael. The wars against Sichon v'Og were wars of conquest, for the purpose of obtaining territory; the war against Midyan was not. Based on the Rogatchover, one can draw an even sharper distinction -- the war against Midyan wasn't a war at all.

Current events sheds some light on why some people are averse to the use (or overuse) of lomdus like this. Does calling something a "kinetic military action" (Pres. Obama's description of what we are doing in Libya) make it any less of a war than it otherwise would be? Does calling a battle an act of nekama instead of milchama change reality? Does a rose by any other name.... I love lomdus like this, but I can see why it would drive some people crazy.

2) M'inyan l'inyan -- Why did Reuvain and Gad wait until after the battle with Midyan to request that they be given the land of Sichon v'Og? Why didn't they make this request immediately after the defeat of Sichon and Og? Chasam Sofer answers that the assumption of Reuvain and Gad was that the land of Sichon v'Og was distinct from Eretz Yisrael. It was the halachic contrast between the war with Midyan and the war with Sichon v'Og which taught them otherwise. As Ramban explains, the war with Sichon v'Og was a war of kibbush; the war with Midyan was not. Once it became clear that the land of Sichon v'Og was included in the mitzvah of kibush ha'aretz, Reuvain and Gad reasoned that it is no worse than Eretz Yisrael proper from a nachala perspective.

3) Last week we touched on the question of why the generals did not step forward with their gifts to the Mishkan for the sake of a kapparah on hirhur immedately after the war ended -- why did they wait? Some of the meforshim explain that it was hearing the parsha of kasheing kelim which made them recognize the need for kapparah. A kli can be completely clean from ma'achalos asurus, yet it still needs to be kashered. It's not just mamashus of issur which is a problem, but it is also that which is absorbed, that which lies unseen below the surface, which is halachically dangerous. The generals realized that even if the army was innocent of any mamashus of aveirah, the thoughts that lurked below the surface might have a ta'am issur that needed kashering.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

tefilah and the war with Midyan

1. When Moshe Rabeinu criticizes those who fought against Midyan for leaving alive the women, he poses his criticism as a question to them – “Ha’chiyisem kol nekeivah?” To be fair, I could punctuate that sentence a little differently and end it with a !? or a ?! instead of a plain ?, but the point is that Moshe could have omitted the ? entirely and used just a ! How about something like this – “Hamisu kol nekeivah!”

I had a moment before ma’ariv after the ta’anis and saw a beautiful vort in the Divrei Chaim (the real one). We know that the difference between teshuvah m’yirah and teshuvah m’ahava is the latter turns aveiros into zechuyos while the former does not. Moshe Rabeinu threw in the ? because ain hachi nami, through teshuvah m’ahavah the very same women that were the source of aveirah could have been spared. Rather than be a source of cheit or a reminder of cheit, they would have been a source of zechuyos.

2. On the topic of the war against Midyan, see Havolim who writes about the need to couple military might with tefilah. Contemporary gedolim have encouraged each person to adopt an individual soldier to daven for. I want to share with an insight of the Maor vaShemesh on the same theme.

After the battle and Moshe's collection of a percentage of the spoils both from those who fought and those who stayed behind and shared in the booty, the leaders of Bnei Yisrael came to Moshe and wanted to contribute additional spoils of the war to the Mishkan. Ramban quotes the Midrash that the purpose of this gift was as an act of contrition, to obtain kapparah. Although there were no overt sins committed in the war, the leaders were concerned for hirhurei aveirah, lest the people sinned in thought even if not in deed.

Why did the leaders wait until after Moshe collected the "tax" from the spoils? If indeed they were worried lest they had sinned, should they not have stepped forward immediately after the battle finished?

I don't want to get involved in the nitty-gritty of his explanation (the Maor vaShemesh loves remazim and gematriyos, topics that don't lend themselves well to blog posts/translation), but the general idea of the Maor vaShemesh is that the collection of a portion of the spoils as a "tax" for the kohanim was a hint to the people that they did not deserve to fully enjoy the spoils of war. There was something slightly off in their avodas Hashem during the war, and hence something slight they had to forfeit from the booty. Once the people realized the significance of their having to surrender a portion of their booty, the leaders stepped forward to make amends in a sincere way and offered an additional gift.

But why did those who stayed behind in the camp have to surrender a portion of their booty as a "tax"? They were not exposed to the heat of battle or the women in the camp of Midyan -- surely they were not guilty of any wrongdoing either in deed or even in thought?!

The answer is that those who stayed behind had an important job to fulfill -- it was their responsibility to daven for those who went to fight on the front lines. If those in battle were guilty of wrongdoing, even hirhurei aveirah, it meant that those who stayed behind were guilty as well of not properly fulfilling their mission of davening to protect the troops. An amazing idea -- I can share responsibility for anothers' wrongdoing because I didn't daven hard enough for him!

How another person's tefilos can effect my ruchniyus (what about my bechirah?) is an interesting philosophical question, but sof kol sof that's how things work. The lesson here is that the spiritual ailments of others are our ailments as well, for it is our Torah and our tefilos that are falling short in serving as a shield to protect our community from spiritual harm. You don't need to wait for a war either to daven for another Jew.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

eye of the tiger

One of the most enjoyable books I read recently is Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Chua, a professor at Yale, describes how she constantly pushed her two daughters to overachieve by being what others might describe as an overbearing, relentlessly authoritarian parent. Chua sees her own demanding expectations as a product of her Chinese upbringing, which she contrasts with American cultural expectations that allow children to slack off and to do as they please.

Chua takes things to an extreme (read the book), but I sympathize with her position, in part because my parents raised me the same way. A 95 on a test meant 5 points were missing.

To take an example from another great book I recently read, in Start Up Nation: The Story of Israel's Econimoc Miracle (p.124), the following description of a visit to an Israeli high school is recounted:

The Google founders strode into the hall an the crowd roared. The students could not believe their eyes, "Sergey Brin and Larry Page... in our high school!" one of the students proudly recalled. What had brought the world's most famous tech duo to this Israeli high school, of all places?

The answer came as soon as Sergey Brin spoke. “Ladies and gentleman, girls and boys,” he said in Russian, his choice of language prompting spontaneous applause. “I emigrated from Russia when I was six, “ Brin continued. “I went to the United States. Similar to you, I have standard Russian-J parents. My dad is a math professor. They have a certain attitude about studies. And I think I can relate that here, because I was told that your school recently got seven out of the top ten places in a math competition throughout all Israel.”

This time the students clapped for their own achievement. “But what I have to say,” Brin continued, cutting through the applause, “is what my father would say – ‘What about the other three?’"

You betcha this type of approach is outside the norm these days. I heard a H.S. principal once describe his talmidim as “pampered” – I cannot think of a better word. Parents are afraid of pushing, teachers are afraid of pushing, as a community we are afraid of pushing. After all, look at all the kids that went off the derech – they must have been pushed too hard, right? Look at how many people hate going to shul – it’s all because the candyman did not given them an extra lollipop and a pat on the head. (Yes, I’m painting a caricature, but you get the idea).

When you read stories of the "greatest" generation, the common theme is pushing to do more. You had to -- who wanted to spend the rest of life in a slum, a ghetto, or worse? Who wants hardship and poverty? So you claw your way out, build a better life. But what's there to motivate you if you start with that better life to begin with?

My son's Rebbe once told the shiur about an amazing peirush on the Yerushalmi written in Siberia, of all places. Look what can be accomplished in the bleakest of bleak conditions if one has drive! And in America, concluded my son's Rebbe, what have we produced? -- Artscroll.

I think we, the Jewish people, used to have that tiger attitude. Forget the Torah giants of the past -- look at what we have contributed to the secular world in every field. But sadly, that attitude is quickly being lost. There is a pervasive attitude that scamming the system, getting something for nothing, cutting corners, is the way to go, and hard work is just not worth it or foolish.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What date is the fast of 17 Tamuz?

The title of this post may sound something like, “What color is George Washington’s white horse?” but things are not so simple.

תניא אמר ר"ש ארבעה דברים היה ר"ע דורש ואני אין דורש כמותו צום הרביעי זה ט' בתמוז שבו הובקעה העיר שנאמר (ירמיהו נב) [בחודש הרביעי] בתשעה לחדש ויחזק הרעב בעיר ולא היה לחם לעם הארץ ותבקע העיר

One of the events which we commemorate in our fast is the breach of the wall of Yerushalayim. Yirmiyahu haNavi tells us that the breach did not occur on 17 Tamuz, but rather on 9 Tamuz. So why are we fasting on the 17th? Why not hold the fast of 17 Tamuz on the 9th?

There are two basic answers to this question:

1) The Rishonim (Tos R”H 18b, Ramban) explain that the breach of the city walls during churban bayis sheni occurred on the 17th of the month. Since that churban was more severe than the first, we fast on the 17th.

2) The Yerushalmi answers that in the confusion and panic leading up to the churban there was a mix up as to the dates. The city walls were breached on the 17th, but the people thought it was only the 9th.

It could be that these are simply two equally viable alternatives, but it could also be that there is a point of machlokes underlying the answers. Perhaps the Yerushalmi was not convinced that the second churban was more severe than the first, or, if it was (a more plausible assumption so as to avoid making a machlokes in metziyus), that is perhaps insufficient license to warrant changing the date of the fast. It seems from the language of the Rishonim that this latter point bothered them. In explaining why we fast on the 17th instead of the date of the 9th that the Navi refers to, Ramban adds a justification for moving the date – since the point of the original fast was to commemorate the breach of the city walls, if that event historically moved to a different date during the second churban, the fast should move as well. According to Ramban the reason for the fast defines its date, its parameters. It could be that this is the sticking point for the Yerushalmi. Whenever one speaks of a takanah derabbanan, the reason for the law’s institution does not always match or define its parameters. This is why, for example, even when the reason behind a takanah is no longer relevant, in many cases the law remains in effect (as GR”A assumes in many places). One could argue that even if the date of 9 Tamuz no longer makes sense, if the ta’anis was instituted on 9 Av, that date should remain binding. Therefore, the Yerushalmi learns that even during churban bayis rishon, the true date of the fast was 17 Tamuz.

Sunday, July 17, 2011


I try to avoid editorializing about the blatant stupidity that surrounds us in the world because (and you may think this is overly cynical) I could write 24 x 6 and still not exhaust all that could be said and, besides, no one is paying attention to my 2 cents anyway. However, every now and then there comes along the item that stands out as taking things down to yet a lower level than you even thought possible.

Not just the Boro Park community, but the Jewish community as a whole has been moved by the tragic killing of a child abducted on his way from home from camp. Someone forwarded to my wife an e-mail from an organization sent this week, while the family is still in shiva, while we are all trying to digest this event, claiming that this tragedy (and others) was caused by a laxity in certain areas of halacha which this organization therefore has pledged its efforts to remedy. Of course, this effort is only possible with your financial support. With a big picture of the murdered child attached to elicit sympathy, the e-mail makes it pitch for your pledge.

I don't even want to discuss whether anyone can claim understanding of why Hashem would allow a child's life to be taken. To advertise in this way is not a philosophical or theological affront -- it is simply vulgar and crass. It's not a matter of a warped sense of Torah values, but a matter of a complete lack of derech eretz and common decency.

Just when you thought things had hit bottom, along comes an e-mail like this and takes things down yet another level. What's next?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

second nature

The Torah opens Parshas Pinchas by telling us Pinchas’ lineage: Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon haKohen. Rashi explains that Pinchas was being belittled for being the mere grandson of an oveid avodah zarah (Yisro) who dared kill a Nasi; therefore, the Torah stresses his connection to Aharon.

What good did it do for the Torah to repeat who Pinchas’ father and paternal grandfather was? Surely everyone already knew this information and it did not stop the criticism!

R’ Meir Shapiro, the Lubliner Rav, explains as follows: There are people who do certain mitzvos because it is in their nature. A person may be by temperament inclined to help others; he/she will gravitate towards doing chessed. Another person may have an intellectual streak and gravitate toward learning. The reward these people receive for their mitzvos does not compare to the reward of those who must fight against their nature to do the same actions, e.g. the weak student who spends hours pouring over a gemara; the person who in introverted or who prefers to keep to himself who goes out of his way to help others.

The shevatim knew that what Pinchas had done was right, but they downplayed his accomplishment. “It was in his nature,” they said, because what else would you expect from the grandson of an oveid avodah zarah. The Torah therefore tells us that Pinchas' character was akin to his grandfather Aharon haKohen, the great rodef shalom. He had to overcome his natural instincts to act with zealotry, and he therefore deserved the great reward Hashem bestowed upon him.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

shema and its brachos

The Rambam paskens that when faced with a sfeika d’oraysa requiring that a mitzvah be done over, the bracha associated with the mitzvah is not recited (Hil Sukkah 6:13). The logic here is that the safeik regarding the mitzvah and the safeik regarding the bracha are two separate issues. The requirement to recite a bracha is a sfeika derabbanan, and the rule of sfeika derabbanan l’kula applies. The safeik with respect to the mitzvah itself is a sfeika d'orasya.

The exception to the rule is kri’as shema, where the Rambam paskens (Hil K.S. 2:13) that if shema must be repeated because of a safeik, birchos kria’as shema are repeated as well. The Rashba already explains that the Rambam understood that when Chazal formulated the requirement to recite birchos kri’as shema, they did so not as a separate din, but as part and parcel of the kiyum mitzvah of kri’as shema. Reciting shema without its associated brachos is an incomplete fulfillment of mitzvas kri’as shema.

This is one of the proofs of R’ Chaim Brisker (see R' Genack's sefer "Gan Shoshanim" siman 1) that it is preferable to daven b’yechidus rather than to daven in a minyan that will miss sof zman kri’as shema (Biur Halacha siman 235 quotes GR”A that the same applies even to ma’ariv). Even if you recite shema within the zman before davening, it doesn’t help, because the mitzvah of shema is lacking so long as it is not recited in the context of birchos k"s.

In NY the zman has been hovering around the 9:10-9:15 area for the past few weeks, guaranteeing that those who start davening at 9:00 would miss it, and those who start at 8:45 would make it only b'koshi. It will be getting later over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Pinchas, Nadav and Avihu

Rav Zalman Sorotzkin in his Oznayaim laTorah writes (based on Chazal) that when Pinchas killed Zimri, the tribe of Shimon was ready to pounce on Pinchas and attack him. A miracle happened -- Pinchas’s neshoma departed and he appeared dead, thus escaping their wrath. R' Sorotzkin quotes that mekubalim teach that when revived, rather than Pinchas' own neshoma returning to his body, the neshomos of Nadav and Avihu descended instead.

Why davka the neshomos of Nadav and Avihu? What do they have to do with the story? Obviously when dealing with sisrei Torah there are limits to what we can understand, but R’ Sorotzkin reveals at least some of the surface meaning. The sin of Nadav and Avihu was that they were “moreh halacha bifnei rabam.” Rav Sorotzkin explains that Nadav and Avihu desired an even greater hisgalus of Hashem than could be provided by their rebbe, Moshe Rabeinu. The gemara (Brachos 7) relates that Hashem wanted to reveal everything to Moshe when He appeared at the burning bush. Moshe, however, turned away; he felt he was not yet ready for such a revelation. Later, at mattan Torah, Moshe regretted his decision and begged Hashem, “Hodi’eini na es derachecha.” Hashem responded, “When I was ready you refused; now that you are ready I am not.” Nadav and Avihu understood that was a limit even to what Moshe apprehended – Moshe forever suffered the shortcoming of having turned away at the sneh. That level of full understanding was what they aspired to. That’s why they tried to offer ktores in the kodesh kodashim even without instruction or advice from their rebbe, Moshe. In that respect, they jumped beyond what they were ready for.

Remember the end of last week’s parsha: Zimri approached Moshe with Kozbi and challenged Moshe to stop him. Moshe froze – “nisalma mi’menu halacha.” It was Pinchas who reminded Moshe of the din of “kana’im pog’im bo,” and who carried out that halacha. Pinchas at that moment had the clarity to see and act when even Moshe Rabeinu himself was unable to. Nadav and Avihu’s desire to surpass their rebbe may have gone awry in their lifetime, but the spirit of their actions, the ability to transcend even Moshe Rabeinu, was fulfilled a generation later through the actions of Pinchas.

(Side point: Rashi in our parsha writes that Moshe’s not knowing the halacha of yerusha when asked by the Bnos Tzelofchad was a punishment for his declaring that all difficult shaylos should be brought to him. Why does Rashi not bring up this punishment at the end of P’ Balak where we learn that Moshe forgot the din of “kana’im pogim bo”? In both cases Rashi uses the term, "nisalma mi'menu halacha.")

Monday, July 11, 2011

the economics of orthodoxy

Yesterday one of my daughters was looking at the price of camps and even she, who has a teenager's sense of economy, was amazed at the price tags of some of the more well known "modern orthodox" (I don't like to use labels, but I don't have any pejorative meaning in mind here) camps. When you add up $22,000 in tuition, which is what some of the modern schools in my neck of the woods are charging, and another $8000+ in camp costs, you have blown through $30,000 before you even clothe and feed your teenager. How can people afford this? It boggles my mind. Maybe I should credit the modern orthodox community for their ideological commitment in being moseir nefesh to send to their own schools and camps that cost far in excess of what comparables in the "yeshiva world" cost. Even on the smaller scale of day camp, my youngest (10 years old) is attending a camp that costs less than $1000 for the entire summer while a neighbor sends to a summer day camp run by a modern school that charges $3000 a summer. I guess if you can afford it, why not, but I really don't see how a little kid's summer enjoyment is worth treble the price.

Of course, it's only fair to compare apples to apples. My son's yeshiva, for example, costs far less than a typical modern Hebrew academy style high school, but it does not offer a foreign language class; there is no art class; there is no music class; there is no mandatory gym period; there are only a few AP classes (which is a notch above most "yeshivishe" places that offer none). He will in all likelihood never be accepted to Harvard without those extras, but he has no aspiration to go to college, much less an Ivy league school. He has an adequate education (English, math, history, science) to attend CUNY or some other mid-tier school if he desires, and for us, that's good enough. The trade off (which we are happy making) is that his learning is far above and beyond the level that he would have gotten out of any modern orthodox high school program.

But what do those extras really get you? In June I remember reading in some of the local papers the list of college programs some of the modern yeshivos were advertising that their graduates would be attending, and there were lots of CUNY and SUNY names in the mix. Don't get me wrong -- I think you can get a perfectly good education at a city or state university, but you can also get into those schools without three years of French and without being able to recognize a Beethovan symphony. What's the point of paying tens of thousands of dollars more than your "yeshivishe" neighbor to send your kid to a high school that offers a "better" secular education if your kid ends up in Queens or Brooklyn College or even YU? And please don't tell me it's all lishma, knowledge for it's own sake -- you can get that at the public library.

The yeshiva world has its own economic problems -- it's ludicrous to think that everyone can learn in kollel
for extended periods of time with no one paying the price -- but the grass is economically no greener on the side of the fence.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

walk, don't run

A host of meforshim comment on and struggle to understanding how Hashem could first tell Bilam not to go with the messengers of Balak, then OK his going, and then get angry that he went.

Rashi (on "ki holeich hu") implies that Hashem's anger was directed not at Bilam's going with the messengers, but at the fact that "nisavah la'leches," he was consumed by the desire to go
(see Seforno, Rashbam as well), he acted like a ba'al tayva about it. If I had to sum up Rashi in a nutshell, I would say that Bilam's actions here reveal him to be a mumar l'teyavon, he had a tayva for evil, he wasn't just a mumar l'hachis, someone intellectually or philosophically misguided. Hashem's response to Bilam's request essentially was, "Nebach, if you want to go, then go." It didn't call for his jumping out of bed first thing in the morning to get an early start, his skipping along the road and whistling a happy tune while travelling. By way of analogy, in our neighborhood on ta'aneisim we have restaurants galore open. One of one of my wife's pet peeves is the fact that these places are far from starving for business on those days; for some people, there is no sense of embarrassment in having a lunch on a ta'anis. The halacha certainly allows people to eat for various reasons, but if you have to do so, do it b'tzin'ah, privately -- don't parade down main street sipping your Starbucks ice coffee.

The gemara (San. 102b) tells us that Rav Ashi once gave a shiur and mentioned "Menashe, our friend." That night King Menashe appeared to him in a dream, upset at Rav Ashi for having called him "friend," as if they were equals. "Had you been alive when I was," said Menashe, "Not only would you have worshipped avodah zarah, but you would have lifted the tails of your bekeshe so you could run after it

Maharal explains that there are two types of sinners. There are those who sin, but who know what they are doing is wrong. They are aware of their own weakness,and therefore try their best to avoid situations that they know will lead to trouble. The drunk knows that if he walks home past the pub, he may not make it home, so he looks for reasons to take a different route. He welcomes getting a ride from a friend, he welcomes when they are doing construction on that road and he is forced to head some other way. True, many times he winds up in the pub, but if there is an obstacle in his way, he breathes a sigh of relief. Not so the person so caught up in aveiros that he doesn't even see that what is is doing is wrong. Not only does not not welcome obstacles, he does everything in his power to remove them.

Menashe was telling Rav Ashi -- I knew what I was doing was wrong; I at least let down the tails of my bekeshe in the hope that maybe I would trip myself up and thwart myself at least temporarily from that avodah zarah. Had you been there, aderaba, you would have not even have tried to stop yourself.

Bilam perhaps can't be blamed for going to Balak, but why did he have to lift up the tails of his bekeshe and run to get there?

The Alter of Slabodka is quoted as saying that mussar may not stop someone from doing wrong, but they will certainly enjoy the aveirah less. The story of Bilam tells us that this isn't just stam a vort, but there is real truth to it -- there is a din v'cheshbon on hana'ah aside from the act itself.

There are many other views in the Rishonim and Achronim to explain what appears to be a change of mind by Hashem and what Bilam did wrong. Ramban suggests that Bilam should have made clear that his going was conditional on his speaking only the words Hashem allowed. His not mentioning that stipulation gave the perception that he had been given free reign by Hashem to curse Bnei Yisrael, creating a chilul Hashem. Ibn Ezra seems to deny the problem completely -- Bilam is punished for going even though Hashem granted permission. Hashem grants free will and allowed Bilam to go in spite of his (Hashem's) disapproval. However, Bilam suffers the consequences of his own choice. (Ibn Ezra quotes another interesting answer from Sad Gaon -- take a look.) Many meforshim contrast Hashem's directive to go "itam," with the messengers, but with a separate agenda, with Bilam's going "imam," along with them, sharing the same agenda.

The Sefas Emes (as usual) has a very striking and original approach. After Hashem's denial of his first request to go, Bilam is contrite. He tells the messengers of Balak that he is powerless to go against Hashem's wishes. However, he begs them to remain another night lest things change. And things do -- Hashem grants his wish to go. What caused the difference in response? Sefas Emes explains that it was Bilam's acknowledgement of his own smallness -- his hisbatlus! Don't we ask in our tefilos for Hashem to change from midas hadin to midas harachamim? As many explain, Hashem doesn't change -- we change. Bilam changed as well -- at least for the moment,he acknowledged his own limitations. The problem is that he did so temporarily, and only as a means to advance his own agenda.

If a rasha like Bilam could advanced his own agenda by, at least for a moment, acknowledging his own nothingness, kal v'chomer what we could achieve if we internalized the feeling of hisbatlus k'lapei shemaya.

Monday, July 04, 2011

splitting hairs

The Rambam paskens (Ishus 2:16) with respect to the halacha of the two hairs that define gadlus:

שתי שערות האמורות בבן ובבת, ובכל מקום--שיעורן כדי לכוף ראשן לעיקרן. ומשיצמחו ויהיו יכולות להינטל בפי הזוג, עד שיגיעו לכוף ראשן לעיקרן--דנין בהן להחמיר, בכל מקום: לפיכך בבן ובבת, נחשוב אותם גדולים להחמיר, הואיל וצמחו כדי להינטל בפי הזוג; ונחשוב אותם קטנים להחמיר, הואיל ולא הגיעו לכוף ראשן לעיקרן.

There are different opinions of Tanaim as to the minimum length which defines a hair. The Rambam writes that we adopt the chumros of all views. So long as the hair is long enough to be cut, we treat the child as a gadol l'hachmir. However, until the hairs are long enough to bend over back to their root, we do not allow for any of the leniencies of being a gadol.

Yet, the Rambam writes with respect to Parah Adumah (1:4):

היו בה שתי שערות עיקרן מאדים וראשן משחיר, עיקרן משחיר וראשן מאדים--הכול הולך אחר העיקר; וגוזז במספריים את ראשן המשחיר, ואינו חושש משום גיזה בקודשים--שאין כוונתו לגזוז.

וצריך שיישאר מן המאדים, כדי שתינטל בזוג--שכל שערה שאינה ניטלת בזוג, הרי היא כאילו אינה; לפיכך אם היו בה שתי שערות לבנות או שחורות, שאינן נלקטין בזוג--הרי זו כשרה.

So long as the root of the hair of a cow is red, the hair is treated as red even if the top is black. How much of the hair has to be red to call it a red hair? The Rambam writes so long as it is long enough to be cut.

The Kesef Mishneh asks: Since the Rambam follows the stringencies of all views when it comes to defining a hair, shouldn't the Rambam pasken that until the hair is long enough to fold over back to its root, it is not called a red hair? Why is the Rambam lenient here and allow a hair to count as red even if it is just long enough to be cut?

R' Chaim Brisker has an answer to this question, but I would rather share R' Shach's answer (Avi Ezri, Hil Ishus) which is similar, but slightly easier to understand and a lot easier to write over : ) The difference between the two cases is that when it comes to defining adulthood, the presence or absence of hair is the key criteria; the Rambam in that case defines a precise strict shiur of what defines hair. Not so when it comes to parah adumah. There, the key criteria is redness. The presence or absence of hair is just a means of measuring the presence or absence of redness, but is not a defining feature in and of itself. A hair long enough to be cut but not long enough to bend back over may be a hair of insufficient length to define gadlus, but that does not mean it is anything other than a hair and its color is anything other than red.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

R' Pinchas ben Yair's donkey

Today's daf (Chulin 7) tells the famous story of the donkey of R' Pinchas ben Yair that would not eat dmai. The gemara asks: We learned in the Mishna (Dmai 1:3) that animal food is exempt from dmai -- why would the donkey not eat? The gemara answers that the food was purchased fo human consumption and was therefore obligated to be treated as dmai. Only food originally set aside for use as animal food is exempt.

The Yerushalmi gives a different answer (Dmai 1:3; 4a in the Vilna edition). According to the Yerushalmi, R' Pinchas ben Yair said, "What do you want from me -- my donkey is a frummie."

Moral of the story: one can be a frummie and still be a donkey.