Friday, March 20, 2015

transforming "hacheiresh haya libam" into "hachodesh ha'zeh lachem"

Parshas haChodesh, as we’ve discussed in the past, is really more about Pesach than Rosh Chodesh.  In fact, it’s only one pasuk in the whole parsha that speaks about Rosh Chodesh.  The Torah seems to present kiddush hachodesh as a prelude to the mitzvos of Pesach.  Why do these two parshiyos go hand in hand? 
There is a fundamental difference between Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh.  The mitzvah of Shabbos is preceded by “sheishes yamim ta’avod.”  There is a mitzvah of preparing for Shabbos.  Chazal say that only “mi she’tarach b’erev Shabbos yochal b’Shabbos.” Shabbos is the culmination of the cycle of the week.  Not so Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh precedes the events that will occur in the upcoming month.  It sets the tone for what is to be, and does not depend on the energy and preparation of prior events.  It is an inauguration, not a conclusion.
Klal Yisrael had known of Shabbos even while in Mitzrayim, but until Pesach, they had not known of the concept of Rosh Chodesh.  They understood that for those who put in spiritual work and effort, G-d delivers rewards.  What Rosh Chodesh taught them is that G-d can deliver the rewards in advance, and the effort can come later.  This is the foundation upon which Pesach rests.  Klal Yisrael had little merit to speak of when they left Egypt; “ta’avdun es haElokim al ha’har hazeh” was an event that would occur in the future.  Nonetheless, G-d promised them deliverance based on what would be.
That’s why, explains the Shem m’Shmuel, the haggadah has a hava amina of “yachol mei’Rosh Chodesh,” that maybe we could do sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim from Rosh Chodesh.  Rosh Chodesh is the precedent that gives rise to a Chag haPesach.
The gemara (Shabbos 147) tells a story about R’ Elazar ben Arach: there was a place that had great wine and bath houses and the ten tribes that were exiled there were drawn in by the pleasures and vanished.  R’ Elazar ben Arach decided he was going to go to that place and check it out.  After spending some time there, the gemara says that he got an aliyah (maybe it was parshas hachodesh) and instead of reading “hachodesh ha’zeh lachem” he read the words as “hacheiresh haya libam” – their heart was deaf.  The Chachamim davened that his learning should be restored, and learned a lesson that even a talmid chacham should be “goleh l’makom Torah” and not think he can live removed it.
Taken at face value, it’s an incredible story.  This is the same R’ Elazar ben Arach about whom R’ Yochanan ben Zakai said that if all the other Chachamim were placed on one side of a scale and R’ Elazar on the other, he would outweigh them all.  How can this same R’ Elazar ben Arach go so far astray as to not even be able to read a pasuk in chumash correctly?!  From a mussar perspective, I guess you would say that that’s exactly the point – even someone so great can fall to the lowest depths.  But maybe there is more to it than that.
If you’ve ever davened mincha in, for example, a ba’al teshuvah yeshiva, you can find people focusing on every word of davening like it’s Yom Kippur. Meanwhile, the guy who has been davening mincha for the past 30 years knocks off his shmoneh esrei in three minutes flat.  The thrill is gone; the newness, the freshness is gone.  We don’t remember what it’s like to daven for the first time.  R’ Elazar ben Arach could have been one of the biggest Roshei Yeshiva and said shiur on the same cycle of 7 masechtos again and again for decades, but he knew that if that’s what he chose to do, he risked losing that freshness and newness that comes with seeing things the first time.  So he sought out people who could see things for the first time – he went out to the boondocks and started a kiruv movement in a place where there was nothing left of Judaism and where the lure of hedonism drew everyone in.  He went out and lived among people who, when they discovered Judaism, saw it as new and fresh.  R’ Elazar knew that in order to experience “hachodesh hazeh lachem,” hachodesh = chadash, newness, freshness, you need to first have “hacheiresh haya libam.”  Sure, putting himself in that situation was a challenge and a step down from the amazing shiurim R’ Elazar might have been saying, but it ultimately was a step up, because the vitality of those around him would rub off and R’ Elazar himself benefit from that constant rejuvenation.
That’s the upshot of the gemara, explains the Chernobeler in his Ma’or Eynaim.  “Havei goleh l’makom Torah” – you have to sometimes go out, go into galus, go to the boondocks, and there you will find Torah as it should be experienced, as new, as fresh, as filled with vitality.  The truth is that you don’t have to travel too far. There are plenty of souls that are deaf to Torah all around us because no one has come along to open their ears.  The truth is that we each have a little bit of “hacheiresh haya libam” in us, but if we help each other out we can transform it into “hachodesh (=hischadshus) hazeh lachem.”


  1. Thanks for sharing this more favorable reading of what became of R. Elazar ben Arach.

  2. So when his contemporaries were mevakesh rachamim olov, it was because....?

    1. The Maor Enayim says R' Eb"A deliberately caused himself to fall to a lower madreiga so he could relate to those whom he wanted to be mekareiv. The Chachamim were mispalel that he should be able to restore himself to his former level.

    2. This is what bothers me [and I have spent over twenty years in kiruv of one kind or another]. The action of the Chachamim implies that they thought/paskened that R' Elazar ben Arach should not stay at that lower madreiga, even if it made kiruv more effective or even possible.

      The only resolution I can think of is that their tefilla was that he should be able to do effective kiruv despite being on the highest madreiga.

      Perhaps this is analogous to the Slabodker vort about Hillel. If, when R' Yonasan ben Uziel was learning, birds flying overhead burned up, what happened when Hillel learned? Answer - nothing happened. The concept is worthwhile considering even if it contradicts the Yerushalmi's answer to the same question.

  3. >>>The action of the Chachamim implies that they thought/paskened that R' Elazar ben Arach should not stay at that lower madreiga, even if it made kiruv more effective or even possible.

    But if you put all those Chachamim on one side of the scale and R' Eb"A on the other...

    I think the word "thought" fits better here than the word "paskened" -- I'm not sure it's something that lends itself to a hachra'ah.

    When I said this vort over on Shabbos my son's response was that this reading of the gemata only makes sense if you are wearing a shtreimel and have had a few drinks beforehand. I wrote it over because it is creative, but if you ask me aliba d'emes if that is what the gemara means, I'm less than convinced.

    1. Excellent application of the scale principle. I wonder how much "lev tov" had to do with it [l'fi madraigosom].

      And, I suspect Rav Hutner would say that your son's observation proves the deep emes of the vort.