Thursday, May 18, 2017

punishment in exact measure

A) "V'zacharti es brisi Ya'akov v'af es brisi Yitzchak v'af es brisi Ya'akov ezkor v'ha'aretz ezkor." (26:42)  It sounds like this is a bracha, but the pasuk is actually part of the tochacha.  The Shl"H explains that if a child grows up without a role model or training, it's not surprising if the child becomes a monster.  But if the child has wonderful parents who are excellent role models and the child still becomes a monster, then something is really wrong with that child.  Klal Yisrael does not lack for role models.  When Hashem looks at our behavior, he remembers that we are the children of Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov.  We should know better and we should do better. 

Last year I quoted R' Eliyahu Lopian's (in the essay 'Ha'kove'a Makom l'Tefilaso' in the Ma'areches HaTeshuvah section in Lev Eliyahu) question: we quote this pasuk among the zichronos that we recite in musaf on Rosh haShana.  The halacha says that we are not allowed to recite pesukim that have negative implications or associations in the zichronos.  If the Shl"H's pshat is correct, what is this pasuk doing there?   Why would we mention a pasuk of rebuke?  R' Lopian ends by saying the answer is a deep yesod that he will explain some other time -- and then he leaves us hanging.

I discovered this year that the same question is asked by another one of the great ba'alei mussar, R' Ya'akov Neiman.  R' Neimen writes that al korchacha we must say that the pasuk is in fact an expression of rachamim.  So what's it doing in the tochacha?  He answers that we should not think that when there is a time of tochacha and Klal Yisrael is suffering punishment that Hashem has just abandoned us to fate.  To the contrary, even amidst the suffering, even when we deserve punishment, Hashem says, "v'zacharti es brisi," I Hashem still remember the covenant between us, and that punishment will be precisely meted out, no more than is deserved.

He gives two example to prove the point:

1) When Yosef is sold into slavery by his brothers, the Torah tells us that he was taken down to Egypt by a caravan of spice/perfume sellers.  Rashi explains (Br 37:25) that the Torah gives us this detail to tell us that Hashem spared Yosef from having to travel in a foul smelling wagon.  Here Yosef has been betrayed by his brothers, he has become captive to strangers, he is on the way to a foreign land to await some unknown fate -- would the caravan's odor really make that much difference to him at this point?  It's like a poor guy dressed in a ragged shirt, pants that have patches and holes, torn shoes, but he stops to put on a beautiful tie before he leaves his home.  What sense does it make in context?  Answers R' Neiman, Yosef may have deserved to have to become a slave in Egypt, but he did not deserve any more than that.  He did not deserve to suffer stink on his way down.  That's the "v'zacharti es brisi...."  Punishment -- yes, but not one drop more than is deserved.  The precise calibration is itself a nechama, in that it shows Hashem is in charge of every detail.

2) In describing the slav birds that Hashem brought in response to the people's complaints, the Torah in Parshas Be'ha'alosecha tells us that they were piled two amos high off the ground (11:31).  Rashi explains the significance of this detail: the birds were at just the right height to be taken, so that a person would not have to exert himself to reach up or to bend over.  Whoever ate those birds, continues the parsha, died.  The birds were sent as a punishment for the people's complaints.  Given the end result of suffering death, would having to reach up or down a little bit to grab the bird make any difference?  

Here too, answers R' Neiman, the point is that the punishment was precisely calibrated.  The extra exertion was underserved, and therefore was not included in the package.

B) Just before this pasuk of v'zachati the Torah describes how Klal Yisrael will ultimately confess their wrongdoing, v'hisvadu es avonam (26:40).  You would think that would be the end of the galus, but it's not.  The parsha continues, "v'ha'aretz tei'azev meihem," the land will still not take them back, "ya'an ub'ya'an b'mishpatai ma'asu v'es chukosai ga'alah nafsham."  Why is the teshuvah not enough?  Netziv explains that the chukim referred to here are Torah laws.  (Remember the beginning of the parsha: Im b'chukosai teilechu - explains Rashi, this refers to ameilus b'Torah.)  You can want to do mitvos, you can want to have a connection with Hashem, but, says the Netziv, without limud haTorah, it's not enough.  

He quotes from Hoshea 8:2-3: "Li yi'zaku 'Elokai, y'da'anucha Yisrael!'" The Jewish people will cry out to G- that they want to know him, to have a relationship with him. Tehsuvah!  But, continues the navi, "Zanach Yisrael tov, oyev yirdifo."  The Jewish people have abandoned tov, and therefore their enemies [continue] to puruse them.  What is the tov the navi is referring to?  Chazal tell us that ain tov eleh Torah, it refers to Torah.  Without limud haTorah, one's spirituality, one's moral and religious development, can never be complete.

I saw a local Rabbi was planning to speak on Shavuos on the topic of the role of the intellect in avodas Hashem.  I thought that was an interesting title for a shiur.  Would anyone think of giving a shiur about the role of one's arm in the mitzvah of tefillin?  Of course not -- it's obvious that an arm is essential to the mitzvah.  What's there to talk about?  Once upon a time I think it was obvious that the intellect is THE primary tool for avodas Hashem.  You might even say that in a nutshell the mussar movement came about to try to involve more than intellect -- the heart, the midos, etc.  But the presumption was that the intellect was the bedrock.  That's what the Netziv is telling us -- without Torah, mitzvos, spirituality, etc. can't get off the ground.  It seems that we've reached a point in history where v'nahapoch hu, there is a lot of people who want to feel spiritual, who want to sing and enjoy cholent, maybe do lots of chessed, support his cause or that cause, but where is the intellect?  Where is the bedrock of limud haTorah to ground it all?  The title of that shiur reinforced my impression that the presumption these days is that intellect is the icing on the cake, the cherry on top of the sundae, rather than the foundation upon which everything rests.  You can be a good Jew without the Ketzos and R' Chaim, can't you?  Well, I'm afraid the answer is no.  (For all I know maybe that's what this Shavuos shiur will be about - - I don't really know.)  Anyway, maybe I'm wrong about my read of things -- the Netziv is still a great point even if you disagree with my social commentary, and it certainly something to take to heart as we approach Shavuos.


  1. Along the same lines, enhancing this vort, I saw something nice from R Z Sorotzkin in Aznayim LeTorah. He brings the seven sins that cause the tochecha, and that each sin calls out a punishment mida kneged mida. He notes that the Tochecha is indeed divided into sections, and that each section corresponds logically with the specific sin that triggers it. But the last sin is being kofer b'ikar, and the corresponding punishment ought to be that the Rbsho is meifir bris, Ch'v. When it comes to that moment, the Rbsho says he refuses to do mida kneged mida, because He remembers the unchangeable bris with the Avos. So the tochecha might not stop at that point, but the rachamim is that by remembering the bris Avos, the Bris with Klal Yisrael remains immutable.

  2. the land, pasuk 26:42, is itself a uniquely endowed, uniquely responsive "role model", exceptional among all lands; however, since we're moving backward in time from Yaakov to Yitzchak to Avraham, the aretz Hashem 'remembers' here* would seem to be that which predates lech lecha, a land flooded with abominable pollution, but a land which He nonetheless considers entirely redeemable, like He considers Bnei Yisrael even after the extreme** beatdown they've suffered by pasuk 42

    *until pasuk 43 anyway, when Rashi explains the 70 year Babylonian galus by shemita and yovel, at pasuk 35

    **extreme, yet "precisely calibrated": when you eat your sons and daughters (26:29), rest assured, their flesh will be neither too tough, nor too tender, but juuust right...