Sunday, November 30, 2008

indelible impressions

I am not a big fan of Slabodka style mussar, but if you go for that sort of stuff: Rashi explains that Yitzchak's eyesight became poor in his old age (27:1) due to his exposure to the irritating fumes of burning incense offered by Eisav's wives to worship their avodah zarah (parenthetically: this suggests that avodah zarah was taking place right under Yitzchak's nose -- did this not reflect on Eisav and warrant a reaction of some sort?) But why did these fumes only affect Yitzchak's eyesight? Would they not also have affected Rivka's eyesight as well? The Sifsei Chachamim answers (citing Maharashal) that Rivka was less sensitive to the fumes and smoke because she grew up in a house where she had been exposed to avodah zarah and was used to its affects.

Let's put this in context (my wife gets credit for this observation): Rashi tells us that Yitzchak was 123 when he decided to bless Eisav. Recall that according to Rashi (25:20) Yitzchak was 37 years older than Rivka, meaning Rivka would have been 86 years old. Furthermore, according to Rashi Yitzchak married Rivka when she was just three years old. So here we have an elderly Rivka, a woman who has spent the past 83 (!) years wed to a tzadik like Yitzchak, a woman who abandonded her own home with its idolatry at the tender age of only three, a woman who was observed by Yitchak to have the same midos and purity as his mother Sarah before marriage. Yet because she "grew up" more than 83 years ago in a house where avodah zarah was worshipped, she had a lesser sensitivity to avodah zarah than Yitzchak! How could that be?

The Slabodka mussar ending: we see from here how deep and indelibe every impression is, how what we expose even a little child to can leave a mark that years of tzidkus and taharah cannot completely undo. Etc. etc. (Sorry, I have no aspirations to be a mashgiach. My son has asked me why in yeshiva he has to give up time from learning to listen to the mashgiach's shmooz -- I told him he should ask his rebbe.)

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Divrei Torah: Parshas Toldos

Divrei Torah for this week posted for download here (I try to keep these to 2 pages) -- feedback welcome.

Some thoughts from my wife on the relationship between Yitzchak-Rivka vs. Avraha-Sarah here.

For those of you too lazy to click the link and download, one idea that I liked: Rivka tells Ya'akov that she overhead Yitzchak saying to Eisav that he wished to bless him "lifnei Hashem lifnei mosi" -- "before Hashem and before I die." (27:6-7) Rashi explains lifnei Hashem to mean that Hashem should agree to the blessing.

Yet we look back at the actual words Yitzchak said to Eisav, it seems Rivka is misquoting. Yitzchak told Eisav he wished to bless him, "b'terem amus" -- "before death", but Yitzchak made no mention of "lifnei Hashem". Why did Rivka add these words?

The Koznitzer Maggid explains that the remez to Hashem was couched in the words of Yitchak, "v'tzudah li tzayid." Yitchak could have simply said one word, "v'tzad." The word "v'tzudah" is the same as "v'tzad" except it contains the additional letters of vav and hey. The extra word "tzayid" is strangely spelled here with an additonal hey, which means it contains the letters yud and hey in addition to the letters of "tzad." Add it all together and you have the full yud-key-vuv-key name of Hashem.

If you stop there all you have is a cutesy vort, which is probably not a good enough reason to read this post. The follow up question (asked by the Medrash Moshe, R' Moshe Mordechai Morgenstern) is the crucial point: so why is it that Rivka spelled out "lifnei Hashem" when she spoke to Ya'akov, but Yitzchak just hinted to it using this remez?

I think the answer (the M.M. gives a different one) is that Yitzchak was hinting to the nature of the brachos and why he was about to give them to Eisav. You can easily find G-d in the Heavens and in the Beis Medrash; the trick is to find G-d everywhere else. Yitzchak was hinting to Eisav that because he was a "man of the field" he had the potential to fulfill that mission. G-d is not just in the tent of Shem v'Eiver, but is also found in the tzayid as well if you are a good enough hunter and know where to look.

Rivka agreed in principle with this message but thought it could be carried out another way. Instead of taking the "man of the field" and trying to inspire him to find G-d, Rivka thought the future of the Jewish people would be more secure in the hands of a man of G-d charged with the mission of taking that message out to the field.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

shabbos when lost in the desert (II)

Had you asked me the question posed by the Biur Halacha quoted in the previous post, I would have given a simple answer (or to be more accurate, denied the premis of the question). True, if you do the melacha of an entire week in one day you reduce the odds of chilul Shabbos from 7/7 to 1/7, but that tactic assumes that chilul Shabbos is calculated based on the overall weekly (monthly? yearly?) basis. Who says that is the case? Perhaps each day must be looked at individually. The fact that chilul Shabbos can be avoided in future days based on actions taken today is irrelevant and need not be taken into consideration, especially given that the additional action done today is itself further chilul Shabbos. I can even imagine practical ramifications to this question. If someone is sick and must be mechalel Shabbos one week, may one engage in greater chilul Shabbos if it would potentially speed up recovery and eliminate the need for chilul Shabbos next week, or should one observe as much of Shabbos as possible and worry about next week when it comes? I am not really sure of the answer and don't see why the former position is unquestionably right. Happily for me I received an e-mail from someone in response to the previous post that offered a sevara along the same lines as my own, so apparently my knee-jerk reaction to the question is shared by others.

The Biur Halacha does not offer this answer but does present an elegant bit of lomdus. On any given day, the only work that is permissable is work necessary to remain alive -- pikuach nefesh. We asked: why be mechalel Shabbos every day when one can do all work needed one day a week? The answer is that one is not in fact mechalel Shabbos every day! Since Shabbos may be violated for the sake of pikuach nefesh, the work done is not chilul Shabbos. Only doing more work than necessary for pikuach nefesh would be chilul Shabbos, and therefore no preparations for future days may be made.

I certainly take nothing away from the M"B's answer, but am curious as to whether my sevara is off base and if it is, why. The next question I think will get us closer to a better understanding. The assumption behind the halacha is that each day has an equal chance as any other of being the real Shabbos and based on this uncertainty we must adopt a strict position and treat every day as the potential real Shabbos. But, asks the Magen Avraham, why should this be so? We know that in halacha there is a principle of bitul b'rov, i.e. a minority can be ignored in favor of a majority. If there are 9 stores selling kosher meat and 1 store selling treif meat, a piece of meat found on the street may be assumed kosher given the 9/10 probability that this is correct. Here too, given that 6/7 of every week must be days of chol and not Shabbos, why not say that any given day is chol based on the principle of rov? To be continued, bl"n.

shabbos when lost in the desert or outer space

Rav Huna and Rav Chisda disagree as to whether a person lost in the desert with no idea when Shabbos is, no sense of time, should observe one day as Shabbos and then treat the six following days as chol or keep six days as chol followed by one day of Shabbos (Shabbos 69b). We pasken like Rav Huna that six days of chol are counted followed by Shabbos. However, all this means is that kiddush and havdalah are recited on the day arbitrarily designated as Shabbos. Melacha necessary to remain alive is permitted on every day, including that Shabbos day --one cannot prepare on one day for the next and then take a day off. Rava explains why. Each day has exactly the same liklihood as any other of being the real Shabbos. Since one cannot prepare on Shabbos for chol, one cannot do melacha on any day in preparation for the next given the 1/7 chance that one might be doing extra work on the real Shabbos in preparation for chol.

There are a number of interesting issues the Achronim discuss regarding this din. The Mishna Berura (Biur Halacha, 344) points out that were the person trapped in the desert to do whatever melacha needed for the entire upcoming week on only one day, the odds of that day being Shabbos, the odds of the person being mechalel Shabbos, are only 1/7. By not allowing the person to prepare from one day to the next and having the person do melacha on every single day (as needed), the odds of chilul Shabbos are now 7/7, or 100%! Why is this outcome prefarable to the first?!

This is just to get the brain warmed up - more to come bl"n.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

"the field, the cave, and the trees" (23:17) - why the stress on trees?

Why does the Torah go out of its way to tell us specifically that "all the trees in the field" (23:17) as well as the field and the Me'aras haMachpeila transferred to Avraham's possession?

In the parsha sheet I mentioned a Parashas Derachim which resolves an apparent contradiction in Rashi. Commenting on "ger v'toshav", Rashi writes that Avraham told the Bnei Cheis that if they refuse to sell him land he will claim a pre-existing right of ownership (i.e. he is already a toshav) as Hashem had promised all of Canaan to him. Yet, in Parhas Lech Lecha, when the shepherds of Lot claimed the right to graze in other people's pastures based on Hashem's promise of Canaan to Avraham, Rashi explains that their claim has no merit because Avraham did not yet have possession of the Land. What's the difference between Avraham's claim to being a toshav and the shepherd's claim of grazing rights?

The Parashas Derachim answers that property rights consist of 1) rights to the guf hakarka, the actual land; 2) right to peiros, use of the land for farming, grazing, etc. Hashem's promise to Avraham gave him immediate ownership of the guf hakarka, but the right to use the land was retained by its inhabitants until Yehoshua's conquest. The shepherds of Lot were stealing the peiros of the land, and these did not yet belong to Avraham. Avraham needed a burial plot which utilized only the guf hakarka, and that he already owned.

Had Avraham taken property based on his right of being a toshav, the land alone would have been his. Now that Avraham bought property, he gained the rights to peiros in addition to the property itself. Perhaps the Torah stresses specifically the trees to highlight this difference and emphasize the acquisition of peiros in addition to the property.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Who cares how old Rivka was? - reading Rashi within his own paradigm

When my wife brought home the Jewish Star from the supermarket, the title of Rabbi Billet's article caught my eye and I was tempted to write something. In a nutshell, Rabbi Billet poses the obvious problems with Rashi's suggestion that Rivka was no more than three years old at the time of her marriage and rather than resolve them, he instead introduces alternate interpretations that allow for her being older. This has generated some debate in the blogopshere in many places (VIN seems to be racking up comments at a furious pace) with some people trotting out the usual accusations of apikorsus and what not.

The situation really amounts to a Catch-22 - m'mah nafshach: either you present Rivka as older in order to make the story in Chumash more believeable and sacrifice Rashi, or you salvage Rashi as the "ruach hakodesh" based truth and chalk up all difficulties to our mental frailty at the expense of having a story in Chumash sound that much more unbelievable. The sad thing is that both sides of the debate in blogger-land are too entrenched to see the drawbacks of their own position and the merits of the other side.

What struck me when I read Rabbi Billet's piece is how unsatisfied it left me. Rashi is difficult -- let's make no bones about it. Yes, there are other interpretations -- but how does that help with Rashi? Just adopting those other views doesn't absolve us of our talmud Torah obligation to understand to the best of our ability a Rashi. Isn't that the process of learning which we follow in so many other areas? Tosfos asks a question on Rashi, the Ra'avad challenges the Rambam -- do we stop there any say Rashi is difficult or the Rambam is hard to understand and just accept the other position as correct? Of course not! We say "eilu v'eilu" and try our best to come up with an approach that shows the logical possibility of either position being valid. The same applies here.

The truth is that if one reads the parsha without meforshim, I doubt the issue of Rivka's age would come up. How old was Avraham and Sarah when they married? I don't know, and excuse me for not caring. It would make little difference to my understanding of Chumash. The only reason Rashi introduces a discussion of Rivka's age is to resolve a problem that should bother us. Yitzchak is 40 years old at marriage (25:20), it is only when he reaches 60 years old that Ya'akov and Eisav are born (25:26). Why was there a 20 year delay? The Torah tells us that Rivka had a problem conceiving until Yitzchak prayed on her behalf, but that only begs the question of why he waited 20 years to do so and took no other action like marrying a maidservant as Avraham had done. Rashi suggests that the 20 year delay was a result of Yitzchak waiting 10 years for Rivka to reach puberty and another 10 years before becoming convinced that she would remain sterile if not for miraculous intervention.

Appreciating the context in which Rashi presents these facts is the key to unlocking Rashi's meaning. And given the context, Rashi cannot be "fixed" by reinterpreting Rivka's age on some figurative level - sorry. But another approach is possible, and it is one which I have touched on here before and I suggest it again with some trepidation. Rashi viewed Torah as a closed system, like mathematical system that contains its own axioms and laws of logic. As an analogy, think of Euclid's geometry. Whether or not a perfect plane or triangle exists in reality or the world conforms to Euclid's equations is irrelevant to using the axioms and postulates to derive proofs within the paradigm of the system itself. When quantum theory was first proposed (and I am no expert on this), I don't think Einstein took issue with the mathematics so much as with the idea that these equations represented something real about the way the universe worked. Or to use another analogy, the world of Rashi is like the world of logical positivism in which questions of theology and metaphysics are meaningless because they cannot be evaluated. It's not that there are no answers - it's that since there are no answers these cannot be kashes in the first place. So getting back to the point, Rashi faced one and only one problem -- how to deal with the textual gap of 20 years in Yitzchak's age. He solved that problem by introducing a three year old Rivka. Kashes like how a three year old could consent to marriage or lift a jug of water are like saying the perfect triangle that you created does not exist anywhere in nature -- so what? Rashi is looking only at the text as a closed unit and solving its internal difficulties. End of the story. You may not like Rashi's metholdogy, you may think it creates as many problems in this case as it solves (as the other Rishonim all argue!), but if you take it on its own terms, in its own paradigm (think of Thomas Kuhn), I think you can appreciate what Rashi is doing. The key is accepting the paradigm for what it is and thinking only within its boundaries.

I think this is a yesod in reading Rashis (and other meforshim) that one would sometimes otherwise be forced to simply reject as rationally untenable. The list of difficulties does not stop with the issue of Rivka being three. I doubt one will have success taking each difficulty on a case by case basis and working out a figurative reading or interpretation of Rashi. But neither do I think simply rejecting these difficult Rashis that the student of Chumash is bound to encounter will leave one with a healthy attitude of respect for gedolei haRishonim. What do you think?

Divrei Torah: Parshas Chayei Sarah

In the course of around 2 years of blogging I have never been interested in producing yet-another-sheet-of-vortlach on a weekly basis. I'm still not interested in doing quite that, but I have some extra time on my hands and figure maybe a weekly parsha sheet is not a bad idea. Parshas hashavua is "davar ha'shaveh l'chol nefesh" -- it is something that a great many people can connect to, which is not always true of more "lomdish" topics. I can't promise I can do better than anyone else (especially given the nice comments here by Anonymous and others), but an extra helping of divrei torah on the 'net never hurt and maybe some more people will enjoy reading.

I was thinking about how to do this to avoid a too long blog post and decided create a .pdf that you can download/print and posted it over at Lulu as a free e-book. Here's the link. If someone has a better idea, please let me know. Feel free to share the divrei Torah with others.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Avraham and Sarah's model of shalom bayis

"Kol asher tomar eilecha Sarah, shema b'kolah" - "Avraham, whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her voice." Anyone who is married can probably attest to the fact that this command was probably was as difficult a test as any of the others Avraham faced : ) But in seriousness, the pasuk is actually a key to marital harmony. The Radomsker explains, "Shema b'kolah" may be read derech derush to refer to "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad", the ideal of mesirus nefesh, which Sarah personified in everything she said and did. Sarah's only concern was the welfare of others, not her own ego. Imagine if every time your spouse spoke to you the words you heard were, "Shema Yisrael...", i.e. I am only saying this l'shem shamayim for our improvement. How could you not listen?

On the same topic of shalom bayis, it is noteworthy that when the three people/angels come to Avraham's house, they make a point of asking where Sarah is. Rashi comments that this was done "l'chabivah al ba'alah", to make Avraham cherish Sarah, as he would be reminded of her tzniyus. R' Chaim Shmuelevitz points out that Avraham and Sarahat ages 99 and 90 respectively must have been married a good many years before this moment. Yet, even after so many years of marriage, there was still room for Avraham to appreciate his wife even more!

My wife added that perhaps davka because Avraham and Sarah had been together for so long this reminder was necessary. When a couple is young, every experience they share together is new and precious. The first time taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, cleaning for Shabbos - isn't it great to be married and in your own house! But after 80 years of taking out the garbage, doing the dishes, helping clean for Shabbos - the bloom has long since faded from the rose. But even after 80 and 90 years, a "l'chabiva al ba'alah" is still possible.

Friday, November 14, 2008

two great dangers in avodah to beware of

The Tiferes Shlomo offers a beautiful interpretation of the gemara in Brachos, "afilu nachash karuch al akeivo, afilu melech shoel b'shlomo lo yafsik", that even if a snake wraps itself around one's foot, even if a king begins a conversation, one should not interrupt tefilah. There are two great challenges in avodas Hashem which the gemara is warning us of. The first great challenge occurs when one wakes up from the slumber of sin and suddenly realizes how far away one is from Hashem. There is a great temptation to surrender to despair and hopelessness. This feeling of despair is symbolized by the snake which wraps itself around a person's ankles trying to drag him/her down. The opportunity for tefilah is the antidote to the depression of the snake. Even if one has succumbed to sin, there always exists the opportunity of return.

At the opposite extreme is the person who feels so immersed in "spirituality" that he/she loses sight of the restrictions and restraints of halacha and considers attending to these details beneath his/her stature. This is the danger of hubris. Even if one is "speaking to the King", one is still not excused from tefillah. This ideal is demonstrated in our parsha by Avraham's willingness to leave communion with G-d to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim -- an abstract spirituality cannot replace the concrete performance of mitzvos. "V'hu yoshev pesach ha'ohel" - Avraham managed to keep the proper perspective because rather than look at all he had achieved, he viewed himself as still sitting at threshold, looking at the door of opportunity for further growth in mitzvos that lay open ahead.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Sarah's laughter

I was wondering why Hashem asks Avraham about Sarah's laughing at the promise of a child instead of addressing Sarah directly. Is a husband accountable for his wife's behavior? Just this morning I came across a fascinating Yerushalmi that answers the question (but I don't pretend to fully understand what it is saying). The Yerushalmi (Sotah 29a in Vilna ed) declares that Sarah was the only female in Tanach addressed directly by G-d. Immediatly the Y-lmi asks about all the contrary examples that may be running through your mind, e.g. Hashem speaks to Chavah, to Rivka, etc. In each case the Y-lmi answers that the communication was through an intermediary, even if unstated. So if Sarah was unique in that Hashem spoke with her directly, why did Hashem not simply ask her why she laughed? Why did he address the question to Avraham? The Yerushalmi answers (see Pnei Moshe) that Hashem acted this way not to avoid addressing Sarah, but davka because Hashem desires to hear "sichasan shel tzidkaniyos", because Hashem wanted to hear Sarah's voice! Had Hashem accosted her directly, Sarah would undoubtedly have not said anything in response -- she would have been filled with remorse and accepted Hashem's declaration of her guilt. But because Hashem communicated his question through Avraham, Sarah denied her laughter.

Of course, this just begs the question -- if Sarah really did laugh, why would she deny it to Avraham? And if she didn't laugh, or felt she didn't laugh, what would she have made of such an accusation coming from G-d?

“it’s run by a bunch of Jewish ladies”

The following quote is tucked away in an article in today's NY Times on the Jehrico, Long Island school district - "One Chinese mother said friends told her not to bother with the P.T.A. because “it’s run by a bunch of Jewish ladies.”"

Can you imagine a parent in America today openly saying to a reporter that they don't participate in PTA because it is run by a bunch of blacks? Or some other race/nationality? And that comment being printed in the NY Times not as a shocker, but as a reasonable explanation for the parent's behavior? Unheard of. But, as we all know, Jews are different.

This is Jehrico, LI, NY - not the back woods of Appalachia or a remote township down South.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Rashi/Ramban on Avraham's journey to Egypt

Rashi and the Ramban offer two different views regarding Avraham's decision to flee to Egypt in response to the famine in Eretz Yisrael. According to Rashi, travel to Egypt was the correct decision given the lack of food in Eretz Yisrael. The situation was a test of Avraham's faith. Would Avraham question G-d or remain true in his committment after following G-d's command only seemed to bring hardship? Ramban disagrees and writes that given G-d's promise and command to go to Eretz Yisrael, Avraham had no right to leave the land. This was an error in judgment on Avraham's part because of which his descendents would be exiled to Egypt.

In discussing this on Shabbos, the popular understanding of the debate seemed to be whether we look at G-d's command to go to Israel through the paragmatic lens that allows for a waiver in times of famine, or through a lens of idealism that demans committment at all costs. The Ramban's opinion appears to be consistant with his views regarding medical care -- were a person a great enough tzadik, there would be no need for doctors, as faith alone is a cure for illness. The Rambam famously disagreed, as pursuing medical treatment is as much a part of normal conduct as eating, drinking and sleeping and does not betray a lack of faith. In fact, as Rabbi Friedman, R"Y of Mesivta Rambam noted, according to Rashi this itself may have been part of the test -- would Avraham use his intelligence to act rationally in spite of G-d's command, or slavishly remain in Israel even at the cost of starvation.

Rav Dessler writes that the views of the Rambam and Ramban both contain elements of truth, as the appropriate response may be relative to the religious level of the person. For a great tzadik who transcends the mundane, perhaps faith alone is sufficient to cure illness. For the rest of us who do feel the pull of physical needs, the Rambam's philosophical stance rings true. I saw R' Ya'akov Kaminestzky quoted as applying this same analysis to explain the difference of opinion between Rashi and Ramban. Was Avraham at this point in time at a relatively early stage in his religious growth where a rationalist/pragamatic approach would be appropriate, or was Avraham already a tzadik of such a caliber that a he should have transcended such considerations and remained in Eretz Yisrael at all costs?

I would like so suggest a Brisker approach to explain these views. Avraham was commanded in the ma'aseh mitzvah of going to Eretz Yisrael. But what kiyum mitzvah was that action designed to fulfill -- the kiyum mitvzah of yishuv ha'aretz, or the kiyum mitzvah of bitachon? Perhaps Rashi agrees with the philosophical stance of the Ramban. But here, Rashi would argue, we are dealing with a simple kiyum mitzvah of yishuv ha'aretz that does not demand staying in the land at the cost of starvation. Ramban, however, understood that the command to travel to Eretz Yisrael was not just to fulfill the mitzvah of settling the land, but was to actively demonstrate Avraham's faith in G-d. Given the need to demonstrate a kiyum mitzvah of bitachon, it behooved Avraham to remain in Eretz Yisrael no matter what the circumstances.

ayin hara

If you think Sarah Imeynu pulled out a voodoo doll of Hagar and began sticking pins in it after reading last week's parsha, you may want to read my wife's post here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

chatzi shiur for a ben Noach

Having touched last week on the issue of whether the shiur gadlus applies (12/13 to count as an adult) applies to a ben Noach, let me add the following: The Rambam (Hil Melachim 9:10) writes clearly that shiurim were only given to Bnei Yisrael and are not applicable to bnei Noach; therefore, a ben Noach is chayav for eating the smallest piece of eiver min hachai. Tosfos (Chulin 33) seems to disagree, as Tosfos writes that a b"n is chayav on a small piece of meat combined with bone and sinews (gid v'etzem). The implication is that one is not chayav for a small piece of meat alone, but only for a k'zayis -- however, that shiur k'zayis of eiver min hachai may be met by eating a combination of meat, bone, and sinew and need not consist of meat alone.

The Pri Megadim (Y.D. 62) suggests that the machlokes may depend on the definition of the concept of "achila". According to Tosfos, achila by definition means consuming a k'zayis. It is only the halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai or derasha of chatzi shiur which creates a new prohibition for eating less, but that does not apply to a ben Noach. According to the Rambam, achila by definition means consuming any amount. The din of chatzi shiur serves as an exemption for eating less than a k'zayis, but that exemption does not apply to the ben Noach.

(My son pointed out to me that the Sefer Tiferes Yosef quotes a few places that R' Yosef Engel discusses this same issue, e.g. Gilyonei haSha"s Yoma 74, Beis haOtzar 198 and a few other places.)

Friday, November 07, 2008

the conflict between Avraham and Lot (part 2)

Continuing from yesterday's post, we saw that the story of the conflict between Avra[ha]m and Lot is introduced by or is presented as a direct continuation of the seemingly unrelated episode of Avra[ha]m's banishment from Egypt. In closing that episode the Torah describes Avra[ha]m's expulsion (12:20), and then devotes another pasuk (with minor changes) to describe Avra[ha]m's leaving (13:1), a seeming redundancy. We saw that the conflict between Avra[ha]m and Lot was NOT an inevitable result of their newly found wealth, as the two nation-tribes of Kena'ani and Prizi lived in harmony and shared the same pasture land. So what exactly was boiling beneath the surface that brought Avra[ha]m into conflict with Lot?

Once again, we find the Tiferes Shlomo uses one of the fundememtal ideas of chassidus as a tool to explicate the parsha. As we learned last week, the secular world views reality as a physical space "out there" that we create an approximate map of using words and ideas. The Besh"t flipped this model on its head. Reality is words and ideas, in particular, G-d's words, or G-d's will, without which nothing would exist. The physical world "out there" is just one possible approximate representation of G-d's will as we perceive it in our human body using physical senses. The words or will of G-d, however, transcend what we apprehend with out physical bodies alone. Think of a blind man feeling his way around an elephant and describing it compared with the way a sighted person would describe it -- it's the same elephant, but the two completely ways of apprehending it. Which description is right? The answer is that both are right -- they are just two different ways of looking at the world.

Everything we encounter offers us this choice of how to look at it. Do we look at it as a physical thing that exists for physical use, or do we look at it as existing because of G-d's will and to be used for G-d's will? Looking at the world with the correct vision leads to "ha'ala'as hanitzotzos", elevating the sparks, meaning, recognizing that every element in reality is a spark of G-dliness, not just a set of molecules and atoms. R' Dessler (Michtav m'Eliyahu III:230) quotes the Ba'al haMaor's comment in Perek Kirah that someone who eats cholent on Shabbos is defined as a ma'amin, no small praise! But, asks R' Dessler, did not R' Yisrael Salanter teach that a person can take Shabbos and reduce it to no more than a plate of tzimmis, no more than a pot of food? Is Shabbos the day to recharge your batteries so that you have energy for the other 6 days of work, or do you work 6 days so that you have the food and means to enjoy Shabbos? R' Dessler explains that everything depends on perspective. The pot of cholent can either be a purely physical indulgence, reducing Shabbos to a good meal, or that good meal can itself become part of the spiritual delight of Shabbos - ha'ala'as hanitzotzos in action.

Avra[ha]m and Lot travel down to the immoral depths of Egypt, and each emerges with a different perspective. Egypt expels them (12:20), but that is not the end of the story. "Va'yal Avram m'Mitzrayim..." (13:1) -- Avra[ha]m went up and took up [spirituality] from Egypt, he took the nitzotzos with him, he found G-d even where he appeared absent. Yet Lot did not react the same way. Lot continued on "HaNegba". The words negev means dried out. Lot lost whatever vitality he had for ruchniyus when faced with challenge. These two pesukim are not redundant. One describes the physical expulsion from the Egypt (12:20), one describes the spritual ascent from Egypt by Avra[ha]m, and Lot's dissimilar reaction.

We now can understand why this description serves both as closure for the story of Avra[ha]m's stay in Egypt as well as the backdrop to the conflict between Avra[ha]m and Lot. It was not the physical baggage of Egypt, the flocks and herds, which precipitated their dispute, but rather it was the differing spiritual perspectives that were brought into sharp focus as a result of their journey to Egypt. Avra[ha]m was forced to offer Lot a choice. Rather than remains with his cousin, Lot continued his descent into Sdom, while Avra[ha]m continued in the elevation of the sparks of G-d that he found all around him.

R' Dessler writes (Michtav m'Eliyahu II:212) that while we might intellectually understand this avodah of ha'ala'as nitzotzos, we would be gravely mistaken to think it is practically achievable for any one of us. Temptation exists and tries to pull us away from G-d, and trying to turn desire to a holy endeavor only creates a charade of religion around self-indulgance. But I think there is still value to thinking about unreachable ideal (why else would seforim reveal these concepts to us?). We each face our Mitzrayims. Our emotions may react like Lot, but perhaps a few moments reflection may bring at least intellectual relief, knowing that Divine purpose is behind everything that occurs and exists.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

sefer recommendation - Tiferes Yosef

My son is a big R' Yosef Engel fan so we bought him the sefer Tiferes Yosef, a collection of R' Yosef Engel's chiddushim organized by topics relating to the parshiyos. As far as I know there is a single volume on Braishis out and vol 1 on Shmos (which coveres half the sefer). Whether you like R' Yosef Engel in particular or lomdus in general, these seforim will make your oneg Shabbos on a ruhcniyus level that much more enjoyable. The biography in the back of vol 1 is also fascinating. I wish I had time to write over some of the pieces, but instead of waiting for me and missing out, look for a copy in your local seforim store. (The problem in my house is we only have 1 copy and I have to sneak it away from my son to look at : )

the conflict between Avraham and Lot (part 1)

This week I wanted to take a closer look at the rift between Avrah[ha]m and Lot and the lessons we can draw from it. At the beginning of chapter 13, which is the chapter which tells us of Avra[ha]m's dispute with Lot and Lot's departure, the Torah tells us, "VaYa'al Avram m'Mitzrayim hu v'ishto 'chol asher lo v'Lot imo haNegba", Avra[ha]m went up out of Mitzrayim with his wife and all his belongings and Lot with him to the Negev. We can debate just how much significance to place on chapter divisions another time, but I don't think we can overlook the fact the departure from Egypt is presented not in closure to the previous chapter which discussed the conflict with Pharoah, but as a part of the opening to a new chapter, a prelude to the episode with Lot. In fact, looking at the Chumash, it is noteworthy that no new parsha marks a division between the episodes of Mitzrayim and Lot -- one flows right onto the other, with no break. This interweaving of the two stories is the key to unlocking their deeper significance, but before we get there, we need to look more closely at the text.

1) If we look back just one pasuk to end of chapter 12 we read that, "...VaYishalchu oso v'es ishto v'es kol asher lo", Avra[ha]m was evicted from Mitzrayim by Pharoah and sent on his way with his wife and all his belongings. The statement in 13:1 that Avra[ha]m went up out of Egypt with his wife and belongings seems identical to this pasuk. Why the repitition?

Other more subtle difficulties and observations:

2) Notice that the closing pasuk of chapter 12 mentions Avra[ha]m, his wife, and his possessions, but omits any mention of Lot, who only appears in the first pasuk of chapter 13.

3) Notice as well that the ending of chapter 12 does not mention a destination while the first pasuk of chapter 13 does.

4) The first pasuk of chapter 13 tells us of travels to the Negev, but interestingly, instead of saying, "VaYa'al Avram haNegba hu v'ishto...v'Lot imo", which would make clear that it was Avra[ha]m directing the journey and everyone else tagging along, the pasuk places the destination at the end of the clause next to Lot, "...v'Lot imo haNegba", as if the place of Negev is associated specifically with Lot's travels and not with Avraham's journey.

Why was there a dispute between Lot and Avra[ha]m? At first glance, the cause of strife seems obvious. Here we have two large herds of sheep grazing in the same area. Given that the amount of pasture land is limited, it would be natural for disputes to arise as to who found which pasture first and whose sheep get to graze where. If this was the cause of the breakup, it is also clear why conflict broke out only at this point and not earlier in Avra[ha]m's travels with Lot. It was only after Pharoah bestowed wealth and flocks of sheep and herds of cattle on Avra[ha]m that grazing land for such large flocks became an issue. A simple explanation, and a satisfying explanation, but for five little words...

"...v'haKena'ani v'haPrizi az ba'aretz" -- There was a dispute... and the Kana'ani and Prizi nations were then in the land.

What relevance could the tribes which dwelled in the land have to this private family conflict over grazing land between Lot and his cousin Avra[ha]m? Why should the text of the pasuk join these two issues? Beyond the textual question (which perhaps motivated Rashi to offer a different interpretation to the dispute than the simple one suggested above), a practical question begs asking: if two entire nation-tribes could peacefully find room to pasture in the same area, need there have been a conflict between the shepards of Lot and the shepards of Avra[ha]m over grazing area? Was there really such a shortage of land as to make a fight inevitable? (Kli Yakar)

It seems safe to conclude that a land dispute may have served as the superficial trigger, but without other issues brewing beneath the surface, the breakoff between Avra[ha]m and Lot might not have occurred. To discover what those other issues were we need to return to Avra[ha]m's departure from Egypt and the questions we raised earler. Stay tuned... bl"n will finish this up later.

source for the age of bar mitzvah

The Tziyun Yerushalayim to the Yerushalmi Sotah 21 points out that the Rishonim differ as to the source for the shiur gadlus for a boy or girl being age 12 or 13. Rashi (Nazir 29) writes that Levi is called an "ish", a mature adult, when he was 13 years old, as we see in the pasuk describing the battle of Ya'akov's children against Shechem: "Vayikchu shnei Bnei Ya'akov, Shimon v'Levi, ish charbo..." (Braishis 34). The Tshuvos haRosh, however, writes that shiur of gadlus is a halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai without a textual basis.

The T"Y suggests a possible nafka minah between these views could be whether the shiur gadlus is constant or variable. According to Rashi, 12/13 is a constant. According to the Rosh, perhaps in earlier generations in Sefer Braishis where the life cycle was different and the mind matured earlier, the shiur gadlus was younger as well.

I am not sure I fully understand why the T"Y assumes that if the shiur gadlus is a hllm"s, it follows that it is a relative number. I would suggest a different possible nfk"m. Achronim debate whether this shiur of 12/13 applies to bnei noach or only to Bnei Yisrael. Perhaps the answer hinges on this debate between Rashi and the Rosh. If the shiur gadlus is rooted in halacha l'Moshe m'Sinai like the Rosh suggests, hllm"s is binding only on Bnei Yisrael. If the shiur gadlus is derived from the age of Levi like Rashi suggests, then if one assumes the children of Ya'akov did not fully emerge from having the status of bnei noach pre-mattan Torah (as discussed by the Parashas Derachim and others) there is room to suggest that this shiur is universal.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

lessons of the raven

My daughter came home last Shabbos with a dvar Torah about the raven sent out by Noach. According to the Midrash, the raven accused Noach of having designs on its mate. Instead of flying off in search of land, the raven hovered around the ark lest Noach try anything. As a result of its refusal to accept the mission of Noach, it was the raven which became destined to be a messenger to Eliyahu in a time of drought.

My wife asked my daughter (who is 13) what she made of this story -- do ravens talk, and can people like Noach really marry birds? My daughter said that in fact someone in her class has asked the teacher these very questions (good for that student!), to which the teacher answered that the animals in those days were different than our animals (bad for that teacher!).

I sympathize with the teacher's motive. How can she preserve the child's emunas chachamim when presenting a story that smacks of the fantastic and unbelievable? It's the approach that is faulty. Instead of trying to convince the child that ravens once did talk (trying to make the fantasy more palatable), the teacher should have used the opportunity to explain that Chazal sometimes teach through allegory and fable (see Rambam in Peirush haMishna beg of Perek Cheilek). Perhaps younger children will accept the image of Noach as Dr. Doolittle (though I can't imagine what they make of the biurd-human relationship part), but at some point children mature enough to realize this is not how the world works. Trying to preserve this image will not just cause a loss of credibility in the teacher, but c"v a loss of credibility in Torah as a sophisticated set of beliefs.

So what are Chazal trying to teach us here? I pulled out a Gur Arye and this is the lesson I drew:

The marriage relationship is sacrosanct. Even in the animal kingdom, there are species that stay with one spouse for an entire lifetime (and, no, I did not check if that applies to ravens). Part of that relationship undoubtedly involves the desire to protect one's partner and not to abandon the nest (in the figurative sense). So we should laud the raven! Instead of flying off into the sunset and abandoning the coup for greener pastures, it hung beside the ark, protective of its spouse.

But we don't laud the raven. There are times when even spouses must go in separate directions. Modern TV brings to our living room the image of soliders leaving home to serve their country in battle, of firemen who rush into burning buildings at great risk to their lives despite having a family at home, etc. We don't view these as breaches of familial duty, but as acts of couage and bravery to serve a greater good. When the services of the raven are needed to benefit the entire ark, hovering close by to look after one's own nest places personal good above the needs to society and is wrong.

Perhaps one can go even a step further. The purpose of marriage ultimately is for the sake of yishuv ha'olam. It is the institution of marriage and family that causes the world to grow in population, causing new regions to be explored, settled, and developed. For an entire year Noach's world consisted of the narrow dimensions of the ark. The key to unlocking that prison was finding land, and the raven was charged with the task. What greater yishuv ha'olam could there be than this mission!? By clinging to its nest the raven revealed that its motivation in staying by its spouse was not for this greater good of yishuv ha'olam, but instead, for its own personal selfish satisfaction. Not only does this trait of selfishness undermine the greater purpose of marriage in society, but it also undermines the very marriage bond itself. If one's concerns cannot rise above the selfish self-serving needs of one's own nest, one cannot begin to properly appreciate and care for the needs of another, even if that other is one's own spouse.

Chazal tell us (Sanhedrin 108) that the raven was one of only three creatures that broke the ban against having marital relations in the ark. The raven indulged in selfish pleasure while ignoring the fact that those around him were suffering and the world itself was being destroyed. In the ultimate ironic twist, who does the raven accuse of selfish motivations, of sending it away only to take its spouse? Noach -- the same Noach who for an entire years gave his every waking moment to selfless dedication to feeding and caring for the entire menagerie on the ark.

The raven's refusal to accept Noach's mission was not a sign of protective love of its mate -- it was a sign of selfishness and self-indulgance when needed by others. The Midrashic story is a lesson in placing the greater good above one's own needs, of selfish love and selfless sacrifice.

some interesting parameters of gezeiros

Among the differences between a kohein and kohenes listed by the Mishna in Sotah is the fact that only a kohein is prohibited from becoming tamei meis but not a kohenes. The Yerushalmi (Sotah 18a in Vilna ed) quotes Rabbi Dosa as saying a chiddush that a kohenes is also not included in the gezeirah not to leave Eretz Yisrael to go to other lands (eretz ha'amim).

The Yerushalmi asks why R' Dosa's chiddush is needed. The whole reason for the gezeirah not to enter eretz ha'amim is because of potential tumas meis. If a kohenes is not prohibited from becoming tamei meis, obviously the gezeirah is moot.

The Yerushalmi answers that one might have thought that since women are generally bound by gezeiros, here too, even though the reason does not apply, one mighty assume the gezeirah is still binding.

Why don't we accept such a sevara? The Yerushalmi answers, "nimtzah matche parshas tumos" -- obligating women to observe the gezeirah would undermine the pasuk's explicit exemption from the laws of tumas meis.

A few thoughts on the give and take of the gemara:

The idea that a gezeirah can be binding even if the underlying reason is inapplicable which the hava amina highlights is found in other areas as well. For example, R' Elchanan Wasserman points out that according to the Ran (Nedarim 52) the reason a davar she'yesh lo matirin is not bateil is because there is insuffcient contrast between the potential-heter item to be bateil and the mixture of real heter which it falls into. However, the application of the din extends beyond the world of ta'aroves to encompass any situation of safeik which will ultimately come to resolve itself (see Beitzah 3).

The conclusion of the Yerushalmi does not (I think) seem to retract this premis, but instead follows a line of reasoning popularly attributed to the Taz (Y.D. 117). The Taz writes that although Chazal have the power to extend prohibitions by creating gezeiros, no gezeirah can encroach on what the Torah itself explicitely permits. For example, Chazal created a gezeirah to prohibit blowing shofar on Shabbos. There is no such similar gezeirah prohibiting milah on Shabbos. Why the difference? Rishonim explain that the Torah explicitely commands that milah be done even on Shabbos; no such explicit command exists with respect to shofar (see Gilyon Maharasha to Y.D. 117 for other examples). It sounds like the Taz's chiddush is anticipated by this Yerushalmi: "Nimteis madche parshas tumas" implies that a gezeirah cannot infringe on the explicit permissability for women to become tamei set out by the pasuk.