Monday, August 31, 2009

hasra'ah for eidim zomimim, take 2

Earlier today I posted that the Yerushalmi has a different reason than the Bavli for the din that eidim zomimim do not need hasra'ah. The Yl"mi writes that everyone knows that eidim who lie get punished, yet that does not deter anyone from testifying falsely, so hasra'ah would be pointless.

My son tried to one-up me yet again by observing that not only is the Yl"mi different than the Bavli, but it is also against the Bavli. The Bavli in its hava amina considers giving hasra'ah to be a practical impossibility. If you give hasra'ah after the eidim testify, it's too late -- testimony cannot be retracted. If you give the hasra'ah before they testify, then witnesses may not be willing to testify at all. Looking at the hava amina, it is clear that the Bavli thought hasra'ah given before testimony would be a very strong deterrent - not only would it discourage lying, it would discourage testimony completely.

The truth is that this observation is only partially correct. The Bavli also accepts that hasra'ah will not deter liars from testifying. The problem the Bavli raises is that hasra'ah is so powerful that it will discourage those who tell the truth from testifying. As Rashi puts is, "parshi v'lo m'sa'hadi - afilu emes..." Hasra'ah becomes like gun control laws -- they don't keep guns out of the hands of the criminals, but rather out of the hands of those who obey the law. Hasra'ah is not effective on the bad guys, but it will scare an honest citizen away from testifying.

the basics once again

A post and comments over at Not Brisker Yeshivish goes down the same road we have been over here a few times, but it does not hurt to do chazarah, so contribute to the discussion there. Just to recap a few basic points yet again:

1) Most people would not simply open a Yoreh De'ah and start deciding halacha based on which arguments of the Shach or Taz appeal to them, especially if they are aware that gedolei ha'achronim and poskim have weighed in on the issue. Multiple views on an issue is not a license to pick and choose freely among them. Same should hold true of hilchos deyos and hashkafos as well -- picking and choosing without guidance and without regard to precedent is a recipe for disaster. Given our own shortsightedness in all areas of life, personal preference or "what makes sense" is often a poor guide to what is true.

2) Asking, "Does holding X make a person an apikores?" is the wrong question to use to determine whether to espouse a certain belief. You can make a lot of mistakes before meeting the technical definition of an apikores. According to the Ra'avad you can believe G-d has a body and not be an apikores. Yet, that certainly does not mean one should aspire to or champion such a belief as an ideal!

3) The statement that certain views of Rishonim have become less acceptable over time is not a strange concept, but is an idea that we live with every time we open a Shulchan Aruch and follow one view to the exclusion of others. Asking, "Are you labelling the Rambam an apikores?" if you reject his philosophy makes as much sense as asking, "Are you labelling the Rambam a mechalel Shabbos?" if we happen to follow other views in a hilchos shabbos sugya.

Before one weighs whether the Rambam would really subscribe to all that is currently attributed to his philosophy, I think it pays to ask whether the Moreh Nevuchim has really left a lasting impression on Jewish thought, more than other thinkers who have lived since? If not, the question which begs itself is why (other than personal preference, which carries very little weight) one would suddenly look to the Rambam more than other views of Rishonim and Achronim to shape one's philosophy. Fortunately, my question was answered by Rav Soloveitchik in "The Halakhic Mind" p. 92:
"Judging Maimonides' undertaking retrospectively, one must admit that the master whose thought shaped Jewish ideology for centuries to come did not succeed in making his interpretations of the commandments prevalent in our world perspective... The reluctance on the part of the Jewish homo religiosus to accept Maimonidean rationalistic ideas is not ascribable to any agnostic tendencies, but to the incontrovertible fact that such explanations neither edify not inspire the religious consciousness. They are essentially, if not entirely, valueless for the religious interests we have most at heart."

eidim zomimim: double-jeopardy and hasra'ah

For those starting Yerushalmi Makkos (just over 4+ months till the cycle is done!):

1) R' Yochanan (1b) interestingly holds that if eidin zomimim are mechayeiv mamon and malkos in one act of testimony and are huzam they both pay and get malkos. The Mareh haPanim already alludes to the fact that this may be the singular example of a case of double jeopardy. I figured I would impress my son with this bekiyus yediya, but he has reached the point where he always one-ups me. R' Meir holds that eidim zomimin always get 40 extra lashes for violating "lo ta'aneh b're'acha eid sheker" in addition to the 40 lashes for "ka'asher zamam" or having to pay because of "ka'asher zamam". Rashi explains that according to R' Meir this is not double jeopardy because there are two separate issurim involved: 1) lo ta'aneh 2) ka'asher zamam. However, if the same testimony were mechayeiv mamon and malkos (e.g. motzi shem ra must pay and fine and gets malkos), R' Meir would hold there could only be one punishment because the rule of no double jeopardy still applies. Tosfos (Kesubos 32b d"h shelo) disagrees and argues that certainly in a case of motzi shem ra where the eidim attempted to be mechayeiv mamon and malkos they would get both in return. My son pointed out that R' Yochanan's chiddush seems to be the very point of debate between Rashi and Tosfos.

2) The Bavli (Kesubos 33a) struggles to come up with a reason that eidim zomimim do not need hasra'ah and finally concludes that this is a function of ka'asher zamam: they triwed to inflict punishment of an innocent person without warning, therefore they deserve no warning. The Yerushalmi (k'darko) cuts to the chase and is far more practical (4a): eidim zomimim get not hasra'ah because we see anyway that people know the consequences of lying under oath (they see other eidim get punished) and they do it all the time anyway.

Friday, August 28, 2009

ben sorer u'moreh and parental responsibility

The punishment of the ben sorer u'moreh seems far more severe than the crime. For stealing meat and wine from his parents, no more than a little gluttony, he is liable for the death penalty (after first being warned by Beis Din not to repeat the offense and then doing so). Chazal explain that he is "ne'herag al shem sofo", he is killed because the Torah anticipates that this behavior portends a life of crime and evil. Better the ben sorer u'moreh should die while mostly innocent than be allowed to develop into an antisocial, wicked, harmful adult.

Yet, if the parents of the ben sorer u'moreh decide at the last minute to grant mechila to their child, he is released without punishment (Sanhedrin 88). This seems odd. If we anticipate this this individual with develop into a criminal, why spare his punishment now just because his parents got cold feet and want to let him off the hook? Why should society be subject to the danger of the ben sorer u'moreh because of his parents forgiveness?

The Shem m'Shmuel answers that so long as his parents are willing to forgive past transgressions and make an attempt to rehabilitate him, the ben sorer u'moreh cannot be written off. Only once even the ben sorer u'moreh's parents give up, only once that bond between generations is broken, is there truly no hope left.

As touched on in the comments to the last post, the ben sorer u'moreh teaches us more than about the tragedy of the rebellion of youth -- it also teaches us about our responsibility as parents to respond to that rebelliousness. Mechila here does not mean tolerance of crime; it means willingness to forgive in the hope of improvement, change, and growth. It is having parents who are willing to accept the challenge of dealing with a ben sorer u'moreh and guiding him to positive growth which allows his life to be spared.

I recently saw in the sefer on the hanahagos of the Steipler (sorry, forgot the exact title) that he made a point of learning daily with his son R' Chaim. He also made a point of learning with his daughters. When R' Chaim married, the Steipler continued to have a weekly seder with his son and together they leaned the entire Yerushalmi, Midrashei aggadah and halacha, and other seforim. I am willing to guess that the Steipler was a pretty busy Rabbi and R' Chaim Kanievsky was probably a pretty good student who did not need his father's tutoring. But its that personal bond, that parent-child relationship, which would have been lacking had they not had that seder together. No matter how good a child's yeshiva is, there is no substitute for the chinuch of the home and the personal responsibility taken by parents to ensure a child develops in Torah properly.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

a ray of positive sunshine

There is sadly too often opportunity to see what is wrong in the jewish world and feel depressingly bad about it all, so it is nice once in awhile to have the opportunity to see real goodness. Tucked away in the hospital where my MIL had open heart surgery this week and is B"H recovering now there is a small chessed room set up for bikur cholim which is stocked with coffee, drinks, cookies and snacks, sandwiches, soup, seforim, etc. Anyone who is visiting the hospital is free to enter and help themselves to whatever they need. There is no cash register, no collection box, no "suggested" donation card. The food is provided by the New Square Bikur Cholim and was being replenished by two women while we were there. As far as I can tell, the only thing the Squarer chassidim get out of the deal is making people's lives that much more tolerable during times of stress and need. This is pure chessed, no strings attached. You want to know what Avraham's tent out there in the wilderness was like? It was like this little bikur cholim room, where just because you are jewish you can feel free to stop in and help yourself, no questions asked.
New Square Bikur Cholim: thank you for the coffee, and thank you even more for this chizuk and reminder of the greatness of klal yisrael.
(And while I'm on the topic, thanks as well to Mrs. Doris (and Reb Johnny) Rothschild, who maintain the Bikur Cholim the neighborhood and who extend their chessed for Shabbos as well.)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

ben sorer u'moreh / zakein mamrei

Both the ben sorer u'moreh mentioned in this week's parsha (21:18-21) and the zakein mamrei mentioned in last week's parsha (17:8-13) were given public executions with announcements of their crime made so people would take note and learn from their example. Yet, there is a slight difference in the expression the Torah uses in each case. With respect to ben sorer u'moreh the Torah writes, "v'chol yisrael yishme'u v'yira'u"; with respect to zakein mamrei the Torah writes, "v'chol ha'am yishme'u v'yira'u." Why the difference?

Netziv explains that the term "am" usually refers to the hoi polloi, the common man, while the term "yisrael" is usually reserved to mean the righteous select few. Everyone appreciates the significance of ritual. If the zakein mamrei taught that chameitz can be eaten until 11:00 in the morning and the calendar of Beis Din said you can eat only until 10:00, every Joe and Jane in klal yisrael can understand why this zakein mamrei's view is out of bounds -- the "am" gets the lesson.

The ben zorer u'moreh is not guilty of violating a ritual law; he is guilty of living a life steeped in dangerous indulgence. Many of the "am" will not even see the crime in the ben sorer u'moreh's behavior -- so he stole some food, so he is a disobedient teenager, so his life revolves around food, drink, partying -- what does that have to do with Judaism? It is only the "yisrael" who takes note of the lesson and appreciate that ritual alone does not define Judaism, but attitude and lifestyle are equally significant.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

lo yuchal levaker: cannot or may not?

Less than 2 weeks ago we discussed the pasuk in Parshas Re'eh "lo tuchal l'echol b'she'arecha ma'aser degancha..." (12:17). Although "lo tuchal" means you cannot, i.e. it is impossible to do, the pasuk means b'pshuto (as Rashi explains) "you may not", i.e. there is a prohibition of doing so. (In the previous post we discussed why the pasuk did not simply word it as a prohibition.)

The strange construction of "cannot" appears again in our parsha -- "lo yuchal l'vaker es ben ha'ahuva", you cannot give first-born rights to the more beloved son who was born second. The Ramban counts this as a mitzvas aseh which prohibits transferring inheritance from the bechor to another son (see his additions to the Rambam's count at the end of Sefer haMitzvos, #12).

How to interpret the pasuk sheds light on a discussion in the Yerushalmi Baba Basra (8:4, 23b in Vilna ed.): R' Lo gave the bechor an equal portion as the other sons. R' Chagai asked: what of the pasuk "lo yuchal levakeir"? R' Elazar then responded, "yachol v'aino rashai".

The Pnei Moshe makes the assumption that everyone agrees that if the father (in his lifetime) makes a gift of his assets to a son other than the firstborn he can circumvent the prohibition of "lo yuchal levaker". R' Chagai only questioned what R' Lo did because he did not know the facts of the case. This reading is a bit difficult because R' Elazar's statement does not add anything that was not known at the start of the sugya.

The Tzion Yerushalayim, however, reads the the give and take of the sugya as debating how to understand the pasuk of "lo yuchal levaker". R' Chagai understood the pasuk to mean what it says: one cannot transfer assets; i.e. it is impossible to do. To which R' Elazar replied that "lo yuchal" does not mean it is impossible, but rather it means (as Rashi in P' Re'eh and the Ramban understood) that if done incorrectly there is a prohibition of making such a transfer.

Monday, August 24, 2009

amira l'aku"m vs. gerama: which is the lesser issur?

Given the choice, which is the lesser issur: violating Shabbos (or some other issur) through an amira l'aku"m, or violating Shabbos through a gerama? The difference between the two: amira l'aku"m involves doing a full act of issur, but it would be done by someone else who is not a bar chiyuva; gerama is not a full ma'aseh issur. I stumbled across a R' Akiva Eiger (Tos. RAK"E to Bechoros 5:3) which claims that amira l'aku"m is the lesser issur, but I do not understand his proof (he simply says see the Rosh to B.M. 7:6), so make of it what you will.

Friday, August 21, 2009

measurement for eglah arufa -- machshava

Yesterday we discussed the halachic question of whether measuring to the closest city for purposes of eglah arufah is a birur, to determine where the victim came from, or simply a hanhaga. Support for the Rambam's view that it is a hanhaga can be gleaned from the fact that a measurement must be done even if it is obvious which is the closest city and from the fact that we ignore the actual closest city and measure only to a city which has a Beis Din. If the measurement is not for the purpose of gaining insight into where the victim came from, what meaning is there to this ceremony? And why must it be personally done by members of the Sanhedrin and not their agents (Sotah 45a)?

The Rambam's view certainly fits l'shitaso (see Ramban 21:4) of his explanation that the eglah arufah ceremony was designed for publicity. By having a public gathering involving members of the Sanhedrin, news of the murder would spread, increasing the likelihood that a witness might step forward. Determining the exact city the victim came from is secondary to spreading the word.

I think there is more to it than that. Why is it that the Beis Din of the closest city must perform the ceremony of eglah arufah and declare themselves innocent of spilling blood? As Chazal already ask, is it conceivable that Beis Din are murderers? Rashi cites Chazal's answer: Beis Din required atonement for perhaps not seeing to the stranger's hospitality in their city, leading to his/her wandering the dangerous roads and being attacked. Ibn Ezra offers a different, more remarkable answer: had Beis Din not been guilty of a similar crime, the murder of this innocent victim would not have occurred. I am not sure if Ibn Ezra means this in a mystical way or he simply means that where community leaders are lax even in a small way in a certain area that attitude seeps into the community and can have far greater and more dangerous repercussions. Either way, what emerges from Ibn Ezra is that members of Beis Din do not merely share the passive guilt of perhaps creating a situation ripe for crime to occur, but rather the members of Beis Din are themselves culpable in some way for the very crime of murder.

The parsha of eglah arufa demands the personal participation of members of Sanhedrin and calls for measurement specifically to a city with a Beis Din because the parsha is teaching is that leaders in particular bear direct responsibility for the actions that happen in their community. A city without a Beis Din is simply a city which relies on the next closest Beis Din for guidance, direction, oversight, supervision, because there is no city and community which can exist on its own unsupervised and without leadership. The measurement for eglah arufah is not only about attracting publicity to the crime, but is also about the public re-assertion of leadership and demonstration of responsibility by the Beis Din.

Read in this light, the opening and closing of Parshas Shoftim perfectly balance each other. The parsha opens with the charge to the community to appoint judges over themselves and accept their leadership. The end of the parsha calls upon judges and leaders to assert their leadership and act as models to the community or face devastating consequences.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

measurement for eglah arufa -- halacha

Before Beis Din can perform the eglah arufa ceremony they must measure the distance from the murder victim's body to the nearby cities. Rashi (21:2) explains that the purpose of the measurement is to determine which city is closest. However, this explanation seems to contradict the gemara (Sotah 45) which states that even if the body is found right outside a city, the measurement must still be done -- even if which city is closest is obvious there is a mitzvah to measure.

How to understand this halacha of measurement is perhaps a dispute between the Rambam and Tosfos. Tosfos (Baba Basra 23b d"h bdleika) cites the halacha that we only measure to a cities which have a Beis Din. Asks Tosfos: if the purpose of measurement is to determine where the victim came from, why would we overlook the closest city just because it lacks a Beis Din? Tosfos leaves the question unresolved. It seems that Tosfos, like Rashi, held that the measurement was done for the purpose of birur, discovering which city was closest.

The context of Tos. question is a sugya in Baba Basra (23) which discusses whether rov or kurva (proximity) is better proof. The gemara challenges R' Chanina's view that rov is stronger from the fact that we measure distances and choose the closest city despite that fact that rov of the world does not live in any of the nearby cities. The gemara dismisses this proof and writes that the measurements are done when the cities are isolated from the rest of the world by mountains. However, when the Rambam cites this halacha of measurement (Rotzeiach 9:6), he omits to mention that it holds true only where the cities are isolated from an interfering rov. Apparently the Rambam held that even given the possibility that the victim came from some outside rov, there is still a mitzvah to measure to the closest city. According to the Rambam, measurement is not done to determine where the victim came from, but is simply a hanhaga, a necessary step in the eglah arufa process that has no bearing on discovering evidence. We might even go a step further and suggest that the Rambam felt free to ignore the conclusion of the sugya in Baba Basra because he read the the sugya in Sotah which demands measurement even if the closest city is obvious as proof that measurement cannot be for the purpose of birur.

For more on the issue of whether measurement is a birur or hanhaga take a peek at the sources collected in my BIL's sefer Bigdei Sheish on Baba Basra . Assuming the lomdus is correct, I think in part II of this post (to come sometime bl"n in the near future) we need to explore what possible purpose this hanhaga of measurement might have. Is there any reason for Beis Din to personally have to go out (Sotah 45 also tells us this cannot be done through shluchim) to take measurements that will tell us nothing about the murder victim or his attacker?

seeing the whole forest

The Rambam (Sanhedrin 4:8) writes that smicha can be given to a judge for a specific purpose, e.g. a judge may be given smicha to decide torts, but not for capital punishment. However, for a judge to receive any form of smicha he must be proficient in every area of halacha. In other words, even if that judge were receiving a smicha "license" only to decide torts, he must be an expert in capital cases and capable of deciding them.

The Minchas Chinuch notes that among the distinctions listed by the Mishna (Sanhedrin 32) between the requirements for courts judging torts vs. the requirements for courts judging capital cases is that a mamzer or ba'al mum may judge a tort case but not a capital punishment case. How does this make sense according to the Rambam? In order to receive smicha to judge even torts, a judge must be capable of receiving smicha and judging every type of case, even capital punishment cases. If a mamzer cannot judge capital punishment cases, he should be incapable of receiving smicha even to judge torts. The M.C. does not resolve this issue.

Why would a judge need to know everything if he is only pakening in one limited area?

The gemara (Kiddush 10b) records the challenge made to one of the Tanaim: "Baki atah b'kol chadrei Torah v'lidrsoh b'kal v'chomer ei atah yodeia?!" - "You are an expert in all areas of Torah and do not know how to darshen a kal v'chomer?!" At first glance this is a hard point to understand -- what does being a baki in shas have to do with drawing a logical inference? R' Elchanan (Koveitz Shiurim, see post here) quotes that R' Chaim Brisker explained that while an inference may be logically compelling when seen in the narrow context of one sugya, it may prove totally erroneous when measured against the larger background of kol haTorah kulah. There is no such thing as being an expert in dinei mamonos to the exclusion of all else, or paskening issur v'heter without knowing even kodshim sugyos. Truth in Torah can be arrived at only if one has a grasp on the breadth of Torah as a whole.

Mashal l'mah hadavar domeh: A person can zoom in with google maps and look at one isolated few blocks and figure out within those few blocks the correct set of turns to take to get somewhere. This person will be 100% convinced that their "derech" is the correct one. However, someone else who sees the map as a whole may disagree. Looking at those isolated few blocks does not take into account the construction that lies further down the road, the detour that will be required later, the shortcut that comes up later on it you take the other fork in the road.

The reason a person should consult gedolei yisrael on questions of halacha and emunos v'deyos is because even if a person feels that he/she is an expert in a particular little 4 amos of the world of halacha, he/she is looking at no more than a single road on a much larger map. Even to decide between competing opinions and views in a limited area requires knowledge of what Torah as an organic whole means.

minuy dayanim

The Ramban (beg. Parshas Shoftim) cites the Rambam as holding that the mitzvah to appoint judges applies only in Eretz Yisrael. Ramban challenges this view based on a braysa (Makkos 7) that says that the mitzvah does apply in chutz la'aretz, albeit in a modified form: in Eretz Yisrael there is a mitzvah to appoint judges in every city and every district; outside Eretz Yisrael it suffices to have district judges alone.

Achronim dismiss the Ramban's question because the text we have of the Rambam matches the braysa exactly. However, the is reason to believe some other text of the Rambam (or a similar view in Rishonim) does exist in line with what Ramban quotes. The Sefer haChinuch, who usually echoes the Rambam, does write that the mitzvah of appointing judges applies only in Eretz Yisrael. Why should this be?

Even Ramban's position that there is an identical mitzvah of minuy in chutza la'aretz begs the question of why there is a distinction between Eretz Yisrael, where judges are needed in every city, and chutz la'aretz, where district judges suffice.

There may be two distinct components to the mitzvah of establishing courts: 1) As an end in itself, to fulfill the mitzvah of minuy dayanim; 2) As a necessary means to preserving a just and lawful society.

The mitzvah of minuy dayanim as an end in itself applies only in Eretz Yisrael. This is why the Rambam/Chinuch write that the mitzvah applies only in Eretz Yisrael and why every city must establish a court. However, there is still a need for batei din in chutz la'aretz to enforce justice on an ad hoc basis, as a means to preserving social order. Since the courts in chutz la'aretz are just a means to this end, district courts alone suffice. (See Avi Ezri, Hil. Melachim ch. 9 who applies this distinction to the mitzvah of dinim for ben noach.)

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

the danger of ta'aroves

I don't know why, but I just have not felt in the mood to write lately. Sometimes it seems that sharing divrei Torah on a forum such as a blog is a bracha l'vatala. The anti-torah material on the internet so greatly outnumbers the torah sites that rather than encourage people to read divrei torah on the 'net it is probably better to encourage people to just stop reading any jewish sites to avoid the pitfalls. I remember someone once telling me that his mashgiach told him that if he goes to college, he should go to someplace like Notre Dame. Can you imagine walking around on a campus filled with crosses? Why would a Jew put himself in such an environment? The answer is that the odds of a ben yeshiva falling prey to what he recognizes as treif are slim (which is not to say there is no danger at all!) But when you walk around on a campus filled with yalmukas, where there may even be a beis medrash, and amidst all that there is a "Tanach" lecture by someone who happens to deny the concept of Torah min hashamayim as most of klal yisrael understands it, then the danger is far greater. The ta'aroves of tov v'ra is a much harder challenge to respond to than the challenge of ra in its pure form. "Tocho achal v'klipaso zarak" demands both the knowledge to discriminate between the two and vigilance to engage in a constant war of being boreir.

The Tiferes Shlomo gives a mashal to a king who is locked away in a dungeon somewhere, his palace taken over by despots, his throne in danger of being lost. The king's son manages to sneak into the dungeon to meet his father. So what does the son talk about -- does he have a plan to escape, does he share his father's sorrow and worry, does he offer hope and pledge to get his father out? No, he starts telling over to his father a teirutz to a difficult Rambam!

The Tiferes Shlomo was not talking about the internet, but I'll steal his mashal anyway. You have hundreds of "jewish" sites written by even "orthodox" (or maybe "orthoprax") people which create a ta'aroves and destroy the palace of the king. While the king sits languishing in prison we should sit here writing up answers to difficult Rambams?!

My wife pointed out to me that a real Litvak would not be swayed by this Tiferes Shlomo. Yes, we should davka be saying over difficult Rambams, because that gufa is what strengthens the king and will lead to his release. Point granted with respect to the king, but what of the citizens of the empire who are swayed by the leaders of the coup and lost to their false propaganda?

Some will argue that we should seize the opportunity to engage in debate and prove the truth of our perspective. The Alter of Navardohk has a brilliant insight that shows why such an approach is doomed to failure. Hashem appeared to Avimelech and told him that he will die for taking Sarah; he must return her to Avraham. Hashem was not condemning Avimelech yet -- he was threatening punishment, but Avimelech had a way out by complying with Hashem's request. So how does Avimelech's answer make any sense -- "Hagoy gam tzadik ta'harog", Hashem, will you also punish the innocent? M'mah nafshach -- if Avimelech complies, then G-d will not punish him; if he does not comply, then he is not innocent, is he? The Alter explains in Madreigas ha'Adam that Avimelech was not arguing with the terms of the threat, but he was arguing with Hashem making such a threat in the first place -- since Avraham said Sarah was his sister, she was fair game! In other words, even though G-d himself came and told Avimelech that Sarah was offlimits, Avimelech defended his position based on his own corrupt reasoning and labeled G-d as the unjust one.

What proof are you going to offer to those who have their own agenda? What R' Chaim or R' Akiva Eiger held? But a person can just say that good for them, but I hold differently and I think I am right. What the Rambam said (and we all know that the Rambam is kodesh kodashim of Rishonim)? But who says the Rambam is right and not me? What R' Akiva held, what Moshe Rabeinu held, what Hashem himself holds? But you see, when you are arguing with an Avimelech, even G-d's word itself is not proof enough.

So much for this rant. Maybe a difficult Rashba later this week if I recover the urge to write.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

the reminder not to forget the levi

Sandwiched in between the requirement of building a mikdash and offering korbanos therein (12:5-18) and the permissibility of eating meat elsewhere once the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael expand to the point that it becomes difficult to travel to the mikdash constantly (12:20-28) is a pasuk which warns not to forget about the Levi (12:19). Meshech Chochma writes that the connection between this pasuk and the context of the parsha may be explained based on the view of the Rambam (which we recently discussed here) that kohanim and levi'im do not collect terumos/ma'asros in lands conquered outside the promised boundaries of Eretz Yisrael. Terumos/ma'asros are meant to compensate for not receiving a portion in Eretz Yisrael. Since kohanim and levi'im do receive a portion of land conquered outside the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, they cannot collect teru"m in that territory. Therefore, when the Torah speaks of the expansion of territory, land in which the levi is not supported by termuos and ma'asros, it reminds us not to forget or neglect the levi as he may still need our help and support.

Friday, August 14, 2009

a plea for proper davening

After describing the centrality of a Mikdash as the one place where korbanos should be offered after the conquest of Eretz Yisrael (12:6):
וַהֲבֵאתֶם שָׁמָּה, עֹלֹתֵיכֶם וְזִבְחֵיכֶם, וְאֵת מַעְשְׂרֹתֵיכֶם, וְאֵת תְּרוּמַת יֶדְכֶם; וְנִדְרֵיכֶם, וְנִדְבֹתֵיכֶם, וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקַרְכֶם, וְצֹאנְכֶם.
The Torah continues and relates that not only obligatory korbanos, but also ma'aser, bechoros, and other pledges should be brought to the Mikdash (12:17):
לֹא-תוּכַל לֶאֱכֹל בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ, מַעְשַׂר דְּגָנְךָ וְתִירֹשְׁךָ וְיִצְהָרֶךָ, וּבְכֹרֹת בְּקָרְךָ, וְצֹאנֶךָ; וְכָל-נְדָרֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר תִּדֹּר, וְנִדְבֹתֶיךָ וּתְרוּמַת יָדֶךָ.

The literal translation of this pasuk is "you cannot eat" ma'aser, bechoros, etc. wherever you please. However, as we all learned in English grammar, "cannot" implies something is impossible; "may not" is the proper term to use when an action is illegal or not permissible. Rashi apparently was sensitive to the difference and therefore cites R' Yehoshua ben Korcha: "You can eat, but are not permitted to." So much for the correct meaning of the pasuk, but it does not address the underlying question. Why does the Torah use the expression, "lo tuchal l'echol" -- "you cannot eat..." with the extra word "tuchal" connoting "cannot", instead of simply saying "lo yochal...", etc. -- "you may not eat..." as it does for all other eating prohibitions?

I'll leave it up to you to take a peek at the commentaries on Rashi who explain the pshat; I want to share a thought of the Tiferes Shlomo. A person who comes to Yerushalayim to offer korbanos is not just there to have a steak. The experience of being in the Beis haMikdash, partaking of food which is from "shulchan gavoha", is a spiritual one which has no comparison. What happens after you walk away from such an experience? If the experience is authentic, real, something which penetrates to your soul, then there is no way you can walk away saying, "OK, I had my week vacation in the Mikdash, now back to the regular routine." It's just not possible -- "lo tuchal l'echol," you just can't go home and stop at the Kosher Delight for a hamburger and fries, you just can't even eat your ma'aser the same way, because you now know what eating really means, what it means to taste food with your neshoma and not with your guf, and it's that true eating which you will forever yearn to re-experience again.

A practical suggestion: We unfortunately do not yet have the opportunity to visit the Mikdash and eat korbanos, but we do have the opportunity to visit our local mikdash me'at, our shuls, and engage in tefilah, the substitute for korbanos. Let's be realistic: it is hard during the week, when there is so much going on, to daven with kavanah, to stay focused on every word, not rushing to blast out of shul. Even if you personally daven that way, odds are if you daven outside a yeshiva setting, the rest of the minyan is rushing out the door. I have even heard of a "matzah minyan" -- 18 minutes, start to finish. How can we improve the quality of our davening? I think the answer lies in how we daven on Shabbos, and if possible, on Sunday. On those days there is no rush, there is not a train or job waiting, there is nothing to stop anyone from making tefilah into the experience it should be. If davening on Shabbos and Sunday is a davening that takes you to spiritual heights, then during the week you will yearn to re-experience at least a taste of that same type of davening. You just can't experience tefilah like it was meant to be and then go back to the normal routine the rest of the week. Of course, there will always be the bus, the train, the job, but I think there will be a renewed appreciation and desire for tefilah that will make a difference.

Let me describe what I mean by a davening that is a spiritual experience because I am cynical by nature and was just amazed to find such a thing in real life. I was recently at a minyan where over 80% of the attendees were already seated and present before brachos. Once the shat"z started, if someone needed something from a neighbor, e.g. to squeeze by their seat, to get a sefer, etc. they simply gestured, motioned, etc., but there was no talking. There were no mishebeirachs between aliyos, but there was no talking bein gavra l'gavra of kri'as haTorah. There was not a sound during shmoneh esrei, and no one started a conversation if they finished early and were waiting for the shat"z to start chazaras hashat"z. It was simply quiet, except for the shared voice of tefilah. The Rabbi did not shush people, the gabay did not klap the bimah every two minutes for quiet, kids who were there sat reading or went out if they needed something. This is the yotzei min haklal which is melameid that my cynical attitude is wrong and the same achievement is possible even for the rest of the klal. Let's be real: there are people who simply do not see any purpose for coming to shul if they cannot speak to their neighbor, have kiddush whenever they feel like, drag their kids along for free babysitting for a few hours and lots of candy, walk out on the Rabbis derasha to do whatever, and generally turn a religious experience into a social experience (see, my cynical side is taking over again). But it is possible for things to not be this way, and baruch Hashem that some people do get it, because the difference is not just a difference in Shabbos davening, but is a difference that echoes through the week as well.

The month of Av is the month in which we lost the Beis haMikdash. The key to getting it back is to show that we can't live without it, without meaningful avodah as it should be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

achila + seviya: the Torah obligation of birchas hamazon

The Minchas Chinuch (mitzvah 430) writes that the mitzvah of bentching min haTorah is obligatory only when there is "achalta v'savata", a formal halachic act of eating (achila) after which one is satiated. Halacha defines eating as consuming at least a k'zayis of food within the time span of achilas pras (the time it would take to eat a small loaf, which is at most 9 minutes according to some poskim, as little as 2 minutes according to others). Therefore, if one nibbles slowly at a meal, one may not be obligated min haTorah in bentching (MG"A O.C. 210). The Minchas Chinuch extends this chiddush further and wonders if only a k'zayis must be eaten in the timeframe of k'dei achilas pras, or one must eat to the point of satiation during that time frame.

R' Tzvi Pesach Frank (Shu"T Har Tzvi) does not quote the M.C., but clearly disagrees. He cites the words of the Rambam (Brachos 1:1):
מצות עשה מן התורה לברך אחר אכילת מזון, שנאמר "ואכלת, ושבעת--ובירכת את ה' אלוהיך" (דברים ח,י). ואינו חייב מן התורה, אלא אם שבע, שנאמר "ושבעת--ובירכת"
and notes that the only condition the Rambam says which must be met to be Biblically obligated in birchas hamazon is feeling satiated. The Rambam does not say "achal v'sava" -- he just says "sava". (I am not 100% convinced. The Rambam mentions "achilas mazon" at the opening of the halacha and perhaps he is simply adding that satiation is a condition that must be met on top of achila, not that satiation is the only condition that must be met.)

One interesting nafka minah between these views is the famous chakira of R' Akiva Eiger (O.C. 186) regarding a boy who has a big meal just before the night of his bar mitzvah and bentches. When the sun sets the boy instantly becomes bar mitzvah and now counts as a gadol. Must this boy now bentch again because of his experience of satiation as a gadol, or is his bentching as a katan sufficient to exempt from the mitzvah?

Aside from the question of whether the mitzvah performance of a katan counts towards a gadol's obligation, one also needs to factor into the debate the fact that the experience of seviya as a gadol is not accompanied by a formal act of achila done as a gadol. -- whether the seviya of a gadol caused by the achila of a katan is enough to warrant birchas hamazon may depend on whether you take R' Tzvi Pesach Frank or the Minchas Chinuch's position.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

endangered species?

I'm not talking about wildlife - I'm talking about us. No matter how you slice it, the latest American Jewish Identification Survey (AJIS) is sad. Take a look at this summary from the Washington Examiner. Some key points:

-- More than 1 in 3 of Jews describe themselves as thoroughly secular, as opposed to just 6% of the general population.

--The number of Jews describing themselves as not religious has risen from 20% to 35% in the past 20 years.

--The number of Jews affiliated in any way with Judaism as a religion went down from 4.3million 20 years ago to 3.3 million today.

I don't think you need to be a genius to see the cause-effect relationship the researchers found between intermarriage and lack of affiliation. Reform and Conservative movements, here is the fruit of your labor.

This reaction by "Rabbi" Michael Lerner from Tikkun Magazine is (surprisingly) exactly on target:

"What undercuts peoples' commitment to Judaism is the spiritual emptiness that has characterized much of the organized Jewish community," Mr. Lerner said. "The vacuity, the spiritual deadliness people experience growing up in many of America's synagogues leads them to a lack of interest in Judaism and to explore other spiritual traditions.

"People tell me, 'Yeah, I grew up in that system and the only values I learned were safety for the Jewish people, blind loyalty to the state of Israel and making it in America,' " the rabbi added. "The people who get most honored in the Jewish world are the Bernie Madoffs."

Could not have put it better myself.

GR"A on women's reward for Torah study

I found an interesting GR"A quoted in R' Shach's discussion (Avi Ezri, Hil. Talmud Torah) of why women should recite birchas haTorah. The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 246:6) quotes the Rambam's statement that women who learn Torah receive reward just as anyone not obligated to perform a mitzvah receives reward if they do so anyway. Had you asked me I would have said the source for this din is R' Chanina's statement quoted in various places (e.g. Kid 31a) that "gadol metzuveh v'oseh", someone who is obligated to do a mitzvah receives greater reward for its performance than someone who is "aino metzuveh", someone who voluntarily performs the mitzvah, but the aino metzuveh does receive some reward.

The GR"A, however, points to a different source. GR"A cites Bava Kama 38 where we learn that even a non-Jew who learns Torah (the 7 mitzvos that apply to non-Jews) can become as great as the kohein gadol.

Why would the GR"A not refer to R' Chanina and instead send you to a gemara that speaks of the reward a non-Jew can receive for talmud Torah? Are we to infer that the reward of an "aino metzuveh" who studies Torah is special and distinct from the reward of an "aino metzuveh" who engages in other mitzvos (R' Chanina's din)?

Friday, August 07, 2009

rabim hagoyim ha'eileh - mimeni

The Yid haKadosh is quoted as saying that Sefer Devarim is the best mussar sefer. R' Tzadok writes that the words can be felt as if Moshe Rabeinu was directly speaking to each one of us. I think that feeling is especially strong when you read a parsha like Eikev.

You may ask when you come to Eretz Yisrael (7:17):
יז כִּי תֹאמַר בִּלְבָבְךָ, רַבִּים הַגּוֹיִם הָאֵלֶּה מִמֶּנִּי; אֵיכָה אוּכַל, לְהוֹרִישָׁם
"How can I conquer these nations which are so much greater than me?" The Torah answers to remember the events and miracles of Yetzitas Mitzrayim and you will realize there is nothing to fear.

Why does the Torah introduce this parsha by suggesting that a question or doubt will arise and need to be addressed? Why not simply command not to fear the enemy because you know G-d has the power to deal with them and you are not on your own? It sounds almost like there is a cause-effect relationship between the question and the promise of Hashem's help.

The Sefas Emes explains that the first step to acknowledging Hashem is recognizing "rabim hagoyim ha'eileh m'meni" -- we do not have the power to go it alone against the obstacles in our way. Without a recognition of man's limits there is no room to recognize G-d's help, nor will that help be forthcoming.

Here's a different remarkable reading from the Igra d'Kallah: When you see that there are obstacles, that the world is not what it should be, "Rabim hagoyim ha'eileh", then the first step to do tshuvah is to say, "Mimeini," the problems stem from me and are mine to correct! With that acceptance of responsibility a person will merit Hashem's help even if he is not yet worthy, just as Hashem redeemed us from Egypt despite our lack of merit.

There are many people who respond to calamity by blaming G-d. It's His fault that the nations are so strong, that there we have so many problems of every sort, that the world is not the garden of Eden that it once was and should be. The "blame G-d" attitude is the opposite of "Mimeini," recognizing our own faults as a cause of harm and seizing upon the opportunity we have to be agents of change. We may not understand why bad things occur, but we can do our part to correct the problem.

The Chasam Sofer on our parsha explains the pasuk we say in bentching, "Na'ar hayisi v'gam zakanti v'lo ra'isi tzadik ne'ezav..." If we take this pasuk seriously, I doubt we could say it. Has no one seen a tzadik suffering, his children suffering? How could G-d do such a thing! The answer is that the pasuk is not talking about G-d, but about us. David haMelech says that he never saw a tzadik and his children suffering -- he didn't just see and walk away bemoaning the lack of justice in the world, but he saw and did something about it to alleviate that suffering! And for those who walk away blaming G-d, perhaps the reason G-d arranged for them to witness the problem was precisely to ellicit their intervention to correct it... "Mimeini"

are women *obligated* in birchas hatorah?

This is really a follow up to a comment to the previous post which questioned my use of the word "obligated" with respect to women reciting birchas hatorah. Shouldn't I rather have said that they are "entitled" to say the bracha?

The answer I think depends on why women can/should say birchas hatorah in the first place. Although women are entitled to perform mitzvos aseh she'hazman gerama like sitting in sukkah, hearing shofar, etc., the Beis Yosef paskens that they are not permitted to recite a bracha because they have no obligation to fulfill these mitzvos (the Rama disagrees). Why then does the Beis Yosef pasken (O.C. 47:14) that women may/should recite birchas hatorah when they have no obligation to learn? A number of theories have been suggested:

1) Women are obligated to learn the halachos which apply to them (Maharil, Agur, B"Y).
2) Women are obligated to recite pesukim as part of davening (ibid.)
3) Birchas hatorah is on the cheftza shel Torah, the subject matter, irrespective of whether there is a chovas hagavra to study (Brisker Rav, see this post)
4) Women must see to it that their husbands and children learn, which is part of being "oseik" in Torah (Chasan Sofer)
5) Birchas hatorah is a birchas hane'henin which a women must recite over the pleasure she gets in learning even if she is not obligated to study (R"Y Engel, Lekach Tov #11).

I'm not going to debate the merits of any one of these sevaros now. Our focus is this: is the Shulchan Aruch which prohibits brachos on other mitzvos she'hazman gerama simply allowing a bracha over limud haTorah, or obligating a bracha over limud haTorah? It seems to me that according to any of the reasons given a women in in fact obligated to recite birchas hatorah. Unlike zman gerama mitzvos where women have no obligation and hence may not recite a bracha, in some way women are included in the obligation of engaging in minimal Torah study, encouraging Torah study, they partake of the enjoyment of Torah study, or simply texts of Torah demand a bracha before being studied irrespective of whether the learner is obligated to study them or not -- therefore a bracha must be recited. It is that very distinction between obligation and lack of obligation which separates birchas hatorah from all other brachos on zman gerama mitzvos.

The GR"A comments on this din that women may recite birchas hatorah just as they may recite brachos on any other mitzvas aseh she'hazman gerama. The GR"A is clearly not explaining the Beis Yosef's position, because the Beis Yosef holds that women may never recite a bracha on zman gerama mitzvos. Rather, the GR"A is offering his own justification for the bracha. According to this approach, birchas hatorah, like other brachos over zman gerama mitzvos, would be optional, not obligatory.

Nafka minah: Can women be motzi men in birchas hatorah? Certainly according to some of the reasons used to explain the Beis Yosef there is room to argue that men and women have parallel chiyuvim to recite the bracha (though the parallel may not be exact according to all the reasons). However, according to the view of the GR"A, hands down there is no comparison between the option to recite the bracha and the obligation to recite the bracha and women may not be motzi men.

If you pull an all nighter Shavuos, can you wake your wife up to recite birchas hatorah for you because there is a safeik whether to recite a new bracha when you are up all night? No, because it would be rude and inconsiderate to wake you wife at 4:30 AM for this reason. But lets say she is up anyway... maybe you could argue sfeik sfeika: safeik whether you wife can be motzi you, and even if she can't, safeik whether you are obligated to make a new birchas hatorah in the first place.

While on the topic, an interesting mareh makom. R' Chaim Kanievsky writes (and I have not seen it inside, only quoted) in his "Sefer haZikaron" that women need not be careful regarding those items poskim mention are "kashe l'shikcha", which cause forgetfulness, because they have no obligation to study Torah. The Halichos Beisa (ch 28 footnote 14) argues. Even sans a formal chiyuv of talmud torah, women are obligated to know and study practical halacha (reason #2 above). Hence, they too must be mindful (excuse the irony here) of anything that would cause forgetfulness.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

birchas haTorah after an interruption in learning

Why is it that if one recites a bracha on eating in the sukkah and then leaves the sukkah after finishing the meal, a new bracha is required at the next meal when one re-enters the sukkah; however, if one recites birchas haTorah on learning and then goes about doing other things, a new birchas haTorah is not required when one resumes learning?

Tosfos (Brachos 11b) answers that exiting the sukkah brings the performance of mitzvas sukkah to a close for that time period. However, the mitzvah of talmud Torah is an ongoing obligation which has no end. R' Soloveitchik compared it to a mother's relationship to her child: even when the mother is not actively engaged in taking care of the child, the child is still in the back of the mother's mind and a subject of her concern. There is no hesech hada'as from talmud Torah even if one closes the gemara to engage in other business.

I recently discovered (thanks to learning Halichos Beisa with my daughter) that the Tzlach writes that Tosfos' sevara is well and good for men who have an ongoing obligation of talmud Torah. However, women have no such obligation. Though they still are entitled to recite birchas haTorah (for various reasons discussed by achronim, e.g. they read and recite pesukim as part of tefilah), there is no mitzvah for them to remain engaged in thinking about Torah day and night. Therefore, the Tzlach posits that if a woman stops learning and then resumes study at a later point in the day, she would be obligated to recite a new birchas haTorah.
(I don't think this is the common practice, but you can ask your posek what he thinks.)

the loss of a gadol

Klal Yisrael this week lost one of its princes, the Rosh Yeshiva of Sha'ar haTorah, R' Zelik Epstein. What is amazing is what some focus on in their appreciation of the man. Maybe it's Wikipedia's fault for devoting 1 of only 5 paragraphs about the man to describing what R' Zelik held about various book bans. This is viewed as a "siman" that R' Zelik was "our type" of gadol, he was a "normal" gadol who understood the world, he wasn't one of those kano'i radicals of the far right, and therefore we should really be sad that he is gone. What is sad is that stuff like this becomes the measure of gadlus.
What we should mourn with the loss of any gadol is the loss of Torah that the person embodied. In R' Zelik's case we lost a link to the tradition of the great yeshivos of Europe, a link to the torah of R' Shimon Shkop, whose grandson R' Zelik was through marriage. If you want to know what we lost, open a Sha'arei Yosher and see the world that R' Zelik came from and lived.

birkas hamazon and birkas haTorah

There are only two brachos that we are Biblically obligated to say: birkas hamazon and birkas haTorah. The gemara even has a hava amina that we can derive the obligation of one from the other: if one must recite a bracha on material food, certainly we must recite a bracha on Torah which gives us spiritual sustenance. While such a hava amina perhaps points to a relationship between the two brachos, nonetheless there is a clear difference between them: birkas hamazon is recited after eating, while birkas haTorah is recited before learning. Why the distinction? The Sefer haChinuch explains that birkas hamazon gives thanks for a physical good; the physical enjoyment and pleasure from food comes only after it is consumed . Birkas haTorah gives thanks for an intellectual and spiritual good. Even before one beings to learn, the mind can appreciate and anticipate the joy of being engaged in studying the dvar Hashem.

The gemara tells us that one of the causes of the churban was that "lo beirchu baTorah techila," the Jewish people failed to recite a birkas haTorah before learning. R' Altusky, the Rosh Kollel of Darkei Torah in Far Rockaway, in a derasha on Tisha b'Av cited the Sefer haMakneh which notes that the gemara does not say birkas haTorah was omitted, but rather says it was not recited "techila", before learning. There was a lack of anticipation for learning, a loss of the distinction between material pleasure which is enjoyed after the fact and spiritual pleasure which must be yearned for and appreciated before one even begins the process of study.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

a R' Tzadok thought for Tu B'Av

My wife did a series of posts (here, here, and here) on two variant readings of the Mishna/gemara which lists the groups of girls who would go husband seeking on Tu b'Av and what they would say. The text of the Bavli at the end of Ta'anis lists three groups of girls: those who were beautiful, those with yichus, and those who were ugly but asked their chassanim to marry for the sake of Heaven. The Ein Ya'akov divides the last group into rich girls who said to marry for money, and poor girls who had nothing.

R' Tzadok cites a Pri Eitz Chaim that sees this marriage dance as a hint to the relationship between the Jewish people, the kallah, and G-d, our prospective bridegroom and the 4 groups of girls as corresponding to the 4 letters of the Shem Havaya. While it is beyond our ability to fully understand these matters, there is one R' Tzadok-ish point worth taking note of. Had you asked me I would have said that the ugly, poor girls correspond to the last letter hey in the Shem Havaya. That last letter hey is a hint to this world, the lowest sefira of malchus, the furthest point from G-d's direct grace. Not so, says R' Tzadok. The ugly and poor girls are actually a hint to the letter yud, the most spiritual letter, hinting to the highest point of keser, the greatest experience of G-dliness.

The problem with religion is we get all caught up in the trappings, whether is a geshmak chiddush of R' Chaim or a tasty kugel and cholent, or even the beauty of certain mitzvos. When you strip away all of that, for many of us there is not much left. But the truth is that when you strip away all of that stuff, that's not the end of religion, but the beginning -- at that point all that is left is you and G-d, one on one. Pretty scary thought. But that's why when you are done talking about yichus, money, even who is a bigger talmid Chacham, when you don't even want to talk about that stuff or can't talk about that stuff because it just doesn't apply, then you are left with the first yud, the keser, the start of it all, the real ikar and real l'shem Shamayim of it all.

Maybe that's why Tu B'Av comes right after we complete our week of shiva which began on 9 Av (see R' Tzadok). When there is no more Beis haMikdash, when everything we had is taken away, only then can we begin to rediscover what is real and meaningful. And with that discovery will will hopefully be led to the dedication of a new mikdash, which as the Pesikta writes, will occur on Tu B'Av, b'meheira b'yameinu.

chasam sofer on "am chacham v'navon"

ו וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם--כִּי הִוא חָכְמַתְכֶם וּבִינַתְכֶם, לְעֵינֵי הָעַמִּים: אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת כָּל-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה, וְאָמְרוּ רַק עַם-חָכָם וְנָבוֹן,
הַגּוֹי הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.
ח וּמִי גּוֹי גָּדוֹל, אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ חֻקִּים וּמִשְׁפָּטִים צַדִּיקִם, כְּכֹל הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם.

These pesukim (Devarim 4:6-8) in last week's parsha relate how the nations of the world will come to recognize the wisdom of the Jewish people by observing the moral conduct engendered by observance of halacha. Pasuk 6 tells us that the nations will remark that we must be a great nation because we have such a remarkable ethical code; pasuk 8 echoes the same sentiment. Couched between these two sentences there is another pasuk that I left out:

"Ki mi goy gadol asher lo Elokim kerovim eilav k'Hashem Elokeinu b'chol koreinu eilav."

How does recognizing that G-d answers the prayers of the Jewish people fit the theme of pesukim 6 and 8 which speak of the rational appreciation of Torah law as a superior moral system?

The answer can be gleaned from a remarkable Chasam Sofer which highlights one word in pasuk 6 that changes the entire thrust of the parsha. Pasuk 6 starts: "U'Shemartem" -- guard yourself -- a word the gemara reads in many places as implying a prohibition. Turning the simple meaning of the pasuk on its head, Chasam Sofer writes that the Torah is warning, "u'shemartem", against thinking that Torah must be obeyed because even the nations of the world and secular scholars appreciate its rationality. Obeying halacha just because it "makes sense" and a Jew can be respected outside in the world for how he acts is a poor motivation, because what "makes sense" does not always accord with what the halacha actually demands.

Furthermore (and this explains pasuk 7), if a moral code that makes sense is all there is to Torah, then it makes no sense to daven by a sick person's bedside hoping s/he will get better. Can you explain to the nations how bacteria are affected by tefilah? Can you explain why G-d should save another person just because little you stand there and mutter a few perakim of tehillim? The wonder of Torah is not that "lo tignov" makes sense to any person who did not grow up in a jungle -- the wonder of Torah is that G-d actually listens to the tefilos of each and every one of us and responds in some way, "b'chol koreinu eilav."

[ I enjoyed this Chasam Sofer because of the way it subverts the pshuto shel mikra, but given recent events I'm a little worried lest the wrong impression be drawn. On the one hand, there is a need to be mindful of the temptation to mold belief and strip its mysteries to fit the perception of what others accept as "chacham v'navon". At the same time, there is a danger in losing sight completely of the impression one's actions make when viewed by the secular world. ]

Monday, August 03, 2009

Sunday, August 02, 2009

besoros vs. shemu'os

Sorry in advance for the little rant: The Mishna in Brachos 9:2 speaks about the bracha that needs to be said on "besoros tovos" (good news) and the bracha said on "shemu'os ra'os" (bad news). The meforshim ask: why does the Mishna switch its terminology? --either speak of besoros tovos and besoros ra'os, or shemu'os tovos and shemu'os ra'os, but be consistent! The answer is that "besora" means something told from one person to another. You have good news, you tell your neighbor and let the word spread. "Shemu'a" means something heard. Bad news is something you happen to overhear, not something your friend needs to tell you or you need to pass on to others.

There is a tremendous chilul Hashem when the wrongs of our community make it into the secular newspapers. But just because a story is out there in the NY Times doesn't mean it has to be the topic of conversation on every blog, on every so-called Jewish media outlet, bein gavra l'gavra of keri'as haTorah in shul, between your buddy to the left eating the cholent and your buddy to the right eating the kugel at kiddush, between courses at lunch, and brought up again at shalosh seudos for a news update in case anyone knows something else interesting. Not only do we have the stories themselves, we have the typical organizational responses, we have the critiques of the responses, the critiques of the critiques, and so on...

Where is the to'eles and constructive value?