Thursday, January 27, 2011

the haftarah that goes backwards

There is something interesting about the haftarah for parshas Mishpatim as printed in the standard chumashim. The haftarah consists of Yirmiyahu ch 34, until you get to the last two pesukim, which are taken from the previous perek of Yirmiyahu 33. Why does the haftarah tack on these extra pesukim from the previous perek? We always try to end off an aliya from the parsha, or end off the haftarah, on a positive note. Since Yirmiyahu 34 does not end on a positive note, the haftarah adds on a few extra pesukim to close on an uplifting theme.

The S.A. (O.C. 144) writes that one is not permitted to read a haftarah l'mafreiya, in reverse order from the text. The poskim (see M.B. #9) discuss where and when this din theoretically applies (some say it only applies when going backwards between two Nevi'im; the MG"A holds it applies even within the same sefer), but it seems that practically speaking, in our times when everyone follows the reading from a pre-printed text and there is no confusion caused and no pause caused while the reader jumps between chapters, this din does not apply (see M.B. #6).

However, why create a situation when one must jump backwards when there is no pressing reason to do so? It's not like there is some particular theme the end of our haftarah wants to echo that demands reading Yirmiyahu 33 -- the whole point is simply to end on a positive note. If so, suggests R' Chaim Kanievsky in his sefer Ta'ama D'Kra, the same goal can easily be accomplished by reading forwards, adding on Yirmiyahu 35 until the end. This would be preferable, in his view, to the standard practice.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

seeing is believing

The experience of mattan Torah was one of synethesia, "ro'im es hakolos," Bnei Yisrael saw the voice of Hashem. Miracles have a purpose -- there must have been some reason for Hashem's voice to be not only heard, but also seen.

There is a famous story in which R' Chaim Volozhiner was recounting the greatness of his brother, R' Itzele, and remarked that he would be considered a talmid chacham even had he lived in the days of Amoraim and even Tanaim. The listeners were fabergasted, as surely R' Chaim Volozhiner was not given to saying empty praises. If this is how R' Chaim described his brother, what could he possibly say about his rebbe, the GR"A? R' Chaim Volozhiner explained the difference between the two as follows: if you ask a Jew to tell you the previous word in any pasuk in Ashrei, or the previous word in a sentence of Aleinu, he will know the answer in a second, but to get that answer he will have to say that pasuk or sentence in his mind from the beginning. R' Itzele knew kol haTorah kula by heart like Ashrei or Aleinu. The GR"A was different -- he knew the previous word without having to think of the pasuk from the beginning; he knew kol haTorah kula backwards as well as forwards.

What's the difference between these two types of knowledge? When asked for the previous word of a pasuk in Ashrei by heart, we rely on our auditory memory, and therefore have to recite the pasuk from the beginning. If we have a sidur open in front of us, we just look at the previous word and can answer without hesitation. The former is shemiya, the latter is re'iya. Kabbalas haTorah was an experience during which Torah was absorbed and accepted to the greatest degree humanly possible. That type of knowledge comes only through re'iya, seeing, not just shemiya, hearing.

Our parsha opens with the laws of the even ivri, the Jewish slave. If the slave chooses to remain indentured beyond six years, his ear is punctured. Why? Rashi cites from Chazal: "The ear which heard on Sinai that Bnei Yisrael are my [Hashem's] servants and not servants to servants," deserves to be punished. "Ain lecha ben chorin elah ha'osek baTorah" -- true freedom is through kabbalas haTorah, through learning Torah. A person who wishes to remain enslaved demonstrates that his kabbalas haTorah was done only with his ears, by hearing, but not by seeing -- his experience of kabbalas haTorah was lacking in some crucial element.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

bitul b'rov and kol d'parish m'ruba

This past Shabbos' daf, Zevhacim 73, finished the gemara's discussion of why an animal is not bateil in a herd, the simplest reason probably being that an animal is a davar chashuv, it is significant. The gemara follows up with a different line of questioning. If an animal is mixed into a herd and you get the herd moving, any animal that jumps out should be permitted based on the principle of kol d'parish m'ruba parish. For example, if there are 100 animals in the herd and one jumps out, odds are that it is one of the 99 heter animals and not the one prohibited animal. The gemara ends up concluding that this is not an acceptable solution because of a gezeirah derabbanan.

It seems clear from the gemara's question that there is a difference between bitul b'rov and holchin achar ha'rov (or kol d'parish -- same thing) or the whole discussion makes no sense -- if rov doesn't apply to a davar chashuv, how can kol d'parish m'ruba apply? The answer must be that these are two different animals (no pun intended). Bitul b'rov doesn't just mean that when a piece of treif meat gets mixed up in a pot with kosher meat we assume that any piece selected is kosher based on the odds. It means much more than that -- it means the treif meat has halachically ceased to exist. Not so the rule of kol d'parish, which is strictly a matter of odds. We know one member of the group is prohibited, but we assume that any one individual item selected must belong to the majority. The sugya in Zevachim assumed that even if we can't go so far as to utilize bitul b'rov, we still might have a way out using kol d'parish (see Shiurei R' Dovid Lifshitz on Chulin 95).

(As an aside, the obvious question is how both of these principles stem from the same pasuk of 'acharei rabim l'hatos' -- see R' Chaim in the stencils.)

This leaves me perplexed by a comment of the Shita M'Kubetzet. The gemara at first is troubled by the use of kol d'parish here, because if animals keep jumping out, at some point a majority of animals have been used up and you know you've taken the asur one. For example, imagine a marble jar filled with 9 blue marbles and 1 red one. If one marble falls out, odds are it will be a blue one -- kol d'parish m'ruba. If marbles keep falling out, e.g. 9 marbles fell out, the odds now tilt against you and are in favor of you're holding the red one. The gemara rejects this objection, but doesn't explain why. Whatever the reason, the Shita m'Kubetzet (#3) writes that this gemara proves that in a case of ta'aroves, e.g. a pot with a bunch of kosher pieces of meat that one trief piece fell into, you can eat the whole pot (other Rishonim disagree) irrespective of the fact that you will definitely be consuming that one treif piece. I don't understand -- the gemara is discussing kol d'parish. What does that have to do with hilchos ta'aroves? Bitul b'rov and kol d'parish m'ruba are two different animals!

Perhaps the Shita means that if the whole collection becomes permissable in a case of kol d'parish, it is certainly permissable in a case of bitul. However, it doesn't sound like that's what he means -- it sounds like the Shita is drawing a direct comparison between bitul and the gemara's case of kol d'parish. I didn't spend time looking around for an answer and nothing struck me offhand. Maybe those of you learning the daf have some ideas?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

using iron in the mikdash

Those of you learning the daf might be interested in taking a peek at the Ramban at the end of Yisro (the daf yomi learners I mentioned it to loved it). Rishonim offer various reasons why the Torah prohibits using an iron chisel to square away the stones of the mizbeyach. Ibn Ezra says that the leftover shards might be tossed in the garbage or used improperly or even worshiped. Rambam sees the whole prohibition as a safeguard against even maskis type avodah zarah. Ramban expands on the Midrashic idea that iron, which is used in weaponry, serves to shorten man's life, and therefore stands in contradiction to the whole purpose of service in the Mishkan, which is to extend and enrich life. Even the sockets of the Mishkan boards, which had to be made of metal, were not made of iron. How then were iron knives permissible to be used for slaughtering animals? Ramban cleverly answers that this proves the point the gemara in Zevachim makes a number of times: shechita is not considered avodah.

The Meshech Chochma and others (see footnotes to the Chavel ed.) point out that there seems to be an exception to the rule that the Ramban does not account for. When the Chashmonaim rededicated the Temple they did not have enough gold for a new menorah and therefore had to make a temporary one out of iron. Even if the lighting of the menorah can be done by a zar and is perhaps not technically avodah), the hatavas haneiros must be done by a kohein. The Chavel edition quotes an answer from R' Meir Arik: the menorah oil was first placed in a kli shareis before use; the menorah itself was not mekadeish anything. I'm not sure I understand this answer -- if the Ramban extends his principle to cover even the sockets used to hold the boards of the Mishkan in place, why would it not apply to the menorah, even if it does not serve as a mekadesh?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

a greater miracle than the makos

I remember last time we discussed the famous Ohr haChaim about why Reuvain said to throw Yosef in a pit there were some qualms about it. The O.C. suggests that a human being who is a ba’al bechira and has free choice might be able to harm Yosef even if he didn’t deserve it. Therefore, Reuvain said to throw Yosef into a pit, because even if that pit was filled with snakes and scorpions, these creatures have no bechira and were wholly subject to Hashem’s control.

I don’t know if you will buy it any more because the Chasam Sofer says it, but here it is on this week’s parsha.

It wasn’t the miracles of the makos that convinced Yisro that Hashem was in charge -- pshita that Hashem could control nature. What convinced Yisro was the pursuit of the Egyptians into Yam Suf and the war waged by Amalek. To think even after seeing all the makos that Bnei Yisrael could be defeated is irrational; it is madness. The behavior of the Egyptians and Amalek could only be explained by the yad Hashem, in the case of the former to destroy them, in the case of the later to punish Bnei Yisrael for relaxing in their dedication to Torah. This power to override the free will of ba’alei bechira and cause them to behave in ways that contradict their own self interest is an even greater miracle than all the makos.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

definition of melaches Shabbos at Marah

The Kli Chendah on last week’s parsha raises the question (discussed already by the Pnei Yehoshua) of what the definition of melacha on Shabbos consisted of after the command to observe Shabbos was given at Marah. The definition of av melacha in our halachic world means a significant labor that was performed in the construction of the Mishkan (B.K. 2a, Tosfos). But how could that possibly have been the definition in Marah, pre-building of the Mishkan?

My off-the-cuff idea is that the observance of Shabbos as given in Marah was not a kiyum mitzvah of shemiras Shabbos per se (i.e. with all the associated gedarim of hilchos shabbos like avos/tolados), but rather was a kiyum mitzvah of listening to the words of a navi (i.e. Moshe Rabeinu). There was simply no concept of a cheftza shel mitzvah as we know it until mattan Torah.

Rashi writes that mitzvos were given at Marah “l’hisasek bahem.” The Brisker Rav is medayek that this implies an obligation of limud but not of practical observance, in contradiction to a number of gemaras (e.g. Sanhedrin 56) which imply that practical observance did begin in Marah. It’s a little bit of a stretch, but I am wondering if Rashi perhaps is alluding to this idea that what was given in Marah was something to be "involved in" (in the sense of practical observance as well as limud), but not what we could truly call a mitzvah.

I’ll save you the trouble of asking and raise the question myself: what of the commandments like taking the korban pesach in Mitzrayim – were those mitzvos or not? I’m not sure that’s a knockout punch to my theory. Maybe pre-mattan Torah these were not mitzvos in the same sense or the same form they took on post-mattan Torah. How can you prove otherwise?

Monday, January 17, 2011

can we build a mizbeyach without a navi?

The gemara (Zevachim 62) tells us that nevi'im came to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra and testified as to the correct location of the mizbeyach. Why did it take the word of a navi to figure out where the mizbeyach should be built? Do we need a navi before we can build a mizbeyach? The Maharat"z Chiyus explains that the first Beis haMikdash was razed to the point that not even the foundations of what originally stood remained. There was no evidence left that would indicate where walls were, where the mizbeyach had been, etc. Therefore, it required the help of a navi to figure out where to place things. Today, since we have archeological evidence and we have remnants of the Mikdash still left standing, we can simply take out a tape measure and figure out based on the dimensions given in Mes. Midos exactly where things go. We can theoretically rebuild the mizbeyach even without a navi.

The Brisker Rav (on Bechoros 17) disagrees. The Rambam writes (Beis HaBechira ch 3) that the place of the mizbeyach is "mechuvan b'yoseir" -- it has to be precisely placed in exactly the correct spot. Being even a little off disqualifies the whole effort. This type of exacting measurement is impossible even given the best surveying tools and the evidence of what once was. The place of the mizbeyach is not subject to calculation -- it can only be revealed to us by a navi.

Friday, January 14, 2011

didn't Moshe know the Egyptians would give chase?

The Rishonim (Ibn Ezra, Ramban) ask why Moshe started to daven and scream to Hashem when he saw the Egyptian army in hot pursuit of Bnei Yisrael – Moshe knew what was going to happen, as he had been told advance by Hashem (14:4) that the Egyptians were going to give chase?!

A short few weeks ago we discussed the fate of Pharoah’s three advisors: Bilam, Iyov, and Yisro. Bilam wanted Bnei Yisrael eliminated, so in turn he was eliminated. Yisro sacrificed everything and fled Egypt, so in turn he ended up regaining prestige as Moshe’s father-in-law. Iyov was silent, and so he was punished with suffering. What exactly did Iyov do wrong? Perhaps he was simply waiting for the right moment, calculating the best time to intervene in a way that would have the greatest effect? The Brisker Rav answers that when in pain, you scream, you don’t calculate. Iyov saw the tragedy of Bnei Yisrael’s enslavement unfolding before him and he felt no pain.

The Sefas Emes says the same idea here. Moshe knew the Egyptians would be after Bnei Yisrael and he knew that he had Hashem’s promise that Bnei Yisrael would somehow be saved. But when faced with danger, you don’t calculate what was promised, what you knew would happen, what you know will happen – when it hurts you scream; the visceral reaction kicks in, which in the case of Moshe Rabeinu meant the scream of tefilah. Adds the Sefas Emes, Hashem knows in advance that this is the behavior of tzadikim. His promises take into account that the Moshe Rabeinu’s of the world don’t listen to havtachos and then sit back and relax, but rather they still cry out and increase their avodah as if everything depended on it.

journeying day and night

Another week with barely time to think, much less time to think about the parsha, but I feel bad not saying something before Shabbos.

The Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael travelled “yomam va’layla,” day and night, as soon as they left Egypt -- they had miraculous clouds to guide them by day and a pillar of fire to guide them at night so they could keep moving. It sounds like they needed every moment of travel to get where they needed to go. Yet, the truth is that no matter how fast they ran, they could never have covered the distance they did barring the miracle of being helped by “kanfei nesharim,” "eagle's wings." The Torah tells us that Bnei Yisrael accomplished an eleven day journey in only three days! So what was the point of pushing ahead day and night? It’s like the old joke of someone running through the train thinking he’s going to get where he’s going faster – just sit down and enjoy the ride, because your legs aren’t going to make a difference. When Hashem is doing to driving or flying, moving your feet faster or slower is not going to make much difference.

The Shem m’Shmuel answers that the need for day and night travel wasn’t for the sake of getting to Kadesh Barne’a faster, but rather was for the sake of creating a sense of retzifus, of continuity. Accomplishment in Torah requires a 24x7 effort – there is no vacation and no downtime. We know this from sefiras ha’omer – missing even a day forfeits the entire count, the entire buildup and preparation from Pesach to mattan Torah. From day #1 out of Egypt Bnei Yisrael had to understand that their journey was a continuous one that allowed for no rest stops and no pause.

There is a second lesson here as well. It is easy to keep pushing ahead in one’s journey when it is day – when the destination and road are clear, when the going is easy, when one is energized. It’s much harder at night. The Torah demands of us that we push ahead in our journey even when things are not clear to us, when things are difficult, when the going is not so easy.

I think the simplest answer to the original question is that as a general principle the Torah tries to minimize the miraculous. The Ramban writes in Parshas Noach that no matter how big a boat Noach built, it still required a miracle to fit all the animals inside. Nonetheless, Noach still had to do his part and build that boat. Here too, Bnei Yisrael covered far more ground than humanly possible, yet they still had to do all they could to minimize the miracle and cover as much ground as they could through their own effort.

Particularly in this case, that independent effort perhaps served a psychological need. Bnei Yisrael essentially got a free pass from Hashem – they got out of Egypt without having to endure 400 full years of servitude, they got out with a bare minimum of zechiyos, they got out without having to really do anything. Nahama d’kisufa – a person is embarrassed by taking undeserved handouts; people want to earn their keep. Bnei Yisrael wanted to be active participants in their own exodus. A little kid who has Mommy or Daddy running alongside his bike with while s/he tries to balance between the huge training wheels still feels like s/he is riding the bike because s/he is the one pushing the peddles. Having Mommy or Daddy push the bike while s/he just sits there is just not the same thing. The push to travel day and night may not have made any difference in terms of the ground Bnei Yisrael covered, but it made a world of difference in terms of the way they felt about the journey. And this too is chasdei Hashem – not just to get us where we need to go, but to make us feel like we are the ones who did all the work and earned being there.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Sunday, January 09, 2011

where was the mizbeyach located -- halacha vs. reality

At a daf shiur where I am a sometimes once a week substitute I was asked the following question: how can the gemara (Zevachim 58-59) have a machlokes Tanaim whether the mizbeyach stood in the north/south/center of the Mikdash? These Tanaim did not live so long after the churban and they might have personally seen or known people who had personally seen the Mikdash while it was standing. Didn't anyone remember?

Granting the premise that the memory of where the mizbeyach stood would remain fresh in at least some people's minds (which I'm not 100% certain about, but it seems reasonable), I proposed two responses:

1) Where the mizbeyach stood last time around is irrelevant. If in theory the Tanaim agreed to darshen pesukim differently and locate the mizbeyach in a different spot, that is what we would do going forward.

2) As we once discussed, the metziyus is not necessarily proof in the world of halacha. R' Dessler points out (Michtav m'Eliyahu vol 4 p. 56-57) that we have disputes in many areas where it is inconceivable that there was not some historical precedent or even some common practice that would support one side over the other. Yet, that proof does not make for torah sheb'al peh. Halacha can only be derived from derashos, from a mesorah, from sevara. Without those theoretical underpinnings, what was done in practice might be called a minhag, but it lacks the formal stamp of law. (I think R' Dessler's chiddush sheds light on a Ran at the end of R"H. The Ran asks how the gemara could have a dispute as to what the sound of a teru'ah should be -- didn't people blow shofar every Rosh HaShana? The Ran answers that all the various opinions -- shevarim, teru'ah, shevarim-teru'ah -- were done in practice, i.e. they were minhagim, but the gemara wanted to codify a standard, i.e. codify one view as a matter of law.)

On a similar note (not exactly the same): Chazal teach (Ta'anis 5) that Ya'akov Avinu did not die. The gemara asks: but we know that Ya'akov was embalmed? To which the answer is given that our teaching is based on a derasha. Everybody wonders what kind of answer that is -- so what if it's a derasha, it still contradicts reality!? R' Chaim explained that if "Ya'akov Avinu lo meis" is a metziyus, if it is based on an observation of reality, then it can be challenged and disproven by a contrary observation. However, if it is a dersha, the facts on the ground can't stand in the way. OK, so we have a question from what we see as reality, but that proof is not strong enough to force us to dismiss the equally strong reality of the truth of the derasha. (Something to keep in mind when dealing with other areas like this...)

So much for my 2 cents. Anyone have any other ideas on how to answer this question?

Friday, January 07, 2011

galus -- it's all relative

Parshas Bo is particularly rich in mitzvos and hashkafa to talk about, but that doesn’t mean I have time to write a lot : (

The gemara (Brachos 9) tells us that Hashem wanted Bnei Yisrael to help themselves to the Egyptian wealth “lest Avraham Avinu protest that the prophecy of enslavement was fulfilled through them, but the prophecy that they would escape with great wealth was not fulfilled through them.” Everybody wonders what this gemara means – surely even if not for Avraham’s protests Hashem would have kept his word?

The Yismach Moshe explains that the key word in the gemara is “through them.” Bnei Yisrael cleared Mitzrayim out of all its wealth – it was the accumulated wages owed for generations of servitude which they were collecting (as Chazal later explained to the wise men of Alexandria), not just the wages for the work done that year or the past few years before the exodus. What right did the generation who left Egypt have to collect the wages of their ancestors? The answer is that it was theirs by virtue of yerusha, inheritance. The booty collected from Mitzrayim was proof that there existed a direct line from Avraham down to the generation that left Egypt, that intermarriage and intermingling with Egyptians did not dilute the zera Avraham during their stay in galus. It was this connection that Hashem wanted to demonstrate, not simply the fact that Egypt could be emptied of its gold.

The Lubliner Rav also has an amazing pshat here based on the same diyuk. Hashem promised Avraham that his children will go into galus; Hashem promised that his children will be freed with great wealth. What galus and slavery meant, what great reward meant, was never defined. For a tzadik like Avraham, just having to live in a country like Mitzrayim, to do mundane tasks there, was galus, was avdus. Not so for his descendents, who became less sensitive to degradation of their kedusha. For them, galus and avdus had to entail real oppression to mean anything. The same was true of the promise of great reward. For a tzadik like Avraham, there could be no greater reward than kabbalas haTorah. Yet, his descendents could only be satisfied with a tangible, material reward, the wealth of Mitzrayim.

This is what the gemara means. Hashem could have fulfilled his end of the bargain with the reward of kabbalas haTorah. Yet, were he to do so Avraham would have a ta’anah. Since the punishment of slavery was fulfilled not based on Avraham’s definition of avdus and galus, but rather, “through them,” according to his descendents perception of what galus and avdus meant, according to their needs, the reward also must be “through them,” i.e. in accordance with their definition of what a reward is, not simply a spiritual reward that only the likes of Avraham could appreciate.

It seems that the galus we have to experience is relative to where we are at spiritually. Just riding the NYC subway, even if you are learning along the way, even if you get a seat -- it’s still galus. Sometimes we forget that it’s galus, we become accepting of an environment of tumah that surrounds us 24x7. Worse still, sometimes we embrace galus as an ideal, thinking that not only shouldcertain internet sites or whatever not be banned, but that it’s a mitzvah to look at them, v’kol hamarbeh in page refreshes harei zeh meshubach. When that happens we unfortunately create a need for Hashem to bring about a less subtle galus, and I don’t know if all the gold and silver in the world is worth it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

birchas haTorah after an afternoon nap

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 47) quotes two views as to whether one must recite a new birchas haTorah after taking an afternoon nap. It is easy to understand why you should: if you, for example, leave a sukkah to go do something else and then come back, you say a new bracha. Same here: if you stop concentrating on learning to sleep, you should be required to say a new bracha when you resume learning. (No bracha is needed if you simply interrupt learning to do some other activity because the thought of learning is still latent somewhere in your consciousness. The same cannot be said when you are asleep.) Yet, the minhag generally is to not say a new bracha. Why not? There are two possible ways to formulate the issue here:

1) Everyone agrees in theory that a new birchas haTorah is necessary if there is a hefsek, just like the case of sukkah, just like case of all birchos hamitzvah. The issue here is whether an afternoon nap is really considered a hefsek.

I have a hard time swallowing this. Some people sleep more on Shabbos afternoon than others do on some nights – why is that Shabbos nap not a hefsek but going to sleep at night is? The Aruch haShulchan comes to the rescue and adds some lomdus to distinguish between my sukkah example and birchas haTorah. True, every time you sit in sukkah there is a kiyum mitzvah, but there is no ongoing chiyuv that forces you to remain sitting there. Learning Torah is an ongoing obligation. You can sleep through your obligation, but it’s still there waiting for you to wake up and fulfill it. So why don’t we just recite birchas haTorah once in our life since the same obligation to learn continues every second thereafter for the rest of our lives? When we say the bracha we really only have in mind that day’s learning. A nap doesn’t end the day; going to sleep at night does. (So why not just say this sevara and skip the lomdus – a nap is temporary; sleep for the night closes out the day? Apparently the AhS did not want to say this because were it true, the same distinction should apply by every mitzvah – taking a nap outside the sukkah and then going back in would not necessitate a new bracha. Therefore he adds that the chiddush only applies to birchas haTorah where the chiyuv is ongoing.)

2) The two views disagree fundamentally over whether the din of hefsek applies to birchas haTorah. The bracha over sitting in sukkah, the bracha over any mitzvah, is in effect only so long as there is no hefsek. Were birchas haTorah a birchas hamitzvah, the same rule would apply. The reason it doesn’t points to the fact that birchas haTorah is not a true birchas hamitzvah. What then is it? You can say it’s a birchas hashevach. Maybe you can say (like the Brisker Rav does) that the bracha is on the cheftza of Torah, not the chovas hagavra of learning, and therefore a hefsek on the part of the gavra plays no role. Either way, I find this approach much simpler to swallow.

One final note: if you are interested in reading more about alos/hanetz after last week's post about netilas hayadim / shema very early, this article has much more.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

v'lakachti eschem li l'am

When the Torah uses the term “am” as opposed to “Bnei Yisrael” it usually refers to the uneducated masses, (Rashi Bamidbar 11 writes that it refers to resha’im), the hoi polloi. So why would Hashem promise, “V’lakachti eschem li l’am?” Perhaps it means even as an “am” we are still accepted, but the pasuk seems to be more of an aspiration than a promise. Is being an “am” all we aim for?

The Shem m'Shmuel explains that as much as we value talmud Torah, thinking about the dvar Hashem, these are not the ultimate sources our commitment. A Jew who knows the simple fact that Hashem commanded X and therefore he/she does it is on some level far greater than the Jew who can tell you a whole lomdus and ta’amei hamitzvos and philosophy lesson to explain what he she is doing while the idea of mitzvah=commandment, obedience to outside authority, gets lost somewhere along the way. In some sense, yes, “V’lakachti eschem li l’am,” without any chochmos, is an ideal.

Maharal (Tif Yisrael ch 42) explains that Eisav was meticulous in his observance of kibud av because there is no more rational mitzvah that kibud av. We owe our very existence to our parents and it therefore makes sense to give them their do. When it came to things that made sense to him, Eisav’s enthusiasm was unparalleled. However, when things didn’t make sense, he felt no obligation whatsoever.

Moshe demanded from Pharaoh, “Shelach ami” – let even the “am” go free to worship. Not only the philosophers and wise men, but everyman. But, “Me’ein Pharaoh l’shalach ha’am” – Pharaoh refused to set the am free. Pharoah was willing to listen to reason, but having six year olds running around the desert is not reasonable. What possible value could it serve; what possible reason could there be for such avodah? “V’lakachti eschem li l’am” – the freedom to do what doesn’t make sense is exactly what Am Yisrael aspired to.

Monday, January 03, 2011

free choice and the plague of frogs

The gemara (Pesachim 53) teaches that Chanayna, Misha’el, and Azarya deduced that they had an obligation to sacrifice their lives and be tossed into a burning oven at Nevuchadnezer’s hands from the fact that during the plague of frogs the frogs jumped even into the Egyptian ovens, forfeiting their lives.

There seems to be a clear difference between these two cases. G-d specifically commanded that the frogs enter even the ovens of Egypt. G-d never specifically commanded Chananya, Misha'el, and Azarya to be tossed into an oven. How could they draw an analogy from the frogs to their situation?

The Sha’agas Arye is quoted as answering that G-d commanded that the frogs enter the ovens, the bedrooms, the kitchens – every area of Egypt. The frogs as a group had to be everywhere. However, no one said that any individual frog had to enter an oven as opposed to a bedroom, or vica versa. The fact that a frog would choose to jump into an oven demonstrates the chiyuv of self-sacrifice which Chananya Misha’el and Azarya imitated. (See Rashi/Tosfos why they needed the frogs as a model when there is a chiyuv of kiddush Hashem is learned from pesukim.)

Maharil Diskin is troubled by this answer. If every frog had a choice whether it wanted to be the one to jump into an oven, it is entirely possible that all the frogs could choose to not jump into ovens. How then would the command that frogs be everywhere – including in the ovens – be fulfilled? The will of all frogs cannot be greater than the sum of their individual decisions. Maharil Diskin therefore gives a different answer to this question, as to many other meforshim.

The debate between the Sha’agas Arye and Maharil Diskin parallels a debate between the Rambam and Ra’avad. The Rishonim ask why the Egyptians deserved punishment for enslaving Bnei Yisrael when Hashem had already told Avraham in the bris bein ha’besarim that his descendents would be slaves. Rambam (Hil Tshuvah 6:5) answers that while the Egyptian nation as a whole was destined to enslaved Bnei Yisrael, each individual Egyptian had a choice whether he/she would be part of that victimization. Ra’avad disagrees and argues that if each individual Egyptian could potentially choose to not participate in the enslavement, how could it be guaranteed that the Egyptian nation as a whole would enslave Bnei Yisrael? The whole cannot be greater than the sum of those individual choices. Ra’avad therefore offers a different answer: the Egyptians went above and beyond in their persecution of Bnei Yisrael and were therefore culpable. (There is another answer as well – ayen sham.)

In a nutshell, it seems like the issue here boils down to whether we allow for some form of soft determinism in our conception of bechira. (What bothers me is how the Ra'avad's rejection of the Rambam here fits with what sounds like his own form of soft determinism at the end of ch 5 of Hil Teshuvah.)