Tuesday, March 29, 2011

did we need to leave Egypt just to be told not to eat bugs?

Time to start thinking about Pesach, and what better place to start than Parshas Shmini. At the very end of the parsha the Torah juxtaposes the prohibition of eating sheratzim with the reason, "Ki ani Hashem hama'aleh eschem mei'Eretz Mitzrayim..." (11:45) Rashi explains that the Torah uses the term "ma'aseh" here instead of the usual "hotzi" to indicate that leaving Egypt elevated us. Chazal teach that had the only gain from the exodus from Egypt been our acceptance of this command to not eat bugs, that itself would be an elevation, a privilidge and mark of distinction for the Jewish people.

R' Simcha Zisel of Kelm (in case you are keeping score, that's a Slabodka, Navardok, and now a Kelm vort all in one week) asks: If Hashem wanted to elevate the Jewish people by commanding them to not eat bugs, why could he not give that command while they remained in Egypt? Why did it necessitate yetziyas Mitzrayim -- how are these two ideas related?

Without understanding R' Simcha Zisel's answer we don't even get to square one of understanding what Pesach is all about. Hashem could give Torah and mitzvos at any time, in any place, to any people. The reason Torah was given when it was, to whom it was, is not because that's when Hashem had a free day on his calendar, but rather because that's when we as a people were ready to receive it. That readiness was a direct product of yetziyas Mitzrayim. Leaving Egypt was not just a physical escape from bondage, but was a transformation of our souls.

Even a mitzvah so basic as not eating bugs could not be given while we remained in Egypt. It required that our neshomos first experience the exodus from Egypt and that spiritual transformation from avdus to cheirus.

Monday, March 28, 2011

the sound of silence

Havolim says all that needs to be said in terms of the lesson for us to take away from, "Vayidom Aharom," Aharon's silence in response to the death of his children.

A bit of Navardok mussar: Aharon is praised for his silence, but what could he have said? Surely Aharon was no less righteous than the many tzadikim through the ages who faced trials and loss without even thinking of questioning Hashem. Why is Aharon's silence special?

The answer is that there is something Aharon could have said: "Kol d'avid Rachmana l'tav avid" -- the qunitisenntial declaration that all that Hashem does is for the good, whether we understand it or not. Chazal tell us that just as one must say a blessing on the good things in life, one must also say a blessing on the not so good. This is our expression of trust that ultimately, whatever Hashem brings upon us, is for the best.

But why then was Aharon silent?

When we say our "Gam zu l'tovah," it is a response to the perception that something bad has happened. We don't want to question G-d, we don't want to blame G-d, so we say to ourselves that in reality it's all for the best. Our words are an attempt to bridge that gap between our perception of pain and the reality of G-d's goodness. Yet, as sincerly as we may utter those words, there is yet a higher madreiga. That higher madreiga is to not even perceive that which others call "bad" as being bad at all -- to be so filled with the knowledge that G-d alone controls the world and everything He does is for good as to be completely incapable of seeing pain, suffering, the absence of good. When there is no gap between the reality of Hashem's goodness and our perception, there is no need to utter a "gam zu l'tovah" as a reminder of G-d's benevolance.

This is the silence of Aharon haKohen.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

yahrzeit of R' Elimelech of Lizensk

Today is the yahrzeit of R' Elimelech of Lizensk. I usually don't write about stuff like this, but once in awhile it doesn't hurt to make an exception, esp. since I've already offered my 2 cents on the fact that you can now fly first class and enjoy glatt kosher gourmet catering and the finest in luxurious comfort should you choose to personally visit R' Elimelech's kever (see previous post). If you can't make it, you can always do the next best thing and leave a comment on R' Elimelech's facebook page. I am sure R' Elimelech would be thrilled. Must popularization always entail cheapening that which is special? I could ask that same question about so many other phenomena in our modern Jewish world. Zechuso yagein aleinu, because we really need it.

"Vayisa Aharon es yadav el ha'am va'yevarcheim, vayeired mei'asos hachatas v'haolah v'hashelamim." Aharon celebrated the inauguration of the Mishkan by giving a blessing to the people after he went down from offering the chatas, olah, and shelamim. Why does the Torah need to tell us that Aharon's blessing was given after he went down, ostensibly from the altar, after his offerings? Because, explains the Noam Elimelech, the Torah is telling us a message about the avodah of the tzadik, not just a historical recounting of what Aharon did. The tzadikim are up there, close to Hashem, offering their korbanos, doing their avodah, in some supernal world that is far apart from the everyday world most of us live in an encounter. But the tzadik doesn't remain in that ivory tower. "Vayeired..." -- he comes down to bless us. The only thing perhaps more valuable to the tzadik than his love of G-d is his love of the Jewish people. And so, the tzadik takes a step back into our world and brings to us a blessing, a taste of heights we might not reach on our own; he pulls us into his world, even for a moment, in the hopes that the glimpse he can provide will inspire us to climb higher ourselves.

There are neshomos that seem to not belong in our world. Nonetheless, "Vayeired...," they are sent down to bless us with their presence, to uplift our spirits, to bring us a taste of higher ideals to aspire to.

In Parshas Tazria the Torah tells of the person afflicted with leporasy who must visit the kohen. "V'ra'ah hakohen v'hinei mareihu shafal min ha'or." R' Elimelech explains that the Torah is not not speaking here of how the skin blesmish looks to the kohen, but rather how the kohen looks to his visitor. There are people who see the kohen, who see a tzadik, "v'hinei shafal," and all they see are the defects, the blemishes, the chisronos.

יש בני אדם הבאים אל הצדיקים הגדולים וקשה להם על הצדיק קושיות ... ואעפ״כ ״הפך לבן״ ר״ל אחר כל מחשבותיו וקושיותיו על הצדיק גמור, יגרום לו קדושתו של הצדיק ההוא שיהפוך גם הוא ללבן

R' Elimelech speaks of coming to the tzadik filled with questions, with doubts -- what can this guy really do for me? Skepticism, doubt -- the hallmarks of modern scientific rational thought -- fight against the whole notion of an oracular soothsayer who can somehow cure our spiritual ills (not to suggest that is what the tzadik is, but that is sadly how many see him.) Yet, "Af al pi kein..." I can't explain how and R' Elimelech here doesn't explain how, but simply being in the presence of the tzadik, despite the questions, despite the doubts, despite the misgivings, has a profound spiritual influence. The tzadik doesn't care if we love him or not. He doesn't need our trust, our confidence, our pedestal. The gift of bracha will reach us no matter what our feelings our attitude is in return.

Skepticism can undermine the most precious religious truths. If only we knew how to answer all those wandering close to the edges of the derech in danger of falling off! Maybe what R' Elimelech is saying is that we really don't need answers -- we just need to be there. The presence of the tzadik, and there is a spark of tzidkus in each of us, which is not only receptive, but is willing to even bless the harshest critics and doubters, is a magnetic force that can prevent others from drifting away.

It seems that the only ingredient necessary to receive the kedusha of the tzadik is, "V'ra'ah hakohen..." R' Elimelech speaks of those "ba'im el hatzadikim," those who come to the tzadik. Come with your skepticism, come with your doubt, come with your mind half closed already -- but you have to show up. The Besh"T taught that a person is where his/her machshava is. A kid in school might really be in Yankee stadium if that's where his mind is. A person sitting at home is considered to be residing 2000 amos away where his eiruv techumin is because that is where his mind is. You don't need a first class ticket to Lizensk to be with R' Elimelech -- you just need a functioning mind (the first class ticket may be easier to come by.) You might consider spending a few minutes with a copy of the Noam Elimelech today, even if you don't like chassidishe Torah, even if you believe a Rebbe's yahrzeit is just like any other day, even if you doubt R' Elimelech was anything special. Who knows what the result might be?

ואעפ״כ ״הפך לבן״ ר״ל אחר כל מחשבותיו וקושיותיו על הצדיק גמור, יגרום לו קדושתו של הצדיק ההוא שיהפוך גם הוא ללבן

Saturday, March 26, 2011

unintended consequences

The Yalkut (524 towards the end) quotes a view that Nadav and Avihu were punished because they did not marry. Rav Levi said: Many girls remained agunos because they sat waiting to marry them! And what did Nadav and Avihu say [i.e. what was their excuse]? They said, "Our father's brother is king; our mother's brother is a prince; our father is kohen gadol; we are assistant high priests -- what girl is good enough for us?!"

There is an obvious musar haskel here for those in the shidduch world, but you don't need me to spell that out.

A less obvious lesson: R' Henoch Leibowitz z"l in his Ch. Lev asks: why were Nadav and Avihu punished because these girls chose to remain agunos, hoping they would marry them? Let them go marry someone else!

R' Henoch says an unbelievable answer. Even though Nadav and Avihu surely did not intend for these girls to remain unmarried, and even though the girls had a hand in deciding their own fate, since their plight was a result of Nadav and Avihu's actions, Nadav and Avihu share in the burden of culpability.

I was taken aback by this. You mean if someone else makes a bad decision, so long as I had a hand in putting them in the situation that caused that decision to be made -- I was lifnei iveir and enabled them to exercise their own stupidity -- I am culpable? Apparently there is a price to be paid even for the most unintended of consequences. Pretty harsh din v'cheshbon even for a musarist to suggest. I've been trying to think of a way to read this that would temper the message a bit, but haven't come up with a good approach yet.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

mitzvah bo yoseir mi'bshlucho

Last post I raised the possibility of a new chumra of having to lein zachor yourself because mitzvah bo yoseir mi'bshlucho. I want to throw a lomdish twist out there as a way to avoid this conclusion even granting my assumptions. Step 1: Seems that mitzvah bo yoseir mi'bshlucho applies only where a mitzvah is a chovas hagavra. If the mitzvah is simply for some effect to be produced (chovas hacheftza), what difference does it make who does the mitzvah? Step 2: Maybe the chiyuv of zachor is not a chovas hagavra to read the parsha, but a chovas hacheftza on the parsha to be read. (So why can't a katan lein? Because a katan's keri'ah is not a ma'aseh mitzvah.) If I'm not on thin enough ice already, let me take it to step 3: the reason the first Mishna in Megillah uses the term "megilah nikreis" instead of the more direct "korin es hamegilah" (as is asked by the Ritva, Turei Even, others) is because kri'as hamegilah is a kiyum in zechiras amalek and is therefore also a chovas hacheftza ro be read, not a chiyuv on the gavra of "korin..."

But enough already, because we are up to Parshas Parah. "Zos chukas haTorah asher tzivah Hashem leimor. Dabeir el Bnei Yisrael..." Why the double language of "leimor" followed again by "dabeir?" Chasam Sofer writes that this is a hint that the dibur itself, the very reading of the parsha, is what Hashem commanded Moshe to tell the people to do. From here we have an allusion to the fact that (according to some views) the kri'ah is a din d'oraysa.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

parshas zachor - mitzvah bo yoseir mibshlucho?

I was asked to lein P' Zachor this past Shabbos, but did not have to do the rest of the leining. By coincidence, it was taken care of by my son's chavrusa. Afterward, I asked him why he didn't ask to do zachor as well. B'pashtus, one fulfills the mitzvah of reading zachor through shome'a k'oneh. According to at least some Achronim, the din of shome'a k'oneh is based on the principle of shlichus. My son's yeshiva is learning kiddushin, so the boys know very well the whole sugya of mitzvah bo yoseir m'bshlucho. QED that there should be a hidur in reading the parsha oneself rather than rely on the shome'a k'oneh shlichus of someone else. Agree or disagree? (I left him and my son to debate the point.)

no middle ground

The Netziv has an interesting thought at the end of this week’s parsha:

“Ki ani Hashem Elokeichem v’hiskadashtem v’heyisem kedoshim

V’lo titamu es nafshoseichem b’kol hasheretz… (11:44)

Ki ani Hashem ha’ma’alesh eschem meiEretz Mitzrayim… v’heyisem kedoshim…” (11:45)

I purposely broke 11:44 into two lines so the two halves of the pasuk stand out from each other. The second half of that pasuk is a new lav (machlokes Rashi and the Rambam exactly what the lav teaches, but that’s another story). The first half, however, seems to fit better with the following pasuk, 11:45 which address itself to the theme of holiness as an explanation for the restrictions on various prohibited foods. Why sandwich this new sheretz lav in between these two exhortations to kedusha?

The reason we have so many dietary restrictions is because we are blessed with a neshoma that we must protect by avoiding the poisons of this world. If we fail in that mission, we don’t just become like everybody else – we sink even lower than everyone else. The neshoma’s power doesn’t go unused, but is dragged down and becomes harnessed negatively.

What the Torah is telling us is that if we fail to become kedoshim, we don’t just end up eating Big Macs and wearing blue jeans like Joe Goy, but instead we end up eating even sheratzim, insects and other repulsive things that no civilized person would partake of. The power of the neshoma serves to pull us down further and faster than anyone else would fall.

The Maharal makes the same point in a number of places. The gemara (Kesubos 66) tells us that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai came across the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion picking through animal dung looking for food after the churban. Recalling that he was at her wedding and signed off on her kesubah worth a fortune, he exclaimed, “Ashrecha Yisrael! – When the Jewish people do G-d’s will, there is no one who can surpass them, but when they fall, they fall to the lowest depths of animal dung.” It’s understandable why R’ Yochanan ben Zakai would say, “Ashrecha Yisrael!” on the ability of Klal Yisrael to rise to the greatest heights, but the, “Ashrecha Yisrael!” seems to refer also their being in the lowest depths as well. How does that make sense?

Maharal explains that the fact that when we fall, we fall good and hard to the lowest depths, proves that our fall is not just some turn of history, just another accident of fate – the overwhelming force of our destruction can only be attributed to hashgacha. The same guiding force that drags us down when reversed can carry us back to the greatest heights.

The neshoma knows no passive middle ground -- it either unleashes a powerful thrust of positive energy, or leaves a gaping chasm that inevitably becomes filled with negative poison.

You really don't need a Netziv or Maharal for this point -- you really just need two eyes. Klal Yisrael is blessed with people who can rise to the greatest heights of ruchniyus. But people who don't follow that path don't become middle class accountants with 1.2 kids and a white picket fence house. No, they become the leaders in every -ism movement on the planet. Every sheretz and sheketz ideology has among its leaders a Goldberg, a Schwartz, a Cohen. I guess we should say, "Ashreichem Yisrael," because it proves that there must be something perculating there beneath the surface.

binpol oyvecha al tismach

The gemara relates that when Mordechai told Haman he was too frail from fasting to climb up on the horse Achashveirosh had sent to parade him on through the city, Haman had to bend down for Mordechai to use his back as a stepstool. Mordechai took advantage of the opportunity and gave Haman a good kick. Haman asked, “What happened to ‘Binpol oyvecha al tsimach?’” To which Mordechai responded that the rule only applies to fellow Jews, not to him.

Maharal gives a beautiful explanation of what that should be so. Simcha comes from shleimus, completeness. When an external enemy suffers, it is to our benefit -- we become more complete, so we are happy. (Hashem says is name and throne are incomplete in this world because of our enemy Amalek; there is a lack of simcha. When the ultimate geulah comes and Amalek is eradicated, "Az yemalei sechok pinu.") When one of Bnei Yisrael suffers, even someone we may not get along with, it’s not really to our benefit. We are all part of the same tzibur -- the pain and suffering of any member of the tzibur is our pain and suffering as well.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Shaul's declaration: Hakimosi es dvar Hashem!

1. Shaul haMelech’s declaration to Shmuel haNavi, “Hakimosi es dvar Hashem!” sounds at first blush like either the height of chutzpah or the height of naivte. Shaul was commanded by Shmuel to kill every member of Amalek and to destroy their flocks and herds of animals. How could he possibly say that he fulfilled the dvar Hashem when Agag remained alive and all the animals were taken as booty?

The Alshich answers that the key words here are “Dvar Hashem” – not “divrei Navi.” Shaul knew that he did not do exactly what Shmuel had told him, but what Shmuel had told him to do was, in Shaul’s mind, not the dvar Hashem. Killing off the animals was an addition to the mitzvah, l'migdar milsa, but not the essence of the mitzvah of mechiyas Amalek.

So why did Shmuel think finishing the job, right down to killing the animals, was essential, but Shaul did not? And what of the mitzvah of listening to a Navi? Here the picture spills mostly outside the boundaries of what we know from the text and into the realm of more speculative thinking. I'll leave that to you (Ksav Sofer, Shem m'Shmuel, Sefas Emes all discuss; feel free to point me to other mareh mekomos).

2. On a completely different note, there are a number of Rabbonim who have written pieces on how we can enjoy a Purim after the horrific terrorist attack which occurred earlier this week -- read them; no point in me repeating the same points. Amalek is still with us, make no mistake about it. The Midrash writes that the "necheshalim" who Amalek attacked were the stragglers from sheivet Dan who were shlepping along outside the ananei hakavod, the clouds which were the visible evidence of Hashem's hashgacha. Amalek, explains R' Tzadok, preys on that feeling of being stuck outside Hashem's protection, unwanted, rejected, without hope. "Lo tishkach" -- the Koznitzer Magid writes that the word "tishkach" has the same letters as "tash koach," loss of strength. As difficult as times are, we need to respond with greater strength, greater bitachon, greater trust. Not an easy task.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

the nes of Purim

I really don’t think the biggest miracle of Purim was being saved from Haman. I think the biggest miracle came before that. Imagine if we faced the same threat as the Jews of Achashveirosh’s kingdom. What would the reaction be?

First you would have those in denial: don’t take it so seriously, it’s only words, nothing will come of it.

Then you would have the Michael Lerner/George Soros types who would say it’s our own fault. For those living in the various parts of the kingdom, why are you not more assimilated? Mordechai, why not just leave Haman alone (good question -- see Maharal)? For those living in Eretz Yisrael, who do you insist on building a Mikdash, or practicing apartheid-like tactics against the natives?

The latter point would be echoed by voices from the opposite end of the spectrum: all the problems are the fault of the “Tziyonim” who already started building a Mikdash before getting official word that the 70 years of galus are over.

Then you would have the reaction to Esther’s call for a fast – on Pesach no less! You would have those who would inevitably raise accusations of her fomenting some kind of feminist uprising vs. those who would allow debate as to whether she should be called “Malakanit,” “Malkah,” some other title to eclipse the significance of the message.

I could go one, but you get the point. Am I too cynical? Maybe. But I really think the nes of Purim was the acceptance that there was an inescapable existential danger to the tzibur, that tshuvah and ta’anis were essential and necessary responses, and that there was no other recourse. For all the grumblings the gemara tells us about as to whether Mordechai had a role in antagonizing Haman or not, bottom line is when the chips were down and action was needed, the tzibur put their trust in Mordechai and Esther's advice and responded. “Zman kehila la’kol hi.”

matanayos la'evyonim (II): the Rogatchover's reading of the Yerushalmi

The Yerushalmi (Meg 3:1, 24a in the Vilna ed.) tells of R’ Chiya, who was given funds to distribute to orphans and widows, but distributed them to talmidei chachamim – the Yerushalmi questions whether those monies must now be replaced.

ר' חייה בר בא אזל לחמץ ויהבון ליה פריטין למפלגא ליתמייא ולארמלאתא נפק ופלגון לרבנן מהו שיהא צריך להפריש תחתיהן

The classical meforshim (Pnei Moshe, Korban ha’Eidah) learn that the safeik of the Yerushalmi is whether R’ Chiya as gabei tzedaka has to make good on the funds that should have gone to those orphans and widows, or whether he fulfilled his responsibility as gabai irrespective of who he distributed the funds to.

However, the Rogatchover (T.P. Hil Meg, quoted in R’ Kasher’s Klalei Torah u’Mitzvah for lazy people like me) has a completely different understanding of the Yerushalmi. He explains that the money R’ Chiya collected was matanos la’evyonim for Purim and the safeik of the Yerushalmi is not whether R’ Chiya did his job, but whether the people who gave the money fulfilled their mitzvah or not – do they have to make up those funds and contribute extra for matanos la’evyonim or not? Do we say that so long as the money was used for any charitable cause, even for supporting talmidei chachamim, they are yotzei, or do we say that since the money was not used as intended for the seudas Purim of widows and orphans, they are not yotzei?

Sounds to me like the safeik of the Yerushalmi, according to the Rogatchover, revolves around exactly the same issue we raised in discussing R’ Yosef Engel’s chiddush yesterday. If matanaos la’evyonim is just another form of tzedaka, then who cares who gets the money? But if it is a unique mitzvas ha’yom, not a din tzedaka, there is room to say that it’s method of being given should follow the technical laws of matanah, as R’ Yosef Engel suggests, and that the money must specifically be used for the seudah.

One might go a step further: the Rambam (Meg 2:16) tells us, “Keitzad chovas seudah zu…” and spells out that one must eat meat and drink wine. He then continues in the next halacha, “V’kein chayav lishloach shnei manos…,” and in the following halacha, “V’chayav l’chaleik l’ani’yim… From the word “V’kein,” from the “vav” of “v’chayav,” one could make the case that these three halachos are a one long explanation of that opening, “Keitzad chovas seudah… In other words, the chiyuvim of mishloach manos and matanos la’evyonim are part and parcel of the mitzvas ha’yom of seudah -- not only must you eat, but you must provide others with food as well. Therefore, only if matanos la’evyonim are distributed for use on Purim for the seudah would one be yotzei properly, not if they are given for another purpose.

(I am a little hesitant to write this because I can’t remember if I saw it in the Chasam Sofer or Ksav Sofer and have not had a chance to double-check my memory, but I recall seeing chiddush that you would not be yotzei at all by giving mishloach manos to someone not making a seudah, which follows from this same line of reasoning. Also, no matter how expensive your themed mishloach manos are, if they consist of toys, styrofoam decorations, and all kinds of wonderful things that no normal human being could consume as food, it does not help the seudah.)