Thursday, March 29, 2012

k'ilu hikravti olah

Chazal (Men. 110) derive from the extra words "Zos toras ha'olah..." that learning the parsha of korban olah is equivalent to actually offering the korban. (It seems from the gemara that the same is true for all korbanos. I am surprised that the Ksav Sofer makes a point here of explaining why the principle is applicable specifically to the olah -- since the olah is brought to be mechapeir on hirhurei aveirah, bad thoughts, not bad deeds, therefore, in this case specifically reading and thinking about the parsha can serve as a mechapeir in lieu of the actual korban.) This is why when we read the parshiyos of korbanos in the morning (or the mishnayos in aizehu mekoman) we recite a ye'hi ratzon asking Hashem to count that recitation as a substitute for the korban itself.

The Tur writes that the exception to the above rule is the korban chatas. There is no such thing a a voluntary korban chatas (a korban nedava) -- if you are not obligated to bring a chatas and offer one anyway, it's an issur of chulin b'azarah. You can't say, "Y'hi ratzon that this should count as a chatas," because you may not really be obligated to bring one (the Tur was generous in his opinion of us all).

The Beis Yosef questions the Tur's logic. Chazal tell us that the recitation of the parshiyos of korbanos count as if they were actually offered -- they don't say that the recitation of the ye'hi ratzon counts as if the korbanos were offered. If the Tur was really worried about the problem if chulin b'azarah, then he should recommend omitting the entire parsha of chatas, not just the ye'hi ratzon.

The Beis Yosef answers that reciting the parsha alone counts as a "kaprah b'miktzas" -- whatever that means. It sounds like the Beis Yosef wants to have his cake and eat it too -- he wants the parsha count for something, yet not count enough to pose a chulin b'azarah problem. The Bach has a different twist. He answers that just reading the parsha is a way of hedging one's bets. At the end of the day, the parsha of chatas is still a parsha in chumash. If one is not obligated to bring a chatas, then reading the parsha counts as no more than talmud Torah; if one is obligated to bring a chatas, then it counts as an actual offering of the korban. However, you can only hedge so long as you don't recite the ye'hi ratzon. Once you daven for Hashem to accept the recitation of the parsh as a substitute for the actual korban, all bets are off -- if you ask for the parsha to count as a korban, it counts as a korban.

Why does the Bach's answer make any better sense than the Tur? It seems like we are back to square 1 -- according to the Bach, it's the ye'hi ratzon that triggers the acceptance of the parsha as a korban, but the gemara clearly says that the parsha itself is the substitute!?

Rav Tzvi Pesach Franks (Har Tzvi O.C. 1) uses this question an an opportunity to discuss the concepts of hashgacha and tefilah. He sets down the following principle: Whatever a tzadik asks for, Hashem will deliver,  irrespective of whether Hashem knows the request is for the good or for the bad. For example: David haMelech davened that Hashem should test him. Hashem certainly knew that David would fail, but since David asked, he got what he wanted. "Retzon ye'rei'av ya'aseh v'es shavasam yisma v'yoshi'eim" -- it's not double-language in the pasuk, but two seperate points: "Retzon ye'rei'av ya'aseh," Hashem does the will of the Righteous, even though He knows it will not turn out the way they think it will; "V'es shavasam yishma v'yoshi'eim," and after the fact, when the tzadikim realize the hole they dug for themseves and daven for Hashem's help to get out of it, He listens and responds. Be careful what you ask for as you may just get it.

As you don't say the ye'hi ratzon, Hashem does what's best -- if you need a korban chatas as a kaparah, He counts the reading of the parsha as a korban; if not, He counts it as talmud torah.  However, once you ask Hashem to count the parsha as a korban, even if that works to your detriment, even if that results is chulin b'azarah, Hashem will grant your request and the damage is done.

I would add one final point. The Bach doesn't just say that tzadikim should avoid saying the ye'hi ratzon because Hashem will act on it -- he says everyone, you and me included, should avoid saying it. I don't think this is b'geder lo plug; I think we see from here that we have every right to assume that Hashem listens and responds to our tefilos. Puk chazei how people talk about tefilah -- it's not uncommon for people to ask why Hashem didn't listen to their prayers without giving a moment's thought to the audacity it takes to assume that the Master of the Universe should pay attention and respond to a sin-filled basar v'dam regardless of his/her past history!  The fact that such an assumption comes as second nature to us perhaps is not just because we like to delude ourselves as to our own importance, but rather it reflects an underlying truth about the nature of tefilah and hashgacha.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

why we still do haseiba

I am fairly confident that in most areas of the Western world the practice of reclining on a couch while eating, haseiba, has long since fallen by the wayside. It is culturally no longer a sign of freedom, luxury, social standing, derech cheirus, or anything else. The Ra'avya's conclusion that therefore we can dispense with the obligation of haseiba at first glance makes a lot of sense. Why don't most poskim agree?

I think the simple answer is that most poskim assume that once enacted, the takanah of haseiba does not simply cease to apply just because the cultural norms that may have given rise to the takanah have changed. It would require a formal repeal of Beis Din to change the law. However, Rav Wahrman in his sefer Oros HaPesach (link) is not satisfied with this answer. If I follow his argument, what he says is that while it makes sense to speak of continuing a behavior even if the reason for its performance is no longer applicable, it does not make sense to speak of a cultural symbol that has lost its symbolism -- that's a contradiction in terms.   Haseiba is by definition a symbol of freedom; when it's not, when it's just an empty act of leaning, it ceases to exist -- there is no longer a "metziyus" of such a symbol.

Rav Wahrman suggests a different approach, a classic "two dinim" sevara. He quotes Midrashim that find hints to haseiba in various pesukim in the story of yetzi'as Mitzrayim, e.g. "Vayaseiv Elokim es ha'am derech hamidbar Yam Suf..." These sources point to the fact that in addition to its being a symbol, haseiba is a re-enactment of Bnei Yisrael's behavior as they left Mitzrayim. The poskim who reject the Ra'avya may contend that even if its symbolic meaning is lost, haseiba must still be done as a kiyum of re-enactment.  

I don't know if I'm convinced. Let's start with this case: The gemara (Pes 108) says that reclining on the right side is not acceptable because it's dangerous -- food may go down the wrong tube -- and it's not the normal method of reclining. Rashbam explains that it's not normal because a righty would be very uncomfortable trying to eat with his right hand while leaning right. If so, asks the Maharal, what about a lefty -- why is a lefty required to lean on his left side, putting himself in a position of discomfiture, when a righty is exempt from leaning right for that same reason? Why is a lefty not completely patur (he can't lean right, because that would be dangerous; he can't lean left, as that's not derech cheirus for him)?

Without Rav Wahrman's chiddush I would say the answer to the Maharal's question is that Chazal made a takanah based on whatever the convention of the majority of the populace was. Leftys always have this problem of being ignored -- just ask one. School desks are made to accommodate a right handed writer; cars have controls positioned better for right-handed drivers, etc. Rav Wahrman however answers based on his two dinim model: Even if leaning right is not derech cheirus for a lefty, he must still lean to fulfill his obligation of re-enacting Bnei Yisrael's behavior when they left Egypt.

I'm not sure I get it. Why is the behavior of the right-handed people who left Egypt the model all future generations must imitate? Surely there were leftys who left Egypt -- which way did they lean? Why can't a lefty imitate his lefty forefathers? If the answer is that the takanah is modeled after the majority of the populace, I don't see what Rav Wahrman gains in his answer over mine.

There is an even bigger hole in Rav Wahrman's theory when it comes to explaining why women are exempt from haseiba. The Sheiltos (quoted in Rashbam) writes that since women normally do not eat while reclining, their haseiba would not be an expression of derech cheirus and they are therefore pturos. But if reclining is more than a cultural symbol, if it is also a re-enactment of Yetziyas Mitzrayim and therefore divorced from cultural norms, why are women exempt? Rav Wahrman asks this question and attempts to resolve it, but unfortunately I do not yet understand what he means.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

anticipating the future

As we've discussed before, Parshas haChodesh has actually very little to do with Rosh Chodesh. After the first two pesukim, the rest of the parsha deals with the laws of the korban Pesach, with the first seder ever conducted. Why did the Torah even need to introduce the laws of Rosh Chodesh here instead of at mattan Torah?

There is a basic difference between Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh. Shabbos is the culmination of the work week. Chazal tell us that only someone who prepares on erev Shabbos, who uses the time before Shabbos properly, will eat on Shabbos. If you see a nice roast in the market on Monday, you should put it aside for Shabbos in advance. You are even allowed to do work to prepare for Shabbos before davening on Friday because there is a mitzvah of kavod Shabbos to prepare for Shabbos. Not so Rosh Chodesh, which is celebrated in anticipation of the month ahead, not as a culmination of what already took place.

There is a minhag quoted in Shulchan Aruch for women not to do work on Rosh Chodesh.  According to the Da'as Zekeinim in last week's parsha women earned this reward because they gave their jewelry to the Mishkan, which was erected on Rosh Chodesh.  The mirrors which the women used in Mitzrayim to show their husbands their beauty and encourage them to have children and not give up hope were incorporated into the making of the kiyor.  This anticipation of the future geulah symbolized by those mirrors is the hallmark of Rosh Chodesh, the holiday of anticipation of what is yet to come.  R' Tzadok haKohen explains that the renewal of the moon on Rosh Chodesh symbolizes the renewal of malchus beis David.  Women already celebrate the day as a Yom Tov because to them the future geulah is real, their anticipation makes it seems as if geulah is already here, even if b'poel it has not happened yet. 

Bnei Yisrael were bereft of mitzvos and merits when the time came for their geulah.  Therefore, explains the Shem m'Shmuel, Hashem gave them the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh, which illustrates that it's not just what you have done in the past that counts in your favor, but it's what's coming in the future as well.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

hakri'ah v'hakedusha

The list of gedolim in the hospital grows longer each day. The Vizhnitzer is gone. Now R' Scheinberg is gone. What happened in France is just the latest indication of the return of European anti-semitism in its most vile form. Is there any good news to talk about?  Our community leaders should be screaming day and night for people to wake up, yet everyone continues somnambulating through the day as usual.  Ho hum.

In the "it boggles my mind" category we also have this story: A Jew is refusing to testify against a fellow Jew because he does not want to violate the issur of mesira, so the court is going to hold a hearing to decide whether to hold him in contempt and jail him for as long as 18 months. This is not the place to debate the parameters of mesira -- suffice it to say he certainly has a halachic leg to stand on; he asked a shayla to whomever he asked and got a psak not to testify. What's not to laud about sticking to your "steadfast beliefs" (as the newspaper described it)?  It sounds so noble.  It must take real mesirus nefesh to risk jail time, to go to court and say to the judge (as quoted in the story), "Because the transgression of mesira is so dire, my mind won’t change until I die.” One small problem: The same guy already served an earlier prison sentence for tax-evasion! Apparently this Yid's "steadfast beliefs" include mesira but not theft.  Maybe tax evasion does not rank up there in the "dire" transgression category.  I know what some of you are thinking -- there's honor among thieves after all, as the guy won't rat out his friend!  Is this the nobility that the Torah has in mind when it says that the nations will say, "Rak am chacham v'navom hhagoy hagadol hazeh"? The ba'alei mussar speak of the ohr and choshech that exist at the same time, mixed up in the same person, b'irbuvya. Exhibit A right here.

Somehow we have to get into a better frame of mind for Shabbos and to welcome chodesh Nisan. Why were the halachos of korban pesach given on rosh chodesh even though the korban was only taken on the tenth of the month? The Shem m'Shmuel writes that these 10 days parallel the aseres ymei teshuvah. One doesn't just walk into pesach -- it requires tremendous preparation, cleaning and scrubbing the neshoma as well as the home. Maybe all these tzaros are there to push us to really focus on what is significant during these ten important days.

The Midrash contrasts the first pasuk of our parsha, "Vayikra el Moshe," with "Vayikra eilav malach," by Avraham after the akeidah.  The former calling was done by Hashem himself; the latter by an angel.  What difference does it make who did the calling, the kri'ah?  In both cases the dibur that followed, the subsequent words and message, was spoken by Hashem. Does it matter if the invitation to a meeting with the King comes by messenger, by fedex, by e-mail, or by telegram? Shem m'Shmuel answers that kri'ah is not just an invitation -- it's the inspiration that readies a person to receive the king's message. One cannot compare the inspiration and preparation to receive the dvar Hashem that comes through a malach, as great a level as that may be, with the inspiration that comes from Hashem himself.

Why do we say "tzeischem l'shalom" to the malachim on Friday night? Because when Shabbos comes the kri'ah to us, the inspiration and readiness to receive the dvar Hashem that will follow, is higher even than what the malachim can help us reach. "Tzeischem l'shalom," thank you malachim for your help this past week, but now it's Shabbos, we can take it ourselves. Kal v'chomer Shabbos Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

Even though it's usually not my cup of tea (my math phobia doesn't mix with fancy gematriyos), this week I just feel we should learn some torah from Vizhnitz (a non-gematriya piece : ). We are IY"H going to say in hallel, "Ana Hashem ki ani avdecha, ani avdicha ben amasecha pitachta l'moseiray" -- Please Hashem, I am your servant, I am your servant the son of your maidservant, you released the bonds that held me. The repetition is obvious: First we say "Ani avdecha," and then we repeat again, "Ani avdicha ben amasecha." What is the meaning behind our repetition of these nearly-identical phrases?

The Imrei Baruch of Vizhnitz writes that when he stood before the amud to say hallel the first time after the passing of his father, he realized his own inadequacy to fill the void left by his father's passing. Here, in the spot his saintly father stood, before the amud at which his saintly father davened, he dared stand as a m'maleh makom to serve in his place -- how could he?!

He answers by quoting a mashal: One day a king was walking outside his castle and happened upon a poor nobody sitting there in the squalor. The king doesn't pay attention to such things and was about to pass by, but that nobody suddenly began to call out to him. "Do you know who I am?" asked the voice. "I'm Ploni, the son of your trusted advisor!" The King was shocked. It would be an embarrassment not only for the advisor, but for it would be a personal embarrassment for the king himself if the son of such a close confidant were left in such a state. The king ordered that Ploni be taken and cleaned up, fed, dressed, and given a place of honor in his court.

"Ana Hashem," we say, "Please Hashem forgive our absolute chutzpa in daring to utter the words 'Ki ani avdecha.'" Who are we kidding -- it doesn't really fit us, we don't really measure up. We are nothing compared with those who came before us.  But before you get angry at us, before you walk away, can we bother you for a minute and remind you of who we are? "Ani avdicha ben amasecha," we are the children of those who have earned a place of honor in your court and who do deserve to be listened to.

Not in our own merit, but in theirs, lift us up, untie our bonds.

Monday, March 19, 2012

parah - undoing the cheit of eitz hada'as

Ashes of the parah adumah are used to make someone who has come in contact with a dead body tahor.  Yet, these same ashes cause someone tahor who handles them to become tamei.  Even Shlomo haMelech could not understand the paradoxical nature of this mitzvah.  It is "chukas haTorah," a mystery.

Sefas Emes explains that death came into the world as a punishment for Adam's sin of eating of the eitz ha'adas, the tree of knowledge. The way to undo the taint of death that resulted from succumbing to the temptation for knowledge is to obey G-d even when his commands seem to defy reason and understanding.  The most unfathomable chok is therefore the greatest metaheir.

I would put the idea this way: When a person relies on the eitz ha'da'as alone, on reason to the exclusion of all else, something within that person dies.  Life can't be boiled down to equations alone, and to do so kills something of the human spirit.  If one is willing to surrender and accept that there is more out there than our little mind's can fathom, that taint vanishes -- a person can live larger than the confines of his/her physical self and is not chained to the decomposing piece of flesh we all eventually become.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

the testimony of the mishkan

"Eileh pekudei hamishkan, mishkan ha'eidus..." Rashi comments that the Mishkan is called "mishkan ha'eidus", the tent of testimony, because it was built to stand as a testimony to the fact that Hashem forgave Bnei Yisrael for the sin of the eigel.

The meforshei Rashi ask why the mishkan in particular was needed to testify to Hashem's forgiveness of Bnei Yisrael. Didn't the fact that Hashem gave the luchos a second time demonstrate his forgiveness? Maharal in Gur Arye offers two answers:

1) Torah is a necessity; it doesn't demonstrate the added love that comes with forgiveness. Let me give you an analogy: Can you imagine a parent boasting of the love he/she shows for his/her child by providing that child with food, with water, with a room to sleep in (I'm thinking of a Harry Potter-like crawlspace)? That's not love -- even prisoners in Alcatraz get that much! These are basic necessities for survival. In the same way, Torah is our chiyus, it's necessary for our survival as well. Mitzvos lav le'henos nitnu -- Maharal explains elsewhere that mitzvos are supposed to be a burden. I don't think he means that mitzvos are not supposed to be enjoyable, but rather what he means is that the motivation to do mitzvos should not be personal enjoyment. Mitzvos should be done out of a sense of necessity, because we can't live without them, just as we can't live without eating, drinking, breathing.

The giving of the luchos was necessary simply to ensure the survival of Klal Yisrael -- we cannot exist without Torah. The Mishkan demonstrated that added gift of Hashem's love.

2) Midrashim compare the sin of the eigel to an act of infidelity committed by a bride on the day of chupah/kiddushin. A sotah, a woman who has been unfaithful, is not permitted to live with her husband. To show that our sin was forgiven, Hashem had to show that he could again live with us again in the same home. The Mishkan is that shared home -- it is the dwelling place for the Shechina and ourselves.

Implicit in this answer is the assumption that Torah alone is not a testament to the presence of the Shechina. In other words, a person can be involved in Torah and still not be connected to the Shechina. The truth is that Chazal already tell us that there can be a disconnect between learning and being close to Hashem: Halevay osi azavu v'torasi shamaru... Hashem says that so long as we don't abandon Torah, even if we abandon him, we will find a way back -- clearly, one can have a connection to Torah without having a connection to Hashem. The former may lead eventually to the latter, but they are not one and the same.

It's not enough to connect to Torah alone; we need to build that dwelling place to share with the Shechina.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

two books worth reading

I want to recommend two books I read recently that are really worth your time. Both were available from my public library's system, so they are not too hard to get. The first is Listening to G-d: Inspirational Stories by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Presented as a series of stories that R' Riskin wants to relate to his grandchildren, the book touches on autobiographical highlights in Rav Riskin's life. We read of R' Riskin's childhood and his eventual decision to enter the rabbinate, his trials in turning Lincoln Square a thriving Orthodox synagogue, his efforts on behalf of Soviet Jewry, his teaching experience at YU, and finally his eventual aliya and experiences in Eretz Yisrael. Aside from Rav Riskin's personal story, what I found most moving was the stories he tells of others: the Chabad shliach risking all to teach Torah in a basement in the Soviet Union; the Soviet refugee who he helped escape to who then turns his back on Juda to marry a non-jew -- years later he meets the family and discovers that the wife has undergone giyur and they live as Vishnitzer chassidim; his childhood memory of the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe telling his ba'al koreh to not lower his voice while reading the tochacha, as there was nothing to be afraid of after experiencing the Holocaust; stories of the people and soldiers of Eretz Yisrael who are willing to sacrifice all for the sake of our homeland; his encounters with the Rav, with the Lubavitcher Rebbe -- I could go on and on. In short, it's the story of a remarkable man who has accomplished remarkable things.

The second is Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau. (The book is a translation of the Hebrew MiMa'amakim.) There are so many parts of this book that will literally move you to tears that I don't even know where to begin. The experiences of R' Lau during the Holocaust haunt his entire life, but I think it would be unfair to say that this is a book about the horrors of the shoah alone. It is a book about heroism -- how a child torn from his family and home and exposed to the most traumatic circumstances is not only able to survive, but is able to become a talmid chacham, build a family of his own, and provide inspiration to others in his role as a Rav and later Rav haRoshi of Eretz Yisrael.

One of my children is currently reading Eli Wiesel's Night as part of a unit her school is doing on the Holocaust. While Night is certainly a powerful book worth reading (and is even part of many a public school curriculum), I think she and her class would be better served reading Rav Lau's book. I have not read Night in many years, but from what I recall, I think it provides a more complete picture of the circumstances of concentration camp life than Rav Lau's book does. However, while I don't c'v mean to diminish the importance of preserving the memory of what happened in any way, I think students also need to ask themselves what the memory of the past does for them -- what does it mean for their future and for our future as a people? I also believe any discussion of the Holocaust is incomplete without a discussion of the rise of the State of Israel, the two greatest events in Jewish history on the past century if not the past 2000 years. Rav Lau's story does not end with the shoah; that is just the starting point to the life he builds.  The world of Polish Jewry that shaped his childhood memories is the inspiration that pulls him to building his future, to raising a family in Eretz Yisrael, to dedicating himself to rabbanus (before being taken to be killed, his father charged his brother with the job of preserving R' Lau's life so he could be the next link in the 37-generation long chain of rabbanim that have come from their family).  Rav Lau is a model of how to grow from tragedy, how the legacy of the past can shape how we relate to the present and inspire great accomplishments.

Parenthetically, there were three or four people (gedolim) in particular who Rav Lau singles out as great inspirational figures in his life (post WWII). I won't give away the names -- I'll let you take a guess at who they were. Hint: One name was also a great inspiration for Rav Riskin as well.  One I don't think anyone will get.

Let me leave you with one story from Rav Riskin's book (and again, there are so many anecdotes in both books that are gems; this is just one at random). When he was younger, Rav Riskin spent a summer in Eretz Yisrael and had the opportunity to be in Ponevich for Elul. He developed a connection with the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Kahaneman, which he maintained over the years. When Rav Kahaneman would visit America, Rav Riskin would often host the Rosh Yeshiva. Once, when Rab Kahaneman was already older and had to be hospitalized in NY, Rav Riskin came to visit and found him feeling depressed. Trying to elevate the Rosh Yeshiva's spirits, Rav Riskin started to talk about how much R' Kahaneman had been able to accomplish in his lifetime, his literal rebuilding an empire of Torah after making it through the war. He remarked that while most people barely accomplish 10% of their dreams, Rav Kahaneman surely had been able to accomplish much more.

"Not at all," said the Rosh Yeshiva.  "I just dream bigger dreams."

Monday, March 12, 2012

R' Raphael Sorotzkin on the cheit ha'eigel

Moshe Rabeinu was told on Har Sinai "Lech reid ki shiches amcha...," that he must go back down to earth (probably in a spiritual as well as a physical sense) because Klal Yisrael had made an eigel hazahav. So why is it that when Moshe descends, he drops the luchos from his hands, as if shocked by the scene he witnesses? What did he expect? After all, he had been given fair warning of what was going on.

My wife suggested that this illustrates the idea of "aino domeh she'miya l'reiya," that one cannot compare hearing about something to seeing the actual event. Even knowledge of an event revealed directly by Hashem cannot compare to actually seeing it.

Rav Raphael Sorotzkin in his HaBinah V'HaBracha offers two other answers, both of which carry important lessons:

1. Moshe Rabeinu interpreted "shiches amcha" to mean the people had rebelled against Hashem and Torah and mitzvos. Had that been the case, Moshe would have been non-plussed, as he was confident that he could convince Klal Yisrael to return. What he discovered, however, was that Bnei Yisrael did not think they were rejecting Torah -- to the contrary, they thought that through worship of the eigel they were actually being mekayeim the ratzon Hashem (see Ramban). The eigel "movement" was not a rejection of Torah, but a falsification of Torah. It required breaking the luchos to dramatically demonstrate that the path they were on was in fact a destruction of everything we believe.

2. Moshe Rabeinu interpreted "shiches amcha" to mean that the people had made a philosophical error; their sin was one of emunos v'deyos.  He was convinced that when he returned with the Torah, he could correct whatever misguided thinking had led them astray.  However, when Moshe came down, "Vayar es ha'eigel u'mecholos," he saw not only the eigel, but he saw the celebration taking place around the eigel, the gluttonous orgy that accompanied eigel worship. Moshe Rabeinu realized that it was not a misguided philosophy that was the root of the problem -- that was just a smokescreen -- but rather it was simply ta'avah, desire, that motivated them. You can't fight ta'avah with philosophical arguments.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Mordechai lo yichra v'lo yishtachaveh -- future tense

The Torah avoids spelling out specifics about events that will occur in the future because were the Torah to say what will occur, then those events will inevitably happen and there would no longer be an opportunity for bechira.  (R' Tzadok HaKohen explains that Avraham is credited for his affirmation of belief in the promise of children and yerushas ha'aretz he received in Parshas Lech Lecha, "Vayachshevaha lo tzedaka," because it required his trusting that nothing his children or grandchildren would do would interfere with that promise being fulfilled -- Klal Yisrael's destiny transcends bechira.)

This is why perhaps the most remarkable pasuk in the megillah is, " Mordechai lo yichra v'lo yishtachaveh." The pasuk is written in future tense -- Mordechai will not bow down.  It's a promise of what will happen, not just a report of what did happen.  No matter that every individual has free choice to decide whether or not to bow to Haman.  There will always be someone, that Mordechai hatzadik, who will remain standing and not give in.

Sefas Emes explains that the future tense is used because the megillah is speaking to all future generations. In every time and place there will always be a Mordechai who will not bow his head. The megillah does not at first tell us Mordechai's name.  Our hero is introduced with the generic appellation "ish yehudi," a Jewish man, a somebody -- "Ish yehudi haya b'Shushan habirah...."  That "ish yehudi" could be anyone. In those days he happened to be named Mordechai, but in another time and another place he could have some other identity, some other name -- but he will always be with us.

This is why Haman wanted to destroy the entire Jewish nation.  Haman realized that Mordechai is the yotzei min ha'klal that is melamed al ha'klal, the exception that proves the rule. Were he just to defeat this Mordechai, there would be just be another Mordechai, another ish yehudi, who would step up and take his place.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

why Esther did not reveal her identity right away

When Mordechai told Esther to go to Achashveirosh to plead on behalf of the Jewish people, she replied that she had not been called to the king for thirty day.  Anyone who appeared before the king without being called risked being killed (4:11). Mordechai responded by reiterating his demand that Esther go, as the Jewish people were in grave danger. Was Esther really more concerned for her personal safety than the plight of the nation? Of course not. The Vilna Gaon explains that Esther was telling Mordechai that precisely because she had not been called into an audience with the king in thirty days, therefore, the king was bound to call her in sometime very soon. She was not trying to avoid carrying out Mordechai's mission -- she was telling Mordechai that if he would only wait a short time she could carry out that mission with no danger to herself.

Why then did Mordechai demand that she act immediately? R' Chaim Kaneivsky in his Ta'ama d'Kra explains the Mordechai held that the fear and stress caused by the impending danger was itself a life threatening. Living in a precarious situation can cause a person to collapse. Therefore, Esther needed to act immediately.

I don't want to get bogged down in current events, but history does repeat itself. With respect to Iran's nuclear weapon threat, we hear voices saying to just wait some time before acting -- give economic sanctions (which have not worked until now) time to work, give diplomacy (which has accomplished nothing until now) a chance, etc. These voices fail to appreciate that living with danger is itself dangerous. Even if someone knows that the trigger won't be pulled until some point in the future, no person can stand by calmly and idly while a maniac waves a gun at his/her head without going crazy from nervous tension.

Returning to the megillah, the truth is that Esther did not act right away. Despite the fact that she now understood the immediacy of the danger, Esther still delayed for three days during which time Mordechai and Klal Yisrael fasted and davened with her. A very important yesod: Sakanah does not demand any action be taken in response -- it demands effective action that will eliminate or mitigate the danger. Action without tefilah, without first asking Hashem for help, is guaranteed to not be effective.

So I take back the first sentence of the previous paragraph. Esther did act immediately to reduce the danger, as the first and most important step in any crisis is to be mispallel.  That set the wheels of her success in motion, as it triggered the needed siyata d'shemaya.

And this too applies to current events as well...

Since I mentioned R' Chaim Kanievsky's Ta'ama d'Kra, I want to point out what seems to me to be a remarkable chiddush that he says. There are various reasons offered in the commentaries as to why Mordechai told Esther not to reveal that she was a member of Klal Yisrael. R' Chaim suggests as follows: Were Esther's nationality to be known, no one would dare act against her or her people and Haman's plot would never have gotten off the ground.  Now, you or I might think this is a great thing, but that's why you and I are not Mordechai.  Mordechai knew that Klal Yisrael deserved to be punished for their having partaken of Achashveirosh's party. If Haman's plot or some other plot never stood a chance, then the punishment for Klal Yisrael would come purely b'ydei shamayim, at the hands of Hashem through midas ha'din.  Mordechai figured that it is better to allow some plot to develop, better to allow Haman the chance to put Klal Yisrael in danger (and then to undo that danger), than to foil that effort and risk punishment b'ydei shamayim.  Haman's decree amounted to the lesser of two evils.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

mechila on mishloach manos -- Rav Asher Weiss' chiddush on why you are yotzei

The 5T-Far Rockaway community had the privilege of hosting R Asher Weiss on P' Terumah - Shekalim.  On Motzei Shabbos he spoke at Shor Yoshuv on the topic of mishloach manos and hilchos Purim. One chiddush to give you a taste:  The poskim point out two reasons given for the mitzvah of mishloach manos: 1) The Terumas haDeshen -- to provide food for seudas Purim; 2) The Manos haLevi -- to increase the feeling of brotherhood and camaraderie.   The Rama paskens that one is yotzei mishloach manos even if the recipient is mochel or does not accept the mishloach manos.  It is widely assumed (quoted in Chasam Sofer) that the Rama is a nafka minah between these two reasons.  If the purpose of mishloach manos is to provide food for the seudah, then (lichorah) one has not accomplished anything if the recipient is mochel and not accepted the food.  If the reason is to simply engender a sense of brotherhood, then the Rama makes sense -- it's the thought that counts more than the gift.

Rav Weiss thought it unlikely that the Rama really meant to pasken like the Manos haLevi against the Terumas haDeshen. Firstly, the Terumas haDeshen is one of the Rama's most frequently quoted sources for minhag Ashkenaz. Why would the Rama here suddenly abandon the Terumas haDeshen in favor of a Sefardic acharon (the Manos haLevi = R' Shlomo Alkebetz) who wrote his comment in the context of peirush hamikra and not halachic analysis?  (R' Weiss even suggested that the Manos haLevi himself may himself have never meant his chiddush l'halacha.) Secondly, the Terumas haDeshen is well grounded in Rishonim. As we noted before, the Rambam places the din of mishloach manos in the context of his discussion of seudas Purim (Hil Megilah 2:16 -- keitzad chovas seudah zu....). Also, when it comes to the dinim of Purim meshulash, the Rishonim all write that mishloach manos is done on the same day that seudas Purim is eaten.  There seems to be a strong link between mishloach manos and the seudah.

Therefore, R' Weiss suggested that even the Terumas haDeshen would agree with the din of the Rama. What the Rama meant is simply that Chazal could only make one responsible for sending gifts -- acceptance of delivery is out of a person's hand. You can't make a takanah for a person to do what is out of their hands to accomplish.

The Ksav Sofer discusses whether one is yotzei sending mishloach manos anonymously and suggests the issue hinges on the debate between the Manos haLevi and Terumas haDeshen. If the point of mishloach manos is to ensure someone has food, then the identity of the sender is irrelevant; if the point is to foster camaraderie, then knowing who sent the mishloach manos is critical -- how can you feel friendship with "anonymous" (a lesson for some of you who comment here ; )

Rav Weiss argued that even if one accept the approach of the Manos haLevi, the goal of enhancing comraderie is achieved even with an anonymous mishloach manos. The recipient can feel a closer bond of friendship with everyone, as anyone might be the sender. But in truth, there is no machlokes. The Terumas haDeshen's reason is m'ikar hadin the driving force behind the takanah of mishloach manos. The Manos haLevi is an added consideration, but not a reason to pasel any gift.

(I have omitted many aspects of the shiur, so any errors can be attributed to me, not Rav Weiss.)

Monday, March 05, 2012

the indestructible zayis

Parshas Terumah is the story of the Mishkan as a building; Parshas TiTzaveh is the story of those who work in the Mishkan. The majority of the parsha describes the clothing of the kohanim and the appointment of the Levi'im , but it opens with the command to Moshe to personally involve himself in collecting pure olive oil for the lighting of the menorah. The Torah does not discuss any other aspect of avodah in the Mishkan here. Why should the olive oil for lighting the menorah be singled out for attention at this point?

The Midrash caught my eye:

ואתה תצוה הה"ד (ירמיה יא) זית רענן יפה פרי תואר קרא ה' שמך וכי לא נקראו ישראל אלא כזית הזה בלבד והלא בכל מיני אילנות נאים ומשובחים נקראו ישראל בגפן ותאנה שנאמר (תהלים פ) גפן ממצרים תסיע תאנה שנאמר (הושע ט) כבכורה בתאנה בראשיתה כתמר שנא' (שיר ז) זאת קומתך דמתה לתמר כארז שנא' (תהלים צב) כארז בלבנון ישגה כאגוז שנאמר (שיר ז) אל גנת אגוז ירדתי וקראן בכל מיני שלחים שנאמר (שם ד) שלחיך פרדס רמונים ובא ירמיה לומר זית רענן יפה פרי תואר אלא מה הזית הזה עד שהוא באילנו מגרגרין אותו ואח"כ מורידין אותו מן הזית ונחבט ומשחובטין אותו מעלין אותו לגת ונותנין אותן במטחן ואח"כ טוחנין אותן ואח"כ מקיפין אותן בחבלים ומביאין אבנים ואח"כ נותנין את שומנן כך ישראל באין עובדי כוכבים וחובטין אותם ממקום למקום וחובשים אותן וכופתין אותם בקולרין ומקיפין אותן טרטיוטין ואח"כ עושין תשובה והקב"ה עונה להם מנין שנא' (שמות ב) ויאנחו בני ישראל וכן (דברים ד) בצר לך ומצאוך כי אל רחום ה' אלהיך הוי זית רענן יפה פרי תואר.

At first glance the Midrash is simply using the mention of zayis, olives, in the parsha as an opportunity to expand on Yirmiyahu's comparison of Bnei Yisrael to the olive tree. This approach begs the question of why discuss this here -- why not any other place in the Torah that mentions zayis?

Therefore, I think Chazal had something else in mind. In the chapter of Yirmiyahu this pasuk is found in, the Navi berates Yisrael for their abandonment of their bris with Hashem. As a result, Hashem promises to visit severe punishment upon them. The pshat in the pasuk of "Zayis ra'anan yfei pri to'ar..." is that Bnei Yisrael used to be like a beautiful zayis tree, but those days are no more -- "Heitzis eish aleha...," Hashem promises to burn down the  branches of that tree.

The derash paints a different picture. Bnei Yisrael are not the zayis ra'anan, the beautiful olive tree, only in the past tense, but the Navi is saying that even in the present tense, even in the midst of their punishment, even in the midst of Hashem burning down the tree, Bnei Yisrael remain that zayis ra'anan yfei pri to'ar. The forces that would destroy any other fruit bring out the best in the olive, the oil that can give light.

"V'Yikchu eilecha shemen zayis zach..." Moshe Rabeinu's personal attention was not necessary for the physical production of olive oil. Moshe Rabeinu needed to give his attention to the people who may have been like that crushed zayis. Those olives, those neshomos, had to be brought to Moshe to be reminded that za'ayis ra'anan yfei pri to'ar is an eternal promise (see Sefas Emes).

The Kohanim and Levi'im are the leaders of Klal Yisrael. The parsha of the zayis is the introduction to their appointment, the mission statement that defines their task in relating to Bnei Yisrael.