Wednesday, April 25, 2012

sefirah tidbits

1) The Rokeach has the following remez for sefiras ha'omer:

"Im tivakshena ka'kesef u'kmatmonim tachapesna..." (Mishlei 2:4) The word "matmonim" can be read as an acronym: M"T (=49) monim -- counting 49. If we have kisufim, real desire for Torah, and eagerly count down the 49 days of sefirah until the chag of mattan Torah, "Az tavin yiras Hashem..."

2) A bekiyus tidbit: The last Mishna in the second perek of Ediyos has a machlokes how long the wicked spend in purgatory. Tana Kama holds they are judged in geheinom for 12 months, while R' Yochanan ben Nuri says they are judged from Pesach to Atzeres (Shavuos).

Bartenura explains that R' Yochanan ben Nuri means that the maximum length of time spent in geheinom is 50 days, the same amount of time as the number of days between Pesach and Shavuos. The Tiferes Yisrael, however, suggests that perhaps R' Yochanan ben Nuri meant davka the 50 days between Pesach and Shavuos, i.e. every year during this time period there is a new judgment passed on those resha'im who were sent to geheinom. Therefore, he writes, the minhag of Klal Yisrael is to treat these days as days of aveilus.

3) The Rishonim explains that the mitzvah of "U'sefartem lachem..." means each individual is personally responsible to count sefirah, unlike the count of years of shemita or yoveil which are done by Beis Din on behalf of all Klal Yisrael. Achronim add that this means that one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of sefirah through shome'a k'oneh, by listening to someone else count and having in mind to be yotzei.

Why is it that the mitzvah of sefirah has this unique din, different than other counting mitzvah? Ramban explains that the count of sefirah is a preparation for mattan Torah. Each day that we check off as a day closer to mattan Torah is a day that we should be using to further ready ourselves for mattan Torah. The Sochatchover (Ne'os Desheh) explains that every single person has his/her own portion in Torah that he/she must get ready to receive. We each have a mission of our own and a Torah that goes with it. I can't be yotzei by listening to my friend learn his portion of Torah -- I have to do my own learning, I have to find my own cheilek, I have to do my own personal sefirah preparation to receive it.

This is why the students of Rabbi Akiva were punished specifically during this time period. The gemara tells is that the reason for their death is because R' Akiva's students did not show proper respect for each other. Each one viewed his chaveir as just another talmid, one of many who listened to the same shiur, took the same notes, had the same rebbe. They did not appreciate that each one of them had their own unique slant, had their own perspective on their rebbe's Torah, had their own cheilek in learning that was valuable and irreplaceable.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

where's the beef?

I heard the following story on Shabbos, one of my daughters told me that she heard the same story from a teacher at school with some minor variations, and I found it via google as well (link). Here's the short version more or less as I heard it:

A man flying somewhere by plane gets up to wash after his kosher sandwich is brought to him by the steward. As he makes his way back to his seat, it dawns on him that his fleishig sandwich is now basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin (the halacha is that meat left unattended around non-Jews may not be eaten). Despite his hunger, the man does not eat the meal. Seeing that he has made no move to eat the sandwich, his non-Jewish neighbor in the next seat inquires as to whether he is going to eat his food. The man offers some explanation about not really being hungry and tells the neighbor that he can have it. The neighbor then confesses that he has never many Jews and was curious as to what the kosher meal tasted like, so he switched the sandwich with his own.

Aren't Chazal brilliant, coming up with this law of basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin? Even when you think there is no danger, the halacha is smarter than you are, isn't it?

I really, really dislike stories like this.

Had it been my sandwich, I would have taken a big bite out of it. Firstly, the halacha is (Y.D. 118) that if a Jew comes and goes, if he pops in and out of where the food is -- he is yotzei v'nichnas -- so long as the non-Jew does not know exactly when he will come back (e.g. so long as he doesn't say something like, "I'll be back in an hour"), the meat is not basar she'nisalem. Since the person in the next seat had no way of knowing whether his Jewiah neighbor would be gone for 30 seconds or 10 minutes, as far as halacha is concerned, that is enough of a deterrent to remove any suspicion that the meat was switched.

Didn't you ever walk into a restaurant and see the mashgiach sitting out front? Do you think the mashgiach never takes a break -- he just stands there is the kitchen, watching the food every second? Of course not. So how do you know that the non-Jewish cook didn't swap out a slice from his turkey sandwich with the turkey on the plate he is preparing? The answer is yotzei v'nichnas (there are other good reasons, but this is one of them). If you eat out in a deli without worrying that Juan standing behind the counter switched your corned beef with his own when the mashgiach's eyes were elsewhere, then you can eat on the plane without worrying that the Juan sitting one seat over swapped the kosher meal for his own when your back was turned.

(Parenthetically, many folks where I live employ non-Jewish babysitters and housekeepers.  As my wife correctly pointed out, the housekeeper or babysitter knows full well no one will be home until the end of the day -- there is no yotzei v'nichnas -- and is alone with a kitchen full of food and utensils. How many people after hearing this story ran over to their Rav to ask how to handle such a situation [see Igros Moshe Y.D. I:61]?)

Secondly, and maybe this is the more basic point, the halacha of basar she'nisalem min ha'ayin does not mean we suspect non-Jews of maliciously switching around food on us (see Aruch haShulchan Y.D. 118:30 "V'hinei haskamas kol raboseinu haRishonim v'haAchronim..."). It's only if the non-Jew will benefit from the switch in some way that we need to worry. I am willing to bet that kosher airline food is in no way superior to or more appetizing than non-kosher airline food (the sandwiches in the story were so alike that the person did not even spot the switch), so why suspect a switch-a-roo when there is nothing to gain? (You do need to have the meal double-sealed until delivered to you to ensure that you get a kosher meal because the airline does have a vested interest in your being a happy customer and would benefit by serving you a treif meal should your kosher one be left behind.)

The moral of the story here is not how smart halacha is and how paying attention to its details pays off -- Nope. The moral of the story is that the price of remaining ignorant of halacha is going hungry, albeit maybe feeling more emotionally fulfilled.

No one would ever tell a story about someone like me who would have no qualms about eating the sandwich because al pi din there is no issue, and as a result would end up eating treif. What would be the lesson there? Where's the feel-good ending? Instead, we tell stories about people who follow their own imagination of what halacha should be, and as a result, are rewarded with a miraculously positive outcome. We love the logical fallacy of argumentum ad consequentiam -- a fancy Latin way of saying we judge the truth of things based on how the consequences turn out. If everything works out great, even the worst decision based on irrational nonsense looks like genius. If things go poorly, the greatest strategist who made the best moves looks like a fool. (And we wonder why people are drawn to emotionally appealing segulos and practices instead of just doing what halacha requires. OK, we don't need to beat that dead horse any more.)

I wish there were more stories told of the first variety. To take another example, the story of someone who keeps Shabbos and miraculously sees his business improve does not impress me. What impresses me is the story of someone who chooses to keep Shabbos even as he watches his receipts decline and his business take a hit.

Stories like this airplane ma'aseh substitute a faith of fairy-tales for the real thing. The danger is that either listeners never mature and become adults who live in hashkafic Disneyland where they really believe dreams come true or they realize that reality is so at-odds with what they have been taught that they check out of Torah altogether.

Stories like this are a big fluffy bun with nothing inside. The basar that should be there is nisalem min ha'ayin and the meal in unsatisfying at best, misleading at worst. Dear Meachanchim: Where's the beef?

Monday, April 23, 2012

feeling the pain of others

Rashi writes (VaYikra 9:23) that after the miluim, after all the korbanos, the Shechina still did not come down to the Mishkan.  Aharon blamed himself, thinking that it was his role in making the eigel that prevented the Shechina from descending.  He came to Moshe and complained and asked Moshe why he ever put him up for the job of kohen gadol only to face public embarassment and humiliation.  Moshe responded by immediately entering the Mishkan with Aharon and davening with him until the Shechina descended.  

Rashi further writes that the people saw how for seven days Moshe put up the Mishkan, performed the daily avodah, took it down.  When the Shechina still did not enter the Mishkan, the people came to Moshe humiliated, wondering if their efforts in making a Mishkan were in vain.  Moshe responded by telling them that once Aharon does the avodah the Shechina will descend, demonstrating that Hashem accepted not only the Mishkan, but accepted Aharon as kohen as well.

R' Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi in his sefer Birchas Mordechai says a beautiful vort here.  The fact that the Shechina did not enter the Mishkan for seven days did not bother Moshe.  The fact that the Shechina did not come down immediately after Aharon did his avodah did not bother Moshe.  The Shechina itself seemingly was not moved by the construction of the Mishkan, the offering of korbanos, the service of Aharon.  What changed things?  What caused the Shechina to enter the Mishkan?  It was Aharon's feeling of embarrassment that changed things.  It was Klal Yisrael's feeling of humiliation changed things.  

Had the issue been purely a bein adam laMakom, there might have been very good reasons for the Shechina not to come down to the Mishkan.  Who knows what was needed for kapparah?  However, when the Shechina felt the pain of Klal Yisrael, the suffering of Aharon, it relented and was drawn to the Mishkan to comfort and be close to Klal Yisrael.  When Moshe heard that there is a bein adam l'chaveiro issue here, that his brother was suffering embarrassment, that Klal Yisrael felt humiliated, he stuck his neck out to beg for rachamei shamayim and Hashem responded.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

the sin of Nadav and Avihu

Rashi in no less than four places addresses himself to the reason(s) behind the death of Nadav and Avihu. each time offering a different explanation, each with its own set of difficulties:

1) Our parsha (Shmini) says that Nadav and Avihu were guilty of offering an "aish zarah." Rashi (10:2) quotes two interpretations in Chazal as to exactly what they did wrong: R' Eliezer explains that they were guilty of paskening halacha without consulting or deferring to Moshe; R' Yishmael explains that they entered the Mikdash while drunk. It's not clear why Rashi needed these added explanations when the pshuto shel mikra of what was done seems clear.

2) In Shmos 24:9 Rashi explains that at the moment of mattan Torah Nadav and Avihu gazed at G-d's presence is a haughty way, while indulging in food and drink, and were therefore deserving of death. Rather than disturb the joy of that moment, Hashem delayed their punishment until the chanukas hamishkan. If Nadav and Avihu deserved death for what occurred at mattan Torah, why does Rashi in our parsha offer those other explanations for their guilt?

3) In Devarim 9:20 Rashi explains that Moshe's tefilah on behalf of Aharon for his sin of making the eigel was only partially accepted: two of Aharon's four sons were spared, but two were meted out the death penalty. It seems from this Rashi that the death of Nadav and Avihu was a punishment not for their own crimes, but rather for Aharon's. Aside from the problem of why we need yet another explanation for Nadav and Avihu's death, this explanation itself raises the troubling philosophical/ethical question of whether children deserve to suffer punishment for the sins of a parent.

4) Finally, Rashi in our parsha (10:3) writes that Moshe consoled Aharon upon the death of Nadav and Avihu by telling him that it is now clear what Hashem had in mind when he said, "V'nikdash b'kvodi" (Shmos 29:43), that the Mikdash will be sanctified through the death of His honored servants. The fact that Nadav and Avihu were the ones chosen for this fate proves that they held a place of honor in G-d's eyes. This reason for Nadav and Avihu's death seems unrelated to any wrongdoing on their part, quite at odds with Rashi's other explanations.  We are also left to wonder how death can be meted out to an undeserving victim simply to serve some end, even a noble end like sanctification of the Mishkan.

I'll leave it to you to work out answers (or look in the meforshei Rashi). Two points that should help: 1) There is no rule that says that an event cannot be overdetermined; 2) A theoretical liability for punishment may require some trigger to actually bring it to bear in reality.

There is one other point I want to deal with.  As we mentioned above, according to Rashi Shmos 24:9 the punishment due Nadav and Avihu was incurred at mattan Torah and was delayed so as to not interfere with the simcha of that day. So why interfere with the simcha of chanukas haMishkan? Why did that punishment have to be carried out now?

R' Raphael Sorotzkin offers an answer that I think is already found in Maharal in Gur Arye.  The sin of offering an "aish zarah" done by Nadav and Avihu during the chanukas haMishkan stemmed directly from their behavior during mattan Torah. Aveirah goreres aveirah -- an aveirah may either give rise to or be a symptom of a deeper flaw in character or attitude, which, if not eradicated, will eventually sprout other aveiros (see Rav Hartman's notes to the Gur Aryeh).  There was obviously something lacking in Nadav and Avihu's reaction to that closeness with Hashem experienced at Har Sinai which led them to intrude on the moment with food and drink. That exact same shortcoming is what led them to intrude into Hashem's presence in the Mishkan with their own uncalled for offering.  The day of chanukas haMishkan was not arbitrarily chosen  as the day to mete out punishment for the earlier crime.  It was chosen because Nadav and Avihu's actions on that day shared a common denominator with their earlier sin.  Punishment deferred the first time around was not passed over the second.

How could such great people have made such an error? I think the answer is based on the halacha that says  even though eating is normally prohibited in shul, an exception is made for for talmidei chachamim who are there all day (Meg 28).  You and I go home from shul to have breakfast and lunch, but for the talmid chacham, the shul is home.

Precisely because Nadav and Avihu were on such a high spiritual plane they took liberties that you and I might not have.  They basked in the presence of the Shechina and did not want to leave Har Sinai for one moment.  It became their home, a place that brought food and drink into not out of gluttony, but simply because they could not bear to leave.  Whatever the "aish zarah" was, the idea I think is that Nadav and Avihu brought more of themselves into the Mishkan than you or I might have because they wanted to be as immersed in the place as possible.

It was not a sin of gross misconduct that led to their being punished -- the thoughts Nadav and Avihu had were obviously far from mundane.  It must be that on some level something in their conduct or attitude, something you or I would consider a trifle, was off just enough to warrant punishment for people on their level who are judged by a more exacting standard.  I think perhaps the punishment was meted out here because the chanukah, the initiation of the Mishkan, must be done perfectly (see R' Yosef Engel in Gilyonei HaShas, Shabbos 23), without cutting corners.  At least the first time something is done, it should be done right.  Even if their offering might have been overlooked at some other time, on this day, the "grand opening" of the Mishkan, it was completely out of place.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

a "greater threat to Israel's survival than her external enemies"

You have to love the opening of this opinion piece in the NY Jewish Week by R' Eugene Korn.  Rabbi Korn tried to strike up a conversation with a chareidi man that he found himself sitting next to  on a flight home from Israel. Sensing that the person wanted to get back to his sefer rather than continue to shmooze, R' Korn ended the conversation. Rather than take this as an isolated event that reflected no more than one individual's desire (or lack thereof) to enter into conversation with him, R' Korn instead reads the withdrawal from the conversation as symptomatic of the chareidi community's withdrawal from society at large.  He then goes on to a fairly predictable tirade about how the chareidim contribute nothing to the betterment of the world etc. etc. (you've heard and read it before I'm sure).

One reason (among many) that I am not a public figure writing articles in a major Jewish newspaper is because had I been in Rabbi Korn's shoes, I might have just assumed the guy sitting next to me is just not interested in conversing, had more important things to do (like learn Torah), or maybe I'm just a lousy conversationalist and was boring him.  I lack the intellectual superman-like ability to generalize in a single bound from the lack of desire on the part of an individual to carry on a conversation to the sweeping assertion that not only this individual, but the entire community he is part of lacks the desire to engage in any productive activity that might benefit society.  Had it been me, I might even been tempted to qualify my words a bit instead of lambasting the entire chareidi community as being the equivalent of the ancient Essenes, labeling them as "Xstian monks, albeit with families," and claiming they are a "greater threat to Israel's survival than her external enemies."  I'm glad I do read the news now and then, because left to my own devices I would never have realized that it's not the threat of nuclear armed Iran that should concern us -- it's yeshiva bachurim who prefer learning to conversation that we really need to worry about.  Had it been me, I might have even been bothered by the contradiction between my posing the challenge of, "How many religious students or adults strive to connect to the Jewish people as a whole?" and my choice to identify the passenger sitting next to me not simply as a fellow Jew, someone who I have a bond with, but as a "hareidi man," some other species that lives in a world apart from my own, not part of that big "whole."  Were I a public figure writing in a major Jewish newspaper with professional editors that review articles before publication, I don't know what I would do.  Glad I'm just a lone blogger with only you guys as readers so I can just spew whatever unqualified, intemperate, rhetoric I want.

Monday, April 16, 2012

some final thoughts on pesach

Welcome back!  Long time no write, but that's what happens when there is too much going on. A few thoughts to close out Pesach:

1. The Chasam Sofer in his derashos is mechadesh that when the ultimate geulah comes we will still have to celebrate a yom tov sheni shel galiyos as a remembrance of the days of galus in which we now find ourselves. He compares this to the renaming of the months of the year post-galus Bavel  from chodesh ha'rishon, chodesh ha'sheni, etc. to the names we now have as a way to create a remembrance of the years we spent in Babylonian exile (see Ramban, Shmos 12). Interesting... Seems to me that one can distinguish between the two ideas.  Yom tov sheni is not a function of galus per se, but is a function of living too far from Eretz Yisrael to receive prompt calendar updates from messengers of Beis Din and therefore having a safeik as to when to celebrate Yom Tov.  Even b'zman habayis, yom tov sheni would be celebrated by those outside Eretz Yisrael.

2. My wife gets the credit for pointing out an amazing Sefas Emes (5642 d"h b'Shir haShirim) that explains that just as our ancestors were 100% convinced that the galus in Mitzrayim would go on for 400 years and never imagined that Hashem would hasten redemption by counting the qualitative intensity of servitude as a substitute for the quantity of years required, so too, we are all convinced based on our mesorah and seforim that the tzaros of chevlei moshiach will be painful and tragic, but it could be that the length of our galus, the quantity of time we have spent in exile, will serve as a substitute for the intense quality of pain predicted. The galus may be long, but this may be b'chasdei Hashem a means of ultimately lessening our overall pain.

Sefas Emes goes on to say (based on Midrashim) that the whole machlokes (Shabbos 55a) whether the merit of zechus Avos still can be invoked is irrelevant to our achieving geulah, as even if we have exhausted our zechus Avos, there is a far deeper well of rachmanus we can draw on in the form of zechus Imahos.  It is in their merit that the future redemption will come.  

3. We use besamim for havdalah on motzei Shabbos because we need some cheering up after the neshoma yeseirah, the extra neshoma spark we have on Shabbos, departs. Why then don't we usually use besamim for havdalah on motzei Yom Tov as well (motzei Yom Tov that coincides with motzei Shabbos, like this year, is an exception)? The usual answer given is that on Yom Tov we don't have a neshoma yeseirah (see Tos. Beitzah 2b).

The Shem m'Shmuel (5672) quotes a different approach in the name of his father (based on a Ramban). He suggests that the kedusha of Shabbos is so intense and beyond us that the departure of Shabbos is like falling off a spiritual cliff -- we need some way to catch ourselves and adjust to the radical change. Not so Yom Tov. The kedusha of Yom Tov is something we can relate to; we feel the enjoyment and beauty of Yom Tov in a different way than we do Shabbos. There are no besamim in the havdalah of motzei Yom Tov not because we lack a neshoma yeseirah on Yom Tov, but rather because that neshoma yeseirah lingers with us and does not flee as we transition back into the days of chol.

So maybe that's not just yet-undigested matzah that you feel still sitting there inside... maybe it's really just a little bit of the neshoma yeseirah from Yom Tov still hanging on.  No rush to let it go.