Wednesday, July 30, 2014

forty kippot - beautiful story from R' Shlomo Riskin

A beautiful story from Rabbi Riskin's column (link):

The day before I [Rabbi Riskin] came home to make my visits, my daughter Elana was in a Petah Tikvah Judaica gift shop purchasing a challah board. A mother and her young son were inquiring about large, knitted, black Bratzlav kippot, which would cover the entire head. She explained to the store-owner that her son was one of four observant boys in their Gaza army unit, and the usual small-style knitted kippot jostled under the large army helmets and made it uncomfortable for them. The owner searched around a bit, and brought out four large black kippot.

"I need forty," smiled the mother. "But you said there were four observant soldiers in the unit, so why would you want forty kippot?," logically inquired the store-keeper. The mother explained that when the other members of the unit heard her son's request for large kippot, they inquired about the reason for wearing a kippah in the first place; her son explained that there was a verse in Psalms which avers that the Divine Presence is above each individual, and this Divine Protection is symbolized by the kippah. All the soldiers then requested large kippot for under their helmets, claiming that they are all desirous of continued Divine Protection, especially in Gaza. 
The store-keeper managed to find forty large kippot, for which he refused to take any money...
"Who is like unto Your nation, a most unique nation on earth."

ramban on the mitzvah of yishuv ha'arertz

The Ramban in last week’s parsha (33:53) writes that “v’horashtem es ha’aretz v’yishavtem bah” is a mitzvah to conquer and live in Eretz Yisrael.

על דעתי זו מצוות עשה היא, יצווה אותם שישבו בארץ ויירשו אותה כי הוא נתנה להם, ולא ימאסו בנחלת ה'.

He then adds something that I think is a little surprising. Let me explain with an example: taking a lulav on Sukkos is a mitzvas aseh. If I were to ask what a bitul of that aseh would be, I think you would answer (as would I) that the bitul aseh is not taking a lulav. The negation of P is not-P. You wouldn’t immediately say that taking the branch of an orange tree or an apple tree is the bitul aseh, except in the sense that if you do these things you have failed to take the lulav and are guilty of not-P.

So what constitutes a bitul aseh of yishuv ha’aretz? Had you asked me, I would have said it's not settling the land, assuming there is no good reason to not do so. Ramban, however, writes:

. ואלו יעלה על דעתם ללכת ולכבוש ארץ שנער או ארץ אשור וזולתן ולהתיישב שם, יעברו על מצוות ה'.

Why does he talk about planning to conquer some other land and settling there as the bitul of the mitzvah? Even if I don’t plan to conquer some other land and make it my home, the every fact that I didn’t settle in Eretz Yisrael given the opportunity to do so should count as a bitul mitzvah! I’m not sure what to make of what he is saying. It’s almost as if there was an issur aseh involved here, and just remaining passive is not enough to violate the issue – it requires at least making some affirmative plan to do something, i.e. to conquer some other county, in order to reach the threshold of having violated that issur. Notice that he ends the sentence where he speaks about the mitzvah by switching to the negative, "v'lo yimasu b'nachalas Hashem."  Furthermore, it seems that the bitul of the mitzvah can only be through a communal effort (a din in the tzibur) -- the Ramban phrases it in the plural, and logically speaking, conquering a different country is not something that could be undertaken as an individual effort.  Is the chiyiv to conquer and settle Eretz Yisrael a chovas hatzibur, or is each individual responsible to make whatever effort he/she can to live there?  I have more questions than answers here.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

expert stupidity

I’m glad the reporter writing this story sought the advice of an “expert,” a professor at the Columbia University, because left on my own I could never have predicted that the fighting in the Middle East would "sharpen tensions” between American Jews and Palestinians.  Note the report says that mosques as well as synagogues could be targeted by “right-wing extremists” (there are, of course, no such thing as extremists on the left who resort to violence).  In other words, peaceful Arabs have as much to fear as Jews.  

So let’s see how this has played out -- first lets take a look at some of the violence directed at synagogues and Jews: 

And now let's look at some of the attacks on mosques and Arabs here in the US:

Enough said.

haloch yeilech u'bacho -- but ultimately, bo yavo b'rinah

The Shem m’Shmuel quotes a Zohar that explains that Moshe Rabeinu died at the time of mincha on Shabbos, the “ra’ava d’ra’avain,” the greatest eis ratzon, to show that his death was not a result of midas hadin.  Similarly, Miriam died in Chodesh Nisan because Nisan too is a time of chessed, a time of geulah.  So what are we to make of Aharon haKohen passing away on Rosh Chodesh Av?  We see from here, says the Shem m’Shmuel that b’pnimiyus Chodesh Av is also a time of great closeness with Hashem, just that closeness has been enveloped with great hester. 

R’ Leibele Eiger (Imrei Emes, end of Pinchas) brings down that he heard from a holy tzadik (who he doesn’t name) that the 22 days of beis hametzarim correspond to the 22 days from Rosh haShana to Sukkos.  What do these sad days of mourning have to do with the holiest period of the year, the span from the Yamim Noraim to Chag haSukkos?  R’ Leibele Eiger explains that the hesber is hinted at in the pasuk we say in shir hama’alos before bentching, “Haloch yeilech u’bacho nosei meshech hazarah…  The first letters of haloch yelech u’bacho, describing our walking and crying, are hey-yud-vav, which are numerically equal to 21.  These are the three weeks from 17 Tamuz until 9 Av when we are crying, but that crying is because we don’t understand what is happening.  Nosei meshech ha’zara,” we are like a farmer dropping seeds in the ground.  When you plant a seed, it first disintegrates and rots, but that disintegration is just a preparation for the new growth.  Similarly, the suffering we mourn over during this time will ultimately prove to be a source of renewal and rebirth.  Bo yavo b’rinah nosei alumosav” – the numerical value of “bo yavo” (spelled with a vav) is 22.  When we harvest the amazing fruit that will come from these seeds, it will be the greatest simcha in the world.  Counting 22 days from Rosh haShana, our simcha culminates in Sukkos, also known as “Chag ha’Asif,” the holiday of the harvest. 

Monday, July 28, 2014

seeing the birah dolekes -- and doing something about it

I used to think that the point of the Midrash that compares Avraham’s discovery of G-d with someone who observes a birah dolekes, a burning castle, and wonders where the castle’s owner is, is that question, “Where is the owner of this castle?”  I used to think that what made Avraham unique was the fact that he asked what was going on while everyone else just saw the birah dolekes and moved on. 

I’ve since changed my mind.  I think what made Avraham unique was the very fact that he saw the birah dolekes in the first place. 

I’ve been wondering just what it takes to rouse American Jewry from its state of apathy.  What does it take for people to see that there is a birah dolekes on fire?  Is Israel being in a state of war not enough?  Is the overt anti-semitism of Europe not enough?  Is Chicago Jewish schoolchildren being taunted with pictures of Holocaust ovens and being told to get in enough?  Is the absurd request by John Kerry or Barak Obama for Israel to declare an immediate cease-fire even while its enemies openly declare their intent to continue to wage war enough?

There is a birah dolekes out there.  A quick “shir ha’ma’alos” after davening on Sunday morning before you run to sit by the pool and sip your iced tea or eat an ice cream cone is better than nothing, but let’s face it – if you were in danger, wouldn’t you hope others would do more on your behalf?

There is a birah dolekes out there.  When a building is burning, do you need to check whether the firemen or those who come to help share your hashkafos, or are shomerei mitzvos?  Do you even need to check if they are Jewish?  When the building is on fire, anyone with a water or hose who comes to help is my friend.  Anyone who cares for the State of Israel and is willing to speak out to save Jewish lives is someone I'm willing to join forces with, at least on this issue.   We’ll work out our hashkafic differences some other time.

Read what’s out there in social media, on comments to websites, heck even in some of the mainstream press – this is not about whether Israel has a right to the ‘67 borders or other borders.  It’s about whether Israel right to exist as a country.  It’s whether Jews in France, in England, in Germany, can live without fearing attacks.  It's about whether Jews deserve the same rights as anyone else in the world.

I started writing this in the morning and took a break at lunch to make my way to the rally I posted about yesterday.  I came back filled with a dose of optimism.  Thousands of people were there.  The subways were filled with folks making their way crosstown, uptown, downtown to attend, many if not most of the men wearing kippot and women with hats and sheitels, people carrying signs and flags. 

We take it for granted that our kids will by osmosis develop a love for Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael.  That’s laissez faire chinuch.  You can talk about these ideas at your Shabbos table or send your kids to schools where these ideas are taught (and how many of our schools don’t even talk about current events in Eretz Yisrael?  How many of our kids know more about the Civil War than about the history of the modern State of Israel?), but children learn from our behavior.  Kol hakavod to the parents pushing strollers at that rally today, to the camps that bussed kids in from the mountains, to the young people who were out demonstrating and who showed that idealism and activism are alive in our community.

We talk about the need for achdus during the nine days.  Here was a rally sponsored by the OU, by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, by the Union for Reform Judaism.  It brought diverse speakers and diverse groups together under one banner, because at the end of the day Jewish life and the Jewish State is something we all believe in.

Kol havadod to everyone who showed up at this rally and/or to the many other events taking places in communities all over.  Kol hakavod to everyone making their voices heard, whether it is at a rally, on social media, writing to a newspaper, calling a Congressman or Senator.  Kol hakavod to everyone adding tehillim, learning, doing more mitzvos, during this time of crisis.  You see the birah hadolekes and are doing something about it.
When you read and see so much hatred out there, it is hard to think that your little bit makes a difference.  But when you see 10,000 or 15,000 people disrupting their Monday afternoon to come together, you feel a little better about our future as a people. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Rally tomorrow 7/28 at 12:30

Monday, July 28, at 12:30 p.m. at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza (that's 47th street and 2nd Ave)  

Numerous organizations, including the OU, are sponsoring the event.
I would also humbly encourage everyone to express hakaras hatov by sending an e-mail (it takes 2 minutes to fill out the contact form on their websites) to Senators Schumer, Graham, and Cardin for saying that any ceasefire must provide for Israel's security.  Other Senators, e.g. Ted Cruz, also deserve our thanks and support.  Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for President Obama and Secretary Kerry.


Friday, July 25, 2014

dedicate your shabbos to toras eretz yisrael

Just as seforim bring down that it’s not a coincidence that Parshas Pinchas, which contains many mitzvos of korbanos haregel, usually falls out during the three weeks when our attention is focused on the churban haMikdash and the loss of korbanos, I’m sure it’s not by chance that we read Parshas Masei, which contains the command to conquer and settle Eretz Yisrael and describes the borders of Eretz Yisrael, during this time period.  It’s a bit scary to think that for hundreds and hundreds of years Jews have read this parsha and could only dream of fulfilling the mitzvah of returning to Eretz Yisrael and securing it’s borders, and here we have the privilege and opportunity to live it.  I have a suggestion: dedicate your divrei Torah this Shabbos to Eretz Yisrael and to add to the zechus of those defending it. 

The Torah uses a peculiar word when setting out the borders of Eretz Yisrael: “V’hisasvisem lachem m’gevul keidma…” (34:10)  Rashi explains that the word “hisavisem” is like the word “tisa’u,” which means to turn, i.e. the border slants.  I’m sure, however, that when you first heard that word “v’hisavisem” your mind associated it with the word: “ta’avah,” desire.  That’s not by chance says the Radomsker.  The Torah is hinting that you have to have a ta’avah for Eretz Yisrael.  Ta’avah is usually a bad thing, but not when it comes to the desire to return to our homeland.  Adds the Radomsker, even if you can’t act on that ta’avah right now, having the desire itself is a tikun for galus.  This Shabbos lets work on arousing our ta’avah for Eretz Yisrael.

It takes an army to win a war, but it takes more than that as well.  Rashi comments on the pasuk, “Zos ha’aretz asher tipol lachem b’nachalah…” (34:2) that Hashem will throw down and tie up the angelic forces of our enemies. We are fighting an enemy that believes in the antithesis of justice and morality (see my wife's post here); we are engaged in a clash of values. Victory depends on our rededication to Torah morals and values that are true and just.  If we do what is right, all the phony and false ideologies that are just pretenders to justice will have no leg to stand on.  The pasuk here hints at exactly how to do that, explains the Maor v’Shemesh.  Asher tipol lachem,” the downfall of the enemy will come “b’NaCHaLaH” = through our fulfilling Nafsheinu CHiksa LHashem.  On Shabbos we have a neshoma yesirah, so we can add a double measure of nafshienu chiksa l’Hashem.

The Torah warns that if we fail to finish off our enemies they will be a thorn in our side and “v’haya ka’asher dimisi la’ason lahem e’eseh lachem.”  (33:55-56)  The Midrash in many places tells us that the word “v’haya” connotes simcha.  What kind of simcha is there in Hashem telling us that what he was going to do to the enemy will come back to us?  And what are we to make of such a promise – Hashem’s covenant with Klal Yisrael is eternal; he would never destroy us the way our enemies are meant to be destroyed?

The Igra d’Kallah explains that in an ideal world we would not have to take up arms against our enemies.  Hashem would do the fighting for us; there would be overtly miraculous victories.  However, Klal Yisrael did not live up to that standard.  Instead of open miracles taking place and our enemies simply dissolving, we have to take up arms, we have to fight.  This is the test Hashem challenges us with.  That being said, miracles will still take place to ensure our victory – just they will be hidden in the derech hateva, hidden behind what looks like our own accomplishments and deeds. 

The pasuk here is telling us is that even if we fail to live up to the ideal of Hashem doing all the work for us, even if the enemy is left as a test for us to do battle with, “v’haya,” Hashem will still have great simcha.  Ka’asher dimisi la’asos lahem,” the fight that I, G-d, personally would have taken care of with overt miracles, “e’eseh lachem,” I will do through you, by bringing about those miracles through the derech ha’teva of your actions.  Out soldiers are living this pasuk.

The parsha ends off with the complaint of the leaders of Menasheh that if girls who inherit a portion of land (like Bnos Tzelafchad) get to marry whomever they want, it would mean that land would pass from sheivet to sheivet, as their husbands/children who inherit them may be from another sheivet.  R’ Tzadok haKohen points out that we have a whole holiday of T”u b’Av to celebrate the day that the shevatim liften the ban against marrying into sheivet Binyamin – having the shevatim intermingle is a good thing!  Nonetheless, the love of Menasheh for Eretz Yisrael, the desire to preserve their cheilek in Eretz Yisrael and not surrender it to anyone else (each of us has a unique cheilek that corresponds to our unique neshoma) outweighs that value.  A new parsha of Torah came into being as a result of their complaint, as a result of their love of Eretz Yisrael.

We have a halacha that whoever mourns for the churban will be zocheh to experience the simcha of geulah, but there is also another path to merit geulah says the Radomsker.  Chazal tell us that the reward for oneg Shabbos is a “nachala b’li meitzarim” --   derech remez, a portion without a bein ha’meitzarim.  Especially this Shabbos we should keep in mind the words we add in bentching: “… she’lo te’hei tzarah v’yagon b’yom menuchaseinu," that there be no pain and suffering for ourselves or for those fighting on our behalf, "...v’hareinu Hashem Elokeinu b’nechamas Tzion irecha…," so that we see nechamas Tzion and all of Eretz Yisrael.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

how the Jewish people go to war

How Klal Yisrael goes to war:

And more here:

Watching these videos is my mussar seder.  This is what love of Eretz Yisrael, Am Yisrael, and G-d are all about, what it means to believe in the destiny of Am Yisrael and have pride to live as a Jew. 

I look at the clips of these soldiers and I think about all the little worries in my day to day that seem like such important issues and take up so much mental energy, and here these folks are singing “Mi shema’amin lo mefached” and “Ivdu es Hashem b’simcha” while preparing to literally put their lives on the line.  It gives one a sense of perspective on what's really important, what emunah is really all about. 

I look at the pictures in these videos and I contrast them with pictures like this (AP Photo/Thibault Camus):

 Rioters face riot police, following a pro-Palestinian demonstration, in Sarcelles, north of Paris, Sunday, July 20, 2014.  French youth defying a ban on a protest against Israel’s Gaza offensive went on a rampage in a Paris suburb, setting fire to cars and garbage cans after a peaceful demonstration. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Pictures from France, a democratic country, a country whose Prime Minister has spoken out against anti-semitism and called on the police to stop the rioting, to little avail.  A country where Jews now live in fear of their lives, where synagogues are firebombed and Jews are attacked in the streets. 

Galus is not our home.  It never has been.  These three weeks culminating in 9 Av reminds us that we are still mourning the churban that, as the Rogatchover learns, is a pe'ulah hanimsheches, an ongoing event, something that continues to unfold.  We see it with our own eyes.

The difference is now we have a glimmer of the geulah just around the corner.  We're not there yet, or we wouldn't be fighting a war.  But we are on the way.  The videos of those soldiers singing "Ivdu es Hashem b'simcha" fighting for our country, for our ideals, under our flag, proves it.
The words to the song in the second clip are here and they’re worth reading.  In the comments to the original YouTube of the song done by the artist someone asked how is it possible that someone who is “lo kol kach dati” could come up with a song like this.  Someone else posted an answer:

הקב"ה קרוב גם לאלה שרחוקים ממנו


Wednesday, July 23, 2014

the mitzvah of building a mikdash

The gemara (Sanhedrin 20) writes that when Bnei Yisrael enter Eretz Yisrael they have three mitzvos to accomplish: 1) appoint a king; 2) destroy Amalek; 3) build a beis habechirah, as the Torah tells us “V’haya hamakom asher yivchar Hashem Elokeichem… shamah tavi’u es kol asher anochi mitzaveh eschem…” (Devarim 12).  The Kesef Mishnah (Beis haBechirah 1:1) cites the SM”G who quotes this as the source for the mitzvah of building a mikdash.   The Rambam, however, quotes the pasuk of “v’asu li mikdash,” and refers not only to the building of the mikdash in Yerushalayim, but to the building of the mishkan as well.  So it sounds like we have a machlokes.

In case you missed the comments to yesterday’s post, someone pointed out that R’ Soloveitchik (essay in Koveitz Chiddushei Torah) learned that the Rambam in fact agrees with the SM”G.  The Rambam agrees that there is a mitzvah of building a beis habechirah in Eretz Yisrael learned out from the pasuk of “hamakom asher tivchar,” but the Rambam adds that there is an additional mitzvah learned from the pasuk of “v’asu li mikdash.”  Hamakom asher tivchar” refers to the mikdash in Yerushalayim, an eternal place of kedusha; “v’asu li mikdash” refers even to building a mishkan.  This would explain the change in language that I noted yesterday.  The Rambam in his title to the halachos refers to “beis habechirah,” because he is discussing the laws as practiced in the mikdash in Yerushalayim.  However, in his list of mitzvos he refers to “beis hamikdash” and in the first halacha he refers simply to making a “bayis l’Hashem” in order to encompass the kiyum mitzvah of making a mishkan as well.

Yesterday I also noted that the Rambam switches verbs from “livnos beis hamikdash” in his list of mitzvos to “la’asos bayis l’Hashem” in the first halacha.  R’ Chaim Kanievsky (Derech Chochma) writes that “la’asos” does not mean to build – it means to see that something is done.  The mitzvah of “v’asisa ma’akeh l’gagecha” does not mean you need to take a hammer and nails and build a ma’akah.  You can hire a contractor, you can move into a house that already has the ma’akah in place – so long as there is a ma’akah there, you have fulfilled the mitzvah.  In that same way, “v’asu li mikdash” does not mean you need to take a hammer and nails and build something.  It means you need to help ensure that there is a mikdash built, whether it is by helping in the planning, contributing money, or doing anything else that helps complete the project. 

The Rambam writes (1:12) that construction of the mikdash can only be done during the daylight hours and cannot be done on Shabbos or Y”T.  In that very same halacha, the Rambam says that women are chayavos in the mitzvah as well as men.  If the mikdash can only be built at certain times, why is it not a mitzvas aseh she’hazman gerama – why are women not exempt?  R’ Chaim answers that although the actual construction, the livnos,” can only be done at specific times, the “la’asos” of participating in other ways has no time boundary.

What remains unclear to me still is why the Rambam would use the term “livnos” in the mitzvah list if the mitzvah is really “la’asos,” with different gedarim, as R” Chaim sets out.  It is tempting to try to shoehorn this issue into the previous discussion and say that the mitzvah of “livnos” applies to beis habechirah, but “la’asos” is a din in “asu li mikdash.”  I don’t know of any source or reason to draw such a distinction.  I was wondering if perhaps in the list of mitzvos the Rambam wanted to define the mitzvah by its ultimate goal.  Any number of activities may be a kiyum mitzvah of “la’asos,” but ultimately there has to be a building built, or the “la’asos” has no meaning.  Livnos” is the purpose; “la’asos" is the means.  Anyone have a better explanation?

ba'al milchamos, zore'a tzedkaos, matzmiach yeshuos -- one process

R’ Eliezer Melamed quotes a comment in the name of R’ Tzvi Yehudah Kook on the words we say every morning in davening describing Hashem as the “ba’al milchamos, zore’a tzedakos, matzmiach yeshu’os.”  War is tragic.  We cannot understand why Hashem puts us through such trials.  But we have to trust that “ba’al milchamos” goes hand in hand with being “zore’a tzedakos” and “matzmiach yeshuos.”  There will be justice and yeshu’a that will ultimately come out of what is going on.  You have to be a big ba’al bitachon to see things that way, but that’s the way it is.    

I  want to share with a quote from a post on Israel Matzav:
Maybe this explains why 78% of American Jewry voted for Barack Obama - his non-support of Israel notwithstanding. Because to them, being Jewish isn't about joining their lives and fate to that of the Jewish people, including by supporting Israel. It's about liberalism and liberal values and not seeing the basic goodness and morality embodied in the Jewish state.
I couldn't have said it better myself.  Events in Israel have brought about a certain moral clarity.  Some people who otherwise identity with certain liberal values have suddenly woken up and see the anti-semitism of the left for exactly what it is.  Other people have dug deeper into their shells, twisting themselves into a pretzel to come up all kinds of justifications for castigating Israel.  When the seforim talk about the process of birur, is this what it means? 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

beis hhabechira / beis hamikdash / bayis l'Hashem -- why three terms for the same thing?

The Emergency Committee for Israel put out a statement in response to Obama’s call for a cease fire yesterday that has a gem of a line in there: “Israel does not need a mediator.  Israel needs an ally.”  So true.  

When I read that the US will give close to 50 million to Hamas for “humanitarian aid” even as they continue to fire rockets at Israel, I wonder: are Obama and Kerry really that naïve as to believe that this money will not be used for weapons, are they incompetent, or is it a calculated and deliberate attempt to once again undermine Israel’s interests?  (I ask myself that question about a lot of the things this administration does.)

I mentioned the Shmira Project yesterday, but there are many other things you can do to help Israel in this time of crisis.  I see A Mother In Israel has a helpful post with 21 suggestions.

A few weeks ago, before the latest round of fighting started, my wife and I visited the NY Historical Society (a small, overlooked museum that is really worth a visit if you’ve never been there) where there is a new exhibit celebrating the centennial of the JDC, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.  You probably know the JDC helped in the relief efforts after WWII, but the organization is far older than that and it still exists, doing important work around the globe. Anyway, a telegram displayed in the exhibit caught my wife’s eye.  This message was sent from someone in Germany in 1933 to the JDC in NY, and it said (I’m sorry we did not copy it word for word) that the situation was not salvageable – instead of relief for those inside Germany, all efforts should be focused on getting as many people out as possible.  My wife could not believe that already in 1933 there was such certainty of impending doom.  Her own father’s family did not leave Germany until a few years after that.  I told her it’s no surprise.  20 or 30 years from now G-d forbid people will look back at the articles in the news that we read almost daily about the situation of Jewry in France and other European countries, the articles we dismiss as alarmist, as right-wing extremism, the calls to get out that people have begun to act on in small measure while others delay, thinking there will always be time to run when things get really bad, and we will wonder why more was not done sooner, why so many failed to act when the anti-Semitisim was so clear, when the barely repressed violence was already evident.  Of course I hope and pray that things don't come to that...

Maybe someone from CAIR can help me here, but I am just wondering how many mosques have been firebombed by Jews in response to events in the Middle East, or how many Moslems had to call the police to protect them from riots?  Just curious.

Let me end off with some Torah.  The first set of halachos the Rambam covers in his Sefer haAvodah is titled “Hilchos Beis haBechira.”  The Rambam lists the mitzvos covered in that section, first of which is “livnos beis hamikdash.”  The first halacha starts off, “Mitzvas aseh la’asos bayis l’Hashem…”  I don’t know what to make of it (if anything), but within just a few lines the Rambam introduces three completely different terms for the same thing: 1) beis habechira, 2) beis hamikdash, 3) bayis l’Hashem.  Now, true he uses the term “beis habechira” in Sefer haMitzvos, which is the groundwork upon which Mishneh Torah is built, but if consistency is the goal, then why not continue to use that term?  Why use it only in the header for the halachos and then change to something else?  And while we are being nitpicky, what do you make (if anything) of the switch in verbs from “livnos beis hamikdash” to “la’asos bayis l’Hashem?” 

Monday, July 21, 2014

tnai kaful and a few other points

1) On Friday I mentioned that when the Bnei Reuvain and Gad consented to the terms Moshe presented for their receiving Eiver haYarden, they first referred to those terms as the words of “adoni Moshe” and then, after Moshe presented the agreement in public with all the formality of a tnai kaful, they referred to the terms as “es asher dibeir Hashem.” Ramban explains that the Bnei Reuvain and Gad wanted to emphasize that they saw Moshe’s words as coming from G-d, and therefore they would respect the terms of agreement even without a formal tnai kaful.

The Ohr Sameiach and Rogatchover add a halachic dimension to the point.  They quote the view of the Shi’ilitos who says that tnai kaful is only necessary when there is an agreement directly between party A and party B.  However, where one of the parties is acting through a shliach, even without tnai kaful, any condition that is not met voids the shlichus and m’meila voids the agreement.  At first the Bnei Reuvain and Gad thought that Moshe was acting as G-d’s agent, so to speak, and they therefore addressed Moshe as an independent actor, as “adoni Moshe.”  However, when Moshe made a tnai kaful, they realized that Moshe was not simply an agent, because agreement with an agent doesn't require tnai kaful.  It was as if Shechina m’daberes m’toch grono, G-d was speaking through Moshe, and their agreement was being made directly with G-d.  Therefore, they rephrased their consent to “es asher dibeir Hashem.”

Technical details aside, Ralbag sees a moral lesson in the fact that Moshe framed the agreement in the formal terms of tnai kaful and did not just seal the deal with a handshake.  Unless terms and conditions are spelled out up front, parties can wind up disagreeing later as to what was meant; each side may think the other is in the wrong – even if that other side being questioned is Moshe Rabeinu.  Sure, we would give him the benefit if the doubt, but the greatness of Moshe is that he leaves no doubt.

2) Rashi writes that sheivet Levi participated in the war against Midyan.  The GR”A, however, had a different girsa in the Sifri and opines that Levi did not participate.  You could try to reconcile the two positions by saying they did not participate directly in battle but still contributed to the war effort.  We once discussed the Rogatchover’s sevara that the battle against Midyan was an act of nekamah and did not fall into the formal halachic category of milachama, with all is various rules.  This may be the point of the machlokes.  Sheivet Levi did not participate in milchama (Rambam, end of Hil Shemita), but this may not have been a milchama.

3) The Tosefta writes that the “klei kodesh” taken out to battle was either the aron or the bigdei kehunah.  The Netziv back in Parshas Beha’aloshecha (10:9) in the parsha of chatzotzros writes that the pasuk there of “v’nizkarten lifnei Hashem Elokeichem” teaches that the chatzotzros may only be blown in the presence of the aron or the tzitz (which had the shem Hashem on it).  This perhaps explains the view of the Ba’al haMaor who writes that blowing chatzotzros on a ta’anis, as opposed to on Rosh haShana, is only a din derabbanan.  What about the pasuk in chumash that says there is a mitzvah to blow at a time of tzarah?  It could be that the Ba’al haMaor is talking about blowing outside the mikdash, outside the presence of the aron.  The mitzvah d’oraysa, as the Netziv explains, is only in the mikdash when the aron is present.  (R' Soloveitchik quoted here suggested that the Ba'al haMaor of course holds that tekiyas chatzotzros is d'oraysa; what he meant is that you cannot say mitzvos lav lehenos nitnu on the mitzvah of chatzotzros because it is a chovas hatzibur, not a chiyuv on each individual to blow).

4) If anyone does not know about the Shmira Project, please check out their website   It's wonderful to say tehillim or learn or do mitzvos in the zechus of our soldiers in general, but the shmira project goes a step further and will pair you with a specific person in whose zechus you can learn, daven, do mitzvos. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Moshe's terms or G-d's?

Ramban observes that when the Bnei Reuvain and Gad first consented to the terms presented by Moshe that in exchange for their taking lands in Eiver haYarden they lead the nation in the battle to conquer Eretz Yisrael, they used the expression, “avadecha ya’asu ka’asher adoni mi’tzaveh.” (32:25).  However, when Moshe then presented their agreement before Yehoshua and the leaders of the other tribes, the Bnei Reuvain and Gad responded with a slightly different expression: “asher y’daber Hashem el avadecha kein na’aseh.” (32:31).  Why the change in phraseology?

I think this answer of the Ramban is one of the biggest yesodos in the parsha:

 אמרו לו, אין אדוננו צריך לצוות עלינו בתנאי כפול, חלילה לעבדיך מעבור על מה שאדוני מצווה כי הם דברי ה' ולא נעבור על מצוותו. וזה טעם "את אשר דבר ה'", כי מתחלה אמרו (פסוק כה): כאשר אדוני מצווה:
In other words, the tribes of Reuvain and Gad first response, “ka’asher adoni mi’tzaveh,” implied that the terms to which they were agreeing were Moshe’s own.  How do you make an agreement between two parties enforceable and binding?  You go to a lawyer and draw up a contract.  Moshe proceeded to create a formal tnai kaful, putting their agreement in “legaleze” so it would carry all the force and authority of a binding contractual agreement.

Reuvain and Gad then rephrased their original consent.  “No need for all the formalities, no need for the ‘legaleze’ to get us to keep our word.”  They recognized that the terms were not Moshe’s own, but were “asher y’dabeir Hashem,” what G-d had dictated, and therefore they could not and would not back out of the deal.

The chassidishe seforim see the stylistic differences between Sefer Devarim and the other books of the Torah as a function of that sefer being a bridge between torah she’b’skav and torah sheb’al peh.  That bridge actually begins in our parsha of Matos.  Noticeably missing from the opening of our parsha is the usual declaration of, “Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leimor...,” that we read so many times in chumash, yet, Moshe nonetheless says to the roshei hamatos, “Zeh hadavar asher tzivah Hashem…” (30:2)   This is the idea the Ramban is teaching us.  The Bnei Reuvain and Gad recognzied that the voice of Moshe, the voice of Chazal, is the ratzon Hashem. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

muflah ha'samuch l'ish, or when is a katan not a katan?

There is a chiddush in the parsha of nedarim that the vows of a child a year under bar mitzvah, a muflah hasamuch l’ish, have validity.  There are two possible ways of understanding this din: 1) does the Torah mean that even though the child is still a minor, when it comes to hil nedarim his/her vows are taken seriously, or, 2) is the Torah redefining the age of majority viz a viz hilchos nedarim?

The gemara (Nidah 46) quotes Rav Huna that if a muflah hasamuch l’ish makes a neder and then violates that neder, he/she would get malkos.  If the chiddush haTorah of muflah hasmauch l’ish was just that even a neder of a katan has validity, then Rav Huna’s din wouldn't make sense – a katan is exempt from punishment.  It must be that the Torah treats a muflah as a gadol.  The same can be seen from the Rambam’s formulation (Nedarim 11:4):

 הואיל והגיעו לשני הגדולים, נדריהן קיימין--אף על פי שלא הביאו סימנין, ועדיין לא נעשו גדולים לכל דבר; ודבר זה מדברי תורה--שהמופלא הסמוך לאיש, הקדשו הקדש ונדריו נדרים.

The words “higi'u l'shanei hagedolim" imply that a muflah is considered (viz a viz nedarim) a full fledged gadol.

We discussed a similar issue once before.  R’ Chaim (al haRambam) asks how the gemara can have a hava amina that the age at which child can become a ben sorer u’moreh is under 13 – a minor cannot serve as a defendant or plaintiff in beis din!  R’ Chaim therefore concludes that the gavra of the ben sorer u’moreh is technically never found guilty of any crime.  Beis din simply finds as a matter of fact that he has the status of a ben sorer, and because of that status he is given a punishment for the inevitable future crimes he will commit (ne’herag al shem sofo).  R’ Shach in Avi Ezri sees this as a distinction without a difference.  How can a person be punished without being guilty of some crime?  Rather, explains Rav Shach, even though normally a minor cannot come before beis din or receive punishment, the chiddush of the parsha of ben sorer u’moreh is that viz a viz this particular parsha we treat the individual as a gadol from an earlier age. 

My son showed me that the Shitah Mekubetzes in Archin 3a asks why a pasuk is needed to exclude a katan from punishment for the issur of being metamei mikdash – a katan is never liable for punishment?  The Shitah gives two answers: 1) since a katan is included in the parsha of tumah, i.e. he can become tamei, I might have thought the issurim and punishments extend to him as well, kah mashma lan; 2) the exclusion is needed for someone who becomes tamei as a katan and then becomes a gadol and enters the Mikdash.  Could the two answers of the Shitah hinge on this chakirah?  The first answer seems to accept at least in theory that a katan could be liable for punishment, which would imply that viz a viz the parsha of tumah he is treated as a gadol.  The second answer perhaps holds that a katan remains a katan, irrespective of whether certain dinim apply to him at an earlier age.

I thought maybe the din of tumas mikdash is different.  It’s not an issur gavra of entering the mikdash while tamei, but rather a din in the cheftza shel mikdash not being a place where tumah is brought.  It doesn’t matter whether the vehicle for the tumah coming in is through a gadol or a katan.  By way of analogy, the S.A. paskens that a katan can light ner Chanukah for the family even though normally a katan cannot be motzi a gadol in mitzvos.  There too, the idea may be that the mitvah of ner Chanukah is the cheftza shel menorah being lit (as R’ Chaim al haRambam explains by neiros mikdash), irrespective of who is doing the lighting.  Essentially I am trying to have my cake and eat it too – like R’ Chaim explains by ben sorer u’moreh, I am essentially opening the door to giving out a punishment absent any chovas hagavra, simply by virtue of a certain situation being created.  Now that I’ve written this out, I’m less convinced that this makes sense, but I’ll throw it out there anyway for your thoughts.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Ramban on musafim of the moadim

The Ramban at the end of last week’s parsha contrasts the parsha of the musafim of the moadim described there with the parshiyos of korbanos that appear at the beginning of Vayikra.  Instead of focusing on what Aharon and his sons had to do – their avoda – as the Torah does in VaYikra, the Torah here makes no mention of the kohanim and instead focusses on the responsibility of Bnei Yisrael to see that korbanos are brought, “tishmireu l’hakriv li b’mo’ado” (see this post on Beis Vaad for more on that).  Ramban explains:

אבל כפי פשוטו, בא הכתוב לומר כי אע"פ שהפרשה הזו בתורת הקורבנות לא ייחד בה אהרן ובניו כאשר הוא בפרשיות שבתורת כוהנים, אבל אמר אל כל בני ישראל יחדיו ככל אשר ציווה ה' את משה - בין בדין שביתת המלאכה בין בתמידין ומוספין ובנדרים ונדבות, כי כן נאמר לו (לעיל כח ב): צו את בני ישראל.
והטעם מפני שהמצווה לאחר ביאתם לארץ, והיא אזהרה לישראל כולם שישמרו במועדם התמידין והמוספין ויקריבו הנדרים והנדבות. ועוד כי עיקר המצווה להיות הימים נזכרים ונעשים לשבות בהם מכל מלאכת העבודה. והפרשה הזו שווה עם פרשת המועדות שבתורת כוהנים (ויקרא כג), שם נאמר בתחילה דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם ובסוף וידבר משה את מועדי ה' אל בני ישראל, ובכאן ככה בתחילה צו את בני ישראל ואמרת אליהם ובסוף ויאמר משה אל בני ישראל ככל אשר ציווה ה'. ולא הזכיר "מועדי ה'", בעבור שהוזכרו בכאן בפרשה דברים אחרים שאינן במועדי ה', כגון תמידי החול ומוספי השבת וראשי חדשים
Let’s take the first point first: why does the fact that the musafim are brought only after Bnei Yisrael enter Eretz Yisrael make a difference?  The korbanos are still brought by kohanim, even if the nation as a whole had a role in overseeing the process?  Was there a difference between the midbar and Eretz Yisrael in terms of whether the kohanim acted as shluchei d’shemaya or sheluchei didan?  I wouldn’t read the Ramban in such technical terms, especially when he is addressing peshuto shel mikra.  What I think the Ramban means is that the moadim are national holidays.  It’s only once we were in Eretz Yisrael that our national identity was fully formed and that idea could be expressed.  It’s like l’havdil fireworks on July 4.  The Grucci brothers may be the ones shooting the fireworks, but we are the ones celebrating.  Sure the Grucci brothers (if they were around then) could shoot fireworks when there was only thirteen colonies, but the act has a different meaning entirely once it is done as part of a national celebration.    

That ties in with the second point:

ועוד כי עיקר המצווה להיות הימים נזכרים ונעשים לשבות בהם מכל מלאכת העבודה.
What does resting from melacha have to do with the korbanos?  I think what Ramban is saying is that there is a certain kedushas hayom to the moadim that expresses itself primarily in the issur melacha.  The offering of korbanos is part and parcel of establishing that kedushas hayom.  It’s not just an avodah that you do on the day of Yom Tov; it’s an avodah that makes the day into a special day of Yom Tov. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

shem olam etein lo - Tzelafchad's eternal reward

Rashi writes in Parshas Pinchas that the Bnos Tzelafchad had the special zechus of the parsha of hilchos nachalos being transmitted through them.  What did they do to deserve this special merit? 
Chasam Sofer (here) answers with a pasuk from the haftarah we read today at mincha.  Hashem promises to the “sarisim asher yishmeru es shabsosai” a “yad v’shem tov m’banim u’mibanos,” better than any children.  Chazal (according to one view) tell us that the mekoshesh who violated Shabbos was Tzelafchad.  He did so not for his own benefit, but to show the rest of Klal Yisrael that even though they were punished and would have to wander for 40 years, the mitzvos, especially the mitzvah of shabbos, still needed to be obeyed.  Tzelofchad’s actions were actually motivated by a desire to preserve the mitzvah of shabbos, not to desecrate it.  Therefor, thetorah of parshas nachalos was given through his daughters as an eternal remembrance for his good deeds.

I thought this Chasam Sofer fits perfectly with a gemara in Sanhedrin (93b) that darshens the same pasuk about Chanaya, Misha’el, and Azarya, and Daniel.  The gemara writes:

מאי שם עולם אתן לו אשר לא יכרת אמר ר' תנחום דרש בר קפרא בצפורי זה ספר דניאל שנקרא על שמו
The “shem olam” they were rewarded with is Sefer Daniel. 

You see from the gemara that having divrei torah transmitted in your name counts as an eternal reward and remembrance.  This is exactly what the Chasam Sofer is saying as well – the transmission of parshas nachalos in the name of the Bnos Tzelafchad is the best remembrance Tzelafchad could have.
Parenthetically, my wife observed that in the list of families, the Bnos Tzelafchad are listed as (25:33):
 וְשֵׁם בְּנוֹת צְלָפְחָד מַחְלָה וְנֹעָה חָגְלָה מִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה

Yet, later, in the parsha of nachalos (27:1), they are listed as:

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֹתָיו מַחְלָה נֹעָה וְחָגְלָה וּמִלְכָּה וְתִרְצָה

Notice the difference of where the "vuv"s that makes the conjunctions are placed.  It's a detail, but every kutzo shel yud has meaning.  I have no idea why there is such a difference.

Another question from my wife: given that the women did not sin in the cheit hameraglim or the cheir ha'eigel and were not included in the punishment gezeiros for these sins, wouldn't they have far outnumbered the men?  I would also add that a large number of females were captured in the war for Midyan as well.  Seems like there should have been a major shidduch crisis...

aveilus, teshuvah: the two themes of ta'anis

The Rambam opens Hil Ta’anis by telling us that there are days set aside for fasting in order “to awaken hearts and open the gates of repentance.”  The primary goal of a fast day is to elicit teshuvah.

It would seem that other Rishonim disagree.  The Ran in Ta’anis quotes the Ra’avad as explaining that the reason there is no added prayer of neilah on fasts like 10 Teves, 17 Tamuz, etc. is because these days are set aside for mourning the tragedies that occurred on them.  Neilah is only added to fasts that are set aside as days of prayer. 

The Chasam Sofer proves that this view is correct from the gemara’s explanation of why we do not move these fasts to an earlier date if they fall on Shabbos – “akdumei puranisa lo makdiminan,” we do not move up a day of tragedy.  These fasts are days of aveilus, not simply days of prayer or teshuvah.

Once upon a time we discussed the view of Ramban, who holds that the takanah of the ta’anis of 17 Tamuz and the other fast days included prohibitions against bathing, washing, wearing leather shoes, etc.  However, that takanah was put in place only for times of tzarah.  When it is not a time of tzarah, there is no obligation to fast.  The choice whether or not to do so is ours as a community.  Ramban concludes that we have been mekabeil as a community only not to eat and drink on these fast days, but have not been mekabeil any of the other prohibitions.  (Considering events in Eretz Yisrael, could one not make the case that we are in an eis tzarah now and the original takanah should be in effect in full force?  Anyone know if this issue was raised by poskim?) 
What kind of strange compromise does this kabbalah amount to?  Were we mekabeil the day as a fast day or not?  If yes, then how can we bathe or wear leather?  If not, then why can’t we eat?  R’ Yitzchok Sorotzkin explains the Ramban based on these two themes, aveilus and tefilah, that characterize the chiyuv to fast.  The issurim of bathing, of wearing leather, etc. are part and parcel of designating the day as a day or tragedy and mourning.  This was the original takanah of fasting, which only applies when there is an eis tzarah – a time of tragedy.  Our kabbalah amounts to accepting the day as as a day of teshuvah and tefilah.  For this end, it is sufficient to give up eating and drinking alone.

Monday, July 14, 2014

true home

In last week’s parsha Rashi comments that the Torah emphasizes Bnos Tzelafchad’membership in sheivet Menashe because the love of Eretz Yisrael that they demonstrated was similar to the love of Eretz Yisrael demonstrated by Yosef.  Where do we see Yosef’s love of Eretz Yisrael?  Rashi explains that Yosef asked his brothers to make sure he was buried only in Eretz Yisrael. 

The Netziv asks: all the shevatim were buried in Eretz Yisrael – this was not a unique request on Yosef’s part.  How do we see that Yosef had a special love for Eretz Yisrael more than anyone else?  The Netziv therefore points to a different source.  When Yosef was giving his history to the Sar haMashkim, he openly admitted that he had been taken from Eretz Yisrael (Braishis 40:15 – “eretz ha’Ivrim”) and was not a native Egyptian, even though this admission would not certainly not help him. 

Proof to the Netziv’s position can be seen from the following Midrash: Moshe challenged G-d why he was denied entry into Eretz Yisrael while the bones of Yosef that he removed from Egypt and carried through the desert got to go there.  Hashem responded that Yosef identified himself as a “na’ar Ivri” in Pharoah’s court; Moshe, however, was identified by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish Mitzri.”

R’ Chaim Drukman quotes an amazing vort from the Ostrovza.  Yosef had been born and raised in Eretz Yisrael.  Moshe Rabeinu, however, was born in Egypt, raised in Egypt, and never stepped foot in Eretz Yisrael.  Why should he have been expected to identify or be identified as anything other than an “ish Mitzi?”

The Ostrovtza answers that we see from here that no matter where a Jew is born, no matter where a Jew is raised, his true home is Eretz Yisrael, his identity is tied to Eretz Yisrael.   

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pinchas and Yosef

Rashi writes that Pinchas’ lineage was traced to Aharon to deflect the criticism that he was merely a descendent of Yiso, an idolator.  Surely everyone already knew that Pinchas was Aharon’s grandson as well as a decendent of Aharon – what chiddush is the Torah adding?  As we’ve discussed in the past, the question is what motivated Pinchas.  The critics downplayed the courage it took to kill Zimri and charged that this was just who Pinchas was – a hothead, someone prone to explode and take violent action.  What else can you expect from someone who had the genes of an idolator in his blood?  The Torah, however, stresses that Pinchas’ actions did not come from the genes of Yisro, but came from the genes of Aharon, the lover of peace (Ma’or vaShemesh, R’ Tzadok in Pri Tzadik, others). 

The underlying assumption here is interesting: how Pinchas was viewed – whether as a hothead or a man of peace driven to drastic action – is directly related to the knowledge of where he came from, who his parents and grandparents were.  The Derashos haRan writes that Avraham did not mind if Yitzchak married into a family of idolators, as Avraham had the tools to undo a wrong philosophical outlook, but he forbade Yitzchak from marrying people outside his family because bad midos are somehow genetically transmitted and cannot be undone.  In our case, Yisro’s lineage was viewed as somehow genetically corrupt, his offspring “carriers” of a genetic tendency toward bloodshed.  I wouldn’t expect a modern reader to buy into this approach.  We have no problem accepting that a shoemaker who never finished elementary school can have a grandson who is a nobel prize winner, or similar such stories.  We like to think we all have the freedom and independence to become what our parents are not.  Whether that's really true or not is another story.

Be that as it may, when we discuss Pinchas’ lineage, we also need to take account of the fact that Pinchas’ mother was a descendent not only of Yiro, but of Yosef as well (see Sotah 43).  The Tiferes Shlomo notes that kinah (=156), the trait that characterized Pinchas’ actions in our parsha, has the same gematriya as Yosef (=156).  Kinah is the hallmark of a special relationship.  When we learn sotah we talk about kinuy and stirah, the husband who warns his wife not to get involved with anyone else -- the relationship between husband and wife precludes anything from coming between them.  Pinchas’ kinah turned back Hashem’s anger because whatever faults, transgressions, missteps may arise, they cannot come between a relationship that has this ingredient of kinah.  Vaykanu bo echav” – through Yosef (“bo” = through him, not directed at him), explains the Radomsker, this special relationship of kinah was created.   Lechna re’ey es shlom achecha,” Yosef the channel of kinah is the one who can lead and bring shalom; Pinchas who arouses “b’kanoh es kinasi b’socham,” the spirit of kinah within Klal Yisrael, is rewarded with the gift of shalom as well.
The Radomsker doesn’t say it, but it seems implicit in the parallelism between Yosef and Pinchas that kimah invites misunderstanding.  Yosef was rejected; Pinchas suffers criticism.  Chazal warn against those who act like Zimri but want the reward of Pinchas.  It takes no great intelligence to recognize that bad guys don’t deserve rewards; it does take great intelligence to recognize that a Zimri doesn’t deserve a reward.   The Shem m’Shmuel notes that Chazal (Nazir 23) discuss Zimri’s sin in the same context as Tamar’s relationship with Yehudah, which was undertaken purely l’shem shamayim.  Zimri was able to convince himself and to convince others that he was not acting out of lust, but was motivated with the best intentions.  The gemara (Sanhedrin 62) writes that the members of sheivet Shimon came to Zimri to complain that they were being killed and he was doing nothing.  The Sanz-Klausenberger explains that Zimri was responding (or at least portrayed himself this way) to the needs of his sheivet – taking a Midianite women was a minor transgression that was “needed” to make an argument that could save the masses from death.   The Ishbitzer writes that Zimri’s actions appeared to be above and beyond criticism.  If you or I were to look at Zimri we would probably wish that we did mitzvos with as much l’shem shamyim as his actions!  We would go over and pin a medal on Zimri and give him all the rewards he wanted.  And Pinchas/Yosef?  He is the guy we don’t understand and the guy we reject.  We force Yosef undercover and he has to disguise himself as a Mitzri until we finally come to accept him for who he is.  Zimri is the guy who really is undercover, disguising who he really is with the mask of l'shem shamayim, unrecognizable until a Yosef/Pinchas, a master of disguise, can reveal the truth for us.

I've been rambling a bit this week because it’s all very confusing.   The heroes come disguised as villains; the villains look like heroes.  I wish I could tell you how to sort things out, but I can’t.  Who's the real Pinchas and who's the Zimri?  All I can say is don't expect easy answers.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


You remember a few weeks ago when there was that massive tehillim rally held in downtown NY as a reaction against the planned draft of yeshiva students? It wasn't enough to say tehillim in your own beis medrash or yeshiva -- it had to be done b'farhesya and b'rov am so it would be picked up by the major news outlets. 

So where's the tehillim rally being held now?

Where and when is the gathering b'rov am taking place, so that every major news outlet shows the thousands and thousands of Jews coming together in support of the State of Israel?

What about renting Citifield or Yankee Stadium?  Surely the threat to human life can't be less important than avoiding the Internet, could it?

We could just gather to say tehillim – no politics involved.

That being said, when the time does come to involve politics, I eagerly await the condemnation of ymach shemam Obama and Kerry by every Jewish organization for their constant calls for "restraint" on the part of Israel and even recognition of Palestinian sovereignty even as our enemies rain missiles down on our civilian populations. I await the condemnation of Obama y’mach shemo for failing to say a word for days about the kidnapping and brutal murder of Israeli teens, in sharp contrast to his and his wife’s reaction to the kidnappings in Nigeria. I await the condemnation of Obama's y’mach shemo ridiculous op-ed printed last week in Ha’aretz that revealed his naïve views of the peace process. His warm words for the Palestinians and transparent dislike of Israel and Jews could not have been clearer. 

Unfortunately, I have a feeling it will be a long wait…

Monday, July 07, 2014

why didn't G-d just ignore Bilam?

In his comments to Parshas Balak, Ibn Ezra asks the obvious question: why should G-d have interfered with Bilam and prevented him from cursing Bnei Yisrael?  So what if he was going to curse people – sticks and stones may break our bones but words can never harm us!  G-d could just have ignored whatever he said.  Why bother to switch his words from a curse into a blessing?    

Ibn Ezra answers that we know that Bnei Yisrael fell victim to the sins of znus and avodah zarah right after Bilam’s attempt to curse them.  Had Bilam been able to say what he wanted, the world would have attributed Bnei Yisrael’s failings and punishment to those curses rather than to Hashem.  

Ralbag says this can’t be what is going on.  The haftarah tells us to remember the kindness Hashem did for us in thwarting Bilam’s curses.  According to the Ibn Ezra, we didn’t gain or lose anything from those curses – G-d gained, because the world would now correctly attribute the punishment of Bnei Yisrael to G-d rather than to Bilam.  It’s a great kavod shamayim for people to know that G-d is in charge, but why is that a chessed for us?

Ralbag explains that it’s not the NY Times or Google headline that Hashem was concerned with in thwarting Bilam – it was what was in our heads that he cared about.  Had Bnei Yisrael known (and it would have become known) that Bilam had put a curse on them, they would have attributed their sin and punishment not to their own bad choices, but rather to Bilam’s curse.  They would have accepted the inevitability of failure and the inevitability of punishment.  There can be no greater obstacle to teshuvah than that.  Hashem therefore made clear that Bilam had nothing to do with the events that transpired.  We were responsible for our own situation, and it was in our hands alone to correct our transgressions and bring about a return to G-d.  We see an important point from this Ralbag: you don’t have to give someone a handout to do a chessed.  Empowering someone so that they can take responsibility for their own fate is a chessed as well.

In defense of the Ibn Ezra, perhaps one can suggest that just as when people daven for someone who is ill, the fact that that individual (even without doing anything) serves as an instrument, a kli, to bringing about greater avodas Hashem and kvod shamayim works in his/her favor, so too on the flipside, had the punishment of Bnei Yisrael been attributed to Bilam’s curse, we would have in effect served as the instrument, the kli, of c”v reducing  kvod shamayim in the world and it would have counted against us.  Not putting us in a situation where we would be the tool by which chilul Hashem occurs is not just a benefit to kvod shamayim, but is a benefit for us as well.

Friday, July 04, 2014

the biggest tragedy is becoming like them

1) "Lecha i'atzecha asher ya'aseh ha'am ha'zeh l'amcha..."  Chasam Sofer says an amazing pshat here.  Bilam was telling Balak that the way to attack Bnei Yisrael was to take "ha'am hazeh," our nation, and make them into (ya'aseh = make into) "amcha," the same as your nation of Moav.  When we become like them, then we're finished.

2) While on the topic of the Chasam Sofer, he quotes the recent daf yomi (Ta'anis 20) that compares the curse of Achya haShiloni, who compared Bnei Yisrael to a reed, with the "blessing" of Bilam who compared us to a cedar tree.  A reed will bend with the wind, but never break.  A tree may look mighty and tall, but when a strong wind comes it can be ripped out by its roots.  Chasam Sofer suggests that the reason why we shuckle when we daven and learn is because it represents the swaying of the reed.

3) A final Chasam Sofer, which he quotes from R' Akiva Eiger: in a normal year there should be 132 days where tachanun is not recited and 222 where it is.  From Bilam's words of blessing we can infer what he had in mind as a curse.  L'kov oyvai likachticha -- I thought you would help me overcome the power of those lamed-kuf-beis (=gematriya 122) special days,  but hinei, not only did you not help me with those days, but beirachta beireich, you added bracha to those beis-reish-chaf (=gematriya 222) days which were otherwise not special, as tachanun is recited.

I leave it to your to count up the days where tachanus is/is not recited and figure out in which column Yom ha'Atzmaut or your favorite Rebbe's yahrzeit belongs.

4) A widely respected local Rabbi is quoted in one of our newspapers regarding the tefilos for the teens in Israel as saying, "I feel that he [G-d] owes us big time."   I don't understand how anyone can say such a thing or what it means.  We are indebted to G-d big time; He owes us nothing.  I have no idea how to take the quote in question.

Those learning daf yomi may remember Ta'anis 10b where the gemara talks about someone who took upon himself to fast for a person who was sick or for some other tragedy.  Even if the person recovers (or c"v dies) or the tragedy is averted, the gemara says the person still has to finish the ta'anis.  Rashi (d"h al ha'tzarah) writes that if a person doesn't finish the fast it appears that he is making a deal or condition with G-d -- you do this for me and I'll fast for you; if you don't uphold your end, my end of the bargain is off too. Rashi is telling us that we don't make deals with G-d.  Pray and fast and do teshuvah because it's the right thing to do -- not because of an expectation of some quid pro quo.

I'll leave you with a question: why does Rashi need this sevara ("...nireh k'masneh im kono") when the previous Rashi explained that the ta'anis must be completed because the kabalas ta'anis has a din neder.  Even if there was no issue of appearances, i.e. it's not "nireh k'masneh," you would still have to finish the fast because m'din neder?  

Thursday, July 03, 2014

lo hibit aven b'Ya'akov - where is the justice in ignoring wrongdoing?

1) Why is it the mitzvah of celebrating shalosh regalim in particular which stands as the counter to Bilam?  The Shem m’Shmuel quotes from his father the Sochotchover that Bilam wanted the benefit of the mystical/spiritual power that comes from prophecy without having to sacrifice his olam ha’zeh to get there.  When Klal Yisrael fulfilled the mitzvah of aliya la’regel they left their homes, they left their fields, they left everything behind and journeyed to the Mikdash.  Our journey was accompanied by the self-sacrifice that a Bilam could never muster (see Maharal for a different answer).

 2) The Midrash interprets the words, “v’agarshenu min ha’aretz” to mean not that Balak would kick us out of his land but rather that he wanted to prevent us from entering Eretz Yisrael.  What motivated the Midrash to read the pasuk that way instead of k’peshuto?  It could be that the Midrash is built on the diyuk of the hey ha’yediya in “ha’aretz,” THE land, or on the fact that the land is mentioned at all – the pasuk could just have said “va’agarshenu.”  I would like to suggest that what bothered the Midrash is the simple fact that you can’t get kicked out of a place you are not in yet.  So how does re-reading the pasuk as referring to Eretz Yisrael help – we weren’t there yet either?  I think the answer is that the word “agarshenu” here is not physical displacement, but rather like the word “geirushin.”  Divorce is more than a physical separation between parties – it is the severing of an emotional and perhaps even an existential bond.  Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael are, metaphorically speaking, wed together.  Balak wanted to sever that connection.

Why?  The Shem m’Shmuel has a number of pieces on the parsha where he attempts to answer that question.  Whatever the answer is, you see clearly that Klal Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael is not just a “threat” to the neighboring regimes and despots, but is a “threat” to France, to America, to New Zealand, etc.  A world where there is at least one nation that stands out as a bastion of morality and ethics is a challenge to the hypocrisy and the evils perpetrated by all others.  Barak, I mean Balak, cannot sleep comfortably under those conditions.

3) Bilam says, “Lo hibit aven b’Ya’akov…” that Hashem does not look at our wrongdoing.  The Sefas Emes asks: Hashem is medakdek on tzadikim even more than on all others.  No sin goes unpunished or ignored.  Kol ha’omer Hashem vatran… etc. 

Rashi tells us at the beginning of Parshas Korach that Ya’akov’s name is not mentioned because he did not want to be associated with Korach’s sin.  Everyone has within him/her the spiritual genes of all of our Avos.  When a person sins like Korach, that little spark of Ya’akov in his genes doesn’t want to be shepped in the mud, so it pulls back and walks away.  It remains unsullied, a point of departure should the person wish to restart and rebuild through teshuvah. 

Of course Hashem doesn’t ignore sin.  But “Lo hibit aven b’Ya’akov,” those sins are all on the surface – they don’t penetrate to the core of who we are, to the genes of Ya’akov and the Avos that are at the root of our personalities. 

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

lo ra'ah amal b'yisrael

A few weeks ago I posted a Kol Bo (in his commentary on the haggadah) that translates the word “ameil” as work that does not lead anywhere, and I quoted by daughter’s question as to how this fits with the concept of “ameilus baTorah” – surely there is no more worthwhile or fulfilling work than that!

GU in a comment there reminded me of the Chofez Chaim (al haTorah in P’ Bechukosau) who asks what it means when we say “anu ameilim” and get schar but “heim ameilim” and don’t get schar.  Doesn’t the tailor get paid for the suit he makes?  The Chofetz Chaim answers that if the tailor works hard but doesn’t complete the product – his work is ameilus, withouth results – he doesn’t get paid.  The chiddush of learning is that even if it is ameilus, even if you work 10 hours to figure out pshat in a Tosfos but still don’t get it, you still get schar for the effort.

Perhaps this is (derech derush) the meaning of Bilam’s words, “…v’lo ra’ah amal b’yisrael.”  Ameilus is a wonderful thing – why would Bilam say as a bracha that Hashem’s doesn’t see our ameilus (see Ohr haChaim, and this is why Rashi and Ramban reinterpret the word)?

The answer is that Hashem doesn’t look at us like he looks at the tailor who can’t finish making the suit or a student who hands in an incomplete paper for a course, the definition of “ameil” according to the Kol Bo.  Hashem doesn’t look at our efforts as work that is incomplete or without results, even though no matter how much we learn or how much effort we put in we will always fall short of doing justice to the vastness of Torah.  In G-d’s eyes, it is as if we accomplished exactly what he expects and wants of us.