Tuesday, June 30, 2015

collaborative chinuch conference

This past Sunday the YI of Woodmere hosted the second annual Five Towns Community Collaborative Conference on topics of Jewish education.  Once again (my wife and I have gone both years) it was an amazing program with speakers from across the spectrum of the community addressing a host of different topics.  Principals, teachers, parents, psychologists, Rabbanim and Rebbetzins, all gathered together to talk about one topic: how can we educate our children better.  There day consisted of a keynote address by Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski, the noted psychiatrist, and then you had a menu of about six options for each of five sessions that ran until the early afternoon.  Except for one session where we overlapped, my wife and I went to different speakers and then compared notes afterwards.  Let me give you some thoughts I walked away with:

1. We stress practical observance of mitzvos but are not doing enough to teach yiras shamayim (R. Dr. Twerski).  This is the root cause behind problems of improper use of the internet, to name one.  The way to develop yiras shamayim, as the Rambam writes, is by observing and reflecting on the wonders of the natural world.  What was running through my mind as he spoke about this topic is that today's kids are too wrapped up in their i-machines to even notice their surroundings, much less appreciate the beauty of nature.  It's a catch-22.

2. We -- speakers, parents, etc. -- are all concerned by and large about the same issues, which on the one hand is comforting (no one likes to think their kid is the only one struggling with X or Y), and yet on the other hand means across the board there are holes that need to be filled.  I take the fact that so many people came to such a conference as a positive.  The fact that so many people are concerned and want to raise and educate their kids better and the fact that we can have a shared conversation between parents, teachers, and Rabbis is itself a major first step to solving problems.  

3. One key issue: Phone/tablet devices have an effect on attention span, cognitive ability, not to mention what kids are sharing and watching on them is a problem. 

4. Koren Publishers has what looks like a wonderful new siddur meant for elementary school kids and a siddur curriculum that goes with it.  We bought one of their other siddurim meant for high school age/adult for one of my kids.  Certain things that caught my eye: I like the little thought questions inserted next to the kri'as haTorah sections; I like the idea of putting each bracha of shmoneh esrei on a separate page, but thought maybe some commentary or something should have been stuck on those pages to fill up some of the white space; the guide to the year in the back is nice, but a more comprehensive guide to halachos of tefilah (e.g. what's in the back of the Artscroll) may be better; I like the commentary sections that raise questions to think about rather than spoonfed insights and answers.  I was surprised there was not even a short comment to explain or provide context for the bracha of "shelo asani isha." 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

when did the battle in Chormah take place?

It has been another busy week with not much time to think about the parsha, so apologies for having little to say. 

In a few brief pesukim the Torah relates how the Canaani king of Arad waged war against Bnei Yisrael, and after taking hostages, was defeated.  The land in which this battle took place was renamed Chormah (21:1-3).

Interestingly, we find a nearly parallel story in Sefer Shoftim (ch 1):

 וּבְנֵי קֵינִי- חֹתֵן מֹשֶׁה עָלוּ מֵעִיר הַתְּמָרִים אֶת-בְּנֵי יְהוּדָה מִדְבַּר יְהוּדָה אֲשֶׁר בְּנֶגֶב עֲרָד וַיֵּלֶךְ וַיֵּשֶׁב אֶת-הָעָם:
וַיֵּלֶךְ יְהוּדָה אֶת-שִׁמְעוֹן אָחִיו וַיַּכּוּ אֶת-הַכְּנַעֲנִי יוֹשֵׁב צְפַת וַיַּחֲרִימוּ אוֹתָהּ וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שֵׁם-הָעִיר חָרְמָה:

Again, we have a battle waged against the Canaani, the place is named Arad, the enemy is defeated and the conquered territory is named Chormah.

Didn't that already happen in Moshe's days? 

One possibility is that the conquest of the Canaani was started in Moshe's time, and some of the territory ('shem ha'makom')was named Chormah.  Eventually the war was completed later in history and the particular city that closed the event was given the same name ('shem ha'ir'). 

Ramban offers that as a second possibility, but first comments as follows:

והשלים עוד בכאן לספר, כי החרימו ישראל גם את עריהם אחרי בואם בארץ כנען אחרי מות יהושע לקיים את נדרם אשר נדרו ויקראו שם הערים חרמה. והוא מה שנאמר בספר שופטים (א טז): ובני קיני חותן משה עלו מעיר התמרים את בני יהודה מדבר יהודה אשר בנגב ערד, ושם כתוב (פסוק יז): וילך יהודה את שמעון אחיו ויכו את הכנעני יושב צפת ויחרימו אותה ויקרא את שם העיר חרמה, ושם נשלם הנדר הזה.
אבל השלים הכתוב להזכיר העניין בכאן,

According to this approach, the Torah is referring to that very same event that occurred later in Sefer Shoftim in order to bring the story here to its conclusion. 

How can the Torah reference a historical event that was yet to happen?  Ibn Ezra comments as follows:

ורבים אמרו:
כי זאת הפרשה יהושע כתבה ...ומצאו שבני יהודה קראו שם המקום חרמה,

This is one of the places where Ibn Ezra throws out the possibility of pesukim in the Torah being written later in history by people other than Moshe.

Abarbanel puts two and two together and writes that although Ramban didn't spell it out because he didn't want us to choke on a chicken bone or on the cholent, but he must have believed that this pasuk was added at a later point in history in order to complete the story.

Wow!  Two Rishonim who hold that a pasuk was not written by Moshe Rabeinu!

Or maybe not.  Let me quote the rest of the Ibn Ezra:

 ולא אמרו כלום כי אותו המקום יקרא בתחלה צפת וזה מלך ערד והאמת שני מקומות ורבים במקרא כמו הם

The place referenced in Shoftim south of the lands of Arad is called Tzefat and later the name is changed to Chormah.  That's a different place than the land of Arad itself, which our parsha is speaking about, and which happens to share the same name Chormah.  Ibn Ezra rejects out of hand the possibility that this pasuk was added later.  (If you hold on the basis of Ibn Ezra's comment to the last 12 pesukim in the Torah and a few other hints that Ibn Ezra did in fact have no problem with the idea that someone other than Moshe added pesukim to the Torah, the question you have to address is why he takes such issue with that idea here.)

Rav Chavel in his footnotes to Ramban rejects the Abarbanel's conclusion and suggests that there is no proof simply from the fact that Ramban sees a pasuk as referring to a later historical event that it was written then.  Perhaps Moshe wrote it to complete the story based on what he foresaw through nevuah. 

Abarbanel himself suggests that we are dealing with two separate and very different battles.  In the time of Moshe the Canaani tribes left their land in order to go out and wage war against Bnei Yisrael.  The episode in Shoftim is a different battle that took place when Bnei Yisrael entered Eretz Yisrael and fought that Canaani tribe on its home turf.  If Abarbanel is right, then we understand on a pshat level why Chazal (quoted by Rashi) identify this Canaani as Amalek.  Just as Amalek went out to fight against Bnei Yisrael even though they were not under attack, so too, these Canaani people went out from their home territory and picked a fight that was unnecessary.  This point may also help answer the Ohr haChaim's question of why we don't find any reaction of fear or worry on the part of Bnei Yisrael even though a captive was taken (he does not see the tefilah and neder as a sign of fear) even though when Yehoshua loses a small number of men in the battle of Ai he is worried.  (It's interesting that Ohr haChaim reads the news of even one isolated capture of a hostage as cause for alarm.  Many other meforshim, e.g. see Seforno, Ramban, take the opposite view and read it as a positive outcome -- a war was waged and no one was killed, no one but one isolated maidservant was taken captive. Bnei Yisrael must have been doing something right.)  This difference is this battle was not a battle waged for the conquest of Eretz Yisrael; it was similar in nature to the fight against Amalek, outside the boundaries of the land.  Failing to win a war for the sake of yerushas ha'aretz, a milchemes mitzvah backed by Hashem's promise to deliver the land, was taken to be a far more serious event.  (On a parenthetical note, in a post to Shlach I mentioned a Noam Elimelech that "Negev" alludes to chochmah, as 'kol harotzeh l'hachkim yadrim.'  I didn't look to see if anyone says it, but maybe the identification of Canaani as Amalek because they come from the Negev is not so much a geographical point, but rather alludes to the idea that the seven nations of Canaan represent the seven midos, while Amalek is an enemy on a higher plane of negative chochmah.)

One final point on the captive taken and the issue of smichus haparshiyos between this episode and the death of Aharon: at first glance the connection is that it was Aharon's death (and the loss of the ananei ha'kavod) which emboldened the Canaani to attack.  The Ralbag, however, adds a positive lesson: it  was the merit of the proper mourning of Aharon that led to Bnei Yisrael being rewarded with such a resounding victory.  Some people are crippled by loss; proper mourning means being inspired to overcome obstacles and achieve greater things.  I would like to connect this idea to the message of the one captive taken.  It's a strange thing -- if we look at events the way other nations look at events, then the meforshim who see the loss of only one captive as a resounding victory are right.  What other nation would think of the loss of just one person taken captive as a tragedy given the potential for far greater calamity during war?  Yet Klal Yisrael doesn't think like that.  To this very day we as a nation cry for even a single solider that the enemy takes from us.  If it doesn't bother us, we have to ask the Ohr haChaim's question of why not.  Where does that attitude come from?  I would like to suggest that it comes from Aharon.  The reason Aharon was mourned by 'kol beis Yisrael' is because it was perceived that he cared for 'kol beis Yisrael' -- not just as a nation, but for each individual.  Aharon was now gone.  How would Klal Yisrael react when just one 'minor' person was taken captive?  The message of the victory at Chormah is that Aharon's legacy continued and was absorbed by the nation.  Each individual counts.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Rambam writes that anyone who stood at Sinai believes in Moshe's nevuah --what about Korach?

The Yerushalmi in Cheilek writes that Korach was guilty of denying two ikkarei emunah: 1) he was kofer in the nevuah of Moshe Rabeinu; 2) he denied Torah min ha’shamayim. (Nonetheless, at least some Tanaim as well as the Midrash hold that Korach and his camp did not lose their olam ha’ba like other kofrim.) The Brisker Rav explained that this is what Moshe meant by the double-phrasing of, “B’zos teid’un ki Hashem shelachani … ki lo mi’libi.” (16:28) “Ki Hashem shelachani” is an affirmation that Hashem appointed Moshe to be a navi; “Ki lo mi’libi” is an affirmation that all of Torah is min ha’shamayim and not made up by Moshe.

Since earlier in the week I posted about whether/how tefilah can tilt the scales of bechirah, I wanted to follow up with a problem raised in the chumash shiurim from R’ Eliyahu Baruch Finkel from the Mir. The Rambam writes in Iggeres Teiman that if someone denies the authority of Moshe’s nevuah it is a sign that that individual was not present at Har Sinai when Hashem declared, “V’gam becha ya’aminu l’olam,” that after seeing mattan Torah it would be impossible to question the authority of Moshe Rabeinu. Two problems with the Rambam: 1) Korach serves as a counterfactual, as Korach was at Har Sinai, and yet he denied both the nevuah of Moshe Rabeinu and the fact that Torah was given min ha’shamayim; 2) how can the Rambam say no one can deny belief in Moshe’s nevuah – doesn’t that take bechira chofshis off the table at least for this item?

Rav Shach (as quoted in the sefer) answered that the Rambam does not mean denying Moshe’s nevuah would be impossible -- all the Rambam meant is that the scales are tilted decidedly against such a belief. Bechira chofshis doesn’t mean you have to have a 50-50 choice. It can be a 99-1 choice, so long as you are free to make it.

Coming back to the issue of Moshe’s tefilah for Yehoshua interfering with his free choice, based on this approach so long as Yehoshua could choose which path to follow, even if Moshe’s tefilah made the possibility of his choosing badly into a remote possibility, his bechira chofshis remained intact.

The problem with this answer is it that for all intents and purposes it undermines the Rambam’s point. The Rambam asserts that if you deny Moshe’s nevuah it means you weren’t at Sinai – why? Maybe the denier was at Sinai, like Korach, but simply chooses to be part of the 1%?

I’m not comfortable with this idea of a 99-1 shot still being called a free choice, and I don’t think I’m the only one that has problems with it. Rav Dessler in Michtav vol 1 develops the idea that there is a “nekudas habechirah.” In theory, I could wake up tomorrow morning and decide to join the circus. The likelihood of that happening is beyond remote. I could decide to go out to McDonalds for supper tonight. Again, the likelihood is remote. Skipping McDonalds is not something I choose to do – it’s not even on my radar screen of possibilities. Davening ma’ariv at 8:30 instead of later at the zman is something I may choose to do, or might not. That’s my nekudas habechira – it’s a decision that requires I actively exercise my ability to choose. Bechirah chofshis doesn’t mean we have to decide every day whether to eat kosher, to daven, etc. What it means is that we have to choose between the narrow menu of options on our radar screen at that moment. I would read the Rambam as saying that once there was a declaration of “gam becha ya’aminu l’olam,” the possibility of choosing otherwise may remain open, just like the possibility of my joining the circus tomorrow remains open, but I think it places it outside the nekudas habechirah.

Let me put the answer the Steipler gave into my own words. There are people who believe the moon landing was a hoax. There are people who believe Martians have landed on earth. People believe all kids of outlandish things with no basis or evidence to back them up. What the Rambam means is that a rational person who stood at Sinai could not entertain the belief that Moshe is a liar. An irrational person, or a person motivated by ta’avah or ga’avah to make irrational choices, may believe anything. Rashi asks: Korach was an intelligent person – why did he get involved in “shtus,” foolishness? In other words, why was he making a choice that defied rationality?

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

more on why Kaleiv went to Chevron and an Ishbitzer on the law of non-contradiction

Alu zeh ba’negev v’alisem es ha’har…” (13:17) Did the meraglim really need Moshe Rabeinu to give them travel directions? Couldn’t they figure out on their own where to go and how to get there?

A few years ago we looked at this Midrash:

למה הדבר דומה? למלך, שהיה לו אוהב והתנה עמו ואמר לו: לך עמי ואני נותן לך מתנה. הלך עמו ומת. אמר המלך לבנו של אוהבו: אעפ"י שמת אביך, איני חוזר בי במתנה שאמרתי לו, בוא וטול אתה! כך הדבר, המלך, מלך מלכי המלכים הקב"ה. והאוהב זה אברהם, שנאמר (שם מא): זרע אברהם אוהבי. אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא: בא לך עמי (בראשית יב): לך לך מארצך וממולדתך ומבית אביך. התנה עמו, שיתן לו מתנה, שנאמר (שם יג): קום התהלך בארץ. וכן הוא אומר (שם): כי כל הארץ אשר אתה רואה לך אתננה. אמר לו הקב"ה למשה: אעפ"י שהתנתי עם האבות ליתן להם את הארץ ומתו, איני חוזר בי,

What kind of hava amina is it that because Avraham is dead the promise of Eretz Yisrael is nullified as well? Hashem promised Eretz Yisrael to Avraham for all his descendants to inherit, for generations to come, not as a personal gift to him alone!

The Shem m’Shmuel answers that Hashem’s promise is to deliver Eretz Yisrael to Avraham Avinu; the way Avraham can collect is through that little bit of himself that lives on in each and every one of us. By forsaking the legacy of Avraham, we surrender our rights to that promise. Although one might have thought that the sin of the meraglim was so severe as to breach that link to Avraham, the Midrash teaches us that the promise is still intact.

In light of this perhaps the reason Kaleiv went to daven specifically at Chevron is because he wanted to reinforce that link with the Avos, with Avraham Avinu, as that was the guarantee that Klal Yisrael would inherit the land.

Furthermore, as E. noted in a comment to last week’s post, recall that Ya’akov Avinu sent Yosef from Chevron to meet his brothers. Chazal comment that this was an “eitzah amukah” from the “y’sheiney Chevron,” those who rest in Chevron, i.e. Avraham Avinu, the only one of the Avos buried there at that time, which set into motion the wheels of this plot that would ultimately lead to galus Mitzrayim (apparently this was the best way for that onesh to play itself out). Perhaps Kaleiv saw that the plot of the meraglim would lead to a “bechiya l’doros,” an even greater galus, and so he came back to the “y’sheiney Chevron” to try to ask them this time to intercede to stop that plot rather than further it along.

The gemara in Pesachim (88) tells us that Avraham called the Har haBayis a mountain, Yitzchak called it a field, Ya’akov a house. Moshe told the meraglim first to go south, to the negev. “Ha’rotzeh l’hachkim yadrim” – first, think about what you need to accomplish (see Noam Elimelech). Then, “v’alisem es ha’har,” go climb that mountain – connect with the legacy of Avraham Avinu who called the resting place of the Shechina a mountain, because it is through reinforcing that connection that Eretz Yisrael will become ours.

Now that I’ve said my 2 cents, let me add a thought from the Ishbitzer (in Na’os Desheh). Kaleiv was caught between two incompatible desires: he wanted to get to Eretz Yisrael, and at the same time, he wanted to be with his rebbe, Moshe Rabeinu, who he now knew (thanks to the prophecy of Eldad and Meidad) was not going to make it there. Back in January I posed the following question: does G-d “obey” the law of non-contradiction? The first time we have this question raised, or actually not raised, is when Avraham was given the command to bring Yitzchak as an olah even though Hashem had previously promised him “ki b’Yitzchak yikarei lecha zara.” The two statements are incompatible – yet Avraham was not perturbed in the least. The resolution is not finding a sevara or a peirush Rashi to reconcile the statements, but rather accepting the existence of the contradiction. That’s what Kaleiv was seeking in Chevron – a way to have his cake and eat it, a way like Avraham Avinu, to live with contradictions, and thus to have both Eretz Yisrael and his kesher with Moshe Rabeinu.

Monday, June 15, 2015

can you daven for Hashem to interfere with someone's bechira?

The Torah at the beginning of Shlach tells us that Moshe called Hoshe'a by the name Yehoshua (see Ramban re: exactly when his name was changed, as he was called Yehoshua already earlier in the war against Amalek), adding the letter yud to the initial k-ey, because Moshe davened that "K-h yoshiacha mei'atzas meraglim," that Hashem should spare Yehoshua from the plot of the spies.  The Maskil l'David asks how such a tefilah could work.  Every person is given the opportunity of free choice.  How could Moshe ask Hashem to stop Yehoshua from falling prey to the temptation of the spies' plan -- wouldn't that mean interfering with his freedom of choice? 

(You could learn Rashi that Moshe was davening that Hashem protect Yehoshua from any potential plot to kill him that the spies may have been planning, but I think if you take this approach you get involved in the thicket of problems we've discussed a bunch of times in the past about whether hashgacha overrides human's ability to choose and act freely.)

This is different than the gemara (Shabbos 156) where R' Nachman's mother, after hearing from astrologers that he would grow up to be a robber, told him to always wear a yalmukah and to daven that he be spared that fate.  Maharasha asks: how can you ask Hashem to sway your free choice?  The Tiferes Shlomo similarly asks how we daven each day, "Hashiveinu Avinu l'torasecha..."  Aren't we asking Hashem to tip the scales and make our choices easier?  I think the answer (the Maharasha answers a little differerntly, though maybe this is what he means) in those cases is that the tefilah itself is an expression of choice.  The very fact that a person would daven for yiras shamayim and Torah already means he/she has made a choice to go in the right direction and just needs some help getting there. 

The case of Moshe davening for Yehoshua is similar to the gemara (Brachos 10) where Bruriah tells R' Meir that rather than daven for the evil people in his neighborhood to be punished he should daven for them to do teshuvah.  In both these cases it is a third party -- Moshe, Rabbi Meir -- who is making the choice to daven.  The person who is the beneficiary of those tefilos remains passive, not making any choice or committment, perhaps not even aware of the tefilos said on his behalf.  The Maharasha in Brachos asks how do you square this idea of asking Hashem to tilt the scales of free choice for someone with the rule that "hakol b'ydei shamayim chutz m'yiras shamayim?"  He concludes simply, "yesh l'yasheiv."  Good Luck doing so!

(Rav Dessler touches on this issue if you want an answer.  I'm not sure I fully understand it.)

"morasah" or "aina yerusha lach?"

Over at his Mevakesh Lev blog Rabbi Ehrman posted the following question: the pasuk calls Torah a “morashah kehilas Ya’akov,” an inheritance, yet in Pirkei Avos we are told that we have to work at Torah because “aina yerusha lach,” it's not something that you just inherit.  So is it a yerusha or is it not a yerusha?

By coincidence my son’s yeshiva had its annual siyum yesterday and the guest speaker, R’ Ya’akov Perlow, the Novominsker Rebbe, posed this exact question. He quoted the answer of R’ Chaim Volozhiner: Torah is an inheritance for all of Klal Yisrael; it's not, however, an inheritance that belongs to any one person.  Each individual has to earn his own portion in Torah by dint of his own efforts.  The siyum of the yeshiva was a celebration of the efforts of the boys to earn their portion.

Over the years that I’ve had the privilege of attending these siyumim with my son there have been some guest speakers who dazzled with their brilliance, some who had great stories, some who spoke on the masechta. I have to say one thing about the Novominsker’s address: when he spoke, you sensed that everything he said came directly from the heart. He spoke of seeing people in the audience whose grandparents he knew as a young man, and now these same people are themselves grandparents and are zocheh to attend a siyum made by their grandchildren. He spoke of vividly remembering a time when it was thought that everything was lost and Torah would never be rebuilt, at least not on these shores, and yet here we are today, with boys finishing masechtos. The gemara in Shabbos says that Abayei used to make a siyum for all the Rabbanan when a talmid finished a masechta. The Novominsker explains that the siyum is not a simcha only for the individual, but it’s a simcha for the community, for all the Rabbanan,, as it shows the continuity of Torah, the bridge between those past generations and the new generation of bnei Torah our yeshivos are producing.

I think that sums up why on a sunny Sunday afternoon I and other parents and community members give up our time to attend the siyum. The menahel mentioned that last time the yeshiva learned Baba Basra (6 years ago, if I’m not mistaken) there were 19 boys who finished the masechta. This year there were 40. That’s on top of boys making chazarah siyumim on masechtos learned in previous years. You don’t unfortunately have to look too far to find young people on the wrong track these days. It’s nice once in awhile to take time out and appreciate that there are young people who are on the right track.  They are making the morasha of Klal Yisrael into their own personal yerusha, and that is a simcha for us all.  

I will just add one thing to the Novominsker's message.  Every individual must put in his own effort to acquire Torah, but I don't think that is quite enough.  One needs an environment that encourages those efforts, a peer group that shares the same goals, role models who embody the ideals that one is striving for.  I usually avoid mentioning the specific schools my children attend, but in this case I'm going to make an exception for the sake of expressing hakaras hatov to Yeshiva Far Rockaway and its Rosh Yeshiva, its Rebbeim, and staff.  I am noge'a b'davar with it comes to my own son, so I will just say this about his peers that he has grown up in the yeshiva and gone through the system with: they are all fine young men, bnei Torah, with wonderful midos.  Yes, we parents can give ourselves a pat on the back, but I don't think year after year these boys would be finishing masechtos if it was not for the environment and chinuch the yeshiva has given them.  

Thursday, June 11, 2015

the "ruach acheres" that motivated Kaleiv

Why did Kaleiv alone go to Chevron (How do we know no one else went? Because it says “va’yavo” in the singular, while the rest of the parsha speaks in the plural)? Rashi writes that Kaleiv went to daven at the graves of the Avos. The Netziv takes a different approach woth taking note of. He points out that the mighty giants, which the Mergalim focused on in their effort to discourage conquering the land, lived in Chevron. Chevron was, as Rashi notes, a cemetery. Chevron was, in other words, a highly fortified, difficult to conquer, unattractive piece of real estate – this is the last place you would want to visit or put on your travel brochure. Yet that’s exactly where Kaleiv chose to go. Kaleiv deliberately put himself in the eye of the storm; he deliberately entered into a situation where his bitachon in the promise that this was the land of milk and honey, that this was a land that could be conquered, was put to the greatest test. When the Torah writes about Kalaiv and Kaleiv alone that, “Eikev haysa ruach acheres imo va’yimalei acharei,” it is not referring to standing up against the other spies, as even Yehoshua did that. Rather, it is referring to this act of putting his own bitachon to the test. “Vayimalei” has a dagesh chazak, writes Netziv (31:12), because of the strength it took to pass such a test.   

The Netziv doesn’t fill in the gaps and leaves us to think about why Kaleiv would take the risk of putting himself in such a situation and what the fact that he did so says about the character of Kaleiv (=Yehudah) vs. that of the other spies, and in particular Yehoshua (=Yosef). It sounds to me like the Netziv’s approach is almost the opposite of Rashi’s. One goes to daven at kevarim when one faces a situation of danger, of doubt, of uncertainty. Doing so does not strike me as being an act of confidence. According to Rashi, it seems Kaleiv felt himself in need of help. According to the Netziv, Kaleiv was so confident in his bitachon that he felt he could put himself to an extreme test, an uncalled for test.  

The Alshich has a different hesber of why Kaleiv alone is singled out for having "ruach acheres imo."  It was Kaleiv's anscestor Yehudah who boldly asked Ya'akov Avinu, "Haker na ha'kesones bincha hi," asking whether Ya'akov recognized the bloody coat he presented as the one belonging to Yosef.  It was Yehudah who took the lead in trying to get rid of Yosef and in deceiving Ya'akov.  Even though Kaleiv, as representative of Yehudah, carried with him greater baggage of wrongdoing more than any of his peers, a "ruach acheres," that could easily have dragged him down, he rose about it.  Perhaps in light of the Netziv we could say that the daring and boldness, the confidence that he would be proven right, that Yehudah showed in the past and which led to a negative outcome, are exactly what allowed Kaleiv to not follow the lead of others and instead set out in his own direction, here to a positive end.  (The connection to the story of Yosef and his brothers is deeper than that, as Yosef's charge that "meraglim atem" speaks directly to the events of our parsha, but that's for another post another time.)

There is another important Netziv in this week’s parsha to keep in your mind when you read the news each day. “Tovah ha’aretz me’od me’od” – Eretz Yisrael is not just good, it’s very good. What does that mean? Back in Parshas Braishis the Torah tells us that when Hashem finished creation he saw that it was “tov me’od,” Chazal interpret this as a reference to the malach ha’maves. What’s good about that? The Netziv explains that when people have it too good all the time, they forget where all that goodness comes from – they take what they have for granted. The world needs a malach ha’maves / satan because the threat of things going wrong and taking a turn for the worse at any moment keeps us on our toes and reminds us that we are dependent on G-d. The world is actually a better place because of the creation of evil. When it comes to dealing with other lands, Hashem (at least as we perceive his interaction with the world) takes a hands off approach – things are as they are, same old same old. Not so in Eretz Yisrael. There, the land is “tovah.. me’od,” under constant supervision, under constant threat of things changing in response to our behavior. Nothing can be taken for granted. Yet, that very threat means we have an ongoing and constant reminder of Hashem’s presence and a relationship with Him. It makes Eretz Yisrael better than any other place in the world.

V’havi osanu el ha’aretz ha’zos u’nesana lanu eretz asher hi zavas chalav u’devash.” The Netziv points out that the modifier “zevas chalav u’devash” could have been placed after the first time “ha’aretz” appears in the pasuk. Why put it as a separate clause at the end? He answers that had it been put at the beginning, the pasuk would mean that Hashem brought us, “havi osanu…,” to a land that was in perpetuity a land of milk and honey. But that’s not the case. It’s only after we are in the land that “u’nesana lanu eretz… zavas chalav u’devash,” that we are given, if we deserve it, the blessings of it being a land of milk and honey. We have to earn those blessings and they can just as easily be taken away as given.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

the blessing of a punishment

1) Tosfos (Zevachim 102) quotes a Midrash that Aharon begged Moshe to have mercy on Miriam because he worried that were she to become a metzora, he would not be able to be metaheir her.  Since a kohen cannot pasken on the negaim of a relative and there were no other non-related kohanim to turn to, Miriam would be out of luck. Tosfos asks: if Aharon couldn’t pasken on the nega, then he couldn’t be metamei Miriam either, so what was he worried about?!

The Netziv answers that Aharon was in fact worried about exactly that – that he would be unable to do anything, not be metamei or metaheir. If nothing happened, then Miriam would have to live without any absolution for her sin. Not having a kapparah is worse than suffering the pain of being a metzorah for a week and earning forgiveness.

2) The Torah tells us that Hashem appeared “pisom,” suddenly, to Moshe, Aharon, and Miriam. Netziv explains that the intent was to shock. We understand why Hashem wanted to shock Miriam and Aharon, but why shock Moshe? I would have said that Hashem wanted to demonstrate the difference between Moshe and his siblings. Moshe was so attuned to G-d’s presence that he might not startled by the G-d’s appearance in the name way his brother and sister were, proving the superiority of his level of nevuah. Netziv, however, answers that when Hashem first appeared to Moshe way back in parshas Shmos, he turned Moshe’s staff into a snake and Moshe drew back in fear (4:3). Considering that he was in G-d’s presence, Moshe had nothing to fear, but the reaction was spontaneous and instinctive – he didn’t pause to think. As a punishment for that instinctive withdrawal, Hashem sprung his presence on Moshe now and shocked him.

I don’t get it – why would Hashem mete out punishment now for something that occurred much earlier, before Moshe’s shlichus even started? 

Perhaps the answer is that the fact that Moshe was being punished for such an infraction was itself a testimony to his greatness. An instinctive reaction would never count against a lesser person and they would never be blamed. It could only count against a person on the level of a Moshe Rabeinu. Therefore, precisely in this context, where the Torah comes to testify to Moshe’s greatness, Moshe receives a punishment for what until now had been overlooked.

Friday, June 05, 2015

the root cause of complaints

When Moshe asked Yisro to stay on and travel with Bnei Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael, he said to his father-in-law, “V’hayisa lanu l’einayim.” The Targum explains that Moshe was telling Yisro that he had witnessed with his own eyes the tremendous nisim that Bnei Yisrael experienced in the desert. How could he walk away from that?

Later in the parsha when Bnei Yisrael complain about their lack of meat, the Torah tells us that Hashem was angry and “b’einei Moshe ra.” (11:10) The Chasam Sofer connects this phrase of “einei Moshe” with the previous comment of “v’hayisa lanu l’einayim” – the “einei Moshe” was Yisro! If Yisro, who joined Bnei Yisrael in the midbar, could be expected to come to emunah and trust Hashem based on what he had seen, surely the same could be expected of Bnei Yisrael who had also seen Yetzi’as Mitzrayim and kri’as Yam Suf! The “einei Moshe” acted here as a kitrug that caused the “ra,” caused the midas ha’din, to be further angered at Bnei Yisrael.

 This, explains the Chasam Sofer, is what Miriam was complaining about when she said that the “isha kushis,” Moshe’s marriage to Tziporah, was the cause of problems. Tosfos writes that “kashim geirim l’Yisrael k’sapachas” because geirim are more careful in mitzvos than those who are FFB; the midas hadin asks why BN”Y do not rise to the same standard. Miriam thought that the presence of Yisro and Tziporah made Bnei Yisrael’s behavior look even worse in contrast.

(Parenthetically, the Ishbitzer connects this whole desire for meat back to the beginning of Braishis. It was only post-flood, post man’s downfall, that mankind acquired a heter to eat meat because it was only in that state (see Ishbitzer for the hesber) that the animal word would lend itself for tikun through achilah. Bnei Yisrael were on a spiritual high post-mattan Torah and post-Mishkan dedication, similar to Adam pre-cheit, but they wanted down from those heights and wanted back the post-fall tikun of eating meat. See also Sefas Emes in a number of pieces -- “Hisa’vu ta’avah,” (11:4) Bnei Yisrael wanted to be ba’alei ta’avah again, to be challenged by a yetzer ha’ra they could earn points by overcoming. This is reminiscent of the way a number of meforshim understand the sin of Adam.)

Putting aside the Chasam Sofer’s pilpul, the reaction of “b’eini Moshe ra” is not the response we are used to hearing from Moshe Rabeinu. Even after the cheit ha’eigel, Moshe appealed to Hashem for mercy – we don’t read that the cheit was “ra” in his eyes. Besides which, Moshe’s opinion is kind of besides the point once the Torah tells us that Hashem thought the complaints of Bnei Yisrael were unfounded and wrong.  

Abarbanel suggests that Moshe’s intent was in fact to elicit G-d’s mercy. Moshe thought that if he displayed his own displeasure and disgust to the point of threatening to walk off the job, G-d would react by telling him that it’s not so bad and affirm the underlying goodness of Klal Yisrael. This time Moshe miscalculated – Hashem gave Moshe the support he claimed he needed in the form of a sanhedrin, and he still meted out punishment to Klal Yisrael.

What’s especially interesting is the order in which Hashem responded to Moshe: first, Hashem went through the process of appointing the 70 leaders to help Moshe, and only secondly did Hashem address the complaint of the people for meat. This whole story of the appointment of the sanhedrin seems to be a sidelight, yet the Torah not only juxtaposes it and links it hand in hand with the story of the people’s complaint , but makes it the primary concern of the parsha. Why?

You can read a great answer in
this post at Beis Va’ad. I’ll share another great answer from R’ Avraham Shapira, the former Chief Rabbi and R”Y of Merkaz haRav: Rav Shapira explained that the people may have been complaining about meat, about gashmiyus, but the underlying problem was really a lacking in ruchniyus. Had the people been on the spiritual leve they should have been on, the type of complaints they were raising would not have bothered them.  (So often people run after one pleasure after another, one bauble after another, a new house, a new car, another car, another gadget, and on and on, thinking that if only they had this material thing or that one they could finally be happy, but it’s not a lack of “things” that is really the cause of their complaints, but it’s a lack of any spiritual core to give them nachas ruach.) When a person is spiritually satiated, there is far less to complain about. Therefore, Hashem responded first with the appointment of a sanhedrin, with the appointment of assistants who could help Moshe reach the people and tend to their spiritual needs.  That was the root caused of the problem; the complaints were just a symptom.

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

first Jewish president?

"He [David Axelrod] also recalled Obama venting in a moment of contemplation, telling him, ‘You know, I think I am the closest thing to a Jew that has ever sat in this office. For people to say that I am anti-Israel, or, even worse, anti-Semitic, it hurts.’"  (link)

I almost spit my coffee across my desk reading this one.  Do you laugh at how absurd it is or cry because more than half the Jews out there believe it when he says it?  Since the title of "first black president" was taken, I guess Obama wants to be called the first Jewish one.

the lowest common denominator doesn't benefit everyone

I noticed that sunscreen has a product protection warning that says, “Keep it out of direct sunlight.” I turned to my wife and said, “You know what I’m going to ask, right?" She just nodded her head. 

In an earlier post
I quoted the Ralbag’s explanation of the connection between the parshiyos of the degalim, sotah, and nazir as narrowing the focus from community (the setup of the camp) to family (sotah) to the individual (the nazir). Abarbanel says it’s all about the community. The community benefits from the parsha of sotah because it reduces the possibility of creating mamzeirim. The community benefits from the parsha of nazir because a community needs within it outstanding individuals who are different than the norm. The modern liberal attitude of dumbing everything and everyone down to the lowest common denominator of stupid (e.g. don’t read bedtime stories to your kids because that will give them an unfair advantage) is a bad, bad idea. 

Last week
I wrote about Moshe’s initial ambivalence toward accepting the gift of wagons for the families of Gershon and Kehas. I suggested that Moshe did not like the idea of easing the burden of avodas Hashem. “Adam l’ama yulad” – life does not have to be easy; it’s okay to sweat a little when you serve G-d. My wife suggested that since Kehas did the carrying on their shoulders, if the other families were given wagons, Moshe was concerned that the message they would get is that their work and the burdens were less important. You can interpret Hashem’s response as saying to Moshe that his worries were unfounded, that Gershon and Merari would not feel slighted, or you can interpret the response as saying that people will suffer a little pgam to their kavod in exchange for easing their burdens.

The title “nasi” is given to the leader of every tribe except Nachshon ben Aminadav. Why is he left out? The Netziv answers that Nachshon’s sister Elisheva was married to Aharon. The day Nachshon brought his gift for the chanukas hamishkan was a day of tragedy for her, as on that day her children, Nachshon’s nephews, Nachshon and Aminadav were killed. Nachshon’s simcha in celebrating the chanukas hamishkan was therefore muted. The Netziv derives a chiddush in hil aveilus from here: even though aveilus is doche Yom Tov (
as discussed two weeks ago), the aveil should temper his celebration. He should do what is necessary to fulfill the mitzvah of simcha, but he should not go all out in enjoying the Yom Tov as he otherwise would.