Tuesday, February 27, 2018

anochi haster astir...

1. Chazal tell us that one cannot make a seudas Purim at night, as the pasuk tells us, "La'asos osam y'mei mishteh..." The Sefas Emes (5649) explains that a person cannot celebrate in spiritual darkness.  There are people who go through their whole lives in the spiritual equivalent of nightime -- there is no light of ruchniyus that shines in or that they let shine in.  "La'asos..." -- you have to banish that darkness with the light of Torah, banish the night and turn Purim into a day of simcha.  

2.  The hint to Esther in the Torah is the pasuk of "Anochi haster astir..."  Hester panim is not a chiddush of this pasuk alone and is sadly a feature of many eras of Jewish history, not just the story of the megillah.  The chiddush of Esther, explains the Ba'al ha'Techeiles, R' Gershon Henoch Leiner, is that we see that there is an "Anochi" behind it all.  In retrospect it was clear that from beginning to end, everything that happened the Purim story was yad Hashem.  Our challenge is to believe that "Anochi haster astir," to trust that Hashem is controlling every detail of what happens even when we don't see him.

3.  A nice Purim thought from my wife.

Monday, February 26, 2018

seeing the inside

Sometimes when you hear a shtickel torah you know right away who said it without being told.  For example, when you hear 'tzvei dinim," you think R' Chaim, or at least someone following in the footsteps of Brisk.  Even if I didn't tell you this pshat is from R' Tzvi Yehudah, I think you would immediately identify it as something only R' Kook (father or son) would say: 

The gemara at the end of Megillah writes that R' Yehoshua ben Korcha was asked, "Ba'meh he'erachta yamim?" in what merit did he live such a long life.  He responded that the great merit he had is that he never once looked at the face of a rasha.

R' Yehoshua ben Korcha was the son (according to some shitos) of R' Akiva, who was called "ka'reiach," the bald one (Bechorot 58).  He grew up at a time of political ferment and rebellion -- remember that it was R' Akiva who championed Bar Kochba and encouraged the rebellion against Rome.  Imagine R' Akiva, with his son Yehoshua, sitting in this armed camp, surrounded by tough soldiers who are preparing for war.  Imagine the environment -- an army camp is not the beis medrash; these were not all lamed vuv tzadikim in the army of Bar Kochba. 

Years later, his colleagues came to the now old R' Yehoshua and asked: we don't understand it.  You grew up surrounded by the "nationalists," surrounded by people fighting for independence, people interested in taking back the country, rough men of physical strength and courage, men who were not among the yoshvei beis medrash.  How then were you zocheh to such a long life?  How do you emerge from such an environment spiritually rich and rewarded by Hashem?

R' Yehoshua ben Korcha answered: I never looked into the face of a rasha.  You see rough men, fighting men, coarse men , resha'im-- but that's because you are only looking at the outside.  When I looked, I only saw the inside -- the greatness of their holy neshomos.

Is this not what Rav Kook, both father and son (whose yahrzeit is coming up), were all about?  They knew how to look at Jews and not see the face of a rasha -- they knew how to see the inside.  

Thursday, February 22, 2018

l'ha'alos ner tamid

Even though the Torah says that oil should be taken "l'ha'alos ner tamid," the reality is that the menorah was not always burning.  According to most Rishonim the mitzvah was to light the menorah at the end of the day with enough oil for it to burn just through the night.  Rashi therefore interprets "tamid" to mean not constantly, but consistently -- it should be lit every single night.  (The korban tamid, for example, was offered consistently every day, not constantly all day.)  Ramban disagrees and writes that while the other candles of the menorah were not lit during the day, the ner ma'aravi was re-lit in the morning and always remained burning.

A few months ago by Chanukah we discussed the apparent stirah between the Rambam's view (as interpreted by the Rogatchover) that the Chashmonaim lit just the ner ma'aravi and the gemara's din that all the neiros are m'akev for the menorah to be complete.  There are two dinim at work: 1) a chiyuv to light the menorah, which can be accomplished by lighting even one ner; 2) a chiyuv for the chetftza of the menorah to be lit, which is accomplished only if all the candles are kindled.  

Perhaps this explanation sheds light (no pun intended) on Rashi/Ramban on our pasuk.  According to Rashi, our parsha is talking about the chiyuv for the cheftza shel menorah to be lit.  Therefore, "tamid" must mean consistently, not constantly, as one ner tamid does not a menorah make.  Ramban, however, understood the parsha as speaking of the chovas ha'gavra of lighting, which can be fulfilled even by kindling one candle, and therefore he interprets "tamid" to mean constantly.

R' Shimon Sofer uses the symbolism of menorah as representing Torah to derech derush offer another explanation of "tamid."   It's not just when learning or sitting in shul that one should feel inspired by Torah, but rather Torah's impact should be felt throughout the day.  We need to behave and think at all times, "tamid," like people en-light-ened by the menorah, by Torah.  How does that happen?  Only if the Torah we study is "shemen zayis zach," pure and unadulterated -- 100% A+ quality of the real thing.  

The Chasam Sofer quotes the Hafla'ah who is medayek is the words "shem zayis" - -singular -- "zach."  How much oil could one olive produce?!  Yet that little bit was enough to keep the menorah lit. We sometimes excuse ourselves from trying to sparking the interest of others in Torah by saying the effort required would be too great and too demanding.  The Torah here is telling us that sometimes just a small drop of effort, of Torah, of love, is all it takes.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

zecher to the machtzis ha'shekel -- 3 coins or 1 -- Rama vs GR"A

The Rama (O.C. 694) writes that the minhag is to give three machtzis ha'shekels (bad dikduk, I know) on Ta'anis Esther because the word terumah appears 3x in parshas shekalim.  However, GR"A in Ma'aseh Rav (282) writes that the minhag is to give only one machtzis ha'shekel.

Aside from trying to understand the nekudas ha'machlokes between them, it's very hard to understand the Rama.  The reason we read parshas shekalim is to remember the annual donation of machtzis ha'shekel given to the mikdash to pay for korbanos tzibur expenses.  We once a year do something to remember this once a year donation. The additional shelakim alluded to in parshas shekalim were one-in-history donations used in constructing the mishkan.  Why do we need an annual remembrance for that?

My son pointed out that the GR"A in S"A on this Rama points you to Tos in Megillah (21) which says that on ta'aneisim we give tzedaka at mincha time.  My son suggested that the GR"A is perhaps not just explaining to us when the machtzis ha'shekel is given, but is defining for us the geder ha'din, what machtzis ha'shekel is -- it's not a zecher, but a din in hilchos tzedaka, just like tzedaka given on any ta'anis.  Therefore, the shiur is machtzis ha'shekel, not 3x a machtzis shekel.  The Rama understood that it is a zecher.

I'm not yet convinced that the GR"A there is doing anything more than explaining why the machtzis ha'shekel is given on ta'anis esther afternoon -- why not give it sometime close to when we read the parsha?   I would formulate the issue a little differently.  The GR"A sees our machtzis ha'shekel as a zecher to the machtzis ha'shekel of the mikdash.  The Rama perhaps sees giving machtzis ha'shekel as part and parcel of our kiyum of parshas shekalim.  By way of analogy, RYBS and others understood that our eating matzah on pesach night is not just a kiyum in achilas matzah, but is a kiyum in sipur as well -- it's part of how we tell the story.  So too here, perhaps Rama means that reading parshas shekalim also entails donating 3 machtzis shekalim --- davka 3, because 3 are alluded to in the parsha, and our giving is in some way an extension of the mitzvah of reading the parsha.  (I don't know if my explanation is any less dachuk, but I have no other ideas yet.) I found that R' Yisachar Shlomo Teichtel hy"d, who these days is better known as the author of Eim haBanim Smeicha, discusses this topic in his shu"t, Mishne Sachir.  (O.C. 34).  He quotes what appears to be two contradictory gemaras: On the one hand, the gemara (Meg 13) quotes Reish Lakish as teaching that the shekalim that Klal Yisrael gave in the midbar served to nullify the money Haman paid to bribe Achashveirosh.  We proved with our pocketbooks that we are dedicated to good before he even had the idea of showing his financial dedication to evil.   On the other hand, Chazal tell us (Meg 16) that Haman chanced upon Mordechai teaching hilchos kemitza of the korban mincha and remarked that the small offering of kemitza outweighed all the thousands he had poured into doing evil (Meg 16).  So which was it -- was it the shekalim donated to the Mishkan, or was it the actual offerings of the Mikdash, e.g. kemitza -- which foiled Haman's plans?

In a simplified nutshell, these two views represent the roots of the GR"A vs Rama.  According to Reish Lakish's view, the "kesef ha'kipurim" donated to the mishkan served as a kaparah not just for that generation, but for future generations as well -- for Mordechai and Esther's time, for our time, for all time.  Therefore, according to Rama we make a zecher even for the machtzis ha'shekel donated for the building of the mishkan.  However, if Haman's downfall was brought about by hilchos kemitza, it is the korbanos themselves, purchased with the single machtzis ha'shekel given annually, which is what saved us, and therefore, as GR"A writes, it is this single machtzis ha'shekel that we make a remembrance for.

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Rav Kook on "na'aseh v'nishma"

What's so special about "na'aseh v'nishma?"  When Nancy Pelosi said, "You have to pass this bill to see what's in it," her mindless lemming followers did exactly that.  "Na'aseh v'nishma!" -- we'll learn the details after we accept it as law.  Is this really the secret about which Hashem said, "mi gilah raz zeh l'banay," who revealed this great secret to my children?!  Is this the secret which Bnei Yisrael is praised for discovering?!

There is another gemara that uses almost identical language, but in this case the revelation/discovery of the secret led to condemnation instead of praise.  The gemara (B"M 85) writes that Eliyahu haNavi revealed to Rebbi that R' Chiya and his children had a amazing koach ha'tefilah.  Next fast day due to lack of rain Rebbi knew exactly to appoint as shat"z -- R' Chiya.  Sure enough, when R' Chiya said "mashiv ha'ruach u'morid ha'geshem" it immediately started to rain.  Upstairs in shamayim they realized something is up, and if R' Chiya continues and gets to "mechayei meisim" there are going to be big consequences.  "Man gali razya b'alma?" says the gemara -- same expression that Hashem used with respect to "na'aseh v'nishma."  Who let the cat out of the bag and revealed the secret?  Yet here the gemara says Eliyahu was punished and was forced to interrupt R' Chiya's davening lest he finish and bring mashiach too early.  Why is it that when Bnei Yisrael intuited the angelic secret of "na'aseh v'nishma" (whatever that means) and revealed it in the world, it's a great thing, but when Rebbi revealed the secret he had learned from Eliyahu, it's something that the world cannot tolerate? 

Mindless obedience is demanded by dictators, cults, and Democrat congressmen (I repeat myself) like Nancy Pelosi.  It's not a chiddush and is not what na'aseh v'nishma is all about.  To understand what it is about, let's look at two different skills:

Daughter #3 plays guitar.  Had you handed her a guitar when she was starting out and asked her to play a song, she would have been confounded.  First came learning a few basic chords on a smaller size instrument that allowed for her to learn how to position her hands and fingers.   Then came an upgrade to a better, full size guitar.  Then came more chords and a few basic songs.  Now she can play a small repertoire, but is still learning.  That's how it works with all subjects, all fields of study.

Compare that with a spider web -- Charolette's web.  A spider doesn't go to spider school and start with learning how to make a basic web and then progress to bigger, more complex webs, getting promoted from one spider web class to the next.  A spider is born knowing how to spin webs, period -- it's part of what a spider is.

Rav Kook explains that "na'aseh v'nishma" means that Torah is to Klal Yisrael what spinning a web is to a spider.  We can "do" Torah and do mitzvos without having any prerequisites -- it's built into who we are.  It's not something we absorb from the outside through training, through learning, but rather is part of our essence, much as a malach fulfills Hashem's will because a malach's essence is serving as a shliach.  This is the angelic "secret" which Klal Yisrael intuited. 

My wife was recently reading Herman Wouk's (can you believe b'li ayin ha'ra that he is still alive?) The Language G-d Talks and she pointed out an interesting passage where he mentions his engaging Richard Feynman (to my 5T/Far Rockaway neighbors -- can you believe he grew up on Cornaga?) in a discussion of Talmud.  Feynman was a great physicist, but had no use for religion.  Nonetheless, he immediately took to the Talmudic analysis.  How can someone with no background do that?  Wouk writes (p. 157):
Because we are alike.  Alike in the joy of following and grasping ling strings of tight logic -- alike in the zest for the toughest mental challenges, in the rejection of flawed answers, in the glory when the elusive true answer dawns -- do you have a Talmudic mind?  Sure call it that, because if you say 'Yiddishe kop,' Jewish head, you'll enrage the geneticists and get called racist by fools.  Of course it's cultural, it's an inheritance from grandfathers, great-grandfathers, forefathers, all the way back to Babylon, and they all studied the Talmud, and that's why you're Feynman, I assure you.
In other words, na'aseh v'nishma -- it's built into who we are. 
We can now understand why the case of R' Chiya's tefilah is different.  Just as na'aseh v'nishma defines our essence as a people, each individual tzadik has something unique that defines their individual essence as well.  That is their "raz," the secret of who they are -- it is their identity alone and does not belong to the world as a whole, which may not be ready for it or capable of accepting it.     

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

eagle's wings, football, etc.

Everyone is interested in eagles this week.  "Va'esa eschem al kanfei nesahrim..."  Why eagles wings?  Tehilim 103:5 tells us that Hashem is "tischadesh ka'nesher n'u'raychi," He renews our youth like an eagle.  Rashi explains that an eagle's feathers molt every year and are replaced by new feathers.  Our parsha is telling us that Hashem gave us the power to constantly renew ourselves.  Even when we fall, we can start over again and come back.  A nice idea from the Koznitzer Magid.

About those other Eagles...  I want to thank Colin Kaepernick, and really the whole NFL.  I used to often listen to sports radio in my car and haphazardly follow what was going on in that world.  Thanks to the SJW of the NFL and their protests against America, the country that gives them the chance to make millions playing a game, thanks to the antics of Colin, e.g. raising money for a foundation celebrating a cop killer, I went cold turkey and from preseason to superbowl, I gave up not only the NFL, but all sports.  I don't know if I could have done it without you Colin, so I want to express my hakaras ha'tov to you for making me see what a disgrace you and some (not all) of your fellow players are.  

Someone emailed me last week that it was almost time for me to write my yearly protest against the opulence of the Pesach hotels.  It's not just Pesach.  Who orders a "Hail Miriam" (I am not making up the name) package for a few hundred bucks for their superbowl half time party?   How is this kosher?  OK, so you want to watch the game, neicha, I understand.  But do you have to make it into an event, a celebration, mishteh v'simcha v'Yom Tov?  But that's what Judaism in America has turned into.  Super glatt, chalav yisrael, all the chumros, but missing the essential underlying values.  (And if anyone reading this ordered that package, you know I'm just complaining because you didn't invite me : )

Something positive to end on:

Monday, February 05, 2018

a spiritual revolution

1. There is a glaring redundancy in the first pasuk of Yisro.  "VaYishma Yisro... es kol asher asah Elokim l'Moshe u'l'Yisrael amo," Yisro heard whatever G-d had done for the Jewish people.  The pasuk continues and ends, "Ki hotzi Hashem es Yisrael m'Mitzrayim."  Isn't it clear from the beginning of the pasuk that Yisro had heard about this?  Isn't yetzi'as Mitzratim obviously part of "kol asher asah Elokim l'Moshe u'l'Yisrael?" 

It could be that this is the question that was bothering Rashi and caused Rashi to say that Yisro heard about the splitting of Yam Suf and/or the war with Amalek.  It had to be something other than yetzi'as Mitzrayim that Yisro heard about otherwise the whole phrase is redundant.

The Sefas Emes offers an explanation that caught my attention because of something I heard on a tour of the old city given by R' Simcha Hochbaum that we took 2 weeks ago when we were in Yerushalayim.  R' Hochbaum made the point (and I hope I am paraphrasing him correctly) that so many of the yeshivos and seminaries we and/or our children (depends on your age : ) go to learn in only came into existence post-1967.  That's not just because now there is more geographical space, a bigger city of Yerushalayim, a more developed area, for these yeshivos and seminaries to take root it in.  It's because the unification of Yerushalayim released this pent up spiritual energy that had been held in check so long as the city was divided and in foreign hands.  Having Yerushalayim in our hands, whole again, did not just change the physical map of Eretz Yisrael -- it changed the spiritual map as well. 

Says the Sefas Emes, so long as the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt, spirituality was locked up and held in check.  Chazal tell us that no one -- not a single slave, no matter what nation they were from -- escaped Egypt.  It was like a black hole that sucked everything in.  "VaYishma Yisro," suddenly a person like Yisro, after years of worshipping every avodah zarah under the sun, wakes up and is able to hear that there is a true G-d.  How did that happen?  The pasuk answers, "Ki hotzi Hashem es Yisrael m'Mitzrayim."  Because the Jewish people were taken out, the black hole's pull was broken.  Because the Jewish people were taken out, all that ruchniyus that was pent up was suddenly free, and it had an effect not only on us, but on the whole world as well.

Same idea, different context. 

2. In the haftarah we read that Yishayahu heard the malachim saying "kadosh kadosh..." and he responds, "oy li ki nidmeisi ki ish tmei sefasayim anochi u'b'toch am tmei sefasayim anochi yosheiv."  What does that first phrase, "oy li ki nidmeisi," mean?   I congratulate you if you knew without looking at Rashi that the word "nidmeisi" here can mean death.  I don't have Artscroll at home, but I checked on Shabbos in shul and they translate something like "Woe is me for I might die."  Yishayahu heard the angels and he thinks that's the end for him.  How can a person who is "tamei sefasayim" live through that?

If I were doing the translating I would go with the second interpretation of Radak.  "Nidmeisi" here is like "va'yidom Aharon" -- to be silent.  Yishayahu heard the angels and did nothing -- he didn't say anything.  When he came out of his shock, he bemoaned the fact that he had not responded in kind, he bemoaned the fact that his tamei lips (according to Rashi, why the stress on the lips)? were unworthy of uttering such holy praise. 

(I am not suggesting that Rashi is wrong or a mistranslation.  I am just saying that given the choice of one or the other, from a literary perspective I would go with Radak.)

Thursday, February 01, 2018

dissatisfaction is sometimes a good thing

We've passed through the parsha of "v'lo sham'u el Moshe," the parsha of "mi Hashem asher eshma b'kolo," and we've reached "va'yishma Yiso" -- finally someone willing to listen.  On deck of course is "na'aseh v'nishma," telling us that listening isn't everything after all; doing is far more important.

Chazal tell us that Yisro worshipped every avodah zarah in the world.  At first blush this sounds terrible.  It's one thing to be deluded and led astray once, but to repeat the same mistake again, and again, and again...  The Maharal looks at it differently.  Chazal are speaking to the gadlus of Yisro.  Here is a man who never rested in his search for truth -- a man who was never satisfied.  Yisro went from avodah zarah to avodah zarah not because he didn't like the people in that "shul" or he thought there was a better kiddush at the place down the block.  He did it because each avodah zarah he tried left him feeling lacking, feeling that the truth was elsewhere.  Eventually, he found the truth of yahadus, but until then he spent his life running away from one falsehood after another.

Achieving kedusha and dveikus is very hard.  The loftier the goal, the more elusive it is.  The Sochotchover helps us out with a yesod: be like Yisro and start by running away from the things that you know are wrong and false.  If you do that, Hashem will take care of getting you to where you want to go.

To me this is reminiscent of the Rambam's negative theology.  The Rambam writes that you can never really describe G-d; he transcends anything one might say about Him.  The best one can do is to describe what G-d is not, e.g. He is not unkind, He is not unjust, etc. and in that way, come to some understanding, some connection to Him. 

Michelangelo was asked (not really - the story is a myth) how he was able to sculpt the famous statue of David.   He replied that he just chopped away all the marble that was not-David and m'meila he was left with a work of art.  (BTW, you have less than 2 weeks to see the Michelangelo exhibit at the Met that everyone is raving about.  Not only do you get Torah on this blog, but you get weekend museum tips as well :

Yisro spent a lifetime chopping away -- he chopped away this avodah zarah and that avodah zarah, he ran away from one false belief after another, until he was left with a connection to Hashem.

"What did Yisro see that caused him to come to Klal Yisrael?" asks Rashi.  According to one view it was the splitting of Yam Suf that was Yisro's motivation.  What's so special about the splitting of Yam Suf more than the makos in Egypt or any other miracles?  The Shem m'Shmuel (5674) quotes the Midrash that the Yam split in the merit of Yosef running away from Eishes Potifar.  "Ha'Yam ra'ah va'yanos" -- the Yam ran to its banks as well, midah k'neged midah.  Chazal tell us that even maidservants experience nevuah at Yam Suf.    Yisro saw that to connect to the infinite, you don't need to be a guru or meditate for decades on a mountain.  You can attain great heights even if all you know how to do is run away from what you know is wrong, something he had a lifetime of experience doing.  (See the Shem m'Shmuel's hesber of the other shitos of what Yisro heard along similar lines.) 

Another gemara (Sanhedrin 106): Pharoah had three advisors: Yisro, Iyov, Bilam.  Bilam advised Pharoah to kill Jewish children.  Iyov was silent.  Yisro ran away.  The gemara continues that his descendants sat in the lishkas ha'gazis teaching Torah with the Sanhedrin.  Hashem takes the energy used running from... and converts it into energy that brings a person to... 

What drew Moshe to Yisro's house?  "...Va'yivrach Moshe mipnei Pharoah va'yeishev b'Eretz Midyan."  (2:16)   Did Moshe recognize in Yisro someone like himself, someone who had run away from the evil of Egypt?  Or did Yisro recognize in Moshe's flight a journey similar to his own?   Either way, the stories of running are strikingly parallel.

In last week's parsha we read how Pharoah discovered the people had fled, "Va'yugad l'melech Mitzrayim ki barach ha'am..." (14:5) and he decided to give chase.  Strange -- the people had run away??  Pharaoh himself had gone in the middle of the night to find Moshe and Aharon to throw Klal Yisrael out as fast as possible!  

L'havdil, no parent is like Pharoah, but sometimes a kid comes back from yeshiva or seminary, and the parent has been waiting with the acceptance letter from Columbia or Penn u'k'domeh tacked to the refrigerator, and lo and behold their kid has flipped out and frummed out.  What does the parent think?  OK, so I'll give him/her some time -- it's a passing fad.  Over the summer they will adjust to America, they will meet up again with friends, they will daven again in our shul instead of yeshiva, and by fall, poof, back to normal.  What the parent doesn't realize is "ki borei'ach hu!"  Their son, even he stayed for shanah bet, has just really just gotten a taste of R' Chaim, of Ketzos, or R' Akiva Eiger; their daughter has not even made it through all of volume 1 of Michtav.  They have by no idea what a Torah life is realty about, but what they have learned is that there are a lot of things in our society that a person should run away from.  As the Sochotchover tells us, once you start running and know what you should be running from, Hashem will take care of the rest.

R Yisachar Dov Englander, a Rosh Kollel of Belz in London, suggests that that's what Pharoah discovered.  Sometimes you are in a bad situation, but change is hard, and even if you decide to move on, you sometimes have one eye looking back over your shoulder.  That's how Pharoah though Klal Yisrael would leave Egypt.  OK, so they would go for three days, but after that, they would come back.  How could they not?   That's the parent thinking that the black hat is nice, but let's be real -- the kid has to miss watching the game on Sunday, right?  He'll snap out of it eventually.  When Pharoah saw "ki borei'ach hu" -- they were running, they couldn't wait to leave, had no regrets, missed none of it -- then he knew they were gone for good unless he would act.  Even if you don't know where you are going -- "nevuchim heim ba'midbar" -- running away from wrong, like the Shem m'Shmuel tells us, chopping away the not-David parts of who you are, will get you to the right destination.