Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ramban the philosopher/mystic vs Ramban the halachist

R' Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l was asked who he would rush to meet first when he got to the olam ha'emes.  Who among the pantheon of Rishonim does he admire most?   You would think someone steeped in Brisker lomdus like R' Aharon would of course answer "the Rambam," but guess again -- it was Ramban who most fascinated R' Aharon (see the article I linked to).  Parshanut, philosophy, mysticism, halacha -- Ramban touches on it all.  I want to look at one issue related to our parsha that brings that multi-faceted outlook into sharper focus.

A Jew must sacrifice his life rather than violate any one of the three cardinal sins of avodah zarah, arayos, or murder.  However, when it comes to other prohibitions, the Torah tells us "v'chay bahem."  It's not clear whether that is simply a matir, a license to avoid the sacrifice of mesirus nefesh, or whether it is a commandment, an order to preserve one's life even at the cost of violating other prohibitions.  Tos (Avodah Zara 27b) would presumably take the former position, as they hold that a person can choose, if they so desire, to give up their life for any commandment.  The Rambam, on the other hand, holds that one is not allowed to give up one's life unless obligated by halacha to do so, and so presumably he would take the latter position.

The Avnei Nezer (Choshen Mishpat 193) has a fascinating teshuvah in which he discusses whether a person  suffering a life threatening illness who is told by doctors that he/she must eat on Yom Kippur is permitted to forgo medical advice and fast anyway.  Rather than approach the issue from the perspective of the different viewpoints of Rambam/Tos above, he instead cites at length the Ramban on Parshas Bechukosai who argues that consulting doctors is only for those who are not on the ideal level of bitachon, for those who do not understand that everything is in G-d's hands alone and that illness can be cured by teshuvah.  "Mah cheilek b'rofim b'beis osim ratzon Hashem!"  Who needs doctors when you have G-d?  Most of us are not on that level, so the Torah allows us to live b'derech ha'teva and get medical help for our problems.  However, for a person who truly places his trust in Hashem, whatever the doctor says is irrelevant.
R' Ovadya Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at 1:61) discusses this same issue and interestingly, he also cites a Ramban: Ramban in the Milchamos in Sanhedrin (74) writes that not only is it not a midas chassidus for a seriously ill person to fast on Yom Kippur contrary to medical advice, but to the contrary -- a person who does not eat when there is danger in not doing so is liable for taking his own life!  (Just for the record, at the end of the section on Moadim in the Shem m'Shmuel there is a letter from the author, the Avnei Nezer's son, to someone in the hospital over Y"K in which he warns the person that they must eat if instructed to do so by doctors.  Did he backtrack from his father's position?) 

What would Ramban the halakhist writing the Milchamos say to Ramban the philosopher/mystic's argument in his peirush al haTorah?   Why is it not a midas chasidus to fast if a person trusts fully in G-d?  Will the "real" Ramban please step forward and make his views clear?

Obviously both Rambans are the "real" Ramban.  Somehow Ramban the philosopher/mystic saw no contradiction between what he wrote in his peirush al haTorah and what he wrote in the Milchamos.  If we only had one or the other, it would be easy for us.  But the greatness of Ramban is that he gives us both -- an abundance of riches!  -- and leaves it to us to puzzle out how to fit the pieces together.  I'll leave it to you to do that : )

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

where home is

Ki tavo'u el Eretz Canann asher ani nosein lachem l'nachala v'nasati nega tzara'as b'veis eretz achuzaschem (14:35).  A strange promise!  Once we finally merit seeing Hashem's promise to give us the land fulfilled, the Torah tells us that our homes will be plagued with leprosy.  Why?  What did we do to deserve that?  (see Rashi)

Rav Teichtel in his classic Eim haBanim Smeicha interprets the pasuk derech derush as saying that if after G-d is "nosein lachem nachala" and gives us a homeland, we still think of the 5 Towns, Boro Park, Englewood, Teaneck, or even Lakewood, NJ as "home," then "v'nasati nega tzara'as," I will bring tzara'as and tzaros to "beis achuzaschem," that place in galus you still mistakingly think of as home.  Sometimes unfortunately we need a wakeup call, a little suffering and discomfort, to appreciate and recognize where home is.

"But what does Jeremy Corbyn or the murder of a Jewish grandmother in France or the other sorrows we see in Europe have to do with me?" asks your typical upper middle class American Jew while eating his dinner at some ridiculously expensive glatt kosher restaurant on some typical Main Street in the suburbs, or if he is more spiritually inclined, while mulling over his Artscroll translated daf yomi in the local shul.  The tzaros of galus are over there, but here, in the good ol' USA?  Gashmiyus, ruchniyus -- what don't I have here in the comfort of my typical American life?  

V'nasati nega tzara'as b'veis eretz achuzaschem... Maybe it's time to learn the lesson from what's happening over there before it gets here, because get here it will. 

In 1914 Rabbi Aba Citron, Rav of Petach Tikvah, son in law of the Rogatchover Gaon, was told by the Ottomans that they were expelling him from the country because he was not a citizen, as he had not been born there (see here).  His only hope was to take an oath to the contrary.  Shevuas sheker!  He turned for advice to his father-in-law, who sent, k'darko, just a mareh makom: Kesubos 75.  The gemara there darshens the pasuk in Tehillim (87:5) "U'l'Tzion yei'amar ish ish yulad bah..." to refer to "echad ha'nolad bah v'echad ha'mitzapeh li'rosah."  It's not a shevuas sheker.  When it comes to Tzion, to Eretz Yisrael, the person who pines to be there can just as much call himself "yulad bah" as any sabra.

Let's be real: barring a miracle, all of American and world Jewry are not going to pack their bags and get on Nefesh b'Nefesh flights tomorrow.  Ha'levai we all could -- but it's not going to happen.

When it comes to "nolad bah," we are lucky if our grandchildren will have that zechus.

But when it comes to "mitzapim li'rosa," oy to us if we don't at least dream of getting on that flight.

Oy to us if this is our "eretz achuzaschem."  We shouldn't c"v need a nega tza'aras to get us to think otherwise.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

2 days of rosh chodesh pre-bayis sheni?

Unless you learned the 4th perek of Rosh haShana, the whole idea of having 2 days of rosh chodesh should strike you are strange / impossible.  On day 30 of month X, if 2 witnesses come and say they saw the new moon, then beis din would declare it rosh chodesh and start the new month.  If 2 witnesses did not show up, then it would be just another, ordinary weekday and the next day would be rosh chodesh.  How do we get 2 days of rosh chodesh?

The Mishna in R"H tells us that for hundreds of years witnesses always came early in the day on day 30 of Elul.  One time during bayis sheni they showed up late in the day and it caused all kinds of confusion in the mikdash.  The kohanim on that day operated under the assumption that since it was late in the day and no witnesses had come, it would be an ordinary weekday, i.e. no korban musaf, regular shirah during nisuch ha'yayin, etc. When the witnesses did eventually come, it meant the day was in fact rosh chodesh/rosh hashana and a korban musaf was required, the shirah was different, etc. (let's leave the technical details aside).  In response to this turn of events R' Yochanan ben Zakai made a takanah: if witnesses show up late, they will automatically be held over until the next day.  However, instead of declaring day 30 as not rosh chodesh/rosh hashana, both day 30 and the next day would be celebrated.  In other words, day 30 would always be rosh chodesh -- witnesses coming late or coming the next day could only add an extra day, not subtract or change the status of day 30.  That, in an oversimplified nutshell, is how we get 2 days.

Based on this account, historically there should never have been a 2 day rosh chodesh or rosh hashana until sometime during the second temple period.

Yet I am sure you were listening to yesterday's haftarah, the haftarah of machar chodesh, where we read how on the second day of rosh chodesh Shaul took note of David's second day of absence from the royal table and put Yehonasan on the spot and asked him to explain where David was. 

2 days of rosh chodesh in the days of Shaul, long before R' Yochanan ben Zakai?  How did that happen? 

See the note of the Tziyun Yerushalayim on the bottom of Yerushalmi Ta'anis 22a in the Vilna edition. 

II.  While on the topic of that haftarah, at the end of the story we are told that Yehonasan and David wept "ad higdil David" and Yehonasan then departed.  Most of the meforshim I saw understand this line to mean that David's crying became so great and loud that Yehonasan felt he had to leave lest David be discovered.  My wife suggested that perhaps the opposite was true -- the sign of a gadol is self control, much like Aharon in our parsha, "vayidom Aharon," restrained his crying.  Perhaps it is Yehonasan who continued to cry while David controlled his emotions, and therefore, it is Yehonasan who felt he had to depart.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

a sense of purpose

After the death of Nadav and Avihu, Hashem commands Aharon and his remaining sons not to show any signs of mourning.  If they do, they will suffer the penalty of death and Hashem will be angry at Bnei Yisrael (10:6).

Why should Hashem be angry at Bnei Yisrael if Aharon or his sons disobey and mourn?  Why is the community held liable for their wrongdoing?

Among the many answers to this question (see Ibn Ezra, Da'as Zekeinim, Ohr haChaim, HaKsav V'haKabbalah) I want to focus on that of the Alshich.  Loss and tragedy often give rise to doubts and questions of faith.  It takes a remarkable person like the Sanz Klausenberger Rebbe to not only rebuild, but inspire others to not lose faith and to rebuild after losing everything.  It takes a remarkable person like Mrs Racheli Frankel to go around speaking about emunah when her son was murdered by terrorists.  

At times of loss and tragedy, we need Rebbes like the Sanz Klausenberger; we need mothers like Racheli Frankel.  We need people who can lead Klal Yisrael out of despair and teach them to mourn, to reflect, to grow, and not to lose faith.  Hashem was telling Aharon to be careful lest he or his sons trip up and incur punishment because they are the ones who can do that.  G-d would certainly not hold Klal Yisrael accountable for Aharon or his son's missteps.  But if Aharon or his sons were to be punished for their missteps and lost, their absence would create an unfillable void that would inevitably lead to the nation sinking into doubt and despair and incurring Hashem's anger.

Perhaps the reason Hashem expressed concern for the effect the loss of Aharon or his remaining sons might have on Klal Yisrael was not just for the sake of the tzibur, but rather it was for Aharon's sake as well.  Aharon was charged with doing avodah and bringing kaparah to the nation.  Imagine his thoughts at that moment -- here his avodah could not serve to protect his own children; how could he serve as a meilitz for the nation as a whole?!   The pasuk therefore comes and reminds Aharon that despite the death of Nadav and Avihu, his presence, his influence, his avodah, was both necessary and critical for the nation, even to the point that he was not excused for doing avodah even to mourn.  

Viktor Frankl, himseld a Holocaust survivor, built his whole theory of psychology around the idea that a person who has a purpose to live for will lead a successful and happy life.  Hashem here was giving Aharon a renewed sense of purpose by reminding him that his presence and influence was essential to Klal Yisrael.