Thursday, December 27, 2018

RYBS on "ish Mitzri... ish Ivri"

Va'yar ish Mitzri make is Ivri... vayach es haMitzri

R' Soloveitchik (quoted by R' Shachter) explained derech derush that Egyptian society projected itself as being an enlightened, liberal society.  This attracted a good number of Klal Yisrael, who cast off the old fashioned religion of their fathers in favor of this ethos of civility and tolerance that the culture around them represented.  What changed Moshe was seeing an "ish" Mitzri, a cultured individual, someone representative of the tolerant, liberal society around him, striking an "ish" Ivri, a Jew who also was an "ish," someone who had assimilated and adopted those same liberal cultural values.  Moshe lashed out at the Mitzri -- here the Torah does not say "ish" Mitzri because the mask was off.  Moshe saw this man for what he was -- a barbarian dressed in the trappings of enlightenment much like a wolf wearing sheep's clothing. 

Moshe, Yirmiyahu, Gidon, and Spider Man

When Pharoah's daughter discovered a basket floating down the river, the Torah tells us, "VaTiftach va'tireyhu es ha'yeled," she opened the basket and saw a child, "V'hinei na'ar bocheh," and there was a lad/young man who was crying.  Rashi is troubled by the change in the description of who she saw/heard -- baby Moshe is described as a yeled, meaning a baby, and then as a na'ar, which is usually refers to an older child.  (Yosef as a teenager is described as a na'ar.)  Rashi explains the discrepancy by saying that baby Moshe, the yeled, had the voice of a na'ar, a more mature child.  Ramban takes issue with this interpretation, as it would be abnormal for a baby to have such a voice.  Ramban writes that it was not the tone of voice which the Torah is describing as being that of a na'ar, but rather it is the intensity of the crying.  Seforno writes that the cry was a purposeful cry, not the random crying of an infant.  Kli Yakar takes it a step further and suggests that Moshe was crying over the plight of Klal Yisrael, not a baby's crying for it's own needs. 

Obviously Kli Yakar is projecting onto baby Moshe some of what made mature Moshe into "Moshe Rabeinu" our leader, similar to the way Rashi explains that when Yocheved saw that her baby was "tov" it meant the house was filled with a special light, not just that this was a good baby.  I would contrast this stream of parshanut that sees Moshe's greatness as inherent from birth with interpretations like that of Maharal and Oznayim laTorah who write that Moshe's parents are described simple as a nameless "ish m'beis Levi" who married a "bas Levi" because these could be any man/any woman -- there was nothing inherently special about Moshe's family or background.  Greatness is achieved and earned and is therefore accessible to all, not bestowed or granted on a predetermined recipient.  L'havdil eleph havdalos and then some, one of the reasons Spider Man is such a great movie (I refer to the 2002 version, not the  garbage that came later) is because we get to watch Peter Parker, an ordinary teenager, grow into a superhero.  Modern readers/viewers like to watch our heroes develop, not appear fully formed, inherently gifted, from the get-go.  I don't know if readers in earlier ages shared that same preference.  In Tanach we find both models, e.g. Yirmiyahu is told by G-d that from conception he was chosen as a prophet, yet, we have heroes like the shofeit Gidon who seems far from the first , ideal choice to be a leader yet nonetheless he got the job.  It would be interesting to do a fuller study of the idea of a leader in Tanach and see which of these two models -- greatness inherent from birth vs greatness acquired over time or through struggle -- predominates.

Getting back to our story (we are getting to the good part), Chizkuni and others offer a different solution to the textual problem Rashi raised.  They suggest that yeled and na'ar refer to two different people: Moshe is the yeled who bas Pharoah sees in the basket; the na'ar who is crying is Aharon, who is distressed over his brother's plight.  R' Josh Hoffman a"h (netvort 5767) suggests a beautiful reading of the latter part of the pasuk in light of this Chizkuni.  "Va'tomer mi'yaldei ha'ivrim zeh" -- bas Pharoah recognized this as a Jewish child not because of seeing baby Moshe, but because she heard this na'ar bocheh, because she heard Aharon's crying!  Who else but a Jewish child would shed tears not because of his own needs, not because of his own suffering, but simply because he empathizes with the plight of a fellow Jewish baby.  Nosei b'ol im chaveiro is the hallmark of Klal Yisrael. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

great Chasam Sofer on shibud Mitzrayim

Last post I mentioned Rashi's explanation that Parshas VaYechi is a parsha stuma to indicate that the hearts of Bnei Yisrael became closed, as Yaakov's coming down to Egypt and his death there marked the start of the shibud.  Everyone asks: Chazal tell us that it was not until "vayamas Yosef v'kol echav v'kol ha'dor ha'hu," as we read in our parsha, the death of Yosef and the shevatim, that the shibud in Mitzrayim started.  It didn't start with the arrival in Egypt.

One can answer very simply that there are different degrees of shibud.  To some degree, just being in Mitzrayim was shibud of galus.  The shibud of enslavement, however, did not start until later. 

Chasam Sofer (first piece in VaYechi) says a derush answer that speaks to our times.  In Parshas Bechukosai the Torah concludes the opening section of brachos by telling us, "Ani Hashem Elokeichem asher hotzeisi eschem mei'Eretz Mitzrayim mi'hiyos lahem avadim, ve'eshbor motos ulchem v'oleich eschem komimiyus." (26:13)  Hashem took us out of Egypt to free us, so he promises to break the burdensome yoke on our back.  Asks the Chasam Sofer: shouldn't this be the first bracha in that parsha -- not the last?  Shouldn't breaking the yoke we toil under be the first step in liberating us, before promising us the brachos of prosperity, peace, "v'nasati mishkani b'sochichem," etc? 

Chasam Sofer answers that there are two types of burdens we toil under.  There is the burden of persecution in whatever form it takes, whether it be more overt, e.g. pogroms, whether it be less overt, e.g. BDS.  But then there is another burden that is more subtle.  A frum Jew goes out today to go shopping and the stores are filled with decorations, holiday music, the tree is decked out so nicely.  We're talking about a frum Jew, so he knows this is not for him -- he's not going to bring a tree in his house and hang up a stocking by the fireplace.  But in his heart, maybe he feels a little like he is missing out.  As the Rambam writes in Shmoneh Perakim, a Jew doesn't need to say that bacon doesn't taste good -- it may taste very good, just we can't have it.  He knows he has to take out a second mortgage to pay yeshiva tuition, and there is no question he will do so -- but that doesn't mean he doesn't think of the nice car he could have if he didn't have that expense.  He is going to buy glatt food, but that doesn't mean he doesn't see the price of Purdue in the supermarket ad.  He does whatever he is supposed to, he is committed -- but boy, is frumkeit a burden to carry. 

The Torah in Bechukosai is telling us that Hashem will give us all the brachos we need to do mitzvos easily -- we will have the money to spend on tuition, food so plentiful that glatt will be the same price as Purdue, etc.  Why?  Because Hashem wants us to treat Torah and mitzvos like something we love to and want to do, not like a burden.  Torah is not meant to be a yoke to slave and toil under -- that's the burden the Torah promises to remove.  You don't feel like a slave to something if you love doing it, and Hashem wants us to love doing Torah

Coming back to Rashi, it was not until the death of Yosef and his brothers that the physical enslavement of Klal Yisrael started.  But there was a shibud, a burden, that set in even before that.  While Yaakov Avinu was still alive, Klal Yisrael lived Torah with joy and enthusiasm.  When Yaakov Avinu passed on, Torah and mitzvos took on a different tone.  Egyptian society with all its temptations beckoned, and even if a Jew kept true to his beliefs, observance itself, even absent any persecution, became a toil, a burden, a shibud.  

Thursday, December 20, 2018

parsha stuma

Parshas Va'Yechi is a parsha stuma, a closed parsha, meaning there is no space break between the end of last week's parsha and the beginning of this week's parsha.  Rashi explains (there are many parshiyot stumot in the Torah -- see Mizrachi as to why Rashi comments on it here) that the Torah is hinting to us that the hearts of Bnei Yisrael became closed, as the descent of Yaakov and his sons to Egypt marked the beginning of exile.  As we've discussed before, it's not that the Torah is reflecting the reality of Bnei Yisrael's now experiencing exile -- aderaba, the Torah is what creates reality.  The exile began and the hearts of Bnei Yisrael closed because the parsha of Torah here is sealed and closed. 

Rashi at the beginning of Vayikra tells us that the parsha breaks gave Moshe Rabeinu an opportunity for "revach l'hisbonein bein parsha l'parsha," a chance to pause and contemplate and reflect on what he had just been taught.  Galus is a parsha stuma with no break; galus does not give us any opportunity to pause and reflect.  (See Meslias Yesharim on midas ha'zehirus.)

The Maharasham, Rav Shalom Schwadron, in his Techeiles Mordechai, quotes the kabbalistc teaching that every Jew corresponds to a letter in Torah.  Yisrae"l is an acronym = Yesh Shishim Ribo Osiyos La'torah. (See Pnei Yehoshua Kid 30 and this post.)  What about those Jews who are unaffiliated, disinterested, and who have no connection?  What is their letter?  Maharasham explains that their cheilek is the blank spaces.  (The gemara in Shabbos writes that even the blank spaces of klaf in a sefer Torah have kedusha.)

We are in galus so that we can learn to reconnect with Hashem.  The parsha of galus is a parsha stuma because the goal is to bring us ultimately to the ideal state where we are all connected, where each one of us is a letter -- no blank spaces.

The Midrash offers another explanation of the stimas ha'parsha that is almost the opposite of the one quoted by Rashi.  According to the Midrash the closed parsha teaches us that the tzaros that had plagued Yaakov for so many years were now closed off and he and the shevatim were able to live in tranquility.  These final years were the good years which Yaakov had pined for for so long.

Shem m'Shmuel quotes Ramban (in his hakdamah) that the entire Torah is the name of Hashem.  Chazal darshen the requirement to say birchas haTorah from the pasuk "Ki shem Hashem ekra..."  When you read pesukim of Torah, you are reading Hashem's name.  We can't absorb a giluy of Elokus in such a direct, intense way, so the name is broken up into a code of words, pesukim, parshiyos that have a different, superficial meaning that we can digest.    

The gemara writes according to one view that the last 8 pesukim of the Torah describing his own death were written by Moshe "b'dema."  Some interpret that to mean he wrote it in tears.  Shem m'Shmuel suggests (I believe the GR"A says this as well) that the word "dema" here is from the same root as dmai -- a mixture.  When Torah was taught to Moshe it was given in chunks -- pesukim, parshiyos, etc. -- with breaks in between to digest and contemplate. Even Moshe could not absorb a straight giluy of shem Hashem and he had to have it coded into parshiyos and pesukim.  However, in the moments before his death Moshe reached a level where he was able to absorb Torah revealed as shem Hashem.  He received those last 8 pesukim as a jumble of letters with no breaks in between -- an unbroken stream of revelation.  This was Torah as shem Hashem.

Here too, our parsha is stuma with no breaks.  Yaakov's final years were on a pinnacle of ruchniyus where he could absorb Torah with no breaks needed to reflect -- he absorbed everything as an unbroken stream of direct revelation, Torah as shem Hashem in its most intense and direct form.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

a fish out of water

1) A few weeks/months ago, around the time of the Yamim Noraim, Sivan Rahav Meir visited the NY area and spoke in a few shuls and schools.  In the talk I heard she quoted (if I remember correctly) a vort of the Sefas Emes on our parsha.  Yaakov blessed Ephraim and Menashe, "V'yidgu la'rov b'kerev ha'aretz."   Rashi explains that "v'yidgu" means that they should multiply like fish=dag, which are immune from ayin ha'ra. 

Sefas Emes asks: the bracha is a stirah minei u'bei, a self-contradiction.  How can Ephraim and Menashe be given a blessing to be like fish "b'kerev ha'aretz," in the midst of the land?  Fish live in the sea, not on land? 

Sefas Emes answers that the lesson Yaakov wanted Ephraim and Menashe to absorb -- the lesson for us to absorb -- is that of course we want to be successful and thrive in and contribute to and have a positive impact on whatever land, whatever society, we find ourselves in -- b'kerev ha'aretz.  However, we should never lose sight of the fact that however successful we are in that environment, we are still like a fish out of water.  Galus is not our home.  Galus is not where we belong. 

2) Yaakov wants to tell his children "eis asher yikra eschem b'acharis ha'yamim," what will happen to them at the end of time.  The word the pasuk uses is not yikrah with a hey at the end, but rather yikra with an aleph at the end.  Jewish destiny is not mikreh, with a hey, just happenstance.  Rather, it is the inevitable conclusion to our history which calls to us, yikra with an aleph, from across time and across generations.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

the tikun for 10 Teves

From the "halacha yomi" from Yeshiva Har Bracha (my translated paraphrase ):

There fast of 10 Teves commemorates three things.  Firstly and primarily, it commemorates the siege placed on Yerushalayim that eventually led to the destruction of the city and the Mikdash.  Secondly, in our slichos we mention the passing of Ezra, which occured on 9 Teves.  Lastly, we remember the forced translation of the Torah into Greek on 8 Teves.

R' Tzvi Yehudah Kook suggested that in response to these three events, we use the day to work on a three-pronged "tikun": 1) In response to the tragedy of the siege, we dedicate ourselves to building Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisrael, both physically and spiritually; 2) In response to the tragedy of Ezra's passing we dedicate ourselves to spreading even more Torah, in particular by encouraging even more people to return from the golah to Eretz Yisrael, the source of Torah, just as Ezra tried to do; 3) In response to the Torah being translated into the foreign language of Greece and the foreign culture of Greece we work to restore the authentic culture and spirit of the Jewish people and weed out the foreign influences that have infiltrated during our many years in galus.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

ha'od avi chai?

The first thing Yosef asked his brothers after revealing himself is, "Ha'od avi chai?"  Is my father still alive? 

Everybody asks: the brothers had told Yosef during their earlier visits that their father was alive and well.  Yehudah had just finished pleading with Yosef to release Binyamin because their father would not be able to bear the loss.  Obviously Yaakov was still alive.  What was Yosef asking?

The Igra d'Kalla explains that Yosef was not asking about Yaakov -- he was asking about himself.   

Later in the parsha, when Yaakov finally was reunited with Yosef, the Torah writes that Yosef appeared to his father "va'yipol al tzavarav va'yeivk al tzavarav od," he fell on him and kissed him more (46:31).  Rashi explains that it was Yosef who fell on his father's neck and cried; Yaakov at this moment was reciting shema (see Maharal in Gur Aryeh as to why.)  Ramban rejects this interpretation.  Firstly, it would not be derech eretz for a son to fall on his father's neck to kiss him.  Secondly, the word "od" does not fit.  He cried "more" -- more than what? 

Ramban switches things around.  It was Yaakov who fell on Yosef and kissed him.  Yosef came to his father dressed as an Egyptian royal, riding a royal chariot.  Yaakov was an old man whose vision was poor -- he sees this Egyptian prince approaching, showing him deference, but it makes no impression on him.  Maybe he sticks out his hand for a handshake, or some such greeting.  Suddenly it hits Yaakov -- this is no Egyptian prince.  This is his son!  He now greets his son with kisses, with tears, a greeting that is far "more" than what was originally offered.

We see from Ramban that Yosef appeared outwardly as an Egyptian.  He blended into the society which he was part of for 22 long years. 

This is what concerned Yosef.  "Ha'od avi chai?"  He asks his brothers: Is the midah of yesod (od = gematriya of yesod) which my father implanted within me still alive?  Or has Egyptian society penetrated and changed me? 

The gemara (Pesachim 68) says that Rav Yosef would make a special celebration for Shavuos because if not for that day he would just be like any other Joe, any other Yosef in the marketplace. 

There are a lot of Yosefs wandering around in the streets.  Whether by choice or willy-nilly, we have to engage with the outside world and in doing so blend in, at least somewhat. 

The question we have to ask ourselves now and then is "Ha'od avi chai?"  Is the spirit of forefathers still alive in us?  Or have we gone too far in absorbing the culture of that outside world? 

The brothers could not answer Yosef because "nivhalu mi'panav," literally meaning they were taken aback by his face.  They saw underneath the Egyptian dress, underneath the royal robes, the same innocent face of their 17 year old brother of long ago who they had sold into slavery and they were astounded.  So many years apart and yet indeed, the same spark of their father was alive within him.

Coming back to the Ramban's second question, the Igra d'Kalla doesn't say it, but I think maybe this is what the pasuk means when it tells us "va'yeivk al tzavarav od."  Yaakov too sense that the midah of yesod, the "od" that he had implanted in Yosef, was alive and well.  And so he cried -- not tears of sadness, as he had cried for 22 years, but tears of joy and happiness.  

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

watch your words

Chazal tell us that of all the brothers, Yosef most closely resembled Yaakov.  How then did the brothers not recognize him during any of their interactions together?  Rashi writes in last week's parsha that when Yosef left home he had no beard and now he had a beard.  This would mean that Yosef even more closely resembled their father!  How then could the brothers miss seeing it?  

A person can disguise a lot of things about him/herself, but certain things cannot be changed.

When Yaakov came to "steal" the brachos from Yitzchak, he dressed up in Eisav's clothes, he brought food just like Eisav was supposed to bring, he used animal skins to make himself hairy like Eisav.  But then when he spoke to his father, every sentence he said had a "na," a "please" in it and he almost gave the game away.  "Ha'kol kol Yaakov," Yitzchak noticed.  Such polite language -- it's got to be Yaakov and not Eisav! 

Yaakov changed everything else about himself -- why for a few minutes couldn't he leave out the "please?" 

How a person speaks, the language and tone they use, is part of who they are.  You can  dress up and use make up to **disguise** who you are, but you can't **change** who you are.  Saying "please" is who Yaakov is. 

The halacha says a blind man is permitted to his wife because he recognizes the tone of her voice -- he knows this is his wife and not an imposter and not another woman.  There is no halacha that says a husband can assume this is his wife because he recognizes her dress or knows how she styles her hair, etc.  How we speak defines us.

L'mashal, I can put on a Yankee uniform, buy an MLB official bat, sit in the dugout at Yankee stadium so that everyone thinks I am part of the team, but trust me, if I had to step up to the plate to bat, that notion would quickly be dispelled.  The ability to play the game is part of a player's identity -- not the uniform, not the bat, not where he sits in the dugout.  So too, Yaakov could put on the clothes, put on hair, etc., but he could not change his identity to actually be someone else.

When the brothers first come back to Yaakov to report on their meeting with the person they took to be the viceroy of Egypt, the first thing they remark on is "dibeir ha'ish adonei ha'aretz itanu kashos," the man we met spoke harshly with us.  This apparently was even more important to mention than the fact that they were accused of being spies.  How the viceroy spoke made even more of an impression on them than what he said.  The brothers understood that language and tone of speech define a person's identity.  Had we been there, our attention might have been captured by what the viceroy was wearing, what the palace looked like, etc. -- all chitzoniyus.   The brothers focused on speech, as that reflects pnimiyus.

"Dibeir kashos" -- therefore, there was not even a hava amina that this was Yosef.  Members of Klal Yisrael just don't speak that way.

We finally get in our parsha to Yosef's revelation of his identity.  "Re'u ki pi ha'medaber aleichem" he tells his brothers.  "Look at how I am speaking to you," he tells them.  Look at the lashon kodesh that I am using.  This is who I am -- no Egyptian can speak this way (see Rashi, Ramban) because it's not part of who they are and they can't fake it.  The "dibeir kashos" (not even close to true Eisav-speech) was just a hora'as sha'ah, a necessity, a hechsher mitzvah to bring us back together, but this is the real me.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

ki nashani Elokim... es beis avi

1. When the Chashmonaim came into the Mikdash, they did not have the gold menorah that the Torah describes.  The Tanaim (Avodah Zarah 43) discuss what the menorah they lit was made of, but whatever the answer, the original was lost.

If Hashem made a miracle to allow them to lite with pure undefiled olive oil (despite the fact that tumah hutra b'tzibur and they could have probably used tamei oil), why did Hashem not make a miracle to allow them to light with the real deal gold menorah?

This is the lesson of Chanukah, explains Rav Nevenzahl.  Who would not be impressed with the beauty of a solid gold menorah?  But that's not what we care about.  External beauty is what the Greeks were all about.  It's the oil that's hidden in the olive and has to be pressed out, that not's visible on the surface, that has no external beauty and doesn't catch your attention -- that's our focus.   

2. An amazing statistic: "While three out of every four Israelis light Hanukkah candles "every evening," less than two of every three Jews (60%) in the States do so." 

Quite honestly, I'm actually surprised that anywhere near 40% of American Jews light a menorah.  My wife was just looking at Target yesterday and there was a little menorah decoration that was meant for hanging on your holiday tree.  Does anything say America more than that? 

3. The Midrash opens our parsha with a derasha on the pasuk "keitz sam la'choshech..." (Iyov 28:3)  The pshat in the pasuk according to Rashi is that G-d decreed that in the future, when the end comes, all will ultimately come to darkness, as heaven and earth as they are now will cease to be.  The derash is exactly the opposite, i.e. G-d will ultimately bring an end to the darkness of evil in the world.  So too, says the Midrash, G-d decreed an end to the darkness of Yosef's captivity, and so Pharoah had his dream.

In other words, as R' Moshe Avigdor Amiel (in Hegyonos El Ami) points out, it was not Yosef's ability to interpret Pharoah's dream which was the cause of the termination of his prison sentence.  Rather, it was G-d's decree that the time of Yosef's prison sentence was up which caused Pharoah to have that specific dream which only Yosef could interpret correctly. 

4. Let me share with you another beautiful interpretation of R' Amiel's:

The Torah tells us that Yosef named his bechor Menashe because "nashani Elokim es kol amali v'es kol beis avi," (41:51) G-d helped Yosef forget all the toil he suffered through and forget his father's house.

Forget his father's house?  Why would Yosef want to do that, or be proud of such callous behavior?  Furthermore, in parshas VaYechi we learn that Yosef sent wagons, agalos, to bring Ya'akov to Mitzrayim.  Chazal see this as a hint by Yosef that he still remembered the sugya of eglah arufah that he was learning with his father when he was sold.  That doesn't sound like someone who forgot his father's house!

You could answer simply that "beis avi" does not mean Ya'akov; it means the brothers.  Yosef meant that he forgot what had been done to him by the rest of the family and did not hold it against them.

Netziv (b'kitzur) and HaKsav v'HaKabbalah (b'arichus) both explain that Yosef understood his dreams to be a prophecy.  Yosef of course wanted very much to communicate with his father, but had he done so he would have forfeited any chance of drawing his brothers and father down to Egypt and seeing those dreams / prophecy fulfilled.  Therefore, "nashani **Elokim**" -- against his will, against what his emotions cried out for, the burden of nevuah placed upon him by Hashem caused Yosef to put aside the memory of his father's house for the sake of bringing that prophecy to fruition.

Rav Amiel (see Hirsch as well) offers a different interpretation.  When you lend money to a poor person "lo ti'hiye lo k'nosheh," the Torah tells us in parshas Mishpatim. -- don't bug him and keep reminding him that he is obligated to you.  "Ki nashani Elokim..." -- G-d obligated me.  G-d saved you from prison, G-d gave you the benefit of growing up in the home of a Ya'akov Avinu -- go do something with that.  The tremendous tovos that Hashem does for us obligate us to use those gifts to better ourselves and better the world around us.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

a few hilchos chanukah ideas

Just in time for Chanukah I saw uploaded Moadei haGR"Ch, a collection of piksei halacha from R' Chaim Kanievski (BTW, I first thought this would be torah of R' Chaim Brisker when I saw the title.  I guess stama GR"Ch is no longer R' Chaim Brisker?)  These are just some quick notes I jotted down (the # refer to the questions in the sefer):

#586 - The Pri Megadim (siman 570) holds that an onein is chayav to light ner Chanukah.  Why should new Chanukah be different than other mitzvos?

R' Chaim answers that ner Chanukah is a chiyuv on the bayis -- ner ish u'beiso -- not on the individual. 

This answer is a little strange because later in #591 R' Chaim is quoted as holding that the chiyuv hadlaka is on the gevara.  (Nafka minah: what if you don't own a house?  If hadlakah is a chovas ha'bayis, then you should be patur.  If it is a chovas ha'gavra and the house is simply where Chazal mandated that a person fulfill the chiyuv, then a person should have to buy a house to be mekayein hadlakah.  If he can't, then that's a situation of ones, not a ptur.  This is a diyun in Achronim, with R' Chaim and R' Elyashiv taking opposing views if I recall correctly [I forget who holds which way.])

This idea of ner Chanukah being a chovas ha'gavra is based on the Rambam in ch 11 of hil brachos:
יש מצות עשה שאדם חייב להשתדל ולרדוף עד שיעשה אותה כגון תפילין וסוכה ולולב ושופר ואלו הן הנקראין חובה. לפי שאדם חייב על כל פנים לעשות. ויש מצוה שאינה חובה אלא דומין לרשות כגון מזוזה ומעקה שאין אדם חייב לשכון בבית החייב מזוזה כדי שיעשה מזוזה אלא אם רצה לשכון כל ימיו באהל או בספינה ישב

The Ramban distinguishes between mitzvos you have to do not matter what, e.g. putting on tefillin, which he calls chovah, and mitzvos that are conditional, like mezuzah, which you would only have to do if you own a house.

Rambam then continues:
וכן כל המצות שהן מדברי סופרים בין מצוה שהיא חובה מדבריהם כגון מקרא מגילה והדלקת נר בשבת והדלקת נר חנוכה
 and categorizes ner Chanukah, among other examples, as a chovah.  It's not conditional on owning a house -- aderaba, you should buy a house to fulfill the mitzvah. 

R' Berel Schwartzman, R"Y of Beis haTalmud, uses these two aspects of the mitzvah to explain the opinion of Meiri, who writes that a woman cannot be motzi a man in ner Chanukah.  Why not?  Both men and women share the same chiyuv derabbanan of hadlakah.  This is not like megillah where a woman's chiyuv may only be shemiya and not keri'ah (see Rashi Archin 3b) or where her chiyuv based on af hein ha'yu b'oso ha'nes is only derabbanan as opposed to a man's chiyuv which is divrei kabbalah.

Based on the idea of there being 2 dinim in hadlakah: 1) the chovas ha'gavra of hadlakah, modeled on the avodah of hadlakah done in the mikdash (see Ramban in P' Be'ha'aloscha); 2) a chovas ha'bayis to lit in commemoration of the nes of Chanukah. R' Schwartzman explained that women only have the latter chiyuv, not the former, as they have no role in avodas hamikdash.  Men have both chiyuvim.  Therefore, a woman cannot be motzi a man.

Another more lomdish suggestion R' Chaim offered to explain why an onein is chayav is based on af hein ha'yu b'oso ha'nes.  I assume what he means is that just like women should be exempt from the mitzvah because it is zman gerama, but are nonetheless chayavos because of af hein, so too, an onein who should be exempt is also nonetheless chayav because of af hein.

I don't understand the comparison.  Women are exempt from mitzvos that are zman gerama.  An onein is not just patur -- he is not allowed to do mitzvos during aninus.

#590 - A nice chakirah: is there a din of oseik b'mitzvah patur min ha'mitzvah when lighting candles 2 or 3, 4, 5 etc. since the ikar chiyuv is fulfilled with the first candle and all the others are just hidur?

This sounds like a spin off of R' Akiva Eiger's safeik whether one is allowed to make the bracha of l'hadlik ner Chanukah if you forgot to make it before lighting the first candle.  Are the additional candles part of the kiyum hadlakah, in which case you can still recite the bracha of l'hadlik, or are they a separate kiyum of hidur?

Yet, in truth, the cases are not really comparable.  R' Akiva Eiger's issue hinges on whether the nusach ha'bracha that refers specifically to the mitzvah of hadlakah can be said over the additional candles lit l'shem hidur.  Oseik b'mitzvah simply requires that one be engaged in mitzvah performance -- what difference should it make whether that mitzvah is categorized as hadlakah or hidur?

Maybe that's why R' Chaim answered that one is considered oseik b'mitzvah.

(Parenthetically, I never understand how people construct whole torahs based on R' Chaim's mostly one word answers -- kein, ko, efsher, ulay, etc. How do you know what he was thinking based on that?)

#593 - Interesting question: if you lit two candles on the first night, are you yotzei?

#608 - Sefas Emes (Shabbos 21) holds that there is no din of mitzvah bo yoseir mi'b'shlucho by ner Chanukah since it is a chovas ha'bayis rather than a chiyuv on the individual.  R' Chaim disagrees (based on MG"A siman 677).

There are two ways I think you can take issue with the Sefas Emes: 1) You could argue that hadlakah is in fact a chovas ha'gavra, as R' Chaim holds in #591, as we discussed earlier; 2) You could argue that even if the chiyuv rests on the bayis, there is still a preference to be the one performing the ma'aseh mitzvah to fulfill that chiyuv. 

A follow up on this same idea is found in #624.  R' Chaim holds it is better to light oneself at plag rather than light via a shliach at the zman.

#615 - R' Chaim holds that it is better to light in a window than in a doorway if there is more pirsumei nisa that way.

I would have thought that since Chazal were metakein to light in the doorway, so long as there is some degree of pirsum that way, what right do you have to deviate from the takanah?  For example, there may be more pirsum if I light a 20 foot high  menorah in a park, but doing that is not the mitzvah.

#628 - I have to mention this one since 2 years ago I wrote about the din of kitusei michtas shiurah by ner Chanukah.  Everyone has trouble explaining the opinion that holds there is a din of kitusei michtas and you would not be yotzei lighting with issurei ha'na'ah.  R' Chaim explains simply that that if you hold kitusei michtas it would be like lighting with air and not oil. 

This hinges on the question Achronim discuss (the Steipler has a piece on this too) as to whether kitusei michtas is a din in quantity, i.e. there is something there, but it lacks shiur, or whether it is a din in quality, i.e. it is as if the stuff is not there. 

This leads us to #635, the question of whether there is a requirement of "lachem" by ner Chanukah.  R' Chaim holds there is not.  What is the hava amina to say otherwise?  The din is that an achsina'i, a guest, participates in the hadlakah with his host by contributing a perutah, a token amount.  The pashtus is that this is needed to create a kinyan in some portion of the oil -- i.e. you need to own the oil that is being lit.

R' Yitzchak Elchanan (Shu"T Beit Yitzchak Y.D. 145 at the end) points out that if there is a requirement of lachem, then the question of kitusei michtas shiurah should be moot.  Issurei Hana'ah have no value (din mammon), and therefore cannot be owned.  

There is much more to see in the sefer and much more to say...  maybe more to come.  But don't wait for me -- that a look!