Saturday, September 28, 2019

it's not about the past

If the avodah of Rosh haShana is to review the past and do teshuvah on what we messed up during the previous year, then it would make the most sense to celebrate Rosh haShana on the last day of the year.  On the last day we could take stock of all that transpired over the previous year and make an accounting of where we did well and where we fell short.  But that's not what we do.  We celebrate not on the last day of the year, but rather on the first day of the year, before anything has even transpired in that new year yet.  How does that make sense?

Secondly, if you notice, our Rosh haShana davening actually does not have in it viduy, we don't klap al cheit, we don't say slichos on Rosh haShana.  All that is part of the avodah of Yom Kippur, but is not part of Rosh haShana.

So what is the avodah of the day?

Meforshim explain (see for example, the Sifsei Chaim, or the Sichos of R' Noson Tzvi Finkel) that Rosh haShana is not about the past, but rather it's about the future.  What do you want the new year to be?  What are your she'ifos for the future?   That's what you need to consider on day #1.

That is what the din of the day is all about: firstly, because a person is defined by his/her aspirations.  You may not get there, but you at least have to know where you are going.  And you have to ask Hashem help you get there. Secondly, and this is where teshuvah fits into the picture, our aspirations are inevitably shaped by where we are coming from and where we are currently holding.  The triple AAA baseball player hopes next year to move up to the majors, but the player on some low level minor league team is nowhere land can't realistically have that same dream.  If you come to the table with last year's baggage, it is hard to aspire to something radically different this year.  It's hard to ask Hashem, "Let me become a baki in sha"s this year," when you are coming to the table with a history of barely keeping up with daf yomi.  Hashem is not going to give a person a mission that will inevitably end in failure or be an exercise in futility.  It's a struggle to overcome the past, but that's what teshuvah is all about.

Around two weeks ago I did a post on the word "avah," and the question of how to understand the pasuk in our parsha speaking about the person who rebels against Hashem, "lo yoveh Hashem slo'ach lo."  How is it possible that G-d should not want to forgive even such a person?

The problem is I put the comma in the wrong place.  What actually makes the person rebellious is that, "Lo yoveh," he, this rebellious individual, does not want, comma, 'Hashem slo'ach lo," for G-d to forgive him (Mishne Sachir quoting Kreizer Rav of Sanz).

G-d is willing to forgive anyone.  All we have to do is want that forgiveness.

So that's what the next two days of Rosh haShana is all about -- finding amidst the nigunim, the chazzanus, the piyutim, the speeches, the tekiyos, one real moment of introspection, one moment where we really desire to be forgiven, one moment when we actually have a desire for true growth in the coming year and ask Hashem for help.

Hopefully we will all be successful in finding at least one moment like that and making the most of it.

Monday, September 23, 2019

viduy ma'aser

On erev Pesach every third year of the terumos/maasros cycle there is a mitzvah of biyur maasros, to distribute whatever terumah/maaser is left in one's possession. One then makes a declaration known as viduy maser, saying that one has given away the required tithes to support the kohen, the levi, the poor.  

This time of year we are all focused on the mitzvah of teshuvah and we are all familiar with the concept of viduy as a confession of sin. Why should the declaration that one gave teru"m properly be called viduy?

The Seforno answers that Hashem's original plan was for the bechorim to do the avodah in the Mikdash and be the recipients of our teru"m. Because of the cheit ha'eigel Hashem took that honor away from the bechorim and gave it to the leviim and kohanim. The declaration is called viduy because even though one fulfills the mitzvah of teru"m by giving to the kohen, the levi, etc., one must still acknowledge that it is a departure from the ideal.

With this idea the Seforno is able to answer a question raised by Rashi. We say to Hashem as part of the viduy, "Hashkifa m'm'on kodshecha...," look down from Heaven and give us blessings. Usually the word "hashkifa" has a negative connotation. Here, it is used in a positive way to make a request for bracha after the fulfillment of the mitzvah. Rashi explains that the Torah is teaching that giving to the poor changes the midas ha'din into rachamim. Seforno, however, gives a much simpler explanation of the negative connotation here: true, the parsha is speaking about the fulfillment of the mitzvah of giving teru"m, but the mitzvah itself is tainted by the change in process caused by the cheit ha'eigel.  Hashem therefore cannot look completely favorably on the way we carry it out.
We see a number of chiddushim in this Seforno:

1) Teshuvah is not just for aveiros -- it's for mitzvos as well. The person in this case didn't do any aveira -- he is doing the mitzvah of giving teru"m. Nonetheless, since the mitzvah is not being done in the ideal way the farmer must say viduy.

2) Teshuvah applies even when a person is a victim of long past circumstance. Imagine a farmer at the time of Shlomo haMelech fulfilling biyur maasros. The cheit ha'eigel that caused the transition from avodah by bechorim to avodah by kohanim would have occurred around 400 years in the past. Nonetheless, the farmer has to say viduy for his inability to do the mitzvah in its ideal sense because of that long past circumstance.

3) My wife added another observation: the mitzvah teaches us that there is value to the less-than-ideal. We operate with a full set of mitzvos built around the less than ideal circumstance of avodah done by kohanim instead of bechorim. Hashem did not discard the entire system because of the failure of cheit ha'eigel. The alternative to not being able to do 100% is not doing nothing -- sometimes even the less than ideal has value.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

13 midos -- davar she'b'kedusha

1. The gemara tells us that Ezra made a takanah to read the tochacha of Bechukosai before Shavuos and the tochacha of our parsha before Rosh haShana.  Rav Ruderman (see Sichos haLevi on our parsha and on Bechukosai) quotes Ramban's comment that the first tochacha corresponds to churban bayis rishon and the second tochacha corresponds to churban bayis sheni.  The gemara tells us that the nevi'im wondered "al mah avdah ha'aretz," what caused the destruction of the first Mikdash.  Hashem revealed that it was due to a lack of learning Torah lishma.  Therefore, explains Rav Ruderman, it is appropriate to read the tochacha of Bechukosai before Shavuos as the moment when we come to celebrate kabbalas haTorah presents us with the perfect opportunity to make a tikun for the cheit of bitul Torah lishma.  The gemara tells us that churban bayis sheni was caused by sinas chinam, sins bein adam l'chaveiro.  Our teshuvah efforts should be focused on precisely these areas during the month of Elul as we lead up to Yamim Noraim.  Therefore, explains Rav Ruderman, we read the tochacha of our parsha now, as the time is ripe to correct the sins that led to churban.
2. This week we will IY"H start saying slichos.  The S.A. paskens that if you are not davening with a minyan then you cannot recite the 13 midos ha'rachamim.  The Rishonim already question why this should be so.  The Mishna in Megillah (23b) lists those things which require a minyan, and conspicuously absent from the list is the recitation of the 13 midos.  The midos are, after all, just a tefilah, a bakashas rachamim -- why should they be categorized as a davar she'b'kedusha that requires a minyan?  What is the source for such a din?

Some point to the gemara in Rosh haShana (17b) that says that Hashem wrapped himself in a talis like a shliach tzibur and taught Moshe the 13 midos as the source.  Since the gemara refers to Hashem acting as shliach tzibur, it implies that a tzibur is needed.  As to why this din is left off the list in the Mishna in Megillah, it could be that the Mishna there is listing chiyuvim.  There is no chiyuv to recite the 13 midos -- if you choose to take advantage of their power and add them to your tefilah, then you need a minyan to do so.
The Maor vaShemesh (end of Parshas vaYechi) suggests another hesber.  The gemara writes that Hashem told Moshe that whenever Klal Yisrael sins "ya'asu lifanei ka'seder ha'zeh," of the 13 midos, "V'ani mochel lahem."  The Rishonim point out that the gemara does not say "kol ha'omer" -- whoever recites the 13 midos.  It says "kol ha'oseh" -- whoever does the 13 midos.  A person must put those behaviors of rachum, chanun, erech apayim, etc. into practice and live them to benefit from them and be granted mechilah.  (I can't help but think that in the back of the Maor va'Shemesh's mind was the RaMaK's sefer Tomer Devorah, which is devoted to explaining how to put Hashem's midos ha'rachamim as described in the pasuk "Mi K-l kamocha nosei avon..." into practice.  "Mah hu -- af atah" -- we have a concept of imitation Dei.  If G-d reveals to us that he acts with certain attributes of mercy, it obligates us to behave in a similar fashion.)
It's impossible for any one individual, says the Maor va'Shemesh, to truly embody all of the 13 midos.  Each one of us has personality quirks that tilt us in the direction of one midah or another.  It's only when we join together as a tzibur and blend all our individual talents together that we can cover all 13 bases. 

Coming back to Rav Ruderman's idea, the tikun of bein adam l'chaveiro is perhaps even more necessary at this time of year because it is what enables us to truly come together as a community so that we can fulfill the 13 midos and merit receiving the bracha of "kol ha'oseh... ani mochel lahem."

3. Lastly, just to put you in the right mood:


Tuesday, September 17, 2019

the simcha of coming into the land

"V'haya ki tavo el ha'aretz..."  Ohr haChaim comments that "ain 'v'haya' elah lashon simcha."  The biggest simcha is coming into Eretz Yisrael.  It doesn't matter who won the election or how many seats any party has -- sometimes we forget the bigger picture, namely, we have a country where we can hold elections and govern ourselves for the first time in 2000 years.  For 2000 years we have been waiting for simcha like this.
 What is it about the experience of learning in yeshiva/seminary in Eretz Yisrael that transforms students who  may have been disinterested in high school into students who are excited and inspired?
Rather than offer my own theories, I thought a better idea would be to bounce the question off my daughter who is now learning in Eretz Yisrael and get her reaction.  So what makes seminary different?  Here was her short, off the cuff answer after about 2 weeks into her program:

"They [the teachers] are a lot more involved and people can ask any question they want and they wont be like "oh we cant talk about that now.  They actually start discussions and try to answer your questions.

They also have a lot more personality and try harder to relate to us..."

I could write a whole peirush Rashi on just those comments, but I'll let them speak for themselves and just add one thing.  If you ask your typical high school morah what she is trying to teach, the answer I think would be something along the lines of X number of perakim, or the Rambans on this or that perek, or some sefer in Nach, etc.  The curriculum boils down to a list of facts to be absorbed and spit back.

I would argue that even in the best case scenario, a student can learn a bunch of those facts really well and sadly, still know very little about Judaism.  Facts and information don't really inspire and are often not really relevant to the challenges of every day life in an obvious way.  They have to be woven into a framework that is meaningful, that provokes, that inspires, that gives direction and that encourages a student to go stretch their thinking.  That is what the gap year does for a lot of kids, and that's why it makes such a powerful impact.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

a want that can't be explained

We once discussed different answers to the question of why G-d thwarted Bilam's attempt to curse Klal Yisrael and changed his words to bracha. Why not just let him say whatever he wants and ignore him?

Chasam Sofer in our parsha offers another answer. "V'lo avah Hashem Elokecha lishmoa el a'heivcha Hashem Elokecha." (23:6) When you love someone, you don't want to listen to bad things being said about them, even if the words are meaningless. Hashem loves Klal Yisrael; therefore, He did not want to even give Bilam the chance to speak.

The Ohr haChaim has an interesting comment on the language used in this pasuk. The word "AVAH," writes the Ohr haChaim, means having a desire for no reason. Earlier in sefer Devarim (2:26-30) Moshe relates how he sent messengers to Sichon asking permission for Klal Yisrael to pass through his territory, and even offering to buy food and drink from the Emori despite the fact that Klal Yisrael had mon and the be'er and didn't really need anything.  "V'lo AVAH Sichon.. ha'avireinu bo..." -- Sichon did not **want** to let Klal Yisrael pass through.  This was was a want that made no sense -- hence the use of "lo AVAH."  Sichon could have avoided war, he could have made money for his people, but he still did not give in. Here too, Bilam pointed to the misdeeds of Klal Yisrael, to their rebellions, to the cheit ha'eigel, and still, Hashem did not want to allow him to harm Klal Yisrael. Why? How do you justify that?   "V'lo AVAH" -- we can't explain it.  Can you explain love? 
Now that we know this Ohr haChaim, we have a deeper insight into the parsha of yibum at the end of our sidra (25:7-8). The Torah tells us, "V'im lo yachpotz ha'ish lakachas es yivimto," if the man does not want to do yibum, "V'also yivimto ha'sha'ara," the woman comes to beis din and declares, "... lo AVAH yabmi." Beis din then responds: "V'kar'u lo ziknei iro v'dibru eilav," they give the guy a talking to. If he responds and says, "Lo chafatzti likachta," I don't want to marry her, then they perform chalitza.  We have a whole shakla v'terya here -- he says, she says, beis din says, and then he responds again.  What's going on?

The key to the parsha is the one word AVAH.  Malbim explains: the man whose brother died says, "Lo **chafatzti** likachta" -- I have nothing to gain from marrying this woman -- chafeitz = desire for something that is beneficial in some way -- and don't want to be involved. But what the woman hears and what she presents to beis din is "lo AVAH yabmi" -- he has no good reason for his refusal.  It's just a whim.  So beis din comes to investigate. The man then reiterates to them "lo chafatzti..." -- it's not just some nonsensical behavior, but rather it's that I dont see this match as being beneficial to either of us. It's "lo chafatzti" -- not "lo AVAH" like she said.  That's a different story, and beis din now gets involved in arranging a chalitza.

Back in sefer Braishis, when Avaraham sends Eliezer to find a wife for Yitzchak, Eliezer ask Avraham what to do if, "Lo tOVEH ha'isha laleches..." Eliezer was a good negotiator and whatever reason the girl might give for not wanting to go -- money, questions of yichus, kavod, etc. -- he had an answer for. But what if "lo toveh" -- what if she refuses on a whim and has no good reason? You can't argue with a whim, so what am I to do? 

So we have a few good examples of this Ohr haChaim in action where it gives us new, deeper insight into pesukim. Now for an example that has me baffled. In parshas Nitzavim the Torah speaks about the evil person who rejects the bris of Hashem and says "bi'shrirus libi eilech," I'll go my own way and be fine. The Torah tells us, "Lo YOVEH Hashem sloch lo," Hashem will not let him off the hook (29:18-19)  "Lo YOVEH?"  Hashem on a whim, for no reason, turns away a person???  Surely Hashem never turns someone away for no reason, and here, the reason this person is punished is clear from the pesukim.  I'm stuck -- how do you explain this pasuk?

Thursday, September 05, 2019

psychology or ontology

Our parsha tells us that a king is not permitted to take too many wives (machlokes Tanaim exactly how many is too many) "v'lo yasir livavo," lest he be led astray. The Midrash in Parshas Va'Eira (see also Sanhedrin 21) writes that Shlomo haMelech said to himself that he is sure he will not be led astray, and so he took many wives. The letter yud from "lo yarbeh" came to complain to Hashem. "If Shlomo gets away with it," said the yud, "Then it will be as if "lo yabreh" is erased from the Torah."  End of the story is that Shlomo was in fact led astray by his wives despite the confidence he had in his own ability.

The simple lesson of the Midrash is that you're not as smart as you think you are, even if you are Shlomo haMelech, the smartest person alive. If you think you are immune from temptation, if you think the law only applies to lesser people than yourself, you are only fooling yourself and in the end will pay the price.

On the other hand, this is Shlomo haMelech we are talking about. Did he really not appreciate such a simple idea?  Did he really fool himself into not appreciating the danger of his actions?

R' Ahron Kotler (quotes in m'Shulchan R' Eliyahu Baruch) explained that in truth, Shlomo HaMelech did properly asses his own character -- psychologically, he should have been immune from the effects of "lo yasir levavo."  The Torah, however, is more than psychology.  There is an "inyan seguli" to Torah, and therefore, even if al pi teva Shlomo might have been immune, since the Torah says having many wives will lead to temptation, it inevitably will.  (Compare with Shem m'Shmuel VaEira 5672 -- I think the idea is the same.)

I would like to suggest along similar lines that perhaps the Midrash can be understood in light of a talk Rav Soloveitchik once gave in response to a certain Rabbi who suggested that the chazakos and umdenot of Chazal were historically/socially conditioned.  For example,  this Rabbi argued that the idea of "tav l'meisav" that says a woman would rather be married than not, may no longer apply in our time because psychologically and socially things have changed from what once was in the days of Chazal. Rav Soloveitchik thought this was completely incorrect.  The Rav held that the umdenot of Chazal are ontological -- that's how Hashem built the teva of human beings. They are not something determined by psychological tests or assessments of the situation at a certain time and place.  Therefore, since that is how Hashem built us, these are immutable principles.

If this is true of the umdenot of Chazal, kal v'chomer it's true of what is stated in a pasuk.

If "lo yasur levavo" were a psychological umdena, Shlomo would be justified in saying, "That's for most people -- but not me." But if we are talking about the human condition, Shlomo cannot say, "I am not a human being." 

With this I think we can understand the end of the Midrash we well. Why does the letter yud complain that if Shlomo disobeys, it is as if the pasuk is erased from the Torah? If someone is mechalel Shabbos, does it mean that pasuk is erased? If someone eats treif, have they erased a pasuk? (See here where we discussed this).

Based on either hesber of the Midrash above, the difference is clear: Shlomo's error revealed something fundamental about the nature of Torah.  It was not simply a mistake based on ta'avah or based on a too grand assessment of his own abilities.  It was a philosophical error.  The letter yud was complaining because Shlomo's error reduced the din to a psychological maxim instead of an inyan seguli, instead of an ontological truth.  

Monday, September 02, 2019

haftarah of shabbos rosh chodesh - 7 nechemta

The Shulchan Aruch (O.C. 425) paskens that when rosh chodesh Elul falls on Shabbos we still lein the haftarah "aniya so'ara" of the 7 d'nechemta cycle and not the haftarah of rosh chodesh.  The Rama disagrees and writes that minhag ashkenaz is to read the haftarah of rosh chodesh.

I was wondering what the din should be if you are in a shul that follows minhag ashkenaz but they get mixed up and read aniya so'arah. 

When discussing this halacha over our Shabbos meal I pointed out the reason given by the Mishna Berura for the psak of the Rama: since the haftara of rosh chodesh contains pesukim that refer to the nechama of Yerushalayim, by reading it we in effect cover all our bases -- we cover the theme of nechama, as well as the theme of rosh chodesh.

My wife pointed out that there is another possible reason to lein the haftarah of rosh chodesh: it is more tadir than that of "aniya so'arah."  (We then had a debate whether this is indeed true.)  Indeed, there are poskim who cite this justification as well.

Perhaps my question hinges on which of these two reasons in correct.  According to the M.B.'s reason, the Rama agrees in principle that the chiyuv is to read a haftarah of nechama -- he just holds that if you can cover the extra base of rosh chodesh, why not do so.  B'dieved, I would say that if you read "aniya so'arah" and only covered the theme of nechama, since that is the ikar chiyuv, you are yotzei.  However, if the reason to read the haftarah of rosh chodesh is because of tadir, then that is the real chiyuv -- the chiyuv of reading a haftarah of nechama is pushed off.  You would accomplish nothing even b'dieved by reading "aniya so'arah."

Check the notes in the Dirshu M.B. and they tell you to treat the b'dieved case like any case where you read the wrong haftarah -- you have to correct it and read the right one.  I guess my reasoning is wrong.