Thursday, January 31, 2013

R' Shlomo Fischer on the secret ingredient in Yisro's "Baruch Hashem"

Chazal (Sanhedrin 96) are critical of Klal Yisrael because it was Yisro and not they who was the first to say “baruch Hashem” in response to yetzi’as Mitzrayim.  The obvious question is that Klal Yisrael may not have said the exact words "baruch Hashem," but they did sing shiras ha’yam – why is that any less significant?  What is the secret ingredient in Yisro's words that made his thanks to Hashem so special?

In the past we discussed two answers offered by the Ksav Sofer: 1) Bnei Yisrael sang shirah because they experienced the jubilation of being saved and seeing their enemy's downfall.  However, because he was a ger and shared a certain kinship with the Mitzrim, Yisro was pained by the Egyptians being drowned.  Rashi comments on “Vayichad Yisro” that “na’asah besaro chidudim."  Nonetheless, Yisro still said “Baruch Hashem.”  The ability to thank Hashem even when experiencing pain is something that Yisro alone accomplished.  2) Bnei Yisrael experienced first hand the exodus from Mitzrim and kri’as Yam Suf.  Yisro heard about it; it was a vicarious experience.  His “Baruch Hashem” was the joy of someone who can be mishtatef b’simchas chaveiro, someone who shares in and feels joy at his friend’s good fortune even if it is not his own personal simcha.  That thanks belonged to Yisro alone.

I want to share with you a brilliant answer of R’ Shlomo Fischer (in his Derashos Beis Yishai) that draws on some of the topics we discussed these past few weeks.  Just to review: We mentioned (link) that Hashem had to increase the burden of servitude on Bnei Yisrael so that they could go free after only 210 years instead of 400.  The qualitative increase in pressure served as a substitute for the quantitative amount of time spent in Mitzrayim, but that in turn was for Bnei Yisrael’s benefit because it allowed the exodus to occur sooner.  We also mentioned the view of the Ramban (link - Ramban holds like Ra'avad) that even though the punishment of galus had been decreed upon Klal Yisrael from the time of Bris bein haBesarim, the Mitzrim still deserved to be punished for carrying out that decree because they went above and beyond what was necessary in their zeal to oppress Klal Yisrael.  Rav Shlomo Fischer puts two and two together.  Yisro said, “Ki gadol Hashem m’kol Elokim.”  Elokim is the name that refers to how Hashem is manifest through the laws that govern the universe.  One of those natural laws is that man has free choice -- the Mitzrim were free to decide whether and to what degree they would persecute Bnei Yisrael.  Because of the severity of their persecution, “Ki badavar asher zadu aleihem,” the Mitzrim were punished.  Yet, the same harshness and severity which the Egyptians were free to choose to inflict and for which they were punished must have also occurred by virtue of Hashem’s hashgacha, as it was that very same qualitative increase in severity which was the trigger that allowed the galus to end after only 210 years instead of 400 at tremendous benefit to Klal Yisrael.   “Ki gadol Hashem m’kol Elokim” – even while you play by the rules of free choice and deliver schar and onesh accordingly, Hashem you reign above those rules in showing your awesome hashgacha over the universe.


Tuesday, January 29, 2013

santa hats and black hats: chinuch choices

You would think I would be a prime candidate to advocate attending a modern orthodox day school/yeshiva.  After all, I went to these type of schools myself, I believe secular culture has value beyond its instrumental use for obtaining parnasa, and I'm a zionist as well.  I was not fast enough in pulling out my blackberry to snap a picture, otherwise I would save myself these thousand words (don't worry - hopefully less) with just one image.  One a recent day off for a secular holiday I went for a short walk to stretch my legs.  As I passed by one of the local modern orthodox high schools, there was a young lady entering the building wearing a red santa hat on her head.  A santa hat!  A few moments later I saw another student come out accompanied by a mother wearing pants and with no hair covering.  On my way home the same school was letting kids roam outside for lunch and I got to witness boys with kippot that I needed better glasses to be able to see and girls with dresses that would not be allowed in the front door of the school I send my kids to.  Question: Is this what modern orthodoxy has become?  Is this what modern orthodoxy idealizes? 

Some will no doubt object to that last question -- who says what I witnessed is the ideal?  Point granted.  But it certainly is within the threshold of what is tolerated, while the same cannot be said about the average RW yeshiva or Beis Ya'akov.  Some will object that if there are no schools for kids like these, they will end up in public school and drift off even further.  Point granted as well.  So is that what modern orthodox schools aspire to be -- the last refuge for those who want a Jewish environment but not the demands of a traditional yeshiva program?  I think most who champion the benefits of modern orthodox education would argue that it is far more than that,and indeed, it should be.  So I ask: what are those benefits and where can I see them manifest?  If these students are not the ideal, if the program they are in (co-ed classes, no dress code requirement, minimal exposure in the form of 1 or 2 periods a day to gemara, etc.) is not the ideal, then where is the ideal exemplified within the modern orthodox world?  The boys who spend their summers in Morasha Kollel (been there, done that) and the girls involved in similar programs seem to me to be the exception to their peer group and not at all representative of the norm -- they are managing to achieve great things despite their surroundings and despite the educational system that they find themselves in, not because of it.   

Perhaps for some it is worth it in order to get a better education, but that begs the question: do these type modern schools offer a better education?  I think one must be absurdly naive to think that the answer is "yes" in the realm of limudei kodesh; it's not even worth the time to do a comparison.  What about limudei chol?  Does one get a better secular education in a modern orthodox school that (as I recently saw posted on one prominent school's website) carries a sticket price of over $30,000 compared to a Beis Ya'akov that costs far less?  I have two daughters in high school right now that between them are taking three AP classes in their junior and sophomore years (AP European History, Psychology, Art History).  One took a year of a foreign language.  They both are required to clock a certain number of chessed hours.  One is involved in extra curricular activities like helping with a school performance for the public that is being produced.  Gym is offered.  So what are they missing?  The only class I think I had when I was in 9th grade in a modern high school that they have had no exposure to is music -- in every other area I can think of their education is on par.  

Excuse my being blunt, but at the end of the day, I don't really think anyone is sending their kid to the type high school I saw instead of a Mesivta or Beis Ya'akov because they can get an extra AP class, or they offer music appreciation, etc.  I think it's really all about the walls we erect or choose not to erect between ourselves and the outside world.  Make no mistake about it: the Beis Ya'akov uniform, the black hat and jacket, the requirement to be in yeshiva all day + a night seder -- these are all walls.  Ain hachi nami, it would be dishonest to not admit that in many cases these walls are breached, these walls are porous and permeable, these walls are just a facade and the interior kedusha they are supposed to protect has been decayed and destroyed.  But even if in practice we often fail to achieve the ideal, does that mean we should not aspire to it and try our best to implement it?  That's the issue -- what do we aspire to?  What are our ideals?  What should be policy, even if in practice it is not applied or conformed to with absolute consistency?  Should we try to put up those walls, or do we think they are needless constraints?  

Let's be honest: those walls are not being shrugged off because they make it harder to go attend a performance of Shakespeare or to listen to Mozart.  It's attending a movie on Saturday night (probably too innocent an example) or listening to the latest in contemporary music that's the motivating force.  This is not just an issue of chinuch, but it's an issue as to what kind of frum society we want to construct.  We want to watch the football game this weekend wearing our jeans and team jerseys, eating glatt kosher wings and hero sandwiches, and not have to think about whether we should be having a seder or doing something more productive during that time.  The hero sandwich and wings are glatt kosher -- it's the lifestyle of the person consuming them which is treif.  

We have had battles in our house over whether one of our children should be granted her own e-mail address like her friends have (that one got an OK with conditions); we have had battles over whether I-pads and other such stuff are acceptable (no go on that).  We have no TV, we keep non-Jewish music out.  The philosophy of my kids' schools is also to keep this stuff out as much as possible (and admittedly rules are breached as much as they are obeyed by many parents).  And still, with all that, b'einei chazisi that the outside culture exerts a tremendous influence in what fashions are considered "in", what kids talk about, what they want to look and sound like.  I cannot even begin to imagine the influence outside culture exerts when there are no safeguards, when openness to everything is viewed as appropriate, and where my lifestyle is viewed a narrow minded and fanatical, something out of the middle ages.  The santa hats speak for themselves.   

True, in parts of the chareidi world my ideas and ideals would not pass muster.  The walls are higher, people prefer an even more cloistered environment than my own.  I could easily write a post questioning the degree of insularity the far right has adopted and the intellectual cost of their philosophy.  Some would argue that there is harm even in Shakespeare, that listening to Mozart is as bad as listening to whatever passes for contemporary pop music -- I obviously disagree.  However, and this is just a personal feeling, my impression is that my advocating a more moderate position than those on the far right amounts to a difference of degree, not a difference in kind.   And in the end, if it is a choice of being an intellectual ignoramus but 100% committed to Torah or being an all star in chochmas hagoyim but walking around in a santa hat, does the former fault in any way compare with the latter?

There is an attitude that is prevalent that says the way to win over a talmida wearing a santa hat is to show love and tolerance and over time she will come to appreciate the warm and fuzzy relationship she has with her Moros and teachers and become a true bas Torah.  Maybe it works.  But the other side of the coin is that that tolerance can be interpreted as acceptance and validation, not only of the person, but of the actions and attitude as well.  That's where I think in many cases things are holding.  There are a whole host of modern orthodox bloggers who yomam v'layla have what to say about the failures of chareidi society (and to be fair, in many cases the points raised do deserve attention and are valid and should not be dismissed flippantly).  But where are the bloggers in the modern orthodox community speaking out about the internal shortcomings of their own community?  Where are the critical voices examining whether the chinuch is successful, whether modern orthodox educational institutions are helping their students grow in learning and yiras shamayim, etc. before they get to that year in Israel where magical transformation is supposed to occur?  Where is the self reflection, the kshot atzmecha that must always precede the keshot acheirim? 

This has been a long tirade, and I'm just getting warmed up, but something tells me it's time to stop.  I haven't pulled any punches and that's usually not a good thing.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

shirah -- sensing the future

1) I missed posting this before Shabbos: "V'haya bayom ha'shishi" -- ain v'haya elah lashon simcha.  TGIF is right there in the Torah!

2) The Kozhiglover explains that Rashi's interpretation of the future tense of "yashir" as meaning, "alah b'libo," that the feeling/thought of shirah arose in Moshe's heart/mind before he spoke, goes hand in hand with Chazal's interpretation of the future tense being a hint to techiyas hameisim.   Every action is preceded by thought -- what is unique about shirah?  The answer is that thought is not just a necessary precursor to shirah, but it is the very definition of shirah -- shirah is that which is in the heart, it is a feeling that words are almost inadequate to capture.  Shirah is the highest level of dveikus, a level at which a physical body, a physical mouth, is just an intrusion.  This level of connectedness to Hashem is something reserved for the time of ultimate redemption.  It is only because Moshe was able to sense the ultimate geulah, he felt the "remez l'techiyas hameisim," that "alah b'libo" to sing shiras ha'yam.

The Midrash comments that Moshe sinned with the word "az" when he complained that "Mei'Az basi el Pharaoh l'dabeir b'shemecha hei'ra la'am hazeh," that from the moment he asked Pharaoh to free Bnei Yisrael things had gotten worse for them, and he corrected his error with the word "az" by singing "Az yashir."  The question that much ink has been spilled trying to answer (which we discussed once before as well) is why the fact that Moshe used the little word "az" in his complaint to Hashem has any significance -- he used lots of other words too, and we don't find them in the shirah? Those that follow in the footsteps of the Sochotchover (the Kozhiglover has a few pieces on this, it is also in a derasha in She'eiris Menachem) explain that there is a thematic connection that the Midrash is hinting at.  Moshe's use of the word "az," then, at that moment, implies that he felt there was a timing problem.  Moshe's thought that achieving geulah after only 210 years was an unrealistic goal; maybe it would be better to wait.  After all, things were getting worse, not better; Pharoah was increasing the burden on Bnei Yisrael, not giving an inch.  Moshe lacked the perspective to see how the suffering of the present moment would in fact lead directly to an immediate geulah; he had no sense of what the future would soon bring.  It was that lack of perspective that Moshe corrected at Yam Suf.  "Az yashir" -- in the future tense, fully aware not only of the redemption of the moment, but of "remez l'techiyas ha'meisim," future geulah as well, which in turn gave rise to dveikus in the present. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

more on aseh doche lo ta'aseh

The Yerushalmi (Shabbos ch 14) asks why it is that if someone tears kriya on Shabbos he is yotzei, despite having been mechalel Shabbos, but if someone steals matzah and eats it he is not yotzei.  The Yershallmi answers, "taman gufa aveira."  R' Chaim interprets the Yerushalmi to mean that mitzvah haba'ah b'aveira is a psul in the cheftza shel mitzvah.  There is no cheftza shel mitzvah when it comes to kriya -- there is a chiyuv on the person to tear whatever he happens to be wearing, not a din on the clothers to be torn -- but there is when it comes to matzah. 

The Rambam adopts this view of the Yerushalmi.  In Hil Shofar the Rambam paskens that one is yotzei tekiyas shofar using a stolen shofar because "ain b'kol din gezel."  Even though an act of theft was involved in the kiyum hamitzvah, one is still yotzei because the cheftza shel mitzvah is not the shofar -- it's the kol, the voice, and that is not something that can be stolen.   

This is a good opportunity for me to make up for my not having shared a beautiful pshat in a Rambam that I heard from R' Naftoli Jeger, R"Y of Shor Yoshuv, in his Hoshana Rabbah shiur this year.  In brief: the Rambam holds that a stolen lulav is pasul only on the first day of Yom Tov but not other days (other Rishonim disagree).  The difference between the first day and all others seems to be based on the fact that netilas lulav on the first day is a din d'oraysa, "u'lekachtem lachem bayom harishon," while only derabbanan on other days.  However, the Rambam himself holds that aside from the mitzvah of "u'lekachtem lachem" there is a mitzvah d'oraysa of "u'smachtem lifnei Hashem Elokeichem,"  to take lulav and esrog in Yerushalayim for all seven days.  Why then does the Rambam not mention that there is a psul of lulav hagazul for all seven days in Yerushalayim?  R' Jeger quoted (I forget exactly who) that the answer may be that even though "u'smachtem lifnei Hashem" is fulfilled using a lulav, the cheftza shel mitzvah is actually the simcha which is engendered by that act (similar to shofar, where the cheftza shel mitzvah is the kol, not the shofar used to produce it.) 

Last week we discussed (link) the Ohr Sameiach's answer to why we don't say aseh doche lo ta'aseh when it comes to eating matzah made of tevel and instead classify it as a mitzvah haba'ah b'aveira.  Based on this R' Chaim, it is possible to say a different answer. The Rishonim (end of Yoma) debate the following case: a person is deathly ill on Shabbos and requires meat. Non-kosher meat is readily available. Is it better to feed the sick person that non-kosher meat, or to slaughter an animal on Shabbos in order to obtain fresh kosher meat?  At first glance it would seem to be preferable to feed the person non-kosher meat, as neveilah is only an issur lav, which is less stringent than Shabbos.  However, one can make the argument that once there is an allowance to violate Shabbos for pikuach nefesh, the food prepared in 100% kosher with no taint of issur.  Not so with neveilah, which is inherently ma'achalos asuros and remains so.  The fact that you have an allowance to eat non-kosher food under the circumstances doesn't magically transform neveilah into a a properly shechted roast beef. (See previous post here.)

Similarly, the Rambam holds that even if one is allowed to eat non-kosher food, one would not recite a bracha over it.  The special circumstance that allows the food to be eaten does not transform it into a different physical substance -- it's still ma'achalos assuros, albeit with a heter.   

Aseh doche lo ta'aseh works like the heter to violate Shabbos to save a life -- it lifts the lav that blocks the goal of fulfilling the mitzvas aseh.  However, it cannot transform a cheftza shel issur into something different.   We now understand why matzah shel tevel remains prohibited.  Since it is a mitzvah haba'ah b'aveira, which the Rambam defines as a cheftza of issur 
(a point the Rambam reinforces by the comparison to hilchos brachos), the rule of aseh doche lo ta'aseh is useless, as the cheftza of issur remains fundamentally unchanged and unusable for the purpose of a kiyum mitzvah.  

(In his Reshimos Shiurim on Sukkah R' Reichman discusses this R' Chaim at length, but suggests a different approach to this Rambam that I don't quite understand.  I am not sure why he did not understand it the way I presented it here, which is based on R' Baruch Mordechai Ezrachi's shiurim.  How to work this approach out so that the kilayim b'tzitzis case fits is a story for another post.) 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ohr Sameiach's guide to when we apply aseh doche lo ta'aseh -- "u'b'zeh yavo b'shalom b'kol sugyos hashas!"

When the Ohr Sameiach (Hil Chameitz u'Matzah ch 6) writes that he has a klal that helps with understanding *every sugya in shas* ("yavo shalom b'kol sugyos sha"s")  that touch on such a fundamental principle like aseh doche lo ta'aseh, it's obviously worth paying attention.  So here's the rule: You never say aseh doche lo ta'aseh when there is a direct clash between the aseh and the lav.  You only say aseh doche lo ta'aseh when the lav is incidental to the kiyum of the aseh. 

So for example, when the gemara suggests that you should be able to violate the lav of breaking the bones of the korban pesach in order to get to the meat inside and be mekayeim the aseh of achilas korban pesach, it makes perfect sense -- the lav of breaking the bones is incidental to eating the meat.   

Another example of the rule in action: The Rambam writes that one cannot eat matzah made of tevel: 

 אין אדם יוצא ידי חובתו באכילת מצה שהיא אסורה לו, כגון שאכלה טבל, או מעשר ראשון שלא ניטלה תרומתו, או שגזלה.  זה הכלל--כל שמברכין עליו ברכת המזון, יוצא בה ידי חובתו; וכל שאין מברכין עליו ברכת המזון, אין יוצא בה ידי חובתו.

Putting aside the strange formulation the Rambam uses -- connecting this din to the issur of bracha on ma'achalos assuros -- the Sha'agas Aryeh asks why we don't say aseh doche lo ta'aseh in this case.  Why does the mitzvah of eating matzah not push aside the lav of tevel? 

The Ohr Sameiach answers that tevel is an issur achila that tells you not to eat the very same foodstuff that the mitzvah of matzah tells you that you should eat.  In this case there is a direct clash betweeh the aseh and the lav, and therefore aseh doche lo ta'aseh doesn't apply. 

The obvious question is that the two most famous cases in shas of aseh doche lo ta'aseh don't seem to fit the rule: 1) Yibum -- the aseh is to be meyabeim the very same woman which the lav prohibits.  2) Kilayim b'tzitzis -- the very same garment that you put on to be mekayeim tzitzis is assur to wear because of the lav of kilayim.  How do these cases work? 

The O.S. explains that we need to distinguish between two different types of mitzvos aseh.  The miztvah of matzah is on the "karkafta d'gavra;" the person has to find a piece of matzah to eat, but there is no rhyme or reason for it has to be piece A as opposed to piece B.  Instead of choosing a piece that is tevel, the person can just as easily take a piece that is non-tevel.   

The mitzvah of yibum on the other hand does not require that a person go out and find a woman to be meyabeim; it demands that a specific woman in a specific circumstance have the mitzvah of yibum be fulfilled with her.  Similarly, there is no mitzvah to run out and find a four cornered garment to wear; the mitzvah is to put tzitzis on a four cornered garment if you happen to choose to wear one.   

Where the Torah demands that the mitzvah be done with a specific item, then you can use aseh doche lo ta'aseh to accomplish the goal -- the aseh that relates to the specific item overrides the lav inherent in the same item.  However, when the mitzvah is on the "karkafta d'gavra," then you can't invoke aseh doche lo ta'aseh -- instead, go get a different piece of matzah. 

I was telling someone this O.S. to my son in yeshiva and someone standing nearby asked asked what the question as to why the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah does not allow a kohein to enter a cemetery to return a lost object because of aseh doche l"t.  I answered that this case fits the pattern perfectly.  There is no mitzvah on the "karkafta d'gavra" to go looking for an aveidah to return -- the mitzvah is to see that an object once found is returned to its owner.  This case is just like yibum and kilayim. 

Tosfos in a few places in shas asks why a chatzi eved cannot marry a shifcha based on the aseh of p'ru u'revu being doche the lav of k'deisha.  The answer, writes the O.S., is simple: the mitzvah of p'ru u'revu is on the "karkafta d'gavra."  Who says the chatzi eved needs to marry this particular woman?   

Final point: Tosfos (Kiddushim 39) asks why the aseh of achilas matzah is not doche the lav of eating chadash.  The Yerushalmi (quoted by Tosfos) answers that the aseh of matzah is weaker than the lav because it was given before mattan Torah.  Based on the O.S. the question should not even get off the ground -- how is this case any different than the case of matzvah made of tevel?  Why not just answer that the aseh that is on the gavra does not doche a lav inherent in the cheftza?  

The O.S. answers that the difference between tevel and chadash is that while tevel is inherently assur, like ma'achalos asuros, chadash is assur only because the korban ha'omer has not yet been brought -- it's not a cheftza d'isura, bur rather simply food that is waiting for it's matir to arrive (see the O.S. who proves that this is actually a machlokes Bavli and Yerushalmi.)

Maybe more on this next week -- it's a brilliant piece on a shas sugya worth taking the time to see inside over Shabbos.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

yarei es dvar Hashem -- even by hedging one's bets

The ba'alei mussar focus focus on the reaction to Moshe's warning in last week's parsha that "ha'yarei es dvar Hashem," the person who fears Hashem, should take his animals in from the field so they are not smitten by the hail of barad.  By this point the Mitzrim had seen six makkos come exactly as predicted by Moshe and there was little to lose by taking the animals in just in case.  And yet, there were Mitzrim who left their animals out and suffered the consequences.  It was not a lack of knowledge or lack of evidence that prevented the Mitzrim from accepting Moshe's warning -- by this point, having gone 6 for 6, Moshe's warning was entirely credible and worthy of any rational person's consideration.  Rather, it was simple stubbornness that prevented them from listening. Lack of emunah in this case, and according to the ba'alei mussar this is symptomatic of all cases, was the irrational response rather than the reasonable one.  

The lesson I take away is more of a positive one.  I don't know about you, but if someone described me as a "yarei es dvar Hashem" I would take it as a pretty big compliment. What did it take to be a Mitzri who is "yarei dvar Hashem?"  Apparently all it took was giving just enough credence to Moshe's warning (after Moshe had already proven himself multiple times over) to hedge one's bets by bringing the animals into the barn rather than risk their loss.  Such a little thing to do!   But apparently because there is such a big yetzer ha'ra to remain stubbon in spite of all the evidence, to remain stubborn even when the risk of being wrong might bring disaster and the upside if right is so great, that even for such a small thing one deserves to be called "yarei es dvar Hashem."

Update: After writing this I saw that R' Yechiel Michel Feinstein in his sefer on chumash is medyayek that the word "dvar" in the phrase  "yarei es dvar Hashem" is superfluous -- it could have just as easily said "yarei Hashem" if the pasuk meant to convey that the Mitzrim feared Heaven.  R YM"F explains that the Mitzrim had no real yiras shamayim.  However, the better Mitzrim realized you can't argue with the facts.  What Moshe said came true, no matter how you explain it.  Therefore, they took his words -- only his words, but not the idea of G-d -- seriously and acted on them.  Of course, this makes the Mitzrim who didn't even go that far that much worse.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Pharoah's loss of bechira: Ramban l'shitaso

As a follow up to what I wrote at the end of the last week, I would like to suggest the Ramban in this week's parsha that addresses Pharoh's loss of bechira works well l'shitaso of his answer in P' Lech Lecha as to why the Mitzrim were punished.  The Rishonim ask how Hashem could harden Pharaoh heart, thereby removing his freedom to choose whether or not to free Bnei Yisrael, and still hold him accountable and punish him for his actions.  The Rambam seems to suggest that at some point a person may be deprived of bechira as part of the punishment for an accumulation of sins and bad choices (more on that here).  Ramban, however, offers a different answer: it's not that Pharaoh's bechira was taken away, but to the contrary, only by hardening his heart would Pharaoh truly have free choice.  Any normal human being faced with the prospect of facing repeated pain and suffering or conceding would at some point give in.  That's not an exercise of choice, but an exercise of submission, an abandonment of freedom.  Hashem made Pharaoh impervious to the pain and suffering of the makos so that he would be free to choose of his own volition which path to follow. 

The Ramban in Lech Lecha suggested that the Mitzrim were punished despite the fact that the enslavement of Bnei Yisrael was decreed by Hashem because their motivation was selfish and self-serving; the Mitzrim enslaved Bnei Yisrael because it fit their agenda, not because it was G-d's will.  The "tikun" for the crime had to be obedience to G-d's will for it's own sake, lishma.  If Pharaoh would have given in because he wanted to avoid further makos, it would not have undone the crime -- it would just be more of the same of following what suits his own agenda.  Pharaoh therefore had to be given the freedom to choose to obey Hashem's command simply for it's own sake, not because of threats or fear of the makkos.  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

R' Ya'akov Moshe Charlop on why the Mitzrim deserved to be punished

I usually eat seudah shlishis at home and spend the time learning with my wife while my kids (from the time they were little ad hayom) use the moments of ra'va d'ra'avin to be at their most disruptive : )  The past few months we have been working on the sefer Mei Marom on Avos by R' Ya'akov Moshe Charlop, one of the great talmidim of RA"Y Kook, and I thought I would share with you one insight of his that relates to the parsha.   I'm going to do this slowly step-by-step through the shakla v'terya, so bear with me.  

The Mishna in Avos (2:6) speaks of a skull that Hillel saw floating which occasioned him to remark, "You were drowned because you drowned others, and those who drowned you will themselves be drowned," or, to put in in modern terms, "What comes around goes around."  One of the questions the Mishna forces us to confront is whether killing a murderer is morally wrong.  Hillel's dictum seems to imply that even though the person who was drowned was himself guilty of murder, those who meted out justice and killed him are themselves no better. The fact that the murderer had to be killed in some way by someone in order for there to be justice in the world does not absolve from guilt those who chose to carry out the act.

The Tosfos Yom Tov reminds us that this same principle is used by the Rambam to explain why the Egyptians were guilty for their enslavement of Bnei Yisrael.  Even though it was foretold at the Bris bein haBesarim that the Jewish people would be sent into galus, each and every Mitzri had the choice whether or not to be the one to serve as the agent of that enslavement and persecution.  The fact that there was a decree out there does not absolve the individual of responsibility.

The Ramban (Parshas Lech Lecha) takes issue with this Rambam.  If there is a nevuah that the Jewish people should be enslaved, then rather than criticize and punish those who carry that neuvah out, argues the Ramban, we should praise and reward them.  The Mitzrim were fulfilling the ratzon Hashem and obeying the words of a Navi, were they not!?  (See this past post where we discussed this machlokes, also see Mesech Chochma, parshas Lech Lecha).  

The Tosfos Yom Tov, at the end of his long discussion on this Mishna, defends the Rambam.  When do we say that a person gets a kiyum mitzvah for carrying out the words of a Navi?  Only when the person in question has the intent to fulfill the ratzon Hashem as communicated by the Navi.  However, if a person acts with violence simply because he is cruel, because he is selfish, because he enjoys evil, even though as a byproduct of what he did the wishes of a Navi were accomplished as well, that person is not excused for his actions; he gets no credit and is instead punished.

In other words, according to the Tosfos Yom Tov, it is the intention, the motivation behind the act, which determines guilt or innocence.  

Why would the Ramban not buy this counterargument?  Simple: The Ramban felt that if intent and motivation are all that stand between guilt and innocence, then the punishment doesn't fit the crime.  Since when do intention and motivation, what lies in the heart and mind, count so highly in Jewish law that they would warrant 10 makkos and the drowning that took place at kri'as Yam Suf?  Since when does having impure motivation when fulfilling the ratzon Hashem, in this case the mitzvah of fulfilling the words of a Navi, so corrupt the deed as to render it into a heinous crime?

It is precisely around this point that the machlokes revolves.  Unlike the Ramban, the Rambam/Tos Y"T do not assume that the the punishment meted out to the Mitzrim was for a good deed carried out with bad intentions -- it's not that the Mitzrim carried out the words of a Navi but didn't say a "l'shem yichud" beforehand and therefore got patched.  The reason the Mitzrim got punished is because their intentions reveal that they were not carrying out the words of the Navi at all, but were instead carrying out their own agenda.  Killing, even if sanctioned by a Navi, if done with the wrong intention becomes transformed from a kiyum mitzvah into an act of murder.  It's not a kosher act with bad intentions -- it's a crime.

(The Chofetz Chaim explains that since Shaul let Agag live when he fought Amalek, it proved that Shaul was motivated by his emotions, not purely to fulfill the ratzon Hashem.  Therefore, Shmuel accused him of doing evil -- it was not just a passive oversight, but the entire war was a crime given that it was waged for personal agenda and not lishma.)

R' Charlop broadens our focus and explains that what we have here is two competing theories of ethics.   Let's move away from the topic of nevuah to something that we can better relate to.  Take as an example the midah of anger: we probably all agree that wanton anger is a bad thing, but it's a midah that has its uses.  A teacher or a parent may need to show anger now and then to curb certain behaviors in their children or students.  Is anger therefore a bad trait, just that there is a "matir," a justification, that allows it sometimes to be used?  Or is there no real purpose to calling anger a "bad midah" at all -- every midah might be called good or bad; it all depends on motivation, use, function?  The Rambam's view seems to be that there are "b'etzem," intrinsically good and bad traits.  Sometimes a Navi may sanction cruelty.  Sometimes a need may arise for a person to show anger.  The justification is just a narrow "matir" for a specific situation, but it does not redefine the act in question or the midah in question as something other than cruel.  Absent the justifying ratzon Hashem, the "mitzvah" motivation, one is left with an inexcusable act.  Is it any wonder the Mitzrim were punished?  Ramban, on the other hand, does not define things as "b'etzem" good or evil; what purpose do such categories serve?  His definitions are more utilitarian, instrumentalist.  When there is no reason for it being expressed, anger is frowned on; cruelty is wrong.  When there is a need, these same traits can be viewed in a positive light.  It's not that the words of the Navi or the mitzvah need are a "matir" for something wrong -- it's that under specific conditions these acts are not "wrong" at all.  The end result redefines the act or the midah as bring positive and beneficial.  Motivation and intent are tangential to the equation, if they have an impact at all.

The structure is beautiful, but I have one nagging problem that bothers me (you knew it was too good to be true, right?)  The Ramban in P' Lech Lecha, after rejecting the Rambam's view, suggests on his own that the Mitzrim were punished because they had no intention of fulfilling the nevuah of "v'avadum v'inu osam."  We see that the Ramban himself does take into account intent and motivation just as much as the Rambam.   

Monday, January 07, 2013

Do the needs of the individual outweigh the needs of the group? -- a difficult Chofetz Chaim

Last week's parsha ends on a bit of a sour note.  In response to Moshe's request to let the Jewish people go free Pharoah doubled-down on the oppressive work, the people lost faith in Moshe, and perhaps they even lost a measure of faith in the message of geulah.  Moshe turns to G-d and, to sum up his question in one word, asks, "Why?"  Why is the suffering only increasing now that the promise of geulah is supposedly here?  Hashem responds by telling Moshe that he will now witness Hashem's might in striking against Pharoah.  

Many of the meforshim are bothered: How did Hashem's response answer the question?  Moshe was told already at the burning bush that he would be the redeemer of Klal Yisrael; we expect Pharoah to be judged and persecuted if he refuses to let them go.  Why start off on the wrong foot and give Pharaoh the upper hand, give the people doubt, cause more suffering and grief?  Why not immediately force Pharaoh to free them?

Perhaps we are wrong to even search for an answer.  It seems from Rashi at the beginning of this week's parsha that Moshe is criticized for even asking the question.  He is contrasted with the Avos and found wanting.  Perhaps there are questions that are not meant to be asked, as they cannot be answered in a way that we can understand.  Perhaps all that we can do is accept the mystery as-is.  This approach is discomforting to us.  We don't like limits on inquiry; we don't like constraints on what we can ask and we don't really respect the fact that there are limits on our understanding.  

The Chofetz Chaim reads Hashem's response as an answer, but it is one that troubles me greatly.  Based on the prophecy of Bris bein haBesarim Bnei Yisrael were supposed to spend 400 years in galus.  Rather than prolong the stay in galus for that many years, Hashem arranged for the workload to be increased.  This qualitative increase would substitute for the quantitative duration of time, i.e. 400 years of slavery would be compressed into 210 years of qualitatively more severe suffering.  This is what Moshe was witnessing.  What was the purpose?  Hashem responses to Moshe, "You will now witness what I will do to Pharoah."  Had the galus gone on for 400 years, you, Moshe, would not be around to see the ultimate redemption.  It's for your sake, so that you should see the geulah, that the suffering of Bnei Yisrael must increase now to hasten the redemption and allow it to occur in your lifetime.  

In other words, the suffering of the entire Jewish nation was increased so that a single individual, Moshe, would benefit by being able to personally witness geulah.  Wow!  I don't even know how to make sense of such an idea.  Do the needs of a single individual, no matter how great, trump those of the nation as a whole?   

The chassidic seforim (Shem m'Shmuel, Kedushas Levi, the Sefas Emes has this other places in the parsha) explain that the geulah from Mitzrayim is the paradigm for all future geulos.  The history of the Jewish people is cyclical, not linear -- we continue to relive the past of the Avos and Shevatim again and again.  For this reason the galus of Mitzrayim had to be the deepest, darkest, most bleak galus imaginable, and the redemption had to take place precisely in a climate where hope had been completely extinguished.  This would provide the model that would allow for future redemptions, such as the one we hope to experience in our lifetimes, to take place under those exact same conditions.  "You will witness what I will do to Pharoah," Hashem told Moshe, alluding, as Rashi notes, to the fact that Moshe will not witness the conquest of Eretz Yisrael, which in turn, because it was not led by Moshe, would ultimately be followed by another exile.  Because there will be other exiles, and in turn other redemptions, the galus of Mitzrayim had to be made more severe so that it could serve as the paradigm of those future experiences.  

Chuck Hagel and the naive

I've written before about the blind faith segments of the Jewish community place in the Democratic party even as Obama and other members of that party increasingly ignore or act against Jewish interests.  I expect these constituents to once again turn a blind eye to the White House's nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.  Who is Chuck Hagel?  

Nebraska Jews Recall Senator Chuck Hagel as ‘Unfriendly’ and ‘Unmovable’ on Israel, ‘Didn’t Give a Damn About the Jewish Community."

"He [Senator Lindsey graham] added, 'This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.'" 

"“The record speaks for itself, on issues like consistently voting against sanctions on Iran to stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons capability, against naming [Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] a terrorist organization, refusing to call on the European Union to name Hezbollah — which has killed more Americans than any terrorist group in the world except Al Qaeda — as a terrorist organization,” said Josh Block, a former AIPAC spokesman."

"With the possible exception of former KKK member Robert Byrd of West Virginia, Chuck Hagel is arguably the most hostile anti-Israel U.S. senator ever to serve."

However, the Hagel appointment does illustrate not only his level of comfort with someone who has floated Walt-Mearsheimer-style rhetoric about the “Jewish lobby” but also a man who has been an advocate of taking the use of force against Iran off the table. 

Even the Washington Post editorializes:

"On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him....  But Mr. Obama could make a better choice for defense secretary."

That's like Pravda editorializing against a nominee put forth by Lenin.  

Again, from the left, we have Alan Dershowitz, a man who always seems to be waking up after the fact:

"He is the only mainstream American politician to talk openly about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.”... But Hagel apparently sees things in terms of Jewish interests versus American interests."

If you read the whole article you can't help but laugh as Dershowitz argues that Obama has made clear that he will do whatever it takes to thwart Iran from getting nukes and therefore the nomination of Hagel, who opposes military force against Iran in favor of containment, runs contrary to the President's stated aims.  Poor Mr. Dershowitz can't seem to understand that the President's professed intent to prevent Iran from getting nukes was just that -- a professed statement designed to garner the support from fools like Dershowitz who are naive enough to believe mere words -- even while the President's actions reveal his true intent.   

Update: Ed Koch has now predictably chimed in:

Gee, if you thought that, why did you characterize him as a friend of Israel?
“It’s very disappointing, I believe he will ultimately regret it,” Koch said, “and it undoubtedly will reduce support for him in the Jewish community, but I don’t think he (the President) worries about that now that the election is over.”
Exactly.  The election is over -- you rubes have been taken in and now we all pay the price.  

The GOP has been a Grand Old disaPpointment, but no more of a disappointment than the 70% of Jews whose vote gave support for this stuff, but I sadly am no longer surprised by the stupidity of my brethren.   

Sunday, January 06, 2013

vaya'amein ha'am va'yishmi'u - emunah precedes understanding

1. Vaya'amein ha'aim vayishmi'u ki pakad Hashem es Bnei Yisrael... (4:31) 

Shouldn't the pasuk first tell us "vayishmi'u," that the people heard Moshe's message, and then "vaya'amein ha'am," that they believed it and took it to heart?  Ksav Sofer reminds us that the term "am" usually refers to the regular folks, the hoi polloi.  The "am" did not think of themselves as worthy of geulah, but the "am" did believe when they heard that Hashem would redeem "Bnei Yisrael," the more worthy members of the people, the spiritual elite. The best they could hope for is to be shlepped along in the process. 

I am sure your knee-jerk reaction to the question was to think of "na'aseh v'nishma," the classic example of hearing/understanding take a back seat.  The Sefas Emes teaches that Bnei Yisrael had no "na'aseh" yet -- there was not much in the way of Torah and mitzvos that they could do -- but the potential for "na'aseh" was there in the "vaya'amein," the expression of emunah.  (Of course, you can flip the relationship the other way as well -- "na'aseh," action, is significant because it demonstrates the commitment of emunah [it's a siman, not a sibah]). 

R' Leibel Eiger goes a step further (5631 second seudah) and adds that it is emunah which leads to "vayishmi'u," to understanding and acceptance; in other words, emunah did not simply precede understanding sequentially, it precedes it logically as well.  The facts only fall into place for someone who is willing to take the first step of belief in their direction.  (This is of course an affront to the modern thinking that forces belief to take a back seat to whatever facts have already revealed themselves as true, v'ain kan makom l'ha'arich.) 

2. VaTirena hamiyaldos es haElokim v'lo asu ka'asher dibeir aleihem melech Mitzrayim 

Rav Gifter has a beautiful diyuk here.  A normal person might have refused to obey Pharoah out of compassion and sympathy for the newborn.  Yet, as we have seen throughout history,  emotional considerations are a wobbly foundation upon which to build a structure of ethics, as emotions can be swayed and twisted.  The miyaldos did not act (only) out of compassion, but rather because of yiras Elokim -- not yiras shamayim, not yiras Hashem, but particularly yiras Elokim = midas hadin, justice.  The miyaldos did not kill because it was unjust to do so, not because it pulled on their heartstringso.   

Why was the reward given to the miyaldos for not tossing the baby boys into the Nile batei kehunah, leviya, and malchus (Rashi 1:21)?  I saw R' Berel Soloveitchik quoted as explaining that although the din is that in a case of an eved v'aku"m who has relations with a bas Yisrael the child is kasher (there is no psul l'kahal), the child would not be accepted for kehunah or malchus where verifiable lineage/yichus through the father's side is needed (though see Tos Sotah 41b).  Preserving the baby boys ensured the continuity of halachic yichus.   

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

inner reserve: the antithesis of shibud

The day after killing a Mitzri who was striking a fellow Jew, Moshe Rabeinu tried to intervene in another fight, this time between two Jews, and was promptly told to mind his own business.  "Will you kill me as you killed the Mitzri?" challenged one of the combatants.  "Now the matter is known," said Moshe.(2:14)

The simple pshat in the pasuk is that Moshe now realized that his killing of the Mitzri was public knowledge and would endanger his life.  Rashi, however, quotes a Midrash that Moshe was saying that now, after being made the object of lashon ha'ra, gossip to the Pharoah, he understood why the Jewish people deserved to be persecuted with harsh labor [I am not at all clear on why Rashi is dissatisfied with the simple pshat and needs to add a Midrashic explanation here.]

Did Moshe not know that there was a decree made long ago at the Bris bein haBesarim that the Jewish people would be sent into galus?  Was Moshe unaware (as described in various Midrashim, see Rambam end of ch 2 of Hil Avodah Zarah) that the Jewish people in Egypt had largely abandoned the practices that were a hallmark of the Avos?  Why was it this act of defamation alone which brought Moshe to understand why the Jewish people deserved the suffering imposed upon them? 

Allow me my own explanation first and then to what some of the meforshim have to say.  It is one thing to understand in the abstract, in theoretical realm, why punishment occurs.  It is easy to be an armchair philosopher and engage in speculative theodicy when the other guy is the one suffering.  "I feel your pain," even if said with empathy and real feeling, is not the same as being in pain.  It's much harder when it is happening to you.  Moshe Rabeinu knew about the gezeirah of galus, he knew that the behavior of the Jewish people as not up to snuff, but all that was textbook knowledge that had to do with a people that, until this point, he lived apart from.  Now, he was one of them.  Now, threatened with exposure to Pharoah, with his life in danger, the consequences of galus suddenly became real.  "Now, I understand," said Moshe -- it's no longer theory; it's my life.

Many of the meforshim here say the same idea (Taz, Sifsei Chachamim echoes it, Ksav Sofer) that the Meshech Chocham in Parshas Beshalach brings out nicely.  Why is it, asks the Meshech Chochma, that the angelic Sar of Mitzrayim did not once object to the punishment of the Egyptians during the ten makkos, yet on Yam Suf we are told that this Sar objected to the Jewish people being saved at the expense of the Egyptians, arguing that both Jews and Egyptians were idolaters -- why do the former deserve to be saved and the latter drowned?  The Meshech Chochma quotes the Midrash (see Ramban as well) that the Jewish people split into competing camps at Yam Suf and were arguing about what to do.  Not so in Egypt, where the people were united.  When there is unity among the Jewish people, even if they serve idols or commit other offenses against Hashem, He is willing to overlook those misdeeds.  The "tzibur," the collective entity of Klal Yisrael, has the guarantee of always being treated with benevolence by Hashem.  However, when the people are splintered, when they turn against each other, when there is no longer a collective "tzibur" to speak of, on an individual level there is no guarantee of getting off, of benevolence, of redemption.  The Sar of Mitzrayim could not voice any argument against the collective unit of Klal Yisrael as it was in Egypt, but once the people broke into subgroups at Yam Suf he felt free to argue that no individual member of the Jewish people deserved better treatment than an Egyptian, as both were idolaters.  

Returning to our parsha, what perplexed Moshe was not the exile itself -- this was foretold in advance at the Bris bein haBesarim.  What perplexed Moshe was the fact that in this exile the Jewish people suffered such persecution at the hands of their Egyptian tormentors.  Why did it have to be this way?  How could the Egyptians gain such an upper hand over the Jewish people?  Once he saw the gossip, the assault on character, the disloyalty and disunity between Jews, he understood.  Once the nation became a group of individuals and not a collective tzibur, the Egyptians had the upper hand.

Maharal takes it to an even deeper level.  It's inyana d'yoma: I bet you didn't know (I didn't either till my wife pointed it out) that Jan 2 is World Introvert Day.  Maharal sets up a dichotomy between persecution, which is external, chitzoniyus, and geulah and freedom, which is pnimi.  A person who has no inner compass, who has no sense of self that is reserved and never of display in public, is someone who by definition is beholden to outside fores and influences.  He is a slave to how society defines him, how his job defines him, what others in his community think of him, what the world makes of his existence.  I'm biased because I am an introvert and I think other introverts relate to this idea pretty easily, but it would wrong to say it does not apply as well to extroverts just because they feel more drawn to share of themselves with others.  A Jew has to have a sense of pnimiyus; there has to be something more beneath the surface (see this post on tzniyus.)  When sharing with others, you don't have to let it all hang out and don't need to listen to what they want to hang out there.  Not everything needs to be shared on Facebook; we don't need a Tweet telling us what you are eating for breakfast.  I read recently that there are theaters now offering special seats to people who want to text or tweet or whatever with their gadgets while they watch a movie or play.  These people are addicted to chitzoniyus.  If it remains inside, to them it's not real.  They have to share everything and anything with others, because if it's not out there, if it's not shared with society at large inviting feedback and affirmation from others, it's not real. The Torah view is exactly the opposite -- what's most real is what remains inside; all too often what is outside is just a false facade that has no real truth or meaning to it.  

When Moshe saw a Jew running to spread gossip, he saw shibud -- he saw enslavement to society, at the expense of inner reserve.  Physical enslavement is just a manifestation of the spiritual disease that had taken root.

But, writes the Maharal, are we so much worse than others?  Why should we deserve persecution for our lack of pnimiyus more than any other people?  

The answer is, says the Maharal, is only those who are blessed with having a deep reserve of pnimiyus can be subject to the punishment of desecrating that gift.  

The Sefas Emes (5632) ties it all together.  What unites Klal Yisrael, what forges that shared sense of "tzibur," is a shared core inner values.  It's not what's on the outside, but what's on the inside that we all have in common.  When there is gossip and rumor, when what's said in the outside world becomes more important than what's on the inside, then that unity is destroyed, and shibud and galus take root.   Last week we discussed the Sefas Emes' torah on the character of Yosef, who we know kept his true self hidden away, hidden from the Egyptians who thought of him as one of their own, even hidden from his brothers till he was forced to reveal himself.  Yosef is the ideal of pnimiyus, the antithesis of shibud.  It's no wonder that the true persecution of Egyptian exile did not begin until a Pharoah arose "asher lo ya'da es Yosef," until this ideal of Yosef was lost.  And as we wrote in that post, it is this idea of pnimuiyus which was rekindled (pun intended) through the image of the burning bush, which revealed to Moshe that the neshoma inside still burned strong, even though the outside showed only thorns and thistles.