Tuesday, April 30, 2013

kohanim and bnei Aharon: two elements of kedushas kehunah

Ramban writes that the Torah uses the term “kohanim,” as opposed to just saying “bnei Aharo,” when discussing the prohibition of tumas kohanim at the beginning of Parshas Emor because the issur of becoming tamei is not limited to bnei Aharon, i.e. those kohanim who are serving in the Mikdash and doing avodah, but encompasses anyone who identifies as a kohen. 

The Kli Chemdah explains that there are two distinct kedushos to kehunah: 1) Kedusha that comes from being connected to the lineage of Aharon; 2) Kedusha that comes from one’s own identity as a kohen.  When it comes to avodah, it is one’s own identity as a kohen which counts most.  The avodah of a chalal, whose lineage is tainted, b’dieved is acceptable, but the avodah of a ba’al mum, where the blemish is associated with self, is completely unacceptable.  The opposite holds true with respect to tumah.  Here, the kedusha of lineage is paramount, and therefore a ba’al mum is prohibited from becoming tamei, but someone who is a chalal is not.

It’s a nitpick, but wouldn’t you have expected the terms used to be reversed?  I would have though the term “bnei Aharon” stresses lineage as opposed to self, while the opposite is true of the term “kohanim.”  But that’s not how they are used.  Ramban writes that “bnei Aharon” is used in the context of avodah, which depends on self, while in our parsha the term “kohanim” is added to stress the connection to lineage.

Chasam Sofer raises the more critical question: If the prohibition of tumah relates to the kedusha of “kohanim,” why does the Torah mention the term “bnei Aharon” here at all?  He answers derech derush that Chazal derive from the double-language of amira in the parsha the principle of “l’hazhir gedolim al ha’ketanim,” that one must safeguard even children from the issur of tumah.  If the Torah uses the term “bnei Aharon” when it talks about the kohanim working with kodshei kodashim in the Mikdash, the term is equally appropriate for discussing how they relate to the greatest kodshei kodashim, their children. 

(OK, forget the derashos, what’s the “real” answer?  I don’t know.  If you see or think of something good, tell me.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

Lag b'Omer -- holiday of ahavas Yisrael

The Chidushei HaRI”M teaches that every single person has a special chein, some special quality that makes him/her beloved, in the eyes of Hashem.  No one else has that special quality, and no matter how low a Jew has fallen, that special quality remains.  If you think you know what that quality is, why Hashem loves you and thinks you are special, then you are on the wrong track, because it’s something hidden deep within a person, not something you feel or think you know in your consciousness.

Every Jew corresponds to a letter in Torah.  Just as there are different levels of understanding within every dot of Torah – pshat, remez, derush, and sod – so too, within every Jew there is what you see on the surface, but then there are deeper and deeper levels, down to the level of sod, that hidden nekudah of chein. 

R’ Akiva’s students died because they related to each other based on what they saw on the surface.  By that I don’t mean that students of R’ Akiva judged one another based on the color of their suit or tie or what model car they drove – that may be true of us, but I can’t image that it was true of them.  What I mean is that even if your friend doesn’t understand a Rashba as well as you do, that is also just a superficial judgment, and you can still be guilty of “lo nahagu kavod” for thinking any less of him (and I don’t pretend to be anything less than a doresh v’aino me’kayeim here).  Even if your friend doesn’t know what a Rashba is, there is still a nekduah of chein that only your friend has that you need to love him for.

This was the great revelation of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.  We all know that RaShB’Y was a master of the hidden aspects of Torah, the sod.  RaShB”Y was also a master of the sod within every Jew as well.  Just as he looked beyond the surface meaning of Torah and penetrated to its most mystical depths, so too, he didn’t just look at the surface of a Jew, but was able to penetrate to the depths and find at the nekudas chein. 

R’ Moshe Wolfson in his Emunas Itecha explains that the punishment of R’ Akiva’s students stopped on Lag b’Omer, the day we celebrate the life of RaShB”Y, because RaShB”Y was the tikun of “lo nahagu kavod zeh ba’zeh.”  Lag b'Omer is a chag of ahavas Yisrael, when we learn to appreciate the sod that makes every individual special.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

witness to evil

The Netziv points out that the punishment of the mekalel was carried out with the participation of the witnesses as well as Beis Din (24:14).  The same is not true with respect to the punishment inflicted on the mekoshesh.  Why did the witnesses need to be involved in the process?  Once they did they duty and testified, let everything else be carried out by the court?

The Netziv reminds you of a Tosefta that you may have missed when he discussed it in Parshas VaYikra (5:1)

וְנֶפֶשׁ כִּי תֶחֱטָא וְשָׁמְעָה קוֹל אָלָה וְהוּא עֵד אוֹ רָאָה אוֹ יָדָע אִם לוֹא יַגִּיד וְנָשָׂא עֲו‍ֹנוֹ:

Why does the pasuk start with the words “nefesh ki techetah?”  The sin is not in the act of witnessing something wrong, as described in the first clause of the pasuk, but is in withholding testimony, as described in the pasuk’s ending.  The words “ki techetah” should appear at the end of the sentence?!

The Tosefta answers that it’s not by accident that an individual happens to be in the right place at the right time to witness a crime.  It’s only because that individual is him/herself guilty in some way, he/she is a “nefesh ki techetah,” that Hashem arranges for him/her to have the misfortune of seeing wrongdoing.   

The witnesses who heard the mekalel commit such a heinous act of blasphemy had to participate in meting out justice as a kaparah for themselves, as they had to make a cheshbon hanefesh to understand why Hashem would cause them to hear and see such a horrible spectacle. 

Anyone who learns this Tosefta and walks away klerring whether it means you have to actually see the bad thing to be guilty or whether seeing it on a TV screen or a website counts as well is beyond missing the point.  I honestly don’t know how to relate to such a vort.  You walk down the streets of NY, you ride the subway, you read a newspaper, etc. and you can’t help but be assaulted with sights and sounds that should revolt any normal human being.  Maybe it’s a bracha that we have become so desensitized that it makes no impression anymore, because if it did, a person would go nuts.  Just the fact that we have to live in such an environment is itself an onesh. 

On a positive note, the Tosefta promises that those who are zakai will see zechuyos.  When you see someone rushing to do a mitzvah, learning Torah, doing chessed, it’s not just their good deed, but it means you’ve done something right as well to be able to witness such a wonderful occurance.

who broke the mold?

You know world has forgotten you when you don’t even get your own Wikipedia entry.  R’ Moshe Avigdor Amiel, who I mentioned yesterday, was a man of towering intellectual ability, a lamdan, a Zionist leader, a great darshan, yet he is probably known today only in the YU world because he beat out R’ Soloveitchik for the post of Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv.  Wikipedia only gives him a short mention under the history of the Jewish community in Antwerp, where he first served as Rav.  I have to raise a general question that has long bothered me.  What happened to all the people like this?  When was the mold broken?  We don't even remember that people like this existed, much less seek to emulate them.  How did that happen?  Forget all the lomdus in his Midos l’Cheiker HaHalacha.  Forget the beautiful derashos collected in his Dershos El Ami.  I am sure you can list other great lamdamin and darshanim.  But how many of those people can also discuss machlokesin between Decartes and Kant and quote Ahad ha’Am (as Rav Amiel does in his sefer L’Nevochai HaTekufa)?  What has driven gedolim who have a broad and deep knowledge of the outside world into extinction? 
Those in the YU world will point to the Rav and R’ Ahron Lichtenstein as comparable role models, which is true, but these figures are also a generation or two removed from the present.  So different people, same question – What caused this sea change?  I don’t think these people were aberrations, completely outside the norm.  Their abilities were/are surely exceptional, but that is a different in kamus, not eichus.  I remember someone telling me that he once had the privlilge in Eretz Yisrael of giving a ride to a gadol of the previous dor and he was amazed when his passenger began to recite poety of Bialik b'al peh from the back seat.  Today, you have stories about gedolim who (as I saw mentioned in a book I thumbed through at the seforim store) don’t even know what a food processor is, and this is held up as an example to admire and emulate.  It’s not that ignorance is accepted because we can’t do better – it’s that ignorance has become an ideal because we don’t want to do better.

My wife thinks that things are as they are as a reaction to the Holocaust, which created a distrust of outside culture in any form that lingers to this day.  Western thought has proven itself a poor moral bulwark against the forces of evil, and so we have withdrawn inward.  Perhaps such withdrawal was necessary, as we struggled to rebuild what was lost.  If you would like to put a positive spin on it, perhaps the rise of the State of Israel has inspired renewed interest in uniquely Jewish poetry, writing, and culture, to the exclusion of outside ideas.  My own thought is that the Chassidic movement has had an enormous post-war influence that has reshaped our expectations.  Talmidei chachamim these days are expected to be like Rebbes, not intellectuals.  People want brachos and segulos, not to be challenged with Kant. 

All this is armchair speculation.  Bottom line is that the memory of what once was is fading and is being replaced by a less enlightened and less interesting world. 

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Rambam/Ra'avad on the Corporeality of G-d

Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel in his sefer "L’Nevochei HaTekufa" writes that there are two different ways that one can come to recognize G-d: 1) Yediya - philosophical speculation; 2) Hakara – intuitive recognition.  Chazal tell us that Avraham was three years old (according to one view) when “hikir es Bor’o,” he recognized his Creator -- it does not say “yada es Bor’o,” but rather hikir,  because Chazal are not speaking of metaphysical knowledge (a three year old is not Aristotle); Chazal speaking of an intuitive grasp.  The philosophers apprehended G-d through yediya, and as a result, they perceived G-d as distant and removed; the prophets apprehended G-d through hakara, and therefore they perceived G-d as close and intertwined with their lives.

Rambam and Ra’avad famously disagree as to whether someone who believes in the corporeality of G-d is an apikores.  The Rambam writes (Hil Teshuvah ch 3) that someone who thinks that G-d has a body or a form is a heretic.  Ra’avad sharply retorts that wiser and greater people than the Rambam have entertained such a belief based on their simple reading of the Biblical text; therefore, it cannot be categorized as heresy.  (The Ra’avad’s response is not a logical argument or based on a sugya of gemara, but rather sounds like a simple appeal to authority – "Rambam, you must be wrong because greater people than yourself thought differently.")  What is the point of disagreement between the two opinions? 

R’ Chaim Brisker is said to have explained that the machlokes revolves around whether there is a din apikores b’shogeg.  The Ra’avad does not mean that one can accept that G-d has a body; he simply is arguing that people who arrive at such a belief inadvertently, based on their mistaken reading of Tanach, cannot be called guilty of willful heresy.  The Rambam, on the other hand, held that “nebech an apikores,” someone who is arrives at wrong beliefs simply out of ignorance, is still an apikores. 

R’ Amiel takes a different approach entirely, and here’s a link to the page for you to see inside and maybe help me understand it.  He sees the Rambam and Ra'avad's disagreement as based on this chiluk between yediya and hakaraFrom the perspective of yediya, when wearing the hat of the philosopher, it is impossible to conceive of any relationship between G-d and bodily form.  However, when you look at things from the perspective of hakarah-intuition, the idea is not foreign at all.  To the contrary, it is precisely the fact that we feel G-d as immanent and present even within our selves, our bodies, that gives rise to hakara! 
If I understand him correctly, what Rav Amiel is suggesting that that the Ra’avad does not mean to defend the idea that c”v G-d has a bodily form.  What he is saying is that G-d can be felt as being immanent in a body, which is a different thing entirely.  If this is correct, I don’t understand why the Ra’avad is so sharply critical of the Rambam, as surely the Rambam would not disagree.  I also don't understand what the Ra’avad means when he argues that those who disagree with the Rambam were led down that road by their reading of “mikra.”  What does that have to do with the intuitive sense of G-d that comes from hakara?  Does  he mean to say that it is the perspective of the prophet, hakara, that the Tanach is built around, as opposed to the perspective of the philosopher, that is what gives rise to this view?  That seems a bit of a stretch…  I just don’t see how it fits the words.  I love Rav Amiel's writing, the chiluk between yediya and hakara is useful in many contexts, but am struggling here with the Rambam/Ra'avad connection.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lo Sa'amod Al Dam Rei'echa

One of the explanations of the name “Adam” is that it is a combination of “aleph,” representing the “Alufo shel olam,” the singular presence of G-d, and “dam,” physical flesh and blood.
Lo sa’amod al dam rei’echa..”  (VaYikra 19:16) The Torah is warning not to get hung up about the “dam” portion of our neighbors.  So what if that person does not look so pretty or walk and talk just like us?  Ani Hashem,” the real essence of a person is the “aleph,” the portion of the “alufo shel olam” that is inside.  (Tiferes Shlomo)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rashi and Ramban on Kedoshim Te'hiyu

1) Rashi interprets “kedoshim te’hiyu” to mean “perushim min ha’arayos u’min ha’aveira.”  Ramban argues that Rashi cannot be right, as his interpretation contradicts two derashos in the Toras Kohanim: 1) The T.K. explains  kedoshim to mean “perushim – stam,” not specifically connected to arayos; 2) The T.K. darshens, “Yachol kamoni – talmud lomar ‘Ani Hashem’,” that perhaps one would be obligated to be kadosh in the same sense G-d is, kah mashma lan “Ani Hashem,” that only “I am G-d” and you can never be the same.  Whatever that strange hava amina might mean, it certainly has nothing to do with separating from arayos, as that topic has no meaning when discussing imitating G-d. 

When I was learning this Ramban with my daughter on Shabbos, we defended Rashi by suggesting that the Toras Kohanim is a derash, but Rashi is concerned with peshuto shel mikra.  Rashi’s agenda here is to explain based on peshuto shel mikra the connection between “kedoshim” and the previous parsha that dealt with arayos.  The Toras Kohanim’s concern is developing through halachic derush the moral/halachic parameters of what the mitzvah of kedoshim entails.  Assuming this understanding of Rashi is correct, it begs the larger question of when (or even whether) Rashi concerns himself with explaining smichus haparshiyos and when he does not.  He does not, for example, try to piece together connections between the many mitzvos that open parshas kedoshim (as other meforshim do).  Be that as it may, what I still do not understand is if indeed Rashi is concerned only with the issue of smichus haparshiyos, why does he not just say kedoshim means “persuhim min ha’arayos” and leave it at that?  Why does he add the additional words “u’min ha’aveira?” 

2) On a different note: Aside from the categories of chovas hayachid and chovas hatzibur, mitzvos incumbent upon the individual and mitzvos incumbent upon the community as a whole, there exists a third category of mitzvos: a chovas ha’yachid that can be fulfilled only b’tzibur.  For example, the Ramban (Milchamos to first perek of Megilla) writes that although both the reading of megillah and the reading of the Torah must be done b’tzibur, there is a big difference between them.  Kir’as haTorah is incumbent on the tzibur as a whole; kri’as hamegillah is incumbent on the individual, but the reading done by the individual must take place in the presence of a tzibur.  (See this post). 

Chazal tell us that the mitzvah of kedoshim tehi’yu was said at a gathering of all of Klal Yisrael.  I would like to suggest that while there exists an obligation on every individual to try to infuse his/her life with kedusha, the Torah here is teaching that this mitzvah can only be fully achieved in the context of community – it is a chovas ha’yachid that must be done b’tzibur.  The hava amina of the Toras Kohanim, “yachol kamoni,” means to suggest that one might have thought that one can achieve kedusha by living in isolation; kah mashma lan the Torah Kohanim that this is impossible.  The path to kedusha lies through interaction with the community, growing with them, feeding off their energy, and contributing back to their growth and improvement.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

peer review

According to Midrash the pasuk uses the singular tense, “VaYikchu ish machtaso…” in describing the actions of Nadav and Avihu because “lo natlu eitzeh zeh m’zeh,” they did not consult with each other.  As a result, they erred and were punished.  This seems a bit difficult to understand.  It's clear from the Midrash that each one of the Bnei Aharon independently reached the same conclusion and acted of his own volition (though see Netziv 10:1).  Wouldn’t their consulting with each other only reinforce their mistaken belief?  Apparently not.  Though they may have each initially reached the same conclusion, the process of opening their thinking to critique, even (or perhaps especially) to a sympathetic listener, would afford the opportunity to reflect further and realize the error.  

This critique of Nadav and Avihu shows the importance of peer review.  "Aseh lecha rav u'knei lecha chaveir," we read in Avos.  One of the meforshim explains that the Mishna uses the term "knei," to acquire [even if it costs money], when speaking of a friend and not when speaking about a Rav because the input of a peer is even more valuable than that of a Rav and should be pursued at all costs.  We are social creatures.  Our avodas Hashem flourishes when undertaken in collaboration, not by dint of individual effort alone.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

chachamim, hiza'haru b'divreichem

Someone pointed out to me a post on a  shul website in which the rabbi  addressed the same Ramban I mentioned in Sunday’s post about the issue of tumas leida.  His approach was somewhat different, as his main takeaway from the Ramban was that his science was off, and this is the yotzei min haklal that is melamed al ha’klal just how mistaken Chazal and Rishonim can be.    

There are so many challenges facing Klal Yisrael these days.  So many people need chizuk in their shmiras hamitzvos, in their emunah, in their emunas chachamim, and I am speaking of our camp of ma’aminim – kal v’chomer so much more chizuk is needed by the vast majority of Klal Yisrael who are not ma'aminim and who will probably, if nothing is done, vanish as Jews within two or three generations due to assimilation and intermarriage.  So of all the lessons one can communicate about parshas hashavua that can inspire the audience to appreicate the greatness of our Torah heritage,  the message chosen is that Chazal make mistakes?!  Rachma litzlan m’hai da’ata!

Whether Chazal and/or Rishonim used outdated scientific models is beside the point.  It’s the obsession – not discussion, but obsession -- with pointing out the perceived shortcomings of our Sages which is the issue.  I don’t know about this particular Rabbi, but there are people who take this as their regular theme on their blogs and websites.  

We know from Pirkei Avos, for example, there is an idea “Hu haya omeir…. ,”there are teachings that individual Sages would constantly reiterate because they were so crucial.  For some people, the “hu haya omeir” of their writing and teaching is the fact that Chazal and Rishonim were in error.  They want to go down in history as the ones to correct the gravest threat facing yahadut today – that people give too much credence to Chazal (ha’levay).  It would be as if, to paraphrase the famous gemara in Shabbos of the ger who came to Hillel and asked to be taught the whole Torah on one foot, their whole Torah on one foot is, “Chazal and Rishonim made mistakes – everything else is commentary.” 

The Steipler in his Chayei Olam has a whole list of mareh mekomos, which is not exhaustive, about “nifla’os Chazal,” the wonder of our Sages.  He cites sources that show the extreme degree of piety of Chazal, the gadlus of their tefilah, the fact that had prophetic insight to some degree, etc.  This was the Chazal that the Steipler lived with.  It’s no wonder, given this appreciation of the wisdom of our sages, that he become the Steipler Gaon, admired for his own piety and learning.  If all you have to write and speak about is what a mistake this Rishon made or how silly that gemara sounds to our “sophisticated” modern mind, then is it any wonder that you are marginalized and are not a Steipler gaon?  Why would anyone listening to your message want to spend yomam v’layla, day and night, immersed in sha”s and poskim let alone committed to Torah and mitzvos if they felt that so much of the social, philosophical, scientific worldview of Chazal is anachronistic and chauvinistic?  Were that c”v what Chazal’s worldview amounted to, maybe it would make for an interesting academic study like history, but who would want to pledge “ki heim chayeinu” to that? 

Now, some will claim that these type articles are only a reaction to the move in the opposite direction by the right-wing world, where mesorah is viewed as infallible.  You would think from the attention that it is given on the internet that Rabbonim are literally forcing the hashkafa that Chazal are infallible down people’s throats day in and day out.  My personal experience has not borne this out.   The topic is simply a non-issue for most of the world of sitting and learning Torah.  The fact that certain people dwell on it only illustrates the disconnect between reality and the virtual reality they have created.

Of course the world has moved to the right.  But the (modern) orthodox world has moved to the left as well.  I don't recall seeing shiurim that the Rav critiqued views of Rishonim or Chazal.  I don't think R' Hershel Shachter harps on this topic, or do any of the other YU Roshei Yeshiva.  Yet, now in some quarters it is accepted as a given that modern orthodoxy accepts (not just tolerates, but celebrates) critical and historical approaches to talmud study, that ordination of women, aliyos, etc. are all in-play as topics to be debated, and the word "mesorah" is just a construct designed as a tool to preserve the hegemony of fundamentalist Rabbis over their followers but lacking in any real meaning.  

Does all this mean we should "hide" the truth?  Of course not.  But the truth is not discovered by reading one Ramban.  Read the Ramban al haTorah every week, study his chiddushim, sweat your way through a Milchamos, learn the Toras haAdam.  I can guarantee you the Ramban you talk about after that will be a different Ramban than a medieval Rabbi who didn't know science.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

the dual kedusha of Eretz Yisrael

Ramban (Tazri'a 13:47) writes that the punishment of tzara'as described in Parshas Tazri'a was a miraculous manifestation of Hashem's hashgacha, not a natural disease, and therefore, even though it is not a mitzvah hatelu'ya ba'aretz, it only occurred in Eretz Yisrael, the "nachalas Hashem," where Hashem's presence is most manifest. The Ramban continues and writes l'halacha that tumas tzara'as on houses did not apply until after the fourteen years of conquest and division of Eretz Yisrael by Yehoshua were completed.  If you stopped reading there you might guess that this din is related to the previous idea.  Since the kedushas ha'aretz was incomplete until after the fourteen years of kibush v'chiluk, as we see, for example, from the fact that terumos and ma'asros did not apply until after that fourteen year period, you might guess that the halachos of tumas tzara'as follow the same pattern and are absent when a full kedushas ha'aretz is absent.  But that's not what the Ramban says.  The reason nigei batim did not apply during those fourteen years is because to witness the hashgacha of Hashem in an open and revealed way requires having a tremendous degree of G-d consciousness.  You have to be thinking of G-d and aware of his presence to deserve to see its effects.  Such a high mental state of awareness is impossible while one is simultaneously engaged in fighting a war.  

A long time ago we discussed (here and here) Rav Soloveitchik's idea that there are two dinim in kedushas ha'aretz: 1) The sanctification of the land through conquest (by Yehoshua) or chazakah (by Ezra) on our part, which served to define the boundaries in which certain agricultural mitzvos and mitzvos hateluyos ba'aretz applied; 2) The sanctity of the land as that place chosen by G-d as special.  I think we see this distinction reflected in this Ramban.  Nigei batim apply only in Eretz Yisrael because of that second type of sanctity which the land has -- it is Hashem's chosen place -- irrespective of how and when we are mekadesh it through our efforts.  Therefore, the Ramban must invoke a psychological explanation as the basis for the din of nigei batim applying only after the fourteen years of kibush v'chiluk, as it has nothing to do with whether that first type of kedusha exists yet or doesn't.

Ibz Ezra (14:33) also writes that nigei batim only apply in Eretz Yisrael, but he explains the reason is because "godel ma'ales ha'aretz ki hamikdash b'tocham v'haKavod b'toch hamikdash."  I'm a little confused by his meaning.  Kedushas hamikdash and kedushas ha'aretz are two different things entirely.  Eretz Yisrael had kedusha even before there was a mikdash; according to the Rambam, even when kedushas ha'aretz was nullified, kedushas Yerushalayim, the makom mikdash, remained intact.  Why does Ibn Ezra need to invoke the importance of the mikdash as the place of Hashem's presence as a justification for the significance of Eretz Yisrael in this regard -- doesn't the kedushas ha'aretz stand as significant in its own right?  Perhaps he is simply giving a siman, not a sibah, i.e. the kedushas ha'aretz does have independent significance, and one indication that this is true is the fact that the land is the makom mikdash, where the Shechina is most manifest.  

I would probably have done this post anyway, but I made a point of putting it up now because I don't see how you can not spend 5 minutes tomorrow, 5 Iyar, not thinking about and pausing to appreciate the ideas of kedushas ha'aretz, appreciating the land which is "nachalas Hashem," appreciating the tremendous gift we have been afforded.  It would take another whole post to fully discuss, but my opinion for what it's worth is that to simply dismiss the day as a political event with no religious meaning is completely off the mark.  Can anyone truly doubt that the hashra'as haShechina of Eretz Yisrael is enhanced not only by the limud haTorah that goes on there, which is of course important, but also by the land being under autonomous Jewish control, no matter what degree of religiosity the government currently is at or not at?  So whether you say hallel or don't say hallel, whether you do baha"b or say tachanun or whatever -- these are technical details -- take a moment to at least have a thought of hakaras hatov for what we have.  Just think of the thousands of Jews across centuries of history who wished they were in our shoes, having the freedom and kedusha of Eretz Yisrael accessible just a plane ride away. 

why the difference in time for tumas leida for boy vs. girl?

My daughter asked why is it that the tumas hayoledes for a girl baby is twice the length of that for a boy baby (2 weeks of tumah followed by 66 days of dmei taharah as opposed to 1 week of tumah and 33 days of dmei taharah for a boy)?  Ramban and other Rishonim (e.g. Ralbag, Abarbanel, R' Bachye) generally take one of two approaches: 1) There is some relationship between tumas yoledes and the time it takes for cells to go from an embryonic stage to become a fetus, which is 40 days for a boy and 80 for a girl; 2) The recovery time for the birth of a girl is longer and more difficult than that for a boy.  I think we would all agree that neither of these answers are scientifically accurate (see the first Ramban on the parsha, who seemed to be concerned enough with scientific accuracy to quote the doctors of his time and the philosophers on an issue that Chazal had already weighed in on) and I doubt an intelligent person would be satisfied with either approach.  So how would you answer the question?  The Netziv writes that the father always really wants a boy, so he draws closer to his wife faster after the birth of a boy than after the birth of a girl.  (I challenge you to give that answer to your daughter, if you have one.)  That may explain the difference between the 7 and 14 day wait, but does not explain the difference between the 33 vs. 66 days.  Without resorting to a mystical explanation of tumas yoledes, what would you say?  

Parenthetically, I saw pointed out that the question of why a yoledes bring a korban chatas (what did she do wrong?) should not even get off the ground, as the chatas of a mechusar kippurim as nothing to do with sin.  See Rashi Kerisus 8b, "Mevi'im chatas v'lo al cheit elah le'echol b'kodhsim." 

Thursday, April 11, 2013

avoiding lashon ha'ra as a meta-value

The punishment of tzara’as is the result of the sin of slander and gossip.  We all know the famous pasuk in Tehillim, “Mi ha’ish hachoftez hachaim.. netzor leshoncha me’ra… sur me’ra v’aseh tov…”  David haMelech tells us that if you want  long life all you have to do is guard your tongue from evil speech, avoid doing wrong, and do good.  (Simple, right?)  If we look carefully at the formula the pasuk provides, it seems that the entire first half is redundant.  “Sur me’ra v’aseh tov…” seems to cover it all; it encapsulates kol haTorah kula, the whole shulchan aruch of what it means to be a Jew.  So why did David haMelech add as a preface “netzor lishoncha me’ra?”  Isn’t guarding one’s tongue included already in the idea of “sur me’ra v’aseh tov?” 

Yesterday we discussed the idea that there are certain meta-values and principles that define the essence of Judaism.  These particular mitzvos, midos, principles, are not just one more idea among 613 equals, but are umbrellas that encompass the whole system; they are far greater than any one individual part of halacha and even of all the parts combined.  R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz explained that even though Ya’akov Avinu kept the entire Torah, all tarya”g mitzvos, in Lavan’s  home, he still was nervous that he would not merit Hashem’s protection against Eisav because one can keep kol haTorah kula and still be on the wrong path entirely by missing if one ignores the meta-values.

Explains the Shem m’Shmuel, this is the great chiddush David haMelech wanted to teach us.  “Sur me’ra v’aseh tov” covers the entire shulchan aruch, but even if you have the whole sulchan aruch in your back pocket, if you are missing the preface, the glue that keeps the whole system together, then you are missing everything.  Even if you know kol haTorah kula and keep kol haTorah kula, if your speech is improper, if you are a gossip, if you can’t control what you say and how you say it, then everything else is tainted as well.  “Netzor leshoncha me’ra” transcends the “sur me’ra v’aseh tov;” it is the meta-value that gives character to the system as a whole.

With this we can appreciate the meaning of a famous story brought in the Midrash.  Rav Yanai met a peddler who was hawking a promise of long life.  Rav Yanai was curious as to what this magic elixir might be, so he followed the peddler around,  When a crowd gathered, the peddler finally revealed what his secret “product” was.  He quoted this pasuk in Tehillim, “Mi ha’ish hachoftez hachaim.. netzor leshoncha me’ra… sur me’ra v’aseh tov…”  Rav Yanai remarked that he had never understood this pasuk properly until he heard it from the peddler.  What did Rav Yanai find so remarkable in the peddler’s presentation?  Surely Rav Yanai had been familiar with this pasuk beforehand?!  

The Shem m’Shmuel explains that what caught Rav Yanai’s attention was the peddler’s use of the word “sam,” literally, a spice.  You can’t make a meal of spices alone, but any regular meal served without spice is bland and not satisfying.  “Netzor leshoncha,” guarding against lashon ha’ra, is not just another dish on the menu of Torah, item number whatever of 613 possible choices.  It’s the spice that goes into every dish that makes every dish more  satisfying.  It’s a defining value of the system as a whole.   

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

the meta-values of halacha

A few nights ago our community had the privilege of hosting R’ Warren Goldstein, the Chief Rabbi of South Africa.  One of the points he made when he spoke is that there are certain meta-values to halacha, which, if ignored, can render the entire observance of halacha worthless (I do not recall if he used that exact word).  One can punctiliously keep the entire shulchan aruch cover to cover, yet still not be following the derech haTorah.

R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz brings proof to this point from Ya’akov Avinu.  Despite assurances from Hashem that he would be protected from harm, Ya’akov was filled with dread at the prospect of meeting Eisav.  Why was he so afraid?  Chazal explain that Ya’akov was worried “shema yigrom ha’cheit.”  Yet, one of the things Ya’akov tells his brother when they meet is, “Im Lavan garti,” which Chazal interpret as a hint that he faithfully kept all 613 mitzvos (garti = numerical value of tarya”g) in Lavan’s house.  If Ya’akov indeed kept all the mitzvos, then why was he worried that Hashem would withdraw his promise of protection because he did something wrong?  He kept kol haTorah kula!  R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz answers that we see from here that one can in fact observe kol haTorah kula, yet still be on the wrong path and be found wanting. 

The follow-up question of course is how you identify what these meta-values are, but that’s another discussion.  

After the talk someone asked a very good question.  Why is it that in our generation, when we have so many people learning Torah as never before, we seem to have lost sight of those meta-values, the overarching principles of halacha?  Rabbi Goldstein suggested that we not lose sight of the fact that we are a dor of yesomim.  Even if we do not have direct relatives who were killed in the Holocaust, we still all lost access to a large chunk of the collective mesorah of Torah in the deaths of so many talmidei chachamim and leaders.  The living embodiment of Torah values that these people represented cannot simply be replaced by book knowledge.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Shiurei Da'as: Can we compare our avodah to that of Eliyahu haNavi or David haMelech?

“Rosheich alay k’Karmel v’dalas roseich k‘argaman…” (Shir haShirim 7:6) taken literally is a description of the beauty of someone's head and the braids of hair.  The Midrash, however, reads the pasuk as describing the beauty in G-d’s eyes of even the worst members of Klal Yisrael.  “Rosheich” is read by the Midrash as “reishech,” from the word “rash,” meaning poor person – not poor financially, but poor in good deeds; “dalas” is taken by the Midrash as a hint to the word “dal,” another synonym for a person who is wanting.  The pasuk is telling us that even the poorest miscreant in Klal Yisrael is as valuable as Eliyahu haNavi, who challenged the idolators of Ba’al at Mt. Carmel; even the poorest no-goodnik is as great as David haMelech, as Zecharya haNavi tells us (12:7), that one day even the “nichshal,” the one who is weak and stumbles, will be like David haMelech. 

R’ Bloch (in Shiurei Da’as, “Rishonim K’Malachim”) asks how it can be that Hashem values someone who is spiritually impoverished as much as he values Eliyahu haNavi or David haMelech.  Imagine there is some kind of big scale where we can weigh people’s merits.  If you were to put me on one side of that scale and David HaMelech or Eliyahu on the other side, there is no question in my mind that their merits would outweigh mine.   So where is the fairness in Hashem saying that in his eyes it’s all the same?

R’ Bloch answers with an analogy.  Imagine there is a race course that stretches thousands of miles long and you have two runners racing along the course.  Even if one person has travelled 2 miles and the other has travelled only 2 yards, does it really make a difference when measured against the total distance that needs to be covered?  Kal v’chomer if the distance that needs to be covered stretches to infinity.  It’s true that Eliyahu HaNavi, David haMelech, accomplished so much more than any of us could dream of accomplishing in our own avodas Hashem.  But that does not mean we should despair or that our avodah has no value.  When measured against the scale of infinity, the tremendous gulf of difference between our achievements is insignificant.

Afar ani tachas kapas raglav, but I cannot help but find R’ Bloch’s answer here less than satisfying.  Even if one grants the validity of the question, it seems that the far simpler answer is “l’fum tza’ara agra.”  Hashem does not judge our net accomplishments alone; he judges us according to our abilities.  What little we accomplish given our circumstance and limitations may indeed be as precious as what greater people were able to do given their specific gifts and talents.  What we see with our limited perspective is far from the complete picture.

But there is an even simpler answer I think, and perhaps it appeals more to a chassidic mindset than a mussar mindset.  The whole question R’ Bloch raises is predicated on the assumption that Hashem should value less those who achieve less.  It seems to me that the whole point of the Midrash is to undermine that very assumption.  Hashem’s love is unconditional.  He extends it freely to the lowest sinner as well as the greatest saint.  He is the ultimate rachaman who is willing to overlook all our failures, all our shortcomings, all our deficiencies, and accept us all equally.  As parents, most of us pay lip service to this idea of loving all our children equally, even those who aggravate and annoy us to no end (trust me, I have a few).  If we can recognize the value of turning a blind eye to the faults of our children and loving them all equally, surely we can appreciate the concept of G-d turning a blind eye to our faults and extending unconditional love to each of us equally.  

Monday, April 08, 2013

GR"A on birchas hamitzvah before birchas kohanim

The gemara (Sota 39) writes that R’ Elazar ben Shamu’a attributed his longevity to the fact that he never duchened without first saying a bracha.  I would not blame you if you were not impressed.  One is obligated to say a birchas hamitzvah before doing most mitzvos.  Why would an Amora think that his special arichus yamim, his longer than normal life, should be attributed to the merit of his not messing up something so basic like saying a bracha before doing a mitzvah? 

From here we see proof, says the GR”A (O.C. 128:30), that there is in fact no requirement to say a bracha before the mitzvah of birchas kohanim.  It is certainly meritorious to do so, but it is not an obligation. 

The question that begs asking is why this chiddush should be true: Why is the mitzvah of birchas kohanim different than any other mitzvah which requires a bracha before performing? 

When I mentioned this issue to my son, he gave what I thought was a very good answer.  The Nesivos in his commentary to the haggadah asks why it is that there is no bracha before the mitzvah of magid.  He answers that you can’t make a bracha on a bracha.  For example, there is no bracha on birchas hamazon because birchas hamazon itself is a bracha.  What’s the lomdus, the reasoning, behind the Nesivos’ rule?  The new edition has a nice footnote where they explain that the whole purpose of reciting a bracha is to give thanks and praise to Hashem.  Were a person to preface that praise and thanks with an “asher kidishanu b’mitzvosav v’tzivanu…” it would defeat the whole point.  A little kid can maybe get away with and saying, “My Mommy/Daddy told me I have to say thank you,” but an adult surely cannot.  Kal v’chomer it would be improper to to approach Hashem saying, “I was commanded to say thank you, so here it is."  We omit the birchas hamitzvah before we say the bracha of “Asher ga’alanu” (and R’ Shlomo Kluger already criticizes the fact that the Nesivos reduces magid to this bracha alone) and before we say “Birchas hamazon” because we want to recite those brachos and thanks Hashem as if there were no command to do so, as if we were motivated purely by our own sincerity.  Shouldn’t  the same should be true of birchas kohanim?  (And I admit that at first I thought one could be mechaleik between a bracha to Hashem and the blessing of Klal Yisrael, but one second thought, I think my son is right.)  To speak of “v’tzivanu,” the burden of fulfilling a command, seems to undermine the idea of “l’vareich as amo Yisrael b’ahavah,” the feeling of love for Klal Yisrael that the bracha is supposed to express and which the kohen is trying to convey

I saw a different hesber from R’ Zecharya Tubi, Rosh Kollel in KBY.  A kohen only is obligated to duchan if the tzibur calls him to do say, based on the pasuk, “Amor lahem.”  Based on this, the Pri Megadim writes that the tzibur has a right to be mochel on birchas kohanim if they choose to do so. The Rashba in his teshuvos has a yesod that one never recites a bracha on a mitzvah which is subject to mechila.  For example, one would not recite a bracha on the mitzvah of tzedaka because the recipient could always be mochel receipt of the money.  QED, the mitzvah of birchas kohanim also does not require the recitation of a bracha. 

Friday, April 05, 2013

duchening on Yom Tov sheni for a kohen visiting chu"l from Eretz Yisrael

M’inyan l’inyan from Yom Tov to the parsha:

The Sha’arei Teshuva at the end of O.C. 495 quotes a machlokes achronim whether a kohen who comes to chutz la’aretz from Eretz Yisrael to visit and therefore observes only one day of Yom Tov can go up to duchen on Yom Tov sheni. At first glance the safeik seems a bit hard to understand. I can understand why achronim might debate issues like what tefilah a ben Eretz Yisrael visiting chu”l should say on Y”Y sheni, as the tefilos of chu”l on Yom Tov are completely different than what a ben Eretz Yisrael would daven if he were home. However, when it comes to duchening, the minhag in Eretz Yisrael is to duchen every day anyway. M’mah nafshach: if the kohen follows minhag Eretz Yisrael, he should duchen; if he follows minhag chu”l and it is Yom Tov, he should also duchen – so what’s the safeik?
I think we see from here proof to a yesod that the Rav has in Shiurim l’Zecher Aba Mori that there are 2 dinim in birchas kohanim: 1) an independent mitzvah; 2) part of the cheftza of tefilah.

There is an interesting Yersuahlmi at the beginning of the 4th perek of Ta’anis:

מניין לנשיאות כפים (במדבר ו) כה תברכו את בני ישראל. עד כאן בשחרית במוסף (ויקרא ט) וישא אהרן את ידיו אל העם.

The Yerushalmi actually has two separate sources for birchas kohanim, one from parshas Naso, one from our parsha (Shmini) where birchas kohanim (see Rashi, Ramban) is mentioned as a concluding element of Aharon’s avodah. These two sources may reflect these two dimensions of the mitzvah. The chiddush of our parsha and the reason that we situate birchas kohanim in “retzeih” is because birchas kohanim must take place in the context of avodah/tefilah.

The Gilyon on the Yerushalmi at the beginning of that perek reflects the same idea. He is mechadesh that the reason we do not do birchas kohanim at night is not because avodah is never done at night, but rather it is because tefilas arvis reshus – we do not have a formal obligation of tefilah at night and therefore birchas kohanim has no context.

Returning to our issue, since a kohen who is a ben Eretz Yisrael would not daven a tefilas musaf on Yom Tov sheni, he lacks a cheftza shel tefilah in which to incorporate birchas kohanim (note that the second source quoted by the Yerushalmi addresses itself specifically to musaf!) and is therefore exempt from the mitzvah.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

yetzi'as Mitzrayim continues to unfold through history

The Sefas Emes explains that we hide part of the afikoman, tzafun=hidden, because not all of the geulah was revealed during yetzi’as Mitzrayim.  All of the subsequent galuyos and tzaros we have suffered for millennia are but a taint of galus Mitzrayim that never worked itself out; the geulah which we are ultimately waiting for is really the completion of the process that only began with the redemption from Egypt.

In “Dayaeinu” we go through a laundry list of “ma’alos tovos” that Hashem has done for us, starting with taking us out of Mitzrayim and continuing through binyan beis hamikdash.  Why is this whole list recited at the leil ha’seder – what do all these things have to do with sipur yetziyas Mitzrayim?  The Sefas Emes again sees this as evidence that Jewish history is the unfolding of geulas Mitzrayim in all its glory. 

(Perhaps the machlokes Tanaim whether the ultimate geulah will eclipse the need to have a zecher l’yetzi’as Mitzrayim is not about whether yetzi’as Mitzrayim will ever be forgotten [which would beg the question of why it is counted as a mitzvah], but rather about which format the mitzvah of zechiras yetzi’as Mitzrayim will take.  Perhaps remembering [after we are zocheh to see it] the ultimate geulah is itself a kiyum of zechiras yetzi'as Mitzrayim as it is the ultimate culmination of the yetzi’as Mitzrayim process.)

So yes, it’s isru chag, Pesach is over, and I hope you already had your bread or a cookie.  But we are by no means done with yetzi’as Mitzrayim, as we still await the completion of our personal and national redemption.