Thursday, April 30, 2015

the difference where you place the comma makes

Do you read the pasuk “lo talin peulas sachir itcha [comma], ad boker” or “lo talis peulas sachir [comma], itcha ad boker?” What difference does it make?

The gemara (B”M 110b) writes that if you ask someone to hire workers for you, neither you nor the person who actually does the hiring violate a lav if you pay late. You don’t violate the lav because you didn’t do the hiring; the person who did the hiring doesn’t violate the lav because the workers didn’t work for him. Achronim ask why don’t we consider the person who did the hiring to be a shliach and say shlucho shel adam k’moso? Tos RI”D already deals with this issue and writes that since the workers know that the one hiring them is not the one ultimately responsible to cut them a paycheck, there is no expectation on their part of getting paid immediately. This sevara,
explains the Meshech Chochma, shows us the correct way to read the pasuk (and he proves it from the targum and trop as well). It’s not “itcha ad boker,” meaning the money is with you until morning, but rather the pasuk is referring to “sachir itcha [comma],” someone whom you, not your agent or friend, hired. Only in that case is there a lav involved.

On a different note (BTW, is it better to lump a few small things like this together in one post or to make them separate posts?) R’ Shteiman in his
Ayeles haShachar on Chumash asks what the chiddush is of saying “v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha” is a “klal gadol baTorah.” Isn’t it obvious that without ahavas yisrael it would be impossible to not be nichshal in the many bein adam l’chaveiro precepts in our parsha and others?

Were it only as pashut to everyone as it is to R’ Shteinman.

hakedusha ma’alah y’seira b’isha yoseir mi’b’ish

Ish imo v’aviv tira’u…” Why does the pasuk mention the mother before the father? Answers Rabeinu Bachyei, “Hikdim ha’eim l’ma’alasa ki hakedusha ma’alah y’seira b’isha yoseir mi’b’ish.” I hate to be a spoilsport, but I don’t think R’ Bachyei means women are more holy than men; this is not like the idea of women having “bina yeseira” (as I saw one sefer explain it). I think what he means is that women have more restrictions in the area of arayos and tzeniyus than men. Kedusha is all about prishus, and Rashi connects it directly to abstinence from arayos. It is this greater obligation to be modest which is the kedusha that we are talking about. That is still a ma’alah, like R Bachyei writes.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Rashi as an explainer of ta'amei hamitzvos

Rashi (14:4) explains that the taharah process of the metzorah uses birds because birds chirp, symbolic of the chatter of gossip that causes tzara’as; it uses cedar wood because the metzorah was haughty and thought of himself like a high and mighty cedar; it uses an eizov because it is a low plant and shni tol’as because worms also signify smallness, which teaches the metzorah to have humility.

Is there some difficulty in pshat that drives Rashi to give a reason why each of these items was used? I couldn’t think of any. Compare with Rashi Bamidbar 19:22 where he explains why the same eitz erez, eizov, and shni tola’as objects are used in connection with parah adumah, but he does so only when he quotes the midrash aggadah of R’ Moshe haDrashan, not when he is simply explaining pshat in the pesukim. It seems that Rashi in our parsha is stepping out of  character from being simply a commentary on pshat (by which I mean syntax or language) and offering us ta’amei hamitzvos, yet if that is Rashi’s goal, why does he focus only on the objects and not on anything else in the process, e.g. why place things on the ear lobe, the thumb, and the big toe?

There are other places where Rashi seems to offer explanations that sound like ta’amei hamitzvos, e.g. Bamidbar 8:7 from yesterday’s post. Does anyone have a rule that works to explain where and why Rashi does this?

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

equal but separate

If want to try to add up some of the details of tzara’as and the process of taharah and see if we can make some sense of the picture as a whole. 

The metzorah must take two identical birds as part of his taharah process. One of them is shechted and the blood is used for sprinkling etc. The second one, however, is just sent away. What’s the point of taking this bird just to release it again into the wild? Ramban already touches on this question and tells us that it is the same idea behind the “sod” of sending away the sa’ir l’azazel, which doesn’t help us too much unless you are privy to the sod. Abarbanel suggests that the lesson here is that all is in G-d’s hands. Just as you can have two seemingly identical birds yet one is shechted and one lives, so too, two seemingly identical people may suffer different fates in life. 

Another interesting detail in the metzorah’s taharah process is the korban asham which is brought. The Torah in fact gives almost no attention to the other korbanos (see Ramban) but focusses almost exclusively on the asham. Why an asham? Seforno explains that a korban asham is brought for an issur me’ila, stealing from hekdesh. A metzorah is guilty of being haughty, and Chazal tell us that someone who is haughty, a ba’al ga’avah, drives away the Shechina, [which amounts to taking himself so to speak away from hekdesh.]

The final point I want to call attention to is an observation made by R’ Ya’akov Medan from Gush, who points out that the command to the metzorah to cut his hair and rip his clothes is the exact flipside of the instructions given in Shmini to Aharon and his children not to tear their clothes or touch their hair. Similarly, while the metzorah musty remain outside all the camps, the kohen is entitled to enter into the holiest sections of the mishkan. The metzorah is affected with tumah; the kohen is empowered to declare him tahor. I would add that Rashi later in Bamidbar (8:7) writes that the process of shaving done to the Levi’im to inaugurate them into service is a direct parallel to the shaving of the metzorah. So we have direct opposites and direct parallels, both of which point to some kind of relationship.

Last week I mentioned a Midrash that explains that the officer who did not believe the navi Elisha’s prophecy that the famine would end and wheat would be dirt cheap did not deny G-d’s power to perform miracles and did not deny the ability of the navi to see the future – what he denied was that his generation, a generation that he considered on the same level as the dor hamabul, was worthy of such a miracle. Rav Tvi Tau describes this as a failure to recognize the “segulah” aspect of Am Yisrael. The worthiness of the nation to merit salvation is not something that can be reduced to a calculus of plusses and minuses alone; there is a transcendent element to the bond between G-d and the Jewish people that goes beyond that. G-d is not too holy to help even the worst sinners. All that is necessary is to believe that G-d will in fact do so, and it is that belief that the king’s officer dampened. 

This idea – the denial of a qualitative imperceptable segulah element – is what I think is the hallmark of the sin of metzorah and is why the story of the king’s officer is the haftarah for the parsha. Two identical birds are taken by the metzorah -- one is killed, one is sent away. What’s the difference between one and the other? That’s exactly the point – nothing noticeable is different, and yet the fates of the two diverge. The king’s officer could not see a difference between his generation and the generation of the flood, yet af al pi kein, there is a segulah aspect to Am Yisrael that does makes a difference, even if it doesn’t add up in our minds. Two objects appear identical on the surface, yet by using one of them a person becomes chayav in meila and must bring an asham and the other not. What’s the difference? Again, it’s not something that can be seen, but it is the segulah aspect, the fact the one of the objects is hekdesh, which makes the difference. A kohen or levi looks like anyone else, yet again, it is the segulah aspect of their election that sets them apart. When Miriam spoke against her brother Moshe because she thought he was no different than any other navi, she is afflicted with tzara’as; her sin was not recognizing the segulah of a Moshe Rabeinu.

But don’t Chazal say that tzara’as is a punishment for lashon ha’ra? How does that fit this framework? The answer is that this gufa is the underlying crime of lashon ha’ra. The sin of gossip is not just about speaking harmful words – it’s about denying the inherent worth of the individual spoken about. Just as the officer of the king saw only the faults of Klal Yisrael and did not recognize that in G-d’s eyes they were still worthy of help, evil gossip focusses on the negative traits in others and does not see the segulah that makes each individual special.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

nigei batim and the zechus of Eretz Yisrael

1) Why is it that Reuvain, who advised that Yosef be thrown into a pit even though he knew “ha’bor reik ain bo mayim – aval nechashim v’akravim yesh bo,” that there were scorpions and snakes down there, gets credit in the Torah for saving Yosef, “vayishma Reuvain vayatzileihu m’yadam,” but about Yehudah, the one who actually pulled Yosef out of that dangerous pit, albeit to sell him to Yishmaelim, but sof sof Yosef lived and went on to greatness from of that sale, Chazal say that “ko ha’mevarech es Yehudah ain zeh elah men’eitz?” Why does Reuvain get credit and Yehudah gets scorn?

The R' Shmuel Ya'akov Rubenstein in his She'eiris Menachem answers that true Reuvain had Yosef thrown into a pit, but that pit was a pit in Eretz Yisrael. Even if there were scorpions and snakes in there, Reuvain knew that in Eretz Yisrael the zechus of Ya’akov Avinu, if not Yosef himself, would ensure Yosef’s safety. Yehudah, however, pulled Yosef out to sell him to travelers headed into chutz la’aretz. No matter that Yosef would rise there to the greatest heights – at the end of his life he would be forced to ask Klal Yisrael to take an oath and would plead that they remember “pakod yifkod…” and take his bones when they leave because chutz la'aretz is not a place that  Jew can know rest.  

2) Rashi explains that nigei batim were brought by Hashem because the Canaanim had hidden treasures in the walls of their homes. When a nega came and a person was forced to tear down the walls, they would discover the buried treasure. We build walls around ourselves with our ga’avah and ta'avah for olam hazeh that prevents us from thinking and communicating properly.  Hashem sometimes does us a favor and sends us difficulties to contend with to help us break down those walls. When we do so, we can discover the treasures buried inside ourselves (based on the Kozhiglover in Eretz Tzvi).

It’s interesting that the halachos of nigei batim only apply in Eretz Yisrael. Ibn Ezra (14:34) explains that this is a testament to the kedushas ha’aretz, which does not tolerate sin. The gemara (Brachos 5) distinguishes between negaim in Eretz Yisrael and nega’im that come in chutz la’aretz; one is yisurim shel ahavah, the other not. The Netziv explains (contrary to Rashi) that it is the nega’im of Eretz Yisrael, where the metzorah must suffer being expelled outside the camp, that are yisurim shel ahavah, because through suffering the metzorah merits to be cleansed of his sin. Extending the thought of the Kozhiglover, perhaps davka in Eretz Yisrael, which is one of the things that is only acquired through yisurim, do we face challenges because davka in Eretz Yisrael do we have the siyata d’shemaya to be able to break break down the walls of the yetzer ha'ra and dig up those treasures inside ourselves.

3) “Who wants long life?” cried the peddler in the market. Rav Yanai followed the gathering crowd to see what elixir this salesman was hawking. The peddler gave the secret away: Mi ha’ish he’chafetz chaim? Netzor leshoncha mei’ra… Stop speaking lashon ha’ra! The Midrash ends by telling us that Rav Yanai said that he never understood the pasuk before he heard it from that peddler. 

We’ve discussed this Midrash many times before, but there is always something new to add. Even when the Torah promises “v’ha’arachta yamim,” a reward of long life, as it does in the parsha of kibud av and shiluach ha’kan, Chazal reinterpret that promise to mean a long life in olam ha’ba, not that you will outlive your peers in the old age home. The Torah speaks to our eternal reward and salvation, not to what will necessarily make life easier in olam ha’zeh (see Kiddushin 40). Before hearing that peddler, Rav Yanai understood that the “chofetz chaim” refers to life in olam ha’ba as well. What he learned from the peddler, as the Dudai Reuvain explains, is that not speaking lashon ha’ra makes life better even in olam hazeh. The remedy for the metzorah – sitting outside the camp in isolation – is not some spiritual hocus pocus, but is designed to cause the person to reflect on how he can manage his interpersonal relationships better. It’s a remedy that makes life better in the here-and-now, not just the hereafter.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

miracles can happen for a dor even as bad as the dor hamabul

1. I wrote in my last post, “Anyone who feels any connection to the world of YU/modern orthodoxy/religious Zionism in America or Israel must feel a profound sense of loss at the passing of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein.“ Someone commented that even those not connected to those worlds feel a profound sense of loss. Y’yasher kocho for making that important point. The feeling of loss may be more poignant and there may be a greater need and responsibility to mourn for those who most benefited from R’ Aharon’s influence, but the loss of a gadol like Rav Aharon Lichtenstein should have an impact on everyone. R’ Aharon Kahn shlit”a (you can listen to the hespeidim on yutorah) remarked in his hesped that his “beard and the kapote bespeak perhaps slightly different percecptions and orientations” than R’ Aharon, but still, he "loved him [R’ Aharon] very, very much. Such a statement says as much about R’ Aharon Kahn‘s gadlus as it does Rav Lichtenstein’s.  The fact that we may have different perspectives need not preclude us from having great ahavas yisrael.

2. M'inyana d'yoma of the positive things we celebrate this week, the haftarah for Metzorah (Melachim 2 ch 7:3-20) tells the story of the four lepers who discovered the destruction of the camp of Aram.  If you just start reading from where the haftarah starts you are missing important background.   There was a horrible famine going on as a result of the siege by Aram and people were literally starving. Elisha prophesied that the famine would be broken and the next day a se’ah of flour would sell for just a shekel. One of the king’s officers heard this prediction and he couldn’t believe it. “Hinei Hashem oseh arubos ba’shamayim, hayi’yeh hadavar hazeh?” Even if G-d opens windows in the sky, can such a thing be possible? Elisha responded that this man would indeed see the miracle with his own eyes, but he would not get to eat from the food. The last pasuk in the haftarah confirms that Elisha's prophecy came true, as this officer saw the markets open and flooded with food, but he is trampled to death before he can eat anything.

The pashtus is that the king’s officer was a scoffer who did not believe in nevuah or that G-d could make such miracles.   The Torah Shleima on Parshas Noach (quoted by R’ Chaim Drukman in his sefer Kim’a Kim’a), however, brings a Midrash that sheds a completely different light on things. The Midrash picks up on the officer’s use of the term “arubos ha’shamayim,” language which echoes the description of the punishment given to dor habamul upon whom G-d opened the “arubos ha’shamayim” and brought down rain. It’s not that the officer did not believe G-d could do miracles – the officer did not believe G-d would do miracles for a generation that was a wicked as the dor hamabul!

The lesson the navi leaves us with is that we should not dismiss a dor as unworthy of miracles, no matter who they are, no matter if they are chilonim or even worse. 

Should we dismiss or question the miracles that have occurred time and time again in Eretz Yisrael just because it happens to be that there are non-religious Jews defending our country and building our country, or should we celebrate each of those miracles, the greatest of all of them being the existence of the State itself?  It's not for us to know G-d's cheshbonos of who he does miracles for or why he does them -- it's us for us to show appreciation for them.

Monday, April 20, 2015

a few thoughts

1. Anyone who feels any connection to the world of YU/modern orthodoxy/religious Zionism in America or Israel must feel a profound sense of loss at the passing of R’ Aharon Lichtenstein. I have no doubt that if you were to ask anyone like myself too young to have seen the Rav for the name of a single individual who best personifies the blend of gadlus in Torah and intellectual greatness that a YU / Torah u'Mada /modern orthodox education should bring one to aspire to, if not achieve, that one name would be R’ Aharon Lichtenstein. An unbelievable loss.

2. Last week I mentioned the Ohr haChaim’s question of how Moshe could have missed the obvious distinction between kodshei sha’ah, which Aharon ate despite being in aninus, and kodshei doros, the korban of Rosh Chodesh, which Aharon reminded Moshe that he could not eat. The Ruzhiner offered a brilliant answer. The gemara (quoted by Rashi on chumash) tells us that the korban musaf of Rosh Chodesh is unique in that it is not a kapparah for us, but is a kapprah that Hashem asks us to bring on his behalf kavyachol for his diminishing the moon during ma’aseh braishis (see Maharal in Gur Aryeh and the Ishbitzer in Mei haShiloach for some perspective on what that means). We know that this difference between the sun and moon (again, whatever symbolic meaning that has) is temporary in nature. At the time of geulah the moon will be restored to its original size and glory. Moshe therefore saw the musaf of Rosh Chodesh as kodshei sha’ah as well. It was because Moshe had greater, not lesser vision that he missed the distinction that Aharon drew.

3. Rashi comments on “banav hanosarim” (10:12) that Elazar and Isamar deserved punishment as much as Nadav and Avihu did, but were spared. The pashtus I assume is that the derasha is based on the extra word “nosarim,” but that just begs the question of why Rashi wasn’t also bothered by the extra word “banav.” HaKsav v’haKabbalah as usual has an interesting linguistic insight. We have two words in the Torah for something leftover/remaining: 1) nishar, 2) nosar. What’s the difference? Nishar means the more important thing was left behind. “Vayisha’aru shenei anashim bamachaneh…” – Eldad and Meided were greater than their peers, as they alone remained prophesizing. “Vayisha’er ach Noach” – Noach alone remained after the flood and everyone else was destroyed. The word nosar means the less important thing was left. That’s exactly why we call the leftover portion of a korban that was not eaten and now must be disposed of “nosar.” Even though Elazar and Isamar were spared punishment, they were not “nisharim,” not more distinguished or more worthy, but were merely “nosarim.” 

4. The simple pshat in “vayishma Moshe vayeitiv b’einav,” (10:20) is that Aharon’s sevara or Aharon himself (see Ohr haChaim) found favor in Moshe’s eyes – the subject of “vayitav” is Aharon, the predicate of “b’einav” is Moshe. The Targum Yonasan learns the pshat a little differently. He adds that Moshe made a public service announcement and spread the word that he was in error and Aharon was correct. The Peirush Yonasan explains that the T.Y. learned that Moshe, not Aharon was the subject of “vayitav” – Moshe did something to make himself “tov,” to make amends to Aharon and regain favor in his eyes after previously criticizing him. I think there is a third way to read the pasuk. The Targum Yerushalmi adds a few extra words and says that Moshe received schar for his willingness to publicly admit error and acknowledge that Aharon was correct. Why the need to mention that Moshe got rewarded here?  I think the Targum Yerushalmi read “vayitav b’einav” as meaning that Moshe found favor in G-d’s eyes.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

vigilante halacha

The Torah records the reaction of Klal Yisrael to the presence of the Shechina coming into the Mishkan: “Va’yar kol ha’am va’yaronu va’yiplu al p’neihem” (9:24) – the people sang praises to Hashem. “What song did they sing?” asks the Sefas Emes. Why is there no record of it? He answers that we already know the words to the song -- they sang shiras ha’yam, the same song we read on the last days of Pesach. This was a return to former glory. The downfall and tragedy of cheit ha’eigel which the Mishkan was intended as a kapprah for was now past history. The joy and spiritual ecstasy that marked yetzi’at Mitzrayim and the splitting of Yam Suf were now regained.

I would take the connection the Sefas Emes makes between shiras ha’yam and the Mishkan a step further. The Mishkan was G-d’s “home” so to speak, his permanent address. Bnei Yisrael took the inspiration of shirah, the response to a one-time miracle, and they incorporated it into the Mishkan, the permanent and day to day. This was a fulfillment of “zeh K-li v’anveiyhu,” the word “anveyhu,” as Onkelus explains, coming from the same root as “naveh,” a house. Bnei Yisrael at the time of shirah wanted to take their enthusiasm of the moment and give it a permanent home. Our parsha proves that they succeeded.

This is our post-Pesach job: to take the enthusiasm of shirah, the enthusiasm of the chag, and incorporate it now into our day to day. 

On to Parshas Shmini, with apologies to any readers in Eretz Yisrael who are a week ahead, or maybe I should say that we are a week behind?  What to do if you travel back to Eretz Yisrael after spending Pesach in chutz la'arertz -- how do you make up the lost parsha?  Do you need to?  Something to work on...

There is a question raised by the Ohr haChaim that I think captures a tension inherent in Shmini. The Ohr haChaim (end of d”h “hein hayom”) raises the following issue: is there an issur for a student to pasken a shayla for himself in the presence of his teacher? The halacha is that if Reuvain comes and asks Shimon a shayla, Shimon must pass on answering and defer to his rebbe.  There is an issur of being moreh halacha bifnei rabbo.   But here it’s not Reuvain asking Shimon – it’s Shimon figuring out viz a viz his own behavior what to do. Does that make a difference? The Ohr haChaim suggests that our parsha provides the answer. Aharon decided on his own, without consulting with Moshe, his rebbe, that he and his children should not to eat the korban chatas of rosh chodesh.

Whether the Ohr haChaim’s conclusion is correct or what the lomdus behind the question is (perhaps the issue depends on what the reason for the issur of being moreh halacha bifnei rabbo is. If it is a din in kavod harav, then whether one is paskening for oneself or others should make little difference; however, if it is because the talmid may not be able to communicate properly, as the simple reading of the sugya in Eiruvin 62 suggests, than perhaps when one is dealing only with one’s own private behavior and not communicating with others there would be no issur. See Aruch haShulchan Y.D. 242:8-12 for a discussion of the different reasons) is not my topic for now. What I want to focus on is the sharp contrast between the positive reaction to Aharon acting independently, “vayishma Moshe vayitav b’einav,” and the response of Hashem to Nadav and Avihu’s actions. At least according to one view in Chazal, Nadav and Avihu were guilty of no more than being moreh halacha b’fnei rabbo, of deciding what to do without consulting Moshe. What’s the difference between their deciding for themselves that they should offer ketores and Aharon’s deciding for himself that the korban chatas of rosh chodesh should be eaten?

Whatever the answer is (and there are a number of approaches possible), I think this is the key question that the parsha begs us to ask, the focal point around which the whole episode of Nadav and Avihu’s death and the follow up centers. In light of the Ohr haChaim I would say that the reason for the retelling of what happened to the chatas is not to teach us a din in hilchos kodshim, but to force is to draw a distinction (or distinctions) between independent action that has no place in Torah and independent action that should be valued and praised. (Just as, if one assumes that Nadav and Avihu are guilty of an issur hora’ah, the focus of the parsha of shtuyei ya’ayin may be the issur of hora’ah while drunk, not the issur avodah.) Not every “vigilante” halachic decision should be met with disapproval. Sometimes acting independently is necessary and warranted. The key is to figure out the when, where, and how.

Moshe may have been the rebbe and Aharon the talmid, but interestingly it was Aharon, not Moshe, who grasped that the chatas of rosh chodesh should not be eaten. The Ohr haChaim (in a different piece) wonders in fact how Moshe could have missed such an obvious distinction between koshei sha’ah and kodshei doros.  An important lesson: no rebbe, not even Moshe Rabeinu, has a monopoly on truth and is right at all times and places.  

The ambiguity of Aharon’s role – subservient to Moshe or someone who can act on his own authority – comes across in the next parsha. On the one hand, the plain reading of the text “vayidaber Hashem el Moshe v’el Aharon leimor…” (11:1) suggests an equivalence between Moshe and Aharon, yet Rashi tells us that the pasuk means that Hashem spoke to Moshe who in turn relayed the information to Aharon, a denial of any such equivalence. Of course Aharon was not Moshe’s equal, yet I think the plain reading deliberately obscures the distinction here and necessitates a “peirush Rashi” because the parsha wishes to underscore that there are times when in face a talmid can measure up to the greater personality of the rebbe and attain – momentarily, in a given context – equality and independence.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

vayir'u... va'ya'aminu... az yashir -- a song of yiras shamayim

Why do we mention R' Yehudah assigning the simaning of DeTza"Ch AD"Sh and B"AChV to the staff of Moshe? My wife suggested that since we read earlier in the haggadah that "kol hamarbeh harei zeh meshubach" one might get the impression that going on and on is the ideal. If one takes this approach, at some point one will inevitably find that one is talking to oneself, not one's student or child and the whole raison d'etra of haggadah and sipur is lost. Therefore, the author of the haggadah brings in R' Yehudah to remind us of the principle that a person should always teach "b'derech ketzarah," as that is the easiest way for a student to absorb information and retain it. Sometimes saying more does not enhance the message. I thought that was a nice chiddush.

Chasam Sofer writes (based on a Midrash) that the three items we focus on during the seder, i.e. pesach, matzah, and maror, correspond to different classes of people, much like the four minim we take on Sukkos. There are korban pesach Jews who are dedicated to sacrifice for the sake of religion; there are matzah Jews who do what they have to but it is without flavor or energy; there are maror Jews who are bitter about the whole thing. Hillel is the one who teaches us in Pirkei Avos, that we will start reading right after Pesach, that you should be like Aharon and be a "rodef shalom" and make peace among all people. Therefore, it is Hillel who is able to be "koreich" all these different factions together into one united whole. 

"L'oseh niflaos gedolos levado ki l'olam chasdo." Of course G-d does miracles himself, without help. That's not we need this pasuk to teach us. It's more than that: as we know from the story of Balak and Bilam, G-d saves us from dangers that we don't even know are out there -- He "levado" knows what great miracles he has done and we are unware. And yet even more than that: G-d sometimes does something amazing now where the benefit only pays dividends years and even generations later. "Ki l'olam chasdo," only G-d who is eternal and can connect the dots through history, has full "awareness" so to speak, of how great his miracles are.

I posted two explanations before Y"T of the pasuk “Va’yei’anchu Bnei Yisrael min ha’avodah va’yizaku va’ta’al shava’asam el haElokim min ha’avodah.” The Radomsker suggested that the phrase "vata'al shavasam el haElokim" stands in contrast to the crying "min ha'avodah." Tefilah demands that we set our sights on great things. R' Ya'kov Moshe Charlap, however, suggested that **even though** the cries of the Jewish people were cries of pain and anguish about their being enslaved, nonetheless, G-d accepted those cries as if they were crying about the pain of the Shechinah. G-d understands that the right thought can sometimes be "nislabesh" is a less-than-perfect container. 

The Sefas Emes quotes from the Ch HaR"IM that "Vayir'u me'od vayitzaku Bnei Yisrael el Hashem" means that when the people felt fear of the Egyptians, they cried to G-d in tefilah because they realized this fear was a defect in their emunah. By that same token, one can read, writes the Sefas Emes, the pesukim of "Vayi'r'u ha'am es Hashem va'ya'aminu baHashem ub'Moshe avdo Az yashir..." as meaning that because the Jewish people felt yiras shamayim, because their hearts were filled with emunah, therefore they sang shirah. Yiras shamayim can lead to great simcha and even shirah. Chag sameiach!

Friday, April 03, 2015

"va’ta’al shav’asam... min ha’avodah" - a lesson in tefilah

The questions raised by the four sons we talk about in the haggadah can be asked and answered any time of the year.  So what’s special about the seder night?  Ba’avur zeh – b’sha’ah she’yeish matzah u’maror munachim lifanecha,” explains the Oheiv Yisrael, is a promise.  We tell our children lots of things all year long and they go in one ear and out the other.  The Torah is telling us that on this one night, things penetrate.

It is very hard to feel simchas Yom Tov when you see clearly how the world is lining up once again against their favorite enemy – the Jew.  It’s not time for a rant right now.  I just want to say something short about the koach of tefilah because we desperately need it.

First point: “Va’nitzak el Hashem… VaYishma Hashem es koleinu…”  R’ Chaim Kanievsky points out that Klal Yisrael were on the bottom of the 49 levels of tumah in Mitzrayim – that’s even worse than three-time-a-year Jews.  Nonetheless, the pasuk tells us that G-d listened to their tefilos.  Do not underestimate the power of sincere prayer.

Second point: “Va’yei’anchu Bnei Yisrael min ha’avodah va’yizaku va’ta’al shava’asam el haElokim min ha’avodah.”  Why the need to repeat “min ha’avodah” at the end of the pasuk?  The Radomsker explains that at first Bnei Yisrael were concerned only with their own pains of slavery, but then they realized there is an even greater pain than that – the pain of the Shechina that suffers in galus with us.  Va’yei’anchu” is like the word “naycha” – it was tolerated.  Bnei Yisrael put aside and were willing to tolerate their own pain and instead turned their thoughts and prayers to G-d’s pain.  The turned, “…el haElokim,” to focus on G-d's suffering, kavyachol, and away “min ha’avodah.”  Therefore, their prayers were answered.

Now let’s be honest -- to be more concerned with G-d’s pain, with ruchniyus, than your own suffering is a very high level indeed, one that most of us (at least me) might reach rarely.  It’s hard to think about G-d when someone is beating you.  It's hard to think about it even after a long day of normal work.  But before you get too depressed, Rav Pam, in the haggadah Mareh Kohen, quotes a yesod from the sefer Zechusa d’Avraham: if a person davens even one tefilah with the proper kavanah, that one tefilah elevates all the improper tefilos and ensures their delivery upstairs. 

He uses this yesod to say an amazing pshat in this same pasuk that the Radomsker spoke about.  We just need one other bit of introduction.  The Midrash comments on our pasuk that Pharoah was killing Jewish babies and bathing in their blood.  Why, asks the Parashas Derachim, does the Midrash stick this in here?  What does it have to do with the cries from the work of slavery?  So here’s how it works: “Va’yei’anchu… min ha’avodah…”  Sure, people prayed because they had hard work, they were physical oppressed, they suffered.  We all pray.  Shachris this morning took about 25 minutes despite the fact that President Y’mach Shemo yesterday practically said he is giving our enemy a nuclear weapon.  That type of tefilah is not going to make that much of a difference.  But when Pharoah started to kill Jewish babies, that’s a different story -- then, “vayizaku.”  The Zohar explains that “ze’aka” is the most intense type of tefilah, the deepest kind of cry.  Those tefilos were the real deal.  Suddenly people woke up and realized the danger they and their children were in.  They began to really pray.  The Midrash is explaining to us why Bnei Yisrael’s tefilos were accepted – there had to be a trigger to transform “vayei’anchu” into “vayizaku.”  Those prayers of "ze'aka" went straight upstairs, but, says Rav Pam, not only were those prayers of “ze’aka” accepted, but “va’ta’al shav’asam min ha’avodah,” even those prayers that they said earlier, even the 25 minute Shacharis, even the complaining that they did only because of their own suffering from the pains of slavery, even those prayers were now carried upstairs and accepted as well.  Once you begin to daven for real, even if it’s not the norm, those real tefilos cause all the other tefilos to go up with them.

I go to work at a regular job too, so I know what it’s like to be rushing through shacharis because you need to catch a train.  But what about davening on Shabbos and Yom Tov when there is no train?  These days are an opportunity to daven like you mean it, the real deal.  These tefilos can not only bring about tremendous things on their own, but can cause a tidal wave of tefilah as they carry all our less the perfect tefilos upstairs with them as well.  Hopefully they will all be answered.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

galus Mitzrayim and the seder story as a lesson in emunah

It is a very hard week… too much to do all around, little time to think, less time to write. 

According to one view in Chazal (see this post) galus Mitzrayim was a punishment for Avraham questioning G-d, “Ba’meh eidah ki irashena?” On Avraham Avinu’s level (which I for one have no way of relating to), this question showed a lack in emunah.  Galus Mitzrayim and all other galiyos (which are just snifim of that original galus which got cut short and had to be made up elsewhere) are not a punishment in the way think of punishment, but, as the Shem m’Shmuel explains (and the Maharal before him in Gevuros Hashem ch. 9), are a tikun.  They serve as way for us to exercise and learn emunah.  The way we do that is by remaining steadfast in our trust in Hashem even in the face of Pharoah doing horrible things or President Hussein’s animus toward Jews, b’chol dor v’dor omdim aleinu…, proving that our emunah has no defect – whatever Avraham was lacking has been made up for and overcome. As R’ Eliezer Eisenberg explains in his post here, the leil haseder is not a history lesson – it’s an emunah lesson.

If that is what the holiday is all about, we sure have a strange way of celebrating. If Avraham erred by questioning G-d, then wouldn’t it make sense on this night more than any other night to hold all questions? Wouldn’t it make sense to just sit back and talk about the idea of “emunah peshutah” with no questions allowed? Yet we do exactly the opposite! The mitzvah of sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim, as opposed to zechiras yetzi’as Mitzrayim that we do every day, can be fulfilled, as R’ Chaim explains, *only* by asking questions. In every haggdah it says “v’kan ha’ben shoe les aviv…” At every seder one of the highlights is “mah nishtanah.” What’s going on?

Maybe the answer is that what the Torah is telling us is that emunah does not mean not having questions – emunah means believing despite having questions. 

The Torah knows that just telling someone not to read that, not to think about that, not to ask that, doesn’t work. I find it impossible to imagine that anyone who heard about the tragedy of the children who perished in a fire last week in Brooklyn was not bothered by what happened and did not have questions. Is it heretical to ask how G-d could do such a thing? I don’t think so. It’s heretical only to conclude that there is no Divine justice just because at the end of the day we may have no answers.

Perhaps another approach, one that I think occurred to me because I am in aveilus this year, is that the difference between Avraham’s question and our questions is in the last two words of the phrase “kan ha’beh shoel *es aviv*…” Avraham Avinu was fortunate to be the first member of Klal Yisrael, the first Jew, but as such, he had no one to whom he could turn to for advice or help (see Kedushas Levi at the end of Lech Lecha). There was no one whom Avraham could ask. Questions are dangerous only when there is no one to talk to about them. When they are part of an ongoing dialogue between parents and children, even if, as in the case of the ben ha’rasha, that dialogue maybe contentious, questions can be defused and they lose much of their force.  

Speaking of the ben ha’rasha, it’s worth noting that it’s the only group of chilren which the Torah speaks about in the plural, “v’haya ki yomru aleichem bneichem.” The Torah is realistic. The vast majority of our brethren out there are not interested in Torah and mitzvos; they dismiss our beliefs as fanatical. Despite all the trouble they cause, when the Torah describes Bnei Yisrael being told of these children, the reaction is one of thanksgiving, “Vayikod ha’am vayishtachavu.” Even as we respond with “hakhey es shinav,” the language is, “v’amartem” – not dibbur, lashon kashah, but rather amirah, lashon rakah. The very fact that the Torah records the question of the ben rasha, writes the Shem m’Shmuel, testifies to the possibility of his being rehabilitated. Why waste words on meaningless questions that a response to does no good? The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains our response to the rasha as follows: “ilu haya sham…,” had he been there, in Egypt, he would not have been redeemed; but he is not there – he is here, with us, post-mattan Torah, post that transformative experience of standing at Sinai that permanently stamped on every Jewish soul the potential for return.

Aside from giving the rasha hope, I think the Torah is giving us parents chizuk as well. What parent has not felt at one time or another that his/her children are ignoring their good advice, acting against their own best interests, and in general, headed down the wrong path? If as the Shem m’Shmuel argues, the parsha of the ben rasha teaches us that this child is never completely lost, because otherwise the Torah would not waste words discussing him, it also teaches us that the words of the parent of the ben rasha are not for naught either, as the Torah would not waste time telling us how to respond if whatever we say made no difference. 

R’ Tzadok haKohen explains that Avraham was bothered by “bameh eidah” because he perceived that this optimistic promise of Jewish destiny contradicted the idea of bechira chofshis. How can there be a guarantee of a bright Jewish future when we have the right to exercise our own free and often bad judgment? Perhaps it’s specifically this parsha of the ben ha’rasha that responds to Avraham’s question. The reason the rasha is a rasha is because he has exercised his bechira and made bad choices. Nonetheless, at least the way these meforshim approach the parsha, the Torah still believes him. Ila haya sham lo haya nigal, but in the future geulah, he will be redeemed. The seder is a lesson in emunah – it shows the Torah’s belief in the potential in each and every Jew. The ball is in our court to respond in kind.