Thursday, January 28, 2016

part of one's identity

Everyone is concerned these days about identity theft.  This week I want to talk about the topic of acquiring a new identity, or actually identities.  Rashi writes that Yisro had seven names: Re’uel, Yeser, Yisro, Chovev, Chever, Keini, Putiel. The name Yeser was given to him because he caused the parsha of “v’atah techezah,” of appointing judges, to be added to Torah (Why does Rashi cite the words “v’atah tzechezeh” and not the opening of the parsha, “lo tov hadavar asher atah oseh?” R’ Menachem Zemba answers that “lo tov” is a criticism of what was going on.  It's easy to criticize -- that's not a parsha.  Offering a solution -- that's a parsha in Torah.)    He got the name Yisro = Yeser with an additional letter vav, because when he con and began to observe mitzvos, he merited another letter being added to his name.

A regular person has one name – that’s who he/she is, that's his/her identity. Not so Yisro, who had seven names, seven different identities.  Yisro was originally an oveid avodah zarah. When he underwent giyur he became a different person; therefore, he got an added name to reflect the new identity he took on.  Rambam in Hil Teshuvah writes similarly that changing one’s name is part of the teshuvah process, as a ba’al teshuvah becomes a different person than who he was before.

It’s not just giyur, though, that causes an identity transformation. We see yet an even bigger chiddush from this Rashi: being mechadesh in Torah causes the same type of reaction. Yeser/Yisro was given yet another name, another identity, because he caused a parsha of Torah to be added.  Learning, and particularly being mechadesh, is a transformative experience (from the sefer Yismach Yehudah.)  A person who comes up with a new insight in a sugya, in a Tosfos, is a different person than he was before coming up with that chiddush.

Why was it davka the letter “vav” that was added to Yeser/Yisro’s name? The sefer Sheiris Menachem explains that the “vav” turns a word into a possessive, e.g. "bayis"= house, "beiso" = his house. Before he was megayeir, the extra parsha was like some piece of theoretical knowledge. Daughter #1 always asks about algebra, “What does this have to do with me?” There is no connection between her needs and who she is and the knowledge she gets from knowing how to do a quadratic equation. That's what Yeser/Yisro was like before the giyur. After the giyur, it was his parsha, it was his Torah – he understood how it was part of his identity. “B’torasa ye’hege yomama v’layla” – a person can make the Torah into his Torah, not just information that happens to reside in his brain.

Yeser = without that knowledge being internalized is a different person than Yisro = with the knowledge internalized. These are two completely different identities (see Mizrachi, Taz in Divrei David on counting these as two names).

We see this same idea of Torah and midos becoming part of a person's identity a little further on in the parsha.  Rashi comments on “Vayishtachu ish l’rey’eyhu” that it is not clear who bowed to whom – did Moshe bow to Yisro, or Yisro to Moshe? Rashi answers that we can figure it out from that fact that Moshe elsewhere is called “ish,” as it says, “v’ha’ish Moshe anav me'od.” It was Moshe, the ish, who bowed respectfully to Yisro.

The Da’as Zekeinim as well as many of the meforshi Rashi (e.g. Sifsei Chachamim, Taz) are bothered by this proof, as we find that Yisro is also called “ish” in parshas Shmos: “Vayo’el Moshe lasheves es ha’ish.” Why is the proof from “V’ha’ish Moshe anav” better than proof from “…Lasheves es ha’ish?”

I saw quoted b'shem R’ Shmuel Berenbaum (and I found that it in Chasam Sofer as well) that both Yisro and Moshe were exempt from any chiyuv of kavod to the other. Yisro was Moshe’s father-in-law and Moshe was the rebbe of Klal Yisrael. So how do we know who went beyond what he was obligated to do and bowed? The answer is that when Yisro is called “ish” in the pasuk, it doesn’t tell us anything about his personality – it’s just a pronoun, a title. When Moshe is called “ish,” it’s in the context of defining his personality as an anav. Modesty was part of Moshe’s identity, part of who he was as an “ish.”  Behaving modestly wasn’t just a chiyuv for him – it was part of his being. You can skip doing something you are patur from, but if, like in Moshe’s case, it's part of your identity, then you do it no matter what.  Yisro was patur from giving kavod and therefore did not bow; Moshe was also patur, but showing deference, giving kavod instead of receiving it, was part of who he was, and so he did it anyway.  (It’s a little hard to read this into the Rashi, as the key words, “anav me’od” are missing – all Rashi refers to is the fact that the pasuk says “ish.”) 

Ultimately that's the goal -- Torah and midos tovos should be part of who we are, not just things we study and do.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

do you know the words to our national anthem?

I’ve removed the identifying information from this e-mail :

“At the end every1 sang Hatikva together and the … girls just had to stand there because we sadly weren't educated on the words of Hatikva.”


Do you think these girls know the words to the Star Spangled Banner? I would think so. If I were really in a nitpicky bad mood I would comment on the fact that the majority of readers (in the US) who saw the words "national anthem" in the title of this post  in probably immediately thought of the words to the Star Spangled Banner and not HaTikvah, but instead of frying little fish let’s focus on the whale in front of us.

As I written before, how do our kids come out of yeshiva knowing more about the Civil War than they know about our homeland?

And please don’t tell me about Rav Kook
not liking HaTikvah either. Trust me, these girls don’t know the words to HaEmunah either. In an ideal world maybe you would choose different words, but we don’t live in an ideal world, and for better or worse, HaTikvah has de facto become the anthem of our State. How could you be a 21st century Jew and not know those words?

The people shown in the clip below did not have the privilege of hopping on a plane to spend a year (or more) studying dvar Hashem in freedom in our nation’s homeland. They, just liberated from Bergen Belsen, could only hope for such a future. And so (fast forward to 1:36) they sang of that hope -- they knew the words to HaTikvah. Too bad the generation of their grandchildren doesn’t.

2) The Ohr haChaim at the end of last week’s parsha asks why Moshe sent Yehoshua to do battle with Amalek instead of going himself. He answers that Yehoshua was the biggest masmid in the whole of Klal Yisrael – “lo yamish m’toch ha’ohel.” Davka those who are masmidim, those who have the deepest connection to Torah, must go out to physically fight when we have to face Amalek.

And in other news, another week, another group of chareidim arrested for protesting against the IDF.  (And since I already inserted the clip above, I don't know how you can look at those images and then read about Jews who think of themselves as shomrei mitzvos who call other Jews Nazis, but what do I know.)

3) I made the mistake of looking at a newspaper (shemiras eynayim for me means not looking at so-called frum newspapers) and saw a picture of Senator Chuck Schumer getting a standing ovation at some yeshiva dinner. Amazing. This is the man who took weeks to decide that he owes it to his constituents to vote against the Iran deal, but who also refused to speak out against it or lobby any of his colleagues to vote against it lest, G-d forbid, he be labelled a persona non grata by our anti-semitic President who leads his party. The deal passed and now, as admitted by John Kerry himself, we are funding terrorism.  At the same time, the Administration supports what is effectively a boycott of Israeli products from Yehudah and Shomron.

I give him credit -- the guy has in the past been a staunch supporter of causes we believe in.  But now, when it counted, when we are up against the worst Jew haters that have ever been in Washington, he has hardly shown himself deserving of a standing ovation.  

This is an avlah. There is nothing else to say about it. 

And if I keep writing about every avlah out there, I will be busy 24x6 and accomplish nothing, so maybe it’s time to stop.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

who I'm not, not who I am

I've been very unmotivated to write lately, but this week for some reason felt like jotting some more down.  In a post last week I mentioned that “v’haya” usually connotes simcha. On the flipside, “vayehi” usually connotes sorrow. “Vayehi b’shelach Pharaoh” – shouldn’t that have been a good thing, a cause for rejoicing, not a cause for sorrow? The Midrash explains that the sorrow was Pharoah’s own. The Midrash gives a mashal to a person who was detaining the king’s son. The king sent letters, telegrams, messages asking this person to release his son and send him home, and each time the messages were ignored. Finally, the king himself came and took his son back. The person who was holding him bemoaned his fate. Until now, he said, he had been the recipient of almost daily letters from the king. Now, he was just a nobody. This was Pharaoh. Until now, he had been in constant “contact” with Hashem – dam, tzefardeya, kinim, etc. Now, he was no longer the recipient of Hashem’s “messages.”

It’s a strange fate to bemoan. Did Pharoah have some sadomasochistic wish to continue to be beaten up? I think Chazal here are revealing a keen insight into people’s personalities and not just Pharoah’s. Every shul has a guy who will complain every week that the kiddush is not up to snuff and the rabbi’s speech is no good etc. Why doesn’t he just go daven somewhere else? The answer is because being anti- is his whole chiyus.  Without something to complain about, he’s nothing. There is one blogger whose mission in life seems to be to report every wrongdoing by the YCT crowd and faculty. I feel sorry for this person if YCT ever closes, because what will he have to talk about?  What would McCarthy be like if there were no Communists?  Or, to take another example, the chassidim of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, et al talk more about G-d than the biggest yirei shamayim; registering their dissent is their life’s mission. It's who they are; it's what defines them. You can find examples galore.  Pharoah defined himself by his rebellion, by what he would not be and do. He needed Hashem to keep sending messages because his whole identity was the guy who rejected messages.  Without that, he was lost.

This is why I think Pharoah did not let BN”Y go free through all the makkos, even at the cost of Mitzrayim being destroyed.  You can compromise on many things, but you can’t compromise on your identity; you can't give up being who you are. Pharoah’s whole identity was playing the rebel against G-d. If he gave in, his whole persona would collapse.

2) The Midrash writes that the man started falling in a place called “Alush” in the merit of “lushi v’asi u’gos,” Avraham’s request to Sarah to knead fresh bread for the guests that arrived at his tent. The simple message is that since Avraham provided food for others, Hashem provided food for his children. That doesn’t explain, though, why the focus is specifically on “lushi,” on the kneading of the dough, that is highlighted by the place name Alush.

Shem m’Shmuel explains that Avraham didn’t just take the loaf he had in his cupboard or serve the bread he bought from the market to his guests. He waited until the guests came and only then had Sarah knead and prepare a fresh loaf for them. The reason wasn’t just so that the guests would have the freshest bread – the reason was so that he could invest in this bread the “l’shem mitzvah” of his gemilus chasadim. It wasn’t just food that Avraham was serving to his guests – it was spirituality, it was an exposure to taharah and mitzvos.

The reward Hashem gave Avraham’s children was midah k’neged midah. Just as Avraham’s bread was really a taste of ruchniyus disguised as a meal, so too, his children were given not just ordinary bread, but were given the man, food for malachim, a spiritual vitamin that could also physically sustain them.

3) The gemara (Sotah 37) quotes a Midrashic machlokes between R’ Meir and R’ Yehudah as to what exactly happened at the Yam. R’ Meir said that the shevatim were fighting as to who should go into the water first and Binyamin stepped up to lead the charge. R’ Yehudah says the shevatim were debating who should go first and then Nachshon jumped into the water up to his neck and then the water split.

R’ Reuvain Katz in his Dudai Reuvain asks how it’s possible to say eilu v’eilu here when it seems to be a historical debate as to who jumped into the water first. Secondly, since both R”M and R”Y darshen pesukim. Why didn’t the gemata do as it so often does and ask how each opinion reads the proof text of the other?

When there is a meeting at work, at a community group, wherever, and something needs to get done, you always have people who are first on line to talk about what they will care of. When things actually need to get done, however, often times the same people suddenly remember the doctor’s appointment they have or the other project that they just need to finish first, etc. It’s easy to make a pledge; it’s much harder to collect on one. R’ Meir is talking about who said they would jump in first. Binyamin here took the lead in saying that when the time came, they would be first into the water. Then they saw that this was not so simple -- the water was not going to split first, and wasn’t even going to split when they were waist deep. When push came to shove, when mesirus nefesh was needed, when it was time to translate words into action, it was Yehudah who took the lead and Nachshon dived in up to his neck.  Eilu v'eilu -- there are those who step forward to lead the charge in making pledges, but then there are those who step forward when it comes time for action. 

exclusivity for a dedicated elite or inclusiveness at the cost of compromise?

1) The Torah usually devotes itself to speaking about what G-d did, promised to do, or wants us to do. Our parsha is somewhat unique in that it spells out what G-d decided NOT to do, a hava amina of the RBSh”O, if you will. “V”lo nacham Elokim derech Eretz Plishtim ki karov hu…” Ideally G-d would have wanted to take us into Eretz Yisrael through the land of the Plishtim; however, lest the people clamor to turn back when faced with battle, Hashem instead took us around the long way.

The Chazon Ish is bothered by this “hava amina.” We know already from Parshas Shmos that Bnei Yisrael were destined to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai, the mountain where Moshe saw the burning bush: “ta’avdun es ha’Elokim al ha’har hazeh.” Had BN”Y travelled north through the land of the Plsihtim directly into Eretz Yisrael, how would they have gotten to Sinai? Would they have entered Eretz Yisrael and then left again to get the Torah? It’s a simple pshat/geography question, but the Chazon Ish ends up with a tzarich iyun.

My wife suggested that we find that when Ya’akov was travelling to Lavan’s house, he passed by the makom mikdash but didn’t stop. When he turned around to go back, Hashem arranged for him to have kefitzas haderech so that he wouldn’t have to travel all that way. Rashi/Ramban disagree on how that happened: according to one view, Ya’akov’s route to the makom mikdash was shortened; according to the other view, the makom mikdash itself moved locations to come to Ya’akov. Why have Montezuma come to the mountain when the mountain can come to Montezuma? Here too, perhaps had BN”Y been able to enter Eretz Yisrael, Har Sinai would have come to them for the sake of kabbalas haTorah.

2) A number of meforshim are bothered by the fact that the pasuk first calls the people “ha’am” and then “Bnei Yisrael;” first we are told that the people will be scared by war, then we are told that Bnei Yisrael went out armed, as if they were primed and ready to fight. Ohr haChaim and the Maor v’Shemesh attack the questions from philosophically opposite vantage points. They share in common the assumption that the “am” and “Bnei Yisrael” refer to two separate groups, the “am” being the eiruv rav, the hoi poloi who tagged along, invited by Moshe to exit Mitzrayim with Bnei Yisrael, and “Bnei Yisrael” referring to the believers who G-d intended redemption for. The former group were liable to lose faith if the going got rough; the latter group were 100% committed to do whatever was asked of them.  Their reading of how G-d's reacted to these two groups is radically different.  Maor v’Shemesh suggests that the pasuk is telling us that G-d deliberately did not take the people through the land of the Plishtim because had they taken the short road, the “am” would have inevitably remained along for the ride. G-d's goal was to stretch out the journey in the hope (pen = maybe it will happen) that maybe they will fall by the wayside. The path through the midbar was a winnowing and weeding out process meant to discourage those who lacked fortitude from continuing. The Ohr haChaim goes in the opposite direction. G-d did not take the “am” through the Plishtim land precisely because it would have been too challenging, too discouraging, too difficult for them. “Ki karov hu” – the people, the “am,” have only newly (karov – near in time; products of the kiruv movement of Moshe) taken on the commitment to Torah, and therefore, too much cannot be demanded of them. (Parenthetically, this avoids having to read the word “ki” as “af al pi” [see Ibn Ezra, Ramban, Netziv]). The goal was to encourage the “am” to hang on, to accommodate their weakness, not to get rid of them.

Is it better to have a small, exclusive nucleus of strongly committed adherents, or better to be inclusive, to appeal to a broader base, even if the commitment of many will be weaker and diluted? That seems to be the issue Maor v’Shemesh and Ohr haChaim are grappling with. It’s the same issue our communities still grapple with: do you want to open a yeshiva for an elite group of top kids, or do you want to open a yeshiva that will educate everyone in the community, even if that means the classes need to go slower and the learning may be less intense? You can, I’m sure, think of other examples.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

ba'avur zeh

“V’higadta l’bincha bayom ha’hu leimor ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li b’tzeisi m’Mitzrayim.” There are two words that we use to mean because: ba’avur and biglal. What’s the difference between them? Ksav v’haKabbalah writes that biglal is used when a cause precedes an event: A occurred bigal B. Ba’avur anticipates some future outcome: A occurred ba’avur so that B will happen in the future. The freedom of yetziyas Mitzrayim is not an end in itself, but is just a means to some higher goal that will be achieved in the future, “ba’avur zeh.”

What is that “zeh?” He explains that the Torah uses zeh as an adjective to mean the pinnacle of greatness, the most exalted level of something. In Parhas Ki Tisa we read that Bnei Yisrael complain , “Ki zeh Moshe ha’ish lo yadanu meh ha’ya lo.” We all know the derash on “Zeh K’li v’anveyhu” about Bnei Yisrael kavyachol being able to point at G-d. The pshat is that K-li is “zeh,” the greatest, the most exalted. (See Menachos 43 for another example.) I didn’t go through all the places Ksav v’haKabbalah discusses this idea, but I was surprised that I didn’t yet find him applying it to another pasuk in our parsha: “Hachodesh hazeh lachem rosh chodashim…” The derash is that Hashem pointed to the molad to help Moshe understand, but I think the pshat is that the month of Nisan as a chashivus above and beyond all other months – it’s the best and greatest. Coming back to our pasuk, the purpose of yetziyas Mitzrayim is “zeh,” the greatest, most exalted thing. Ksav v’haKabbalah suggests that “zeh” used in that way refers to kabbalas haTorah.

“V’haya ki yomru Aleichem bneichem mah ha’avodah hazos lachem… vayikod ha’am vayishtachavu.” The Torah opens its description of this dialogue with one's children on Pesach night with the word “v’haya,” which is always a flag that tells us this is good news. Rashi writes that “vayikod… vayishtachavu” was an expression of thanksgiving. What are we so happy about and so grateful for? Chazal tell us that this parsha is speaking about the ben ha’rasha, the wicked son of the seder! What’s the big simcha about having a child that is OTD?

The Klausenberger rebbe answers that “ilu haya sham lo haya nigal,” as we read in the haggadah, but that’s exactly the point – he is not there; we are no longer there. We are not the same enslaved people we were. Kabbalas haTorah changed everything, as the transformative power of Torah has no limits. The idea that had BN”Y sunk to the 50th level of tumah they would have had no redemption, says Chasam Sofer, is true only before kabbalas haTorah. Post-Sinai, Torah can pull a person even out of that 50th level. Even if the child is a rasha, “v’amarten zevach Pesach hu,” speak words of Torah to him -- that will lead to his redemption.

Since it was a rough week and I don't have a lot to say let me share with you one other idea from the Kalusenberger: There is a strange bit of dialogue between Moshe and G-d at the burning bush. Moshe complains, “Mi anochi ki ailech el Pharoah v’ki oyzie es Bnei Yisrael m’Mitzrayim,” to which Hashem replies, “B’hotziacha es ha’am m’Mitzraayim ta’avdun es haElokim al ha’har ha’zeh.” How does G-d’s response address Moshe’s claim of unworthiness?

Rashi explains that the phrase “ki otzi es Bnei Yisrael” raised the question of what zechus BN”Y had to merit deliverance. The simple pshat is that Moshe was asking two part questions: 1) why me; 2) what merit does BN”Y have.  Hashem’s answer addressed that second question.  The Klausenberger learned it derech derush a little differently. Moshe was asking only one question: why me? Part two is his justification for that argument. Moshe said that the very fact that he was troubled by the question of what merit BN”Y had should automatically preclude him from being the go’el. A person who can see anything less than greatness in Klal Yisrael is unfit to be their leader.

Monday, January 11, 2016

carrot or stick?

One quick follow up on the post I did last week re: kaddish.  My wife noted that given that kaddish is just one small ingredient in what can be done l’aliyas neshoma, there is no reason for women to feel deprived of anything just because they cannot say kaddish.  There is much that they can do that is just as meaningful.  (Aside from issues of mingag and possibly migdar milsa, the question of whether a woman may say kaddish hinges on whether there is a tziruf to the minyan from someone standing in the ezras nashim.  See R’ Wahrman in his Kol Avinoam siman 53 who presents the case against; see R Henkin's grandson in Shu"T Bnei Banim 2:7 for a defense of his grandfather, who took the opposing view.)
After reporting that Moshe told Pharaoh that he will go and pray that makkas barad stop, the Torah tells us that the flax and barley crops had been destroyed, but not the wheat and spelt, as they had not yet fully grown.  The Torah then continues that Moshe went out and davened for the plague to stop (9:29-33).

All the mefoshim are bothered by the placement of this “damage report” here.  Wouldn’t it make sense to place it beforehand or afterwards, not right in the middle of Moshe’s conversation with Pharaoh and the tefilah that followed?
Ramban and R’ Sadiah Gaon both answer that the damage report was in fact part of what Moshe told Pharoah, not an aside by the "narrator."  The quote marks that get opened in pasuk 29 with Moshe telling Pharoah that he will daven don’t get closed until after pasuk 32, after Moshe tells Pharaoh that the crops that had not yet grown were spared.  Ramban and R”SG differ, however, on what the meaning of the message to Pharaoh was.  According to RS”G, Moshe was telling Pharaoh that even though part the barley and flax had been destroyed, if he did teshuvah now he would at least have something left.  Ramban reads the words as a threat, not a promise of hope.  Moshe was telling Pharoah that if he reverts to his old ways, the late growing crops will be destroyed just as the early ones were. 
Perhaps there is a philosophical nekudas hamachlokes underlying the parshanut issue.  According to RS”G, it sounds like Moshe was presenting a risk/benefit calculation to Pharoah – the upside to teshuvah would be sparing any damage to the wheat; there would be very little downside at this point because Bnei Yisrael were clearly not going to remain as slaves.   Perhaps Ramban held that Pascal’s wager – risk/benefit calculations – don’t count as a commitment.
Or perhaps more simply, the neukdas hamachlokes is psychological.  Which is more effective – the carrot or the stick?  RS”G reads Moshe as stressing what Pharaoh has to gain; Ramban sees the stress on what he has to lose.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

4 kosos and 4 leshonos of geulah

I don’t know if it’s fair to be madayeik in 2 works of the Netziv in Ha’amek She’eilah – I’ll write and you can decide. Rashi on the first Mishna in Arvei Pesachim writes that the 4 kosos correspond to the 4 leshonos of geulah in our parsha. (Rashi later on daf 108 interestingly gives a different reason and says the 4 cups correspond to 4 times cups are mentioned in the dream of the Sar haMashkim.) The Mordechai asks: why 4 cups and not 4 matzos? (Not a question according to the Rashi on 108). Mordechai answers that cups are mentioned in pesukim that relate to geulah, e.g. kos yeshu’os esa, so we use cups of wine. The Netziv just slightly rephrases the Mordechai’s question. The way he puts it is why 4 cups and not 4 matzos or 4 pieces of meat u’k’domeh. In other words, if all we are interested in is representing the number 4, who cares what we use or how we do it. That’s a very broad way to read the Mordechai. You could read the question more narrowly: why did Chazal institute a new mitzvah of 4 kosos instead of building the representation of number 4 into an existing mitzvah, e.g. matzah. The Netziv’s reading is more like a derush/philosophical/ta’amei hamitzvos question; the more narrow reading is a “lomdish” question regarding the structure of the din.

Just for the record, the Netziv answers that the idea of the 4 leshonos is that geulah is a gradual process. You don’t go from being a slave to a free man overnight. Even if the shackles are off, there is a psychological adjustment, a social adjustment that has to take place. Chazal used 4 cups to represent this gradual shift because when a person drinks, there is a gradual change that happens as the person drifts closer to (or deeper into) inebriation.

R’ Tzadok haKohen (Pri Tzadik, Pesach 5) adds an extra twist to the question and formulates it like this: the 4 kosos are a din derabbanan; matzah is a din d’oraysa. Why would Chazal incorporate the representation of 4 into a derabbanan when they could have incorporated it into a d’oraysa?

R’ Tzadok (k’darko) sees the difference between d’oraysa and derabbanan as not just a technical distinction, but as representative of the difference between what is ingrained in a person’s neshoma vs. what can be achieved through avodah. The 4 steps of geulah are 4 stages in defining who we are as Jews. The pinnacle of all these stages is the permanent banishment of the yetzer ha’ra from within. We got to that level at mattan Torah, but lost it almost immediately – it did not become permanently ingrained in us. 3 of the 4 leshonos of geulah were, but we missed the final step. Therefore, when it comes to matzah d’oraysa, reflecting what is innately part of us, we only take 3, but not 4 matzos. When it comes to kosos, we take 4 as a symbol of what we hope to achieve by dint of our efforts, through torah sheba’al peh. Matzah, 3, is about who I am now; kosos, 4, is about where I am going and what I want to become.

some thoughts on kaddish, 7 minute ma'arivs, minhag

This is my final week of saying kaddish for my father HK”M. I remember when I was sitting shiva someone suggested that I should write something about the experience and I never did, but I will try to write a little something about the whole kaddish experience. I’ve noticed that for some people kaddish becomes not just part of religion – it becomes the religion, the end-all and be-all. Shacharis, mincha, ma’ariv are just a heichi timtza to allow the opportunity to say kaddish. I think this is due in part to people having a hard time coming to grips with death (which is why people say awkward things when they come to be menachem aveil, but that’s for the post that never got written) and so the kaddish becomes an emotional life preserver, the means to feel like you are doing something for and connecting to the person who is gone. I don't know why, but I never related to it in that way. I finished Mes Yevamos last week and honestly, I felt I accomplished more l'zecher nishmas my father doing that than any of the kaddeishim I said that day. I don't mean to minimize kaddish's importance; I'm just giving my personal perspective. Rabbi Akiva (according to some sources) composed kaddish for the sake of a yasom who knew nothing and needed a way to elevate his parent’s soul. The idea is if you can’t do anything else, you can at least say kaddish. If you can do something else – e.g. learn Torah, give tzedaka, daven, become a better person – that’s the real tachlis of aveilus (which, as the Rambam writes, is related to the mitzvah of teshuvah). Like in so many areas, a specific small ritual has taken on a life of its own and overshadowed the real goal of what should be going on.

This has real ramifications halacha l’ma’aseh. For example, what if someone works in avodas hakodesh, e.g. someone needs to teach Torah somewhere, and there won’t be a minyan for kaddish. Is it worth it to give up harbatzas Torah so as to not miss kaddish? The Lubavitcher Rebbe and the Steipler didn’t think so (
Nit’ei Gavriel vol 2 p.300 [there is a typo in the text there and it should refer to "Minhagei Chabad").

Along the same lines, one of the hard things I found with respect to kaddish is that if you are not the ba’al tefilah, you are at the mercy of the ba’al tefilah’s pace. I clocked one ba’al tefilah at under 7 minutes for ma’ariv, start to finish, barchu to kaddish basra (I think the tzibur wanted to give him applause when he was done). I can’t keep up with that. The few times things like this happened I assumed it would be better for my own neshoma and hopefully aliyas haneshoma to daven at a “regular” pace even if it meant risking missing the last kaddish. (I tried not to make davening at express minyanim a regular habit when I could avoid it, but I was far from perfect in that regard.  I get lazy too.)

Speaking of serving as shat”z, I thank all the gabaim who gave me a chance to take the amud and all the people who graciously shared the amud with me this year. Something I don't understand (and fortunately have only heard about but was never a "victim" of) is the rule in some shuls that only members can daven for the amud, even when none of them are chiyuvim and other chiyuvim are present. Isn’t that zeh ne’heneh v’zeh lo chaseir? Beats me.

I never was sure how to respond to “helpful” advice about how to daven (as opposed to the usual advice to me to speak louder) that amounted to doing something that was halachically less than ideal. I usually just went with the flow as long as the advice was not completely off the wall and against all shitos, or let some other chiyuv take the amud. What's especially irritating is when people call things a "minhag" when they really mean to say "A lot of people who don't know any better do this." Tosfos in Pesachim writes that a minhag is established by a talmid chacham, and no minhag can ever trump halacha. Anyway, the gedarim of minhag and abuse of the term are for another time.

One final note on hil aveilus in general: I found that there were many, many grey areas. I recently saw the first question in the aveilus section in one of the collections of psak from R' Elyashiv was how a person is supposed to figure out what to do when there are so many differing views and minhagim. I still don't have sugyos clear, but hopefully will not need them again halacha l'ma'aseh for a very long time to come.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

were Shifra and Pu'ah required to be moseir nefesh to save unborn babies?

R’ Noson Gestetner in his sefer on chumash asks what right the meyaldos ha’ivriyos, Shifra and Pu'ah, had to be moseir nefesh to save the Jewish babies that were not yet born (assuming, like the Rambam paskens, that one is not allowed to be moseir nefesh if one is not required to do so).  The reason why murder is a yei’hareg v’al ya’avor is because of the sevara of mai chazis d’dama didach sumak tfei – saving one’s own life cannot come at the expense of someone else’s, as no one life is more valuable than another.  However, the Mishna in Ohalos (ch 7) writes that a fetus may be killed to save the mother’s life.  We see from the Mishna that a regular person’s life is in fact more valuable than that of a fetus.  So why were the meyaldos allowed to sacrifice themselves for the sake of saving the not yet born babies?

The question assumes, as Rashi writes (Sanhedrin 74), that a fetus is not a “nefesh” relative to a regular person.  However, the Rambam (Rotzei’ach 1:9) formulates the din a little differently:
אף זו מצות לא תעשה שלא לחוס על נפש הרודף. לפיכך הורו חכמים שהעוברה שהיא מקשה לילד מותר לחתוך העובר במיעיה. בין בסם בין ביד מפני שהוא כרודף אחריה להורגה. ואם משהוציא ראשו אין נוגעין בו שאין דוחין נפש מפני נפש וזהו טבעו של עולם:
R’ Akiva Eiger on the Mishna already points out that according to the Rambam, the fetus can be killed  only because it has the din of a rodef, not because it is not a “nefesh.”  R’ Chaim al haRambam works out how the Rambam fits with the gemara, but be that as it may, according to this approach I’m not sure R’ Gestetner’s question gets off the ground.  The rodef here was Pharaoh, not the baby, as if not for the special circumstances of Pharaoh's decree, there would have been no danger.

Monday, January 04, 2016

lamah zeh shilachtani -- sometimes you have to not see the whole picture

When Moshe complained to Hashem, “Lamah ha’rei’osa l’am hazeh lamah zeh shi’lachtani,” Hashem responded  that Moshe would see what would be done to Pharoah.  Rashi writes that Hashem was alluding to Moshe that he would only see the makkos, but would not see what happens to the 31 kings in Canaan.

Was Moshe being punished for sticking up for Bnei Yisrael?  See last week’s post for the Shem m’Shmuel’s pshat.  The pashtus is that Moshe was indeed being punished for his words, but the Pnei Menachem suggests the opposite meaning here.  Moshe Rabeinu was so great that his neshoma exerts an influence on all future doros, not just on his immediate historical context in his lifetime.  When the gemara uses the expression, “Moshe – shapir ka’amart,” to praise an amora who said a sharp sevara, the appellation Moshe is used because Chazal were identifying something of Moshe’s neshoma speaking through that person.  What Hashem was telling Moshe here is that he does not need to be physically alive to see the conquest of Eretz Yisrael – his influence is so great that even after death, it will still be felt.  This is very far from the pshat, but it shows you the degree to which the meforshim go to give credit to Moshe for sticking up for Klal Yisrael and to defend Moshe’s reputation.
A long time ago I posted a piece based on the Noam Elimelch on why the Torah uses the expression “vayei’aser lo Hashem” when describing Hashem’s response to Yitzchak’s tefilah for children.  Chazal explain the word “va’yei’aser” as having the same root as a-t-r, a pitchfork, which is used to turn over the pile of wheat top to bottom.  It sounds like there was something unusual about Hashem responding to Yitzchak’s tefilah, some major change that had to happen to turn things over.  Why should that be so? 
The Noam Elimelech explains that because tzadikim have their head upstairs, they see things from a very different perspective.  A regular person would undoubtedly be troubled and pained beyond belief if he/she didn’t have children.  Yitzchak Avinu, however, accepted that if the ratzon Hashem was for things to be that way, then that’s the way it is.  He might daven for the sake of having a child because that would be a means to be marbeh kvod shamayim, but personal want did not enter into the equation.    “Vayei’aser lo Hashem” means Hashem had to change that perspective.  Yitzchak had to be turned over -- upside down, so to speak.  Yitzchak had to feel human want and connect to it, and only then would his tefilos carry the necessary power to bring him children.
Why do I revisit this idea?  When Klal Yisrael is suffering, a tzadik knows one thing: kol d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid -- whatever happens, this is the best way for things to be.  If that’s the perspective you have, then how do you daven for it to be any other way?   We read in Megillas Esther, “U’Mordechai yada es kol asher na’asah vayilbash sak v’eifer.”  What did Mordechai know that no one else knew?  Everybody knew what Haman was planning!  The Sefas Emes explains that Mordechai knew kol d’avid Rachamana l’tav avid and nothing bad would come from Haman’s plans.   If you see tzarah from that transcendent perspective, then there is nothing to ask for.  Nonetheless, despite what he knew, “vayilbash sak v’eifer,” he empathized with the pain of Klal Yisrael, and for their sake, because they were experiencing suffering, he davened on their behalf.  That transcendent perspective has to be put on the back burner, out of mind, otherwise it is an obstacle to prayer.
The Sefas Emes (quoted in the hakdamah to the Pardes Yosef on Shmos) explains that this was Moshe Rabeinu’s complaint.  Moshe knew that kol d’avid Rachmana l’tav avid, and whatever happened to Klal Yisrael, it was only for the sake of making them better and completing the galus.  But if that’s your perspective, it’s that much more difficult to pray.  Moshe Rabeinu complained, “Why did you send me?”  Why not send a lesser person who would more naturally feel the pain of Klal Yisrael, who would more naturally empathize with their suffering, who would be able to give voice to their feelings better?  Why not send someone who does not see kol d’avid Rachamana l’tav avid so vividly and who can therefore pray better?
But of course, it’s davka because Moshe has such complaints that he is the best messenger.