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Rabbi Staller's Drashot

November 19th, 2021: Vayishlach

Maybe it’s just me, but the entire episode of Jacob’s struggle with an angel seems more like an episode of WWE than a section of the Parshah. Not only do we get a physical brawl between two adult men, but we see a narrative-driving brawl supplanting the need for story or expository character development. Much like in wrestling, the fighting is merely part of the narrative building. And so, at the end of the day, the contribution this little brawl has on the broader narrative is twofold: Jacob’s name is changed to Israel– something that will follow the character and his descendants throughout the Torah and all of history– and Jacob’s heel was injured, leading to the prohibition of eating the Gid HaNasheh, the sciatic nerve found in animal’s backsides, until this very day. 

However, while the Torah seems mainly concerned with the narrative and driving the story forward, it doesn’t spend any time telling us how we got here in the first place. Why was Jacob all alone? Who was this man or angel that approached him, and why did it pick a fight with him? None of those questions seem important to the Torah, as we are merely told of the existence of a conflict, and the results of it. 

Unsurprisingly, the commentaries try to fill in this ambiguity. I’d like to focus on the innovative, or perhaps not so innovative, Peshat focus of the Rashbam. The Rashbam sees Jacob being alone not as a coincidence, but as an intentional move by the patriarch, as Yaakov was trying to sneak around alone at night undetected. According to the Rashbam, the Torah emphasizes that Yaakov is alone at night as a way of communicating that Yaakov was trying to flee from Eisav in the middle of the night, when no one would see him run. Indeed, this read makes sense with the flow of the story as, until Yaakov’s unexpected nighttime river-crossing, the reader had been given a very clear and detailed description of Yaakov’s preparations and three-part plan for meeting his brother Eisav. After detailing that meticulous plan and its reasoning, all of a sudden we are surprised with an impromptu scene of Yaakov sneaking around at night. Rather than assume that this too was part of the plan, but we merely didn’t hear about it, it makes sense to read this passage in light of the Rashbam. Yaaov wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, and, despite his planning and previous composure, gives in to his weaker urges and attempts to flee in the cover of dark, leaving his family behind him. 

Given this understanding of Yaakov’s river crossing, the story with the angel takes on a new light as well. The angel is sent not to arbitrarily wrestle Yaakov to force him to prove his strength. Rather, the angel is sent to stop Yaakov from running away and to force him to confront his struggles. Thus, the Torah emphasizes that the angel damages Yaakov’s heel and leaves him with a limp. On a strictly literal level, this injury renders Yaakov physically impaired and incapable of running away as he was initially planning, forcing him to meet Eisav and confront his brother. But in addition to that functional role in the story, the angel’s injury of Yaakov’s heel is a symbolic expression of the character development Yaakov is experiencing. We know from the very moment Yaakov is born, he is named after the Eikev, the heel, as he was born grabbing on to Eisav’s heel, as if to fight him for the birthright. This role of Yaakov as the deceptive younger brother nipping at Eisav’s heels is expressed doubly by the name Yaakov as, in addition to meaning heel, the root word “Eikev” also means deception or trickery– as Eisav reminds us after finding out his blessing was stolen when he says that Yaakov has “Yaakveini,” tricked me. 

Thus, by damaging Yaakov’s heel, the angel is both literally impairing Yaakov’s physical ability to run away, and symbolically attacking the part of Yaakov that opts for deception and trickery over honest confrontation. The angel renders Yaakov’s heel non-functional, symbolically rendering the persona of Yaakov the trickster as no longer relevant. The Yaakov that remains will no longer grab at Eisav’s heels or sneak around at night. Indeed, the man that remains is so different and distinct from the heel-named Yaakov that the angel concludes that he surely needs a new name to reflect his new character. Thus, Yaakov is renamed Yisrael, the officer of God, for he has the strength to wrestle with internal demons and face difficult situations. 

In light of the Rashbam’s interpretation, the story of Yaakov and the angel serves as an important reminder of the need to face our demons– or angels– and confront the lurking issues we struggle with. While it is so often tempting in life to give in to the urge of Yaakov, and to try and sneak away in the cover of dark, the Torah reminds us that the engine of Jewish history is propelled forward by those moments where people fought that urge and did the hard work of confronting their challenges. While it is surely relatable to feel overwhelmed and want to shy away from addressing difficult internal issues– as even Yaakov Avinu found himself giving in to that relatable human urge to flee from Eisav and not confront his childhood family issues– progress can only come through the difficult work of confrontation. 

November 5th, 2021: Toldot

Perhaps no character in the bible gets shorter shrift in the commentaries and tradition than Eisav. The actual biblical verses paint the picture of a devoted son who enjoys the more physical and dangerous parts of life, while the tradition casts Eisav as a corrupt and evil murderer who deserved to have his blessing stolen. While there is much to say about why the rabbis often try to cast biblical characters into less morally ambiguous roles– making the good guys really good, and the bad guys really bad– what is clear is that the rabbis picked up on a clear distinction– and perhaps even polarity– set up in the Parsha between the two brothers, Yaakov and Eisav, and ran with it. 

While we don’t hear about Eisav being particularly evil– or even, for that matter, about Yaakov being particularly good– we do hear of a major difference between the brothers. The Torah tells us (25:17),  וַיִּגְדְּלוּ, הַנְּעָרִים, וַיְהִי עֵשָׂו אִישׁ יֹדֵעַ צַיִד, אִישׁ שָׂדֶה; וְיַעֲקֹב אִישׁ תָּם, יֹשֵׁב אֹהָלִים, and the children grew up, and Eisav knew how to hunt and was a man of the field, whereas Jacob was a simple man, sitting in tents. Clearly, the Torah is setting up opposing poles here in an effort to highlight how different the brothers are. Eisav is out in the world, while Yaakov remains inside, Eisav is active while Jacob is sitting, Eisav is hunting while Jacob is studying, Eisav is physical while Jacob is intellectual. All of the tensions and divisions that follow can be summed up to this initial point of departure between the two brothers. Their clash between the brothers is inevitable, as the Torah tells us that, at their very essence, Yaakov and Eisav are born as opposing personalities. 

Given that, it’s worth noting exactly how the Torah characterizes the supposedly praiseworthy personality of Yaakov. The patriarch is called “Ish Tam Yosheiv Ohalim,” simple and sitting in tents, literally. Broadly speaking, the tradition and most commentators over the years have understood Yosheiv Ohalim to be a sign of intellectualism– sitting in tents of scholars to study, as opposed to hunting out in fields with his brother. However, the meaning of Tam is, ironically, not so simple. Some of us may recognize the “Tam” from the Pesach Seder, as the simple son– able to articulate a question, but not knowledgeable enough to be on the level of the Wise son. Given that later rabbinic connotation of “Tam,” it might be surprising to see it being used here as a praiseworthy attribute, and perhaps even more surprisingly, as a sign of intellectualism. 

Rashi, perhaps noting the unusual use of the word Tam in our Parshah, explains that it doesn’t mean intellectual simpleness, like at the Seder.  Rather, Tam here means simple in the sense of “straightforward”– what you see if what you get– and, according to Rashi, the Torah is telling us that Yaakov is a straight shooter who is incapable of deception or lying, and implying that the same could not be said for Eisav. While this may better help us understand the corruption and sin the rabbis place upon Eisav, this explanation of Yaakov’s Temimut raises another difficult challenge for us. According to Rashi, Yaakov’s essence is a proto-George Washington– a straight shooter who cannot tell a lie. Yet, as we in the room know by now, that is not in fact how Yaakov’s life plays out. Later in this Parshah, Yaakov repeatedly deceives first Eisav then Isaac, as he pulls off a tricky plot to steal the right of the firstborn as well as Eisav’s paternal blessing. It’s ironic that the man who Eisav says is named Yaakov “Ki Yaakveini Zeh Paamayim,” for he has deceived me now a second time, is characterized in the Torah as having an essence so straight forward as to be incapable of deception.

The Vilna Gaon also notes this seeming contradiction in Yaakov’s character, and gives a surprising answer. The Vilna Gaon explains that it’s true, in Genesis 25 when we first meet Yaakov and Eisav, at their very core and essence there is a distinction in personality– Yaakov is a straight shooter, and Eisav is handy and tricky. However, says the Vilna Gaon, that was not some idealization or eternal truth about the brothers. Rather, that’s just a statement of their natural proclivities and personalities. However, once Yaakov started “sitting in tents” and actually learning Torah and values, his learning made him trickier and more deceptive. In other words, says the Vilna Gaon, while Yaakov was born simple and straight shooting, Torah and study taught Yaakov how to be tricky. As a proof, the Vilna Gaon references the Gemara in Sota 21b. There, the Gemara is talking about why there are certain limitations and suggestions around who should or shouldn’t learn Torah, and says כיון שלמד חכמה נכנס בו ערמומיות, with wisdom comes deceptiveness. The Vilna Gaon goes one step further, and paraphrases the Gemara: כיון שלמד תורה נכנס בו ערמומיות, with Torah learning comes deceptiveness! But that’s not a reason to avoid Torah learning, according to the Gra, but rather, a feature of it!

While this perspective of the Vilna Gaon may be shocking, and we can all discuss how much holy Chutzpah and well-intentioned deception is ok for the sake of Heaven, I think the message being communicated in the story in our Parshah is more broad than that. Fundamentally, what we see from the Vilna Gaon is that Yaakov’s actions model an immense charge and responsibility upon all of us. If we are seriously invested in the project of Torah– and the messages and values it tells us to represent and fight for– then we need to be able to learn and adapt from our surroundings to ensure its survival and success, even if that goes against our own proclivities and comfort zones. The Torah is telling us that Yaakov, the patriarch who becomes famous for Yaakveini Zeh Paamim, the trickster who deceives Eisav, Yitzchak, Lavan, and more in his wake, was at his core, a simple and straightforward scholar. If it were up to him, Yaakov would have spent his days in his tent with a good book. But Yaakov ultimately understood it wasn’t up to him, and action was needed. Our Parshah reminds us that part of our mission of taking the Torah seriously and fighting for its values is being able to maintain an openness and ability to adapt, even from perspectives and outlooks that are so foreign or antithetical to our own modes of operation as to appear dangerous. Ultimately, it is only through a self-confident stance of willingness to learn and adapt, and not a desire to remain indoors and insular, that we will be able to embody the Brachah of Yaakov, and fight to actualize the values of the Torah and create a better world. 

October 22nd, 2021: Vayera

Undoubtedly one of the voices of our generation and philosophical minds of our time, Jay-Z, in his song with Kanye “No Church in the Wild,” presents one of the great ethical and theological questions of all time: “Is pious pious ‘cause God loves pious?” Jay-Z asks, before namedropping Socrates and Plato. Of course, Jay-Z is echoing a millenia old question, most famously articulated in Plato’s Euthyphro. Does God approve of things because they are moral, or are things moral because God approves of them? What is the epistemic source of our morality– the fact we’re following divine command, or something more innate and intuitive?

Within our own tradition, this age old moral question comes to a head in the Parshah we just read together today. Avraham is commanded to sacrifice his son Yitzchak in what feels like an intuitively immoral commandment from God. Thus, we are posed with the age old question. Can, and does, morality exist outside of God, or is God the final arbiter of morality? But while all of us may be compelled, or even plagued, by questions of divine morality during difficult or questionable times, what I want to focus on today is not our reaction to this question, but Avraham’s. When faced with the challenge to his intuitive morality, how does Avraham relate to God’s command?

Unsurprisingly, this question has been debated by the Rabbis, commentaries, and even non-Jewish philosophers over the centuries. But just to draw out two strawmen, I want to contrast Rav Soloveitchik’s understanding of Avraham’s internal workings with that of Rav Kook. Rav Kook took the approach that Avraham, due to his great religious heights, was able to fully submit himself to God’s command to the point that Avraham was eager and joyous to sacrifice his son. Once Avraham knew that this was what God wanted, he was so devout he could flip a switch, turn off his own thoughts and morality in the face of God’s, and even be excited to wake up early, saddle his own donkey, and get going to do his Mitzvah. 

If this approach– that Avraham was excited to do the Akeidah and eager to sacrifice his son for God– makes you feel uncomfortable, you’re not alone. Unsurprisingly, Rav Soloveitchik, writing from a perspective that was more educated and ingrained in traditional philosophy and ethics, cannot accept an approach that depicts Avraham with naive exuberance in the face of such a heavy and problematic command. Instead, Rav Soloveitchik takes the more intuitive approach, claiming that Avraham was grief-stricken and tearful the entire time he begrudging underwent his journey. While he knew God had commanded him to sacrifice his son, he was not happy about it, and he could not fully quash his internal intuitive morality. Thus, while Rav Kook may answer Jay-Z and Socrates with a resounding “yes,” as “the good” is merely whatever God decides it is, for Rav Soloveitchik, that question is clearly more complicated.

And yet, despite this dramatic difference in understanding, I want to suggest that Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik have more in common, in their understandings, than they differ. For while Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik may answer the Euthypho’s question of what is true morality slightly differently, they both fundamentally understand Avraham’s mental state in the same way. Avraham is confident that he has heard a command from God, he is composed and rational in how he relates that command to his past beliefs and experiences with God, and ultimately, Avraham concludes that if this is what God wants, then he has no choice but to do it. In other words, while Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik may disagree about the emotional state and response of Avraham during the Akeidah, it is clear to both of them that Avraham was clear and certain in what he had to do, and the only question is how did he emotionally take that. 

Rav Shagar presents a totally different understanding of the Akeidah– one that flips Socrates’ very question on its head. In Rav Shagar’s understanding of the Akeidah, the drama was not whether Avraham would be reluctant or joyful at fulfilling God’s commands, but rather, whether Avraham was certain God commanded him at all. Rav Shagar quotes a Midrash that says:

As Abraham and Isaac were walking, Satan appeared to Abraham and said to him ‘Old Man, are you out of your mind! You are going to slaughter the son God gave you at the age of one hundred? It was I who deceived you and said to you ‘Take now your son…’. (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4)

Satan does not try to convince Avraham that the sacrifice is immoral, or that God is unworthy of this painful loyalty. Rather, the Satan– as is often the case without internal Yetzer HaRas– merely introduces the idea of doubt to Avraham. Maybe you didn’t hear the command correctly? Or worse, maybe it wasn’t really God who commanded you in the first place, but me, Satan, trying to deceive you. In other words, in Rav Shagar’s depiction of the Akeidah, the trial Avraham faced was not his ability to submit his own will to God’s, or his ability to sacrifice for the sake of the divine. The point is not whether Avraham was happy or crying. Rather, the trial of the Akeidah was continuing on in one’s religious mission despite having great reason to doubt. God gives Avraham a command that is so radical, it must be wrong, and then the Satan– a rabbinic representation of our own internal struggles and worst inclinations– uses that radicalness not to question the ethicality of the command, but rather, whether the command really came from God in the first place. 

The Midrash continues, and Avraham responds to Satan that even if that is the case, and it turns out it really was Satan who commanded him, he is so sure that this what God wants him to do that he’ll sacrifice his son and willing accept any punishment that comes afterwards. In other words, Avraham’s heroic response, and ultimately, the way he defeats the Satan, is not to vanquish the doubt and assert “nothing bad will happen because this is what God wants of me.” No. Avraham acknowledges the doubt, gives voice to the possibility that it is correct and he may be sacrificing his ethics and very relationship with God, and nonetheless carries on with his task. Rav Shagar writes: 

[This answer] expresses Abraham’s unremitting dedication, his willingness to forfeit everything – not just his ethics, but even his very religion – which is his only path to unqualified devotion, if not utter certainty. In any event, it appears as though Abraham’s insistence on the divine origin of the imperative to slaughter his son can be facilitated only by the seed of doubt planted by Satan. This is what sets it apart from ordinary obstinacy, especially if we read Satan as a manifestation of Abraham’s own misgivings. Intransigence that does not take doubt into account is meaningless and false.

In other words, the doubt Avraham experienced wasn’t shameful or a religious lacking. Quite the opposite. The difficulty and doubt Avraham experiences was the very point of the Akeidah, as the true test of loyalty God is looking for is not the ability to convince yourself that everything you’re doing is obviously right and good, but the humility to recognize that you aren’t sure if you are doing the right thing, but nonetheless you’ll continue to try your best. Avraham Avinu displayed time and time again that he was so devoted and devout that nothing would shake him, and no standard commandment would inspire doubt. The immorality of the Akeidah is not trying to make a statement of an a-moral God that might necessitate child sacrifice, but rather, it’s a means to introduce doubt into the equation. 

I’ve always found the Binding of Isaac to be a very surprising foundational story for our religion. Is our religion really built on the idea that God might command us to do immoral things and we have to do them anyway? But Rav Shagar’s interpretation helps me relate to the Akeida not just as relevant, but perhaps, as the most relevant story to what it means to be a Jew today. It’s not a story about how inspiring it is that Jews will even kill innocents for their Lord. Rather, Avraham reminds us that even though we may live in a world full of doubt– and for good reason, as we currently are living through a tragedy so great no human rationale could justify it– more than blind obedience or self-confidence in our rightness and everyone else’s wrongness, God wants us to confront the doubt, understand its weight but humbly carry on with our mission nonetheless. And so, whether it be Socrates or Jay-Z, when the age old question is asked– is pious pious because it’s pious– perhaps the best answer God wants from us is “we don’t know.”

 

October 15th, 2021: Lech Lecha

While the Torah, until now, has been cosmological in focus– telling us stories of how our universe came to be, albeit sometimes through the eyes of individual characters– Parashat Lech Lecha represents a tangible shift in the narrative. Parshat Lekh Lekha focuses on one individual– Avram– and the challenges and successes he and his family face. While it’s true that there is a larger story of Avram being a torchbearer for monotheism and faith in God, many of the details in our Parshah have nothing to do with that. It seems like the animating engine in our Parshah is the development of Avram’s life, and not the grander tale of God’s plans for Avram, as we hear about Avram’s financial difficulties, political faux pas in Egypt, and personal family drama between him and his nephew. 

Of course, the rabbis also notice this surprising narrative shift to granularity, as we learn seemingly trivial details of Avram’s journey.  Perhaps that’s why the Midrash Tanchumah in our Parshah introduces the following idea: 

“Rabbi Yehoshua of Sichnin said : God gave a sign to Abraham that everything that befell him would happen to his children: God chose Avraham from all his family ... likewise, He chose his (Abraham’s) children from all the 70 nations… Avraham vanquished four kings and likewise Israel will strike fear into other kings and their kingdoms.... God went out and fought Abraham’s enemies, likewise He will act similarly with his Children”

This Midrash is but one example of the rabbinic concept of Maaseh Avot Siman LeBanim, the actions of the forebearers are indicative for their descendants. The rabbis address the relevance of these surprising background stories of Avram’s life by asserting that these seemingly trivial stories of Keeping Up with the Ivriim family drama are actually eternally significant. They are not merely background or historical context about our ancestor Avraham, but rather, they are somehow indicative and relevant throughout time, even to the present. 

While this idea– that the actions of our ancestors can somehow dictate or influence our present– seems mystical and uncomfortable, I think there is a perspective on it that is relatable and vitally important. Rav Soloveitchik writes:

“The Patriarchic Covenant ... imparts teachings to the Jewish people by example rather than by prescription…[it] addresses the ‘I’ awareness of the Jew, teaching him how to experience his Jewishness. It sensitises him in specifically Jewish ways: it expresses attitudes, ideals, and sentiments which still speak to us. It guides our feelings and consciousness rather than our physical acts… In studying their life experiences... during our impressionable childhood and throughout our adult years, we absorb their values and nuances of feeling into our Jewish consciousness. ‘Every Jew should ask himself, when shall my deeds be like those of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?’(Reflections of the Rav vol. 2 pg.68)

In other words, Rav Soloveitchik articulates what may have been intuitive to many of us, that the reason the stories of our forebearers are eternally significant is not some mystical determinism or a theological commitment to history echoing, but rather, because these stories are the cornerstone of our culture and identity. From childhood through adulthood, our week, calendar, and overall life experience are shaped by and tied to the stories of our ancestors in the Torah. If we are a community that organizes around Torah and aligns around its values, then of course even the narrative and human elements of the Torah serve essential roles in our understanding of our priorities and values. 

Given this understanding of Maaseh Avot Siman LeBanim, I think we can better relate to a particularly cryptic Ramban. In our Parshah, we read as Sarai gets jealous and ultimately mistreats her maidservant Hagar, due to Hagar’s ability to conceive while Sarai was struggling with infertility. Sarai is harsh and lacking empathy as she tortures this pregnant and under privileged maidservant for doing exactly as she is told and bearing her master a son. Ramban comments on this episode and says that Sarai’s sinful treatment of Hagar is why Jewish people until his day have conflict with Muslim nations, since Maaseh Avot Siman LeBanim. Of course, Ramban was commenting on the reality of his day, where conquesting Islamic forces had already breached their way into Christian Spain and caused many Jews to flee lest they be forced to convert– famously, the Rambam, for example. However, while that sense of seeing one’s self in the Torah may be relatable, does the Ramban really think the political and military struggles of his day– and the political and military conflicts of future days– were determined because of Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar millenia ago?

While on some Kabbalistic sense, that may be the case, I think we can understand the Ramban’s sentiments and perhaps better relate to them from our perspective on Maaseh Avot. While Sarai’s actions may not have foretold future conflicts and tensions, Sarai’s story– as representative of how sometimes one can let their own feelings and emotions get the best of them and, as a result, fail to respect the humanity and dignity in someone in a different or lower position than they– is of course indicative and relatable as a lens through which we can relate to our own conflicts and understand our own world. Thus, while Sarai’s mistreatment of Hagar may not have foretold or caused any future political or military struggles, it’s inclusion in the Jewish canon educates us to view conflicts in our own world through the empathetic lens and outstretched hand that God offers to Hagar in the story. 

This lesson– of empathy in difficult situations– is reinforced as the takeaway from the Sarai/Hagar conflict in the story’s conclusion. After being visited by an angel and told to return home and bear her child to Avram, Hagar is told to name the child Yishmael, for God heard her cry. Hagar does as much and goes one further, naming God God’s self, as she names God El Ro’i. According to at least Radak, El Ro’i means “the God that saw me.” In other words, while Hagar’s conditions under Sarai are not substantively changed by the angel she sees in the desert, and no real tangible solution is offered– as evidenced by the fact that this conflict will flare up again in next week’s Parshah– Hagar feels saved and comforted by God because she was “heard” and “seen” She named her child and her God after how appreciative she is, and how important it is, for her to be seen and heard through this difficult experience with Sarai– even if ultimately there is no solution. The Torah is emphasizing that the mistake Sarai made was not her jealousy or the fact that she struggled in a difficult and painful situation such as infertility, but rather, that she allowed that struggle to dull her empathy and close out Hagar from being seen and heard as every human deserves. 

As descendants of Sarai, we are continually given the opportunity to learn from our ancestors’ past and incorporate her lesson into our lives, as Maaseh Avot Siman LeBanim. While the world is rarely black and white, and points of conflict can feel as high stakes as questions as essential over who will inherit the Abrahamic covenant, our Parshah sets an eternal example that no matter is too complicated and no conflict too important for a little bit of empathy. 

 

October 8, 2021: Noach

This past Thursday, Shoshana and I were lucky enough to attend our first Broadway show in years, because of the pandemic. We saw Hadestown, and while undoubtedly Moshe Bloxenheim can tell you more about the production, the basic gist is a play about the Greek myth of Orpheus, Euridyce, Hades, and Persephone. And while now isn’t the time to get into the details of the story, earlier this week when I was describing the myth to a friend– and how it accounts for the origins of seasons in nature– I couldn’t help but be struck with the familiarity and resonance with the origin myths we’ve been reading about last week and this week in the Parshah.  

Unsurprisingly, some modern biblical commentaries read all of the first 10 chapters of Genesis as being God’s polemical response to the myths of the time. For example, Umberto Cassuto, the early 20th century Italian rabbi, understands all of the cryptic references in Genesis to a “Leviathan” or “Behemoth” as being responses and subversions of publicly worshipped Ancient Near Eastern deities. While other entities may worship or fear a Leviathan, our God made it as a play thing. Such satirical subversion serves to polemicize against the popular religious myths of the time while providing Jewish alternatives. 

Yet, while the polemical message of rejecting other Gods may be clear, sometimes the function of paralleling popular mythology in the Torah seems less obvious. Perhaps most famously– and most troublingly– our Parshah this week, Parashat Noach, seems to have been almost ripped out of the pages– or, really, tablets– of the Gilgamesh Epic. By far one of the coolest things I got to see in person at the Penn Museum, the Gilgamesh Tablets are an ancient pagan myth, preserved in 4000 year old stone writing, of a world-ending flood sent by the gods, and a hero who is selected to survive the flood in an ark and rebuild the world. It goes without saying that this story calls to mind the Parshah we just read about Noach, before even getting into the more detailed parallels between the two stories, and begs important questions about how we relate to the bible and the stories it tells.

Of course, to some extent, we can justify this undeniable parallel by drawing attention to the differences between the two stories. Most prominently, and perhaps most importantly, the cause of the flood, and the goal it’s being brought to accomplish, differ dramatically between the pagan tale and the Jewish account. While we know in the Jewish account, the flood is brought as punishment for moral corruption between humans and their fellows, in the Pagan account, the flood is merely a random and capricious act of the gods– its cause and circumstance so unimportant as to not be directly addressed and justified. Such is the way of pagan gods, ruling the world on their own largely hedonistic whims, as the humans below live with the repercussions. 

That being the case, what even is the point of this flood story in the Gilgamesh tale? In the context of the Gilgamesh tablets, the flood story serves as an example of the extreme circumstances needed to become a God, and how unobtainable divine power and immortality is for humans. But more than that, it serves as a directive for how devout humans should live their life. Gilgamesh is told that Utnapishtim, the hero of the flood story, was turned into a God for his heroism and he, Gilgamesh, never will be, leading him to a depression that is only relieved when Gilgamesh sees the amazing walls of the Babylonian cities and praises the works and projects of human civilization as the true path to immortality. In other words, the pagan flood story reminds humans that while the immortal legacy of the gods may be their power to destroy eternally, the enduring immortality humanity can achieve is through its power to build and develop civilization. Thus, like Gilgamesh, we should target our focus and prioritize on physically building society and further developing civilization.

Given that understanding, we now better appreciate the differences in the Jewish version. While the overarching structure of the story is the same– a divine flood tale that forces humans to confront mortality before ultimately transcending it–  the differences in the stories communicate the important difference in how immortality– or a valuable enduring legacy– is obtained. The Torah’s retelling of the story supplants the focus on physical construction and human development projects with an emphasis on morality and mankind’s ethical development. Humanity does not endure through building long-lasting powerful structures– not even giant walls that can hold out a flood. Rather, humanity endures through creating a moral society committed to a divinely-informed ethic of justice. 

Perhaps this also explains why the story of the Tower of Babel immediately follows the story of Noach’s flood. If Noach’s flood is a subversion of the classical religious myth about how to transcend the limits of our mortality, arguing that the focus should be on interpersonal ethics and not just impressive physical byproducts of human construction, then the Tower of Babel serves as a more literal version of the same tale for those who might have missed the more subtle point. Indeed, perhaps it is intentional that the tower is located in Babylonia, as the myths that preceded it and framed it are Babylonian myths of the ancient near east. In that light, the Torah’s story of the tower of Babel can almost be seen as a coda, finishing God’s account of how the Babylonian’s, misguided in their values, focused their society and culture on construction and building outwards, instead of on morality and growing inwards.

Thus, we can see how understanding our Noach story as an informed and indexical work, referencing an outside myth, can further our understanding of the story without challenging its divine value in the Torah. But, while it may be intellectually interesting and morally feel-good to hear, the takeaway of “the Torah cares about morality” still seems a little trivial to me, given the great challenge of incorporating outside material into the bible itself. Are we really to believe the only way God could have communicated the message of “be good to each other” is through referencing a highly problematic pagan myth? 

While the specific message and content of the Torah’s flood story are obviously important and substantive, I think the broader point here is less about any specific detail of the story, and more about the mythology as a whole. While it’s true that the specific myths and stories the Torah is responding to are– for obvious reasons– rooted in the myths, stories, and culture of the historical civilization that received the Torah, the Torah knows and is communicating to us a timeless truth. Across civilizations and cultures and across time, from Gilgamesh to Ovid to Hadestown, humanity has told stories and created our own mythos. While it may be an intellectually, and even theologically interesting question as to how people understood those myths in the past, and how literally and historically we should understand them today, ultimately, that is not the point. Rather, the Torah is recognizing that humanity always has and always will tell stories about itself and its world, even if those stories change as our understanding of ourselves and our world changes over time. However, while that may be true, the Torah is reminding us that, while we may all know they are stories, and perhaps no one is changing their scientific beliefs or perspectives on the world from one mythology tale, nonetheless it still matters what stories we choose to tell. 

September 3rd, 2021: Nitzavim

Due to its short length, it’s easy to miss how strange Parshat Netzavim is– partly because it’s over shortly after it started, and partly because no one’s looking to criticize a 40 Passuk Parshah. But upon further reflection, while Parshat Netzavim may be short, why is any of it necessary at all? The Parshah opens with Moshe committing the Jewish people to a covenant with God– something we literally just did in the last Parshah– and goes on to repeat some of the brief history of the Jewish people we’ve already reviewed, culminating in a series of abstract commandments about loving and following God that surely has been discussed at length already, at this point in the Torah. That being the case, once we already have the rest of Sefer Devarim until now, what exactly is Parshat Netzavim even coming to add? 

    Rashi, quoting the Rabbis in the Midrash, is also clearly perturbed by this question, as he too struggles to explain what Parshat Netzavim is adding after the lengthy reflections of Parshat Ki Tavo. Rashi (Devarim 29:12) says:

“Why is Parshat Netzavim put in juxtaposition to the curses in the previous chapter (Ki Tavo)? Because when Israel heard these ninety-eight curses besides the forty-nine that are contained in Torath-Cohanim (Leviticus 26:14 ff.), their faces turned pale (they were horrified), and they exclaimed, “Who can possibly stand against these?!” Therefore Moses began to calm them: “See, you are standing today before the Lord!” — many a time have you provoked the Omnipresent to anger and yet He has not made an end to you, but you still continue in His presence 

According to this approach, Parshat Netzavim is little more than placation and calming after the Bnei Yisrael heard the frightening future that awaits them, as described in the Tochachah. Hearing that God plans to punish and exile future generations, the Jewish people felt afraid and distant from God. Hence, Moshe reminds them “you are standing today before God” charged with a covenant built upon a loving relationship. 

While this approach certainly answers our question, it also raises a number of its own difficulties. Perhaps most difficult for this approach, this is not the first time we’ve heard the Tochachah. God already warned us of the punishments that await the Jewish people back in the end of Leviticus.  Why don’t we have a similar Netzavim-like Parshah after the Tochachach in Parshat Bechukotai to reassure the Jews that their covenant is really built on love and commitment, and not fear of punishment?  Moreover, according to Rashi’s approach, this whole section in the Torah is little more than necessary reassurance to the Jews of the desert following a scary prophecy of destruction. We hardly are told of every time Moshe reassured the Jewish people or told them not to worry over the 40 years. What’s so special about this section? 

R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (the Netziv, 19th C. Volozhin) presents a slightly different explanation for this section that I think clarifies many of our questions. The Netziv points out that, back in last week’s Parshah, when we were told about our covenant with God, our portion of the covenant and our responsibility towards God was described entirely in terms of physical actions:

(א) וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־שָׁמ֤וֹעַ תִּשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם 

“If you listen to God and perform the commandments he’s commanding you today…” (28:1)

(טו) וְהָיָ֗ה אִם־לֹ֤א תִשְׁמַע֙ בְּקוֹל֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמֹ֤ר לַעֲשׂוֹת֙ אֶת־כׇּל־מִצְוֺתָ֣יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיּ֑וֹם 

“And if you don’t listen and perform the commandments you’re commanded, bad things will happen…”

Clearly, in Parshat Ki Tavo, the focus is on Shmirat VeAssiyat Mitzvot, observing and performing the commandments God has given us. The Netziv contrasts that with the covenantal imperative found in our Parshah (30:15-16):

 רְאֵ֨ה נָתַ֤תִּי לְפָנֶ֙יךָ֙ הַיּ֔וֹם אֶת־הַֽחַיִּ֖ים וְאֶת־הַטּ֑וֹב וְאֶת־הַמָּ֖וֶת וְאֶת־הָרָֽע׃

אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֣י מְצַוְּךָ֮ הַיּוֹם֒ לְאַהֲבָ֞ה אֶת־יְהֹוָ֤ה אֱלֹהֶ֙יךָ֙ לָלֶ֣כֶת בִּדְרָכָ֔יו וְלִשְׁמֹ֛ר מִצְוֺתָ֥יו וְחֻקֹּתָ֖יו וּמִשְׁפָּטָ֑יו וְחָיִ֣יתָ וְרָבִ֔יתָ וּבֵֽרַכְךָ֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ בָּאָ֕רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־אַתָּ֥ה בָא־שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ

“See I have placed before you life and good, death and the bad. And I have commanded you today to love your God, to follow in his ways, to keep his laws, and you shall live and thrive and bless Hashem your God in the land which you are coming to inherit.”

The Netziv highlights that, in addition to the base covenant of observing and keeping God’s laws, this time, Moshe adds an emotional component. The commandment that the Jewish people are charged with today is LeAhavah Et Hashem– to love God– and the choice they are given is not just between sin and Mitzvah, but rather, between the existential entities of life and death, good and bad.

In other words, says the Netziv, Parshat Netzavim is an essential and new element to the covenant that we have not yet seen until now. While, like all good contracts and covenants, our Brit with God demands mutual actions and is built upon a certain amount of consideration and expectation of action, Parshat Netzavim adds an essential component that is not there in human made contracts– heart. We are not merely contractors hired to perform an action for God. Rather, we are in a relationship with God, and the very reason we are commanded to perform any actions in the first place is because of how those actions inculcate a sense of love and understanding towards our divine significant other. The actions themselves are not what are important, but rather, what they represent, as they bring us closer to the true decision at hand: Et HaChayim VeEt HaTov VeEt HaMavet VeEt HaRa. The real decision is not between Kosher and non-Kosher, stealing or not stealing, or any other question of acts of observance. The real question is that of good and bad, life and death. We are given the opportunity to truly live– to have an emotional and personal bond with God, as developed and inculcated by the Mitzvot. When we fail to capitalize upon that opportunity, the true punishment is not lashes or incarceration, but rather, the damage and loss of relationship that has taken place between man and God. 

 Given that, not only can we understand why Parshat Netzavim is absolutely essential in fleshing out our relationship to God– a relationship that is built upon love and emotional bonding in addition to the mutual contractual obligations of expected actions– but we can understand the broader context of the Parshah as well. It is only after we are introduced to this innovative idea of Netzavim– that our contract with God is predicated upon love and emotions, even if its content is commandments and actions– that we can be introduced to the idea of Teshuvah. A strict contract has no room for repentance. Renegging on a contractual obligation  but giving a heartfelt apology is not going to save you from a lawsuit. Obligations are obligations. However, Parshat Netzavim reminds us that it’s not the actions qua actions that God is expecting from us. Rather, the actions are important insofar as they reflect our relationship with God. Thus, even when we fail to uphold our side of the bargain, and act inappropriately, still God is merciful to us because of our personal and emotional relationship, which trumps any strict legal agreement.

One of my rabbis, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, once compared our relationship to God with his relationship to his young daughter. Sometimes, he and his daughter do things together that have obvious enriching value. They’ll read a book together, or go on a hike together, and they’ll strengthen their bodies or minds. However, other times his daughter will want to have a pretend tea party with him. While pretend might not be a rational, understandable, or even enjoyable activity for a full grown father, it’s not the action that matters, but rather, the opportunity to share of his daughter’s world and bond with her. Parshat Netzavim reminds us that the same is true of our relationship with God. Some of the Torah may be intuitive, or logical, or easy for us to connect to, and that’s great. But ultimately, our commitment stems not from personal enjoyment, but from a commitment to spend time with God on God’s terms, as we develop our relationship and learn how to love God. As we ready ourselves for Rosh HaShanah and the day of judgement, in addition to pounding ourselves on our chest for sins, or making a list of Mitzvot we could do better at, let’s make sure UViCharta BeChayim, that we choose a life full of Godly love and goodness. 

 

August 27th, 2021: Ki Tavo

וזכרתי את–בריתי יעקוב ואף את בריתי יצחק ואף את בריתי אברהם אזכר (ויקרא כו:מב)

"And I will remember my covenant with Yaakov, and my covenant with Yitzchak, and my covenant with Avraham I will remember.”

This line is central to the Selichot prayers, which we will begin saying tonight. Every day, in the heart of Selichot, we invoke Zechut Avot, the merits of our predecessors. And indeed, when we think of prayer and repentance, our lineage– our ancestry and history– are integral to our prayer experience. The Gemara in Brachot establishes that the Patriarchs played an essential role in modeling our three-time daily prayers, and the content and themes of those prayers draws heavily upon the ancient prayer of Channah. And yet, despite the centrality of our forebearers, today I want to argue that it is not so clear that Zechut Avot is a good thing.

Earlier today we read the Tochachah, The Rebuke– God’s contract with the Jewish people. If we keep the Torah, God will reward us. If we don’t, devastation awaits. The Torah describes graphic horrors, previously unseen. Women are forced to eat their children, as the poor and helpless in society are cannibalized, figuratively and literally. Like all of Deuteronomy, the Tochachah this week is actually a re-teaching of an earlier lesson in the Torah. The initial Tochachah in Bechukotai contains the same graphic warnings, but whereas our Tochachah ends without hope or salvation, the rebuke of Bechukotai ends with the following passage: 

וְזָכַרְתִּי, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יַעֲקוֹב; וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי יִצְחָק וְאַף אֶת-בְּרִיתִי אַבְרָהָם, אֶזְכֹּר--וְהָאָרֶץ אֶזְכֹּר. וְזָכַרְתִּי לָהֶם, בְּרִית רִאשֹׁנִים:  אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי-אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֵי הַגּוֹיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים--אֲנִי יְהוָה.

Those who survive will stew in their sin and iniquity until rock bottom is finally reached. Only then, when the Jewish people have sinned beyond return, God will invoke his initial contract with out forefathers– the Zechut Avot that we invoke regularly– and out of a sense of obligation to our patriarchs God will save us. The Tochachah caps off with the Passuk that we opened with, and that lies at the heart of our Selichot prayers. וזכרתי את ברית יעקוב… 

But when taken in this context, the invocation of our forefathers is far from a happy, redeeming idea. Zechut Avot, here, symbolizes the Jewish people in a state of utter hopelessness. Our relationship with God has been ruined beyond any chance of repair, and nothing we can do will ever allow us to merit our own redemption. Rather, it is purely out of a contractual obligation to our forefathers that God is forced to redeem us– almost against His will, if such a thing would be possible. 

In our Tochachah, in this week’s Parashah, this breakdown of relationship between the Jewish People and God is indicated by a powerful and oft-quoted verse: תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה׳ אלוקיך בשמחה ובטוב ליבב, this punishment befalls you for you did not serve God with happiness and a good heart. Sin does not cause the Tochachah. Sin is merely the byproduct of a damaged relationship between man and God– here articulated as a lack of “Simchah” and eagerness to serve God.

In other words, this model of Zechut Avot, of our heritage, represents a redemption without a repair of relationship. The Jewish people, distanced from God and stripped of control over their own destinies, are passively forced to rely upon the promise to our forefathers for salvation. We are stuck with the Judaism we are born into, and, in turn, God is stuck with us, whether He likes it or not. 

Such a conception of historical lineage is far from inspiring. But thankfully, it is not our only model. 

In the beginning of this week’s Parashah, we learn about the Mitzvah of Bikkurim, the offering of the first fruit. The Torah tells us that the first fruits of the season are to be brought to Jerusalem and eaten there as part of a larger temple ritual. At the heart of this rite is a verbal declaration familiar to all of us from the Pesach Seder: Arami Oveid Avi, my father was a wandering Aramean. Here, in the midst of offering our Bikkurim, we recount the historical narrative of the Jewish people, from Abraham through Egypt to the present day. 

Again, we invoke our forefathers, beginning with Abraham’s trials, and referencing “Elokei Avoteinu,” the God of our forefathers. But rather than ending with a reluctant redemption, here the Torah ends ,ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ה׳ אלוקיך, and you shall rejoice in all the good God does for you. In the section of Bikkurim, our lineage and history is supposed to culminate in Simchah, a religious enthusiasm towards God– a striking contrast to the broken relationship of the Tochachah– תחת אשר לא עבדת את ה׳ אלוקיך בשמחה . While the Tochachah represents a transactional relationship with God, built upon a begrudging contract, Bikkurim expresses a loving relationship of happiness. When one does something for their spouse, even though there is a contractual relationship between the two parties that may technically obligate, it is not out of a sense of obligation but out of a joy to help those they care about. Put in other terms, the punishment of the Tochachah only comes if we fail to live up to the Simchah of Bikkurim. 

Tosafot in Shabbos 55a makes a distinction between two similar, yet distinct concepts: Zechut Avot, the merit of our forefathers, and Brit Avot, the covenant of our forefathers. I’d like to borrow Tosafot’s terminology. The role the forefathers play in the Tochachah– serving as historical figures who have a contract with God– that is Brit Avot, a transactional relationship characterized by a covenant, an eternally binding agreement. וזכרתי את בריתי יעקב, I remember my contract with Jacob. However, the invocation of our forefathers found at the heart of the Bikkurim ceremony, the conceptual forefathers who laid the groundwork for having a relationship with God, and in whose tradition we follow every time we seek out God as a partner in our lives– that is Zechut Avot. It is Zechut Avot, the meritorious relationship with God, based off of Simchah and mutual investment, that inspires and excites the mind and allows one to fall in love with God, and in turn, with Judaism. 

In 1982, David Hartman wrote the essay “Auschwitz or Sinai?” In it, Hartman reflects upon the role and future of the Jewish State by positing two different models of learning from our past: The first is Auschwitz, a Jewish state motivated by fear and primarily concerned with its continued existence. Our past merely lays out the rules of survival. Much like our historical forefathers ensured that we would not be wiped out during the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, the lessons of the Holocaust and the lachrymose history of Jewish oppression can serve to motivate us for a continued future. 

However, Hartman argues that such a model is passive and defensive, instead of creative and productive. If all we do is work to preserve the bare minimum standard of the past, we will never improve upon it. Instead, Hartman posits a second model– Sinai. The relationship with God that started at Sinai with the giving of the Torah should serve as a motivating factor to be active and creative partners with God in the world. Instead of viewing Israel as merely a refuge for Jewish people to prevent another Holocaust, we should view it as a testing ground for Judaism and Jewish values, as we work to further our divine mission. In other words, Hartman warned that while Brit Avot may allow you to survive, Zechut Avot is necessary for the Jewish people to really thrive. 

And so, tonight, when we begin Selichot and say our first of many invocations of our forefathers, the challenge lies with us. Will we merely try to get by– passively defending ourselves from divine retribution while living a life distanced from God– or will we try to take our lives and destinies into our own hands, and become creative partners with God, like our forefathers taught us to do? Will this High Holiday season merely serve to make up for the sins of our past, or will it look towards our hopes and dreams for the future? Will we force the reluctant hand of an angry God, or will we strive to create an active and engaged relationship with our religion? Will we rely upon the contractual obligations of Brit Avot, or will we inspire our future with the Simchah of Zechut Avot?

ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ה׳ אלוקיך. God wants to rejoice with us. He eagerly awaits our celebration, as we bring him into our homes and lives. Let’s not disappoint him. 

 

August 20th, 2021: Ki Teitzei

In a famous scene from the West Wing, President Bartlet is struggling with a decision about whether or not to commute a death penalty sentence for a prisoner convicted of a drug crime. After a visit from his rabbi and a sermon montage about how the Torah does not command humans to seek vengeance, Toby Ziegler approaches the president and tells him not to let this prisoner be executed. The President rebuffs that the bible seems okay with the death penalty, to which Toby responds that while that’s true, the Rabbis of the Talmud couldn’t stomach it, and therefore, they legislated it out– a reference to the Gemara in Makkot which severely limits the practical application of the death penalty.

While Toby Ziegler successfully convinced President Bartlet, and Talmudic Logic prevailed, the truth is that the history of Jewish corporal punishment is much more complicated than a pithy Aaron Sorkin scene can capture. While it is true that the death penalty seems to have been rather reserved in its application, other forms of physical punishment and mutilation seem to be commonplace in Halakha and perhaps even in practice. In this week’s Parashah, we learn that those who violate prohibitions in the Torah are punished with 40 lashes– a severe and nearly fatal corporal punishment. In fact, the Gemara in Makkot connects these two corporal punishments, saying that lashes are themselves a mini-form of death penalty– and thereby, is halakhically regulated by the same laws that regulate the death penalty.

At first glance, then, it is tempting to adopt a Toby Ziegler approach, and say that while we acknowledge our discomfort surrounding the brutality of whipping someone 40 times, practically, the rabbis have avoided applying this law, sidestepping the ethical questions. Nowadays, none of us are getting lashed in court for violating prohibitions. Jewish Courts seem to have largely been relegated to monetary matters in the diaspora. However, while that may be true now, when we look across Jewish history, we see a much more complicated picture of corporal punishment. Indeed, Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, the Rush, writes in one of his responsum that upon moving from Germany to Spain he was shocked to find out that the Spanish government had given the Jewish community full legal authority to judge themselves autonomously, and therefore, it was common practice in Spain for the Beit Din to whip, lash, and occasionally even execute sinners. Even more shocking, the Rush writes that while he personally feels uncomfortable by it, since it is the custom of the land he’ll uphold it and sentence people to corporal punishment as well! And, as late as the 17th century, we have examples of Jewish courts maiming or lashing perpetrators as a halakhic punishment.  It seems that Toby was wrong, then, when he said that the rabbis didn’t have the stomach for corporal punishment.

Given this seeming comfort with corporal punishment and physical beatings, one Halakha in particular seems out of place in our Parshah. The Rabbis learn, from the verses in our Parshah, that while the Torah says a sinner receives 40 lashes, really, they should only receive 39. While the exact hermeneutics used to arrive at the conclusion aren’t our focus now, the overall law seems trivial at best, and insulting at worst. We’re okay with lashing someone, and beating them to a bloody pulp, but after hitting them over three dozen times, the Rabbis are “merciful” and let them get one freebie. What is the point of this trivially small leniency? 

Rambam, amongst others, presents this minor reduction in lashes as a practical protection instituted by the Law. Rambam explains (Sanhedrin 17:1) that 40 lashes is the absolute most someone could sustain and still survive. That being the case, if the punisher makes a mistake and is off by one, he may accidentally administer 41 lashes and kill the convict. Therefore, as a safeguard to provide protection, the rabbis made a law that only 39 lashes should be administered, so even in a worst case situation of mix up, a convict would never receive more than the Torah’s maximum of 40. 

According to this perspective, the reduction from 40 lashes to 39 is hardly a leniency at all. In fact, it is a pragmatic law created out of concern for a mistake or miscount, and rarely if ever would it significantly impact the experience of the punished person. However, if that’s really the case, it is difficult to understand the following statement found in Makkot 22b:

“אמר רבא כמה טפשאי שאר אינשי דקיימי מקמי ספר תורה ולא קיימי מקמי גברא רבה דאילו בס"ת כתיב ארבעים ואתו רבנן בצרו חדא"

"Rava said: How stupid are most people, that they stand up to honor a Torah, and they don’t stand up to honor great rabbis. For the Torah says man should receive 40 lashes, and the rabbis managed to reduce it by one.” 

According to Rava, we should be honoring and praising the Rabbis– shockingly, perhaps, even more than the Torah– for the Rabbis were lenient upon us and managed to reduce the Torah’s harsh punishment from 40 lashes down to 39. This seems hard to swallow. First of all, of course, there is the theological question of how can the rabbis “reduce” the punishment that God gives in the Torah. But beyond that, we should really be rejoicing over one lash being withheld for practical considerations? That hardly seems worth standing for?

I think this Gemara in Makkot pushes us to see this law as more than merely the practical consideration that Rambam presents it as. While, of course, there may be a practical element at play, Rava’s statement is highlighting that, more importantly, there is a symbolic statement being made here. True, 39 lashes might effectively hurt just as badly as 40, but we aren’t focusing on the actual practical experience here. Rather, by reducing the lashes down to 39, the Rabbis used their authority to make a symbolic statement about the Torah’s emphasis on compassion and understanding, even for sinners. While it might not make a huge difference or provide significant relief, every little bit we do to comfort and care for those in need– even convicts awaiting their punishment– makes a difference in the eyes of the Torah and Halakha.

But more than merely making a difference in the eyes of the Torah, Rava’s statement reminds us that compassion and mercy is itself the very heart of the Torah. Ki Deracheha Darchei Noam, for the ways of the Torah are pleasant. It’s not, God forbid, “contradicting” the Torah when the rabbis lessen the lashes to 39, because God Himself approves of marshalling the oral law for the sake of showing compassion to the sinner. In other words, far from being a theological challenge or a contradiction to our faith, the idea that the Rabbis “overruled” the Torah’s harsh punishment for the sake of expressing mercy is itself a beautiful encapsulation of one of the primary goals of Torah. We as humans are entrusted with Torah, and given creative control over the Oral Tradition. But we are not supposed to use that authority to push people away, create walls around our community, and strict standards for inclusion. Rather, the interpretive power of the oral tradition derives its authority, and demonstrates the extent of its power, specifically when it is being used to show a criminal– someone in the lowest situation in their life and in society– the slightest bit of mercy. 

As we are now in the month of Elul, and ramping up our preparation for the Teshuvah of the High Holidays, let this lesson serve as a reminder and a motivator this Teshuvah Season. While it is true that Torah and Mitzvot can be used as a yardstick to judge sinners, sentence them to dismissal or punishment, and reinforce the correctness of our own halakhic path, the missing fortieth lash reminds us that even in the face of halakhic violations and explicit Pessukim about punishment, sometimes it’s important to exercise withstraint for the sake of compassion. 

 

August 13th, 2021: Shoftim

Many are surprised to find out that the origin of the American idea of separation of Church and State is a non-legal letter written by Thomas Jefferson, and a clause in the Constitution itself. Of course, there is no such confusion when it comes to Halakha, as as a Jewish law code, Halakha outright rejects this idea of separation between law and religion, and provides us with a religious law code full of ritual and civil rules alike. That being the case, we are rarely surprised to find a blurring of boundaries between law and religion in the Halakha, as we expect as much from the Torah. And yet, while that may be the case, there are still some halakhot that feel a little bit funny in the way they conflate religious status with legal authority. While we expect that the Halakha will deal with ritual and interpersonal laws alike, we don’t necessarily expect halakha to confer legal and civil status upon someone because of their religious role. 

Given that, one of the Halakhot that is learned from our Parshah feels a little bit uncomfortable. Rambam, reflecting the language in a Midrash in our Parshah, rules (Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:2) that there is a Mitzvah for the Sanhedrin, the High Court, to have Kohanim and Leviim in it. While a court of all Yisraelim is Kosher, there is still a Mitzvah that, ideally, the court should contain Kohanim and Leviim as well. The source for Rambam’s ruling is a Midrash in our Parshah. The Sifrei comments on the Passuk: “UVata El HaKohanim HaLeviim VeEl HaShofeit,” “you shall approach the priests and the levites, and the judges” and, noting the unusual conflation of Kohanim, Leviim, and Shoftim in the verse, concludes that there is a Mitzvah on the courts to have Kohanim and Leviim as judges.

At first glance, this Halakha seems to be advocating for a conferment of legal authority and status on the basis purely of religious lineage– a troubling idea. Why should Kohanim and Leviim get priority in judicial appointments solely on the basis of their religious status? Don’t we care about halakhic knowledge and qualifications to judge fairly? Of all positions to require religious leadership, and prioritize the priestly class, that of judge surely seems to be one of the most problematic. Especially given how our own Parshah emphasized the need to have qualified, just, and fair judges and magistrates. 

Even more troubling, the Ralbag takes this commandment in an even more extreme direction. Commenting on the story in Shmuel B (20:23) where Beniyahu ben Yehoyada– the Kohein– is appointed as the head of the Sanhedrin, the Ralbag explains that the commandment in our Parshah of “UVata El HaKohanim” does not just mean that there’s a Mitzvah to appoint Kohanim as judges, but rather, it specifically means that the Chief Justice– the most powerful judicial position in the Beit Din– should ideally be a Kohein. In other words, it’s not just that Kohein privilege gets you on the court, but it fast tracks you to the most powerful and influential position on the court. According to the Ralbag’s understanding of the Mitzvah then, the very intent and purpose of this commandment is to consolidate legal power in the hands of the religious leadership. Therefore, the priestly class of religious leadership is given priority in filling the most powerful judicial seat in the land. 

While the Ralbag’s position might rub some of us the wrong way, in it’s conflation of religious and legal authority and its consolidation of power in the hands of the privileged few, it is not the only interpretation of the commandment in our Parshah. In fact, while Ralbag and Rambam might be based in the Sifrei we quoted above, there is actually another Midrash in the Midrash Tanaim that may lead to a slightly different understanding of the Torah commandment. 

According to the Midrash Tanaim, the Mitzvah of UVata El HaKohanim is not to appoint Kohanim and Leviim as judges for their own sake, as a recognition of their special religious status. Rather, the Midrash Tanaim says: “LiLameid SheKol Sanhedrin SheHu Mishuleshet Harei Zu Mishubechet.” We learn from here that any court that is split in three (i.e. it has members of the three different parties of Jews: Kohanim, Leviim, and Yisraelim), is a praiseworthy court. In other words, the focus on the Midrash Tanaim is not on the individual status of the Kohanim and Leviim, but rather, on the diversity of the court. The ideal court is not full of Kohanim, nor full of Yisraelim. It is Mishuleshet, diverse and representative of the three different tribal identities and constituencies which exist within the nation. Rather than focusing on the Kohanim and Leviim themselves, the Midrash Tanaim focuses on the desired outcome for the court– diversity of representation. 

Thus, by adopting the Midrash Tanaim’s perspective on the Mitzvah, what emerges is a commandment in this week’s Parshah to ensure that our governing bodies are diverse and representative of the people they represent. While Kohanim and Leviim may only make up a tiny fraction of the Jewish people, nonetheless the Torah saw it as essential to command their inclusion and representation on the Sanhedrin so their voices could be heard and their interests represented. While it may be retrojective to imagine a contemporary sense of diversity in the makeup of the Sanhedrin, minimally, we see a contextually significant sensitivity to the tribal diversity and difference in lived experience across the Jewish people. While we do not have a Sanhedrin today, and in many ways we feel the painful limitations that places upon our ability to legislate and litigate halakhic questions in the contemporary world, this Halakha about the composition of the court system serves as a contemporary reminder of the need to be sensitive to a diversity of perspectives and lived experiences. If the rabbis of the Sanhedrin were expected to first listen firsthand to a Levi before ruling about Leviim, the least we can do is work to hear and understand the diverse perspectives of those in our community. Then, we will be a community where not only is everyone welcome, but everyone can be heard. 

August 6th, 2021: Re'Eh

The apocryphal story goes that the Chasam Sofer made a decree that anyone who refuses to sign a Pruzbul, and thereby commit themself to pay back a loan even after Shemitah, should not get an Aliyah when we read Parshat Re’eih. Since today’s Torah reading featured the prohibition of collecting debts after the sabbatical Shmitah year, anyone who failed to uphold that would be unfit to receive an Aliyah. While I looked far and wide for confirmation of this story and couldn’t find it in any of his writings, they don’t tell stories like that about you and me I guess? More to the point, with Rosh HaShanah around the corner and this coming Jewish year a Shmitah year, our Parshah seems particularly relevant as it teaches the cancellation of all outstanding loans every seventh year during Shmitah.

While the agricultural element of Shmitah is perhaps the more famous or well-known component of the biblical sabbatical, the economic component of forgiving loans is arguably the more relevant part of Shmitah for those of us living outside of Israel. While, instinctively, we all group these two elements of Shmitah together– the financial and the agricultural– it actually was not clear to Chazal that they should be grouped such. First of all, it’s notable that, while the laws of agricultural Shemittah were learned in Parshat Behar, back in the book of Leviticus, these laws are taught much later in the book of Deuteronomy. Their presentation in the Torah suggests nothing to combine these distinct sets of laws other than the time period in which they fall out– every seventh year. The Midrash, quoted in the Gemara Gittin, asks if the laws of when Shmitat Karka– the land-based agricultural Shmitah– apply are the same for Shemtitat Kessafim– the financial sabbatical from collecting loans. Ultimately, the Gemara presents a Machloket with different opinions as to whether or not the agricultural Shmitah and the financial loan forgiveness exist as one joint entity, and therefore, whenever one applies the other should, or, if they are two independent Halakhot that just both happen to occur every seven years, and therefore, can be separated in terms of their applications. 

That said, it seems hard to imagine that these two laws are truly entirely separated. Is it truly coincidence that every seven years, both the land is supposed to lay fallow AND all lenders are supposed to forgive their loans? Perhaps one way to understand this perspective is to understand that the coincidence of the agricultural and financial laws of sabbatical both applying every seven years is not a coincidence at all. However, by saying these two sets of laws are entirely separate and do not necessarily apply under the same circumstances, we may be acknowledging a pragmatic element of the Mitzvah of Shemitat Kessafim that does not exist in Shemitat Karka. The commandment to let the land lay fallow– while it has charitable economic side effects– is primarily an act of faith, as the Jewish people rely on God for their sustenance. The commandment to cancel loans every seven years, however, is not a financial act of reliance on God. Rather, it is a pragmatic recognition that if every seven years everyone is going to take a sabbatical from work, then every seven years there will be a huge loss of capital and a need to ease up on loan collection for the sake of the greater good and goals of the Torah. In other words, the Torah goals that created the need to leave the land fallow every seven years are entirely distinct and unique from the goals and considerations that lead God to cancel loans every seven years. They happen to be caused by one another, but they are are accomplishing entirely different things.

This perspective, while perhaps innovative, is the easiest way to understand a unique and surprising perspective of R’ Eliezer of Meitz, known as the Yerei’im. While the simple understanding of the Torah, and the accepted Halakha, is that Shemitah cancels debts, setting the balance back to zero, the Yerei’im proposes a difficult and unique understanding of the law. The Yerei’im proposes that all Shemitah does is prohibit the lender from collecting money. That said, the borrower still owes that money, and is halakhically held accountable if they don’t pay it back. If we understand the laws of Shemitat Kessafim as part of the larger Shemitah project of wealth and land redistribution, it is difficult to understand how this really solves anything. Sure, it might be nice for the borrower to not be harassed by his debt collector, but it hardly changes his debt or economic standing? However, if we understand that the point of the Mitzvah is much more minimal– merely a pragmatic need to hold off on collecting loans for a bit, as everyone has been on sabbatical for a year– then we can understand how the Yerei’im could think that Shemitah doesn’t cancel loans. Just having extra time to pay the loan off unharassed is itself enough of a practical consideration to enable the economy to bounce back without necessarily taking the drastic step of cancelling all loans.

On the other hand, there is another perspective that sees both the agricultural and financial laws of Shemitah as part of one larger enterprise. According to this perspective, these two sets of laws are inextricably linked and reflect two prongs of attack for the divine goals reflected in the commandment of Shemitah. While it would seem like the Yerei’im, with his novel interpretation of how Shmitah works for loans, would have to reject this perspective given our explanation above. However, I’d like to suggest that even the Yerei’im could adopt this unified theory of Shemitah. 

To understand this position, we first have to understand what exactly is the unified goal that Shemitah accomplishes? While there undoubtedly is an economic justice element to Shemitah, it seems clear in the Torah that the ritual element of Shemitah is about reliving the period of dependence on God in the desert. Every seven years we rely on God to provide for us, just like the Jews did as they ate Manna in the desert. Given that, we can understand the prohibition to work and farm the land, as we rely on God. However, I think this framework also enables us to understand the Yerei’im’s position. If the point we’re trying to suggest is that one needs to experience a year of dependence solely on God, and no one else, then we can understand how limiting a lender’s ability to collect– without necessarily cancelling the debt– can accomplish this. The borrower is freed of fearing anyone but God and his own choices, but is not entirely freed from the consequence of his own actions. Thus, we see how Shemitat Kessafim may be a more immaterial financial compliment to the more embodied rest and reliance for material sustenance that the agricultural sabbatical represents. We rest from relying on others for financial assistance, and more, we are given a break from fearing about calls and harassment from debt collectors. 

That being the case, this upcoming Shemitah– which Halakhically we start preparing for this Sunday on Rosh Chodesh Elul– we should reflect upon our reliance on God in the desert as we are supposed to be reminded of during our Shemitah experience– be it Shemitat Karka or Shemitat Kessafim. However, while we typically look at the desert experience as a reminder of our past closeness to God, I want to emphasize a slightly different element. The desert was an extremely difficult time for the first generation of Jews to leave Egypt, and ultimately, none of them survived. It represented a radical shift in the way they lived, the religion they practiced, and the world around them, and all of that was difficult. Relying upon God is difficult, and it is not always as easy as believing and being rewarded. However, the desert experience is still valuable to remember because of all that we learned from the difficulty and how we grew from it. The same is true of the desert we are all slowly emerging from now. During the height of COVID, we all felt entirely helpless as we relied upon God– our own reenactment of the desert experience. While there is still much pain and trauma to process, we should take Shemitah as a reminder that as we emerge from our isolation and almost two years of Sabbatical, we must not pretend like nothing happened and just return to life as normal. Judaism commands us to relive and reexamine the hard parts of our lives and learn from them. As we gear up for the new year Teshuvah period of the upcoming Shemitah, let us all set a goal to learn from these past difficult couple of years and make a new year that is truly restful.

July 30th, 2021: Eikev

“Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now… I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” - Rabbi Sacks

Rabbi Sacks highlights the centrality of the command of Ahavat HaGer, loving the stranger, to the interpersonal ethic of the Torah. The very basis of empathy– our ability to understand the circumstances of the less fortunate and feel for them– is based in our own experience of pain and trauma. The fact that our ancestors suffered is not a license for us to dismiss the pain of others as less than our own, but rather, it serves as the very basis of the care and compassion we should feel in the present. Given that heavy significance, it’s not surprising that the command to love the Ger/stranger appears multiple times in the Torah, and is thematically one of the most oft repeated themes throughout the latter books. 

What is surprising, though, is that despite the repeated command “to love the Ger,” such as we find in our Parshah this week, according to the majority of rabbinic authorities, there is no ritualized Mitzvah to “love a Ger.” The need to love converts and foreigners falls under other Mitzvot, like loving your neighbor and providing charity for your fellow man, but there is no standalone performance of “VeAhavtem Et HaGeir,” and you shall love the stranger. Indeed, Maimonides, the great codifier of Mitzvot, sees Ahavat HaGer as a commandment so intuitive one has to ask why God would even command it. According to Maimonides and the majority of authorities, Ahavas HaGer primarily means: be nice to converts. 

It is but a small minority that understand the verse in our Parshah (10:19), And you shall love the stranger, to mean a ritualized halakhic performance. The Ri Albargeloni– an early Medieval authority from presumably Barcelona– and the Tashbeitz, a 15th century Spanish rabbi forced to relocate to Algiers–  are among the more obscure sources to see a traditional ritualized commandment implied by the seeming imperative to love Gerim in our Parshah, understanding it to be a Mitzvah upon the courts to accept converts. 

According to most interpretations, though, the command to love a stranger is at least not ritualized in its performance, if, perhaps, not a commandment at all. If that’s the case, what dimension is the Torah adding by its repeated imperative to love the convert? Fascinatingly, he Sefer HaChniuch, after discussing his position on the technical halakhic content of the Mitzvah of loving the Ger, adds the following note: 

’And we should learn from this precious commandment to have mercy on a man who is in a city that is not the land of his birth and the place of the family of his fathers. And we should not pass him by on the road when we find him alone and that his helpers are far from him, since we find that the Torah warns us to have mercy on anyone who needs help. And with these traits, we will merit to receive mercy from God, may He be blessed, and the blessings of Heaven will rest upon our heads. And Scripture hints to the reason of the command when it states, "since you were strangers in the Land of Egypt": It mentions to us that we were previously burnt by this great pain that there is to every man who sees himself among foreign people and in a foreign land. And upon our remembering the great worry of the heart that there is in the matter, and that it already passed over us and that God, in His kindnesses, took us out of there, our mercies for any person like this will overwhelm [us].’

Perhaps contributing to Rabbi Sacks’ thinking, the Chinuch spells out that the lesson of the repeated command to love the Ger is supposed to communicate an underlying ethic, even if it’s not introducing a substantively new ritualized commandment. Broader than any technical definition, the Chinuch tells us that the ethos of this commandment is to look out for foreigners– in the most literal of senses, including travellers on the side of the road or strangers visiting our neighborhood– who may be vulnerable and in need of help. This is because this command is not relegated to a specific ritualized action, but rather, is the creation of an ethic of empathy and compassion for the most vulnerable in society. Thus, rather than confining this verse to strictly technical halakhic terms, the Chinuch broadens the scope and application of this commandment to create an all-encompassing interpersonal ethic out of the Torah’s plea for empathy.  

It is a commonly misattributed quote that the true measure of society is how it treats the most vulnerable. Indeed, that very principle– that any ethical society should start with ensuring the basic safety and comfort of the worst off– served as the basis of much of John Rawls’ writings on ethics. The Chinuch’s understanding of Ahavat HaGer serves as an even earlier, Torah model of this ethical principle. While the need to care for Gerim may technically be subsumed under other commandments, the Torah goes out of its way to repeat the standalone commandment to care for Gerim to ground our ethical code and remind us of the very measuring stick we should be using to evaluate our own society. Broadly, are we caring for those in need and doing what we can to help and elevate those who are vulnerable? More narrowly, are we doing our part to create a community that is not just welcoming, but accessible to those who are often even unintentionally excluded? 

VeAhavtem Et HaGer reminds us that, while it is often easy to get caught up in VeAhavtem LeReiacha Kamocha and the inner workings, love, and drama of our Jewish community, it is often those who are forced to reside on the fringes– the fringes of our Orthodox community, or even the fringes of the broader society we’re a part of– that are the most in need. While it may be easier to love your fellow, let us all push ourselves to live up to the Torah’s expectations and create a community where no one is made to feel like a stranger. 

 

July 23, 2021: Vaetchanan

While Torah reading might be prime sleeping time for many, every once in a while there’s a Passuk or paragraph so famous or gripping that it wakes up the room. Undoubtedly, in our Parashah, even the sleepiest Stantonite must have been jarred awake earlier when Mordecai read out loud perhaps the most liturgically well-known verse in the entire Torah: Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Achad. For those who were jarred awake and are missing out on that Kriyat HaTorah nap, worry not, for thankfully there’s always the Rabbi’s Drashah. But for those who are stilled gripped, I want to try and understand the centrality of the Shema as it appears in our Parashah.

We just read over Tisha BAv how Rebbe Akiva established the tradition of reciting Shema on one’s death bed– a clear statement of it’s significance as a mantra and centering theological statement. In our Wednesday night Tefillah class, we discussed from a Halakhic perspective how Shema fits into the structure of Tefillah, and the important role it plays in our structured prayer. But in terms of the lived experience– the cultural place Shema has taken outside of formal prayer, as we see in Rebbe Akiva’s story, for example– I don’t think the significance is obvious. 

On the flip side of things, Rav Tzadok MeiLublin, in the first piece of his commentary on Mesechet Brachot, Tzidkat HaTzaddik, has a sharp observation about our early indoctrination into the importance of the Shema. Rav Tzaddok points out that, given that in Judaism, the calendar date begins at night time, then upon halakhically turning 12 or 13 the night of their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, the first Mitzvah any Jewish boy or girl fulfills in their life as an obligated adult is that of the nighttime Shema. In other words, while Rebbe Akiva shows us that Shema might be the last thing many Jews say in their adult life, Reb Tzaddok points out it’s also the first. Being a Chasidic master, Rav Tzadok assumes that everything, even the uncodified and seemingly unintentional lived experiences that Judaism creates, must be a meaningful part of the divine mission. Thus, Rav Tzadok assumes that it is not mere coincidence, but rather, by design that Jewish children become initiated into adulthood, and the obligations that carries, via their recitation of the Shema. While Rav Tzaddok gives his own explanation as to why that’s the case, I want to go in a slightly different direction.

While the first verse of the Shema, “Hear O Israel,” might be the most theologically loaded of the section, I think we need to focus on the full first paragraph, as it appears in our Parashah, to truly appreciate why Shema is so important. Indeed, often the important of stating God’s unity and the monotheistic nature of our religion seems so straightforward and obvious, that often we don’t examine or think to ask about the content of the rest of Shema. As we progress to the first paragraph of Shema, instead of making grand theological statements, we essentially have a laundry list of commandments. 

First, we are told that one should love God with all of one’s heart, soul, and possessions. Then, we find out the need to teach one’s children about God and the Mitzvot both when sitting at home, as well as while traveling on the read. Then, to wrap things up, the Torah throws in the commandments of Tefillin and Mezuzah, ensuring a future market for Sofrei Stam. At first glance, one could easily see this collection of Mitzvot as a somewhat random laundry list– perhaps picked for their overall importance, but with little unifying nature to these Mitzvot. However, I think both the nature of these Mitzvot and their presentation in our Parashah reveal a very different theme.

Right off the bat, it seems clear that the first paragraph of Shema is trying to communicate a message of the all encompassing nature of our devotion and service to God. We are told to love God, not just with actions or words, but with every level and fibre of our being– be they emotional, spiritual, or physical. The Torah emphasizes BeChol Levavcha, Bechol Nafshecha, UVeChol Moadecha, literally communicating a sense of all encompassing wholeness. This theme is then carried by the next verse which tells us that the need to review and teach these ideas applies both when we are traveling on the road, and when we are relaxing at home. In other words, this Mitzvot constantly apply. By spelling out that the Mitzvah of VeShinantam Bam applies both at home and on the road, the Torah is going out of its way in its presentation to highlight the constancy and all encompassing nature of this Mitzvah.

Finally, given that emphasis in the Torah’s presentation, we can now understand the seemingly random collection of Tefillin and Mezuzah in this section. The Maharshah, in his commentary on Brachot, describes how the act of wrapping one’s body in Tefillin should remind one of the all encompassing sense of the divine presence upon one, as they feel the leather straps against their arms and head, and feel their tension through the body. In other words, Tefillin are a performative embodiment of how our very bodies are constantly surrounded and encompassed by the divine, as the humanly accessible element of Godliness remains constantly accessible to us. 

Similarly, the Mitzvah of affixing a Mezuzah to our door transforms the very house and shelter in which we live into a structure fundamentally characterized and dedicated to Torah and Judaism. By affixing Mezuzot to our doorposts, we completely surround every door and entrance of our home with Torah, and make a clear statement that this house is one that is full of and entirely encompassed with Torah. Much like the Tefillin surround and cover our bodies, the Mezuzot surround and cover our houses, creating a home that is fully dedicated to embodying Jewish life.

Given this focus and explanation of the Mitzvot in the first paragraph of Shema, I think the importance of this section of the Torah– as the first and last Mitzvah a Jew fulfills. While the first verse of Shema might carry the theological load of the section, heady intellectual theology is nothing without action. The first paragraph of the Shema teaches us that Judaism is not merely a series of individual actions or commitment we have to fulfill while we otherwise live out our own lives and dreams. Far from a side responsibility, or a personal hobby, Judaism is supposed to be an all encompassing and holistic experience. Our souls, minds, and bodies– our houses and possessions– all of it should be part of a full and fleshed out Jewish lifestyle that defines our identity and characterizes our day to day life.

As modern people, with fleshed out lives full of interests and commitments, it’s easy to let Judaism become a once a week event we attend every Shabbat when we go to Shul. It’s tempting to bifurcate one’s life, and see Torah and Mitzvot as a side task or responsibility one acts out at certain times or places. In Shul. At our Chareidi relatives house. On Shabbat and holidays. However, much like the unified nature of our monotheistic God necessitates an understanding that, despite the broad and multidimensional nature of the divine, there is ultimately one entity with a cohesive character, God expects us to live similarly unified and holistic Jewish lives– where our Judaism permeates and defines our life perspective and experience. Let’s let the Shema, with the way it encompasses our entire day– recited every morning when we wake up and every night before sleep– serve as a reminder and a dedication that the days ahead will be ones not just featuring Mitzvot, or abiding by Torah, but defined and characterized by a commitment to the lived experience of being Jewish. Then we can truly show our dedication to God, BiChol Levavcha, Bichol Nafshecha, UViChol Miodecha– with every fiber of our being.

July 16, 2021: Devarim

“Three prophesied with the word "Eikha" – Moshe, Yeshayahu, and Yirmeyahu. Moshe said: "How [eikha] can I myself alone bear your cumberance" (Devarim 1:12); Yeshayahu said: "How [eikha] has the faithful city become a harlot" (Yeshayahu 1:21); Yirmeyahu said: "How [eikha] does the city sit solitary" (Eikha 1:1).

R. Levi said: This may be likened to a matron who had three friends. One saw her in her happiness, one in her recklessness, and one in her disgrace. Thus, Moshe saw Israel in their glory and happiness and said: "How can I myself alone bear your cumberance." Yeshayahu saw them in their recklessness and said: "How has the faithful city become a harlot." Yirmiyahu saw them in their disgrace and said: "How does the city sit solitary." (Eikha Rabba 1:1)

We just read Parshat Devarim and Haftorat Chazon, the traditional Shabbat readings for the Shabbat before Tisha B’Av. This year in particular, the connection to Tisha B’Av dominates our Shabbat experience, as the fast of Tisha B’Av begins before Shabbat even ends, the one instance of communal fasting on Shabbat! Given that the anxiety of fasting is upon all of us, I’m sure many of us were particularly attuned to the connections linking our Torah reading, the Haftorah, and Megillat Eichah which we will read together later tonight. All of them prominently feature an unusual word– a refrain that really embodies the season: Eichah. Moshe complains how can he carry the burden of the Jewish people alone, Yeshayahu rebukes “how has this city become a harlot,” and Jeremiah laments “how can Jerusalem sit alone.” Clearly these three sections are linked together via the unusual use of the word Eichah, the rallying call for the observance of Tisha B’Av. 

Fascinatingly, despite the parallel of using the exact same word in all three cases, the Midrash clearly sees a multitude of emotion and feeling residing within that one word. The same words of Eichah can be a response to seeing the Jewish people’s “happiness and glory”– as the Midrash interprets Moshe’s usage of the word–  at the same time that Jeremiah uses it to lament the painful death and destruction that is taking place around him. In other words, while Eichah clearly expresses a sense of overwhelming emotion and feeling, that feeling can lie anywhere on the spectrum from glorified happiness to traumatic tragedy. 

Indeed, the very same Midrash with which we opened up continues to spell out that multiple possible meanings of the word Eichah:

Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Nechemya [disagree]. Rabbi Yehuda says: The term eikha denotes rebuke. As it is stated (Yirmiyahu 8:8): "How (eikha) can you say, We are wise, and the Torah of the Lord is with us, etc." And Rabbi Nechemya says: The term eikha denotes lamentation. As it is stated (Genesis 3:9): "And the Lord called to the man, and said to him, Where are you (ayeka)" – woe to you (oy lekha).

The Midrash presents two opposing understandings of the word Eichah and its connotations. On the one hand, Eichah can be viewed as a genuinely inquisitive expression of “how did you get here?” Thus, when Jeremiah employs the criticism of Eichah, he is rebuking the Jewish people. “How could you allow yourselves to sink so low” – Eichah? Within this valence of meaning, Eichah, as articulated by Jeremiah, is the bedrock of rebuke, criticism, and ultimately self-inspection. If we don’t stop and reflect “how did I get here” we can never learn and grow from our mistakes and the consequences they may bring.

On the other hand, though, the Midrash presents a second option based in a verse from the book of Genesis. Here, the Midrash cleverly notes that Eichah, our lament of “how,” is spelled the same way as man’s first personal recorded speech to Adam in the garden, “Ayekah,” where are you? This time, it is God, not man, who employs the language of Eichah. This Eichah, though, is not genuinely inquisitive or reflective. God does not need an answer or accounting for the question of “how did you get here” as God already knows. Rather, when uttered by God, the inquisitive Eichah or Ayekah is surely understood as purely rhetorical. Thus, the Midrash understands God as saying not Ayekah, nor Eichah, but rather, Oy Lekha, woe to you. When said from God’s perspective, Eichah is transformed into an expression of sympathy, as God bemoans the suffering that we bring about upon ourselves, going all the way back to Adam and Eve in the garden– the first time God was forced to punish humanity. 

What emerges is a duality to the expression Eichah that lies at the very heart of the day that awaits us. On the one hand, the mourning and sorrowful practices of Tisha BAv must inspire us to ask Jeremiah’s Eichah– how did we get here? How could this happen? Tisha BAv presents a prime opportunity for Teshuvah, repentance, as we reflect upon all the troubles, sorrows, and difficulties that face us collectively, starting all the way back with the destruction of the temples and carrying on until today. Perhaps, in part, that explains Tisha BAv’s surprising parallels to Yom Kippur, as the two days exist as the only 25 hour fast days and parallel each other in many of the minutiae of Halakha. Much like Yom Kippur, there is a certain element of Teshuvah and growth inherent in Tisha BAv, as we ask ourselves how we made the mistakes we did and how we can be better in the future.

However, at the same time that we are trying to use Tisha BAv as a vehicle and opportunity for personal growth and reflection, God reminds us to take a moment and articulate the pain and suffering that we are experiencing. The divine admission of “Oy Lekha” is not gloating at our downfall, but rather, serves as an essential reminder that a major part of observing Tisha BAv is inculcating that emotional and internal feeling of loss and desperation, as we take account of the true cost of Tisha BAv. We live in a broken world, full of hatred, violence, and dischord, and as we’ve all seen first hand too recently. Part of our mission, and our observance of Tisha BAv is making an effort to create space to actually feel those feelings and embrace those tragedies. Tisha BAv reminds us that Judaism is not just about “looking on the bright side” and trying to move on. Rather, there is an important time and place for venting tragedy, suffering, and pain. God reminds us this Tisha BAv that it is ok and encouraged to take a second, take step back, and say Oy.

And so, as we come off a year of pandemic, a moment of national reckoning, and a period of rising animosity, hatred, and tensions in the world, I think there is a lot to say oy about. Let us all take some time this Tisha BAv to reflect on the Oy before transitioning to the How. Let us designate the first half of our Tisha BAv, starting tonight and continuing until tomorrow midday, to embodying and understanding the pain and suffering that we should feel for ourselves, our fellow Jews, and our fellow humans. If we dedicate the first half of our Tisha BAv to being a period of empathy, and truly feeling the hurt and pain that exists in our community– much less the world at large– when we come to midday Tisha BAv and we ask ourselves Eichah, how could this happen, we’ll finally be ready to start answering that question and work on ourselves in our efforts to repair the world. 

 

July 9, 2021: Matot-Masei

In recent years, 'sanctuary city' has become one of those political buzzwords that signifies a highly partisan issue, as local governments assert their independence from federal intrusion. First, there were sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, which bore the nearly-satirical recent response of establishing “sanctuary cities” where COVID restrictions will not be enforced, and most recently, sanctuary cities were federal gun laws will not be enforced. It’s clear that this sense of “sanctuary” is a local shelter and reprieve from the federal government itself, as local communities assert their individual values, for better or worse, in the face of federal coercion. 

But when we look at this week’s Parshah, we find that the biblical origin of a sanctuary city, the Ir Miklat, is not a local protection from the federal government, but, in fact, exactly the opposite. The biblical Cities of Refuge represent a governmentally sanctioned form of protection against the emotional responses and whims of individual citizens and locales. One of Moshe’s last commandments before the Jewish people begin their campaign to enter and conquer Israel, the cities of refuge are established to protect accidental killers from the vengeful passions of a victim’s surviving family members. While the Torah empowers the victim’s family to seek revenge and redeem the blood of their loved one by killing the accidental murderer, it also establishes Arei Miklat as safe havens, where the accidental murderer can hide in safety.

Lest one think that the Torah is giving people a free pass to kill others without consequence, the standard for qualifying for an Ir Miklat is notably high. Not only must the murder have been accidental and unintentional, but it must not have been easily foreseeable or preventable. If there is substantial evidence of negligence, then the Torah does not protect against the vengeful surviving family members. Thus, for example, the Gemara in Makkot rules that if someone was chopping wood and the axe head flew off their axe and killed someone, they would not be eligible to seek refuge in an Ir Miklat, for they were negligent by not checking their equipment beforehand to make sure it was safely secured. However, if a safely secured axe is being used to cut wood and a splinter of wood unpredictably breaks off and kills someone, then such an unusual and unforeseeable circumstance would grant the woodcutter access to the protection of an Ir Miklat. 

Given that high bar to qualify for protection, it would seem that access to an Ir Miklat is denied not only to actual murderers, but even those guilty of manslaughter or negligence. It’s only those who are themselves the victim of circumstance that are admitted to these cities of refuge. Yet, while that may be the case halakhically, that is certainly not the impression one gets from reading the biblical verses themselves. Repeatedly, the Torah refers to the accidental killer as a “Rotzeiach,” a murderer– the very same term used to describe intentional homicide. Moreover, the Torah interweaves the laws of homicide into the presentation of the Arei Miklat, switching back and forth between the laws of intentional and accidental murder, confusing the reader and giving off the impression that these cases are two sides of the same coin. 

In fact, this ambiguity surrounding the status of an accidental would-be-murderer is also carried over into the rabbinic discourse as well. The Gemara in Makkot points out that there were three cities of refuge east of the Jordan, for the 2.5 tribes that settled there, and three cities of refuge west of the Jordan, for the remaining 9.5 tribes. The Gemara notes this inequality and asks why, if three cities of refuge is enough for all the millions of Jews in Israel, the couple of tribes who live east of the Jordan should also get three cities. Surely that seems like overkill? The Gemara answers that east of the Jordan was a dangerous area, full of murderers and criminals, so they had more of a need for cities of refuge. However, given the laws of who qualifies for the protection of cities of refuge, this answer seems to make no sense! We just said that only totally accidental victims of circumstance can hide out in a city of refuge, but an actual criminal or murderer would not be protected! If that’s the case, who cares that there is a lot of violent crime east of the Jordan? That should have nothing to do with protection from accidental murder offered by the Arei Miklat? Much like the Torah’s seeming confusion of accidental and intentional murder in the biblical verses, the Rabbinic exegesis seems to confuse and conflate criminal homicide with tragic circumstance. 

Far from inexactitude or imprecision, I think the Torah’s ambiguity here is intentional and communicates a powerful message. The Torah is telling us that, to a certain extent, there is no such thing as fully excusable or unavoidable killing. Even the most unfortunate and unpredictable of circumstances still leaves an indelible mark on the killer, as the experience of taking another person’s life can never be summed up as a mere “accident.” Thus, both the intentional and accidental killer is called a Rotzeiach, a murderer, in the eyes of the Torah. This is perhaps best encapsulated in the position of the Rambam. Rambam, in his codification of the law of murder, says that anyone who kills a fellow Jew is a murderer, however, only one who kills intentionally is liable to punishment. While punishment may be reserved, in the eyes of the Torah and Halakha, anyone who has taken the life of another has partaken in a murderous act and has been impacted and needs to be rehabilitated.

However, beyond the individual’s experience and need for rehabilitation, we see a larger focus from the aforementioned Gemara in Makkot. If we aren’t dealing with a case of actual murderer, then why does the Gemara justify the density of Arei Miklat east of the Jordan by explaining that crime is more frequent there? Much like the biblical verses, the rabbis of the Gemara are teaching us that the difference between homicide and accident is a thin line. In a locale where actual murder and violence is frequent, human life itself will be devalued societally, leading to more accidental deaths as well. In other words, while it is true that the frequency of violent crime does not itself impact how badly an Ir Miklat is needed, it represents the general values that are being communicated within a community. If a community devalues others and does not work to actively preserve and communicate the sanctity of all human life, then not only will the intentional deaths and murders increase, but even the unintentional ones will as well. If blood is cheap and living people are devalued and dehumanized, then the general culture will itself contribute to violence and loss of life.

Given this perspective, it’s not surprising that when Moshe repeats the law of Ir Miklat in Devarim, he places it in close proximity to the laws of Eglah Arufah, the calf that is sacrificed by a community’s elders to atone for the unattributed death of a visiting guest. Much like the Communal Elders at the Eglah Arufah ceremony implicitly acknowledge communal responsibility for this visitor’s death by offering an atoning sacrifice, communal leaders and institutions must evaluate their role in contributing to “accidental murders” as some towns more than others seem to be natural pipelines for the cities of refuge. Overall, the parting message Moshe is leaving the Jewish people with is a powerful one. Rather than using their own communities as sanctuary cities that represent their own values or communal inclinations, Moshe is commanding the Jewish people in a Halakhic institution that forces them to be hyper aware and constantly reevaluating the messages their community is implicitly giving off and the impact that has on its members. The Ir Miklat reminds us that, even the most unforeseen of consequences, are ultimately a product of the community and environment that bears them. 

Currently, we are living through a moment that unfortunately sees a rise in communal attitudes of hate and devaluing life. America is figuring out the aftermath of a new round of racial reckoning that started with George Floyd’s murder last year and begs the queston of communal values and standards. Additionally, Asian and Jewish Americans have faced an increase in animosity and hatred, as the lives of many are being devalued and diminished by the public culture and attitudes of some. While, of course, we are not to blame and cannot take any responsibility for the rise in anti-semitism, what we can do is take responsibility for the actions and attitudes of our own communities towards others. The laws of Ir Miklat remind us that the way we speak, the messages we communicate, and the culture we create has real life significance and impact. If we create a Jewish community that allows for racism, discrimination, and hate, then ultimately, all of us are to blame for whatever crimes and tragedies are born out of such an environment and community, even if we are not personally perpretrating them. These divine expectations should inspire us to ensure that, at the very least, our small Stanton Street community can be a sanctuary from the racism, discrimination, and hate that is unfortunately impacting society as a whole. Only if we are first willing to do the work to preserve the sanctity of all humans can we grow the sanctity of our Shul and share its light with the world around us. 

 

June 25, 2021: Balak

To those of you who have been following these sermons all year, you should already know that I’m a huge fan of Marvel Comics and its cinematic universe. Shoshana and I were watching the newest TV Series, Loki, when Marvel, as they always do, dropped a heavy theme in its first episode. Loki, the Norse god of mischief and Marvel villain, is made to confront the possibility that he is merely a “background character” whose only purpose is to further the plot and development of the Avengers, with no attention paid to his own development. It seems that the rest of the series will be struggling with that question of destiny and identity, as Loki struggles to find his meaning outside of defining himself as a foe of the Avengers. 

This week’s Parshah seems, in many ways, to be the “Loki” of the Torah, as the background baddies are given their time in the spotlight. One can’t help but feel how unusual this week’s Parshah is, as Bilaam– the Canaanite prophet– is placed in the driver’s seat, and the otherwise background characters such as the Moabites become the drivers of the plot. Perhaps noting the peculiarity of this section, the Talmud in Bava Basra (14b) reveals a shocking bit of biblical background when it says that Moshe wrote his book– the Torah– and Parshat Bilaam, as if Bilaam’s story in this week’s Parshah had an independent existence outside of the Torah. It is perhaps fitting then that, even older than the earliest example of biblical text– the 7th century Ketef Hinnom scrolls housed in the Israel Museum– archaeologists have found ancient traces of Bilaam’s prophecy, independent from Jewish culture. The Deir Alla inscription is an eighth century BCE Canaanite artifact found in Jordan that relays a story of the great prophet Bilaam son of Beor who saved the world from the wrath of the gods. 

On the one hand, this might be shocking insofar as it demonstrates the rare outside corroboration of evidence for a biblical story. We have notably little evidence corroborating the Egyptian slavery or the 40 years wandering in the desert, and it is affirming to see independent accounts of biblical events. But on the other hand, this archaeological find seems shocking in a sense that challenges faith, or at the very least demands a response from the faithful. Is the Torah really incorporating religious and prophetic texts of pagan cultures? Notably, the Deir Alla inscription references multiple gods, none of whom are the Jewish YKVK. More challenging than a mere implicit comparison between the prophecies of Moshe and Bilaam, this historical text seems to demand a more literal read of the aforementioned Gemara. Moshe wrote down his book, God’s Torah, as well as the independently extant pagan prophecies of Bilaam, which comprised the basis for the Torah’s account in Parshat Balak. 

Yet, despite that literal comparison between Moshe and Bilaam, when one looks at the actual Torah portion that tells Bilaam’s story, one finds that in translating the Canaanite prophet into a Torah tale, it is not Moshe whom the Torah compares Bilaam to but rather, Avraham. Textually, we see a number of parallels between the two figures. The Torah tells us that Bilaam arose early in the morning “VaYachavosh Et Chamoro,” and he saddled his own donkey, the exact same language used in describing Avraham the morning of Akeidat Yitzchak. This textual parallel is so undeniable that the rabbis in the Midrash quote it and say that Bilaam and Avraham are supposed to be viewed in contrast to one another. Two sides of the same coin. 

However, beyond these obvious biblical and rabbinic connections between Bilaam and Avraham, there are even more subtle ones. For example, Bilaam is commanded Lekh, to go, by God in a clear parallel to Avraham’s command of Lekh Lekha. On that divinely commanded journey, Bilaam is accompanied by Shtei Naarav Ito, two young men who accompany him, another parallel to Avraham on his Akeidah journey. Along the way, Bilaam encounters an angel who stops him from carrying out his intentions, much like the angel that appeared to Avraham on the mountain and stopped him from slaughtering Isaac. Finally, thematically, both the story of Bilaam and Avraham are characterized by the motif of vision, as Avraham continually lifts up his eyes and sets his vision upon the mountain revealed to him by God, his son, and the goat offered in his son’s stead– all of whom have been orchestrated by God. Bilaam, repeatedly described as a seer, reaches the peak of his conflict when his donkey sees what he cannot see, until finally the angel of God is revealed to him and he sees the angel with his own eyes. 

Perhaps most subtle, the Torah creates a geographic link with Avraham as well. Avraham, as we know from Bereishit, was an Aramean, hailing from the land of Aram Naharayim where Yaakov eventually moves in with Lavan. Bilaam, also described as having left the land of his people, is located as residing in “Petor on the river.” Devarim 23:5 reveals that Petor is actually on the river of Aram Naharayim, the very same riverbank where Avraham grew up! Much like Avraham, Bilaam has roots in Aram Naharayim before leaving his homeland to journey towards the land of Canaan.

In sum, we are left with a mysterious story, featuring an Abraham-like figure, whose independent prophecies were written down into a code preserved for generations like the books of Moses. While this might seem somewhat random or out of place, it is specifically when considered in place and in context that this Bilaam story, and its parallels to Avraham, can be made sense of. The Jewish people are about to engage in one of their first battles in the launch of their conquest to conquer the land of Israel. With that backdrop, Avraham has particular significance, not just as a patriarch or religious figure, but as the original receiver of God’s promise of the land of Israel. Avraham is the historical and symbolic link between the Jewish people and the land of Israel, representing the divine claim– and divine mission– the Jewish people have on the land. 

However, the foreign peoples the Israelites must wage war against are not NPC’s or valueless background characters who only exist to further their own story. They are real living people, with families, traditions, history, and culture rooting them to their homeland and animating their stories. Bilaam is paralleled to Avraham to remind us that, while we may have Brit Avraham and, therefore, have a legitimate claim and reason to conquer the land of Israel, those Moavites and Canaanites we are about to face also have a robust religion and culture, with its own historical and spiritual claims to peoplehood and its own roots in the land. In other words, just as we have the Brit Avraham as recorded in the Torat Moshe, the Canaanites have their own Avraham-like figures and their own Moshe-like prophecies. Of course, that does not diminish the truth of our Torah, or mitigate the need to actualize the Abrahamic covenant. Rather, it merely serves as a reminder for the need for understanding and cultural sensitivity, even during a conflict of literally biblical proportions. 

Ultimately, the Torah tells us of the sins of Bilaam, and the tradition records him as an enemy of the Jewish people. In other words, we definitively reject the narrative of Sefer Bilaam. But, much like Loki getting a chance to shine independent of the Avengers, Parshat Balak should push us to consider why Bilaam’s book deserves inclusion and consideration in our Torah. It may not change the truth we believe in or the actions we think legitimate and necessary, but giving even those we are in conflict with the occasional spotlight to hear their voices and ensure they are understood as humans and not just background characters ensures that even in the midst of a brutal war, we can preserve our own sensitivity towards humanity and live up to the blessings, and not the curses, of Bilaam.

June 18th, 2021: Chukat

Ironically, while Parshat Chukat might be named for, and best known as, a section full of unresolved questions, as it presents the mysterious ritual of the red heifer, the rest of the Parshah that follows is one full of resolutions. As the desert narrative begins to wrap up, the Torah reader is given closure to many of the figures we’ve been following throughout the story. The generation that leaves Egypt dies, giving way to a new generation that will enter the land of Israel. Similarly, the leadership is confronted with its own mortality, as Miriam dies at the beginning of our Parshah, Aharon passes at the end, and in the middle, Moshe is told he will meet his end before entering the land of Israel. 

Yet, while this offers us some amount of closure and resolution, it also raises an important question. Why exactly is Moshe, the greatest prophet and leader in Jewish history, denied entry to the land of Israel? Of course, our Parshah tells us that Moshe was punished for the episode at Mei Merivah, where God told Moshe to speak to a rock and, miraculously, water would spring forth, but instead, Moshe disobeys the divine command and hits the rock. While this seems to be a direct act of disobedience, at the end of the day Moshe provided the Jewish people with water as needed, and, seemingly, with some amount of divine approbation– as, if God really didn’t approve of what was happening, He wouldn’t have made water miraculously emerge when Moshe struck the rock. So why does Moshe receive such a harsh punishment? 

One approach to make sense of this confusing episode is to play up the sin Moshe committed. Perhaps the most extreme example of this, the Or HaChaim explains that Moshe’s act of disobedience was of major significance. According to the Or HaChaim, when Moshe hit the rock instead of speaking to it, Moshe was rendered a Navi Sheker, a false prophet, as he mistransmited the divine command that was given to him. As we see elsewhere in the Torah, the punishment for a false prophet is the death penalty, and thus, Moshe was punished with dying in the desert before ever seeing the land of Israel. Of course, this approach is extremely difficult to swallow. Are we really to believe that Moshe Rebbeinu, the transmitter of the Torah and the greatest prophet in Jewish history, could have been rendered a Navi Sheker– one of the greatest sins against God one can commit? Any attempt to play up Moshe’s sin will ultimately be faced with a similar difficulty. 

Rashi, amongst others, focuses less on the severity of Moshe’s sin, and more on the opportunity cost of the action. Moshe addressed the Jewish people as rebels, and thus, took quick and decisive action to try and quash their rebellion by hitting the rock– the tried and true method for producing water. However, had Moshe listened to God and instead demonstrated patience and understanding with the Jewish people, it would have been an instance of Kiddush Hashem, illustrating that God hears their complaints and is understanding of the struggles they face in the desert. But by referring to them as rebels and taking brash action, Moshe squandered the opportunity to inculcate further appreciation for God amongst the masses, and thus was punished. 

This interpretation has a strong textual support, as God says: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהֹוָה֮ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃, you did not trust me to sanctify me to the eyes of the Jewish people. Therefore you will not bring them into the land I give them. Clearly, “LeHakdisheini LeiEini Bnei Yisrael,” missing the opportunity to sanctify God’s name is a major part of the sin discussed. However, this too is not so simple. First of all, what exactly is the missed Kiddush Hashem here? Is speaking to the rock really a greater display of divine care or holiness than hitting it? Even more difficult, God says Moshe displayed a lack of faith by hitting the rock. But can Moshe– the faithful servant of God who is described as “Bichol Beiti Neeman Hu,” really be characterized as lacking faith in God? Such a description seems shocking, to say the least. 

To best understand this episode, I’d like to share an insight of Rav Yoel Bin Nun. Rav Yoel explains that, in order to appreciate the difference between hitting the rock and speaking to it, we have to fully appreciate the context of the two different times God commands Moshe to bring forth water from a rock. The first time, when God commands Moshe to hit the rock, the Jewish people have just left Egypt via great miracles and open wonders. Indeed, the Torah emphasizes in Sefer Shemot that Moshe hits the rock with the same staff he hit the Nile with during the plagues, as if to connect the two miracles. Much like the plagues and the Exodus from Egypt, hitting the rock is an aggressive and materially embodied miracle, exemplifying God’s willingness to get physical for the sake of the Jewish people.

Given how spiritually low the Jewish people had sunk after decades of enslavement and oppression, it makes sense that God needed to communicate with them via flashy and physical miracles in order to win them over. Indeed, merely a couple chapters after God splits the sea and miraculously saves them, the Jewish people have already forgotten about God and complain that they would have been better off in Egypt. This first generation of Jews to wander in the desert represents a very physical, and therefore, limited relationship with God, where the divine exists only in the observable and physical acts we can see, and is quickly forgotten when there is no act of divine striking or smiting to remind the Jewish people of His presence.

In our Parshah, though, Moshe is dealing with a new generation– the generation that is set to enter Israel and fulfill the divine promise. That generation did not experience slavery in Israel, and did not require the open miracles of splitting the sea. Rather, this generation is supposed to experience God and the divine presence through Torah learning and religious observance. Thus, rather than commanding Moshe to hit the rock, God tells Moshe that he needs to speak to the rock, illustrating a fundamental shift in how the Jewish people are to relate to God. Instead of interacting via flashy miracles and physical salvation, the Jewish people will experience God through the verbal and intellectual efforts of prayer, Torah learning, and Mitzvah observance. 

Moshe, though, is unable to shift and change his leadership style for the challenges of the new generation. Instead, he falls back on the forms of communication and messaging that had served him until now, and hits the rock. In part, this represents a lack of dynamism on Moshe’s part, as he sticks to his guns. However, more importantly, it represents Moshe’s lack of faith in the Jewish people. God is not accusing Moshe of lacking faith in the divine, but rather, lacking faith in the Jewish people’s ability to change over time and become a nation that interacts with God intellectually and intangibly, instead of through open flashy miracles. Thus, Moshe does not speak to the rock, and instead hits the rock. In turn, God gets confirmation that while Moshe may have been the perfect leader for the first generation of Jews to leave Egypt, the new generation will need a new leader to lead them into the land of Israel. Thus, Moshe is not punished as much as he is replaced with a more fit leader for the different challenge that awaits the different generation of the Jewish people. 

It should not be lost on us that this transition away from a physical relationship built upon miraculous acts of aggression to an intellectually intangible one takes place right before the Jewish people are about to wage war and conquer the land of Israel. It is tempting to view the tangibility of God’s land, and the brutality of divinely mandated war, as an indication of a relationship with God that is manifest through a specific plot of dirt, and the military success needed to conquer and defend it. But it is precisely on the precipice of this moment of overwhelming physicality that God commands Moshe to lead the Jewish people into a spiritual transition away from divine acts of aggression. God is reminding Moshe and the Jewish people that while the conquest for the land of Israel is an essential part of the divine plan, it is merely a means, and not in itself an end. Once they have conquered Israel, the true work will begin, as the Jewish people will have to develop a transmittable faith and tradition to spread God’s work to the world. In the coming week, as we pray, learn Torah, and live our largely intellectual lives, let us each take a moment to slow down and reflect upon our relationship with God and Judaism, even without a flashy miracle or a moment of crisis forcing us into divine dependence. Then we can rise to the challenge and show God that, all those years ago in the desert, He was not mistaken for believing in us. 

June 11, 2021: Korach

Perhaps one of the most surprising elements of the story of Korach and his rebellion against Moshe is how little Korach actually says, given that he has an entire Parshah named after him. While we read about Korach leading different factions of the Jewish people against Moshe and Aharon, and of course we hear Korach’s rallying cry and campaign slogan– Ki Kol HaEidah Kulam Kedoshim, for all of the nation is holy– we hardly hear another word from him in the episodes that follow. Living in an era of loud personalities, gaudy rallies, and aggressive social media campaigning, it's hard to imagine how Korach could have possibly created a coalition of followers with one catchy slogan?

Thankfully, Chazal are also bothered by this surprising silence, and they fill in the gaps of what Korach said in a Midrash quoted by Rashi. According to Chazal, Korach put on a public show of challenging Moshe’s authority in order to win over his followers. Korach pulled out a garment completely dyed blue with Tekhelet– the blue dye that we learned in last week’s Parshah is supposed to color one of the strings of Tzitzit– and asked Moshe: Talit SheKulah Tekhelet Chayiv BeTzitzit, is a garment that is fully blue obligated in the Mitzvah of Tzitzit? In other words, Korach confronts Moshe with a facetious Halakhic question in an attempt to undermine Moshe’s religious authority. Is a blue garment obligated to have a blue string attached to its corners to fulfill Tzitzit? 

However, while Chazal’s imagining of the events fills in some details, it raises many more questions. First of all, why was this challenge against Moshe’s authority so effective? Was there a large mob of anti-Tzitzit protestors who were chomping at the bit to abolish fringed garments? It seems like a relatively inconsequential halakhic point to weaponize against the leader who took the Jewish people out of Egypt and brought them to Har Sinai? Secondly, of all the various Halakhic difficulties and inconsistencies all of us struggle with in our daily lives, why did Korach pick Tzitzit as the line of attack against Moshe? Was it just a random example? There’s 613 Mitzvot to target, and it seems odd Korach would pick this one in particular?

To some extent, the latter question can be answered through a greater understanding of Midrashic methodology. Far from just making up fairy tales, the Rabbis generally stick to a pretty structured framework of rules and methodology in creating the basis for Midrashim. Given that, we can understand the basis of this Midrash as a classic example of the rabbinic sensitivity to biblical juxtaposition. The end of Parashat Shlach, and the section of the Torah that immediately precedes the story of Korach, is God giving the Jewish people the commandment of Tzitzit. Given that Korach’s rebellion immediately follows God’s commandment to wear Tzitzit, we can understand how the rabbis may have concluded that the two sections must be related. It is not random that Korach’s rebellion follows the commandment of Tzitzit, but rather, in the Rabbinic conception of the story, it is direct cause and effect. Korach learns of the commandment of Tzitzit and is immediately moved to rebel. 

Yet, while this may explain why, of all Mitzvot, the Rabbis see Tzitzit as the basis for Korach’s attack, it does not actually explain the content of that challenge. Why is Korach asking about a Talis SheKulah Techelet, a fully blue garment? To fully understand the significance of this challenge, we have to look earlier in Sefer Bamidbar, to the only instance of a fully blue garment in the Torah. All the way back in Bamidbar 4, Parashat Nasso, we learn about the various responsibilities given to each of the three Levite families. In this context, we learn that the Bnei Kehat– the Levite family of which Korach is a member– has arguably the most important job in caring for the Mishkan. The Bnei Kahat are charged with transporting the various holy vessels– including the Aron, the Menorah, and the altars– which reside in the innermost chambers of the Tabernacle. However, before the Bnei Kehat can enter the Mishkan and carry out its holiest vessels, God tells Aharon that he must first enter into the holiest sanctums and cover all the vessels in a cloth wrap made entirely out of Techelet, so that the Bnei Kehat will not see them. The Torah says (Bamidbar 4:6): וְנָתְנוּ עָלָיו, כְּסוּי עוֹר תַּחַשׁ, וּפָרְשׂוּ בֶגֶד-כְּלִיל תְּכֵלֶת, מִלְמָעְלָה, And Aharon shall put on them a skin covering, and spread a fully blue (Tekhelet) garment on top of them. Only after the Priests have wrapped up the vessels in a Techelet wrapping, so that the Levites cannot see or handle them, are the Bnei Kehat allowed to enter and remove them for travel. 

Given this context, we can now better understand Korach’s frustrations and, ultimately, the content of his challenge. As a member of the family of Kehat, Korach regularly was forced to enter the Mishkan and see everything covered up in blue garments. These blue garments served as a constant reminder that he was lesser than the Kohanim, as, despite being separated from the Jewish people and given one of the most privileged and important jobs, he still was not allowed to handle the actual vessels of the Mishkan. It’s understandable, then, how Tekhelet became associated in Korach’s mind with temple hierarchy, and more, his own status as lesser in the face of the priesthood. 

Having that pre-existing association and struggle, Korach was particularly perturbed by the Mitzvah of Tzitzit. God commands everyone to wear Tekhelet fringes on their garments as a statement that we are all equally servants of God. Indeed, it seems in ancient times it was common for servants to wear identifying markers of their master on their garment hems. By mandating universal Tekhelet wearing, God is making a powerful statement that all of the Jewish people are equally God’s servants. But if Tekhelet is a universal Mitzvah as a reminder of our equal status as God’s holy nation– Ki Kol HaEidah Kulam Kedoshim– how could it be that Aharon takes it upon himself regularly to reinforce the religious hierarchy and make Korach feel lower by hiding the Aron and other vessels in Tekhelet? Thus, Korach became convinced that Moshe and Aharon were illegitimate leaders, suppressing the divine message of universal equality for their own aggrandizement, and keeping Korach from seeing and serving in the Temple’s innermost sanctum.

Thus, we can now understand the Midrash. When Korach pulls out a fully blue garment and asks if it’s obligated in Tzitzit, he is not posing a technical halakhic question. Surely such an exercise in legal minutiae would be hard-pressed to motivate a rebellion. Rather, Korach is accusing Moshe and Aharon of hypocrisy and selfishness, as they misrepresent the divine message for their own personal gain. If God just gave us the Mitzvah of Tzitzit, and values all of us as equals, why am I constantly forced to confront this fully blue cover as a reminder of my inadequacy and lower status, Korach asks. This challenge is one that the Jewish people get behind.

This understanding also gives us a greater insight into what exactly Korach’s sin was. While, on a shallow level, Korach’s claims of equality in the eyes of God touch upon true and legitimate points with regards to Torah and the divine mission, Korach was misrepresenting his actual conquest against Moshe. Korach was motivated by personal frustration at his own status. It wasn’t altruism, but a desire for unmitigated access that motivates Korach. This is clear, as, being selected to be a part of a privileged class of Leviim that the vast majority of Israelites never have access to never bothered Korach. It was only when he realized that there were even higher rungs on the religious ladder that Korach became outraged and challenged Moshe and Aharon. Thereby, the Rabbis remind us through their reference to a fully blue garment that, while Korach might be marshalling convincing moral and religious arguments to build a coalition of discontent Jews, he is really doing it in service of his own status and ambition. Korach wants access to the holiest of holies, and he’s willing to use and sacrifice others to obtain it. 

This understanding of Korach also serves as a particularly relevant warning to those of us in this room. Living during a time of intense polarization and politicization, it is easy to be moved by authority figures invoking religious arguments for political ends. However, Korach reminds us that, while it might be legitimate to ask questions and pose religious challenges for the sake of understanding and improvement, cynically using religion as a political tool for self empowerment is never tolerated by the Torah. Korach’s sin was not the question he asked, but the dishonestly selfish thirst for personal power that belied it. Indeed, Korach’s willingness to build a coalition with Datan and Aviram– two dishonest and conniving opponents of Moshe– should be proof enough of his true power-hungry intentions, being, ironically, wrapped in the appealing cover of legitimate religious discourse.The story of Korach reminds us that, while it may not be easy, the Torah expects all of us to be discerning, as we reject the use of religion as a tool for personal political power. Hopefully, if we can work towards being discerning in our religious mission, while still leaving room for religious questions and discourse, we can learn from the mistakes of Korach and his coalition and avoid the earth swallowing us up. 

June 4, 2021: Sh'lach

Arguably one of the most consequential moments in Jewish history, the sin of the spies in the desert gets center stage in our Parashah. The first half of our Parshah is all about the details of who was sent to spy out the land of Israel, what exactly their mission was, and how they failed to live up to their charge– giving us great detail of the entire episode. Of course, the punishment for the Jewish people’s lack of faith and appreciation for the land God was about to give them was a condemnation to a death in the desert, as they had to wander 40 years until the sinful past generation died out before entering Israel. 

Capturing the significance of this moment, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l groups the sin of the spies with the sin of the Golden Calf as two pivotal moments in the Jewish people’s time in the desert. Much like the Sin of the Golden Calf changed the Jewish people’s relationship with God forever– inventing the need for new rituals of Teshuvah, arguably contributing to the creation of a new holiday, Yom Kippur, and perhaps even leading to the need for the construction a physical Temple– the sin of the spies also left a lasting impact on the Jewish people, turning the desert into a period of wandering and soul-searching instead of a short transitionary period in the desert. In many ways, these two sins represent a rejection of the two elements of the Jewish mission. By the sin of the Golden Calf, the Jewish people rejected the Torah and its commandments, by worshipping a foreign God. By the sin of the spies, the Jewish people rejected the mission of conquering Israel and using their landed peoplehood as a base to spread their message of divine justice. 

But despite this parallel, there is one major difference between the stories. While both stories feature an aftermath of Moshe beseeching God on behalf of the Jewish people, resulting in a compromised punishment, there is a key difference between the conclusion of the two stories. In the case of the Golden Calf, God responds by reemphasizing the prohibition of making molten idols, and reminds the Jewish people that when they enter the land of Israel they are forbidden from adopting any of the idolatrous practices of those who live there. In other words, God gives a series of commands that directly relate to the problem at hand and reinforces a corrective measure to ensure the Jewish people don’t do it again. Thus, God emphasizes the prohibition of idolatry, and preempts the need to avoid it when entering the land of Israel. 

Yet, when we look at the conclusion of the spy story in our Parshah, while we also have a series of commandments, it’s a lot less clear what they have to do with the sin preceding them. Following the Jewish people’s punishment, God commands the Jewish people about the Mitzvah of libating their temple sacrifices, and of separating Challah as a donation to the Kohanim. What do these two random commandments have to do with the immediately preceding sin? By the Golden Calf, the connection between the commandments and the sin are clear. But in our Parshah, it almost seems like God is just sticking in random Mitzvot from Sefer VaYikra?

However, upon closer examination, I think we can understand the commandments in our Parshah as a fit ending. While the Golden Calf ends in a corrective commandment about avoiding the idolatry of the other nations, I’d like to suggest that the commandments in our Parshah serve as a comfort and consolation in the face of the severe punishment the Jewish people were just served. Unlike the Golden Calf, the sin of the spies is a straw that breaks the camels back and results in that generation of the Jewish people being barred from entering the land of Israel. Hearing this, the Jewish people despair that they will never be a nation and never have a land. If they are going to die in the desert, surely their children will too– dooming them to a landless existence of wandering, sure to be extinguished before too long. Facing this growing pessimism and fatalism, God reassures the Jewish people. 

Thus, the commandments of wine libations and separating Challah were given to the Jewish people as a comfort and reassurance. Both of these commandments only take effect in the land of Israel, and both rely upon the produce of the land of Israel: plentiful grape and grain harvests. By commanding the Jewish people in future Mitzvot that rely upon entering and conquering a fruitful land, God is reassuring the Jewish people that even if they personally will die out, their descendants will surely enter into the land of Israel and enjoy material comfort. While a small consolation for the sentence of wandering to death in the desert, it is a consolation nonetheless, as the Jewish people now have a divine promise– even in the face of their sin– that the original plan of entering Israel and conquering the land is still on. It just will take place with their grandchildren.

This divine response teaches us an important lesson, as this section pushes us to think beyond ourselves. The Jewish people were just effectively sentenced to a long and slow death sentence, wandering the desert until they all die out. Surely such a condemnation was painful and tragic, and one struggles to imagine what could comfort someone in such a situation. However, the Torah shows us that the comfort the Jewish people found was in the reassurance that their mission would continue to live on with the future generation. True, they would never see the land of Israel, but it is comforting to know that the next generation will. In other words, the Torah reminds us that, as Jewish people, we are highly sensitive to the historical mission we’re charged with. Even if we cannot finish the job, and even though the work is long and unending, it is not upon us to finish it. The Jewish people are comforted by the mere fact that the mission will still be accomplished, and their future descendants will still enter the land of Israel.

We should all challenge ourselves to think of the mission or causes we’re dedicated to that outlive us and our own personal egos and interests. While, like the Jews in the desert, we may not personally oversee the end of climate change, the fall of global injustice, or the actualization of the divine mission of the Torah, that should not mitigate our dedication to the causes that animate us and matter in the world. While the spies and the Jewish people sinned by shirking their personal mission of entering the land of Israel, we can all take a minor corrective step by finding our mission and using this opportunity to rededicate ourselves to it– even if we might not be able to see it to its end. Only when we are motivated by the trajectory of history and a commitment to a goal larger than ourselves will we be able to actualize the divine mission and fully correct for the sin of the spies. 

May 28, 2021: Beha'alotcha

While the Torah is full of family infighting, arguably starting with the murderous envy Kayin felt towards his brother Hevel and carrying through the sale of Yosef, this week’s Parshah gives us insight into a particularly petty squabble within the historic Jewish family. Far from murder or sale into slavery, the sibling rivalry in Parashat Beha’alotecha manifests itself in Miriam gossiping with her brother Aharon about Moshe’s marital life. While this seems like Real Housewives of the Midbar type of content, God clearly took this gossip seriously, as he struck Miriam with Tzara’at, the miraculous disease given to those who commit some major social wrong. But while gossip seems bad– much less gossip about Moshe– why was Miriam’s moment of weakness such an affront to merit divine punishment? And, if it really was such a horrible offense that Miriam committed, how could someone as pious and righteous as Miriam come to commit such a sin?

Of course, to answer these questions we have to first understand exactly what it was that Miriam said about Moshe. The Torah tells us that Miriam spoke ill about Moshe’s Kushite wife, but it doesn’t inform us what exactly she said, leading to many different interpretations. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that Miriam spoke disapprovingly of Moshe marrying a non-Jewish woman, instead of marrying a Jew like she and Aharon did. That said, while this might be the simplest explanation with the words in the Torah, it’s the most difficult to understand with the character of Moshe. Firstly, we saw in our Tuesday evening class together a few weeks ago that there is a live discussion amongst the Rabbinic commentaries if Judaism was matrilineal or patrilineal in the pre-Sinaitic times. If it was patrilineal, then surely Moshe didn’t commit any major crime by marrying a non-Jewish woman, as we know the family they raised together was one of strong Jewish identity. But beyond this technical point, if intermarriage did have the same valence and posed the same problems then as it does now, then it is hard to imagine that Moshe could have committed such a sin!

Perhaps that is why the Darshanim, our Rabbis and those who follow in a rabbinic tradition, take a different approach in understanding Miriam’s critique of Moshe. According to the rabbis, quoted by Rashi, Miriam was upset that Moshe separated from his wife for a prolonged period of time. According to this interpretation, Moshe, feeling the pressures of leadership and the spiritual demands of speaking to God face to face, moved his tent away from his wife’s and entered a prolonged period of separation to better focus on his prophecy. Miriam, noting that she and Aharon are also both prophets and leaders of the Jewish people but they never needed to neglect their spousal duties, criticizes Moshe for sacrificing his family on the altar of his job. While this criticism is easier to swallow, as Moshe is depicted as an overly dedicated prophet and leader instead of a lustful assimilator, it is still difficult to understand the significance of this episode. Where do the Rabbis see this in Miriam’s brief words of criticism, and why would Miriam be so invested in the wellbeing of Moshe’s wives? Finally, while perhaps wrong and misguided,why is Miriam met with such a public and prominent divine punishment for a few words of reasonable pushback?

One of my teachers, Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein, suggests that in order to properly understand this Rabbinic interpretation of the events, we have to first understand the Rabbinic characterization of Miriam and her personality. The earliest, and arguably one of the most prominent, mentions of Miriam in the Midrash takes place before Moshe is ever even conceived. The Rabbis in the Midrash recount that following Pharaoh’s orders to throw new-born babies into the Nile, Jewish families stopped procreating out of fear of losing their children. Specifically, Amram and Yocheved, the parents of Miriam and Aharon, separated from each other, out of fear and birthing a son that would be sent to the slaughter. The Midrash recounts that, as a young child, Miriam saw this happening and realized the major threat it posed to the Jewish future. If people didn’t procreate, then ultimately Pharaoh would win and the Jewish population would be curbed. There was a dire need to continue procreating, and to rely on faith in God to protect the future progeny. Ultimately, Miriam stood up to her parents and criticized Amram for separating from Yocheved. Hearing their daughter’s criticism, Yocheved and Amram reconnect and, out of that relationship, Moshe, the savior of the Jewish people, is born. 

Given that introduction to the rabbinic role of Miriam, we can better understand our story. After some of the difficulties of the desert, Miriam once again finds a family member with a prominent role in the Jewish community separating from his wife. Moshe, much like his father Amram– albeit for different reasons– is so overwhelmed by his current reality that he concludes the best solution is to separate from his wife, at least temporarily, to allow for clarity and focus. To Miriam, this story feels all too familiar. She sees a tragic irony, as the future of the Jewish people and Jewish progeny is being sacrificed out of a concern for what may be. Thus, Miriam reassumes her old role as a woman of faith and a defender of Jewish continuity, and she criticizes Moshe for following in his father’s footsteps and separating from his wife. 

However, while Miriam is praised for standing up to Amram, she is instead punished for her comments about Moshe. God personally intervenes and strikes Miriam with Tzara’at. The punishment, though, is not a testament of how awful Miriam was or how sinful her actions were. Rather, it’s a pedagogical lesson from God. God understands how Miriam saw a similar pattern and took similar action, and is empathetic to Miriam’s perspective. Yet, despite that understanding, God has to send a clear and public message that Miriam’s past actions and solutions are not the appropriate answer for this context. While it may have been right to criticize Amram and push him to return to his wife, Moshe is not Amram, and the desert is not Egypt. A good leader is not only confident, faithful, and courageous. A good leader is sensitive to the times and personalities at play, and is able to understand nuanced differences across different situations. Thus, God strikes Miriam with Tzara’at as a public and clear educational lesson about the need to adapt to the times. While Amram may have been deserving of criticism back in Egypt, Moses in the desert is not. 

The need for true leadership to appreciate nuance and avoid the follies of following into comfortable heuristics or overly simplified comparisons is all too true today. This past week, we’ve seen firsthand how hurtful and dangerous it can be when someone invested with leadership and position wrongly conflates atrocities like the Holocaust with petty inconveniences like wearing a mask in Congress. True leadership is not merely about taking loud and prominent stands, or radical action– even if it worked in the past. It’s about appreciating the nuances and differences, and checking ourselves to ensure that our response is appropriate to the crisis at hand. As we live in a complicated world, full of complex conflicts, we should look towards Miriam’s punishment as a reminder to slow down, take a second, and reflect on details of the situation at hand– appreciating its complexities and challenges before responding. If we can learn from Miriam then, just like Miriam, we can achieve great things and build a community that is not just united and strong, but nuanced and sensitive to the challenges that it faces. 

May 21st, 2021: Nasso

Generally speaking, if a series makes it to volume four, you can expect things to start to get weird. Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull was a disaster, Batman and Robin is universally agreed to be one of the worst movies of all time, and while I happen to like it, The Phantom Menace was where Star Wars really started to go off the rails. So maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that Sefer Bamidbar, Torah Volume Four, starts to get unpredictable and out there, fast. Last week we read about the Jewish encampment in the desert– a seemingly logical followup to the previous build up, as we now have a Mishkan and the rules of temple service, and now all we need is to actually put into place the Jewish camp around the tabernacle. But, instead of following through with the logical continuation of the story, Bamidbar starts to go off the rails this week and lists random Mitzvot. 

Parshat Naso tells us to kick the impure out of the camp– a law we already learned in Tzaria-Metzora– then transitions into Sotah and Nazir, before finishing off with the laws of restitution for one who stole from a convert. Then, next week, we’re right back to temple laws again with the laws of the Menorah. Why do we have this seemingly random tangent right at the beginning of Sefer BaMidbar? But more than that, our Parshah pushes us to ask– what even is the point of Sefer BaMidbar? The three books before Bamidbar all had clear identities and focuses, whether it be the history of the Jewish people, the core theological events of the Exodus and the giving of the Torah, or the heart of ritual law shared in VaYikra. But what is Bamidbar trying to accomplish in the grand biblical narrative? 

Unsurprisingly, I think, as always, context is key here. We mentioned how, seemingly, the next logical step in the biblical narrative, following the temple laws of VaYikra, would be reading about their actual enactment, as the Jewish people create a holy encampment and travel through the desert to the land of Israel. Indeed, the latter half of the book of Bamidbar tells us about the Jewish people’s travels and travails in the desert, as they are punished to wander, and only after 40 years do they begin to prepare for military battle and entry into Israel. Far from a non sequitur in an otherwise cohesive book, I think our Parshah only makes sense when it is also understood in the context of the Jewish people’s preparations for traveling through the desert and entering Israel. 

Last week, we opened up the book of Bamidbar with a description of the laws governing the encampment of the Jewish people. This makes perfect sense with our narrative, as obviously there is a need to have an orderly and defined plan for camping and traveling if we are about to read about the Jews’ time in the desert. However, there is more than one way to prepare a camp for difficult travels and conflict. We know all the way back in Parshat VaYishlach, when Yaakov was about to cross paths with Eisav for the first time in years, in addition to splitting his camp in two and taking practical military preparations for an expected conflict, Yaakov also took steps to prepare spiritually as well, praying and reinforcing the spiritual nature of his encampment. The Torah is coming and teaching us the exact same lesson here, in our Parshah. Parashat Bamidbar, with its laws of encampment and travel, tells us the physical rules and preparations the Jewish people needed to abide by to establish a Jewish encampment, but Parashat Naso tells us about the spiritual requirements needed to create a Machaneh Shechinah, a divinely inspired society, that is worthy of entering the land of Israel. 

Thus, our Parshah tells us about the various spiritual preparations that must be needed to ensure a Machaneh Kadosh, a holy encampment, mainly targeting the enforcements of these spiritual standards towards the Kohanim, God’s agents in the camp. Some of those spiritual steps are overtly ritualistic, such as exiling the impure to maintain a certain standard of purity, and allowing those who are willing to volunteer for a position of religious leadership to become a Nazir and to join the Kohanim as religious leaders who are expected to avoid impurity at all costs. But the Torah goes on to remind us that being a spiritual camp does not just mean enforcing a code of ritual purity. God’s spirituality demands a standard of justice and morality. While seemingly ritualized, the Sotah process represents the Torah’s solution for resolving intra-couple disputes and marital tension, emphasizing the Kohanim’s need to prioritize Shalom Bayit and household cohesion in their task as religious leaders. Communal peace and justice starts with the household and grows out from there, and thus, Kohanim are expected to play a pivotal role in helping to counsel struggling marriages. 

Finally, we arrive at one of the seemingly most random, but now, given our framework, most important parts of our Parshah. The Kohanim are not just commanded to watch over the marriages, households, and spiritual practice of Frum From Birth insiders who easily acclimated to the Jewish community. Rather, for the Jewish encampment to become a Machaneh Shechinah, a society deserving of the divine presence, it is essential that it offer special protection and sensitivity towards the most vulnerable in society. Thus, the Torah tells us that if someone steals from a convert and that convert dies before being paid back, the Kohanim should collect recompense on their behalf. Again, the Kohanim are serving as stand-ins for God, working as heavenly agents to ensure a certain level of moral integrity and justice in society. If there was no contingent plan for what happens with stolen goods taken from a convert, people would be incentivized to steal from converts and just wait out their death. But beyond that, the Ralbag explains that God is emphasizing that, far from a disconnected social island on their own, converts have the most important and coveted family relation. They are direct children of, and inheritors to, God himself, as represented by the Kohanim. So far from a random commandment, the laws of Gezel HaGer fit into our section of societal laws that fall upon the Kohanim, as God is commanding his emissaries in the Jewish encampment to personally see to it that the most vulnerable in society– converts who have emigrated to the Jewish community without any family– are protected against those who would steal or take advantage of them. 

Thus we can understand our Parshah in the broader context of Bamidbar, and in its relevant application to our lives. The Mitzvot at the beginning of Parashat Naso remind us that to be a holy encampment, a Machaneh Shechinah, we have to deserve it. God’s presence and special relationship with us is a privilege, and it is one we are only granted if we keep up our end of the deal by creating a society that embodies divine values. But divine values are not just ritual practices and temple sacrifices. From preserving Shalom Bayit across families, to protecting the most vulnerable in society, God expects us to create a society that is sensitive to all, and shows compassion for those who need it the most. No less than the Kohanim themselves are pulled into marital disputes and cases of petty theft, as God deems these questions of moral integrity of the utmost importance to strengthening the Jewish people’s moral fiber. And so, we see that far from a flashy failure that takes the plot off the rails, Sefer Bamidbar is more like Toy Story 4. A powerful and important conclusion that offers closure, teaches us morality, and reminds us that being there for the vulnerable is the most important thing a toy can do. 

May 14th, 2021: Bamidbar

Maybe it’s just because the anxiety of tax season is on my mind, but the last thing I wanted to read about this morning was long accounts of numbers and calculations. Yet, the beginning of Sefer BaMidbar, the aptly titled Book of Numbers, is all about lists and lists of census data and number calculations. The Jewish people are counted, and then the Leviim are counted, and counted again. Why is all of this necessary? First of all, why are the Leviim counted separately from the Jewish people? And second of all, why are they counted twice? Once in our Parshah, and then once again in next week’s Parshah!?

On a simple level, I think we can understand why the Leviim are counted separately from the Jewish people in our Parshah. We are told that the census is specifically for the purposes of counting Kol Yotzei Tzeva BeYisrael, all men who are fit to go out to war. In other words, the census is really a step of military preparation, as the Jewish people prepare their army before kicking off their campaign to conquer the land of Israel. The Levites, though, are not included in this count because they do not go out to war. The tribe of Levi in singled out as the only tribe that does not wage war, but rather, stays back to guard the Mishkan. Therefore, they are not included in the military census.

On some level, this need for a division of labor makes sense. We just spent chapters and chapters in VaYikra learning about the various forms of impurity that render one prohibited from entering the Temple or being close to God. Surely war, with its brutal nature, would render most of its participants impure and needing distance from the Mishkan. Therefore, some from amongst the Jewish people need to be designated to watch over the Temple and ensure its purity. We know the Kohanim are obviously not going to war, but at this point, that’s hardy even a Minyan’s worth of people. The Kohanim cannot take care of the temple alone during a period of war, so the Leviim are appointed to assist with the Mishkan.

This practical division of labor between the Levites and the rest of the tribes might be reflected in a parallel between the census of the Israelites and of the Levites. We mentioned how the counted Israelites are described as Yotzei Tzava, going out as armed forces for a military campaign. Given that connotation of Tzava, it should surprise us to see that Leviim, during their census, also described as (4:2) Kol Ba LeTzava, those who come for the forces. But these forces aren’t military, but rather, LaAsot Melachah BaOheil Moed, performing work in the Tent of Meeting. In other words, the Leviim and the Israelites are both described as being part of the Tzava, God’s forces, and they are merely assigned different jobs. Someone has to stay home and watch the temple while everyone else is out fighting. This division is not inherently based on religious or societal status, but rather, is merely a pragmatic division of labor, all as part of the same goal. 

The pragmatic nature of the Leviim’s role as temple guards is emphasized in the Pessukim in our Parshah. God describes the unique position of the Leviim as (3:9) “VeNatata Et HaLeviim LaAharon UVanav Netunim Netunim Heimah Lo,” they are given over to the Kohanim, almost as if they are possessions that the Kohanim now own. Surely this is not a glorious role of being close to God. They are not described here as given over to God or God’s temple, but rather, as servants to the Kohanim. The Kohanim have status and significance, and the Leviim are just the Shmoes who were chosen to do the dirty work and help out the priests. 

However, all of this is the first time the Leviim are counted in the book of Bamidbar. But next week, they’ll be counted a second time and this counting takes on a totally different nature. Instead of being counted from age 30+, they are counted from 1 month old, and after the count, each Levi must go through a complicated ritual where they are redeemed in the place of a first born Israelite. The Midrash explains, based on these Pessukim, that initially the first born of every family was supposed to have an elevated status and serve as a religious conduit for each family. However, when the Jewish people sinned during the Sin of the Golden Calf, the first born of each family lost their special status for participating in the sin. Only the Leviim refused to participate and remained loyal to God, and as a reward, they were given a special status in God’s eyes. Thus, the first born are “redeemed” and their status is transferred to the Leviim. 

This fundamental difference is reflected in the clear parallel between our Parshah and next week’s Parshah. Again the Leviim are counted, and again they are described as “Netunim Netunim,” given over for service. But in next week’s Parshah, instead of Netunim LeAharon, they are Netunim LaHashem. God says (8:13) VeHayu Li HaLeviim, the Leviim shall be mine, (8:15) Ki Netunim Netunim Heimah Li, for they are given over to me. The exact same language is used as in our Parshah, but rather than being given over to the Kohanim as guards and servents– hardly an honorable position– they are given over to God Himself. Rather than a mere practical assignment of responsibility, this is clearly a special designation and responsibility given to the Leviim as a reward for their loyalty to God. 

Thus, what emerges is a duality to the nature of the Leviim. On the one hand, it seems like the Leviim were always destined to help out the Kohanim and serve as janitors and guards in the temple. Perhaps this is because the Kohanim and Leviim are from the same tribe, or perhaps it is purely arbitrary, but someone has to do the dirty work of the temple, and there aren’t nearly enough Kohanim to do it on their own, so this pragmatic role is assigned to the Leviim while the rest of the Jewish people are assigned their jobs. However, at the same time that the Leviim are given over to the Kohanim as servants, they are also taken aside by God to be his special tribe. And this is not just from age 30-50, when they are able bodied and working in the temple. As young as one month old, Leviim are rewarded with a special status as a reward for their actions by the Golden Calf.

This duality, and even tension, is reflected in a number of practical Halakhot. For example, there is a Machloket in the Gemara in Brachot as to whether Leviim should deserve honor of getting an early Aliyah and leading a Zimun in their own right, or whether that honor is only accorded to them when a Kohein is present. Clearly this Machloket is picking up on the tension in Bamidbar. Are the Leviim Netunim LaKohanim, given over to the priests, and therefore, only significant when a priest is around? Or are the Netunim LaHashem, and given an elevated status due to their actions and allegiances, independent of a priestly presence?

Ultimately, I think the message of the Leviim is a powerful one. Everyone in society has different roles, different jobs and different strengths. But our job is not what makes us holy. The Leviim are not special for working in the Temple– someone had to do that job, and it could have been anyone. Ultimately, what gives the Leviim their status is that they were willing to take a stance against the Golden Calf, and stand up for what’s right. But more than that, once the Leviim take that stance and demonstrate their moral character, the Torah’s perspective on them and their job is transformed from menial temple labor to honorable royal guardianship. In other words, when we embody a life of values and allow our sense of justice to imbue our everyday life and decisions with moral status, that commitment to God and Torah values permeates our day to day routine, as we transform the mundane into the holy. We should all learn from the Leviim, and work to inculcate our commitment to what’s right, and hopefully, through that commitment, we will bring a vision of God’s justice into our day to day routine, into our jobs, and ultimately, into the world around us. 

May 7th, 2021: Behar-Bechukotai

In a clear statement of God’s dominion over all land and property, our double Parshah begins with the shocking laws of Yovel and Shmitah. Seeing as we don’t live in an agrarian society, and we’re far removed from the land-based commandments that only apply in Israel, it’s easy to overlook just how radical these laws of redistributive justice are. The Torah tells us that every Jubilee year, all slaves– undoubtedly one of the largest expenditures a family would have– go free, and all land– the other main source of familial wealth– return to their ancestral owners. Undoubtedly, the Torah is reminding us of God’s dominion over the physical world while creating the means for upward economic mobility and a leveled societal playing field, as the economy is forced into a physical reset every 50 years. 

Given those lofty goals, and the Torah’s lengthy focus on the various laws and trappings that come with this system of redistribution, the laws of redeeming property should come as a shock. Merely a few verses after God tells us (VaYikra 25:23): “The land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to Me, for you are strangers and [temporary] residents with Me,” a seemingly immutable truth, the Torah goes on to carve out a major and seemingly arbitrary exception. The Torah tells us (VaYikra 25:29-30) that while land, in general, returns to the original owner during the Jubilee, a Beit Moshav BeIr Chomah, a residential house in a walled city, does not. Instead, the original owner has a year to pay off their debts and raise funds to buy back their home, and if they don’t, then the home is transferred to the new owner forever. Not even the Jubilee undoes the transaction. 

This exception seems difficult to understand. First, the laws of Shmitah and Yovel we just learned didn’t make any type of distinction about what quality of land is being discussed. Farmlands, private homes, and corporate offices alike are all presumably included in the previous commandments. Why, all of a sudden, is the Torah singling out residential homes as having their own law? But beyond that, why is there this huge exception built into the system? If all residential homes are staying in their newest owner’s possession, that really mitigates the previous idea that “land shall not be sold permanently, for the land belongs to God?” Finally, even if there is some logic to making an exception to the Jubilee laws, why is it determined by living in a walled city? This isn’t Purim! Walls have seemingly nothing to do with the laws of the land of Israel?

To understand this exception, we have to look back a few chapters at a neighboring law of Lecitivus. Two weeks ago, we read about the laws of the Metzora, the miraculous “leper” who is kicked out of the camp and forced to await purification in isolation. Fascinatingly, our Rabbis read an important qualification into these laws via exegetical interpretation. While the Torah merely says that the Metozra must be kicked out of the city for their isolation, the rabbis qualify it and explain that it only refers to a walled city. Once the Jews settled in Israel, only a walled city counts as a “Jewish encampment” for the purpose of isolation and exile. A Metzora living in an unwalled city could just sit out his isolation COVID-style in his home, without the need to go anywhere. Why is it that only a walled city counts as an encampment for the purposes of the Metzora’s exile?

The answer lies in the goal of the Metzora’s punishment, as we discussed together a couple weeks ago. We developed together the idea that the Metzora is a sinner who has displayed selfish and asocial behavior, and therefore, needs to be rehabilitated to reenter society. The isolation and exile of the Metzora is about removing the Metzora from the community and society that he has selfishly ignored for personal gain, and refused to participate in as an upstanding member. By limiting this exile to walled cities, our rabbis are teaching us an important Halakhic concept about community. For the purposes of Hilkhot Eretz Yisrael, only a walled city is considered permanent and tight knit enough to really form a substantial community. A few nomads pitching tents in a similar region is not a Jewish encampment or a substantial community. It’s the permanence and commitment to long term shared goals that is expressed by building long lasting infrastructure together that ultimately defines the halakhic entity of a Jewish encampment, as only walled cities are truly considered Machaneh Yisrael.

Given this, we can now understand the exception to the Yovel. While it is true that the Yovel comes to remind us of God’s dominion over land and wealth, and to present an opportunity for social mobility for those trapped in the pit of poverty, those values are also being checked against the fundamental Jewish value of community. Farms, businesses, and corporations go back to their original owners, but residential houses engrained in well defined communities are forever. Even the divine values of Shmitah and Yovel do not wish to undermine or minimize that Jewish value of community building and collective support, as they work to help the disadvantaged in society. 

Indeed, in many ways, this ethos of communal support and comfort lies at the heart of the laws of Yovel. It is this very notion of community and collective action that should color our experience of returning our land and freeing the enslaved. We are willing to undertake these drastic economic actions because of our commitment to societal flourishing and our care for our fellow community members who may be experiencing an unlucky period in the lottery of life. 

In fact, the Sefer HaChinuch views this idea of collective action as the reason behind the Mitzvah to blow the Shofar during the Yovel year. While most authorities view this Shofar as part of a formal proclamation of the courts– akin to blowing a trumpet before a regal announcement– the Sefer HaChinuch presents a unique explanation for the role of the Shofar in the Yovel ceremony. He explains that, undoubtedly, returning land and forgoing slaves after decades of possession must be an extremely difficult process for people, and they may, understandably, demonstrate reluctance to do it. Therefore, God instituted that the Shofar should be blown all throughout the land of Israel, so all the people of Israel will hear the Shofar and be reminded of their fellow man, who is also listening to the Shofar right now. That reminder will assure them that the entire community is engaging in this difficult act together, and give them the final push to do the right thing. Thus we see that the role of communal support, and the reassurance that your actions are not in a vacuum, but part of a larger societal goal, lies at the heart of the Yovel ritual. 

Personally, my rabbinate, career, and life perspective are shaped by the value of community and the importance of the communal good. I decided to become a rabbi after seeing the amazing things my Penn Orthodox community could do, and I fell in love with the Stanton Street Shul after meeting the warm and loving members here, and learning about the huge emphasis on community and welcoming in the Shul. It was only later in life– unfortunately too late in some ways– that I realized how much of that focus and life orientation was influenced by my mother, Jan Staller, whose Yhartzeit is today. As a mother, a Jewish educator for kindergarteners through teenagers, a Yeshiva day school administrator, a head of a Shul Sisterhood, and a compulsive charity and gift-giver, my mom demonstrated the essential role of community-building and caring about the communal good in many obvious ways during her lifetime. But beyond the obvious ways, when she left Jewish education to go back into her first love– chocolatiering– I saw how a warm and caring personality like my mom builds community wherever she is. In addition to the business and the chocolate-making, so much of my mom’s candy store was about the relationships she built, the regulars who would come in to schmooze, and the community she created around her store. In conventional ways as a Jewish day school teacher, and in unconventional ways as a candy store owner, my mom taught me to prioritize community.

The Sefer HaChinuch, in his description of how the Shofar eases the difficulty of the Yovel, quotes a powerful few words from a Midrash in Devarim Rabbah. Tza’ar Rabim Nechamah– the suffering of many provides comfort. Rather than, God forbid, a wish for mass suffering, the Midrash is recognizing that for tragedies, often the greatest comfort that one can have is the knowledge that others are experiencing it with them and supporting them through it. Over the past year and a half of COVID and global suffering, I think we’re all intimately familiar with the small comfort of shared experience and communal support. But on a personal level, I am forever indebted to the amazing amount of communal support and comfort my various communities– friends and family, students and teachers– have provided me during this difficult period, and I am grateful to have an amazing community like Stanton to share these difficult moments with, and, God willing, to share in what should be a future full of communal celebrations and Simchahs. 

 

April 23, 2021: Achrei Mot-Kedoshim

After weeks of animal sacrifice, blood, and bodily emissions, we have arrived at the less visceral parts of Sefer VaYikra. Our double Parshah, Achrei Mot-Kedoshim, serves as the transitionary point in the book of Leviticus, as we pivot from talk of temple sacrifice and ritual impurity to the abstract idea of societal “purity,” as God tells us we need to maintain an upstanding interpersonal ethic if we want to keep the land of Israel, and the Jewish society established within it, “pure” and worthy. This transition from literal metaphysical impurity to figurative metaphorical impurity is best expressed in God’s warning in our Parshah, that we shall not “Mitamei,” impurify the land of Israel, lest it spit us out. To that end, God gives us a list of mundane ethical imperatives, governing honesty in our business dealings and interpersonal relationships.


I’d like to look at one of these seemingly mundane business laws as a case study of the significance of these commandments to the larger goal of maintaining a “pure” land and society. God commands the Jewish people (VaYikra 19:13):
לֹא־תַֽעֲשֹׁ֥ק אֶת־רֵֽעֲךָ֖ וְלֹ֣א תִגְזֹ֑ל לֹֽא־תָלִ֞ין פְּעֻלַּ֥ת שָׂכִ֛יר אִתְּךָ֖ עַד־בֹּֽקֶר


Do not oppress your fellow, do not steal, do not withhold a worker’s wages until the morning. Following the umbrella prohibition against stealing, the Torah gives us seemingly a specific expression of it. Do not withhold wages from your workers. While the ethical violation here is intuitive, as surely withholding owed payment seems tantamount to stealing, the need to single out this specific form of thievery seems confusing. God literally just told us, for the umpteenth time no less, that it is prohibited to steal. Why is it necessary to go on and single out a specific case of stealing– a boss who steals wages from his worker? Isn’t that included in the blanket prohibition of Lo Tigzol? Indeed, the Gemara in Bava Metzia tells us that one who withholds wages violates Lo Tigzol, and this new prohibition of Lo Talin, withholding wages. But if that’s the case, why is there a need for the redundancy?


Rashi offers us one possible answer by explaining that the verse here is not coming to intensify the pressure on the boss, but rather, quite the opposite. The Torah is relieving some of the pressure on an employer by innovating that he has until the next morning to pay off the wages he owes. I would have thought wages have to be paid immediately at the end of the day, but to lighten the load of responsibility, the Torah allows an employer to have until the morning in case they need to borrow or scrounge up the funds to pay off their employees. While this explanation addresses the surprising redundancy of prohibiting an employer from withholding wages immediately after prohibiting stealing, it raises a host of new difficulties. Rashi’s explanation, that an employer would have to pay for labor immediately, certainly seems counterintuitive– especially in today’s world where we’re all used to waiting for payday. But beyond that, the context in the verse seems to be clearly concerned with prohibitions and regulations around stealing. It would be odd to present a leniency on employers in the middle of a laundry list of prohibitions and forms of stealing which employers are expected to look out for.


Perhaps because of those reasons, the Sefer HaChinuch presents a directly opposing theory of this Mitzvah. According to the Sefer HaChinuch, this prohibition of Baal Talin, not withholding wages, is a protection for the employee, not the employer. The Torah is emphasizing that, in addition to Dinei Mamonot component of financially wronging an employee, there is a Dinei Nefashot aspect of life or death, as employees are dependent upon their wages to survive. Thus, the Torah tells employers that in addition to the prohibition of Lo Tigzol, not stealing, there is also a capital matter of not preventing your employees from having access to the money they need to provide for their families. Thus, this prohibition is a necessary, and not redundant, addition to the financial prohibition of stealing.


This distinction is expressed in a number of practical halakhot surrounding withholding wages. For example, Rav Yaakov Bezalel Zolty, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, in his Mishnat Yaavatz, poses the question whether an employer can make a contractual condition with his employees that he will pay them their wages late. Following in the vein of the dichotomy we presented above, he says that this depends on how we understand this law of withholding wages. If this is a law of Zechut Mamon, a law of monetary rights and privileges, then as long as their is consensual agreement between the employee and employer, they can make any monterey contracts and conditions they want. The Torah is merely speaking to the typical case of contract, but as long as all parties agree, they can waive the right to college wages same day. However, if, like the Sefer HaChinuch understands, we’re dealing with a Din Issur, an interpersonal prohibition that speaks to the life or death nature of withholding funds, then no contract or monetary agreement could allow the employer to violate the strict same day deadline.


Similarly, a practical question arises in today’s world where, as we all are familiar with from the past year, many people work from home and have employers in different timezones. Does the time limit of paying wages by morning go according to the timezone of the employee, or the time zone of the employer? Rav Chaim Kanievsky says that as long as it isn’t morning for the employer, he hasn’t violated the prohibition in the Torah. Rav Shmuel Wozner, though, in his Shut Shevet HaLevi, says as soon as it is morning for the employee, regardless of the time zone of the employer, the prohibition has been violated. Again, this distinction can be explained as a difference in opinion as to whether this law is primarily oriented at ensuring the employee gets his wages soon enough to provide for his family and survive, or whether it’s a question of how long does an employer have to raise funds to pay off employees.


Given the Sefer HaChinuch’s understanding– that we are dealing with a prohibition that recognizes the life or death implications of withholding wages, and not merely the monetary aspect of owing someone money– we can also understand a surprising Halakha in the Gemara. The Gemara in Bava Metzia says in the case where an employer does not have enough funds to pay all of his employees by morning, instead of evenly dividing up the money he does have amongst all of the employees, he should instead pay off the poorest employee first. From a perspective of strict monetary justice, this seems unjust. Everyone worked and earned their money equally! But given the added valence of the Sefer HaChinuch’s perspective, this law makes perfect sense. Wages are not just about money, but about life or death and the ability to provide. The Torah is reminding employers to be sensitive to that when paying their employees. Given that, it makes sense that the very same reminder about being sensitive to what that money means to your employee teaches that we should prioritize the more needy when paying back wages.


Surprisingly, the Poskim and halakhic deciders expand this principle even further. The Pnei Moshe, a 19th century commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, learns from the ethos of the commandment in our Parshah that if you borrow money from two people, a poor person and a rich person, and you only have the ability to pay one person back, you should pay the poor person back first, because they need those funds to survive. While this may seem intuitive given what we’ve developed so far, this ruling is actually very surprising. Were those lenders to take the borrower to court and demand their money back, the halakha is that the courts cannot take financial means into consideration and would evenly split the funds across the two lenders. Yet, despite the court’s imperative to protect a blind sense of justice, and to not factor in extra-legal matters like the financial means of the lenders, nonetheless, the Pnei Moshe is saying that individuals should take it upon themselves to factor in the human cost of withholding money, and to prioritize the poor.


Thus, we can see how this oddly specific law governing paying wages is really part of a larger ethos and project of maintaining a “pure” society. More than merely an oddly specific case of thievery, the law of not withholding wages reminds us to be sensitive to the human situation of our fellow man, even in monetary cases. What may just be money for you could be life or death for your employee.


But beyond that, this law teaches us another essential lesson for establishing a just society. While the courts may operate on a set of necessarily formal rules, and, to a certain extent, justice may be blind, we as citizens are not. We cannot turn a blind eye to the poverty and struggles of our brethren, nor can we rely on strict legalism as sufficient for establishing a just society. If we allow the debt collection to make it to the courts before we pay it off, we miss our opportunity to support the poor and needy. The halakha is demanding that we do not merely trust that the courts will figure it out, or self-justify our indifference with the reasoning “well if it’s legal, it must be ok.” Halakha recognizes that, while the courts must operate within strict confines of systematic and formalized rules, for society to really flourish and for us, the Jewish people, to merit the and of Israel in societal purity, we must go above and beyond. We must see the humanity and the moral imperative behind every action we take and every dollar we owe, as we work to build a society that is truly Kadosh and Tahor, holy and pure. 

April 16, 2021: Tazria-Metzora

If having twice the amount of Yom Tov wasn’t enough to foment discontent, we in the diaspora now have twice the amount of Parshiyot too! But while Tazria and Meztora are broken into two separate Parshiyot, in reality, the vast majority of what they cover is the same topic: the laws of a Metzora, often translated as a leper, though the medical condition leprosy doesn’t really seem to have much in common with the miraculous disease described in the Torah. Famously, the Gemara in Arkhin (15b) tells us that this disease isn’t brought about by poor hygiene or a lack of social distancing, but rather, by speaking Lashon HaRa and badmouthing our neighbors.


Perhaps less well known, the Gemara goes on to list a number of different supernatural causes for Tzara’at, such as haughtiness, thievery, and murder. But putting aside the supernatural assumption, that God strikes people with diseases for their sins, why should these sins merit a medical punishment? Doesn’t the Torah already lay out a set of rules and punishments for the court to follow? Additionally, how is Tzara’at, with its medical implications and various rituals of quarantine and purification, an appropriate punishment for this seemingly random laundry list of misdeeds?


To understand the significance of this confusing punishment, we need to examine the Torah’s presentation of the Metzora. The Torah introduces us to the character of the Metzora with an everyman introduction (13:2):


אָדָ֗ם כִּי־יִֽהְיֶ֤ה בְעֽוֹר־בְּשָׂרוֹ֙ שְׂאֵ֤ת אֽוֹ־סַפַּ֨חַת֙ א֣וֹ בַהֶ֔רֶת וְהָיָ֥ה בְעֽוֹר־בְּשָׂר֖וֹ לְנֶ֣גַע צָרָ֑עַת


Adam, a man (or woman), who has a lesion on their flesh is a Metzora. Given this introduction, it is particularly striking how, mid-Passuk, the Torah dramatically shifts its focus. While the Adam with Tzara’at was the subject of the introductory Passuk, by the conclusion of the Passuk, he has been transformed into an object, as we are told VeHuva El Aharon HaKohein, he shall be brought to Aharon. It’s not like Tzara’at strikes our Adam with an inability to walk? Why is he being brought, like an object, pulled by its owner?


But this dramatic shift in the beginning of our introductory Passuk is just the beginning of a larger trend. In fact, in the verses that follow, the Adam we just met completely disappears. The man struck with Tzara’at is barely mentioned again in any of the following Pessukim, and certainly is not depicted as taking any action. In fact, the Torah makes it clear that the subject of this Parshah is in fact the Kohein, and the Metzora is merely the nameless object. Indeed, after nearly a chapter of reading about how the Kohein does this, and the Kohein does that, it is easy to forget that there is even another human involved at all! We hear repeatedly VeHuva El HaKohein, VeRa’ah HaKohein, the Kohein does this, the Kohein does that. To drive this message home, the Torah repeatedly refers to the Kohen’s inspection and treatment of “HaNega” and “HaBasar,” the lesion and the flesh, as if our previously introduced Adam is now nothing more than inanimate flesh with a lesion on it.


While this literary depiction seems strange, in fact, we can understand it as the very basis for Chazal’s puzzling remarks in Archin. We noted the seemingly strange laundry list of sins that can cause Tzara’at: Lashon HaRa, haughtiness, stealing, murder etc. The one thing that links all of these sins is that they are Bein Adam LiChaveiro, a breach one person perpetrates against their neighbor. Put another way, all of these sins can be viewed as violating Immanuel Kant’s formula of humanity: always treat others as ends in and of themself, and never as mere means. The sinner who steals, or degrades, or badmouths is degrading and disrespecting the humanity of their victim, as they prioritize themself and their own interests over the feelings and needs of the other. The psychological objectification of their neighbor enables them to justify their action, and convince themself that it’s ok, or perhaps even just, for them to steal or damage their neighbor for their own means.


Given that spiritual ailment of selfishness, the Torah presents Tzara’at and the process of the Metzora as a rehabilitative process of correcting the haughty self-interest of the sinner. By objectifying the Metzora– rendering him mere flesh and lesions that the Kohein, the true actor in the story, has to lug around, inspect, and ultimately, decide the fate of, the Torah offers the sinner a taste of his own medicine. Midah KeNeged Midah, (or if you’re fancy or the Pope, contrapasso), the sinner is made to experience the very objectification and dehumanization that he himself has perpetrated against others. Hence, the Torah’s dramatic shift from the Adam as the subject, to the Kohein, forced to lug around the Metzora as an object.


This also explains the most characteristic punishment of the Metzora– the quarantine. The Metzora, unlike others who are impure, is forced out of the Jewish encampment and made to quarantine alone, in a reality that is uncomfortably familiar to all of us who have lived through COVID-19 for the past year. But this expulsion is not just a hypersensitivity to impurity. In fact, it is a corrective measure. This Metzora, by violating interpersonal ethics and treating others as means to his own end, has shown that he is not buying into the social contract and is not able to be a fully integrated member of society. Thus, he must leave Jewish society, and work to rehabilitate and reintegrate himself, through the lessons taught in the process of Tzara’at. The reintroduction of the Metzora to the Jewish encampment is also a reintroduction of the sinner to the ways of Jewish communal life, as his time alone is used to teach him a lesson of how to be a functioning member of society.


Given this explanation, we can understand the two times in our entire Parshah where the Adam is depicted as taking an action. In 13:6, we are told that if the lesion changes color and the Kohein declares it pure, וכבס בגדיו וטהר, the Metzora shall wash his clothes and be purified.  Similarly, in 13:16, when the Metzora notices on his own that his lesion has changed color, the Torah tells us ובא אל הכהן, he shall come to the Kohein– a clear shift from the passive “Huva,” he shall be brought, that we read before– and the Kohein will declare him pure. In both cases, the Metzora is only given agency when he has been properly rehabilitated from his past sin, as signified by his lesion transforming from Tzara’at to a harmless mark, and the Kohein declaring him pure.
Finally, beyond its literary strength, I think this explanation clarifies a halakhic peculiarity in the laws of Metzora. In addition to the quarantine/inspection process, the Torah tells us that while the Metzora is stricken, he has to abide by a specific, and familiar set of laws. The Metzora must rend his garment, refrain from cutting his hair, and cover his mouth. All of these are biblical descriptions of mourning, as found throughout the Tanach. The Metzora is forced to observe the laws of Aveilut, mourning, while they sit alone in quarantine. But who exactly is the Metzora mourning for?


Chazal tell us in the Sifrei that a Metzora KeMeit, a Metzora is considered like a dead man. In fact, Dr. Yoni Grossman suggests that this focus on death and self-mourning is why the Torah emphasizes the pale white complexion of Tzara’at. The physical disease is meant to mimic the appearance of a corpse. Yet, this is not just a pessimistic prognosis of the medical condition, but rather, it’s an insight into the mourning process. The Metzora is mourning for himself, as the process of Tzara’at is designed to lead to an ego-death of the overly inflated Metzora. The sinner, who previously dehumanized his fellow man by taking advantage of them, is forced to experience the similar dehumanization– as he is treated like a mere sack of flesh and lesions by the Kohein. This dehumanization is comparable to death– indeed, murder is one of the reasons one can be stricken with Tzara’at– and as such, the Metzora must mourn for himself as an ultimate act of recognizing his punishment, and coming to terms with the pain and hurt he perpetrated against others.


While the supernatural condition of Tzara’at may not be a part of our world and lived experience– indeed, our rabbis limit much of the most supernatural parts of Tzara’at to specifically in the land of Israel and only during a time of clear divine provenance– the message is clear. Firstly, Tzara’at serves as a reminder of the importance of always treating each other as ends, no matter what self-justification we may come up with why it’s ok to prioritize ourselves over others. Every human is deserving of respect and personal rights just by virtue of their humanity, and a failure to respect the humanity of others necessitates retribution from no less than God himself/herself. But beyond that more apparent point, I think there is a deeper lesson here. While the Torah has all kinds of rules and punishments for various sins and wrongs, Tzara’at reminds us that, in addition to punishing the sinner and correcting injustice, there’s a need for rehabilitation. It’s not enough to merely punish the sinner without addressing the root cause– be it the psychological condition of ego, such as in the case of the Metzora, or the various material influences that could lead one to take advantage of another. Ironically, this effort to rehabilitate the sinner, albeit through a taste of his own medicine, is itself an expression of humanity and dignity, as sinners are not locked away in jail cells or dismissed as hopeless. Rather, the Torah attempts to understand what caused them to sin, and to offer them the chance at rehabilitation. Thus, Tazria Metzora should serve as a blueprint for the type of society we work to build. One where everyone, even sinners, are treated with human dignity and respect. 

April 9, 2021: Shmini

After seven days of practice, where Moshe alone constructed the Mishkan, offered the sacrifices, did the Temple service, and folded up the Tabernacle, the big day finally came. The eighth day was supposed to be culmination of a week of preparation, as Moshe passed the baton on to Aharon and sons, as the Aharon and the priesthood formally kicked off the Temple– and thereby, God’s presence in the physical world. Of course, the big moment is interrupted by major tragedy, as two of the priests, Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, die in a very public display of divine wrath at the peak of the temple service. A discouraging start, to say the least, two of the Kohanim are killed on their very first day on the job. But why was the eighth day of the Miluim, the ritual inauguration of the Tabernacle, the first day that the priests were commanded to work? Why was Moshe– a non-priest, who never again is allowed to offer sacrifices like a Kohein– tasked with performing all of the ritual service for the seven days before the Mishkan’s grand opening? 

On a simple level, we can understand that Moshe was teaching Aharon and his children how to perform the service in the Mishkan. Rather than giving a lengthy lecture, Moshe performed a hands on display, demonstrating the many complicated procedures and steps that were required of the priests as part of their daily temple service. While that makes some amount of sense, as Moshe certainly is the perennial teacher of Halakha, it feels unsatisfactory as an answer. First of all, since when does Moshe shy away from lengthy orations about Mitzvot? It’s not like by the other 600+ commandments, Moshe stops and demonstrates to the Jewish people how they’re performed before communicating them? Or at least, if he does, the Torah doesn’t tell us as much.

But beyond that, the explanation of Moshe “demonstrating” the service seems insufficient, as during the seven days of “demonstration,” Aharon and his sons are not totally passive. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and taking notes, or trailing after Moshe and imitating his step-by-step actions, Aharon and his sons are given a role in the inaugural ritual service– albeit, a very limited one. Indeed, towards the end of last weeks’ Parshah, we read:

(יד) וַיַּגֵּ֕שׁ אֵ֖ת פַּ֣ר הַֽחַטָּ֑את וַיִּסְמֹ֨ךְ אַהֲרֹ֤ן וּבָנָיו֙ אֶת־יְדֵיהֶ֔ם עַל־רֹ֖אשׁ פַּ֥ר הַֽחַטָּֽאת:

(טו) וַיִּשְׁחָ֗ט וַיִּקַּ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ וַ֠יִּתֵּן עַל־קַרְנ֨וֹת הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ סָבִיב֙ בְּאֶצְבָּע֔וֹ וַיְחַטֵּ֖א אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְאֶת־הַדָּ֗ם יָצַק֙ אֶל־יְס֣וֹד הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֖הוּ לְכַפֵּ֥ר עָלָֽיו:

Moshe brings a bull for a sin-offering to the altar, then Aharon and his sons perform Semichah, leaning upon the bull, and then Moshe takes over, slaughtering the bull and sprinkling its blood. Thus, Aharon and sons are still involved in the ritual, just relegated to an extremely minor role– performing Semichah. What exactly is going on here? 

Ultimately, I think to answer this question, we have to turn to the beginning of our Parshah. While above we read about the Par Chatat, the bull sin offering that was brought all seven days of the Tabernacle’s week of preparation, in the beginning of our Parshah, Aharon is told to bring an עגל לחטאת. Picking up on the linguistic shift from Par to Egel, the rabbis in the Midrash, quoted by Rashi offer an explanation. The Torah is calling the sin-offering Aharon is about to offer an Eigel to remind us of the last time in the Torah we found Aharon engaged with an Eigel– the sin of the Eigel HaZahav, the Golden Calf. Based on that, the Rabbis explain that the sin offering Aharon was commanded to bring was specifically said to be a calf– and that future sin offerings brought by a Kohein Gadol would have to also be bulls/calves– because of Aharon’s special role as the leader in charge during the sin of the Golden Calf. 

More than merely a symbolic reminder, I think if we take this point literally, we can truly understand what is occurring during the seven days of leadup to the Mishkan’s launch party. The bull sin-offering that was brought was not merely a reminder of the Golden Calf, but rather, served as a direct atonement for Aharon’s role in the Golden Calf. In other words, following the fall out of the Cheit HaEigel, Aharon still had not had an opportunity to fully atone for his major role and outsized sin the catastrophe. As such, Aharon was unfit to serve as the high priest and to offer the people’s sacrifices until he could properly atone for his major mistake. Thus, God commanded Moshe to fill in until Aharon repented, and to serve as Aharon’s Kohein, escorting him through the sacrifice process as he atoned for his past sin. This is why Moshe has to do the service for the first seven days of the temple inauguration. Aharon is not yet fit too.

This also explains the peculiar role Aharon and sons are given in the seven day ceremony. The one time they are actually allowed to engage with the animals being offered is when they perform Semichah on the bull sin-offering. As we know from elsewhere in Sefer VaYikra, Semichah, leaning upon the offering you are about to bring, is the moment where the person offering a sacrifice says their confessional and repents for the specific sin or action that obligated them to bring the sacrifice in the first place. In other words, Aharon is not leaning on this bull as a Kohein-in-training, learning from Moshe’s demonstration, but rather, as a Baal Korban, who is himself in need of atonement as he hands his animal offering off to the priest on duty– in this case, Moshe Rebbeinu. 

Understanding the bull sin-offering as part of Aharon’s atonement process for his role in the Golden Calf also clarifies an ambiguity in a previously quoted Passuk. We quoted how, after Semichah, Moshe slaughtered and sprinkled the blood of the bull sin offering:

(טו) וַיִּשְׁחָ֗ט וַיִּקַּ֨ח מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶת־הַדָּם֙ וַ֠יִּתֵּן עַל־קַרְנ֨וֹת הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ סָבִיב֙ בְּאֶצְבָּע֔וֹ וַיְחַטֵּ֖א אֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְאֶת־הַדָּ֗ם יָצַק֙ אֶל־יְס֣וֹד הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חַ וַֽיְקַדְּשֵׁ֖הוּ לְכַפֵּ֥ר עָלָֽיו

The commentators pick up on the end of the verse, where Moshe spills the blood on the base of the altar to sanctify it, “to atone upon it.” The commentators ask what possibly is being atoned for, as this is presumably a ritual inauguration ceremony? The Ramban initially answers that this is a reference to the future, where the altar will be used to atone for sins. However, he brings an alternative answer that views the atonement as being necessary and taking place right now. In a similar vein to Ramban’s second answer, we can explain that the atonement that was taking place was for Aharon’s sin by the Golden Calf, the very reason this sin offering is being brought right now. 

Thus, we fully understand the ritual that led up to the Temple launch party. Aharon, marred by the historic sin of the Golden Calf, was unable to assume his role as high priest until he properly repented. Thus, Moshe is appointed an interim Kohein to bring Aharon’s sin offering and give him a week long repentance ritual to make up for the worst of sins. It is fitting that VaYikra 4:3 already taught us that if a High Priest makes a mistake that would warrant a sin offering, they must bring a bull sin-offering– a law that we now see in action a few chapters later in Aharon’s inaugural bull offerings. 

While much of this discussion of bulls and sin-offerings may seem esoteric, I think the message is a powerful one. On the one hand, God is making it clear that a mistake does not automatically warrant being written off and stripped of leadership. However, that comes with a major caveat. That is only true if the leader accepts responsibility for their mistake, and takes active steps to learn from it and correct it. In other words, at the same time that God is teaching us that Aharon is deserving of a second chance, God is making it clear that that is only true if Aharon embraces full accountability for his actions– accepting his punishment and learning from his sin, instead of denying or minimizing it. In a world where often times the news seems full of salacious scandals, public denials, and PR wars, Aharon’s message of growth and accountability is as relevant as ever. 

April 2nd, 2021: Pesach

Every holiday, Shoshana and I debate whether or not I should give a sermon. With Hallel, Birkat Kohanim, longer Mussaf, and various holiday additions, I often feel like services are long enough without having to hear me speak. Shoshana assures me that some people actually want to hear me speak– a wild idea to be sure. But at least today, the last day of Pesach, the decision is easier and the sermon is slightly less onerous, as we saved precious minutes by not reciting a full Hallel. In fact, the last days of Pesach are the only holiday of the three yearly festivals that does not get a full Hallel. Why is the end of Pesach cheated? Is it not worth fully celebrating like the other Jewish holidays?

This practice, of shortening the Hallel we say on the last day of Pesach, finds its roots in various rabbinic sources. Perhaps most authoritatively, the Gemara in Erchin explains that the reason the final days of Pesach get the short shrift is because they were already covered by the Hallel we said on the first days. Historically, the Psalms and praises of Hallel that we sing as part of our Tefillah were originally sung as prayerful accompaniment to the sacrifices in the Temple. On holidays like Sukkot, where every day of the holiday there is a unique and distinct Korban Mussaf, holiday sacrifice, there is a new requirement each day to sing Hallel to accompany the new sacrifice. On Pesach, however, the same exact Mussaf offering is brought each and every day of the holiday. Thus, the Hallel we sing on the first day is really enough to cover us for the rest of the holiday, so we only sing a partial Hallel the other 6 days as a consolation. 

Yet, while this is the answer that makes its way into our Gemara, it is hard to relate to. Generally speaking, we don’t experience the holidays through the lens of Temple sacrifices, nowadays. While perhaps that’s a failing that we should work to improve, it nonetheless makes it harder to relate to this idea. But beyond that, these rules seem somewhat arbitrary. Every day in the Temple the exact same Tamid sacrifice was brought, and yet they still sang a different Shir Shel Yom to accompany it every day. Since when do we say that only unique sacrifices merit song? Also, how is the difference between Partial and Full Hallel indicative of the repetitiveness of the daily Passover sacrifices? At the end of the day we’re still saying Hallel, we’re just cutting out a couple paragraphs? 

The 13th century Italian Halakhist, the Shibolei HaLeket, offers another answer, based in the Midrash, to explain our Hallel practice. He references a Midrash– which we do not have in the exact format he quotes it– which asks why we do not say full Hallel and answers with an anecdote. On the seventh day of the Exodus, the Jews arrived at the Dead Sea, and ultimately walked through it to safety, as God split the sea and made it come crashing down on the Egyptian army. According to the Midrash, when the angels saw the Jewish people prevailing and the Egyptians drowning, they started to sing God’s praises. God became enraged and silenced the angels, telling them: “My creations are drowning in the sea, and you dare to sing?” Based on that idea, the Shibolei HaLeket explains that if the angels could not sing their praise, due to the tragic large scale loss of Egyptian life, then surely we should contract our singing and minimize our Hallel.

While this idea is certainly more relatable, it still feels difficult to me. While God criticizes the angels for singing, the Jewish people are actively engaged in singing Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea that they sang as they crossed on to dry land. Even if the angels are being told to hold themselves back, it seems like us Jews have well established precedent to celebrate our salvation through song. However, I found an alternative version of this Midrash in Rabbeinu Prachyah’s commentary on Masechet Shabbat– an early and perhaps misattributed Talmud commentary. There, the Midrash quoted by Rebbeinu Prachyah does not have the angels singing praise. Rather, in Rabbeinu Prachayah’s version of the Midrash, it is the Jewish people whose song angers God. Upon their salvation, the Jewish people begin singing Shirat HaYam praising God for their salvation, and it is specifically this Song of the Sea that outrages God so. God, in return, turns to the Jewish people and reprimands them for their joyous singing, asking how they can rejoice while so many Egyptians suffer.

At first glance, this version of the Midrash seems difficult. Shirat HaYam is a core part of the Torah and our tradition, and we sing it regularly in our daily Pesukei DeZimra as praise of God. It seems strange that it would be the object of divine disapproval. However, I think that this version of the Midrash is communicating a more complicated and nuanced message than the wholesale disqualification of the Song of the Sea. From the perspective of the Jews leaving Egypt, there was much to celebrate. They had finally gained their freedom, and seen their violent oppressors receive their just desserts. In that vein, surely the Song of the Sea was a beautiful and called for celebration of God’s miraculous salvation. However, at the very same, from God’s perspective, every Pesach marks the corruption his creations, the Egyptians, sunk to, and the tragic need to harshly punish them. God’s pain and disappointment does not supersede the Jewish people’s celebration, but there is at least room for it to coexist.

Indeed, this divinely tragic perspective seems to be baked into the holiday of Shvi’i Shel Pesach itself. While all the other holidays in the Torah are referred to as happy days, with a Mitzvah of Simchah, the last day of Pesach stands out as not having an explicit reference of Simchah in the Torah, leading some halakhic authorities to question if it even has such a Mitzvah. The Yalkut Shimoni, an alternative Midrash, notes this oddity, and explains that the reason why the last day of Pesach is not characterized as a day of happiness in the Torah is precisely because of God’s pain at the death of his creations at the Yam Suf. In other words, while the last day of Pesach is still undoubtedly a holiday and a celebratory day for the Jewish people, from the divine perspective of how God relates to his holiday in his Torah, the happiness must be muted. (Perhaps it is fit that I’m giving a sermon after all…)

Given that perspective, I think it is particularly fitting that we are about to say Yizkor. Of course, today is a celebratory day as the last day of the Passover festival, but nonetheless we make room for the bitter pangs of loss. But even more than that, the process of Yizkor is itself a bittersweet process. Every holiday during Yizkor, I remember happy memories of my mom that connect to that holiday. The apple cake my mom would make every Succot, the Afikomen presents I looked forward to as a little kid, the time the wine at the Seder was a little stronger than my mom expected. Having a dedicated time to remember those celebratory memories is beautiful and praiseworthy, but it is also painful and difficult. And yet, while there is real pain and real loss, we continue to sing Shirat HaYam, continue to sing God’s praises, and continue to bring our lost loved ones into our holiday homes and our lives by remembering the good times we had together, and sharing their memory with others. 

This year in particular, I think this moment is one of mixed celebration and sorrow. At the conclusion of Yizkor, we will say a Keil Malei for the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives to COVID. Many of us have personal connections to those who were taken by the virus or know someone who does, and the individual pain is immense. But as a country, there is much to be excited for and celebrate. Just the other day New York City expanded its vaccine eligibility, and the end feels near. Those two contradictory feelings don’t have to preclude each other. It’s possible to joyously celebrate the victories and praise God in appreciation for everything that we have to be grateful for, while at the same time respecting and acknowledging the pain of the past year that brought us to this point. However, just like by Hallel, where we cut out a couple of paragraphs and shave off a few minutes of praise, the responsibility is upon us to make a little bit of time and space for these powerful feelings to coexist. And so, as we transition to Yizkor, I ask that everyone in the room, whether or not you have personally lost someone, take 30 seconds of silence to reflect on all that we have lost, and to make space for a little bit of pain during this otherwise celebratory time. 

 

March 26, 2021: Tzav

In our Pre-Pesach Zoom Shiur this week, in which we went over the practical halakhot surrounding preparing for Pesach, someone raised an interesting and important point. For the days and weeks leading up to Pesach, all of us are frantically searching our homes for Chameitz, and disposing of it well before Erev Pesach ever comes around. In fact, while Erev Pesach we say a Brachah on Bedikah and Biyur, searching and destroying Chameitz, at that point we have already done numerous Bedikot and Biyurs, as we have searched, found, and disposed of Chameitz in the lead up to our formal Thursday night Bedikah. Given that reality, the final Bedikah and Biyur that we do seems oddly ritualistic, and perhaps even without a purpose. Why do we spread out a few pieces of bread and hold on to them to burn Erev Pesach morning– risking that we might forget, or miss something, and undo all of our hard work and cleaning? Isn’t it enough that we have ensured, in the days leading up to Pesach, that our home is Chameitz free? Indeed, the Minchas Chinuch says if you have no Chameitz in your house come Erev Pesach, you have fulfilled your Mitzvah of Biyur! So what then is the purpose of this overly ritualized Chametz ceremony?

Indeed, it seems like there is something to this Biyur Chameitz ritual, as our generation did not invent this idea of saving Chameitz just to burn it. It seems that this has been the practice in the Jewish community since the earliest recordings of Biyur Chameitz. One particularly shocking tradition is brought down in the name of Rav Yoel, the father of the Raavyah– one of the great Ashekenazi Tosafist Halakhists. The Mordechai records that Rav Yoel used to specifically hold on to Chameitz until the prohibition of Chameitz kicked in– risking violating the prohibition of having Chameitz Erev Pesach– in order to burn his bread only after it has actively been endowed with the status of “Chameitz.” The rest of the year, bread is just bread. It’s only when the prohibition to eat Chamietz sets in that bread is transformed into Halakhic “Chameitz.” But if the whole point of burning Chameitz is just to ensure our households are leaven-free come Pesach, who cares if you have technically burnt Chameitz or not? Isn’t it just better to get rid of it as early as possible and be done with it?

To understand our ritual, I think we have to look at an unusual ruling of the Rambam. Rambam rules that if one actively purchases or creates Chameitz on Pesach, they would receive lashes for violating the prohibition of owning Chameitz. The Minchas Chinuch points out that this ruling of the Rambam is surprising. In general, when we have a Lav HaNitak LeAsseih– a prohibition that is connected to a corrective action, instead of getting lashes, you just take the corrective action. So, for example, it is prohibited to leave over meat of the Paschal offering uneaten. But, if you do leave it over, instead of lashing you, you can correct it by burning up the left over meat so there is nothing left. If that’s the case, why doesn’t Rambam rule that Chameitz you buy or make on Passover can simply be burnt, as a corrective measure to avoid lashes?

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik explains that, in fact, Rambam must believe that the Mitzvah to burn Chameitz is more than merely a corrective measure to ensure that there is no Chameitz in your home. If that was the case, then surely, like the Minchas Chinuch believes, it would be enough to just ensure there is no Chameitz in your household come Pesach. Rather, it must be that the Mitzvah to burn Chameitz is not at all corrective or connected to the prohibition of owning Chameitz at all. There is a standalone independent value to burning Chameitz, as its own ritualized/performative religious action. But what is the significance of this standalone performative bread-burning ritual?

The Gemara in Brachos 17b establishes an important symbolism at the heart of Pesach. There the Gemara tells us that yeast in the dough, i.e. Chameitz or leavened dough, is symbolic of the Yetzer HaRa. Just as the yeast inflates the dough and enriches it, our evil inclination or ego can cause us to self inflate and ultimately to sin. This, in part, explains why Chameitz is such anathema in ritual spaces. The Parshah we just read in VaYikra tells us that Chameitz was not allowed on the Mizbeiach, and many of the commentaries cite this idea as the reason. Ego and an inflated sense of self is anathema to worship and service of God. Thus, we see that Chameitz has a clear connotation beyond merely being leavened bread.

Given this symbolic understanding of Chameitz, we can now properly understand the position of Rav Chaim, and our own confusing practice. What is the stand alone performative value of burning Chameitz, if it is not merely an instrumental measure to ensure that we have no Chameitz in our possession on Pesach? Burning Chameitz is a ritualized and performative statement about our willingness to immolate our own ego, and raze our preconceived inflated sense of self in the service of worshipping God. As we turn to Pesach– the historical first of the Jewish holidays, and the moment in which we became a Jewish nation under God, we kick off the holiday with a statement about the very foundational basis of Judaism. Judaism is not about any one individual and their ego, but rather, it is about our unified mission of working towards something greater.

This also explains the surprising custom of Rav Yoel, cited in the Mordechai. Despite flirting dangerously close with violating a prohibition, Rav Yoel waited until his bread was given the Halakhic status of Chameitz– and therefore, became symbolic and ritually representative of the inflated Yetzer HaRa– before engaging in his performative theater of ritualized Chameitz destruction. The meaning can only be communicated if Chameitz carries that special connotation of Yetzer HaRa, and thus Rav Yoel felt he had to wait. 

This extremely ritualized understanding of the goal of Biyur Chametz also explains a surprising position of Rebbe Meir in the Mishnah. While the majority opinion is that you can destroy your Chameitz in any way possible– anything to ensure that you don’t have it lying around on Pesach– Rebbe Meir has a surprising position. He holds that you specifically have to burn Chameitz, as if it were some kind of ritualized sacrifice. Clearly, if the whole point of Biyur Chameitz is merely the instrumental goal of ensuring our homes are Chameitz free, we would be indifferent to the method used for destruction. But if, like Rav Yoel, we understand the Chameitz destruction as part of a ritualized and performative statement about our confrontation with our own sense of self and ego, then we can understand why it would have a ritually prescribed method of destruction– a near sacrificial-requirement of burning it to ash. 

I know I personally get so caught up in the cleaning and Kashering and cooking for Pesach, I’m lucky if I get a moment to prepare any Torah for the Seder, much less take the time to sit back and reflect on the meaning of the holiday itself. Thankfully, Pesach night has meaning built into it, as we all talk about and share the story of our Exodus and our commitment to freely serve God. But the lesson of Biyur Chameitz– our quintessential preparation for Pesach– should push us to take a moment of reflection and preparation for the holiday, as we remember that part of our commitment to serve God and unify as a Jewish people is the commitment to look beyond ourselves to the needs of greater society. 

March 19, 2021: Vayikra

Rabbis around the world are doing their best this Shabbat to do anything they can to avoid talking about this week’s Parasha. From Pesach to next Purim and everything in between, any topic is fair game when we get to Sefer VaYikra. For almost the entirety of its third book, the Torah shifts from narrative and gives us long lists of sacrificial and ritual laws, describing the different categories of animal and food sacrifices and the minutiae of the details of Temple service– hardly as exciting of a story as the Exodus or Mount Sinai. But while the laws of sacrifices may be esoteric or not necessarily intuitive, I’m always excited to talk about them as an oft neglected part of the Torah that, despite not practically applying nowadays, carries many important lessons for all of us. 

Indeed, just a look at the various categories of animal sacrifices provides important insight into the different modes and goals of service and worship we strive to accomplish. The Thanksgiving offering reminds us of the need to foster gratitude towards God and others in our life, the holiday Chagigah teaches us the celebratory festivities that are called for upon a holiday, and the repentant sin-offering reminds us that God’s door is always open for return. (For a more indepth look at the various categories of sacrifices and their conceptual implications, tune in to the Shabbat HaGadol Drashah this Wednesday!) But with regards to this last category– the sin offerings that are required to be brought after one violates certain commandments unintentionally–  we see a surprising redundancy. In addition to the Korban Chatat, the sin offering, the Torah also details a Korban Asham, a guilt offering, which is brought in response to committing certain other sins than those that compel a Korban Chatat. I can understand why I need to distinguish between a Peace Offering and a Sin Offering– those two Korbanot accomplish entirely different goals. But why should I need a Sin Offering and a Guilt Offering? 

Of course, we are not the first Jews to note this difficulty, as the Ramban in his commentary on the Torah also is puzzled by the seeming sacrificial redundancy. The Ramban asks our question, wondering why we would need a Sin Offering and a Guilt Offering? At first, the Ramban notes that these two offerings are brought for different sins, and he suggests that perhaps different severities of sin require different levels of repentance. Thus, perhaps the Asham and the Chatat represent two different levels of sin offering depending on the quality of the sin you committed, and the amount of repentance that requires. Yet, while that answer sounds nice, the Ramban ultimately rejects it, and for good reason. The Ramban points out that the Metzorah– one who is stricken with leprosy– has to bring both a Chatat and an Asham as part of their repentance! If these two sacrifices were just two alternative sin-offerings based on the sin, why should anyone ever have to bring both!? 

The Ramban points out that while the Chatat is a Sin Offering, perhaps it is not accurate to refer to an Asham as a Guilt Offering. Rather, the Ramban identifies the root of the word “Asham” with the Hebrew word “Shmamah,” desolation or destruction. Based on that, the Ramban concludes that, in fact, the two sacrifices are not merely accomplishing the same thing. While the the specifics of the Ramban’s conclusion are not quite as compelling as the distinction itself, I think we can use the Ramban’s distinction– between a Sin Offering and a Destruction Offering– to begin to understand the difference between the Chatat and the Asham. It is not that these two Mitzvot essentially accomplish the same thing, but to greater degrees– with the Chatat covering minor offenses, and the Asham making up for big sins. Rather, the very nature and goal of these two offerings are fundamentally different. But if that’s the case, while I understand intuitive that the Sin Offering repents for my sins, what’s the goal of the Korban Asham? 

To answer that, I think we have to look at a peculiar Halachah that arises within the context of the Korban Asham, Guilt/Destruction Offering. Although the specific circumstance and details surrounding the case are highly contested and murky, what is agreed upon is that, according to Rambam, the Korban Asham is in fact the only sacrifice in all of the Torah that a minor can be obligated to bring. According to Rambam, a minor who sleeps with a Shifcha Charufah– some form of illicit relationship with a non-Jewish maidservant, though the details of the case are far from agreed upon– would have to bring a Korban Asham following his sin. Raivid, and nearly everyone else, attack Rambam’s position as unfounded and unheard of. Minor’s aren’t responsible for their own actions, Halakhically! And more than that, minors are not obligated in any Mitzvot yet! How in the world can we possibly hold this minor accountable and expect him to bring a sacrifice? And, even if we could require it, what is he repenting for? Being as the minor is not technically commanded, he did not technically sin! 

Yet, while the Rambam may pose a major challenge in some ways, I think it is the key to understanding the Korban Asham. What is so unique about a Korban Asham that even a minor– someone who in the eyes of Halakha is either commanded nor responsible for their own actions– should have to bring it? We return to the Ramban’s definition of Asham. Asham is not about sin, guilt, or accountability. Rather, the Asham is about the destruction that a sinful acts leaves in its wake. Certain actions, environments and experiences– even if we did not intentionally engage in them or had the best of intentions at the time– leaves lasting impressions that we cannot shake off by merely apologizing or saying we didn’t know better. Indeed, the spiritually ruinous consequence of the sin is the “destruction” that the Asham tries to correct. In other words, the Korban Asham is not a sacrifice to repent for a sinful action– otherwise, of course a child, who is not commanded and hasn’t sinned, would never have to bring one. Rather, the Asham is a sacrifice that comes to correct the effect and impact that certain actions have upon a person. Thereby, even a minor who may not be responsible for their own actions can still be impacted and affected by them, and thus, must bring a Korban Asham. 

To further illustrate this principle, we see that some of the commentaries on the Rambam expand this surprising halakha even beyond the context of a minor. The Maggid Mishnah, commenting on the Rambam’s ruling, says that, according to Rambam’s logic, if a man is asleep and is coerced into sex with a Shifchah Charuah– this specific case of a forbidden maidservant– without his awareness or knowledge, he still should have to bring a Korban Asham. Again, the point is not, God forbid, that the man is being blamed or held accountable for a coercive act he had no role in. Rather, the Korban Asham is recognizing that even actions or realities that you are in no way at fault for or to be blamed about can still leave a lasting impact on a person.

While we might not bring Asham offerings anymore, the message of the Korban Asham remains as relevant as ever. The Asham’s call to think beyond just our intent and our strict liability, and to focus even on those guiltless and blameless factors that influence us and shape our perception is essential to building an inclusive and sensitive community like the Stanton Street Shul. With no blame or castigation, all of us see the world through our own perspectives, and carry with us implicit biases and assumptions. The Asham reminds us that, while it’s not our fault that we view things the way we do, and it is not wrong that we are the way we are, the Torah expects us to push ourselves to be even more. Hopefully, through taking the lesson of the Asham to heart, we can further our motto here at Stanton: All are welcome, all feel welcome. 

 

March 12, 2021: Vayakhel-Pekudei

While recently, he’s been receiving mainly positive press due to a Golden Globe win, Aaron Sorkin’s screen writing was forever marred in my eyes after watching an eight minute super-clip on Youtube entitled “Sorkinisms.” Despite having a storied and successful career– or perhaps, part of the secret to said success– Sorkin is guilty of endless self-plagiarism as nearly every TV show and movie he’s ever worked on, from his early career until today, features one of a several oft repeated lines or chunks of dialogue that have since been dubbed Sorkinisms. For years I’ve wondered how Sorkin managed to develop such prestige and critical acclaim despite openly self-plagiarising, padding his works with repetitive filler. But when I look at Parashat VaYakhel Pekudei, and read for the second time this month a nearly word for word account of the construction of the Mishkan– itself only the second of four times (!) in the Torah we’re given an account of the Mishkan or its construction– I begin to understand how great works can get away with unapologetic repetition.  

In addition to the lengthy and repetitive section detailing the Mishkan’s construction, Parashat VaYakhel also gives us a repetition of a Mitzvah that is itself commanded no less than four (and according to some even more) times in the Torah– namely, the Mitzvah of Shabbat. ּBefore detailing the fundraising successes of the Mishkan, Moshe tells the Jewish people (Exodus 35:3): “You shall not ignite a flame in all your dwellings on Shabbat.” Why is it necessary to command the Jewish people about Shabbat an additional time? And more specifically, why is the act of igniting a fire singled out, when we know there are at least 39 ways to violate Shabbat?

While many different explanations and interpretations are given, I want to focus on one presented by the Chazal in the Talmud on Sanhedrin 35b. The Rabbis pick up on the unnecessary repetition of this commandment, and– as is typical to their exegetical methodology– determine that the seemingly unnecessary repetition must be coming to teach a new aspect of the halakha. Acknowledging that we already know that we cannot light fires on Shabbat, the rabbis determine that it must be that this verse is being directed at the courts. We know that certain national interests– such as the service in the Temple– are built in as exceptions to the general prohibition of labor on Shabbat, and perhaps we would have thought that the court system should be similarly exempt. Therefore, the Torah comes and tells us that courts are not allowed to execute punishments on Shabbat– with the prohibition of igniting a flame serving as a stand-in for the fiery death penalty of Sreifah, ritual burning. 

Based on this halakha, the Pri Megadim– an 18th century Ukranian authority– reaches a surprising conclusion. He writes (Eshel Avraham OC 329) that, since the court system cannot execute someone on death row on Shabbat, if a death row inmate finds him or herself in a life or death situation on Shabbat, you should violate Shabbat to save his or her life. We know in general that the halakha is that it is permitted to violate Shabbat for the sake of Pikuach Nefesh, saving a life, but this application is surprising, as the Gemara in Sanhedrin 72b explicitly limits this rule of Pikuach Nefesh on Shabbat, saying it doesn’t apply to someone who has already effectively forfeited their life. The specific example brought there is someone who is trying to kill you on Shabbat, and in the process they get injured and need you to break Shabbat to save them. Since they already forfeited their life by forcing you into a life or death situation, thereby giving you permission to respond with fatal force to protect yourself, you should not violate Shabbat to save them. As Rashi puts it, Gavra Katila Hu, he’s already a dead man. 

Given, then, that if someone is attempting murder, they lose the right to be saved on Shabbat, why is an actual convicted murderer awaiting his punishment worth violating Shabbat for? Indeed, based on this difficulty, the Mishnah Berurah in his extended commentary, the Biyur Halachah (329) rejects the Pri Megadim, and ultimately concludes that the death row inmate too isn’t savable on Shabbat. But, even if practically we may hold like the Mishnah Berurah, what is the logic of the Pri Megadim? How do we understand this radical idea– that a death row inmate is more worthy of saving than an attempted murderer? 

Luckily, we are not forced to guess at the Pri Megadim’s logic, as he tells us his reasoning. As previously mentioned, the Pri Megadim roots his opinion in the Passuk in our Parshah and the halakha learned from it. The Pri Megadim says explicitly that the reason you must save the death row inmate is because the courts cannot execute punishments on Shabbat. But how does this rule governing the court’s hours of operation explain the Pri Megadim’s controversial position? Who cares whether or not the courts theoretically could kill this guy today? For all we know, his death sentence wouldn’t have even been scheduled to take place today even if the courts could execute someone on Shabbat. Thus, we are forced to further examine this rule of not executing punishment on Shabbat first, before we can understand the Pri Megadim. 

Thankfully, the Sefer HaChinuch goes in depth in his explanation of this halachah, and opens up the entire mystery. The Sefer HaChinuch, in explaining the Mitzvah in our Parshah of “You shall not ignite a flame in all your dwellings on Shabbat,” quotes the rule from Sanhedrin that the court system may not execute punishment on Shabbat, and gives an explanation for it. He says (Mitzvah 114): 

“the roots of this Mitzvah are that Hashem wanted to properly honor the day of Shabbat that it should be full of rest– even for the sinners. And it is like a king who throws a grand party and allows everyone, even criminals, to attend, and the next day he’ll deal with the justice system. So too here, God commands us to honor Shabbat and make it special, and this is part of the honor of the day.”

The Sefer HaChinuch identifies the prohibition for the courts to punish on Shabbat not with the prohibition of labor on Shabbat, but rather, with the positive commandment of resting. Part of the positive environment we try to actively create on Shabbat– one which is Me’ein Olam HaBa, a taste of the world to come– is an atmosphere in which no one has to live with the anxiety and guilt of their criminal record. Shabbat reminds us that even the most base and criminal amongst us deserve at least one day that they can be at ease and reflect– on themself, their lives, and their relationship with God. Thus, Parashat VaYakhel comes and tells us that we cannot execute punishments on Shabbat– not because of a technical concern of the labor involved, but out of an aspirational desire to create a pervasively peaceful atmosphere of Shabbat. 

Now, equipped with the Sefer HaChinuch’s understanding of the reason why we don’t punish on Shabbat, we can return to the Pri Megadim with a new appreciation. Why is it that a death row inmate is saved, even if it involves violating Shabbat? Because, for the 25 hours of Shabbat, that death row inmate is no longer considered a convict. For the 25 hours of Olam HaBa-like Shabbat, even convicted murderers get to live out a religious fantasy, where their status, focus, and efforts are entirely determined by their Shabbat devotion. While the attempted murderer is currently threatening your life, and therefore, for practical reasons, has the halakhic status as Gavra Katila, a dead man, the convicted murderer’s past guilt and reputation are completely waived on Shabbat, and he is treated like any other member of the Jewish people. 

While this idea may seem radical, personally, it reflects a lesson I learned all the way back as a little kid in Yeshiva day school. As far back as I can remember having theological beliefs, I remember hearing that the souls of deceased sinners who need to be punished before being let in to the World to Come are allowed reprieve on Shabbat. Even the World to Come rests on Shabbat, as the souls of the sinful are also rehabilitated and treated like upstanding citizens for the duration of the 25-hour Shabbat fantasy. While that always felt like a weirdly metaphysical lesson based in an idea of hell I’m not sure how I feel about, given the halakhic parallel it begins to feel a lot more relatable. We don’t have to understand the metaphysics of the World to Come or divine punishment to relate to the idea that even criminals deserve a reprieve from judgement and guilt. 

But it is not just fifth-grade Leead in the back of my head who is connecting this metaphysical claim about souls resting on Shabbat with the laws of court executions. While growing up, I always assumed that this idea of souls being let free on Shabbat was some kind of kids’ story, or a fluffy excerpt from The Little Midrash Says, it turns out it has its roots in an exegetical teaching of the Zohar (VaYakhel 203b). There the Zohar turns to an unusual halakhic Passuk in the Torah, and interprets it metaphorically, ultimately arriving at its conclusion that Shabbat is a time without punishment. Of course, the Passuk I’m referencing is: “You shall not ignite a flame in all your dwellings on Shabbat”– the very verse we learn our technical halakha from! The same way the Gemara reinterprets the prohibition of lighting a flame to be directed specifically towards the courts, the Zohar reinterprets the very same Passuk to be targeted towards the flames of Gehonim. In other words, both the halakhic and mystical traditions, while operating with different assumptions and reaching different types of conclusions, identify the exact same core theme and value at the heart of this verse in our Parshah. The Rabbis employed their various different techniques and genres– be it halakhic insight or mystical metaphysics– to communicate the same value of preserving Shabbat as a time of true rest for all, even criminals. 

While today we may not have a Jewish court system that executes punishment, I think the value and message communicated resonates clearly. The Torah is telling us that, baked in to Shabbat– one of the ten commandments, and an unavoidable part of every week– is the value that even criminals deserve a rest. Everyone, even the most problematic members of society, deserve to be treated as humans, with complex spiritual and emotional needs. Shabbat comes to remind us to take a step back and work on ourselves– in part by pushing us to create that very same opportunity for restfulness for others. Thus, while perhaps an obscure halakha that does not strictly apply today, the long-reaching implications of the prohibition to kindle a flame on Shabbat should ignite a fire for compassion and justice within all of us. 

 

March 5, 2021: Parah Ki Tisa

Moshe Rebbeinu– known for his humility, his leadership, and his close relationship with God– is not always known for his patience and cool head. Indeed, it is ultimately Moshe’s more impetuous urges that cost him the grand prize of entering Israel, as a frustrated Moshe resorts to physical violence and hits the water-giving rock that he is supposed to verbally persuade. Given that well-known weakness, it should come as no surprise in this week’s Parashah when Moshe, faced with the frustration and disappointment of the Jewish people’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf, takes violent and capricious action and smashes the God-given tablets that he had just received. What should be surprising, though, is the reaction he receives. Whereas Moshe is punished harshly for his short fuse by the water-giving rock, here Moshe is praised! Reish Lakish, in Shabbat 87a, imagines God telling Moshe “Yashar Kochachah Al Asheir Shibarta,” good job breaking those tablets! Why is Moshe praised for destroying God’s gift to the world? 

Indeed, this surprising reaction and confusion seems to be reflected in different traditions surrounding the two sets of tablets Moshe receives. The Netziv points out that there is a slight difference noted in the Torah between the first and second set and tablets. While God fashions and writes the first set of tablets with the Divine Hand, by the second set of tablets God tells Moses to “fashion for yourself” the tablets the God will write upon. In other words, while the first set of tablets were entirely from God, the second set of tablets were carved out by Moshe, and only then written upon by God. 

Yet, while that distinction seems clear in the Torah, what is less clear is its significance. The Ibn Eza points to this difference between the two sets of Luchot as evidence that the initial tablets were actually holier, as they were entirely fashioned by God. And yet, while this seems intuitive– the more Godly something is, the holier it should be– Rav Saadiah Gaon, dealing with the same verses and noting the same differences, comes to the exact opposite conclusion. According to Rav Saadiah Gaon, the second set of tablets were superior in part because they were fashioned by Moshe, and not by God. In other words, the very difference that the Ibn Ezra pinpoints as a weakness in the second Luchot– Moshe’s role in carving them– is what Rav Saadiah Gaon praises about them. But what is Rav Saadiah Gaon even arguing? Ibn Ezra seems obviously correct! The godlier something is, the holier it should be. So why does Rav Saadiah privilege the second man-carved set of stone tablets over the first? 

In one of my personal favorite pieces of Torah, the Beit HaLevi, the namesake and great grandfather of our own Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, explodes this debate by challenging the very premise at the heart of it. While Ibn Ezra and Rav Saadiah Gaon argue about which set of tablets was quantitatively holier, the Beit HaLevi posits that the difference between the two sets of tablets was not a quantitative one at all. There is no “better” or “worse” set of tablets, but rather, two entirely different sets of tablets, with different qualities, that reflect different models of relationship with God. To that end, the Beit HaLevi quotes a number of Midrashim that highlight not only a difference in form between the two sets of Luchot, but rather, a difference in content. One Midrash states that, while the first set of Luchot contained the entirety of Torah, both written and oral, from Genesis all the way down to every question a student will ever ask their teacher, the second set of tablets contained only the ten commandments, and nothing more. Another Midrash adds that, despite the impossibly lengthy nature of these first sets of tablets, they had a miraculous quality that once one learned them they would never forget a single word of their content. The second set of tablets, however, introduced us to our current reality where our Torah learning is all too quickly forgotten. 

While these differences seem peculiar, hard to believe, and maybe even unnecessarily miraculous, the Beit HaLevi explains that these Midrashim, while perhaps not strictly literal, are trying to highlight an important qualitative change that occurred between the first and second set of Luchot. The first set of Luchot contained all of Torah, and ensured that its learners would never forget its content, because it fundamentally represented a passive model of Judaism and Torah engagement. The entirety of Torah is given to the Jewish people already fully formed and created, and their job was merely to protect it. However, after the sin of the Golden Calf, God realized that the Jewish people– while previously drowned in the passivity of slavery and servitude– are waking up to their agency and peoplehood. They need to be actively engaged as creative partners, and not merely told to passively sit by and wait. If 40 days of sitting around doing nothing resulted in the Golden Calf, imagine what would happen if the rest of Jewish history was prescribed to just sitting around guarding God’s Torah! 

Thus, when Moshe breaks the first set of Luchot, he is not angrily committing an act of violence out of frustration. Rather, Moshe is recognizing that the model of religion, responsibility, and ultimately relationship with God that is encapsulated in the first set of tablets is fundamentally incorrect for who the Jewish people are and where they are in their journey. This nation needs to be actively engaged, and a set of Luchot that merely interacts with the Jewish people as passive protectors is doomed to fail. Moshe destroys the first set of Luchot not as a hopeless act of rebuke, but as a constructive recognition of the need for pedagogical flexibility and adaptiveness. Given that, we can understand the Yashar Koach that he receives. 

Having broken the old model of Judaism, Moshe and God turn towards a new set of Luchot as a reparative measure. Thus, the second set of Luchot engage the Jewish people not as guards protecting a pre-ordained Torah, but rather, as creative partners, charged with the responsibility of generating and curating Torah as the progenitors of the oral tradition. The second set of Luchot aren’t “missing” the oral Torah that were presented with the first. Rather, the pre-ordained oral Torah is replaced with the endless possibilities of human contribution, as the Jewish people are elevated from mere guards of the Torah to partners charged with its creation. In the words of the Beit HaLevi, the Jewish people transformed from the ark in which the Torah is protected, to the very parchment upon which the Torah is itself written. We are not merely protectors of the Torah, but we Jews are the Torah itself, as we live and breathe Torah day in and day out, and every question we ask and thought we have expands and creates new insights and new perspectives on Torah, reflecting the diversity of thought and experience within the Jewish nation. 

Thereby, the sin of the Golden Calf is not only a momentous occasion in Jewish history due to its sinful and destructive implications. Rather, the Golden Calf represents a fundamental shift in the history and trajectory of the Jewish people. In the face of the Jewish nation’s restlessness and impatience, God acknowledges that the Jewish nation needs to be engaged on its level, and a transition from passively following to actively creating and leading is needed. But more than a mere emphasis on action, God prioritizes creativity, as the Jewish people themselves become the generators of Torah. We have a say in what our religion looks like, as we are not merely vessels protecting an weathered tradition from contemporary threats, but rather, are the very authors and creators of a living and creative tradition that is meant to respond to the needs and challenges of the time and world it thrives in. Surely we can understand Rav Saadiah Gaon’s preference for the second set of Luchot, as empowering humanity to create Torah represents a cosmic shift in the trajectory of history and an immense privilege. 

But beyond that, I think there is a more concrete lesson for us. The Beit HaLevi spells out that it’s not just the corporate “Jewish People” that are charged with this broader responsibility to create Torah. Once we understand that the Torah is itself a living and creative work– one which needs the Jewish people’s contributions to continue to grow and develop, then each and every one of us is charged with being a part of that process. We all can offer something unique to the creation of Torah, as we bring out different life experiences and perspectives to the table. And so, the Torah is quite literally incomplete without each and every one of our contributions fleshing it out. Not everyone can be the next Gadol HaDor or brilliant Torah mind, memorizing every detail of Halakha and synthesizing complicated laws. But what would the rabbis and greats of the tradition quote and discuss if not for all the diverse perspectives and commentaries which they were lucky enough to learn from and engage with. Thus, as we turn towards a Torah and a tradition that is as alive and dynamic as we, its co-authors and adherents are, we can all agree with Reish Lakish, Yashar Kochachah Asher Shibarta– it’s a good thing Moshe broke those tablets. 

February 26, 2021: Purim Tetzaveh

Some years ago, the Jewish blogosphere was consumed with a relatively new controversy surrounding Purim and the reading of the Megillah. Some proud Jewish feminists noted a gender imbalance early on in the Megillah: Despite the Megillah being named after Queen Esther– our supposed protagonist of the story– only Mordechai gets a communal introduction in the Megillah. In the beginning of the second chapter of the Megillah, when the audience is first introduced to Mordechai and Esther, the custom has developed that the congregation recites the verse introducing Mordechai outloud together in unison– marking the dramatic significance of his introduction to the story. Yet, despite Mordechai and Esther being introduced in adjacent verses, and the supposed central role of Esther as the eponymous character of the Megillah, Esther does not receive a similar introduction. Thus, a push was born to correct this injustice and recite the verse introducing Esther out loud as well.

While I don’t intend to cast any aspersions on other customs or practices, this practice is not our custom at Stanton Street and will not be what we do this year. But I think undeniably it begs an essential question at the heart of the Megillah. Is Esther really the hero of the Purim story? We know the Megillah is named after her, and I, as I’m sure many of us, would love for there to be more empowered female heroines featured in the bible. Yet, despite this, a cursory read of the Purim story may leave one confused as to why it is called Megillat Esther and not Megillat Mordechai. After all, isn’t Mordechai the older, informed Jewish leader who is advising Esther, creating a strategy, and overseeing it? Esther, while undoubtedly brave in her approach of Achashveirosh, is just following Mordechai’s plan?

This question is just exacerbated when we look at the content of introductions the two characters actually get in the Megillah– irrespective of whether we recite the verses out loud. Mordechai is introduced as, “There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away” (Esther 2:5-6). Mordechai gets a lengthy introduction, situating him in the context of a long impressive legacy of Jewish leadership going back to the Jewish nobility of Jerusalem. But more than the length and pomp surrounding Mordechai’s introduction, the perspective is telling. Mordechai is the “certain Jew” that is being featured, and everything, even the introduction of Esther, is told from Mordechai’s point of view. While Mordechai’s entire family lineage, tribe, and history gets recorded, when we’re introduced to Esther we are merely told, “And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother” (2:7). In other words, even Esther’s introduction is entirely from Mordechai’s perspective, being told as a footnote in our introduction to Mordechai. Additionally, the contrast between Mordechai, who is situated as the descendant of many generations of Jewish greatness, and Esther, who is a parentless orphan, is striking. If this is Mordechai’s story, and as such Mordechai gets the hero’s introduction, why is this Megillah named after Esther?

Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein points out that, on a Pshat level, it is clear within the Megillah itself why the biblical story is named after Esther. "Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote, with Mordechai the Jew, with all emphasis, to confirm this second letter of Purim" (9:29). The Megillah records that Esther was the primary author in recording the Purim story, with Mordechai merely serving as backup. Indeed, the rabbis in the Gemara Megillah (7a) envision Esther herself petitioning the Great Assembly to include her story in the biblical canon. But this answer is itself just further question begging. Granting that the Megillah is named after Esther as she is the author and the main actor in the end of the Megillah, the question remains as to how that came about. How did Esther go from being a seeming pawn in Mordechai’s heroic plan to being the central focus and main hero of our story?

To address this, we must first understand the broader context in which we encounter Megillat Esther. For decades, people believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of our earliest manuscripts of traditional Jewish biblical texts from the temple period, did not contain the book of Esther in its bible as it either had not happened yet, or was not considered worthy of inclusion. In recent years, this has been challenged, and it seems that there may in fact have been a manuscript of Esther that had previously been illegible. However, the initial impression, even if mistaken, touches upon a significant and defining feature of the Megillah. Esther is not only one of the latest stories to take place in Tanach, but it is also the only biblical story to take place entirely outside the land of Israel. Thus, Megillat Esther is a particularly relevant story for those of us practicing Judaism today, as it is the first book of Judaism to be written in exile, by exiled Jews, for exiled Jews. 

Given that perspective, we can better understand the development of the story. While it is true that Mordechai, the well-rooted leader with a clear sense of vision, is an undeniably essential motivator in the development of the story– such that it would have been impossible without his planning– he is not the main character of the story. Given that this is a story of exiled Judaism by exiled Jews, the hero is not the out of place Jerusalemite trying to go by unnoticed in Persian society. Rather, our hero is the quintessential exiled Jew, encountering what would become in the centuries following the Esther story an all too familiar tale of struggling with assimilation, national identity, and fitting in. Esther is heralded as the hero and focus of the story, despite Mordechai’s essential role in orchestrating the events that take place, because the story is fundamentally about Esther and people like her. It is a story of coming to terms with your Jewish identity in exile, when the stakes couldn’t be higher, and that story is embodied through following Esther, not Mordechai.

This perspective also allows us to reapproach some of the previously difficult parts of the Megillah. We pointed out that there is a seeming imbalance in the introductions of the two characters. Mordechai has a long introduction, rooting him in a family, a tribe, and a location, whereas Esther is described as an orphan without mother or father. Rather than viewing these different introductions as being indicative of different levels of importance, we can understand that these different introductions serve different literary purposes. Esther is being contrasted with Mordechai. Whereas Mordechai, the Frum From Birth Yerushalmi who doesn’t even attempt to fit in to Persian society, is rooted in a long and storied tradition of Judaism– going back to his great grandfather who lived in Jerusalem– Esther is a parentless orphan. This detail is not merely a description of Esther’s circumstances, but a characterization of her Jewish identity. Esther finds herself in the beginning of the story rootless– with no clear lineage or family ties connecting her to Judaism. In fact, the only thing tying her to Judaism is the fact that Mordechai, the old Chareidi man, has taken her in. It’s altogether unsurprising that later in the chapter, after Esther is picked as the new queen, we are told that “Esther did not make known her kindred nor her people” (2:20). While this may have been a strategic play by Modechai, surely it did not take much convincing. Thus, Esther is merely mentioned as a parentless orphan as a footnote in the Mordechai story, as, at this point in her development, that’s all her Jewish identity amounts to. 

This characterization of a rootless Esther, toying with assimilation, is reflected in the broader image of Jewish society at the time. Notably, there is no talk of the “Jews of Shushan” in the first chapter, as Persian Jew seems to have been a weak or perhaps even nonexistant identity at the time. The Jews of Persia attended Achashveirosh’s party as Persian citizens, the same as everyone else in the kingdom. Indeed, the Rabbis criticize the Jews of the era for participating in Achashveirosh’s party– a rebuke of the clear cultural assimilation of identity that, while best exemplified by Esther’s rootlessness, has already been established by the lack of a Jewish presence in the first chapter of the book. 

Given this focus for the story, we can also better appreciate the dramatic turning point on which the Megillah revolves. While from the standpoint of the political intrigue, the climax of the Megillah is surely Esther’s approach of King Achashveirosh and the two parties that follow, the centerpiece of the Megillah is actually found in the chapters before that. The drama of the Megillah does not revolve around the tension of the Jewish people’s impending doom, as much as the personalized struggle of whether Esther will identify with the Jewish people enough to save them. As Mordechai says to Esther as he is trying to convince her to approach Achashveirosh and take a stand for the Jewish people, “If you altogether are silent at this time, then relief and deliverance will arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father's house will be lost” (4:14). Mordechai reveals the true plot twist of the Megillah: Everyone knows the Jewish people will be fine. If Esther doesn’t stand up and intervene for them, God will bring salvation from elsewhere. We know God promised not to destroy us, and Mordechai is confident God will keep his end of the bargain. The true stakes, though, are whether Esther’s “father’s household”– her stake in the familial tradition of Judaism– will be lost for all of time. Will she assimilate, and force God to bring salvation through other means, or will she identify with the Jewish people and put her neck out for the sake of her brethren? That is the true tension at the heart of the Megillah. 

Thus, we arrive at the turning point of the Megillah and the true drama at its heart. Esther’s response to Mordechai’s calls presents us with the answer to the true question and stakes at the heart of the Megillah. Will Esther identify with her Jewishness and cast her lost with the Jewish people? “Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.'” (4:16). Esther calls for a period of national fasting, emphasizing that she too will fast with the Jewish people. In other words, the turning point is not Esther’s dramatic actions in the palace, but her religious act of accepting a communal fast, and thus, formally declaring that her lot is cast with the Jews. Ultimately, this turning point will lead to the true celebration of the Megillah as Esther takes her rightful place as the head of the Jewish people, leading a Jewish revival that culminates in the creation of a new holiday– Purim.

This change is also reflected in a subtle change we see take place over the course of the Megillah. We emphasized how, initially, Esther is presented as parentless and rootless, in contrast to the well rooted Mordechai. Yet, we also quoted a verse from the end of the Megillah that records Esther’s authorship. The verse we quoted there said, "Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote, with Mordechai the Jew, with all emphasis, to confirm this second letter of Purim" (9:29). Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil. Over the course of the Megillah, Esther the orphan has transformed into Queen Esther, but more importantly than that, Esther the rootless is now called Esther the daughter of Avichayil, firmly rooted in her Jewish identity and the place she occupies in the chain of tradition. 

Thus, we see over the course of the story the true drama at the heart of Purim. Faced with our first instance of exile– a story that takes place entirely outside of Israel– how will the Jewish people fare? Understandably, the exile has worn on, and assimilation is rampant. We know from the book of Ezra that intermarraige and family lineage was a major problem at the time, but Esther highlights the cultural and value mismatches that the assimilated Jews were guilty of at the time. But despite the depths of assimilation reached, Esther proves that it’s never too late to reconnect to our Jewish roots and to identify ourselves and our lot with that of the Jewish people. In many ways, Megillat Esther is the most important and relatable of the all of the works of Tanach for those of us alive today, as it serves as a blueprint and a model for how to thrive as Jews in diaspora. Indeed, the Mitzvot at the end of the Megillah– giving gifts and hosting celebratory meals– seem to be intentionally crafted for the sake of reinforcing Jewish community and perpetuating a sense of Jewish communal identity for this very purpose. While we may not all be Mordechais, coming from storied Jewish lineage with strong Jewish backgrounds and education, we can all aspire to the role model of Esther– a normal anonymous Jew who, after some struggle, confidently commits herself to Judaism and the Jewish people. Surely such a role model is worth naming a Megillah after. 

February 19, 2021: Terumah

Famously, Professor Yeshayah Leibowitz would go to Jerusalem on the 14th of Adar and leave for the 15th, missing both Purim and Shushan Purim and avoiding the holiday entirely. Professor Leibowitz was not just a spoilsport who didn’t appreciate a good party, but rather, raised substantive and difficult objections to the very nature of Purim. At the heart of Purim, we celebrate the Jewish military victory, as Esther secured the right to self-defense from King Achashveirosh. But, as the Megillah tells us, the Jew did not merely defend themselves, but rather, waged a bloody and deadly war, wiping out thousands. Professor Leibowitz felt uncomfortable celebrating this bloody and violent day, and, following a very strict interpretation of Halakha, came up with a clever way to avoid it. 

While we may or may not relate to Professor Leibowitz’s perspective on Purim, I think the difficulty that lies at the heart of Parshat Zachor, which we read this Shabbat, before Purim, might be a little bit more universal. We read on Parashat Zachor about Amaleik’s unjust attack against the Jewish people as they left Egypt, as a fulfillment of the Torah commandment to remember what Amaleik did to us. However, the commandment is not merely based in memory, but has a specific call to action. We are commanded to “wipe out the memory of Amaleik from under the sky” (Deut. 25:19). In the Haftorah, we read about Shaul being chastised by the prophet Shmuel for allowing even animals of Amaleik to survive– much less their king– as the command to wipe out Amaleik is so thorough as to include even animals and children. Surely if some find Purim to be problematic, Parashat Zachor is even more troubling.

Of course, we are hardly the first to raise the ethical issue of the command to destroy Amaleik. While some try to contextualize the Mitzvah and claim that total destruction was a norm of religious war at the time, we see many early parts of the tradition expressing similar discomfort at this commandment.  Indeed, the Gemara in Yoma (22b) tells us that Shaul’s hesitancy to wipe out Amaleik came from a similar place of ethical disbelief, as it records Shaul asking whether the animals and children really sinned, to be deserving of death. Our very first case of Amaleik ethical anxiety comes in the bible itself! 

While we live in a time period where the nationality “Amaleik” is meaningless, nonetheless, we still find this ethical hesitancy being translated into practice in the halachah. The Kaf HaChaim explains that the reason why we don’t say a Brachah on fulfilling the Torah commandment of remembering Amaleik is because it would not be fit to say a blessing over such a violently tragic command. The Kaf HaChaim compares it to a well-known Pesach-time Midrash that says that as the Egyptians drowned in the sea, God silenced the heavenly choir out of mournful respect. So too, while we may be commanded to wipe out Amaleik, we should be somber and respectful about the tragic reality of it. 

And yet, for most of us, I think leaving off the blessing is an insufficient consolation for what seems to amount to a commandment of genocide. Thankfully, as is often the case with the most ethically complicated parts of Halakha, it would seem that this discomfort is purely theoretical, as there is no nation of Amaleik to destroy anymore. Rav Soloveitchik, however, offered a rehabilitated understanding of the commandment to wipe out Amaleik, that both kept the Mitzvah relevant today, and addressed some of the ethical discomfort at the heart of it. Rav Soloveitchik explained that the focus on Amaleik in the Torah was not descriptive of a nationality or ethnicity, but rather, was an identification with a lifestyle and set of corrupted values. Amaleik was a ragtag group of bandits committed to evil. By saying we’re committed to wipe out Amaleik, we’re really saying that we are committed to take a stand for justice and wipe out evil in the world, whether it be Amaleik or the Nazis, the commandment would apply for all of time, as the Jewish people is situated as the eternal foe of evil embodied. 

While this approach preserves a powerful and contemporary meaning for the significance of this otherwise seemingly irrelevant Mitzvah, it faces its own host of difficulties. First of all, this interpretation does not fit very nicely with the literal command we see repeated throughout the Torah. There seems to be a clear focus on total destruction– including animals, women, and children. While that could just refer to an idea or a group of people, that certainly seems to be about wiping out a nation. But perhaps the biggest difficulty for Rav Soloveitchik’s interpretation is not a specific question or challenge, but the methodology that underlies it. Ultimately, Rav Soloveitchik’s understanding of the Mitzvah hinges upon reinterpreting a literal word in the Torah, as the word “Amaleik” is transformed from being a nation founded by the historical figure Amaleik, to being an idea or philosophy. Generally, we shy away from taking major words or concepts in the Torah so non-literally. 

How, then, are we to rectify our discomfort with the command to wipe out Amaleik? I’d like to share an excerpt from of my role models and teachers, Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l. This piece was formative for me, and I think is one of the most important lessons we can take away from the challenge of destroying Amaleik. Rav Aharon writes in “The Source of Faith is Faith Itself”:

“At one point, during my late teens, I was troubled by certain ethical questions concerning [the destruction of ] Amalek etc. I then recalled having recently read that Rabbi Chaim Brisker would awaken nightly to see if someone hadn't place a foundling at his doorstep. I knew that I slept quite soundly, and I concluded that if such a paragon of kindness coped with these laws, evidently the source of my anxiety did not lie in my greater sensitivity but in my weaker faith. And I set myself to enhancing it.”

Rav Aharon recounts that when he was younger, he used to be troubled by ethical questions in Judaism, such as the commandment of Amaleik. But in the midst of those struggles, he’d remember that his role model– Rav Chaim Brisker– used to wake up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, out of a great anxiety that there was a baby in need waiting at his doorstep. Rav Aharon is not trivializing the ethical issue. He isn’t saying it’s not worth worrying about God giving us unethical commandments as long as there are hungry children. Rather, Rav Aharon is saying that one of his religious role models and mentors, Rav Chaim, was on such a high level of sensitivity and compassion that he couldn’t sleep out of his concern for the less fortunate, but somehow, he managed to live at ease day to day with the ethical challenges of Amaleik. The fact that Rav Aharon’s religious role model was able to survive the ethical challenge and keep his faith served as a grounding anchor for Rav Aharon.

Rav Aharon goes on to describe a theory of faith that is very unlike what many of us may be familiar with. It’s not the popular conception of an individual being touched or rescued, nor is it a moment of ecstatic belief. Faith is a muscle, and it needs to be developed. For Rav Aharon, one major way to keep one’s self grounded and work on their faith is rooting it in living breathing role models. As long as Rav Aharon knew that Rav Chaim– with his intellectual genius and unmoving moral character– was able to stay committed to Torah and Mitzvot despite the difficulties, surely he could make it work. This was enough of a grounding and basis to allow for further “faith building” development. 

Personally, I often find myself thinking back to an image of Rav Aharon when I encounter challenges in my faith or practice. I look to Rav Aharon not as a Chasid, who thinks that his Rebbe is perfect or has some magical vip access to God, but rather, as proof that it is possible. If Rav Aharon could face the ethical challenges of Judaism and decide it’s still worthwhile, then maybe I should have more faith. I do that knowing that Rav Aharon felt similarly about his Rebbe, and as such, I partake in a chain of faith and doubt that links me and all of us to the very first doubter in Judaism– Moshe, who himself doubted that he could lead the Jewish people.  Thus, we see how looking to a living and breathing role model of religion is an essential part of the tradition, as a way to keep faith real and tangible.

Particularly today, as we near the end of the COVID marathon, we live during a time where practice has become overly personalized and private. Now more than ever it is essential that we don’t allow Judaism to become the private domain of our own individual minds, as one’s Judaism was never meant to flourish in isolation. It is through building relationships with teachers, rabbis, friends, and families that we ground our religious experience not just in ideas, but in real life people. In this lonely and dark time, it is easy to give up on the refreshing and centering force of real relationships and role models. Let Parashat Zakhor remind us that, while it’s ok to struggle with your faith or your religion, you should never have to go it alone. 

February 12, 2021: Mishpatim

"Unlike our constitutional democracies or international law, the Jewish legal system doesn’t start from the fundamental premise that people are owed freedoms. Rather, Jewish law is built on the concepts of obligation and commandment—it focuses on what individuals and leaders must do to serve God, act justly toward others and bring about redemption." - Joseph Gindi, American Jewish World Service 

This division between “rights” and “responsibilities” is often identified as one of the core pressure points where the traditional values of halakhic Judaism are bound to come into conflict with the modern liberated values many of us hold. I remember back when I was 18, sitting in Yeshiva in Israel, and hearing, for the first time, as one of my rabbis made this powerful distinction between rights and responsibilities. Rav Bick’s parting warning to us before leaving Yeshivah was to inculcate a sense of commandedness, because the broader world’s focus on individual rights often makes it hard to feel duty-bound and responsible to Torah and Mitzvot. Indeed, Rabbi Sacks z”l writes ““One of Judaism’s most distinctive and challenging ideas is its ethics of responsibility.”

Given that Jewish emphasis on responsibility and commandedness, it should come as no surprise that immediately after the drama of the revelation at Sinai, the Torah immediately changes gear and shifts from flashy narrative to dry law, giving the Jewish people a taste of the various responsibilities that await them. Perhaps it is this very emphasis on responsibility and commandedness that explains God’s need to immediately inundate the Jewish people with a seemingly disparate group of random halachot at the beginning of our Parshah. The ten commandments, while significant, are far from a complete picture of the full responsibility the Jewish people committed themselves to, and Parashat Mishpatim comes to flesh that out. 

One of the seemingly random sets of laws mentioned in this week’s Parashah is that of Nezikin, the laws of damages, i.e. tort law. The Torah says (Exodus 21:35):

And if a man's bull strikes his friend's bull and it dies, they shall sell the live bull and divide the money received for it, and they shall also divide the dead body.   

וְכִֽי־יִגֹּ֧ף שֽׁוֹר־אִ֛ישׁ אֶת־שׁ֥וֹר רֵעֵ֖הוּ וָמֵ֑ת וּמָ֨כְר֜וּ אֶת־הַשּׁ֤וֹר הַחַי֙ וְחָצ֣וּ אֶת־כַּסְפּ֔וֹ וְגַ֥ם אֶת־הַמֵּ֖ת יֶֽחֱצֽוּן:

If one ox gores another ox, the owner of the goring ox must sell his animal to compensate for the damage it committed. This verse, and those surrounding it, establish the very basic premise of tort law in Judaism. If a person, or their possessions, damage another person’s possessions, they are responsible to pay for that damage. 

As a child, I remember reading a Hanoch Teller book about Rav Moshe Feinstein that told the story that as a mere child, Rav Moshe quickly realized that the case of an ox goring another ox was a principle that could be extrapolated to chickens attacking each other, which were more commonly found than oxen, or even a carriage or car accident. Young Rav Moshe immediately understood what the project of halacha was trying to accomplish, creating legal categories that can be extrapolated to real life experience. 

But does Rav Mosheh’s comparison really hold up? Sure, a chicken and an ox might be interchangeable, but can a car– an inanimate machine steered by a human– really be compared to an animal? In the case of a vehicle accident, the driver is pretty clearly the actor involved. But when it comes to holding someone accountable for the actions of their animals, the question becomes much more complicated. Animals are animate living beings. Why exactly am I being held accountable for the damage my animal– an independent, living thing– commits?

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Exodus 21:35) comments on the above verse and offers his rationale for the basis of monetary liability. Rav Hirsch explains that an owner is responsible for any damage their possessions commit because their possessions are considered an extension of them.  While Rav Hirsch describes humans as being comprised of a “mix” of their body and their possessions, perhaps we today can more clearly understand this idea as an “estate.” More than merely a human confined to a body, an estate is a much vaster claim of identity, incorporating material goods and possessions, and living beyond a person’s own life. Therefore, when a person’s animal damages, that person’s estate has damaged, and that person’s estate is liable to pay for the damage.

While this certainly makes some amount of sense, Rav Hirsch’s theory also has its downsides. The metaphysics of claiming a person’s possessions are viewed as an “extension” of themself is certainly bold. But beyond that, we know that the halachah has many fine distinctions between a human who damages and an animal who damages. If it’s true that an animal is just an extension of a person, then why does halacha distinguish between a human hurting someone with a weapon– a case of Chavalah, bruising, which would be tried as a violent crime with its own set of law– and hurting someone with an animal, which would be just be Nezek, typical damage, and governed by a separate set of laws?

Perhaps due to these weak points, the Ralbag, Gersonides, amongst others, offers an alternative theory as to why the Torah compels one to pay damages for destruction wrought by an animal. According to the Ralbag, the liability for damage lies not in the destructive act of the animal itself– an action which, according to Rav Hirsch, is attributed back to the owner– but rather, an owner’s liability stems from their negligence as they failed to fulfill their duty of guarding their possessions from damaging others. In other words, according to the Ralbag, the reason someone is responsible for the damage their property perpetrates is because of a Chiyuv Shmirah, negligence in their obligation to safeguard their possessions from harming others. Thus, there is no metaphysical claim of identification between an owner and their possessions, but rather, a moral imperative to guard one’s possessions from harming others. 

And yet, despite responsibility to guard one’s possessions from damaging other people’s property, we see in the Gemara that there appears to be some exceptions to this principle. For example, while the Gemara establishes laws of Harchakot, distancing, that obligate someone to ensure potentially harmful possessions, such as beehives, are at least a certain distance away from any neighbors, once an owner complies and distances his harmful possessions, if those bees actually go and damage a neighbor, their owner is not liable. 

The Nesivos Mishpat (155:18) asks why a beehive owner should be exempt as long as he distances his beehives. Who cares that the beehive is distanced, the owner still clearly failed to guard their possessions from harming other people! When it comes to an ox that gored, we don’t ask if the owner made an effort first. Either the owner sufficiently guarded their animal, and no damage would have occurred, or they didn’t, and hence they are responsible for the damage. So if we accept the position of the Ralbag, that the responsibility to pay for your animal’s damage stems from an obligation to guard one’s possessions, why is it that, when it comes to things like beehives, even if you don’t guard them well enough to prevent damages, you are exempt from paying for anything? 

The Nesivos explains that when it comes to certain things, such as beehives, if we held people too accountable for their bee’s damages, practically, no one would be able to raise a beehive on their property. Therefore, since people have the right to own a beehive and use it on their property, the halakha bends its usual standard of guarding, and doesn’t hold a beehive owner for the damages of its bees as long as they distance them from their neighbors. In other words, since a person has a right to have a beehive, there’s no way the halacha could be so onerous as to make beehive ownership practically impossible. 

What emerges from this comment of the Nesivos is a radical reconceptualization of the laws of Nezikin. The Nesivos, in this comment, is innovating that Nezikin is not just about one’s responsibilities– be it one’s responsibility to guard an animal, or one’s responsibility to pay for damage. The laws of damages found in our Parashah are a blueprint for establishing a society– a blueprint full of individuals’ rights and expectations. The Nesivos illustrates how at the heart of Nezikin lies one’s right to use their land how they see fit, even if that comes with a few bee stings. 

While this perspective does not contradict the primacy of commandedness of and emphasis on responsibility that Rabbi Sacks and others so accurately pinpoint at the heart of Judaism, it certainly complicates it. Judaism is often viewed strictly in terms of the devotional and subjugative. We know the rabbis encourage one to nullify their will in the face of God’s, and the huge emphasis on Mitzvot and halacha drills the value of responsibility into Jewish day school youth. But in addition to the element of Torah that is rooted in subjecting one’s will before God, there is also the creative impulse in Judaism, as Torah and Mitzvot come to tell us how to build a just society. 

While the long list of monetary commandments and technical tort laws in Mishpatim appears to solely be about one’s responsibility in the face of the daunting task of keeping the Torah, we see from our study of damages that the creative project and the privileged right to serve as God’s partners in building a society is intrinsically linked to the legal and obligatory commandedness of the laws governing damages. While we might not be able to extrapolate from oxen to cars, we can learn from the values at the heart of the halacha, as we strive to build a society that is neither fully self-negating in its focus on responsibility, nor hedonistically permissive with its focus on rights. Rather, it is only through recognizing that both rights and responsibilities go hand in hand in the project of building a divinely inspired society that we can fully understand the imperatives of the Torah, and work to strike the appropriate balance to create a society worthy of accepting the Torah at Har Sinai. 

February 5, 2021: Yitro

Merely a year ago, in January 2020, Stanford Medical School published a blog post about the conventions of naming diseases– presumably unaware of the 24/7 coverage the newly named COVID-19 virus was about to get. More specifically, the article discussed a live controversy in the medical world surrounding eponymous diseases. Should a condition be named after its discoverer, or even a prominent patient, or should technical medical names be used? In addition to offering greater scientific exactitude, technical medical names remove the potential stigma and association between individuals and various diseases. Surely, Lou Gherig would rather be remembered for his Yankee’s career than his illness. 

Yet, despite these obvious downsides, the convention remains, and is largely defended and maintained in the medical world. While this seems perhaps troubling, as we expect our scientific fields to maintain standards of nomenclature that reflect the rigorous standards of study expected in the field, the reason for the persistence of eponymous diseases is clear. Naming something after someone is a sign of honor and respect, as the newly named thing– even if it is a disease– provides a lasting legacy that honors the namesake well after their passing. 

Given our own contemporary significance surrounding naming and dedications, we can properly understand one of the most famous questions to arise in our Parshah. Why did Yitro merit to have this week’s Parashah named after him? The truth is, to some extent this question is a red herring. The “naming” conventions of the Parshiyot are relatively recent and not definitively established. Indeed, the original tradition was merely to refer to Parshiyot by the first verse or two in order to identify them– no names at all! But while the focus on the name of the Parashah might be misleading, it is picking up on an important and hard to miss question at the heart of this week’s Torah section. Why does Yitro, Moshe’s non-Jewish father in law who served as a priest of the presumably pagan religion of Midyan, get such a prominent feature in the Torah? If Yitro’s story wasn’t featured so prominently– being one of the first stories to be told after the Exodus, and immediately prefacing the giving of the Torah– the Parashah never would have been named after him. But what’s so special about Yitro’s visit?

We know that once he arrives, Yitro proves invaluable to Moshe and the Jewish people, offering advice on how to structure the court system effectively so Moshe can best relieve the courtload. And yet, despite the undeniable service the Torah tells us he provides, Chazal and the rabbinic commentaries are particularly interested in what happened before Yitro gets on the scene. The Gemara asks, and Rashi quotes here, what was Yitro’s motivation to leave home and meet the Jewish people? 

Rashi, amongst others, draw on Midrashim that indicate that Yitro came to convert having seen God’s actions. Thus, this story is significant as it shows us the greatness of God and God’s miracles, that even this pagan priest now wants to convert to Judaism. However, this explanation presents a major difficulty. The very end of the chapter tells us (Exodus 18:27), וישלח משה את חותנו, and Moshe sent his father in law away to his homeland. If Yitro was coming to convert and join the Jewish people, why does he ultimately go back to his homeland and not stay with the Jewish people– his new brethren. Furthermore, later on in the Torah, in Parashat BeHa’alotecha, we get either a retelling or a second visit of Moshe’s father in law. Here the Torah is more explicit:

29 And Moses said unto Hobab, the son of Reuel the Midianite, Moses' father-in-law: 'We are journeying unto the place of which the LORD said: I will give it you; come thou with us, and we will do thee good; for the LORD hath spoken good concerning Israel.' 30 And he said unto him: 'I will not go; but I will depart to mine own land, and to my kindred.' 31 And he said: 'Leave us not, I pray thee; forasmuch as thou knowest how we are to encamp in the wilderness, and thou shalt be to us instead of eyes. 32 And it shall be, if thou go with us, yea, it shall be, that what good soever the LORD shall do unto us, the same will we do unto thee.' 33 And they set forward from the mount of the LORD three days' journey; and the ark of the covenant of the LORD went before them three days' journey, to seek out a resting-place for them. 34 And the cloud of the LORD was over them by day, when they set forward from the camp. {S} 

 

במדבר פרק י

(כט) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְ֠חֹבָב בֶּן־רְעוּאֵ֣ל הַמִּדְיָנִי֘ חֹתֵ֣ן מֹשֶׁה֒ נֹסְעִ֣ים׀ אֲנַ֗חְנוּ אֶל־ הַמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אָמַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק אֹת֖וֹ אֶתֵּ֣ן לָכֶ֑ם לְכָ֤ה אִתָּ֙נוּ֙ וְהֵטַ֣בְנוּ לָ֔ךְ כִּֽי־יְקֹוָ֥ק דִּבֶּר־ ט֖וֹב עַל־יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

(ל) וַיֹּ֥אמֶר אֵלָ֖יו לֹ֣א אֵלֵ֑ךְ כִּ֧י אִם־אֶל־אַרְצִ֛י וְאֶל־מוֹלַדְתִּ֖י אֵלֵֽךְ:

(לא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר אַל־נָ֖א תַּעֲזֹ֣ב אֹתָ֑נוּ כִּ֣י׀ עַל־כֵּ֣ן יָדַ֗עְתָּ חֲנֹתֵ֙נוּ֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר וְהָיִ֥יתָ לָּ֖נוּ לְעֵינָֽיִם:

(לב) וְהָיָ֖ה כִּי־תֵלֵ֣ךְ עִמָּ֑נוּ וְהָיָ֣ה׀ הַטּ֣וֹב הַה֗וּא אֲשֶׁ֨ר יֵיטִ֧יב יְקֹוָ֛ק עִמָּ֖נוּ וְהֵטַ֥בְנוּ לָֽךְ:

(לג) וַיִּסְעוּ֙ מֵהַ֣ר יְקֹוָ֔ק דֶּ֖רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֑ים וַאֲר֨וֹן בְּרִית־יְקֹוָ֜ק נֹסֵ֣עַ לִפְנֵיהֶ֗ם דֶּ֚רֶךְ שְׁלֹ֣שֶׁת יָמִ֔ים לָת֥וּר לָהֶ֖ם מְנוּחָֽה:

(לד) וַעֲנַ֧ן יְקֹוָ֛ק עֲלֵיהֶ֖ם יוֹמָ֑ם בְּנָסְעָ֖ם מִן־הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה: 

 

Here it is even clearer. While perhaps this is an altogether different encounter, the point we can extract remains the same. Moshe actively begs his father in law to travel with them, and his father in law refuses repeatedly, insisting he return to his homeland. This is hardly a successful resolution if the Yitro story is indeed coming to tell us about the great conversion of Moshe’s father in law! What kind of convert to a brand new nation immediately separates himself from them, never to see them again! 

But if that’s the case, and this isn’t a story of historic conversion, we are left with our question. Why is Yitro’s entrance deserving of so much attention, and why is the figure Yitro worthy of having a Parshah named after him? After all, this seems to just be a minor family scene for Moshe, as his father-in-law brings his wife and children to be reunited with their father. While Moshe’s family reunion might be touching, it hardly seems that important to mention. So why is Yitro memorialized so significantly in the Torah?

I’d like to suggest that, while perhaps it might not be the most flashy or clever of answers, the key might be extremely simple. Why does the Torah mention Yitro’s visit, if ultimately it’s just a minor personal footnote on Moshe’s family life? Because it happened. Yitro, a non-Jewish priest to another religion, went out of his way to reunite Moshe’s family, help the leader of the Jewish people, and paid beautiful homage to God along the way. While it is true that this might not feed into a story of conversion or be a statement about God’s divine might, it is, nonetheless, a story of a nice and important service Yitro provided the Jewish people. Out of a sense of gratitude, the Torah records Yitro’s visit for posterity so it won’t be forgotten. 

The Torah is telling us an important message here. It is true that we, as a Jewish people, have our own mission and our own story, and it is easy to be swept up in the grand religious narrative of the Torah. But by going out of its way to record the kindness of Yitro, the Torah reminds us that, even if Yitro wasn’t some major part of the Torah’s narrative, it is essential to appreciate the kindness he offered and to remember who Yitro was. 

Moreover, the act of memorializing and remembering Yitro for what could have been a seemingly trivial side detail in the story gives us the opportunity to reflect upon the people and voices who may often be forgotten or overlooked despite their huge contributions and significance to our lives. If even Yitro–  who is of minor import and who legitimately does not fit into the Torah narrative of the Jewish nation– is worth memorializing and remembering, all the more so we should take the opportunity to remember and reflect upon those who contributed so much to our lives and have unfairly been forgotten. This month, February, is Black History Month in America. As Modern Orthodox New York Jewish Americans, plus whatever other labels or descriptors one wants to add, we all have our own narratives and stories that we are living through and dealing with, and they legitimately demand our full attention and investment. However, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to take a step back and learn about people who helped shape our lives and our stories who may often get forgotten, and to offer them the gratitude of memory in return for the debt that we owe them.

I want to emphasize that this is not merely a responsibility or opportunity as an American, but as a Jewish American. Beyond American Jewry’s significant and storied shared-history surrounding Civil Rights, our own American Jewish journeys and narratives are also grateful to and full of important Black Jews and Jews of color who have contributed to our community’s history and progress, and who, unfortunately, are often forgotten. In our own Shul, we are lucky enough to have an exhibit upstairs in our art gallery that features the recreations of the passport photos of some forgotten Jewish immigrants of color. Similarly, in past years, for Black History Month, the Jewish Museum on the UES has had an exhibit dedicated to the Black Jews of Harlem in the 30’s and 40’s, currently online, that presents a picture of NYC’s Jewish immigrant life that is often missed in the LES-focused histories of the time. 

I encourage everyone to take the time to appreciate those paintings, view those photos, and to take this opportunity to learn more about the diverse history and current practice of Judaism. But more than that, I challenge all of us not only to take advantage of this opportunity for learning about the past, but to translate it to growth in the present. There is a lot of work we can still do as we strive to make a community where all are welcome, and all feel welcome. Hopefully, by raising our awareness and appreciation to the broad and diverse history of our own Jewish community, we can inspire action and create a Jewish community where all members are seen, given a voice, and remembered.

 

January 29, 2021: Beshalach

Was Rambam a sinner?

While the question seems inflammatory, it is, in fact, one of hot debate over generations of the tradition. Of course, the label “sinner” might be hyperbole, as the sin in question is one very specific and niche prohibition found in this week’s Parashah. As the Jews are about to cross the Dead Sea and escape Egypt, Moses tells them (14:13):

כִּ֗י אֲשֶׁ֨ר רְאִיתֶ֤ם אֶת־מִצְרַ֙יִם֙ הַיּ֔וֹם לֹ֥א תֹסִ֛יפוּ לִרְאֹתָ֥ם ע֖וֹד עַד־עוֹלָֽם׃

“For as you see Egypt today, you shall not see it ever again.” 

While this verse does not seem like the typical form in which commandments are given in the Torah– really more of a general observation about the state of destruction that is about to befall Egypt– our Rabbis actually learn this verse to be a prohibition. More specifically, this verse is learned as the basis of a Torah prohibition for a Jew to live in Egypt. The Yerushalmi in Succah records our Passuk as one of three instances of this prohibition in the Torah, and the Bavli (Succah 51b), expanding on that idea, explains that the large and thriving Jewish community of Alexandria was wiped out for violating this prohibition by living in Egypt. 

If that’s the case, and there is a prohibition to live in Egypt, does that make Rambam– as well as rabbinic greats such as the Radvaz hundreds of years later, and Rav Ovadiah Yosef in our own time– sinful for having lived in Egypt? In fact, the Sefer Kaftor UFerach, a fourteenth century rabbinic work about the land of Israel, quotes in the name of Rambam’s grandson that Rambam himself would regularly amend his own signature with the preface, “he who violates three prohibitions every day.” According to this shocking account of the Kaftor UFerach, Rambam himself agreed that his life decision was sinful, but nonetheless continued living in Egypt!

While not overtly dealing with this issue, Rabbeinu Bachayei’s comments (Devarim 17:16) give us one avenue of side stepping this issue. Rabbeinu Bachayei explains that this prohibition to return to Egypt was only a prohibition for the generation that left Israel. As we know, the nation that wandered the desert repeatedly told Moshe that they wish they never left Egypt and things were better there. Therefore, in anticipation of this desire to return to their enslavement, God commanded the Jewish people a special one time prohibition not to return to Egypt. If we were to adopt such an approach, there would be no issue, as the prohibition would have obviously expired well before Rambam ever moved to Egypt. 

And yet, while that would be true, the problem is that Rambam himself records a prohibition to live in Egypt in his Mishneh Torah. He writes (Hilkhot Melachim UMilchamot 5:7-8) that there are three prohibitions in the Torah to live in Egypt– much like the Yerushalmi above. Clearly, Rambam does believe in the prohibition of living in Egypt, like the Kafot UFerach suggested. However, Rambam qualifies this prohibition. He explains that the true Torah prohibition is only to move to Egypt “LeHishtakeia Sham,” to establish roots there. But if someone moves there for business or a job or some potentially short-term pragmatic reason and, next thing you know, they’ve lived there 30 years, then that isn’t enough a prohibition to get lashes for, although it is seemingly still frowned upon, if not outright prohibited. 

Fascinatingly, R’ Yosef Nathansohn, in his Shut Shoeil UMeishiv (2:4:107), expands this principle ever further. Based on this Rambam, R’ Nathansohn explains that there actually is no prohibition on any individual moving to Egypt in the first place. The prohibition is on the Jewish people, as a corporate entity, choosing to settle the land of Egypt as their homeland. In other words, if the nation as a whole decides to establish a coordinated seat of power in Egypt, and rejects Israel as its land, then and only then, they will be in violation of this prohibition of returning to Egypt. But any individual who moves their on their own, for the sake of survival or raising a family, they have not violated anything. 

While this expansion seems suspicious, if not outright apologetic, the truth is that it reflects a theme that much predates it. The Ritva (Yuma 38a) holds that the prohibition of living in Egypt only applies when the Jewish people have sovereignty over Israel, however, when there is no Jewish state, then all of the world is just “diaspora,” and it makes no difference if you live in Egypt or elsewhere. In other words, according to the Ritva, this commandment to avoid Egypt is only relevant if that statement it is making is in the context of the Jewish state. Rejecting the Jewish homeland to live in the country of the Jewish people’s historical oppressor is a statement and prohibited. But if we’re all wandering Jews, then there is no significance of any individual living in Egypt. This parallels nicely the theme put forth from R’ Nathansohn that the problem is the national statement of rejecting Israel, and not the individual choice of moving to Egypt.

And yet, while we may have a possible defense of the Rambam, the prohibition itself remains strange. The language of the Torah does not seem to be a commandment at all! Indeed, the Maharsha (Succah 51b) says, like we initially noted, that this isn’t a commandment at all. Rather, this is a promise. Moshe is promising the Jewish people that they will never have to see Egypt again once they get freedom. And of course this makes the most sense! The reason the language in the verse is so strange for a commandment is because it is not a commandment at all, but rather, an observation/promise as means of encouragement to the Jewish people at a stressful and dramatic moment. 

But if that’s the case, and the most simple understanding here– the Pshat in the Torah– is that there is no prohibition at all, and Moshe is merely reassuring the Jewish people, then what are we to do with this entire rabbinic discussion? How can we relate to the rabbi’s prohibition when it is so clear that the verse is offering a promise? Are the rabbis just ignoring the meaning of the verse to make up a Halachah? 

To answer this, I want to conclude with a comment of R’ Baruch Epstein in his Torah Temimah. He writes (Exodus 14fn7):

ואף על פי דלפי פשטות הלשון אין לשון זה אזהרה רק הבטחה, צ"ל מדהבטיח כן הקדוש ברוך הוא חייבים ישראל מצדם להשתדל בקיום ההבטחה וממילא מוזהרים שלא לשוב

“And even though according to the simple language this is a promise and not a prohibition, one must conclude that from the fact that God promised this, the Jewish people are obligated to take initiative to ensure its fulfillment, and therefore, are prohibited from returning to Egypt.”

The Torah Temimah agrees that this is a promise from God to reassure us, but the fact that it’s a promise does not preclude it from being a prohibition. On the contrary! The fact that God promised it to the Jewish people is the very reason why the rabbis saw it fit to learn a prohibition to return to Egypt. God’s promise is not a magical ticket for fulfillment, but rather, guidance as to what we should be valuing and aiming for. Thus, when God, via Moshe, tells the Jewish people they will never see Egypt again, it is upon us to make sure the necessary conditions are true for that promise to be fulfilled.

    While in a relatively obscure context, I think this principle of the Torah Temimah is a powerful one. We can believe fully and strongly in the truth of God’s promises and the reliability of God’s care, but that doesn’t excuse us from taking initiative. Quite the opposite. Even prophecy is a cooperative endeavour, where man plays an essential role in ensuring God’s promises become fulfilled. Rather than waiting around for some divine outside force to swoop in and make a difference in the world, we should view ourselves as God’s partners and actors, carrying out his mission for him. Only when we see ourselves as the means through which God’s promises and plans can be enacted in this world, can we truly partner with God and work towards making sure God’s promises really come true

January 22nd, 2021: Bo

An age old trope of media misunderstanding other cultures is the depiction of Kosher food as needing to be blessed by a rabbi. While nowadays– at least in New York– any talk of rabbinic blessings would likely be tongue in cheek, the myth of magical rabbinic approbation lives on in broader society. Personally, this misconception always struck me as particularly grating. While I don’t begrudge those who have made this mistake, the general pervasiveness of the myth speaks to a popular perspective on Halakha and Jewish practice that focuses on the magical or irrational elements. Rather than viewing Halakha as a detailed law code that can exist by power of its own inertia and internal logic, religious practice is reduced to a cultic practice of magic that requires constant intervention by rabbinic shamans to carry on.

Of course, anyone who lives a life filled with Torah and Mitzvot knows that that’s not how Kashrut works, and that magically sanctifying things through incantations and blessings is not a part of Judaism. If something is kosher it is kosher, and if it isn’t, it isn’t. And yet, while that might be true of the laws of Kashrut, our Parashah surprises us with a seemingly different take elsewhere in the Torah. After bringing about the plague of the first born and instructing the Jews on how to celebrate history’s first ever Passover, God abruptly pivots and tells Moshe (Exodus 13:2):

קַדֶּשׁ־לִ֨י כָל־בְּכ֜וֹר פֶּ֤טֶר כָּל־רֶ֙חֶם֙ בִּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָ֑ה לִ֖י הֽוּא 

“Sanctify for me every first born. The first of every womb of the Jewish people, man or animal, is mine.”

The Jewish people are expected to sanctify the first born of both humans and animals to God.  Seemingly, this would break the mold of Kashrut, as indeed we are saying that there is a need for someone to come and imbue special status into this animal beyond its own makeup. Here, however, things get tricky. Because while God tells us to “sanctify for me every first born,” the rabbis in the Gemara tells us that first born humans and animals are “holy from the womb,” and even without any human interaction have a special status as dedicated to God. This paradox consumes much of the discussion surrounding the Mitzvah of dedicating the first born to God. Why is it, and how can it be, that God told man to “sanctify” the first born if, as Halakha indicates, the animal is considered holy from birth without any human initiative. 

The Gemara, of course, is not oblivious to this paradox, but the cryptic answer given leads to a whole new series of questions. The Gemara answers that while the animal might be holy from birth, there is a commandment in this week’s Parashah for the owner to explicate and verbally recognize the holiness of the firstborn. But that hardly seems elucidating! What is the point of that? What do we accomplish by verbally recognizing a process of Kedushah and status that works without our involvement? 

Rav Soloveitchik, in a parallel discussion surrounding the role of Kiddush on Shabbat– another instance of man “sanctifying” something whose holiness comes automatically– explains that in reality, while we might think of “holiness” as being a status like Kashrut that exists on its own– based entirely on something’s God-given make up– that is not true. In fact, holiness lies entirely outside the domain of God. Our human sense of Kedushah is a this-worldly interface with the divine, and is about how we translate and express our relationship with God in this world. Thus, concludes Rav Soloveitchik, there actually exists no instances of Kedushah or holiness without human initiative as, without humanity, Kedushah would be an irrelevant term.

Following in this direction, the Rav explains how both by Shabbat and by Bachor there can be a Mitzvah to “sanctify” something which is automatically holy. Technically speaking, from a legal perspective, Halakha has deemed these firstborns to be automatically holy, even without human initiative. But in the broader picture, that holiness is only relevant and manifest because of the role humanity plays in recognizing and striving for it. Without Jews keeping Halakha and humans striving for closeness with God, Kedushah– God’s interface with humanity– would be an irrelevant concept. Thus, as the Gemara tells us, there is a Mitzvah of recognition, or “Kiddush,” both by Shabbat and by Bachor, where through a ritual verbal expression,  the exceptions to the rules of holiness– which could have potentially obfuscated the greater message of man’s central role in creating Kedushah– are transformed into opportunities of reflection and internalization about the crucial anthropocentric nature of divinity in this world. 

This message of the paradox of the Bachor rings true on the more personal and relatable levels of our own personal practice. While it may be true that there are institutions and focal points of Kedushah and holiness that seem to exist on their own and persist on the basis of their own inertia– be it our Shul, our Minyanim, our Sifrei Torah and holy books, or our larger communal Avodat Hashem– none of them can mean anything more than the effort and initiative people put into them. While it is true that our storied Shul has, and hopefully will one day continue to outlive all of us, the holiness of the Shul does not stem from a blessing a rabbi recited 108 years ago when he laid the foundation down, but rather, from the Kedushah and meaning we find in it today.

Given that we are now around half way through my first year with the Shul, and at the start of a new year, I want to take this opportunity to urge everyone– myself included– to make sure to take every opportunity to create Kedushah and find meaning within the Stanton Street Community. Especially now as vaccine roll out ramps up and the possibility of post-COVID life seems possible to think about, I want to encourage everyone to find their role and expression within our Shul community. Without class-goers, event attendees, committee members, Gabbais, minyan-attenders, and various other volunteers, there is no Stanton community and there is no Kedushah within the walls. While our many outlets and avenues to connect provide opportunities for Kedushah– be it in-person minyan, virtual Zoom-Shiur or volunteering to be a part of a committee– without people there finding religious meaning, the holiness remains trivialized. As we continue to grow ourselves and our religious community, I hope all of us can pledge to take advantage of the many opportunities to find meaning in the Stanton Street Shul and together we can elevate the Kedushah already present within our holy community. 

 

January 15th, 2021: VaEra

For a religion, we certainly do not talk about theology very often. I’ve read countless articles about how Orthodoxy doesn’t mention God enough. And yet, while we might shy away from the big picture questions in favor of Halakhic minutia and clever insights into the Torah reading, a few times a year the Parshah calls our bluff and doesn’t let us hide from the ever-lurking big questions. Perhaps the most famous– and most troubling– will come up later in the year, when we read about wiping out Amaleik and the Canaanite nations. But while Amaleik might win the grand prize as the Parshah’s most prominent theological/philosophical issue, Parashat VaEra presents us with what must surely be the runner up: Pharaoh’s lack of free will.

God warns Moshe early on in our Parashah (Shemot 7:3):

וַֽאֲנִ֥י אַקְשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֑ה וְהִרְבֵּיתִ֧י אֶת־אֹֽתֹתַ֛י וְאֶת־מֽוֹפְתַ֖י בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם

And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart and I will multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt.

And God is good on his promise. Following the fifth of the ten plagues, we start to see regular reminders of “God hardening Pharaoh’s heart” before each plague, as the Torah seems to imply that, were it not for God’s intervention, the Exodus would have ended well before the tenth plague. Why was God interested in prolonging the production? Rashi explains that God wanted to use the opportunity of the exodus from Egypt not just to free the Jews and to punish the Egyptians, but rather, God saw the exodus as the Jewish people’s introduction to the global stage, and as such, wanted to leave an impression. Thus, God forced Pharaoh to drag it out to ten plagues, giving God ten opportunities to perform open miracles for the Jewish people, demonstrating His power and their standing to the nations of the world. 

But this presents a major theological and philosophical difficulty: What ever happened to free will? It seems like God is removing Pharaoh’s free will when he hardens his heart and forces him to keep the Jews enslaved in Egypt! Does God remove people’s free will? And if that is indeed what is happening here, to what end is God doing that? If the goal is to prolong the exodus to put on a better show for the global audience, how can God punish Pharaoh with additional plagues when He knows that Pharaoh’s refusal comes against his will? How can Pharaoh be held accountable when God is hardening his heart? 

Fascinatingly, the Albo in his Sefer HaIkkarim tries to subvert this entire problem through a clever interpretation. He explains that any normal person would be so swayed by observing open miracles and experiencing the large-scale national attacks and disasters that befell the Egyptian people, that it was necessary for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart so as to restore his sense of neutral decision making and enable him to express his true free will. In other words, the plagues were so overwhelming that, without God’s intervention, Pharaoh would never had even had the opportunity to refuse Moshe’s demands and prolong the Exodus story. Of course, this explanation is very difficult to accept. Beyond the seeming lack of support in the tradition for such an approach, it’s questionable whether there is a substantive ethical difference between God “forcing Pharaoh to make a bad decision” and then punishing him for it and “setting Pharaoh up to make a bad decision” and then punishing him for it. 

Rambam picks up this question of free will and runs with it, invoking the Pharaoh story multiple times across his writings and turning “free will” into a fundamental core principle of Judaism. In Hilchot Teshuvah (6:3), Rambam addresses the problem of Pharaoh’s free will head on and explains that, while it is true that everyone has God-given free will to act as they desire, it is possible that one may sin so severely that, as punishment, God will refuse to allow that person to ever repent for their egregious sins, and de facto, that individual no longer has the freedom to perform Teshuvah. In our case, Pharaoh and the Egyptians sinned so badly with the way they treated the Jews during their enslavement, they lost the ability to repent and required ten plagues worth of punishment to set things straight. In other words, it is true that God is removing Pharaoh’s ability to act in a certain way, but that is not a limitation on Pharaoh’s essential human freedom, but rather, a necessary measure to ensure that the correct punishment is meted out.

Similarly, Nachmanides also bites the bullet and accepts that God can, in fact, remove a person’s free will and, like the Rambam, views the instance of Pharaoh losing free will as a punishment. Nachmanides, however, explains that the punishment was not just for the enslavement, but rather, also for Pharaoh’s repeated refusal to repent after each of the first five plagues. In other words, while Rambam thinks God is taking “repentance” off the table because it would be unjust for Pharaoh to repent and be protected from punishment before all ten plagues are administered, Nachmanides sees the final five plagues as coming as punishment for Pharaoh’s refusal to repent earlier. It took him five plagues to feel ready to admit defeat, so, as punishment, God revoked Pharaoh’s out and made him experience five more plagues. 

While Rambam and Nachmanides both, technically, address the ethical issue of free will, neither approach seems particularly satisfying. Ultimately, both thinkers are forced to bite the bullet and acknowledge that our Parashah contains a divine negation of free will– a sacrifice that many hearing this might not agree is worth making. But more than that, if, as Rambam says, the slavery was so brutal that it needed ten plagues worth of punishment to account for it, why didn’t God just bring ten plagues? Why was there the need for Moshe to keep going back to Pharaoh after each plague, warning him, waiting for his response, and then going back to God? God should have just brought all ten plagues, as Pharaoh deserved! 

Perhaps more simple, although not without its own difficulties, is the approach of Rav Yaakov Meidan, one of the Roshei Yeshivah at Yeshivat Har Etzion in the Gush. Rav Meidan explains that God’s “hardening of Pharaoh’s heart” did not consist of a divine intervention or a removal of free will. Rather, according to Rav Meidan, all the Torah means by “God hardened Pharaoh’s heart” is that God enabled Pharaoh by continuing to give him opportunities to harshly refuse Israelite freedom. God could have brought all ten plagues at once– a tragedy that Pharaoh surely would not have been able to sustain. Alternatively, after the very first time Pharaoh consented to let the Jews go if God would just bring an end to the plagues, when God saw that Pharaoh was not good for his word and was going to keep the Jews enslaved, God could have stopped playing games and punished Pharaoh for breaking his promise. But instead, God repeatedly kept His word, ending plague after plague at Pharaoh’s assurance that he would let the people go, despite the growing evidence that Pharaoh was promising in bad faith. Thus, while God did not act upon Pharaoh’s thoughts or emotions, he enabled Pharaoh to keep lying and oppressing the Jewish people by allowing his repeated lies at the negotiation table to go unpunished. This, in the perspective of the Torah, is as if God himself hardened Pharaoh’s heart and actively played a role in Pharaoh’s actions.

God’s “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart should serve to teach us an important and timely lesson. On the one hand, it is noble and commendable to fight tooth and nail to preserve the value of Teshuvah and continue to provide opportunities for even the gravest of sinners to learn from their ways and repent. The approaches of Medieval authorities such as Rambam and Nachmanides are difficult for many of us to accept, as they depict a world in which God’s patience is limited and the moment for repentance is fleeting. But on the other hand, when God met Pharaoh’s continued obstinance, violence, and dishonesty with naive good faith and little consequence, the Passuk depicted God as enabling– Himself party to Pharaoh’s actions. While in God’s case, this act of “enabling” might have been noble as part of a larger Exodus enterprise, we as a society must balance the dangers of enabling bad actors as we work to keep the doors of repentance and healing ever-open.

 

January 8th, 2021: Mevarchim Shemot

Thirty minutes into Captain America: The First Avenger, the audience has seen Steve Rogers’ super soldier inoculation, and is about to finally be introduced to Captain America– kicking off a franchise, and preparing the onslaught of Avengers and Marvel movies that followed. The drama of the moment is met with horns and music, as the scene cuts to a USO performance for deployed soldiers. A chorus of singers belt out over the band, “Who’s strong and brave, here to save the American way?” before finally singing the name “Captain America” for the first time of the film, and cutting to Steve Rogers in full costume.

This scene is a classic example of what Marvel does right that the many failed comic book movie franchises before them failed to do. Marvel realized that character introductions are key. If comic book movies need to spend time building the world, explaining characters’ origins, and setting up the franchise, then mere live action recreations of comic book panel exposition was not going to cut it. Flashy, dramatic, and engaging characters would get the audience hooked, and the franchise’s inertia would carry itself.

If they could acquire the rights to the bible, Disney could map this blueprint onto any of the biblical partiarch’s stories. BeReishit loves dramatic flashy introductions perhaps as much as Avi Arad and Bob Iger. Arguably all of the beginning of Genesis is a build up to the drama of God’s promise to Avraham of “Lech Lecha.” Yitzchak’s birth is heralded by an angel and ultimately culminates in the drama of the Akeidah. Rivkah struggles with pain as Yaakov and Eisav’s birth is foretold by a prophet and Yaakov is born clutching Eisav’s foot– a precursor for the sibling struggle that would plague his young life. One would expect that Sefer Shemot– a book that the Behag referred to as Genesis’s “sequel”– would follow this pattern and introduce us to our hero Moshe with a flashy and/or miraculous scene.

Yet, despite these expectations, the Torah seems to almost go out of its way to strip down the flash and appeal of Moshe’s origin story. The Torah says (2:1):

וילך איש מבית לוי ויקח בת לוי. ותהר האשה ותלד בן ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא ותצפנהו שלשה ירחים.

“A man from the house of Levi went out and married a daughter of Levi. And she conceived and gave birth to a son. And she saw he was good and she hid him for three months.”

The characters are anonymized, as they are stripped of their names and personalities. We know nothing about the type of people, family, or household that bore Moshe– not even their names. Moreover, we hear nothing about Moshe’s actual birth beyond the fact he was “good.” Unlike the forefathers before him, Moshe has no dramatic Brit Milah scene, and he isn’t even named! Rather, in two Pessukim, Moshe is unceremoniously introduced as a nobody, born from no one, and good.

Unsurprisingly, Chazal note this unexpected divergence from the norm, and they use Torah SheBaal Peh to fill in the missing details of Moshe’s birth and early life– making Moshe’s story conform more with those Torah narratives that predate it. The Rabbis tell us that Moshe’s parents were Amram and Yocheved– leaders of their tribe and their people. Additionally, other rabbinic sources fill in the details surrounding Moshe’s birth, offering various miracles that occurred– suggesting Moshe was born circumcised, or that the room filled with light when he was born– and names are suggested, such as Tuvyah. The two short verses produce pages and pages of Midrash and literature as the sparsity and anonymity of Moshe’s birth and origin is striking given our expectations so far.

And yet, while our rabbis and tradition can fill in these details and add life and color to the narrative, it still begs the question: Why were these stories left out of the Torah narrative? Why is Moshe’s birth presented without any flashy edge or miraculous foretelling? If the rabbis can fill in these details, why didn’t the Torah?

Of course, this is hardly the only place where the rabbis of the Midrash wrote important additions to the Torah’s narrative. In fact, two Israeli professors– Avigdor Shanan and Yair Zackovitz– wrote an entire book entitled “Lo Kach Katuv BeTanach” which deals with instances where the rabbis of the Midrash added details that would seem worthy of having been mentioned in the biblical text itself. Their overarching theory is that in all of these cases, the Torah intentionally leaves out certain details from its presentation to emphasize certain themes or to make specific points.

In the case of Moshe, the Torah is intentionally making a contrast from the hero’s journey we have become familiar with from BeReishit. The narrative of BeReishit is one of family– more specifically, the Jewish First Family– as we learn about the creation of the family that was given God’s promise and would eventually become the Jewish nation. Given that narrative focus, it makes sense that every main character would be prefaced with a divine prophecy or their births would be punctuated by open miracles. The message being communicated is God’s special relationship with this family, and the unique role they will play in the future nation. Sefer Shemot, however, has an entirely different focus. Sefer Shemot is about the Jewish people gaining independence, and taking steps towards forming a nation unified around the values of the Torah. In other words, Sefer Shemot is about the formation of the Jewish people, and the national mission we accepted as part of the privilege of nationhood.

Given that different focus, we can appreciate the previously surprising introduction to Moshe. The Torah is making a powerful statement. We are no longer in Sefer BeReishit, and this story is not going to be about family connections and who bore who. While parietal lineage may have been essential in understanding the rivalry between Joseph and his brothers, it plays no role in Moshe’s origin story– the reader is not even told who Moshe’s parents are! Rather, instead of focusing on the values of family, tradition, and transmission which were emphasized in Sefer BeReishit, Moshe’s story is about moral character and leadership– necessary traits for the leader of a nation. Moshe is chosen for his position due to the compassion he demonstrates for his fellow Jews, his willingness to take action, and the moral character he cultivated. His leadership is not the product of prophecy, heralded by angels, or foretold by miracles. Rather, it is earned by action. The story of Moshe reminds us that, while religiously it is true that the feeling of family is essential in understanding and fostering our shared tradition, as a nation, leadership will be earned through merit. 

This past Wednesday, we all experienced a tragic failure of leadership. As the windows of the capitol building were broken in on live television, and the confederate flag was paraded through the halls of the legislature for the first time in American history, Unfortunately, we Americans saw a real life application of the Torah’s lesson this week. Birth and position– be it who you were born to, how much money you’re worth, or even if you hold an impressive political position– does not make someone a leader. A leader takes action in the face of moral wrong, and leads by showing what it takes to develop moral character.

Moshe had to give up his childhood home life and flee for years because of his impulsive act of standing up against Egyptian injustice. He sacrificed his home and his family– precursors to the familial and personal sacrifices we will later learn Moshe makes, as he separates from his wife and often foregoes even food and water in service of the Jewish people. Leadership is difficult and requires personal sacrifice, but that is precisely because it is earned and not owed. Moshe’s origin story should serve as a counter role model to us during a time where our airwaves are sadly lacking the role model of a real leader. We should take this opportunity to examine ourselves and make sure that we work to invest our communal leadership and align our communal interests with those leaders who take action and stand for strong moral character. For, as we have all unfortunately seen this week, we will need leaders who are strong and brave and here to save the American way. 

 

January 1st, 2020: Vayechi

This week we’ll be finishing the Yosef story, and with it, the first book of the Torah, Sefer BeReishit. And while the Yosef story wraps up nicely– the family is reunited in Egypt, Yosef provides for them with land and food during the famine, and the tense question of who will takeover Yaakov’s mantle is seemingly resolved with the answer that the tribes will share it– the larger arc of the narrative should leave the reader wanting. While by now, most of us are already familiar with the story of Jewish history and anticipate the turns the story takes, for a first time reader looking at the Torah’s narrative of God’s divine plan, this entire Egypt chapter likely seems so strange. Why does God have to bring Yaakov’s family down to Israel just to enslave them in Egypt? Wouldn’t God’s miraculous salvation of Yosef have been a powerful ending to the story? Couldn’t the brothers have then moved back home after the famine and tried to build the nation of Israel? Why is the Jewish descent into Egypt– the culmination of the entirety of BeReishit– a necessary step?


I think the significance of the Jewish people’s long-term descent to Egypt is actually found in an often overlooked passage at the very end of last week’s Parashah. Before transitioning to the death of Yaakov and his blessings to his sons, the Torah tells us one final episode about Yosef, the viceroy of Egypt. The Torah tells us (BeReishit 47:13-26) how, during the height of the Egyptian famine, the people of Egypt had expended all of their silver, metals, and money purchasing food from Yosef, and were left penniless. Yosef, seeing that the people had no more money to buy back the food he had previously collected from them, instead issued a tax of farmland itself. Indeed, the Torah dramatically tells us that due to Yosef’s tax, the entirety of Egypt became owned by Pharaoh and all of its inhabitants became Pharaoh’s sharecroppers– surely a hefty tax! Having taxed everyone down to their very land, Yosef then collects everyone in the country and moves them from their ancestral farmland into cities– breaking their claim to the land, and displacing them. Indeed, it is not surprising that the Egyptian people respond to this new situation by saying Yosef has saved them, but “we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (BeReishit 47:25).


In other words, one of the last acts of Yosef– and thereby, one of the last acts of the Jewish people in Sefer BeReishit– consists of Yosef using his authority as Viceroy of Egypt to impose an exceptionally large tax on the Egyptians during a famine– a time of extreme vulnerability– ultimately leading to their near-enslavement. Unsurprisingly, many of the rabbinic commentaries note how peculiar this episode is– we rarely get other insight into Yosef’s political actions as viceroy– and how unsettling Yosef’s actions seem to be, and try to apologize for them. The Ramban, for example, rather than reading the Egyptian declaration “we will be slaves to Pharaoh” as an exclamation of despair or sullen surrender, instead reads it as a genuine offer. The Egyptians were so appreciative of the food they were receiving, they offered themselves to be slaves, but Yosef– ever the righteous Tzaddik– refused to let them enslave themselves, and instead, only took their land, agreeing to pay them the relatively high salary of 80% of their work if they agreed to work as sharecroppers. Therefore, the Ramban concludes with remarks of praise for Yosef’s generous rule.


Similarly, the Malbim continues in the Ramban’s path and explicates even more. The Malbim says:

לא רצה לקנות גם אותם רק קנה תחלה האדמה לבדה, כי לא יתכן למושל ארץ לקנות את עמו לעבדים בעד פת לחם, שעליו לפרנסם בעת הרעב, רק קנה תחלה את אדמתם לבד, וזה היה ברצונם, כי מכרו מצרים איש שדהו

"Yosef did not want to purchase them themselves. Rather, he just wanted their land. For it is not conceivable that a ruler would purchase his own nation into slavery for food. It is his responsibility to provide his constituents sustenance during a famine! Rather, first he purchased just their land, and this was with their consent, for everyone sold their fields.”

Again, similar to the Ramban, the Malbim views this episode as a praiseworthy vignette into Yosef’s righteous attributes. Moreover, the Malbim explicitly spells out his agenda, whereas the Ramban keeps his motivations ambiguous. The Malbim argues that it must be that Yosef was actually being lenient here and caring for the Egyptians, because otherwise, the story would be telling us about the corruption or immorality of Yosef– a supposed leader of his people– taking advantage of their vulnerability to enslave his nation for selfish ends. Leaders are supposed to care for their people! Surely this is not what the Torah is trying to tell us.


But perhaps, with all due respect to Yosef HaTzaddik, that is exactly what the Torah is trying to tell us. Perhaps the message of this unusual political vignette is not a random account of how righteous Yosef was as a leader, but rather, a set up and framing for the events that would follow. The last thing we hear Yosef do before the transition to Shemot and the Jewish enslavement in Egypt is Yosef’s taxation and enslavement of the Egyptian people. Surely this is no coincidence. When the Egyptians tell Yosef “we will be slaves to Pharaoh,” how can one help but think of a few pages later in the book, where we will find out that Yosef is dead, there’s a new Pharaoh in town, and now the Jewish people are the slaves. But beyond the juxtaposition between this story and the onset of Shemot, I think the framing of this very scene communicates a similar message.


This seemingly random and surprising scene of Yosef’s royal power is bookended with two verses that communicate the same message. First, before telling us about the enslavement that Egyptians had to face in order to afford food, the Torah tells us (47:11-12) that Yosef gave his family who just arrived in Egypt a large piece of land, and found ‘Lechem,’ bread for everybody in his family, all the way down to the babies. Then, the immediately following verse opens by saying “Lechem Ein BiChol HaAretz,” there was no bread in the whole land. The contrast is striking. While Yosef is gathering the choicest of farm lands in Goshen for his family, and scouring the country to collect enough bread for even the babies to feel full, the rest of Egypt is facing economic and social crises. This then transitions into the story of Yosef enslaving the Egyptian people– clearly a contrast with the generosity with which Yosef treated his actual family– and finally caps off with one seemingly out of place verse. This section in the Torah concludes, and thereby sets the stage for our Parshah to finish Sefer BeReishit, by telling us (Bereishit 47:27):

 וַיֵּ֧שֶׁב יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ גֹּ֑שֶׁן וַיֵּאָחֲז֣וּ בָ֔הּ וַיִּפְר֥וּ וַיִּרְבּ֖וּ מְאֹֽד
“And Israel lived in Egypt in the land of Goshen, and they claimed it as an inheritance, and they were multiplied and were many.”

The message could not be clearer. While the Egyptians just experienced the traumatic loss of their ancestral homeland, the forced relocation to crowded cities they had never known, and the degradation of defacto slavery– working the land like they did merely moments ago, but now as sharecroppers instead of owners– the Jewish people were thriving in the farmland Yosef selected for them. While all of Egypt is now relocated to the cities, it is the Jewish people alone who are given farmland to own and to live on– an Achuzah, an inheritance that can be passed down. Thus, the Torah bookends the episode of Yosef’s taxation with the clear contrast in how Yosef was treating his own family during the period. While the Egyptians suffered at Yosef’s hands, Yosef looked out for his own, and allowed the Jews to thrive in comfort.


Of course, historically, many of the classical Medieval commentaries on the Torah view this as praiseworthy of Yosef. Rashi cites a Midrash, as do others, that praises Yosef for displacing the Egyptians and ensuring that the Jewish people won’t be the only displaced strangers in the land of Egypt. Countless Midrashim point out how wonderfully Yosef cared for his family, and praise him accordingly, while conveniently neglecting the harshness with which Yosef treated everyone else. While I, of course, am in no place to disagree with the moral evaluation of Rashi or Chazal, I think this might be an example of historical context being particularly relevant. While Rashi and other early commentators were living as oppressed minorities in hostile nations, they saw Yosef’s care of his fellow Jews as praiseworthy, and related to the harsh penalties levied against the non-Jews as cathartic justice for the unfair taxation they were facing. However, given our current experience and perspective, as well as our historically unprecedented access to power and influence, as we now have our own nation, as well as a relatively comfortable (albeit unfortunately not without problems) position in American society, we can relate to this story in a new light.


Rather than merely seeing this as a story of the Jewish people’s survival, and focusing on how Yosef looked out for his own, we can now view this story as a morality tale and a warning. We have previously mentioned the insight of Rav Soloveitchik that God’s first promise to give Avraham the land of Israel at the Brit Bein HaBetarim was ideally supposed to take effect in the fourth generation– namely, Yakov’s children. However, the brothers repeatedly showed that they were unworthy of leadership. First, Shimon and Levi forgo diplomacy and violently massacre Shechem in a fit of passion merely days after first arriving in Israel. Then, the brothers sell Yosef, nearly killing him, in an attempt to claim his position of favor and influence with Yaakov– another political act of aggression and violence. Again and again the brothers show that, while God may be ready for the Jewish people to actualize and settle the land of Israel, the Jewish people are not yet ready to lead. Thus, while the first half Sefer BeReishit, which contains the stories of the three Patriarchs, give us the necessary background to the formation of the Jewish nation, the rest of the book of the Torah is about the Jewish people’s efforts to be good enough to actualize that promise of divine favor.


Given that, we can now fully appreciate this story of Yosef’s taxation in Egypt. While Yosef has improved on the sins of his brothers in many ways– finally overcoming the familial rivalry and tension that plagued every biblical hero until now– he is still far from perfect. Yosef is HaTzaddik as he stakes out an honorable and unusually righteous position as a loving brother and forgiving family member, but that does not necessarily make a just king. Thus, the Torah gives us insight into Yosef’s failure of leadership to highlight the work that remains for the Jewish people to ascend to their eventual promise of nationhood. They will have to themselves experience slavery and understand the suffering that Yosef has imposed upon the lowest in society before being able to rise to the royalty of their own kingdom. Indeed, throughout the Torah, one of the most common refrains is God’s reminder to “treat strangers well, for you were a stranger in Egypt.” Appearing more than nearly any other verse or phrase in the Torah, the reminder of slavery in Egypt serves as an ethical backbone for much of the Torah’s interpersonal Mitzvot.


Thereby, we can appreciate an added layer to the Egypt story that is being set up in the very end of Sefer BeReishit. The biblical First Family has overcome the internal plague of family tension and rivalry (for now at least), and are able to live and maybe even work together. However, there is still much for them to learn about having and exercising power, and being a role model on a global stage. Thus, the Egypt story comes to teach us the lessons of slavery and oppression, as only through understanding that can we truly establish a just kingdom that can actualize God’s mission of peace and fairness in the world.


While Rashi’s appreciation for Yosef’s love and care for his family still rings true as an important value to learn from the Yosef story, this added critical dimension challenges us to balance our internal-focused fraternity with outward compassion. To truly actualize God’s vision of a Mamlekhet Kohanim VeGoy Kadosh, a kingdom of divine emissaries a holy nation, we will have to go through the pain of slavery together with Moshe and the Jewish people, and learn the lessons of care and compassion for others. Only by virtue of the actualization of those values of fairness and compassion are the Jewish people eventually able to ascend to the global stage and become a kingdom. As we stand here today, lucky to have a Jewish nation, a comfortable home town, and a beautiful Shul community, we should take the warning of this week’s Parashah to make sure we’re sensitive to the broader world outside during this difficult time. Only when we are able to foster fair and compassionate attitudes towards others, all the while maintaining the closeness of our internal familial connection, will we be able to share the warmth of our community, and the message of our Torah with the broader world and truly be an Or LaGoyim, a light unto the nations. 

 

December 25th, 2020: Vayigash

Given the events of the past several months– full of difficulty, tragedy, and unexpected surprises– it is perhaps fitting that we conclude this year with an unusual and unexpected act of solemnity: fasting on Shabbat. While generally we never fast on Shabbat, as Shabbat is a joyous day characterized by festive meals and celebration, the two exceptions to this rule are Yom Kippur, which supersedes Shabbat, and Assarah BeTevet, which this year fell out yesterday, Erev Shabbat, and extended an hour into Shabbat– ultimately dictating the earliest time we were allowed to say Kiddush. And while this year we only fasted an hour into Shabbat, the Halakha is that if Assarah BeTevet were to fall on Shabbat itself, we would fast all of Shabbat. But how can it be that this one, minor, rabbinic fast trumps Shabbat? Why don’t we just push off Assarah BeTevet to Sunday like we do when Tisha B’Av falls on Friday/Saturday? 

Rav Yosef Kairo, in his Beit Yosef– an earlier and lengthier codification of Halakha that would later be summarized into the Shulchan Aruch– quotes the Abudraham as the source for this peculiar halakha. The Abudraham explains that, while generally fast days are pushed off for Shabbat, since the fast of Assarah BeTevet commemorates Nebuchadnezzer’s first act of siege against Jerusalem, and in describing that siege the prophet says it occurred “BeEtzem HaYom HaZeh,” in the midst of that very day, we see that, like Yom Kippur, the day itself is important and non-negotiable. Therefore, even if it falls out on Shabbat, we must observe Assarah BeTevet on its proper day, and fast on Shabbat. Yet, while the Abudraham brings a verse to support himself, he hardly explains why Assarah BeTevet should be any different. Isn’t the precise date of every fast day important? Indeed, based on this difficulty, the Beit Yosef concludes that he is unsure about this Abudraham. Yet, despite R’ Yosef Kairo unsurety we all clearly have adopted the Halakhic practice of following the Abudraham. So what is special about Assarah BeTevet that it breaks the normal rules and forces us to fast on Shabbat?

One approach the authorities take to try to explain why Assarah BeTevet trumps Shabbat is to look at parallel cases of fast days superseding Shabbat. Rav Chaim Soloveitchik, for example, points out that while the public fast days don’t generally override Shabbat, personal fasts– in particular, an elective fast one opts to observe out of fear of a bad dream– always override Shabbat. Since one’s Shabbat joy is already impacted by their worry over their bad dream, fasting is not considered to be minimizing their joy, but rather, enabling them to recover and celebrate. Similarly, we know that Yom Kippur overrides Shabbat and we fast if Yom Kippur falls on Shabbat. But how are bad dreams and Yom Kippur relevant for Assarah BeTevet? The Chasam Sofer quotes the Gemara in Taanit that teaches every year that the Beit HaMikdash is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed anew. The Chasam Sofer explains that every year on Assarah BeTevet, God reevaluates his decision to destroy the Temple and whether it is time to rebuild it. Thus, Assarah BeTevet is not just a backward reflecting holiday commemorating the past, but, similar to both Yom Kippur and personal elective fasts, it is a moment of prayer for our current needs and desires, as we look towards a future rebuilt temple. 

Yet, while that might explain how it is possible to fast on Shabbat for Assarah BeTevet, it does not explain why we choose to. Even if Assarah BeTevet is a forward-focused day of prayer, why couldn’t we push it off a day when it falls on Shabbat? Why is it so important that Assarah BeTevet be specifically on its precise date, but none of the other rabbinic fasts? 

Fascinatingly, it is actually not so obvious that the precise date of the other Jewish fasts is so important. Our earliest source for the various minor fasts we observe is from the prophet Zechariah, who prophesies about their eventual reversal into days of joy. The prophet says (Zechariah 8:19): “The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth, shall be to the house of Judah joy and gladness, and cheerful seasons” The Minchat Chinuch points out that in this verse– the very source for the fasts days that we observe– there are actually no specific dates enumerated for each fast day. Rather, they are merely referred to by their months. Based on this, the Minchat Chinuch arrives comes to the radical conclusion that the Mitzvah of fasting for these minor fasts is not actually tied to the days at all, but rather, the months. Since these fast days are memorializations and commemorations of events of the past, the specific moment or date is not essential. Any time during the “Chorban season” we can mourn the destruction of the temple and it will be equally meaningful. 

Therefore, says the Minchat Chinuch, if one were to miss a minor fast due to illness or other reason, they should just make it up on a different day in the same month! While we ultimately do not practically hold like the Minchat Chinuch, the idea he is conveying seems to run counter to our unusual Assarah BeTevet. If, generally speaking, the precise days of the month aren’t essential for the minor fasts, then our difficulty with Assarah BeTevet is even further exacerbated! So why is it that the date of Assraah BeTevet is so inflexible? 

While the forward hopes of rebuilding the temple and reestablishing order and justice in society may feel pressing, I think it is actually the past-focused perspective that explains our emphasis on celebrating the tenth of Tevet on its proper date. Unfortunately, it is all too familiar to us today in 2020 how in one moment everything can change forever. Much like Nebuchanezzer’s invasion signalled the end of life as the Jews of the time knew it, many of us had that moment in March or April of this year where it hit us that things are changed forever. The first time we put a mask on outside. The moment we cancelled our Pesach plans. Missing a family Simchah. However, while the onset of a new phase in life or a dramatic new shift can hit us in a moment, in the face of that tragedy and that shift, it takes years or generations to fully see the impact of that trauma and to really begin to address it. In other words, while Assarah BeTevet may signify the start of the tragedy of the destruction of the temple and the loss of Jewish autonomy, Tisha B’Av is not the end. The destruction of the temple did not “end” or resolve, but rather, led us to a new reality with new struggles and new challenges that we face every day. Thus, the precise date it “ended” is not so important, as the tragedy of the event did not end on that precise day. We can memorialize the still-felt impact of the temple’s destruction any day in Av if we need to, as every day is a testament to what a world without a temple looks like. But when we are trying to capture that shift itself– the moment that we went from our normal, comfortable, happy lives into an unknown period of chaos and struggle, we can think back to that moment it all set it in and our lives shifted. The drama of the day itself– BeEtzem HaYom HaZeh– emphasizes our powerless as in a moment, on any day, God can radically change our lives and the world, and it will take us more than one day of prayer and fasting, or one Tisha B’Av to fully recover.

While fasting and the self-criticism of Teshuvah seems particularly difficult this year, given the pandemic and our general circumstances right now, I think Assarah BeTevet presents us with a particularly meaningful opportunity this year. With the first vaccines being distributed and a faint light at the end of the tunnel being visible for the first time in what feels like ages, we are now transitioning to the “end” phase of the tragedy of COVID. But much like the national tragedy we commemorate on Tisha B’Av, the tragedy and suffering of COVID is not going to come to a clean and instant end. There’s months or years of vaccination distribution, economic, social, and mental health recovery, and so much work that is left to be done. Thus, Assarah BeTevet gives us the opportunity to reflect and the harsh wake up call that COVID presented to us all those months ago, and reminds us that, much like the Jewish recovery process from the temple’s destruction, there is much recovery that lays ahead. 

Thus, we should take this Assarah BeTevet weekend as an opportunity to follow the path laid out by the Chatam Sofer and to take this day as a day of current prayer for our hopes of rebuilding. In addition to our yearly hopes of rebuilding the temple, our Jewish society, and our religious/cultural identity, we have the end of the exile of COVID and the loneliness of quarantine to pray for– tempered by the realization that much work lies ahead. Hopefully, as we shift towards the final phase of our current COVID lifestyle, we can utilize these calenderic reminders as a way to process the difficulty we are all experiencing now, and come next year, we will have new appreciation, understanding, and gratitude when we come together on Assarah BeTevet and, looking towards our past to inspire our future, pray together as a community. 

 

December 19th, 2020: Miketz

Often times, we’re so familiar with the biblical stories that, in anticipation of what is about to come, we don’t stop and reflect on what’s going on right now. When we read about Yosef being brought before Pharaoh to interpret his dreams, we all already know that Yosef will eventually become the viceroy to Egypt, bring his family down to meet him, and set the stage for the exile in Egypt and the rest of the bible. However, if we step on the breaks and take a moment to reflect on where we are in the biblical narrative, the events that unfold should strike us as unusual and unique. 

After successfully interpreting the dreams of his fellow prisoners, Yosef is brought to Pharaoh to interpret his dreams– something we all take for granted as logical, as Yosef is the great dream interpreter. But at this point in the Torah, we have only just been introduced to this idea of a prophetic dream interpretation! Since when is this a method of divine communication? Granted, we have a few prior cases of divine dreams– Avraham at the covenant of the parts, Lavan during his pursuit of Yaakov– but in all of those cases, there was no “interpretive” element involved! God directly appeared and communicated with the Avraham and with Lavan, albeit while they were sleeping. Since when does God communicate via elaborate charades– hinting to people their future via a complicated guessing game of symbolism? 

While Yosef might be the first biblical figure to primarily interface with God via dreams, he is certainly not the last. Just last week, we read the Hafotrah from the book of Zechariah. Zechariah, the last of the biblical prophets, exclusively communicates with God via symbolic dreams. Throughout the book of Zechariah, the prophet has confusing symbolic dreams and is helped to arrive at their proper interpretation via an assisting angel. By Zechariah, it is clear that God’s shift from direct communication to dreams foretells the imminent end of prophecy and decline of the Jewish people’s relationship with God. In other words, Zechariah, as the last prophet to manage any form of intimate relationship with God, experiences a much more diluted form of prophecy where he only sees vague images in a dream, and a third party– God’s angel– has to help him interpret it. Thus, we see that divine dreams are representative of God distancing himself and opting for an indirect form of communication.

Similarly, I believe the emphasis on dreams here represents a monumental shift in Jewish history, and how the Jewish people communicate with God. Beginning with Yaakov already, dreams begin to play a more central role, as Yaakov has his famous dream with the ladder, only to later be followed up with another dream in Lavan’s house– this time, of sheep. By Yaakov, already, the Torah is indicating the beginnings of a shift in divine relationship and communication, as direct communication is still possible, but often supplanted by dreams. By the time we get to Yosef, though, there is no longer a possibility of direct communication with God, but rather, only opaque dreams. But why is God pulling back from the first family? Does Yosef not merit direct communication with God? 

Had God appeared to the tribes and said that Yosef will lead them, it seems hard to imagine that the brothers would have still objected and sold Yosef into slavery. Similarly, if Yosef had a communication from God that Egypt will experience famine, but Pharaoh never dreamt about it, Yosef would never have had an opportunity or platform to alert Pharaoh and prepare Egypt. In other words, while direct communication from God may express a closer relationship and intimacy with the divine, and thereby a more accurate and clear understanding and vision of the word of God, that clarity comes at the expense of human participation. By pulling back His presence and appearing through ambiguous dreams, God empowers the various actors in the biblical drama to take the steps and actions that will ultimately drive the story forward. Thus, we see an axiom emerge: the more God is actively involved, the less room there exists for man. 

That being the case, the sudden shift to dreams in Yosef’s story belies an important shift in the biblical narrative. Avraham was given a mission from God, with specific trials, tests, and directives. Yitzchak was tasked with the important responsibility of maintaining the work that his father Avraham trailblazed, cementing Avaham’s movement for the future. But starting with the moment that Yaakov fled his father’s household, and culminating with the story of Yaakov’s sons and the sale of Yosef, we begin to see the biblical heroes being empowered to make their own decisions with little to no directives from God. As the Torah shifts from a localized family drama to a story of national origin, God’s role begins to shift. Direct divine communication takes a back seat as, ultimately, it is only a nation that is empowered to act on its own that will be able to succeed in the divine mission. Thus, we see that by the end of Bereishit, we have a transition away from direct prophecy to the more hazy communication of dreams, as man is given slightly more agency in directing the narrative. 

Ultimately, the Jewish people fail to reach their potential and don’t rise to the challenge of the moment. After generations in Egypt, they sink into spiritual destitution– reflected by their socio-economic status, as they fall into slavery. Eventually, the Jewish people will need a figure no less great than Moshe to ween them off the flashy miracles of direct divine communication and prepare them for the more empowered and independent world of nationhood. But our story this week, moved forward by its peculiar dreams, reminds us before Moshe ever enters the scene that if we’re going to fill that national role and play on the international stage, we need to feel comfortable with our agency and our independence in shaping our narrative. 

 

December 12th, 2020: Vayeshev

Many may not realize that we stand here today, Shabbat Chanukah, on the precipice of one of the most controversial issues in Halakha. Despite hundreds of years of discussion, with every major Halakhic authority of the past few hundred years taking a stance, somehow this controversy rages on, unresolved. Of course, I’m talking about the notorious question in Halakha of whether to light Chanukah candles first, or to recite Havdalah first. While this question may not seem “controversial,” in the sense that the stakes feel much lower than the “controversial” issues we think of, it certainly remains subject to intense controversy as, somehow, this Halakhic issue has never reached a finalized conclusion. 

But what’s so controversial about this question? The Shulchan Aruch (OC 681:2) quotes the Terumas HaDeshen who rules that in Shul, the congregation should first light Chanukah candles and then recite Havdalah. While the Shulchan Aruch specifically locates this practice to the Shul, the Rema comments that the same practice should be adopted at home. As such, it seems like this should be a cut and dry question! Like all other realms of Halakha, the Shulchan Aruch and Rema are the decisive codification and final word on the Halakha, and thus, should settle the matter. And yet, many if not all of us, when we get home tonight, will first recite our Havdalah before lighting Chanukah candles– a clear contradiction to the words of the Rema!

But we needn’t worry, as we too are basing our practice on a well sourced custom. The Taz, commenting on the Shulchan Aruch, quotes the Maharal amongst others who disagreed, and argued that we should recite Havdalah first, and only then light Chanukah candles. And yet, while it is nice to know that the practice of reciting Havdalah first has authority behind it, even the Taz’s suggestion doesn’t fully align with the practice many of us are used to. For, in every Orthodox Shul in America tonight, the congregation will first light Chanukah candles before reciting Havdalah! Ultimately, our practice aligns with the later decision of the Mishnah Berurah (681:3) who rules that the Shulchan Aruch’s insistence of lighting Chanukah candles before Havdalah only applies in Shul at the communal lighting, but at home, we are free to recite Havdalah first.

Eventually, the practice developed in America to light Chanukah candles before Havdalah in Shul, but at home, to recite Havdalah first. But isn’t this compromise inconsistent? How can we Paskin one way at home and one way in Shul? And why is this issue so complicated and unresolved after centuries of Halakhic discourse? What is going on in this seemingly small detail of Chanukah that has led to so much unresolved discussion and controversy? To answer these questions, we must first understand what’s at stake here. We are faced with a question of prioritization, as both Chanukah candles and Havdalah compete for preferential treatment. But what exactly is motivating that question? Why should we be prioritizing one or the other? What statement is being made by choosing one Mitzvah first?

To answer that, I’d like to explore perhaps our earliest source in the tradition to make this unexpected grouping of Chanukah and Havdalah– the Midrash. Yet, unlike the sources we’ve seen so far, the Midrash does not discuss the Halakhic competition between Chanukah and Havdalah. Rather, the Midrash groups these two Mitzvot by placing the two of them at the heart of two separate but undeniably parallel stories about Adam’s first experiences on Earth. Thus, our rabbis create a new genre of literature the “early Adam story”– and give us two instances of this story: Adam’s role in establishing Chanukah, and Adam’s role in establishing Havdalah.

The early origins of Chanukah are particularly surprising. Off the bat, we know Chanukah is a holiday of rabbinic invention, so one would not necessarily expect the rabbis to identify its origins with biblical Adam. But beyond that, the details of the story are particularly strange. The Gemara in Avodah Zarah 8a says that surrounding the winter solstice, there was an ancient holiday that was originally founded to worship God, and later became coopted by pagans and false religions as a day of worship for their deities. Thus, the rabbis retroject our reality– living in a world full of Christmas advertisements during the Chanukah season– all the way back to the times of Adam.

The Midrash in Avodah Zarah explains that Adam had been living on Earth for a few months when he realized that the hours of daylight had been getting progressively shorter and shorter. When winter came, and there were merely a few hours of daylight in a given day, Adam feared that the world was in decline, and there were only a few weeks or months left until the end of the world. Surely, daylight would get shorter and shorter until there was nothing but darkness. Thus, Adam fasted and prayed to God for eight days and nights. After eight days, the winter solstice had passed, and Adam realized that the days were getting longer again. Adam concluded that God must have designed the world to work in a cycle, where the days get shorter and longer, and the world is safe from destruction. To celebrate, Adam created a holiday. Every year, during the darkest week of the winter, Adam would light candles for eight consecutive nights to commemorate his eight days and nights of fasting, and to thank God for maintaining the world. While this Midrash does not mention Chanukah by name, it’s content is beyond clear. The Rabbis are describing the very first Chanukah celebration, and– shockingly– locating  it all the way back to the time of Adam.  

Similarly, the Yerushalmi in Berachot (60b) tells us another story about Adam’s early days on Earth– but this time, with a different focus. Between the thematic and textual parallels, there’s little doubt that these two stories are both parts of a larger genre of rabbinic Adam stories, and thus, are being grouped together, despite their disparate placement in the rabbinic canon. But this time, the story plays out slightly differently. The Yerushalmi says that at the end of Adam’s first day alive, he saw that the light was waning, and it was beginning to be dark. Adam, having never experienced night before, feared that the darkness meant God was about to kill him and destroy creation! But, as it grew dark, God showed Adam two pieces of flint and taught Adam how to make fire. Thus, equipped with fire, Adam– our Jewish Prometheus– was prepared for the cold darkness of night, and able to protect himself. Since we know Adam was created on the sixth day, his first full day must have been Shabbos. Thus, the Yerushalmi concludes that this episode with Adam must have taken place Saturday night, and serves as the historical basis for our practice of lighting a fire at Havdalah. To commemorate the very first Saturday night in human history, where God showed man how to make fire, every Saturday night in perpetuity, we Jews light a fire as part of our Havdalah ceremony Saturday night. 

Thus, we see the undeniable parallel between these two stories. Both stories feature a young Adam, new to Earth, unfamiliar with how creation works, and afraid that the natural processes of day and night, and darkness and light, somehow indicate an existential threat. Yet, perhaps more telling than these similarities, the parallel between these two stories highlight the differences between them. While in the Chanukah story, Adam’s reaction is to pray and fast, in the Havdalah story, Adam is equipped with flint to create fire for himself. And, following this difference, while the conclusion of the Chanukah story is Adam’s recognition that God has a plan to how he runs the world, and Adam can feel secure in God’s grasp, the conclusion of the Havdalah story features no holiday in God’s honor, but rather, Adam’s ability to take care of himself. 

Indeed, this seems to be the core difference between the two stories. In the Chanukah story, Adam is depicted as helpless, and God as the savior. Adam thinks he is going to be destroyed, prays and fasts to God, realizes God has a plan for how to run the world, and commemorates his previous anxious prayers as a future holiday of thanksgiving and appreciation to God. In the Havdalah story, while God still obviously plays a role and ultimately shows Adam the flint he uses to make fire, Adam is depicted as much more active. He does not pray or fast, but rather, solves his problem. He creates fire and cares for himself, albeit with God’s help. Thus, fittingly, the takeaway for future generations is not a holiday thanking God, but rather, a practice commemorating Adam– as we light a fire Motzi Shabbat to reenact Adam’s Promethean Havdallah. 

This difference between the two stories is not merely coincidental, but lies at the heart of an important contrast the tradition is trying to make. Chanukah, and its associated Mitzvot and observances, is a holiday dedicated to God’s role in Jewish history, as he miraculously protects the Jewish people and pulls the strings for his, often obfuscated, divine plan. Indeed, we know that despite the major role humans played in the holiday– raising an army and successfully rebelling against the world’s largest empire of the time– the rabbis in the Gemara don’t even mention the military battles as part of the holiday, instead emphasizing the miraculous oil that God allowed to burn for eight days. The rabbinic conception of Chanukah, thus, represents for us a recognition and appreciation for God’s hand in the world– as he miraculously bends the rules of nature in the case of the burning oil, and, as is the case in the Adam story, at other times maintains complex systems of nature in order to ensure life. 

All of this stands in stark contrast to the Havdalah story. It is no coincidence that Chazal’s recounting of the creation of fire parallels the story of Prometheus, as, much like Prometheus was disparaged and ultimately punished by the Greek gods of myth for his act of radical independence when he introduced man to fire, so too, Adam is staking out an independent way for humanity to take care of itself during the cold and dark nights where God often feels so far. However, unlike the Greek myth, the divine authority is not angry when faced with a reality of a self-sufficient humanity, but rather, proud. God teaches Adam how to use fire so that he can be independent, and not need God to fulfill his most basic needs. Thus, the story of Adam’s first Havdalah represents man’s ingenuity and ability  to take care of himself– a distinctly opposing message from that of the seemingly parallel Chanukah story.

Thus, the rabbis group together Chanukah candles and Havdalah to flesh out a fluid and complex spectrum of competing beliefs. On the one hand, Chanukah represents to us the idea of dependence on the divine and trust in God’s plan. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Havdalah represents rugged individualism and human self-sufficiency– also a value in God’s eyes. Indeed, these two opposing meanings are in fact expressed in perhaps the largest halakhic difference between these two Mitzvot. While the candles we light for Chanukah are Assur BeHana’ah, and prohibited from providing us any personal benefit beyond the ritual observance, the candle we light for Havdalah has only fulfilled its job if one has put his hands up close to it and personally benefited from its heat and light. Thus, the Halakhot represent the philosophical distinction, as Chanukah represents the distant and unobtainable elements of God and his divine plan, while Havdalah stands as a weekly reminder for man’s need to be able to be self sufficient, as the end of the weekend connotes one’s need to take care of one’s self and one’s family in the coming week. 

Thus, we can now return to our initial question. Why is it so controversial whether to light Chanukah candles or the Havdalah candle first? Because these two Mitzvot represent two completely opposing values. The question of which comes first is a question of which outlook and perspective should be prioritized. Do we fundamentally lean towards passivity and faith in the face of challenges, or do we rely upon our own human ingenuity and capability? Do we prioritize the distant and forbidden light of the Chanukah candles? Or do we first warm ourselves and fortify our families for the coming week by the heat of the Havdalah candles? Of course a question of such great important would inspire such immense controversy! 

Given this understanding of the stakes, we can now understand our own practice. How can we, inconsistently, light Chanukah candles first in Shul but recite Havdalah first at home? We are recognizing that questions of competing values and priorities are nuanced and complicated, and have to be sensitive to the context. In a Shul setting, of course faith and helpless devotion should be a priority. We come together in Shul to pray together and hone our spiritual sensibilities! In such a setting, surely the prohibited light of the spiritual Chanukah candles prevails. But at home, when we are in our own domains, and responsible for our own well being, we have to prioritize the light of Havdalah before acknowledging the message of Chanukah. Only once we have fortified ourselves and our households for the coming week of work and human labor, are we able to then reflect upon the background reassurance of the divine plan, as represented by Chanukah candles. 

Thus, we see that the Halakha is not only controversial and complicated, but deeply meaningful. Let us push ourselves to see the weekly light of Havdalah, and the special candles of Chanukah, not merely as obligations or ritual acts, but expressions of our religious commitments and life perspective. But more than that, let us make the most of tonight, as we light our Havdalah wicks and Chanukah candles together, to live a complex life, dedicated not to one extreme or the other, but a commitment to balance, as we work to maintain the multiplicity of values inherent in the Torah, and balance our own drive and need for personal initiative with the constant awareness of the larger divine arc we are all a part of. 

December 5th, 2020: Vayishlach

One of the Torah’s more puzzling stories, Jacob’s struggle with an angel before meeting his brother Eisav poses many difficulties. Why is an angel mysteriously appearing just to wrestle with Yaakov? Why is his name changed? What was Yaakov doing alone at night? Why is Yaakov injured, why is that injury so momentous it is commemorated for all of Jewish history in the laws of Gid HaNasheh, the prohibition to eat the sciatic nerve? The entire story begs for explanation. 

Our rabbis picked up on this ambiguity and tried to fill in some of the blanks. One famous Midrash explains that Yaakov had crossed his entire family over the Yabok river, but had forgotten some small jars for which he would have to return. While the imagery of Yaakov returning in the dark of night for small jars invokes the later themes of the Maccabees lighting up the long winter night with a small jar of pure olive oil, the text does not seem to be as supportive of the seasonal connection. Indeed, the text seems to indicate that Yaakov and his entire camp went to bed that night, and Yaakov alone awoke in the middle of the night to cross the Yabok river. The text tells us that Yaakov went to sleep with the rest of the camp and awoke in the middle of the night. Unless Yaakov was so wracked with anxiety over those jars that he couldn’t fall asleep, this hardly seems like the description of a quick trip to pick up a forgotten jar. So why is Yaakov sneaking around at night? 

The Rashbam sees Yaakov’s sneaking around alone at night as the key to understanding this entire story. According to the Rashbam, the Torah emphasizes that Yaakov is alone at night as a way of communicating that Yaakov was trying to flee from Eisav in the middle of the night, when no one would see him run. Indeed, this read makes sense with the flow of the story as, until Yaakov’s unexpected nighttime river-crossing, the reader had been given a very clear and detailed description of Yaakov’s preparations and three-part plan for meeting his brother Eisav. After detailing that meticulous plan and its reasoning, all of a sudden we are surprised with an impromptu scene of Yaakov sneaking around at night. Rather than assume that this too was part of the plan, but we merely didn’t hear about it, it makes sense to read this passage in light of the Rashbam. Yaaov wakes up in the middle of the night in a panic, and, despite his planning and previous composure, gives in to his weaker urges and attempts to flee in the cover of dark, leaving his family behind him. 

Given this understanding of Yaakov’s river crossing, the story with the angel takes on a new light as well. The angel is sent not to arbitrarily wrestle Yaakov to force him to prove his strength. Rather, the angel is sent to stop Yaakov from running away and to force him to confront his struggles. Thus, the Torah emphasizes that the angel damages Yaakov’s heel and leaves him with a limp. On a strictly literal level, this injury renders Yaakov physically impaired and incapable of running away as he was initially planning, forcing him to meet Eisav and confront his brother. But in addition to that functional role in the story, the angel’s injury of Yaakov’s heel is a symbolic expression of the character development Yaakov is experiencing. We know from the very moment Yaakov is born, he is named after the Eikev, the heel, as he was born grabbing on to Eisav’s heel, as if to fight him for the birthright. This role of Yaakov as the deceptive younger brother nipping at Eisav’s heels is expressed doubly by the name Yaakov as, in addition to meaning heel, the root word “Eikev” also means deception or trickery– as Eisav reminds us after finding out his blessing was stolen when he says that Yaakov has “Yaakveini,” tricked me. 

Thus, by damaging Yaakov’s heel, the angel is both literally impairing Yaakov’s physical ability to run away, and symbolically attacking the part of Yaakov that opts for deception and trickery over honest confrontation. The angel renders Yaakov’s heel non-functional, symbolically rendering the persona of Yaakov the trickster as no longer relevant. The Yaakov that remains will no longer grab at Eisav’s heels or sneak around at night. Indeed, the man that remains is so different and distinct from the heel-named Yaakov that the angel concludes that he surely needs a new name to reflect his new character. Thus, Yaakov is renamed Yisrael, the officer of God, for he has the strength to wrestle with internal demons and face difficult situations. 

In light of the Rashbam’s interpretation, the story of Yaakov and the angel serves as an important reminder of the need to face our demons– or angels– and confront the lurking issues we struggle with. While it is so often tempting in life to give in to the urge of Yaakov, and to try and sneak away in the cover of dark, the Torah reminds us that the engine of Jewish history is propelled forward by those moments where people fought that urge and did the hard work of confronting their challenges. While it is surely relatable to feel overwhelmed and want to shy away from addressing difficult internal issues– as even Yaakov Avinu found himself giving in to that relatable human urge to flee from Eisav and not confront his childhood family issues– progress can only come through the difficult work of confrontation. 

Yet, while all of that is true, and is an important message to internalize, I want to focus on one particular detail of this story. In a very unusual characterization, right before the angel attacks Yaakov, the Torah tells us that Yaakov was alone– VaYivateir Yaakov Livado, and Jacob remained alone. I think the Torah is emphasizing to us that this entire situation– where Yaakov attempted to run away from his problems and gave in to his worst urges– was only possible because he was alone. He had a complicated family life, with warring wives, jealous children, and much disunity, and it is not surprising that, when faced with confronting his childhood problems with family, Yaakov finds himself alone, with no confidant or friend to confide in or help him. While it is true that this story presents us with a powerful tale of confronting one’s demons and working through struggle, that struggle was only possible and necessary because Yaakov found himself awake in the middle of the night alone. 

While we here at Stanton, living in a pandemic that feels endless and starting a winter season where the nighttime feels similarly interminable, can surely relate to Yaakov’s feelings of nighttime anxiety and struggle, we, unlike Yaakov, do not have to experience it alone. While in some ways this pandemic has dismantled the machinery of our community, leaving us without our regular programming and operations, in other ways it has given us the opportunity to show how our community really shines. The core pillars of community– supporting one another, sharing values and passions, and coming together for important ends– have been given a stress test by the immense need COVID has put upon us all, and so many find themselves feeling alone, isolated, or struggling. During this time, it’s essential to lean on your community and let us all support one another. 

In that vein, this Wednesday night at 7 PM, instead of my regular Tefillah Shiur there will be a special mental health event on Zoom with Dr. Michelle Friedman. We will discuss together as a community some of the struggles we have experienced so far, talk about tools and ways to cope in preparation for the potential many more months of COVID winter, and strengthen the bonds and ties that form our community. I urge everybody in our Stanton community to make every effort to attend, as the subject matter is so important for all of us, and as these are the moments that truly define what kind of community we choose to be. Hopefully this week’s Parshah will inspire us to live up to our namesake as the children of Israel, and to develop the courage to have hard conversations and struggle with tough realities, but without the need to go it alone. 

November 28th, 2020: Vayetzei

It’s a little known fact that, growing up, I was a huge Kanye West fan. While, lately, Kanye has become an even more political and complicated figure, back in the day, I loved his music and general wackiness. One set of headlines that I remember being the butt of endless jokes was Kanye’s naming choices for his kids, choosing the names North, Saint, Chicago, and I think most recently Psalm. While those names all seem unusual, Kanye explained how each one represented what the birth meant to him and his family. North represented a high point in their life, Saint was a blessing, Chicago was a return to family and family roots, and Psalm I don’t really know. Kanye’s a little too “preachy televangelist” for me these days. Yet, while Kanye received a lot of flack for his ego-centric naming conventions, when we turn towards this week’s Parashah, we see a somewhat similar idea.

The first three of Leah’s children all seem to be named after her personal experience of grief. Reuvein is named after God seeing her pain and giving her a child to make her husband love her more. Shimon is because God heard that Leah is hated by her husband and gave her another son to try and fix it. Levi is named after Leah’s desperation, as after her third child she exclaims that surely now her husband must escort her and give her intimate attention, as she is the mother of three of his children. All three of these names share an inward focus and a tragic meaning, as they reflect Leah’s feelings of inadequacy as she feels unloved by her husband.

Yet, after Leah’s fourth child, we see a sudden shift, and Leah takes her fourth son’s name in a different direction. Leah names her fourth son Yehudah, saying “הפעם אודה את ה׳,” “this time I will thank God.” What happened that all of a sudden Leah changed her tone and perspective, and decided to think not of her own grief, but of her appreciation to God? And moreover, if Leah was so appreciative of having children, why didn’t she name one of her earlier children after that thankfulness? Why did she wait until her fourth child?

Interestingly, the Baalei HaTosafot avoid this question altogether by interpreting the word אודה in Yehudah’s name as meaning “admit” and not “thank,” as the Hebrew root has multiple meanings. They explain that Leah named Yehudah after his future episode with his daughter-in-law Tamar, in which Yehudah dramatically admitted that he was wrong and Tamar was right. In other words, Yehudah is not named after thankfulness at all, and thus, there is no question as to why now, all of a sudden, Leah is so appreciative.
The vast majority of other commentaries, though, understand Yehudah’s name as being a statement of thanks. So why is Leah thankful now all of a sudden? The Midrash tries to answer this question by explaining that Leah had seen, through Ruach HaKodesh, that there were destined to be 12 tribes from her, her sister Racheil, and their handmaidens. Leah figured each of the four of them would have three children, and equally contribute to the Jewish future. Once she had Yehudah, her fourth son, she realized she was destined to have a great role in the formation of the 12 tribes and thanked God for the privilege.

This approach certainly answers our questions, but it makes a host of strange assumptions. Not only did Leah have a secret divine premonition, but she had a particularly vague one. It was clear that there would be the highly specific 12 children across four mothers, yet conveniently left out who would mother how many. Thus, while we can sympathize with the difficulties the Midrash is trying to address, its answer leaves us with a host of different unresolved questions.

The Ibn Ezra tries to answer this question by explaining that, even without Ruach HaKodesh, after having four children Leah had decided that she was done having kids. Leah had had four kids in four years and figured that she had had enough. Thus, having decided to stop having children, Leah turned toward God and used her baby’s name as an opportunity to thank God for the children she had.

While the Ibn Ezra’s answer also addresses our questions, it is a bit surprising. First of all, nowhere in the text is there any indication that Leah decided to stop having children with the birth of Yehudah. But beyond that, Leah later goes on to have two more children! Perhaps, one could explain that Leah thought that she was going to be done having children, and named Yehudah after that expectation, as indeed we see Leah giving her handmaid over to Yaakov as she figures she can no longer procreate. But either way, this explanation along with the Midrash before it leaves Yehudah’s name as a relic of history, as it represents Leah’s mistaken impression that this was her last child.

Hundreds of years later, in the 19th century, the Maharam Schick presents a totally different interpretation of Leah’s words as she names Yehudah. The Maharah Schick explains that “הפעם אודה את ה׳” is actually a rhetorical statement. Leah says rhetorically “This time I’m going to thank God?” In other words, Leah recognizes that this is now already her fourth child, and she has been blessed with so much. How could she possibly have waited so long to thank God! Only now, this time, I will thank God? Therefore, says the Maharam Schick, Leah names her son Yehudah as a constant living reminder of her need to be thankful. Thus, Yehudah does not mark a particular moment of thanksgiving or praise, but lives as a lesson and a reminder to the namer, that appreciation and thanksgiving is not merely an action that we value in a specific moment. It is not only when one is finished that they turn and say thank you, nor is thanksgiving defined by a specific requirement or Chiyuv. Rather, much like a name, appreciation follows us throughout our life and colors our perspective, as an appreciative lifestyle requires one to be attuned to the world around themself, understanding the many things they have to be thankful for, and appreciating those who work and sacrifice to enable that life.

Indeed, some of the discussion that has come up over the halakhic permissibility of celebrating Thanksgiving surrounds this very point. Many religious critics of Thanksgiving point out that in Judaism, appreciation and thanksgiving should not be reserved for one particular day or one moment. Every day is thanksgiving, they say, as Judaism has an expansive sense of appreciation that permeates our prayers every day, and our experience every moment. And yet, I stand here today as a proud turkey eater and Thanksgiving lover, not only because of the great food, but out of a wholesale rejection of this approach.

The lesson of Yehudah, according to the Maharam Schick, is not that “every day is Thanksgiving.” Rather, the Maharam Schick’s point is that being thankful and appreciative is a lifestyle and perspective that colors your everyday experience. Leah names Yehudah after her own failing as a constant reminder, day after day, to live an appreciative lifestyle. And yet, while your lifestyle and perspective may color your daily experience, it certainly does not preclude one from seeking out actions, holidays, and opportunities to re-center and re-dedicate ourselves to our valued lifestyle and goals. Being Bnei and Banot Torah, dedicated to Torah values, is certainly a lifestyle and perspective, and yet we celebrate Torah and our relationship to it every Simchat Torah and Shavuot. Being Ovdei Hashem, dedicated to serving God and God alone, is an essential part of our identity and our worldview, and yet every Pesach we celebrate that very notion.

Thus, rather than not celebrating Thanksgiving since Judaism doesn’t have only one day dedicated to being thankful, the most Jewish observance of all would be to celebrate Thanksgiving and not let it be only one day. Rather than a commercial 24 hour period of sales, football, and hollow gestures of patriotism, our commitment to Judaism and Torah values compels us to view Thanksgiving as an opportunity to recharge and reorient ourselves towards a lifelong goal of living a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. Thanksgiving should be our booster shot of thankfulness, that carries us into the long winter, and helps transform our day to day lives and experiences into those characterized by a sensitivity to and appreciation of the world around us.

To that end, our Stanton Community, being a community and not just a house of minyan, has beautiful opportunities to embody a thankful and appreciative lifestyle. This past Sunday, Brina Chu led a group of Stanton volunteer’s in the Shul’s first Chesed/Social Action event of the season. We expressed our thanksgiving and appreciation to essential workers around the community by baking and distributing treats to local workers. While this event has already passed, there will be many more opportunities to show our appreciation in the future. If you are interested in getting involved with the Stanton Chessed/Social Action committee, take this opportunity to reach out and get involved.

Similarly, I want to call everyone’s attention to an upcoming opportunity to express our thanks and appreciation. This Tuesday night, at 8 PM, we will be hosting an Eruv fundraiser over Zoom, with a presentation by former YU Museum curator Zachary Levine, as he discusses the exhibit he curated about the historical development of the New York Eruv and its sociological impact on the New York Jewish community. The Eruv is one of the most essential and least visible pillars of our Shabbat experience, and as such, is easily taken for granted. This Eruv Drive presents all of us with an opportunity to express our appreciation and give back, by donating funds to support the continued maintenance and upkeep of the downtown Eruv that supports all of us. Please attend the event Tuesday night and learn about the essential social and cultural role the Eruv plays in the New York Jewish community more broadly, and about the role The Stanton Street Shul and the Lower East Side played in particular in this fascinating story of the New York Eruv. Even if you cannot attend the event, feel free to donate through the Shul to support the Eruv.

Together, through seeking out opportunities to internalize, reflect, and embody thankfulness– be they a meaningful Thanksgiving celebration, a powerful Chesed event, or even a modest but appreciative donation– we can create a community that not only acts thankful, but learns the lesson of Yehudah, and sees every day as an opportunity to live a thankful and appreciative life, as we thank God, our community, and those around us for the many gifts we all share.

November 20th, 2020: Toldot

The drama in the room is high when Yaakov, covered in goat fur and his brother’s clothing, enters into his father’s room pretending to be Eisav. The tension is pushed to its peak when Yitzchak observes that, despite the hairy hands, “the voice is the voice of Jacob.” Ultimately, Yitzchak is fooled and Yaakov succeeds in stealing his brother’s blessing from his father, and slips out through a back exit mere moments before Eisav shows up and demands his blessing. And yet, while this story is familiar to us by now, in the moment, it all must have seemed so bizarre. How could it be that this is God’s will? Why did God orchestrate the events of Jewish history such that Jacob had to deceive his father and steal Eisav’s blessing in order to carry on the religious mantle of Avraham and Yitzchak? 

While many of us grew up on this story, and are used to the foregone conclusion that Yaakov had to steal Eisav’s blessing, and that events had to play out this way, it may not, in fact, be so clear. Later on in the Torah, Yaakov’s son Yosef is sold into bondage in Egypt, and Yaakov is told that he was killed by a wild animal. Rashi (Bereishit 37:34) quotes a Midrash that says that Yaakov suffered 22 years thinking Yosef was dead, as a punishment for the 22 years Yaakov lived with Lavan and neglected his responsibility to honor his father and mother. In other words, according to this Midrash, Yaakov is punished for running away from home! But how could this be? If Yaakov had to steal the blessing from Eisav to be the leader of the Jewish people, thus angering Eisav and threatening his own life, how could he be punished for fleeing and protecting himself?

Rabbeinu Bachya (b. Asher 13th c. Spain) gives a technical explanation, saying that while Yaakov had to run away to protect himself from Eisav, he didn’t have to run away quite so long. According to Rabbeinu Bachya, Rivkah’s initial plan was simply for Yaakov to lay low for a few days, maybe meet and marry Leah while he was with Lavan, and then return when things blew over. Thus, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, while it’s true that Yaakov had to run away to avoid Eisav after stealing his blessing, Yaakov’s sin was the length of time he was absent. 

However, I think there may be another approach latent in the Midrashim. ֵThe Midrash Tanchuma Yashan (VaYeitzei 11) also ses Yaakov as suffering as a side effect of stealing Eisav’s blessing. However, the Tanchuma Yashan has a slightly different focus. According to this Midrash, after Lavan tricks Yaakov into marrying Leah before Racheil, Yaakov and Leah begin to quarrel. Yaakov is outraged that he was tricked, and he accuses Leah and her father of being dishonest. Leah shoots back at Yaakov that she is no more dishonest than Yaakov is himself, as he tricked his father into giving him Eisav’s blessings. In other words, in Leah’s criticism we see that Yaakov’s misdeed was not merely the length of his absence, but the deceit and the thievery itself, as Yaakov lied and stole his way to Eisav’s blessing. That being the case, we get an entirely different image of the scene at the end of our Parashah. This is not a tense moment of narrow victory in Jewish history, but rather, a shameful airing of Jewish failings, as Yaakov sinfully deceives Yitzchak and steals that which is not rightfully his. 

Indeed, in a broader context, this characterization of Yaakov as sinfully deceptive makes some amount of sense, as Yaakov is repeatedly characterized by his trickiness. We know Yaakov is named for a moment during his birth, in which he grabbed on to the heel (Eikev) of Eisav– as if to fight him for the right to be the first born. However, Eisav reminds us that that heel (Eikav) shares its etymological root with the biblical word for trickery, as he tells us that Yaakov has Yaakveinu, tricked me, after learning that his blessing has been stolen. As such, it is no surprise to see the Midrash similarly reprimanding Yaakov for his trickiness.

But surely Yaakov, and not Eisav, was the next link in the chain of tradition from Avraham, and was rightfully charged with leading the Jewish people! Didn’t Yaakov need the blessing to be bestowed with the blessing of his father, and his father’s father, and to carry on the Jewish faith? A closer look at the text might indicate otherwise. While we often think of the “blessing of the firstborn” as Avraham’s blessing that God gave him, and later passed down to Yitzchak, a careful read of the Torah indicates that there are actually two distinct blessings. First, there is the blessing of the first born (Bereishit 27:28-29)– which Yaakov steals from Eisav– which is a brief two lines about economic and political success. Yitzchak blesses Yaakov, who he thinks is Eisav, with a blessing of great harvests and political greatness, as enemies should be few and far between. 

Then, after Yitzchak learns of what has happened and Yaakov is about ready to flee, Yitzchak gives him a second blessing (Bereishit 28:3-4). Here, Yitzchak tells Yaakov, “and God should give you and your children the blessing of Avraham, to inherit the land of your dwelling which God gave to Avraham.” In other words, it is only after Yitzchak learns of what has happened, and now knows that he is speaking to Yaakov, that the idea of “Avraham’s blessing” is ever invoked. Both in the initial blessing Yitzchak gave, mistakenly thinking he was blessing Eisav, and in the consolation blessing Yitzchak ultimately scrapes up for Eisav, there is no mention of Avraham, God’s promise, or the land of Israel. It is only here, when Yaakov is about to leave Israel and risk not returning, that Yitzchak reveals to him that he is the carrier of Avraham’s tradition and that this land will be his. 

Thus, it becomes clear that the blessing that Yaakov stole– of great harvest and great national power– had nothing to do with the religious charge and the divine blessing that was initially bestowed to Avraham! It was merely a paternal wish for financial success for the firstborn– similar to how the laws of primogeniture guaranteed material and economic dominion over the estate to the eldest son at the time. Yaakov– in part inspired by the fears of his worried mother Rivkah– unnecessarily steals Eisav’s blessing of material success, justifying it as a necessary step to support the Jewish people. In reality, though, it was not a necessary step at all! None of this had to happen, if Yaakov merely understood his father’s relationship with Eisav better, and respected it, trusting that he would lead the Jewish people, and Yitzchak would find an appropriate role for Eisav to thrive in. However, Yaakov and Rivkah were so sure of their divine mandate and divine mission that they ultimately got ahead of themselves and took radical action, lying to Yitzchak, stealing from Eisav, and feeling the painful ramifications of their actions for decades to come.

There are many lessons to be learned from Yaakov’s mistake. For example, we see that the national success of the Jewish people does not need to be tied to material wealth and power, and need not come at the expense of our competitors or even our enemies. Eisav could have been blessed with wealth and political might, and still Yaakov could have succeeded as the leader of the Jewish people. Indeed, when Yaakov and Eisav later cross paths, Eisav has in fact expanded into a large and powerful nation, and it does not detract from Yaakov’s trajectory as the father of the Jewish people. Rather than being motivated by our relative national ranking, our priorities as a people and as a nation should not be to do better than others, or to grow our own wealth, but to carry on the tradition of Avraham and the mission given over by God.

But in addition to that point, the story of Yaakov at the end of our Parashah reminds us of how easy it is to be swept up in a moment of self-confidence. Yaakov was sure that he was on the right side of history, and in a panicked rush, he and his mother took dramatic action that ultimately led to much pain and suffering that, perhaps, could have been avoided. It is important and commendable to stand for things and to have a sense of moral compass and direction. But we must remain careful not to allow our strong sense of right and wrong to lead to hasty or morally empty actions. If even Yaakov and Rivkah can succumb to pressure and slip up in a moment of moral self-assuredness, all the more so we should remain vigilant. It is only if we are able to check ourselves and be sure that, despite moral self confidence, the actions we are taking and the opinion we are committing to are actually necessary and just, that we can be sure to avoid the tendencies of radicalism that often lead astray those who are charged with a powerful sense of mission and purpose. Only then will we be able to grow as Ovdei Hashem and work to actualize God’s mission of a more just and compassionate world. 

 

November 13th, 2020: Chayei Sarah

 

Those of you who tuned in to our first Parashah Shiur of the year (Tuesday nights at 7 pm on Zoom!) will have heard our discussion this week about the various themes surrounding the story of Avraham’s burial of his wife Sarah. The Torah goes into unusual detail surrounding the logistics, preparations, and specificities of Avraham’s acquisition of a burial plot for Sarah. Ultimately, the Torah spends nearly an entire chapter describing Avraham’s haggling with the Hittites and Efron– their local council member– before telling us that Avraham finalized the purchase and buried Sarah in Ma’arat HaMachpeilah. Why does the Torah need an entire chapter to convey these mundane details? When Racheil dies, we aren’t given any elaborate details about Yaakov’s acquisition and burial of her in Kever Rachel? Why is this story of Sarah’s burial so important?

In the Parashah Shiur, we identified two major themes that emerged in this section of burying Sarah. On one level, this story is a testament to Avraham and Sarah’s relationship. As a couple, Avraham and Sarah have been through the world together. They were together before God ever spoke to Avraham, and remained together through famine, familial struggles, barrenness, war, wandering, and much more. They forged an exceptionally deep bond as a couple– as reflected in the various Midrashim about the pivotal role Sarah played in creating the unique spirituality of Avraham’s tent, and in helping him preach to and convert the masses. Chazal tell us that Avraham converted the men and Sarah converted the women– a statement of how closely they worked together, merging their mission and purpose in life with the powerful emotional connection that bonded them.

Indeed, we quoted the commentary of Benno Jacob who sees the burial of Sarah as a story giving us insight into the deep personal relationship between Avraham and Sarah. Sarah is the first major biblical character to have a death and post-death fall out. Whereas, until now, biblical characters merely died in the background, with their years of death mentioned in long lists of genealogies, Sarah’s death exists in the foreground of the story, as the Torah’s focus and message here is about how to properly deal with the death of a beloved. Indeed, it’s unsurprising that Chazal reference this story in their discussion of a spouse’s burial responsibilities, and Rabbi Avraham, the son of the Rambam, views this story as the earliest source for our mourning customs. Clearly, one major theme in this story is the personal and intimate nature of Avraham and Sarah’s relationship, and the moving outpouring of emotion triggered within Avraham by the loss of his beloved wife. 

And yet, at the same time that a deeply personal and emotional story is being played out in the foreground, in the background of this story is an important foundational tale for the Jewish nation and its divine mission. At the same time that this story tells us about the great lengths Avraham was willing to go to to bury Sarah, it also serves as a receipt and a record of Avraham’s first purchase of land in Israel. Thereby, the small and personal tale of loss is merged with a pivotal moment in the historic trajectory of the Jewish people’s national development, as the burial spot that Avraham lovingly selects for Sarah is also the earliest spot of Jewish land in Israel, and thereby, a foundational backbone for the larger Jewish nation and its historical mission. Thus, in addition to being a story of a husband losing a wife, this section in the Torah is also a foundational tale of how the memorialization of our first matriarch laid the groundwork for the Jewish nation and Jewish country that would later thrive from her descendants. 

It is fitting that we read this story of Avraham burying and eulogizing Sarah this Shabbat– indeed, the very basis for much of the halakhot and Jewish practice surrounding burial and eulogizing–  merely days after the Jewish world experienced immense loss with the passing of Rav Dovid Feinstein and Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. While these two Torah personalities were hugely different in their focus, the role they played in the community, and what they meant for us here in Stanton Street, there’s no denying that they both were pivotal figures in the development of the Jewish people. 

On the one hand, Rav Dovid represents to us the story of the Jewish nation and its historical development. Much like the memorialization of Sarah on Hittite land laid an important foundation for the Jewish community to grow and thrive– establishing Israel as the rightfully purchased birthplace of our national narrative, and eventually pushing its boundaries well beyond that little plot of land to the rest of the land of Israel– Rav Dovid played an important historical and foundational role for the American Jewish people. Rav Dovid served as an essential link to his father and his father’s generation, as the Feinstein family laid the groundwork for much of what would become modern American Orthodoxy. 

While Stanton Street in particular may have a complex and confusing personal relationship with Rav Dovid– at times punctuated with pain or ideological conflict– there is no question of the larger national role he played for the Jewish people. Without the immense dedication of him and his family, the small plot of Jewish land in the Lower East Side would never have thrived, much less expanded out beyond its boundaries to the rest of New York, and the rest of America. And, perhaps most impressively, Rav Dovid was able to fulfill that role as a national figure and as one of the carriers of our Mesorah, serving as an essential link in the chain of tradition, all the while maintaining intimate and meaningful personal relationships with the Jews and followers in his immediate community. Perhaps the most amazing feature of Rav Dovid’s leadership was his ability to balance the impressive legacy and broad influence he had with his love of and dedication to Lower East Side Jewry. Despite being a renowned Poseik and standard bearer for Rav Moshe’s legacy, R’ Dovid never lost his passion and investment in his local Yeshiva, Shuls, and followers. There is no doubt that Rav Dovid was a Lower East Sider. Because, as we see from Avraham and Sarah, the grand mission of Judaism– of actualizing God’s just and peaceful vision for the world– starts with personal and intimate relationships. 

At the same time that we mourn the tragic loss of Rav Dovid– one of the historic standard bearers of Orthodoxy– our hearts are overfilled by the painful loss of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. In many ways, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is a foil to that of Rav Dovid. While Rav Dovid represents the historic trajectory of the Jewish people, Rabbi Sacks– with his reimagining of the Chief Rabbinate as an opportunity to spread inspiring Judaism to the broader less religiously engaged world– represents the power of novelty and innovation in promulgating Jewish values. And, while my personal relationship with Rav Dovid– and I suspect this is true of many in this room– was ideologically complicated and distant, my relationship to Rabbi Sacks and his Torah felt more simple and intimate, colored by moving words and powerful emotion. This is due in part because of the unexpected nature of the loss, but also because of the radically different personality and contributions of Rabbi Sacks.

I remember in my junior year of high school, around Parashat VaYakheil, my art history teacher played a clip of Rabbi Sacks discussing the artistry that went in to the design of the Mishkan, and related it to a piece by Rav Kook reflecting upon the divinity in Rembrant’s art. The moving and spiritual way in which Rabbi Sacks spoke about beauty and aesthetics taught me an entirely new mode of Judaism– one that is sensitive, spiritual, and unafraid of being intimately emotional. This penchant for pulling at the heart strings and making even the most remote philosophical or theological concept an inspiring and moving call to arms characterized much of Rabbi Sacks’ Torah. For many of us in the room here, the loss of Rabbi Sacks is not only the loss of a major national figure– a communal loss for the corporate Jewish people– but a personal one, as we invited Rabbi Sacks to join us at our Shabbat table every week, as we read his weekly Divrei Torah and deeply identified with his sense of Jewish identity and mission. 

And so, in the face of this immense loss– suffering nationally as we say goodbye to the carriers of our tradition, and hurting personally as we lose role models that many of us felt personally close to– I am at a loss of words. Nothing I can say can sufficiently do justice to these two figures, and surely I am not the right person to attempt to. And so, I’d like to conclude with a passage by Rabbi Sacks himself:

"There is death, yes, but there is also continuity. We are never privileged to complete the task, but others will take it on and move a little closer to fulfillment. So long as there is a covenant between the dead, the living, and those not yet born, mortality is redeemed from tragedy. The dead live on in us, as we will live on in our children or in those whose lives we touched. As dust dissolves in living water, so death dissolves in the stream of life itself."

May their memories be a blessing. 

 

November 6th, 2020: Vayera

Surely the story of Lot must be one of the quickest falls from grace we see in the Torah. When we first meet Lot, he is a foster son and a ward of Avraham, joining him on his adventures and partaking in Avraham’s larger divine mission. After a seemingly small dispute over appropriate grazing practices, Avraham and Lot decide to split up. At this point, we still haven’t really seen any bad action on Lot’s part beyond a seemingly calm disagreement with Avraham. Ultimately, Lot decides to move to Sodom due to its economic success, as it has fruitful land full of produce and greenery, due to the geography of the land and its water access. 

While the educated reader, knowing full well that Sodom is later doomed to destruction as a center of depravity, may judge Lot for this decision, at face value, Lot is not to blame for moving to Sodom. Avraham was given the mission of settling Israel, not Lot. It hardly seems his fault that he would choose an economically comfortable land to move to, as who amongst us can confidently say we would have made a different choice given the same opportunity. 

That said, it is clear that there is a certain amount of perversion to Lot’s otherwise generally good character. When the angels first visit Lot, Lot demonstrates his laudable hospitality, a trait he surely learned from Avraham. And when the people of Sodom surround Lot’s house and demand he relinquish his guests to a violent mob, we again see Lot’s commitment to his guests’ comfort, as he takes every measure within his means to protect his guests. And yet, here we begin to see signs of something being wrong, as part of Lot’s efforts to protect his guests involve offering his daughters up to the violent crowd in the angels’ stead. While perhaps Lot’s intent was in a good place, his actual suggestion was reprehensible– a clear corruption or perversion of Avraham’s values.

This perversion follows Lot in his story. Following Sodom’s destruction, angels take Lot and his daughters to a nearby hilltop to safely wait out the end of the destruction. There, alone with no one else but their father, Lot’s two daughters take turns taking advantage of their father as he sleeps, ultimately becoming pregnant and giving birth two two children– Amon and Moav, the national forefathers of the two border nations that would develop outside of Israel. Again we see an act of perversion surrounding Lot and his relationship with his daughters. Whereas in the first instance, Lot offered his daughters to strange and violent men, here, Lot creates a environment and household where acts such as rape and incest are thought to be tolerable.

However, even this reprehensible act of Lot’s daughters came with its own attempt at doing the right thing. Rashi, quoting the Midrash, tells us that while they knew that rape and incest were both forbidden, they feared that the destruction they had just witnessed in Sodom was more widespread, and that they may have been the only survivors left. Indeed, in many ways this is understandable, as the destruction of the flood was not that long removed, and the Torah parallels the aftermath of Noach and Lot in many ways. Both families experience total destruction of humans, animals, and land from a clear act of divine justice, and both families are just narrowly saved as a family unit. The ends of these stories also strike a funny parallel, as much like Noach’s offspring sees his naked shame as he sleeps in a drunken stupor, Lot’s children similarly act inappropriately as he sleeps. Thus, we can begin to see the rationale behind the shocking action of Lot’s daughters.

And yet, any of us in the room here can say with confidence that that explanation is not enough. Setting aside the perhaps more complex or abstract prohibition of incest, the violent act of taking advantage of Lot in his sleep is never acceptable, and a clear perversion of morality. How could it be that Lot, having grown up in Avraham’s household and lived with him until just recently, could have fostered such immorality within his own family?

I think the answer lies with the Rashi we quoted before. As we quoted above, Rashi quotes Chazal as explaining Lot’s daughters’ reasoning as being based on the assumption that the entire world had been destroyed in Sodom and, therefore, they needed to repopulate it. And yet, when we reflect on this reasoning, it should strike us as just how shocking it is. Lot until just a moment ago had lived his whole life in Avraham’s household. How is it possible that Lot’s daughters thought that they were saved, but everyone in the world, including Avraham and the various other righteous people affiliated with him, were wiped out? Surely they realized that they were not the most righteous people in the world to be the sole humans to merit salvation?

One must conclude that, despite their previous closeness, Lot did little to keep Avraham a presence and a figure in his household. Despite traveling with Avraham, Lot’s daughters heard little about him, and knew even less first hand. And when the moment came to move and part ways with Avraham, Lot made no effort to maintain a relationship and ensure his daughters knew of the righteousness of their adoptive grandfather. Rather, Avraham’s name was not a presence in the Lot household. While Lot personally may have learned from him, Avraham as a presence and a figure was relegated to Lot’s past.

Given that lack of connection to Avraham, we can begin to see how Lot’s perversion of justice began to settle in. While Lot may have absorbed values such as hospitality from Avraham, without the actual anchor of speaking to and seeing Avraham first hand, these lofty values and ideals became perverted and corrupted. Lot’s daughters, even farther removed from Avraham and his example, learned uncritically from their father, and accepted his perverse value system without any judgement, assuming they were amongst the few in the world to have just values and thus be saved by God. 

Thus we can understand Lot’s daughters’ self confidence that surely they were the only ones saved by God as he destroyed the world. Lot’s daughters didn’t have any conception that the society they lived in was uniquely flawed. They figured the rest of the world must surely be this way, and they alone stood out as moral actors. Without the  positive example of Avraham in their lives, Lot’s daughters were mistakenly led down a path of unearned moral self-confidence, ultimately leading to their own moral downfall.

The message of Lot’s daughters is a powerful one for all of us. There are many ideals and values we all care about and subscribe to in the world. We all value hospitality and welcoming, Minyan and religious ritual. But if those values remain lofty ideals– floating about in the abstract, without a concrete example to weigh against– they become perverted. If we want to build homes that propagate the values and morality of the Torah, we must lead by concrete examples. We must fill our homes with positive role models, and seek out opportunities to concretize and act upon our values. If we relegate it to the realm of the theoretical, paying mere lipservice to our values, we not only risk corrupting our values, but much like the daughters’ of Lot who looked around Sodom and figured this was what the whole world must be like, we risk losing our sense of perspective. 

And so, as we build our homes, our Shul, and our community, we must seek out those voices and role models who stand for good and amplify them as examples in our community. We must make sure that the Shul we build is not one where Torah values are assumed in the abstract, but never discussed or demonstrated. And we must expand our perspective beyond the narrow confines of our own walls of existence, and look to learn from the positive role model of those voices we bring into our community. Hopefully then we can rectify the wrongs of Sodom and build a community that embodies Torah values. 

 

October 30th: Lech Lecha

Serving as an early example of a story that begins in medias res, the Avraham narrative manages to entirely leave out Avraham’s back story and childhood, instead picking up with Avraham having already found God. But the Torah tells us that by the time Avraham heard God’s call of Lech Lecha, Avraham was already middle-aged (or, for the lives of Tanach characters perhaps more third- or quarter-aged). The four decades of growth and character development that brought Avraham to the place where he could hear God and respond are totally omitted! The reader is left wondering what Avraham’s early life was like, and how he became the heroic figure he is.

Thankfully, the rabbis and contributors to the oral tradition stepped up in the place of this lacking and filled in many of the details. Rambam, through a combination of his personal scientific beliefs and Midrashim, describes Avraham as a philosophical and scientific pioneer, extrapolating astrological and astronomical conclusions from his personal observations and hypotheses about the cosmos. Rambam (Avodah Zarah 1:3) makes oblique reference to Avraham’s father and mother as “foolish idolators,” a piece of important context and background info that is absent from the Tanach, but thoroughly developed by Chazal throughout the Midrash, as the rabbis sought to fill in the gaps the Torah leaves in Avraham’s childhood.

In particular, Rambam makes reference to perhaps the two most famous Midarshim about Avraham’s early life. Firstly, Rambam tells us that Avraham broke his family’s idols– a rabbinic legend that has grown and been retold in numerous ways, often framed with the claim that Terach, Avraham’s father, was steeped in idolatry and the production and sale of idols, and a young Avraham, as a sign of protest, destroyed his father’s idols and idol-making shop in an attempt to teach a lesson about monotheism. 

Next, Rambam moves on to the famous incident of the Kivshan, the industrial oven that Chazal see as the source of Ur Kasdim’s– literally the the fire of the Chaldeans– name. Rambam references the Midrash that tells us that the authorities had found out about Avraham’s rejection of idolatry in favor of monotheism, as well as his successful prostylezation to his brother Haran. As a punishment, they demanded that Terach give over his children to be thrown into the oven of Kasdim for heresy. The Midrash describes how Terach painfully watched his son Haran immolate in the flames first– picking up on the unusual formulation the Torah uses of “וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו,” “and Haran died in front of Terach his father”– and then gave over Avraham to presumably meet his brother’s fate. Ultimately, Avraham was saved from the flames of the oven by God’s miraculous intervention, and the event served as a major revelation for the religion Avraham was preaching. 

On their surface, both of these stories seem to present Terach, Avraham’s father, as a quintessential idolatrous sinner, leaving us to ultimately conclude, much like the Rambam, that Avraham’s revelation and commitment to God must have sprung out of nowhere– from Avraham’s unique perceptiveness and aptitude for astrology and theology. Steeped in a society and family of immoral and corrupt idolaters, little Avraham had to teach himself the truth of God’s singularity. Perhaps that is why Avraham is given little to no introduction in the Torah, as Avraham is meant to feel as if he just appeared out of nowhere, as the striking nature of his autodidactic realization of Hashem’s existence also feels surprisingly ex nihilo. 

And yet, this presentation is not fully complete. Shallowly, because we do in fact have at least one story presented in the Torah prior to Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha. Perhaps more importantly, that singular story seems to complicate our simple picture of Avraham’s unlikely origin story as a contrarian who rejects the values and culture of his family and surroundings to go off on his own. I’m referring to the few verses at the very end of Parashat Noach which serve as a preface to the story of Avraham in Lech Lecha. The Torah tells us (BeReishit 11:31):

 

31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

לא  וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.

 

Before Avraham ever hears God’s call “to the land which [God] will reveal to him,”– which we the readers know to be the land of Canaan– Terach, Avraham’s father, rounds up the entire family and attempts to make it to Canaan, ultimately failing to reach the final destination and settling around Charan. This often overlooked verse should strike us as shocking. What was Terach, Avraham’s idolatrous father, who willingly sacrificed his son Haran for the sake of his corrupt ideology, doing by trying to make it to Canaan? Why is he journeying to God’s revealed place before we even hear of Avraham’s call of Lech Lecha?

Despite the impression one might get from a casual read of the Midrashim and oral traditions surrounding Avraham, I think the Torah here is trying to push back against the perception that Avraham appeared out of nowhere and managed to reach his spiritual level despite the sinfulness of his father and his father’s house. The Torah is prefacing the Avraham story by drawing our attention to Terach and paralleling Terach with his son, showing that Avraham and Terach both tried to journey to Canaan, perhaps reflecting similar religious urges and commitments. Indeed, the Ibn Ezra says that Terach’s trip towards Canaan happened after God’s call to Avaham, seemingly implying that, at least to start, Terach and Avraham were working together in the mission of realizing God’s call– a shocking idea for those of us accustomed to the popular conception of Terach as a sinner. Not only does it undermine our previous conception of Terach’s religious constitution, but it pushes us to see Avraham and Terach as closer to each other than one might have thought from the Midrashic stories. 

Perhaps we can take this idea even further, using the perspective of the Sefat Emet. The Sefat Emet comments on the beginning of Lech Lecha and claims that God’s call of “Lech Lecha,” the archetypal call to rise to the divine mission and spread God’s word to the world, was not uniquely spoken to Avraham. Rather, God had been calling out repeatedly to the world, looking for someone to take up his cause. Avraham was simply the first person to actually respond to God’s call. Given that perspective, we can even further appreciate Terach’s initial efforts to make it to Canaan. While perhaps he was ultimately incapable of living up to the charge of Lech Lecha and actually fulfilling God’s mission, Terach at least tried, hearing God’s call and taking important first steps towards actualizing it. Perhaps it was these first steps that laid the crucial groundwork that would enable Avraham to later fulfill his mission. 

Shockingly, Rav Kook takes this parallel between Terach and Avraham to an extreme. Rav Kook points to Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac– perhaps the most quintessential and important Avraham story– and asks how Avraham was able to muster the strength to rise to such a serious challenge. True, Avraham was a loyal servant of God, but sacrificing his son was a challenge of scale and kind that was completely unprecedented so far. Where did Avraham gain the constitution for such a harrowing and morally confusing challenge? Rav Kook answers by pointing to the Midrash of the fires of Or Kasdim. There the Midrash tells us that Terach, himself perhaps a religious leader in the community as a producer or at least owner of many idols, was willing to give over his own sons and risk sacrificing them– ultimately losing his son Haran– for the sake of his religious convictions. It was out of his commitment to his, unfortunately flawed, pagan ideals and religious commitments that Terach willingly offered over two of his sons to be murdered as sacrifices in the name of religion. Avraham remembered the conviction with which his father acted for his pagan beliefs, and was inspired to act similarly in service of Hashem, as he willingly offered Yitzchak as a sacrifice at the Akeidah.

Much like the parallel between Terach’s Aliyah and Avraham’s, Rav Kook’s parallel between the Akeidah and the story of the Kivshan not only brings Avraham and Terach closer as a familial unit, but it identifies some of the very qualities that made Avraham into the unique religious forefather he was with his idolatrous father Terach’s example. Avraham knew the details of Terach’s belief in flawed idolatry was incorrect, as God ought to be worshipped as a non-physical montheistic entity. But Avraham nonetheless was able to recognize and learn from Terach’s religious passion and commitments, perhaps even going so far as to work together with him in his initial trip to Canaan to heed God’s call. 

This interpretation also sheds new light on God’s emphasis that Avraham must leave “the land of his birth, his father’s house.” If Avraham was growing up surrounded by sinful idolaters, and was very nearly killed by his father, what sacrifice would it entail for Avraham to disconnect from his father’s house? Surely it would be a breath of fresh air to get out on his own and practice his religion without persecution! But the Torah is rejecting that narrative. Avraham was close with his father despite their disagreement, because he was able to learn from the good within him, despite the many significant and important matters they disagreed on– matters that dealt with the most severe of consequences, such as the true religion, the true God, and how to properly serve Him. Yet, despite all of that difference, Avraham was able to hold a close relationship with, and perhaps even learn and team up with his father Terach, all in service of God’s divine mission. 

Rav Kook learns from here an important message about the sparks of holiness that exist within everyone and everything– even literal heresy and heretics themselves. Avraham was able to mine the holiness within Terach and use it in service of God. Perhaps less mystically, we can view this teaching as a lesson on our need for flexibility and a willingness to learn and partner even with those we disagree with. Unfortunately, we live in a world where purity tests are all too common, and a person or organization fighting for justice can immediately be dismissed– or worse, labeled as malicious– due to important and substantive disagreements. It is all too common for organizations or movements that focus almost exclusively on pressing issues of justice domestically across America to be castigated and rejected in our community due to the positions its members may hold about political issues surrounding Israel, or other perceived flaws or disagreements. Of course the safety and security of Israel, our religious commitments, and our Jewish perspective are essential elements of our belief system and identity that we should never compromise on. But Avraham teaches us that, when the end goal is heeding God’s mission to serve him and actualize a more just world, we need to be able to work through our discomfort and disagreement and build coalitions. If Avraham could learn about religious commitment and self-sacrifice from his idolatrous father Terach, then surely we can learn much about issues of justice and activism in our home communities from people with whom we vehemently disagree about issues of religion or global politics. If we can work to emulate Avraham– not only in his example as a devout Oveid Hashem, but in his role of an Av Hamon Goyim, a father of many nations– who was able to forge bonds and work together with all kinds of people he disagreed with– we will be able to heed the call of Lech Lecha that, as the Sefat Emet teaches us, existed before Avraham and still continues to this very day, as we work to actualize God’s vision of a just world. 

 

October 23rd: Parshat NOACH

It has become a familiar trope that insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. While it should come as no surprise that the science and history behind this quote is questionable, and that this definition of insanity seems to actually originate in the literature surrounding 12-step recovery programs and embracing your powerlessness in the face of addiction, the idea remains resonant. And so, it is surprising that immediately after seeing his first creation fail and having to destroy the world, God seemingly does the exact same thing all over again. In this week’s Parashah, God brings a flood to wipe out the corrupt human civilization that developed after Adam, but saves Noach and his family to rebuild. But what has changed that God thinks Noach and company will do a better job than Adam and Eve’s family were able to do? How is God setting Noach up for success? Is God addicted to humanity?

To see what has changed, we must first compare these two creation stories– the creation of Adam and Eve, and the renewal of creation that takes place by the hands of Noach and his family. Both stories involve God’s “ruach” or wind blowing over the waters and separating out dry land from the seemingly unending wetness of the oceans. Following this separation of wet and dry land, produce is found by God’s command in Chapter 1, and by the dove’s return in Chapter 8, and then man is allowed to settle the world and given a command and charge from God. Adam is told (BeReishit 1:28-29): 
כח)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ; וּרְדוּ בִּדְגַת הַיָּם, וּבְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּבְכָל-חַיָּה, הָרֹמֶשֶׂת עַל-הָאָרֶץ 
כט)  וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע:  לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה.
28 And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food

Notably, Adam is charged with the command to multiply and conquer the land. To that end, he is given the right to exercise dominion, URedu in the language of the Torah, over the animals and creatures on the Earth. Noach’s charge is strikingly similar (BeReishit 9:1-3: 
1 And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them: 'Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth.
2 And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, and upon all wherewith the ground teemeth, and upon all the fishes of the sea: into your hand are they delivered.
3 Every moving thing that liveth shall be for food for you; as the green herb have I given you all.
א)  וַיְבָרֶךְ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-נֹחַ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו; וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ
ב)  וּמוֹרַאֲכֶם וְחִתְּכֶם, יִהְיֶה, עַל כָּל-חַיַּת הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל כָּל-עוֹף הַשָּׁמָיִם; בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּרְמֹשׂ הָאֲדָמָה וּבְכָל-דְּגֵי הַיָּם, בְּיֶדְכֶם נִתָּנוּ.
ג)  כָּל-רֶמֶשׂ אֲשֶׁר הוּא-חַי, לָכֶם יִהְיֶה לְאָכְלָה:  כְּיֶרֶק עֵשֶׂב, נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כֹּל.


Noach’s blessing can be boiled down to very similar bullet points as Adam’s, as he is given a blessing of fruitfulness, charged with repopulating the Earth, and given special license over the animals and creation. However, it is amongst these large similarities that the subtle differences stand out.  Perhaps most famously, when one compares Noach’s permissions with those of Adam’s, one sees that Noach is given a broader set of allowances– namely, while Adam was only allowed to use animals, but had to eat strictly vegetation, Noach is allowed to eat animals as well. In other words, Noach was the first man given permission to eat meat.

While this halakhic shift in dietary restrictions is surely significant, oftentimes people are so preoccupied with the practical “what” question of “what was man allowed to eat,” they miss the perhaps more significant “why” question: why was man permitted to eat meat starting with Noach? To that end, I think we have to focus on the different charges Adam and Noach receive in relation to creation. Adam is charged with being Koveish, conquering, all of creation. To that end, he is allowed to exercise dominion over animals, but not allowed to eat them. If God is the king of all, then Adam is his delegate and governor, chosen to represent Him as the ruler of Earth. Noach, however, has no command of dominion. In fact, Noach has no command at all! God merely describes a reality– that animals will fear Noach. Whereas Adam is told to conquer the world, Noach is merely informed that the animals of the world will fear him.

This shift reflects the fundamental shift that takes place between the creation of the world during Adam’s time, and the recreation and renewal of Noach. Initially, man was charged with conquering the world and serving as its ruler. Man was meant to exist above the animal kingdom, not merely being the most powerful apex predator, but being of a different level of existence and being altogether– a spiritual one in the Garden of Eden, closer to God and the angels than to the materiality of his physical and animalistic body. This echoes Adam’s other commandment, LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and guard the garden, as Adam is given responsibility with his privilege and charged with caring for the entirety of creation. To that end, man had no right to eat animals, as a ruler is charged with caring for his subjects from above, and succumbing to their level and partaking in the predatory nature of the food chain was beneath mankind.Thus, Adam is charged with the command of VeKivshuah, conquering, and empowered with the right of URedu, dominion. 


Noach, however, represents the major shift that took place during the generation of the flood. Man corrupted their divinity and fell out of touch with the initial mission of Adam. Rather than steward and protect creation, man sought ways to manipulate and abuse it. Thus, God stopped treating man as a nearly divine-entity that is above the creation, but rather shifted to treat man like the animal that he is. This moment of “recognition” on God’s part is expressed in the verses immediately preceding the Noach story, at the end of last week’s Parashah. There the Torah tells us (BeReishit 6:3):
3 And the LORD said: 'My spirit shall not abide in man for ever, for that he also is flesh; therefore shall his days be a hundred and twenty years.'ג  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, לֹא-יָדוֹן רוּחִי בָאָדָם לְעֹלָם, בְּשַׁגַּם, הוּא בָשָׂר; וְהָיוּ יָמָיו, מֵאָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה.


After observing the generations post-Adam and seeing their corruption, God realizes that man is flesh– like the animals– and has decided to pursue his Earthly and physical existence at the expense of his spiritual existence. Thus, God needs to wipe out the Earth and start over given this new recognition and new reality. Creation has to be reordered to function without a human governor from above. This is why God brings about the Flood– to respond to this new recognition and understanding, and address the new reality. 


Given this context, we can now understand why Noach is allowed to eat animals. Man is no longer expected to be a divinely empowered ruler, who conquers the world and represents God’s interests to the creations within it. Rather, God is forced to concede that man is one of the animals like the rest. True, man is the ultimate apex predator, and as such the other animals will all fear us and be subject to our desires, but that is not a divine right of governing, but merely a reality that we are “better” or more powerful animals than all the rest. As such, man is part of the predatory food chain of creation, and the human history that we continue to be a part of today is set on the backdrop of man conceding to his animalism and taking his role in the creation as another animal. 
Yet, while the sinful ways of the generation of the flood convinced God of man’s inability to rule and govern as a steward for creation, we today have a unique opportunity to try and correct for man’s mistakes. The world we live in is in a precarious place. We are already past the point of feeling the effects of global warming, and seeing how man, as an animalistic apex predator, can kill and devour other creatures and earthly resources with no regard for its implications. And much like the generation of the flood, the sins of our generation– our selfishness and lack of thoughtfulness about the consequence of our actions on the planet– are resulting in disproportionate violence, economic hardships, and injustice for the most vulnerable in society. But unlike the generation of the flood, it is not yet too late to reverse course and do our part to care for and preserve the health of the world. We can still prove to God our ability to live up to the command Adam was given LeOvdah ULiShomrah, to work and preserve the garden he was born into. 


We should take the destruction story of Noach as a painfully relevant reminder in our days that, if we choose to live in a world of social Darwinism, governed by the hash rules of the animal kingdom, the strongest will survive at the expense of the less fortunate. If we want to avoid another global destruction, and prove to God that we are able to live up to His aspirations for us, we must all take collective responsibility for the challenges that lay ahead, and not be complacent as the world around us begins to slip away. 

Wed, December 1 2021 27 Kislev 5782