Thursday, July 20, 2017

no place to run

The Midrash opens Parshas Masei by telling us that although many great people -- Ya'akov, Moshe, David -- had to flee from their enemies, throughout our 40 years of travel in the desert not only did we not have to flee from enemies, but we didn't even have to run away from the snakes and scorpions.

Earlier this month we discussed yet again the famous Ohr haChaim, based on the Zohar, that says a human being, being a ba'al bechira, poses a greater threat than an animal because a human being can decide to act as he/she pleases irrespective of G-d's plan, but an animal is basically a robot.

Our Midrash seems to contradict that view, as it implies (...not only did we not have to flee from enemies, but we didn't have to flee from animals either...) that the snakes and scorpions posed a greater danger than human enemies. 

I paraphrased the Midrash in order to convey what I think is its simple meaning, but if you read it carefully, the words suggest a deeper meaning.  Sefas Emes points out that it does not say that we did not have to flee from danger, but rather "lo hinachti eschem livro'ach," G-d did not let us flee.  It's not that we encountered no danger in the desert.  On the contrary, the desert was filled with dangers.  G-d, however, did not let us run away from them.  We were forced, with his help, to face down the threats.

All of life's challenges are there to being us closer to G-d.  Sometimes a person davens that Hashem deliver them from needing a refuah, a shiduch, employment, etc. and Hashem enables them to escape the situation of need -- the person is able to flee from danger.  But there is another way to come closer to Hashem when faced with an obstacle.  "Min ha'meitzar karasi K-h" -- a person can find Hashem from within the dire straits themselves.  Rather than escaping the situation, the person can discover that Hashem is right there with them in their suffering, in their sorrow, in their needs, and that itself gives them the ability to overcome.  "Bein ha'metzarim" = "Min ha'meitzar..."  We are hedged in with no way out, no place to run.  "Lo hinachti eschem livro'ach."  But "imo anochi b'tzarah," Hashem is here with us, and an appreciation of that truth is itself a way out.

On a completely different topic...  has anyone else noticed the numerous ads for various events, some of which do benefit worthwhile organizations that this post should take nothing way from, that are basically exercises in gluttony?  Each one boasts of bigger and better meats prepared by various  "master" barbequers (how hard is it to throw some food on a grill?  Even I can do it!),  hand rolled cigars (I kid you not), scotch tasting, etc. etc. 

Maybe I don't like it because my subconscious is bothered by the fact that I never get to go to one of these things, but I just can't square in my mind things like this with concepts like kedusha and tahara.  You want to do something like this in your own backyard -- be my guest.  But is this what you want associated with yeshivos?  With community mosdos?  You can't even put a woman's picture in a yeshiva journal because it somehow is beneath our lofty standards of kedusha, but stuff like this goes? 

I don't understand it, but there is much in life I don't understand. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

do we have to ask Hashem to keep his promise?

V'lo chilisi es Bnei Yisrael b'kinasi...  If not for Pinchas taking action, that would have been it -- end of the story, sof pasuk, full stop, G-d forbid.  Jewish history would have ended a mere 40 years after we were freed from Egypt.  How do you wrap your mind around such a pasuk?  Is such a thing even conceivable?  Just a few days ago on 17 Tamuz we read Moshe's plea for mercy after the cheit ha'eigel.  There too, Hashem threatened to start again with a Bnei Yisrael 2.0, but Moshe davened, "zechor l'avadecha... asher nishbata lahem bach," and reminded Hashem of his promise to make Bnei Yisrael a great nation and give them Eretz Yisrael.  Rashi explains "nishbata lahem BACH": G-d did not place his hand on a whatever to take an oath.  G-d took an oath on Himself.  Just like G-d is eternal and unchanging, so too, his promise is eternal and unchanging.  There is no possibility of an end for Bnei Yisrael or a 2.0  So what does our parsha mean?

And what if Moshe had not davened, "zechor... asher nishbata lahem bach?"  Would the promise be any less binding?  Do you have to pray in order for G-d to fulfill his promise?

There is one circumstance that seems to allow for Hashem to break his promise.  In parshas Vayeitzei Hashem promises Ya'akov Avinu that his will protect and sustain him in his travels.  Ya'akov responds, "Im y'hiyeh Elokim imadi... v'nasan li lechem le'echol u'beged lilbosh," etc."  It sounds like Ya'akov is uncertain whether Hashem will fulfill his promise, and he is davening for it to come true.  Why the uncertainty?  Chazal answer: shema yigrom ha'cheit.  The simple pshat in that answer is that Ya'akov did not doubt G-d -- Ya'akov doubted himself.  Ya'akov was worried that perhaps he would prove unworthy of G-d's blessing due to his sins, and if so, G-d would be off the hook and not have to keep his word.

R' Leibele Eiger, however, says a chiddush: G-d's word is a reality; his promise in unbreakable.  It is going to come true no matter what.  "Shema yigrom ha'cheit" doesn't mean that G-d has an out.  "Shema yigrom ha'cheit" means that instead of the promise coming true m'meila, Hashem will have to intervene and cause the person to have a hisorerus to once again become worthy of the promise being fulfilled. 

One of my favorite pieces in the Ishbitzer is his interpretation of "terem nikra'u v'ani e'eneh, od heim m'dabrim v'ani eshma."  If G-d responds "terem nikra'u," before we even call out to him, them what's the "od heim m'dabrim...?"  He responded already before our dibur!?  The Ishbitzer answers that "terem nikra'u" means Hashem responds by giving us the hisorerus to pray and call to him.  He gives is the inspiration we need!  Then, once we start davening, he listens to our prayers. 

R' Leibele Eiger is telling us that either we will be inspired and deserve G-d's promise, or he will inspire us and cause us to have a hisorerus and thereby deserve it.  Either way, it will always come true.

Now we understand why sometimes there is a need for tefilah even though Hashem has made a promise.  Tefilah is the hisorerus that Hashem awakens in the nation, or even in a single individual speaking up on the nation's behalf, that makes keeping the promise possible, that makes keeping the promise worth doing, even when all seems lost. 

We have it all backwards, says R' Leibele Eiger.  It's not that Pinchas took action, "heishiv es chamasi," and therefore, "v'lo chilisi es Bnei Yisrael b'kina'si," and if not for that, all would be lost.  Rather, "v'lo chilisi es Bnei Yisrael," Hashem promised never to destroy us, and therefore, He inspired a Pinchas to take action, "heishiv es chamasi."  Pinchas was a tool in Hashem's hands so that the promise could be kept.

(Because Hashem used him as a tool, he gets the reward of shalom. To me it seems a little difficult to get this to fit the Midrash of "b'din hu she'yitol secharo," but you have to say some explanation for that Midrash anyway.)

There will always be a Moshe in every generation, a Pinchas, a Ya'akov Avinu.  There will always be someone to bring us back, to plead on our behalf, a tool Hashem uses to bring us inspiration so we are never completely lost.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

what the three weeks really are about

1) R' Zalman Melamed writes here:
Every year, as the Three Weeks (of mourning over the Temple’s destruction) approach, people ask me all sorts of questions relating to the nature of mourning: What is and is not permissible in kindergartens? Can movies be watched? Fieldtrips? Swimming?

All such questions pertain to mourning practices, but nobody ever asks about what sort of paths should be followed to achieve repentance during these days!
2) For those who like remazim:

"Yizal mayim m'dalav..." Bilam said.  The Megaleh Amukos writes that the shem Hashem of adnus has 4 letters, and if you spell out each letter, e.g. aleph = aleph, lamed, pei... you end up with 12 letters.  These 12 letters  correspond to the months of the year, i.e. aleph will be Nisan, lamed = Iyar, etc.  It comes out that Tamuz and Av are the letters daled and lamed.  This, says the Igra d'Kallah is what Bilam's blessing hints at: the bitter tears of "dalav," our daled-lamed of Tamuz and Av, should be transformed into sweet flowing waters of rachamim.   

Thursday, July 06, 2017

v'lo ra'ah amal b'yisrael -- whose suitcases are we schlepping?

1) If someone is lost in the desert and doesn't know when Shabbos is he/she has to make kiddush and havdalah one day a week as if that day was Shabbos, and on any given day no melacha except for what is needed for pikuach nefesh may be done lest that day is Shabbos.  The MG"A asks why this should be so.  Shabbos is only one day out of seven.  Whatever day is Shabbos should be bateil b'rov to the six days of chol. 

Question: how can you speak of bitul brov (or kavua) with respect to days?  The chiyuv to keeps Shabbos is a chovas ha'gavra (see R' Yosef Engel in Esvan D'Oraysa re: whether time bound chiyuvim are issurei gavra or issurei cheftza) on the person, not a chiyuv of the day.  The person lost in the desert, the gavra, is not bateil to anything?

When I saw this question I first thought it was great and now I'm not sure it makes sense.  True, keeping Shabbos may be an issur gavra, but you have to define the day before you can say the chovas ha'gavra gets off the ground.  It's an intrinsic condition to the chiyuv.

2) Mah tovu ohalecha Ya'akov.  Rashi explains that Bilam saw that ain pischeihem mechuvanim. 

Chazal teach us that if we just open a pesach k'chudo shel machat, an opening the size of the hole in a needle, to let Hashem into our hearts, he will open for us a pesach as wide as the door of the heichal.  R' Meir Shapiro explained that this is what Bilam saw.  Ain pischeihem mechuvanim: the door Hashem opens for us is completely out of proportion to the door we opened for him -- the two are not aligned.  But Hashem loves us, so that's the way it is.

3) The gemara (A"Z 4) writes that Bilam's success was due to the fact that he was able to figure out when the one moment of the day that Hashem gets angry.  Hashem did a miracle and withheld his anger the entire time that Bilam tried to curse us.

The gemara continues that R' Yehoshua ben Levi had an obnoxious neighbor who was a min and drove him crazy, so he decided to wait for that moment of Hashem's anger and then ask Hashem to do away with this neighbor.  The moment came, but just then RYb"L fell asleep.  He took this as a sign that v'rachamav al kol ma'asav, Hashem has mercy even on the wicked and did not like his plan.

If Hashem gets angry for this one moment every single day, there must be some need in the seder of the world for such a thing to happen.  So why withhold that anger just to thwart Bilam?  Hashem, for example, does not stop the sun from rising just because idolaters worship it.  Why didn't Hashem just make Bilam fall asleep like he did to RYb"L instead of interrupting the course of nature?

We've discussed lots of times (e.g. here, here, and other places ) the famous view of the Ohr haChaim (and others) that while Hashem can force animals and inanimate objects to conform to his plan, a ba'al bechira, a human being that has free choice, has far more latitude and can do an end run around Hashem's designs.  What that (probably) means is not that Hashem does not have control over people -- what it means is that it takes for more zechuyos to cause/ask for Hashem to interfere with a ba'al bechira.

Of course if Bilam just fell asleep his plan would have been thwarted.  Our parsha is telling us a bigger chiddush, explains R' Yerucham Lebovitz.  Even though Bilam was awake and had free choice as a ba'al bechira to act against Klal Yisrael, he still did not succeed.

4) V'lo ra'ah amal b'Yisrael...  A beautiful Ohr haChaim here

גם נתכוון לומר שהצדיקים הגם שעושים מצות וכל עסקם בתורה אינם מרגישים שיש להם עמל, על דרך אומרו (תהלים עג) עמל הוא בעיני אלא אדרבא כאדם המרויח וכאדם המשתעשע בשעשועים לרוב חשקם בתורה

Mitzvos should not been seen as a burden or bother -- amal -- but rather as a pleasure to do.

R' Ya'akov Neiman in his Darkei Musar quotes a famous mashal (I'll write it over anyway : )of the Dubno Magid which the Kotzker said must have been given b'ruach hakodesh.  V'lo oso karasa Ya'akov, ki yagata bi Yisrael (Yeshaya 43:22).  Hashem criticizes Klal Yisrael for not calling to him, for being weary of him.  The mashal: the was a royal officer who was travelling through some town, and when he got off the train he went ahead to his hotel and left his bags to be brought later.  Later that day the bellhop, huffing and puffing and sweating from the exertion, knocked on the hotel door and told him that he had brought the suitcases.  Without even looking, the officer replied that he was confused and had brought someone else's bags.  "How do you know?" the bellhop asked.  "You didn't even look at them!'  "Because," answered the officer, "My bags were light -- you obviously have been struggling with whatever you brought, and so I know they are not mine."   

Hashem tells Klal Yisrael, "OSI lo karasa," whatever frumkeit you have been killing yourself over and struggling with, it's not MY frumkeit, that's not MY Torah and mitzvos, "ki yagata bi Yisrael," because whatever it is you think you are doing is an unbearable and painful burden.   Those suitcases you've been struggling with, says Hashem, are not my suitcases.  When you are schlepping my suitcases, "v'lo ra'ah amal b'Yisrael," they are  no bother at all. 

Thursday, June 29, 2017

vayishlach malachim -- messengers of Ya'akov, messengers of Moshe

So much is going on in the parsha, and there is no little time to write!

"Vayishlach Ya'akov malachaim el Eisav achiv..."  I know -- wrong parsha.  But not really -- as we'll see.  "Im Lavan garti..."  I fulfilled my mission.  I kept Torah and mitzvos even in Lavan's home; I came away unscathed.  I've achieved my tikun.  Now that I've perfected myself, I can reach out to you, Eisav my brother, and help you maybe achieve your tikun.  "Vayishlach Moshe malachim mi'Kadesh el Melech Edom..."  (20:14).  Moshe too sends messengers, and they come to the king of Edom and give him a history lesson.  Look at how "achicha Yisrael," your brother Klal Yisrael suffered in Egypt until we were redeemed by G-d.  Rashi suggests that Moshe emphasized brotherhood to hint to Edom that as brothers they should have shared the burden of slavery, but they did not -- only we carried that burden.  Therefore, Edom, you owe us one.  Meshech Chochma suggests that Moshe's point was that we were redeemed by G-d; we did not incite rebellion against Egypt.  There is no danger of letting us pass through your country, Edom; we do not cause trouble.  No executive order or wall is needed.  But Sefas Emes recognizes the parallel language to Ya'akov's shlichus, a shlichus that reverberates throughout history.  We suffered in Egypt and as a nation went through a process of tikun.  We are on the way to fulfill our destiny.  Maybe this time, Edom, you will help us and in doing so, help yourself achieve your own tikun. 

G-d tells Moshe in our parsha to tell Aharon that his time has come.  "Vaya'as Moshe ka'asher tzivah Hashem."  (20:17)  Moshe prepared Aharon for death, faithfully fulfilling G-d's command, no matter how difficult it might have been for him (Rashi).  If it was difficult for Moshe, how much more difficult it must have been for Aharon -- after all, he was the one who was going to die!  Yet, the pasuk only speaks about Moshe.  Did Aharon not know what was going to happen?  Sefas Emes explains that it was not the death of Aharon per se that troubled Moshe.  What bothered Moshe is that he saw the chain of events that would unfold without Aharon: the dissipation of the ananei ha'kavod, the attack of Amalek/Cana'an, the complaints of the people that would follow.  His beloved Klal Yisrael would suffer.  As hard as death is, sometimes life for those who remain behind, struggling to cope and come to terms with loss, with a different, changed existence and set of relationships, can be just as hard. 

So Aharon died and Canaan attacked.  "Vayishb mimenu shevi," they took a captive.  "Alisa la'marom shavisa shevi..." (Teh 68:19)   Chazal tell us that when Moshe went upstairs to get the Torah, it was being held captive by the malachim, who did not want to let it go. (Sefas Emes elsewhere notes that the fact that Torah is called a captive shows that the Torah is really meant for us here on earth, to elevate our mundane lives.  It's not meant for the heavens.)  Torah is like the cord that allows us to plug into Hashem to get chiyus.  Before Hashem gave us the Torah he offered it to the nations of the world, but they chose to reject it.  Therefore, their chiyus is dependent upon us.  "Vayishb mimenu shevi," the Canaani wanted to take back that dependence, to take back what they gave up, to try to seize their own chiyus instead of revolving around us.

Finally, at the end of the parsha we get to the complaint of Bnei Yisrael that the mon was inedible, "nafsheinu katzah b'lechem ha'kilokel."  For 40 years they had been eating mon and suddenly it's no good?  We discussed this last year here.  There is a unique din by the chatzotzros: while other klei hamishkan made by Moshe could be used until they wore out, the chatzotzros had to be put in genizah after Moshe died.  R' Yechezkel Sarna (I think - can't remember the source 100%) explains that the purpose of the chatzotzros trumpets was to call together the people to give them instruction.  What the Torah is telling us is that the call to the people used in Moshe's generation would not work in the next generation.  Each generation needs it's own call.  So too, each generation needs its own food, it's own nourishment.  The mon could be the most spiritual thing to eat, but that was good only for the dor hamidbar.  The new generation that was entering Eretz Yisrael need something else to sustain them.  

We have to be smart and thing about what our generation needs -- what is the trumpet call that will gather us, what is the food that will nourish our souls.  What worked in the past will not necessarily work in the present. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

the "she'lo lishma" rebellion

1. According to Avos the machlokes of Korach exemplifies machlokes she'lo l'shem shamayim.  Isn't that a strange statement?  The whole problem with Korach's machlokes is that it was she'lo lishma?!  That's like telling a guy who drives to the Reform temple to daven on Shabbos morning that his tefilah is lacking because he doesn't have proper kavanah.  That's the least of the problems!  Here Korach undermined the authority of Moshe and brought the whole transmission of Torah into question and our problem is whether he said a l'shem yichud and did it lishma or not?!

If indeed Korach's argument had even some theoretical validity and it's only the she'lo lishma that's the problem, why is that such a big deal?  Mi'toch she'lo lishma ba lishma!  Sefas Emes writes that you see from here that machlokes is an exception to the rule.  A machlokes can be constructive -- halacha is enriched by the debates and machlokes throughout sha"s -- but that's only a machlokes undertaken purely l'shem shamayim for the sake of Torah.  A machlokes with an ulterior motive results only in destruction.

Maybe the key to the Mishna is a Netziv in P' Acharei Mos  that we discussed here.  Netziv posits that even though a person should learn Torah even she'lo lishma, one cannot be mechadesh in Torah and innovate new practices unless one's motives are pure lishma.  Had Korach expressed his innovative ideas, "ki kol ha'eidah kulam kedoshim," purely l'shem shamayim, perhaps he would have gone down in history as the intellectual foil to Moshe, the Shamai of his generation, a view that was rejected, but a view that had validity.  However, since Korach acted she'lo lishma, his views by definition were no longer a chiddush, but rather were a distortion of Torah.  

2) According to Ibn Ezra the story of Korach's rebellion really took place much earlier, when the Levi'im were selected to take on the role formally assigned to bechorim.  The bechorim were unhappy with losing their jobs; the Levi'im were unhappy at being assigned to role of helpers to kohanim; the stage was set for rebellion.  Ramban disagrees, as, in general, Ramban takes a far more conservative position when it comes to re-ordering parshiyos.  According to Ramban the parshiyos are written in chronological order and the rebellion occurred after after the episode of the spies, after the people were reeling from having heard that the dream of entering Eretz Yisrael would not come to fruition during their lifetime.  Korach was able to use that disillusionment to his advantage in pressing long held grievances of his own. 

What is Rashi's view on this issue?  On the one hand, Rashi at the beginning of Korach cites the Midrash that says that Korach mockingly asked Moshe whether a talis completely dyed with techeiles needs a techeilis string of tzitzis -- the Midrash sees the Korach story as following the parsha of tzitzis, which itself is part of the response to the story of the spies.  This seems to accord with Ramban's view.  On the other hand, Rashi in the beginning of Shlach asks why the Torah juxtaposes the story of the spies with the story of Miriam's lashon ha'ra.  The implication of Rashi's question is that these stories are not written in chronological order, otherwise chronology itself would be a valid reason for the juxtaposition.  What is the out of order parsha that should chronologically appear between the Miriam story and that of the spies?  Mizrachi suggests that perhaps the answer is Korach's rebellion. (Mizrachi does not see a need to reconcile these two Rashis.  He argues that Rashi need not be consistent; Rashi can adopt one Midrashic view in one place and a different view elsewhere depending on the local textual problem he is trying to address.  See Maharal in Gur Aryeh who disagrees.)  

According to this latter view, we don't have the disillusionment that followed the episode of the spies as a motivating factor in the success of the rebellion; we don't have the immediate role changes of Levi'im and bechorim that Ibn Ezra focused on.  What we do have is the parsha of Eldad and Meided prophesizing that Moshe would die before completing his mission.  What we do have is Moshe himself saying that were it only the case that everyone could be a navi.  What we do have is Miriam equating to some degree Moshe with herself and Aharon and not recognizing his uniqueness.  Perhaps that context explans why the call of "ki kol ha'iedah kulam kedoshim" took on greater meaning.  If everyone could be a prophet, if all prophets were to some degree the same, then why not spread authority to all? 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

maror: radish or horseradish?

   This is a page from the Graziano Haggadah, a 13th century haggadah on loan to the Met from JTS (see here).  While wandering through the museum today the page caught my wife Ariella's eye because of the picture used for maror.  Unless she and I are very much mistaken, that is a radish -- not a horseradish, just a plain old radish.  I've never heard of anyone using a regular radish for maror.  Granted that just because this haggadah was printed in the 13th century doesn't make it a rishon, but it is interesting if using radish was in fact the minhag of Catalonian Jewry.      

why Yehoshua did not join Kaleiv in Chevron

Rashi writes that Kaleiv broke away from the meraglim and stopped off in Chevron in order to daven at the kever of the Avos and elicit their zechus.  Where was Yehoshua?  Why didn't he join Kaleiv there?

My wife suggested that Yehoshua didn't need to join him because Yehoshua had Moshe Rabeinu, a living rebbe of the highest rank.  He didn't need to go to kevarim to connect with the mesorah of the past; he had a living connection to it in the present.

I would just add that this fits perfectly with the Maharal in Gur Aryeh who writes that Moshe changed Yehoshua's name and davened on his behalf more than he did for anyone else (the implication of Maharal, as R' Hartman points out, is that Moshe did daven for everyone, just not to the same degree) because Yehoshua was his talmid.  If a talmid fails, it reflects back on the rebbe; when a talmid fails, it is as if the rebbe has suffered a personal failure.  That special bond existed only between Moshe and Yehoshua.