Thursday, May 17, 2018

l'mishpichosam l'beis avosam -- the key to kabbalas haTorah

The Yalkut on our parsha writes that when Bnei Yisrael came to accept the Torah, the nations of the world jealously asked why we deserve to come closer to Hashem then they did.  Hashem replied to them, "Bring me the records of your yichus... like Bnei Yisrael have."  This, says the Yalkut, is why the Torah juxtaposes the count of Bnei Yisrael in our parsha, which entailed each person tracing his lineage "l'mishpichosam l'beis avosam," with the pasuk, "Eileh hamitzvos asher tzivah Hashem... b'har Sinai," which concludes sefer Vayika.

Why should the nations complain?  Chazal tell us that Hashem offered them the Torah before giving it to us and they turned him down.  They had their chance!

The answer is that the nations complained because the scales were tipped in our favor.  When Hashem offered us the Torah, it was an offer we couldn't refuse -- "kafah aleiham har k'gigis."  He did not do the same for any other nation.

This is the point the Yalkut comes to resolve. 

The halacha (C.M. 205:12) tells us that if someone is coerced to sell something, the sale is valid, but a purchase made under duress has no validity.  Chasam Sofer (B"B 48) explains that a seller merely has to relinquish ownership for someone else to step in; a buyer has to establish a new claim to the item, which is harder to do.

R' Noson Gestetner in his sefer on chumash explains that even if Hashem were to hold a mountain above the nations and coerce them to accept the Torah, their acceptance would not be valid -- a kinyan cannot be made under duress.  However, when it came to Klal Yisrael, accepting the Torah, it was not a new kinyan -- it was a yerusha that we had form our Avos and previous generations.

"Bring me your yichus records," Hashem told the nations.  You are not the bnei Avraham, Yitzchak, and Ya'akov.  You cannot claim the Torah as a yerusha, and will not give it over as a morasha, as one generation does not connect to the previous one.  Therefore, kaga aleihem had k'gigis would not help you absent a real desire to receive the Torah.

Nice pilpul, but I think you can say perhaps a simpler pshat as well. The nations want closeness to Hashem.  Hashem's answer is that closeness to Him is midah k'neged midah contingent on one thing: our closeness to each other.  "L'mishpichosam l'beis avosam" -- every member of Klal Yisrael connects to his family, to his sheivet, ultimately to the tzibur as a whole.  We connect with each other, therefore, we can connect to Hashem.  Only Klal Yisrael has this virtue.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

lo timacher l'tzemisus - redeeem the land

The Mishnas Chasidim, quoted by Rav Teichtel in his sefer Mishneh Sachir on parshas Bechukosai, writes that in the two years he spent in Tzefat in 1718/19 -- almost exactly 300 years ago -- he saw so many houses being built that he felt it could not be anything less than a reversal of the curse of 'v'areichem ye'hi'yu charva," the promise in the tochacha of the land being laid desolate.  The development of the city, says the Mishnas Chasidim, is a "siman l'bi'as ha'go'el."  

What do you think the Mishnas Chasidim would say were he alive today, looking at the many cranes that dot every neighborhood of Yerushalayim, at the buildings going up all over Eretz Yisrael?   What do you think he would say if he witnessed the celebration of Yom Yerushalayim in a rebuilt, modern, Yerushalayim in an independent Jewish state?

Ramban in sefer ha'mitzvot lav 227 discusses the nature of the issur of "lo timacher l'tzemisus."  Rashi seems to hold the issur is for the buyer not to return the land, but, as Ramban points out, the formulation of the lav seems to indicate the prohibition is on the seller, not the buyer.  Ramban, based on the Yerushalmi, is machadesh that the issur is in selling land to an aku"m, who has no incentive to return it.  Ramban then compares the issur of leaving Eretz Yisrael in the hands of aku"m to the mitzvah of redeeming a Jew who is sold into slavery to an aku"m.  Just like in that case  the Torah tells us that the reason for the mitzvah is "ki li Bnei Yisrael avadim," that we are supposed to be servants only of Hashem, so too, Eretz Yisrael is supposed to be a land dedicated to being a makom Shechina, a place of service to Hashem, which is impossible so long as it is not in our hands.

Rav Teichtel quotes 'Ha'gaon ha'mekubal ish ha'Elokim" R' Dovid Lida (the honorifics are especially noteworthy given the background of who R' Dovid Lida was) as saying that our redemption from galus is directly dependent upon the redemption of Eretz Yisrael from our enemies.  Why must the two go hand in hand?  Why can't Hashem redeem us irrespective of our establishing a home in Eretz Yisrael?  Can't we do that afterwards?  Rav Teichtel explains that this is not sisrei Torah, but is implicit in the Ramban's equation of the land in foreign hands to an eved.  Hashem treats us middah k'neged middah.  We want Hashem to take us out of galus and to restore us to being his, and only his, faithful servants.  It's up to us to practice the same middah and redeem his land from foreign control so it can be dedicated to his service.  

We should celebrate the fact that we have been zocheh to see the start of that slow process.


Tuesday, May 08, 2018

the location of the mizbeiach

I found the language the Rambam uses when he describes the place of the mizbeiach (Hil Beis haBechira 2:2) to be striking:


ומסורת ביד הכול, שהמקום שבנה בו דויד ושלמה המזבח בגורן ארוונה--הוא המקום שבנה בו אברהם המזבח ועקד עליו יצחק, והוא המקום שבנה בו נוח כשיצא מן התיבה, והוא המזבח שהקריב עליו קין והבל.  ובו הקריב אדם הראשון כשנברא קרבן, ומשם נברא; אמרו חכמים, אדם ממקום כפרתו נברא.

What does the Rambam mean here by it being a "masores b'yad ha'kol" -- everybody knows this tradition?  Does he mean this tradition goes above and beyond what the "ba'alei mesorah," the leaders of each generation from Moshe through Ravina and Rav Ashi who were charged with preserving and transmitting torah sheba'al peh (as the Rambam writes in the intro to the Yad), dealt with?  In what way is this mesorah different than any other mesorah of torah sheba'al peh and why?  

Might the opposite be true -- could "masores b'yad ha'kol" mean this is simply a folk tradition and not part of what was preserved by the "ba'alei mesorah?"  That strikes me as a far weaker reading than the first one, but I'm throwing it out there just to consider everything.

I haven't seen anyone who discusses this point.  Suggestions, as always, welcome.  

Thursday, May 03, 2018

a good word -- amaros tehoros

I was not feeling in a writing mood this week, but then I got an uplifting email from someone telling me how much they appreciated the posts and it changed my mind.  That person gets the credit for being mezakeh everyone who might read this and learn something.  You never know the value of a kind word.

Why a bow and arrow on Lag ba'Omer?  When you use a bow and arrow, if you want to shoot an arrow into the air you have to pull back the drawsting toward the ground.  The further back down you pull the string, the higher up the arrow will go.  Life often pulls us down.  Lag Ba'Omer tells us that what we think is a big setback is really just a needed step to shoot even higher.  Can you imagine how far R' Akiva thought he had fallen when all 24,000 students of his died?  But then the arrow shot upwards again, and it was the whole torah sheba'al peh that was the result.

The Midrash opens our parsha by telling us that "amaros Hashem tehoros" unlike the promises of a human ruler.  A human king may make all kinds of campaign promises to build this or fix that, and then the king goes to sleep and maybe never wakes up and all the promises are for naught.  (The Midrash is pretty dramatic -- I guess the Midrash could not even conceive of modern politicians who make promises and don't keep them even though they remain alive and well.)  Hashem's word is emes for all eternity.

A beautiful idea, but what does it have to do with our parsha?  Why stick it here?  Just because the word "amaros" is like "emor" and "amarta" in the parsha -- so what?

Secondly, the Midrash gives examples of the promises a human king makes with no guarantee of being able to fulfill them, but it doesn't tell us what promise of Hashem it is talking about. 

If you had to choose one word to sum up the theme of our parsha, a good choice would be "tahara."  We learn in our parsha about the holiness of the kohen, who cannot become defiled with the dead and who cannot serve as a ba'al mum.  We learn about korbanos and the disqualification of mumim.  We learn about the mitzvah of sefira that we are engaged in, "u'sefartem lachem" = to make ourselves into sapir, precious sparkling gems, so to speak, ready for kabbalas haTorah.  It's all, at least in a symbolic sense, about perfection is serving G-d, about not being spiritually defiled, blemished, unsuitable.

The first Sefas Emes on the parsha asks a basic question: how is it possible for a human being of flesh and blood to become tahor, to purify himself properly to serve G-d?  How can any of us, with all the mistakes we make, with all our shortcomings, measure up?

The Besh"t taught "l'olam Hashem devarcha nitzav bashamayim" means that the words of Hashem used to create the world are constantly emanating from Him and constantly causing the world to be recreated.  Not only that, but as the Alter Rebbe explains in the second part of Tanya, those words are what are the true essence of what everything is made of.  In other words, Hashem's utterance do not cause the world to exist; rather, they are the very stuff of which the world is made, the underlying subatomic subphysical "stuff" of everything that exists. 

Says the Midrash in Parshas Kedoshim, "Nasata kedusha l'Yisrael, nasata lahem l'olam, she'ne'emar 'Kedoshim ti'hiyu.'"  G-d gave us eternal kedusha.  How do you know?  Because, answers the Midrash, the pasuk says, "Kedoshim ti'hiyu." 

How does that answer the question?  All the pasuk says is that we have a mitzvah to be holy?

Based on the Besh"t's teaching the Rebbe of Aleksander answers that the words "kedoshim ti'hiyu" are not just a command, but they are a reality.  Just as the words, "ye'hi or" reverberate for all eternity and every moment ensure the recreation of light in the universe, so too, G-d's words of "kedoshim ti'hiyu" reverberate for all eternity and make us holy.


I'm just flesh and blood, a human being with all the faults that go with that -- a spiritual ba'al mum, a person with spiritual tumah enveloping him.  How can I get ready for kabbalas haTorah?  The answer is "amaros Hashem tehoros" for all eternity.  What promise is the Midrash talking about?  The promise of "l'nefesh lo yitamah."  The promise of "kedoshim ti'hiyu."  Our parsha is not just a list of demands, commands.  It's a map of the reality of who we are and what we are.  Hashem's words give us the koach to be tahor, to be kadosh, for eternity -- no matter if we've fallen, if we've become a little blemished and defiled.  That's just the arrow being pulled back.  The koach to be better is within us willy nilly because Hashem's words, the words of our parsha, make it so.  All we have to do is not spoil that kedusha and tahara, not drive it away. 

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Ramban the philosopher/mystic vs Ramban the halachist

R' Aharon Lichtenstein zt"l was asked who he would rush to meet first when he got to the olam ha'emes.  Who among the pantheon of Rishonim does he admire most?   You would think someone steeped in Brisker lomdus like R' Aharon would of course answer "the Rambam," but guess again -- it was Ramban who most fascinated R' Aharon (see the article I linked to).  Parshanut, philosophy, mysticism, halacha -- Ramban touches on it all.  I want to look at one issue related to our parsha that brings that multi-faceted outlook into sharper focus.

A Jew must sacrifice his life rather than violate any one of the three cardinal sins of avodah zarah, arayos, or murder.  However, when it comes to other prohibitions, the Torah tells us "v'chay bahem."  It's not clear whether that is simply a matir, a license to avoid the sacrifice of mesirus nefesh, or whether it is a commandment, an order to preserve one's life even at the cost of violating other prohibitions.  Tos (Avodah Zara 27b) would presumably take the former position, as they hold that a person can choose, if they so desire, to give up their life for any commandment.  The Rambam, on the other hand, holds that one is not allowed to give up one's life unless obligated by halacha to do so, and so presumably he would take the latter position.

The Avnei Nezer (Choshen Mishpat 193) has a fascinating teshuvah in which he discusses whether a person  suffering a life threatening illness who is told by doctors that he/she must eat on Yom Kippur is permitted to forgo medical advice and fast anyway.  Rather than approach the issue from the perspective of the different viewpoints of Rambam/Tos above, he instead cites at length the Ramban on Parshas Bechukosai who argues that consulting doctors is only for those who are not on the ideal level of bitachon, for those who do not understand that everything is in G-d's hands alone and that illness can be cured by teshuvah.  "Mah cheilek b'rofim b'beis osim ratzon Hashem!"  Who needs doctors when you have G-d?  Most of us are not on that level, so the Torah allows us to live b'derech ha'teva and get medical help for our problems.  However, for a person who truly places his trust in Hashem, whatever the doctor says is irrelevant.
R' Ovadya Yosef (Yechaveh Da'at 1:61) discusses this same issue and interestingly, he also cites a Ramban: Ramban in the Milchamos in Sanhedrin (74) writes that not only is it not a midas chassidus for a seriously ill person to fast on Yom Kippur contrary to medical advice, but to the contrary -- a person who does not eat when there is danger in not doing so is liable for taking his own life!  (Just for the record, at the end of the section on Moadim in the Shem m'Shmuel there is a letter from the author, the Avnei Nezer's son, to someone in the hospital over Y"K in which he warns the person that they must eat if instructed to do so by doctors.  Did he backtrack from his father's position?) 

What would Ramban the halakhist writing the Milchamos say to Ramban the philosopher/mystic's argument in his peirush al haTorah?   Why is it not a midas chasidus to fast if a person trusts fully in G-d?  Will the "real" Ramban please step forward and make his views clear?

Obviously both Rambans are the "real" Ramban.  Somehow Ramban the philosopher/mystic saw no contradiction between what he wrote in his peirush al haTorah and what he wrote in the Milchamos.  If we only had one or the other, it would be easy for us.  But the greatness of Ramban is that he gives us both -- an abundance of riches!  -- and leaves it to us to puzzle out how to fit the pieces together.  I'll leave it to you to do that : )

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

where home is

Ki tavo'u el Eretz Canann asher ani nosein lachem l'nachala v'nasati nega tzara'as b'veis eretz achuzaschem (14:35).  A strange promise!  Once we finally merit seeing Hashem's promise to give us the land fulfilled, the Torah tells us that our homes will be plagued with leprosy.  Why?  What did we do to deserve that?  (see Rashi)

Rav Teichtel in his classic Eim haBanim Smeicha interprets the pasuk derech derush as saying that if after G-d is "nosein lachem nachala" and gives us a homeland, we still think of the 5 Towns, Boro Park, Englewood, Teaneck, or even Lakewood, NJ as "home," then "v'nasati nega tzara'as," I will bring tzara'as and tzaros to "beis achuzaschem," that place in galus you still mistakingly think of as home.  Sometimes unfortunately we need a wakeup call, a little suffering and discomfort, to appreciate and recognize where home is.

"But what does Jeremy Corbyn or the murder of a Jewish grandmother in France or the other sorrows we see in Europe have to do with me?" asks your typical upper middle class American Jew while eating his dinner at some ridiculously expensive glatt kosher restaurant on some typical Main Street in the suburbs, or if he is more spiritually inclined, while mulling over his Artscroll translated daf yomi in the local shul.  The tzaros of galus are over there, but here, in the good ol' USA?  Gashmiyus, ruchniyus -- what don't I have here in the comfort of my typical American life?  

V'nasati nega tzara'as b'veis eretz achuzaschem... Maybe it's time to learn the lesson from what's happening over there before it gets here, because get here it will. 

In 1914 Rabbi Aba Citron, Rav of Petach Tikvah, son in law of the Rogatchover Gaon, was told by the Ottomans that they were expelling him from the country because he was not a citizen, as he had not been born there (see here).  His only hope was to take an oath to the contrary.  Shevuas sheker!  He turned for advice to his father-in-law, who sent, k'darko, just a mareh makom: Kesubos 75.  The gemara there darshens the pasuk in Tehillim (87:5) "U'l'Tzion yei'amar ish ish yulad bah..." to refer to "echad ha'nolad bah v'echad ha'mitzapeh li'rosah."  It's not a shevuas sheker.  When it comes to Tzion, to Eretz Yisrael, the person who pines to be there can just as much call himself "yulad bah" as any sabra.

Let's be real: barring a miracle, all of American and world Jewry are not going to pack their bags and get on Nefesh b'Nefesh flights tomorrow.  Ha'levai we all could -- but it's not going to happen.

When it comes to "nolad bah," we are lucky if our grandchildren will have that zechus.

But when it comes to "mitzapim li'rosa," oy to us if we don't at least dream of getting on that flight.

Oy to us if this is our "eretz achuzaschem."  We shouldn't c"v need a nega tza'aras to get us to think otherwise.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

2 days of rosh chodesh pre-bayis sheni?

Unless you learned the 4th perek of Rosh haShana, the whole idea of having 2 days of rosh chodesh should strike you are strange / impossible.  On day 30 of month X, if 2 witnesses come and say they saw the new moon, then beis din would declare it rosh chodesh and start the new month.  If 2 witnesses did not show up, then it would be just another, ordinary weekday and the next day would be rosh chodesh.  How do we get 2 days of rosh chodesh?

The Mishna in R"H tells us that for hundreds of years witnesses always came early in the day on day 30 of Elul.  One time during bayis sheni they showed up late in the day and it caused all kinds of confusion in the mikdash.  The kohanim on that day operated under the assumption that since it was late in the day and no witnesses had come, it would be an ordinary weekday, i.e. no korban musaf, regular shirah during nisuch ha'yayin, etc. When the witnesses did eventually come, it meant the day was in fact rosh chodesh/rosh hashana and a korban musaf was required, the shirah was different, etc. (let's leave the technical details aside).  In response to this turn of events R' Yochanan ben Zakai made a takanah: if witnesses show up late, they will automatically be held over until the next day.  However, instead of declaring day 30 as not rosh chodesh/rosh hashana, both day 30 and the next day would be celebrated.  In other words, day 30 would always be rosh chodesh -- witnesses coming late or coming the next day could only add an extra day, not subtract or change the status of day 30.  That, in an oversimplified nutshell, is how we get 2 days.

Based on this account, historically there should never have been a 2 day rosh chodesh or rosh hashana until sometime during the second temple period.

Yet I am sure you were listening to yesterday's haftarah, the haftarah of machar chodesh, where we read how on the second day of rosh chodesh Shaul took note of David's second day of absence from the royal table and put Yehonasan on the spot and asked him to explain where David was. 

2 days of rosh chodesh in the days of Shaul, long before R' Yochanan ben Zakai?  How did that happen? 

See the note of the Tziyun Yerushalayim on the bottom of Yerushalmi Ta'anis 22a in the Vilna edition. 

II.  While on the topic of that haftarah, at the end of the story we are told that Yehonasan and David wept "ad higdil David" and Yehonasan then departed.  Most of the meforshim I saw understand this line to mean that David's crying became so great and loud that Yehonasan felt he had to leave lest David be discovered.  My wife suggested that perhaps the opposite was true -- the sign of a gadol is self control, much like Aharon in our parsha, "vayidom Aharon," restrained his crying.  Perhaps it is Yehonasan who continued to cry while David controlled his emotions, and therefore, it is Yehonasan who felt he had to depart.