Monday, June 30, 2008

A big question, and Sotah 36-38

First, a question: I’ve been mixing gemara notes and derashot and personal observations on the rabbinate and life in this blog, and I’m not sure it’s jelling well. What do you think? Split off gemara notes and derashot into a separate blog? Or leave it all together, because that's the way my life works anyway?

As always: Best to read these notes with a gemara in front of you. Some big points on parenting and society toward the end. I'm working on a computer that doesn't have Hebrew options, so please bear with the annoying transliterations.

The Maharsha addresses the question of how we know that the tzirah did not cross the Yarden with the Jews; the gemara here just seems to take it as a given.

See Tosafot esrim who provides the Yerushalmi’s version of the alignment of tribal names on the two stones of the Ephod, including the interesting idea of splitting the name of Binyamin. (This Tosafot, as well as the very interesting Tosafot mai, address points published on 36b in the gemara.)

Make sure to see Tosafot la'asot and b’otah.

Fascinating: Back on 10b we credited Yehudah with “sanctifying Gd’s Name in public” by acknowledging Tamar’s righteousness (a troubling concept, as we noted here). Here, though, we have the same statement regarding Yehudah, but we understand it to refer to Nachshon ben Aminadav, descendant of Yehudah, and his bold march into the Yam Suf at the head of the Jewish people.

At Yam Suf (the Sea of Reeds), with the Egyptian army bearing down on the Jews, the Jews cry out in frustration and anger, asking why Moshe took them out of Egypt to die at the sea. Moshe rebukes them, and says Gd will fight for them. Gd then says to Moshe, “Mah titzak eilai? Why are you crying out to Me? Tell the Jews to go forward, and you raise your staff and stretch it over the sea, and split the sea.” The opening line of “Why are you crying out to Me” is problematic – we don’t find Moshe crying out to Gd.
The gemara here offers one solution, by adding that Moshe was davening to Gd, it just wasn’t mentioned in the Torah's text.
Another approach I’ve seen parses the sentence, “Mah titzak? Eilai!” “Why are you shouting? Rally to Me!”
As some commentators note, though, the most straightforward read is that Moshe represents the nation, so that “Why are you crying out to Me” is addressed to Moshe as the nation’s representative. The only problem with this read is that “you” then transitions from “you the nation’s representative” to “you Moshe” without textual hint.

See Tosafot v’hayu.

Here we receive a huge lesson in parenting. The parent who creates a mamzer is responsible for the fact that the mamzer child, frustrated with Judaism, leaves the religion. The same is true for any parent who – by refusing to educate a child properly, or by failing to be a good role model – leads a child to abandon a good path for a bad one.

The gemara’s harei kvar neemar is reversed here, and should not be taken literally; kvar is a reference to a later pasuk, not an earlier one.

See Rashi on the mishnah, and Tosafot O, on the meaning of the word kinui here in the gemara.

Rashi here, Upatarnuhu, says something of crucial importance for society. He explains the case of eglah arufah, saying that if I don’t aid a traveler, so that the traveler then goes hungry, and that traveler then turns to theft and is killed in trying to steal food, then I am responsible for his death. Because I failed to provide proper social services, I am responsible for the needy person’s life of crime. Senator McCain, Senator Obama, are you listening?

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

I'm sending my children to Jewish Hogwarts

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

Today I sent my 7-year old daughter to Hogwarts; my 9-year old son goes later this week. For the former, Hogwarts is a Jewish summer day camp in my in-laws’ community; for the latter, it’s Camp Mesorah in Guilford, New York.

One of the many fascinating Harry Potter themes in the early books is that of the outsider-child who suddenly discovers that he is not alone in his idiosyncrasy, but that there are, in fact, a world of others who resemble him, who do what he does, who know what he knows, and who also live a life that is out-of-step from the masses.

For better or for worse, I’ve never really felt out-of-step. I grew up in New York, went to a Hebrew Academy school and Camp Raleigh and then Camp Morasha, along the way finding many lifestyle-reinforcing peers whose homes, Jewish lives and interests resembled my own. Sure, plenty of local homes displayed December lights and Halloween décor, and of course there were questions of, “Why don’t we do that?” but it was never terribly intense; we had our own circle, and that more than sufficed. I was secure enough that I could ride the LIRR and subway with a gemara and not feel uncomfortable.

Fast-forward to an experience of mine on a YU Summer Kollel (now re-packaged as “Summer Torah Seminars”) in Charleston, South Carolina. A woman described how local Jewish boys had been goggling at some coveted new toy in a store, and one had remarked to another, “I hope my folks get that for me for Christmas,” because he was embarrassed to be heard mentioning Chanukah. (Today, Adam Sandler may have changed all that, but this was pre-Sandler.) I sympathized with the kids, but I couldn’t really understand what was going through those kids’ minds, not having grown up in that environment.

Today, I have a stronger sense of what those kids felt. Thank Gd, we have many young families here for a community of our size, but each of my older children has only 4 or 5 kids in class at school whose Jewish beliefs and practice match our own. I know that in some communities even that number would be significant, but to me it seems small, especially given that it’s only 25%-30% of the total class for each of them. They certainly feel more isolated than I did at their age.

So we’re sending them to Jewish Hogwarts for the summer, to camp experiences where my daughter will have 15 or so bunkmates who live as she does, and where my son will be immersed in a camp of 500+ kids who, by and large, practice as he does. For my daughter the experience will be less intense, as is appropriate for day camp. For my son it will be, I think, a real eye-opener. I’m very curious to see how he will evolve over the course of the summer, and what it might mean when he returns.

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Friday, June 27, 2008

The Politics of Privilege (Derashah: Korach)

After last week's derashah, I just wanted to present a quiet, laid-back dvar torah. Here it is:

At least one element of presidential campaigns is guaranteed: Every four years, one major candidate, if not both, will be accused of being part of a privileged elite. Think George Bush Sr and his surprise at seeing a supermarket scanner, Bill Clinton and his Rhodes Scholarship, John Kerry and his money, or the current President Bush and his oil wealth. Now, Barack Obama is hearing it for his Ivy League education and law career.

We don’t like to entrust authority to a privileged class. As William F. Buckley wrote in 1963, “I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.” We worry about government by people who don’t share our interests and ideals. But, as our parshah shows, that worry is misguided.

Moshe’s life is proof that the privileged can lead, that the trappings of upper class power and prestige do not automatically rob a person of that basic human empathy which enables one descendant of Adam and Chavah to attend, with selfless sensitivity, to the needs of others.

As Korach accurately charged, Moshe was blessed with all manner of privilege - political, priestly and prophetic - but one would be hard-pressed to find a leader who ever cared for his flock as Moshe did, who took more literally than Moshe the responsibility of carrying the nation כאשר ישא האומן את היונק, as a nurse carries a nursling.

This message is brought home in the heart of the book of Bamidbar, as Moshe’s career is contrasted with those of three other parties, each of whom shared some of Moshe’s privileges, but each of whose actions varied sharply from his.

First, we met the Meraglim, the Spies of last week’s parshah, who were introduced as ראשי בני ישראל, leaders of the Jewish people. These were the diplomatic representatives of each tribe, much as Moshe was the representative of the nation. Both they and Moshe were treated with special privilege, and one might have expected their leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

In practice, though, the Meraglim were a leadership bust, surrendering to their most basic fear of the Canaanites, and according to some commentators surrendering to their fear of losing their positions of power. Contrast that cowardice with Moshe’s heroism in wars against various nations, and with Moshe’s willingness to share authority and power with Yehoshua and the elders.

Clearly, political privilege does not determine leadership style.

Second, we meet Korach, who, like Moshe, is a member of the priestly class of Leviyyim. He, like Moshe, is of the Kehat family, who carried the most sacred implements of the Mishkan. Given that he and Moshe are both privileged to be Leviyyim and Kehat descendants, one might have expected Korach’s leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

But, in practice, Korach was selfish, seeking more power for himself. He demanded that Aharon surrender his position as Kohen Gadol, but he never offered to surrender his own special benefits. Contrast that with Moshe’s willingness to offer the priesthood to Korach and his group - Moshe sought nothing for himself.

The privilege of priesthood, then, does not determine leadership style, either.

And then, in two weeks, we will encounter Bilam, who, like Moshe, was a prophet. As the midrash explains, Bilam was specifically given the equivalent of Moshe’s abilities, so that the non-Jewish nations could not protest that they had not been given a Moshe-like leader. Bilam, like Moshe, communicated with Gd easily and frequently, and one might have expected his leadership to resemble that of Moshe.

Instead, we find that Bilam used his prophetic powers for his own aggrandizement, seeking to convince Gd to support his bid to curse the Jews so that he might earn a big payday from his sponsors. Contrast that with Moshe’s insistence of לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי, I have never taken anything, not a single donkey, from the Jewish people.

The privilege of prophecy also does not determine leadership style.

Through these three contrasts, Sefer Bamidbar teaches us that a human being neither gains nor loses his concern for others and or leadership potential because of the gifts of his particular life. Or as J.K. Rowling put it, through the mouth of Albus Dumbledore, “It is our choices that define us far more than our abilities.”

Moshe lives that doctrine, and with all of his class privileges, Moshe’s response to Korach provides textbook instruction on how to sympathize with others: Despite Korach’s obvious selfish phoniness, and despite the very personal nature of Korach’s accusations, Moshe takes Korach’s charges seriously because he knows that among Korach’s followers, both the vocal and the silent, there may be some who are convinced by his questions, who are drawn by the populist rhetoric of “Moshe has arrogated power for himself.” And so Moshe prudently offers Korach’s group a chance to bring incense themselves, even though he knows they are doomed to failure, and so Moshe patiently visits the tents of Korach’s followers to seek peace. This is the behavior of the עניו מכל אדם, the most humble of all, who seeks not to gain but to serve.

The political spin doctors, in urging us to be swayed by the privileges we do not share with specific political candidates, are presenting a misleading doctrine. By dint of common humanity and personal humility, any one of us can see the needs of others, and be motivated to meet those needs. This is the true test of our leaders, and of those who would lead us next.

Note: Buckley's quote is credited to his 1963 work, Rumbles Left and Right, but I have not seen it in the original book.

Daf: Sotah 33-35 - lots happening here

There's a lot going on in these pages; I've just added some notes on a few of the many issues. As always, read with a gemara in front of you, but I have taken a few extra minutes to try to make some of these items comprehensible for those without a gemara.

The gemara says that the entire Torah is supposed to be read in the original Hebrew. Rashi and Tosafot Shantz disagree on the application of that statement, as far as whether it refers to the weekly Torah reading or only to the biblically required Torah readings. Of particular note is the marginal comment on the Tosafot Shantz, suggesting that Parshat Parah is biblical.

Do the angels only speak Hebrew, or do they speak all non-Aramaic languages? See the Maharsha. (And boy is that topic odd – especially as it has halachic ramifications!)


Tosafot and the Maharsha seem to have different explanations of the question of והלא לא ראו את הגלגל – Tosafot מול understands it to be asking that one cannot see Gilgal from Mount Gerizim and Mount Eval, but the Maharsha seems to think it is asking that the Jews cannot see Gilgal from their desert location.

The gemara lists times when Kohanim carried the Aron. See the Gilyon haShas on other times the Aron was carried by Kohanim. The Radak he cites asks and answers as Tosafot וכשהחזירוהו does here.


I would have assumed the “300 mil” number was just an exaggeration, as is the gemara’s evaluation of the distance from earth to the clouds (in other discussions), but Tosafot יותר does not think so.


See Tosafot כחנייתן on the matter of how the Jews crossed the Yarden.

The idea that a person could walk faster than water travels downstream is odd, to say the least. Rashi רבה and Tosafot מר both wrestle with this issue, and develop different solutions.

Regarding the issue of naming someone for an event that has not yet happened (as in the case of נחבי בן ופסי and סתור), see the Maharsha in Berachot on naming Ruth רות for the deeds of her descendant Dovid haMelech. Naming has elements of prophecy associated with it. See also our earlier discussion on Leah naming Yehudah for what he would do in the future.

The gemara here famously describes Moshe re-naming Yehoshua before his espionage mission; the Maharsha says that Yehoshua’s earlier labelling of “Yehoshua” in the Torah is only because his name would be changed later.

See Tosafot אבותי on the question of whether the deceased actually know what is happening in this world – and follow up in that gemara in Berachot 18-19 on this issue, particularly given the comment in the margin here. Based on our liturgy, such as some of the Tisha b’Av kinot, we certainly believe that the deceased do find out what is happening in this world.

See the Aruch on ענק; he renders it as neck.

The Torah Temimah, commenting on the story of the spies, explains why the spies should have suffered particularly from wounds to their tongue and belly, and from the dreaded askerah death. The tongue was for lashon hara. The belly was for slandering Israel, which is seen in the gemara as the navel of the world. Askera is considered an appropriate punishment for lashon hara [but see also Pesachim 105a, where it is also a punishment for eating before havdalah…]

The idea of Dovid being blamed for Uzza’s death, when Uzza acted independently, is reminiscent of an issue discussed in many halachic authorities, of one’s liability for the death of a person who is doing a job for you. The Mahari Weil ruled that one is spiritually liable for the death of a person who is doing a job in his employ, and the issue has been greatly debated since. See Sanhedrin 95, Mahari Weil 125, Maharshal 96, Maharam Lublin 44, Beis Yosef at the end of Choshen Mishpat 188 (on financial liability), Tzemach Tzedek (the earlier) 6, Chasam Sofer 177, Avnei Nezer Yoreh Deah 478.


Rashi’s explanation of בעבר הירדן is interesting; see also Rashbam to Devarim 1:1. There are others who are more troubled by this phrase.

If the Jews are not supposed to accept peace with the Canaanites they encounter, how do we understand Rachav’s survival? Tosafot לרבות gives one answer here, and this approach is seen in Malbim to Yehoshua 2:12 as well. Radak to Yehoshua 6:25 gives a similar answer, saying she converted. On the other hand, Ibn Ezra to Shemot 20:7 says that the oath bound the Jews, despite their mitzvah regarding her.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

To Coach a Committee

I’ve probably sat on a dozen boards, as well as many more committees, over the past dozen years. I've been through the meetings from gehennom, I've doodled on innumerable pads, I've yawned through redundant reports and debates that went nowhere. But I've also seen a lot of good work, and I think I’ve picked up a few things about how to chair these entities, and how to lead organizations in general. It's pretty much common sense, but on the chance that this formulation will help someone, here are my thoughts:

I like to draw an analogy between a committee chair and the coach of a sports team.

I see three requirements for a sports coach, and a committee leader:
1) Know the game
2) Be aware of your role and your limitations
3) Respect your team

First: Know the game
The most celebrated coaches, it seems to me, are students of the game, constantly reviewing video, reading books, analyzing plays. They also plan ahead, sometimes far ahead, studying personnel and schedule and training in order to optimize their team’s function.

The same is true in committee work, I find: A committee chair who doesn’t prepare properly is not only wasting an opportunity; she isn’t coaching well. The best committee chair is the one who understands the committee’s tasks, who studies the committee’s capabilities, who trains committee members, who looks at challenges as well as opportunities and prepares for each.

Second: Be aware of your role and your limitations
Far too many coaches hang on long after they have ceased to be effective, struggle along in bad relationships with the players, and don’t make proper use of their players, or their assistant coaches and staff. The best coaches know their relationships with the players, know when a relationship isn’t working and try to fix it, and delegate properly.

Again, the committee analogy is apt: A committee chair who is disconnected from the committee members, or who does everything himself, or who lets the ball drop because of inappropriate assignment of tasks, is a poor coach. The best committee chairs know how to use their co-workers, how to lead and delegate, and how to step down as well.

Third, and perhaps most important: Respect your team
A coach must respect his team for the time they put in, for the creativity and energy they bring to the table, for the sacrifices they make for the sake of the institution.

We all know committee chairs who do this, as well as committee chairs who don't. The most frustrating chairs, for me, are the ones who don’t plan well, who schedule meetings or projects at their own convenience instead of that of the committee, and who run the actual meetings lackadaisically.

The chairs I have most enjoyed, on the other hand, keep a tight agenda at the meeting itself, do a lot of the meeting-work in between formal meetings by keeping in touch with the participants, and generally show in every communication and action that they respect the time and ideas and effort of the participants.

It’s popular for people to say, “I hate meetings,” and to groan at the announcement of a new committee. I don’t buy into that. I love meetings, and committees – as long as they are done right. Sure, committees and meetings can be a nightmare, but when committees operate well, it’s like watching the Phil Jackson’s Chicago Bulls, or Mark Messier’s New York Rangers (that was not Keenan's team), or Bill Walsh’s 49’ers. Those are teams I want to join.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part III of III

This series of posts summarizes a non-proselytizing talk I delivered at a Conservative Temple a while back, on “Why I am an Orthodox Jew.” I decided to post it after Gil at Hirhurim started posting a series on "Why People Become Orthodox." You can find the latest in that series here.

In Part I I talked about the passion of Orthodoxy, contrasting Kafka’s critical description of his father’s Judaism with Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik’s description of his own, impassioned Torah study experience.

In Part II I talked about the credibility of Orthodoxy’s tradition-bearers and the diversity of Orthodoxy’s appeal and reach.

4) An Intellectual and Practical Challenge
Orthodoxy appeals to me because applying tradition to modernity is a huge challenge.

Orthodoxy requires intellectual breadth and depth, to handle issues as wide-ranging as surrogate motherhood and downloading music from the Internet and genetically modified foods.

Orthodoxy is practically challenging, too, but that is to Orthodoxy’s advantage. Here’s Naomi Schaefer Riley speaking in the Wall Street Journal, in an article entitled "Reviving Judaism":
Religious groups that have grown the fastest in recent years (including Orthodox Judaism) are the ones that demand the most of their adherents, not the ones that offer religion (and refreshments) cafeteria-style.

On the other hand, I look back at Kafka’s comments and see what happens when religion is not challenging.

5) Hope for the future
And, last but not least, Orthodoxy has great hope for the future.

In this I don’t only refer to the standard statistics about the future of each denomination, its intermarriage rates and its rates of disaffection. (Although I do take pleasure in noting Marshall Sklare’s 1955 prediction in “Conservative Judaism: An American Religious Movement” – Orthodox adherents have succeeded in achieving the goal of institutional perpetuation only to a limited extent; the history of their movement in this country can be written in terms of a case study of institutional decay.) I refer also to the way Orthodoxy looks at the future of Judaism, the Jewish people, and the world, at what is, and at what we could make of it.

I refer you to this 1975 talk by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, entitled “Concepts in Jewish Education”:

[Commenting on Genesis 44:19-20, Yehudah speaking to Yosef, viceroy of Egypt: “My master asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or brother?’ And we told my master, ‘We have an aged father and a young child of his old age…’”]

He [the teacher of Rabbi Soloveitchik] said: Joseph was not talking about a visible father…but about a mysterious hidden father… he inquired about existential parenthood, not biological parenthood. Joseph was anxious to discover whether they feel themselves committed to the origin… Do you look upon your father as branches look upon the roots of the tree? Do you look upon your father as the foundation of your existence? Do you look upon him as a provider and sustainer of your existence?...

Are you modest and humble? Do you believe that the old father, who represents the old tradition, is capable of telling you something new, something exciting, something challenging that you did not know before, or are you arrogant, insolent, vain, and demand independence from the father?

He addressed himself to the one who had a reputation as a prodigy, whose father was a blacksmith: Who knows more, Izhik who knows 150 pages of Gemara by heart, or his father Jacob the blacksmith who could hardly read Hebrew, can hardly daven? Are you proud of your father, are you humble? If a Jew admits the supremacy of his father in effect he recognizes also the supremacy of the universal father, who is very, very, very old and is called ‘atik yomin’.

…You can then also interpret in the same manner the second question: “Do you have a brother?”... Does your time awareness encompass the present, or the future as well? Does my existence embrace my parents, family, friends or generations before me? Do you plan not for the world of today, but for the world of tomorrow?

Do you believe in the improbable, in the fantastic? Do you behold a vision to make the improbable and fantastic happen so that it can turn to reality? Do you believe what the future can bring?

The brothers responded: Yes master, we do have a very old father. We feel that we are all deeply rooted in him… Yes master, we have a young talented bright child with a shining eye representing the world of tomorrow. This child is challenging us to make the generations unborn yet possible and to make non-being emerge as something real.

I am Orthodox because I love the fervor.
I am Orthodox because I believe the history of our tradition.
I am Orthodox because I appreciate diversity.
I am Orthodox because I embrace the challenge.
And I am Orthodox because, to paraphrase Rabbi Soloveitchik, I believe in the improbable, in the fantastic. I behold a vision to make the improbable and fantastic happen so that it can become reality. I am Orthodox because I believe in what the future can bring, and in what I can bring to the future.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Daf: Sotah 31-32

Some interesting points here, both in terms of gemara approach and in terms of philosophy. Enjoy, preferably with a gemara in front of you.

The gemara debates whether to read Yeshayah 63:9 as בכל צרתם לא צר or as בכל צרתם לו צר, whether Gd is troubled, or not troubled, when are are troubled. Why doesn’t the gemara point out that the word itself is subject to קרי and כתיב variation in the Masoretic text? We know that קרי and כתיב variants are employed throughout the gemara.

Also: It’s odd that the gemara here omits from the לא-לו discussion the most famous such variant, from Vayyikra 25:30. That variant is discussed in the gemara, just not here.

The gemara here seems to shift gears in its translation of יראה – at first it refers to fear of punishment, but then it seems to shift to awe of Gd. See the Torah Temimah to Devarim 7:10, note טו; he is adamant that יראה as used in this context refers not to fear of punishment, but to awe of Gd.

It seems odd that we would believe a single witness here, particularly one who has an axe to grind. I would remind the reader, though, that this is a case of רגלים לדבר, the equivalent of a driver pulled over for erratic driving, with an open beer in the car. Even before the breathalyzer, there is a circumstantial-evidence argument to support the contention that he was driving drunk. Here, too, קינוי and subsequent סתירה establish a suspicious fact pattern before we ever arrive at the single witness to a sexual act.

Although one may be able to fulfill certain obligatory prayers in English, that’s only fine for the first time or the second – one should still work to learn to daven in the original!

Note that Rashi (at the top) has a different text in our gemara, using the pasuk of ואמר אל האשה.

Rashi here, on ארמי אובד אבי, varies from his commentary on the Torah. On the Torah he assumes that אבי is Yaakov, but here he says it is Lavan who is “my father”! Of course, in his commentary to the Torah he is citing the Sifri and explaining it, and the Sifri varies from our gemara, but I still find his version here very interesting and worth further analysis.

Our gemara here provides one reason for the silent Amidah; the more famous reason is in Berachot 33 or so, from Chanah.

Note that Chullin makes it clear that an observer in the Beit haMikdash will still know which korban a person is bringing, despite the fact that the location for חטאת and עולה are the same. We still try to provide whatever concealment is possible.

Here, once again, we find the tension between public acknowledgement of sin and concealment of error. Yehudah was praised earlier in Sotah for publicly acknowledging error (הודה ולא בוש), but as we have pointed out in earlier Daf comments (such as here), we also say אשרי נשוי פשע כסוי חטאה, better not to admit sin aloud, if the sin is not already commonly known, lest that admission de-sensitize people to wrongdoing.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Condescending Tzedakah Collector

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

[Warning: Rant ahead]

I think it’s safe to say that most people are sensitive to, and do not appreciate, condescension. Our antennae are calibrated when we are children, beginning the first time a patronizing relative, teacher or other adult praises some work of art or scholastic effort with out-of-line rhetoric and soaring accolades which in no way match reality.

We understand that this is an insult to our intelligence, and it is all the more offensive for its attempt at deception.

A great example: A woman once told me how her daughter, as a five or six year old, came to over a period of days with increasingly primitive works of art, until the mother finally gave a less-than-enthusiastic response. The girl told her she had just wanted to see what it would take to get her mother to drop her over-the-top praise.

Personally, I have very little tolerance for patronizing treatment. I’d rather hear an overly harsh critique than receive a let’s-make-him-happy, smile-and-nod response to a class or speech. Aside from its basic insulting character, condescension plays on my insecurities; it makes me wonder what people are really thinking, and just how many of them are thinking it.

Unfortunately, in my line of work I get exactly that treatment, and not infrequently. It comes with being in a position of some authority – people who want something from me may think that flattery is the best way to get it.

So I’ll have someone tell me how wonderful a speech was, as an introduction to asking me to bring in a relative or friend as a speaker.

Or someone will talk about how great things are in the community, as a preface to selling a new initiative.

And the worst are the fundraisers.

A fundraiser was the spur for this post: I recently had a collector from a major yeshiva come through town and spend a few days here. After maariv he came to me and said, "Rabbi, that was just such a beautiful shiur you gave! It was g'shmak-"

I don’t know what else he was going to say, because I cut him off, saying I had to run. I couldn’t stomach it; he was talking about a 3-minute, between-minchah-and-maariv dvar torah, not a class or lecture. What kind of naïve idiot does he think I am?

The same fundraiser wasted a gift of a speaking opportunity by using almost all of his time to tell the community that we always, surprisingly, attract a good class of congregants despite the challenges of our area, we have a nice seudah shlishis in shul, we have children in shul, that we somehow manage to give our children some Judaism, and that we maintain a minyan morning and night... And all of that, here in Allentown, who would have thought?

All of those things are true, frankly, but it was just the way he said it – and no, I don’t think I am being hyper-sensitive, others pointed it out as well – that conveyed to me and to others who were present, “I’m trying to find something good to say before I hit you up for a donation.”

Tell it to me straight. Even better, skip the telling and just make your pitch for what you want. I’ll respond a lot better for it.

[End of rant]

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part II

Again: This comes from a non-proselytizing talk I delivered at a Conservative Temple a while back, on “Why I am an Orthodox Jew.”

In Part I I talked about the passion of Orthodoxy, contrasting Kafka’s critical description of his father’s Judaism with Rav Y.D. Soloveitchik’s description of his own, impassioned Torah study experience.

2) Credibility
Beyond the passion of Orthodoxy, I find Orthodoxy more credible, by dint of its tradition and of those who have conveyed the tradition.

It seems clear to me that there must be a tradition accompanying and explaining the Torah’s text, for everything - even the ability to identify letters and words - requires a tradition. This is true for any published text, and certainly for one conveyed across generations, cultures and continents.

Hillel said as much in his conversation with a would-be convert who didn’t want to know about rabbinic teachings (Shabbat 31a):

A non-Jew came to Shammai and asked, ‘How many Torahs do you have?’
To which Shammai replied, ‘Two: The written Torah and the spoken Torah.’
The man said, ‘I trust you for the written Torah, but for the spoken Torah I do not. Convert me on condition that you will teach me the written Torah.’
Shammai rebuked him and removed him angrily.
The man came to Hillel, who agreed to convert him.
On the first day Hillel taught him א ב ג ד.
The next day, Hillel reversed them.
The man said to him, ‘Yesterday you didn’t say that!’
Hillel replied, ‘Aren’t you relying on me for this? So, too, rely on me for the spoken Torah.’

This point has been made many times since the days of Hillel, and it remains true today.

More than that, though, I trust those who have conveyed the Torah, because of their expertise in it. That Abbaye and Rava are able to speak to issues of law and ethics in all of the diverse areas they address, as can their predecessors and their students, with an incredible breadth of knowledge at their fingertips and an incisive analytic ability they bring to bear on every page and line, demonstrates their expertise in the Torah they conveyed to us.

3) Diversity of Appeal
The third of my five reasons is the Diversity of Orthodoxy.

I hear a lot about how Orthodoxy seems so monolithic, but that’s far, far removed from the truth. Orthodoxy is not a rigid set of rules; rather, it’s an approach of respecting tradition and applying it to modern situations. And because it isn’t a set of specific rules, it encourages diversity bounded by tradition.

The following beliefs are all legitimately Orthodox:

Every woman should have the right to choose an abortion
The American government should prohibit abortion

Jews should get together with Christians to discuss issues of mutual interest
Jews and Christians should not get together for such discussions

The Israeli government should be willing to trade land for the sake of achieving peace
Land in Israel should never be given away

We have great diversity in Orthodox personalities: Poets and Pietists, Exegetes and Literalists, Mystics and Rationalists, Intellectual elitists and Populists.

All sorts of isms exist within Orthodoxy – Zionism as well as Anti-Zionism, Feminism, Humanitarianism – and their common denominator is that Orthodox approach of applying tradition to modern situations.

Often within the same personality we find great breadth:
Rambam – Doctor, Philosopher and Talmid Chacham
R’ Yosef Karo – Mystic and Legalist
Sara Schnierer – Outspoken advocate for women’s education and tz’nuah eishet chayil
(In fact, this diversity is so broad that it gives us problems – we have all kinds, even Neturei Karta.)

There are Orthodox communities which emphasize Torah study, there are Orthodox communities which emphasize Prayer and closeness to Gd, and there are Orthodox communities which emphasize social work.

I know there is diversity in Conservative, in Reform, etc. But, to me, this is a different kind of diversity; it’s diversity in which all spring from the same tradition and are trying to fit into that tradition, and are finding a place for their uniqueness.

More to come in the exciting conclusion, Part III.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Daf: Sotah 27-30

Most of this is pretty technical and will appeal only to people who are already learning Sotah. Still, there are more general comments here and there.

Our mishnah lists chiddushim (novel lessons) introduced on the day R’ Elazar ben Azaryah took over from Rabban Gamliel in the beit midrash. It is not coincidental that R’ Yehoshua figures strongly in this mishnah – he was squelched at times by Rabban Gamliel, and one of those incidents was what led to R’ Elazar ben Azaryah taking over.

It’s interesting to see R’ Akiva involved in aggadata, non-legalistic gemara; at times (such as Sanhedrin 38b), sages rebuke him saying that he would be better off in legal analysis, saying כלך אצל נגעים ואהלות!

The use of לאמר on this page as “To repeat” is interesting. We have 3 other definitions for לאמר:
1) Tell this to others;
2) “Saying” (as in, “This was the message, saying…)
3) בדרך דרש, the gemara in Yoma 4b parses לאמר as לאו אמור, meaning, “Don’t repeat what you are told, unless you are told explicitly, ‘אמור Say it’.”

At the end of the mishnah, it appears that ירא אלקים is used to refer to fearing punishment rather than being in awe of Gd. [We’ll discuss this more, Gd-willing, on 31a when the gemara returns to the topic.]

At the top of the page: The gemara suggests that the Sotah water will not affect a woman unless her husband is innocent of sin. Rashi takes this as a sin related to her Sotah process – his having lived with her after the סתירה. Ramban, though, is broader, taking it as any sin of sexual impropriety.

The attempts at a קל וחומר logical argument are quite difficult here, from the perspective of logic. We compare food, which is a שני or שלישי or touched by a טבול יום and is therefore, itself, disqualified from use, with a person who is a טבול יום or מחוסר כפרה and there he disqualifies items he touches. The two are not really comparable. Further, in the argument on 29b to deduce from מחוסר כפרה to שלישי food, the fact that a מחוסר כפרה cannot eat from a קרבן is not because of טומאה, but rather it is from his ritual ineligibility due to the fact that he has not brought his קרבן!

It appears that they never answer R’ Yochanan’s question in this discussion.

Note that in the middle of the page our gemara plays an interesting switch, changing the way we define the numbers of ראשון, שני, שלישי. Instead of looking at them the normal way, as counting the distance from the original טמא entity, we now look at them by what they can generate – how many layers of טומאה can emanate from them.

The word לא at the start of the third line should be לאו to be Aramaically consistent.

See Tosafot מר on whether the law of Techum Shabbat is biblical, and what might be the source פסוק.

On the last line, the word עוברים should be עוברין to be Aramaically consistent.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Of Myanmar and Canaan: Ethnic Cleansing or Termination of an Unworthy Society? (Derashah: Shelach)

I know this will be a controversial speech, but I've wanted to speak about this for years. So here goes!

The forty years we spent in the desert were a disaster for us - an entire generation of Jewish men died, and everyone else waited to enter Israel. But to another population - the Canaanites - those forty years were a reprieve, a last breath of survival before the Jewish people entered and launched a series of wars which we call כיבוש הארץ but they would have called Ethnic Cleansing.

“Ethnic Cleansing” - some prefer Genocide - sounds harsh, but think about it: The Torah instructs the Jews as they enter Israel, “לא תכרת להם ברית ולא תחנם, Do not make a covenant with the Canaanites and do not show them favor,” but instead go to war with them. This sounds like a blueprint for the massacre of an indigenous population, and the wholesale takeover of their land.
How do we justify this? How do we hold up our beautiful Torah as a light unto ourselves, let alone the nations?

Some address this problem by pointing to Yehoshua’s warnings - the sages teach that Yehoshua sent messengers into Israel before we crossed the Yarden River, offering the chance for native Canaanite tribes to move out or to accept the Noachide laws. Indeed, the Girgashi fled the land. Rachav’s family, in Yericho, is an example of a clan that accepted Yehoshua’s terms.

But this doesn’t really address the problem: Fundamentally, what gave us the right to enter a land and forcibly evict its societies?

Here is a fundamental Torah principle: Individuals, by definition of their basic humanity, have an automatic right to life - and so do societies. And just as individuals have laws by which they are obligated to live, so societies are judged by their adherence to certain laws - and just as individuals are punished for violation of the law, so societies are punished for their violations of law.

Individuals have a right to life and dignity which stems back to our common parentage of Adam and Chavah. As the classic work Metzudat Dovid records, “All of us are brothers because all of us come from the same womb, that of Chavah.”

All of us, Jew and non-Jew, regardless of nationality or race or gender or anything else, are created בצלם אלקים, in the image designated for us by Gd, and therefore, as the Rambam wrote, we are obligated to treat every human being with basic כבוד, basic respect. A human being’s life must be honored, even if he is not particularly wonderful.

However, every person is also charged with fulfilling the basic Noachide laws - Not to murder, not to steal, not to worship idols, not to practice sexual immorality, not to blaspheme against Gd, not to eat meat that came from a live animal, and to help create a system of justice - and violation of those laws carries with it harsh penalties.

The Torah applies the same combination of respect and responsibility to societies:
• The seven Noachide laws center around the logical steps for building proper societies.
• We are taught that HaShem waited 26 generations to give the Torah, in order to provide humanity with time to learn to get along together first.
• We are taught that HaShem honored the unity of the people who built the Tower of Bavel, and spared their lives, even though they had built the Tower for the sake of rebellion against HaShem!

But societies, like individuals, are held to moral standards. As the gemara explains, “When HaShem saw that the nations did not keep the Noachide laws they had been commanded, He exiled them from their land.” This Exile is a nation’s death knell - for almost every nation in the history of mankind, exile from its land has meant dissolution of the national identity. Exile is the Death Penalty, writ large. And the Torah believes in a Death Penalty not only for individuals, but also for societies.

This may sound harsh, but it actually reflects the beliefs of most human beings in America, and worldwide.

Think back a few weeks to the polygamist sect in Texas, accused of abusing young girls. By what right did the government break them up? They didn’t meet the criteria of a basic society.

Or think globally: This was the basis for opposition to the government of the former Soviet Union, and it is the basis for the opposition to China today. Think of Myanmar, and the government which was so concerned about its own survival that it did not allow in rescue workers, that it barred humanitarian aid from suffering children. You saw the pictures of the devastation - Who among us would not want to see that government dissolved, that society re-worked entirely?

Indeed, naive trust in government led the America administration to push for democratic elections among the Palestinian Arabs a couple of years ago, and they got Hamas in return - because not every government deserves to rule.

The Torah shows us the same lesson, repeatedly; as Ramban wrote, the purpose of the entire book of Bereishis is this lesson, to teach us what HaShem rewards and what HaShem punishes.
We watch Noach’s world sink into חמס, into abuse and kidnapping and theft, and HaShem says, “This society does not have the right to survive.”

We see the city of Sdom display barbaric cruelty to strangers, and HaShem says, “See that? This society does not deserve to survive, either.”

We see it among Jews, too - Korach’s crew is condemned to die, and so are the men who follow the Meraglim in our parshah. Social obligations are across the board, for Jew as much - or more than - for non-Jew.

Which returns us to the Canaanites, a set of populations whose eponymous ancestor mocked his disgraced grandfather Noach, who displayed sexual immorality regarding Sarah and Rivkah, who cheated Avraham when selling him a grave for Sarah and who destroyed Yitzchak’s wells, who displayed cruelty in Shechem in their treatment of Dina and did not bring a rapist to justice, who worshipped the many gods of their pagan system - in short, who violated pretty much every one of the Noachide laws - until Gd decreed, “Enough.”

This is the invasion which the Torah justifies - not an act of ethnic cleansing, not an act of genocide, but an act of justice against a society which had long ceased to respect what the Torah considers a responsible ethical code.

HaShem said to Avraham, hundreds of years before bringing the Jews to the land, “The fourth generation of your exiled descendants will return to this land” - but not until then. Why? כי לא שלם עון האמורי עד הנה, because the Emorites do not yet deserve to vanish; their sin is not yet at a level warranting their national dissolution.

HaShem told the Jews themselves in the desert, לא בצדקתך וביושר לבבך אתה בא לרשת את ארצם, כי ברשעת הגויים האלה - You are not acquiring this land because you are so wonderful, so righteous. Rather, HaShem has decided that this society of cruelty must cease to exist, and you are the tool by which HaShem will achieve that end.

That explains the Torah’s view of ancient conquest - but I am still bothered by the ramifications today: Where is the limit for us, today, to keep us from using this biblical text as justification for international violence? What will prevent us from emulating the Muslim genocides of the 7th century, or the Crusader massacres of the 11th century? Those people also thought Gd had authorized them!

To me, the answer is in the system itself, in the Torah’s own standards and expectations, on two levels:

First, in the standard we set for going to war: If war is simply a land grab, an attempt to aggrandize our kings and enrich our treasuries, then we are as ugly as those other nations I just mentioned, guilty of ethnic cleansing and genocide in the worst way. The standard must be that which is set by Gd in the Torah - which is why, halachically, the Jewish nation is not permitted to go to war without the authorization of the Sanhedrin, the high court, as well as the prophecy of the אורים ותומים, and why the army was led not by expert warriors but by a specially appointed Kohen Gadol.

And second, but perhaps more important, is the standard we set for ourselves: Our conduct, not just in war but in our day-to-day national function, must meet the highest standard, lest we be as guilty as those we uproot. Even in war, which brings out the worst in people, our soldiers are expected to conduct themselves morally. And in peace we are expected to build a society which will be the moral envy of the world. The greatest refutation of our critics, the greatest response to those who read the wars of Bamidbar and Devarim and Yehoshua and cry “Genocide,” is the ethical, moral, enlightened society we create in times of peace.

Sometimes Jews become impatient with what we see in Israel, with flaws of society, the same problems which plague nations everywhere. But this rejection of what Zecharyah called the יום קטנות, the “day of small things,” would be short-sighted.

Rav Leibele Eiger noted that in our parshah, the Canaanites are repeatedly described as העם היושב בה, and העם היושב עליה, the nation that lives in this land. This land is no longer theirs; the land is due to transition from ארץ כנען, Land of the Canaanites, to ארץ ישראל, the land of Israel. But the name ארץ ישראל doesn’t actually appear until the book of Shemuel, centuries after the Jews cross the Yarden. It took a long time to earn the title.

Gd-willing, there will come a day when all of us will make aliyah, when all of us will reclaim our portion in the land. On that great day, which I daven will be soon, we will face the same society-building challenge that was put before our ancestors 3400 years ago. If we remember the lessons of the Torah about what HaShem condemns and punishes and what HaShem desires and rewards, about society’s worth and society’s responsibility, then we will merit to help build a land worthy of that title, ארץ ישראל.



1. Metzudat Dovid is to Iyyov 31:15. The "26 generations" is from Avot d'R' Natan. Ramban's note is to the beginning of Bereishit. Yehoshua's warnings are mentioned in Yerushalmi Sheviit 6:1. The "day of small things" is from Zecharyah 4:10. R' Leibele Eiger is cited in Mishlei Chasidim al haTorah to Parshat Sh'lach. The first mention of ארץ ישראל in Tanach is Shemuel I 6:5, but see also Yehoshua 11:22.

2. Re: Noachide laws, see the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin, where there seem to be more than 7 on the list.

3. R' Saadia Gaon is the one who observed that the 7 Noachide laws are essential to building a society.

4. Ibn Ezra has a very different version of the Tower of Bavel.

5. The gemara about exiling the nations for failing to fulfill the 7 mitzvot is in Bava Kama 38a. There is a different take in Avodah Zarah 2b, which talks about the mitzvot the nations accepted and did not practice, and how the nations lose reward for those mitzvot they fulfill - but do not receive Exile as a punishment. Apparently, failure to fulfill mitzvot they have accepted means they lose גר תושב status and so lose their special reward. Failure to fulfill mitzvot they have been commanded means they lose all status and are forced to cease to exist.

6. Perhaps Dovid haMelech's military advice on Berachot 3b was about Canaanites?

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Orthodoxy? Part I

Gil at Hirhurim is running a series of views on Why people choose Orthodoxy, starting here. His theme reminds me of a talk I gave at a Conservative synagogue a couple of years ago. They invited in a series of rabbis from different approaches – Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist and Reform – to talk about why they follow the approaches they do. I had the unenviable task of giving the first week’s presentation, but I did end up enjoying it. I have an audio recording somewhere... I'll have to see if I can dig it up.

Disclosure: Technically, I didn’t “choose” Orthodoxy – I grew up in an Orthodox home, and have varied from that Orthodoxy only to go a little to the left or right. However, I have chosen Orthodoxy insofar as I choose to continue to live this life in this way, every day, and I used my session to explain why I do that.

And one more important point: The goal was not to proselytize. I didn't go out there telling people to be one thing and not another. I am quite aware that some of the things I described about Orthodoxy exist elsewhere, in Judaism and beyond, and sometimes in stronger doses than exist in my own Orthodox life. My purpose was only to answer the question: "Why am I Orthodox?"

I started out with the story of a woman who goes into a post office and asks for a book of stamps for her Chanukah cards.
The clerk asks, “What denomination?”
“Oh, good heavens!” she replies. “Have we come to this?! Well, all right, give me 50 Conservative, 2 Orthodox, 37 Reform and 11 Reconstructionist.”

I continued to explain the five major attractions I feel in Orthodoxy:
-Its dynamic energy and fervor
-Its credibility
-Its diversity
-Its intellectual and practical challenges
-Its vision for the future

1) Dynamic Energy and Fervor
I cited Franz Kafka’s essay (“My Father’s Bourgeois Judaism” a.k.a. "Letter to My Father") on the Judaism of his youth, in which he wrote the following to his father:

Four days a year you went to the synagogue, where you were, to say the least, closer to the indifferent than to those who took it seriously, patiently went through the prayers as a formality, sometimes amazed me by being able to show me in the prayer book the passage that was being said at the moment, and for the rest, so long as I was present in the synagogue (and this was the main thing) I was allowed to hang around wherever I liked.
And so I yawned and dozed through the many hours (I don't think I was ever again so bored, except later at dancing lessons) and did my best to enjoy the few little bits of variety there were, as for instance when the Ark of the Covenant was opened, which always reminded me of the shooting galleries where a cupboard door would open in the same way whenever one hit a bull's-eye; except that there something interesting always came out and here it was always just the same old dolls without heads….
That's how it was in the synagogue; at home it was, if possible, even poorer, being confined to the first Seder, which more and more developed into a farce, with fits of hysterical laughter, admittedly under the influence of the growing children…
How one could do anything better with that material than get rid of it as fast as possible, I could not understand; precisely the getting rid of it seemed to me to be the devoutest action.

In contrast, I see great passion in the beliefs and practice of today’s Torah-observant Jews, across a spectrum that runs from the Charedim of Bnei Brak to the JOFAs of Manhattan.

Listen to Rav Soloveitchik’s famous words on the passion in teaching Torah today (you can find more here):
The old Rabbi walks into the classroom crowded with students who are young enough to be his grandchildren. He enters as an old man with a wrinkled face, his eyes reflecting the fatigue and sadness of old age.
The Rabbi is seated and sees before him rows of young, beaming faces, clear eyes radiating the joy of being young. For a moment, the Rabbi is gripped with pessimism, with tremors of uncertainty. He asks himself, "Can there be a dialogue between an old teacher and young students, between a Rabbi in his Indian summer and students enjoying the spring of their lives?" The Rabbi starts the class in Talmud, uncertain as to how it will proceed.

Suddenly, the door opens and an old man, much older than the Rabbi, enters. He is the grandfather of the Rabbi, Reb Chaim Brisker… The door opens again and another old man comes in. He is older than Reb Chaim, for he lived in the seventeenth century. His name is Reb Shabtai Cohen, known as the Shach, who must be present when civil law is discussed. Many more visitors arrive, some from the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries, and others harking back to antiquity--Rabbenu Tam, Rashi, Rambam, Raavad, Rashba, Rabbi Akiva, and others. These scholarly giants of the past are bidden to take their seats.
The Rabbi introduces the guests to his pupils, and the dialogue commences. The Rambam states a halacha; the Raavad disagrees sharply, as is his wont. Some students interrupt to defend the Rambam, and they express themselves harshly against the Raavad, as young people are apt to do. The Rabbi softly corrects the students and suggests more restrained tones. The Rashba smiles gently. The Rabbi tries to analyze what the students meant, and other students intercede. Rabbenu Tam is called upon to express his opinion, and, suddenly, a symposium of generations comes into existence. Young students debate earlier generations with an air of daring familiarity, and a crescendo of discussion ensues.
All speak one language; all pursue one goal; all are committed to a common vision and all operate within the same categories. A mesora collegiality is achieved, a friendship, a comradeship of old and young, spanning antiquity, the Middle Ages, and modern times. This joining of the generations, this merger of identities will ultimately bring about the redemption of the Jewish people. It will fulfill the words of the last of the Hebrew prophets, Malachi, "And he [Elijah] shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the heart of the children to their fathers" (3:24). The Messianic realization will witness the great dialogue of the generations.

After a two or three-hour class, the Rebbe emerges from the chamber young and rejuvenated. He has defeated age. The students look exhausted. In the mesora experience--giving over from generation to generation--years play no role. Hands, however parchment-dry and wrinkled, embrace warm and supple hands in a commonalty, bridging the gap which separates the generations.

Continued in Part II and Part III.

Daf: Sotah 22-26

Most of the notes on these pages are technical in nature. The casual reader may find some of the notes on 22b and 26a interesting, though.

As always: Best read with a gemara in front of you.

The term צליינית seems to me to come from the same Aramaic root as leads to צלותא, meaning “prayer.”

In the line בתולה דנפלה it should say either בתולה שנפלה or בתולתא דנפלה. It’s either Hebrew or Aramaic, not a mix.

When people say one does not understand his rebbe “until 40 years,” they usually take that as the age of 40 – but see Tosafot, who says it’s 40 years from the time one begins learning. This is important because in the 17th century (starting with the Shach to Yoreh Deah 246:6, I believe) the age of 40 was given as the earliest age to study Kabbalah. If the source is our gemara, then it should be from forty years after one begins learning Torah.

The gemara here is quite concerned about the appearance of self-righteousness. In general, we call this יוהרא; it is brought in halachah in terms of such practices as bowing very low for Modim and taking on extra fasts.

Tosafot לעולם has his famous discussion here (and in four other places) regarding the value of engaging in Torah and mitzvot for the sake of personal gain [good], as opposed to doing so for the sake of gaining power over others [very, very bad].

See Tosafot כל. The initial assumption is that Rashi is referring to a husband’s obligation to fulfill his wife’s korban obligation, but he concludes that Rashi was actually referring to the husband’s rike in ownership of the korban.

See Rashi vs. Tosafot on the difference between the titles of איילונית, עקרה and אינה ראויה לילד. Tosafot assumes that Rashi defines עקרה as a woman who consumed a potion meant to keep her from bearing children, but this is difficult – Rashi on 25b אבל איילונית says that עקרה is the result of a physical wound!

This is strange – Rav Nachman on 25b presented a דברי הכל universal view regarding איילונית, but on 26a (middle of the page) he acknowledges that this is actually a debate among the Tannaim. I haven’t seen anyone comment on this here, but see Tosafot Sanhedrin 2b where Rabbi Avahu does this and Tosafot discusses it.

Don’t be surprised about the preference for male children; as the gemara elsewhere explains, this was an economic preference – the males were the ones who would be the primary wage-earners, and parents expected their children to support them in their old age.

Re: the skin color preference, it is clear in various sources that the Jews of that period, like people of any period, preferred their own appearance as the ideal aesthetic. See, of course, Rashi, Ibn Ezra and Rashbam on Bamidbar 12 regarding the אשה כושית. See also Abarbanel on Bereishit 10 and Amos 9:7, and Ibn Ezra and Radak to Amos 9:7. See also Midrash Tanchuma to Noach, 13.

There is a lot of discussion re: the סריס at the bottom of the page here; Rashi on our Mishnah contradicts Rashi in the Gemara. See Tosafot. See the Rashash, who seems to go with Rashi on our mishnah as opposed to Rashi on our Gemara.

Note the different views in Rashi and Tosafot on שחוף.

I was troubled by the fact that here it seems the husband’s קינוי warning must specify a sexual act, but since the beginning of Sotah we have defined קינוי as “אל תסתרי עם איש פלוני,” “Don’t be alone with that man!” I sent this question to R’ Mordechai Kornfeld’s Kollel l’Iyun haDaf, and they pointed me to Rashi Yevamot 55b, where he writes that “Don’t be alone” is presumed, by default, to refer to “being alone for the sake of a sexual act.” That is valid – as opposed to a warning which specifies a non-sexual act.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Permission [not] to believe - a congregant

Even in my eleventh year in the pulpit, I’m still finding surprises.

Recently, I was meeting with someone regarding a social conflict. Changing some facts and names, here is a brief rundown of this run-of-the-mill case: Abernathy claims that Bernard insulted him at a public event. Abernathy and Bernard are both congregants of mine. Abernathy came to me talk about the situation.

For a good 45 minutes, Abernathy described what had happened, the history, how hurt he and his children were, the ramifications, the things he could/should/ought/might do in the wake of this public insult, etc. I mostly listened.

After the description was over, I asked a few questions and then began to discuss practical steps Abernathy could take – at which point Abernathy interjected, “Wait a minute - you’re not allowed to take sides. You’re not supposed to believe me, are you?

This was a first for me: Generally, people assume I will/should/must believe their version of events, by dint of their own honesty as well as our historical relationship. If I were to say, “You know, I can’t really accept lashon hara,” or, “Of course there is another side to this story as well,” many (most?) people would be rather insulted, and not understand my point. Which is why Abernathy’s permission not to believe took me by surprise.

Even within my own mind, I have difficulty not believing people when they speak to me. They present stories with such emotion and sincerity that it’s hard to remember that this is only one side of the story. A business owner describing a competitor’s actions, a wife talking about her husband, a teenage child complaining about parental conduct – it’s very hard to listen to stories of victimhood without naturally gravitating to the alleged victim’s tale. Still, I do work on keeping an element of skepticism, because at the end of the day, the person telling the story is still only one side. There’s a reason why judges on a beit din are not permitted to hear one side without the other present.

So, as Abernathy pointed out, I do work to maintain neutrality – but I don’t explicitly inform people that I am taking their words with a grain of salt. I listen and advise sympathetically, as best I can, based upon the party’s story and what I perceive to be the party’s best interests.

It was very considerate of Abernathy to recognize my obligation to be a neutral agent. I hope there are more Abernathys out there than I realized.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Daf: Sotah 20-21

[Haveil Havalim is out here!]

Some interesting items here - in particular the note from the Maharatz Chajes on 20a and the comments on 21b on women's learning. As always: Please read with a gemara.

The word תפלות does not lend itself to easy translation. One could read it as a form of תפל, meaning bland, as in רוק תפל which is mentioned in the gemara for certain laws. The standard translations are “cunning” or “sexual immorality,’ but their etymologies are not clear to me.

Rabbi Yishmael’s warning to Rabbi Meir about taking care with each letter in writing a Torah is hard to undersand. The Maharsha on Tosafot in Eruvin 13a seems to say that this is either about causing heretical misunderstandings of Torah by making a mistake with a letter, or about making a mistake in one of the Divine Names. However, from Rabbi Meir’s response it appears that Rabbi Yishmael’s comment was not about about the Divine Name, specifically. This is also clear in Rashi ומשוי ליה רי"ש.
The Maharatz Chajes, on the other hand, takes this story entirely differently – it’s not about writing a Torah, but about writing explanatory references in the margins of the Torah. See his comments inside.

See Tosafot יש from the Yerushalmi.

Rashi on the whole page here is a must-read.

Rashi לכבות את האהבה connects wine, Torah and סוד (secrets). For a similar connection see the title of Rav Pappa on Niddah 12a-b – he is called סודני, either because he is a talmid chacham or because he is a beer-maker.

See Tosafot זה.

The word מככה eight lines up from the bottom ought to be מכבה, obviously.

It’s funny to see Rav Yosef say that R’ Menachem bar Yosi explained a pasuk “like Sinai” – Rav Yosef himself is termed “Sinai” (for his encyclopedic knowledge) in Berachot 64a.

See the Maharsha on בוז יבוזו לו.

See Tosafot רוצה. This is an observation on basic human nature – people would prefer to have their family home together more, and make less money.

Of course, the concern that learning will be misappropriated applies for both genders (hence the law that one may not teach a תלמיד שאינו הגון, a student who displays poor character). However, with a male there is a basic obligation for him to learn the whole Torah, whereas she “only” is required to learn practical law and everything related to Jewish thought.

The Rabbanan here (seven lines down) seem to follow Ben Azzai, so it’s not clear why all of the ספרי הלכה cite R’ Eliezer as the law?

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Ran, Beit Yosef rule: Conversion is Desirable, for the sake of the Convert

One of the major questions in the battle pitting R’ Avraham Shirman’s rabbinical court against R’ Chaim Druckman’s conversion courts is this: Is Conversion a Jewish value? Is it something we should pursue, for the good of Jewish society – particularly for the many thousands of non-Jews who immigrated to Israel from the former Soviet Union, and particularly in an age of rampant intermarriage?

R’ Shirman does acknowledge that the gemara calls conversion a mitzvah, and he discusses two views as to the nature of this mitzvah:
1) Love of Gd (as one increases the love of Gd), or
2) Love of the Convert (because the convert already deserves special love once [s]he has declared an intention of abandoning other beliefs and accepting Judaism, even pre-conversion).

Various judges on R’ Druckman’s conversion courts have contended that conversion is important for the future of the Jewish community.

Among them, R’ David Bass has written eloquently that closing the doors to a convert today is an act of opening gates to assimilation, and therefore conversion is a public need. He recently added to that, saying, “Conversion should not be seen solely as the interest of the non-Jewish immigrant looking to integrate into Israeli society, it is also an existential imperative of the State of Israel as we enter the 21st century.”

In the former, Conversion is a value because it helps us, the convert’s enablers, to fulfill our imperatives. In the latter, Conversion is a value because it helps Jewish society. Neither of these approaches, though, looks at Conversion through the eyes of the Convert.

The Ran (Gittin, 49b בדפי הרי"ף), cited by the Beit Yosef (Choshen Mishpat 1 ומסקינן), presents a third approach: Conversion is of value for the גר - and that value is also of halachah importance to us.

The Ran introduces this into a discussion of the status of judges today: The original סמיכה, the original form of ordination, no longer exists – it ceased to exist somewhere around the 5th century. However, unordained judges are able to continue to serve in roles which should require ordination, acting as the proxies of the original, ordained judges (אנן שליחותייהו עבדינן). The basic rule is that judges can function as such proxies in cases which are (1) common, and (2) of great value.

The Ran argues that this is the basis for post-ordination conversion, even though conversion is not considered a common circumstance. He writes, “להכניס אדם תחת כנפי השכינה אע"ג דלא שכיח עדיף טפי ממונא דשכיח” – “Introducing a person beneath the wings of the Shechinah, even though it is uncommon, is of greater value than restoring financial loss.” And the simple read of his comment is that it is of greater value to the convert, personally.

We see, then, that the Ran – cited by no less than Rav Yosef Karo – recognizes that we are able to function as judges, only because we are helping the גר to convert.

It seems to me that this source should enter today’s Conversion controversy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Derashah: Behaalotcha - Ode to the Humble Shul Board Member

This week is our shul's annual meeting and election of officers, and one of the goals of this derashah is to honor those who serve on our shul board.

Now we’re down to two, Senators McCain and Obama, both claiming to have the tools of leadership, both claiming to be men of integrity, both claiming unyielding commitment to the good of this country. How do we choose between them?

We might choose based on track record. We might choose based on specific issues - Israel, healthcare, education, defense, etc. From a close reading of our parshah, though, I see one more criteria: The best leader is the one who knows his own inadequacies.

We naturally gravitate to humble leaders, and that’s one reason these candidates have made it this far, but selecting humble leadership is about more than human psychology - it’s a religious ideal writ large in the life of Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest leader we've ever known.

Moshe Rabbeinu, in the first two years of his career, resigned no fewer than three times - each time due to his own feelings of inadequacy for the task at hand.

• The first time was in the desert, at the סנה בוער באש, the Burning Bush, when he said, מי אנכי כי אלך אל פרעה, Who am I to address the Pharaoh, who am I to lead an exodus from Mitzrayim?

• The second time was after the חטא העגל, the Golden Calf, when HaShem threatened to destroy the nation and begin again with Moshe, and Moshe said, “Better to kill me, too,” for I have failed as their leader.

• And the third time is in our parshah, when the Jews complain about their desert life and Moshe declares to Gd, “I can’t take care of this nation; if you’re going to have me continue in this job, just take my life now!”

Three attempted resignations, all surrounding the same theme: Moshe felt he could not serve the nation’s needs.

Moshe’s humble approach to leadership continues when he is told to share his authority with other elders. HaShem says explicitly that these new leaders will diminish Moshe’s status; He says, ואצלתי מן הרוח אשר עליך ושמתי עליהם, I will take some of the Divine inspiration that has been yours, and place it upon them. But Moshe wholeheartedly embraces the concept - he has no fear of sharing authority to aid the nation.

Second, the midrash records that two brothers, Eldad and Meidad, proclaimed in the midst of the Jewish camp that Moshe would die, and Gd would appoint Yehoshua as the next leader. Yehoshua himself, horrified, turned to Moshe and pleaded “כלאם, Jail them!” But Moshe replied, “I wish all of the nation would become prophets!”

Moshe has no fear of his own demise and the end of his reign; he leads at the convenience of the people, as determined by Gd, and he is fully prepared to see the end of his reign come.

It is this humility, this sense of his own abilities and their limits, that makes Moshe fit to lead. It is not for nothing that Moshe is described as עניו מכל האדם אשר על פני האדמה, the most humble man on earth.

Later Jewish leaders also exemplified this trait:

When שמואל הנביא came to coronate Shaul, the prophet couldn’t find him. He inquired, Where is this man? And he was told, הנה הוא נחבא אל הכלים, Him? He’s hiding out in the shed. Shaul considered himself unworthy, so much so that people questioned the wisdom of Shemuel’s decision, saying, מה יושיענו זה, this is the one who is going to save us?!

Fast-forward to the selection of Dovid haMelech, and again, Shemuel comes to anoint a new king, but the new king is nowhere to be found. All of Yishai’s sons are present, but Dovid is out with the sheep; he doesn’t imagine himself a king.

I might think that a leader would specifically need to lack humility; how can a person guide others, if he isn’t sure of himself? But humility is important in a leader for two reasons: Practicality, and Religion.

First, Practicality: Humility limits the possibility that a leader will ignore the needs and input of others.

Rabbi Yochanan prescribed, in the name of R’ Shimon ben Yehotzadak: אין מעמידין פרנס על הציבור אלא אם כן קופה של שרצים תלויה לו מאחוריו, we don’t appoint a leader unless he has some embarrassment lurking in the shadows, something which will remind him of his own weaknesses, to keep him in line.

Writing in 13th century France, R’ Menachem Meiri expanded on that theme, writing, “We do not appoint a leader unless he is known to be עניו ושפל רוח וסבלן, humble and patient, because he will need to function in different ways for different constituencies and be loved by each of them, each according to its own needs. And if they cannot find such a person, and they must appoint אבירי לב ועזי מצח, people of tougher, brasher spirit, they should be careful not to appoint people who are too arrogant, such that they believe they will hold that power forever, and that they are the best-suited for the job.”

Second, Religion: Humility recognizes that the leader is not selected based on his own righteousness, but rather based upon a Divine plan.

HaShem told Moshe as much when He said to Moshe at the סנה, You go lead, ואנכי אהיה עם פיך ועם פיהו, I will be with you and with Aharon, to help you do the job. Esther recognized the same thing, insisting on national prayer before she would venture to approach Achashverosh on behalf of the nation.

Judaism does believe in the Divine Right of the King, but not as a product of the king’s personal virtue; rather, HaShem has deemed the leader the person of the moment, and HaShem is the source of his every triumph.

So when it comes to choosing a leader, we seek not only flights of rhetoric or decorated military careers, wonkish brilliance or legions of experienced advisers. Atop all of these qualities, we seek a leader who understands that he serves at the convenience of Gd and the nation, and who believes - truly, sincerely, authentically believes - that his service is not a product of his own genius but rather of community necessity.

The ideal Jewish leader, like Moshe, like Shaul and like Dovid, does not harbor an answer for every question, does not have a neat position paper addressing every circumstance, but does own the ability to acknowledge his flaws.

But beyond presidency and monarchy, this need for humility applies to all levels of leadership, including shul leadership. Even regarding the שליח ציבור who leads the davening, the gemara records that even the שליח ציבור, the chazan, must refuse humbly when asked to lead the davening, accepting only if the offer is extended a second time.

Which brings me to our shul board, a collection of men and women who do their best, day after day, for our community. They are rarely acknowledged for their work, but all of us live in their debt, for they make all of this possible.

This week, on Thursday evening at 7 PM, we will be having the shul’s annual meeting, at which new board members and officers are elected, and we hear reports from the heads of different shul departments.

To be blunt: If you are able, please come to the meeting.

I know that a lot of people don’t go because nothing interesting ever happens at these meetings. As it happens, this year there may be controversy; I plan to speak on some challenges we are facing, and I plan to address what may fairly be called the Third Rail of shul politics. But aside from that, this is our chance to honor the humble men and women who serve our shul on its board.

It’s not traditional for a rabbi to like his shul board, but I can say in all sincerity that I am very confident in our leadership. We are privileged to have men and women who come to meetings ready to serve what they perceive to be the shul’s best interests, and who work hard on projects between meetings, to help move our shul forward. We have people who work on the shul’s physical plant, people who work on education, people who work on social programming, people who work on finances, people who work on administrative issues. To a one, all of them devote significant time and energy to the greater good, humbly and without fanfare. So on Thursday, please make some time to honor them and thank them for their work, by coming to the meeting. I look forward to seeing you there.

1. My explanation of Moshe's rationale for מחני נא מספרך is, of course, not the only approach.

2. The Torah's text indicates Moshe will lose some of his רוח הקודש when the others gain it, but see Rashi to Bamidbar 11:17.

3. On Moshe's humble approach, see also Sanhedrin 8a on the difference between HaShem's counsel to Yehoshua and Moshe's counsel to Yehoshua, כי אתה תבוא את העם הזה vs כי אתה תביא את העם הזה.

4. The selection of Shaul is in Shemuel I 10, the selection of Dovid is in Shemuel I 16.

5. The quote about קופה של שרצים is from Yoma 22b, and the Meiri's comment is on that gemara.

6. The little-practiced law of the chazan [most don't refuse at all, or refuse altogether too much] is found on Berachot 34a.

Daf: Sotah 15-19

Slowly, slowly, I'm getting to post some of my Sotah notes. Of course, there's a lot to say on 20-21, so that will take more time... As always, please read this with a gemara in front of you to get the full effect.

The gemara indicates what I believe to be the technically correct view, that the Nazir’s חטאת “sin-offering” is not for sin, but is simply brought in the same manner as a regular “sin-offering” and so shares the name. (Ditto for the חטאת יולדת, all homiletics to the contrary.) Tosafot סבר expands upon this major issue of whether a Nazir is considered a “sinner” for having vowed to refrain from wine or not. See also Tosafot to Nazir 2b ואמאי.

See Rashi אלא היא, who defines monogamous sexuality as a special human trait.

The word ונוטל in the mishnah should lose its initial ו.

See Tosafot לרבות – this is very important, I think, as he views Rashi’s selection of a Sifri edition over a Talmudic edition as שיבוש הגירסא, corruption of the manuscript.

At the end of Rashi והלכה בכל דבר we find the interesting proposal of a הלכה למשה מסיני for which there is a pasuk – but the pasuk is considered only an אסמכתא support for it.

In that same Rashi, Rashi’s explanation of “uprooting” vs “adding” appears difficult to justify in the context of the כיסוי הדם and גט cases.

See Tosafot תנא ושייר on the significance of apparently exclusive numbers (“3 things are…”, or “These are the three areas…”) when we are presented with a list of cases).

Toward the end of the page, the term דרבנן is used interestingly, apparently to refer to an idea which is biblical, but is not explicit in the biblical text. We find a similar use in the imperative of rebuking a person who violates a biblical law – we include only biblical laws which are explicit in the biblical text.

Our gemara here (regarding the דם of a certain bird) offers an example of experimentation by the sages to determine physical reality.

See the last Rashi on the page, on the source for גלגול שבועה.

See Rashi’s very interesting explanation of the word מערערין towards the bottom of the page.

See Rashi on דדריה, on the proper respect to show to one’s elder. This matches Tosafot’s comment on Bava Batra 113a that Ben Azzai would never have called Rabbi Akiva "הקרח הזה” “this bald one.”

See Tosafot ורבי יהודה explaining why we don’t use the “scarf method” for her.

Toward the bottom of the page we use the term בריותא and it is sometimes rendered as “health” (vs. רתיתא which refers to weakness), but that is problematic and unlikely, both in terms of spelling and in terms of the leading word מחמת. It seems to me that the word here actually is from ברי, meaning “strong” as in ברי ושמא.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Daf: Sotah 12-14

Sorry to take so long before posting another installment. There is so much to say on these pages, and so little time to type it up. As always, you'll really need a gemara in front of you to see what I am discussing.

See Tosafot Acheirim

Tosafot cheimar suggests that Moshe's boat was camoflagued in the reeds because the tar and pitch linings were on the inside. This is interesting, b/c it magnifies the miracle that Bat Paroh saw the boat at all!

How can Moshe say that the Jewish babies were saved because he was cast into the water – the whole decree to throw the kids in the water was because of him! See Tosafot and Maharsha, who both address the issue.

The question of “How could Moshe get hurt on the water if he will sing to Gd on the water one day” is odd; what is the connection? Especially as this may not be yam suf! (It is reminiscent of a gemara in Taanit, though, regarding a ditch-digger whose daughter fell in a ditch and was protected by his merit.)

How could you have had a 'leap month' in those days? They haven't even learned HaChodesh haZeh Lachem! Reminiscent of Seder Olam that the sod haibbur was passed down from Adam and Chavah.

The issue of nursing from an eater of treif is interesting - see Rav Schachter's noteworthy comment in this issue, cited in my post here.

The gemara here, per Rashi on the 36 crowns, assumes that the two Korachs mentioned in the lineage of Esav in Bereishit 36 are different people – but see Rashi to Bereishit 36:5, where he says that they are the same person.

Did the children of Keturah come for Yaakov’s funeral? Rashi does not think so, but Tosafot Shantz does.

See the Maharsha on the mourning of the horses and donkeys (which, of course, is reminiscent of the city of Nineveh).

I have difficulty understanding why the Gemara here seems to criticize the Jews for being involved in taking the spoils of Egypt, when Berachot 9a, based on דבר נא in Shmot 11, indicates that HaShem had to plead with them to take spoils! (Unless the plea is from before the actual departure, and then they “got into it” afterward, while Moshe was getting Yosef’s body?)

Note that the line קיים זה כל מה שכתוב בזה is the source for burying a Torah scroll with a righteous person.

Interesting transition in the line about Yosef being returned to Shechem. Yosef is “stolen” from Shechem, and returned to Shechem as a “lost object” – removing the human agency and blame from the picture. And is he Yaakov’s lost object?

Of course, the Torah seems to indicate that Yosef was removed from Dotan, not Shechem, but see Rashi here.

The gemara here seems to pin the death of Er and Onan on Yehudah, instead of on their own famous sins. Perhaps it’s that Yehudah’s problem made them vulnerable to punishment?

Interesting: Yaakov’s degradation comes from others (who call him Yosef’s servant), but Yosef’s degradation, which is a punishment of sorts for him, comes from himself (when he calls himself ‘bones’). Recall the gemara in Taanit regarding placing ash on the heads of the sages on a public fast – degradation is worse when it comes from others.

Note that although Moshe dies at 120, that is not a source for saying that 120 is a maximum on people’s lives. I hope to post on this issue soon, but for now see Tosafot Bava Batra 113a ומטו.

Rashi renders גסטרא here as a ruler, but note the usual translation of a split or broken receptacle.

Regarding the Bach’s note א, recall that there is a midrash in which Moshe does attempt to bring the Jews back to Israel after their exile.

We see here the idea of a grave being a significant place for prayer.

Here our patriarchs are called עצומים, mighty ones; this is parallel to the term איתנים used for them in the gemara toward the beginning of Rosh HaShanah on ירח האיתנים.

Tosafot כדי on “דורשין טעמא דקרא” makes the important distinction between analyzing the deeper meaning of pesukim for ethical lessons and analyzing the deeper meaning of pesukim for lessons which may affect the way we fulfill a mitzvah. See also Hirsch’s introduction to Horeb.

Regarding the “face of the altar” see Tosafot Shantz as well as Rashi Zevachim 62a.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Odds and Ends: Shavuos Reading

Shavuos is a tough holiday for being both rabbi and father. I had our older two kids sleep in my office Shavuos night so that they could daven with me at the 5 AM minyan, but after returning home and having a quick family seudah I was then off-limits to the world for a several hours, while the great rebbetzin managed the family. Then I was so thrown off of the old circadian rhythms that the rest of Yom Tov was a blur of naps and shiurim and speeches and davening, and I have to admit that I emerged feeling more than a little guilty about being unable to truly help. I think if I were not the rabbi, I probably wouldn’t stay up all night unless my children were old enough to join me.

During Yom Tov I did catch up on some books that had been waiting for me, though, and found some interesting things:

I finally got around to starting Gilead, and I liked it enough that I hope to finish it. The pace is slow and folksy (think Steinbecky, a Grapes of Wrath turtle crossing the road), not my favorite tempo, but I like the peek inside an old preacher’s mind. It rings true, so far; I could see myself sounding like that someday.

Thumbed through R’ Yitzchak Etshalom’s Between the Lines of the Bible. (I wonder if he realizes how many books on Amazon share this title?) This book surprised me, but not in a good way; I began it expecting to like it, and I just didn’t. His approach to modern commentary, as expressed in his early discussions of “Entering the Characters’ World,” just didn’t work for me. The lessons derived, such as regarding the sale of Yosef, seemed, by turns, either derivative or contrived.

Also looked over Naomi Graetz’s Silence is Deadly, and found that a more rewarding, if frightening, read. I’ll readily acknowledge that I was not aware of a few of the sources she brought to show that wife-beating was, at times, sanctioned by certain rabbinic leaders. Overall, she made a convincing case for the need for stronger rabbinic action to oppose this bestial phenomenon.
Lest this appear an across-the-board endorsement, I don’t agree with some of her premises. For example: At the start of the book Dr. Graetz attempts to read sanction for wife-beating into biblical texts, arguing that these texts influenced social acceptance of domestic violence, but (1) her reading runs counter to the texts themselves, and (2) because her readings are new, they can’t have been an historical influence.
I also don’t agree with her contention that rabbinic sanction could have framed society’s overall view of wife-beating. Given the book-acknowledged fact that the majority weight of the rabbinate came down harshly against this horrific violence, I don’t see how the minority view could be considered the source of this evil. I stick to my view that this violence is more a product of human malfunction than social approval/allowance.

And the new HaMaor came (and with a daring, hot-pink cover!). Although this Torah journal isn’t of my political bent, I find interesting ideas in some of their divrei torah, and I enjoy reading it.

At the end of this issue I found a remarkable letter on the current Conversion Controversy.
The letter itself is forgettable, making foolish, hearsay-based claims about conversion-over-the-telephone, but the opening paragraph, apparently tying together the Conversion Controversy and Global Warming, is what makes it interesting. It reads (rough translation):

The entire world trembles, we hear the greatest and most frightening earthquakes, stormy winds blow and overturn great cities, thousands and myriads are cast from their homes and the place of their dwellings and are killed and die from illness and hunger and thirst, and in general the weather patterns are changing and the places that had been coldest are warming and the ice and snow are melting, there is a great upheaval in the world, in all of its corners, and no one pays attention that new, never-before-seen things are happening. But all of this does not approach the spiritual and physical upheaval that is happening in the Holy Land, when there are those in Israel who accept converts…

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this entertaining rather than sad. There must be something wrong with me.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Derashah: Shavuot - The Unity of Yizkor

[This week's edition of Haveil Havalim is here.]

We usually think of Yizkor as a prayer of personal mourning, people reciting memorial paragraphs in memory of their loved ones - but when we look at Jewish history, we realize that Yizkor, since its inception, has not been about individual loss, but rather about national cohesion.

Yizkor’s original format was the Av haRachamim prayer which we say almost every Shabbos; it was designed to be recited in shul on Shabbos to mourn for the Jewish communities massacred during the Crusades of the 12th century. Shabbos was chosen because it was a day when everyone gathered together already.

The prayer quickly spread through France, Germany and Italy, and from there east to Poland and the Slavic countries. Rashi, Mordechai, Maharil, all of the major leaders of early Ashkenazic communities accepted this new institution. Eventually, it spread to Shavuot because this is the time of year when many massacres took place, and then from Shavuos to other Yamim Tovim.

Simultaneously, a Yizkor prayer developed for Yom Kippur. This was a combination of national mourning and a private prayer for the souls of those who had passed on, because we are taught that the deceased as well as the living are judged every year on Yom Kippur.

The history is interesting, but perplexing, because the result of these rabbinic enactments is that we recite a communal mourning prayer including lines like “May Gd… avenge the spilled blood of his servants,” on the happiest days of the year - Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Yom Kippur. Shabbos, with its mitzvah of oneg, enjoying the day! Yom Tov, with its mitzvah of simchah, celebrating with joy! Yom Kippur, which is described in the gemara as the greatest day on the Jewish calendar!

We never mourn on these days. Public mourning is forbidden on Shabbat; on Friday afternoon a mourner interrupts shivah to wash and change into celebratory clothing, goes to shul and wishes people a good Shabbos! Yom Tov and Yom Kippur actually cut off shivah altogether; one who buries a relative an hour before Yom Tov or before Yom Kippur sits shivah for a few moments and then it’s over!

Granted that there is some precedent for Yizkor in earlier halachah , still, how is it that we devote a premiere part of our davening on Shabbos, on Yom Tov, on Yom Kippur, to calling the deceased to mind?

Let’s take it a step further: The Torah goes out of its way, in general, to limit all mourning!
• The Torah says, “You are children of HaShem; you shall not cut your skin in grief,” and we understand from this that the Torah rejects overdone or extended mourning because we are taught that life goes on in the next world!
• The gemara says, “One who mourns too much over one loss will end up mourning another loss.”
• The Shulchan Aruch rules that on almost all issues of mourning, הלכה כדברי המיקל, we follow the most lenient authorities.
So how is it that the sages instituted this Yizkor act to generate extra mourning - and on Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Yom Kippur of all days?

One answer lies in the two Torah portions named for life - Chayyei Sarah, about the life of Sarah, and Vayechi, about the life of her grandson Yaakov. There are many parallels between the portions, and of course both portions record the death and burial of their protagonists, Sarah and Yaakov - but these two burial stories are actually very different:

In the former portion, חיי שרה, we find Avraham searching for a place to bury his beloved wife. ויבא אברהם לספוד לשרה ולבכותה, Avraham eulogizes Sarah and weeps for her, apparently without company. He then rises from his wife’s deathbed, forlorn, without even his son Yitzchak to join him, to go bargain with the Canaanites for a plot. Avraham, who had welcomed everyone into his home, who had been so involved with the nations around him! The sudden loneliness of the scene is inescapable, and it is after this story that Avraham is described in the Torah, for the first time, as elderly.

In contrast, Yaakov dies with his children gathered around his bed, and he is buried with full honors. Listen to the Torah’s description: “And Yosef ascended to bury his father, and all of the servants of Paroh, and the elders of his house and the elders of Egypt ascended with him. And the entire house of Yosef and his brothers and his father’s house came as well; they only left their young children and cattle in Goshen. Carriages and charioteers ascended with him, and the camp was very large. And they came to Goren ha’Atad by the side of the Jordan, and they eulogized him a great and mighty eulogy, and Yosef observed a seven day mourning period for his father. And the Canaanites saw the mourning in Goren ha’Atad, and they declared, ‘This is a great mourning for Egypt.’” The gemara even amplifies further, introducing the children of Keturah and Yishmael and even Esav into the picture; there is much more said about the pomp and circumstance and community of Yaakov’s burial.

Avraham mourns Sarah pathetically alone, and emerges aged, diminished. Everyone turns out with Yosef and company to mourn for Yaakov, and although solidarity cannot restore a loss, it can, eventually, cushion the blow.

Perhaps this is the goal of our Yizkor - to generate a communal moment of bonding and consolation - and so we use specifically those days of greatest gathering, Shabbos and Yom Tov and Yom Kippur, for this purpose. Precisely on these days of sacred communal gathering, we bond in an act of ניחום, of consolation, which is viewed not as a negation of our joy but as a celebration of our community.

The Jew who mourns a victim of the Holocaust, the Jew who mourns an victim of terror in Israel, the Jew who mourns a grandmother or a child or a spouse or a friend - we are all part of the same nation, the same community, and if these are the days when our community comes together as one, then these shall be the days when we find communal comfort.

But, of course, all of this begs the question regarding those who, like me, walk out during Yizkor. Certainly, we step out because we, thank Gd, have not lost immediate relatives and don’t wish to inspire jealousy in those who have - but doesn’t that diminish the communal solidarity?

The answer, I think, is Yes. If I were creating the minhag, I would probably have everyone stay in. But פורץ גדר ישכנו נחש, one who breaks through a fence may find himself bitten by a snake from the other side. Before changing a communal minhag, one had better make sure he understands all facets of that minhag, all of the reasons behind it - and I am not that confident in my own judgment.

Still, because the communal strength of Yizkor is weakened by having people walk out, I would urge those of us who do step outside to spend their time in the lobby thinking about those who are still inside, and the losses they have suffered. There are Tehillim in the siddur. There are books from our library, and many dvar torah sheets, available in the lobby. One can even stand quietly. Yizkor in the hallway shouldn’t be a time for joking around or, Gd-forbid, lashon hara; the atmosphere should be as solemn outside the doors as inside them.

And when you do return, please don’t start davening with Ashrei, but rather say Av haRachamim, that original form of Yizkor which is still its closing prayer, with the rest of the tzibbur.

On Shavuos, of all days, when we commemorate ויחן שם ישראל נגד ההר, how we camped as a unified nation at Sinai, we certainly understand that we are one. More than that, we understand why we are one.

I’ve heard it said that all Jews should stick together because, after all, the Nazis ימח שמם attacked all of us and did not discriminate between religious and non-religious, or between types of observance. I can’t accept that logic; that morbid argument identifies a communality of victimhood, not a commonality of Judaism.

Our commonality of Judaism began not with the Nazis 70 years ago but in a desert some 3400 years ago, on Shavuot, and continued through the pact of ערבות we sealed by the Jordan river, through the wealth of the period of Dovid and Shlomo and the Beis haMikdash and through the intense suffering of the period of the Crusades, and is commemorated by the celebratory joy of the Seder and the Succah as well as the sadness of Yizkor.

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote, “Even though the individual fades away, the Jewish people as a whole eternally rejuvenates itself; it is eternal like the eternal Will of Him Who called it into being.” Despite the sadness of Yizkor, and specifically because of this national bond of Yizkor, Hirsch’s vision will prove correct: Our nation will be eternally rejuvenated.

1. There are sefarim which suggest we recite Yizkor on Shabbos because that is the day when neshamos are freed from Gehennom, but that is noted by various poskim as a problematic explanation. One problem, for example, is that then Yizkor should only be recited for those who have died in the past year!

2. One halachic basis for the idea of public mourning on Shabbat is the status of Shabbat Chazon in halachah.

3. The link/contrast of ויחי and חיי שרה came from here.

4. Yitzchak is not at Sarah's funeral because he did not return home after the Akeidah.

5. One mefaresh links Avraham's aging purely to the loss of Sarah, but I forget at the moment where I saw that.

6. Sotah 13a is the gemara that elaborates on the pomp of Yaakov's funeral.