Why Does Yakov Dream of Speckled Sheep?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Dine

At the outset of our parashah, Yakov sees angels going up and down (עולים ויורדים) a ladder.   After twenty years living with Lavan in Haran, Yakov dreams instead “that all the he-goats mounting (עולים) the flock are streaked, speckled and mottled (Bereishit, 31:12).” He cannot even dream beyond his livelihood.  How does Yakov fall so far?  More importantly, how does he snap out of it, so that by the end of the Parasha he once again meets up with angels (32:3)?

To answer these questions, we must understand how Yakov comes to depend on the spotted sheet for his livelihood, and why he may specifically think about their mounting/mating habits. After marrying and having 12 of his children, Yakov makes a deal with Lavan to go back to shepherding Lavan’s flock to “make provisions for his own household (30:30).” This deal gives Yakov all the speckled, streaked or mottled sheep and leaves Lavan with all the pure white ones. Lavan readily agrees to this deal, as speckled sheep are the much rarer kind – it’s a recessive genetic trait- yet Yakov has a plan that he puts in place right after making the deal.

This plan involves Yakov breeding “vigorous” sheep in front of peeled rods and poplar branches, so that the sheep will have the images of white spots on black branches or black spots on white reeds at the time of mating. Yakov’s plan may be based on a folk belief that images present at the time of mating will be imprinted on the embryos, and the progeny will thus match the speckled and streaked nature of the poplar branches.  Some modern commentators, such as Yehuda Feliks, try to argue instead that Yakov’s plan was rooted in sound concepts of genetics and animal breeding. Specifically, “vigorous” animals are more likely to be heterozygotes and therefore give birth to speckled sheep even though the parents are completely white. As a biologist and reader of the text, I find this argument less than compelling, mostly because reliance on folk beliefs seems to appear as a motif throughout our parasha, most notably with the story of Rachel requesting Reuven’s mandrakes.

Regardless of its basis, Yakov’ plan raises a troubling ethical question: isn’t Yakov taking unfair advantage of Lavan in this agreement, making Lavan think he’s getting a great deal while having this stratagem in his back pocket?!

Yakov seems to have become the trickster that Lavan is.  Professor Nahum Sarna points out that the language used in the agreement, with its strained repetitions of the whiteness (Lavan) of the sheep, seems to blare out that Yakov has out-Lavaned Lavan in this deal. Moreover, Yakov appears to think little of God’s role in his livelihood, instead relying on folk beliefs or his knowledge of animal breeding to bring wealth to his family.  Unlike his wives, Yakov only mentions God twice up to this point in his time at Haran; first when he yells at Rachel “Can I take the place of the Lord?! (30:2)”, and secondly when he makes this deal with Lavan and repeats Lavan’s words to state “And G-d has blessed You [Lavan] wherever I [Yakov] turned (30:30).” Yakov has lost all sense of God’s promise at Bet-El and cannot even think that God has provided for and protected him in Haran. rather it has all gone to Lavan. Thus, Yakov turns to and turns into Lavan to provide for his family.

So how does Yakov snap out of it? Clearly, God’s appearance to Yakov in his dream about speckled sheep leads Yakov to realize that God was with him this whole time (see 31: 10-14).  But what leads Yakov to merit God’s appearance?  Other cases of God appearing to those in need (even those who are undeserving) necessitate the person crying out and God hearing those cries, such as with the stories of Hagar or the Israelites in Egypt. Yet Yakov never cries out or turns to God even when he is in danger. So what allows Yakov, who has disregarded God in Haran, to see Him again?

I think the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’ emphasis on the importance of “the face of the other” is helpful here.  Immediately before God appears to Yakov, “Yakov saw the face of Lavan, and it was not disposed towards him as in the past (31:2).”  Professor Robert Alter notes that the physical concreteness of this wording and image is striking and should not be overlooked; rather, Yakov looking at Lavan’s face and recognizing its inconstancy may be the key to the story. The person who Yakov has spent the last twenty years following and imitating changes his face, in stark contrast to the God of Yakov’s fathers. Yakov makes the contrast explicit in his words to Rachel and Leah: “I see your father’s face and it is not disposed towards me as in times past, but the God of my fathers has been with me (31:5).” Yakov sees the face of another, Lavan, and recognizes its lack of godliness due to its changing nature. Therefore, Yakov turns back to the face of the Ultimate Other and recognizes it once again, even when it takes the form of speckled sheep.

Shabbat Shalom!

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010, 2015) is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University.


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Avraham, Yitzchak and Intermarriage

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Avraham Avinu’s journey begins with clear instructions from G-d to abandon his land (eretz), his culture (moledet), and his family (beit av), and move to a new land, which turns out to be Canaan. His journey ends when he orders his servant back to that very same eretzmoledet, and beit av to find a wife for Yitzchak, and under no circumstances to marry Yitzchak to a Canaanitess.

What accounts for this turnabout?   If Canaanite culture was superior to that of Clan Terach, why insist that Yitzchak marry in the family?

At least one Rabbinic tradition reflects a very complex approach to this question.

In Bereshit 15:7 and Nechemiah 19:7, G-d refers to himself as having extracted (hotzi) Avraham from Ur Kasdim.  The Rabbis understood that Ur Kasdim was a location.  However, they were bothered by the connotation of hotzi, which implies success over resistance, as in G-d was motzi the Jews from Mitzrayim.  Why would anyone have objected to Avraham leaving Canaan, such that G-d needed to extract him?

The Rabbis answer that Avraham faced religious persecution in Aram at the hands of Nimrod’s emerging totalitarian empire. To concretize this interpretation, Ur Kasdim was translated punningly as the (auto da fe) furnace of the Chaldeans.

In this reading, G-d took Avraham out of Ur Kasdim into Canaan to rescue him from religious persecution. Indeed, the Torah records no negative reaction to Avraham’s religion in Canaan. Quite the contrary. Malki Tzedek seems to be a co-believer, and even the Hittites refer to Avraham as a Prince of G-d.

Nor does the Torah record Avraham critiquing Canaanite culture. Again, quite the contrary: Avraham makes a covenant with natives Aner, Eshkol, and Mamrei, and in contrast to Egypt and Philistia, it seems that he considers Canaan a culture which possesses yir’at Elokim, fear of G-d. (Sodom and Gomorrah were not Canaanite.) It therefore seems likely that Canaan was a culture of religious freedom, and more than that, a culture which was capable of appreciating at least some of what Avraham had to offer, and which enabled him to become his best self. It was a pluralistic culture. (Perhaps this explains why there is no mention of Avraham and Sarah making converts in Canaan; in a culture where identity is fluid, conversion can become meaningless).

But in the Covenant Between the Pieces, Avraham is given a deeply pessimistic vision about Canaanite culture. Avraham’s children will eventually take ownership of Canaan, but not for several generations, “because the sin of the Amorites is not yet complete.” Not yet complete, but begun, and begun in such a way that completion is inevitable. In other words, the virtues of Canaan were genuine but not sustainable.  What if the original sin of the Canaanites, the reason that their culture was already decadent in the time of Avraham, was extreme pluralism?

This formulation is deliberately provocative, but having (hopefully) grabbed your attention, I want to lay it out in detail.

There are two roads to homogeneity. One is totalitarianism/Nimrodism, which gives absolute value to a very specific and detailed set of cultural markers and seeks to enforce them on others. The other is pluralism/ Canaanism, which insists that all cultural markers have exactly the same value and denies the objective legitimacy of any values hierarchy.

Extreme pluralism is opposed to diversity. A healthy, diverse culture celebrates values clashes but develops robust nonviolent arenas for persuasive combat.

In a culture of aesthetic diversity, some value classical music and others value heavy metal, and they argue about matters of taste. In a culture of moral diversity, some favor limited euthanasia and others see it as murder; but all agree to abide by a common decision procedure. In a culture of identity diversity, identity is more than a source of grievance and the basis of a claim to equal rights; it is the basis of a claim to genuine moral superiority, which is the antithesis of extreme pluralism.

Identity can also develop under totalitarian persecution; revolutionary individualism goes easily with condescension toward the homogenized masses.

The Ancient Near East had no genuine cultures of diversity, so Avraham could only develop under Nimrod. But revolutions tend to replace one totalitarianism with another. The challenge is to maintain hierarchy without absolutism; to believe that something can be less correct without being wholly incorrect, less valuable but not valueless, not ultimate and yet not unnecessary.

In halakhic Judaism, this challenge is perhaps best embodied in various paradoxes about the relative precedence of Torah study and mitzvah action. In the Avraham narrative, it is embodied in the Akedah, where Avraham at least seemingly makes clear that he ultimately has only one value – obedience. Yitzchak reacts against this. Yitzchak, as Rabbi Joshua Berman has argued well, never comes to terms with the expulsion of Yishmael. He cannot choose Yaakov over Esav, even though he knows that choice must be made. Yitzchak, in other words, is susceptible to Canaanism. For Avraham’s unique legacy to survive, Yitzchak needs to marry a woman from home.

Marriage in the classical sense is a commitment to sustainability. Continuity is not an end in itself, but a culture’s purpose is not to be an ephemeral work of performance art. When continuity becomes its own justification, opposition to intermarriage is plausibly seen as racism. But it is more than evident that Judaism will not survive in America if Jews believe that it is one of a large set of equally valuable options.

Perhaps more dangerously, we need to recognize that both inclusion and exclusion always have costs. The cost of exclusion is the value of whatever and whomever is excluded; the cost of inclusion is the value of whatever difference you are ignoring. The full arc of Avraham’s life, which values both his natal and adopted homelands, stands for the necessity of both hierarchy and egalitarianism.

I contend that the dialectic need not be extreme; every Jew need not oscillate between totalitarianism and latitudinarianism, nor need we alternate generations of chauvinists and pluralists. We can find both within ourselves as necessary.

The same is true on a communal level. It is possible and ideal to build a community which contains both these pulls, rather than dividing into absolutists and relativists. The balance is always delicate; Modern Orthodoxy, Conservative Judaism, and Reform each claim to embody it. If the capacity to sustain the norm of endogamy is a fundamental measure of sustainability – and I believe it is – clearly the latter two have failed, and Modern Orthodoxy must profit by their example. Deep and sincere appreciation for the achievements, values, and beauties of other cultures, religions, and even denominations must not be allowed to reach the point at which the only reason to choose ours over others is inertia.

Shabbat Shalom!

This Dvar Torah is a rewrite of a Dvar Torah from 2015

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Avraham and the Ideal of Rootless Outsider

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi William Friedman

Avraham takes on many roles in the Torah: he is a warrior, a family man, a solicitous host, a disputant with God, a servant of God, and more. But one aspect of his personality – one that, upon reflection, must have existed from an early point – is revealed most fully, I would argue, in two episodes that take place at late points in his life detailed in our parashah: the late-in-life purchase of a burial plot in Hevron, and his command that Yitzhak’s wife come from his family. Taken together, these episodes reveal an Avraham who places a high value on being an outsider, one who is not tied down to any specific place.

The parashah picks up in Hevron, one of the first places Avraham pitched his tent in Cana`an (Bereishit 13:18) many decades earlier. Despite this lengthy association, [1] Avraham clearly never planted firm roots there in the form of purchasing land, as revealed by his sudden need to negotiate for a burial plot (ahuzat kever) for Sarah. Indeed, Avraham’s opening declaration of ger ve-toshav anokhi imakhem – “a foreigner and a resident [2] am I with you” – may reveal more than an exaggerated humility, as noted by Malbi”m:

מלבים בראשית כג:ד

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם” – אברהם רצה דוקא אחוזת קבר שהוא בית קברות מיוחד אל כל המשפחהוהנה:

הגר לא ישאל אחוזת קבר אחר שאין דעתו לישב שם בקבע הוא ובני ביתו,

והתושב לא יצטרך לשאול אחוזת קבר באשר יש לו שם שדה ונחלה שיכול להקצות ממנה מקום לאחוזת קבר.

אבל אנכי גר עד עתה ואין לי פה שדה ואחוזה מכברועתה אני רוצה להיות תושב לשבת פה בקביעות עם בני ביתי,

לכן אבקש תנו לי אחוזת קבר עמכם,” שיהיה מיוחד לכל בני ביתי.

Avraham specifically desired an ahuzat kever, which is a cemetary designated for an entire family. But a ger would not ask for an ahuzat kever, given that he does not intend to settle there permanently with his family, while a toshav would not need to ask for a burial plot, given that he would already have a field and ancestral land there, a portion of which he could designate as space for a cemetary. I [= Avraham], however, have been, to this point, a ger, and [therefore] have no field or pre-existing holding. Now, however, I wish to become a toshav, to dwell here permanently with my family, and therefore am requesting that you give me a burial plot amongst you that will be designated for my entire family.

Waiting until the death of one’s long-term wife to begin to establish multigenerational stability in a place one has inhabited for a long time is rather strange behavior. It reveals, perhaps, an ambivalence towards – perhaps even an aversion to – setting down overly firm roots. This is deeply embedded in his biography from an early point; even before being personally called by God, his family had left Ur Kasdim, for unstated reasons (11:31). Perhaps his experience with rootlessness, with being unmoored, contributed to his selection by God.

Avraham’s affinity for the unrooted may also lie at the heart of his demand that his servant (unnamed here, but traditionally understood to be Eliezer) to “go to my birthplace to take a wife for Yitzhak” (24:4). R. Hayyim Paltiel notes how odd this instruction is: תימ‘ מה ראה במשפחתו והלא היו כולם עובדי עז – “What did he see in his family of origin? Weren’t they all idolators?!” The question could be sharpened even further: Why was a woman from his family of origin superior to the many converts (and their descendents) whom Avraham and Sarah had attracted to themselves as far back as their time in Haran (12:5)?

R. Paltiel’s answer suggests a certain nostalgia or projection on Avraham’s part: ויל דהיה יודע שאם הייתה מקרבת אצלו הייתה למידה יראת שמים – “One could say that he knew that if she was drawn to him [= Avraham? Yitzhak?] she would learn fear of Heaven.” Again one could ask: why should an idol-worshipping Chaldean woman from Avraham’s family be any more likely to learn fear of Heaven than a local Canaanite woman, let alone a descendant of those Avraham and Sarah had already drawn near in Haran? [3] It seems, rather, that Avraham was seeking a daughter-in-law who would be someone willing to leave her family and travel to a strange place. Perhaps he recognized that Yitzhak had not inherited his qualities of spiritual daring – perhaps could not, being rooted in Cana`an in a way that Avraham never had been – and sought to provide for Yitzhak someone possessed of the clarity that can only come from being an outsider.

The experience of being an unrooted foreigner in a place is often scary, subjecting one to powerlessness and demonization. That, of course, was the experience of benei yisrael in Mitzrayim, and the underpinning of the Torah’s many demands to treat the ger well is linked to that historical experience. But when Shemot prohibits oppressing the ger ואתם ידעתם את נפש הגר – “because you know the life of the ger” perhaps it is not merely drawing on the memory of oppression, but on the positive model embodied and embraced by Avraham, the original ger. Jews have, of course, known both the benefits and the detriments of rootlessness over the millennia; the work of ameliorating the latter should not blind us to the former.

Shabbat Shalom!


[1] The precise chronology and length of his residence there is difficult to calculate, by the time of Sarah’s death he has had more than fifty years of presence and relationship there. Sarah died at 127; Avraham was ten years older than her (Gen. 17:17), making him 137 at the time of her death. He journeyed to Cana`an at 75 (Gen. 12:4); even assuming a several year gap for the journey, the sojourn in Egypt, and traversing Cana`an, that still leaves a 50-60 year gap. Seder Olam 1 calculates his years of actual residence in Hevron as 25 years.

[2] Peshat is that ger ve-toshav is a singular term, not two separate declarations, as in Vayikra 25:47; the terms are used in poetic parallel in 1 Divrei HaYamim 29:15 and Tehillim 39:13. The commentaries, however, see a substantive distinction between the terms, as we will see presently.

[3] Cf. Abarbanel’s discussion here, who notes the same issue and offers a very different resolution grounded in Canaanite essentialism. But Rivka’s family were no angels, either.

Rabbi William Friedman (SBM ’03) is a doctoral candidate in ancient Judaism at Harvard University.

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The Silent Tale of a Broken Family

Alumni Dvar Torah by Shoshana Jakobovits

There is an oddity in the verses closing the episode of the Akedah. After the dramatic interruption by the mal’ach and the offering of the ram, God blesses Avraham, and we read:

וַיָּ֤שָׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע׃ (בראשית כ”ב, י”ט)

Avraham then returned to his servants, and they departed together for Be’er Sheva; and Avraham stayed in Be’er Sheva. (Gen. 22:19)

Contrary to expectation, only Avraham is mentioned returning from Har HaMoriah, after the binding of his son, but we hear nothing of Yitzchak. Where was he? Did he not return? This omission is made even more glaring by its textual similarity to Avraham’s promise to his servants as he left them to proceed with Yitzchak towards the mountain:

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֶל־נְעָרָ֗יו שְׁבוּ־לָכֶ֥ם פֹּה֙ עִֽם־הַחֲמ֔וֹר וַאֲנִ֣י וְהַנַּ֔עַר נֵלְכָ֖ה עַד־כֹּ֑ה וְנִֽשְׁתַּחֲוֶ֖ה וְנָשׁ֥וּבָה אֲלֵיכֶֽם׃ (בראשית כ”ב, ה’)

Then Avraham said to his servants, “You stay here with the ass. The boy and I will go up there; we will worship and we will return to you.” (Gen. 22:5)

The word “וְנָשׁוּבָה” – and we (plural) will return stands in stark contrast to the word “וַיָּשָׁב” – and he (singular) returned. It really seems Avraham and Yitzchak do not return together from the binding at Har HaMoriah. Did Avraham’s attempt to kill his son shatter their relationship?

The words of verse 22:19, “וַיֵּלְכוּ יַחְדָּו” is like an empty echo to the words “וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם יַחְדָּו” – “and the two (Avraham and Yitzchak) walked off together”, which appears twice in the first part of the account of the Akedah (Bereshit 22:6 and 22:8). After the Akedah though, there is no more “שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם” “the two of them”, Avraham and Yitzchak do not appear to be walking side-by-side anymore; this dual father-son entity seems to be gone. Avraham goes back to Be’er Sheva, though he previously lived in Eretz P’llishtim (cf Bereshit 21:34). As for Yitzchak, we are not told where he goes after the tragic events of Har haMoriah and we do not hear of him until he meets Rivkah, at the end of chapter 24. Father and son seem indeed to have gone two separate ways.

Some commentators (like Ibn Ezra and the Radak) reject this reading and state that when Avraham is said to return, it is implied that Yitzchak is with him, but I believe the flagrant omission of the word “שְׁנֵיהֶ֖ם” in “וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו” makes it unlikely. Several other commentators read verse 22:19 as a real separation between Avraham and Yitzchak’s paths, each going their separate way, whether Yitzchak momentarily goes to the yeshiva of Shem and Ever (Bereshit Rabbah, 56:11) or ascends to Gan Eden according to Alshikh:

הנה ארזל (פרקי דרא פלא) כי יש אמרו כי יצחק הלך לגע להתרפאת מאשר היחלה הסכין לחתוך בו ויש אמרו למקום אחר

Our Rabbis said (Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 21) that some said that Yitzchak went to Gan Eden to heal from the knife which had started to cut into him, and some people say he went to a different place.

A more dramatic medieval tradition, succinctly mentioned and rejected by Ibn Ezra (see his commentary on Bereshit 22:19) takes Avraham’s returning alone to an extreme, and has Avraham killing Yitzchak on the altar, Yitzchak rising to the heavens then being resurrected later, in time to marry Rivkah.

In any case, it is striking that following the Akedah, Yitzchak does not appear in the text of the Torah until Rivkah comes to meet him (except as a subject in Avraham’s conversation with his slave about finding a wife for his son):

וְיִצְחָק֙ בָּ֣א מִבּ֔וֹא בְּאֵ֥ר לַחַ֖י רֹאִ֑י וְה֥וּא יוֹשֵׁ֖ב בְּאֶ֥רֶץ הַנֶּֽגֶב׃ (בראשית כ”ד, ס”ב)

Yitzchak had just come back from the vicinity of Beer-lahai-roi, for he was settled in the region of the Negev. (Gen. 24:62)

All these years between the Akedah and meeting Rivkah, Yitzchak seems to have lived not in Beer Sheva, where his father goes to after the Akedah, nor in Chevron, where his mother Sarah is said to have died, but in an entirely different place: Beer-lahai-roi. Thus, the Akedah appears as a traumatic event that shatters Yitzchak’s connection to his parents seemingly forever. A closer read of the first verses of the next sidra will reveal that an even deeper rift is dug between Avraham and his family. Not only did Avraham and Yitzchak stop seeing each other after the Akedah, but Avraham stopped seeing Sarah as well: we are told of no interaction between them following the Akedah up until Sarah’s death, which happens in Chevron. The verses there state:

וַתָּ֣מָת שָׂרָ֗ה בְּקִרְיַ֥ת אַרְבַּ֛ע הִ֥וא חֶבְר֖וֹן בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיָּבֹא֙ אַבְרָהָ֔ם לִסְפֹּ֥ד לְשָׂרָ֖ה וְלִבְכֹּתָֽהּ׃ (בראשית כ”ג, א’)

Sarah died in Kiriath Arba – now Chevron – in the land of Canaan; and Avraham came to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. (Gen. 23:1)

Where did Avraham come from? Why wasn’t he beside his wife when she was about to die? Relying on the proximity between the episode of the Akedah and Sarah’s passing occurring immediately afterwards in the text, several midrashim have Sarah passing away upon hearing the news of the Akedah. These midrashim miss fail to account for Avraham’s traveling to Beer Sheva after the Akedah while Sarah dies in Chevron. I prefer to read the mentioning of these two different cities as a breakup: after having contemplated and gone through all the motions of killing their son for God’s commandment, Avraham and Sarah cannot look each other in the eye anymore.

This family drama unfolds without screams, without words, without tears. We are not told of soaring fights, of heated rancor or good-bye scenes. As readers of the story of the Akedah, we are overflown by sharp and disturbing theological, ethical and philosophical questions, and it is easy to overlook this silent tale of a family dismembered, of people moving away from their parents and their partners, of people so deeply traumatized by the commandment of God to kill a son, so scarred, that from now on they will meet again only in death: Avraham and Sarah at her funeral at Machpelah – Yitzchak, Ishmaël and Avraham at the patriarch’s funeral. As if life didn’t make sense, if it meant living in a world where a father is ready to sacrifice his child, and in which a mother stands idly by.

Curiously, Yitzchak does not make an appearance in Sarah’s funeral. Did he not come? Is he angry at his mother Sarah for she let this happen, she didn’t see the signs, she didn’t stop her husband? She who had been the instigator of the eviction of his brother had not watched out for Yitzchak, had not fought for him as his father set out to kill him.

If that is so, this reading would shed a new light on the words of the Torah spoken about Yitzchak when he meets Rachel:

וַיְבִאֶ֣הָ יִצְחָ֗ק הָאֹ֙הֱלָה֙ שָׂרָ֣ה אִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּקַּ֧ח אֶת־רִבְקָ֛ה וַתְּהִי־ל֥וֹ לְאִשָּׁ֖ה וַיֶּאֱהָבֶ֑הָ וַיִּנָּחֵ֥ם יִצְחָ֖ק אַחֲרֵ֥י אִמּֽוֹ׃ (בראשית כ”ד, ס”ז)

Yitzchak then brought her into the tent of his mother Sarah, and he took Rivkah as his wife. Yitzchak loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother. (Gen. 24:67)

When Yitzchak fell in love with Rivkah, he didn’t console himself from Sarah’s death, but rather from her silence and her passivity when he was taken by his father for the Akedah, and only then, he forgave.

Shoshana Jakobovits (SBM ’17) studies Computational Science and Engineering in Zurich, Switzerland.

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The Model of Avraham: The Uniqueness of Mishpat and Chesed

Guest Dvar Torah by Yehudah (Label) Freundlich

Socrates famously asked whether G-d desires the good, or rather the good is whatever G-d desires.  Our parshah immediately strongly rejects the second horn of this dichotomy: that Mishpat and Chesed are defined by what Hashem wants. “It would be a desecration were the judge of all the land not to do Mishpat”, Avraham Avinu says to the Ribono Shel Olam.  Thus Avraham does not accept Hashem’s intention to destroy Sodom as Mishpat and becomes a kanai for Mishpat rather than for Ratzon Hashem.  Thus Mosheh Rabbeinu argues against Hashem’s plan to destroy bnei Yisroel even it is Mishpat, since it is not Chesed.

Avraham formulates a principle of justice (fifty Tzaddikim), which he requests of Hashem. Hashem acquiesces. Avraham raises the ante, forty five Tzaddikim, and so on down until ten. Each time Hashem gives in, but only to what Avraham explicitly requests at that time. When Avraham requested fifty, Hashem could have responded, even ten. But Hashem responds only to Avraham’s explicit request of the moment. When Avraham requested fifty Tzaddikim, Hashem could have responded, there aren’t fifty.  But no, Hashem clearly states Avraham’s principle and acquiesces: “If I will find in Sodom fifty Tzaddikim in the city then I will bear the entire place for their sake.” All this is intended to teach us that it is our obligation to formulate and demand Mishpat from Hashem.

The Torah explains why Hashem reveals to Avraham what he is going to do: ”For I have known him so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice.”  Indeed Chazal have stated that Hashem wanted Avraham to argue.

The Torah presents us with the following model of Avraham regarding Mishpat:

1. Avraham does not accept Hashem’s intention to destroy Sodom as Mishpat;

2. Avraham becomes a Kanai for Mishpat and argues with Hashem;

3. Avraham formulates principles of Mishpat and attempts to get Hashem to fulfill these principles;

4. Hashem may acquiesce, but only to what Avraham explicitly demands, because

5. Hashem wants all this, wants this entire process of formulation, protest, and debate.

Chazal have clearly followed this model of Avraham; they do not accept that what is written in the Torah or what is Halacha, the representation of G-d’s Will on earth, is necessarily Mishpat.  When Torah, Halacha come into conflict with Mishpat or Chesed, as they understood Mishpat and Chesed, Chazal are Kanaim for Mishpat and Chesed and ‘argue’ with Halacha. Chazal would not learn lessons from what they did not consider to be Mishpat or Chesed, and they try, so to speak, to convince the Halacha, i.e., they try to find ways and arguments so that, without formally transgressing the Halacha, they could somehow reconcile the Halacha with their sense of Mishpat and Chesed, always with complete confidence that Hashem wants this of us.

Daniel the tailor feels that the Torah is treating the Mamzer unfairly; he calls Sanhedrin oppressors using the strength of the Torah when they forbid the Mamzer to marry within the community. “The father of this one committed adultery; this one, what did he do wrong and what is his responsibility?”, argues Daniel the tailor. Chazal enshrined  him and his words in Midrash Rabbah, and pointedly did not learn a lesson from the Torah that we should distance ourselves from the Mamzer. On the contrary, Chazal stress that greater a Mamzer who is a scholar that an ignorant Cohen Gadol.

Hillel Hazaken feels that the Sabbatical abrogation of private financial loans (שמיטת כספים) is not working well in his times: it prevents poor people from getting loans (נועל דלת מפני לוין).So Hillel creates an institution. the Pruzbul, which turns a private loan into a court loan.For the sake of Tikkun Olam, Hillel creates an institution that effectively gets around the abrogation of private loans.

Rebbe Akiva and Rebbe Tarphon (but not Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel) would not be party to capital punishment.  If they were on the Sanhedrin, they would use legal tricks, relying upon what we would today call unreasonable doubt, all for the purpose of evading executing the death penalty, though that is what the Torah prescribes.

Chazal loosen the usual requirements for testimony to free an Agunah, allowing a single witness, a woman, the wife herself, etc.  In all times, we find Rabbanim struggling with Halachah for the sake of the Agunah, to find some way to release her.

The Ramah performed the marriage of a young poor orphan girl on Shabbat in order not to humiliate a proper daughter of Israel. The girl’s father had died in between the shiddukh and the wedding, leaving the girl alone, bereft of both father and mother. Ultimately, an uncle took her in, but did not take care of the arrangements for the wedding. As was the custom of the time, the wedding was on a Friday close to Shabbat, so that the Shabbat meal would constitute the Seudat Mitzvah. On the wedding day, the Chatan refused to marry because 1/3 of the dowry was lacking, despite the pleas of the town elders not to humiliate a daughter of Israel for ‘cursed money’.  When the girl’s relatives finally chipped in, it was Shabbat.  The Ramah lived nearby, and he married them on the spot.

The Ramah explains himself in a Teshuvah. Like Avraham standing before Hashem, he marshals argument after argument.

(First), The prohibition is only (sic!) a rabbinical edict, and Rabbenu Tam, among others, states that the edict does not apply in times of urgency. Though we do not follow them, in case of extreme urgency, we can rely upon them. And, continues the Ramah. “What could be of greater urgency than not to humiliate a daughter of Israel?”.  She could be disgraced her entire life!

(Second) For the sake of human dignity (כבוד הבריות), rabbinical edicts are overridden.

(Third) Great is Shalom between man and wife, and though, here they are not yet married, but still, they are engaged.

(Fourth) The Ramah concludes: Of course, we should not plan a wedding on Shabbat, but if things happen, and it could lead to humiliation or the like, then one who is lenient should enjoy Shabbat, and the Mitzvah will atone for him—if his intentions were L’shem Shamayim.

Michah Hanavi presents the theological underpinnings for the position outlined in the model of Avraham. “What is good and what does Hashem demand of you, but doing mishhpat and loving chesed  and walking humbly with your G-D?”  Michah bases all the Mitzvot, all that is good, all that Hashem demands of us, on three elements: Mishpat, Chesed, and “walking with Hashem”.  All the Mitzvot, all those other than Mishpat and Chesed, we do because that is the way we walk with Hashem.

Of these Mitzvot, Rav has said that they were given to purify us, “Does Hashem care whether we shecht from the neck or the nape? The Mizvot were given to purify us,” says Rav.  But Chazal would never say, Does Hashem care whether we do Mishpat or do injustice? Love kindness or love cruelty?  “For it is Chesed I desire,” says Hoshea.  Mishpat and Chesed we do, says Michah Hanavi, because they are Mishpat and Chesed.  Hashem demands of us that we do Mishpat and love Chesed because they are Mishpat and Chesed, and not because they are Mitzvot; and that is why we will argue even with Hashem regarding Mishpat and Chesed.  Because that is what Hashem demands of us!

Indeed, there is a great difference between one who does Mishpat or Chesed because it is a Mitzvah, and one who does Mishpat and Chesed in their own right.  One who does Mishpat or Chesed because it is a Mitzvah, so to speak, looks over his shoulder searching for approval. Is this really a Mitzvah? Isn’t there another more important Mitzvah? Whereas the one who does Mishpat and Chesed because they are Mishpat and Chesed, is focused on those in need.  “What greater urgency can there be than not to humiliate a daughter of Israel?” says the Ramah.  Only one focused not on the Mitzvah but on those in need, can have the chutzpah to say to the Ribono Shel Olam, “It would be a desecration were You should do such a thing!”.

This then is the Torah’s response to the Socratic dilemma; this is the uniqueness of Mishpat and Chesed among the Mitzvot: Hashem demands of us that we formulate principles of Mishpat and Chesed and pursue them, even, if necessary, to argue with Hashem himself.  Because that is דרך ה’, לעשות צדקה ומשפט, the way of Hashem to do righteousness and justice.

ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה


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May a Chazan Lead High Holidays Services from a Wheelchair? Part 5

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi:

Mr. Toviah Goodman has davened 1st day Rosh Hashannah Shacharit and Yom Kippur Neilah for our shul since its founding in 1993.  However, he suffered several health setbacks this year, and now is in a wheelchair full time.  Should he continue to serve as shaliach tzibbur, or should we replace him with someone who is able to stand?


The Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak


To the Members of the Ritual Committee, Congregation Mevakshei Psak:


The halakhic tradition is unequivocal that disability, even a disability that would disqualify a priest from serving in the Temple, is from a purely halakhic perspective fundamentally irrelevant to serving as a shaliach tzibbur.  The simplest proof of this is the universal agreement that a blind man can serve as shaliach tzibbur (so long as one adopts the consensus position that blind people are fully obligated in mitzvot).

One might raise nonetheless raise the technical objection that a shaliach tzibbur in a wheelchair cannot stand.  However, there is no question that such a person is obligated to pray in a private capacity, and would be able to fulfill that obligation while seated in his wheelchair.  There is no evidence that a shaliach tzibbur is more obligated to stand than an individual.  It follows that inability to stand is not a fundamental bar to being a shaliach tzibbur.

One might nonetheless raise the concern that people who are able to stand will mistakenly learn that standing during prayer is unnecessary.  This concern is found in Sefer Chasidim, and cited by some contemporary halakhists.  However, it seems to me that the case in Sefer Chasidim is explicitly one of someone who had no externally obvious disability, but merely lacked strength, and therefore sat on occasion in an ordinary chair.  A casual observer might therefore conclude that he was choosing to sit, and imitate his behavior.  By contrast, a person sitting in a wheelchair is presumably not doing so by choice, and there is no concern that members of the congregation will mistakenly learn from him that they too may sit.

There is accordingly no question that a person in a wheelchair may serve as a shaliach tzibbur, and that the tzibbur led by such a person fulfills all their halakhic obligations.

What remains is the question of whether, all other things being equal, selecting such a shaliach tzibbur is equal, preferable, or less desirable than selecting a person who is able to stand.

Chavot Yair cites kabbalistic reasons for preferring a non-disabled chazan.  I am not competent to evaluate these arguments directly.  But I am comfortable saying that they carry an implication that disturbs me.  So far as I can see, they relate to the nature of the prayer itself, rather than to the quality of representation.  As such, they suggest that a physical disability inherently damages the quality of a person’s prayer.  This is directly against the position of Maharam and Maharshal.  Chavot Yair cites no precedents for applying his arguments in a halakhic context.   One therefore need not be choshesh for them in our case against Maharam and Maharshal.

Chavot Yair further claims that there is a lack of kavod hamitzvah in appointing such a shaliach tzibbur.  Even those who are not kabbalists, he says, should recognize that this is parallel to Malachi’s criticism of the Jews for bringing lame animals as sacrifices.  If such animals were brought as gifts to an overlord, they would generate disfavor rather than favor: why should we expect G-d to act differently?

Maharam explained why – “The dignity of G-d is not like the dignity of flesh and blood”.  But the truth is, Chavot Yair himself explained that it is the tefillah that is the sacrifice, not the mitpallel (pray-er).  Otherwise, one would be devaluating the individual prayers of the disabled.

It is possible that Chavot Yair is not referring to G-d’s reaction, but rather to that of the community: they will perceive themselves as offering G-d the moral equivalent of blemished animals, and they will therefore devalue their own mitzvot.  One might also suggest, as a supplement to Chavot Yair, that there is an issue of kavod hatzibbur in appointing such a shaliach tzibbur, meaning that other communities will see this community as devaluing itself.

I suggest that even if this is halakhically significant in cases where Torah is otherwise neutral, it is not true where Torah is morally committed to opposing and altering the public perception.  In this case, it seems to me that Maharam and Maharshal understood Torah to have such a commitment, while Chavot Yair did not.  On that analysis, I would be comfortable following Maharam and Maharshal.

The problem is that Maharam’s position itself challenges contemporary sensibility regarding disability.  Our social ideal is for men in wheelchairs to become shluchei tzibbur, or not, at the same rate as men on feet, and for the same reasons.  We do not wish to regard disabled men as broken vessels, or for disabled men to relate to themselves as broken.

The reciprocal problem is that contemporary sensibility is also prima facie incompatible with the ban on kohanim with certain disabilities or blemishes serving in the Temple, and that ban is explicit in the Torah.

This difficulty can be raised against Maharam as well.  As the Zohar points out, G-d bans such physically “broken vessels” from serving in the Temple, and therefore our midrash cannot be understood literally.  Rather, it must refer to those with broken spirits or hearts.

Furthermore, Maharam in his teshuvah refers to the disabled man as one who “has been affected by G-d’s attribute of justice”, and it seems reasonable that the reason G-d’s dignity is enhanced by the service of such men is that they remain attached to Him, rather than embittered against Him, despite having been punished.  This too is difficult to square with contemporary sensibility.

Some have tried to resolve this conundrum by framing what I am calling “contemporary sensibility” in terms of the halakhic category of kavod haberiyot, human dignity.  In other words, they seek to give our sensibility formal halakhic weight, and then to discuss our question in formal halakhic terms.

I prefer to avoid categorizing eligibility or ineligibility for public ritual roles as inherently an issue of kavod haberiyot.  It seems to me that halakhah generally understands kavod haberiyot as a function of habit and reasonable expectations based on experience.  Thus a zaken may refrain from returning a lost object if picking it up is beneath his dignity, even if a non-zaken would be obligated.  Similarly, people can receive private tzedakah to maintain their public standard of living, even if that standard is beyond their current means, and likely even if it is beyond the means of some of those donating.

I also find it deeply problematic to define kavod haberiyot halakhically in ways that conflict with incontrovertible halakhic precedents, let alone explicit Biblical categories.

However, it is very likely an issue of kavod haberiyot to deprive people who have been accustomed to lead services of the ability to do so when they become disabled.  This is the basis for Mas’eit Binyamin’s remarkably emotional teshuvah about aliyot for the blind, and for contemporary discussions of whether men with colostomy bags can receive aliyot.

In our case, Mr. Goodman has become accustomed to playing this role, and so our case is comparable to standard precedents regarding kavod haberiyot.  Accordingly, one can add kavod haberiyot to the grounds for permitting him to continue his role without understanding it as a universal levelling principle.

But we must be clear that it is an additional reason rather than a necessary reason.  The fundamental halakhah remains that being in a wheelchair does not disqualify one from serving as a shaliach tzibbur.  What we have failed to resolve is whether, all other things being equal, it is preferable to choose someone in a wheelchair, following Maharam, or preferable not to, following Chavot Yair.  In the absence of such a resolution, the halakhah in fact if accidentally should track the contemporary sensibility and treat being in a wheelchair as halakhically irrelevant.

We have also failed to resolve the underlying question of the relationship between contemporary sensibility and halakhic precedent, and we have left numerous approaches unexplored.  One might for example argue that in a fundamentally egalitarian society, equal treatment becomes a function of habit and a reasonable expectation.  One might argue that the capacity to represent the community ritually has different significances in different societies.  One might seek to embed principles of equal treatment in halakhic or hashkafic categories other than kavod haberiyot.  One might argue that the weight of halakhic precedent should compel us to position ourselves as countercultural, whether in Maharam’s way or in Chavot Yair’s.  However, none of these arguments are necessary to resolve our case, and so this teshuvah is not the proper place to evaluate them.

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Noach: A High School Seminar Transcript

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

(Note:  A seminar is a class discussion with rigorous and formal canons of discussion, often including a requirement that opinions be backed by specific textual evidence. In today’s class, every student is required to make at least one substantive contribution to receive a passing grade.)

Teacher: Today’s seminar will begin from a very brief opening thesis/dvar Torah by Gittel.

Gittel: Hashem wanted people to be good, but they were bad and getting worse.  Hashem warned them that bad things would happen, but they didn’t listen.  Finally He destroyed the world in a flood, leaving only Noach and his family alive.

We should learn from this that we really need to be good, and that we should believe people when they say that Hashem will destroy the world if we’re not good.

Rivky:  But didn’t Hashem promise that He would never bring another Flood?  I think the lesson is that if people tell us that Hashem will destroy the world if we’re not good, we shouldn’t listen to them: Hashem did that once and he won’t do it again.

Elimelekh:  Just because He promised not to bring a flood, doesn’t mean he isn’t going to destroy the world some other way.  “G-d gave Noah the rainbow sign/no more water, it’s the fire next time.”  And in fact, when Sodom gets as evil as the Flood generation, Hashem rains fire on them.

Yaakov:  That’s cheating!  What’s the point of His promise then?

Rivky:  Anyway, people are always telling us that the world’s going to end soon.  We can’t believe all of them, so how do we choose?  I think we shouldn’t believe any of them.

Gittel: We should listen to prophets.

Rivky: But there are no prophets nowadays!  I know that Chazal said that “Prophecy was taken from the wise and given to the insane and children” – is that whom you want us to listen to?

Yaakov: We have people with ruach hakodesh; we should listen to them.

Elimelekh: People with ruach hakodesh can still make really bad mistakes, and anyway we really don’t know who has it or what it means.

Shlomo:  Maybe it means that we should listen to scientists.  I think a lot of them are telling us that the world will become uninhabitable if we don’t stop global warming.

Yaakov:  But stopping global warming isn’t about morality and avodas Hashem!  It’s about reducing our carbon footprint.

Rivky: And anyway, He promised.

Shlomo: Maybe there’s a connection.  Maybe a society would only go on doing things that could kill our whole species if it had completely lost control of its appetites, and so it must be a really evil society.

Yael: But we’re not really one society in the world, so how could Hashem judge us all together?

Elimelekh:  Why should we believe that what scientists tell us is true?  Doesn’t science keep changing?

Rivky: I think that’s cheating.  We assume that science is true in every other class in this school.

Yaakov:  So let’s stop doing that in the other classes too.

Elimelekh:  Are we really living in a society that might be so evil that G-d would destroy us, at least if He hadn’t promised not to?  Didn’t Rav Moshe Feinstein say that America is a “government of chesed”?

Yaakov: Rav Moshe was niftar many years ago, and things have gotten much worse.  One of my rebbeim said that the generation of the Flood was punished because hishchis kol basar es darko al haaretz, meaning rampant sexual confusion – isn’t that happening in America today?

Gittel: Chazal also said that Hashem spares any society that is interpersonally good, even if they’re terrible at bein adam laMakom.  I think at least America qualifies.

Yaakov: I think Hashem does judge the whole world together, as one society, for these purposes.  There’s something powerful in the idea that we and our worst enemies are all one moral ecosystem from Hashem’s perspective.

Batsheva: Why are you so confident that America is a good society interpersonally?  Almost everything I read is about African-American being killed by police, women (and men) being sexually assaulted, and enormous gaps between the rich and the poor.  It may be true that we profess excellent values, but we don’t live up to them.

Elimelekh: I think you need to keep America’s faults in perspective.  Despite everything, almost everyone in the world realizes that they would prefer to live here if they made a purely rational decision.

Batsheva: Yes, but maybe that’s just because we’re so rich.  If we were a poor country, would people feel the same way?

Shlomo:  You’re assuming that virtue and success are unrelated.  Maybe we’re so rich because we’re so good.

Gittel:  Doesn’t Kohelet tell us that virtue and success are unrelated?

Shlomo: I didn’t mean that Hashem rewards us.  I meant that our society gives people the freedom to be creative and the ambition to live well, and that’s a recipe for national wealth.

Batsheva: Part of the message of Kohelet is that it often takes a long time for the economic effects of virtue or vice to wear off.  We might be rich because our grandparents constructed a virtuous society, even though our society is totally corrupt.

Yaakov:  Maybe Hashem judges individuals “ba’asher hu sham”, as they are now, but judges societies on the basis of their potential.  He only brought the flood when there was no hope that anything worthwhile would ever emerge from that society.  Does America still have the potential for moral greatness?

Gittel: I think it would be enough for Hashem if the Jewish people were virtuous or had the potential for moral greatness.  But I don’t see us being better or worse than anyone else.

Yael:  It’s very hard to compare societies.  But I find it difficult to believe that the world today is worse morally than it was in the 1940s, or in the nineteenth century.  So I really don’t think it makes sense to say that we’re under threat of G-d destroying the world today.

Elimelekh: The whole North Korea situation has really scared me, and I’ve read a lot about the Cold War, when many people thought nuclear war was inevitable.  Maybe we’re always under threat of G-d destroying the world:

Shlomo: But why should we be?  If we’re better than the worst ever, there shouldn’t be a threat.

Rivky: Rambam says that every Jew should imagine every year that the whole world’s survival depends on whether their next choice is for good or evil.  Maybe the possibility of the world being destroyed tomorrow is necessary to make us take our free will seriously.

Teacher: So, last round.  What’s your one sentence takeaway from Parshat Noach?

Batsheva: Societies should always consider whether they are badly overestimating themselves.

Elimelekh: Existence is always fragile.  We survive only while Hashem Wills us to.

Gittel: There really isn’t any excuse for being evil if you believe in Hashem.

Rivky: We should act as if the world depends on us, but really G-d will be merciful anyway.

Shlomo: Human beings and animals have the same end, but if we’re good, maybe Hashem will know our names.

Yaakov: The world is an ark, and we are all on it together, whether we like it or not.

Yael: Humanity is too diverse and complex for Hashem ever to find us completely valueless.

Teacher: Thank you very much for your serious participation.  I think this was a powerful discussion: I learned a lot about the parshah, and about you.  I hope you’ll share this discussion with your parents and your shuls.  Shabbat shalom!

(Please note: This dialogue is a work of fiction.  No actual students were stimulated to think in the course of its preparation, but I would be encouraged if it resembled actual classrooms. Do you agree?)

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