How Should One Relate to Modes of Torah Interpretation that One Does Not Believe In?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

How should one relate to modes of Torah interpretation that one does not believe in? I intend this question in two ways.

First, how does one relate to hermeneutical systems that one sees as imposed on texts rather than as organic to the text, as producing eisegesis rather than exegesis? Second, how does one relate to interpretations developed in the service of broad philosophic positions that one does not share?

The first question arises often for me when reading Chassidic commentaries. An underlying presumption of such commentaries is that the exoteric historical narrative of chumash (but not only the narrative, and not only Chumash, or even only Tanakh) is properly interwoven with, supplemented, and sometimes supplanted by an esoteric psychospiritual narrative.

The esoteric narrative often emerges by employing some of the more radical techniques of classical midrash. Here is an example, drawn from Toldot Yaakov Yosef1to Genesis 27:22. “הקול קול יעקב והידים ידי עשו” is generally translated as “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, but the hands are the hands of Esav”; Toldot Yaakov Yosef, however, translates “The voice is the voice of Yaakov, as are the hands, the (very) hands (previously) of Esav”. Exoterically, the verse describes Yitzchak’s confusion as to which son was standing before him to receive his blessing; esoterically, it tells us that involving one’s entire body in the ecstasy of prayer sanctifies the physical, specifically by clapping, so that the hands previously identified with the material become servants of the spiritual.

On a purely syntactic level, this reading requires us to read across the parallelism of the verse in a kind of slantrhyme. The identical tactic is given on Sanhedrin 57b as the basis for Rabbi Yishmael’s position that abortion is included within the Noachide prohibition against bloodshedding. Genesis 9:6 “שופך דם האדם באדם דמו ישפך” is usually translated as “The shedder of human blood, by a human must his blood be shed”, but here is translated “The shedder of the blood of a human within a human, his blood must be shed”.

No claim is made in either case that this reading is the exclusive or even primarymeaning of the verse, and I think that playing with punctuation to produce multiple meanings is a standard poetic technique. So for me the fundamental question is not whether the literary tactic is compelling, but rather whether I think that the resulting interpretation is a plausible intent of this section of Chumash.

My answer to this depends to some extent on another question: To what extent is this interpretation interwoven with the exoteric narrative? For example: Does Toldot Yaakov Yosef claim that on some level Yitzchak intended this when exclaiming it, or would he be content to say that Yitzchak simply channeled the Divine intent unconsciously, he “prophesied without knowing what he had prophesied”, in the rabbinic phrase? I would be happier if the former were true, if this interpretation owed at least some fealty to the narrative context.

On that assumption, Toldot Yaakov Yosef must claim that Yitzchak was on some level aware of Yaakov’s deception. Even more strongly, he was celebrating Yaakov’s capacity to engage in the deception, to utilize the “hands” without losing his “voice”.

And I do think that a close reading of the exoteric narrative lends much support to the thesis that Yitzchak was a willing party to his own deception. Which means, in the end, that Toldot Yaakov Yosef’s reading is useful to me. And yet, I still find it hard to allow any validity to the claim that this verse is in any sense about the importance of being a clapper during davening.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef offers the above reading as a prefatory aside to a discussion of the opening of this week’s parshah. “Yaakov left B’er Sheva, and went toward Charan. Vayifga bamakom…” Any reader will notice immediately that “bamakom”, “(untranslatable preposition) the place”, is problematic, as the place has not previously been identified. Classical midrash identifies it either as Mount Moriah (on his way to the Akeidah, Avraham saw the place from afar – Genesis 22:4) or as G-d (the place of all existence). The former reading raises geographic difficulties, which are resolved in various ways. The latter fits well in context – a prophetic dream ensues immediately (although for Talmud Berakhot 28 it seems to refer to a separate act of prayer)  – but Ibn Ezra argues that it is anachronistic, in that G-d is not referred to as “the place” in Tanakh, only in rabbinic literature. Radak and Seforno accordingly postulate a well- known wayfarer’s station in that location, and indeed an entire institution of such stations on major roads.

Toldot Yaakov Yosef adopts the position that “bamakom” refers to G-d. He does not stop there, however – Be’er sheva refers to a kabbalistic Service known as the Seven, Charan refers to Divine Anger, and “vayifga bamakom” means that Yaakov became subject to the Divine Aspect of Justice as the result of leaving the highest level of service (in which he acquired the “hands”).

I cannot follow him down that path. This raises for me the question of whether I can legitimately use the product of his initial steps. But I want to explore that question in a broader context.

Over the years, I have had a number of friends who raved about the beauty and depth of kabbalistic thought without, so far as I could tell, in any way believing that the metaphysical structures described by kabbalah had any “real” existence. For them, the ten sefirot, the worlds of thought and deed, and the like were useful metaphors for aspects of the human psyche, and no more; they did not require any notion of transcendence or Divinity. I often wondered (aloud, and, no doubt irritatingly, to them) if this was fair to the texts and authors they studied and taught. More strongly, I wondered whether the key question was not belief but experience, whether it was possible to meaningfully read these texts without having had experiences that corresponded to their notion of reality – were they colorblind critics teaching about art? For myself, I remain unaware of having had any such experiences, and therefore I always resisted citing such texts.

So it is much caution that I end this devar Torah by citing a metaphor from the Zohar.

Zohar 1:148b

The other, younger (son of Rabbi Yitzchak) said:
“Vayifga bamakom; he lay over there because the sun had set; (he took of the rocks of the makom and put underneath his head” –
What is the meaning of “vayifga bamakom”?
This can be compared to a king who visits a lady – he needs to entreat her and to perfume her with words, so that she will not seem utterly available to him.
Not only that – even if he has a bed of gold and woven tapestries in his castle to sleep on, whereas she makes do with a stone bed on the ground in a fortress of straw, he should leave his and sleep on hers so as to give her satisfaction, so that their companionship will be unified without constraint.
This is as we learn here, for once he came to her, what is written? “He took from the rocks of the place and put under his head, and he lay down in that place” – so as to give her satisfaction, as even the rocks of her house are beloved to him to sleep on”.

The Zohar is plainly talking about the unification of various aspects of the Divine, about which I have nothing to say. But the courting/marital advice is beautiful, and there is one literary/psychological element that is tempting, namely the parallelism between Yaakov’s relationship with G-d and his relationship with Rachel, where he also saw hardship as joy in the service of love. Is it fair to extract those and leave the kabbalah behind? I welcome your comments.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2010


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

What Kri’at Yam Suf Can Teach Us About Leaving Lavan

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

This week’s Parshah is the story of Yaakov’s sojourn in Charan, from beginning to end. It ends when Hashem tells Yaakov that it is time to return to Eretz Canaan. After receiving the assent of Rachel and Leah, Yaakov packs up his family and possessions and runs away without notifying Lavan. But eventually Lavan finds out. Bereishit 31:22-23 reads as follows (translations from Sefaria):

וַיֻּגַּ֥ד לְלָבָ֖ן בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֑י כִּ֥י בָרַ֖ח יַעֲקֹֽב׃

וַיִּקַּ֤ח אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ עִמּ֔וֹ וַיִּרְדֹּ֣ף אַחֲרָ֔יו דֶּ֖רֶךְ שִׁבְעַ֣ת יָמִ֑ים וַיַּדְבֵּ֥ק אֹת֖וֹ בְּהַ֥ר הַגִּלְעָֽד׃

On the third day, Lavan was told that Yaakov had fled.

So he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days, catching up with him in the hill country of Gilead.

The phrase “a distance of seven days” is strange. If the text had meant an amount of time, it could have said that Lavan pursued Yaakov “for seven days” (which is indeed how Ramban understands it). Rashi notes this oddity and makes the following comment:

דרך שבעת ימים. כָּל אוֹתָן ג’ יָמִים שֶׁהָלַךְ הַמַּגִּיד לְהַגִּיד לְלָבָן הָלַךְ יַעֲקֹב לְדַרְכּוֹ, נִמְצָא, יַעֲקֹב רָחוֹק מִלָּבָן שִׁשָּׁה יָמִים, וּבַשְּׁבִיעִי הִשִּׂיגוֹ לָבָן. לָמַדְנוּ שֶׁכָּל מַה שֶּׁהָלַךְ יַעֲקֹב בְּשִׁבְעָה יָמִים הָלַךְ לָבָן בְּיוֹם אֶחָד (שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר וַיִּרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו דֶּרֶךְ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, וְלֹא נֶאֱמַר וַיִרְדֹּף אַחֲרָיו שִׁבְעַת יָמִים):

A distance of seven days. During the three days that the messenger had gone to tell Lavan, Yaakov went on his way. Consequently, Yaakov was six days away from Lavan, and yet on the seventh day alone Lavan caught him. We have learned that the entire distance that Yaakov traveled in seven days, Lavan traveled in one day (as it says, “and he pursued him a distance of seven days,” and it does not say, “and he pursued him for seven days”). (Genesis Rabbah 74:6).

In sum, Rashi is saying that the reason why the Pasuk says that Lavan travels “a distance of seven days” is because he travels in one day the distance that Yaakov had travelled in seven. But Rashi does not state why this miracle was able to occur. Those details are filled in by Or HaChaim:

דרך שבעת ימים. יש לחקור למה נשתנה יעקב בהליכה זו שלא קפצה לו הארץ כמשפט לאוהבי שמו, ומצינו שאפילו לאליעזר עבד אביו קפצה לו הארץ, (ב”ר נ”ט) ומן הנכון אליו יאות עשות גם להצילו מהרודף ולא היה משיגו לבן. ואולי כי הגיד לו האדון ברוך הוא בזה שאין צריך לברוח כי הגם שהדביקו לבן היוכל דבר דבר אליו אפילו דיבור, וזולת זה היה מראה ח”ו כי לא יכול הצילו מיד לבן, וגדול הנס הזה שהגם שהוא בעל בחירה ימנע מעשות בחירתו ביעקב:

A distance of seven days. We must examine why the earth did not “fold” under Jacob on this occasion to facilitate his journey (in response to the urging of the angel) as it had done when he was on the way to Charan at the beginning of our פרשה. If the earth even “folded” for Eliezer, Abraham’s servant at the time (as we know from Bereshit Rabbah 59,11), it would certainly have seemed appropriate that the same should happen to the righteous Jacob, especially since he then would have been out of danger of pursuit. Perhaps the failure of the earth to “fold” was a way of G’d telling Jacob that he did not need to flee, that even if Laban were to catch up with him he would not even be able to speak to him offensively or threateningly. Had G’d made the earth “fold” for him, Jacob might have thought that G’d had no other means of putting him out of Laban’s reach. If G’d had not spoken to Laban even קפיצת הדרך would not have sufficed to allow Jacob to escape Laban and his sons. The greatness of the miracle was that although Laban possessed freedom of choice he was prevented from exercising it against Jacob.

Or HaChaim is not focusing on Lavan’s speed, but rather the fact that Hashem did not make a miracle for Yaakov so that he could run away faster. Nevertheless, the idea behind it could be the same. The reason why Lavan was able catch Yaakov was because Hashem wanted him to.

This story brings to mind another great escape, that of the Jews from Mitzrayim. There are many parallels between that story (at least Rashi’s read of it) and this one:

  • Yaakov/the Jews leave a foreign country to return to Eretz Canaan after being told by Hashem that they should do so.
  • When they leave, they take all their belongings out with them.
  • It takes three days for the realization that Yaakov/the Jews will not come back (see Rashi to Shemot 14:5; though the message does not reach Pharaoh until the fourth day).
  • The antagonist is informed by an unnamed messenger – the word “וַיֻּגַּ֥ד” is used in both places (Bereishit 31:22, Shemot 14:5).
  • The antagonist takes other people with him and runs after the party that has left.
  • A member of the antagonist’s party travels the same distance in one day that it took the fleeing party to travel in several days (Lavan, Bereishit 31:23; Pharaoh’s messenger, Rashi to Shemot 14:5).
  • The antagonist catches up to the fleeing party on the seventh day (Bereishit 31:23, Rashi to Shemot 14:5).
  • The fleeing party is not harmed by the antagonist after Hashem’s intervention (He appears to Lavan in a dream and tells him not to harm Yaakov in Bereishit 31:24; and He splits the sea and drowns the Egyptians in Shemot 14).
  • The reason why the antagonist is able to catch up to the fleeing party is because Hashem wants him to (see Shemot 13-14; this may be why they travel in a roundabout way and wait for Pharaoh to reach them).

I think that there are two main reasons why Hashem could have wanted Lavan to catch up to Yaakov, and Pharaoh to catch up to the Jews.

The first is based on the idea stated by Or HaChaim: “The greatness of the miracle was that although Laban possessed freedom of choice he was prevented from exercising it against Jacob.” Similarly, at Kri’at Yam Suf, Hashem hardens Pharaoh’s heart so that Egypt will know that Hashem is God (Shemot 14:4), thereby limiting Pharaoh’s free choice. The commonality is that sometimes, Hashem will limit free choice in order to make Himself known and to protect the Jews; but others will only get the message if the Jews are placed in a situation of danger where it is obvious that they are only saved because of that lack of free choice.

A second possibility is that Hashem wants Yaakov to make a clean break from Lavan, and the Jews to make a clean break from Mitzrayim. If Yaakov and the Jews had succeeded in running away, it is possible that they could have later gone back and pretended that nothing had happened. Hashem does not want this; instead, He forces Yaakov to confront Lavan, and the Jews to confront Pharaoh. In order to make a clean break, Yaakov and the Jews must make a statement: “We are leaving now, you know about it, and there is nothing you can do to stop us.” It is only by doing this that they are able to return to Eretz Canaan as independent people and restart anew there.

Davida Kollmar (SBM ’14,’16,’17, MA ’16, WWBM ’18) is studying for her Masters degree in Data Science at NYU, is a editor for The Lehrhaus, and is the former program administrator for CMTL.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Does G-d Write Thrillers? The Role of Suspense in Scripture

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

According to Bing, suspense is “a state or feeling of excited or anxious uncertainty about what may happen”, or alternatively, ”a quality in a work of fiction that arouses excited expectation or uncertainty about what may happen”.  This second definition is in error – nothing about literary suspense is affected by categorization as fiction vs, nonfiction. Life can be suspenseful, as in the first definition; and a retelling of life can be as suspenseful as an imaginary narrative.  

An author retelling a story from life, however, does not have to convey all the suspense of the original, or may choose to artificially create suspense where none existed. Do these choices matter? Do they affect the meaning of the story, or only the enjoyment and attentiveness of readers?

This question matters to me religiously because G-d makes the clear choice to heighten suspense in this week’s parshah.  He does this both artificially and by including the time element in the story. Pay close attention to Genesis 27:30:


כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר כִּלָּ֣ה יִצְחָק֘ לְבָרֵ֣ךְ אֶֽת־יַעֲקֹב֒


אַ֣ךְ יָצֹ֤א יָצָא֙ יַעֲקֹ֔ב מֵאֵ֥ת פְּנֵ֖י יִצְחָ֣ק אָבִ֑יו

וְעֵשָׂ֣ו אָחִ֔יו בָּ֖א מִצֵּידֽוֹ

It happened

when Yitzchak finished blessing Yaakov

It happened

Yaakov akh yatzo yatza (=had just left? was just leaving?) from the presence of Yitzchak his father,

and Esav his brother ba (was coming? had come?) from his hunt

The repetition of “vayehi” (=It happened) seems to serve no purpose at all other than to artificially heighten suspense by making us wait to find out what happened.  Similarly, even if Yaakov and Esav nearly met, that seems to have no effect on the substance of the story; what would have been different had Esav shown up ten minutes later? So why does G-d go to such literary and descriptive effort to make us feel this suspense?

The midrashei aggada do their best to make the story even more exciting.  According to Rav Ayvo in Midrash Rabbah, Yitzchak’s house had two doors, and Yaakov left by one as Esav entered by the other. But the Rabbis thought this insufficient.  Rather, the doors to Yitzchak’s house opened inward, and Yaakov hid behind one of them (in one version because he heard Esav’s footsteps) and slipped out after Esav passed. In Hadar Zekeinim’s version Yitzchak’s doors ordinarily opened outward, but the angel Gavriel reverse their hinges just in time. In any case, Esav delayed as long as he did only because angels kept untying the snares he set to catch the game for his father’s meal.

According to, “Suspense is a literary device that authors use to keep their readers’ interest alive throughout the work. It is a feeling of anticipation that something risky or dangerous is about to happen. The purpose of using this type of anxiety in literature is to make readers more concerned about the characters, and to form sympathetic association with them.”  So perhaps the sense that Yaakov was in danger from Esav helps us sympathize with him even if we have moral qualms about his actions. But that seems to me an insufficient justification. In any case, we may instead sympathize more with Esav, who lost out by only a second, and therefore clearly through no fault of his own.

So we need to step back and ask a more fundamental question. Was Yaakov in danger from Esav?  Rashbam here makes an astounding comment.

“ויהי אך יצא יצא” –

להגיד ניסים שנעשו ליעקב בא הכתוב, שאילו הקדים עשו לבא רגע אחד קודם, לא נתברך יעקב

“It happened as Yaakov was just leaving” –

Scripture here comes to tell us the miracles that were done for Yaakov

that if Esav had come one moment earlier, Yaakov would not have been blessed.

Rashbam apparently thinks that the blessing was at risk, but not Yaakov’s life.  His position is strengthened when we recall that Yaakov himself worries to his mother only about what his father will think of him if he is exposed, not about what his brother will do to him.

On the other hand, midrashim reasonably claim that the point of Esav coming directly “from his hunt” is to remind us that he was armed. Moreover, Esav reacts to learning of Yaakov’s deceit by planning to kill Yaakov after Yitzchak’s death.  I don’t think we can be certain that concern for his father would have restrained his vengeance had he caught Yaakov in person. Finally, Rashbam’s reading does not explain why the Torah tells us that Yaakov was just leaving, rather than sticking with the key point, which is that Yitzchak had just finished giving the blessing. So I don’t find his reading sufficient either.

We therefore need to step back again, to ask an even more fundamental question. Why doesn’t Yaakov express any concern to his mother about being caught by Esav? I think the simplest explanation is that he expects Esav to be gone for long enough to leave him plenty of time to receive the blessing.  This is supported by Yitzchak’s expression of surprise when Yaakov arrives so rapidly with his food.

If Esav arrived earlier than expected, we cannot have angels untying his snares to delay him.  Rather, as Yaakov posits to explain his own timing, the angels must have been driving the animals into Esav’s snares.  The purpose of the miracles therefore is not to prevent Esav and Yaakov from meeting, but to ensure that they almost meet.  Therefore – what prevents them from meeting is not that Esav comes late, but rather that Yaakov leaves in time.

Is his leaving in time a miracle?

Or HaChayyim offers a totally different perspective on the story, one that he acknowledges reads “yatzo yatza” differently than Chazal.  He suggests that Yaakov left because he heard Esav coming.  Moreover, he contends that the repetition of vayehi is not intended to convey suspense. Rather, he cites the standard midrashic contention that vayehi introduces misfortune.  The repetition is intended to emphasize the great pain that Yaakov was in throughout this episode.

ורמז אל הצער שחש יעקב

שימצא כגנב במחתרת בפני אביו

כשהרגיש בביאת עשו:

This hints at the pain that Yaakov felt

when fearing that he would be caught like a thief in a tunnel before his father

when he heard Esav coming.

Or HaChayyim’s specific textual arguments do not compel me. But his perspective opens up one more possibility.

Why would angels intervene to rush Esav back, if we’re rooting for Yaakov to leave in time to escape?  Why is it important for the Torah to create suspense, to make us feel that Esav could have caught Yaakov, with catastrophic consequences?  The best answer is that the issue was really contingent, that Esav might have caught Yaakov, and the outcome hinged on Yaakov’s free-willed decision to leave when he did.

Why would that matter?  In my reading, Yaakov believes that he has plenty of time, as in the normal course of nature Esav won’t arrive for hours. The ordinary and right thing for Yaakov to do is to remain in situ and thank his father, and to bask in his victory.  But he is terribly uncomfortable with what he has done; he feels, as Or HaChayyim put it, “like a thief in his tunnel”. So he rushes (yatzo yatza) out.

If Yaakov had stayed a moment longer than necessary – if he had had no pangs of conscience and seen his actions as untroubling, because the ends justify the means – Esav would have caught him, and very likely killed him.  G-d and his angels made sure that Yaakov had the slimmest margin of error. But he passed the test.

People who are paralyzed by moral complexity cannot lead.  Yaakov acted, and succeeded. But people who feel no pain when confronting morally complex situations generally should not be allowed to lead.  This is especially the case when leadership includes genuine power over others, as in the blessing Yitzchak gives Yaakov.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

What Did Yaakov Say to Yitzchak?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

ויאמר יעקב אל־אביו אנכי עשו בכרך עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי קום־נא שבה ואכלה מצידי בעבור תברכני נפשך

The most straightforward translation of what Yaakov told his father is: “Yaakov said to his father: ‘I am Esav, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.’” This seems flatly deceitful; Yaakov is not Esav, is not the first-born, and received no relevant instructions from Yitzchak. Can Yaakov’s untruths be defended?  The diverse approaches taken by parshanim to defend Yaakov’s untruths present us with very different views of his character.

Rashi, taking the cue of Chazal, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie. Instead, this is what he really said: “It is I bringing this to you; Esav is your firstborn. I have done many things that you have told me.” The few words Rashi adds changes the entire dynamic. Instead of Yaakov as trickster, underhandedly stealing his brother’s blessing, Yaakov is laying out clues that Yitzchak would see if he wanted to see them.  He puts the onus on his father to discover the truth, and to accept the blame if he fails to discover it.

By contrast, Radak acknowledges that Yaakov deceived Yitzchak, but justifies Yaakov’s lies.

ואין זה תימה, כי יודע היה יעקב כי הוא ראוי יותר לברכה מאחיו, ורוח הנבואה שתשרה על יצחק לברכו יותר יתעשת האלהים לברכתו מברכת אחיו, כי הוא רצוי לא-ל יותר ממנו, וחלוף הדברים במקומות כאלה אינם גנאי וחילול לצדיק.

But this is not astonishing, since Yaakov was aware that he was more fit for blessing than his brother, and that the spirit of nevuah/prophecy that would rest on Yitzchak to bless him would cause God’s blessing to linger more if he received the blessing than if his brother did, since he was a more pious man. Saying the opposite of the truth in situations such as these is not a shame and disgrace for a righteous person.

Radak accepts that in certain situations, when a Tzaddik recognizes that what he or she is doing is for the greater good, that it is allowed to lie to achieve that goal.

Or HaChayim takes a third approach.  He argues that legally, Yaakov was Esav:

פי’: להיות שקנה הבכורה מעשו, ,הנה הוא נעשה עשו לצד בחינת הבכורה, כי (לא) [לה] יקרא עשו בכורו.

ואומרו “עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי”, פירוש: כי טעם שצוה לעשו הוא כי הוא בנו הבכור, וכיון שנטל הבכורה, כאילו הדבר בא אליו:

This means that since Yaakov purchased the birthright from Esav, he had become Esav in the aspect of the Birthright, and for this reason did Yitzchak call Esav his firstborn.

So when he said “I have done as you told me,” this meant that the reason Yitzchak commanded Esav is because he was his  firstborn son, and since Yaakov took the Birthright, it was as if the command was given to him.

Or HaChayim, like Rashi, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie to his father to get the Berachah. But rather than reparsing Yaakov’s words, he redefines Yaakov’s person: Yaakov, in this legal instance, is indeed Esav. Because he purchased the birthright, he purchased the personality of Esav as the firstborn, the one who owns the right to the Berachah.

Was Yaakov a man who never erred, who, sometimes through technicalities, was able to protect his status as a Tzaddik? Was he a man who recognized that he needed to bend the rules for the greater good? Was he someone who understood the power of a sale, and the nature of birthright, better than the rest of his family? Or, as some modern readers prefer, was Yaakov wrong in deceiving his father, a mistake which caused him suffering through the actions of his own sons? How we choose to understand Yaakov’s actions is a consequence  of how we each want to understand the Avot.

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘18) is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

If Sarah Imeinu had Died in Pittsburgh

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rabbi Barry Kornblau posted the following this week, which expressed my thoughts and feelings as well: “At this time of our need and grief, our American Jewish community is currently experiencing an outpouring of love and support from others outside our community. In addition to thanking those who offer such assistance now, we Jews must also recommit, now, to our principled tradition of extending hands and hearts of love to other communities who, in their present and future times of grief and need, will appreciate our support.”

This devar Torah is in large measure an expression of the same idea.

You can learn a lot about your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead, and also about your own place in society. But some of what you learn may be wrong.  What did Avraham learn when it came time to bury Sarah? How much of what he learned was correct?

When Avraham rises from his grief, he turns to the Hittites and says:

גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

תנו לי אחזת קבר עמכם

ואקברה את מתי מלפני

I am a ger and toshav among you

Give me a graveholding among you

and I will bury my dead from before me.

The meaning of the phrase ger and toshav is unclear.  To begin with, it may be a compound – “I am fully a ger and fully a toshav” – or else a hendiadys – “I am some hybrid of ger and toshav”.   Neither ger nor toshav is clear, either, and both must be contrasted with ezrach and with yoshev. Let’s assume that a toshav is more firmly entrenched than a ger, so we’ll call a toshav a resident and a ger an alien.

Avraham uses words that seem bold in context.  “Give me”, rather than ‘sell me’; “graveholding”, rather than ‘grave’; and “among you”, rather than ‘anywhere’.  A straightforward way of reading this is to see Avraham as seeing to upgrade his status. Until now he has had, and sought, no permanent connection to this land and culture; creating a family plot in the local cemetery will make him a local, and perhaps a citizen.

This reading is strongly opposed by traditional commentators, for both global and local reasons. Globally, the notion of Avraham genuinely wanting integration with Hittites seems a violation of Jewish destiny, and a failure to understand the message of the Covenant Between the Pieces that the cultures of Canaan are on an irreversible downward moral and religious trajectory.

Note however that Rashbam on last week’s parashah criticizes Avraham for making a pact with the Philistines, and even suggests that the Akeidah was a punishment for making it, because it showed a lack of faith in God’s promise that his descendants would inherit the Land.  Perhaps Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak proved his faith, but he never understood why he had been tested?

Locally, the negotiation ends, at Avraham’s insistence, in the purchase of Ephron’s cave as an entirely private burial ground. The burden of proof rests on anyone arguing that Avraham initially intended a different plot of land and/or a gift rather than a purchase.

But there seem to be real developments in the course of the negotiation. Avraham initially expresses interest only in the cave “which is at the edge of his field”, but ends up paying for Ephron’s entire field. Avraham’s last words to Ephron replace the phrase “bury from before me” with “bury there”. So there is room to argue that Avraham initially wanted integration, but somehow feels/is rejected, and changes his goal from to mere toleration.

We might blame this on Ephron. He is the one who introduces the field. He describes the cave as “in it” rather than “on its edge.” Perhaps the community was sincere in telling Avraham that any one of them would freely give him a burial space, and perhaps the Cave was close enough to an existing cemetery to be considered an annex. But Ephron’s introduction of the field made a gift obviously too extravagant.

Or we might blame this on the Hittites as a whole. They never agreed to give Avraham his own space, only to allow him to bury Sarah in any of their own graves. Their goal was to make Avraham a permanent refugee, with no rights except by sufferance.

Alternatively, the Hittites demanded that Avraham bury Sarah in one of their graves, with no distinctiveness at all. James Loeffler recently posted a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that sums this reading up:

The liberal world has sought to dissolve the prejudice between Jews and Gentiles by preaching tolerance and good-will… [But there’s] a curious, partly unconscious, cultural imperialism in theories of tolerance which look forward to a complete destruction of all racial distinctions…The majority group expects to devour the minority group by way of assimilation. This is a painless death, but it is death nevertheless.

Avraham recoiled, and chose full separation with tenuous tolerance over assimilation.

Or Hachaim, perhaps uniquely among traditional commentators, argues that Avraham was making a rights-based argument that depended on his outsider status.

ויש לך לדעת כי כל תורתנו הקדושה היא שכליית,

ובפרט בענייני ההנהגה הארצית,

וכמו שאנו מתנהגים בגר היושב עמנו,

כן יתחייב שכליות יושבי הארץ להנהיג ביניהם

להחיות אדם שהוא גר ותושב עמהם

ולתת לו מתנת חנם.

והיא טענת אברהם גר ותושב אנכי … תנו לי,

ודקדק לומר גר ולא הספיק לומר תושב,

המכוון לומר שהגם שאני גר ואיני מכם, אעפ”כ הריני תושב.

You must know that all of our holy Torah is in accord with reason,

especially in matters of national administration,

and (therefore) just as we practice toward the alien who resides among us,

so too reason requires the citizens of the land to practice amongst themselves

to sustain-the-life of a person who is an alien and resident among them

and to give him free gifts.

This is (the purpose of) Avraham’s statement “I am an alien and a resident . . . give me” –

his intent being “even though I am an alien and not one of you, nonetheless I am a resident”.

This suggests that Avraham was right to be disappointed by every aspect of the Hittite response – their demand for assimilation and Ephron’s desire for money.

However, Or HaChaim’s justification of Avraham’s disappointment comes with a challenging corollary; that Jews, whether in their own country or as part of a composite polity, have an obligation to freely give the necessities of a dignified life – specifically including burial grounds – to noncitizens who maintain separate identities.

This was too much for some subsequent commentators.  Here is the contemporary Rabbi M. Peretz in Otzar Haparshah:

והאדר”ת בספר סדר פרשיות הקשה

שלגר תושב מותר ליתן מתנת הנם בדבר שהוא להחיותו

אבל מקום קבורה ומתנה גדולה אין היוב


כשם שיש מצוה להחיותו

כך יש מצוה ליתן לו מקום קבורה

אלא שמקום חשוב, כמו מערת המכפלה – אין היוב ליתן במתנת חינם

וגם אברהם לא ביקש זאת

אלא כוונתו כיון שגר תושב אנכי עמכם – אם כן יש לי הזכות לקבל מקום קבורה בחנם

ואם כן, אני שמוכן לשלם במחיר מלא – ראוי ליתן לי רשות לקנות אפילו מקום חשוב כמערת המכפלה

לכן הקדים אברהם גר ותושב אנכי עמכם

The Aderet in his book Seder HaParshiyot challenged

that it is permitted to give a resident alien free gifts in matter that sustain-his-life,

but there is no obligation to give him a burial place or large gifts?!

But it seems

That just as there is a mitzvah to sustain his life,

So too there is a mitzvah to give him a burial place

Just that significant places, such as the Double Cave, there is no obligation to give for free

And Avraham did not seek this

Rather his intent was that “since I am a resident alien among you, I have the right to receive a burial place for free

Therefore, since I am prepared to pay full price, it is appropriate to give me permission to buy even a significant plot of land such as the Double Cave

That’s why Avraham began by saying “I am a resident alien among you”.

Rabbi Peretz contends that there must be boundaries to our obligations toward people who are not part of our nation.  It follows that there are boundaries on their obligations toward us. (But rights extend beyond obligations, so aliens have the right to purchase anything on the market so long as they pay full price, and we have the obligation to ensure that right.)

Not too many of our ancestors could have imagine a real-life situation in which we needed to make clear that the way Gentiles were treating us was lifnim mishurat hadin (beyond the letter of the law; expressing greater closeness to Hashem than required by Halakhah), lest our obligations toward Gentiles become too onerous. Not all Americans see us as neighbors, plainly, and this week we know far too well that some murderous anti-Semites live in our neighborhood. But sometimes you learn a lot from your neighbors when it comes time to bury your dead. We have  a lot to live up to.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

What to Sacrifice: God or Morality?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Steve Gotlib

The Akedah portrays a stark conflict between moral intuition and the direct, unquestionable word of God. Rav Soloveitchik commented that “God demands that man bring the supreme sacrifice, but the fashion in which the challenge is met is for man to determine” (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch).  What should we readers choose to sacrifice as we finish reading the Akedah? Our sense of human morality, or our devotion to God?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously argued that a human’s duty is to nullify his or her will before God even when that means suspending one’s ethical assumptions. Whatever God wants done must be done without question. When God tells you to jump, you can’t even ask how high. When God tells you to slaughter your son, you start sharpening the knife.

Kierkegaard’s view is in direct contradiction to that of Immanuel Kant:

Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (The Conflict of the Faculties)

According to Kant, the only thing we know for certain is that it is utterly immoral to kill our children. No one can know with the same degree of confidence that God is communicating to them. It was therefore incumbent on Abraham to question the voice he heard commanding the akeidah and make no move whatsoever until proof of it being God’s voice could be ascertained – and no sufficient proof would be possible.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) each wrote responses from within Jewish tradition to both Kierkegaard and Kant.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, a person cannot and should not suspend their own ethical judgement when faced with the word of God. They must rather work on themselves until they and God want the same thing. “One must nullify his own will and accept God’s will as the driving force in his life. Ultimately, one should strive to reach the level where he can translate God’s will into his own” (Mitzva: A Life of Command).

Rav Lichtenstein says more on this in a different essay:

…the grappling must all be done within the parameters of the understanding that, however much I wrestle, I do not for a moment question the authenticity or the authority of the tzav… I may grope, I may ask, and I may ultimately seek resolution.(“Being Frum and Being Good”)

This approach allows for Kierkegaard’s acceptance of God’s command as the be-all-and-end-all, while simultaneously allowing for a degree of Kant’s moral push-back. With this view, a person may search for the reason that they are faced with this apparent contradiction between God’s word and their moral intuition. They can wrestle with the command that they have been given and come to their own conclusions about the reason for it. But at the end of the day, a command is still a command. Upon reaching resolution, that command must be carried out as the will of God, and as their own will as well.

Rav Shagar by contrast gives doubt a legitimate and essential role in religious decision-making. He develops his position via a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4) in which the Satan tells Abraham Avinu that it was really he, not God, who commanded the slaughter of Isaac.  God will accuse Abraham of being a murderer the very next day if he goes through with this crazy act. Abraham’s responds that he will go through with what he perceives as the will of God, even though he knows that he can’t demonstrate the truth:

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

Rav Shagar argues that one can achieve true religious devotion only be experiencing and overcoming doubt. A devotion that ignores doubt entirely can be very dangerous in an age where we no longer have direct prophecy. How are we to know that the path that we are on is truly the right one and we are not misguided? Furthermore, how do we know that what we are doing is truly the word of Hashem?

Rabbi Hayyim Angel answers this question:

The Akedah teaches several vital religious lessons. Ideal religion is all about serving God, and is not self-serving. Because we expect God to be moral, the Torah’s protest tradition also emerges with Abraham’s holding God accountable. We may and should ask questions. Simultaneously, we must obey God’s laws in our mutual covenantal relationship. We aspire to be extremely religious, and Abraham serves as a paragon of the ideal connection to God, an active relationship, and faithfulness. The Akedah also teaches the key to avoid what is rightly condemned as religious extremism, using religion as a vehicle for murder, persecution, discrimination, racism, and other expressions of immorality. Morality and rationality must be built into every religious system, or else its adherents risk lapsing into immorality in the name of their religion. (The Binding of Isaac: Extremely Religious Without Religious Extremism)

Judaism is about serving God, not about serving ourselves.  But since God is a wholly moral being, His commands must also be moral. The Akedah narrative demonstrates to us that we should love God enough to do whatever it is that He demands of us, but also that God does not want us performing immoral actions in His name. Reading the Akedah with this in mind makes clear that neither moral intuition nor trust in God should ever be sacrificed.

Steve Gotlib (SBM 2017 and 2018) is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. He is now in his first year of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah

Akeidah Moments

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fathers are not supposed to sacrifice their sons, even if they think G-d is telling them to do so. Please seek psychiatric care immediately if you think G-d is telling you that. Let’s get that out of the way. Now we can talk seriously about the akeidah.

Avraham our Forefather did not seek psychiatric care when G-d told him to sacrifice Yitzchak. If we are to learn anything edifying from the akeidah narrative, we need to bridge the gap between his reaction and our understanding of what would constitute a reasonable contemporary reaction.

Here is a minimalist bridge. The story of the akeidah teaches us that G-d would never ask us to kill someone innocent.  That’s why anyone who experiences G-d telling them to kill an innocent person can be confident that they are insane.  But we should also learn from Avraham that anything G-d commands is binding, however horrible it seems to us, unless and until G-d tells us that He didn’t really mean it by issuing a specifically contradictory command.  It is not enough to show that a specific command violates a general value He has previously articulated; such values are parallel to G-d’s promises that Avraham would have many descendants etc, which did not stand in the way of G-d’s command to sacrifice Yitzchak.

Here is a maximalist bridge.  The story of the akeidah teaches us that G-d wants human beings to exercise independent moral judgement about anything and everything that appears to be His command.  That a moral giant like Avraham seriously considered slaughtering Yitzchak teaches us that uncritical obedience leads inexorably to pure evil.

Here is an intermediate bridge.  Many acharonim point out that Avraham’s willingness to sacrifice Yitzchak would not have been considered immoral by his contemporaries.  Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, and Meisha King of Moav sacrificed his son, and after all there was an entire religion called Molekh.  The akeidah is what taught Avraham, and eventually the civilized world, that human sacrifice is unjustifiable.  But it teaches us that one cannot rely on human moral consensus either, since the consensus of Avraham’s time would have approved of his going through with the sacrifice.  The real moral of the story is that we cannot stop listening for G-d’s voice when we first think we understand what He wants.  Had Avraham done so, he would never have heard the angel telling him to stop. (Frighteningly, it seems from the text that the angel had to tell him twice.)

Each of these bridges can be mapped onto our relationship with halakhah.

The minimalist bridge yields a system in which halakhah is the foundation of our values, and all elements of moral conversation need to be grounded in halakhic sources. The only way to critique a halakhic result is on the basis of another halakhic result. Contradictions are generally resolved in favor of the more specific law. For example, one cannot eat bacon to avoid embarrassing someone, despite the general halakhic imperative to be concerned for human dignity (kavod haberiyot).

The maximalist bridge yields a system in which halakhah has a voice but not a veto. Now that formulation may seem prejudicial because of its association with Mordekhai Kaplan.  But I think it is important to acknowledge that no account of Orthodoxy sees formal halakhic rules as absolutely controlling.  Even Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, who denied the concept of aveirah lishmah (transgression for the sake of Heaven) any impact post-Sinai, conceded the relevance of informal principles which can be semantically defined as in or out of halakhah. The differences between the maximalist and minimalist positions are about whether the informal principles must be derived by abstraction from specific halakhic rules, or rather can be sourced in other aspects of Torah or in human intuition; and about whether there is a presumption that formal rules trump informal principles.

The intermediate bridge yields a system in which conflicts between formal and informal principles yield an obligation for further study. The problem is that decisions often cannot be put off forever, and sometimes cannot be put off at all.  How does one decide when there isn’t time for the study and restudy one feels is necessary?  In John Kerry’s famous phrase, how does one tell someone that they may be the last person to die for a halakhic mistake?  Bottom line, the intermediate bridge still requires us under time-pressure to choose between the minimalist and maximalist models.

But it’s not obvious to me that this decision needs to be made the same way in all times and circumstances.

For example: It may be that informal rules have more power where/when there is a general sense of confidence within the halakhic community that halakhah conforms to human moral intuition.  It further seems to me that this confidence generally develops in one of two ways.  First, sometimes a halakhic community becomes isolated from other communities. In such circumstances, it is natural over time for intuition to accommodate itself within the confines of halakhah, and for halakhah to more consistently account for the community’s intuitions.  Second, sometimes the halakhic community is deeply integrated with the general human community that hosts it.  Such integration often results from a sense that Torah has a great deal in common with near-universal human values-systems.

By contrast: Formal rules may have more power when/where the halakhic community lacks moral self-confidence.

What sort of situation are we in?

It seems to me that Orthodoxy in the late 20th century was deeply integrated with its host American community.  This accordingly led to moral self-confidence and a general prioritization of informal principles over formal rules.

This claim may seem off if you’re accustomed to think of Modern Orthodoxy through the lens of Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man, which sets out a system parallel to the minimalist bridge above.  I suggest that we recognize that the system was never intended to control practical decision-making in specific cases, and never did.  It was a model for the development of formal principles. A more accurate picture of practical Modern Orthodox halakhah emerges from Rabbi Soloveitchik’s regular reliance on informal values principles in his actual halakhic decisions, and on the oral record of his acknowledgement that in specific situations of moral challenge he would act first and find the formal justification later.

But – in the 21st century, the relationship between the halakhic community and its host American community has been changing.  Progressive morality may have evolved faster than a traditionalist community can follow with integrity. Given the broad and deep influence of progressive morality, it is very hard for conservative morality to present itself as reflecting universal human intuition.  So we should expect a movement toward greater reliance on formal rules.

But that is at least an oversimplification, and perhaps just wrong.  A community that has been highly integrated with its host community does not easily disengage, and properly so.  As the gap between the formal rules and the values of the host community grows, we should also expect a move to expand the power of informal principles to fill that gap.

I also think that America is and should be unique in Jewish history because it is a democracy in which we are genuinely full participants.  This means that the category “host” is not right; we are a part of a broader community, and it is an abdication of responsibility to simply disengage from the general moral conversation. This I suggest is why Orthodoxy by and large has not gone its own way, but rather different elements of our community have chosen to integrate with the conservative and liberal wings of America society, respectively.  Both sides have largely chosen to prioritize the informal over the formal, but they have chosen different informal principles.  The irony is that the laudable shared desire to remain part of American society threatens the cohesion of Orthodoxy.

Here lies the power of “akeidah moments”, places where we acknowledge that there seems no way to bridge the gap between what halakhah requires of us and our moral intuition.  Whichever model we pick to address them, a recognition that we each are genuinely committed to both horns of the dilemma has the capacity to hold us together. But only so long as we believe in the genuineness of each other’s commitment.

Leave a comment

Filed under Weekly Devar Torah