Was Lot Worse Than Esav? Parallels, People(s), and Property

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davey Schoenberg

Who was more antagonistic to our nation, Lot or Esav? We all probably learned in grade school that Esav is obviously the villain, our archnemesis, the literal manifestation of evil. And certainly from the stories in Bereishit, even if we limit ourselves to the text and ignore the numerous midrashim, Esav appears to be the winner of the malevolence match up. The Torah testifies that he planned to kill Yaakov, and we also learn that he “despised” the Abrahamic birthright. In contrast, the only problem between Lot himself and the Abrahamic line is that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds. If we add in all the midrashim about how evil Esav was—including one that Esav tried to murder Yaakov by biting his neck—it seems even more clear that Esav’s wickedness trumps Lot’s.

Yet when we look at the laws surrounding their descendants, we get the opposite impression.[1] While Esav’s nation (Edom) can marry into the Jewish people three generations after converting to Judaism (Devarim, 23:8-9), Lot’s descendants [2] can never marry in, even after ten generations (Devarim, 23:4). Additionally, while the Torah forbids the Jewish people from conquering either set of descendants, the language in regard to Esav is much stronger, using the phrase “and you shall guard yourselves very much,” an admonition that is absent when speaking about Lot’s descendants (Devarim 2:4-5, 9, 19). Moreover, there is a special prohibition regarding Esav that the Jews may not even set foot on his descendants’ land, a commandment that is again not applied to Lot (ibid). Finally, the Torah explicitly says we are not to “seek the peace” of Lot’s descendants, but in the very next pasuk says, “Do not despise an Edomite” (Devarim 23:7-8). We see, therefore, that despite our intuition that Esav is worse than Lot, the Torah commands us to treat Lot much more harshly.

To begin understanding this seeming incongruity, we will first take a step back to talk about the word “רכש” (rechush/rachash: property/to amass). According to a Bar Ilan Responsa Project search, the root of this word appears eighteen times in the entire Chumash. Of those, an astonishing sixteen are in reference to Avraham, Lot, Yaakov, or Esav.

Two appearances of the word involve almost identical psukim. When mentioning that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds, the Torah states:

וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹֽאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים :וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו:

And also to Lot who travelled with Avraham there were sheep, cattle, tents. And the land could not sustain them to dwell together, because their property was [too] great, and they could not dwell together (13:5-6).

Similarly, when Esav goes away from Yaakov and leaves Israel to go to Har Seir, we read:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו: כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם:

And Esav took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his house and his cattle and animals and all the acquisitions he had amassed in the land of Canaan, and he went to [another] land from before Jacob his brother. Because their property was [too] great to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not sustain them because of their flocks (36:7).[3]

Both Avraham/Lot and Yaakov/Esav, had too much property to be near each other, so they separated. Yet although these psukim are similar, there is a glaring difference between their contexts. In the context of Esav, the previous pasuk refers to his family members as distinct from his possessions: wives, children AND rechush. For Lot, in contrast, people are not mentioned as distinct from the property.

This difference between Lot and the Abrahamic line continues in the rest of Bereishit. When Lot is captured along with Sdom, the Torah notes that the conquerors took “the property of Sdom and Amorah and all their food … and also Lot and his property” (14:11-12). None of their people are mentioned. In contrast, when Avraham saves everyone who was captured, the Torah says he returned “all the property and also Lot his kinsman and his property and also the women and the nation” (14:16). The Torah, when referencing the exact same set of things, mentions “the women and the nation” separately when Avraham is the key actor, but includes them under “property” for Lot.[4]

Similarly, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes his wife, his nephew, his property, and the “people they had made” (12:5). Again, the people are distinct from the property.

The first time rechush is mentioned directly in regard to Yaakov, when he leaves Lavan, the people are also listed separately (31:17-18). The other time, when the nation goes down to Egypt, not only are the people listed separately, but the Torah then goes into great detail, listing the names of the people who went with him (46:5-26).[5]

Thus, every time the word rechush is mentioned when Avraham, Yaakov, or Esav are the actors, people are treated as distinct from property, but when Lot is acting, people are considered property.[6] Indeed, Lot’s consideration of people, even his own family, as property is evident when the people of Sdom mob his house because of his visitors. Lot says to them, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; I will take them out to you and do with them what is good in your eyes” (19:8). Lot offers up his virgin daughters to be mass raped in order to protect his visitors. Part of the obvious utter revulsion we have towards this is certainly Lot’s casual treatment of his daughters as bargaining chips.

This is exactly the difference between Lot and Esav. Esav treats his own family well: there is a distinction to him between people and property. Lot, however, is a wildcard. No one is safe from him, not even family, because people are just another piece of property to mess with.

We can now answer the question with which we started. Esav can eventually marry into the Jewish people because once we are his family—say, after three generations—we trust him to be good to us. Even if the original Esav was terrible to the Jewish people, we know that if we are family, he will fulfill the basic minimum of treating us well. Esav doesn’t treat people like property. Lot, in contrast, does. Even after ten generations, when we would definitely be family, we cannot be assured that he will be good to the Jewish people because being family with other people means nothing to him: everyone is rechush.

While obviously not ideal, we can accept many negative—even reprehensible—character traits and still be willing to consider someone Jewish. This is not to say we should accept those character traits, but rather that given enough of a baseline, we may welcome someone into the community and then work on improving their actions. Comparing Lot and Esav, however, teaches us that negating the agency of other people must not be tolerated.


[1] Admittedly, the only nation we are commanded to wipe out completely is Amalek, a descendant of Esav. Nevertheless, this is only one portion of Esav’s descendants. Esav as a whole is called Edom (Bereishit 36:1), and this is to whom I refer when I say Esav’s descendants.

[2] Moav and Bnei Amon.

[3] In this week’s sedra.

[4] The king of Sdom also separates people from property, saying to Avraham, “Give me people, and the property take for yourself” (14:21). I’d argue he learned this lesson from Avraham, as Rashi commenting on the section says that a miracle occurred to the king of Sdom, causing him to “believe in Avraham” (Rashi Bereishit 14:10, s.v. be’erot be’erot cheimar).

[5] Well, the names of the males plus Dinah. The women are only mentioned as groups. But that’s a whole different discussion.

[6] There is one more time where rechush is mentioned by Avraham, when Hashem promises him that his progeny will eventually leave Egypt “with great property” (15:14). While in this case, people are not mentioned separately, this is for a clear reason: Hashem is promising that the entire nation will leave Egypt, taking their property with them. There are no separate people for them to be taking along.


Davey Schoenberg (SBM 2018) grew up in Newton, MA and attended Maimonides School before spending two years in Gush. He is currently a Sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Mechanical Engineering.


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The Kavanaugh Hearings and Torah Conversation

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A rabbi recently asked a conversion candidate whether the Torah had anything to say about the Kavanaugh hearings. The question was a failure, because the candidate did not feel safe enough to express disagreement with the (wrongly) presumed political consensus of the beit din.  I think the presumption needed to be undone; it was vital to show that Torah conversation and Torah communities are intended to handle and even encourage open disagreement on such questions.

The great issues of the day often become political faultlines.  In a healthy society, the importance of those issues drives people to engage regularly in substantive if heated conversation across those lines.  In an unhealthy society, fear of social fracturing, moral disapproval, or economic reprisal; insecurity; and sheer disregard for the opinions and character of those one disagrees with, lead people to engage only with others who are demonstrably likeminded, and to shy away from authentic disagreement.

Genesis 14:13 describes Avram as an “Ivri,” and Rabbi Yehudah  (Bereishit Rabbah 48:4) understands that to mean that “The whole world was on one side=eiver, and he stood on the other.”  In other words, a Jew is someone willing to be ostracized for the sake of moral principle.  But the medieval exegete Rabbi Yosef Bekhor Shor points out that Genesis 14:13 itself locates Avram in the terebinths of his covenanted allies Aner, Eskhol, and Mamre; Avraham and Sarah had each other; and the Rabbis also describe Avraham and Sarah as making converts (“the souls which they made in Charan”). This combination of willingness to bear unpopularity for the sake of principle, while maintaining human relationships and engaging with others in the hope of convincing them, should make for a healthy society.

One test of whether it succeeds in doing so is the process of conversion itself.  Do candidates see themselves as entering a vibrant conversation which values the differences they bring to Judaism? Or do they see it as too risky to express political opinions that conflict with the apparent consensus of their intended community?

What matters is that we think seriously through the lens of Torah, not that we reach a specific conclusion. We should not pasken politics.

I’ll go further. Thinking through the lens of Torah should almost never lead to an absolutely definitive conclusion regarding an issue about which reasonable moral people have differing intuitions. (This is also true of economics, philosophy, and political science.) Hopefully. it enables us to make better, deeper, and more authentic judgments and decisions.  The Kavanaugh hearings modeled for me the breakdown of political conversation in the United States and reflected the ill health of American political society. I will take the chance here of trying to model a constructive Torah conversation about one aspect of the Kavanaugh hearings, in the hopes of contributing to the health of our community.

I found two Orthodox approaches on the web to the question of whether youthful sins can disqualify a person from public service.

The first, from a group calling itself The Coalition for Jewish Values, stated that

we should be judged on the totality of our lives, not merely on one alleged incident, and certainly not on an incident that is unsubstantiated and unprovable,


It is immoral to besmirch someone’s name in the court of public opinion on ‘evidence’ that would not stand in a court of law.

These propositions were taken as self-evident.

The second, by Forward columnist Avital Chizhik Goldschmidt, cites Maimonides.

Open the Mishneh Torah, where Maimonides unpacks the biblical descriptions of a judge in great detail. Judges appointed to the Sanhedrin, he writes, must be “mighty in their observance of the mitzvot, who are very demanding of themselves, and who overcome their evil inclination until they possess no unfavorable qualities, no trace of an unpleasant reputation, even during their early manhood, they were spoken of highly.” (Hilkhot Sanhedrin 2:7, Translation by Eliyahu Touger on Chabad.org). 

Interestingly — the teenage behavior of a judicial candidate is relevant, Maimonides says. It is telling of one’s moral character, no matter how long ago it was.

But perhaps what is more interesting is the fact that Maimonides does not only require a judge to be righteous, or rather, sin-less — something that may be, somewhat, measured.

A good “name,” “no trace of an unpleasant reputation,” as elusive as that is, is important for Maimonides. A mere stain on one’s standing, a grave rumor with substantial weight, is enough to disqualify a judicial candidate from being confirmed — probably because a bad repute alone is enough to dangerously devalue a judge in the eyes of the people he serves.

Of these two approaches, I plainly prefer Ms. Goldschmidt’s. She provides textual evidence, and therefore makes space for disagreement. An outsider reading her article could reasonably believe that someone providing plausible counterinterpretations or alternate texts would remain part of her religious community. But I don’t mean to dismiss the CJV’s intuitions, which I think can be reconciled with traditional texts.

From a halakhic perspective, we must of course ask how broadly Maimonides’ position is shared.  For example, the requirement that a judge be “pirko naeh” = “that his reputation be pleasant even during early manhood,” is cited by Tur (Choshen Mishpat 7), but not in Shulchan Arukh. Perhaps Shulchan Arukh thought it was implicit in his citation of the requirement that judges be baalei shem tov = holders of good reputations.  But perhaps he thought it was going too far to require that reputation to have been established in youth.

Maimonides’ list is taken essentially verbatim from Tosefta (Sanhedrin Chapter 7, Chagigah Chapter 2). But the parallel text in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 88b) leaves out pirko naeh (this remains true in all manuscripts available at fjms.genizah.org and in Dikdukei Sofrim).

The pirko naeh requirement is also brought on Taanit 16b with regard to a yoreid lifnei hateivah, a prayer leader. There – as opposed to regarding judges – it has generated extensive discussion in the responsa literature over the past millennium.  (This can be found by searching for variants of the phrase pirko naeh on the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.) Decisors as early as Rav Hai Gaon struggle throughout with on the one hand a recognition that a prayer leader’s past misdeeds can legitimately diminish confidence in their capacity to effectively represent the community before G-d, and on the other hand a social need to reward penitence with acceptance, and a metaphysical claim that “where baalei teshuvah stand, those who have always been completely righteous cannot stand”.  They distinguish between leading prayers on fast days (and perhaps Rosh HaShannah) and on other days; between holding the position of chazan and leading prayers on an ad hoc basis; between prospective appointment and removal from office; etc.  All these distinctions are disputed.

Decisors similarly struggle with the standard of evidence needed to establish a genuinely bad reputation.  Surely one uncorroborated report is not enough – or is it?  The usual Halakhic category invoked is קלא דלא פסיק, a rumor that will not cease.  But sometimes the court feels obligated to do its best to make the rumor cease.

Furthermore, does pirko naeh require one to have now a reputation that one has been blameless throughout, or only to have escaped one’s youth with a perhaps mistakenly unblemished reputation?  At least one case in the responsa literature appears to involve new rumors of youthful offenses in which the accused both denies the worst claims and claims to have repented of the behavior that gave rise to the rumors of sin, as evidenced by his unblemished reputation ever since.

To summarize: Contentions made by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.  Intuitions held by both sides make their appearance in the halakhic tradition.

Our community would have benefited – might still benefit – from a full scholarly analysis of these materials and a better sense of how past cases were decided. But that would still not yield binding law, as halakhah is fully cognizant that new social arrangements require precedents to be applied thoughtfully rather than mechanically.

I don’t know whether such an analysis would have enabled genuinely healthy conversations in our community about the Kavanaugh nomination and hearings. Some issues may simply be too raw. Our communities of discourse may have sustained so much damage already as to be completely unable to handle an issue that pushes so many buttons so hard. Publishing this scrupulously neutral dvar Torah feels risky, as so many people seem committed to the approach that “anyone who is not the enemy of my enemy is my enemy.” Yet reclaiming our capacity for this kind of conversation seems urgently necessary, for America and for Torah.

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Where are Noach’s “Banim u’Banot?”

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yair Lichtman

Following the Mabul, God blesses and instructs Noach and his family to procreate and repopulate the earth (Bereishit 9:1, 7):

(א) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃…

(ז) וְאַתֶּ֖ם פְּר֣וּ וּרְב֑וּ שִׁרְצ֥וּ בָאָ֖רֶץ וּרְבוּ־בָֽהּ׃

(1) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…

(7) Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.”

Indeed, much of the Parasha is dedicated to the theme of the inhabitants of the ark as a remnant designed to reestablish human settlement on the earth. To note one explicit example (7:2-3):

(ב) מִכֹּ֣ל׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהוֹרָ֗ה תִּֽקַּח־לְךָ֛ שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֡ה אֲ֠שֶׁ֠ר לֹ֣א טְהֹרָ֥ה הִ֛וא שְׁנַ֖יִם אִ֥ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃

(ג) גַּ֣ם מֵע֧וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה זָכָ֣ר וּנְקֵבָ֑ה לְחַיּ֥וֹת זֶ֖רַע עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(2) You shall take seven pairs of every clean animal with you, the male and his female. Of the animals that are not clean, take two, the male and his female.

(3) Also of the birds of the sky, seven and seven, male and female, to keep seed alive on the surface of all the earth.

It is therefore puzzling that Noach does not appear to fulfill this divine directive himself. The Torah painstakingly enumerates the descendants of each of Noach’s children, and notes how they served as the progenitors of mankind (9:18-19):

(יח) וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ בְנֵי־נֹ֗חַ הַיֹּֽצְאִים֙ מִן־הַתֵּבָ֔ה שֵׁ֖ם וְחָ֣ם וָיָ֑פֶת וְחָ֕ם ה֖וּא אֲבִ֥י כְנָֽעַן׃

(יט) שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(18) The sons of Noah who went out from the ship were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham is the father of Canaan.

(19) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these, the whole earth was populated.

Note the absence of Noach himself from this list. Similarly, we later observe that, while the descendants of Noach until Avraham are said to father children beyond the ones named in the text, at no point does Noach take his place among them. Let us compare two entries:

(יב) וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֣ד חַ֔י חָמֵ֥שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־שָֽׁלַח׃

(יג) וַֽיְחִ֣י אַרְפַּכְשַׁ֗ד אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שֶׁ֔לַח שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃

(כח) וַֽיְחִי־נֹ֖חַ אַחַ֣ר הַמַּבּ֑וּל שְׁלֹ֤שׁ מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃

(כט) וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כׇּל־יְמֵי־נֹ֔חַ תְּשַׁ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

(12) Arpachshad lived thirty-five years and fathered Shelah.

(13) Arpachshad lived four hundred three years after he fathered Shelah, and fathered sons and daughters.

(28) Noah lived three hundred fifty years after the flood.

(29) All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years, then he died.

Where Noach’s descendants each contribute to the repopulation of the world, Noach simply dies.

Why does Noach, this consummate follower of God’s will (see 6:22 and 7:5), fail to obey God’s command in this regard?


This detail may have driven Chazal to understand the Ham incident as one of castration (Sanhedrin 70a):

רב ושמואל חד אמר סרסו וח”א רבעו…

Rav and Shmuel disagreed: One says that Ham castrated Noach and one says that Ham sodomized him.

How could Noach have failed to fulfill the command of procreation? It must be that he was physically incapable of doing so because of Ham’s actions.

Midat HaDin vs. Midat HaRachamim

A different interpretation suggests itself, however, when one considers how the antediluvian and postdiluvian differed from one another. Radak correctly observes that the flood serves as a kind of do-over, a repeat of the creation of the world:

ויברך אלהים, אע”פ שכבר היו ברוכים בתחילת הבריאה, עתה היה להם כתחלת הבריאה כי נתחדש העולם אחר שהיה תהו ובהו שהרי נתכסתה הארץ במים. והברכה מה שאמר להם פרו ורבו ומוראכם וחתכם.

ויברך אלוקים, even though they had enjoyed G’d’s blessing already ever since the creation of mankind, the renewal of life on earth reassured them by their receiving a new blessing also. The blessing consisted primarily of the promise that they would once again be fruitful and multiply.

As such, one would expect great similarities and only minor differences. For example, the extent of God’s command to procreate appears substantively identical when one compares 1:28 and 9:1, 7. Yet Noach obeys God’s first command while ignoring his second. What changed?

Let us compare the verses about the nature of mankind from before (6:5) and after the Mabul (8:21):

(ה) וַיַּ֣רְא יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכׇל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כׇּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

(ו) וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

(5) Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all day long.

(6) Hashem regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was saddened in His heart.

(כא) וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

(21) Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma. Hashem said in his heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done.

In both verses, God observes that mankind is inherently wicked, and in both cases, makes a decision about the world as a consequence. But while the former verses explain God’s decision to destroy the earth, the latter explain the motive to refrain from destroying it anymore. While the former decision was motivated by a calculus of Din, the latter is inspired by the ideology of Rachamim.

Noach is motivated in his actions by Din. To hear the Torah tell it, he earned his place on the ark with hard work in the service of God, by being righteous in his generation and by fulfilling divine commands exactly as instructed. The prophet Yechezkel saw it the same way (Yechezkel 14:20):

(כ) וְנֹ֨חַ [דָּנִיֵּ֣אל] (דנאל) וְאִיּוֹב֮ בְּתוֹכָהּ֒ חַי־אָ֗נִי נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֔ה אִם־בֵּ֥ן אִם־בַּ֖ת יַצִּ֑ילוּ הֵ֥מָּה בְצִדְקָתָ֖ם יַצִּ֥ילוּ נַפְשָֽׁם׃

(20) though Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.

Noach’s life made sense to him in a world governed by Din, where the righteous survive and the wicked are wiped out. But that’s not how God planned to operate the world anymore (9:9-11):

(ט) וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

(י) וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכׇל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(יא) וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(9) “As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you,

(10) and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth.

(11) I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

This new covenant demands no service from mankind. It’s an unconditional promise to never again wipe out human life from the earth, one which cuts against the grain of who Noach is. Noach, like Yonah, despairs of a world driven by Rachamim, and has no interest in perpetuating the flawed and wicked human life upon it.

Yair Lichtman (SBM 2018) is a student at Yeshiva University, where he is pursuing rabbinical ordination and graduate degrees in Bible and Jewish Education.


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Are All Sins Ugly?

Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Beauty is not truth, justice is not compassion, and loyalty is not holiness. Most of us understand that we have a plurality of value-sources, and that genuine values can conflict with one another. Yet we still have a hard time acknowledging that sin can be beautiful, and beauty sinful.

I don’t mean that we think all beautiful people are always good. What I mean is that we think that mitzvot must be beautiful, and that sins must be ugly. So it bothers us very much to acknowledge that a beautiful relationship can be sinful. Yet if we acknowledge that beauty draws from a different source of value than, for example, holiness, there is no reason to presume that sins can’t be beautiful.

The distinction between the beautiful and the commanded seems to be a key message of the story of Adam and Eve. Eve is not fantasizing when she perceives the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil as aesthetically attractive, nor is she being fooled by an illusion. The Fruit really is attractive, both physically and intellectually. Eating it will enable her to experience that beauty and to enhance her appreciation of other forms of beauty. Nonetheless she behaves wrongly when she eats it. Adam’s loyalty to and love for Eve, expressed in his eating the fruit so as to share her mortality, is beautiful. Eating the fruit was nonetheless a violation of G-d’s command.

Recognizing multiple sources of value gives us a plausible and tantalizing conception of redemption as a time and space in which those values don’t conflict. This ties into the idea that eating the Fruit was not wrong per se, but rather only because Eve ate it too early, and was unable to wait until Shabbat. G-d’s plan was to include all beauty within human religious experience.

Perhaps more importantly, it gives us a way to think about conflicts between halakhah and the cultures we are embedded in without resorting either to easy black/white dichotomies or to denying that anything but a specific Divine command can generate value.

We must also acknowledge that this approach has its own false extreme. One might reach the conclusion that every decision has great value on some axis, and therefore end up with a position resembling relativism.

The story of Noach’s post-flood inebriation may offer a useful case study for navigating this Scylla and Charybdis. Do we see his decisions as basely motivated and resulting in squalor and cruelty? Or do we find noble motives and actual or potentially glorious results that are undone, inevitably or otherwise, by events?

Analyzing this question requires us to read the text closely and to examine our conceptions and assumptions about both alcohol and sexuality.

The story of Noach begins with his naming (5:29):

וַיִּקְרָ֧א אֶת־שְׁמ֛וֹ נֹ֖חַ לֵאמֹ֑ר

זֶ֠֞ה יְנַחֲמֵ֤נוּ

מִֽמַּעֲשֵׂ֙נוּ֙ וּמֵעִצְּב֣וֹן יָדֵ֔ינוּ


אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽרְרָ֖הּ יְקֹוָֽק:

He (Lemakh) called him (his son) Noach:
“This (one) will menachem/console/ease us
from our actions and the fruitless toil of our hands
from the earth
which was cursed by Hashem.”

Rashi and others seek to find concrete technological contributions that Noach made to agriculture. But in the context of the narrative, it seems more likely to me that the first layer of meaning is ironic. Noach’s name is embedded in the verb yenachameinu, but he does not bring nechamah/consolation to any human being with regard to the earth. Instead, 6:6-7 suggests that his birth may be the catalyst for G-d wiping humanity off the earth.

וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְקֹוָ֔ק כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ

וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ:

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְקֹוָ֗ק אֶמְחֶ֨ה אֶת־הָאָדָ֤ם אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֙אתִי֙ מֵעַל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה מֵֽאָדָם֙ עַד־בְּהֵמָ֔ה עַד־רֶ֖מֶשׂ וְעַד־ע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמָ֑יִם

כִּ֥י נִחַ֖מְתִּי כִּ֥י עֲשִׂיתִֽם:

G-d vayinachem/regretted that He had made the human in the land
He was saddened to His heart.
Hashem said:
I will erase the human which I have created from on the face of the earth
from human to cattle to creeper to flyer of the heavens
because nichamti/I have regretted that I made them.

His father’s failure to understand Noach’s role is emphasized in the next verse, which informs us that Noach’s name is actually backward – “Noach found chen/favor in the eyes of Hashem. Finally, a possibly authentic meaning of the name emerges in 8:4 when the ark comes to rest/vatanach on the hills of Ararat. But that cannot be the end of the story, because in 8:9 the dove cannot find a resting place/manoach. A possible end is 8:21, when Hashem smells the reiach nichoach of the sacrifice Noach brings and

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְקֹוָ֜ק אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ

לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם . . .

Hashem said to His heart
I will not continue to curse the earth on account of the human . . .

The phrase “to His heart” reverses His decision to bring the flood, and the content of G-d’s declaration reverses His curse of the land. But there is no mention of nechamah.

Nonetheless, we and Noach might reasonably conclude that the task set out in his naming has been completed. The earth is no longer cursed, and human beings can now support themselves via agriculture. There is no longer a risk that G-d will change His mind about creating humans.

Or, he and we might conclude, the task is not done. Nothing Hashem says suggests that He has changed His mind again and is now pleased to have created humanity. G-d has undone His punishment of Adam for eating the fruit, but seemingly out of hopelessness rather than out of affection.

All this brings us to the peculiar events of 9:20-21.

וַיָּ֥חֶל נֹ֖חַ

אִ֣ישׁ הָֽאֲדָמָ֑ה

וַיִּטַּ֖ע כָּֽרֶם:

וַיֵּ֥שְׁתְּ מִן־הַיַּ֖יִן


וַיִּתְגַּ֖ל בְּת֥וֹךְ אָהֳלֹֽה:

Vayachel Noach
a man of the earth
He planted a vineyard
He became drunk
He became exposed within his tent.

Commentaries on vayachel Noach generally focus on whether its root meaning is “to become desacralized,” “to become,” or “to begin.” I suggest that insufficient attention has been paid to 8:10;

וַיָּ֣חֶל ע֔וֹד

שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים

וַיֹּ֛סֶף שַׁלַּ֥ח אֶת־הַיּוֹנָ֖ה מִן־הַתֵּבָֽה

Vayachel more
seven other days
He continued sending the dove from the ark.

Here there seems a consensus, based on context, that vayachel means that Noach waited. What was he waiting for? The previous verse told us that the dove had found no manoach; Noach is therefore waiting for the dove to find one. But the truth is that after these seven days the dove brings back an olive branch, and after Noach vayachel/waits another seven days (8:12) the dove simply fails to return. Neither we nor Noach can know for certain whether it has found its manoach.

I suggest that our vayachel must be parallel to Noach’s two previous vayachels. It reflects yet another effort to bring his name to fruition. To find his own manoach, he must try to bring about another nechamah on the part of Hashem, so that He will once again be happy to have created human beings.

Moreover, this attempt cannot be seen as the product of despair. Rather, as seems clear from the drumbeat of verbs in this section, Noach’s actions are patiently planned. Noach waits for his chance to become the man who redeems the land (perhaps recalling that the original sin resulted from impatience). He plants a vineyard, knowing that it will eventually produce wine. When it produces wine, he drinks it. Everything is going according to plan.

He becomes drunk – is that part of the plan? He becomes exposed within his tent – but there is an obvious paradox in becoming exposed within a private enclosure. Exposed to whom? In context it seems that he becomes exposed to his grandson Cham, but it also seems clear that Cham’s presence was not intended.

I often argue that Noach’s drunkenness is an attempt to undo Adam and Eve’s acquisition of the “knowledge of good and evil,” and that his nakedness is an attempt to recreate their prelapsarian shamelessness. Perhaps he planned to do this in the privacy of his own tent, so that no one would be damaged if it turned out that innocence cannot be recreated, or if losing the knowledge of morality turned him into a monster rather than a being higher than angels. But it all goes horribly wrong.

Those who celebrate the release from inhibitions that intoxicants bring, or the triumph of sexual attraction over legal or psychological barriers to its full expression, are not always wrong to see beauty there. But they are almost always insufficiently attentive to and aware of the ancillary damage this beauty does to the value-structures of their broader society, and the price It exacts from other people.

Moreover, sometimes they are just wrong, and there is no beauty there at all. Noach was tasked with bringing comfort to people from a Divine curse; that he ends up cursing people himself suggests that his final attempt was wrongheaded from the start.

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Are We Not Worse Than Angels? Reflections on Human Complexity

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

The malakhei hasharet, the ministering angels, play a primary role in Chazal’s depiction of the mystery and irony of human creation. By contrasting the the deference of the malakhei hasharet to G-d and His human creation in Talmud Chagigah 12b with their attempts at interfering” with His creation of humanity in Bereishit Rabbah, we learn that G-d intended the struggle and strife associated with being human.

Resh Lakish on Chagiga 12b describes seven heavenly firmaments: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, and Aravot. These firmaments are described with majestic and ethereal language, and angelic behavior matches this aura.

מעון – שבו כיתות של מלאכי השרת שאומרות שירה בלילה וחשות ביום מפני כבודן של ישראל

שנאמר (תהלים מב, ט) יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו ובלילה שירה עמי (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

Ma’on, habitation, is where groups of ministering angels recite song at night but are silent during the day out of respect for Israel, (in order not to compete with their songs)

as it is stated: “By day the Lord will command His kindness, and in the night His song with me” (Psalms 42:9).

It is as if angels step back from the world when G-d declares that their purpose is elsewhere. In reverence to G-d they do not seek to interfere in the dealings of Israel in the physical.

Similarly, the malakhei hasharet of Rakia are described as dwelling in their proper place under the supernal G-d, delighted in their spiritual role residing in the Skies serving G-d.

רקיע – שם אופנים ושרפים וחיות הקדש ומלאכי השרת וכסא הכבוד.

מלך א-ל חי רם ונשא שוכן עליהם בערבות, שנאמר (תהלים סח, ה) סולו לרוכב בערבות בי-ה שמו.

Rakia – There are the ofanim, the seraphim, the holy divine creatures, and the ministering angels, and the Throne of Glory.

The King, God, the living, lofty, exalted One dwells above them in Aravot, as it is stated: “Extol Him Who rides upon the skies [Aravot], Whose name is God” (Psalms 68:5).

The role of the malakhei hasharet is to praise G-d and not to challenge Him in any way.

דאמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר’ יונתן: כל דיבור ודיבור שיוצא מפי הקב”ה – נברא ממנו מלאך אחד,

שנאמר (תהלים לג, ו) בדבר ה’ שמים נעשו וברוח פיו כל צבאם (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

As Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: With each and every word that emerges from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, an angel is created, as it is stated: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their hosts” (Psalms 33:6).

Angels are described as being created by the breath of G-d’s mouth, as if to say that angels are created as a corollary to G-d’s speech. Humans are created by G-d breathing “ruach” into their nostrils. Angels are described using the language of G-d, Who is referenced through the mouth that breathes. Humans are described in their own language, as beings into whose nostrils G-d’s mouth breathes.

These differences collide in Bereshit Rabbah’s description of angels in the context of their “participation” in human creation.

אָמַר רַבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן טָעוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ.

מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ וְאִפַּרְכוֹס שֶׁהָיוּ בְּקָרוּכִין, וְהָיוּ בְּנֵי הַמְדִינָה מְבַקְּשִׁין לוֹמַר לַמֶּלֶךְ דּוֹמִינוֹ, וְלֹא הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין אֵיזֶהוּ/ מֶה עָשָׂה הַמֶּלֶךְ? דְּחָפוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ חוּץ לַקָּרוּכִין, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אִפַּרְכוֹס.

כָּךְ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, טָעוּ בּוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הִפִּיל עָלָיו תַּרְדֵּמָה, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב (ישעיה ב, כב): חִדְלוּ לָכֶם מִן הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר נְשָׁמָה בְּאַפּוֹ כִּי בַּמֶּה נֶחְשָׁב הוּא. (בראשית רבה ח:י)

Said R’ Hosha`ya: In the moment that the Holy One created Adam Harishon, the first Human, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy/Qadosh’ before him (to worship him).

This resembles a king and a governor who sat in a chariot, and the people of the land wanted to call the king “Sovereign” but weren’t sure which he was. What did the king do? He pushed the governor out of the chariot, and everyone knew then that he was king.

So too when The Holy Blessed One created Adam, the ministering angels erred and wanted to say Qadosh before hum. What did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Gn 2:21] and all knew that he was Adam. As it says, “Cease from man in whose nostrils is breath, as what makes him significant?”

The angels do not have a concept of humanity to prepare them for his creation. The angels experience so much tension upon the mere creation of the human being that they begin fighting with G-d to Whom they are beholden. They begin to worship the human being, until G-d puts the mortal human being in his place and shows angels how lowly the human being is.

רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן אָמַר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָיָה משֶׁה כּוֹתֵב אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, הָיָה כּוֹתֵב מַעֲשֵׂה כָּל יוֹם וָיוֹם. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לַפָּסוּק הַזֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ, אָמַר לְפָנָיו: רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, מָה אַתָּה נוֹתֵן פִּתְחוֹן פֶּה לַמִּינִים?! אֶתְמְהָא.

אָמַר לוֹ: כְּתֹב, וְהָרוֹצֶה לִטְעוֹת יִטְעֶה.

אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: משֶׁה, הָאָדָם הַזֶּה שֶׁבָּרָאתִי, לֹא גְּדוֹלִים וּקְטַנִּים אֲנִי מַעֲמִיד מִמֶּנּוּ? שֶׁאִם יָבוֹא הַגָּדוֹל לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנוּ, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר מָה אֲנִי צָרִיךְ לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנִּי, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים לוֹ לְמַד מִבּוֹרְאֶךָ, שֶׁהוּא בָּרָא אֶת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְאֶת הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים, כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת הָאָדָם נִמְלַךְ בְּמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת. 

(בראשית רבה ח:ח)

Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: When Moses was writing the Torah, he wrote the happenings of every day. When he got to the verse of “and G-d said: ‘Let us make man in our image in our likeness’”, he said, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why are you giving an excuse to heretics?” G-d responded, “Write, and he who wishes to err may err.” G-d said to Moses, this man which I have created, do I not cause both large and small men to be born from him? If a great person goes to ask permission for something from some inferior to him, and the great man says, “‘Why do I need to take permission from one lesser than me?”, they will say to him: Learn from your Creator, for He created upper ones and lower ones, and when He came to create the human, He consulted with the ministering angels.”

Seemingly ironically, G-d consults with the angels are consulted with regard to creation of the human being. The notion that the angels were given room to assist in the creation of humans, while openly acknowledging the heretical appearance of such an idea, illustrates that the angels were meant to engage in a unequal partnership to create the human being. The human being, the product of such an unusual partnership, must be an ethically and existentially challenging construction.

אָמַר רַבִּי סִימוֹן, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נַעֲשׂוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת כִּתִּים כִּתִּים, וַחֲבוּרוֹת חֲבוּרוֹת, מֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים אַל יִבָּרֵא, וּמֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים יִבָּרֵא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יא): חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ. חֶסֶד אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים. וֶאֱמֶת אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שְׁקָרִים. צֶדֶק אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה צְדָקוֹת. שָׁלוֹם אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, דְּכוּלֵיהּ קְטָטָה. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נָטַל אֱמֶת וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (דניאל ח, יב): וְתַשְׁלֵךְ אֱמֶת אַרְצָה, אָמְרוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים מָה אַתָּה מְבַזֶּה תַּכְסִיס אַלְטִיכְסְיָה שֶׁלָּךְ, תַּעֲלֶה אֱמֶת מִן הָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יב): אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח. רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי לָהּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר אִידֵי וְרַבִּי פִּינְחָס וְרַבִּי חֶלְקִיָּה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי סִימוֹן אָמַר, מְאֹד, הוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, וְהִנֵּה טוֹב אָדָם. רַב הוּנָא רַבָּהּ שֶׁל צִפּוֹרִין אֲמַר עַד שֶׁמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מִדַּיְּנִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ וּמִתְעַסְּקִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ בְּרָאוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. אָמַר לָהֶן מָה אַתֶּם מִדַּיְּנִין כְּבָר נַעֲשָׂה אָדָם. (ח:ה)

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Don’t create him,” while others urged, “create him,” as it is written, “Lovingkindness and truth met, justice and peace kissed” (Psalms 85:11). Lovingkindness said, “Create him because he will do acts of loving kindness.” Truth said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of lies.” Justice said, “Create him because he will perform acts of justice.” Peace said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of conflict.” So what did God do? God held Truth and cast it to the ground, as it is written, “And truth will be sent to the earth” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you despise Your seal [truth]? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)…While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One created the first human. God said to them, “Why are you arguing? Adam has already been made!”

Human life is necessarily complicated and challenging. For this reason, human beings were entrusted with the Torah, whose values they can actualize through the choices they make on the physical earth. In Bereishit Rabba, we see how G-d acknowledges that “Truth” is in fact seen in the existence of human beings, with all of the challenges and complexities of reality that brings about. Rather than a strict proper truth of Heaven, the physical world contains its own Truth defined by the ability of Divine life to translate to mortal life.

The foreword to the Ketzos HaChoshen sums up what our role is as human beings rather than angels.

אך לא נתנה התורה למלאכי השרת, ואל האדם נתנה, אשר לו שכל האנושי. ונתן לנו הקדוש ברוך הוא התורה ברוב רחמיו וחסדיו כפי הכרעת שכל האנושי, גם כי אינו אמת בערך השכלים הנבדלים.

The Torah was not given to ministering angels, but rather it was given to humans, who possess human intelligence. The Holy One, blessed be He, in His great kindness and mercy, gave us the Torah to be determined according to the discernment of the human mind, even though [that determination] does not reflect Ultimate Truth at the level of the disembodied intellects.

 Eliana Yashgur (SBM 2017) is a senior at Princeton University studying psychology.

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Should We Care How Long Creation Took?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Some people care a great deal about whether G-d created the earth and the heavens in literally seven days, meaning, 168 hours, or 10,080 minutes, etc.

By “some people”, I don’t mean specifically or primarily Orthodox Jews or members of other conservative religious denominations that venerate the Bible.  The people who care most are generally those who dislike such religions. They believe very strongly that the “fundamentalism” they define themselves by opposing is utterly dependent on this belief.  They believe that demonstrating that creation took longer or shorter, or didn’t follow the order laid out in the first chapter of Genesis, relieves them of the burden of taking traditional religion seriously.

Some people care a great deal about whether G-d created the earth and the heavens in literarily seven days, meaning in seven more-or-less defined periods of indeterminate length that can be conceptualized as having sequential segments of darkerness and lighterness.  These people will spend much time looking for electromagnetic wavelengths that could have functioned as timekeepers before the creation of the sun and planets, or for sub-sub-subatomic particles (tohu and bohu) that could be the building blocks of all matter.

These people may be brilliant, with superb scientific educations and scientific research experience.  They may as often be innumerates who fall for crude hoaxes.

Some people wonder a great deal about why other people care so much about whether the first chapter of Genesis is literally or literarily true.  After all, they reason, the mere fact that creation took place one way, or rather another way, has no moral significance.  All that matters is what values we can learn from the fiction of G-d having created the world in seven days. We can learn those morals regardless of the story’s facticity, just as (lehavdil!) we can learn about parenting from King Lear even though Shakespeare was not attempting to portray a historical character with historical accuracy.

Is Lear a fair analogy, even with all due disclaimers? It is easy to spot the flaw.  Lear does not teach morality directly.  It holds up an image of human nature, or of the nature of some human relationships, or of the consequences of certain kinds of decisions, that many of us find compelling.  We make moral judgments under the influence of those images, but we do not derive our morality from them. Torah, however, is presumably intended to be a source of moral judgment, and not (just) a touchstone for evaluating the factual or causal claims of moral principles derived from other sources.

Unless one believes in some form of “Natural Law”.  But natural law has long been in disrepute in Western circles.  Hume wrote scathingly that “from is to ought there is no inference”, and this is now seen as common sensical.

There are lots of good moral and logical reasons to buy deeply into Hume, among them:

To paraphrase Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l, one can learn industry from ants, but also ruthless wars of extermination, or the insignificance of individual identity; modesty from cats, or how to play with prey.

We do not want to think that children born with profound medical challenges, or into awful social settings, deserve their suffering.

But we must understand that Hume is a deep problem religiously.  Leibnitz had a good point when he argues that believers in G-d must conclude that we live in the best of all possible worlds – so we should be able to figure out why this world is better, and apply that principle.  If the world is an expression of the Will of G-d, how can it not be an expression of His moral as well as His creative will?

Which brings us back to the first chapter of Genesis.  One reason that so many of us resist putting any kind of factual content into that chapter is that we have bought fully into Hume.  Therefore, there is nothing that Genesis can teach us about the material world that matters, since the material world contains no moral instruction.  “If they tell you there is Torah in nature – don’t believe them!

Yet it seems to me that there is no way to read that chapter in a way that generates direct moral instruction.  Whether or not it teaches us science, it teaches us some way of conceptualizing the material world, and it teaches us that in significantly more detail than can be reasonably explained as just being intended to teach the fact of creation ex nhilo.  Moreover, it doesn’t even do a good job of teaching that fact!  Most rishonim understand the first word of the Torah as describing a process that took place after some things, such as tohu, bohu, and mayim, already existed.  So the chapter must make more specific claims about the world.  But what claims about the world can matter, if there are no legitimate inferences from is to ought?

One possibility is to modify Hume, and say that “there is not always an inference from is to ought, and there is no perfectly reliable way of knowing when such an inference is valid, and when invalid”. This seems to me a reasonably accurate account of much relevant rabbinic thought, and a productive avenue, although I’m not sure anyone today will find it psychologically satisfying.

It’s fair and necessary to note that there are specific issues where the is-to-ought movement has significant influence specifically in modernity.  The clearest example is homosexuality, where many people find ascribe to a version of “G-d could not create a very significant percentage of the population with a sexual orientation that was morally wrong”.

Rabbinic literature has many poetic ways of capturing these difficulties. I like using the question of anesthesia during childbirth as an illustration.  Clearly G-d intended women to experience childbirth as painful, and yet no one sees it as a violation of G-d’s will for us to ameliorate or eliminate that pain.

One further problem with using is-to-ought as a basis for religious interpretation of Scripture is that it makes the truth of our value claims depend on the truth of our fact claims. If we learn the superiority of humans over animals because humans are created last, what happens if it turns out that dolphins emerge later?  And note that the argument seems to make a claim that goes beyond the text.  If it doesn’t matter whether something was really created later, then why does a text’s claim that something was created later have any values significance?  It seems unsatisfying to say that the lessons of Torah depend on the temporary suspension not only of historical belief, but also of philosophic argument.

On reflection, though, it’s not clear why the possibility that our premise is wrong should constrain us specifically here. All values claims grounded in Torah are based on interpretations of the text, and interpretations are not infallible either (unless one resorts to radical pluralism, in which interpretations, or at least those offered by recognized scholars, are definitionally true).  I may reach a wrong moral conclusion if I decide that the light of the first few days was actually a special form of gamma radiation.  I may err just as greatly if I base my morals on the claim that night came before day (as opposed to Rashbam, who argues that day must come before night because evening/erev  and morning/boker are gerunds, so that it “evens” after day and “morns” after night).

Perhaps what nonetheless bothers me about contemporary efforts to mesh Biblical interpretation with cutting-edge science is that they seem to want to put many of our eggs in a basket that preserves them only so long as both our science and our technical textual arguments are correct.  Moreover, I think that the temptation to go from is-to-ought is properly omnipresent, and I don’t like making such improbabilities the basis for anything beyond themselves.

At the same time, I am not willing to cede the realm of facts to science, and be content to live exclusively in the House of the Values of Hashem all my days.  Claims about morality and the good cannot be wholly separated from questions of human psychology, and such questions are more and more claimed as the province of science.  And so much of halakhah depends on claims about human nature!  If Torah can only talk about values, it will become a “Torah of the gaps”, forced back and back into narrower and narrower spaces by each advance in neuroscience and psychogenetics.

The underlying question is whether Torah scholars can participate openmindedly in an epistemically diverse conversation.  Can we admit that we might be wrong, or acknowledge that we have in the past been wrong, and that someone else got it more right? Or does our authority depend on belief in our infallibility?

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Seven Wanderers

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matthew Kritz

I invite to my Sukkah seven esteemed guests: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David.

וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Avraham our father, why do we wander?

Break out of foolish ways of thinking, my child. Going outside your physical space is the first step to entering new mental spaces, by not being bound to the familiar. To be an iconoclast calls for stepping outside, risking being different, being ready to learn and discover. Look beyond the four walls given to you; truth is waiting for you outside. (Rashi ad. loc. Breishit Raba 42:8)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

Yitzchak our father, why do we wander?

My child, how can you find G-d in the midst of the bustle of life? How can you pray when surrounded by distractions? To speak to the Almighty, you’ll need to go far away, to a place where no one will find you. There, freed from the noise of the world, you will begin to hear your own breathing and your own thoughts. Alone, you will not be ashamed to pour out your heart to G-d, remembering that you and G-d are both lonely, eager to find one another. (Seforno, ad. loc.)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

Yaakov our father, why do we wander?

In wandering, our trust in G-d is put to the test, my child. Whether we will return home safely, whether we  will have bread to eat and clothing to wear, is in the hands of G-d. On the road, we cannot rely on familiar surroundings; our only choice is to foster within ourselves an awareness of our dependence on G-d, which, in reality, is present even when we feel self-confident. (Breishit Raba 79, Mechilta 16:20)

וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נָס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃

Righteous Yosef, why do we wander?

As you wander, you will encounter worlds foreign to you, cultures that look different from your own. In wandering, you will be forced to discover within yourself a commitment to your own values, to know when you must run away. To flee from evil is the ultimate test, to be ready to leave everything behind in the name of what you believe. In wandering, you demonstrate where you refuse to go, no matter the cost; you show that your true home is not the place you are from, but the people you are from. (Sotah 36b, Ramban Breishit 39:8, Introduction to Mesilat Yesharim)

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Moshe, our teacher, why do we wander?

From within the walls of your own home, you cannot see the suffering that surrounds you. Security lays the groundwork for complacency; wandering out allows us to see what others take for granted. Wander in order to gain an outsider’s perspective, to remove the mask of the normal from what is, in truth, injustice. Doing so will make you more aware of what others do not notice, be that the suffering of the innocent, or a peculiar, unburnt bush. (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 9)

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף ה’ בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃

Aharon, righteous priest, why do we wander?

Our desires, and our responsibilities, are not always easily within reach. Those goals we truly care to accomplish, we must journey for, to show we are ready to go the distance. Some wandering is aimless, but other wandering is better termed journeying, setting our goals high and pursuing them. To take the long way is an act of love; it shows we cared enough to travel. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)

וְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃

King David, why do we wander?

Do not think that all is settled, for even as you sit in a house of cedars, the ark of the covenant remains in a tent. Keep wandering, to remember that your story is unfinished, that the exile goes on, that the Messiah has not yet come. Continue wandering, for you mustn’t think you’ve reached your destination. There is still work to be done in the wilderness before the next generation can build a permanent home for G-d. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)


Matthew Kritz (SBM 2018) is a chaplain intern at Princeton Medical Center, and an Associate at Gal Ventures, LLC. He hopes to begin rabbinical school next year.

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