Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Blessing of an Angel or the Blessing of G-d?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff

The life of Our Father Jacob is full of מלאכים, angels. As he leaves Eretz Yisrael in Parashat VaYetze he witnesses the famous ladder with angels rising and descending. Later in the same parasha he tells his wives that an angel told him to return to his home (בר’ ל”א, י”א). And upon his return at the end of the parasha he again meets angels. And in preparation for his reunion with his brother Esav, Jacob wrestles with a man who we later presume to be an angel of G-d although we never refer to him as a מלאך. So it should come as no surprise to us that angels are on his mind again in this week’s parsha in his blessing to his son Joseph and his two grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe.

Still, Jacob’s reference to angels here is surprising. He begins by calling on G-d: האל’ אשר התהלכו אבותי לפניו, the G-d who my fathers walked before, הא-להים הרעה אותי מעודי עד היום הזה the G-d who has shepherded me my whole life until this day. And then he changes tone: המלאך הגואל אותי מכל רע יברך את הנערים, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil shall bless the children.

What’s happened here? It appears that after calling on G-d, Jacob has shifted his prayer to request that his “private” angel (Ibn Ezra and others associate it with Michael) bless his grandchildren. Has Jacob forgotten who sent the angel? Has he forgotten who gives the angels power to act in the world; who was at the top of that ladder?

Our sages insist that he has not. The ספורנו writes, “Let the angel who redeemed me bless the children אם אינם ראויים לברכתך בלתי אמצעי, if they are not worthy to have your blessing without intermediary.” And the מדרש שכל טוב (Rabbi Menachem ben Shlomo, Rome, 12th century) writes אבקש אני מלפני הקב”ה שיתן לו רשות ויברך את בני אפרים ומנשה, I ask that Holy One give him (meaning Michael) permission to bless my sons Ephraim and Menashe. In other words, Jacob prays to G-d  for the blessing of G-d’s angel. But even this is troubling, why doesn’t Jacob ask for the simple blessing of G-d unadulterated and unmoderated as he received it from his father?

I propose an answer that is precisely the opposite of these two interpretations. I propose that Jacob has come to be so familiar with G-d’s presence in the form of angels, he doesn’t see the angels at all any more, just the presence of G-d. When Jacob describes his dream to his wives in Vayetze he relates that the angel identifies themselves to him as, “I am the G-d of Beth El” in the same way that the angel at the burning bush (שמ’ ג’, ב) calls out to Moses, “I am the G-d of your father.” Jacob doesn’t see the angel as having any independent identity, he simply sees them as the presence of G-d.

This blessing of Jacob is one that we use frequently at brises and smachot bat. We say it as part of קריאת שמע של המטה, the bedtime Shema. And why? Well partially because it is so clearly a blessing of children, and these are times to pray for our children. But more than that, this ברכה is an attempt to be aware of G-d past the messengers that G-d sends, past the miracles (and what greater miracle can we witness than the birth and growth of our own children), past the intermediaries to G-d G-d’s self. In our world, G-d masks G-d’s self from our inner eye. We pray that we can witness G0d through G-d’s messengers, be aware of G-d’s presence in the deepest way as the true source of blessing without being distracted by intermediaries.

Rabbi Haggai Resnikoff (SBM ’04) is a Rebbe and Director of Community Learning for Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He lives with his wife and daughter in Riverdale, New York.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Grave Differences

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Bereishit ends in the way all blockbusters should – with a death for closure, and a promise of redemption as teaser for the sequel.  Just to add to the suspense, there is something odd about the burial.  Yoseph’s embalmed body is placed “in the aron, in Egypt.”  No previous burial in Torah, including Yaakov’s, has involved an aron – what is it, and why is it important?

The simplest reading is that Yoseph was buried as an Egyptian noble, whereas his father was buried as a Jew.  Yoseph’s burial symbolizes the way in which his apparent rulership over Egypt was actually subtle enslavement.

Bekhor Shor adds a subtlety.  In the penultimate verse, Yoseph makes his brothers swear that when the Exodus comes, they will take his body with them to Israel. Bekhor Shor suggests that Yoseph was afraid that while it was obvious that the brothers wished to be disinterred and brought to Israel, his honored burial in Egypt would make the Jews suspect that he preferred to be left where he was.  In other words, to the very end Yoseph had not convinced his brothers that he fully identified with their family destiny.

A midrash takes an essentially opposite approach.  Yoseph was stored in a watertight container that was sunk in the Nile to prevent the Egyptians from turning his pyramid into a shrine, and thus to ensure that he could eventually be removed without specific objection.  In a more elaborate version, Yoseph is sunk so deep that it takes supernatural means to retrieve him (which explains why the Egyptians never could do so).

Rashbam in his customary fashion flattens the narrative.  Had Yoseph been buried in the earth, his body might have decomposed to the point that it could not be recovered for reburial, so he was placed in a casket instead.  No symbolism, no evidence of character, no cultural implications, and no miracles.  Perhaps the point is that Yoseph understood not only that slavery was coming, but that it would last a very long time.

Chaim Paltiel (1240-c.1300 Ashkenaz) asks: Why does Yoseph merit being buried in Israel, and Mosheh Rabbeinu does not? His answer is provocative:


דמשה כפר לשונו כשישב על הבאר

ובאו בנות יתרו ודברו לשון מצרית

אבל יוסף לא כפר לשונו

“דכתיב “כי גונוב גונבתי מארץ העברים

One can respond

that Mosheh denied his lashon when he settled by the well

and the daughters of Yitro came and spoke the Egyptian lashon,

whereas Yoseph did not deny his lashon,

as Scripture writes “For verily I was stolen from the land of the Ivrim”.

Paltiel’s question is grounded in Mosheh’s personal attention to the disinterment of Yoseph. In the ordinary Rabbinic way of things, we would expect him to be rewarded by having his bones similarly cared for, and it is striking that Mosheh is excluded from Israel even after death. R. Paltiel, following the general approach of Ramban to such matters, is willing to attribute sins to the greatest of men rather than having their Scripturally reported suffering seem unjustified.

The sin he attributes to Mosheh stands in ironic counterpoise to the people Moshe redeemed, who famously never changed their lashon – everyone still knows them as ivrim – which the well-known midrash sees as one of the virtues for which they merited redemption.

But this seems unfair to Moshe, who had just barely discovered his ivri identity when ivrim betrayed him to Pharaoh.  I prefer a different irony – Moshe’s merit was his willingness to shift his identity from Egyptian to Hebrew, whereas the Hebrews themselves are praised for their stubborn adherence to their ivri identity.  This is a conundrum I often pose to conversion candidates, who as a result of radically shifting their identities must commit to raising their children as unshakably identified Jews.

Paltiel’s question draws our attention to the similarities between the endings of Bereshit and Torah. Torah also ends with a burial and death, at the very border of redemption. This parallel allows us to offer a perhaps new explanation for why Moshe’s grave is unfindable – it is to prevent the Jews from disinterring him and bringing his remains to Israel.  But why does G-d think it important to prevent this?  In other words, why is the story of Mosheh’s burial written to prevent rather than encourage sequels?

Here I think another of Ramban’s contributions can be helpful.  Ramban used the principle מעשה אבות סימן לבנים = the deeds of the ancestors foreshadow those of the descendants to mean that Bereishit is about people whose every action is symbolic.  The great people of later generations, such as Mosheh, sometimes acted symbolically, but they were not symbols.  And the Jewish people as a whole impacted the future not by determining it, but rather by making commitments.

In other words, there is a sense in which the rest of Torah is merely playing out a drama whose contours are determined in Bereishit.  No one need pretend that there is any chance that Yoseph’s body will stay in Egypt.  But the rest of history is not determined by Torah; rather, Torah gives meaning to the genuine choices human beings face for the rest of history.

Mordechai Ben David sings:

Someday we will all be together . . .

Mosheh Rabbeinu will lead us once again

In Yerushalayim b’ezrat Hashem.

I have long wondered whether the lyricist realized that Mosheh Rabbeinu could not lead us again in Yerushalayim.  But my suggestion is that the intuition expressed by the song is fundamentally correct; for Mosheh to lead us in Israel, history must end.  Until then his gravesite cannot be known, and we should not waste our time searching for it.  It is for us the living, rather, to dedicate ourselves to the unfinished work which he so nobly advanced.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Race and Policing in our Democracy: An Orthodox Reflection

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sunday night I drove home from New York. The speed of traffic was approximately 80 in the middle lane, and I drove at about the speed of traffic, sometimes a little faster when I shifted into the left lane. This meant, of course, that I and every other car on the road could be pulled over by the State Police at their sole discretion, since we were all above the speed limit, which varied from 50-65 without any discernible behavioral impact. This capacity for arbitrary arrest and/or fining is why police cars, or even the prospect of police cars, make me nervous or angry while I’m driving, and why I believe that speeding laws as currently enforced are blatantly unconstitutional.

This is the closest I can come to how many African Americans feel about police all the time, everywhere.

When I start obsessing about speeding, Deborah Klapper argues that speeding tickets are the revenue stream for highway patrols, and that without highway patrols we would be in constant fear of carjackings and worse. And she is right, just as social conservatives are right that without effective police work our cities would rapidly become uninhabitable, and interethnic violence in particular would mushroom. As a survivor of pre-Giuliani New York I understand this viscerally.

And yet – that doesn’t change my feelings about speed traps. There must be a better way to fund highway patrols than deliberately setting speed limits below the speed of traffic, and there must also be a way to effectively police our cities without having African Americans literally fear for their lives whenever they interact with a policeman.

Modern Orthodox rabbis should have no trouble relating to the crisis that results when the guardians of the law are seen as oppressors, but the only apparent alternative is loosing mere anarchy upon the world.

The Shabbat before the grand jury decision re Eric Garner, I spoke at Princeton (as part of the SBM reunion Shabbat) about the need to carry on Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik’s tradition of seeing civil rights issues as religiously vital. At the same time, I was careful not to take a position regarding the guilt or innocence of the police officer who killed Michael Brown, and I was unsure as to whether even the nonviolent protests in Ferguson were a good idea, for two reasons: first, they seemed inevitably to spawn and provide cover for violence, and second, they exacerbated the sense of police and community as antagonists. In the aftermath of the deaths in New York, the last point seems to me strengthened.

I don’t think my caution is necessarily a model for universal emulation. If civil disobedience was inevitable, I’m glad that activist rabbis were prominent among those arrested, and probably it would have been better had there been Orthodox rabbis among them. Rabbi Jeremy Wieder’s learned and powerful sichah at YU, calling on all present to watch the video of Garner’s death and take responsibility for an act of negligent homicide committed by their appointed representatives, will become a primary source and inspiration for ethically sensitive yeshiva students. Rabbi Avi Weiss led a prayer service in support of the NYPD after the two policemen were murdered. I hope it is clear that these need not be contradictory; I rather suspect that a younger Rabbi Weiss would have been arrested the first night as well, and then bounded from his cell to conduct the pro-police prayer service.

I don’t know how many of us have the capacity to throw ourselves emotionally into multiple sides of the same issue. But I think Orthodox Jews as a community might have much to contribute here. We remember what it was like to be a persecuted minority; we have very recently lived, and in some cases still live, in urban areas haunted by violent crime and civic disorder; and we have a deep cultural commitment to the necessity and authority of law. At the same time, it’s hard to deny that for many purposes we have become “whites” in the United States.

What would happen if we tried to use those experiences and identifications to try to help the police and African Americans build trust with one another?

Here is an outlandish fantasy: What if policemen and inner city youths studied Talmud in chavruta together? By which I mean – what if they learned traditional texts about excessive force in self-defense, and/or about the uses and dangers of presumptions, and tried together to construct coherent manuals and codes for difficult encounters?

I recognize that this is a fantasy. But I do want to suggest that the process of Talmud, which I understand in part as an effort to engage all the conflicting passions of humanity tempered by displacing their conflicts into textual interpretation, can have real world value, and that as full participants in a riven civil society, we should see it as our obligation to realize that value. This may not be the time, the place, or the issue, but if not now, then when, where, and about what?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Is My Father Still Alive?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Dr. Yoni Frogel

When learning Chumash, and the stories of Sefer Bereishit in particular, we are ‘omniscient readers’.   The Torah gives us all of the relevant information to allow us to reach conclusions about the events in the narrative.  On occasion, our omniscience as readers can paradoxically obscure angles that are critical to a full understanding of the p’shat.  The story of Yoseph in Mitzrayim is a striking example of this phenomena.

At the beginning of this week’s Parsha, we read of Yoseph’s reconciliation with his brothers.  After 22 years, culminating with an elaborate charade and Binyamin’s incarceration, the Torah tells us (45:1) that Yoseph can no longer contain himself  “וְלֹא-יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק”  as he finally reveals his true identity.  The Torah’s narration of this climactic scene leaves us with a couple of questions:

  1. What prompted Yoseph to finally break at this particular juncture? The brothers had already demonstrated both regret for selling Yoseph and loyalty to Binyamin in last week’s Parsha- and Yoseph was able to maintain his façade. What additional information did Yoseph glean from Yehudah’s speech to elicit such a forceful reaction?
  2. Yoseph’s first words after revealing himself- “אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי”- “I am Yoseph, is my father still alive?” (45:3) beg an explanation. Yoseph has known that his father, Yaakov, is alive since first questioning the brothers upon their arrival in Parshat Miketz.  So what is the meaning of Yoseph’s question here?

In Parshat Vayeshev, after the brothers deceive Yaakov and present him with Yoseph’s tattered and bloodied robe, the Torah describes Yaakov’s grief in heart wrenching detail (37:35):

וַיָּקֻמוּ כָל-בָּנָיו וְכָל-בְּנֹתָיו לְנַחֲמוֹ, וַיְמָאֵן לְהִתְנַחֵם, וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּי-אֵרֵד אֶל-בְּנִי אָבֵל שְׁאֹלָה; וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ, אָבִיו

All of Yaakov’s sons and daughters rise to console him for Yoseph’s loss, but he is utterly inconsolable.

Although, as readers, we have a clear understanding of Yaakov’s role in this narrative and the overwhelming sorrow that gripped him, to make sense of this passage, we must step away from our ‘omniscience’ and examine the facts from Yoseph’s perspective alone.  At the beginning of Parshat Vayeshev, Yoseph is a 17-year-old boy with grandiose dreams and an uneasy relationship with his brothers.  After relating his dreams he is harshly rebuked by Yaakov- “מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ:  הֲבוֹא נָבוֹא, אֲנִי וְאִמְּךָ וְאַחֶיךָ, לְהִשְׁתַּחֲו‍ֹת לְךָ, אָרְצָה”- “What is this dream you have dreamt? Am I and your mother and brothers to bow before you?” (37:10).  In the immediate aftermath of this conversation, Yaakov sends Yoseph away to Shechem to check on his brothers- where he is promptly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery.  Given the juxtaposition of these events Yoseph must have wondered how Yaakov felt about his disappearance- or if perhaps Yaakov was involved.

The single new fact that Yehuda told Yoseph was Yaakov’s reaction to Yoseph’s disappearance (44:28):

וַיֵּצֵא הָאֶחָד, מֵאִתִּי, וָאֹמַר, אַךְ טָרֹף טֹרָף; וְלֹא רְאִיתִיו, עַד-הֵנָּה

Yoseph finally has clarity- all these years, Yaakov has been deceived- and has been mourning his lost son.  We can fully understand why this prompted such an emotional response from Yoseph and the full meaning of Yoseph’s declaration- “אֲנִי יוֹסֵף, הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי”.

(based on the writings of R’ Yoel bin Nun)

Yoni Frogel is an anesthesiologist currently living in Bet Shemesh with his wife and 6 children.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leadership in the Aftermath of Moral Disaster

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

It might be argued–-indeed Yoseph argues—that his brothers furthered a vast Eternal plan by selling him into slavery, as Pharaoh later would by refusing to let their descendant people go. The brothers nevertheless must recognize their moral error. Reuven even named their guilt. What happens next?

Yoseph sends his brothers back to their father with presents and commands. One of those commands is enigmatic and apparently process-oriented: Al tirgezu baderekh = do not RGZ on the way. Purely via context, one expects this to be an admonition against delay, but this is not an attested direct meaning of RGZ.

RGZ can mean fear, so Rashbam and many others suggest that Yoseph tells the brothers they need not fear molestation on the way, as his power will be sufficient to protect them. The problem with this reading is that the brothers showed no fear on their way to Egypt, so Yoseph’s reassurance seems superfluous.

RGZ can also mean anger, and so Rashi among others suggests that Yoseph cautions the brothers against pointing fingers at each other about the sale. The apparent problem with this reading is that Yoseph’s admonition is limited to their time on the way. But perhaps Yoseph only tried to ensure that they delay the inevitable, and likely ugly, round of mutual recrimination until they were safely home. He may have done this to prevent any delay in bringing the news of his being alive to Yaakov because he feared that internal dissension would make them attractive targets for brigands or because he feared that it would become known that they had deliberately sold him into slavery, to the detriment of both his and their standing.

The Torah does not tell us whether the brothers obeyed Yoseph, but I think it is a reasonable presumption that they did. The Torah also reports no subsequent moral recrimination, and when Yaakov dies, every indication is that the brothers are unwilling to face any consequences of the sale—they league together protectively—and therefore have never fully accepted responsibility for their actions.

I suggest that this would be quite predictable. Moral accounting delayed is moral accounting prevented. The habits of avoidance grow stronger with practice. Worse, the unwillingness or inability to address large past moral issues spills over into the present, as there is always a fear that conversations will get out of hand and “blow up” by calling attention to the elephant in the room.

Now it is also the case that productive moral accounting is hard to do, and often degenerates into mere finger pointing, the entrenching of grievances, and/or putting an official imprimatur on lies and injustice. Commissions of Truth and Reconciliation often achieve neither, and their genuine if limited effectiveness in South Africa should not prevent us from recognizing this. So perhaps Yoseph was fully aware of what he was doing, and thought it the lesser of two evils.

But perhaps this result is sufficiently distasteful that it drives the midrashic tradition to suggest a very different understanding of RGZ. According to Rabbi Elazar (Taanit 10b), Yoseph warns the brothers not to engage in Halakhic conversation lest תרגזו עליכם הדרך =the way RGZ upon you.

Rashi explains that the intensity of such conversation might lead them to get lost. This is an explanation I relate to very easily, having missed quite a few highway exits in the context of such conversations.

The Talmud points out, however, that R. Ilai bar Berakhyah states that two scholars who travel together without “having words of Torah among them” deserve to be burnt. R. Ilai derives this from a fascinating reading of the farewell scene of the prophet Eliyahu and his disciple Elisha. The two are “walking and talking” when chariots of fire separate them, after which Eliyahu ascends in a windstorm to the heavens. R. Ilai apparently sees the chariots as potential threats, which are evaded narrowly (the fire passes between Eliyahu and Elisha without singeing either, sort of like the night bus in Harry Potter) because of ongoing Torah conversation.

So wasn’t Yoseph endangering the brothers by banning Halakhic conversation?

The Talmud answers that there are two kinds of halakhic conversation – girsa and iyyun. Girsa is the literal review of memorized material, whereas iyyun is the attempt to understand or develop principles. Yoseph banned only iyyun, while Elisha and Eliyahu were engaged only in girsa.

I have to say that I find it hard to accept that Elisha and Eliyahu spent their last moments together, and it is clear in context that both know these are their last moments, engaged in deliberately superficial Torah conversation. Furthermore, they had no destination, and thus were at no risk of getting lost! So perhaps the Talmud means to say only that Yoseph banned girsa. Indeed, Yerushalmi Berakhot 5:1 offers three options for the topic of Elisha and Eliyahu’s final conversation: Creation, the Divine Chariot, and the Consolations of Yerushalayim (presumably ultimate Redemption). None of these seem easily assimilable to halakhic girsa.

I also have to admit that in my own experience the attempt to limit halakhic conversations to pure information exchange, as for example in divrei Halakhah offered just before prayer, rarely works. (I often started ad hoc mincha minyanim reflexively, by declaring that “The halakhah is that one should say a halakhah before beginning prayer” and leaving it at that.) Perhaps the advent of printing, and consequent devaluation of recitation and memorization, have made the whole genre inaccessible.

So my preference, admittedly against Rashi, is to read the midrash as suggesting that Yoseph banned halakhic argumentation because of the anger=RGZ that would emerge among the brothers specifically in the context of such arguments. More, he banned them not because the anger would harm them, but because it would distort those arguments. Yet more strongly, I suggest that Yoseph banned the brothers from engaging in halakhic conversations because they had not yet engaged in moral accounting.

Why? In the aftermath of moral disaster there is often an urge to make new regulations. Sometimes this is healthy, but often the making of new rules is a way of avoiding responsibility for the failure to properly administer the old ones. This is particularly the case when the new rules are made davka by those who had administrative responsibility for the old rules, and even more particularly, when they have never truly been held morally accountable—by themselves and others—for the previous disaster.

Had the brothers engaged in halakhic conversation on the way, doubtless they would have promulgated highly detailed rules against kidnapping brothers who have annoying dreams. But their weaknesses of envy and ambition would have found other outlets. The first step to genuine teshuvah, and worthiness of responsibility, would have been to simply accept that Halakhah for now must be made by others, and their job was merely to learn what those others said – girsa rather than iyyun.

The problem is that Yoseph himself has never acknowledged his own culpability for the breakdown of his fraternal relationships. So who is left to make the rules?

In political terms, it is very difficult to find genuinely new leaders; leadership is often the result of personality traits rather than of opinions, and so the same people rise to the administrative top time after time regardless of past performance, especially when their past failures are perceived as moral rather than practical.

Halakhah has no panacea for these issues, and Modern Orthodoxy specifically should resist the urge to seek out enlightened beings who are immune to human weaknesses.

What we can perhaps suggest is that the ideal outcome here would have been for Yoseph and his brothers to develop new rules together, and really, with Yaakov as a full participant as well, and with each of them acknowledging how they had contributed to the past failure.

Shabbat Shalom!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

2014 CMTL Reader

Click here for a collection of the best 2014 shiurim and divrei torah from Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, CMTL collaborators and alumni!

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Of Famines, Fertility, and Futility

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier

The Gemara in Ta’anis 11a offers the following ruling based on our Parsha, which is codified as Halacha by the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch:

אמר ריש לקיש: אסור לאדם לשמש מטתו בשני רעבון, שנאמר +בראשית מ”א+ וליוסף ילד שני בנים בטרם תבוא שנת הרעב

Reish Lakish said: A person is prohibited to have sexual relations in years of famine, as it says: “And Joseph had two sons before the years of famine came.”

Yosef had his two sons before the famine began in order to avoid this prohibition (or in order to teach us this prohibition).

What is the basis of this prohibition on sexual relations during the years of a famine? One might argue that it is a pragmatic measure for population control – why have a child during a famine if it means there will be one more mouth to feed? However, there are problems with this explanation: most fundamentally, theories of population control run afoul of the value system implied by peru u-revu and lo sohu bera’ah. Furthermore, this explanation does not seem to be applicable here, as Yosef seemingly avoided the prohibition by having his children before the famine took place. If he knew that a famine was coming, how would it be better to produce two children before the famine began – there are still the extra mouths to feed, and, being larger, they will want to consume even more food!

It is possible to offer three different ways of understanding this prohibition.

Midrash Tanchuma (Noach 11) fleshes out the prohibition as follows:

שבשעה שהעולם ניתן בצרה ובחרבן אסור לאדם להזקק בפריה ורביה שלא יהא הקב”ה עוסק בחורבן העולם והוא בונה

At the time when the world is in crisis and destruction, it is prohibited for one to turn to procreation, in order that it not be the case that while God deals with destroying the world he is building.

According to this source, it is unseemly to have man engage in procreation while God is depopulating the world. Even if the reason for God’s actions is irrelevant to man, one must follow God’s lead.

A second approach is presented by Rashi (Ta’anis 11a, s.v. asur). Rashi argues that a person must experience some צער, or pain, throughout humanity’s ordeal of famine; it is not right or sensitive for someone to completely enjoy themselves (e.g., if they have sufficient means) while others are suffering. This integrates well into the continuation of the Gemara, which emphasizes the theme of suffering along with the rest of the Jewish People.

I would like to suggest a third approach to this Gemara, based on the famous dispute between Beis Shammai and Beis Hillel about whether it is better for man (adam) that he was created or not. (See Eruvin 13b.) The Gemara does not arrive at a conclusion on the matter, although it is generally assumed in practice that one must procreate. In that sense, procreation is an act of faith in humankind, as the parents presume that the potential baby will be better off existing than not. If this is true, it provides a deep significance to the phenomenon of procreation, but it also renders it more fragile. What happens when there is a sign that procreation is not warranted?

Maybe the existence of a famine, which we interpret as due to human shortcomings (see Tractate Ta’anis), is meant to lead to an understanding of the world that presumes that man is better off not being created, at least at the present time. If procreation is an act of faith in man, a person’s faith in God must determine whether the current reality warrants faith in man. Interestingly, Tosafos (Ta’anis 11a, s.v. asur) argue that this prohibition only applies to those who generally act in a mode of chasidut. We might wonder why piety correlates to refraining from procreation. Tosafos’ position, however, works especially well with this approach. A pious person is expected to be more sensitive to God’s word. Thus, if God is sending the message that the world is not in a position where it deserves to grow, the chasid will respond correspondingly.

I am not convinced that this theologically ambitious approach is true, but if it is it might indicate that the Gemara about refraining from procreation has broader application despite our existence in a world where droughts do not threaten human life like they once did.

May we all merit to live in a world where God’s faith in humanity is manifest.

Shlomo Zuckier was an SBM Fellow in Summer 2012. He is currently Associate Rabbi and JLIC Co-Director at the Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, a PhD student in Judaic Studies at Yale, and a Tikvah, Wexner, and Kupietzky Kodshim Fellow, and Editorial Assistant for Tradition magazine.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized