Monthly Archives: May 2015

The Sons of Gershon, Kehat and Merari and the Tension between Meritocracy and Social-Status Stability

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

נשא את ראש בני גרשון גם הם

Lift up the head of the Sons of Gershon – them too

Presumably this means that the Sons of Gershon should have their heads lifted up, i.e. counted, in the same way as the previous group, namely the Sons of Kehat.

But Clans are usually presented in the birth order of their founders – Gershon, then Kehat, then Merari. Why does Kehat precede Gershon here, with the phrase “them too” emphasizing the latter’s subordination?

Furthermore: Why is a wholly different verb, “pakod,” rather than “lift the head of,” used to mandate counting the Sons of Merari?

Midrash Rabbah suggests that Clan Kehat’s work, specifically carrying the Ark, was grander than that of Clan Gershon, and so took precedence. Clan Gershon was still distinguished as firstborn, however, and so his ‘head was lifted up’. Clan Merari was lastborn and had work no greater than Clan Gershon’s—in other words, it had no feature positively distinguishing it from its brethren—and so was merely nifkad.

This suggestion captures an authentic tension within Jewish tradition between meritocracy and social-status stability, both of which are seen as authentic political values. This is counterintuitive in the United States, where social mobility is generally valorized as an unalloyed moral good and practical necessity. We are deeply aware that birth-driven societies can turn a permanent underclass into a seething cauldron of frustrated ambition.

To some extent, the US attitude is developed circularly; we deliberately undermine and delegitimate all claims based on birth, and thus leave no psychologically viable basis for accepting social-status stability. But I freely concede that this seems to me an excellent moral strategy for a pluralistic society.

At the same time, I think it is worth noting that meritocracy can be dangerously destabilizing, because it is dynamic and because evaluation is often radically subjective. This is why it so easily degenerates into government by prejudice. England has a hybrid model developed by trial and error over centuries. Midrash Rabbah’s proposed interpretation suggests that an analogue was built into Judaism from its inception.

But Keli Yakar points out that the tension here seems artificial, as the Torah could simply have given the firstborn Gershon the grander work of carrying the Ark.  He therefore argues that the Torah deliberately creates the tension in order to demonstrate that merit outweighs birth.

והקרוב אלי לומר בזה

שרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא להראות שכבוד חכמים ינחלו

כדי ללמד דעת את העם שיכבדו את לומדי התורה

ולקרוא לקדוש ה’ מכובד לקדשו בכל דבר שבקדושה

כדרך שמנה את קהת תחילה בעבור משא דבר ה’ אשר אתו

ואילו היה נותן הארון לגרשון הבכור

הייתי אומר שבעבור הבכורה מנאו תחיל

הולא הייתי תולה החשיבות במשא הארון

על כן מסר הארון אל קהת ומנאו תחילה

וידעו הכל ליתן כבוד לתורה וללומדיה

What seems most correct to me to say about this

is that the Holy Blessed One wished to demonstrate that honor is the legacy of Sages

so as to teach the people that they should honor those who learn Torah

and call G-d’s sacred ones honored, and sanctify them via all sacred means

just as He counted Kehat first because of their carrying of G-d’s word

Had he given the Ark to Gershon the firstborn

I would have said that he was counted him first because he was firstborn,

and I would not have realized that his importance was dependent on the carrying of the Ark

Therefore He gave the Ark to Kehat and counted him first

and everyone knew to give honor to the Torah and those who learn it.

I find this approach problematically ironic. In Keli Yakar’s telling, Kehat’s association with Torah is arbitrary, and that arbitrary choice is intended to teach us that we should honor the achieved merit of Torah study more than inherited status. In that case, I suggest that the task of carrying the Ark should have been given to Merari, which would have made Keli Yakar’s point more strongly.

Perhaps the task is given to Kehat, rather than Merari, in order to leave Gershon preceding Merari, and thus to demonstrate that social-status stability remains an authentic if subordinate Jewish value. Yet I would overall prefer not to accept that G-d assigns hierarchically ordered sacred tasks arbitrarily, but not in rotation.

Unfortunately, the only approach I have seen which affirmatively explains the role of each clan is in the Izhbitzer Rebbe’s Mei haShiloach. I say unfortunately because I generally lack the context to properly understand the work, and in this particular section cannot adequately translate at least two key terms, תקופות tekufot and סבלנות savlanut. So please read on with caution. I hope that in this one instance the psycho-religious insight can survive outside its kabbalistic womb, and that the literary strategies will stimulate more accessible interpretive approaches. Corrections and addenda are of course welcome, either via email or as comments on the CMTL Facebook page.

Mei Hashiloach begins by reading “them too” as implying similarity rather than identity, and understanding “lifted his head up” as a reference to an elevation of consciousness. So Kehat and Gershom achieve separate but equal elevations.

Clan Kehat’s elevation, symbolized by not receiving wagons, results from their willingness to enter fully into the vicissitudes of religious life: “doubts and trials.” They can endure much, “בכתף ישאו = bear on their shoulders,” because they are confident that G-d has given them the strength of character not to stray from His will.

Clan Gershon’s elevation develops in almost precisely the opposite way. They seek security in everything, and are elevated by their unwillingness to take risks or entertain doubts when they encounter potential sources of spiritual uncertainty.

In contemporary language, both engagement with and radical rejection of modernity can be sources of spiritual elevation, and Modern Orthodoxy and Charedism each have a place.

Mei HaShiloach parts ways with contemporary academic thought, however, by arguing that there is a third path which is not affected by and does not react at all to social context. Clan Merari live in the world of action rather than thought. As such, they never encounter doubt, but simply have faith that their actions fulfill G-d’s will. Thus the specific nature of their work is irrelevant, and accomplishes no more and no less than the actions performed by non-Levites on the same basis, and provides them no unique “elevation.”

Mei HaShiloach then notes that Kehat and Merari’s work are specifically linked to Mosheh, whom he identifies as symbolizing clarified Torah and intent for the sake of Heaven, whereas Gershon’s is not. He uses this to make a claim that I find astonishing and powerful.

Engagement with doubt and the avoidance of theology can each produce certainty. But refusal to take risks entrenches uncertainty! For example: A Gershonite confronted by the possibility that an act is prohibited will refuse to perform it. But how can he ever know that G-d wished him to be passive rather than active?! It is too late for him to retreat to pure Merarite instinct. Only by engaging with the question can he emerge with certainty that he has fulfilled the will of G-d, rather than merely avoiding a legal violation.

Of course, he may never emerge at all. Mei HaShiloach identifies Clan Gershon with the attribute of Fear of G-d, and notes that Clan Gershon is included with the others in a summary collective relationship to Mosheh; perhaps Clan Kehat could survive its bold spiritual adventures only so long as it remains in contact with Gershon and Merari. In other words: The beginning of wisdom is the fear of G-d, even if the end is Modern Orthodoxy, and there are no shortcuts.

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Roles, Responsibilities, and Remorse

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff

Over half of Parshas Naso consists of the story of the the dedication of the Mishkan during the first 12 days of Nissan by the 12 Nesi’im, the leaders of the tribes.

It is interesting that this event on the first day Nissan is described in Sefer Shemos, Vayikra & Bamidbar, with very different focii.

Within Sefer Bamidbar, the dedication of the Mishkan is described within the story on the creation of the political structure of Bnei Yisroel as they prepare to wage war and conquer the land of Israel. Later, as they fail to follow the political, religious and prophetic leadership of Moshe and Aharon, they squander their opportunity to enter the land of Israel and have to wait a generation to fulfill their destiny.

It is within the context of the creation of the political and social structure of the Camp and community of Bnei Yisroel that the dedication of the Mishkan is described and the role of the Nesi’im, the political leaders of the 12 tribes is enshrined in their contributions and sacrifices.

There is a famous midrash, quoted by many that Aharon, the Kohein Gadol, felt bad when he witnessed the donations of the Nesi’im, of which he did not take part, as he was the Nasi of Shevet Levi.

To compensate, G-d, at the beginning of the next Parsha, Ba’ha’aloscha, focuses on Aharon’s unique mitzvah of lighting the Menorah. Various versions of this midrash highlight how while the Mishkan is temporary, Aharon’s mitzvah was eternal. The obvious question asked by the Ramban is how is the lighting of the Menorah, which itself was only performed when the Mishkan (and later the Bais ha-Mikdash) was standing, were any more permanent than the Mishkan?

Ramban famously suggests that Aharon’s descendants were central to the miraculous salvation of Chanukah, alluded to by the commandment to light the Menorah and that even after the destruction of the Bais Ha-Mikdash the holiday of Chanukah is still celebrated and, to this day, the heroism of Aharon’s descendants is commemorated.

Upon initial reflection, the Ramban’s question and answer only serve to make a seemingly odd Midrash even stranger, as what does Chanukah have to do with the dedication of the Mishkan thousands of year earlier. However, read in the context of Parshas Naso and Sefer Bamidbar, the Ramban and the Midrash teach a religious psychological truth.

Within Ramban’s presentation of the narrative, Aharon, as head of Levi and the Chief Religious Officer of Bnei Yisroel gave up any claims to political and military power when he was appointed Kohain Gadol and head religious functionary. Aharon then saw the political leaders playing a central religious role in the dedication of the Mishkan. In effect, the 12 Nes’im were able to play both essential political and religious roles. Aharon who had sacrificed the political for thre religious realm, on some level regretted his calling. G-d responded that his descendants, the Maccabi’im would later hold both the religious and the political/military leadership and through having both positions, bring about the redemption of Chanukah.

What Aharon experienced, in the Ramban’s retelling, is a very human religious experience. After we sacrifice for the sake of religion (whether it is an educational, financial, or professional sacrifice) we see others who did not make this sacrifice, but appear to have aquired both the external benefit and the religious growth for which we sacrificed, making the sacrifice appear meaningless. But nonetheless, only G-d can know the true consequences and benefits of a personal religious sacrifice and what we have gained, in the long term by giving up for the sake of our religion and G-d.

Rabbi Yonatan Kaganoff (SBM 1997) worked for many years in the Kashrut Division of the Orthodox Union, where he went by the nom de plume“Webbe Rebbe” and has dabbled in adult education and interfaith dialogue, but is currently a “civilian”. He was the founding online editor of Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought. He currently lives in the German Jewish community of Washington Heights with his family and is an amateur puppeteer ( in his free time.

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Sinai and Tzeniut

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Sefer Bamidbar opens by describing G-d as speaking to Moshe “in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Appointment.” Why “in the Tent of Appointment”? Bamidbar Rabbah answers:

Because G-d spoke to Moshe

at Sinai through the shrub, in Midian, in Egypt, and at Sinai,

but once the Tent of Appointment was stood up,

He said: “יפה הוא הצניעות” “tzeniut is beautiful,”

as Scripture says (Mikhah 6): והצנע לכת עם א-להיך

“and walking in tzeniut with your Divinity,”

so He spoke with him (only) from within the Tent of Appointment.

Why does G-d only realize that tzeniut is beautiful now? Furthermore, there is a vast difference between Moshe’s private experiences in the Wilderness and the very public Revelation at Sinai. Does G-d k’b’yakhol regret that Revelation, and decide in retrospect that He would have been better off speaking only to Mosheh? The answers to these questions have immediate implications for human behavior, because the Rabbis situate this Divine tzeniut as a model for human tzeniut. First, they likely read the proof-text as “and walking in tzeniut together with your Divinity.” Second, the midrash continues by citing Tehillim 41:11, כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות לבושה. After an initial interpretation in which the בת מלך = daughter of the king is Mosheh, and the משבצות זהב לבושה = the one wearing the gold settings = Aharon the High Priest, we read:

 מיכן אמרו: אשה שהיא מצנעת עצמה

אפי’ היא ישראלית

ראויה היא שתנשא לכהן ותעמיד כהנים גדולים

“שנא’ “ממשבצות זהב לבושה

On this basis they said:  A woman who is matznia herself,

even if she does not descend from kohanim,

she is worthy to marry a Kohen and to raise High Priests

as Scripture writes: “her garments will be from those with golden settings.”

There is a parallel between the tzeniut of G-d and praiseworthy tzeniut for women. Does tzeniut for women become primary only as they enter their appointed tents, whereas until then the goal is to attract their bashert, as G-d needed to attract Moshe at the Smoldering Shrub? Was Sinai a chuppah? Resh Lakish (Shemot Rabbah 41:5) sees Shemot 31:18 similarly:

“ויתן אל ממשה כככלתו לדבר אתו בהר סיני”

אמר רשב”ל: מה כלה זו

כל ימים שהיא בבית אביה מצנעת עצמה ואין אדם מכירה

וכשבאת ליכנס לחופתה היא מגלה פניה

כלומר כל מי שהוא יודע לי עדות יבא ויעיד עלי

כך תלמיד חכם צריך להיות צנוע ככלה הזו

ומפורסם במעשים טובים ככלה הזו שהיא מפרסמת עצמה

 “He gave to Mosheh kekallato speaking with him at Mount Sinai” –

Said Resh Lakish: Just as a kallah=bride

all the days in her father’s house she is matznia herself, and no one can recognize her,

but when she comes to enter the bridal canopy she reveals her face,

as if to say “Let anyone who knows testimony against me (that I have been untzanua),”

So too a Torah scholar must be tzanua as this bride

and publicly known for his good deeds like this bride who publicizes herself.

This line of interpretation doesn’t merely see G-d’s tzeniut as a model for women to emulate. It sees Mosheh as groom and G-d as bride. The Rabbis had no difficulty imagining G-d as feminine. To make the analogy between G-d and bride account for G-d’s pre-Sinai conversations with Mosheh, we must say that the Bride does reveal Her face to one man (Mosheh) before the chuppah, where She unveils herself to demonstrate to all present that they have never seen Her face. Sinai is not an arranged marriage, but k’b’yakhol follows dates at the shrub and in Mitzrayim. Even Mosheh never sees G-d’s face. That gap is important, because it is tempting to read Resh Lakish as setting up requirements of physical tzeniut but Resh Lakish must be read as establishing a standard relative to general and specific social circumstances of the bride.

The midrash taken as a whole radically desexualizes tzeniut. There is no fear of eroticism behind Resh Lakish’s requirement for scholars to avoid publicizing their specific good deeds and no need to eroticize G-d’s preference for tzeniut in Revelation. The midrash assumes and demands a conceptualization capable of encompassing tzeniut in all three contexts: physical, deeds, and Divine. One might still ask: Why does the analogy generate physical tzeniut for women, and deed tzeniut for men? Don’t the Rabbis imagine G-d as female only to protect their eyes and souls from the sight of actual women? My reply is that both premises of the question are incorrect. Resh Lakish’s requirement for deed tzeniut applies to female scholars; why should it not? And I will now seek to demonstrate that the requirements of physical tzeniut derived from G-d’s choices apply to both men and women.

We saw above that a woman who is matznia herself merits raising High Priests; because she emulates G-d’s tzeniut in Revelation, she merits having her children be the intimates of that Revelation. What does this meritorious tzeniut entail? The generic woman of our midrash is an abstraction drawn of the case of Kimchit. In Vayikra Rabbah (Acharei Mot 20), we read:

שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית, וכולן שמשו בכהונה גדולה

?אמרו לה חכמים: מה עשית שזכית לכך

אמרה להם: מימי לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי

אמרו לה: הרבה עשו כן, ולא הועילו

A beraita: Kimchit had seven sons, and all served as High Priest.

The Sages said to her: “What have you done to merit this?”

She replied: “In all my days the walls of my house never saw the braids of my hair.”

They said to her: “Kimchit, all the kemach=flour you have made is finely sifted.”

They applied to her the verse “כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה ממשבצות לבושה.”

This would seem to valorize extreme tzeniut. Kimchit kept her hair covered at all times—even in her own house, when it was braided, and when there was no one to see it but the walls. On Yoma 47a, the same story is told with at least a hint of ambivalence. In this version, the Rabbis respond not with praise but with skepticism: “הרבה עשו כן ולא הועילו=‘Many have done what you did, without achieving the same result,’ and they make no mention of our verse.” The phrase “many have done…but…” famously appears on Berakhot 35b as Abbayay’s verdict on the position of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai that Jews should do nothing but study Torah and trust that G-d will arrange for their fields to be harvested by others. This remains a controversy and the text can be read as saying this is a praiseworthy path only an elite can properly take. One might understand Kimchit’s extreme tzeniut similarly.

However, I think a better parallel is found on Niddah 69b-71a, where the people of Alexandria ask Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya three questions related to derekh eretz: How does one become wise? Become rich? Have male children? Rabbi Yehoshua’s answers are likely playful; for example, his answers make wisdom and wealth mutually exclusive. Regardless, the Alexandrians respond that “Many have done what you suggest, without achieving the desired result.” Rabbi Yehoshua responds that ultimately one must pray, but that prayer will be more effective if accompanied by his recommended actions. Kimchit likely gave the same answer to the Sages: I prayed for my sons to become High Priests, but my prayers were answered because of my tzeniut. Perhaps she was correct, and her path was praiseworthy, even if most women would not do well trying to follow it. But Rabbi Yehoshua’s answer to the last question asked by the Alexandrians—How does one have male children?—is: “ישא אשה ההוגנת לו, ויקדש עצמו בשעת תשמיש=He must marry a woman who is appropriate for him, and sanctify himself during sex.” Rashi comments: “‘sanctify himself’ – to have sex with tzeniut.”

With this text in mind, it seems to me likely that Kimchit’s answer was tzanua: she meant that she did not uncover her hair even during sex. It turns out that men and women go to the same extremes of tzeniut in hopes of reward. As a result, it is clear that the extremes of tzeniut discussed have nothing to do with a hypothetical male gaze, or any real or hypothetical human gaze. The concern is rather for the Divine gaze, that sexuality per se is inherently embarrassing. Practitioners of extreme tzeniut are constantly sewing fig leaves lest G-d come walking through their garden. I submit that their actions may be profound expressions of fear of G-d, but that they are not engaged in imitatio dei.

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Strength Through Numbers

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi Dani Rockoff

Bemidbar, the book of Numbers, begins with a census of the tribes of Israel.

Each tribe is counted with the following formula:

לִבְנֵ֣י… תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֣ר שֵׁמֹ֗ת מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא:

פְּקֻדֵיהֶ֖ם לְמַטֵּ֣ה…

For the sons of…their offspring according to their families according to their father’s household, by number of the names, from twenty years of age and up.  Their numbers…

There are some subtle differences in the counting of two of the tribes, and a very substantial difference with another.

Reuven and Shimon each have subtle differences.

Reuven (1:20):

 וַיִּהְי֤וּ בְנֵֽי־רְאוּבֵן֙ בְּכֹ֣ר יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כֹּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כָּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא

These were the sons of Reuben, firstborn of Israel, their offspring according to their families, according to their father’s household, by number of the names, according to their head count (לגלגלתם).

Shimon (1:22):

לִבְנֵ֣י שִׁמְע֔וֹן תּוֹלְדֹתָ֥ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָ֖ם לְבֵ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם  פְּקֻדָ֗יו בְּמִסְפַּ֤ר שֵׁמוֹת֙ לְגֻלְגְּלֹתָ֔ם כָּל־זָכָ֗ר מִבֶּ֨ן עֶשְׂרִ֤ים שָׁנָה֙ וָמַ֔עְלָה כֹּ֖ל יֹצֵ֥א צָבָֽא

For the sons of Simeon…. its numbers (פקדיו), by number of names, according to their headcount.

Reuven is singled out as the firstborn.  Shimon is singled out by being counted according to the singular, “his numbers,” rather than the plural “their numbers.”

Both Reuven and Shimon have the phrase “according to their headcount,” which no other tribe does.

The tribe with the most significant difference is Levi.  They are not counted along with Bnei Yisrael.

אַ֣ךְ אֶת־מַטֵּ֤ה לֵוִי֙ לֹ֣א תִפְקֹ֔ד וְאֶת־רֹאשָׁ֖ם לֹ֣א תִשָּׂ֑א בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

But you shall not count the tribe of Levi, and you shall not take a census of them among the Children of Israel (1:49)

What do these three tribes have in common?  They anger their father Yaakov in two separate episodes in Parshat Vayishlach.

Shimon and Levi murder the men of Shechem.  Yaakov reprimands them:

You have decomposed me, making me odious among the inhabitants of the land, among the Canaanite and among the Perizzite; I am few in number and should they band together and attack me, I will be annihilated (34:30).

Reuven acts inappropriately with Bilha after Rachel’s death.  “And Israel heard.”  After a break, the Torah continues: The sons of Jacob were twelve. The sons of Leah, Jacob’s first-born Reuben…” (35:22-23)

There is a common thread in these episodes.  Yaakov’s sons act in defense of the family’s honor.  To Shimon and Levi, Yaakov responds that they have jeopardized not only the family’s honor but its very survival, “I am few in number… I will be annihiliated.”  To Reuven, Yaakov says nothing, though the Torah makes it clear that he has taken note of his actions.  The Torah emphasizes that Reuven is still counted amongst the sons of Yaakov, “The sons of Jacob were twelve.”

Yaakov expresses his anger explicitly in his words to them on his deathbed.

To Reuven:

Reuven, you are my firstborn, my strength and initial vigor….. Water-like impetuosity– you cannot be foremost, because you mounted your father’s bed…. (49:3-4)

To Shimon and Levi:

Simeon and Levi are comrades, their weaponry is a stolen craft.  Into their conspiracy, may my soul not enter! with their congregation, do not join, O my honor!…. I will separate them within Jacob, and I will disperse them in Israel.

Moving ahead to Bemidbar, both Reuven and Shimon are counted among Israel.  In the same vein as “And the sons of Jacob were twelve.”  But there are subtle hints to their past wrongdoing.  Reuven stands out as the “first born”:  he was Yaakov’s first strength, but failed to fulfill his calling.  Shimon too stands alone, counted “according to his numbers.”

This theme continues in V’zot Habracha, where Moshe makes no mention of Shimon and only scant mention of Reuven:

Let Reuven live and not die, and may his population be included in the count (33:6)

The actions of members of the tribes of Reuven and Shimon do not offer much in the way of redemption.  Prominent members of the Korach-alliance are from the tribe of Reuven.  The head of the tribe of Shimon consorted with a Midianite princess and many of their tribe were killed off in the subsequent plague.

The tribe of Levi, however, fares significantly better.

True to Yaakov’s words, they are not counted among Israel.  They will not be part of legions of Israel, nor will they inherit the land.  They can not overcome that.

But their initial banishment is turned into a positive.  In Bemidbar they are tasked with being in the center of the camp and taking care of the Mishkan.

The tribe of Levi redeemed themselves, due to their lack of participation in the sin of the Golden Calf.  In fact, in our parsha, they formally replace the first born as those to serve the Mishkan.

The book of Bemidbar opens with a census and structure of the camp that conveys a sense of unity and order of the tribes of Israel Just as Yaakov continued to count Reuven, Shimon, and Levi among his children, so too here they remain part and parcel of the nation that is now preparing to enter the Promised Land.

Yet the consequences of past behaviors come to the fore in subtle and also pronounced ways.  In the context of the census, Reuven and Shimon’s faults are subtly hinted.  Later, the behavior of its tribe would demonstrate lessons still not learned.

Levi on the other hand provides the unique example of one who was once banished for his actions who managed to redeem himself.  Levi turned its role from one of isolation to one of unique dedication and service to the whole of Israel.

Rabbi Dani Rockoff (SBM 98-00) is the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel Abraham & Voliner in Overland Park, KS.

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The Blessings, the Curses, and the Religious Value of Pleasure

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Joshua Skootsky

Our attention often focuses on the dramatic punishments which dominate Parshat Bekhukotai. After all, numerically, there are many more verses dedicated to the curses.

Leviticus 26:3-13 (10 verses) provide a short introduction to Parshat Bekhukotai, of blessings that befall the Jewish people when they follow the laws of the Torah. Leviticus 26:14-46 (32 verses) detail the curses that will happen when the Jews do not follow the laws of the Torah.

Yet, Rabbi Abraham bar Meir Ibn Ezra HaSepharadi comments to the conclusion of the blessings (Leviticus 26:13):

And those with no brains say:
‘The curses are more numerous than the blessings.”
But they have not spoken the truth,
since the blessings are very general
and the the curses very specific
to strike fear in the hearts of the listeners.
And to one who looks closely,
my words will become clearer.

Therefore, we must either take the blessings very seriously, at least as seriously as the curses, or not have any brains.

Proof that Rambam had brains can be adduced from his equation of the blessings to the curses in the Hilchot Teshuva 10:1, where he discusses the proper mode of serving G-d:

Don’t say, “I will do the commandments of the Torah and involve myself in its wisdom so that I will receive the blessings written in the Torah, or so that I will merit the World-to-Come; and I will stay far from the sins that the Torah warns about, so that I will be saved from the curses written in the Torah, and not be cut off from the World-to-Come.”

Rambam continues (Teshuva 10:3-4):

One who serves out of love, involves themselves in Torah and commandments, walking in the ways of wisdom – not due to any worldly thing, not the fear of curses, or to gain wealth, but rather – they do what is true, because it is true – and in the end, the good that comes is included in this.

[4] This level is a very high level, and not all who are wise reach it. It is the level of Abraham, our father, whom the Holy One, Blessed is He, called “One who loves me,” since he did not serve G-d for any reason other than love.

What is the relationship between serving G-d out of pure love, and receiving “in the end,” the spiritual and physical good of blessings, wealth, and the World-to-Come?

This question is heightened by the Rambam’s example of Abraham as someone who worshiped G-d out of pure love. After all, if we read Genesis, we note that from the very beginning of Abraham’s story in Parshat Lech Lecha (Genesis 12) that G-d promises Abraham a nation, riches, and fame. Throughout his entire life, G-d makes Abraham many promises of children who will inherit the land, and great success.

The Talmud Yerushalmi at the conclusion of Kiddushin (4:12) takes up the topic of Abraham’s physical wealth, as a reward from G-d for the observance of the Torah (in a manner similar to the blessings of Bekhukotai, which are predicated on observance of the Torah), before segueing into the strongest endorsement of physical pleasure in this world having spiritual value. Not partaking of these blessings is seen as a sin of some kind.

We see with Abraham, our father, that he observed the laws of the Torah before they came into the world, “Since Abraham listened to my voice, observed my safeguards , my commandments, my decrees, and my Torah” (Genesis 26:5).

Therefore, G-d made him great, and blessed him in his youth, and then gave him hope and a lasting legacy into his old age.

In his youth, the verse says, “Abraham had much cattle, silver, and gold (Genesis 13:2).”

And in his old age, “And Abraham was old, having come through many days, and G-d blessed Abraham with everything (Genesis 24:1).”

R’ Chezkiaya R’ Kohen, in the name of Rav, says, “It is forbidden to live in a city that has no doctor, bathhouse, or a court that punishes and imprisons.”

R’ Yose, son of R’ Bun, says, “It is forbidden to live in a city that doesn’t have a nice garden.”

R’ Chezkiaya R’ Kohen, in the name of Rav, says, “In the future, one will have to give an accounting before The Judge of all that his eye saw, but did not eat.”

R’ Eliezer observed that teaching carefully, so each year he put aside money to eat the new fruit in their season.

The Yerushalmi celebrates the material wealth that Abraham enjoyed in return for Torah observance, before comparing necessities like a doctor to the aesthetic pleasures of a garden. Yet, what is the spiritual value of these blessings, such that we will be required to give an accounting before the True Judge and King of Kings for not partaking of them?

A possible approach can be found the Rambam (Shofetim 12:4-5), who examines the interplay of physical blessings with a life dedicated to the loving service of G-d, continuing the discussion from Hilkhot Teshuva, in the conclusion of Mishneh Torah with his description of the Messianic age:

[4] The Prophets and the Wise did not desire the Messianic age to come so that they could rule over the world… or eat, drink, and be merry. Rather, they wished to be free to pursue Torah and Wisdom, and not have to spend all of their time focused on mere survival, so that they would merit the World-to-Come, as I explained in Hilchot Teshuva.

[5] In that time, there will be no famine, war, jealousy, or competition – there will just be much good, widely spread, and all of the delicacies will be plentiful like dust. There will be no occupation other than that of coming to know G-d. Therefore, people will be wise, and they will know things that are locked and deep, and they will understand their Creator as well as human strength allows.

For the Rambam, physical blessings are a double blessing. True, they allow rest from work, and enjoyment of riches and wealth. Yet, they also provide the opportunity to serve G-d with an unworried heart and mind. To borrow a phrase from Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rambam says that only when life is not “nasty, brutish, and short” can humanity as a whole properly approach G-d. The enjoyment of physical pleasures and blessings of this world, in a broad, communal sense, just like collective blessings that introduce Bekhukotai, allow for the community as a whole to have time for the restful contemplation and focus on Torah and other wisdoms as a way of coming closer to G-d.

Similarly, in the Yerushalmi, the example of R’ Eliezer may serve to blunt the most hedonistic or Romantic interpretations. R’ Eliezer sought out new fruit in its proper time presumably so that he could make the blessing of Shechechiyanu – blessing G-d with thanks for creating such nice things in this world. In this sense, rather than serving as a springboard or means to a spiritual end, it is possible to view physical blessings themselves as invitations to thank and bless G-d for doing such good to us.

Therefore, Ibn Ezra’s comment, that the blessings are much better than the curses, may be rooted in a deep awareness of how poverty affects humanity’s spiritual ambitions. Ibn Ezra was famously poor, and suffered greatly, traveling the world as an itinerant polymath-poet and biblical interpreter. In a memorable line, he laments his abject failure to establish gainful employment. “If I sold burial shrouds \ people would stop dying.” Ibn Ezra knew, perhaps better than others, that the blessings in our Parsha serve not only as physical rewards for the observance of commandments, but as the creation of an environment where we will all be able to turn our physical, intellectual, and spiritual efforts towards the knowledge of G-d, and thereby achieve our loftiest spiritual and ethical goals.

Joshua Skootsky was part of SBM 2012, and will be returning this summer.

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Restoring Challenging Halakhah

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The default setting of Orthodox theology is that all biblical commands have eternal relevance. Now a default is not an absolute, and the halakhic tradition recognizes explicitly that some Torah commands were intended only for the Exodus generation. Many have suggested further that the laws of slavery are irrelevant wherever complete abolition is socially practicable. The question is how far and how often we can move off the default.

Some argue that when a Talmudic rabbi declares that a law “never was and never will be,” he is actually signaling a moral shift in which a Torah law is quietly put out to pasture.

I am not convinced by this argument. It is true that the laws that “never were and never will be” include the ethically challenging cases of the “rebellious son,” in which a 13-year- old boy is executed for gluttonous disobedience, and the “idolatrous city,” which involves mass executions. Each of these properly causes moral discomfort. But they also include the relatively innocuous law of the leprous house, which suggests the operation of an exegetical principle other than moral discomfort.

In other cases, the rabbis or common practice have developed workarounds that in practice prevent the application of certain laws. The prozbul document, for example, largely eliminates the rule of shemitat kesafim (loan-forgiveness every Sabbatical year) by formally assigning loans to rabbinic courts, which are allowed to collect loans eternally. The courts then hire the original loaner as their collection agency, at a 100% commission.

Modern Orthodox Jews often express ambivalence about these workarounds. On the one hand, the rabbis’ “judicial activism” is celebrated. On the other hand, there is a perception that such activism comes at the cost of integrity, that this is not really what the Torah wanted.

Moreover, if rabbis refuse to admit that they are free to legislate as they will, and insist that they are heteronomously bound by their most authentic understanding of Torah, they are critiqued as lacking ethical sensitivity. The implicit subtext is that if rabbis have the authority to do so, they should find ways to sideline all areas of Halakhah that are in moral tension with the values of their laities.

I suggest a different perspective on these workarounds. Perhaps they are best seen as attempts to shore fragments against ruins, as efforts to salvage some remnant of a law from a failure of interpretation.

Let us take prozbul as an example. Shemitat kesafim seems intended to prevent the accumulation of debt, and loan forgiveness has been a tactic for relieving the poor, and preventing revolution, from ancient times until today; consider the ongoing conversations between the European Union and Portugal. The Torah is unique in scheduling such forgiveness in advance rather than doing so reactively.

Halakhah permits explicitly negotiating loans with terms longer than seven years, so enforcing shemitat kesafim would not shut down the mortgage markets. But the standard halakhic loan comes due in thirty days, and thus is subject to mandatory forgiveness. The Torah warns us against using this as an excuse not to give out loans, but Hillel discovered that the poor were nonetheless being denied access to credit, and so developed the prozbul.

The result is that shemitat kesafim can be avoided for all loans, of whatever term. The only consequence of the law is the requirement to write a prozbul. In some cultures even that requirement fell away, and Rav Moshe Feinstein suggests that where there are secular legal barriers to the effective use of a prozbul, the requirement is waived. In other words, the prozbul is not a substantive requirement, but rather a mnemonic, a reminder that such a law existed even though it no longer has meaning.

The process of chok-ification, of relating to a halakhah as lacking any humanly discernible purpose, often leads to that halakhah having its application narrowed to the point of nonexistence. But I submit it would be better, if possible, to find a way to restore meaning to the law.

What would that entail? My favorite example is from the laws of ribbit and neshekh, the prohibitions against charging interest to fellow Jews. The Torah sets these out in Shemot 24:34, Vayikra 25:35-38, and Devarim 23:20-21. Like shemitat kesafim, enforcing these rules freezes credit, and so the rabbis developed the heter iska, a document that formally converts interest payments into a distributions of investment profits. This again serves a purely mnemonic function, and Israeli banks write one such document to generically cover in advance of all their otherwise forbidden activities.

Rabbi Chayyim Dovid HaLevi, the late Sefardi Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, suggested boldly that it was simply wrong to use a heter iska indiscriminately. Here is my translation of his words as found in the first volume of his response Aseh Lekha Rav, p. 182:

It seems worth a slightly extended discussion, not of the ground of the permission, which is straightforward, but rather of the circumstances in which it is possible and permitted to make use of it, because in that regard, in my humble opinion, there are practical halakhic implications.

The rationale for the Torah’s prohibition of ribbit is straightforward, and is hinted at in the term “neshekh”=biting, as is known. There are two circumstances in which a person is compelled to borrow money from his fellow, under duress.

1)     A person poor from the start whose regular life is one of want and poverty, but occasionally needs a sum of money greater than he can earn for a relatively unusual expenditure. To such a person there is an obligation to lend with no interest at all, as he will be compelled to repay the loan from his paltry stream of income, and if they take interest from him, he will pay only the interest for the rest of his life (and never pay down the principal). In my humble opinion this is hinted by the Torah in the prohibition of ribbit in Parashat Mishpatim: “With money you must lend my nation, the poor among you . . .”

2)     A person not poor from the start, but rather has been brought low by a commercial loss of whatever cause, and he needs much support in order to recover. This person’s friends are commanded to lend him the amounts of money he needs to reestablish himself. This is the intent of the Torah in the prohibition of ribbit in Parashat Behar: “Should your brother sink . . . “

In such circumstances, if the lender uses a heter iska, he is distorting the intent of the original mitzvah and the intent of the iska-permission. Therefore, it is clear that if someone comes seeking to borrow a reasonable sum as an act of chessed (lovingkindness) in his time of duress, there is an obligation to lend to him interest-free, which is the Torah’s straightforward commandment.

But if a person comes and seeks to borrow great sums in order to initiate profitable new businesses, we find no obligation in the Torah to lend to such a person, who is not poor, nor brought low. However, since the Torah banned interest per se, such a person would be unable to borrow at all, as no one would lend him great sums so that he can use them for his own profit, since the lender could enter the same business himself. This generated the straightforward idea of the iska, which is in practice a partnership on the conditions made clear by halakhah.

Rabbi Halevi here restores the prohibition of ribbit as rational and morally powerful in the most capitalist of societies. In his understanding, the heter iska is a mechanism for protecting the genuine purpose of the eternally relevant law, rather than an effort to preserve the form of law whose purpose is defunct.

I submit that Modern Orthodoxy would be wise to adopt Rabbi Halevi’s approach as a model for dealing with apparent cases of biblical law and rabbinic evasion.

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The Burning of the Kohen’s Daughter

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tzipporah Machlah Klapper

Leviticus 21:9:
וּבַת֙ אִ֣ישׁ כֹּהֵ֔ן כִּ֥י תֵחֵ֖ל לִזְנ֑וֹת אֶת־אָבִ֙יהָ֙ הִ֣יא מְחַלֶּ֔לֶת בָּאֵ֖שׁ תִּשָּׂרֵֽף׃
And the daughter of a man who is a Kohen, when she profanes herself in harlotry, she profanes her father; in fire shall you burn her.
Surrounded by psukim about tum’ah (impurity) and kedushah (sanctity), this law sticks out like a sore thumb. How does it relate to the laws of mourning, which precede it? There is no parshah break between it and the preceding psukim, nothing to indicate any topical separation; with its language of chol, profane, it clearly relates to the previous psukim, which ended with kadosh, sacred.
This is easily reconciled by saying that the Kohen’s daughter is bound by her father’s kedushah; in other words, she profanes her father – literally. This is borne out in Sanhedrin Perek Arba Misos, where the issue is discussed at length. In particular, we have this,
Sanhedrin 52a:
היה רבי מאיר אומר מה ת”ל את אביה היא מחללת שאם היו נוהגין בו קודש נוהגין בו חול כבוד נוהגין בו בזיון אומרין ארור שזו ילד ארור שזו גידל ארור שיצא זומחלציו
Rabbi Meir used to say: What can you learn from “she profanes her father”? That if they treated him with sanctity, they treat him with profanity; honor, they treat him with disgrace. They say, “Cursed is he that bore this! that raised this! that this is his offspring!”
This is a halachic interpretation of she profanes her father, as is evident in the next statement:
אמר רב אשי כמאן קרינן רשיעא בר רשיעא ואפי’ לרשיעא בר צדיקא כמאן כהאי תנא
Rav Ashi said: In accordance with whom do we apply the epithet “evil born of evil,” even to evil born of righteous – in accordance with whom? With this teaching.
Kohanim are kadosh, sacred, as the laws of impurity concluded. A kohen‘s daughter who violates sexual prohibitions profanes not only herself but her father, since her crime will be taken as reflective of her father. Her father is in turn a symbol of sanctity, so she profanes the sacred indirectly. For this reason, she is punished harshly.
Rav Ashi teaches that really, all children are symbolic of their parents – the kohen‘s daughter merely profanes a more sacred symbol. The kohen here is cursed because he bore this – her traits are formed after his even in birth – he raised this – her actions are proof of his bad parenting – this is his offspring – his symbol, her, is criminal.
So, do you know where your children are?
Tzipporah Machlah Klapper (SBM 2014) serves as program director for CMTL’s Midreshet Avigayil, an intense summer gemara program for girls.

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Torah Leadership and Torah Knowledge

By Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

“In all of Masekhet Avot,” writes Rabbi Shimshon ben Tzemakh Duran (1361-1444, North Africa) in his commentary to Avot 4:20, “there are no disputes – except in this mishnah.” Rabbi Duran plainly has an interest in asserting that Jewish tradition reflects a consensus of values even as it records a plethora of halakhic disputes (cf. R. Eliyahu Dessler in the twentieth century, who claimed “there is no machloket in aggadah”). His commentary on this mishnah as well ends up reconciling the apparently conflicting positions, saying that one deals with the majority of cases while the second makes sure that the existence of the minority is acknowledged.

What generates Rabbi Suran’s initial concession is a literary sensibility, and I prefer his hava amina to his maskono. Let’s read together – here is the text, with my translation.

אלישע בן אבויה אומר

?הלומד ילד – למה הוא דומה

לדיו כתובה על נייר חדש

?והלומד זקן – למה הוא דומה

לדיו כתובה על נייר מחוק

רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה איש כפר הבבלי אומר

?הלומד מן הקטנים – למה הוא דומה

לאוכל ענבים קהות ושותה יין מגתו

?והלומד מן הזקנים – למה הוא דומה

לאוכל ענבים בשולות ושותה יין ישן

רבי (מאיר) אומר

אל תסתכל בקנקן, אלא במה שיש בו

יש קנקן חדש מלא ישן

וישן שאפילו חדש אין בו

Elisha ben Avuyah says:

One who learns as a child – to what is he similar?

To ink written on new paper;

One who learns as an elder – to what is he similar?

To ink written on erased parchment.

Rabbi Yose son of Rabbi Yehudah of Kfar haBavli says:

One who learns from the young – to what is he similar?

To one who eats sour grapes and drinks wine from the vat;

One who learns from the elders – to what is he similar?

To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine.

Rabbi (meaning Rabbi Yehudah the Nasi. But in some versions: Rabbi Meir) says:

Do not look at the barrel, rather at what is within –

There are new barrels full of aged wine

and old barrels that don’t even contain new wine.

Rabbi Duran first reads Rabbi as sharply disagreeing with Rabbi Yose, who prefers the objective criterion of age to subjective evaluation. This reading is strengthened by the parallel text in Avot d’Rabbi Natan Version B Chapter 34:

וישן אפילו טיפה אין בו

אינו מלא אלא מימי רגלים

There are new barrels that contain not a drop

(or) that are full only of urine.

The last line seems too pungent for a friendly amendment. Another indication that this mishnah does not shy from controversy is its acknowledgement of the famed sage-turned heretic Elisha ben Avuyah as the author of its opening stanza. Elisha is not acknowledged by name anywhere else in Mishnah, and indeed Rabbi Duran records that

(זאת המשנה דלגוה מסדורי תפלות משום ‘שם רשעים ירקב’ (משלי י ז

ונראה, כי קודם שיצא לתרבות רעה היתה שגורה בפי התלמידים

‘ואחר כך משנה זו ‘לא זזה ממקומה

This Mishnah was edited out of (Maskehet Avot) in prayer books on account of “the name of the wicked should rot.”

But it seems that before Elisha went wrong this statement was fluent in the mouths of the students,

and afterward the mishnah would not move from its place.

In the mode of academic pilpul, I might suggest that this mishnah coheres best if we accept Rabbi Meir as the author of the last section rather than Rabbi. Rabbi Meir was Elisha’s student, both before and after Elisha’s break, and never ceased trying to bring his teacher back into the rabbinic fold. It seems reasonable that his experience of Elisha served to insulate him against claims that increased age always yields deeper wisdom.

Reading the mishnah as a single literary unit opens the possibility that Rabbi Yose disagreed with Elisha, and Rabbi Meir’s response was intended to defend his rebbe. To wit: Elisha’s metaphor of new vs. erased parchment suggests that only the young retain new learning reliably and clearly. If young people are more capable of absorbing new information than elders, why would we rather learn from elders? Can teachers be effective when they have ceased being learners?

There is a sense in which, from deep and powerful personal experience, I disagree with this argument. I had the zekhut of learning from Nechama Leibowitz z”l at the very end of her career, when one could surprise her with the same text week after week. But she was still the best classroom teacher I have ever seen, and fully capable of conveying her methodology, content, and passion. I also had the zekhut of learning from Rav Aharon Soloveitchik z”l when he was no longer a creative Talmudist, but could recall and retell the creative leaps of his youth. Lifelong learning is a noble aspiration, but even when it fails, lifelong aspiration for learning makes for powerful role-modelling.

And Rabbi Meir himself refused to consider Elisha’s Torah as valueless. He had every opportunity to express his bitterness and sense of betrayal by extending the metaphor and suggesting that some old barrels contain only wine vinegar, and some grapes are overripe. Instead, I believe, he critiques those who believe that age alone and inevitably is sufficient for the development of Torah wisdom from Torah learning.

In a biography of my grandfather’s rebbe R. Meir Shapiro, there is a chapter title that has long stayed with me: “From Ilui to Gaon.” To be an ilui (Talmudic prodigy) at age 20, one must have an impressive head; but to still be an ilui at 50, one must have insufficient heart. Physical maturity is no guarantee of Torah maturity, and some people are mature beyond their years. Perhaps there are even immature teachers who nonetheless produce mature Torah.

Here I want to attempt my own reconciliation of all the positions in the mishnah. My core argument is this: We need to challenge the equation of Torah knowledge with Torah leadership, for the benefit of both.

Torah leadership requires the ability to grow. Great sages who are locked into their pasts cannot properly apply their Torah to the present. History repeats itself, but each cycle may last many generations, and leaders must be capable of recognizing that something is new in their experience, even if nothing is truly new under the sun. (It should be self-evident that knowledge uninformed by deep human experience and intellectual breadth leads to grievous practical error.)

At the same time, Torah leaders should see great value in learning from those who have been leaders in the past and whose Torah has been kilned in the furnace of past Torah challenges, and also from those who faithfully transmit such Torah. In Torah leadership as everywhere else it is best not to reinvent the wheel, and to ensure that we are rooted but flexible reeds rather than untethered kites.

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