Monthly Archives: June 2015

G-d as King and Companion

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Salinger

Many of Bil’am’s blessings praise benei Yisrael for their unique relationship with G-d. Bil’am’s second berakha is a case in point:

במדבר כג

יט לֹא אִישׁ אֵ-ל וִיכַזֵּב, וּבֶן-אָדָם וְיִתְנֶחָם; הַהוּא אָמַר וְלֹא יַעֲשֶׂה, וְדִבֶּר וְלֹא יְקִימֶנָּה

כ הִנֵּה בָרֵךְ, לָקָחְתִּי; וּבֵרֵךְ, וְלֹא אֲשִׁיבֶנָּה

כא לֹא-הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; ה’ אֱ-לֹהָיו עִמּוֹ, וּתְרוּעַת מֶלֶךְ בּוֹ

כב אֵ-ל, מוֹצִיאָם מִמִּצְרָיִם–כְּתוֹעֲפֹת רְאֵם, לוֹ

כג כִּי לֹא-נַחַשׁ בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-קֶסֶם בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל; כָּעֵת, יֵאָמֵר לְיַעֲקֹב וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵל, מַה-פָּעַל, אֵ-ל

כד הֶן-עָם כְּלָבִיא יָקוּם, וְכַאֲרִי יִתְנַשָּׂא; לֹא יִשְׁכַּב עַד-יֹאכַל טֶרֶף, וְדַם-חֲלָלִים יִשְׁתֶּה

19 G-d is not man to be capricious,

Or mortal to change His mind.

Would He speak and not act,

Promise and not fulfill?

20 My message was to bless:

When He blesses, I cannot reverse it.

21 No harm is in sight for Jacob,

No woe in view for Israel.

The LORD their G-d is with them,

And their King’s acclaim in their midst.

22 G-d who freed them from Egypt

Is for them like the horns of the wild ox.

23 Lo, there is no augury in Jacob,

No divining in Israel:

Jacob is told at once,

Yea Israel, what G-d has planned.

24 Lo, a people that rises like a lion,

Leaps up like the king of beasts,

Rests not till it has feasted on prey

And drunk the blood of the slain.      (trans. Jewish Study Bible)

Let us focus on Verse 21. The pasuk consists of two sets of parallelisms, where the first set seems provide something of the reason for the second set: since Israel is blameless, G-d is with them. With respect to the second set—“The LORD their G-d is with them, / And their King’s acclaim in their midst”—it seems that “Hashem E-lohav” is parallel to “melech” and “bo” to “imo,” but it is less clear how the King’s teru’ah fits into the structure of the pasuk.

The meaning of “teru’ah” here is subject to debate. Rashi argues that the word is derived from re’ut, meaning friendship or companionship, and cites Onkelos’ translation to the pasuk as support:

לשון חבה ורעות, כמו “רעה דוד” (שמואל ב טו:לז), אוהב דוד, “ויתנה למרעהו” (שופטים טו:ו). וכן תרגם אונקלוס: שכינת מלכהון ביניהו

Language of endearment and companionship, like “the companion of David” (2 Samuel 15:37), [meaning,] the friend of David, “and he gave it to his companion” (Judges 15:6). And so Onkelos translated, “And the Shekhinah of their King is amongst them.”

Rashi’s comment relies on two presumptions. One, that Onkelos’ “Shekhinat Malkehon” translates verbatim “teru’at Melekh.” Second, that the term “Shekhinah” evokes imagery of G-d’s love for the people. But since Targum Onkelos regularly interpolates the words “Shekhina” and “Memra” for the purpose of de-anthropomorphizing the Biblical text, it seems more plausible to read “Shekhina” and its parallel of “Memra” as attempting to preclude a literal interpretation of G-d’s presence amongst the people. Additionally, Onkelos restores the verse’s parallelism distorted by the word teru’ah. For these reasons, it seems that Onkelos does not, contra Rashi, translate teru’ah as Shekhina, but simply deletes the word from the translation. So Onkelos does not seem to support Rashi’s contention.

Even stranger about Rashi’s interpretation, though, is that it straightforwardly opposes the Rabbinic reading of the verse. The Rabbinic reading, furthermore, is not confined to the realm of midrash, whether aggadic or halakhic. Rather, the correct interpretation of the verse has normative halakhic consequence:

בבלי ר”ה לב

מלכות שיש עמו תרועה, כגון “ה’ א-להיו עמו ותרועת מלך בו,” אומרה עם המלכיות ואומרה עם השופרות, דברי רבי יוסי. רבי יהודה אומר: אינו אומרה אלא עם המלכיות בלבד

A verse of kingship that contains references to the sounding of the shofar, such as, “Hashem his G-d is with [Jacob], and the shofar-blast of the King is amongst him,” may be said with verses of kingship or verses of shofar, according to R’ Yossi. R’ Yehuda says: it may only be said with the verses of kingship.

R’ Yossi and R’ Yehudah both, it seems, maintain that our pasuk contains a reference to the shofar, differing only in that fact’s legal relevance. (It is clear from context that R’ Yehuda denies that references to teru’ah count as references to the shofar for shofarot, even for pesukim that undeniably concern Rosh ha-Shana and the shofar.) The Gemara taken as a given a particular interpretation of this verse, and discusses its legal conclusions. How could Rashi offer an interpretation that deviates from the Gemara’s normatively valenced read?

Rashi is neither the first nor last to understand teru’ah this way: Sa’adia Ga’on and Rashbam also claim that the term derives from re’ut. (N.B. Ibn Ezra reads teru’ah at the sound of the shofar, in consonance with the Gemara.) But this interpretation requires an explanation. What motivation does Rashi (or Rasag or Rashbam, for that matter) have to interpret contrary to the reading of the Gemara?

Perhaps Rashi’s desire to read “teru’ah” as companionship or love, not a shofar blast acknowledging kingship, stems from the conceptual environment of the berakhot. Though the subject matter of the berakhot mostly concerns the special nature of Am Yisrael and their unique relationship with G-d, G-d is described here in majestic, absolutist terms: G-d’s word is final; G-d does not renege on a promise; G-d has not found wrongdoing in Israel.

The language depicting G-d as King actually renders problematic the berakhot’s focus on the singular nature of Am Yisrael: What need does G-d as King have for a chosen nation? Looking for an answer from the berakhot, we might suggest that it is Am Yisrael’s conduct–that it has no iniquity or sorcery–that renders it G-d’s chosen nation. But this explanation seems unsatisfactory, since it neither necessary nor sufficient: Am Yisrael is still chosen even after the people violate the Torah, and other nations would not be chosen even were they to observe G-d’s word. It must be, then, that the chosenness of Am Yisrael follows not from our relationship with G-d as a King only, but also from our relationship with G-d as a Companion. It is some special love that G-d has for the nation or our ancestors that renders us chosen: אתה בחרתנו מכל העמים, אהבת אותנו….. (“You chose us from all the nations, You loved us….”) However, since G-d remains King, the relationship is not one of equals: we are bound to obey G-d, Who judges human conduct. Chosenness may not be dependent upon moral and religious behavior to endure, but chosenness by G-d does give rise to moral and religious obligations.

We may suggest that Rashi interprets teru’ah in this context as something along the lines of “endearment” in order to make sense of the theme of chosenness that permeates the berakhot: the coherence of chosenness that cannot be abrogated depends on G-d’s capacity to love human beings. Furthermore, to prevent Rashi’s comment from being in contradiction with the Gemara, we may further suggest that Rashi means to offer the interpretation of teru’ah as re’ut as an additional meaning to the straightforward understanding of teru’ah as a shofar blast signifying the presence of royalty. The polysemy of “teru’ah” encapsulates our dual relationship with G-d as King and as Companion. G-d loves Am Yisrael singularly, but the relationship puts demands on our conduct.

According to our reading of Rashi, “teru’ah” is intentionally ambiguous in order to convey the dual nature of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d, as King and as Companion. G-d loves a particular nation, but G-d’s love does not exclude assessment of Israel’s moral character: לֹא-הִבִּיט אָוֶן בְּיַעֲקֹב, וְלֹא-רָאָה עָמָל בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל. A similar thought may be seen in the following midrash:

 

מדרש תהלים פרק פא סימן א

“למנצח על הגתית לאסף הרנינו לאלקים עוזנו [הריעו לאלקי יעקב].” (תהילים פא:ב) זהו שאמר הכתוב: “לא הביט און ביעקב” (במדבר כג:כא)–מה ראה בלעם להזכיר ליעקב, ולא לאברהם ולא ליצחק, אלא ליעקב בלבד? אלא צפה שיצא מאברהם פסולת–ישמעאל וכל בני קטורה–וכן צפה שיצא מיצחק עשו ואלופיו, אבל יעקב כולה קדושה, שנאמר: “כל אלה שבטי ישראל שנים עשר” (בראשית מט:כח). הדא הוא דכתיב: “כולך יפה רעיתי ומום אין בך.” (שה”ש ד:ז) לפיכך לא הזכיר האבות אלא ליעקב בלבד. הוי “לא הביט און ביעקב.” אמר אסף: הואיל וכל האבות יש בהם פסולת, ויעקב אין בו פסולת, איני מזכיר אלא לו. הוי: הריעו לאלקי יעקב

“For the Leader; upon the Gittith. [A Psalm] of Asaph” (Psalms 81:2). That which Scripture says, “He has not beheld iniquity in Jacob”–why did Balaam see it appropriate to mention Jacob, and neither Abraham nor Isaac, but only Jacob? Since he saw that from Abraham emerged an undesirable element–Ishmael and all the children of Ketura–and likewise saw that from Isaac emerged Esau and his chiefs, but Jacob is wholly holy, as it says: “All of these are the tribes of Israel, twelve” (Genesis 49:28). This is why it is written, “You are wholly beautiful, my companion, and there is no blemish in you” (Song of Songs 4:7). Therefore, he did not mention [all] the Patriarchs, rather only Jacob. This is: “he has not beheld iniquity in Jacob.” Said Asaph: Since all the Patriarchs had in them an undesirable element, while Jacob had no undesirable element, [Asaph] mentioned only him. This is: “sound the shofar for the G-d of Jacob.” (trans. EMS)

The midrash uses the first verse of Tehilim 81 as the locus for its meditation on Bemidbar 23:21: Ya’akov is singled out since all his progeny were meritorious, containing no defect. The clear textual link between the two sources—besides the (perfectly typical) use of Ya’akov as an appellation for the people Israel—is Tehilim’s hari’u and Bemidbar’s teru’ah. And the midrash ties the two sources together by reading Bemidbar’s larger concern with chosenness and the more specific idea of 23:21 into Tehilim 81. In other words, the Midrash uses the textual link as warrant to extend thematic focus.

This would be enough to understand the internal logic of the midrash. But the midrash, otherwise unnecessarily, cites a verse from Shir HaShirim in proving the moral and religious perfection of Ya’akov’s sons, where the blameless interlocutor is called “ra’ayati,” “my companion.” The midrash thus plays on the multivalence of the key word “teru’ah” to explain how the Jewish people, the descendants of Ya’akov alone, have merited chosenness: we alone were loved by G-d, and loved for our behavior. The chosenness of the Jewish people—stemming from our moral character in the past and imposing moral demands but unconditional in essence—thus emerges from our relationship with G-d as both King and Companion.

Elliot Salinger (SBM ’12, ’14) is a rising junior at Princeton University, studying philosophy.

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The Story of the Parah Adumah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Dine

Commentators discuss two overarching difficulties that frame Sefer Bimidbar, and these two difficulties manifest themselves in the section dealing with the laws of the Parah Adumah in Parashat Chukat. The first difficulty arises from the laws presented in Sefer Bimidbar, which seem to just represent a sampling of different halakhot put together with no organizing principle. Ramban writes in the introduction to his commentary on this Sefer,

ואין בספר הזה מצות נוהגת לדורות, זולתי קצת מצות

בעניני הקרבנות שהתחיל בהן בספר הכהנים ולא נשלם ביאורן שם והשלימן בספר הזה

And this book contains no commandment that are practiced in future generations except for a few commandments dealing with issues of sacrifices that was started in the book of Leviticus, but whose explanation was not completed there and thus are completed within this book.

Ramban makes clear that he considers the laws of the Parah Adumah to further supplement the laws of Leviticus stating, “והפרשה הזאת תשלום תורת כהנים (And this section [on the Parah Adumah] fills in from the book of Leviticus),” but doesn’t answer the obvious follow up question of why the Torah places the section here. It would make much more sense to place the section detailing a priest’s actions to purify someone who has just come into contact dead body with sections dealing with a priest’s actions to purify someone who has just experienced Tzora’at in Sefer Vayikra rather than follow a section detailing the laws of Terumah as it does here in Sefer Bimidbar.

The second difficulty that bothers medieval and contemporary commentators regards what happened during the forty years in the desert; namely why are we not told of any events that occur between the beginning of the second and the start of the fortieth year in the desert. Following a plain reading of the text that question becomes fully realized looking at the context of the section on the Parah Adumah, as the Torah moves from discussing Korah’s rebellion in the second year to discussing the death of Miriam at the start of the fortieth. Why are the rituals associated with the Parah Adumah the only bridge between the second and fortieth years?

The single answer to these two questions- why are the laws of Parah Adumah included in Sefer Bimidbar and how can they be the only bridge between the second and fortieth year in the desert- becomes clear when looking at the other laws that arise in this narrative stage of Sefer Bimidbar. The Israelites receive laws dealing with what happens in the land of Israel right after the sin of spies to reassure and comfort the Israelites that one day their nation will reach the land of Israel. The Israelites then receive laws after Korah’s rebellion that further enumerate he differences between priest and Israelite and help define the proper relationship of priest and people. The laws given in this section of Sefer Bimidbar act as responses to the narratives.

So too with the law of the Parah Adumah. But what narrative is it responding to? It is responding to the story of the 40 years where there is only one event that matters- the death of a generation. The laws discussing the proper way to deal with death come here in Sefer Bimidbar to respond to the narrative central to the 40 years, the story of a generation dying off in a desert. Parah Adumah represents the ultimate ritual that we cannot understand, yet it still tells an important story. As we continue to think about and discuss the halakhic issues of our time we must remember not to lose sight of the events that shape our laws and elevate their purpose.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010) hails from Silver Spring, MD and is excited to return to SBM this summer before starting a PhD program in molecular biology in the fall.

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Is the New Biblically Prohibited?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

One of the great if bitter “in jokes” of Jewish modernity was Chatam Sofer’s use of the phrase “the new is Biblically forbidden everywhere” to combat Reform innovation. The first level of the joke was that Chatam Sofer was rhetorically repurposing Mishnah Orlah 3:9, where the same phrase should be translated “Grain of the new year is forbidden (until chol hamoed Pesach) even outside Israel.” The second level of the joke is that while the consensus medieval position was that the Halakhah follows this Mishnah, the practice of even the fully observant community has generally been otherwise, such that many great decisors have been compelled to produce limmudei zekhut for them. So chadash is a classic example of a law where popular practice has overwhelmed the written tradition, and Chatam Sofer was offering a creative interpretation – a “chiddush” – and this became the slogan for a static, book-driven vision of Judaism.

And of course this was not Chatam Sofer’s only chiddush – the third level of the joke is that Chatam Sofer was a remarkably creative Torah scholar. The fourth and final level of the joke, if I am not making an unfair presumption, is that most of those opposing Chatam Sofer did not understand that it was funny, and did not realize that he was being creative; they were wholly unaware of the Mishnah and of the history of that Halakhah. This is still true today.

When it stops being funny, of course, is when those who support Chatam Sofer stop recognizing the humor, and genuinely believe it to be an absolute statement, even if they know the Mishnah and the history. This is an unavoidable risk of absolutist rhetoric. I presume Chatam Sofer was aware of the risk that his own words could eventually be used to stifle the people most like him, brilliantly creative, deeply aware of context, fully committed to Halakhah, and capable of utilizing that creativity so that Halakhah could function effectively in every new context but thought it a risk worth running.

The contemporary figure most comparable to Chatam Sofer in this respect was the Rav zt”l, who developed a variety of remarkably original conceptions of the extent and nature of tradition. One of these is highlighted on a 2013 Hirhurim blogpost, Rav Soloveitchik and Tradition Bearers, where Rabbi Gil Student cited from a lecture by the Rav, in the context of opposing a particular innovative halakhic proposal: “Whoever doubts the Sages, taints them with an accusation like misogyny, doubts Judaism.” He writes:

Soloveitchik inferred this strong position from an unusual phrase in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah (Hilkhos Teshuvah 3:8). Rambam states that anyone who denies the Oral Torah or “contradicts its transmitters” (makhchish magideha) is classified as a heretic. What constitutes contradicting the transmitters of the tradition? R. Soloveitchik explained that …[w]ho[m]ever rejects the great sages of every generations, even post-Talmudic, rejects the tradition they embody.

Rabbi Student links to Rabbi Steven Weil’s write-up of the lecture, which includes the following: The Rav clearly stated,

Even those who admit the truthfulness of the Torah Shebe’al Peh but who are critical of chachmei Chazal as personalities, who find fault with chachmei Chazal…which actually has no impact upon the Halacha; nevertheless, he is to be considered as a kofer [denier].

The chachmei hamesorah, the greatest talmidei chachamim of all times whose personalities and outlooks were formed by the sacred texts they wholly embraced, represent Torah and one who rejects them denies all. In Rabbi Student’s words:

Historians and R. Soloveitchik enthusiasts may find it interesting that this was not a new interpretation innovated for this occasion…R. Soloveitchik had published it 30 years earlier. In a 1943 lecture in memory of his father, R. Soloveitchik offered this explanation as part of a lengthy discussion of the laws of declaring the new month…R. Soloveitchik distinguished between laws that the Sages received as tradition and those they derived through logic. Rejecting the Oral Torah refers to the tradition. Rejecting the Sages means disagreeing with their logic, their judgment as presented in the Talmud. From this limited requirement, R. Soloveitchik deduces that rejecting the Sages themselves constitutes heresy. He then applies it to the Sages in general, presumably even post-Talmudic bearers of the tradition. Someone who rejects their judgment, rejects the tradition. This final step reflects R. Soloveitchik’s view 30 years later, when he articulated it in a communal controversy.

Rabbi Student’s last paragraph very usefully invites us to find the boundary, and the gaps, between the Rav’s creative halakhic argumentation and his rhetoric as reported. The Rav’s article explains why Maimonides believed that a formal sanctification of the New Moon continued in some sense after the exile and eventual cessation of the Sanhedrin, even though that sanctification was one of the Sanhedrin’s powers. His solution is that this power of the Sanhedrin stemmed from its role as the embodiment of tradition, and as such could be assumed by another such embodiment. He defines, or at least recognizes, such an embodiment by another of its powers: the capacity to legislate for the whole Jewish people. The Rav recognizes that to “embody tradition” must mean more than “to pass tradition down accurately,” otherwise any two witnesses should be sufficient, and therefore he argues that “transmission = מסורת” is a qualitatively distinct process from learning. He doesn’t rigorously define that distinction in the article. The Rav substantiates his claim that a non-Sanhedrin body can “embody the tradition” via a close but creative reading of Hilkhot Teshuvah 3:9:

Three are called “deniers of Torah”: 1) Who says that the Torah is not from Hashem . . . 2) and similarly, who denies its interpretation, namely the Oral Torah, and (who) contradicts its speakers, such as Tzadok and Boethius 3) and who says that the Creator exchanged this mitzvah for another mitzvah.

The Rav argues that the parenthesized (who) above should be inserted, so that “contradicting its speakers” becomes an independent form of denying the Oral Torah. This may in itself be a chiddush. Granting the literary point, however, how can one “contradict its speakers” without simultaneously denying the interpretations they offer? The Rav answers that without this additional clause one might think that the obligation of obedience applies only to laws received as tradition; however, the requirement not to “contradict its speakers” extends the obligation to laws derived from reason and not received as tradition. In other words, to embody tradition is to have the authority to creatively extend it. The Rav then comments that this applies even outside of Israel, to the Sages of the Babylonian Talmud, because they spoke for and were recognized by the whole Jewish community.

Let us take all of this as given. What is explicit within the Rav’s article is that: a) “contradicting its speakers” applies to a collective group of ‘speakers’ whose legislative authority is recognized by the entire Jewish community. It cannot apply to individuals or subgroups nor apply to any post-Talmudic group; b) “contradicting its speakers” refers to denying the authority of a legal conclusion, and in no way refers to evaluations of the personal piety, integrity, or morality of either the collective or individuals or subgroups within it; c) “contradicting its speakers” is a hyper-traditionalist position, which denies Torah authorities the authority to innovate within the context of Tradition, rather than a reform position.

Going back to Rabbi Student, my take is that the Rav did not “deduce” any of these extensions from his earlier article, any more than Chatam Sofer “deduced” his anti-Reform position from the Mishnah. Rather, the Rav used lomdishe language and ideas as the basis of rhetoric in the same way that Chatam Sofer used Mishnaic language and ideas. Furthermore, I find insufficient basis in Rabbi Weil’s report for Rabbi Student’s claim that the Rav extended his chiddush, even rhetorically, to “post-Talmudic bearers of the tradition.”

Finally, it should be obvious that there is a difference between criticism, even robust criticism, and rejection. Now one doesn’t need the Rav’s chiddush to recognize that there is a point at which someone has been so creative, changed so much or so radically, that they can no longer legitimately claim to be connected to the past, and that Torah authenticity requires such a connection to the Torah past. It also seems patent to me that authentically continuing a tradition requires genuine reverence for those who transmitted it.

But not everything new is forbidden everywhere by the Torah, and Chatam Sofer neither expected nor wanted knowledgeable Jews to believe otherwise; nor did the Rav expect or want his creative rhetoric to become a tool for enforcing a stultified rabbinic conformity, or for creating an intellectual prison bounded by his own theological and halakhic positions, with his students forced to become wardens, inmates, or both.

*Adapted from a 2013 dvar torah by Rabbi Klapper

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When Should Leaders Take from Us?

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Emily Hanau

Imagine for a moment that Congress approves of a new law that requires that we each give 5% of our earnings to a government official. Would the Torah approve of such a law? What if the law demanded, instead, that we agree to sell up to 5% of our possessions to the official, were he to ask for it? These scenarios get at a larger question: to what degree, if any, does a leader have a right to take things from his constituents? The Torah hints at an answer to this question in a small section of Parashat Korach.

After the conflict between Moshe and Korach is set up, Moshe turns to Hashem to request that He not accept Korach’s gift and instead maintain Moshe’s status as leader. To make his case to Hashem, Moshe argues “לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי ולא הרעתי את אחד מהם” (Bamidbar 16:15) – “I did not take a donkey from (even) one of them and I did not do evil to (even) one of them.” The fact that this is the entirety of Moshe’s tefilah suggests that, in Moshe’s eyes, the fact that he has not taken any donkeys or hurt anyone makes him worthy of Hashem maintaining his leadership in the face of the challenge of Korach.  But what kind of taking is he referring to, and what makes this argument so central to Moshe’s justification of himself as leader?

Both the Gemara and the medieval Bible commentaries look to a parallel situation in Tanach to answer the above questions. In Sefer Shmuel, when the Jewish people request and are granted the right to have a king, Shmuel attempts to warn them about the negative responsibilities that will come with this new form of government. In Shmuel 8:16, he warns, “ואת עבדיכם ואת שפחותיכם ואת בחוריכם הטובים ואת חמוריכם יקח ועשה למלאכתו” – “And your slaves and your maidservants and your good lads and your donkeys he will take, and he will use for his work.” Shmuel warns the Jews that a king has a right to take the people’s things to use for his own purposes. (Whether these purposes are personal or are for the sake of his position is unclear is left ambiguous.)

Ramban ties the two stories together in his comments on our verse in Bamidbar. He explains Moshe’s argument as follows: “מעולם לא לקחתי מהם אפילו חמור אחד לעשות צרכי כדרך המלכים או שרים כי זה משפט המלוכה” – “I have not taken even one donkey for my own needs, as is the way of kings or officers according to the rules of the king.” In other words, Moshe argued that had he wanted to take a donkey from the people for his own needs, he would have been permitted to do so. But the fact that he went above and beyond his requirements made him worthy of his position. So it seems that, although the letter of the law permits a leader to take things from his constituents, it is honorable not to do so.

The parallel between Moshe’s defense and Shmuel’s critique really comes out in Shmuel 12:3, when Shmuel gives his final public speech to the Jewish people. Immediately after criticizing them for their decision to appoint a king, he asks “את שור מי לקחתי וחמור מי לקחתי”- “Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken?”

Amid a discussion about the necessary traits of our leaders in Masechet Nedarim (38a), Rava compares Moshe and Shmuel outright.

אמר רבא: גדול מה שנאמר בשמואל, יותר משנאמר במשה. דאילו במשה רבינו כתיב: “לא חמור אחד מהם נשאתי,” דאפילו בשכר; ואילו גבי שמואל, אפילו ברצון לא שכרו, דכתיב (שמואל א יב, ד): “ויאמרו לא עשקתנו ולא רצותנו” וגו

Rava said: what is said about Shmuel is greater than what is said about Moshe. About Moshe Rabbeinu it is written, ” I did not take a donkey from (even) one of them” – even to rent. As for Shmuel, even willingly he did not borrow from them, as it says, “They [Bnei Yisrael] answered: ‘You did not rob us and you did not oppress us.'”

(Rashi “‘I did not take a donkey from one of them’ – against his will, for rent. But with the agreement of the owners, he did rent from them.”)

According to Rava, Moshe was willing to borrow donkeys from his people, as long as they agreed to it. He didn’t want to take things from his people permanently, as that could be an abuse of his position, but he felt comfortable borrowing from them with their permission. Shmuel, on the other hand, didn’t borrow any donkeys from the people, even when they agreed to it. Shmuel was sensitive to the fact that people would feel pressured to lend him a donkey even if they didn’t want to, since he was in charge.

Rava, then, has set up a hierarchy of approaches to our question. The lowest acceptable approach is the one set out by Shmuel in Chapter 8, that a leader is allowed to permanently take things from his people for his own needs, even against their will. Neither Moshe nor Shmuel engage in this behavior, a trait that surely set them apart from their contemporary leaders. The next level is Moshe’s approach, that a leader is allowed to temporarily take things from his people, as long as they agree to it. And on the highest level is Shmuel’s approach, that a leader may never take things from his people, even when it is only temporary, and even with their permission.

This tertiary structure can teach us not only about the ideal leader of the past, but also the ideal leader of the future. Rav Amnon Bazaq, in his article on Shmuel 12, explains the parallel between Moshe and Shmuel. “As Moshe had done in his day, Shmuel too emphasizes that whatever he had done, he did for the sake of heaven, he himself reaping no personal gain from leading the people.” Said differently, in the words of Rav Ovadia Sforno on our verse in Bamidbar, “היתה שררתי עליהם כולה לתועלתם ולתקן עניניהם לא לתועלתי ולהנאתי כלל” – “My leadership upon them was completely for their benefit and to perfect their interests, not for my benefit and enjoyment at all.”

While the nature of Moshe’s and Shmuel’s sensitivities about taking things from their people may have been different, their fundamental approaches were the same. They both curbed their personal interests for the sake of concern for the collective. A leader who puts himself first will willingly take what he ‘deserves,’ while a selfless leader will ignore the ‘perks’ of his job and instead focus on his responsibilities to his people. In a world in which our leaders often take all of what they deserve, and much more, it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on the keen sensitivities that Moshe and Shmuel brought to their positions of power.

Emily Hanau (SBM 2011) has been teaching Judaic Studies at Yeshivah of Flatbush High School. Next year she will pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology.

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Teaching Rabbis Rabbinic Ethics

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In light of recent rabbinic scandals, Rabbi Josh Yuter properly suggests on his blog that a course on rabbinic ethics be part of semikhah programs, and puts forth a suggested curriculum. Certainly our parsha, a story of how klal Yisroel was failed by its best and brightest, is an appropriate time to reflect on educating our future leaders.

However, I am not confident that courses on professional ethics significantly improve professional behavior, especially where no professional association has the mandate to seek out and punish malfeasance. I don’t believe the spies would have made better choices had Mosheh Rabbeinu given them a great shiur in Hilkhot Meraglim, or even a series of such shiurim.

I am also unsure that teaching texts is the best mode of teaching a narrow subset of Jewish ethics. One outcome of general halakhic training is that students learn how to evade and manipulate texts; those of good character use these powers for good, while those of bad character use them for evil. Students of bad character often corrupt the texts they learn, and may even learn new techniques of evil from them.

Let me use one of Rabbi Yuter’s suggested texts to illustrate. On Chullin 44b, Rav Chisda gives a definition of the status talmid chakham that Rashi reads as suggesting a direct connection between Torah academic stature and ethical character. Other rishonim read it very differently, however. Here is the statement:

Said Rav Chisda:

Who is a talmid chakham? One who examines a tereifah for himself.

Rashi explains:

When a doubt arises that perhaps one of his animals has become a tereifah,

and there is a reason for prohibition and a reason for permission,

and he does not take pity on it (ADK: meaning on its potential use) and forbids it.

In other words, the true talmid chakham is one who is willing to rule against his or her economic interests even when it would have been easy, but not honest, to avoid doing so.

Piskei RID perhaps does not understand the hava amina; obviously a true talmid chakham cannot permit the forbidden! He therefore transfers Rav Chisda’s statement from the realm of substance to that of appearances:

Something in doubt,

where one person gives a reason to permit and another to declare it tereifah,

and this (true talmid chakham) adopts the reason to declare it tereifah and is stringent upon himself.

It is appropriate for a talmid chakham to act in this way,

as if he would be lenient, people would besmirch him, saying

“He was lenient for himself, but if it had belonged to others, he would have declared it tereifah.”

In context, RID’s reading seems a better fit than Rashi’s. Immediately preceding Rav Chisda’s statement, the Talmud tells the following story:

Rabbah permitted a tereifah and bought meat from it.

The daughter of Rav Chisda said to him:

When my father permitted a firstborn animal (for the use of kohanim, by declaring it blemished and therefor unfit for sacrifice), he did not buy meat from it (despite being a Kohen)!?

He replied to her: That was only regarding a firstborn animal, which is sold by estimate; here, the weight is evident.

What grounds are there for suspicion – that they might give me the best cut (for the same price)? They give me the best cut every day!

Here the issue is not direct self-dealing, but rather the suspicion of a kickback or bribe from the animal’s owner. Rav Chisda’s daughter accuses her husband Rabbah of insufficient concern for the appearance of corruption, which supports RID’s reading. Perhaps Rashi thought that Rav Chisda’s daughter went so far as to accuse her husband of actual corruption. Either way, Rabbah’s reply compounds the ethical difficulty rather than resolving it.

Rav Chisda’s statement about the true talmid chakham is followed by two more using the phrase “one who examines a tereifah for himself.” Rashi’s reading becomes progressively harder to sustain as we read through the series.

Said Rav Chisda:

Who is the referent of the verse “One who hates gifts will live”?

This refers to one who examines a tereifah for himself.

Mar Zutra taught in the name of Rav Chisda:

Anyone who reads Scripture and repeats Oral Torah

and examines a tereifah for himself and served talmidei chakhamim

Regarding him Scripture says: “When you eat (the product of) your own hands’ exertion, you are fortunate and possess the good.”

Rashi explains that one who examines a tereifah for himself “certainly hates gifts from others, as even regarding his own he is not greedy to decide for the side of permission.” Furthermore, “all the more so he will not be greedy regarding the property of others, to steal and rob,” and so he eats the product of his own hands’ exertion. But it is hard to say that “One who hates gifts will live” refers to someone’s relationship to their own property. It is even less plausible to say that the direct referent of “when you eat (the product of) your own hands’ exertion” is someone who refuses to eat the product of their own halakhic leniency! These difficulties leads Rabbeinu Nissim to cite a diametrically opposed explanation:

But others interpreted:

“Who is a talmid chakham? One who examines a tereifah for himself.

Meaning – that he has reached the level of being able to explain which is kosher and which is tereifah, and is fit to rely on himself and does not need the rulings of others.

Therefore (Rav Chisda) said that “Regarding him Scripture says:

“When you eat (the product of) your own hands’ labor, you are fortunate and possess the good.”

Meaning that the exertion he has exerted in Torah causes him not to lose money because of a doubt.

Maharsha argues that the next line of Talmud proves that this explanation is correct:

Rav Zvid said: He merits obtaining a homestead in two worlds, this world and the Coming World.

“You are fortunate” – in this world; “and possess the good” – in the Coming World.

According to Rashi’s understanding, the scholar who “examines a tereifah for himself” is giving up this world!? So RAN’s alternate explanation must be accepted.

The Talmud next describes the behavior of a pair of rabbis, Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Zeira. Each turned down food sent them from the nasi’s table, citing the verse “who hates gifts will live”; but whereas Rabbi Elazar also refused the nasi’s invitations to meals, Rabbi Zeira accepted them, asserting that he was conferring rather than receiving honor by attending.

Rabbis Elazar and Zeira are bookends to Rabbah and Rav Chisda. Like Rav Chisda, who refused even the appearance of benefiting from his own rulings, Rabbi Elazar goes the extra mile to avoid even the appearance of impropriety; and like Rabbah, Rabbi Zeira not only accepts the risk that people will see him as benefiting from his position, he argues that one privilege of his position entitles him to the next. Now that we’ve learned this text ourselves, it may be tempting to say that students should be taught to emulate Rav Chisda and Rabbi Elazar, and to see Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira as bad examples in this regard, but I contend that would be simplistic.

Rabbis must fundraise, so there’s no possibility, especially in small communities, that they will be unaware of who contributes and how much. They cannot fully avoid either the appearance or reality of owing something to the wealthy. That’s why Rambam and Shulchan Arukh describe even Rabbi Zeira’s behavior as middat chassidut, beyond  what is required. More sharply, if we are simply placing the text in front of students, what if they are convinced by RAN rather than Rashi, and see in this text no concern for self-dealing or the appearance of impropriety? Even if they adopt Rashi’s understanding, what if they choose to see Rabbah as their model in this area, as he is in so many others?

In sum, Rabbi Yuter deserves much gratitude for raising the issue. But teaching rabbis ethics through texts is setting foxes to guard henhouses, unless the teachers and texts have been domesticated. Nor do we wish our rabbinic foxes to become sheep; rabbis who see one interpretation of a multivalent text as absolute in the realm of rabbinic ethics will likely have the same monovision when it comes to releasing agunot, or conversion, etc.

I therefore suggest that while deep and intense Torah study is needed here as everywhere to determine our ends, the means for improving rabbinic ethics must primarily involve the development of unambiguous standards, effective and fair modes of investigation, and readily enforceable consequences.

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Mekosheish Eitzim

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Rabbi David Fried

In Parshat Shlach, we read about the Mekoshesh Eitzim. The man who publicly violated Shabbat (the specific nature of the sin is unclear—See Masechet Shabbat 96b).  There is a debate amongst the medieval parshanim regarding when this incident took place.  Rashi quotes the Sifrei (113), which says:

בגנות ישראל הכתוב מדבר שלא שמרו אלא שבת ראשונה ושניה חללו

The Torah speaks of Israel’s disgrace, for they kept only one Shabbat, and the second they desecrated.

The Ramban (Bemidbar 15:32), on the other hand, disagrees:

ולפרשה הזאת סמך אחריה ענין המקושש, כי היה בזמן הזה אחר מעשה המרגלים על דרך הפשט

After this section comes the section of the Mekoshesh, because it happened at this time after the incident with the spies, according to the Pshat.

At first glance, the Ramban seems to have a much smoother read.  After all, why would the Torah tell us about this incident here if it actually happened much earlier?  However as we read on, things become more complicated.  In pasuk 34, after the man is caught, it says

וַיַּנִּיחוּ אֹתוֹ בַּמִּשְׁמָר כִּי לֹא פֹרַשׁ מַה יֵּעָשֶׂה לוֹ

They put him in prison for it had not been made explicit what was to be done to him.

G-d then instructs Moshe that the Mekoshesh is to be put to death by stoning.  According to the Ramban, what does it mean that it had not been made explicit what to do with him?  The Torah had already said explicitly in Parshat Ki Tisa (Shmot 31:14)

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא לָכֶם מְחַלְלֶיהָ מוֹת יוּמָת

You should observe the Shabbat for it is holy unto you; its desecraters shall surely be put to death.

The Ramban does not address this question in his commentary on the Torah, but does address it in his commentary on Masechet Bava Batra 119a.  He quotes the Gemara there, which says that what had not been made explicit was the precise manner of death penalty he was to be given.  He also offers his own explanation that perhaps the Mekoshesh was not given a proper warning, and the death penalty in this case was a הוראת שעה.  Neither of these explanations have any basis in the text.  According to the Sifrei’s approach, however, the text reads beautifully.  The Torah first commands us to keep Shabbat in Parshat Beshalach, when the man begins to fall, several weeks before matan Torah.  Indeed, when Shabbat is first commanded, no penalty is made explicit for its violation.  If the Mekoshesh did, in fact, happen on their very second Shabbat in the desert, then they would actually have had no idea what the punishment was supposed to be for desecrating the Shabbat[1].

The Sifrei’s approach, of course, still has to explain why the Torah chooses to tell us this story here, if it happened much earlier.  The answer, I believe, is that it was the attitude, whose seed was planted by the mekosheish eitzim, that ultimately led to the sin of the spies in Parshat Shlach.  For one Shabbat, the Jews maintained the possibility that we could have a community truly devoted to the mission G-d places on us for its own sake; truly committed to keeping the mitzvot for the love of G-d alone without having to think about external reward and punishment.  The Mekosheish Eitzim forced us to start thinking about Mitzvot with a utilitarian calculus: what will happen to me if I don’t keep it?  Is it really worth the effort?  It was this sort of thought process that led the Jews to want to gather facts about the land of Israel to see if it would be truly worth it, or if they would rather go back to the land of Egypt.

We have seen that while the so-called “peshat” approach seems attractive at first, when we read the whole section and its broader context, the midrash actually does a better job of explaining it both textually and thematically.

 Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) teaches Talmud at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield, MI and is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

[1] The Sifrei itself (114) quotes the same approach as the Gemara in Bava Batra that they did not know which death penalty to give him, even though this would seem unnecessary according to what we have demonstrated.  Of course, there is no reason we have to say that every paragraph in the Sifrei is written by the same person, so it could simply represent an early antecedent for the Ramban’s position.  Rashi, however, quotes both paragraphs from the Sifrei.  He may be assuming an oral tradition, not indicated in תורה שבכתב, that all of Hilchot Shabbat were given the first week, and not just the ones that are written in Parshat Beshalach.  ואם הלכה היא נקבל.

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The Point of Appointing

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Betsy Morgan

Sefer Bamidbar begins with the Jews’ preparation to journey into Israel, because at this point, they have been camped at Har Sinai for almost a year. In this time the Jews have been receiving commandments and learning the laws, beginning with the Ten Commandments. One matter to be settled before setting out is the place of Moshe’s father-in-law. Amidst the preparations, Moshe addresses Chovev, classically understood to be Yitro:

… We are traveling to the place about which the Lord said, I will give it to you. Come with us and we will be good to you, for the Lord has spoken of good fortune for Israel.

[Chovev] said to [Moshe] , I won’t go, for I will go to my land and my birthplace.

[Moshe] said, Please don’t leave us, for because you are familiar with our encampments in the desert and you will be our guide (Bamidbar 10:29-31)

It is not surprising Moshe is looking to Yitro for guidance. In Sefer Shmot around the time of Ten Commandments, Yitro takes notice of the effect of Moshe’s time consuming responsibilities, You will surely wear yourself out both you and these people who are with you for the matter is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Shmot 18:18) and offers advice to alleviate the burden. Yitro suggests a hierarchy of worthy judges so Moshe need only deal with the most trying of cases, while the Jews gain better access to the law. Yitro describes these worthy judges to be “men of substance, G-d fearers, men of truth, who hate monetary gain” (Shmot 18:21). These are the ideal Jews who “shall judge the people(Shmot 18:22). Yitro’s observation and advice strikes Moshe as a good idea, and he sets up the system as described.

Yitro gives sage advice—to delegate responsibility. However, this legal delegation is insufficient to entirely relieve the burden the Jews pose. After Moshe’s pleading with Yitro to stay, the Torah records the growing unrest in the camp. Moshe cries out to G-d:

“…Why have You treated Your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in Your eyes that You place the burden of this entire people upon me?

Did I conceive this entire people? Did I give birth to them, that You say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as the nurse carries the suckling,’ to the Land You promised their forefathers?

Where can I get meat to give all these people? For they are crying on me, saying, “Give us meat to eat.”

Alone I cannot carry this entire people for it is too hard for me. (Bamidbar 11:11-14)

After only one year of leading the Jews since the Exodus, Moshe is reaching his limit. The solution here is very similar to that of Yitro’s.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Assemble for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the people’s elders and officers, and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting, and they shall stand there with You.

I will come down and speak with you there, and I will increase the spirit that is upon you and bestow it upon them. Then they will bear the burden of the people with you so that you need not bear it alone. (Bamidbar 11:16-17)

In Shmot the Jews gain judges, shoftim to hand down G-d’s law, and in Bamidbar they gain leaders, shotrim to disperse G-d’s message. In fact, in Bamidbar Raba 16:25, the appointment of the 70 elders is said to be as beloved (chovev) to G-d as the day of Matan Torah. The day of Matan Torah is when G-d comes in the thickness of the cloud so that “the nation will listen to [His] speaking with [Moshe] and they will also believe in [Moshe] forever” (Shmot 19:9). G-d wants a similar outcome to Matan Torah, when the Jews accept Moshe’s authority, but this time it should apply to the 70 elders. More than this, I think this midrash is pointing to a desire to recreate that day of mutual passion, when all the Jews were appointed to be a kingdom of Priests and a holy nation” (Shmot 19:6) and they respond to the call. Additionally, the use of “chovev” in the midrash brings to mind Chovev, the name of Yitro used in our Parsha, relating to his contribution in Sefer Shmot which enabled law to be dispersed more effectively. An assembly of 70 men will become leaders along with Moshe, to become like Moshe.

The systems presented in Sefer Shmot and Sefer Bamidbar complete each other. One partially “creates” more Moshes, taking his place, but only in his legal role. Therefore the necessary education is a straightforward course in knowing the laws. However, we must remember it’s not just knowing the laws that made these judges fit, because they had a pre-requisite personality. The second system is to dramatically lower the ratio between “Moshe” and Jews by more fully “creating” Moshe figures. To be fully trained, these elders must encounter G-d inside the beautiful and shielded Tent of Meeting, just as Moshe does.

Yet, in the end, we maintain a system of one recognized leader. In the remainder of the Torah, we are aware of Moshe’s leadership alone, and then Yehoshua’s when Moshe passes the mantle. We never hear about these specific judges or the 70 elders again. Perhaps their personal legacy ends with them, but they do establish for us a model of knowledge based education, to know the laws, as well as experiential education, encountering G-d in the Tent of Meeting. Both of these methods are only half of the requirement to be a leader. The other half is the correct personality that directs one towards upright and meritorious behavior. With this guidance, perhaps we can live our laws with the vigor and rigour of Matan Torah.

Betsy Morgan (SBM 2013, 2014) is a Sophomore at Drexel University majoring in Materials Science and Engineering.

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