Monthly Archives: October 2015

Religious Sacrifice: Beyond Good and Evil?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Imagine yourself as the kindest man on earth, and that G-d commands you to bring Him a human sacrifice. Imagine yourself as the most loving father on earth, and G-d commands you to slaughter your son. How would you react at the moment of decision if your knife just melted away? If an angel told you to stop? How would you react afterward if G-d told you that it was just a drill?

I imagined that your immediate reaction would be a deep sign of relief, perhaps accompanied by a huge smile.  But then afterward, you would wonder about the relationship. Why didn’t G-d have faith in you? Could you ever take His statements at face value again, or had he condemned you to live as a postmodern?

Chazal’s imagination seems to have differed markedly from mine (Bereshit Rabbah 56:12):

“Do not send your hand toward the lad” –

Where was the knife?

The tears of the ministering angels dripped onto it, and it dissolved.

So Avraham said: I will strangle him!

The angel said to him: “Do not send your hand toward the lad.”

Let us extract a drop of blood from him!

“Do not do anything (meumah) to him” = Do not make a blemish (moom) on him.

Rashi accentuates the difference:

“Do not send your hand toward the lad” –

If so, I have come here for nothing.  I will make a wound in him, and extract some blood from him!

“Do not do anything (meumah) to him” = Do not make a blemish (moom) on him.

The Kotzker Rebbe in Amud HaEmet adds an exclamation point.

הורדת יצחק מן העקידה היתה קשה לאברהם יותר מן ההעלאה

וזה שאמר במדרש: אמרתי לך אסקיה – אחתיה

וע”ז נאמר: עתה ידעתי כי ירא א-להים אתה

Bringing Yitzchak down from the Akeidah was harder for Avraham than bringing him up.

This is what the Midrash means: “I said bring him up – bring him down.”

Regarding this Scripture says: Now I know that you are a G-d fearer . . .

What demonstrated Avraham’s ultimate religious commitment was his willingness to listen to the second command, to bring Yitzchak back down from the altar.  But the angel had to call him twice; he continued on after a clearly miraculous angelic intersession; he tried to shed blood when he was constrained from killing; and after all that, perhaps he genuinely still needs to kill something, and so the ram dies.

I once read the Kotzker convincingly understood, or transmitted, along the following lines: All human beings have a yetzer tov and a yetzer hora; we experience satisfaction and discontent as we follow or violate these generally conflicting inclinations. Great evil genuinely provides great satisfaction, but can be restrained by the recognition that it also generates great discontent, even self-loathing. So ultimate temptation occurs when we become convinced that the greatest evil is actually a good, in other words when we are convinced that G-d wants us to do evil. This was Avraham’s test – having been given the green light, even the order, to commit ultimate evil (perhaps there is a reverse Oedipal impulse as well), could he stop when the light suddenly turned red?  The answer is yes, he passed – but barely. Those of us ordinarily less kind than Avraham Avinu must be constantly vigilant lest our yetzer hora fool us into believing that God commands evil.  One need look no further than the Orthodox blogosphere for ample confirmation of this thesis.

Bleak as the Kotzker’s vision is, it is surpassed by the tradition, often connected to the Crusades, in which Avraham does succeed in slaughtering Yitzchak – perhaps without a knife!  and only succeeds in stopping himself from doing it again after G-d resurrects Yitzchak.

And yet – even that tradition’s darkness is, to my mind, surpassed by R. Itzile Volozhin in his Peh Kadosh.

פירש”י ז”ל: לכך אמר לו באריכות – כדי שיתן לו שכר על כל דיבור ודיבור

ולכאורה קשה: למה צריך ליתן לו שכר על דיבוריו של השי”ת

ותירץ כך שאברהם רצה מאד להקריב את שני בניו לקרבן

לכך כתיב “קח נא את בנך” לשון יחיד

אמר אברהם: שניהם הם יחידים לאמותם

אמר לו השי”ת: אשר אהבת

אמר אברהם: את שניהם אני אוהב

“עד שאמר לו בפירוש “את יצחק

ולכך צריך ליתן לו שכר על מה שטען עם השי”ת ורצה להקריב את שני בניו

‘וע”כ ניחא שצריך לית לו שכר על כל דיבור ודיבור שטען נגד ה

Rashi of blessed memory explained that G-d commanded the Akedah at great length so as to give Avraham reward for each and every speech-act.

But this seems difficult: Why should G-d be compelled to reward Avraham more because He chose to speak more?

So Rashi answered that Avraham very much wanted to sacrifice both his sons.

Therefore Scripture writes “Take, please, your son” – singular.i

But Avraham said: Each of them is single to his mother!

So G-d added: Whom you have loved.

But Avraham said: I love both of them!

Until G-d told him explicitly: YITZCHAK!

Therefore G-d was compelled to give him reward for his arguments to The Holy Blessed One expressing his desire to sacrifice both sons

and therefore it makes sense that he was give reward for each speech-act of his own, arguing against G-d.

In other words, the Kotzker saw G-d needing to persuade Avraham away from bloodshed at the very end, when he had been wearing the ring of power or horcrux for three days already. But R. Itzile writes the very same dynamic into the first moment of the Akeidah. It seems from R. Itzile that Avraham has been eagerly waiting for just this command.

I suggest tentatively that Rav Itzile is actually grounded in a very different psychology than the Kotzker. For the Kotzker, the desire to sacrifice human beings is always a product of the evil inclination, and is absorbed into religion through deception and error. By contrast, for Rav Itzile, the desire to sacrifice whatever one considers most precious is endemic to religion, and human sacrifice – meaning the sacrifice of one’s own conscience and another’s body – is a genuine and natural outlet for that religious impulse. And yet acting on that impulse is terribly wrong, and Avraham is rewarded for his arguments only because he accepts their rejection.

The current wave of politico-religious murder in Israel has produced two signs of hope. The first is that, to my knowledge for the first time, a number of Palestinian voices have clearly, publicly, and convincingly stated moral rather than pragmatic objections to killing Israeli Jews. May those voices survive and flourish! The second is the continuing matter-of-fact efforts of Jewish bystanders and health professionals to save even terrorist murderers once they no longer pose a threat.

By the same token, the public and social media voices calling for those efforts to stop are terrifying. We have already seen that they lead in practice to the murder of innocents, but I too wish to avoid making pragmatic objections to moral wrongs. Instead I wish to reiterate the lessons of both the Kotzker and Rav Itzile. We must be willing to take the life of an attempting murderer to save the life of his or her victim. But the desire to take a human life should be most suspect when it seems to be a mitzvah, and absolute Torah commitment provides no immunity against grievous moral error.

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Thoughts on the Akedah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Avram Schwartz

Every time I read the Akedah, I cannot help but recall Rav Soloveitchik’s extensive teachings about the importance of this passage to Judaism.  In Emergence of Ethical Man (p. 157 n.2) he calls it “the motto of the covenant and its symbol”, and in Ra’ayanot al ha-Tefillah he goes perhaps even further, describing the Akedah as the paradigm for prayer, and thus for Judaism itself:

Build an altar. Arrange the pieces of wood. Kindle the fire. Take the knife to slaughter your existence for My sake. Thus commands the awesome G-d Who suddenly appears from absolute seclusion. This approach is the basis of prayer. Man surrenders himself to G-d. He approaches the awesome G-d and the approach expresses itself in the sacrifice and Akedah of oneself.[1]

I have been haunted by these words since I first read them. Rav Soloveitchik insists that utterly submissive obedience is the theme of the Akedah, and therefore the ideal Jewish relationship with G-d. This does not sit well with me.

To be sure, this is by no means a far-fetched reading of the story.  And while the Rav’s reading is heavily influenced by Kierkegaard, its theology has ample precedents in Jewish thought.  Take for instance the language of Ibn Gvirol in one of his more famous poems:

אֲקַדֶּמְךָ בְּרֹב פַּחַד וְאֵימָה                                                         שְׁפַל רוּחַ שְׁפַל בֶּרֶךְ וְקוֹמָה

כְּתוֹלַעַת קְטַנָּה בָּאֲדָמָה                                                                לְפָנֶיךָ אֲנִי נֶחְשָׁב בְּעֵינַי

Lowly of spirit, lowly of knee and stature      I come before you with fear and awe abounding

Before you, I consider myself                         Like a tiny worm in the ground.[2]

Here too the prayerful Jew admits to something like worthlessness, helplessness in the face of G-d.

In spite of the power of the imagery of both Ibn Gvirol and the Rav, I wonder whether the value of this sort of submission is the best Jewish reading of the story.  For one thing:  To make the Akedah a model for prayer, one has to twist it slightly. The Akedah is a story of child sacrifice, of accepting G-d’s nullification of G-d’s own promises,[3] but the person bent in prayer, in Rav Soloveitchik’s words, lifts the metaphorical knife to their own neck, engaging in self-sacrifice.  For another: Many mefarshim explain the story very differently, and Ralbag in particular seems to directly undermine the claim that obedience is the Akedah’s core theme.

Even before Ralbag, Rashi[4] points out a feature that will become core to the Ralbag’s reading: the language of G-d’s commandment[5] does not precisely ask for sacrifice.  Rather, G-d  asks/commands Avraham to “bring Yitzchak up לעולה. ”  To be brought up לעולה generally means being wholly burnt as a sacrifice. A hyperliteral reading, though, would understand the phrase to mean “in order to go up,” implying that he will also be brought down again. In this case, as becomes apparent by the end of the episode, G-d actually meant the latter.

Ibn Ezra rejects this reading outright.  The opening of the passage (Gen. 22:1) says that “G-d tested Avraham” – Was this merely a test of Avraham’s ability to comprehend G-d’s instructions? Certainly not! says Ibn Ezra.  This is a test in order to give Avraham a reward, and any other reading, according to him, ignores the opening line: this was a test in the sense of a challenge. But Ralbag disagrees.

Ralbag’s focuses in on the same ambiguity as Rashi, and, with some elucidation, comes to a wildly different idea about G-d’s intentions.

This test, in my opinion, is that the prophecy came to him in an imprecise language (לשון מסופק). That is, that G-d, may He be exalted, said with regard to Yitzchak “And bring him up לעולה.”

This statement can be properly understood to mean that he (Avraham) should slaughter him (Yitzchak) and make of him a burnt offering (=bring him up as an olah).

Or – that he (Avraham) should bring him up there in order to offer a burnt offering (=bring him up for an olah), so that he (Yitzchak) will be educated with regard to the [sacrificial] service of G-d, may He be exalted. [6]

So what was the test?  We  must note here Ralbag’s  non-Maimonidean theology, which understands G-d to have imperfect knowledge of humans and their actions because otherwise we could not have free will[7].  Given this theology, it makes perfect sense for Ralbag to say that G-d wants to find out what Avraham will do when presented with a seemingly impossible request. The “test” is not a challenge, as Ibn Ezra has it, but an experiment. Avraham was not able to pass this test because it was only initiated so that G-d could glean information about his character.

He continues:

G-d, may He be exalted, tested him (Avraham) to see if it would be difficult for him to do anything that G-d commanded him, such that this would be a reason for him (Avraham) to understand from the statement something other than what might be understood at first glance, that is to say, if he would understand that he should offer up a different sacrifice, and not slaughter his son.

G-d seeks to learn about Avraham’s nature as a hearer/reader. Is Avraham a lamdan or a balabus? Will he look deeper for a different, more amenable way to understand G-d’s word, or will he obey its plain meaning?

In the end, as we already know, Avraham fulfills what he understands to be the divine request with a full heart, and in this he is an example to all of us (Gen. 22, Ha-to’aliot, 1).[8] Avraham’s love for G-d was so great that he did not even think to imagine that another meaning might be intended – although this was indeed the case.

One might ask whether it is implied in Ralbag’s praise of Avraham that we too ought to be balabatim in our study of Torah. I would argue that, while a plausible reading of the Ralbag, it is not sensitive to the particulars of the story. Ralbag, in re-envisioning the Akedah as an experiment, has particularized the challenge of G-d’s request/command. G-d does not regularly put before humans impossible choices to which submission is the only answer; indeed, G-d has never done so. Avraham shows G-d, in jumping at the bit before any significant iyyun, just how much love for G-d he has – so much love that it overcomes his love for his child and his intellectual faculties. And while this love is praiseworthy, we must recall that such actions were never even asked for. G-d does want our devotion, our obedience and yes, our submission, but it is not an overwhelming love. It is all-consuming – בכל לבבך, נפשך, ומאדך – even while it does not consume the self. It has to be mediated with study, with iyyun. This is not blind obedience, it is obedience with thought, and, more importantly, obedience with dignity.

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Avram Schwartz (SBM 2015) is a third-year rabbinic student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He is also an M.A. candidate at the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He graduated from Columbia University and List College at JTS and has previously studied at Yeshivat Hahesder Yerucham. 

[1]    Translation based on Hartman, Love and Terror in the G-d Encounter, 181-182. Shalom Carmy’s excellent edited volume Worship of the Heart was unavailable to me at the time of writing.

[2]    Translation my own, based on Zangwill.

[3]    See the note from Ethical Man cited above. Medieval commentators have noted this element of the story, some only to reject it, e.g. ibn Ezra Gen. 22:1 s.v. Ve-ha-Elohim nissah. Ibn Ezra is responding to the opinion held by Rashi as well as Ralbag, which we will discuss below.

[4]    Gen. 22:2 s.v. Ve-ha’alehu,  citing Pesiqta Zutreta

[5]    Really a request, see Rashi Gen. 22:2 s.v qah na; Soloveitchik, Ethical Man,153-157

[6]   (Gen. 22:1, Be’ur Ha-millot, s.v. Nissah).

[7]   (cf. Shapiro, The Limits of Orthodox Theology, 134)

[8]    Note that for Ralbag this is an example of the supreme love of G-d, as opposed to fear or awe.



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Did Avram Go for His Own Sake or for G-d’s?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

G-d makes many promises the first time He speaks with Avram. But the promises come second; His first words are the order, or request, that Avram leave everything he knows and journey to an unspecified country. Avram hears G-d out and then undertakes the journey. Is he prepared to do so from the start? Or is there a beat after “to the land I will show you,” in which Avram’s response is uncertain, so that G-d rushes to fill the silence with promises?

Rashi preempts this question by translating G-d’s opening words as a promise: “לך לך – להנאתך ולטובתך Lekh lekha = Go for yourself – to your benefit and good.”

Ramban and others argue that Rashi is over-reading. “Lekha” accompanies verbs regularly in Tanakh in places where “to your benefit” is an implausible translation, and here as well it may just be a grammatical tic, and “The Torah speaks in the (inefficient) language of human beings.” But Mizrachi notes that this is an old dispute, between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva, and we hold with Rabbi Akiva that the goal is to maximize meaning; “כל היכא דאיכא למדרש דרשינן” = wherever there is a rationale for expansive interpretation, we seize it.

The stronger challenge to Rashi is substantive: What motivates him to seek this expansive meaning, to structure Avram’s relationship with G-d so that it begins with inducements rather than selflessness? Panim Yafot confronts this challenge directly.

וזה היה עיקר הנסיון באברהם

דאף שהבטיח לו הקדוש ברוך הוא שכר גדול, לא היה מחשבתו לשכר

אלא לקיים מצות הבורא

“‘והיינו דכתיב “וילך אברם כאשר דבר אליו ה’

פירוש: לא כוון אלא לקיים מצות הבורא ולא להנאתו

“ואפשר לומר שזה שאמר הקדוש ברוך הוא “והיה ברכה

פירוש: היינו לומר שתהא הברכה מעצמה, ולא שיכוין ע”ז

‘ובזה מובן ביותר מה שכתבנו לעיל בפ’ נח לכן אמר לו “אשר אראך” ולא אמר ‘בארץ כנען

שאם היה אומר ‘בארץ כנען’ היה מחוייב מחמת נדרו

“דכתיב שם “ויצאו אתם וגו’ ללכת ארצה כנען

וכיון שגמר בלבו והתחיל ללכת הוי נדר גמור

ואין בזה נסיון כ”כ

“לכך אמר לו “אשר אראך

This was the essence of the test of Avra(ha)m,

that even though The Holy Blessed One guaranteed him great reward, his thought was not for the reward, but rather to fulfill the command of the Creator.

This is the meaning of “Avram went as G-d has spoken to him,”

meaning: his only intention was to fulfill the command of the Creator, and not for his own benefit.

Perhaps we can say this is when The Holy Blessed One said והיה ברכה = “and let blessing come to be,”

meaning to say that the blessing should occur on its own, not that he should have intent for it.

This fits very well with our earlier explanation of why He said “which I will show you” and did not add ‘in the land of Canaan’,

that if He has said “in the Land of ‘Canaan’, Avram would have been obligated by his oath,

as Scripture writes there “and they left with them . . . to go to the Land of Canaan,”

and once he concluded in his heart and began to go, it was an absolute oath,

and this would not be such a great test,

therefore He said to him

“which I will show you.”

G-d’s promises to reward Avram are part of the test, knowing that G-d will reward him, can Avram nonetheless engage in avodat Hashem lishmoh, for its own sake, rather than for the sake of reward?

Panim Yafot’s reading sends us deep into the paradox recorded and to some extent generated by the Book of Iyov.

Iyov initially serves G-d properly, and G-d rewards him accordingly. But the Satan then questions whether Iyov’s service is motivated by those rewards, and would cease if Iyov lost all, so G-d allows the Satan to make Iyov the subject of a theological lab experiment. Iyov is given no opportunity to consent or decline to participate. Nonetheless, his steadfast refusal to blaspheme despite the greatest of provocations seems to prove the genuineness of his devotion.

Robert Frost points out in The Masque of Reason, however, that the test proves nothing if Iyov can imagine that G-d could permit such a test; “It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.” Otherwise, Iyov might just be assuming that the reward for passing the test would surpass all previous rewards.

But all readers of Iyov can imagine G-d permitting such a test!  Iyov therefore teaches its readers that disinterested service of G-d out of pure devotion is possible; but in teaching this lesson, it ensures that G-d will never know whether any of its readers has achieved that state.

You may object that G-d knows what goods and what evils lurk in the hearts of men. But the conceit of Iyov is that G-d cannot conclusively know human motives-for-action directly; even He has to infer our motives from our actions, and even He cannot know for certain how we would act in different circumstances. It follows that G-d could never know whether Avram passed Panim Yafot’s test. Worse – by setting up the challenge/reward paradigm at the outset of their relationship, G-d ensures that no test can ever prove Avraham’s absolute disinterestedness.

Here we must recall the rabbinic position, to which I am partial, that Iyov is a fiction. On this line of reasoning, the book may be intended to prevent G-d from knowing human motives absolutely. And on that basis, we can argue that G-d makes promises to Avram at the outset in order to ensure that Avram’s motives will never be fully transparent, even to Him.

Why would G-d want this? Doesn’t Iyov demonstrate how powerfully He should want the opposite? I have a possibly radical suggestion. In diametric opposition to Panim Yafot, I suggest that – according to Rashi – G-d makes reward obvious from the outset so that Avram will not allow religion to overwhelm his self. Even at the Akeidah, Avram is supposed to be thinking of the possibility that this is only a drill. Perhaps he would otherwise never have heard the angel telling him to stop, or else would have suspected the angel of being a despicable Satanic minion.

If G-d is just, and religious devotion is the right thing to do, it will inevitably be rewarded. It follows that for a human being to demonstrate absolutely selfless religious devotion, he or she must surrender any belief that the Object of their devotion is just. Such devotion is not pleasing to G-d. G-d is not exclusively just, but He cannot bear to be understood as excluding justice.

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The Power of a Name

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Sam Englender

In Bava Metzia 58B we find the following statement of Rabbi Hanina:

 כל היורדין לגיהנם עולים חוץ משלשה שיורדין ואין עולין

ואלו הן הבא על אשת איש והמלבין פני חבירו ברבים והמכנה שם רע לחברו

Rabbi Chanina said: All who descend to Gehinnom ascend from there (all wicked individuals who are sentenced to Gehinnom will eventually emerge after the time they served based on their respective sins) besides for three, which are: One who commits adultery with a married woman, one who shames his friend publicly, and one who calls his friend an offensive nickname.

There is a lot to discuss in Rabbi Chanina’s statement: What is the function of Gehinnom? Is it a literal place? Do the three exceptions mentioned above have a thematic connection? I am particularly interested, however, in the final example: What exactly is it about giving someone an offensive nickname that merits such a terrifying end?

First, let’s look at the Shulchan Aruch’s codification of Rabbi Chanina’s statement:

יזהר שלא לכנות שם רע לחבירו אע”פ שהוא רגיל באותו כנוי אם כוונתו לביישו אסור

One must take care not to call one’s friend an offensive nickname. Even if the individual is accustomed to being called this name, if one’s intention is to shame him, this is forbidden. (Choshen Mishpat 228:19)

It seems clear that the Shulchan Aruch sees the core sin to be that of shaming or embarrassing one’s fellow. From this, the last two of R’ Chanina’s statements would really seem to belong to one overarching category. However, if giving someone an offensive nickname is really just a subset of the prohibition of shaming someone, then why did R’ Chanina feel the need to single it out as a separate sin worthy in and of itself of earning the sinner an eternity in Gehinnom?

We may find some help in understanding the seriousness of this prohibition by looking at two other texts in our tradition in which name changes have special significance, one of which connects directly to our parasha.

During a discussion in masechet Rosh HaShannah 16B concerning various aspects of judgment, we find the following statement by Rabbi Yitzhak:

אמר רבי יצחק: ד’ דברים מקרעין גזר דינו של אדם, ואלו הן : צדקה, צעקה, שינוי השם ושינוי מעשה… וכתיב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֔ם שָׂרַ֣י אִשְׁתְּךָ֔ לֹא־תִקְרָ֥א אֶת־שְׁמָ֖הּ שָׂרָ֑י כִּ֥י שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמָֽהּ וּבֵרַכְתִּ֣י אֹתָ֔הּ וְגַ֨ם נָתַ֧תִּי מִמֶּ֛נָּה לְךָ֖ בֵּ֑ן

Rabbi Yitzhak said: A person’s (punitive) sentence is torn up on account of four types of actions. These are: Giving charity, crying out in prayer, a change of one’s name, and a change of one’s deeds… (an allusion may be found in Scripture for all of them) A change of name: as it is written: “. . . Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her and I will also give you a son from her” (Bereshit 17:15-16)

Rabbi Yitzhak states that changing one’s name has the power to cancel a person’s heavenly decree for the coming year. We might think that changing one’s name is a superficial act, perhaps even a superstitious one. Yet it is clear that our tradition does not see it this way. Through changing one’s name, one makes an active choice to distance oneself from one’s past self. The Rambam makes this explicit when he speaks of the power of a name change in his laws on repentance.

מדרכי התשובה… משנה שמו כלומר אני אחר ואיני אותו האיש שעשה אותן המעשים

Among the ways of teshuva… and to change his name, meaning to say, “I am someone else and I am not the same person who did those things (sinful acts). (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4)

Through this lens, we see that Rabbi Chanina’s prohibition against derogatory nicknames is much more than an example of how someone might embarrass his friend. In calling someone a name that he has not chosen for himself, we impose an identity upon him and take away his own ability to define who he is or might someday be.

In this week’s parasha, we witness the changing of Avram’s and Sarai’s names. This event is a conscious act by G-d intended to introduce Avraham and Sarah into the world in new roles, Avraham as אב המון גוים (the father of many nations) and Sarah as the bearer of Yitzhak, and therefore the progenitor of the Jewish people. It is clear here that a name is of great significance. It is not simply a useful tool to distinguish one person from another, but a powerful marker of identity.

Naming, as evidenced by our Torah, is a G-dly act. This is why Adam HaRishon’s naming of all of the creatures in Gan Eden was such a significant moment; it was a demonstration that just as G-d is able to impart names unto the world, so too can man. So when parents name their children, they are imitating G-d, imparting on their child an identity that will be carried with them throughout their life. And this is the reason why the Talmud tells us that inflicting an unwanted nickname on a friend is such a grievous act, In doing so we are using our God-like ability of creation to form a negative reality.

Sam Englender (SBM 2015) and is a second year Semicha student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School.


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Leadership of Noah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Tova Reiter

There is significant discussion in the commentaries about whether Noah is an exemplary leader or not, in particular in comparison to Abraham. One striking midrash which has found its way into much of the primary and secondary literature directly contrasts the two, in particular as regarding their relationships with G-d.

ט אלה, תולדת נח–נח איש צדיק תמים היה, בדרתיו:  את-האלקים, התהלך-נח

This is the lineage of Noah–Noah was a righteous man, he was blameless in his time, Noah walked with God. [Alter, Genesis, ch. 6]

and in Lekh-Lekha:

א ויהי אברם, בן-תשעים שנה ותשע שנים; וירא יקוק אל-אברם, ויאמר אליו אני-קל שקי–התהלך לפני, והיה תמים

And Abram was ninety-nine years old and the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am kel-shakai. Walk before Me and be blameless, and I will grant my covenant between Me and you and I will multiply you very greatly. [ibid. ch 17]

The midrash writes [Freedman, Genesis Rabba 30]:

י את האלקים התהלך נח

ר’ יהודה ור’ נחמיה

ר”י אמר: משל לשר, שהיו לו שני בנים, א’ גדול וא’ קטן

‘אמר לקטן, ‘הלך עמי’ ואמר לגדול, ‘בא והלך לפני

“כך אברהם שהיה כחו יפה (בראשית יז, א): “התהלך לפני והיה תמים

“אבל נח שהיה כחו רע, “את האלקים התהלך נח

10 “Noah walked with G-d.”  

R. Judah and R. Nehemiah [differed].

R.  Judah said:  This may be compared to a king who had two sons, one grown up and the other a child.

To the younger he said, ‘Walk with me,’ but to the older, ‘Walk before me.’

Similarly, to Abraham, whose [moral] strength was great, “Walk thou before Me.”

Of Noah, whose strength was feeble [lit. bad], “Noah walked with G-d.”

This first contrast is not the most complimentary to Noah, but we find this repeated in a number of commentaries. The thrust is that Noah was only chosen to inhabit the ark and repopulate the world because he was the best of the bad options.

The midrash continues in an extraordinary way:

:ר’ נחמיה אמר

‘!משל לאוהבו של מלך שהיה משתקע בטיט עבה. הציץ המלך וראה אותו, אמר ליה: ‘עד שאתה משתקע בטיט; הלך עמי

“הדא הוא דכתיב, “את האלהים התהלך נח

ולמה אברהם דומה? לאוהבו של מלך שראה את המלך מהלך במבואות האפלים, הציץ אוהבו, והתחיל מאיר עליו דרך החלון

“!הציץ המלך וראה אותו, אמר לו, ‘עד שאתה מאיר לי דרך חלון, בא והאיר לפני

‘כך אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא לאברהם, ‘עד שתהא מאיר לי מאספוטמיא ומחברותיה, בא והאיר לפני בארץ ישראל

Nehemiah said:

He might be compared to a king’s friend who was sinking in thick mud, and when the king looked out and saw him, he said to him, ‘Instead of sinking in mud, come and walk with me!’

Similarly it is written, “Noah walked with G-d.”

But Abraham’s case is rather to be compared to that of a king who was plunging about in dark alleys, and when his friend saw him he shone a light for him through the window.

Said he to him, ‘Instead of lighting me through the window, come and show a light before me!’

Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say to Abraham: ‘Instead of showing a light for Me from Mesopotamia and its environs, come and show one before Me in the land of Israel.’

I hope that any explication I offer doesn’t gloss over the genuinely perplexing choice of metaphor here, but some beautiful interpretations are offered by the מפרשי מדרש: What was G-d doing mucking about in dark alleys? Trying to come close to the world. (שם משמואל) And Abraham sees this and so begins to shine a little light through the window, helping to bring G-d’s Presence closer through mitzvot (פירוש מהרז”ו) or hokhma  (אגרא דכלה מדרשים ותרגומים ביאורי מדרש רבה).

Noah, on the other hand, comments the עץ יוסף (from יפה תואר):

שהקטן שאין כחו יפה ילך לימין אביו, שימינו תסעדנו

והגדול שכחו יפה ילך לפניו שאינו צריך סיועו

וכן נח שלא היה כחו גדול בעבודת ד’ היה צריך להתבודדות עם ה’ פן יפתהו חטאים, וכל שכן שלא יוכל להוכיחם

אבל אברהם מתחזק בכל מקום ומוכיח הדור ולא ידע רע

The small, whose strength is weak, goes to the right of his father, for the father’s right to aid him.

The greater one, whose strength is good, will go before him, not needing the father’s assistance.

And so Noah, whose strength in serving G-d was not great, needed to be solitary with G-d lest he be seduced by sinners. He certainly could not rebuke them.

Abraham, though, strengthened himself everywhere and rebuked the generation, and did not know evil. [R. Torczyner translation]

Abraham, iconoclast, trailblazing leader, is able to create his own light, to brighten the generation as a whole. Noah, on the other hand, is himself in danger of being influenced by the evils of his generation. But this is not necessarily a simple critique of Noah. The Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Yeruham writes beautifully [Sicha, Parshat Lekh-Lekha תשס”ז, loose translation my own]:

ברור במשל שהאוהב נתון בצרה, במצוקה והוא זקוק לעזרה. הדרך שלו לצאת מן הטיט העבה היא לאחוז את יד המלך המושטת אליו ולהיסמך עליה עד שיוּצא אל מציאות פשוטה ונקייה יותר, שבה יתהלך עם המלך….ראשית, כוללת היא הכרה של האוהב בכך שהוא משתקע בטיט, דבר שאינו מובן מאליו. מחלה קשה אך מצויה היא שאין האדם מכיר בכך שהוא שקוע במציאות נמוכה שמצֵרה לו ואינה מאפשרת לו להביא לידי ביטוי את עצמיותו באופן חופשי…. לא זו בלבד שנח מכיר כי אין הוא יכול לצאת בכוחות עצמו מן המצב השפל שבו הוא שקוע, אלא אף את הפתרון למצבו הוא יודע – המשימה המוטלת עליו היא לאחוז את יד המלך המושטת לעברו, להיות נכון ולהתמסר כל כולו למלכו של עולם מתוך הידיעה הברורה כי רק בעזרתו ובחסותו יוכל להחזיק מעמד בתוך דור שנחתם דינו לכלייה במבול.

It is clear that the [first] metaphor is of being in extreme distress and needing help. The way to leave the suffocating mud is to grasp the outstretched arm of the king and rely on him until he can take you to somewhere safer… But first must come cognizance of drowning, something that is not necessarily obvious. There’s nothing quite so difficult as recognizing that you are immersed in a constrictive reality that prevents expression of self… It was not just this that Noah recognized, that he was unable to free himself from his awful situation, but also the solution–the responsibility imposed upon him to grasp the reaching hand of the King, to surrender himself entirely to the Master of the World, from the certain knowledge that only with His help and mercy could he hold on in the midst of a generation destined for destruction.

The midrash finishes:

“.’הדא הוא דכתיב (שם מח, טו) “ויברך את יוסף ויאמר, ‘האלקים אשר התהלכו אבותי לפניו וגו

רבי יוחנן וריש לקיש

רבי יוחנן אמר: לרועה שהוא עומד ומביט בצאנו

ר”ל אמר: לנשיא שהוא מהלך וזקנים לפניו

על דעתיה דרבי יוחנן, אנו צריכים לכבודו

ועל דעתיה דרשב”ל, הוא צריך לכבודנו

Similarly, it is written, “And he blessed Joseph, and said: ‘The G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac did walk…’”

R. Johanan’s and Resh Lakish [gave two illustrations of this].

R.Johanan said: It was as if a shepherd stood and watched his flocks.

Resh Lakish said: It was as if a prince walked along while the elders preceded him. [As an escort, to make known his coming.]

On R. Johanan’s view : We need His proximity. [Lit. ‘place.’ We must be near to G-d, as it were, so as to enjoy His protection.]

On the view of Resh Lakish : He needs us to glorify Him. [By propagating the knowledge of His greatness.]

I suggest that this midrash is proposing two different frameworks, two kinds of situations which each require their own form of leadership. There is the Noah-time, where the earth spills over with destruction, a time of shallow violence, petty theft, of disregard for the value of human life. A דור המבול, where we cannot free ourselves of the muck, a time when even our leaders are susceptible to corruption and inhumanity. We are a flock of sheep, subject to the terrors of the wild, and all we can do is crowd close together under the protective staff of the shepherd. And there is the Abraham-time, where we need pioneering leaders, fiery furnaces, the smashing of our idols with rousing calls to actions. A time where we can bring G-d’s Presence into our lives and enlighten the darkest parts of the world, where our very existence is a testament to G-d’s glory. Where we can bravely walk alone without fear, because we know we stand on firm footing.

This week especially, I experience Israel and the Orthodox community as battered by destructive waters, from both within and without. Our leaders (some with the best of intentions) can be guilty of cruelty, arrogance and theft, while external enemies physically threaten our safety and autonomy. It is difficult to feel like anything but a frightened child grasping at his father’s hand for safety. Perhaps now is when we need the acknowledgement that we are in over our heads because the evil is subtle and insidious, and the generation demands the quiet but resolute determination of Noah-leadership.

The Rosh Yeshiva concludes:

עבודה משמעותית היא להצליח להתיק את העיניים מן הטיט העבה שבו שקועות הרגליים ולנשא את המבט אל עבר רצון ה’ והמגמות שהוא מנסה להופיע בעולם. אך משהצליח, ניטעים באדם כוחות שמאפשרים לו לסייע למלך… הוא נעשה ראוי להיות שותף למהלך של הופעת האלקות בתוך מבואותיה האפלים של  המציאות, והוא נקרא על ידי המלך “עד שאתה מאיר לי דרך חלון, בא והאיר לפני

It requires substantive effort to successfully raise our eyes from the mud that envelops us to gaze at the Heavenly Will that He places upon the world. But he that succeeds gains the strength to help the king… He is fit to be a partner in the mission of spreading Divinity through the dark alleys of existence, and he is summoned by the King himself: “Instead of showing me light through a window, come and enlighten my path before me!”

If we look to the leadership of Noah for guidance to weather the storm, hold fast to our ideals and the loving grasp of G-d through the darkness, then we may again merit to spread the Truth and the Light.

Tova Reiter (SBM 2015) is completing her senior year at University of Chicago in Beijing. 

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If a Waterfall’s in the Forest, Does It Make a Sound?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Isaac Asimov imagined the final human being asking the ultimate computer whether entropy can be reversed. The computer survives the end of the physical universe, and reaches a conclusion, but how to display the answer?  So Ultravac said: “Let there be light” – and there was light.

But Ultravac, unlike G-d, has no reflective motive for Creation, and so it is likely that the Ultravac bible is only three verses long.

Many years ago, I began trying to compose liturgical music that matches the meaning of the lyrics. One of my first projects was the very end of Kabbalat Shabbat, Tehillim 93. I had verse 4 translated as something like the following:

מקלות מים

רבים אדירים משברי ים

‘אדיר במרום ה

Greater than the voices of waters –

many, powerful, ocean breakers –

Mighty in the Above Is Hashem!

It seemed to me that the proper musical analogue would convey the sense of the waters gathering, increasing power and volume step by step, until they reached their peak, and the chazan’s voice’s apparent peak; but then G-d’s name would be sung at even higher pitch and volume.

This was ambitious enough, but in retrospect, it misses an important complementary element. I grew up climbing the Roaring Brook ski trail on Belleayre Mountain in the Catskills with my family; climbing, because it was summer, and so I never really heard the brook roar until we began coming for Pesach and the spring melt. Flooding streams ironically raise their voices as they descend, and crescendo as they expire. So here is verse 3:

‘נשאו נהרות ה

נשאו נהרות קולם

ישאו נהרות דכים

Floodstreams raise, O Hashem;

Floodstreams raise their voices;

Let floodstreams raise as they descend;

Here is an attempt at visualizing music for 3 and 4 together (read right to left):


But I confess to having no idea of how to convey rushing downhill power musically. My translation largely matched many of the pashtanim, although they generally add a layer of allegory; the floodstreams represent nations gathering against Israel, but G-d is more powerful than they.

I eventually realized that at least some members of Chazal read this very differently. In their reading, the last three words of verse 4 are a verbalization of the waters; in all their power, they declare the power of G-d.

“Out of the voices of waters, many, powerful, ocean breakers:

“Powerful in the Above is Hashem!”

Most often this is taken to refer to the waters of the Reed Sea returning to drown the Egyptian army, as the Song of the Sea refers to those waters as אדירים, powerful (Shemot 15:10).

Aviva Zornberg cites a somewhat macabre and deeply disturbing midrash (Bereshit Rabbah 28:2) that adopts the same translation but a different application. The literary spur is the perceived etymological ambivalence of יקוו המים in Bereshit 1:9: does the verb come from קו =line, and imply that G-d bounded the waters, or from קוה =anticipate, and imply that G-d gave the waters hope that they would one day breach those bounds? Here is the outcome.

A parable:

A ruler built a palace, and he placed in it dwellers who were dumb (speechless).

They would arise every morning and ask after the ruler’s wellbeing via gestures and fingertalk and מנוולים.

The ruler said (to himself):

If these who are speechless arise every morning and ask after my wellbeing via gestures and fingertalk, were they speakers, how much more so!?

So the ruler placed speaking dwellers within the palace.

They arose and seized the palace, saying:

“This palace does not belong to the ruler; it is ours.”

So the ruler said:

Let the palace return to how it was.

So too,

the exaltation of The Holy Blessed One arose only out of the water,

thus “From the voices of great waters . . . “

what do they say?

“. . .Mighty in the Above is Hashem.”

Said The Holy Blessed One:

If these that have no egalitarian (אמירה) or hierarchical (דבור) speech are exalting me,

when the human being will be created, how much more so!

The generation of Enosh arose and mutinied against Him;

the generation of the Flood arose and mutinied against Him;

the generation of the Division arose and mutinied against Him.

Said The Holy Blessed One:

Let the waters turn to me and come upon them.

As with many parables that represent G-d as a human ruler, this narrative raises my moral hackles rather than making G-d more explicable.

What justifies the ruler in banishing his loyal but speechless constituents in the first place?

What has the ruler done to deserve their loyalty, and why would they remain loyal after he mistreats them?

Do the speaking dwellers have the option of leaving, or is quiescent submission their only alternative to rebellion?

(We should mention as well the perhaps unjustified privileging of verbal speech over signing.)


In the mashal, the speechless palace dwellers have no direct relationships to the speaking dwellers. But in the nimshal, the waters from (just after) the very beginning eagerly anticipate the time when they will return to the palace, and the Flood is the direct cause of humanity’s removal (which regardless turns out to be very temporary)! The midrash intensifies the nimshal by describing the Flood as literally מוחה =dissolving human beings, who are really just dirt in a liquid suspension anyway, or dough kneaded by the Divine baker. Why does G-d abet the waters’ revenge?

But there is a theological difficulty perhaps even more severe than the moral challenges. It seems here that the advent of human beings (potentially) improves the quality of the praise offered to G-d, but does not change its fundamental nature.

Isaac Asimov’s brilliant short story “The Last Question” imagines the final human being asking the ultimate computer whether entropy can be reversed. The computer survives the end of the physical universe, and finally reaches a conclusion – but how to display the answer?

So Ultravac said: “Let there be light” – and there was light.

Ultravac has no reflective motive for Creation, and so it is likely that the Ultravac bible is only three verses long. But in the absence of human beings, to whom do the heavens proclaim G-d’s glory? Before which court does the firmament testify to the works of His hands? There is a reason that – even in our midrash! G-d brings in backup speakers twice before relenting to the waters, and of course the Flood is almost immediately undone.

I am more than happy to receive disagreements and alternative interpretations, and relevant musical compositions. However, I expect to maintain that when a waterfall’s in the forest, and only G-d is there to hear it, it does not make a sound of praise.

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The Dangers of Knowledge Addiction

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In eleventh grade, my rebbe turned to our class and said: “Whoever doesn’t understand that the Garden of Eden is a metaphor/mashal – is an idiot.” That moment has been a useful religious bulwark for me over the years. It also gives me space to focus on the more important question: a metaphor for what? And how should I go about answering that question?

One might think to search for the nimshal that best accounts for all the details of the mashal. But (as Maimonides warns) narrative metaphors often include details that are not directly significant to meaning. The mashal has its own literary integrity, and some details may be necessary for the story to work even though they don’t affect the nimshal.

Moreover, meshalim have two, diametrically opposed, pedagogic purposes. One is kedei lesaber et ha’ozen, to relate complicated or abstract ideas to concrete human experience. The other is to convey knowledge to the worthy and ready while denying it to the unworthy and unready. A useful technique for accomplishing the second purpose is the “red herring,” the inclusion of a seemingly significant but actually meaningless detail. So the “omnisignificant” interpretation may fit the text best, and yet be inaccurate or superficial, silver filigree disguising a golden apple.

Reading Chapters 2-3 of Genesis, I tend to focus on the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Bad, and build interpretations of the Garden inductively, rather than trying to deduce the nature of the Tree from the overall Garden. And so it is a great joy to come across a genuinely new (to me) interpretation of the Tree, and even more so to share it with you. Rabbi Itzile Volizhin, in his remarkably original Torah commentary Peh Kadosh, says the following:

ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו

כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות

ופשוטו שעפ״י דרך הטבע כך הוא

דבר שאדם חושק בו תמיד ומתאוה לו למאד, ואז אפילו הדבר טוב לו ואוכל בגודל תשוקתו, יכול להיות שמזיק לו מאד, ויוכל לגרום לו מיתה. ואף שאינו מת תיכף, אך מפני שבכל יום ויום ובכל שעה ושעה הוא הולך וקרב למות, ע”כ יקראו לו כבר מן עת האכילה מת

וכן ביום אכלך ממנו – היינו מאותו יום ואילך – מות תמות – פ’ מעט מעט, כי בכל יום ויום הוא קרוב למיתה יותר ויותר

כי באמת שקודם אכילתו מעץ הדעת לא היה עדיין מיתה בעולם, ומן עת האכילה, שאז נגזרה עליו מיתה, הלא הוא מתקרב בכל יום ויום אל המות

ועל כן אומר הכתוב בכפל לשון מות תמות – היינו בכל יום אתה מתקרב אל המות וד”ל

And from the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Bad – you must not eat from it, because on the day of your eating from it you will die, yes die:

The peshat of this is that this is the natural way: something that a human being continually yearns for and desires extremely, even if the thing is good for him, when he eats it to the great extent of his aspiration, it may greatly damage him, and can cause his death. Even though he does not die immediately, since every day and every hour he comes nearer to dying, he can be called dead from the moment of eating.

Thus on the day of your eating from it – meaning from that day on – you will die, yes die – meaning little by little, because each and every day he comes more and more near to death.

Because the truth is that before he ate from the Tree of Knowledge death was not yet in the world, but from the time of the eating, at which point death was decreed upon him, he indeed comes nearer each and every day to death.

Therefore the Torah says redundantly die, yes die, meaning that every day you come nearer to death. Enough said, for those with understanding.

Now the phrase “enough said, for those with understanding” suggests that Rav Itzile’s interpretation itself has an exoteric and esoteric component. Let’s see how much of that we can unpack. Exoterically, he resolves the problem of Adam’s failure to die on the day he ate the fruit by positing that he began the process of and the march toward dying. This interpretive move can be accomplished without saying anything about the nature of the fruit; mortal beings are by definition always on the march toward dying, and processes are notoriously difficult to define. But R. Itzile goes further; he says that while eating the fruit generated mortality, it did not generate inevitable mortality. Adam would still have lived forever had he been able to resist the fruit the next day, or the next, or the day after that. But one taste of the fruit made it impossible for him to ever resist it for long, and eventually he overdosed.

I think the textual clue here is that it is the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Bad. Most readers understand this to mean “knowledge of good and knowledge of bad,” but Rav Itzile is perhaps more precise in choosing “knowledge that is both good and bad.” This in turn raises the question of how something can be simultaneously good and bad, to which he responds with his own metaphor of addiction.

So far, so good. Now we must ask: why is it the Tree of Knowledge? Perhaps knowledge is a red herring, and addiction per se is the original sin; R. Eliezer of Metz in his Sefer Yereim posits that the ben sorer umoreh (the rebellious son) is executed al shem sofo, because of what he is yet to do, because he is an addict, and the Torah knows that uncontrollable addiction leads inevitably to robbery and murder. But while the Yereim is a tempting read of the rebellious son, I am nervous about taking the metaphor that literally. Addictions can at least sometimes be broken; Deborah Klapper just today referred me to studies that suggest that a positive social environment significantly improves prognosis. And I find it very hard to believe that knowledge is red herring. So what we are really looking for is a type of knowledge that is dangerously addictive.

We don’t have to look very far. Here is Berakhot 28b:

תנו רבנן

כשחלה רבי אליעזר, נכנסו תלמידיו לבקרו

אמרו לו: רבינו, למדנו אורחות חיים ונזכה בהן לחיי העולם הבא

אמר להם: הזהרו בכבוד חבריכם, ומנעו בניכם מן ההגיון, והושיבום בין ברכי תלמידי חכמים, וכשאתם מתפללים – דעו לפני מי אתם עומדים, ובשביל כך תזכו לחיי העולם הבא

A beraita:

When Rabbi Eliezer fell ill, his students entered to visit him.

They said to him: Rabbeinu, teach us the paths of life and we will thereby merit The Coming World.

He said to them: Be careful of the honor of your colleagues; restrain your children from hahigayon; place them between the knees of scholars, when you pray – know before Whom you stand; and for this you will merit the life of the Coming World.

The mystery term here is hahigayon, which seems etymologically to refer to some form of intellection. Rashi comments: “מההגיון – לא תרגילום במקרא יותר מדאי, משום דמשכא /From hahigayon – do not familiarize them with Scripture overmuch, because it attracts them.” The study of Written Torah is addictive, as a brilliant satire in Hamevaser pointed out years ago. But this does not mean that it should not be learned, just that is should not be learned overmuch. I suggest that this means that one should not try overmuch to learn the text of Torah without reference to Oral Torah, traditionally attested interpretations. Might peshat be the knowledge that Rav Itzile attributes to the Tree?

On this reading, the metaphor of Genesis is self-referential. To seek to understand the Tree, one must first recognize that one cannot understand it without help from others who already do so. One must honor the knowledge of one’s friends, and train children to respect tradition.

Three uncautionary notes in conclusion:

  1. Rabbi Eliezer is often represented as particularly devoted to traditional knowledge. Perhaps Rav Itzile has recreated Rabbi Eliezer’s understanding of the metaphor, but the bulk of Jewish Tradition has adopted others’ understandings.
  2. As Rabbi Itzile implies, the knowledge of the Tree is good, perhaps essential. Perhaps forewarned is forearmed, and we can taste it without becoming addicted.
  3. All the other trees of the garden were simply good to eat. There is no religious danger in addiction to knowledge, so long as we do not become convinced that the individual or collective human literary sensibility is the measure of all things.

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