Monthly Archives: May 2016

Converts as the Shadow of Redemption

Sefer Vayikra is an anticlimax, and there’s a very good reason for that; it really shouldn’t have been necessary.  The sacrificial rite as presented in Vayikra is largely about atonement for errors; in other words, it is about the intrusion of human fallibility and inattention into Divine space, or about the failure of history to end.

History could have ended twice.  If Adam and Chavah had waited until nightfall to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we would be living in eternal Shabbat.  If the Jews had waited until nightfall for Mosheh to come down with the Tablets, we would never have left Sinai.

Ramban suggests that human sin cannot really prevent those perfect worlds from existing; in a Platonic/Brisker sense, our historical world is only a shadow of the Redeemed world.  The Mishkan is the place where history and metahistory meet.  It is the place where God “dwells among us”, but also the boundary that keeps G-d‘s presence from consuming us.

In the aftermath of Initial Sin, G-d exiled human beings from Eden, and places the Cherubs to guard the pathway back.

This demonstrates that the entrance to that pathway is at the heart of the Tabernacle.  The Tabernacle was originally intended to be a gateway, but instead it became a gatehouse.

What happens to commitments made in the expectation of imminent Redemption?  When the Jews said naaseh venishma, they were expecting life to be a bowl of pitless cherries, and G-d k’b’yakhol was expecting them to be perfect servants.  Did the covenant at Sinai survive the nearly immediate radical breach by one party?

Ramban’s commentary on this parshah apparently offers a startling answer – no.  Understanding how he gets to this answer, and its implications, require us to digress for a bit.  I also need to emphasize again that for Ramban, human sin can never completely undo Redemption.

Rashi famously asks at the beginning of Parashat Behar: What is the connection between shmittah (=the Sabbatical year) and Mount Sinai?  He begins his response by citing the Midrash Halakhah on Vayikra, known as Torat Kohanim or Sifra: “Just as the general principles, specific rules, and fine details of shmittah were said at Sinai, so too all the mitzvot had their general principles and fine details said at Sinai.”

How do we know this about shmittah?  Rashi suggests that shmittah is unique in that the Torah discusses it in Vayikra but does not return to it in Devarim.  This proves that all its details must have been received at Sinai.  With this in mind, we can conclude with regard to the other mitzvot that even when Devarim adds details to their presentation in the earlier books of the Pentateuch, it does not mean to imply that those details were not revealed earlier, at Sinai.

It should be clear that for Rashi this statement refers exclusively to principles, rules, and details that are found in the Torah.  “All its fine details” means all the fine details found in the Torah.   It says nothing whatever about the origins and authority of details not found in the Torah.  Rashi’s supercommentator Mizrachi notes that this beraita is simply taking the side of Rabbi Akiva in a dispute found on Zevachim:

רבי ישמעאל אומר: כללות נאמרו בסיני ופרטות באהל מועד וחזרו ונשנו בערבות מואב.

ורבי עקיבא אומר: כללות ופרטות נאמרו בסיני ונשנו באהל מועד ונשתלשו בערבות מואב”.

Rabbi Yishmael said:  The general principles were said at Sinai, and the specific rules in the Tent of Meeting, and then they were reviewed in the Plains of Moab:

But Rabbi Akiva said: The general principle and the specific rules were said at Sinai, reviewed in the Tent of Meeting, and taught a third time in the Plains of Moab.

Ramban finds Rashi unconvincing.  He argues that Shemittah is chosen to illustrate this point not because it isn’t repeated in Devarim, but rather because it is repeating laws already found in Exodus 23:11, Parshat Mishpatim.

But Ramban is not satisfied.  Why, he asks, was it necessary for Mosheh to teach the laws repeatedly?  For the Plains of Moab he has a simple solution: So that the next generation would hear them from Mosheh directly.  But why both at Sinai and at the Tent of Meeting?

Ramban adds one more question:  Why does the Torah teach us that Shmittah, and by extension all the mitzvot, were taught in detail at Sinai, here in Behar?  Behar is part of Sefer Vayikra, which opens by setting itself in the Tent of Meeting.  Why didn’t the Torah teach us about Sinai while still reporting from Sinai?

Ramban’s answer is that Mosheh didn’t review the Sinai covenant at the Tent of Meeting – he renewed it.

וביאור הענין, כי בתחילת ארבעים יום הראשונים של לוחות הראשונות כתב משה בספר הברית את כל דברי ה’ ואת כל המשפטים הנאמרים שם ויזרוק דם הברית על העם (שמות כד ח), וכשחטאו בעגל ונשתברו הלוחות כאילו נתבטלה הברית ההיא אצל הקדוש ברוך הוא, וכשנתרצה הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה בלוחות שניות צוהו בברית חדשה שנאמר (שם לד י) הנה אנכי כורת ברית, והחזיר שם המצות החמורות שנאמרו בסדר ואלה המשפטים בברית הראשונה . . .

The explanation of the matter is that at the outset of the first forty days of the first tablets, Mosheh wrote in the Book of the Covenant all the words of Hashem and all the mishpatim said there, and he threw the blood of the covenant over the people” (Shemot 24:8).  When they sinned via the Calf and the tablets were broken, it was as if that covenant was annulled with regard to the Holy Blessed One, and so when G-d acceded to Mosheh via the second tablets, He commanded him about a new covenant, as Scripture says (34:10) “Behold I am being koreit a covenant”, and he repeated there in the new covenant the grave mitzvot that had been said in Parashat Mishpatim . . .

The Torah closes Sefer Vayikra (27:34) by declaring

ואלה המצות אשר צוה יקוק את משה אל בני ישראל בהר סיני:

These are the mitzvoh which Hashem commanded Mosheh toward the Children of Israel at Mt. Sinai.

The purpose of this declaration is to teach us that the renewed covenant had all the content of the original.

But, Ramban says, the renewed covenant was not established in the same way as the original.

ולא הוצרך עתה שיזבח זבחים ויזרוק חצי הדם על העם וחצי הדם על המזבח כאשר עשה בראשונה, אבל קבלו עליהם הברית הראשונה באלות ובקללות אלה

It was not necessary at this point to bring sacrifices and throw half the blood on the people and half the blood on the altar as he did in the original, rather they accepted the original covenant via these imprecations and curses.

The sacrificial rite was originally the heart of a covenant which was the natural expression of a healthy relationship.  The renewed covenant is held together by discipline and even coercion, and sacrifices are merely a way to atone for breaches.

But is there a way to live the covenant as originally intended?

On Keritut 8b, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi describes the conversion process as follows:

מה אבותיכם לא נכנסו לברית אלא במילה וטבילה והרצאת ד

אף הם לא יכנסו לברית אלא במילה וטבילה והרצאת דמים

Just as your ancestors could enter the covenant only through (male) circumcision, immersion, and a blood-rite,

so too they (converts) can enter the covenant only through (male) circumcision, immersion, and a blood-rite.

According to Ramban, it follows that converts enter the original covenant, not the second.  They enter a Jewish people who have not yet made the Calf.

I don’t accept this implication uncritically – being fully part of the Jewish people means identifying with our sins as well as our triumphs, feeling both shame and pride.  But we should recognize that every sincere convert is a reflection of our best religious selves, and recognize that it is our job to be worthy of them, not the other way around.

Shabbat shalom!

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Certain Countings

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Avram Schwartz

During the omer, we are keenly aware of each passing day and week, much more so than during the rest of the year. Doubtless, various daily requirements that are constantly in place, such as tefillah, mark each day as separate from one another. What sets these days apart is that they are also marked as unique – numbered and identified as soon as they begin.

The Torah commands some such awareness for other days as well – the zav and the zavah are also commanded to count seven days before they can again become pure (Vayikra 15:13, 28).

Beyond this, we find that years are to be counted as well:You shall count off seven weeks of years – seven years seven times – and the seven weeks ofyears will come to forty-nine years. (Vayikra 25:8).  Rambam and those following him understand this to be a positive commandment for the court (ספר המצוות קמ, הל’ שמיטה ויובל י:א, ספר החינוך בהר ש”ל).

In Tishre of every year (or every seventh year), the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem would count the year, much as we count each day of the omer. The high court numbers the years in a cycle of shemitot and yovelot,irrespective, it would seem, of any other count, such as the reign of the king.

Many other rishonim appear to agree with this understanding of the verse and its interpretation in the Sifra (בהר פרשתא ב, ראב”ד שם, תוספות כתובות עב. ד”ה וספרה, תוספות מנחות סה: ד”ה וספרתם)  But it is precisely this that Rav Yerucham Fischel Perlow questions. (ביאור לספר המצוות רס”ג, עשה נא, ד”ה ולהרמב”ם).

He points out that various other rishonim use language that is less than absolute in referring to this legal concept. Raavad, for example, begins his cited comment on the Sifra with “it appears to me.” Neither Rav Saadia Gaon nor the Halakhot Gedolot, Rambam”s major precursors in the numbering of the mitzvot, count this as a mitzvah, and it is not mentioned anywhere in the Talmud. It merits discussion only in the Sifra, and even that, says Rav Perlow, is not entirely determinative with regard to the nature of this halakhah.

He suggests that the verses of the Torah put in place a less formal requirement than that codified by Rambam, namely that instead of counting, the high court must merely remain aware of the point in the yovel cycle in which they find themselves, such that they  can sanctify the yovel year at its proper time. Yovel would then be put in a class of mitzvot with the seven days of the zav and zavah in which awareness, but not counting, are required.

Rav Yechezkel Landau (נודע ביהודה תניינא יו”ד קכג) pointed to a fundamental differencebetween zav and zavah on the one hand and omer and, following Rambam, the years of the yovelon the other. He suggests that we count the omer and the year aloud with a beracha because time passes consistently, and there is no question as to the next day or year arriving at its expected time. The zav and the zavah, on the other hand, might experience an additional discharge, which would set their count back to zero.

But if Rav Perlow is right, and there is no requirement to count the years, then what are we to make of Rav Landau’s point?

It seems to me that this problem can be resolved by observing a further distinction along the same lines as that made by the Noda Biyehudah. There is a real difference between years and decades – and the yovel cycle is one of multiple decades – which is not the case between days.

The expectation we have is that just as today was basically the same as yesterday, so will tomorrow be as well. We cannot be at all sure of that with years. Major changes can take place from year to year, especially the political ones that are essential to the yovel. Counting years is actually, upon reflection, rather more akin to a zav or zavah counting clean days. We are aware of where we stand, and we certainly hope for a certain outcome tomorrow or next year, but to count would express a certainty that cannot be had.

Avram Schwartz (SBM 2015) is a Semikhah student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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Rov Gufei Torah Teluyin Bah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

This week’s Parshah, Parshat Kedoshim, begins:

דבר אל כל עדת בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם קדשים תהיו

“Speak to all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael and you should say to them: Be holy.”

Rashi, noticing the extraneous word “all,” makes the following comment, based on Sifra and Vayikra Rabbah:

מלמד שנאמרה פרשה זו בהקהל

מפני שרוב גופי תורה תלויין בה

“This teaches that this section was said at a gathering (of the whole congregation)

because most of the fundamental teachings of the Torah (gufei Torah) depend on it”.

What does it mean to say that something is a fundamental teaching of the Torah?

The concept of a Guf Torah  is mentioned throughout Chazal.  Many sources describe various Mitzvot as Gufei Torah. These Mitzvot are generally introduced by the phrase “הן הן גופי תורה” = “these are the very fundamentals of the Torah.״

Some examples:

Tosefta Shabbat 2:1 – Hekdesh, Chataot, and Maasrot are Gufei Torah

Avot DeRabbi Natan 1:27 – Halakhot, Taharot, Niddot, Kinnin

Keritot 5a – Piggul, Notar, Bito MeiAnusato, Niskalim

Shabbat 32a – Hekdesh, Terumot, Maasrot

At least from this list, it is challenging to come up with a common denominator. What is it that makes these Mitzvot into Gufei Torah, while others are not?

Mishnah Chagigah 10a seems to come up with a solution. The Mishnah states:

.היתר נדרים פורחין באויר ואין להם על מה שיסמכו

,הלכות שבת חגיגות והמעילות – הרי הם כהררים התלוין בשערה

.שהן מקרא מועט והלכות מרובות

 – הדינין והעבודות, הטהרות והטמאות, ועריות

,יש להן על מה שיסמכו

.והן הן גופי תורה

“The permission of vows flies in the air and there is nothing upon which they can lean.

The laws of Shabbat, Chagigot, and Meilot are like mountains hanging on a thread,

in that they are few in Pesukim but many in Halakhot.

Civil law and temple services, purities and impurities, and sexual laws –

they have something on which to lean,

and they are the very fundamentals of the Torah.”

Based on this Mishnah, it seems that a Mitzvah is considered to be a guf Torah if there is a large textual basis for the Halakhot surrounding the Mitzvah. Many of the Mitzvot we previous listed fit into the categories given in the Mishnah. For example, Halakhot and Niskalim are related to civil law; Hekdesh, Chataot, Kinnin, Piggul, and Notar are related to temple service; Taharot and Niddot, are related to purities; and Niddot and Bito MeiAnusato are related to sexual laws.

However, the Gemara anticipates this interpretation of the Mishnah, and on 11b, rejects it:

?!הן הן גופי תורה” – הני אין, הנך לא”

.אלא, אימא: הן והן גופי תורה

“These are the fundamentals of Torah – these are, and the others aren’t?!

Rather, say: These and these are the fundamentals of Torah.”

The Gemara is saying that it is not only the laws which have a clear textual basis that are considered to be the fundamentals of Torah, but even the earlier mentioned laws with less of a textual basis have this status. By extension, therefore, it would seem that in fact, anything included in the Torah would be considered a fundamental of the Torah.

This idea is supported by two other statements of Chazal. On Chullin 60b, Reish Lakish asserts that there are many Pesukim which are worthy to be burned because of their seeming irrelevance, but yet they are considered to be fundamentals of Torah because of the lessons they in fact teach. And in Bereishit Rabbah Chayei Sarah Parshah 60, R’ Acha says that it is clear that the words of the forefather’s servants are more important than those of the Torah given to the children, because we see that Eliezer’s speech is given more space in the Torah than the rules of Sheratzim, which are a fundamental of the Torah. It could be argued that if Eliezer’s speech is more important than a fundamental of the Torah, perhaps it is fundamental itself.

To return to the beginning of Parshat Kedoshim: The Parshah of Kedoshim Tihiyu is considered to be something upon which other fundamental Mitzvot depend.What does this mean?

One possibility is simply that this Parshah has so many Mitzvot in it. This is supported by the continuation of the Vayikra Rabbah upon which Rashi is based, which states that all of the Aseret HaDibrot are included in this Parshah.

In a Sichah given on Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 5756 (available here:שרוב-גופי-תורה-תלויים-בה ), Rav Aharon Lichtenstein argues that Parshat Kedoshim is given this status because it does not only contain many Mitzvot, but that these Mitzvot are so varied from each other. There are Mitzvot that are about our relationship with God and with man, Mitzvot about major principles of faith and about minor details, interspersed with each other. Rav Lichtenstein argues that the reason for this is that the Torah should be seen as one whole.

I would like to add another possible explanation, namely, that it is not just the Parshah of Kedoshim which is considered the support for fundamentals of Torah, but in fact the Mitzvah of Kedoshim Tehiyu, Be Holy, itself. It is possible that this Mitzvah is considered a support for the fundamentals of Torah because it does not just involve discrete actions, but it is a Mitzvah that by itself encompasses a worldview and a way of life. This idea especially fits with the Ramban’s view of the Mitzvah. Unlike Rashi, who sees the command as a specific warning against sexual immorality, Ramban sees the command as a Mitzvah to separate oneself from excesses, even when they are technically permitted, in order to be holy people.

This fits in with another statement of Chazal, where another concept is called something upon which fundamentals of the Torah depend. Otzar HaMidrashim Gadol UGedoah states the following (note – a shorter version of this is found in Brachot 63a):

גדולה דרך ארץ שהיא שקולה כנגד כל התורה, כדדרש בר קפרא איזו היא פרשה קטנה שכל גופי התורה תלוין בה הוי אומר זו דרך ארץ שנאמר בכל דרכיך דעהו וגו’ (משלי ג’ ו’). גדולה דרך ארץ שהיא שקולה כנגד כל התורה.

“Great is Derech Eretz which is equal to the whole Torah, as Bar Kaparah expounded: What is a small topic that all of the fundamentals of the Torah are dependent on it? Say that it is Derech Eretz, as it is said, ‘In all of your ways you should know Him’ (Proverbs 3:6). Great is Derech Eretz which is equal to the whole Torah.”

Derech Eretz, which is often explained as decency and ethical behavior, is another concept which is not just one isolated Mitzvah, but is in fact a whole way of life. Being ethical affects everything that a person does, including all of the Mitzvot that he keeps.

Another concept that fits into this category, which appears in this Parsha, is that of VeAhavta LeReiachah Kamochah, loving your fellow man. Sifra Kedoshim 2:4 quotes Rabbi Akiva, who called this Mitzvah a “כלל גדול בתורה,” which is also translated as a fundamental of the Torah. This Mitzvah also constantly affects our everyday interactions. It is interesting to note that the Torah Temimah, in his footnotes, in fact states that this Mitzvah is the reason why the Parshah is called the support for fundamental Mitzvot.

I would like to conclude by returning to the Rashi mentioned in the beginning of the Dvar Torah. Mizrachi asks a question on Rashi. Rashi states that because the Parshah of Kedoshim is so important, it was given to all the Jews as a community. However, how is this different from the rest of the Mitzvot? Mizrachi answers that for other Mitzvot, the Jews would enter the Beit Midrash in groups, and only a few would be taught at a time. Here, however, all of the Jews were taught at once.

The Or HaChaim rejects this explanation for various reasons, and instead gives his own resolution to the question. In general, Moshe would only teach the men. However, here, just like Hakhel, women and children were also included, and this is why Chazal use that specific word to emphasize community.

I find it telling that when discussing fundamental Mitzvot, and Mitzvot which shape a person’s worldview, all Jews, men, women, and children, are specifically included. Torah is for everyone, especially those parts of Torah which are so central to Jews’ lives.

Davida Kollmar (SBM 2014) teaches physics lab and Halakhah at Central. She is exciting to be joining SBM this coming summer as Program Administrator.

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Wicked Savants and Pious Fools


Wicked Savants and Pious Fools:  

Thoughts On the Use of Kavod HaBeriyot in Halakhic Discourse

Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 426:1

One who sees his fellow drowning in the river, or under attack by bandits, or under attack by wild animals, and he was capable of saving the fellow himself, or of hiring others to save him, and yet he did not save . . . violates “do not stand idly by your peer’s blood” (Vayikra 19:16)

The inimitable Rabbi Shlomo Kluger, in his comments to this halakhah, points us to the Talmudic case in which human dignity most clearly overrides a law with Biblical authority.  A beraita cited three times in the Talmud (Berakhot 19b, Bava Metzia 30a, and Sanhedrin 18b) states that the Torah itself recognizes circumstances in which one can “look away” from someone else’s lost object, despite the explicit prohibition “You must not look away”.  One of those circumstances – the only one which has no independent textual source – is that an elder need not recover someone else’s lost object if doing so would force him to act in a manner not befitting his dignity,

Why is this relevant?  Because a beraita on Sanhedrin 73a derives the obligation to save people from drowning from the verse requiring the return of lost objects – if one must return money, all the more so life!  The Talmud asks why, if this is the source, the Torah contains the additional prohibition against “standing idly by your peer’s blood”?  It responds that this second verse creates the obligation to pay for third-party rescuers if necessary.

Rabbi Kluger puts these two beraitot together and reaches the astonishing (tentative) conclusion that one is permitted to choose to preserve one’s own dignity rather than saving another person’s life.

R. Dan Plotzki (Keli Chemdah Teitzei 6) and Rabbi Y. H. Henkin (Responsa Benei Banim 1:43), put Rabbi Kluger’s position in dialogue with Talmud Sotah 21b.  Mishnah Sotah 20a cites Rabbi Yehoshua as calling out four religious types as מבלי עולם, those who overturn the world: The pious fool, the wicked savant, the ascetic woman, and the self-flagellant.  The Talmud comments:

What is the case of a pious fool? 

If for example a woman were drowning in the river, and he says: It would not be אורח ארעא/derekh eretz/proper manners to gaze at her and save her.

Rabbi Plotzki cites (and forcefully rejects) an argument that this text proves Rabbi Kluger is correct.  Otherwise, why would this fellow be a pious fool?  If lifesaving overrides all private interest, he would be a wicked fool!  So it must be that he (mistakenly) believes that saving the woman would be a violation of his dignity; if it were, he would be within his rights not to save her.  This is why the Talmud frames his objection in terms of manners, rather than in terms of law – of course the obligation to save life overrides the law!

Rabbis Plotzki and Henkin independently suggest a different explanation.  Why, they ask, is the fool worried about gazing at the woman, rather than about touching her?  Perhaps because the obligation to save must have some limits – we are not all required to intervene globally – and that limit is sight (just as it is for lost objects).  The pious fool “looks away” from the woman so as to avoid being obligated to save her.  Once he sees her, he must save her, even if this requires extensive physical contact.  If he looked away after having seen her, says Rav Henkin, he would be a wicked rather than a pious fool.

This argument seems to me technically incorrect, for two reasons.

  • The prime Talmudic example of a “wicked savant” is one who gives the poor exactly enough to make them ineligible to receive charity, and therefore deliberately keeps them in maximal poverty and dependence. The difference between pious and wicked foolishness cannot be observance of technical halakhah, as the wicked savant makes sure to punctiliously fulfill his halakhic obligation of charity.
  • Berakhot 19a concludes that the exemption from lost objects cannot be generalized to ritual law, for example to allow wearing shatnez when the alternative is public nakedness, because it is a case of mammona, financial law. But if Rabbi Kluger is correct, the exemption must extend even to nefashot (capital cases)!?

On the other hand, there is ample precedent to argue that halakhah prioritizes dignity over life.  Is it not “Better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace than to humiliate his fellow in public”?

But my interest here is not in technical evidence – surely Rabbi Plotzki z”l was, and yibadel lechayyim Rav Henkin unquestionably is, a much greater scholar than I, and presumably each had compelling answers to my objections.  Rather, I want to consider the role that “human dignity” plays in the halakhic discourse here, namely that it overrides the obligation to save lives, and whether and how its role here should affect our eagerness to use it and similar principles creatively in other areas of halakhah.

In Rabbi Henkin’s reading, the pious fool is not overzealous for halakhah – he knows that he has the halakhic right to save the women.  What drives him is an overzealousness for human dignity – perhaps his own, perhaps that of the woman in question, who (he believes) deserves better than to be exposed to his male gaze – even if that means she loses her life, and even if she explicitly asks to be saved.

This was presumably the argument made by the Saudi “religious police” when they prevented the rescue of women from a dormitory fire.  Kavod haberiyot is not a liberal panacea.

Objections to the use of kavod haberiyot as an unmediated halakhic argument often take “slippery slope” forms.  One day you permit women to have aliyot; next day you bless homosexual relationships; mixed dancing and elimination of the second yekum purkan can’t be too far behind.  Many of these arguments are plainly obsolete.  Slippery slope arguments work only when people agree which way is down.

Another type of objection remains relevant, however.  One purpose of the discipline of halakhah is to force us to challenge the way we prioritize our values.  Halakhah constantly insists that we consider what is lost, and not only what is gained, by specific religious acts.  Even if everything is animated by “what is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow”, it is not enough to know that principle; one must spend one’s life studying how the tradition has played it out in practice.  Otherwise Hillel’s ethic will inevitably become hegemonistic and totalitarian.  Powerful pious fools, knowing how much they hate the possibility of imposed eroticism, will ban men and women from saving each other from drowning.

Wicked savants can reach the same conclusions in their own way, and the kavod haberiyot argument generally entails a claim, however modulated, that opponents are wicked savants, or at best wicked fools, using the law to impose their mistaken values on others.  Sometimes this claim rings true for me.

And sometimes not.  With regard to Israel internationally, and with regard to traditional religion domestically, my sense is that the rhetoric of human dignity has become increasingly totalitarian, and those using that rhetoric have become increasingly unable to even conceive of moral self-critique.  (Nicholas Kristof’s NYTimes Op-ed is a noble recent exception.)  A natural consequence is for their opponents to shut their ears as well.

It is very possible that I have the causal sequence backwards, and “they started it”.

One purpose of halakhic discourse at its best is to prevent this kind of polarization.  It often fails, and plainly, it is failing in Orthodoxy today.  But I hope that we can still find a middle ground between the pretense that ultimate issues can be handled without recourse to underlying values, and the illusion that nothing is lost when law is discarded in the name of underlying values.  Otherwise our halakhic public square will soon be reserved exclusively for conversations between wicked savants and pious fools.

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Correct Belief and Moral Luck


Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, Dean

Why aren’t all true beliefs self-evident to everyone?  Perhaps the answer is weakness of character or willful ignorance.  We evade the truth about the world in order to avoid facing truths about ourselves, or to gain this-worldly pleasures and avoid this-worldly pains.  I suspect that every religion/ideology has adherents who make these assertions.

Yet almost every believer – including baalei teshuvah and converts – wonders at some point whether true belief is just a matter of spiritual luck, of being born in the right place at the right time to the right people.  But how can we be held responsible for bad luck, or rewarded for good luck?  If belief matters at all, what room is there for Divine justice?

Parashat Acharei Mot opens by describing the rituals that a Kohen Gadol must perform before entering the Holy of Holies, if he wishes to survive the experience.  (This was regardless permitted only on Yom Kippur, although Chokhmat Adam cites R. Eliyahu of Vilna as arguing that Aharon, the first Kohen Gadol, was permitted to enter on any day.)  Performing the ritual was no guarantee of survival; during the Second Temple, many High Priests died in their first year of service. (although likely without a rope tied around them to pull them out in case of death; see the ever-remarkable Dr. Ari Zivatofsky’s article at

Finally, the people did not rely on G-d to eliminate the unworthy; according to Mishnah Sukkah 4:9, they stoned a Kohen Gadol with their etrogim one Sukkot when he seemed to be following Sadduceean halakhah.

The ritual involves an incense offering, which is mentioned twice.  In 16:2 we read:כי בענן אראה על הכפרת which can be read as requiring the cloud of incense to be present from the moment of entrance, but in 16:13 we read:

ונתן את הקטרת על האש לפני יקוק וכסה ענן הקטרת את הכפרת אשר על העדות ולא ימות

which indicates that the incense was set on fire in the Holy of Holies itself.

Rabbinic law understands verse 13 as primary, and thus requires the incense to be brought into the Holy of Holies still unlit; Sadducee law took verse 2 as primary, and required it to be lit before entry.

All this is necessary background for a fascinating and surprising narrative found on Yoma 19b

This happened: A Sadducee (High Priest) prepared (the incense-offering) outside (the Holy of Holies) and then brought it in (already lit).

When he exited, he was greatly joyous.

His father met him and said: “My son, even though we are Sadducees, we are in fear of the Pharisees[1]”.

He said to him: All my days I was pained by this verse: “For in a cloud I will be seen above the ark-cover” – when would it come to my hand that I might fulfill it?  Now that it has come to my hand – should I not fulfill it?!

They said: It was not many days until he died, and was thrown on a trashheap, and maggots came out of his nose.

Some say: He was struck down as he exited,

for R. Chiyya taught a beraita: Some sort of sound was heard in the Courtyard, for an angel came and smacked him on his face, and his brother kohanim entered and found a palm(print) like that of a calf’s foot between his shoulders, as Scripture says: “and their feet – a straight foot, and the palm of their feet like the palm of a calf’s foot”. 

On its surface this narrative is just straightforward propaganda.  The Sadducee’s devotion to his law is contrasted negatively with his father’s caution/respect, and leads to his horrible, possible supernatural death.  There seems no basis for sympathy.

However, this story is a linguistic echo of a more famous story from Berakhot 61b.

When R. Akiva was taken out to be executed it was the time of Keriat Shema.  They were combing his flesh with metal combs while he accepted the Yoke of the Government of Heaven. 

His students said to him: Rebbe, thus far? 

He said to them: All my days I was pained by this verse: “with all your life-force” – even if He takes your spirit – when would it come to my hand that I might fulfill it?  Now that it has come to my hand – should I not fulfill it?!

 He extended the word “echad” (one) until his life-force departed on that word.

A voice emerged from Heaven saying: Fortunate are you, R. Akiva, whose life-force departed with “echad”.

The ministering angels said before the Holy Blessed One: This is Torah, and this is its reward?  “From the dead, O Hashem, from the dead . . .”?!

He replied: Their portion is in life.

A voice emerged from Heaven saying: Fortunate are you, R. Akiva, who is reserved for the life of the World to Come.   

I suggest that the story about the Sadducee is deliberately framed as a response to the Rabbi Akiva story.  Here are three possible implications of the parallel:

  1. (PreModern) – Rabbi Akiva and the Sadducee both die horrible deaths for the sake of their understandings of Torah.  Rabbi Akiva is praised by the ministering angels; the Sadducee is killed by an angel.  Blessed are those who have the character and will to understand Torah properly.
  2. (Modern) – Rabbi Akiva and the Sadducee have identical characters; they are equally virtuous.  What a pity that and tragedy that the Sadducee was trapped by circumstances into believing in falsehood, so that a man with the potential to be Rabbi Akiva was instead tossed onto the trashpile of history.
  3. (PostModern) – Who killed the Sadducee, and who reported hearing the Heavenly voices at Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom?  Since the Rabbi Akiva story proves that dying a horrible death is no evidence of Divine disfavor, why is it significant that the Sadducee was left unburied (and wasn’t that a human choice, just as the Roman chose to torture Rabbi Akiva?)

I suggest that a viable Modern Orthodoxy needs to be able to hold all three of these readings in mind. We need

  1. firmness in our truth, with gratitude to G-d for having allowed us to see that truth;
  2. the ability to appreciate that many of us deserve little or no credit for recognizing that truth, and that belief is not evidence of individual character, nor is lack of belief evidence of individual lack of character; and
  3. the ability to avoid triumphalism and confirmation bias when evaluating interpretations of Torah.

We need to be grateful for our spiritual luck, to believe in Divine justice, and to leave it to G-d to resolve the tension between our gratitude and our belief.  Shabbat shalom!

[1] In context, the father seems to be saying that the son should be cautious lest the Pharisees physically assault him.  However, see Niddah ??, which opens the possibility that thefather was suggesting that the Sadducees respected the Rabbis and would not necessarily follow their own positions when they conflicted with Rabbinic law.

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Two Sons, Two Sins, Two Goats

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Betsy Morgan

(Vayikra 16:1)

וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, אַחֲרֵי מוֹת, שְׁנֵי בְּנֵי אַהֲרֹן—בְּקָרְבָתָם לִפְנֵי-ה’, וַיָּמֻתוּ

God spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon’s two sons,

as they sacrificed/came near to God, and died.

After the death of Aharon’s sons in Parashat Shemini, Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora dealt with other matters, and (in America) there have been two additional weeks of break from the regular Torah reading because of Pesach.  How helpful of the Torah to reorient us to pertinent events so that the subsequent verses flow naturally!

(Vayikra 16:2-3)

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, דַּבֵּר אֶל-אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ, וְאַל-יָבֹא בְכָל-עֵת אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ . . . וְלֹא יָמוּת . . .

בְּזֹאת יָבֹא אַהֲרֹן, אֶל-הַקֹּדֶשׁ:  בְּפַר בֶּן-בָּקָר לְחַטָּאת, וְאַיִל לְעֹלָה

God said to Moshe, speak to your brother Aharon to not come at any time into the Holy . . .

and (thus) he will not die . . ..

Thus should Aharon come to the Holy: with a calf for a sin offering, and a ram as a burnt offering.

It seems the death of Nadav and Avihu was only mentioned as a transition. But what is the nature of this transition?

  1. Literarily, these laws, which describe the Yom Kippur service in the Temple, occurred after the death of Nadav and Avihu, which has been distanced in the text by other laws. Thus, it makes sense that the Torah would orient the reader before starting the new topic.
  2. The topic of priests’ death is returned to, to point out that they died from inappropriate action regarding the Mishkan, and Aharon too will die if he enters the Holy of Holies, where God dwells. There is, however, one exception: on Yom Kippur, when performing the service, Aharon is allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. God then describes the Temple service to be performed on Yom Kippur. So the subject of the death is a stepping stone to arrive at last to the real topic of Yom Kippur with its laws and services.
  3. There is a substantive relationship between the death of Nadav and Avihu and the service of Yom Kippur, and Aharon’s development is the center of it.

I prefer to read this the third way.

The story starts in Shmot 29, when God spends 46 verses telling Moshe how the consecration of the Mishkan and Kohanim will be done – describing donning the correct garments, and the order and procedure for various sacrifices. Vayikra 8 is when these events begin, the sacrifices prepared and brought, the priest washed, dressed, anointed, and thus consecrated.

On the eighth day of this consecration there are a new set of sacrifices to be brought, with the people of Israel watching in order that they see the “glory of God” (Vayikkra 9:6). One of these sacrifices is a calf. Rashi (9:2) comments upon the verse telling Aharon to take the calf

להודיע שמכפר לו הקב”ה ע”י עגל זה על מעשה העגל שעשה

To inform that God would grant atonement through this calf for the sin of the (golden) calf that he made

Later verses corroborate this reading, categorizing this sacrifice as a sin offering “to atone for [Aharon] and for the nation” (Vayikra 9:7). How fitting, that a calf once a symbol of betrayal straying and waywardness, now the ultimate display of devotion to God.  Aharon, once at the heart of a dire disappointment, became enabled to publicly transform failure into worship, sealing his consecration with atonement.  Aharon blesses the assembled nation and they do indeed see the glory of God. A fire descends upon the altar and consumes the burnt offering and the nation as witnesses sing and bow in awe (Vayikra 22-24).

At the climax of the consecration of the Mishkan and the priests who serve in it, Nadav and Avihu do what was not prescribed by God. They offer a strange fire, and are consumed by God in the eyes of all. The message in this case is immediately clear: one cannot assume to know the correct way to serve God in the Mishkan. Those who fail to comply are unfit for the service.

But there is an additional failure present in these actions.  At the very moment that Aharon is atoning for his and the nation’s sin of the golden calf, a gesture of misplaced faith, his sons act out in another desperate attempt to worship.  Aharon once again fails to stop misplaced religious ecstasy.  At Sinai, and then again during the consecration of God’s dwelling on Earth, Aharon is present and closest to severe deviations from God’s path.

Later that day, in Vayikra 10:12, Moshe finds that Aharon and his remaining sons did not eat the sin offering that was specifically meant to atone for the community; instead they burned with the other burnt sacrifices. Aharon replies by asking if really God would want him to eat the sin offering in the wake of the day’s events. Aharon is really asking Moshe, through his acrid question, if the atonement still applies after his own demonstrated inability to improve. (There may be other underlying aspects of legalities of his status as an onen (a mourner who is technically exempt from performing mitzvot.)

Our parsha opens reminding of us of the death of Aharon’s sons, another of his failures. But the tone turns. While the second verse of the parsha describes what Aharon must not do, lest he die, God tells him that he can enter this holy place, if done properly. Every year, Aharon is given another chance to atone.

I find it deeply meaningful that this character at the center of religious disasters is also the primary character carrying the atonement of the entire Jewish people. These two roles that Aharon plays are not accidental features, but inherent to the process of repenting. The inherent nature of combining sin and service is demonstrated with the two goats of the Yom Kippur service. Their fates are determined by lot: one is marked for God and one for “azazel”. Mishnah Yoma 6:1 teaches that these two goats are to be as identical as possible in regards to general appearance, size, and worth. Moreover, they should be taken as a pair, meaning if two are taken together and one dies after the lot has been drawn, two new goats must be found to replace both. The goat for God is slaughtered as a sin offering, the goat for azazel is sent off to wander in the desert with Aharon’s confession riding it.

Vayikra 16:21 describes the confession part of the process thusly:

וְסָמַךְ אַהֲרֹן אֶת-שְׁתֵּי יָדָו, עַל רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר הַחַי, וְהִתְוַדָּה עָלָיו אֶת-כָּל-עֲו‍ֹנֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאֶת-כָּל-פִּשְׁעֵיהֶם לְכָל-חַטֹּאתָם; וְנָתַן אֹתָם עַל-רֹאשׁ הַשָּׂעִיר, וְשִׁלַּח בְּיַד-אִישׁ עִתִּי הַמִּדְבָּרָה.

Aharon will place his two hands on the head of the living goat, and confess upon it the iniquities of the children of Israel. All their misdeeds and sins he will place on the goat’s head and he will send by the Timely Man into the wilderness.

Mishnah Yoma 6:2 details the words of the confession

אנא ה’–עוו פשעו וחטאו לפניך עמך, בית ישראל;

אנא ה’–כפר נא לעוונות ולפשעים ולחטאים, שעוו ושפשעו ושחטאו לפניך עמך, בית ישראל:  ככתוב בתורת משה עבדך לאמור “כי ביום הזה יכפר עליכם, לטהר אתכם:  מכול, חטאותיכם, לפני ה’, תטהרו” (ויקרא טז,ל).

Please God, Your nation the House of Israel have committed iniquities, misdeeds, and sins before you. Please God, please forgive them for their iniquities, misdeeds, and sins, that Your nation the House of Israel committed before you. As it is written in the Torah of Moshe Your servant “on this very day He will forgive them to purify them from all of their sin. Before God they will be purified” (Vayikra 16:30).

The two goats must be similar, as if they are one being, despite their disparate paths. They parallel Aharon, his two roles as being burdened with sin while also being the vehicle for repentance. The two are meant to be inexorably intertwined, sinning and repenting. Only he that knows the meaning of iniquity, misdeed, and sin can confess and pray on behalf of Israel to be able, even if momentarily, to attain purity.

Betsy Morgan (SBM ‘13, ‘14) is currently a pre-junior at Drexel University studying Materials Science and Engineering and wishes a happy birthday to her sister Adena Morgan (SBM ‘11, ‘13)


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