Monthly Archives: October 2016

Are Adam and Eve Modern Orthodox Role Models?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

A healthy religious culture teaches its foundational stories to its children with confidence and without embarrassment.  This is a problem for Modern Orthodoxy, which has discomfort teaching the story of Creation.  The most immediate and important reason for this is gender.  We do not have a shared communal interpretation of the story that squares with how we want our boys and girls to think of themselves, to relate to each other, and to grow up as men and women.  

To put this in perspective, think for a moment about the first Rashi on Chumash.  He explains that the Torah tells us that G-d created the world in order to secure our right to Eretz Yisroel.  For all the moral challenges of Israeli-Palestinian relationships, this remains a powerful and important touchstone for Religious Zionism – G-d gave us this land, and He had a right to do so, because He created it.  I myself am very fond of Ramban’s caveat that He gave it to us on condition that we deserve it, but the point stands.

Can we find a reading of human creation that plays the same role for our community?

An enormous contribution to that end was made by Rabbi Yehuda Herzl Henkin in the title essay of his book Equality Lost.   

Rabbi Henkin begins from my favorite example of bitingly humble Chazalic wit.  Mishnah Avot 1:1 reports that

The Men of the Great Assembly said three things: One should be patient in judgment, stand many students up (as independent thinkers), and build a hedge around the Torah.  

“Building a hedge around the Torah” is the justification for most of Rabbinic law, and lesser men would have felt it necessary to guard the source of their authority against mockery.  Instead, Chazal (Avot of Rabbi Natan 1:1) engage in preemptive self-deprecation.  Which human being made the first hedge?  Adam.  What was it?  He told Eve that G-d had capitally prohibited not just consumption of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but even contact with it.  What happened as a result?  The Snake proved to Eve that contact did not result in death, and she therefore decided that Adam must have lied about consumption as well.  

In other words:  The first attempt to build a hedge around the Torah led to original sin.  But we rabbis go on building them anyway, hopefully having learned from experience how to build them better.  What should we have learned?

Rav Henkin notes that this story assumes that Eve had no direct access to G-d’s command, which was given to Adam before she came into being.  Adam did not legislate together with Eve.  He did not discuss with her whether it would be better to avoid all contact with the tree, even though G-d had prohibited only eating its fruit.  Instead, he legislated for her.  His lack of trust made her vulnerable to the (male) snake.  This lack of trust was the true original sin.

In other words: The story of Eden teaches us that men must never seek to impose themselves as necessary intermediaries between G-d and women.  The Torah is not in Heaven, nor over the sea, such that women must ask men to go fetch it for them.

The original temptation was that Adam saw knowledge, and especially knowledge of Torah, as a source of power rather than as a gift to be shared.  This is a yetzer hora that remains profoundly human, and rabbinic.

Yet in this version of the story, why did Adam eat the fruit?  He knew that G-d had not forbidden contact, and should have corrected Eve – perhaps with a supercilious smile – when she came to him with her story.  

A romantic answer is that Adam had no interest in immortality without Eve.  

A tragic answer is that Adam took responsibility for his error by deliberately sharing her fate.

But neither of these answers fits well with another element of the text.  When G-d confronts Adam, he does not express love or atonement.  Instead, he blames Eve.  

וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הָֽאָדָ֑ם

– הָֽאִשָּׁה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נָתַ֣תָּה עִמָּדִ֔י

:הִ֛וא נָֽתְנָה־לִּ֥י מִן־הָעֵ֖ץ וָאֹכֵֽל

The man said:

The woman whom You gave to be with me –

she gave me from the tree, and I ate.

How can this reaction fit with Rav Henkin’s reading?

Or HaChayyim provides what I think is a very productive approach.  

ונראה שכוונת האדם היא שלא ידע דבר

כי אם האשה הביאה לפניו המזומן ואכל

?ואינו חייב לשאול על המוגש לפניו – דבר זה מנין

!’כי הלא כל הארץ לפניו היא מלאה מעדנים אשר נטע ה

– “ודקדק לומר “אשר נתת עמדי

שלא לחייבו לחפש ולדקדק אחריה לדעת המובא לפניו

כיון שהאשה הלז נתנה ה’ עמו לעזר ולהועיל

ואין רע יורד מהשמים

.ואין לו לבדוק אחריה, כי מן הסתם מעשיה נאים

It seems correct that the intent of the man is that he knew nothing of the matter

other than that the woman brought before him something ready to eat, and he ate.

He was not obligated to ask about what was set before him – where did this come from?  

All the land is before him filled with the delights which Hashem had planted!

He was precise in saying “whom You gave to be with me” –

not to obligate him to search and be precise after her to know what was brought before him.

Since this woman was given by Hashem to be with him to help and be effective,

and no evil descends from Heaven,

and he should not have investigated her deeds, since the default was that her deeds were fitting.

The fruit, Or HaChayyim suggests, was not visually distinguishable.  Adam had no idea what he was eating!  When G-d confronts him, he responds that Eve was vouched for by G-d, and thus surely there was no reason to mistrust her testimony.

So what should Adam have done?  One witness is sufficient with regard to prohibitions, such as kashrut.  This is true regardless of gender.  Indeed, many rishonim say that the basis for the principle that one witness is believed in such matters is that people should be able to trust the kashrut of their spouses and hosts without resorting to halakhic detective agencies.

I suggest that the proper frame for this story is poetic justice.  Adam was correct to trust Eve’s kashrut; he was wrong to mistrust her maturity and judgment.  By refusing to treat her as an equal when conveying the law, he taught her to mistrust him.  Once she no longer trusted him, she saw no reason to live up to his trust in her.  He was punished not because he trusted her, but because he had mistrusted her.

We should think long and hard about whether that narrative is playing out again today in communal conversations about women and halakhah.

I submit that young men and women who internalize this reading of human creation will seek to build a society in which Torah is always a shared resource, and in which Torah decisions are made collaboratively and transparently to the extent possible.  If you agree, and think that this describes the Torah society that you want your children to live in, please share, print, and otherwise disseminate this essay as widely as you can.    

Shabbat shalom!

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Asking Good Questions

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Levi Mastrangelo

Rashi begins his commentary on the Torah by making famous a question asked by R. Yitzchak:

,”לֹֹֹֹֹא הָיָה צָרִיךְ לְהַתְחִיל אֶת הַתּוֹרָה אֶלָּא מֵ”הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם”

,שֶׁהִיא מִצְוָה רִאשׁוֹנָה שֶׁנִּצְטַוּוּ בָּהּ יִשׂרָאֵל

?”וּמַה טַּעַם פָּתַח בִּ”בְרֵאשִׁית”

The Torah should have commenced with the verse (Exodus 12:1) “This month shall be unto you the first of the months”

which is the first commandment given to Israel.

What is the reason, then, that it commences with the account of the Creation?

R. Yitzchak answers by quoting a pasuk from tehillim:

כֹּחַ מַעֲשָׂיו הִגִּיד לְעַמּוֹ

לָתֵת לָהֶם נַחֲלַת גּוֹיִם

He hath declared to His people the power of His works,

in giving them the heritage of the nations

R. Yitzchak goes on to explain that, should the other nations accuse us of being land-stealers (in Israel), we will be able to point to Bereishit as evidence of God’s ultimate ownership of the land.

We should answer, “It was God’s will to give the land to [the Seven Nations] and it was God’s will to take it from them and give it to us.”

On the surface, R. Yitzchak’s answer isn’t particularly compelling. As anyone who has engaged in Israel advocacy–formal or informal–can tell you, it’s not an argument that people tend to find convincing, particularly those who criticize us as “land-stealers.”

There are ways of dismissing this concern: we could say that R. Yitchak’s argument would have been convincing to his interlocutors even though it isn’t convincing to ours. Alternatively, we could answer that the argument serves the purpose of reinforcing a truth for ourselves, despite the fact that it won’t be accepted by others.

Still, we’re left with a problem: R. Yitzchak’s answer is only partial. While his question applies to everything that precedes “hachodesh hazeh lachem”- all of sefer Bereishit plus the first two and a half parshiot of Shemot, and perhaps applies even to subsequent narrative sections of the Chumash – his answer applies maximally to the first perek of Bereishit. Why, even according to R. Yitzchak’s answer, should the Torah not have skipped from the end of maasei bereishit (the Creation narrative) to “hachodesh hazeh lachem?”

The solution is to amend our understanding of the intent behind R. Yitzchak’s question and answer. The issues raised above stem from our understanding of R. Yitzchak as bringing a genuine question that was bothering him in the abstract, and then answering that question comprehensively. Instead, we should see R’ Yitzchak as introducing his question for the purpose of stimulating intellectual engagement in Torah and then modeling a rigorous answer.

R. Yitzchak wants us to ask at every turn, “Why not just skip to the laws? For what purpose were God’s rest on the seventh day and the events of the flood and the chronology of the patriarchs’ lives included in the Torah?” And he wants us to engage in the exercise of finding the answers, of scouring Tanach for the right pasuk to contextualize these events and tease out theological truths.

As we embark once again on our year-long journey through the Chumash, may we be zocheh to engage in the kind of rigorous, meaningful talmud Torah that R. Yitzchak meant to stimulate.

 

Levi Mastrangelo (SBM 2016) is a second-year student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

The Second Party

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Yehuda Gale

Why do we bring many fewer sacrifices on Shemini Atzeret than on Sukkot? Midrash Tanchuma offers this explanation:

.(והקרבתם עולה [אשה ריח ניחוח לה’] פר אחד איל אחד (במדבר כט לו

,משל למלך שעשה סעודה שבעה ימים

,וזימן כל בני המדינה בשבעת ימי המשתה

,כיון שעברו שבעת ימי המשתה

:אמר לאוהבו

,כבר יצאנו ידי בני המדינה

:נגלגל אני ואתה במה שתמצא

,ליטרא בישרא או דג או ירק

:כך אמר הקב”ה לישראל

,כל קרבנות שהקרבתם בשבעת ימי החג – על אומות העולם הייתם מקריבים

,”אבל “ביום השמיני – עצרת תהיה לכם

.גלגלו במה שאתם מוצאים, בפר אחד ואיל אחד

but ye shall present a burnt-offering, an offering made by fire, of a sweet savour unto the LORD: one bullock, one ram

This is like a King who makes his feast for 7 days

And he invites all the people of the district for the seven days of the feast

Once the seven days of the feast were over,

He said to his beloved friend:

We have already fulfilled our obligation to the people of the district,

You and I will celebrate with what you find:

a litra of meat or fish or greens

So too The Holy One Blessed be He says to Israel:

All the sacrifices that you brought on the seven days of Chag were for the nations of the world,

but “on the eighth day, an extension will be for you”

Celebrate with what you find, one bullock and one ram

When I learned this Midrash with Tzipporah Machlah Klapper, she pointed out that the parable sounds a lot like the Purim story:

.בִּשְׁנַת שָׁלוֹשׁ, לְמָלְכוֹ, עָשָׂה מִשְׁתֶּה, לְכָל-שָׂרָיו וַעֲבָדָיו: חֵיל פָּרַס וּמָדַי, הַפַּרְתְּמִים וְשָׂרֵי הַמְּדִינוֹת–לְפָנָיו

.בְּהַרְאֹתוֹ, אֶת-עֹשֶׁר כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ, וְאֶת-יְקָר, תִּפְאֶרֶת גְּדוּלָּתוֹ; יָמִים רַבִּים, שְׁמוֹנִים וּמְאַת יוֹם

וּבִמְלוֹאת הַיָּמִים הָאֵלֶּה, עָשָׂה הַמֶּלֶךְ לְכָל-הָעָם הַנִּמְצְאִים בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה לְמִגָּדוֹל וְעַד-קָטָן מִשְׁתֶּה–שִׁבְעַת יָמִים: בַּחֲצַר, גִּנַּת בִּיתַן הַמֶּלֶךְ.

In the third year of his reign, he made a feast unto all his princes and his servants; the army of Persia and Media, the nobles and princes of the provinces, being before him;

When he showed the riches of his glorious kingdom and the honour of his excellent majesty, many days, even a hundred and eighty days.

And when these days were fulfilled, the king made a feast unto all the people that were present in Shushan the castle, both great and small, seven days, in the court of the garden of the king’s palace;

Here too the King makes two parties, one for those close to him and one for everyone. Here too the first one is large, lasting a full 180 days, while the second party, while still respectable, is a fraction of the length.

But there is one key difference: Achashverosh throws the larger party for those closer to him, while God throws the smaller party for his friends.

The difference here is the relationship between the King and His different subjects.

Achashverosh is friendly to his princes and servants because he wants them to love and serve him. He therefore tries to endear himself to them with gifts and lavish parties. Achashverosh’s two feasts have the same purpose, to engender loyalty from different groups of people to a greater or lesser degree.

God’s two “feasts” have two different purposes. One is to bring the nations closer to God; that is why we bring sacrifices to God on their behalf. The other is to celebrate the existing love between God and His people. As God tells Yirmiyahu: “I remember for thee the affection of thy youth, the love of thine espousals; how thou wentest after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.”

Yehuda Gale (SBM 2011-2014, 2016) is a junior at Yeshiva College.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

A Second Opinion on Second Opinions

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi Klapper,

I am an American student spending a second consecutive “gap year” in Israel.  At the beginning of my shana aleph I called my shul rabbi about observing yom tov sheini.  He told me that his stance is to keep two days. I felt it was anti-halakhic for me to ask a rabbi in Israel who I knew would tell me one day, so I followed the opinion of my shul rabbi for all of the chagim.

This year I am increasingly resentful about keeping two days. The second day does not feel like yom tov, and because I have to find places where I can observe both days, the options for where I can go are limited. The limited options thereby impact the first day of chag as well, which means that both days suffer.

I am contemplating asking a different rabbi (whose position I don’t know) for a second opinion.  Can I?

Thank you!
G’mar chasimah tovah,
Yana Tzviyah

Dear Yana,

It sounds to me like your shul rabbi was properly careful not to pasken for you – he told you his stance, not what you must do.  Perhaps (to his great credit) he realizes that a serious gap year in Israel is an enormously maturing experience, in which young people find new mentors and role models, and that it would be appropriate for him to disclaim any ongoing authority over your religious life, even if you were willing to grant it to him.

In any case, it doesn’t sound like you asked him for a life-psak, but rather for term-limited guidance.  I don’t believe that a psak could be binding on you for a shanah bet you had not yet committed to.  Finally, as he and you are both aware, many of those who hold “two days” in principle would not apply that psak to a student spending a second consecutive year in Israel, especially if she had stayed in Israel for all the regalim.

So yes, I believe you can ask for a second opinion.

That’s the easy part.

The harder part is:  What should you do next?

You mention that you “felt it was anti-halakhic for me to ask a rabbi in Israel who I knew would tell me ‘one day’”.  The colloquial term for this is “shitah-shopping”, and I validate your sense that it lacks integrity.

On the other hand, what are your other choices?

You say that you’re considering asking a second rabbi, whose opinion you don’t yet know, for an opinion. I think you mean that you’re looking for a rabbi to ask whose opinion you don’t know, even if he wouldn’t otherwise be your first choice.  

That does seem better at first glance, but I’m not convinced that it is pointful.  If you ask for advice rather than a psak, you’re really just playing a game, as you’ll keep asking until someone gives you the “one day” answer.  And if you ask for psak, why is it religiously edifying to play halakhic roulette? Why should the answer of this particular rabbi be binding on you, if you have no particular reason to live within his subjective vision of Halakhah generally, or of yom tov or Israel/galut issues particularly? [1]

Here it may be useful for me to share an element of my halakhic autobiography.

Some years ago, an engaged SBM alum called me with “the birth control” sheilah; could he and his fiancée plan to use contraception for the opening year of marriage, so that she could finish her degree before dealing with childcare?  He reminded me that in SBM I had argued that requiring couples to ask for a heter (formal halakhic permission) made them understand the seriousness of the question better, even when they knew that a heter would be forthcoming if they asked.  But he said that it wasn’t working for him that way – it felt like he was manipulating the system by calling me, especially as he did not call me often for psak.  

His self-description still reverberates for me.  It changed my approach to the birth-control issue specifically, and made me rethink the whole question of how to deal with sheilot when both I and the shoeil are aware of a variety of contradictory answers, each held by numerous reputable poskim.  Certainly that is the case with regard to your issue – both you and I know that very great halakhists hold “two days”, “one day”, and even the misleadingly named “one and a half days” position (which seeks to avoid yom tov prohibitions while davening chol prayers etc.).    

Here a second element of halakhic autobiography is relevant.  I spent a year of YU Semikhah at the Gruss Center in Yerushalayim, when I was 22 and had just about no experience of halakhic decision-making.   I faced the same issue as you, and ended up following the “1.5 day” position out of kavod for Rav Lichtenstein zt”l’s well-known position. [2]  I was aware that Rav Amital zt”l held “1 day”, but in my family circles everyone held two days.  There was a certain transgressive thrill in visiting with my charedi American relatives at their hotel on Yom Tov Sheni in weekday clothes; I’m not sure I could have dealt with doing melakhah in front of them.

7 years later, I came back to Israel for Pesach as a newlywed.  My wife’s family was in Israel for the year, keeping one day. [3]  Deborah, my wife, very much wanted to do the same, which was also the position she had followed during her gap year.  

I was very uncomfortable changing from Rav Lichtenstein’s view, even though I had never found it intellectually convincing – indeed, Rav Lichtenstein did not present it as intellectually coherent, but rather as a gesture of respect to the great poskim who held 2 days.  But my in-laws bought me my first Bar Ilan Responsa Project CD on erev Pesach, and I very much wanted to play with my new toy.  So I had my sister-in-law (who was keeping one day) type the queries in for me on the second day.  In the end I became convinced that the one-day position was absolutely correct (see http://torahleadership.org/categories/yom_tov_sheni.pdf), and I paskened accordingly the week after we returned home, for someone else.  (My wife is still upset about this. [4])

This was perhaps the first time that I had paskened for someone else on the basis of my own interpretation of primary sources.  I think I was willing to do it because there was a clear safety net.  Even if my readings were completely mistaken, there was no doubt that the outcome was respectable.  

The price of that safety net was the risk of arrogance – wasn’t it chutzpah to believe that I had compelling evidence on an issue on which far greater minds than mine had been debating for hundreds of years?  But I thought (perhaps mistakenly) that I had genuinely new arguments, and also evidence that had been overlooked by or unavailable to many poskim.  Moreover, this evidence supported the intuition that Rav Lichtenstein had expressed, as a tradition from his rebbe the Rav, as a tradition from his grandfather Rav Chaim Brisker, that the one-day position was correct. [5]

I therefore encourage you to read and understand an article (or as many articles as you can) that lay out the technical halakhic issues well, and that enable(s) you to understand what fundamentally drives each position, or to at least understand one of the key drivers for each position.  I suggest also that you talk through the non-halakhic issues with someone (or many people) whose religious insight you trust.  If you do both of these, I think that this can be an opportunity for you, as it was for me, to dip a toe in the sea of serious psak.

I want to make clear, though, that yom tov sheni in Israel belongs to a limited class of cases, in which (at least within the Religious Zionist community) multiple great poskim legitimate each of a set of contradictory positions, and maintain their positions in full awareness of each other’s critiques.  Not every intellectually plausible halakhic argument can be used as the basis for action; in order to justify action, it also needs to be acknowledged as a basis for action by people with halakhic authority, aka poskim. [6]  Nothing I say here contradicts or is even in tension with that.  

At the same time, I am not a fan of the pure “aseh lekha rav” model, which requires everyone to pick a single halakhic authority and following them consistently.  

First, having a rav does not remove anyone’s moral and spiritual responsibility for their own decisions.  If the posek you first pick turns out to be a “bad shiddukh”, whether for subjective or objective reasons, you must find someone better for you.  (And I believe that your first posek’s decisions will not bind you, especially if you ask for hatarat nedarim.)

Second, it makes no sense to ask somebody for a binding psak unless you have a reason to prefer their judgment to yours, and to the judgment of others whom you could ask and whom you know would give a different answer.  So don’t pick a rav just because you think you have to.  That’s a bad idea with all sorts of shiddukhim.  

But in the absence of a designated rav muvhak, how can non-poskim make halakhic decisions?  I hope we’ll have occasion to discuss that soon.

Bivrakhah,

Aryeh Klapper  

Notes:

  1. Here I am leaving open two other possibilities, namely that you are choosing this posek because there is a specific reason to be bound by his or her opinion on this specific issue, or that you are more broadly shifting from your shul rabbi to this posek (or poseket) as your primary halakhic mentor/consultant.  Each of these possibilities deserves separate extended treatment.
  2. whom I saw myself as “in the presence of”, and therefore felt unable to decide for myself on (informal) moreh halakhah bifnei rabo (issuing a halakhic ruling in the presence of one’s primary teacher) grounds.
  3. I believe this was the pesak they had received from Rav Simchah Kuk,
  4. I’m leaving aside the question of why she felt bound to follow whatever psak I followed on this issue.
  5. As I understand it, the Soloveitchiks and Rav Lichtenstein followed the 1.5 day position because they thought it would be arrogance to decide for the one day position on the basis of intuition alone.
  6. Obviously this begs the question of how such authority is achieved, maintained, and recognized.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Shirat Ha’azinu and Moshe’s Final Message

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yakov Ellenbogen

There is a somewhat classic disagreement regarding Devarim 31:19. The verse reads

וְעַתָּה, כִּתְבוּ לָכֶם אֶת-הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, וְלַמְּדָהּ אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, שִׂימָהּ בְּפִיהֶם:  לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה-לִּי הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת, לְעֵד–בִּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Now therefore write this song for you, and teach it the children of Israel; put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for Me against the children of Israel.

Moshe was commanded to write a shira whose purpose is to constantly serve as a testimony for Bnei Yisrael. The identity of this shira, however is unclear. Some classical commentaries, such as Ralbag, figure that it refers to the Torah as a whole. However, Rashi on that pasuk comments that:

את השירה הזאת: האזינו השמים עד (לב, מג) וכפר אדמתו עמו

This shira: [From] Ha’azinu HaShamayim until V’Kiper Admato Amo (Devarim 32:1- 43)

For Rashi then, it is Parshat Ha’azinu (or more properly, Shirat Ha’azinu) which is meant to serve as an enduring testimony for Bnei Yisrael for all time. Given this, then, Rashi’s first comment in Parshat Ha’azinu, which frames the chapter, is slightly confusing.

האזינו השמים: …ולמה העיד בהם שמים וארץ, אמר משה אני בשר ודם למחר אני מת, אם יאמרו ישראל לא קבלנו עלינו הברית מי בא ומכחישם, לפיכך העיד בהם שמים וארץ, עדים שהן קיימים לעולם

Listen, O heavens:… Now why did [Moshe] call upon heaven and earth to be witnesses for Bnei Yisrael? Moses said: “I am flesh and blood. Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, ‘We never accepted the covenant,’ who will come and refute them?” Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Bnei Yisrael- witnesses that endure forever.

The exact wording, and in effect the undertone of Shirat Ha’azinu in Rashi’s eyes, is extremely personal. Instead of the universalism we may expect, due to its purpose as a lasting testimony which all generations of Jews are meant to connect with, the shira is Moshe’s swan song. Before his preordained death (which we are told about in Devarim 31:14), he has one more lesson for Bnei Yisrael. The “I” in the phrase “And I will speak” (ואדברה), is not transitive to all Jews. First and foremost, it refers to Moshe. In future recitations of Shirat Ha’azinu, Jews will not just be praying, but will be filling the shoes of Moshe, their leader on the edge of death before entering Israel, a perspective which seems difficult for each person to identify with, to say the least.

Perhaps this somewhat fatalistic undertone fits the general themes of Shirat Ha’azinu. After all, the Parsha presents a deterministic look forward, where Bnei Yisrael is fated to fail in their observance of God’s Law, and will be punished because of it. The fact that Rashi recalls Moshe’s inevitable demise just sets the stage for this deterministic outlook. By beginning with Moshe’s death, a paradigm of preordained punishment, we already sense this theme.

However, this is not Moshe’s last word on the matter. Despite the overall thrust of Ha’azinu, after his recitation of the shira, Moshe tells Bnei Yisrael

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, שִׂימוּ לְבַבְכֶם, לְכָל-הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מֵעִיד בָּכֶם הַיּוֹם:  אֲשֶׁר תְּצַוֻּם, אֶת-בְּנֵיכֶם, לִשְׁמֹר לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת

כִּי לֹא-דָבָר רֵק הוּא, מִכֶּם–כִּי-הוּא, חַיֵּיכֶם; וּבַדָּבָר הַזֶּה, תַּאֲרִיכוּ יָמִים עַל-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת-הַיַּרְדֵּן שָׁמָּה, לְרִשְׁתָּהּ

He said to them: ‘Set your heart to all the words that I testify against you this day; that you may charge your children to observe to do all the words of this law.

For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land, which you go over the Jordan to possess it.’

Moshe’s last word, then, is in tension to the determinism which was presented earlier. Instead of Bnei Yisrael being at the mercy of history, Moshe assures them that human action in the form of following the Law has an effect on history. The placement of this Parsha after Yom Kippur seems especially relevant. Many of the tefilot we say over Yom Kippur emphasize God’s control over our lives. However, at the same time, we encourage ourselves to change in the upcoming year for our own benefit. The dual philosophy of Ha’azinu appears, then, even when not reciting Shirat Ha’azinu.

Shabbat Shalom

Yakov Ellenbogen (SBM 2013, 2014, 2015), a native of Sharon, MA, is a Junior at Yeshiva University. He previously attended Yeshivat Petach Tikvah, Yeshivat Sha’alavim and Yeshivat Har Etzion.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah

Leadership in a Time of Possibly Radical Change

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Endings are hard, and I don’t believe that the collective wisdom of humanity will ever determine whether gradual or abrupt endings are easier to bear.  Jewish tradition will not help either.  The Rabbis tell us that illness entered the world when Yaakov prayed for a transition toward death.  But Mosheh Rabbeinu dies in defiant full possession of his faculties, “his eye undimmed and his moisture not fled”.  

Transitions are also hard.  Mosheh Rabbeinu was a political leader, and he and G-d seem to agree on the need for a political transition.  The Rabbis tell us that Mosheh was the sun and Yehoshua the moon, so Yehoshua needed Mosheh to shine on him.  The problem is that Yehoshua must become visible while Mosheh is still shining, and then remain visible when Mosheh’s radiance has ceased.  One can play with the metaphor and suggest that for Mosheh, death means only sinking behind the horizon, but this solution seems cute rather than compelling.

Mosheh himself seems to tell the Jews – against the narrator’s later assertion – that he has become aged.  “I am aged 120 years as of today; I will no longer be able to go out and in”, apparently meaning that he can no longer lead the Jews in battle, and thus must be replaced.  But this is an unconvincing argument, for two reasons:

First, Yehoshua led the Jews in their very first battle, with Amalek, while Mosheh prayed behind the scene, so why can’t that be the ongoing practice?  

Second, it seems likely that Mosheh’s vigorous delivery of this speech would put the lie to his claim (just as no one reading his eloquent initial attempt to refuse G-d’s initial mission could believe that he was genuinely כבד לשון= heavy-tongued.)

On Sotah 13b, Rav Shmuel bar Nachmeni in the name of Rabbi Yonatan suggests that Mosheh here is referring to מלחמתה של תורה, the battles of the Beit Midrash.  “to go out and come in – regarding Torah matters”.  Why could he no longer lead these battles?  נסתתמו ממנו שערי חכמה”  – the gates of wisdom were closed off from him”.

Rabbi Yonatan did not mean to suggest that Mosheh lost his overall intellectual acuity, or that he forgot his Torah knowledge.  Rather, as the late Lubavitcher Rebbe noted, Rabbi Yonatan is walking a delicate line.  He needs Mosheh to remain the sun, and yet must also make clear that the sun is setting.  So “gates of wisdom” must refer to a specific and bounded disability.

The problem (also noted by the late Rebbe) is that the text of Rabbi Yonatan’s statement is itself unstable.  Shitah Mekubetzet reports that other manuscripts had מסורת חכמה = the tradition of wisdom.  Manuscripts of the Ein Yaakov had מעינות החכמה = the springs of Wisdom.  Rashi to our verse has מסורות ומעינות החכמה = the traditions and springs of Wisdom.  

It seems plausible that each of these different versions reflects a different approach to the delicate line Rabbi Yonatan seeks to walk.  What capacities can a Torah leader lose that will leave them radiant, and yet point to the need for replacement, and allow for successors to become visible?

The text as we have it – שערי חכמה – suggests that a leader can lose their flexibility, their capacity to learn new things.  Having myself sat willingly in the shiurim of at least two great scholars at that point in their careers, I find this an eminently reasonable suggestion.  There was no question that they were the sun, and we students at best aspiring moons, and yet it was also clear that they could no longer make vital practical decisions for a community.  Flexibility is a necessity.  Effective generals do not always fight the last war, and effective poskim (halakhic decisors) do not always pasken the last sheilah.

The version reading “springs” makes a somewhat stronger claim.  It is not enough to be able to learn new things – you have to be able to adjust previous conclusions in light of new evidence.  A leader who learns, but can no longer be creative, will just end up fighting one of several previous wars.  Perhaps there is nothing objectively new under the sun, but no individual life is ever broad enough to preclude subjectively new experiences.

But it is very challenging to imagine Mosheh Rabbeinu, or lehavdil any great scholar, maintaining their identity when they have lost access to their traditions of wisdom.  For this reason among others the Rebbe zt”l suggested narrowing this term to traditions that have no point of origin in the text of chumash, the halakhot leMosheh miSinai that G-d for His own inscrutable reasons whispered to Mosheh at Sinai.  Without access to those traditions, Moshehh remained great but was no longer irreplaceable.  

Rashi, however, was satisfied with none of these.  He believes that Mosheh had to lose both the traditions and the spring – both the past and the future – if Yehoshua were to succeed and thrive.

Why?  Perhaps Rashi, better than any other version, truly does justice to Rabbi Yonatan’s task.  Mosheh had to lose access to the past, or else Yehoshua could not become visible.  But he also had to lose access to the future, so that Yehoshua could become a sun in his own right.  There had to be a recognizable limit to the questions Mosheh could answer, so that Yehoshua could be recognized as a contributor and not merely as a sustainer.

The truth is that just about every halakhic decisor over time ossifies in both these ways.  Initial intuitions become hardened into formal concepts and rulings, and new cases are more and more easily categorized as minor variants on established precedents.  All this has salutary impact with regard to predictability and accuracy, which are virtues of great significance, especially in stable communities and environments.  But Bnei Yisroel were about to experience an enormous discontinuity as they crossed into Israel.

The problem is that in just about every generation there are those who see radical discontinuities, and those who see fundamental stability.  To take examples from our own day: Is postmodernism a dead-end fad or a seismic philosophic shift?  Does/will the routine participation of women fundamentally change the nature of halakhic discourse?  Do contemporary roshei yeshiva (be they from RIETS, YCT, or Bnei Brak) consistently relate to their lay communities differently than did the leading halakhic decisors of past decades and centuries?

I hope it is clear that the question of whether these changes are radical, or not, does not settle the question of whether they are positive or negative.  But it nonetheless matters a great deal how we answer that question.  As a simple example:  If postmodernism is a noxious but passing cloud, we should not make painful sacrifices to combat it.  If it is a healthy but passing cloud, we should not build our theologies on it.  But if it is healthy and enduring, or noxious and enduring, then such sacrifices and constructions can be justified.  

Perhaps we can argue further that in every generation there are radical discontinuities, but there are also exaggerated claims of discontinuity.  

I am tempted to assimilate this suggestion to the classic rabbinic categories of repentance.  Radical discontinuities, like repentance out of love, turn past vices into virtues, while minor discontinuities, like repentance out of fear, at most allow us to correct and overcome those vices.  

But few things are more dangerous than a mistaken claim that a past vice is newly virtuous.

This Dvar Torah is a version of a Dvar Torah published in 2015.

Leave a comment

Filed under Weekly Devar Torah