Monthly Archives: January 2018

Who Gets a Vote in Orthodoxy?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Once upon a time the financial and religious elites discovered that they had shared interests.  Each of them also felt unjustly tied down by a democracy with broad suffrage, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians. So they made a deal to support a constitutional amendment that would make eligibility to vote depend on having adequate property and education.

This is not a Marxist fable, but rather a sh’eilah asked to Rabbi Menachem Mendl Krochmal in the seventeenth century.  Here is the complete text of the question (Shut Tzemach Tzekek (hakadmon) #2):

I was asked

by a community whose practice forever has been to reach all communal decisions regarding the hiring/accepting of a rabbi, chazan or shamash 

on the basis of agreement of all taxpayers. 

Similarly, they chose heads and representatives of the community, and the gabbaim, and the beadles, on the basis of a lottery among all taxpayers.

Now some of the dignitaries of the city wish to establish a new practice,

that all communal matters will no longer be directed by all taxpayers great and small, as has been the case up until now,

but rather at the direction of those who are distinguished because they pay a great deal in taxes, or else that they are distinguished in Torah.

They wish to decide how much one must pay in taxes in order to be among those who count when determining whether the community has accepted a representative, or to stand as a candidate for the positions chosen by lot,

or at the least to require that a person be ordained as a chaver even if he is among those who pay the least in taxes,

so that people who are not bnei Torah and also pay little in taxes will be excluded from the lottery.

They offer this rationale for their words:

Since most communal needs involve decisions about spending money,

how can it be proper that the opinion of the poor should be equal to that of the rich?!  Also, how can it be proper that the opinion of an am haaretz should be equal to that of a chaver, if he has no advantage in wealth?!

They add a further peg for their words,

that all the great and important communities practice thus, and why should they be less than them?!

But the poor, the masses of the people, cry out

asking why their rights should be diminished when they pay their taxes and give their fair share,

and even though the rich give more,

still the little the poor give causes them more hardship than what the rich suffer by giving more.

The poor add

that the current practice is a continuous ancestral custom from days of yore,

and since custom can even uproot law, how can it be permitted to alter custom?!

Let our teacher instruct us as to whose position is legally correct.


מקהל שמנהגם מעול’ לעשות כל הסכמת הקהל

בקבלות הרב והחזן והשמש

על פי הסכמת כל פורעי המס

וכן ברירת ראשי וטובי הקהל וגבאים ודיינים ושמשים על פי האנשים בוררים העולים מתוך הגורל מכל פורעי המס

ועתה רוצים מקצת נכבדי העיר לעשות מנהג חדש

שכל עניני צרכי צבור לא יהיה מהיום והלאה על ידי כל פורעי המס קטן וגדול שם הוא כאשר היה עד עתה

אלא על ידי אותן שיש להן מעלה שנותנים מס הרבה או שיש להם מעלה בתורה

ורוצים לקבוע שיעור כמה יהא ערכו בנתינות מס עד שיהא אחד מן המנוים אל הסכמת הקהל ולבא אל הגורל לברירת ההתמניות

או שיהא לכל הפחות מוסמך לחבר אף שיהיה מן הפחות שבמס

ולאפוקי אותן שאינן בני תורה וגם נותנים מס מעט לא יהיו מן המנויים

ונותנים טעם לדבריהם

מחמת שרוב צרכי הקהל הם עסקי הוצאות ממון ואיך יתכן שדעת העני תהא שקולה כדעת העשיר

גם איך יתכן שדעת של ע”ה תהא שקולה כדעת החבר אם אין לו מעלה בעושר

ועוד נותנים אמתלא לדבריהם

מחמת שכל קהלות הגדולות והחשובים נוהגים כן ולמה יהיו המה פחותים מהם.

והעניים המון עם צועקים

למה יהא נגרע זכותם אחרי שהם מפורעי המס ונותנים חלקם

אף על פי שהעשירים נותנים יותר

מכל מקום קשה עליהם המעט שנותנים יותר מן הרב שנותנים העשירים


שמנהג אבותיהם בידיהם מימי עולם ושנים קדמוניות

ומנהג עוקר אפילו הלכה והיאך יהיו רשאים לשנות המנהג?

יורנו מורנו הדין עם מי:

Rabbi Krochmal’s answer begins with an idealistic defense of the poor’s equality.  His tag line is the concluding Mishnah of Masekhet Menachot:

Scripture writes regarding the olah animal offering “a burnt sweet savor”;

and regarding the olah bird offering “a burnt sweet savor”

and regarding the flour offering “a burnt sweet savor” –

to teach you that the one who brings more and the one who brings less are equal

so long as the person directs his intent toward Heaven.

נאמר בעולת הבהמה “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובעולת העוף “אשה ריח ניחוח”,

ובמנחה “אשה ריח ניחוח” –

ללמד שאחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט,

ובלבד שיכוין אדם את דעתו לשמים:

Rabbi Krochmal’s argument lays bare the awkwardness – really the indefensibility – of the anti-democratic coalition.  What sense does it make to equate financial and religious superiority?  This is obviously a power play with no underlying moral consistency!  Political voice should be proportional to religious sincerity, and since the relative size of one’s tax bill is no measure of sincerity, there is no basis for giving the rich more political voice than the poor.

But Rabbi Krochmal is not just an idealist – he is also an honest halakhist, and a realist.  As an honest halakhist, he acknowledges that there is halakhic precedent for giving those who pay more a larger voice in how the money is spent.  As a realist, he acknowledges that the rich must be given some advantage in a democratic system, or else they will overturn it completely. So he devises a compromise that should be very familiar to Americans – a bicameral popular assembly, in which no legislation or appointments pass unless they command majority support among both the rich and the poor.

So much for the economic elites.  But Rabbi Krochmal’s rejection of their argument seems to strengthen the hands of their strange religious bedfellows – if political power should be proportional to religious sincerity, shouldn’t chaverim gave more say than amei haaretz?

Here is Rabbi Krochmal’s response:

As for their desire to push aside those who are not bnei Torah – this is also not proper

The proof of this is from Chagigah 24a:

“Which tanna takes the risk of animosity into account? Rabbi Yose, found in the following beraita …

Said Rav Pappa:  

Which tanna justifies our practice today of accepting testimony from amei haaretz? Rabbi Yose”

and Rabbi Yose’s rationale (in that beraita) is “so that people don’t each go build private altars”.

So it is clear that we even accept testimony from amei haaretz out of fear of animosity

lest when they see that we are distancing them, they build altars for themselves

All the more so in our case,

if we go so far in distancing the amei haaretz as to not include them in communal deliberations

certainly they will feel antagonistic toward us, and they will build altars for themselves

and they will separate from the community,

and as a result divisions will multiply among the Jews, G-d forbid.

Therefore it is not proper to do this.

ומה שרוצים לדחות אותם מפני שהם אינן בני תורה – הא נמי לאו שפיר דמי,

וראיה מהא דאיתא בחגיגה פרק ג’ דף כ”ב

מאן תנא דחייש לאיבה? ר’ יוסי הוא, דתניא וכו’.

אמר רב פפא: כמאן מקבלינן האידנא סהדותא מעם הארץ? כמאן? כר’ יוסי

וטעמא דרבי יוסי כדי שלא יהא כל אחד ואחד הולך ובונה במה לעצמו.

הרי מבואר שאפילו עדות מקבלין מעם הארץ מפני חשש איבה כשיראו שמרחיקין אותם יבנו במה לעצמם

ומכל שכן בנ”ד, אם ירחיקו את עם הארץ כל כך שלא לצרף אותם כלל אל הסכמת הקהל –

ודאי שיהיה להם איבה ויבנו במה לעצמם ויהיו פורשים מן הצבור, ומתוך כך ירבו מחלוקות בישראל ח”ו.

לכן ודאי לאו שפיר דמי למיעבד כך.

One can distinguish between Rabbi Krochmal’s case and the situation of American Orthodoxy today.  One can outright reject his ruling.  But there is a strong case that he is halakhically correct, and that his law applies directly to our facts.  So the burden of proof rests on those who disregard him.

I suggest that Orthodox discourse – within our denominational community, on its margins, and with the Jewish community as a whole – would be dramatically improved if it started from two core principles of his responsum.

The first principle is that people react to being excluded by leaving and “building altars for themselves”, and that halakhic authorities have a responsibility to prevent this.  A corollary is that when people are building altars for themselves all around us, we need to figure out what we’re doing wrong, and change it, rather than blaming them.

The second principle is that it is legitimate and proper to bend halakhah in order to keep marginally observant people from leaving – not by justifying their nonhalakhic practices, but by treating them as full community members for other purposes, perhaps especially with regard to credibility.

I invite comments and discussions that test whether and how accepting these principles can generate positive change in our rhetoric and policies.

Shabbat Shalom

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How Did the Midrash Know that Nachshon Jumped into the Sea First?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi David Fried

The splitting of the Red Sea is a classic story we have learned since childhood.  The Jewish people are trapped, the sea on one side of them, and the Egyptian army on the other.  They begin to cry out to God and to Moshe.  Moshe assures them that they have nothing to worry about.  They should just wait calmly and God will save them (Shmot 14:10-14).  God, on the other hand, is not so sure of this.  Yes, God will split the sea, but first the Jewish people need to take the first step and begin travelling into it (Shmot 14:15-16).  The Jewish people are uncertain and afraid.  Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the nasi of the tribe of Yehudah, has the courage to jump in.  When the water is up to his neck, the sea splits, and the rest of the Jewish people follow in after him.  Of course, that last part does not actually appear in the text.  It is introduced first in the Mekhilta (Beshalach Mesekhta de-Vayehi Parshah 5 s.v. Va-yavo’u benei), and then in the Talmud Bavli (Sota 37a).  One could suggest that they were recording and earlier oral tradition, but the fact that there are other opinions recorded as to the identity of the person who jumped into the sea first strongly militates against this possibility.

Nachshon, at first glance, seems like an extremely minor character.  There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about his character that would set him apart from the other nesi’im.  What could possibly have led the Midrash to identify him as the one jumps into the sea?

The Torah lists the tribes three times within the first two chapters of the book of Numbers.  The first two relate to the taking of the census.  The third is when the tribes are setting up their camp around the Mishkan.  The first two lists are more or less in the order we would expect, roughly in age order with Reuven first.  In the third list, when they are setting up camp and preparing to travel to Canaan, all of a sudden the tribe of Yehudah is in the leadership position.

Then something strange happens.  The next time Nachshon is mentioned is in chapter 7, with the korbanot of the nesi’im on the day the Mishkan was set up.  This story seems out of place, both chronologically and thematically.  Exodus 40:17 states that the Mishkan was set up on the first day of the first month (of the second year in the desert).  It is clear that it is occurring prior to the census from chapter 1 that took place “On the first day of the second month (Bemidbar 1:1).”  Furthermore, the Torah recorded the various sacrifices that were brought at the inauguration of the Mishkan at the end of Shmot and the beginning of Vayikra.  Why is the Torah suddenly returning to that topic here?

Strikingly, the order in which the nesi’im bring their korbanot is identical with the order that tribes were camped around the Mishkan.  There does not seem to be any logical explanation for why the same order would have been in place a month earlier.

Understanding the significance of this requires looking at information we know from elsewhere in the Torah about the day the Mishkan’s setup was completed.  Recall the events of that day from the book of Vayikra.  After Aharon places various sacrifices on the altar, his sons Nadav and Avihu attempt to bring an incense offering.  A fire comes out of the Mishkan and instantaneously consumes them (Vayikra 9:22-10:2).  It was supposed to be a day of happiness and celebration of Divine acceptance.  Instead the day was forever marred by the death of Nadav and Avihu.  They desired to bring an offering in the newly inaugurated Mishkan, made some mistake in the procedure, and were struck down by a miraculous fire in the presence of the entire people.  The memory of that event was no doubt indelibly etched into the collective memory of the Jewish people.

Set in this context, the offerings of the nesi’im take on new meaning.  The last people to bring an offering in the Mishkan do not get it exactly right and are struck down by God.  God instructs Moshe to have one nasi bring their offering each day (Bemidbar 7:11) but does not instruct him in what order they should bring them.  They must have been terrified.  None of them wants to risk making a slight mistake and winding up like Nadav and Avihu.  Finally, Nachshon takes the plunge, so to speak, and volunteers to go first.

This story is virtually identical to the story the Midrash told us about Nachshon’s conduct at the Red Sea.  The Midrash is thus able to identify who would have had the character to be the first one to jump into the sea when everyone else is afraid.  This Midrash answers our exegetical questions about Sefer Bemidbar as well.  As stated above, chapter 7 seems both chronologically and thematically out of place.  Based on this Midrash, we can explain that chapter 7 is a flashback to explain why Yehudah was chosen to lead the people towards Canaan back in chapter 2.  It was because their leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had the courage and trust in God to offer the first sacrifice when everyone else was afraid, which the Midrash highlights by transposing it into the story at the Red Sea.  In typical Midrashic fashion, of course, it tells us a story that depends on the analysis, and leaves it up to the reader to figure out the analytical process on their own.

Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT.

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Commandedness and Obligation: A Philosophic Excursion/Pilpul

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you to the wonderful 2018 MWBM Fellows!  This week’s devar Torah is rooted in our study of the meaning of commandedness.

The Torah’s real beginning is in this week’s parshah.  This is the position Rashi apparently endorses in his opening comment to Torah.  “This month shall be for you the head of months” – Exodus 12:2 contains the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, and that’s where Torah should begin.  All the preceding narratives of genesis and exile are just background.

Rashi’s radical position must be based in a deep commitment to a vision of the Torah’s essential nature and purpose.

One possibility is that he understands Torah as a book of law.  On this understanding, his question really is why there are any narratives in the Torah, whether before or after the first Jewish mitzvah.

A second possibility is that he understands Torah as a book about the Jewish nation, and the Jewish people are constituted as a nation by being given a collective commandment.  Subsequent narratives are thus essential parts of Torah; Rashi only questions why prenational narratives or laws, such as the story of Creation or the obligation to circumcise males, are included.

“The month shall be” is the ideal first mitzvah because it is not given to all individual members of the Jewish people as individuals; rather, it is a mitzvah that is incumbent on the nation as a whole, and according to the Rav, it was implemented by the Sanhedrin in their role as the symbolic representative of the nation.  Moreover, the establishment of a new calendar is historically a common method of declaring cultural independence.

Ramban famously takes with great seriousness a midrashic statement that all mitzvot are essentially applicable only in the Land of Israel; G-d obligates us to keep them while in Exile only so that they will not seem unfamiliar when we are redeemed.  Possibly this means that all mitzvot are at core given to the nation as a whole, rather than to individuals, and therefore have meaning only when and where the Jewish people have full national existence.  Law and nationhood are intertwined; Israel is constituted by the commandments, and the commandments are made possible by the existence of the nation.

However, Ramban also adopts the position that the Avot kept the mitzvot before the Torah was given – but only when they were in the Land of Israel.  This suggests that mitzvot have value independent of nationhood, and also that the significance of the Land of Israel resides in something other than its being our national home.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim Kiddushin 1:71) explains Ramban as follows:

Every mitzvah has two components:

a) the reason for which sake we were commanded to do this.

This reason made it proper to fulfill the mitzvah even before it was commanded, as was done by the Avot

b) once we have been commanded, we must fulfill the command of Hashem.

However, this is true only in the Land, but outside the Land there is merely a command to act in accordance with the personal obligation, because the reasons for mitzvot apply only in the Land, and therefore the Avot did not fulfill the Torah outside the Land.

Rav Wasserman contends that mitzvot have rationales, or intrinsic meaning, for all individuals.  He further contends that these rationales apply only in the Land of Israel, but does not seek to explain why this is so.  Here we must note that for Ramban the Land of Israel is not necessarily a physical location rather than a state of consciousness.  For our purposes, the key outcome is that the fact that mitzvot are commanded creates an obligation to fulfill them even where the rationale for the commandment does not apply.  Why should this be so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein held that the essence of Judaism is the construction of a commander-commanded (metzaveh-metzuve/ah) relationship between G-d and human beings.  Thus mitzvot fulfill a purpose even when they have no purpose.  However, Rav Lichtenstein strongly resisted Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s contention that mitzvot have no purpose other than establishing such a relationship.  Rav Wasserman would hold like Professor Liebowitz outside the Land, and like Rav Lichtenstein inside.

Rav Lichtenstein’s position further explains why mitzvot have to be commanded even inside the Land – it is the fact of commandedness that establishes the desired relationship.  Following the mitzvot because they are the right thing to do, or because G-d wants you to do them, or because they are the right thing to do and G-d wants you to do the right thing, would not generate a commander-commanded relationship.

But (why) is such a relationship the ideal?

In contrast to Rav Lichtenstein, some thinkers from both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds appear to present commandedness as a bediavad, as a necessary evil or first-step that we should aspire to transcend.  In their view, the Avot did not lack anything religiously because they were not commanded.  All human beings ideally would intuitively understand G-d’s Will and act in accordance with it; they would have no need to be commanded.

This position seems to contradict Rabbi Chanina’s maxim that “greater is one who is commanded and does (metzuve/ah veoshe/ah) than one who is not-commanded and does”.

Rabbi Chanina’s maxim plays a very complex role in contemporary Orthodoxy.  On the one hand, the fundamental theological divide between Orthodoxy and liberal streams of Judaism is about whether heteronomous authority can ever be justified; where Orthodoxy differs is in the profound significance it gives to tzvui, commandedness.  On the other hand, the existence of mitzvot regarding which men but not women are commanded causes great consternation for those committed to the ontological and axiological equality of the genders, and even for those who simply believe that women have a justice-right of equal access to Heavenly rewards.

Rabbi Barukh Teomim-Frankel (18th century: Chiddushei Barukh Taam to Rosh HaShannah 28a) suggested that autonomous and heteronomous action each have unique virtues, and a Jew should aspire to achieve both.  His model is Mosheh Rabbeinu, who sought to enter the Land so that he could become obligated in those mitzvot which halakhically obligatorily, or commanded, only in Israel.   Rabbi Teomim-Frankel contends that Mosheh sought thereby to have it both ways – he would be voluntarily becoming commanded, and indeed, G-d responds by promising that he will in any case receive rewards parallel to those of the uncommanded Avot and of the commanded post-Sinai Jews.

This contention should yield a very different attitude toward the aspirations of some women to become obligated in mitzvot aseh shehazman garman than is currently regnant in much of Orthodoxy.   We could debate whether those aspirations are achievable – Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisroel – but concede that regardless they are noble.

A different approach within Rav Lichtenstein’s framework is to say that the commanded/commanded relationship should be seen holistically rather than as constituted granularly and separately by each individual commandment.  The number and extent of commandments is irrelevant, so long as it is more than zero.

One problem with this approach is that it seems to suggest that a human being’s relationship to G-d is not enhanced when they convert to Judaism.  Why should going from “7” to “613” matter?  The likely answer is that the term “mitzvah” has more than one definition, and the Torah is commanded in a different way than the Noachide commandments.  The 20th century work Shiurei Rav Shmuel to Makkot 9a even suggests that nonJews can change their relationship to the Noachide commandments by formally accepting them as obligatory.

A potentially intriguing notion is that there are many different kinds of non-commanded relationships to mitzvot.  For example, Rabbi Mosheh Feinstein in Igrot Mosheh OC 2:25 suggests that while nonJews are not commanded to pray, they are nonetheless obligated to pray.  This is because prayer is an expression of belief in G-d, and belief in G-d is a necessary condition for commandedness.  Therefore, the fact of being commanded about anything depends on a prior obligation to act in accordance with one’s belief in G-d.

Rabbi Feinstein opens up the possibility that Jewish mitzvot as well can fulfill religious obligations even when performed by those who are not commanded.

Perhaps the practical difference between “commanded” and “obligatory” is that “commanded” actions can be significant even when performed without specific religious intent, or kavvanat hamitzvah, whereas obligatory actions must be performed in the consciousness that they express a core idea.

We can bring this dvar Torah full circle by suggesting that “commandedness” is needed for nation-building.  Since it is aimed at interhuman relationships, it requires objective action – everyone doing the same thing – rather than religious intent.  “Obligation”, by contrast, is wholly individual and aimed at human-Divine relationship, and therefore can be fulfilled only by actions undertaken with religious consciousness.

Much more can be said, and greater halakhic and philosophic rigor would be needed to say anything with confidence.  But I hope this brief essay makes a plausible case that there are more ways to conceive of the relationship between Heaven and Earth than you previously thought, or dreamed of.

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Did Egyptian Daughters Die During the Plague of the Firstborn?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

As an oldest child whose father is also a firstborn, I always wondered why he had to fast on Erev Pesach for Taanit Bekhorot and I didn’t. It is commonly assumed that the reason why firstborn men fast is to commemorate the fact that they were saved during Makkat Bechorot and were not killed along with the Egyptian firstborn. So does the common practice of women not to fast indicate that the firstborn Egyptian women were saved?

Shemot 11:4 and 12:29 tell us that every Mitzri בכור dies during the plague.  בכור is masculine, but this by itself is not sufficient evidence, as the Torah often uses the masculine when not specifying gender.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef in Yechaveh Daat 3:25 discusses whether women should fast on Taanit Bekhorot. He quotes opinions both ways and cites Midrashic proof for both sides, beginning with the side that says women should fast:

ונראה שסוברים כדברי המדרש (שמות רבה פרשה י”ח סימן ג’):

ויך כל בכור במצרים ראשית אונים באהלי חם – שאפילו נקבות בכורות מתו,

חוץ מבתיה בת פרעה, שנמצא לה פרקליט טוב, וזה הוא משה שנאמר בו ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא ע”כ.

אולם מדרשים חלוקים הם בדבר, כי בשמות רבה (פרשה ט”ו סימן י”ב) איתא:

שה תמים זכר – על שם שהוא הרג בכורי מצרים וחס על בכורי ישראל ע”כ.

וכתב בחידושי הרש”ש שם:

משמע מכאן שלא נהרגו אלא בכורים זכרים ולא נקבות, וחולק המדרש הזה על הפסיקתא שאומר שגם בכורות נקבות מתו. וכן הוא בשמות רבה לקמן.

It seems that they hold like the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 18:3):

And he smote every firstborn in Egypt, the first-of-their-strength in the tents of Cham – [the redundancy of firstborn and first-of-their-strength teaches] that even the firstborn women died, except for Bityah the daughter of Pharaoh, because she had a good advocate, Moshe, as it says: And she saw him, that he was good

But other Midrashim disagree, because in Shemot Rabbah (15:12) it says,

An unblemished male sheep – [the Pesach sacrifice  is male] because he killed the firstborn of Egypt and took pity on the firstborn of Israel.

Rashash writes in his novellae there:

This implies that only male firstborns were killed and not females, and this Midrash disagrees with the Psikta that says that female firstborns also died, and also with the Shemot Rabbah below.

In summary, some Midrashim say that the daughters were killed, and others that say they were not.  Neither position cites direct or compelling evidence.  Are there deeper reasons for saying that the women were killed, or that they were not?

Let us assume that each of the Ten Plagues were Middah KeNeged Middah, in some way poetic or actual justice. Makkat Bekhorot is nonetheless unique in that the reason for the plague is stated in the Torah:

שמות ד:כא-כג

וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּלֶכְתְּךָ לָשׁוּב מִצְרַיְמָה רְאֵה כָּל הַמֹּפְתִים אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְיָדֶךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָם לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח את הָעָם:

וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְקֹוָק בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי וַתְּמָאֵן לְשַׁלְּחוֹ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ:

Shemot 4:21-23

Hashem said to Mosheh, When you go to return to Egypt, see all of the wonders that I put in your hands and do them before Pharaoh. I will harden his heart and he will not send out the nation.

And you should say to Pharaoh, “Thus said Hashem, ‘My firstborn child is Israel.

And I say to you: Send out My child and he will serve Me! If you will refuse to send him out, behold I will kill your child, your firstborn.'”

The firstborns of Egypt are killed because Egypt oppressed the firstborns of Hashem. But what does it mean to be Hashem’s firstborn? Rashi gives two explanations:

בני בכרי – לשון גדולה, כמו (תהילים פט כח) אף אני בכור אתנהו, זהו פשוטו.

ומדרשו: כאן חתם הקב”ה על מכירת הבכורה שלקח יעקב מעשו:

My firstborn child – [firstborn] is an expression of greatness, as it says (Tehillim 89:28): “And I will make him a firstborn” (since physical birth order cannot be changed, this proves that bekhor can refer to acquired greatness.) This is the Pshat.

The Drash is:  Here Hashem put his stamp of approval on the sale of the firstborn-ness that Yaakov bought from Esav.

I suggest that Rashi’s two explanations tie in to the dispute about whether the daughters were included in the plague of the firstborn.

According to his Midrashic explanation, the term בכור here is used in a technical legal sense, meaning the child who inherited land and who performed priestly services. It seems likely that women were excluded from the plague. However, according to Rashi’s Pshat explanation, women would be included in the plague, because G-d referred to the entire Jewish people as His firstborn.

Davida Kollmar (SBM 2014, 2016, 2017, WWBM 2018) is the Program Administrator for CMTL  and this coming semester will also be an adjunct at the Katz School of Yeshiva University.

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Rubashkin and the Fall of the Jedi

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fantasy trilogies have a predictable structure.  The first book introduces the characters, their abilities, and the conflict; the third resolves the conflict on the basis of the characters’ growth or failure to grow in understanding the extent and limits of their abilities.  The middle book is mostly action scenes.  As with so many other forms of human literature, the origin of the fantasy trilogy is in Torah.  Parshat Vaera is that middle book.

In mediocre trilogies, the middle book could easily be replaced by an index card summary of the old silent-movie type (or scrolling text).  In great trilogies, the middle book makes you realize things you had completely missed in the first book, and is essential for understanding how the resolution can occur only when the hero comes to embody the initial conflict.  I suggest that great trilogies are implicit midrash, and this structure can help us recover an often-missed aspect of Sefer Shemot.

I’ll lead with this: The core conflict in Shemot is not between Mitzrayim and Yisroel, or between our G-d and theirs.  We understand from the beginning that only our G-d is real, and Benei Yisroel take almost no active part in the destruction of Mitzrayim.  (Even in the sequel, “Hashem will fight the battle for you; your task is silence”.)  No – the unresolved issue is whether Benei Yisroel can deserve redemption, or whether G-d’s love for them is unjustified nepotism.

This framing is captured by a brilliant and deeply unsettling comment of Meshekh Chokhmah.

Shemot 6:13 (for the gematriists among you, the verse that sums it all up) reads:

וידבר יקוק אל משה ואל אהרן

ויצום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה מלך מצרים

להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים:

Hashem spoke to Mosheh and Aharon

He commanded them toward Benei Yisroel and toward Pharaoh King of Mitzrayim

so as to remove Benei Yisroel from the Land of Mitzrayim

Meshekh Chokhmah comments:

ייתכן כי גם אז במצרים

היו גדולי האומה אשר היו שרים נכבדים ואפרתים

והם היו משעבדים את בני ישראל לעבדים,

שמכרו המצרים להם . . .

לכן ציוה השם יתברך

שבני ישראל גם פרעה יוציאו את בני ישראל מהשעבוד.

It seems likely that even then in Egypt

there were greats of the nation who were honored aristocratic authorities

and they would enslave their fellows of Benei Yisroel

whom the Mitrziyim sold to them . . .

therefore Hashem may He be Blessed commanded

that Benei Yisroel and Pharaoh 

remove Benei Yisroel from the enslavement.

Mosheh and Aharon have a dual mission.  They need to destroy the Mitzri power structure that has legitimated systematic oppression.  At the same time, they need to reform the internal Jewish structures that legitimate oppression directly through collaboration and indirectly by undercutting the moral basis of the Jewish civil rights movement.

The verse implies that their mission to Benei Yisroel was primary.  I suggest that Mosheh and Aharon were not needed for the destruction of Mitzrayim, and the subsequent Exodus.  G-d could have handled those Himself, and would have done so in order to fulfill His covenant with Avraham.  But He needed Mosheh and Aharon because He hoped that the Exodus would be preceded by a moral awakening.

Meshekh Chokhmah notes that our verse is followed by a peculiarly partial genealogy that cover the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi through Mosheh and Aharon.  He suggests accordingly that these were the tribes that were most guilty of enslaving their fellows.  In other words:  Mosheh, as a prince turned civil disobedient, represents the possibility of Egyptian teshuvah.  Aharon, as the nasi of Levi, represents the possibility of Jewish teshuvah.

In this light we can see that the key moment of Parashat Shemot – the first book – is when Mosheh’s initial idealism is spoiled by the two Jews’ fighting, and their subsequent collaboration with Pharaoh to make him an outlaw.  The core conflict is whether he is right in deciding, as he does in the moment, that there is nothing to choose between the Jews and the Egyptians, and so he is best off on the sidelines in Midyan.

Readers who expect a full resolution are sadly disappointed.  The very first laws G-d gives the newly constituted Jewish nation – the preamble to whose Torah/Constitution emphasizes that G-d took them out of slavery! are about the regulation of intra-Jewish slavery.  Centuries later, Yirmiyahu haNavi (Chapter 34) tells us that these bediavad regulations were the basis of G-d’s covenant with us, and yet we could not even keep them – and so the Beit HaMikdash is destroyed, and we are sent back into exile.

So the initial trilogy is not the end of history; we’re in the middle of at least Episode 8 by now.  Chazal note that each previous Redemption has been characterized by a similar form of Divine ambivalence: does it happen because we finally deserve it, or because we’ve failed so badly that we need to be extracted lest there be no basis left for trying again?

If the pattern holds, each opening to redemption comes together with an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to finally internalize the message that G-d loves the Jews, but he hates oppressive labor practices, and He – k’b’yakhol – wants these two emotions to be in harmony.

So far, I think, I’ve engaged in pure Torah interpretation; the ideas I’ve put forth can be judged on their fidelity to the text of Torah and/or to the ideas of Meshekh Chokhmah.   I hope that you’ll decide they are compelling interpretation, and develop your own applications, whether or not you agree with my own following application.

Mr. Sholom Rubashkin was recently released from prison.  There are compelling arguments that his sentencing was both procedurally and substantively unjust.  His family both loves him and needs him, and no one’s interests were served by keeping him imprisoned.  Every report that I have seen verifies that he did many good and important philanthropic deeds within his home community.  It is plausible that a core goal of his business was to make kosher meat more affordable, and we should be aware that his home community includes a high percentage of families that would be challenged economically even if being Orthodox carried no financial cost.

But it is also clear that Mr. Rubashkin’s business rested on a structure that allowed for and likely depended on the exploitation of workers, especially workers who were in a land not their own.  He prevented unionization; he gave workers no safe avenue to complain about bosses who extorted them or sent them into unsafe working conditions; and this despite knowingly hiring employees who were desperately vulnerable because of their immigration status.

I must make absolutely clear that I am not advocating here for either looser immigration enforcement (so illegal workers will be less vulnerable) or tighter immigration laws (so that there will be fewer undocumented workers to exploit).  My political analysis is that we have here (and in Israel) a “Baptists and bootleggers” situation, in which liberals and conservatives combine to create a moral situation much worse than either’s policies could independently create (the equivalent of making whiskey easily available but only from criminals).  But my political analysis has no claim to be Torah.

What I am claiming on the basis of Torah is that we should be very, very wary of celebrating a Jewish redemption that is not accompanied by a profound sensitivity to labor ethics.  One of the sequels to Vaera is Yirmiyahu 34.

Shabbat shalom!

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Was the חושן a Collection of Sorcerer’s Stones?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jason Strauss

Magic was once a dark and mysterious power that represented a threat to all good people. The Jerusalem Talmud (ירושלמי סנהדרין ו:ו) relates that Shimon ben Shetah once carried out the extrajudicial execution of seventy female sorcerers terrorizing their neighborhood. In the 19th century, magicians still dazzled audiences and inspired generations of children. Today, magic is dismissed as nothing more than a temporary escape from reality, best represented by America’s Got Talent contestants and references to magic in fantasy literature, films, and video games.  Does Jewish tradition and Torah believe in the reality of magic?

In the ancient world,  magic and sorcery were essential tools for achieving power. If people believed that a particular person could manipulate nature, summon spirits, and divine the future, people would hold him or her in esteem. It is unsurprising, then, that Pharaoh, the most dominant ruler in the early Biblical era, had sorcerers at his disposal. They turned staffs into serpents and water to blood, and spontaneously generated frogs, all to match Moshe and Aharon’s performed miracles and maintain the impression that Pharaoh still sat at the pinnacle of his power.

It is only the third plague that lands a permanent blow to Pharaoh’s prestige. Lice befuddles the Egyptian sorcerers:

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֨ן הַחַרְטֻמִּ֧ים בְּלָטֵיהֶ֛ם לְהוֹצִ֥יא אֶת־הַכִּנִּ֖ים וְלֹ֣א יָכֹ֑לוּ וַתְּהִי֙ הַכִּנָּ֔ם בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃ וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ הַֽחַרְטֻמִּים֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה אֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹקים הִ֑וא וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹֽא־שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר ה׳. (שמות ח:יד-טו)

The magicians did the like with their spells to bring out lice, but they could not. The lice remained upon man and beast. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of G-d!” But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not listen to them, just as Hashem had spoken. (Exodus 8:14-15)

What brought them to recognize G-d? בכור שור submits that though they had triumphed in reproducing the first two plagues, the sorcerers realized that they could prove their dominance over the Israelites only by removing the lice. It was their failure to do so that led to their recognition of the “finger of G-d”. חזקוני suggests that they couldn’t replicate the lice because magic requires connection to the ground, which was now covered with lice, a fact of which Shimon ben Shetah took advantage in his efforts to capture the local witches. The Talmud (:סנהדרין סז) famously submits that magic cannot produce creatures smaller than a kernel of barley.

What all of the above approaches have in common is that they fundamentally assume that the sorcery of the חרטומים was real and effective. This is in line with the view of רמב״ן (Deuteronomy 18:9) that magic is prohibited because it interferes with the world conforming to the laws of nature as G-d intended. Within this view, while the power of magicians is relatively infinitely less significant than that of prophets, there is only a quantitative distinction with regard to what they can do to change nature.

רמב״ם in הלכות עבודה זרה יא:טז takes a different approach. He asserts about magic:

דְבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ כֻּלָּן דִּבְרֵי שֶׁקֶר וְכָזָב הֵן וְהֵם שֶׁהִטְעוּ בָּהֶן עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים הַקַּדְמוֹנִים לְגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּנְהֲגוּ אַחֲרֵיהֶן. וְאֵין רָאוּי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהֵם חֲכָמִים מְחֻכָּמִים לְהִמָּשֵׁךְ בַּהֲבָלִים אֵלּוּ וְלֹא לְהַעֲלוֹת עַל לֵב שֶׁיֵּשׁ תּוֹעֶלֶת בָּהֶן.

All of these things are false and spurious, and it was with such that the ancient idolaters misled the peoples of many lands so that they be following them. And it is unbecoming to Israel who are exceedingly wise to be attracted by these absurdities, nor to even imagine that they are of any consequence,

רמב״ם insists that there is nothing real about magic and sorcery at all and that the prohibition against performing them is precisely because of their falsehood. If so, even Pharaoh’s חרטומים would have been doing nothing more than performing illusions and mentalist tricks. It was during the plague of כינים that they realized there were some illusions they could not create, that the “magic” of the plagues were so real they could only be attributed to a G-d. According to the רמב״ם, the gap between what חרטומים could perform and G-d’s power was qualitative in nature.

Rabbi Dani Wolf, in his book מנחה וזבח (pp. 81-104), points out that this debate about the authenticity of magic and the nature of the gap between sorcery and Jewish practice may have sweeping ramifications for a specific Temple ritual. The תורה (Exodus 28:30) lists among the garments of the כהן גדול something called the אורים ותומים. From that context and elsewhere (Leviticus 8:8), it is clear that this item or set of items is somehow placed onto or connected to the חושן, the breastplate also worn by the כהן גדול. Furthermore, the תורה (Numbers 27:21) implies that the אורים ותומים are used by the leadership to make decisions about whether and when the Jewish People will go out to war. At the same time, there is much that the תורה leaves ambiguous. For example, what are the אורים ותומים?  How do they provide answers to the leadership’s questions about war?

רש״י on :יומא עג states that the אורים ותומים consist of a name of G-d written out on either קלף or engraved on metal that is placed on the חושן. The questioner would face the כהן גדול as he wore the אורים ותומים on the חושן and the letters would somehow miraculously arrange themselves to provide an answer.

In contrast, רמב״ם on הלכות כלי המקדש י:י claims that nothing was added to the חושן beyond the 12 precious stones. The questioner would stand behind the כהן גדול and the כהן גדול would face the ארון. After the questioner finished his query, the כהן גדול would receive an answer via prophecy, rather than through any change in appearance of something on the חושן.

Rav Wolf suggests that this debate could depend on each side’s respective views on magic and sorcery. רשב״ם (Exodus 28:30) attributes the need for אורים ותומים to the fact that other nations already had access to instruments that enabled them to predict the future in the form of divination and sorcery. It is inconceivable that the other nations could have such useful tools and yet G-d would not provide something at least as powerful to His chosen people. In other words, the אורים ותומים serve the same purpose as the מכות – to display and maintain G-d’s significant quantitative advantage over the power of sorcery. רמב״ם, however, contends that other nations did not have any such power and rejects the idea that any item, even something with G-d’s name on it, could divine the future. Instead, he argues, the אורים ותומים only provide answers to Jewish leaders via familiar means: נבואה, i.e. direct communication with G-d Himself.

Jason Strauss (SBM 2012-2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and teaches Judaic Studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

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Terms and Conditions

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱ-לֹהִֽים׃

And it was in those many days, the king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael were groaning under the work and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d looked upon Bnei Yisrael, and G-d knew.

This paragraph ends strangely.  The first pasuk updates us on current events in Egypt, and brings the narrative back from Moshe in Midyan to the suffering of Bnei Yisrael. The second pasuk prepares us for the mission that Hashem will send Moshe on – that the time has come for Him to fulfill His promise and take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. The third pasuk, however, seems unnecessary, and even cryptic.  Even ignoring the theological challenge of describing G-d the all-seeing and all-knowing as apparently “looking upon” and “knowing” a nation at a particular time, we have a narrative challenge.  The previous pasuk had already shown G-d’s renewed focus on the Jewish people, so what does this pasuk add?

Another oddity is the choice of this week’s Haftarah (according to minhag Ashkenaz). While Yeshayahu talks about redemption in the chosen verses, much more of the content is devoted to criticizing Bnei Yisrael for their wrongdoings. Egypt is mentioned twice, and only as a place that G-d will take his people out of.

These two anomalies may shed light on each other. Shmot Rabbah brings a commentary on our enigmatic pasuk that is not so flattering to Bnei Yisrael

וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱ-לֹהִים,

יָדַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁעָלָיו לְגָאֳלָם לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ בַּעֲבוּר הַבְּרִית שֶׁכָּרַת עִם הָאָבוֹת

“G-d looked upon Bnei Yisrael, and G-d knew” G-d knew that it was on Him to redeem them for the sake of his name, for the sake of the covenant he made with the forefathers.

Or, as explained elsewhere:

שֶׁלֹא הָיָה בְּיָדָם מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים שֶׁיִּגָּאֲלוּ בִּשְׁבִילָם

because they did not have in their hands good deeds that in the merit of which they could be redeemed.

This goes nicely with the theme of the Haftarah, which does promise redemption, but also calls out Bnei Yisrael for their many sins.

The claim that our reemption from Egypt was undeserved has positive aspects.  It demonstrates that G-d’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael is truly unconditional. G-d’s love for Bnei Yisrael will never end.  In fact, when Moshe continues to doubt that Bnei Yisrael will accept him as a prophet, G-d gets angry with him. Shmot Rabbah relates that the signs that G-d chose to give to Moshe were also hinting at G-d’s anger with Moshe

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֵלָיו מַזֶּה בְיָדֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר מַטֶּה, כְּלוֹמַר מִזֶּה שֶׁבְּיָדֶךָ אַתָּה צָרִיךְ לִלְקוֹת, שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצִיא שֵׁם רָע עַל בָּנַי, הֵם מַאֲמִינִים בְּנֵי מַאֲמִינִים

“And G-d said to him ‘What is in your hand?’ and he said ‘a staff,’ as if to say, from that which is in your hand, you need to hit because you are motzi shem ra on my children, who are believers and the children of believers.

In summary, when the Torah describes G-d “seeing” and “knowing” Bnei Yisrael, it is describing Him taking stock of the nation and their circumstances, but also taking stock of His relationship with them. A relationship that is based on unconditional love.

Pnina Grossman is a former Sharon resident and a 2012 SBM fellow. She is currently a Mechanical Engineering Student at the City College of New York.

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