Monthly Archives: December 2018

2018 Alumni Divrei Torah Snapshots

We’re excited to share the 2018 Alumni Divrei Torah Snapshots, which feature highlights from CMTL’s weekly alumni Divrei Torah written in 2018.

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2018 CMTL Snapshots

See here for a collection of highlights from Rabbi Klapper’s weekly Divrei Torah from 2018!

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2018 CMTL Reader

The Center for Modern Torah Leadership is excited to share the 2018 CMTL Reader, a collection of the top works written by Rabbi Klapper and/or published by the CMTL in 2018. We hope you enjoy!

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Understanding the Work and Words of Shemot

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Shemot 1:13-14:

ויעבדו מצרים את בני ישראל

:בפרך

וימררו את חייהם

בעבדה קשה

בחמר ובלבנים

ובכל עבדה בשדה

את כל עבדתם

:אשר עבדו בהם בפרך

Mitzrayim worked (ABD) the Children of Israel

with PRKH

They embittered their lives

with ABD

with mortar and with bricks

and with all ABD in the field

eit all their ABD

that they ABD with them

with PRKH

These verses tell of our enslavement in Mitzrayim at great and repetitive length, but with almost complete opacity. There are five iterations of the verb ABD, or work, which in its transitive form likely means “enslaved”.   We also have

  1.  two objects – “mortar” and “brick”;
  2. one location – “the field”;
  3. two adjectives – perekh (twice, at the beginning and end) and kasheh – (in the middle);
  4. and one verb phrase – “they embittered their lives.”

All this gives us essential no concrete detail whatsoever.

I suggest that both the length and opacity are deliberate, and their combined purpose is to stimulate and encourage our imaginations. The historical facts of what the mitzrim made us do would inevitably generate different reactions indifferent times and cultures.  By using evaluative language rather than specific descriptions, the Torah simulates us to imagine their cruelty in terms appropriate for our time. Allowing each generation to fill in different details enables the meaning to remain constant.

Many schools of interpretation argue that the authors of the Eighth Amendment to Constitution used the same technique in a legal context when they banned “cruel and unusual punishment.” I have argued along the same lines that it is appropriate to have standard depictions of Mosheh Rabbeinu conform to our current religious images even when this is purely anachronistic.

Seeing Mosheh in Bedouin garb distances us; seeing him in a kippah srugah helps us understand who he was. And if children intuitively draw him wearing a black hat instead of a kippah, we should not criticize them for their ahistoricalism, but rather seek to understand why their image of spiritual greatness is chareidi rather than Modern Orthodox, and make whatever changes – pedagogic or substantive – are needed to change that. For example, we should ask why they fail to immediately connect Mosheh Rabbeinu with Zionism.

The imaginative freedom we are given here is serious business, but seriousness and playfulness are not antonyms, and pedestrian interpretations would miss the point. For example: The “ABD=work in the fields” may refer to plowing, planting, harvesting, and the rest of the first 11 prohibited categories of melakhah on Shabbat, and the other four ABDs may collectively include the other 28 categories of melakhah. We could produce beautiful picture books showing mitzri overseers forcing downtrodden Israelites to write or erase two letters.  But they would not advance our understanding without an explanation of why the Shabbat categories are relevant.

Here the medieval commentator R. Chaim Paltiel reminds us that Shabbat is a reminder of the Exodus, and is (partially) intended to ensure that work does not become totalitarian.  R. Paltiel’s approach locates the cruelty of the Mitzriyim not in the nature of the work they imposed, but in its comprehensiveness.  There was no category of ordinary labor that was not imposed on the Jews.

Midrash Aggadah gets more in what seems to me the spirit of this passage. The Egyptians ordered the Jews to bring bears and lions and tigers to them. The “fields” were for hunting rather than agriculture Again, the details of the tigers and bears are arbitrary; the point is that the tasks were dangerous, and perhaps also that they have no constructive purpose.  A bonus of this interpretation is that it may explain why the Plague of Arov was poetic justice.

Why the poetic assertion that “they embittered their lives”?  Rabbeinu BeChayay among others suggest that the plural is intended to suggest that G-d’s life as well was embittered.  Kabbalists follow the Zohar in suggesting that true slavery can only take place in the heart, when one sins.  (I suspect that there is an implicit pun – vayimareru/embittered turned into vayamru/rebelled).

The Zohar begins with an assumption, picked up by Seforno, that slavery must be deserved to be effective.  There are two ways it can be deserved – for Seforno, it is retribution for sin, but for the midrashim, it was a natural and just consequence of their weaknesses.

Talmud Sotah 11b records Rabbi Elazar’s position that the first appearance of parekh, rather than meaning “that breaks into pieces” as it ordinarily does, is a contraction of peh rakh, “soft mouth.” The Egyptian slavery began via persuasion/seduction rather than via force. Rashi suggests that the Jews were initially offered high salaries. Some midrashim describe Par’oh himself picking up tools for at least the first day (likely this reads vayaavidu mitzrayim et benei Yisroel as vayaavdu, and translates as “And the Egyptians worked together with the Children of Israel, with soft words”) and/or that the first project was a Jewish city. All these readings seem aimed at assigning the Jews some degree of responsibility for their own victimization.

But why was it a culpable weakness to believe the initial soft words?  I can think of many explanations, several of which make me uncomfortable.  My mother aleha haShalom was always proud of being a bat Levi, following the midrashic tradition the tribe of Levi did not succumb to the initial blandishments (and so Aharon could leave Egypt to meet Mosheh without opposition).  But why would it have been wrong to work for money, or to build one’s own housing?  And why was it so easy for the Egyptians to transition us to slavery?

I contend that there must be a connection between this passage and the three prohibitions against working a slave with parekh in Vayikra 25. Rabbinic tradition there as well defines parekh not as physically by as mentally “breaking” labor, specifically work that is assigned solely to express the dominance of the employer over the employee. The Egyptian enslavement of the Jews as well – as Pharaoh says explicitly – had a psychopolitical rather than economic purpose. “Let us outsmart them” – which is why it began with sweet words.

On this reading, the message of Sefer Shemot is that G-d’s primary reason for hating the mitzri enslavement of the Jews was not His outrage at the physical outrages that were imposed on them. Maybe there weren’t very many such.  Rather, G-d objects to human beings seeking or having the kind of power over others that would enable them to abuse others with impunity – whether or not they ever use it to abuse.

This temptation to power, like all temptations to power, often stems from justifiable and even altruistic motives. You make bad decisions, so it would be better if I made them for you instead.  It exists in religious leadership as in secular.

In all our programs, the Center for Modern Torah Leadership seeks to advance halakhic leadership that understands the dangers of this temptation.  We try to develop talmidei and talmidot chakhamim who understand the importance of autonomy even or especially in a system that intended seems so centered on heteronomy.  We emphasize that acceptance of G-d’s right to command us is intended to prevent us from being subservient to any other human being.  “’Because the Children of Israel are My avadim’ – and never avadim to other avadim”. And yet we recognize that the development of a community bound by religious law requires everyone to sacrifice some measure of autonomy, both for the sake of creating community and for the sake of enabling Torah to function as law.

Shabbat Shalom.

A previous version of this Dvar Torah was written in 2016

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The Empathy of Moshe

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Amir Zinkow

This week, we transition from Sefer Breishit to Sefer Shemot as the master narrative of the Jewish people develops and deepens. Setting the dramatic stage upon which we ascend from slavery to freedom, Moshe escapes from Egypt into the desert following the killing of an Egyptian taskmaster.  After receiving the call to return to Egypt as Hashem’s emissary to bring the children of Israel out of bondage, Moshe and Aharon pay repeated visits to Pharaoh. Noting that Moshe and Aharon go in and out of the presence of Pharaoh freely, Rashi asks and answers an interesting question. How was it that they had so much free time to visit with Pharaoh? Wouldn’t they have been burdened with the demands of slavery alongside their fellow Israelites?

Drawing from Shemot Rabbah (Shemot 5:4) Rashi answers that the Levites were not enslaved like the other tribes. While the rest of Benei Yisrael were forced to toil in the fields or do backbreaking construction work, the members of the tribe of Levi were free to conduct their own business and concern themselves with household responsibilities. Rashi wonders why Pharaoh would leave one tribe of Benei Yisrael free from backbreaking labor while oppressing all of the rest? Given that Pharaoh is haunted by the many fears recorded in the beginning of our Parsha, what sense would there be in allowing a portion of the nation of Israel to exist without the trappings of slavery?

One answer to this question is given by the Gur Aryeh in his supercommentary to Rashi. According to his theory, Pharaoh was aware of the prophecy given to Avraham – that his descendants would be slaves and that God would exact punishment on those who enslaved them. By not enslaving one tribe, Pharaoh hoped to avoid this divine retribution.

Rav Yehonatan Eybeschutz, in his Tiferet Yehonatan to Shemot 6:14, gives a different answer. Rav Eybeschutz explains that Pharaoh’s seers rightly predicted that the savior of Israel would emerge from the Levites. It was inconceivable to Pharaoh’s that someone who had not personally experienced slavery could become a redeemer OF the enslaved. Pharaoh reasoned that if he left the tribe of Levi alone, an Israelite would not step up to redeem Benei Yisrael. By allowing one tribe to remain free, Pharaoh thought he was guaranteeing a lifetime of servitude for all of the tribes.

Viewed from this perspective, it is Pharaoh’s utter lack of empathy that leads him to this conclusion. Pharaoh was so unsympathetic that he could not imagine the possibility of someone who was not suffering the bondage of slavery standing up to lead the people out of Egypt. Why would someone who had not experienced the pain and humiliation of slavery risk everything, including his own life, to free others?

Pharaoh was, of course, incorrect in his thinking. We have three stories in Parshat Shemot to demonstrate the intense empathy that Moshe naturally developed in spite of growing up in the sheltered, privileged palace of the king. In each story–striking down the Egyptian taskmaster, his effort to create peace between two fighting Israelites, and saving Yitro’s daughters from harassment at the well–Moshe reveals his ability to place himself in the reality of the one in pain or the one who is intimidated. His empathy is the foundation of his relentless pursuit of justice. In contrast to Pharaoh, it is precisely Moshe’s ability to empathise with the other that contributes to his greatness as a leader.

Cultivating this important attribute is, Moshe’s legacy teaches, essential for us. I am reminded of this daily as a teacher especially as I ride side by side with my students on their roller-coaster of emotions. I seek to teach students to be mindful of those who might be in pain, are sad or suffering. I also want them to know that the quality empathy allows us to feel others’ success, triumphs and happiness as well. One recent example comes to mind of a student in my class who struggles academically, while at the same time is a very hard worker, diligent and a good listener. When this student, at long last, received an A on a test, empathy helped me to celebrate with him and genuinely share his excitement when I told him his grade.  Empathy enables us to live in whole and authentic relationships with others, fully understanding another’s range of emotions. These empathetic moments build connections and are the building blocks of relationships that lead to holy community. By emulating Moshe and cultivating the ability to understand what another is experiencing, we learn to feel another’s pain and share in each other’s celebrations regardless of our own life experience. That is what Pharaoh could not imagine…that the human heart could be softened by being extraordinarily sensitive to the heart of another.

Rabbi Amir Zinkow (SBM ’18) is a Judaic Studies teacher at The Solomon Schechter School of Westchester Middle School

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Making Marriage Better: Yosef’s Private Life and Jewish Identity

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Zachary Ottenstein

As Yaakov prepares for his impending death,  he asks Yosef to bring his grandsons Menashe and Efraim to be blessed. But when Yosef brings them, Yaakov asks “?מי אלה”, “who are these?” At that point Yaakov had been living in Egypt for seventeen years; why doesn’t he recognize his own grandchildren?

Rashi (48:8) explains that Yaakov felt suddenly unsure of his blessing, and therefore suspected that the children might have poor lineage: “What are these children’s origins such that that they may be unworthy of receiving a blessing from me?”  He suggests (48:9) that Yaakov is alluding to the fact that Yosef’s wife Osnat was not Jewish. Yosef answers his father ”בני הם אשר נתן לי אלוקים בזה”- “these are my children whom G-d has given me bazeh.” Bazeh probably means “in this place,” but it can also mean “with this.” Rabbinic literature often reads zeh as indicating that someone pointed to an object. Rashi accordingly suggests that Yosef showed his father a שטר אירוסין, a certificate of betrothal, and a כתובה, a marriage contract, presumably to prove that Osnat had converted.

At this point, the Jewish people had not yet been commanded to marry in the halakhic manner. Rambam Hilkhot Ishut (1:1) states explicitly that the commandment to marry via a process of kiddushin and nisuin became applicable only after the Torah was given at Har Sinai. How could Yosef would marry under the premise of a law that was yet to exist? How could Yosef be in possession of documents mandated only by a law that was yet to exist?

The Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l attempted to answer many of these questions. In the 30th volume of Likutei Sichot, he notes that Rashi in Parshat Toldot adopts the position that the Avot literally observed the entire Torah, even rabbinic enactments. This idea is strange in itself and has been the subject of rabbinic debate for centuries. The late Rebbe nonetheless argues from the verse that recalls the marriage of Yitzchak and Rivka:וַיְבִאֶהָ יִצְחָק הָאֹהֱלָה שָׂרָה אִמּוֹ וַיִּקַּח אֶת רִבְקָה וַתְּהִי לוֹ לְאִשָּׁה”- “And Yitzchak brought her to the tent of his mother Sarah and he took her to be his wife” – that the Avot did not marry using kiddushin  and nisuin.  He suggests that they observed only the mitzvot that “made sense” for them to keep. Some mitzvot are “intuitive”; an intelligent person might decide on their own that their life or society is improved by creating moral codes without being commanded by G-d to do so. But even our forefathers did not intuit the idea of a two-step marriage process in which at one stage the two parties are legally married, but not living together, and only a year later begin to live together and consummate their marriage, as kiddushin and nisuin were originally practiced.

This interpretation of Rashi’s commentary disqualifies the earlier premise that Yaakov’s uncertainty about blessing Ephraim and Menashe stems from his dissatisfaction over Yosef’s choice of spouse. Yaakov’s apprehension about blessing his grandsons is therefore not a question of who their mother was, but rather: where were they were born, and to which culture they were exposed?  Ephraim and Menashe were born into a land “שטופי זימה,” a self-centered culture based on hedonism and immorality. Yaakov worried that it was simply impossible for them to have resisted the temptations of such a life, therefore making them unfit for a bracha.

Yosef showed Yaakov his shtar eirusin and ketubah in order to demonstrate that it was possible to live a sanctified life amidst such a culture. In Egypt of that time, it was unheard of to write a document testifying to the engaged status of two people, but to Yosef this was a necessary step in separating himself from the Egyptians. It was also for this reason that he wrote some form of a ketubah that made concrete demands on him in order to oppose the willy-nilly and transient nature of Egyptian marriages.  Yosef had assimilated nicely into the Egyptian culture. He had gone from a prisoner who was identified by others as an “איש עברי,” to a viceroy of one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world.  It would have been unfortunate, but natural, had he completely lost any semblance of Jewish identity while serving in this position. On the outside, he was visibly Egyptian with no identifying signs of his different faith and background, but in his private life, where it mattered most, he took extra precautions to sanctify his life and maintain his unique identity.

In the contemporary Jewish world, it is often the public displays of Judaism that make people feel most connected to their faith. In times of increased anti-Semitism, those who were never accustomed to showing their faith outwardly make the decision, often temporarily, to wear a kippah or some other sign of identity full-time. These gestures are nice demonstrations of pride and strong reactions to the hatred of the world. But it is often what Jews do in their private lives that are the greatest causes for pride, and the factors that most distinguish them from negative surrounding cultures. No one knew about Yosef’s desire for a sanctified marriage, not even his father, but the fact that he did so was in many ways a greater expression of “Jewish pride” than any outward appearance-based demonstration can be.

 

Zachary Ottenstein (SBM 2018) is currently a second year student at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi in Jerusalem.

 

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Compromising Evils

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The “blessings” that Yaakov gives his sons are written as what we tend to call “poetry.”  Yet they are clearly not all positive, so why are they blessings?  And how does calling something “poetry” help us understand it?

Here is one possibility. “Prose” aims at syntactic clarity, using grammar and punctuation to minimize ambiguity.  “Poetry,” by contrast, may seek to maximize ambiguity, and specifically to take advantage of grammar and punctuation to create ambiguity.

Punctuation is a complicated term with regard to Torah. The implications of the cantillation marks do not correspond to contemporary symbols such as the question mark or exclamation point.  A closer analogy may be the line break in poetry. Poets often use enjambment, the technique in which a line break occurs in the middle of a semantic unit, to create a meaning in the first line which is different than what it means as part of the whole.

In Bereshit 49:9, the start of the “blessing” of Yehudah, the cantillation inserts a break between “miteref” and “beni alita,” so that the translation must be “from teref/ my son you have arisen.”  However, because Yaakov’s reaction to being shown Yosef’s bloody tunic was “tarof taraf Yosef” (37:33), we are tempted to read across the break here and translate “from the teref of my son/you have arisen.”

Rashbam resists this temptation mightily. He insults those who surrender to it as being ignorant of punctuation and cantillation.

והמפרשו במכירת יוסף

לא ידע בשיטה של פסוק ולא בחילוק טעמים כלל:

Anyone who interprets this as a reference to the sale of Yosef
knows nothing of punctuation or the cantillation breaks at all.

This harshness is surprising, as essentially the entire Rabbinic tradition sees in verse a reference to the sale of Yosef (although not exclusively so – it may also refer to Yehudah’s last minute rescue of Tamar, or to the later military triumphs of David, etc.)  Perhaps he was motivated by anti-anti-Semitism.

Regardless, many Rishonim read this verse as a reference to the sale even without ignoring the line break. Acharonim note that they are actually reading the word beni twice, as if the verse said “from the teref of my son – my son, you have arisen.”  The technique of reading a word as if it appears twice shows up regularly in rabbinic reading, but I think it is particularly compelling when the word occurs at a line break in poetry.

There is a second level of objection to seeing a reference to the sale of Yosef in our verse. On what basis can we claim that Yaakov knew about the sale?  Thus Or HaChayyim writes

והדעת נותנת

כי מעולם לא עלה על דעת יעקב שאחים ישלחו יד ביוסף

לחשוד אחד מהם

אלא שדברי רז”ל הם דברי קבלה:

It seems more reasonable
that Yaakov never considered that the brothers would harm Yosef
such that he would suspect one of them of having done so
but the words of the Sages are words of Tradition.

We can accept the Tradition as self-justifying.  Alternatively, we can seek to justify it.  Perhaps Yaakov was speaking semi-consciously, with prophetic insight that he did not himself fully understand.  Or perhaps Yaakov had suspicions, but they were allayed when Yosef turned out to be alive. The verse describes Yehudah, in Yaakov’s mind, as having risen above the suspicion of having harmed Yosef.

Rashi interprets “alita” as “rising above suspicion,” but nonetheless asserts that Yaakov knew full well that Yehudah had advised the sale.

“מטרף” –

ממה שחשדתיך ב”טרף טרף יוסף חיה רעה אכלתהו”,

וזהו יהודה שנמשל לאריה:

“בני עלית” – 

סלקת את עצמך ואמרת “מה בצע וגו'”

Miteref” –
from that which I suspected you of regarding “Surely
tarof taraf Yosef; an evil beast ate him,”
which referred to Yehudah, who is compared to a lion.
beni alita” –
You removed yourself when you said “what
betza (=gain) is there if we kill our brother”.

Yaakov is not praising Yehudah for having repented of the sale; rather, Yaakov is repenting for having suspected Yehudah of worse.

This, in my humble opinion, is a very difficult read, as repentance and change seem to be a key element of the Yehudah story.  Perhaps we can say that Yaakov saw Yehudah’s suggestion of the sale as a first step toward repentance.

Rashi’s reading seems directly opposed to the position of Rabbi Meir on Sanhedrin 6b:

“ובוצע ברך נאץ ה'” –

רבי מאיר אומר:

לא נאמר בוצע אלא כנגד יהודה,

שנאמר “ויאמר יהודה אל אחיו מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו”;

וכל המברך את יהודה הרי זה מנאץ,

ועל זה נאמר “ובצע ברך נאץ ה”

“A botzeia who blesses has disgraced Hashem” (Tehillim 10:3) –
Rabbi Meir says:
The term “
botzeia” refers to Yehudah,
as Scripture says, “Yehudah said to his brothers: What
betza (=gain) is there if we kill our brother”
And anyone who blesses Yehudah is a disgracer,
and about this Scripture says “one who blesses a
botzeia has disgraces Hashem.”

In case anyone missed the point, Rashi to Sanhedrin comments:

“כנגד יהודה” – 

שהיה לו לומר: “נחזירנו לאבינו,” אחרי שהיו דבריו נשמעין לאחיו

“Referring to Yehudah” –
because he should have said ‘Let us return him to our father’, as his brothers were heeding him.

Rashi on Chumash is therefore explicitly rejecting Rabbi Meir, as he has Yaakov blessing Yehudah for saying “mah Betza!”

Rabbi Chaim Paltiel cites R. Yehudah son of R. Natan as seeking to split the difference – Yehudah should be praised for saving Yosef from death, but nonetheless criticized for doing so only because there was no gain in killing him. This answer seems true neither to Rashi on Chumash nor to the Talmud.

Perhaps Rashi thought that according to Rabbi Meir, our verse refers only to the episode with Tamar and not at all to the sale. Perhaps Rashi, in direct contrast to Rashbam, thought that any reading of the verse that misses the allusion to the sale demonstrated ignorance of Biblical style. But I suggest instead that Rabbi Meir consciously opposed the standard Rabbinic interpretation of Yaakov’s blessing, and Rashi consciously set out to restore it.  Both Rabbi Meir and Rashi were motivated by ideological convictions.

What is really at stake here?

Rabbi Meir’s statement is cited on Sanhedrin 6b in the context of its discussion of pesharah=betziah=splitting=compromise as a mode of judicial practice.  Perhaps Rabbi Meir saw Yehudah as a Biblical model of compromise: “You want to kill Yosef, but maybe that would be wrong – so let’s sell him instead.”  Rabbi Meir condemns Yehudah forcefully – there should be no compromise with evil.  By implication, strict justice should rule in every court case.

Rashi doesn’t think that Yehudah did “the right thing” by saying “Mah betza,” rather than standing against his brothers’ evil plan.  But he may think – and I find this compelling – that suggesting the compromise was Yehudah’s first step toward repentance and redemption.  Rashi then goes one step farther. He argues that Yaakov could bless Yehudah for suggesting the compromise even though it was wrong.

This last step is worthy of a major ideological battle – can/should we bless people for choosing the lesser evil when the good is available?   In practice, the question is usually slightly different – is it worth engaging with morally deficient people, communities, or countries in the hope of getting them to choose the lesser evil, of achieving a “mah betza” moment, and in the further hope that such moments will eventually lead to complete transformation? Or is it better to simply identify evil and stand against it?

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