Monthly Archives: January 2019

The Timing of Eliezer’s Naming

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

When naming a new child, parents consider numerous factors. They may choose a name that belonged to an ancestor, that matches the name of someone they admire, because of the meaning of the name, or just for aesthetic purposes. In the Torah, babies are often given names that are meaningful to the parent, sometimes reflecting something happening in their lives and sometimes reflecting the nature of the child.

For example, the Torah implies that Cain’s name derives from his mother’s joint creation of a new man together with Hashem (Genesis 4:1). Eve later names Seth because of his role a replacement for the son(s) that Eve lost due to Cain’s murder of Abel (Genesis 4:25). Noah is so named because of his parents’ hope that he would ease their lives despite the cursed land (Genesis 5:29). Similar etiologies are provided by the Torah for the names of Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, all of Jacob’s sons, and even Moses.

Parshat Yitro similarly explains Moses’s intentions in naming his sons Gershom and Eliezer. But the placement of these naming explanations raises several questions. First of all, hadn’t the Torah mentioned the etiology of Gershom’s name previosuly, shortly before recording Moses’ encounter with the fiery bush that wasn’t being consumed? Second, the Torah usually gives the meaning behind a child’s name immediately preceding or immediately following theirbirth. Why is the explanation of Eliezer’s name recorded at least months, if not years, after his birth? Why does the Torah reserve informing us about Eliezer’s name until this moment, when Jethro brings Moses’s wife and children to join Israel at Mt. Sinai?

One potential answer to these questions can be given via another question. Gershom is named in response to Moses’ status as a stranger in Midian, as being away from his birthplace (Egypt) and without his people (Israel) (See Malbim). Eliezer, though, is named because of Moses’ escape from Pharaoh’s sword, which took place before he arrived in Midian. Why are the orders of their names reversed?  Why didn’t Moses name his first son Eliezer, and his second son Gershom, so that the story told through their names would be chronological?

Several commentators, including Seforno, Bechor Shor, and Riva, suggest that Moses originally did not want to give his children names that would connect him to his escape from Egypt, lest word get back to Pharaoh and put his family in danger. Gershom, who was born before the burning bush, therefore has a name that does not clearly recall that episode. However, once G-d informs Moses that Pharaoh had died, he feels comfortable naming his son in light of his salvation from Pharaoh’s sword. Along the same lines, perhaps we can suggest that the Torah delays telling us Eliezer’s name because only now, after Pharaoh and his army have been defeated at the Red Sea and can never reach Moses and his family, is Eliezer’s name’s essence fully true.

Ramban takes a different approach to this question. He acknowledges that when Moses is confronted by an angel and is nearly killed, it appears as if the son who Zipporah circumcises is Gershom, the only child that had been mentioned until that point. In fact, the Mechilta suggests that Jethro only allowed Moses to marry Zipporah on the condition that he would not circumcise his first son, i.e. Gershom, and the angel was going to kill him as punishment for fulfilling that promise. But Ramban points out that another Midrash Aggadah states that it was Eliezer, not Gershom, who was circumcised on the road to Egypt. He surmises that because Eliezer was born and circumcised under those difficult circumstances, he was not given a name until after the splitting of the Red Sea, at which point the family was safe and Moses could truly say that G-d had saved him from Pharaoh’s sword. According to Ramban, the reason the Torah mentions Eliezer’s name now, rather than at his birth, is because he wasn’t named until he and his grandfather his father at Mt. Sinai.

Another justification for the delay of Eliezer’s naming until Parshat Yitro can be found in the Midrash Tanchuma. The midrash points out that the Torah uses an unusual phrasing to refer to Eliezer as Moses’ other son. Instead of referring to Gershom as the name of Moses’ and Zipporah’ first son (shem ha-echad) and Eliezer as the name of their second son (shem ha-sheni), the Torah designates them both as shem ha-echad. The simplest explanation, as Ibn Ezra notes, is that this simply means “the name of one is Gershom” and “the name of the other one is Eliezer.”  Nonetheless, the Midrash understands the labeling of Eliezer as “ha-echad” to be a hint at additional meaning behind Eliezer’s name.

The midrash explains that when Moses ascended to the top of Mt. Sinai, he saw that G-d was quoting the Tannaitic sage Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus’s opinion that the calf whose neck is broken as part of the atonement ceremony for an unsolved murder (egla arufa) must be one year old while the red cow (para aduma) used to purify those impure from contact with the dead must be two years old. Moses protests that G-d is both the Creator and Owner of the world – why should He need to cite the opinion of human beings about His own laws? G-d responds, “One day there will be a righteous man named Eliezer who will be the first to engage in the laws of the red cow to render this ruling.” Moses then prays, “May it be Your will that he descend from me,” a request which G-d then swears will be fulfilled in the future.

Perhaps Tanchuma is implicitly explaining why Eliezer’s name appears in the context of Parshat Yitro; Moses only discovers the greatness of his son Eliezer’s descendant Rabbi Eliezer while on Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah, which takes place in this parsha. Furthermore, Kli Yakar (Numbers 19:2) asks why Moses specifically asks, in the Midrash, to be the progenitor of Rabbi Eliezer because of his innovative study of egla arufa and para aduma – why not ask to be the ancestor of a Tanna focused on a different mitzvah? He answers that Moses wanted to be associated with those commandments because of the personal courage and sacrifice he displayed in his defense of Israel after their sin with the Golden Calf. The para aduma is an atonement for the sin of idolatry committed with the Golden Calf and the egla arufa is an atonement for the sin of murder, which the rabbis say Israel perpetrated in their murder of Hur. Since the sin of the Golden Calf took place at Mt. Sinai, perhaps it is only appropriate that Moses’s descendant is afforded the name Eliezer at Mt. Sinai as a reference to Moses role in saving the Jewish People from G-d’s wrath.

The Talmud (BT Brachot 7a) also asserts that despite Moses’s rejection of G-d’s plan to wipe out Israel in response to the Golden Calf and build a new nation from Moses’s children, G-d’s blessing to Moses that his descendants would become many was still fulfilled. The verse (I Chronicles 23:17) states that Eliezer’s son Rehabiah’s children “were very numerous,” which the Talmud interprets to mean more than 600,000. Ha’amek Davar suggests that this could be another reason why Eliezer is referred to as “shem ha-echad” despite being the second son; he is the main progenitor of Moses’s many descendants. Perhaps this, too, can explain why Eliezer’s name is only mentioned at Mt. Sinai, where this promise about Moses’s many descendants would be made in response to the Sin of the Golden Calf.


Rabbi 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.


Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah, Uncategorized

Yitro and Amalek at the Border

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The Torah seems to make every effort to ensure that we take a holistic view of Yitro’s decision to come join the Jewish encampment.  “Yitro, kohen of Midyan, heard ALL that Elokim had done for Mosheh AND for Israel his nation when/that Hashem had taken Israel out of Mitzrayim.” But Chazal seem to undo that holism by understanding the basis of Yitro’s decision granularly. “What “hearing” did he hear, and therefore come to convert?” (Zevachim 116a).

How can we reconcile these opposing perspectives?  Perhaps Yitro’s desire to convert was holistically motivated, but he put that desire into practice only after a specific event. This phenomenon is common, but often hard for born Jews to understand; if you recognize the truth of Judaism, and yearn for the relationship with G-d it enables, how can you allow delay?  Yet we all see recognizably parallel phenomena regularly with regard to shiddukhim, and in other spheres of life.

The Talmud offers three contestants for final catalyst. Rabbi Yehoshua suggests that the Torah is in psychochronological order – Yitro heard the event that the Torah narrates immediately preceding his arrival, namely the War with Amalek. Rabbi Eliezer HaModai suggests that the Torah is foreshadowing – Yitro heard the immediately following episode, namely the Giving of the Torah.  Rabbi Eliezer suggests that the Torah is in actual chronological order – Yitro heard the Splitting of the Reed Sea, and the remaining episodes of last week’s parashah happened while he was en route.

Singling out the Splitting of the Reed Sea makes sense, as it represents Divine Power.  The Giving of the Torah similarly represents ultimate Revelation.  But why would Yitro be uniquely catalyzed by the War with Amalek, especially after the Splitting of the Sea failed to move him in the same way?

My usual answer is that Yitro wanted to make a contribution.  The drowning of the Mitzriyim seemed to place the Jews as mere spectators in history, the audience for dazzling Divine displays: “G-d will battle for you, and you will be silent.”  But the War with Amalek, and especially the vulnerability it revealed, showed that the Jews were expected to become actors in their own right, and to eventually solve their own problems.  So Yitro showed up, ready to dispense administrative wisdom.

Rabbi Abraham Braude of Chicago, my wife’s maternal great-great-grandfather, took a different approach.  (I am in the process of deciphering his manuscript in the hope of eventual publication.) Rabbi Braude suggests that if Yitro comes in response to Amalek’s coming, then his motivation and theirs must be connected.  They respond differently to the same stimulus.

What stimulated Amalek’s attack?  Midrash Tanchuma answers via a pun.  Amalek battled with the Jews in a place called RFYDYM, which can be revocalized (almost) as RaFu Y’DaYheM, which translates as “their hands weakened,” which the Tanchuma understands as saying that the Jews’ grip on Torah weakened. (In other versions it is their grip on mitzvot that weakens.)

This is plainly not a compelling textual basis. Moreover, it denies Amalek any agency at all. They are utterly inauthentic; they can only react to what the Jews do.  Like predators, they are ineluctably attracted to the scent of Jewish spiritual weakness.  But why does it attract them?

The Rabbis emphasize that Amalek has no material quarrel with the Jews.  Amalek is defined by having no border with the Jewish camp, and no homestead in the Jewish homeland, yet they travel a long way through others’ territory to engage the Jews in battle. Why?

As in superhero thrillers, or Citizen Kane, contemporary motivations are rooted in an origin story.  Genesis 36:12 informs us that the mother of the original Amalek was Timna, the concubine of Esav’s son Eliphaz, and in 36:22 that Timna was the sister of the chieftain Lotan.  Why would a noble woman become a concubine rather than a primary wife?  Sanhedrin 99b suggests that Timna sought to convert to Judaism, but was rejected by Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  She turned to Eliphaz in despair, even accepting a lesser position, just so as to have some relationship with a member of Avraham’s family.  She accepted her fate with great humility.  But she could not prevent her memory of rejection from scarring her children. The more impressive she became, the more they hated the people who had despised her. “Amalek came from her, that troubled Israel.  Why? Because they should not have distanced her.”

So Amalek attacks to avenge a wrongly rejected conversion, and Yitro responds by converting.

This explains why Yitro comes now, rather than later.  But why not immediately after the Exodus? Similarly, why doesn’t Amalek attack attack immediately after the Exodus?

One might cite practical logistics in each case. Rabbi Braude develops a much more involved and classically Rabbinic approach.

He starts with a fundamental theological question about the Biblical story:  Did the Jews deserve to be enslaved in Egypt, and if yes, why?  My usual suspects include Sarah’s treatment of Hagar and Yosef’s apparent enslavement of the Mitzrim to their Pharaohs. Nedarim 32a contends, however, that the Covenant Between the Pieces makes clear that the fault must be specifically laid at Avraham’s feet.

Said Rabbi Abahu said Rabbi El’azar:
Why was Avraham our Forefather punished by having his descendants enslaved to Mitzrayim for 210 years?
Because he drafted Torah scholars, as Scripture says (Genesis 14:14) “He armed his acolytes
Shmuel said:
Because he overstepped the boundaries of Hashem’s attributes, as Scripture says: “What will let me know that I will inherit it?”
Rabbi Yochanan said:
Because he separated people from entering under the Wings of the Presence, as Scripture says: “Give me the living souls, and take the property for yourself.”

How could Avraham not have recognized the prohibition of drafting Torah scholars?  Perhaps he was taking cognizance of a Talmudic conversation on Taanit 10b.

“Do not quarrel on the way” (Genesis 24:24) –
Said Rabbi El’azar:
Yosef said to his brothers: Do not become engaged in halakhic discussion, lest the road quarrel with you (-lest you get lost).
Is that so?!  But Rabbi El’ai son of Berakhyah said: Two scholars who walk on the way with no Torah discussion among them deserve to be burnt . . .
That is no difficulty – one speaks of surface study, the other of analysis.

If scholars are exempt from study while traveling, which the Talmud initially understands to be the implication of Yosef’s caution, then Avraham in fact took his acolytes away from study (when they pursued Lot’s captors all the way to Dan). But if scholars are required to study even while traveling, then why would Avraham be punished for drafting them?! Surely they met their responsibility to at least review their Torah knowledge while engaged in hot pursuit?

This issue is finally resolved when Amalek is drawn to attack by sensing a vulnerability rooted in weakened Torah study among the Jews.  This vulnerability demonstrates that the Jews were obligated in Torah study while traveling.  If so, Avraham did nothing wrong by drafting scholars.  If so, Avraham must have been punished for turning Timna away (Rabbi Braude discounts without comment the suggestion of Shmuel that he was punished for asking an inappropriate question).  If so, conversion must be possible. So Yitro sets out to join the Jews.

In Rabbi Braude’s reading, Yitro was always motivated to convert, but needed to know that he would be welcomed before taking the plunge.  This rings true to me. There are many things we know we ought to do, and even desperately want to do, and yet find ourselves not doing because they make us vulnerable to rejection.

Perhaps Timna was never formally rejected.  She came to shul for a while, and no one befriended her; or perhaps multiple people each took it upon themselves to discourage her three times, with gusto.  Conversion needs standards, and the Jewish people need borders. But the Timna story reminds us that immigration policies always have costs both ways.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Rationalism, Empiricism, and Religion

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Does G-d want believers, or rather empiricists?

A signature fallacy of contemporary thinking is the conflation of rationalism and empiricism, often under the banner of science. Rationalism and empiricism are actually radically opposed epistemologies.

Empiricism holds that truth-claims can only be verified through experience, preferably repeated experience; anything we experience – whether or not it makes sense to us – actually happened (or: is fact), and anything we don’t experience – no matter how much sense it makes to us – cannot be known to have happened. Rationalism, by contrast, holds that truth-claims can be verified through thought; things that make inevitable sense can be said to happen even if we don’t experience them, and experiences that don’t make sense are illusions or delusions.

The signature fallacy of empiricism is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (afterward, therefore because of). It cannot distinguish between “constant conjunction” and “causality.” It cannot distinguish between coincidence and connection, and is vulnerable to statistical flukes and unable to penetrate complex interrelationships.

The signature failing of rationalism is hubris, the assumption that the human brain – individual or social– is capable of knowing which potential causal mechanisms are possible and which are not. Who would have thought that microbes could cause illness in macroscopic creatures, or that flicking a switch could loose an invisible stream of energy that could heat a filament to glowing and so light a room?

Science at its best balances rationalism with empiricism – it gives more weight to experiences that accord with intuitively compelling causal mechanisms, but refuses to reject consistently repeated experiences even if they make no sense. It looks to confirm intuitively compelling (elegant) theories, but is willing to treat inelegant theories as true so long as they accord better with the available empirical data.

What about religion, and Judaism in particular?

My context is Shemot 15:22-26, the Marah episode.

The narrative begins with the Jews leaving the Reed Sea and traveling for three days in the wilderness without finding water, but apparently also without complaining. They arrive at Marah, where there is water, but the water is not potable because “bitter” – and now the complaints start. Mosheh turns immediately to G-d; G-d directs him to a tree; he (He?) tosses the tree toward the water; the water is“sweetened” (or: they “sweetened” the waters).

At this point – in the middle of verse 25 – the time-sequence becomes confused, and we are enmeshed in a thicket of pronouns with ambiguous antecedents. The narrator tells us that “there he (He?) put to them (שם שם = sham sam) a chok and a mishpat, and there he (He? they?) tested him (Him? them?).” When? Before the waters were sweetened, or after? Furthermore, the chok and mishpat are never identified, and we are not told the outcome of the test.

Finally, someone (Mosheh? Hashem?) makes a statement: “If you surely heed the voice of Hashem our G-d, and you do what is straight in His eyes, and you hearken to His mitzvoth, and you observe all His chukim – (then) all the illnesses which I have put (שמתי) in Egypt I will not put (אשים) on you, because I am Hashem your healer.” It is not made explicit whether or how this statement relates to either the sweetening of the water or the chok, mishpat, and test. However, the language of the statement incorporated both the verb שם and the term chok.

The earliest interpretive traditions we have wonder how G-d can describe Himself as our healer if He will never make us ill. Their solution is that preventive medicine is healing-in-advance, and that the verse should not be understood as a promise-of-reward – “if you do what is straight etc. then I will not place the illnesses etc.” – but rather as a natural consequence – “if you do what is straight etc., then you will not become ill.”

But how can obedience to Divine commandments yield health? Here the Derashot HaRan (Derashah #6) offers a reading that connects all three elements of the episode, as follows: The tree – let us assume that it was a tree that by nature would add bitterness to water – sweetened the water solely because Mosheh tossed it there in fulfillment of a Divine chok. G-d then commands additional chukim, which He can do effectively because He has already demonstrated their effectiveness – by sweetening the water, his chok passed the test! He can therefore plausibly tell the Jews that obeying all his chukim will have the physical effect of preventing illness. In other words, He empirically demonstrated a causal relationship between commandedness and effectiveness in a specific case (empiricism), and then asked that we recognize this as an intuitively compelling general relationship (rationalism).

Derashot HaRan presents G-d as acknowledging and perhaps even endorsing empiricism – the Jews would not, and likely should not, accept commandments which seem purposeless, but they should accept the results of His experiment as proof that His commandments are purposeful, even if the methods by which they achieve their purposes are inscrutable.

Rabbeinu Bechayay (Commentary to Shemot) goes further. He asserts that the distinction between chukim and mishpatim popularized by Rashi, that chukim are rationally incomprehensible while mishpatim are rationally comprehensible, applies as well to medicine, and chok and mishpat here refer to cures rather than commandments. G-d taught Mosheh at Marah both natural and “magical” (segulah) cures; the Jews correctly would have accepted only the natural had the effectiveness of the “magical” not been experimentally demonstrated by the tree’s capacity to sweeten water. The tree’s effectiveness is not a function of the Divine command to use it; rather, G-d commanded Mosheh to use this tree because it would work, albeit not via a physically explicable causal mechanism.

Here I think Rabbeinu Bechayay diverges from Rambam. Rambam held that apparent segulah cures whose effectiveness had been experimentally demonstrated were not violations of darkhei emori because the fact that they were effective demonstrated that they were not magical at all – he does not allow for the possibility of effective magic. The question is whether the issue between Rabbeinu Bechaya and Rambam is more than semantic, i.e. whether Rambam simply calls paraphysical causality natural when it works, or whether he assumes physical causality even where its basis is unknown. My sense is the latter.

Where they agree, however, is that G-d set out to give the Jews an experience that would let them make an empiricist case for the effectiveness of religion, rather than simply asking them to believe it, or asking them to practice it regardless of its effectiveness.

Now this likely sets up a future epistemological crisis: What are Jews to do if they – to the best of their knowledge – are keeping the commandments, and yet they keep falling ill? Should they – as good empiricists – assume that the connection between commandment-observance and health is false (and therefore reinterpret the Torah so that it no longer claims that this connection is factually true), or rather – as good rationalists – should they assume that they have not in fact kept the commandments (or that they are not in fact ill)?

My tentative argument here is that the experiment of the tree teaches us that G-d wants us to question our religious paradigms when they don’t seem borne out by the empirical evidence. This does not mean that we should reject them when they don’t seem to be borne out – but we should consider the possibility that we have misunderstood.

Some concrete examples I have in mind are the propositions that ritual observance generates ethical improvement and that insulating a community from external influence improves its ethical sensibility. Do these match our experience? If not, should we assume that the propositions are false (and were falsely attributed to the tradition), or rather that we are misevaluating levels of observance, or degrees of insulation?

What causal propositions about religion does Modern Orthodoxy in particular assert, and how well do they conform to empirical experience?

Shabbat shalom!

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2014.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Dependent and Grateful

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dan Margulies

What berakha does one say over manna? At first glance this question seems anachronistic and perhaps even fanciful. The various blessings were established at the earliest in the second-temple period (traditionally attributed to Ezra and Anshei Keneset Hagedola) and were edited and refined throughout the Talmudic period. Nonetheless, this question has the potential to help elucidate the precise meaning and significance of the recitation of some of the blessings before and after eating.

According to Rabbi Yehuda Hehasid (Sefer Hasidim §1640) and Rabbi Menahem Azaria da Fano (Maamar Shabbetot Hashem) just like we recite the blessing “ … hamotzi lehem min ha’aretz” over bread which is made from earthly grains, the generation of the exodus correspondingly recited the following blessing over the manna: “ … hamotzi lehem min hashamayim” —thanking God for bringing forth bread from the heavens (cf. Shemot 16:4 where God promises to “rain down for you bread from the heavens”). Modern skeptics might dismiss this as merely a “cute” idea, but it highlights the similarities and differences between human existence in the wilderness under God’s constant care, and human existence after we entered the land of Israel and began farming and producing food (as if) on our own.

This opinion emphasizes that the place of origin of the food—heaven or earth—is crucial to how we conceptualize and cognize the act of receiving that food and eating it. Food which is granted directly by Divine grace is acknowledged as such, and food which is grown from the ground with extensive human input and effort in a months-long and multi-stage process is acknowledged as such (cf. Ben Zoma in Tosefta Berakhot 6:5). The suggestion that the blessing must reflect the place of origin of the food makes clear that at the moment before eating, it is relevant and worthwhile to pause and recall how the food was produced and the people who made it possible, all the while recognizing that everything that exists exists because of God and everything that humans have been able to innovate and develop has been through faculties granted to us by God.

The blessing recited after eating manna is less surprising and better documented, and highlights a counterpoint about the role of blessings in acknowledging the origins of our food. The gemara in Berakhot 48b quotes Rav Nahman as having taught: “Moshe established birkat hazan [the first blessing of Birkat Hamazon] for Israel when the manna fell for them. Yehoshua established birkat ha’aretz [the second blessing of Birkat Hamazon] for them when they entered the land …”

According to Rav Nahman, the prototypical form of Birkat Hamazon that was recited in the wilderness included only the first blessing that recognizes God as providing food and sustenance for all of creation. For 40 years eating manna the people recited the same birkat hazan that we do, and upon entering the land and beginning to farm, a second blessing needed to be added. This claim highlights the ways in which the manna and normal earthly bread are similar—both deserve to have birkat hazan recited over them. This is because after we have eaten, the gratitude we are meant to express focuses not on the precise origin of the food we ate or the process it took to get it to us, but on the universal human and animal (and plant) need to be sustained by nutrients, and that we exist and continue to exist only through God’s goodness and grace. Both the particular and the general, both mediated Divine grace and direct Divine grace, are appropriate modes through which to frame our relationship to the food we eat, and how we receive it. And since we model our recitation of blessings daily on the blessings that were once recited over the miraculous manna, we see our own relationship to food in the frame provided by the narratives of the Torah.

Dan Margulies (WBM 2016) received semikha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2017 and currently serves as the Rabbi of The Riverdale Minyan in Bronx, NY.


Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah

May You Cheer When Your Enemies are Punished for Cheering When You Were Punished?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In the still-relevant 1958 Vietnam satire The Ugly American, Ambassador “Lucky” Lou Sears wonders why the “Sarkhanese” masses aren’t grateful for the enormous bags of rice the US ships in as foreign aid. It turns out that communist agents have been stenciling “A gift from the USSR” on all the bags in the local language, which no one at the embassy could read.

I was reminded of Lucky Lou’s misadventures by one Rabbinic approach to Shemot 12:29.

וַיְהִ֣י׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה
וַֽיקֹוָק֘ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֘ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒
מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ
עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר
וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה:

It was at the night’s midpoint
that Hashem struck down every firstborn in the Land of Egypt
from the firstborn [?of?] Pharaoh sitting on his throne
until the firstborn captive in the underground cell
and every firstborn cattle.

Why was it necessary to strike down foreign captives, who presumably suffered along with the Jews rather than oppressing them? Rashi to Shemot 11:5 writes:

למה לקו השבויים?
כדי שלא יאמרו
יראתם תבעה עלבונם והביאה פורענות על מצרים

Why were the captives affected by the plague?
So that they not be able to say that
the god they worshiped sought compensation for their shame and brought punishment on Egypt

In other words, lots of innocent foreigners died lest they stencil falsehoods on Hashem’s bags of gift rice, or napalm.

There are purely rational reasons for rejecting this approach. Was there really no other way to make the point clear? For example: Some commentators hold that absolutely no Jewish firstborns died that night. Simply having the usual percentage of natural deaths among foreign captives should therefore make the point. Even if you worry that some subgroups of captives were so small that no firstborn natural deaths were scheduled that night, a few surgically targeted killings could have made the necessary point, even if there were no effective means of counter-stenciling other than death.

But the real issue is moral: if the captives were innocent, was it really just to kill them for the sake of clarifying a message?

Many commentators seek instead to challenge their innocence. The captives participated in the enslavement of the Jews, or they expressed a preference for staying enslaved to going free if that meant freeing the Jews as well.

Others point out that Mosheh’s foreshadowing of the tenth plague in 11:5 does not mention captives:

וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֘ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒
מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ
עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם
וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die
from the firstborn [?of?] Pharaoh sitting on his throne
until the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the grindstone
and every firstborn cattle.

We can therefore identify the maidservant’s children with the captives, and suggest that they were in fact mitzrim. Perhaps Mosheh spoke during the day, when they were put to work, whereas the plague happened at night, when they were locked up (see e.g. Keli Yakar).

There are other approaches that seek to mitigate the moral challenge. My own preference – I don’t think it is original with me, and welcome references to earlier sources – is to

  1. identify the “captives” not as captured slaves but rather as royal hostages, the firstborns of vassals, kept in luxurious confinement, and
  2. adopt the approach of Beit Yaakov Lehavah that Mosheh’s foreshadowing left out firstborn captives because they still had a choice to avoid death by identifying with the enslaved Jews rather than with the enslaving mitzrim. Many of them may have converted; those who remained steadfast anti-Semites were killed in the plague.

One last approach to mitigation seems radically self-undermining. Here is Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael:

ללמדך שכל גזירות שהיה פרעה גוזר על ישראל – היו השבויין שמחין בהם
שנא’ שמח לאיד לא ינקה (משלי יז ה)
וכתיב בנפול אויבך אל תשמח (משלי כד יז)

To teach you that all the decrees which Pharaoh decreed upon Israel – the captives celebrated them
as Scripture says: “One who rejoices at a time of retribution will not get away clean,”
and it says “When your enemy falls – do not rejoice.”

I think it’s hard to read Torah and think we’re not supposed to celebrate the manifestation of G-d’s power in the deaths of the captive firstborns. Aren’t we then committing the sin whose punishment we are celebrating?

I think the answer is yes, but living out that paradox may be important. Which brings me to another story.

On October 12 of last year, a 47 year-old Palestinian woman name Aisha Mohammed Rabi was killed by stones thrown at her car. Several teenage yeshiva students were arrested this week as suspects in her murder.

In the aftermath, people noted a deep tension between two rabbinic responses. One response was to make sure that the yeshiva students had a proper defense team and would be protected from extreme questioning. This rose to the point of permitting Biblical violations of Shabbat to ensure that they would be prepared for or protected from enhanced interrogation, with the formal rationale that such interrogations often led to attempted suicide. A very different proclamation (full disclosure: that I signed on to) called upon the government to make sure that this murder was investigated to the limits of the law, and to the same standards as if the nationalities of victim and suspects were reversed. (It explicitly bracketed the question of whether standard Shin Bet interrogation techniques should be modified for ethical reasons.)

As an American, I don’t see this kind of situation as necessarily paradoxical. We have a (very British) adversarial system of justice. Every U.S. citizen is presumed to have a systemic interest in ensuring the best possible prosecution and defense. But we also often have a rooting interest for one side or the other.

The rabbinic responses seemed to come from very different cheering sections. That is to say, the author of the first response was thought to be rooting for the prosecution to fail even if the suspects were guilty, whereas the signatories of the public want the suspects convicted if they were guilty, and can reasonably (though maybe not compellingly) be charged with paying insufficient attention to procedural rules that might for example diminish the risk of false confessions etc, even though they might also lead to false acquittals.

But what if we see them as sharing a systemic interest? What if we held that it is really important for those guilty of murder to be convicted, especially when such a large element of chillul Hashem is involved (see Meshekh Chokhmah’s argument that chillul Hashem makes killing nonJews worse than killing Jews), and held that it is very important for those innocent of murder not to be convicted, and that the perception of chillul Hashem is often a motive for scapegoating, and so suspects in such cases need extra protection (as would suspects in cases that arouse massive communal anger)?

The Torah’s ideal is not ideological and temperamental uniformity. A healthy Torah polity is one in which people’s very different opinions and emotions create a dynamic equilibrium that inhibits extremism but enables creativity. Some of us can focus on saying Hallel when our enemies fall, some of us on not rejoicing at anyone’s downfall, and some of us on carefully distinguishing when we should from when we should not.

I root passionately for the latter to be the default setting of our community, and there are extremes I cannot abide, morally or Jewishly. For example: If there is a rabbi who genuinely hopes that Jews who murdered a random Palestinian women are not convicted of their crimes, I want him removed from Torah authority and influence, regardless of his scholarship. But I was glad to be challenged by friends and students about whether I was rushing toward judgment in this case, and tolerating or even condoning investigative techniques that in other cases I would oppose with might and main.

It is good to be part of small communities in which moral challenge is an essential part of friendship and collegiality. It would be great if we could restore that notion to our larger communities.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah

Reconciling the Torah’s Different Presentations of the Korban Pesach

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

Parshat Bo contains the first command to B’nei Yisrael to bring the Korban Pesach. The command is repeated in Sefer D’varim, in Parshat Re’eh, but with a number of important differences.

  1. Manner of cooking: In Parshat Bo (12:8-9), we are told that the Korban Pesach must be made צלי אש (roasted with fire) and not מבושל במים (boiled in water). In Parshat Re’eh (16:7) we are told, ובשלת, specifically using the verb that we were told not to do in Parshat Bo.
  2. Which animals: In Parshat Bo (12:5) we are told the Korban Pesach must be a sheep or goat. In Parshat Re’eh (16:2), we are told cattle are acceptable as well.

Each of these contradictions can be explained locally. Ibn Ezra (on D’varim 16:7) quotes a verse to demonstrate that the root בשל in Biblical Hebrew, when unmodified by “in water,” can refer to any type of food preparation, not merely boiling. Thus, there is no explicit contradiction regarding the manner of preparation. Onkelos (on D’varim 16:2–paralleling the Sifrei) repunctuates the verse in Re’eh to eliminate the contradiction about the type of animal the Korban Pesach is brought from. Rather than reading it as, “You shall offer a Pesach to God out of sheep/goats (צאן) or cattle,” he reads it as “You shall offer a Pesach to God out of צאן, and also [other sacrifices] of cattle.” While these approaches may eliminate the technical contradictions, they do not explain why the Torah chose to use such ambiguous language in D’varim.

Shadal (on D’varim 16:2) offers a temptingly simple global solution to the problem. We know Parshat Bo contains many details, like putting the blood on the doorpost, which clearly only applied to the first Pesach. This can explain the other differences as well. The requirement to roast the meat over fire, and to bring it from sheep or goats, but not cattle, applied only to the first Pesach. In subsequent years, one would be allowed to bring even cattle and to prepare it in any way you wanted to. As for the fact that we know this is not true halachically, he says that there is a d’rabanan requirement to continue roasting it and using only sheep or goats as a remembrance of the first Pesach. As tempting as this solution may sound, it is quite clearly rejected by the tradition of Torah She-b’al peh, not merely because there is no evidence that roasting the Korban Pesach is d’rabanan, but also because the Mechilta (Parshat Bo, Masechta d’Pischa 4) explicitly raises Shadal’s suggestion and resoundingly rejects it.

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (on D’varim 16:7) points out that the approach we quoted earlier from Onkelos and the Sifrei actually works to explain both difficulties we are dealing with. Once we accept that the section in D’varim is dealing both with the Korban Pesach and with other sacrifices, we can understand why it used the generic בשל to describe the method of cooking. Since we are talking about two different Korbanot, we use a term that can describe the respective preparation of each in its own way. What’s more, Hirsch points out, this interpretation goes back much farther in history than the Sifrei. As mentioned earlier, Ibn Ezra quotes a verse to demonstrate that that roasting can also be described with the verb בשל. If we look more closely, we see that the verse he is quoting is from the description of King Yoshiyahu’s Korban Pesach in Sefer Divrei Hayamim (Divrei Hayamim II 35:7-13). It first describes them taking sheep and goats for the Pesach and cattle for other sacrifices. It then says that they cooked (בשל) the Pesach over fire and cooked (בשל) the other sacrifices in pots. The flow of the entire passage demonstrates that they are basing how they bring their Korban Pesach off of their interpretation of the passage in D’varim. If the passage was interpreted this way as far back as we have records of people living by it, that’s pretty good evidence for the correctness of the interpretation.

The Netziv (Ha’amek Davar on D’varim 16:2) points out that this explanation is still incomplete because it still doesn’t explain why the Torah includes these other sacrifices together with its description of the Korban Pesach. To explain this, Rabbi Yehuda Rock of Machon Herzog ( suggests that what we are actually dealing with here is two aspects of the Korban Pesach. The aspect described in Bo is about affirming our faith in God and rejection of Egyptian culture by sacrificing the to’avat Mitzrayim and roasting it whole for all to see. In Re’eh, the Torah is describing a sacrifice meant to rejoice with God and express our gratitude for the harvest of the land, just like the other holiday sacrifices described in Re’eh. Sometimes both of these aspects are fulfilled in a single Korban, which then obviously must fulfill the stringencies of both aspects. However, we also have the option, under certain circumstances, of fulfilling each aspect with a separate Korban, in which case the Pesach follows the rules laid out in Bo and the other sacrifice, which Halacha terms the Chagiga of the 14th, follows the rules laid out in Re’eh. This explains why the Gemara (Pesachim 71a) is able to learn details about the Chagiga of the 14th based on the entire section about the Korban Pesach in Re’eh, and at the same time how there can be a Biblically-mandated Korban that is sometimes not brought (see Mishnah on Pesachim 69b; this is contra the opinion of Tosafot on 70a that the Chagiga of the 14th is d’rabanan). Thus, through analyzing how Nach and Midreshei Halacha are subtly interpreting the contradictions between Bo and Re’eh, we get not merely a technical resolution, but a deep new understanding into the nature of the Korban Pesach.


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. He lives in West Hartford with his wife Molly and their son Elie.


Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni devar Torah

Pharaoh’s Free Will, and Ours

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

I cannot find any pattern in Pharaoh’s reactions to the plagues.  Let me show you what I mean, and then we’ll talk about whether the absence of any such pattern affects our understanding of the narrative, rather than simply reflecting a lack of imagination on my part.

There really are (at least) ELEVEN DEMONSTRATIONS rather than TEN PLAGUES. Mosheh’s first appearance before Pharaoh involves his and Aharon’s staffs turning into snakes. Everything about that episode formally matches the structure of the plagues; it’s just that the audience is limited to the Egyptian Court.  So we’ll number the elements of the narrative 0-10, with zero being SNAKES and ten being FIRSTBORNS. (Rabbi Yehudah would have given you the acronym: SoBFLaBMoBHoLDoF.)

Here are what I see as the four key elements of the Torah’s descriptions of Pharaoh’s reactions.

A. What is the root of the verb which describes the condition of his heart

0. chzk 1. chzk 2. kbd   3. chzk 4. kbd 5. kbd 6. chzk 7. chzk 8. chzk 9. chzk 10. NA

B. Does his heart gain strengthen or harden itself, or does he consciously do this, or does G-d do it?

0. itself   1. itself   2. he   3.itself   4.he   5. itself   6. G-d   7. itself   8. G-d   9. G-d   10. NA

C. Does the Torah say that Hashem predicted Pharaoh’s reaction?

0. Yes   1. Yes   2. Yes   3. Yes   4. No     5. No     6. Yes   7. Yes   8. No     9. No     10. NA

D. Does Pharaoh at first make an admission of guilt or a concession?
0. No     1. No     2. Yes   3. No     4. Yes   5. No     6. No     7. Yes   8. Yes   9. Yes   10. NA

The absence of clear patterns almost jumps off the page.

What does this mean? One option is that the Torah is written loosely, so that different roots can be used interchangeably, and there is no significance to whether a verb is passive or active, and so on.  We might call this an Ibn Ezra approach. A second is that the story is not, in its details, the inexorable unfolding of a Divine plan. G-d and Mosheh and Aharon do not know in advance how Pharaoh will react to their provocations; sometimes he confounds His and their expectations and sets the whole process back, and they have to retrace the steps of his conditioning.

I have a bias toward the second approach.  Let’s see what opportunities it opens for interpreting Demonstration 5, the plague of MURRAIN. Here’s the relevant text (9:4-7):

וְהִפְלָ֣ה יְקֹוָ֔ק בֵּ֚ין מִקְנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּבֵ֖ין מִקְנֵ֣ה מִצְרָ֑יִם

וְלֹ֥א יָמ֛וּת מִכָּל־לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל דָּבָֽר:

וַיָּ֥שֶׂם יְקֹוָ֖ק מוֹעֵ֣ד לֵאמֹ֑ר

מָחָ֗ר יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה יְקֹוָ֛ק הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה בָּאָֽרֶץ:

וַיַּ֨עַשׂ יְקֹוָ֜ק אֶת־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת

וַיָּ֕מָת כֹּ֖ל מִקְנֵ֣ה מִצְרָ֑יִם

וּמִמִּקְנֵ֥ה בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹא־מֵ֥ת אֶחָֽד:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֔ה

וְהִנֵּ֗ה לֹא־מֵ֛ת מִמִּקְנֵ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַד־אֶחָ֑ד

וַיִּכְבַּד֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה

וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָעָֽם:

G-d will distinguish between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Mitzrayim
and nothing (davar) from anything belonging to Israel will die.
Hashem set a time, saying:
Tomorrow Hashem will do this thing in the land.
Hashem did this thing on the morrow
All the cattle of Egypt died
but from the cattle of the Children of Israel not one died (lo meit echad)
Pharaoh sent
and behold! There did not die from among the cattle of the Children of Israel even one (ad echad)
Pharaoh’s heart hardened
and he did not send forth the nation.

The psychological difficulty in the passage is evident.  Pharaoh sends to see whether G-d’s prediction that not even one Jewish head of cattle would die. The report he receives confirms the miracles.  Yet he does not free the Jews! Literarily, the best reading would have Pharaoh reaffirming his defiance because of the report.  But can that make any psychological sense?

The passage has three descriptions of what happened to the Jewish cattle. G-d predicts to Mosheh that no davar from among them will die; the narrator confirms that not one (echad) among them died; and then Pharaoh receives a report confirming that not even up to one (ad echad) among them died. It seems plausible to suggest that the differences between these reports are significant. And while I have not found any explanations of the difference between davar and echad (other than suggesting that davar is a play on the potential cause of death, the murrain/dever), the commentaries have a plethora of explanations for the difference between echad and ad echad, most of which assume that echad is the Divine perspective while ad echad is Pharaoh’s.

Let’s start with Shmot Rabbah 11:4. “What is the meaning of ‘ad echad?’ Even a head of cattle belonging half to a non-Jew and half to a Jew did not die.”

The semantic claim of this midrash is that ad echad means “even less than one,” with ad perhaps translated as “approaching.” A key difficulty with this midrash is that Shemot 14:28 states that the waters of the Reed Sea covered over the charging Egyptian troops such that ad echad of them was not left, and it seems implausible to suggest that the phrase was intended to emphasize that even ambivalent Egyptians died. (The same difficulty applies to Judges 4:16, where Sisera’s army has not ad echad left, and 2 Samuel 17:22, where David’s entire entourage escapes across a river.) Nonetheless, the sociological assumption of the midrash is fascinating. Jews and Egyptians owned cattle together, as formal partners!

Netziv points out that this midrash can be used to explain the continuity of the verse.  Pharaoh was looking for a way to avoid facing the implications of the plague. What if there were cattle of ambiguous identity that survived? Pharaoh could regard them as Egyptian, and thus as evidence that the plague had not gone as Mosheh predicted.

However, Netziv does not agree that ad echad includes animals owned by partners. Perhaps the existence of such a partnership did not match his conception of a master-slave society, or perhaps he thought that Pharaoh would understand that Mosheh’s prediction would come down on the side of such animals’ surviving. Netziv therefore suggests that ad echad includes animals that were owned by Egyptians but rented by Jews for their milk or shearings.

Ibn Ezra notes that a midrash takes ad echad in the opposite direction in Shemot 14:28, saying that it leaves open the possibility of one survivor – Pharaoh himself. Ibn Ezra rejects this out of hand because Tehillim 106:11 states that “not echad of them was left over,” and Tehillim 136:15 states that G-d drowned “Pharaoh and his soldiers.”

The midrash presumably contends that Pharaoh was drowned along with his men, but not drowned to death.  But what then would ad echad mean in our context?  Which animal uniquely survived, and thus fooled Pharaoh? Various commentators come up with ways for one Egyptian to have illicitly possessed one animal that G-d considered Jewish, but none of them are compelling.

Malbim takes ad echad back the other way. Pharaoh expected one animal to survive that did not.  There was one human being who was half-Jewish and half-Egyptian; the son of Shlomit bat Divri and an Egyptian man, who ends up cursing G-d (Vayikra 24:10-12). Since before Sinai the halakhah used patrilineal descent, G-d treated him as Egyptian, and killed his animal. But Pharaoh saw him as Jewish, and therefore saw his animal’s death as undoing Mosheh’s prediction that no Jewish cattle would die.

(We could easily reverse Malbim’s argument, and have the animal confound Pharaoh by surviving.  But Malbim thinks that Vayikra makes clear that the Jews did not see the man as Jewish without conversion, and he thinks the way to explain that is by saying that matrilineality was the law only for children born post-Sinai. But Pharaoh used the Nuremberg standard.)

All these approaches beg an important question. They all assume that the plague failed to convince Pharaoh because he made an error of fact or law, whereas G-d knows all.  But couldn’t G-d have solved the problem by acting in accordance with Pharaoh’s erroneous assumptions, and thus brought the Jews out five plagues earlier?  Maybe not.  Maybe G-d cannot act unjustly even for a just end.

Or: Perhaps human beings have an infinite capacity to find linguistic loopholes in predictions.  No matter how closely G-d tried to match Pharaoh’s expectations, he would have found the gap.  Ultimately, we are only convinced when we are willing to be convinced. This of course is true of the Jews as well as Pharaoh.

This seems to me the best explanation of the psychological messiness of the plague narrative. G-d cannot manipulate Pharaoh absolutely, or else He would be able to manipulate us.  A perfectly linear Exodus narrative would have taught the Jews that G-d’s grant of human free will is not sincere. Watching Pharaoh struggle with G-d teaches us instead that He is sincere, and that we cannot blame Him for our own choices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized, Weekly Devar Torah