The Center for Modern Torah Leadership is excited to share the 2019 CMTL Reader, a collection of the top works written by Rabbi Klapper and/or published by the CMTL in 2019. We hope you enjoy!
Monthly Archives: December 2019
by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Let’s grant a number of assumptions:
- Kohanim are generally forbidden to contract corpse-tum’ah
- Corpse-tum’ah can be contracted either from a corpse, or else from a metal object that has contracted it from a corpse
- Raavad holds that a kohen is not prohibited from contracting corpse-tum’ah from a metal object that has contracted it from a corpse.
- Raavad (Commentary to Mishneh Torah, Laws of Nezirut 5:15-17) holds that a kohen who has already contracted corpse-tum’ah is not prohibited from further contact with a corpse. (For an excellent treatment of the controversy about the Raavad’s position, see the article by Rabbi Yaakov Jaffe and Rabbi David Shabtai here.)
On the basis of these assumptions, one can reasonably conclude that, according to Raavad, it is permitted for a kohen to deliberately acquire corpse-tum’ah from a metal object (“sword”), and having done so, to deliberately come into contact even with corpses.
Is this outcome possible?
Rabbi Nachum Weidenfeld, (Responsa Chazon Nachum 1:115) in a letter dated 5697, cites Responsa Shaarei Hazekeinim (I have not found the original) as rejecting this possibility.
דאיך אפשר לומר
דנטמא בטומאת חרב כחלל אין כהן מוזהר אח”כ לטמא עצמו במת,
דא”כ, בטלה טומאת כהנים לגמרי,
שהרי יש תחבולה לכהן תמיד . . .
How is it possible to say
that a kohen who acquired corpse-tum’ah via a sword is not prohibited afterward to touch a corpse;
if so, the (prohibition against) kohanim becoming tamei has become a complete nullity,
as there will be an always-available tactic that a kohen can use (to avoid the prohibition)!?
The premise of Shaar Hazekeinim’s question appears to be that Torah laws must always have practical application. Rabbi Weidenfeld accepts this premise; but he aligns it with one side of a broad dispute about the nature of halakhah.
אבל הנ”ל בזה
הנה שי’ הראב”ד ז”ל הוא על יסוד מתני’ דשמחות (פ”ד מט”ז)
דפליגי ר”ט ור”ע בנטמא בו ביום
דר”ט מחייב ור”ע פוטר
ועתו”ס שבועות (י”ז)
וע”כ שי’ הראב”ד
דגם עכשיו בזה”ז שכולנו ט”מ
והוי נטמא בו ביום
דליכא אי’ טומאת כהנים לר”ע,
ולפי”ז נראה דר”ט ור”ע אזלי לשיטתי’
דלא קשה לר”ע דא”כ בטלה טומאת כהנים בכל זמן ע”י תחבולה שיטמא עצמו מתחלה בטומאת חרב כחלל דאליבא דר”ע אין קושי’ דמאי בכך שהרי במתני’ דזבים (פ”ב מ”ב) ר”ע אומר אכל כל מאכל ושתה כל משקין אמרו לו אין כאן זבין מעתה, אמר להם אין אחריות זבין עליכם,
ולפי”ז הכ”נ יאמר ר”ע אין אחריות טומאת כהנים עליכם
דאם באמת יעשה תחבולה לטמא עצמו תחלה בטומאת חרב
לא יהי’ עליו אי’ טומאת כהנים בכל זמן
ולכך שפיר אמר ר”ע דנטמא בו ביום דפטור
אבל ר”ט ס”ל כאמרו לו אין כאן זבין מעתה
לכך ס”ל ג”כ דאפי’ נטמא בו ביום חייב
דאס”ד דפטור א”כ אין טומאת כהנים מעתה ע”פ תחבולה לטמא עצמו תחלה בטומאת חרב,
והיא הערה יקרה:
What seems correct to me in this matter is
that Raavad’s position is founded on a dispute in Tractate Smachot (4:16)
where R. Akiva and R. Tarfon disagree regarding a kohen who contracted corpse-tum’ah earlier that day
that R. Tarfon forbids him to contract tum’ah again, but R. Akiva permits – (see Tosafot Shavuot 17).
Raavad must hold that
nowadays, when we have all contracted corpse-impurity (and have no means of removing it),
we are all considered “having become tamei earlier that day,”
so according to R. Akiva we have no further prohibition against becoming tamei,
and it turns out that R. Akiva and R. Tarfon are consistent with their positions elsewhere,
meaning that R. Akiva would not be bothered by the challenge “if so, the (prohibition against) kohanim becoming tamei has become a complete nullity”,
since according to R. Akiva that is not a challenge – what is the difficulty?!
since in Mishnah Zavim 2:2 we read:
“Rabbi Akiva says:
If he even ate any food or drank any drink (he is not a zav);
They said to him:
If so, there will be no zavim!?
He replied: The responsibility (for the existence of zavim) is not yours.”
So here too, R. Akiva would say “you have no responsibility for the existence of kohein-tum’ah,”
and by using this stratagem of first becoming sword-tamei –
he would never be subject to the prohibition,
therefore R. Akiva says that if he became tamei earlier that day – he is exempt,
but R. Tarfon holds like the response to R. Akiva there that “If so, there would be no zavim!?”
therefore Rabbi Tarfon holds that if he became tamei earlier that day – he is liable,
since if he were exempt, “there would be no prohibition of kohen-tum’ah” via this stratagem.
This is a valuable insight.
According to Rabbi Wiedenfeld, Rabbi Tarfon rejects interpretations according to which a Torah law might always be evaded, even though the law remains logically coherent and practically possible. Rabbi Akiva, by contrast, has no difficulty accepting such interpretations. Rabbi Weidenfeld does not decide between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon.
Rabbi Yitzchak Avi Liebes, in his Kuntrus Rofei Kol Basar, adopts Rabbi Wiedenfeld’s interpretive approach. However, he decides that since halakhah generally follows Rabbi Akiva against Rabbi Tarfon, this understanding of Raavad’s position can be used as a ground for permitting a kohen to accept an organ donated from a cadaver.
In Igrot Mosheh 1YD:230:6, Rabbi Mosheh Feinstein disagrees strongly with Rabbi Liebes. on two grounds.
First, he argues that the existence of such a stratagem is indirectly but clearly inconsistent with a set of Talmudic statements.
הוא תירוץ דחוק
באמר לו אביו היטמא שלא ישמע לו,
שהוא באינו מוצא כלי שנגע במת ליטמא ביה תחלה,
וכן באבדה שהיא בבית הקברות,
שאיירי ג”כ באופן שעד שישיג כלי שנגע במת ליטמא בו תחלה לא תהיה האבדה שם,
וכן מה שנזכר בדברי אגדה לשון “מה לכהן בביה”ק” לא שייך זה,
דגם כהנים הרי אפשר להם להיות מצויין בביה”ק
ע”י שיטמאו תחלה בכלים שנגעו במת.
This (Rabbi Wiedenfeld’s interpretation, as presented by Rabbi Liebes) is a forced solution
as anyone holding it will be forced to say
that when the Talmud says that when a kohen’s father tells him to become tamei, that he should not obey, that this refers to a case in which he could not find a metal implement that had touched a corpse from which to acquire corpse-tum’ah,
and similarly, when the Talmud says that a kohen must not recover a lost object that is in a cemetery,
it refers to a case in which the lost object would no longer be there by the time he found a metal object from which to acquire corpse-tum’ah,
and similarly the aggadic question “What is a kohen doing in the cemetery?” has no place,
since kohanim can frequent cemeteries
if they previously acquire corpse-tum’ah from metal objects that contacted corpses.
Secondly, and more directly relevant to our topic, Rabbi Feinstein argues that Rabbi Akiva’s position regarding zavim has no relevance to the case at hand.
ועצם הדמיון לזבים אינו אליבא דסברא,
דדין זבים לא איכפת לן שיארע זה כלל,
ורק שאמרה תורה שאם יארע דבר זה שיהיה זב – יהיה טמא,
ולכן אף שהוא רחוק שיארע, ואפשר שלא יארע לעולם –
שייך למינקט הדין,
וכמו בבן סורר ומורה, וכמו בעיר הנדחת,
ששייך למינקט הדין אף למ”ד שלא יארע לעולם,
כדאיתא בסנהדרין דף ע”א,
אבל איסור טומאה לכהנים,
שהוא קפידת התורה שהכהנים יהיו טהורים מטו”מ מצד קדושתן –
מסתבר שהאיסור הוא באופן שלא יוכלו להיטמא ע”י עצה קלה,
ויש ודאי אחריות לאיסור טומאת כהנים
ולכן הוא תירוץ דחוק.
ומצד חומר הקושיא אפשר יש לומר . . .
The fundamental comparison to zav is not reasonable.
because the law of zavim – we are not bothered if it never happens,
just the Torah said that if this happens, that he is a zav – he will be tamei,
therefore – even though a position makes it unlikely to happen, and possibly to never happen –
we can adopt it as the law,
just as regarding the Rebellious Son, and the Idolatrous City,
where it is possible to decide the law even according to the position that holds it will never happen,
as we find on Sanhedrin 71,
but the prohibition against kohanim becoming tamei,
which reflects the Torah’s insistence that kohamin be tahor from corpse-tum’ah because of their sanctity– it is reasonable that the prohibition is made in a way would not permit becoming tamei via a simple tactic, and certainly there is responsibility for the prohibition against kohanim become tamei,
that it should exist in the world.
Therefore this is a forced answer.
But because of the strength of the attack, perhaps we can say . . .
Rabbi Feinstein argues that one must determine the purpose of a Torah law in order to decide whether even Rabbi Akiva would tolerate interpretations that would make it a practical nullity. This position plainly has very broad implications. I will seek to at least begin to explore them in Part 10.
by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
“Why didn’t the Rabbi eliminate mamzerut?” This series opened with that question. We’ve learned a lot along the way, for example:
- that even in among Chazal the issue of whether Torah laws can be purely hypothetical extends beyond the famous three cases of the Rebellious Son, Idolatrous City, and Leprous House,
- that the issue might be the subject of rabbinic dispute from the Tannaitic period through our own day,
- that we need to distinguish among different forms of “interpretive elimination”
- that “never was and never will be” might be hyperbole, and
- that the answer may be different in different halakhic contexts.
Part 8 wraps up our discussion of primary sources by returning to the issue of mamzerut specifically.
The last mishnah of Tractate Eduyot (8:7) records a four-way dispute as to the role of Eliyahu HaNavi when he returns in pre-eschatological times. Our interest is in the first two positions:
אמר רבי יהושע
מקובל אני מרבן יוחנן בן זכאי
ששמע מרבו ורבו מרבו
הלכה למשה מסיני
שאין אליהו בא
לטמא ולטהר לרחק ולקרב
אלא לרחק המקורבין בזרוע ולקרב המרוחקין בזרוע
משפחת בית צריפה היתה בעבר הירדן ורחקה בן ציון בזרוע
ועוד אחרת היתה שם וקרבה בן ציון בזרוע
כגון אלו אליהו בא לטמא ולטהר לרחק ולקרב
רבי יהודה אומר
לקרב אבל לא לרחק
Said Rabbi Yehoshua:
I am in direct receipt of a tradition from Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai,
who heard it from his teacher, and his teacher from his teacher
Halakhah l’Mosheh MiSinai
that Eliyahu isn’t coming
to make lineages tamei or tahor, to distance them or bring them near,
except to distance those brought near by force, and to bring near those distanced by force.
The family House of Tzerifah was in Transjordan
and Ben Tziyyon distanced it by force,
and there was another family there
and Ben Tziyyon brought it near by force –
Eliyahu is coming
to make lineages like those tamei or tahor, to distance or bring them near
Rabbi Yehudah says:
To bring near, but not to distance.
It seems that according to Rabbi Yehoshua, the fact of descent from a halakhic mamzer will become halakhically irrelevant in Eliyahu’s time – what matters is the undoing of past injustices.
On Kiddushin 71a, Abbayay asserts that Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehudah both assumed a position later formulated explicitly by the Amora R. Yitzchak.
דאמר ר’ יצחק:
משפחה שנטמעה – נטמעה.
אף אנן נמי תנינא:
“משפחת בית הצריפה היתה בעבר הירדן וריחקה בן ציון בזרוע,
עוד אחרת היתה וקירבה בן ציון בזרוע.
כגון אלו אליהו בא לטמא ולטהר, לרחק ולקרב” –
“כגון אלו” – דידעין,
אבל משפחה שנטמעה – נטמעה.
for R. Yitzchak said:
A family that has been assimilated – has been assimilated.
We have learned this in a Mishnah:
“The family House of Tzerifah was in Transjordan,
and Ben Tziyyon distanced it by force;
and there was another family there
and Ben Tziyyon brought it near by force –
Eliyahu is coming to make lineages like those tamei or tahor, to distance or bring them near” –
“Like those” – meaning that we are aware of the facts of their lineageת
but a family that has been assimilated – has been assimilated.
According to Abbayay, Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yehudah agree that Eliyahu will not expose any invalid lineages whose status is not already known. Are they talking about descendants of mamzerim?
Kiddushin 72b records a Tannaitic dispute that seems to run along the same axis:
ממזירי ונתיני –
טהורים לעתיד לבא,
דברי ר’ יוסי;
ר’ מאיר אומר:
Mamzerim and Netinim (=Gibeonites) –
will be tahor in the Coming Future,
in the opinion of Rabbi Yose;
Rabbi Meir says:
They will not be tahor.
The Amorah Rav Yehudah cites Shmuel as stating that the Halakhah follows Rabbi Yose.
According to Rabbi Yose, mamzerim will be able to marry freely into the Jewish community in “the Coming Future.” How does “the Coming Future” relate to the time of Eliyahu’s return? How does Rabbi Yose’s apparently blanket permission relate to the position of Rabbi Yehoshua, according to whom some lineages will be distanced?
These three passages can be coordinated in many different ways. Our interest is specifically in the way Ramban assembles the jigsaw puzzle.
“כגון אלו אליהו בא לטמא ולטהר לקרב ולרחק” –
משום פסולי עבדות וחללות קאמר . .
אבל פסול ממזרות ונתינות – לא,
דאיפסקא הלכתא כרבי יוסי
דאמר שהן טהורין לעתיד לבא
ומשמע אפילו בידועים
דאלו באותן שנטמעו –
השתא נמי טהורין הם,
שאפילו היודעים בהם –
אין מעידין בהם,
לפי שהם טהורין מן התורה
וכן משמע כל הסוגיא
דרבי מאיר ורבי יוסי – לאו במשפחה שנטמעה פליגי
אלא “משפחה שנטמעה – נטמעה” –
זו דברי הכל,
וממזרי ונתיני טהורין לעתיד לבא –
פלוגתא אחריתי היא, בידועים . . .
וכי מצות לא יבא תבטל!?
אלא נוהגת היא כל ימות המשיח,
אלא הוראת שעה לממזרים שהיו בדורות שיכשרו . . .
“Eliyahu is coming to make lineages like those tamei or tahor, to distance or bring them near” –
was said regarding slave-lineages or invalidated kohen lineages . . .
but not with regard to mamzerim or netinim,
because the halakhah was decided in accordance with Rabbi Yose.
who said that mamzerim and netinim will be tahor in the Coming Future.
The implication is that he says this even about known mamzerim and netinim
because those who have been assimilated –
are tahor already now,
because even those who (have been assimilated but) are known –
we must not testify regarding them (that they are mamzerim and netinim),
because the Torah declares them tahor.
The entire Talmudic discussion also implies this,
that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yose are not arguing about a family that has been assimilated;
rather, (the position that) “A family that has been assimilated – has been assimilated” –
is a consensus,
and the issue of whether mamzerim and netinim will be tahor in the Coming Future
is a dispute on a different axis, about those whose status is known . . .
But if you were to challenge:
Will the prohibition A mamzer must not enter the congregation of Hashem be nullified?!
No – it won’t be uprooted,
rather it will be practiced throughout the Messianic Era,
just that there will be a one-time ruling that all mamzerim from past generations will be made ‘kosher’. . .
According to Ramban, it is always forbidden to expose mamzerim who have already married into the community. Therefore, when Rabbi Yose rules that all mamzerim will be eligible to marry in the Coming Future, he must mean this to apply even to mamzerim who have not yet married into the community, i.e. to people whom the community has excluded as mamzerim. This being so, it seems that the prohibition against including mamzerim will have no application in the Coming Future, which Ramban agrees is an impossible outcome! Ramban responds that according to Rabbi Yose, Eliyahu’s coming will not nullify the halakhah, but only establish a one-time amnesty. Children born of adultery or incest after the amnesty will again be excluded.
Ramban thus excludes what we might call a “category transformation.” We can understand this exclusion in at least two ways.
- Minimally, Ramban would hold that one cannot take a Torah law which applies to real-world cases and redefine it so that it now applies to a null set. In other words, one cannot say that a law which was, will never be.
- Maximally, Ramban would hold that the word mamzer in the future must have the same referent legally as it has in the past, and it would be a violation of the eternity of Torah to say that the exclusion of the mamzer from the community of Hashem no longer applies to that referent.
To avoid having his interpretation lead to a theological nonstarter, Ramban resorts to the rather extreme tactic of saying that Tanakh predicts a future hora’at sha’ah, emergency decree.
Ramban therefore appears to explicitly reject the idea that halakhists can interpret a Torah law out of existence in cases where it has previously been understood as having practical application.
by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper
Seven years ago, I began my dvar Torah for Parshat Miketz as follows:
Unexpected kindness can be as challenging to a worldview as unexpected cruelty. The Jewish experience of America is accordingly a profound challenge to any theology grounded on the inevitability of Christian anti-Semitism – הלכה עשו שונא את יעקב.
Seven years later, this sentence may seem a little naïve. Pittsburgh and Poway have chipped away at our sense of security in America. Jews on the political left are unsettled by antisemitism on the right, and Jews on the right are unsettled by antisemitism on the left, and each has a case.
Yet Deborah Klapper makes a point that is also worth noting. In the United States, essentially all government agencies at every level are genuinely opposed to anti-Semitic violence and prepared to back that opposition up with all the force at the government’s disposal. In doing so, these agencies are unquestionably expressing the democratic will of the American people. With regard to anti-Semitism, we still live in among the best of times, and in among the best of places.
What has properly changed is our increased awareness that this condition is fragile, and that its continuation cannot be taken for granted.
There are many necessary and proper ways of honoring that awareness. A central religious response must be ensuring that we are worthy of its continuation.
Seven years ago, I continued:
Our experience of America challenges us to consider, perhaps more deeply than ever before, the moral challenges of sharing power with, and therefore having genuine power over, people and communities whose characters and social behavior we respect and admire, but whose religious lives and beliefs contrast sharply with our halakhic and theological standards.
In addition to our sense that such people and communities inherently deserve our human engagement, it feels base and hypocritical to demand respect for our religious commitments if we are unwilling to reciprocate.
Yet reciprocity is not a reliable conduit to truth. It would be ironic if our response to being religiously respected was to make our religion unworthy of respect, by reducing its commitments and sensibilities to politico/theological bargaining chips.
Lord Sacks wrote The Dignity of Difference to respond to these challenges. The book has weaknesses, but I nonetheless place it in the very top echelon of contributions to Jewish thought since WWII.
Rabbi Sacks’ organizing metaphor is the narrative of the Tower of Babel. He argues that G-d wanted the people to scatter so as to generate multiplicity and diversity. A love of diversity entails a love of particularity, and Hashem drummed home that message by specifically revealing Himself to one human being, Avraham, and establishing a special relationship with his family. Judaism therefore from its inception argued that we must make space for those who are different from us.
Here is a relevant excerpt from the book.
There are indeed moral universals – the Hebrew Bible calls them “the Covenant with Noah” and they form the basis of modern codes of human rights. But they exist to create space for cultural and religious difference; the sanctity of human life, the dignity of the human person, and the freedom we need to be true to ourselves while being a blessing to others.
I will argue that the proposition at the heart of monotheism is not what it has traditionally been taken to be: one G-d, therefore one faith, one truth, one way. To the contrary, it is that unity creates diversity. The glory of the created world is its astonishing multiplicity; the thousands of languages spoken by mankind, the hundreds of faiths, the proliferation of cultures, the sheer variety of the imaginative expressions of the human spirit, in most of which, if we listen carefully, we will hear the voice of G-d telling us something we need to know. That is what I mean by the dignity of difference…
Tribalism denies rights to the outsider. Universalism grants rights if and only if the outsider conforms, assimilates, and thus ceases to be an outsider. Tribalism turns the concept of a chosen people into that of a master-race. Universalism turns the truth of a single culture into the measure of humanity . . . The critical test of any order is: Does it make space for otherness? Does it acknowledge the dignity of difference?
Rabbi Sacks argues that the Noachide Commandments are the standard for admission to Jewish Universalism. I’m not convinced that this is correct. It’s not obvious to me that the boundaries of deep engagement with nonJews in our day should be set by whether they eat the flesh of live animals, or even whether they worship images.
I suggest as an alternative a dialectical model of pluralism, modeled on many of the Rav’s theological moves. We may need most to engage precisely with those whom we disagree with most sharply. So we need to find a model of engagement that does not inhibit our capacity to oppose, and assure our engagees that we recognize and legitimate the possibility that engagement will only intensify our disagreements. If we value difference, it follows that the greater the difference, the more value. But the greatest differences are of course also those that we must most strongly oppose.
Sometimes absolute victory is necessary – “the one who comes to kill you, arise and kill him first.” Chanukah is an excellent reminder of that. Within the American polity as well, we have the obligation to advocate as strongly as we can for our vision of moral truth.
But what I suggest is that we should be hesitant about winning, that we should recognize that something of irretrievable value is lost whenever a position triumphs absolutely. This may be the rationale behind the rabbinic construction of a death penalty (absolute victory over conflicting visions of value) that is never enforced (recognition of the value of conflicting visions of value).
This December 25th, I led an all-day Yom Iyyun examining the halakhic category of Ger Toshav. One impetus for that effort was to see whether the halakhah in fact can be read as Rabbi Sacks wants it to be read, as opening space for genuinely respectful difference. A thumbnail summary is that it may be possible, but that such a reading is certainly not the current default. Maimonides in his halakhic writings prima facie rejects it completely. Because he was the only rishon to treat the issue comprehensively, there is a natural tendency to regard his formulations as dispositive. But should this be so? Much work is needed to tease out the implications of other rishonim, and the statements by acharonim, that might reduce Maimonides’ role to the (immense) dimensions it has in other areas of halakhah.
Moreover: much of Maimonides’ overall presentation seems predicated on his position that becoming a “ger toshav” requires formally committing to observance of the Seven Noachide Commandments in front of a beit din, and that a beit din would agree to witness that commitment only when conditions permit the Yovel year to come into effect. Such conditions, such as having the majority of the Jewish people living in Israel and settled by tribe, have not been in place for millennia. He thus banished the ger toshav to the hypothetical realm.
But Maimonides is adopting an apparent minority Tannaitic position, and one with a very weak Biblical grounding. What would it take to decide the halakhah against him? What weight should be given to Biblical interpreters, such as Malbim, who implicitly reject his position?
In Laws of Kings 8:11, Maimonides apparently writes that only the nonJew who becomes a ger toshav by accepting the Seven Noachide Commandments earns a place in the World to Come. Regardless of whether that should be the behavioral standard (and leaving aside his requirement that the acceptance be on the basis of Mosaic Revelation rather than intellectual decision), does it make sense to say that a nonJew can earn the World to Come only when Jews can declare the Yovel?
These are the sorts of questions that CMTL thinks are crucial. We think the answers matter as well, and not just what they are, but how solidly and honestly they are rooted in Torah.
If you agree with us that Torah can and must be humane, compassionate, responsive, and yet profoundly rigorous; if you believe that Modern Orthodox Jews can and must live integrated religious lives that infuse the entirety of their being and incorporate everything they value, without surrendering their capacity to offer authentic Torah critiques of all the societies in which they participate; then I believe CMTL is a wise investment for you, and welcome your partnership. I thank all of you who have contributed financially to CMTL’s past successes, and to sharing our Torah. Please consider making a significant donation this year. Please feel free to ask us about naming and sponsorship opportunities as well.
We’ve also officially opened recruitment for SBM 2020. If you think yourself a strong candidate for SBM, or wish to recommend others, please be in touch with us as soon as possible.
Shabbat shalom, chodesh tov, veChanukah sameiach!
This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein
After imprisoning them for three days, Tzofnat Paeneach (Joseph) presents his response to Jacob’s ten sons’ denial they are spies: one brother (Simon) must remain in jail, the rest can go home with food and but can return only if their remaining brother (Benjamin) comes with them.
At this point, the brothers appear to confess to their previous sins (Genesis 42:21):
וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אָחִיו:
אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ
אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ,
עַל כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ, הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת
And they said one to another:
‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother,
in that we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us,
and we would not hear;
therefore is this distress come upon us.
At first glance, it appears that Joseph’s tactics have led the brothers to realize they were wrong to mistreat him. Midrash Hagadol praises the brothers for beginning the process of repentance by admitting their mistake. This admission starts the process that allows Egypt’s viceroy to reveal his true identity, ending this drama.
However, this admission does not actually have the necessary completeness required for teshuvah/repentance. The brothers confess only to not having pity on Joseph after throwing him in the pit; they express no guilt at having put him there in the first place. They regret only the secondary consequences of their actions, not the initial deed.
Indeed, the speakers of this confession are described with the same phrase (37:19-20) used to describe those who made the original suggestion to kill Joseph, namely,
איש אל אחיו
a man to his brother
(Rashi identifies them as Shimon and Levi). The implication is that they have not fundamentally changed.
The Akeidat Yitzchak also points out that if the brothers really felt guilty and saw this situation as punishment for their actions many years previously, why didn’t they make this confession during their three days in jail? He explains that they thought of their previous transgressions only when faced by the parallel situation of having to face their father missing one of their brothers. The sin itself does not bother them, only the consequences of having to explain to their father about what happened.
The brothers (possibly specifically Shimon and Levi) have begun to recognize their mistakes, but they need to go further in taking responsibility for their actions.
Reuven seems to make progress in developing his sense of responsibility (42:23).
וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר:
הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר
וְגַם-דָּמוֹ, הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ.
And Reuben answered them, saying:
‘Spoke I not unto you, saying:
Do not sin against the child;
and you would not hear?
therefore also, behold, his blood is required.’
The Netziv among others sees this statement as a positive step by Reuven toward helping the brothers recognize their sins. On the other hand, one can read this as Reuven simply saying “I told you so!” and washing his hands of the entire incident! In this reading, instead of working to unite the brothers and face this situation together, Reuven separates himself and does not take any responsibility for what occurred.
Rav Elchanan Samet points out an apparent inconsistency in Reuven’s rebuke of his brothers. How can Reuven accuse them of not listening to him, when they seem to follow his suggestion to throw Joseph into the pit? Rav Samet responds that a close reading reveals that Reuven actually made two statements to his brothers at the pit. His first statement is straightforward (37:21)
לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶש
We must not kill him
The next verse (37:22) also starts out with a וַיֹּאמֶר/He said, with no intervening response from the brothers.
וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן:
אַל תִּשְׁפְּכוּ דָם
הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְיָד אַל-תִּשְׁלְחוּ בוֹ
לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל-אָבִיו.
And Reuben said unto them:
‘Shed no blood;
cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but lay no hand upon him’
that he might deliver him out of their hand, to restore him to his father
Rav Samet argues that throughout Tanach, when the text uses an introduction such as ויאמר to break up statements by the same speaker to the same individual(s), it means that the speaker had to reframe or restate his point owing to a silent response (ignoring the statement or a lack of understanding). In this situation, the brothers ignored his first statement and continued planning Joseph’s murder. Reuven then suggests an alternate solution. They should commit a passive murder by having him remain in the pit without water, but “lay no hand on him”.
When reproving his brothers while standing in front of the Egyptian viceroy, Reuven ignores his own part in Joseph’s troubles. As the eldest brother, perhaps he could and should have pushed harder for his brothers to refrain from killing Joseph even passively. As Rabbanit Sharon Rimon points out, while the verses state that he had positive intentions with his second statement, Rashi quoting Midrash Rabbah says that Reuven’s thoughts were focused not on Joseph’s pain, but rather on the consequences for himself. He says to himself:
אני בכור וגדול שבכולן
לא יתלה הסרחון אלא בי
I’m the firstborn and the oldest of them all
He will attach the blame only to me
Like his younger brothers, Reuven has difficulty in taking full responsibility for his actions. The brothers generally fail to independently grasp the gravity of their actions, focusing instead on the secondary consequences for their own reputations and relationships.
Only Yehudah shows through his actions and words that he has learned his lesson completely. He personally takes responsibility for the welfare of Binyamin, both to Yaakov and to the viceroy of Egypt. When the brothers are accused of stealing the viceroy’s cup (46:14), he brings them together and leads them in a full confession, admitting that they have committed a sin and expressing willingness to pay the price for it. This allows twelve tribes to reunify into one family.
Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.
This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Dina Kritz
The heartbreaking piyyut Eileh Ezkerah, which we recite on Mussaf of Yom Kippur, tells us that a Roman emperor used the sale of Yosef as a halakhic rationale for executing the Ten Martyrs. After filling his palace with shoes, the emperor gathered the Rabbis, discussed the punishment for kidnapping with them, and then asked, “Then what of your ancestors who sold their brother…and gave him away for a pair of shoes?” [translation taken from the Artscroll Yom Kippur Machzor].
Shoes? Where do we find that Yaakov’s sons sold their brother for shoes? According to a number of midrashim, the answer is at the very beginning of this week’s haftarah, taken from Sefer Amos. G-d declares that He cannot forgive the kingdom of Yisrael for a sin they’ve committed: “על מכרם בכסף צדיק ואביון בעבור נעלים,” they have sold the righteous for silver and the destitute for a pair of shoes (2:6). Chazal suggest that the “righteous” who was sold, is in fact Yosef HaTzaddik. The rebuke to המשפחה אשר העליתי מארץ מצרים, the family I have delivered from the land of Egypt (3:1), is directed toward the nuclear family who went down to Egypt.
In her book Waiting for Rain: Reflections at the Turning of the Year, my teacher Dr. Bryna Jocheved Levy suggests that there is a link between the actions of Parshat Vayeshev and crimes committed by later generations of Jews:
The Rabbis highlighted the repercussions of the sale of Joseph in order to educate their constituency regarding the dangers of brotherly discord…Amos’s exhortation was directed toward man’s inhumanity to man in his day…These commentaries established the brothers’ criminal offense as a precedent whose impact was felt throughout the ages (161).
As familiar as I am with the story of Yosef and his brothers, I can’t help feeling somewhat baffled by the brothers’ actions. Only last week, when their sister Dina was kidnapped and raped, the brothers mourned that a member of their family had been violated, and Shimon and Levi went so far as to stage a combined rescue mission and massacre of the city of Shekhem. This week, however, their jealousy leads them to attempt to kill their own brother, and several weeks from now, if we look at Rashi while studying Parshat Vayechi (49:5), we’ll even find a theory that Shimon and Levi were once again the instigators!
Shimon and Levi, along with the rest of their brothers, allowed their fury and jealousy to cloud their feelings toward Yosef and to hurt their overall family. They hurt their brother, lied to their father, and eventually forced Yaakov essentially to choose between Binyamin’s safety and Shimon’s. Their negative feelings and cruel actions hurt the very roots of their family.
Similarly, the idolatry and cruel actions of Amos’s audience would ultimately destroy the very roots of the kingdom of Yisrael. Like Yaakov and his sons, they eventually go into exile, but unlike Yaakov and his sons, they never return as the “family” Amos speaks of.
In fact, as Eileh Ezkerah teaches us, it is possible to sense Yaakov’s sons’ actions throughout Jewish history. When we are faced with the story of mekhirat Yosef, whether in Sefer Bereishit, in references throughout Tanach and Jewish liturgy, or in our own lives, we must choose whether to abandon our brother for a pair of shoes or a striped coat, or whether to see him even through our differences.
Dina Kritz (SBM ’15) teaches 5th grade at Yeshivat He’Atid in Teaneck, NJ.