Monthly Archives: January 2020

The Relationship between Parshas Bo and Its Haphtorah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow

On a superficial level, the relationship between Parshas Bo and its haphtorah is clear.  In the parsha, God strikes at the heart of Egypt through the killing of Egypt’s firstborn sons, and the Jewish people cease being slaves of Pharoah and become avdei Hashem, servants of God.  Similarly, in the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu prophesies that Egypt will be struck again, and that the Jews should not fear, for God will be with them: “Fear not, my servant (avdi) Yaakov, and do not be dismayed Israel.  For I am He that will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of captivity” (Jer. 46:27). The parsha and haphtorah each emphasize that the Children of Israel are servants of God and not servants of servants (BT Kid. 22b).

Yet, when considering the haphtorah in the context of Sefer Yirmiyahu, a stark contrast emerges. While the parsha depicts the story of Egypt’s fall at the “hands” of G-d when the Jews leave Egypt to become a nation, the haphtorah speaks of Egypt’s fall at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who had just exiled the Jews and decimated the Kingdom of Judah.

In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu proclaims, “Proclaim it in Egypt!  Make it heard in Migdol! Make it heard in Noph and Tachpanches!”  The reason Yirmiyahu mentions these specific places is because those were the places to where the Jews fled after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Moreover, the Jews who fled to those places did so against Yirmiyahu’s warning. After the murder of Gedalia, who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to be governor over the remnant in the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews asked Yirmiyahu to beseech God as to what they should do.  Yirmiyahu told them to stay in the land of Israel and not to flee to Egypt. They replied that Yirmiyahu must be lying and speaking with ulterior motives.  They then decided to go to Egypt in spite of Yirmiyahu’s warning. In the parsha, it states, “The Children of Israel went and did as Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so did they do” (Ex. 12:28).  Contrast this to the Sefer Yirmiyahu, where it states, “and they came to the land of Egypt, for they did not listen to the voice of Hashem. (Jer. 43:7)”

Given this context, the final verse of the haphtorah is clear, “You should not fear my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, for I am with you.  When I make a full end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, a full end of you I will not make, but I will chastise you according to justice but will not completely destroy you (alternatively: and I will not leave you innocent)” (46:28).  When they fled to Egypt, they disparaged God’s word and put their trust in the political power of Egypt to save them from Babylonian aggression.  As a result of disobeying God, Yirmiyahu says to them, “Know now for certain that you will die by the sword, by the famine and by the pestilence in the place in which you desire to go to live” (42:22).  In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu reiterates that those who disobeyed God and went to Egypt will not be destroyed like the other nations of the world who disobey God, but they will certainly be punished for their deeds.  What the Jews should not fear is complete destruction, since they should understand that their chastisement will serve as moral instruction and rectification.

What at first glance is seen as parallel, now seems to be a contrast.  If the sages wanted a simple parallel to the Exodus, a more relevant choice for the haphtorah would have been the section in Sefer Yirmiyahu which includes, “Therefore, behold days are coming, says Hashem, when they shall no longer say, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up and Who brought the seed of the house of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where I have driven them, and they shall dwell on their land’” (Jer. 23:5-8). The haptorah for Parshas Bo must be teaching us something different than simply the Exodus occurred and Redemption will occur again, G-d willing.

The first verse of the maftir seems to provide the theme that ties the parsha to the haphtorah – “When your child will ask in the future, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery ’” (Ex. 13:14).  Redemption will not come through political machinations and convenient alliances that make the Children of Israel subservient to others.  Moreover, the expression of religious ideals and values should not serve – or stem from – political aims.  Only when the Children of Israel guard their service of God (Ex. 12:25) will Yirmiyahu’s assurance be fulfilled, “Yaakov will return and be tranquil without anyone disturbing him” (Jer. 46:27).

Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., (SBM 2003) is associate professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and director of the Biomedical Ethics & Humanities Program at New York Medical College (NYMC).

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On His Lips, a Word Is Singing, and The Word Is… Cherut?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

I was once part of a group meeting with an elder statesperson in preparation for a tense and protracted public negotiation. The advice we received was to find the key terms of value in the conversation and capture them.  Whatever words resonated as positive with most of our audience, we had to identify with our own positions.

This is excellent rhetorical strategy. Thus in a liberal environment, for example, Orthodox Jews might point out that our denomination is more pluralistic than Reform or Conservative Judaism, each of which had a central governing body with actual power over issues from religious policy to rabbinic placement. (The fragmentation of Orthodoxy has ironically made this much less true. Orthodoxy as a unit is pluralistic, but many of the mini-Orthodoxies are authoritarian.) Similarly, denominations that explicitly reject heteronomy and religious law may use the language of halakhah to support their positions, and to accuse Orthodoxy of being socially reactive rather than halakhically authentic.

Rhetorical strategy easily shades into Orwellian Doublespeak.  Ignorance is knowledge, and slavery is freedom. It is easy to regard our own persuasive tactics as pedagogy, and our opponents’ as dishonesty.  This is obviously a profound challenge for our own integrity.

One crucial thing to understand is that the difference between pedagogy and dishonesty is not contained in some essential property of language or specific words. In a post-Babel world, language has no meaning other than the way it has been used, and it is infinitely malleable. Ignorance can mean knowledge, and vice versa, if the words are used that way by enough people for enough time.

The risk of distortion does not come only from our own rhetorical excesses, whether deliberate, or rather accidental and gradual.  It must be acknowledged that this is also a risk of integrating Torah with any form of human thought expressed in human language, or what some of us once called “Torah UMada.”

But it should also be clear that all of us think in human language, and all of our thoughts are human thoughts. To think seriously about Torah, we must run that risk.

So let’s try to think seriously about what the Torah is trying to tell us through the narrative of the Exodus. To do that, we have no choice but to use words like “freedom” and “slavery.”

One challenge, of course, is that “freedom” and “slavery” are words from a human language.  Moreover, “freedom” Is not a direct translation of any Hebrew word used in the Torah’s narrative.  The two most likely analogues are “chofshi” and “cherut.”

Chofshi is Biblical Hebrew. It is the term used (in Shemot 21:5 and Devarim 15:12-18) for the state into which Jewish slaves enter when their term of slavery ends. It shows up in that legal context, but not as part of the narrative of the entire Jewish people’s emergence from slavery. (Elsewhere in Tanakh it refers to a variety of other states, such as death, an escaped animal, and freedom from royal taxation.)

Cherut, so far as I can tell, is not used to mean freedom in Biblical Hebrew. However, Chazal famously read it onto the writing of the luchot – אל תקרי חרות אלא חרות = “Do not read “engraved/charut but rather freedom/cherut.” Chazal may also have found it more than coincidence that the Jewish camp in the desert just before the mitzri army attacks is “al pi hachirot.

But while the Exodus narrative contains words for redemption and salvation rather than for freedom, Rabbi Shlomo Goren writes the following in an essay titled “Cherut Ha’Adam l’Or HaTorah”:

נקודת המוצא העיקרית במסכת הגאולים ההיסטורית של עם ישראל

בצאתו מכור העבדות במצרים,

היסוד המוצק בהשקפה החברתית היהודית המהווה עילה, בסיס, ומטרה,

שבגללה ולמענה אירעו כל התופעות הרות העולם,

עובר ליציאת מצרים ואחריה,

ואשר להשרשתה בתודעה האנושית,

היה הכרח בשינוי סדרי הטבע,

ובהפעלת מערכת הנסים הגלויים והנסתרים שבתקופה זו,

היא ההכרה המוקדשת של תורת ישראל בחרות האדם,

בכל תנאי החיים של הפרט והכלל,

ובכל המצבים הסוציאליים והלאומיים,

באשר נברא האדם בצלם אלקים.

The essential point of departure in the historic experience of the redeemed Jewish nation,

when it left the furnace of slavery in Egypt,

the solid foundation of our social outlook that serves as motivation, justification, and telos,

because of which and for the sake of which all events of this world came to be,

those prior to the Exodus and those following it,

and which, in order to root it in human consciousness,

compelled altering the orders of nature,

and the working of the array of open and concealed miracles of that era,

is the Torah of Israel’s sacred recognition of human freedom,

in all the life-conditions of individual and public life,

and in all social and national conditions,

because the human being was created in the tzelem Elokim.

Rav Goren puts the term cherut at the center of the Torah’s message.  He continues in a vein that initially caused me to rejoice and say ברוך שכוונתי (= Bless Hashem that I came to his line of thinking on my own).

ולא עוד

אלא שעבדות והשתעבדות האדם לאדם

נוגדות את אפשרות קבלת הריבונות העליונה של האלקות,

כי רק מי שהוא בן חורים בגופו ובנפשו

ואינו משועבד לא לאידיאות זרות ולא לחוקים ומשפטים זרים,

יכול להשתעבד לאידיאות האלהיות הנצחיות,

ולקבל על עצמו עול מלכות שמים אמיתית.

Not only this

rather any form of avdut and hishtabdut of one person to another

negates the possibility of accepting the ultimate mastery of the Divinity

because only one who is a ben chorim (see Kohelet 10:17) in body and soul

and is not meshubad to alien ideas or to alien statutes and laws

is able to be mishtabed themselves to the eternal Divine ideas,

and to accept upon himself the true yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.

What made me so happy was Rav Goren’s rejection of hishtabdut, perhaps best translated as “subordination,” as a form of avdut, which for now we can translate as “slavery.” Later in the essay he makes clear that his argument applies in contexts of employment as well as politics.

Rav Goren’s concept of cherut requires individual human beings to have full “freedom from” subordination to any other human being.  Toward that context he argues more or less plausibly that Jewish history and tradition have always tended toward abolishing any form of slavery. He hints that the practical halakhah should simply rule against the most problematic element for that claim within the tradition, Rabbi Yishmael’s apparent contention that a Jew who manumits a Gentile slave thereby violates a positive Torah commandment. All these contentions, whether or not I find them convincing legally or historically, gladden my heart.

However, I am less certain of the rest of his argument.

Rav Goren first sentence argues for the primacy of cherut on the grounds that it is an intrinsic right of human beings because we are created b’tzelem Elokim.  His second sentence makes the separate argument that hishtabdut to a human being interferes with the ribonut of the Divine.  This structure maps easily onto the distinction in Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” (While I can’t date Rav Goren’s essay precisely, I suspect this is not coincidental.)

The second sentence makes a claim with deep Torah roots. Freedom is not an end in itself. The Torah’s opposition to interhuman subordination is rooted in G-d’s prior claim – שטרי קודם.  It is because Vayikra 25:55 reads כי לי בני ישראל עבדים עבדי הם (for the Jews are avadim to Me, they are My avadim that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai can state on Kiddushin 22b ולא עבדים לעבדים – and not avadim to other avadim. His statement is taken as taken on Bava Kamma 116a and Bava Metzia 10a as the legal basis for declaring that contracts are not enforceable on workers vis specific performance.

The upshot appears to be that slavery for human beings is not an intrinsic wrong; it matters only that we be enslaved to G-d rather than to other human beings.

This seems to me to give insufficient weight to the first side of the equation.  Human beings must be free because we are created b’tzelem Elokim. This does not per se justify making us slaves to Elokim.  If “freedom from” is a value, it must mean more than “freedom to choose one’s own master.”

Ultimately, it seems to me that Rav Goren responds well to the modern commitment to autonomy by powerfully articulating the moral necessity of “freedom from.”  But he does not succeed in articulating a vision of “freedom to” that avoids paradox.  The question at hand is whether the terms avodat Hashem, avdei Hashem, ovdei Hashem and the like can be defined with integrity in ways that avoid such paradoxes. In Deborah Klapper’s formulation, “the whole book of Shemot is about replacing vocabulary of enslavement to pharaoh with vocabulary of service to God.” We need to substantiate that sentence, in convincing detail.

The work is not upon us to finish, but neither are we free to desist from it.

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What’s in a Name?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

Parshat Vaera opens up with one of the biggest textual conundrums in the entire Torah: 

וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵ-ל שַׁ-דָּי 

וּשְׁמִי ה׳ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Sh-addai, 

but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ה׳.

Hashem seemingly tells Moshe that the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of Hashem, wasn’t revealed to the Avot. However, not only did the Torah’s narrator use the Tetragrammaton when Hashem spoke to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Hashem reveals that Name to both Avraham and Yaakov in His own voice! In Bereshit 15:7, Hashem tells Avram: 

אֲנִי ה׳ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים

 לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ׃

“I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans 

to assign this land to you as a possession.”

And in Bereshit, 28:13, Hashem tells Yaakov:

אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹקי יִצְחָק 

הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ׃

“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”

How are we to understand this discrepancy? Many commentators take the approach that our pasuk is not meant to be taken literally, but rather means that the attributes of the Tetragrammaton were not truly revealed to the Avot. Rashi comments:

״לֹא הוֹדַעְתִּי״ אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא ״לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי״, 

לֹא נִכַּרְתִּי לָהֶם בְּמִדַת אֲמִתּוּת שֶׁלִּי, 

שֶׁעָלֶיהָ נִקְרָא שְׁמִי ה’ = נֶאֱמָן לְאַמֵּת דְּבָרַי, 

שֶׁהֲרֵי הִבְטַחְתִּים וְלֹא קִיַּמְתִּי:

It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name the Lord]=I did not make known to them, rather לא נודעתי [by My name the Lord] was I not known [unto them] — 

i.e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of truth, 

for which My name is called ה׳ = certain to substantiate My promiseד, 

for, indeed I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. 

For Rashi, the attribute associated with the Tetragrammaton is the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise, which hadn’t happened at the time of the Avot, but was on the precipice in Moshe’s time. 

The Sforno, on the other hand, believes that the Tetragrammaton represents Hashem’s breaking of the laws of nature. Not showing the Avot that name represents Hashem not breaking the laws of nature for them: 

בי”ת ב”א-ל ש-די” נמשכת לתיבת “ושמי”. 

אמר ‘ובשמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם’, 

באותה המראה, 

ולא שניתי בעדם שום טבע מטבעי הבלתי נפסדים. 

ולכן ראוי שאודיע זה לזרעם, שלא קבלו זה מאבותם, 

למען הקים אותם לי לעם, ובכן אגאלם:

The letter ב in the expression בא-ל שדי applies to the word ושמי. 

In effect this means “Via my attribute Hashem I was not known to them,”

in that mode of appearance,  

and I never changed the laws of nature on their behalf. 

Therefore, it is appropriate for me to convey this to their descendants, 

since they did not receive this from their ancestors,  

so as to establish the Children of Israel as My people, and thus I will redeem them

For Rashi and Sforno, the verse means that some aspect of Hashem was hidden from the Avot, which the time was now ripe for Hashem to reveal. Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch takes this approach one step further: 

מצאנו אמנם את שם הוי״ה בסיפורי האבות 

והוא נישא על שפתותיהם; 

אבל כאן אין הכוונה לידיעה גרידא של השם. 

״דעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠״ מציינת הכרה עמוקה הרבה יותר, 

שנשיגנה אולי בשלמותה רק בתום כל הנסיון ההיסטורי שלנו, 

וכפי שאומר ישעיהו על גאולה אחרונה זו: 

״לָכֵן יֵדַע עַמִּי שְׁמִי״ (ישעיהו נב, ו). 

לדעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠ פירושו 

להבין את דרך הנהגת ה׳ ששם זה מורה עליה. 

הבנה זו לא ניתן להשיגה בשלמות אלא 

מתוך הנסיון המשותף של כל הדורות. 

אולם האבות עמדו רק בראשית התקופה!

We have however found the Tetragrammaton in the stories of the Avot, 

and it is even found on their lips; 

but here the intention is not merely to know the Name. 

The phrase “knowing the Name of Hashem” implies a deeper recognition, 

that we may truly attain fully only at the completion of our historical experience, as Isaiah says about this final redemption:

“Therefore, my nation will know My Name.” 

To know the Name of Hashem means: 

to understand the way of Hashem’s management toward which this Name points. 

This understanding can be fully attained 

only through the shared experience of all generations, 

whereas, the Avot stood only at the beginning of the era!

According to Rav Hirsch, the Tetragrammaton represents understanding of Hashem’s actions-in-the-world, something that we cannot comprehend beforehand. The Avot could not truly grasp Hashem’s promise to redeem their descendants; only Moshe and his generation could truly understand what was to happen. And so, even though the Avot were given the Tetragrammaton, how could they comprehend Hashem’s power until the time came to free the Israelites?

This interpretation underlies our relationship to Hashem through this day. When we recite the 13 Middot, we recite the Tetragrammaton twice. Rashi there explains: 

מִדַּת רַחֲמִים הִיא, 

אַחַת קֹדֶם שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא, 

וְאַחַת אַחַר שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא וְיָשׁוּב:

This is the attribute of Divine mercy. 

One alludes to Hashem having mercy before the sinner sins 

and the other after he sins and repent.

The Tetragrammaton represents our ever-changing relationship with Hashem. We connect to Hashem as the One before events occur, and also as the One after they occur. We are clouded in our understanding of the future, but in hindsight, we tend to find the Hand of Hashem acting in our world. Our relationship with God regarding the future and regarding the past, at every single moment, culminates in our knowledge of the Tetragrammaton, the Name we use to grasp onto, and connect to, Hashem. 

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘19) is a fourth year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. 


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Kavod HaBeriyot (Human Dignity): Psak and Pedagogy

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

What role should broad moral, ethical, or spiritual principles play in the development of halakhah and the halakhic decisionmaking process?

What role should such principles play in the lives of halakhically observant Jews?

Are the above questions fundamentally the same as each other, or very different?

The Talmud sometimes derives legal details in specific cases from meta-principles that seem rooted in values rather than in formal law.  Take for example דרכיה דרכי נעם (Her ways are ways of pleasantness), הרחק מן הכיעור ומן הדומה לה (Distance yourself from ugly acts and from anything similar to them), or לעולם יעסוק אדם בתורה ובמצוות שלא לשמה, שמתוך שלא לשמה בא לשמה (A person should certainly engage in Torah and mitzvot not for the sake of Heaven, since out of not-for-the-sake he will come to “for the sake.”  Sometimes the relationship between law and values is embodied in a formal legal equation, such as גדול כבוד הבריות שדוחה את לא תעשה שבתורה (Great is human dignity, for it pushes aside a Biblical DON’T), or כל מקום שיש חילול השם אין חולקין כבוד לרב (One must not apportion dignity to rabbis wherever doing so would enable desecration of G-d’s Name). In other cases, we are given little or no explicit guidance as to how that relationship should play out in practice.

I recently heard a shiur from a wonderful young Talmid Chakham that I understood to be making the following claim. Scholars must take broad principles into account even where halakhah already has something to say. Laypeople, by contrast, should make decisions on the basis of their knowledge of the law, and incorporate broad principles only where they have no governing legal evidence.

Here’s a model case. John Buck is walking to shul Shabbat morning in his non-eruved community. Jane Doe, an elderly woman wearing a headscarf, is a block in front of him. A sudden gust of wind tears the scarf off her head and blows it into the street, in his direction. If he does nothing, it will be blown into traffic and destroyed. If he runs to catch it, he’ll have to carry it back to the sidewalk, and it will be awkward if he doesn’t carry it all the way to the lady. But what will she think of him if he makes no effort? He could feign an effort. But will she be humiliated by having to walk home bareheaded? His (securely clipped-on) kippah probably isn’t big enough for her purposes.

There are a lot of practical, factual, and legal issues in play here. Is the street a Biblical public domain, or is carrying four amot within it only a Rabbinic violation? Will it be more than 4 amot from where he reaches the scarf to the safety of the sidewalk? Will it be possible then to ask her to come get it from him, or to give it to a nonJew to bring it to her? Is it plain that the headscarf was worn for modesty, rather than for comfort? And so on and so forth.

Scholars will presumably have a more sophisticated set of legal tools for analyzing some of these questions, and a more extensive set of precedents. Scholars who are also experienced and competent poskim will also have a set of experiences that generate a nuanced intuition. If John Buck is a scholar, he will bring all those tools to bear on the question of whether this is a case in which concern for human dignity, desecration of G-d’s Name, or the risk of inciting anti-Semitism justifies acting in violation of ordinary Shabbat rules, or not.

But what if John is fifteen years old and a mediocre Jewish Studies student? (Or a brilliant Tanakh student uninterested in sophisticated Halakhah?)

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l famously constructed a case contrasting the reactions of Modern Orthodox and Charedi teenagers to a car owned by a non-Jew breaking down in their neighborhood. The Charedim begin arguing about whether helping was a violation of lo techaneim (= lo titein lahem matnat chinam = do not give them free gifts) – the MOs help without any awareness of the sugya.  Rav Lichtenstein preferred helping to arguing, but wished the MO kids knew the sugya.

But there is a sense in which Rav Lichtenstein’s case is too easy. Modern Orthodox teens should have heard of lo techaneim, yes, but in the context of being told that it has no application to contemporary Gentiles in any case they are likely to encounter. Talmud Torah is a goal in itself, but Rav Lichtenstein did not want or need them to deliberate before acting, nor would he himself have hesitated.

The same is true in cases that implicate pikuach nefesh. Yeshivishe legends even suggest that the greater the talmid chakham, the less hesitation in such matters. We do not encourage nuanced reasoning in genuine-life-and-death situations. The principle ein holkhin b’pikuach nefesh achar harov (= we don’t need greater than 50% risk to treat a case as involving a threat to life) is understood as license to avoid nuance.

I don’t think we educate the same way about kavod haberiyot. Why not? (Why) Do we want John Buck to hesitate before helping?

I can think of two possibilities offhand.  The first is that we are much more concerned that kavod haberiyot will be massively misused. The second is that kavod haberiyot is inherently more complicated than either lo techaneim or pikuach nefesh.

The first possibility to some extent involves a circularity – people who are worried about misuse likely think it has already been badly misused, while those who support e.g. recent attempts to invoke kavod haberiyot with regard to issues of halakhah and gender or sexual orientation will not see much risk.

I think it’s fair to point out that this has at times also been true of pikuach nefesh.  The Noda B’Yehuda’s responsum about autopsies recognizes that in principle it can justify allowing all medical researchers and manufacturers to work through Shabbat; to prevent this, he contends that pikuach nefesh is halakhically significant only for a choleh lefaneinu (a patient who is before us).  The jury is out on whether any version of that formulation is practically relevant in the age of the internet. Rav Chaim Hirschensohn used it as at least a limmud zekhut (post-facto extenuation) for people who worked on Shabbat rather than lose their jobs during the Great Depression, arguing that unemployment carried with it a significant risk of starvation.  Moreover, contemporary halakhic arguments about LGBT issues often cite suicide statistics.  So it’s not obvious to me that pikuach nefesh and kavod haberiyot have radically different risk profiles.

It is true that kavod haberiyot carries a more complicated prima facie halakhic profile. Pikuach nefesh overrides everything except “the big three” sins, whereas according to Berakhot 19b-20a, kavod haberiyot overrides only Rabbinic laws, Biblical laws categorized as monetary, and Biblical violations committed passively. (Possibly there are only two categories, and even monetary laws can only be overridden passively.)  It is certainly possible to complicate the issue even further. Many rishonim argue that kavod haberiyot overrides some but not all Rabbinic laws; many others argue that it overrides additional categories of Biblical law not mentioned in the Berakhot text.  Finally, while Noda B’Yehuda successfully made pikuach nefesh a binary category, many rishonim argue that kavod haberiyot should be paskened on a sliding scale, so that more serious dignity issues justify overriding more serious prohibitions.

But it is a mistake to conflate underlying complexity with the question of whether pedagogic simplicity is possible. I suspect that we could find a way to teach our student John a fairly simple protocol.  The core issue is recognizing that we fail when our students are “too frum” to take human dignity into account in their decisions.  It would not necessarily be the worst thing in the world if our students decided to see themselves as being machmir on kavod haberiyot rather than being meikil on Shabbat.

So – I suspect the real issue is that we worry not about our students’ capacity for nuance, or their ability to apply the law, but rather that we don’t trust that they share a core understanding of human dignity with those who have primary halakhic authority in their communities. This I think is a real issue, and justifies caution. But in the long run, we have to address that issue directly, rather than having its gravitational pull distort our whole system.

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Mosheh Rabbeinu on Campus

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

When Mosheh first leaves the Egyptian royal palace, he uses deadly force to stop a privileged oppressor from striking a member of an oppressed ethnic group.  He next intervenes verbally in an attempt to stop a physical altercation between two members of that group.  Moving to Midyan, he rescues the daughters of Midian from discrimination and sexual harassment. Finally, he returns to Egypt as G-d’s representative to free the entire oppressed ethnic group.

Seforno and Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offer explanations for Moshe’s varied responses.  But the essential outline remains the same. In this narrative. we can describe Mosheh as a happy social justice warrior. Religious leaders at the outset of their careers can often identify easily with this portrait of Mosheh.

What drives, or generates, Mosheh’s passion against injustice (which may or may not be the same thing as a passion for justice)?

Ibn Ezra to Shemot 2:3 suggests that Mosheh’s passionate opposition to injustice arose from his noble Egyptian upbringing rather than from his Jewishness.

אולי סבב השם זה

שיגדל משה בבית המלכות

להיות נפשו על מדרגה העליונה

בדרך הלימוד והרגילות,

ולא תהיה שפלה ורגילה להיות בבית עבדים.

הלא תראה,

שהרג המצרי בעבור שהוא עשה חמס.

והושיע בנות מדין מהרועים,

בעבור שהיו עושים חמס להשקות צאנן מהמים שדלו.

Perhaps Hashem arranged for this to occur,

that Mosheh would be raised in the royal house,

so that his soul would be on the highest level

via education and habit

and not be lowly and accustomed to being in the house of slaves.

You can see this

from (Mosheh’s) killing of the Egyptian

because (the Egyptian) did violent injustice.

and from his rescuing the daughters of Midian from the shepherds,

because (the shepherds) were doing violent injustice

by watering their flocks from the water drawn by the (daughters).

On this reading, we can see Mosheh as pursuing a constant, stable path of noblesse oblige.

Ibn Ezra’s comments to Shemot 2:11 convey a very different impression.

וַיְהִ֣י׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם

וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙

וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו

וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם

וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י

מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י


It happened in those days

Mosheh grew up and he went out to his brothers;

he saw their oppression;

he saw an Egyptian man

striking a Hebrew man

from among his brothers.


ויצא אל אחיו


כי בארמון המלך היה.

וטעם “מאחיו

אחר הזכיר עברי ממשפחתו,

כמו “אנשים אחים

He went out to his brothers

the Egyptians,

as he was in the palace of the king.

The meaning of from among his brothers

afterward it mentions a Hebrew from among his family,

as in men who are brothers (Bereishis 13:8)

It’s difficult to parse Ibn Ezra’s syntax, and there are manuscript variations, but his key point seems clear The verse uses the word “brothers” twice, but the referent changes. When Mosheh first leaves the palace, his brothers are the Egyptians. Something about seeing the Egyptian strike the Hebrew changes his self-understanding, so that now the Hebrew becomes his brother. Mosheh’s identity changes.

Why does it change? Very likely because Mosheh understands, for the first time, that he is vulnerable, that everything he thought was his can be taken away with no cause, in a moment.  So Mosheh’s passion against injustice is a direct consequence of his identification as a Jew.

In that moment, Mosheh assumes that the oppressed are always virtuous. He thinks that their oppression is wrong not because oppression is per se wrong, but rather because they do not deserve to be oppressed. So he is shocked when he finds two Hebrews fighting, to the point that one might strike the other just as the Egyptian did. He intervenes, verbally, and discovers a miasma of cynicism and even collaboration. This Jew is no better than the dead Egyptian. Maybe Jews overall are no better than Egyptians.

So Mosheh flees.  He shows up in Midian as to all appearances an איש מצרי, the same phrase the Torah used to describe the man he killed. He has not lost his passion against injustice – hence he intervenes on behalf of Yitro’s daughters – but he no longer sees it as connected to Jewish identity. He intermarries and lives happily as a Midianite for many years.  It literally takes a miracle – the Unconsumed Bush – to bring him back to the Jewish people, and he never becomes fully comfortable among them.

The miracle was probably not enough by itself. It attracted Mosheh’s attention – he is a spiritual seeker – but it makes no inherent case for Jewish identity.  Ultimately, Mosheh returns because he is convinced that the Jewish people are the most oppressed, and so his intervention on their behalf can be justified on universalist rather than particularist grounds. Had he seen the Jews as a privileged elite, as white oppressors, or even just as full citizens, he would never have agreed to lead them.

In other words, Mosheh became an American Jewish college student.

The Sages tell us that we cannot rely on miracles. Even in the midst of a terrible run of anti-Semitic incidents, we cannot plausibly claim to be the most oppressed minority in the world.  We absolutely do not want that to change.

So what can we do to keep our Mosheh’s from fleeing to Midian?

We could prevent Jews from fighting with each other.  We could resolve our interdenominational logjams, and conduct our intradenominational disagreements with civility. But that is precisely the sort of thing that requires leadership to accomplish, so it seems circular to make that a prerequisite for attracting leaders.

We could give our Moshehs a broader base for Jewish identity than passion against injustice. This is certainly worth a try, but there are risks.  We might do too good a job, and produce Jewish leaders for whom opposing injustice isn’t a top priority, even when our own community is relatively secure. We might even create a community that is instinctively suspicious of social justice as a cause, and sees passion against injustice as competing with rather than as an essential component of Jewish identity. Or two communities, one of which has an identity rooted exclusively in that passion, and the other of which lacks that passion entirely.

Finally, we might try focusing not on Mosheh, and not on the squabbling Jews, but on the interaction among them. If we can’t stop fighting with each other, can we change how we react when someone calls us out for the way we are conducting the fight? If we can’t agree on which causes to support, can we appreciate those who do? Especially when they are young, can we appreciate them even when they choose the wrong side?

Adapted from a dvar Torah given at this week’s Wexner Graduate Fellowship Alumni Institute

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The Place Where You Stand Is Holy

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matthew Nitzanim

And G-d said, “Do not approach; remove your shoes from your feet, for the place upon which you stand is sacred ground.” (Shemot 3:5)

Moshe is not alone in his shoe removal. Yehoshua (5:15) will later be instructed to do the same (albeit, perhaps only one of his shoes), and Chazal (Brachot 62b) derive from Moshe’s behavior that anyone entering the Mikdash should take off his or her shoes as well. What’s more, Islam, Hinduism, and other cultures have similar shoe removal traditions upon entering sacred space. What’s this about?

Chizkuni adopts a fairly straightforward reading – shoes tend to pick up dirt, and it would be disrespectful to track mud into a holy place. Malbim, though, goes a step further. Shoes carry symbolic meaning. They reflect our humanity, our need to protect ourselves, our mobility, our fear that any minute we may need to flee. To remove one’s shoes is to step out of oneself, out of the world that’s full of going and coming, into a place where we attempt to escape our very humanity.

This view of shoe removal is poignantly captured in Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer (45), in its depiction of Yom Kippur, a day similarly marked by barefootedness. The midrash describes how our behavior on Yom Kippur, including holding ourselves back from food, drink, and footwear, makes us, just for a moment, indistinguishable from the heavenly angels. As we take off our shoes on Yom Kippur, the midrash says, we are taking off our humanity, and stepping off of this Earth and into the heavens.

Yet all this was only meant to set the backdrop for the deeply moving interpretation of R’ Chayim Tirer, better known as the Chernovitzer, in his commentary to the Torah, the Be’er Mayim Chayim. He writes: 

“The angels sought to sing, but the Holy Blessed One said: My children are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing?” The meaning of this teaching is as follows: it is known that in each and every element of the creation there is the life force of holiness and the light of G-d. Similarly, our Sages taught: Why [was the revelation performed] through a bush? To demonstrate that there is no place devoid of G-d’s presence, not even a bush.

Therefore, when the infuriated Moshe demands of G-d, “Why hasn’t the bush burned,” by which he meant, “Why have You not destroyed the Egyptians,” G-d instructs him to remove his shoes, so as to say: This is why I revealed Myself to you through a bush, to demonstrate that there is no place devoid of My presence. Even the very physical location on Earth upon which you stand is holy space, imbued with the holiness of My presence which resides on the Earth below. In so doing, you will understand why it pains Me to destroy the Egyptians, for “there is no place devoid of My presence.”


For the Chernovitzer, taking off one’s shoes does not amount to a denial of one’s earthliness, but rather to an embrace of one’s earthliness, a reminder of the Earth that is ever below our feet. When we take off our shoes, we are not, as Pirkei d’Rabi Eliezer might have it, stepping off the Earth into heaven, but stepping out of the complacency of our comfort back onto the Earth. The irony is powerful – the sacred space is not some “other” space, differentiated from the rest of the world by rituals of entry; the sacred space is everywhere, and it was there all along, but Moshe had forgotten, just as he had forgotten his sense of compassion towards the Egyptians. Moshe is being reminded, in his first encounter with G-d, to feel the Earth beneath him, to be awoken to the realization that all the Earth, and all who dwell upon it, are imbued with holiness. 

We would be wise to remember the Chernovitzer’s message when Yom Kippur rolls around, or maybe even the next time we pray at home (or regularly in synagogues of some Mizrachi traditions) with our feet touching the ground. Maybe even give it a try this Shabbat, on your own time, in the comfort of your living room. As you take off your shoes, as you notice the discomfort of your rounded homo sapiens feet on the flat wood or tile floor, allow yourself to feel the vulnerability that is inherent to living a human life, a reality you share with all those who walk this planet. Don’t step out of this world, but into it, for no matter where or with whom you walk, “there is no place, nor person, devoid of G-d’s presence.”

Matthew Nitzanim (SBM ’18) is currently living in Jerusalem, where he is studying for Smicha at Yeshivat Machanayim, and for a Master’s in Bioethics at Bar Ilan.

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One Day, (Nearly) One Daf (Behind): Where and Why I Got Stuck

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Daf Yomi restarted yesterday.  Like everyone else, I started from the first Mishnah. With unprecedented personal discipline, I avoided the question of whether “until the end of the first watch” was a statement of Rabbi Eliezer or rather an anonymous editor. I resisted the temptation to read David Zvi Kalman’s dissertation argument that time-telling devices were not publicly available in the time of the Tannaim.  I steadfastly refused to fixate on why the Mishnah mentions the burning of fats and organs when the Sages never set midnight as the endpoint for that, or why the Mishnah doesn’t mention the Omer harvesting, which is elsewhere paired with burning of fats and organs as an example of an all-night obligation the Sages left as-is. I reviewed at superspeed my old chiddush about why Rashi mentions that the Evening Shema obligation is fulfilled by the first paragraph.  On to the gemara!

Ok, not quite.  Why is this the first Mishnah?  My friend Jeff Spitzer has a great vort on this.  At the end of the opening unit of Mishnah, we are told that wherever the Sages set midnight as a halakhic end boundary, the relevant obligation actually applies until dawn.  The Sages set the earlier time “in order to distance a person from sin.” Obviously, this strategy was effective only for non-Sages, who would not be aware that the halakhic clock was deliberately set six hours ahead. The first Mishnah trusts us with that information. It thereby welcomes us into the ranks of the learned.

This amazing reading suggests that the Mishnah is intended to be read in order. Let’s assume that’s true.  What about the gemara? Is there a reason that this is the first sugya?

Many beautiful explanations have been written for why it is – most recently my friends Chaim Saiman and Yaakov Nagen have weighed in.  But what if there is no order, and the first sugya is whatever the Sages had to say about the first Mishnah? How can we know?

The gemara opens with a five-word question:


היכא קאי,

דקתני “מאימתי”?

The one who taught this unit of Mishnah –

where is/was he,

that he taught “From when?”

This is a very odd question indeed. Why would it matter where he was located?  (It can matter sometimes; on Shabbat 73b, the Talmud explains that sowing precedes plowing in the Mishnah’s list of prohibited Shabbat labors because


בארץ ישראל קאי

דזרעי ברישא והדר כרבי

The one who taught this unit of Mishnah

 was in the Land of Israel,

where they first sow and afterward plow.

Rashi explains that they actually plow both before and after sowing.  But I digress. Discipline!)

I turned to Rashi for help.  His comment is surprisingly extensive; it might be called a paraphrase, or perhaps even a rewrite.


מהיכא קא סליק

דתנא ביה חובת קריאת שמע,

שהתחיל לשאול כאן זמן הקריאה?

The one who taught this unit of Mishnah

where had he left off from

that included in its teaching the obligation of reciting the Shema,

that here he began by asking the time of the recitation?

Rashi makes clear that the issue is not a physical location.  In the process, he replaces “where was he” with “where had he left from.”  This substitution seems unnecessary.

One possibility is that Rashi had a different text.  But records no such variant, so that seems unlikely.

Maybe Rashi thought that היכא קאי usually refers to physical location, whereas מהיכא קא סליק does not. To check that out, we need to see whether either phrase appears elsewhere in Rabbinic literature.

According to the Bar Ilan Responsa Project, there are no questions in Chazalic literature of the form מהיכא קא סליק.  However, היכא קאי shows up in 10 other contexts (all in the Talmud).  Three of them (Eiruvin 32a and 34a, and Zevachim 113b) refer to physical location.  Another three of them (Pesachim 43b, Yebamot 27b, and Nazir 14b) refer to halakhic context.

What does the question mean in the remaining four contexts? The clearest evidence comes from Eruvin 26a-26b.  The Mishnah there states

בכל מערבין

One can make an eruv (chatzeirot) with anything.

The Talmud opens as follows:

אמר רבי יוחנן:

“אין למידין מן הכללות

ואפילו במקום שנאמר בו חוץ.”

מדקאמר “אפילו במקום שנאמר בו חוץ”,

מכלל דלאו הכא קאי,

היכא קאי?

Said Rabbi Yochanan:

“One cannot derive specific cases from general statements

even where (the general statement) says ‘except for.’”

Because (Rabbi Yochanan) says “even if the general statement says ‘except for.’”

we can derive that his general statement doesn’t relate to our Mishnah (which does not say “except for”).

So היכא קאי?

Here it is clear that היכא קאי is asking for the literary context of Rabbi Yochanan’s statement.

Now Rabbi Yochanan is an Amora.  But this is also the meaning of the phrase as used (twice) on Eruvin 105a and Shavuot 17b. But in those cases, the question is about the literary context of statements in the Mishnah!  In the latter case, the Talmud emends or interprets the Mishnah to create an immediate context.  But in the former case, it baldly states that the context of the Mishnah in Eruvin is a Mishnah in Tractate Shabbat!

Let’s turn now to the remaining example of היכא קאי.  The opening line of Tractate Taanit is

מאימתי מזכירין גבורות גשמים?

 From when must one begin mentioning “the powers of rains?”

which is understood as a reference to the phrase “Who causes the wind to blow and the rains to fall” in the Amidah.

The Talmud’s opening should be very familiar:


היכא קאי,

דקתני “מאימתי”?

The one who taught this unit of Mishnah –

where is/was he,

that he taught “From when?”

The Talmud’s first answer is:

תנא התם קאי, דקתני:

“מזכירין גבורות גשמים בתחיית המתים, ושואלין בברכת השנים, והבדלה בחונן הדעת”,

וקתני: “מאימתי מזכירין גבורות גשמים”.

The one who taught this unit of Mishnah was relating to a Mishnah there (Berakot 33a), which states:

“We mention the powers of rains in (the blessing of) Resurrection of the Dead . . . ,”

so he teaches “From when must one mention the powers of rains.”

But this answer is deemed insufficient.

וליתני התם!? מאי שנא דשבקיה עד הכא?!

So let it put our Mishnah’s statement there!?  Why leave it until here!?

The second and final answer is:


תנא מראש השנה סליק,

דתנן: “ובחג נידונין על המים”,

ואיידי דתנא “ובחג נידונין על המים”,

תנא “מאימתי מזכירין גבורות גשמים”.


the one who taught this unit of Mishnah left off from Tractate Rosh HaShanah (16a),

where a mishnah teaches: “and on chag one is judged about water,”

and once it had taught “and on chag one is judged about water,”

it taught “from when must one mention the powers of rains.”

The form of this answer exactly matches Rashi’s rewrite of the opening question of the Talmud.

Here is Rashi’s explanation of this passage:


לא תימא דהא דקתני “מאימתי” דהתם קאי,

דתנא מראש השנה סליק,

ששניהן בסדר אחד הן,

להכי לא מצי למימר “מאי שנא דשבקיה עד הכא”.

ואיידי דתני “בחג נידונין . . .”  

כלומר, אגב דתנא בחג נידונין על המים,

קסבר בנפשיה:

הואיל ונידונין בחג על המים –

שמע מינה בעינן להזכיר עניינא דמיא,

לרצויי על המים דליתו לברכה –

להכי קתני “מאימתי מזכירין”.


don’t say that it teaches “from when” because it relates to there (Berakhot),

because the one who taught our Mishnah left from (Tractate) Rosh HaShanah,

because the two of them are from the same Order,

therefore it cannot ask “why leave it until here!?”

and once it had taught “and on chag one is judged about water . . . ,”

meaning: “because it had taught “and on chag one is judged about water,”

he thought on his own:

since we are judged on chag about water –

derive from there that we must mention the matter of water,

to appease regarding water so that it be given for blessing –

therefore he teaches “from when must we mention.”

Rashi understands the Talmud at the opening of Taanit as rejecting the notion that a Mishnaic “from when” statement must have a direct legal context; instead, it can have a context that is one step removed.

Now, Rashi rewrites the opening statement of the Talmud so that it matches the opening of Taanit.  I suggest that means that he understands that תנא היכא קאי here as well cannot be asking for a pure legal literary context.  Instead, the Talmud will be satisfied with any basis for the obligation of Shema.

But – by making the opening of Berakhot exactly parallel to the opening of Taanit, Rashi also conveys that the opening question is not necessarily unique.  In other words, it is not a dramatic effort to ground the Oral Torah in the Written Torah, but rather a standard literary inquiry about the Talmud.  In Taanit, the response is a somewhat removed theological assertion; here it is one or another Biblical verse.

Rashi accordingly may not think that the Talmud was written to be read in order (although he plainly believes that each Order of Mishnah is a literary unit).  It is therefore fascinating that Professor Yonah Frankel in his magnificent Darko shel Rashi b’Peirusho laTalmud argues that Rashi’s commentary is intended to be read in order.  If we are both correct, Rashi wrote with the self-conscious intention of transforming the way that the Talmud was experienced.

Three words in.  Oh well – today is another day.

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