Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

What Did Yaakov Say to Yitzchak?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

ויאמר יעקב אל־אביו אנכי עשו בכרך עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי קום־נא שבה ואכלה מצידי בעבור תברכני נפשך

The most straightforward translation of what Yaakov told his father is: “Yaakov said to his father: ‘I am Esav, your first-born; I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me.’” This seems flatly deceitful; Yaakov is not Esav, is not the first-born, and received no relevant instructions from Yitzchak. Can Yaakov’s untruths be defended?  The diverse approaches taken by parshanim to defend Yaakov’s untruths present us with very different views of his character.

Rashi, taking the cue of Chazal, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie. Instead, this is what he really said: “It is I bringing this to you; Esav is your firstborn. I have done many things that you have told me.” The few words Rashi adds changes the entire dynamic. Instead of Yaakov as trickster, underhandedly stealing his brother’s blessing, Yaakov is laying out clues that Yitzchak would see if he wanted to see them.  He puts the onus on his father to discover the truth, and to accept the blame if he fails to discover it.

By contrast, Radak acknowledges that Yaakov deceived Yitzchak, but justifies Yaakov’s lies.

ואין זה תימה, כי יודע היה יעקב כי הוא ראוי יותר לברכה מאחיו, ורוח הנבואה שתשרה על יצחק לברכו יותר יתעשת האלהים לברכתו מברכת אחיו, כי הוא רצוי לא-ל יותר ממנו, וחלוף הדברים במקומות כאלה אינם גנאי וחילול לצדיק.

But this is not astonishing, since Yaakov was aware that he was more fit for blessing than his brother, and that the spirit of nevuah/prophecy that would rest on Yitzchak to bless him would cause God’s blessing to linger more if he received the blessing than if his brother did, since he was a more pious man. Saying the opposite of the truth in situations such as these is not a shame and disgrace for a righteous person.

Radak accepts that in certain situations, when a Tzaddik recognizes that what he or she is doing is for the greater good, that it is allowed to lie to achieve that goal.

Or HaChayim takes a third approach.  He argues that legally, Yaakov was Esav:

פי’: להיות שקנה הבכורה מעשו, ,הנה הוא נעשה עשו לצד בחינת הבכורה, כי (לא) [לה] יקרא עשו בכורו.

ואומרו “עשיתי כאשר דברת אלי”, פירוש: כי טעם שצוה לעשו הוא כי הוא בנו הבכור, וכיון שנטל הבכורה, כאילו הדבר בא אליו:

This means that since Yaakov purchased the birthright from Esav, he had become Esav in the aspect of the Birthright, and for this reason did Yitzchak call Esav his firstborn.

So when he said “I have done as you told me,” this meant that the reason Yitzchak commanded Esav is because he was his  firstborn son, and since Yaakov took the Birthright, it was as if the command was given to him.

Or HaChayim, like Rashi, contends that Yaakov did not actually lie to his father to get the Berachah. But rather than reparsing Yaakov’s words, he redefines Yaakov’s person: Yaakov, in this legal instance, is indeed Esav. Because he purchased the birthright, he purchased the personality of Esav as the firstborn, the one who owns the right to the Berachah.

Was Yaakov a man who never erred, who, sometimes through technicalities, was able to protect his status as a Tzaddik? Was he a man who recognized that he needed to bend the rules for the greater good? Was he someone who understood the power of a sale, and the nature of birthright, better than the rest of his family? Or, as some modern readers prefer, was Yaakov wrong in deceiving his father, a mistake which caused him suffering through the actions of his own sons? How we choose to understand Yaakov’s actions is a consequence  of how we each want to understand the Avot.

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘18) is a third year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, NY.

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What to Sacrifice: God or Morality?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Steve Gotlib

The Akedah portrays a stark conflict between moral intuition and the direct, unquestionable word of God. Rav Soloveitchik commented that “God demands that man bring the supreme sacrifice, but the fashion in which the challenge is met is for man to determine” (Abraham’s Journey: Reflections on the Life of the Founding Patriarch).  What should we readers choose to sacrifice as we finish reading the Akedah? Our sense of human morality, or our devotion to God?

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously argued that a human’s duty is to nullify his or her will before God even when that means suspending one’s ethical assumptions. Whatever God wants done must be done without question. When God tells you to jump, you can’t even ask how high. When God tells you to slaughter your son, you start sharpening the knife.

Kierkegaard’s view is in direct contradiction to that of Immanuel Kant:

Abraham should have replied to this putative Divine voice: “That I may not kill my good son is absolutely certain. But that you who appear to me are God is not certain, and cannot become certain, even though the voice were to sound from the very heavens. (The Conflict of the Faculties)

According to Kant, the only thing we know for certain is that it is utterly immoral to kill our children. No one can know with the same degree of confidence that God is communicating to them. It was therefore incumbent on Abraham to question the voice he heard commanding the akeidah and make no move whatsoever until proof of it being God’s voice could be ascertained – and no sufficient proof would be possible.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein and Rav Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) each wrote responses from within Jewish tradition to both Kierkegaard and Kant.

According to Rav Lichtenstein, a person cannot and should not suspend their own ethical judgement when faced with the word of God. They must rather work on themselves until they and God want the same thing. “One must nullify his own will and accept God’s will as the driving force in his life. Ultimately, one should strive to reach the level where he can translate God’s will into his own” (Mitzva: A Life of Command).

Rav Lichtenstein says more on this in a different essay:

…the grappling must all be done within the parameters of the understanding that, however much I wrestle, I do not for a moment question the authenticity or the authority of the tzav… I may grope, I may ask, and I may ultimately seek resolution.(“Being Frum and Being Good”)

This approach allows for Kierkegaard’s acceptance of God’s command as the be-all-and-end-all, while simultaneously allowing for a degree of Kant’s moral push-back. With this view, a person may search for the reason that they are faced with this apparent contradiction between God’s word and their moral intuition. They can wrestle with the command that they have been given and come to their own conclusions about the reason for it. But at the end of the day, a command is still a command. Upon reaching resolution, that command must be carried out as the will of God, and as their own will as well.

Rav Shagar by contrast gives doubt a legitimate and essential role in religious decision-making. He develops his position via a midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 56:4) in which the Satan tells Abraham Avinu that it was really he, not God, who commanded the slaughter of Isaac.  God will accuse Abraham of being a murderer the very next day if he goes through with this crazy act. Abraham’s responds that he will go through with what he perceives as the will of God, even though he knows that he can’t demonstrate the truth:

[This answer] expresses Abraham’s unremitting dedication, his willingness to forfeit everything – not just his ethics, but even his very religion – which is his only path to unqualified devotion, if not utter certainty. In any event, it appears as though Abraham’s insistence on the divine origin of the imperative to slaughter his son can be facilitated only by the seed of doubt planted by Satan. This is what sets it apart from ordinary obstinacy, especially if we read Satan as a manifestation of Abraham’s own misgivings. Intransigence that does not take doubt into account is meaningless and false. (Uncertainty as the Trial of the Akeda)

Rav Shagar argues that one can achieve true religious devotion only be experiencing and overcoming doubt. A devotion that ignores doubt entirely can be very dangerous in an age where we no longer have direct prophecy. How are we to know that the path that we are on is truly the right one and we are not misguided? Furthermore, how do we know that what we are doing is truly the word of Hashem?

Rabbi Hayyim Angel answers this question:

The Akedah teaches several vital religious lessons. Ideal religion is all about serving God, and is not self-serving. Because we expect God to be moral, the Torah’s protest tradition also emerges with Abraham’s holding God accountable. We may and should ask questions. Simultaneously, we must obey God’s laws in our mutual covenantal relationship. We aspire to be extremely religious, and Abraham serves as a paragon of the ideal connection to God, an active relationship, and faithfulness. The Akedah also teaches the key to avoid what is rightly condemned as religious extremism, using religion as a vehicle for murder, persecution, discrimination, racism, and other expressions of immorality. Morality and rationality must be built into every religious system, or else its adherents risk lapsing into immorality in the name of their religion. (The Binding of Isaac: Extremely Religious Without Religious Extremism)

Judaism is about serving God, not about serving ourselves.  But since God is a wholly moral being, His commands must also be moral. The Akedah narrative demonstrates to us that we should love God enough to do whatever it is that He demands of us, but also that God does not want us performing immoral actions in His name. Reading the Akedah with this in mind makes clear that neither moral intuition nor trust in God should ever be sacrificed.

Steve Gotlib (SBM 2017 and 2018) is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. He is now in his first year of semicha at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.

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Was Lot Worse Than Esav? Parallels, People(s), and Property

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davey Schoenberg

Who was more antagonistic to our nation, Lot or Esav? We all probably learned in grade school that Esav is obviously the villain, our archnemesis, the literal manifestation of evil. And certainly from the stories in Bereishit, even if we limit ourselves to the text and ignore the numerous midrashim, Esav appears to be the winner of the malevolence match up. The Torah testifies that he planned to kill Yaakov, and we also learn that he “despised” the Abrahamic birthright. In contrast, the only problem between Lot himself and the Abrahamic line is that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds. If we add in all the midrashim about how evil Esav was—including one that Esav tried to murder Yaakov by biting his neck—it seems even more clear that Esav’s wickedness trumps Lot’s.

Yet when we look at the laws surrounding their descendants, we get the opposite impression.[1] While Esav’s nation (Edom) can marry into the Jewish people three generations after converting to Judaism (Devarim, 23:8-9), Lot’s descendants [2] can never marry in, even after ten generations (Devarim, 23:4). Additionally, while the Torah forbids the Jewish people from conquering either set of descendants, the language in regard to Esav is much stronger, using the phrase “and you shall guard yourselves very much,” an admonition that is absent when speaking about Lot’s descendants (Devarim 2:4-5, 9, 19). Moreover, there is a special prohibition regarding Esav that the Jews may not even set foot on his descendants’ land, a commandment that is again not applied to Lot (ibid). Finally, the Torah explicitly says we are not to “seek the peace” of Lot’s descendants, but in the very next pasuk says, “Do not despise an Edomite” (Devarim 23:7-8). We see, therefore, that despite our intuition that Esav is worse than Lot, the Torah commands us to treat Lot much more harshly.

To begin understanding this seeming incongruity, we will first take a step back to talk about the word “רכש” (rechush/rachash: property/to amass). According to a Bar Ilan Responsa Project search, the root of this word appears eighteen times in the entire Chumash. Of those, an astonishing sixteen are in reference to Avraham, Lot, Yaakov, or Esav.

Two appearances of the word involve almost identical psukim. When mentioning that Lot’s shepherds fought with Avraham’s shepherds, the Torah states:

וְגַ֨ם־לְל֔וֹט הַֽהֹלֵ֖ךְ אֶת־אַבְרָ֑ם הָיָ֥ה צֹֽאן־וּבָקָ֖ר וְאֹֽהָלִֽים :וְלֹֽא־נָשָׂ֥א אֹתָ֛ם הָאָ֖רֶץ לָשֶׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו כִּֽי־הָיָ֤ה רְכוּשָׁם֙ רָ֔ב וְלֹ֥א יָֽכְל֖וּ לָשֶׁ֥בֶת יַחְדָּֽו:

And also to Lot who travelled with Avraham there were sheep, cattle, tents. And the land could not sustain them to dwell together, because their property was [too] great, and they could not dwell together (13:5-6).

Similarly, when Esav goes away from Yaakov and leaves Israel to go to Har Seir, we read:

וַיִּקַּ֣ח עֵשָׂ֡ו אֶת־נָ֠שָׁ֠יו וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו וְאֶת־בְּנֹתָיו֘ וְאֶת־כָּל־נַפְשׁ֣וֹת בֵּיתוֹ֒ וְאֶת־מִקְנֵ֣הוּ וְאֶת־כָּל־בְּהֶמְתּ֗וֹ וְאֵת֙ כָּל־קִנְיָנ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר רָכַ֖שׁ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ כְּנָ֑עַן וַיֵּ֣לֶךְ אֶל־אֶ֔רֶץ מִפְּנֵ֖י יַֽעֲקֹ֥ב אָחִֽיו: כִּֽי־הָיָ֧ה רְכוּשָׁ֛ם רָ֖ב מִשֶּׁ֣בֶת יַחְדָּ֑ו וְלֹ֨א יָֽכְלָ֜ה אֶ֤רֶץ מְגֽוּרֵיהֶם֙ לָשֵׂ֣את אֹתָ֔ם מִפְּנֵ֖י מִקְנֵיהֶֽם:

And Esav took his wives, sons, daughters, and all the people of his house and his cattle and animals and all the acquisitions he had amassed in the land of Canaan, and he went to [another] land from before Jacob his brother. Because their property was [too] great to dwell together, and the land of their sojournings could not sustain them because of their flocks (36:7).[3]

Both Avraham/Lot and Yaakov/Esav, had too much property to be near each other, so they separated. Yet although these psukim are similar, there is a glaring difference between their contexts. In the context of Esav, the previous pasuk refers to his family members as distinct from his possessions: wives, children AND rechush. For Lot, in contrast, people are not mentioned as distinct from the property.

This difference between Lot and the Abrahamic line continues in the rest of Bereishit. When Lot is captured along with Sdom, the Torah notes that the conquerors took “the property of Sdom and Amorah and all their food … and also Lot and his property” (14:11-12). None of their people are mentioned. In contrast, when Avraham saves everyone who was captured, the Torah says he returned “all the property and also Lot his kinsman and his property and also the women and the nation” (14:16). The Torah, when referencing the exact same set of things, mentions “the women and the nation” separately when Avraham is the key actor, but includes them under “property” for Lot.[4]

Similarly, when Avraham leaves Charan, he takes his wife, his nephew, his property, and the “people they had made” (12:5). Again, the people are distinct from the property.

The first time rechush is mentioned directly in regard to Yaakov, when he leaves Lavan, the people are also listed separately (31:17-18). The other time, when the nation goes down to Egypt, not only are the people listed separately, but the Torah then goes into great detail, listing the names of the people who went with him (46:5-26).[5]

Thus, every time the word rechush is mentioned when Avraham, Yaakov, or Esav are the actors, people are treated as distinct from property, but when Lot is acting, people are considered property.[6] Indeed, Lot’s consideration of people, even his own family, as property is evident when the people of Sdom mob his house because of his visitors. Lot says to them, “I have two daughters who have not known a man; I will take them out to you and do with them what is good in your eyes” (19:8). Lot offers up his virgin daughters to be mass raped in order to protect his visitors. Part of the obvious utter revulsion we have towards this is certainly Lot’s casual treatment of his daughters as bargaining chips.

This is exactly the difference between Lot and Esav. Esav treats his own family well: there is a distinction to him between people and property. Lot, however, is a wildcard. No one is safe from him, not even family, because people are just another piece of property to mess with.

We can now answer the question with which we started. Esav can eventually marry into the Jewish people because once we are his family—say, after three generations—we trust him to be good to us. Even if the original Esav was terrible to the Jewish people, we know that if we are family, he will fulfill the basic minimum of treating us well. Esav doesn’t treat people like property. Lot, in contrast, does. Even after ten generations, when we would definitely be family, we cannot be assured that he will be good to the Jewish people because being family with other people means nothing to him: everyone is rechush.

While obviously not ideal, we can accept many negative—even reprehensible—character traits and still be willing to consider someone Jewish. This is not to say we should accept those character traits, but rather that given enough of a baseline, we may welcome someone into the community and then work on improving their actions. Comparing Lot and Esav, however, teaches us that negating the agency of other people must not be tolerated.

Notes:

[1] Admittedly, the only nation we are commanded to wipe out completely is Amalek, a descendant of Esav. Nevertheless, this is only one portion of Esav’s descendants. Esav as a whole is called Edom (Bereishit 36:1), and this is to whom I refer when I say Esav’s descendants.

[2] Moav and Bnei Amon.

[3] In this week’s sedra.

[4] The king of Sdom also separates people from property, saying to Avraham, “Give me people, and the property take for yourself” (14:21). I’d argue he learned this lesson from Avraham, as Rashi commenting on the section says that a miracle occurred to the king of Sdom, causing him to “believe in Avraham” (Rashi Bereishit 14:10, s.v. be’erot be’erot cheimar).

[5] Well, the names of the males plus Dinah. The women are only mentioned as groups. But that’s a whole different discussion.

[6] There is one more time where rechush is mentioned by Avraham, when Hashem promises him that his progeny will eventually leave Egypt “with great property” (15:14). While in this case, people are not mentioned separately, this is for a clear reason: Hashem is promising that the entire nation will leave Egypt, taking their property with them. There are no separate people for them to be taking along.

 

Davey Schoenberg (SBM 2018) grew up in Newton, MA and attended Maimonides School before spending two years in Gush. He is currently a Sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Mechanical Engineering.

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Where are Noach’s “Banim u’Banot?”

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Yair Lichtman

Following the Mabul, God blesses and instructs Noach and his family to procreate and repopulate the earth (Bereishit 9:1, 7):

(א) וַיְבָ֣רֶךְ אֱלֹהִ֔ים אֶת־נֹ֖חַ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֑יו וַיֹּ֧אמֶר לָהֶ֛ם פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֖וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָֽרֶץ׃…

(ז) וְאַתֶּ֖ם פְּר֣וּ וּרְב֑וּ שִׁרְצ֥וּ בָאָ֖רֶץ וּרְבוּ־בָֽהּ׃

(1) God blessed Noah and his sons, and said to them, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…

(7) Be fruitful and multiply. Increase abundantly in the earth, and multiply in it.”

Indeed, much of the Parasha is dedicated to the theme of the inhabitants of the ark as a remnant designed to reestablish human settlement on the earth. To note one explicit example (7:2-3):

(ב) מִכֹּ֣ל׀ הַבְּהֵמָ֣ה הַטְּהוֹרָ֗ה תִּֽקַּח־לְךָ֛ שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּ֑וֹ וּמִן־הַבְּהֵמָ֡ה אֲ֠שֶׁ֠ר לֹ֣א טְהֹרָ֥ה הִ֛וא שְׁנַ֖יִם אִ֥ישׁ וְאִשְׁתּֽוֹ׃

(ג) גַּ֣ם מֵע֧וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֛יִם שִׁבְעָ֥ה שִׁבְעָ֖ה זָכָ֣ר וּנְקֵבָ֑ה לְחַיּ֥וֹת זֶ֖רַע עַל־פְּנֵ֥י כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(2) You shall take seven pairs of every clean animal with you, the male and his female. Of the animals that are not clean, take two, the male and his female.

(3) Also of the birds of the sky, seven and seven, male and female, to keep seed alive on the surface of all the earth.

It is therefore puzzling that Noach does not appear to fulfill this divine directive himself. The Torah painstakingly enumerates the descendants of each of Noach’s children, and notes how they served as the progenitors of mankind (9:18-19):

(יח) וַיִּֽהְי֣וּ בְנֵי־נֹ֗חַ הַיֹּֽצְאִים֙ מִן־הַתֵּבָ֔ה שֵׁ֖ם וְחָ֣ם וָיָ֑פֶת וְחָ֕ם ה֖וּא אֲבִ֥י כְנָֽעַן׃

(יט) שְׁלֹשָׁ֥ה אֵ֖לֶּה בְּנֵי־נֹ֑חַ וּמֵאֵ֖לֶּה נָֽפְצָ֥ה כׇל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(18) The sons of Noah who went out from the ship were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham is the father of Canaan.

(19) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these, the whole earth was populated.

Note the absence of Noach himself from this list. Similarly, we later observe that, while the descendants of Noach until Avraham are said to father children beyond the ones named in the text, at no point does Noach take his place among them. Let us compare two entries:

(יב) וְאַרְפַּכְשַׁ֣ד חַ֔י חָמֵ֥שׁ וּשְׁלֹשִׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֖וֹלֶד אֶת־שָֽׁלַח׃

(יג) וַֽיְחִ֣י אַרְפַּכְשַׁ֗ד אַֽחֲרֵי֙ הוֹלִיד֣וֹ אֶת־שֶׁ֔לַח שָׁלֹ֣שׁ שָׁנִ֔ים וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיּ֥וֹלֶד בָּנִ֖ים וּבָנֽוֹת׃

(כח) וַֽיְחִי־נֹ֖חַ אַחַ֣ר הַמַּבּ֑וּל שְׁלֹ֤שׁ מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַֽחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָֽה׃

(כט) וַיִּֽהְיוּ֙ כׇּל־יְמֵי־נֹ֔חַ תְּשַׁ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שָׁנָ֔ה וַחֲמִשִּׁ֖ים שָׁנָ֑ה וַיָּמֹֽת׃

(12) Arpachshad lived thirty-five years and fathered Shelah.

(13) Arpachshad lived four hundred three years after he fathered Shelah, and fathered sons and daughters.

(28) Noah lived three hundred fifty years after the flood.

(29) All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years, then he died.

Where Noach’s descendants each contribute to the repopulation of the world, Noach simply dies.

Why does Noach, this consummate follower of God’s will (see 6:22 and 7:5), fail to obey God’s command in this regard?

Castration

This detail may have driven Chazal to understand the Ham incident as one of castration (Sanhedrin 70a):

רב ושמואל חד אמר סרסו וח”א רבעו…

Rav and Shmuel disagreed: One says that Ham castrated Noach and one says that Ham sodomized him.

How could Noach have failed to fulfill the command of procreation? It must be that he was physically incapable of doing so because of Ham’s actions.

Midat HaDin vs. Midat HaRachamim

A different interpretation suggests itself, however, when one considers how the antediluvian and postdiluvian differed from one another. Radak correctly observes that the flood serves as a kind of do-over, a repeat of the creation of the world:

ויברך אלהים, אע”פ שכבר היו ברוכים בתחילת הבריאה, עתה היה להם כתחלת הבריאה כי נתחדש העולם אחר שהיה תהו ובהו שהרי נתכסתה הארץ במים. והברכה מה שאמר להם פרו ורבו ומוראכם וחתכם.

ויברך אלוקים, even though they had enjoyed G’d’s blessing already ever since the creation of mankind, the renewal of life on earth reassured them by their receiving a new blessing also. The blessing consisted primarily of the promise that they would once again be fruitful and multiply.

As such, one would expect great similarities and only minor differences. For example, the extent of God’s command to procreate appears substantively identical when one compares 1:28 and 9:1, 7. Yet Noach obeys God’s first command while ignoring his second. What changed?

Let us compare the verses about the nature of mankind from before (6:5) and after the Mabul (8:21):

(ה) וַיַּ֣רְא יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּ֥י רַבָּ֛ה רָעַ֥ת הָאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וְכׇל־יֵ֙צֶר֙ מַחְשְׁבֹ֣ת לִבּ֔וֹ רַ֥ק רַ֖ע כׇּל־הַיּֽוֹם׃

(ו) וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם יְהֹוָ֔ה כִּֽי־עָשָׂ֥ה אֶת־הָֽאָדָ֖ם בָּאָ֑רֶץ וַיִּתְעַצֵּ֖ב אֶל־לִבּֽוֹ׃

(5) Hashem saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all day long.

(6) Hashem regretted that He had made man on the earth, and He was saddened in His heart.

(כא) וַיָּ֣רַח יְהֹוָה֮ אֶת־רֵ֣יחַ הַנִּיחֹ֒חַ֒ וַיֹּ֨אמֶר יְהֹוָ֜ה אֶל־לִבּ֗וֹ לֹֽא־אֹ֠סִ֠ף לְקַלֵּ֨ל ע֤וֹד אֶת־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ בַּעֲב֣וּר הָֽאָדָ֔ם כִּ֠י יֵ֣צֶר לֵ֧ב הָאָדָ֛ם רַ֖ע מִנְּעֻרָ֑יו וְלֹֽא־אֹסִ֥ף ע֛וֹד לְהַכּ֥וֹת אֶת־כׇּל־חַ֖י כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשִֽׂיתִי׃

(21) Hashem smelled the pleasant aroma. Hashem said in his heart, “I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake, because the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I ever again strike everything living, as I have done.

In both verses, God observes that mankind is inherently wicked, and in both cases, makes a decision about the world as a consequence. But while the former verses explain God’s decision to destroy the earth, the latter explain the motive to refrain from destroying it anymore. While the former decision was motivated by a calculus of Din, the latter is inspired by the ideology of Rachamim.

Noach is motivated in his actions by Din. To hear the Torah tell it, he earned his place on the ark with hard work in the service of God, by being righteous in his generation and by fulfilling divine commands exactly as instructed. The prophet Yechezkel saw it the same way (Yechezkel 14:20):

(כ) וְנֹ֨חַ [דָּנִיֵּ֣אל] (דנאל) וְאִיּוֹב֮ בְּתוֹכָהּ֒ חַי־אָ֗נִי נְאֻם֙ אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהֹוִ֔ה אִם־בֵּ֥ן אִם־בַּ֖ת יַצִּ֑ילוּ הֵ֥מָּה בְצִדְקָתָ֖ם יַצִּ֥ילוּ נַפְשָֽׁם׃

(20) though Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness.

Noach’s life made sense to him in a world governed by Din, where the righteous survive and the wicked are wiped out. But that’s not how God planned to operate the world anymore (9:9-11):

(ט) וַאֲנִ֕י הִנְנִ֥י מֵקִ֛ים אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֖י אִתְּכֶ֑ם וְאֶֽת־זַרְעֲכֶ֖ם אַֽחֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

(י) וְאֵ֨ת כׇּל־נֶ֤פֶשׁ הַֽחַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֔ם בָּע֧וֹף בַּבְּהֵמָ֛ה וּֽבְכׇל־חַיַּ֥ת הָאָ֖רֶץ אִתְּכֶ֑ם מִכֹּל֙ יֹצְאֵ֣י הַתֵּבָ֔ה לְכֹ֖ל חַיַּ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(יא) וַהֲקִמֹתִ֤י אֶת־בְּרִיתִי֙ אִתְּכֶ֔ם וְלֹֽא־יִכָּרֵ֧ת כׇּל־בָּשָׂ֛ר ע֖וֹד מִמֵּ֣י הַמַּבּ֑וּל וְלֹֽא־יִהְיֶ֥ה ע֛וֹד מַבּ֖וּל לְשַׁחֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

(9) “As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you,

(10) and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth.

(11) I will establish my covenant with you: all flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood, neither will there ever again be a flood to destroy the earth.”

This new covenant demands no service from mankind. It’s an unconditional promise to never again wipe out human life from the earth, one which cuts against the grain of who Noach is. Noach, like Yonah, despairs of a world driven by Rachamim, and has no interest in perpetuating the flawed and wicked human life upon it.

Yair Lichtman (SBM 2018) is a student at Yeshiva University, where he is pursuing rabbinical ordination and graduate degrees in Bible and Jewish Education.

 

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Are We Not Worse Than Angels? Reflections on Human Complexity

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eliana Yashgur

The malakhei hasharet, the ministering angels, play a primary role in Chazal’s depiction of the mystery and irony of human creation. By contrasting the the deference of the malakhei hasharet to G-d and His human creation in Talmud Chagigah 12b with their attempts at interfering” with His creation of humanity in Bereishit Rabbah, we learn that G-d intended the struggle and strife associated with being human.

Resh Lakish on Chagiga 12b describes seven heavenly firmaments: Vilon, Rakia, Shehakim, Zevul, Ma’on, Makhon, and Aravot. These firmaments are described with majestic and ethereal language, and angelic behavior matches this aura.

מעון – שבו כיתות של מלאכי השרת שאומרות שירה בלילה וחשות ביום מפני כבודן של ישראל

שנאמר (תהלים מב, ט) יומם יצוה ה’ חסדו ובלילה שירה עמי (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

Ma’on, habitation, is where groups of ministering angels recite song at night but are silent during the day out of respect for Israel, (in order not to compete with their songs)

as it is stated: “By day the Lord will command His kindness, and in the night His song with me” (Psalms 42:9).

It is as if angels step back from the world when G-d declares that their purpose is elsewhere. In reverence to G-d they do not seek to interfere in the dealings of Israel in the physical.

Similarly, the malakhei hasharet of Rakia are described as dwelling in their proper place under the supernal G-d, delighted in their spiritual role residing in the Skies serving G-d.

רקיע – שם אופנים ושרפים וחיות הקדש ומלאכי השרת וכסא הכבוד.

מלך א-ל חי רם ונשא שוכן עליהם בערבות, שנאמר (תהלים סח, ה) סולו לרוכב בערבות בי-ה שמו.

Rakia – There are the ofanim, the seraphim, the holy divine creatures, and the ministering angels, and the Throne of Glory.

The King, God, the living, lofty, exalted One dwells above them in Aravot, as it is stated: “Extol Him Who rides upon the skies [Aravot], Whose name is God” (Psalms 68:5).

The role of the malakhei hasharet is to praise G-d and not to challenge Him in any way.

דאמר ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמר ר’ יונתן: כל דיבור ודיבור שיוצא מפי הקב”ה – נברא ממנו מלאך אחד,

שנאמר (תהלים לג, ו) בדבר ה’ שמים נעשו וברוח פיו כל צבאם (מס׳ חגיגה יב:)

As Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said that Rabbi Yonatan said: With each and every word that emerges from the mouth of the Holy One, Blessed be He, an angel is created, as it is stated: “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of His mouth all their hosts” (Psalms 33:6).

Angels are described as being created by the breath of G-d’s mouth, as if to say that angels are created as a corollary to G-d’s speech. Humans are created by G-d breathing “ruach” into their nostrils. Angels are described using the language of G-d, Who is referenced through the mouth that breathes. Humans are described in their own language, as beings into whose nostrils G-d’s mouth breathes.

These differences collide in Bereshit Rabbah’s description of angels in the context of their “participation” in human creation.

אָמַר רַבִּי הוֹשַׁעְיָא: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן טָעוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ.

מָשָׁל לְמֶלֶךְ וְאִפַּרְכוֹס שֶׁהָיוּ בְּקָרוּכִין, וְהָיוּ בְּנֵי הַמְדִינָה מְבַקְּשִׁין לוֹמַר לַמֶּלֶךְ דּוֹמִינוֹ, וְלֹא הָיוּ יוֹדְעִין אֵיזֶהוּ/ מֶה עָשָׂה הַמֶּלֶךְ? דְּחָפוֹ וְהוֹצִיאוֹ חוּץ לַקָּרוּכִין, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אִפַּרְכוֹס.

כָּךְ בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּרָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, טָעוּ בּוֹ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת וּבִקְּשׁוּ לוֹמַר לְפָנָיו קָדוֹשׁ. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, הִפִּיל עָלָיו תַּרְדֵּמָה, וְיָדְעוּ הַכֹּל שֶׁהוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִּכְתִיב (ישעיה ב, כב): חִדְלוּ לָכֶם מִן הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר נְשָׁמָה בְּאַפּוֹ כִּי בַּמֶּה נֶחְשָׁב הוּא. (בראשית רבה ח:י)

Said R’ Hosha`ya: In the moment that the Holy One created Adam Harishon, the first Human, the ministering angels erred and sought to say ‘Holy/Qadosh’ before him (to worship him).

This resembles a king and a governor who sat in a chariot, and the people of the land wanted to call the king “Sovereign” but weren’t sure which he was. What did the king do? He pushed the governor out of the chariot, and everyone knew then that he was king.

So too when The Holy Blessed One created Adam, the ministering angels erred and wanted to say Qadosh before hum. What did the Holy One do? ‘He cast upon him deep sleep’ [Gn 2:21] and all knew that he was Adam. As it says, “Cease from man in whose nostrils is breath, as what makes him significant?”

The angels do not have a concept of humanity to prepare them for his creation. The angels experience so much tension upon the mere creation of the human being that they begin fighting with G-d to Whom they are beholden. They begin to worship the human being, until G-d puts the mortal human being in his place and shows angels how lowly the human being is.

רַבִּי שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר נַחְמָן בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי יוֹנָתָן אָמַר: בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁהָיָה משֶׁה כּוֹתֵב אֶת הַתּוֹרָה, הָיָה כּוֹתֵב מַעֲשֵׂה כָּל יוֹם וָיוֹם. כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ לַפָּסוּק הַזֶּה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, וַיֹּאמֶר אֱ-לֹקים נַעֲשֶׂה אָדָם בְּצַלְמֵנוּ כִּדְמוּתֵנוּ, אָמַר לְפָנָיו: רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים, מָה אַתָּה נוֹתֵן פִּתְחוֹן פֶּה לַמִּינִים?! אֶתְמְהָא.

אָמַר לוֹ: כְּתֹב, וְהָרוֹצֶה לִטְעוֹת יִטְעֶה.

אָמַר לוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: משֶׁה, הָאָדָם הַזֶּה שֶׁבָּרָאתִי, לֹא גְּדוֹלִים וּקְטַנִּים אֲנִי מַעֲמִיד מִמֶּנּוּ? שֶׁאִם יָבוֹא הַגָּדוֹל לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנוּ, וְהוּא אוֹמֵר מָה אֲנִי צָרִיךְ לִטֹּל רְשׁוּת מִן הַקָּטָן מִמֶּנִּי, וְהֵן אוֹמְרִים לוֹ לְמַד מִבּוֹרְאֶךָ, שֶׁהוּא בָּרָא אֶת הָעֶלְיוֹנִים וְאֶת הַתַּחְתּוֹנִים, כֵּיוָן שֶׁבָּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת הָאָדָם נִמְלַךְ בְּמַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת. 

(בראשית רבה ח:ח)

Rabbi Shmuel ben Nachman said in the name of Rabbi Yonatan: When Moses was writing the Torah, he wrote the happenings of every day. When he got to the verse of “and G-d said: ‘Let us make man in our image in our likeness’”, he said, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why are you giving an excuse to heretics?” G-d responded, “Write, and he who wishes to err may err.” G-d said to Moses, this man which I have created, do I not cause both large and small men to be born from him? If a great person goes to ask permission for something from some inferior to him, and the great man says, “‘Why do I need to take permission from one lesser than me?”, they will say to him: Learn from your Creator, for He created upper ones and lower ones, and when He came to create the human, He consulted with the ministering angels.”

Seemingly ironically, G-d consults with the angels are consulted with regard to creation of the human being. The notion that the angels were given room to assist in the creation of humans, while openly acknowledging the heretical appearance of such an idea, illustrates that the angels were meant to engage in a unequal partnership to create the human being. The human being, the product of such an unusual partnership, must be an ethically and existentially challenging construction.

אָמַר רַבִּי סִימוֹן, בְּשָׁעָה שֶׁבָּא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לִבְרֹאת אֶת אָדָם הָרִאשׁוֹן, נַעֲשׂוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת כִּתִּים כִּתִּים, וַחֲבוּרוֹת חֲבוּרוֹת, מֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים אַל יִבָּרֵא, וּמֵהֶם אוֹמְרִים יִבָּרֵא, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יא): חֶסֶד וֶאֱמֶת נִפְגָּשׁוּ צֶדֶק וְשָׁלוֹם נָשָׁקוּ. חֶסֶד אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא גּוֹמֵל חֲסָדִים. וֶאֱמֶת אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁכֻּלּוֹ שְׁקָרִים. צֶדֶק אוֹמֵר יִבָּרֵא, שֶׁהוּא עוֹשֶׂה צְדָקוֹת. שָׁלוֹם אוֹמֵר אַל יִבָּרֵא, דְּכוּלֵיהּ קְטָטָה. מֶה עָשָׂה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא נָטַל אֱמֶת וְהִשְׁלִיכוֹ לָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (דניאל ח, יב): וְתַשְׁלֵךְ אֱמֶת אַרְצָה, אָמְרוּ מַלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת לִפְנֵי הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, רִבּוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים מָה אַתָּה מְבַזֶּה תַּכְסִיס אַלְטִיכְסְיָה שֶׁלָּךְ, תַּעֲלֶה אֱמֶת מִן הָאָרֶץ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (תהלים פה, יב): אֱמֶת מֵאֶרֶץ תִּצְמָח. רַבָּנָן אָמְרֵי לָהּ בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי חֲנִינָא בַּר אִידֵי וְרַבִּי פִּינְחָס וְרַבִּי חֶלְקִיָּה בְּשֵׁם רַבִּי סִימוֹן אָמַר, מְאֹד, הוּא אָדָם. הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (בראשית א, לא): וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה וְהִנֵּה טוֹב מְאֹד, וְהִנֵּה טוֹב אָדָם. רַב הוּנָא רַבָּהּ שֶׁל צִפּוֹרִין אֲמַר עַד שֶׁמַּלְאֲכֵי הַשָּׁרֵת מִדַּיְּנִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ וּמִתְעַסְּקִין אֵלּוּ עִם אֵלּוּ בְּרָאוֹ הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא. אָמַר לָהֶן מָה אַתֶּם מִדַּיְּנִין כְּבָר נַעֲשָׂה אָדָם. (ח:ה)

R. Simon said: When the Holy One, blessed be God, came to create Adam, the ministering angels formed themselves into groups and parties. Some of them said, “Don’t create him,” while others urged, “create him,” as it is written, “Lovingkindness and truth met, justice and peace kissed” (Psalms 85:11). Lovingkindness said, “Create him because he will do acts of loving kindness.” Truth said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of lies.” Justice said, “Create him because he will perform acts of justice.” Peace said, “Don’t create him, because he is full of conflict.” So what did God do? God held Truth and cast it to the ground, as it is written, “And truth will be sent to the earth” (Daniel 8:12). The ministering angels said before the Holy One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Why do you despise Your seal [truth]? Let Truth arise from the earth!” Hence it is written, “Let truth spring up from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)…While the ministering angels were arguing with each other and disputing with each other, the Holy One created the first human. God said to them, “Why are you arguing? Adam has already been made!”

Human life is necessarily complicated and challenging. For this reason, human beings were entrusted with the Torah, whose values they can actualize through the choices they make on the physical earth. In Bereishit Rabba, we see how G-d acknowledges that “Truth” is in fact seen in the existence of human beings, with all of the challenges and complexities of reality that brings about. Rather than a strict proper truth of Heaven, the physical world contains its own Truth defined by the ability of Divine life to translate to mortal life.

The foreword to the Ketzos HaChoshen sums up what our role is as human beings rather than angels.

אך לא נתנה התורה למלאכי השרת, ואל האדם נתנה, אשר לו שכל האנושי. ונתן לנו הקדוש ברוך הוא התורה ברוב רחמיו וחסדיו כפי הכרעת שכל האנושי, גם כי אינו אמת בערך השכלים הנבדלים.

The Torah was not given to ministering angels, but rather it was given to humans, who possess human intelligence. The Holy One, blessed be He, in His great kindness and mercy, gave us the Torah to be determined according to the discernment of the human mind, even though [that determination] does not reflect Ultimate Truth at the level of the disembodied intellects.

 Eliana Yashgur (SBM 2017) is a senior at Princeton University studying psychology.

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Seven Wanderers

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matthew Kritz

I invite to my Sukkah seven esteemed guests: Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon, and David.

וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה וּסְפֹר֙ הַכּ֣וֹכָבִ֔ים אִם־תּוּכַ֖ל לִסְפֹּ֣ר אֹתָ֑ם וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ל֔וֹ כֹּ֥ה יִהְיֶ֖ה זַרְעֶֽךָ׃

Avraham our father, why do we wander?

Break out of foolish ways of thinking, my child. Going outside your physical space is the first step to entering new mental spaces, by not being bound to the familiar. To be an iconoclast calls for stepping outside, risking being different, being ready to learn and discover. Look beyond the four walls given to you; truth is waiting for you outside. (Rashi ad. loc. Breishit Raba 42:8)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יִצְחָ֛ק לָשׂ֥וּחַ בַּשָּׂדֶ֖ה לִפְנ֣וֹת עָ֑רֶב וַיִּשָּׂ֤א עֵינָיו֙ וַיַּ֔רְא וְהִנֵּ֥ה גְמַלִּ֖ים בָּאִֽים׃

Yitzchak our father, why do we wander?

My child, how can you find G-d in the midst of the bustle of life? How can you pray when surrounded by distractions? To speak to the Almighty, you’ll need to go far away, to a place where no one will find you. There, freed from the noise of the world, you will begin to hear your own breathing and your own thoughts. Alone, you will not be ashamed to pour out your heart to G-d, remembering that you and G-d are both lonely, eager to find one another. (Seforno, ad. loc.)

וַיֵּצֵ֥א יַעֲקֹ֖ב מִבְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֖לֶךְ חָרָֽנָה׃

Yaakov our father, why do we wander?

In wandering, our trust in G-d is put to the test, my child. Whether we will return home safely, whether we  will have bread to eat and clothing to wear, is in the hands of G-d. On the road, we cannot rely on familiar surroundings; our only choice is to foster within ourselves an awareness of our dependence on G-d, which, in reality, is present even when we feel self-confident. (Breishit Raba 79, Mechilta 16:20)

וַתִּתְפְּשֵׂ֧הוּ בְּבִגְד֛וֹ לֵאמֹ֖ר שִׁכְבָ֣ה עִמִּ֑י וַיַּעֲזֹ֤ב בִּגְדוֹ֙ בְּיָדָ֔הּ וַיָּ֖נָס וַיֵּצֵ֥א הַחֽוּצָה׃

Righteous Yosef, why do we wander?

As you wander, you will encounter worlds foreign to you, cultures that look different from your own. In wandering, you will be forced to discover within yourself a commitment to your own values, to know when you must run away. To flee from evil is the ultimate test, to be ready to leave everything behind in the name of what you believe. In wandering, you demonstrate where you refuse to go, no matter the cost; you show that your true home is not the place you are from, but the people you are from. (Sotah 36b, Ramban Breishit 39:8, Introduction to Mesilat Yesharim)

וַיְהִ֣י ׀ בַּיָּמִ֣ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיִּגְדַּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ וַיֵּצֵ֣א אֶל־אֶחָ֔יו וַיַּ֖רְא בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיַּרְא֙ אִ֣ישׁ מִצְרִ֔י מַכֶּ֥ה אִישׁ־עִבְרִ֖י מֵאֶחָֽיו׃

Moshe, our teacher, why do we wander?

From within the walls of your own home, you cannot see the suffering that surrounds you. Security lays the groundwork for complacency; wandering out allows us to see what others take for granted. Wander in order to gain an outsider’s perspective, to remove the mask of the normal from what is, in truth, injustice. Doing so will make you more aware of what others do not notice, be that the suffering of the innocent, or a peculiar, unburnt bush. (Midrash Tanchuma, Shemot 9)

וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֨ף ה’ בְּמֹשֶׁ֗ה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הֲלֹ֨א אַהֲרֹ֤ן אָחִ֙יךָ֙ הַלֵּוִ֔י יָדַ֕עְתִּי כִּֽי־דַבֵּ֥ר יְדַבֵּ֖ר ה֑וּא וְגַ֤ם הִנֵּה־הוּא֙ יֹצֵ֣א לִקְרָאתֶ֔ךָ וְרָאֲךָ֖ וְשָׂמַ֥ח בְּלִבּֽוֹ׃

Aharon, righteous priest, why do we wander?

Our desires, and our responsibilities, are not always easily within reach. Those goals we truly care to accomplish, we must journey for, to show we are ready to go the distance. Some wandering is aimless, but other wandering is better termed journeying, setting our goals high and pursuing them. To take the long way is an act of love; it shows we cared enough to travel. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)

וְיָצָ֥א חֹ֖טֶר מִגֵּ֣זַע יִשָׁ֑י וְנֵ֖צֶר מִשָּׁרָשָׁ֥יו יִפְרֶֽה׃

King David, why do we wander?

Do not think that all is settled, for even as you sit in a house of cedars, the ark of the covenant remains in a tent. Keep wandering, to remember that your story is unfinished, that the exile goes on, that the Messiah has not yet come. Continue wandering, for you mustn’t think you’ve reached your destination. There is still work to be done in the wilderness before the next generation can build a permanent home for G-d. (Midrash Agada Shemot 4:14)

 

Matthew Kritz (SBM 2018) is a chaplain intern at Princeton Medical Center, and an Associate at Gal Ventures, LLC. He hopes to begin rabbinical school next year.

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Certain Doubt

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Adena Morgan

Haazinu is a disturbing passage. It gives us major spoilers for Jewish history, that we will sin and be punished by exile and degradation among the nations. Even with this advance warning and instructions on how to avoid this fate (don’t sin), our fate seems predetermined. It makes one wonder what kind of God would do this to Their Chosen People. The good news is we don’t have to wonder, as we are told explicitly in verse 4:

הַצּוּר֙ תָּמִ֣ים פׇּֽעֳל֔וֹ

כִּ֥י כׇל־דְּרָכָ֖יו מִשְׁפָּ֑ט

אֵ֤ל אֱמוּנָה֙ וְאֵ֣ין עָ֔וֶל

צַדִּ֥יק וְיָשָׁ֖ר הֽוּא

The Mighty One, His works are perfect

For all His ways are justice

A faithful God without fault

He is righteous and just

I find this description confusing, since the rest of Haazinu doesn’t mesh with my intuitive understanding of the concepts of justice and righteousness used above.

The Sifrei on this verse gives a fascinating elucidation which I believe offers a helpful perspective. In a series of 5 comments we learn the rabbinical understanding of a just and righteous God. First the midrash affirms that all God’s creations are perfect, none wish that they had been made differently. Then the midrash tells us that God’s works in history are perfect and one should not question the decision to kill the whole world with a flood or elect Aharon’s family for the priesthood. Finally we are assured that God metes just rewards and punishments for the righteous and the wicked. 3 times the following comment is repeated:

כי כל דרכיו משפט –

יושב עם כל אחד ואחד בדין ונותן לו מה שראוי לו:

For all His ways are just-

He sits with every individual in judgement and gives what is appropriate

Chazal really seem to believe that everything God does is proper; it cannot and should not be questioned. This is illustrated with the story of R’ Hanina b. Teradion and his family. R’ Hanina was sentenced by the Romans to be burned alive with his Torah scroll for daring to teach Torah in public after it was forbidden, and his wife and daughter were also sentenced to be punished. The three of them were asked what they made of their sentence, and they each answered with our verse or a different verse that showed they had reconciled themselves to their fates. Here is a real life example of belief that whatever God does, even causing the righteous to suffer, is just.

Yet, the Sifrei doesn’t end there. It makes one more comment of just a few lines.

כשירד משה מהר סיני באו כל ישראל אצלו ואמרו לו:

משה רבינו, אמור לנו מה היה מדת הדין למעלה?

אמר להם:

אני איני אומר לזכות את הזכאי ולחייב את החייב,

אלא אפילו להחליף בדבר – אל אמונה ואין עול:

When Moshe descended from Mt. Sinai all Israel came to him and asked:

“Moshe, tell us what is the attribute of judgement above?”

He said to them:

“I cannot tell you it is to exonerate the innocent and hold liable the guilty,

rather even to switch the matter” – a faithful God without fault

This seems to contradict all of the earlier portion of the Sifrei. Moshe, the prophet who communicated more directly with God than any other, who should understand the best how God’s decisions are just, is questioning God’s judgement.  Although Chazal generally reaffirm God’s perfect judgement they also give voice to the doubts we all have when looking at a complicated world.

Adena Morgan (SBM 2011, 2013) lives in Jerusalem with her husband, where she works as a museum educator.

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