Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Bare Cunning: Cognitive Desire in Eden

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Ben Kaplan

The story of the “original sin” is embedded into both the Jewish and non-Jewish consciousness. While many of us take this story for granted, looking into it on a deeper level can help us understand deep truths about the human condition. In particular, analyzing the linguistic nuances of the original Hebrew can provide deep insight into two distinct types of human desire.

Seemingly identical words lie on each side of the border between the second and third chapters of B’reishit:

וַיִּהְיוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם עֲרוּמִּים, הָאָדָם וְאִשְׁתּוֹ; וְלֹא, יִתְבֹּשָׁשׁוּ.

וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱ-לֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱ-לֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.

In the second perek, the root ערם clearly means that the humans were “naked”, while in the third perek, since presumably none of the animals in the garden were clothed, it is instead translated as “clever.”

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, a proponent of the idea of the deep and interconnected nature of the Hebrew language, separates the two instances of ערם into two distinct linguistic roots.   He connects the root’s definition as “clever” to the Hebrew word ערמה, heap, since a clever person takes many seemingly small actions which are “heaped” together to great effect. Rav Hirsch concludes that the form of ערם meaning naked comes from the root עור, meaning skin. So too, a blind person is called an עור (vowelized differently) since the primary sense he uses to find his way around is touch, which is sensed through skin.

Even if we assume with Rav Hirsch that the two words come from unrelated roots, the use of the same letters to describe humans and animals seems intended to draw a parallel between the naked man and woman and the cunning snake. The deliberate nature of the juxtaposition grows more evident with the acknowledgement that the chapter separation between the two verses is not intrinsic to the Torah itself, but was added by later (by a Christian archbishop in the 13th century). The Masoretic notes make neither a p’tuchah nor s’tumah separation between the two verses.

Some hints from the language of the Torah, as well as from a (somewhat baffling) midrash, may yield a unified definition for the two instances of the root. Rashi on verse 3:1 quotes B’reishit Rabbah as saying that the snake wanted to cause Adam and Chavah to sin due to the desire he felt at seeing them being publicly intimate with each other. This is a reasonable implication of  2:25. The Torah then describes the serpent tempting Chavah to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. At first, Chavah seems to have no desire to eat from the tree, simply answering the serpent’s questions about which trees she may eat from and which one she may not, citing the danger of death. The serpent rejects her concerns, informing Chavah that God does not wish her and her husband to eat from the tree because then “their eyes will open” and they will becomes like gods. Only after this speech is it stated that Chavah desired the tree.

ו וַתֵּרֶא הָאִשָּׁה כִּי טוֹב הָעֵץ לְמַאֲכָל וְכִי תַאֲוָה-הוּא לָעֵינַיִם, וְנֶחְמָד הָעֵץ לְהַשְׂכִּיל, וַתִּקַּח מִפִּרְיוֹ, וַתֹּאכַל; וַתִּתֵּן גַּם-לְאִישָׁהּ עִמָּהּ, וַיֹּאכַל.

It should be noted that the verse refers to eyes and seeing twice, “Chavah saw… that the tree was temptation for the eyes.” Noticing the oddity that Chavah is only seeing these aspects of the tree now, Rashi comments that it was not the tree that Chavah is seeing, rather she is “seeing” i.e. agreeing with, the argument of the serpent. After Adam and Chavah eat from the fruit of the tree, they begin to feel its effects.

ז וַתִּפָּקַחְנָה, עֵינֵי שְׁנֵיהֶם, וַיֵּדְעוּ, כִּי עֵירֻמִּם הֵם; וַיִּתְפְּרוּ עֲלֵה תְאֵנָה, וַיַּעֲשׂוּ לָהֶם חֲגֹרֹת.

Interestingly, the serpent’s promise is partially fulfilled, as the verse testifies that “their eyes opened and they realized that they were naked.” What exactly was the nature of the change wrought by the forbidden fruit? What does it mean that it opened their eyes?

Eyes and vision play a prominent role in the story, as has already been demonstrated. Additionally, seeing and desire seem to be closely related. Chavah “sees” and desires the tree, which “desirable for the eyes.” Additionally, the “opening of the eyes” caused by the fruit of the tree seems to have awakened some form of desire for evil in Adam and Chavah, as is stated explicitly by Rashi in 2:25. However, it seems odd to take this at face value, since the desire to deviate from God’s command clearly existed before eating from from the tree. After all, the very act of eating from the tree was an evil act!

A possible reconciliation of this contradiction is that there was a form of desire that existed before eating from the Eitz HaDaat and a form of desire that only entered the human consciousness afterward. Base, physical desires were absent from the human consciousness until after they ate the forbidden fruit. However, cognitive desires of the mind still existed. This is why the serpent was able to persuade Chavah to eat the fruit and why she only desired the fruit after the serpent gave her an intellectual argument of why she should. The “opening of the eyes” caused by eating the fruit was the human consciousness awakening to the existence of this physical type of desire. As is pointed out by the S’forno (on 3:1), the distinction between cognitive and physical temptation is explicated in Bamidbar 15:39.

וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם

The Torah here warns both not to follow the temptations of the eyes (physical temptations) as well as the temptations of the heart (cognitive temptations). The new awareness of physical temptation is what causes Adam and Chavah to be ashamed of their nakedness after they eat the fruit. The knowledge that they are displaying the parts of themselves that ignite temptation in others is shameful.

If sight is symbolic of the ability to desire that which is external, then nakedness is symbolic of one’s internal existence as an object of desire. As was indicated by the midrash, Adam’s and Chavah’s nakedness ignited temptation in the serpent. If this is true, then a unified definition of ערום can be proposed; namely, an object of desire. While Adam and Chavah ignited physical desire in others, the serpent was ערום in the sense that he ignited cognitive desire in others. His “cleverness” is what allowed him to tempt Chavah to sin. It then makes sense why Rashi connects Chavah’s act of “seeing” to the words of the snake rather than the tree itself. Since physical desire was only awakened by eating the forbidden fruit, the temptation that Chavah “saw” must have been that of the snake’s words.

The idea of a snake being harmful to look at is not only present in our parshah, but in secular sources as well. In Greek myth, the Medusa was a creature with snakes for hair; those who gazed upon her would turn to stone. Likewise, the basilisk featured in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (inspired by the creature of European myth) causes death to those who look into its eyes. In the Disney films The Jungle Book and Aladdin looking into the eyes of a snake (or in the latter case, a snake-shaped staff, which conjures other biblical parallels) causes the gazer to come under its thrall.

Rav Hirsch’s idea of ערום stemming from עור, skin, fits well into this concept as well. The Gemara in Arachin (15b) draws a parallel between a snake who bites and does not eat his prey to one who speaks lashon hara (evil speech). One who speaks lashon hara is inherently making himself into an object of cognitive desire, as it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara as well as to speak it. Since the snake in B’reishit misuses his faculty of speech to tempt others to sin, one who speaks lashon hara is compared to the snake. As is stated on the same amud, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is tzaraat, an affliction of the skin, the עור. This connection is seen strikingly when Moshe is given signs to prove to B’nei Yisrael that God has sent him. The first two signs he is given are his staff turning into a snake and the skin of his hand being covered with tzaraat. Rashi comments on Sh’mot 4:3 and 4:6 that these signs hinted to Moshe that he spoke lashon hara about Israel by saying they would not believe him.  

While certain ascetic streams of thought would have us focus on rooting out physical temptation from our society, B’reishit indicates that the “original sin” had nothing to do with physical desire. Rather, promises of power and glory as well as clever schemes designed to harm others caused the first ever sin. Chazal draw the parallel of such cognitive sins to lashon hara, often spoken in an attempt to increase one’s own place in the social pecking order. In order to truly correct humanity’s most fundamental flaw, our focus must be on treating our fellows well and using our knowledge and cunning to assist our brothers and sisters, rather than using them as stepping stones for our own material gain.

Ben Kaplan (SBM 2017) graduated from the University of Maryland with a degree in bioengineering in May 2017. After spending the summer in SBM, he made aliyah in August and is currently working as a madrich at Yeshivat Sha’arei Mevaseret Zion. 


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The Virtue of Beauty

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Matt Lubin

“All mitzvot are to supposed to be done in the most beautiful manner as possible: with a beautiful tallit, a beautiful Sefer Torah, etc. (Shabbat 133b)” Hazal learn this from the verse זה א-לי ואנוהו, “this is my God, and I will beautify [myself before] Him” – with/in mitzvot. Yet while this is a principle regarding all mitzvot, it becomes a central theme specifically with regard to the Four Species on Sukkot. The Torah identifies the etrog as פרי עץ הדר, the beautiful fruit of a tree.  While regarding other mitzvot beauty is an ideal, an etrog which is not beautiful is invalid.[1]  Why is this mitzvah so connected to beauty?

The halakhah that mitzvot are supposed to be performed in a beautiful manner appears in the middle of the song that Moshe and the Jewish people sang at keriyat Yam Suf, the Song of the Sea.  The Gemara (Shabbat 133b) also uses this verse as the source for the legal concept that man is supposed to follow God’s ways of lovingkindness and graciousness, for example by visiting the sick and burying the dead.  In the Mekhilta, these two interpretations are presented as originating from different rabbis, and thus are two mutually exclusive ways to understand the verse. However, the Gemara clearly accepts both readings. How can two different laws be derived from the same phrase?

There is another, perhaps more esoteric connection between the “Song at the Sea” and the holiday of Sukkot. Each day of the holiday in the Temple, when the kohanim would circle the altar, they would recite the phrase אני והו, הושיע נא, “Ani ve-Ho, save us now,” referring to God as אני והו (Gemara Sukkah 45a). Rashi there explains that this is a reference to God’s 42-letter name, which can be derived from the verses in the “Song at the Sea”. Other commentators, however, (such as Rabbeinu Bachayei to Ex. 15:2) point out the similarity between אני והו and זה א-לי ואנוהו – both appear to refer to some kind of parallel between God and ourselves.

R. Yitzhak Hutner, in a discourse on Pesach, explains how the Talmud can derive two distinct laws from the same scriptural source of זה א-לי ואנוהו.  The context of that verse was a moment in which Israel saw God through a deliberate grand show of His strength and presence. Israel saw the clearest picture of God’s grandeur when He was intentionally painting that picture to be seen. This explains how the same phrase can be used to teach us that we are to act in God’s ways, as well as to beautify mitzvot: Aesthetic beauty is something that is outward-focused; it is a something done for others to see. This was how God was manifest at that moment, and so imitating Him (“just as He, so too you”) in this case obligates one to perform mitzvot in a way meant to be seen and noticed by onlookers.

Religious grandstanding can hardly be considered a virtue, and one might rightfully shirk from such halakhically-sanctioned (and even obligated) mitzvah exhibitionism. Viewed from the perspective of the Israel-God relationship as it was expressed during the Exodus, however, this ‘beautification of mitzvot’ as understood by R. Hutner becomes perfectly understandable. At the splitting of the Sea, God was not bragging, nor was it purely an instance of showing His own might by turning the laws of nature upside down: God was performing an act of love towards His now chosen people. The splitting of the sea caused the nations to tremble not just in fear of God, but they were silenced עד יעבר עמך ה, in recognition of the relationship between God and His people.

Sukkot is, beyond the celebration and recognition of God having chosen us as a people (which is the focus of Pesach and Shavuot), a rejoicing in God’s continued love and guidance, as symbolized by the Sukkah that is a commemoration of God bringing Israel through the desert. It is thus the most appropriate time of year to similarly express, through the concept of Hiddur Mitzvah (beautification of mitzvot) our own love of God. The obligation of Hiddur Mitzvah is not merely an obligation to obtain an aesthetically pleasing tallis or Sefer Torah, but it is an expression of our cherishing of those mitzvot. Thus, starving oneself on the eve of Pesach in order to eat matzah with greater gusto is a fulfillment of Hiddur Mitzvah (Rashi to Pesahim 99b) because that too is an expression of enthusiasm for the performance of God’s command.[2] In doing so, while holding those beautiful plants, we have a right to demand אני והו, הושיע נא, reminding God of the love for us that He demonstrated so dramatically at the splitting of the Sea.

R. Hutner’s understanding of Hiddur Mitzvah as being an outward-focused obligation appears to be directly opposed the trend towards the privatization of religious beliefs and practices. We may sometimes chafe against overly public displays of religiosity; peddling one’s religious beliefs to passers-by in the streets seems to not only smack of sanctimonious arrogance, but also to can appear to cheapen the religious experience itself. However, halakha demands more than just cognitive belief in God and fealty to His commandments, but a genuine love of God—and with it, an enthusiasm for His commands that cannot be kept to oneself. As Maimonides writes of the command to love God (Sefer Hamitzvot, Aseh 3) “this mitzvah includes that we call to all of humanity to serve Him and believe in Him.” While religious arrogance and showboating is hardly virtuous, a genuine show of love is not only praiseworthy—it is godly.

Matt Lubin (Winter Beit Midrash 2016) in a biology research assistant in Yeshiva University, and student in RIETS Semicha



[1] Whether as a direct result of that verse, or rather because the general principle is intensified in this case.  See Tosafot, Rashi and Meiri to Sukkah 29b

[2] As explained to me by my teacher Rabbi Mendel Blachman (However, it should be noted that R. Blachman does not believe that there is any aesthetic component whatsoever to the qualifications of the four species to be taken on Sukkot)

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Teshuvah in the Age of Dataism

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Avraham Bronstein

In the thought of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, teshuvah is inextricably connected to humanity’s overriding mandate to create. “God wills man to be a creator – his first job is to create himself as a complete being,” he wrote. “Man, through repentance, creates himself, his own I.”

Soloveitchik’s emphasis on the human ability to create and shape both oneself and one’s surrounding reality echoes his own context. As Yuval Noah Harari charts in his bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus, the modern era has been about humanism and has seen authority stripped from external forces, whether rulers, gods, or some combination, and refocused within individuals. We see the effects of this shift in terms of politics (democracy), economics (market capitalism), and a variety of other fields.

The underlying assumption of our era, Harari notes, is the belief in the inherent integrity and dignity of individuals who possess the free will to express themselves. Increasingly, and along the same lines as Soloveitchik, this is what many contemporary Jewish thinkers came to mean by Tzelem Elokim – of humanity created in the “image of God.” Rather than seeing teshuvah simply as contrition for wrongdoings, Soloveitchik saw genuine teshuvah, the recreation of the self, as the most profound form of imitatio dei.

Harari’s point, though, is that these humanist assumptions were the product of their times – and times are quickly changing. Humanism is becoming obsolete, and is being replaced by what he calls “Dataism,” a worldview focused on the creation and free flow of ever-increasing amounts of information that is analyzed and shared by increasingly powerful computers. Human agency is quickly becoming outstripped by biotechnology and AI that know more about ourselves than we do – and we are increasingly comfortable outsourcing control of our lives to the Cloud.

In Soloveitchik’s footsteps, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recently wrote,

It was Judaism, through the concept of teshuvah, that brought into the world the idea that we can change. We are not predestined to continue to be what we are. Even today, this remains a radical idea. Many biologists and neuroscientists believe that our character and actions are wholly determined by our genes, our DNA. Choice, character change, and free will, are – they say – illusions.

Sacks’ foil here is the determinism and predestination at the heart of the Greek tragedies. Today, however, we are less certain about how independent our choices actually are than we have been in centuries. In particular, we are increasingly aware of the external forces that push us seamlessly in specific directions. In a world where our belief in democracy is shaken by fake news driven by social media algorithms, and our belief in market capitalism is shaken by custom-tailored Amazon recommendations and Google search results, it should be myopic to have faith in our ability to perform self-creation through teshuvah.

Harari himself addresses this concern. He concludes:

If you don’t like this, and you want to stay beyond the reach of the algorithms, there is probably just one piece of advice to give you, the oldest in the book: know thyself. In the end, it’s a simple empirical question. As long as you have greater insight and self-knowledge than the algorithms, your choices will still be superior and you will keep at least some authority in your hands. If the algorithms nevertheless seem poised to take over, it is mainly because most human beings hardly know themselves at all.

Read this way, our introspection during this High Holy Days season takes on special urgency. As Harari notes, the technology is improving much more quickly than our ability to adapt to it. The question of questioning who we are – really – and to what extent we are simply responding to stimuli that are carefully calibrated by a computer somewhere to generate our response is critical, even existential. If we don’t want to lose agency over our own lives, this is the time to reassert control. In his Laws of Teshuvah, Maimonides explains that the biblical Pharaoh, by the end, did not actually have control over his choices – the consequence for the life he had lived to that point. Likewise, the self-creation of teshuvah is, increasingly, all that stands between us and a passive, AI-driven journey through life.

Another avenue forward is shifting our understanding of Tzelem Elokim to a meaning that may survive our Dataist future. Even if we admit that we simply don’t have that complete control to shape ourselves and our lives – and perhaps that was always the reality behind the curtain – being created in God’s image still challenges us in a fundamental way.

Harari admits than modern science, for all its success in comprehending human responses and thought patterns, has not yet come to a satisfactory understanding of consciousness itself. Though we know which neurons and chemicals are involved, the actual feeling of transcendent love is still mysterious and awe-inspiring. Perhaps in this spirit, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler wrote that Tzelem Elokim is really about the human capacity to feel compassion and empathy, and responding to others with generosity and kindness. God is not to be emulated so much as a Creator, in this reading, but as a Giver.

Our liturgy may already know this. According to one popular reading of Unetaneh Tokef, we assert that repentance does not affect the circumstances of our lives, but the quality of our response. Our teshuvah – and avodat Hashem more broadly – might likewise focus less on our  agency and choices, and more on the strength of our human connections and relationships, and the cultivation of empathy and love.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein (SBM 2002) is the Rabbi at The Hampton Synagogue.


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Engagement with the Vague

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Joshua Blau

The standard “shira” in Tanakh can be boiled down to praise of God, usually in the context of miracles and some kind of salvation. The shira of Haazinu, however, does not match this rubric. While God is praised at various points in the song, there are no miracles or salvations to speak of.  The Torah describes it as God’s “witness” that when in the future Bnei Yisrael inevitably fall from plenty to ruin, they will have brought this end on themselves as a result of turning away from Him.   Why is this a “shira” at all?

The structure of Haazinu is also challenging.  The song moves first through an introduction by Moshe, then praise of God, followed by criticism of Bnei Yisrael.  It then transitions to a historical survey that starts with the specialness of God’s people, moves again to praise of God, and then a satiation of the people that quickly grows sour and becomes idolatry.  Corruption is, of course, answered with abandonment and punishment, although in 32:27 we read a sense of reticence to punish the people as described because of external perception.  The next 11  verses—all the way through 38— are about punishment, but it is unclear who is being punished: Bnei Yisrael. or their enemies, or both in alternating currents. Some verses seem to point one way, some the other, but really just about all of them could be interpreted in the opposite manner if one were pressed.  Haazinu then returns to (self-)praise of God, and end off with vengeance exacted against our enemies for what they have done in punishing the Jews.  Why the long ambiguous section?  If the entire piece were removed, the song would apparently convey the same message.

Like a halakhic witness giving hatra’ah, the song gives warning and accuses, ideally to prevent the crime but with the lurking possibility, or in this case certainty, of punishment. A human, however, is not punished in a vacuum; the punishment is meant to in some way repair what was done. Sometimes this reparation takes the form of monetary recompense; other times it is a metaphysical construct we know as kapparah afforded the convicted. Whatever it may be, the punishment is not, or should not be, focused solely on the past, but also on the future. Punishment is aimed at restoration in order to effect a renewed status, to restore one to a position in which a choice may again be made. This is the tenet of teshuvah; that, confronted with the same circumstance, the right choice be made in the wrong’s stead, tying the final knot in the securing rope of personal redemption.

Ha’azinu thus should also function as a call to national teshuvah, as a reminder that not only is God always there—even if sometimes behind a screen—but so is our potential to return to Him. Much like the crying sounds of a shofar, the sound of the shira on our tongues should be an inspiration to climb from the inevitable abyss of abandonment of God and once again bask in His guardianship.

Yet, a witness who gives vague testimony would never make it through the routine checks of a Beit Din. A muffled shofar cannot achieve its function, halachically or otherwise. How can a shira with a central portion that is confusing accomplish its goal of not only conviction but inspiration towards teshuva? A reader might perhaps experience some depth of punishment and believe it was meant for our enemies. At best, these eleven verses are distractions from a message that is fairly clear from the remainder of Ha’azinu.

Chazal do not resolve the problem. While various Rishonim take sides,  a cursory read through Torah Temimah reveals naught but words and phrases taken completely out of context to teach halakhot, or else random drashot.

Perhaps Chazal’s lack of address actually hints at a resolution. It should be well known to the entire People of the Book that there is little to inspire investigation and discussion on par with lack of clarity. Almost the whole oral tradition is based on the tenet of vagueness. In some sense, “imperfections” such as these are the driving force behind the Jewish people’s continuation over the course of millennia of tribulations and exiles.

Ha’azinu, while outwardly a convicting witness, is also one that knows a way back to God. Encoded in these elusive verses is a calling to be curious and questioning, to engage with the text and the Torah that we were lovingly presented with. This is a crucial part of the song we are commanded to remember, what Rashi interprets to be the entire Torah, and in this sense is; the necessity of being an active participant in Torah. Random drashot and interpretive arguments are a perfect symbol of this crucial responsibility that Ha’azinu can only hint at. More than hints, and it would miss its own mark. It is our role to draw out meanings like this one. Passive memory is not enough when it comes to Ha’azinu; it must be on the tip of the tongue. This is what it takes to remain close to God, but more, what it takes to return.

Joshua Blau (SBM 2017) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University, where he studied math and computer science. He lives with his wife, Hodaya, in Brookline, MA.

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The Song of Torah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Noam Weinreich

During the course of God’s final commandments to Moshe (Devarim 30:14-30), he provides a warning that one day Bnai Yisrael will worship other gods and disobey him. As a response to this future calamity, God offers a puzzling solution. God commands Moshe to write down a song, a “שִּׁירָ֣ה”, and states this song will serve as a witness to God.

What is this song which Moshe writes?

According to Rashi, the song refers to Haazinu, the Parshah immediately following this episode. This is of course the simple interpretation, as the final verse preceding Haazinu describes Moshe as speaking a song to Bnai Yisrael. Ramban further points out that he verses in Haazinu are divided analogously to how verses in music are divided.

However, on Sanhedrin 21b, Rabbah derives the halakha that one is required to write a Sefer Torah from the verse where God commands Moshe to write down a song (Devarim 30:19). This interpretation only makes sense if Rabbah understands the song as a reference to the Torah itself! Corroborating this interpretation, the Ralbag notices that immediately after God’s commandment to write down a song, the verses describe Moshe as writing down a Torah, and then returns to the subject of the song before Haazinu. Ralbag takes this to mean that the Torah is being referred to as a song, including, but not limited to Haazinu. He further buttresses this point by challenging the notion that God would place so much emphasis specifically on Haazinu. The Ralbag believes that God would stress the importance of this song so much only if it referred to the entire Torah.

Why would the Torah be referred to as a song? Remember that Ramban suggests that Haazinu can be called a song because of the structure of its verses.  While the Torah as a whole does not share this structure, I’d like to suggest four models in which understanding the Torah as a song, or as poetry (these two will be equated here), provides distinctive ways of appreciating the Torah.

The first model is derived from the commentary of the Netziv, in his introduction to his Torah commentary, the Ha’amek Davar.  The Netziv writes that a defining distinction between poetry and prose is that poetry does not present its subject matter straightforwardly. Rather; it relies on allusions and symbolism, and requires commentary to extract the full meaning of its content. Comparing Torah to poetry tells us that even on a “Peshat” level, the Torah is essentially layered and symbolic, even before arriving at the “Remez” or “Derash” layers of the text.  

The second model is based on a Dvar Torah written by Rabbi Amnon Bazak. Why did God think that a song would be an effective solution to Bnai Yisrael’s future rebellion. Rabbi Bazak writes that the special feature of a song is how easy it is to memorize, and at the same time, to internalize. Therefore, when the Jews start to sin, they will have this song “engraved in the inner conscious of Bnei Yisrael”.  The Torah should be a part of us in the intimate way songs can be.

The third model draws on a passage from the philosophical work Sacred Attunement, by Michael Fishbane. In the course of developing his understanding of Judaism and Torah specifically as an enterprise in meaning creation (עיין שם), he discusses the value of poetry. When we study poetry, each word has significance beyond what it typically does. Paying close attention to each word and its meaning disrupts our habitual, often mindless way of interpreting the world, and causes us to reinterpret the world in a novel way. So too, the Torah can disrupt how we normally think of the world and construct meaning and structures from the random stimuli our eyes present to us, and to reconstruct meaning in a new light, based on the understanding it offers us.

The fourth and final model looks to a comment by the Aruch Hashulchan in his introduction to Choshen Mishpat .

וכל מחלוקת התנאים והאמוראים והגאונים והפוסקים….דברי אלוקים חיים המה… זוהי תפארת תורתינו….וכל התורה כולה נקראת שירה, ותפארת השיר היא כשהקולות משונים זה מזה, וזהו עיקר הנעימות.

In all the disputations of the [rabbis throughout the ages] . . . (each side) represent the words of the Living God….Indeed, that’s the magnificence of our Torah.  The entire Torah is called a song, and the magnificence of song is (the harmonization of) different and distinctive voices.   Indeed, that is the very essence of the pleasure we derive from it.

According to the Arukh Hashulchan, the Torah is like a song in that different people can have different interpretations and understandings, and yet their voices are unified in one harmonious output. In ordinary speech, when multiple people speak simultaneously, our ears hear chaos and cacophony. In a song, however, multiple voices can contribute their own unique sound to a harmony, which culminates in an enhanced and beautiful song. So too with the Torah. It is a positive development that we have so many different voices in our tradition, each contributing a distinctive sound.

So now we have four models for understanding why the Torah is metaphorically referred to as a song, or poetry. It draws attention to the necessity of interpreting the Torah beyond its surface level understanding. It points to how the Torah can be internalized and on the tip of your tongue. It indicates how we can use the Torah to draw attention to how we interpret the world around us, causing us to take a more active role in how we create meaning. Finally it emphasizes the ability of the Torah to incorporate so many different streams of thought and interpretations harmoniously.

Noam Weinreich (SBM ’14) is currently a senior at Cornell University, studying Philosophy and Mathematics.

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The Second Berith

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Shaubi

Throughout Sefer Devarim, Moshe delivers a long speech in which he continues to teach the Nation of Israel all of the commandments, in addition to preparing them to enter the Land of Israel. In the beginning of Perashath Ki Tavo, that speech finally comes to an end, culminating with a number of commandments relating to crops in the Land of Israel.

After finishing his teaching regarding the final commandment within the covenant (ma’aser sheni), he concludes his speech with the following summary (Devarim 26:16-19):

טז הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יי אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה–וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.
יז אֶת-יי הֶאֱמַרְתָּ, הַיּוֹם:  לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵא-לֹהִים וְלָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכָיו, וְלִשְׁמֹר חֻקָּיו וּמִצְו‍ֹתָיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו–וְלִשְׁמֹעַ בְּקֹלוֹ.
יח וַיי הֶאֱמִירְךָ הַיּוֹם, לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם סְגֻלָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר-לָךְ; וְלִשְׁמֹר, כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָיו.
יט וּלְתִתְּךָ עֶלְיוֹן, עַל כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, לִתְהִלָּה, וּלְשֵׁם וּלְתִפְאָרֶת; וְלִהְיֹתְךָ עַם-קָדֹשׁ לַיי אֱ-לֹהֶיךָ, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֵּר.

 Followed by a long list of rewards and punishments that the Nation will receive for abiding by or breaching the covenant, Moshe returns to the theme of the last pesuqim (Devarim 28:69):

סט אֵלֶּה דִבְרֵי הַבְּרִית אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יי אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, לִכְרֹת אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹאָב:  מִלְּבַד הַבְּרִית, אֲשֶׁר-כָּרַת אִתָּם בְּחֹרֵב.

Two things stand out to me in Moshe’s concluding remarks:

  1. The repetition of היום הזה.
  2. The emphasis on the second berith besides the one made on Har Sinai.

The initial berith between God and Israel was established at Har Sinai (Shemoth 24). This berith serves as the basis for the entirety of the Tora. It was our decision as a Nation to enter into a binding agreement with God to follow His Law, and receive the Tora from Him. What makes that berith different from this berith?

The first berith can be understood as the commitment to enter into a special contractual agreement with God, the details of which were to be revealed later. It took forty years to reveal the entirety of the Tora, and some of the commandments even evolved during this forty year time period. The Theophany at Sinai, with God speaking to the entire Nation of Israel, was the catalyst for this covenant. It verified the prophecy of Moshe beyond any doubt, as we heard God speak with him with our own ears. Moreover, it inculcated within the Nation of Israel an intuitive understanding of God gained only via direct experience. With this experience, we were ready to commit to the contract that is the Tora, even without receiving yet all of its details.

The second berith in the desert of Mo’av was the sealing of this deal with all of the commandments and their intricacies. At Har Sinai, God promises us that we will be an עם סגולה and a holy nation if we follow His covenant.

ה וְעַתָּה, אִם-שָׁמוֹעַ תִּשְׁמְעוּ בְּקֹלִי, וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-בְּרִיתִי–וִהְיִיתֶם לִי סְגֻלָּה מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, כִּי-לִי כָּל-הָאָרֶץ.
ו וְאַתֶּם תִּהְיוּ-לִי מַמְלֶכֶת כֹּהֲנִים, וְגוֹי קָדוֹשׁ:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר תְּדַבֵּר, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.

That happens, however, only *today* at Mo’av. At this point, we now have the Law that makes us a holy nation, if only we abide by it. Upon completing the berith, no more commandments were to be revealed. The two exceptions — Haqhel and Writing a Sefer Tora, both of which appear in Perashath Vayelekh, after the closing of the covenant — are recreations of the two berith events, summarizing the whole Tora. Haqhel recreates the experience at Sinai, and the Sefer Tora includes the entirety of the Law as signed with the completion of the second berith.

It was *on this day* that we received the Law. It is at this point, that we and God signed our final agreement, and put it to ink, putting all our scrolls together and forming the written Sefer Tora that we have to this day.

Each of these covenants symbolizes a unique aspect in our unique relationship with God, the personal and the national. A nation is governed by laws, and we are blessed to have a divine gift, which is the Tora, purely out of God’s חסד. However, a nation is made up of individuals who must each fulfill their commitment on a personal level. This gives the unique blend of a Tora which makes us a nation, by virtue of having a common Law, and allows us to develop individually in our service of God.

May we continue to praise and thank God for the amazing Tora which he has bestowed upon us, and celebrate it all of our days!

Eli Shaubi (SBM 2012) just completed his military service as a commander in the IDF, and will be beginning his MA in Arabic Language and Literature at Hebrew University this coming fall.

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Finding Spirituality Everywhere

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Batsheva Leah Weinsten

At the beginning of this week’s parsha, Parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah gives a scenario in which a soldier at war desires a female captive. The Torah then gives the laws of how it is permissible for him to take her as a wife. While reading through this passage, there are many words and phrases that appear to be extra, or not necessary to get the point across. The Or HaChaim has an interesting way of explaining these phrases by understanding this section of law as a parable of a person coming into the world. The war symbolizes that when a person enters this world, he has to be prepared to do battle with the Yetzer Hara, as it says in Pirkei Avos (4:1) “Who is strong? One who conquers his Evil Inclination.” The pasuk specifies that the war is “al oyvecha” – against your enemies (Devarim 21:10). In a general war, an individual can theoretically walk away from the fight and the other side, caught up in the battle, might not notice. However, if one is fighting with a specific enemy, he has to struggle constantly to maintain the upper hand – if he puts down his guard for even an instant, his adversary will gain control. Life follows the second scenario – we must always guard against the influences that will arise in our lives and tempt us to do wrong, even when we might feel secure in our spiritual standing. Thus the Or HaChaim rereads this passage about physical desires to be discussing the spiritual struggle of the individual human in this world.

The Or HaChaim also rereads the issur of not leaving a body hanging overnight to be a command about respecting talmidei chachamim. The physical hanging of a body shows that Hashem will not send down a lighting bolt every time someone sins, rather the courts must judge the people in order to create a stable society. The pasuk says, “If a man sins and is sentenced to death and is killed and is hanged on a tree” (21:22). Or HaChaim interprets “tree” as a talmid chacham, saying that it was his responsibility to rebuke the sinner and return him to the proper path; since he turned his eye away and let him die, the sin is hung, or blamed, on him. Nevertheless, “lo salin nivlaso al ha’etz” – you shall not leave his carcass hanging on the tree (21:23). “Nivlaso”, says the Or HaChaim, is a sin – you should not dismiss the sage for his sin, for perhaps he has done teshuva. The pasuk continues, “And you shall not defile the land that HaShem is giving to you as an inheritance.” The Gemara in Shabbos (119b) states “Lo charva Yerushalayim ela al she-hayu mevazim bah talmidei chachamim” – Yerushalayim was destroyed because people were not respecting the sages. His point can, however, be learned regarding all people – one perhaps should not hold people responsible for past wrongs when there is no proof that they have not regretted and resolved to change their former actions.

These are two examples of how the Or HaChaim interprets some of the many mitzvos in our parsha dealing with the physicality of society to be hinting about more spiritual matters, and he does it with others as well. Why does he feel the need to add extra meaning to these mitzvos?

Bnei Yisrael are on the brink of entering Eretz Yisrael and will, for the first time, have to live in a physical society which lacks open miracles. For the first time they will have to work the land to produce food in order to eat and fight battles for themselves without the obvious Divine intervention that they had in the desert. Somehow they must do this and not forget that it is all from Hashem. These mitzvos are meant to make even the most mundane of circumstances holy, such as obligation one to put a railing around one’s roof to prevent people from falling, thus showing that Hashem is present in ordinary lives and activities. Or HaChaim adds underlying spirituality to these mitzvos to emphasize that everything can be infused with spirituality and Hashem’s presence – we just have to find it. Even laws regarding material things have a deeper spiritual meaning. And if we search hard enough and find that spirituality in our everyday life, we can, in Rabbi Sacks’ words, bring Heaven down to earth.

During Elul, Rosh Hashanah, the Aseres Yimei Teshuva, and Yom Kippur, we constantly pray and repent, strengthening our relationship with Hashem. The greatest struggle, however, comes afterwards when we must attempt to keep this deep relationship that we have created with Hashem during the everyday rush of life. By remembering that we can cause every activity that we do to be infused with holiness, we can maintain the spiritual level that we reached during these days.

Batsheva Leah Weinstein (Midreshet Avigayil 2015, 2016) is a rising senior at Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School.

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