Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Religious Habit: Vice or Virtue

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Noah Cheses

A recent book club conversation on Shulem Deen’s book, “All Who Go Do Not Return” drilled into the following line: “Going to shul was like brushing my teeth or putting on my shoes. It was what I did, without giving it much thought” (184). We wondered together about the potential value and risk of religious rituals becoming automatic habits.

For the author of this memoir, the emphasis in his educational upbringing on habit and compliance left him overly vulnerable to critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. Once he challenged a few assumptions, the foundation of his religious identity began to crumble.

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Brachot 28b) underscore the danger of thoughtless religious habit: When you pray, don’t make your prayer a fixed activity…What is considered a fixed activity? Rabbanan say “Anyone whose prayer isn’t said in the language of beseeching.” Rabba and Rav Yosef both say “Anyone who isn’t able to introduce a new request or meaning when he prays.”

Going through the motions, without any emotion (“beseeching”) or fresh thinking (“new requests and meaning”), is not the way to lead a religious lifestyle.

While certain rabbinic texts warn us about the danger of religious habit, other texts extoll the power and value of habit. The Ein Yakov, a 16th century commentary on the non-legal parts of the Talmud, quotes a discussion about the most important verse in the entire Torah. A few options are suggested, from the shema to vehavta l’reacha kamocha.

A third verse is quoted from this end of Parshat Tezaveh which describes the Korban Tamid: “the first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep in the afternoon (29:39).” It would be hard to think of a less exciting verse than this one! The message of this verse is the value of consistency. The daily routine of mitzvoth, davening in the morning and the evening is what elevates us to the greatest spiritual heights. Like the concert cellist or Olympic skater, it takes years and years of great devotion and daily commitment to achieve spiritual excellence.

So how can we square away the seemingly conflicting texts in our tradition? Is religious habit a virtue or vice?

In typical Talmudic fashion, the answer is: IT DEPENDS. It depends on the person and the given habit; it depends on the context and the consequences. Habits are powerful forms of lasting behavior and as with most powerful things in our world, the force can be used for good or for bad. Repeated actions that harden into habits can become the best and worst components of our character.

The ideal—as suggested by the Rabbis in Berachot—is to aim for some sort of hybrid in which mitzvoth are performed with regularity and with renewal. With the investment of enough effort, even the same actions, day in and day out, can be made exciting and fresh.

Rabbi Noah Cheses (SBM 2006) is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Sharon.

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Gold, Giving, and Forgiving

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tamar Beer

Why does the Torah give us such a detailed account of the mishkan, down to its exact materials and dimensions? Why is it important for Bnei Yisrael to follow such a precise mishkan construction manual? Why, after an entire parshah of precise details, must the Torah in 25:9 command Mosheh

כְּכֹ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֲנִי֙ מַרְאֶ֣ה אוֹתְךָ֔ אֵ֚ת תַּבְנִ֣ית הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן וְאֵ֖ת תַּבְנִ֣ית כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וְכֵ֖ן תַּעֲשֽׂוּ

Just as I show you – the structure of the tabernacle and the structure of all its vessels, (and) so you must make it.?

Do we really need this pasuk to inform us that it is crucial to follow God’s blueprint? Why is it so important to emphasize God’s command while constructing the tabernacle?

Answering these questions requires us to understand when this parshah was actually commanded.  Midrash Tanchuma suggests:

אֵימָתַי נֶאֶמְרָה לְמֹשֶׁה הַפָּרָשָׁה הַזּוֹ שֶׁל מִשְׁכָּן? בְּיוֹם הַכִּפּוּרִים עַצְמוֹ, אַף עַל פִּי שֶׁפָּרָשַׁת הַמִּשְׁכָּן קוֹדֶמֶת לְמַעֲשֵׂה הָעֵגֶל.
אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוּדָה בְּרַבִּי שַׁלּוּם: אֵין מֻקְדָּם וּמְאֻחָר בַּתּוֹרָה,
שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: נָעוּ מַעְגְּלֹתֶיהָ לֹא תֵדָע (משלי ה, ו) – מְטֻלְטָלוֹת הֵן שְׁבִילֶיהָ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה וּפָרָשִׁיּוֹתֶיהָ.

When was this parshah of the mishkan said to Moshe?
On Yom Kippur itself, even though the parshah of the mishkan precedes the making of the egel [in the text of the Torah].
Rabbi Yehuda son of Rabbi Shalom says: There is no chronological earlier or later in the Torah, as (Proverbs 5:6) says: “Her pathways wander in ways you cannot know” . The paths and parshiyot of Torah wander..

The Tanchuma asserts that the mishkan was actually commanded following the sin with the egel, in order to atone for it. However, it is curious that in order to atone for the day in which we sinned with the gold, we build a tabernacle of gold. Especially considering that Rosh haShannah 26a informs us that a Kohen Gadol is prohibited to wear gold in the Holy of Holies on Yom HaKippurim precisely so as not to remind G-d of the Calf:

דאמר רב חסדא: מפני מה אין כהן גדול נכנס בבגדי זהב? לפני ולפנים לעבוד עבודה, לפי שאין קטיגור נעשה סניגור.

For Rav Chisda says: Why doesn’t the Kohen Gadol enter [the Holy of Holies] wearing his golden clothes? Because a prosecutor can’t serve as a defense attorney.

Rashi clarifies:

אין קטיגור – זהב העגל ושופר של פרה נמי קטיגור דעגל הוא

“You can’t have a prosecutor…” – referring to the gold of the Calf

Since Yom HaKippurim is an atonement for the chet ha’egel, it is unwise to wear things which represent our connection to the sin. Instead, on this day, we choose to distance ourselves from this sin, and wear things which are not made from the very materials of our idolatry. Why then does God command us to create the mishkan- which is also intended to atone for our sin with the calf – out of gold!?

The Midrash Tanchuma nonethless makes the connection perfectly clear:

אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא:
יָבֹא זָהָב שֶׁבַּמִּשְׁכָּן וִיכַפֵּר עַל זָהָב שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה בּוֹ אֶת הָעֵגֶל,
שֶׁכָּתוּב בּוֹ: “וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ כָּל הָעָם אֶת נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב וְגוֹ”‘ (שמות לב, ג).
וּלְכָךְ מִתְכַּפְּרִין בַּזָּהָב,” וְזֹאת הַתְּרוּמָה אֲשֶׁר תִּקְחוּ מֵאִתָּם זָהָב.”
אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא: כִּי אַעֲלֶה אֲרֻכָה לָךְ וּמִמַּכּוֹתַיִךְ אֶרְפָּאֵךְ (
ירמיה ל, יז
).

The Holy One Blessed is He said:
Let the gold of the tabernacle comes to atone for the gold that the egel was made out of,
regarding which it is written: “and all the people took off the gold rings from their ears and brought them to Aharon”
(Shmot 32:3).
Therefore we atone with gold –  “This is the gift that you must take from them – gold . . .”
And The Holy One Blessed is He said: “For I will bring healing to you, and I will use (the material of) your wounds to heal you”
(Jeremiah 30:17).

Why is the mishkan is specifically made out of the very same material as the egel in order to atone for it, when gold is a “prosecutor” for the sin?  Midrash Aggadah T’rumah 27:1 recounts a conversation between G-d and the Jews that may be helpful.

אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה:
רבונו של עולם, מלכי הגוים יש להם אהל ושלחן ומנורה ומקטר קטורת,
וכן הוא תכסיסי המלוכה, כי כל מלך צריך לכך,
ואתה הוא מלכנו גואלינו מושיענו – לא יהיה לפניך תכסיסי המלוכה, עד שיודע לכל באי העולם כי אתה הוא המלך?!
אמר להם:
בני, אותם בשר ודם צריכים לכל זה,
אבל אני איני צריך,
כי אין לפני לא אכילה ולא שתייה,
ואיני צריך מאור, ועבדי יוכיחו, כי השמש והירח מאירים לכל העולם, ואני משפיע עליהם מאורי,
ואני אשגיח עליכם לטובה בזכות אבותיכם.
אמרו ישראל לפני הקב”ה:
רבונו של עולם, אין אנחנו מבקשים את האבות, “כי אתה אבינו – אברהם לא ידענו, וישראל לא הכירנו.” (ישעיה סג:טז)
אמר להם הקב”ה:
אם כן – עשו מה שאתם חפצים, אלא עשו אותם כאשר אני מצוה אתכם

[Bnei] Yisrael said before The Holy One Blessed is He:
Master of the Universe, the kings of the nations have their tent, table, candelabra, and incense- burner, which are the standard royal accessories, because every king needs them.
and You are our king, our redeemer, and our saviour – should You do not have before You the royal accessories, so that the whole world will know that You are the king?
He said to them:
My children, those who are flesh and blood need all of this, but I don’t need it,
because I do not eat and I do not drink,
and I do not need light – as my servants prove – for the sun and the moon light the entire world, and I bestow them with my light.
And I will watch over you in the merit of your forefathers.
Bnei Yisrael said to The Holy One Blessed is He:
Master of the Universe, we do not wish our forefathers, “because You are our father – Avraham did not know us (in Egypt), and  Israel did not acknowledge us (in the WIlderness) (Isaiah 63:16).
The Holy One Blessed is He said:
If so – do what you wish, but do it in the manner that I command you.

It is natural for human beings to show appreciation and respect through giving of ourselves. However, while our gifts generally benefit the recipients, this is not so with God.

Perhaps Bnei Yisrael’s former idolatry stemmed from the desire to honor and serve God in a way that felt more intuitive to them. Without the ability to gift God with valuables- namely gold- they felt detached. Once they created the calf in order to fill this void, their heads became filled with the notions that they were somehow able to benefit God, and the activity quickly turned idolatrous. When God renews the covenant with Israel, He recognizes their need to serve Him in a way which they can relate to. However, if He were to put this in the hands of the nation, they would project their own images of physical kings and deities onto the concept of God.

This is why the nation requires such detailed instructions on how to create the mishkan. When every single detail of the construction is delineated by God, it is unlikely that the nation will lose sight of the object and purpose of their worship. If God had allowed them to bring their own creativity and personal ideas into building, they can quickly come to sin- however, with the overarching mentality of commandedness, they will be guarded from their sinful thoughts.

Perhaps this can shed light onto why the mishkan serves as an atonement for the egel ha’zahav, and why it was fitting for it to be made of gold. It is gold- the shiny, valuable metal, which Bnei Yisrael felt tempted to donate to God for sinful reasons. This is now the same gold that they use to distance themselves from sin. Through the commandment of the tabernacle, God enables the nation to reclaim their use of gold and giving in worship. He enables them to use gold in order to divert their temptation towards serving a physical god, and instead, to use gold for acceptable forms of worship created to reinforce the idea of God’s power and glory in a more accessible manner. In God’s infinite mercy, He offers us, not just atonement for our major sin regarding the calf, but also a vehicle to perform complete tshvua: the Tabernacle.

 

Tamar Beer (SBM 2018) is a student at Stern College.

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Brit HaAganot: The Story of the Super Bowls

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Ezra Newman

Parshat Mishpatim ends with a peculiar 11-verse story colloquially referred to as “Brit HaAganot.” In this story, Moshe is commanded to go up to God, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. Moshe ascends, returns, and tells Bnei Yisrael “kol divrei Hashem,” to which they respond “Naaseh.” Moshe then writes down “kol divrei Hashem.” He makes an altar and 12 “Matzeivot,” one for each tribe, and has sacrifices brought on the altars. He throws half the blood from these sacrifices on the altar. He then reads Bnei Yisrael the “Sefer HaBrit,” to which they respond “Naaseh viNishmah.” He takes the rest of the blood and throws it on Bnei Yisrael, exclaiming that “this is the blood of the covenant between them and God over these devarim.” Then Moshe, Aharon, Nadan, Avihu and the Elders go up to God, where they see God, and God does not harm them. They eat and drink.

This is an unusual story, presented without context or explanation. The commentators ask: Did this story happen before or after Matan Torah? Why can the non-Moshe leaders go up to God at the end but not at the beginning? Why do Bnei Yisrael respond to being told “kol divrei Hashem” by saying “Nishma,” but to Moshe reading them the “Sefer HaBrit” by saying “Naaseh viNishmah?”

The best way to answer these specific questions involves focusing on a broader question: what is the purpose or message of this narrative?

Most commentators explain that this is the narrative of God establishing a covenant between God-self and Bnei Yisrael. Rabbi Chanoch Waxman of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes that the narrative ends with two classic tropes of covenant stories, the appearance of God to people and the sharing of a meal. But what is the content of this covenant? We are not given any details from “kol divrei Hashem!” Abarbanel writes that this is a covenant built around the Torah, which is established through the dual actions of Moshe reading the “Sefer HaBrit” for Bnei Yisrael and the throwing of the blood partly on the Mizbeach, representing God, and partly on the Matzeivot, representing the nation. Chizkuni adds that the splitting of the blood evokes the Brit Bein-HaBetarim, a covenant between God and Avraham. Rashi explains that this is a sort of conversion ritual for Bnei Yisrael, as the Talmud derives from here that conversion requires Hartzaat Damim, a sacrificial blood ritual (when the Temple is standing).

According to Rashi, this narrative actually happened before Matan Torah, and is out of place in the Torah. The standard covenant answer similarly supposes that this narrative is placed out of order in the Torah, as it actually describes a part of Matan Torah itself or an event that occurred directly after Matan Torah.

Ramban, however, kidarko bakodesh, explains that this narrative is appropriately chronologically placed in the Torah, and happened well after Matan Torah. I believe that Ramban’s reading is compelling, and that this narrative is not about God establishing a covenant with Bnei Yisrael or of them engaging in some sort of conversion ritual.

The purpose of this narrative is to illustrate the transition and dispersion of power within Bnei Yisrael after Matan Torah. Before Matan Torah, Moshe was the sole leader, but after this narrative, his leadership is dispersed among other members of Bnei Yisrael, namely Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders.

It is clear at first glance that this narrative revolves around the actions of Moshe. The word Moshe is the milah manchah (leitmotif) of this 11-verse narrative, appearing 7 times. Yet it is not immediately clear why Moshe is central here.

The message is gleaned through investigating the structure of this narrative. The unit has almost a perfect chiastic structure, but with each section containing a twist to demonstrate the shifting of power from Moshe to the other leaders.

  1. At the outset, Moshe is told to go up to God alone, while Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders bow from a distance. At the end of, , they all go up to God and see God. 
  2. Moshe is described by name as teaching the people the law and writing the Sefer HaBrit, but when he subsequently reads the Sefer HaBrit, his name is conspicuously absent.
  3. Moshe is in charge of bringing the sacrifices, but at the end of the narrative, all the leaders eat and drink together.
  4. In the first part of the narrative, Moshe alone throws the blood on the altar, signifying his special relationship with God, while in the second part of the narrative Moshe throws the blood on the nation, and in fact not necessarily on all of them; Ibn Ezra writes that Moshe only threw the blood on the Elders, as they represented the entire nation.

(י) ויראו את אלהי ישראל ותחת רגליו כמעשה לבנת הספיר וכעצם השמים לטהר:

יא) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו ויחזו את האלהים

(א) ואל משה אמר עלה אל יקוק אתה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל והשתחויתם מרחק:

(ט) ויעל משה ואהרן נדב ואביהוא ושבעים מזקני ישראל:

(ב) ונגש משה לבדו אל יקוק והם לא יגשו והעם לא יעלו עמו:

(ז) ויקח ספר הברית ויקרא באזני העם ויאמרו כל אשר דבר יקוק נעשה ונשמע:

(ג) ויבא משה ויספר לעם את כל דברי יקוק ואת כל המשפטים ויען כל העם קול אחד ויאמרו כל הדברים אשר דבר יקוק נעשה: (ד) ויכתב משה את כל דברי יקוק…

ויאכלו וישתו:

…ויבן מזבח תחת ההר ושתים עשרה מצבה לשנים עשר שבטי ישראל:

(ה) וישלח את נערי בני ישראל ויעלו עלת ויזבחו זבחים שלמים ליקוק פרים:

(ח) ויקח משה את הדם ויזרק על העם ויאמר הנה דם הברית אשר כרת יקוק עמכם על כל הדברים האלה:

(ו) ויקח משה חצי הדם וישם באגנת וחצי הדם זרק על המזבח:

There is still one unanswered question from among those raised at the beginning of this dvar torah: how do we explain the change in Bnei Yisrael’s response from “Naaseh” when they were told of “Kol Divrei Hashem,” to “Naaseh ViNishma” when they are read the “Sefer HaBrit?”

I think that our understanding of the purpose of the narrative can shed new light unto this question. Traditionally, the word “ViNishma” is interpreted here to refer to the word of God, “we will heed the word of God.” But I think that it’s more appropriately interpreted to refer here to the other leaders of Bnei Yisrael. The people have not changed their attitude to the word of God – they said “Naaseh” to that before, and they say “Naaseh” to that again. But now, they are recognizing that they must also heed not only Moshe relaying the word of God, but also the teachings and leadership of Aharon, Nadav, Avihu and the Elders, and to this they are saying “ViNishma.”

Ezra Newman (SBM 2013) is currently in his third year at Harvard Law School.

 

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The Timing of Eliezer’s Naming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rabbi Jason Strauss (SBM 2012-2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and teaches Judaic Studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

 

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Dependent and Grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Reconciling the Torah’s Different Presentations of the Korban Pesach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT. He lives in West Hartford with his wife Molly and their son Elie.

 

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Wrapped Around Pharaoh’s Finger

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Tamar Yastrab

The mythological stories of Egyptian gods controlling nature in fantastic ways certainly could inspire fear upon the ancient bourgeoisie of Egypt. Pharaoh, the sovereign of this olden country, indicated that he himself was a member of the elite class of gods. However, his divine power is tested when Moshe and Aharon approach him with Hashem’s words and challenge his claim to godliness. Moshe and Aharon succeed, but not immediately. The moment where Pharaoh’s façade seems to shatter is when his own magicians admit that Hashem’s plague of כנים was the work of G-d’s finger (Shemot 8:15). What significance does the magicians’ acknowledgment of Hashem’s handiwork have on the dwellers of Egypt as our story unfolds? Further, this proclamation appears only after the third plague. Is it possible that Pharaoh really did not believe Hashem played a role in the story until he was informed by the magicians at this point? What are they teaching him?

In order to address these questions, we must analyze how Pharaoh set up his leadership in Egypt. We are familiar with power-hungry leaders like him throughout history and understanding the dimensions of his rule will help us to understand what the magicians’ concession changed in סיפור יציאת מצרים. The midrash (Midrash Tanchuma Vaera 14:1) explains that Pharaoh made himself out to be a god before the Egyptians. He refrained from exhibiting signs of mortality before his people so that they would not consider him fallible. Pharaoh lived as if he equaled the other Egyptian gods, intimidating the people and preventing any potential rebellion. When Pharaoh perceived a threat to his rulership by the increasingly proliferous Bnei Yisrael, he sought to quash them. Rashi (on Shemot 1:8) indicates that Pharaoh did not forget the greatness of Yosef’s abilities, nor could her doubt that his greatness was buttressed by Hashem. Pharaoh may have suspected that his fear had strong basis when the midwives were unable to hinder the Jewish women from giving birth at such high rates. His anxiety was validated when his astrologers forewarned that the Jewish deliverer would be born amongst the many (Rashi on Shemot 1:16). Thus, in order to maintain his rulership, Pharaoh attempted to deceive his nation, and enslaved a people and slaughtered their children.

It is important to note that had the entire purpose of the plagues been to free Bnei Yisrael, ten differing plagues would likely not have been necessary. Only in the tenth plagues does Hashem say

אַֽחֲרֵי־כֵ֕ן יְשַׁלַּ֥ח אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּ֑ה כְּשַׁ֨לְּח֔וֹ כָּלָ֕ה גָּרֵ֛שׁ יְגָרֵ֥שׁ אֶתְכֶ֖ם מִזֶּֽה

After this [Pharaoh] shall send you from here, when he sends you entirely he will drive you out from here (Shemot 11:1; translation based on Rashi)

presumably suggesting that the previous plagues served a different purpose, namely, as Ramban (on Shemot 13:16) and others express, to teach both Bnei Yisrael and the world of certain attributes of G-d. Both Bnei Yisrael and the Egyptians grew to accept polytheism and false ideas about G-d (Moreh Nevuchim I.63); therefore, Hashem meted out specific plagues to correct their false ideas.

The people of Egypt believed that Pharaoh was a god amongst gods. Bnei Yisrael were great and numerous and likely could have challenged Pharaoh’s oppression, yet perhaps they were afraid to oppose the divine and the forces of nature Pharaoh could unleash upon them. The plagues could not verify Hashem’s omnipotence nor His intervention without first deposing Pharaoh from his false claim to piety. Thus, the first three plagues served to remove the false status of deity from Pharaoh in order to prepare the people to recognize Hashem’s true attributes.

The first plague, דם, attacked the faith of the Egyptians at the very outset. Egyptians believed that the Nile was a god as it irrigated and nourished the land (Rashi on Shemot 7:17). Aharon struck the water, rejecting the Nile’s perceived agency. Not only did every Egyptian witness this deicide, but Pharaoh’s power was called into question. The פסוק specifies that דם was carried out

לְעֵינֵ֣י פַרְעֹ֔ה וּלְעֵינֵ֖י עֲבָדָ֑יו

Before the eyes of Pharaoh and before the eyes of his servants (Shemot 7:20)

Though this posed great threat to Pharaoh, his magicians were still capable of replicating the miracle and maintaining the appearance of authority above nature, even if Pharaoh could not rival the other gods. Pharaoh is further challenged by צפרדע, the second plague, where eventually he is moved to beg Moshe and Aharon to entreat Hashem and ask for removal of the צפרדע. Flashes of truth begin to perforate Pharaoh’s divine veneer when he is unable to control the pests leashed upon him. Now Pharaoh too required external succor when confronted by another force of nature. However, Pharaoh’s magicians were still able to imitate the plague.

It is only when Hashem unleashes כנים, the third plague, upon the citizens of Egypt that Pharaoh’s men could no longer pretend. He must abdicate his status of god when the magicians are forced to declare that Pharaoh’s act was up; no longer would his authority go unchallenged and his theology unquestioned. When the magicians admit that כנים was the result of G-d’s finger, they are confessing that they cannot fool the people of Egypt by Pharaoh’s side any longer.

Past this point, the plagues teach the people of Hashem’s great power and jurisdiction in this world. Pharaoh may have been able to deceive the Egyptians and Jews until that point, but the declaration of the magicians invalidated his piety and made room for the people to learn the truth of Hashem and prepare for Him to eventually free Bnei Yisrael from Egypt.

 

Tamar Yastrab (SBM 2018) is a sophomore at Queens College studying Mathematics and Computer Science

 

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