Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Madison & Rava

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Jonathan Mansfield

Devarim 14:1 includes an apparent prohibition against self-cutting as an expression of mourning.

בָּנִים אַתֶּם לַיהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם לֹא תִתְגֹּדְדוּ וְלֹא תָשִׂימוּ קָרְחָה בֵּין עֵינֵיכֶם לָמֵת:

You are the children of the Lord your God: you shall not cut yourselves, nor make any baldness between your eyes for the dead.

But the Gemara (Yevamos 14a) interprets תִתְגֹּדְדוּ as referring not to self-cutting, but rather to forming communal factions, אגודות אגודות. And it is easy to feel these days that factionalism casts an overwhelming and worrisome shadow on both religious and civic life.  Which makes it worthwhile to inquire: What is the nature of the Torah’s prohibition against factionalism?

One of the most famous treatments of the problem of faction shows up in the Federalist papers. In Federalist No 10, Madison explains his approach to factionalism:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

Under the heading of removing the causes of factionalism, Madison notes that we either:

destroy the liberty which is essential to its existence…or give to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

Neither of these solutions being very palatable to a liberty-loving people, he concludes that it is hopeless to try to prevent faction. In his words:

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man

and thus the only way of protecting against the danger of faction is to accept its inevitability and guard against its bad effects.

But did Chazal share Madison’s view that factions are inevitable?  On first glance, it seems they did not.  The simple meaning of the drasha is לא תתגודדו = לא תעשו אגודות אגודות, “you shall not make factions”!  But to properly understand the nature of the prohibition, we need to look a little deeper into the Gemara.

The Mishnah in the first Perek of Yevamos (13a, bottom) discusses different relationships which would exempt a woman from Levirite marriage. There are 15 basic relationships — so to take a somewhat famous example, if a niece married her uncle, who then died, she would (obviously!) be exempt from levirite marriage with her own father.  Marriage in exempt cases is forbidden as incest, and the children of such marriages are mamzerim, unable to marry within the Jewish community.   

There are disagreements between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel about exactly who is exempt.  Beit Shammai require levirite marriage in many cases that Beit Hillel exempts.  In such cases, Beit Hillel would consider the progeny from women who followed Beit Shammai to be illegitimate. The Gemara therefore asks: How could Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree on something that would perforce split the community in the realm of marriage — isn’t this a problem of factions?

The Gemara (14a) records that some Amoraim took this problem so seriously that they contended that Beit Shammai never implemented their own theoretical positions.  But other Amoraim found this implausible.  How did they solve the problem of factions?

The gemara offers two possible limitations on the scope of the prohibition against factionalism:

(1) According to Abbaye, the prohibition applies only when two courts in the same town render competing decisions, but in separate towns there is no problem of factions.

If two courts ruled differently in a single town, this would undermine the authority of Torah, since it would appear like there are two Torahs. But this is not a concern if each court rules for its own community, and the two communities do not mingle.  It seems that in Abbaye’s view, the presence of a distinct minority within a single community is ipso facto intolerable — the problem of faction is its mere existence, not any particular effect it generates.

(2) Rava, however, contends that the presence of distinct minorities within one community is not a problem per se — after all, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai themselves lived in one community!  Rava therefore declares that two courts can always disagree, even if they share a town; the problem of factions is only when a single court is split by dissent.

But this view is difficult to understand. What is Rava worried about in the case of a single court that is not a problem for two distinct courts? 

Perhaps having two distinct courts that disagree on a whole variety of different matters is really equivalent to having two separate ideological communities, which for Rava is not a problem.  Trouble occurs when when you have a single court that agrees on nearly everything except for one issue, and that one issue generates schism, machlokes.

Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagreed on a panoply of issues, and according to Rava, that sort of difference of worldview is acceptable even within a single geographic community. Rava is not worried about the perception that there are two Torahs due to competing ideologies; rather he’s worried about destructive fights within a single ideological camp. For Rava, the presence of faction is not itself a threat, it’s the type of faction that viciously divides an otherwise united camp which the Torah warns against. (For more on this approach, see שו”ת אהלי תם סימן קסח)

(It seems that Rava’s approach is accepted as the halacha.  In general we have a rule that when Rava and Abbaye disagree, except in certain instances, we follow Rava’s view. And in this case, nearly all of the major poskim do so, with the important exception of the Rambam. But against the Rambam stand the Rif, the Rosh, the Ramban, Rabbeinu Yerucham, the Sefer haChinuch, the Sefer Agudah, the Ravaan, the Meiri, the Tashbetz, the Rid and later still R. Yosef Karo, the Shach, and the Magen Avraham.)  

But isn’t there something naive about Rava’s view? Unlike Abbaye, the Madisonian Rava seems to accept that faction itself is part of human nature. But just as faction is inevitable in human society, isn’t it equally inevitable that when you have two ideologies outwardly expressed in a single community, there will be friction and enmity and ultimately fighting? How realistic is it to allow faction but proscribe the inevitable friction? In other words, what is Rava’s recipe for treating the bad effects of faction?

The example of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel can give us some hint of an approach to navigate this precarious situation. How did Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai live together despite their enormous differences in a most serious areas of law?

The mishnah that we started with concludes with the following statement (13b, top):

אע”פ שאלו אוסרים ואלו מתירין, אלו פוסלין ואלו מכשירין, לא נמנעו בית שמאי מלישא נשים מבית הלל, ולא בית הלל מבית שמאי. כל הטהרות והטמאות שהיו אלו מטהרים ואלו מטמאין, לא נמנעו עושין טהרות אלו על גבי אלו

Though these forbade what the others permitted and these regarded as ineligible what the others declared eligible, Beit Shammai nevertheless did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from the families of Beit Shammai. Similarly, with respect to all questions of ritual cleanness and uncleanness, which these declared clean where the others declared unclean, neither of them abstained from using the utensils of the others for the preparation of food that was ritually clean.

It seems that despite the danger of friction and machlokes, in actuality an almost unbelievable comity prevailed. The Gemara explains (14a, bottom) that דמודעי להו ופרשי, that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel each held by their own views, and insofar as they could cooperate, they did, but “they informed each other” when their conflicts were irreconcilable and in those cases “went their separate ways”. Where their views conflicted, they did not marry each other, nor did they use each other’s pots and pans. But they had the combination of confidence and trust to inform each other where they could not unite, rather than trying to coerce each other into an artificial unity. 

Rava’s Madisonian approach places the enormous burden of pluralism on our shoulders. By rejecting Abbaye’s view of unity above all, Rava makes a far more challenging demand on us — to live together with ideological adversaries and not be tempted by the urge to coerce communal unity in the name of some higher principle, nor by the urge to denigrate and malign those with whom we disagree. But this means mustering the inner confidence in our own approaches, so that we can we can rely on those with whom we disagree in some areas and go our own way in others without having to write them out of religious and civic communities entirely.  

Rava’s approach to the problem of faction is also indicated in the very verse we began with. The verse, on its plain meaning, proscribes cutting oneself in mourning. The Maharal explains (in Gur Aryeh) that

דודאי שייכי שפיר יחד, שכמו שהגדידה מחלק גוף האדם – עד שאין בשרו אחד ושוה, כך כשנחלק הבית דין שהוא בעיר אחת, חציים מורים כבית הלל, וחציים כבית שמאי, כאילו גופו של אדם מחולק

Certainly the two meanings of תתגודדו are related: just as cutting one’s flesh in mourning separates the body until the flesh is no longer one, so too when there is a schism in a single Beit Din, it is as if the body of a human is divided.

What the Maharal doesn’t say, but his analogy makes clear, is that cutting the flesh is not merely dividing parts of the body up, as might occur in a necessary surgery — rather we are talking about a painful and unnecessary self-injury. And that is what Rava was worried about: not merely division of collective selves, but division which is painful, division which is unnecessary. And thus the challenge of לא תתגודדו is somewhat counter-intuitive: to live with the healthy division, to embrace our ideological opponents not malign them, to remain confident enough to value the divisions as much as the unity. 

Jonathan Mansfield (SBM 2003) lives in Washington, DC and works for the Treasury Department’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC).

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Reclaiming Tu B’Av

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Sarah Robinson

In anticipation of the celebration of Tu B’Av next Monday, allow me to present a question (and tentative answer) about or celebration of that day.    

It is curious that the gemara in Taanit 30b and other rabbinic texts provide no less than seven possible reasons for celebrating Tu B’Av. Why so many? Perhaps there might be a unifying factor among the seven; allow me to present them  in chronological order of Jewish history:  


  1. After God ruled that Benot Tzelafchad could indeed inherit their father’s land, Shevet Menashe protested (Bamidbar 36:1-9), fearing that such women would marry out of the tribe and taking the land with them — thus reducing the overall tribal apportionment to each tribe.  The resolution  was for the Benot Tzelafchad and other women in this tragic circumstance would marry only within their tribe, thus enabling  them to simultaneously inherit their father’s land while maintaining the overall apportionment to each Shevet. It was then on Tu B’Av that it was determined that this ruling was relevant only for the Dor Hamidbar, thereby enabling future women in this circumstance to freely marry members of other shevatim. (Ta’anit 30b)
  2. Rashi to Taanit 30b d”h “shekulo mitei midbar” brings a midrash that following the Cheit HaMeraglim on Tisha B’Av, every night, the men between 20 and 60 would dig their graves  in anticipation of their potential death; those who woke up in the morning would then continue on the journey to Eretz Yisrael. Beginning on the 40th year on Tisha B’Av, all the men awoke the following morning. This continued for a number of days. By Tu B’Av, the men realized that they would not die in the Midbar like their parents and would merit to enter and conquer the land of Israel.
  3. Following the gang rape and death of the Pilegesh B’Givah, Am Yisrael nearly eradicated the perpetrator tribe, Shevet Binyamin, in a civil war.  They also  vowed that they would not marry their daughters to the remaining survivors of the tribe (Shoftim 20 and 21).  Regretting the enormity of their actions, Am Yisrael sought a legally permissible means to re-populate the tribe. On Tu B’Av, the Beit Din reached a solution:  women could dance in the field and be kidnapped and marry their kidnapper, thereby enabling them to marry and create children for the tribe of Binyamin (Ta’anit 30b)
  4. After the kingdoms split between Malchut Yisrael and Malchut Yehudah, it was finally on Tu B’Av that the Shavtim in Malchut Yisrael could now go to the Mikdash in Malchut Yehudah (Taanit 30b, Melachim Alef 12:26-31 and Melachim Bet 17:1-2).
  5. Following the failure of the Bar Kochva revolt, the Romans prevented the Jewish soldiers from entering Beitar to bury their dead. Many years later on Tu B’Av, Jews were given permission to bury the dead, and to their surprise, the bodies had not decayed. Thus this day contained a double blessing — the permission to bury and to bury them whole.
  6. Tu B’Av signified the date when woodchoppers who collected wood for the mizbeyach would cease that activity, indicating the shortening of days and the anticipation of the winter ahead.  (Tannit 30b)
  7. Perhaps the most well known reason is recorded in the Mishna Ta’anit 4:8. The Mishna explains that there was “no more joyous a festival than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur,” for maiden women would dress in borrow white dresses (so as to financially equalize one maiden to the other). As they danced, they enticed the male suitors with the promise of a good family. Thus a celebration for Jewish continuity and a marriage predicated on family values.

When I consider all seven of these reasons — I have to wonder — why are there so many? And why are they so different from each other? Perhaps, as Rav Yaakov Medan of Yeshivat Har Etzion would tell us in Migdal Oz — when the rishonim present a huge number of potential readings to a narrative (like the story of Nadav V’Avihu), it is an indication that none of the answers are particularly compelling and we therefore need to cull all of them together to make sense of it. Is that what’s going on here? Does the gemara need to suggest seven reasons because, alone, one reason is not enough to justify a celebration? After all, we are familiar with tens of rabbinic sources giving wildly different reasons for the Churban, so it wouldnt be outside the realm of possibilities that Tu b’Av could also be celebrated for a multiplicity of smaller victories.

Allow me to suggest another reason. There seven reasons all relate to: life and death (burying the dead of Beitar, stop dying in the midbar), marriage (orphaned women following the generation of Benot  Tzlafchad can marry outside their tribe, marrying the survivors of Shevet Binyamin, and the practice for women in white dresses to dance in the fields), and the mikdash (Jews from Malchut Yisrael can now go to the mikdash in Malchut Yehudah, and stopping the wood chopping for the mikdash).

So what do these three themes — life and death, marriage, and mikdash have to do with each other?

Perhaps the celebration of Tu B’Av is meant to indicate what a Jewish marriage is all about. The couple’s private joy is situated in the context of the Jewish community and Jewish continuity.

So on Monday night when Millennials go to their White Only parties in this reclaimed, niche holiday, let us remember what the day is really all about: the joy of continuing the Jewish people through Jewish marriage and the building of Mikdash, may it be rebuilt speedily in our days.

Sarah Robinson (SBM 2012, 2013) is a recent graduate of Yeshiva University’s women’s talmud and halacha program called GPATS; in the fall she will be teaching limmudei kodesh in the Rae Kushener Yeshiva High School. 

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Place and Displacement

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elliot Salinger

Moshe’s final speech to Benei Yisrael in Parashat Devarim possesses several remarkable features.

First, in describing Benei Yisrael’s journey from Mitzrayim through the desert, Moshe chooses to begin his address not at the story’s beginning but at its middle: ה’ א-להינו דבר אלינו בחרב לאמר: רב-לכם שבת בהר הזה. (Devarim 1:6). Moshe’s narrative begins with God’s command that Benei Yisrael leave their place, mirroring the narrative displacement of the events that follow from their proper order in the temporal sequence. Moshe narrates the story of chet ha-meraglim, then Benei Yisrael’s encounters with other nations in Transjordan, and finally the settlement there of Reuven, Gad, and chatzi shevet Menasheh. It is not until 4:10, in Parashat Vaetchanan, that Moshe describes Matan Torah, the events immediately prior to the departure from Sinai. Why does Moshe begin his speech in medias res?

Second, Moshe’s speech is punctuated by asides that offer information about other peoples and places mentioned in Moshe’s narrative. The first such aside comes after Moshe recounts how God warned him not to attack Moav, since God gave it to the descendants of Lot as yerushah. This triggers a rather odd aside about the history of Moav and Se’ir:האמים לפנים ישבו בה עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים. רפאים יחשבו אף הם כענקים והמאבים יקראו להם אמים. ובשעיר ישבו החרים לפנים ובני עשו יירשום וישמידום מפניהם וישבו תחתם… (Devarim 2:10-12). Abrupt in the narrative, these pesukim seem discontinuous with Moshe’s speech. In fact, they seem to be written not in Moshe’s voice, but in the voice of the Torah’s Narrator, like .אלה הדברים אשר דבר משה אל כל ישראל The Torah similarly notes the history of the next people that Benei Yisrael encounter, Amon, which was also yerushah to Lot’s descendants:ארץ רפאים תחשב אף הוא רפאים ישבו בה לפנים והעמנים יקראו להם זמזמים עם גדול ורב ורם כענקים וישמידם ה’ מפניהם ויירשם וישבו תחתם. כאשר עשה לבני עשו הישבים בשעיר אשר השמיד את החרי מפניהם ויירשם וישבו תחתם עד היום הזה (Devarim 2:20-22). And finally, after the victory over Og is discussed and Benei Yisrael’s control of the land between Nachal Arnon and the Chermon noted, the Torah writes,צידנים יקראו לחרמון שרין והאמרי יקראו לו שניר. כל ערי המישר וכל הגלעד וכל הבשן עד סלכה ואדרעי ערי ממלכת עוג בבשן. (Devarim 3:9-10). Why does the Torah insert these seemingly irrelevant details into Moshe’s speech?

Third, in Parashat Devarim the Torah’s narrative voice often sounds as if it were spoken far after Moshe gave his speech in Arvot Moav. To use a (perhaps strained) contemporary analogy, the Torah’s narrative voice sounds less like that of a journalist providing background to a recent speech than that of a historian providing scholarly commentary on an already famous address. The Torah’s narration engenders this literary distance in three places, two of which were noted by Ibn Ezra. The first instance comes in the Torah’s locating Moshe’s speech בעבר הירדן, a Cisjordanian perspective on Benei Yisrael’s encampment. Ibn Ezra (to 1:2 s.v. achad asar yom) links this phrase with others in the Torah (the famous “סוד השנים עשר,”) including the pasuk that concludes the aside about Og:כי רק עוג מלך הבשן נשאר מיתר הרפאים הנה ערשו ערש ברזל הלה הוא ברבת בני עמון תשע אמות ארכה וארבע אמות רחבה באמת איש (Devarim 3:11). This pasuk, the second instance of distancing, seems to reflect a temporal rather than merely geographic remove from the setting of Moshe’s address. Finally, the third instance is found at the close of the first aside we considered above, concerning the history of Se’ir. After noting how the descendants of Esav dispossessed Se’ir’s previous inhabitants, the Torah concludes,כאשר עשה ישראל לארץ ירשתו אשר נתן ה’ להם )Devarim 2:11). Why does the Torah write at a distance from the speech it records?  

I’d like to propose that these literary features serve to reinforce prominent themes of Moshe’s speech. Let us begin with the first feature we noted above, the displacement of מעמד הר סיני in Moshe’s narration. When  מעמד הר סיניis mentioned, it appears not as merely another event that occurred in the desert, but rather within the context of exhortations to follow the Torah:רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך והודעתם לבניך ולבני בניך יום אשר עמדת לפני ה’ א-להיך בחרב (Devarim 4:9-10). In postponing the discussion of מתן תורה, Moshe emphasizes that מתן תורה was not simply an event with a beginning and end in historical time. It rather provides obligations continually, even to those who did not witness it.

The removal of מעמד הר סיני from the linear sequence to highlight its moral significance dovetails with the temporal and spatial dislocations within the Torah’s narration. Both serve to highlight the continual significance of the events in Moshe’s speech to future generations of Benei Yisrael living in Eretz Yisrael. These early perakim of Sefer Devarim oscillate between the perspective of the midbar prior to the conquest and the perspective of Eretz Yisrael years after. They collect events and facts from different places in time and space, engendering a perspective above historical time.

What is the supra-historical message that the Torah wishes to convey to us? The same message that Moshe wishes to convey to Benei Yisrael: that their presence in Eretz Yisrael is contingent upon their observance of the Torah. It does not take Moshe long to begin recounting chet ha-meraglim and the ma’apilim, those who did not understand the total dependence of Benei Yisrael’s existence in Eretz Yisrael as a function of their obedience to the Divine Will. And to underscore this message, Moshe punctuates his account with comments and laments concerning his own inability to enter the Land. In fact, Moshe’s beseeching God to allow him to enter Eretz Yisrael at 3:23-29, the start of Parashat Vaetchanan, marks the end of the historical narrative proper and the transition to discussing מעמד הר סיני.

The asides serve to remind the Torah’s readers of that space and time—future generations in Eretz Yisrael—whose fate depends on heeding Moshe’s message. If they disobey the Torah, they will be removed from their homeland and exiled. It is thus especially appropriate that the asides, which create a sense of literary displacement and dislocation, largely discuss the displacement and dislocation of other peoples by the nations whom Benei Yisrael have dispossessed. Just as other peoples were dispossessed, and just as Benei Yisrael dispossessed others, so too may Benei Yisrael themselves be dispossessed:כאשר עשה ישראל לארץ ירשתו אשר נתן ה’ להם.

May we merit this Shabbat Chazon and Tisha Ba’av, as we mourn our own displacements and dispossessions, to remember the lessons of Moshe’s speech.

Elliot Salinger (SBM ’12, ’14), a graduate of Princeton University, will begin an MPhil in Philosophy at the University of Cambridge this fall.

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God Marks the Signs to a Place of Refuge

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Hillel Katchen

The laws of the rozeach b’shogeg, the accidental murderer, are famously hard to digest. In one possible formulation: on one hand, the Torah allows the Goel Hadam to avenge and redeem the loss of his family member, a unique allowance. On the other hand, not only does the Torah mandate that Arei Miklat be set up in which the Goel Hadam is not allowed to murder the accidental killer, but the category of rozeach b’shogeg is excruciatingly narrow to the point that sometimes one wonders how often the requirements might ever be truly satisfied.

In this context Bemidbar Rabba (23:13) compares the laws surrounding the exile of the accidental killer to an Ir Miklat to Adam and Hava‘s exile from Gan Eden. On the face of it, it would seem that this is an odd comparison: The text of the Torah itself both in Shemot 21 and in Bemidbar 35  calls the Arei Miklat places the accidental killer is “nas” flees to, from harm, whereas the concern with respect to Adam and Hava is that if they spends too much time in Gan Eden, they may end up eating from the Etz HaHayim and live forever, which is apparently cannot be allowed to happen, so they are exiled in order to preserve their mortality, seemingly as a punishment.

The nature of the comparison itself in the midrash is even more odd. The midrash submits that technically, as the text in Bereishit says as well (2:17), Adam and Hava were supposed to die as a punishment. Why? Because their sin had made humans mortal, and for the sin of laying the groundwork of all future death, Adam and Hava were to die that very day. God, however, had mercy, and instead of punishing them with death, he exiled them from Gan Eden. Similarly, the accidental murderer does not deserve death but because the Goel Hadam, despite this, is allowed to kill the accidental murderer, God makes sure that there are laws that the signs to Arei Miklat are clearly marked so that the accidental murder may more easily take refuge from the Goel Hadam.

The axes of the comparison do not seem to line up. Adam and Hava were supposed to die but God has mercy on them and they did not die. This makes sense. The accidental killer, however, the midrash states explicitly, is not liable to be executed, so what form of “mercy” is God exactly displaying by keeping him safe?

It would seem that the common thread running through these narratives is that the natural world is random and unsafe, and God is the one who redeems us from this unsafe existence. It is fitting and natural that Adam and Hava, who allowed death, should rapidly die – but God’s mercy does not allow it. Similarly, yes, it is truly hard to understand the very existence of the Goel Hadam. He is allowed to act on some jarring combination of vigilante justice and family honor, but in the natural state of things, such actions, or at the very least, the wishes of the family to carry out such actions, seem to be very natural. How fitting, then, that the accidental murderer, who was not purposeful and caring enough in his actions to the point that another died, ends up in a wayward existence in which the natural world (the Goel Hadam) is potentially fatally unsafe for him, save for the mercy of God, who makes sure the signs are marked to a place of refuge.

Hillel Katchen (SBM 2004) lives in Jerusalem with his family and works as a lawyer.

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Pinchas and the Complexity of Moral Relativism

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea

The end of Parashat Balak leaves its audience in high suspense. As the scene stands at the end of Balak, Pinchas has zealously killed an “איש ישראל” (Zimri) and Midianite princess (Kozbi), thereby ending the epidemic plaguing Israel. This seems to conclude the Parasha in a place of peace and tranquility for the nation as a whole. But what will Pinchas’ fate be? Will he be treated as savior or murderer? How should the people evaluate his willingness to play the vigilante when Mosheh Rabbeinu, representative of G-d’s law, seemed paralyzed? Indeed, our discomfort is enhanced and validated by the decision to end Parashat Balak just before we find out G-d’s reaction to Pinchas’ actions. This decision leaves us wondering about the moral validity of Pinchas’ decision until next week’s reading (which is, of course, previewed at Shabbat Minchah, and on Monday and Thursday), and waiting for G-d’s response to mark him down one way or the other. Is Pinchas’ zealous decision to kill justified by its anticipated and actual success at preventing further death on the part of the people?

To properly analyze this moral question, we must first make explicit several background conditions. First, we are assuming that Zimri and Kozbi have acted wrongly and deserve punishment. Second, we are assuming that Pinchas acted with the intent of ending the epidemic. Only with these two conditional assumptions can the moral question of Pinchas’ ends justifying his means even get off the ground.

In other words: the killing of innocent people toward no worthwhile end cannot be morally justified. Utilitarians might argue, however, that the murder of innocent people toward an end of saving the lives of a greater number of people is morally justified. Others might claim that the killing of people committing a great sin in public can be justified, even with no further utilitarian end. Pinchas has both of these justifications, and there is thus all the more room to argue in favor of his actions. And yet, one cannot discount the traumatic experience of an immediate public murder, which seems to still play such an important role in the moral calculus at stake.

The opening verses of Parashat Pinchas seem to prove a clear answer to our moral quandary. Reacting to Pinchas’ actions, G-d tells Mosheh, “Pinchas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned My wrath away from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them, so that I consumed not the children of Israel in My jealousy. Wherefore say: Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace. And it shall be unto him, and to his seed after him, the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was jealous for his G-d, and made atonement for the children of Israel” (Numbers 25:11-13). To sum up: Pinchas is justified in his actions, and therefore receives the covenants of peace and priesthood.

The “מי השלוח,” also known as the Izhbitzer, cannot accept so simple an answer to such a morally complex situation. Instead, he reevaluates the circumstances of the case. In doing so, he makes a broad point about human sin while solving, in his own unique way, the misfit between G-d’s uncritical endorsement and Pinchas’ morally complex actions.

In reevaluating the circumstances of Zimri’s actions, the Izhbitzer writes:

׳׳מי שמרחק עצמו מן היצר הרע ושומר עצמו מן העבירה בכל כחו עד שאין ביכלתו לשמור עצמו יותר מזה, ואז, כשיתגבר יצרו עליו ועושה מעשה אז הוא בודאי רצון הש׳׳י, וכענין יהודא ותמר, ואיהי בת זוגו ממש, וזהו הענין היה גם כאן, כי זמרי היה באמת שומר עצמו מכל התאוות הרעות, ועתה עלתה בדעתו שהיא בת זוגו, מאחר שאין בכחו לסלק את עצמו מזה המעשה…׳׳

When someone distances themselves from their evil inclination and protects himself from sinning with all his strength, to the point that he has no ability to guard himself more than this, and then, if the inclination overpowers him to the point that he acts (sexually), it must certainly be the Will of the Blessed G-d, as in the matter of Yehuda and Tamar, and she truly is his actual preordained partner. So too here – Zimri did, in truth, protect himself from any evil lusts, but now he came to think that she (Kozbi) was his preordained partner, since he was unable to remove himself from engaging in the act…

For the Izhbitzer, Zimri genuinely and reasonably believed himself to be acting in accordance with G-d’s will. Meanwhile, regarding Pinchas, the Izhbitzer wrties:

׳׳ופנחס אמר להיפך שעדיין יש בכחו לסלק עצמו מזה… כי גם על פנחס היה מקום לבעה׳׳ד לחלוק שמצוי בו מדה הנראה לעיניים שהוא כעס כמו שבאמת טענו עליו זאת, והיה הדין בזה שודא דדיינא…׳׳

but Pinchas said to the contrary that he (Zimri) had the strength to remove himself from this act… and also regarding Pinchas a litigant might claim that there was found in him a characteristic that appeared to the eye like anger, as in fact the people claimed against him. Therefore, the judgement between them comes down to a judge’s discretionary evaluation

The Chassidic master thus undoes the text’s seeming moral clarity and turns this case into one of ambiguity and chance. Zimri is no longer an obvious sinner – he genuinely believed that Kozbi was his Divinely ordained partner. Moreover, Pinchas was not necessarily acting out of a clear moral goal, but he may have been simply channeling his own anger at what he perceived to be a problematic act. As such, he may be imposing his own sense of the possible on Zimri.

Thinking about the Pinchas story as one of relative morality allows for an exploration of what it might mean when two acts that are fundamentally justified on their own terms come into conflict with each other. This relative tension, the Izhbitzer claims, is not one that is easily solved by any sort of rational, moral argument. Instead, G-d leaves the decision up to a שודא דדיינא. This Halachic concept, roughly translated as “the judge’s evaluation,” comes into play when a monetary legal case finds itself in a place of little to no deciding evidence one way or the other. The Rashbam contends that in such a case, it is up to the judge to trust their somewhat non-rational intuition to determine the legal outcome. With this backdrop applied to the story of Pinchas, the resultant image is no longer one of exclusive moral high ground on the part of Pinchas, but rather one that is filled with ethical tension with no rational justification one way or the other.

Whether or not this tension can actually be felt from the text itself, the Izhbitzer is no doubt playing out an anxiety that is felt by readers. Through his reframing, he is able to tell a story that highlights the complexity of moral conflict and makes the resonant claim that there might not ever be a real way to come to a definitive way of deciding between multiple conflicting values. Instead, the Izhbitzer articulates moral decision making through the lens of שודא דדיינא and leaves room for the possibility of an ethical picture that constantly carries opposing values in the same bag, never discounting the other’s existence and always competing and being rebalanced on a case by case basis.

שבת שלום.

Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) just graduated Cooper Union and is heading to Maaleh Gilboa for the coming year for intensive kollel study.

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Mah Tovu and the Transformative Power of Prayer

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz

One of the first prayers we teach our children is Mah Tovu. Though it is not part of the formal prayer services, it appears in the siddur and many have the practice of reciting this prayer whenever they enter a synagogue or Beit Midrash.  The prayer opens with a pasuk from this week’s parsha, uttered by Bilam when he tried to curse B’nei Yisrael but Hashem made words of praise come out of his mouth instead: “How goodly are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel” (Bamidbar 24:5).  The practice of reciting this pasuk when entering shul or a Beit midrash is based on the Gemara in Sanhedrin 105b which connects Bilam’s stated words with these communal institutions.  The Sforno explains that these communal institutions are described as goodly because they provide benefit not only for those who frequent them, but for the entire nation.

The earliest reference to Mah Tovu as a formal prayer is brought in Seder Rav Amram Gaon (9th Century).  It is also mentioned in the Aruch haShulchan (OH 46:1).  Interestingly, The Rema brings it in his Darchei Moshe commentary on the Tur (OH 6) but not in his glosses on the Shulchan Aruch.

While Mah Tovu is firmly entrenched in our liturgical tradition, I have always identified with the objection raised by the Maharshal (R. Shlomo Luria, 16th Century, Poland): “When I come to synagogue I begin with the verse “But as for me, in the abundance of Thy lovingkindness…” (Psalms 5:8) and skip the first verse “How goodly are thy tents” (Numbers 24:5) because Balaam said it [first] and he said it as a curse as we find in Sanhedrin 105b, and this is not its proper place” (Shut Maharshal 64).  If, indeed, Bilam was evil, why are his words among the first that we teach our children?  Why are they included in the siddur?

I suggest an answer to this question based on Yosef Albo’s explanation of prayer in his Sefer Ikarim.  Albo wrestles with the philosophical difficulty of how petitional prayer can ever be effective if God is all-knowing?  Hashem has already declared what the end result will be, and God’s will does not change.  Logically, then, our prayers should have no impact on the outcome.  R. Albo explains that God’s will does not change.  However, the future outcome is determined for each individual as they are at that moment in time.  The act of prayer has the power to transform the individual into a new person – about whom a different decree is possible.  Because prayer is transformative, there is no more philosophical difficulty.

The structure and content of the siddur helps us to go through a transformation described by Albo.  Throughout the siddur we utter the words of others – beginning with Bilam’s words of Mah Tovu, the words of Tehilim composed by David haMelech that comprise the majority of pesukei de-zimra, the words of Moshe and B’nei Yisrael during Shirat haYam, etc.  In one sense, we begin tefilah as a rasha (wicked person) deserving of punishment.  If we internalize this sentiment, then our prayers will be more sincere and more passionate.  The discomfort of beginning with the word of Bilam further helps us to be open to the transformative power of our prayer.


Rabbi Elliot Kaplowitz serves as the Rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Pikesville, MD. He was a member of the Summer Beit Midrash in 2001.  

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“If Only We Had Died:” The Generation of the Desert and the Generation of the Conquest

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Jesse Adelman

The story of Mei Merivah in this week’s parashah has a set of powerful echos with the story of Marah in Shemot 15.  They are both stories of thirst, which is cured by miraculous intervention.  However, aside from this superficial similarity, there are a number of deeper resonances from which emerges, if not a clear message, then at least a series of questions which we should consider about how parents transmit values and behaviors to their children.

Three days of waterless wandering after safely crossing Yam Suf, the Israelites reach the Desert of Shur where they complain that the water is undrinkable. This is the first complaint that Moshe hears from the Israelites after leaving Egypt, at the beginning of their forty years of rootlessness. This is narrated immediately after we are told that the prophet Miriam lead the women of Israel in song and dance, in celebration of the redemption.  Forty years later, at the beginning of their journey from the desert into Canaan, Miriam dies, and once more, the Israelites lack fresh water, and complain to Moshe.  The tone of these complaints could not be more different.  In Shemot they ask,”מַה-נִּשְׁתֶּה. “ “What shall we drink?” (Ex. 15:24), . By contrast forty years later their children (and it must be their children, for as Rashi points out the punishment meted out to the generation of the spies has been completed, and they are once more on their way into Canaan), call out with a far less visceral complaint:

וְלוּ גָוַעְנוּ בִּגְוַע אַחֵינוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.  ד וְלָמָה הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-קְהַל יְהוָה, אֶל-הַמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה, לָמוּת שָׁם, אֲנַחְנוּ וּבְעִירֵנוּ.  ה וְלָמָה הֶעֱלִיתֻנוּ, מִמִּצְרַיִם, לְהָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם הָרָע הַזֶּה:  לֹא מְקוֹם זֶרַע, וּתְאֵנָה וְגֶפֶן וְרִמּוֹן, וּמַיִם אַיִן, לִשְׁתּוֹת.

‘Would that we had died when our brothers died before God.  Why did you bring the assembly of God to this desert to die there, us and our cattle?  Why did you raise us out of Egypt to bring us to this evil places, not a place of seed and dates and vines and pomegranates, and there is no water to drink. (Num. 20:3-5)

These incidents both take place at the beginning of a journey towards Canaan.  The first leaves from Yam Suf, secure in the knowledge that they are finally free from slavery in Egypt.  The second leaves from Kadesh Barnea’ forty years later, after their parents’ journey was cut short by their nostalgia for the land of their servitude, and fear of the land God promised them.  At the outside of the first journey the jubilation of the Exodus could not be sustained in the face of the privation of the desert, and the Israelites, after three days of thirst, made their need known in direct terms.  Their children, after 38 years encamped at Kadesh Barnea’, well fortified with food and water, could not last a day without crying out.  The contents of that cry were the same sentiments that halted their parents’ journey “לו מתנו” “Would that we had died…” (Num. 14:2).  The new generation seems not to have learned from their parents’ failures.

Unlike their parents’, this generation’s thirst was precipitated not by the joy of redemption, but by the death of the prophet who expressed that joy.  Rashi cites the Midrash that this was due to the closing of the wells, which had existed in Miriam’s merit. As a member of the generation who danced at the sea, and who sinned with the spies, Miriam was not to be allowed to enter the land, so she died as they ventured out.  Her brothers, it seems, were to be permitted entry to Canaan, until the wells dried up.  God, not pleased with how they handled the crisis, forbade them entry. With perhaps two exceptions, the generation raised in Egypt was not to be permitted entrance to the promised land.

The generation to enter the land was given a clean slate and yet, when they are confronted with the same challenge their parents faced when first leaving Egypt, it was an even greater failure for both the people and their leadership.  Instead of reclaiming their parents’ joy and relative fortitude after leaving Egypt, they seem to have learned nothing and set out with the same attitude that damned their parents.  Nevertheless, they inherit the land.   As I said at the outset, I do not believe there is any clear lesson to be learned from this.  Nevertheless, these echos leave us with something to consider.  Can a transformative, redemptive experience be sustained over time?  Can the values and attitudes we learn from such an experience be transmitted to a generation that did not live through it?  If not, how do you convert that experience into a lived reality that can be transmitted?  It seems that the generation of the Exodus did not fully succeed at these tasks, but the questions remain urgent for every new generation of parents.

Rabbi Jesse Abelman (SBM ’09) is a Doctoral Candidate at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies.

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