Category Archives: Alumni devar Torah

Architecture, Divine and Human

This week’s Alumni Dvar Torah is by Yedidya Naveh

Parashat Teruma marks our yearly passage from the “interesting” narrative parshiyot, which recount the miraculous events of the redemption from Egypt, to the “boring” clerical readings that describe the planning and construction of the Tabernacle. At this point, it is easy to let our brains turn off during leining. But we shouldn’t. Within the architecture of the Tabernacle hide messages no less profound than the stories that precede and frame them.

R. Hayyim of Volozhin (1749–1821), writes in his philosophical-mystical treatise Nefesh Hahayyim (1:4) that the human body and soul are a miniature version of the Temple. At the same time, he claims that both are together blueprints of the divine structure that gives order to the entire universe.

For this too, let the heart of a member of the holy people tremble. For he contains within his architecture all powers and worlds, … which are the sanctum and the heavenly temple. And the heart of man, the core of his body, is the greatest totality, analogous to the Holy of Holies, the epicenter of the City, the Foundation Stone. It too comprises all the essences of the source of sanctity. The Sages of blessed memory hinted at this when they stated (Berakhot 20a): “One must orient his heart toward the Holy of Holies.”

The sketching of infinite iterations of microcosm and macrocosm is typical of the kabbalah. The basic idea is clear: The world, though it appears base, transient, and broken, is in fact sublime, eternal, and unified. But thinking of the Sanctum as an embodiment of ourselves and of the divine presence simultaneously goes beyond this generality. The materials of the Tabernacle, the scale and the structure, should all be thought of, in classical architectural fashion, as the embodiment of human and divine ideas. The logic of the sanctuary is not random.

Take for example, the case of the windows of the first Temple. The book of Kings (I 6:4) recounts that King Solomon built the Temple with windows that were “clear-opaque” (שקופים אטומים). The Sages (Menahot 86b) interpret this as referring to one-way mirrors that counterintuitively allowed light out but not in. This miraculously demonstrated that God in His abode needs no light from outside; He is Himself the light of the whole world. On the human scale, we are reminded of a person’s eyes. We normally think of one’s eyes as tools that allow light from outside into the body. But in truth, a person’s eyes are also windows into his or her soul, allowing one’s inner light out into the world.

If architecture were a form of poetry, then the Tabernacle and the Temple would be the Jewish people’s Iliad and Odyssey. But architecture is more than poetry. It is the creation of the spaces and places in which we live our whole lives. It therefore crucial for us to study the architecture of the Tabernacle as a paramount expression of who we are as a divinely chosen people. According to Frank Lloyd Wright, “all fine architectural values are human values.” The Torah commands us to look farther. We should say: “All fine architectural and human values are divine values.”

Yedidya Naveh (SBM 2010, 2011) lives with his family in Maale Gilboa. He is collaborating with Yeshivat Maale Gilboa on a “Guide to Jewish Law on Campus” for American college students.


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The Slave’s Eye

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

In Parashat Mishpatim, Ex. 21:26-27, we read:
וְכִֽי־יַכֶּ֨ה אִ֜ישׁ אֶת־עֵ֥ין עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־אֶת־עֵ֥ין אֲמָת֖וֹ וְשִֽׁחֲתָ֑הּ לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ׃ (ס)
וְאִם־שֵׁ֥ן עַבְדּ֛וֹ אֽוֹ־שֵׁ֥ן אֲמָת֖וֹ יַפִּ֑יל לַֽחָפְשִׁ֥י יְשַׁלְּחֶ֖נּוּ תַּ֥חַת שִׁנּֽוֹ׃ (פ)
If a master, presumably in the exercise of his authority, puts out his (canaanite) slaves eye or tooth, the slave goes free.  The verses frame this freedom as compensatory: תַּ֥חַת עֵינֽוֹ/שִׁנּֽוֹ – in exchange for his eye/tooth.  But unlike the proportionate compensation of the previous verses (עַ֚יִן תַּ֣חַת עַ֔יִן שֵׁ֖ן תַּ֣חַת, verse 24), the master must “pay” more than the value of the injury.  Netziv explains this lack of proportionality as reflecting the mismatch of the original confrontation.  Violence between two free people (וְכִי-יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים, verse 22) may begin unilaterally but generally does not remain so – the person under attack will hit back, and either may end up injuring the other.  Part of the condition of slavery, however, is submission to the master’s corporal punishment without hitting back.  The disproportion of the original incident favors the master, so the disproportion of the consequences favors the slave to restore some balance.   
Implicit in this reading, and explicit in others, is that restitution for the slave is not the only, or perhaps not even the main, focus of the rule.  Instead, the potentially disproportionate “compensation” – a blow to the face could mean the loss of a slave – is structured as a deterrent.  In the words of Shadal, וזה יהיה סבה, שימנע מהכות את עבדו מכת אכזרי – this provides a reason for the master to avoid hitting his slave too cruelly.  (See also Ibn Ezra for a similar approach.)  
So far, even those of us who understand slavery as a moral evil can probably feel OK about these verses.  Coming as they do in a universe where chattel slavery was a given, the rules attempt to mitigate some of the worst abuses of slavery by creating strong disincentives for excessive violence on the part of masters.
But this is not the end of the story.  On Bava Kama 74b, for example, we read:
מעשה בר”ג שסימא את עין טבי עבדו והיה שמח שמחה גדולה
מצאו לר’ יהושע אמר לו אי אתה יודע שטבי עבדי יצא לחירות
אמר לו למה
א”ל שסמיתי את עינו
אמר לו אין בדבריך כלום
There was an incident involving Rabban Gamliel, who blinded the eye of his Canaanite slave Tavi, and he experienced great joy as a result. [Rabban Gamliel had long wanted to emancipate Tavi, but it is generally prohibited to emancipate a Canaanite slave. The injury provided a fortuitous opportunity for Rabban Gamliel to emancipate his slave, as blinding the eye of one’s slave results in his emancipation (see Exodus 21:27).]  
Rabban Gamliel encountered Rabbi Yehoshua and said to him: Do you know that my slave Tavi was emancipated? Rabbi Yehoshua said to him: Why? Rabban Gamliel said to him: I blinded his eye. Rabbi Yehoshua said to Rabban Gamliel: Your statement is nothing, [and is not grounds for his emancipation]. (Koren transl. and selected explanation).
The non-compensatory nature of the biblical rule that mandates freedom for a slave’s lost eye (even though presumably the slave’s perpetual servitude is of higher monetary value than what would be fair compensation for his lost eye or tooth) places the rule in the category of fine, knas.  As such, it is subject to the general principle of מודה בקנס פטור – one who admits liability for a fine is exempt from that fine.  (The discussion in Bava Kama centers on whether that exemption applies even if witnesses come to establish liability.  The disagreement on that subject does not impact my discussion.)  
In the case of Rabban Gamliel, the principle of מודה בקנס פטור means that he cannot free a slave whom he really wants to free.  (Freeing a Canaanite slave violates Vayikra 25:46.)  Rabban Gamliel’s affection for Tavi makes this result seem especially perverse, as the masters very admission, a function of his desire to free his slave, prevents the outcome that both the master and slave want.  
At the same time, the rule can generate perverse outcomes of a different variety.  What if instead of a magnanimous master looking for a loophole to free his slave we were confronted with a knowledgeable but malicious master?  The master could injure his slaves with impunity, and then evade the Torah’s deterrence by simply admitting guilt.  (Assuming that either witnesses will not change this outcome, or are unavailable.)
This latter possibility is more disturbing than the former. Rabban Gamliel, after all, is looking for ways around a straightforward (for the rabbis) rule against freeing slaves.  His case is not the sort of case that the verse and its deterrence system seems designed for, and Tavi’s freedom would have been a happy accident of overinclusion.  The hypothetical malicious master is exactly the one for whom the rules were crafted, and yet their very status as knas (more than simple compensation) is what gives him, if he knows enough, a way out.  
Let’s imagine another hypothetical – the violent master who is not knowledgeable, but admits his guilt out of a genuine sense of remorse, even though he assumes it will lead to his slave’s freedom.  In such a case, we can imagine how the deterrent effect of the law will continue to operate even if the slave does not actually go free – the master is, in some sense, chastened.
It is only the maliciously devious master who undermines the purpose of the law.  He is the mirror image, in some sense, of Rabban Gamliel’s benevolent would-be manipulation of the rules, in that he manipulates them for his own benefit, not the slave’s.  
This hypothetical manipulative master has bothered me for some time because the workaround seems so obvious, but in truth no one has yet constructed an abuse-proof legal system.  Although the Canaanite slaves of Exodus 21 are a thing of the past, perhaps the difficulty of protecting them within a system that also ensures their domination can inform our thinking about our own world as well.
Miriam Gedwiser (SBM ‘02) teaches Talmud and Tanach at Drisha and at the Ramaz Upper School.  She lives in New Jersey with her spouse and children.  

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Israel and the Outsider: Amalek and Yitro

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Zami

Our parasha’s opening narrative about Yitro’s visit to Moshe appears right after the battle with Amalek and directly before the revelation at Sinai. While there is dispute among commentators over the chronology of these events, the fact that the Torah presents the narratives in this order compels us to investigate its significance.

Rabbinic midrashim pick up on the narrative sequence and connect the stories of Amalek and Yitro. The Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael explains Yitro’s arrival as a direct result of the battle with Amalek. Yitro heard “אֵת֩ כָּל־אֲשֶׁ֨ר עָשָׂ֤ה אֱ-לֹהִים֙ לְמֹשֶׁ֔ה וּלְיִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַמּ֑וֹ”, everything that God did for Moshe and Israel (18:1), which the midrash explains as the preceding episode with Amalek. Midrash Tanhuma explains similarly that what “Yitro heard” was the defeat of Amalek. Shemot Rabbah goes further, explaining that Yitro and Amalek were part of the Pharaoh’s council, but when Yitro heard about the defeat of Amalek, he repented and joined the nation of Israel. A later version in Midrash Shemuel draws on this idea and explains that Yitro was in fact part of the Amalek army, and came to Moshe to convert after their defeat.

Whether or not these midrashim describe historical accuracy, they elucidate an important connection between the figures of Yitro and Amalek. In fact, they’re highlighting a connection drawn by the Torah itself. The two successive narratives demonstrate notable literary parallels, as shown below, suggesting that they should be understood in light of each other.

פרק יח פרק יז

(ה–ז) וַיָּבֹ֞א יִתְר֨וֹ חֹתֵ֥ן מֹשֶׁ֛ה … וַיִּשְׁאֲל֥וּ אִישׁ־לְרֵעֵ֖הוּ לְשָׁל֑וֹם וַיָּבֹ֖אוּ הָאֹֽהֱלָה׃

Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law came… each asked after the other’s peace, and they went into the tent.

(ח) וַיָּבֹ֖א עֲמָלֵ֑ק וַיִּלָּ֥חֶם עִם־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל בִּרְפִידִֽם׃

Amalek came and warred with Israel at Rephidim.

(כה) וַיִּבְחַ֨ר מֹשֶׁ֤ה אַנְשֵׁי־חַ֙יִל֙ מִכָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל

Moses chose capable men out of all Israel

(יג) וַיְהִי֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב מֹשֶׁ֖ה לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיַּעֲמֹ֤ד הָעָם֙ עַל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִן־הַבֹּ֖קֶר עַד־הָעָֽרֶב׃

On the morrow, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening.

(יד) …וְכָל־הָעָ֛ם נִצָּ֥ב עָלֶ֖יךָ מִן־בֹּ֥קֶר עַד־עָֽרֶב׃

… while all the people station themselves about you from morning until evening?”

(יח) נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ כִּֽי־כָבֵ֤ד מִמְּךָ֙ הַדָּבָ֔ר

You will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you…

(יט) וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֤ה אֶל־יְהוֹשֻׁ֙עַ֙ בְּחַר־לָ֣נוּ אֲנָשִׁ֔ים וְצֵ֖א הִלָּחֵ֣ם בַּעֲמָלֵ֑ק מָחָ֗ר אָנֹכִ֤י נִצָּב֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ הַגִּבְעָ֔ה וּמַטֵּ֥ה הָאֱלֹקים בְּיָדִֽי׃

Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some men for us, and go out and do battle with Amalek. Tomorrow I will station myself on the top of the hill, with the rod of God in my hand.”

(יב) וִידֵ֤י מֹשֶׁה֙ כְּבֵדִ֔ים וַיִּקְחוּ־אֶ֛בֶן וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ תַחְתָּ֖יו וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב עָלֶ֑יהָ וְאַהֲרֹ֨ן וְח֜וּר תָּֽמְכ֣וּ בְיָדָ֗יו מִזֶּ֤ה אֶחָד֙ וּמִזֶּ֣ה אֶחָ֔ד וַיְהִ֥י יָדָ֛יו אֱמוּנָ֖ה עַד־בֹּ֥א הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

But Moses’ hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set.

(כג) אִ֣ם אֶת־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ תַּעֲשֶׂ֔ה וְצִוְּךָ֣ אֱלֹקים וְיָֽכָלְתָּ֖ עֲמֹ֑ד וְגַם֙ כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה עַל־מְקֹמ֖וֹ יָבֹ֥א בְשָׁלֽוֹם׃

If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home in peace.

(טו) וַיֹּ֗אמֶר כִּֽי־יָד֙ עַל־כֵּ֣ס ה׳ מִלְחָמָ֥ה לַה׳ בַּֽעֲמָלֵ֑ק מִדֹּ֖ר דֹּֽר׃

He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of Hashem!’ Hashem will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.”

The two stories are recorded using strikingly similar language, and are both enveloped by clauses about war, for the case of Amalek, and peace, for the case of Yitro.

Ibn Ezra explains that the Torah goes out of chronological order in order to juxtapose the episodes of Yitro and Amalek. Just after the Exodus from Egypt, these narratives depict two very different outside reactions to the nation of Israel. And the biblical connection here extends into the book of Shemuel: just before Shaul battled Amalek, he made sure to warn the Kenite tribe, descendants of Yitro (1 Samuel 15:6). There, too, the two figures are juxtaposed: the relationship between Israel and Amalek or Yitro lasts far beyond these encounters.

Yitro serves as the transition from the battle with Amalek to the lawgiving at Sinai, perhaps specifically because of his contrast with Amalek. The revelation is introduced by the notion that Israel will be a “סְגֻלָּה֙ מִכָּל־הָ֣עַמִּ֔ים” and a “מַמְלֶ֥כֶת כֹּהֲנִ֖ים וְג֣וֹי קָד֑וֹשׁ” (Shemot 19:5-6) – indicating Israel’s duty, upon the acceptance of these commandments, to be a religious-moral compass to the world. Umberto Cassuto suggests that right after the battle with Amalek, Israel’s relationship with the outside world is tainted, and Yitro comes to replace those negative feelings with a positive sentiment. Where Amalek forced Israel to form into a military nation, Yitro helped them become a judicially and civilly organized nation, now ready to accept the laws at Sinai, creating a complete governing framework.

Yitro’s role in the formation of a judicial and administrative system right before the covenantal revelation also reminds us that even Moshe and Israel, on the brink of monumental national history, required assistance from an outsider. Israel is taught that even in this moment, they should not only be concerned with their self-contained circle. We should all be so able to recognize the wisdom and insight of others to allow us to develop and improve ourselves.

Miriam Zami (SBM ’15) is from Brooklyn, New York, and is currently a senior at Stern College for Women studying Psychology and Jewish Studies. 

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How Did the Midrash Know that Nachshon Jumped into the Sea First?

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

The splitting of the Red Sea is a classic story we have learned since childhood.  The Jewish people are trapped, the sea on one side of them, and the Egyptian army on the other.  They begin to cry out to God and to Moshe.  Moshe assures them that they have nothing to worry about.  They should just wait calmly and God will save them (Shmot 14:10-14).  God, on the other hand, is not so sure of this.  Yes, God will split the sea, but first the Jewish people need to take the first step and begin travelling into it (Shmot 14:15-16).  The Jewish people are uncertain and afraid.  Finally, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the nasi of the tribe of Yehudah, has the courage to jump in.  When the water is up to his neck, the sea splits, and the rest of the Jewish people follow in after him.  Of course, that last part does not actually appear in the text.  It is introduced first in the Mekhilta (Beshalach Mesekhta de-Vayehi Parshah 5 s.v. Va-yavo’u benei), and then in the Talmud Bavli (Sota 37a).  One could suggest that they were recording and earlier oral tradition, but the fact that there are other opinions recorded as to the identity of the person who jumped into the sea first strongly militates against this possibility.

Nachshon, at first glance, seems like an extremely minor character.  There seems to be nothing out of the ordinary about his character that would set him apart from the other nesi’im.  What could possibly have led the Midrash to identify him as the one jumps into the sea?

The Torah lists the tribes three times within the first two chapters of the book of Numbers.  The first two relate to the taking of the census.  The third is when the tribes are setting up their camp around the Mishkan.  The first two lists are more or less in the order we would expect, roughly in age order with Reuven first.  In the third list, when they are setting up camp and preparing to travel to Canaan, all of a sudden the tribe of Yehudah is in the leadership position.

Then something strange happens.  The next time Nachshon is mentioned is in chapter 7, with the korbanot of the nesi’im on the day the Mishkan was set up.  This story seems out of place, both chronologically and thematically.  Exodus 40:17 states that the Mishkan was set up on the first day of the first month (of the second year in the desert).  It is clear that it is occurring prior to the census from chapter 1 that took place “On the first day of the second month (Bemidbar 1:1).”  Furthermore, the Torah recorded the various sacrifices that were brought at the inauguration of the Mishkan at the end of Shmot and the beginning of Vayikra.  Why is the Torah suddenly returning to that topic here?

Strikingly, the order in which the nesi’im bring their korbanot is identical with the order that tribes were camped around the Mishkan.  There does not seem to be any logical explanation for why the same order would have been in place a month earlier.

Understanding the significance of this requires looking at information we know from elsewhere in the Torah about the day the Mishkan’s setup was completed.  Recall the events of that day from the book of Vayikra.  After Aharon places various sacrifices on the altar, his sons Nadav and Avihu attempt to bring an incense offering.  A fire comes out of the Mishkan and instantaneously consumes them (Vayikra 9:22-10:2).  It was supposed to be a day of happiness and celebration of Divine acceptance.  Instead the day was forever marred by the death of Nadav and Avihu.  They desired to bring an offering in the newly inaugurated Mishkan, made some mistake in the procedure, and were struck down by a miraculous fire in the presence of the entire people.  The memory of that event was no doubt indelibly etched into the collective memory of the Jewish people.

Set in this context, the offerings of the nesi’im take on new meaning.  The last people to bring an offering in the Mishkan do not get it exactly right and are struck down by God.  God instructs Moshe to have one nasi bring their offering each day (Bemidbar 7:11) but does not instruct him in what order they should bring them.  They must have been terrified.  None of them wants to risk making a slight mistake and winding up like Nadav and Avihu.  Finally, Nachshon takes the plunge, so to speak, and volunteers to go first.

This story is virtually identical to the story the Midrash told us about Nachshon’s conduct at the Red Sea.  The Midrash is thus able to identify who would have had the character to be the first one to jump into the sea when everyone else is afraid.  This Midrash answers our exegetical questions about Sefer Bemidbar as well.  As stated above, chapter 7 seems both chronologically and thematically out of place.  Based on this Midrash, we can explain that chapter 7 is a flashback to explain why Yehudah was chosen to lead the people towards Canaan back in chapter 2.  It was because their leader, Nachshon ben Aminadav, had the courage and trust in God to offer the first sacrifice when everyone else was afraid, which the Midrash highlights by transposing it into the story at the Red Sea.  In typical Midrashic fashion, of course, it tells us a story that depends on the analysis, and leaves it up to the reader to figure out the analytical process on their own.

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.

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Did Egyptian Daughters Die During the Plague of the Firstborn?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

As an oldest child whose father is also a firstborn, I always wondered why he had to fast on Erev Pesach for Taanit Bekhorot and I didn’t. It is commonly assumed that the reason why firstborn men fast is to commemorate the fact that they were saved during Makkat Bechorot and were not killed along with the Egyptian firstborn. So does the common practice of women not to fast indicate that the firstborn Egyptian women were saved?

Shemot 11:4 and 12:29 tell us that every Mitzri בכור dies during the plague.  בכור is masculine, but this by itself is not sufficient evidence, as the Torah often uses the masculine when not specifying gender.

Rav Ovadiah Yosef in Yechaveh Daat 3:25 discusses whether women should fast on Taanit Bekhorot. He quotes opinions both ways and cites Midrashic proof for both sides, beginning with the side that says women should fast:

ונראה שסוברים כדברי המדרש (שמות רבה פרשה י”ח סימן ג’):

ויך כל בכור במצרים ראשית אונים באהלי חם – שאפילו נקבות בכורות מתו,

חוץ מבתיה בת פרעה, שנמצא לה פרקליט טוב, וזה הוא משה שנאמר בו ותרא אותו כי טוב הוא ע”כ.

אולם מדרשים חלוקים הם בדבר, כי בשמות רבה (פרשה ט”ו סימן י”ב) איתא:

שה תמים זכר – על שם שהוא הרג בכורי מצרים וחס על בכורי ישראל ע”כ.

וכתב בחידושי הרש”ש שם:

משמע מכאן שלא נהרגו אלא בכורים זכרים ולא נקבות, וחולק המדרש הזה על הפסיקתא שאומר שגם בכורות נקבות מתו. וכן הוא בשמות רבה לקמן.

It seems that they hold like the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 18:3):

And he smote every firstborn in Egypt, the first-of-their-strength in the tents of Cham – [the redundancy of firstborn and first-of-their-strength teaches] that even the firstborn women died, except for Bityah the daughter of Pharaoh, because she had a good advocate, Moshe, as it says: And she saw him, that he was good

But other Midrashim disagree, because in Shemot Rabbah (15:12) it says,

An unblemished male sheep – [the Pesach sacrifice  is male] because he killed the firstborn of Egypt and took pity on the firstborn of Israel.

Rashash writes in his novellae there:

This implies that only male firstborns were killed and not females, and this Midrash disagrees with the Psikta that says that female firstborns also died, and also with the Shemot Rabbah below.

In summary, some Midrashim say that the daughters were killed, and others that say they were not.  Neither position cites direct or compelling evidence.  Are there deeper reasons for saying that the women were killed, or that they were not?

Let us assume that each of the Ten Plagues were Middah KeNeged Middah, in some way poetic or actual justice. Makkat Bekhorot is nonetheless unique in that the reason for the plague is stated in the Torah:

שמות ד:כא-כג

וַיֹּאמֶר יְקֹוָק אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּלֶכְתְּךָ לָשׁוּב מִצְרַיְמָה רְאֵה כָּל הַמֹּפְתִים אֲשֶׁר שַׂמְתִּי בְיָדֶךָ וַעֲשִׂיתָם לִפְנֵי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי אֲחַזֵּק אֶת לִבּוֹ וְלֹא יְשַׁלַּח את הָעָם:

וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְקֹוָק בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

וָאֹמַר אֵלֶיךָ שַׁלַּח אֶת בְּנִי וְיַעַבְדֵנִי וַתְּמָאֵן לְשַׁלְּחוֹ הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי הֹרֵג אֶת בִּנְךָ בְּכֹרֶךָ:

Shemot 4:21-23

Hashem said to Mosheh, When you go to return to Egypt, see all of the wonders that I put in your hands and do them before Pharaoh. I will harden his heart and he will not send out the nation.

And you should say to Pharaoh, “Thus said Hashem, ‘My firstborn child is Israel.

And I say to you: Send out My child and he will serve Me! If you will refuse to send him out, behold I will kill your child, your firstborn.'”

The firstborns of Egypt are killed because Egypt oppressed the firstborns of Hashem. But what does it mean to be Hashem’s firstborn? Rashi gives two explanations:

בני בכרי – לשון גדולה, כמו (תהילים פט כח) אף אני בכור אתנהו, זהו פשוטו.

ומדרשו: כאן חתם הקב”ה על מכירת הבכורה שלקח יעקב מעשו:

My firstborn child – [firstborn] is an expression of greatness, as it says (Tehillim 89:28): “And I will make him a firstborn” (since physical birth order cannot be changed, this proves that bekhor can refer to acquired greatness.) This is the Pshat.

The Drash is:  Here Hashem put his stamp of approval on the sale of the firstborn-ness that Yaakov bought from Esav.

I suggest that Rashi’s two explanations tie in to the dispute about whether the daughters were included in the plague of the firstborn.

According to his Midrashic explanation, the term בכור here is used in a technical legal sense, meaning the child who inherited land and who performed priestly services. It seems likely that women were excluded from the plague. However, according to Rashi’s Pshat explanation, women would be included in the plague, because G-d referred to the entire Jewish people as His firstborn.

Davida Kollmar (SBM 2014, 2016, 2017, WWBM 2018) is the Program Administrator for CMTL  and this coming semester will also be an adjunct at the Katz School of Yeshiva University.

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Was the חושן a Collection of Sorcerer’s Stones?

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

Magic was once a dark and mysterious power that represented a threat to all good people. The Jerusalem Talmud (ירושלמי סנהדרין ו:ו) relates that Shimon ben Shetah once carried out the extrajudicial execution of seventy female sorcerers terrorizing their neighborhood. In the 19th century, magicians still dazzled audiences and inspired generations of children. Today, magic is dismissed as nothing more than a temporary escape from reality, best represented by America’s Got Talent contestants and references to magic in fantasy literature, films, and video games.  Does Jewish tradition and Torah believe in the reality of magic?

In the ancient world,  magic and sorcery were essential tools for achieving power. If people believed that a particular person could manipulate nature, summon spirits, and divine the future, people would hold him or her in esteem. It is unsurprising, then, that Pharaoh, the most dominant ruler in the early Biblical era, had sorcerers at his disposal. They turned staffs into serpents and water to blood, and spontaneously generated frogs, all to match Moshe and Aharon’s performed miracles and maintain the impression that Pharaoh still sat at the pinnacle of his power.

It is only the third plague that lands a permanent blow to Pharaoh’s prestige. Lice befuddles the Egyptian sorcerers:

וַיַּעֲשׂוּ־כֵ֨ן הַחַרְטֻמִּ֧ים בְּלָטֵיהֶ֛ם לְהוֹצִ֥יא אֶת־הַכִּנִּ֖ים וְלֹ֣א יָכֹ֑לוּ וַתְּהִי֙ הַכִּנָּ֔ם בָּאָדָ֖ם וּבַבְּהֵמָֽה׃ וַיֹּאמְר֤וּ הַֽחַרְטֻמִּים֙ אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֔ה אֶצְבַּ֥ע אֱלֹקים הִ֑וא וַיֶּחֱזַ֤ק לֵב־פַּרְעֹה֙ וְלֹֽא־שָׁמַ֣ע אֲלֵהֶ֔ם כַּאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר ה׳. (שמות ח:יד-טו)

The magicians did the like with their spells to bring out lice, but they could not. The lice remained upon man and beast. The magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of G-d!” But Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not listen to them, just as Hashem had spoken. (Exodus 8:14-15)

What brought them to recognize G-d? בכור שור submits that though they had triumphed in reproducing the first two plagues, the sorcerers realized that they could prove their dominance over the Israelites only by removing the lice. It was their failure to do so that led to their recognition of the “finger of G-d”. חזקוני suggests that they couldn’t replicate the lice because magic requires connection to the ground, which was now covered with lice, a fact of which Shimon ben Shetah took advantage in his efforts to capture the local witches. The Talmud (:סנהדרין סז) famously submits that magic cannot produce creatures smaller than a kernel of barley.

What all of the above approaches have in common is that they fundamentally assume that the sorcery of the חרטומים was real and effective. This is in line with the view of רמב״ן (Deuteronomy 18:9) that magic is prohibited because it interferes with the world conforming to the laws of nature as G-d intended. Within this view, while the power of magicians is relatively infinitely less significant than that of prophets, there is only a quantitative distinction with regard to what they can do to change nature.

רמב״ם in הלכות עבודה זרה יא:טז takes a different approach. He asserts about magic:

דְבָרִים הָאֵלּוּ כֻּלָּן דִּבְרֵי שֶׁקֶר וְכָזָב הֵן וְהֵם שֶׁהִטְעוּ בָּהֶן עוֹבְדֵי כּוֹכָבִים הַקַּדְמוֹנִים לְגוֹיֵי הָאֲרָצוֹת כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּנְהֲגוּ אַחֲרֵיהֶן. וְאֵין רָאוּי לְיִשְׂרָאֵל שֶׁהֵם חֲכָמִים מְחֻכָּמִים לְהִמָּשֵׁךְ בַּהֲבָלִים אֵלּוּ וְלֹא לְהַעֲלוֹת עַל לֵב שֶׁיֵּשׁ תּוֹעֶלֶת בָּהֶן.

All of these things are false and spurious, and it was with such that the ancient idolaters misled the peoples of many lands so that they be following them. And it is unbecoming to Israel who are exceedingly wise to be attracted by these absurdities, nor to even imagine that they are of any consequence,

רמב״ם insists that there is nothing real about magic and sorcery at all and that the prohibition against performing them is precisely because of their falsehood. If so, even Pharaoh’s חרטומים would have been doing nothing more than performing illusions and mentalist tricks. It was during the plague of כינים that they realized there were some illusions they could not create, that the “magic” of the plagues were so real they could only be attributed to a G-d. According to the רמב״ם, the gap between what חרטומים could perform and G-d’s power was qualitative in nature.

Rabbi Dani Wolf, in his book מנחה וזבח (pp. 81-104), points out that this debate about the authenticity of magic and the nature of the gap between sorcery and Jewish practice may have sweeping ramifications for a specific Temple ritual. The תורה (Exodus 28:30) lists among the garments of the כהן גדול something called the אורים ותומים. From that context and elsewhere (Leviticus 8:8), it is clear that this item or set of items is somehow placed onto or connected to the חושן, the breastplate also worn by the כהן גדול. Furthermore, the תורה (Numbers 27:21) implies that the אורים ותומים are used by the leadership to make decisions about whether and when the Jewish People will go out to war. At the same time, there is much that the תורה leaves ambiguous. For example, what are the אורים ותומים?  How do they provide answers to the leadership’s questions about war?

רש״י on :יומא עג states that the אורים ותומים consist of a name of G-d written out on either קלף or engraved on metal that is placed on the חושן. The questioner would face the כהן גדול as he wore the אורים ותומים on the חושן and the letters would somehow miraculously arrange themselves to provide an answer.

In contrast, רמב״ם on הלכות כלי המקדש י:י claims that nothing was added to the חושן beyond the 12 precious stones. The questioner would stand behind the כהן גדול and the כהן גדול would face the ארון. After the questioner finished his query, the כהן גדול would receive an answer via prophecy, rather than through any change in appearance of something on the חושן.

Rav Wolf suggests that this debate could depend on each side’s respective views on magic and sorcery. רשב״ם (Exodus 28:30) attributes the need for אורים ותומים to the fact that other nations already had access to instruments that enabled them to predict the future in the form of divination and sorcery. It is inconceivable that the other nations could have such useful tools and yet G-d would not provide something at least as powerful to His chosen people. In other words, the אורים ותומים serve the same purpose as the מכות – to display and maintain G-d’s significant quantitative advantage over the power of sorcery. רמב״ם, however, contends that other nations did not have any such power and rejects the idea that any item, even something with G-d’s name on it, could divine the future. Instead, he argues, the אורים ותומים only provide answers to Jewish leaders via familiar means: נבואה, i.e. direct communication with G-d Himself.

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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Terms and Conditions

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃ וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃ וַיַּ֥רְא אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱ-לֹהִֽים׃

And it was in those many days, the king of Egypt died, and Bnei Yisrael were groaning under the work and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to G-d. G-d heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. G-d looked upon Bnei Yisrael, and G-d knew.

This paragraph ends strangely.  The first pasuk updates us on current events in Egypt, and brings the narrative back from Moshe in Midyan to the suffering of Bnei Yisrael. The second pasuk prepares us for the mission that Hashem will send Moshe on – that the time has come for Him to fulfill His promise and take Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. The third pasuk, however, seems unnecessary, and even cryptic.  Even ignoring the theological challenge of describing G-d the all-seeing and all-knowing as apparently “looking upon” and “knowing” a nation at a particular time, we have a narrative challenge.  The previous pasuk had already shown G-d’s renewed focus on the Jewish people, so what does this pasuk add?

Another oddity is the choice of this week’s Haftarah (according to minhag Ashkenaz). While Yeshayahu talks about redemption in the chosen verses, much more of the content is devoted to criticizing Bnei Yisrael for their wrongdoings. Egypt is mentioned twice, and only as a place that G-d will take his people out of.

These two anomalies may shed light on each other. Shmot Rabbah brings a commentary on our enigmatic pasuk that is not so flattering to Bnei Yisrael

וַיַּרְא אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֵּדַע אֱ-לֹהִים,

יָדַע הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא שֶׁעָלָיו לְגָאֳלָם לְמַעַן שְׁמוֹ בַּעֲבוּר הַבְּרִית שֶׁכָּרַת עִם הָאָבוֹת

“G-d looked upon Bnei Yisrael, and G-d knew” G-d knew that it was on Him to redeem them for the sake of his name, for the sake of the covenant he made with the forefathers.

Or, as explained elsewhere:

שֶׁלֹא הָיָה בְּיָדָם מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים שֶׁיִּגָּאֲלוּ בִּשְׁבִילָם

because they did not have in their hands good deeds that in the merit of which they could be redeemed.

This goes nicely with the theme of the Haftarah, which does promise redemption, but also calls out Bnei Yisrael for their many sins.

The claim that our reemption from Egypt was undeserved has positive aspects.  It demonstrates that G-d’s relationship with Bnei Yisrael is truly unconditional. G-d’s love for Bnei Yisrael will never end.  In fact, when Moshe continues to doubt that Bnei Yisrael will accept him as a prophet, G-d gets angry with him. Shmot Rabbah relates that the signs that G-d chose to give to Moshe were also hinting at G-d’s anger with Moshe

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֵלָיו מַזֶּה בְיָדֶךָ וַיֹּאמֶר מַטֶּה, כְּלוֹמַר מִזֶּה שֶׁבְּיָדֶךָ אַתָּה צָרִיךְ לִלְקוֹת, שֶׁאַתָּה מוֹצִיא שֵׁם רָע עַל בָּנַי, הֵם מַאֲמִינִים בְּנֵי מַאֲמִינִים

“And G-d said to him ‘What is in your hand?’ and he said ‘a staff,’ as if to say, from that which is in your hand, you need to hit because you are motzi shem ra on my children, who are believers and the children of believers.

In summary, when the Torah describes G-d “seeing” and “knowing” Bnei Yisrael, it is describing Him taking stock of the nation and their circumstances, but also taking stock of His relationship with them. A relationship that is based on unconditional love.

Pnina Grossman is a former Sharon resident and a 2012 SBM fellow. She is currently a Mechanical Engineering Student at the City College of New York.

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