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Why the Free Bird Sings

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom
Maya Angelou, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”

I know a bird
that sings when free,
but when caged
by you or me
it ceases to eat
and refuses to live.
Avraham Ibn Ezra, Commentary to Vayikra 25:10, as freely translated by Aryeh Klapper

The inscription on the Liberty Bell reads “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”  This excerpt (from the King James translation of Vayikra 25:10) makes several interesting translational choices. For example, why “throughout all the land,” when the Hebrew is בארץ, merely “in the land?”  Why “the inhabitants thereof,” rather than merely “inhabitants thereof,” when the Hebrew יושביה has no definite article?  These choices can seem odd even in English, and many internet sites quoting the Bell accidentally remove the first “all” and the second “the.” These imprecisions matter because  they license us to challenge the core translation: Is the Hebrew דרור/d’ror properly translated as “liberty?”

A translation can have any of three sources: tradition, parallel uses, and context. In the case of d’ror, the parallel in Yirmiyah 34:8-9 seems to make the meaning crystal clear.

הַדָּבָ֛ר אֲשֶׁר־הָיָ֥ה אֶֽל־יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מֵאֵ֣ת ה֑’
אַחֲרֵ֡י כְּרֹת֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ צִדְקִיָּ֜הוּ בְּרִ֗ית אֶת־כָּל־הָעָם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בִּירֽוּשָׁלִַ֔ם
לִקְרֹ֥א לָהֶ֖ם דְּרֽוֹר:
לְ֠שַׁלַּח אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־עַבְדּ֞וֹ וְאִ֧ישׁ אֶת־שִׁפְחָת֛וֹ
הָעִבְרִ֥י וְהָעִבְרִיָּ֖ה
חָפְשִׁ֑ים
לְבִלְתִּ֧י עֲבָד־בָּ֛ם
בִיהוּדִ֥י אָחִ֖יהוּ אִֽישׁ:

The matter which came to Yirmiyahu from Hashem
after Tzidkiyahu cut a covenant with all the populace that was in Yerushalayim
to proclaim to them d’ror
to send forth each man his manslave and his maidslave
the Hebrew and the Hebrewess
free
to not work them as slaves
a Jew, his brother man.

It seems undeniable that a d’ror-proclamation sets slaves free. When the Jews fail to abide by the proclamation, G-d frames their coming destruction as poetic justice, declaring that He will grant His servants of destruction freedom to destroy:

אַתֶּם֙ לֹֽא־שְׁמַעְתֶּ֣ם אֵלַ֔י לִקְרֹ֣א דְר֔וֹר
אִ֥ישׁ לְאָחִ֖יו וְאִ֣ישׁ לְרֵעֵ֑הוּ
הִנְנִ֣י קֹרֵא֩ לָכֶ֨ם דְּר֜וֹר נְאֻם־ה֗’
אֶל־הַחֶ֙רֶב֙ אֶל־הַדֶּ֣בֶר וְאֶל־הָרָעָ֔ב

You did not heed me, to proclaim a דרור
Each man to his brother, and each man to his fellow
Behold I am proclaiming a d’ror regarding you, says Hashem,
to the sword and the plague and the famine

Yeshayahu 61:1 similarly reads

לקְרֹ֤א לִשְׁבוּיִם֙ דְּר֔וֹר

To proclaim d’ror regarding captives.

So d’ror plainly can refer to liberation from a previous state of constraint. Likely the King James chose “liberty” rather than “freedom” because the connotation of liberty at that time was “freedom from,” whereas freedom would be more likely understood as “freedom to.”

However, these are not the only Biblical contexts in which the word d’ror appears.

For example, Shemot 30:23 refers to “myrrh d’ror.”  Most commentators assume that the meaning in this context must be derived from the contexts we have already seen.  Thus R. Avraham ben HaRambam writes:

שם הטוהר והחרות

a term for purity/freedom (from impurities)

while BDB translates d’ror as “liquid” on the basis of “flowing; free run, liberty.”  Only Rashbam seems to take this instance as reflecting a different meaning entirely: חשוב, significant. I’m not sure that I’m understanding Rashbam correctly, though, and he may also see social significance as rooted in the capacity to resist others’ attempts to constrain you.

D’ror also appears twice in contexts where the intended referent seems to be a type or species of bird.

כַּצִּפּ֣וֹר לָ֭נוּד כַּדְּר֣וֹר לָע֑וּף

Like a bird to wander; like a d’ror to fly (Mishlei 26:2)

גַּם־צִפּ֨וֹר׀ מָ֢צְאָה בַ֡יִת וּדְר֤וֹר׀ קֵ֥ן לָהּ֘

Also the bird found a home, and the d’ror a nest for itself (Tehillim 84:4)

One might see these uses as stemming from a different root entirely. BDB, for example, simply identifies the species as “swallow.” Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 seems to adopt this approach:

טעם שמות העופות והבהמות אשר פרשו הראשונים
הם כחלומות בלי פתרון
והזכיר הצפור והדרור
כי הם דרות בבתים עם בני אדם
וצריכין לנוד מהרה ממקו’ למקום מפני העוברים והשבים

The rationales that my predecessors gave for the species-names of birds and animals
are like dreams that have no interpretation
it mentions the tzippor and the d’ror here
because they live in houses together with human beings
and they need to flit rapidly from place to place because of the passers-by

Here Ibn Ezra denies that the species-name d’ror has any discoverable etymology, or that the species has any relevant characteristic that distinguishes it from the tzippor.  He does however identify it as a bird that lives in a space it shares with human beings.

Ibn Ezra to Tehillim 84:4 takes a radically different approach:

דרור –
שם עוף מנגן
אולי נקרא כן
בעבור שאין מנהגו לנגן
כל זמן שאיננו חפשי
וזה העוף ידוע הוא בספרד

“D’ror” –
This is the name of a songbird
Perhaps it is called thus
because its practice is not to sing
whenever it is not free
This bird is known in Spain.

Ibn Ezra here provides an etymology for the species-name d’ror – the same kind of etymology he scoffed at in his comments to Mishlei 26:2! Assuming this is the same species, we now learn that its residence among human beings does not imply domestication, or at least not total domestication; the bird sings only when it is free. Its constant motion is likely for the purpose of avoiding capture.

Even more astonishingly, Ibn Ezra to Vayikra 25:10 – the Liberty Bell verse – reverses the vector of derivation.

דרור –
ידועה
והוא כמו חפשי.
וכדרור לעוף –
עוף קטן
מנגן כשהוא ברשותו
ואם הוא ברשות אדם
לא יאכל
עד שימות.

“D’ror” –
The meaning is known
and it is like “free.”
(as in the verse) “like a d’ror to fly”
a small bird
which sings when in its own reshut
but when in the reshut of a human being
it will not eat
to the point of dying

Here Ibn Ezra argues that the species name is the etymology of the term “liberty,” or at the least that we derive the meaning of d’ror here from the species name.  Why would he take that approach, which requires him to assume that the name was known via tradition, when the meaning seems clear from context here and from parallel passages?

I suggest that Ibn Ezra thought the translation of “liberty” was not a perfect fit in our context.  Why? Because although Yirmiyahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing slaves, and Yeshayahu uses d’ror to refer to freeing captives, a careful look at the Jubilee law in Vayikra 25:10 reveals no explicit contextual reference at all to slavery or freedom.  Rather, the unit Vayikra 25:10-13 speaks about the need for people to return to their hereditary homesteads. Slavery may be mentioned in 25:14, but as an additional element. One can argue that people who sell their land will eventually end up enslaved, or that 25:10-13 refers to people who were sold away from their lands rather than people who sold their lands, but this is certainly not obvious.

How does Ibn Ezra resolve this?  Perhaps the key is that he frames the bird’s refusal to sing as about reshut, which can mean both “space” and “authority.”  The bird will sing only when it is in its own reshut.  Similarly, even if people are not enslaved, they do not have d’ror unless they have a space they can call their own.

The problem is that Ibn Ezra to Mishlei 26:2 defines the d’ror species as one that lives in human houses, and therefore finds its space continually intruded on.

I can only suggest this. We all live within the impersonal constraints of time, space, and our own physicality.  We can only dream of perfect, Divine freedom. Perhaps we can even dream of that freedom only when we are not subject to any other person’s will. Until then we are constrained to imagine only freedom from, not freedom to.

The d’ror dreams of its own space, but its physical needs and limitations compel it to live in human abodes. So long as it is not captive – so long as it is not subject to a human will – the dream seems close enough that it can be expressed in music.

The free bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still.
it sings of freedom.

 

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Living in Mutual Support

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Elie Lerea

As active participants in a capitalist world, it is not uncommon for us to be filled with a sense of economic dissonance when we read the Torah’s economic legislation. Capitalism assumes that an incentive-based, market economy will result in the most efficient innovation and overall production. Yet much of what is expected of the people of Israel in Parashat BeHar seems to ignore these insights. Does the Torah have a different vision of human nature than capitalism? Or does it sacrifice innovation and efficiency to other priorities?  

For example: Rather than incentivizing innovation and production during every agriculture year, the Torah commands that every seventh year “ושבתה הארץ שבת לה׳” (Lev. 25:2). Rather than working one’s land in the sixth year of the seven-year Sabbatical cycle with the motivation of personal profit, the people of Israel are expected to erase that motivation from their minds by offering up all of the seventh year’s produce “לך ולעבדך ולאמתך ולשכירך ולתושבך הגרים עמך” (Lev. 25:6).    

The Torah also mandates redistribution of wealth. Every fiftieth year of the cycle, family fields are returned to their original owners as “ושבתם איש אל אחזתו ואיש אל משפחתו תשובו” (Lev. 25:10). Instead of incentivizing production by rewarding the successful individual, the Torah rewards all from the production of some. Instead of allowing success to endure, thus stimulating competition and active incentive to increase the value of one’s own property, the Torah redistributes wealth. Finally, instead of establishing a free market, stimulating efficiency through economically profitable decisions, the Torah calls for all family members to feel responsible for The Other by redeeming the field of their kin even if it is not the most lucrative investment for their own personal success.  

To claim that we must choose between the absolutes of a modern capitalist system and the Torah’s mutually supportive society would belittle the complexity and nuance of economic societies and the many factors that play into their success or demise. That being said, when confronted with something foreign to our sensibilities and assumptions, it is always important to consider the core advantages of such foreignness in order to be better able to think with more nuance moving forward.  

This week’s haftorah beautifully captures the undiluted value and advantage of the mutually supportive societies described in Parashat BeHar. 

Jeremiah relays the experience of G-d revealing G-d’s self to him, mandating that he redeem the field of his cash-poor cousin. This seems quite parallel to the law of our Parashah, despite a slight nuance in that he redeems the field directly from his family member. However, after a description of the transaction that occurred between the two members, the chapter concludes with what makes clear an entirely different, broader context to the sale, highlighting the Torah’s message about supportive economies. After concluding the purchase, Jeremiah concludes with the following: 

 

“כי כה אמר ה׳ צבאות אלקי ישראל עוד יקנו בתים ושדות וכרמים בארץ הזאת” 

“And thus said the Lord of Hosts the G-d of Israel: homes, fields, and vinyards will again be bought in this land” (Jer. 32:15) 

 

Jeremiah is purchasing this field with a vivid image of what the horizon looks like for Israel: they are about to be exiled. And thus, in terms of his own economic interests, there would be no purchase more foolish than to buy local real-estate. However, Jeremiah acts and articulates his actions with a broader sensibility in mind. Jeremiah understands that transcending his own interest will allow for a greater sensitivity to The Other, in this case his cousins, but in a broader sense, each individual in his vicinity and ultimately the broader nation of Israel. 

Immediately following his call of hope that the people will yet return to the Land of Israel, Jeremiah continues with a prayer to G-d, delineating G-d’s relationship with the world, G-d’s people’s sin, and, ultimately, a proclamation of G-d’s ultimate delivery of his people. Although the liturgy of the Haftorah cuts off in the middle of the chapter, the custom is to finish with Jeremiah 32:27, with G-d’s proclamation of dominion over the world: “הנה אני ה׳ אלקי כל בשר הממני יפלא כל דבר.” This conclusion connects Jeremiah’s willingness to come to the financial aid of his cousin with what is for him a nonsensical economic purchase with his broader ability to sense G-d in the world and look forward to the eventual return of Israel to its land. It is perhaps this, more widely scoped message that the Parashah, along with its Haftorah, is trying to convey: cultivating a heightened awareness of the people in one’s immediate surroundings is a prerequisite for developing a deep sense of hope in a better world and G-d’s ultimate presence in it. Jeremiah’s ability to tap into the needs around him (at his own personal expense, literally) inspires him to look beyond his own experience and articulate G-d’s dominion and future redemption.  

Thinking back to the economic tensions the Torah poses to capitalism, without choosing one or the other, thinking this way about the Parashah can hopefully help deepen our continual awareness of what is gained and lost in every ideology and model. In this case, it is my hope that keeping the Torah in mind will allow us to always consider the profound benefit of what it means to live in an economically supportive way, stimulating heightened attentiveness to our most immediate circles and beyond.  

 

Elie Lerea (SBM 2016) is currently learning in the Kollel at Yeshivat Ma’aleh Gilboa. 

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Can Halakhah be a Desecration of Hashem’s Name?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם֙ מִצְוֹתַ֔י וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קָדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל

אֲנִ֥י ה֖’ מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם:

הַמּוֹצִ֤יא אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵא-לֹהִ֑ים

אֲנִ֖י הֽ’:

You must guard my commandments, and you must do them

I am Hashem;

And you must not desecrate My Holy Name, and I will be sanctified within Bnei Yisroel

I am Hashem Who sanctified you;

Who took you out of the Land of Mitzrayim in order to be G-d for you

I am Hashem

Vayikra 22:31-33 can be read as a single Divine sentence, punctuated by self-identifying statements. We must keep His mitzvot, in order not to desecrate His Name, because He took us out of Egypt. On this reading, desecration and sanctification of His Name are merely functions of the other commandments, and have no independent substantive meaning. We sanctify by observing halakhah, and desecrate by violating halakhah. Similarly, the Exodus from Egypt is invoked only to ground G-d’s authority, and to explain why the status of His Name can be tied to Jewish observance of the mitzvot. Furthermore, the phrase “within Bnei Yisroel” suggests that observance of Halakhah is a purely parochial concern.

The Halakhic tradition itself adopts a much broader and more nuanced understanding of the categories Kiddush Hashem and Chillul Hashem. Here are some of the variations the tradition introduces:

1) Under certain circumstances, there is an obligation of Kiddush Hashem to die rather than violate halakhah, even though generally the obligation to preserve life overrides halakhah.

2) For some purposes, Chillul Hashem is focused on Jews, and the obligation die requires a quorum of Jews (women count to this minyan according to most). For other purposes, the audience for Chillul and Kiddush Hashem specifically is nonJews. It is even possible to argue that the essential audience is always nonJews, and that a quorum is required because nonJews are more affected by Jews’ willingness or unwillingness to sin in front of their coreligionists.

3) Kiddush and Chillul Hashem can be associated not only with halakhah but with Jewish identity, universal ethics, and display of proper character. (See for example Rambam Hilkhot Yesodei HaTorah 5:11.) Public explicit denial of G-d’s authority by Jews desecrates His Name, but so does paying tradesmen late even though you have the funds, or being quarrelsome, or standing by the letter of the law even when that violates its spirit.

Broadening the scope of Chillul Hashem beyond halakhah untethers verse 32 from verse 31. This is especially important according to the Midrash Lekach Tov, which sees ushmartem mitzvotay as a commandment to observe mitzvot without regard to whether one finds them rationally appealing. “These are my commandments, and you have no permission to challenge them = להרהר אחריהם.

By contrast, Yerushalmi Bava Kamma 4:3 suggests that sometimes the halakhah itself can be a chillul Hashem.

מעשה

ששילח המלכות שני איסטרטיוטות ללמוד תורה מרבן גמליאל

ולמדו ממנו מקרא משנה תלמוד הלכות ואגדות

ובסוף אמרו לו

כל תורתכם נאה ומשובחת

חוץ משני דברים הללו

שאתם אומרים

בת ישראל לא תיילד לעכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מיילדת לבת ישראל

בת ישראל לא תניק בנה של עכו”ם אבל עכו”ם מניקה לבת ישראל ברשותה

גזילו של ישראל אסור ושל עכו”ם מותר.

באותו שעה גזר רבן גמליאל על גזילות עכו”ם שיהא אסור מפני חילול השם . . .:

A true story:

The (Roman) Empire sent two officials to learn Torah from Rabban Gamliel

They learned from him Mishnah, Talmud, Halakhot and Aggadot.

At the end they said to him:

All your Torah is pleasant and praiseworthy

other than these two things

that you say

a Jewess must not midwife an idolatress, but an idolatress may midwife a Jewess

a Jewess mustn’t nurse the child of an idolatress, but an idolatress may nurse the child of a Jewess

in her space

An object robbed from a Jew is forbidden, but an object robbed from a Gentile is permitted

At that very time Rabban Gamliel decreed regarding the robbed objects of idolaters that they should be prohibited because of Chillul Hashem . . .

One aspect of this text seems impenetrably mysterious. The Romans refer to ‘two things,” but in the excerpt above there are three, and the ellipses conceals a fourth. Nonetheless, it seems fair to say that Rabban Gamliel responded to one of the Romans’ complaints by altering the halakhah, but not to all of them. If Rabban Gamliel is reacting to the Roman perception, why the difference?

Yet both in reason and in text it cannot be that Rabban Gamliel stands for the proposition that the proper reaction to an outsider’s moral critique of halakhah is always to change the offending law. There must be a basis for distinction. Indeed, it might be accurate to say that sometimes Gentile objections to Halakhah trigger the obligation to die al kiddush Hashem rather than transgress the law, while in other circumstances the proper reaction is to change the law. Surely the difference in outcomes is not arbitrary!

The simplest explanation is that it depends on whether, when confronted by the critique, we decide that we agree with it. The mere fact that outsiders dislike our laws cannot compel change; but fear of showing weakness cannot prevent change in the fact of moral critique.

The question then is why Rabban Gamliel found the Romans’ critique compelling in one case but not in the others.

One possibility is that the Romans’ other critiques were grounded in reciprocity rather than in objective right or wrong. They would have accepted a rule that required every nation to midwife or nurse its own mothers and babies, but they objected to allowing it only one way. Rabban Gamliel was not moved by pure claims of discrimination. If either result could be justified intrinsically, he was fine with having the results be asymmetrical between Jews and Gentiles.

This approach seems in stark contrast to Meiri, who claims that halakhah’s asymmetries are intended to mirror or compensate for discrimination against Jews in Gentile legal systems, and therefore do not apply to citizens of systems that give Jews equal rights. Note however that Meiri is commenting on the Bavli, which does not bring the midwifery and nursing cases.

Another possibility is that Rabban Gamliel thought the laws about midwifery and nursing were not intended to discriminate against Gentiles, but rather to avoid dangerous liability. The best of obstetric and pediatric care cannot prevent all deaths, and the deaths of Gentile mothers and babes under the most skilled and conscientious Jewish practitioners might have triggered pogroms. Allowing Jews to fence goods stolen from Gentiles, by contrast, had no aim but profit.

Yet a third possibility is that Rabban Gamliel saw chillul Hashem as a valid reason to prohibit what halakhah would otherwise permit, but not to permit what halakhah would otherwise forbid.

It is striking regardless that Rabban Gamliel reacted not to a critique of actual Jewish practice, but rather to a critique of the law per se. This suggests that the underlying issue of chillul Hashem is not so much the way that Jews are perceived by the world outside them, but rather by how Torah is perceived.

Yet it is also plainly the case that Torah cannot fold its hand in the face of moral censure or opprobrium. It seems reasonable to claim that those who enact laws against Judaism often find our laws immoral. Yet if they try to enforce their biases, we are likely to become obligated to become martyrs for the law as-is rather than change the law under pressure.

It is also striking that Rabban Gamliel did not claim that the Romans had misunderstood the law, or engage in other sorts of apologetics. He chose instead to explicitly override the law that irked them.

What seems to me the upshot here is that the Yerushalmi at least does not rule moral critiques of the halakhah out of bounds, and that we should be open to accepting moral critiques from any source. We should not claim that such critiques necessarily stem from a narrow vision and lack of broader halakhic context; rather, sometimes it is precisely the broad context that generates the sense that this particular law doesn’t fit well.

Openness to moral critique must not be either the result or the cause of a lack of overall moral confidence in the system. These are very legitimate concerns. But shutting ourselves off from moral critique carries equally serious risks. Our unwillingness to entertain and respond to moral criticism can cause others to lose their overall confidence in the system.

 

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Does the Torah Forbid Us to Lie?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Nechama Leibowitz zt”l often commented acerbically that Yeshiva students knew ten ways to explain how Yaakov really didn’t kiss Rachel, even though the Torah says vayishak Yaakov l’Rachel (Bereshit 29:11), but could not answer when asked whether the Torah specifically forbids lying.  The correct answer was yes, based on Vayikra 19:11, which includes the phrase lo t’shakru.

I wondered whether this was entirely fair. Nechama’s line was intended to critique an educational system that privileged knowledge of interpretations over knowledge of the text itself, and on that level was very often correct. But at least some students, perhaps the baalei keriah among us, knew the verse – we just didn’t translate it in our heads as a prohibition against lying per se, but rather in a more halakhically qualified way. In other words, we thought of this verse the same way we thought of vayishak Yaakov l’Rachel – through the lens of Rabbinic interpretation. Here, for example, is Rashi:

לפי שנאמר (ויקרא ה:כב) ונשבע על שקר

ישלם קרן וחומש;

למדנו עונש, אזהרה מנין?

תלמוד לומר ולא תשקרו

We learn from venishba al sheker(Vayikra 5:22) that one who swears falsely

(that they do not have the plaintiff’s property in their possession)

is liable to pay a 25% penalty (=a fifth of the total compensation due the plaintiff)

(In rabbinic legal exegesis, every statement of penalty must have an associated DO NOT):

We have thus learned a penalty, but where is the DO NOT?

So Scripture says: lo t’shakru.

We therefore argued that in fact there was no Biblical prohibition against lying, only against swearing falsely, and that this particular verse prohibited only swearing falsely as a defendant when accused of having the plaintiff’s property in your possession.  (Note that 19:12 explicitly prohibits swearing falsely by His Name – Rashi explains that this is intended to include all the Names of Hashem in the prohibition.)

Nechama’s line of course was also intended as a moral critique. The problem was not so much that many of us didn’t remember the verse, but that it wasn’t obvious to us that the Torah forbade lying, while ironically it was obvious to us that Yaakov did not kiss Rachel romantically. In each case, she thought that we needed to see Rabbinic interpretation as reacting to the plain meaning of the verse, but not as intended to deny that meaning.  (The reactions differ in kind: regarding Bereshit, they explain why a noble action by the hero might nonetheless not be a viable behavioral model for readers; regarding Vayikra, they explain why a verse stating a moral that should be obvious is not redundant in a formal legal context.)

Pedagogically, this is a very complex notion.  The beit din I serve on recently had occasion to emphasize the centrality of truthtelling in Judaism, and despite having Nechama’s line ringing in my head, I did not simply cite our verse.  Instead, my colleagues and I cited midvar sheker tidchak (Shemot 23:7), “distance yourself from falsehood.”  To some extent this was because “Distance yourself from falsehood” has a stronger moral valence than simply “Don’t say a falsehood,” as it seems to exclude even misleading truths or lies by omission.  And while we knew that Shemot 23:7 also has a limiting legal context – it specifically forbids judges in financial suits from approving a technically justified ruling that they know to be substantively false, or to serve together with judges they know to be incompetent – we also knew that Rabbinic literature cites its plain meaning as well.

Here, however, was a problem. The primary rabbinic citation of the plain meaning is on Ketubot 17a, where Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel dispute what one sings while dancing before a bride with objective physical flaws.  Beit Hillel say that one praises her beauty regardless – kallah naeh vachasudah – while Beit Shammai say that one praises her as she actually is – kallah kemot shehi.  Beit Shammai challenge Beit Hillel on the basis of Shemot 23:7; Beit Hillel respond that we sing from the perspective of the groom. Beit Hillel’s response leaves space for disingenuousness, and is itself a little disingenuous, as a purpose of the praise is to reinforce the groom’s faith in his perspective.

Similarly, while “the seal of the Holy Blessed One is truth,” we sometimes learn this is contexts where He sacrifices the integrity of His seal.  We are certainly permitted or obligated to lie for the sake of preserving marital harmony, as Hashem changed Sarah’s words when speaking to Avraham about Sarah’s laughter.

Chazal teach us that marital harmony is more important than pure truth, and more generally that pure truth is destructive to human society, but try at the same time to emphasize the critical social and moral necessity of almost-pure truth. This kind of dialectical pedagogy is extraordinarily difficult to pull off.

With this complexity in mind, I thought it worth briefly investigating whether the standard “peshat” commentaries on Vayikra 19:11 make any effort to preserve what Nechama claimed was the plain meaning.  Rashbam, I noticed immediately does not. He apparently feels that the immediate context of the verse demonstrates that it is limited to the context of financial suits.  The verse opens with lo tignovu = don’t steal, and continues with lo t’khachashu – don’t deny, a verb also used in Vayikra 5:21 in the lawsuit context.

Ibn Ezra and Bekhor Shor each maintain the financial context, but expand the field.  Ibn Ezra says the verse bans telling a creditor to obtain his funds from a third party, when in fact you have no account with that third party.  Bekhor Shor says that it forbids committing to fulfill certain conditions in exchange for a financial advance, and then failing to fulfill those conditions. (It’s not obvious to me whether he refers only to a case in which one never intended to fulfill them.  HaKetav VeHakabbalah however argues that the verb teshaker always refers to a statement that is false at the time it is uttered, and not to one that can be falsified later by nonperformance.)

Siftei Kohen (late 16th-early 17th century commentary by R. Mordekhai Cohen, a student of R. Yosef Caro in Tzefat) recontextualizes the entire verse to be about marital sexuality.  It is possible but not obvious that he means to make a claim about the necessity of emotional honesty in the context of intimacy.  Regardless, this seems less likely the plain meaning than the lawsuit context.

The only precedent I can find for Nechama is Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, who contextualizes our verse as part of the parashah’s overall theme of kedushah (=holiness).  He argues that our verse is framed in the plural because it addresses not individuals but the community.  As a result, he contends, we are not referring to gross financial sins, which are surely always the province of a minority, and which the majority will always put down by force  Rather, “we are referring here to those categories of theft, falsehood, and false oathtaking that are capable of penetrating every aspect of commercial and social life; not only that, but they can become the dominant characteristic of a nation; and once they are broadly flouted, all signs of opprobrium are removed from these acts.  More than this – they become considered a skill, deserving of praise and honor.  Nonetheless, in the eyes of Hashem they are as lowly and despised as actual robbery and falsehood and false oathtaking.  These are what G-d prohibits here, Who seeks to sanctify His nation in the realms of commercial and social life . . .  lo t’shakru – the whole broad field of falsehood should have no place in commercial and social life, because truth, meaning the recogniition of things and relationships as they actually are is the foundation of peace and faithfulness to commitment . . . whereas falsehood becomes the tool of all wickedness and evil . . .”

In the end, I am not convinced that this is the plain meaning of our verse (as opposed to Shemot 23:7.)  But with apologies to Nechama, perhaps it would not be a terrible thing if during this Shabbat’s leining we all first thought of her interpretation, and of Rav Hirsch’s.

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Freedom and the Responsibility of Distinctions

by Judah Kerbel

Why was it vital for G-d to ‘personally’ carry out the killing of the firstborns?

In Shemot 12:12, G-d foreshadows the 10th plague with a drumbeat of first-person verbs.

שמות פרק יב פסוק יב

וְעָבַרְתִּי בְאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה

וְהִכֵּיתִי כָל בְּכוֹר בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מֵאָדָם וְעַד בְּהֵמָה

וּבְכָל אֱלֹהֵי מִצְרַיִם אֶעֱשֶׂה שְׁפָטִים

אֲנִי יְקֹוָק:

I will go through the land of Egypt on this night

I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, whether man or beast;

I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt,

I the LORD (Exodus 12:12).

The midrash that we read at the seder understands G-d as emphasizing not just that He acted personally, but that He acted alone.

ועברתי בארץ מצרים בלילה הזה – אני ולא מלאך.

והכיתי כל בכור בארץ מצרים – אני ולא שרף.

וכל אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים – אני ולא ?ה?שליח.

“I will go through the Land of Egypt on this night” – I and not an angel.

“I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt” – I and not a seraph.

“I will mete out punishments to all the gods of Egypt” – I and not ?the? emissary.

But why would an angel or emissary not be able to perform this task, or even to accompany G-d while He performed it?

The Zohar answers that Egypt was so saturated with impurity that angels would be defiled by entering, even while on a Divine mission. G-d saw His ministers damaged when they entered Sodom to destroy it, and did not will to repeat the experience. So He Himself came, alone, to perform the plague.

I would like to suggest a different answer. To introduce that answer, I need first to raise another question:  Why does the Torah associate so many commandments explicitly with the Exodus?

Rashi sometimes comments on such connections “on this condition you were redeemed,” which suggests that freedom does not come for free. The deal is that freedom from Pharaoh is in exchange for servitude to God. But this does not explain what makes these mitzvot special.  Isn’t this true of all mitzvot?

Still, in other instances, Rashi quotes Bava Metzia 61b, citing the appropriate piece in the location of each pasuk:

אמר רבא:

למה לי דכתב רחמנא יציאת מצרים ברבית, יציאת מצרים גבי ציצית, יציאת מצרים במשקלות?

אמר הקדוש ברוך הוא:

אני הוא שהבחנתי במצרים בין טפה של בכור לטפה שאינה של בכור –

אני הוא שעתיד ליפרע ממי שתולה מעותיו בנכרי ומלוה אותם לישראל ברבית, וממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח, וממי שתולה קלא אילן בבגדו ואומר תכלת הוא.

Said Rava:

Why is it necessary for the Torah to mention  the exodus from Egypt in the context of the the prohibition against interest (see Leviticus 25:37–38), and in the context the mitzvah to wear ritual fringes (see Numbers 15:39–41), and in the context of the prohibition concerning weights (see Leviticus 19:35–36)?

The Holy One, Blessed be He, is telling us:

I, am He Who distinguished in Egypt between the drop of seed that became a firstborn and the drop of seed that did not become a firstborn;

I, the very same, am He Who is destined to exact punishment from one who attributes ownership of his money to a gentile and thereby lends it to a Jew with interest, and  Who is destined to exact punishment from one who buries his weights in salt (invisibly changing their weight). and Who is destined to exact punishment from one who hangs ritual fringes dyed with vegetable indigo [kala ilan] dye on his garment and says they are dyed with  (the halakhically required) sea-creature indigo.

What discrepancy would there be in determining the first born that requires fine discernment “between drops of seed?” Rashi explains that human beings can know a woman’s firstborn, but if she bore children for multiple men, only G-d can know which were firstborn of their fathers. Similarly, human beings have a limited capacity to see beyond that which meets the eye; we may often trust that which we see and hear, making us susceptible to being cheated. However, G-d reminds us that He, who has the powerful ability to discern, holds us accountable especially when we deceive others. These mitzvot are thus singled out because they are most subject to deception. Maharal of Prague makes a sharper claim: the correlation between these mitzvot and the exodus goes beyond the deterrent, admonishing us that by engaging in such deceit, one denies G-d’s ability to perceive fine distinctions, thereby denying G-d’s essential role in taking us out of Egypt and His ability to do the supernatural. One who recognizes the miraculousness of the exodus, however, will understand that G-d knows when we lie. Furthermore, B’nei Yisrael, in being redeemed supernaturally, merited a higher spiritual level. To engage in deceit, and denying G-d’s ability to account for that, is antithetical to the spiritual level that was intended for B’nei Yisrael in leaving Egypt.

Pesach at its core is about the distinction between right and wrong, justice and oppression, truth and deceit. The Mishnah says that we must begin telling the story of our liberation by making mention of our disgrace, genut, and only then finishing with praise, shevach. We need to make the distinction between genut and shevach because we can only truly appreciate our freedom by understanding the alternative. But we also need to connect this distinction to the fundamental distinction between tov and ra, between right and wrong. Our experience of oppression should teach us  that oppressing others is wrong. That is why the Torah says dozens of time that we should not oppress the other because we were once the “other.”

The Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:2) declares, “if there is no wisdom, how do we make distinctions?” From whom do we learn to make distinctions? Where does our wisdom come from? G-d, Who distinguished between the firstborn and others, Who is able to see the fine line between truth and deception, grants us the wisdom to make these distinctions as well. That is why G-d, and not an angel, executed the last plague. His miraculous distinguishing of the firstborns teaches us to trust His distinctions between right and wrong, justice and oppression, truth and deceit, and He therefore calls upon us to use our freedom to follow mitzvot with integrity and treat others in accordance with these principles.

Judah Kerbel (SBM 2015) is a Beit Midrash Fellow at SAR High School. He holds a master’s degree from the Bernard Revel Graduate School in medieval Jewish history and is scheduled toreceive semikha from RIETS this spring.

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Tzara’at, Repression, and Redemption

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

When you come to the land of Canaan, which I give to you as a possession, and I put the plague of tzara’at upon a house in the land of your possession… (Vayikra 14:34)

In the first three and a half years after the modern State of Israel was born, it absorbed over 685,000 Jewish refugees from around the world, effectively doubling its population. Over 100,000 Jews were placed in homes and villages previously inhabited by Palestinian Arabs prior to the War of Independence, whose original owners, in many cases families going back many generations, were displaced or fled during the war. These Jewish refugees who had traumatically lost homes and communities now found themselves resettled into their homeland, but actually living in houses with someone else’s pictures on the wall, food in the pantry, and clothing in the closet.

The Midrash records Rabbi Hiyya wondering why, in contrast to the depictions of tzara’at appearing on one’s person or clothing, the opening verse of the Torah’s description of tzara’at appearing on a house almost makes it sound like a good thing, or at least a natural result of the process of taking control of the land.

The Midrash’s answer, in fact, is that God did not place the tzara’at on those homes to punish the Israelites, but to reward them.

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai taught: When the Canaanites heard that Israel were coming to their country, they arose and hid their wealth inside their walls… The Holy One said: I did not promise their forefathers that I would bring their descendants into a land laid waste, but rather to a land full of all kinds of goodness…What, then, did the Holy One do? He caused sores to appear on a person’s house, and when they took it apart, they would find the treasure. (Vayikra Rabba, 17:6)

In his “My Promised Land,” Israeli journalist Ari Shavit recalls growing up in 1950s Tel Aviv. (The book, a combination of personal history and political commentary was problematic for, among other things, the marginalization of female and Palestinian voices in the narrative it constructed. As it turned out, this flaw was reflective of what later came to light about Shavit himself and his attitudes and actions towards women who came within in his orbit. I cite Shavit’s description here because his lack of broader perspective actually informs my own point.)

As Shavit remembers it, the overwhelming element that characterized that era was silence. It was understood that nobody would speak about the terrible things they had experienced, and what they had done to survive them. He describes the air being thick with the tension of what was not expressed openly, but nonetheless palpable.

Shavit’s Tel Aviv was growing at a frenetic pace. He suspects, through, that behind the relentless push for progress was, at least in part, a fear of what lay beneath the surface; by constantly moving forward, people would not have the space to think about what had happened – what they had done – before.

Inevitably, though, there were cracks in the armor. He recalls hearing cries at night as traumatized survivors suffered nightmares, and observed those around him suffering the sudden mood swings and depression that we now understand as PTSD. Every home had stories that would not be shared, but remained buried within its walls. And that must have been doubly true for the homes that literally were someone else’s only a short time before.

Another Midrashic interpretation, though, does see tzara’at on a home as a punishment – for the sin of miserliness.

A person says to his neighbor, “Lend me a kav of wheat.”

The neighbor replies: “I have none.”

“Then a kav of barley?”

“I have none.”

A woman says to her neighbor: “Lend me a sifter.”

She replies, “I have none.”

“Lend me a sieve?”

She replies, “I have none.”

What does the Holy One do? He brings a plague on the house, and when one is forced to take out all of their belongings, everyone sees and they say, “Didn’t they say that they had nothing? Look how much wheat he has! How much barley! How many dates there are here!” (Vayikra Rabba, 17:2)

The Kli Yakar reads this interpretation back into the Biblical verse, particularly the words, “which I give to you as a possession,” explaining that the root of miserliness is forgetting that one’s home and possessions are not truly their own, but rather entrusted to them by the grace of God.

In a brilliant twist, Rabbanit Sharon Rimon demonstrates how both interpretations share a common root. The starkest reminder to an ancient Israelite that their house was only theirs by God’s grace would have been finding within its walls the treasures left behind by its previous owners, and then seeing them swept into the street together with their own possessions.

An Israelite living in such a home may not have known, but, perhaps, might have sensed an older presence, with its own history and story. Sometimes it may have just been a disquieting feeling, but sometimes it manifested as tzara’at, literally bursting through the walls and out into the street, refusing to be silenced and shut away. My sense is that it must have been very similar to what Shavit described of his youth.

With all this in mind, we may better appreciate the seder night as a time when past, present, and future come together around the table. By the conclusion of the seder, through the process of re-experiencing both oppression and redemption, by asking probing questions and providing full, narrative answers, we come to more fully understand who we are and how we got here; nothing is stifled, nor hidden behind the walls. Perhaps that is the necessary stance to look confidently towards the future and the ultimate redemption of our story.

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

 

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Where There’s a Priestly Will, Is There a Halakhic Way?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Texts cannot defend themselves against interpreters who do not love them. And love is not enough.  Only a relationship characterized by loyalty, integrity, and rigor can grant texts any degree of actual influence and genuine independence.

Rabbinic interpretation of Vayikra 13:2-3 seems to eviscerate the text.  The Rabbis appear to seize legal powers that the text plainly grants to kohanim. They then apparently extend those powers in explicit defiance of the conditions set out in the text.

Jews who understand Chazal this way usually grant themselves the same unconstrained authority over texts that they assign to Chazal. They see Judaism as a government of people, not of texts. (One might describe them as believers in daas Torah, who differ from extremist charedim with regard to ends but not means.)

It is vital to see whether this understanding of the Rabbinic project meets our own standards of loyalty, integrity, and rigor. Were Chazal constrained by their relationship with the text of Torah, or not?  Can we honestly describe ourselves as constrained by the same relationship?

Vayikra 13:2 says that if a person develops one of three types of skin lesions, which develops into a nega tzaraat, then  

וְהוּבָא֙ אֶל־אַהֲרֹ֣ן הַכֹּהֵ֔ן

א֛וֹ אֶל־אַחַ֥ד מִבָּנָ֖יו הַכֹּהֲנִֽים:

וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֣ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֣גַע בְּעֽוֹר־הַ֠בָּשָׂר

וְשֵׂעָ֨ר בַּנֶּ֜גַע הָפַ֣ךְ׀ לָבָ֗ן

וּמַרְאֵ֤ה הַנֶּ֙גַע֙ עָמֹק֙ מֵע֣וֹר בְּשָׂר֔וֹ

נֶ֥גַע צָרַ֖עַת ה֑וּא

וְרָאָ֥הוּ הַכֹּהֵ֖ן וְטִמֵּ֥א אֹתֽוֹ:

He is brought to Aharon the kohen

or to one of his sons the kohanim

The kohen sees the nega in the skin of the flesh

and the hair of the nega has turned white,

and the appearance of the nega is deeper than the skin of the flesh,

This is a nega tzaraat

The kohen sees it

and the kohen declares it tamei.

As Seforno perceptively points out, the subject of this law is the kohen; the person with the nega is the object.  That is why the Torah describes the person as being brought to the kohen, rather than as coming to him. Many commentators and halakhists conclude that the person can even be brought to the kohen involuntarily.

Does the kohen/subject have agency?  Can the kohen look away and not see the nega if he wishes, or evaluate the entire person rather than just the nega? Must the kohen follow the Torah’s prescription as to what sorts of nega becomes tamei and which not, or the decision be based on what the kohen “sees” as pastorally better for the person with the nega?

Mishnah Moed Katan 7a records a dispute between Rabbi Meir and “the Sages,” identified by the Talmud as Rabbi Yose, as to whether a kohen should examine a nega during a festival. Both parties agree that in principle the kohen should do whatever will maximize joy during the festival, i.e. examine the nega if and only if the result will be the anxiety-relieving declaration of tahor.

But how can that be done with integrity?  Rabbi Meir says that the legal consequences of tum’ah here are not triggered by the objective condition, but rather by the kohen’s declaration.  Therefore, the kohen should be silent if the only honest word he can speak is tamei, and let the joy of the festival continue unabated. Rabbi Yose, however, holds that one cannot seek a declaration of tahor without opening up the genuine possibility of a declaration of tamei. Therefore, better for the kohen to refuse to examine any potential nega during the festival, lest he be forced to declare it tamei, even though this leaves many people’s festival joy diminished by the fear that they will be declared tamei immediately following the festival.

But is it really legitimate to adopt a “don’t ask don’t tell” policy regarding negaim? Don’t all the standard mitzvah-lists count “carrying out the laws of negaim” as a duty?!

Talmud Moed Kattan 7b doubles down on yes.

למימרא דבכהן תליא מילתא?!

אין, והתניא )בניחותא(

וביום הראות בו

יש יום שאתה רואה בו, ויש יום שאי אתה רואה בו.

מכאן אמרו:

חתן שנולד בו נגע –

נותנין לו שבעה ימי המשתה, לו ולביתו ולכסותו.

וכן ברגל, נותנין לו שבעת ימי הרגל,

דברי רבי יהודה;

רבי אומר:

אינו צריך,

הרי הוא אומר

וצוה הכהן ופנו את הבית

אם ממתינים לו לדבר הרשות – כל שכן לדבר מצוה.

Do you mean to say that it depends on the kohen?!

Yes, and a beraita says accordingly:

And on the day that there is seen in it (Vayikra 13:14) –

There is a day that you examine it, and a day that you don’t examine it,

On this basis they said:

A bridegroom who develops a nega

we give him the seven days of feasting – to him, to his house, and to his clothes.

Similarly, on a festival we give him the seven days of the festival

in the opinion of Rabbi Yehudah;

Rebbe said:

This (source) is unnecessary

Vayikra 14:36 says (regarding house-tzaraat)

The kohen commands, and they empty the house [before the kohen comes to examine the nega] –

if one delays (examination) so that the person can do something optional (saving his property),

then certainly one can do so for the sake of something that is a mitzvah (such as marriage- or festival-joy).

At this sugya’s end, at least according to Rebbe and perhaps according to all opinions, it appears that the Rabbis interpreted the Torah as giving kohanim the discretion to refuse to implement the halakhah of nega when they saw it as competing with a more important value. A very similar move can be found in a beraita on Berakhot 19b which gives the Rabbis discretion to overrule the obligation to return lost objects because “sometimes you must look away, and sometimes you must not.” They choose to exercise that discretion in situations where the finder would think it beneath their dignity to recover their own identical object.

The formulation of this discretion may be vital.  A rule can be suspended for the sake of a conflicting value, but only if the value of the rule is genuinely maintained, if it is not universally suspended. There is metahalakhah, but it must not drown halakhah. The Torah almost never tells us explicitly how to choose among laws when they conflict, or between laws and values. Halakhah sometimes codifies the hierarchy purely abstractly, and sometimes adopts a more granular approach.

Another interpretive move rips the power of nega-discretion away from the kohanim. Sifra, the Midrash Halakhah on Vayikra, points out that “one of his sons the kohanim” is redundant – aren’t all of Aharon’s sons kohanim, and aren’t all kohanim Aharon’s sons?  It appears to conclude that all Israelites are permitted to examine a nega; a kohen is needed to declare the judgement, but need have no part in making it.

Mishnah Negaim 3:1 similarly presents the nega-examination as a sort of Kabuki theater:

הכל כשרים לראות את הנגעים, אלא שהטומאה והטהרה בידי כהן:

אומרים לו: אמור ‘טמא!’ והוא אומר: ‘טמא!’ אמור ‘טהור!’ והוא אומר: ‘טהור!’

All are fit to examine negaim, but tum’ah and taharah are in the hands of the kohen:

They tell him: Say ‘Tamei’ and he says ‘Tamei!’;  Say ‘Tahor!’ and he says ‘Tahor!’

Suddenly, the kohen is a puppet, with no agency at all. His only role is to say what he is told to say by the authorities, whom it seems reasonable to identify with the rabbis.

The situation grows more complicated when we turn to Talmud Arakhin 3a.

הכל כשרין לראות את הנגעים –

לאתויי מאי?

לאתויי שאינו בקי בהן ובשמותיהן.

והאמר מר: אינו בקי בהן ובשמותיהן – אינו רואה את הנגעים. !?

אמר רבינא:

לא קשיא: הא דמסברי ליה וסבר, הא דמסברי ליה ולא סבר.

“All are fit to examine negaim” –

to include whom?

To include one who is not expert in them and their categories.

But a Master said: One who is not expert in them and their categories must not examine negaim. !?

Said Ravina:

There is no difficulty: This is where he can understand it when explained, this is when he can’t.

Why would a puppet need to understand what he is saying?  The simplest reading, that of Rosh but probably not of Rambam, is that the kohen is not actually a puppet. What the rabbis tell him to say has to make sense to him, or he simply won’t do it.

Rav Yaakov Emden (Sheilat Yaavetz 1:138, opposed by Beit Yitzchak YD1:55) argues that the kohen’s discretion was always limited to cases where there was genuine doubt.  If the kohen refuses to examine a nega that is obviously tamei, the declaration when it is actually examined takes effect retroactively.  In his vision, one can imagine that the role of the experts is to tell the kohen whether or not he has discretion.

Moreover, most halakhists rule that the kohen cannot make his declaration unless he is actually looking at the nega. This means that the Rabbis’ apparently radical transformation of one of his sons the kohanim into “all are valid for examining negaim” is, in the end, not radical at all, and could easily be accomplished without any textual reinterpretation whatsoever.  The ruling cannot be made unless the nega has been brought to a kohen, and the kohen’s determination has to abide by the rules. What the Rabbis have done is to

  1. acknowledge that this rule can often conflict with halakhic obligations of joy, or with reasonable human expectations of economic stability.
  2. formulate discretionary features that can diminish such conflicts, yet without changing any of the rule’s elements; and
  3. ensure that this discretion cannot be exercised by either the kohen or themselves without accountability.

This seems to me a potentially generalizable description of much Rabbinic work, and compatible with a loving relationship characterized by loyalty, integrity, and rigor.

Moreover, it seems to me a reasonable and useful starting point for evaluating present halakhic programs. Much work would of course have to be done defining terms such as discretion, preservation, and accountability, and many others.  In the end it is a text, and as such cannot defend itself against interpreters who do not love it.  But perhaps some will.

Shabbat Shalom!

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