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Zedekiah the Liberator: Jeremiah 34 and Mishpatim as Sources of Jewish Ethics

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Zachary Ottenstein

The first five parshiyot of Sefer Shmot primarily chronicle the relationship between G-d and man.  The relationship is framed narratively, by way of G-d’s redemption of Israel, and concretized ritually in the form of Pesach, Rosh Chodesh, and the Sabbath. Parshat Mishpatim begins a new theme: G-d’s concern for how people interact among themselves. Why is this Parshah placed here?

The late 19th/early 20th century commentator R’ David Zvi Hoffman additionally asked a simple but deep question.[1] Just as G-d legislated the contours of His relationship to human beings, why shouldn’t human beings legislate the laws that govern relationships among themselves? This question is all the more relevant today, when most Jews live in democratic countries and theocracies are few and despised.

R. Hoffman answers that by placing interpersonal laws here, the Torah is trying to preempt the idea that mitzvot bein adam lamakom and mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro are separable categories. Many of the mitzvot traditionally associated with bein adam l’chaveiro in fact have a strong element of G-dliness reinforcing them, and a godless society will be unethical.

G-d’s concern for interpersonal interactions was a Jewish innovation. As pointed out by scholars of the Ancient Near East and great Jewish thinkers such as R’ Umberto Cassutto and R’ Amnon Bazak,[2] the Code of Hammurabi and other Ancient Near Eastern legal codes legislate against similar offenses as the Torah does, but nonetheless a clear difference in outlook is apparent on close examination. For example, Exodus 22:25-26 commands us against holding a garment taken as collateral overnight “because it is his only garment and in what will he sleep? And he will cry out to me and I will hear him because I am merciful,“[3] whereas Law 117 of the Hammurabi Code [4] permits a man to sell himself, his wife or even his children as slaves should he be unable to pay his debt.  In another somewhat ironic example, Leviticus 20:12 prescribes the death penalty for adultery. The Code of Hammurabi also bans adultery, but with a crucial difference (Law 129): the husband may pardon his wife for her offense and allow her to live. This caveat is not found in Jewish law, as adultery is not just an offense toward another person, but an attack on the sanctity of marriage as ordained by G-d.

Interpersonal relations and their divine nature reach a high point when discussing the laws of slavery. While the basic commandments as to how a slave must be treated come from the opening verses of this week’s sedrah (Exodus 21:1-7), a deep insight can be gleaned from Jeremiah 34, which features G-d’s rebuke to the Jewish people for their mistreatment of their slaves. Already in the second verse of the chapter it is known to Jeremiah and King Zedekiah that Jerusalem will not survive war with Nebuchadnezzar and will be delivered into his hands. Six verses later, seemingly out of nowhere, Zedekiah mandates that all of the Judahites set free their Hebrew slaves. While Zedekiah’s record was tarnished by various other activities (Kings II 24:19-20), it is difficult not to admire him for this act of righteousness and moral leadership in a time of chaos. In verse 14, G-d reminds Yirmiyahu of the laws of slaves found in Parshat Mishpatim and chastises the people for retaking their fellow man as a slave after already freeing him. He subsequently tells the prophet that because they failed to extend liberty to their fellow man, that “liberty” will be extended to them to be conquered and destroyed by their enemies.

While the contrast between specific Near Eastern and Jewish laws conveys the fundamental ethical shift that came to the world via Judaism, it is the narrative in Jeremiah that highlights the need of the Jewish people to be uncompromising in their ethics and morals even at times of literal and metaphorical churban. Destruction and exile stared Zedekiah in the face, but he still devoted his energies to fighting the fight of the oppressed even if there was no hope that this would cause a reversal of G-d’s will. Jewish children are taught from infancy that the First Temple was destroyed because of avodah zarah,[5] but it must be stated that the crumbling of human morality that was happening simultaneously angered G-d to a similar degree. Pagan idolatry is no longer a pressing issue for the Jewish people, but there is always room for improvement in our ethics as a community and as individuals. If we are to want and to expect the betterment of our interpersonal behavior, the divine nature of these commandments cannot be overstated enough.

[1] Commentary of R’ D.Z Hoffmann to Exodus 21:1.

[2] Bazak, Amnon. “Shiur #08b: Tanakh and Literature of the Ancient Near East.” Shiur #08b: Tanakh and Literature of the Ancient Near East, Yeshivat Har Etzion, 1 Dec. 2014,

[3] All translations of biblical verses are my own in consultation with the 1917 JPS Translation found at

[4] All references to the Code of Hammurabi made in consultation with the Marquette University translation.

[5] BT Yoma 9a
Zachary Ottenstein (SBM ’18) is a sophomore at Yeshiva University majoring in History and Bible.

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How Did Chazal Interpret Torah Laws They Found Troubling?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Dear Rabbi Klapper:

My rebbe in yeshiva two years ago emphasized over and over again the importance of “being mevatel our will before His.” His practical point was that we had to accept halakhah as it was, rather than evaluating it against any external moral or ethical standard. That’s what Chazal did with the Torah, and it’s what we must try to do with the Tradition they bequeathed to us.

I was convinced. 

Your shiur last week therefore was earthshaking to me. You argued – I think it’s fair to say you demonstrated – that Chazal derived some of their halakhic interpretations from external moral and ethical standards. (Where those moral standards were derived from, you didn’t say.  Maybe aggada? Intuition? Natural law?) You argued that developing a conscience was essential for properly learning Torah. My head and soul are still spinning.

You raised tentatively the possibility that Chazal sometimes went further.  Maybe when they couldn’t find a way to square halakhah with ethics, they would interpret that halakhah so that it happened as rarely as possible. Maybe they used ethics not just as a way of understanding halakhah, but even as a way of limiting it.

I know you said in the shiur that you couldn’t prove this. You also spent a lot of time disproving Professor Halbertal’s more extreme claim that Chazal used interpretations they knew were not “latent in the text” in order to ensure that the Ben Sorer Umoreh never happened.  But even granting your other points – and I can’t see any way not to grant them – this possibility still jangled me. So I ‘d appreciate it very much if you’d answer one more question, and I apologize if it seems disrespectful. Has any posek before you raised this possibility, let alone held of it?  


Dear Ben:

Thank you so much for writing!

Chazal teach us that the evil inclination is both in front of and behind us. The yetzer hora in front of us incites us to reject what we know to be the obvious and true interpretation of His Will, while the yetzer hora behind us tempts to unquestioningly accept an obvious but false interpretation as His Will. It’s really hard to accurately resist both at the same time, but that is our task.

I’m very, very glad to hear that you’re still thinking about and processing the Torah I taught. Certainly you should not accept anything just because I said it, and certainly we should strive to be mevatel our will before His. The question is how we can correctly identify His Will.

Your question came at exactly the right time, because preparing for this week’s Dvar Torah, I came across a relevant discussion from R. Dovid Tzvi Hoffman’s commentary to Shemot 21:5-6 (  Rabbi Hoffman, author of Shu”T Melamed l’Hoil, was perhaps the foremost posek in Western Europe in the early twentieth century.

Rabbi Hoffman notes that the laws of the Pierced Slave, in both Shemot and Devarim 15:16, open with a description of the slave’s psychological motive for rejecting freedom. These descriptions could most easily be taken as דבר הכתוב בהווה, as conventional illustrations rather than as legal requirements. This is especially so because the descriptions differ in at least two important ways. In Shemot, the slave loves his own wife and family, whereas in Devarim he loves the master’s household; and only Devarim mentions that he has prospered with you. At the least, they should be taken as alternative sufficient motives.

Chazal, however, rule that all of these motives must be present exactly in order to allow piercing. They also interpret the sections literalistically, e.g. they understand “כי טוב לו עמך = because it is good for him with you” to mean that the master must also have prospered.  What, Rabbi Hoffman asks, motivated these rulings, which he believes are not the simplest explanation of the verses?

His response builds off a fascinating citation from Ibn Ezra:

Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra correctly notes (in his Shorter Commentary):

“The ma’atikim (recorders?) of Torah say that a Hebrew Slave may not be pierced if any of the conditions is lacking,

such as love of his master and his master’s house, and his own wife and children, and that it be good for him with his master.

They say the same regarding the Straying and Rebellious Son.

What they say is correct.”

Why does Ibn Ezra compare the interpretation of this section to that of the Straying and Rebellious Son?

Rabbi Hoffman answers: Because just as the interpretations there are intended to make the Straying and Rebellious son rare (according to at least one Tannaitic position non-existent), so too the interpretations here are intended to make the Pierced Slave rare.

But why did they want to make these Torah laws apply only in rare cases?

If we were to ask: What brought our Sages of blessed memory to adopt a literalist interpretation of this or that chapter, for example ours or that of the Straying and Rebellious Son?

The answer is clear – they saw something astounding – counterintuitive –

in a Jew would be punished with a shameful sign such as a pierced ear,

or a son being sentenced to execution because of a life of dissipation and disobedience to his parents’ words,

and therefore they sought to narrow the application of these laws to as few cases as possible.

This follows the principle “Ein lekha bo ela chiddusho” (RAK: in Midrash Halakhah, roughly translatable as “Counterintuitive laws cannot be used as paradigms”).

(You will find something similar later on regarding the Hebrew Maidservant.)  

The Sages sought to limit the application of these laws because they found them ethically baffling.  I don’t think you could ask for a clearer statement by a posek of my tentative proposal above.

Rabbi Hoffman then ties in another sugya discussed in my shiur.

Indeed, everyone knows the famous statement of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva:

“Had we been on the Sanhedrin, no person would ever have been executed.”

He then explains how these interpretations are justified:

Our Sages of blessed memory did not arrogate to themselves the authority to nullify a commandment from among the Torah’s commandments that seems to them astonishing or incomprehensible, but at the same time they utilized to the fullest the privilege that the Torah granted them to explain its mitzvot on the basis of the well-founded assumption that their interpretations align ideally with the intention of the Giver of the Torah.

Finally, Rabbi Hoffman addresses a potential challenge to his view.

But maybe it would be more correct to say, that this explanation of our verses was transmitted to our Sages in the transmission from Sinai?

That could be, but there is no necessity for saying so, because we have found in many places that the Sages disagree with each other about the explanation of Scripture, and the Talmud provides the reasoning for each conflicting opinion.  If so, it is clear that these opinions were not received as a tradition. And since in the sources under discussion it is not said explicitly that the interpretation is from Sinai, and since we do find in Chazal numerous independent interpretations, it is also possible that here as well we have an interpretation that came from them (and not from Sinai). Certainly they had no cause for interpreting this section literalistically other than the one we brought above.

Let me say, perhaps characteristically, that I have difficulty with that last sentence. I would prefer to say that Chazal’s motive for minimizing the application of the Pierced Slave was their shock that the Torah would permit any Jew to reject freedom for reasons other than desperation.  I also want to think a lot more about whether the analogy Ibn Ezra draws to Chazal’s interpretation of the Straying and Rebellious Son is compelling, and also whether Ibn Ezra intends as far-reaching a point as Rabbi Hoffman makes.

But your question was whether any posek had made the suggestion that Chazal interpreted Torah laws in ways that limited their application because of ethical concerns.  The answer to that I think is plainly yes.

You also noted that your teachers had said that we should relate to Chazal the way that Chazal related to Torah. If one accepts the analogy, which is not obvious, I would caution that our authority to interpret Chazal’s words, individually and communally, must be based on a well-founded assumption that our interpretations align ideally with the intentions of their authors.

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Does Justice Bring Peace?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Miriam Gedwiser

Shemot 18:23 contains the third and final appearance of the word שלום in the book of Shemot. (All three pertain to Yitro.)  Yitro advises Mosheh that if God approves of, and Mosheh implements, Yitro’s plan for the division of the judicial workload, “וְיָכָלְתָּ עֲמֹד וְגַם כָּל הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם” (“then you will be able to endure (lit. stand), and also this whole people will go to its place in peace”).  Although most commentators read this prediction of שלום for the people as having to do with the lessening of the administrative burden of seeking justice, the Netziv offers a fascinating reading that gets to the nature and benefits of decentralized, even imperfect, justice. Bear with me while we get there.

The first part of Yitro’s prediction seems pretty straightforward:  Adopting Yitro’s suggestion will ease the burden off of Moshe. Literarily, Ralbag notes that Yitro’s language of “you will be able to endure/stand,” seems to bookend Yitro’s critique in verse 18, נָבֹ֣ל תִּבֹּ֔ל גַּם־אַתָּ֕ה גַּם־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר עִמָּ֑ךְ (You will surely wear out both yourself and this people that is with you).  Yitro’s new routine can be sustained indefinitely, as opposed to the unendurable status quo. We may also hear an echo of Yitro’s initial question in verse 14, מַדּ֗וּעַ אַתָּ֤ה יוֹשֵׁב֙ לְבַדֶּ֔ךָ, why are you sitting all alone? If he adopts Yitro’s suggestion, Moshe will be able to reduce the burden of “sitting” to judge all day and be able to stand up.

What are we to make of the end of Yitro’s prediction, וְגַם כׇּל הָעָם הַזֶּה עַל מְקֹמוֹ יָבֹא בְשָׁלוֹם?  The commentators are all over the map in identifying the “people/עם” in question, the “place/מקום” to which they are to be brought, and the nature of the “peace/שלום” they will have there.  Ibn Ezra suggests what strikes me as the pshat: By following Yitro’s suggestion Moshe can help the Israelites make it to Eretz Canaan. Others suggest that Yitro means that the עם who gather around Moshe daily (see verse 14) will have their burdens eased as well, because they will not need to travel to the Levite camp for justice once local judges are established (see, e.g., Chizkuni) or because they will not need to wait all day for a hearing (see, e.g.,  Ralbag). What these interpretations share is that the שלום in question is a product of procedural improvements, and does not have to do with the substance of the ruling.

Ibn Ezra and R. David Tzvi Hofman understand the שלום in question to be more substantive:  The backlog of cases coming to Moshe was deterring some people from seeking legal recourse for their disputes at all, leading to those disputes becoming entrenched and the disputants embittered.  This understanding is in keeping with the Talmud, Sanhedrin 7a, which cites our verse to prove that one who leaves court having been stripped even of his cloak (i.e., having suffered a large financial loss) should “sing a song and go on his way.”  A proper legal resolution is itself a cause of celebration, and its finality a source of שלום, even for the side that loses money. (See also Seforno.)

Against all this background enters the Netziv (harchev davar to 18:23).  He connects this verse to a talmudic passage on Sanhedrin 6b (link: Sanhedrin 6b:2).  The Talmud there discusses the merits or demerits of judicial compromise (pesharah).  The slogan on the anti-pesharah side is יקוב הדין את ההר, let the law pierce the mountain – i.e., let the chips fall where they may in terms of winners and losers, the law is both inflexible and overpowering.   This slogan, in turn, is associated with Moshe, who perhaps not coincidentally returned the law from a mountain himself.

Netziv argues that the halachah is that pesharah (judicially enforced compromise) is a mitzvah only before it is clear which side has the winning argument.  In Moshe’s case, according to the Netziv, because Mosheh had such facility with the details of Torah law, he never found himself in that situation; the law was always clear to him, so compromise was never the right solution.

By appointing more judges who knew less than Moshe, Moshe might have worried that he would be delegating his job to people who could not do it as well as he could.  Netziv reads Yitro as affirming this concern while also turning it on its head. Yes, the new judges might not always be sure right away who was right. But this actually opened up the possibility for them to seek pesharah, compromise, which in turn generates שלום, increased satisfaction with and harmony regarding judicial outcomes.

According to the Netziv, Yitro was advising Moshe to delegate to judges whom everyone knew would be less skilled than Moshe at speedy halachic evaluation.  But rather than see this as a loss or dilution, Yitro saw it as an opportunity. These new judges might not be as good at quickly spotting and determining halachic issues, but it was precisely this deficit that would allow them to generate better, more שלום-like outcomes in some cases.

Yitro’s insight was not simply “delegate more,” but that the apparent downside of delegating was not the end of the story.  While delegating could result in judges who were less competent than Moshe in Moshe’s area of comparative advantage (speedy halachic determination), it could also be seen as resulting in differently competent judges, whose own comparative advantage, the ability to generate pesharah, would enrich the people.

Perhaps this is why Yitro himself is the character associated with שלום in this book (See note 1).  Yitro’s outsider’s perspective, his capacity to re-envision and reframe the situation, is what allows rigidly legalistic Moshe to accept a necessary change.  Just as additional judges who see the world differently than Moshe will open new possibilities for the outcomes of Israelite legal cases, so Yitro, a leader who sees Moshe’s situation differently than himself, can open Moshe to new outcomes as well.

Miriam Gedwiser (SBM 2002) teaches Talmud and Tanakh at Ramaz Upper School and Drisha.


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What Does G-d Think of Yitro’s Advice?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Rambam writes (Introduction to the Commentary on the Mishnah) that the tasks of a prophet in the name of G-d can be divided in twain. The first part is

שיתנבא בשם ה’

ויקרא ויזהיר על עבודתו

ויאמר שה’ הוסיף על המצות מצוה או גרע מהם מצוה

מכל המצות שכלל אותם ספר התורה.

ואין הבדל בין שיוסיף ויגרע במקראות או שיוסיף ויגרע בפירוש המקובל,

That he prophesy in the name of Hashem

declare and caution regarding His service

and say that Hashem added a mitzvah or subtracted a mitzvah

from all the mitzvot included in the Torah.

It makes no difference whether this is done by adding or subtracting from the text

or rather by adding or subtracting from the received interpretation.

Rambam declares that any post-Mosaic prophet making such claims is obviously false and should be executed. Post-Mosaic prophets are bound by the Mosaic verse that Torah “is not in Heaven … rather the matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart …,” which Rambam understands to refer to Written Torah (ironically in your mouth because recited) and Oral Torah (in your heart because derived intellectually).  However, Mosheh Rabbeinu himself was continually adding mitzvot and interpreting prior mitzvot via prophecy. While Mosheh lived, the Torah was still in Heaven.

The second set of prophetic tasks is

שיקרא לעבודת ה’ ויזהיר על תורתו,

ויצוה בני אדם על שמירת התורה בלי תוספת ולא גרעון,

כמו שאמר אחרון הנביאים זכרו תורת משה עבדי . . .

ויבטיח טובות לשומריה ועונש לעוברים עליה

כמו שעשו ישעיה וירמיה ויחזקאל וזולתם.

ויצוה צווים ויזהיר אזהרות שלא בעניני הדת,

כגון שיאמר הלחמו על עיר פלונית או אומה פלונית עכשיו,

כמו שצוה שמואל את שאול להלחם בעמלק אז.

או שיזהיר מלהרוג . .  .

To call to the service of G-d and caution regarding His Torah,

and to command people regarding observance of the Torah without addition or subtraction

as the last of the prophet said: Remember the Torah of Mosheh My servant

and to guarantee good things to those who observe it and punishment to those who transgress it

as did Yeshayah and Yirimiyah and Yechezkel and others

and to command commands and caution cautions that are not about religious matters,

for example to say ‘Make war on City X (or Nation X) now!’

as Shmuel commanded Shaul to make war against Amalek then,

or to caution not to kill . . .

Rambam may derive this expansive list from Mosheh’s self-justification to Yitro in Shemot 18:15-16.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֖ה לְחֹתְנ֑וֹ

כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א אֵלַ֛י הָעָ֖ם לִדְרֹ֥שׁ אֱ-לֹהִֽים.

כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֨ה לָהֶ֤ם דָּבָר֙ בָּ֣א אֵלַ֔י

וְשָׁ֣פַטְתִּ֔י בֵּ֥ין אִ֖ישׁ וּבֵ֣ין רֵעֵ֑הוּ

וְהוֹדַעְתִּ֛י אֶת־חֻקֵּ֥י הָאֱ-לֹהִ֖ים וְאֶת־תּוֹרֹתָֽיו.

Mosheh said to his father in-law:

Because the nation comes to me to lidrosh Elokim

When they have a matter – it comes to me

I will judge between a man and his fellow

I will make known the chukkei haElokim and His torot.

We can read this as Mosheh as providing a long description of the single task of judging lawsuits (Rashbam), or read verse 16 as a detailed explanation of “lidrosh Elokim” from verse 15 (Shadal, HaKtav veHaKabbalah). But I suggest that Rambam read lidrosh Elokim as a separate phrase, which referred specifically to the prophetic statements that are not about religious matters, but rather about vital national policy questions.  This reading is also adopted by Seforno:

הנשיאים וראשי הדור

הבאים על עסקי הרבים וסדרם באים אלי

בהכרח לדרוש אלהים,

כי על פי ה’ יחנו (במדבר ט:כ).

The nesi’im and the heads of the generation,

who come regarding the affairs of the public and how to organize them,

necessarily come to me,

because they encamped at the instruction of Hashem

Ramban fundamentally agrees as to the meaning of lidrosh Elokim, but he provides a very different list of non-religious matters.

כי יבא אלי העם לדרוש א-להים –

להתפלל על חוליהם ולהודיעם מה שיאבד להם,

כי זה יקרא ‘דרישת אלהים’.

וכן יעשו עם הנביאים, כמו שאמר:

לפנים בישראל כה אמר האיש בלכתו לדרוש א-להים לכו ונלכה עד הרואה (שמואל א ט:ט),

וכן: ודרשת את ה’ מאותו לאמר: האחיה מחלי זה (מלכים ב ח’:ח’) –

שיתפלל עליו ויודיענו אם נשמעה תפלתו.

“Because the nation comes to me to lidrosh Elokim” –

to pray regarding their sicknesses and to make known what was lost to them,

because this is called drishat Elokim

and this is what they do with prophets, as Scripture says:

Earlier in Israel a man would say this when he went lidrosh Elokim: “Come, we’ll go to the seer”

so too: You will be doresh Elokim from him as follows: “Will I survive this illness?”

meaning to pray for him and make known to him whether his prayer was heeded.

For Ramban, Mosheh’s time was not being taken up by vital national affairs of war and peace, but rather by quotidian pastoral tasks such as finding lost objects and praying for the sick.

Netziv denies that praying for the sick was a prophetic function; one went to the prophet to find out what would happen, not to change it. However, he admits that one might respond to a prophetic doom by praying, and thereby seeking to change it, as Chizkiyah successfully did when Yeshayah prophesied his death.

But I think the most radical reorientation of the phrase lidrosh Elokim is found in Keli Yakar and Or HaChayyim.  They understand Mosheh as arguing to Yitro that it was necessary for him to sit as the sole judge, and inevitable that people would come to him regardless of how many other judges he appointed, because he judged on the basis of substantive rather than procedural truth. He was judging not on the basis of heuristic rules and eyewitnesses, but rather because G-d told him what had actually happened and what the just outcome was.

Mosheh thought that people would never give up the confidence and certainty that their case had been decided justly. But Yitro counterclaimed that people will give up a great many things to avoid standing in line.

It is easy to see Mosheh as idealistic in this reading, and Yitro as cynically realistic about human nature. But this seems to me incorrect. The real issue is that Mosheh did not realize that time is a cost, and that correct justice inefficiently administered actually imposes unjust costs on both parties. Rabbi Abraham Halbfinger of blessed memory taught me this over and over again with regard to the Boston Beit Din.

Or to take an illustration from a different context: sometimes it takes so long to look at replays that the game itself is damaged, even though the specific call is now made correctly.

Or in a different beit din context: Even if you eventually decide every case of Jewish status correctly, the psychological costs imposed on people whose status is meanwhile left in doubt, or who can never be certain that their case won’t be reopened in the future, can be so great that they overwhelmingly outweigh marginal improvements in accuracy.

Perhaps we can suggest similarly that Ramban correctly understands what Mosheh means by lidrosh Elokim. But Yitro argues that Mosheh is shortchanging the nation by dealing with so many details, even though he deals with them better than any substitute could.  The conceptual understanding of prophecy remains the same, but Mosheh now budgets much more of his time for national issues, as per Rambam and Seforno.

A more radical reading is that Mosheh in principle opposed the idea of lo bashomayim hi.  That is to say, he did not understand that heteronomy is a cost, and that tzalmei Elokim should, to the extent possible, play a role in determining the rules they live by. Everything should be directly decided by G-d.

Yitro shakes Mosheh’s worldview by pointing out that G-d had not told him what was going through the minds of the people waiting on line, or how they would react if the system changed. Perhaps He would not answer even if asked – G-d did not want to decide everything, at the cost of human responsibility and freedom. And indeed, Mosheh does not ask G-d before implementing Yitro’s advice.

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The Relationship between Parshas Bo and Its Haphtorah

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Dr. Ira Bedzow

On a superficial level, the relationship between Parshas Bo and its haphtorah is clear.  In the parsha, God strikes at the heart of Egypt through the killing of Egypt’s firstborn sons, and the Jewish people cease being slaves of Pharoah and become avdei Hashem, servants of God.  Similarly, in the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu prophesies that Egypt will be struck again, and that the Jews should not fear, for God will be with them: “Fear not, my servant (avdi) Yaakov, and do not be dismayed Israel.  For I am He that will save you from afar, and your seed from the land of captivity” (Jer. 46:27). The parsha and haphtorah each emphasize that the Children of Israel are servants of God and not servants of servants (BT Kid. 22b).

Yet, when considering the haphtorah in the context of Sefer Yirmiyahu, a stark contrast emerges. While the parsha depicts the story of Egypt’s fall at the “hands” of G-d when the Jews leave Egypt to become a nation, the haphtorah speaks of Egypt’s fall at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, who had just exiled the Jews and decimated the Kingdom of Judah.

In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu proclaims, “Proclaim it in Egypt!  Make it heard in Migdol! Make it heard in Noph and Tachpanches!”  The reason Yirmiyahu mentions these specific places is because those were the places to where the Jews fled after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar.

Moreover, the Jews who fled to those places did so against Yirmiyahu’s warning. After the murder of Gedalia, who was appointed by Nebuchadnezzar to be governor over the remnant in the Kingdom of Judah, the Jews asked Yirmiyahu to beseech God as to what they should do.  Yirmiyahu told them to stay in the land of Israel and not to flee to Egypt. They replied that Yirmiyahu must be lying and speaking with ulterior motives.  They then decided to go to Egypt in spite of Yirmiyahu’s warning. In the parsha, it states, “The Children of Israel went and did as Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so did they do” (Ex. 12:28).  Contrast this to the Sefer Yirmiyahu, where it states, “and they came to the land of Egypt, for they did not listen to the voice of Hashem. (Jer. 43:7)”

Given this context, the final verse of the haphtorah is clear, “You should not fear my servant Yaakov, says Hashem, for I am with you.  When I make a full end of all the nations where I have dispersed you, a full end of you I will not make, but I will chastise you according to justice but will not completely destroy you (alternatively: and I will not leave you innocent)” (46:28).  When they fled to Egypt, they disparaged God’s word and put their trust in the political power of Egypt to save them from Babylonian aggression.  As a result of disobeying God, Yirmiyahu says to them, “Know now for certain that you will die by the sword, by the famine and by the pestilence in the place in which you desire to go to live” (42:22).  In the haphtorah, Yirmiyahu reiterates that those who disobeyed God and went to Egypt will not be destroyed like the other nations of the world who disobey God, but they will certainly be punished for their deeds.  What the Jews should not fear is complete destruction, since they should understand that their chastisement will serve as moral instruction and rectification.

What at first glance is seen as parallel, now seems to be a contrast.  If the sages wanted a simple parallel to the Exodus, a more relevant choice for the haphtorah would have been the section in Sefer Yirmiyahu which includes, “Therefore, behold days are coming, says Hashem, when they shall no longer say, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up the children of Israel from the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As Hashem lives, Who brought up and Who brought the seed of the house of Israel from the northland and from all the lands where I have driven them, and they shall dwell on their land’” (Jer. 23:5-8). The haptorah for Parshas Bo must be teaching us something different than simply the Exodus occurred and Redemption will occur again, G-d willing.

The first verse of the maftir seems to provide the theme that ties the parsha to the haphtorah – “When your child will ask in the future, ‘What is this?’ you shall say to him, ‘With a strong hand Hashem took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery ’” (Ex. 13:14).  Redemption will not come through political machinations and convenient alliances that make the Children of Israel subservient to others.  Moreover, the expression of religious ideals and values should not serve – or stem from – political aims.  Only when the Children of Israel guard their service of God (Ex. 12:25) will Yirmiyahu’s assurance be fulfilled, “Yaakov will return and be tranquil without anyone disturbing him” (Jer. 46:27).

Ira Bedzow, Ph.D., (SBM 2003) is associate professor of medicine in the School of Medicine and director of the Biomedical Ethics & Humanities Program at New York Medical College (NYMC).

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On His Lips, a Word Is Singing, and The Word Is… Cherut?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

I was once part of a group meeting with an elder statesperson in preparation for a tense and protracted public negotiation. The advice we received was to find the key terms of value in the conversation and capture them.  Whatever words resonated as positive with most of our audience, we had to identify with our own positions.

This is excellent rhetorical strategy. Thus in a liberal environment, for example, Orthodox Jews might point out that our denomination is more pluralistic than Reform or Conservative Judaism, each of which had a central governing body with actual power over issues from religious policy to rabbinic placement. (The fragmentation of Orthodoxy has ironically made this much less true. Orthodoxy as a unit is pluralistic, but many of the mini-Orthodoxies are authoritarian.) Similarly, denominations that explicitly reject heteronomy and religious law may use the language of halakhah to support their positions, and to accuse Orthodoxy of being socially reactive rather than halakhically authentic.

Rhetorical strategy easily shades into Orwellian Doublespeak.  Ignorance is knowledge, and slavery is freedom. It is easy to regard our own persuasive tactics as pedagogy, and our opponents’ as dishonesty.  This is obviously a profound challenge for our own integrity.

One crucial thing to understand is that the difference between pedagogy and dishonesty is not contained in some essential property of language or specific words. In a post-Babel world, language has no meaning other than the way it has been used, and it is infinitely malleable. Ignorance can mean knowledge, and vice versa, if the words are used that way by enough people for enough time.

The risk of distortion does not come only from our own rhetorical excesses, whether deliberate, or rather accidental and gradual.  It must be acknowledged that this is also a risk of integrating Torah with any form of human thought expressed in human language, or what some of us once called “Torah UMada.”

But it should also be clear that all of us think in human language, and all of our thoughts are human thoughts. To think seriously about Torah, we must run that risk.

So let’s try to think seriously about what the Torah is trying to tell us through the narrative of the Exodus. To do that, we have no choice but to use words like “freedom” and “slavery.”

One challenge, of course, is that “freedom” and “slavery” are words from a human language.  Moreover, “freedom” Is not a direct translation of any Hebrew word used in the Torah’s narrative.  The two most likely analogues are “chofshi” and “cherut.”

Chofshi is Biblical Hebrew. It is the term used (in Shemot 21:5 and Devarim 15:12-18) for the state into which Jewish slaves enter when their term of slavery ends. It shows up in that legal context, but not as part of the narrative of the entire Jewish people’s emergence from slavery. (Elsewhere in Tanakh it refers to a variety of other states, such as death, an escaped animal, and freedom from royal taxation.)

Cherut, so far as I can tell, is not used to mean freedom in Biblical Hebrew. However, Chazal famously read it onto the writing of the luchot – אל תקרי חרות אלא חרות = “Do not read “engraved/charut but rather freedom/cherut.” Chazal may also have found it more than coincidence that the Jewish camp in the desert just before the mitzri army attacks is “al pi hachirot.

But while the Exodus narrative contains words for redemption and salvation rather than for freedom, Rabbi Shlomo Goren writes the following in an essay titled “Cherut Ha’Adam l’Or HaTorah”:

נקודת המוצא העיקרית במסכת הגאולים ההיסטורית של עם ישראל

בצאתו מכור העבדות במצרים,

היסוד המוצק בהשקפה החברתית היהודית המהווה עילה, בסיס, ומטרה,

שבגללה ולמענה אירעו כל התופעות הרות העולם,

עובר ליציאת מצרים ואחריה,

ואשר להשרשתה בתודעה האנושית,

היה הכרח בשינוי סדרי הטבע,

ובהפעלת מערכת הנסים הגלויים והנסתרים שבתקופה זו,

היא ההכרה המוקדשת של תורת ישראל בחרות האדם,

בכל תנאי החיים של הפרט והכלל,

ובכל המצבים הסוציאליים והלאומיים,

באשר נברא האדם בצלם אלקים.

The essential point of departure in the historic experience of the redeemed Jewish nation,

when it left the furnace of slavery in Egypt,

the solid foundation of our social outlook that serves as motivation, justification, and telos,

because of which and for the sake of which all events of this world came to be,

those prior to the Exodus and those following it,

and which, in order to root it in human consciousness,

compelled altering the orders of nature,

and the working of the array of open and concealed miracles of that era,

is the Torah of Israel’s sacred recognition of human freedom,

in all the life-conditions of individual and public life,

and in all social and national conditions,

because the human being was created in the tzelem Elokim.

Rav Goren puts the term cherut at the center of the Torah’s message.  He continues in a vein that initially caused me to rejoice and say ברוך שכוונתי (= Bless Hashem that I came to his line of thinking on my own).

ולא עוד

אלא שעבדות והשתעבדות האדם לאדם

נוגדות את אפשרות קבלת הריבונות העליונה של האלקות,

כי רק מי שהוא בן חורים בגופו ובנפשו

ואינו משועבד לא לאידיאות זרות ולא לחוקים ומשפטים זרים,

יכול להשתעבד לאידיאות האלהיות הנצחיות,

ולקבל על עצמו עול מלכות שמים אמיתית.

Not only this

rather any form of avdut and hishtabdut of one person to another

negates the possibility of accepting the ultimate mastery of the Divinity

because only one who is a ben chorim (see Kohelet 10:17) in body and soul

and is not meshubad to alien ideas or to alien statutes and laws

is able to be mishtabed themselves to the eternal Divine ideas,

and to accept upon himself the true yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.

What made me so happy was Rav Goren’s rejection of hishtabdut, perhaps best translated as “subordination,” as a form of avdut, which for now we can translate as “slavery.” Later in the essay he makes clear that his argument applies in contexts of employment as well as politics.

Rav Goren’s concept of cherut requires individual human beings to have full “freedom from” subordination to any other human being.  Toward that context he argues more or less plausibly that Jewish history and tradition have always tended toward abolishing any form of slavery. He hints that the practical halakhah should simply rule against the most problematic element for that claim within the tradition, Rabbi Yishmael’s apparent contention that a Jew who manumits a Gentile slave thereby violates a positive Torah commandment. All these contentions, whether or not I find them convincing legally or historically, gladden my heart.

However, I am less certain of the rest of his argument.

Rav Goren first sentence argues for the primacy of cherut on the grounds that it is an intrinsic right of human beings because we are created b’tzelem Elokim.  His second sentence makes the separate argument that hishtabdut to a human being interferes with the ribonut of the Divine.  This structure maps easily onto the distinction in Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty” between “freedom from” and “freedom to.” (While I can’t date Rav Goren’s essay precisely, I suspect this is not coincidental.)

The second sentence makes a claim with deep Torah roots. Freedom is not an end in itself. The Torah’s opposition to interhuman subordination is rooted in G-d’s prior claim – שטרי קודם.  It is because Vayikra 25:55 reads כי לי בני ישראל עבדים עבדי הם (for the Jews are avadim to Me, they are My avadim that Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai can state on Kiddushin 22b ולא עבדים לעבדים – and not avadim to other avadim. His statement is taken as taken on Bava Kamma 116a and Bava Metzia 10a as the legal basis for declaring that contracts are not enforceable on workers vis specific performance.

The upshot appears to be that slavery for human beings is not an intrinsic wrong; it matters only that we be enslaved to G-d rather than to other human beings.

This seems to me to give insufficient weight to the first side of the equation.  Human beings must be free because we are created b’tzelem Elokim. This does not per se justify making us slaves to Elokim.  If “freedom from” is a value, it must mean more than “freedom to choose one’s own master.”

Ultimately, it seems to me that Rav Goren responds well to the modern commitment to autonomy by powerfully articulating the moral necessity of “freedom from.”  But he does not succeed in articulating a vision of “freedom to” that avoids paradox.  The question at hand is whether the terms avodat Hashem, avdei Hashem, ovdei Hashem and the like can be defined with integrity in ways that avoid such paradoxes. In Deborah Klapper’s formulation, “the whole book of Shemot is about replacing vocabulary of enslavement to pharaoh with vocabulary of service to God.” We need to substantiate that sentence, in convincing detail.

The work is not upon us to finish, but neither are we free to desist from it.

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What’s in a Name?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Eli Finkelstein

Parshat Vaera opens up with one of the biggest textual conundrums in the entire Torah: 

וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵ-ל שַׁ-דָּי 

וּשְׁמִי ה׳ לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם׃

I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as E-l Sh-addai, 

but I did not make Myself known to them by My name ה׳.

Hashem seemingly tells Moshe that the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of Hashem, wasn’t revealed to the Avot. However, not only did the Torah’s narrator use the Tetragrammaton when Hashem spoke to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov, but Hashem reveals that Name to both Avraham and Yaakov in His own voice! In Bereshit 15:7, Hashem tells Avram: 

אֲנִי ה׳ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים

 לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ׃

“I am the LORD who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans 

to assign this land to you as a possession.”

And in Bereshit, 28:13, Hashem tells Yaakov:

אֲנִי ה׳ אֱלֹקי אַבְרָהָם אָבִיךָ וֵאלֹקי יִצְחָק 

הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה שֹׁכֵב עָלֶיהָ לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֶךָ׃

“I am the LORD, the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and to your offspring.”

How are we to understand this discrepancy? Many commentators take the approach that our pasuk is not meant to be taken literally, but rather means that the attributes of the Tetragrammaton were not truly revealed to the Avot. Rashi comments:

״לֹא הוֹדַעְתִּי״ אֵין כְּתִיב כָּאן, אֶלָּא ״לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי״, 

לֹא נִכַּרְתִּי לָהֶם בְּמִדַת אֲמִתּוּת שֶׁלִּי, 

שֶׁעָלֶיהָ נִקְרָא שְׁמִי ה’ = נֶאֱמָן לְאַמֵּת דְּבָרַי, 

שֶׁהֲרֵי הִבְטַחְתִּים וְלֹא קִיַּמְתִּי:

It is not written here לא הודעתי [My name the Lord]=I did not make known to them, rather לא נודעתי [by My name the Lord] was I not known [unto them] — 

i.e. I was not recognised by them in My attribute of truth, 

for which My name is called ה׳ = certain to substantiate My promiseד, 

for, indeed I made promises to them but did not fulfill them [during their lifetime]. 

For Rashi, the attribute associated with the Tetragrammaton is the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise, which hadn’t happened at the time of the Avot, but was on the precipice in Moshe’s time. 

The Sforno, on the other hand, believes that the Tetragrammaton represents Hashem’s breaking of the laws of nature. Not showing the Avot that name represents Hashem not breaking the laws of nature for them: 

בי”ת ב”א-ל ש-די” נמשכת לתיבת “ושמי”. 

אמר ‘ובשמי ה’ לא נודעתי להם’, 

באותה המראה, 

ולא שניתי בעדם שום טבע מטבעי הבלתי נפסדים. 

ולכן ראוי שאודיע זה לזרעם, שלא קבלו זה מאבותם, 

למען הקים אותם לי לעם, ובכן אגאלם:

The letter ב in the expression בא-ל שדי applies to the word ושמי. 

In effect this means “Via my attribute Hashem I was not known to them,”

in that mode of appearance,  

and I never changed the laws of nature on their behalf. 

Therefore, it is appropriate for me to convey this to their descendants, 

since they did not receive this from their ancestors,  

so as to establish the Children of Israel as My people, and thus I will redeem them

For Rashi and Sforno, the verse means that some aspect of Hashem was hidden from the Avot, which the time was now ripe for Hashem to reveal. Rav Shimshon Refael Hirsch takes this approach one step further: 

מצאנו אמנם את שם הוי״ה בסיפורי האבות 

והוא נישא על שפתותיהם; 

אבל כאן אין הכוונה לידיעה גרידא של השם. 

״דעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠״ מציינת הכרה עמוקה הרבה יותר, 

שנשיגנה אולי בשלמותה רק בתום כל הנסיון ההיסטורי שלנו, 

וכפי שאומר ישעיהו על גאולה אחרונה זו: 

״לָכֵן יֵדַע עַמִּי שְׁמִי״ (ישעיהו נב, ו). 

לדעת שם ה׳⁠ ⁠ פירושו 

להבין את דרך הנהגת ה׳ ששם זה מורה עליה. 

הבנה זו לא ניתן להשיגה בשלמות אלא 

מתוך הנסיון המשותף של כל הדורות. 

אולם האבות עמדו רק בראשית התקופה!

We have however found the Tetragrammaton in the stories of the Avot, 

and it is even found on their lips; 

but here the intention is not merely to know the Name. 

The phrase “knowing the Name of Hashem” implies a deeper recognition, 

that we may truly attain fully only at the completion of our historical experience, as Isaiah says about this final redemption:

“Therefore, my nation will know My Name.” 

To know the Name of Hashem means: 

to understand the way of Hashem’s management toward which this Name points. 

This understanding can be fully attained 

only through the shared experience of all generations, 

whereas, the Avot stood only at the beginning of the era!

According to Rav Hirsch, the Tetragrammaton represents understanding of Hashem’s actions-in-the-world, something that we cannot comprehend beforehand. The Avot could not truly grasp Hashem’s promise to redeem their descendants; only Moshe and his generation could truly understand what was to happen. And so, even though the Avot were given the Tetragrammaton, how could they comprehend Hashem’s power until the time came to free the Israelites?

This interpretation underlies our relationship to Hashem through this day. When we recite the 13 Middot, we recite the Tetragrammaton twice. Rashi there explains: 

מִדַּת רַחֲמִים הִיא, 

אַחַת קֹדֶם שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא, 

וְאַחַת אַחַר שֶׁיֶּחֱטָא וְיָשׁוּב:

This is the attribute of Divine mercy. 

One alludes to Hashem having mercy before the sinner sins 

and the other after he sins and repent.

The Tetragrammaton represents our ever-changing relationship with Hashem. We connect to Hashem as the One before events occur, and also as the One after they occur. We are clouded in our understanding of the future, but in hindsight, we tend to find the Hand of Hashem acting in our world. Our relationship with God regarding the future and regarding the past, at every single moment, culminates in our knowledge of the Tetragrammaton, the Name we use to grasp onto, and connect to, Hashem. 

Eli Finkelstein (SBM ‘19) is a fourth year rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. 


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