Category Archives: Weekly Devar Torah

Rationalism, Empiricism, and Religion

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Does G-d want believers, or rather empiricists?

A signature fallacy of contemporary thinking is the conflation of rationalism and empiricism, often under the banner of science. Rationalism and empiricism are actually radically opposed epistemologies.

Empiricism holds that truth-claims can only be verified through experience, preferably repeated experience; anything we experience – whether or not it makes sense to us – actually happened (or: is fact), and anything we don’t experience – no matter how much sense it makes to us – cannot be known to have happened. Rationalism, by contrast, holds that truth-claims can be verified through thought; things that make inevitable sense can be said to happen even if we don’t experience them, and experiences that don’t make sense are illusions or delusions.

The signature fallacy of empiricism is “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (afterward, therefore because of). It cannot distinguish between “constant conjunction” and “causality.” It cannot distinguish between coincidence and connection, and is vulnerable to statistical flukes and unable to penetrate complex interrelationships.

The signature failing of rationalism is hubris, the assumption that the human brain – individual or social– is capable of knowing which potential causal mechanisms are possible and which are not. Who would have thought that microbes could cause illness in macroscopic creatures, or that flicking a switch could loose an invisible stream of energy that could heat a filament to glowing and so light a room?

Science at its best balances rationalism with empiricism – it gives more weight to experiences that accord with intuitively compelling causal mechanisms, but refuses to reject consistently repeated experiences even if they make no sense. It looks to confirm intuitively compelling (elegant) theories, but is willing to treat inelegant theories as true so long as they accord better with the available empirical data.

What about religion, and Judaism in particular?

My context is Shemot 15:22-26, the Marah episode.

The narrative begins with the Jews leaving the Reed Sea and traveling for three days in the wilderness without finding water, but apparently also without complaining. They arrive at Marah, where there is water, but the water is not potable because “bitter” – and now the complaints start. Mosheh turns immediately to G-d; G-d directs him to a tree; he (He?) tosses the tree toward the water; the water is“sweetened” (or: they “sweetened” the waters).

At this point – in the middle of verse 25 – the time-sequence becomes confused, and we are enmeshed in a thicket of pronouns with ambiguous antecedents. The narrator tells us that “there he (He?) put to them (שם שם = sham sam) a chok and a mishpat, and there he (He? they?) tested him (Him? them?).” When? Before the waters were sweetened, or after? Furthermore, the chok and mishpat are never identified, and we are not told the outcome of the test.

Finally, someone (Mosheh? Hashem?) makes a statement: “If you surely heed the voice of Hashem our G-d, and you do what is straight in His eyes, and you hearken to His mitzvoth, and you observe all His chukim – (then) all the illnesses which I have put (שמתי) in Egypt I will not put (אשים) on you, because I am Hashem your healer.” It is not made explicit whether or how this statement relates to either the sweetening of the water or the chok, mishpat, and test. However, the language of the statement incorporated both the verb שם and the term chok.

The earliest interpretive traditions we have wonder how G-d can describe Himself as our healer if He will never make us ill. Their solution is that preventive medicine is healing-in-advance, and that the verse should not be understood as a promise-of-reward – “if you do what is straight etc. then I will not place the illnesses etc.” – but rather as a natural consequence – “if you do what is straight etc., then you will not become ill.”

But how can obedience to Divine commandments yield health? Here the Derashot HaRan (Derashah #6) offers a reading that connects all three elements of the episode, as follows: The tree – let us assume that it was a tree that by nature would add bitterness to water – sweetened the water solely because Mosheh tossed it there in fulfillment of a Divine chok. G-d then commands additional chukim, which He can do effectively because He has already demonstrated their effectiveness – by sweetening the water, his chok passed the test! He can therefore plausibly tell the Jews that obeying all his chukim will have the physical effect of preventing illness. In other words, He empirically demonstrated a causal relationship between commandedness and effectiveness in a specific case (empiricism), and then asked that we recognize this as an intuitively compelling general relationship (rationalism).

Derashot HaRan presents G-d as acknowledging and perhaps even endorsing empiricism – the Jews would not, and likely should not, accept commandments which seem purposeless, but they should accept the results of His experiment as proof that His commandments are purposeful, even if the methods by which they achieve their purposes are inscrutable.

Rabbeinu Bechayay (Commentary to Shemot) goes further. He asserts that the distinction between chukim and mishpatim popularized by Rashi, that chukim are rationally incomprehensible while mishpatim are rationally comprehensible, applies as well to medicine, and chok and mishpat here refer to cures rather than commandments. G-d taught Mosheh at Marah both natural and “magical” (segulah) cures; the Jews correctly would have accepted only the natural had the effectiveness of the “magical” not been experimentally demonstrated by the tree’s capacity to sweeten water. The tree’s effectiveness is not a function of the Divine command to use it; rather, G-d commanded Mosheh to use this tree because it would work, albeit not via a physically explicable causal mechanism.

Here I think Rabbeinu Bechayay diverges from Rambam. Rambam held that apparent segulah cures whose effectiveness had been experimentally demonstrated were not violations of darkhei emori because the fact that they were effective demonstrated that they were not magical at all – he does not allow for the possibility of effective magic. The question is whether the issue between Rabbeinu Bechaya and Rambam is more than semantic, i.e. whether Rambam simply calls paraphysical causality natural when it works, or whether he assumes physical causality even where its basis is unknown. My sense is the latter.

Where they agree, however, is that G-d set out to give the Jews an experience that would let them make an empiricist case for the effectiveness of religion, rather than simply asking them to believe it, or asking them to practice it regardless of its effectiveness.

Now this likely sets up a future epistemological crisis: What are Jews to do if they – to the best of their knowledge – are keeping the commandments, and yet they keep falling ill? Should they – as good empiricists – assume that the connection between commandment-observance and health is false (and therefore reinterpret the Torah so that it no longer claims that this connection is factually true), or rather – as good rationalists – should they assume that they have not in fact kept the commandments (or that they are not in fact ill)?

My tentative argument here is that the experiment of the tree teaches us that G-d wants us to question our religious paradigms when they don’t seem borne out by the empirical evidence. This does not mean that we should reject them when they don’t seem to be borne out – but we should consider the possibility that we have misunderstood.

Some concrete examples I have in mind are the propositions that ritual observance generates ethical improvement and that insulating a community from external influence improves its ethical sensibility. Do these match our experience? If not, should we assume that the propositions are false (and were falsely attributed to the tradition), or rather that we are misevaluating levels of observance, or degrees of insulation?

What causal propositions about religion does Modern Orthodoxy in particular assert, and how well do they conform to empirical experience?

Shabbat shalom!

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2014.


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May You Cheer When Your Enemies are Punished for Cheering When You Were Punished?

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

In the still-relevant 1958 Vietnam satire The Ugly American, Ambassador “Lucky” Lou Sears wonders why the “Sarkhanese” masses aren’t grateful for the enormous bags of rice the US ships in as foreign aid. It turns out that communist agents have been stenciling “A gift from the USSR” on all the bags in the local language, which no one at the embassy could read.

I was reminded of Lucky Lou’s misadventures by one Rabbinic approach to Shemot 12:29.

וַיְהִ֣י׀ בַּחֲצִ֣י הַלַּ֗יְלָה
וַֽיקֹוָק֘ הִכָּ֣ה כָל־בְּכוֹר֘ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒
מִבְּכֹ֤ר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ
עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשְּׁבִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּבֵ֣ית הַבּ֑וֹר
וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה:

It was at the night’s midpoint
that Hashem struck down every firstborn in the Land of Egypt
from the firstborn [?of?] Pharaoh sitting on his throne
until the firstborn captive in the underground cell
and every firstborn cattle.

Why was it necessary to strike down foreign captives, who presumably suffered along with the Jews rather than oppressing them? Rashi to Shemot 11:5 writes:

למה לקו השבויים?
כדי שלא יאמרו
יראתם תבעה עלבונם והביאה פורענות על מצרים

Why were the captives affected by the plague?
So that they not be able to say that
the god they worshiped sought compensation for their shame and brought punishment on Egypt

In other words, lots of innocent foreigners died lest they stencil falsehoods on Hashem’s bags of gift rice, or napalm.

There are purely rational reasons for rejecting this approach. Was there really no other way to make the point clear? For example: Some commentators hold that absolutely no Jewish firstborns died that night. Simply having the usual percentage of natural deaths among foreign captives should therefore make the point. Even if you worry that some subgroups of captives were so small that no firstborn natural deaths were scheduled that night, a few surgically targeted killings could have made the necessary point, even if there were no effective means of counter-stenciling other than death.

But the real issue is moral: if the captives were innocent, was it really just to kill them for the sake of clarifying a message?

Many commentators seek instead to challenge their innocence. The captives participated in the enslavement of the Jews, or they expressed a preference for staying enslaved to going free if that meant freeing the Jews as well.

Others point out that Mosheh’s foreshadowing of the tenth plague in 11:5 does not mention captives:

וּמֵ֣ת כָּל־בְּכוֹר֘ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַיִם֒
מִבְּכ֤וֹר פַּרְעֹה֙ הַיֹּשֵׁ֣ב עַל־כִּסְא֔וֹ
עַ֚ד בְּכ֣וֹר הַשִּׁפְחָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֖ר אַחַ֣ר הָרֵחָ֑יִם
וְכֹ֖ל בְּכ֥וֹר בְּהֵמָֽה.

Every firstborn in the land of Egypt will die
from the firstborn [?of?] Pharaoh sitting on his throne
until the firstborn of the maidservant who is behind the grindstone
and every firstborn cattle.

We can therefore identify the maidservant’s children with the captives, and suggest that they were in fact mitzrim. Perhaps Mosheh spoke during the day, when they were put to work, whereas the plague happened at night, when they were locked up (see e.g. Keli Yakar).

There are other approaches that seek to mitigate the moral challenge. My own preference – I don’t think it is original with me, and welcome references to earlier sources – is to

  1. identify the “captives” not as captured slaves but rather as royal hostages, the firstborns of vassals, kept in luxurious confinement, and
  2. adopt the approach of Beit Yaakov Lehavah that Mosheh’s foreshadowing left out firstborn captives because they still had a choice to avoid death by identifying with the enslaved Jews rather than with the enslaving mitzrim. Many of them may have converted; those who remained steadfast anti-Semites were killed in the plague.

One last approach to mitigation seems radically self-undermining. Here is Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael:

ללמדך שכל גזירות שהיה פרעה גוזר על ישראל – היו השבויין שמחין בהם
שנא’ שמח לאיד לא ינקה (משלי יז ה)
וכתיב בנפול אויבך אל תשמח (משלי כד יז)

To teach you that all the decrees which Pharaoh decreed upon Israel – the captives celebrated them
as Scripture says: “One who rejoices at a time of retribution will not get away clean,”
and it says “When your enemy falls – do not rejoice.”

I think it’s hard to read Torah and think we’re not supposed to celebrate the manifestation of G-d’s power in the deaths of the captive firstborns. Aren’t we then committing the sin whose punishment we are celebrating?

I think the answer is yes, but living out that paradox may be important. Which brings me to another story.

On October 12 of last year, a 47 year-old Palestinian woman name Aisha Mohammed Rabi was killed by stones thrown at her car. Several teenage yeshiva students were arrested this week as suspects in her murder.

In the aftermath, people noted a deep tension between two rabbinic responses. One response was to make sure that the yeshiva students had a proper defense team and would be protected from extreme questioning. This rose to the point of permitting Biblical violations of Shabbat to ensure that they would be prepared for or protected from enhanced interrogation, with the formal rationale that such interrogations often led to attempted suicide. A very different proclamation (full disclosure: that I signed on to) called upon the government to make sure that this murder was investigated to the limits of the law, and to the same standards as if the nationalities of victim and suspects were reversed. (It explicitly bracketed the question of whether standard Shin Bet interrogation techniques should be modified for ethical reasons.)

As an American, I don’t see this kind of situation as necessarily paradoxical. We have a (very British) adversarial system of justice. Every U.S. citizen is presumed to have a systemic interest in ensuring the best possible prosecution and defense. But we also often have a rooting interest for one side or the other.

The rabbinic responses seemed to come from very different cheering sections. That is to say, the author of the first response was thought to be rooting for the prosecution to fail even if the suspects were guilty, whereas the signatories of the public want the suspects convicted if they were guilty, and can reasonably (though maybe not compellingly) be charged with paying insufficient attention to procedural rules that might for example diminish the risk of false confessions etc, even though they might also lead to false acquittals.

But what if we see them as sharing a systemic interest? What if we held that it is really important for those guilty of murder to be convicted, especially when such a large element of chillul Hashem is involved (see Meshekh Chokhmah’s argument that chillul Hashem makes killing nonJews worse than killing Jews), and held that it is very important for those innocent of murder not to be convicted, and that the perception of chillul Hashem is often a motive for scapegoating, and so suspects in such cases need extra protection (as would suspects in cases that arouse massive communal anger)?

The Torah’s ideal is not ideological and temperamental uniformity. A healthy Torah polity is one in which people’s very different opinions and emotions create a dynamic equilibrium that inhibits extremism but enables creativity. Some of us can focus on saying Hallel when our enemies fall, some of us on not rejoicing at anyone’s downfall, and some of us on carefully distinguishing when we should from when we should not.

I root passionately for the latter to be the default setting of our community, and there are extremes I cannot abide, morally or Jewishly. For example: If there is a rabbi who genuinely hopes that Jews who murdered a random Palestinian women are not convicted of their crimes, I want him removed from Torah authority and influence, regardless of his scholarship. But I was glad to be challenged by friends and students about whether I was rushing toward judgment in this case, and tolerating or even condoning investigative techniques that in other cases I would oppose with might and main.

It is good to be part of small communities in which moral challenge is an essential part of friendship and collegiality. It would be great if we could restore that notion to our larger communities.

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Pharaoh’s Free Will, and Ours

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

I cannot find any pattern in Pharaoh’s reactions to the plagues.  Let me show you what I mean, and then we’ll talk about whether the absence of any such pattern affects our understanding of the narrative, rather than simply reflecting a lack of imagination on my part.

There really are (at least) ELEVEN DEMONSTRATIONS rather than TEN PLAGUES. Mosheh’s first appearance before Pharaoh involves his and Aharon’s staffs turning into snakes. Everything about that episode formally matches the structure of the plagues; it’s just that the audience is limited to the Egyptian Court.  So we’ll number the elements of the narrative 0-10, with zero being SNAKES and ten being FIRSTBORNS. (Rabbi Yehudah would have given you the acronym: SoBFLaBMoBHoLDoF.)

Here are what I see as the four key elements of the Torah’s descriptions of Pharaoh’s reactions.

A. What is the root of the verb which describes the condition of his heart

0. chzk 1. chzk 2. kbd   3. chzk 4. kbd 5. kbd 6. chzk 7. chzk 8. chzk 9. chzk 10. NA

B. Does his heart gain strengthen or harden itself, or does he consciously do this, or does G-d do it?

0. itself   1. itself   2. he   3.itself   4.he   5. itself   6. G-d   7. itself   8. G-d   9. G-d   10. NA

C. Does the Torah say that Hashem predicted Pharaoh’s reaction?

0. Yes   1. Yes   2. Yes   3. Yes   4. No     5. No     6. Yes   7. Yes   8. No     9. No     10. NA

D. Does Pharaoh at first make an admission of guilt or a concession?
0. No     1. No     2. Yes   3. No     4. Yes   5. No     6. No     7. Yes   8. Yes   9. Yes   10. NA

The absence of clear patterns almost jumps off the page.

What does this mean? One option is that the Torah is written loosely, so that different roots can be used interchangeably, and there is no significance to whether a verb is passive or active, and so on.  We might call this an Ibn Ezra approach. A second is that the story is not, in its details, the inexorable unfolding of a Divine plan. G-d and Mosheh and Aharon do not know in advance how Pharaoh will react to their provocations; sometimes he confounds His and their expectations and sets the whole process back, and they have to retrace the steps of his conditioning.

I have a bias toward the second approach.  Let’s see what opportunities it opens for interpreting Demonstration 5, the plague of MURRAIN. Here’s the relevant text (9:4-7):

וְהִפְלָ֣ה יְקֹוָ֔ק בֵּ֚ין מִקְנֵ֣ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וּבֵ֖ין מִקְנֵ֣ה מִצְרָ֑יִם

וְלֹ֥א יָמ֛וּת מִכָּל־לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל דָּבָֽר:

וַיָּ֥שֶׂם יְקֹוָ֖ק מוֹעֵ֣ד לֵאמֹ֑ר

מָחָ֗ר יַעֲשֶׂ֧ה יְקֹוָ֛ק הַדָּבָ֥ר הַזֶּ֖ה בָּאָֽרֶץ:

וַיַּ֨עַשׂ יְקֹוָ֜ק אֶת־הַדָּבָ֤ר הַזֶּה֙ מִֽמָּחֳרָ֔ת

וַיָּ֕מָת כֹּ֖ל מִקְנֵ֣ה מִצְרָ֑יִם

וּמִמִּקְנֵ֥ה בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹא־מֵ֥ת אֶחָֽד:

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח פַּרְעֹ֔ה

וְהִנֵּ֗ה לֹא־מֵ֛ת מִמִּקְנֵ֥ה יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל עַד־אֶחָ֑ד

וַיִּכְבַּד֙ לֵ֣ב פַּרְעֹ֔ה

וְלֹ֥א שִׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־הָעָֽם:

G-d will distinguish between the cattle of Israel and the cattle of Mitzrayim
and nothing (davar) from anything belonging to Israel will die.
Hashem set a time, saying:
Tomorrow Hashem will do this thing in the land.
Hashem did this thing on the morrow
All the cattle of Egypt died
but from the cattle of the Children of Israel not one died (lo meit echad)
Pharaoh sent
and behold! There did not die from among the cattle of the Children of Israel even one (ad echad)
Pharaoh’s heart hardened
and he did not send forth the nation.

The psychological difficulty in the passage is evident.  Pharaoh sends to see whether G-d’s prediction that not even one Jewish head of cattle would die. The report he receives confirms the miracles.  Yet he does not free the Jews! Literarily, the best reading would have Pharaoh reaffirming his defiance because of the report.  But can that make any psychological sense?

The passage has three descriptions of what happened to the Jewish cattle. G-d predicts to Mosheh that no davar from among them will die; the narrator confirms that not one (echad) among them died; and then Pharaoh receives a report confirming that not even up to one (ad echad) among them died. It seems plausible to suggest that the differences between these reports are significant. And while I have not found any explanations of the difference between davar and echad (other than suggesting that davar is a play on the potential cause of death, the murrain/dever), the commentaries have a plethora of explanations for the difference between echad and ad echad, most of which assume that echad is the Divine perspective while ad echad is Pharaoh’s.

Let’s start with Shmot Rabbah 11:4. “What is the meaning of ‘ad echad?’ Even a head of cattle belonging half to a non-Jew and half to a Jew did not die.”

The semantic claim of this midrash is that ad echad means “even less than one,” with ad perhaps translated as “approaching.” A key difficulty with this midrash is that Shemot 14:28 states that the waters of the Reed Sea covered over the charging Egyptian troops such that ad echad of them was not left, and it seems implausible to suggest that the phrase was intended to emphasize that even ambivalent Egyptians died. (The same difficulty applies to Judges 4:16, where Sisera’s army has not ad echad left, and 2 Samuel 17:22, where David’s entire entourage escapes across a river.) Nonetheless, the sociological assumption of the midrash is fascinating. Jews and Egyptians owned cattle together, as formal partners!

Netziv points out that this midrash can be used to explain the continuity of the verse.  Pharaoh was looking for a way to avoid facing the implications of the plague. What if there were cattle of ambiguous identity that survived? Pharaoh could regard them as Egyptian, and thus as evidence that the plague had not gone as Mosheh predicted.

However, Netziv does not agree that ad echad includes animals owned by partners. Perhaps the existence of such a partnership did not match his conception of a master-slave society, or perhaps he thought that Pharaoh would understand that Mosheh’s prediction would come down on the side of such animals’ surviving. Netziv therefore suggests that ad echad includes animals that were owned by Egyptians but rented by Jews for their milk or shearings.

Ibn Ezra notes that a midrash takes ad echad in the opposite direction in Shemot 14:28, saying that it leaves open the possibility of one survivor – Pharaoh himself. Ibn Ezra rejects this out of hand because Tehillim 106:11 states that “not echad of them was left over,” and Tehillim 136:15 states that G-d drowned “Pharaoh and his soldiers.”

The midrash presumably contends that Pharaoh was drowned along with his men, but not drowned to death.  But what then would ad echad mean in our context?  Which animal uniquely survived, and thus fooled Pharaoh? Various commentators come up with ways for one Egyptian to have illicitly possessed one animal that G-d considered Jewish, but none of them are compelling.

Malbim takes ad echad back the other way. Pharaoh expected one animal to survive that did not.  There was one human being who was half-Jewish and half-Egyptian; the son of Shlomit bat Divri and an Egyptian man, who ends up cursing G-d (Vayikra 24:10-12). Since before Sinai the halakhah used patrilineal descent, G-d treated him as Egyptian, and killed his animal. But Pharaoh saw him as Jewish, and therefore saw his animal’s death as undoing Mosheh’s prediction that no Jewish cattle would die.

(We could easily reverse Malbim’s argument, and have the animal confound Pharaoh by surviving.  But Malbim thinks that Vayikra makes clear that the Jews did not see the man as Jewish without conversion, and he thinks the way to explain that is by saying that matrilineality was the law only for children born post-Sinai. But Pharaoh used the Nuremberg standard.)

All these approaches beg an important question. They all assume that the plague failed to convince Pharaoh because he made an error of fact or law, whereas G-d knows all.  But couldn’t G-d have solved the problem by acting in accordance with Pharaoh’s erroneous assumptions, and thus brought the Jews out five plagues earlier?  Maybe not.  Maybe G-d cannot act unjustly even for a just end.

Or: Perhaps human beings have an infinite capacity to find linguistic loopholes in predictions.  No matter how closely G-d tried to match Pharaoh’s expectations, he would have found the gap.  Ultimately, we are only convinced when we are willing to be convinced. This of course is true of the Jews as well as Pharaoh.

This seems to me the best explanation of the psychological messiness of the plague narrative. G-d cannot manipulate Pharaoh absolutely, or else He would be able to manipulate us.  A perfectly linear Exodus narrative would have taught the Jews that G-d’s grant of human free will is not sincere. Watching Pharaoh struggle with G-d teaches us instead that He is sincere, and that we cannot blame Him for our own choices.

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Compromising Evils

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The “blessings” that Yaakov gives his sons are written as what we tend to call “poetry.”  Yet they are clearly not all positive, so why are they blessings?  And how does calling something “poetry” help us understand it?

Here is one possibility. “Prose” aims at syntactic clarity, using grammar and punctuation to minimize ambiguity.  “Poetry,” by contrast, may seek to maximize ambiguity, and specifically to take advantage of grammar and punctuation to create ambiguity.

Punctuation is a complicated term with regard to Torah. The implications of the cantillation marks do not correspond to contemporary symbols such as the question mark or exclamation point.  A closer analogy may be the line break in poetry. Poets often use enjambment, the technique in which a line break occurs in the middle of a semantic unit, to create a meaning in the first line which is different than what it means as part of the whole.

In Bereshit 49:9, the start of the “blessing” of Yehudah, the cantillation inserts a break between “miteref” and “beni alita,” so that the translation must be “from teref/ my son you have arisen.”  However, because Yaakov’s reaction to being shown Yosef’s bloody tunic was “tarof taraf Yosef” (37:33), we are tempted to read across the break here and translate “from the teref of my son/you have arisen.”

Rashbam resists this temptation mightily. He insults those who surrender to it as being ignorant of punctuation and cantillation.

והמפרשו במכירת יוסף

לא ידע בשיטה של פסוק ולא בחילוק טעמים כלל:

Anyone who interprets this as a reference to the sale of Yosef
knows nothing of punctuation or the cantillation breaks at all.

This harshness is surprising, as essentially the entire Rabbinic tradition sees in verse a reference to the sale of Yosef (although not exclusively so – it may also refer to Yehudah’s last minute rescue of Tamar, or to the later military triumphs of David, etc.)  Perhaps he was motivated by anti-anti-Semitism.

Regardless, many Rishonim read this verse as a reference to the sale even without ignoring the line break. Acharonim note that they are actually reading the word beni twice, as if the verse said “from the teref of my son – my son, you have arisen.”  The technique of reading a word as if it appears twice shows up regularly in rabbinic reading, but I think it is particularly compelling when the word occurs at a line break in poetry.

There is a second level of objection to seeing a reference to the sale of Yosef in our verse. On what basis can we claim that Yaakov knew about the sale?  Thus Or HaChayyim writes

והדעת נותנת

כי מעולם לא עלה על דעת יעקב שאחים ישלחו יד ביוסף

לחשוד אחד מהם

אלא שדברי רז”ל הם דברי קבלה:

It seems more reasonable
that Yaakov never considered that the brothers would harm Yosef
such that he would suspect one of them of having done so
but the words of the Sages are words of Tradition.

We can accept the Tradition as self-justifying.  Alternatively, we can seek to justify it.  Perhaps Yaakov was speaking semi-consciously, with prophetic insight that he did not himself fully understand.  Or perhaps Yaakov had suspicions, but they were allayed when Yosef turned out to be alive. The verse describes Yehudah, in Yaakov’s mind, as having risen above the suspicion of having harmed Yosef.

Rashi interprets “alita” as “rising above suspicion,” but nonetheless asserts that Yaakov knew full well that Yehudah had advised the sale.

“מטרף” –

ממה שחשדתיך ב”טרף טרף יוסף חיה רעה אכלתהו”,

וזהו יהודה שנמשל לאריה:

“בני עלית” – 

סלקת את עצמך ואמרת “מה בצע וגו'”

Miteref” –
from that which I suspected you of regarding “Surely
tarof taraf Yosef; an evil beast ate him,”
which referred to Yehudah, who is compared to a lion.
beni alita” –
You removed yourself when you said “what
betza (=gain) is there if we kill our brother”.

Yaakov is not praising Yehudah for having repented of the sale; rather, Yaakov is repenting for having suspected Yehudah of worse.

This, in my humble opinion, is a very difficult read, as repentance and change seem to be a key element of the Yehudah story.  Perhaps we can say that Yaakov saw Yehudah’s suggestion of the sale as a first step toward repentance.

Rashi’s reading seems directly opposed to the position of Rabbi Meir on Sanhedrin 6b:

“ובוצע ברך נאץ ה'” –

רבי מאיר אומר:

לא נאמר בוצע אלא כנגד יהודה,

שנאמר “ויאמר יהודה אל אחיו מה בצע כי נהרג את אחינו”;

וכל המברך את יהודה הרי זה מנאץ,

ועל זה נאמר “ובצע ברך נאץ ה”

“A botzeia who blesses has disgraced Hashem” (Tehillim 10:3) –
Rabbi Meir says:
The term “
botzeia” refers to Yehudah,
as Scripture says, “Yehudah said to his brothers: What
betza (=gain) is there if we kill our brother”
And anyone who blesses Yehudah is a disgracer,
and about this Scripture says “one who blesses a
botzeia has disgraces Hashem.”

In case anyone missed the point, Rashi to Sanhedrin comments:

“כנגד יהודה” – 

שהיה לו לומר: “נחזירנו לאבינו,” אחרי שהיו דבריו נשמעין לאחיו

“Referring to Yehudah” –
because he should have said ‘Let us return him to our father’, as his brothers were heeding him.

Rashi on Chumash is therefore explicitly rejecting Rabbi Meir, as he has Yaakov blessing Yehudah for saying “mah Betza!”

Rabbi Chaim Paltiel cites R. Yehudah son of R. Natan as seeking to split the difference – Yehudah should be praised for saving Yosef from death, but nonetheless criticized for doing so only because there was no gain in killing him. This answer seems true neither to Rashi on Chumash nor to the Talmud.

Perhaps Rashi thought that according to Rabbi Meir, our verse refers only to the episode with Tamar and not at all to the sale. Perhaps Rashi, in direct contrast to Rashbam, thought that any reading of the verse that misses the allusion to the sale demonstrated ignorance of Biblical style. But I suggest instead that Rabbi Meir consciously opposed the standard Rabbinic interpretation of Yaakov’s blessing, and Rashi consciously set out to restore it.  Both Rabbi Meir and Rashi were motivated by ideological convictions.

What is really at stake here?

Rabbi Meir’s statement is cited on Sanhedrin 6b in the context of its discussion of pesharah=betziah=splitting=compromise as a mode of judicial practice.  Perhaps Rabbi Meir saw Yehudah as a Biblical model of compromise: “You want to kill Yosef, but maybe that would be wrong – so let’s sell him instead.”  Rabbi Meir condemns Yehudah forcefully – there should be no compromise with evil.  By implication, strict justice should rule in every court case.

Rashi doesn’t think that Yehudah did “the right thing” by saying “Mah betza,” rather than standing against his brothers’ evil plan.  But he may think – and I find this compelling – that suggesting the compromise was Yehudah’s first step toward repentance and redemption.  Rashi then goes one step farther. He argues that Yaakov could bless Yehudah for suggesting the compromise even though it was wrong.

This last step is worthy of a major ideological battle – can/should we bless people for choosing the lesser evil when the good is available?   In practice, the question is usually slightly different – is it worth engaging with morally deficient people, communities, or countries in the hope of getting them to choose the lesser evil, of achieving a “mah betza” moment, and in the further hope that such moments will eventually lead to complete transformation? Or is it better to simply identify evil and stand against it?

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Yosef Was Not Modern Orthodox, or: The Art of Moral Politics

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Yosef was not a Modern Orthodox Jew, or at least not the kind of Modern Orthodox Jew I aspire to be. He lived a bifurcated rather than an integrated life, with different names for different environments, and constantly (at best) balancing his own values against the interests of his masters.

Those were the good times. When the brothers show up in Egypt, Yosef faces the harder challenge of dual loyalties. Now he has to balance not only values against interests, but interests against interests. His testing of his brothers may be an understandable expression of his hope that they are not worthy of deep loyalty, and therefore unlikely to force him into hard and deeply uncomfortable positions. A similar dynamic may explain some aspects of American Jews’ relationship with the State of Israel.

Yehudah’s task in the monologue that opens Parashat VaYigash is to bring Yosef to the point where he is willing to confront that challenge. Bereishis Rabbah 93:4 offers two powerful, beautiful, and complementary metaphors to explain how Yehudah accomplishes this.

A. Scripture writes (Proverbs 20): “Deep waters are the eitzah in the heart of man, but a man of tevunah can draw it up” –
This can be compared to a deep well of cool water, with its waters cool and clear, from which no one could drink. A man came and tied rope to rope and string to string and thread to thread, drew water up from it, and drank.
Then everyone began to draw and drink.
So too – Yehudah did not leave off responding to Yosef, matter after matter, until he was “omeid al libo.”

B. Scripture writes (Proverbs 25) “Golden apples in silver filigree – a word spoken al ofanav” –
Just as a wheel (ofan) shows a face in all directions, so too the words of Yehudah were nir’im lekhol tzad when he spoke with Yosef.

The first metaphor – which the rabbis elsewhere use reflexively, to describe the role of metaphors in teaching philosophy – teaches that Yehudah’s words must be read as psychologically sequential, as leading Yosef step-by-step through the emotional stages that will enable him to acknowledge his family.

The second metaphor – here I will be reflexive – can itself be understood in multiple ways.

One meaning, offered by R. Chiyya bar Abba (B.R. 93:6), is that Yehudah conveyed different emotional content to different audiences simultaneously.

א”ר חייא בר אבא:
כל הדברים שאת קורא שדיבר יהודה ליוסף בפני אחיו עד שאת מגיע “ולא יכול יוסף להתאפק”, היה בהם פיוס ליוסף, ופיוס לאחיו, ופיוס לבנימין:

Said R. Chiyya bar Abba:
All the words you read that Yehudah spoke to Yosef before his brothers up until “Yosef could not etc.”included appeasement toward Yosef, toward his brothers, and toward Binyamin:

פיוס ליוסף,
לומר ראו היך הוא נותן נפשו על בניה של רחל, פיוס לאחיו,
לומר ראו היאך הוא נותן נפשו על אחיו,
פיוס לבנימין,
אמר לו כשם שנתתי נפשי עליך, כך אני נותן נפשי על אחיך,

toward Yosef:
See how I offer my life for a son of Rachel;
toward his brothers:
see how he offers his life for his brothers;
toward Binyamin:
just as I offer my life for you, so too I (?would?) offer my life for your brother(s?)

A second meaning, offered by Rashi, is that Yehudah conveyed a range of possible meanings to Yosef simultaneously.

דבר באזני אדני- יכנסו דברי באזניך:
ואל יחר אפך- מכאן אתה למד שדבר אליו קשות:
כי כמוך כפרעה–
א.חשוב אתה בעיני כמלך.
זה פשוטו.
סופך ללקות עליו בצרעת,
כמו שלקה פרעה על ידי זקנתי שרה על לילה אחת שעכבה.
ג.דבר אחר:
מה פרעה גוזר ואינו מקיים, מבטיח ואינו עושה, אף אתה כן –
וכי זו היא שימת עין שאמרת לשום עינך עליו?!
ד.דבר אחר:
“כי כמוך כפרעה” –
אם תקניטני, אהרוג אותך ואת אדוניך:

“A word in my master’s ears” – may my words enter your ears
“and let your wrath not flare”- from here you learn that he spoke harsh things to him
“for you and Pharaoh are alike” –
a. I regard you as equal to a king.
This is its pshat.
b. But its midrash is:
You will eventually be plagued with tzora’at over him,
just as Pharaoh was plagued with tzora’at regarding his foremother Sarah for the one night he detained her
c. Another interpretation:
Just as Pharaoh decrees but does not fulfill, promised but does not act, so too you –
is this the ‘placing of eyes on’ that you intended when saying ‘I will place my eyes on him’?
d. Another interpretation:
“For you and Pharaoh are alike” –
if you antagonize me, I will kill you and your master

Each of these are necessary tactics. Yehudah cannot himself expose Yosef, lest Yosef respond defensively and seek to demonstrate his Egyptian loyalty by rejecting his brothers. Nor can he risk having the rest of the brothers abandon Binyamin – and thereby let Yosef justify abandoning all of them– or even worse, having Binyamin turn on the brothers.

At the same time, Yehudah has to give Yosef a motive for changing. Yosef has known all along who the brothers are, and not dropped the charade that they are strangers, so Yehudah has to find the right combination of carrots and sticks to enable Yosef to find the courage to expose himself.

What encourages Yehudah, I suggest, is that Yosef has already exposed himself to at least one Egyptian. Somebody had to plant the cup in Binyamin’s bag (as Bekhor Shor notes, with Ramban following in his wake), and that someone both makes Yosef vulnerable and demonstrates that at least in part he wants that vulnerability.

The art of moral politics, and the aim of moral political rhetoric, is often to get people to act in accordance with what they already believe but cannot find the courage to act on. Sometimes that requires jettisoning an alluring but deceptive complexity for the sake of moral clarity – this was the teshuvah-process of Yehudah, and his hardwon clarity enables him to bring all his powers to bear on the task of winning over Yosef. Sometimes, as for Yosef here, it requires facing complexity at the expense of an alluring but disingenuous clarity.

Modern Orthodoxy in America faces both these challenges; may we, as we read Yehudah’s words and Yosef’s reaction, be inspired to meet both with courage and integrity.

This Dvar Torah was originally published in 2013.

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Chanukkah, Miracles, and Zionism

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Chanukkah commemorates events that took place during the period of the Second Temple.  But which events?  There are at least four possibilities.  One, supported by the letter of some versions of the Al Hanisim prayer for Chanukkah, focuses on the military victory of the Hasmoneans.  A second focuses on the restoration of Jewish sovereignty that resulted from that victory.  A third, supported by the structure of that prayer and by the name of the holiday, focuses on the renewal of the Temple.  A fourth focuses on the miracle of the long-lasting oil mentioned in the Talmud.

Each of these possibilities seems hopelessly outdated as the basis for a contemporary celebration.  The Hasmonean victory has no ongoing political consequences; a century later, Judea became a Roman province, and eventually we were exiled from Judea.  The Temple was destroyed and remains a ruin.  The oil-miracle had no clear significance other than indicating that G-d was responsible for the victory and/or rededication.  So why do we still celebrate Chanukkah?

This is not a new question.  The irrelevance and historical insignificance of Chanukkah was discussed more than a thousand years ago in the Talmud (Rosh Hashannah 18a-b).

Sometime during the Second Temple period, a work ironically called Megillat Taanit (=The Scroll of Fasting) began serving as a record of all days on which Jews were forbidden to fast. The Talmud records a dispute among the first generations of Amoraim as to whether this prohibition remained in force: Rav and Rabbi Chanina said no, but Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said yes. Rav Kehana then challenges the position that it is no longer binding:


וגזרו תענית בחנוכה בלוד,

וירד רבי אליעזר ורחץ, ורבי יהושע וסיפר,

ואמרו להם: צאו והתענו על מה שהתעניתם.

A factual narrative:
They once decreed a fast on Chanukkah in Lod.
Rabbi Eliezer went down to bathe, and Rabbi Yehoshua had his hair cut
and (Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua said to them:
Go out and fast (to atone) for having fasted.

The Talmud at this point sees Chanukkah as a perfectly ordinary Second Temple nonfast day, and takes the position of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua as dispositive (the end of the sugya acknowledges that both sides of the controversy had standing).  So how could Rav and Rabbi Chanina deny that all the other nonfast days remained in force?

אמר רב יוסף:

שאני חנוכה, דאיכא מצוה.

אמר ליה אביי:

ותיבטיל איהי ותיבטל מצותה!?

Said Rav Yosef:
Chanukkah is different, because it has an (associated) mitzvah.
Abayay said to him:
So let it and its mitzvah be nullified!?

Rav Yosef initially distinguishes Chanukkah on the grounds that it had a ritual, presumably candle-lighting. Abbaya understands him to be arguing that rituals have greater legal inertia than a proscription against fasting. He finds the claim absurd; why should rituals survive their rationale?!

אלא אמר רב יוסף:

שאני חנוכה, דמיפרסם ניסא

Rather, Rav Yosef said:

Chanukkah is different, because mfrsm miracle.

So the Talmud reinterprets Rav Yosef, or else Rav Yosef changes his mind.  It matters which.  If Rav Yosef changed his mind, it turns out that ritual per se is not relevant; Chanukkah survives because of something intrinsic about the day.  But if the Talmud is reinterpreting his earlier statement, then it is the combination of ritual and meaning that endures.

The grammar of mfrsm is also ambiguous.  Does it mean that the miracle was already widely known, and therefore the day did not lapse, or that the day should not be allowed to lapse, because it serves the purpose of publicizing the miracle?

Rashi takes a radical third approach:

 כבר הוא גלוי לכל ישראל

על ידי שנהגו בו המצות,

והחזיקו בו כשל תורה,

ולא נכון לבטלו.

Since the miracle is already “in the open” to all Israel
via their performance of the mitzvot (plural!)
and they grasped it as if it were Biblical,
so it is not proper to nullify it.

According to Rashi, the Rabbis did not find Chanukkah’s message more enduring than those of other Second Temple celebrations, nor did they grant rituals intrinsic halakhic inertia. Rather, the ritual served to spread the message, and the combination of medium and message embedded itself so deeply in popular culture that it would be improper – perhaps deeply unwise – to seek to nullify it.

Chanukkah thus becomes a parade example of bottom-up halakhic influence. The remaining question is whether the Rabbis were simply indifferent to the day, or whether Chanukkah’s popularity bothered them, because they were actively opposed to the continuation of its message in Exile.  If the latter is the case, might they have sought to affect its meaning if they could not prevent its practice?

Rashi does not identify the miracle he is referring to, but he makes clear that for the Rabbis, Chanukkah survives not in order to publicize the miracle, but rather because it has already been publicized.

A different impression emerges from our edition of Rambam Laws of Chanukkah Chapter 3:

During the Second Temple, when Greece had dominion,
they imposed decrees on Israel, and nullified their religion, and did not permit them to engage in Torah and mitzvot,
they laid hands on their money and their daughters
they entered the Heikhal and breached it and defiled the things that must be tahor
Israel suffered much from them, and they tormented them greatly
Until Hashem the G-d of our ancestors had mercy on them and saved us from them and rescued them
so that the Hasmonean High Priests were victorious and killed them and saved Israel from them
They appointed kings from among the priests
and Jewish monarchy/sovereignty returned for more than 200 years until the Second Destruction
When Israel triumphed over their enemies and destroyed them – it was the 25th of Kislev
They entered the Heikhal but found only once cruse of tahor oil,
which only contained enough to light for one day
but they lit the lights of the array from it for eight days, until they pressed olives and produced tahor oil.
Because of this
the Sages of that generation established that these eight days, beginning on Kislev 25,
would be days of joy and praise
and we light the nerot on each of those eight nights at the entrances of the houses

להראות ולגלות הנס . . .

in order to demonstrate and put “in the open” the miracle.

Rambam does not use the word miracle anywhere in his retelling of the Chanukkah story, so we cannot tell for certain which miracle he thinks our lighting commemorates. However, his narrative clearly focuses on the return of sovereignty as the core of Chanukkah. Moreover, his concluding phrase seems clearly drawn from Rav Yosef, which indicates strongly that he sees Chanukkah as surviving in order to publicize the miracle.

However, Raphi Ozarowski pointed out to me that the phrase “In order to demonstrate and put in the open the miracle” is absent in the first edition of the Rambam and a key manuscript.  That suggests that Rambam saw Chanukkah as surviving purely because of its underlying message, and perhaps tried to diminish the importance of the miraculous to that message – so much so that a later copyist felt impelled to insert a sentence reintroducing the miraculous.

Unlike Rashi, Rambam does not attribute Chanukkah’s survival to populist resistance.  Rather, he presents it as a Rabbinic decree whose rationale never lost relevance.  It is tempting to suggest that the hypothetical later copyist represents a different kind of successful resistance.

But the resistances to Rashi and Rambam might cut in opposite ways.  For Rashi, it might be that the people refused to accommodate themselves to the condition of Exile, and kept the Chanukkah lights burning in order to keep their non-explicitly-miraculous (=non-Messianic?) Zionist dreams alive – whereas the resistance to Rambam rejected the possibility of non-explicitly-miraculous Zionism.

The Rabbis discuss whether in Messianic times there will still be a purpose in remembering the Exodus.  By the same token, we could ask whether Chanukkah still has a purpose when a more recent victory is the cause of our having a State, even if we firmly hold that the State is at best potentially Messianic, and not inevitably so.  Or perhaps Chanukkah has renewed meaning in our day precisely because it foreshadowed non-Messianic Zionism so powerfully for so long.

While the Hasmonean victory was not Messianic, it was certainly accompanied by the miracle of the oil.  The oil in the Temple lasted just long enough for the Jews to prepare new tahor oil; it would have run out had the Jews delayed at all, and not been ready with new oil on the 8th day. One eternal message of Chanukkah is that miracles do not endure forever, and even those blessed by miracles must make every effort – spiritually and practically – to be ready for the transition back to normal life.

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Esav Shrugged

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The opening of Parshat Vayishlach makes difficult reading for fans of Jewish assertiveness.  Yaakov relates to apparent alpha-dog Esav with over-the-top obsequiousness – “grovel, grovel, cringe, bow, stoop, fall.”

But explicit power relationships can be deceptive. Yaakov successfully refuses Esav’s repeated efforts to establish a continuing relationship.  Esav, meanwhile, yields to Yaakov’s insistence that he accept his enormous gift.  Sometimes the tail really is wagging the dog.  But why was it so important to Yaakov that Esav accept the gift, and why was Esav so resistant?

Rabbi Shimon Sofer, a grandson of the Chatam Sofer who was martyred in Auschwitz, offers a series of politically and psychologically incisive explanations that may add up to a coherent reading.

“I have much; my brother, let what is yours be yours” – meaning, that if Yaakov had no possessions, Esav would be compelled to support his younger brother.  Therefore, Esav said, “Let what is yours be yours,” so that I don’t need to give you anything and the much that I have remains mine.  So the overall intent is “I have much if what is yours will be yours.”

Rabbi Sofer starts from the premise that any hatred Esav felt toward Yaakov would have no effect on his understanding or fulfillment of his obligations toward Yaakov. Esav and Yaakov are socially intertwined in ways that Esav cannot escape, and perhaps cannot imagine escaping. So it is in Esav’s self-interest for Yaakov to be independently wealthy.  Esav fears that Yaakov is deliberately giving him a gift so large as to leave him no choice but to accept Yaakov and his family as dependents.

We know, but Esav does not, that the gift represents a judiciously chosen share of Yaakov’s assets. Yaakov knows that it is considered rude to attack a person whose gifts you have accepted, because accepting gifts is a way of acknowledging feudal obligations. Most feudal obligations are at heart a trade of economic benefits for security. So Yaakov insists, and perhaps Esav eventually realizes that Yaakov can bear the expense and accepts the transaction at face value.

We can explain why Yaakov insisted that he take the gift from him.  The way of honored officials is that even though in their hearts they want and desire gifts and bribes, nonetheless it is beneath their dignity to accept them.  Therefore, they want the giver to persist and insist.  That way, they end up with both, the bribe/gift that their heart lusts for, and also their dignity, that they did not wish to take it from him without being greatly pestered, and they took it only because they would not withstand the giver and humiliate him by refusing to accept it.  Thus “Yaakov persisted/insisted, and he took it.”

On this reading, Esav is in charge throughout.  He intends to have Yaakov persist, and he intends ultimately to consent under seeming duress. His goal is to reverse the gratitude framework; Yaakov should owe Esav for the tovat hana’ah gained by having such a prominent person willing to accept his gift, rather than Esav owing Yaakov for the gift itself.

Halakhah recognizes this tovat hana’ah as having cash value. Very prominent people can marry women by accepting gifts from them. Nonetheless, in most contexts it is a polite/political fiction. Politicians strive to create the impression that they are stooping to accept gifts, or willing to go on junkets for the sake of learning about policy, but lobbyists expect to receive something in exchange for the amenities they provide politicians. To quote Don Corleone, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift.”

We can say additionally that according to the ways of ‘etiquette,’ if A sends a gift to B, and B returns a lesser gift than he received, it seems as if he is thereby surrendering; if he returns an exactly equal gift, this seems like miserly precision; so B therefore sends A more than he received initially.  So Esav realized that etiquette would require him to send Yaakov a gift even larger than Yaakov was sending, therefore he said: “Let what is yours be yours,” but Yaakov indicated that he did not wish a return gift by saying to him “I have everything.”

Perhaps Rabbi Sofer read anthropology?  Wikipedia provides the following description of a Pacific Northwest custom called potlatch:

Dorothy Johansen describes the dynamic: “In the potlatch, the host in effect challenged a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.”

On this reading, Yaakov’s enormous gift is an expression of dominance, while Esav’s ultimate acceptance is a gesture of submission.

So far we’ve drawn models for Yaakov and Esav’s interaction from Native American culture, feudalism, and The Godfather.  Rabbi Sofer’s reading is also compatible with a fourth model drawn from Ayn Rand’s critique of altruism. Let me acknowledge upfront that this is likely to be more ethically controversial than any of the others.

Rand famously or infamously argued that altruism, or doing things for the sake of others, is the root of all evil.  Actions can be ethical only if done for one’s own sake; thus a programmatic essay was titled “The Virtue of Selfishness.”

This counterintuitive framing is often misunderstood as endorsing boorishness or a pure focus on personal pleasure and material or emotional self-interest. That this is a misunderstanding is easily demonstrated by the fact that all her novels revolve around an ethical hero(ine) sacrificing their material self-interest, even committing suicide, for the benefit of someone they love. Rather, Rand argues that one must choose virtue because that is the kind of person you wish to be, not because it benefits anyone else.

Why does this matter?  Rand argues that virtuous people expect no return for their virtuous deeds; they don’t feel “owed” because they have acted for your material self-interest against their own, because their actions were done for their own sakes.  Virtuous philanthropists do not see themselves as superior to the recipients of their charity.  By contrast, altruists always feel that they are owed more than they gave.  Charity recipients owe them gratitude, and if economic positions reverse, they owe their former benefactors larger alms than they received. (Consider in this light the letters that schools often send to alumni who received scholarships, no matter how much those alumni contributed to the school environment as students, and even if those alumni paid more in tuition than the marginal cost of their schooling.)

Esav suspects, or understands, that Yaakov’s gift is altruistic in nature.  Accepting it will impose burdens of gratitude and reciprocity on him that he has no interest in assuming.  So he tries to refuse it.  But Yaakov insists.

Why does Yaakov insist?  Very likely he is also aware that gifts often come tangled in implicit strings. He may suspect that Esav is genuinely altruistic, and therefore will feel himself bound to reciprocate.  Or, he may consider that regardless of Esav’s own philosophic convictions, he is embedded in a society of altruists who will hold him to the obligations they recognize as stemming from gift-acceptance.

The common denominator of all four models is that gifting is often not a one-way transaction. Gifts can be Trojan Horses.  We should look at their teeth before accepting them; and we should look very carefully in the mirror before and after giving.  Our goal should be a society in which givers are indifferent to gratitude, and therefore thanks can be freely given.

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