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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi David Fried (SBM 2010) is a musmakh of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and teaches Judaics at the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford, CT.


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Commandedness and Obligation: A Philosophic Excursion/Pilpul

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you to the wonderful 2018 MWBM Fellows!  This week’s devar Torah is rooted in our study of the meaning of commandedness.

The Torah’s real beginning is in this week’s parshah.  This is the position Rashi apparently endorses in his opening comment to Torah.  “This month shall be for you the head of months” – Exodus 12:2 contains the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, and that’s where Torah should begin.  All the preceding narratives of genesis and exile are just background.

Rashi’s radical position must be based in a deep commitment to a vision of the Torah’s essential nature and purpose.

One possibility is that he understands Torah as a book of law.  On this understanding, his question really is why there are any narratives in the Torah, whether before or after the first Jewish mitzvah.

A second possibility is that he understands Torah as a book about the Jewish nation, and the Jewish people are constituted as a nation by being given a collective commandment.  Subsequent narratives are thus essential parts of Torah; Rashi only questions why prenational narratives or laws, such as the story of Creation or the obligation to circumcise males, are included.

“The month shall be” is the ideal first mitzvah because it is not given to all individual members of the Jewish people as individuals; rather, it is a mitzvah that is incumbent on the nation as a whole, and according to the Rav, it was implemented by the Sanhedrin in their role as the symbolic representative of the nation.  Moreover, the establishment of a new calendar is historically a common method of declaring cultural independence.

Ramban famously takes with great seriousness a midrashic statement that all mitzvot are essentially applicable only in the Land of Israel; G-d obligates us to keep them while in Exile only so that they will not seem unfamiliar when we are redeemed.  Possibly this means that all mitzvot are at core given to the nation as a whole, rather than to individuals, and therefore have meaning only when and where the Jewish people have full national existence.  Law and nationhood are intertwined; Israel is constituted by the commandments, and the commandments are made possible by the existence of the nation.

However, Ramban also adopts the position that the Avot kept the mitzvot before the Torah was given – but only when they were in the Land of Israel.  This suggests that mitzvot have value independent of nationhood, and also that the significance of the Land of Israel resides in something other than its being our national home.

Rav Elchanan Wasserman (Kovetz Shiurim Kiddushin 1:71) explains Ramban as follows:

Every mitzvah has two components:

a) the reason for which sake we were commanded to do this.

This reason made it proper to fulfill the mitzvah even before it was commanded, as was done by the Avot

b) once we have been commanded, we must fulfill the command of Hashem.

However, this is true only in the Land, but outside the Land there is merely a command to act in accordance with the personal obligation, because the reasons for mitzvot apply only in the Land, and therefore the Avot did not fulfill the Torah outside the Land.

Rav Wasserman contends that mitzvot have rationales, or intrinsic meaning, for all individuals.  He further contends that these rationales apply only in the Land of Israel, but does not seek to explain why this is so.  Here we must note that for Ramban the Land of Israel is not necessarily a physical location rather than a state of consciousness.  For our purposes, the key outcome is that the fact that mitzvot are commanded creates an obligation to fulfill them even where the rationale for the commandment does not apply.  Why should this be so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein held that the essence of Judaism is the construction of a commander-commanded (metzaveh-metzuve/ah) relationship between G-d and human beings.  Thus mitzvot fulfill a purpose even when they have no purpose.  However, Rav Lichtenstein strongly resisted Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s contention that mitzvot have no purpose other than establishing such a relationship.  Rav Wasserman would hold like Professor Liebowitz outside the Land, and like Rav Lichtenstein inside.

Rav Lichtenstein’s position further explains why mitzvot have to be commanded even inside the Land – it is the fact of commandedness that establishes the desired relationship.  Following the mitzvot because they are the right thing to do, or because G-d wants you to do them, or because they are the right thing to do and G-d wants you to do the right thing, would not generate a commander-commanded relationship.

But (why) is such a relationship the ideal?

In contrast to Rav Lichtenstein, some thinkers from both the Mitnagdic and Chassidic worlds appear to present commandedness as a bediavad, as a necessary evil or first-step that we should aspire to transcend.  In their view, the Avot did not lack anything religiously because they were not commanded.  All human beings ideally would intuitively understand G-d’s Will and act in accordance with it; they would have no need to be commanded.

This position seems to contradict Rabbi Chanina’s maxim that “greater is one who is commanded and does (metzuve/ah veoshe/ah) than one who is not-commanded and does”.

Rabbi Chanina’s maxim plays a very complex role in contemporary Orthodoxy.  On the one hand, the fundamental theological divide between Orthodoxy and liberal streams of Judaism is about whether heteronomous authority can ever be justified; where Orthodoxy differs is in the profound significance it gives to tzvui, commandedness.  On the other hand, the existence of mitzvot regarding which men but not women are commanded causes great consternation for those committed to the ontological and axiological equality of the genders, and even for those who simply believe that women have a justice-right of equal access to Heavenly rewards.

Rabbi Barukh Teomim-Frankel (18th century: Chiddushei Barukh Taam to Rosh HaShannah 28a) suggested that autonomous and heteronomous action each have unique virtues, and a Jew should aspire to achieve both.  His model is Mosheh Rabbeinu, who sought to enter the Land so that he could become obligated in those mitzvot which halakhically obligatorily, or commanded, only in Israel.   Rabbi Teomim-Frankel contends that Mosheh sought thereby to have it both ways – he would be voluntarily becoming commanded, and indeed, G-d responds by promising that he will in any case receive rewards parallel to those of the uncommanded Avot and of the commanded post-Sinai Jews.

This contention should yield a very different attitude toward the aspirations of some women to become obligated in mitzvot aseh shehazman garman than is currently regnant in much of Orthodoxy.   We could debate whether those aspirations are achievable – Moshe Rabbeinu was not allowed into Eretz Yisroel – but concede that regardless they are noble.

A different approach within Rav Lichtenstein’s framework is to say that the commanded/commanded relationship should be seen holistically rather than as constituted granularly and separately by each individual commandment.  The number and extent of commandments is irrelevant, so long as it is more than zero.

One problem with this approach is that it seems to suggest that a human being’s relationship to G-d is not enhanced when they convert to Judaism.  Why should going from “7” to “613” matter?  The likely answer is that the term “mitzvah” has more than one definition, and the Torah is commanded in a different way than the Noachide commandments.  The 20th century work Shiurei Rav Shmuel to Makkot 9a even suggests that nonJews can change their relationship to the Noachide commandments by formally accepting them as obligatory.

A potentially intriguing notion is that there are many different kinds of non-commanded relationships to mitzvot.  For example, Rabbi Mosheh Feinstein in Igrot Mosheh OC 2:25 suggests that while nonJews are not commanded to pray, they are nonetheless obligated to pray.  This is because prayer is an expression of belief in G-d, and belief in G-d is a necessary condition for commandedness.  Therefore, the fact of being commanded about anything depends on a prior obligation to act in accordance with one’s belief in G-d.

Rabbi Feinstein opens up the possibility that Jewish mitzvot as well can fulfill religious obligations even when performed by those who are not commanded.

Perhaps the practical difference between “commanded” and “obligatory” is that “commanded” actions can be significant even when performed without specific religious intent, or kavvanat hamitzvah, whereas obligatory actions must be performed in the consciousness that they express a core idea.

We can bring this dvar Torah full circle by suggesting that “commandedness” is needed for nation-building.  Since it is aimed at interhuman relationships, it requires objective action – everyone doing the same thing – rather than religious intent.  “Obligation”, by contrast, is wholly individual and aimed at human-Divine relationship, and therefore can be fulfilled only by actions undertaken with religious consciousness.

Much more can be said, and greater halakhic and philosophic rigor would be needed to say anything with confidence.  But I hope this brief essay makes a plausible case that there are more ways to conceive of the relationship between Heaven and Earth than you previously thought, or dreamed of.

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Did Egyptian Daughters Die During the Plague of the Firstborn?

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Davida Kollmar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וכתב בחידושי הרש”ש שם:

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

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

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

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

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

Rashash writes in his novellae there:

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

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

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

שמות ד:כא-כג

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

וְאָמַרְתָּ אֶל פַּרְעֹה כֹּה אָמַר יְקֹוָק בְּנִי בְכֹרִי יִשְׂרָאֵל:

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

Shemot 4:21-23

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rubashkin and the Fall of the Jedi

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Fantasy trilogies have a predictable structure.  The first book introduces the characters, their abilities, and the conflict; the third resolves the conflict on the basis of the characters’ growth or failure to grow in understanding the extent and limits of their abilities.  The middle book is mostly action scenes.  As with so many other forms of human literature, the origin of the fantasy trilogy is in Torah.  Parshat Vaera is that middle book.

In mediocre trilogies, the middle book could easily be replaced by an index card summary of the old silent-movie type (or scrolling text).  In great trilogies, the middle book makes you realize things you had completely missed in the first book, and is essential for understanding how the resolution can occur only when the hero comes to embody the initial conflict.  I suggest that great trilogies are implicit midrash, and this structure can help us recover an often-missed aspect of Sefer Shemot.

I’ll lead with this: The core conflict in Shemot is not between Mitzrayim and Yisroel, or between our G-d and theirs.  We understand from the beginning that only our G-d is real, and Benei Yisroel take almost no active part in the destruction of Mitzrayim.  (Even in the sequel, “Hashem will fight the battle for you; your task is silence”.)  No – the unresolved issue is whether Benei Yisroel can deserve redemption, or whether G-d’s love for them is unjustified nepotism.

This framing is captured by a brilliant and deeply unsettling comment of Meshekh Chokhmah.

Shemot 6:13 (for the gematriists among you, the verse that sums it all up) reads:

וידבר יקוק אל משה ואל אהרן

ויצום אל בני ישראל ואל פרעה מלך מצרים

להוציא את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים:

Hashem spoke to Mosheh and Aharon

He commanded them toward Benei Yisroel and toward Pharaoh King of Mitzrayim

so as to remove Benei Yisroel from the Land of Mitzrayim

Meshekh Chokhmah comments:

ייתכן כי גם אז במצרים

היו גדולי האומה אשר היו שרים נכבדים ואפרתים

והם היו משעבדים את בני ישראל לעבדים,

שמכרו המצרים להם . . .

לכן ציוה השם יתברך

שבני ישראל גם פרעה יוציאו את בני ישראל מהשעבוד.

It seems likely that even then in Egypt

there were greats of the nation who were honored aristocratic authorities

and they would enslave their fellows of Benei Yisroel

whom the Mitrziyim sold to them . . .

therefore Hashem may He be Blessed commanded

that Benei Yisroel and Pharaoh 

remove Benei Yisroel from the enslavement.

Mosheh and Aharon have a dual mission.  They need to destroy the Mitzri power structure that has legitimated systematic oppression.  At the same time, they need to reform the internal Jewish structures that legitimate oppression directly through collaboration and indirectly by undercutting the moral basis of the Jewish civil rights movement.

The verse implies that their mission to Benei Yisroel was primary.  I suggest that Mosheh and Aharon were not needed for the destruction of Mitzrayim, and the subsequent Exodus.  G-d could have handled those Himself, and would have done so in order to fulfill His covenant with Avraham.  But He needed Mosheh and Aharon because He hoped that the Exodus would be preceded by a moral awakening.

Meshekh Chokhmah notes that our verse is followed by a peculiarly partial genealogy that cover the tribes of Reuven, Shimon, and Levi through Mosheh and Aharon.  He suggests accordingly that these were the tribes that were most guilty of enslaving their fellows.  In other words:  Mosheh, as a prince turned civil disobedient, represents the possibility of Egyptian teshuvah.  Aharon, as the nasi of Levi, represents the possibility of Jewish teshuvah.

In this light we can see that the key moment of Parashat Shemot – the first book – is when Mosheh’s initial idealism is spoiled by the two Jews’ fighting, and their subsequent collaboration with Pharaoh to make him an outlaw.  The core conflict is whether he is right in deciding, as he does in the moment, that there is nothing to choose between the Jews and the Egyptians, and so he is best off on the sidelines in Midyan.

Readers who expect a full resolution are sadly disappointed.  The very first laws G-d gives the newly constituted Jewish nation – the preamble to whose Torah/Constitution emphasizes that G-d took them out of slavery! are about the regulation of intra-Jewish slavery.  Centuries later, Yirmiyahu haNavi (Chapter 34) tells us that these bediavad regulations were the basis of G-d’s covenant with us, and yet we could not even keep them – and so the Beit HaMikdash is destroyed, and we are sent back into exile.

So the initial trilogy is not the end of history; we’re in the middle of at least Episode 8 by now.  Chazal note that each previous Redemption has been characterized by a similar form of Divine ambivalence: does it happen because we finally deserve it, or because we’ve failed so badly that we need to be extracted lest there be no basis left for trying again?

If the pattern holds, each opening to redemption comes together with an opportunity to learn from our mistakes and to finally internalize the message that G-d loves the Jews, but he hates oppressive labor practices, and He – k’b’yakhol – wants these two emotions to be in harmony.

So far, I think, I’ve engaged in pure Torah interpretation; the ideas I’ve put forth can be judged on their fidelity to the text of Torah and/or to the ideas of Meshekh Chokhmah.   I hope that you’ll decide they are compelling interpretation, and develop your own applications, whether or not you agree with my own following application.

Mr. Sholom Rubashkin was recently released from prison.  There are compelling arguments that his sentencing was both procedurally and substantively unjust.  His family both loves him and needs him, and no one’s interests were served by keeping him imprisoned.  Every report that I have seen verifies that he did many good and important philanthropic deeds within his home community.  It is plausible that a core goal of his business was to make kosher meat more affordable, and we should be aware that his home community includes a high percentage of families that would be challenged economically even if being Orthodox carried no financial cost.

But it is also clear that Mr. Rubashkin’s business rested on a structure that allowed for and likely depended on the exploitation of workers, especially workers who were in a land not their own.  He prevented unionization; he gave workers no safe avenue to complain about bosses who extorted them or sent them into unsafe working conditions; and this despite knowingly hiring employees who were desperately vulnerable because of their immigration status.

I must make absolutely clear that I am not advocating here for either looser immigration enforcement (so illegal workers will be less vulnerable) or tighter immigration laws (so that there will be fewer undocumented workers to exploit).  My political analysis is that we have here (and in Israel) a “Baptists and bootleggers” situation, in which liberals and conservatives combine to create a moral situation much worse than either’s policies could independently create (the equivalent of making whiskey easily available but only from criminals).  But my political analysis has no claim to be Torah.

What I am claiming on the basis of Torah is that we should be very, very wary of celebrating a Jewish redemption that is not accompanied by a profound sensitivity to labor ethics.  One of the sequels to Vaera is Yirmiyahu 34.

Shabbat shalom!

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Was the חושן a Collection of Sorcerer’s Stones?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jason Strauss (SBM 2012-2014) is the rabbi of Congregation Kadimah-Toras Moshe in Brighton, MA and teaches Judaic Studies at Maimonides School in Brookline, MA.

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This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Pnina Grossman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as explained elsewhere:

שֶׁלֹא הָיָה בְּיָדָם מַעֲשִׂים טוֹבִים שֶׁיִּגָּאֲלוּ בִּשְׁבִילָם

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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From the 2018 Women’s Winter Break Beit Midrash: Issues of Kavod

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

Thank you to the amazing group of young women I had the privilege to learn with in WWBM this week!

Here’s a taste of the Torah we learned, as part of our morning seder on issues of kavod.  (Afternoon seder covered responsa on the “Heter Meah Rabbonim”, and night seder covered various aggadot.)

Mosheh Rabbeinu “hides his face” the first time G-d appears to him, because his yir’ah prevented him from gazing at the Divine.  Is this yir’ah praiseworthy, or blameworthy?

The Talmud and midrashim record opinions both ways.  This dispute can be framed in terms of the definition of the word yir’ah.  Yir’ah can mean either “fear” or “reverence”.  Perhaps we see Mosheh’s action as blameworthy if it was motivated by fear, but praiseworthy if it was motivated by reverence.

One might contend that in this framing there is no theological dispute; the issue is only factual, what was Mosheh Rabbeinu’s motive.  But it is also possible that the underlying question is whether reverence would explain Mosheh’s action.  One side assumes that reverence is properly expressed by hiding one’s face; the other assumes that this would be highly irreverent, so Mosheh’s action can only be explained on the basis of fear.

In many hierarchical societies, it is considered impertinent for people of lower social status to volitionally look their “betters” in the eyes.  “Hiding one’s face” is a gesture of subordination.  But in the same societies, ordering the “inferior” to “look you in the face” can be a gesture of total domination, and refusing such an order is a gesture of independence that defies rank.

This suggests that the right to privacy is a fundamental component of social standing.  “Betters” have the right to presume that “inferiors” will not violate their facial privacy; and they have the right to violate the facial privacy of “inferiors” at will.

In this light, we can understand Mosheh Rabbeinu’s “hiding his face” in two very different ways.  Was he trying not to look at G-d, or trying to keep G-d from seeing him?  The first would be praiseworthy, the second blameworthy.

We can also suggest in a Kotzker vein that the only way to see G-d is in your own tzelem Elokim, so that resistance to Divine Revelation is always at core resistance to truly seeing yourself, or to seeing yourself truly.

It is also the case that absolute privacy is a negative.  Living with absolute privacy means living without genuine relationship.  If no one wants to look you in the face, ordering them to do so cannot solve this problem.

Mishlei 25:2 seems to exacerbate this tension by describing both privacy and exposure as aspects of kavod, or dignity/honor:

כבד א-להים הסתר דבר

וכבד מלכים חקר דבר

The kavod of Elokim is the concealment of things

but the kavod of kings is the investigation of things.

The question is why kavod functions differently for G-d and Man.  Alternatively, we might contend that the difference is one of emphasis or degree, and that both privacy and sharing are essential elements of all kavod.

A dialectical framing of this position may emerge from Tehillim 45:14:

כל כבודה בת מלך פנימה

ממשבצות זהב לבושה

All the glory of a princess is within

Her raiment is greater than/from among those of embroidered gold

Embroidered gold garments inevitable bring to mind the High Priest’s resplendent uniform, and the Hebrew word penimah similarly alludes to the High Priest’s entry “lifnei velifnim”, into the Holy of Holies, on the Day of Atonement.  

The problem is that the High Priest does not wear his golden clothes at that point; rather, he changes into plain white.  Thus the princess represents the High Priest at a higher level than when he is wearing gold.

It is vital to recognize that in this reading the princess is not praised for remaining within, or for isolating herself from other people.  Rather, she is praised for achieving the inner sanctum.  In other words – the kavod of the princess stems from her capacity to share intimacy with G-d, not from her ability to avoid relationships with human beings.

Rav Soloveitchik argues that kavod is a function of self-determination.  This generates his radically original position that technological progress is a religious good not because it reflects better understanding of G-d’s deeds, but rather because it increases the overall dignity of the human race.  Integrating his idea into the schema above we can say that on the deepest level kavod is about the capacity to be self-determining in relationships, in terms of both avoidance and entrance.  Avoidance, however, can often be achieved by raw power.  Entry requires the genuine consent of the other party.

Thus far a philosophic and Biblical analysis.  Can this idea be integrated into halakhic treatments of kavod?

Halakhah ascribes kavod to a wide variety of things, ranging from individual people to informal groups to formally constituted congregations to mitzvot to Torah itself.  The kavod of one can conflict with the kavod of another.  Conflicts between human and Divine kavod seem likely to be philosophically productive.   

A sugya on Yerushalmi Berakhot Chapter 3 can be understood as an extended meditation on this issue. For what purposes can a kohen violate the prohibition against contracting corpse-tum’ah?  Let us take as given that they can do so for the sake of burying relatives, and for burying a corpse that would otherwise lie unburied (meit mitzvah).  What other grounds might suffice?

Two aspects of the sugya become rapidly clear.  The first is that none of the extensions are justified on the basis of Biblical prooftexts.  The second is that many of the possible extension are explicitly framed as “for the sake of kavod”, and it is possible that all of them can be understood in terms of kavod.  In other words, there seems to be an underlying intuition that kavod is a ground for overriding this specific halakhah.  What is less clear is whether kavod serves here simply as an example of a halakhic prohibition, or rather that this particular halakhah is especially susceptible to being overridden for the sake of kavod.

We might be able to lomdishly frame the issue as follows.  Rabbi Soloveitchik noted that a kohen must become tamei at the burial of a close relative, whether this is physically necessary for the burial or not.  By contrast, he may only become tamei for a meit mitzvah if necessary for the burial.  He argues in consequence that the actions have different significance.  For a meit mitzvah, becoming tamei is an accidental feature of the obligation to bury.  For a relative, becoming tamei, in other words surrendering one’s capacity to perform priestly functions in the Temple, is a necessary component of mourning.

This formulation may shed light on two issues raised in the Yerushalmi.

The first is that, on the assumption that kohanim may become tamei at the funerals of their teachers, can they eat meat and drink wine before the burial?  In other words, can they become tamei only if all the obligations of close relatives, in other words only if they regard themselves genuinely as their teacher’s sons?

The second is whether, on the assumption that kohanim may become tamei at the funeral of a nasi, whether they can also become tamei at the funeral of a nasi’s sister.  One might think that the idea makes sense only if we extend the “member of the family” conceit even further.  However, the Yerushlami explains it on the basis that “the rabbis made her the equivalent of a meit mitzvah”.

The underlying conceptual framework here may be that there are two types of kavod, one which stems from specific relationships, and the other which stems from the need to give kavod to humanity per se.  Moreover, it may be that the kavod of humanity per se is ultimately about the need to maintain one’s own dignity – no man is an island, and the loss of kavod for one – especially when that loss occurs ina  generic fashion, such as death – is a loss of kavod for all.  Similarly, the kavod of a public figure is actually the kavod of their consituents.  The kavod of a teacher, by contrast, can be understood either as honoring one’s own Torah heritage, or else as a genuine recognition of the value of another.

Today – the last day of the program – we’ll see whether these frameworks are helpful in the context of the mitzvah of kibbud av vaeim.  Stay tuned, and Shabbat shalom!


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