You Lifted Us from Amongst all the Languages

In the Amidah for Yom Tov, we credit Hashem as the one who “lifted us from among the languages”. Importance is given not just to our nationhood (“You chose us from among the nations”) but also to our bond of common language.

George Orwell made our generation very aware of how language shapes thought by having the fascist state further its thought-control through replacing current English with NewSpeak. I was recently reminded of this idea when someone on the net asked the old question, “Is Judaism a race or a religion?”

On the one hand, your Jewishness is typically inherited from your mother. This would lead one to think of Jewish identity as racial. On the other hand, we accept converts, as would a religion.

As I see it, the problem is caused by the pigeon-holing. Why must it be one or the other? Because English has these two terms readily available, we — without even thinking — try to force this concept into one of these two categories. English, though, was created by Christians, and need not have a term that describes how Judaism views itself. We don’t even notice how the language channeled our thoughts.

(For that matter, the quote that is this post’s title is not translated all that literally for this reason. We refer to ourselves as a “lashon“, a group of people united by language, who were elevated from other such groups. The Arab People are a lashon. In Darfur, Sudan, Arabs slayed numerous Africans. The Arabs shared a religion with Darfur’s Moslems. Genetically, the two groups are indistinguishable. One group speaks Arabic, and has the literature and cultural elements that comes with it. The other does not. The genocide was over leshonos, not religion or ethnicity. Yet English has no equivalent for “lashon“. And so we can ask, how close are its concepts to those denoted by “am“, “kelal“, “adas” and so on?)

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to this week’s parashah makes a similar observation. Hebrew has no word for “religion”. It’s an alien concept. “Religion” connotes a belief system, rituals, ways of escaping the world into G-d’s comfort. But Judaism is about bringing G-d’s ways into how we act and react in the everyday world.

Another example he offers is “virtue”. In Latin languages the root is “vir”, manliness, virility. The German equivalent, “Tugend”, is from “taugen”, meaning useful. In Hebrew, the word is “mitzvah” a commandment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l, pointed out how it had also had connotations of the root mem-tzadi-vuv, and could indicate “to aim” or “to focus”. There is no way for a Hebrew speaking person to talk about doing the right thing without some level of his mind getting vague hints that the “right thing” is “doing what G-d commanded so that we may achieve His goals for us”.

The Torah begins the story by telling us “The whole earth was of one language and uniform ideas (devarim)” (Breishis 11:1). The source of the problem was not only that their ability to communicate aided their plans, but it also lead them to being of like mind. One person was able to mislead an entire generation.

According to traditional histories, Avram was 48 when the Tower of Babel was built. He was an adult who consciously chose not to participate in the endeavor. And as a reward, when the other clans were given their own languages, causing them to spread out and become separate nations, Avram was not so punished, and still spoke and thought in Hebrew.

The gift of speaking Hebrew, then, is no small thing. It’s not just exposure to a holier mode of speech. Hebrew gives us the tools to organize our concepts in the way Hashem intended. Instead of asking whether Judaism is a race or a religion, with the connotation of those words, we can look at Am Yisrael, and Adas Yisrael, and the meaning given those terms by the Chumash.

Parashas Lekh-Lekha 5756

Most young Yeshiva children come home sometime around Shavuos with the story of how Hashem offered the Torah to all the nations of the world, but only the Jews accepted it.

The medrash, as told in the Yalqut Shim’oni, tells how first Hashem went to Edom and offered them the Torah. They asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replied, “Do not murder”. Edom declines because “our very substance is murder because our father, Eisav, was a murderer”.

Next, Hashem approaches Ammon and Moav. When they asked, “What is written in it?” Hashem replies “You may not commit adultery”. They too reject the Torah, because, “our very substance is adultery because our father, Lot, was sexually immoral”.

The third example given in the Yalkut is the Ishmaelites. They too want to first know what is written in the Torah before accepting it. To them Hashem says, “Do not steal”. They answer, “our very substance is theft, because our father, Yishmael, was a thief”. In this way, each nation declined, until Hashem approached the Jews.

Hashem’s answer to each of the nations is strange. Why choose the one sin their forefather was known for? Especially since in each of these cases the sin is prohibited to all Benei Noach; they may not do any of these things even without getting the Torah.

By comparing this medrash to the opening pasuk in this week’s parshah, we can get a better understanding of the point of the story.

“Hashem said to Avram, ‘Go for yourself from your homeland, from your birthplace and from your father’s house to the land which I will show you’.” (12:1) The first sentence recorded in the Torah of the Jewish mission on earth is a commandment for Avram to leave his home and his father.

Avram didn’t say, “I can’t worship G-d because my very substance his idolatry, because my father, Terach, manufactures idols”. Hashem orders Avram to leave the culture that made him, to leave his father’s sphere of influence, and he does.

Avram’s reply was “And Avram went, just as G-d told him”. (12:4) If Hashem said he could change, rise above Ur Casdim to become fit for both the land of Israel and the father of the people of Israel, then he goes.

Is man a creature of fate or of destiny? Is his future foretold, etched in rock, unchangeable? Or can he rebuild himself into something greater than he was?

Clearly the Torah insists on the latter. The very key to accepting the Torah is to be committed to use its ideas and its mitzvos to improve and to grow.

This was the failing ascribed to the other nations in the medrash. They saw a given flaw in their national character as their substance, immutable. Hashem wasn’t asking them about a particular prohibition, but about their commitment to leave their “father’s house”. If they do not believe they can change, what purpose can getting the Torah serve them?

Of Arks and Rainbows

There are two events in the Torah that can be identified as yeshu’os, by which I mean events where Hashem saved someone even though they didn’t really merit it.

The more obvious is Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, the Exodus. Hashem saved us just as we were slipping from the “49th level of impurity” into being hopelessly corrupt. And in the introduction before Az Yashir, the song by the Red Sea, we are told that “Vayosha’ Hashem… — and Hashem saved on that day Israel from the hands of Egypt…” (Shemos 14:30)

An earlier example is when Hashem saved Lot and his family from the destruction of Sodom. There too Lot was saved primarily in Avraham’s merit, that Avraham should be spared the pain of losing his nephew.

There is a common feature in these two stories. The ones being saved are restrained from rejoicing over the fall of those who were not. I would suggest that this is a property of yeshu’ah. Without the element of witnessing divine justice, there is no justification for reveling in the fall of the wicked. And here the potential witness was saved by Hashem’s mercy, justice isn’t in evidence.

Among the reasons the gemara (Megillah 14a) gives us for why we do not recite full Hallel on the last day(s) of Pesach is a medrash about G-d’s discontent with the angels joining in our singing Az Yashir. “The work of My ‘Hands’ are drowning in the sea, and you sing?” The day we crossed the sea is not to be one of unrestrained joy. Note that we do not have a similar muting of the joy of Chanukah, despite the deaths of the Saleucids and Hellenized Jews. The Exodus, however, was a yeshu’ah.

With Lot this point is particularly stressed. Lot was told not even to look back at the destruction. His wife was turned into salt for trying to do so.

What about Noach? Was his a yeshu’ah, or did he earn being saved?

There is a famous Rashi on the words of the first verse of this week’s parashah. “Noach was a wholehearted man in his generation.” (Ber’ 6:9) Rashi notes two interpretations of this comment. On the one hand, it could be taken as a compliment of Noach. Even in the environment and culture of Noach’s contemporaries, he was still a good person. Alternatively, it could be taken as a criticism. By the low expectations of that period, he was a good man. But had he lived in Avraham’s day, he would have been a nobody.

There is another debate recorded in Rashi that also touches on our question. In (6:16) Noach is told to make a tzohar for the ark. Rashi quotes Bereishis Raba, and again there are two positions. One defines “tzohar” to be a window, the other a gem.

I would like to suggest that these two Rashis are recording different aspects of the same disagreement. According to the first position, we look at Noach in terms of the relative scale of his potential. Noach did an excellent job, given what he had to work with. In that light, he merited being saved. Therefore, Noach was not in the position of Lot, he was allowed to see what transpired to his peers. Therefore, this tanna would have no problem saying that the ark had a window through which Noach could see out.

The second looks at him in an absolute scale. By that standard, he didn’t get as far. His salvation would therefore be seen as an act of Divine Mercy, a yeshu’ah. So to this opinion, the tzohar couldn’t have been a window. It was a gem that obscured his view.

After Noach left the ark, Hashem made a covenant with him. Hashem gave Noach seven mitzvos for all of humanity to observe and promised Noach that He would never again flood the entire world.

There are two seemingly contradictory halachos about rainbows. The first is that we make a berachah of thanks when seeing a rainbow (Berachos 59a). On the other hand, we are told not to gaze at a rainbow because it’s a sign of Divine Anger, that G-d is telling us that it’s only his promise to Noach that keeps Him from again flooding the world. (Chagiga 16a)

There is another difference between having the light come into the ark via a window or a gem. Light that comes in through a cut stone will be refracted. The inside walls of the ark would have been covered with little rainbows.

Perhaps this is another reason why G-d chose the rainbow to be the sign of his covenant with Noach. The rainbow reminds us that the world is our “ark” by painting a similar spectrum on our “walls”. The sign of the rainbow is therefore that of a yeshu’ah, of unmerited salvation. For which we should be thankful, but not proud.

Miqeitz: Time and Process

The parashah opens “Vayhi mikeitz sh’nasayim yamim — and it was at the end of a pair of years of days”. After Yosef spent two years in prison, Par’oh’s dream leads the wine steward to remember Yosef and eventually leads to his redemption. But why does the pasuk say “sh’nasayim yamim”, rather than just “shenasayim”? [1]

Second, why is the term used here for the arrival of the denoted time “mikeitz”, at the endpoint (from “katzeh”, edge [2])? How does it differ from saying that the “z’man”, or “eis” (both meaning “time”) had arrived?

This duplication of terms for time is echoed in next week’s parashah, when Ya’akov describes his age to Par’oh as “The days of the years of my travels…” [3] as well as at the beginning of parashas Vayechi, in counting out Ya’akov avinu’s lifespan, “… And the days of Ya’akov was, the years of his life…” [4] The repetition implies that there are distinct concepts. Yom and shanah refer to different things.

Most ancient societies viewed time as cyclic. Among the motivations suggested [5] for the building of the Tower of Bavel was the fear that the flood was part of a 1,656-year cycle, and they would need to prepare for a second flood.

The position is understandable. Plato [6] concludes that since our means of measuring time was the cyclic movement of astronomical objects so must the time they define be cyclic. The month and its cycle of phases, the year and its cycle of seasons define a cycle of time. The seasonal cycle also shapes the farmer’s lifestyle into cycles. Time cannot be measured without a predictable repetition of events, be it the falling of grains of sand, the swing of a pendulum, the escapement of a clock, the vibration of a quartz crystal or the waves of light emitted by cesium atoms.

This mindset is alien to modern man. The contemporary western view of time is linear, a dimension — a progress from the primitive to the advanced. This notion that history progresses comes from Judaism, from our view of time as running from First Cause to Ultimate Purpose, a history spanning from Adam to the Messianic Era and beyond. This acceptance is an accomplishment of the Chashmona’i revolution against the Greek mindset. Linear time gives us a view of man in which he can redeem himself; he is not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over. On the other hand, Judaism simultaneously embraces a cyclic view of time. As the Hagaddah phrases the purpose of the seder, “A person is obligated to see himself as though he himself came out of Egypt.” Every Shavuos we are to accept the Torah anew. Our holidays not only repeat the cycle of the Exodus, they are tied to agricultural events and thereby the cycle of seasons. The holiday is both reliving the Sukkos of the desert as well as celebrating bringing in our crops. [7]

The Zohar [8] describes a system of grammatical gender follows the conventions of sexual reproduction: Biblical Hebrew uses masculine nouns for those things that we think of as initiators that start a process. Feminine nouns take that seed and develop it into something more complete and usable. “Yom”, being in the masculine is therefore an initiator. “Yom” represents a unit of progress. It is a unit of linear time, a progress from birth to death. The culmination of history is notably called “acharis hayamim” [9] and in the navi, “yom Hashem” [10].

In contrast, “shanah” is from the same root as “two”, “to repeat”, “to learn”, or “to change”, and perhaps even that of “to age” and “to sleep”, as in “venoshantem ba’aretz” [11].

Shanah speaks of a retreat. A person can actively embrace that retreat, use it as a chance to build on what one already has. Or, it can be a time when he simply is a victim of circumstance.

While there is a need for progress, there is also a need to step back, to review, to develop the idea into something we can incorporate within ourselves and can use as a basis for future growth. It can be a time to regain a balance between technological progress and one’s basic humanity and values. If he embraces and uses the time, then he has achieved productive review, “years of days”.

Perhaps this is why the Malbim [12] explains Ya’akov avinu’s reply to Par’oh as having two parts. To Par’oh’s question about years, he answers that he traveled this earth 130 years. About days, Ya’akov laments that he did not use his time as productively as did his fathers, “Few and insufficient were the days of my life’s years, and they never reached the days of the years of my forefather’s lives.” [13]

R’ Aharon Kotler zt”l commented to a student on the occasion of the birth of the student’s son about the phrase “The bris should be be’ito ubizmano”, using both “eis” and “z’man” to denote its proper time. Rav Aharon explained the difference. If the baby is healthy, then the bris is at the pre-decided time, on the eighth day. If not, then it will be at the right time for that individual baby. Ideally the bris would be at both.

A z’man is a time that comes according to a pre-scheduled appointment, ready or not. It is a point in a shanah, in cyclic time that runs its celestial heartbeat regardless of human action. And so, the repeat of the exodus is “Z’man Cheiruseinu”, our time of freedom. An eis is a landmark in the course of progression. And so, one is “kovei’ah ittim baTorah”, one sets aside times for Torah.

But neither a z’man nor an eis can represent the goal of the trip. Reflection without progress and progress without reflection as to its purpose does not get one to a meaningful goal. A keitz, an endpoint, can only come from both.

Yosef’s experience in the pit was not simply measured in years of survival, but also in personal progress. After the culmination, the qeitz, of shenasayim yamim, he was ready to emerge a leader.


[1] We find the exact same turn of phrase in Shmuel II 14:28 and Yirmiyahu 28:3. In all three cases, the time measured is one in which someone (here — Yosef, Avshalom in Shmuel II) or something (the utensils of the Beis HaMikdash in Yirmiyahu) was in hiding.

[2] C.f. Shemos 36:33, “And he made the middle bar to pass through the boards [of the Mishkan] from the katzeh to the katzeh.”

[3] Bereishis 47:8

[4] Ibid. v. 28. Notable is the use of singular “hayah” referring to the days.

[5] Bereishis Rabba 38:1, third opinion

[6] Timaeus 36c-d

[7] Vayikra 23:39,43

[8] Pinechas 249a-b

[9] Eg. Sukkah 52b

[10] Eg. Malachi 4:5

[11] Devarim 4:25

[12] Bereishis 47:8

[13] Bereishis 47:9

Ki Arumim Heim

“And the snake was [more] arum than all the animals of the field…” (Bereishis 3:1)In this pasuq, “arum” is variously translated. JPS has “subtle”. Others have “sly”, “cunning”, and the like. In Iyov (5:12), Elifaz describes Hashem as One Who “annuls the thoughts of arumim”. In these contexts, it would appear that being an “arum” is no compliment. But in the very next pasuq in Iyov (v. 13), it is attributed to Hashem, who “overtakes the wise in ormah”! And in Mishlei (12:16), “A fool — in the moment his anger will be known; but the arum covers an insult.” The word “arum” describes a kind of wisdom that isn’t entirely negative.Then we get further in the story of Gan Eden, and after Chavah and Adam eat from the fruit, “Their eyes were opened and they knew they were eirumim.” (3:7) Same root, but in this case the translation is consistently “naked”.

Another point that confused me about the story is the choice of word used for garment when Hashem dresses them. There are a number of such words: “beged”, which is the same root as “bagad”, to spy; “kesus”, a covering… The latter in particular would have been the more obvious choice. They were ashamed of their nudity, so Hashem covered them. However, HQBH chose to call the garments “kasnos or” (v. 21), “leather tunics”. The next time we encounter the concept of a “kusones” is in the garments made for kohanim (Shemos 28:4). Hashem gave Adam and Chavah uniforms, something that implies a mission and a station. This isn’t simply a response to physical nudity.

Our rabbis retold: Yisrael are dear, for HQBH surrounded them with mitzvos; tefillin on their heads, tefillin on their arms, tzitzis on their clothing, and mezuzos on their doorposts. Of these [King] David said, “Seven times a day do I praise You by Your righteous laws.” (Tehillim 119:164). When David went to the bathhouse and saw himself arum, he said: “Woe is me, that I stand arum without a mitzvah.” But when he remembered the milah in his flesh, his mind was set at rest. After he left, he gave song, as it says “For the conductor, on the eighth [lit: an eight-stringed instrument, but intended here to be milah, the eighth mitzvah] a song of praise of David.” (12:1)
– Menachos 43b

To be arum is to have wisdom, but no mitzvos, no higher goal to which to set it. The snake was arum in this sense. The wise person who Hashem frustrates is one who abuses that wisdom, plotting how to do something better off undone.

Chavah and Adam ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and suddenly they realized they were arumim. They realized there is such a thing as having a higher calling as opposed to wasting one’s life in frivolity. No longer was a life of “working and protecting” (c.f. 2″15) the garden sufficient. In full realization of their ability to create, they had a need to produce, to properly channel their knowledge.

Hashem removes them from Gan Eden, from a position where one can live on dependency, and needs only to preserve what was given. Instead, He gives them kusnos or, uniforms for a life of creative service.

The power of speech

I had an epiphany during leining this past Shabbos (parashas Bereishis). Such things are notoriously difficult to convey, but I’ll try anyway.Usually, shmuessin on the subject of shemiras halashon revolve around showing how much power is in speech, how speach is a real “thing”, and has a challos (impact) the world.I realized something, though: It’s the exact reverse! It’s not merely that speech is a real thing, the point is that every real thing is in truth “just” speech! All of creation is “And E-lokim was saying….” Our words have power because words are the more primary ontology, they are more real than, and the source of, objects.

But the name of the city was “Luz” originally

And he [Ya’aqov] called the name of that place Beis-el, but the name of the city was Luz originally.

– Bereishis 28:19

Luz, the original name for Beis-el, is apparently the name of a kind of tree, usually translated “chestnut”. It’s one of the kinds of wood from which Ya’aqov avinu made sticks for the sheep and goats to look at while drinking.

Bereishis Rabba (69:8) discusses the amazing properties of living in the city of Luz:

  • They always told the truth.
  • No one in the city died. When people got old and tired, they needed to move out for nature to take its course.
  • The city was never conquered by Sancheirev, and wasn’t destroyed by Nevuchadnetzar at the end of the first commonwealth. Even though both invaded Luz.
  • Luz is where they made the tekheiles dye.

Luz is also the name of a special bone in the body, where the skull and spine meet. Two medrashim associate the luz bone with Hadrian y”sh. Bereishis Rabba has him trying to grind a luz and failing. There’s a strong parallel to the city of Luz resisting conquest at the end of the first beis hamiqdash, since the Hadrianic persecutions are at the end of the second commonwealth. Second, Qoheles Rabba has Hadrian asking R’ Yehoshua’ ben Chananyah about techiyas hameisim, and RYbC explains that Hashem starts by softening the luz with dew.

(This connection to dew is why the praise of “morid hatal — He Who lowers dew” is in the berakhah of Shemoneh Esrei that ends “Who revives the dead”. It also explains why there is a version in which one says in the summer “morid hatul”, with a qamatz, making it the end of the sentence with “mechayei hameisim”, while in the summer they would say “umorid hageshem” is with two segol’s, connected to “mekhalkeil chaim” — rain being necessary for this life — “bechesed”…)

Luz seems particularly connected with Yaiaqov, the one who renames it. First, his service of G-d centers around emes, truth, the middah exemplified by the citizens of Luz. He uses the luz sticks. And according to the Ben Ish Chai, there is a connection to his father-in-law’s and brother-in-law’s names, as well as his own names/titles.

And the mequbbalim write: There is a bone in a person’s body which receives no benefit from food, except from the se’udah revi’is on Motza’ei Shabbos. And this bone does not disintegrate in the grave. It is called variously “niscoi”, “luz”, and “besu’el”. These three names have the acronym of “lavan”, which are also the final letters of Yisrael, Yaakov and Yeshurun, and from this bone the body will be rebuilt at techiyas hameisim, and this is specifically applied to Israel only, as the pasuk says: “Ve’atem hadeveqim Bashem E-lokeikhem, chayim kulekhem hayom — and you who cleave to Hashem your G-d, you are all alive today”.

– Ben Ish Chai, yr. 2, Bereishis 27

So, given that Luz was renamed Beis-el, why does the gemara and medrash sometime refer to the city as “Luz”? (Particularly when referring to the city in the times of Sancheirev and Nevuchadnetzar, after many years of it being the Kingdom of Israel’s Beis-el.) And what exactly is the common theme here between the tree, the city, the bone and all the people?

The mishnah says “derekh eretz qodmah laTorah — proper behavior in society is a prerequisite to Torah.” Our aggaditos and midrashim seem to converge on underscoring that point. Luz is the city of truth, it has the permanence of truth both territorially and in the lifespans of its inhabitants. And it’s truth, the personality trait about which Yaiaqov centers his service of Hashem, which determines techiyas hameisim. All of these medrashim refer to Luz, to the trait. When referring to applying the pursuit of truth to Torah study or worshipping Hashem, then we progress from Luz to Beis-el.

The stick shows the influence of environment. As does the longevity only imparted when one is actually in the city. Luz, the trait, is not a personal endeavor. (Which raises questions of emes vs. shalom, coordinating truth and peace.)

The bone luz is situated just where the mind connects to the body. It is therefore, in a very real sense, “beis keil”, G-d’s “home” in this world. Ya’aqov builds a circle of stones in which to sleep at this spot, which — as R’ Hirsch notes ad loc — is the first home of Israel. He gets a vision of a ladder between heaven and earth, an externalized luz bone between mind and body.

Once one has the foundation of “Luz”, one has the proper personality and attitude to provide some solidity in time and in social context. Then one is capable of building that derekh eretz into Torah, making their soul a house of G-d.

Parshas Vayeitzei: Mountain, Field, House

The Gemara (Pesachim 88a) discusses the future return to the Beis Hamikdash in terms of a quote from this week’s parashah.

And R. Elazar said: What is it when it says (Yeshaiah 2) “And many nations will go and say ‘Let us go and go up to the mountain of Hashem, to the house of the G-d of Yaacov!'”? [Does it mean] the G-d of Yaacov, but not the G-d of Avraham and Yitzchak? Rather, [Yeshaia means] not like Avraham, by whom it is written “har, a mountain, as it says (Bereishis 22) “which is called today The Har Where Hashem will be Seen”, and not like Yitzchak, by whom it is written “sadeh“, a field, as it says (Bereishis 24) “and Yitchak went out to converse [with G-d] in the field”. Rather like Yaacov, by whom it is written “bayis“, a house, as it says (Bereishis 28) “And he called the name of the place Beis-El.”

Each of the forefathers had an encounter with G-d at Moriah. To Avraham it was a har, to Yitzchak, a sadeh, and to Yaacov, a bayis. R. Elazar is saying that the third Beis Hamikdash will be similar to Yaakov’s experience, a bayis.

R. Yisrael Avraham Abba Krieger (Divrei Yisrael I) explores the meaning of each of these terms, to help us understand how each of the avos related to G-d, and how this is reflected in the Batei Mikdosh.

To Avraham, it was like climbing a mountain. Not everyone can climb a mountain, and even then you need favorable conditions — rain can wash away the trail, wind can cause landslides. As King David wrote, “Who can climb onto the Har of G-d?” Avraham’s encounter at Moriah was during the akeidah the last of ten challenges he faced to get to this point. He had to climb from an environment ignorant of G-d, and struggle until he reached the pinacle.

Yitzchak was able to build from that platform. He didn’t need to struggle go to some remote inaccessible place. He davened in the middle of the sadeh. With no borders, allowing the holiness to radiate to the rest of the world.

Yaacov came to Moriah, and found a bayis. While a sadeh does not require that kind of struggle, it is still open to the elements. A bayis protects those who enter it.

We can find these same three kinds of relationships looking at the three Batei Mikdosh.

When Yehoshuah came to the land, after 40 years in the desert, he had to conquer it. We went through the struggles of that era, the Shoftim, and Shaul before we were ready to build the First Beis Hamikdosh. It was the top of the har, high and glorious, but hard to reach.

The problem with the trail up the har is that if you veer even a bit from the road of halacha, you are no longer at the peak. R. YAA Krieger draws the image of the Yom Kippur scapegoat, pushed off the edge of the mountain, and falling until destroyed. So too the first commonwealth. When we couldn’t maintain that spiritual height, we plummeted into exile.

Zerubavel, Yeishua, Nechemia and Ezra regroup to rebuild the Second Beis Hamikdosh. It didn’t have the loftiness of the first, the aron and other articles of the kodesh hakadashim were missing, as was the pillar of cloud that represented Hashem’s presence over the aron. The elders who saw the second bayis remembered the first and cried, only the youth rejoiced. It was a sadeh, not as lofty, but there was no struggle to climb.

As the Jews lost grounding, other nations, the Hellenes, the Romans, entered the sadeh. It has no border, no protection from the winds that blow us about the face of the earth. After a while, Rome — whose ancestor Eisav was called in last week’s parashah a ‘man of the sadeh‘, destroyed the Temple, and scattered us.

The Third Temple, however, will be in Yaacov’s mode. It will be a bayis, a home, protecting us from the elements, spiritual protection insuring permanence to the kingdom and the ideals it will stand for. “For My bayis will be called a beis tephillah, a house of prayer for all the nations.”

When learning this dvar Torah, I was reminded of a verse which appears to imply the opposite, “And I will remember My covenant of Yaakov and even My covenant of Yitzchak, and even My covenant of Avraham, and the land I will remember”. Here it appears that the final return to Israel will be built on Avraham’s mode, not Yaacov’s.

There is a famous gemara which talks about Hashem “wearing tephillin”, as it were. The verse in His “tephillin” is “And who is like Your nation Israel, a singular people in the land”. While our tephillin speak of our attachment to G-d, His are about our love for Him. Similarly, we call the holidays by what Hashem did for us, while He calls them by what we do for Him. We call it Pesach, to recall how Hashem skipped our doors the night of the tenth plague. In the Torah, the holiday is named after the mitzvah of Matzos.

We approach this relationship thinking of the bayis, the protection and home G-d provides for us. Hashem “remembers” the covenant of Avraham, the years of climbing the har, of 10 trials and wandering in the desert. This is typical of all good relationships, where each focuses on what they’ve recieved, and not what they’ve given.

To this day, each new son is marked with the os bris, the sign of the covenant with Avraham. In the merit of this os and keeping the covenant of serving G-d even when challenges stand in our way, may we merit to soon see the day of the permanent bayis.

Noach and the Use of Wine

We were discussing on Avodah the origins of the idea of Qiddush. I argued that the notion of celebrating or thanking G-d with wine would seem to be one people would stumble upon naturally, arguing from Noach’s instinct to plant a vineyard.

Rn Toby Katz noted that I was making an unsupported assumption:

“Celebrating”? as Noach celebrating the “human condition” of having almost everyone you know dead in a world-wide catastrophe, and desperately wanting to escape the pain and grief of it all?

Interesting question: Was Noach drinking to forget, or to thank G-d for being saved? I really just assumed the latter. But looking at the context, I can see why I did so.Here is the sequence. Noach:
– gets off the ark,
– brings olos (entirely consumed offerings) thanking Hashem for being saved, and
– enters into a covenant with HQBH.

This covenant ends with “peru urevu … umora’akhem vechitekhem” (a repetition of the blessing to Adam to be fruitful, multiply, and dominate the creatures of the earth). In
short, the attention is firmly on rebuilding a future. As it is the introduction to the story about Noach getting drunk, where Hashem again lists those who left the ark, and introduces Kenaan.

So that explains why my mind went in that direction.

Looking at Rashi to answer this question, I also noticed the following:

Rashi makes a point of telling you that Kenaan is introduced because this story explains the root of Kenaan’s cursed state. Notice that it all starts with wine.

In saying Noach returned to his tent, the word “ohaloh” is oddly spelled with a final hei rather than ending with a vav to complete a full cholam, the usual suffix for “his”. Rashi tells us this is a reference to the 10 Shevatim, who were also called Ahalah — after the Shomeron. (A nickname for the Northern Kingdom that finds its way into Yom Kippur’s Qinos.) And why? Because the 10 Shevatim were lead astray through grape – “hashosim bemizreqei yayim — who drink wine from bowls and annoint themselves with the first of the oils, but are not pained by the downfall of Yosef (Amos 6:6)”.

There would seem to be an implied undercurrent of the 10 Tribes being accused of assimilating the attitude toward wine their Canaanite neighbors picked up from / demonstrated in this story.

And, judging from Amos, the problem with wine that Rashi is focusing on when explicating the story of Noach is inappropriate revelry.


( You will notice that this entry is pretty much straight lomdus rather than my usual fare. When I wrote Rafi’s bar mitzvah speech, I ran overly long. Here is an even longer earlier edition, but one that is more complete in covering my thoughts on the subject. -mi)

In parashas Behar (25:18), it says:

“Vesapharta lekha sheva` shabasos shanim sheva` shanim sheva` pe`amim vehayu lekha yemei sheva` shabasos hashanim teisha vi’arbai`im shanah.”

“And you shall count for yourself seven sabbaths of years seven years seven times and i shall be for you the days of the seven sabbaths of years 49 years.”

The Torah here is discussing the mitzvah of Yovel, of the Jubilee year. The word “yovel” refers to the blast of the shofar which is blown on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year. In that year, any land that was divided by Joshua amongst the tribes is returned to the family that it was allotted to. Also, in the yovel year, all slaves are freed.

Yovel only applies when “kol yosheveha aleha — all of Israel’s inhabitants live on it”. Only when the majority of all 12 tribes and Levi are living within their ancestral borders — again, as Yehoshu’a divided them — does Yovel apply. There has not been a Yovel since the fall of the Kingdom of Israel, or perhaps even since the tribes in Transjordan were exiled, in the first Temple period.

The Torah is being pretty wordy, and that isn’t its normal style. Usually, the Torah will use the fewest words possible to get the idea across. Extra words imply extra, not obvious, ideas.

The Torah tells us that there is a mitzvah to count the number of years between two yovelos, two jubilee years. But why does Hashem spell out that we should count 7 cycles of seven years, and then again to count 49 years? Do we need Hashem to tell us that seven times seven is forty-nine? Can’t we do the math ourselves?

When it comes to the mitzvah of counting omer, the Torah uses similar terms. Omer is a special grain sacrifice brought during this time of year, every day from the 2nd day of Pesach, of Passover, until Shavuos. During this period there is also an obligation to count out 49 days. For example, last night we said, in Hebrew, “Today is 42 days which is 6 weeks in the omer.” There are two parts, counting 42 days, and counting 6 weeks.

For counting omer, the Torah in Vayikra (23:15) says:

“Vesafartem lachem mimocharas hashabas miyom havi’achem es omer hatenufah sheva` shabasos temimos tihyenah. Ad mimacharas hashabas hashevi`is, tisperu chamishim yom.”

“And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the day of rest, from the day you bring the raised omer offering it shall be seven whole weeks until the day after the seventh week, you shall count fifty days”.

The two are very similar, but we can also see some subtle differences.

The first is that by omer the Torah speaks in the plural — “vesafartem” is “and you shall count” when “you” means many people. By our pasuq, by yovel, the word is “vesaphrta”, “and you will count” speaking to only one “you”.

This is because the mitzvah of counting for yovel isn’t on each and every Jew, the way omer is. Each of us count omer. Each person needs to prepare themselves for Shavuos, for reliving getting the Torah. Yovel is one mitzvah for the entire Jewish people as a whole. The one “you” counting the years toward yovel is the nation.

Since we can’t all count together, Sanhedrin has the obligation to count as the representatives of Benei Yisra’el.

The Hapanim Yafos says that the reason why the math is spelled out by yovel is for the same reason as by omer. We learn from the pasuq by omer that we need to count both 49 days and seven weeks. As we said there are two parts to the count. Similarly when Sanhedrin would count the years toward yovel, they would have to count that it was “the 39th year” as well as being “the 5th cycle of 7 years, the 4th year of that cycle”.

There is a mitzvah that comes in cycles of 7 years, one that we just started, called shemittah. In the seventh year, the shemittah year, farmers in Israel are not permitted to work the land. The land of Israel rests. Also, in that year, all loans are forgiven.

The Torah is combining the mitzvos of shemittah and yovel, of the sabbatical and jubilee years. In fact, it is the opinion of Rebbe (given in the Yerushalmi, Shevi`is, 10:2) that whenever one does not apply, neither does the other. Since there is no yovel, shemittah today can not be the real mitzvah. We observe it only as a commemoration, to keep the mitzvah alive until we do once again live in Israel.

When Rebbe’s opinion appears in the Talmud Bavli, though, it is cited as part of a disagreement. Rebbe still says that shemittah today is not the biblical mitzvah, but his peers, the other rabbis, say that it is. That even without yovel, the Torah’s idea of shemittah still stands.

The later sages, Abayei and Rava, are quoted in the Talmud in three places trying to explain various rulings about shemittah in light of this debate. As we will see, Abayei’s position is quite clear — he assumes that the law is like Rebbe, that shemittah isn’t the biblical shemittah, and therefore one can take some leniencies. Rava’s isn’t as straightforward.

The first of these discussions is in Moed Katan 2b. There the mishnah says that one may water a fields that is on a slope, and must be watered manually, during the shemittah year. The gemara asks how this is permissible — how is one permitted to tend a field by watering it during shemittah? Abayei answers that the mishnah is like Rebbe. This wouldn’t be too surprising, since Rebbe is the one who compiled the entire structure of Mishnah, including this one. But this means that the mishnah permits watering a field on the side of a mountain because it assumes that shemittah today isn’t real shemittah.

Rava says that one can even say that the mishnah goes like the Rabbanan, the rabbis other than Rebbe, who say that shemittah is from the Torah even today. However, the Torah only prohibited the av, the actual kind of tending one’s field as framed for the laws of resting on Shabbos. Shemittah does not include any tolados, other derivatives of the same basic idea that are close enough for Shabbos to prohibit. What is being permitted in the mishnah is only one of these tolados, derivatives.

Note that Rava doesn’t actually say that he holds like the other sages. It is possible that he personally rules that shemittah is no longer the biblical shemittah. However, in explaining the mishnah, he can understand the mishnah even without assuming its author agrees.

The second gemara is in Gitin (36b). This gemara should help us understand Rava’s position.

In Gitin, the gemara asks about the justification for the law of “pruzbul“. As we said, normally all loans end at shemittah, and can’t be collected any more. Hillel enacted a kind of loophole, called pruzbul. It’s a contract, by which the loan is handed over to the court and thereby there is no one person who is obligated to annul the loan. In this way, people would still be willing to lend money to those who need it — even late in the sixth year. If they need to collect on the loan, they can write up a pruzbul and still collect.

The gemara asks how Hillel could have enacted pruzbul — doesn’t is defy a major point of shemittah?

And again Abayei appeals to Rebbe’s idea to explain the leniency. Since this isn’t the biblical shemittah, Hillel is not overriding the Torah. Maybe we can explain Abayei’s idea further by suggesting that since shemittah today is a commemoration, one remembers the Torah’s mitzvah when he does the pruzbul, and that’s enough.

The gemara continues and asks: but still, you’re overriding an earlier Rabbinic enactment. Even with our suggested reasoning behind his ruling, how does Hillel have the authority to do override an earlier and greater court?

Rava provides an answer, but we’re not sure which question he’s answering: the original one — how can Hillel override shemittah? Or the later one — how can he override even rabbinic shemittah?

According to Rashi, Rava answers the original question. In other words, he is starting from ground zero, that shemittah isn’t necessarily from the rabbis. Instead Rava assumes that shemittah is from the Torah even today, and uses a different principle. Hefker beis din hefker — something a court declares ownerless is ownerless. One once they make it ownerless, they can give it to someone else. So, they can make the borrowed money ownerless and hand it back to the lender. And on those grounds, he justifies pruzbul.

In other words, Rashi says that Rava does hold like the other Rabbis, that the Torah’s shemittah applies even today.

Tosafos disagree with Rashi. They say he is coming to answer the second question and he is adding to Abayei’s answer. They say that even according to Rava, the law is like Rebbe, and we assume shemittah is NOT biblical.

Rava is answering how Hillel can overturn the earlier sages, those who said we should continue to observe shemittah as a commemoration. He says that Hillel doesn’t override them. Instead, the court is using its power to hand money from one person to another.

Tosafos therefore have no later sage who upholds the opinion that shemittah today is from the Torah, so they clearly rule that it isn’t.

But, Rashi makes this out to be a debate between Abayei and Rava as well. Abayei, like Rebbe, says that shemittah is only a commemoration; while Rava, like the other Rabbis of Rebbe’s day, says that the original Torah law still applies.

However, Rashi states his own position when explaining a third gemara. Sanhedrin (25a) again questions a leniency about shemittah. The Romans levied a new tax, and R’ Yanai allowed sowing during shemittah so that people could pay it in the seventh year too. Rashi there assumes that the law is Rabbinic, and R’ Yannai rules that they never imposed such a costly commemoration. Much like Abayei’s explanation of why one can water a field that is sloped.

In contrast to Rashi and Tosafos, the Ramban comments on Gitin, the gemara on pruzbul, that shemittah is from the Torah even today. After all, this is the majority opinion against Rebbe, and we almost always rule like the majority. This is also the opinion of the 19th century responsa of the Beis Haleivi and the Netziv.

On the other hand, the Me’iri on that gemara in Gitin is MORE lenient than anyone else we mentioned so far. He says that not only isn’t the mitzvah from the Torah, there isn’t even a rabbinic mitzvah of shemittah today! During the 2nd Temple period, a rabbinic yovel was observed. The Me’iri understands Rebbe to say that when that rabbinic yovel existed, there was also a rabbinic shemittah. However, today shemittah is only a minhag chassidus, a nice custom, not a halachah.

All this helps us understand our opening pasuq from the Torah. We are told to count “sheva` shabasos shanim” — seven sabbaths, shemittos, of years, because shemittah is inherently connected to yovel.

Perhaps we can go one step further. There is a debate in Eiruchin (24b) as to when the eighth shemittah ought to be. Should it be seven years after the previous shemittah, like the weeks, going by sevens forever? Or, do we not count the yovel year toward the seven for shemittah?

In the first opinion, given by R’ Yehudah, one yovel could be the year after the seventh shemittah. But the next shemittah will be only SIX years after that. So that by the time you get to the 50th year the next time around, it will be the SECOND year after shemittah. Yovel‘s place within the shemittah cycle will drift.

Going back to the two quotes from the Torah at the beginning of this devar Torah, this is actually closer to counting omer. Omer too we are told to count 7 weeks, but we don’t mean starting on Sunday and keeping the weeks of omer in sync with the weeks of omer counting. Even though the word used in the Torah for week was “shabbasos” — Sabbaths. Instead, it is merely 7 period of 7 days. Whatever day of the week that period might end on.

So, when it says by yovel shabbasos shanim — Sabbaths of years” it doesn’t mean 7 Sabbaticals, but merely 7 cycles of 7.

The second opinion would not count yovel toward the shemittah cycle. The first shemittah of every yovel would therefore be the 7th year of the yovel. Instead of shemittah being an independent cycle of 7 years, it is set up as the 7th, 14th, 21st and so on in the yovel cycle. Shemittah and Yovel are parts of the same cycle.

We could suggest a reason based on the opinion of Rebbe. He makes shemittah dependent on yovel because they are parts of one bigger picture. Which is why they’re on the same cycle.

Looking at it the other way, if you say that yovel doesn’t count toward the shemittah cycle, what happens to shemittah when there is no Yovel? Because yovel isn’t skipped, shemittah is in a different pattern than it used to be. Which fits Rebbe, who says it’s only commemorative.

In which case, we can answer one last question. The Ramban rules that shemittah is still a Torah law, following the principle of ruling like the majority. How then can anyone else rule otherwise?

However, in the debate about whether to count yovel amongst the 7 years toward shemittah, it was the majority who said that one should not. That majority would therefore say that shemittah today, being every 7th year with no exceptions, is not the same as the original mitzvah. It is not Rebbe’s opinion alone.

Whatever the status is today, may we observe the next shemittah because of the Torah law; with the mitzvah of yovel restored because the people of Israel will have returned to our homes.

Yisrael, Yaaqov and Beis Yaaqov

Someone asked on soc.culture.jewish:

Today in my Women In Hebrew Bible class we talked about how Yaakov (Jacob) was renamed Yisrael (Israel). This was a way of redeeming him of all his past trickery. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for Yaakov. He is, after all, my favorite Patriarch. But he was quite a sneaky fellow in his young life….

She then repeats the argument that it was therefore appropriate that the institution was called “Beis Yaakov” rather than “Beis Yisrael”, since they had to trick the guys into letting them have an education. First, I can’t help but note the sad state of education this represents. I hope it is not typical of what goes on as non-Orthodox adult education. But to get to the point…

Here’s my reply, from the same forum. Others already quoted the pasuq “ko somar leveis Yaaqov vesagid livnei Yisrael — so you shall say to the House of Jacob, and instruct the Children of Israel”, which our Sages (as quoted by Rashi) interpret as gently telling (tomar) the women (Beis Yaaqov) and using “words as tough as sinews (gidin)” (tagid) to the men (Benei Yisrael). So I began simply by summarizing the point.

The sages understood the term “vesomeir leveis Yaaqov” as a commandment to Moses to teach something to the women of his generation. Seems like a pretty solid argument.

Then, in reply to the last sentence quoted in particular:

In much the same way Abraham had to go through the Aqeida (the Binding of Isaac). Jacob’s natural inclination was to be honest, a deep pursuit of truth. As the prophet begs, “Give truth to Jacob, lovingkindness to Abraham, as You promised in days of old.” Look how Isaac’s fatherly blindness kept him from seeing Esau’s faults. In comparison to Javob, who identified the strength and uniqueness of each of his sons, and blessed (or cautioned) each accordingly. Might be why Jacob produced 12 keepers of the covenant, whereas Abraham and Isaac each failed with one of their sons. (But did Abraham fail? Ishmael, in the end, repented. But only after mis-raising his own children.)

Israel is the name of the Image of Man carved on the Divine Throne (as described in Ezekiel). After their all-night battle the angel calls Jacob “Israel”, meaning the one on the course spiritually upward, on the road toward that idealization. (And the human ideal is a road, not a final state…)

The renaming is not the redemption of a trickster, but G-d acknowledging that Jacob broke through that level, passed the test, and was ready to establish the Kingdom of Priests.

If anything, calling a girl’s school “Beis Yaakov” would imply that they are teaching a group of potential Images of G-d, who are still the custom there. works in progress. Pretty much true for any school.

Angry at G-d

A friend of mine wrote this morning about his three experiences with cancer in his immediate family. He was equipped to handle his wife’s bout, abut by the time he had to deal with it for the third time, he tells me that all he felt was anger, anger at G-d. His tefillos that Rosh haShanah he describes as mechanically filling the obligation.

In this week’s parashah, Avraham famously riles at Hashem. Upon being told of Hashem’s plans to destroy the five towns of the Sodom plains, Avraham takes it for granted that there must be someone there worth saving, other than his nephew Lot and his family. “הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע? Would You even sweep away the righteous person with the evil one?” (18:23) And so it goes for the next two pesuqim, when Avraham still assumes there are 50 people among the five cities who are worth saving. Now, admittedly, he immediately catches himself when he realizes that the assumption was wrong. And Avraham avinu uses less confrontational language during the rest of his attempt negotiation. “וַיַּעַן אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר ‘הִנֵּה-נָא הוֹאַלְתִּי לְדַבֵּר אֶל-ה’, וְאָנֹכִי עָפָר וָאֵפֶר’ — Here, please, I have presumed to speak to Hashem, and I am but sand and ashes.” (v. 27) But that first outburst is recorded, and we are never told it was wrong on Avraham’s part.

Doesn’t Moshe rabbeinu, the most humble man in history, express anger at Hashem when he says “If You would, forgive their sin; and if not, please erase me from the book You have written” (Shemos 32:32)?

It would seem that there is an appropriate time for anger. When someone hears of something that seems like a great wrong, it would be insensitive of him not to respond with outrage. Although it’s interesting to note that in both examples, the injustice would have been aimed at a third party. There is no personal motive in either case. And Hashem even lauds examples of where that anger is directed at Him!

Anger is part of any relationship. We are called into partnership with Him in finishing His creation — of the world, of ourselves, even of expounding the Torah. Can a human being participate in a successful partnership without ever feeling angry at their partner? Marriages are not built on avoiding fighting, but on learning how and when to fight productively.

When someone gets angry at Hashem for something that happens to them, there are a number of positive assumptions motivating that anger.

By getting angry one is participating in a personal connection to the Creator. Hashem is real, I am relating to Him. He is the Cause of something I didn’t want to happen. If as part of a healthy relationship, it could be a positive thing. Far more troubling would be the distance from Hashem implied by apathy.

After all, we are the Benei Yisrael. How did we get the name Yisrael? Because Yaaqov avinu battled an angel, and the angel responded: “וַיֹּאמֶר, ‘לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ–כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל; כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱ-לֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל’ — And he said, ‘No longer will they call you Yaaqov, but rather Yisrael; for you have struggled with G-d and with people, and succeeded.'”

Anger at G-d may seem inappropriate. But not being motivated to struggle with our unanswerable questions about His Actions is far, far worse.

Small Jugs

In the beginning, or a few days later, Hashem created the sun and the moon.

In Bereishis (1:16) the Torah says: “And G-d made the two large luminaries – the large luminary to rule the day and the small luminary to rule the night – and the stars.” A famous gemara (Chullin 60b), quoted by Rashi, points out an inconsistency in the verse. R. Shimon ben Pazi asks why the Torah first describes the sun and moon as “the two large luminaries”, but then it calls the sun “the large luminary” and the moon is called the small one. The Gemara answers with a story (paraphrased).

Originally the sun and moon were the same size. But the moon complained to Hashem, “Can there exist two kings sharing the same crown?” How can both the sun and the moon share the glory?

G-d replies, “Go and make yourself smaller.”

The moon is hurt. “Master of the Universe, because I presented You with a true complaint, I should reduce myself?

Hashem offers consolation, and permits that unlike the sun, “Go and rule over the day and the night.”

The moon sees this as no consolation. If the sun is shining all day, it continues, “What good is a candle at noon?” It will out-shine me, how do I gain by shining then?”

Hashem offers an alternate consolation. “It is destined for Israel to use you to count days and years.” To this day, the Jewish people use a lunar calendar.

This too the moon finds insufficient. “Without the sun they can not count seasons either.” (Rashi, Chullin ad loc,
explains that the leap years are based upon the seasons. The second Adar is added is to insure that Pesach is always in the spring, the Jewish calendar is not purely lunar.)

G-d provides a third consolation. Righteous men will be called by your name, for example (Amos 7) “Ya’akov haqatan [the small]”, “Shmuel haQatan” [a tanna], (Shemuel 1 17) “David haqatan”.

The moon thought about it, but was still unsatisfied.

Hashem commands, “bring a kaparah, a korban of forgiveness, in My Name, for I have wronged the moon.”

Reish Lakish points out that this qorban is indicated in the Torah in parashas Pinechas, describing the offering for Rosh Chodesh, the start of the new month. The pasuq says, “And one sa’ir, he-goat, for a chatas Lashem, an expiation-offering unto G-d” (Bamidbar 28:15). No other holiday’s chatas offering include this last word, that the korban is for G-d. On Rosh Chodesh, when the moon is not visible, the qorban chatas is to “atone” for G-d “wronging”  (so to speak) the moon.

The Maharsha explains this gemara‘s metaphor by explaining that the moon symbolizes the Jewish people who appear small in this world. The midrash is a discussion about the need for Israel to be oppressed in this world, so that they may shine brighter in the next. He identifies the sa’ir, the he-goat of the Rosh Chodesh chatas offering, with Rome the children of Ya’akov’s brother Eisav. The sai’r represents the inheritor of Har Sei’ir. Both “eisav” and “se’ir” refer to hairiness. Surely of all of the nations of the world, history is dominated by Rome and the western civilization it spawned. And, like the moon, Israel’s fortunes rise, fall and rise again under its shadow.

Aside from the difference in ascendancy between Israel and non- Jews, there is a more obvious difference between this world and the next. Only in this world is there a physical existence. “Edom”, the name of Eisav’s nation, comes from the same root as adom (red) and adamah (earth) — again, this world. Hair is also a symbol of physicality, as we see from the laws of nazir and the obligation for married women to cover their hair. Yitzchaq associates Eisav with action “hayadayim yedei Eisav” — the hands are the hands of Eisav, in contrast to “qol Yaaqov“, Yaaqov deals in speech.

Yitzchaq looked to bless Eisav, and Yaaqov stepped in and took the berakhah. In an ideal world (one that doesn’t have the above competition between the physical and the spiritual), Eisav would have served as the physical supplier of what became the Jewish people. We see this in the content of that original berakhah. “And may Hashem give you from the dew of the heaven and the fat of the land…” But Rivka saw that G-d didn’t make that world. Instead, there is a basic split, Eisav goes off the path, and world history has to work out his error. And the berakhah Yitzchaq gives him instead: “Behold, the fat of the land is your dwelling, and the dew from the sky above. By your sword shall you live, but your brother you must serve. However, when you feel wronged, you will cast off his yoke.” (Bereishis 27:39-40)

“Lei’ah’s eyes were puffy” from crying, Chazal tell us (as quoted by Rashi ad loc) that this was because she was taunted that she, the older daughter, would marry Eisav, Yitzchaq’s firstborn, and Lei’ah would marry Ya’aqov. In this hypothetical ideal world, Yehudah’s kingship would have emerged from Eisav. (Whether Levi would still have been Lei’ah’s child seems less obvious.) And Eisav could have been given a second chance, but Yaaqov hides Lei’ah’s daughter Dinah during their encounter with Eisav.

What exactly is Eisav’s error? This notion that physicality is in competition with spirituality, rather than Hashem’s intended synergy. (I wrote much more on this Maharsha and other topic in parashas Bereishis to describe a progression of how the universe’s physicality first introduced imperfection (the trees not tasting like the fruit), physicality growing to loom as though it were an ends not a means, how this reached man’s soul causing the impurity of our motives, nd what Hashem gave us to do about it. See these posts: “The Origins of Imperfection“, “Adam and Pinnochio“, and “Havdalah“. The above analysis of the gemara is taken from Mesukim miDevash for parashas Pinechas.)

Rome followed in Eisav’s footsteps by considering the Hellenist legacy and Judaism an exclusive choice. And, like Eisav who simply couldn’t consider delayed spiritual gratification when he was starving and smelling a good red lentil soup, they chose Hellenism. To emulate Yavan.

Jewish history also followed this progression. We first experienced the Yevanim, Hellene overlords, the Seleucid enemy whose conquest plays a role in the story of Chanukah. As Noach blessed his son, Yefes, Yavan’s ancestor, “Yaft E-lokim leYefes” — G-d gave beauty to western culture, the value of physicality and aesthetics. We should have kept it external, remembered that we, as the descendants of Sheim, have a different role, “veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim” — G-d rests in our homes. Alexander the Great was a hero in Jewish history — one whose name is still worn proudly as a traditional Jewish one. Then, we had Misyavnim, Jews who made themselves Hellene. Who lost the concept of remaining distinct (and thereby contributing), and it all unraveled. The Seleucids became an oppressive regime who tried to destroy Judaism by simply subsuming our G-d into their pantheon. But the Chashmonaim restored the notion of a distinct Jewish identity.

But that too failed. We repaired out notion of spirituality, but not how to treat others in this world. Chanukah (galus Yavaan) was a religious challenge, not one of national survival. The destruction of the Second Beis haMiqdash (galus Edom) was over our lack unity. It actually lowered our spiritual potential but also changed the nature of our people-hood to one that forces us to learn how to apply that spirituality to how we treat others. Because galus Yavan was about the two coexisting together, it was a galus that occured entirely during a period in which we actually had a Beis haMiqdash. (Thus proving that “galus” doesn’t mean “exile” — we were on our land!)

The current step in that progression is that to take those distinct peices of the puzzle and use them together. Chanukah taught us “To form the ideal Jewish people. On Chanukah we learned “אַ֭שְׁרֵי יֽוֹשְׁבֵ֣י בֵיתֶ֑ךָ, ע֗֝וֹד יְֽהַלְל֥וּךָ סֶּֽלָה׃ – Enriched are those who dwell in Your House, they shall ever praise You – Selah!” We are now learning “…אַשְׁרֵ֣י הָ֭עָם שֶׁכָּ֣כָה לּ֑וֹ Enriched is the nation that is like this…” Unity. So that we can acheive the both — “אַֽשְׁרֵ֥י הָ֝עָ֗ם שֱׁ֥ה’ אֱ-לֹהָֽיו׃ — Enriched is the nation for whom Hashem is its G-d.” This is why our current struggle is with Edom, the failed vision of Eisav. The two can work together, the “sun” needn’t compete with the “moon”.

There is a Yalqut Re’uveini (an admittedly obscure, late, and Kabbalistic collection of medrash) on Ki Seitzei that connects Chanukah to a sedra often leined at about the same time — Vayishlach.

Yaaqov went back across the river to get some “pachim qetanim“, small jugs. When crossing back again to his family, Yaakov encounters an angel, identified with Eisav and his people’s guardian (among other candidates).

One of these pachim made its way down the ages to Shemu’el. Shemu’el used it to anoint Sha’ul as our nation’s first king.

From Shemu’el, the jug was eventually inherited by Elisha. When the poor Shunamit woman came to him desperate for funds so that her sons won’t be sold as slaves, Elisha told her to collect any vessel she had that could hold oil, and to borrow all such that she could from her neighbors. And Elisha then took the jug with the left over oil from the annointing of Sha’ul, and filled every utensil in her home.

(I’m sure you see what’s coming next, but to spell out the details.) This jug was then placed in the first Beis haMiqdash, not with the other jugs of oil, but with the collection of artifacts that attest to miracles (the jar of mon, Moshe’s staff, Aharon’s blooming almond branch, etc..) And the jug made it through the interegnum and was placed in a similar spot in the second bayis. The seal that most understand to be a mark of purity is taken by this midrash to also mark this special jug so that it not be confused with the regular ones.

When the Yevanim defiled all the oil, this oil wasn’t found because it wasn’t stored with the rest! (I know, if we assume this medrash is historical, it contradicts a trend of thought I developed in another recent post.) And the same miracle that supported the Shunamit is the miracle of the oil of Chanukah. The pach shemen of Chanukah was one of the pachim qetanim of Yaaqov.

Which answers the Beis Yoseif’s question: If the oil was enough for one day, the miracle was only on the subsequent days. Burning on the first day was normal. What is the miracle that we commemorate by celebrating that day too? According to this Yalqut Re’uveini, the miracle was that they filled the menorah and afterward, the jug was still full.

(The Imrei Shefer (Shabbos 21b) says something similar but less elaborate: that it’s in the merit of Yaaqov returning for the pachim qetanim that we merited the Chashmonaim finding the pach shemen.)

What’s the point of this medrash, the lesson it’s written to teach? Looking at the key themes in it, I think I can suggest an idea.

The medrash ties Yaaqov going back for the pachim qetanim his battle with Eisav’s guardian, to Sha’ul, to supporting the Shunamit to Chanukah. What do they have in common?

Why did Yaakov go back for a small jug? Didn’t he just gratefully leave Eisav behind in that area, happy that there was no fighting? Doesn’t that mean it was dangerous?

Rashi on Vayishlach quotes Chazal that Yaaqov went back because the righteous consider their money precious, because they earn their money honestly. Proper business ethics isn’t “just” the permissable way to conduct business, it actually sanctifies the activity. And therefore, the pachim qetanim were sacred to Yaaqov, not to be simply left behind.

Eisav’s role in the ideal universe was mastered by Yaaqov — he internalized the notion of the role of the physical and how to sanctify the physical. Of course at that point Yaaqov is challenged by Eisav’s guardian and succeeds.  And when he gains that mastery, that’s the moment at which Yaaqov becomes Yisrael. And according to the Zohar Chadash, Lei’ah corresponds to Yisrael, while Racheil corresponds to Yaaqov. It also says that this is why Racheil was Yaaqov’s favorite wife during the first part of his life, but after her passing, he builds the rest of his life with Lei’ah. Racheil is the “yefas to’ar — the beautiful looking” wife. It’s easy to see the spirituality of a life at battle with the physical world. Lei’ah has the deeper and longer relationship, although it’s one that must be built upon pain.

Sha’ul’s mission for his kingship is to vanquish Amaleiq. Amaleiq is a nation whose namesake forefather was Eisav’s grandson.   He is from Racheil, because his job is Yaaqov’s job rather thaan Yisra’el’s, to vanquish the improperly harnessed physicality. And then Sha’ul is succeeded by David, who is from Yehudah and thus Lei’ah, who starts the process of building the Beis HaMiqdash — sacred wealth and beauty.

The Shunamit was supported in her time of need by the rewards of Yaaqov’s sacred toiling in this world. The money which was earned through honest and forthright business dealings will always suffice.

Which brings us to Chanukah. Chanukah was a step before Eisav-Edom, back at Yavan, Rome’s role model. The Jews lost themselves to Hellene values. To a religion where even the gods represent physical forces: Ares was the god of war, Hermes was the concept of change, Venus of love, etc…

And then they find the jug of oil. The jug of holy wordliness, of sanctifying the universe through halakhah. Not disdain for the physical or the beautiful, but knowing its value — as a tool. And with that concept the Chashmonaim revived Jewish loyalty, disbanded Hellenist oppression, and restored the concept of Jewish autonomy for the next two centuries. And when we couldn’t maintain that, we still had the notion that there was a role for Yefetic culture but not a clear idea of what that role was, in stepped Edom. Through that struggle with Edom, we can restore the world to “two great lights” — Yisrael and Eisav working in harmony.

וייראוך כל המעשים, וישתחוו לפניך כל הברואים, ויעשו כלם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם!

And everything made will have fear/awe for You,
And everything created will prostrate before You,
And they will be made together in a single union to do You Will wholeheartedly!

-Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur Amidah

Special Souls

The following speech was given by my son Izzy (ישראל זרחיה) at the party we made to celebrate his becoming a bar mitzvah:

It says in this morning’s parashah [Toledos], “וַיְהִי֙ כִּֽי־זָקֵ֣ן יִצְחָ֔ק וַתִּכְהֶ֥יןָ עֵינָ֖יו מֵרְאֹ֑ת – and it was when Yitzchak got old, and his eyes weakened so that he could not see…”

There is a famous medrash about how Yitzchak became blind. Bereishis Rabba on the Akeidah tells how the angels cried over what they thought was about to be Yitzchak’s death. As they looked down at the scene, some of the angels’ tears got into Yitzchak’s eyes, and this caused his blindness.

My great-great-grandfather, Rav Yisrael Avraham Abba Krieger, asked about this. The Akeidah was a long time before Yitzchak actually became blind. In fact, our pasuk says he didn’t lose his eyesight until he was old, when it would be almost normal. If their tears caused his blindness, why did they take so long to have an effect?

Second, our pasuk has an extra word. If it would have just said “his eyes weakened” we would know that he couldn’t see. What is added to the meaning by adding the word “מֵרְאֹת – from seeing”?

His answer in Divrai Yisrael is rather long, eleven pages. But here is one idea that my great-great-grandfather raises along the way.

Rashi repeats another medrash that gives a reason for Yitzchak’s blindness. Right before we are told about his becoming blind, the Torah mentions the heartache Yitchak has from his son Eisav. Against his father’s wishes, Eisav married local Canaanite girls, who worshipped idols. From the smoke of the incense and the tears of pain that idols were brought into his own home, Yitzchak was made blind. And that is why the blindness happened just now, at this point in his life.

But these midrashim don’t have to be arguing. It could be that it took both events for Yitzchak to lose his sight. It was because Yitzchak once saw into heaven and experienced the tears of the angels that he was unable to handle his daughter-in-laws’ idolatry. The gap was just too big. Hashem saved someone that holy from having to fully relate to idol worship in his own home, The pasuk therefore says that his eyes were weakened not just “from seeing”, but “מֵרְאֹת – to keep him from seeing.”

We can learn from today’s parashah that much of what we call “being handicapped” is actually Hashem protecting one of His more holy souls.

There is a famous story about the Chazon Ish. In the beis medrash that the Chazon Ish would often go to, one of the regulars at minyan was a man with Downs Syndrome. When the man entered, the Chazon Ish would stand, the way we do for a rabbi or another great person when they enter the room. One of his students asked why. The Chazon Ish explained that Hashem makes some souls too special to relate to this world, so they are kept from being fully in it. Hashem instead gives them challenges that the rest of us do not have to face.

In a way, their handicap serves like Yitzchak’s blindness.

This is one of the nicer things I’ve learned volunteering and being my school’s representative for Friendship Circle, and by having Shuby as my roommate. Even though they don’t understand as much about what’s going on around them as we do, or maybe because they don’t, they face the world and deal with the really basic problems we usually ignore.

We just had a small party for some of the children for Friendship Circle and Count Me In, so that I can celebrate my bar mitzvah with them too. I hope it helps me take with me gratitude for everything Hashem gave me, and an appreciation for all the little steps to holiness that we so often take for granted.

At this point I would like to thank…


Yet Another Peshat in the Aqeidah

One thing highlighted by the vast rabbinic discussion of the aqeidah — we can’t expect simple, clear-cut, answers to these questions. Much like the numerous opinions in the gemara as to what led to the destruction of the Beis haMiqdash or the many explanations of Nadav and Avihu’s sin.

There is an earlier pasuq (Bereishis 21:12, tr. R’ Aryeh Kaplan): “וַיֹּ֨אמֶר אֱ-לֹהִ֜ים אֶל־אַבְרָהָ֗ם אַל־יֵרַ֤ע בְּעֵינֶ֨יךָ֙ עַל־הַנַּ֣עַר וְעַל־אֲמָתֶ֔ךָ כֹּל֩ אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאמַ֥ר אֵלֶ֛יךָ שָׂרָ֖ה שְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹלָ֑הּ כִּ֣י בְיִצְחָ֔ק יִקָּרֵ֥א לְךָ֖ זָֽרַע׃ — But God said to Abraham, ‘Do not be troubled because of the boy and your slave. Do everything that Sarah tells you. It is through Isaac that you will gain posterity.”

So it would seem that Abraham knew that something was up. Here he was about to slaughter Yitzchaq, who didn’t have children yet, but he also knew that Yitzchaq that would father the nation of his covenant with G-d. What was demanded of Avraham here was two things:

(1) The suspension of disbelief, knowing that God would only allow the contradiction to be resolved in a positive way. That you can trust Him (the middah of bitachon) rather than need to know all the facts up front. And

(2) The ability to place mind before emotion, to be able to act even as the gut tells him he’s hurting his little boy. As the Mussar Letter opens (tr. R’ Zvi Miller), “Man is [created to be] free in his imagination, and bound by his intellect.”

The Avos Kept the Torah

There is a 3 way dispute on Yuma 28b about whether the avos kept all of halakhah, or just those mitzvos already given:

  • Rav: The avos kept the entire Torah
  • R’ Ashi: … even the rabbinic enactments!
  • R Shimi bar Chiya: Avraham only kept the 7 mitzvos benei Noach and beris Milah. (If we’re talking all three avos, presumably the only variation is Yaaqov and his sons keeping gid hanasheh.)

The discussion amongst rishonim is generally found surrounding the verse Bereishis 26:5.

Famously, Rashi holds like Rav Ashi. And this maximalist position has grown to be considered “normative” in many circles. It requires explaining — how did the avos know the Torah’s mitzvos before Sinai and rabbinic rulings and legislation years before the sages who made these decisions did? Did they hold like Rav Moshe Feinstein or Rav SZ Aurbach?  Did they say “morid hatal” in Shemoneh Esrei? (And what does that say, if anything, about the free will of the rabbinate? Or, for that matter, of the notion that both sides of a true halachic dispute are right, each in their own way?)

However, it should be noted that among rishonim, asserting Rav or Rav Ashi’s position as literally true was in the minority. Most rishonim (see discussions on Bereishis 26:5) hold like Rav Shimi bar Chiya. Including: the Rambam (Melachim 9:1), his son R’ Avraham, the Me’iri (intro to Avos), the Ramban, Seforno, Ibn Ezra, Radaq, Chizquni and the Rama (okay, not a rishon). Note the inclusion of the Ramban and Ramba in that list — it’s not just the usual list of names of staunch rationalists rejecting the maximalist position.

A consequence of the rise of the liberal movements is that maximalist hashkafic positions are pushed in some circles so as to avoid their mistake of compromise. Another consequence which feeds this is a focus on studying halakhah to the exclusion of machashevah. (There are other consequences too, but I’ll stick with the relevant ones.) Between these effects, people see Rashi and think that anyone who holds a position embraced by R’ Shimi Bar Chiya, rishonim of both sides of the qabbalah-scholasticism divide, and the Rama is watering down their Torah.

More recently (relatively speaking — going back 110 years or so), a different position emerged — siding like Rav Ashi, but assuming that he didn’t mean that they literally followed every detail.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner writes (Nefesh haChaim 1:21) that the avos were in tune with the needs of their souls, and could see the spiritual impact in all the worlds by their actions, and were thus able to intuit the Torah. And then he concludes that this is why Noach and the avos were not given the Torah. Because, for example, Yaaqov could not marry two sisters nor accomplish the spiritual / metaphysical repairs thereby had the prohibition been commanded already. According to R’ Chaim Volozhiner, “kept the entire Torah” refers to accomplishing the goals of the entire Torah, not that each law of each mitzvah was observed.

R MM Schneerson’s (the 7th Lub Rebbe’s) understanding of R’ Yoseif Yitzchaq Schneerson’s (his father-in-law and predecessor’s) position (Sefer haMaamarim 5697, pg 282, hagah titled “beruchnius velo begashmius“), is similar. That Rav and R’ Ashi aren’t being fully literal and they mean the avos accomplished the spiritual objectives of the mitzvos, and not that for every mitzvah did they physically fulfill it as we would.

Whereas it would seem that most rishonim did understand Rav Ashi literally, whether they personally hold like him or like Rav Shimi bar Chiya. And therefore they bring answers to the question of marrying both Rachel and Leah, and the like. Whether it’s because one of the Noachide mitzvos, which they were obligated in, was thus stronger than the prohibition, or a limitation such as their only following halakhos not yet given when living in Israel.

On the other hand, it is also possible that they took Rav Ashi’s words metaphorically. I posted back in 2009 sources that show that aggadic statements are spoken in metaphor was the norm amongst rishonim and pre-19th century acharonim. (And among later acharonim, I cited R’ Hirsch and R’ Yisrael Salanter.)  There I wrote:

ALL THAT SAID, it seems to be the rules of aggadic stories, even the ones that aren’t historical, that they do not have any of the “good guys” doing something we wouldn’t. And so we still find commentaries trying to justify things on a halachic basis. This shouldn’t be taken to mean they assumed the events actually occurred!

Here too… If Rav Ashi speaks in the metaphor of the avos keeping every last little halakhah, there has to be a way to understand their actions as conforming to that halakhah. If Yaaqov avinu did violate a future Torah law (in our example), then Rav Ashi wouldn’t have made his point using that metaphor.

A consequence of the rise of the liberal movements is that maximalist hashkafic positions are pushed in some circles so as to avoid their mistake of compromise. Another consequence which feeds this is a focus on studying halakhah to the exclusion of machashavah. (There are other consequences too, but I’ll stick with the relevant.) Between these effects, people see Rashi and think that anyone who holds like R’ Shimi Bar Chiya or the Ramban (never mind the staunch rationalists like the Rambam) or who considers Rav and Rav Ashi as speaking metaphorically is watering down their Torah. They both need to keep their Torah maximalist and aren’t investing time studying the other positions.


1- I like the new (Sep 2012) translation of Nefesh haChaim by R’ Len Moskowitz. (Hebrew in back.) It balances the precision of language really necessary for a philosophical text (even to the extent that yir’ah is consistently rendered “fear/awe”) while still remaining readable. Highly recommended.

2- You’ll notice that most of the links in this post are to pages on I don’t know too many people who use this resource. But is has a complete Chumash with Rashi, Ramban, references to Shas and Rambam and more commentaries, a complete Shas, Rambam, siddurim in various nusachos and even Nefesh haChaim. (Other sefarim are not completed yet. E.g. the edition of Arukh haShulchan is more accurate than any in print, but only for what is filled in so far.)


Torah im Small Jugs

What is the role of the laws of business listed in Choshein Mishpat (the quarter of the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on financial matters)?

One approach could be that working for income is a necessary evil. It’s Hashem’s punishment to Adam for eating the forbidden fruit — “with the sweat of the brow shall you eat bread” (Bereishis 3:19). However, by following these laws these activities are kosher, they are rendered permissible.

But if all it offered were the ability to deal with a necessary evil, we would have difficulty understanding a gemara about this week’s parashah.

Yaaqov crosses his family and almost all of his belongings across the river, and has to return for some small vessels. There, on the far side of the river, he encounters and battles an angel until dawn.

“And Yaaqov was left alone.” (Bereishis 32:25) R. Eleazar said: He remained behind for the sake of some small jars. From here [we learn] that to the righteous their money is dearer than their body. Why [do they care] so greatly? Because they do not extend their hands to robbery.

– Chullin 91a

At first this is very hard to understand. Are tzaddiqim, righteous people, supposed to be that materialistic? However, as we see from the answer, it’s not the monetary value of their belongings, but their spiritual value that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity that holds the attraction. It is their sanctity of being acquired within the laws of Choshen Mishpat. The Gemara teaches that the honest business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal.

This can be understood using the approach of Rav Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg, the author of the Seridei Eish. In a memorial volume, he explains that Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch’s motto of Torah im Derekh Eretz (TIDE)– Torah with the way of the world – is about the proper marriage between the Torah and the “real world”. The union between Torah and Derech Eretz in that tiny word “im” is not haphazard. In a collection of essays titled “HaRav Shimshon Rephael Hirsch Mishnaso veShitaso“, Rav YY Weinberg writes:

The Torah, according to Rav Hirsch, is the force that gives form. Form, to Aristotle’s thought, means a thing’s essential nature — in distinction to the substance from which it is embodied. Derech Eretz is merely the matter on which Torah works.

In Aristotelian physics, all objects are composed of two things: substance and form. Substance is the inherent matter. In Greek, the word for substance is “hyle”. The Ramban uses this term in his commentary on Bereishis 1:1. The initial beri’ah ex nihilo in v. 1 was of shapeless hyle, which was then given form during the yetzirah of the rest of the chapter. Form is the shape and other properties the substance takes on. But as the design adage goes, “Form follows function.” An object is shaped to serve an intended function. Form is not only the shape that the object assumes, but also its use and its goal.

When the Torah speaks of qedushah, it usually uses the preposition “le-“, “to”. The kohen gadol wore a tzitz that reads “Qadosh laShem“, “sanctified to G-d”. In the marriage formula, the chasan tells the kallah that she is thereby “mequdeshes li“, “consecrated to me”. We use the term “qadosh” when something is consecrated for a particular function, from something assuming a Form.

Torah defines the goal of our lives, the function for which we were created. It therefore dictates the form that we give the things we do. The resulting life has qedushah. To Yaaqov Avinu, his possessions were holy because they were the substance to which he applied the Torah’s blueprint.

It indicates that the halachic business deal is not a concession to reality, but part of the ideal. Observance of the laws of Choshein Mishpat doesn’t merely render these activities kosher, it’s maqdish, it brings sanctity, it makes even business dealings sacred.

When we look at Eisav in this light, the see that he took the exact opposite approach. The Torah (Bereishis 25:28) explains Yitzchaq’s attraction to Esav with “ki tzayid befiv” which the medrash (quoted by Rashi ac loc) understands to mean “he used his mouth to ensnare”. Esav would impress his father with shows of religiosity, asking questions like the correct way to tithe salt, knowing full well that salt isn’t tithed.

Seforno understands this pasuk not to mean that Yitzchaq loved Eisav instead of Yaaqov, but rather that “Yitzchaq also loved Eisav even though he knew he was not as whole as Yaaqov.” Yitzchak originally dreamed that his sons would live together in a partnership – Yaaqov would study Torah and Eisav would provide the means with which to do so. Eisav did commit himself to the land, but he became an ish sadeh, a person who is defined by the field, rather than learning the proper path in this world, derekh eretz. He therefore fit the Torah to his own purposes, inverting the form and the substance.

To Eisav, Torah was a tool, something you manipulate, to gain material ends.

Rashi quotes Bereishis Rabba (32:25) that the identity of the angel battled was the guardian angel of Esav’s children, the nation of Edom. The confrontation between Yaaqov and Edom’s mal’akh was a fundamental event about the relationship between the idealism of Torah and the realism of being in this world. When Yaaqov embodied the proper relationship of physical and spiritual, when he saw the holiness one can imbue even the purchasing of small jars, that was when he faced the specter of Eisav.

Temimus and Deveiqus

The mitzvah of Beris Milah is introduced with the words, “אֲנִי קֵל שַׁקַּי, הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים — I am Kel Shakai, walk yourself before Me, and be whole.”

To me, this pasuk addresses the focus of the most basic open question in Jewish philosophy. Clearly the attention of Yahadus is on keeping mitzvos. But what is the goal of following mitzvos? What is the goal of life, that mitzvos are to help us accomplish?

How are we supposed to read the quote? Is the walking before G-d that is primary, and being whole a side-effect? Or, is being whole the focus of the pasuq, and walking before G-d is a means to reach that temimus? On a deeper level, these two approaches are different aspects of the same idea. A person lives in tension between his spiritual and physical sides — neshamah vs. guf. To achieve wholeness, so that the entire person is working harmoniously, he would necessarily be serving his spiritual goal, and walking in Hashem’s path. In reverse, if one strives for deveiqus to a singular G-d, how could he be a chaotic battleground of warring urges? Cleaving to G-d forces His priorities to be yours, leaving temimus.

This is not to say that there is no distinction in approach. By stressing different elements, there are profound practical implications. For example, consider the debate between Chassidim and non-Chassidim on the importance of davening in the appointed times. We should be clear that the Chassidic position is that one must invest time to prepare for davening, even if this is at the expense of timeliness — it is not blanket permission to ignore the clock.

Chassidus is a deveiqus-based hashkafah. Therefore, when weighing the relative merits, it is more important to be able to invest time to prepare one’s mind and heart for the act of tephillah, for relating to Hashem, than when the tephillah actually begins.

To someone with a temimus orientation, however, zehirus, meticulousness, care in how each facet of the mitzvah is done, is the more important consideration. Zerizus, haste to do what’s right, is an important middah (personality trait). Both come into play when considering the timeliness of tefillah.

Both Mussar and Chassidus saw a predecessor in the Ramchal. I think this too is possible because the Ramchal appears to echo the Torah’s dialectic. For example, they have two contrasting ways of understanding the beginning of the first chapter of Mesilas Yesharim:

יסוד החסידות ושרש העבודה התמימה הוא שיתברר ויתאמת אצל האדם מה חובתו בעולמו ולמה צריך שישים מבטו ומגמתו בכל אשר הוא עמל כל ימי חייו. והנה מה שהורונו חכמינו זכרונם לברכה הוא, שהאדם לא נברא אלא להתענג על ה’ ולהנות מזיו שכינתו שזהו התענוג האמיתי והעידון הגדול מכל העידונים שיכולים להמצא. ומקום העידון הזה באמת הוא העולם הבא, כי הוא הנברא בהכנה המצטרכת לדבר הזה. אך הדרך כדי להגיע אל מחוז חפצנו זה, הוא זה העולם. והוא מה שאמרו זכרונם לברכה (אבות ד): העולם הזה דומה לפרוזדור בפני העולם הבא.


The foundation of saintliness and the root of perfect service [of G-d] is in a person obtaining clarity and realizing the truth of what is his duty in the world, and to what he has to set his sights and aspirations in all of his activities all the days of his life. This is what Chazal taught us, that a person was created for nothing but finding pleasure in God and enjoy the splendor of His Presence; for that is the true pleasure and greatest joy of all forms of enjoyment that can be found. The true place where this pleasure may be derived is the World to Come, which was expressly created to provide for it; but the path to the object of our desires is this world, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Avos 4:21), “This world is like a corridor to the World to Come.”

So the question becomes what is the nature of this “corridor”? We cannot get the full pleasure of Hashem’s presence in this world. So, do we try our best to achieve deveiqus, connection to Him, in this world and thereby earn success in the world to come? Or is the purpose of this life to refine oneself to be capable of as much connection — and therefore as much enjoyment — in the next world, and that refinement is significantly different than connecting itself?

I would suggest that Chassidus sees itself in Mesilas Yesharim because they take the former stance, whereas Mussar sees itself because of the latter interpretation. This ambiguity is possible also because the middos listed in the beraisa of Pinechas ben Yair which the Ramchal uses as his list of topics for the rest of the text is on the one hand an exercise in self-refinement, but on the other hand framed as a latter up to holiness, Divine Inspiration (Ruach haQodesh) and the revival of the dead (Techiyas haMeisim).

As the Ramchal writes later in the chapter:

ואמנם ראוי לו שתהיה כל פנייתו רק לבורא יתברך, ושלא יהיה לו שום תכלית אחר בכל מעשה שיעשה אם קטן ואם גדול אלא להתקרב אליו יתברך ולשבור כל המחיצות המפסיקות בינו לבין קונו, הן הנה כל עניני החומריות והתלוי בהם, עד שימשך אחריו יתברך ממש כברזל אחר אבן השואבת. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא אמצעי לקורבה הזאת, ירדוף אחריו ויאחז בו ולא ירפהו. וכל מה שיוכל לחשוב שהוא מניעה לזה, יברח ממנו כבורח מן האש.


It is indeed fitting that his every inclination be towards the Creator, may His Name be blessed, and that his every action, great or small, be motivated by no purpose other than that of drawing near to the Blessed One and breaking all the barriers (all the earthy elements and their concomitants) that stand between him and his Possessor, until he is pulled towards the Blessed One just as iron to a magnet. Anything that might possibly be a means to acquiring this closeness, he should pursue and clutch, and not let go of; and anything which might be considered a deterrent to it, he should flee as from a fire.

Deciding what is of value in this world in terms of what brings us closer or further from G-d became the centerpiece of Chassidic thought. Whereas the Mussarist would see a couple of sentences later:

…כיון שביאתו לעולם אינה אלא לתכלית הזה, דהיינו, להשיג את הקירבה הזאת במלטו נפשו מכל מונעיה ומפסידיה.


… Since our coming to [this] world is for nothing but this goal, which is to obtain this closeness by rescuing his soul from all the deterrents to and detractors from it.

And so they can conclude that no, the Ramchal is talking about dealing with those issues now, in the corridor, to enable true cleaving to G-d in the World to Come.

Perhaps this plurality is the whole point of the Torah’s doubled phraseology. Because there are two groups of approaches to the same ends, we don’t want to eliminate one in favor of the other. Each person can pick out a derekh that best suits him — as long as he aims for the proper goal.

Tzadiq ben Rasha

וַיֶּעְתַּר יִצְחָק לַה לְנֹכַח אִשְׁתּוֹ כִּי עֲקָרָה הִוא וַיֵּעָתֶר לוֹ ה וַתַּהַר רִבְקָה אִשְׁתּוֹ

And Yitzchaq pleaded with Hashem opposite his wife, for she was sterile, and Hashem responded to his pleas, and Rivqa became pregnant.

Bereishis 25:21

“לנכח אשתו” – זה עומד בזוית זו ומתפלל וזו עומדת בזוית זו ומתפללת (יבמות סד.)
“ויעתר לו” – לו ולא לה שאין דומה תפלת צדיק בן צדיק לתפלת צדיק בן רשע לפיכך לו ולא לה

“Opposite his wife” — he stood in one corner and prayed, and she stood in another corner and prayed. (Yevamos 64a)

“And [Hashem] responded to him” — his and not hers. For there is no comparison between the prayer of a tzadiq ben tzadiq (a righteous person the child of a righteous person) to the prayer of a tzadiq ben rasha (a righteous person the child of someone evil). Therefore [the verse tells us] “his” [were responded to] and not “hers”.

– Rashi ad loc

If it were not for our tradition, a natural translation would have been that Yitzchaq prayed on behalf of his wife. However, Chazal tell us that “nokhach” here should be taken as “opposite” — they were praying in opposite corners of the room. Which then raises the question of why Hashem only responded to Yitzchaq and not Rivqa. And they answer that his is because the son of Avraham’s tefillos, those of a tzadiq ben tzadiq are incomparable to those of Rivqa’s, the daughter of Besu’el, the rasha.

And the simple take on this idea would be simply fiduciary — Yitzchaq has more merits in his spiritual “bank account” than Rivqa because he has an inheritence from Avraham. That makes his prayers incomparably superior, and that is why Hashem responded to him rather than Rivqa.

There is a problem with any implication that reward or punishment can be inherited, that one person gains or suffers for the deeds of another — even a parent. It lacks justice. We grapple with this problem in the 13 Middos haRachamim, “נֹצֵר חֶסֶד לָאֲלָפִים … פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבוֹת עַל בָּנִים וְעַל בְּנֵי בָנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים — He preserves lovingkindness for thousands [of generations]…. He remembers this sins of the parents on the children, on the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren.” And yet Yechezqeil (18:4) asserts “הֵן כָּל הַנְּפָשׁוֹת לִי הֵנָּה כְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָב וּכְנֶפֶשׁ הַבֵּן לִי הֵנָּה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַחֹטֵאת הִיא תָמוּת — Behold all the souls are Mine, like the soul of the parents and the should of the child; it is the soul who sins that dies.” Children do not die for the sins of the parents. Chazal’s resolution is in accord with the words of the 10 Diberos (Shemos 20:4-5), “פֹּקֵד עֲו‍ֹן אָבֹת עַל בָּנִים עַל שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל רִבֵּעִים לְשֹׂנְאָי. וְעֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד לַאֲלָפִים לְאֹהֲבַי וּלְשֹׁמְרֵי מִצְו‍ֹתָי — I remember the sin of the parents on the children, the grandchildren, and on the great-grandchildren to those who hate Me. I act with Lovingkindness to thousands [of generations] to those who love Me and keep My mitzvos.” The descendants who get punished for the sins of their parents are those who continue on with those sins.

The (or at least “a”) point of it all is that even though the tinoq shenishba, the child kidnapped and raised by his captors, or anyone who sins as a product of their upbringing, isn’t fully culpable for their sin, Hashem will still punish them as necessary for their own improvement. It isn’t that the punishment is inherited from their parents acts, but that the broken attitude that needs correction could be passed down.

So it’s not speaking of punishment for the tzadiq ben rasha. 

It may be easier to analyze Yitzchaq in contrast to a different tzadiq ben rasha. There is far more material analyzing Avraham’s spiritual development than Rivqa’s. But Avraham, Terach the idol-maker’s son, is also a self-made person who grew despite his upbringing, rather than because of it.

Rav Elazar (Pesachim 88a) contrasts the way in which each of the forefathers encountered G-d. When Avraham encounters Moriah, he calls it “Har Hashem Yeira’eh — the Mountain Where Hashem Will be Seen” (Bereishis 22). Yitzchaq goes “lasuach basadeh — to pray in the field”, an entirely different perception of Moriah. Yaaqov later calls the name of the place “Beis E-l — the house of G-d”, yet a third way of seeing Moriah; Yaaqov encounters G-d in a home.

I’m setting aside Yaaqov for the moment, as he doesn’t relate to this particular contrast. See my post of 2006, “Parshas Vayeitzei: Mountain, Field, House” for a discussion of all three. Here I will just look at the mountain vs the field, and omit the home, the model of the synthesis.

Avraham, the tzadiq ben rasha, meets the Creator atop a mountain. Every step of the way is a climb, rising above his past. He starts with “lekh lekha — leave for yourself your homeland, your birthplace, your father’s home.” It’s a life of yisurim, 10 tests, each one a growth experience, an ascent.

In contrast, Yitzchaq’s biography in the Torah is quite short. And much of it is Yitzchaq following in his father’s footsteps. Returning to Gerar, re-digging the old wells. The tzadiq ben tzadiq doesn’t struggle to leave the past, his task is to nurture the legacy he was given. To water the plants of the field, care for them, so that they grow.

Notice that Chazal do not say that the tzadiq ben tzadiq‘s prayer is more likely to be answered “yes” because he is incomparably greater. There is no discussion of quantity. Just that they are incomparable.

I would suggest that the difference is the value of a “yes” or a “no” answer in each kind of life. Rivqa’s life is that of climbing a mountain; the skill a tzadiq ben rasha develops most is to fight and grow through adversity. When Rivqa makes a request of G-d, there is more value to her getting a “no” than there would be for Yitzchaq. Yitzchaq has zekhus avos, a seedling inherited from his father that he must tend to. Challenges are more likely to stifle that work. Thus a “yes” is more likely to be the correct response to the tzadiq ben tzadiq.

The difference isn’t “simply” fiduciary — that Hashem owes Avraham’s son. Nor is it “only” causal, that Avraham put forces into play that aid Yitzchaq. It is purposive; each person getting the life best suited to their life’s mission.