Shelach 5754

(Another version of this thought was included in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Shelach, in the “Bemachashavah Techilah” column, pp 1-2. -micha)

 

Inherent Tension

Judaism sees man as a synthesis of two opposite concepts. On the one hand, man is a physical animal, on the other, he carries “the spark of the Divine.” As the Torah describes it:

Then G-d formed Man, dust of the ground and breathed into his countenance the breath of life.

- Bereishis 2:7

Each of his parts pulls man in its direction. The physical man shares many of the needs of a creatures. He feels hunger, has sexual urges, wants comfort, heat when he is cold. He longs to satisfy his nerve endings.

We should be clear that the physical is not inherently evil. Shabbos would not be complete without three meals. Simchas Yom Tov, the joy of the holiday, is defined by the Torah by eating — by the holiday meal and partaking the Yom Tov sacrifices.

The spiritual man craves G-d and spirituality. He wants to be more than mere animal. Just as the physical man is not inherently evil, the spiritual man is not inherently good. Cult members too are striving to speak to G-d, to experience Him. As the Pesach Hagadah states, “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers.” We take pride that they searched for G-d even though they reached the wrong conclusion.

While we are tempted to think of these two parts of our mind as complete opposites, they have one thing in common. They describe man as a creature, as a passive being pushed by the forces around it.

Every person is torn between these poles. We find ourselves pulled by the physical and the spiritual parts of our minds. The fact that there is a “self”, the one feeling this pulling, gives us a third piece to the human puzzle. There is a part of man that must do the deciding, that is endowed with the G-d given free will to choose his actions.

Since it is the “I” who is getting pulled by these two forces, the part involved with free-will must also be the seat of awareness. When we describe man as being “in the image of G-d”, we are describing this element of him. Aware, a decider of his fate, a creator.

Tzitzis as a Description Human Nature

R. SR Hirsch understands many aspects of this mitzvos to be osos, symbols Hashem uses to convey certain concepts and priorities to the core of each Jew. He finds the role and function of each of these components of the human condition alluded to in the mitzvah of tzitzis in two different ways: in the color of the strings in the tzitzis, and in their number. In “Collected Writings” (Volume III page. 126) Hirsch comments:

We find only three terms to encompass the colors of the spectrum: adom for red, yaroq for yellow and green, and tekheiles for blue and violet….

Red is the least refracted ray; it is the closest to the unbroken ray of light that is directly absorbed by matter. Red is light in its first fusion with the terrestrial element: adom, related to adamah [footstool, earth as man’s footstool — M.B.] Is this not again man, the image of G-d as reflected in physical, earthly matter: “vatichsareihu me’at mi’Elokim” (Tehillim. 8,6).

The next part of the spectrum is yellow-green: yaroq.

Blue-violet is at the end of the spectrum: techeiles.

The spectrum visible to our eye ends with the violet ray, techeiles, but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue expanse of the sky forms the end of the earth that is visible to us. And so techeiles is simply the bridge that leads thinking man from the visible, physical sphere of the terrestrial world, into the unseen sphere of heaven beyond….

Techeiles is the basic color of the sanctuary and of the High Priest’s vestments; the color blue-violet representing heaven and the things of heaven that were revealed to Israel… no other color was as appropriate as techeiles to signify G-d’s special relationship with Israel. A thread of techeiles color on our garments conferred upon all of us the insignia of our high-priestly calling, proclaiming all of us: “Anshei qodesh tihyun li — And you shall be holy men to Me” (Ex. 19, 6).

If we now turn our attention to the pisil techeiles on our tzitzith, we will not that it was precisely this thread of techeiles color that formed the krichos, the gidil, the thread wound around the other threads to make a cord. In other words, the vocation of the Jew, the Jewish awareness awakened by the Sanctuary, that power which is to prevail within us, must act to unite all our kindred forces within the bond of the Sanctuary of G-d’s law.

By wrapping a blue thread around the others we are demonstrating a fundamental principle. Physicality and mental exploration have great value, but only as tools. The end must be to strive to go beyond the spectrum, to reach to be closer to Hashem then we are today.

Elsewhere R. Hirsch explains the concepts symbolized by the numbers 6, 7, and 8. Dr. Isaac Levy includes this explanation in his English translation of Hirsch’s commentary to this week’s parshah (16:41):

The origin of this meaning is to be found in the work of the Creation. The visible material world created in six days received with the seventh day a day of remembrance of, and bond with its invisible L-rd and Creator, and thereby its completed consummation. Similarly the symbolism of the number seven in the Menora, in the Temple, in the Mussaf offerings, in the sprinklings of the blood on Yom Kippur, in the Festivals of Pessach and Succoth, in Sabbath, Schmita, Tumma etc. etc. The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. The eighth day for Mila, Schmini Atzereth and Israel as the eighth of G-d’s Creations. With the creation of Israel G-d laid the groundwork for a fresh, higher mankind and a fresh higher world, for that shamayim chadashim and the `eretz chadashah for which Israel and its mission is to be the beginning and instrument (Is. LXV,17).

So that there are three elements in us. (a) our material sensuous bodies, like the rest of the created visible world = 6; (b) the breath of free will, invisible, coming from the Invisible One = 7; (c) the calling of Jew, coming from the historical choice of Israel = 8.

This too parallels the understanding of man that we have outlined. The six is physical, the seven represents free will, and the eight is man’s striving to be something more.

Tzitzis, worn so that “ye shall remember and do all My commandments”, is explained in this light.

These are the three elements out of which the tzitzis threads are woven. All these three elements are given to us, are woven into our being and are to be realized in completing our calling. But in these three energies two are to be the directing and ruling ones; the “six” in us is to subordinate itself to the seventh and eighth which are also given as part of us, and is to allow itself to be overcome, wound round, by the firm restraining bonds of duty…. Once the bodily sensuality has submitted itself to the bonds of duty through the Divine and Jewish elements, it becomes completely equal to its brother-energies, and like them, is to expand in free development within the limits of Jewish human duty.

The physical man finds expression, but only after he has been channeled and guided by G-d-like free-will and a drive to surpass nature. This is the essence of Hirsch’s vision of Torah im Derekh Eretz — Torah with the way of the world. Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth.

In Hirschian thought, the complete human masters the art of six and seven, the physical and the mental. Notice that Hirsch calls the seven divine, not the eight of the spiritual creature. It is the free-will that makes man like G-d, merely being a passive resident of heaven pales by comparison.

According to the Rambam, it is the eighth string which is the techeiles. In this way the tzitzis instructs each Jew that he has the tools to strive for some thing beyond mere human. He must take his physical resources and divine intellect and apply it to the spiritual realm.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

Pesach 5761: The Four Sons Confront Tragedy

The Haggadah tells us that the Torah addresses the question of telling the Passover story to our children by referring to four different kinds of children. One is wise, one is evil, one is uncomplicated, and the last doesn’t know to ask questions. Each son asks a question, even if the last does so in his silence. We can see from the question what they are looking to take from the seder experience.

I believe these four approaches follow through in how we react to tragedy as well. Given the dismal state of current events, perhaps this is worth some exploration.

R’ Joseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l (“the Rav”) addresses the question posed by the Holocaust in his seminal work on religious Zionism, “Kol Dodi Dofeik”. His position is that the question of why is there human suffering can’t be answered. Any attempt to address theodicy is going to insult the intellect or the emotions, and quite likely both. But “Why?” isn’t the Jewish question. Judaism, with its focus on halachah, on deed, asks, “What shall I do about it?”

The Rav continues by quoting the Talmudic principle, “Just as we bless [G-d] for the good, so we bless [Him] for the evil.” Just as we dedicate all the good that comes are way to be tools in our avodas Hashem, we also dedicate ourselves through our responses to suffering.

This is the wise son’s reaction. “Who is wise? He who learns from every person.” The wise son is one who turns everything into a learning experience. His response to the seder is “What are the testimonial acts, the dictates, the laws, which Hashem our G-d commanded you?” How does G-d teach us to react to the events of Egypt and freedom? How am I supposed to react to tragedy?

When G-d presents tragedy to the wise son, they are called nisyonos — challenges or tests. Like the Akeidah, a learning experience for Abraham, to get him to fully realize his potential.

The second son, the wicked son, needs a wake up call. What the gemarah refers to as “yisurim”. In the weekday prayer “Tachanun” we ask G-d to forgive our sins “but not through yisurim or bad illness”.

The evil son of the Hagadah doesn’t respond to this wakeup call. He asks, — no, he says rhetorically, “What [good] is this job to you?” Our response is to blunt his teeth and point out that had he been there, he wouldn’t have been amongst those to merit the Exodus. We tell him that it’s not the tragedy that is leading him to rejecting G-d — it’s his rejection of G-d that lead him to the tragedy. I like to imagine he accepts this answer in the silence after the paragraph.

There is a second kind of yissurim, yissurim shel ahavah — tribulations of love. This is not where the person is being evil, but he’s not living up to his full potential. He too is in a rut, and G-d calls to him to break out of it and improve. G-d calls him to ahavah, to greater love and closeness to G-d.

This is the uncomplicated son, the one who believes with simple and pure faith. He asks “What is this?” and we answer with the Pesach story, with all that G-d did for us. Unlike the wise son, who wants to know all the laws of the day, all the nuances of how to react, the uncomplicated son is given motivation to cling to the A-lmighty.

Then there are times where the thing we want is a greater nisayon, a greater challenge, than the ones we don’t. And if we are not up to the challenge, if it’s a test that we couldn’t pass, G-d doesn’t make us face it.

There is a story told (Taanis 24b) of R’ Chanina ben Dosa, a man so holy that the Talmud tells numerous stories of miracles that occured to him. And yet one so poor that a heavenly Voice commented that the whole world was supported by R’ Chanina’s merit, but he himself lived off a small measure of carob from one Friday to the next.

Eventually his wife just couldn’t handle the abject poverty any longer. He agreed to her request that he pray for wealth. A heavenly hand came down and handed them a huge golden table leg. Certainly worth a fortune.

That night, R’ Chanina’s wife had a dream. They were in heaven, and all the other couples were sitting at three legged tables. Except for them. Their table only had two legs, it couldn’t stand.

Realizing that the third leg of their table was the gift they had received, she asked her husband to pray for it to be taken back. And it was.

R’ Chaim Vilozhiner associates the three legs of the table in this story with the mishnah (Avos 1:2) about the three pillars of the world: Torah, Divine service, and acts of charity. The Voice said, after all, that R’ Chanina supported the world.

The golden leg they received was the one of kindness. Until now, they had reason not to give more charity — they had nothing more to give. The story as R’ Chaim understands it (I wouldn’t say this about R’ Chanina ben Dosa on my own), suggests that R’ Chanina would have been unable to practice charity as he was worthy to had he had the opportunity.

So, R’ Chanina ben Dosa was poor.

Similarly, the person who is medically needy because that keeps him close to G-d. The person who, had he been healthy, would have been more distracted by the physical opportunities afforded him.

This is the son who doesn’t know how to ask. Unlike the wise son, who asks “How shall I respond?” or the son of uncomplicated, pure and simple faith, who asks “G-d, G-d, why have you forsaken me?” (Tehillim 22:1) this son isn’t asking anything. He isn’t capable of grappling with this issue — be it a tragedy, or be it the Exodus.

“You shall start for him.” Our response must be to help them grow.

Of course, these four sons are archetypes. Real people are wise on some issues, determined to be wrong about others. We have a simple straight to the point perspectives on yet other things, and there are those issues we aren’t prepared or ready to face. But it is only through growth that we can reach our goals as individuals and as a people.

© 2001,2002 The AishDas Society

Purpose of Qorbanos

When reviewing what I wrote on this subject for the Mesukim on Vayiqra, I noticed some more points. First to summarize:Rambam (naively reading the Moreh Nevuchim): Hashem gave us qorbanos, a normal idolatrous practice, to wean us from avodah zarah.Ramban: How is this possible? Noach offered a qorban and there were no idolators or peer pressure. Rather qorbanos are to unify all planes of human existance: the thought of teshuvah, the speech of confession, and the action of the qorban. In addition, the person who sinned and brought a qorban sees the offering and realizes the severity of the act; that justice untempered by mercy would have called for his own death, not an animal’s.

(The question remains how the Ramban understands qorbanos that are less related to sin.)

Narvoni: The Rambam doesn’t speak of qorbanos as caused by the practice being avodah zarah. Rather, the practice expresses an inate human limitation. And if one doesn’t allow an expression for avodas Hashem, the need would lead people to avodah zarah.

Abarbanel: There are many proofs that qorbanos are part of an ideal, and not a concession to human limitation.

I then suggested a variant on the Narvoni’s idea that doesn’t fit the Rambam’s words, that the need to give in worship is a human need, but a positive thing, not a limitation. Any real relationship seeks expression in giving — whether it’s qorbanos or flowers. (And in both cases, the primary gift is the act of giving; Hashem doesn’t need the qorban and my wife tends not to take a second look at the flowers.)

So much for the summary.

1- The word “qorban” is the “-an” (object related to) suffix added to /qrb/ (to come close, the root of the word “kiruv”, to cause to come close). However, this has (at least) two meanings: an object that expresses a closeness already felt, or one that causes a closeness.

Perhaps this is reflected in our machloqes. The Rambam, especially as understood by the Narvoni, sees a qorban as an expression of a feeling already there, one which we therefore see in avodah zarah, and which the person needs in order to feel like a worshipper. The Ramban sees a qorban as a tool for acheiving closeness by unifying all his abilities to this end.

2- The Meshech Chokhmah (introduction to Vayiqra) finds a role for each explanation. The Rambam’s notion of weaning was the role of bamos, of altars built to G-d on mountaintops, outside of the mishkan. The weaning period ended when the Beis haMiqdash was dedicated in Yerushalayim, which is why bamos became prohibited at that time. However, we failed, avodah zarah and bamos thrived throughout the first Temple. Qorbanos in the Beis haMiqdash is called a rei’ach nikho’ach (a pleasant smell before Hashem) because they were to unify the worlds, as explained by the Ramban.

In light of the two meanings we gave to qorban, this explains why bamos were not mandatory — they were only for an expression of a feeling already there. As it says in parashas Vayiqra, “ish ki yaqriv mikem qorban — a person, when he brings from you a qorban”, when he chooses. However, the qorbanos at the mishkan or beis hamiqdash are not if/when, but obligatory. Because they create the motivation even when it’s not already there.

3- Allowing the Meshech Chokhmah’s idea that the Rambam’s and Ramban’s ideas can coexist, we can reach an interesting conclusion. According to the Ramban, the point of qorban is about it being an action more than the physical object being offered. Perhaps this is true even when the qorban is Rambam-esque, an expression of a human need. Like the husband who brings flowers, the primary gift is the giving itself, the statement “I need to give”.

4- What a far cry from the 9 seconds given to Qorbanos between “Atah Hu” and “Rabbi Yishma’el” in the minyan I attend every morning. Where’s that “need to give” that marks having a true relationship with the Creator?

I don’t think all the thoughts above will help. I think the gap between mind and heart is too great for philosophising to create an emotional need. Emotions are build slowly, through repetition. Perhaps we should pick one tefillah from Qorbanos, maybe the Tamid that the Shacharis we are davening derives from. And not only having these kavanos when saying it, but also simply thinking, “Ribono shel olam, I can’t even feel the loss of qorbanos. Please help me!”

Life and Consciousness

The differences between the treatment of the Terry Shiavo in American law and halakhah do not rest in scientific knowledge, but in definitions. To be precise two particular definitions: First, determining the line between beneficence and artificially prolonging life. Second, defining which medical states qualify as “human life”. In this entry, I’m just looking at the second one.R’ JB Soloveitchik noted on numerous occasions that just as there is an element of mishpat (intuitive law) in every choq (statute based in an idea too subtle for human comprehension), there is an element of choq in every mishpat. Parah adumah (the Red Heifer), the textbook case of choq, has elements that have been explained by numerous rabbanim. For example, Rashi quotes a chazal that the parah adumah is intentionally an adult version of the eigel hazahav (golden calf). The contrast is noted between the diminutive eizov, a grass and the sprig of proud cedar that are used in the parah adumah offering.Similarly, what could be more of a mishpat than “do not murder”? And yet, reason alone would be insufficient. Does it include euthenasia, and if so, when? What about organ donation from someone who is entirely brain dead, but still (artificially) has heart activity? Is capital punishment moral? When is war justified, if ever? Is abortion murder? Etc..

In the case of total brain death, so that even the brain stem is not functioning, the brain cannot even keep the vital signs going in lung and heart. R’ Tendler and the Chief Rabbinate see this as a direct parallel to the cases in the Talmud of the decapitated body, or one where the brain rotted or turned liquid. The difference is in our ability to determine the brain isn’t functioning without such large-scale flaws. Other rabbis instead keep the definition used elsewhere in the gemara, heartbeat. The cases in the gemara are ones where the gemara knew there couldn’t be a heartbeat. The primary difference is our ability to artificially keep the heart going independent of the brain, without which we wouldn’t have a question.

They don’t argue about the medical facts, but the basic definition: does “life” mean heartbeat (which in the days of the gemara required brain activity) or brain activity (which could only be measured by gross anatomical problems or the lack of heartbeat)? Either side would appeal to the latest technology in determining whether they definition would apply, neither is being scientifically naive.

In the case of persistent vegetative state, the brain can keep the vital functions running. However, it can never return to consciousness. (Tangent: Actually, that’s not so clear. Brain Inj. 2001 Dec;15(12):1083-92 carries an article titled “Cognitive recovery from ‘persistent vegetative state': psychological and personal perspectives”. J Neural Neurosurg Psychiatry. 1985 Dec;48(12):1300-3 has “Unexpected improvement after prolonged posttraumatic vegetative state.” In BMJ. 1993 Jun 12;306(6892):1597-600, “Recovery of patients after four months or more in the persistent vegetative state.” Or read the Kate Adamson story; she was diagnosed with PVS but was actually conscious but unable to act. She lived through treatment without anesthesia because no one realized she was awake in there. But since we’re looking at the philosophical issue, let’s deal with the assumption that PVS were for certain what they believe it is.)

No one is arguing that Terry Schiavo is about to die, and therefore should be aided in dying. Had they not stopped her drink and food supply, there is every reason to believe she would continue living indefinitely. Nor is it the cessation of unusual suffering, as they do not believe she is conscious and therefore living a life of pain.

Assisted suicide is in general illegal in the US; Dr. Kevorkian still sits in jail. Someone who wants to commit suicide because they can no longer live after losing a girlfriend is prevented from doing so, his free will is not respected. It’s not a society which in general allows suicide over quality of life.

The question is whether a life without consciousness is human life to be protected by the law. Behind the assumption underlying the law’s position is that it’s not as protected as other life.

Mussar, even before there was a field of psychology, recognized that not all of our decision making is conscious. As Rav Yisrael Salanter put it, “Man is a drop of intellect drowning in a sea of instincts.” That a primary duty of consciousness is to shape the non-conscious part of ourselves, to make ourselves better people. The mind can’t be identified with consciousness, it’s far greater.

On the other hand, the Meshekh Chokhmah defines the “image of G-d” in which man was created to be our free will. Doesn’t that necessitate consciousness, and therefore the PVS patient lacks the image of G-d and shouldn’t be accorded the full sanctity of human life?

The basic flaw is the assumption that if the brain can’t support consciousness, there isn’t any. An assumption that dovetails well with observations we made in the past about the Western perspective. It’s an inherently empirically oriented society, the scientifically measurable is considered more real. It is unsurprising that this case shows an identification of mind with brain. Second, it’s one that values personal autonomy, and therefore consciousness which enables autonomous decision. It is therefore unsurprising that someone with a brain that does not support such autonomy is not felt to be fully alive.

In Jewish thought, however, the mind is something done by the soul. It may be physically implemented in a brain during life, but the soul and mind can outlive the body. The question therefore isn’t viewed as whether there still is a mind, but whether the soul is still in the body and therefore the mind in the brain. A person’s “image of G-d” is simply not empirically measurable. Scientific progress doesn’t bring us any closer to answering the question of which medical states correspond to the sanctity of life or death. We have a nightly experience of a soul being in a body while not conscious. Therefore one can’t say that there isn’t a human soul still inhabiting the severely brain damaged and PVS body.

Thus, neither identification stands: the mind need not be measurable empirically, and the mind, soul and humanity aren’t necessarily limited to consciousness. Even if the Meshech Chochmah might say they are, he wouldn’t limit existance of the mind to the brain. Conscious activity isn’t the sonum bonum of human life.

Last, what is the justification for terminating something even if it were considered a shadow of true human life? (Particularly if it’s given that Terri Schiavo is incapable of first-hand suffering.) Isn’t it reasonable to say that life is sacred enough to warrant protecting even things similar to it? Along those lines, abortion is prohibited by halakhah, barring special circumstances. This is even true according to those rishonim who do not consider it to be murder. Perhaps because potential human life is itself sacred; it need not be actual life to warrant protection.

Medical state and sanctity of life are separate questions. The Schiavo case touches on a weakness in separation of church and state. The secular approach gives us science, a great means of determining the facts of the case. We can now determine the medical state of a person in more detail and with greater accuracy than ever before. But that doesn’t help us know which sets of medical states are “human life” and which are not. How can one assign moral value to one medical state over another without appealing to religion?

Causality in Halakhah

A major factor in the Terri Schiavo case is that a feeding tube was defined to be heroic medical intervention, rather than a parallel to the charity we would give anyone who can’t obtain food themselves.In halakhah, what’s the line? I would like to suggest that it is defined based on another halachic distinction.How can someone free a slave? The procedure is to give the slave a writ. But as a slave, anything he acquires becomes the property of his owner. Even putting it in his hand doesn’t make it his. Therefore he cannot actually receive the writ — a “Catch 22″! We say “his writ and his ‘hand’ (i.e. his power of domain) arrive together.”On the other hand, if someone want to sell something to another, among the ways he can transfer ownership is by giving the other a contract. Giving it includes putting it in another’s field. But if he’s selling a field, putting the contract in that very field doesn’t constitute giving it. In this case, we do not say that the contract and the ownership arrive together.

The Qetzos asks how these two cases differ.

The basic difference is that the slave’s natural state is to have a power of domain. His being a slave is a monei’ah, an impediment, holding back that natural state from expression. The writ is therefore hasaras hamonei’ah removing that impediment. The field, however, is not already part of the buyer’s domain. Rather, the contract is a sibah, a cause.

Rav Amiel explains that causes must precede their effects. Therefore, the field must be acquired before it can be used as domain for receiving acquisitions. However, a hasaras hamonei’ah need not be earlier than the effect. Implied in this explanation is that the sibah is already acting even during the suppression by a monei’ah, thereby preserving the necessary time sequence.

Halachicly, a sibah and a monei’ah are very different things. It’s not just that a monei’ah is a negative sibah, a cause for the opposite state.

Until a person is a goseis (expected to die within 72 hours), there is no immediate cause for death. Anything that would cause death at that point would be new, in the nature of a sibah. However, for a goseis, the cause is already there. If medicine is presenting death, it’s a monei’ah. Once we conclude a monei’ah is involved there are two further possibilities: either hasaras hamonei’ah (“pulling the plug”), or one can refuse to introduce the monei’ah to begin with; active or passive.

The last option is by far the most often permissable.

To look at physical cases:

Removing Terry Shialvo’s feeding tube was a sibah for her death. She would not have otherwise died, and in fact died more than 72 hours later even without drink or food.

Removing artificial respiration from a goseis would be haras hamonei’ah.

However, once the machine is disconnected, for example to change a filter, to reconnect it would be to refuse the monei’ah to begin with. Although it’s not the removal of something stopping the death, one is allowing the actual cause to run its course rather than initiating the causal sequence. And, as we saw, that’s a halachicly different species.

Purpose of Qorbanos, part II

“This is what is meant by the verse (Tehillim 89:7), “For who in the heavens can equal God, can compare with God among the divine beings?” Said the A-lmighty, “If I wanted a sacrifice, wouldn’t I simply ask Michael, who is right here next to Me, to offer to Me a sacrifice? From whom do I want a sacrifice? From Israel!”
– Tanchuma, beginning of Parashas Tzav

The Kotzker Rebbe explains this medrash. Hashem does not desire the qorban itself. Mal’achim could make a far more perfect offering with no adulteration of intent. Rather, the qorban is in the decision to give. Hashem gave us the power to decide, and our handing back that which is truly ours is what brings us close to Him.

Barukh shekivanti!

Reasons for Mitzvos

There are three things we might be talking about when we ask about reasons for a mitzvah:

  1. (if it’s Torahitic:) the source in the pasuq directly or through derashah;
  2. the halachic mechanism by which a given conclusion was reached;
  3. the philosophical principle behind the mitzvah.

I’m speaking of the third. But the gemara’s usual question is the first: How do we know something is the law?

The two most cited sefarim aimed at discussing the function of mitzvos are the Chinuch and R’ SR Hirsch’s Horeb. An interesting (to me) difference between each of those books, and R’ JB Soloveitchik. All three agree that we can’t fully grasp the reason for a mitzvah. Torahitic mitzvos require knowing the Infinite “Mind” of G-d, and therefore are beyond our abilities to comprehend. Rabbinic ones, unless the reason is explicitely given as part of the legistlation, are products of cultures that are beyond our current abilities to recreate.

They insist, as does the Rambam before them, that while we can’t fully explain a mitzvah, we are also not freed from trying to explore reasons that we can grasp. What’s interesting is that each has a different description of what we’re trying to find:

1- The Chinuch often introduces the reason for a mitzvah with the words “mishorshei hamitzvah” — among the roots of the mitzvah. It would seem that he believes that we can find part of the telos that motivated G-d to give us a mitzvah. But never the whole.

2- R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch sees ritual as a means of communication, G-d transmitting truths to man by means of symbols. In order to fully integrate these symbols into ourselves, and fully explore their richness, they are presented as acts for us to perform.

Any aspect of the message that we understand fully justifies doing it. And every aspect we don’t yet understand, fully justifies doing it until we reach that comprehension. The mitzvah can never be fully comprehended because there is no limit to human growth — there are always new things to learn from it.

3- In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s writings, he calls his explorations into the purpose of mitzvos “halachic homiletics”. In other words, he sees these lessons as things gleaned from the mitzvah, and have value, and should be internalized — but do not necessarily have any connection to the “Idea” that motivated their legislation.

Notice that all three approaches fully conform to the idea of “na’aseh vinishmah”, where doing causes thinking. None of them would say that these ideas should have impact on behavior or legislation. R’ Soloveitchik entire position is based on the premise that there is no causal connection.

Rav Hirsch contrasts Geiger’s Wissenschaft des Judentums (the “science of Judaism”) with true science. Geiger changes Jewish practice to fit his understanding of what Torah is. Fitting experiment to theory is alchemy, not science. A scientific approach to Judaism is one that takes halakhah, the givens, and constructs theories to explain them.

The Chinuch, though, by saying that these are parts of “The Reason”, might support the creation of stringencies based upon these “shorashim”. However, he couldn’t justify a leniency that might run counter from one of the roots he didn’t uncover.

Yom haAtzma’ut

A few years back, when Yom haAtzma’ut was also celebrated on Thursday 3 Iyyar, my father asked me what I thought about not saying Tachanun or saying Hallel. The choice of 5 Iyyar as the point at which we gained atzma’ut, independence, is itself not perfectly compelling. It was not the date we were given independence, or the date the war was won, but the date we made a declaration. No overt miracles. So even a full Zionist could question changing the liturgy for 5 Iyyar. And 3 Iyyar doesn’t even have that much!I replied that quite the contrary. Why is Yom haAtzma’ut celebrated early this year? Because the government has an office of the rabbanut , which did not want to establish a commemoration that would lead to Shabbos violation. The government doesn’t want to take responsibility for celebrations on Shabbos, or on Friday that could run into Shabbos and violate its laws.

Is not the existence of a country that adapts its commemorations for the sake of the Torah not extactly what we should be celebrating?

Rav Dovid Lifshitz spoke more than one year on the dual meaning of “atzma’ut”. Yes, we gained our “atzma’ut” our independence, our ability to be a fully capable and productive individual nation. However, “etzem” not only refers to an individual, it is also a bone or core. For observant Jews, Yom haAtzma’ut recalls what can only be considered a huge gift from the Creator, but only half of the task is done. The Jewish essence, the “etzem” is not yet manifest. We must respond to His gift.

Having a country that works to preserve Shabbos is one thing. Having one that doesn’t even need to, quite something else.

PS: In Rav Dovid Lishitz’s minyan on a year where Thursday was both an early Yom haAtzama’ut and BaHa”B, we said Tachanun, Selichos, and afterward Hallel without a berakhah.

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.

Tzitzis, Advance and Retreat

There are two descriptions of the mitzvah of tzitzis. First, from parashas Shelach (and Qeri’as Shema):

… [T]hey should make for themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments (bigdeihem) throughout their generations, and that they put on the tzitzis of each corner a thread of blue wool (techeiles). And it shall for you tzitzis, and you will see it and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem… (Bamidbar 15:38-39).

There are a few points I want to stress about this quote:

1- The term for garment used is beged. Hebrew has a number of terms for clothing. That it’s called a beged rather than a kesus or a levush is significant. The uniform of the kohanim is called the bigdei kehunah. By saying the mitzvah is on our begadim is to cast the mitzvah in terms of the uniform for a role. (For an analysis of these terms with respect to bigdei kehunah and all the mentions of clothing in Megillas Esther, see “The Natures of Clothing“, and with respect to the clothing of Adam and Chava see “Ki Arumim Heim“.)

2- The term for the tassel is tzitzis. Tzitzis is actually an agricultural term, it means “sprout” or “small growths”. Tzitzis implies human growth. It is associated with the idea in Menachos 39a that “the beauty of techeiles (meaning tzitzis in general -Rashi) is 1/3 gedilim (knotted cords), and 2/3 free.”

3- Hashem describes techeiles as a thread of blue wool on the tzitzis. From this phrase, the Rambam and Raavad (as opposed to Rashi and Tosafos, see below) conclude that only one of the strings should be blue. The Rambam defines that as one of 8 string-ends coming out of the knotted portion. The Raavad, that it’s one of 4 strings, i.e. two ends are blue. (The Vilna Gaon writes that he is convinced that one of these two positions should be followed, but couldn’t determine which.)

From the Rambam’s position, R’ SR Hirsch explains techeiles as the Jew’s higher calling. It is the eighth string, going beyond the six days of physical creation and even the seventh day of the sanctity imbued within this world. It is sky-blue, the primary color most associated with spirituality — beyond the physical red (adom, red= adamah, earth= dam, blood), and even the green of growth.

The techeiles, then, imposes spirituality on the growth of the tzitzis. As Rav Hirsch describes it, human growth must be expressed freely — represented by the 2/3 of free-string tassel, but only after it was channeled by that blue thread. )I discuss this idea in more detail in Toras Aish for parashas Shelach.)

4- Hashem gives a motivation and purpose to the mitzvah. It’s a mnemonic device to remember not to chase aveiros, and to do mitzvos.

But there is a second presentation in the Torah of the mitzvah. The mitzvah is repeated in Devarim 22:2, to appear next to the laws of shaatnez. This teaches that techeiles, which is definitionally blue wool, is put on a linen garment despite the laws of shaatnez. There the Torah reads:

You shall make for yourself gedilim (cords) on the four corners of your covering (kesusekha), with which you cover yourself.

In this presentation, all three points that I stressed above are different.

1- The term for clothing is kesus, a cover. And in case we missed it, the pasuq continues by saying “which you cover (mekhaseh) yourself in it.” As opposed to the uniform of the beged, this is clothing that one wears to hide. The beged is an appointment to a duty, the kesus, a retreat from shame.

2- There is no mention of the free strings of the tassel, only of the gedil, the knotted part. This is in concert with the notion of it being a kesus. There is no emphasis of human creativity and individuality.

3- It’s from this pasuq that we learn there are eight ends of strings in each tassel. A gedil, a term for a cord or rope from the root /gdl/ – large, must be more than one string. Gedilim, in the plural, is therefore at least 2 pairs of strings, four in all, or eight ends. In fact, Rashi and Tosafos conclude from this pasuq that there is one gedil of white strings, and one of techeiles, i.e. two full strings (four ends) are blue.

The image of the mitzvah of techeiles, then, is that it’s one of man’s forces — with no description to its role in binding and guiding the others.

4- Hashem doesn’t say why we should wear it. Gedilim are worn simply because Hashem said so.

In R’ JB Soloveitchik’s terms, a beged is worn when one is in a state of advance, a kesus, when one seeks retreat. We’re not looking at man advancing, but his withdrawing in order to re-aim himself at the higher goal. Thus, we only speak of the gedil, the channeling of forces.

To use another of R’ Soloveitchik’s models, we can say that Adam I, majestic man, is given begadim with which to accept the responsibility that comes with his ability, and to aim his mastery of the world in positive directions. Adam II, covenental man, is given a kesus with which to hide his needfulness, to help him retreat long enough to find G-d.

Therefore, in Bamidbar, the beged is associated with human creativity, with instructions how to sanctify it, and with a personal motivation for keeping the mitzvah. Whereas in Devarim, the focus is not on our sanctifying ourselves, but in our accepting G-d’s role in sanctifying us.

Both relationships are true. As Rabbi Aqiva asked “Before whom do you make yourselves tahor, and Who makes you tahor?” There are times when we should take the initiative, and times when we are unable, and allow Hashem to do it for us.

In general, I’m trying to explore the concept of clothing, of uniform, and the proper use of chitzoniyus(externals). Like it or not, others do form their first impressions of us from our clothes. While we all know it’s silly to judge people by their clothing, it happens preconsciously and we can’t stop ourselves from forming that first impression. Nor can we change the entire human race from forming such impressions of us.

And there is no neutral clothing. Wearing a black fedora means that people’s first impression of you is “he’s yeshivish”. Not wearing one, though, equally creates an impression, the person will conclude you’re not all that yeshivish (assuming you’re a man, of course). You’re judged in comparison to the stereotype of people with similar clothing. To avoid wearing clothing of any particular subculture marks you as an outsider, an oddball. Etc… But the point is, you’re always marked. There is no non-uniform.

The other contrast to a beged is a levush. (I’m using the terms as I see them in Tanakh. When Chassidim call their clothing “levush”, it’s obviously based on a different understanding of the differences in connotation between the words.) Achashveirosh’s royal robes are “levush malkhus”. Not begadim, because he wasn’t inherently a royal person. Achashveirosh is portrayed in the megillah as a real follower, being lead around by his advisors, a drunkard, and not the swiftest thinker. Begadim help one assume a role. Levush helps look like they are in a role they really aren’t.

We often end up viewing ourselves and trying to remake ourselves to live up to our clothing. That’s the role of beged, raising our self-image to motivate us to improve. However, without knowing the proper time for begadim, one could try to don a beged only to have it devolve into a levush, a means of fooling ourselves into thinking we are holier than we are.

The key is knowing when is a time for advance, and when for retreat. Knowing that is knowing when we’re using chitzoniyus constructively, and when not. But most of us are not in the habit of even noticing the choices we make, never mind working toward improving them. At risk of getting overly repetitive, I see no way of knowing when to don the beged and when the kesus without keeping a daily cheshbon hanefesh.

A Second Covenant

“To enter into a beris, a covenant, with Hashem your G-d, and in His oath, which Hashem makes with You today.” (Devarim 29:11) The Ramban comments that the beris mentioned here is a new one made in Arvos Mo’av, in addition to the one made at Har Sinai. (The Rav has some Torah on this as well.)I would like to suggest the following distinction between the two covenants:At Har Sinai, we were “ke’ish echad beleiv echad — like one man, with one heart”. We were unified because we chose to follow a common objective. Man joins the community — the connection is made outward from the individual.

Rashi comments on the dots over “lanu ulvaneinu in “The hidden are for Hashem our G-d, vehaniglos lanu ulvaneinu la’asos es kol divrei haTorah hazos — the revealed are for us and our children to do all the words of this Torah.” (29:28) He quotes the opinion of R’ Nechemiah that with these words we accepted areivus zeh lazeh. That lanu, written in the plural, falls the responsibility for the known sins of individuals. The community is responsible for its members, even those who choose not to follow its goals. As parashas Nitzavim opens, “Atem nitzavim hayom kulkhem — You are standing here today, all of you.” The connection is made from the community in toward the member — and so membership is automatic, regardless of personal choice.

It is different but similar to a distinction The Rav makes between the am, and the eidah. The am is the community of fate (which would include all Jews) and the eidah (from the word eidus testimony, those who believe in and live according to the revelation in Sinai), the community of destiny. Man chooses to follow his destiny, fate is imposed upon him. Note the purpose of this second beris: “lema’an haqim osekha hayom Lo li’am, veHu yihyeh likha lEi-lokim — so that you will be established for Him a community of fate, and He will be for you a G-d.” (29:12)

The Simplicity of the Shofar

(Hat tip to my daughter Shifra, who made this point the centerpiece of her speech at her bas mitzvah celebration.)Halachically, a shofar must be a simple instrument. If it has a crack or anything that might shape the note, it is invalid. A cow’s horn, which is layered and therefore not a shofar but a shefarferet, is not usable for the mitzvah. It has no keys, no valves, no strings to tune.And yet from an aggadic perspective, the sound of the shofar is quite complex:

  1. We associate the shofar with crying. We blow 100 sounds because Sisera’s mother cried 100 times when learning her son (off to war against the Jews) was killed and would not return. There is a dispute whether the broken sound required by the Torah is more like yelulei yalal (uneven wailing) or genunei ganach (sobbing), so we blow both the teru’ah and the shevarim, as well as the two together as a pair.
  2. The shofar is also a royal sound. “With trumpets and the sound of a shofar, call out before the King. The mishnah describes Hashem as saying, “Call before Me with the blast of the Shofar – to show that you accept of Me as your King.” In the same way they blow trumpets to announce that the king or queen is entering the room, we blow Shofar on Rosh haShanah to announce a new year of Hashem’s rule.
  3. The shofar is used by the army, to alert the troops that it’s time to break camp and go off to war. Similarly, in the desert, they also blew shofar to tell everyone it was time to move each time the Benei Yisrael broke camp. Rav Hirsch explains the shofar of Rosh haShanah similarly. It is a warning to get ready, to stop what we were doing all last year and do something new and better this one.
  4. Then there are the historical reminicences associated with the shofar:
    • The horn of the ram that Avraham found when told not to sacrifice Yitzchaq at the aqeidah.
    • The sound of the shofar heard during the revelation at Mount Sinai.
  5. These might be additional meanings, or they might derive from the previous ones.

We are required that shofar be something that looks simple at first, and yet what it says to us is complicated. A shofar expresses many different emotions at once. If you just look at it without spending real time, you miss the whole thing!

This in itself is an important lesson of the shofar, one critical to prioritizing our lives and to teshuvah: If we rush through life, everything looks trivial. It is only when we take the time to look deeper do we see the real beauty within.

(In addtion Shifra linked this notion to learning a similar lesson while volunteering every Shabbos to help a mother with two autistic sons. Autistic people seem like they are in their own worlds, not feeling much, not relating to the rest of us. Only if you take the time to see through the shell to the child trapped inside can you get to know them and the beauty of their souls.)

Coronating G-d, part II — Pragmatics

I was recently discussing the ideas in my essay “Coronating G-d“. In it I utilized the Vilna Gaon’s distinction between a melekh (king) and a mosheil. A melekh rules with the support of his people, a mosheil rules by strength. I suggested that the reason why accepting Hashem as Melekh is such a central part of Rosh haShanah is that a Melekh has more room for mercy. By accepting Him as king ourselves, we enter the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah without the need for Hashem to impose His Will despite us.The person I was talking to asked what should have been an obvious question. “Okay, so how do we go about doing that?” And I surprised myself by realizing I didn’t know. How can I have ever said Shema, a tefillah described as qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim (accepting the yoke of [the One in] heaven), and not know what it is I’m supposed to be doing?

So, I put some thought to the subject.

Looking at Shema, we start by joining the community of Jewish (Shema Yisrael), and then proclaiming that despite our disparate perceptions of Him, Hashem is one and unique. This is an awareness of G-d’s uniqueness and power. True of a melekh or a mosheil, although here we’re actively acknowledging it. We accept the fact of Hashem’s rule.

And then, before the list of pragmatic mitzvos for keeping this message an active part of our day, we are told to “Love Hashem with all your heart (kol levavekha), all your soul, and all your resources.” Willingly bowing to that rule. This is the step of which we’re speaking, the shift from realizing Hashem is Mosheil to accepting Him as our Melekh.

Chazal comment (and quoted by Rashi) perhaps on the word “kol”, perhaps on the use of the two-veis word for heart “levavekha” rather than “libekha”, that this is with both of our inclinations — our good inclination and our evil one.

… veyishtachavu lefanekha kol haberu’im,
veyei’asu kulam agudah achas la’asos Retzonekh beleivav shaleim,
kemo sheyadanu, H’ E-lokeinu, shehashalton/shehashilton lefanekha…

… and all those who were created will bow before you, and they will all be made into a single union to do Your Will with a whole heart. For as we know, Hashem our G-d, that the rule/scepter is before You…

- Amidah for Yamim Nora’im

Bowing before Hashem because we acknowledge His rule is obvious. However, note again that this global union of worship is “with the whole heart”, a two-veis heart. Both inclinations. This to is because we know that He rules. But how does that cause us to engage our baser inclinations?

On Shabbos we say, “Yismekhu beMalkhusekha shomerei Shabbos veqor’ei oneg… — They shall rejoice in Your Kingship, those who keep Shabbos and call it pleasure..” It’s not enough to keep Shabbos. To be happily a subject of Hashem as King, we must find it an oneg, a pleasure.

It would seem that qabbalas ol malkhus Shamayim involves accepting the idea that following His plan is what is best for you life. Not just fulfilling the mitzvos, but seeking to do so beleivav shaleim and with qeri’as oneg.

How does one do it? I must start with the first mitzvah that I don’t do and think I can. And with the first mitzvah I do begrudgingly and search the sources and the experiences it brings me to find its beauty. Then the second…

That is working toward the day when our teshuvah is rewarded, and “vehayah Hashem leMelekh al kol ha’aretz — Hashem will be Melekh over the whole world.” Bimheirah beyameinu, amein!

The Nature of Reality

It’s interesting to note that in Jewish terminology, existence is phrased in terms of the thing-as-experienced, not the thing-in-itself, as it would be objectively known if it were possible. For example, the Rambam opens the Yad by telling you that there is a First Matzui, and He is mamtzi everthing that is nimtza. The word “nimtza”, which is used to mean existence, is from the root /m-tz-a/, to find. Experience.

When something is real enough to have impact, we say is has “mamashus”. Or we say that something is mamash exciting, where in English it would be “really and literally exciting”. The word itself, though, literally means “tangibility”.

Perhaps this is because halakhah exists to change the person following it. “The person is made [nif’al] according to his actions [pe’ulaso]”, as the Chinukh often says. Thus, the reality that the halachacist must address isn’t the objective abstract existence, rather, it’s the one experienced and shapes the person.

The Unobservable, the Unobserved, and the Observed

Given the thought of my previous post we need to subdivide reality into three categories: that which no person could have observed, that which someone could have observed, but didn’t, and that which someone did actually observe.

There is a more elaborate example at this appendix to a seifer I might complete someday. The following covers a much smaller range of examples, but I believe it does so more clearly.
The Unobservable:

The most commonly cited case of an unobservable object is a microscopic mite, or another animal that would fall into a non-kosher class if it were large enough to be seen with the naked eye. These “bugs” are kosher. In fact, we recently had the issue of copepods appearing in the New York City tap water. These are crustaceans that can be seen, but are only identifiable by the naked eye as living things by watching their motion. (Their motion is in patterns like living beings, not following the random brownian motion of dust.)

My rebbe, Rav Dovid Lifshitz, invoked the idea in a second case. The Gemara explains that maggots found within a piece of meat are kosher. The reason given is that they were born from the meat, an idea known in the history of science as “spontaneous generation”. Therefore, halachah treats the maggots identically to the meat. Spontaneous generation has since been disproven. Maggots come from microscopic eggs, not abiogenetically from the meat. Now that we know that the underlying science is wrong, need we conclude that the halachic ruling is also wrong?

Rav Dovid taught that the halachic ruling is still applicable, because the microscopic eggs and maggot larvae are not visible, and therefore (like the insects in our first example), lack mamashus. The only cause for the current presence of maggots that we can see is the meat.

Viewing the question in terms of human experience, the meat is the only source of
the maggots. Bugs or eggs that are too small to be seen, while we might cerebrally know
they are there, can’t have the existential impact as those I could, and ought to have,
noticed unaided.
The unobservable simply don’t exist.

The Unobserved:

In the case of something that is observable but happened not to be seen, we aren’t dealing only with whether it is part of human experience, but also whether the person is culpable for not bothering to check, but more centrally to our question — how the person who is now in doubt responds to the item because of that doubt.

In this domain we have the rule of rov, following the majority.

Suppose there are three pieces of meat, two of which came from a kosher source, and one from a non-kosher source, but we don’t know which is which. This is a case of parish, so we can assume that any given piece came from the rov – it’s kosher. Since each piece is kosher, each can be eaten, even one after the other! (According to some opinions, even mixed together as a single dish!)

I would argue that this is because the law of rov is not about how to play the odds, but about how people respond to the meat. As observed, each peice of meat is 1/3 neveilah, and it is on that state of observation that we pasqen. Not 1/3 in terms of odds of eating non-kosher, but 1/3 in terms of how we relate to each piece of meat. And thus, no piece is experienced as probably veilah, and all three are kosher; even to be eaten one after the other. Wheras if we were playing the odds about an objective reality, the odds would have combined to knowing you ate the neveilah at some point.
The Observed:

But once something observable actually has been observed, rov does not apply. For example, kol kavu’ah kemechtzah al mechtzah dami — all items for whcih the halakhah was once established, but now doubt arose as to what that halakhah is, are to be treated like a 50:50 uncertainty.

Rabbi Akiva Eiger (Shu”t #136) generalizes this and states that there are two types of birur (doubt resolution): ways that resolve what to do when the halachah is uncertain, and the question we explored in the last section – ways of applying halachah to uncertain situations. Majority only applies in the latter case.

As per above, I would argue that’s because it’s only the case of the uncertain situation that halakhah needs to rule about a reality-as-experienced that contains things in partial states. Something that is “1/3 neveilah“. Once the question is one of halakhah, one doesn’t have this existential aspect, and either something is, or isn’t.

So, had our above three pieces of meat come from three known stores, two known to be kosher and one not, but now I do not know which is which, it’s a case of kavu’ah. The meat can not be determined by majority, and therefore is not kosher (even individually). Again, because now I’m not wondering about the experiencable reality, so my wonder can not be itself treated as part of the metzi’us, the facts of the case.

One last example: the testimony of witnesses. The Torah says, “al pi shenayim o sheloshah eidim yumas hameis — on the say-so of two or three witnesses the condemned is killed.” Chazal ask, if two people is sufficient, why need it say three? The gemara uses this as proof of the concept of “terei kemei’ah — two witnesses are like 100″. The way the Shev Shemaatsa puts it, if you have two conflicting testimonies, “it is like a doubt of equal sides”, and therefore regardless if one party has only the minimal two witnesses and another has 100, the sides are equal.

Another case of an observed reality; whichever side had honest and accurate witnesses did observe what they’re testifying to. Since majority only applies in a case of an unknown but observable reality, majority does not apply in assigning credibility to conflicting testimony.
Another area where the notion of halakhah relating to human experience rather than a theoretical objective reality could help explain a difficult ruling is that of nosein ta’am in kashrus. Usually ta’am is translated “taste”, and therefore understood in terms of microscopic amounts of the food being absorbed into the walls of a hot utensil. But ta’am also has to do with thought or reason, something that “flavors” basic facts. As in ta’am hamitzvah as a term for a reason for or a lesson to be learned from a mitvah. If we take ta’am in this sense, I believe many of the more difficult halakhos involved are resolved.

If chicken soup is cooked in a milchig pot, Ashkenazim are stringent unless the soup is more than 60 times (or perhaps 59) the volume of the walls and floor of the pot itself. (Sepharadim instead rely on a non-Jew actually tasting the food.) If ta’am meant a microscopic about that could be absorbed by the metal, the Ashkenazi requirement is unjustifiable. After all, metal does not absorb anything near 1/60 of its volume, something acknowledged by the usual use of the idea of “microscopic amounts” in explaining the word ta’am. The total amount absorbed in the metal of the pot would never be anything near enough to use the entire volume as an estimate. Bitul beshishim (anullment by one part in sixty) would always apply when comparing the amount in the metal of the pot vs the amount the pot holds in the usual way.

However, if ta’am here refers to how we think of the pot, the question is a non-issue. Ashkenazim rule that thinking of the pot as a fleishig utensil lends its status to the object, whereas Sepharadim rule that it’s a question of whether a person can experience the milk that the pot is usually used with.

Changing Name

There are two places in halakhah where the criterion for whether something is significantly changed is whether there was a shinui sheim, a change in name. The first is in the laws of Shabbos, something is nolad (“born”, i.e. unusable because it did not exist when Shabbos began) if it underwent a change that changes what we call it. For this reason, one may not melt ice to produce water on Shabbos — “ice” and “water” are different names. (This is true for the few languages I could check. It would be interesting to see if anyone discusses the permissability of melting ice by someone whose first language does not use different words for them.) However, R’ SZ Aurbach is quoted (Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchaso 10:5, fn 15) as limiting this gemara to water. Frozen orange juice is called “frozen orange juice”, and thus there is no shinui sheim.

The second case is in property law. Changing something is a form of qinyan, acquisition of the object. One kind of shinui could be a shinui reshus, moving the object from one person’s property to another. Another is changing the object itself to the extent that there is a shinui sheim. A theif who steals wood and makes a hole in the wood, is obligated to return the wood (and the difference in value). If, however, the owner gave up on reclaiming the object (thus giving up ownership) and the thief made something out of the wood (thus acquiring ownership), the thief would have to repay the value, not return the wood.

This could be understood in terms of applying halakhah to the world as experienced. See (“The Nature of Reality” for an explanation, and other possible cases in “The Unobservable, the Unobserved, and the Observed“.) Word give us labels, but by giving groups of things shared labels, they color our world by defining which set of pigeonholes we use to group things as being essentially the same, and assign new things.

For example, in English speaking countries it’s common to ponder if Judaism is a race or a religion. On the one hand, it is racial in that once someone is born a Jew, they are always a Jew, regardless of belief. On the other hand, someone can join the fold through geirus. But the question isn’t one of Judaism, it’s one of English. These are the kinds of peoplehood we assume exist because these are the words the language gives us. The language was primarily shaped by Christians, though. Therefore there is no guarantee that there exists exactly the right pigeonhole to place Jewish peoplehood.

Returning to the subject of shinui sheim, this is a change defined in human perception terms. We’re saying the minimum unit of change is from one conceptual category to another. The physical magnitude of the change is irrelevant — look back to our contrast between melting ice and melting frozen orange juice. It is measured in terms of change in human conception.

Chayei Sarah – Kibbush and Chizuq

1. Buying Ma’aras haMachpeilah

It is interesting to note that Judaism’s holiest sites were not conquered but bought. Parashas Chayei Sarah opens with Avraham purchasing the Ma’aras haMakhpeilah and the fields around it. Later, Yaakov buys the city of Shechem from Canaanite princes, the sons of Chamor (Bereishis 33:19). Similarly, Shemuel II concludes with David haMelekh purchasing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from Aravnah the Jebusite.

R. Yoseph Ber Soloveitchikzt”l, explained the meaning of qinyan, acquisition, in a speech given to the student body of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in the Spring of 1985. He noted that the root of the word qinyan is /קנה/, to manufacture. (It is also used in lesaqein, to repair.) This is because of the origin of the concept of commerce. Originally people owned what they made, the animals they raised, the plants they planted. The need for people to acquire things they were not personally able to make, lead to trading, barter, and eventually money. Purchasing uses the same root, because purchasing is a surrogate for manufacturing things yourself. I manufacture this, or provide this service, convert it into money, and exchange that effort for someone else’s manufacture or effort in providing that.

Once something is bought you have therefore also acquired its entire history. The person who sold it to you has effectively declared that “all I have done to increase its value was as a surrogate for you doing it yourself.”

2. Kibbush vs Chazaqah

R. Aharon Soloveitchikzt”l (Logic of the Mind, Logic of the Heart) writes of two kinds of acquisition. The first is “chazaqah”, holding. It comes from Hashem’s commandment to Adam “to guard the garden and keep it”. (Bereishis 2:13) This is the gift of reaching unto things through cultivation, work and dedication.

The other kind of acquisition R. Aharon calls “kibbush”, grasping. This kind of activity comes from Hashem’s other imperative to Adam, “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth vekhivshuhah — and subdue it”. (Bereishis 1:28)

In approaching the Benei Cheis, Avraham describes himself as “geir vetoshav anokhi imakhem — I am a stranger and a resident amongst you”. Avraham lived in two worlds, in the spiritual as well as the physical. He was amongst the Benei Cheis, but also apart from them. This gave Avraham two tools: chazaqah and kibbush.

The Western World is based on “might makes right”, “kochi veotzem yadi asa li es hachayil hazeh – my might, and the strength of my hand won me this battle”. The spirit of the West is “the hand of Eisav— the spirit of kibbush. Avraham didn’t feel the need to enforce his will with power, it was okay for him to be a geir.

Without kibbush society would not progress. We would have no new science or engineering, no new territory, evil would not be vanquished. But kibbush must have limits. While Hashem did command “vekhivshuhah”, He certainly wanted man to rise above the level of warring tribesmen.

The other is the gift of cultivation, of work and dedication and of reaching unto things and people through love, consideration, and guidance (“chazaqah”). We can attain great heights through kibbush, but we can’t just constantly be looking to go further and to extend, we have to also develop what we have.

R. Aharon finds in this distinction the source of the gender differences in halakhah. Males have a tendency toward uncontrolled kibbush, while women are more focused on chazaqah. This places women on a higher spiritual plane than men. When a woman says “she’asani kirtzono — for He has made me according to His Will”, it is implied that men are further from that Will than she is. Women’s innate qualities as the last created creature (Rabbi Soloveichik words this as “the crown of Creation”), are already aimed at the fulfillment of G-d’s ultimate desire for mankind. The reason for the extra mitzvos and extra ritual placed on males is to reign in that uncontrolled kibbush.

What is that “ultimate desire for mankind”?

3. The two Batei Miqdash

R. Chaim Soloveitchik holds that there is a distinct difference between the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel that came with the first commonwealth and that of the second.

The first Temple did not create a permanent qedushah (holiness). The reason given is “that which was acquired through conquering is lost through conquering. The First Commonwealth built on land acquired in the wars of the days of Yehoshua and the Shoftim (Judges), was itself conquered.

The Second Commonwealth was “merely” an immigration of a group of Jews who decided to live in the land as Jews. It is predicated on the mitzvos done there, the education of children raised there. That kind of sanctity can not be undone. “Qidshah lisha’atah viqidshah le’asid lavo – it was sanctified for its time and sanctified for all time to come”. Even today, Har Habayis (the Temple Mount) has the sanctity of the Temple.

R. Aharon understands his grandfather’s words in the light of this distinction. The first commonwealth was founded on kibbush. It therefore had an inherently inferior qedushah. The second commonwealth was built by chazaqah. When Hashem tells Zecharia, “Not by force and not by might but by My spirit”, He is saying that the second Temple should be build on chazaqah, not kibbush, to lead to a permanent sanctification. “Neqeivah tesoveiv gever.”

Rav Aharon Soloveitchik notes Chanukah’s connection to Sukkos. According to Seifer haMakabiim, on the first Chanukah people who had just missed being oleh regel, going up to the beis hamiqdash, with their esrog and lulav, did so then at their first opportunity. Beis Shammai taught that one should light 8 lights the first night of Chanukah, 7 the second, learning from the 70 bulls offered for the mussaf on Sukkos, which also declined in number each day: 14 the first day, 13 the second, etc… Rav Yosi bar Avin or R’ Yosi bar Zevida explains that Beis Shammai are emphasizing the link between Chanukah and Sukkos. (We follow Beis Hillel, and teach that the ideal is to increase as the holiday progresses. They do not deny the connection; but rather Beis Hillel asserts an overriding halachic principle — that we increase in holiness over time.)

The concept of being a geir vetoshav is at the center of the similarity between the two holidays. Sukkos is a time when the toshav leaves his home to experience geirus in the Sukkah. Chanukah is also about the ger’s Chazaqah, the rededication of the second Beis haMiqdash. Not about winning the war – the war wouldn’t be over for years – but about being able to live in Israel as Jews, with access to the beis hamiqdash.

4. Qinyan as Chazakah

We go from looking at Rav Aharon’s elaboration of his grandfather’s concept to using his brother’s, R. Yoseph Ber’s insight to extend R. Aharon’s concept of chazaqah to things acquired by commerce as well. To buy something is to exchange a token of the chazaqah you have put into something else, and trade it for chazaqah on this object.

By combining these ideas, we understand why Chevron, Har haBayis and Shechem were bought. Buying is a means of chazaqah. It is inherently holier than if our claim were based on military victory.

The same idea can be used to understand why the gemara in Qiddushin (2a) asserts that the form of marriage is identical to that of a qinyan. This idea is proven from a gezeirah shavah (a comparison of terms) between the phrase “ki yiqach ish ishah — when a man takes a woman” (Devarim 22:13), and Avraham’s offer to Efron “nasati keseph hasadeh, kach mimeni — I have placed money for the field, take it from me” (23:13). In both cases the expression of “qichah — taking” is used.

(The halakhah is not teaching that women are ch”v bought and sold like chattel. You don’t need a gentile slave’s consent in order to buy him. Purchasing’s two parties are owner and buyer, not buyer and item bought. The fact that the wedding can not occur against her will shows that it isn’t a purchase. Second, the laws of ona’ah – overcharging and underpaying – would apply, and the value of the ring would need to be within 1/6th of the bride’s value.)

In the case of Chevron, Avraham was acquiring the entire field — from the beginning of time until the end. By making marriage assume the qinyan format we are acknowledging that the bride and groom were literally made for each other, and hopefully will remain together until the end of time. By using the form of chazaqah, the marriage, qiddushin, is on a higher plane. Like the ma’aras hamachpeilah, like the second Beis haMiqdash, the qiddushin thereby has the possibility of being an eternal holiness.

5. Gevurah and its Resolution

In Avos 4:1, Ben Zomah says “Who is a gibor, a warrior, one who is koveish his yeitzer, his inclination [toward evil]”. This is a proper use of kibbush, to vanquish evil, to change it into a tool for serving Hashem. It is interesting to note that the one who uses kibbush is called a “gibor”, from the same root as a word for man in the sense of specifically male as used in our pasuq in Zechariah – “gever”.

We find the term gibor in a prophecy about the messianic age. “How much longer will you stray, back-slidden daughter, and remain hidden and withdrawn? For Hashem has created something new on the earth, neqeivah tisoveiv gever — woman shall encircle man.” (Yirmiah 31:20-22)

We can attain great heights through kibbush, but we can’t succeed in establishing a Paradise on earth unless we couple it with chazaqah. At the end of history, the Jewish people, the fallen daughter, the ger vetoshav, will return to Hashem. The principle missing in this galus, the balance of kibbush and chazaqah, will be restored. As man realizes that he is a spiritual being, thereby being freed from needing to be overly focused on the gibor’s battle against the yeizer. The neqeivah, the feminine side, chazaqah, will be restored to its rightful role.

In the time of the Messiah, there will be no pursuit of kibbush, rather everyone will pursue the gift of chazaqah. So women’s Divine endowment and her mandate to be true to that endowment is consonant with humanity’s spiritual and moral goals in the Messianic Era.

Shiluach haQen

This entry is a continuation of the previous one.

I – Shilu’ach haQein

האומר על קן צפור יגיעו רחמיך ועל טוב יזכר שמך מודים מודים משתקין אותו:

One who prays, “Upon the birds nest your mercy extends[, so too may you have mercy upon us]” … we silence him.

- Mishnah Berakhos 5:3 (33b)

פליגי בה תרי אמוראי במערבא רבי יוסי בר אבין ורבי יוסי בר זבידא חד אמר מפני שמטיל קנאה במעשה בראשית וחד אמר מפני שעושה מדותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא רחמים ואינן אלא גזרות

Two amoraim in the west (i.e. Israel) are divided about it, Rabbi Yosi bar Avin and Rabbi Yosi bar Zeveida. One said: Because he places jealousy upon the creatures of Genesis. And one said: Because he makes the attributes of the Holy One to be Mercy, but they are only laws.

-Berakhos 33b

We are obligated to send away the mother bird before taking eggs or hatchlings from her nest. This is the mitzvah of shiluach haqein. We are told here that the mitzvah can not be about having mercy on birds because (1) if it were, there would be similar laws for mothers of other species; and (2) they exist as laws upon people, not as part of Hashem’s relationship with His birds.

It would seem that shiluach haqein is similar in thrust to why we make a berakhah on bread before other items. We show respect to bread, the staple of our diet, beyond the respect shown other foods. Similarly, Aharon, not Moshe, initiates the plagues of Blood, Frogs and Lice. As Rashi repeats form our sages, this is because the Nile saved Moshe when he was hidden there as an infant, and the sand saved him when Moshe killed the Egyptian taskmaster and buried him in the sand. Even though bread, the Nile and the sand of Egypt are inanimate objects, and do not feel the gratitude shown them, people need to express the gratitude, to reinforce the middah in ourselves.

I think this is the second explanation in the gemara. The mitzvah is not for the sake of the bird experiencing receiving mercy, but for the sake of the person having the excercise showing it mercy.

But does the bird not suffer to see her children taken from her? Why is it wrong to acknowledge Hashem sparing it that suffering? And why aren’t there mitzvos sparing other animal’s mothers such suffering?

II – Can Animals Speak?

The simplest explanation of the Targum I discussed in the previous entry describing the human soul as a “ru’ach memalela — a speaking spirit” is that there is some fundamental skill necessary for true speech that people have and animals lack. In recent years, this has become difficult to identify. There are apes that have been taught American Sign Language. They lack grammar; the ape Koko will say “Koko wants banana” and “Banana wants Koko” interchangably. Perhaps grammar is the critical skill implied. Without grammar distinguishing “I threw the ball” and “a ball threw me”, all we know is that an ape can identify that the world involves a ball, itself, and throwing, and not necessarily describing the event itself.

However, more recently the orangutan Chantek was taught ASL, and not only can phrase her needs, she invented “tomato toothpaste” as a sign idiom for catsup. While there is still no sign of an ape mastering grammar, that’s impressive.

To further complicate things, it’s unclear how non-human Chantek is. It depends what the gemara means when speaking of “adnei hasadeh“. If I take the aggadita part literally, the are human beings that grow off stalks; their navel is on a stem that goes into roots in the ground. Halachically, killing one can qualify as murder. Is this a hypothetical case — people say these things exist, and if they do, it would be murder? Or is the aggadita metaphoric, and it’s talking about apes or some subset of apes. Perhaps the aggadita speaking of how they would die if you took them from their habitats and thus “are attached to the ground”. The Malay “orang + hutan” (man + wilderness) sure sounds a lot like “adnei hasedeh” (men of the field).

Back to the point, I now find it possible but difficult to explain Targum as saying that people qualitatively have some communication skill lacking in animals, rather than quantitatively superior skills. This drove my conclusion that the speech here is internal to the self, the stream of consciousness of the seikhel, and motivated much of the previous entry.

III- Are Animals Self-Aware?

Revisiting the issue of the Turing Test and if it can produce false positives: Do animals have this ability to perceive their own thoughts? Are they self-aware? Does an animal not only recognize self, but have an “I” in their consciousness that can know what it’s like to make that recognition?

Targum Unqelus describes the human soul as being uniquely a ru’ach memalela. We noted that animals are also described as having a nefesh, but no mention of their having a ru’ach. And we also argued that self-awareness is a feature of free will, which people have and animals lack.

If the mother bird lacks self-awareness, she can still feel and respond to the pain of losing her children. It is pain because it is something she responds to by trying to minimize. But there is no “I” to experience that pain, the pain isn’t internalized by the koach hadimyon within the bird’s soul. It is pain, but it is not suffering. Which would explain why the Torah is not concerned with her suffering. Rather, it is concerned with creating people who are capable of inflicting pain. It is not Divine Mercy on birds, it is a personality-shaping law given to man.

Why do we light the new candle first?

My son (4th grade) had a class Chanukah party, for which he was aked to prepare a devar Torah. A short vertl, a question and answer to fit in less than a minute.

My son wanted to know why we light the Chanukah menorah starting from the left candle and working your way to the right. Usually mitzvos start on the right! He was so drawn to this question, he was going to present it even though he didn’t have an answer.

Here’s what we eventually came up with (2 minutes before “showtime”):

One of the most important things in Yahadus is to constantly growing, to always try to be a greater tzadiq than one was the day before. We light the left candle first because it is the new candle. As we rule (following Beis Hillel), we light every day more than the day before because “ma’alin beqodesh velo moridin – we ascend in holiness, not refress”. We therefore start with the symbol of progress.

Pesach: Freedom from Preconceived Limitations

I appreciated this video from YU‘s Center for the Jewish Future.

Something to think about:

What does this notion of cheirus (freedom) say about the appropriate thoughts to have while cleaning the kitchen this Sunday?

What does it say about matzah, about something which is a symbol of both poverty and oppression yet also of the possibility of a sudden end to one’s troubles?

This Year in Jerusalem

The first Satmerer Rebbe, R’ Yoel Teitelbaum, writes the following thought in Vayo’el Moshe.

When Yaakov first meets Rachel, he is at a well with some shepherds, waiting for enough to come by to move the stone that protects the well. As she approaches, he asks the shepherds if all is well with his cousin Lavan, and they answer, “All peaceful, vehinei Racheil bito ba’ah im hatzon — and here is Racheil his daughter, coming with the flock.” (Bereishis 29:6)

A few lines later, “When he is still speaking to them, veRacheil ba’ah im hatzon — and Racheil came with the flock that belongs to her father.” (Ibid v 9)

Notice that one time “ba’ah” is used to mean that Racheil was on her way, the other that she had arrived already. Rashi clarifies with a grammatical point; it makes a difference which syllable gets the trop mark and stress. The first usage was “ba’AH“, with the stress (tipechah) on the second syllable, meaning “she is coming”. The second, “BA’ah” (revi’i on the beis)– “she came”.

Everyone assumes that the line said at the end of Yom Kippur and the Pesach Seder is “Leshanah haba’AH biYrushalayim — The coming year in Jerusalem”. But the Satmar Rav said this is a mistake.

We voice this desire at the close of Yom Kippur, shortly after the year began on Rosh haShanah, and on Pesach, shortly after the beginning of the year of months, the beginning of Nissan. We say it when a year just arrived. The line should not be said with the stress as “ha’AH” but rather say “BA’ah” — We are speaking of the year that just came!

Leshanah haBA’ah biYrushalayim habenuyah!
May the year that just began be spent in a rebuilt Jerusalem!

A Seder Thought

From this month’s Yashar (The Mussar Institute‘s newsletter), “How Mussar Affected My Life — Student Profile” by By Dorit Golan Cullen. (I wrote the majority of this entry in an email to The Mussar Institute’s list. It therefore was designed for people with less Jewish education but more commitment to a Mussar personal orientation than this blog’s usual target audience.)

I suggest reading the column now, if you haven’t yet, because the following is just the conclusion. Without the context and background, the point will be somewhat denuded:

Two and one-half years later, I’ve attracted wonderful people both in my personal and professional world because of the transformation of my character and my freedom to be open and honest in a different way with people.

Mussar has given me the voice to my inner feelings about my self and the people I dearly love. Mussar has also given me permission to select the people I want in my inner circle. As I write, I am feeling at peace, balance and purer than I was in the summer of 2004. Thank you for taking me on this wonderful ride called life.

Mussar can be a very freeing experience.

I think it’s no coincidence that the traditional seder is a precise 15 step program. It reminds me of one of the “ladders” found in many of the mussar texts — most famously, in the structure of Mesilas Yesharim. (Available for free in English and the original Hebrew.) We start with Zehirus – Caution, move on to Zerizus – Zeal, to Neqi’us – moral Spotlessness, to Perishus – Separation from challenges we can’t yet master, and so on. Step by step, a path from wherever we were when reading page 1 to the heights of Qedushah-Holiness.

And so too the seder. Qadeish – committing ourselves to the journey. And immediately, even with an “u-” prefix as a conjunctive, we have “uRchatz – AND Wash”. Chapter 1 — commitment. But before that commitment can cool, immediately, start washing away the unholiness of the past. And so on, step by step, from study to living through the Exodus to the point where we can partake of a meal and it be a sacred meal, to Nirtzah (from the root /רצה/, desire), where we are as G-d desires us to be.

The seder is a mussar ladder. We not only recall the Exodus from Egyptian bondage 3319 or so years ago, but also the Exodus from the spiritual degradation. The Exodus is not merely a one time event, but an interruption of history designed to show us what is constantly occurring in our own lives.

In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. Translated: a pair of troubles. Everyone recalls a time when they got their lives back after being stuck between a pair of troubles, between a rock and a hard place. The assistance that G-d sent our way is our own “Exodus from Mitzrayim“. Each one not only freedom from physical or emotional bondage, but an opening for spirituality. If we only choose to climb that Mussar Ladder…

In less poetic, nitty-gritty life, to me, the big mussar challenge I will be facing this evening is giving my chlidren the seder that want and need, rather than the one I want to give. Being able to balance my duty to teach them with what it is they are ready to receive. Taking into account the differences between their world view and mine, their priorities and mine. To be empathetic enough to see how that changed with their growth over the past year. For me, that is my “uRchatz“, my taking that commitment to holiness of Qaddeish, of making qiddush on that first cup of wine, and running with it to wash away my habitual errors.

Like the Laws of Pesach

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר? מַה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹקֵינוּ אֶתְכֶם? וְאַף אַתָּה אֱמָר לוֹ כְּהִלְכוֹת הַפֶּסַח: אֵין מַפְטִירִין אַחַר הַפֶּסַח אֲפִיקוֹמָן.

The wise son of the Hagaddah asks, “What are the laws of testimony, the metarational laws, and the more intuitive laws which Hashem our G-d has commanded you?” The wise son already knows much about the structure of halakhah, he is implicitly asking for a breakdown by asking for the laws by category: The eidos are comprehensible to people, but only after being taught the background of what it is they commemorate. Chuqim are laws that are beyond human comprehension, that we keep out of loyalty to and trust in the One Who commanded them. And mishpatim are laws that make intuitive sense based on human notions of law and ethics.

The answer we are told to give him is to “tell him like the laws of Pesach. Do not eat dessert after the Pesach [offering].” Usually this is understood to mean that you are to teach him all the laws of Pesach up to the very last one — do not eat after eating from the qorban.”

The Sefas Emes points out that this explanation is quite a stretch. It doesn’t say “teach him the laws of Pesach until” the one about not eating afterward. Rather, it says, “teach him kehilkhos haPesach, like the laws of Pesach, one may not eat…”

Why isn’t one supposed to eat after eating from the Pesach offering? Because you should be left with the taste of the mitzvah in your mouth.

The Sefas Emes explains that this is the point we must teach the Chacham. He is very focused on the intellectual pursuit of understanding the mitzvos of the night. With that fixation, he might miss experiencing the Seder, the lessons that can only be learned by living through it, rather than trying to comprehend it. Torah study is important, but it can not supplant the changes one undergoes by actually performing the individual mitzvah.
Therefore we teach him that all of Torah is “like that law of Pesach: do not eat dessert after eating the Pesach offering.” Savor the experience, the taste of the mitzvah.

Universalism

(Updated 12-Oct-2007: Added kaf zechus.)

In today’s world, with the Orthodox community as tiny as it is, dealing with high costs of education and our own needs, our chessed tends to be focused on the helping others within our own communities.

Another factor promoting our insularity is our need to self-define in order to survive. We are more likely to focus on those mitzvos that are uniquely preserved by Orthodox Judaism. Mitzvos championed by non-Orthodox Jews tend to get shorter shrift. This impacts fundamental things like the amount of time spent teaching boys Tanakh or diqduq (Hebrew grammar).

Such need for survival, both to focus on building internally and on defining ourself, is not to be belittled. One can easily argue that any topic it pulls attention from is not any worse off if the community were to ch”v disintegrate and there were no one’s attention to veer. In fact, this seems to be the position of the Mishnah Berurah (694:3, laws of the Purim obligation of matanos la’evyonim, gifts to the poor). He writes that if someone gives a perutah (a minimal coin) to a gentile for reasons other than darkhei shalom, it is theft from the poor (presumably meaning the Jewish poor). One could argue the same reasoning is true of time and energy, not only money. The question is defining “darkhei shalom“, and asking if anyone would give charity to non-Jews for other reasons.

But I would argue that the same thing happened to our calling to help others beyond the eiruv. That in an age where “Tikkun Olam” has been hijacked to refer to left-wing political activism, we are artificially playing down the centrality of extending a hand to those not in our little community — whether it’s the local soup kitchen or protesting the killing in Darfur.

1- As Dr. David Luchens quoted in his eulogy for Rav Aharon Soloveichik:

“It is not just that Rav Aharon is the only Rosh Yeshiva that speaks about Biafra”, his lifelong friend Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, once explained. “It’s that he is the only Rosh Yeshiva who ever heard of Biafra.”

So I decided to collect some thoughts about the centrality of a universalist outlook by launching an Avodah discussion.
On Avodah, and before that in the Jewish Press, R. Harry Maryles, a student of Rav Aharon’s, explains his rebbe’s position:

Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, zt”l, wrote in his book Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, the concept of kavod habriyos, the dignity of Man, is a halachic imperative that constitutes the basis of human rights, and the basis of all civilized jurisprudence.

As the Rambam says in Hilchos Sanhedrin (24:8-10), these rights apply even to pagans. “Tzedek tzedek tirdof.” Why should the Torah repeat the word tzedek? Rabbenu Bachaye interprets it to mean that the same standard of righteousness should be applied toward all non-Jews.

As an example of this attitude, Rabbi Soloveichik related the following story from the Talmud Yerushalmi (Bava Metzia):

Shimon Ben Shetach worked in the flax business. His students advised him to give up that business and buy a donkey which would provide a better income. Shimon Ben Shetach agreed. So his students went to a pagan Arab and bought a donkey for him. After the purchase they discovered a large diamond tied to it. They brought the animal and the jewel to their rebbe who thereupon asked them, “Did the Arab know that there was a diamond tied to the donkey?” They answered, “No.” Shimon Ben Shetach told his students to immediately go back and return the diamond. But the students knew the laws regarding returning lost objects to idolaters. They knew that they were not required by halacha to do so. Why, they asked their rebbe, did he ask them to return it? He answered, Do you think that I am a barbarian? I am more interested in hearing the exclamation, “Blessed be the God of the Jews” from pagans than I am in earning a living.

2- Jason Moser offered two contemporary citations. The first is Orthodox Forum. Tikkun Olam: Social Responsibility in Jewish Thought and Law. Northvale, N.J: Jason Aronson, 1997. In particular, chapter 2, “Tikkun Olam: Jewish obligations to non-Jewish society” by Rabbi J. David Bleich.

Second is Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s work “To Heal a Fractured World”, chapter 9 – Responsibility for Society, pp. 113-129. Quoting Rabbi Sachs:

There are certain questions that are note asked within a particular culture, simply because the circumstances that give rise to it never occurred. Throughout history, Jews took it as axiomatic that they were responsible for one another. The question they did not ask was: to what extent are we responsible for the wider society and the world?…
The question was not asked because it never arose. For eighteen centuries of Diaspora history, Jews had no civil rights. They had no vote. Until the nineteenth century, they were not admitted to universities, the professions, parliaments, local government or offices of state. Even after emancipation, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they entered the public domain as citizens rather than as Jews. Public culture was either Christian or secular, and there was no point of entry for, or interest in, a Jewish voice.
[Emphasis in the original.]

3- Rabbi Sacks provides this quote from Rav Kook (also in Jason Moser’s email to Avodah):

“The love for people must be alive in the heart and soul, a love for all people and a love for all nations, expressing itself in a desire for their spiritual and material advancement … One cannot reach the exalted position of being able to recite the verse from the morning prayer, ‘Praise the Lord, invoke His name, declare His works among the nations’ (1 Chron. 16:8), without experiencing the deep, inner love stirring one to a solicitousness for all nations, to improve their material state and to promote their happiness.”

‘The Moral Principles’ (Middot ha-Rayah). English version in “The Lights of Penitence, Lights of Holiness, The Moral Principles, Essays, Letters and Poems”, translated Ben Zion Bokser, London 1979 p.136

4- Moshe Yehudah Gluck offered this quote from the Ramchal’s introduction to Mesillas Yesharim:

The general rule for this (Halichah B’drachav – MYG) is that a person should act in all his ways based on uprightness and forethought (Hayosher V’hamussar – MYG). Chazal generalized it as, “Anything which is harmonious both to its performer and to the observer.” This means that one goes to the n-th degree of doing good, which is that its result is the strengthening of Torah and repairing relationships between nations.

5- Doron Beckerman quoted Rabbeinu Yonah on the obligation to pray for the well-being of the government:

Rabbi Chaninah Segan HaKohanim says, pray for the welfare of the monarchy, for were it not for trepidation of it, a man would swallow his fellow alive.

This statement is meant to express the idea that a person should daven for peace in the entire world and to feel pain when others suffer; and this is the way of the Tzaddikim, as David a”h, said (Tehillim 35:13) “And I, when they take ill, my clothes are sackcloth, I afflict my soul with fasting”.

For a person should not make his supplications and requests solely for his own needs, rather he should daven for all human beings that they be in a peaceful environment, and when there is peace of the monarchy, there is peace in the world.

- Rabbeinu Yonah, commentary on Avos 2:3

On to my own Avodah contribution…

6- There are a number of things we are told to do for non-Jews “mipenei darkhei shalom — because of the ways of peace”. Usually this is assumed to mean we do them in order to preserve peace for our neighbors. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein explains otherwise. As we just saw in the Ramchal, we are enjoined understand this concept of “vehalakhta biderakhav — going in His ways.”

Returning to the Mishnah Berurah, it turns out he is saying that giving charity to non-Jews for reasons other than trying to imitate the Creator is not only a poor form of charity, but also theft from Jewish causes. His statement is more like “it would be theft were it not darkhei shalom” than a statement that the norm is theft. This eliminates his ruling as a consideration for whether the Torah promotes universalism. The universalist viewpoint is recommending the charity specifically as a form of imitatio Dei.

7- Along similar lines, in his introduction to Shaarei Yosher, Rav Shimon Shkop writes about the enigmatic lines of Hillel: Im ein ani li, mi li? Ukeshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani? — If I am not for me, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?

Rav Shimon explains that the key to chessed is not self-lessness, but an extension of the notion of self. It is easy to do things for one’s one bodily comfort. Somewhat holier, to take care of one’s higher needs. One’s family is “me and mine”, so helping them is also quite easy. One step more outward would be to help one’s friends. People with a wider definition of “li“, for me and mine, would be committed to one’s neighbors and community. And so on, wider and wider. The greatest ba’al chessed is one with the broadest notion of self, including as many people as possible.

This is what Rav Shimon defines as truly being in the image of G-d, of “be[ing] holy just as I Am Holy.” It is akin to Rav Aharon’s idea. To imitate G-d is to shower chessed universally.

8- Universality is a primary feature of Rav Hirsch’s Torah im Derekh Eretz, Torah combined with a cultured nobility. Derekh eretz isn’t merely to be taken in, it is also to contribute back to the greater culture. “Yaft Elokim leYefes, veyishkon be’ohalei Sheim — Hashem gave beauty to Yefes, and dwells in the tents of Sheim.” (Breishis 9:27) Sheim’s task is to be the voice of G-d in the greater culture. The moral voice in the mosaic of civilization. This is a theme Rav SR Hirsch develops further looking at the messianic prophecies of our becoming “a light for the nations” and “For from Tziyon the Torah will come forth…”

By being silent on issues like Darfur, we are missing our Semitic calling.

9- R’ Yitzchak Blau on Ki miTzion Teitzei Torah (starting at 25:25) ( 25:25) points out that the Tif’eres Yisrael explains three mishnayos in Avos in universal terms.

a- Hillel asks us to try to be mitalmidav shel Aharon (one who is from among the students of Aaron), which in part means being someone who is “oheiv es haberi’os — literally: loves the creatures” (Avos 1:12). Beri’os is a pretty universal term for humanity, not confusable for a limitation to other Jews.

b- Lest you think this attitude is specific to Hillel, the Tif’eres Yisrael also learns this lesson from Shammai’s words: “havei meqabeil es kol ha’adam beseiver panim yafos — receive all people with a pleasant expression on one’s face” (Avos 1:15).

Is this “ha’adam” universal? The Tif’eres Yisrael cites a Tosafos to show that while “adam” sometimes means “everyone in our conversation”, “ha’adam” is always about all of humanity. R’ Blau likens it to an announcement in shul “Everyone can vote for shul president”. Obviously “everyone” is limited by context. This is how Tosafos explain the gemara, “‘adam ki yamus ba’ohel’ – atem keruyim adam.

However, Tosafos point out, this is not true of “ha’adam“. And therefore the TY concludes that this mishnah obligates you to show that warmth to Jew and non-Jew.

I would add to this the observation that the same could be said of another obligation formulated identically: “Havei dan es kol ha’adam lekaf zekhus — judge all people toward the [balance scale] plate of righteousness” (Avos 1:6), i.e. when in doubt about someone else, assume the best.

c- While “adam” may be ambiguous, it’s not ambiguous when used in contrast to “Yisrael.” And so, the Tif’eres Yisrael reads the following mishnah:

[R’ Aqiva] used to say, “Beloved is man, for he was created in the “Image” [of G-d]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of G-d, as it is said, ‘For in the image of G-d He made man.’ (Bereishis 9:6)

Beloved are Israel, or they were called children of the Omnipresent. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they were called children of the Omnipresent, as it is said, ‘You are children of Hashem your G-d.’ (Devarim 14:1)

Beloved are Israel, for to them was given the instrument by which the world was created[, the Torah]. It was an extra [show of] love that it was made known to them that they had the instrument through which the world was created, as it is said, ‘For I give you good doctrine; do not forsake my Torah.’ (Proverbs 4:2)

Therefore, the mishnah is saying that all human beings are chavivin because they are created betzelem, and the Jews are noted for having extra gift — being selected to represent Hashem among peoples, and getting the Torah. But every person is previous. Regardless of color, abilities or appearance. (This Tif’eres Yisrael is worth seeing, particularly the Boaz, as he waxes quite poetic about people who advanced mankind.)

We should realize that we are the mamlekhes kohanim, a kingdom of humanity’s priests. If we do not appreciate how the world is behaving, it’s our job as their clergy to take responsibility for the religious failings of our flock. We must struggle to survive as an am levadad yishkon, a nation that will dwell alone, so that we have a particularist identity as the world’s kohanim. But our mission and concerns must be universal.

This balance is seen in the berakhos before Shema, (among many other tefillos). The berakhah of Yotzeir Or is universal, about Hashem as the Creator of everything, once and continually bringing reality into existence. “Hakol yodukha — all shall know You.” Ma’ariv Aravim in the evening is similarly universal, “‘Hashem Tzevakos’ shemo — His name is ‘G-d of All Forces”. But then we have Ahavas Olam and Ahavah Rabba, describing the special love Hashem has for Jews in particular, the recipients of His Torah. To reach that universal goal, we have immediate needs to look to our own.

And may we soon merit that day when “They will all come together in a single union, to do Your will wholeheartedly.”

… The rest is commentary

(More material added on May 30th.)

There is a famous story in the gemara (Shabbos 31a) about three prospective converts who each came to Shammai saying that they want to convert but only if he meets some absurd condition. In all three cases, Shammai turns them away, they go to Hillel, who accepts them, they convert and they drop their requirement. The gemara describes the second one as follows:

Again it happened that a non-Jew came before Shammai and said to him, “Make me a proselyte, on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Thereupon he pushed him away with the builder’s ammah-stick which was in his hand. When he went before Hillel, he said to him, “What you hate, do not do to your peer: that is the whole Torah, the rest is the commentary. Go and learn it.”

There is much to be said about the story. For example, the prospective convert uses the idiom “while I stand on one leg”, rather than saying “summarize”. And Hillel’s reply is to establish the whole Torah on one leg, on one principle. Perhaps Shammai’s response is that Torah is about the measures and sizes, and can’t be explained without all the details of the halakhah. That the Torah is about the legal structure that Hashem and the Jewish people build in a redemptive partnership (to describe it in terminology from Ish haHalakhah).

But the point that hit me this morning that motivated this post was something else.

Is there a natural morality, an innate sense of right and wrong? Somehow all of humanity labels theft and murder as evil. Everyone has a yeitzer hatov calling him to good and yeitzer hara pulling the other way. And yet, a tinoq shenishba, a child raised in a home devoid of Torah values, is judged more leniently because of that experience. We do not assume it’s innate in him as well.

Rav Soloveitchik notes on a number of occasions that every mitzvah in the Torah has an element of choq, of incomprehensible law followed purely because G-d said so — the opposite of a natural morality. For example, without the revelation of halakhah, would we know whether the concept of murder should or shouldn’t include abortion? What about euthanasia? At what point is a person already dead? Do you endanger many to save one life? Halakhah gives us the tools to make determinations that innate morality is not equipped to answer.

However, in other cases the halakhah is simply to do what’s right. “Be holy, for I Am holy”, which the Ramban famously explains as a prohibition against being “disgusting with [what would otherwise be] the permission of the Torah”. How does one define menuval, someone who is disgusting? “veAsisa hatov vehayashar — And you shall do the good and the straight.” It is presumed we have an innate definition of holiness, good, and rectitude that the Torah is commanding us to follow that extends beyond the other, more legally styled, mitzvos.

So, we are outright commanded to be moral in ways beyond those spelled out in legal terms. We must be holy, we must be tov veyashar. How are we to know what these mean? The case for a Natural Morality seems impeccable.

Natural morality is based on empathy. “What you hate, do not do to your peer.” In a somewhat flawed way, it drives the Notzri Golden Rule, as well as the Hindu concept of Karma. (The Golden Rule, by the way, would require my giving away all I own to the next person I meet, wait hand on foot on others, etc… Taken at its word, the creed is un-livable.) I know something is wrong because I wouldn’t like it — and I am aware of another’s pain when I do it to them.

Morality from empathy is limited, as we pointed out above. Even though there exists a simple underlying morality, it is being applied to a complex world. Results are often surprising and counterintuitive. And so, Hashem gave us a book and a process to help explicate the problem. Rather than trying to deduce behavior through that complex mapping of effects and side-effects, on impacts of things we can’t fully understand like our minds and souls, Hashem gives us a law, a set of applications. The relationship between halakhah and natural morality is that between quantum mechanics and endocrinology. It is theoretically possible to deduce endocrinology by studying the problem in terms of subatomic particles and the four basic forces. In practice, no one is up to the task, and an attempt to do is bound to occasionally lead to mistakes that are the direct opposite of reality. It is easier and more reliable to treat a diabetic by studying endocrinology directly.

However, even though it is limited, such natural morality is indispensible. In cases where the letter of all the specifically phrased halakhos permit, we may find that it allows disgusting, unholy, evil or perverted behaviors as we naturally understand the terms. These too are prohibited.

Particularly in the realm of interpersonal mitzvos, these must arise often. When exploring man’s relationship with Hashem, it is extremely difficult if possible to picture “what would we hateful to me” if I were (so to speak) in His Situation. However, when deciding whether or not someone should get paid, such analysis are actually tractable.
The Sho’eil uMeishiv 1:44 prohibits copyright violations on these grounds. Beyond simply “the law of the land is [Torah] law”, the obligation to observe local civil law (when not designed for persecuting Jews), he argues that any moral right defined by general society must be observed halachically. Once society recognizes intellectual property, it has halachic significance. I would argue that this too resides in the obligation to “do the good and the upright”.

I think the same must be kept in mind when looking at cases in the many English popularizations of the laws of finance and business. They give cases, often for the purpose of showing the non-intuitive result. However, I am not sure lenient non-intuitive results are real. How is getting away with not having to pay something you would expect on the gut level to pay qualify as “tov veyashar“?
Empathy gives general guidelines, but no tools for navigating the gray areas and the questions that involve conflicting values and priorities. Therefore one needs commentary to explain further. And that commentary one must “go and learn”. It goes beyond the innate. But it also doesn’t neglect the innate.