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.