Shavuos Reading

I just wanted to share some of what I came across this Shavuos…


1- From YU’s “Shavuos-to-Go”, R’ Mordechai Torczyner writes about the connection between Shavuos and chessed. Often cited is the idea that Rus, a book about chessed, is read on Shavuos to highlight this connection. R’ Torczyner opens with a different point of connection:

[A] midrash describing the scene atop Har Sinai places the credit not with Moshe, but with Avraham:

At that moment the ministering angels sought to harm Moshe. God shaped Moshe’s face to appear like that of Avraham, and God said to the angels, “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?” God then turned to Moshe and said, “The Torah was given to you only in the merit of Avraham.

But what I found particularly intriguing is that he builds the connection from the following observation:

Adam and Chavah were charged with working in their garden and protecting it, and they would have been the sole beneficiaries of their work; every plant they grew, nearly every fruit they cultivated, was theirs to eat. (Bereishis 2) Only in one case were they told to labor benevolently without expectation of reward: The fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil would receive their care, but provide no benefit. All work for that tree would be purely chesed shel emet, kindness without any anticipation of reciprocity. This was their own opportunity to engage in עולם חסד יבנה, bringing into reality a world founded on kindness. Instead, though, the first human beings took that fruit for themselves.

The sin of the tree of knowledge was a flaw in chessed, in acting for the other with no intent to get benefit from it. I would suggest that this notion of chessed was in fact the very da’as the tree was supposed to impart.

And it’s not until we get to Avraham, who not only performs chessed but commits to transmitting it down the generations that Hashem finds a nation worth of the Torah. This is the reason why humanity required 26 generations between the giving of derekh eretz and the Torah.


2- Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, in the Naso 5770 issue of his weekly Parashah Sheet “Covenant and Conversation” carries two essays.

I will comment on the longer essay in a forthcoming blog entry. (Shorter version used to appear here.)

In a short thought on the last page (taken from “To Heal a Fractured World” pp 252-253), Rabbi Sacks discusses the nature of heroism. I found this interesting because the question of whether heroism is a Jewish value is still open for me. What does “chazaq ve’ematz” really mean? R’ Jonathan Sacks quotes Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity:

I once had occasion to observe in connection with Wordsworth that in the Rabbinical literature there is no touch of the heroic idea. The Rabbis, in speaking of virtue, never mention the virtue of courage, which Aristotle regarded as basic to the heroic character. The indifference of the rabbis to the idea of courage is the more remarkable in that they knew that many of their number would die for their faith.


3- Another favorite topic often visited in these pages is the subject of Jewish Values — the notion that there are demands the Torah makes of us beyond those of halakhah. Whether we view these as obligations of being (“be Holy, for I Am holy”) rather than halakhah‘s obligations of doing; or as obligations that are simply too subjective to be codified, each person capable of a different level of reaching beyond the letter of the law in different areas; or as the Ramban describes the obligation “and you shall do the honest and the good” — that there are just too many human interactions for a specific halakhah to cover each and every possible decision.

Rav Yehudah Amital wrote on this subject, and it was included in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s “Virtual Beis Medrash” mailing for Shavuos. A teaser:

The Gemara in Makkot (23b-24a) states:

Rabbi Simla’i expounded: Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot were told to Moshe…

David came and condensed them to eleven…

Yeshayahu came and condensed them to six…

Mikha came and condensed them to three…=

Even though Rabbi Simla’i opened with a reference to the 613 mitzvot, some of the things mentioned in connection with David, Yeshayahu, and Mikha – such as “walking humbly with God” and “shutting one’s eyes from seeing evil” – are not included among the six hundred and thirteen commandments! The verses cited here deal not only with mitzvot, but also with values – values that are an integral part of the Torah. Mikha reduced the 613 mitzvot to three values, and these values have binding force just like mitzvot.

Rabbi Chayyim Vital develops a parallel idea regarding character traits (Sha’ar Kedusha I:2):

The good and bad traits depend on this soul; they are the seat, foundation, and root of the rational soul, upon which depend the 613 mitzvot… It is for this reason that the character traits are not included among the 613 mitzvot. They serve, however, as the primary preparation for the 613 mitzvot… because the rational soul is not strong enough to fulfill the 613 mitzvot through the 613 organs of the body, but only through the fundamental soul that is connected to the body itself… Hence, one must be more careful about bad traits than about fulfilling the positive or negative precepts. For when a person has good traits, he will easily fulfill all the mitzvot.

The Torah does not relate to positive character traits as commandments, but nevertheless Rabbi Chayyim Vital sees them as being even more basic and fundamental than observance of the mitzvot.


4- Returning to YU’s Shavous to Go, in last year’s edition Rabbi David Horwitz touches on many of the themes R’ Amital discusses.

He too looks at the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai as to which principle is more primary to the Torah:

Love your neighbor as yourself: R. Akiba states, this is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai states: This is the book of the descendants of Adam (Genesis 5:1): This is even a greater principle.

– Sifra, on Sefer Va-Yiqra 19:8

Among R’ Horwitz’s observations:

Ben Azzai comes to teach that the ground of Jewish interpersonal ethics is not merely a social contract between disparate individuals but is rooted in the fact that every human being was created in the image of God. Hence, the end of Genesis 5:1 is the crucial key. That is the point of the Torah stating “This is the book of the descendants of Adam”. It is precisely the fatherhood of God that is the ground of our duty to embrace the brother hood of man. Hence, even if one has broken the social contract and harmed someone else, one dare not retaliate. Every human being is created in the image of God, and no one may ever forget it.

He then also casts this dispute in terms of Kant’s Categorical Imperative in a manner I found interesting, but unconvincing.

An imperative is called hypothetical when it indicates which means must be supplied in order that the something further, the end, is realized. Thus, if one acts nicely towards someone else because one wants some reciprocity, e.g., some favors from that person, one is only acting in terms of a hypothetical imperative. The categorical imperative, on the other hand, is a category based upon the concept of duty, and is not based upon what end or result one might receive from a particular action. Any act of goodness based upon the hypothetical imperative is only conditional and cannot form the basis for a system of ethics. Only the categorical imperative can be the ground of unconditional goodness (Cassirer, pp. 244-45). Only the categorical imperative is worthy to be the foundation of morality.

Armed with these categories, we can now return to the debate between R. Akiba and ben Azzai. Ben Azzai disputes R. Akiba’s citation because in his view, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and Hillel’s notion of “what is hateful to you do not do to your fellow man,”  expresses only the hypothetical imperative, and not the categorical imperative. And the hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one is harmed by others, and feels that it is indeed a legitimate source of pleasure to retaliate. Alternately, the  hypothetical imperative will not take care of the case in which one personally does not consider an act that others consider harmful to be, in fact, harmful. Ben Azzai, when responding with “This is the book of the descendants of Adam” responds by asserting that Jewish ethics is grounded upon a categorical imperative. And that itself is based upon the verse that concludes “In the likeness of God made He him”.

The Categorical Imperative, in its first formulation, states:

Act only according to that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

This too requires knowing how universal is “universal”. Suppose someone is a skilled shoemaker. Should they not become shoemakers because we wouldn’t want a world of only shoemakers? Perhaps the Kantian response is that each person should take the profession for which they are most fit. Abstracting away this person’s particular skill at shoemaking.

Similarly, the question of whether someone’s desire for revenge or personal taste about what is harmful is not necessarily a hypothetical imperative. It could also be a single situation’s application of something that is always, categorically, true.

I therefore don’t this as a core feature of the dispute between Rabbi Aqiva and Ben Azzai. As I see it:

Rabbi Aqiva’s verse has the disadvantage of being particularist, and not speaking to the need to show respect and love for people who aren’t our brothers  in Judaism.

However, Ben Azzai’s verse has the disadvantage of turning chessed into a derived value. By making the love we show others derivative of our love and awe for their Creator, we risk turning them into objects of mitzvah performance (like tefillin) rather than fully connecting to them as people.

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