Sunday, October 29, 2006

Lech Lecha 1 - Rejected Heirs

One of the underlying subplots of P' Lech Lecha seems to be Avraham's "failed heirs". By this term, I refer to the people who seem to be in a position to carry on the Abrahamic legacy, but, for one reason or another, fade out of the scene.

1) "The souls they made in Charan". Rashi quotes two opinions on who these people are, whether they are servants whom Avraham and Sarah (and Lot) had acquired or whether they are people whom they brought closer to the way of God. Although the second is somewhat less literal, perhaps Rashi suggested it due to the difficulty of why these people warranted mentioning. The fact that God promised Avraham that he would be blessed implies that he was not so startlingly wealthy upon his departure from Charan that he would have such a large retinue of servants who would warrant mention on their own. Nonetheless, these people are never mentioned after the original departure from Charan. Perhaps at some point in Avraham's journey within Canaan, they abandoned Avraham.

2) Lot. The only member of Avraham's traveling party leaving Charan who merited mention on his own. Even if we allow that he chose to leave his homeland with his grandfather, uncle, and sister rather than staying with his other uncle and sister, when the family split a second time, why did Lot choose to continue traveling, rather than to stay with his grandfather? If we are to look upon Avraham as any sort of a giant for his choice to leave everything that he knew in favor of following God's word, one must also allocate praise to Lot, who put his trust in the prophet of God at the same cost. Nonetheless, in chapter 13, Lot gets into a politicoeconomic argument with his uncle, which causes him to finally cut his ties to the family. Lot has a somewhat heroic, albeit very significantly flawed, role in ch. 19 in S'dom, in which he shows his allegiance to the Abrahamic ideal of hospitality, but shows a mindboggling callousness towards his daughters' safety. The last we hear of him is as the ancestor of two other nations, whose origin story is less-than-reputable. Even more shockingly, these nations become known for their shunning of the idea of hospitality (Devarim 23:4-5), which raises certain questions about the legacy that Lot passed on to them. It always struck me as interesting that Lot's name is Aramaic for "curse", which creates the possibility of Lot being a sort of bizzaro-Avraham.

3) Damasek Eliezer. Avraham openly acknowledges his status as leading candidate for heir in ch. 15, but God promises that he will not be the ultimate heir.

This post has been sitting in my draft pile for a while now, and I'm not going to be thinking any more about it until next year, so I hereby throw it up onto my blog, half-written, perhaps to be added to next year.

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Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bereishis-No'ach Interface

The end of last week's parsha and the beginning of this week's parsha seem very similar. One way to examine them is to determine the reason for the break, both in parsha and in sedra, at specifically that point (I have created a separate blog, Parshiyos, with the goal of examining questions of this type as we travel through the year). For this post, though, I would like to take a look at the two sections together, as one unit.

The narrative of the evilness of the world leading up to the flood at the interface of P' Bereishis and P' No'ach seems to be divided into three distinct parallel sections, each consisting of three subsections:

I. A. 6:1-2 - Man begins to multiply upon the face of the earth, and the b'nei HaElohim take wives from whichever of the beautiful b'nos HaAdam they want.
B. 6:3 - God declares that He shall not contend with man forever, being that he is mere flesh, but rather man's days shall be limited to 120 years.
C. 6:4 - The Nephilim result from these unions.

II. A. 6:5-6 - God sees that man's evil is great upon the earth and that all of the thoughts of his heart are evil. He regrets that he made man and is saddened (or, as Onkelos reads it, He decides to "break their strength").
B. 6:7 - God declares that He will blot out man and all beasts and birds on the earth.
C. 6:8-10 - No'ach is righteous (and presumably will not be subject to this decree).

III. A. 6:11-12 - The world is full of corruption and violence
B. 6:13 - God tells No'ach that He will destroy all flesh along with (lit., es) the earth.
C. 6:14-16 - God gives No'ach instructions of how to build the ark and what to do with the animals.

The three "action" sections each describe a different form of evil. In the first, it has to do with the b'nei Ha-elohim marrying the b'nos HaAdam. The sin here could either be the powerful b'nei Ha-elohim abusing their power to take the b'nos HaAdam against their will, the righteous b'nei HaElokim allowing themselves to be negatively influenced by the wicked b'nos HaAdam, or something different, but the verses use a relatively objective tone in describing this phenomenon. In the second, it has to do with man's "great evil" upon the earth and his evil heart. In the third, the sins are specified to be (sexual) corruption and violence that even pervaded the very land, which appears to be a type of sinful climax.

The three reaction sections are also different. In the first, God declares that He will limit man's days to 120 years. In the second, He declares that He will blot out man, beasts, and birds. In the third, he declares that he will even destroy the earth (if we take es to mean "with", as per Rashi). From section to section, the subject of the punishment is broadened (man - man and animals - man and earth), and the magnitude of the punishment also seems to be increasing (limiting of years - blotting out - destruction, although the last seems to be a bit equivocal).

Finally, the three concluding sections have different results. In the first, the Nephilim are singled out as being mighty men that are mei-olam and "men of name". In the second, No'ach is singled out as being righteous and finding favor in God's eyes. In the third, No'ach is singled out to build an ark to survive the coming punishment.

Perhaps the following is a way to understand the parsha that utilizes the noted parallelism. Originally, the sins of the people were relatively minor, so God only set a limit upon the days of man. The midrash explains that this is a period of 120 years' probation before which God will punish the people. Colloquially, this passuk is the source of the blessing "May you live until 120 years", which I had always understood to be a mistranslation of the verse, but it does seem to fit the simple reading of the passuk. This being the case, perhaps this is not merely a preparation for punishment, but rather is a punishment in itself, in that man's days would become shortened. This would seem to be somewhat remniscent of the opinion of the Rambam in Moreh HaNevuchim, who holds that only the people mentioned in the lineage from Adam to No'ach lived exceptionally long lives, while the rest lived normal lives. Perhaps long life could be part of the gevurah, mei-olamkeit and sheim of the Nephilim, who were exceptions to this decree for reasons unclear. It's true that if we connect the pesukim in this way some of the Nephilim would even be tzaddikim, which would be strange, but not impossible. However one understands the Nephilim, one would also have to deal with the mention of the Nephilim by the meraglim and by the conquest of the land.

The way the verses are usually read, they all occur at the same time, so that the 120 years began at the same time that No'ach began to build the ark. However, perhaps it's possible to read the verses differently. The first set of verses could have happened much earlier in the chronology (since, even according to the normal way of reading things, 5:32 is out of order), perhaps even as early as the time of Sheis (bearing in mind that the b'nei Kayin were also part of this sinful world). In the second section, which occurred during No'ach's life, God planned to punish the world, but perhaps held back because of No'ach's finding favor in God's eyes, perhaps due to his potential to turn the world around. Finally, in the third parsha, which took place at some point later in Noach's 600-year antediluvian lifetime, God realized that No'ach does not represent untapped potential to save the world, and thus decided to start the world again from scratch, using No'ach as a second Adam.

There are several significant holes in this presentation, but I think that it addresses certain patterns within the pesukim.

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Machar Chodesh

What is the connection between the haftarah of Machar Chodesh and the day itself? Besides the fact that the fourth and fifth words of it are "Machar Chodesh"?

Malchus Beis David is often symbolized by the lunar cycle. If one counts from Avraham, the fifteenth generation is Shlomo, representing the zenith of the dynasty, while the thirtieth generation is Yoshiyahu, who was the last independent king from the dynasty (as Yehoachaz and Yehoyakim were respectively deposed by and subservient to Egypt, and Yehoyachin and Tzidkiyahu were the same by and to Bavel). Erev Rosh Chodesh is the darkest period of the month, as it is the day before the first sliver of the new moon appears. This haftarah discusses where David's life reached a nadir, as, where he had previously been the king's musician, hero, and son-in-law, he was now reduced to a fugitive fleeing for his life from a murderous king. Hence, it accurately describes the beginning of David's own "Erev Rosh Chodesh", which lasted until the death of Sha'ul and his own coronation.

When I told this idea over at a meal this past Shabbos, a friend of mine suggested that one could also view the beginning of the haftarah as being an "Erev Rosh Chodesh" of a much shorter duration, as David's absolute lowest point, before things began to improve, was truly in the beginning of the haftarah, where he may have even had doubts as to how much his best friend would be willing to help him by going against his father's wishes. This darkest moment ended by the end of the haftarah, when Yonasan made clear to David the extent to which he would go for him, and the rest of I Shmuel describes the rise of David's star.

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Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Now playing...

Chaim Rubin provides information about a new movie that has come out, "One Night With the King", which is based on Megillas Esther. The story is mangled to some extent (as evidenced by the presence of Shmuel HaNavi), but according to the description on the website, it seems to hit enough of the basics to possibly be a worthwhile view (coming from someone who seldom watches movies). Chaim concluded his post with the question of what other episodes from Tanach would make good movies. In a comment there, I suggested the end of Bayis Rishon.

The opening scene would take place on the erev Pesach of King Yoshiyahu, with the main character of the movie, a fictional character, being born on this night. The movie would follow the life of this fictional character - birth, marriage, growth of family, etc. - as he witnesses many of the events described in II Melachim, II Divrei HaYamim, and Yirmiyahu. If he was born on the night of Yoshiyahu's Pesach, he would be 13 years old when Yoshiyahu was killed in battle, 18 years old when Yehoyakim tore up the prophecy of Yirmiyahu, in his early 20s when Babylonia replaced Egypt as the major power broker in the region, 24 at the exile of Yechoniah, and 35 at the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash and the assassination of Gedaliah, which would be the final significant scene of the movie. The last few minutes would be an emotional epilogue in which the main character, by now very advanced in age, would return to the land.

Where do I sign up for my Oscar?

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Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Bereishis 3 - Quick hits

Some quick hits:

1) 2:19-20: Did the Adam only name animals, or did he even name plant life and inanimate objects? What is the significance of this difference?

2) 2:23: The Adam calls the woman that was brought to him an Ishah, "since this was taken from Ish". But when was the Adam called Ish? Ish and Ishah do not carry with them the definite article, implying that both are general terms (supported by the use of Ish in 2:24) while, to this point, "HaAdam" always does. When the Ishah is referred to in the next chapter, she, too, is referred to with the definite article.

3) 3:7: How would making chagoros, belts, solve the issue of ervah? Were these wide belts that were more like underwear so that they could cover the areas of ervah? Or perhaps the issue was one of their hearts being able to "see" their ervah, as is a halachic issue with saying brachos or davening (although this seems to be somewhat unlikely).

4) 3:10: Adam's nakedness did not make him embarrassed, but rather fearful. The word used, though, is not pachad, but rather the holier yir'a. Perhaps the Adam is arguing that the reason that he hid from God is because his actions raised him to a higher level of consciousness that increases his potential to fear HaShem (Is the word yir'a ever used by malachim?)?

5) 3:12: How is the fact that his wife gave to Adam to eat from the tree a good excuse? Why didn't he argue with her? The answer seems to touch on certain issues of gender dynamics, which may have changed with the introduction of the factor of "v'el isheich t'shukaseich", in 3:16, to balance the opposing force expressed by "ha-kol holeich achar ha-isha".

6) 3:13: The Ishah answers the question about why she ate, but does not take resposibility for giving to the Adam. This, too, may be connected to gender dynamics.

7) 3:17-19: Adam is not blamed simply for disobeying God's command and eating from the tree, but rather for the fact that he listened to his wife.

8) 3:17: For the first time, here, Adam is referred to with an indefinite article (or, more precisely, no definite article). It reverts back in 3:20, but happens again in 3:21, where Adam and his wife are given kosnos 'or. In 4:25, starting from the birth of Sheis, Adam is used as a proper name, with no article at all, and this persists through the geneaological pesukim at the beginning of chapter 5. In chapter 6, though, referring to the sins of mankind, each of the first 7 pesukim contains the word HaAdam with the definite article exactly one time (verse 7 also has it with a mem prefix). Perhaps this is drawing a comparison between Adam HaRishon and these men - who, in turn, are contrasted with No'ach, the subject of the short and simple passuk at the end of the parsha?

9) 3:20: What is the significance of Chava being called "eim kol chai", mother of all living beings, only after the sin (it is even someone ironic, in that it was at this time that death was decreed upon the world)? If she was so named even before the sin, why is she consistently referred to as "the Ishah" throughout the section?
Radak sides with those who suggests that Chava was given both the general name of Ishah and the specific name of Chava at the same time, when she was created. However, he suggests that it is possuble to understand the chronology of the passuk in the literal sense also, explaining that the Adam called her "eim kol chai" once he was granted a sexual ta'avah and realized her capability of producing living beings. (Ibn Ezra notes that she was called Chava and not Chaya so that she would not have the same name as an animal.)


Yomtov Sheni

B'nei Chu"L who say they can't imagine only having one day of Yomtov are comparable to diplopics who can't imagine ever being cured. HaShem had a reason for decreeing that we celebrate only one day of Yomtov, only eating matzah one night, only sitting in a Sukkah one night, etc. To complain about the potential loss of a day when one makes aliyah sounds very much like one views the chagim in terms of how he himself enjoys them, rather than in terms of the benefit that HaShem desired that we accrue from them.

Is it normal to shecht one's korban pesach but, before roasting it and eating it after nightfall, to go to watch the omer be harvested?

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Bereishis 2: Chanoch

5:18-24 discusses the life of Chanoch, one of the most mysterious personages of the Torah, as unlike his ancestors and descendents mentioned in the surrounding verses, who are all born, have children, and die, death is not mentioned by Chanoch, but rather the verse states "...and he was no more, for God took him" (some, including Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, attribute to Chanoch an extraordinary fate of being taken to heaven alive and becoming the angel Metatron - R' Chaim haQoton has a very interesting post on this issue - but Rashi and Ibn Ezra say that the strange terminology is just a reference to his dying a normal death before his time). His section is also distinct in that the Torah testifies (twice) that he "walked with God". This being the case, it is interesting that Rashi judges Chanoch negatively, explaining that God took him before his time because of his predisposition to return to his wicked ways.

The term that the passuk uses to refer to Chanoch's righteousness, es haElokim, with God, is also used by No'ach (6:9). In this verse, Rashi also quotes a negative source, contrasting the terminology used by No'ach and by Avraham ("asher his'halachti l'fanav", whom I walked before), to say that, while Avraham had was great enough to stand before God on his own with no special support, No'ach required God's special assistance; he had to walk with God, supported by Him. Perhaps once No'ach's mission had been accomplished during the flood, this special help was withdrawn, and thus No'ach stumbled into grave humiliation. Here, too, Chanoch may only have been righteous because of God's special help, bestowed for reasons unclear, and when these reasons no longer applied, rather than leaving Chanoch to fend for himself, God took him while he was still on his high level (perhaps the same was not done for No'ach because he still had a role to play in rebuilding the destroyed world, or because he lacked certain special merits possessed by Chanoch.

Alternatively, we are not told about Chanoch's righteousness until 65 years into his life, after the birth of Metushelach, who is known in divrei Chazal to have been a tzaddik, to the extent that the flood was delayed 7 days because of his mourning period. This being the case, perhaps Chanoch only began to "walk with God" once he had a role model, his righteous son, to lead him in this direction - the first instance of kiruv, so to speak. However, despite the fact that Metushelach lived a very long life, perhaps the time still arrived that, due to whatever reason, Metushelach no longer was able to have such a positive influence on his father, and thus God decided that it was better to take Chanoch young rather than leave him to backslide in the absence of his righteous son's influence.

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Bereishis 1: Let there be... curses?

Rashi on 1:14 says that the reason why the word m'oros, lights, in the section about the 4th day of Creation is written without a vav is in order to allude to the word me'eira, curse, since the 4th day of the week is a day upon which young children are especially susceptible to the disease of askera, often translated as croup, as is brought down in Sofrim 17:5 and Yer. Ta'anis 21:2. Why is this special characteristic of the 4th day of the week given such importance that it alone of all of the phenomena of the days of the week is singled out in this central chapter of the Torah?


Sunday, October 15, 2006

Trivia break

Because I killed my cousin, my cousin commanded that I be killed. Who am I?


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Brachos 21b - Interruptions during the Amidah

According to Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shim'on the students of Rabbi Yochanan, one is allowed to respond Y'hei Shmo HaGadol (Shmei Rabbah) Mevorach during the Shmoneh Esrei, as one is even allowed to respond YSh"R while engaged in Ma'asei Merkavah. (The gemara notes that we do not hold like them.)

Why is this a proof? Why would we think that one should not be able to respond YSh"R while engaged in Ma'aseh Merkavah - is it not merely an exceptionally deep form of talmud torah, which, to the best of my knowledge, has no restrictions on responses to dvarim she-bikdushah?

My chavrusa wanted to suggest that learning M"M involves a more direct connection to HaShem than regular learning does, akin to the connection that one creates during the amidah. Tzarich iyyun.

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V'Zos HaBracha - V'zarach mi-Sei'ir lamo

A d'var Torah that I wrote for the Penn Hillel's dvar Torah newsletter. It appears in _The Juggler and the King_, by R' Aharon Feldman (now of Ner Yisroel) in a somewhat expanded form, but I used the pirush of the GRA as printed in the back of the sefer as my primary source, rather than writing it based on the secondary source.
In Moses’ preface to the blessings that he gives to the twelve tribes prior to his death in the Torah portion of V’Zos HaBracha, he begins by alluding to the giving of the Torah, the event that affirmed the connection between God and the Jewish people: “And he said, ‘God came from Sinai, and shined from Sei’ir unto them; He appeared from the mountain of Paran, and came with some of His holy myriads; from His right hand, a fiery law He gave unto them’” (34:2). In the beginning of Tractate Avodah Zarah (2b), it is explained that the reason that the Torah mentions Sei’ir, homeland of the descendants of Esau, and Paran, homeland of the descendants of Ishmael, in this context is because prior to offering the Torah to the Jews, God first offered it to the other nations, but each turned it down due to a specific law that clashed with each of their own national moralities.

In Tractate Bechoros (8b), it is related that the Elders of Athens taunted the tanna Rabbi Yehoshua on this matter: “If a man seeks a woman’s hand in marriage but is rebuffed, would he then pursue a woman of a higher lineage? Your nation’s possession of the Torah does not indicate any special national quality, as you only came into possession of it as a last resort, after every other nation rejected it.” Rabbi Yehoshua did not directly address the question, but instead took a peg and attempted to drive it into a wall. Upon being unsuccessful at this endeavor, he lifted the peg further up along the wall, this time succeeding in securing it in place. He then turned to the Elders, and cryptically observed “It, too, has found its match”. What is the meaning of this answer that Rabbi Yehoshua offered the Elders, and how does it explain how being the last to be offered the Torah does not illustrate the inferiority of the Jewish people relative to the nations who were asked beforehand?

The Vilna Gaon, in order to elucidate this question, quotes an exchange between the tanna Rabbi Yosei and a Roman noblewoman that is related in Koheles Rabbah (1:7). The noblewoman challenged the tanna to explain a verse in the book of Daniel (2:21) that states that God gives wisdom to the wise. At first glance, this appears to be a redundant action, as the wise does not need wisdom; to the contrary, it is the fool who is in need of such a gift. Rabbi Yosei explains that much as a moneylender would prefer to lend money to a rich man than to a poor man, as the former can be more trusted to pay back his debt, so, too, God finds it more productive to give additional wisdom to one who is already wise, as a fool, despite his greater need, would misuse the allotment of wisdom were it provided to him.

The Gaon proceeds to explain that the use of a peg as a prop is an allusion to Ecclesiastes 12:11, which states that “the words of the Torah are like goads and like pegs.” The Talmud in Tractate Chagigah (3b) explains that, while a goad serves as a symbol for the Torah in that it is an implement for keeping an animal on the straight path, a true analog of the Torah must also incorporate the concept of a peg, which is firmly driven into a wall, symbolizing permanence. By their rejection of the Torah due to its conflict with their own political, economic, and social ideals, the nations of the world demonstrated that they were unfitting recipients of it, as the potential of the Torah can only be unleashed by a nation that is willing to hold firm to the Torah’s dictates despite the fluctuations of their society’s ideology.

The nations of the world, each with their own idiosyncracies, would have benefited greatly from receiving the Torah to aid them in directing these qualities towards good. Nonetheless, each showed itself to be an unworthy guardian of the Torah due to their refusal to subjugate their own desires and attitudes to those of the Torah. The Torah could optimally be given only to a nation that already possessed some wisdom of its own, namely the understanding that they had much to gain from accepting the yoke of the Torah with all of their hearts. Once every other nation had been eliminated from consideration, only the Jewish people were left to be offered the option of accepting the Torah, and, by their decision to commit to following its dictates through all historical circumstances that may arise, they showed their qualification to serve as God’s ambassadors to the world.

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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Yom Kippur 1 - Machzor Masores HaRav to the Rescue!

The minyan where I davened maariv, mincha, and ne'ilah this past Yom Kippur utilized the newly published Machzor Masores HaRav, with the commentary gleaned from the works of the Rav. Two consecutive comments that I read in the commentary were of special importance to me, one because it answered a question that had bothered me for a long time and one because it resolved a halachic question that I had.

The first issue was regarding the omission of Aleinu from the end of Mussaf. The commentary on the bottom of the Artscroll Zichron Yosef machzor, Aleinu is omitted because Mincha usually follows Mussaf immediately, so that they are considered one long service, and thus should not be separated by Aleinu, which is used to conclude a tefillah. However, why is Aleinu still not said even in minyanim in which there is a break between Mussaf and Mincha (as was the case in the two shuls in which I davened, enabling me to walk the 1.5 miles between them during their concurrent breaks)? The Rav, based on the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah (2:4), suggest that even where there are physical breaks in the davening, our tefillos have still not reached completion as long as the day of Yom Kippur continues, and for this reason, we do not say Aleinu. Based on this, though, I don't understand why we would say Aleinu at the end of maariv.

The second issue was a halachic question regarding which trop to use for the leining of mincha, whether it should be the special trop of the Yamim Nora'im or the regular trop. The Rav ties this question to a machlokes between the Mechaber and the Rema over whether one should say the full 4 brachos following the haftara of mincha (Mechaber) or whether the reader should conclude with the bracha of Magen David (Rema), implying that Yom Kippur afternoon has the status of a Ta'anis Tzibbur, rather than the same unique status of the morning and to a teshuva of R' Akiva Eiger in which he says that, while one not fasting is allowed to get an aliyah on Yom Kippur morning, he is unsure if the same applies to the afternoon, due to its possible status as a ta'anis tzibbur. The question of the proper trop to use in the afternoon, concludes the Rav, is also dependent on whether the leining is mi-din Yom Kippur or mi-din Ta'anis Tzibbur. (The Rav notes that the haftarah of Yonah is also thematically a support to the idea that it's a ta'anis tzibbur).

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