Sunday, September 16, 2007

A response to "The Symbolic Violence of Vegetables"

Miriam Segura
at Reshimu noted how so many of the prayers said over the symbolic foods at the Rosh HaShanah meal express violent sentiments, that our enemies be cut off, wiped off, and otherwise destroyed, and wonders why such extreme measures are called for, instead of a more peaceful resolution.

In a comment there, I suggested:

I believe that the two readings of the verse from Tehillim that you cite do not represent Beruriah decisively besting her husband (Brachos 10a), but rather represent two different worldviews. Beruriah challenged R' Meir's practice of praying for the death of his tormentors, remarking that he could as easily pray for them to do teshuva, but R' Meir's worldview appears to be a more realistic one.

It's often tempting to attribute our enemies' opinions to foolishness and lack of thought, in that if only they would listen to our arguments, they would immediately defect to our side, but the truth is often less rose-tinted; our enemies also have complex ideologies, even acknowledging that in many cases they were developed from a bottom-up perspective, and cannot be expected to easily change their ways (desired, yes; expected, no). Moreso, this attitude change cannot easily be prayerfully requested from God, Who as a rule does not instill fear of God in people. Hence, we and R' Meir choose the more realistic violent alternative in our prayers for our enemies; we cannot afford to infinitely wait for the waning of their recalcitrance. Avraham was as willing to take up the sledgehammer as the tent hammer and the sword as the chalaf.

Nonetheless, many of our tefillos at the Rosh HaShanah meal can still be viewed through idealistic Berurian lenses following the footsteps of the commentators on Yonah, who note that his prophecy of an upheaval in Nineveh was accomplished as well by the sackcloth and prayer that turned it into a more righteous society as it would have been by the fire and brimstone that would have turned it into Sodomite ruins. So, too, if our enemies see the error of their ways, the fact that they are no longer besieging our gates would indeed constitute a removal, completion, or any other of the terms we utilize in expressing our hopes for them.


Monday, September 03, 2007

Ki Tavo 2 - Baruch atah b'vo'echa

Two of the berachos stated by Moshe in P' Ki Tavo as a result of our following the mitzvos are "Baruch atah b'vo'echa u-varuch atah b'tzeisecha" - "Blessed are you when you come, and blessed are you when you go". Rashi explains this passuk as per the drasha of Rabbi Yochanan on Bava Metzia 107a - Just like your entrance to the world is without sin (lit., b'lo chait), so, too, should your departure from the world be without sin. The Sifsei Chachamim states that Rashi chose this drasha rather than a more literal explanation of the passuk such as he accepts for the previous three pesukim due to the question that could be asked regarding why coming is listed before going, being that the normal sequence of events is to go forth from one's house and only then to come home.

However, if we understand the bracha in this way, it does not seem to fit the context. How is leaving the world without sin a "blessing" that results from doing the mitzvos? It seems, instead, to be a reality, in that if one spends one's time doing the mitzvos, then one will not have been spending time doing aveiros. Secondly, all of the other blessing clauses of this section are self-contained; how can Baruch Atah B'vo'echa, therefore, be used as merely as a basis of comparison, rather than as a blessing? Finally, how can we understand the first clause of the parallel passuk in the curses "Arur atah b'vo'echa v'arur atah b'tzeisecha"? One does not enter the world with sins!

To answer the first question, perhaps one can say that "b'lo cheit" does not mean without sin, as is usually the case, but rather means without deficiency, or without deviation from a target (see I Melachim 1:21 and Shoftim 20:16 for examples of these usages). Hence, just like the blessed one entered the world as a complete human being with no injuries, so, too, will the blessed one leave the world free of all injury. Alternatively, just like the blessed one smoothly passed through the birth canal into the hands of those assisting the mother, so, too, will the blessed one smoothly leave the world via a painless form of death directly into the next world (This latter explanation is based on the mechanical reality that if an object passing through a passage is directed precisely, it will not excessively rub against the walls which would cause frictional loss of energy and/or damage, while one that is not aimed precisely but rather veers against the wall will be adversely affected by the resulting friction).

The first clause of the bracha passuk can be viewed as a blessing, in addition to its use as a basis for comparison. Perhaps a childbirth without deficiency or without excessive friction is one of the blessings granted to the previous generation, so that the subject of this set of blessings is the community, parents and offspring, rather than to an individual. Indeed, many children are unfortunately born deficient, while complications in childbirth can cause considerably more friction, thereby illustrating the need for such a blessing. Conversely, almost all children are born deficient in some ways that are only rectified through the process of maturation (e.g., teeth, hair, foramen ovale) and the natural process of childbirth is, indeed, exceptionally frictional, thereby providing a basis for the comparison of a deficient or painful death. Hence, the drasha also works for the two clauses of the curse passuk.

The opposing opinion to Rabbi Yochanan's is that of Rav, who expounds, "Blessed are you that you will come home from a journey and find your wife not in a situation of safeik nida, and blessed are you that your offspring will be like you" (The Mesoras HaShas directs us to the blessing that Rabbi Yitzchak gave to Rav Nachman on Ta'anis 6a which uses similar wording). It seems that one could propound an even more parallel drash than that stated by Rav, in that bi'ah could also be the conjugal act itself, in that it should occur in a blessed manner, rather than merely the returning home for the act, but perhaps Rav did not want to refer directly to the act of conjugal relations in his drash. Rabbi Yochanan (and Rashi) may have rejected this drash because the bi'ah and yetziah thus referred to by the passuk would end up being non-parallel.

Targum Yonasan expounds, "Blessed are you when you enter the Beis HaMedrash and blessed are you when you go forth to do business; accursed are you when you enter theatres and circuses and accursed are you when you go forth to do business". Rav and Rabbi Yochanan may not learn in this fashion because the bi'ah itself is not a blessing or curse, but rather is merely the cause of the blessing or curse.


Elul 1 - Thoughts on Car Design and Brisker Mussar

Have you ever been driving down the road when somebody suddenly honks at you for no good reason? Perhaps they thought you cut them off, when really there was more than enough room for you to pass them safely, or they incorrectly thought that you were driving too slow, or they were too impatient to wait one minute as you pulled over to the side of the road to drop off a passenger.

When I'm in such situations, I sometimes wonder about the prospect of car companies adding a horn to the back of cars, so that people would not have to silently absorb the high-pitched abuse of a car horn behind them. Given a second horn installed on top of their trunk, they would be able to respond with a honk of their own, pointing out to their attacker that they do not accept the insinuation of wrongdoing on their part, but rather were the model of a perfect driver, despite the misplaced insult which they were subjected to.

Like many other inventions, a rear car horn is an innovation which is clearly better off not existing. Could you imagine the road rage that such an automobile feature would encourage, and the horn-honking battles that would ensue? Instead, one who is the victim of a car honk is left with no effective reciprocal recourse save to tuck their tails under their rear wheels and to keep driving. The situation of driving a car is a perfect setting for such a submissive response to an attack, being that, as one will never again interact with one's attacker, there cannot be any rationalizations of a need to respond to an insult in order to save face, and that it is relatively easy to evade an attacker by changing lanes, slowing down for a few seconds, or merely keeping your eyes on the road and not paying attention to the lunatic yelling at you through his and your car windows.

One evening when I was in yeshiva years back, the line for the main course at dinner was rather long, so I decided to fill my plate with bread, cucumbers, and cheese instead, and to go to pick up my portion of pizza at a later point. When I went to get my portion later on, the Romanian doling out the food refused to give me, claiming that I had already received. As I protestingly explained to him that I hadn't yet received my portion, the Israelis who were standing nearby all jumped to my aid and began to argue with the server. Thus outnumbered, the server conceded and gave me my portion of pizza, before letting off as a parting shot, "Ata shakran". Offended, I began to vociferously argue anew with the server, before one of the older Israelis pulled me aside, and said to me, "What do you care what he says?". The propriety of my having put myself into a situation where I would be thus suspected can be left as an exercise to the reader, but I realized that the older bochur was right - while arguing would make me feel better, it would not convince the server of my truthfulness, and thus it was not worthwhile for me to press the issue.

If I understand correctly, Brisk was/is known for an antipathy towards the mussar movement, claiming instead that "der bester Mussar seifer iz a blatt gemara". Nonetheless, it seems that one can learn out a very deep lesson utilizing the classical cheftza/gavra dichotomy that epitomizes the Brisker derech of learning. Too often, we find our actions driven by forces exerted by other people and a need to respond to their actions against us. Ultimately, though, we bear the sole responsibility for our actions. When faced with a challenge to avoid engaging in strife, taking revenge, using insults, or other interpersonal sins, our opposite can be considered as a cheftza d'issura. Much as a chunk of pork is a cheftza that enables one to be oveir an issur bein adam laMakom, the person whom we have the option to retaliate against is also a cheftza that enables us to be oveir issurim bein adam lachaveiro, opposite our own personal gavra who is responsible to do mitzvos and not to do aveiros. A gavra is capable of acting on a cheftza; it's silly and sort of sad when a gavra allows himself to be acted upon by a cheftza.

Of course, one should not make oneself into a shmata; there is a time for everything, and sometimes a harsh response is permitted, or even encouraged. Nonetheless, it should be borne in mind that in the supplication following Sh'moneh Esrei, we pray before HaShem, "V'limkalelai nafshi tidom, v'nafshi ke-afar lakol tihyeh" - May my soul be silent before those who curse me, and may my soul be like dust before all. Do we truly see value in this attitude and pray that we be given assistance in achieving this level, or are we uttering false platitudes in our tefillah?

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