Thursday, October 23, 2008

The First Ramban

One of the most well-known comments of Rashi is the first one that he makes on Chumash in the name of R' Yitzchak, regarding why HaShem saw fit to begin the Torah with Sefer Bereishis, rather than immediately jumping to the section that discusses the mitzvos that were given to Israel as a nation, which begins with the mitzvah of kiddush ha-chodesh. He answers by citing the passuk from Yeshaya of "Ko'ach ma'asav higid l'amo la-seis lahem nachlas goyim" - "He told the power of His actions to His nation in order to give them the inheritance of nations." In order that the Jews could respond to the complaints of the nations that they had stolen the land from the Canaanites, it was essential that they would have a grasp of the history of the world, so that they would understand that, as the Creator of the world, HaShem had the right to give the different portions of land to whomever he saw fit, and to replace one nation with another over time.

The Ramban asks what seems to be a fundamental question. How could R' Yitzchak countenance the idea that the episode of ma'aseh bereishis could be left out of the Torah? The knowledge that HaShem created the world is one of the principal foundations of Judaism that everything else rests upon. If one lacks this singular point, he possesses nothing.

He answers that the entire first sedra is so filled with deep secrets and allusions that its simple reading is nigh useless in understanding anything about the creation of the world. Rather, everything that we know about the creation of the world is founded in our Oral Tradition. Being that the common people cannot properly understand the method of the creation of the world even with P' Bereishis in place, R' Yitzchak could validly ask why we need it, to which he responded that the illustrated path of history is the primary purpose of the sedra (and the book), not the specific mechanism through which this history unfolded.

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Why is the 8th day of Sukkos referred to as an "Atzeres", a stoppage?

The Netziv in Ha'amek Davar explains that the primary purpose of the mitzvah of aliyah l'regel is to become inspired by seeing the function of the Beis HaMikdash up close and coming in contact with the kohanim and the levi'im, who served an educational role within the nation. On Sukkos, it is easy to lose sight of this greater goal within the numerous special mitzvos and observances of the week - sukkah, lulav, aravah, and simchas beis ha-sho'eiva. On the 8th day, though, all of these mitzvos cease, and a person is able to stop and think deeply about everything that he's seen over the course of the week and to take out of it specific lessons and a general commitment to improve his avodah that will last through the entire year.

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Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Structure of Adon Olam

I was recently encouraged to look closely at the piyut of Adon Olam. Despite having said it since kindergarten, I never realized until now that I had no idea what it was about as a complete entity (beyond the first line).

The first three lines form a set expressing HaShem's malchus in the past, present, and future - His activity (malach) prior to Creation, His status (melech) at the time of Creation, and the acknowledgement of His continued activity (yimloch) following the destruction of all Creation.

The fourth line appears to parallel the chronology of the first three, focusing on HaShem's eternal existence rather than His eternal kingship. At first glance, this seems to be logically inverted, as kingship is usually built upon the premise of existence. However, several midrashim (e.g., heavenly bodies, burning castle) imply that Avraham's knowledge of HaShem's malchus was, indeed, the prerequisite to his recognition of His metzius, mostly likely due to an inability to directly and unambiguously experience HaShem (save through prophecy, which only came later).

The fifth line expresses Yichud HaShem - an infinity orthogonal to that of the previous stich.

The sixth line seems to be similar to the fourth line in its chronological dimensionality, although utilizing the terminology of reishis and tachlis, which may be acknowledgements of HaShem's elevation over causation - that nothing causes Him and that He is independent of His effects (I'm not sure if my understanding of tachlis is correct).

Hence, once HaShem's complete malchus is established in lines 1-3, one can build upon this foundation the logical conclusions that He exists, that He is unique (as two kings cannot share a crown), and that He is completely independent (being that He is stronger than any other force).

At this point, the piyut changes its focus from a transcendental God to a personal One.

Lines 7 and 8 express that HaShem is Keili, Go'ali, Tzur chevli, Nisi, M'nusi, and M'nas kosi, which are all general concepts describing HaShem's interactions with us that are predicated on the postulates of lines 5 and 6.

Finally, lines 9 and 10 express a final thought, that every night I place my spirit in the stewardship of HaShem, with the fearless expectation that I shall again awaken, a confidence that follows from the postulates of lines 7 and 8.

It is interesting that we say this piyut upon waking up in the morning (in addition to sundry other points of the day), when we are as distant as possible from our future need to rely on HaShem in this manner, but perhaps it is precisely then that we need to remind ourselves of such as a means of influencing our actions over the course of the day.