Friday, March 7, 2008

"וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת"

Sure, the original white-and-black look is "so edgy" and "sleekishly cool", but its also difficult to read. So enjoy the fresh new of taste DTP Vanilla. Starting with Tetzaveh, we hope to post every new Dvar Torah in both formats.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Pekudei - Tearing up a Detailed Parsha

Parshat Pekudei describes the building of the Mishkan and, as such, the crafting of the priestly clothing. One piece of rectorial rainment is the מְעִיל, or robe. The initial command to create the מְעִיל adds an ambiguous detail:

שָׂפָה יִהְיֶה לְפִיו סָבִיב . . . לֹא יִקָּרֵעַ
Its head-opening shall have a border all around . . . it may not be torn. (28:32)

That is Artscroll's translation. But compare to JPS: ". . . so that it does not tear." Indeed, the thrust of the last two words is unclear: make a border so that it does not tear, or make a border - and don't you dare tear! In other words, do we have a reason or a command? The implication is central: if one tore the מְעִיל, would they be punished for violating a negative command?

Apart from occupying the great minds of Artscroll and JPS, this very question appears in the Gemara.

אמר רחבא אמר רב יהודה המקרע בגדי כהונה לוקה שנאמר לא יקרע מתקיף לה רב אחא בר יעקב ודילמא הכי קאמר רחמנא נעביד ליה שפה כי היכי דלא ניקרע מי כתיב שלא יקרע
Rachva said in the name of Rav Yehuda: One who tears the Bigdei Kahuna receives lashes- as it is written, "it shall not be torn." Rav Acha bar Yaakov questioned this: but maybe the Merciful One only meant to make a border so that it doesn’t tear! [The gemara replies:] Does it say שלא יקרע "so that it doesn't tear"!? (Yoma 72a)

Regarding our pasuk and others with similar structure, Rav Acha Bar Yaakov consistently takes the view that they should be read as giving reasons and not new commandments. However, the Talmud attacks Rav Acha on technical grammatical grounds. The pasuk fails to include a "ש", the explicit grammatical link for "so that." Rather, the verse continues without a link - suggesting a brand new commandment.

From first glance, the Gemara debates how to properly read the verse, much like Artscroll and JPS some milennia later. This is the interpretation of the debate suggested by Rav Avraham ben HaRambam, in his commentary on Sefer Shemot: (Hey, how's your Judeo-Arabic?)

חתי יתבת טוקה עלי טול אלזמאן לא יסהל תקטיעה ואלנקל בין פיה מצאף אלי דלך אנה נהי ען תקטיעה
So that his collar remains permanent and is not ruined by tearing; however, Tradition interprets it an additional way, as a command against tearing it.

Yet there is a problem with this straightforward understanding of two distinct intepretations. It is based on the premise that reasons for prohibitions shouldn't actually counted as prohibitions. Those who claim that the pasuk only presents a reason ("make a border so that it does not tear") should believe that no punishment is in order for tearing. But if the explicit rationale for making the border is to insure that the robe does not tear- doesn’t this mean that the Torah doesn’t want the מְעִיל torn, and doesn’t that mean that one should not tear it? Isn't violation of a reason still a violation of God's will?!

The only way I can think of resolving the problem is by distinguishing between a formal letter-of-the-law legal system and an informal spirit-of-the-law subtext. One could agree that violating a reason runs counter to the spirit of Torah law, yet maintain that such a deed can not be punished.

Of course, the opposite argument can be made, that breaches in the explicit spirit of the law likewise deserve punishment, that the boundary between formal and informal Law is far more transparent than usually believed. When Rav Acha claims that tearing the מְעִיל should not incur lashes, for it is only a reason, the Gemara could retort that informal reasons are still treated as any other mitzvah. It is a radical and thought-provoking idea, but one which finds expression in the words of the Ramban (Nachmanides.) Responding to the Rambam's (Maimonides') position that reasons are not to be treated as commandments, the Ramban concludes:

ואני אומר בזה העיקר לכאורה כוותיה משמע, וכי מעיינת ביה שפיר לאו הכי הוא
And I say about this principle- at first it sounds like he is correct, but when you look into it more closely, it is not so. (Notes on Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 5)

Nachmanides maintains that even reasons, representatives of the spirit of the law, are on par with explicit commands. In fact, they are even counted towards the tally of 613 mitzvot! These words are of special significance in this season of Parshiyot. While Pekudei and its neighbors overflow with the technical, formal details of the Mishkan, it is integral to bear in mind the spirit and reason for the Mishkan's existence. Understanding the symbolism behind the Bigdei Kahuna, the message communicated by each Korban, and the significance of Mishkan architecture may not be a mere formality - but a Mitzvah in and of itself.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table (and this one needs it!)
--39:23 describes the priestly מְעִיל, or robe, but its a bit unclear: make a border around the head-opening so that it does not tear, or make a border and do not tear! Is "do not tear" a reason or new command?
--The Gemara debates the point. If it is a new command, tearing the
מְעִיל incurs lashes. If it is only a reason, no worries.
--The Ramban holds differently: even if the pasuk merely reads "make a border so that it does not tear", there is a full-fledged mitzvah to avoid tearing, one which can incur punishment.
--The Ramban seems to believe that informal, "spirit of the law" parts of the Torah are on equal footing with explicit mitzvot.
--This emphasis on the "spirit of the law" and the rationale behind mitzvot is integral to appreciating the message and meaning of the Mishkan and its service.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Vayakel- Of Women and Gold

In describing Bnei Yisrael's donations to the Mishkan, the Torah includes a faintly familiar pasuk:

וַיָּבֹאוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים, עַל-הַנָּשִׁים; כֹּל נְדִיב לֵב, הֵבִיאוּ חָח וָנֶזֶם וְטַבַּעַת וְכוּמָז כָּל-כְּלִי זָהָב
And the men went ___ the women, all who were willing brought jewerly, rings, signets and girdles, all of gold (35:22)

It is unclear what the word עַל means in this context and, as such, the Meforshim provide a variety of explanations. Some fill in the blank with "following," others as "together with," but either way, the verse is reminscent of a similar scene but a few perekim before, in the build-up to the Egel haZahav (Golden Calf).

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם, אַהֲרֹן, פָּרְקוּ נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵי נְשֵׁיכֶם בְּנֵיכֶם וּבְנֹתֵיכֶם; וְהָבִיאוּ, אֵלָי.
And Aharon said to them, break off the golden rings from the ears of your wives, sons, and daugters, and bring them to me (32:2)

Apart from the parallel themes of gold, donation, and men and women, both verses include the relatively rare term נֶזֶם, or ring. Indeed, the word is highly symbolic, and drapes another layer of meaning to our original pasuk.

נֶזֶם always seems to pop up in times of idol worship. Take for example, Bereishit 35:4, when Yaakov orders his family to hand over any idolatrous possessions:

וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶל-יַעֲקֹב, אֵת כָּל-אֱלֹהֵי הַנֵּכָר אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדָם, וְאֶת-הַנְּזָמִים, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם
And they gave to Yaakov all the foreign gods that were in their hands, and all the rings which were in their ears

Turning to Nakh (Prophets and Writings), we find a similar phenomenon. Gideon asks of his people gold in order to form an ephod, one which is then deified and worshipped.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם גִּדְעוֹן, אֶשְׁאֲלָה מִכֶּם שְׁאֵלָה, וּתְנוּ-לִי, אִישׁ נֶזֶם שְׁלָלוֹ
And Gideon said to them, I make a request: that every man give me the rings from his spoils

Once again, discussion of Avoda Zara (idolatry) is accompanied by the ubiquitous נֶזֶם. Coumbined with the request for rings by the Egel haZahav, we have before us a formidable pattern.

And yet, there is one more area in Chumash where נֶזֶם appears three times: the betrothal of Rivka. Awed by her beauty and kindness, Avraham's associate decides he has found the woman for Yitzkhak As such, he places on her, "a golden ring of half-shekel weight." (24:22) The jewerly is symbol for her betrothal, and its central role is emphasized several times over: Lavan springs into action, "when he saw the ring and the jewerly" (24:30) on his sister. When retelling the narrative, the associate remarks how he "placed the ring upon her nose, the bracelets on her hand, and blessed God for leading me in the right path to take a daughter . . . for my master's son." (22:48) The two are intertwined: as should be no surprise for us, the exchange of a ring symbolizes a new connection between husband and wife.

Which takes us back to our original pasuk and its description of Mishkan donations. One way to fill in the blank is to have the men returning to their wives, asking yet again for their rings. (See Seforno and Lekakh Tov.) If that is indeed the case, the "healing parallel" becomes two-fold. For one, the classic material of Avodah Zara - from Yaakov, through the Egel, to Gideon - is now used positively, to construct the Mishkan. Secondly, recall the wives' reaction to the initial request for gold. When Aharon instructs the men to sieze jewerly for the Egel, a simple reading of the subsequent verse suggests that the women refused [1]:

וַיִּתְפָּרְקוּ, כָּל-הָעָם, אֶת-נִזְמֵי הַזָּהָב, אֲשֶׁר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם
So all the men broke off the gold rings that were in their [own!] ears (32:3)

In that moment of sin, the men of the nation were distant from both God and their spouses. Their turn to idolatry was a turn away from their women. In their moment of repentance, they return once more requesting rings - that symbol of re-connection between man and wife- and this time, the request is granted.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-The Torah's description of men and women donating to the Mishkan parallels the scene of men and women involved in donating to the Egel HaZahav.
- In contrast, there the donations are for idolatry, here for God. There the women refuse to participate, here they join in.
-Particularlly suggestive in the parallel is the occurence of נֶזֶם, or rings, in both verses.
- That piece of jewerly primarily appears in two contexts: marriage and idolatry.
- We can understand 35:22 as the men once again asking their wives for gold, and the symboilsm of the ring fits like a ring: the building-block of idolatry is redeemed as a tool for Divine worship; the tension between families dies away, and husband and wife are reconnected.
[1] Ibn Ezra and several Midrashim read differently, that the men did indeed take take their wives jewerly. Even so, that was under force, while in the context of the Mishkan, only "the willing of heart" donated their gold.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Ki Tissa- The Golden Calf and Aharon's Fall

Let’s be blunt: Aharon made the Egel. It is he who Bnei Yisrael turns to after Moshe “delays”, he who advises them to gather gold rings, and he who physically fashions the Golden Calf. Aharon even concludes his role by announcing a feast for God the next day.

Nonetheless, there are discussions in Midrash and Mefarshim explaining Aharon’s positive motivations – and indeed, one can find clues to that effect in the text itself. But on the other hand, one aspect of the story eludes easy explanation, while at the same time pointing to Aharon’s guilt in the Egel story.

For however noble or ignoble his intentions, the description of events he delivers to Moshe does not correspond with the account Chumash actually presents. The Torah describes how . . .

וַיִּקַּח מִיָּדָם, וַיָּצַר אֹתוֹ בַּחֶרֶט, וַיַּעֲשֵׂהוּ עֵגֶל מַסֵּכָה
And he took [the gold] from their hands, and he fashioned it with a graving tool, and made it a molten calf (32:4)

Aharon's report perfectly parallels this pasuk, but with each phrase restated to clear himself of active involvement:
וַיִּתְּנוּ-לִי; וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה.
And they gave it to me, and I tossed into the fire, and out came this calf (32:24)

Chumash's narrator paints Aharon an active party: taking, fashioning with tools, making the calf. Aharon, however, prefers a thoroughly passive model: they gave, he merely tossed, out came this calf.

While it is certainly uncomfortable to point out flaws in beloved Biblical characters, Chumash offers several other signs that Aharon indeed sinned. Moshe begins and ends his conversation with Aharon with tones of blame: “What did the people do to you, that you brought upon them a great sin!” (32:21) is followed by the damning conclusion, “for Aharon let them loose for a derision among their enemies.” (32:25) Indeed, the last verse of the perek says it all: “and God struck the people, on their making the calf - which Aharon had made.” (32:35)

The question thus becomes, how did Aharon react to this? How did our Biblical hero respond to mistakes? Parshat Shmini describes a special sin offering, an “eigel ben bakar” (a calf, Vayikra 9:2), brought by Aharon during the Mishkan’s dedication. It is the only mention in Tanakh of a calf brought as Korban Hatat and it is plausible that Aharon is addressing this very point – he is recognizing and doing Teshuva for his role in Egel haZahav. Before assuming his position as Cohen Gadol, he repents and admits his previous misstep.

But one perek later, a more tragic example emerges. Aharon's two sons, Nadav and Avihu bring a foreign flame into the Mishkan, and in response . . .
וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי יְהוָה.
And a flame went out before God and devoured them (Vayikra 10:2)

The unique phraseology is eerily similar to Aharon’s questionable conversation with Moshe:
וָאַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בָאֵשׁ, וַיֵּצֵא הָעֵגֶל הַזֶּה
And I cast it into the flames, and out came this calf (32:23)

This textual link may point to yet another moment of the healing process: Aharon creates a god from flames, his beloved creations are destroyed in Godly flame. (This is not to claim that Aharon's sons suffer the sins of their father, but that their deserved death occurs in a highly symbolic manner - one which Aharon likely did not overlook.) This tragic moment, the low point of Aharon's life, is also his most crowning act of Tshuva.

For a key aspect of Aharon's previous misdeeds was his failure to admit any guilt. He responded with excuses, expending a full three pasukim to attack Bnei Yisrael while distancing himself from his own crimes. Bearing this initial reaction in mind adds to the power and depth of Aharon's response to his sons' death:

וַיִּדֹּם אַהֲרֹן
And Aharon was silent (10:3)

Viewed through this light, Aharon's quiet is not (only) the pious acceptance of God's will, but the humble recognition of his faults, his guilts, and the arduous path that is transformation from sinner to Cohen Gadol.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table
-Aharon is heavily involved in producing the Egel HaZahav. While there is room to say that his actions were justified, many textual clues point otherwise.
-His account of the story stands in conflict with the Torah's; Moshe twice condemns him; the perek concludes with the word - "the calf, which Aharon made."
-Aharon recognized his fault and sincerely sought Tshuva. The sin-offering of a calf may represent one important sacrifice he makes.
-The loss of two sons to flames may represent another. His silent, noble reaction stands as testimony to Aharon's spiritual transformation.

The Rav, Eric Fromm, and Egel haZahav: A philosophic reading

Appropriately, at the apex of our history as a religion, Moshe, our greatest teacher, also rose to the zenith of the mountain top – Sinai. There we waited hopefully and expectantly. Yet, as time passed, we grew despondent. Where had our leader gone? Where was the iconoclast who fought against the doubts of Pharaoh and of his own people, who raised them from the dirges of slavery into the fullness of Freedom – where had he gone? Yet, rather then cry, rather then bemoan their fate, the people celebrate ecstatically with the creation of idols. What could possibly have motivated this polarization between extremes?

Erich Fromm, a Jewish psychoanalyst and philosopher of the early 20th century, describes an unceasing aspect of the human condition:

“Man – of all ages and cultures – is confronted with the solution of one and the same question: the question of how to overcome separateness, how to achieve union, how to transcend one's own individual life and find at-onement.” [1]

Fromm discusses the various ways in which Man over the ages has tried to deal with this dilemma:

“One way of achieving this aim lies in all kinds of Orgiastic States . . . As long as these orgiastic states are a matter of common practice in a tribe, they do not produce anxiety or guilt. To act in this way is right, and even virtuous, because it is a way shared by all . . .”
“Also in contemporary Western Society the union with the groups is the prevalent way of overcoming separateness. It is a union in which the individual self disappears to a large extent and where the aim is to belong to the herd.”

Rav Soloveitchik echoes similar sentiments:

“Pragmatic expositions of the essence of the religious act . . . behold in religion a refuge of repose for man, who is shattered b the numerous, discordant forces of the secular world; religion offers happiness and comfort. In such a spirit William James speaks of the religion of the happy-minded” that serves him as a model of the religious attitude.” [2]

Man turns to religion to avoid the “discordant forces” and to be comforted instead.

Bnei Yisrael became reliant on Moshe not for the sake of his message, but for the comfort he provided them. His absence allowed the discordant forces to rise up from where they were concealed. Thus, the people immediately turned to any other source to fill this void.
Yet this is an egregious outlook of the religious orientation. As Rabbi Soloveitchik says:

“The religious experience, however, is beyond granting man a hedonic status or spiritual complacency. To the contrary, the religious experience is fraught with pitfalls and continual challenges. God, if man finds Him, does not relieve the God-seeker of his imperatives but imposes new ones.”

Man strives not for comfort, but for following the true course. The people who had such a utilitarian approach to religion could not be given the law, the Luchot, under such auspices, as it would be a complete misrepresentation of the Law. The Law is followed for its own sake, for the righteous way of life it provides, and not for a hedonic utilitarian purpose. Moshe now climbs to the peak of the mountain again, this time to retrieve the Law with the proper mindset.

[1] The Art of Loving, pp. 8-12
[2] Shiurei HaRav, pp. 4-5

Tetzaveh - The Search for the Torah's Most Important Pasuk

In my time in yeshiva, the coming of Parshat Tetzaveh meant the re-use of a fascinating, troubling, and somewhat mysterious Midrash. The piece is referenced by the Maharal (d. 1609), who found it in the introduction to the Ein Yaakov (R. Yaakov ibn Habib d. 1516), who states that he "saw it written in the name of the Midrash, yet sought it and failed to find it anywhere."

Ben Zoma said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive, "Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ekhad." (Devarim 6:4)
Ben Nannas said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive, "v'Ahavta l'Reakha k'Mokha." (Vayikra 19:18)
Ben Pazai said: We found a pasuk which is all inclusive: "And the first sheep you shall offer in the morning . . . " (Shemot 29:32?, Parshat Tetzaveh*)

The Midrash presents verses which, to some extent, aptly summarize the total content of the Torah. The first suggestion is fairly reasonable. "Shema Yisrael" places at the center of Judaism recognition of God, obedience towards Him, and understanding of His relationship with Bnei Yisrael; it is no coincidence that the verse appears so prominently in Tefilla. Ben Zoma sees all mitzvot as signs of and steps toward that recognition. He thus represents the "Avodat Hashem" (service of God) approach to Judaism: the commanded striving to understand the Commander and perform His commands.

In contrast, Ben Nannas puts forward the "Moral Code" interpretation of Judaism. Mirroring Rabbi Akiva's opinion that "love your neighbor as yourself" is the foundational principle of the Torah (Yerushalmi Nedarim 41), he reiterates the claim that the Mizvot are signs of and steps towards a more refined ethical personality.

But Ben Pazai? He quotes a positively nondescript portion of the Korban Tamid service. It is a minor verse, selected almost at random from hundreds of pasukim which recount Korbanot. So what's the deal: why this pasuk?

The classic source of the Midrash, the Maharal of Prague, offers what has become the standard interpretation:

And according to Shimon Ben Pazai, permanent consistency in Avodat Hashem, represented by the Korban brought every day in the morning and afternoon, this is the foundational principle. (Netivot Olam, Netiv Ahavat Ha'Reia 1)

This Maharal, oft-quoted in Mussar schmoozes, explains that day-in-day-out consistency is the foundational aspect of the Torah. Yet, on a personal level, I find this interpretation almost troubling. If the Tannaitic purpose is to spell out the Grand Plan of Yiddishkeit, I would expect something lofty- something like knowledge of God, attainment of the ethical ideal, etc. Choosing consistency is tantamount to not taking the Tannaim's statement seriously. For granted, consistency is an important aspect of effective Jewish living, but its almost belittling to the entire Jewish enterprise to claim that it as the all-encompassing meta-value. (As an aside, the Maharal glosses over this opinion, spending one sentence on it before continuing a length discussion of "love your neighbor as your self.")

R. Ibn Habib takes a different approach. He interprets "Shema Yisrael" as representing knowledge in matters of faith, God, and Torah. In contrast to the realm of thought, "love your neighbor" stands as symbol for good deeds, for physical actions. Bridging the conflict between intangible thought and corporeal action, Ben Pazai points to Korbanot, which are spiritual deeds leading to interaction and knowledge of the Divine, yet occur only through physical acts. The question then stands as whether the Torah was ultimately given to improve man's intellect, his actions, or some combination thereof.

Employing my reaction to the Maharal, I'd like to suggest a third interpretation. Perhaps Ben Zoma and Ben Nannas take themselves very seriously, debating with absolute sincerity two diametrically opposed views of the Torah and its purpose. Imagine the scene, with the two Tannaim slinging theological proofs and philosophic rationales back and forth in argument. Suddenly, Ben Pazai rises from his bench and silences the two Rabbis: "No, this is the most important pasuk: 'And the first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second in the afternoon.' Now we can get on with life." Ben Pazai takes contest with the entire endeavor, with the notion of solving the unanswerable question of the Torah's all-encompassing purpose. (Or at least, the notion of boxing it into one conscise pasuk.)

Which provides a new context for the Maharal's reading. Taking Ben Pazai with a grain of ironic salt, we understand his emphasis on consistency over, say idyllic visions of a morally perfected world. Ben Pazai's "big questions" are not philosophical, but practical. What do we tell the common man? What do we tell ourselves? Whatever the Grand Vision, how do we make it a Grant Reality? Through consistent dedication to the commands of the Torah.

Which fits the Midrash's denouement:

Rabbi Ploni ("R. John Doe") stood up and said, "The Halakha is like Ben Pazai."

The very notion of "paskening" a philosophical question is rather controversial, but this anonymous rabbi's pronouncement is wonderfully well-timed. While the theological debate may rage on forever, in daily practical life, we are obligated to follow Ben Pazai.

QuickNotes for the Shabbos Table

--A mysterious Midrash presents three opinions for the Torah's all-encompassing pasuk: Shema, v'Ahavta, and . . . a pasuk about the the Korban Tamid!
--The Maharal explains that the third opinion views consistent, day-in-and-day-out service of Hashem as the fundamental aspect of Torah Judaism.
--R. Yaakov Ibn Habib, the author of the Ein Yaakov, interprets the Korban reference as compromising between a purely intellectual and purely action-based Torah.
--Perhaps the third opinion should be read with some irony. He argues against the very notion of finding an all-encompassing pasuk.
--While it is likely not the Maharal's intent, it nonetheless compliments his interpretation. The third opinion decries the theological discussion and offers purely practical advice.

*The Midrash is largely quoted in the context of Parshat Tetzaveh, since the third opinion pasuk appears to be found in that parsha. However, every edition of the Ein Yaakov that I have seen contains the words את הכבש אחד תעשה בבקר, from Bamidbar 28:4. The pasuk that occurs in Tetzaveh is almost identical, but has האחד with an extra ה. I am still on the lookout for an Ein Yaakov with the extra ה.