Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Eikev - "If you listen"

Parshas Eikev opens and closes with two famous passages in which the Torah teaches us that the Jewish people's entire fortune depends purely on whether or not they will "listen" to God's commandments. The parsha begins (Deuteronomy 7:12), "And it shall be that if you listen to these laws, and keep them and do them, that Hashem your God will keep with you the covenant and the mercy that He swore to your fathers," and then goes on to describe in details the many blessings that we will enjoy if we obey the commandments. However, Moses concludes with a warning that we must take care not to forget Hashem, and that if we fail to observe the commandments we shall suffer grave punishment, "because you did not listen to the voice of Hashem your God" (8:20)

Similarly, at the end of the parsha (11:13-21) we read one of the most familiar passages in the Torah, best known to us as the second paragraph of the Shema, in which God again tells us, "And it will be that if you listen to My commandments... then I shall provide rain... and you will eat and be satisfied." However, if we fail to obey the commandments, "Then the wrath of God shall burn against you..."

Of course, the general principle, that the fate and fortune of the Jewish people depends entirely upon their obedience to God's commandments, is a major theme throughout the Torah, especially in the book of Deuteronomy. However, there is also a more subtle theme in these verses, and that is the emphasis on "listening." In many critical passages of the Torah, we find a great emphasis placed on "listening" or "hearing." Of course, the most famous is the opening verse of the Shema (which we read in last week's Torah portion), "Hear O Israel, Hashem is your God, Hashem is One."

As the commentaries point out, when the Torah instructs us to listen, it is not simply telling us to hear the sounds with our ears, but that we should think about we hear, that we should be aware of their significance, and that it should make some kind of real difference in our behavior. Thus, we mustn't just listen to the words of the Torah with our ears, but we must listen with our hearts and minds, so that we are no longer the same people after we have listened as we were before.

The first convert to Judaism was Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. The Torah describes what caused Jethro to join the Jewish nation in one sentence, "And Jethro, the priest of Midian, the father-in-law of Moses, heard all that God had done for Moses, and for His people Israel, that God had brought Israel out of Egypt." Jethro heard about the miraculous exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, and he came to convert. Jethro was certainly not the only one who heard this news, yet he was the only one who really "listened" to the news, with a mind that was fully conscious and aware. So, while everyone else heard the same news, only Jethro truly "heard" what the news actually meant.

R' Shimon Schwab
This may well be the most basic requirement that God demands from us. That we not go through life on auto-pilot and ignore the true meaning of everything we see and hear. Rav Shimon Schwab (d.1995) (Selected Essays pp.63-64) brings this point out with regard to a Talmudic debate with regard to the laws of the Sabbath. The Talmud states that one who violated the Sabbath because he "forgot the essence of the Sabbath" (השוכח עיקר שבת) is obligated to bring a sacrifice which atones for inadvertent sin. There is a debate in the Talmud as to the exact meaning of this category of "one who forgot the essence of the Sabbath." One opinion is that this refers to a Jewish child who was abducted and raised as a Gentile (תינוק שנשבה בין העכו"ם). Even though this Jew did not even know that he was Jewish, and had no awareness of the laws of the Sabbath, he is still obligated to bring an offering for his violation of the Sabbath because, even in such a circumstance, there is still some degree of guilt that requires atonement. The obvious question is how can a person in that situation be held responsible at all?

Rav Schwab gives an answer that he heard from R' Yerucham Levovitz, the famous mashgiach of the Mir yeshiva:
Hashem is "חונן לאדם דעת." He has planted the power of thinking into the human brain. Even a Gentile is expected to ask himself one day, when his mind matures, "Who am I? What am I doing in this world? What's the purpose of my existence?" And he, too, will realize that life must have some meaning. In the course of such inquiries, even a tinok shenishbah (captured child) might find out who he really is. Eventually, he might discover that he is really Jewish and what it means to be Jewish. He might discover that there is a Torah, and there is a Shabbos. Therefore, as a human being with a mind, he is not entirely blameless for his failure to keep the Torah. In that case, at least one korban chattas (sin offering) is required to atone for his failure of realization.
This is the obligation of "listening" - an obligation that, in many ways, is logically prior to all other obligations, one that is inherent in the simple fact that, as Rav Schwab put it, one is "a human being with a mind." Even if we didn't have the Torah, even if we never heard of Judaism, or even of God, as a human being with a functioning mind we have a moral obligation to pay honest attention to what the world is telling us. This is the model of our ancestor, Abraham, who, surrounded by paganism, came to the recognition of the one God through his own intellect. This is the lesson of Jethro, who truly "heard" the news, while everyone else around him was deaf to its true meaning.

It is this that God demands from us even after we know the truth. We are to "listen" to His laws, not simply to go through the motions of obeying them, but paying attention to what what they mean. When the Jewish people accepted the Torah, they declared, “נעשה ונשמע” – “We will do and we will hear.” (Exodus 24:7) As many commentators point out, placing “we will do” before “we will hear” demonstrates that the Jewish people were not referring to the listening necessary for basic compliance with the law. That level of listening is already implicit in “we will do”, as one cannot obey a law that one has not heard. When the Jewish people said, “we will hear”, they were saying that they would not simply obey the laws in a superficial and rote manner, but that they would “listen” to the lessons that the laws teach and that those lessons would change them into better people.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Shimon HaTzadik

שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה, הוא היה אומר, על שלשה דברים העולם עומד: על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים.
Shimon the Tzadik was from the remnants of the Great Assembly. He used to say; “The world stands on three things, on Torah [study], on the service [of HaShem], and on bestowing kindnesses.”
Unfortunately, despite the great stature of Shimon HaTzadik, our historical knowledge of him is very poor. We know that he was the primary Torah leader of his time and that he was the kohen gadol (high priest) for forty years. We also know that he was descended from Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek HaKohen,[1] the first kohen gadol of the second Temple. Some authorities[2] say that he was the son of Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek and refer to Shimon HaTzadik as “Shimon ben Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek.”[3] Most, however, say that Shimon was the seventh generation from Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek, thus making Shimon HaTzadik, “Shimon ben Chonio ben Yadua ben Yonasan ben Yo’yada ben Elyashiv ben Yo’yakim ben Yehoshua.”[4]

There is also some disagreement on the meaning of the Talmud’s statement that Shimon HaTzadik was “from the remnants of the Great Assembly.” Some authorities[5] maintain that he was one of the one hundred and twenty original members of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, but that he, as one of the youngest members, outlived the rest of the group. Others[6], however, maintain that he was not an actual member of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah but that he received the mesorah (tradition) from them. Regardless of his actual relationship with the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah, there is no question regarding his immense importance in conveying the mesorah to later generations. The Meiri (Pesicha L’Mesechta Avos) writes:
כאשר תמו הדורות ההם ונאסף עזרא הסופר אל עמיו, הגענו לזמן אנשי חכמי התלמוד, וראשון שבהם היה שמעון הצדיק, שהיה אחרון לאנשי כנה"ג וראשון לחכמים, כמו שכתבנו [לעיל, "והוא [שמעון הצדיק] היה ממוצע בין זמן אנשי כנסת הגדולה לזמן חכמי התלמוד, דהיה אחרון לאנשי כנה"ג וראשון לחכמים"].
When these generations [of the Knesses HaGedolah] ended and Ezra HaSofer was “gathered unto his people”, we come to the period of the Sages of the Talmud. The first of these was Shimon HaTzadik, who was the last of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah and the first of the Sages, as we have written [earlier, “He [Shimon HaTzadik] is the intermediary between the period of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah and the Sages of the Talmud, for he was the last of the Anshei Knesses HaGedolah and the first of the Sages”].

The Meeting with Alexander

Aside from the mishna in Pirkei Avos, Shimon HaTzadik is probably best known for his famous meeting with Alexander the Great. The story is recorded in numerous sources with minor variations. The Talmud (Yoma 69a) tells us:
בחמשה ועשרים בטבת יום הר גריזים הוא דלא למספד ביה יום שבקשו כותיים את בית אלקינו מאלכסנדרוס מוקדון להחריבו ונתן להם רשות באו והודיעו לשמעון הצדיק מה עשה שמעון הצדיק לבש בגדי כהונה ונתעטף בבגדי כהונה ומיקירי ירושלים עמו ואבוקות של אור בידיהם והיו מהלכין כל הלילה כולה הללו מהלכין  מצד זה והללו מהלכין מצד זה עד שעלה עמוד השחר כיון שעלה עמוד השחר אמר להם מי הם הללו אמרו לו הללו יהודים שמרדו בך כיון שהגיע לאנטיפרס זרחה חמה פגעו זה בזה כיון שראה את שמעון הצדיק ירד ממרכבתו והשתחוה לו. אמרו לו מלך שכמותך משתחוה ליהודי הזה אמר להם דמות דיוקנו של זה היא מנצחת לפני בבית מלחמתי. אמר להם למה באתם אמרו לו בית שאנו מתפללין עליך אעל מלכותך שלא תחרב יתעוך כותיים הללו להחריבו ותתן להם רשות. אמר להם מי הם הללו. אמרו לו הללו כותים  שעומדים לפניך. אמר להם הרי הם מסורין בידכם מיד נקבום בעקביהם ותלאום בזנבי סוסיהם והיו מגררים אותם על הקוצים ועל הברקנים עד שהגיאו להר גריזים כיון שהגיאו להר גריזים חרשוהו וזרעוהו כרשינין כדרך שבקשו לעשות את בית אלקינו ואותו היום עשאוהו יו"ט.
The twenty-fifth day of Teves[7] is Yom Har Grizim[8] on which you may not eulogize, [for it was] the day that the Samaritans sought [permission] from Alexander the Macedonian to destroy the Temple of God and he gave them permission.[9] They came and made this known to Shimon HaTzadik.[10] What did Shimon HaTzadik do? He donned the priestly garments and wrapped himself in the priestly garments and went with the nobility of Jerusalem with lit torches in their hands and they walked the entire night, some walking on one side and some walking on the other side, until morning. When morning rose, [Alexander] said to [the Samaritans], “Who are these?” They said to him, “These are the Jews who rebelled against you.” When they reached Antipras the sun shone forth and the groups met. When [Alexander] saw Shimon HaTzadik he got down from his chariot and bowed before him. [The Samaritans or his servants] said to him, “A king like you bows before this Jew?!” He said to them, “The image of this man is victorious for me in battle.”[11] [Alexander] said to [the Jews], “Why have you come?” They said to him, “The Temple where we pray for you and your kingdom that it should not be destroyed, these Kussim (Samaritans) have deceived you to destroy it and you have given them permission.” He said to them, “Who are these?”[12] They said to him, “These Kussim standing before you.” He said to them, “Behold, they are given into your hands.” Immediately they punctured their ankles and hung them from the tails of their horses and they dragged them upon thorns and thistles until they reached Har Grizim. When they came to Har Grizim, they plowed it under and they planted karshinim[13], as [the Samaritans] wanted to do to the Temple of God, and that day they made into a yom tov (festival).[14]
This story raises a problem with the opinion that Shimon was several generations after Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek because, according to Chazal (the Sages) (Avodah Zara 9a, Seder Olam Raba 30), Alexander came to Eretz Yisrael only thirty-four years after the building of the Second Temple. At first glance it would seem difficult to say that eight generations of kohanim gedolim served during a period of only thirty-four years. However, if we assume that each generation fathered the next at a young age, and that Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek became kohein gadol at a very old age, it is indeed possible that each generation served during this period. The Malbim (Nechemiah 12:10) explains:
הנה בפסוק זה לא מצאו כל אנשי חיל ידיהם, אחר שאמרו חז"ל ל"ד שנה פשטה מלכות פרס בפני הבית – ר"ל, מבנין הבית עד אלכסנדר מוקדון היו ל"ד שנה – והם אמרו כי שמעון הצדיק יצא לקראת אלכסנדר בשובו ממלחמת דריוש, והיה א"כ שמעון הצדיק דור שני לעזרא ונחמיה, כמ"ש הרמב"ם בהקדמתו לסדר זרעים וכן כתבו רבים וכן שלמים, ואיך בזמן הקצר ששה דורות? בפרט לרש"י שכתב שכלם היו כהנים גדולים....
בכ"ז לא ידעתי מה הרעש הזה. מי יאמר להם שנולדו באותם ל"ד שנים? אם נאמר שיהושע בן יהוצדק ששב מגלות בבל ובנה הבית היה אז בן ק"ה שנה, והוא ובניו הולידו כל אחד לט"ו שנה, א"כ בעת שהיה יהושע בן יהוצדק בן תשעים שנה כבר נולד שמעון הצדיק ובעת שבנה הבית היה שמעון הצדיק בן ט"ו שנה. ובעת אלכסנדר כבר היה בן מ"ה שנה וכו' ע"ש.
Behold! Regarding this verse [Nechemiah 12:10-11, which discusses the descendants of Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek] “none of the warriors can find their hands!”[15] Chazal state that “For thirty-four years the Persian Empire was spread before the Temple,” meaning that from the building of the [Second] Temple until Alexander the Macedonian was thirty-four years. And [Chazal also] say that Shimon HaTzadik went out to greet Alexander on his return from the war with Darius. If this is so, then Shimon HaTzadik was the second generation from Ezra and Nechemiah [i.e. Ezra and Nechemiah were one generation and Shimon was the second], as the Rambam writes in his introduction to Seder Zeraim and is also written by many great authorities. If so, how could there be six generations in such a short time? Especially according to Rashi who writes that all of them were kohanim gedolim.
Despite all this, I don’t know what all the noise is about. Who says that they were all born within thirty-four years? If we say that Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek was 105 years old when he returned from Bavel and built the Temple, and that he and his sons all had children at the age of fifteen, if so then when Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek was ninety years old, Shimon HaTzadik was already born, and when the Temple was built he was fifteen years old, and at the time of Alexander he was already forty-five years old….
Moreover, as mentioned earlier (in a footnote), Rav Yitzchak Isaac HaLevy writes in his Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, pp. 196-7) that Shimon HaTzadik was not yet the kohein gadol when Alexander came to Eretz Yisrael:
... הכהן גדול המשמש בשם כהן גדול היה אז ידוע, אבל בהיות ידוע אז כבר זקן גדול, ושמעון הצדיק נכדו כבר היה אז לאיש, וכדברי המשנה המפורשים עליו שהיה משירי כנסת הגדולה. ובהיות שמעון הצדיק – לבד גדלו בתורה ובמעשים אשר בטחו בו הכהנים והעם בעזר ה' על יראיו – הנה היה גם מראהו כמלאך ה' בהוד נורא... כי על כן נבחר הוא ללכת במלאכות עמו בראש הכהנים והעם לקראת אלכסנדר.
The kohein gadol that served in the office of kohein gadol at that time was Yadua. But Yadua was a very old man and his grandson, Shimon HaTzadik, was already a [respected] man, as the clear words of the Mishna say that he was “from the remnants of the Great Assembly.” And because – in addition to his greatness in Torah and deeds, which the kohanim and the nation trusted in for HaShem helps those who fear Him – Shimon HaTzadik also had the appearance of an angel of HaShem with his awesome glory…. Therefore he was chosen to go on the mission for his nation at the head of the kohanim and the people to greet Alexander.
Several sources extend the story of the meeting with Alexander further. Yossipon (ch. 5) states:
ויהי אחרי כן, ויבא הכהן ואלכסנדרוס המלך אל ירושלים. ויביאהו הכהן אל מקדש אלקינו, ויראהו הכהן את היכל ה' ואת חצרות המקדש ואת גנזיו ואולמיו. ויראהו את מקום קדשי הקדשים, ואת מקום המזבח ואת מקום העולה, ויאמר המלך: "ברוך ה' אלקי ישראל אלקי הבית הזה! ואשריכם אתם עבדיו המשרתים לפניו במקום הזה. ועתה אעשה לי זכר הנה ואתן זהב לרוב לאומנין ויבנו את צלמי ויקימו אותו בין הבית ובין קדש הקדשים ויהי צלמי לזכרון לי בבית הזה, בית אלוק הגדול." ויאמר הכהן אל המלך: "הזהב אשר נדבו שפתיך, תנהו למחית כהני ה' ולמחית עמו הבאים להשתחות בבית הזה. ואני אעשה לך זכר פה, טוב מאשר שאלת אתה." ויאמר המלך: "ומה יהיה הזכר ההוא?" ויען הכהן ויאמר: "זכרך יהיה זה, כי כל ילדי הכהנים אשר יולדו בשנה הזאת בכל יהודה וירושלים, יקראו על שמך אלכסנדרוס, ויהיה לך זה לזכרון, כאשר יבאו לעבוד את עבודת ה' בבית הזה. כי אין לנו רשיון מאת אלקי הבית הזה, הוא ה' אלקינו, לקבל פסל וכל תמונה." ויתמה המלך את דברי הכהן ויכשרו בעיניו ויעש כן. ויתן המלך זהב לרוב לבדק הבית וישתחו לה' אלקינו ויצא.
And after this, the kohein and Alexander came to Jerusalem, and the kohein brought him to the Temple of God, and the kohein showed him the Heichal of God and the courtyards of the Temple and its treasuries and halls. And he showed the place of the Holy of Holies and the place of the altar and the place of the offering. And the king said, “Blessed is HaShem, God of Israel, God of this House! Fortunate are you, His servants, who serve before Him in this place. And now, I shall make a memorial for myself here and I shall give abundant gold to the craftsmen and they will construct [a statue of] my image and they will erect it between the Temple and the Holy of Holies, and my image will be a memorial for me in this Temple, the Temple of the Great God.” And the kohein said to the king, “The gold which your lips have donated, give it for the sustenance of the kohanim of God and for the sustenance of His people who come to bow [to God] in this House, and I will make a memorial for you here that is better than what you have asked for.” And the king said, “What will this memorial be?” The kohein answered and said, “Your memorial will be this, that all the children of the kohanim that are born this year in all Judea and Jerusalem will be called by your name, Alexander. And this will be your memorial, when they come to serve God in this House. For we do not have permission from the God of this House – He is HaShem our God – to accept sculpture or any image.” The king wondered at the words of the kohein and it was proper in his eyes and he did so. The king gave abundant gold to the bedek habayis (fund for upkeep of the Temple), he bowed to HaShem our God, and he went out [of the Temple].[16]
Several sources[17] add that Shimon HaTzadik also offered to commemorate Alexander’s arrival by having all documents dated from that period on. This was the system called minyan shtaros, which was used in all Jewish legal documents until the late Geonic period. However, not all sources agree that this was the reason for the adoption of the minyan shtaros dating system.[18]

Josephus and Yossipon also both record that Alexander was shown the verses in the book of Daniel that predicted his rise to power.

Leader of the Jewish Nation

Shimon HaTzadik served as kohein gadol for forty years. During his tenure as kohein gadol, several special blessings were granted to the Jewish people. The Talmud states (Yoma 39a):
תנו רבנן, מ' שנה ששימש שמעון הצדיק היה גורל עולה בימין, מכאן ואילך פעמים עולה בימין פעמים עולה בשמאל, והיה לשון של זהורית מלבין, מכאן ואילך פעמים מלבין פעמים אינו מלבין, והיה נר מערבי דולק, מכאן ואילך פעמים דולק פעמים כבה, והיתה אש של מערכה מתגברת ולא היו כהנים צריכין להביא עצים למערכה חוץ משני גזירי עצים כדי לקיים מצות עצים, מכאן ואילך תשש כחה של מערכה, פעמים מתגברת פעמים אינה מתגברת ולא היו כהנים נמנעים להביא עצים למערכה כל היום כולו, ונשתלחה ברכה בעומר ובשתי הלחם ובלחם הפנים וכל כהן מגיעו כזית יש אוכל ושבע יש שבע ומותיר, מכאן ואילך נשתלחה מארה בעומר ובשתי הלחם ובלחם הפנים וכל כהן מגיעו כפול מצרי הצנועין מושכין את ידיהם והגרגרנין נוטלין ואוכלין
The Rabbis taught, [during the] forty years that Shimon HaTzadik served [as kohein gadol] the lot [cast for the Yom Kippur sacrifice] always came up in the right hand, from then on it sometimes came in the right and sometimes in the left; the tongue of scarlet wool [tied to the head of the scapegoat] would turn white, from then on sometimes it would turn white and sometimes it would not turn white; the western lamp [of the menorah] would remain lit, from then on sometimes it would remain lit and sometimes it would go out; the fire of the ma’aracha (the pile of wood on the altar) would stay strong and the kohanim only needed to bring two pieces of wood [a day] for the ma’aracha to fulfill the mitzvah of wood, from then on the power of the ma’aracha was weakened, sometimes it would stay strong and sometimes it would not stay strong and the kohanim did not cease from bringing wood all day long; and a blessing was sent into the omer, the two loaves [of Shavuos], and the lechem hapanim, and every kohein received a k’zayis – some ate and were satisfied and some were satisfied and [even] left over, from then on a curse was sent into the the omer, the two loaves, and the lechem hapanim, and every kohein received the amount of an Egyptian bean (i.e. a very small amount), the modest [kohanim] withdrew their hands and the gluttons took and ate.
Shimon HaTzadik was also unique in that he was both the kohein gadol and the head of the Sanhedrin. The Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, p. 197) points out:
והנה, היה בימי שמעון הצדיק דבר גדול ונפלא מאד אשר לא היה בכל ימי הבית בשני כי הכהן הגדול הוא היה גם המופלא שבסנהדרין ראש כל חכמי התורה.
In the days of Shimon HaTzadik there was a very great and amazing thing that did not exist throughout the days of the Second Temple, that the kohein gadol was also the mufla (primary authority, instructor) of the Sanhedrin, the chief of all the Torah sages.
The period of time of Shimon HaTzadik’s primary activity as the leader of the Jewish people was after the death of Alexander, under the rule of the Greek king of Egypt, Ptolemy son of Lagos, also known as Ptolemy Soter.[19] Ptolemy Soter was one of Alexander’s generals and had been appointed by Alexander as the governor of Egypt. After the death of Alexander, Ptolemy had assumed power in Egypt. A lengthy and violent series of struggles began among the various successors of Alexander[20], and the land of Israel passed in and out of the hands of different rulers several times over the next several decades. Ptolemy conquered the land of Israel four different times, and in at least some of these conquests he inflicted great suffering on the Jewish population. Josephus (Antiquities XII:1:1) tells us:
While these princes ambitiously strove one against another, every one for his own principality, it came to pass that there were continual wars, and those lasting wars too; and the cities were sufferers, and lost a great many of their inhabitants in these times of distress, insomuch that all Syria, by the means of Ptolemy the son of Lagus, underwent the reverse of that denomination of Savior (Soter), which he then had. He also seized upon Jerusalem, and for that end made use of deceit and treachery; for as he came into the city on a Sabbath day, as if he would offer sacrifices he, without any trouble, gained the city, while the Jews did not oppose him, for they did not suspect him to be their enemy; and he gained it thus, because they were free from suspicion of him, and because on that day they were at rest and quietness; and when he had gained it, he ruled over it in a cruel manner. Nay, Agatharchides of Cnidus, who wrote the acts of Alexander’s successors, reproaches us with superstition, as if we, by it, had lost our liberty; where he says thus: “There is a nation called the nation of the Jews, who inhabit a city strong and great, named Jerusalem. These men took no care, but let it come into the hands of Ptolemy, as not willing to take arms, and thereby they submitted to be under a hard master, by reason of their unseasonable superstition.”[21] This is what Agatharchides relates of our nation. But when Ptolemy had taken a great many captives, both from the mountainous parts of Judea, and from the places about Jerusalem and Samaria, and the places near Mount Gerizzim, he led them all into Egypt, and settled them there.[22] And as he knew that the people of Jerusalem were most faithful in the observation of oaths and covenants; and this from the answer they made to Alexander, when he sent an embassage to them, after he had beaten Darius in battle; so he distributed many of them into garrisons, and at Alexandria gave them equal privileges of citizens with the Macedonians themselves; and required of them to take their oaths, that they would keep their fidelity to the posterity of those who committed these places to their care. Nay, there were not a few other Jews who, of their own accord, went into Egypt, as invited by the goodness of the soil, and by the liberality of Ptolemy.
As we see from this account from Josephus, during the wars Ptolemy inflicted severe sufferings upon the Jewish population of the land of Israel, especially on the Jews of Jerusalem, and many Jews were taken as slaves to Egypt. Although it appears that in peacetime he was not an excessively oppressive ruler, this does not make up for the immense harm he inflicted on the Jewish people during these wars.
Shimon HaTzadik was the leader of the Jewish people during this extremely difficult period and he succeeded in rebuilding the land and repairing the damage.

In a famous passage, the ancient writer Yeishua (or Yehoshua) ben Sira[23] describes the greatness of Shimon HaTzadik (Ben Sira[24] 50):[25]
Shimon the high priest, the son of Chonio[26], who in his life repaired the house again, and in his days fortified the temple: And by him was built from the foundation the double height, the high fortress of the wall about the temple: In his days the cistern to receive water, being in compass as the sea, was covered with plates of brass: He took care of the temple that it should not fall, and fortified the city against besieging:
How was he honored in the midst of the people in his coming out of the sanctuary! He was as the morning star in the midst of a cloud, and as the moon at the full: As the sun shining upon the temple of the most High, and as the rainbow giving light in the bright clouds: And as the flower of roses in the spring of the year, as lilies by the rivers of waters, and as the branches of the frankincense tree in the time of summer: As fire and incense in the censer, and as a vessel of beaten gold set with all manner of precious stones: And as a fair olive tree budding forth fruit, and as a cypress tree which grows up to the clouds.
When he put on the robe of honor, and was clothed with the perfection of glory, when he went up to the holy altar, he made the garment of holiness honorable. When he took the portions out of the priests' hands, he himself stood by the hearth of the altar, compassed about, as a young cedar in Lebanon; and as palm trees compassed they him round about.
So were all the sons of Aaron in their glory, and the fire offerings of HaShem in their hands, before all the congregation of Israel. And finishing the service at the altar, that he might adorn the offering of the most high Almighty, He stretched out his hand to the cup, and poured of the blood of the grape, he poured out at the foot of the altar a sweet smelling savor unto the most high King of all. Then shouted the sons of Aaron, and sounded the silver trumpets, and made a great noise to be heard, for a remembrance before the most High.
Then all the people together hasted, and fell down to the earth upon their faces. To prostrate themselves before the Most High, before the Holy One of Israel. The singers also sang praises with their voices, with great variety of sounds was there made sweet melody. And the people besought HaShem, the most High, by prayer before him that is merciful, till the solemnity of HaShem was ended, and they had finished his service.
Then he went down, and lifted up his hands over the whole congregation of the children of Israel, to give the blessing of HaShem with his lips, and to rejoice in his name. And they bowed themselves down to worship the second time, that they might receive a blessing from the most High.
Shimon has been remembered throughout history with the name Shimon HaTzadik (the Righteous). Josephus explains that “He was called Simon the Just because of both his piety towards God, and his kind disposition to those of his own nation.[27]

Shimon HaTzadik is best known for his statement, quoted in the second mishna of Pirkei Avos, “The world stands on three things, on Torah [study], on the service [of HaShem], and on bestowing kindnesses.” As the Bartenura there tells us, this was something he always repeated and stressed; it was his primary teaching to his generation. What was the significance of this particular lesson? Rav Shlomo Brevda explains:[28]
והנה מתחילת שלטונם בארצנו הקדושה, השתדלו היוונים להשפיע עלינו מחכמתם, חכמת הטבע (ובסוף שלטונם גזרו גזירות להשכיח מאתנו את התורה הקדושה ולהעבירנו מחוקי רצונו ית"ש). שמעון הצדיק שהיה גדול הדור וגם כהן גדול בתחילת מלכות יון, השתדל בכל כחו לחזק את העם שישארו שלמים ונאמנים אך ורק לתורתנו הקדושה, ושלא ישימו לב כלל וכלל לחכמי יון ודבריהם. על כן באו תמיד דבריו הקדושים לעם סגולה שהעולם עומד על ג' דברים, עסק התורה, עבודת הקודש, וגמילות חסדים. ודבריו הקדושים סותרים לגמרי את שיטת חכמי הטבע. כי תורה ועבודה וגמילות חסדים לא יעניקו לאדם, על פי טבע, אפילו פת לחם, ואיך יתקיים האדם. אבל אנחנו מקבלי התורה, מאמינים בני מאמינים, יודעים שמצבינו למעלה מהטבע, והקב"ה זן ומפרנס ומכלכל העוסקים בתורה ובעבודה וגמ"ח. והצליח שמעון הצדיק בזמנו להחזיק את העם בשלימות האמונה וקיום המצוות. ולכן זכו בדורו לסייעתא למעלה מדרך הטבע. וראו חבתם לפניו ית"ש כי כל מצבם בבית המקדש, יום יום ובש"ק ובימים טובים, הכל היה למעלה מהטבע.
From the beginning of their rule in our holy land, the Greeks strove to influence us with their wisdom, the wisdom of nature [i.e. science] (and towards the end of their rule they made decrees to make us forget our holy Torah and to remove us from the decrees of His Will). Shimon HaTzadik, who was the gadol hador and also the kohein gadol at the beginning of the Greek dominion [over Eretz Yisrael], strove with all his strength to strengthen the people that they should remain completely loyal only and exclusively to our holy Torah, and they should not pay any attention at all to the wise men of Greece and their words. Therefore he would always repeat his words to the treasured people that the world stands on three things, Torah study, the holy service, and bestowing kindnesses. His holy words completely contradicted the philosophy of the wise men of nature [i.e. scientists]. For, according to nature, Torah, service, and kindness do not provide a person with anything, not even bread, so how will a person survive [on these alone]?[29] But we who have received the Torah, believers and children of believers, know that our circumstances are above nature, and the Holy One, blessed be He, feeds, supports, and provides those who involve themselves in Torah, service, and kindnesses. Shimon HaTzadik was successful in his time in strengthening the people in perfection of emunah (faith) and in fulfillment of the mitzvos (commandments). Therefore, in his generation they merited to receive supernatural help, and they saw how beloved they were before Him, for their entire situation in the Holy Temple, on ordinary days and on the Sabbath and festivals, was supernatural.[30]

The Death of Shimon HaTzadik & the Fall of the Kehuna Gedolah

The Talmud records the following information regarding the death of Shimon HaTzadik:
דתניא אותה שנה שמת שמעון הצדיק אמר להן שנה זו הוא מת. אמרו לו מנין אתה יודע? אמר להן כל יום הכפורים נזדמן לי זקן אחד לבוש לבנים ונתעטף לבנים ונכנס עמי ויצא עמי שנה זו נזדמן לי זקן אחד לבוש שחורים ונתעטף שחורים ונכנס עמי ולא יצא עמי. לאחר הרגל חלה שבעת ימים ומת ונמנעו אחיו הכהנים מלברך בשם.
For it is taught, the year that Shimon HaTzadik died he said to them that this year he would die. They said to him, from where do you know this? He said to them, “Every Yom Kippur an old man dressed in white and wrapped in white meets me and goes in with me [to the Kodesh haKedoshim (the Holy of Holies)] and comes out with me. This year an old man dressed in black and wrapped in black met me and went in with me but did not come out with me.” After the festival he was sick for seven days and died. And his brothers, the kohanim, refrained from blessing with the Name [of God in the Birchas Kohanim - the Priestly Blessing].[31]
Shimon HaTzadik passed away during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, the son and successor of Ptolemy Soter. After his death, the status of the kehuna gedola (high priesthood) fell dramatically. As the Bartenura records (Yoma 1:1 based on the Gemora 8b):
...הכהנים הגדולים שהיו בבית שני אחר שמעון הצדיק היו נותנים ממון כדי לשמש בכהונה גדולה, ומתוך שרשעים היו לא היו משלימין שנתן והיו מתחלפין כל שנים עשר חדש כפקידי המלך שהמלך מחליפן כל שנה...
The kohanim gedolim of the Second Temple after Shimon HaTzadik would give money [to the non-Jewish rulers] in order to serve in the kehuna gedolah. Because they were wicked, they would not survive the year, and they would switch every twelve months [to a new kohein gadol], like the officers of a king which the king changes every year.[32]
In fact, this degradation of the kehuna gedolah did not take place immediately, and there were some kohanim gedolim – even in later periods – who were good men, although none of similar status to Shimon HaTzadik. Nevertheless, the process did begin almost immediately after the death of Shimon HaTzadik with the dispute that took place between Shimon’s sons on the succession. The Talmud continues (Menachos 109b)[33]:
בשעת פטירתו אמר להם חוניו בני ישמש תחתי. ... לא קיבל עליו חוניו שהיה שמעי אחיו גדול ממנו שתי שנים ומחצה ואף על פי כן נתקנא בו חוניו בשמעי אחיו. אמר לו בא ואלמדך סדר עבודה והלבישו באונקלי וחגרו בצילצול והעמידו אצל המזבח. אמר להם לאחיו הכהנים ראו מה נדר זה וקיים לאהובתו אותו היום שאשתמש בכהונה גדולה אלבוש באונקלי שליכי ואחגור בצילצול שליכי. בקשו אחיו הכהנים להרגו. סח להם כל המאורע בקשו להרוג את חוניו. רץ מפניהם ורצו אחריו רץ לבית המלך ורצו אחריו. כל הרואה אותו אומר זה הוא זה הוא. הלך לאלכסנדריא של מצרים ובנה שם מזבח והעלה עליו לשם שמים, שנאמר "ביום ההוא יהיה מזבח לה' בתוך ארץ מצרים ומצבה אצל גבולה לה'" (ישעיה יט:יט)
At the time of [Shimon HaTzadik’s] death, he said to them, “Chonio my son shall serve in my place.”[34] Chonio would not accept the office, for his brother Shimi was two and a half years his elder. Even so, Chonio became jealous of his brother Shimi. He said to him, “Come and I will teach you the procedure of the avodah.” He dressed him in an un’klie[35] and girded him with a tziltzul[36] and stood him by the altar. [Chonio] then said to his brothers, the kohanim, “Look at what this one swore to and fulfilled for his beloved[37], ‘the day when I shall serve in the kehunah gedolah, I will wear your un’klie and I will gird myself with your tziltzul.’”[38] His brothers, the kohanim, wanted to kill [Shimi] [for denigrating the kehuna]. [But Shimi] told them all that had happened, and they [the kohanim] wanted to kill Chonio. [Chonio] fled away from them and they pursued after him. He fled to the palace of the king and they pursued after him; all who saw him said, “This is he! This is he!” He went to Alexandria of Egypt and erected there an altar and offered upon it offerings for the sake of Heaven, as it says (Isaiah 19:19), “On that day there will be an altar to God within the land of Egypt, and a monument to God by its border.”[39]
This incident resulted in a great fall in the prestige of the kehuna gedolah. In the end, neither Chonio nor Shimi succeeded their father. Instead, Shimon HaTzadik was succeeded by his brother, Elazar, in the position of kohein gadol. In his position as head of the Sanhedrin, Shimon HaTzadik was succeeded by his primary disciple, Antignos Ish Socho.[40]

[1] Also known as Yeishua ben Yehotzedek.

[2] Sefer HaKabala, Sefer Yuchsin, Abarbanel (Nachalas Avos, hakdama and 1:2).

[3] The Toldos Am Olam maintains that the Sefer HaKabala and Yuchsin do not intend this literally, but only that he was descended from Yehoshua ben Yehotzedek.  He does not mention the Abarbanel who does appear to hold this opinion to be literally true.

[4] See Seder HaDoros (ג"א תמ"ח) for discussion.

[5] Rambam, Mishneh Torah – Hakdama

[6] Rashi, Avos 1:2, Doros HaRishonim

[7] Megillas Taanis places this event on the twenty-first of Kislev.

[8] Har Grizim was the location of the main Samaritan city and later became the location of their temple.

[9] Josephus tells us that when Alexander was besieging Tyre, an important city north of the land of Israel, the Samaritans, who were—like the Jews—subjects of the Persian Empire, approached Alexander and offered to join him and betray the Persians. The Jews, however, remained loyal to the Persian emperor. This combination of events caused Alexander to initially favor the Samaritans and to believe their false accusations against the Jews.

[10] In Yossipon the kohein that meets Alexander is named Chananya. However, some versions of Yossipon omit this and the name is probably erroneous. Similarly, Josephus (Antiquities XI:8:4-5) writes that the kohein was named – in Greek – “Iaddou”, which most translations understand as Yadua, the name of Shimon HaTzadik’s grandfather. There are a number of possible explanations for this discrepancy (asides from simple scribal error). Some authorities, most notably the Sefer HaKabala, claim that Shimon was also known by the name Iddo (עדו), which may be a different reading of the Greek name used by Josephus. (The Abarbanel, in Nachalas Avos 1:2, points out that the use of multiple names was common throughout the Second Temple period.) Other authorities, such as the Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, pp. 196-7), believe that at this time Yadua was still the kohen gadol but he was too old to go out to meet Alexander, so he sent his grandson Shimon in his place. Thus, Josephus may have erroneously concluded that the entire story happened with Yadua. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, however, believes that Josephus changed the story deliberately (Torah Nation 206).

[11] Megillas Taanis states slightly differently, דיוקנו של זה אני רואה כשאני יורד במלחמה ונוצח – “The image of this person I see when I go down to war and am victorious.”

[12] The implication here is that Alexander was not aware of the actual plans of the Samaritans. In fact, in the version told in Megillas Taanis, the Samaritans did not actually inform Alexander of their intentions, they simply “purchased” the location of the Temple from Alexander. Alternatively, the Ben Ish Chai explains that Alexander certainly knew that the Samaritans were guilty, but he wanted to know if any of his own officers were also included in the plot. To this the Jews responded that only the Samaritans were guilty.

[13] A kind of inferior grain used primarily as animal feed.

[14] This story is also told in Yossipon and Josephus. However there are a number of differences, some of which raise historical difficulties. According to the both of these alternate accounts, after his conquest of Gaza, Alexander marched on Jerusalem with intent to destroy it and he met the Jews just outside the gates of Jerusalem. However, according to the non-Jewish accounts of Alexander’s conquests, Alexander traveled from Gaza to Egypt in just one week, making a visit to Jerusalem (which is in the opposite direction) impossible. However, according to the Talmudic account there is no reason to believe that Alexander planned on traveling to Jerusalem himself. The Talmud also does not specify at what point in his conquests he met the Jews. Moreover, the location of the meeting, according to the Talmud, was a town called Antipras. This almost certainly refers to the town Antipatris (Kefar Saba), a town not far from the ocean shore along which Alexander traveled. The relatively brief meeting described in the Talmud took place early in the morning and would not have significantly affected the traveling time of Alexander’s army, which may explain why it is unmentioned in non-Jewish accounts. As for the accounts of Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem and the Temple, which most authorities accept as reliable, this may have taken place later, after Alexander’s conquest of Egypt, when he was traveling back towards Babylon. Josephus and Yossipon may have combined two separate stories.

[15] A phrase from Tehillim 76:6 poetically expressing the idea that the great scholars appear to have lost their skills.

[16] Josephus adds that Alexander summoned the Jews and “bid them ask what favors they pleased of him; whereupon the high priest desired that they might enjoy the laws of their forefathers, and might pay no tribute on the seventh year. He granted all they desired. And when they entreated him that he would permit the Jews in Babylon and Media to enjoy their own laws also, he willingly promised to do hereafter what they desired. And when he said to the multitude, that if any of them would enlist themselves in his army, on this condition, that they should continue under the laws of their forefathers, and live according to them, he was willing to take them with him, many were ready to accompany him in his wars.” (Antiquities XI:8:5)

Unfortunately, it appears that Alexander was not always fully consistent in fulfilling this promise. Josephus, in his Contra Apion (1:22), quotes extensively from Hecateus of Abdera, a Greek historian who was also a contemporary of Alexander, about the Jews in Alexander’s armies. He writes that, “Alexander was once at Babylon, and had an intention to rebuild the temple of Belus [an idol] that was fallen to decay, and in order thereto, he commanded all his soldiers in general to bring earth thither. But the Jews, and they only, would not comply with that command; nay, they underwent stripes and great losses of what they had on this account, till the king forgave them, and permitted them to live in quiet.”

[17] Sefer HaKabala, Yuchsin, Abarbanel Avos 1:2, Gr”a on Seder Olam Raba 30, and others.

[18] Tzemach Dovid

[19] The name “Soter” means “Savior” in Greek.

[20] The Macedonian generals who succeeded Alexander are referred to as the “Diadochi”, the Greek word meaning “successors”.

[21] This supposed incident appears to be the source of the myth that the ancient Jews would not wage war – even defensive war – on the Sabbath. In fact, as is clear from the previous statements of Josephus, Ptolemy Soter took the city by deceit, by pretending to come in peace.

[22] The Doros HaRishonim adds (presumably based on the Ben Sira passage quoted below) that Ptolemy also destroyed the walls of Jerusalem to prevent it from being used as a fortress against him. Victor Tcherikover, in his Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (p. 58), argues that the destruction of the walls was done when Ptolemy, in the course of the war, was forced to evacuate from Jerusalem and he wished to prevent its use as a fortress by his enemies.

[23] The Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, p. 194) writes about Ben Sira, ובן סירא אשר הלך עם חכמים ויתחמם לאור חכמי התורה וכו' – “And Ben Sira, who walked with the sages and warmed himself by the fire of the Torah sages…”

[24] The book of Ben Sira (also known as Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) was originally written in Hebrew, but the original Hebrew text was lost for a very long time, and the book only existed in its Greek translation. In modern times scholars have found parts of what they believe to be the original Hebrew version, but the full Hebrew original text is still not found and much of what has been found is of uncertain reliability. Thus there are no fully reliable editions of Ben Sira available. The primary Hebrew edition in print is the edition published by Avraham Kahana in his Seforim Chitzonim.

[25] This translation is taken, with some minor changes, from the KJV translation. It does not agree, in many details, with the Kahana version, but the basic ideas are the same. (The Catholic Church includes the book of Ben Sira in its version of the “Old Testament.” Such books are called Apocrypha.)

[26] In most English translations the name used here is Onias, which is the English equivalent of Chonio. Kahana’s Hebrew edition, and some translations, use the name Yochanan. (The name Chonio may be a diminutive for Yochanan.) The Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, p. 194), in quoting this passage, uses the name Chonio.

[27] Antiquities 12:2:5. The Doros HaRishonim (Vol. 1, p.194-195) points out that the description, “HaTzadik”, was not added to Shimon’s name until many years later. As proof he cites the passages from Ben Sira which praise Shimon HaTzadik. If Shimon was already popularly known as Shimon HaTzadik, then Ben Sira, who was a contemporary of Shimon’s, would certainly have referred to him by that title. Thus, the Doros HaRishonim argues that the title “HaTzadik” was added later to distinguish Shimon HaTzadik from a later kohein gadol also named Shimon ben Chonio who caused great troubles for the Jewish people.

[28] In his Kuntres L’Hodos U’l’Hallel b’inyanei Chanuka, p. 16.

[29] Shimon HaTzadik’s list implies that only these three things are truly necessary for the support of the world, yet, by normal “laws of nature”, none of a person’s basic needs are provided by these three things!

[30] Rav Brevda is referring here to the special blessings which took place in the Beis HaMikdash while Shimon HaTzadik was alive mentioned earlier.

[31] See Rabbeinu Gershom Menachos 109a, Rashi Yomah 39b, Tosafos Sotah 38a ד"ה הרי , and Rambam Hil. Nesias Kapayim 14:10, for explanations. Although most of the commentaries appear to maintain that this was a permanent change, the Ben Yehoyada (Yoma 39b) suggests that the kohanim may have ceased using the sheim hameforash only during the period immediately after Shimon HaTzadik’s death, when they felt great grief, because the sheim hameforash can only be used in a state of joy. However, after the grief lessened they returned to using the Name.

[32] To properly understand this passage one should see the context in mesechta Yoma. Here I have only quoted the portions directly relevant to our discussion.

[33] The following selection is abridged. There are actually two versions of the story of Chonio told in the Talmud in Menachos, the version told by Rabbi Meir and the version told by Rabbi Yehuda. As the commentaries clearly consider Rabbi Yehuda’s version to be the primary version, we are only including his version here.

[34] Although Chonio was younger than his brother Shimi, he was more knowledgeable in the laws of the avodah. (Rambam, Bartenura – Menachos 13:10)

[35] Rashi defines this as a “leather garment”. Rabbeinu Gershom says it was “a woman’s garment”. Bartenura describes it as “a shirt of thin linen that women wear upon their skin.”

[36] A kind of belt or girdle. This was also a feminine garment.

[37] His wife (Rashi, Rabbeinu Gershom) or his lover (Rambam, חשוקה שהוא מזנה עמה).

[38] Rambam writes that Chonio’s intent was to kill Shimi so that he could get the position of kohein gadol. Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Daas Torah, Lech Lecha p. 107) writes that this incident is a classic example of the principle from Pirkei Avos (2:4), אל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך – “Do not trust yourself until the day you die”, meaning that no matter how many good things you have done in your life, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) is always ready to trap you if you let down your guard. So, even after Chonio did this great kindness of surrendering the position of kohein gadol so as to give honor to his elder brother, when he let down his guard the yetzer hara of jealousy was able to trap him.

[39] The nature of this altar, and the temple that followed called Beis Chonio (which was not located in or near Alexandria, is a matter of some debate. Tosafos comments that the altar in Alexandria may have been only for non-Jews, thus avoiding the prohibition of shchutei chutz (slaughtering offerings outside of the Temple). This also explains how Chonio was permitted to become the kohein gadol at a later period. A later Chonio, during the reign of Ptolemy Philometor, erected a temple in Leontopolis, a village in the district of Heliopolis. See the discussion of this topic in Toldos Am Olam, p. 394.

[40] Another important sage of this period was Rav Elazar ben Charsom (Yuchsin, Tzemach Dovid, and Seder HaDoros). He is best known for his immense wealth, which, the Talmud (Yoma 35b) tells us, “obligates the wealthy” to study Torah. Interestingly, the Talmud (Yoma 9a) states that R’ Elazar ben Charsom served as kohein gadol for eleven years.

Note: This material was originally written for a course in Jewish history at a yeshiva high school. I have modified it for a general audience.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Devarim - "How Can I Alone Carry Your Trouble, Your Burden, and Your Disputes?"

Parhas Devarim begins with the first of Moses' parting addresses to the Jewish people, in which he reviews their history and rebukes them - often in veiled terms - for their misdeeds. Early in the speech, Moses speaks of how he came to appoint judges over the people  (as told in Exodus 18). Here too, Moses engages in veiled rebuke. While Moses begins by stating that the reason who could not judge them alone was due to their numbers, and he blesses them that they should continue to increase, he then goes on to indicate that the need for additional judges was also due to less positive issues as well, stating (Deuteronomy 1:12):
איכה אשא לבדי טרחכם ומשאכם וריבכם:
"How can I alone carry your trouble, your burden, and your disputes?"
On a purely peshat (basic text) level, this verse could be interpreted as simply expanding on the idea that, as a numerous and growing nation, there was simply too many issues for one person, even Moses, to handle alone. However, asides from the fact that this would be repetitious, the terms used by the verse clearly carry a somewhat critical tone. In fact, Rashi, quoting the Sages (Sifri), understands these three terms to refer to veiled criticisms, and explains each in the context of Moses' role as a judge:
טרחכם. מלמד שהיו ישראל טרחנין, היה אחד מהם רואה את בעל דינו נוצח בדין, אומר יש לי עדים להביא, יש לי ראיות להביא, מוסיף אני עליכם דיינין:

ומשאכם. מלמד שהיו אפיקורסין, הקדים משה לצאת, אמרו מה ראה בן עמרם לצאת, שמא אינו שפוי בתוך ביתו, איחר לצאת, אמרו מה ראה בן עמרם שלא לצאת, מה אתם סבורים, יושב ויועץ עליכם עצות וחושב עליכם מחשבות:

וריבכם. מלמד שהיו רוגנים:
"Your trouble" - This teaches that [the children of] Israel were burdensome. If one would see that his opponent in court was winning, he would say, "I have witnesses to bring," "I have proofs to bring," "I am adding on judges to you." (See Ramban for a halachic  explanation of the latter.)
"Your burden" - This teaches that they were apikorsin (heretics). If Moses went out early [to judge cases] they would say, "Why did Ben Amram leave [home early]? Perhaps things are not going smoothly at home." If he would delay leaving [home] they would say, "What do you think? He is sitting and getting advice [from his wife (Sifri)] against you, and thinking thoughts against you."
"And your disputes" - This teaches that they were quarrelsome.
Each of these commentaries deserves extended discussion. On the most basic level, Moses was pointing out three problem areas among the Jewish people that made it particularly difficult to judge them.

The first problem was that judging cases between two Jews was exceptionally burdensome because each one was so determined to win that they would drag the case out far beyond reason and would take advantage of every possible technicality. It is important to note that Moses does not accuse them of actually engaging in any kind of dishonesty or violation of the rules but of an excessive drive to win which placed an undue burden on the judge. This behavior indicated that the litigants were motivated less by a desire for justice than by a desire to be victorious over their fellow.

The second problem was that the Jews would interpret any behavior of the judge, even outside of the court, as evidence that he was not judging their case properly. Thus, if he came early, "Uh oh! Must be problems at home! We better watch out!" And if he came late, "Uh oh! He must have been talking over the case with his wife! Who knows what she told him?"

It is significant that the Sages considered those who engaged in this behavior not simply as burdensome, but actually as apikorsim - a term usually translated as "heretics." This is because, contrary to what is commonly assumed, the category of apikoros -  "heretic" - does not refer only to one who does not accept the doctrines of Judaism, but also to one who shows disrespect for the Torah or its scholars. Maimonides writes (Commentary on the Mishna, Sanhedrin 10:1):
ומלת אפיקורוס היא ארמית, ענינה מי שמפקיר ומבזה את התורה או לומדיה, ולפיכך קורין בזה השם כל שאינו מאמין ביסודי התורה או מי שמבזה החכמים או איזה תלמיד חכם שיהיה או המבזה רבו:
The word apikoros is Aramaic, and it refers to one who devalues or disparages the Torah or those who study it. The term is therefore used for anyone who does not believe in the fundamental principles of the Torah, or one who disparages the Sages or any other Torah scholar, or one who disparages his teacher.
To disparage a Torah scholar is to disparage the Torah itself, which is the entire foundation of Judaism. Thus, these Jews who spoke disparagingly of Moses were indeed apikorsim.

The third problem was that they were quarrelsome, i.e. they would engage in unnecessary and unproductive disputes. The Sages (Sifri) describe this as, "they would spend a selah (an ancient coin) to take two selaim, and they would spend two selaim to take three selaim." At first glance this would seem perfectly reasonable, after all, you need to spend money to make money. However, the repetition - one for two, two for three - indicates that what we are talking about here is that they would spend extra money in order to make their opponent pay extra money, even though they would walk away with the same amount of profit. (ראה עמק הנצי"ב) This, like the first problem, was rooted in an inappropriate desire to be victorious over their fellow, even when they didn't stand to gain anything.

The midrash (Eicha Raba 1:1) tells us that there were three prophets who prophesied using the term "eicha," Moses (in this verse), Isaiah (1:21, which we read in the haftara for Parshas Devarim), and Jeremiah (in Eicha - Lamentations). (We have discussed this midrash previously.) This would seem to indicate that there is some continuity between the themes discussed in these verses.

While this topic deserves a fuller exploration than I'm prepared to attempt at this time, the basic idea - that these problems are closely related to the sins that led to the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish from their land - is fairly straightforward.

The Talmud (Bava Metzia 30b) tells us:
דאמר רבי יוחנן: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא על ... שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין.
Rabbi Yochanan said, Jerusalem was not destroyed except because they decided their cases according to Torah law, and they did not go beyond the limits of the law.
The issue that Rabbi Yochanan is describing is precisely the issue that we described above as the first and third problem that Moses was describing. We can readily see how such problems are related to the more basic issue of sinas chinam (unjustified hatred) which, the Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us, was the primary cause of the destruction of the Second Temple.

With regard to the second problem we discussed - i.e. the disrespect for Torah scholars we also find a directly parallel statement in the Talmud (Shabbos 119b):
אמר רבי יהודה: לא חרבה ירושלים אלא בשביל שביזו בה תלמידי חכמים
Rabbi Yehuda said, Jerusalem was not destroyed except because they disparaged Torah scholars.
We see here that disrespect for Torah scholars was one of the main contributing causes of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people. This is closely connected to the famous Talmudic passage in Nedarim 81a that the reason the land was lost was "שלא ברכו בתורה תחילה" - "because they failed to recite the blessing on the Torah [before study]." As the commentaries (ר"ן בשם ר' יונה, ומשנה ברורה ס' מ"ז) explain that even though the Jewish people were studying Torah, they didn't properly appreciate the unique status of the Torah over and above all other wisdom. Torah that is studied without a proper appreciation of its significance is not truly Torah at all. Fundamentally, the failure to give the proper respect to Torah scholars is rooted in the failure to truly appreciate the Torah itself.

At this time of year, when we are in mourning over the destruction of our Holy Temples, it particularly appropriate for us to meditate upon the root causes of our exile, which is ultimately the root cause of all the tragedies and suffering of history. By carefully studying our own behavior and attitudes, and working to bring them in line with the teachings of the Torah, we will ultimately merit the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. May it happen soon in our days!

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mattos-Masei - The Soldiers' Offering

In Parshas Mattos we read of the war that God commanded the Jewish people to wage against the Midianites in vengeance against their efforts to lead the Jewish people into sin (as described previously in Numbers 25).

At the conclusion of the war, when the Jewish soldiers returned to the camp with their captives and spoils, Moses was angry with the commanders of the army because they had - in keeping with the normal standards of Jewish warfare - kept alive the women. Moses points out that in this case it was the women in particular who had seduced the Jewish people into sin, and therefore they too had to be killed.

At this point the Torah goes into some detail about various laws of purity, the kashering of the utensils, and the division of the spoils. After all these issues are discussed and dealt with, the Torah tells us that the officers of the army approached Moses with a special request (Numbers 31:48-50):
ויקרבו אל משה הפקדים אשר לאלפי הצבא שרי האלפים ושרי המאות: ויאמרו אל משה עבדיך נשאו את ראש אנשי המלחמה אשר בידנו ולא נפקד ממנו איש: ונקרב את קרבן ה' איש אשר מצא כלי זהב אצעדה וצמיד טבעת עגיל וכומז לכפר על נפשתינו לפני ה':
And the officers that were over the thousands of the army, the captains of thousands, and the captains of hundreds, approached Moses. And they said to Moses, 'Your servants have made a count of the men of war that are under our command, and not one man has been lost. And we have brought an offering to God, what every man has found articles of gold, anklet and bracelet, ring, ear-ring, and kumaz, to atone for our souls before God.'
The Talmud (Shabbos 64a-b) discusses this offering, and provides us with some background as to what was happening here and what it teaches us:
ויקצוף משה על פקודי החיל אמר רב נחמן אמר רבה בר אבוה אמר להן משה לישראל שמא חזרתם לקלקולכם הראשון אמרו לו לא נפקד ממנו איש אמר להן אם כן כפרה למה אמרו לו אם מידי עבירה יצאנו מידי הרהור לא יצאנו מיד ונקרב את קרבן ה'
תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל מפני מה הוצרכו ישראל שבאותו הדור כפרה מפני שזנו עיניהם מן הערוה אמר רב ששת מפני מה מנה הכתוב תכשיטין שבחוץ עם תכשיטין שבפנים לומר לך כל המסתכל באצבע קטנה של אשה כאילו מסתכל במקום התורפה:
"And Moses was angry with the officers of the army." (Numbers 31:14) R. Nachman said, "Rabbah bar Avuha said, 'Moses said to Israel: 'Perhaps you have returned to your first sin (i.e. of fornicating with the Midianite women)?' [The officers] said [in reply], 'Not one man has been lost (i.e. not one man has fallen to sin).' [Moses] said to them, 'If so, why [do you need] an atonement?' They said, 'Though we escaped from sin, we did not escape from [sinful] thoughts.'  Thus, 'And we have brought an offering to God.'"
The School of R. Yishmael taught: Why did Israel of that generation need atonement? Because they indulged their eyes with lewdness. R. Sheshes said: Why does Scripture enumerate the outward ornaments (i.e. anklets, bracelets, and rings) with the inner ornaments (i.e. the kumaz, which the Talmud previously explained to refer to an ornament that a woman wore upon her gentalia)? To tell you that one who gazes upon a woman's little finger is as though he gazed upon the genitalia.
The Talmud tells us that the offering of gold by the soldiers was intended to atone for improper thoughts that they had experienced when they looked upon the Midianite women. Although they had not actually sinned with the women, they still recognized that atonement was necessary even for such inappropriate thoughts, given that they resulted from inappropriate gazing. Indeed, the Talmud concludes that not only is it forbidden to look upon a women's actual nakedness, it is even forbidden for a man to gaze upon a forbidden woman who is fully clothed, if he has intent to have pleasure from her beauty. (This is cited by the Rambam (Hil. Issurei Biah 21:2) and Shulchan Aruch (Even Haezer 21:1) as practical halacha.)

However, as important as it is for us to avoid sinful thoughts, there remains a huge difference between sinful thoughts and sinful deeds. The Midrash Lekach Tov (a Biblical commentary written by  R' Toviah ben Eliezer in the 11th century) cites the Talmudic passage "מידי עבירה יצאנו מידי הרהור לא יצאנו" - "Though we escaped from sin, we did not escape from [sinful] thoughts" - and then states, "מלמד שהיו כולם צדיקים" - "This teaches us that they were all tzadikim (righteous men)." Despite the fact that they had gazed upon that which was inappropriate - "שזנו עיניהם מן הערוה" - which caused them to have sinful thoughts, the Medrash Lekach Tov still states that they were all tzadikim. It is all too common for those who struggle with sinful thoughts to see themselves as sinful and wicked, perhaps even irredeemably so. From the Medrash Lekach Tov we see that, as serious as this issue is, one who struggles with this problem can still be considered a tzaddik.

I believe there is another important lesson implicit in this Talmudic teaching. Many of the commentaries (Maharsha, HaRif on Ein Yakov) point out that the dialogue between Moses and the officers was actually spread over a fair amount of time. Moses became angry with the officers in verse 14, when they returned with the Midianite women as captives, yet their response does not take place until much later, in verse 48, after they had killed the women, purified themselves, kashered the vessels, and divided the spoils - all of this according to Moses' instructions. All of this took time, at least several days. It was only then that the officers approached Moses with the offering of gold from the soldiers, and informed him that none of the soldiers had actually sinned with the Midianite women.

I believe that this provides us with a model for how one should respond to criticism from one's rebbi (Torah teacher). If your teacher or rabbi accuses you of doing something improper, one's initial response should not be to immediately deny the accusation. Rather, the first thing one should do is to listen to what your teacher says and to follow his instructions. Only later, after one has fully complied with his teacher's instructions, is it time to approach him and to clear your name. (As should be obvious, of course, there may be cases where such an approach is not feasible.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Mitzva of Patriotism

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all who are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem to Babylon:
Build houses and settle, plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters, and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to men, and they shall bear sons and daughters; become numerous there and do not diminish. And you shall seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace shall you have peace. (Jeremiah 29:4-7)
Rabbi Chanina, the deputy Kohen Gadol, says: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without the fear [of the government] a man would swallow fellow alive. (Talmud - Avos 3:2)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d.1888) writes (Horeb ch. 96) that we learn from from these verses in Jeremiah that “in whichever land Jews shall live as citizens, as inhabitants, or enjoying special protection, they shall honor and love the princes and Government as their own, contribute with every possible power to their good, and fulfill all the duties towards prince and land which a subject owes to his prince, an inhabitant to his land, and a citizen to his country.”

“It is… Israel’s religious duty, a duty imposed by God and no less holy than all the others, in whatever land they dwell in, not only to fulfill all the duties which the laws of that land explicitly lay down, but, over and above that, to do with thought, word, and deed everything that can contribute to the weal of that nation.”

“This duty is an unconditional duty and not dependent upon whether the State is kindly intentioned towards you or is harsh.”

Indeed, it should be noted that Jeremiah was speaking to people who had been forcibly exiled from their land and taken to Babylonia against their will. Even under such conditions, they were still obligated to "seek the peace" of their host country. As Rabbi Joseph Breuer (d.1980) notes, in his commentary on Jeremiah, “God requires the golah (exiled community) to help promote, with selfless devotion, the welfare of the foreign land in which they dwell. The exiles are bidden to perceive their own welfare as so closely linked with that of their host nation that they will pray to God for a nation that has dealt them the most grievous wounds.”

Similarly, the commentators on Avos (Ruach Chaim, L'Zeicher Yisrael, R' Hertz) note that Rabbi Chanina lived at a time shortly before the destruction of the second Temple, when the Jewish people were under oppressive Roman rule, and was instructing his fellow Jews to nevertheless pray for the welfare of the Roman government. In his commentary on Avos, Rabbi Marcus Lehmann (d.1890) stresses this point:
There are, of course, governments that hardly live up to the ideal--governments that allow arbitrary judgments to take the place of the law, that show preference to some classes of citizens at the expense of others, governments whose executive organs are corrupt. Should the Jew be an obedient citizen to a corrupt government?
Rabbi Chanina lived under such a government. The Roman hegemony was cruel, corrupt, and tyrannical, yet he taught his disciples to pray continually for its welfare because even an unfair and despotic government is a thousand times better than anarchy and no government at all.
Stars and StripesIf we are obligated to be loyal and patriotic citizens even in lands in which we are oppressed, then how much greater is our obligation towards a country which has always treated us with great kindness! Every day that we live in the United States our obligation of hakaras hatov – gratitude – to the United States increases to higher levels. In 1976 Rabbi Shimon Schwab (d.1995) wrote an essay regarding the American Bicentennial. In this essay he states, in part:
[T]his Bicentennial year gives us a welcome opportunity to express our Jewish gratitude to this nation which has opened its gates to receive millions of us. Jews from all over the globe, who otherwise might have perished in the hell holes of the old world. Here we have found, during the last centuries, a haven of refuge free from pogroms, expulsions, crusaders, inquisitions, concentration camps and gas chambers. The only country where Jews were never burned at the stake or perched in ghettos and where they were not made to wear a badge of shame. Here in America, the Books of the Torah were never burned or censored, and the freedom to teach and practice the laws of G-d was never curtailed or questioned.
… [T]his country has the immense זכות (merit) to be the host to hundreds of thousands of Torah Jews who enjoy the freedom the serve השי"ת (God) without restrictions. All this imposes upon us an ever mounting debt of gratitude which we repay by loyalty to and concern for this nation and by the strict adherence to the laws of the land (דינא דמלכותא).
Such gratitude is of course in reality directed to the Ruler over all nations who permitted us to find shelter and a haven of opportunity in these United States for the welfare of which we pray and whose peace we seek. (Selected Writings, ch. 33)