Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Jerusalem has Sinned a Sin..." (Eicha 1:8)

In Megilas Eicha (the Book of Lamentations) we read (1:8):
חטא חטאה ירושלים על כן לנידה היתה וכו'
"Jerusalem has sinned a sin, therefore she has become a wanderer..."
(The translation of נידה as "wanderer" follows Rashi and Targum. Homiletically, it can also be understood as referring to a "niddah" - a menstruant woman, who is forbidden to her husband until she undergoes ritual purification.)

Many commentaries note the repetitious language of the opening words in the verse, "חטא חטאה ירושלים" - "Jerusalem has sinned a sin" - and a wide range of homiletic interpretations are given for this language.

The Chida
The Chida (Rav Chaim Yosef David Azulai, d.1806), in his commentary Nachal Eshkol, gives nine interesting and illuminating explanations for the repetitious language of the verse. In most of these commentaries (the exceptions being the last two), the Chida interprets the double language either as indicating a "double sin", or as indicating that, despite some argument to minimize their guilt, nevertheless, their act was indeed a sin. It should be noted that some of explanations rely on rather obscure Kabbalistic concepts:
  1. While, with regard to most sins, one is only held liable for the actual sinful act, with regard to the sin of idolatry one is held liable even for the thought of sin. Thus, when the Jewish people committed the sin of idolatry, they were held liable for a "double sin" - a sin of thought and a sin of deed.
  2. The guilt of one who commits a crime in the palace of the king is far greater than that of one who commits a crime outside the immediate presence of the king. Jerusalem is the "palace of the king", and a sin committed within Jerusalem carries a double burden of guilt.
  3. The Shechina (Divine Presence) rests in Jerusalem, and the land itself is holy. These factors should have a powerful influence on us to help us avoid sin and to serve God properly. To sin in such a environment therefore carries a double portion of guilt.
  4. Rav Chaim Vital (d.1620) taught that saying that one does not wish to give tzedaka (charity) is considered a sinful act. Thus, the Jewish people indeed sinned by saying that they did not want to give tzedaka. (The Chida's intent here seems to be as follows. One of the sins that led to the churban (destruction) was the failure to give charity (Targum on Eicha 1:3). However, in of itself, the failure to give tzedaka is simply a failure to fulfill a positive obligation and should not be sufficient to bring about such a punishment. However, from Rav Chaim Vital we learn that if one explicitly states that he does not wish to give charity, this is considered a sinful act akin to idolatry. Thus, they indeed actively "sinned a sin.")
  5. The Sages comment on this verse (Eicha Rabba 1:35):
    חטא חטאה ירושלים - אומות העולם אינן חוטאים? אלא אע"פ שחוטאין אינן כלום, אבל ישראל חטאו ולקו 
    "Jerusalem has sinned a sin" - [And] the [other] nations of the word don't sin? Rather, even though they sin, it is insignificant, whereas [when the people of] Israel sin, they are punished.
    What is the justice in this? Why are the sins of the Jewish people considered so much worse than the sins of the nations? The answer is because God took us out of Egypt, gave us His Torah, performed great signs and wonders for us, and gave us the land of Israel, all for the purpose that we should obey His laws. Thus, the Jewish people are held to a higher standard and their sins, even those that would be of no significance with regard to the other nations, are indeed sins.
  6. Alternatively, we can understand this medrash based upon a concept found in the work Chesed L'Avraham (a major Kabbalistic work written by the Chida's ancestor, Rav Avraham Azulai, d.1643) that, from the generation of the dispersal (resulting from the Tower of Babel), the sins of the non-Jewish nations only damage the "prince" (i.e. angel) assigned to that nation, whereas the sins of the Jewish people cause damage to the highest "attributes." Thus, the sins of Jewish people bear of double portion of guilt. At the same time, however, the fact that the sins of the Jewish people cause damage on such a high level also means that they can be rectified (the Chida does not explain exactly why this is so). Thus, "Jerusalem has sinned a sin" (i.e. the sins of the Jewish people are considered significant) "therefore she has become a niddah" - a menstruant woman - whose separation from her husband is temporary.
  7. If a person sins unintentionally twice, it is no longer considered an unintentional sin. (The Chida states that we learn this from the second perek of Beitza, presumably referring to Beitza 16b, where we learn that one who twice forgets to make an eruv tavshilin is considered a poshea (negligent) and cannot rely on the eruv of the local rabbi.) Thus, the verse says that even if Jerusalem sinned unintentionally, because of repetition the unintentional sin bore the full weight of guilt of an intentional sin; it was indeed a sin.
  8. The prophet Micah (4:6) said about the time of redemption:
    ביום ההוא נאום ה' אספה הצלעה והנדחה אקבצה ואשר הרעותי. 
    "On that day, says God, I will bring in the lame one, and the one who was driven away I shall gather, and the one I have harmed.
    On this verse the Sages comment (Shemos Rabba 46:4), מהו 'אשר הרעותי'? זה יצר הרע - "What is the meaning of, 'the one I have harmed'? [What harm does this refer to?] This refers to the yetzer hara - the evil inclination." God placed the yetzer hara within every human being to tempt him to sin. Thus, so to speak, on a certain level, God acknowledges that the sin of Jerusalem is His "fault". Thus, we can read the verse, "חטא" - "Sin," i.e. the yetzer hara (the term חטא can be understood to refer to the yetzer hara, as we see in Genesis 4:7), "חטאה ירושלים" - "caused Jerusalem to sin." This reduces their guilt,  "therefore she has become a niddah" and will be purified and return to her Husband.
  9. The intentional sins of a צבור - community - are considered as unintentional. (כמ"ש הרב כתנות אור פרשת נצבים) Thus, the sins of Jerusalem are to be considered unintentional sins. (While the term  "חטא" is a generic term for sin, in some contexts - such as when used in combination with other terms for sin - it can have the specific connotation of unintentional sin. In this commentary, the Chida apparently interprets the double language to indicate an emphasis on the specific language of  "חטא" with its connotation of unintentional sin.) Thus the verse says, "Jerusalem has sinned an unintentional sin, therefore she has become a niddah" and will be purified and return to her Husband.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Devarim - The Rebuke of Moses

Sefer Devarim is primarily made up of speeches given by Moses in the last several weeks of his life in which he admonishes and rebukes the Jewish people in preparation for their entry into the land of Israel. Rashi (Devarim 1:3), citing Sifreipoints out that Moses "did not admonish Israel" until shortly before his death, a practice he learned from Jacob, who rebuked his sons shortly before his death. The Sages gave several reasons why it is proper to reserve the rebuke of others until shortly before one's death:
  1. So that a person will not rebuke a person more than once for the same sin.
  2. So that the person who will received the rebuke will not meet his rebuker again and be embarrassed.
  3. So that the person receiving the rebuke will not bear a grudge against his rebuker.
  4. So that they will part in peace.
At first glance, it might seem that the last two reasons contradict each other. Moreover, with regard to the third reason, why does delaying rebuke until shortly before death ensure that the recipient of the rebuke will not hold a grudge? However, it would seem that the experience of receiving rebuke from a person who is soon to depart from this world, especially from one who is deeply beloved to you (as was Moses to the Jewish people and Jacob to his sons), is profoundly different from ordinary rebuke. The knowledge that the rebuker will soon depart from this world creates an openness to rebuke, and a desire to clear the air of all past issues, that enables to the recipient to receive his rebuke without resentment. Thus, not only does the person receiving the rebuke not resent it, but rebuke at this point can actually accomplish a reconciliation that would have been impossible beforehand.

The Ben Ish Chai
The Ben Ish Chai (Rav Yosef Chaim of Baghdad, d.1904), in his Sefer Malach haBris (on Parshas Devarim), raises a far more basic question. The Torah commands us to rebuke our fellow Jews, as it says (Leviticus 19:17), "הוכיח תוכיח את עמיתך" - "You shall rebuke your fellow," and the Sages (Talmud, Bava Metzia 31a) tell us that this obligation applies "even a hundred times"! How then can we say that rebuke should be reserved to a once-in-a-lifetime event, shortly before death?

The Ben Ish Chai answers that there are two forms of rebuke and admonishment. One form is the rebuke given to a specific individual for a specific sin, in which the sinner is directly confronted with his guilt. The other form is a general admonishment on the importance of doing good and avoiding evil, in which the speaker arouses the listener to repentance by discussing the evil of a variety of wicked deeds without specifying any particular culpability on the part of the listener.

The difference between the two approaches is that the latter avoids causing any embarrassment or resentment on the part of the recipient. It is with regard to such rebuke that the Sages say that it should be repeated "even a hundred times." 

In our context here in Devarim, however, we are discussing rebuke of the first category, in which Moses directly confronted the Jewish people with their sins. It is only with regard to such rebuke that the Sages says that one should reserve rebuke until shortly before death.

Of course, it should go without saying that even under these circumstances, rebuke must be given appropriately and correctly, with a deep concern for the dignity of the listeners. Thus, the Ben Ish Chai continues, even here, when Moses directly rebuked the people for their past sins, he only spoke in the presence of "all Israel," even though only a small minority had actually been guilty in any given sin.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Tisha B'Av - The Purpose of Fasting

On the Ninth of Av (Tisha B'Av) it was decreed on our ancestors that they would not enter the Land (of Israel), the Temple was destroyed the first and second time, Beitar [the stronghold of the Bar Kochba rebellion] was captured, and the city (of Jerusalem) was plowed under.
Talmud Taanis 4

As the anniversary of the most tragic events in Jewish history, the ninth of Av is the most important day of mourning in the Jewish year. Like all fast days, the basic purpose of Tisha B'Av is for us to meditate upon the tragedies that have come about through our sins and to commit to rectifying those errors. As Maimonides writes (Hil. Taanios 5:1):
There are days when all Israel fasts because of the troubles that occurred on them, in order to arouse the hearts to begin the ways of repentance and to be a reminder of our evil deeds and the deeds of our ancestors that were like our deeds today which brought them and us these troubles. For by remembering these things we are brought to return to the good, as it says (Leviticus 26:40), "And they shall confess their sin and the sin of their ancestors."
The sources enumerate a number of different sins that were the root causes of the destruction, and which should be the primary focus of repentance on these days. These include:
  • Unjustified hatred of our fellow Jews (sinas chinam). We must work to feel love towards our fellow Jews, and also for all human beings.
  • Murder. We should work on ourselves to respect our fellow man and see in him the image of God that exists in every person. Even publicly shaming another person is likened to murder.
  • Idolatry. We must recognize that only God is the cause of good and bad. No person or thing can hurt you or help you unless it is the will of God. Nothing else has any real power in the world. We should focus on developing our relationship with HaShem and to realize that He cares about each and every one of us and hears our prayers.
  • Immorality. Not only must we avoid outright acts of immorality, but we must also train ourselves to avoid circumstances and situations that can lead us in that direction.
  • Neglect of Torah study. We must recognize that the Torah is God's direct revelation to us. As such, it is fundamentally different from all other forms of knowledge. From the Torah we learn what our purpose is in this world and how to achieve that purpose. Our attitude towards the Torah must express this recognition. We must not treat the study of Torah like any other form of study.

Note: Part of this post is a repeat of material from a previous post: Asara b'Teves - Mourning the Loss of the Temple

Friday, July 20, 2012

Mattos-Masei - Do Not "Flatter" the Land

In Parshas Masei the Torah discusses the laws of murder (both intentional and non-intentional) and its penalties. Towards the end of this discussion, the Torah tells us that it is forbidden to accept a monetary ransom in order to exempt a murderer from his criminal penalties (i.e. execution in the case of intentional murder or exile to a city of refuge in the case of non-intentional murder).

The Torah then states (Number 35:33):
ולא תחניפו את הארץ אשר אתם בה, כי הדם הוא יחניף את הארץ ולארץ לא יכפר לדם אשר שפך בה כי אם בדם שפכו.
Translating this verse is difficult, because the root חנף, which is used twice in the verse, is being used in a very unconventional way. According to Rashi (based on Onkelos) the verse should be translated:
And you shall not bring guilt upon the land that you are in, for blood makes the land guilty, and the land cannot atone for the blood that is spilled within it except by the blood of he who spilled it.
The basic point of the verse is clear, a court is not permitted to accept alternate forms of compensation (literally, "כופר" - "atonement") for the crime of murder, for murder is a crime of such severity that failure to apply the prescribed penalty brings guilt upon the entire society. (The term ארץ - "land" - is frequently used to mean civilization or society (as opposed to literal earth), as in the well known phrase "דרך ארץ", literally "the way of the land", which is best translated as "civilized behavior.")

However, while this is clearly the basic meaning of the verse, it doesn't address why the Torah uses the terms "תחניפו" in such an unusual way. The conventional translation of חנופה is flattery, and a literal translation of the verse would be:
And you shall not flatter the land that you are in, for blood flatters the land....
What could this possibly mean?
Rav Moshe Feinstein

Rav Moshe Feinstein (d.1986) finds a profoundly important lesson in this apparently strange wording (ספר דרש משה):
הנכון לענ"ד דאף דכל המלכיות מקפידות על שפיכות דמים, מ"מ יש חילוק גדול בין קפידתם לאיסור ש"ד שבתורה. דקפידת המלכיות הוא מצד ישוב העולם... ולכן אם נדמה לו שאדרבה חברו מקלקל ישוב העולם לפי דעתו הסכלה, הורג לחברו. ומצד זה יש מלחמות בעולם, ועוד מצדיקים עצמם בחשבם שלא פעלו עול אלא עוד תקנו בזה. וגם ודאי אין מקפידים על חיי שעה כלל, ולא על חיי זקן, כידוע שאין הרופאים משתדלים כ"כ בעד זקן.
אבל איסור התורה הוא מצד חשיבות האדם, ולכן אף שאין צורך בו לישוב העולם נמי אסור להורגו באותו החומר עצמו. ואף לשוטה ואף לחיי שעה ישנו אותו האיסור עצמו ומותר בשביל זה לחלל שבת.
נמצא כשאחד הורג חברו מחמת שלפי דעתו מקלקל ישוב העולם, הוא מחניף לארץ כפשוטו. שלפי דעתו, האדם הוא טפל לארץ, ולא כהאמת, שהוא דרך התורה, שאדרבה הארץ טפל להאדם.
In my humble opinion, the proper explanation [of the unusual terminology in this verse] is that, while all nations prohibit murder, there is a great distinction between the prohibition of the nations and the Torah's prohibition against murder. The nations prohibit murder because of yishuv ha'olam  (lit. "settlement of the world", i.e. maintaining a stable functioning society).... Therefore, if it seems to a person, in his senseless opinion, that, on the contrary, his fellow man is detrimental to society, he will kill him. It is this that brings about wars in the world. Not only do they justify themselves as not committing a crime, but they see themselves as improving the world! Certainly they will not be concerned about the lives of those who are already close to death, or the lives of the elderly (as it is well-known that the doctors do not exert as much effort on behalf of the elderly).
The Torah's prohibition [of murder], however, is rooted in the inherent value of a human being. Therefore, even if he does not contribute to society, the prohibition of murder still applies to him with the same level of severity. The prohibition applies equally even to one who is mentally incompetent, or one who is close to death, and we are permitted to desecrate the Sabbath for their sake.
From this we understand that when a person murders his fellow man because he believes him to be detrimental to society, he is, in fact, "flattering" the land (i.e. society) in a literal sense. For, in his mind, the human being is secondary to society, in contradiction to the truth, which is the way of the Torah, that society is secondary to the human being.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pinchas - The Miracles of Daily Life

At the end of Parshas Pinchas, we read of the various communal offerings made in the Temple on the mo'adim - the special "appointed" times of the year. Conventionally, the term mo'adim includes all the various festivals of the Jewish year, thus the Torah goes on to list the communal offerings of the festivals of Passover, Shavuos, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkos and Shemini Atzeres. However, the Torah's discussion of the special offerings of the  mo'adim seems to go far beyond the conventional understanding of the term, and includes not only the festivals but also Rosh Chodesh (the new month), the Sabbath, and even the daily tamid offering.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch (Numbers 28:2 and in his commentary on the Siddur, p.23) notes that the inclusion of the daily tamid offering into the category of the mo'adim conveys "a Truth of no small importance". He writes (in his Siddur):
God appointed מועדים, special occasions that attest to His rule and summon His people to His presence, to commemorate annually His mighty acts in Egypt, at the Red Sea, on Mount Sinai and in the wilderness. These miracles actually involved suspension by God of the natural order which He Himself had instituted, and thus bear eloquent witness to His greatness. In the same manner, God also appointed the transitions of morning and evening, which occur daily with clock-like regularity, to be מועדים too. These daily, "ordinary" natural phenomena are also to serve as messengers testifying to God's power and summoning the people to worship Him, to demonstrate to us the hand of God as it can be seen even in the course of the world, and to call each of us to come before Him.
For the very steadiness, the regularity, of the phenomena of nature is a much clearer, more wonderful manifestation of Divine wisdom and omnipotence than the suspension of these natural laws when God's miracles were executed. In fact the purpose of these special acts of God which interrupted the regular order of nature was to point to Him as the Lawgiver of these natural laws, lest the thought of Him as Regulator, Master, and Lord of the world order be lost through the steady regularity of the natural phenomena.
In this passage, Rav Hirsch is articulating a very basic concept. Contrary to how we often think, the laws of nature are no less a product of God's will and power than even the most dramatic open miracles. In fact, fundamentally, the only distinction between the laws of nature and open miracles is that God apparently prefers the laws of nature to be the "normal" mode of operation for His universe. As Rav Hirsch points out, both here and elsewhere in his writings, the regularity and predictability of the natural laws can cause us to overlook or forget that they are not fundamentally any different from outright miracles. Indeed, the primary function of miracles is precisely to remind us that all of the natural world is subject to God's will, and that even the most ordinary of natural events is actually a miracle.

The principle being taught here by Rav Hirsch can be found in many earlier sources. In his commentary on Exodus 13:16, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides, d.1270) develops this theme at some length, arguing that the function of miracles is to testify to the truth of the basic principles of belief, that God is all powerful and that He supervises and manages the events of this world. The Ramban summarizes this idea in a famous statement:
ומן הניסים הגדולים המפורסמים אדם מודה בנסים הנסתרים, שהם יסוד התורה כולה. שאין לאדם חלק בתורת משה רבינו עד שיאמין שכל דברינו ומקרינו כולם נסים, אין בהם טבע ומנהגו שך עולם, בין ברבים בין ביחיד.
From the great public miracles, man is led to acknowledge the hidden miracles, for they (i.e. the hidden miracles) are the foundation of the entire Torah. For a man can have no share in the Torah of Moses until he believes that everything that happens to us, whether as a community or as individuals, is entirely miraculous, and there is no element of "nature" or "the way of the world" in them.
Sometimes people, especially children, ask why God doesn't perform miracles for us nowadays. In fact, with the exception of the period immediately following the Exodus from Egypt, miracles have always been relatively rare events. Even in the days of the prophets, the ordinary Jew lived a life governed, on the surface at least, by natural laws. Why doesn't God perform miracles for on a regular basis? Wouldn't that make it easier for us to be better and more faithful Jews?

There are many answers to this question (not the least being that, as we see from the sins of the golden calf and the spies, the mere fact that one has witnessed open miracles does not ensure that one will avoid even obvious sins). This principle that we have just learned from Rav Hirsch and the Ramban gives us a deeper insight into why this is so. Ultimately, the will of God is not that we should recognize Him when He performs open miracles. God wants us to recognize His presence in every aspect of the natural world. In even the most ordinary and mundane elements of life, we should see the wisdom and kindness of the Creator.

Rav Avigdor Miller
One recent figure who truly embodied this idea was Rav Avigdor Miller ז"ל (d.2001). Rav Miller was famous for his ability to appreciate the wisdom and kindness of God in every aspect of life. I once heard Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen, a prominent Lakewood rabbi who is married to Rav Miller's granddaughter, speak of a minor incident he witnessed with Rav Miller that illustrated his unique ability in this area. Rabbi Cohen was accompanying Rav Miller on one of his regular walks in Rav Miller's Brooklyn neighborhood. As they were walking, Rav Miller noticed a peach pit lying on the sidewalk. Pausing in his walk, Rav Miller began to jump up and down on the peach pit. Somewhat bemused by Rav Miller's surprising behavior, Rabbi Cohen asked him what he was doing. Rav Miller pointed to the peach pit and asked him if it appeared damaged. Rabbi Cohen responded that it looked fine. Then Rav Miller pointed out that the peach pit is so hard that he had been unable to break it open even by jumping up and down on it, yet if it was placed in the ground and watered, after a while it would simply open up on its own and a delicate new plant would grow from it, eventually developing into a new peach tree. From this we see the wisdom and kindness of the Creator, Rav Miller continued, for he provided the seed with a strong protective shell, yet that hard shell will automatically open when it is time for the young tree to come out.

This story represents an ideal that we all need to work towards. We need to be aware of God's presence, of His wisdom and kindness, in every moment of our lives. We should see him in the food we eat, in the functioning of our bodies, and in every aspect, both human and natural, of the world around us. Rav Miller himself wrote a great deal about this idea, much of which is based upon the classic mussar work, Chovos HaLevavos. In particular, the second section of the Chovos HaLevavos, called the Shaar HaBechina (The Gate of Examination), focuses on this essential concept.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Age of Moses

Recently, one of my chavrusos raised a question that seemed like a really difficult problem. Towards the end of Deuteronomy (31:2, 34:7) the Torah tells us that when Moses died, at the end of the forty years in the wilderness (Deut.1:3), he was one hundred and twenty years old. This would mean that Moses was 80 years old at the time that he and the Jewish people left Egypt and, in fact, we read Exodus 7:7 that "Moses was eighty years old and Aaron was eighty-three years old when they spoke to Pharaoh."

The problem, however, is that this verse is written before the plagues begin later in the same chapter. While Scripture itself is vague as to the exact amount of time that passed from the beginning of the first plague to the last, it was clearly not a matter of a few weeks. Indeed, Jewish tradition (recorded in the Mishna, Eduyos 2:10) is that the ten plagues took place over a period of twelve months. If Moses was eighty years old at the beginning of this period, then he would have been eighty-one years old at the time of the exodus, which would make him 121 years old at the end of the forty years in the desert. (Exactly the same question can also be asked regarding Aaron.)

This would seem to be an obvious problem. In fact, in my opinion, the first hint to the solution is precisely that the problem is too obvious. All the major commentaries - who typically address issues of this sort - ought to be noting the issue, yet, to my knowledge, it is completely ignored by all the major commentaries. 

(רק מצאתי שהחת"ם סופר דחק לתרץ בשני אופנים, אחת בשו"ת ח"ו סי' כט, ואחת - שלא זכיתי להבין על בוריו - בדרשות חת"ם סופר לפרשת שקלים, ח"א דף קיז:)

When we encounters an apparently obvious problem that is apparently ignored by the commentaries, this is usually an indication that the source of the problem is actually a more basic flaw in our understanding of the material. In this case, it would seem that to the commentators, the "solution" was so self-evident that the "problem" never even presented itself. While this might sound self-defeating, it actually helps us a great deal in resolving the issue. If the solution was that self-evident, then the answer should be right there on the page, where any competent reader can see it.

With this in mind, we can return to the text in Exodus 7 and attempt to read it as the classical commentators would have read it. The first thing that we need to bear in mind, which is often overlooked by modern readers, is that the text of the Torah is divided into paragraphs. These paragraphs will be familiar to anyone who has ever read from a Torah scroll. These paragraphs are called פרשיות (parshiyos), and the division of these פרשיות was passed down to us in the written text of the Torah as given to us by Moses as he received it from Hashem. Like paragraph breaks in any text, these פרשיות are essential to a proper understanding of the Torah.

(By contrast, the conventional division of the text the Torah into chapters (פרקים) is not only not of Divine origin, but it is not even of Jewish origin and frequently does not reflect the traditional Jewish understanding of the text.)

When we look at the text in Exodus 7, we find that the verse we are discussing is the final verse of a paragraph. The paragraph in full (7:1-7) states:
And Hashem said to Moses: 'See, I have made you a master over Pharaoh; and Aaron your brother brother shall be your spokesman. You shall speak all that I command you; and Aaron your brother shall speak to Pharaoh, that he shall send the children of Israel out of his land. And I shall harden Pharaoh's heart, and I shall multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt. And Pharaoh will not listen to you, and I shall place My hand upon Egypt, and I shall bring out My hosts, My people the children of Israel, from the land of Egypt with great judgments. And Egypt shall know that I am Hashem, when I stretch forth My hand upon Egypt, and I bring out the children of Israel from among them.' And Moses and Aaron did so; as Hashem commanded them, so they did. And Moses was eighty years old, and Aaron eighty-three years old, when they spoke to Pharaoh.
We see in this paragraph God instructing Moses in a general sense of how he would interact with Pharaoh, and giving Moses an overview of the entire process of the Exodus, covering the entire period of the plagues, followed by the actual Exodus from Egypt. In regard to this overview of the entire Exodus process, the Torah, speaking from the perspective of the reader, tells us that, when it was all over, Moses and Aaron had done all that God had commanded them. It is in this context, speaking after the exodus, that the Torah says, "And Moses was 80 years old... when they spoke to Pharaoh."

Thus, from the context of the verse it seems clear that the verse is speaking of the age of Moses and Aaron, not at the beginning of the plagues, but at the conclusion of their talks with Pharaoh just before they left Egypt. If, instead of being the last verse of the previous paragraph, the verse had been the first verse of the next paragraph, which describes Moses and Aaron actually meeting with Pharaoh, then the problem would present a serious difficulty. However, as the conclusion of the previous paragraph, which is describing the course of future events, the problem disappears.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak - The School of Abraham and the School of Balaam

In Parshas Balak we encounter the enigmatic case of the wicked prophet Balaam. The very idea of a wicked prophet raises obvious questions. Perhaps the most basic question is how can a person who speaks to God choose to act wickedly?

The key to this puzzle is found in the mishna in Pirkei Avos (5:19 or nearby) in which the Sages teach us:
כל מי שיש בידו שלשה דברים הללו מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו, ושלשה דברים אחרים מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
עין טובה ורוח נמוכה ונפש שפלה - מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו. 
עין רעה ורוח גבוה ונפש רחבה - מתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע.
Whoever has these three things is from the disciples of our father Abraham, and whoever has three other things is from the disciples of the wicked Balaam.
A good eye, a subdued spirit, and a modest personality - [such a person is] from the disciples of our father, Abraham.
A wicked eye, an uplifted spirit, and a greedy personality - [such a person is] from the disciples of the wicked Balaam.
The commentaries discuss the exact nature of each of these traits (and bring Scriptural examples of each in connection to Abraham and Balaam). The basic explanation of these three traits (and its opposite extreme) is as follows:
  • עין טובה - A Good Eye: This refers to the trait of הסתפקות - being satisfied with what one has. The opposite is the "wicked eye", which is a jealousy of others and a desire to possess that which belongs to them. The full extent of the "good eye" - as defined by Rabbeinu Yonah - is generosity, i.e. the ability to give to others.
  • רוח נמוכה - A Subdued Spirit: This refers to humility. The opposite is the "uplifted spirit", i.e. arrogance and pride.
  • נפש שפלה - A Modest Personality: This refers to the trait of self-control with regard to physical desires. The opposite is the "greedy personality" that constantly seeks to satisfy every desire.
The mishna continues:
מה בין תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו לתלמידיו של בלעם הרשע? תלמידיו של אברהם אבינו אוכלין בעולם הזה ונוחלין בעולם הבא, שנאמר, "להנחיל אוהבי יש ואוצרותיהם אמלא." אבל תלמידיו של בלעם הרשע יורשין גיהנם ויורדין לבאר שחת, שנאמר, "ואתה אלהים תורידם לבאר שחת אנשי דמים ומרמה לא יחצו ימיהם ואני אבטח בך."
What is the [ultimate] difference between the disciples of our father Abraham and the disciples of the wicked Balaam? The disciples of our father Abraham eat in this world and inherit the world to come, as it says (Proverbs 8:21), "To cause those that love Me to inherit substance [in the world to come], and I shall fill their storehouses [in this world]." But the disciples of the wicked Balaam inherit Gehinom and descend into the pit of destruction, as it says (Psalms 55:24), "But you, God, shall bring them down into the pit of destruction, men of blood and deceit shall not live out half their days, and I shall trust in You."
There is a great deal to discuss in this mishna, but we will focus on a very basic issue. Although the mishna is contrasting two groups of "disciples", the disciples of Abraham and the disciples of Balaam, it is not speaking of literal students of these men. Rather, a disciple is one who follows in the path of another. Thus, Abraham and Balaam represent two opposing schools of thought, each of which has followers.

Now, whenever we speak of opposing schools of thought, we are always speaking of two different approaches to the same subject matter. (Thus, we never speak of a debate between a school of thought in art and a school of thought in chemistry.) If there is a conflict between the school of Abraham and the school of Balaam, then both schools must be dealing with the same basic issues.

The Tiferes Yisrael (commentary on the Mishna by R' Yisroel Lipschutz, d.1860) explains the nature of the two schools of thought:
[מתלמידיו של אברהם אבינו] אפילו הוא עכו"ם, עכ"פ הוא מתלמידי אאע"ה שלימד לכל בני עולם דעת אלהים ומדות ישרות. ומה"ט לא נקט תנא תלמידי משרע"ה, דתלמידי משרע"ה צריכים לקיים כל התורה.
[One who possesses these three traits,] even if he is a gentile, is still from the disciples of our father, Abraham, for he taught all mankind the knowledge of God and upright character. It is for this reason that the mishna did not say, "the disciples of Moses, our teacher", for the disciples of Moses must uphold the entire Torah.
Thus, the school of Abraham is one that is far broader than the conventional limits of "Judaism," and applies to all mankind. It is the school that follows the basic teachings of Abraham, i.e. the knowledge of God (דעת אלהים) and upright character (מדות ישרות).

As is clear from Scripture, Balaam also fully recognized God as the Creator and All-Powerful Lord of the universe. Balaam also had דעת אלהים - the knowledge of God. However, while Balaam's intellectual recognition of God was of an extraordinarily high level, he did not recognize the importance of מדות ישרות - upright character. To Balaam, and those who follow in his path, the knowledge of God is all that matters. Yet, not only is this insufficient, but, as the mishna states, the knowledge of God without upright character is literally the path to damnation.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch
This idea is expressed by R' Samson Raphael Hirsch in his commentary on the Torah in this parsha (Numbers 22:8) (emphasis added):
We saw in Abraham's time that, in the midst of a polytheistic world, there was still a Malchi Zedek, the priest of the highest god, who was the One and only God of the Abrahamites, how Job and his friends appeared as pure honourers of this One, so we see Balaam also considering himself and calling himself solely in service of this One.
Altogether, the monotheistic truth as opposed to the polytheistic error is not the special, and certainly not the whole, characteristic of Judaism. That is rather the monotheistic truth with the full realization of what it entails for human living, the identifying One God with one mode of life, by His revealed Law.
But Balaam's monotheistic spiritual height appears morally muddled, far off from even that of Malchi Zedek, far from a Job and his friends. His high spiritual gifts bringing him near to God were subordinated to his egoism and placed themselves at the service of earthly potentates and mighty ones and their lowest desires.
This is a profoundly important lesson. A Jew can only function as a Jew, a disciple of Moses, if he is already functioning on the more basic level of a proper human being, a disciple of Abraham. While a proper human being must have knowledge of God, that is only the beginning. To be a true disciple of Abraham one must also have מדות ישרות - proper character traits. Otherwise, regardless of one's apparent spiritual achievements, one is actually on the path to the pit of destruction.