Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Shemos - The Heroism of the God-Fearing Midwives

In the opening chapter of Parshas Shemos we read about the beginnings of Jewish slavery in Egypt. One of Pharaoh's main objectives in enslaving the Jewish people was to end the rapid growth of the Jewish population. The Torah tells us, however, that despite his efforts, the exact opposite took place and the Jewish population began to grow at an even faster pace.

At this point, Pharaoh chose to take a more direct approach to his "Jewish problem" by recruiting the midwives that served the Jewish people in a plot to covertly murder their male children during birth. The Torah tells us the story in six verses (Exodus 1:15-21):
And the king of Egypt spoke to the midwives of the Hebrews, of which the name of the one was Shifrah, and the name of the second was Puah. And he said, "When you deliver babies of the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him; but if it is a daughter, she shall live." But the midwives feared God, and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them, and they sustained the lives of the boys. And the king of Egypt called for the midwives, and he said to them, "Why have you done this thing, and sustained the lives of the boys?" And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are skilled [in childbirth], before the midwife comes to them, they have already given birth." And God was good to the midwives and the people multiplied, and became very strong. And it was that because the midwives feared God, He made them houses.
Instead of obeying Pharaoh's orders, the midwives actively worked to sustain every Jewish child. This is truly one of greatest stories of moral courage in history. Indeed, the medieval commentator, R' Yosef Bechor Shor, writes that the Torah tells us the names of the midwives in order that they should be remembered for all time for their heroism.

However, this brings us to a difficulty. As Rashi tells us, the Sages (Sotah 11b) taught that Shifrah was actually Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and Puah was Miriam, Moses' older sister. This raises an obvious question. If Jochebed and Miriam were the actual heroes of the story, then why does the Torah hide their identity from us? 

I believe that the basic answer to this question is that Jochebed and Miriam are two of the greatest figures in Jewish history, and if the Torah had explicitly identified them as the midwives it would be all too easy for us to write off their heroism as simply "par-for-the-course" for such outstanding individuals. The Torah wants us to recognize that the heroism of Shifrah and Puah was rooted simply in the fact that, like any pious Jew, they "feared God." Such heroism is something that we can and should expect from every Jew.

This answer gains additional strength in light of the fact that Shifrah and Puah could not possibly have been the only midwives for the entire Jewish population. Rather, as many commentaries (e.g. ibn Ezra, Chizkuni) explain, Shifrah and Puah were the chief midwives, and under them were many hundreds of midwives, all of whom risked their lives to save the lives of the Jewish boys. While Jochebed and Miriam were the leaders of the midwives, the Torah specifically omits identifying them so as not to detract from the heroism of the hundreds of "ordinary" women who also "feared God" and refused to obey Pharaoh's wicked command.

However, some significant difficulties still remain. A survey of the major commentaries finds a surprisingly strong debate on whether, according to the peshat (simple) reading of these verses, the heroic midwives were even Jewish! While most commentaries (e.g. Rashbam, R' Yosef Bechor Shor) reject the possibility that the verses are referring to non-Jewish midwives, there are also major authorities (e.g. the Rokeach, Abarbanel, and Malbim) who see this as the simple reading of the verses.

This would seem to brings us back to square one. Not only did the Torah hide the true identities of Shifrah and Puah, it was even ambiguous about their Jewish identity! There is even a midrash (Medrash Tadshe cited in Yalkut Shimoni, Yehoshua 9) that includes Shifrah and Puah in a list of righteous female converts! This would certainly seem to directly contradict the identification of Shifrah and Puah with Jochebed and Miriam. Is this midrash simply arguing on the tradition cited by Rashi?

Perhaps we can answer this by expanding on what we discussed previously. If Jochebed and Miriam were merely the heads of a large group of many hundreds of midwives, then it is quite possible that at least some of those midwives were not Jewish. This would explain why the Torah is ambiguous about their national identity, because the midwives were actually a mixture of Jews and non-Jews.

If this is correct, then we have to ask ourselves what ultimately happened to the families of these non-Jewish God-fearing women, who risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people. Is it possible that their children and grandchildren suffered the same fate as the other Egyptians during the Ten Plagues? Was that the ultimate destiny of the "houses" with which God rewarded these heroic midwives?

Perhaps the answer is that these God-fearing midwives, having come face to face with the utter moral depravity of Egyptian society, chose to join the Jewish people in their slavery. (Thus, they would not even have been counted among the erev rav, which only joined the Jewish people when they left Egypt.) I believe this may be the underlying intent of the midrash that identifies Shifrah and Puah as righteous converts. In that midrash, Shifrah and Puah represent the God-fearing non-Jewish midwives who, having risked their lives for the sake of the Jewish people, chose to throw their lot in with them entirely.

There is obviously a great deal that we can learn from this story. Based upon what we've just said, perhaps the most basic lesson is the central importance of fear of God for all mankind. As Abraham responded when Abimelech asked him why he hadn't revealed that Sarah was his wife, "Because I said, 'The only thing lacking in this place is fear of God, and they will kill me for my wife.'" (Genesis 20:11) No matter how materially or even ethically refined a society or individual may appear, without fear of God there is no limit to the moral depths to which they can sink. But, Jew or Gentile, all those who truly fear God will ultimately merit to enter beneath the wings of the Divine Presence.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Rise of Heresy - The Hellenistic Jews and the Sadducees

The following material, which was originally written for a Jewish history class in a yeshiva high school, is basically a direct continuation of my post on Shimon HaTzadik.

The Influence of the Greeks

The period that began after the death of Shimon HaTzadik was one of great turmoil for the Jewish people. The Greek presence in Eretz Yisrael increased, especially through the various Greek towns that were founded surrounding the Jewish population. One of the standard Greek strategies, begun by Alexander the Great, for solidifying their rule was the founding of cities that were settled by Greeks and by non-Greeks who had adopted Greek ways. In Eretz Yisrael, many such cities were founded, in most cases by changing an existing town into a Greek style government and society. Among the most important of these cities were Gaza, Ashkelon, Acco (Ptolemais), Jaffa, and Dor.

The establishment of these Greek colonies required large amounts of construction and generated tremendous profits for those who were connected to it. Thus, those Jews who had connections with the Greeks were able to use those connections to become wealthy. The increase in wealth and economic activity caused many people to admire the Greek society.[1] Personal contact between Greeks and Jews, especially Jews from the wealthier and politically powerful segments of society, became more common. Over time, the Jewish people were increasingly influenced by the materialism and secularism of the Greeks and some even began to see the Greek way of life as superior. The word for this belief is Hellenism, and those who followed it are called Hellenists, or, in Hebrew Misyavnim.

The following material will discuss how the Misyavnim­ – the Hellenistic Jews – began and grew into a powerful political party that eventually succeeded in turning the Greek government against the Jewish people and led to the Greek oppression that eventually brought about the successful uprising of the Chashmonaim (Hasmoneans) which we commemorate on Chanukah.

The Generation of Antigonos Ish Socho

Antigonos Ish Socho, the disciple of Shimon HaTzadik who succeeded him as the head of the Sanhedrin, did his best to counter the harmful influence of the Greeks, and to teach the people to serve God without materialistic motives. As the Mishna (Avos 1:3) states:
אנטיגנוס איש סוכו קבל משמעון הצדיק. הוא היה אומר, אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס, אלא הוו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב שלא על מנת לקבל פרס, ויהי מורא שמים עליכם. (אבות א:ג)
Antigonos Ish Socho received from Shimon HaTzadik. He used to say, do not be like slaves who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but be as slaves who serve the master without expecting to receive a reward, and the fear of Heaven should be upon you.
This was a call to the Jewish people to abandon a mentality of materialism in their service of God. Rav Shlomo Brevda explains:[2]
... לאחר תקופת שמעון הצדיק הצליחו היוונים להתחיל להשפיע על אחינו בני ישראל מיסודות חכמת הטבע. וידוע, כי איש הטבע דואג תמיד על קיומו ופרנסתו בעולם הזה. ועל כן מעשיו בדרך כלל נעשים על מנת לקבל פרס. כי תורה ועבודה, כולה לשם שמים, אין נמצאים אלא באלו השתולים על מימי התורה והיראה על טהרת הקודש. וזה פשוט. על כן בא אנטיגנוס איש סוכו בדורו להחזיק את העם בדבריו – אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין את הרב על מנת לקבל פרס וכו'. ... אמנם חכמת הטבע השפיע על בני עמנו, לאחר תקופת שמעון הצדיק, לעשות חשבונות טבעיים במעשיהם בגדר על מנת לקבל פרס. ולכן במקדש נשתנה מצבם ממצב למעלה מהטבע למצב טבעי, פעמים דולק פעמים אינו דולק וכו'
After the time of Shimon HaTzadik the Greeks began to successfully influence our brethren, the children of Israel, with the wisdom of nature (secular materialism). It is clear that a materialist is always worried about his survival and livelihood in this world, and therefore, as a general rule, his actions [even his ‘spiritual’ activities] are all done with expectation of benefit. For Torah and service [of God] done purely for the sake of Heaven is only found among those who are “planted by the waters” of Torah and fear [of Heaven] in holy purity. This is clear. Therefore Antigonos Ish Socho came forth in his generation to strengthen the people with his words, “Do not be like slaves who serve the master in order to receive a reward…”
Nevertheless, after the time of Shimon HaTzadik, the wisdom of science influenced the people of our nation to make materialistic calculations in their actions, in the category of “in order to receive a reward.” Therefore, in the Temple their circumstances changed from one that was above nature to one that was natural, “sometimes it would remain lit and sometimes it would go out.”[3]
Nevertheless, although the Greek attitudes did influence the Jews, in most cases this influence was limited to subtle changes in attitude, such as the attitude towards serving God for ulterior motives. Although this influence was certainly harmful, it did not mean that the general Jewish population was turning away from their basic belief in God and His Torah. Unfortunately, however, there was a small but powerful element in the Jewish nation that was influenced to a much greater degree.

The Beginnings of Heresy

Chazal tell us that around the time of Antigonos Ish Socho another development occurred which contributed to the rise of the Misyavnim:
אנטיגנוס איש סוכו היו לו שני תלמידים שהיו שונין בדבריו והיו שונין לתלמידים ותלמידים לתלמידיהם, עמדו ודקדקו אחריהן ואמרו מה ראו רבותינו לומר דבר זה, אפשר שיעשה פועל מלאכה כל היום ולא יטול שכרו ערבית? אלא אילו היו יודעין רבותינו שיש עולם אחר ויש תחיית המתים לא היו אומרים כך. עמדו ופרשו מן התורה ונפרצו מהם שתי פרצות צדוקים וביתוסים, צדוקים על שום צדוק ביתוסים על שום ביתוס. והיו משתמשין בכלי כסף וכלי זהב כל ימיהם שהיתה דעתן גסה עליהן. היו צדוקים אומרים מסורת היא ביד פרושים שהן מצערין עצמן בעוה"ז ובעוה"ב אין להם כלום. (אבות דרבי נתן ה:ב ע"פ נוסחת הגר"א)
Antigonos Ish Socho had two disciples [named Tzadok and Baisos] who studied his words (quoted above, "Be as slaves who serve the master without expecting to receive a reward.") and taught them to their students and the students taught them to their students. They rose up and examined these words closely and said, “What caused our teachers to say this thing? Is it possible that a laborer can perform his work for the entire day and not receive his payment in the evening? Rather, if our teachers had known that there was a world after this and a resurrection they would not have said this!” They rose up and separated from the Torah [4] and two sects separated from them, the Tzedukim (Sadducees) and the Baisusim. The Tzedukim were named after Tzadok, and the Baisusim were named after Baisos. [5] They used golden and silver vessels all their days for they were gluttonous. The Tzedukim said, “It is a tradition amongst the Prushim (Pharisees) [6] to afflict themselves in this world, and in the world to come they have nothing.” (Avos D’Rebi Noson 5:2) [7]
Thus, through the misinterpretation of the teachings of Antigonos Ish Socho, a heretical movement began which, because it denied the belief in reward in the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead, denied the Torah. There is some question, however, as to what degree they abandoned the Torah. Rav Yakov Emden, in his notes on Avos D’Rebi Noson states:
עמדו ופירשו מן התורה. נ"ב לפי הטעם משמע סתמו כפירושו שמכללות התורה פרשו, אבל בכ"מ בתלמוד נראה שהיו מחזיקים בתורה שבכתב, א"כ לא פירשו אלא מתורה שבע"פ. אפ"ה קרי לה תורה סתם שהרי הוא כפורש מכולה שא"א לקיימה אם לא ע"פ מסורת חכמים.
“They rose up and separated from the Torah” – This implies that they separated from the entire Torah, but throughout the Talmud we see that they adhered to the Written Torah, and they only separated themselves from the Oral Torah. Nevertheless, this is referred to simply as Torah for abandoning the Oral Torah is considered as abandoning the entire Torah because the Torah can only be fulfilled according to the tradition of the Sages.
Rav Yakov Emden was apparently of the opinion that the Sadducees truly believed in the authority of the Written Torah, and "only" rejected the teachings of the Sages. This also appears to be the position of the Rashbam (Bava Basra 115b):
צדוק ובייתוס תלמידי אנטיגנוס איש סוכו היו והיו שונין לתלמידיהן מה שקבלו מאנטיגנוס אל תהיו כעבדים המשמשין כו' וטעו התלמידים בכך שהיו סבורים דהכי קאמר עבדו למקום ואל תקבלו שכר ואמרו כמו שאין בו ממש בדבר זה כן כל דברי חכמים וטעו ופקרו בדברי חכמים ונקראו צדוקים על שם צדוק ובייתוסין על שם בייתוס באבות דרבי נתן:
Tzadok and Baisos were disciples of Antigonos Ish Socho, and they taught their students what they had received from Antigonos, “Do not be servants who serve etc.” The students erred in this and thought that he was saying, “Serve God and do not receive a reward.” They said, “Just as this makes no sense, so too all the words of the Sages.” They erred and they abandoned all the words of the Sages and they were called Sadducees after Tzadok and Baisusim after Baisus – [as is stated] in Avos D’Rebi Noson.
Thus, according to the Rashbam as well, it seems that the Sadducees only abandoned the Oral Torah (because they rejected the teachings of the Sages), but they genuinely maintained their belief in the Written Torah. [8]

Maimonides, however, maintains that the founders of the Sadducees actually abandoned the Torah entirely, but they recognized that the general Jewish community would never accept such teachings, and they therefore claimed to believe in the Written Torah and only openly denied the Oral Torah. Maimonides explains (commentary on Avos 1:3):
והיו לזה החכם שני תלמידים: שם האחד צדוק ושם השני ביתוס. וכאשר שמעו שאמר זה המאמר יצאו מלפניו ואמר האחד לרעהו, הנה הרב אמר בבאור שאין לאדם לא גמול ולא עונש ואין תקוה כלל! כי לא הבינו כונתו. וסמך האחד מהם ידי חבירו ויצאו מן הכלל והניחו התורה. התחברה לאחד כת אחת ולחברו כת אחרת וקראום החכמים צדוקים וביתוסים. וכאשר לא היו יכולים לקבץ הקהילות לפי מה שהגיע להם מן האמונה, שזאת האמונה הרעה תפריד הנקבצים כל שכן שלא תקבץ הנפרדים, נטו להאמין הדבר שלא יכלו לכזבו אצל ההמון שאלו היו מוציאים אותו מפיהם היו הורגים אותם, רצוני לומר, דברי תורה. ואמר כל אחד לסיעתו שהוא מאמין בתורה וחולק על הקבלה שאינה אמיתית. וזה לפטור עצמם מן המצוות המקבלות והגזרות והתקנות אחר שלא יכלו לדחות הכל – הכתוב והמקובל. ועוד, שהתרחב להם הדרך לפרוש. כי אחר ששב הפרוש בבחירתם היה יכול להקל במה שירצה ולהכביד במה שירצה כפי כונתו אחר שאינו מאמין בעקר כלו. ואמנם בקשו דברים המקבלים אצל קצת בני אדם לבד. ומאז יצאו אלו הכתות הרעות ויקראו באלו הארצות, ר"ל מצרים, קראים ושמותם אצל החכמים צדוקים וביתוסים. והם אשר התחילו להשיב על הקבלה ולפרש הפסוקים כפי מה שיראה להם מבלתי שישמעו לחכם כלל, הפך אמרו יתברך, "על פי התורה אשר יורוך ועל המשפט אשר יאמרו לך תעשה לא תסור מן הדבר אשר יגידו לך ימין ושמאל" (דברים יז:יא)
[Antigonos Ish Socho] had two disciples, the name of one was Tzadok and the name of the second was Baisos. When they heard him make this statement [that one should not serve God for the sake of reward], they went out from before him and one said to his fellow, “Behold, the teacher has clearly said that a person has no reward and no punishment, and there is nothing to look forward [in the afterlife] to at all!” For they did not understand his intent. And one lent support to the other and they left the community and abandoned the Torah. A sect gathered around one, and another around his fellow, and the Sages called them Sadducees and Baisusim. As they were unable to gather communities based on what they actually believed – for this wicked belief separates the gathered, it certainly cannot gather the separated – they pretended to believe in that which they could not deny before the populace, namely, the [written] words of the Torah – for if they had expressed [their disbelief in the Torah, the populace] would have killed them. Each one said to his followers that he believes in the Torah but he disputes the [rabbinic] tradition for it is not authentic. They said this to exempt themselves from the traditional laws, decrees, and ordinances, as they could not [openly] reject everything – both Written and Received. Furthermore, [rejecting the rabbinic tradition] broadened the path of interpretation, for now that they were free to interpret as they wished, one could be lenient where he wished to be lenient and strict where he wished to be strict, according to his own purposes, since he did not actually believe at all. However, they only sought changes that appealed to at least some people.[9] This was the beginning of these evil sects, who are called Karaites [10] in these lands, i.e. Egypt, and who were known to the Sages as Sadducees and Baisusim. They were the first to challenge tradition and to interpret the verses in any manner they saw fit without listening to a sage at all. This is the opposite of what He Who is to be Blessed (i.e. God) said, “According to the teaching which they will teach you and the judgment they will tell you, so shall you do, you shall not veer from the thing they say to you right or left.” [11] (Deuteronomy 17:11)
According to Maimonides, the leaders of the Sadducees were completely irreligious, and their claims to religious belief were only intended to attract ordinary Jews to their false teachings. The Sefer HaKabala of the Raavad adds that Tzadok and Baisos actually became leaders amongst the Kussim (Samaritans) at Mount Gerizim.

Like many aspects of ancient history, it is probably impossible to know the precise nature of the relationship between the Hellenistic Jews and the Sadducees. However, it is clear that both movements appealed to the same basic population of wealthy and politically Jews with minimal commitment to traditional Judaism. In political terms, both movements served the same basic function of undermining the authority of tradition and of the Sages. The popularity of each movement seems to have risen and fallen depending on the political conditions of the time. When the Jews were under Greek rule, Hellenism was dominant. When the Jews were independent, Hellenism fell out of favor and the Sadducee movement rose in its place.

Thus, the group that was known as the Sadducees did not actually rise up as a significant sect until after the Greeks had been defeated by the Hasmoneans and an independent Jewish commonwealth had been established. Rav Yitzchak Isaac HaLevi explains (Doros HaRishonim Vol. 1, p.170):
בתחילה בשעה שמלכו היוונים בארץ פרצו כל גדר וגבול ויהיו לפושעים ומורדים ביד רמה והולכים בכל דרכי היוונים. ואחר זה, כאשר נצחו החשמונאים הגבורים ויגרשו היוונים מן הארץ ויעמידו את הדת על תילה, שבו גם אלו בהכרח מהיות עוד פושעים ומורדים בעמם והולכים בדרכי היוונים ויהיו רק למקילים בדברי סופרים.
In the beginning, when the Greeks were ruling the land, the heretics violated every boundary and they sinned and rebelled [against the Torah] publicly, and they followed the ways of the Greeks entirely. Afterwards, when the mighty Chashmonaim were victorious and they drove the Greeks out of the land and properly reestablished the religion, the heretics were also forced to cease their open sinfulness and rebellion and their mimicking of the Greeks, and they resorted to just being “lenient” in the words of the Scribes.

[1] Based on M’Nechemia Ad Atah, ch. 26, by R' Chaim Dov Rabinowitz.
[2] In his Kuntres L’Hodos U’l’Hallel b’inyanei Chanuka, p. 17.
[3] A reference to the Ner HaMaaravi and other miraculous aspects of the Temple service which lost some of their supernatural qualities after the death of Shimon HaTzadik.
[4] Some authorities maintain that Tzadok and Baisos themselves became heretics. Others believe that it was their disciples who eventually abandoned the Torah because Tzadok and Baisos failed to properly convey the teachings of their rebbe, Antigonos Ish Socho.
[5] Although originally there were two groups, they were so similar that they were generally seen as one. It would seem that the Baisusim were eventually absorbed into the general group of Tzedukim and they are not mentioned in other sources (such as Josephus and Philo).
[6] "Pharisees" (Perushim) is a term used to refer to the Sages. The term comes from the word “Parush” – separated. Maimonides explains (Pirush HaMishnayos, Sotah 3:4):
זה שהחכמים קוראין עצמן פרושין להיותם מופרשין מבני אדם שיש להם חסרונות והמדות הפחותיות והרדיפה אחר תאות העולם והם מיחלים לשכר העולם הבא ולמדות המעלות
The Sages called themselves Perushim because they are separated from people with deficient character and lowly traits who pursue the desires of this world, whereas they [the Perushim] look forward to the reward of the world to come and to virtuous traits.
[7] It should be noted that this statement in Avos D’Rebi Noson is the only reference in ancient literature to the origin of the Sadducees. The theories promulgated by secular historians have no basis in anything except their imaginations and ideological biases.
[8] One difficulty with the position of the Rashbam is that he implies that the Sadducees continued to believe in the afterlife and the resurrection. Yet, both the Talmud and Josephus indicate that the Sadducees denied this principle.
[9] The interpretation of this phrase is somewhat difficult. I have understood it to mean that the Sadducees did not make such radical changes that would have offended the entire population. Rather, they only made changes that had at least some popular appeal.
[10] The Karaites were a heretical movement that began in the 8th century, whereas the Tzedukim seem to have disappeared after the destruction of the Second Temple, in the 1st century. However, Maimonides (together with Rav Saadia Gaon and a number of other authorities) apparently believed that the Karaite movement was a resurgence of a remnant of the original Sadducees. Some of the early Karaites also appear to have held this opinion to some degree.
[11] This verse is speaking of the Sanhedrin and its decrees and the great Torah scholars of every generation.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Vayeishev - Joseph's Struggle, and Ours

The bulk of Parshas Vayeishev, and the remainder of the book of Genesis, is devoted to the story of Joseph in Egypt. After Joseph was sold into slavery and brought to Egypt, he was purchased by Potiphar, a courtier of Pharaoh. Within a a relatively short time, Joseph rose to become his master's most trusted servant and he was appointed over the entire household.

However, at this point Joseph began to face an extraordinarily difficult challenge. His master's wife developed a powerful desire for him. The Torah tells us that she spoke to him "day after day," seeking to seduce him. The Sages tell us that she used every weapon in her arsenal: seduction, bribery, and threats. Yet, despite all her efforts, Joseph never succumbed. Finally, one day, Potiphar's wife managed to get Joseph alone, and she literally grabbed onto him by his garments. Joseph fled, leaving his coat in her hand. Potiphar's wife then accused him of doing exactly what she had been trying to force him to do, and Joseph ended up being put in prison.

The story of Joseph's resistance to sin is seen as one of the great examples of righteousness in history. This story is the main reason why Joseph is traditionally known as "Yosef HaTzadik" - "Joseph the Righteous". The Sages (Sotah 36b) describe Joseph's actions as "sanctifying the Name of Heaven in private" and they tell us (Yoma 35b) that Joseph "obligates the wicked", meaning that his successful struggle against sin demonstrates that a person can never legitimately claim that his temptations were too overwhelming. If Joseph, a teenage boy cut off from his family and enslaved in a foreign country, could resist such an overwhelming temptation, then who can honestly claim that they have faced a more difficult challenge?

Indeed, the story is so exceptional that there have been those who have argued that it couldn't be true. The medrash (Breishis Raba 87) tells us that a Roman matron once challenged Rav Yosi on this topic, saying, "Is it possible that a seventeen year old boy really had such strength?" Rav Yosi responded by pointing to two other incidents that the Torah records in the previous chapters, the incident of Reuben (who, according to a literal reading of the verses, slept with Bilhah, his father's wife) and the incident of Judah and Tamar. In both of those cases, the Torah makes no effort to cover up the shameful nature of their actions, despite the fact that these were adults and were still under the influence and guidance of their father. Why then, would the Torah cover up for the sin of a young boy who had no one to turn to? Could any one really blame Joseph if, in his circumstances, he had succumbed to temptation? Thus, if the Torah tells us that Joseph did not sin, we can be certain that this is what happened.

Traditional Depiction
Yet, if we study the commentaries, we find that the story is more complex. Of that final, fateful day when Potiphar's wife tried to seduce Joseph the verse (39:11) tells us, "And it was, on that day, that he (Joseph) came to the house to do his work...." On the words, "to do his work," Rashi comments (based on Sotah 36b), "This is a dispute between the Sages, Rav and Shmuel. One says it means to actually do his work. And one says it means to 'fulfill his needs' with her (i.e. to sin with her), but he didn't actually do so because the image of his father appeared before him." (In the Talmud, it states that the image of his father came and appeared to Joseph in the window.)

There are a few obvious questions to ask here. Perhaps the most basic is why would any of the Sages choose to say this about Joseph? Joseph is one of our great ancestors, why would the Sages chose to sully his reputation?

In the 16th century, this question was posed to the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, R' Levi ibn Chaviv (d.1545). In his response (Teshuvos Maharlbach, 126), after briefly discussing the textual reasons that caused the Sages to put forth this interpretation, he turns to the question of the moral justification for this interpretation, which would appear to dishonor the memory of Joseph. To this he responds that such an interpretation does not detract from Joseph's righteousness in any way. Given the fact that, in the end, he did not commit the sin, the mere fact that he had, at some point, intended to sin does not make him any less righteous. On the contrary, the fact that he had reached that point and nevertheless ultimately turned away from sin actually increases his stature!

This point is also made by the medieval commentary, Minchas Yehuda (by R' Yehuda ben Eliezer), which states that, "כיון שכבש יצרו אין זה כי אם שבח" - "Since he conquered his yetzer (his nature), this is nothing but praise."

However, while this would seem to avoid the problem of dishonoring the memory of Joseph, we are still left with a difficulty. As we mentioned previously, the Sages say that Joseph's example puts the lie to anyone who claims that he should not be held responsible for his sinful behavior because he faced overwhelming temptation. After all, Joseph faced far greater temptation, yet he did not succumb. Yet, according to the Sages, in the final moment, what saved Joseph from sin was a vision of his father! If the only thing that saved Joseph from sin was a supernatural vision, how can we then claim that his example obligates others?

There are some who argue that, in fact, Joseph's vision of his father was not supernatural at all (or, at least, was not a supernatural gift restricted to Joseph). Basing himself on the precise language of the Talmudic passage, R' Yosef Shaul Nathanson (d.1875), in his work, Divrei Shaul (a commentary on the aggadic passages of the Talmud), on Sotah 36b, writes that, at the final moment, Joseph deliberately brought before his mind the image of his father, and thereby saved himself from sin.

This is also the conclusion of Rabbi Mordechai Miller (d.2000), in his Sabbath Shiurim (p.59). Like many other commentators, R' Miller sees Joseph's temptation by the wife of Potiphar as symbolic of the various temptations that the Jewish people have, and continue to, undergo throughout history. He concludes:
Jacob represents the ideal combination of... two aspects: in him, justice and mercy were mingled in exact proportion, finely suited to each situation. His characteristic was Truth..., and it was this that enabled him to conquer both the temptations of love and of hatred, of the friendship and the persecution of the nations. ... This unwavering light of Truth in him, penetrating beyond all appearances, has been an heirloom to all his descendants. This was the quality latent in Joseph, that light that flared out suddenly in his temptation by Potiphar's wife. ... And this 'image of Jacob' is hidden in every one of Jacob's descendants, this touch-stone of truth, that guides us in all the trials of life.
That is why 'Joseph is an accusation for the wicked': the 'image' is not the special prerogative of Joseph; it is in the power of everyone to summon it at will, to call to his aid in moments of confusion and distress the unerring vision of truth that penetrates all the disguises in which evil masquerades.
Thus, every Jew has the ability to bring the "image of Jacob" before himself as a protection against sin. Whether in the simplest sense of bringing before ourselves the image of our own father (or mother, or spouse, or any other person before whom we would be ashamed to sin) at the moment of temptation, to a deeper contemplation of the reality of our circumstances in this world, and recognizing the fundamentally false and deceptive nature of sin and its apparent pleasures and benefits.

However, while this is certainly a valid and important approach, it seems that most commentaries do see Joseph's vision of his father as having been of a supernatural nature, a kind of prophetic vision. According to this understanding, we are once again left with the difficulty we have been discussing. How can Joseph be credited for his self-restraint, and even seen as a model for our own behavior, if the only reason he refrained from sin was due to a supernatural intervention?

This question is addressed by the Dubno Maggid, R' Yakov Kranz (d.1804), in his commentary on parshas Vayeishev (Ohel Yaakov, also see his Kochav L'Yakov on the haftara of Lech Lecha). (We have discussed this commentary of the Dubno Maggid previously.) The Dubno Maggid explains that, even though Joseph was on the verge of succumbing to sin, this was not because he had actually succumbed to his desires, but because he reached the limits of his ability to resist the immense pressure that he was being subjected to by Potiphar's wife. While Joseph had truly fought with all his strength, in the end she had overpowered and broken his will to resist.

However, at this point God intervened. He intervened, not be taking control of Joseph's actions (which would remove any virtue from them) but simply by giving Joseph renewed strength to continue the fight. This was the vision of his father, which inspired Joseph with a renewed will to once again turn away from sin.

And this is the reason why Joseph remains an accusation against the wicked. For this miraculous intervention is available to anyone who truly struggles, to the limits of his ability, to resist sin. We can never truly claim that we succumbed to sin because temptation overpowered us, for if we had truly fought to the limits of our ability, then God would have granted us the capacity to continue fighting even beyond our natural capacity. This helps us understand the almost supernatural strength of will that we see in great Torah sages, for each time they reach the limit of their will, God grants them additional strength to go further.

In the final analysis, the story of Joseph's temptation, and his ultimate success in resisting sin, is one from which we can all learn. We learn, firstly, that one should not imagine that simply being tempted - even to the verge of sin - is equivalent to actual sin. Even if we, for a moment, wanted to sin, what really matters is whether, in the end, we actually did it.

Secondly, we learn that, even at the very last moment, we can still work to save ourselves from sin if we pause, for just a moment, to think about the the true nature of our actions. One of the most effective ways to do this is to imagine how someone that we love and respect would react if they saw what we were about to do.

And finally, we learn that, even when we feel that we are ultimately doomed to failure, because we know that we will eventually reach the limit of our will to resist, we should never give up the struggle, and in the end God will grant us the ability to go far beyond what we thought we were capable of achieving.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Chayei Sarah - The Test of Rebecca

The bulk of Parshas Chayei Sarah deals with the famous story of Eliezer's mission to find a wife for Isaac. The Torah tells us that Abraham sent his trusted servant, Eliezer, to Mesopatamia find a wife for Isaac. Eliezer traveled with ten camels to the town of Nachor (Abraham's brother). He arrived at the town’s wellspring at the time when the women would come out to draw water. Eliezer then prayed that God should guide him with a sign to know which of the young women was the correct match for Isaac. Specifically, Eliezer prayed, that if, when he would ask her to let him drink some water from her jug, she would not only agree to give him water, but she would also give water to his camels, then he would know that she was the woman destined to marry Isaac.

Eliezer's prayer was successful. Before he had even finished praying, Rebecca came to the well with her jug. After she filled her jug, Eliezer ran to her and asked to drink some of her water. She agreed and gave him water to drink. When he finished she offered to give his camels to drink as well until they were finished. She poured the water into the trough and ran to refill the jug until she had drawn enough for all of his camels. Seeing that the sign had been fulfilled, Eliezer knew that he had found the future wife of Isaac.

Many commentators ask how Eliezer was permitted to utilize such a sign, for such signs are usually considered forbidden superstitious practices. (Thus, for example, it is forbidden for a Jew to change his path because a black cat crossed his path.) The Maharal (גור אריה) answers that the prohibition against superstitious signs applies only when the sign has no real relevance to the issue being decided. In this case, however, the sign that Eliezer chose was highly relevant, as it demonstrated that she was a generous and intelligent person and worthy of marrying Isaac.

The Beis HaLevi
The Beis HaLevi (Rav Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, d.1892) explained how this sign showed her good character and intelligence. She gave a stranger water to drink, demonstrating her generosity. However, now that the stranger had drunk from the jug, she could not simply bring the remaining water home, for the water might be contaminated. At the same time, if she would just pour out the remaining water and refill the jug, she would insult the stranger. Instead, she gave the remaining water to the stranger’s camels, demonstrating both her intelligence and her sensitivity to the feelings of others. (In fact, Rivka went even further, refilling the jug several times to water the camels.)

Thus, the sign was not simply a "sign" from above, it was also a test, to see how she would respond to a stranger asking for a kindness. And Rebecca clearly passed with flying colors, showing herself to be a kind and generous person, with a quick wit and an understanding heart. She was clearly an exceptional young woman.

But was she exceptional enough? What about her relationship with God? Was she a God-fearing woman? Shouldn't that be at least as important as her character and intelligence? After all, the unique characteristic of the family of Abraham was their devotion to God, and the wife of Isaac would certainly need to be a deeply religious woman. Yet, not only is this not included in the sign that Eliezer prayed for, the whole issue isn't even mentioned at any point in the story!

Rav Elya Lopian (d.1970) answered that this teaches us that if a person has truly good middos (character traits), then when he comes to the recognition of the truth of God and His Torah, he will quickly attain fear of God. Thus, even though, due to her environment, Rebecca may not have been a properly God-fearing woman, since she had demonstrated that she had exceptionally good character, it was certain that, once she came to live in the home of Abraham and Isaac, she would quickly develop into a genuinely God-fearing person.

This teaches us a profoundly important lesson. Our Sages taught, "דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה" - "Derech eretz (i.e. civilized behavior; good character) is prior to Torah." Ultimately, it is impossible to truly be a good Jew unless one is also a good personGood middos (character traits) are the essential foundation for all other spiritual achievements.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Nitzavim - "Those Who Repent..."

Parshas Nitzavim is a direct continuation from the end of Parshas Ki Savo, which we read last week. The main theme of Ki Savo was the Tochacha, the Admonition, in which Moses describes, in very harsh and frightening terms, the terrible punishment that awaits the Jewish people, as a people and as individuals, when they fail to obey the commandments of the Torah. Parshas Ki Savo ended with Moses again assembling the Jewish people for another speech, the bulk of which is in Parshas Nitzavim.

In this speech, which is a follow-up to the Tochacha, Moses begins with a very brief review of their history so far (i.e. the Exodus from Egypt and the forty years in the desert) and then, in Parshas Nitzavim, he goes on to the discuss the eternal covenant between the Jewish people and God, and the critical concepts of galus (exile) and the ultimate geula (redemption). As understood by the commentaries, part of Moses' intent in this speech was to reassure the Jewish people that despite the apparent harshness of the Tochacha, the Jewish people would always survive and that, as long as the road may be, the inevitable end of history would be the return of the Jewish people to God and their ultimate redemption from exile.

The idea that this speech was intended partly as a reassurance to the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha is made explicitly in a midrash (cited by Rashi, 29:12). The parsha opens with Moses' declaration (Deuteronomy 29:9), "You are all standing today before Hashem your God." The midrash states:
למה נסמכה פרשת "אתם נצבים" לקללות? לפי ששמעו ישראל מאה קללות חסר שתים, חוץ מארבעה ותשע שבת"כ, הוריקו פניהם ואמרו, "מי יוכל לעמוד באלו?" התחיל משה לפייסם, "אתם נצבים היום" - הרבה הכעסתם למקום ולא עשה אתכם כלייה, והרי אתם קיימים לפניה!
Why was the parsha [that begins with] "אתם נצבים" - "You are all standing [today before Hashem your God]" placed next to the curses (of Parshas Ki Savo)?
Because, when the Jewish people heard the ninety-eight curses (of the Tochacha), asides from the forty-nine curses in Leviticus (in an earlier Tochacha passage in Parshas Bechukosai), their faces turned pale and they said, "Who can survive these [curses]?" Moses began to reassure them, "You are standing here today!" - You have angered God many times and He has not destroyed you, and behold you are still standing before Him!
Although this midrash clearly indicates that part of Moses' intent in this parsha was to reassure the Jewish people after the harsh words of the Tochacha, it itself requires explanation. At first glance, Moses seems to be saying that we don't really need to take the Tochacha that seriously, for, after all, God hasn't destroyed us yet, has He? However, it should be self-evident that this was not Moses' intent. If God tells us, repeatedly and emphatically, that our sins can lead to terrible punishment, then it would be utter folly to dismiss this as mere rhetoric. Indeed, as Jewish history has made clear all too many times, the curses of the Tochacha are very real.

Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian
In addressing this question, the great mussar teacher, Rabbi Eliyahu Lopian (d.1970) explains that it is critical to understand that the purpose of punishment is never simply as "punishment" - i.e. simply to take vengeance against the sinner for his actions. Rather, the purpose of all punishment is for the benefit of the sinner, to break through the hardness of his heart and to motivate him to repent. He cites an analogy given by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, d.1797) to planting a field. Before a field can be planted, the field must first be plowed over, so that the hard surface of the field is broken and the field is able to accept the seeds. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon explained, before a sinner can repent, the hardness of his heart needs to be "broken" so that the seeds of repentance can take root and grow. This is the meaning of the verse in Psalms (51:19), "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise."

Thus, Rabbi Lopian explains, punishment is only necessary when our hearts are hardened to our sins. If our hearts are already softened, if we already acknowledge our sins and genuinely regret them, then there is no need for actual punishment. Thus, he explains, when Moses saw that the Jewish people took the message of the Tochacha to heart, to the point that their faces turned pale, he told them that that itself was sufficient to spare them from the destruction of the Tochacha. Moses' point was that, ultimately, the punishments of the Tochacha will only befall those who fail to take it seriously. Indeed, Moses makes this point explicitly a little later in the parsha when he says (29:17-19):
Perhaps there is among you a man or woman, or a family or tribe, whose heart turns away today from Hashem our God... and when he hears the words of this curse, he blesses himself in his heart, saying: 'I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart"... God will not be willing to forgive him, and then God's anger and jealousy shall be kindled against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and God shall erase his name from under heaven.
Ultimately, the curses of the Tochacha will only befall those who have no fear of the Tochacha. However, those who take the message of the Tochacha to heart, who recognize that they have sinned and that they need to repent, have already, through that very recognition, achieved the intended purpose of the Tochacha and have no need for the actual punishments.

This principle is actually alluded to in the text of the Tochacha itself (in last week's parsha), where we read (28:47) that the suffering of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people "because you did not serve Hashem your God with joy and a good heart." Many commentaries struggle with the meaning of this verse, which seems to imply that the reason for their punishment was that, even though they served God, they failed to do so with sufficient happiness. This raises a number of difficulties in that, not only does it seem to contradict other verses, but it also seems to be a disproportionate response. (For further discussion of this topic, see: Ki Savo - The Tochacha and Serving God with Joy.)

However, some commentaries understand the intent of the verse quite differently, as saying that the punishment of the Tochacha will befall the Jewish people when they are in a state of "joy and good heart" even while not serving God and obeying His commandments. Thus, the Beis Yitzchak explains:
Even if a person is wicked and fails to serve God at all, but he is troubled and pained by this, such a person is not fully wicked, for there is hope for him that he will repent and return to God. However, one who is so wicked that he feels no concern at all about his wickedness, but is perfectly happy with his sinful behavior, there is no hope that such a person will come to repent [on his own initiative].
The punishments of the Tochacha are intended as a wake-up call for those who are so immersed in sin that they no longer even feel bad about it. On the contrary, they are perfectly happy with their behavior and see no reason to change. It is for such people that the punishments of the Tochacha are necessary to soften their hardened hearts and awaken them to teshuva (repentance).

This principle is used by Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (d.1883) to explain an enigmatic Talmudic passage (Nidda 70b) which discusses an apparent contradiction between two Biblical verses. In chapter 18 of the book of Ezekiel, the prophet describes the great power of repentance and concludes (18:32), "For I do not desire the death of he that [should] die [for his sins], says the Lord, Hashem; [rather] repent and live!" This verse clearly states that God does not desire the death of the sinner. 

Yet, in the book of I Samuel (2:25) we find, in the case of the sinful sons of Eli, that the verse states, "that God desired to kill them." So we find that, at least in some cases, God does desire the death of the sinner!

The Talmud resolves the apparent conflict with the brief statement, "Here [in Ezekiel] it speaks of those who repent and here [in Samuel] it speaks of those who do not repent." The problem, of course, is that the verse in Ezekiel is explicitly speaking of a person who has not repented!

Rabbi Yisrael Salanter (אור ישראל ל', וראה גם ספר חכמה ומוסר ב:רמד) explains that in this context, "those who repent" does not refer to those who engage in full fledged repentance for their sins, but merely to those who are troubled and pained by their sins, for such a person is already on the path of repentance. In regard to such a sinner, even if he has not yet repented, God says that He does not desire his death. However, with regard to a sinner who is entirely untroubled by his sins, and of whom there can be no expectation of repentance, of such a sinner we are taught that God desires his death.

This principle is particularly important at this time of year, as we approach the Day of Judgment on Rosh Hashana and we turn to God and ask Him to grant us a new year of life and happiness. As we stand before God in judgment for our sins, we recognize that, when all is said and done, we are very far from being able to genuinely repent from all of our sinful behaviors. How then can we stand before God and ask Him to forgive us, if we know that we will continue to do many of the same sins next year as well?

Of course, part of the answer is that we have to find some area - even if very small - in which we really do improve ourselves. But what about everything else? Is God simply going to ignore it all?

From what we have just learned, however, we can see that if we truly feel bad about our sins, even if we are not yet capable of changing for the better, then God will, to some degree, temporarily overlook those sins and give us time to grow and eventually reach the point where we will be able to truly repent.

It follows from this that one of our main tasks at this time of year, from the beginning of the month of Elul until the closing prayer of Yom Kippur, is to work on an honest assessment of our weaknesses, to acknowledge that we need to improve, and to genuinely desire to do so. If we accomplish this, even if it only manifests itself in what, superficially, seems to be only a minor improvement, then we can truly turn to God with confidence that He will grant us a good and sweet new year.

May we all merit to have a kesiva v'chasima tova!

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bar Mitzvah – The Celebration of Obligation

An adult Jew is obligated to obey the mitzvos—the commandments—and is held responsible for his or her actions. A child is not. At what point does a child become an adult? According to Jewish law, the age of majority—when a minor ceases to be a minor—is twelve for a girl and thirteen for a boy. At this point the child becomes a bar or bas mitzvah—“one who is commanded”—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah.

The law that a Jew becomes an adult at the ages of twelve or thirteen is not to be found in the actual text of the Torah. Nevertheless, it is a Torah law with equal stature to all the laws of the Torah. The technical term for such a law is a halacha l’Moshe m’Sinai—a law from Moses at Sinai—a product of the authoritative Oral Torah which God gave to Moses at Sinai together with the Written Torah. It is this Oral Torah—which is largely recorded in the Talmud and related works—that distinguishes Judaism from the various man-made religions that are loosely based upon Scripture. It is significant that the very essence of one’s status as a Jew—a person who is bound by the laws of the Torah—is dependent upon a law derived from the Oral Torah. When we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah, we are also confirming our faith in the Oral Torah.

Technically, no celebration is necessary for a child to become a bar mitzvah. There is no actual ritual of bar or bas mitzvah; one does not become “bar mitzvahed”. In this respect, the bar or bas mitzvah is significantly different from the various other life-cycle celebrations of Judaism, such as the bris milah (circumcision), pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born son), and marriage. Despite this, the practice of celebrating the arrival of a Jewish child into adulthood—becoming a bar mitzvah—is a very ancient custom.

The commentaries tell us that the joy of the bar mitzvah celebration is based on the important Talmudic principle, “Greater is he who does what he is commanded to do, than he who does what he is not commanded to do.” The Talmud tells us that there is greater virtue in performing a mitzvah that one is obligated to perform, than one which one is exempt from. Thus, although a Jewish child may be fulfilling many mitzvos, it is only as an adult, when he or she becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos of the Torah, that the true virtue of the mitzvos can take effect. It is this change in status that we celebrate.

This somewhat counter-intuitive principle, that the obligatory performance of a mitzvah is of greater virtue than a voluntary act, points us to an important concept in Judaism. The essential virtue of the mitzvos is precisely that they are commandments—laws that we are obligated to obey. Although most of the mitzvos are subject to human understanding, in that we can provide some explanation for why God has commanded us to perform these given acts, such an understanding is secondary to the essence of the mitzvah. Our primary goal in obeying the mitzvos is simply to obey the will of God.

One of the classic difficulties in religious philosophy is understanding how it is possible for a human being—a finite, limited, physical being—to achieve a true connection and unity with a God Who is infinite and incomprehensible. In Judaism, this connection is called devekus and is described as the essential goal of all the mitzvos. The mitzvos are a gift to us from God that enable us to achieve this otherwise impossible union. When God commands us to perform a given act, even one as corporeal as eating a festive meal on the Sabbath, He has invested that act with His Will. Thus, when we perform that physical act, we achieve a connection with the Will of God.

We say in the Shema, “Hashem Echad”—“God is one.” This basic principle of Judaism, the absolute unity of God, tells us that God has no parts; He and His Will are one. When we achieve a connection with the Will of God, we are connecting to God Himself. This is only possible because God has connected the given act with His Will. This is the essence of the mitzvah concept. An act that is not commanded by God, as positive as it may be, is ultimately a finite act that cannot, in of itself, achieve devekus—true union with God. Thus, many commentaries connect the word mitzvah with the Aramaic term “tzavsa” – “binding” – because the mitzvah binds us to God.

When a Jewish child enters adulthood and becomes obligated to obey the mitzvos, it becomes possible for him or her to truly connect to God. It is this which is the source of our joy when we celebrate a bar or bas mitzvah. It is therefore important that the tenor of our celebration reflect this.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Ki Seitzei - The Prohibition of Cross-Dressing

In Parshas Ki Seitzei we read of the prohibition of cross-dressing (Deuteronomy 22:5):
The vessels of a man shall not be on a woman, and a man shall not don a woman's garment; for whoever does these things is an abomination to Hashem your God.
In practical terms, this means that we may not wear garments associated with the opposite gender. Moreover, as understood by the Sages, the prohibition also forbids men from specific behaviors - such as shaving body hair or dyeing their hair - that are commonly associated with women, and the same rule applies to women.

Most sources explain that the reason for this prohibition is that it can lead to immoral behavior and also that such cross-dressing was associated with idolatry. However, many commentaries see a more fundamental issue here, as R' Avraham Ibn Ezra (d.1164) concludes his commentary on this verse:
... ה' יתעב מי שישנה מעשה ה'.
God abominates he who changes God's deeds.
Similarly, the Rekanti (kabbalistic commentary on the Torah by R' Menachem Rekanti, d.1305) writes:
פשטו ידוע, אמנם על דרך הקבלה יש לך לדעת כי הרמז הוא שלא ישנה סדרי בראשית וכו'
The simple meaning [of the prohibition] is well know, however, kabbalistically, you should know that the symbolism [of the prohibition] is that one should not change the structure of Creation....
The Toldos Yakov Yosef (R' Yakov Yosef of Polnoye, d.1794) explains that the basic idea underlying this prohibition is that every person must accept the role, i.e. the unique task that God has given him, and not attempt to challenge or change that role.

Every human being has unique spiritual capabilities which no other person can duplicate. Thus, every human being has a unique role to play in bring the world to its ultimate state of perfection. As the Sages teach us (Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a):
כל אחד ואחד חייב לומר בשבילי נברא העולם.
Every person is obligated to say, "The world was created for my sake!"
Every individual plays an essential role in the world, and we are obligated to recognize this. As each of us has a unique role in this world, there is no way to compare the circumstances of different individuals. Just as responsible parents need to work with each child as an individual, in order to enable that particular child to fully develop his own unique potential, as we are taught in Proverbs (22:6), "חנך לנער על פי דרכו" - "Educate the child according to his way," so too God directs the circumstances of our lives in order to provide us with the ideal circumstances in which to develop our own unique spiritual potential. Thus, each of us experiences different challenges in life, different spiritual affinities, different temptations to sin, and so on, for each of us has a different task to achieve.

As God's children, our role is to trust Him and to accept the role that He has given us and by doing so we relate to Him as children to a father. This is particularly important at this time of year, as we prepare for the day of judgment on Rosh Hashana. Our relationship with God has two basic levels, that of Father and child and that of King and servant. While both are always present, in many places in our prayers we express the hope that, when we come before God in judgement, the Father-son relationship should be dominant.

As many sources make clear, the primary factor that determines how God relates to us is how we view our relationship with Him. If we see God as a powerful king who imposes decrees on us which we have no choice but to obey, then we relate to Him as a servant to a King. But if we relate to God as a wise and loving father whose rules and demands are always purely for our benefit, then we relate to Him as a child to a Father.

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.