Saturday, July 15, 2017

The well story

Parshat Chukat contains a short and cryptic story about a well:
...from there to the well, which is the well about which Hashem said to Moshe, "Gather the people, and I will give them water." Then Israel sang this song: "Rise up, O well - answer it - A well dug by princes, carved by the leaders of the people, with the staff, with their rods" (Bamidbar 21:16-18)
Even in this short passage, we see apparent inconsistencies.
  • First, God says that He will provide the people with water.
  • Then, the people say "Rise up, O well", which perhaps sounds like a well is rising miraculously, as God might do in these circumstances.
  • However, then the people say that the well was dug by human beings, not by God!
  • Then they say that the digging was done by the leaders (not normal manual laborers), and it used their staffs (not normal digging tools)!
How are these pieces to be put together into a single coherent story?

I think the answer is to look at how miracles were often performed in earlier events in the Torah. In Egypt, for example, the norm was for Moshe to point his staff at something, or hit something with his staff, and a miracle would then occur involving that something.

What is the parallel here? God announced to Moshe that God would provide water. Moshe and Aharon got their staffs, and pointed at or hit a certain rock. This caused water to miraculously come from the ground. At which point the people sung their song.

This explains how all the events could logically have happened. But there is still one inconsistency. Initially God announced that He would provide water. But in the song, the people do not mention God's role, but only the role of humans who "dug" the well. Why the difference?

To answer this, let's examine a very similar story from just one chapter earlier. At Mei Merivah, Moshe was commanded to take his staff and provide water for the people. It's not clear exactly why, but God saw Moshe's ensuing actions as a failure to "sanctify God" before the people. One common interpretation is that Moshe hit the rock, rather than speaking to it, which indicated that Moshe rather than God was the one providing water.

If so, at the time of our story with the well, the people might still have believe that Moshe not God was providing them with water. Here Moshe pointed his staff at the ground and water rose from it, which should have been a sign of God's miraculous intervention. But the people mistakenly saw it as an act of Moshe. And when they sang their song, cheering the rise of the well, they chose to praise Moshe and Aharon rather than God.

This understanding resolves all the loose ends in the story. How does it fit with our understanding of the rest of the Torah?

The most obvious question is about "song". There is a midrashic idea (appearing in the Mechilta, Tanchuma, the beginning of Targum Shir Hashirim, and other sources, generally searchable on Bar Ilan CD with the words "eser shirot") which lists ten "songs" that have been sung throughout history. The exact list varies slightly between sources, but here is a common version: in Egypt; after the splitting of the sea; at the well (our story); around parshat Haazinu; by Yehoshua; by Devorah and Barak; by David; by Shlomo; by Shlomo in Shir Hashirim; and the final song which will be recited in the future messianic era. The common element in these "songs" is that they are Divinely inspired, righteous, and holy. But according to my interpretation of the well song, rather than being holy, it was based on a massive theological mistake. It seems that my explanation of the story is incompatible with this view of "song". Accepting this midrash is not an article of faith, but we should be clear what we would have to give up by accepting my explanation.

The second question is the place of the story in Sefer Bamidbar. It is commonly accepted that the Jewish people's behavior was different in the second and fourtieth years of their desert journey. The second year was full of rebellions, culminating in the stories of the spies and Korach. The fourtieth year, in contrast, showed a Jewish people that had learned their lessons, and were now spiritually ready to enter the land of Israel.

But this picture is not so clear. The story of the snakes (21:4-9) was yet another rebellion ending in punishment (though for several reasons it might be more positive than the previous rebellions). And the episode with the daughters of Moav was so serious that God raised the possibility of destroying the people entirely (25:11). Of course there are also more positive stories, such as the people making and keeping a vow to God (21:1-3). So I think there is enough room here for another negative story. The people was still quite flawed, but after 40 years in the desert, they were sufficiently improved that they could handle conquering and living in the land of Israel.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Thoughts on Shemot

Aharon your brother... he comes out to meet you, and he will see you and be happy in his heart. (Shemot 4:14)

Why does it matter that Aharon was "happy in his heart"?

Aharon was the oldest, firstborn brother, and here he was called upon to take a subordinate role to Moshe. Elsewhere in the Torah, older brothers typically get angry and jealous when their firstborn role is taken away from them.

The exile in Egypt started when Yosef's brothers sold him into slavery rather than accepting a subordinate role to him. Fittingly, it ended when Aharon was able to graciously and peacefully accept that Moshe had been chosen as the leader, and work together with Moshe to get the Israelites freed.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Pharaoh's ministers

After Pharaoh's two ministers had their dreams interpreted by Yosef, one was returned to his position, while the other was executed. Why did they deserve these different fates?

Perhaps the answer comes from how they decided to seek Yosef's interpretation. The cupbearer heard Yosef say "Does not God have interpretations? Tell me [your dream]". Thus, he wanted to hear God's message (as conveyed by Yosef). Meanwhile, regarding the baker, the Torah says "The baker saw that [Yosef] had interpreted well". This can be understood to mean that Yosef gave a positive interpretation to the first dream, so the baker expected a positive interpretation as well.

If the first minister wanted to listen to God, while the second minister only cared about his selfish good, is it surprising that the first was rewarded and the second punished?


Over Shabbat I heard the following idea, which was apparently thought of by a contemporary secular Israeli Tanach enthusiast (I forget the name, I heard it from my friend MS). The idea: In Yosef's second dream, there were 13 heavenly bodies bowing down to him. Yosef was 17 years old when his story began, and 30 years old when he became deputy to Pharaoh. Just as the 7 cows represent 7 years, so the 13 heavenly bodies represent 13 years. Yosef should have known that he would only be elevated at age 30, and so when at age 28 he begged the cupbearer to remember him, this was considered improper behavior.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The shofar in Mussaf

There may not be less than ten [verses for] Malchuyot, ten for Zichronot, ten for Shofarot. Rabbi Yohanan ben Nuri says: If one said three of each, he fulfills his obligation. (Mishna Rosh Hashana 4:6)

Mussaf for Rosh Hashana is unusual. Where else do we have Biblical verses inserted into blessings? Occasionally we see a single verse being inserted as a proof-text, for example in the Aneinu prayer for fast days ("Answer us before we call out, as it says: It shall be that before they call out I will answer them"). But once you have one good proof-text, there is no need for another one. There is certainly no need for a set number of verses - 10 in our case. In fact, according to the Mishna above, it doesn't even matter which verses you choose (within reason) as long as there are 10 of them! Why should there be such an unusual requirement?

The following idea is speculative, but it rings true to me. The different opinions in the Mishna require either 10 or 3 verses. In the context of Rosh Hashana, these numbers do not seem to be random. 10 are the number of shofar blasts we blow after Malchuyot (and Zichronot, and Shofarot). 3 is the number of blasts we would blow, if we knew what a "teruah" was meant to be!

So here is my hypothesis. Once a time, the practice was to recite a verse, and then immediately blow the shofar once. You would recite "With trumpets and the sound of the shofar, blow before the King Hashem" (Tehilim 98:6) and then you would do exactly that. You would blow the shofar along with your Zichronot, making the day a "zichron teruah" (Vayikra 23:24) in the literal sense. And you would recite "The voice of the shofar grew steadily stronger, Moshe would speak and God would answer him aloud" (Shemot 19:19) and then blow the shofar, reenacting the giving of the Torah at Sinai. I think all of Mussaf would gain an extra level of powerfulness if conducted this way.

How does this work out halachically?

Shofar is an unusual mitzvah in that if you blow the blasts one by one, with interruptions between them, you still fulfill the mitzvah. This means that inserting them into mussaf in between verses is not a problem.

A complication arises with the number 10. In theory we blow the shofar 3 or 9, not 10, times for each blessing. This is because we are supposed to do a tekiah-"teruah"-tekiah set for each blessing. We don't know exactly what the required "teruah" is, so we do three different options, one of them tekiah-shevarim-teruah-tekiah (in case the halachic "teruah" is our shevarim-teruah). But this shevarim-teruah is technically considered a single blast, so it would be strange to assign two verses to it, and inserting a verse between the shevarim and the teruah would likely be a forbidden interruption. As a further complication, the number 10 is mentioned in the Mishna, while it seems likely that the uncertainty over the "teruah" did not arise until later.

Let us leave the number 10, then, and move to R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion, that only 3 verses are required. These three would match well the tekiah-teruah-tekiah of the basic halacha. An unanswered question here is why some verses would correspond to tekiah, and others to teruah, without a clear justification. A further issue is that R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion in the previous mishna is that one recites Malchuyot in the 3rd blessing of Mussaf, but only blows the shofar in the 4th blessing (and 5th and 6th for Zichronot and Shofarot, like we do). So the same R' Yohanan ben Nuri who provides us with the number 3, also disconnects the verses from the shofar blasts!

On the bottom line, I think all these halachic issues can be overcome (with 3 verses being the more likely direction to go in, even though we cannot follow R' Yohanan ben Nuri's opinion across the board).

I thought of this idea before or during Mussaf (I forget which) on the first day of Rosh Hashana this year. It made my Mussaf that day more meaningful, as I envisioned the shofar blasts that could have once accompanied each verse. But it made my second day's Mussaf less meaningful, as I saw Mussaf as a broken version of the original shofar-using prayer, rather than a verbal composition that stands on its own! So I can't really say whether having read this post will be spiritually positive or negative for you. But I think the idea is a fascinating possibility, so here you go.

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Egyptian in Israel

There are several rivers in or near Israel, whose Hebrew names begin with the syllable "Yar". These include Yarden, Yarkon, and Yarmuk. Yarden and Yarkon are mentioned in Tanach; the first recorded mention of Yarmuk is in the Roman period. Two more rivers - Yabok and Arnon - might hypothetically begin with a distorted version of "Yar". Israel is semi-arid and only a small number of rivers exist there. Of this small number, it’s surprising that so many begin with the same or similar syllable.

It is often proposed to explain this by saying that before the Hebrew/Canaanite language was spoken in Israel, a different language was spoken, and in this language "yar" was the word for river. So the "Den" river was called Yar Den, and when Hebrew/Canaanite became the local language, "Yarden" was retained as a name. Similarly for the other rivers.

What language could it be that was spoken in Israel before Hebrew?

Look around online, and you will find claims that "yar" means river in ancient Egyptian or Akkadian. If you look in online dictionaries for these two languages, in both the main word for "river" does not resemble "yar". But in the Bible "ye'or" is used to refer to Egyptian rivers (the Nile or one of its branches), and according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, this is derived from the Egyptian "iotr" which can be shortened to "io'r". So Egyptian seems like the most likely source for a word "yar". Based on this, we can hypothesize that before Hebrew/Canaanite was spoken in Israel, a language related to Egyptian was. We don't know if this language became extinct through assimilation or violent conquest, but either way it left only a handful of traces, perhaps including our river names.

Thinking about this last night, I thought of an entirely different line of evidence that Egyptian was once spoken in Israel. In Breishit 10, the genealogy of the 70 nations descended from Noach, Canaan is mentioned as a son of Ham, along with Mitzraim, Kush (Ethiopia), and Put (?). This is even though the Hebrew/Canaanite language is Semitic, so one would expect Canaan to be descended from Shem! Evidently the Torah sees something Hamitic about Canaan, even though the local language at the time of the Torah was Semitic.

To be fair, everything I have said so far is speculation, rather than clear-cut proofs. But when you take two "puzzle pieces" from completely different places (hypotheses based on geography and on genealogies), and find that the pieces "match", each of the two hypotheses looks much stronger than it did before.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The cloud in Pekudei

Parshat Pekudei ends with a description of the cloud that descended upon the Mishkan upon its completion:

The cloud covered the Ohel Moed, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. Moshe was unable to enter the Ohel Moed, because the cloud rested on it, and the glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan. (40:34-35)

Here are some thoughts about this cloud.

Ohel Moed vs Mishkan

The "Ohel Moed" and "Mishkan" are general names for the sanctuary, but each name also refers to one specific part of the sanctuary.

In the initial command to build a sanctuary, Moshe is told to "make curtains of goat-hide, for an 'ohel' upon the 'mishkan'" (26:7). Here, the "mishkan" is a cloth tent, and the "ohel" is a goat-hide tent placed upon it.

This explains the different uses of "ohel" and "mishkan" in the above verses. The cloud *above* the sanctuary is described in relation to the ohel, and the cloud *within* the sanctuary in relation to the mishkan.

The purpose of the cloud

This cloud wasn't a normal thing. It prevented anyone from entering the Mishkan, but normally, priests would enter the Mishkan at least once a day to perform services like lighting the Menorah. So why did this special one-time cloud appear?

To explain this, let's look at an earlier, similar event involving a cloud:
Moshe went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of Hashem dwelt on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days, and He called to Moshe on the seventh day from out of the cloud. The appearance of the glory of Hashem was like fire burning on the peak of the mountain, in view of the children of Israel. Moshe entered the cloud, and went up the mountain, and Moshe was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. (24:15-18)

There are a number of similarities between this cloud and the cloud that covered the Mishkan:

  • In both cases, an unusual cloud descends to cover the holy site. (Apparently Mount Sinai had previously not been covered by clouds, despite the involvement of clouds in the Sinai revelation).
  • With the Mishkan, a "cloud" was present above the Mishkan, while the "glory of Hashem" was present within the Mishkan. Similarly here, the "glory of Hashem" dwelt on the mountain, while the "cloud" covered the mountain. Both terms are present, and arguably there is the same order, with the "cloud" physically above the "glory of Hashem".
  • At Sinai, after six days of Moshe waiting outside the cloud, God calls to Moshe and he enters the cloud and receives the Torah. Similarly, in the Mishkan, God calls to Moshe. This command is found in the first verse of Vayikra, and is followed by the laws of sacrifices.

What is the point of these similarities?

One of the main purposes of the Mishkan is described in Shemot 25:21-22:

"You shall place the cover upon the ark, above it; and in the ark, you shall place the Testimony I will give you. I will meet you there, and I will speak with you from above the cover, between the two cherubs upon the ark of testimony, all that I shall command you regarding the children of Israel."

We see that the Mishkan was a place for revelation. The Sinai revelation was a one-time event, but the continued issuing of commandments (like those in Vayikra) was supposed to occur in the Mishkan.

I think this explains the similarities between the cloud at Sinai and the cloud at the Mishkan. To indicate to Moshe and the people that the revelation from the Mishkan had the same status as that at Sinai, God designed the cloud-appearance in the Mishkan to evoke that which occurred at Sinai.

Sunday, August 09, 2015

Explorers and spies

What was the purpose of the mission of the spies, as described in Bamidbar 13 and Devarim 1? And how do we understand the differences between these two accounts?

In this analysis, we will assume that there are two distinct purposes of the twelve men's trip. The first purpose is "latur", meaning to explore* the land, to observe its natural characteristics and agricultural bounty, and to report on this to the people. The second purpose is "leragel", meaning to spy, to investigate the military situation and preparations of the land's inhabitants, in preparation for conquest. We can easily distinguish these purposes when they occur. Descriptions of the land and its produce are irrelevant to conquest and thus a part of "exploring"; descriptions of the people and fortifications (which God had promised to overcome) are irrelevant to "exploring" and therefore part of "spying".

The distinction between these purposes is well-known. But I have not seen anyone examine the passages based on these purposes, in the structured manner that I plan to. When I quote verses, I will use bold text to describe exploring, and red italic text to describe spying. This should make clear what exactly is going on in each verse, and allow us to piece together how the entire episode actually took place.

1. In Bamidbar

God's initial command to Moshe mentions only exploring:

Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: "Send you men to explore the land of Canaan which I give to the children of Israel. One man from each tribe you shall send, each one a prince among them."

The men chosen are princes and leaders, perhaps because a public report is most trusted when given by well known and respected individuals.

But when Moshe commands the men before their trip, he greatly expands on God's command:

Moshe sent them to explore the land of Canaan, and said to them:
Go up here in the Negev, and go up the mountain.
And see the land, what it is like,
and the people dwelling in it, are they strong or weak, are they few or many,
and what is the land they dwell in like, is it good or bad,
and what are the cities they dwell in like, are they in camps or fortresses,
and what is the land like, is it fat or thin, does it have trees in it or not?
And you shall be strong, and take from the fruit of the land.

We see that Moshe instructs the men both to explore and to spy. Indeed, he interweaves the two in a kind of chiastic pattern (ABABA).

What do the spies actually do? We see that they perform both parts of their mission:

They went up, and explored the land from the Tzin wilderness to Rehov near Hamat. They went up in the Negev, and came to Hevron, and there were Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmi, children of Anak; and Hevron was built seven years before Tzoan of Egypt. They came to Nahal Eshkol, and cut from there one sprig and cluster of grapes, and carried it on a pole using two men, and [took] from the pomegranates and figs.

The presence of Anakites ("giants") in the land is clearly of military significance. So is the antiquity of Hevron. R' Yaakov Medan explains that ancient Middle East cities were built as "tels", layer upon layer, so the older the city, the higher its "tel" and the harder it would be to conquer.

When the men deliver their report, they also mention both aspects of their mission:

"We came to the land where you send us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, strong are the people dwelling in the land, and the cities are great and very fortified, and we also saw the children of Anak there. Amalek dwells in the Negev..."

After this the situation descends into a sorry argument and rebellion, but even then the men mention both parts of their mission:

They slandered the land to the children of Israel, saying, "The land which we went in to explore, it is a land which devours its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it were people of measure. And there we saw the Nefilim, sons of Anak from the Nefilim, and we were like locusts in our eyes, and so were we in their eyes."

And so do Yehoshua and Kalev in their dissent:

The land which we went in to explore, the land is very very good. If Hashem is pleased with us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us. Only do not rebel against Hashem, and do not fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their defense has left them and Hashem is with us, so do not fear them.

In summary, we see that in God's initial command, only exploring is mentioned. But in every single event that follows, both exploring and spying are mentioned.

I think this is the most straightforward view of the events. God's initial command was simply to explore. For some reason, Moshe combined this with a command to spy. From then on, for the rest of the episode, exploring and spying were linked together.

2. In Devarim

In Moshe's retelling, no Divine command is mentioned. Rather, the initiative for the trip seems to come from the people, and it is purely about spying:

You all approached me, saying: "Let us send men before us, who will search the land for us, and give us a report of the way we shall go up to it and the cities we will come to."

There is no mention of the men being princes. For spying purposes, any twelve soldiers can do, and if anything, top leaders should not be exposed to the risks of a spying mission.

Then, the men went on their journey. What they did involved both exploring and spying, but perhaps the spying seems to be first and most important. Here, for the only time in the Torah, the verb "to spy" is used to refer to this trip:

They turned and went up the mountain, and came to Nahal Eshkol, and spied there. They took in their hands from the fruit of the land, and brought to us...

Surprisingly, the men's report, as initially told, seems to be entirely about exploring:

They said: "Good is the land which Hashem our God has given us."

But then the people begin to complain, and in their complaint they mention a different report, which involves spying. As Moshe tells it:

You complained in your tents, saying: Because Hashem hated us, He took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hand of the Amorite to destroy us. Where are we going up to? Our brothers melted our hearts, saying, "The nation is greater and taller than us, and the cities great and fortified up to the heavens, and the sons of the Anakites we saw there."

So what did the twelve men actually report? The results of their exploring, or the results of their spying? I think it's clear that they reported both. But Moshe chooses to dignify their exploring as "the" report, the only one he is willing to mention as such. The report of the spying, he puts in the mouths of the rebellious desert generation, not his own mouth. He thereby implies that the people should have listened only to the exploring.

3. General thoughts

Each passage, in Bamidbar and Devarim, has an internal difficulty. In Bamidbar, the mission includes both exploring and spying, though God had only mentioned exploring. In Devarim, the mission includes both exploring and spying, though the people had only asked to spy. Luckily for us, it seems that each passage supplies the information that is missing from the other. It appears that Bamidbar describes half of what led to the mission (God's command to explore) and Devarim the other half (the people's request to spy). These two initiatives must have occurred around the same time, and Moshe combined them into a single mission, which is fully described in both Bamidbar and Devarim.

For this understanding to work, we must explain what led Bamidbar to exclude the people's request to spy, and Devarim to exclude God's command to explore.

3a. What Bamidbar excludes

Let us start with Bamidbar. In many places, the Torah tells a story twice, and we are supposed to understand something by carefully examining the differences between the original and the retelling. One example is the marriage of Rivka. In the original telling, the slave apparently looked for a hospitable woman from any family. But in his long retelling, he makes it sound like only a relative of Avraham would have been acceptable.

Here in Bamidbar, we have something similar. After God's command, it should be unnecessary to record what Moshe told the men. But Moshe's words are recorded, and they differ from God's command, and this difference (the addition of spying) is exactly what led to the mission's failure. Moshe is the leader, and leaders must take responsibility for their decisions. So here Moshe gets the blame, even if the issue of spying was initially suggested by the people.

3b. What Devarim excludes

Devarim has a different perspective from Bamidbar in two ways. First, Moshe is not speaking as an "objective" historian. Rather, he intends to emphasize the people's past sins and the consequences, to deter them from sinning in the future. Second, he is speaking about himself, so he includes a personal perspective.

As part of Moshe's goal to remind the people of their sins, he shows a negative attitude toward the entire spies episode. If only none of the episode had happened, the death of a whole generation in the desert would have been avoided. The presence of a Divine command to send explorers seriously complicates this picture. Perhaps to keep the message simple, Moshe omits that command entirely.

Interesting, Moshe does use the verb "to explore" ("latur") once. This verb is rare, appearing just 9 times in all of Tanach outside the story in Bamidbar, so its use here is significant. After the negative spying report, Moshe tells the people not to abandon God,
"who travels before you on the road, to explore for you a place to encamp, with fire at night, to show you the road you should walk on, and with cloud by day."
For those who had exploring on their mind, Moshe does emphasize that "real" exploring is that which God continually does to protect Israel, and any negative conclusions that might be drawn from 12 men's exploring are insignificant in comparison.

As for how Moshe portrays his own behavior, as one might expect, his perspective is more complex and mixed than that in Bamidbar. Though he puts the blame for initiating the spying on the people, he also admits that "the matter was good in my eyes" (1:23). This makes him complicit in the sin, and explains why "God was angry at me too regarding you, saying: You too shall not go there" (1:37).

Also, Moshe says that he vocally opposed the spies' defeatism when they returned, unlike in Bamidbar where only Yehoshua and Kalev are mentioned as speaking up. Perhaps, Moshe's words are not mentioned in Bamidbar because, naturally, the people would not listen to Moshe when they could listen to men who had actually seen the land. Whereas in Devarim, even an ineffectual criticism from Moshe fits the theme of the criticisms he is giving the people 39 years later.

*Coincidentally, the English "tour" and Hebrew "latur" not only sound the same, but appear to derive from the same root, meaning "to turn", as a person goes back and forth seeing things until he has seen everything. But the word "tour" has the connotations of traveling for pleasure, and without a practical goal in mind, which are out of place here. So I use "explore" as a translation instead.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The yoke

Speak to the children of Israel, and let them take to you a perfect red cow, with no blemish, which has never worn a yoke. (Bamidbar 19:2)

That the cow have no blemish is a well-known condition for sacrifices. Why, though, the requirement of never having worn a yoke?

Ever since the first-ever sacrifice in Breishit, where Hevel's offering of firstborn sheep was accepted by God, it has been preferred that "the first" of something be used for sacrifices. This is reflected in numerous later examples, such as bikurim for fruits, the laws of bechor for animals and people, and perhaps even Jericho (the first city conquered in Israel) becoming "herem... la-hashem" (Yehoshua 6:17) rather than being plundered by the conquerers.

I think the rule about the yoke is also a case of sacrificing "the first". In this case, that means that the first work done with the cow should be the act of sacrifice. The word for field labor is "avodah", and a sacrifice is also considered a form of "avodah". Both field labor and sacrifice are part of the service/servitude which might be expected of a cow.

I haven't thought about why exactly this requirement is absent for most sacrifices (one can come up with all sorts of guesses why). But where it is present (for parah adumah, and also for eglah arufah), I think the reason is in order to sacrifice "the first".

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Bamidbar and Shelach

For years I've wondered if the super-verbose intro to Bamidbar, with the censuses and camps and whatnot, is designed to give us a sense of how big and unmanageable the nation was, as an introduction to the stories where it in fact turns out to be unmanageable.

After seeing verse 14:29 this year, I'm convinced:

בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם וְכָל-פְּקֻדֵיכֶם, לְכָל-מִסְפַּרְכֶם, מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה, וָמָעְלָה: אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם, עָלָי.

It uses every key word from the beginning of the book - bamidbar, pekudim, mispar, miben esrim. It seems (to me) to be referring back to those stories, just as those stories (I assume) refer in part to here.

The story of the spies concludes a series of disastrous events, beginning with the "mit'onnenim" in Behaalotecha. Here we reach absolute bottom, where the triumphant journey to Israel is entirely called off, until all the men die and are replaced by others.

The census was a triumphant moment, a demonstration of the people's power and potential. But as we see, it also contained the seeds of their destruction.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Lemech's song

In Breishit 4:23-24, Lemech (the descendant of Kayin) recites the following poem:
וַיֹּאמֶר לֶמֶךְ לְנָשָׁיו:
"עָדָה וְצִלָּה שְׁמַעַן קוֹלִי, נְשֵׁי לֶמֶךְ הַאְזֵנָּה אִמְרָתִי
כִּי אִישׁ הָרַגְתִּי לְפִצְעִי, וְיֶלֶד לְחַבֻּרָתִי
כִּי שִׁבְעָתַיִם יֻקַּם קָיִן, וְלֶמֶךְ שִׁבְעִים וְשִׁבְעָה."

What does this poem mean? What does Lemech intend to say, why does he intend to say it, and why is it included in the Torah?

Let us begin analyzing the poem by breaking it down into three lines:
1 - The introduction, calling on Lemech's wives
2 - The line about killing a man and child
3 - The line about vengeance

The most ambiguous line of the three is #2, and I purposefully did not punctuate it above so as to preserve the ambiguity. Essentially, there are two ways of reading it. Either it is a statement:
"For I have killed a man over my injury, and a child over my wound."

Or else, it is a rhetorical question from someone who has not killed:
"Have I killed a man over my injury, or a child over my wound?"

I think the best way to approach this ambiguity is by asking of Lemech was a good or bad person. If he was a good person, then most likely the question is rhetorical, and Lemech has not killed (though some commentators suggest that he had killed unintentionally and wanted to protest his innocence of murder). In the "good Lemech" case, the vengeance in #3 must be God's vengeance against whoever would harm Lemech.

The alternative is to say that Lemech was a bad (or at least violent) person. He is stating for a fact that he had killed. In that case, the vengeance is carried out by Lemech himself against whoever would attempt to harm Lemech.

My difficulty with the "good Lemech" interpretation is that nowhere do we hear that God has promised vengeance upon those who attack Lemech. You would think that this promise should be mentioned in the Torah, so that we know what Lemech is talking about. Since no such story exists, I prefer the "bad Lemech" interpretation in which Lemech promise that he himself will carry out the vengeance.

In that case, line #2 should be translated as follows: "For I have killed a man over my injury, and a child over my wound." This killing is disproportionate: Lemech received a non-fatal wound, and in return he inflicts a fatal injury. That's not very moral, but it does fit perfectly the claim in line #3 that Lemech will take 77-fold vengeance. R' Yaakov Medan, in his book "Ki Karov Elecha", goes further and explains the likely details of Lemech's killing: he killed a "man" and a "child", a man because that man wounded him, and a child (the same man's child) because the most total revenge against someone is to kill them and all their offspring!

So now we have a coherent explanation of everything in lines #2 and #3. What about #1? Why does this story have to be told to Lemech's wives?

Perhaps we can draw an answer from the fact that there are TWO wives. Having multiple wives is not a recipe for happiness in the Torah. In halacha, each wife is known as the "tzara" of the other, due to the hostility they are presumed to have for each other as they vie for their husband's affection. And not only do they fight with each other, but their struggles are likely to spill over and disturb the husband's life. Avraham was forced to part forever from his son Yishmael due to his wives' rivalry, David and Shlomo each suffered incredibly due to their later wives (Batsheva and Shlomo's foreign wives), and even someone as highly regarded as Yaakov Avinu was brought to rage by one of his wives' complaints (Breishit 30:2). We already know Lemech was a over-reacting violent man, and with the extra stress caused by his bigamy, we can imagine this was not a peaceful household.

Perhaps, given this situation, we can explain why Lemech chose to give this speech to his wives. Perhaps there had been one fight too many in the household, and Lemech had had enough. He knew only one way of solving conflicts, and that was to utterly destroy the other side. Thus, in this poem, he threatened that if one of his wives went a bit too far in the future, he would kill her. Given Lemech's past, this would not be an idle threat. And since Lemech had TWO wives, killing one of them might not be an overwhelming blow to him, as he would still have the other. If this idea is correct, then here we have the first and perhaps the only mention in the Torah of marital violence.

Lemech's poem is the last word in the story of Kayin's descendants: the next verse (4:25) tells of the birth of Shet, who would eventually become the ancestor of Noach. In some ways Lemech's life could be seen as a success: his three sons go on to found the disciplines of herding, music, and forging (4:20-22). As with Joseph Kennedy, whose children included a president and two senators, one has to suspect that such accomplished kids owe something to the parents. But Lemech was a violent, vindicative man - not only to strangers but, it seems likely, even to his own wives. That quality is the "death sentence" for Lemech. Once the Torah attests to his negative character traits, it immediately and permanently abandons him, turning its attention to the family which will in part survive the flood.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Naaseh Venishma

According to the famous midrash (Shabbat 88a) on the words "naaseh venishma" (Shemot 24:7), the Jewish people first agreed to accept the Torah unconditionally, without understanding or judging its contents ("we will do"), and only then seeked to understand it ("we will hear").

This is not the simple meaning of the words. They should be translated as "we will do and we will obey" rather than "we will do and we will hear". The same Biblical Hebrew word is used for "listen" and "obey"; the modern Hebrew word for "obey" is simply the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew word for "listen". So the idea of unconditional acceptance does not really have a source in Shemot 24:7.

In fact, one might even argue that the opposite is implied. The entire verse reads as follows: "[Moshe] took the scroll of the covenant, and read it to the people, and they said: Everything Hashem spoke, we will do and we will obey." They people declare their acceptance after hearing what is in the scroll, not before.

So if "we will do and we will hear" is not the simple meaning of this verse, what on earth is the midrash talking about?

One might say that the midrash's idea must be true on a philosophical level - perhaps your commitments can only be meaningful if you make them unconditionally, and intend to hold to them in good or bad times, without considering if at some point in the future it will be advantageous to you to betray them.

But beyond this general idea, I think we can locate many specific verses in the Torah that make the same point.

There are a number of sections in the Torah where a mitzvah or category of mitzvot is presented in detail. In addition to all the details, there are often a couple verses which summarize the section, including either a brief summary of the laws, or else an explanation of the effects and importance of keeping them. Interestingly, this summary appears not at the beginning of the section (where you might expect it), but rather, almost universally at the END of the section. Here are a number of examples:

  • The Mishkan: In addition to the details of HOW to build the Mishkan, the reason WHY we build it is so that God may dwell among us. This is mentioned briefly at the beginning of the long Mishkan passage, but more fully explained near the end (why it's not at the absolute end is the subject of another essay).
  • Kosher animals: This passage has no special beginning. Rather, the passage immediately starts by listing kosher and non-kosher animals. The passage ends with a "why" explanation for the laws of kashrut: "be holy for I am holy", and therefore, do not eat anything impure.
  • Tzaraat: This passage has no special beginning (the first paragraph is just one type of tzaraat). The passage ends with a summary of the types of tzaraat, which is introduced by the formal heading "zot torat hatzaraat".
  • Bodily emissions: This section too begins with specific cases rather than a special beginning. It ends with both a "zot torat ___" summary, as well as a "why" explanation (that Jews not "defile My tabernacle").
  • Sexual sins: The beginning here is somewhat unusual in that it starts with the generalization of not doing "the practice of the land of Egypt/Canaan" - the kind of broad explanation I'd expect to find at the end. However, the end is more involved, repeating this generalization and adding both individual and collective punishments.
  • Sotah: This passage has no special beginning. The end is a "zot torat ___" summary.
  • Vows: This passage has no special beginning. The end has a summary of the laws.
(At the end of this post, you can find a table including the various verses for each of these laws, to give a clearer picture of what I'm referring to.) We see that, repeatedly, the summaries and philosophical content of a section come at the end of the section, not the beginning. Normally we expect the opposite: the broad explanations should come at the beginning of the passage, so you are clear about what you are about to learn and why. But the Torah chooses a different way; it mostly withholds the explanations until you are done learning all the laws. Why does the Torah do this? I think it is due to the idea of "naaseh venishma". In all these passages, the Torah wants you to learn and accept the laws WITHOUT necessarily having a clear picture of what their purpose is. You must be willing to obey even if you don't understand. Once you have done that, you can then be taught the ideas that will give you understanding and a broader picture. This is what the midrash says; earlier we suggested the same thing for philosophical reasons; and now I think we see the same idea built into the structure of the Torah's commandments. It has been said that the midrash on a verse is not the simple meaning of that verse. Rather, it is often the simple meaning of a DIFFERENT verse or verses. I think the midrash of "naaseh venishma" is a good example of this. As I argued at the beginning of this essay, this midrash is not actually the meaning of the words "naaseh venishma". But as I argued at the end of the essay, it IS the meaning which can be found in a number of other passages in the Torah.
The Mishkan Begins with "Speak to the children of Israel, that they take for Me an offering ... This is the offering which ye shall take of them: gold, and silver, and brass..." (Shemot 25:2). This is soon followed by a basic description of the purpose of the Mishkan: "And let them make Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them." (25:8)
But the full description of the Mishkan's purpose only appears near the end of the passage: "And I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will be their God. And they shall know that I am Hashem their God, who brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, that I may dwell among them." (29:45-46)
Kosher animals Begins with "These are the living things which ye may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth. Whatever parts the hoof, and is wholly cloven-footed..." (Vayikra 11:2)
Ends with "You shall not soil yourself with any swarming thing, nor impurify yourselves with them, and become impurified thereby. For I am Hashem your God; so sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy; and do not defile yourselves with any swarming thing which moves upon the earth. For I am the LORD that brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; ye shall therefore be holy, for I am holy." (11:43-45)
Tzaraat: Begins with "Should a man have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it is the plague of leprosy in the skin of his flesh, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest..." (13:2)
Ends with "This is the law for all manner of plague of leprosy, and for a scall; and for the leprosy of a garment, and for a house; and for a rising, and for a scab, and for a bright spot; to teach when it is unclean, and when it is clean; this is the law of leprosy." (14:55-57)
Bodily emissions: Begins with "When any man hath an emission [zav] out of his flesh, his emission is unclean." (15:2)
Ends with "Thus shall ye separate the children of Israel from their uncleanness; that they die not in their uncleanness, when they defile My tabernacle that is in their midst. This is the law of he who has an emission; and of he from whom semen goes out, making him impure; and of her who is sick with her impurity, and of them that have an emission, whether it be a man or woman; and of he who lies with an impure woman." (15:31-33)
Sexual sins: Begins with "You shall not do according to the practice of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, nor according to the practice of the land of Canaan where I bring you... You shall keep my statutes and ordinances, which man keeps and thereby lives, I am Hashem." (18:3-5)
Ends with "So you shall keep My statutes and ordinances, and not do any of these abominations; neither the native nor the stranger living among you - for all these abominations did the men of the land that were before you, and the land was defiled - that the land not vomit you out also, when ye defile it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever does any of these abominations, the souls that do them shall be cut off from among their people. Therefore you shall keep My charge, that ye do not any of these abominable customs, which were done before you, and that ye defile not yourselves therein: I am Hashem your God." (18:26-30)
Sotah: Begins with "Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: If any man's wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him... " (Bamidbar 5:12)
Ends with "This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, being under her husband, strays and is defiled; ... then shall he set the woman before Hashem, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. And the man shall be clear from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity." (5:29-31)
Vows: Begins with "This is the matter which Hashem has commanded. When a man makes a vow to Hashem..." (30:2-3)
Ends with "These are the statutes, which Hashem commanded Moshe, between a man and his wife, between a father and his daughter, being in her youth, in her father's house." (30:17)

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fixed or personalized vidui?

Here is an argument for not saying the long text of vidui that appears in Yom Kippur machzorim. In the following comment (also posted there), I argued that the accepted text should be said (in addition to any additions that are appropriate for an individual, like the page argued. Here are my reasons:

ברור שוידוי אישי מאוד חשוב, והמחשבה שנדרשת כדי להכין וידוי אישי היא אולי החלק המרכזי של התשובה. בכל זאת, נדמה לי שיש ערך בוידוי המודפס גם מעבר למה שאמרת. יותר מפעם אחת, לפני יום כיפור עזרתי בוידוי המודפס כדי להדריך את התשובה שלי. חשבתי לעצמי, "מתי בשנה האחרונה בגדתי במישהו? מתי עשיתי משהו שיכול להיחשב לגזילה? מתי דיברתי דופי?" ומתוך כל הזויות האלו נזכרתי בהרבה חטאים שבכלל שכחתי קודם לזה, וגם הוספתי כמה ביטויים לוידוי האישי שלי בתפילות יוה"כ על בסיס אותם תובנות. זה קצת דומה למה שקורה בתפילה - אם במקרה לא היה איכפת לי מאנשים חולים, ברכת "רפאנו" מזכיר לי שצריך להיות איכפת לי. אם לא ציפיתי מספיק לבניית בית המקדש, ברכת "רצה" מזכיר לי שזה צריך להיות חשוב לי. עובדה שאנחנו לא תמיד זוכרים את כל מה שכדאי לנו לומר בתפילה ובוידוי, והטקסט המקובל עוזר לנו לזכור.

עוד סיבה שהוידוי המודפס חשוב, נדמה לי שאפשר לראות בסוג בחטאים שהוא מפרט. זה מעניין שוידוי המודפס כוללת בעיקר חטאים בין אדם למקום, והוידוי המורחב שרואים לפעמים בצילומים כוללת בעיקר חטאים בין אדם למקום. למשל, ל"בגדתי" מוסיפים "ביטלתי תורה, בירכתי לבטלה". אני לא רוצה להגיד שבין אדם למקום יותר או פחות חשוב מבין אדם לחברו, אבל נדמה לי שיש משהו מופלא כשמחברים בין השנים, בזה שגם חטא בין אדם לחברו צריך וידוי לה'. ייתכן שהחיבור הזה הוא אפילו אחד הדברים מייחד את היהדות משאר דתות העולם. וחבל להפסיד את זה.

סוף סוף, כל הרבנים ששמעתי ממליצים להוסיף משהו אישי לוידוי, ולא שמעתי רב (חוץ ממך אם אתה רב) שממליץ לדלג על המודפס. אזי אני מוסיף ולא מדלג, ומקווה שאני מרוויח מכל הבחינות.

Monday, February 02, 2015

Thoughts on Beshalach

Moshe said to them: "Let no person leave of it till the morning.' But they did not obey Moshe, and some of them left of it until the morning, and it bred worms, and rotted. (16:19-20)

Why did the manna have to spoil each morning? One reason is obvious. The manna was supplied was not just to keep the Jews from starving, but also to train them to depend on God: "[Hashem] fed you the manna, which you and your fathers did not know of, to show you that man does not live by bread alone, but by the decree of Hashem" (Devarim 8:3). Every morning the Jews woke up with an empty pantry and nothing to rely on but the promise that God would provide them with more food.

I think there is another possible reason, which we see by comparison to a completely different topic - korbanot.

For those Temple sacrifices which are eaten by human beings (as opposed to being burnt on the altar), the eating must be done within a certain period of time (see Zevachim chapter 5). For a few sacrifices, this period is two days and one night (i.e. the remainder of the day on which it is sacrificed, plus 24 hours, until sundown). For all other sacrifices, the period is one day and one night. This means that the sacrifice must be entirely consumed by daybreak after it is sacrificed. The Torah warns us a number of times not to leave sacrificial meat "until morning" - in Shemot 12:10, Vayikra 7:16 and 22:30, Bamidbar 9:12, and Devarim 16:4, regarding different types of sacrifice.

Just as sacrifices must be eaten by morning, so too manna, and perhaps this hints at a deeper similarity between them.

A second similarity between manna and sacrifices appears if we look at Shabbat. As we know, a double portion of manna fell before Shabbat and none on Shabbat. (This is commemorated in our modern double challah bread on Shabbat.) Similarly, the Shabbat musaf offering is virtually identical to the daily tamid offering - two sheep and two tenth-eifah mincha offerings. This means that overall, double as many sacrifices are offered on Shabbat as on weekdays. This double sacrifice is parallel to the double manna associated with Shabbat.

A third commonality between manna and sacrifices is the focus of their location. A jug of manna was to be placed "before Hashem, as a remembrance, for your generations", next to the ark in the Mishkan (Shemot 16:33). This parallels the many sacrifices which were to be brought "before Hashem" in the Temple, and especially the lechem hapanim, another kind of bread which was to be placed "before Me, forever" (Shemot 25:30)

The upshot of all of this is that it's possible to see the eating of manna as a parallel to the eating of sacrifices. Perhaps living in the desert was like a perpetual visit to the Temple, and eating the desert food was like a perpetual sacrificial occasion.

Moshe built an altar, and named it Hashem-Nissi. And he said: "A hand upon the throne of Hashem: there will be war to Hashem with Amalek from generation to generation." (17:15-16)

Two questions arise when reading the lines. 1) Who is "he" who spoke, Moshe or God? 2) What does the phrase "a hand upon the throne of Hashem" mean?

All the standard commentators say that the raising of a hand indicates the making of an oath, and so God is promising that He will wage war against Amalek. I agree that an oath is being made here. But I would like to suggest that perhaps it is Moshe, not God, who is speaking and making that oath.

There is one other occasion in the Torah when someone places their hand on a chair:

"Avraham said to his servant, the elder of his house, who ruled over all that he had: 'Please place your hand under my thigh.' " (Breishit 24:2)

When a person is standing, there is no "underneath" their thigh. So Avraham must have been sitting at the time. He asked his servant to place a hand between Avraham's thigh and the chair, below the thigh and above the chair. This is exactly the gesture we have in Shemot - a hand is placed on a chair (or throne).

Who made the oath in Breishit? The servant, who swore to his master Avraham that he would not marry Yitzchak to a Canaanite. The physical gesture of a hand under the thigh is suggestive of the servant-master relationship: to put your hand in such a position, you must crouch or bow down, making yourself literally subordinate to your master, reflecting your social role. You accept the master's authority over you, and the promises you make to the master become binding commitments you must fulfill.

(This is the pshat, while the midrash says that the servant held Avraham's brit milah. This is a very perceptive interpretation. It highlights the oath and the role of Yitzchak both regarding brit milah and here: there God says that the covenant will be perpetuated through Yitzchak; here Avraham moves to ensure that Yitzchak's role in the covenant is upheld. The ideas of brit milah were probably on Avraham's mind when he beswore his servant - that's what we can learn from the midrash. But we should not think that the servant's hand was literally on Avraham's brit milah, since we have a good explanation that does not require adding extra details to the story.)

In Shemot, we have the same gesture of a hand being placed on a chair (metaphorically, since God and His throne are not physical), and I would like to interpret it the same way. Clearly God is the master and Moshe is the subordinate. That means Moshe, not God, is making the oath! Why does Moshe do this? He has just been saved by God from the attacking Amalekites, and like any good Biblical figure who has just been saved, he builds an altar and swears loyalty to God from then on.

What about the contents of the oath? The phrase "milchama lahashem ba'amalek" is normally translated as "God will be at war against Amalek", indicating that God made the oath. Were we to take the phrase in a vacuum, I think this would be the simplest meaning, and this also has the best continuity with the previous verse.

I have two responses to this claim: 1) The phrase "milchama lahashem ba'amalek" could be translated as "There will be a war dedicated to God (=a holy war) against Amalek", with the war conducted by Israel. 2) Moshe could be pledging his loyalty to God, as a response to the promise God just made regarding Amalek.

Given how confident I am about the throne metaphor, I think one of these two approaches is preferable, even they make the phrase "milchama lahashem ba'amalek" seem more awkward in isolation.

What about the identity of the speaker in the phrase "And he said"? This phrase too is ambiguous. The commentators would say that "he" refers to Hashem from "Hashem-Nissi" in the previous verse, even though this is a proper noun and Hashem doesn't do anything active in that verse. Whereas I would say that since the previous verse spoke of Moshe building an altar, this verse speaks of Moshe making an oath.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Shabbat Yom Kippur

From Breishit Rabbah (22:13):
"And Cain went out from before God" (Genesis 4:16) - R' Hama in the name of R' Hanina son of R' Yitzchak said: [Cain] went out happy ... Adam ran into him and said to him: "What was your judgment?" [Cain] said: "I repented and [my punishment] was commuted." Adam slapped himself in the face, and said: "Such is the power of repentance, and I did not know it?" Immediately Adam stood and recited: "A song of praise for the Sabbath day: It is good 'lehodot' [=to thank or to confess to] God..." (Psalms 92)

Why does Adam's song refer to the Sabbath day? Because as the rabbis say elsewhere, not only was Adam created on the sixth day, but he sinned on the very day he was created. He could have immediately repented and entered Shabbat purified from his sin. Adam missed this initial opportunity. But once he learned about repentance, he took himself back to the moment of his sin and welcomed Shabbat while repenting.

This midrash seems especially appropriate as we enter the Shabbat of Yom Kippur. Not only is it the special day of atonement for the Jewish people, but it commemorates the occasion on which all of humanity learned about repentance and forgiveness.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Thoughts on Shoftim

When you go forth to battle against your enemies, and see horses, chariots, and people more numerous than you, you shall not fear them; for Hashem your God is with you, who brought you up from the land of Egypt. And when you approach the battle, the priest shall approach and speak to the people and say to them: "Hear, O Israel, this day you approach battle against your enemies. Let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, or frightened by them, for it is Hashem your God who goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you." And the officers shall speak to the people, saying: 'What man is there that hath built a new house, and hath not dedicated it? let him go and return to his house, lest he die in the battle, and another man dedicate it...." (Devarim 20:1-5)

According to this passage, two things must be done before Israel fights a battle. The priest exhorts the people not to fear, and the officers tell several classes of people that they may return home without fighting.

Each of these things has its own logic, but what interests me now is the order in which they come. You would expect for the officers' dismissal to come before the priest's exhortation. After all, the best time to dismiss people from the army is when the army is being assembled, while the best time to give an inspiring speech is immediately before the battle. But as it is, the order is reversed. If you have a new wife, house, or vineyard, or if you are afraid, you must still join the army, and travel all the way to the battlefield, and hear the priest's speech before the battle, and only then can you go home. Wouldn't it be easier for such a person not to have to join the army in the first place?

I think that there is a lesson in this ordering, both for the soldiers in the Torah's battles, and for us today. There are people who have good reasons not to fight in battle. But this does not give them an excuse not to be part of the war. They must join the army, travel to the battlefield, experience the same tension everyone else experiences, and only then can they be sent home.

Similarly, certain Israelis today and all Jews abroad, who do not fight in the IDF, must nevertheless feel that they are part of the war, and look for tangible things they can do to help their relatives under fire. I am happy to report than, from what I have heard, in the recent Gaza war this is exactly what happened on a large scale.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The politics of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza

This is my summary of a shiur given by R' Yaakov Medan earlier this week in Jerusalem. The very last sentence is my own addition.

The well-known story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a) goes as follows:
R. Johanan said: What is illustrative of the verse, Happy is the man that feareth alway, but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief? The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza; the destruction of Tur Malka came through a cock and a hen; the destruction of Bethar came through the shaft of a leather. The destruction of Jerusalem came through a Kamza and a Bar Kamza in this way. A certain man had a friend Kamza and an enemy Bar Kamza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamza. The man went and brought Bar Kamza. When the man [who gave the party] found him there he said, See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out. Said the other: Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink. He said, I won't. Then let me give you half the cost of the party. No, said the other. Then let me pay for the whole party. He still said, No, and he took him by the hand and put him out. Said the other, Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the Government. He went and said to the Emperor, The Jews are rebelling against you. He said, How can I tell? He said to him: Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it [on the altar]. So he sent with him a fine calf. While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we [Jews] count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the Government. Said R. Zechariah b. Abkulas to them: People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar. They then proposed to kill Bar Kamza so that he should not go and inform against them, but R. Zechariah b. Abkulas said to them, Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death? R. Johanan thereupon remarked: Through the "anvatanut" of R. Zechariah b. Abkulas our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.

The beginning of the story (the meal) and end (the sacrifice) flow logically. But the segue between them is hard to understand. How is it possible that a random meal guest is able to show up at the king's door, and be taken seriously when he says the entire nation is rebelling?

R' Medan suggests a new approach to this story, beginning with a new interpretation of the word "anvatanut", usually translated as something like "humility".

Rashi on Brachot 9a explains that the "vatikin" who prayed early each morning were:
People with "anava", who loved mitzvot

If the two halves of Rashi's statement are related, than "anava" would seem to mean punctuality or enthusiasm for doing mitzvot in the best possible manner, not humility.

We see a similar idea in the Tosefta (Shabbat 16:7) which discusses how to dispose of food waste after a Shabbat meal:
Beit Hillel says: One may pick up the bones and peels from the table. Beit Shammai says: One must remove the entire plate/tray and shake off its [muktzah] contents. Zecharia ben Avkilus did not practice like Beit Shammai or like Beit Hillel, but rather would take [an item of food to eat] and throw [its waste] behind the couch [so as not to have to remove muktzah items by any method later on]. R' Yosa said: R' Zecharia ben Avkilus' "anvatanut" is what burnt the Temple.

Here, R' Zecharia ben Avkilus and his "anvatanut" are characterized as extreme, unwarranted strictness with halacha.

Let us now look at Midrash Eicha Rabbati (on verse 4:2), which tells the Kamtza story again, and suggests another flaw of R' Zecharia ben Avkilus.
Once a man in Jerusalem made a meal. He said to his messenger: Bring me Kamtza my friend. He went and brought Kamtza his enemy. He entered and sat among the guests. [The host] entered and found him between the guests. He said to him "You are my enemy and you sit in my house, why? Get out of my house!" ... He took [Kamtza the enemy] in his hand and expelled him. R' Zecharia ben Avkulus was there and was capable of protesting but did not protest. He went out and thought "Since the aged rabbis were sitting there and did not object, they agreed with it." ... this is why it is said that the Temple was destroyed over Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. R' Yosef [=R' Yosa in the Tosefta] said: R' Zecharia ben Avkilus' "anvatanut" is what burnt the Temple.

This is basically the same story, told slightly differently. There is one addition of interest to us: the same R' Zecharia who refused to offer the sacrifice was responsible for precipitating the crisis by not protesting at the meal! But how can "anvatanut" refer both to this insensitivity and to the later halachic strictness?

Before answering this, let us look at a different paragraph in the same section of midrash.
Another interpretation: "The precious sons of Zion." ... What was their preciousness? One of them would not enter a meal unless he knew who was dining with him, who poured the wine, and who served the food."

This is a strange idea, but we find the same idea in the gemara (Sanhedrin 23a):
"Thus did those of clean mind in Jerusalem do: they would not sign a legal document unless they knew who was signing with them, they would not sit in judgment unless they knew who was sitting with them, and they would not go into a meal unless they knew who was eating with them."

It appears, from these sources, that was customary that guests would demand to know the entire guest list before coming! This shines an entirely different light on the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story. People were very careful to never invite anyone who was not on an approved list. If a Bar Kamtza showed up uninvited, it's not at all surprising that he would be kicked out!

Why would people insist on knowing the name of every single person who attended a meal? Would you refuse to attend, say, a wedding, without first consulting the entire list of guests and waiters to see that every one of them was on your pre-approved list?

To answer this, let us remember that we are talking about the period immediately preceding the rebellion and destruction. Clearly, the political intrigues that would lead to the rebellion were already present. There were many spies around, and much suspicion and persecution. When wine goes in secrets come out, and for plotters, knowing every guest on the invite list was necessary for security. Also, it is quite reasonable to think that Bar Kamtza was just the sort of person who would be unwelcome in a feast of plotting rebels. Someone willing to betray his nation to the Romans after a personal insult at a meal was someone who probably not too loyal to begin with! As R' Yochanan said at the beginning of the story, "Happy is he who always fears" indeed!

The midrash fingers R' Zechariah as the rabbi most responsible for the expulsion of Bar Kamtza. If Bar Kamtza was a non-nationalist (willing to go straight to the Romans to avenge his insult) and his haters were nationalists, then perhaps R' Zechariah himself was a prominent nationalist. Let us now see what non-rabbinic sources may have to say about R' Zechariah.

Josephus (Wars of the Jews 4:4:1) writes the following about the zealots:
These leaders were Eleazar, the son of Simon, who seemed the most plausible man of them all, both in considering what was fit to be done, and in the execution of what he had determined upon, and Zacharias, the son of Amphikulus...

This name is very similar to R' Zecharia ben Avkulus, and some historians have asserted that they are the same person.

If so, R' Zecharia was not simply a modest, fearful man concerned primarily about the details of halacha. He was a polarizing zealot leader! No wonder he did not object to kicking out the unintended guest, who might have been a spy against the zealots. And no wonder he was not willing to compromise anything whatsover in the Temple service, even under extreme pressure.

Now, let us look about what Josephus says about how the revolt began (Wars 2:17:2).

At the same time Eleazar, the son of Ananias the high priest, a very bold youth, who was at that time governor of the temple, persuaded those that officiated in the Divine service to receive no gift or sacrifice for any foreigner. And this was the true beginning of our war with the Romans; for they rejected the sacrifice of Caesar on this account; and when many of the high priests and principal men besought them not to omit the sacrifice, which it was customary for them to offer for their princes, they would not be prevailed upon.

This account is very similar to that in the Kamtza story! In both, the Romans send an animal to the Temple to be sacrificed. In both, the Jewish leaders refuse to sacrifice it after extended arguments. In both, the Romans are provoked by this refusal and war ensues.

Of course, there are some differences. History writing in the ancient world was different from today. Nobody was looking over the historian's shoulder to see that everything was properly sourced and accurate. Rather, history was a form of what might be called "history art" where the details could be filled in as necessary. One famous example of this is the speech Josephus records as being given on Masada before the collective suicide. How could Josephus possibly know the text of this speech? If someone could bring Josephus back to life and ask him this, he would likely say - with justice - "I grew up with Elazar, I knew him well enough to know that this is what he would have said in that situation." Josephus did not know the exact words, but he was confident in his guess at the message. Similarly, Josephus filled in the gaps in the Jerusalem story as best he could. The essential story is the same as in the gemara (which testifies to the basic accuracy of both). But being in the Roman camp outside Jerusalem, and not knowing the details about Bar Kamtza, Josephus filled in other details about how the sacrifice came to be rejected.

In the gemara, the rabbis who R' Zechariah debated sound reasonable, while Bar Kamtza sounds like a spiteful traitor. But in Josephus' telling, the Jews who incited the sacrifice simply wanted to get rid of the zealots, not to destroy the Temple and the whole nation! The concrete facts are almost the same as in the gemara. But the tone and moral judgments are completely different. This reminds us of current events, where Haaretz and a right-wing paper might report almost the same events, but the presentation and conclusions to be drawn are near opposites.

The Torah tells us "You shall not bear tales ('rechil') among your people, you shall not stand by the blood of your fellow." (Vayikra 19:16) The two halves of this verse are likely connected. The tales in question may not be simple gossip about who got a bad haircut or woke up late for minyan, but the kind of betrayal to hostile authorities that can result in death [what was later known as "mesirah"]. And the word "rechil" may be linguistically related to "meragel", meaning to spy. Some sources say that "rechilut" or "lashon hara" was responsible for the destruction of the Temple (Yirmiyahu 9:3, Brachot 32b). If so, the kind of tale-bearing that is meant is the kind where people are being betrayed to the authorities.

We have now attributed clear political motivations to each side in the Kamtza story. Thus, it appears that the story is not "simply" an anecdote of baseless hatred. But while it is legitimate to have differences of political opinion, it is not legitimate to have so much mutual back-stabbing that members of your nation cannot even eat at a meal together. That degree of hatred leads to destruction and exile. Kamtza (who was welcome at the meal) and Bar Kamtza (who was unwelcome) represent the two political camps which showed so much hatred towards each other, and therefore the story is named after both of them.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

David's messy psak

The gemara (Brachot 4a) describes King David's righteousness with this example:

כך אמר דוד לפני הקב"ה: רבונו של עולם, לא חסיד אני, שכל מלכי מזרח ומערב יושבים אגודות אגודות בכבודם, ואני ידי מלוכלכות בדם ובשפיר ובשליא כדי לטהר אשה לבעלה

I was thinking about that line, and I came to the conclusion that it was probably inspired by the interaction between David and Michal as he rejects her (Shmuel Bet 6:21-22):

ויאמר דוד אל מיכל: לפני יקוק אשר בחר בי מאביך ומכל ביתו, לצות אתי נגיד על עם יקוק על ישראל, ושחקתי לפני יקוק. ונקלתי עוד מזאת, והייתי שפל בעיני, ועם האמהות אשר אמרת, עמם אכבדה

Exactly what interaction between David and the "amhot" is he talking about that would be a cause for "kavod"? You might say in pshat that he's just going to associate with them somehow (and perhaps marry them, to the exclusion of Michal who he will no longer sleep with).

But I think the midrash wants to say something more specific. He will do some disgusting task ("hayiti shafal be'einai"), involving women ("im ha'amhot"), which nevertheless will be a reason for honor. Dealing with female bodily excretions in order to reunite husband and wife is a good example of such a task. In contrast to the other kings, whose honor consists of pompous social interactions ("yoshvim agudot agudot bichvodam"), David's honor would consist of this.

UPDATE: In addition to the details above, it was suggested to me (by RB) that the midrash may use examining blood as its example of a disgusting honorable act, specifically due to to David's past. In Shmuel Bet 16:7-12, Shimi ben Gera calls David a "man of blood" among other curses. David does not retaliate or even dispute this curse, and in fact says that God must have instructed Shimi to utter this curse. However, David wishes that God will notice his forbearance, and replace the curse with a blessing. This wish is phrased generically, but the midrash could understand it as David wishing that his martial bloodiness be replaced with some kind of peaceful and helpful bloodiness.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Insects in Bamidbar

He sent messengers to Bilam son of Beor, to Petor which is on the river, where his people lives, to say to him: "Behold, this people which left Egypt has covered the eye of the earth, and it is now camped opposite me." (Bamidbar 22:5)

What is the meaning of the "eye of the earth" in this verse? Shemot 10:4-5 uses the phrase in a similar way:

"For if you [Pharaoh] refuse to let my people go, I shall bring tomorrow locusts in your borders. They will cover the eye of the earth, and it will be impossible to see the earth..."

In both places, Onkelus translates the phrase as "the eye of the sun of the earth", meaning the bright disc formed by the sun. In Shemot, the meaning of this is clear: the swarm of locusts will be so thick that it will cover the sun and there will be darkness. (Or perhaps, the locusts will both cover the sun and form a continuous layer on the surface of the ground.)

In Bamidbar, it seems that Israel too is being compared to a swarm of locusts, which devours the lands whose path it crosses, and looks ready to devour Balak's land and people too.

Interestingly, this is not the first place in Bamidbar where Jews are compared to locusts. When the spies returned from their trip, they reported: "There we saw the Nefilim sons of Anak (from the Nefilim), and we were in our eyes like locusts, and so were we in their eyes."

The spies saw themselves as small insects, incapable of conquering the mighty inhabitants of Canaan. But while the spies saw the locust as a weak animal, Balak saw the locust as an unstoppable and overpowering force! How could the same animal be used as a metaphor for completely opposite concepts?

The difference, of course, is that the spies referred to individual locusts, while Balak referred to an entire swarm. Indeed, while an individual locust is capable of little damage, a swarm of them is extremely formidable. Similarly, a single Israelite might be weaker than a single Anakite, but when the Israelites were united nobody could stop them from conquering the land.

How do we know that the spies should have realized this point, and didn't? After the spies spread their bad report and God decreed forty years of desert wandering upon them, the people rebelled and tried to invade Canaan immediately. When Moshe describes the results of this invasion in Devarim, he makes reference to a different kind of insect:

"The Amorite who lived on that mountain went out against you, and chased you as do the bees, and struck you down in Se'ir, as far as Hormah." (1:44)

Bees, like locusts, are individually weak but together form a fearsome swarm. Just like the Israelites' enemies knew the power that comes from unity, so should the Israelites have known.

(Based on a dvar torah from R' Shlomo Glicksberg)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Mutual love

The second blessing before kriyat Shema focuses on Torah study and observance. In the morning, we mention the Patriarchs to whom God "taught the laws of life", and then we ask that God "lead our hearts to understand, perceive, listen, learn, teach, guard, perform, and uphold all the words of this Torah". In the evening, we express our desire to "rejoice in the words of Your Torah and Your commandments forever, for they are our life and the length of our days, and we shall study them day and night." Virtually the entire blessing is on this topic, in both the morning and the evening.

The topic is a logical one. The Shema is one of the main sources for the mitzvah of Torah study; its reading is itself a performance of Torah study; and it is one of the most memorable passages on the topics of mitzvah observance and reward and punishment. Some sources suggest that this blessing functions as the usual blessing said before performance of a mitzvah (and therefore one should not speak between them and the Shema) - in which case they certainly must be on the same topic as the Shema.

But there is one main deviation from this topic - at the beginning and end of each blessing. There, rather than Torah study, the topic is love. The blessing starts by mentioning the "great love" or "eternal love" God has shown us, and ends by blessing God who "chooses Israel in love", or "loves His people Israel". Why mention love here?


I think the answer lies in the second line of the Shema. "You shall love Hashem your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might." The first line of the Shema is a basic declaration of loyalty to God. Once that is accomplished, we list the things we must do for God - and the first of those to love.

The remaining things, of course, are all about Torah study - keeping the Torah in mind, reciting it, teaching it, speaking of it, placing reminders of it on our body and houses. The overall structure closely echoes the blessing recited before the Shema - there, too, the introduction is about love, and the body of the paragraph is about Torah study.

Of course, rather than the Shema echoing the blessing, it is the blessing which echoes the Shema, since the blessing was composed to accompany the Shema rather than vice versa.


There is one difference though. The blessing talks Torah study plus about God's love for Israel. The Shema talks about Torah study plus Israel's love for God. Each contains love, but the direction of the love is reversed.

Here is one possible explanation of this difference. Tanach repeatedly likens the relationship between God and Israel to that between a husband and wife. Just as a successful marriage must involve mutual expression of love and commitment from both sides, so must God's relationship/covenant with the Jewish people. God showed us love in giving us the Torah; we show love by keeping it. In the Shema (which is God's words) He provides us with commandments through which we can merit reward and closeness to God; in the blessing (which is our words) we thank God for these commandments and express our wish that nothing ever prevent us from keeping them. Each party in the relationship mentions the love the other party shows them, and through this, the relationship between them is mutually strengthened.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Renamed Jerusalem streets

Here is an incomplete list of streets in Jerusalem that have been renamed at some point (mostly in 1948), followed by their original names.

I was planning on adding this to Wikipedia, but I don't see a good place for it.

Keren Hayesod - King George [1]
King David - Julian's Way [1]
King Solomon - St. Louis Way [1]
Shlomtzion - Princess Mary Ave [1]
Straus - Chancellor [1]
Agron - Mamilla Road [1]
Shivtei Yisrael - St Paul's Road [1]
Malchei Yisrael - Geula Road [2]
Herzog - Gaza Road [2]
Usishkin - Yehudah Halevi [3]
KK"L - Shmuel Hanagid [3]

[2] Collins & LaPierre, O Jerusalem, 1972