Friday, December 31, 2010

The frog midrash

In this post, "Parshablog" notes the great similarity between several midrashim on frogs and verses in Shemot which describe the Israelite's experience in Egypt. As one possible explanation, he suggests that the rabbis in the midrash wanted us to see the plague of frogs as punishment for the oppression of Israel. Thus, they told various additional stories about the plague, which were not historically accurate, but serve to highlight the thematic connection they were drawing.

But where else do we see midrashim intended as literary parables, in which the authors make clear that the events in them did not actually happen? My impression is that's rare to nonexistent, much as it would make understanding midrash easier for lazy people like me.

Rather, let us note the pshat basis for saying that the frogs were punishment for earlier sins. The Egyptians tried to prevent being overrun by the Israelites' growth ("vayishretzu"), and they were punished by being overrun by frogs ("vesharatz"). They tried to throw the swarming Israelites into the Nile, and as punishment frogs swarmed out of the Nile and overwhelmed them. On a pshat level, the Egyptians were likely supposed to look at the content of the plague, and realize that it was a measure-for-measure punishment.

If so, then all the midrash adds is the assumption that the measure-for-measure-ness was complete and exact. With that assumption, it takes every available piece of information about Israel's experience, and concludes that the exact same thing must have happened regarding the frogs.

Why make this assumption?

Both modern and medieval Jews are often forced into a corner somewhat regarding our religious beliefs. The Rambam, based on his understanding of philosophy, was forced to say that many stories in the Torah (i.e. Bilaam's donkey talking) were allegorical. We are forced to say that the world was not actually created in six days. Pashtanim in general are forced to say that sometimes Tanach was grammatically irregular or imprecise. In all these cases, outside factors override what seemed to be the Torah's position, but we are willing to compromise since we believe that enough of the "core" issues remain unaffected.

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of midrash is that it is never willing to make such a compromise.* It is never willing to admit that a verse (or letter) of the Torah cannot be understood and thus is invalid as a source for halacha. Similarly, it is never willing to limit the number of miracles in a story based on considerations of reasonableness. Thus, once it decides upon an interpretation such as "the plague of frogs was a punishment for the attempts at population control, and the punishment should fit the crime", it proceeds to insert every single detail of the crime into the punishment. Once we have decided that the Torah's message is that the crime and punishment are related, how can any external factors impede or limit what the Torah is trying to convey?
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*By the way, I think it's too simplistic to say that charedim today follow this approach. It might be more accurate to say that Chazal claimed to know everything, we claim to know something, and charedim claim to know nothing and thus repeat the Chazal's statements without presuming to fully understand them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pharoah's punishment

The question is often asked: How could God harden Pharaoh's heart, denying Pharaoh the right to repent and thereby avoid punishment? It is usually explained that in the first five plagues Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and only from the sixth plague onwards is his heart hardened by God. So in fact he had many chances to repent, but eventually the sin became so ingrained in him that it was not realistic to talk of his repentance.

While not incorrect, I find this to be a weak formulation of the real answer. For it was not only during the plagues that Pharaoh had things to repent for, and chances to repent. Were the plagues a punishment for not letting them go worship God in the desert right now, as Moshe requested? Is that the only thing Pharaoh did wrong? What about the slavery, the killing of babies, and so on?

It may be that the content of the plagues hints that they were punishments for these earlier and greater sins. One wonders if the Egyptians, confronted with a bloody Nile, remembered the babies they had thrown in it. Or when their food supply was destroyed by locusts and hail and they probably had to buy food from neighboring countries, if they thought of their ingratitude towards Yosef's descendants. These plagues seem like "measure for measure" punishment for injustices that reach back centuries.

After the plagues, letting the Jews go celebrate a holiday would not have been repentance, but rather self-preservation. God hardened Pharaoh's heart to prevent such an escape from punishment. But there was no need to harden his heart to prevent repentance for the earlier deeds, because Pharaoh never considered real repentance for them. Even before his heart was repeatedly hardened, he never offered to end the slavery, only to let the people leave for a few days and then return.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Esther's ethnicity

(This is an incomplete summary of a shiur from R' David Fohrman which I thought interesting. His book on Breishit is interesting as well.)

Three things are mentioned about the appearance Vashti was supposed to make at Ahashverosh's party. 1) She was to show off her beauty. 2) She was to wear a crown. 3) The audience was the assembled princes of the empire.

This strange request can be understood as follows. Vashti was a living symbol of the Persian empire - like the Statue of Liberty is nowadays for the US. Like in modern advertising where beautiful women are displayed to market cars or soft drinks, Vashti wearing a crown was shown off to market the beauty of the crown and the Persian empire. When she refused to do this, she implied that the empire had no beauty to show off. Thus Ahashverosh became so angry at her.

Vashti's replacement was supposed to fix her flaw, and successfully represent Persia. For this purpose, the replacement had to be identifiable as Persian. Mordechai asked Esther not to mention her origin. Precisely because she had no discernable non-Persian identity, unlike residents of the other 127 provinces, Ahashverosh was able to choose her as representative of the kingdom.

When Haman's decree became know, Esther was presented with a dilemma. If she spoke up on behalf of her people, she would lose the "non-ethnic" quality which was why she became queen in the first place. Thus, she did not directly request this, even when Ahashverosh promised her "up to half the kingdom". Instead, she attempted to trap Haman, and thus to get both him and his decree removed.

She was half-successful in this. Haman was discovered on her bed, but was immediately killed, before Esther could ask for any decrees associated with him to be revoked. Now Esther's only option was to ask directly for the decree to be revoked.

At this point, for the only time in the Megillah, she fell at Ahashverosh's feet and cried and begged. Despite this display of emotion, Ahashverosh refused! He did not divorce Esther for declaring her identity, but neither did he grant her request. He only allowed for a parallel decree to be issued allowing the Jews to defend themselves. Luckily this was enough, and the Jews lived happily ever after.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yad Vashem

...ונתתי להם בביתי ובחומתי יד ושם...
Thus says Hashem to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what I desire, and uphold by covenant: I shall give them, in my house and my walls, a hand and a name, better than sons and daughters. (Yeshayahu 56:5)

I don't know if this post is more pshat or vort, but it sounds nice, so I'll say it.

The above verse is repetitive and hard to understand. What is the point of mentioning "wall" after mentioning "house"? And what is the relevance of a "hand" here?

Elsewhere, as in the Gemara, the word "yad" refers to a "handle", an implement by which an object is grasped. Perhaps that is the same meaning here: a "yad" is some sort of useful object. This is in contrast to a "shem", which conveys a message rather than being being used as a tool toward some objective. Thus, this phrase first talks about something practical ("yad"), and then something symbolic ("shem").

If so, then this phrase is parallel to the previous phrase: "my house and my walls". A useful object ("yad") is contained in your house, while a symbol ("shem") is posted on the walls of your house for everyone to see. The verse promises that the person who is loyal to God will receive both.

Similarly, when we want to memorialize someone, there are two things we must do. We must make a "shem" - by speaking of them and keeping their memory alive. And we must make a "yad" - by carrying out their intended mission in the world.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shifrah and Puah

Were Shifrah and Puah the only two midwives at the time of Pharaoh's decree? If not, why are only they mentioned?

Let us assume the Jewish people grew from 70 to 600000 males over the course of about 200 years. To make this biologically possible, you have to assume roughly constant (and large, of course) family size throughout the period, which means exponential growth.

Let us assume the midwives' refusal happened midway through the 200 years - that is, 100 years before the end. It must have been at least 80 years before the end, since Moshe was born after the decree was instituted.

By the laws of exponential growth, at that time there were sqrt(70*600000)=6481 Jewish males, and a roughly equal number of females.

Let us assume that each woman alive at that time had 10 kids in her lifespan. That means 64810 births. Assuming a lifespan of 40 years (it was the ancient world), and 365 days per year, it follows that on average 64810/40/365=4.4 births occurred each day.

Would two midwives be able to handle 4.4 births a day? With that birthrate, I think I'd prefer to have maybe 5 to 10 midwives. But as physicists say, the answer has the correct "order of magnitude". We made several big assumptions in this calculation, and nevertheless, the results are not far from what we expected. Anyway, if there was a moderate shortage of midwives, no wonder births often occured before the midwives managed to arrive (Shemot 1:19).

In conclusion, it's within the realm of possibility that there were only two midwives at the time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shemot chapter 1

Every year, upon beginning parshat Shemot, I am struck by the same thing. The first few lines repeat things we already know from Sefer Breishit. But the style is different - extremely concise and abrupt relative to the original story. Here are four examples.

1)
"Yaakov, him and his household came." (Shemot 1:1)

"They took their cattle, and their property which they acquired in the land of Canaan, and came to Egypt: Yaakov and all his offspring with him. His sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters and all his offspring, he brought with him to Egypt." (Breishit 46:6-7)

2)
"These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came to Egypt: [...] Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Zevulun, Binyamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher. All those who came out from Yaakov's loins were seventy people, and Yosef was in Egypt." (Shemot 1:1-5)

Breishit 46:8-27 lists every son and grandson, categorizes them by mother, counts them up, and eventually reaches the total of 70 people. This whole process takes 20 verses.

3)
"Yosef and his brothers and all that generation died." (Shemot 1:6)

Breishit describes Yosef's death, mummification, burial, and the oath his brothers made to eventually return his body to the land of Canaan. That, and the death/burial of Yaakov which is not even mentioned here, essentially fill a whole chapter (Breishit 50).

(It's interesting, by the way, that the Egyptians mourned Yaakov for 70 days, but not Yosef. Presumably they mourned Yaakov out of fear of Yosef. But when Yosef died there was nobody to fear. And since Yosef took their land, they weren't genuinely upset by his passing.)

4)
"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef." (Shemot 1:8)

From the one word "Yosef", we are supposed to have in mind all the events of parshat Miketz and Vayigash. The verse does not even say something like "the doings of Yosef", but just "Yosef".

(Actually, you could argue that "yada" implies a relationship rather than factual knowledge, so "the doings of Yosef" is not appropriate here. But that just begs the question of why Pharoah chose to reject the relationship so dramatically - a question which is answered nowhere.)

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Why this incredible conciseness? I think its purpose is to indicate to us that we now telling the story of a nation rather than of individual people. Occasionally (as with Moshe in chapter 2) an individual's story is of crucial relevance to the nation. But when that is not the case, the narrative has no patience for individual stories. So it minimizes them or omits them entirely, and makes clear to us that it is doing so.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

18th generation Yerushalmi

Some people like to identify themselves as 6th-generation Yerushalmim, or 7th-generation Yerushalmim. I've never met such a person, but sometimes I read about them.

As a 0th-generation Yerushamli (I don't live there) I am not especially tolerant of this pretentiousness. If I ever met a person who introduced themselves that way, I think I would answer this way. "So what? Tzidkiyahu Hamelech was an 18th generation Yerushalmi, and look how evil he was. You think you're any better than he was?"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ben Gurion story

A young American rabbi, maybe age 30, with no real beard and not looking rabbinic at all, was having trouble with the airport security. The conversation went as follows.

Guard: What's your job?
Rabbi: I'm a congregational rabbi in the US.
Guard: Really? You don't look like one.
Rabbi: אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו.
Guard: Hmm, OK, have a nice trip.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Yaakov's sons' sibling marriages

Note: All verse quotations are from Breishit unless otherwise specified.

1. Introduction

R' Yehudah says: Twin sisters were born with each tribe, and they married them. R' Nechemiah says: They [the wives] were Canaanites, and what does "his daughters" mean? His daughters-in-law, as a person does not refrain from referring to his daughters-in-law as his daughters. (Rashi, 37:35).

R' Yehudah brings a well known, but rather strange and disturbing, midrash. What could have motivated him to say it?

It seems the midrash was primarily developed as a response to the following textual problem.

At least two verses in Breishit mention Yaakov having multiple daughters: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him" (37:35), "...his sons, and his sons' sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters, and all his seed he brought with him into Egypt" (46:7). But just one daughter (Dinah) appears in the list of 70 family members who went down to Egypt, in Breishit 46:8-27. How can only one daughter be listed, if more than one was alive at the time?

2. Pshat resolutions

Various ways have been suggested to resolve this contradiction using pshat. Here are several possibilities.

1) Rashi (46:7) assumes that the word "daughter" can also apply to other female relatives (the encounter between Yaakov and Lavan in Gilad is an example where terms for family members are used in this imprecise manner). Thus, Rashi says that in 46:7 "daughters" refers to one daughter (Dinah) and one granddaughter (Serach bat Asher). As quoted above R' Nechemiah in the midrash takes a very similar approach.

2) Ibn Ezra (46:7) suggests that "daughters" refers to Dinah's maidservants - women who grew up in Yaakov's house. (Similarly, in modern Hebrew "bat" means "girl" as well as "daughter". Perhaps Yaakov's household had one "daughter" but many "girls".)

3) Ramban (46:7) says that the plural word "daughters" can be used even if only one daughter is being discussed.

4) R' Elchanan Samet (shiurim on parshat hashavua, vol. 2, Vayigash) suggests that other actual daughters were present, but were not considered to be members of Yaakov's household, since once they got married they became members of other mens' households. This approach is especially attractive because it explains why one daughter (Dinah) IS mentioned. Quite likely she never got married, because most men wouldn't have wanted to marry a woman who had been raped.

But the midrash has clear reasons for rejecting all of these resolutions. Of the four resolutions I just mentioned, the first three
are all variations of "Nu, sometimes the Torah is a bit imprecise because that's how people naturally talked, just deal with it". Clearly the midrash, which makes a drasha from every extra vav in a verse, cannot accept such an answer. The fourth explanation seems to work more cleanly with the text. But it implies that Yaakov's daughters irrevocably assimilated into their husbands' pagan Canaanite or Egyptian families, which is obviously a potential source for discomfort.

3. The midrashic resolution

If none of these answers is acceptable, then how can the midrash resolve the contradiction? There is one remaining "out" which the midrash uses. According to 46:26, the list of 70 people in Yaakov's family excludes "the wives of Yaakov's sons". If Yaakov's daughters were ALSO his sons' wives, then we have a straightforward explanation for why the daughters are not listed. This answer implies exactly what the midrash says: that the sons (at least some of them) married their sisters.

How do we know that these sisters were twins of the brothers, and not born at some other time? I think the best explanation for this follows from the following chronological considerations.

Just 14 years passed between Leah's marriage and Yaakov's leaving Haran. For much of that time Leah was successively pregnant with the 7 children mentioned in the verses, and for some more of the time she was barren (29:35). She could have born additional daughters after leaving Haran, but not for too long after, because these daughters had to become old enough themselves to marry and have several kids before moving to Egypt. In short, the number of daughter/wives Leah could have mothered from additional pregnancies is limited. As for the other wives, they are unlikely to have had many more pregnancies. Rachel was almost continuously barren, and it is not clear that Yaakov slept with Bilhah and Zilpah except when the real wives requested it. In summary, the extra daughters the midrash requires could not have been born from twelve additional pregnancies. Rather, they must have been twins (or triplets, etc.) of each other, and/or of the previously mentioned sons.

To solve the above textual problems, it's sufficient to say that just one of Yaakov's sons had a twin daughter who married her brother. That daughter, plus Dinah, make up the plural "daughters" in 46:7. But the midrash says that there were 12 twin daughters who married their brothers. By saying this, this midrash avoids another difficulty: how did Yaakov's sons marry Canaanites, if Yitzchak and Yaakov had been forbidden to do this, and there is no hint that the 12 sons returned to Haran to find wives? As things now stand, the brothers married nice frum Jewish girls from an upstanding family, not idolatrous foreigners.

Of course, we have not succeeded in explaining every detail of the midrash. The above problems would all be explained if one brother had two twin sisters, the next brother had no twins, and so on. Here the midrash makes an assumption with no basis in the pshat: that each of the pregnancies was exactly the same, one son and one daughter. But that assumption is quite minor, given how much of the midrash has already been explained using logical considerations.

4. Incest

My guess is that people are troubled by this midrash less due to its implausibility than due to the implication of incest. I think our discomfort can be minimized if we assume that each brother married a sister from a different mother - that is, a half-sister. Elsewhere (20:12), Avraham explicitly told Avimelech that he married his half-sister. Either Avraham told the truth here and righteous people like him did marry their half-sisters, or if he lied, presumably he claimed a family relationship that Avimelech would consider permissible. Based on this verse, the gemara rules that Noahides are permitted to marry their half-siblings, but not their full sisters (Sanhedrin 58a). Perhaps Yaakov's sons made a point of marrying only half-sisters as well.

If so, we now have an interesting explanation for another midrash. Rashi to 30:21 says that Dinah was originally destined to be born as a son, but Leah prayed to God and the male fetus was miraculously changed into a female one. Rashi says Leah's motivation was to spare Rachel the humiliation of having fewer sons (one) than either of the midwives (two), since only 12 sons were to be born overall. We can suggest that Leah had a different motivation, one which is absolutely necessary given the halacha and the assumption of 12 twins. If more than 6 out of 12 pairs of twins were from one mother, then not all sons would be able to marry a daughter who was a half-sister rather than a full sister.

This understanding does contradict a different midrash. Rashi on 46:10 says that the sister whom Shimon married was Dinah. However, Shimon and Dinah were full siblings! Perhaps we can say that this midrash views Shimon and Dinah as evil people - Shimon as shown by what he did to Yosef (he and Levi were likely the ringleaders in capturing Yosef, see here) and the city of Shechem, and Dinah as shown by Rashi's comments on 34:1. Shimon and Dinah did violate the Noahide prohibition on incest, but due to their evil characters, they didn't care. For a slightly different approach to how Shimon and Dinah married each other, see here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Negel wasser

The Mishna Brura (Orach Chaim 4:1,4:8) gives several different possible reasons for the three-time hand washing we perform each morning upon awaking. It does not decide which reason is correct, but says that we are careful to keep the stringencies that would be implied by each of the three reasons.

The reasons are:

1. Your hands move around at night. They may have touched dirty parts of the body and become dirty themselves. If that happened, they must be washed before praying or saying blessings.

2. Sleep is associated with death ("one sixtieth part of death" according to Brachot 57b). Death is associated with an "evil spirit" ("ruach raah") which supposedly can harm you if it enters your body (generally through an orifice). You must wash your hands each morning to remove the evil spirit that has descended upon your hands. If you touch a bodily orifice before washing your hands in the morning, the evil spirit will enter your body and harm you. If you touch food before washing your hands, whoever eats the food will suffer the same consequences.

This idea of evil spirits is an interesting parallel to the modern idea of infectious diseases, which could be contracted by touching a diseased corpse, and which hand washing would defend against.

3. Sleep is associated with death, and upon awaking one is effectively reborn.

This last reason has interesting parallels in other areas of halacha. 1) A convert must immerse upon being "reborn" as a Jew. 2) A woman must immerse when a new egg appears in her reproductive system, before having relations with her husband and converting that egg into a new living being.

Astrology

"Ein mazal leyisrael" – "There is no constellation determining the fate of Israel" (Shabbat 156a)

This quote implies that the destinies of non-Jews ARE in fact determined by alignments of the stars and planets. This is just one of many places where Chazal display a belief in astrology. This belief carried on to many of the later rabbis – not only those who insisted on taking every word of aggadta as scientific truth, but also many of those who did not (for one example, see Ibn Ezra on Devarim 4:19). Rambam is a conspicuous exception (see here), but he is the exception that proves the rule.

The question arises: how are we supposed to respect religious authorities who believed something which is so clearly illogical, superstitious, and compatible with idolatry and rejection of Divine providence?

I think the answer is to argue that astrology was unsuccessful science, not pseudo-science. Astrology started with correct observation of some situations, and extrapolated to other, similar, situations. The data and conclusions were lacking, but the method was correct even by modern standards.

For the fact is that certain heavenly bodies do strongly influence events on earth. The best example is the sun. On a daily basis the sun's position determines the temperature and the amount of light we see. Over the course of months, as the sun's position in the ecliptic varies, other changes take place. Not only is weather affected, but in particular seasons plants grow, flower, and bear fruit, and in springtime most animals give birth. The moon affects the world as well, through the tides. Given all this evidence, can we not extrapolate and say that other, smaller heavenly bodies should have more subtle effects on earthly events? Particularly as those bodies (planets) have complicated and non-regular (as seen from earth) orbits, which correspond to the irregularity of life as we experience it?

Of course, modern science has found more precise theories to explain those situations. The sun releases radiation due to its high temperature, which warms air and water to create weather, and various life forms have adapted their life cycle to the regular changes in sunlight and weather. And any sufficiently large body has the power to create tides: if "Yo Mama" (the technical term for an extremely overweight person) were to go to the beach, the tide would rush up to meet her. Modern science allows that Jupiter and the Great Dipper have some influence on us, due to their gravity and radiation. But of course, practically speaking, that influence is completely negligible.

Nowadays, since we possess better scientific explanations, astrology is taken seriously only by idiots and frauds. But it's not fair to say the same about people who lived before the time of Isaac Newton, more or less. Until then, astrology provided the only plausible explanation for many natural phenomena, and there is nothing strange about its being almost universally believed and accepted.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Carmel fire

One night a couple years ago, I was riding a bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv freeway, when I encountered one of the most awe-inspiring things I've ever seen. Looking out the window towards the Carmel mountain range, I saw an entire hill being overrun by a forest fire. The flame was several hundred meters across, and almost as tall as it was wide. No lives were lost, and I could not find even a mention of it in the news the next day.

As I write this, a much larger fire is burning in almost exactly the same place. Already 40 lives have been lost, and thousands of people evacuated from their homes.

Along with my shock at the number of casualties, and concern over what may happen in the next few days, the following thoughts have crossed my mind.

1) The first rain in Israel normally falls a short time after Sukkot. Typically, by December, several heavy rainstorms have occurred. But so far this winter, just two small drizzles have occurred. Effectively, there has been no rain since March or April. As the sources suggest, the chief rabbinate has declared two fast days in the last couple weeks, and a special prayer for rain has been added to "Shomea Tefila" of each weekday shemoneh esreh.

There is an impulse nowadays to say that we don't need rain like we did in the past. After all, few people nowadays are farmers, and several large desalination plants are now operating. It's true that a drought will not cause widespread starvation like it once would have. But this fire is a good example of how the lack of rainfall can have consequences that are not easily forseen. A significant rainfall in the days before the fire would have kept it from spreading so fast (or at all). Nobody praying for rain had the possibility of forest fires in mind, yet this fire has killed more Israelis than any other single event in a number of years.

2) For many decades Jews have planted trees throughout Israel. Some even say the "green line" is so called because it separates green Israel from its non-green neighbors. Arabs - opponents of Zionism and people whose culture formed in the desert - have understandably opposed this greening of the land. Israel's landscape is susceptible to forest fires, but a high proportion of fires in recent years have been attributed to arson by those with "nationalist" motivations. If this is another such case, then it may effectively be the worst terrorist attack to occur in many years.

3) At the Chanukah party I was at tonight, the planned music was canceled. The dvar torah was about how fire is both a constructive force, enabling civilization to arise, and a destructive one. Tonight and tomorrow, let us pray that our constructive forces outweigh the forces of destruction, and that the damage caused by this fire be limited.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Chazal, science, and daas torah

The sages of Israel say: By day the sun travels below the heaven, and by night above the heaven. The sages of the nations of the world say: By day the sun travels below the heaven, and by night below the earth. Rebbi said: Their words seem more logical than ours, since by day springs are cool, and by night [they are] warm. (Pesachim 94b)

In recent years there has been a debate, most publicly regarding R' Natan Slifkin's books, regarding what degree of scientific knowledge was possessed by the ancient Jewish sages. We see from the above quote that Chazal themselves did not think they possessed the perfect scientific knowledge that some people nowadays credit them with. Rebbi, the author of the mishna, rejected the scientific opinion of the Jewish sages (חכמי ישראל) because the scientific evidence seemed to be against it.

Why do the charedim insist on holding a position about Chazal that is against the above gemara, as well as against common sense?

Perhaps the answer is as follows. The "Chazal knew science" school is often associated with belief in "daas torah", or the infallibility of the greatest modern rabbis. It seems to me that saying Chazal erred about science is a threat to the belief in daas torah. If Chazal could err, then so can modern rabbis, who are clearly not as great as Chazal. And if modern rabbis can err, then statements of theirs may be rejected if not accompanied by a sufficiently persuasive justification. For the charedim, at least, that is unacceptable. Due to the perceived social need for daas torah, they are forced into a corner when it comes to discussing Chazal's knowledge as well.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Kippah size

"Sometimes a small head gives the impression of a big yarmulke."
-DSF

(And when translated into Hebrew, this line has a extra twist [read the definition there, since the translation is rather inaccurate].)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

R' Nachman and doubt

"When a Jew falls away from his faith, heaven forbid, there certainly remains some 'dot' of faith within him. The very fact that he feels pain at having fallen away from faith, and seeks good advice on how to restore and strengthen his faith, this in itself is an act of faith. For in the innermost parts of his heart, he truly believes in God and in the holy zaddikim. However, he does not feel this faith openly and fully, for to him faith is in the category of smallness and brokenness. That is why advice will be effective for him, because as soon as he is offered a good suggestion for the enhancement of his faith, he grabs hold of it as if it were a precious stone, for a bit of faith still exists deep within him, and he truly yearns to perfect and elevate his fallen, broken faith. Therefore he can gather several good bits from the broken fragments of his faith and thereby make it whole. This is the equivalent of 'the tablets and the broken remnants of the tablets lay together in the ark' (Brachot 8b). By the very fact that he sees his broken faith as corresponding to the category of the broken tablets, by this alone is it restored."
-R' Nachman of Breslov, Emet Vatzedek, Emunah #40, quoted in N. Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary", p. 93.

According to R' Nachman, someone with religious doubts is like an ark containing "broken" or "cracked" tablets from Sinai. This damaged faith is certainly is not as good as unblemished faith, but is still holy. And under the right circumstances, it may someday be mended into the "whole tablets" of complete faith once again. In fact, by simply recognizing that a person's partial faith is real and valuable even if not complete, it can become a sufficient basis for much of his religious life.

(This is certainly not the only passage in which R' Nachman speaks about religious doubt, but it was new to me...)

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The name Hava

Adam called the name of his wife Hava, for she was the mother of all the living. (Breishit 3:20)

Two observations on this.

1) One instinctively connects the name Hava (חוה) to the last word of the verse (חי). The problem with this is clear: Hava is not all living beings, she is simply the MOTHER of all living beings (well, the human ones). Shouldn't her name suggest that she's the mother, rather than implying that she's simply one of those living things herself?

For this reason, I think her name must come from a different source. It is a derivation not of חי, but of חיה. Haya is a similar-looking word with a different meaning (though clearly, they are related). As explained by the Rashbam on Breishit 18:10 (any guesses who I'm doing for shnaim mikra this year?) חיה refers to a woman who has recently given birth, similar to יולדת.

If so, then the verse is much more easily understood: “Adam called the name of his wife 'Birthing Mother', for she was the mother of all the living.”

2) Why then is her name Hava, not Haya?

The name Hava sounds a lot like a more familiar name – that of God, YKVK. By examining that name, we can understand Hava's as well.

The meaning of YKVK is best explained through another name of God – “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” (Shemot 3:14). I once heard a suggestion that this name is of the form “Bond, James Bond” and it proves that God's first name is Asher! But more seriously, Ibn Ezra (3:14) explains that “Ehyeh” is God's name (thus the introduction “Ehyeh sent me to you” that appears later in the verse), and “Asher Ehyeh” is an attached explanation (“Who is always existing/present*”). Of course, the Hebrew word Ehyeh is in the first person – appropriate for when God is talking about himself. When humans talk about God in the third person, the appropriate form would be Yihyeh. This is almost the same as the well-known name YKVK, and Rashbam and Hizkuni (3:15) argues that this is how the name YKVK was formed.

The only difference between Yihyeh and YKVK is that the yud in the middle is replaced with a vav. Thus the word no longer takes a grammatically correct form, and it is clear that it represents a unique name, rather than just being a verb. I suspect that God's name is not the only name with this yud-to-vav transformation. It seems to have also occurred in the formation of Hava's name, transforming it from the dictionary word חיה to the name חוה.

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* For a full discussion of the verb "lihyot", its primary meaning of "appearance" rather than "being", and the implications regarding God's name and role in Tanach, see R' Yoel Bin Nun, "Active and existential being in the Bible: a linguistic interpretation of the name Hashem", Megadim 5:7-23. As an aside, I once heard or read R' Yaakov Medan discuss the implications of this meaning for our relationship with God: it is encouraging that we are guaranteed Divine presence in the world, but also more threatening, in the event that we sin.

The OU is haredi?



Purchased at the local makolet, with an "explanation" regarding the unfamiliar American hechsher...

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tzimtzum

God contracted [tzimtzem] His pure light, as it were, just as a father diminishes [metzamtzem] his intelligence and prattles for the sake of his young son. All sorts of other childish qualities are generated in the father, who loves these childish qualities, so that the son may enjoy them, and this is a source of joy to him.

-The Maggid of Mezrich, "Maggid devarav leyaakov" no.1, quoted in N. Lamm, "The religious thought of Hasidism: text and commentary", p. 44.

R' Lamm says the "prattling" refers to prophetic revelation. I thought it meant the simple fact of existing in and experiencing a physical world.

Moshe's view

Last year in September I flew from the US to Israel. For some reason, the plane took an unusual flight path, which let me see a huge part of Israel from "above". Unable to photograph the view, I later recreated it in Google Earth.

This experience reminded me of several verses (Devarim 34:1-4) in parshat Vezot Habracha:
Moshe went up from the plains of Moav to Mount Nevo, the top of the peak which is above Jericho, and Hashem showed him the whole land: the Gilead up to Dan; all of Naftali; the land of Efraim and Menashe; all the land of Yehudah, up to the Mediterranean Sea; the Negev; and the plain, the valley of Jericho, the city of palms, up to Tzoar. Hashem said to him: "This is the land I promised to Avraham Yitzchak and Yaakov saying 'To your offspring I shall give it'; I have shown it to your eye, but you shall not go there."

The areas listed here trace a rough counterclockwise circle, tracing the mountains which surround the Jordan River valley:

It is as if Moshe was scanning his eyes across the incredible view from Mount Nevo, trying to imprint it all into his mind in this last opportunity before he died.

It is the same thing I did from the airplane. The difference being that shortly afterwards, I landed in Israel and have been here ever since. It should be humbling to realize that while I was shown the land just like Moshe was, unlike Moshe I had the opportunity to enter it.

The flight also brought me to more philosophical thinking. From the airplane, I could see everything that happened in Israel, limited only by roofs and the focusing ability of my eyes. And a person on the ground, unless armed with modern weaponry, could not do anything to harm me. It seemed clear to me that the common idea of God being "above" us, in the “heavens”, is in large part a visualization of the ideas of omniscience and omnipotence.

Of course, there was one difference between my "omniscience", in the airplane, and God's. There are skyscrapers in Tel Aviv that when you see them from the ground, even from a distance, they never fail to impress you. From the plane, though, the same skyscrapers barely stood out from their surroundings. This seems like an inherent problem with such "omniscience": the more I saw, the less I was able to examine each thing I saw. God, being infinite, has no such limitation to his omniscience. God is no more impressed by the skyscrapers than I was, but having better "eyesight", is still capable of discerning all of their details.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Someone blew that interview

I had a job interview scheduled for 1 PM yesterday with a manager named Tzvi (name changed). I arrived at 12:45, announced myself the receptionist, and waited. At 1:05, I heard the receptionist in a bitter phone argument with Tzvi. Apparently the receptionist expected Tzvi to arrive at 1, while Tzvi expected the receptionist to call once I arrived. The phone argument continued for five solid minutes, until 1:10, and at 1:15 Tzvi finally arrived to interview me. He apologized for the delay, and at the end of the interview, he apologized again. “It's annoying,” my potential future boss said, “when people much lower than you try to cause you problems.”

While Tzvi asked several technical questions that I couldn't remember the answers to, I don't think I'm the one who blew this interview.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Thoughts on Chayei Sarah

In the story of Avraham's burial of Sarah, one word appears over and over. I'm not thinking of "cave", "field", or "Hittite" - words are that obviously necessary to the story - but of the word "vayakam", which appears four different times, having a different meaning almost every time.

ויקם אברהם מעל פני מתו
Here "vayakam" means that Avraham ended an activity - the mourning of Sarah.
ויקם אברהם וישתחו לעם הארץ לבני חת
Hear "vayakam" means that Avraham began an activity - bowing down.
ויקם שדה עפרון אשר במכפלה אשר לפני ממרא, השדה והמערה אשר בו, וכל העץ אשר בשדה אשר בכל גבלו סביב, לאברהם למקנה לעיני בני-חת
Here "vayakam" means that a financial transaction took place.
ויקם השדה והמערה אשר בו לאברהם לאחזת קבר מאת בני חת
Here "vayakam" means that the field was in Avraham's control and use from this moment on.

Throughout the story the word "vayakam" is used to refer to Avraham. It seems that this conveys the characteristic quality of Avraham - that he is active and motivated, that he "gets up" and accomplishes things.

The opposite of "getting up" is "sitting down". Interestingly, the word for sitting appears once in the chapter:
ועפרון ישב בתוך בני חת

While Avraham is known for standing up, Efron is known for sitting. Avraham is active while Efron is passive. The same word that twice describes Avraham standing is then used twice to describe Avraham's success in purchasing the cave. Through motivation and effort, Avraham purchases his first foothold in the land of Israel; through his passivity, Efron loses his share in the land.

The same is true of us: if we are motivated to keep the Torah and defend ourselves, we will succeed in inheriting the land of Israel; if we are lazy and apathetic, we will lose it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Yom Kippur Mussaf Avodah and the Universalized Divine

This is an edited version of a paper I wrote for Prof. David Stern in a U. of P. class a number years ago.

1. Introduction

What is striking about the Yom Kippur service is its almost complete lack of reference to Egypt, the Exodus, Sinai, or the subsequent conquest of the land of Canaan – the events seen as being responsible for defining the Jewish people’s existence and religious mission. With the exception of Moses’ pleas for forgiveness after the Golden Calf episode, this crucial section of the Jewish historical narrative is almost entirely ignored. Instead, we find references to creation, the patriarchs, the Temple service, and God’s anticipated absolute kingship at the end of time. All these elements are combined in the Amitz Koach prayer of Mussaf. Amitz Koach’s three sections – the creation of the world, the Yom Kippur Temple service, and the celebration following the service – together present a unified view of history in which the Yom Kippur service occupies a central role. Amitz Koach describes a universalized Divine-human intimacy present in Creation and in the messianic future, a closeness which was lost through early sin and which can only be regained through proper performance of the Yom Kippur service.

The earliest known Mussaf Avodah text dates from around the third century and is little more than an edited version of the Mishnah, tractate Yoma. Later versions of the Avodah were more innovative. The Avodah genre came to include details such as accounts of creation and of Aaron’s selection as the first High Priest, before continuing with a highly poeticized description of the Temple service. Our current text, Amitz Koach, consists of three distinct sections: 1) a history of the world from creation through Adam, Noah, and the Patriarchs; 2) an intricate description of the Yom Kippur service, still recognizable as being drawn from Mishnah Yoma; 3) and an account of the celebration following the High Priest’s completion of the service. This paper will refer to the three sections by the names Creation, Service, and Celebration.

2. Creation

Creation begins with the formation of heaven and earth, followed by the first light, separation of heaven and sea, and so on – recalling events from almost every day of the Genesis story. Adam is commanded not to eat from the Tree of Life; he disobeys and is punished. Cain and Abel sacrifice to God; Cain kills Abel out of jealousy and receives a Divine mark to protect him from revenge. One third of the generation of Enosh is wiped out by a flood for their idolatry, while Noah’s generation is also drowned for their sins. Those who suggested building a tower of Babel are swept away by “seething whirlwinds,” whereas Abraham recognizes God and offers his son Isaac as a sacrifice. The Creation passage concludes as Jacob and Levi are chosen by God, Jacob to form the Jewish people and Levi to serve in the Temple.

This passage closely parallels the book of Genesis in its basic structure, but differs in a number of details. Unlike Genesis, which covers twenty generations of humanity in its first sixth and uses the remaining space to detail the lives of the Patriarchs, Amitz Koach describes the creation and the first generations after it in great detail, while devoting just one line to each Patriarch. Indeed, it seems that the main reason the Patriarchs appear here at all is to provide the logic for Levi’s choice as the priestly tribe. Their role as ancestors or members of the Jewish people is not deemed worthy of any mention.

The focus is instead on the first generations after Creation. The individuals mentioned early in Genesis have unique relationships with God (though not always positive ones) which demand God’s full attention whenever they encounter the Divine. This special relationship is what the Yom Kippur service tried to recreate. The Avodah tells us little about these early humans except that each of them (or their generation) sinned in some way and was punished – both physically and through a progressive breakdown of their relationship to God. By Abraham’s time the relationship had been entirely lost, but as the first Jew Abraham was once again granted access to God. Abraham’s unique relationship was continued through Isaac, Jacob, and eventually through the priestly tribe. While the Temple stood, only the High Priest, only on Yom Kippur, could attract the complete attention of God. His divine relationship was qualitatively different from that of every other Jew, and it was responsible for the singular measure of atonement which the Yom Kippur service provided.

There is a huge chronological gap between the life of Levi and the time of the Temple Yom Kippur service. This gap is filled by the projection of the priesthood onto Levi. The last verses of the Creation section telescope his being chosen with the choice of a High Priest from his descendants to perform the Temple service:
To serve you, you chose Levi, fervent man of yours, dividing from his stock one hallowed to the Holiest of Holy chambers, one to bind the diadem of priesthood and to wear the breastplate lights, to dwell inside the House of Glory seven days.


“Division from the stock” is a constant theme in this part of the Avodah. Abraham is separated from the rest of humanity, Isaac and Jacob from their brothers, Levi from the Jewish people, and the High Priest from the other Levites. All of early history, then, is a winnowing process with the High Priest’s Temple service as its ultimate goal. Also, this “division from the stock” and mention of seven days of dwelling in the Temple alludes to the first words of the Service section, which immediately follow: “Loyal attendants for a week before the tenth day, separate the high priest as the Law prescribes.” This parallel creates a smooth transition between the two passages.

The Creation section itself makes constant reference to the Temple service to which it is a prologue. The Garden of Eden is said to have been created expressly for God’s “worshippers,” while Cain and Abel each offer a sacrifice to God. Abraham’s offering of Isaac as a sacrifice is recorded along with a statement that Isaac is “the child of his old-age passion.” The mention of passion here parallels the mention of passion when Eve gave birth (fifteen lines prior), implying that all humans are somehow linked to the merit of Abraham’s attempted sacrifice. Finally, Jacob and his children are described in sacrificial terms:
Like a faultless lamb, a perfect man was chosen, Jacob… You brought forth from his loins well-formed and handsome children, all of them the seed of Truth, in whom no defect lay.
Here also, we are reminded of the Yom Kippur animal sacrifices, which could be disqualified by certain blemishes or defects in the animal.

3. Service

The second and by far the longest portion of Amitz Koach is the Service section. Despite Amitz Koach’s highly stylized form, we can still connect nearly every phrase of this section with a sentence in Mishna Yoma. The reverse is not true, though; many of the more tangential or tedious paragraphs in Yoma are omitted entirely. Nevertheless, every major event in Yoma is still present and substantial portions of that tractate, most importantly the High Priest’s confessions, are word-for-word the same. One can confidently say that Yoma and the Avodah are describing exactly the same service.

There are, however, important thematic differences between the texts. Most importantly, the character of the High Priest is treated very differently between the Tractate Yoma, and the Avodah, and the Biblical account on which both of those are fundamentally based. In Leviticus 16, the High Priest performs the lengthy Temple service single-handedly. Yoma, on the other hand, assumes the High Priest may be a Zadokite and requires the rabbis to direct the High Priest at every step, lest he ignorantly or maliciously ruin the ceremony. Amitz Koach more than restores the High Priest’s active and honored role in the events. For example, Yoma requires that High Priest read the laws of Yom Kippur in the days before the holiday. The Avodah repeats this requirement, but omits the stated reason for the recitation: “Perhaps you [the High Priest] have forgotten or perhaps you have never learned.” Similarly, where Yoma requires the High Priest to watch a procession of bulls, sheep, and rams, “that he should recognize them and be familiar with the service,” the Avodah omits the reason again, and changes the tone of the passage so that the procession sounds like a ceremonial parade with the High Priest in a position of honor. In other places, the Avodah changes the text of the Mishnah in order to emphasize the High Priest’s enthusiasm for the service. Thus, he is portrayed several times as running to the next ritual, and each time he confesses his or the nation’s sins, he goes beyond the minimum requirement and “conceal[s] nothing in his heart.” Also, Amitz Koach emphasizes the beauty and expense of the priest’s clothing. Other versions of the Avodah go farther and call attention to his bodily strength. The overall effect is what Swartz called the “valorization of the priesthood,” quite in contrast to the dubious picture implied by the Mishnah. Only a righteous, knowledgeable, and physically capable priest would be suitable to approach God in the special manner which only took place on Yom Kippur.

4. Celebration

The last section of the Avodah, which I called “Celebration,” immediately follows (chronologically and in the text) the conclusion of the High Priest’s Temple rituals, so that one might have considered it a continuation of that section.

However, its style is so suddenly different that they cannot possibly be seen as one unit. The overwhelming detail of the Service passage is suddenly replaced by an equally overwhelming measure of imprecision and hyperbole. “Now [the Priest’s] face is like the rising of a brilliant sun,” exclaims the very first line of this section. This might be seen simply as an expression of emotion – except that the passage rapidly proceeds into discussion of outright miracles, events that could only happen in a messianic age. As the High Priest returns home, clouds gather and a blessed rain begins to fall (an allusion to the rainy season in Israel, which begins each year shortly after Yom Kippur). Harvests are peaceful and plentiful. God’s justice is proclaimed by voice and instrument throughout the land. Moreover, even the Jews’ souls become perfectly clean and pure. “From their uncleanness they are washed, from the taint of their wrongdoing they are purified … declaring that their Purifier is a fount of living waters, Hope of Israel, Israel’s ritual bath whose waters never fail.” In the end, they are even “drawn up to the gates on high in ecstasy, seized up by joy and happiness forever…”

Clearly this does not literally refer to any Yom Kippur that ever happened, or else the next one would have been unnecessary. The last sentences of Leviticus 16 and the last chapter of Tractate Yoma discuss the personal obligations of fasting and repentance, and perhaps the Avodah means to imply that if those obligations were as scrupulously fulfilled as the Temple rituals, then the ecstatic celebration describe here would become reality as well.

5. The overall thematic structure

More interestingly, the Avodah’s messianic imagery does not begin in the Celebration section; that imagery is instead implicit from the beginning of the Creation passage. The Garden of Eden was created “to delight [God’s] worshippers,” not Adam and Eve but the righteous Jews who would arrive there in the world to come. The marine Leviathan was created “to feast the righteous in the World to Come.” And Levi is chosen from Jacob’s children so that one of his descendants might perform the final Yom Kippur service, the one that results in Israel’s merging with the Divine in the Celebration section described above.

Just as creation is expressed in terms of the eschatological purpose of the created being, the messianic experience is expressed in language reminiscent of creation. The celebrating Jews “emit [cries] of joy; they call to one another” and “frolic in God’s presence” like animals. The High Priest has a face “like the rising of a brilliant sun,” while his people “bea[m] their light forth like the breaking dawn.” The Jews are even likened to “the angels of the morning” and the overall effect is to portray people as animals and other natural beings or forces. The animal allusions are especially powerful because animal slaughter is so important an aspect of the sacrificial service that would have brought Israel to this point.

More generally, though, the primeval references in Celebration and the eschatological references in Creation serve to link these sections together. Just after creation, the Avodah sees Adam and Eve as coexisting intimately with God in a garden world, naked like animals and in control of the Garden as the celestial bodies seem to control our world. God is even pictured as asking Adam’s consent before taking his rib to form Eve, indicating what the Avodah sees as the closeness of their relationship. However, the cumulative errors of Adam, Eve, Cain, Enosh’s generation, and Noah’s generation are seen as causing a progressive breakdown of the Divine-human relationship. In the aftermath of a successful Yom Kippur service, the Avodah expects that decline to be reversed as mankind returns to its original, exalted, animal-like level. The vehicle for that return, of course, would be the animal sacrifices offered in the Temple.

Nowhere in this theological construct do we require Israel’s primacy over the other nations. Indeed, since Biblical times the Temple had been regarded as a universal institution. The Avodah passes over the Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and even the establishment of the original Tabernacle without a word, central though they are to Israel’s relationship with God, since they have little meaning for the remainder of humanity that will also be redeemed. Just as the Divine-human connection of Adam and Eve (and their immediate descendants) involved all mankind, the future union of God and humanity is independent of the major events of Jewish history. In the current, sinful, intermediate stage, though, a Jewish people is needed to preserve a spark of holiness with which to kindle the final redemption. In recognition of this, the Patriarchs are briefly introduced into the end of the Creation passage.

The one constant image throughout the Creation and Celebration sections is that of water. The first act of creation recounted in the Avodah is God’s division of the primordial waters into heaven and sea. The first animals created are fish, along with the marine Leviathan, which will be eaten in the World to Come and is in a sense the LAST animal of creation. The Behemoth, another gigantic animal that will be eaten by the righteous, is described as dwelling “in the water willows;” other sources see it as a land animal, but the Avodah tries hard to link it with water. Water also (violently) separates Enosh and Noah from the sinful worlds around them. After the successful Yom Kippur service rain begins to fall, filling the furrows of the fields with water and ensuring a plentiful harvest. And of course, God is the “fount of living waters, Hope of Israel, Israel’s ritual bath whose waters never fail.” The world begins as water and history ends with God’s ritual cleansing of Israel.

In between is the spiritual dryness that the Yom Kippur service is seen as extricating us from. [The scapegoat, which was sent to the desert, is a physical symbol of this dryness.] Of course, the High Priest’s five immersions and ten hand-washings are an important part of the Yom Kippur Temple service, hinting again that the Yom Kippur service is the method through which ultimate redemption will arrive.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Ten Martyrs

This post has been removed in preparation for publication elsewhere.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Ata bechartanu

1. Introduction

You chose us from the all nations; you loved us and were satisfied [ratzita] by us; you elevated us [romamtanu] from all the peoples; you sanctified us [kidashtanu] with your commandments; you brought us close [keravtanu] to your service...

This prayer, recited on every holiday mentioned in the Torah, troubles some people because of its seeming "we're so great" message. It seems imply that we Jews are better than other human beings, and therefore deserve everything and are responsible for nothing.

But our unease with that idea should disappear when we look more closely and see that the passage is in fact troublesome due to quite the opposite idea.

Most of the verbs in the above passage are well known from the Temple service:
ratzita - ritzui, God's acceptance of a sacrifice
romamtanu - terumah, a gift of part of something to the Temple or priests
kidashtanu - hekdesh, property which has been donated to the Temple
keravtanu - korban, a sacrifice

This series of allusions implicitly compares the Jewish nation to a Temple sacrifice.

Taken literally, this seems like a troubling glorification of death as a religious experience. It reminds one the deviant theology which says that the Holocaust had positive value, because it was mankind's special opportunity to offer a "sacrifice" to God in the form of the Jewish people. (The very word "holocaust", which originally meant an animal sacrifice, reflects this interpretation.)

In fact, I think Ata Bechartanu's comparison of Israel to a sacrifice means no such thing. The concept of "korban", i.e. "sacrifice", does not necessarily imply death or suffering at all. Here is why.

2. Sacrifice

I think the basic conception of "sacrifice" (in Tanach and Jewish tradition) is not that the object of sacrifice is killed, but simply that the object is committed and transferred to God. The word "sacrifice" is in fact somewhat inappropriate; the equivalent Hebrew words "korban" and "lehakriv" literally meant "to bring close". Once the object has been transferred to God's domain, the act of sacrifice is over; what happens next depends on what the object is best suited for. If the object is an animal, then it is killed (the word “hikriv” in the Torah is often followed by “shachat”). If the object is a person, then the person becomes committed to serving in the Temple.

Therefore, what we call "human sacrifice" is problematic, not because of the "korban" aspect, but because AFTER the "korban" the person is killed instead of performing one of the meaningful tasks that people are capable of performing. It is an example of giving a gift, which is good, but then using the gift in a way the recipient would not like.

This understanding is evident in the following commandment, one of the first in the Torah regarding sacrifices:

"You shall give your firstborn sons to Me. Thus you shall also do to your ox and sheep: seven days it shall be with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to Me." (Shemot 22:28-9)

Thus the firstborns are "given" to God. Given the context (the animals in the next verse are killed as sacrifices), you might think this means the firstborns become human sacrifices. Whatever its meaning, the command is later overridden, as the firstborns are replaced by Levites:

"Behold, I have taken the Levites from the children of Israel - in place of the firstborn of each womb among the children of Israel - and the Levites are now Mine." (Bamidbar 3:12)

What is the fate of the Levites? Will they now become human sacrifices in place of the firstborn? The answer appears shortly afterwards:

"God spoke to Moshe saying: ... 'Aharon shall offer the Levites before Hashem as a wave-offering from the children of Israel, that they may be in the service of Hashem.' ... Aharon waved [the Levites] as a wave-offering ... Afterwards the Levites entered to perform their service in the Tent of Meeting before Aharon." (Bamidbar 8:1-22)

So the Levites DO become "sacrifices", but not in the expected sense of the term. They are called a "wave-offering" (elsewhere in the Torah "wave-offering" refers to ceremonially lifting a just-sacrificed animal) even though they aren't actually killed, just consecrated to their future task. Evidently, this was the original intention with regard to the firstborns, and this is what was meant by "giving" them to God.

We see the same meaning in Shmuel 1:1:11, where Hannah prays that "If You give Your servant a male child, I will give him to Hashem all the day of his life". Her words resemble and perhaps intentionally allude to Shemot 22:28 ("You shall give your firstborn sons to Me"). And when her firstborn son Shmuel is born, "giving" him to God does not mean killing him. Rather, once he is old enough he serves in the Mishkan, and eventually he becomes an important prophet and religious leader.

Probably the clearest example of this understanding appears in the Torah verses discussing the actual appointment of priests and Levites:
"You shall hakrev to you Aharon your brother and his sons with him, from among the children of Israel, to be priests to me." (Shemot 28:1)
"Hakrev the tribe of Levi, and have him stand before Aharon the priest, and serve him." (Bamidbar 3:6)

In all these verses we see that consistently, the language is that of sacrifices, but the action is that of consecration for Temple service.

3. Ata Bechartanu and the priesthood

According to this theory, when a person is brought as an “offering” to God, it in fact means that they are committed to service of God in the Temple. Let us apply this to Ata Bechartanu, which speaks of the people as a whole as if they were sacrifices. The implication is that they must all serve in a priestly role. This role, of course, is well known and most clearly indicated by Shemot 19:6, which describes the Jewish people as a "kingdom of priests, a holy people".

We can see how apt this description is by looking broadly at Torah's guidelines for kohanim, Israelites, and non-Jews. All human beings must behave morally, but Jews must additionally observe a number of rituals and prohibitions. Similarly, all Jews must keep the Torah, but kohanim must observe several rituals and prohibitions unique to them. Kohanim have the additional task of teaching and inspiring the people of Israel (see Devarim 33:10), and in the broad picture, Jews have the same task when it comes to non-Jews. Jews truly are the priests of the human race – with the tasks, status, and material sacrifices that that role entails.

On Shalosh Regalim, all Jews come to the Temple and directly act out their role as priests. It is no accident that on these days we recite Ata Bechartanu, the prayer that most directly alludes to our priestly role.

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* Ask your rabbi regarding practical applications of this.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Love, fear, and Tishrei

1. Two kinds of repentance

The gemara (Yoma 86) tells us that there are two types of repentance – from love and from fear. It further explains that the effect of repentance from love is greater than repentance from fear: through repentance from love, intentional sins are transformed into merits, not just into unintentional sins.

While this source is well known, it is not so clear what it actually means. Does repentance from fear mean from fear of punishment, or from awe at God's greatness (“yirat haromemut”)? Does repentance from love mean from enjoying the performance of mitzvot, or from recognizing them as intrinsically worth doing? And what is the link between these terms and the repentance's resulting effect on your sin? And which explanation actually corresponds to what you experience while repenting?

Literally, teshuva means to “return” - to move from one place to a certain other place (where one has previously been). The “places” in this context refer to states of moral behavior. You start out as a person who commits a certain sin, and hopefully end up in a different state, of being a person who does not commit that sin. The process of teshuva is therefore that of becoming a person who will not commit the sin.

There are two ways, I think, in which this may be accomplished. You may decide not to commit the sin, and through constant self-control prevent the sin from repeating itself. Or else, you may lose the motivation to commit the sin. In my opinion, “repentance from fear” refers to the first type of change, and “repentance from love” to the second.

Based on this explanation, the gemara in Yoma 86 is easy to understand. A person is judged based on their character at the time of judgment. According to our explanation, if you repent out of “fear”, then the part of your mind which decided to sin no longer exists. So you are judged as if you sinned without deciding to sin: “intentional sins are transformed to unintentional sins”. But if you repent out of “love”, the original desire or urge which led you to sin no longer exists. Your character is that of a person who does good, and you are judged based on this: “intentional sins are transformed into merits”.

2. Two parts of Tishrei

This explanation of repentance may help us to answer several questions which arise regarding the holidays in Tishrei.

1. Of the two kinds of repentance (from love and from fear), which of them are we doing in Tishrei? Which type of repentance is the atmosphere of Yom Kippur, for example, designed to encourage?

2. The holidays in the Torah fall into two categories: 1) The pilgrimage holidays: Pesach, Sukkot, and Shavuot. 2) The holidays of Tishrei: Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and Shemini Atzeret. These three are each one day long, are spaced about 10 days apart from each other, and all have the same set of musaf offerings, which is not offered on any other day of the year. These technical similarities suggest that the three Tishrei holidays (as well as Sukkot, which may be viewed as belonging to BOTH the categories of pilgrimage and Tishrei holidays) share a common purpose. But what is it? The commonalities between RH and YK are obvious. But what do Shemini Atzeret and Sukkot have in common with them?

3. The Mishna (Rosh Hashana 1:2) says we are judged regarding water on Sukkot. Thus Hoshana Rabbah is considered to be a solemn day of judgment, and we say special, very solemn prayers for rain on Shemini Atzeret. But doesn't all this solemnity contradict the idea that Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are “zman simchatenu”?

Let us now try to answer these questions.

1,2. I think that in Tishrei we do both types of repentance – from love and fear – but on different days. On RH and YK and during selichot, the theme is repentance “from fear”. As explained previously, this means we make the decision not to sin. We search for negative character traits in ourselves, which manifest themselves in certain situations. We resolve to avoid those situations when they can be avoided, and restrain ourselves through self-control and increased motivation when they cannot. The major factors motivating this resolve include fear of punishment (and other fears, such as of not having lived a meaningful life, or of losing one's Jewish identity) – which is why this is called “repentance from fear”.

On Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret we also repent – but “from love”, not fear. Having just gone through RH and YK, we now have an exceptional degree of self-control and are avoiding many our the sins from the past year. But human nature is weak. We developed this self-control in response to the crisis of YK. But once the crisis passes, we very often relax and revert somewhat to our previous behavior. (For this reason, many people question the value of the repentance they do around YK – how can it be real repentance if the next year they'll be trying to repent for exactly the same thing?) To avoid this regression, on Sukkot we must “repent out of love” – that is, develop the good character traits which ensure that even in our “lazy” state we have no desire to sin.

The main tool we use for this is positive reinforcement. Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are described in the prayers (unlike any other holidays) as “zman simchatenu”, and the celebration of Simchat Torah is scheduled for these days. Just after Yom Kippur, before our behavior has declined too much from its peak, we provide ourselves with as many happy experiences as possible. The goal is that we begin to associate our new, good behavior with these positive experiences. If we succeed at this, then our natural urge will be to do what is moral and correct, because it makes us happy. Even if our discipline level slips during the remainder of the year, we will still manage to avoid sin, because we no longer desire it.

This change can be illustrated with a metaphor. Behavioral decisions are like paths through high grass. If one path is commonly taken, it becomes worn down and more convenient to take in the future. To start on a new path, you must be willing to leave the old path and fight your way through the bushes. But each time you take the new path it becomes easier, and as you neglect the old path it becomes overgrown again. After Yom Kippur, having chosen a new path, we take these first few difficult trips through the bushes. The encouraging atmosphere of Sukkot gives us strength to continue with this, until the new path becomes more worn-down and convenient than the old one.

This “repentance through love”, through positive reinforcement, can only be performed after Yom Kippur. If we began the special repentance period with the happiness of Sukkot, then we would never get around to fully repenting. Certain necessary parts of the repentance process – for example, confession – are just not fun to do. Once we have gone through a traumatic period in which we take these steps and make these changes, we can take more pleasant steps which ensure that the changes become permanent.

3. The above analysis suggests that Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret are days of “repentance from love”, days of happiness, “zman simchatenu”. But this is not incompatible with their being days of judgment.

We normally associate judgment with beating one's chest, crying, and other unpleasant experiences. This is because judgment implies a deadline, before which we must make ourselves worthy of a positive judgment. Thus there is urgency and crisis. Unhappiness is a great stimulator of change, and with judgment approaching, we need change immediately.

But on Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret, we take a different approach to judgment. Yom Kippur is so recent that we (hopefully) are still on a spiritual high. In the short term, we cannot realistically hope to improve ourselves much more than we did in Yom Kippur. So the best strategy is not to begin an ambitious new repentance program, but to continue the path we decided for ourselves on Yom Kippur. And the most effective way to do this is to be happy, not sad.

Of course, judgment is still a time for seriousness, not frivolity. But a thoughtful person with self-control is capable of being both serious and happy simultaneously. (See
here for an argument that the difference between desirable happiness [“simcha”] and undesirable frivolity [“schok”] is the presence of composure and self-control.) By the end of Yom Kippur we have hopefully developed the qualities of thoughtfulness and self-control. In these circumstances, happiness on Sukkot contributes to our worthiness in judgment, rather than detracting from it.

At first glance the Shemini Atzeret prayer for rain, with its Yamim Noraim tune, appears not just serious but mournful. This fits so badly with the happiness of Sukkot that I suspect most of us either tune the prayer out, or pretend for a minute that it's Yom Kippur again. But if we see the prayers as both serious and happy simultaneously, there is no need for this cognitive dissonance. The prayer for rain is the moment at which we most directly confront the purpose of Sukkot (see Zechariah 14:16-17). If we are truly happy on Sukkot and not just frivolous, we should not see the prayer's serious tune (or content) as inappropriate for the emotions of the day.

3. One more implication

At the end of Musaf on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, in the middle of the Sim Shalom blessing, we sing an alphabetical song which goes "Hayom ta'amtzenu, Hayom tevarchenu..." and so on, with an "amen" said after each phrase.

The first line of this song seems out of place to me. Translated, it means something like "May You give us courage/strength today". Why are we asking for this at the END of Musaf? The climax of the prayer service has passed and we are about to either eat lunch or take a two-hour snooze, depending on the day. Is this the moment at which we need courage and strength? Wouldn't this request be more intelligible at the beginning of Musaf, say, along with the chazzan's prayer before Kaddish?

This question arises from the assumption that when we finish RH and YK, we are finished with repentance. My suggestion is that at this point, we are only finished with ONE TYPE of repentance. As we finish this type, we begin another type. Along with a sense of accomplishment at having committed ourselves to a better way of life, we must understand the challenge of implementing our decision and making sure we live up to it. As we begin this equally large task, we ask God for help. The decisions we make ourselves; the implementation is mostly likely to succeed if God creates the correct circumstances for it.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Selichot and Shabbat

On the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana (or the previous Saturday night), we begin saying selichot. But on that night, we wait until after midnight to say selichot, "due to the holiness of Shabbat" (Shaarei Teshuva 581:1).

The question arises: After saying havdalah, we are permitted to do all melacha. But at the same time, we are not supposed to say selichot. Melacha is apparently a much more serious violation of Shabbat than saying selichot, so why should its prohibition after Shabbat end sooner?

The answer may be that selichot do not interfere with the holiness of Shabbat. Rather, Shabbat interferes with the atmosphere of selichot.

On Shabbat we reach, and accurately feel, a higher level of spiritual inspiration than during the week. In contrast, the starting point of selichot is "kedalim ukerashim dafaknu delatecha" - that we are worthless and without spiritual accomplishments. We must feel that we are at a low point in order to motivate ourselves to strive for a higher point. Only after the special atmosphere of Shabbat has dissipated is it possible to feel this.

(Inspired by R' Amital zt"l, Alon Shevut Bogrim 4:55-59.)

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Vidui Maaser

When you have finished tithing every tithe of your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give to the Levite, to the proselyte, to the orphan, and to the widow, and they shall eat in your cities and be satisfied. Then you shall say before Hashem your God, "I have removed the holy things from the house, and I also have given it to the Levite, to the stranger, to the orphan, and to the widow, according to all the commandment you commanded me; I have not transgressed any of Your commandments, and I have not forgotten. I have not eaten of it in my mourning, I did not consume it in a state of contamination, and I did not give of it for the needs of the dead; I have listened to the voice of Hashem my God; I have acted accordingly to everything You commanded me. May you look down from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless your people Israel, and the land you gave us as you swore to our ancestors, a land flowing with milk and honey". (Devarim 26:12-15)

This passage is known by Chazal as "Vidui Maaser", the maaser "confession". Normally a "confession" means to admit something you've done wrong. But in this passage, you mentions the various things you've done RIGHT! So why is it called a "confession"?

I think the answer is as follows. There is a principle in the Torah of "lo yerau panai reikam" (Shemot 23:15) - you are not allowed to visit the Temple empty-handed. The direct application of this principle is that when you visit Jerusalem on holidays you must bring a sacrifice (see Hagigah 7a). But it could work as a general principle: your visit cannot be selfish, you must perform some act of recognition and gratitude to God when you come.

In general, one must take two tithes from one's agricultural produce, the first going to Levites. In normal years (1,2,4,5 of the shemita cycle), the second tithe is called "maaser sheni", and must be eaten in Jerusalem while one is pure, almost like a sacrifice. Every third year (3 and 6 in the cycle), "maaser ani" takes the place of "maaser sheni". This tithe must be given to the poor rather than eaten by you, and the poor may eat it outside Jerusalem ("in your cities").

When you visit the Temple in a "maaser ani" year, you come WITHOUT the "maaser sheni" you normally bring. You breach the expected protocol for a Temple visit, and for this you must apologize. Of course, it seems strange to apologize to God for doing what God commanded you to do. But presumably the point of "lo yerau panai reikam" is give to you the right attitude on your Temple visits. If you cannot get that attitude by bringing a gift, you must get that attitude by noting and explaining the absence of a gift.

As a parallel, imagine that upon visiting someone for Shabbat you were expected to bring some kind of gift, like flowers or a bottle of wine. (Well, you are, but imagine that it was extremely rather than moderately impolite to not do so.) Imagine that you visited someone several times, but once you showed up without the expected gift. You explained this as follows: "I'm sorry I didn't bring you anything. I was actually planning on bringing a bottle of this delicious wine I just learned about, but on the way here I ran into a poor person who couldn't afford to purchase wine for this Shabbat, so I gave it to him instead. Hopefully you'll understand."

If the hosts were good people, they'd understand. So does God, if you shown up at the Temple without the wine and other food you'd normally bring as "maaser sheni". But in both cases, while you have a good excuse for not fulfilling your normal obligation, you still need to ask forgiveness for it.

-------------

Most of the passage is written using the word "I": I have done this, I have not done that. One would expect that since "I" performed all the good deeds mentioned in the passage, now "I" have the right to ask for a reward for "myself".

But the passage does not say that. It asks God to "bless YOUR PEOPLE ISRAEL, and the land you gave US". The person making the declaration is asking not only for himself, but for the entire people, even though he may be the only person who performed mitzvot and deserves a reward.

Not only is this a generally good model for prayer, but it is especially fitting for this particular mitzvah. The whole significance of "maaser ani" is that your wealth is shared with other people who need it. In your declaration, you ask that God's blessing similarly be shared with other people who need it.

In effect, you are pointing out that YOU were willing to share your wealth, so GOD should be willing to share HIS wealth as well. Surely, you say, God cannot be any less generous than you have been. How could such a request possibly be turned down?

Monday, August 09, 2010

A nice aggadta in Taanit

...Rav Berachya said: The Jewish people, also, made an inappropriate request, and God answered them appropriately. The verse says, "Let us know, let us strive to know God; His going forth is as sure as dawn, and He will come to us like rain." God said to them: "My daughter, you ask for something [rain] which is sometimes desirable and sometimes undesirable. But I will be for you something which is always desirable." As the verse says: "I will be like dew to Israel."
[The Jewish people] made another inappropriate request. They said before him: "Master of the world, 'Place me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm.' " He said to them: "My daughter, you ask for something which is sometimes seen and sometimes not seen. But I will make you into something which is always seen, as the verse says, 'Behold, I have engraved you on [my] hands.' "

(Taanit 4a)

I think there are two deep metaphors in this passage, well beyond the word game (building a story around minor differences between Biblical verses) which superficially looks like its basis.

About the first half of the passage:
One cannot help noting that while dew is always a good thing, unlike rain, dew is much LESS of a good thing than rain can be. Rain is the usual means of growing crops, and it is hard to impossible for crops to survive based on dew alone. I think the metaphor is that we asked for God's presence to be obvious, but God preferred that it be subtle. We wanted continous large-scale miracles through which God would provide for our material needs, like rain does. But as the Torah and Neviim Rishonim show, this method does not always produce good results. Instead, God preferred to reveal Himself to us in a manner more like dew. God is always present, but in a subtle manner, easy to miss, and not providing miracles to guarantee that our food and material needs are always met.

About the second half of the passage:
Many people, especially in recent decades, take a "buffet" style approach to religion. They are happy to perform the rituals they enjoy or find meaning in. But when it comes to something uncomfortable, or which they don't understand, they ignore the religious requirement and revert to a secular lifestyle. Their religiousness is sometimes seen, sometimes not, like a seal on one's arm. This approach is clearly enticing, and it's no wonder the Jewish people requested it. But God did not allow this. If there is to be a connection between man and God, it must be permanent. We cannot take off our kippot and become secular whenever we get the temptation to momentarily break halacha. Our religiousness must be "on God's hands", always visible, with no conditionality or opportunity for abandonment.

Rav Berachya, I just have to say, you are brilliant.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Pesukei DeZimra

Why do we say Pesukei DeZimra ("PDZ") each morning before shacharit?

To answer this, let us look at the psalms we say in PDZ. We will examine them by order of importance as given in Shulchan Aruch OC 52:1. (The practical implication of this importance: If you are behind schedule, and have to skip part of PDZ to say Shema and Shemone Esreh with everyone else, the “least important” psalms are the first to be skipped.)

The most important paragraph of PDZ is Ashrei (Psalm 145). According to Brachot 4b, we recite every day because it contains the entire alphabet as well as the verse "Poteach et yadecha". The point of covering the entire alphabet is apparently to indicate that every possible praise is appropriate for God. "Poteach et yadecha" teaches that God's oversight extends to every single creature - implying that nobody is exempt from giving praise.

The second most important paragraph is Psalm 150, הללויה, הללו אל בקדשו. It calls on us to praise God with shofar, harp, drum, and a bunch of other musical instruments. The purpose of this appears to be similar to that of Ashrei: we are supposed to praise God in every possible way.

The third most important paragraph is Psalm 148, הללויה, הללו את השם מן השמים. It gives a list of the things we should praise God for creating: sun, moon, stars, sky, animals, weather, topography, trees, and all human beings. In short: everything in the world.

On the fourth most important level are Psalms 146, 147, and 149, which I'm guessing we say just in order to have read all of Psalms 145-150 without skipping. Vayvarech David, Hodu, Mizmor Letodah, and so on are on even lower levels.

It seems that the focus of PDZ is on Psalms 145, 148, and 150. The common element of these paragraphs is comprehensiveness - in who should praise God (everyone), what they should give praise for (everything), and how (in every way). Mentioning "who" impresses on us that we must praise God (not someone else), and "how" teaches that we must do it now (not wait for a "better" opportunity). The point of "what" is apparently to supply the content of our praise.

Alternatively, a different motivation for mention "what" comes from the Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:1-2):
What is the way to loving and fearing Him? When a person contemplates his actions, and sees the great wonders and perceives in his wisdom that they have no set value or limit, he immediately loves and praises and glorifies, and develops a great desire to know [God's] great name, as David said "My soul thirsts for God, for the living God". And when he thinks of these things, he immediately recoils and fears, and knows that he is a small lowly dark creation, standing with [his] small and limited mind before the Perfect Mind. As David said: "When I see your heavens... what is man, that You should take account of him?" Accordingly, I [will now] explain the main principles of [God's] creation...

The idea here is that upon realizing the wondrousness of God's creation, a person will be filled with awe and impelled to praise God for the creation. The point of mentioning "what", then, is to inspire us to give praise.

The upshot of all this is that PDZ consists not so much of actual praise, but of verses discussing praise. (Hence the name - PDZ, not just "zimra".) PDZ is not directed at God - it's directed at you. Its point is to motivate you to give the actual praise that which is the main content of the Shema blessings.

One practical implication of this is the assumption in many halachic texts that PDZ is said at home, not in synagogue. Since it is not actually part of the prayer, you can technically say it anywhere. But it must be said as close as possible to the prayer, so that the prayer is inspired by it.

(Mostly based on this.)

Hok and Hukah

The word "hok" or "hukah" appears regularly in Tanach and later writings. Often, the word clearly means regularity/constancy/periodicity, as in birkat halevana: חק וזמן נתן להם, שלא ישנו את תפקידם.

Chazal, discussing Parah Adumah, have a very different understanding of the word. According to them, a "hok" is a commandment whose rationale we do not understand, unlike many other commandments (i.e. murder, theft) for which the justification is clear.

How can we reconcile the idea that "hok" means regularity with Chazal's idea that "hok" means arbitrariness?

This question occurred to me upon reading Onkelus on Bamidbar 27:11. Onkelus translates "hukat mishpat" there as "gzerat din". Is this a literal translation? It's clear that "mishpat" and "din" mean pretty much the same thing. But "hukah" and "gzerah" sound like different things. "Gzerah" sounds like a royal DECREE, a perhaps arbitrary new requirement instituted by the king. In contrast, "hukah" sounds like a normal LAW, a timeless and socially necessary feature of the legal system. But Onkelus equates the two. In this, Onkelus is following Chazal's position that "hok" means arbitrariness – similar to the word "gzerah". But what about the sources in which "hok" clearly means regularity, not arbitrariness?

After pondering this a little, I came up with a linguistic theory which justifies Onkelus' translation and reconciles the two understandings of the word "hok". The words "hok" and "gzerah" may be based on roots with the same meaning. "Gzerah" comes from the root g.z.r, meaning "to cut". Similarly, "hok" and "hukah" may come from the root h.k.k, meaning "to inscribe". Both words testify to how ancient kings instituted new laws: they would inscribe them on large stone tablets and place them in public areas. Eventually, it seems, the verb "to cut/inscribe" was extended to mean "to institute a law" in both Hebrew and Aramaic. The law being instituted could be quite arbitrary, like in Chazal's understanding of a "hok".

In the end, it seems there are two different meanings to the work "hok" or "hukah". One meaning, usually represented by "hukah", means the same thing as "gzerah", like in Onkelus and Chazal. Linguistically, this derives from the fact that historically royal decrees were inscribed on stone tablets. The other meaning, usually represented by "hok", means something periodic and regular. This meaning derives from the fact that things "inscribed in stone" are predictable and not susceptible to change. Those qualities apply to planetary movement (birkat halevana), and to certain periodic customs and rituals.

In summary, the action of inscription in stone is an appropriate metaphor for two very different kinds of situations. Confusion occurs if we assume that the word "hok" in a verse is a metaphor for one of the two situations, when it's actually a metaphor for the other situation.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Tribal ordering and Eretz Yisrael

1. Bamidbar 34

In parshat Matot/Masei, Israel makes some of its final preparations for the entry to the land of Israel. Bamidbar 34:16-29 lists the princes who will represent each tribe in apportioning the land to be conquered. The list goes as follows:

Yehudah
Shimon
Binyamin
Dan
Menashe
Efraim
Zevulun
Yisachar
Asher
Naftali


The ordering of this list is unexpected. It does not follow either of the two normal ways by which the tribes are ordered – by the order of birth of Yaakov's sons, or the order of marching in the desert. Why did the Torah choose to order the tribes this way?

Looking at a rough map of tribal territories, the answer becomes clear. The order of tribes here is the same as the geographic order of tribal inheritance, from south to north.

Yehudah inherited everything south of Jerusalem.
Shimon's territory was considered to be part of Yehudah's territory (Yehoshua 19:9). As such it is mentioned after Yehudah, even though it was in the more southern part of Yehudah.
Binyamin's territory was just north of Jerusalem.
Dan's territory was roughly the Tel Aviv area.
Efraim and Menashe inherited the northern West Bank. (Efraim's territory was south of Menashe - this seems to be the only real deviation in the list from geographic order. Perhaps it can be explained by saying that Efraim and Menashe, being brothers, were listed together, and Menashe as the elder came first. This explanation gains credence because both are listed here as being a subset of Yosef, and only secondarily as independent tribes.)
Yissachar and Zevulun's territories bordered Menashe, in the southern Galil. The territories were roughly adjacent to one another - Zevulun to the west, Yissachar to the east. (On the map above they forgot to label Yissachar! It was surprisingly hard to find a suitable map online!)
Asher and Naftali were the northernmost tribes, Asher to the west, Naftali to the east.

2. Similar lists

The Torah records two other lists of the tribes dating to the 40th year in the desert. These too seem to be ordered by future territory from south to north.

One list is in parshat Vezot Habracha (Devarim 33:6-24). The setting (the conquest of Canaan is about to begin) and the many references to the land make it clear that that's a main theme in Moshe's blessings. The order of blessings is:
Reuven, Yehudah, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Zevulun, Yissachar, Gad, Dan, Naftali, Asher
This is the same order as Bamidbar 34, except for the following deviations.
1) Reuven, Gad, and Levi appear. Reuven and Gad are omitted from Bamidbar 34 because they already received land on the east bank, Levi because they would not receive land at all. Nevertheless, they all deserve to be blessed here. Reuven and Gad are included in roughly geographic order. So is Levi, if you take Jerusalem as their eventual inheritance.
2) Shimon disappears. Presumably their blessing is shared with Yehudah, the tribe they eventually assimilated into.
3) Yissachar switches with Zevulun, and Asher with Naftali. Yissachar was east of Zevulun, not north or south, and Naftali was east of Asher. So it is equally logical to have either one before the other. The fact that these particular tribes switch places, while other tribes stay in the same order, strengthens the thesis that the ordering is geographical, south-to-north.
4) Dan moves towards the end of the list. In the end, Dan was unable to conquer its land in the south and went to conquer land in the north. Bamidbar 34 reflects the planned southern inheritance; the order of Devarim 33 is presumably a prophetic reference to the eventual northern inheritance.

The final list is Devarim 27:11-13, which explains the ceremony that will take place in Shechem, with 6 tribes standing on one mountain and 6 on the other. These are:
Yehudah, Shimon, Levi, Binyamin, Yosef, Yisachar stand on Mt. Gerizim (towards the south), while
Reuven, Zevulun, Gad, Dan, Naftali, Asher stand on Mt. Eval (towards the north).

Here, except for Reuven and Gad, it once again appears that southern tribes are listed before northern tribes. The explanation of Reuven and Gad may be that Mt. Gerizim was somewhat to the southwest rather than due south, and Mt. Eval northeast rather than due north. So the "north" mountain is really "northeast", and the eastern tribes Reuven and Gad fit there just as well as in the south.

(Note: I have changed the order of the tribes on each mountain from the list in Devarim 27, to make the similarity to the other lists clearer. I think the ordering in Devarim 27 is for literary reasons: each list of 6 tribes splits into two lists of 3 tribes, and each list of 3 tribes has the tribe with the shortest name in the middle. Presumably it sounds nicest that way.)

3. An implication

One implication of this list is that the tribal locations were decided upon before the conquest took place. This helps us explain many different verses in the Torah. For example:

1) In Breishit 38 Yehudah apparently settles in Adulam (a city near Beit Shemesh, in the tribe of Yehudah's future territory.) Perhaps this was no coincidence, and Yehudah intended to colonize land which he expected would eventually belong to him. (Similarly, Shimon and Levi may have expected to receive Shechem, hence their zealotry there. But as punishment, they lost their right to inherit as independent tribes. If so then Yehudah, Shimon, and Levi – three of the four oldest sons – would have received the most central inheritances, later given to Yehudah, Efraim, and Menashe. Perhaps the oldest son Reuven also would have received a valuable inheritance, but he too was disinherited.)
2) Yaakov promised Yosef “Shechem echad al achecha” (Breishit 48:22). This refers to the double inheritance of Menashe and Efraim. But it may also allude to the city Shechem itself – which was in Yosef's future territory.
3) The names of some Israelites are also the names of cities in the tribal territory each individual would later live in. For example: Shechem, Hefer, and Tirtzah from the tribe of Menashe, and Hetzron from Yehudah. Perhaps, these Israelites' parents gave them the names with the expectation that the kid or his descendants would later control that city. (However, the fact that the best examples of this are from Menashe suggests a different explanation: that these individuals lived in the territory of Menashe rather than leaving Egypt with Moshe, a thesis discussed here.)
4) Moshe's viewing of the land from Mt. Nevo (Devarim 34:1-2) mentions the names of five tribal territories in their correct locations, even though the tribes had not inherited yet. Similarly, Breishit 14:14 mentions the city of Dan, which had a different name (Laish) until long after the inheritance – a seeming anachronism.

Each of these verses can be understood clearly through the idea that the tribal locations were known before the conquest.

If so, then the “casting of lots” used to apportion territory (see Yehoshua 14:2,15:1,etc., and Bamidbar 26:55) must have served either to define the exact boundaries between tribes (which had never been precisely specified), or else simply to give a Divine stamp of approval to the previously agreed-upon division.

4. Why south before north?

Why does the ordering of tribes go from south to north, and not in some other direction? An east-to-west ordering makes little sense, since the land of Israel is longest in the north-south direction. But why south to north, not north to south?

I think this is easy to explain. Nowadays we have north at the top of our maps, but in the ancient Middle East, east was at the top. (As a result, the country Yemen was on the right side of the map. This is reflected in its name, which comes from the Hebrew word "yamin", meaning "right". Similarly the word "kedem", meaning "forward", also means "east" in Tanach.) A Hebrew speaker, who read writing from right to left, would naturally read the map from right to left - that is to say, from south to north, the same order we see here.

The same logic explains why the "blessing" of Gerizim and Eval was on the southern mountain, Gerizim. (You might expect the opposite, since the south is drier and less fertile in Israel). A person's right hand is stronger and has higher status than their left hand. In this symbolic ceremony, the mountain on the right is privileged as well.