Monday, December 23, 2013

On choosing your wife

Yaakov and Moshe married country girls (shepherdesses). They ended up wandering around constantly for the rest of their lives.

Yitzchak married a city girl (Haran). He ended up living in one place for the rest of his life (the Negev).

In short: choose your wife carefully.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Thoughts on Shemot

[Moshe] went out the second day, and, behold, two Hebrew men were fighting together; and he said to the evil one/agressor: "Why are you hitting your fellow?" He said: "Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you intend to kill me, like you killed the Egyptian?" (2:13-14)

According to the midrash quoted in Rashi, these two men were Datan and Aviram, later known to us from their rebellion in Sefer Bamidbar.

At first, this identification seems extremely arbitrary. Obviously the midrash likes to say that anonymous characters were actually individuals named elsewhere (the refugee who reported to Avraham was Og Melech Habashan; the "man" directing Yosef to Dotan was the angel Gavriel). But just because one pair of people appears here and another in Bamidbar, is that really enough to equate the pairs?

In fact, there is a quite interesting parallel between this story and what Datan and Aviram do later. Let's list the ways in which this episode parallels later events.
  • One of the men here is called "evil", and the other may be too. Datan and Aviram were also an evil pair. (OK, this one is trivial.)
  • The men question whether Moshe is their ruler and judge. Indeed, Moshe later became the ruler and judge of the Jewish people, and Datan and Aviram (among others) questioned this authority.
  • The man accuses Moshe of wanting to kill him, just as he killed the Egyptian. This parallels the plagues (in which Moshe did indirectly kill many Egyptians), as well as the complaint of Datan and Aviram (and others) that Moshe intended to kill the Jewish people in the desert.
  • Somebody tattled about Moshe's killing of the Egyptian, forcing Moshe to flee to Midian. This reminds me of the rebels against Moshe in the desert, who frequently employed slander in their cause. The most obvious example is the spies' description of the land. Also, Datan and Aviram accuse Moshe of "rul[ing] over" the people (Bamidbar 16:13). What exactly this implies is unclear, but Moshe's protest in the next verse ("I have not taken even one of their donkeys, nor have I done wrong to any of them") might mean that Datan/Aviram falsely accused him abusing power, by confiscating property from the people.
Out of these four parallels, the first one is pretty obvious. I think everyone gets it immediately, but also thinks it is insufficient basis for the midrash.

The remaining three are less obvious. But each one is an elegant comparison in its own way. Put them all together, and a clear thematic resonance is apparent. We'll never know if the two men were in fact Datan and Aviram. But we do know that this episode was similar to Datan and Aviram's story in many ways.

[See also Nedarim 64b which suggests a linguistic connection between "nitzim" (here) and "nitzavim" (Bamidbar 16:27). But I find it hard to believe this is the only source of the midrash.]

Saturday, October 26, 2013

After these events

It came to pass after these events, that God tested Avraham, and said to him "Avraham", and he said "Here I am". (Breishit 22:1)

According to my hopefully complete search, the phrase "after these events" (אחר הדברים האלה or a variant) appears twelve times in Tanach (Breishit 15:1, 22:1, 22:20, 39:7, 40:1, 48:1, Yehoshua 24:29, Melachim Alef 13:33, 17:17, 21:1, Esther 3:1, Ezra 7:1). In general, its usage is pretty clear. It introduces an event that is not an obvious or immediate consequence of the previous event, but the two events fit together as part of the overall story arc. For example, after Avraham defeated the four great kings via a surprise ambush, God appeared to him to promise protection (15:1). And after Yosef became the leading slave in Potifar's household, Potifar's wife developed an attraction for him and propositioned him (39:7).

As I see it, there is only one case which seems to violate this pattern, and that is the first verse of the Akedah passage. Exactly which events before the Akedah is the verse referring to - events which should be somewhat distant in time, and nevertheless thematically connected?

Let's look at several of the stories that precede the Akedah, numbered by chapter, and see if they can explain this role. Our criteria should be that the story is close to the Akedah ("these events" would seem to refer to the immediately preceding events), and that the the Akedah has a logical connection to it.

18-19: Angels visit Avraham; then proceed to Sedom, rescue Lot, and destroy the cities.
20: Avimelech takes and returns Sarah
21a: Hagar and Yishmael are expelled
21b: Avraham and Avimelech make a treaty
22: Akedah

Chapter 21, story b

Rashbam discusses the phrase "after these events" here, taking the same basic approach that I do, and says that the event in question is 21b. Since Avraham had been promised the entire land of Israel, he should not have made a treaty that would effectively cede part of it to Avimelech's descendants. This was a sin, and the pain Avraham must have felt while preparing to sacrifice Yitzchak was the resulting punishment.

This is quite a good answer. It involves the immediately preceding event to the Akedah - a great advantage. It also explains well the delicate conditions in which the phrase "after these events" can be used - the events must be connected enough that they are linked, but not connected enough (temporally or naturally) that they are one story. But this answer is not perfect.

For one thing, it is not absolutely clear that the treaty was a sin. Avraham's inheritance was generations away (after a necessary exile). Who knew if Avimelech's descendants would still be around then, and even if they were, perhaps they could convert or otherwise integrate into the Jewish people.

For another thing, it's not at all clear that the Akedah was a punishment. Avraham's immediate suffering in the Akedah ended with a promise of great reward, a promise that presumably outweighed the suffering. If the Akedah as a whole was good for Avraham, how could it be a punishment? And why would he only receive the chance to merit the promise after sinning? Perhaps if the promise were simply a restoration of previous promises which had been nullified through Avraham's sin, but if so why does it go beyond them to swear (for the first time) that the promise would come true? And Avraham only suffered in the Akedah because he was willing to sacrifice his son - it seems awkward that if he rejected the command he wouldn't have suffered at all.

Also, if the Akedah were a punishment for 21b in particular, you might the Akedah to allude to 21b. But it contains no reference to the land, either in its command or in the eventual reward. The latter is striking especially because many other Patriarchal blessings do mention the land. This blessing promises Avraham numerous offspring (logical, since he showed his willingness to sacrifice his offspring), and adds that "all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through your offspring" - which if anything could be in the same spirit as the treaty with Avimelech.

These questions are not insoluble, but they do provide motivation to search for other possible answers.

Chapters 18,19,20

If I remember correctly, some sources (I don't remember which) say the Akedah is a punishment for chapter 20. The events in Avraham's life can be divided into the clearly moral and God-fearing, and the questionably so. In the latter category, chapter 20 is perhaps the most questionable. Avraham described Sarah as his sister, leading Avimelech to take or abduct her, even though he already knew (from Egypt) that this description could lead to tragedy. Avraham says he did this because "I said there was no fear of God in this place" (20:11), but this possibility is contradicted when God appears to Avimelech and "the people feared greatly" (20:8). There could certainly be a sin here. Whether it is a greater sin than 21b, or more thematically related to the Akedah, is up for debate. But textually, chapter 20 is much further from the Akedah than 21b, which makes it less likely, all things being equal. And if you don't think the Akedah is a punishment, you'd have problems with this explanation too.

I think Chapters 18 and 19, and likely any earlier chapter, can be excluded right off the bat. Textually they are very far from the Akedah, and there is no clear thematic connection - not even any obvious sins by Avraham whose punishment might not be immediate.

Chapter 21, story a - Rashi

First of all: While this story does not immediately precede the Akedah, there is a rather good basis for connecting it anyway. This is because story 21b opens with "And it was, AT THAT TIME" - indicating that 21a and 21b are roughly simultaneous, despite their unrelated subjects. This is further strengthened by the general way Breishit tells of Avraham's life, in which the subjects of stories tend to alternate - quite elegantly in my opinion - for example the two Avimelech stories which are separated by 21a. Similarly, the Akedah comes two stories after 21a.

Now to Rashi's opinion. Rashi, based on Chazal, identifies 21a as the "events" to which the Akedah is linked. He suggests two possible narratives for how this occured:

1) At Yitzchak's weaning party, Avraham ate and drank, but is not recorded as having offered to sacrifices to God (as sometimes happens in other festive meals in Tanach, like Shemot 18:12). The "accuser" (Satan) noted this apparent lacking, to which God responded that Avraham would even sacrifice Yitzchak, subject of the party, if asked.

2) Yishmael boasted that he was circumcised at age 13 - more painful than Yitzchak's circumcision as a baby. To which Yitzchak responded he would even sacrifice his entire body, if asked.

In each case, God/Yitzchak then had the chance to prove their statement, through the Akedah.

This avoids the possible difficulties in saying the Akedah was a punishment. Of course, it opens up new questions as to what the purpose of the Akedah was - but the philosophical issues involved are too broad for this post. In any case, Rashi's approach works fine as midrash - inventing events that are not in the text in order to enbody broader philosophical considerations. But because those events are not in the text, it suffers on the level of pshat.

Chapter 21 - my ideas

I was recently thinking about what "after these events" could refer to, and I came up with two more ideas, one from 21a and one from 21b. Whether they are more or less convincing than the above suggestions, readers can judge for themselves.

In 21a, Sarah insists on expelling Hagar and Yishmael. Avraham is unhappy at this, but God tells him to do so, and he obeys.

The Akedah opens with the command to sacrifice "your son, your only son". This description is much more true after Yishmael has been banished from Avraham's life - one would expect never to return. The Akedah happens after Yitzchak has effectively become the only son. Drawing a connection to that event emphasizes the difficulty of the Akedah. Not only is it more emotionally difficult to lose your "only" son, but a major philosophical challenge of the Akedah is highlighted: how can the "only" son be killed before begetting the great multitude that God promised through him?

In 21b, we see a different angle.

The two Avraham/Avimelech stories have similarities - for example, in each Avimelech is morally blameless despite having taken Avraham's wife or well. But the difference are more striking. When Avraham first met Avimelech, he was an insecure nomad who roamed from place to place, each time lying about Sarah to preserve his own life. Now, Avraham lives in one place for many years (21:34), and is so successful enough that Avimelech says "God is with you in everything you do" (21:22). Then, Avraham was a guest of Avimelech; now Avimelech travels to ask favors from Avraham. Then, Avimelech received prophecy and demonstrated fear of God; now God is with Avraham. Avraham has spent much of his life wandering and worrying. From now on, we will see, he lives in stability and material comfort. And after 21a, he finally has a son through Sarah. In 21b, it appears as if Avraham's difficulties in life are over, and God's hashgacha pratit over him can be taken for granted.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the Akedah command comes at this moment. The incongruity of the command - morally and emotionally - is highlighted by the circumstances Avraham reaches in 21b, which otherwise seem to be "happily ever after". If Avraham were suffering then we could see the Akedah as yet one more inexplicable example of "hester panim". Only when everything else seems to make sense can we be shocked by the one command that cannot be understood.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Greatness and the Evil Inclination

Abayei heard a certain man say to a certain woman: "Let us go on our way". [Abayei] said: I will go and prevent them from committing a sin [together]. He went after them three parasangs in the field [a long distance, to an isolated place]. When they parted from each other, he heard them saying "Our company is pleasant but the way is long." Abayei said: "If it were me, I could not have restrained myself." He went and leaned in anguish against a doorpost, until a certain elder came and taught: "The greater the man, the greater the Evil Inclination" (כל הגדול מחבירו יצרו גדול הימנו). (Sukkah 52a)

It is surprising to hear that a great Torah scholar like Abayei is more, not less, likely to commit a severe sexual sin than the man he followed. Isn't Torah study, and Torah commitment in general, supposed to refine your character? Doesn't the same page of gemara (52b) say that if you encounter the Evil Inclination, you should "drag it to the beit midrash" in order to overcome it?

Therefore, I wonder if the "greatness" which is said to augment your Evil Inclination is social rather than spiritual.

Spiritual leaders as diverse as King David, Martin Luther King, and Shlomo Carlebach have been known to commit serious sexual crimes. It is hard to see this a function of their spiritual inclinations, but easy to see it as a function of their being respected leaders. As talented charismatic high-status men, such leaders can easily meet, attract, and seduce many women. As holders of communal authority, they can arrange for their affairs to be discrete, and silence those who would publicize or punish their crimes later on. If an accusation is ever made against them, their word will be trusted over that of their accusers. We should hope that such leaders have fewer affairs than similar secular leaders (JFK and Clinton come to mind), but not be surprised if they have more affairs than the average religious man.

Abayei, too, was a respected leader. He was more capable of getting away with sexual crimes than was the average man. This would make his challenge harder than theirs, even if in other respects his character was as good as theirs or better.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Israel and Israeliness

וַיֹּאמֶר ה' אֶל-מֹשֶׁה: עֲלֵה אֶל הַר הָעֲבָרִים הַזֶּה, וּרְאֵה אֶת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל. וְרָאִיתָה אֹתָהּ, וְנֶאֱסַפְתָּ אֶל עַמֶּיךָ גַּם אָתָּה, כַּאֲשֶׁר נֶאֱסַף אַהֲרֹן אָחִיךָ. כַּאֲשֶׁר מְרִיתֶם פִּי בְּמִדְבַּר צִן, בִּמְרִיבַת הָעֵדָה, לְהַקְדִּישֵׁנִי בַמַּיִם לְעֵינֵיהֶם: הֵם מֵי מְרִיבַת קָדֵשׁ מִדְבַּר צִן.
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה אֶל ה' לֵאמֹר: יִפְקֹד ה' אֱלֹהֵי הָרוּחֹת לְכָל בָּשָׂר, אִישׁ עַל הָעֵדָה. אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לִפְנֵיהֶם, וַאֲשֶׁר יָבֹא לִפְנֵיהֶם, וַאֲשֶׁר יוֹצִיאֵם, וַאֲשֶׁר יְבִיאֵם; וְלֹא תִהְיֶה עֲדַת ה', כַּצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר אֵין לָהֶם רֹעֶה.
(במדבר כז יב-יז)

The phrase "vaydaber hashem el moshe lemor" is common throughout the Torah. Here, I believe, is the only time we have the reverse phrasing: "vaydaber moshe el hashem lemor". This is noteworthy because "vaydaber" is generally understood to mean a harsh statement or a command (see for example Shemot 6:2 and Bamidbar 32:25-27). It makes sense for God to command human beings. But since when do human beings command God?

Let us explain this in terms of the larger context. Moshe's behavior is a perfect example of what we would now call Israeli chutzpah. He makes harsh demands of his superior - with the understanding that his proposals are for the good of the superior rather than himself, and that his honesty and directness indicate respect for a superior who is capable of accepting criticism.

As we see, Moshe was not permitted to enter the land of Israel. But perhaps, as a consolation prize, he was allowed to become an Israeli. :)

Saturday, June 01, 2013

Rahav and Pesach

The following is so obvious that someone must have written it before, but a very cursory search did not find anything, so I decided to write it up myself too.

The haftarah for parshat Shelach tells of a successful spying mission - when two spies sent by Yehoshua infiltrated the city of Yericho, visited a woman named Rahav, and returned with the report that the conquest was inevitable.

In return for Rahav's help, she and her family were saved from the city's ensuing destruction. The circumstances of their protection are interesting:
  • Rahav was to be saved, along with whatever family members were in her house. (2:18)
  • If any of them left the house, they would be killed. (2:19)
  • Rahav was to put a red thread on her window to signal that the inhabitants should be protected. (2:18)
  • When the spies left Rahav, to avoid their pursuers, she advised them to head for the mountain and stay there for three days. (2:16)
These circumstances are extremely reminiscent of an earlier event - the Israelites' protection from the 10th plague in Egypt:
  • The Israelites slaughtered the Pesach sacrifice - one per family. (Shemot 12:3)
  • They were not to leave the house until the plague was over (12:22)
  • They were to smear the (red) blood on the doorposts of their house to indicate they should be protected.
  • The plague was punishment for Pharaoh's refusal to allow a three-day journey perform a sacrifice at "God's Mountain" (3:12)
Evidently, Rahav's procedure is supposed to suggest the Pesach sacrifice. In general, this sacrifice is a symbol of the national covenant as members of God's people (see i.e. Bamidbar 9:7, and the connection between Pesach and circumcision). With Rahav having performed a procedure so similar to korban pesach, it is no surprise Chazal say she converted to Judaism (and in fact married Yehoshua).