Monday, February 23, 2015

Lemech's song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Naaseh Venishma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Fixed or personalized vidui?

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 02, 2015

Thoughts on Beshalach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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