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Friday, March 17, 2017

Birth and Rebirth - Parshat Ki Tisa and Parashat Parah - March 17, 2017

In a section near the end of this week’s parasha – Parashat Ki Tisa – the Torah presents some of the mitzvot related to the chaggim – the Jewish festivals. Particular attention in the section is given to the holiday of Pesach. This section concludes with two mitzvot – all first fruits are to be brought to the Temple to be given to the kohen and the commandment not to cook milk together with meat. At first glance, the connection between the beginning and the end of this section is not obvious. Pesach and the prohibition to mix milk and meat seem unrelated.

In a very novel and interesting approach, Rabbenu Ovadiah Seforno identifies a theme that runs through the section. Seforno explains that the mitzvot in this section are aimed to reorient a person’s concept of the true source of success. Hashem is the source of our material success and well-being. There are two moments in which a person is particularly susceptible to forgetting this idea.

Celebrating a spring festival – Pesach – is aimed at correcting the incorrect notion that the foundation of man’s success is rooted strictly in the natural order – specifically without Hashem as the source. Spring is a time of rebirth. The natural order is renewed. Precisely at this moment, when we may become confused about the true source of our success, Hashem commands us to serve Him with the holiday of Pesach.

At the end of the section, the Torah presents the prohibition of mixing milk and meat. Seforno explains that the idolaters thought that they would achieve material success through the practice of cooking a baby goat in its mother’s milk. Seforno does not explain what psychological forces are at play that underscore this practice, however, it is interesting that this idolatrous practice was tied up with the manipulation of nature at the time of birth. Seforno explains that the Torah commands us not to engage in this practice of cooking milk together with meat in order to redirect ourselves to the true idea that Hashem is the source of our success.

Birth is a miraculous event. Birth is brought about by a dizzying number of cause-effect relationships. These relationships can be viewed from a naturalistic perspective. Cell division, DNA, proteins, hormones and many, many other factors work in harmony to produce a new living being. However, when looked at in totality, the intricate system of birth begs for an explanation. Seizing upon this unique moment – the moment when a person is open to reflecting on the wonder of creation – the Torah obligates us in these special mitzvot to direct us towards appreciating Hashem as the source of our success.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Unity - Parashat Tetzaveh and Purim - March 10, 2017

We know that Megilat Esther is the record of the miraculous saving of the Jewish People that occurred in Shushan and in the surrounding areas of King Achashverosh’s reign. One of the culminating themes in the megila is the unity within the Jewish People that was forged as a result of this miracle.

This unity expressed itself in a number of ways. One of the expressions was the re-acceptance of the Torah that occurred in that generation – kiyemu ve’kibelu. This re-acceptance included a unified acceptance of the mitzvah of Purim that was legislated by the Anshei Kinesset HaGedola – the Men of Great Assembly. Another expression of this unity is the emphasis on forging brotherhood within the Jewish People – we read the megila in big groups, we give money to the poor and we give food gifts to our fellow Jews. Clearly, unity is a fundamental theme of Purim.

Given this focus on unity, there is a striking difference between Purim and all other holidays – a difference that seems to emphasize particularism as opposed to unity. Rabbenu Nissim of Gerondi highlights this difference at the beginning of his commentary on Masechet Megila. All Jewish holidays have a single date of observance. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Pesach and Sukkot are celebrated universally on a single specified date. Purim is the only holiday celebrated on alternate dates – those who live in a city walled from the time of Yehoshua bin Nun celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar and all others celebrate on the 14th of Adar. Rabbenu Nissim is struck by the fact that the existence of these alternate dates seems to contravene a Torah principle that the Torah’s laws must apply universally – Torah achat u’mishpat echad (one Torah and one law). This unique phenomenon of Purim is especially jarring given Purim’s emphasis on unity.

Rabbenu Nissim explains that our celebration of Purim is a reflection of the way in which the miracle occurred – each community fought against the Haman supporters and then spontaneously celebrated its victory. Shushan fought on the 14th of Adar and celebrated on the 15th of Adar. Hence, those cities that are important like Shushan was – i.e. surrounded by a wall – celebrate on the 15th of Adar. All other communities fought on the 13th of Adar and celebrated on the 14th of Adar. Hence, all Jews living in unwalled cities celebrate on the 14th of Adar. The unifying law is not the date of celebration. Rather, it is the national re-creation of the Purim story. The Jews in the time of Achashverosh won battles and spontaneously celebrated the miracle. By celebrating on alternate dates, we also demonstrate that the proper reaction to a miracle is spontaneous celebration and praise of Hashem.

From this perspective, Purim suggests a different way of thinking about unity. One common idea of unity is uniformity. We are unified because we do or think the same thing. Purim suggests another dimension of unity – different groups acting differently but all motivated by one principle. The unity emanates from shared purpose, if not from shared action. Hence, Purim teaches us to work with our fellow Jews to create unity by aligning our respective philosophies with the Torah philosophy.

May this Purim be one of unity for all.

The Impact of the Mishkan - Parashat Terumah - March 3, 2017

The parshiyot of this and next week, Parashat Terumah and Parashat Tetzave, introduce Hashem’s command regarding the plans for the mishkan and its vessels, including the clothing were worn by the kohanim.

One of the vessels that Hashem commands to be built is the menorah – the candelabra. The description of the plans for the menorah are described this week and the description of its service is described next week.

In Parashat Tetzave, next week, the Torah says, “and you will take to yourself pure olive oil pressed to be lit to raise an everlasting candle.” The phrase, “to yourself” (אליך) is seemingly extraneous.

Certainly all of the mitzvot are for us – Hashem commanded them to the Jewish people, not to angels. Certainly the mitzvot are for our benefit and for the benefit of mankind. In this light, “to yourself” is difficult – this quality would seem to apply equally to all of the mitzvot! What is the message of bnei yisrael taking oil to themselves?

Our chachamim present a number of explanations for the inclusion of this phrase.

To explain two approaches to answering this question, let us investigate more fully two different approaches in understanding the message of the mitzvah of the candelabra – Torah Temima and Rambam.

Each evening the kohanim were obligated to light the candelabra with enough oil to last the night. In the morning, the kohanim were obligated to fix and relight the menorah, as necessary. Thus, the candelabra would constantly be lit.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein explains in his sefer, Torah Temima, that the mitzvah to light the candelabra in the mishkan is one of a category of mitzvot that are designed to create honor and glory for the mishkan. He asserts that plentiful light brings honor to a building and its inhabitants. Other mitzvot that help to bring honor and glory to the mishkan and its inhabitants include the mitzvah to burn incense and produce a sweet odor in the mishkan and the mitzvah to station guards to constantly watch the mishkan. These guards create a sense of importance in the mishkan.

The Rambam – Maimonides – agrees with the author of the Torah Temima that the mitzvah to light the candelabra in the mishkan creates honor and glory for the mishkan. He furthermore agrees with the Torah Temima that this mitzvah is part of a larger genus of mitzvot. However, Maimonides expands this category to include a number of other mitzvot including:

  • The priests are required to wear special garments that must be worn the way they are designed without deviation – can't be ripped or out of place
  • The levi'im are required to sing in the mishkan
  • The beit hamikdash is required to be built at the highest place in Yerushalayim
  • Incense must be burnt in the mishkan twice daily to bring a sweet smell and overcome the smell of slaughtered animals
  • Guards must constantly watch the gates of the beit hamikdash
  • Kohanim who have physical deformities are prohibited to serve in the mishkan or Temple
  • Objects of service can only be used in the Temple and no other place
Maimonides and the Torah Temima seem to agree on one basic premise – which explains the Torah's use of the term – “to yourself”. As Maimonides explains in The Guide to the Perplexed, G-d endowed man with an appreciation of the aesthetic - beauty. For example, we are all inspired by the beauty of nature. This reaction stems from man’s nature.

More than other mitzvot, the mitzvah of the candelabra and the category of mitzvot that it is a part of is uniquely designed to affect man's emotions. By using the term “to yourself”, the Torah communicates an important message about this and related mitzvot – they are designed to affect the emotional part of man’s nature.

Because we are discussing a specific emotion – the appreciation of the aesthetic – how things look – it is important to note some of the dangers of this pleasure. Like all of the emotions that we have and the pleasures that we attain in this world, our goal must be towards serving Hashem and not towards self-service or self-aggrandizement. We see from the experience of the Greeks and other Western cultures of the consequences of over-indulgence in art, beauty and music. Materialism, superficiality and self-absorption are the results of viewing the aesthetic as a goal in and of itself. The Torah seems to understand and even encourage the appreciation of beauty while simultaneously training us to serve Hashem.

As evidenced by the category that the mitzvah of the candelabra is included in, Torah Temima and Rambam do disagree on the fundamental impact that this mitzvah is to have on the people who witness it.

Rabbi Epstein understands the inclusion of the phrase “to yourself” to teach us that the honor and glory of the mishkan created honor and glory for bnei yisrael – the Jewish people. Although he does not elaborate on why such honor and glory for bnei yisrael is important, presumably, when others view bnei yisrael with honor and as a glorified people, they will be in a position to want to learn from us and from the Torah and the knowledge of Hashem will be better spread throughout the world. In the Torah Temima's understanding, the mishkan is a tool to promote the message of Mount Sinai – God is One and he gave us a Torah to live by. The mishkan serves the purpose of repairing the world in the kingship of Hashem. The function of the Jewish people is to teach the world. The Jewish building that is honored and glorified by the world will promote Jewish teachings in the world.

Maimonides understands the inclusion of the phrase “to yourself” to teach us that the honor and glory of the mishkan creates awe and humility in those who see it and thereby promote service of G-d, desire to repent and re-connect with G-d and openness to accepting the ideas communicated by the mishkan and the Temple service. Would the mishkan or Temple not be awe-inspiring, people would not accept the message of the Temple and would be less likely to use it as a vehicle to serve Hashem.

Apparently, Rabbi Epstein maintains that the primary aim of the mishkan was to be a traveling Mount Sinai exhibit. For Maimonides, it was a tool to repent and recommit to serving Hashem.

Our synagogues are miniature Temples. In our day, synagogues inspire us to teach the world about Hashem and to recommit ourselves to serving Him.

Fostering Belief in Hashem - Parashat Mishpatim - February 24, 2017

The set of parshiyot that we are currently in the middle of present the development of b’nei yisrael as a nation. Beginning with their experience as bystanders to the plagues and through the salvation at the Red Sea and the revelation at Har Sinai, b’nei yisrael were exposed to a clear perception of the existence of Hashem and of His relationship with the Jewish People. However, we will soon be exposed to a crisis in the relationship between bnei yisrael and Hashem in the experience at the Golden Calf.

One of my teachers, Rav Yitzchak Mirsky, he should live and be well, asks: How could bnei yisrael see all of the miracles of Hashem with their own eyes and not believe in Hashem?

In truth, we do see another case in Tanach of people seeing Hashem’s miracles and not believing in Hashem.

In the time of Eliyahu haNavi, the Jewish people were split into two political entities, two kingdoms – the kingdom of Judah which was comprised of the tribes of Yehudah and Binyamin and the kingdom of Israel which was comprised of the other 10 tribes. The worship of the idol ba’al was prevalent in this time and was promoted by the monarchy of the kingdom of the 10 tribes.

Eliyahu proposed a test between the worshippers of ba’al and himself – a worshipper of Hashem at Har Carmel - Mount Carmel. The Jewish people – who were noticeably uncommitted one way or the other – were onlookers to this test.

The test that Eliyahu set up was for each side to offer a sacrifice and to see whether or not it was accepted by their respective G-d. First the priests of ba’al offered a sacrifice. Nothing happened. Eliyahu jeered them to try harder. Nothing happened. Eliyahu continued to jeer them. Nothing happened. Then it was Eliyahu’s turn to offer a sacrifice to Hashem. Eliyahu said, “Answer us (anenu), Hashem, answer us.”

The Talmud asks why Eliyahu repeated his plea for Hashem to answer twice. The Talmud explains that Eliyahu was praying for two things – one was for fire to descend from heaven and to consume the sacrifice – showing that it had been accepted. The Talmud says that Eliyahu’s second “answer us” was a plea that the onlookers should not say that the acceptance of the sacrifice was an act of magic.

In other words, the same word anenu – answer us – that Eliyahu used to pray for the miracle itself is the identical word that Eliyahu used to pray that the people should recognize the miracle. From this story we see that it is possible to witness a miracle and not be led to believing in Hashem.

How strong was the belief of the generation that saw the miracles in Egypt, at the Sea and at Har Sinai?

At the moment of keriat Yam Suf – the splitting of the Red Sea – bnei yisrael were ma’aminim, believers. However, at the sin of the golden calf and during the sin of the spies it appears that at those moments bnei yisrael were aino ma’aminim – non-believers. Clearly, emunah – belief in Hashem can be transient.

How do we build and sustain emunah?

This week’s parasha, Mishpatim, focuses mainly on civil law – for example, damages, judicial process and fines. Contained within the presentation of these laws are two mitzvot that are fundamental to building and sustaining emunah – the mitzvot of honoring one’s parents and keeping Shabbat. In fact, these two mitzvot are restatements of two of the Ten Commandments presented in last week’s parasha.

In parashat Beshalach, Moshe Rabbenu led bnei Yisrael from the Red Sea and they traveled three days in the desert without finding water. They came to a place named Marah where the water was undrinkable. The people complained to Moshe and Moshe cried out to Hashem. Hashem miraculously made the water sweet by putting a tree branch into it. The Torah says that there Hashem gave the people a chok u’mishpat – a law and a judgment.

One opinion in the Midrash – the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua – maintains that Hashem gave the people two mitzvot at Marah – Shabbat and honoring one’s parents.

Why these two mitzvot?

Emunah – belief in Hashem – begins with knowing that G-d exists and that He manages the world’s affairs.

There is one idea that significantly undermines belief in Hashem – the idea that I am the sole cause of my own existence. This self-centeredness is part of the human condition. Belief in a Creator Who maintains a relationship with world carries responsibilities. Our egotism tends to push us to throw off that yoke.

Kibud av v’em – honoring one’s parents – reminds us that we are not the cause of our own existence. We honor them to testify that there were three partners in our creation – our mother, father and Hashem. When we honor our parents, take care of their needs, respect their honored places, we reinforce the notion that we are not the cause of our own respective existences and that Hashem with assistance from our parents are the most proximal cause.

Shabbat is a reminder that Hashem created the world and maintains a providential role in its affairs. We testify to this idea verbally by making Kiddush and saying tefila. We testify to this idea in action by refraining from creative labor and spending time individually and with our families learning Torah. Shabbat packs a particularly powerful punch because it occurs weekly. Before we have the opportunity to delude ourselves into believing that the world’s affairs are completely left to chance, Shabbat returns and we renew our belief in Hashem and His omnipotence.

By committing ourselves to these two mitzvot – honoring our Parents and Shabbat, specifically – and all of the mitzvot in general, we regularly review the truth of G-d’s existence intellectually and impact our whole personality with this truth.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Objective Truth – Justice and the Revelation at Mount Sinai-Delivered on Parashat Yitro 5777 at Baron Hirsch Congregation

This week’s parasha presents ma’amad Har Sinai – the Revelation at Sinai.  All of b’nei yisrael stood at the foot of the mountain and heard the Almighty proclaim, “Anochi”. Thunder and Lightning. An elaborately orchestrated choreography.

The author of the Akedat Yitzchak – Rabbenu Yitzchak Arama (I heavily consulted the translation by Rabbi Eliyahu Munk) – is bothered by a problem.

This elaborate scene at Mount Sinai is unparalleled in human history.  It would seem to have been aimed at conveying a purpose completely beyond anything man had ever experienced.

When we look at the Aseret HaDibrot – The Ten Commandments – we do not see any new philosophic insights. On the contrary, says Rabbi Arama, most of these commandments could easily have been legislated by human legislators of average intelligence interested in a well-functioning society! Murder, theft, adultery, honoring one’s parents. What great purpose is behind such an extraordinary event?

One might have expected the answers to the mysteries of the universe – but the Ten Commandments do not purport to address that topic.  Rabbi Arama says that even the first two commandments – postulating the Oneness and uniqueness of Hashem – could even be arrived at by human intellect – and these two utterances were made directly from the mouth of Hashem – kaveyachol.

What is the purpose of this whole experience, if not to teach new philosophical insights?

Rabbi Arama answers that many false philosophies had been circulating widely in that time. Although the acknowledgment of the existence of Hashem was widely accepted, many denied His ability or willingness to guide the fate of man or the history of mankind. Like the message of the plagues in Egypt, the revelation at Mount Sinai was intended to impress upon the Jewish People and, by extension, the world, the presence and involvement of Hashem in the fate of the Jewish People and in reward and punishment. It was not a legend but a living experience shared by the entire nation. 

We each engage this living experience on each of our holidays. I have told my children that when I was a child, my grandfather told me that he had heard from his father that our forefathers were present at this living experience.  This experience at Har Sinai continues to shape our people.

Hashem revealed to the Jewish People and to the world an objective fact, an essential truth – Hashem maintains a providential relationship with the Jewish People.   

Objective facts and essential truths are scarce commodities in our time. Fake news, false media and alternative facts rule the day.  In politics and especially on our college campuses, even the concept of objectivity is under assault.

One of my favorite stories illustrates the extent to which an un-objective and totally personal perspective can radically affect one’s thinking process. I first heard this story about Rav Chaim Soloveitchik from my Rosh Yeshiva and I subsequently saw it written up in Listen to Your Messages: And Other Observations on Contemporary Jewish Life by fellow Seattleite, Rabbi Yissochar Frand.

Rav Chaim Soloveitchik was a great rav in Brisk. The chief judge of Rav Chaim's beis din, his rabbinical court, was a great scholar named Rav Simchah Zelig.

It once happened that a butcher came into the beis din with a question regarding an animal he had just slaughtered. He had found a lesion on one of its internal organs and he wanted to know whether or not the animal was kosher.

Rav Simchah Zelig looked at the evidence and then considered the question very carefully. In those days, there were no real options for disposing of non-kosher animals. Thus, declaring an animal non-kosher was no simple matter - it involved very great financial loss, very many rubles. Unfortunately, however, Rav Simchah Zelig could not find any basis for declaring the animal kosher.

"I'm sorry," he said. "This animal is not kosher. It can't be used."

The man sighed as he heard the ruling. He nodded in acceptance and walked out without a whimper.

Three months later, the same man appeared before Rav Simchah Zelig once again, this time to litigate a dispute between him and another person. The disputed amount was a paltry 75 rubles. Rav Simchah Zelig ruled against the man, and it cost him 75 rubles. 

The man exploded in anger shouting at Rav Simchah Zelig and cursing him. The screams were so loud that Rav Chaim heard him and came running. Afraid that he would become violent, Rav Chaim ordered him to leave. 

"I don't understand," said Rav Simchah Zelig when he was finally alone with Rav Chaim. "Three months ago this man comes into my court, I rule against him and it costs him 1500 rubles, but he doesn't say a thing. Today he comes into my court, he loses 75 rubles, and he goes wild. It doesn't make any sense."

"The money has nothing to do with it," Rav Chaim replied. "It's all about winning and losing. In the case of the animal, there were no winners and losers, just a question about a piece of meat that had to be resolved. But today was a different story altogether. Today he lost and someone else won. That was unacceptable."

What essential truth does this story uncover? 

On the surface, the story speaks to the subtle power of one’s subjective world-view – losing a competition with another is more painful than losing your own money. In fact, so painful that one acts irrationally.

On a deeper level, this story communicates the power of justice and the power of a judicial system to support our personal reorienting of our subjective frame of mind. The butcher in the story missed the opportunity for personal transformation.  On a more personal scale, true justice, like the revelation at Mount Sinai, is a living experience. True justice is blind and objective. True justice offers an objective point of reference upon which each person can calibrate his or her opinions.  

The discussions of ma’amad Har Sinai and the system of justice are so related that the revelation is bookmarked in the Torah by two different presentations of justice – Yitro’s suggestion to Moshe of how to create an efficient court system and the Torah’s presentation of civil law in Parashat Mishpatim which we will read, be”H, next week.

In summary, together with Mishpatim, Parashat Yitro presents the existence of an objective moral law – a system of justice given by an eternal Lawgiver Who forged an on-going providential relationship with the Jewish People.

If so, why is this week’s parasha called Yitro? Yitro was Moshe’s Midianite father-in-law. On what merit is his name associated with this essential truth?

Rabbi Yosef
Ber Soloveitchik, the Rav, of blessed memory, addresses a different, but related, question. The Torah records that Yitro suggested to Moshe that his system of one court for all of Israel was too taxing. As the Rav says, “why didn’t Moshe intuitively feel the need for a well-organized judicial system? Why didn’t it occur to Moshe and it did to Yitro?"

The Rav argues that the Torah was particularly interested in linking the proper implementation of the judicial system with Yitro. It wasn’t necessarily that Moshe didn’t consider it – instead, the Torah wanted to connect the novel idea for ideal justice with Yitro. 


The Rav answers in the following way:

Many of us are undoubtedly familiar with the following Midrash in the Sifri. Before Matan Torah, Hashem sent agents not only to b'nei yisrael but to other nations, as well. After seeing a sample of the Torah, each nation rejected the offer.

Eisav saw lo tirtzach – thou shalt not murder – and said no thank you.

Yishmael was shown lo tignov – thou shalt not steal – and said no way.

Amon and Moav learned lo tin’af – thou shalt not commit adultery – and responded with a flat no.

This Midrash points to an existential pessimism that must have gnawed at b'nei yisrael. Will the world ever be redeemed by the values of Torah?

Imagine their doubts after their treatment in Egypt – by Pharoah who had an inkling of Hashem. Imagine their absolute skepticism after their treatment at the hand of Amalek!

Is there hope for mankind?

The Rav offers an unbelievable insight. The Torah had to present Yitro exactly at this time. In the Rav’s own words, “Yitro is the representative of mankind, non-Jews, of people who are ready or they will be ready to accept the Torah and live in accordance with its law. Intuitively, Yitro was a Jew.”

The Torah purposely sidestepped Moshe and shined the light on Yitro and his understanding of proper organization of justice to answer the lingering doubts that the Jewish People had – regardless of their interactions with Esav, Yishmael, Amon, Moav, Mitzrayim and especially with Amalek, mankind can experience true enlightenment. This is why Yitro’s name is affixed to our parasha.

In Moshe’s days there were doubts and in our days there are doubts. Yitro reminds us that the light of objectivity, truth, justice and chessed will one day, hopefully soon, permeate all of the inhabitants of the world.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The Importance of Derech Eretz - Parashat Yitro - February 17, 2017

This week’s parasha presents the reuniting of Moshe Rabbenu and his father-in-law, Yitro – the namesake of our parasha

The Torah records that at the beginning of their encounter, Yitro says to Moshe, “I am your father-in-law, Yitro, who is coming to you and your wife and your two sons with her.” Rabbenu Ovadia Seforno, and a number of our commentators, are troubled by the inclusion of this statement. What does it add?

To answer this question, Seforno makes recourse to a teaching of our Chachamim in Masechet Pesachim 112a – do not enter your home suddenly, all the more so, the house of your friend. Using this dictum, Seforno explains that Yitro was attempting to give Moshe advance warning so that Moshe could have adequate time to make appropriate preparations for Yitro’s lodging. Yitro was concerned about Moshe’s interests and concerns – his announcement is a testament to his high ethical standing.

A more expanded version of this Rabbinic dictum is recorded in the fifth chapter of Masechet Derech Eretz:

  • A person should never leave the company of his teacher or friend unless he excuses himself and is granted permission. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak) asked permission before leaving the company of Avraham. 
  • A person should not suddenly enter his friend’s house. Learn derech eretz from Hashem Who (so to speak), after Adam’s sin of the tree of knowledge, stood at the entrance of the Garden of Eden and called to Adam, ‘Where are you?’
What is derech eretz?

On the most basic level, derech eretz means “the way of the world” – protocol. It is basic protocol to not leave the company of your friend without saying goodbye. It is basic protocol to refrain from barging in on someone’s house. However, in Masechet Berachot 35b, derech eretz is also used in another sense – earning a living. What is the unifying feature of protocols and earning a living?

I suggest that derech eretz refers to a human being’s basic psychological needs – the needs with which we are all hard-wired. We have a need for social harmony (saying goodbye), privacy (announcing one’s arrival) and independence (making a living). The Rabbis teach that we are obligated to promote social harmony – not just from our own framework but equally from the framework of those around us. We are obligated to respect each other’s privacy – because that is a basic human need. The Torah promotes making a living – dependency is taxing.

Our Rabbis teach that while it is natural to be protective and vigilant about our own needs, we must be equally sensitive to the basic psychological needs of everyone around us – we must strive to treat each other with derech eretz.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Shirat HaYam and Tu BiShevat - Parashat Beshalach- February 10, 2017

This week’s parasha, Parashat Beshalach, presents the splitting of the Red Sea - b’nei yisrael was saved from the Egyptians who drowned while b’nei yisrael was safe on the far shore. In response, Moshe led the Jewish People in shirat hayam – the Song of the Sea – a song of praise for Hashem for His miraculously saving b’nei yisrael.

In Masechet Megilah 10b, the gemara cites a well-known midrash – “As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but G-d silenced the angels, saying, ‘The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!’”

I discussed this gemara this morning with my students and we focused on one question – if it was improper for the angels to sing praises in the face of the death G-d’s creation (the Egyptians), why was Moshe and b’nei yisrael not subject to criticism? To answer this question, we examined a law in a very different context – but one that has a connection to Tu BiShevat which falls out this Shabbat.

Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch, (siman 211:1) deals with the case of a person who has multiple fruits on his plate, all requiring the same blessing – bor’e p’ri ha’etz. On which fruit should he make the bracha? The Shulchan Aruch explains that for the purposes of blessing, fruit is prioritized from three perspectives, in descending order: fruit that is on the list of the seven species from Israel (grapes, olives, dates, figs and pomegranates) followed by fruit that is in its whole form followed by fruit that a person likes. If a person has grapes and cherries on his plate, he should make the blessing on grapes. If he has cherries and a slice of orange on his plate, he should make the blessing on a cherry. If he has a slice of apple and a slice of orange, he should make the blessing on whichever one he likes better.

What is the foundational principle of this law? On what basis should a fruit of the seven species be used as the vehicle of blessing over a whole fruit over a preferred fruit? Our class suggested that this principle is rooted in an understanding of food-blessings. A blessing on food is a praise of Hashem – a recognition that His will yields to us the benefit of sustenance. We further suggested that when praising Hashem with a bracha, the halacha demands that we use the object that will yield the most rich praise of Him because of what is associated with that object. The best object is one that is universally associated with His providence – fruits of the Land of Israel where Hashem’s Providence is most evident. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that is the product of His will – a whole fruit. Short of that, the halacha prefers for us to use an object that we, from our subjective framework, like the most.

What emerges from this analysis is that praise of Hashem can incorporate objective criteria – like a fruit’s association with the Land of Israel or it being in its agriculturally original state – whole, or alternatively, praise of Hashem can incorporate subjective criteria like personal predilections – the praise comes from one’s own experience and state of mind.

We proposed in class that this distinction between objective and subjective frameworks of praise can be used to explain why the angels were subject to criticism but the Jewish People were not. Angels are beings designed only to carry out Hashem’s will free of the influence of free will. They are designed to be purely objective. When singing praises to Hashem, angels must represent the entire picture – the objective frame. Hence, Hashem criticizes them because they did not incorporate the whole frame – they failed to acknowledge the loss of humanity that served as the basis for the salvation of the Jewish People. However, as human beings who experienced the salvation, there is no expectation for the Jewish People to maintain a completely objective framework – their song of praise emerged from their experience of salvation. Like the person who prioritizes making a blessing on a fruit – which is the means of his sustenance – using an object that is associated with the Land of Israel, the Jewish People sing praises to Hashem at the Red Sea – the place of their salvation – regarding Hashem’s greatness in His mastery over the world.