Friday, October 24, 2008

Why Was Moshe Punished?

One of the most fascinating things about reading Rambam is that no matter how many times I revisit an idea of his, invariably, I get a new insight or realize that I missed something seminal the last time I looked at it. On Chag, I was learning the Eight Chapters, Rambam’s introduction to Massechet Avot, with young Chaverim and we read Rambam’s explanation of Moshe’s sin that prevented him from entering the land of Israel. It is at the end of chapter 4 and here is the Hebrew (R. Shmuel Tibon translation) with my translation interspersed with comments.

After a lengthy discussion of the Golden Mean, Rambam addresses the problem of Moshe’s sin –

ואתה יודע, שאדון הראשונים והאחרונים, משה רבנו, כבר אמר עליו השם יתברך:
יען לא האמנתם בי להקדישני לעיני בני ישראל (במדבר כ', י"ב); על אשר מריתם את פי למי מריבה (שם, כ"ד); על אשר לא קדשתם אותי (דברים ל"ב, נ"א).
כל זה! וחטאו, עליו השלום, הוא שנטה לצד אחד הקצוות במעלה אחת שבמעלות המידות, והיא הסבלנות! כאשר נטה לצד הרגזנות, באומרו: שמעו נא המורים (במדבר כ', י'). דקדק
עמו הקדוש ברוך הוא: שיהיה אדם כמוהו מתרגז לעיני עדת ישראל, במקום שאין
הרגזנות ראויה?! וכגון זה באדם שכמותו חילול השם הוא, שכן תנועותיו כולן ודיברותיו,
הכל למדים מהם וחומדים בהם האושר בעולם הזה ובעולם הבא. ואיך ייראו בו
הרגזנות, והיא ממעשי הרעים כמו שבארנו, ואינה נובעת אלא מתכונה רעה שבנפש.

You already know that the Master of earlier and later generations, Moshe Rabbeinu, HKBH said to him-

Inasmuch as you did not make them believe in Me [see R. Sa’adyah Gaon and below] to sanctify me before the eyes of the children of Israel [you shall not bring this assembly to the land that I have given to them]. (Bamidbar 20:12)

[Let Aharon be gathered to his kin, for he shall not come into the land that I have given to the children of Israel,] for you both have rebelled against My word at the Waters of Merivah. (Bamidbar 20:24)

…For you have not sanctified Me… (Devarim 32:51)

All this! [Such punishment for so little!] His [Moshe’s] sin was that he went to one of the extremes in behavior, namely he had a deficiency in the virtue of tolerance. [Rambam explained earlier in the chapter, that a perfect human being should be balanced, not too tolerant or too intolerant.] As he crossed over into anger [intolerance] saying [to the people] “listen you rebels!” God was upset with him. A person of his caliber, to whom all eyes are directed to learn from him the ways that lead to happiness in this world and the world to come, should become angry in a situation that does not warrant it? That is a Chilul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]! How can he let them see unwarranted anger, a bad act that stems from a deficiency in his character?

Rambam addresses the first verse that criticizes Moshe for being a bad role model. He showed that he had not perfected one of his character traits. Moshe, who was seen as the paradigm of a perfect human being, who had reached the level of prophecy no other human had until then nor will another reach in the future, could not be seen as having a moral deficiency. Rambam in MN 2:40 explains that what makes the Torah divine as opposed to other laws that are promulgated by humans, is that it teaches not only about personal and societal behavior but also truths that helps a man understand his own existence and the world he lives in. That is an internal condition, a value judgment of the content of the torah. There is however, an additional external condition that relates to the person who teaches it and gives it to us.

The question which now remains to be settled is this: Is the person who proclaimed these laws the same perfect man that received them by prophetic inspiration, or a plagiarist, who has stolen these ideas from a true prophet? In order to be enabled to answer this question, we must examine the merits of the person, obtain an accurate account of his actions, and consider his character.”

Seeing a deficiency in Moshe’s character casts a doubt on the divinity of the Torah and thus desecrates God’s name. That is the meaning of Bamidbar 20:12 and why I chose to translate according to R. Sa’adyah, “Inasmuch as you did not make them believe in Me”, which I believe is Rambam’s translation of this verse.

Rambam now addresses the other statement in Bamidbar 20:24 where Moshe and Aharon are accused of rebelling against God.

אבל אמרו בעניין הזה: "מריתם את פי" אינו אלא כמו שאבאר. וזה, שלא היה
מדבר עם עמי הארץ, ולא עם מי שאין להם מעלה, אבל עם קהל שהקטנה שבנשיהם
הייתה כיחזקאל בן בוזי, כמו שזכרו החכמים. וכל מה שיאמר או יעשה, יבחנוהו.
וכאשר ראוהו שהתרגז, אמרו
ודאי אין הוא, עליו השלום, מאלה שיש להם פחיתות מידה! ולולא ידע שהאלוהים
התאנף בנו על דרישת המים, ושאנחנו הכעסנוהו, יתברך, לא היה מתרגז
ואנו לא מצאנו לשם יתברך שהתרגז או שכעס בדברו אליו בעניין הזה; אלא אמר: קח את המטה והקהל את העדה, וגומר (במדבר כ', ח').

The explanation of the verse, “you have rebelled against My word” is as follows. Moshe was not talking to ignorant people or to a lowly caste. He was talking to a people that the least among their women was like [the prophet] Yechezkel ben Buzi according to the rabbis! [Rambam is referring to the Rabbis who note that a lowly woman slave apprehended at Kryat Yam Suf as much as Yechezkel in all his prophecies. In other words, the people were quite sophisticated theologians by now, having experienced Yam Suf and Sinai]. They therefore looked with a critical eye on everything Moshe did. When they saw him get angry, they assumed that he, a perfect human being, was transmitting to them God’s position. Had he not known that God was wrathful at us for asking for water, that we angered Him, he would not have gotten angry with us. We, however, do not find anywhere that God was angry [for our asking for water]. God only said, “Take the staff and gather the assembly…”

Moshe and Aharon “rebelled against God’s word” by teaching the people an erroneous understanding of Bitachon – reliance on God. Bitachon does not mean that when faced with a problem, one relies on God and does nothing. When there is no water one should do all that is humanly possible to resolve the crisis. Approaching Moshe and asking him to act was the correct thing to do. In fact, God told Moshe to act by taking the staff and finding the proper rock that would be a source of water for them.

Putting the story in context, the people who saw Moshe as the perfect human being he was had two choices when confronted by his actions. If they saw his anger as a moral deficiency, it jeopardized their acceptance of the torah as divine. On the other hand, if they idolized him and saw him as infallible, they learned a wrong concept of what it means to trust and rely on God. The punishment was therefore commensurate and necessary to rectify these two possible misconceptions. That is how I understand the verse – (Devarim 3:26)

וַיִּתְעַבֵּר יְהוָה בִּי לְמַעַנְכֶם, וְלֹא
שָׁמַע אֵלָי.

26 But the LORD was wrathful with me for your sakes, and hearkened not unto me.

When Moshe asked that he be allowed to enter the land, it was refused for the sake of the people. An important lesson had to be taught about the divinity of the Torah and the meaning of trusting God.

Rambam ends this explanation very appropriately.

והנה יצאנו מעניין השער, אבל היתרנו ספק מספקי התורה, שנאמרו בו דברים
רבים ונשאל פעמים רבות: "איזה חטא חטא?" וערוך מה שאמרנו אנחנו מול מה
שנאמר בה. והאמת תעשה דרכה

We digressed from the subject discussed but we gained an answer to one of the questions that arise in the Torah and to which many words were addressed. It was asked many times, “what was their sin?” Compare what we said to what was already said about this and the truth will show the way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Relationship Between Midrashic Exegesis and the Written Text.

The Rabbis in Midrash Rabah Vaykra (Margulies Edition pages 706 - 30:8-15) present a multitude of explanations for the Mitzvah of taking the four Minim on Sukkot, giving many reasons for the grouping as well as for each individual component. Rambam takes the opportunity to make a statement about these types of exegesis.

“As regards the four species [the branches of the palm tree, the citron, the myrtle, and the willows of the brook], our Sages gave a reason for their use by way of Midrashim, the method of which is well known to those who understand their discourse. They use the text of the Bible only as a kind of poetical language [for their own ideas], and do not intend thereby to give an interpretation of the text. Accordingly, with regard to the Midrashim, people are divided into two classes. For some think that, the Midrash contains the real explanation of the text, whilst others, finding that it cannot be reconciled with the words quoted, reject and ridicule it. The former struggle and fight to prove and to confirm such interpretations according to their opinion, and to keep them as the real meaning of the text; they consider them in the same light as traditional laws.”

In his discussions about Torah She Ba’al Peh, the oral tradition that we received at Sinai as interpretation of how to perform the Mitzvot, Rambam uses the “Four Species” frequently as an example. In the introduction to the Mishna, he uses Etrog as an example of a received tradition as well as how the Rabbis looked to find clues in the text to confirm that tradition. When the Torah tells us to take a “fruit of a stately tree”, it should not contradict the received tradition and it should be possible to include the Etrog under that rubric. The Gemara goes even further and tries to find logical reasons why Etrog is the most probable choice of all possible fruit that would have the conditions laid out in the text. That is not the type of Derashot Rambam refers to here but rather those that compare the Four Species, to God, the patriarchs, the Sanhedrin, the different types of personalities that compose the Jewish community etc… These exegeses deal with the “why” rather than the “how”. Some literalists will try to read these Midrashim literally into the text at times using embarrassingly forced interpretations while others will ridicule and argue that the Rabbis distort the text to fit their own biases, a common argument found among modern Biblical scholars.

Neither of the two classes understood it, that our Sages employ biblical texts merely as poetical expressions, the meaning of which is not obscure for someone endowed with understanding. This method was general in ancient days; all adopted it in the same way as poets use poetical expressions.”

In other words, these Midrashim stand alone as speculation by the rabbis on the reasons for the Mitzvah and the text is used as a tool to present the idea tying it to that particular Mitzvah, possibly as a mnemonic device. Rambam then analyzes another case where the Rabbis use a verse to teach a moral lesson. It is quite clear that not only does the idea have no relationship with the text; the idea itself is presented in a non-literal format. Rambam wants to disabuse us of the idea that this is unique to these specific cases by making a more sweeping statement -

In the same sense you must understand the phrase, "Do not read so, but so," wherever it occurs in the Midrash.”

Chag Sameach.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Some Thoughts on Shaking the Lulav.

This Post is being rewritten. See comment by Yaakov.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Teshuvah and Consequences

As I am quite busy with Yom Tov this year falling in the middle of the week which puts a lot of pressure on doing as much as possible in the few available days, I have not had time to continue with the subject I am in the midst of working through. However, I just want to share a few thoughts that have been at the forefront during RH and YK. I understand that one of the big Hidushim of Teshuvah, the novelty about repentance, is that there is such a possibility to begin with. As we live in a world of cause and effect where every action has a consequence, it would appear that once a sequence of events has been put in motion, nothing short of a miracle can stop it. It would take a tremendous amount of prescience to figure out how to effect a change in a negative sequence that his been put in motion even after the person who started it becomes aware of the detrimental consequences. As an example from our current news, very few recognized the toxicity of derivatives a few years ago. Now that the problem is upon us, the world wants to repent but is at a loss to figure out what will work. Derivatives may no longer be written in the future but the negative effect they caused will never totally disappear. One way or the other it will influence the financial world for years to come. The same is with every action that we do. Some have a greater impact, others a lesser one while some are catastrophic. The only thing the repentant person can do is avoid repeating his mistakes and try to somehow mitigate the consequences his actions have wrought. That is how I understood the end of Viduy –

יהי רצון מלפניך, שלא אחטא, ומה שחטאתי מרוק ברחמיך הרבים, אבל לא על ידי ייסורין

May it please You that I not sin anymore and my past sins be cleansed thanks to Your having great pity on us, but (please) not through pain.

In other words, we acknowledge that the consequences are hard to stop but we still pray that somehow they be mitigated. I also see this statement as self-inducement to try to find ways and actions that will mitigate these consequences. It is not always possible but we still have to at least try.

That is also how I understand the words of Viduy -

אבל חטאנו אנחנו, ואבותינו

But, our ancestors and we sinned.

We bring our ancestors into the picture because their actions, possibly even millennia ago, have consequences that affect us even so many years later. A chain of cause and effect is not easy to stop.

I wish all a Chag Sameach.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Reading a Theological or an Historical Text -

Although there is some overlap between the categories and there also is some controversy among the interpreters to which category certain texts belong, the Torah, the Five Books of Moshe, contain legal, theological and historical texts. While legal texts are almost exclusively found in the Torah, the other two categories are common to all the prophetic books including Nach, the Books of the Prophets. The legal portions are addressed in the Halachik discourse and comprise what is generally known as Talmud Torah, the learning done in Yeshivot and on a daily basis by most observant Jews. Although generally ignored, there is a very important theological and philosophical foundation to the Halachik discourse which therefore affects legal decisions and how Mitzvot are practiced. Practice however can be defined while theology and philosophy are much more fluid and therefore much more controversial. Furthermore, philosophy and theology should be seen as developmental processes that span millennia and generations. As I explained in earlier posts, the scriptures posit beliefs that we are then tasked to convince ourselves of their veracity and correctness. It is this process of learning and searching that moves us along as individuals, a people and through us the whole world towards the goal of attaining the ultimate Truth,

כִּי-מָלְאָה הָאָרֶץ, דֵּעָה אֶת-יְהוָה, כַּמַּיִם, לַיָּם מְכַסִּים.

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. (Yeshayahu 11:9)

It is with this in mind that we have to approach the theological texts as we try to understand them and interpret them.

The way I understand it, Torah theology is a way of looking and interpreting our observations of our surroundings and existence. In other words, we observe and try to understand the science underlying the physical world we live in, a developmental process in itself that also spans millennia and generations, and at the same time try to make sense of our raison d’etre, why we are here and what is the purpose of this whole enterprise. For ease, I will refer to all science as physics while metaphysics is included in theology. Looking at physics, although we are still far from having a complete understanding of it and may never understand it all the way, at least theoretically we should eventually be able to acquire full knowledge thereof. That is so, because physics is an objective and empirical science. Theology with its underlying belief system and metaphysical theories, on the other hand, is subjective and cannot be proven empirically. It is a way of looking at things based on a combination of deductive thinking, intuition and prophecy, revelation. However, these two different types of knowledge go together and are interdependent. As humanity develops its knowledge of physics, it also develops its understanding of theology which is de facto a commentary and interpretation of the first.

The Torah sets down an axiom – God exists. Rambam holds that it is empirically provable but requires a lot of work and effort. He therefore considers it a Mitzvah – a commandment – to “know” that God exists.

…יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות, לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון
וידיעת דבר זה מצות עשה, שנאמר "אנוכי ה' אלוהיך

The way I understand Rambam is that this axiom is at the intersection of physics and theology. That God “exists” is empirically provable however, what God “is” and even how the word “exists” relates to Him is a matter that belongs to the realm of theology. Everything about God, omniscience, omnipotence, will, whether He created the world from nothingness, His providence and His relationship to our own existence, all belongs to theology and is subjective, a way we look at things rather than something empirically provable. It is theology that the Torah presents in its non-legal texts and is the subject of Nach. It tells us how we should look at things and it lays out markers that we should follow as we try to understand and make sense of it all but it ultimately leaves it to us to fill in the blanks. It is through the combination of this process of thinking, keeping the Mitzvot and understanding them, which in itself depends on our theological insights, that we will eventually fulfill the first Mitzvah of “knowing” that God exists.

It is with this in mind that the Torah starts off by describing creation. It certainly does not intend to tell us a scientific truth as that is left to us to discover – it therefore should not be read literally, even if the literal reading were to agree with current science which it does not. It is teaching us that as we observe our world and develop an understanding of how it works, we have to keep in mind that it was willed into existence by HKBH from nothingness. Whatever scientific theory for the world’s beginning is in vogue, whether it is the Big Bang or any other such theory that may arise, the prior cause for that singularity is God and His will and not some other subjective explanation. The Torah presentation of creation also tells us that all components of the universe are interrelated and interdependent and all, including humans have a role to play in its continuity. It also tells us that God has put into place in this universe a self-sustaining system that does not require any further intervention on His part – He “rested” on the seventh day. It also tells us about man and his mental and psychological makeup, abilities and responsibilities. What it does not tell us is the scientific and physical makeup of the world.

First, the account given in Scripture of the Creation is not, as is generally believed, intended to be in all its parts literal. For if this were the case, wise men would not have kept its explanation secret, and our Sages would not have employed figurative speech [in treating of the Creation] in order to hide its true meaning, nor would they have objected to discuss it in the presence of the common people. The literal meaning of the words might lead us to conceive corrupt ideas and to form false opinions about God, or even entirely to abandon and reject the principles of our Faith. It is therefore right to abstain and refrain from examining this subject superficially and unscientifically. We must blame the practice of some ignorant preachers and expounders of the Bible, who think that wisdom consists in knowing the explanation of words, and that greater perfection is attained by employing more words and longer speech.” (MN 2:29)

This is the approach that we have to take to every text that deals with theology. Its purpose is to tell us how we should look at our physical reality, the world we live in, at things that happen to us as a nation, as individuals and as humanity. It tells us how we should interpret the good and bad things that happen to us and how we should act when we are presented with choices, basing ourselves on certain ethical or moral imperatives. The same thinking applies to historical events. The Torah is not interested in passing along to us historical events but rather how we should look at them and learn from them.

Know that all stories that you will find mentioned in the Torah serve a certain purpose in connection with religious teaching. They either help to establish a principle of faith, or to regulate our actions, and to prevent wrong and injustice among men.” (MN 3:50)

Although I see no reason why I should question the historicity of most of the events related in the Torah, it is really irrelevant to the insight it is intended to teach. The point is the teaching that it is transmitting which is the same regardless of the fine details of the actual event. The story of the flood to me is a lesson on how human beings should behave when they see a calamity coming and how they should interpret it. Unlike the pagan world that developed the Gilgamesh myth to explain the cataclysmic floods that were still alive in human memory thereby shifting the responsibility to the gods, the Torah teaches that Noach acted with foresight when he became aware of the forthcoming cataclysm. Apparently the way the rabbis read it, there were early signs over several centuries that global warming was occurring and a cataclysm was about to occur. The Torah also teaches lessons about the breakdown of society and how that affected its ability to prepare or even foresee the cataclysm. To me that is, among others, the important messages the story sends and not the historical details of how widespread it was and so on. I believe a similar approach should be taken with every Torah narrative.

More to come…

Gmar Chatima Tova.