Sunday, November 30, 2008

Earth!!! Do not cover my blood! - אֶרֶץ אַל־תְּכַסִּי דָמִי

John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry says it well!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Fascinating Yemmenite Midrash

A friend sent me two Yemmenite Midrashim[1] that say the same thing in slightly different versions. According to the editor’s notes on both Midrashim, one by Professor Toby, an expert on Yemmenite Jewry, it is an accepted and well-known popular story in Yemen folklore. The one I am paraphrasing is from Midrash Habiur. The Midrash comments on the following verse in Devarim 31:21

וְהָיָה כִּי-תִמְצֶאןָ אֹתוֹ רָעוֹת רַבּוֹת, וְצָרוֹת,
וְעָנְתָה הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לְפָנָיו לְעֵד, כִּי לֹא תִשָּׁכַח מִפִּי

21 then it shall come to pass, when many evils and troubles are come upon them, that this song shall testify before them as a witness; for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed;

For it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed: He promised them that the Torah will not be removed from them nor will it disappear. There is a tradition that the Jews did not have the Torah during the First Exile. Ezra Hasofer wrote down from memory all the 24 books and could not remember the first part of this sentence in Shir Hashirim -

יב לֹא יָדַעְתִּי--נַפְשִׁי שָׂמַתְנִי, מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב.

12 Before I was aware, my soul set me upon the chariots of my princely people. (Shir Hashirim 6:12)

He asked an Am Ha’aretz (an unlearned man) if he remembered the beginning of the verse in Shir Hashirim that ends with מַרְכְּבוֹת עַמִּי נָדִיב. To which the man said
לֹא יָדַעְתִּי-- - I don’t know! That jolted Ezra’s memory and he remembered the missing words. The Midrash continues that this is why the Mesora has עה on this verse, the acronym for Am Ha’aretz, to remind us that Ezra needed the help of one.

I have very little to say about this Midrash other than that it triggers a great many thoughts about how some of our rabbis understood Ezra’s role in writing down the torah. The fact that it was an accepted traditional story in the Jewish community in Yemen is even more telling.

[1] For a short overview of the Yemmenite Midrashim, see Torah Shleima Vol. 1 in the introduction note 11.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Logic Behind The Laws Of Purity

In the previous post, I quoted Rambam in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin 16:14 and I would like to delve a little further into the subject.

אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני

Although it is permitted to eat impure foods and drink impure liquids, the early Chassidim ate even their regular foods in purity, keeping away from impurities all their lives. They were called Perushim (the famous and wrongly maligned Pharisees of the New Testament און גליון!). This behavior is considered extra holiness and ways of Chassidus when a person separates himself from the general populace, not touching them nor eating together with them. For such separation purifies the body [by keeping it] from bad deeds. Bodily purity brings about a mind that is holy [rejecting] incorrect opinions. Holiness of the mind causes one to emulate the Shechinah as it says, you should make yourselves holy, and become holy for I am holy.

In MN 3:47 Rambam explains that the reason for the laws of impurity are to inculcate a sense of awe and respect when people entered the Beit Hamikdash. The whole idea of having a place dedicated to the service of God was to create a physical focal point where we can dedicate and concentrate on existential and theological issues. As humans, we have difficulty with abstract ideas. If we cannot touch and feel something in one way or the other, we do not believe it exists. The existence of God and His role in our existence can only be arrived at through deduction and inductive thinking. It was therefore necessary to have a place to which we assign a certain aura of holiness where we can act out our reverence and devotion to HKBH. We created a place where God, who is not a physical entity and thus takes up no space, is present in our minds.

I repeat that the object of the Sanctuary was to create in the hearts of those who enter it certain feelings of awe and reverence. … But when we continually see an object, however sublime it may be, our regard for that object will be lessened, and the impression we have received of it will be weakened. Our Sages, considering this fact, said that we should not enter the Temple whenever we liked, and pointed to the words: "Make thy foot rare in the house of thy friend" (Prov. xxv. 17). For this reason, the unclean were not allowed to enter the Sanctuary, although there are so many kinds of uncleanness, that [at a time] only a few people are clean.”

The idea of the laws of impurity was therefore a part of the whole process of service in the Beit Hamikdash. In fact, it was the least physical of the types of service performed there. It was a mental focus on watching one self and paying attention at all times as preparation for the real goal of the Beit Hamikdash, the contemplation of God and His actions so that we can emulate them. It is therefore quite understandable that the Rabbis extended this idea to daily life using the application of these complicated rules that involved keeping the mind focused at all times paying attention to every action one does. Seeing the Beit Hamikdash as a necessary concession to the human condition, they endeavored to transcend that frailty and see God’s presence at all times and in all places.

It is interesting that Rambam in this Halacha states that the goal of the laws of impurity are to lead us eventually to correct opinions about God so that we can learn His ways and emulate them. In his Pirush Hamishna in the introduction to Seder Taharot he writes (my translation/paraphrase based on Rav Kafih’s edition)

They [Rabbis] also said regarding [the laws] of impurity and purity that they are the core [guffei] of the Law. Why not? After all they are the ladder to the [acquisition of the] Spirit of the Holy as they said purity brings about holiness etc…”

Clearly, Rambam here gives us a picture of what to him is revelation and prophecy. It is not some out of the body mystical experience but rather an understanding one arrives at when one learns about and emulates God’s ways. But even more telling is that holiness is not some kind of abstract aura that permeates a place or a person. One is holy when one emulates God, where every action is thought out and works towards a goal and a purpose.

In Hilchot Mikva’ot, at the end of chapter 11, the last chapter of Sefer Taharot, Rambam writes –

[יב] דבר ברור וגלוי שהטומאות והטהרות גזירת הכתוב הן, ואינן מדברים שדעתו של אדם מכרעת אותן, והרי הן מכלל החוקים;

It is clear and obvious that [the laws of] impurities and purities are scriptural decrees. They are not among the things that a person can decide upon [logically] and are therefore classified among the Chukim.

The popular understanding is that there are societal laws, Mishpatim, that are conventions that are necessary for society to function properly. There are ritual laws, Mitzvot, that remind us about important theological matters. These categories are considered rational and sensible. Then there are irrational laws that have no reason at all and we just do them because we are so ordered. They are seen as whimsical, ritualistic and illogical even at times wrong and counter-intuitive. Rambam vehemently disagrees repeatedly in all his writings. Every law is rational and has a reason and purpose all focused towards one goal – make us into perfected human beings. The laws of Purity are categorized as Chukim because the rules themselves are arbitrary. There is no logical reason why, for example, earthenware cannot be purified while metal utensils can. That is a scriptural decree. The concept and idea of purity however is more than logical; it is the core of Torah. They are the laws that are at the top of the pyramid that is the goal of the whole enterprise of Torah - to know God and have correct opinions about Him so that we can emulate His actions.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

What Is The Purpose of Torah Law? A Cosmic Viewpoint.

There are certain times in our thinking that we know we had a crucial insight that answered many difficult questions that were lurking in our minds. These insights often open an entire new avenue of thought and understanding. Over the years, I had several such moments that changed and influenced my thinking going forward. I experienced such a moment recently when I was working on my article on Avodah Zara published in Hakirah 6. As I was rereading Rambam’s explanation of the word Tov mentioned so often in the description of creation, I realized that Tov Me’od which appears at the end of creation when man comes into existence addresses man’s purpose, goal and his part in the totality of existence. Rambam sees the whole of existence as an interconnected interdependent system, where each component has a built in mechanism that promotes self-survival and survival of the whole. All components however have very defined roles without any freedom of choice on how to act while humans are endowed with the potential for creativity, thinking and acting responsibly. It is that potential that differentiates man from all other components of the universe and it is that ability that informs him what his expected contribution to the survival of the whole is and therefore his goal in existence. Thus, creation was complete and Tov Me’od, a term denoting the permanent continuity of all that was created, could be used. Working towards understanding and fulfilling the potential of humanity is the responsibility of each individual, the community and all of humankind, generation by generation, over the millennia. For man to know how to fulfill his part in the whole of existence is not simple and straightforward. It cannot be known without understanding thoroughly how every component works, what its purpose is, where the whole enterprise of existence is going and the risks and challenges it all faces. That knowledge however is elusive. It has taken humanity thousands of years to even begin scratching the surface of the different sciences that try to explain how things work. We are just at the beginning of the process of deciphering the laws of physics, chemistry and biology etc… empirical knowledge that can be physically demonstrated. Ontological questions which have no empirically proven answers are the most elusive and may never be answered satisfactorily. However, for the ontological premises to make sense they have to be anchored in reality as demonstrated by the sciences but they also require personal perfection if they are to be the Truth and not just subjective conjectures.

It has been proved that moral conduct is a preparation for intellectual progress, and that only a man whose character is pure, calm and steadfast, can attain to intellectual perfection: that is, acquire correct conceptions. …For this science is, as you know, different from the science of Medicine and of Geometry, and, from the reason already mentioned, it is not every person who is capable of approaching it. It is impossible for a man to study it successfully without moral preparation; he must acquire the highest degree of uprightness and integrity…Therefore, it was considered inadvisable to teach it to young men; nay, it is impossible for them to comprehend it, on account of the heat of their blood and the flame of youth, which confuses their minds. That heat, which causes all the disorder, must first disappear; they must have become moderate and settled, humble in their hearts, and subdued in their temperament; only then will they be able to arrive at the highest degree of the perception of God, i.e., the study of Metaphysics, which is called Ma‘aseh Merkavah.” (MN 1:34)

The problem is that the push for survival is instinctual and present in each of us for our own selfish self-preservation even at the detriment of the other. It is not obvious to us that unless we act in a way that protects and promotes the survival of the totality of existence we will self-destruct. It is this instinct that is the cause of wars, environmental destruction and is at the root of many of humanity’s societal ills which hinder its development towards fulfilling its intended role. Furthermore, when faced with ontological questions that require a clear unbiased perspective, narcissistic tendencies cloud our thinking. When there is no concrete evidence to support an answer to an abstract question, we tend to pull in the direction that satisfies egotistical tendencies. This instinct therefore has to be channeled so that it allows us to find the true answers that will inform our actions.

That is where the Torah comes into play. The Torah through its Mitzvot teaches morality and ethics forcing people to look beyond their own selfish narcissistic needs and interests. The ritualistic commandments, those commonly referred to as Mitzvot bein Adam Lamakom, are needed to keep us focused at all times on the ontological questions while at the same time forcing us to go beyond our built in tendency of taking care and satisfying our physical needs. The societal Mitzvot teach us ethics, morality and the need to think of the other while also organizing society so that people live peacefully with each other. The Mitzvot are therefore tools to make us better people so that we can fulfill our raison d’etre and learn how to play a responsible role in the continuity of existence.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the welfare of the soul, and the welfare of the body. The welfare of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. … The welfare of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This is achieved through two things. One of them is the abolition of their wronging each other. That is to say, that we do not do, every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time.” (MN 3:27)

With this perspective, I believe most of the questions that plague us about the reasons for specific supposedly illogical Mitzvot vanish. For example, the laws of impurity generally seen as Chukim have no intrinsic value. Their primary purpose is to remind us that we are about to enter the places designated to make us focus on metaphysics and God, the Beit Hamikdash. The idea is to not make our presence there mundane and create an aura of holiness and restraint from physical matters. Its extended purpose is as Rambam says in Hilchot Tume’at Ochlin (16:14)

אף על פי שמותר לאכול אוכלין טמאים ולשתות משקין טמאים, חסידים הראשונים
היו אוכלין חוליהן בטהרה ונזהרין מן הטומאות כולן כל ימיהן; והן הנקראין
פרושים. ודבר זה קדושה יתרה היא, ודרך חסידות שיהיה אדם נבדל ופורש משאר
העם, ולא ייגע בהן ולא יאכל וישתה עימהן: שהפרישות מביאה לידי טהרת הגוף
ממעשים הרעים, וטהרת הגוף מביאה לידי קדושת הנפש מן הדעות הרעות, וקדושת
הנפש גורמת להידמות בשכינה, שנאמר "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים, כי קדוש אני"

The idea is to create an aura of holiness and separation from day-to-day preoccupations and personal needs to allow the person that wants to focus on the existential issues to do so and arrive at correct conclusions that are not narcissistic and self-serving. The ultimate purpose of these laws is therefore to develop correct opinions and find the true ways of HKBH so that we can emulate Him. The laws of impurity are an important tool, one of many, in leading us to that understanding.

“We must bear in mind that all such religious acts as reading the Law, praying, and the performance of other precepts, serve exclusively as the means of causing us to occupy and fill our mind with the precepts of God, and free it from worldly business.” (MN3:51)

And what is the point of filling our minds with God and thinking about Him?

“The prophet thus, in conclusion, says, "For in these things I delight, says the Lord," i.e., My object [in saying this] is that you shall practice loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness in the earth. In a similar manner, we have shown that the object of the enumeration of God's thirteen attributes is the lesson that we should acquire similar attributes and act accordingly. The object of the above passage is therefore to declare, that the perfection, in which man can truly glory, is attained by him when he has acquired--as far as this is possible for man--the knowledge of God, the knowledge of His Providence, and of the manner in which it influences His creatures in their production and continued existence. Having acquired this knowledge he will then be determined always to seek loving-kindness, judgment, and righteousness, and thus to imitate the ways of God.” (MN 3:54)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Avraham's Prophetic Vision - Sdom's Destruction.

(I recommend that Breishit Chapters 18 and 19 be read before reading this post.)

The story of Avraham and the angels has generated a lot of controversy among the Rishonim. The discussion centers round Rambam’s famous statement that this is a report of a prophetic vision rather than a real life occurrence. Rambam in MN 2:42 as usual, is a little cryptic and I will try to flesh him out. After explaining that whenever the presence of an angel is mentioned in the text in any part of the story, it must be a prophetic vision, Rambam brings the following example:

This important principle was adopted by one of our Sages, one of the greatest among them, R. Hiya the Great (Bereshit Raba, xlviii.), in the exposition of the Scriptural passage commencing, "And the Lord appeared unto him in the plain of Mamre" (Gen. Xviii.). The general statement that the Lord appeared to Avraham is followed by the description in what manner that appearance of the Lord took place. Avraham at first saw three men and ran whereupon they spoke and were spoken to. R. Hiya, the author of this allegorical explanation, says of Avraham’s words, "My Lord, if now I have found grace in thy sight, do not, I pray thee, pass from thy servant," were spoken by him in a prophetic vision to one of the men; he says in fact that Avraham addressed these words to the greatest of these men. Note this well, for it is one of the great mysteries [of the Law].”

Rambam reads the scriptural text as follows –

א וַיֵּרָא אֵלָיו יְהוָה, בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב פֶּתַח-הָאֹהֶל, כְּחֹם הַיּוֹם.

1 And the LORD appeared unto him by the plains of Mamre, as he sat in the tent door in the heat of the day.

This verse is an introduction stating that Avraham, sitting in the heat of the day got lost in thought and experienced a prophetic vision. It must be a vision, as God is not physical and can only be “seen” in the mind’s eyes. The rest of the story is a description of that vision. Thus, when Avraham speaks, his mind sees him as speaking and when the “angels” speak, it is Avraham’s mind that hears them speak. In other words, Avraham was contemplating how HKBH runs the world and during that cogitation, he became aware of the imminent destruction of Sdom. Rambam brings an interesting proof to his position.

ג וַיֹּאמַר: אֲדֹנָי, אִם-נָא מָצָאתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ--אַל-נָא תַעֲבֹר, מֵעַל עַבְדֶּךָ.

3 and said: 'My lord, if now I have found favor in your sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant.

This verse is the subject of a Halachik discussion in Massechet Shevuot 35b that revolves around who we understand is: אֲדֹנָי - “my lord”. One way of understanding is that as Avraham was contemplating some aspect of HKBH, he moved away to thinking about more mundane matters, such as his childlessness. He therefore, in his vision, begged God forgiveness for being distracted and promised to return soon to the subject at hand. According to this interpretation, אֲדֹנָי is the name of God and therefore has certain Halachik requisites when written in a Sefer Torah. The other way of interpreting it is that Avraham was talking to the “angels” in his vision begging them not to bypass him. According to this understanding, the word אֲדֹנָיis translated “my lord” and has no special requirements when written. This interpretation however is problematic. The word אֲדֹנָיis singular as is the rest of the sentence while there were three “angels”. Rav Hiya addresses it and explains that Avraham spoke to the greatest among them. The way Rambam quotes Rav Hiya, where is the proof that the men were angels and therefore Avraham was having a prophetic vision? Furthermore, what caused Rambam’s excitement and why did he see in this apparently innocuous statement one of the “great mysteries of the Law”?

Rav Hiya’s comment is preserved in Midrash Raba Breishit 48:3 (Theodor- Albeck Edition page 486) –

ויאמר אדני אם נא מצאתי חן תני ר' חייא:
לגדול שבהן אמר: זה מיכאל.

The Midrash adds two crucial words זה מיכאל – namely the angel Michael - which Rambam omitted. These kinds of omissions are quite common in Rambam who expects us to check his sources and fill in the blanks. Although there could be a deeper reason, I believe this to be a didactic method where Rambam sees his role as a teacher who prods his students to think. What is however the meaning of “greatest” among them? How did Avraham know who was the “greatest? The Gemara in Yoma 37a says that the middle person is the leader by convention. But I believe there is much more to this.

In MN2:6 Rambam explains that angels are a general description of the various forces and concepts that regulate our existence. Among other things –

Rather do all these texts state plainly that all this – including the various parts of that which exists and even the creation of the limbs of animals as they are – has been brought about by the intermediation of the angels. …that God has placed in the sperm a formative power which produces and shapes the limbs, and that this power is called "angel," or that all forms derive from the act of the Active Intellect, and that the latter is the angel, the Prince of the World, frequently mentioned by our Sages…”

In other words, the laws and forces of nature that are responsible for the existence of the physical world are at times, referred to as “angel”. This particular “angel” responsible for physical existence and its continuity, is referred to by the rabbis as The “Prince of the World”. Interestingly Rav Kafih refers us in his notes to Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer chapter 27 where the “Prince of the World” is identified with the angel Michael.

Putting all these pieces together, we get the following picture. Avraham was sitting in contemplation thinking about God and trying to apprehend Him through His creations – our world. As he was considering the forces of nature that cause things to exist and observing natural phenomena, he came to realize that an impending cataclysmic disaster was about to happen nearby, in Sdom. He arrived at that conclusion in a flash of revelation which came in the form of a vision where the forces took on the form of the three “angels”. Interpreting the vision, Avraham understood that the middle one represented the “greatest” of the three, namely “Michael the Prince of the World” who represents the natural laws and forces responsible for nature. The vision had a little side theme where Avraham’s conviction that he was about to have a son with Sarah, was reinforced. As Abravanel explains Rambam, the rest of the story including the part of Lot’s escape and his wife turning into a heap of salt, are all part of the vision. Avraham realized the magnitude of the upcoming event and struggled with how to understand God’s justice in light of such general disasters that sweep up the evil and the righteous. The vision that Lot unlike the rest of the town, though reluctantly, will finally realize that escape was the only solution, is I understand an answer to that question. If one is sufficiently attuned to one’s surroundings and can overcome their greed, laziness and paralysis that cloud man’s objectivity, many times he can predict and foresee these natural disasters. If ten people in town are righteous, in other words, able to foresee and accept the impending disaster, they might convince the whole town to escape. Unfortunately, in his vision, Avraham saw that only Lot would have the necessary prescience. The vision comes to an end and the disaster unfolds.

כז וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם, בַּבֹּקֶר: אֶל-הַמָּקוֹם--אֲשֶׁר-עָמַד שָׁם, אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה.

27 And Avraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the LORD.

כח וַיַּשְׁקֵף, עַל-פְּנֵי סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, וְעַל-כָּל-פְּנֵי, אֶרֶץ הַכִּכָּר; וַיַּרְא, וְהִנֵּה עָלָה קִיטֹר הָאָרֶץ, כְּקִיטֹר, הַכִּבְשָׁן.

28 And he looked out toward Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the Plain, and beheld, and, lo, the smoke of the land went up as the smoke of a furnace.

Reading the story in this manner there is no question that all this was a vision. Furthermore, it teaches deep and important lessons about the meaning of Divine Providence, man’s role in it, God’s justice, righteousness and man’s freedom to act responsibly or irresponsibly. The text becomes a treatise on philosophical issues of great importance and relevance to our religious thought and practice.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Meaning of Bitachon - Confidence.

In the previous post, I discussed Avraham’s self-doubt that is depicted so vividly in the story of Brit Bein Habetarim. However, this introspection did not lead to inactivity and paralysis. Notwithstanding all the doubts Avraham felt, taught and recruited people to follow him in what he understood to be the path of God.

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו, לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה
אֶת-בָּנָיו וְאֶת-בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו, וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה,
לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט--לְמַעַן, הָבִיא יְהוָה עַל-אַבְרָהָם,
אֵת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר, עָלָיו.

19 For I have embraced him, so that he will charge his sons and his household after him, to keep the way of the LORD, to do righteousness and justice that the LORD may bring upon Abraham all that which He spoke concerning him.' (Breishit 18:19)

In a responsa to R. Ovadyah the Proselyte (Blau edition responsa 293 also see my post ) Rambam sees this verse as a description of Avraham’s accomplishments.

ועיקר הדבר שאברהם אבינו הוא שלמד כל העם והשכילם והודיעם דת האמת וייחודו
של הקב"ה ובעט בע"ז והפר עבודתה והכניס רבים תחת כנפי השכינה ולמדם והורם
וצוה בניו ובני ביתו אחריו לשמור דרך ה' כמו שכתו' בתורה +בראשית י"ח י"ט+
כי ידעתיו למען אשר יצוה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו ושמרו דרך ה' וגו'.

Avraham taught the people the true Law, the unity of God and rebelled against idolatry by disrupting their [the gods] service. He also brought many under the wings of the Shechinah [HKBH] teaching and commanding his children and his household to follow in the ways of God as it says in Breishis 18:19…

Furthermore –

It was the chief aim of their [the Patriarchs] whole life to create a people that should know and worship God. “ For I have embraced him, so that he will charge his sons and his household after him "” (MN3:51)

Clearly, this constant introspection did not stop Avraham from pursuing his goal of building a nation that acknowledged the existence of God as Creator and endeavored to emulate Him by partaking in His creation. Apparently, the Torah is teaching us that tension between self-doubt and self-assured action must be maintained at all times. I would like to suggest that the self-confidence that counteracts the paralysis that may result from self-doubt is what the Middah Bitachon is.

It is striking that Rambam does not define Bitachon in any of his writings as far as I can tell. I did a search on Mishne Torah and the word does not appear in its entirety. In the listing of subjects section, of both Rav Kafieh and Michael Schwartz’s editions of the Moreh Hanevuchim the concept Bitachon is not defined. The popular concept of Bitachon, where one relies on God and personal action is seen as a prop is alien to Rambam thinking. To him there is only one approach; think about what you are about to do, perfect yourself so that personal biases and preferences do not lead you astray, make sure the action is consistent with the goals you have set for yourself based on your understanding of what is right and then act with confidence. Bitachon is not a standalone virtue but is an integral part of Emunah – belief – which to Rambam means learning God’s ways and emulating them through actions that are consistent with them. Bitachon is the self-confidence needed to act when you know that it what you are about to do is correct overcoming self-doubt.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Avraham's Great Virtue - Self Doubt.

There is only one rational method for finding and understanding God and that is through contemplating His creations. It is a deductive process through which we hope to get to know HKBH’s will by observing the results of that will in our existence and act in accordance with that understanding. That is the meaning of going in God’s ways, the positive commandment of Vehalachta Biderachav; the eighth Mitzvat Asseh listed in Sefer Hamitzvot. It is a thinking that has to be at the center of every decision we make whether on matters that have immediate and short-term effects or medium and long-term even multigenerational consequences. As every act of ours has consequences, knowing the goal and what we want to accomplish is the key to how we act. The problem is that we are always left wondering whether we have truly understood correctly God’s will and even if yes, are our actions the ones that will take us to the goal we set for ourselves. It is with that in mind that we can understand the importance of Midot, working on our character and behavior urges and wants, making sure that our own personal bias for self-gratification do not blindside us. A hedonistic narcissist can never be expected to make a correct decision no matter how intelligent, learned and smart he may be. That is the Torah’s goal, to give us the tools to make us into that perfected human being. But in reality, no matter how perfect a person may be, there is never full and unquestionable certainty. There is always a lingering doubt in the mind of that perfected human being whether he is doing the right thing.

Avraham Avinu started by contemplating the universe and his existence in it and came to the conclusion that there is a God who willed creation and if we want to understand our goal here on earth, we must learn to emulate Him.

כיון שנגמל איתן זה, התחיל לשוטט בדעתו והוא קטן, ולחשוב ביום ובלילה,
והיה תמיה: היאך אפשר שיהיה הגלגל הזה נוהג תמיד, ולא יהיה לו מנהיג; ומי
יסבב אותו, לפי שאי אפשר שיסבב את עצמו.
(Hilchot Avodah Zara 1:9)

Avraham concluded from his contemplation that he is obligated to spread this teaching to all of humanity. Only by understanding this, will humanity be able to fulfill its purpose and role as an integral and important part of the universe and God’s great creation. This vision is the meaning of

ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and be thou a blessing.

ג וַאֲבָרְכָה, מְבָרְכֶיךָ, וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ, אָאֹר; וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.

3 And I will bless them that bless you, and curse them that curse you; and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed.'

Rambam in MN 3:29 explains:

God said to him, "And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse them that curse thee" (Gen. 12:3). The result of the course which Abraham took, is the fact that most people, as we see at present, agree in praising him, and being proud of him; so that even those who are not his descendants call themselves by his name.”

Avraham met great resistance and started to doubt whether he could succeed. That is where the vision, a result of the great internal strength that Avraham had, his ability to overcome his doubts and act according to his principles and what he thought to be correct, that played a role in his continuing on this path. Building on the take of Rav Gedalia Nadel in my earlier post that the Dor Haflagah and Nimrod depict a movement towards monarchy, subjugation of the masses and empire building, Avraham, a contemporary, was reacting against this. That explains the sequence of the stories and the reason for their being reported as a way of putting the life and work of Avraham in context. That is how I understand the Rabbis’ meaning when they tell the story of his being arrested and released and in consequence fleeing with his family.

Avraham’s doubt did not stop here. As he continued on this path, he continually stopped and wondered whether he was doing the right thing. The story of the Brit Bein Habetarim depicts that self-doubt in very stark terms. He doubts whether his path will lead to success. He has no descendants and fears that once he dies all his hard work will go to waste. The vision that he has reinforces his conviction that he is doing the right thing but it also depicts realistically how hard this will be. The darkness that envelops him in his dream, the birds and carrion that populate it are a very poignant depiction of his state of mind. He however sees the hope and is convinced that his endeavor will eventually succeed.

This process of always doubting and convincing oneself of the correctness of one’s action, in other words stopping to take inventory every step of the way, is exactly the correct way to proceed.

ו וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

This verse has baffled many a commentator – see Rashi, Ramban. Rambam addresses it in MN 3:53 as follows:

“When you walk in the way of the moral virtues you do justice unto your rational faculty, giving her due that is her right. And because every moral virtue is called Tzedakah, it says "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as Tzedakah" (Gen. 15:6) I mean the virtue of faith.”

After explaining that in Tanach the word Tzedakah refers to situations where we have a moral obligation to give someone his due, such as alms to a poor man, Rambam uses this analogy to our verse. Faith is not a blind emotional belief as it is commonly thought to be. Emunah is a rational process where we have to convince ourselves through intellectual and rational thought that our understanding of the universe as being the result of God’s will is correct. We also have to convince ourselves that our actions that result from this contemplation are correct and not prompted by our personal biases. That is only possible if we perfect our moral virtues. Our rational faculty is what makes us into human beings and its ultimate perfection is acquiring this great knowledge of what we are here for, what our role is in this and how to act accordingly. All intellectual growth accompanied by moral perfection are geared towards that goal and are therefore the dues we are giving to our own rational faculty. Doubt and self awareness, constantly questioning ourselves and wondering whether we are on the right path is an integral part of that process. The Torah sanctions it nay praises it. Humanity has known many visionaries from dangerous crackpots to brilliant people who were convinced they found the right path, the ways of God and knew His wishes. Only those that were truly virtuous and full of self-doubt have brought good to the world. The others eventually self-destructed taking along many to their destruction.

I believe that if we approach the text with this perspective much of the difficult questions about its historicity, its context and its relevance, are answered. It is how the rabbis looked at it in the Midrashim, if we read them carefully, and how Rambam and many other great thinkers approached it.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Rav Gedalia Nadel A"H on Breishit - The Thinking of a Great Gaon.

Several years ago, when the Slifkin controversy was raging, several blogs discussed Rav Gedalia Nadel’s A”H theories about how to read Breishit. This Shabbat I decided to reread his Sefer and I have to say it was exciting and enlightening. For those unfamiliar with Rav Gedalia, he was a Talmid of the Chazon Ish A”H and at a time Rosh Kolel there, later Rosh Yeshiva in Viznitz. He was a charismatic figure who created a revolution in Viznitz which ended up with his followers breaking away and he being fired. He was a brilliant Gaon and Tzaddik, who at one point, I think during the ’67 war, tried to enlist into the army being rejected because he was too old. He also was a winemaker who tried to make a living from that. He was an iconoclast who voiced his opinions which got him in trouble with the zealots who tried several times to put him in Cherem. Fortunately, the cooler heads, especially the leaders of Kolel Chazon Ish, who knew his greatness and the appreciation the Chazon Ish had for him, prevented that from happening. He used to learn on a daily basis Moreh Hanevuchim with his family and at some point started to give a Shiur in Chumash to a select few. Rav Yitzchak Sheilat of Ma’aleh Adumim used to sometimes attend these Shiurim and wrote up notes which Rav Gedalia approved and eventually published them under the name of “Mitorato Shel R’ Gedalia”. There eventually was a threatened ban against the sefer and a compromise reached where it is not sold in stores and can only be gotten directly from Rav Sheilat. Here are a few gems from this sefer pertinent to the last two Parshyot.

RGN claims that until chapter 5 we are told about what he calls prehistory. History as we know it and the count of years that we currently have starts 130 years before the birth of Seth which is where Chapter 5 starts. The first Adam is not necessarily the name of an individual but rather a description of early man. Cain represents man that was involved with physical survival while Hevel represents the thinker. Shepherds, in their isolation, were usually the philosophers of old. They had lots of time for contemplation. The early stages of humankind had both of these elements in it and this process of development of human societies could have been going on for millennia. People multiplied over that time and spread all over the world. In Chapter 5, the Torah focuses on a group of men who lived in the Fertile Crescent, specifically with an individual referred to as Adam, who had a son Seth and eventually traces his descendants to Noach. RGN notes that until the birth of Seth the Torah describes the different people whose names it lists as inventors of things needed for the physical wellbeing of humankind. Cain built a city, Yaval invented musical instruments and Tubal Cain developed forges and metalworking and so on. On the other hand, from Seth on, the signposts of human advancement were in the spiritual and existential realm[1], man trying to understand his own existence, though at first leaning towards idolatry with Enosh while turning towards God with Chanoch. Human history that interests us starts at that point.

The Flood was a localized affair restricted to the Fertile Crescent, the area in which our story takes place. It was a calamity that befell a specific society and culture. It does not make sense that the rest of the world would suffer because of the happenings in the Fertile Crescent. When the Torah tells us that Noach gathered all the animals into the Ark, it refers to the local fauna. Even then, it does not mean that every single species was put on board, just those that were important. So I guess giraffes, elephants and rhinos did not necessarily make it on-board. When the Torah says that all living things died, it refers to those seen by the survivors, not to the whole world.

RGN has what I believe to be an insightful but obvious, once told, approach to the rainbow. The rainbow is not a new development. It had been around since times immemorial. Whenever it rained the survivors of the Mabul would feel a panicky moment that a new cataclysm is about to occur again. When the sun came out after the rain, a rainbow appeared in the clouds. HKBH told the survivors that whenever the rain ends and you see that rainbow, remember that this disaster was a singularity and as the rainbow confirms and I promised, there would be no flood of such cataclysmic proportions again. The same physical occurrence that until now was little more than just a beautiful phenomenon will from now on be much more meaningful.

I found the following idea appropriate for today – Election Day.

ח וְכוּשׁ, יָלַד אֶת-נִמְרֹד; הוּא הֵחֵל, לִהְיוֹת גִּבֹּר בָּאָרֶץ.

8 And Cush begot Nimrod; he began to be a mighty one in the earth. ט

הוּא-הָיָה גִבֹּר-צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה; עַל-כֵּן, יֵאָמַר, כְּנִמְרֹד גִּבּוֹר צַיִד, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה.

9 He was a mighty hunter before the LORD; wherefore it is said: 'Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the LORD.'

י וַתְּהִי רֵאשִׁית מַמְלַכְתּוֹ בָּבֶל, וְאֶרֶךְ וְאַכַּד וְכַלְנֵה, בְּאֶרֶץ, שִׁנְעָר.

10 And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

Note the name Nimrod in Hebrew reflects the idea of rebellion – Mered. Note too that although the verse says, “he began to be a mighty one in the earth” we already had such mighty ones at the end of Breishit before the flood –
הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם, אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם – “the same were the mighty men that were of old, the men of renown”. Furthermore, the words גִבֹּר-צַיִד – mighty hunter can be seen as a metaphor for someone who knows how to ensnare people with words. RGN reads these verses as introducing us to the first politician, Nimrod, who was able to unify people and convince them to organize themselves into nation states. Nimrod successfully introduced the idea of monarchy and politics. He formed a kingdom.

This brings us to the story of the Tower of Bavel.

א וַיְהִי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, שָׂפָה אֶחָת, וּדְבָרִים, אֲחָדִים.

1 And the whole earth was of one language and of one speech.

“Devarim” stands for ideas and, שָׂפָה is how we express those ideas. Even if at the time there were a variety of languages, the words, though different, expressed similar ideas. There was cultural homogeneity in that area of the world. Nimrod the consummate politician along with the other leaders, decided to institutionalize this homogeneity. The symbol for this culture would be this very high tower a projection of power and might. This would unify the people and be a springboard for further conquest, bringing more under this homogeneous monarchy, a form of popular enslavement. HKBH would not countenance that. The ideas of human freedom and independence willed into creation by HKBH are strong enough to overcome this push for subjugation and enslavement.

As we can see from the above, Rav Gedalia approached the text with an open mind. He read these reports in the Torah as fundamental ideas that describe human nature, man’s relationship with the universe and his search for an understanding of his environment, existence and God.

[1] אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה.
וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ, כְּצַלְמוֹ
וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ, אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים; וְאֵינֶנּוּ, כִּי-לָקַח אֹתוֹ אֱלֹהִים.
זֶה יְנַחֲמֵנוּ מִמַּעֲשֵׂנוּ, וּמֵעִצְּבוֹן יָדֵינוּ, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, אֲשֶׁר אֵרְרָהּ יְהוָה.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

From Creation To Noach - A Perspective.

Many are bothered by the science and historicity of the events described in the Parshyot that we read at this time of year. The descriptions of the creation of the world and man, the Dor Haflagah (Tower of Babel) and the Flood have been discussed by believers and non-believers for generations and at times used by some as a reason for denying religion as Truth. How can a divine torah be wrong, or at best inexact, about history?

Rambam in MN 3:50 makes a sweeping comment which addresses the issue.

Know that all the stories that you will find mentioned in the Torah occur there for a necessary utility for the Law. Either they give a correct notion of an opinion that is a pillar of the Law or they rectify some action so that mutual wrongdoing and aggression should not occur between men.”

In other words, one has to look at the reported stories more as commentaries on occurrences rather than a description of an historical event. It does not mean that the story is untrue but rather that the details that are reported are only those that are needed to make a theological, ethical or moral point supporting a teaching. After all the word Torah, comes from Hora’ah which means teaching. The Torah teaches ethics, morals and theology not science or history. We cannot look to the Torah to tell us how the world was created and operates, the laws of physics, chemistry and biology, but we look to it to tell us that it was willed into existence by a unique entity that we refer to as God. The question whether the Big Bang (if this theory is eventually proven without doubt) occurred as a result of a singularity or if it was willed by an entity that we call God, cannot be answered empirically. It will always remain in the realm of theology which is what Torah addresses. Judaism is based on a belief in a universe that was willed into existence by HKBH as the basis for its ethics, morality and theodicy. It is why we believe that there are consequences to our actions and we therefore have to do our part in how the world is run as an active participant in this great universe conceived and willed into existence by HKBH.

The same logic applies to the stories that describe human evolution. Starting with Adam Harishon, the first human in the line of contemporary man, it describes the different branches, Cain, Hevel and the branch that eventually became ours, Seth. It describes very cryptically how man slowly became aware of how his actions have consequences in the lead up to the great cataclysm of antiquity, the flood. It describes briefly how humanity changed after the cataclysm, how the basic laws of ethics and morality, the Seven Noachide Laws, were developed, how nations and different cultures flourished in the area of the Fertile Crescent. That awareness of consequences to our actions brings us to Avraham, who developed a coherent theology that offers an explanation and a raison d’etre to our existence.

Looking at these Parshyot from this perspective, I understand the whole of Sefer Breishit as the narrative that puts our religion and theology in context. There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the narratives but at the same time we cannot expect to learn from the text exactly how, when, where and what happened. We know that at some time in antiquity there was a cataclysmic flood that left an indelible mark in human memory. There is no way of knowing from the Torah narrative where it occurred or how widespread it was. All we know is that it was a cataclysm of such proportions that it changed the course of human history at least in the Fertile Crescent. The Torah uses it to teach us that we have to be aware of our environment and sensitive to the messages it sends us just as Noach was. Like Noach, we have to act on that information to protect ourselves.

The inordinate long life of early man as told in the Torah is another area that has baffled generations. I do not purport to have a good explanation of it but I would rather seek to understand the underlying message the Torah is sending us. Rambam is bothered by this problem and suggests that these long-lived individuals were the only ones in their generation to live so long. Ralbag however has an interesting take on it. He says that at the early stages of human civilization, man being a tabula rasa as far as sciences and general knowledge were concerned, needed a long life to allow for continuity so that difficult concepts could be developed and understood within a lifespan. The lack of continuity in a short life leaving half-developed ideas to be developed by the next generation would not permit the speedy advancement needed to create sophisticated societies. Thinking along similar lines, I would like to suggest that the Torah describes different schools of thought. Each long-lived individual represents one school of thought that led to the next which eventually brought humanity Avraham who changed its way of thinking as the first proselytizer of monotheism. Each school of thought required a long time, several normal life spans, to mature enough to allow for the next more advanced one to take over. It also suggests that at some point there was an overlap where after a few years the next school started to germinate its own ideas taking hold as the earlier one matured. That is how I understand why the Torah tells us at what age of the father the next son was born namely the next step in the evolution of ideas. It also tells us that there were other branches that developed in parallel but apparently did not leave a mark; just the one that survived and became dominant for a while is identified. That is how I understand the repetitively similar verses to this one –

ג וַיְחִי אָדָם, שְׁלֹשִׁים וּמְאַת שָׁנָה, וַיּוֹלֶד בִּדְמוּתוֹ, כְּצַלְמוֹ; וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ, שֵׁת. 3

And Adam lived a hundred and thirty years, and begot a son in his own likeness, after his image; and called his name Seth.

ד וַיִּהְיוּ יְמֵי-אָדָם, אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת-שֵׁת, שְׁמֹנֶה מֵאֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים, וּבָנוֹת.

4 And the days of Adam after he begot Seth were eight hundred years; and he begot sons and daughters.

ה וַיִּהְיוּ כָּל-יְמֵי אָדָם, אֲשֶׁר-חַי, תְּשַׁע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה, וּשְׁלֹשִׁים שָׁנָה; וַיָּמֹת. {ס}

5 And all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years; and he died. {S}

(Breishit 5:3-5)

Adam’s philosophy was accepted by his son Seth, he begat “a son in his own likeness” (see MN 1:7), but other schools of thought began to develop in the later years of his life, after 800 years he “begot sons and daughters”. I would suggest that the other verses that follow be understood in a similar vein.

I say this because the Torah leaves several signposts that indicate a start of a major new school of thought.

כו וּלְשֵׁת גַּם-הוּא יֻלַּד-בֵּן, וַיִּקְרָא אֶת-שְׁמוֹ אֱנוֹשׁ; אָז הוּחַל, לִקְרֹא בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה. {ס}

26 And to Seth, to him also there was born a son; and he called his name Enosh; it was then that the name of God was invoked. {S} (Breishit 4:26)

The Rabbis read the last few words negatively. The word הוּחַל is translated by them as profane, God’s name was profaned at that time and the philosophies that support idolatry were developed. A few generations later, we encounter a new theological step.

כב וַיִּתְהַלֵּךְ חֲנוֹךְ אֶת-הָאֱלֹהִים, אַחֲרֵי הוֹלִידוֹ אֶת-מְתוּשֶׁלַח, שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת, שָׁנָה; וַיּוֹלֶד בָּנִים, וּבָנוֹת.

22 And Chanoch walked with God after he begot Methushelach three hundred years, and begot sons and daughters.

Chanoch discovered God and understood the need to walk with Him, try to understand His world and act in concert with it. The Rabbis considered Methushelach to be a righteous man who apparently absorbed and further developed Chanoch’s ideas leading up to Noach who acted on this understanding. The Rabbis tell us that Noach was a man of action who took the ideas of Chanoch and Methushelach and expressed them practically by developing agricultural implements and methods. He also was attuned to his environment to the point that he could presage the great cataclysm of the flood, acting to protect himself from it.

Looking at these narratives from this perspective puts them in their proper context as the description, though cryptic, of the development of human thought and ideas that led to Avraham and eventually the emergence of the Jewish people and its beliefs, the subject of the rest of the Torah.